A Year of Adventures and Doing Stuff

Rodin on traveling abroad.

December 31, and the week leading up to it, has always been of interest to me. The culmination of a calendar year causes me, and seemingly every other blogger, to reflect on the past year’s events, what happened, what didn’t, where’d they go, what did they cook/eat, who did they date. The arbitrary nature of time demarcators has led me to question the significance of today versus yesterday or any other day. As a society (and world) we mark today as the end of the year and tomorrow the day to join a gym, just as soon as the room stops spinning and we find our pants.

In stark opposition to the mindfulness movement, I have largely been focused on the parts bookending “now.” Where am I today versus a year ago? Where will I be a year from now? In my 29 years I can safely assert that I am not clairvoyant, nor a historian. I often struggle with remembering where I parked my car or what I just ate. I have a vague notion of where I will be tomorrow and maybe a week from now, but beyond that…

The basis for mindfulness is that you can’t change the past, nor predict the future, so why worry about either? If you have any friends who post those inspirational quotes or read any profiles on a dating site this year, I’m sure you’ve read some variation on that axiom, likely attributed to Buddha.

While I try to become more “now,” I did want to enumerate what happened in 2014, mostly so I have some reference point when I fry my brain from rapidly vacillating between gadgets and apps.

Travel

Oh, the places you’ll go…

Where didn’t I go this year? I have dreamed about going to Europe for many a New Year’s reflection day. This year finally was the year. After dating Leann for about two months, I shared that I wanted to spend my birthday somewhere other than Chicago. She asked where and I said Italy and Paris. She followed up with inquiring if I was going solo or with friends. Leann shared that if no one else would go, she would be interested.

“How committed are you? If you had to give a percentage…”

“75-80,” Leann answered.

A few weeks later I asked “Are you sure?” no less than five times. And after that our first trip was booked. My quest for a passport stamp would be realized. Oddly, I don’t think I’ve looked at those stamps since the adventure. Even more peculiar was that someone was willing to go overseas with me for a prolonged period of time.

Stops along the way: Rome, Florence, Venice, Paris, Fajardo, Old San Juan.

Each inspiring and beautiful in their own way. Florence was one of the most breathtaking places I have been, possibly due to the steeply sloped hills. Traveling was one of the main themes for my writing this year. While it certainly can be expensive, seeing other cities and cultures opens the mind. Plus, I don’t think many people want to read about my daily commute. Traveling is my escape to newness. Experiencing a city for the first time is magical. There is no feeling like my first time in Paris. Walking around Paris that premiere nuit. Wandering in the damp and chilly early evening. Emerging from the Metro and seeing I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid. Turning to Leann with mouth agape. Then walking some more. Wandering. Then, our feet hit the damp pavement a little faster. There it was. Illuminated in all its glory.

Le Tour Eiffel.

Le Tour

I have never experienced anything like that day. That’s the magic of travel.

I hope to return to some of these places in the future, but I’m not focusing on the future. MINDFULNESS!

Dating

More than traveling this year, there was a larger theme. Adventures with Leann. By some luck I happened to find someone who is eager to try new things, a patient listener (we all know my stories are seldom succinct) and someone who says yes. She gives unconditionally. She has unknowingly reminded me of the innocence of young love. Those times before becoming jaded or disenchanted with the dating “process.” There is little doubt that I am crazy. Somehow that doesn’t bother her. What started as a conversation about ice cream while sipping margaritas has developed into a year full of happy times getting to know her, her family and her friends. What adventures will we get into in 2015? Follow #lookatusdoingstuff to find out.

Foodstuffs

This was the year I became a professional chef. Thanks to Chicago Food Bloggers and Mealsharing.com, I hosted my first dinner party at a swanky rooftop in Chicago’s South Loop. This was also the year of bacon. Leann and I entered a cooking competition through The Takedowns. To supply us for the showdown, they gave us with bacon. Lots of it. Enough to clog all your arteries. And those of your friends.

Also thanks to Yelp and Chicago Food Bloggers, I got to eat some delectable dishes that inspired my cooking. I had the chance to meet restaurant owners and some other bloggers in the process.

Dancing

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2014 was also the year I became a professional dancer. No, not that kind. Thanks to Nicolle Wood, I got a bit closer to learning that devil dance known as balboa. The first few weeks were rough because I had basic knowledge of the basic step. Through her patience and generosity with her time, I was able to learn hangman, crabs, scoots and the routine in time for our performance outside Harold Washington Library. Hoping to take on lindyhop in 2015.

Working

Another year at the same place, but there were lots of shuffles. The company was acquired by another company and the office moved from the ‘burbs to downtown. That has necessitated several shifts in commuting and lifestyle. The company continues to grow and my team is growing exponentially. I have had the opportunity to recruit and hire some very talented people.

So now, it’s off to another party. Some close friends are gathering for homemade pizza and reflecting on the year that has been full of -ING verbs. Thanks for following this year and I hope to share more great adventures from around the world in 2015!

Become a Travel Expert in Two Weeks

Always find the view.

All it takes is one trip to be perceived as a travel expert.

Prior to this adventure my only international travel explorations were Canada and Mexico. I have been back in the states for five days. In that time I have been asked for advice on upcoming trips by friends and coworkers, including my VP. I suspect his budget may be a bit different from mine.

I am guilty of asking everyone and anyone I have ever met for their advice before I left. Beyond anything else, I hate waste. Wasted words, time, energy or money. I wanted to travel efficiently. And who better to ask than someone who has already been where I was going?

While catching up with some of my well-traveled coworkers this week, one asked me what I would have done differently. I wish I’d taken a formal tour of the Vatican and Colosseum. The manager promptly replied, “I told you so.” I will take this opportunity to repeat his advice. If you are going to the Vatican or the Colosseum, get a tour guide.

Be careful if/when you return. Some people will ask you about your trip. Others will hate you for having left the office, especially if they had to cover your work. This may be why Caesar was really killed. Brutus got jealous that Julius was gallivanting around like he ran the empire.

The Vatican is overwhelming. Wandering around aimlessly is fatiguing and frustrating. I ended up not enjoying the Vatican Museum as much as I hoped I would. I’ll write more about that in a separate post.

If you are a history buff and remember everything from World History in high school, you are my enemy. But, you will be well prepared for visiting the sites in Roma.

The Colosseum is doable sans tour guide, but if you get one of the tours offered you gain access to restricted areas like the third level and onto the main floor. The tour was about 10-15 euros and lasts an hour. In our haste, we ascended the stairs after getting through the gate and marveled at the spectacle of the monstrous arena. After an hour walking around mouth agape we headed for the exit and saw the signs for the guided tours. At that point we didn’t want to spend another hour walking around the Colosseum.

Traveling is one giant upsell. You buy a museum pass, then you get there and a tour is offered for another 10 euros. Or an audio guide for 7. You begin to forget you already paid to access the site or museum.

Tip: Read as much as you can pre-trip. Stock up on history texts. If you’re like me and don’t have a ton of time to read (fall asleep on page 2), there are tons of podcasts and lectures you can stream.

Aside from those two sites, I wouldn’t have done anything differently on the trip. That’s a bold statement from me. I am extremely critical, especially of myself. One time I parked in the wrong parking garage for a company party. The garage cost $30, instead of the valet that was pre-arranged and cost $12. I still haven’t forgiven myself for that.

Most people enjoy talking about two things: themselves and their travels. So, be curious. Ask them questions. What did they love that they didn’t think they would? What would they have done differently? Where do they wish they had time to go? What was underwhelming? What’s the transit system like?

Those are all questions I asked anyone willing to talk to me. The answers helped me shape the time in each city and agenda. I’m fortunate to have a lot of friends who have traveled the globe. My cousin studied in Rome for a semester. Another friend spent a significant amount of time in Italy. I didn’t get a ton of advice on Paris, but supplemented personal advice with travel books and Paris’ tourism site. I was also extremely lucky to have someone with similar cultural interests and curiosity joining me on the trip.

Ultimately, if you are a planner, you’ll do your legwork before take-off. If you like to wing things and live each day as it comes, you will also have a great time. The biggest advice I could give if you are traveling with someone is to make sure you know what type of person your companion is. If I had gone on the trip with someone who wasn’t a planner and relied on me for everything, I would have been resentful and burnt out.

Traveling is tremendously rewarding but also tiring. I haven’t tallied up all the museums and sites we saw or the mileage covered, but this may be the first trip where I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Aside from getting on the flight back to Chicago.

6 Essential Apps to Avoid Getting Killed in Europe

travel, apps, iphone, ios, google, podcast, tripadvisor, metro, paris, italy, rome, florence, venice, zelda, nes

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I love apps. I love staying connected. And I love technology that helps me do things smarter and more efficiently.

Prior to leaving for Italy and France, I read a stack of articles including some on essential apps when traveling. I loaded up my phone with a few of them. Here are the ones I found to be most useful and I credit with keeping me alive.

TripAdvisor

This app comes in quite handy and barely edges out Google Maps for what I used most during the trip. You can download city guides for wherever you are going. They have most of the major cities. The best features are walking guides that cover must-see attractions. Beyond that, the app also has some historical context for sites and attractions pulled from reviews on the site and Wikipedia. The app also has some pretty good maps that can help orient you with where you are. If you are looking for a particular place, they have a “Point Me There” button that tells you which way to start walking/hobbling.

Google Maps

I should also mention I love Google. I consider myself a Google disciple and await them sending me those funky glasses. I’m holding out to be a beta user for the self-driving car. But, their map app saved countless time wandering the streets. When you have WiFi turned on your phone, somehow the app figures out where you are. This goes for both this app and TripAdvisor’s. In Venice, maps are deemed useless. You wander the streets and hope for the best.

zelda, hyrule, map, nes

At times I felt like I was in Zelda without a map, wandering room after room, only to end up looking at a canal with nowhere to turn. Google Maps saved me time and miles of walking. I used it mostly when trying to find a particular attraction or at night when trying to get back to the hotel.

Podcasts

This may seem like an unlikely pick, but there is a font of knowledge in the podcast and iTunes U app stores. My main go to was Rick Steves. He has museum guides for all of the major attractions in Italy and Paris. I downloaded these before I left, then popped in my headphones at the museum and had a personal tour guide directing my attention to important works of art and sculpture. I bought the audio guide at the Vatican for 7 euros and regretted it. I didn’t have my headphones so I had to put the mini remote/speaker thing directly on my ear, risking Cauliflower ear. Maybe they disinfect them with Holy water. It’s so loud in the Vatican Museum you can’t hear the audio. Plus you have to key in the numbers for the items you want to know more about. Fun fact: the Vatican has an ungodly amount of things.

The audio tours from Rick are free and most are close to an hour. I’d highly suggest going this route if you don’t want to hire a private or group tour guide.

MetrO

Oh, the Metro. How I love thee…

I used this app mainly in Paris. It works extremely well. It works offline and presents you with multiple route options. You can even have it use your current location, likely thanks to the little sprites and lemmings toiling inside my phone. Our train stop in Paris was Jules Joffran. With that knowledge, I could plug-in my current location and have the app tell me how to get back to the stop closest to my hotel. It presented the shortest time route as well as that with the fewest transfers. This is a must if you’re going to Paris. The Metro is amazing and this app helps you take advantage of its greatness.

Google Translate

I didn’t use this a ton because it requires an internet connection. But when I was back at the hotel, I’d use it for some phrases I wanted to know. Or if I wanted to look up what I had ingested at dinner. Cuisses de grenouille equals frog legs. FYI.

Google+/Dropbox

As you may have noticed. I take a fair amount of pictures. These apps allowed me to sync my photos when I had a wi-fi connection. One of my greatest fears, next to being in a foreign prison, was having my phone stolen or broken. Friends and relatives have had cameras stolen or broken when abroad and lost all their photos. These apps diminish the gut-wrenching pain if your camera/phone is stolen. One bonus for Google+ ahead of Dropbox, Google+ has unlimited storage. Dropbox caps you at 5GB.

Honorable Mentions

I tried a few other apps but they ended up not being of use for me. I downloaded a WiFi finder and a few language apps. Some had helpful phrases and more robust capabilities if you paid a few dollars for the full version.

Final note:

You read that time above correctly. I now wake up pre-6AM. I haven’t consistently woken up this early since high school. The thought that people voluntarily get up at this hour frightens and saddens me. Then again, I have found this new time to write and start my day at a more leisurely pace.

Happy travels and comment with any apps you found helpful during your travels.

Traveling with Rick Steves

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I had car pooled with Rick for 2-3 weeks leading up to the grand departure for Roma. He was a stellar co-pilot during my morning commute, although he never chipped in for gas. But, he did provide me with great advice on how to travel smarter.

Prior to leaving, I loaded up my phone with his walking tours in podcast form. These are all free. He also offers an app, which is more interactive, but I found the podcasts ample for my travel education needs. I should probably mention Rick wasn’t physically with me on the trip, but he might as well have been. We had a volume of notes distilled from his travel books–attractions by location, hours/days closed, cost, best time to go.

Traveling abroad is an amazing challenge in terms of project management and logistics. You could easily create a matrix of which attraction is open when, then build your itinerary around that. I didn’t go that far, but I was tempted to bust out my pencil. Rome and Paris were perfect candidates for this level of planning. They both have more museums, piazzas, vistas, restaurants than you can possibly visit, no matter how long your trip.

Here’s a brief overview of the cities and sites we ended up visiting. All of which I hope to chronicle in the coming weeks.

  1. Rome – 4 nights – Colosseo, Galleria Borghese, Trevi fountain, Spanish Steps, Trajan’s column, Pantheon, Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica, Boca della Verita
  2. Florence – 3 nights – Galleria dell’Accademia, Uffizi, Il Duomo di Firenze, Giotto’s Campanile
  3. Venice – 2 nights – San Marco, Murano island, numerous bridges and dead-end roads
  4. Paris 5 nights – Eiffel tower, Louvre, Notre Dame, Champs Elysees, Arc de Triumph, Versailles, Jardin de Luxembourg, Musee d’Orsay, Pantheon, Louvre Pyramid, Moulin Rouge, Arc du Carrousel, Rodin Museum, Champs de Mars, Giverney (Monet’s jardin and maison)

And that’s leaving out some things! This was an incredibly active trip. Each day we had 1-2 things slated for the morning. For Italy, we would see a site or two in the morning, explore a bit, eat lunch, then I’d take a short nap before our dinner and strolls at night. For Paris, we rarely went back to the hotel. We didn’t have an unlimited train pass, so we tried to make the most of each pass by exploring the area we were in. Don’t worry. I still had my naps. Either I fell asleep sitting upright or I’d use Leann’s shoulder as a pillow for a short nappy nap.

For all of the above attractions, the longest we waited in line was for the Eiffel Tower (close to 2 hours). We tried to make a reservation in advance and they were all booked. I’m not sure how far you need to book, but as soon as you know you’ll be in Paris, try to book a slot. Otherwise, we booked ahead for Vatican, Accademia, Uffizi and Borghese (fun story about this one for a future post). Climbing the Duomo was the second longest wait time–about 45 minutes. Everything else was pretty much 10 minutes or less. This is a must for all travelers trying to see a lot in the time they are visiting.

This was the first trip to Italy and France for both me and my lady friend. Accordingly, we loaded up the trip with the must-see tourist sites. In future visits, we could take a more relaxed approach now that we’ve seen all the must-sees.

If you are at all like us (crazy), book what you can in advance, create a calendar, buy city passes to skip lines, start working out to get in better shape. But most importantly, invite Rick Steves along for the adventure.

Do you hear the bells?

“Leann. Your phone is going off.”

“Huh?” She said groggily. “That’s not my phone.”

This morning, our last in Venice before flying to the city of lights, started with the familiar sound of bells faintly chiming. I mistook them for the alarm set on the phone and woke up my regazza. It wasn’t her alarm, but the real bells. It was 7am. Our water taxi out of Venice departed at 6:50.

After a Home Alone moment, we jumped into the clothes we had set out for today, hurriedly ransacked the room (like Venetians and their gold booty), and charged down the stairs and out into the misty morning. I managed to twist my ankle on the last stair.

Taking a boat to a plane seems like the Kanye thing to do. The boat/cabbie was bumping hits like “baby come back.” He was one Adele song away from making me ask if he wanted to talk about the breakup.

The previous day in Venice was lackluster. We wandered around the city, shuffling behind tourist groups and couples. The canal is pretty and the abundance of bridges is a neat feature. The absence of crazed drivers on Vespas was a welcomed respite. If Venice were in Redfin it would easily receive a walker score of 100. There are water taxis and your feet. Those are your transport choices.

The ongoing struggle with Venice, and the other Italian cities, was where to eat. I don’t often eat out so having to choose where to eat twice a day is taxing, especially when Chipotle isn’t an option. Most of our time was spent wandering the streets looking at menus.

Venice has its perks and can serve as a delineator for what type of traveler you are.

Do you like to make lists?
Are you a fast walker?
Do you like going with the flow? (Or “flowing with the go” as my friend Marissa learned from an author of a book by that name)
Do you walk around a new city seeing it through your iPad?

Venice is well suited for those looking to unwind or those ok with not having plans. One of the challenges is finding a particular address or place. The streets wind like a massive rat maze, replete with cheese shops. During our first dinner in Venice, I spotted a mouse scurrying out of the darkness around the corner. In that moment I commiserated with that mouse. For the majority of my time on the island, I was darting around looking for sustenance.

After the Murano incident and our general meandering, we decided to try one last time to find a particular restaurant. It had been rated highly on yelp and was in Cannaregio, an area my boss recommended as being a hot spot for the remaining locals. I asked our concierge, who had a penchant for whispering, if he could call the restaurant to make sure it was open. He gladly assisted us and informed us we had until 9. That gave us 60 minutes to find our way. Pressure cooker.

Uncharacteristically, I successfully navigated our way to the area (the top part of the fish). We eventually spotted the restaurant and sat down outside for our last supper. Leann chose tortellini in a cream sauce with prosciutto. I went Jesus style. Linguine alla pescatoro.

The dinner was good and our most substantial amount of food. Leading up to that dinner we had eaten: yogurt, croissant, mini sandwiches, two nectarines and a creme-filled donut. The food came out Taco Bell drive-thru fast. Maybe I’m just going though taco withdrawal. It’s been 10 days since I’ve had Mexican food.

The evening was the perfect temperature for pants and a tshirt. The food was fresh, good and fairly priced. We lingered finishing our half liter of vino rosso. Then we wandered into the maze one last time. Eventually we found our way to piazza San Marco to shake off the rose and laser pen salesmen, and to take in the orchestral sounds one last night.

Venice was a reminder to relax. You’re on vacation and there’s nowhere you have to be. Enjoy wandering. Enjoy stumbling on a scenic view. Enjoy the charm or reconstructed Byzantine architecture. Just enjoy being alive.

All too soon I’ll have to return to the real world of scheduled conference calls, navigating the streets I know and the suburban sprawl I call home. But for now, I’ll bid Venezia arrivederci and grazie mille for the reminder to enjoy being a tourist. 20140526-172052-62452856.jpg20140526-172053-62453289.jpg20140526-172052-62452533.jpg

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Day trippin' to Murano

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Venice doesn’t offer a ton of attractions for travelers in their 20s. This is the last year I can identify as being in that age bracket so I should use it while I still can.

Coming after Roma and Firenze, Venezia was a choppy gondola ride of emotions. Rome is epic and has more potential itinerary items than you can list. Florence had a more relaxed pace, but still offered extensive cultural and sightseeing locales.

After half a day in Venice I felt I had seen all I needed to. Venice is aptly described as an old world theme park.

In 24 hours I saw four people crying.

The island comes complete with a Hard Rock Cafe and Disney store, if you should miss the comforts of commercialism. The largest irritant was that nearly no one speaks Italian to you. After day one, I had my fill of Venice.

This morning, in an effort to do something off the guidebook, we ventured out at 5am to see the sunrise. The streets were empty. It was refreshing to not be stuck behind tourist mobs. The emptiness allowed us to appreciate the beauty of the city as the sun rose.

After stopping to see San Marco Basilica, we decided to head to Murano to see glass blowing. We attempted to see a demo near the basilica but the shop only offered tours for groups or if you physically had rick Steve’s book. I tried claiming we left it at the hotel, but the man told us to go get the book and we could see the demo. One problem: that book is back at the library we got it. In the United States. Of America.

Off we went to Murano. The hour plus boat ride took us to another quiet, not über touristy island. I multitasked and fell asleep on the boat. We ran into one problem once at Murano. All the shops close at 4, with none offering demos. It was 4:10. Walking to all the closing shops reminded me of Miss Swan from MadTV.

The only meal consumed today was breakfast; then we grabbed nectarines and had mini sandwiches we made from cold cuts at breakfast. We looked for a place to eat on Murano but all the food appeared to be reheated pizza. We snagged a donut and €3 bottle of water before catching the water taxi back to Venice.
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Could we salvage the stint in Venice and end on a high note? Check back tomorrow for the dramatic conclusion of Andrew’s Euro-Venture.

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Levata del sole a Venezia

Venice

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Play this while reading: I’ll follow the sun

As the day draws to a close in the states a new one is starting in Venice. To my friends back home I offer these pictures to inspire your tomorrow dreams.

I’ve had a goal for a long time to see the sunrise and sunset on an island. Venice offers the perfect opportunity to see both in a day. Thankfully my bladder woke me at 5:04 local time. Daylight was starting to creep through the transparent white draperies as I checked my phone to see when sunrise was. I had 20 minutes to hustle to the sun.

I woke up Leann to ask if she’d like to join. Groggily, she agreed.

“And we can get donuts.” I added.

“Why didn’t you lead with that?!” She replied.

We wandered around and I snagged these shots. The streets were empty, save the runners and dog walkers. A few women opened their window shutters as we walked along the water. One couple was getting gelato.

On our return trip, the garbage men and gondoliers prepared for another day of tourists.

I hope you have a great day ahead.

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