My First Week in Paris

It was a cold, rainy, Autumn day when I arrived in Paris on October 15th, 2015. And it was absolutely perfect.  The clouds broke through as we descended on the outskirts of Paris and I was tense with anticipation from the long journey from New York through Iceland onward to France.  We landed at Charles de Gaulle airport and I nervously gathered my things as I prepared to step off the plane.  I was quickly greeted with the “Bienvenue en France” sign and the sound of French automated instructions over the loud speakers at the baggage claim area. I waited for my ride near the exit, looking for a kind gentleman by the name of Richard who was on staff with the organization I was set to volunteer with for a few weeks.  He found me in the airport and helped me with my 2 suitcases and 1 huge backpack, my whole life in 3 pieces of luggage.

We drove quite a ways to reach the village of Ozoir la Ferrière which is about 45 minutes from the center of Paris by train on the RER.  I enjoyed the scenery on that rainy day heading through the ancient French towns and admiring the architecture and small European vehicles and all the French signs.  It was like I woke up in a dream that day.  My host family was a British/American couple on staff with Agape France who had been in France for over 30 years.  Their little farmhouse cottage was located in the next village over, Liverdy-en-Brie, which was quaint and cozy, and just a minute walk to the town bakery which was literally the only boulangerie in this beautiful village surrounded by fields and flowers.  My favorite part of this village was what stood in the center. A century-old stone cathedral, poised with wisdom and grace in its old age, standing strong on the same foundation built so long ago.

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The first day was spent acclimating to the new time zone, 7 hours ahead of my hometown in Tennessee. After much needed rest time, I joined my hosts for church the next day and their daily activities.  My first day volunteering in the office, I met the Agape France staff at the Office Headquarters. This is where I would be volunteering for the next 2 to 3 weeks.  The staff team was so friendly and welcoming and I was able to help with several administrative duties while I was there to do my volunteer work-exchange.  My host family was so sweet and accommodating and also helpful with tips on local travel and how to get around Paris.

By Day 3, I was prepared to head to Paris. I remembered my French class in college where my instructor made us learn navigation skills through the Paris metro and asking for directions.  Little did I know that 5 years later it would become necessary to navigate the huge Parisian train system myself!  It made me very aware and thankful for the little moments of synchronicity along my journey in the past which prepared me for the future.

On Saturday, October 17th, 2015 — I took my first venture into the city.  I took the RER train into the city all the way to the exit “Charles de Gaulle Étoile” where the famous L’Arc de Triomphe stands.  I anxiously stepped off the train, ascended the stairs and when I turned around, there it was.  The grand, monumental arch with 12 streets stemming from this one roundabout.  Busy traffic buzzing by as pedestrians stand underneath this giant monument.  I gasped with excitement as I took my first video and picture in the city.  I could see the top of the Eiffel Tower peeking over the city buildings from this location. I couldn’t believe I was finally here in this city I had dreamed of exploring for so many years.  My senses were fully alive to the sights and sounds around me.

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From the L’Arc de Triomphe, I headed straight down the Champs-Élysées with my end destination being the Louvre Palace and Museum.  I walked cheerfully past prominent stores like Montblanc and Louis Vuitton, Cartier and more.  A man walking next to me hurriedly, obviously en route to somewhere, quickly asked me, “Excusez-moi, mademoiselle. Avez-vous l’heure?”  I smiled at him and a bit shocked that he so naturally spoke to me in French, apparently not knowing that I wasn’t a local.  I responded, “Oui! Oui, bien sûr (nervously, he was very handsome), “Il est neuf heures trente-quatre.”  I remembered the time exactly that morning because that moment was my first time speaking to a Parisian.  The young man thanked me with a, “Merci!  Bonne journée!”  (Thank you!  Have a great day!)

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I arrived at a restaurant minutes later and feasted on my first Parisian breakfast that morning.  Croissants, jam, eggs, toast, fruit, coffee, and orange juice.  It was perfect.  I walked straight towards the Louvre after breakfast, passing monuments along the way and eventually arriving at the Les Jardins des Tuileries (The Tuileries Gardens approaching the Louvre Museum and Palace).  It was slightly raining, people leisurely sitting around the fountain in bistro chairs, umbrellas in hand, a sweet couple conversing.  The unstaged scene, yet picture-perfect; people enjoying the day fully.  It was real life and it was stunningly beautiful and romantic.  If there is such a thing as a perfect day, this was it.  I think the quintessence of life is made up of imperfectly perfect moments. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year…”   And with that notion, indeed, that day was the best day, a perfect day, and a day I will never forget… the day I first saw Paris with my own eyes.

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My total of three weeks in Paris I spent wandering around the massive city, full of its own smaller districts, exploring and getting lost on purpose, wandering into cafés and restaurants, eating the most delicious food, meeting locals, drinking coffee and wine, smelling the cigarettes as I passed by the outdoor terrasses, and seeing all the sights I could.  It rained a lot in Autumn and I didn’t mind one bit. I found my favorite cafes and spots including Le Maraïs district with my favorite coffee shop Le Peleton Café.  I made friends there quickly and helped write a display on their store front window since they had just opened weeks prior.  I discovered my favorite restaurant near Pont Neuf, Ma Salle a Mangé, with the best Boeuf Bourgogne and Crème Brulée I had ever tasted.

I visited the Montmartre district and the Sacre-Coeur which was one of my favorite locations in the city.  One of my last days in Paris, I climbed the 300 stairs up and back down to get one of the best views of the city with La Tour Eiffel.  I posted on Facebook that day, November 1st, 2015:

If you want an amazing view of the city of Paris–it’s worth it to go to the top of the dome of the Sacré-Cœur. It’s cheaper (6€) and the view is one of the best in the city! I teared up because as I was climbing the 300 stairs of the dome I could hear the echo of the choir inside the Sacré-Cœur as they’re having mass. It was so beautiful I teared up. It was heavenly! What an amazing day in the city before heading to Lyon tomorrow. I’m grateful every day for this journey. Every moment and every blessing is counted. The challenges, the gifts, the joy– all of it is a gift. All of it is part of the adventure. The adventure of being alive and living every day to the fullest where ever you are in the world! ‪#‎joy‬ ‪#‎paris‬

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Taking a Year Off to Travel the World: The Risks & The Rewards

IMG_9813In October 2015 I packed all of my life into three suitcases, sold everything I owned, and decided I wanted to travel the world for a year at 27 years old. When I set out to head to France on October 14th, 2015 for three months, I had basic plans but no full agenda as far as where I would spend my time during those months or even after Europe.  But somehow it all came together each day and week as I created my next plan, each step leading me to the next, and all it took was me actually stepping out into the unknown. My two-week trip to Guadeloupe in the Summer of 2014, one of the French Caribbean Islands, ultimately connected me to France.  And my week in Iceland connected me to Canada’s west coast where I spent the majority of 2016, creating a year long travel journey that I recently returned from in October 2016.12523881_10100977390833298_8338156731853570186_n

The journey might have seemed somewhat counter-cultural at the time.  After all, I quit my job at a renown company in April 2015 after two and a half years.  I started my own business which allowed me to gradually transition, and I operated my business and did other contract side jobs until everything clicked in August 2015 after a two-week trip visiting friends in California.

Was it risky?  Yes.  Was it brave?   Yes. Was it “selfish”?  No.  Was it what I wanted and the best decision for me?  Absolutely.

I put selfish in quotation marks because I grew up in a small town, that’s not so small anymore, and I grew up in a conservative culture where giving to others was most important. But what about giving to ourselves?  Loving ourselves?  To religious communities this concept might sound foreign or post-modern as some would call it, but I call it common sense.  I believe that God and this Universal love that connects us all–absolutely wants us to live healthy, happy, and whole lives.  If we live our lives constantly for others… striving to be the best we can be by measuring up to others’ expectations instead of our own….focusing on performance and the status quo… an invisible code of conduct and set of rules… the societal norm. If we really never stand up and ask the tough questions, we’ll end up feeling like we don’t exist at all and that our voice is null and we are just surviving the routine of day-to-day life, being shaped by a culture that we have become desensitized to.

paris profile picOne of my favorite teachers from high school said a profound quote my senior year. She said, “If you don’t make your own decisions in this world, you don’t truly exist.” Thanks, Karen Roberson!  This statement has stuck with me.  And a few years ago, I found that I wanted to settle for more. I asked myself the tough questions, “What do I want and need?”  “What does this season look like for me?”  I think it’s fair and healthy to focus on ourselves, love ourselves, and be the healthiest and best version of ourselves that we can be. Because it is from that place that we can healthily and wholly love others well and we can then operate from a place of authenticity instead of performance.

I’ve had many of my friends say to me, “I’m proud of you for doing you, and stepping out boldly and doing what you want to do for your life, not based on others’ expectations.” I really appreciated that because in a culture where people sometimes get married younger, it can seem like your life looks really different at least in your early twenties.  But then around 25, I had this epiphany that my journey and timeline was going to look somewhat different. And I wanted it that way.  I wanted the best timing for me. We all want to be able to relate to our friends in all seasons but I just think it’s important to live our lives on our own personal timeline and how we want to live, not pressured by society.  So now I have friends in all seasons of life and I’m grateful to learn from them and to share life together.

And this topic begs the question, why does every woman’s life have to look the same?  Or every person for that matter?  What if our stories didn’t have to look exactly like everyone else’s?  What if people’s lives aren’t perfectly ordered along the same timeline?  Everyone’s journey is different.  There are people who don’t go to college, people who can’t have kids, and the list goes on.  I could not limit myself to standby and just think that there was only one way to live my life in our society or that I had to operate on a certain timeline or in a certain way– I wanted what I needed for my journey, and I wanted to do things for me and my life that I had always wanted and didn’t even know I wanted until I paused and asked myself that hard question-“What do you want?”  [In my mind, I saw the scene from The Notebook, where Noah asks Allie the same darn thing.  What do you want?  What do you want?!]  I wanted to know who I was before I decided to find a long-term partner.  I wanted to know my own voice and what makes me come alive.  I wanted to be sure of who I was and who I wasn’t.

Now that I’m getting my bearings for my next direction — I’ve reflected a lot on the past few years and the incredible journey that I was able to take this past year. I also realized that I learned so much about myself and life and had many harsh realizations, a big one being that not all friends will make the journey with you and not all friends are as close as you thought.  I’ve always cared deeply about my friendships because I wanted to be the type of friend that I wanted in my life and be the best friend I could be, but then I realized that friendships go in seasons just as life does. And holding onto friends that are no longer supposed to be in your life that season really doesn’t serve you well at all, or them.  I realized that I didn’t have to put so much pressure on myself to be the perfect friend and maintain all my friendships.  I trusted that my real friendships would naturally flow and they did.  And I trusted that my new connections would come, and they did.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway.”

I also realized that there is much more judgment in the world than I ever thought possible and I learned that people would criticize and question me for my unconventional year off. But the beautiful thing was, when I left for France, I stopped caring about any of that criticism.  Maybe it’s the wisdom we gain as we live life and get older and we go through hard seasons and we learn.  Experience really is the best teacher. At a certain point in your life, you have to realize that it’s ok if everyone doesn’t approve of you or what you’re doing in your life.  It doesn’t matter what others think.  As long as it’s healthy and within reason and you have real friends who can be honest with you if you’re not making healthy decisions for your life, we simply have to do what’s best for us.  We should never feel shame or guilt for our joy and our success.

Brené Brown, in her book, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough” says, “It’s actually not our failure that we fear, it’s our greatness.”  And that’s true.  We’ve all experienced it — something goes right in your life and others seem uncomfortable.  But that should never stop us from moving forward.  We can’t get stuck in people-pleasing, that’s not fair to yourself or anyone.  I used to be a chronic people-pleaser.  Now I focus on genuine kindness that’s in balance with who I am and I don’t overextend myself.  And never mistake my kindness for weakness.

The more you love yourself and stop apologizing for your life and successes, the more you can celebrate others’ successes.  You no longer feel threatened by the success of others, but instead you own your life and voice and are then able to celebrate and be present to others.

img_0280.jpgI wrote a vision board for 2016 that said, “The world needs your untamed spirit and your bold ideas.”  “Don’t dim your light for anyone.”  The best thing we can do for ourselves and the world is to shine brightly with all your gifts and passions, flaws and imperfections, and all of your humanity.  Because that’s what changes the world.  Choose self-esteem, not arrogance.  You can know your worth and honor the worth of others at the same time.

When we do something in our lives that is different or if we change and evolve, even in the smallest ways, there can be criticism that comes our way.  Questions like: “How are you able to do that?  What about your family? What about a career? What about getting married and having kids? ”  I learned over time about how to deal with the critics and was increasingly grateful for the friends who celebrated with me. I’m sure these are things that people in all seasons of life go through.  Once you are dating someone, are you guys going to get married?  Once you’re married, when are you going to have kids?  Once you have one kid, when are you going to have another kid?  When are you going to buy a house?  I’m sure it only gets increasingly more complicated and pressured for women to compare themselves as they transition to other life phases.  What does their marriage look like?  Do they have the same experiences?  Is she a better wife or mother?  Is she this, or that?  We all experience this. It doesn’t matter if we’re single, coupled, married, or divorced, parents, not parents, etc. The good news is: it just doesn’t matter.  Choose confidence, not comparison.  It will change your life, I promise.  Be content and grateful for what you have and set intentions on where you want to go.  What matters is that you are living your life and that you know what you want for your life to be healthy, happy, and whole.  Don’t get so caught up in scrolling through other people’s lives on Facebook and forget to see your own right in front of you.

Work and Job Security

So what about work and coming back from traveling?  What about job security?  Well, I think the truth is, job security is somewhat an illusion.  People unexpectedly lose their jobs, the economy can crash, and we have to take risks to get where we want to be.  Maybe that’s starting a new job or starting a new business venture.  It looks different for everyone.  But I knew that the risk of quitting my job and making an international move was worth the reward. The experience, the lessons, the friendships, the connections.Guadeloupe

My two weeks on the French Caribbean Island of Guadeloupe led me to working with an organization in France and connected me to my gracious host for 2+ months in Lyon, France.  I was able to visit Switzerland and the village where my family is from and honor my heritage.  And my last week in Europe was spent in Iceland which connected me to Canada where I worked and lived for 7 months on the west coast of Vancouver Island.  And I know more connections will come.

I think we have to utilize our skills and passions, and my fluency in the French language has been a great asset to me.  I also have had many potential employers commend me for my year of traveling — it shows courage and confidence, it shows skill and the ability to navigate and utilize resources. It showed my diverse management experience and my work in several different industries and cultures, and so much more.  So I am always proud to list my past and future travels on my resume.

Coming back from traveling can present certain challenges — you might have to do contract or freelance work for a while or odd jobs, but many people who follow their passions and dreams do the same — musicians, artists, travelers, and more.

So don’t be afraid to take time off and a working holiday — the right employers will validate your experience and you’ll have no problem making the next career move if you use the same courage it took to travel the world in the first place.  It also allows space to consider new job paths and opportunities and exploring creative ways of making a living.

Money:  How in the H*** Can You Afford To Travel?

This has always been a popular question.  And often my response has been, how can you not afford it?  I couldn’t afford not to go and risk everything for this grand adventure of a lifetime and the experiences that have shaped me into who I am today.  I think so often we wait to do things in life until it’s the “right time”, until we can afford it securely or until everything seems perfect.  But that’s an elusive goal, and I think the time is always now.  From what I’ve experienced in my 28 years, the time will never be just perfect. Getting creative and resourceful with our income and provisions is mostly the key…I sold everything I owned and anything I didn’t need for traveling, including my car.  I had a savings and arrangements for volunteer work exchanges abroad, as well as contract opportunities. When it comes to living your dreams and making things happen, you really have to do whatever it takes to get there and trust that the next steps will come, and they always did.

Many travel bloggers focus on just travel tips and top things to see and others cover the stories and experiences from their travels.  I like to focus on both because I love sharing tips for others to gain insight from as well as share the stories and experiences of my journey because it’s those unique moments and life-changing lessons that made up my travel journey as well.  I learned so much from people all around the globe and I am so grateful for every experience and every person I met.

To check out my travel tips and resources:  How to Plan & Pay for Your Next Adventure

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There are also multiple ways to travel.  I have visited many places over the past 14 years, doing many mission trips and volunteer works from Puerto Rico, across the U.S., to the Dominican Republic, and Guadeloupe, the French Caribbean island. I have a passion for volunteer work and helping non-profit organizations.  I’ve done a lot of this type of work which has opened up many opportunities for travel as a perk to being a part of some amazing causes and missions around the globe.  I often invested my own money in funding volunteer trips as well as raised funds for part of the costs through non-profit organizations.

Another way I’ve been able to travel to several places around the world and the U.S. is personal connections and friendships.  I’ve met people from all over the world and have become friends with some amazing people that have hosted me over the years.  I’ve done travels out west in Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, California, and Washington on several adventure trips.  I’ve worked as a trip leader for organizations, opting to camp for lodging which is very affordable and fun and has led to many amazing adventure trips with friends.

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I think there are many ways to incorporate travel in your life — volunteer work and work exchanges, vacationing, working for global organizations, and more.  I love vacationing with friends and family, and I’ve appreciated many of my travels by spending time in places solo for longer periods of time.  I get to be a part of the local culture and experience what it’s like to live in each place and I’ve met some amazing people that way.  And I wouldn’t have met these people most likely had I not been traveling solo.  In every city I’ve been in around the globe, I’ve dined with people from all over the world, sharing our stories and experiences over food and drinks, and journeying together on adventures.

There are many ways to travel affordably and find amazing deals on airfare even if you haven’t racked up points for flights, etc.  When I’m planning a trip, I’m always looking for the cheapest route to get to my destination.  It doesn’t have to be the shortest route, which is often the most expensive.  I want the best route, and I’m willing to extend my travel to do that, especially if you’re planning a trip closer to your departure date, you’ll want as many costs cut as possible.

For example, when I booked my trip to Vancouver Island in Canada in February 2016, I looked up all possible ways to get there.  The cheapest way was to fly from Nashville to Seattle, and I had a friend who lives in Seattle who hosted me en route to Canada. I took the ferry from Seattle, Washington to Victoria, British Columbia, and then I took a 6-hour bus ride to my destination.  So my total cost to get to the west coast of Canada ended up being around $325. Yes, really.

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If you do the research, and take the time to find the best prices, it’s incredible what kinds of travel deals you can get.  It also helped that when I traveled to Europe it was off-season, in the Fall, so prices were cheaper.  I chose to go through Iceland because trans-Atlantic flights are much cheaper!  And the timing was just incredible when I booked my travel to Canada, so I also waited for the right timing and found incredible prices on travel fares.

The base line here is — traveling can be very, very affordable.  There are so many deals and ways to travel out there, it just takes finding them.  For example, when I headed to California in August 2015 to spend 2 weeks with my friends in LA — I had some people questioning how I was able to do this. [It’s none of their business, some might say-which is true. But nonetheless, there’s no shame in traveling and enjoying life and doing what’s best for you, whatever that might be. Whether that’s getting fit, seeking a new job, anything. Don’t let anyone shame you for your joy and success.  The reason we can know joy and success is because we can also know sadness and failure. And we learn what to do and not to do, and we focus on being the best version of ourselves we can be. And…umm…everyone deserves a vacation!]

Knowing I didn’t have to explain, I did choose to shed light on how I was able to visit my friends in Cali and make that 2 week trip happen by being resourceful.  These factors included:  being on the brink of starting a potential new job that I ultimately didn’t take because the opportunity to head to France was right in front of me.  The company I was going to start working with couldn’t bring me on board until the end of August and I had 2 weeks free in between.  I had a free flight with Southwest from Rapid Reward points that accumulated from my previous job. I had friends who graciously hosted me for 2 weeks in their homes, and all I had to pay for was food, some transportation costs, and Disneyland. And, I had never been to Disneyland at 27 years old, so umm….it was about time!!! 🙂  And I gifted my friends of course for hosting me by covering a meal, etc.   I would have had the same food costs and similar expenses as I did in TN for 2 weeks, so my expenses for that trip were very affordable. It sounds much different when you hear the reality vs. just looking at someone’s life through Facebook. 😉    So utilize those travel resources, free flights and points, and do your research!!  Don’t apologize for it either. And take every opportunity you can get to travel!

Safety: How To Travel the World Solo as a Woman

backpack victoriaThere are many women every day and every year who travel the world solo, backpack in hand, and no fear in their hearts.  The notion that women should be on guard constantly is mostly a fear-based media and movie concept.  It is important however to be vigilant regardless if you’re male or female and take precautions in potentially dangerous situations.  The world is beautiful and loving and also can be harsh and unsafe.  But we can’t live out of fear.

For solo travel safety tips and resources, you can visit my page here: A Girl’s Guide to Solo Travel & Safety While Living Abroad

One of the things I love about traveling solo is waking up in a strange city ready to explore uncharted territory.  It’s such an adventure!  Many times  I stay in one place for a long time so it becomes like home and I know the areas very well.  I prefer to travel that way to experience the local life and learn from the people and their culture. It’s one of the reasons I love travel… exploring different cultures!  Things that are different from me. 🙂 Sometimes it takes adjustments and it doesn’t mean there are never challenges, but my love for travel and adventure exceeds the fear that might ever arise. I’ve had a place of my own for most of my adult life and I was happier with very little, selling everything I didn’t need and packing my life in a suitcase 🙂  I found that less was more. I was happier with that freedom of being a nomad!  Don’t get me wrong, I like nice things 🙂 I just like to keep it simple too. So I knew that when the time came for me to have a place of my own again, I would move forward in that direction. But I plan to always travel affordably and keep a home place in one city and venture out from there, whether that’s solo or with friends or a partner.  My parents have lovingly hosted me in between my travels and for the holidays. So it’s nice to have a place to call home to come back to!

“The reward of a thing well done is having done it.”    Ralph Waldo Emerson

Many rewards speak for themselves — the experience of seeing beautiful, foreign places and people; exploring different cultures and learning from them; seeing what it means to be a global citizen and not just a citizen from your homeland; you see and learn history tangibly and from different perspectives than just your history books; you make friends around the globe; taste food you’ve never seen before; and most importantly — you find yourself and discover more about yourself than you ever did in your comfortable apartment and city.  You go beyond what you thought you could, you push yourself, you step out of your comfort zone into the unknown, and you learn how to trust yourself and your voice.  You become more you every day along the journey.  Because instead of acquiring more, you have shed what you don’t need and everything that you’re not. Layer by layer, you begin to see your core and what you are made of; not things or ideologies, but truth and beauty and energy and life.  And you meet other people along the way who are doing just the same, and moving forward every step of the way.

In my travels, I learned so much about not only myself but also life lessons in general. Things that have shaped me into who I am today.  I learned more about relationships and communication and how to let go and own who you are and not care about others opinions or let them affect you. The reality is, seasons change and people get disconnected or our lives change and evolve and that’s ok.  Some people are only supposed to be in your life for certain seasons and the people that are meant to be in your life in each season will be there, no doubt.  I learned a few years ago that it’s ok to let go and to move forward with your own life and not try to hold onto every friendship, because it’s not possible. You change, they change. It’s life. So you move forward and trust the ebb and flow of life and the seasons.

There will undoubtedly be people who are uncomfortable as you transition into a new phase or new season in your life. There may be people uncomfortable with you transforming or growing. Even if you’re cheering them on in their endeavors and celebrating them and their successes, you may still get weird reactions.  Because we’re human. But it’s not about you in those moments. It’s ok to still be you. You may have critics or haters, people who question you and who you are, but you must stay focused on who you are and your journey.  It’s important to have real friends in your life that are there for you, know the real you, support you, and can also be real with you if they’re concerned about you.

You want friends who are honest with you and want what’s best for you, not friends who criticize your every move or peace out when things start going well for you.  You want friends in your life that show up for you, where you can mutually celebrate each other’s successes and happiness, and encourage each other through the hard seasons. If a friendship is one-sided and mostly full of criticism, walk away.  If someone doesn’t genuinely want you to succeed, or is happy to see you fail (harsh, but true), or can’t be happy for you and celebrate with you in your successes and happiness and well being, please let them go.  Don’t allow them in your life. We get to choose who we let in and who we surround ourselves with. I think our relationships are one of the most important things in life.  So I think it’s important to choose friends who we can be our best selves with, and not apologize for it; friends who we can be our real selves with; friends who can handle us, our strengths and our shortcomings because we’re human; friends who uplift us, who add joy and energy to our lives, and who ultimately enhance our lives for the better and don’t bring us down.

Ultimately, don’t give up on you. Don’t give up on your dreams. Show up for yourself. Know your voice. Own who you are and own your confidence. You can do so much more than you ever thought you could and you can go so much farther than you ever thought you could go.

You will have some friends that will stay close and connected, where you will always pick up where you leave off.

Wherever you go and however you grow and blossom, you will have friends that may peace out, friends in different seasons that can no longer relate to you, even friends who you’ve celebrated in each of their life seasons, and you have celebrated their successes and happiness and their adventures in love and marriage and kids.  And you can know it’s still ok to move on and be different and to have a different journey. The timing of your seasons may look different, and it’s ok to let go.  You must go on your journey anyway.

You must trust that your journey and path is yours, and it doesn’t have to look like everyone else’s or the societal or cultural norm. Dare to be different if that’s where it leads you. Because the reward is worth it.  It’s not that those friends you’ve known for years no longer may support you, it’s that it doesn’t matter anymore if they do or don’t. Because  you didn’t need anyone else to believe in you, you believed in yourself.

Through every advenRelated imageture, you learn how to trust yourself and your voice, how to handle challenges of all kinds and you finally can take the time to be alone with yourself and to get to know you a little more. You not only discover places all around the world, you discover the places within yourself that you never knew existed, passions, gifts, desires, and that in itself is an adventure.  And you’ll discover that there’s a timing for everything in each person’s journey. Always trust the timing.

As I actively wait in each season, I live and move forward into my unfolding journey. And everything I’ve wanted to do up until this point, I’ve done. I have many more goals and dreams ahead, and I’m content at the same time with the things I’ve accomplished and the dreams I’ve realized at this point in my life.  And I’m grateful beyond words.

IMG_2662We must honor each season as it happens and all the people in that season. My Aussie friend Kristin, who I met while living in Canada, inspired me with many great life lessons and stories and perspectives. I love her dearly and she has been an important part of my journey and is now a sister-friend who I’ll always be grateful for.  I cherish the season we shared and all the adventures we had. I will never forget some of the many tokens of wisdom she shared. “People come into your life for either a reason, a season, or a lifetime.” “And never doubt yourself, especially not because of anyone else.  You’re a strong woman, never forget who you are. Stay confident and keep living your life and not giving a f***.”  Right on. Thanks for that, Wilso.

Love yourself well, love your friends and family well, and let them go if the time comes. Surrender to your own path, and trust the ebb and flow of each season and each relationship and opportunity in your life. Life will naturally ebb and flow just as the ocean does.  The ocean even has its own rhythm.

We get one journey, one life to live.  Make sure it’s your life that you’re living and that it’s filled with authenticity.  Make sure it’s you making your decisions. And most definitely–own your story 🙂

Here’s to an adventurous and transformative 2017!

Cheers ~ Sonya

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A Girl’s Guide to Solo Travel & Safety While Living Abroad

How to Plan & Pay for Your Next Adventure

 

 

A Girl’s Guide to Solo Travel & Safety While Living Abroad

versailles profile picAs a woman, this question gets posed frequently: “Aren’t you scared to travel alone as a female?”  The answer for me is, no.  I have always loved traveling alone — it’s fun to explore and get lost in a city and have no certain agenda. You can take as much time as you want in certain locations.  It’s all part of the adventure of solo travel.  I also love traveling with friends of course and adventure buddies. But I wouldn’t have met some of the people I have in my travels had I not been solo. I’ve made several friends along the way, dined with people from all over the world who were also traveling alone, and had coffee with locals and expats in each city.  And because I chose to travel alone, I have learned so much about other cultures, countries, their history, as well as American history.

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I don’t let fear keep me from moving forward.  I take the necessary precautions and I stay confident and informed. I am a strong advocate for being alert and cautious whether you’re traveling in your home state or country or around the world. But there’s a difference between cautious and fearful. I think it’s important to not live in a fear-based mindset.  When we are constantly bombarded with the media and news which feed those fears, it can leave us reluctant to leave our homes to say the least.  But my advice would be, just be aware of where you’re traveling, the political state, and stay up to date. Use these tips and be prepared for your trip. And then travel on, my friends. Travel on.


Stay alert and informed.

Don’t put yourself in sketchy situations, trust your intuition, don’t walk alone in questionable areas, talk to locals, be aware of your surroundings, and stay informed.

Don’t make yourself a target or appear as a tourist.

When traveling alone, it’s important to blend in and stay confident. I would hang with the locals and orient myself to my surroundings.  Many people often thought I was a local, especially in France.  Speaking the French language fluently also helped.

One of the best ways to avoid being a target is not using your GPS on your phone in highly public places or on the street. If you need to search for directions, pop into a cafe quickly to get your bearings and check your map or phone.  Plan out your next route over lunch and then head out.  Ask for directions from people who work at a cafe or restaurant and know the area.  Avoid asking people on the street or in random places. If needed, go to a local information kiosk or visitor’s center.

Keeping your phone out of sight in busy places also helps to avoid cases of theft where people swipe your phone right out of your hand.  It happens in big cities. So never make your valuables easily accessible.

10520297_173136773030972_1600783352_nGuard your personal belongings on trains and when walking in crowds.

Trains & crowds are highly known for pick-pocketing so it’s important to guard your personal items. Friends and locals always encouraged me to wear my backpack on my front or position myself in a way where people couldn’t access my backpack.  I carried an over the shoulder purse (a thrifty find in Paris in fact!) which I kept on the front of my body where I could guard it.

Lock up valuables.

If you’re staying in a private room at an AirBNB, before you book, make sure it comes with a key to lock the room while you are away.  Many hostels and lodges provide a locker, and typically you must bring your own lock, or you can rent one there. I would use my combo lock that I brought with me and lock up my computer and purse at night and any other valuables during the day that I didn’t need with me.  It’s always a good idea to not carry too many valuables with you on excursions.  Just bring the basics and bare minimum.

This also includes your Passport and ID.  It’s a good idea to make two copies of your passport and ID before you travel.  Scan and e-mail those copies to yourself and a friend or family member, and keep the two paper copies in a separate place while you travel. That way, if for some reason your wallet or passport get stolen, you have a backup plan and copies of your ID.

Research the area before you arrive.

Before I traveled to a new place, I scoped out my transportation options, distances to and from my destinations, and generally researched the area.  I checked reviews on lodging and neighborhoods to make sure it was safe.  I opted for walking and the metro most of the time, but at times I would take a taxi if it was later at night or if I had my luggage with me.  Walking with friends and trusted travelers is also a great way to opt for commuting.

Don’t carry large amounts of cash on you and alert your bank beforehand.

I didn’t carry a large amount of cash on me at one time and I notified my bank before I left the country that I would be traveling internationally so they could put an alert on my account. I informed them of all the countries I planned to travel to. That way, they would only flag my card for possible fraud if any transactions were outside the norm.

But how do you control the amount of cash on hand when you have to exchange currency in each country?

I mostly used my travel debit card or “cash passport” through Travelex  that I purchased at JFK Airport in New York before heading to Europe.  I initially exchanged a portion of American currency and loaded it onto the travel debit card.  It worked just like a normal debit card where I could get cash out at the ATM.  Doing minimal international transactions and currency exchanges limited the amount of foreign transaction fees on my American account.

The Travelex Cash Passport is also really easy to use. I would go online and load currency usually every 2 weeks and withdraw cash once a week. There are also many perks to using a travel debit card.  Since the card is not automatically connected to your main bank account, someone can’t drain your account if the card were lost or stolen. They would only have access to the amount you loaded on there online from your bank which you can control. If you choose the currency card option, you also save money by getting a lower exchange rate.

Check in with people when you get from point A to point B and let others know your travel itinerary.

I checked in with either local friends or family when I left certain locations and arrived at home or at my next destination.  I sent my travel itineraries to my family and friends when I was heading to a new place or going on an excursion.  I gave them contacts of people I would be working with or staying with including organizations, hostels, and AirBNB hosts. This is always a great idea to let friends and family know of your whereabouts or have a contingency plan for trips and outdoor adventures in case you get into an emergency.  So if they don’t hear back from you by a certain time, they can know to contact someone you have listed on your travel itinerary.

So what’s the best way to use your phone internationally?

That depends on your phone carrier and available plans. I had a free Global Roaming Plan with Sprint, so I could text for free and use my unlimited data just as I did in the States.  Through that plan, phone calls cost 20 cents a minute.  So I would opt for WiFi to use WhatsApp and FaceTime Audio for phone calls.  For messaging my international friends at no charge to them, I would use Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.   Some people use SIM Cards when they travel which can be another affordable option. For me, it was easy and affordable to utilize my Global Roaming Plan with my phone carrier.

Carry extra copies of your passport, ID, and bank cards.

It’s not something you want to think about — your passport or ID being stolen or lost– but it can happen.  Make paper copies and pack them in a separate and secure place where they remain throughout the trip.  Also scan and e-mail the copies to yourself or family members.  I did both and I felt much more at ease knowing that I had extra copies on hand.

Get travel insurance.

One of the top travel insurance companies is World Nomads and they offer reasonable plans for the length of your travel.  It’s never a bad idea in case you get injured or have a dental emergency or get severely sick.  It also can protect against theft in some cases. Some countries will accept patients without travel insurance if you need to visit a clinic or pharmacy.  So you have to choose the best option for you.

This is just an overview of what worked for me during my travels and there are many more tips out there!  If you have some of your own, I would love to hear from you!

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How to Plan & Pay for Your Next Adventure

How to Plan & Pay for Your Next Adventure

Vision for the Adventure

Create a vision board.  Make it visual and creative.  Make it your own.  I created a vision board on January 4th, 2015 — it had clips from a Travel + Leisure magazine, a Europe issue in fact that I had purchased, and my vision board had all kinds of words leading me onward.  “Follow your bliss”  “What are you passionate about?”  “Europe”  “Run to the Roar”  and so much more.  It might sound simple, but writing things down makes them real, at least for me, and it brings an idea to life. It is then no longer just an idea.  Your dreams are now visually in front of you.

“Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” – Emerson

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Resources & Lodging

You don’t have to have abundant resources, you just need enough.  What do you need to get there?  How much?  How little can you work with?  Minimal is best and of course plan to enjoy some things along the way.  Plan for your big money items and nice dinners, and also be ok with cooking and finding cheap meals along the way.  Also, who do you know?  Do you have contacts?  Would you be willing to do volunteer work in exchange for lodging?  Many travelers do a work exchange with organizations across the globe such as Work Away.

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AirBNB is a great and affordable option for lodging as well as International Backpacker Hostels. These options sometimes include breakfast which can add to your savings.  If you’re willing to share a space with someone or opt for your own private room, you will be surprised at how much better it can be than a hotel!  I enjoy this way of traveling because it provides a “local experience” and what it’s like living in the area, opportunities to meet more people, and inside information into the city and culture.

Find Cheaper Travel Options

Cheaper airfare and train fare is available if you find it at the right time. You can try different routes to avoid higher airfare costs. If you’re going to Europe, IcelandAir offers trans-Atlantic flights and you can find a flight for very cheap depending on the season.  It is worth the travel time and you get to see Iceland!  You can even do  a “Stopover” in Iceland which I did on the way back to the U.S. from France.  You can stay in Iceland for up to 7 nights with no additional airfare cost and explore the beauty, then catch your connecting flight to your next destination.

img_0481You can travel cheaply within Europe on budget airlines such as Ryan Air and EasyJet. I opted for a lot of train travel because it made more sense for me based on my travel time, budget, and locations.  Trains and buses are great methods, and it is best to book tickets for large trains about 2-3 months in advance for the best prices.  The TGV in France (high-speed train) can be taken to so many other countries as well.  I took a 4 hour train trip from Lyon, France to Zürich, Switzerland and it was well worth it.  There are also Euro Rail passes if you’re traveling throughout Europe which can offer big savings for the travel budget.

And last but not least, walking, biking, and metro passes within each city are the most affordable options.  I love exploring cities on foot or by renting a bicycle and getting lost on purpose. It’s one of the best ways to explore and offers unique opportunities to see places that you wouldn’t wander to otherwise.

Food and Dining

When you travel, you want to enjoy the local cuisine, no doubt!  Budget for that!  You don’t have to miss out on amazing, local dining experiences. This can be done on any budget. Scout out the local eateries, find cheap meals, make half your lunch into dinner, buy groceries, make your own meals some days, and dine out other days.  Make the most out of it!   In France, bakeries and wine are both cheap, so there are advantages depending on the country you’re in.  🙂

If you’re in Paris, you have to v42t8w8ifndrewftwisit the famous bakery Eric Kayser Artisan Boulanger which has super affordable options for breakfast and lunch.  A great dinner spot in Paris is Ma Salle à Manger which is a small local restaurant near Pont Neuf.  This place had the best Beef Bourguignon and Crème Brûlée you will ever taste!  So worth the visit.

blog picCurrency Exchanges

If you’re traveling to another country like France, depending on the exchange rate at the time, I found it most economical to get a Currency Debit Card (or Cash Passport) through Travelex in NYC at the airport.  It’s amazing because if you load a certain amount, you get more Euros for the USD, and you can reload your card at any time online for FREE.  You can also withdraw cash with this card at the ATMs with your pin number just like a normal debit card.  Currency exchanges can cost you a lot of money, so doing this the smartest way is important.

Stay Open and Flexible

Whatever you do, you’ll learn and be challenged, that is a guarantee. And it’s also part of the goal.  To overcome obstacles, grow from the experiences, learn more about who you are and what you’re capable of, to adapt to new worlds, to be uncomfortable, to learn about a different culture. To let go and be free, to express your joy, to enjoy life and live simply.  To make the most of my travels, I often adopt the philosophy of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.  The most grand adventures for me have been times where I am challenged.img_0070

Your thoughts and ideas, native cultural paradigms, and routines — everything will be challenged.  This is a good thing.  You will get lost sometimes and go the wrong way, you will arrive at a cafe or restaurant to find out that it’s in fact closed on Mondays. Or maybe there is only lunch served from 12pm-2pm. Maybe they don’t have WiFi.  Maybe they have WiFi, but not on the weekends.  😉  Maybe the bathrooms are so small that there is standing room only.  It’s comical sometimes.  Maybe the streets are small too and you have to dodge mopeds and bicycles.  Maybe the metros are crowded some days and you get to know your neighbor.

You get the point. It’s all part of the deal. You adapt. You learn. You laugh.  You change your plans.  And you make the most of all of it.  It’s what makes the story, the magical experience, the trip you’ll never forget, the adventure of being alive.

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A Girl’s Guide to Solo Travel & Safety While Living Abroad

A Weekend in the French Alps

My first official blog post from France!  It’s a joy and hobby for me to write and share my stories, capture this journey, and all the moments in between that I can remember.

I have always wanted to start a travel blog and I definitely wanted to capture this journey here.  I have been writing and taking notes in my journal since I arrived in France in my spare time and have tried to capture as much as I can.  It takes time to recount my experiences because SO much has happened since I arrived in Paris on October 15th, 2015. So I am going to try my best!  I have been in Lyon, France since the first week of November.  I didn’t know where to start, so I’m going to start in the middle of my trip.  I also hope to continue this blog beyond Europe to capture my future adventures of all kinds, in all places.

Alas,  I just returned from an incredible weekend in the French Alps in a town called Die (pronounced D-ee) in the southeast of France…

Manon is my sweet roommate who is hosting me for the rest of my time in Lyon.  She has a cute, cozy studio apartment in Villeurbanne, a part of Lyon.  She works at a local hospital and enjoys outdoor activities, climbing, and hiking.  That was so refreshing to find out when I met her! She is truly generous and a calm, quiet person.  I feel calm around her and honestly am more quiet when I am with her also, not feeling the need to talk or fill the void of silence with anything but my company.  She plays several musical instruments and is quite talented at the piano and plays often in her apartment.  My first night at her apartment she played “Clair de Lune” by Claude Debussy.  This song has actually been a theme throughout my trip!  I’ve always loved that song and have heard it often.  It was SO beautiful and I felt like it confirmed that I was in the perfect place, exactly where I needed to be.

Life is simple here, it feels.  The food is rich but simple, conversations the same, and the wine and cheese readily available.  My life in Lyon has been mostly pleasant and I giggle sometimes when I see cliché French things happening in real life.  Like the other night, I was walking in the city after a magnificent dinner at an Italian restaurant.  I had THE best pizza in my life.  It was truly Italian, the pizza was not perfectly round, topped with the freshest ingredients and real Parmesan cheese.  I ate the whole thing accompanied with a glass of wine.  After I left, I began walking and I think I counted 12 people in about 5 minutes with French baguettes in hand.  It sounds stereotypical, but I love it.  It turns out they were leaving one of the best bakeries in that part of town, fresh baguettes in hand just out of the oven!  I discovered that tonight when I stepped in la boulangerie myself and waited in line!  Délicieux!   I also love seeing people wear French berets.  I love the café culture. And so much more.  I’ll write more about that and the culture here later, but back to my weekend in the Alps~~~

Manon and her family are from Die, so when she asked me this past week: “Veux-tu venir avec moi chez mes parents ce week-end?  La ville est en les montagnes.”  I said, “Bien sûr!”  (Do you want to come with me to my parents house this weekend?  It’s in the mountains.  I said, of course!)

We left Friday evening around 3:45 p.m. with our backpacks and started the 3 hour drive southeast.  The next town we arrived in after Lyon was Vienne, and I quickly noticed how ancient it looked!  Many towns in the Rhône-Alpes region (Lyon and eastward) were once occupied by the Romans long ago and it was they who constructed the streets, many of the buildings, and some of the ruins, amphitheaters and more, still remain today.

We drove alongside Le Rhône (one of the largest rivers in France) and continued into the mountains, passing old villages in the countryside, cathedrals, chateaus, monuments, and the outlines of the foothills to the Alps.  Along the way we stopped at a chocolatier called Valhrona which is quite famous in France.  I mean seriously…..truffles,  a selection of chocolate pieces, chocolate covered everything.  I lost it with joy.  I bought 4 things and that was plenty and they gave me extras for free…Christmas gifts?  Whatever it was, I left like a happy kid on Christmas morning!

As we approached her town, many of the villages, such as Pontaix, reminded me of Italy as it was built along the river and with stone buildings and bridges!  The area was quickly reminding me of the Middle-Ages and I later discovered why!

We arrived in Die later that evening just in time for dinner.  Manon’s parents were so welcoming and had a cozy little house in the valley.  This was my second time having a meal with a French family. This was so different because it was like the France I pictured.  Rural France.  The old town, the colors painted on the window shutters, the flowers, the gardens, the real and raw culture.  Manon’s mother, Edith, prepared a delicious meal (several during the stay) and that night dinner included a traditional French salad with greens from their own family garden; a gratin made of potatoes, fresh French cheese from the region, ham and seasoning; and fresh fish from the rivers in the region!  Followed the main dish was an assortment of cheese of course, more bread, and fruit.  I love that cheese, bread, and wine are true staples of the French cuisine.  Almost every meal.

I love the conversations and the passion over meals.  The way the French discuss… it sounds like there is a debate or argument, but no, it’s just the tone and the flow of the words.  And they speak quickly and with gestures and facial expressions, and it’s just delightful.  I understood most of what Manon and her family were saying though there were times I had to pause and confirm I knew the current topic and that they hadn’t switched again, just like I would at any family dinner when they are talking of things familiar to them and the latest news and stories.

My French has truly solidfied here.  I speak quickly and with ease, always learning new words and expressions of course and conversing easily with all the people I meet.  I have learned to listen carefully when they speak fast and tone my ear.  After some time, it’s just natural — picking up the expressions, the accents, the jokes.  I’ve always been in love with the language since I started learning it at 14 years old.  To be able to be here in France, on the soil, speaking with French families and joking and laughing in French, that is part of my dream come true.

On Saturday, Manon took me for a tour of the town, through the streets and to the market.  The town of Die is so quaint and historic, ancient Roman buildings throughout, apartments, tiny streets, passages and tunnels, and walls around the city that once protected it during wars!   I couldn’t believe my eyes.  It was the France I pictured in a village like that–the décor, the people hanging garments out the windows, the cats roaming the streets (I saw several) and one evening I experienced the cutest moment.  A woman was closing her windows (in France, the shutters are on the outside and/or the external wooden shutters), and right as she was about to close the last piece, a hurried tabby cat ran through the alley and jumped into the window and squeezed through the corridor.  She laughed and said “Vas-y, vas-y”  which means go, go, continue, get in here.  That cat knew it was time to get inside for the night!  And he almost didn’t make it, but it was the cutest moment ever.

As we walked through the town, I smelled the wood burning in the chimneys all around.  The view of the snow-topped Alps was exquisite and breath-taking.  The air was cold and crisp and I started feeling what I thought was rain.  I looked at Manon and I said “Il pleut?”  She said, in French, no, it’s the snow coming from the mountains.  It was awakening to me.  It reminded me that it was real life.  I wasn’t dreaming, though I felt like I was by looking at the surrounding scenery.  I could actually feel the cold droplets on my face through the wind on that beautiful sunny Saturday.

After walking through the town and touring some of the area, we returned home for lunch.  Manon’s mother said “Tous, à table” (Everyone, it’s ready, literally “at the table”)  I loved that expression.  The sound of the expression, the way they gather around the table.  It’s a little messy, the meals here.  And I like it that way.  It’s real.  The French dine first, clean up later.  Enjoying the meal takes time.  It’s not rushed.  I tried young wine for the first time, from young grapes.  It was delicious and fruity and sweet!  For lunch, her mother placed a pot on the table and I saw 4 fresh fish cooked in that skillet.  I mean FRESH, whole fish, eyes and all, staring back at me.  I thought to myself, “wow, this is real stuff.  I’m not used to seeing the whole fish so fresh!”  So I took a piece and filleted it myself and it was delicious.  They explained that it’s fresh fish from the local river actually.  Her mother had gotten it at the market that morning (where she went by bicycle) and brought back that along with fresh cheese and bread.

After lunch, Manon and I went for a hike.  We just started walking down the street.  The trails ARE the streets.  We walked so many miles that day, through the mountains, closer to the Alps, and past houses and vineyards, horses, and gardens.  I had no idea what I was in for!  The beauty was just…..unreal.  The wind was stronger closer to the mountains, the winter blasts coming through the passages, tickling our faces with snow melt.  It was sunny and beautiful that day and I’m thankful the weather allowed us to explore the mountains as we did.  We walked by one of the main rivers, fresh clear rapids and we got to the end of one road right at the base of the mountain, and hit a walking/biking trail.  We eventually ended at an ancient Roman aqueduct, where the water is gathered and flows all the way back to the town.  It was also the passage in the mountain between the town of Die and the neighboring village.  It was one of the oldest things I had ever seen.  We climbed to the top of the canal on ancient stairs and then saw 3 climbers across the river on rope, scaling the rock wall!  That’s the neighborhood sport I believe.

My joy was unable to be harnessed that day.  I gasped and smiled like a little kid as I saw all the beauty around me.  I can’t help but appreciate the beauty wherever I am in the world.  It’s moments like those that remind us we’re really alive.  Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.”  That was true that day in Die.  It was the best day in the year, just like all the days before that, and all the days after.  My heart was full, my joy was rich, and my eyes were wide open, my senses fully alive to everything around me.

We walked back towards the city and across bridges, through small passageways and I saw the ancient door to the town.  We explored an ancient Roman neighborhood with cute windows and doors and troughs out in the open for washing clothes.  I truly felt like I was in the Middle-Ages.  I couldn’t believe my eyes!  I had never seen or walked by something so ancient and historic.  The last stop of the evening was at the local winery which sells many wines made in the region.  I tried “Clairette de Die” which is a sweet, fruity champagne from the area and bought a half bottle to take home.

That night I watched Manon’s mom prepare dinner as we chatted, in French of course, about life and food and culture.  She taught me how to make a tarte/pastry dish stuffed with fresh vegetables and ham.  Simple and delicious.  I was very impressed with her parents.  They are so active and bike everywhere and her father has a tree trimming business.  They have a simple life in the mountains and it was just delightful.

On Sunday morning, for breakfast, I tasted the best apricot jam I’ve ever had to date.  It was made by Edith herself and from local apricots in the region.  So many fruits and nuts grow in the region!  It’s incredible!  They have an abundance of fresh food there to eat from daily.  I went to church with their family in a historic place in the center of town, and after that we returned to the house for lunch.  For lunch we had rabbit.  I mean, fresh rabbit.  Just like the fresh fish.  I saw Edith prep it the night before and I learned how to prepare fresh rabbit.  I’ve learned a lot about French cuisine while I’ve been here that I hope to use when I return back to the States!   (Maybe not whole fish or rabbit….but tartes and salads I can do!!)

After lunch, they asked me if I wanted to go for a walk with their family, Manon’s aunt and cousin and family, and I said of course!  We drove to a neighboring town through the mountains and started driving up a mountain.  I mean, really up a mountainside.  I thought, wow their family really lives in the mountains!  They stopped and started looking at the pine trees, discussing the size of each one. And I thought, yeah…. that one is nice….and that one is nice.  And then they stopped and got out of the car.  I realized that they were choosing a Christmas tree!!!  They climbed up the hill and Manon’s dad, Joel, sawed 2 small pine trees down and loaded them in the back of the car.  I had always wanted to do this since I was a kid!  Go into the mountains and pick a Christmas tree!  I was so full of joy that I couldn’t express it.  It was a special moment.

Now, with 2 trees in the car, one poking through the back seat a bit, and the smell of fresh pine, we descended the mountain and ended up at Manon’s aunt’s house (a.k.a. a cabin with a VIEW).  There were little French kids playing and family talking and noise and chatter.  I thought to myself, “somebody pinch me.”  Is this real?  It was just a gift to be there with their family.  I spoke to the little kids in French and they spoke to me.  THAT was precious.  They were probably 3, and 4 years old.  They showed me the cars and trucks and asked me all kinds of questions in French.  I responded with ease and it was the cutest thing ever.

Then the whole family got ready for a hike!  I mean, the WHOLE family! The kids gathered up, coats zipped, hiking backpacks and carriers for the kids.  We hiked up the mountain.  All of us.  It was just delightful.  I spoke with Manon’s family and only in French of course.  Their family actually doesn’t speak much English which was refreshing for me to only speak French the whole weekend!  I actually had a dream in French after we returned to Lyon.   I typically only speak French in Lyon and wherever I am in France, but there are people from Australia, New Zealand, and England that I occasionally meet who speak English of course and want to chat.

So I hiked along and spoke quite a bit with Manon’s aunt and we talked about bears and nature and politics and culture and America and France and more.  They don’t really have bears in that region anymore, but she told me that her great-grandfather was the last one in the family to see a bear in Die.  (Pronounced, D-ee).

We got back to Manon’s aunt’s house and they invited me in for tea and fresh walnuts.  We had to hurry off to drive back to Lyon though, so I grabbed a handful of walnuts and jumped back in the car.  The precious little French toddler asked me before I left, “As-tu une voiture?”  (Do you have a car?)  Probably wondering, how are you getting home?  And I responded, “haha, non, je n’ai pas une voiture en fait mais je suis venue avec Manon.”  (no, I don’t have a car in fact, but I came with Manon)            I smiled at him, his name was Maneo, and told him I had to go, and he said “Au revoir!”

On the drive back to Manon’s parent’s house, before Manon and I headed back to Lyon, we saw a woman on a bicycle.  I didn’t see her clearly, but Edith said, “Tu sais quel âge a ça femme?” (Do you know how old that woman is?)  I said, “Non, quel âge?”  She said, 90 years old.  “Incroyable!” I said. (Incredible!)  On a bicycle.  Every day.  This entire place was incredible to me.  In Europe in general, many people seem to bike daily to commute.  It’s the way of life here, in addition to the trains and cars of course, but it’s typical.  Though many of the French smoke in the cities, overall, it seems that they are active and healthy here.  I don’t know if they live longer than Americans, but maybe they drink enough wine to keep their health, hike through the mountains, and bike home at 90 years old.  🙂

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