London

20180817_161836-EFFECTSAs a self-proclaimed Potterhead, London has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember.  How it took me this long to get there, I have no idea, but I was lucky enough to finally make it happen and even luckier to have my sister along for the ride.

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We stayed in the adorable neighborhood of Hackney – highly recommend!

This was her first big international trip and I was so excited to share the experience.  We hit the ground running after she landed with all of the main tourist sites and started the next day with a very cool (and very nerdy) Harry Potter walking tour, where we got to see various film locations and the parts of London that inspired some of the magical locations as well (shout out to the real-life Diagon Alley!).

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The street that inspired Diagon Alley!

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…and Knockturn Alley!

I had really hoped to catch a show while in London, but alas – the two shows I wanted to see most were sold out.  I still grabbed photos of the venues, if somewhat bitterly.

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We met up with a good friend and former colleague for some drinks at a super cool roof top bar, indulged in Cornish pasties, wandered through as many neighborhoods and parks as we could manage, and shopped until we dropped (I don’t think I will ever see a bookstore that tops Foyles!  They really had everything!)

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It was a really great start to an awesome adventure.

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A Quick Break in Kosovo

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We made the last-minute decision to head to Kosovo this weekend to celebrate my husband’s birthday.  The moment school let out on Friday, we threw together a couple of backpacks, booked a hotel, and we were on our way.

So, why Kosovo?  Several reasons, actually.  First of all, the tickets from Istanbul to Pristina were incredibly affordable and the flight times were perfect.  Secondly, everything we read about Pristina mentioned that the cafe scene there is top notch – a fact that this coffee nerd can now attest to.  We spent most of our time in the city trying to find the coolest cafes and testing out all the coffee.  The city’s specialty is an espresso machiatto latte – and my god they were delicious.  I’m not normally into milky coffee, but the quality of the milk and the ratio of milk to coffee made this drink an exception for me.

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Not only did all of the cafes serve incredible coffee – they were also incredibly quirky and charming!

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In addition to an amazing cafe scene, Pristina has an up-and-coming food scene as well.  I was really surprised by the quality of all of the food we ate there – especially considering that we didn’t do any research about the food at all; we pretty much just wandered into whichever restaurants seemed appealing in the moment and were not disappointed.

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The whole city has a funky, eclectic vibe that will probably only get cooler with time.  It’s kind of crazy to visit a country that is only 10 years old.  Pristina has updated their iconic Newborn sign to reflect Kosovo’s 10th anniversary as a country.

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Kosovo’s ever-changing face is evident in its confusing mix of architecture.  Old, abandoned churches stand next to newly-built mosques; modern cafes line the streets next to Communist-era structures that look like the backdrop of a creepy sci-fi movie.  It’s very weird – in a good way.

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Another quirky-cool highlight for us was the Museum of Broken Relationships.  We actually wandered into it by accident, but decided to check it out and it was 110% worth the 2 euros!  It was very unique and surprisingly moving.  If you’re planning to visit Pristina anytime soon, definitely check it out.

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We really loved our little getaway to Pristina!  I highly recommend it as a very cool and budget-friendly destination.  With only two weeks left of school, I am already getting pumped up for more adventures very soon.

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Seriously though…how crazy is this library?

 

Tel Aviv and Old Jaffa

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My husband and I second-guessed this trip approximately one million times.  We had actually planned our visit before the lovely Trump debacle, which left us in a bit of a predicament afterward.  Was it safe?  Was it ethical?  The answers to  those questions are pretty complicated and still not entirely certain.

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In the end, it was curiosity that won.  One of the reasons we choose to live abroad and travel is because we have always believed that the world is so much more than what is portrayed in the media – an instinct that has so far been proven to us countless times.  When class was dismissed for the last time for the semester, we eagerly grabbed our bags and headed to the airport with open minds, plans unchanged.

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We woke up bright and early in Tel Aviv to find a place that felt both strange and familiar.  In a lot of ways, it reminded me of Florida with its skyscraper skyline and long stretches of beach.  Perhaps less like Florida were the hordes of people working out literally everywhere – on the stairs, jogging down the sidewalks, doing push-ups on the beach; I made a mental note to do a better job of sticking to my workout regimen after our trip.

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The waves were insane!

Tel Aviv proper is a lovely, modern city filled to the brim with great restaurants and cafes.  Brunch seems to be a popular concept there and I did not mind one bit.  My immediate impression was that the city was very laid back and liberal and I learned before arriving that it is one of most gay-friendly cities in the world, which is not what generally comes to mind when people talk about the Middle East.  It also didn’t hurt that the long stretch of Mediterranean coast that outlines the city was one of the most spectacular walks I have ever experienced.

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Following that coastline leads to the nearby Old Jaffa, which is suspected to be the oldest port city in the world.  We had scheduled a free walking tour with SANDEMAN’S because we had had such a good experience with it in Prague.  In the end, I was so glad I did because I gained a lot more understanding of Tel Aviv, Jaffa, and Israel in general.

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I had not realized how much of Israel was once part of Ancient Greece, which is very apparent in the architecture of old Jaffa.  I also had a miniature nerd meltdown when the tour guide told the story of Perseus and Andromeda (which  happened to be my favorite Greek myth as a child) because it supposedly took place in Old Jaffa, lending its name to Andromeda Rock (pictured above).

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Another fascinating tidbit from the tour was the story of Simon the Tanner, who, according to the bible, played host to Saint Peter.  While on the rooftop, Saint Peter had a dream which would change the course of Christianity (and, unquestionably, the course of humanity).  In the dream, two angels approached Saint Peter with tons of animals to eat, including pigs and shrimp.  He turned down the gift because, at this time, Christians still followed a kosher diet; however, the angels insisted, telling him that nothing they could sea with their eyes was unclean.  This dream was important for two reasons:  1) Christians could now eat bacon and 2) Non-Jewish people could thenceforth be converted to Christianity, which was not the practice prior to this dream.

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To be honest, I’ve never been very religious, but I found this story to be very interesting because I recognize how much it has shaped the world we live in today.  Also, bacon.  After our awesome tour of Jaffa, we walked back along the coast and stopped for a lovely dinner, where we enjoyed some local brew.

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The art scene was LIT.

Even as I write this, I feel like I can’t find the right words to describe Tel Aviv.  It felt so much like an American city at times, yet it is ancient.  It was like many other places I’ve visited, yet unlike anywhere else.  What I can say is that I enjoyed my time there not only because it changed my perspective on that part of the world, but also because it is genuinely a safe and pleasant place to visit.

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Bruges: A Magical Gingerbread Village

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After a seemingly interminable term, the fall break finally came and we took off to Belgium to catch some fall foliage and binge on waffles and chocolate.  I had seen many a magical photo of Bruges before arriving, but the photos really don’t do it justice.

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As if the charming alleyways, canals, and bright red trees weren’t enough, the whole town was also preparing for the holiday season with lights and Christmas displays.  It was so refreshing to be surrounded by holiday spirit!

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Bruges is a fairly small town, but it’s bigger than it looks and there is certainly no shortage of things to do!  We signed up for a free walking tour through Legends of Bruges and were not disappointed.  It’s one thing to wander through a city, but it is so much more meaningful when you can learn about its history and culture.  We had also considered doing the foodie tour because it sounded awesome, but unfortunately, I came down with a nasty cold while we were there and simply didn’t have the energy to do more than one tour.

20171121_123428 (2).jpgOf course, it wouldn’t be a proper trip without sampling some of the local cuisine.  We tasted chocolate in every city we visited in Belgium, but this particular shop was our favorite.

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We also did a little pub hopping to taste some of the many excellent beers Belgium has to offer.  My personal favorite was the cherry-flavored beer that they only serve around Christmas.

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Another highlight of Bruges was the Frietmuseum, a museum dedicated to the history of fries (but don’t call them French fries while you’re there!).  It was such a fun and interesting museum.

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I had hoped to accomplish a bit more in Bruges, including climbing the Belfry (Belfort) to get a better view of the city, but my illness really slowed me down.  Still, I managed to squeeze in one last canal tour before we left.

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In spite of feeling terrible for most of our time there, I really enjoyed Bruges – and I couldn’t imagine being there any other time of year.  The colorful leaves and Christmas lights definitely set the tone for the rest of our trip and made me feel excited for Christmas in a way that I haven’t since becoming an expat.

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An Appointment in…Tirana

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Both my husband and I have been a bit hermit-like lately, preferring to spend our weekends playing video games in our pajamas over adventures in the city.  This is probably a symptom of our travel-heavy summer and the usual adjustment that comes with a new school year.  Still, we both caught a case of the travel bug this week after a particularly tiring series of after-school events and duties, so we scoured the internet for travel deals and settled on Albania.

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We knew next to nothing about Albania before we landed in Tirana, which, in this case, only enhanced my experience.  I was instantly surprised by the kindness of the locals, the beauty of the city, and the unique blend of Ottoman, Italian, and communist influence.

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We got up first thing in the morning, ready to hit the ground running since we only had two days to experience the city.  Our first stop was Skanderbeg Square, a large plaza in the middle of the city.  The lack of crowds and grey skies made it seem all the more imposing.

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It was a bit chillier in Tirana than we had expected, so we found ourselves making frequent stops for cappuccino, which much to our elation was some of the best we’d ever had.  The cafe culture there alone is worth the visit.

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In addition to great coffee and cool architecture, Tirana is also home to a thriving contemporary art scene.  It seems like you can’t turn the corner without seeing some kind of sculpture, art gallery, or street art.  This piece I am standing on – the cloud – was a personal favorite.

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The vibrant and youthful atmosphere of the city is likely a reaction to Albania’s dark past.   In the 20th century alone, the country went from being a police state at the turn of the century, to a fascist state under the Nazis, to a communist state after WWII.  During the 40-year reign of communist dictator Enver Hoxha, the country suffered from widespread oppression and isolationism.  The monument above, known as the Pyramid of Tirana, was commissioned by the daughter of Enver Hoxha as a monument to his legacy.  Ironically, it still serves that purpose, though his legacy is not one that is remembered fondly.

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View of Tirana from a bunker

Another of the city’s bizarre communist remnants are the preserved bunkers, built by Hoxha to protect the country from potential invasions – which never came to pass.  One of the bunkers has been converted into an art and history museum known as Bunk’Art, which takes visitors through the murky tunnels (both literally and figuratively) of Albania’s communist history.  Among some of the exhibits are the names of people killed in concentration camps, methods of torture used against citizens who opposed the government, and examples of how families were bugged by the police state.  The thing that blows my mind the most is that Albania was only freed from this oppression in 1990, the year before I was born.

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It is perhaps because of its dark past and decades of isolation that Albania is so seldom visited, though tourism is gradually increasing.  At the moment, it is a bit of a hidden gem, but I suspect in the next ten years, it will become a hot spot in Europe, much like Croatia.  I’m grateful to have seen it when I did.

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I was totally blown away by Tirana and Albania in general.  The breathtaking view of the mountains below while I was flying away made leaving even more difficult than it already was.  It is another of many places that I know I must revisit.  I only had time for Tirana on this trip, but next time, I’d love to visit places like Berat or the Albanian Riviera to take in more of the country’s natural beauty.

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**As a side note, the title of this post comes from a song that has been stuck in my head all week.  Coincidentally, the song was recommended to me by a student after assigning the class to read the folk tale to which the song alludes…so there is a bit of a double allusion going on here.  Anyway, I feel like the song perfectly matches the atmosphere of Tirana…haunting and beautiful.**

Ljubljana: My New Favorite City

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Full disclosure:  I knew practically nothing about Slovenia before I flew there last week. All I knew is that Ljubljana (pronounced loo-blee-ana) was one of the cheapest destinations on Skyscanner for the dates we were looking to travel for our end-of-the-year/anniversary trip.  That was good enough for us.  I never would have expected this tiny city in a tiny country that still seems fairly undiscovered for this part of Europe to leave such a mark on my heart.

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There is something so genuine about Ljubljana.  Unlike much of Europe, it hasn’t sold its entire soul to the tourism industry.  It has nothing to prove, and because of that, Ljubljana is a city that is unapologetically itself.  Despite the fact that it doesn’t have the imposing skyline or massive crowds of cities like Prague, Ljubljana is an incredible, enchanting city.  It truly felt like something of a magical secret.

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Ljubljana seems to be in a stage of renaissance, with an incredible contemporary art and music scene.  You can’t walk five steps without running into some kind of street performer, though not the usual fare.  In our short time there, we ran into break dancers, magicians, bongo drummers, and opera singers, in addition to more traditional bands. Amazing street art lines just about every corner of the city, but especially in the little artsy neighborhood of Metelkova.

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We ended up basing ourselves out of Ljubljana the whole time we were in Slovenia simply because we loved it so much.  It gave us time to figure out all of the best places to eat,  hang out, and take walks at sunset.

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I wish I could find the right way to describe how laid back and charming Ljubljana is. The whole time I was there, I felt so at home…so much so that I probably could have moved in right then and there.  I’m really surprised it hasn’t become overrun with tourists!

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Until next time, Ljubljana!

26 and A Weekend on the Rhine

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So, I turned 26 last week.  I guess time just really flies as you get older because it feels like I just turned 22 last year.

Fun fact:  I am exactly 15 days older than my husband, which means I get to tout my extra wisdom for a couple of weeks every year.  It also means that we normally try to do something extra fun together to celebrate.

This year, we decided to spend the weekend in Switzerland and France because who doesn’t love croissants and chocolate!  I also scored a sweet birthday discount from Pegasus and I never turn down a cheap flight.

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It just so happened that last Friday was a holiday in Turkey, so we had an extra day to explore!  We landed in Basel, Switzerland Friday morning and hit the streets right away. Even though the forecast had shown three days of rain, we completely lucked out and had nothing but dry, sunny weather!  We had the best time walking through the city and admiring the architecture.

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Now that I’m 26, my sense of humor is vastly more sophisticated.

We also couldn’t help but notice all of the playful sculptures and parks all over the city. We may or may not have spent a lot of time on playground equipment.

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Of course, we couldn’t leave without sampling tons of Swiss chocolate, but I ate it all before the thought of taking a photo of it even crossed my mind.  Just take my word for it…or go check it out for yourself!

The next morning, we got up bright and early to catch the train to Colmar, France -an adorable little village that has been on my radar for a few years.  I also had the good fortune of experiencing my first “cougar” moment, when my husband was able to buy a youth ticket and I had to pay full price for the regular “adult” ticket.  I guess this makes up for taunting him with all of my brand new freedoms on both my 18th and 21st birthdays.

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Although it’s only 45 minutes away from the Swiss border, Colmar is distinctly French. My heart leapt at the sight of all the colorful buildings and pâtisseries and at the sound of French being spoken all around me.  Though I studied French through part of high school and all of university, I’ve rarely had the chance to use it since graduating and moving to Turkey.  It made me so happy to jump back into that world.

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Seriously though, how stunning is this place!?  Each twist and turn of an alley led to even more beautiful, colorful houses.  I was in heaven, eating my weight in croissants and sipping on Alsatian wine.  I loved each and every second of our time there and felt so sad when it was time to leave.  I have such great love for all things Francophone and it is still a dream of mine to live in France someday.

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Lovely little nod to Magritte

Even though we only had three days, it was a pretty damn incredible three days.  26 is feeling alright so far!

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Pretty please take me back?