Author: Lauren

A Long-Overdue Vacation in France

For several months last year, I talked about planning a vacation but didn’t actually do it, money being a common excuse. After saving up a sizable amount, I finally decided that after a year and a half without any weeks off, it was finally going to happen. I was about to hit a milestone birthday, and damn it, I was burned out and needed–nay, deserved to travel somewhere new and interesting…and also European.

I looked at a lot of different trips. I considered Ireland, as it had been #1 on my places to visit for a long time, but somehow, I didn’t feel that strongly about it. I looked at Croatia and Slovenia, where I could travel for a longer period of time on the same amount I’d pay for maybe a week in Western Europe, and I’d heard lots of great things about the Dalmatian Coast. Then I stumbled on a trip to France. France was top-of-mind because, well, everyone’s always talking about it; a coworker had just been, I encounter people from there at work, it’s a popular destination.

The tour I chose went to Paris, Dijon, Avignon, and Nice, enabling me to see Paris and the Mediterranean in one trip. Paris is supposed to be romantic and magical, with so much rich history, art, and architecture, not to mention the food; I’d seen it in so many movies and tv shows, I wanted to experience it myself. I’m also a sucker for coastal/waterside cities anyway (see also: Sydney, Hobart, Venice), so of course I wanted to see the gorgeous Mediterranean coast.

I planned to travel by myself, but wanted to be on a tour because being on my own in a country where I don’t know the language intimidates me. Sure, lots of people in Europe speak English (nearly everyone I encountered spoke it perfectly), but I wanted to make an effort not to look like a tourist. (I was peeved that after 45 days of trying to learn French on Duolingo, I barely remembered anything.) I also didn’t want to have to plan all the details myself–places to stay, how to get from one city to another on the train, museum passes and tours.

The hotel in Paris was fine, but in the 14th Arrondissement, well outside the most-popular and well-trafficked part of the city (and a ways from all the chocolate shops I had hoped to visit). On our only full day in Paris, we did a bus ride and Seine cruise to see the city’s “greatest hits,” albeit at a distance. I took part in a side trip to the Louvre, as is practically a requirement when in Paris, and we saw some of the more famous paintings and sculptures there (yes, the Mona Lisa is kind of underwhelming), but in two hours, we barely scratched the surface of a place you could easily spend days exploring.

The weather the previous evening had been rough with lots of wind and rain, but we were lucky enough to see sun while we were out that day. That evening, the bad weather returned, with really strong gusts and even more rain–not exactly conducive to seeing the sights. In fact, the Eiffel Tower was closed due to the high winds, which was disappointing (because as much as I didn’t want to look like a tourist, I still wanted to do classic touristy things).

This was the closest I got to the Eiffel Tower. Next time…

The next morning, we stopped at Versailles, which lives up to any hype you’ve heard about it. The grounds are beautiful (I didn’t spend much time out there because the winds were still vicious), and the palace itself is grand and, of course, absolutely enormous.

We arrived in Dijon mid-afternoon and I was immediately struck by how charming and vibrant it was. The hotel was by far the best we stayed in during the trip (my first ever California king bed–whoa), and there were tons of shops, bakeries, bars, and restaurants in town. It’s a very pedestrian-friendly city with a tram and tiny electric buses to get around in (smaller than a minivan). There was a lot to see and do right by the hotel, such as a nice park the next block over, two movie theaters within a couple of blocks (one immediately next to the hotel), as well as a small grocery, a restaurant/hookah bar, and a great empanada place where I had both Argentine- and French-inspired empanadas. (It would have been more appropriate to have beef Burgundy–when in Burgundy–but I never say no to empanadas.) I also was lucky enough to find a local outpost of one of the chocolate shops I had missed in Paris, and I was not disappointed. (Those chocolate-covered hazelnuts didn’t stand a chance, and as I write this, I am finishing the rich and exquisite barre infernale noire.) This was a place I wish we’d stayed for more than 15 hours.

The next morning we had the longest bus ride on our way to Avignon. On our way, we stopped at Pont du Gard, a 2000-year-old Roman aqueduct, which I’ll admit didn’t interest me much. But when we got there, the scenery blew me away. Plus, any structure that’s two millenia old is really impressive when you think about it.

Avignon had some interesting aspects (a bridge that mysteriously ends in the middle of a body of water, walls around the city, briefly being home to a pope), but the city didn’t feel as intriguing or inviting as Dijon. My tourmates who went out for dinner that night actually said that the city had a sketchy vibe. (I ate so many snacks at an optional wine tasting in Chateauneuf-de-Pape that I didn’t go out for dinner that night…)

Nice, of course, made a huge impression immediately as we drove in. The sun was shining over the azure water as throngs of people walked along the boardwalk or lounged on the stony beach. The city was busy, perhaps because they were preparing for the Carnaval parade two days later (had I known, I might have extended my stay another day so I could have been there for it). The weather was gorgeous (sunny and 60s), perfect for extensive walking along the boardwalk and exploring the shops and huge market that Friday, where you could buy spices, prepared or even made-on-the-spot food, flowers, tchotchkes, and vegetables.

I also went on side excursions to Monaco and St Paul de Vence while in Nice. Monaco was fun, and we did some gambling; those who went to the fancy casino were disappointed that it was so expensive to get in, and then there was hardly anyone there! One of my tourmates won a bunch of money at the less-expensive casino. St Paul de Vence is a small hilltop enclave with fantastic views of the water, the Alps, and the valley below, as well as loads of art galleries. Definitely worth a visit.

It was a great trip, and as one of my tourmates said, it gave us a great taste of what France has to offer. I think it’s important to note too that I never felt judged for being an American tourist in France; I spoke very little French, but I never felt looked down on for it. I have had a couple of people suggest that I could pass for French or European, but I also had one guy in Paris look at me and immediately start speaking English, so who knows. I have zero regrets about the good food I ate while there (I can’t look at American bread the same way anymore, and I miss eating loads of bread, chocolate croissants, and Nutella at breakfast every morning), and it’s hard not to love a place with bakeries everywhere, many of which also sell chocolates.

Would I go back to France? Absolutely. Am I already planning my next trip back? No. I did enjoy it, but I didn’t feel some strong and immediate affection for it like I did Australia, Italy, or Iceland. There are a ton of things I would still love to see and do, especially in Paris, and I didn’t get enough time to really get a feel for the city. I’ll definitely go back…at some point.

Lessons Learned: Iceland

Iceland is the type of place that reminds you of certain truths about life.  Constant change, stark beauty despite (or because of) crippling natural phenomena, unpredictability–it’s all here.  It’s the type of place that could probably teach you patience and contentment if you’d let it.

Be ready, but don’t worry

We were lucky enough to be led by the same fabulous tour guide, Sif, for two days.  She told us Icelanders are pretty optimistic people who tend not to worry about the probability of sooner-rather-than-later life-altering seismic and volcanic activity.  In telling us about the stunningly beautiful coastal village of Vìk, Sif said nearby Katla was the volcano that most worried seismologists.  The volcano has a history of exploding twice a century; however, the last eruption was in 1918.  The town has beautiful black sand beaches with millions of pebbles and stones smoothed by the crazed, dangerous surf.  But that surf is causing the beach to suffer terrible erosion.  Even though Katla will cause substantial damage when it erupts, its eruption would bring much-needed silt to fill in the beach.  The town practices evacuation drills twice a year.  In a way, the biggest worry is flooding; a glacier sits on top of the volcano, and the torrential meltwater flooding would require the town to find higher ground.

Maybe Icelanders are so optimistic because they know that good can come from destruction.  Sif told us that for three years after the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, the farmers didn’t have to fertilize because the soil was so mineral-rich.  The crops grew so fast, they couldn’t all be harvested.  Nature continued to give even after it had taken away.

Sif also mentioned that even though the news coverage of the volcano didn’t talk about how the locals were affected, because Iceland dominated the news, people became curious to visit.  Tourism has increased tenfold in recent years, bringing much-needed money to a country whose currency was basically worthless ten years ago.  A few years ago, only about 300,000 people would visit; this year, they expect 3.3 million tourists, ten times more people than live in the country.  (It’s worth noting that English is very widely spoken; Julia, a wonderful woman who worked at the front desk at our hotel, had come from Ukraine to Iceland to learn English and managed to pick up Icelandic as well.)  There were cranes and construction all over downtown Reykjavik, especially near the gorgeous Harpa concert hall on the waterfront, where a Marriott is being built next door (Sif was concerned that it would take away from the hall’s beauty).  A cab driver complained that there were too few hotel rooms, creating a huge market for AirBNB.  Both he and Sif noted that finding a place to live in the city was difficult and pricey in a country already known for being one of the world’s most expensive places.

Be patient and go with the flow

Icelandic has 1800 words just to describe the country’s volatile weather.  Sif told us that the weather forecasts are unreliable more than an hour in advance.  As our tour van traveled along on Friday, we saw heavy rain turn to heavy snow, which gave way to sun–all in the span of maybe an hour.  Later that day at Þingvellir National Park, where you can see the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and explore the meeting place of the world’s longest-running Parliament dating back to 930 AD, we saw it snow while the sun was out.  On Saturday, we were caught in an unexpected snowstorm as we visited the famous waterfall Skogafoss.  By the time we traveled to Vìk, the sun was out, and we managed to dodge another bullet as a large, ominous cloud ahead dissipated.  With the snow on the black beach, there could not have been a better time to appreciate the scenery.

The weather and ever-present threat of danger and change to the landscape contribute to the character of Iceland and the resilience of its people.  It’s a fascinating, beautiful country that I plan to explore more of someday.

Let us eat cake

Between my birthday (today), Australia Day (tomorrow), and National Chocolate Cake Day (the day after tomorrow), I thought I would leave this recipe for Lamingtons here to commemorate all three.  I haven’t used this recipe, but I can verify that Lamingtons are delicious.  Maybe as a variation, make the cake chocolate instead of vanilla dipped in chocolate so you can use it to celebrate Chocolate Cake Day!

For those who are unaware, this fabulous cake-based dessert came from Australia.  Read more here:  Lamingtons (Wikipedia).  Fun fact:  Proper Pie Co. in Richmond serves them because the owners are Kiwis and a variation of the dessert is popular in New Zealand as well.

Apparently I registered this blog on WordPress five years ago to this day, so I’ll celebrate that with cake too.

Until next time…  Aussie Aussie Aussie!  Oi Oi Oi!

Make Your Own Adventure

I hope the holidays found you well–hard to believe Christmas is over! As we get ready to bring in 2018 (!), I thought I would share this short post I wrote over the summer but never shared. Merry belated Christmas and let’s all have an awesome new year!

If you’re always waiting for someone to travel with you, you’re never going to go anywhere.  It was true before and it still is.  I just had to remind myself.

Whether it’s a big trip for a couple of weeks or just a day trip across state lines, the sentiment rings true.

I had some pretty awesome adventures with friends this summer, including a visit to the new MGM casino in Maryland, as well as a day spent exploring breweries in DC and hiking at a park in Maryland.  But I think I became somewhat dependent on “needing” someone else to hang out and adventure with.

But time, interests, and money don’t always allow, so sometimes you have to strike out on your own, even though you might wonder how your experience would be different if you had someone with you. Don’t let that stop you–in the immortal words of Nike, JUST DO IT.

Beach Mode

I had been wanting to go to the beach for quite a while, but there weren’t any close by that interested me.  Ocean City didn’t really appeal, I didn’t want to go back to Delaware, and Virginia Beach had left a bad taste in my mouth when I was last there in high school (which wasn’t entirely its fault–the weather was bad and it was offseason).

But I was persuaded to give Virginia Beach another chance.  Doing some research, I found that there were lots of interesting things to do in and around the beach–breweries, botanical gardens, museums, a zoo.

So I made my hotel reservation just a few days before the trip, checking that the weather would be good while I was there, and officially made a plan to go.  I could not have picked a better time–the weather was perfect, and I was staying at an oceanfront hotel with a balcony.  Plus, I wanted to go to the beach before Memorial Day and school got out.  On this trip, I barely hit any traffic at all!

It was mid-afternoon when I got to the beach, so I decided to take a walk and get dinner nearby before figuring out a plan for the next day.  I picked up some touristy magazines and found out about the burgeoning local beer scene and decided my plans for the next day would include the Norfolk Botanical Garden (a place I hadn’t even known about prior) and Wasserhund Brewing.

The next day, I slathered on my sunscreen, picked up my giant sun hat, and wandered around the garden.  I was excited to find a Japanese garden with bonsai trees!  (I’ve been interested in bonsai since I first saw an exhibit of them at the North Carolina Arboretum a few years back.)  I enjoyed the rose garden and was glad to sit in a swing in the shade of a gazebo as well.  As much wandering as I did, I still managed to miss a huge part of the garden, never quite making it all the way to the other end (the garden could benefit from better signage).

I lunched at the German-inspired Wasserhund Brewing, which featured one of the better coffee beers I’ve had recently, the Haywire Husky Coffee Lager, and some fantastic pizza. They have fun events like bingo night too.

I went back to my hotel room long enough to change and apply more sunscreen before taking a long walk on the beach.  The weather was so good, I had to get out and enjoy it.

On my walk, I accidentally discovered that Home Republic Brewing was just a couple blocks from my hotel, so I decided to have dinner there.  The burger and lava cake were delicious, but I wish I had enjoyed the beer more.

I had hoped to get to the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk on Thursday, but time didn’t allow since I had to be back home for a class that night.  I took one last walk on the beach before departing for Pierce’s, the storied yellow-and-orange barbecue joint visible from
I-64 near Williamsburg.  It’s a place I have visited many times, but not in about eight years.  Mom and I used to drive to Williamsburg just for Pierce’s, occasionally making a trip to the outlet malls.

It was a short but sweet trip to the beach.  Next time I’ll have to stay longer so I can do more of the things I’d hoped to.

Have any of you got plans for the summer?

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

It certainly has been an interesting couple of months, hasn’t it?  2017 has brought a lot of changes that perhaps many would not have predicted, and so far we’re only one very slow-moving month in.  So much is up in the air.

The past month hasn’t seen many changes in my specific purview besides another birthday come and gone.  In the wider scope of my family, there have been some interesting developments.  Mom had a milestone birthday (am I freaking out about that more than she is?  Maybe) and my grandfather spent time in the hospital and is currently in physical rehab.  He’ll be 90 in April (think about all the changes he’s seen!). There’s talk of “what’s next” for my grandparents as their capacity to do all the things they used to do has diminished.

What changes do I plan for my life this year?  There are so many things I’ve intended to do and still haven’t done (see also:  my non-existent freelance writing/editing career).  I do intend to travel more, even if it’s just micro-trips and long weekends.  I haven’t travelled out of state in almost a year.  In the next week I intend to go to a museum in DC, something I haven’t done in ages.

As far as this blog goes…I’ve been doing this for ten years.  TEN.  YEARS.  (I feel really old saying that.)  I haven’t always been committed to it, but thinking back, this is almost the longest span of time I’ve committed to anything.  I started A 3×5 Life in December 2006 to more widely publish a school-sponsored online journal I’d kept during a class trip to Italy.  (Good thing, because it doesn’t seem to exist any longer on the school website.)  I like to think my writing style has been refined in that time (what kind of writer and editor would I be if it hadn’t?).  I have some ideas about refreshing this blog.  I’ve done a very rudimentary logo drawing that I think is pretty awesome but needs actual art skills applied.  I have an idea for a set color scheme too (#branding).

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some of the somewhat-preachy overarching thoughts I’ve had in light of all the goings-on in the world:

The platitude about “being the change you want to see in the world” has never been more appropriate.  Fight the good fight.  Enjoy and make the most of your life in the time that you have (because you don’t know how long that’ll be).  Seek to love and understand each other because of, and even in spite of, our differences, because life would be awfully boring if we were all the same.

Until next time, fellow travellers.

Up in the air

To be honest, the title is a little misleading because I am feeling a bit more grounded right now.  This is because I have a new place to live.  Even though it’s in an area I’m familiar with because I’ve driven through it so many times, I’m glad to have a new microsection of Fairfax County to explore–new parks, new shortcuts, all that.  But it’s not so far from where I live now that I would be shopping at a different Target.  I’m really going to miss living where I live now and the new place is a little out of the way, but there are a lot of good things about the move as well.

My new room is smaller, but somehow feels homey and roomy.  Maybe it’s the layout. (Maybe it’s because I won’t be using it as storage space for random crap like I am in my current place.)  There’s tons of shelving.  TONS.  It’s oddly exciting.  I think I’ll be able to fit all of my current furniture in the room.  The owners are offering me what feels like abnormal amounts of storage space.  Parking won’t be a problem.  I feel like this place offers a more comfortable space to have friends over.  I’m also going to get in a lot of cardio because it’s upstairs and there are no elevators.  I’ll be saving a lot of money, which was really what was driving the whole need to move.  The owners are really great and even lowered the rent and aren’t charging me for November.  It really is rather miraculous.

I can’t believe my luck, considering I forgot to send in the application for a week and they were trying to move on because they hadn’t heard from me.

In other news, I’ve had a couple of interviews for a temporary copyediting job. It’ll be a couple of weeks before I know more, but I’m hopeful.

The next 12 days involves me packing, working six straight days in the lead-up to Thanksgiving (I’m beginning to dread working at a grocery store during the holidays…), moving, and listening to relatives talk about politics at Thanksgiving.  It’s going to be an interesting and probably trying couple of weeks.

I hope you all will stay safe and have a fabulous Thanksgiving with people and food that you love.  And don’t forget to actually be thankful.