Twenty-two and Four Months: Going Home

A spider traveled the world to see where she should make her home. She left her heart in so many places, she created the world wide web.

If you thought that was corny, you should see the children’s books I’m trying to publish.

I made that video two years ago and had forgotten about it until last night. The individual clips were never intended to be anything- had they been, I would have held the camera steadier. I was just playing. That said, the sentiment matches tonight’s.

This is it. One day and three plane rides separate me from home. I’m the oldest of five children. I took these photos in August just before I left.

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I’ll have to come up with another group photo idea – thoughts welcome. The last time I came back from a trip abroad, I got them to do this. They were 3, 9, 11 and 13 at the time.

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California, August 2009

I went on this trip with no plans, no itinerary and very little knowledge about any of the places I’d be going. I had no agenda for the trip or this blog, no preconceived themes and not even the confidence I’d stay the whole four months (which, looking back, goes quickly). I left with just enough money in the bank, no job lined up upon return, and even so, the full support of so many of my family members and friends.

I arrived in Europe one day shy of my 22nd birthday. I remember talking to people that were at the ends of their trips, talking about how wise they felt, how different they felt, what they had learned and their nerves about going home. I remember thinking how far away that point – home – was for me, and how cliche the “This is how I’ve changed” comments seemed.

I’m twenty-two and four months old, and I think I’ve changed.

Here’s what I know.

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Cafe Zurich

I like that I don’t give a damn anymore what kind of milk is in my coffee. You’d never sit outside Cafe Zurich and order a “cafe con ‘skim’ leche.” I’m happy I’ve been pushed to be flexible. To deal with minor inconveniences, and not feel inconvenienced. To accidentally stay on a train too long, and roll with it. To say “pork Hungarian style? No idea what that means, but sure!”

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Bulgaria, September. I don’t have a webcam. This was a response to someone needing an explanation of when I said my hair was “getting big.” E-mail subject line: This is where I’m at.

I like that I’ve put on mascara six times in 122 days. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll buy a tube and it’ll get used when I get home. I’ll do it because I like that look, too, not because that is what makes me feel like a complete, acceptable female. I like that I’ve made friends everyday regardless of cheap backpacking t-shirts, no foundation and hair that air-dried.

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Today, Park Guell, Barcelona.

I like that the photo above wasn’t posed. I like that real life can look like that, and it’s just a matter of how you approach it. How you frame it. What you see when you really start looking at people.

I like that talking to strangers gives me more inspiration that the best Hallmark cards.

I like that I sat next to a man on a train yesterday for three hours without speaking, offered him gum, fought my way through fifteen minutes in Spanish and when I asked him to repeat something, he said it in perfect English. I like that we both laughed. I like that I said my school is known for basketball and he asked if I played, then said, “Well, maybe you will still be a playmaker.”

I like that the girl from Mexico I talked to in the cafeteria last night talked of her problems traveling, and said, “You know, sometimes I think things happen and it’s destiny telling you something.”

I like that I tell people where I’ve been, but at “no, not Asia, no, not South America,” I’ve been told I haven’t seen anything yet.

I like that the world is so big.

I like that I met a man in Istanbul, who a month later recognized me in Bucharest. Backpackers I met in Göreme, Turkey, who I ended up at a bar with in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, before we recognized each other. My Milan roommate again in Pisa, six days later. A college friend studying in London, in the Museum D’Orsay in Paris. Clinton and Sally on a train to Nice. Clinton and Sally again in Paris.

I like that the Brazilian cashier at dinner last night said he lived in California once. It’s a big state and I figured it would be one of those “You go to Massive State College X? You know my cousin?” moments. But no, he lived just two major streets over from my family.

I like that the world is so small.

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Göreme, Turkey

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Assen’s Fortress, Bulgaria

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Füssen, Germany

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Sintra, Portugal

I like that guardrails stopped being necessary. I’m not patting myself on the back like I climbed Everest. I like that I have faith that getting on hands and knees and holding onto tree roots is an okay route to something great, and that I’m capable of doing it without a clumsy moment. As one American said at the top of the castle in Sintra, “This would never pass code back home.”

Also, I like that I’m wearing the same shirt in two of the above photos. I like that I “need” less now.

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Lennon Wall, Prague

I like, though it scares me, how this trip has changed the way I think about writing and future. I’ve never been one to embrace being an “artist” or choosing any route toward publication. I have a degree in public relations and political science and intend to use it. Art – writing, for me – is such a scary concept. You put so much time and effort into something hoping someone will want it, but there are no guarantees until it’s done… And there are a million people just like you doing the same thing.

Some 150 posts, 5 children’s books drafted, 2 Freshly Pressed days and a few poems later, maybe I’m up for the challenge now.

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Göreme, Turkey

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Budapest, Hungary

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Salzburg, Austria

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Florence, Italy

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Nice, France

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Paris, France

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Lisbon, Portugal

I love that I learned the value of getting above the consumer junk, which is probably a literal and figurative life statement. Tourist shops and luxury stores are ugly.

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East Side Gallery, Berlin, Germany

I have been overwhelmed by the support from family, friends and strangers over the last four months. People ask me how I handle being alone so much – well, I spent a lot of time looking for more to share with everyone. I never felt alone, and on walks where I might have, I had good thoughts of home to distract me. I have always been impressed and in awe of the backpackers who go just to see for themselves – their own heads, their own satisfaction. No blogs, no personal websites. Of course, I did this trip for myself, but I needed to fill time with writing and photography. It kept me company, it kept you all close.

2,400 hits later, the post Freshly Pressed the other day has gotten just one negative comment, and this one comment has made me think a lot today. It certainly didn’t ruin my day, nor do I put much stock into his opinion, as the comment made fun of my first name along with its critique (and it wasn’t even witty). Also, accused me of “downloading” photos, as if I didn’t take them.

That said, the comment made me think and provided the perfect way to sum up my rather long thoughts.

It accuses me of being naive, dismissing responsibilities, hiding behind “freedom” and running from family and friends. At 22, it accuses me of already being behind in taking responsibility for myself.

I’m twenty-two and four months old, and this is what I know.

I am blessed to have the closest friends and family I could imagine, who have supported this trip from the start.

They’ve read every post, every e-mail, seen every photo, and barely questioned it when I brought the idea of this trip up as a thought in January.

At points, they have had more faith in me than I have.

They push me to see more. Write more. Observe better. Dream bigger.

I have parents who put up with the questioning their peers and friends had for them, questioning why they’d allow this to happen.

I have siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins who are a constant source of inspiration.

I had a summer romance to rival the best scripted ones in Hollywood, and yet, on this once-in-a-lifetime trip, dare I countdown the days to a reunion, I get harshly admonished.

And after all this, if I told them I wanted to go this route again, I’d have their support.

So NYTimes, MSNBC, CNN, National Geographic, Time, USA Today, Jon Stewart, Ellen DeGeneres, PR travel agencies throughout the world, send me where you need me. All I need are new shoes and a new pair of jeans.

And if mass pleas for employment don’t do the trick, I have family and friends who lead beautiful lives, and capturing their special moments, and being there to share them, is a far better use of my time than television.

“May God bless you and give you the wisdom to settle down someday.”

Someday, this travel blog, life blog, might be a road to wedding blog, and with all my heart, I hope I get to author the best darn Mommy blog out there. But those are goals, and those are dreams, and they will never happen because I’ve settled.

You know, I haven’t been to church a lot lately, and I tend to focus more on being a good person whether it makes me a good Christian or not. I believe a smile can change someone’s day and laugher is the best medicine, that volunteering at a hospital on a Sunday morning can be as gratifying for me as church is for another, but…

I’m twenty-two and four months old, and this is what I feel.

In 2011, I graduated from a great school with a dual major, magna cum laude, with experiences I’ll remember for a lifetime. I had the honor of co-chairing an event raising $174,000 for the American Cancer Society that, more than being a personal or professional dream, taught me that each day is a gift and life should never be taken for granted. I have a personal blog with 20,000 hits in four months, and I have no complaints.

I have friends I became closer with even as I flew 8,000 miles away from them. I have friends who have put up with terrible Skype connections, rambling stories and far too many e-mails.

I just spent four months in Europe, three months alone, and I never had one issue. Not a pick-pocketer, not an overwhelmingly frightening situation (rush hour man in Istanbul, you sucked but it wasn’t traumatizing), not a lost passport or ATM-eaten debit card, not a sprained ankle or open blister.

So you know, I think God and I are on pretty good terms.

I think He approves.

Thank you all for being here, and coming on this journey with me… We did it!!!

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What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.

-Jack Kerouac, On the Road

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Interlaken, Switzerland

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“People All Over The World (Join Hands)”

Nothing backpacking-wise today was so spectacular that it can’t wait for tomorrow’s post, which I can tell you already is going to be a long one. Instead, 27 hours after being Freshly Pressed, I’m stunned and ecstatic that Round Two is kicking Round One’s tail. 3,600 hits, the post has been read over 2,100 times, and… Hey 50 new subscribed friends! The backpacking trip is just about over. I hope people go back and catch up on some of the fun.

More important than any of the statistics, however, are the comments. What has been written, both on the Freshly Pressed post and so many others in the past day, has been kind, flattering, surprising and exciting. Someone mentioned how much fun is to be had in my “line of work.”

Here’s hoping I can make this my job in 2012.

Today seems like a good day to celebrate the beauty of life and people, so below is the complete collection of photos of love, wonder, solitude and togetherness I’ve gotten to witness over the last four months. It may look like a lot, but nothing new- it all was somewhere in past posts before.

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Göreme, Turkey

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Göreme, Turkey

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Göreme, Turkey

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Belgrade, Serbia

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Belgrade, Serbia

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Bucharest, Romania

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Brasov, Romania

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Bran, Romania

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Budapest, Hungary

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Vienna, Austria

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Vienna, Austria

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Vienna, Austria

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Vienna, Austria

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Prague, Czech Republic

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Prague, Czech Republic

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Berlin, Germany

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Berlin, Germany

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Amsterdam, Netherlands

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Mondsee, Austria

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Strasbourg, France

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Venice, Italy

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Pisa, Italy

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Paris, France

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Paris, France

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Paris, France

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Paris, France

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Lisbon, Portugal

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Lisbon, Portugal

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Lisbon, Portugal

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Lisbon, Portugal

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Madrid, Spain

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Seville, Spain

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Cordoba, Spain

I took my 58th and last train ride of the trip today. I’m checked into my 43rd hostel/hotel/bedroom. One more day, and I fly home on Thursday.

Uno mas.

With a heart full of that word on my shirt, goodnight friends.

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Twice in a Lifetime, from Cordoba, Spain.

At five o’clock today, the post was going to be called “Greetings from Cordoba, where not much is happening.”

Things changed. Tonight’s post might be long, but broken into two parts told in reverse order.

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First day off the Semester at Sea ship in June 2009, in Cadiz, Spain. It was my first time in a foreign country, excluding one night in Canada. Cameron and I ended up in a toy store.

Tonight
With dreams of being a writer, a friend told me to write something everyday. Something. Blog. Journal. Write a cliché poem if need be – put words on paper or screen.

On September 30, I checked my e-mail and had forty. Comment after “like” after comment on a post titled “A Look at Budapest.” One e-mail congratulated me on being “Freshly Pressed,” a concept of which I was not familiar with and immediately assumed had something to do with being a Syracuse University “Orange” Class of 2011 graduate. Freshly squeezed? Freshly juiced?

I went from 7 WordPress followers to 53 and 2,500 hits ever to 4,500 on what was a once-in-a-dorky-little-blogger’s-lifetime day. I had a good laugh that WordPress chose, of all posts, the one that captured me eating Chinese food in Hungary, which more than one commenter rolled their eyes at and left me saying “No, no, no! Look at the other posts- I’m six weeks in, sometimes you just need what you know!”

I figured it would never happen again. Not only are the 10-per-day in 500,000 odds against me, but I assumed WordPress had some policy much like how you can’t be Line Leader in your kindergarten class again until everyone has their turn.

Along with the excitement, I panicked when it happened. I wrote my friend who’d told me to write everyday, stressing out. “It’s the best thing ever! Except, what do I write about now? Certainly not my opinion, I’ll make people mad… And I can’t tell facts. I can’t tell history – what if I’m wrong? People will fact check me!”

I was told, “Believe in yourself. Only good will come of this.”

I relaxed. That said, the blog immediately went through a design revamp and I tried to imagine the possibility that it could happen again. First and foremost, more interesting titles – I like traveling and I wouldn’t have clicked on “A Look at Budapest.” So dry, so boring sounding… and I wrote the thing!

And then, two and a half days from the end of my backpacking trip, it happened tonight, again. “I Did It (And So Can You!) Thoughts From Lisbon.” I logged onto my e-mail at the very start of the rush. There were four e-mails, all about a post from three days ago. One congratulated me on being Freshly Pressed, and I thought that’s sweet, but are you really catching up on FP posts from September?

Oh, wait… Oh… My.

Twice in a lifetime. Twice in two months and thirteen days.

With two days of backpacking to go, I’ve been wondering what this blog will look like in the new year. How do I keep people interested? What do I talk about? I’m 22 and job searching. What do you want to know?

Another friend had it. “Just tell a good story, Janae, and the people will come.”

Thanks for being here, everyone. Stories from Southern California and Upstate New York to come, unless someone wants to send me to South America…

I’ll even cut coffee from the budget.

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This window made me giggle in 2009. Yesterday, what made me giggle was a department store floor labeled as “Shoes, Lingerie and Travel Agency.” Just your basic backpacking necessities, right there.

Today
When I arrived in Seville yesterday, flashbacks to my Semester at Sea trip reminded me of when I’d been there before, but I was suddenly aware I hadn’t seen Seville the last time. I had forgotten that my June 2009 stint was a half-day trip. We saw the sights – most importantly Plaza de España and the Seville Cathedral – but those are merely the highlights at the front door of a larger city that earns its own bold dot on the map. I distinctly remember being given forty-five minutes of free time. I watched a bunch of girls go into Starbucks, decided it was too expensive, got an ice cream cone, and with ten of the forty-five minutes left, safely sat myself on the bus so as to not be left behind.

Running out of Europe time, this trip wasn’t going to be much longer, but I was determined to see. I woke up early and walked through the town and back to the Plaza de España. I took the same photos as last time, framed the same way, in worse weather. I walked, I wandered, I saw.

Back at the hostel, I was told to catch bus C4 to a street that started with an M and from there, it would be a five minute walk to the train station.

At the bus stop, minor crisis. In keeping with the other nights theme, one of the “we” all on this journey dropped a 5 euro bill in Seville. I won’t name names (I think it was Jacob). Digging through pockets, the only small change I had left was 1.30€. I hoped it covered the bus fare, because pulling out my last 20 was going to tick off the bus driver.

¿Cuanto cuesta?

“Un euro treinta.”

Ah, life, you’re going to be good to me today. Not sure I’d be able to pick out the street that starts with M, I asked the driver to let me know where to be dropped for the train station. He gave me directions too quickly, but I got enough to know get off at the next stop.

I was back at the Plaza España. Huh?

A quick conversation with another bus driver got me to realize part of the quickly told directions was to get on bus C2, which stops directly at the station. Great, if I had another 1.30€. I started walking.

And then, because you can’t always be a hero, I got a cab for myself for the second time this entire trip. The first time only happened because rush-hour-crowded-Istanbul-metro-guy was getting too handsy.

I arrived in Cordoba an hour later. It’s fitting I am in Seville and Cordoba last. When I did Semester at Sea during the summer of 2009, Cadiz, Spain, was our first port and Seville and Cordoba my first organized trip from the ship. They were the first “different” places I’d been in my life. It was my first time outside of the United States.

I left Spain thinking I could move here, based on these three cities. I loved the food, the language, the culture and the buildings.

All still true feelings – but after forty cities this trip, am I packing my bags and moving to Cordoba? Hardly.

Nothing against it. It’s just fine. It’s just… Fine. I’m not infatuated like I was with Prague or looking up grad school options like I was in Berlin. It’s funny how things change.

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Cordoba, June 2009. I thought these were awesome and spent a bit of time acting them all out to the embarrassment of the friends I’d had for ten days. That part hasn’t changed in two-and-a-half years. The hair color has.

I found everywhere I’d been before. I really didn’t take all that many pictures during the daylight. I’d visited the Mosque (and loved it) but knew I was in a sleepy apathetic mood and didn’t want to drop the money just to say I did it. Sometimes you’re feeling a World Heritage Site, sometimes you just want a cerveza and Snicker’s.

I had none of the above. I’m just stating a fact.

I ended up at a coffee shop, content to do some reading and writing while I waited for the sun to go down and holiday lights to light up. We all know what happens next. I drank multiple coffees and refreshed my e-mail for a long time.

And then I dragged myself off Wifi to go see so I had more to share. Just a few holiday photos – Cordoba certainly earns “Honorable Mention” in the holiday lights competition, which I’ll rank 1) Barcelona, 2) Seville and 3) Madrid. I may have just not known where to go tonight. Besides being a bit distracted, I got lost and got to ask the man at the mini-mart tonight the very smart sounding question of “¿Donde estamos?”

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Finally, this never was supposed to be a theme, but I kept finding it and I’ll post the full collection soon. Today, all I had to do was open my hostel’s door. It makes the game I play to pass time almost too easy, but you’ll never find me complaining there’s too much love.

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Thanks, everyone. Sweet dreams and dream them big. That’s what I like to think all the hostel dorm snorers are doing.

Three more nights in hostels.

I Don’t Have An Inspired and Alliterative Title For This One (aka It’s 1:30a.m. In Sevilla)

With four travel days to go, had I been smart, I would have been on the 8a.m. train from Madrid, or at the very latest, the 9a.m. That said, I got to the train station at 10:15a.m. for the 11:00 train. I’d spent the night up in my room hanging out with a group of Portuguese 17-yr-olds. They thought I was old.

At the train station at 10:15, I found out I wouldn’t be getting a seat until the 2:00 train, meaning I’d be hovering in Madrid another few hours then on the train during peak sightseeing hours of 2:00-4:30.

Blergh. I went to go store my luggage and saw on the sign there were small, medium, large and extra large lockers. Braced myself to pay for an expensive large one, but… Hey wait… All my stuff fit in the small! Yay backpacking!

Back in Madrid, each landmark is closer to all the other landmarks than it seemed in August. I went running around town, starting at the park.

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After the park and other sightseeing, still with time to kill, I ended up in an H&M, so very tempted to buy three shirts for the next three days. I’m ready to never wear any of these backpacking duds again.

I didn’t buy the shirts… But I bought socks! Little known fact, it was very, very cold in Berlin when Erin and I were there, and I had to buy black knee highs because that was the best warm option in the discount store. Then, my jeans shrunk and I had to stick with the less obvious black socks anytime I wore that one pair…

All the black knee highs went in the trash today. Never again.

It’s the perfect time to be going home. I’ve loved every minute of this trip and I’m pretty sad it’s ending/nervous for real life… But new clothes and overall normalcy will be great. It’s not all roses and sunshine. Sometimes it’s rain and it pours – correction, it’s pores. I have the acne of 14-year-old me and I’ve got to get a grip on how to get rid of it fast.

Forget that image. Prettier people.

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I finally got on the train and gleefully watched Toy Story 3, in English. Also, watched Spain.

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I’m a big, big believer in fate.

About a half hour from Seville, the woman across the aisle saw me drawing the latest line on the map and asked about my trip. I told her about it and she said she is planning a trip by trains with her husband – she hates to fly. We go through the facts that I’m 22 and alone… The usual.

She was amazing.

I have no idea how old she was – mid-thirties? Late twenties? She could comment on here and say early 40s. I have no idea. But she was the nicest, bubbliest woman, full of advice, stories and happiness. She was on her way home from a ten-day trip and had family coming over tonight.

She recently had back surgery and pointed out that her neck is fully supported and reinforced by titanium. Young, bubbly and everything that she is, she needed a wheelchair to get from the train to the taxi, and it never seemed to make her frown. She insisted I take the taxi with her as far as her neighborhood – shaving fifteen minutes off my twenty-five minute walk. Along the way, she pointed out her office, her aerobics place, and we swapped stories. She has a PhD in English literature.

She said, “Someday, you’re going to have two kids and work all the time, but you’re always going to have this to look back at, and be so glad you did it while you could. These are the times you never forget for the rest of your life.”

She was wonderful. My time with her was everything I’ve wanted this trip to be all about.

I’m only in Seville one night, then Cordoba tomorrow. No Grenada – that was an overzealous thought the other night.

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Tonight, I went out Christmas light searching in the crowds, got a 10:00p.m. dinner of various tapas, and then retook the exact same photos… without the crowds! The only way I know how to take pictures at night of lights is to lower the exposure settings, and I realize it makes all the cities look like, but for Christmas lights, you’d need a flashlight to walk around… Not the case. It’s just all I know how to do.

Three more days.

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Frigid Madrid

I love when people write me saying they’ve enjoyed taking the journey, too, and are sad to see it end. With that in mind, here is what we all did today.

We were really sad to leave Lisbon last night. House Grandma fed us soup and cake and gave us a big hug. We’ve loved House Grandma ever since the “Who got better English training debate” between her and house guy.

Portuguese House Grandma: “I know American English.”

Portuguese House Guy with British Accent: “I was taught proper English.”

Grandma: “You sound like the QUEEN!”

Guy: “Well… you sound AWFUL.”

We were excited to get on the night train to Madrid, and even more excited because our ticket said window seat, which is nice because we can’t afford the sleeper compartments and window seats let us lean on our snow coats and sleep well.

Except an old man is in our seat. Ugh, we don’t want to fight with the old man. Aisle seat it is.

There is a man, woman and two-year-old child in our coach. The little girls name is Sarah – “Saw-rah.” Sarah, like any child stuck on an overnight train, is miserable and wailing. “Aguaaaaa! Aguaaaaa!”

Everyone is a little annoyed, but what are you going to do, families need to go places too, of course. Except we all hate her mother, who – if Sarah is talking “this” loud – mom is responding harshly “THIS” loud. It would be silent in the compartment but for Sarah’s little whimpers and Mom would loudly and out-of-the-blue snap. Heads would jerk from their almost-slumbers, everyone was annoyed… Mom was terrible.

“Aguuaaaa. Aguuaaaaaa.”

“QUE QUIERES, SARAH. QUE QUIERES.”

Oh my… I think she wants AGUUUAAAAA.

Mom and Dad got in a fight in the middle of the night, too. Dad’s elbow slammed into my (our) chair, just missing my (our) head as he stormed out the door while we were at a stop.

Misery.

Anyway, we’re in our aisle seat and we’re sore. Something has taken a toll on us, maybe all the walking and climbing, or just that we’ve been sitting in a chair for six hours, and it is now impossible to get comfortable.

We don’t look at a clock to see what time it is. Our ticket says we arrive at 9:03a.m. We’ll get there.

Sun rises, Sarah is awake, mom is harshly loudly annoying again… We’ll get there. We’ll get there.

We’ve got to be close.

Right?

When we pulled into the station, a look at the clock informs us it’s 11:39a.m.

We get to our hostel by 1 after a very musical metro trip. Upon arrival at the first metro stop, doors open and a girl is singing “Fly Me To The Moon” – our favorite! On the next ride, a man has an accordion. He hops off and another woman with a microphone and karaoke machine hops on. She’s singing something serious. Something Spanish. Something sensual.

It was probably about Christmas. What do we know.

The hostel is alright. It’s in a decent location, but it’s not one of the homey hostels full of love and cookies. It’s the generic “Here is your key, lock your valuables, and your room is the one with seven bunk beds, we’ve given you the most basic of sheets and blanket.”

It’s fine. We’re here one night.

We try to sleep, but we need both sleep and food, and without both the headache is going to persist, so we give up on the nap and wander into town.

It is cold in Madrid today. You could see your breath. We realized quickly that we’d have to turn around for more clothes before being able to be out after dark… But first, we found our friend.

August with Dad

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December with Strangers

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Five more days of this life.

Back at our hostel, we shower (okay, so this just got WEird), and upon arriving back at our dorm room, the door is wide open. Odd, but whatever, nice girls are standing right inside. We walk in and leave it open. As we’re kneeling over to open our safety deposit box, making a slight bit of noise, but whatever it’s not even 6:00p.m., harsh words come from across the room, in Spanish. We look up with our face that says “Hablamos español, pero no bueno.”

A late-twenties early-thirties man laying in his bed gives us the death stare and snaps. Close the door.

Ugh. We don’t like you, Mr. Man.

Venture back out (code for “Get the heck out of that room and away from that guy). It’s still cold, and now it’s raining… Christmas lights in Madrid!

Not the best shots, but the combination of stay dry, hold massive umbrella in massive crowd, adjust exposure/lighting settings and not get pick pocketed was too much.

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And finally, on our way home, we all did something grossly Upstate New Yorker of us… We wanted hot chocolate from the Dunkin’ Donuts next to the hostel.

But to our surprise, this wasn’t your Syracuse Dunkin’ hot chocolate… In Europe, hot chocolate is thick as fudge.

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Off to bed, hopefully not getting yelled at by our roommate.

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I Did It (And So Can You!) Thoughts From Lisbon.

If you’re bored with me being in Lisbon, it ends tonight. When I was with Erin, I learned of a new concept I’d never heard of before – counting down the “sleeps.”

I have six more sleeps until I’m home, and I’m about to go backpacking gangbusters through Spain. Nevermind the fact I just spent seven days in Lisbon, starting tomorrow night, one night each, the mission is to find out who wins the “Best Christmas Lights in Spain” award. Madrid, Seville, Cordoba and Grenada – last stop Barcelona.

I’ve been to Seville, Cordoba and Madrid before – this really is just a find the best holiday display mission. Whether any other real sightseeing gets done is irrelevant and bonus at this point.

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Today, I asked for one of each. Today, I got a box.

A few friends have asked for backpacking details and logistics of the trip, wondering if I’d share and yes – yes, I will, please go backpack yourself and report back. The biggest questions I get are “How?” and “What made you decide to do it- weren’t you scared?”

The two most common reasons, and very real, important, reasons people don’t do it are financial and fear, two I don’t mind addressing in the broad, blog forum.

Financial

It’s all about balance and finding what works for you, what is worth it to you and at the end of the day, what makes you happy. People absolutely could do their trip in a very different style than me, but by any real law of averages, give-and-takes, I think my cost is pretty low-to-normal.

I don’t cook spaghetti at the hostel every night for pennies, but then again, I never did a pub crawl.

No to most museum fees, yes to most castles, yes to every public park.

No to most public transportation, yes to walking, yes to coffee.

I’ve had my share of very good, little European coffees, but I embrace being the American jerk with the vat-sized coffee you can only get at McDonald’s or Starbucks over here. I’ve done my share of both versions – I like being awake. My grande latte + 7km walk home from Belem today cost me 2.80€.

The bus ticket would have been 2.85€.

Yes to top-rated hostels, yes to “Hello winter, hello secondhand clothes shopping.”

No to souvenirs, but I didn’t panic when I had to drop a day’s budget on a new iPad charger.

You get it.

I keep thinking I need to go back to school, pursue a Master’s degree, be writing papers in a coffee shop… Learn more, learn more, learn more. In the process, potentially sink myself into $50,000-$150,000 in debt depending on the years and programs.

I’ve learned more in four months than in four years of college…

Including roundtrip airfare from Southern California to Barcelona, a 3-month consecutive Eurail pass (used approximately 60 times through 16 of the 22 countries it is valid in), room, food and sightseeing, the grand total of this trip will come in at $10,500, and I have the stories, photos and experiences to own for life.

Worth it? Yes. Do it again? Well, I’d rather take out loans for this than school…

Fear

“Have you seen Taken?” I’m not sure if I or my parents heard that line more.

Most people are good. Like home, some aren’t, and like home, you have to be careful. Most people are good. The buildings and houses in Lisbon can be old and tattered looking from the exterior, but you can bet there aren’t cavemen living in them. You hear holiday music, televisions blasting and language barrier or not, if you had to yell “Help!” you can bet someone would probably be wise enough to come check outside.

The backpacking part – the “foreign” part – does not have to be scary. It’s as fun as you make it and only as fun as you are open-minded.

That said, it’s a lot of focus, awareness and pressure to be alert at all times, and not just from pick -pocketers and travel related dangers. It’s the awareness that you, alone, are very, very far away from anyone that knows you, and accidents happen.

Tonight, I was walking home after dark down an empty little Lisbon side street. I’d passed a slow-walking older woman on the sidewalk with what I thought was plenty of space, but I heard her tsk and grumble, angry at me. A few minutes later, I stopped to take a picture. My camera lens froze up and the process took me longer than I expected. The older woman got ahead of me again.

Rather than briskly pass her again, I figured I’d just cross over to the other side.

Absentmindedly, I stepped directly in front of a car coming quickly downhill. Headlights blasting, horn blaring… Closest call of my life. One of those “had the car been ten feet closer” moments. I jumped back on the sidewalk with a “IMSORRYIMSORRYIMSORRY” and there were a lot of people around to have been disturbed by the commotion and were looking.

Yeah, it shook me up. It was an airhead moment, and I was spooked and embarrassed.

You’re not going to be perfect. You can’t possibly maintain focus at every single second. You’re going to get distracted, you’re going to want to cross the street to not disturb the little old lady… And the same exact simple slip-up, 100% accident could have landed you in traction (or worse) at home.

Except you’re not home, you’re on a dark little side street in Lisbon, Portugal.

Scary? Yes. Does it make me relieved I’m going home in five days? It did at the time. But would I do this all, alone, again? Of course.

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I took the bus to Belem and walked the route back. I took a different turn up to get home, about a kilometer earlier than the route I knew to see more. I got really lost. It was a good time.

I ended up at a park that looked like this…

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Next to a building that looked like this…

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With a display that looked like this.

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I found this building…

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And right next to it, Occupy Lisbon.

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Flashback to Krakow, Poland, if you remember: I’d left the hostel just as the rest of the guests were going on a pub crawl. I thought I was being lame but ended up with a group watching a guy perform in the main square. He turned out to be from Michigan and the entire group went to a local bar afterward. The next day, Charles took me to the best crepe place in Krakow, we chatted about travels and life and ended the day with the best ice cream cones in town.

Turns out we have the same birthday! Even cooler, he just made a music video. Here’s my friend I bounced down the streets of Krakow, Poland with, sharing a pair of iPod headphones listening to traditional Polish music… and then Eminem… with – one of many surprises of this trip.

All for today. From Spain, tomorrow…

They just happened to walk by as I took this.

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Being Lazy in Lisbon

I’m listening to two Australian girls try to plan the rest of their itinerary.

Traveling alone was the best move… Ever.

“We should go to Sevilla after Madrid.”
“But why are you being so persistent about Sevilla?”
“Because it’s written up as one of the best places in Spain.”
“I didn’t read that.”
“Shhh you’re talking too loud, it’s going to annoy everyone.”
“No one is sleeping!”

My few weeks with Andrea was great. We pulled out a map and looked at “where planes go from Ankara.” That’s how we got to Sofia. From Sofia, we pulled out the map one more time. One more place. Belgrade, Serbia? Sure!

I couldn’t fathom spending three months on the road with anyone. These girls are stressing me out. Their decision will take them all night – they have the Internet and multiple travel books out. One girl keeps going on about “backtracking and logical routes” while the other says “we wake up early one day, what does it matter.”

This just heard: “You need to give me an alternative, rather than just saying no.”

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Every time I pass this poster, it freaks me out. Her eyes follow you.

When I woke up this morning, I thought maybe I’d been overzealous in booking another night. With a night train (not that I booked it yet) to Madrid tomorrow, I had another two full days here, and as far as backpacking goes, I’ve pretty much conquered it. Now I’m just living here.

It’s fine. Today was chilly and foggy. I spent the day in the House of Cool and wrote a draft of a children’s book – #5 of the trip, 4th in a series. If anyone knows anything or anyone about or in publishing… Do tell.

It all rhymes.

More of my love for this hostel. The two main people you see working here are house grandma and house guy – they’re probably related, but definitely not husband and wife. House guy learned English with a British accent. “Proper” English. House grandma learned “American English” and she is darn proud of it. It’s fantastic to hear her brag about it.

He says splendid and brilliant. She says awesome.

The hostel has separate bins for plastic, paper/cardboard, glass and organic waste. Tonight she was fretting because she had a cracked metallic Christmas ornament. “I don’t know! It’s not plastic! It’s not organic! It’s not paper! I know… I’ll put it in a bowl as decoration!”

Today, I really did pretty much nothing (except write a book – my days don’t feel productive unless I walk seven miles). It’s only a mile and a half roundtrip to/from town. I did it twice today. That was enough.

I went back to the cafe to get my French toast Christmas treat. The old man behind the counter recognized me, but the sugary bread wasn’t on display. I pointed at the other ball of fried sugary dough. I had a 1 euro coin handy, so I said I’d take one. He said they were 50cents each, so I said okay, two!

“Okay, and I’ll give you one.”

Aw.

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Tonight I grabbed dinner in town. I might have been overcharged, I dunno… 7.50€ for salmon, salad and potatoes, as listed, but the beer wasn’t on the menu. 4€ for one draft beer? Of Super Bock? Come on.

With six days to go, I’m not really fighting anything. All is okay. The restaurant was pretty empty and they were watching Rush Hour on television. It was in English, with subtitles, and it was fun to hear “damn!” and read “Carumba!”

On my way in, the young man who had gotten my attention with the menu and gotten my “okay! I’ll eat here” had asked me where I was from. This is a pretty standard line, but I’m always honest.

The other night a sketchy guy wanted a picture with me and when I declined, he said “American?” I said nope. “Canadian.” Yep.

I hadn’t gotten to use that one this trip.

On my way out, the guy who stands outside the entire night getting people to come into the restaurant asked me how my meal was. I said it was fine, and he said, “So you’re from California.” I prepared for some cheesy line or awkward conversation, but then he continued. He asked me if I’m a student and what I studied. I said public relations and he said “Oh. Different.” Just as I was about to say “huh?”…

“I want to go to school for computer design. I had to stop my studies seven years ago for money problems and came here from India. I am Indian. But a man here told me he studied computer design in America and it only took one year. In America, I can work and study. I can’t do both at home. But on the Internet yesterday, I looked and it said the study in America would take two years. That’s why I asked you, I’m sorry.”

Don’t be sorry! It was a surprisingly pleasant, refreshing, real conversation that ended with each of us wishing the other good luck.

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There are a lot of sights, sounds, feelings and people I’ve seen I’ll never be able to adequately describe.

Last night on the phone, Ryan showed his English major professor self when he schooled me on the definition of irony. I said see, that’s why you studied English and I really know nothing about writing, except maybe how to do it decently.

Tonight at the kitchen table here, I was editing my children’s book on the iPad and House Guy came over. I knew he probably thought I was anti-socially Facebooking or something and I told him what I was doing. I had a handwritten draft next to me and he said it looked like poetry of some sort.

He said it was really neat, especially to try to reach children, and he could never write in rhyme – that takes him much too long and is far too hard, putting his thoughts together in a structure so restricted.

“But, you know something, now I think I’ll finish my book. I’m halfway done with it, but I haven’t looked at it in six years. Life has a way of getting away from you…

I always had trouble with one thing, though. I never, never think of myself as a writer.

No, I’m not a “writer.” I’m a reasonable thinker… that writes.”

Choose Your Own (Fairytale) Adventure II

Lisbon has me in a very happy place. With seven travel days to go, I’m having the best time yet because a) I’m finishing the trip at or under budget, b) I didn’t lose my three-month Eurail pass with two unredeemed months to go, c) I’ve had two head colds and no other illness this entire trip, d) I haven’t gotten pick pocketed, e) I haven’t broken the camera or any bones, and f) if any of that happens now, it’s not going to ruin the trip.

How happy? My Lisbon hostel is the best yet. Apple pancakes in the morning, they handed me a shot of Portuguese liquor on the way in the door tonight, they apologized for moving my clothes off my bed – “We wanted to change your sheets since you’ve stayed with us so long!” (Tonight is only night five). And house mom (grandma, really) just poured me a bowl of soup for dinner then rolls and pate of sardines. She watched me eat the second part to see if I liked it.

How happy? I got to Skype – with webcam! – college girlfriends last night I haven’t seen since May. The squeals were insanely preteen girly and I loved every minute. I saw mom for the first time since September. I got to Skype boy for the first time in two months, second in three.

After four months away, Skype eye contact is simply the best.

After I got off the computer with the girls last night, I was writing my blog and a girl at the hostel giggled.

“You smile alone. You’re funny.”

Very happy place.

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That picture was taken just after getting to Sintra, Portugal, a forty-minute train ride from Lisbon. I took an older couple’s photo and they offered to take mine. After some camera issues (lens error, my dad’s camera has hated me since I took it in underground caves in Turkey), she still wasn’t taking the picture and after a few seconds of confusion (with a complete language barrier), we all got a good laugh. She’d been hitting the power button instead. On, off, on, off.

Ah, Sintra. Remember when you were a kid and king/queen of the playground? Found a castle. Paid to enter. Loved every minute of castle playtime.

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While looking out the tower of the castle, I saw… Another castle. Way higher. Way cooler.

And the first thought was that the climb is going to kill me.

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The walk up was rough. Steep, cobblestones the whole way… I was beat, but the walk had fun surprises along the way to keep it worth it.

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Sometimes I wonder why I made climbing my theme. I’ve probably added years to my life heart-wise, but I’ve used up years of my knees. That said, I made it!

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At the very top were three men who asked me to take their photo. One was clearly a photographer and he handed me a very nice piece of equipment, telling me the camera was already focused and informing me exactly how he wanted the photo framed. I assured him I kinda knew what I was doing and I’d take multiple shots.

It didn’t stop him from asking between every shot for me to check the exposure, check the focus, check the framing. It was pretty humorous. I asked them what they were doing. With their translator, one guy was a writer and the other a photographer for a magazine. I said oh that’s so neat, I love writing and photography. I’m kinda trying to be both of you.

“Well, it’s difficult to be both of us.”

Whatever, man. Your writer is wearing Ray Bans and you’re carrying what I estimate to be $10,000 in equipment. You’re right, I can’t be you guys.

But watch me try.

They asked me what I write and if I have a following. I told about the blog and my 75 WordPress + Facebook followers – “I mean, it’s 120 hits a day, not 10,000, but not bad for a girl writing home. Plus, I write for 65 people I don’t know. I feel like I’m throwing a party for a bunch of people I don’t know – I hope they’re having fun.”

The writer – “Hah yeah. It’s like you’re serving appetizers.”

I don’t know why that line made me laugh so hard. One, I thought it was terribly lame. And two, I mean, I was hoping this blog was the kind of party at least with a buffet and open bar.

I hope you all are enjoying your mini quiche.

I climbed back down the hill, took the train back to the hostel, and ended up with a bowl of soup in the kitchen of my new home with the owners and some new friends. The common language of the night’s group was Spanish, and it was great fun.

On my way down the hill from the castle, my senses were already on high-alert because the only people around were three young guys following the same path behind me. I figured I’d be fine but I’d slipped my memory card in my pocket in case I might momentarily lose my purse.

The guys were fine, but these dogs barked and scared the junk out of me.

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Seven travel days to go.

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Happiness Will Do That To You In Lisbon

Happiness breeds happiness.

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I’m making sure to not waste these last few days. I know, comfortable as it would be, not to slip into cruise control and coast the rest of the trip. There is plenty to see and plenty to be done. My cousin told me to keep approaching everything as fresh as I did the first few weeks of the trip four months ago. I am, I will, if I’m letting my days start later, bed come sooner and city stays last longer.

I booked another two nights of sleep in Lisbon. I’ll make some moves on the ninth.

I finally went to the castle today! I left my hostel and went in the general direction, meaning I knew the castle was somewhere up the giant hill in the general left direction. Lisbon has a ton of narrow streets, multiple-story buildings and hills, and you can easily lose your sense of where the end goal is fast.

I found these spots on the way, and way out of the way.

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At one point, I reached a dead-end. It was a neighborhood street that suddenly stopped, overlooking a main road below. A woman walking her dog told me what I’m sure was “this is a dead end, you have to turn around!” with a smile. I smiled and waved, turned around, and six houses down, just as I passed a series of steps to my left I hadn’t seen, a man popped his head out the window and pointed, with a smile. I took the steps down… Back on the main road.

I earned whatever food I ate today. I think I only clocked in at the four mile range, but today was Lisbon climbing day. Up and down, and then up and down some more. I found my lookout point.

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Picture-taking cracks me up. A man asked me to take a picture of him, with his wife, and motioned behind toward the castle and the bridge. I took four shots, all properly framed, full of Lisbon loveliness, well-lit… I did my best. He then reached for my camera to trade.

Could this picture have anymore of me in it? Any less of Lisbon?

Just in case you all forgot what I looked like in the past day.

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That one was posted for my parents. And Grandma. Hi Grandma!

And down the hill I went to get up the hill to the castle. I even paid the entrance fee to something today.

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The route home from the castle was far shorter. I could see the way down from the starting point. I had to seek out a new coffee joint today, so instead of Brown’s I ended up at House of Cool.

The wifi password at Brown’s was “verynice” – appropriate for the place you get hit on by the barista.

The password at House of Cool is “happyday”… Appropriate.

I like the random things learned on this trip that have nothing to do with travel. Like brushing your teeth while chewing gum isn’t efficient, it’s confusing. More importantly, thank you Lisbon for twice showing me a tuna sandwich can simply be egg, tomato and tuna – no mayonnaise. I’d been conditioned to assume all tuna needed two tablespoons of Hellmanns or Best Food’s mixed in to be edible.

Saw this in a window and had to have it. The man called it “typical of Christmas.” It’s what happens when a churro and French toast have a food baby.

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I want to keep doing this. I think I will – in shorter, more manageable methods that serve as a side dish to real life. I’m thinking the South America chapter comes next.

Bathroom stall quotes always fascinate me. Why there? Why then? What happened on that person’s day?

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That’s all from Lisbon, today. Nine more days of exploring. I fly home on the fifteenth.

It’s not a rush, it’s not a countdown… But I am excited. I prefer to call it “counting toward” some things at home.

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Love & Life & Lisbon… & Lattes.

For no one particular reason, I’m going to remember today.

Ten days to go. I had my last day of work (and it was a half-day) exactly four months ago, on the fifth of August. A lot has happened since then. I think today was special because it had a bit of everything best about these four months. A summary of sorts.

Bethany became my 75th official follower today – hey friend! Bethany was one of the first people to tell me to keep writing, and she was the one who got me my weekly column at the Daily Orange in 2009. I wrote a column once that rhymed. It was a joke – not my day of the week to write – just the last day of the semester. I didn’t think they’d actually use it. They did.

The poem is over, thanks for sticking with it to the end. In loving memory of Bea Arthur… Thank you for being a friend.

Oh, to have a circulation of 10,000 again, and use it so wisely. The line below my picture every week was “Part-time Rockstar.”

Today, nervous I’d been overzealous about my capability to walk a half marathon on January 7, I hopped onto walkjogrun.net to check out some of the routes of the last couple days. Maybe I just walk a lot of kilometers. Maybe I don’t even hit 4 miles.

That day I found the all-you-can-eat buffet in Barcelona? Yeah, I was famished because I’d walked 3.5 miles on a cup of coffee to get there. 9 mile day. Yesterday’s trip through random run-down streets? 7 roundtrip. In poorly fitting jeans and $17 superglued shoes.

Logically, if you hopped on a treadmill and walked for three hours, you’d hit 8 miles, too, I guess.

…But who ever does that. Give me spandex and sneakers – I can’t wait for half marathon day.

Today, I skipped the castle and monastery again. I’ll get to them. I love walking the areas I don’t think tourists go. I left my hostel and started at the park.

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As I have so many times this trip, I stalked love and life, in B&W.

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I’m one of the oddest educated travelers who knows nothing about anywhere she goes. I’m terrible with history. When Erin told me we were going to the East Side Gallery, I thought we were going to a museum.

Oh, the Berlin Wall?

The hostel did not recommend this wall in the middle of Lisbon. It was not circled on my map when I arrived… I like to think tourists don’t find it.

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I ended up at a mall and found the equivalent of Portugal’s Wegman’s. I wandered aisles in awe for twenty minutes. In so many places over the past few months, one-stop shopping was non-existent. You get food at the food store, and across the street there was the pharmacy for shampoo, soap, etc. All great until the one thing you need is scissors because you really, really just want to cut your hair, and scissors are neither food nor soap.

With a bottle of water and bag of M&Ms, because I swear they’re better here, I waited in line for twenty minutes and watched an old woman – old, not feeble – stoically refuse to bag her own groceries. All I could think was “Please don’t let me grow up to be that woman. Please don’t let me grow up to be that woman.”

I stopped back at the hostel for a bit then ventured out again. Holidays in Lisbon.

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Lisbon continues to thrill me, in a spooky, confusing sense. So much of it looks so old, some simply falling apart… But it’s beautiful. I walked in a direction I hadn’t been before. Up and down narrow streets, up and down hills… The beauty about avoiding public transportation to get from Major Point A to Major Point B is having to go through all the little side streets.

There were so many points I might have turned around. I’d go one street further, one alley further… And there’d be another great spot.

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Finally, miles later, dinner. What I don’t spend on pub crawls, museums and public transportation, I allow myself on dinner sometimes. Money here is a weird thing – sometimes, what costs $7 at home cost 5€ here – the equivalent. Other times, such as with ice cream and coffee, what costs $3 at home cost 3€ here… And it’s a really expensive ice cream or coffee.

My bill tonight came to 14.50€. The main course 8€. I don’t care, 8€, $10.70, 14€, $19…

I’ve dropped $20 at TGIFriday’s many times and it’s never felt this good.

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I ate, I read and I moved on to my Lisbon coffee shop of three days.

And this happened.

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What’s funny about having a blog and Twitter account – when you don’t think you have a chance in hell with the cute guy behind the counter, it becomes great comedy for your quirky little audience. This summer’s Twitter hashtags included #LatteLove, #BaristaBoy and my favorite pair #WhoNeedsCaffeine #IdRatherYouWakeMeUp.

My favorite mid-June day was “Aw, seems #BaristaBoy is dating someone.” Based purely on overhearing him say “I prefer monogamy.” Responses poured in.

Matt – “Summer is young! Don’t lose faith!” and Lu – “Aw. I was really rooting for you and #BaristaBoy.”

I really wish I’d screen-captured all of those. When first dates actually do happen, Tweets get deleted in case boy is computer savvy.

Poor Eduardo. Not a chance.

What a day. What a day, what a day, what a happy day.

Nine more days of travel and then I’m home for the holidays.

With that… Wishing you all the happiest holidays yet. Mine certainly are, as the picture with Papai Noel below captures well, because this is what happens when I go to the mall in December.

I’d love to bottle this feeling.

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