Monday, April 18, 2011

Places I've Been: Keukenhof

To celebrate tulip season, and, perhaps, to lament that my small plot of tulips isn't nearly this impressive, I thought I'd share photos from our trip to Holland during tulip season in 2007. Now, I'm not a flower person, but the Keukenhof Gardens really opened my eyes to such spectacular beauty. The garden staggers the types of bulbs to ensure that something is blooming voraciously for all of the 6-8 weeks they are open. We hit it perfectly the year we went; the week we were there was just about the peak of the season. This is also where I fell in love with the color orange. I have never seen such extraordinary orange as I did in the tulips there.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

I miss Russia!

Somehow I feel disloyal or unfaithful to my upcoming trip to China, but this week I realized that I really, really miss Russia. Or rather, I miss all the planning for and anticipation of and actual experience in Russia that made up almost all of 2010 for me. And right now, I just don't have that same passion for China. Yes, I absolutely want to go and am very much anticipating the trip. What is missing is that fire, that passion, that burning desire to go and consume.

I think a lot of it has to do with how long I had thought about and been interested in all things Russian. It did go back to my childhood and was something I'd always kept in touch with. China has been on my "bucket list" but not in the way Russia was. I wonder if anything I see in China will take my breath away like the rainbow painted onion domes of St. Basil's or the pinch-me moments in the Hermitage or Pushkin or Tretyakov. Will I eat as well as I did in Russia? Hmmmm....

So I guess it won't surprise you that I've already identified a potential trip to Russia for next year. It combines more of the territory outside the big cities with more within the big cities that I didn't see the first time around. It's with the same company I booked with last year, only not independent, but rather a small group.

Oh the conundrums I have!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Spending habits

Yesterday was the first warm-enough day we've had around Boston to wear a t-shirt. I found my Hard Rock Cafe Moscow T and proudly wore it for the day. I also have a nicer Moscow HRC shirt that I'll pull out when the weather gets nicer. For me, it's a nice reminder of the trip and a collection that continues to grow. Wherever I go, there's usually a Hard Rock there, and each has a "city T" design that is customized to the city, usually with some tip of the hat to a local culture or icons. I even started buying the shirts for my Dad, who now looks equally styling when he heads out to physical therapy or the rehab gym.

Other things I tend to pick up on every trip are a city mug or thermal cup from Starbucks. Sad as it is, Starbucks has become ubiquitous and since it's such a common part of my life at home, it tends to be some place I'll seek out when I'm away, if only to find the city mug or thermal cup. This morning as I ground my way to the train on a dreary Monday morning, it was sort of fun to sip my first coffee of the day out of my Moscow travel mug.

I also have a enormous collection of magnets. I like unusual magnets that show something of what I've seen while I'm away but aren't cheesy kitsch, if that makes sense. I rotate the collection, since now it's too big to have it all on my fridge at once. I think my favorite ones are the little ceramic white house from Capri, and the bike shop and waffle house from Amsterdam.

But here's the thing...don't go buying me all of these things if you travel some place cool. To me it only counts that I bought it there, and all of this serves as a reminder of my travels in little flashes of memory.

Now aside from those three oddities (you have to admit, those are strange things to seek out!), I do love jewelry and will look for something distinct for myself and maybe my Mom and sister. The amber in Russia was just gorgeous (and cheap!). I got a Majorca pearl ring in Seville. A Swarovski crystal pendant in Holland (not native to Holland, I know but a neat sister experience where my sister got the other piece as part of a set). A garnet ring and pendant in Prague. A gold filigree ring and bracelets in Florence. Murano glass pendants in Venice. You get the point...I like my jewelry!

I also keep an eye out for things that the region is known for. I have Prague crystal, Waterford crystal, Belleek porcelain, Delft porcelain, matryoshka dolls, faux Faberge eggs, Limoges boxes...the list goes on. And in the handy to have category, I love my Irish knit sweaters and the Irish woolen throw on the back of my sofa.

Most useful for memories though are the watercolors that I buy from street artists. They seem to be every where that tourists are and they paint everything that makes the location what it is. Usually I will bargain a 2 for 1 purchase, picking two that I like and deciding when I get home which I'll want framed (which always seems to cost about 10 times what I paid for the print!) I have a bunch of these framed now, as well as a couple oil paintings that I bought in Venice and Paris, that I rotate on my walls at home. It is always interesting to see how local artists paint their own hometowns.

While I don't shop my holidays away, I do try to keep an eye out for things distinctly local and that will make me smile when I see them (or wear them, or use them) back home.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Places I've Been: Monet's Gardens at Giverny

For a fan of artist Claude Monet, a trip to Giverny is almost compulsory. Yet it wasn't until my later trips to Paris that I made it there. Coupled with a trip to his own museum, Musee Marmottan, the gardens at Giverny put you smack dab in the middle of his world, seeing the gardens and space that inspired him so. Some of my favorite photos are below.

Perhaps this view inspired this?

This looks a bit like this

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Asked and Answered

One blog I read is NomadicMatt's and this month he is asking people to answer some pretty basic questions about why they travel. I figured I'd answer them here, so that my readers, rather than his, can learn a little more about what drives me...

•Why did you start traveling?
In 1993, I went to Dublin to see U2 play two shows there. I went with a friend from college, met two U2 "penpals" (this was before the internet, we wrote each other with pen, paper, envelopes and stamps for 6 months before the show) and then I met an really nice Irish guy who kept tempting me back across the pond for some ten years after that.... So I blame U2 for this!

•What’s your greatest travel moment/memory?
This is the most difficult question I've ever answered! If I had to pick just one? It's probably either watching my Mom turn on all the water faucets for the homeless dogs in Pompeii; they ended up following her all over Pompeii! Or finally seeing Vermeer's The Girl With the Pearl Earring in the Rijksmuseum in The Hague with my sister; she completely snuck up on and surprised us!

•What’s the worst thing that happened to you while traveling?
My grandmother died while my Mom and I were in Florence. We got the call early morning, and by then it was already too late to leave that day, which is just a horrible, helpless feeling knowing that the people at home needed us. We had to spend another day in Florence scrambling to get tickets home. Once we had the tickets sorted, we went up to San Miniato to hear the monks sing vespers. We walked up there in pouring rain, but as we came out of the dark church after, the sun had broken through the grey sky. It was as if Gram was there with us.

•If you could tell a new traveler only one thing, what would it be?
Forget everything you know about home. Forget face cloths, ice cubes and that everyone here speaks English. Where you're going may not have any or all of those things. But that's why you're doing this. Keep your eyes and mind open and adapt.

•What’s the one travel thing you can’t live without?
I love my new carry-on, after years of having one I hated because it was so inconveniently designed, this one finally works for me. Second would be my new iPod.

•What’s your biggest travel regret?
I was in Ireland and Scotland the week Princess Diana died. I was scheduled to fly home out of London the day before her funeral and really contemplated staying to see the funeral. I allowed myself to be talked out of it, and once I got home and saw the procession on tv, I really, really wish I had stayed.

Have a travel question for me? Post it here and I'll answer. Maybe! ;-)

Monday, April 4, 2011

Learning Mandarin

I have always been a believer that travelers should know at least the very basics of any language of the country they travel to. It is common courtesy, and even if I can't get beyond "I'm sorry, I don't speak Mandarin very well" at least I have tried and don't just scream English louder and louder at the locals hoping that volume will get my point across. Even though I'll be with a small tour group, I think at the very least, I should get the basics down. I'll feel a more responsible traveler at the very least.

So for the lack of better things to do while I wait 5 months for my trip, I downloaded the first set of podcasts on iTunes to try to learn some Mandarin. Radio Lingua Network is usually my go-to source for their language podcasts. I think I've been through One Minute Russian, Coffee Break French, My Daily Phrase Italian and Coffee Break Spanish. These podcasts are good to at least get my feet wait and get the basics down.

In the case of Mandarin, though, "basics" is really, really basic. And scary difficult. This morning I went through the first three lessons of One Minute Mandarin. Man, this language is not easy to pick up. There are sounds and intonations that are not easy for a native English speaker to pick up. Apparently there are no subjects or verb tenses, and a lot depends on tone of voice, which is sort of interesting.

This morning, I attempted to conquer hello, goodbye, please, thank you and "I speak a little Mandarin". But ask me to say any of that now, and I'll probably botch it all up. I've got 5 months to perfect it.

Friday, April 1, 2011

My First Dream About China

After a particularly brutal workout with my trainer last night, I passed out cold on the sofa until about 2:30 a.m. I moved to my bed at the request of the cat, and got 3 hours of sleep there before said cat woke me for his breakfast. I had a half hour to sleep before the alarm went off, and during that time my subconcious went nuts about my trip. It was all about packing, which probably won't surprise you if you know me and my obsession with practice packing, pre-packing staging and the like.

Anyway, I had my new suitcase which Mom and Dad gave me for Christmas. I was aware that this was its inaugural journey and was unsure how much would fit. I insisted on packing my own bed pillow in the outside pocket (I never take a pillow with me) and then freaked out realizing that I was leaving for the airport and couldn't find all the Athleta clothes I bought 6 months ago and still hadn't dried my hair after a shower. So you tell me what's going on in my head! The general vibe of the dream was excited and anxious in a good way, until I realized I had to pack in 20 minutes!

I picked up Lost On Planet China: One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation and am glad this is my first reading on China. This is the type of travel writing I hope to write someday. It's a fine balance between humor and snark and his honest observation. The chapter on Mao is hilarious, but also eye-opening. The way he describes how he felt on landing in Beijing for the first time, bogged down with jetlag but eager to get out into a world covered with Chinese characters rather than the English alphabet, really hit home for me. Mildly confused, and even more so after navigating his hotel lobby and 12 intersections on his way to Tiananmen Square, he made me feel as if I am right with him. Laughing all the way.

His experience in the Square though, did enlighten me in that I may have made a minor mistake in not taking the time to visit Lenin's Tomb in Moscow, though. I didn't realize that there are only three Communist Dead Guys on display in the world, and with this trip I'd be able to see the second of them at Mao's mausoleum (a quick trip to Vietnam and I could see Ho Chi Minh). I mean, I collect experiences like this, like two of the three most extravagant collections of crown jewels (only Iran is left, don't tell Mom!), the Seven Wonders, the 35 Vermeers. How easy would the three Communist Dead Guys be? Sigh. Will just have to go back to Moscow, I suppose.