Friday, May 27, 2016

Olmsted Ladies Trip 2016: Day Three

After a crazy day on Friday, Saturday was spent by the pool.  I don't think anyone actually went in, but the weather was so nice all of us took the opportunity to soak up some rays.  Some people went to check out the little beach down at the bottom of the hill, while myself and others just stayed put.  After a couple of months in the rainy German weather, it felt so nice to sit outside and soak up the sun!

The villa came with a great pizza oven/grill so we decided to put it to good use and grill out.

Heather and Rais hard at work.

The finished product

We ended the night playing Cards Against Humanity and Heads Up, both of which are super fun. I won Cards Against Humanity which was surprising and exciting. That might mean I'm a terrible and dirty minded person, but I won! Heads Up is always fun and watching the videos of your interpretation is usually the best part.

I ended the night with a text from Mike's sister saying that she's engaged!! She and her now fiance Sean have been dating almost as long as Mike and I have been together and I think all of us have been waiting on pins and needles for this to happen. I'm so excited for them and wish them nothing but the best!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Olmsted Ladies Trip: Day Two

After a late night full of fun and foolery, we were up early the next morning to be out of the house and into the town of Trogir for our cooking class.  Melissa and Jenn, two of the female scholars who were on the trip last year, planned this entire weekend and did a fabulous job.  One of the activities that they did last year was a cooking class and everyone raved about it, so we all decided to do it again. Jenn booked a class with a woman from Trogir so we could all learn how to make some authentic Croatian food.

We left early in the morning, but were unaware of the parking situation and ended up being about a half an hour late to the class. When we arrived at the meeting location (which was also kind of hard to find), we were greeted by a very angry Croatian women, Ivana, pointing at her watch and telling us that we were 30 minutes late and that we should have called.  Never mind that most of us didn't have international phone plans.  She proceeded to yell at us about how we were 30 minutes late and she thought that we weren't coming.  We were shocked.  I know we shouldn't have been late, but she deals with tourists all the time and should know that we aren't all great at navigating new cities and finding parking.

Despite the rough start, we sat down for tea and coffee and tried to smooth things over. We learned that it was her birthday, as well as a lot about Croatian history and food. By the time we were ready to hit the market to go shopping, I felt a little bit better about our decision to push through and stick with this cooking class, although her sense of humor seemed a little much for our taste.  She did teach us how to pronounce and spell some Croatian words, though, which was nice. Melissa took this very seriously and tried to spell things throughout the day.  Ivana wrote an F on her notebook.   She thought it was funny.  We did not.

After our Croatian spelling lesson, we headed to the market to buy our supplies for the day.  The markets of Trogir reminded me a lot of the markets in Turkey, which made me miss it, but there is nothing like getting fresh food!

Our fearless leader.  Truly not afraid to say anything.

This man yelled at us in Croatian before someone told him to stop.  We came to realize that Croatians are just very very VERY blunt.

Old town Trogir

Jen and Claire....probably puzzled over something that Ivana said

Walking to Ivana's house.  She kept reminding us that we had to hurry since we were late early.  Got it. Thanks for the reminder.  How could I forget?
 When we arrived at Ivana's house, where the cooking would take place, we were shocked at how small her kitchen was.  When researching cooking classes and making the booking, Jen had made sure that the class could accommodate all of us. She was reassured that nine people plus Ivana would not be a problem.  I don't know how they thought that was true because this kitchen was tiny!  It was a good size for maybe four or five people, but definitely not nine.  Anyways, we proceeded.
Jess aproning up!

Autumn peeling some carrots.  I think her look summarizes our sentiment at this point.

After peeling vegetables and throwing them in a pot with some chicken, we moved on to fish.

Heather getting lessons from Ivana.  She seemed to like Heather, but Heather did not like her.

Our finished product!

nom nom nom nom nom

Overall, it was fun to take a cooking class with everyone.  Since we were such a big group, I think we were able to brush off some of Ivana's more blunt comments and realize that she was a little crazy, as well as the cultural barrier was very present. I didn't learn a ton of cooking strategies, but that's okay. I didn't go into the class really expecting to.  I did laugh a lot and get to eat some delicious food, so I'd call it a success. 

After the cooking class, we wandered around down in the market some more before heading back to the villa for dinner.  We picked up Rais, the scholar in Lisbon, Portugal from the airport and spent the rest of the night hanging out at home, eating spaghetti, and laughing at the crazy cooking class that we attended.  

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Olmsted Ladies Trip 2016: Day One

I just woke up from a nap after sleeping for nine hours the night before.  To say I'm tired is an understatement. It's all worth it though because the 2016 Olmsted Ladies Trip was a total success.  Every hour of sleep sacrificed was filled with copious amounts of laughter, wine, and stories about our experiences. This trip was truly the light at the end of the evacuation tunnel.  All of the women on the trip wrapped me up and made me feel so at peace with everything that had happened and it was a great way to end the transition.  As I left the trip yesterday, I thought about how incredible each of the women on the trip were and how lucky I am to know all of them.

Let's back up though, to the first day of the trip.   I woke up at 3:30am after a rough night of sleep in the basement.  When I booked the hotel, I had reserved an airport shuttle for 4:00am, which I confirmed upon check in.  4:00am rolled around and no shuttle was present.  I waited about a half an hour (luckily my flight wasn't until 7:00am and the airport was 10 minutes away) before calling a taxi.  Thank goodness I had an international phone because there was no one at the front desk to help me and definitely no phone in the basement!  A rough start to the day, but I was so excited it didn't really matter.  I will say that I will not be staying at the Art of Comfort Hotel in Cologne again.  Between the basement living and the lack of shuttle service, it just wasn't worth it. 

After a smooth flight from what I know (I slept most of the way), I landed in Split, Croatia! Hooray! I couldn't pick up the rental car until noon, so I just hung around the airport reading and people watching. When it was time, I picked up the car and then met the next woman on the trip to arrive.  By the time we got all settled, it was time for the next two women to arrive, so we waited for them outside of baggage claim.  I dropped all three of these ladies off at the villa so they could get situated while I ran back to the airport for the other two.  Meanwhile, three other of the ladies were driving down from another Croatian town, so we spent the day coming in to the villa in shifts.  Every time someone new arrived, there was lots of hugs, smiles and excitement! From the beginning, I knew it was going to be a fun trip!

The pool at our villa!

By the time everyone arrived, it was 5:00 and we were all starving!! Our villa was outside of Split in a little village called Vinisce. There weren't a ton of restaurant options, but we found one that could accommodate all of us.  They put us upstairs by ourselves, which was fine because we were those obnoxious Americans. aka we were loud. Dinner was great and it was great to break the ice.  After dinner, we did a little grocery shopping and found these jugs of wine!  We bought two as a joke (as well as some nice bottles), but I feel like that was good foreshadowing for how much wine would be drunk over the course of the weekend.  Ten women can drink a lot of wine!

We ended the night hanging out by the villa and sharing stories of our time abroad.  It was absolutely perfect.  Some of these women I had met before, but others were complete strangers when we all arrived in Croatia.  It's amazing how quickly people can go from strangers to friends.  I woke up the next morning with a sore throat, not from illness, but from laughing and talking so much!  The lack of sleep and sore throat were definitely worth it though because it was a great first day of the 2016 Olmsted Ladies Trip!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Ramstein and the Evacuation

I'm  currently sitting in the basement of a hotel by the Cologne airport on the eve of the 2016 Olmsted Ladies Trip.  Apparently, the hotel I booked a room with overbooked and this was what they offered me.  For $25 instead of the original $70, it's not too shabby.  And since I have to leave at 4am, it really didn't matter where I slept, as long as I had a bed.  So, as I sit in this basement hotel room, I have time to do a little reflecting.

basement living.  Not too shabby for $25

After Karen left, I had about ten days to wrap things up in Ramstein before heading out for good.  After a month of non stop travel and entertaining, a few days of nothing sounded pretty nice.  I ended up moving to a new room (definite downgrade) where there was no kitchen and it was essentially a bedroom, living room and bathroom, but I spent a couple of days unpacking.  I also watched A LOT of Netflix.  If you haven't watched Making a Murderer or Grace and Frankie, do so right now.  Making a Murderer will have you on the edge of your seat with your blood boiling and Grace and Frankie will have you literally laughing out loud.

Between episodes, I ventured out to the gym and to get things to eat, but other than that, I pretty much hung by myself.  That meant a lot of thinking time.  It's crazy to think that six weeks has passed since I arrived in Germany.  When we first got the word that I would be leaving, it was surreal.  My adrenaline kicked in and all I could think about was doing laundry, packing and planning for the evacuation.  Oh and recovering from the LASIK procedure that I thought was a good idea on the day of an evacuation notice.  Once I arrived at Ramstein, I went through MAJOR culture shock.  Hearing so much English was surprising and, after living in a country where rules are merely suggestions for 10 months, living on a military base with so much order and regulations left me feeling overwhelmed.  I spent the first week just trying to adjust back to the lifestyle that I missed so much in Turkey and found myself only venturing out for short trips before scurrying back to my apartment where things were quiet and calm.  If there is one word to sum up that first week at Ramstein, it would be overwhelmed.

Karen arrived the next week and was the perfect distraction.  I spent my time at Ramstein planning our next adventure.  We spent a week in Italy and a weekend in Munich, as well as day trips around Germany, Luxembourg and France.  I slowly came out of my shell on base and felt much more adjusted to life back in America. I didn't turn my head every time someone spoke English or check to make sure I wasn't breaking a rule as I crossed the street. If there is one word to describe that month, it would be adjusting.

After Karen left, I had ten days left at Ramstein and I think that is when I truly grasped what was going on.  It hit me that I'm not going to go back to Turkey. I'll never hear "Inshallah" or "Hamdullah" from a Turk (although I'll never stop saying them!) again and I'll never get those fresh strawberries from the market that I waited ten months for.  I won't get to say goodbye to my students and to my classmates. I won't be hearing the call to prayer any time soon and I won't be offered tea the next time I walk into a shop.  My life that had become very Turkish has changed. If there was one word to describe those ten days, it would be realization.

While I struggled a lot with adapting to life in Izmir, I now realize how much I love about Turkey.  I don't think I'll ever LOVE Izmir, but I can definitely say that I love Turkey.  Izmir felt very business like, with very little to do outside of summer. There weren't a lot of weekend activities (museums, concerts, etc) and it was hard to meet people, which made living there as an expat difficult.  That being said, the Turkish culture really grew on me. I love their dedication to their family and to their religion (Hamdullah = thanks be to God/Inshallah= God willing).  Their ability to take time to slow things down and really appreciate life drove me crazy at times because punctuality was not a strong point of theirs, but I love that they encourage you to slow down, drink a cup of tea and be in the moment.   Even though Izmir is the third largest city in Turkey and is bigger than Los Angeles, it still had that old time feel.  There were markets every Sunday and everyone had a "guy."  If you needed a new carpet, you just had to run downstairs and ask the person on the street to take you to their brother/cousin/uncle's carpet shop.  It was almost guaranteed they knew someone.  Oh and the Turks' love for children? HUGE! It wasn't uncommon for a family with a baby to walk into a restaurant and get preferential seating.  Then, the baby would be passed around for all of the wait staff to hold and play with. Children are so valued and it's so refreshing.  There is also a great sense of community in Turkey.  Parents have no problem with their child being passed around a restaurant and, as the child grows older, they have no problem letting them roam around the neighborhood with a gang of friends. There is a trust in Turkey that everyone is looking out for everyone and it is what holds the Turkish culture together.  My eyes were opened, my horizons were broadened and my appreciation for other cultures deepened during my time in Turkey.  I became a more loving, accepting and a better person.

Leaving Turkey came before I planned, which made it shocking.   While the transition out of Turkey and the evacuation wasn't easy, it would have been a million times harder without the people at Ramstein.  Talk about community! Considering this was only my second real military move (the first being to Turkey, which I don't even really count because it was not a normal military move), I was pretty clueless. From the minute we met them at the airport, I felt welcome and taken care of.  They made sure we didn't have to think about anything, from transferring our health insurance to finding lodging.  I don't know how they did it for 700 families, but they did and they never once made us seem like a burden.  All I had to do was say "Sorry, I'm in the group from Turkey and need help with...." and before I could even finish, someone had jumped in ready to assist me.  For that, I'll be forever grateful.

So, as my time as an evacuee comes to a close, I can't help but think about how grateful I am for my time in Turkey and for the people who made the abrupt transition out so much easier.  I am thankful that I had a group of people helping me each step of the way.  There are so many people around the world who must leave their country out of fear of safety who don't have an entire military base to help and support them.  I only made it through this as smoothly as I did because of the hundreds of people who stepped in to help me and check on me throughout the entire process. So, if you're one of those people (in Turkey, Ramstein or back home....looking at you Russo fam!), thank you.  You have not gone unnoticed and us Turkey evacuees appreciate everything you've done.

As for what's next, you ask?  I'm leaving tomorrow for a weekend with the Olmsted ladies in Croatia. Then, I'm meeting up with Mike and friends who are on their honeymoon and so kindly let us crash the tail end of it.  Thanks Heberts!  After Croatia, I'll head home to the UNITED STATES for a few weeks.  My brother is graduating high school (!!!) and I have a god daughter to meet!  Plus, I know I've basically been living in the United States for the last six weeks, but there wasn't Chick fil a or Target, so I need to get my fix.  I'm well overdue.  The big question is what happens after that.  We've got something in the works and hopefully it will be solidified in the next week or two.  You know I'll keep you posted!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Traveling Solo to Ghent

After Karen left, I had ten days to myself at Ramstein before leaving for good.  Obviously, I love a good debrief, so I'll post more on my last few days at Ramstein later (maybe tomorrow if you're lucky!), but about halfway through the week, my routine of eat cereal, go to the gym, wander around the exchange/mall, and then eat dinner by myself at the food court began to get old.  I had never traveled completely solo before, but when Mike suggested I go to Belgium (three hours away), I was willing to give it a try. 

I consulted with my Belgium travel agent (aka Meredith Wood! She studied abroad in Antwerp and met her fiance there!) and was convinced to spend the majority of my time in Ghent with a half day in Brussels.  After stalking Pinterest and doing a little more research, I decided to drive up Friday, arrive around lunch time, and spend the afternoon and night in Ghent.  Saturday morning would be spent exploring anything I didn't get to on Friday before heading to Brussels for the afternoon before heading home.  Sounds like a great plan, right?

It was a great plan...until I got stuck in traffic.  When I left the base Friday morning, my GPS said I should arrive at 12:30.  I pulled up to my hotel at 2:45.   It was miserable. I don't know what happened to cause such a delay, but man was it bad.  By the time I got to my hotel, my bladder was about to explode and the hunger was unreal (of course, my trail mix spilled all over the car around hour one of my drive).  I'm just going to chalk it all up to it being Friday the 13th.  

Once I got to the hotel, though, things turned around! Hallelujah! I made a reservation two days before at the Hotel Monasterium PoortAckere.  When I found it on, it caught my eye because it described it as an old monastery.  I'm so glad I chose to stay here because the staff was super friendly, it was five minutes from the historic downtown, and it actually was an old monastery! So cool!! My room was nothing special (cheapest room), but the grounds were beautiful and the building was amazing. If you ever go to Ghent, I definitely recommend staying here!

I dropped my bags off and made a beeline for the closest restaurant.  When I get hungry, I have a one track mind and that is food. I couldn't barely enjoy the walk into the historic part of town over the St. Michael's bridge because I saw a restaurant and was so focused on getting there. 

I did manage to snap a few pictures though :)

The first restaurant I could find was along the water in the Graslei part of Ghent.  I know you're not supposed to go to the first restaurant you see (overpriced, underwhelming) but desperate times called for desperate measures and I ended up at Di Massimo.  They had moules frites, which was all I really cared about and wine, which was an added bonus.

I love this lady. She must have been the owner or something because she sat there as someone brought her wine refills and she just told the wait staff what to do.  Replace Ghent with Paris and I see Sara Morgenstern in about 60 years. God bless.
After finishing the mussels in a very short amount of time, I was feeling refueled and ready to start sight seeing.  By this point, though, it was 5:30, so anything I wanted to see would have to be outside as most of the attractions closed at five. That was fine, though because after spending all day sitting in the car, I was anxious to stretch my legs.

Ghent is beautiful and the weather was perfect! It made for a great evening of walking around and seeing the city.

I did manage to go inside the Butcher's Hall where there was meat hanging from the ceiling! 

After wandering around for a bit, I headed back to the Graslei area and sat outside along the water for some people watching.  In hindsight, I wish I brought my book.  I don't mind eating by myself or sitting by myself as much as I thought I would, but after a few hours of alone time, I would have preferred to have my book or something besides my phone to keep me occupied.  Around seven, I decided my next food sampling should be a Belgian waffle.  Unlike Americans, most of Europe eats them as a dessert and rightfully so because this was super sweet (and super expensive!). 

So much to love in this photo! Gay pride (Ghent was all about that)! Beautiful scenery! People enjoying Friday evening! LOVE!

I couldn't go to Belgium without getting beer, although I'm much more of a wine drinker.  My buddy Rick Steve pointed me to Het Waaterhuis aan de bierkant which was perfect.  It was right along the water and had an extensive beer menu.  It made me miss Mike because I know he would have been in heaven! I also had no idea what to order because usually I let Mike pick for me.  I knew that the trapist beers are the ones brewed by monks that I like blonde ales, so I picked the first one on the menu that met that description.  The Achel 8 Blond was pretty good.  I sat outside and enjoyed the scenery although, once again, I wished I had a book or someone to talk to.  I also didn't have a ton of cash and it was a pay as you go system so I used what cash I had to pay and then had to leave, which was fine.  I was ready to move on.

After a drink, I decided to explore the Patershol area of Ghent, which was supposed to just be a cute part of town.  It definitely was! It had lots of character and it was the perfect way to end my night!

I saw these while wandering around. I don't understand.  Maybe it's a Ghent thing?

I saw this sign too and it made me laugh!  Arrrr matey!

Of course, I had to take a sign of the Turkish restaurant! And in true Turkish form, there were men outside in leather jackets smoking hookah and playing backgammon.  It was like I was back in Izmir!

After wandering around a bit, I headed back to the hotel for an early night.  I was up early the next morning to check out of my hotel and get sight seeing, so an early night suited me.  Plus, I was kind of tired of being alone.

The next morning, I checked out of my hotel (they let me keep my car there all day though) and was ready for some sight seeing.  My first stop was graffiti street, which was super cool. I'm always so impressed by graffiti and street art because I know my graffiti would look nothing like that.  Anyone who says it's not art should try and do it themselves.

Then, I headed south to a square that had St. Baafskathedraal and Belfort, two of the main attractions in Ghent.  I went inside this cathedral and St. Nikolaskathedraal, both of which were beautiful.  You weren't supposed to take pictures although people sure were trying (pretty sure that counts for a double sin or something).  I didn't go up to the top of Belfort, which is supposed to have a great view of the city, but I didn't feel like paying or climbing 400 stairs, so I just admired it from below.

Their stadshal or city pavilion was interesting.  I felt like it didn't really match the rest of the town's decor, but whatevs.


I found the Turkish street!

I wandered around for a bit more

did some shopping! One perk of traveling by yourself is you don't have to worry about feeling bad about shopping instead of sight seeing.  You do what you want and what I wanted was to buy the dress I saw displayed in the window. So I did.

After some shopping and some wandering, I was hungry and it was getting to be lunch time.  My goal was to be back at my car around one so that if I got stuck in hours of traffic again, I wouldn't be getting home too late.  I ended up stopping for sushi in Patershol, which I know sounds strange, but they had a rainbow roll on the menu and that is the fastest way to my sushi loving heart.  Luckily, this time, I brought my book so I settled into the two person table, ordered my rainbow roll and had a very nice lunch. 

I headed back to Ramstein and didn't have any traffic trouble.  I'm glad I decided to skip Brussels though because it started raining on my drive back, plus it gave me a few extra hours to really see Ghent.  On my drive back, I was thinking about my first solo travel trip. I think Ghent was a great place to do my first trip solo.  It wasn't too big or overwhelming, but there was enough stuff to do to keep myself occupied.  I probably could have even stayed another day and done some museums. I don't think that I'm one of those people who will ever love solo travel though.  I'm not super outgoing, so I'm not going to make friends at a hostel or a bar.  I finally have gotten over my fear of eating alone in restaurants, which is huge when you're traveling solo.  If you won't eat alone, you won't eat.  I have some friends who love solo travel.  One of my really good friends and bridesmaids treated herself to a trip to Miami after a busy time at work.  While a beach travel is a little different (I'll find out how that is solo next week!), I think I much prefer to have a travel buddy.  

Desperate times called for desperate measures though and I'm so glad that I went to Ghent.  It was a great learning experience for me as my first solo travel trip and I really enjoyed the city of Ghent.  It was charming, interesting and the perfect size for an overnight trip.