Travel

Hello, this is Kim, reporting to you live from somewhere that isn’t my couch.

A Golden Birthday in Nashville (Part 2)

Monday March 21st, 2022

On Monday, the birthday-day!, our first stop was the Country Music Hall of Fame. We walked up and down aisles of country music history, recognizing some faces, and learning about others. My mom has always been a fan of country music, so it was fun to hear songs that she’d played for me throughout my childhood, and to see her face light up in recognition of those that reminded her of hers.

Music history is special. It weaves its way into all of our lives, defining moments we will remember forever. As we walked among the crowds, I liked to imagine all of the shoulders being tapped, and hushed stories being shared, saying things like, “this reminds me of ____” or “I first heard this when ___.”

Even though we might not notice, we all have soundtracks that define our lives and unlock memories that we might not even remember we still have. I know for me (in the country music world at least) I have fond memories of Shania Twain, Tim McGraw, Amy Grant, and Crystal Bernard, and hearing them helps me connect with that little girl that heard them for the first time—be it in my mom’s car on the way to school or on the cd player in the living room—twenty years ago.

On our way out, my mom and I designed this country music *star*, designing her persona from her shoes to her hair. Personally, I think she looks like the love child of Dolly Parton and Taylor Swift, which sounds like an absolute dream of an artist.

From the Country Music Hall of Fame, we made our way to Yee Haw Brewing Co. for a drink and some lunch. I ordered a watermelon margarita and some tacos, and while I remember them being good, they were supremely overshadowed by the pretzel that we ordered. It was gigantic, it was delicious, and I will probably think about it for the rest of my life. That being said, it was so good that it was about 75% gone before I even considered taking a picture. So you will just have to go to Nashville to try one for yourself.

In the same building as Yee Haw Brewing is Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine, so after lunch a big group walked over to do a moonshine tasting. I sat it out, but happily leaned on the bar to watch everyone’s mouths pucker and eyes water—especially after tasting the 128 proof moonshine known as Blue Flame. Among the other offerings—some of which we brought home with us—were moonshine pickles, moonshine cherries, and Mountain Java moonshine, which I heard tastes a *little* like chocolate milk, and makes an excellent addition to your morning coffee if you need an extra strong start to your day.

Around 6:00p.m that evening, we walked from our building to Bakersfield, a Mexican restaurant hosting Tanner’s birthday dinner. I should also note that earlier in the day, we were all given matching hats that said “TS 3/21”. The TS being Tanner’s initials and the date obviously being his birthday. With our group, that was essentially the size of a baseball team, we turned quite a few heads in our matching gear. The red, white and blue coloring of the hats made us look like we might be campaigning for an upcoming election, though I think a few people looked at us fearfully as if we might be recruiting for a cult. Either way, we loved them, and we rocked them for the remainder of the night.

After dinner, we headed to Luke Bryan’s bar (Luke Bryan’s 32 Bridge), which had a very mellow vibe. A pair of gentlemen stood on stage singing classic country songs we all knew, and we happily sang along, occasionally dancing, and constantly pointing at Tanner in the hope that they might sing happy birthday.

We then walked over to Kid Rock’s bar (Kid Rock’s Big Honky Tonk and Steakhouse). It was nice out, so we headed up to the rooftop and sat, sipping on our drinks, taking the occasional shot, and singing along to the band playing 80’s music.

After a little while, we decided it was time to move on, but then they played “Time of My Life”from Dirty Dancing, and so we all took off towards the stage and danced our Patrick Swayze hearts out. I then realized that—because I am the mom of the friend group—I’d packed snacks in my purse earlier in the day. So I pulled out a pack of fruit snacks which, at 11:00pm, with alcohol sponsored energy, felt like the greatest thing to ever happen. There is a video from that night of me dancing with my hands over my head. One fist is tightly closed because I am keeping my remaining fruit snacks intact for continued snacking. #snackdedication

When we finally did walk downstairs, we only got as far as the second floor (there are five total). Because on the second floor, you can look out over the first floor, which had people dancing on top of the bar, a live band singing while a bartender poured a beer on someone, and people cheering, singing and raising their glasses all over the room.

At first, I think we all stopped just to watch. They were playing good music, but it was also perhaps some of the best people watching around. But then, the music got us. We started dancing and then we kept dancing. The bar started to empty and we just kept on dancing. We jumped and we sang and we tipped our Tanner themed hats. We put our arms around each other and belted out notes into our empty cups. We stomped our boots and clapped our hands. It felt like a celebration for Tanner and a celebration of music. We twirled and laughed and took pictures that would forever bring us back to those moments. The world felt normal—or at least this new kind of normal. I felt appreciative of this night, as I knew how far we’d come to be able to have it.

We walked home, talking a mile a minute, already reminiscing about this night, about the night before, and everything in between. My FitBit buzzed, letting me know I hit 10,000 steps—two hours into the day—and my feet—this time in tennis shoes—kept dancing while I brushed my teeth, not stopping until I again collapsed into bed.

Tuesday March 22nd, 2022

Tuesday morning was a bit of an earlier wake up call. Especially when you consider that we’d been out dancing only a matter of hours beforehand. Our group walked over to meet everyone at their AirBnb just up the street, as a bus was picking us up to drive us to Lynchburg.

If you are a country music fan, the town of Lynchburg might sound familiar, even if you’ve never been to Tennessee. This is because it is the home (the one and ONLY home) to Jack Daniels whiskey.

Being a loyal Jameson family (sorry) and having toured the Jameson distillery in Ireland, we were curious to learn about this American whiskey that, while not our number one, is still a staple in our houses—especially the Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey.

In the end, we learned a lot about the making of whiskey, a lot about the man himself, Jack Daniels—who casually started working in a distillery at the age of eight—and a lot about the variety of whiskeys the distillery makes. I bought a Tennessee Honey baseball hat to support our trusted pal, but left with my loyalty to Jameson unshaken. (Sorry, again.)

By the time we got home that evening, our group was entirely too exhausted to even consider going out again. We’d been running on an average of 4-5 hours of sleep, and were set to fly home the next day. So, we robed up—embracing our last night as *penthouse people*—and ordered in some pizza. A rainstorm blew in and drenched the city, sending many people on the streets below running for cover. Wind whistled through the buildings and cars moved slow. We all went to bed early that night, and our bodies thanked us for it.

Wednesday March 23rd, 2022

On our last morning in Nashville, we ate a marvelous carb loaded breakfast at Another Broken Egg Café. I ordered the Bourbon Street Pancakes, which I felt was a good send off—not to mention delicious.

By 12:30pm we were out of our suite and in an Uber on the way to the airport, sad the trip was over, and even sadder that we had to go to work the next morning.

After the plane took off, I sat, looking out the window, hoping that the trip had been all that Tanner hoped it would be. For me, it was even more. The weeks prior to leaving had been chaotic and I was a little nervous I wouldn’t be able to unwind enough to truly enjoy the trip. But I’d had so much fun dancing and singing and jumping around like I didn’t have a care in the world. I’d loved wearing my hat (emblazoned with Tanner’s initials) backwards in a honky tonk, like a fraternity brother on spring break. I’d loved the city of Nashville and its quirky architecture and lively energy. I’d loved this break from reality, from everything that had been weighing me down at home.

Even though I was exhausted, and so excited to be reunited with my pillow—and my normal bedtime—I was going to miss this trip, and the people I took it with.

I was already dreaming up our next one, excited that someday, that dream would be a reality.

A Golden Birthday in Nashville (Part 1)

About three years ago my cousin Tanner told me and my family that he wanted to celebrate his twenty first birthday in Nashville, Tennessee.  

Funnily enough, we were in Paris at the time, waiting for the clock to strike ten so that the Eiffel Tower—which we took to calling “Eif”—would light up. Our group of nine cheers-ed to the idea, both wishing it was closer, and praying that the trip we were already on would find a way to last a little longer.

Like everyone else, we didn’t know what was to come. And we had no idea that we’d spend much of the “countdown to Nashville” locked inside. But, when things started opening back up, and flights to Nashville went on sale, we booked, we prayed and then we waited.

On Saturday, March 19th, that waiting ended.

Saturday March 19th, 2022

As we made our way down 2nd Avenue, sitting in bumper to bumper Saturday night traffic in downtown Nashville, music played from seemingly every direction. A tractor drove by towing a trailer full of people dancing and drinking, pedestrians walked down the street in dresses, boots and cow print pants. Meanwhile, our Uber driver yelled, “I DON’T SEE MY DESTINATION!” at his navigation system, so we politely asked to get out, suggesting that we were close enough and could walk the rest of the way.

“This is us,” my dad said, pointing to a building.

As far as lodging went, I had no real expectations going in. I’m a bargain hunter by trade, and had done my part by finding us a great deal on flights, so I assumed my dad had found a hotel that he simply liked the look of.  But when the doors opened to the fourth (and top) floor of our building, and a key code let us into the Penthouse apartment that my dad had found a good deal on, we all walked in, absolutely speechless.

It was a fun space, with both eclectic and nostalgic design schemes. There was a piano, a pool table, an arcade machine, a lava lamp, coasters that looked both like floppy discs and records, a picture of a young Queen Elizabeth edited to give her piercings and neck tattoos, and lots of books ranging from Nashville themed cookbooks to Marvel based dictionaries.

There were 4 bedrooms (each of which had at least one cloth robe emblazoned with the building’s name hanging in the closet), four bathrooms, a living room with a couch and four comfortable chairs, a kitchen, and a wet bar. And did I mention we were only a block from Broadway Street?

My family has never been wealthy, or flashy, or really ever been one that regularly “splurges”, but like most people (perhaps more than some and less than others) we had been put through the ringer in the last two years, and so walking up and down the length of the suite, marveling that it was “all for us!!”, felt like a true testament to all that we’d made it though, and all that we’d come to celebrate.

After we unpacked, we walked over to Gray & Dudley, as we wanted to eat, drink, and meet up with the guest of honor.  Tanner was turning 21 on the 21st of March, making it his golden birthday, and it almost felt surreal to actually be in Nashville, primed to celebrate it. Our trip to Europe felt like 10 years ago, but now that we were here, in Nashville, taking this trip that had once only been an idea, made it feel like just yesterday we were sitting in that Parisian café, dreaming it up. 

With our group of seven, we made the group total 17. Tanner’s family, friends and cousins had also made the trip, and we all gathered around a corner of the bar, hugging, smiling and chatting.

Even though most of us knew each other already, it still felt like a bit of an ice breaker. We were all still in our plane attire, with our eyes a little heavy from the 5ish hours of travel and the anticipation of the trip to come. We would be each other’s community for the trip. The people you would look for if you got separated in a bar or a restaurant, the faces and voices you would recognize up ahead on the street or coming around the corner behind you. Tanner had brought us all together and now we’d all be a part of each other’s memories, writing stories on this weekend of our shared histories, and taking pictures that would eventually make us say, “remember when?”

We’d made it to Nashville and now it was time to enjoy it.

Sunday March 20th, 2022

At about 12:00pm on Sunday, we all made our way over to Centennial Park to see the Parthenon, which is a 90-year-old replica of the Greek structure originally built in 447 BC. (That’s 2500 years ago, y’all)

It is an imposing, beautiful structure that I can hardly believe just exists in the middle Nashville, Tennessee.

Immediately upon getting out of the car, I was taking pictures from every angle, knowing that none of them would ever really do it justice. It’s the kind of structure that makes you feel small, and when I asked my sister (who graciously obliged) to take off running down one of the cement pathways, I was reminded just how small we are.

Cute, but small.

From there, we made our way to the Belmont Mansion.

Located on the Belmont University campus, the Belmont Mansion is listed as the largest house built in Tennessee prior to the Civil War. Moving from room to room (and trying desperately to abide by the “no touching” rules) we learned about Adelicia Acklen and her crazy life, which included three husbands, ten children (six of which died young), and of course, this expansive property which, at the time of completion, included lavish gardens, and a zoo.

Next, we headed to the historic Ryman auditorium. After checking in for our tour, we were led into a side room to watch what I assumed would be a standard informative film about the building. Instead, it was a fun, creative performance that not only taught us about the history of the Ryman, but made me both excited and invested in its (hopefully) bright and prosperous future.

At approximately 4:00pm, we were more or less starving. It had been a slow onset of travel hanger that I think, if left unchecked for much longer, could have escalated into violence. Thankfully, we found the Assembly Food Hall that had (among other things) chicken, pizza, edible no bake cookie dough, and alcohol just in time.

While we ate, we made a game plan for the night ahead. Tanner’s birthday was the next day and we wanted to be out celebrating on Broadway by midnight. So, we decided that everyone would meet at our place, where we would pregame and play a few rounds of beer pong and pool before heading out on the town.

We walked out of our building at about 11:55pm, so right as we reached Broadway, we stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to sing happy birthday loud and proud.

We then headed to Jason Aldean’s bar, with Tanner leading the way. He walked up to the bouncer, who checked his ID once, then twice, then said, “hey, happy birthday man” before letting him through, officially starting his career as a legal bar hopper.

Once inside, we were a little bummed to find that the second floor (the country music floor) was closed for the night, so we climbed the stairs all the way to the top floor, which was blasting hip hop music and was more reminiscent of a downtown LA club than I think any of us were hoping. We walked out onto the rooftop and cheers-ed our drinks, knowing that the night was young and there were plenty more bars to choose from.

Similar to Vegas, Broadway comes alive at night. The dark sky gives the neon a chance to really glow, asking you to “come in!” “try this place!” “check this out!” We did a slow spin on our heels, taking in all of our options, each of us willing to go wherever the birthday boy had in mind. He pointed at a bar across the street, but then decided to peek in Tin Roof first, as there was a live band playing and the lead singer had an incredible voice.

We walked in, ordered some drinks and then started dancing. Our big group made the once scant bar look like it was hosting a small wedding reception. We were high energy and already comfortable with one another. We took turns walking up to make requests until eventually the lead singer asked what had brought us all in.

“TANNER!” we all shouted back at her.

She squinted her eyes, looking for Tanner in the crowd, and then nodded, “you look like a Tanner. You look like every boy that broke my heart in high school.”

Seeing as most of us are related to Tanner, we all shook our heads defensively. “NO! Tanner is great! This is a NICE Tanner!!”

We continued to dance, our group bantering back and forth with the band. Then my aunt, Tanner’s mom, bought the band a round of shots, which prompted them to sing, “Stacy’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne, except they changed the lyrics to say, “Tanner’s mom, has got it going on!” which we all sang at the absolute top of our lungs.

At 2:30am, the band signed off and the bar started to close. We walked outside to find Broadway much quieter than we’d last seen it. We had danced for almost two hours, and I was limping like a baby giraffe in my heeled booties that had seemed like such a good/cute idea when we left the house.

A couple people stopped to get late night gyros, both to soak up some alcohol and to account for the hunger that we’d worked up dancing the night away. Then we all collapsed into bed. Ears ringing, (at least my) feet throbbing, and curiosity building for what adventures awaited us the next day—or rather, the same day, in a matter of hours.

Our Epic October Trip (Part 3: North Carolina)

On Thursday we were prepping for our third and final state hop—until our flight home of course—but we (intentionally) did not have an early flight. So, we took the morning slow, said goodbye to the DreamMore Resort sorrowfully, and then visited this Dolly Parton statue in Sevierville before sitting down at the local Cracker Barrel for breakfast.

Afterward, with a little bit of time left before our flight, we drove around the University of Tennessee. It was Homecoming weekend, so there were a few tours going on with families and prospective students, and I tried to do that thing where you pretend to look knowingly out the window, as if you go to that school and you want people to be envious of your vast wisdom of the campus. But we were trying to find the football stadium and drove by the same tour four times, so I think they might have been on to me.

Our final destination of the trip was North Carolina, where we were visiting our cousins, Spenser and Ashlynn, who moved there from California a few years back. We were headed into Halloween weekend and, not being much of a Halloween person myself, I was delighted for the spectacularly mellow version I would be experiencing. Not to mention the fact that we were teaching my cousins’ one and half year old son, Easton, how to trick or treat.

After a late night arrival on Thursday, we woke up on Friday morning relaxed and happy to be there. The fall colors were in full bloom—or as my cousin Spenser put it, “the trees had their best clothes on”—and the view out our window was dreamy.

We drove down to Franklin Street for lunch, where I tried my first ever acai bowl, which seemed wild since I’m from Los Angeles. And while I loved it, I ate it somberly, knowing that if I bought the same one in California, it would probably cost me about $45. So I tried not to get too attached for fear of getting hurt in the long run.

That night, as part of our group went to the UNC soccer game, my mom and I stayed back with Ashlynn and Easton. As Easton and I hung out in the playroom, reading books and building towers solely so we could knock them over, Ashlynn and my mom got to work on dinner, making one of my favorites, chicken pot pie. Then, as if he knew what time it was, Easton stood up and pointed at the door, as if to say, “if we head down now, mom will probably feed me dinner.”

And he was right.

Ashlynn got him all set up in his highchair and I took a seat next to him to cut up his dinner while Ashlynn kept cooking. Then, in arguably the cutest thing that has ever happened to me, Easton began to hold my hand as he ate. As in, he gave up an essential eating utensil—or rather, five—in order to hold my hand. And he continued to hold my hand all through dinner.

As it was happening, I felt like it was one of those moments that you’ll remember forever; one of those things that I’ll probably end up telling Easton 50,000 times as he grows up, always making sure to mime the way his little hand held on tightly to my middle and index fingers, making me feel like the most special person in the world. Sorry in advanced, little man.

The next day, we went curling.

Now, you may remember (or not) that wayyy back in this post, where I listed 30 things I wanted to do before I turned 30—some of which I’ve abandoned, others I’ve done, and still others I’ve added to my lifelong bucket list because time limits prove to be difficult—I put “go curling” as #26.

I’m 31 now, but like I said, we try not to be boxed in by time limits anymore, so I like to think that I manifested this at just the right time.

Spoiler alert: curling is way harder than it looks, but it is just as fun. I learned so many components that you wouldn’t know just by watching it on TV—which we do, every winter Olympics, and I will not accept slander for this.

Our coach for the day told us we were better than average for beginners. We won’t discuss whether he said that before or after we bought him a beer, we will merely take the compliment and assume he means we are approaching Olympic caliber. In telling my grandpa about our curling experience, he made sure to point out that he had been training us to do this our whole lives, as he had taught us how to sweep at a very young age. So make sure you do your chores kids, you never know where they’ll lead you.

Sunday was Halloween, which I completely forgot as we spent the morning at the lake, fishing. It was the most relaxed I’d been on Halloween in a while, as I didn’t have a single party to worry about attending, or the nagging decision on what costume to wear—should it be the one I’ve worn for the last four years, or should I branch out, be fun, and hate it?—and I was just happy to be looking at the water, watching everyone reel in fish, and wondering if the swimmers that we saw swim at least a mile’s distance across the lake were okay and/or Olympians.

That night, I will admit, my Halloween spirit did flicker on, but only because Easton was wearing a doctor costume and I thought I might explode over the cuteness. Plus, I was awarded the prestigious honor to carry our bright purple candy bag, which I would hold open for him to throw each piece of candy into, and then we would all cheer for him, which he loved.

Once we got home, we went into full middle school candy swap mode, and dumped our spoils out on the table before methodically picking our pieces one by one. My adult teeth were wondering what on earth was going on as I stuffed Laffy Taffy’s into my mouth for the first time since high school, but my tastebuds were like, “FINALLY, we’ve missed you! This b*tch eats too many vegetables now.”

On Monday morning, as my dad and my sister’s boyfriend (who had met us in North Carolina for the last leg of our trip) flew home, my mom, sister and I hopped in the car with Spenser to check off one of my 2020 goals.

In doing some research for our trip, I found that one of the World’s Largest Roadside Attractions (which I commonly refer to as WLRA’s) was not only in North Carolina, but within an hour from my cousins’ house.

If you’re ever in High Point, NC, also known as the “furniture capital of the world”—which we quickly understood when we saw approximately 100 furniture stores, including one called “Furniture Land” that had north and south wings—check out the world’s largest chest of drawers. It is wonderful and strange and worth every minute of the drive. Plus, I hear they paint the socks different colors every once in a while—which might only be exciting and interesting to me and I accept that.

On Tuesday, November 2nd, almost two full weeks since we left home, we boarded our final flight (second to last if you want to get technical and count the connection), bidding our adventure farewell.

I waited until we landed in Burbank and got our luggage to say, “that was perfect!” because we truly had about as few missteps as you can have on a vacation, with no missed flight, lost luggage, wrong turn, or disagreement. We’d taken a clean break from everything back home and it felt nearly impossible to go back.

I’ll admit though, there were parts of me that were ready to return to my routine. Sometimes I find certain parts of vacation stressful because I don’t know what to expect, which in turn leads to anxiety regarding the expectations of how I think people want me to react to whatever is coming next. There was also a part of me that was relieved to spend time alone, because when you are on vacation, it is all about socialization and going with the flow of the crowd, as you don’t want to hold anyone back from doing anything they might not have the opportunity to do again.

But as I sat on the plane home, letting the vacation marinate in my mind, I felt incredibly grateful for each and every day of the trip, and nostalgic for it, even though we hadn’t yet left its orbit.

I missed waking up, excited that we weren’t going home the next day (or the next day, or the next.) I missed just existing in each day, knowing I had no responsibilities, no chores, and none of my normal worries. I even missed the unfamiliarity of driving through each new place, never knowing what was going to be on the other side of a particular hill, or around a certain street corner. I liked being able to peek into neighboring car windows, knowing it was going to be someone I’d never seen before, or to look over at families and couples at restaurants, wondering if they were visiting too, or if they’d been born here, grew up here, and were now building their own lives here. I liked noticing what was around me, because at home it is so easy to become numb and overexposed to my normal streets and crowds.

It was hard going back to work, and stressful to jump back into a routine that I’d abandoned for what felt like forever. But now, each day I wake up, each day I go through the comforts and stresses of normal, I know I’m one day closer my next adventure, and I can’t wait to see where that takes me.

Our Epic October Trip (Part 2: Arkansas & Tennessee)

On Friday, we had an early flight to Arkansas, where we planned to spend the weekend with my cousin Brittney and her family. On our agenda was nothing and everything, all of which was made ten times better because we were finally back in Arkansas, where we always dipped a little bit into a southern accent and felt like we belonged.

Plus, since we were visiting family, there was no awkward warm up. Once we arrived at Brittney and Scott (her husband’s) house, we just sat down on the couch and started talking. Nora (their six-year-old daughter) showed us a fun package she’d gotten in the mail, and Landon (their nine-year-old son) told us all about his birthday party that happened the weekend before.

On Saturday morning, we went to Landon and Nora’s soccer games, where we weaved into the crowd and sat on the sidelines, cheering them on as if we’d always been there, and on Saturday night we made chicken tacos a la a delicious rotisserie chicken from the store—making sure to take time to snap the wishbone to see who got a wish (Nora)—and chocolate chip cookies for dinner. Then we sat outside and carved pumpkins as the sun went down.

On Sunday, the boys got up and headed out to another soccer game, while the girls stayed in our pajamas, taking our morning slooow. We sipped coffee, read picture books, and attempted a very complicated Frozen themed Lego castle, before heading out to a local bookfair, getting manicures, having lunch, and then coming home and watching The Aristocats on the couch—all the makings of a perfect girl’s day.

On Sunday night, as bedtime loomed for Nora and our noon flight the next day ticked closer to take off, I found myself looking around the room the same way I’d done in Texas. Though Grammie wasn’t necessarily a taboo topic at home, sitting with Brittney, who’d known her as well as we did, we often found ourselves telling stories and cracking up laughing as we remembered her. It made her feel alive again. And it made me feel closer to Brittney, Nora, and my mom and sister, as she was a part of all of us. It made me feel more like myself.

It was then that I realized this trip was about so much more than escape or adventure—it wasn’t about running away, it was about coming home. And all the many kinds of homes that there are to come home to.

On Monday October 25th, we said our goodbyes first thing in the morning, as the kids went off to school and Scott went to work, and then we headed to the airport for our mid-day flight.

Our next stop was, at first, one that had only been sent in what if type text messages. It was a dream pit stop. One we assumed would stay in the “one day” category for a long time. But when we landed in Knoxville, Tennessee and picked up our rental car; when we put the directions into the GPS and drove the hour south to Pigeon Forge; when we came up over the hill and saw the sign accented with butterflies; and when we were given our room keys and a menu for an in-room breakfast that included coffee and homemade cinnamon bread—we knew we were really going to Dollywood.

Staying at the DreamMore Resort was leaps and bounds more than we could have anticipated. It was extra in the classiest way—with the toiler paper being pressed with the hotel logo, the hallways being decked out with Dolly Parton album covers, the floor being covered in butterflies, and the gift shop stocked with (affordable!) Dolly Parton merchandise.

On our first night, we cozied up on the couch to watch a Hallmark movie while we decided whether to order one loaf of cinnamon bread or two. Then we collapsed into sleep until we were pleasantly and politely woken up the next morning by the delivery of said cinnamon bread—hot and fresh from the oven.

The first thing on our agenda for the day was to get massages. Because if we were going to do Dollywood, we were going to do it right. We each booked a 50-minute Himalayan Salt Stone Massage, which, even to this day I’m not sure exactly what that meant, except that it was magical and I almost got emotional when my masseuse told me she was finished, because I could have easily laid there for an additional hour without flinching.

Then, after a quick bite to eat, we returned to our room, where we layered up and grabbed the car keys before heading out the door again.

Booked for 3:00 p.m. that day, was our Pink Jeep Adventure Tour. We booked the Newfound Gap tour, but there are five total options that can give you different sites and viewpoints, depending on what you’re looking for.

For our tour, we started in Pigeon Forge and then headed towards Gatlinburg and into Smoky Mountains National Park. Then we drove up to Newfound Gap where we saw a piece of the Appalachian trail, the Tennessee/North Carolina border, and some absolutely incredible views! Along the way, our tour guide made a couple of stops and let us get out to walk around and take pictures, and when we made it to the top, we had a half hour to take in the majestic beauty we were surrounded with.

On our way back to the depot, we put our jeep to the test on a brief but exciting 4×4 off-road experience, that included a sheer drop off that was known as “pucker hill” for reasons that I will not disclose here, but that you can perhaps use your imagination to figure out.

After we got back, we went to dinner at the restaurant inside the DreamMore Resort called Song & Hearth. It was a southern, buffet style restaurant where we ate entirely too much but that I will talk of fondly for a long time. Then we took piping hot showers to defrost from the jeep tour (even though it’s of note that the jeeps are heated, so we weren’t as cold as we could have been, but being from Southern California, we were still more or less popsicles) and got in our pajamas.

The next morning, we woke up bright and (not too) early and headed down to the Dollywood tram, because as part of our stay we were given early access into the theme park. The theme park itself had been our initial draw in coming to Tennessee, as Dolly Parton is one of my sister’s all-time favorites. Needless to say, we were ready to go hard in the theme park. We wanted to see every inch of it, try all of the food, and practically throw our credit cards at people to buy all of the things.

So, we started with pastries.

At a bakery just inside the entrance, a small line had already formed (and would only get longer as the day went on) as people picked up coffees and pastries. One such option was 25 POUND apple pie. You could either buy it by the slice or the whole toddler sized pie, and I’ll tell you, even at 9:30 in the morning, that cashier was cranking out slices. We opted for a cinnamon roll and a pumpkin muffin, both of which were delicious and the perfect way to start our day.

It was a brisk morning. The kind where you know you’ll feel better once the sun gets right above you, but for some reason it seems to be taking its time. At certain points, as we did our initial walk through the park, we would race into patches of sun to warm our bones. Next to the exit of one of the rollercoasters, we found a wooden fence that was in direct sunlight and we placed our frozen hands on the smooth, warm surface—an act that might have been embarrassing if a handful of people didn’t watch and then do the exact same thing.

I am not really a rollercoaster person, as I get motion sick very easily, but there were a good handful of rides inside Dollywood, which kind of surprised me. I opted to try one called Blazing Fury, which was fun and relatively mellow (and inside where it was warm), and while I enjoyed it, my hands shook for about an hour afterward, because I am very cool and brave.

Later on, my mom and sister rode both the Dragonflier and the Tennessee Tornado, the latter of which had three loops (because they actually are very cool and brave), and I contently sat on a bench reading the map and drinking my water—my happy place.

Throughout the day, we tried to hit everything. We toured the Chasing Rainbows museum, which paid homage to Dolly’s entire career thus far; we walked around on her tour bus, which was beautiful and roomy; we rode the coal fired train; we awed at the model of her tiny, Tennessee mountain home, where she grew up with her parents and eleven siblings; and we perused the rows of artisans participating in the annual harvest festival, which had the entire park decked out in fall and Halloween décor. Once the sun went down, we took a final walk through the beautifully lit decorations that now came to life with new character and attitude, and then we got back on the tram and headed back to the hotel for some dinner, another hot shower, and a cozy night in.  

Our Epic October Trip (Part 1: Texas)

Sometime around mid-May, I mapped out a trip on my computer. Things were starting to open back up again, restrictions were being lifted due to the increasing availability of the vaccine, and I wanted to get the HECK out of town.

At first, it started as a crazy idea. A whirlwind. Practically a tour—if we were a small indie band just starting out. But when I laid out the plan for my mom and sister, they were in, without hesitation.

So, we booked it. Five flights (which would turn into eight by the end due to connections and layovers), four states, and almost two full weeks’ worth of vacation. We booked it for October, which, at the time, felt like it was forever away.

But then, on Tuesday October 20th, as I clocked out of work and drove home, I realized that we’d finally made it. Our flight to Texas was at 9:30 the next morning.

I also realized I should probably finish packing.

Packing, to me, is like chess. I try to make everything fit perfectly, in the most neat and organized fashion, and I aim to wear every single thing that I pack. I pack as if you could “win” packing. As if someone will be waiting for me when I return home and hand me an award. But then, while I’m actually on the vacation, I tend to inexplicably hate most everything I pack, and so I impulsively buy an emotional support sweatshirt, which makes my suitcase bulky and unorganized, thus I have to unpack it immediately upon arriving home or I will spontaneously combust.

Other than that, I’m a pretty chill traveler.

I know the lay of the land. I’m the one who has the flight number on hand and will check our bags and print our boarding passes. I’m the one who has a miscellaneous assortment of snacks and drugs (i.e., Benadryl, Dramamine and Advil) in my purse. I am a mom traveler—alert, prepared and with no time to take any shit, and I thrive in that environment.

The purpose of this trip was mostly to visit family. Since we hadn’t seen hardly anyone throughout the whole of 2020, this was practically a revenge vacation. It was our chance to see everyone and everything that we missed—plus a few fun bonuses along the way.

Our first stop was Dallas Fort Worth, where we were set to visit our surrogate grandparents, Jim and June—who I wrote about in this post.

If I’m being honest, it was the stop I was most nervous about.

In years past, my mom, sister and I had taken multiple trips a year to Arkansas to visit my great aunt Evelyn and Jim and June, as well as my cousin Brittney and her family. Arkansas was (and is) our happy place. It was where we found we could truly relax. It was a home away from home—the “home” sometimes being interchangeable in a way that we were at times unsure where we belonged more. A few years ago however, aunt Evelyn passed away. She hadn’t been doing well for a little while, and we’d been visiting as often as we could, staying with Jim and June whenever we were in town. The last time we were there, it had been for Aunt Evelyn’s funeral and June worried that we wouldn’t come back.

“You’ll come back and visit me, won’t you?” she asked us.

Us four girls always had the best time together. Sometimes I felt like we were a little bit too much for Jim, but he was always a good sport, going about his routine while we sat around talking and giggling for hours.

“Of course, we will,” we said. But no matter how many times we said it, I couldn’t help but notice that she didn’t believe us. She had no idea how much we loved her. How fondly we spoke about her back home. How quickly we wanted to come back every time we left.

Since we’d last seen them, Jim and June had moved to Texas to live with their daughter Shannon, since it was no longer safe for them to live on their own. And while we were excited to finally see them, we couldn’t help but wonder what toll the move and the past two years had had on them. Selfishly, we wanted them to be exactly the same, to be everything we remembered so this visit wouldn’t be hard or sad. But no matter what we were walking into, we wanted June to know that we’d kept our promise, for her to know that we’d made it back to her as quick as we could, and to tell her that we loved her.

On Thursday morning, after spending the night at our hotel, we drove over to Shannon’s house to spend the day with them. Upon walking in, it was clear that June had lost a lot of weight and was struggling with her vision, and if Jim recognized us, it was only in short, silent waves. But that didn’t stop us from finding those moments of laughter, of reminiscing, and talking about everything we could think of, just the way we used to in their little house in Arkansas.

“I couldn’t sleep last night, I was so excited to see y’all,” June said as we sat on the couch beside her. My heart swelled.

It had been my Grammie, my mom’s mom, that first met June all the way back in first grade, and they’d always kept in touch, even when Grammie moved to California with her family. As a result, for a long time, for me, June was just a character I occasionally heard about in stories. But then, when we started visiting Aunt Evelyn more frequently, June became a real live person. And after Aunt Evelyn moved into a care facility and we started staying with Jim and June, June became our person.  She became like a third grandma to me and my sister, and a connection to my Grammie for my mom.

So as we sat in Shannon’s living room, talking to June, I couldn’t help but think about that moment in first grade, when June and Grammie walked to school together, not knowing how far this friendship would take them. Thinking about it, I felt like Grammie was in the room with us, along with Aunt Evelyn, each of them sitting in an empty seat on the couch. I ached at the thought that one day June would be sitting with them rather than us; when they will all just be characters in stories I tell my kids one day. But as we got ready to leave and June hugged us each twice, I knew that she’d always be real to us—always be close by, and always be a piece of home that I’d hold on to, no matter where I ended up.

“I love you,” she said as we headed out the door.

“We love you too,” we said.

“You’ll come back and see me, won’t you?”

“Always.”

A Whole Lot of Oooooh-tah! (Day 3&4)

 August 22, 2020

There are some vacations that sit you in front of your suitcase each morning, agonizing over what to wear, wondering how fashionable you should go, how formal, how casual, how comfortable, how functional, whether you should bring a jacket, or an umbrella, or an extra pair of shoes. But my favorite part about a vacation that centers around nature, hiking, fishing, and just being outside, is that your outfit just has to go, and by that I mean it just has to move with you wherever you might go and support you in whatever you might do—including keeping you out of jail for indecent exposure. So when I woke up Saturday morning knowing I was headed into another day of adventuring, I slipped into another pair of leggings and a t-shirt, along with some tennis shoes, and I was ready to go.

Just after 9:30 a.m., we walked in the door of a gas station in Kamas, to try their infamously delicious donuts.  I picked out a sprinkle donut, and Natalee chose some sort of twist that was as big as her arm—because obviously.

Then we carried on to Mill Hollow to fish, where I took exactly three pictures, the last three pictures I would take the entire trip. (This still bums me out, but it also makes sense when you hear the rest.)

We fished for a couple hours, only managing to catch a couple, but the time went quick as we took in the lake and watched families enjoy their afternoons swimming, stand up paddle boarding, and kayaking.

Around 12:00 p.m. we made the drive back home, where we planned to eat some lunch, rally, and make the most of our afternoon before we had to get back and get ready for our dinner reservation.

Thus, over some countertop sandwiches, we made this plan:

We would rent e-bikes from a park down the street, take the bike path downtown, and then walk around the shops for a little while.

I’d love to have pictures that accompany this plan and its unfolding, but I never took my phone out of my purse, because a) I was “being in the moment” and “looking at the scenery,” and (more accurately) b) I am a level 0 bike rider who was not prepared for the kick of an e-bike, thus I “rode” the bike path in the way a baby giraffe might walk.  I wobbled, I panicked, I spoke to the bike as if it were a person who might understand commands like “slow down”, and at one point, when a bump approached, my foot slipped off the pedal and it jammed into the back of my leg, which birthed a bruise I am still sporting two weeks later.

So it’s safe to say I won’t be signing up for the Tour de France any time soon.

But you gotta love a bike that does the work for you when you’re going uphill in high elevation. And in the end, we made it to town and were able to walk around and check out some awesome shops and boutiques, including Create Park City, which is a collection of work from local artists that I would highly recommend checking out if you’re ever in the area!

We then headed back to take some quick showers and head to Silver Star for dinner, where I ate my first ever elk burger, and drank two glasses of red wine, which eased the sting of the trip almost coming to a close, and made me forget about the bruise on my leg, which by morning would look like a dragon egg.

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August 23, 2020

On our final morning in Utah, I woke up to the familiar sun shining on my now familiar pillow under my now familiar blanket. It was all as it should be and had been for the last four days—though there was something else in the air too.

FEAR.

Sorry, I should have eased us into that.  I should have said, the sweet aroma of French toast being cooked downstairs for breakfast, or the ache of missing this trip and these people before we’d even left. But while those both hung in the air as well, sweetly and neatly, there was also fear.

Our plan for the day was to float the Weber River and I. Was. Terrified.

You see, similar to my skill level of riding bikes, my confidence level in water is low. Can I swim? Yes. Can I tread water if my life depends on it? Yes. Can I sit in a slow moving tube and confidently navigate small rapids without immediately assuming I’m on the verge of drowning? No.

And I have no good reason why.

I have no previous trauma involving water, especially not with a tube involved, but I have always been someone who just does better on land. If I go to the beach, I read on a towel in the sand. If I go to a pool, I wade in the shallow end. I like being on solid ground. So sitting in a tube with my legs up, unable to touch the ground, immediately sends off warning signs for me. Thus, what looks like a minor rapid to most, looks like a slide into the pits of doom to me.

I laughed out loud writing that. Both because it’s ridiculous and because it’s true.

There were about 10 of us in our group, and after we arrived at the entry point to the Weber River, we each put our tube in the water and tried to acclimate our legs to the temperature of the river. Then, on the count of three, we hopped into our tubes and started our float. And because water is a mischievous monster who can sense fear, my tube somehow caught a current that immediately sent me about a football field length ahead of everyone else.

So there I was. Alone. Floating. Shivering. Wondering if I had everything in order back home in case I drowned. I made friends with a man who was leisurely floating the river with his girlfriend, both of whom thought I was some bold, independent woman, when I was in fact a terrified baby who was gripping onto her tube as if it was my only source of oxygen.

Luckily, eventually, the group caught up to me, and when they did I gripped so hard onto the arm of a boy I’d just met earlier that day, that it had to look (and feel, I imagine) like I was trying to absorb some of his calm demeanor through my forearm a la the science of Space Jam.

In the two hours or so we floated the river, I never ended up falling out of my tube, which I consider a success, both for me and for anyone who might have had to witness me panicking as if I were being dragged underneath the rapids by Poseidon himself rather than just being bumped out of an inner tube in hip deep water. And while I can’t say I particularly loved the experience, as it just isn’t my thing, I was proud of myself for doing it. I’m also thankful for the random woman who applauded me at the finish, and for the hug I received from our friend Kelly. Both solidified the pride I felt and the assumption I had that my fear was as easy to read as my pale, white legs were easy to spot.

On the drive home, we stopped for burgers and fries, and then it was a quick shower and drive to the airport so that we could make our flight home. Sitting in the terminal, with damp hair, a bag of gummy worms I was eating underneath my mask, and a sweatshirt I’d just impulse bought in the gift shop sitting in my lap, I let the trip wash over me. While it had gone fast, I felt like we’d made the most of each day, which in turn made the trip feel long—in a good way. It had felt like a true breakaway from everything and it was hard to reconcile going back.

But now, even after being home for over two weeks, I can still look at the picture of our fishing spot and remember the peace and the space and I can reconnect to that moment of just relaxing and thinking about the good things the future might hold. And while I’m already ready for our next adventure, I don’t think I’ll forget this one anytime soon—both emotionally and physically, as I still have that bruise on my leg, and a bruise on both butt cheeks that a few sneaky rocks in the river gave me as souvenirs. #survivor.


Read Day 1 & 2 here.

A Whole Lot of Oooooh-tah! (Day 1&2)

Note: Throughout the entirety of this mini vacation all rules were followed, restrictions were taken seriously, and masks were worn when required, so please don’t come at me. I just want to tell you about a pretty place I went and how I ended up with bruises on both of my butt cheeks.

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August 20, 2020

After being picked up at the Salt Lake City airport late Wednesday night, I woke up on Thursday morning to a Park City sun shining on the pillow of a comfy bed, tucked under a warm blanket as a cool breeze came in through my open window. If you’re from Southern California (like me) or somewhere else where words like “breeze”, “blanket”, or “open window” are completely foreign and borderline triggering during this onslaught of August & September heat, you’ll know how much happiness these things brought to even the earliest moments of my day.

Having planned this trip to Utah over two months earlier, unsure of the potential travel restrictions or outside access we might have, my sister and I felt blessed to simply be somewhere other than our living room. Honestly, we would have embraced just sitting in a different living room if the laws prevented us from doing anything else. But, thankfully and mercifully, we were allowed to go exploring outside. Before we did that however, I did one of the inside things I’d wanted to do for oh. so. long.

I got a haircut.

Sitting in the chair at the salon, I asked the stylist to chop off the four or five inches that had grown down my shoulders since March. And as she went to work, talking on and off about the anxiety she was feeling about her daughter returning to school that morning, I couldn’t tell who was more excited about the haircut.

“Oh my gosh, this is happening, this is so exciting!” she said as my brown hair began to fall on the floor around me. I think it was therapeutic for both of us. I felt like I was chopping off the mop that quarantine built, and she was chopping at her anxiety snip by snip.

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Next on the agenda, we piled into the car and headed to Willow Heights Trail, which would not only serve as a welcome to Utah but a welcome to *elevation*. Having spent a good amount of time in elevation while training for Whitney, I was less nervous than I might have been otherwise, but that didn’t mean 8,000 feet didn’t make itself known.

Hello, it said, take your time.

And so we did.

After walking a mile or so to the lake at the top, we sat down on a few rocks to enjoy the lunches we packed. Within a few seconds however, a female duck and her eight ducklings came swimming and then charging up the bank towards us, squeaking and quacking and opening their beaks, waiting for us to toss them some scraps.

Were they cute? Yes.

Was it weird and strange and utterly delightful to be approached so closely by ducks? Yes.

But did it get old pretty fast, especially when they started pecking at our shoes and following us around in a way that suggested that at any minute they might go into attack mode and kill us? YOU BETTER BELIEVE IT.

This is when they gave up on us and returned to the water to commence hiding in plain sight until their next victim arrived.

After our hike, we stopped in on a waterfall, and the headed to Normal Club ice cream to have our lives casually changed forever.

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To finish off the day, we headed to a spot on the Weber River to fish. And while we gave it our best effort, our perseverance, our sweat, and, in my case, a little bit of blood thanks to my biggest catch of the day being my own finger, all but one of us came up empty. But it’s hard to be mad when this is your view.

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August 21, 2020

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

It’s me, elevation!

First thing Friday morning we headed to the Uintas (pronounced you-in-tuhs) to hike Bald Mountain, which had a starting elevation of 10,500 feet. I felt a little nervous heading into the hike, wondering if perhaps my sea-level life was going to catch up to me eventually, but aside from a few friendly reminders from my lungs not to laugh too hard, talk too loud, or burst into occasional song as I like to do, the hike went relatively well. The trail was rocky, and at times felt like walking up a long flight of uneven stairs, but small steps—and for the faint of heart or fearing of heights, a close eye on the ground rather than the long way down—were the key. I got to the top feeling very accomplished, and a little mischievous. Which is perhaps why, alongside this photo of the view:

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I also took this picture, while saying, out loud, “my dad is going to hate this”:

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From Bald Mountain we drove to Trial Lake and set up camp on the muddy banks to spend the afternoon fishing. Feeling a little let down by the previous day’s success, I threw a line in without big expectations, and instead stared off into the distance and let myself think.

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Throughout the day we had been talking a lot about the future. What we want to do, and where we might want to live (other than California). And with everything going on in the world and in my own life, I felt like I hadn’t had time to consider questions like these in a long time. But with the quiet of the lake and the tangible space offered up by the trees and water and sky—not to mention the complete lack of cell service—I felt like I finally had the time. Not about what I had to do today or what I should do tomorrow, but what I was doing and how I was feeling in that very moment. It was almost overwhelming—having the freedom to just exist—and it stirred up a lot inside me that I hadn’t even known was there. It also brought back some of my luck. In the three or so hours we were there, I caught seven fish, including this guy, who is the prettiest fish I ever did catch.

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On the way home, we stopped at “The Notch” for dinner, where we ate burgers and sandwiches, had some wine and beer and Kentucky mules, and talked about the day, about some favorite memories, and about how small this great big world is sometimes. Then we drove back and went to bed early, all of us spent in the way only a good, full day can make you.


Read Day 3 & 4 here.

Goodbye Paris, Hello World (Our European Adventure: Day 10&11)

June 22nd, 2019:

It would take a long time for me to ever get used to sleeping in, yawning and looking out the window of my hotel room to see Paris, but with the warm welcome it had given us over the last two days, I looked out at the already sunny city, tipped my imaginary, bed head filled hat, and said good morning.

There were no concrete plans on the agenda today, just nine people ready to see the city and their iPhones ready to help them do it. So we set off from our hotel and walked down the streets of our new temporary neighborhood to O Coffee.

Since the group of us was so large and the restaurant was so small, we were met outside by the kind, Australian owner, who offered to take our order and prepare it for takeaway. We got five avocado toasts, four banana breads, a few coffees, a couple orange juices, and an apple juice, and then the owner threw in some madeleines for us to try. Everything was absolutely delicious and I could not recommend this place more.

As we ate, we came up with a plan:

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Starting at the Arc de Triomphe, we would walk down the Ave de Champs Elysees to do some shopping and sightseeing, and then follow the Seine River all the way up to Notre Dame. It was a three mile walk that we figured would be more like five when we added in browsing steps, but we were ready and the day was beautiful and so we finished our last bites of breakfast—and I spilled most of my apple juice—and then we were off.

The Arc de Triomphe is probably one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Built to honor the lives lost in the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, it is imposingly stunning. It is also the center of one of the scariest intersections I’ve ever seen in my life.

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The Champs Elysees reminded me of Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. Huge designer stores lined the street and they tempted you to come in and spend money you definitely didn’t have. At one point we walked into a Sephora that made me say, “I can’t believe we haven’t reached the back yet.” On top of that, the street was freckled with beautiful greenery, including this little patch that I actually volunteered to have my picture taken in.

The Grand Palais, while we didn’t go inside, was gorgeous and made me want to go to Rome, and the Petit Palais made us all laugh because the phrase “small palace” is one that both contradicts itself and doesn’t exist in our day-to-day vocabulary. If I ever make my way back to Paris, I will go inside these beautiful museums, but for this day, we fell in love just looking at them.

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The Pont des Artes, the “bridge of arts”, is most famously known for the love locks people used to clip to its chain link. In 2015, all of the locks were removed because they were too heavy for the bridge and were causing parts of it to crumble. This however, has not stopped people from clipping locks to other bridges. On our walk, we came across a bridge named the Passerelle Léopold-Sédar-Senghor, which has started to collect locks of its own.

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The Louvre was something my museum loving heart was over the moon to see in person. After seeing pictures of it and hearing references to it for my entire time as an undergraduate art student, actually finding myself in front of it’s famous pyramidal structure was pretty surreal. We didn’t go inside, but only because we decided to save that for the next morning when we could buy tickets in advanced and skip the lines. But since the courtyard was so pretty and the nearby restaurant, Le Café Marly, came so highly recommended, we decided to have lunch there.

I ordered what had become a favorite of mine in French cafes, a croque-madame, which is a fried ham and cheese sandwich with a fried egg on top. I didn’t take a picture of any that I ate, but to give you an idea of this true gift to humankind, please look at this photo from this recipe on foodnetwork.com:

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IMG_7494Sainte Chapelle was one of the only places that we took the time to stand in line and go inside to see, and I’m so glad that we did. I had heard that it was a beautiful church, but nothing really prepared me for how beautiful. We walked around on the first floor thinking it was amazing, but when we climbed the stairs to the second floor the line of us gasped in a row like dominoes. I was speechless.

Notre Dame, while tragically having been damaged in a fire not long before we arrived, was still gorgeous. Even as someone who doesn’t know nearly enough about its history and the grandeur that it has held in the city for so many years, my heart ached looking at the large pieces that were missing and the construction that was going on trying to repair it.

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As a final stop to cap off our day, we walked to Berthillon ice cream. It came recommended from a friend of my aunt’s, but it was clear when we got there that this was no well-kept secret. Multiple shops holding the same name were open mere meters from each other, and all of them had lines out the door. I got one scoop of dark chocolate and one scoop of salted caramel (because #saltedcaramelforever), and while they were delicious, I was bummed by the shop’s “no free samples” policy and I still think about the fig ice cream I left behind. #I’llneverfig-etyou

Now, I understand this next part might bring shame/judgment/open mouth gapes but I’m here to say that we did it, we don’t regret it, and we would 100% do it again.

That night, after getting back to our hotel and showering, napping and freshening up, we went…back to McDonalds for dinner. I know, I know, we’re in Paris, what are we doing at McDonalds two nights in a row? And to that I say: LIVING.

I will tell you right now, Parisian McDonalds is better than American McDonalds and there is absolutely no way you can change my mind. After having an iconic egg mcmuffin the night before, my sister and I both ordered the goat cheese chicken wrap and then I ordered a Kit Kat McFlurry. I mean, how dare you, Paris. How absolutely dare you.

We then walked back to Eif and took a seat on the lawn to watch him sparkle. Because what else can you do when you’ve had a wonderful day besides end it with a dose of pure magic?

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June 23rd, 2019:

For our very last day in Paris, we woke up a little early and immediately made our way back into the city.

Since we hadn’t truly experienced a Parisian sidewalk café, we took a seat at Café de la Comedie and took in the beautiful morning. My sister and I ordered the breakfast special which was the equivalent of the petit dejeuner we had in Epernay and I was in absolute bliss.

From breakfast we walked over to the Louvre, where I’d purchased nine tickets online the night before. NOW, listen carefully here because apparently this is a mistake that people make all the time.

In buying nine tickets, I apparently flagged us as being a “group”—as a note, this label is given to any amount of people greater than six—and as a group we were apparently required to be assigned a guide and were supposed to meet said guide in the “group reception area”. So when we got in line and our tickets didn’t work, we were sent to this area where a man behind a desk told me there were no guides and it would be impossible to get one and I should not have bought “group tickets” if I did not want a guide. Oh, and also my tickets were non-refundable and that he couldn’t do anything to help.

First of all, no.

Second of all, if this happens all the time, don’t you think that’s an issue you should deal with, Louvre?

Third of all, we’re in Paris, I paid good money for these tickets and I WILL be going inside.

Needless to say, after walking up and down the stairs a few times and talking to four or five different people, we were eventually let inside. And was it worth it? YES.

I was floored by both the art and the museum itself. Once I was in and amongst the work, my frustration with the (clearly poorly designed) website and the (not nearly as helpful or sympathetic as they could have been) staff, melted away. I also got to say hi to Mo, though she seemed a little busy with some other fans at the time.

From the Louvre we headed to lunch at an Australian café called Café Oz and it was…well, a conundrum you might say. The menu was a hodgepodge of options including burgers, risotto, and chicken parmesan—all of which we ordered by the way—and they had a picture of the All Blacks (the New Zealand national rugby team) on the wall, which is practically a sin in an Australian themed bar. Like I said, a conundrum.

For our very last night in Paris and the very last day of our trip, we decided to go out in style. We had 8:00 p.m. reservations on a Seine River Cruise and we’d paid €5 extra for front row seats—which was totally worth it! For an hour and a half we glided along the river, seeing the sights from a whole new angle, and seeing the people of Paris enjoying their evening as much as we were.

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We saw friends chatting and laughing and comforting one another. We saw couples sharing snacks and smiling and staring off into the setting sun. We saw people walking and running and biking and salsa dancing. We’d all had a different day, and yet we were all here, in Paris, watching the same sunset, so that we could wake up again tomorrow and start over.

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As sad as we were for our trip to be over, we were happy to be going home. It was going to feel good to be back in our own world, in our own homes, in our own beds and get back on our own schedules. But as we watched the Eiffel Tower light up for the final time that night, I took note of all of the people around me. Maybe some of them would be leaving tomorrow too. Maybe others had only just got here. Maybe others just moved here and others still had lived here their whole lives.

No matter our stories, no matter our backgrounds or our likes or dislikes, we were together in that moment and we were sharing the awe of the Eiffel Tower. And even if none us would ever see each other again, there was still something special about that moment. It was our own little piece of history that we’d always share. Just like our trip will be something that the nine of us will always share. In the grand scheme of things, these 11 days will be a blip, but to us they will mean the world. And at the end of the day, it’s about remembering those moments because those moments are the world.

 

 

When in France… (Our European Adventure: Day 8&9)

June 20th, 2019:

So, as you can probably imagine by now, THERE. WE. WERE.

Our suitcases were upstairs, tightly packed and (miraculously) zipped, and we had twin taxis scheduled to pick us up at 10:30 a.m. for our 1:15 p.m. train. We were headed to Paris and I was fully intending to have bread at every meal.

The prospect of taking what my sister began calling the “submarine train” from London to Paris was a little unnerving. But we were all excited and I couldn’t wait to see it in action…

…so naturally, I fell asleep.

When I woke up, we were in Paris.

I’ll admit, this nap was a little more off putting than most. It’s one thing to wake up in another country, it’s a whole other thing to wake up in a country whose first language is not your own.

Our group waded through the crowds at the train station, trying to figure out where we could go to find information on where we should go. Then, after some thorough footwork by my dad and Aunt Tracy, and the help of a nice French man who spoke English, we all purchased metro tickets.

Now, I’m not here to start any arguments, but I will say that the Paris metro is, just, well, not as great as the tube in London. We packed our way in, trying not to run over any French feet with our suitcases, and kept our eye on the map, counting down the stops until our own.

Once we were off the metro and back above ground, we trekked through the streets of Paris in search of the Adagio, and when we arrived we were surprised to find we’d been given a room with THIS view:

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After the shock of that (kind of) wore off, food was obviously our next priority. So as soon as we were unpacked and freshened up, we were back out on the city streets, soaking in the Parisian sun with arms outstretched and smiles spread wide.

Le Pareloup came recommended by Google, and if I could recommend anything it would be the egg mayonnaise, which are hardboiled eggs cut in half with mayonnaise on top. YUM.

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After dinner, as the sun made its final descent into the horizon, we walked to the Eiffel Tower, which was only a mile or so from our hotel. On our way there, we stopped at a pop up pastry shop and ordered waffles and froyo, and then took a seat on the lawn and waited for the magic to start.

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Once the sun was officially down (at around 10:00 p.m.), the Eiffel Tower, who we immediately started calling “Eif”—because yes, we nickname everyone and everything—started to glow a deep yellowish orange We oohed and awed and took around 1000 pictures, and then settled in for part two.

Then the wind started to pick up.

Dressed in our sun soaking clothes, the breeze came as an unwelcome surprise. We began to bundle and huddle and pace, counting down the minutes until 11:00 p.m., when Eif would really shine. And though it was tough. Though we were shivering and chattering and all out whining for the time to just move faster, the moment that clock struck the hour and Eif started to sparkle, everything else kind of melted away.

We sat in stunned silence, all of our eyes reflecting the glistening lights and we smiled.

Oh my gosh, I thought to myself. This place, this tower, this city, it’s real. It’s real, I’m real and I’m here. I’m actually here.

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June 21st, 2019:

Our first morning in Paris started early. Making our way back to the train station, we grabbed a light breakfast at Starbucks and then boarded the train to Epernay.

Located in northern France, Epernay is known for its champagne houses, including Moet Chandon. My Uncle Bruce and Aunt Tracy are huge champagne drinkers and had long considered visiting Epernay a bucket list experience. So we’d booked a tasting tour with Moet Chandon at 4:45 p.m., but decided to get to Epernay early so we could take our time and explore the city beforehand.

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Our first stop was breakfast.

We found Le Khedive on our walk into the city from the train station, and upon taking a seat at a large table outside, our waiter placed this sign next to our table:

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The petit dejeuner, “breakfast”, consisted of a hot beverage (tea or coffee), a glass of orange juice, a croissant, and two pieces of bread with butter and jam. So, you know, basically everything good in life.

Almost everyone at our table ordered the petit dejeuner, and to go along with it, we ordered two bottles of champagne. Because you know what they say, “when in France, eat carbs and drink champagne—even if it’s 10:00 a.m.” And for the rest of the day, we did just that.

Time moved both slowly and quickly as we sauntered up and down the streets of Epernay, stopping in at different champagne houses for tastings.

We went to Collard Picard, where we sat on the back patio pretending we were sipping champagne in the countryside of France—oh wait, WE WERE.

We went to Paul-Etienne Saint Germain, where we divided into groups and ordered three, three glass tastings that each included detailed descriptions and specifically instructed tasting orders from the host, and after each round we would vote on our favorites and cheer when we liked the same thing.

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We went to Michel Gonet where we began talking a little louder and laughing a little easier and when we ordered a second round of tasters the host misunderstood it as seven bottles to purchase and we had to kindly decline his beautifully wrapped bottles of champagne.

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By the time we made it to lunch, we were all feeling champayHEYHEY, if you catch my drift, and we binge ate our food as if it was the last meal we’d ever be given in our lifetimes.

(in case you’re wondering what “champayheyhey” looks like)

From there, we headed to our 4:45 p.m. tour with Moet Chandon, where we got to learn a little history about the champagne industry that we’d been ever so supportive of during our day in Epernay. With two more samples there, we capped off our afternoon and walked back to the train station to board our train home.

Since the wind was blowing even harder that night, we decided to forego a visit to Eif, even though he was looking ever so handsome as we passed him in the Uber ride back to our hotel. Instead, we decided to close out our day of elegance and sophistication in the best way we knew how: ordering McDonalds for delivery.

As I sat in my sweatpants eating my Egg McMuffin at the table in our hotel room, looking out at our expansive view of the city, I thought to myself, damn, this is luxury. And then I ate one too many french fries, and went to bed.


Read Day 10 & 11 here.

Salted Caramel & the Buck (Our European Adventure: Day 6&7)

June 18th, 2019:

So there we were, boarding a plane in Ireland. It would be a short flight. Like, 10 hours shorter than our flight to Ireland and I was determined to soak in every minute.

So naturally, I fell asleep.

When I woke up, we were in London.

My mom, sister and I had been to London before, but it was over 10 years ago and the only thing I remember is hiding in a red phone booth from the wind, and the time we all got separated on the tube and thought maybe we’d just be lost in London forever.

So while we weren’t a wealth of information on the city and its history, we did know how to handle the tube. We knew to move quickly and mind the gap, and we brought that wisdom to our group of nine as we boarded at Heathrow Airport.

For my dad and Uncle Bruce, the tube, while slightly overwhelming at first, was a welcome change to the high anxiety driving they’d been doing for the last five days. So when I showed them a screenshot of the directions to our hotel via maps and they realized they just had to sit back and relax, I think I visibly saw three or so years added back on to their life.

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Once we made it to our hotel, we checked our bags into the luggage room (because that is apparently a thing in hotels that I am just finding out about now?) and then headed to Nando’s.

If you are unfamiliar with Nando’s, it’s a South African restaurant chain (popular basically everywhere except the US) that specializes in Peri-Peri chicken. When we walked in, our waiter told us to pick our chicken, pick our spice level and pick our sides. Most of our group chose the Lemon & Herb spice level (I went with plain because #babytastebuds) and then our side selections included garlic bread, fries, roasted veggies and corn on the cob. It was all delicious and I miss it already. Unfortunately for my fellow US dwellers, as of now you can only find Nando’s in Chicago and DC. #nandNO.

Being a group on foot now, after finishing our lunch, we again pulled out our phones for directions, this time to some nearby landmarks. We were prepared to walk off our lunch—if only to earn an even bigger and better dinner.

Our first stop was Hyde Park.

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Having spent the last five days in Ireland, our awe-tolerance had gone up. We weren’t going to be impressed with just anything. But as we walked into Hyde Park, we couldn’t help but “wow” and “okay, beautiful” and “oh my gosh” our way through the expansive green gardens and scenic pathways.

At one point a man ran by us, seemingly on a casual afternoon run, and I audibly gasped, thinking, he gets to run through THIS every day? An average run for me consists of a high school, a Subway, and that one house with a really great tree.

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Nevertheless, we made our way through Hyde Park, stopping in at Kensington Palace, the Wellington Arch and Royal Albert Hall to take all the touristy pictures and make all the touristy comments. I apologize to anyone and everyone who might have overheard our terrible British accents. We were just trying to sound classy and charming and less, you know, DUDE than we do back home.

(Which you can tell we are nailing in this photo)

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Our ultimate destination of the day was Buckingham Palace, which we almost immediately started referring to as “the Buck.” I can’t tell you why, because I honestly don’t remember which one of us started saying it first. But I like to think it was our way of making the prospect of seeing such an iconic building more casual.

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Once we’d thoroughly exhausted our cameras in front of the Buck, we all suddenly became very aware at how tired we were. Unbeknownst to us and our touring ways, we’d walked a total of almost six miles and were desperately in need of a nap.

Vacation pro-tip: a perfect itinerary always leaves room for a nap.

So, we hopped back on the tube, officially checked into our hotel, and promptly crashed for about an hour.

Right around 7:00 p.m., we headed out in search of food and landed at Phoenix, where the food was delicious (I highly recommend the Chickpea burger!) and our drinks were even better (if you’re into sweet drinks, try a Strawberry Woo Woo—trust me.)

Afterward, we moseyed our way into Snowflake Luxury Gelato where we learned—and I can’t stress this enough—that Salted Caramel is the best and only flavor you should ever order, thank you and goodnight. (The thank you being for Snowflake Luxury Gelato for their gelato service, and the goodnight for every other gelato flavor because take a seat.)

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June 19th, 2019:

When planning our trip to Ireland, I spent a lot of time booking things in advanced. But when it came to London, our group decided to play a lot of things by ear. So as we ate breakfast at our hotel Wednesday morning, I was Googling possible plans for our day in between bites of a croissant and sips of a mimosa.

“Okay,” I said, holding my phone up to our group like it was a tri-fold presentation in a high school science class. “Picture this.

I then took them on a hypothetical journey of our possible day, complete with dramatic hand motions and an aptly timed announcer voice. When I received an overall enthusiastic nod of approval, we all stood up, got in a circle and did a youth soccer hands in! cheer to send us off.

Okay, so we didn’t do that last part, but honestly, we should have.

Being tube regulars now (or, you know three timers) we walked to our nearby station as casually as if it were the frozen yogurt place down the street from our house.

“Where are we headed first?” my dad asked.

“Harrods.”

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The department store giant that is Harrods was something that I’d only ever heard about and never thought I’d actually see. But now, having been there and spent a hefty amount of time walking around/getting lost inside the seemingly endless collection of shops, I understand why it’s a “you have to see it to believe it” type of places.

There was whiskey literally more expensive than my entire livelihood. There was champagne that shot confetti when you opened it. There were jackets and scarves and gloves so soft that I almost got emotional. But perhaps the most fascinating thing we found among the twists and turning of the Harrods hallways were these displays that allowed you to squeeze a rubber handle you might find on a perfume bottle and lower your nose to the mouth of what looked like a trumpet so you could smell whatever was displayed under the glass dome. My favorite was “leather glove.”

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From Harrods we took the tube to Piccadilly Circus, which is like the London equivalent of Times Square. People moved in seemingly every direction and cars and double decker buses drove in what I can only describe as complete chaos. We stared up at tall marquees and listened to a street performer sing Ed Sheeran and trick naïve tourists into thinking that Beyoncé was arriving shortly to perform “Perfect” alongside him.

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For lunch we ate at St. James Tavern, and then we got back on the move, navigating our way through the misty London day to Westminster Abbey. On our way there, as we were passing through Parliament Square, we noticed a long line of taxis, none of which were moving. Then, when the man in the first taxi started to move, every single taxi to follow began honking. Turns out, there was a full-blown taxi protest happening in front of Parliament. We would later learn (from our own taxi driver) it was in response to the rise of Uber and the damage it was doing to their business, and while I can’t make any comments on this since I don’t really have the grounds to, I can say that the protest itself was pretty badass.

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For our last site of the day, we got off the tube at Tower Hill to see the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. We also had plans of seeing the Crown Jewels, but discovered the exhibit had closed a mere 15 minutes before we arrived. By that time however, nothing could get us down, because the sun had come out and was glistening off the River Thames, making our afternoon in the city absolutely beautiful.

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That night, we walked to Santorini—the Greek restaurant near our hotel, not the city 2,000 miles away—and if there was ever a time to say I miss a specific food, I can truly and honestly say I will dream about their fried feta rolls for the rest of my life. Cue that middle graduation song that makes everyone cry.

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Knowing it was our last night in London, we decided to go HARD…

…so we went back to the same gelato place because #saltedcaramelforever.

We then finished the night with a few drinks at the Beachcomber. And as we made our final walk back to our hotel, I was happy to commit all of the sites and sounds from the last two days to memory. In fact, as I glanced up and down the streets of what had become our temporary neighborhood, I imagined what it would be like to call this place home.

It’s a weird feeling to imagine yourself living and growing in a different city, different country, different continent than your own, but there’s something about falling in love with a new place that makes you think it might be possible. That’s not to say I got home and repacked my bags or start international job-hunting, but it was a good reminder of just how big our world is. There is so much to see, to learn and to experience. And in those new discoveries we find new pieces of ourselves. So should you ever get the chance to travel, be it one hour from your house or thousands of miles, go. See more. Do more. And learn. Always learn.


Read Day 8 & 9 here.