Sleeping with Strangers

Pretty hot blog title, am I right? While it’s not exactly what you’re thinking, I’d like to think that it’s probably more interesting than a one-night stand. For the past 4 months, I haven’t been able to shut up about this amazing concept called, “couchsurfing” (CS). It has been one of the greatest things I’ve had the privilege of encountering in my young adult life and is exactly what you’re thinking – sleeping on random people’s couches. Before you go crazy, I promise you that it’s safe – if you let it. Essentially, it’s a social networking site that connects people by bringing together strangers from all around the world and (hopefully) forming unlikely friendships. You sign up for a profile on couchsurfing.org and can register as:

  1. Someone who’d only like to meet up.
  2. Someone who’d like to surf.
  3. Someone who’d like to host.

It started in September when my friend, Katie, approached the idea of couchsurfing on our annual trip to NYC. I’d always wanted to try it, but none of my friends would do it with me when I studied abroad in Europe and I was too hesitant to try it by myself…considering I’m a small girl and all, but that has certainly changed over time.

Since September, I’ve shared all sorts of great conversations with some pretty incredible people. My progression with couchsurfing began with just a meet up to surfing in NYC to finally hosting in MY new home in New York. While there are other important contributions surrounding my recent move to NYC (new job being one of them), there’s no doubt that couchsurfing significantly influenced my decision to pack up my bags and move 650 miles north where I barely knew a handful of people.

The first person I met through CS was Michael from Germany. He happened to be surfing at his friend’s place in my part of the world in beautiful Charlotte, NC before heading on a two-month internship in Argentina. One day of constant laughter easily turned into three after we realized how well we got along with each other. It honestly felt like we’d known each other for forever.

Michael and I at Metalmorphosis in Charlotte, NC.

Michael and I at Metalmorphosis in Charlotte, NC.

The second person I met was Evan. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he’s got the heart of gold. Truthfully, I have nothing but kind words for him. He welcomed Katie and I to lobsters the first night we got to his place and his hospitality only got better from there. His strong relationships with his two roommates alone illustrate how down-to-earth and genuine he is as a person. Anyone would be lucky to have him as their host. What has made me fall in love with couchsurfing has been how it breaks down the fear of going beyond just meeting a stranger. You’re fully embraced to a new way of life and a new culture; however, you must make that decision in order for it to take place. By allowing a stranger to truly enter your life, you’ve got to let yourself be vulnerable. Sure, not everyone who comes in your life will become your best friend, but it’s important to try to understand new perspectives. Otherwise, you’ll end up being another human in the world who just comes and goes which is frighteningly too easy to let happen. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve already started to unfortunately let that occur here. Without Evan, I’m not sure I would’ve gone through with the move to NYC from little ole South Carolina.

Myself, Evan, and Katie.

Me, Evan, and Katie.

The third person I met was Hugo, a traveller from Portugal. I actually ended up stealing him from Evan after I met him at a dinner party at Evan’s. I’d just moved to Brooklyn two days prior to meeting Hugo when I learned he was staying in NYC for two weeks. He said he didn’t know where he’d be staying after his time with Evan was up so I extended the opportunity to let him crash at my place. Together, we explored the city and were consumed in some deep conversations. At 22, he’s so wise beyond his years and I loved even the moments when we didn’t have to say anything. Our silence never felt awkward. He made me want to travel more of the world. We talked about music, films, books, relationships, food, travel, everything. There was never the feeling of forced conversation. Everything was so organic, refreshing, and delightfully surprising.

Hugo and I on top of the Rockefeller Center.

Hugo and I on top of the Rockefeller Center.

What couchsurfing has done for me has been monumental whether it’s abundantly clear or not. While Michael and Hugo have been back in Europe for awhile, I still get to see Evan when we’re not too absorbed in this bustling city. Today, I hung out with him after he spent the month of December traveling throughout Europe and Asia. We caught up on the past month of each other’s absence. While NYC has been one hell of a ride (in the best way possible), I want to note that it’s not as glamorous as Hollywood makes it out to seem. A lot of people struggle…not necessarily financially, but in deeper ways.

Today, specifically, I feel more confused than ever on what I want to accomplish in life. It’s a pretty damn scary thought as I meet more and more talented people here in NYC, but it’s also oddly comforting. I think that if I so much knew what I wanted to do, I’d be terrified that I’d come to a halt. I left our “coffee date” thinking to myself that I need to apologize less and just embrace who I am right now in order to resolve some conflicts in my life. As the daily quote in my building currently says, “Life is short, and it is up to you to make it sweet.” I ask you to follow me as I explore this route and break the barrier of just passing by everyday strangers.

xoxo,

Diemmy

Paris – A Truly Unforgettable City

Oftentimes, we lose ourselves in the everyday fast-paced world, forgetting to just live. Close your eyes, breathe, and relax. You are free and unstoppable while your surroundings wander into this mass confusion that we call “life.” Slowly, you start to feel like you are in a fairytale as you begin to smell the subtle scent of freshly made croissants and the sweet lingering aroma of delicate macaroons at the nearby bakery. All around you, you hear the beautiful sounds of one of, if not, the most romantic languages in the world. Left and right, you are hearing the two-syllable phrase, “Je t’aime,” being rolled off of people’s tongues.

Open your eyes. You are in the city of love and of lights. The beauty of bright, bold colors surrounding you is overwhelming. The grass is lush and looks as green as the Irish countryside, whereas the roses at the street vendors are a dark, bloody red. It is true what everyone has told you about this city. Between the woman in the royal blue dress with white polka dots, forest green cardigan, brown leather messenger bag, and the classic black Louboutin pumps and the man in the slim fitted dark jeans, white button-down, black leather jacket, and black leather pointed shoes, you know you are in the world’s most fashionable city. Above all, this man and this woman are not even a couple. This is simply the normal style for the everyday Parisian.

You are wandering the streets of Paris, searching for one of the most famous monuments ever built. You simply cannot miss it. The Eiffel Tower never looked more iconic than during this stunning moment when you realize that you have made it. The monument engulfs you in its enormous size and stature so much that you feel chills running down your spine. “How did anyone create this?” is your thought. You had always seen it in pictures and magazines, but you never realized just how massive it was until you were standing right under it and thinking how many days it could take you to climb. Couples, young and old, laugh on the rich green, grassy fields by the tower as they share a bottle of champagne and savor a baguette, fresh out of the oven, with comté cheese. You can almost taste the creaminess of the cheese against the warm, fluffy bread.

Thank you, Google, for this awesome shot of the Eiffel Tower.

Thank you, Google, for this awesome shot of the Eiffel Tower.

Venture out and spend some time with the dead. Take a light stroll through the Père Lachaise Cemetery. There, you will come across the tombs of some of the most famous and influential people to have ever existed, including the tomb of Oscar Wilde. The tombstones here look almost like a gallery between the varying degrees of uniqueness with each memorial. It is too easy to get lost. Some are mini chapels with antique stained glass windows while others entail the shape of the actual deceased people. A crisp, light breeze encompasses you as you walk around and smell the freshly snipped lilies and roses that visitors leave in memorial for the dead.

One of my favorite writers happens to be buried in one of my favorite cities. Oscar Wilde's (1854-1900) tomb in Paris.

One of my favorite writers happens to be buried in one of my favorite cities. Oscar Wilde’s (1854-1900) tomb in Paris.

As you leave the cemetery, you come across a nice Frenchman who is willing to show you around the rest of the city.   He takes you to some of the other most famous places in Paris. First, you two savor a crêpe, smothered in the warm goodness of nutella spread on top while you walk around to your next, seemingly unknown destination. It lightly toasts your fingers as you grasp onto the dessert for the short amount of time it is in your hands before you devour it. You can only imagine how gratifying it tastes. It enters your mouth and tastes like heaven as both the crêpe and nutella slowly melt on your moistened tongue.

Your next stop is the Tuileries Garden. You start to learn from the Frenchman, Georges, that the exact area you are walking down is the place where Parisians celebrated, met, promenaded, and relaxed in the 19th and 20th century. The sandy path feels smooth and relaxing under your feet, which is a nice change from the tough, historic cobblestone roads.

Shortly, you will come to the Louvre, home to over 35,000 objects, including the original Mona Lisa. Those three glass pyramids in front of the museum look so fragile that you cannot help but want to go inside and see what all there is to offer. Walk some more and you will find yourself in front of the Notre Dame. There is so much to do in this city that you will never find yourself bored or alone. Between the shopping on the long strip of the Champs-Élyssées, the historical Arc de Triomphe, the infamous Moulin Rouge, the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre, and the Palace of Versailles just a short train ride away, you understand what “c’est la vie” really means. There’s no negative connotation, but rather, “this is what you should be doing with your life” meaning. This experience truly is “the life.”

Tourist-ing at the Louvre (April 2013).

Tourist-ing outside of the Louvre (April 2013).

What’s stopping you? Take a break from the real world, learn about a new culture, and get excited about your future. You can be in the most popular travel destination in the world right now. Your adventure is only a plane ride away from learning about all of the incredible and adventurous opportunities out there.

Touristy side note: From my 26th floor room window in Paris last year, I could almost feel the Eiffel Tower and its rotating light in my midst. It was a visual masterpiece to experience. My mind was overwhelmed with scenes from the film, The Devil Wears Prada. Check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdU8xNiYV9A

xoxo,

Diemmy

Absence Does Make the Heart Grow Fonder – Part 2

In exactly 2 weeks, one of my really good friends, Whitni, will be venturing off for Barcelona to study architecture. My emotions for her first European adventure oscillate between excitement and envy. In honor of her soon-to-be “love at first sight” experience, I want to recapture the rest of my Barca trip from this past May.

Bhavisha, my travel partner, and I spent a wonderful day checking out the city with our new American friend, Arthur (Art). Unfortunately, Art would be checking out of the hostel the following morning since space was limited in our room. Before going to bed, we exchanged information so that we could meet up the next day.

Art and I attempted a selfie.

Art and I attempted a selfie.

As I’d traveled to Dublin, Prague, and Munich without having done any shopping on this 2-week tour, I wanted to take advantage of some of my favorite Spanish stores while in Barcelona: ZaraPull&Bear, and Bershka. Living out of this Deuter backpack was great (packed to the brim, it even passed Ryanair‘s strict cabin baggage allowance! **Ryanair has changed their cabin baggage policy over the past year for the better. To allow wiggle room in their one bag of 55 x 40 x 20 cm limit, passengers may now carry with them an additional bag up to 35 x 20 x 20 cm). As wonderful as this was, I still desperately needed to buy a few pieces of clothing since we didn’t have time to do laundry in over a week. Yuck!

Bhavisha and I raced around La Rambla, a popular tourist street (0.75 mi) known for their shopping, pickpocketing, and prostitutes. So long as you’re attentive to your belongings and surroundings, you’ll be fine. In fact, I walked along the street alone at 4:30 in the morning last year to catch the aerobus and left perfectly OK.

See those trees? They provide awesome shade for  La Rambla.

See those trees? They provide awesome shade for La Rambla.

Anyway, as we were walking around the street, I entered either 3 or 4 DIFFERENT Zaras! It almost felt like I was on this one street I visited in Seattle where there was a Starbucks on every single block. Between Zara, Pull&Bear, and Bershka, I ended up with a couple nice tops, a dress, shorts, and two scarves. If you’re not familiar with shopping in Spain, Zara, Pull&Bear, and Bershka are all owned under The Fashion Group. They provide tasteful, up-to-date styles at uniquely affordable prices. Louis Vuitton Fashion Director, Daniel Piette, once described Zara as “possibly the most innovative and devastating retailer in the world.” Do shop at these places if you can.

Side note: if you ever need WiFi, go to the Apple Store at Passeig de Gràcia.

A few hours later, we met up with Art at Casa Battló to visit the Casa Museu Gaudí and Park Güell. As they are both situated on a hill, we took about 6 or 7 outdoor escalators to reach our destination. At the top of the hill, we found a convenience shop where Art and I bought Spanish beers to savor while enjoying the views throughout Park Güell. Everything was so beautiful and you could see more amazing views of the city.

Walking/sweating around Park Güell with a scenic view of Barcelona behind me.

Walking/sweating around Park Güell with a scenic view of Barcelona behind me.

The Casa Museu Gaudí, or Gaudí’s home, was quaint. For a creative man, I was expecting a lot from his home, but it was rather humble. The tour took around 10 minutes to examine and then we were off to another interesting part of our trip.

As we were leaving the hill, rain was on its way. We stopped by one of the street vendors to check out some earrings for Art’s friend. All of the earrings are poked through cheap umbrellas and when police come by, these Pakastani men quickly close up the umbrellas and run away since this popular type of selling is illegal. While we were checking out the earrings, this exact thing happened, so we ended up with no earrings that day!

You'll find these umbrellas with earrings attached to them EVERYWHERE in Barcelona.

You’ll find these umbrellas with earrings attached to them EVERYWHERE in Barcelona.

With the rain starting to trickle down, we became hungry. We ended up at Las Empas for great empanadas, good beer (they had an extensive Belgian beer list), and more fun conversations. They also offer free WiFi, an essential for foreign travelers.

Still craving for Spanish food, we looked up “best paella in Barcelona” because it was everyone’s last night in Barcelona and Art hadn’t experienced paella at all! We found ourselves eating the BEST paella ever at Bosque Palermo. The waitress knew very little English, but she was hilarious and even gave us a discount on the paella! Only €20 for a huge pan for the 3 of us. Art noticed that the couple beside me were speaking English, so he encouraged me to ask if they were Americans as well. We found out that Phil and Maggie, the couple, were on a 12-day vacation in Spain from Los Angeles. Phil started a comedy group many years ago and when one of his guys left the group, he needed to hire someone else. One of the other members suggested bringing in this guy named Steve Carell to the group, so Phil gave him a shot. Long story short, THE MAN NEXT TO US HELPED DISCOVER ONE OF MY FAVORITE ACTORS! Phil and Maggie were one of the nicest, funniest, and certainly most interesting couples I’ve met. They were very modest as well, which made me love them even more.

Best paella I've ever eaten.

Best paella I’ve ever eaten.

Not wanting the night to end, we all got drinks at a small bar and just appreciated the city that gave us some incredibly fun, yet simple memories. We said our “see ya later” to Art and went back to our hostel one last time.

The next morning consisted of toasted manchego cheese sandwiches, chocolate and churros, La Boqueria, La Sagrada Família (which I still haven’t made time to enter inside after two Barca visits), and our next flight to Brussels!

Spain is famous for their manchego cheese as well as their chocolate (cup) and churros.

Spain is famous for their manchego cheese as well as their chocolate (cup) and churros.

While we didn’t befriend actual Spaniards, some of our favorite souvenirs remain close to Barcelona. There’s no wonder why I was dying to go back and still do to this day. Absence does make the heart grow fonder.

xoxo,

Diemmy

Absence Does Make the Heart Grow Fonder – Part 1

After visiting my friend, Katie, in Barcelona for 2.5 days last year, I grew an insatiable desire to revisit a city that once teased me. Missing a city like Barcelona is similar to missing a great romance. When you feel like you have all the time in the world, you don’t truly learn to appreciate something (or someone) until it’s no longer with you. During that absence, you begin to wonder, “What if I had done this or that instead? Would things be the same if we met again? Or would it be better or worse?”

I was dying to know the answers. After a 14-month absence, I got to eat, breathe, and sleep Barcelona once again this past May. Known for its eclectic environment and outrageous nightlife, I was hungry to feel the city in my blood and bones. On the first night, my travel partner, Bhavisha, and I had a nice dinner composed of patatas bravas, paella, and a pitcher of sangria. Allowing ourselves to digest for a bit, we finally hopped into a cab to test out the highly popular club, Razzmatazz. At €17, you, too, can get lost in the five clubs in one, sip on a decent complimentary drink, and have a not-so-enchanting Canadian guy kiss you. At least I can say I’ve experienced the Barcelona nightlife!

Our delicious patatas bravas topped with aioli.

The following day was a breath of fresh air when Bhavisha and I befriended our new Russian/Armenian/Californian/Bostonian friend, Arthur. As Bhavisha and I were about to head out of the hostel to eat lunch at Wok to Walk, one of my favorite restaurants in Europe, Arthur came back to the 10-bed hostel room we shared. Briefly chitchatting about our plan for the day, I invited him to eat with us. Skeptical about the restaurant recommendation at first, one bite and he was hooked (he even ate at the restaurant location in Amsterdam a few days later).

Anyway, keeping things more low-key than I had anticipated, the three of us decided to walk to the beach and actually spent about 2 hours people watching and getting to know each other. I can’t decide what entertained us the most – the purposefully divided nationalities selling us products and services every 3 minutes (the Indians sold mojitos and blankets, the Pakistanis sold earrings, the Africans braided hair, and the Asians gave massages) or the topless woman lying with her husband, who was publicly fondling her breasts around children.

If you look on the far right, you can see an Indian man trying to sell a beach blanket. I can’t imagine locals enjoying the beach with all of these sellers. We, the 3 Americans, just found it amusing.

At any rate, we couldn’t let the beach consume our limited time left in Barcelona, so we eventually decided to take a cable car ride at the suggestion of a Danish man living in Barcelona. At €16, you can witness spectacular panoramic views of the city from Montjuïc. Sights you’ll see on the actual hill are the Hotel Miramar, beautiful gardens, and overpriced restaurants (although, my sister went to Barcelona three weeks after me and said she had amazing sangria at one of the restaurants there overlooking the city). After exploring the area, we went back to mainland and enjoyed a pitcher of sangria at a nearby restaurant. We shared details of our pasts, interests, and plans for the future. For a guy just a few years older than me, he surprised me by being so open about his life to strangers; however, it felt like we’d known each other for years. Isn’t it sometimes strange when you’ve just met a person and it feels like you’ve known them for years, yet there are people in your life with whom you’ve known for years, yet still don’t really know them?

Here we are on the Montjuïc hill with beautiful Barcelona in the background. Me (left), Art (middle), and Bhavisha (right).

Once we finished our sangria, we walked around the city for a few hours before grabbing dinner at Cervecería Catalana. No matter when you arrive, the line will be out the door because it’s that great. What appeared as an upscale restaurant turned out to be surprisingly budget friendly. We ordered one too many tapas and a few drinks that came just under €50 for the three of us combined. Our meal ranged from classic manchego cheese and patatas bravas to Spanish omelettes and prawns. With good food and beer, interesting conversations, and a breathtaking city, what more could you ask for in life?

This picture doesn’t do our tapas meal justice, but I appreciated Art giving me the bird at the top of the photo. I know he loved my million food pictures.

The day was simple, yet relaxing…and still one of my favorite cities. My Czech friend, Tereza, always said, “If the weather’s nice, you better not go to museums. Go out and see the city.” I’d like to think that we accomplished that. The following day was more touristy, but I’ll get to that later.

Besos,

Diemmy

Welcome to Belgium – Land of the disorganized, beer-loving souls

“Belgium? You studied the Belgian language there, huh? Wait, no, they speak German there because it’s that one city in Germany, right?”

You must forgive these people we call Americans. Don’t get me wrong; I love the United States a lot and as much as I joke about moving abroad, I can be certain that I’ll be living in the US for the remainder of my life according to my own liking. I suppose that my longtime fascination with Belgium put me under the assumption that everyone in this world knew that Belgium was at least its own country. Clearly, I was wrong about that. The amount of ignorance I came across with Belgium became so vast that I grew to be impressed when meeting people who actually knew it was its own country. They got brownie points if they knew it was the country that had a large population of French and Dutch-speaking people…and they garnered even more points if they knew that German was the third official language. Enough about this, let me move to the core subject: Belgium.

europe

Photo above: There’s Belgium. That little green country neighboring Holland, France, Germany, & Luxembourg. The northern half is Flanders: the Dutch-speaking population. The southern half is Wallonia: the French-speaking population. They don’t get along quite well with each other. The tiny spot in the middle, where Flanders is located, is Brussels, the capital city of Belgium.

So what’s the fuss about Belgium? If you read my last post, you should know by now that I studied French in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium at Université catholique de Louvain last January to May 2013. While in Belgium, I visited Brussels, Ixelles, Louvain-la-Neuve, Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Wavre, Charleroi, & Namur. Though I said I’ll cover each city I visited, this little blog post will serve as yet another introductory post – this time, just on Belgium since I spent the majority of my time there. I wanted to cover the basics before I truly delved into the specifics.

map_of_belgium

Photo above: Map of Belgium. Louvain-la-Neuve is too small to even make it on this map, but to give you an idea of its location, it’s close to Namur, the city that’s kind of in the middle.

What is Belgium famous for?

  1. Beer – over 800 beers are produced in this tiny country, where the average Belgian consumes an average of 150 litres of beer per person per year.
  2. Chocolate – they produce over 220K tonnes of chocolate per year. The pralines were invented in Brussels by a man named Jean Neuhaus. I’ll eventually share my pretty interesting story about my recent visit to the first ever Neuhaus shop in the world. Stay tuned 😉
  3. Mussels – I never knew just how much I loved mussels until I studied in Belgium. I could eat it all day, everyday.
  4. Fries – I’m not the biggest fan of fries, but the Belgian fries are something else. You have to eat it with sauce andalouse – perfection. It’s quite unfortunate that the sauce isn’t sold in the US. Good thing I purchased enough to last me a few years.
  5. Lace – I don’t personally care too much for stuff like this, but it’s pretty.
  6. Tintin – You know, that famous comic with the boy and his dog? I actually had to create a Tintin comic for one of my classes.
  7. Going 589 days with no elected government – Yeah, shit got real.
  8. Cities – Brussels, Bruges, Ghent, & Antwerp

I’ll write soon to let you know why you should spare a few days out of your next European adventure to enjoy Belgium. If anything, you’ll be happy you tasted any of the food/drink items listed above.

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about this tiny country, please take a few extra minutes to watch this YouTube clip. You won’t be disappointed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ceg6NQKHd70

xoxo,

Diemmy