I couldn’t identify what it is, precisely (genau, in German), that makes Germany eerily similar to the Midwest. Perhaps it was the rolling fields of grain punctuated by forests, or the food–carbs and sausages, all of it dense and satisfying–or something more ethereal in the air or the light (perhaps, I wondered, Germany has roughly the same latitude as Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa and, therefore, receives the sun at the same angle). Perhaps it was none of these things, or all of them. Perhaps the Germans who settled in the United States were drawn by their intuition, like migratory birds, to land that just felt right, land they knew how to work and that would accept their transplanted practices.

All of Germany, of course, was lovely–I want to make that clear. But every so often its loveliness was followed by a kind of deja vu. In a small town outside Munich, we walked down a gravel road along which, I was for a brief moment all but certain, a high-school friend of mine lived. We ate fried things that could’ve been–and, really, should be–served on sticks at the MN State Fair. Their dirndls and lederhosen aside (which are almost worth a post of their own; suffice to say, traditional German dress is a great uniter, bringing together young hipsters wearing it with irony and older folks for whom ornate leather shorts are as essential in the summertime as sandals), the people at biergartens making industrious progress toward the bottoms of their steins had the same faces, the same bodies, the same rhythms of nods, glances, and laughs as my neighbors when I was a kid in Southeastern MN.

Germany was a kind of parallel universe, like a lost chapter from Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, in which past events occurred a bit differently, resulting in a present that mirrors our own with a few jarring distortions. Picture the Midwest as you know it, with its terrain, its weather, and its people. Now tweak that vision: make the beer better, for starters. Instead of an unsustainable reliance on cars and fossil fuels, connect nearly every town and city with a reliable train network, and install solar panels on every fourth roof. Hear people speaking German and see them inch beyond the shadow of oppression and genocide–on this, the difference between our universes is only a matter of specifics–by recreating, every day, a society that respects its inhabitants. If not for a few quirks of history, we could be them, and they could be us.

Photo: a crucifix in the chapel used by members of the German Parliament in the Reichstag, Berlin


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.


Where’s Ghent?

When Matt and I aren’t traveling, we live in downtown Minneapolis. It’s the City of Lakes, a smaller metropolis with vibrant theater, dining, and music scenes, and currently topping a host of national polls: Fittest City, Most Bike Friendly City, Best Park System, etc. If Chicago is the brain of the midwest, our beloved city is its heart.

Minneapolis does not, however, rank as a national tourist destination. There are no national monuments to see, no tallest buildings to climb, no majestic vistas to look out on (if you don’t count lakes, forests, and farmland, which no one seems to). After all, who visits a state for its incredible education system or a preponderance of rooftop bars? Outside the Mall of America (a place no self-respecting local visits without children or out-of-town relatives in tow), there is no “reason” to come to Minneapolis. And have you heard how cold it gets here?

What this means is that European backpackers fly overhead and have no idea what they’re missing by going straight from LA to Chicago–but it also means that the few who do visit are surprised to love our city in a way no one is ever surprised to love New York.

So listen carefully when I tell you this: Ghent is the Minneapolis of Belgium.

If a local doesn’t tell you about it (the way our pal and native Belgian Daisy did for us), you’d zip right past Ghent on your way to Bruges or Brussels. Ghent is a smaller city than either of those two, with a population of about 250,000. It’s an entirely walkable city, though it has a logical and hassle-free public transit system, full of flower-lined canals and cobblestoned streets, imposing churches and more chocolateries than you could visit in a month. A perfect afternoon can be spent drinking potent Belgian beer in one of the many town squares, perhaps the one in the shadow of the city’s castle.

There is, of course, nothing to do in Ghent. You could, I suppose, take a boat cruise through the canals (for a fraction of the cost of doing this in Amsterdam or Bruges) or visit all six local cathedrals, but there are no “must dos” in this charming town. Unlike visiting London, no one will ask you, upon returning home, whether you visited Big Ben, rode the London Eye, or shopped at Portobello Road. Instead, people will probably ask, “Where’s Ghent?”

Helping us make the most of our brief three-day stay in Ghent were our AirBnB host Sas and one of her friends, who are some of the most generous people I believe I’ve ever met. They made sure we had everything we needed to enjoy our stay–including a map made up by local folks to tell you about their favorite hangouts. (It was on this map’s advice that we got fries from a friuttur who had been operating out of the same spot since 1858. I guarantee this place is not in any official guidebook, which is a crime.) They took us to the Lokerse Feesten music festival in a nearby town where we all had way too much champagne (complete with strawberries because that is, apparently, how they roll in this part of Belgium) and then to a local festival called Oudberg Fest the next night. This festival was held in the charmingly named “Father’s/Priest’s Butt” neighborhood.)

Sas gave us a tour of the town and taught us about the rebellious character of the Ghent people and the history that shaped them (there was a delightful story about Charlemagne). They shared with us more Belgian beer than I can, perhaps literally, account for and we got treated us to a meal at a very cool local restaurant (De Centrale), where one of Sas’s friends is chef. (In my favorite daydreams, I can still taste the vichyssoise–which is a sentence I have never had occasion to utter before. Thank you, Elias, for that particular gift.) And my dear Belgian friend Andromeda, whom I met while we were both au pairs in Ireland, came into town to visit and she and her fella pointed out precisely what to buy at Leonidas chocolate shop (white chocolate pralines–a delicious choice).

None of these things we did, not a single one, would be included on any official List of Things To Do in Belgium. To complete that list, you’d probably have to go to Disneyland Bruges with all the other tourists, where the man scooping gelato from a cart is wearing a chef’s hat (why? does scooping pre-made gelato make quite a mess?) and the line to ride a horse-drawn carriage circles the block. And all of that is fine and has its time and place; we get into line with everyone else when it’s called for, but there’s something wonderful about visiting a place that doesn’t have lines, that doesn’t come with a checklist, that doesn’t require the advance purchase of tickets. Because if your city visit isn’t pre-packaged, what choice do you have but to live as the locals do?

There’s no part of town the locals avoid due to buskers and peddlers and tourist hordes, so there’s no physical separation between the people who live in this city and the people who visit it. There’s no list of things to accomplish, no museum hours to fit into your schedule, no real obligations. And so you wander the winding streets with a beer in your hand and look up at buildings that look as they did 300 years ago. You drink the local drink, eat the local food, hear the local music, and leave your map in your bag because it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to get anywhere.

If you’re lucky, you’ll make a new friend or two. If you’re luckier, you’ll feel complete in a way you hadn’t expected, and it’ll feel, maybe just a little bit, like a home away from home.


Paris, I guess.

Okay, so, we’ve been remiss at updating the blog. I confess there have been times when I thought about writing, and then decided that I would rather go explore the city or drink wine with our hosts or, you know, nap. But most of the delay has been because I need to write about Paris next–and well, Matt and I both have very complicated feelings about our time there. Paris was, really, something of a mixed bag.

Matt and I had both visited Paris before, but this time, neither of us found it quite as magical as it had been in the past. Sure, we enjoyed drinking wine under the Eiffel Tower at night and eating tasty bread as we walked down charming, winding streets in Montmartre, but mostly, the Parisians themselves did a splendid job of robbing Paris of its charms. (To put it bluntly, Parisiens sont bitches.)

That said, I’m going to take the easy way out and provide our summary of Paris in list form. Given the fragmented experience we had in that city, it feels pretty appropriate. So, in no particular order and without further adieu, the lists!

— Versailles
— Luxembourg Gardens
— Cafes of Montmartre
— Pantheon
— Guided tour of Omaha Beach

— Pain au chocolat
— Crepes (Matt’s fave combo was banana / Nutella)
— Baguette sandwiches with tasty meats and cheese and tomatoes
— Fries
— Croque Monsieur (but go easy on the béchamel)

— Walking around the grounds at Versailles, including stops at Marie Antoinette’s hilarious little hamlet and Petit Trianon (you know, her smaller castle on the grounds of her larger castle–nearby her husband’s second castle. I can’t imagine why the French commonfolk turned on them…)
— When we walked over the Pont d’Art, which glittered with the locks secured to the railings. (Lovers write their names on a lock, secure it to the bridge, and throw the key into the River Seine. Makes for gorgeous, and heavy!, art)
— While out walking in Paris, we came across an entire park full of people drinking wine and playing boules, which is essentially French bocce ball.
— The entire day we spent in Normandy, visiting Omaha Beach, Pont du Hoc, and the American Cemetery. Beautiful country, amazing history, and a knowledgable guide. While this was a rare day where we were proud to be Americans, we would also have been proud to be British or Canadian that day.
— At the weirdly fabulous movie theater at Les Halles where we took a break from a long day to watch World War Z in English.

— At the weirdly fabulous movie theater, we learned the French do not put butter on their popcorn. No butter was available for Americans either.
— Sunday mornings are times for the French to sit and eat brunch for six hours straight. I imagine this was not at all terrible for them, but we were unable to find a cafe with space for us to join them. We ate cheese sandwiches on a bench.
— Every time the Metro smelled like a combination of eggs, sewage, and horses.
— Every time we had to pay to use a toilet, which was most of the time. This is a privilege you should pay for, apparently.
— Every time we heard an American greet a shop owner by saying “Bonjer.”

— Our guide at Normandy and the other lady at the Tourist Information office. I know these are technically two separate people, but it is their job to be nice to tourists, so it feels like it falls into the same bucket.
— The guy who sold us wine and ice cream at Versailles
— The cafe owner who enjoyed my efforts at speaking French and helped me by pantomiming everything back to us to make sure we were on the same page
— The wine shop owner who chilled and opened our wine for us before we took it out to the Luxembourg Gardens for a picnic
— Marc, our AirBnB host for the first night we were in town. He waited an extra 45 minutes after our train was delayed and, perhaps more importantly, laughed at all our jokes.

— Yvan, our other AirBnB host. Every time I asked him a question, he would respond to Matt instead. Apparently women should be seen and not heard, speak only when spoken to, etc.
— The waiter at a cafe who overcharged us for our wine because he didn’t think we’d notice
— The teenagers on the metro who filled the entire train car with French rap music blaring from their speakers. Admittedly, we were not the only people who did not enjoy them.
— The ticket agent at St. Lazare who kept rolling her eyes and sighing
— Pretty much all other Parisians

As you can see, Paris was a bit of a mixed bag. But stay tuned for a post about our adventures in Belgium. Gent is perhaps my new favorite city, and we had quite the carousing time with our AirBnB hosts. Get jazzed, ladies and germs, for music festivals, reunions with old friends, and gourmet food for $7.50. And if you have to choose between Gent and Bruges during your time in Belgium, I have a very strong opinion to share with you.


London Calling, to the Faraway Towns

We arrived in England like waking from a good rest, when the coffee is fresh and the day unfolds before you, even and civilized, a parade of activities and rewards. Refreshingly, the people spoke our language, and we spoke theirs, more or less, and London, one of the most cosmopolitan, dynamic, overwhelming, but still charming cities in the world, offered up its sights to us (along with several thousand other tourists). We navigated the tube to visit my old neighborhood (more on that in a bit); the British Museum, the Indiana Jonesiest museum ever (i.e., containing powerful relics that Indy might be rescuing, bullwhip in hand, from the clutches of a Nazi and shouting “It belongs in a museum!”); Hampton Court Palace, home of Henry VIII, William and Mary, and all the architecture and history between them; the improbable abundance of landmarks in and around central London, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament, and Leicester and Trafalgar Squares; and Hyde Park, where we had a picnic one especially pleasant evening. We saw The Cripple of Inishmaan, a play starring Daniel Radcliffe, who seems to have avoided the typical fate of famous child actors and has instead chosen to, y’know, act. We went to Bath, where the ruins of ancient spas remain from the time when the Romans ruled England–a reminder that nearly 2,000 years ago they had already figured out most of the things (save for the Internet) we tend to think of as being uniquely modern, from plumbing and HVAC to colonialism. We also went to Nottinghamshire to visit my English cousins, some of the warmest and best-hearted people I know, and they showed us Sherwood Forest, lawn bowling, and cricket, which remains incomprehensible.
All of this was lovely and enriching and, should you get the chance to come here if you haven’t already, well worth your time. But I admit I have a complicated relationship with England, London in particular, one I had a sense of before but couldn’t quite identify until now. This is my seventh trip to England, and in college I spent a semester in London, living in an absurdly posh neighborhood just off of Hyde Park. I love England, and I love English life. I love that they have pubs on nearly every other corner–yes, for the convenience of grabbing a pint whenever your fancy strikes but moreover for the function the pub performs, serving as a sort of community living room where people can drink and gossip with coworkers, take a date or have a night out with a spouse, or wear comfy pants and play Words with Friends on their phones over fish and chips; it is truly a public house, an institution America sorely lacks. I love that the English understand themselves in several ways, with a person’s occupation being just one facet in an overall jeweled life. If we had a good reason to live here–if Bri or I got a job here, one that paid well enough for frequent trips to the states to visit our friends and family–we could live well.
Which is kind of the problem: at this point, I may have gotten everything I can from England as a tourist destination (well, I haven’t seen Madame Tussaud’s, but I’m content to live the rest of my life without seeing a creepy waxy simulacrum of a creepy waxy king of pop). I’m in an in-between state, in which I know England like a home, yet it has little bearing on my regular life. It’s been a magical place I can enter periodically through a rabbit hole or a portal that, for some reason, has manifested inside a dusty old wardrobe, but, as with Alice and the Pevensie kids in their sequels, the terrain on the other side is no longer all that fantastical for me–its strangeness has become familiar, but sooner or later we must leave it, as we are not talking animals or anthropomorphized playing cards.
I suppose this may be a necessary consequence of travel: a blurring of the line between foreign and domestic and the realization that home itself can travel, locating wherever, along with your heart, your ties are. (We’ll see how well this theory holds up in a few months.) I’ll miss England, but–here’s a silver lining–I’ve already grown used to missing it and should, with any luck, be able to cope.


Lose Yourself in Iceland (for you will not have a choice)

It isn’t just that you will literally get lost when you visit Iceland, although that will certainly be true (you will make your husband pull over three times in order to make sure that Vestlandvergur is the same as Highway 1). It will be that you will have no idea how to conduct yourself in regular social situations, and you will be in no position to contend with the prevalent belief in Icelandic elves.

You see, you will learn that there are Dark Elves and Light Elves in Iceland, and then there are also Hidden People, who are built along the lines of Legolas (tall, fair-skinned, impossibly beautiful–what’s up, Orlando Bloom?) while the elves are far smaller, something like fairies or sprites or something. And they will be everywhere. Your in-flight movie to Reykjavik will inform you that more than 50% of Icelanders believe in elves. You and your skepticism will be outnumbered.

You will be told that the elves live in fissures along the hillsides, and sometimes they can prevent construction projects from moving forward by living inside of troublesome boulders. This will make no sense to you. The British transplant who is giving you a tour of a lava cave (because, yes, this is something that happens in Iceland) will tell you that some elves live in Ice Elf Cities in the wintertime, but they migrate back to the fissures in due course. He will show you Ice Elf City, which is deep inside the aforementioned lava cave, and you will be compelled by the beauty of this icy stalagmite city–but you will still not believe in elves. You will be told that there are mystics and spiritualists who somehow communicate with the elves, and that the Icelandic people who move to another country say they can no longer see the elves once they leave home. You will be expected to know that the elves are tied to the land, rather than to its inhabitants.

Your head will be full of questions, but who can you ask? If you ask the wrong person, if you ask a true believer in elves, and any of your skepticism and doubt creeps into your tone (or words!), then you have just insulted a culture and, perhaps, a belief system. And so, you will go to the Internet. And what you learn will leave you more confused than ever. There is far too much information, there are far too many scholars and academics who are fully on board with this elf business, and all of it will sound silly (though, of course, a bit delightful) to your pragmatic, American self.

Far into the Icelandic countryside, after a long elf-related discussion with your husband, you will stop at a gas station to use the restroom. You will be in the middle stall, and you will realize you have no toilet paper–but you will realize this too late, after you already need it. If you were at home in your own city, you might just ask someone on either side of you to pass you some extra and thrust your hand under the wall, a standard practice. But in Iceland you will not know if that’s something people do. What’s more, you will not know if the person on the other side speaks English and will understand your request if you make one. Perhaps they will think you’re up to something unsavory when you whisper something they don’t understand and put your hand under their stall wall. And so you panic. You sit quietly, silently, in the middle stall. Your pants are around your ankles, your head is in your hand, and you don’t know which open is best: ask for toilet paper and risk being deported for pervertery or, well, drip-dry.

But you’re savvy and brave, so instead, once the bathroom is quiet, you will hold your sweater in front of your waist, rush from the stall and sidestep towards the next one over. You will, of course, slip on some wet paper towels on the way and lose your grip on your sweater. You’ll swear loudly and throw your weight against the door behind you to bang your way into the next stall. And as your clumsy fingers fumble with the lock, you’ll find yourself praying that the elves in the bathroom are Light Elves and not Dark Elves–for then they might just keep all other customers out until your lunatic laughter stops echoing off the walls.

*Matt got super respectful of horses and actually rode one! Icelandic horses have a unique gait called the “tolt,” which is essentially the smoothest trot ever. American (i.e., not tiny) horses can’t do it, which makes this additionally cool.

*We saw a Minke whale! Jumped out of the water just in front of our ship. Also saw a pod of about 15 dolphins cruising around.

*Eating fish and chips at a great restaurant near the harbor was stellar–there’s something awesome about eating fish with the source in sight. They also have a different kind of fish there, so eating wolf fish was a new experience.

*In-water massages at the Blue Lagoon were a PERFECT way to start the trip. In the name of all that is holy and/or deep fried, go get a massage here. Such a unique (and weird and floaty and AWESOME) experience. Frankly, it might not be worth going to the Lagoon without it (I sense you’d get bored in about 30 minutes otherwise, and given what you paid to enter the place, you may feel it wasn’t worth your money.)

*Lava cave! In addition to seeing Ice Elf City, this lava cave was ridiculously cool. No smells, no bats, no echoes because the cave is made of porous lava layers–coolest cave I’ve been in, with a super amazing and knowledgable tour guide.

*The sun never sets this time of year. It gets dusky around 11:00, which did nothing to help with our jetlag, but was fascinating anyway. No wonder Reykjavik is the party capital of Iceland–you never get a chance to remember you should be sleeping if the sun is always shining.


The First Disappointment

Matt and I leave for Iceland in two days, and I just received an email from our dogsledding company (because, you know, why not go dogsledding on a glacier while in Iceland?) saying that, due to the heat, the glacier base camp has closed for the season. They are now only offering dogsledding tours in the lowlands, which translates to “dogs pull you along farmland on a wheelie cart.” I’m sure that would still be fun, but the basecamp isn’t located anywhere near where our (non-refundable) lodging is. Besides, it’s pretty pricey to do something I used to do with my own dogs when I was a kid. So… yikes.

My initial (and crushing) disappointment, however, only lasted a moment because that’s all the time I have to give that particular feeling. The problem with leaving for Iceland in two days is that I have no time to be sad — I only have time to plan.

All I can say is that it’s a good thing Matt and I planned our wedding in just four months last summer—the “SHIT SHIT SHIT!” method of planning is old hat by now.

So here’s how this played out over my lunch — right after global warming ruined my life:

Step 1: Email the people we’re lodging with. “HELP! WHAT IS THERE TO DO IN YOUR AREA?” Realize that their offices are closed and we will not hear back for at least 16 hours. Realize that we do not have time for these shenanigans.

Step 2:  Go to the Internet!

Step 3: Find a bunch of stuff that seems like it might work but be sold on nothing

  • Snowmobiling tour on a mountain glacier (isn’t this just a less cool version of dogsledding on a glacier? Louder and less, I don’t know, full of furry joy?)
  • Horseback riding (but Matt is afraid respectful of horses)
  • Hiking. Are we into that? Do we like hiking? Better question, do we like hiking while jetlagged?
  • Drive around the country..? Is this even something that is done here?

Step 4: Lament again that nothing is as cool as dogsledding on a glacier.

Step 5: Tell myself we will go to Sweden in a few years and pledge to go dogsledding there. Or in northern Minnesota sometime because, you know, we live there and this is not our only adventure. Look on the bright side and realize we no longer have to worry about packing wool socks. Try to maintain a stiff upper lip because you do not have time for melancholy, madam.

Step 5: Remember that OMG, I HAVE A FRIEND WHO WORKS AT A TRAVEL COMPANY SPECIALIZING IN ICELAND STUFF! Call her immediately and learn all sorts of stuff:

  • The part of the country we’ll be in is incredibly scenic. One of the best things to do is just to drive around the peninsula and take in the sights. This is apparently a great idea.
  • There are two particularly adorable towns full of cafes and horses (safely tucked away on beaches, so my husband doesn’t get scared respectful) that we could visit.
  • There is some guy called The Shark Man who has a museum to fishing and fishing culture; also, he gives out lots of tasty samples… of fermented shark. Awesome or disgusting? 
  • There’s a sweet sweet boat tour, if we’re into being on a boat, that leaves many times a day from the northern side of the peninsula and is gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous. Gorgeous.
  • The national park up there is free and heavenly, potentially worth a visit.

Step 6: Exhale.


So the moral of the story here is that we haven’t even left the country yet and our carefully laid plans are already falling apart. But the second moral is that we’ll adjust with relatively small amounts of panic. Because it’s really the only option we have. I find that oddly comforting.

(Also, an update for you: no, it still doesn’t feel real.)


This weekend, Matt and I are up at the family cabin celebrating the 4th of July. Last night, I went to my first fish fry and my dad became our pyrotechnician, putting on a massive fireworks display. The neighbors passed around a bottle of Arbor Mist that the college kids had brought along, and we all watched the sky as bomb after bomb glowed red and purple and gold on upturned faces.

Here at the cabin, we’re sleeping in and staying up late, and drinking way more beer and white wine than we should. It’s a different world up here, four hours north of Minneapolis. Days unfold themselves like long yawns, slowly stretching themselves into wakefulness, and 2:00 feels just as sleepy as 9:00. It’s all birdcalls and faraway motors, sun-dappled waves and green shorelines. There’s no work email to check, no lipstick to apply, and no obligation to do a single thing that doesn’t appeal to you. It’s cabin life.

Being up here is like living in a different world, so I wonder how can we be going somewhere even farther removed in just two short weeks. Because, yes, surprise!, we leave two weeks from tomorrow.

It occurred to both Matt and me while we were packing for the cabin that we packed a lot of the same items we’ll be packing for the trip: lightweight clothes that layer easily and don’t keep smells or wrinkles.

While we obviously brought fewer items to the cabin for a long weekend than we’ll bring for a four-month extravaganza, it’s actually not that much less. We both brought the same bags we’ll bring for our trip, but just put fewer items inside. See, for the trip (as for the cabin), we’re only bringing one carry-on each.


It may seem like a ridiculously small amount of luggage for four months, but here’s the thing: Matt and I desperately want to be mobile. Europe is full of winding stairs and broken elevators, and we don’t want to be hindered by what we’re carrying. Bringing extra stuff is a commitment. You’re saying that the items you’re bringing are valuable and necessary because why else would you commit to carrying them with you to each place you visit? Each time we think about adding something to our packs, we ask ourselves, “What function does this serve? Is something else already doing this, and is it doing it smaller/lighter/more elegantly?” There’s a reason we’re bringing iPad minis instead of laptops.

(Can you imagine if we were this efficient in our daily lives? I’m not saying I want to get rid of my shoe collection, but I would absolutely be on time to work every single day if I only had two pairs to choose from.)

Let’s also admit that Matt and I are on a strict budget. He and I are not, I remind you, independently wealthy. We’ve been saving money for the past few years just so we can do this trip—and no checked luggage means no baggage fees on airlines. It also means we don’t have to stay near the train station because our bags are too heavy to lug to the far side of town. It means that we don’t have to spend money on cabs because I’ve been carrying my suitcase for two hours while our hotel room is being cleaned and ohmygodmyarmisgoingtobreak. Lighter travel = cheaper travel.

And while this is anecdotal support, I think it’s worth mentioning: I’ve never heard a single person say they wish they had packed MORE stuff for a trip. Usually it’s, “I brought three skirts I never wore” or “I thought I was going to need high heels/a fedora/scuba gear, but, um, I didn’t.”

It seems to me that, if we’ve done this right, our trip will be like cabin life—beautiful, unhurried, uncomplicated. Our days will begin when they begin and end when they end, and we’ll wander from town to town with upturned faces and starlight in our hair. And we’ll do it faster and easier if we’re not dragging heavy suitcases behind us.

Cabin Living as a Packing Philosophy


A Pluto State of Mind

Remember when you were a kid and you were taught that Pluto was a planet? There were nine planets, according to your fifth-grade teacher, and Pluto was the adorable one on the end. Your teacher even taught you a festive mnemonic device so you’d never forget the planets and which order they were in: My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas. Pizzas, you were told, stood for Pluto.

But Pluto got demoted sometime after you graduated from high school, and now you know what My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us? Nothing. Pluto is no longer a planet, and Neptune, I’m pretty sure, stands for Neglect.

In the years since Pluto’s demise, my brain has come to know that Pluto isn’t technically a planet anymore (it’s a dwarf planet, which sounds cool but is actually far less cool than being a regular planet). My heart, however, hasn’t accepted it yet. Frankly, I don’t think I’ll be able to truly embrace the concept until Neil deGrasse Tyson shows up at my condo and explains it to me in person. I will insist we hold hands while he goes over the visual aids (to help me through this difficult time), and then we will have a dance party in fallen Pluto’s honor. But until that happens, I’ll know the facts—but I won’t really know the facts.

In the exact same way that I “know” Pluto is no longer a planet, I “know” that Matt and I are leaving for our four-month travel extravaganza in less than five weeks. It makes tons of sense in my head, but my heart just isn’t convinced that it’s true.

My brain knows that we will go dogsledding on a glacier this summer, towed by a prancing pack of Icelandic huskies, but my brain is certain we’ll just lead my geriatric dog around the neighborhood and scoop her poop out of mulch beds. My head is very busy booking accommodations in Berlin and researching public transportation options, filling out spreadsheets and creating daily budgets, but my heart keeps wondering when the next season of Game of Thrones will start and whether or not Matt and I should host a watch party. (Should we serve Dothraki blood pies?)

Part of what is so surreal to me is the knowledge that, while we’re leaving in July, we won’t be back until a week before Thanksgiving. We will leave on some humid, 90-degree day and ride the light rail to the airport in tiny shorts (Matt) and sweaty t-shirts (me), and we’ll return in the middle of November, shivering despite our sensible travel layers and wishing desperately we had brought parkas with us to the French Riviera. It’s a tangible reminder that the world will, quite literally, keep turning while we’re gone and that the world we leave will not be the world we return to. Is that why this doesn’t feel real yet? (More importantly, is this what time travel is like?)

For the record, purchasing Eurail tickets and international airline tickets didn’t make the trip feel any more real. Neither did filling out LOA paperwork with my HR partner at work, blowing a ridiculous amount of cash on wrinkle- and smell-resistant clothing, or telling our wedding caterer not to send us our one-year anniversary cake this September because “we’ll be in Vienna.” Frankly, the only thing that makes me come close to feeling like we’re going is that we’ll have to say goodbye to our dog.

Obviously, we can’t bring her with us, but the fact of the matter is that she’s an old girl—she’s going to live with my folks while we’re gone, but she might not still be around when we get back. Yes, she’s doing really well for her age, but she’s a 15-year-old Doberman—so there’s no way to know whether this will be truly goodbye or simply see you at Thanksgiving. It  could be either, truly, and there’s no unknowing that fact in either brain or heart. I know it, and I know it, and in that way, I’m glad I don’t really feel like we’re leaving. We’re buddies, and I rather like feeling as though she, Matt, and I have infinite time together.

But, regardless of how I feel, or what I know, or what I don’t know, we’re going. It’s a fact. Whether or not it feels real to me, my husband and I will be sitting on a plane bound for Reykjavik in five short weeks, eating cheese in Paris in seven, and going everywhere else right after that. My guess is that it’ll start to feel real somewhere around the security screen at MSP Airport and that somewhere around my third glass of overpriced, airport-terminal wine, my brain and heart will reconcile, and I’ll both know and know.

I could be wrong, of course. Maybe it will only feel real when we’re trying to speak Croatian or trying to figure out the exchange rate from dollars to zlotys in Krakow. Or maybe only when we get back, or maybe not even then. Maybe we’ll come home and the whole thing will still feel like a good dream that happened to someone else. Maybe we’ll grow old and floppy like our dog and still never believe it was real.

But “the good thing about [it] is,” says my buddy Neil —though the “it” for him is science and not travel plans, but we’re about to come full-circle so shut your face—, “it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

Then again, he also said, “Next time you’re stunned by large Moon on horizon, bend over and view it between your legs. The effect goes away entirely.”

So, you know, we’ll see.


Follow the esteemed Mr. Tyson on Twitter: @neiltyson


Photo by C m handler (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons