While we hadn’t planned on taking such a long time off from writing, we’ve been unlucky in Internets for the past few weeks. And tonight we board our transatlantic cruise for home*, so we won’t have access to the internet again until we get back on November 12.

You’re right: that does sound like the very worst.

But when we get back, we’ll have all sorts of things to tell you–things about Italy and southern France (a redemptory experience, after the disappointments of Paris), things about taking cruises (and how we’re pretty sure we’ll never do this again)… so many things to look forward to! So just hold on, pals, and so sorry about the delay!

In the meantime, Matt and I have pulled together PART ONE of a multi-part Best of Europe series, in which we compile a list of our favorite places/experiences/moments in Europe. So to tide you over until proper posts…


Favorite street food

Matt: fried seafood in a paper cone (Cinque Terre, Italy)
Bri: pierogi (Krakow, Poland)

Favorite local speciality

Matt: gelato (Italy)
Bri: pesto (Cinque Terre, Italy)

City with the best grocery store

Matt: Lucca, Italy
Bri: Berlin, Germany

Best country for local wine

Both: Italy (red), Austria (white)

We have to note, however, that we were delighted to learn that Slovenia has some killer whites as well. Slovenia is amazing for a number of reasons, but we didn’t expect to count wine among them–happy to learn something new there.

Country with best beers

Both: Belgium

Best meal cooked using only a hot plate

Matt: carbonara
Bri: breakfast hash

Note that these two meals consist of pretty much the same ingredients: bacon, egg, cheese, onion, and either pasta or potatoes. But when we had particularly sad kitchens containing nothing but a single hot plate, having these recipes in our back pocket saved us. Especially when we were on that farm in Iceland, 50 minutes away from the nearest restaurant.

Favorite food-related cultural practice

Matt: coffee and pastry culture (Vienna)
Bri: high tea (England)

Country with strangest local food

Both: Germany

Matt ordered a sausage salad while in Augsburg, expecting that there would be sausage on top of a regular salad. But no–the salad was MADE OF sausage. It was delicious, yes, but totally weird. So well done, Germany, you delightful lunatics.

Best hot beverages

Matt: everywhere in Italy (coffee)
Bri: Aix-en-Provence (hot chocolate)

Favorite pub

Matt: The Bear (Bath, England)
Bri: Szimpla (Budapest, Hungary)

Favorite dining experience in an actual restaurant

Both: Mini, Vienna

It was our anniversary, and the food/staff was INCREDIBLE. Possibly the best food we had anywhere all trip.

Okay, that’s all for now. We’ll write a proper post or two while we’re trapped (yes, trapped) on the boat this week, and then post as soon as we get back in the good ole US of A. Not too long now, kiddos! See you soon!

* We’re taking a cruise, by the way, because it was cheaper than taking a flight home. We’re generally not the “oh, dahling, we simply must cruise home!” types, but we are definitely the “LOOK AT THAT AMAZING DEAL” types. So here we are. Full of regret and desserts.


Turkish Delights

I admit that I tend to over-plan. Before we left for this trip, I printed out page after page of documents and directions and Trip Advisor restaurant recommendations and organized them by country and city and then chronologically in the order we would need them. And some of that has been well worth the effort. It meant that Matt and I had a perfect anniversary dinner in Vienna last month at a quiet, independently owned restaurant run by Hungarians who specialize in pairing wines with your meal of choice and making you feel like family. (They treated us to just-for-us cocktail creations, a rousing rendition of “Happy First Year To You” to the tune of Happy Birthday, and hugs all around when we departed late that night.)

But more than my planning triumphs, it’s our planning misadventures I’m most thrilled by. For me, the most profound delights have been the unexpected ones.

About a week ago, Matt and I were in the Cappadocia region of Turkey. Most of the reason we were there was to go hot-air ballooning, but as that’s a sunrise activity, we had plenty of time during the days to go exploring. We toyed with the idea of taking a nine-hour guided tour to make sure we didn’t miss anything, but ruled it out when we realized we didn’t really want to spend a full day on a bus–and that we were actually okay with missing a thing or two. (They were going to take us somewhere called “pigeon valley,” for crying out loud.)

We were very interested in visiting the underground city of Kaymakli though because, well, IT’S A FREAKING UNDERGROUND CITY. So we visited (and it was epic), but we were hungry when we finished our tour. So when a pair of 60-something men wearing matching paper deli hats waved to us and asked us if we wanted to come into their restaurant for some tea, we quickly said yes.

A couple of things to note here: 1) Calling it a restaurant is incredibly generous of me. It was a single room consisting of one long table, a stove, and a chicken doner kebab near the window. 2) If a Turkish person invites you in for tea, you accept. It typically means that something amazing is about to happen.

After tea, we tried to order lunch and quickly discovered that our new friends in the matching deli hats (and, as I later discovered, matching plastic aprons hemmed in red trim) didn’t speak English. However, one of them did speak fluent French–and as I speak terrible French, we were able to order (sort of). I asked what the owner recommended, and he showed me to the stove in the corner. “Poulet,” he said, lifting the lid off the pot simmering on the stove, “et boeuf,” as he pulled the lid of a different pot. “Very good,” he added in English. And then in French, “La mieuller!” So I got the beef and Matt got the chicken, and our new friend puttered over to our table with mounds of meat served on top of rice, sliced tomatoes on the side, and an entire loaf of crusty French bread for us to share. And this man, this tasty food, this weird/sparse ambience, in this “restaurant,” made for the best meal we had in Turkey.

After lunch, we grabbed a van back to a nearby city to make our transfer back home, which we did without issue. We did, however, completely miss the subsequent stop for Goreme, the city we were staying in. Passed right by it without batting an eye. It was only when everyone disembarked, including the driver, that we realized we had maybe gone too far.

But, as it happened, the town we landed in is home to one of Turkey’s biggest and most award-winning wineries! So instead of heading back to Goreme on the next bus, we trekked up a hill to the winery and sampled a handful of different Turkish wines, enjoying unfamiliar grapes with unpronounceable names. We stumbled upon a second tasting room built into the rock of the fairy chimney it was situated under, a single cozy room filled with antique trinkets and curiosities, wooden bows and arrows, impossibly old swords. We bought a bottle from the charming Turkish man who owned and ran the shop, a man who made fun of the local college kids (and college-age tourists) for their poor taste in wine.

The bus we eventually took back home to Goreme didn’t actually go to Goreme. (Surprise!) Instead, we piled out of the bus two miles out of town and started walking back, munching on the peanuts and potato chips we had in our daypack. And that’s when we stumbled upon Rose Valley, with grease on our fingers and crumbs on our cheeks, to see one of the most dramatic, stunning vistas we’ve seen this trip (which says something). We tromped through sandy fields of wild grapes and scrambled over soft rock to stand on the valley’s edge and watched the sun drift lazily toward the horizon. We snapped photos that won’t measure up.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? Nothing in that day was really what we expected it to be, including the underground city, and it was all the better for it. If we only ever experience what we expect to, then we’re limited to the current bounds of our knowledge, imagination, and Google prowess. No matter how detailed our folders of documents, no matter how in depth we plan, we may never meet gentlemanly Turks in matching outfits who bring us to their “kitchen” to help us make an informed decision about lunch. No matter how good the guidebook itinerary and how much time we spend in the Trip Advisor forums, we may never drink Turkish wine with a man who had a hand in the production of what we’re drinking. If we plan our travels (and lives) to the minute, we may never find ourselves in a private vista, in a wild vineyard at the foot of sandy mountains, sharing a kiss under a pastel sky containing both the sun and moon at once — how can you plan that moment if the biggest magic is that you never saw it coming?


I’m Eating Seafood, You Guys!

Growing up in landlocked Minnesota as I did, my childhood was not full of shrimp, scallops, or sea bass. We did not pull oysters from the bay near our home or visit fish markets to see what was freshest that day. Instead, my big adventure was pulling corn out of a neighboring field and trying to eat it raw right off the cob. The staples in our house were hot dogs, pork chops, and beef stroganoff, with plenty of carbs on the side. This was not my parents’ fault, mind you: they were lucky if they could get me to eat peas–good luck getting me to eat anything that smelled funny, wasn’t beige, or had eyes. Yes, there were fish sticks in my childhood, those marvelous mozzarella sticks of the sea, but as fish sticks bear about as much resemblance to fish as the cast of Jersey Shore does to actual Italians, I’m not sure that counts. In fact, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.

I have spent the majority of my adult life avoiding sea creatures. Every Christmas, my family sits around fondue pots and we all gorge ourselves until our pants need unbuttoning. Sure, shrimp and scallops are options alongside the beef and pork, but you can bet your bottom dollar I’ve never been part of that nonsense. In restaurants, I routinely choose duck, chicken, lamb, cow, pig, and wee little rabbits over whatever fish dish our server is reciting passionate poetry about. There are some truly fantastic restaurants in Minneapolis we’ve never visited because their specialty is seafood and, you know, ew, oysters. The problem with fish, I’ve always said, is that it tastes like fish. (I said this, of course, without having eaten much fish at all. What do I know about what it tastes like?)

So given my lack of experience and my insane anti-fish prejudice, what I’m about to say is a pretty major development and stellar victory for humans everywhere: I’M EATING SEAFOOD, YOU GUYS.

I mean, not often, and not always, but I’m totally doing it. It started in London, where my standard pub order was fish and chips. Then fast forward to Dubrovnik, the gorgeous seaside town where they film Game of Thrones. The only non-fish item on menus there tended to be sad pasta with tomatoes. So one night, after I had already eaten plenty of sad pasta with tomatoes, I took the plunge: while Matt ordered an entire school of tiny fried fish, I ordered shrimp risotto. (My theory was that I could eat around the shrimp and just go to town on the risotto if need be.)

But need did not be! It was fucking delicious! So delicious that I abandoned my previous plan and I ate the shrimp first! I even almost forked Matt’s hand when he tried to go after a particularly tasty-looking one I had my eye on. That’s how good it was.

But wait! There’s more! Recently, Matt and I found ourselves walking around Istanbul with our friend Jamie, who is lucky enough to live there. She pointed out a street vendor selling something called media, which is essentially chopped-up mussels mixed with rice and lemon juice and then served right out of the mussel shell for a paltry 25 cents each.

However emboldened I may have been with my shrimp success, though, I was still not prepared to hop on the mussel train. I had never encountered a mussel I enjoyed even the look of, and that they were often described as “briny” did nothing to promote them in my mind. But somehow, over my mumbled protests and head shaking, I somehow found a little shell in my hand and the vendor’s eyes on my face. And because I have a deep need to be liked by strangers, I tilted my head back and downed the thing.

AND IT WAS AWESOME. So I had another. And another. And then I had a fourth because the vendor didn’t have change for us, so why not? Later, we all ate sandwiches full of deep-fried mussels and thick garlic-butter sauce. And I finally got what all this seafood fuss was about.

Now don’t get me wrong: I will still continue to eat more land creatures than sea creatures. Old habits die hard, after all. But a goal on this trip was to expand my midwestern palette and eat some new stuff. And maybe even like some new stuff. So while I don’t see myself ordering tuna tartare any time soon, there’s the slightest chance I’ll try a bit of Matt’s. And at the Christmas 2013 Bowls of Meat marathon, you can bet your ass I’ll eat a scallop or two. After all, that’s how Jesus would want it.


If You Take a Night Ferry…

If you take a night ferry, you will still be scarred from when you took the night train, so your expectations will be appropriately low. You will board the boat with apprehension and a firm grip on the bottles of wine you brought to ease your passage. You will board through the automotive entrance and be given no additional information about where to go or how to find your cabin.

Did you even book a cabin? You don’t know. The booking website was mostly in Croatian, but even in English you wouldn’t know the difference between an inside berth or an outside cabin because, and this is important, everything you know about boat travel was learned from James Cameron and Titanic. This isn’t exactly a comfort.

Somehow you’ll follow enough directional arrows to arrive at reception, which is more or less just a landing platform somewhere near the middle of the ship. You’ll be pleased to learn that you did, in fact, book a cabin and that it is number 303. It will have a window/porthole that you will find charming, and you will have your very own sink. While it will still be bunk bed sleeping, when compared to your cabin in the night train, this will be downright spacious.

The Americans in the room next to yours will greet you in the hallway and laugh over how surreal it is to be traveling by boat. The male half of the couple will quip, incredulously, “We’re going to sea, you guys!” His grin will be infectious.

Because it is only 7:00, you will grab a bottle of wine and some snacks and head for the deck. You will get a little lost along the way, but you will eventually find yourself seated on a bench on the boat’s starboard side (you will learn the difference, at last, between port and starboard), drinking wine out of tiny plastic cups you keep in your travel bag. The sky will paint itself in hazy pastels as the sun drifts toward the horizon, and the moon — a huge full moon you weren’t expecting — will arc into a night sky dotted with stars. You will snap photo after worthless photo, never doing justice to this view.

Once it’s dark and the breeze somehow settles beneath your skin, you’ll head to an enclosed cafe on the boat’s stern (you will also learn the difference between bow and stern). There, you’ll catch the eye of those same fellow Americans you met earlier, and they will join you at your table. You will become fast friends over three bottles of wine, some deliciously salty sheep cheese that crumbles at your touch, and the salami you bought at a grocery store before boarding. You will make a bit of a scene with your raucous laughter. You will not care.

You will part ways around midnight and tumble into bed. (Unbeknownst to you, three days and two cities later, you will meet these friends again. You will spot her red hair through the crowd and give chase through the cobblestone streets. You will hug out of sheer delight — no one expects to see someone they know in the middle of Dubrovnik — and you will make plans to see each other the next evening.) The bed will be too short for your husband, who will sleep with his knees in the air, making tents out of blankets, but you will sleep like the dead. The boat will not rock, the boat will not creak, the air conditioner will keep the room a comfortable temperature.

You will wake the next morning far earlier than you’d like, as the boat comes into port at 6:30 (you will be unprepared for this, as the Internet told you it would be 7:00). A member of the crew will knock repeatedly on your door to hurry you along. Your husband will give you a dirty look for opening the door for her while he is in his underwear. You will stick your tongue out at him.

You will pack with groggy, thick-fingered speed and stumble off the boat in your pajamas. You will find a cafe and order very necessary caffeinated beverages. You will be exhausted, yes, but that is not the fault of the night ferry.

See, if you take a night ferry, you will find it to be a majestic way to travel, one that makes the most of your time while you sleep, one that treats you to glorious sunset views of the Croatian coastline, one that facilitates new friendships. If you take a night ferry, you will find the trip smooth, the bed comfortable, the cabin silent, and, most importantly, the air conditioner working. You will find it to be, and I mean this in all possible ways, smooth sailing.

If you are exhausted from your time on the night ferry, then that is because of you, your new American pals, and three bottles of wine. Or perhaps it’s because you stayed up all night to watch the sky change colors, to watch stars pop in and out of being. Perhaps you woke up early to enjoy breakfast on the bow. Perhaps you wanted to watch the sun rise.

If you are exhausted, frankly, then you have done the night ferry right. If you are exhausted, congratulations, for you will regret nothing.


Welcome to McDonald’s

Welcome to the McDonald’s in Vienna. It’s at once the weirdest and most wonderful place you’ve ever been. Forget everything you thought you knew.

No more ball pits. No more fluorescent lighting. No more unwashed teenagers sullenly staring at you from behind a register/relic from the 1980s. No more window clings promoting the latest deal. No more vinyl seating, cracked and peeling at the seams, and no more goddamn Ronald McDonald statue out front for children to climb on. Hell, no mustard-fingered children climbing anywhere.

Instead, enjoy blooming roses, two at every table. Modern tables, by the way, with cleanly designed chairs surrounding them. Low tables, high tables, rows of plush seating without tables for those casual Europeans who want to lounge. Did I mention the free WiFi? Or the artistic display touting carrots as an important food group, a display made of smudge-free glass and actual carrots?

You know those commercials you see for the McCafe back at home? The ones where a remarkably diverse cast of characters drink and flirt over a McDonald’s coffee? That actually happens here. Here, the McCafe is not a terrible substitute for real coffee, but a separate location within the greater McDonald’s restaurant (yes, I called it a restaurant). They’re connected in the middle, but the McCafe here has its own separate entrance and eating area, and there’s a clean glass case full of assorted cakes and baked goods. Get a cappuccino that actually doesn’t suck, and then go relax in one of the arm chairs while you drink it. Settle in with a newspaper if you like because parents don’t bring their screaming toddlers here. There’s not a single plastic booster seat to be found in the McCafe.

Also, the bathrooms are so nice. There’s no toilet paper on the floor, and the faucets aren’t dripping water like we’re in some sort of underground cave. There’s a zen motif to the decor, all bamboo and water-covered rocks and that soft glow popular with fancy iPhone apps. The sinks and countertops are actually made of porcelain, not laminate. The floor is also a natural material. Of course everyone’s in a good mood here; the whole staff probably meditates in these shiny, white bathroom stalls.

Does this seem weird to you? Oh, you’re not from here? That’s okay. There’s a self-serve area where six shiny kiosks allow you to order your food in the language of your choice, in case you don’t speak the native tongue. Once you’ve paid the kiosk (which of course accepts your foreign chip-and-pin-less credit card), approach the clean counter where a smiling employee awaits to hand you your food. Everyone is in a good mood here. So are you. Which is weird because that’s never happened to you before, not in a McDonald’s, not Stateside.

Like I said, welcome to Vienna.


24 Hours in Slovakia

We didn’t have a ton of time in Slovakia. In fact, we were here for really only 24 hours as we passed through on our way from Poland to Hungary. We technically could have gotten all the way to Budapest, Hungary in just one day but we thought it’d be nice to get a glimpse (even the tiniest one) of the Slovakian capital, Bratislava. Here’s how that played out.


[ 10:38 ] Arrive in Poprad, Slovakia off a comfortable mountain bus from Zakopane, Poland. This leg of the journey lasted exactly the length of Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience album. Bri is delighted.

[ 10:50 ] Bri pays .40 Euro to use the train station bathroom. She must collect toilet paper from the bathroom attendant before going into the stalls because there won’t be any available once she’s inside. Bri is told this in Slovakian, which is confusing.

[ 10: 57 ] Matt also pays to use the bathroom. He could have paid just .30 Euro to use the “pessoar” (i.e., “pisser”) instead of the toilet stall, but he lacks the Slovakian language skills to communicate this to the attendant. She makes him take a toilet paper ration as well. He flushes it to keep up appearances.

[ 11:33 ] Matt and Bri board the train bound for Bratislava and get settled in a private compartment in first class because they’re ballers (i.e., the good people at Eurail will not sell second class passes to anyone over 25 years old. “Be an adult for crying out loud.”)

[ 12:15 ] Train attendant with heavy makeup and eyebrows checks our tickets, purses her lips, and leaves.

[ 1:37 ] Train attendant returns with heavily armed police officer in tow. He is wearing full body armor and a sneer. He says something stern and frowny to Matt, which we don’t understand. The officer switches to English and tells Matt he is breaking the law by having his feet on the seat across from him. Matt must remove his shoes or there will be a 50 Euro fine. We choose option 1.

[ 1:38 ] Officer McAngry leaves and the compartment door closes. We now, perhaps unjustly, hate the Slovak people. And Slovak laws.

[ 2:00 ] Realize that what we thought was a 2.5 hour train ride is actually a 4.5 hour train ride. Begin strategizing.

[ 2:05 ] Matt returns from the dining car with a liter of white wine he purchased for 8 Euro. He paid extra for a second styrofoam cup. We’re so classy.

[ 2:06 ] Determine that there’s a reason more people aren’t talking about Slovakian wine (the reason being that it’s awful). Pour tall glasses anyway.

[ 3:00 ] Start watching Breaking Bad on the iPad, season 4 – episode 3. Shit is getting real.

[ 3:42 ] Bri visits scary train bathroom and assumes favorite pose among women everywhere: the squat-n-hover. For balance, she puts her elbow down on the sink counter and regrets it.

[ 3:44 ] Bri shows Matt her soggy shirtsleeve and asks for the Purell.

[ 4:07 ] Train arrives in Bratislava. Train station has free WiFi. Bratislava wins.

[ 4:16 ] Outside of the train station, Bri cannot stop laughing. Probably because she just drank half a liter of wine. People start to stare, so Bri and Matt start walking toward their lodging.

[ 4:18 ] Bri finally gets it under control.

[ 4:35 ] Meet the AirBnB host at the Frogy frozen yogurt joint outside tonight’s apartment and head inside. Apartment is adorable–TWO CLEAN bathrooms WITH SOAP. Everyone’s delighted.

[ 6:45 ] Dinner at “Slovak Pub,” which is both the name of the joint and an accurate description. Slovak beer and Slovak food, which included some excellent pierogi with the best goddamn sour cream anyone has ever eaten in their lives.

[ 6:50] Stop eating pierogi long enough to discover the excellent Slovak sheep cheese dumplings with the crispiest bacon bits ever on the far end of the platter. omgcomfortfood. No one can stop eating it.

[ 7:50 ] Time for a Slovak after-dinner drink called Slivovica, a plum brandy. Matt enjoys this far more than Bri does. He savors it like it’s the harvest.

[ 8:00 ] Nighttime walk of the Bratislava old town! Beautiful city, vibrant street life. Wide streets full of candlelit cafes and restaurant fiddlers wearing bow ties. Charming bronze statues around every corner (see this post’s cover image for an example).

[ 9:00 ] Return to the flat to make some travel arrangements for the next few weeks because, well, turns out we haven’t really figured all of that out yet. How will we get to Turkey? Oops.

[ 10:30 ] Bedtime.

[ 10:31 ] OMG IT’S A REAL BED WITH A MEMORY FOAM MATTRESS! No one has ever been more excited for this level of comfort and pampering after staying in a crappy, chilly hostel in Poland for the past few days.


[ 8:48 ] Everyone is well rested.

[ 9:30 ] Across the street for breakfast at Bagel & Coffee Story. (Bratislava has very literal restaurant names.) Celebrate that the menu is entirely in English, which is amazing because no one is awake enough to attempt ordering in Slovak.

[ 10:03 ] Shitshitshitwe’relavinginanhourandnothingispackedandnooneisshowered

[ 10:16 ] WHY DID THE SHOWER WATER TURN COLD? Bri is officially awake now.

[ 10:35 ] So is Matt.

[ 10:36 ] Frantic packing ensues.

[ 11:00 ] Host’s brother, probably named Chatty Cathy because he will not stop talking even though we were trying to catch a train, shows up to return our deposit and retrieve the key. Asks why we stay only one night in Slovakia. We’re not sure so, of course, we promise to return.


5 Reasons to Visit Poland

There’s a reason these delicious dumplings are number one on the list of reasons to visit Poland and that is because, well, they are delicious dumplings. We usually ordered the meat pierogi, as the meat was all tender and braised and mmmm. But there are tons of varieties to try! Mushroom pierogi, blueberry pierogi, buckwheat and goat cheese pierogi… At a restaurant, pierogi usually come in portions of 8 – 10, which make them perfect to share as an appetizer or keep to yourself as a small meal. As an added bonus, a portion costs somewhere between $3 and $5. Oh, and did I mention that they’re usually topped with carmelized onion and CHUNKS OF BACON? Because they are.

The entire country looks like something right out of Lord of the Rings. Misty Mountains? check. Fangorn Forest? you betcha. Mines of Moria? hell yeah. This country is JRR Tolkein’s playground, where rivers wind through mountainsides and even bar tops are made of intricately carved wood. And there are horses everywhere, so the good people of Rohan should be quite happy. For those of you who aren’t geeks and have no idea what I’m talking about, a) you should be ashamed and b) I basically mean that everything looks majestic, mythical, and unspoiled. We spent two full days tromping through forests and mountains and rafting through mountain gorges, and still left feeling awed, small, and like we hadn’t even scratched the surface.

The Polish people are, without a doubt, the friendliest, kindest group of people we’ve met on our trip so far. We started our first day in Krakow by getting some hot beverages at a coffee shop on the main square, and the server was so genuinely sweet and helpful we were certain she had to have an ulterior motive. But then our tour guide that morning was the same way. As was our AirBnB host, the other servers we had, the woman who sold us ice cream, and everyone we met in Zakopane–even when they didn’t speak English. So if you want to go somewhere amazing without feeling you’re annoying the locals by your mere existence, go to Poland.

The city of Krakow is adorable and wonderful and perfect. The old town, which is where tourists spend pretty much all their time, is quite walkable. There’s a paved garden path called the Planty that circles the old town, and a lovely afternoon can be spent just wandering around the perimeter, up to Wawel Castle, and down along the Vistula River. (Bonus? Down by the river, there’s a dragon–okay, dragon statue–that breathes fire every three minutes.) The main market square is the center of the action, with plenty of non-intimidating pubs and restaurants, and a trumpeter pokes his head out of the church tower every hour on the hour to play a quick tune. It’s a city of perfectly scheduled delights and well worth a visit.

How much do you know about Poland? Probably not much, if you’re anything like me. Probably you know that Hitler invaded the country on September 1, 1939, and started Word War II in the process, but not much else. If that’s the case, spending any time in Poland will be a real eye-opener. For example, did you know that Poland ceased to exist on any world maps for a good chunk of time? It was once the biggest, most powerful empire in Central Europe (the Poland-Lithuania commonwealth–look it up), but then it was split into three by Prussia, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian empires and vanished from maps, only to be reinstated in the early 20th century. Visiting Poland and learning its history from the people who lived it (or from the descendants of the people who lived it) will blow your mind–and remind you how little you actually know, which is an important lesson in itself.

But mostly, go for the pierogi. I really can’t stress that enough.


If You Take a Night Train…

If you take a night train, you will look forward to the elegant train travel depicted in Hollywood movies of yore. You will expect to be treated like Grace Kelly in North by Northwest or have a spacious train car all to yourself like Nick and Nora in The Thin Man. You will wear a sleeping gown, your husband a crisply pressed pajama suit, and everyone will look like Cary Grant in the morning.

If you take a night train, and your train is not a movie set, you will instead share a compartment the size of a large closet, and you will probably sleep in whatever you happen to be wearing when you arrive. There is no room for a costume change on a night train. And if you take a night train, your dinner will not be fancy: you will drink your wine straight from the bottle and get sandwich crumbs in your bed, for there will be no dining car.

If you take a night train, from Prague to Krakow for example, it will be important to wear earplugs once it’s time for bed. You’ll want the good kind made of wax, the kind that mold to your ear’s shape, the kind that don’t fall out during the night and get lost among your sheets. These are the ear plugs you want, if you take a night train.

But if you take a night train, the noise won’t be your only problem. No, you will ride the rails and finally fully understand the phrase–a ride, indeed–because you’ll spend the night at the mercy of centrifugal force, white-knuckling your sheets for fear of falling off the bed.

When you arrive on your night train, I hope you remember to stow your bags on the luggage rack and not on the floor. You see, if you take a night train, the you on the top bunk will roast in the heat-that-rises and will need to move to the ground when it gets too hot to bear; this will be around 5:00am. The fear of falling off the bed will dissipate, but you will not be able to sleep on the floor either, not on the groaning-thunking-clacking floor, but at least you will stop sweating. If you take a night train, this will feel like victory.

But if you take a night train, you will save time and money. You will multitask by combining your lodging and your travel budgets into one cheap transaction, and when you “wake” in the morning, your car’s steward will greet you with a hot beverage of your choice and a croissant. You will find this all very civilized, and you will thank him–and mean it–when he takes your hand to help you off the train.

If you take a night train, you’ll arrive at your destination early, so early that you’ll be perfectly on time to see the town wake up. You will park yourself on a coffee shop patio on the main square and sip the world’s most welcome tea. From here, you will listen to horse hooves clop their way through cobblestone streets, watch vendors open their wooden stall windows, women wearing kerchiefs shake out their welcome mats. You will see the window at the very top of the church tower open and glimpse the golden bell of a trumpet, and then you will hear the trumpeter greet the morning with song. The square will fill with more and more people, weary backpackers, commuters, students on their way to class; nuns, tour guides, street performers setting up their spaces. What was an empty square will be vibrant and alive, and after you pay for your tea and walk off to join the throng, you will, for the first time, be glad you took the night train.


The Hell With Chronology!

It’s too hard to post in chronological order when we have other exciting things to tell you. If you get confused about where we are or where we’ve been, check The Route. I believe in you. I believe in you so much that I am going to be posting in ridiculous, non-linear order all the time. Starting immediately.

Here’s to more frequent posting!


Live and Let Live in Amsterdam

It’s a surprise to no one when I say that cities have personalities. We describe our vacation spots as sleepy, charming, vibrant, or go farther and say that an entire city reminds us of a frat boy: boundlessly enthusiastic, smelling of cologne, and consistently drinking us under the table. (Sounds like Vegas to me!)

What surprised me, however, was that despite its reputation as a party city (let’s just say it: hookers and pot), Amsterdam reminded me of a kindly grandfather.

If you’re lucky enough to know your grandparents as an adult, as I have, you find out that they’re not just the sweet folks who slip you a five-spot on your birthday and take you to petting zoos. That’s part of them, sure, and an important part, but if you know them as an adult, you actually listen to their stories. You linger in their homes after big family dinners, and what you realize is this: they’ve seen more of the world than you have, they’ve lived through major moments in history and were changed by them, they’ve got a style all their own, and, yes, they can absolutely drink you under the table. They have, after all, had lots of practice.

In a city known for its liberal policies hookers and pot, I confess I was expecting more of that hard-partying, whoop-it-up, frat boy vibe. And at one time, I’m sure the city was that way. But now, wizened up by years of practice and decades of history, the coffee shops are full of casual smokers playing Uno, lacing their weed with tobacco to keep from getting too high. The Red Light District is run by dues-paying union members who approach their jobs like small-business owners. No one but the tourists find it strange. No one but the tourists are out of control. Grandpa Amsterdam has seen it all before and now feels like having a relaxing day of low-level activity, maybe a visit to one of the world-class museums, and he’ll probably end the day with a beer and a nap. “Do what you want,” the city seems to say, “but I’m going on a walk.”

That’s the charm of Amsterdam, after all. Ogle at the vices on display or jump in with both feet, but then join Grampsterdam on a tour of his city. Listen to his stories, learn a bit more about history, and bask in these sunny days you have. For us, that meant walking along the canals and buying more frites, wandering wide-eyed through the Van Gogh Museum, and standing slack-jawed and awed in Anne Frank’s bedroom. It meant seeing where Otto Frank tracked the Allies’ progress with pins on a map, running a finger along the lines marking Anne’s height–she wasn’t much shorter than I am–and craning our necks to see the place where she got her first kiss.

It was there, in front of the blacked-out windows, that it occurred to Matt and me just how constrained her life in Amsterdam was compared to how freely people live there now. The contrast is striking, perhaps obvious, but tracking the difference of 60 years felt like clarity.

I think that’s what I mean when I say that Amsterdam reminds me of someone’s grandfather–the city has perspective and wisdom, and is careful about which battles it chooses to fight. Why worry about whether or not folks are drinking a beer in a park? Don’t you remember the Nazis? That was a real problem. Just let the hookers do what they want.

Worse things have happened.