The Truth About Traveling in Sicily

“This is the part of Catania I wanted you to see,” the Novio cooed as we passed a fifth consecutive butcher windows displaying carne di equino. To be fair, I’d seen little else than the local airport, a roadside bar and enough near-traffic accidents to turn me off from getting into a car in Sicily. And now, before we’d hit the beautiful Piazza del Duomo or even had a slice of pizza, my husband had brought me to the back streets of the immigrant section of Siciliy’s second city. It was not what I had anticipated on a weekend I let him have complete control over.

Italy has never been to foreign a concept to me – my mom studied in Rome in the late 70s and brought her love for the Eternal City back to Chicago by way of spaghetti and meatballs and an addiction to ice cream. But traveling in Sicily is not for the novice traveler or faint of heart. I felt exhilarated as many times as frustrated and that it was equally the most beautiful place on earth and a dump. But overall that I’d barely scratched the surface (and one cannoli in three days is simply not acceptable).

The Truth AboutTraveling in Sicily

Sicily is like every place you’ve been, and nowhere you’ve ever been

I was unimpressed with Sicily at first glance. The chevron shaped island didn’t have any destinations I could recall outside of Palermo, and the little research I’d done online left me with only a few places jotted down on the inside of a book cover. I was willing to let the Novio recreate Driving Miss Wifey and usher me around.

After a harrowing ride into the heart of Catania, we parked nearly two kilometers from the attractions. The Novio led me down darkened alleyways that reeked of garbage and urine until we’d reached Via Plebiscito. Catania was shabby, with lopsided houses teetering amongst overgrown bushes and converted car parks. We saw no one until we’d reached the main drag, which, at nearly 8pm on a Friday night, was buzzing with commercial activity. 

Catania street scenes

To me, this slice of the city felt like the roadside markets of Jaipur, with butchers and barbers sharing sidewalk space. Vespas weaved in and out of the sidewalk displays of plastic toys and ripe vegetables. Shopkeepers yelled at one another across the busy street. It was as much Jaipur as it was Istanbul, feeling familiar for a city I’d only begun to know. 

And Catania continued to surprise me – its city piazzas had me reminiscing about its northern counterparts. Its shopping streets might as well have been Madrid or Paris. The pizza we ate as good as I remember it in Naples, fifteen summers earlier.

streets of Catania, Italy

The following day, as we drove to Siracusa and Agrigento, the landscapes changed dramatically, from neat olive groves that neatly backed up to rolling hills – just like in Andalucía – to towering hills crowned with castles. Sicily could have been Tuscany or it could have been the Côte d’Azure. It could have been the Greek countryside. It could have been Northern Africa. 

Yet at the time, Sicily was unlike any of these places as far as flavor and flair. The natives we came across were jovial, and we were never scammed or overcharged. I could barely find a place to buy a postcard. Maps are unreliable, and I found one person that spoke enough English for me to ask and be answered. Sicily is a little more “off the beaten path” than you’d expect, especially once you’re out of the ports of call.

Sicily felt worlds away from the Italy I’d gotten to know in three previous trips, anchored to the boot by little else than the common language and the pizza. It’s like the underbrush, or the boonies, as far as Italy is concerned. And for as backwards as it seemed, the way Sicilians live all made sense.

Let’s just say that when boarding my plane on Sunday, I didn’t feel ready to go.

Driving is like dangling your mortality right in front of the devil

I was clued into the manic driving practices in Italy when I was 15 and was nearly taken out by a moped in Naples. Half a lifetime later, as we pulled out of the Fontanarossa Airport, I said a small prayer to Saint Christopher.


If you’re in a roundabout, be prepared to stop. Don’t trust stoplights. Park where you feel like. Most highways are not lit at night. And Exit ramps are perfectly acceptable places to drive up when you’re not exiting the highway. 

Our Saturday plan was to wake up early and check out the catacombs in Syracuse, the Greek temples in Agrigento and the preserved mosaics in Piazza Amerina. Syracuse was easy enough to reach, but we’d have to return to Catania to reach Agrigento. After an hour on the A-19 that snakes between Catania and Palermo, we turned off just after Enna. As it turned out, the entire section between the motorway and the city famous for its Valle di Templi is under construction – we were driving behind trucks on gravel highways, making it nearly impossible to pass. 

Three hours after leaving Syracuse and air braking until my ankles were sore, we finally arrived, though we’d have to scratch the Villa Romana del Casale off the itinerary. 

Exploring Siracusa Sicily

That said, renting a car is far more reliable than the bus system, and there are few trains that operate between the major sites. I had worked up enough courage to take the car to Piazza Amerina. I got the feeling that the car was made of cheap plastic as it rattled and hummed to life. I immediately stalled. And stalled a second time, vowing to obey speed limits and turn around if necessary.

We had looked in earnest for a gas station when driving back from Agrigento, and let me warn you – Italian highways are not the places to run out of gas. Though I had one-third of a tank when leaving Catania, within 50 kilometers, there were no bars left, only a piercing beep every ten seconds.

Syracuse Italy

Like getting stranded in Romania, I was glad to not be a novice traveler. I remembered seeing a service station the day before, just past the turn off for Piazza Amerina. I was nearly confident that I could make it the 12 kilometers, but my heart was racing. I had bought data, so I could Skype the rental car company and try to speak to them in Spanish. The Novio was working until noon, four hours from that moment. I had a credit card to pay a towing company.

I watched the miles tick down to the service station, pulling up to a self-service station. “CHIN-QWEN-TI…espera,” I spit out, cramming my hand into my pocket and looking for a scrap of paper with the word for unleaded gas, “BENZINI.”

“Benzina,” the attendant corrected as another washed my windshield. Whatever.  

fusball table

I grew more confident in the car, taking turns past Pergusa with more speed, eventually arriving to the Villa Romana del Casale, my third UNESCO World Heritage site of the weekend. I’d long given up the use of the Italian GPS and instead used my phone’s. After an hour traipsing around 2500-year-old mosaics, I jumped back in my car, set to avoid the steep climb through postcard-esque Amerina.

I was again taken through dirt roads to reach the highway, convinced the plastic car would fall apart around me, cartoon style. I won’t even get into the thrill ride that was the trip to Acitrezza that afternoon – my eyes were transfixed on the GPS! 

The colors are more vibrant than you’d imagine

I was still in a haze from an overnight trip and two planes when I touched down at Fontanarossa Airport, and Mount Etna was veiled in its own smoke. After a nap, I gasped at how regal the volcano was, midnight blue against a clear day with smoke curling out of the top.

Sicily and Italian flags

Sicily has some serious bragging rights when it comes to the rich colors of its landscape. My book stayed packed in my purse as we drove through low-hanging vineyards and climbed steep mountains will houses and church spires dripping down and rolling towards the Mediterranean. This place is seriously jaw-dropping. The smoky ombre of ancient buildings, the dusty green of cyprus trees, and turquoise blue of the ever-present sea.

The outskirts of Syracuse, known as Siracusa locally, are nothing exciting, but its city center is spectacular. Once the center of commerce on the Ionian Sea, the city has 2,700 years of history and was one of the few places we saw Anglo tourists. Think cobbled alleyways, massive fountains and a spotless marble Duomo. 

Duomo de Siracusa

center of Syracuse, Italy

Valle dei Templi, which we arrived at just after 4pm, shone in the waning light.

Greek temple in Sicily

Valle dei Templi Argigento

And Acitrezza, a small beach neighborhood with port side osterias and craggy black rocks, enchanting.

port of acitrezza

I only wish we could have has a panini or arancini with these views!

Sometimes, you have to make your own plan

I’d been warned that Sicily was kind of a Choose-Your-Own Adventure type of place. Reliability was not necessarily something to be expected, and that frustrations were rampant. Because I hadn’t done the planning, I was ready to roll with the punches.

mosaics at Villa Casale Romana

Food was the first – I’d been on an overnight trip, and my cheese bocadillo was a thing of the pat by the time I hit Fiumicino and chowed down a croissant and a macchiato. The Novio had been raving about a pizza place across from the first hotel he’d stayed at, but the place was shuttered for the winter season. It was either loading up on pastries, or eating at a hit-or-miss restaurant down the road.

We went with the latter, and it was a hit. Five tables were crammed into what looked like the family’s living room, and there was no menu. We had four pieces of bruschetta placed in front of us as soon as we’d sat down, plus a plate of pasta piled high with clams, shrimp and fresh parsley, followed by a plate heaped with fried fish. I fell into a coma-like nap later, and it would be the first in a series of small victories that were almost immediately followed by a travel mishap.

Typical Sicilian Fare

The most notable: when we finally made it to the Valle dei Templi after several wrong turns, dirt highways and slow-moving vehicles (and maybe a few near accidents), I was over seeing Greek temples – that’s why I’d gone to Athens. At the foot of a ridge lined with cyprus trees, the columns of the Temple of Heracles pierce the sky, so we drove up the road adjacent to them.

“No, no, you must to pay parking at the next road,” a souvenir stand attendant said. There were bus loads of cruise guests and a very exasperated Novio. Looking at his watch, he announced that we’d never make it to Piazza Amerina before it closed, but that he didn’t care to pay the entrance fee for the temples. I suggested the castle at Enna, but he flashed his teeth and grabbed my hand.

Valle dei Templi walking paths

Construction signs blocked a walking path that would have otherwise been open. I devised a “play dumb” plan should we get caught, but after around 300 metros, the path led to the Temple of Concordia. We spent over an hour walking around the seven temples and the ruins of Olympeion Field, snickering to ourselves when passing guards and other tourists. 

Sicily wanted to play hardball with us, so we threw them a curveball and did things according to our terms.

Valle dei Templi Sicily

We got the payback the following day: first with my no gasoline coasting, and then in Acitrezza when we couldn’t find a place to eat, much less have a beer with a view. We ended up at a self-service bar with overcooked pasta. You win, Sicily.

Much like the south of Spain, Southern Italy is its own place. It’s more rugged, more of a challenge. But it’s delicious and sensual and downright different to most of the other places tourists flock to. I’d love to make a trip back – if only because I didn’t get to eat nearly enough.

Have you ever been to Sicily? What did you like about it? Check out my Bobby Pin map of the places I saw (and where I ate) in Western Sicily for more!

30 Things I’m Glad to Have Done Before Turning 30, part 2

Did you miss the first 16? You can find them here – from things I’m glad I learned to indispensable travel experiences along with career decisions.

30 things

My 20s brought me endless fun experiences and friendships, and my 30th birthday was the marriage of what I realized I needed in my life gong forward into my fourth decade: my family, festivals, a few beers.

Relationship Life

17.  Become Close to My Parents – My dad paid my sister and I a wonderful compliment this summer when he said that we were always a lot of fun, but even better to be around as adults. Margaret and I share a lot of interests with our parents – skiing and beer with our dad, shopping and eating out with our mom – and Margaret and her fiancé recently moved back to Chicago. The eye rolls I paid them as a teen are now hugs and the clink of beer glasses.

Additionally, I’m close to the Novio’s parents and younger brothers and count on them like I do on my family. Having a support system in two countries is an absolute privilege. 


I couldn’t imagine not having a close relationship with my parents. They know every single thing happening with my life, and I see a lot of them in me (and a lot of my Dad in the Novio!). I look forward to long school breaks knowing that they’ll mean beers and hugs and often a plane ticket to explore.

18.  Said No When Necessary – When I took psychology in high school, Mr. Fitts correctly called me an ESFP at the end of our first week. I’m impulsive, a pleaser and terribly sensitive. And I have a problem with conflict.

Early on into my Spain foray, I found that foreigners are very easily taken advantage of. Learning to say no – and sometimes enter into conflict or disappoint people – has been a tough pill to swallow, but I am one person, and while I can do a lot, I can’t do everything. Those Nos have negated jobs with low pay, gypsy offerings near the cathedral and even poor treatment in my relationships.

19.  Been Broken Up With – Boyfriends were not on my mind at all in college. I was having far more fun meeting people, dating and studying to stop for a relationship. The one person I could have seen a future with in college and I went back and forth for years. It was always a question of timing and commitment, and when he told me to back off, I was devastated. 

I recently found my journal when cleaning out my childhood bedroom and had to laugh at myself for the sweeping fantasies of love and life.

where am I going

This guy and I salvaged our relationship to become wonderful, honest (and he reads this blog!), but in the end, we’re both glad it didn’t work out. I learned what I really needed out of a significant other, and the Novio came into my life a few months later. Finding a partner goes beyond attraction and mutual love – I needed someone who fit into my life and plans just as much as I needed to feel nurtured and encouraged by that person.

2o.  Waited to Be Married (and Be Confident in My Choice) – The Novio and I met when I was barely 22, and he was 28. Right away, the fact that he had a job and had bought a house appealed to me, and though the first years proved rocky between language and age differences, we made it through.

After nearly seven years together and four living under the same roof, he simply said, “Let’s plan a wedding.” There was no grand gesture, no ring and no doubt in my mind – I probably smiled, nodded and hopped right on Pinterest while he took a nap.

[Chrystl wedding photo]

It’s odd, in a way, to know that I have friends who are separating and divorcing. Some feel remorseful, and other feel powered. As someone who can be fickle and who often second guesses even grocery store purchases, I couldn’t tread lightly with choosing a partner. I didn’t feel ready to actually be married until we’d decided on the house and I’d said, sí, quiero, to more than just the Novio – I’d said yes to Spain, to a life abroad, and to making decisions with more than just me involved.

The day of our wedding, my usual nerves were absent. 

21.  Waited to Have Kids – I was recently carrying around a friend’s 7-month-old baby, a blubbering and inquisitive little girl who I’ve taken to. After getting married, I started feeling a lot more pressure to have kids. With María in my arms, I wanted to have one.

And then I went home, had a two-hour post-nap nap and realized I wouldn’t have been able to have that nap with kids.

luna cumple dos

While they’re likely not too far off, I’m relieved to have waited until turning 30 and doing the other things on this list. I’m taking a few more trips and preparing myself mentally and physically to become a mother, and I can’t wait to teach our kids to be fearless, confident and bilingual.

22. Learned How to Say Sorry and When to Forgive – Typical Leo: loves attention and has a quick temper. I get stressed out really easily and bark at anyone close enough. I consider it one of my greatest character flaws, though I am also the first to sheepishly admit my wrongdoing.

I am also incapable of holding a grudge – forgive and forget was ingrained into me when I was very young, and they’re words I live by.

Asturian Countryside

Sometimes the hardest part of growing up has been learning to let go of people who do hold grudges. I can’t deal with passive-aggressiveness, but thankfully read people well enough to know that they’re not interested in a friendship with me. My friend pool is large, but the inner circle has a select few. I’m a communicator and need people to communicate with me.

23.  Stayed Close to Elementary School and High School Friends – I have to admit that I get selfish when my friends start to move away from Chicago. When I go back home for Christmas or the summer, I want to have everyone I love from high school there for barbecues and beers. At my bachelorette party, an Uber driver asked how we all know each other. My youngest friendship was a ripe old 15!

Best friends at my wedding

Thanks to Facebook and whatsapp, I feel close to my family and friends, and an endless stream of visitors has come to see my sunshine and siestas lifestyle. When choosing my bridesmaids, I had no issues – my sister and my two closest friends from Wheaton Warrenville South and the UIowa. A vast majority our wedding invites were people we’d known for more than a decade, and many longer than I’d been in Spain.

Life Life

24.  Partied all Night and at Different Festivals – I’m never one to turn down small town fêtes or music festivals, and I’ve been to some of the greatest celebrations in Europe. Downing steins in Munich at Oktoberfest, sleeping on the ground during Santiago’s patron saint festival and slinging tomatoes at the Tomatina. I can’t say no to something fun and new, and I’m ready to curl up with a book and a glass of Ribera on a Saturday every now and then. My party girl days are over.

dressed in a dirndl at oktoberfest

25.  Grown to Love Beer – seriously! – The first time I got drunk was on four Mike’s Hard Lemonades my senior year of high school. I was terrified of being buzzed and passed right into the blackout phase, and vowed never to drink again.

Then I went to college in the middle of a cornfield and was introduced to flippy cup, tailgating and cheap cases of Natty Light, and I reluctantly began to drink beer. 

In Europe, and particularly in Spain, beer culture is imminent – I feel that without a Cruzcampo, I’d not have experienced an integral part of this country. My language skills were strengthened when the Novio and I courted at local cervecerías and I made friends at Plaza Salvador with a fresca in hand. I would have been appalled if you’d told me at 22 that I’d drink beer with my main meals, but when in Sevilla…

26.  Voted – Speaking of Iowa, I was finally of legal age to vote during the 2004 straw polls. As a swing state, Iowa is a political hotbed, and I saw candidates stumped by celebrities, both from Wahsington and from Hollywood. I changed my voter registration to Iowa, knowing that a liberal vote in Illinois would count for very little.

American Flag in Times Square

Even from abroad, I vote in the only political election I’m allowed – the federal election. They say that when the US sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold, and I wholeheartedly find that to be true. I may be one of 300 million, but I believe in the democratic process and the ideals of my country. It takes 20 minutes to register and the flick of a pencil to vote, so I shake my head at people who abstain because “Oh, I don’t really like anyone this year.” This isn’t Homecoming Court, so do your duty as an American living in a free country and vote.

End rant. Until next fall. And, yes, you can all come live with me if you’re dissatisfied (but only if you voted).

27.  Bought a House – It took me a year as a homeowner to realize how smart it was to invest in a property. I’ve had my moment where I literally thought of the popular Spanish refrain – tirar la casa por la ventana – as I struggled to curb spending habits. It’s been a while since I’ve hopped a plane to a different country, and I haven’t bought a new flamenco dress in a few years.

new house

But I have a place rooting me to Seville. A beautiful house with an enormous terrace in my favorite rinconcín of the city. I’m not throwing money into the bottomless pit that is rent and am buying functional pieces that are ours forever. I may miss my indulgences, but a Saturday at home with a bottle of wine and the Novio is a pretty good alternative (ugh, did I just say that?!).

28.  Moved Abroad – Much of all of this wouldn’t have been possible or wouldn’t have been the same if I hadn’t worked up the nerve to get on a Spain-bound plane in 2007. I have long stopped wondering about the what ifs – the decisions I’ve taken in the last decade have led me to this point, and there’s no turning back.

Moving abroad in my 20s meant letting go of a few of the dreams I’d had – living in Chicago, standing up in all of my friends’ weddings and having a job in radio. Even that second goal seems gratuitous, as I had to scrap my brain for an third goal. The older I get, the more I realize that my goals were always further on the horizon, away from the US and my comfort zone and my native language. While I never feel entirely at home in either country, creating a life overseas has been my proudest accomplishment.

Revuelto de Abril

I’m more confident, more independent and more wise after eight years in Spain. Just please don’t ask me how to be an adult in America – I know nothing about 401k, Obamacare or anything else “mature.”

29. Found Myself Content to Move Past the Last Decade – I’m the youngest of my group of friends, which was the worst when they all got driver’s licenses and could get into campus bars. All of them mourned the death of my 20s, saying “Welcome to the Club.”

Wait, you jerks told me that when I turned 22, so what’s different now?

I’m happy with how my 20s panned out – loads of new faces, foods, countries and experiences. And there are loads of other things I could add to this list – have a pet to learn about taking care of a living thing, joining a sorority to learn leadership in college, and working hard to go to the college I’d always to go to. Call it being satisfied or exhausted, but it’s time to be a grown up and move on.

My 30s are still a gigantic question mark to me. Where am I going professionally? Personally? I’m terrified. I feel far more vulnerable to mistakes and wrong turns. Maybe 30 will be a kick in the pants, but everyone says that the best is yet to come. I’m ready.

What have you learned in your 20s?

30 Things I’m Glad to Have Done Before Turning 30, Part 1

Turning 16 was a big deal. So was turning 18, then 21 and even 25. But 30?

A week before reaching my fourth decade, I got married to someone I’ve been with for nearly a quarter of my life. My actual birthday went by quietly – a happy hour with a dozen friends, the Chicago Air and Water Show, my great aunt’s 90th birthday. Is this the sound of growing up?


Before my 25th birthday (one that, admitedly, always sounded scarier than 30), I made a list of three things I wanted to accomplish before that milestone. But then I realized that my brain and my lifestyle weren’t ready for those things quite yet. I can safely say that my 20s were wild, unstable and apparently meant for setting up the rest of my life.

Turning 30 in August felt like the start of a new chapter, marcado by a small celebration and a shedding of a young woman with big dreams and ambition. And questionable fashion choices.

Learn Life

1.   Learned a Second Language (and tried a third)- Maybe a third of this list is the product of learning to speak Spanish. In eighth grade, my grades qualified me for either an hour of French or Spanish a day. I said francais, Nancy demanded español.

As it turns out, I am pretty good at speaking Spanish – my teachers in high school convinced me to take the AP Test for college credit, and I minored in Spanish before taking an immersion course in Valladolid.

Studying at the UVA in Valladolid

You know the rest of the story, amigos.

And I got to learn French after all. I took a year of Elementary French in college and dabbled in private lessons in Seville one year.

2.   Attempted to Learn a New Skill – When Cait convinced me to join her Tuesday and Thursday night for flamenco class, I reluctantly bought the zapatos de clavos and showed up at Latidos. I was in a job I hated, the Novio was on an overseas mission, and I lived far from my friends. I looked like a fool with every punto and golpe as a particularly sweltering June rolled on, but I was happy to try something different – no matter how short-lived. 

Flamenco show in Seville

Some time this decade, I’d like to relearn how to sew, brush up on my photography skills and maybe even learn to fly a plane.

3. & 4.   Done a Master’s, and do it in Spanish – On my short list of things to accomplish between college and turning 25 were three things: become fluent in Spanish, move abroad for one year and complete a master’s program.

I was accepted to study Public Relations 2.0 at the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona at age 26 but didn’t actual begin classwork until after my 27th birthday, and then spent endless nights designing communication campaigns and dealing with whatsapps while teaching a full timetable. It was worth it, and I’m glad I waited.

Clase 34 Master's in Spanish

To date, it remains one of my biggest accomplishments, especially when the jurado congratulated me on my creativity and my Spanish skills. Now if only I could find a job that paid more than cacahuetes!

5.   Learned to Drive Stick Shift – My father has worked on classic cars for as long as I can remember, but I could do little else than squish in the front seat with my sister. Learning to drive stick and break myself from automatic driving after 12 years was a challenge, but I’m ultimately glad I did it. No more worrying about tickets or paying more for a rental!

Photo on 4-4-13 at 12.28 PM

I failed my first American driving license at age 16, so this feels like retribution against the nasty lady who flunked me after telling me I was a great driver. And my dad finally let me drive his car.

Job Life

6.    Been a Boss – Being a boss is hard work. Like, really hard. I had my first taste of it at age 18 when I managed a Qdoba and still had friends at the end of the summer, but stakes are higher as you grow older.

Spanish summer camp

I’ve run summer camps for four years and am starting a third year directing a language school. I’ve made as many friends as enemies in the business, but have learned the value of a hard day’s work, of being assertive and of being confident enough to put my ideas into space. Plus, I don’t feel lost in the fold.

I was recently speaking with a sub-director of a large language school who told me, “Mejor ser cabeza de ratón que cola de león.”

7.    Become Confident Enough to Speak in Public – My high school required every sophomore to take a course in communication studies, where we learned to prepare and give speeches.

My first, on airline industry issues, resulted in an A in research and a D in delivery.


As an overachiever, I couldn’t stomach a nearly failing grade (everything under 85% as failing for me then), so Comm Studies became my favorite class. I took public speaking courses throughout college before deciding to give teaching a shot. In both English and Spanish, I have no qualms standing in front of someone (or many someones!) and giving a speech or interview. Though I do fumble over the phone…

After all, it takes cojones to stand up in front of a bunch of surly teachers and try to teach them something.

8.    Had a Job in Retail, and One in Customer Service – Always the kid with a million interests, I’ve done everything from work in a deli to donate plasma to call alumni for money to make a buck. From every one of these experiences, I’ve learned a new skill or two, but working with people has by far been the most beneficial.

9 & 10.    Become Financially Independent (and Learned How to Budget) – I was having a beer with a friend who once lived in Spain and has since become a legal aide lawyer. She said, “Don’t you remember all the disposable income we used to have when we were auxiliares?” 

Ugh, those were the days, but money stressed me out way too much because it all went to plane tickets and tapas!

European Euros money

As someone with an entrepreneurial spirit, I’ve always found creative ways to make it until the end of the month, but buying a house last year really threw something else into the mix. A year after again fretting over money, I’ve learned how to budget and kept my impulse buys at bay (it’s been 18 months since I have traveled anywhere outside Spain or the USA!). I guess it’s the adult thing to do, even though cervecitas have a way of racking up.

11.  Started a Business – Having a 9-to-5 is not enough for me. When I first moved to Spain, I began working for a company that was in its baby stages and felt the excitement of forging out on your own. While I didn’t stay in the company very long, I’ve happily supported their venture.

como logo

Sunshine and Siestas in itself is a business of sorts, but most of my energy in the past few years has been focused on COMO Consulting Spain, a residency consultation bureau. It’s terrifying to think about becoming an autónoma and having a variable income each month, but there’s no other way to make money in Spain.

Travel Life

12.   Walked the Camino de Santiago – One of most memorable moments in Spain was finishing the Camino de Santiago and laying eyes on the Praza do Obradoiro as if I’d never seen it before. After 325 kilometers and endless plates of food to keep my body fueled, the old lemaThe Camino always provides – rang true.

camino de santiago road sign

I learned more about my body, my mental grit and the importance of silence and reflection in those two weeks than I had in all of my life. Hayley and I met some amazing people and saw Spain from the ground up. There’s something really special in having nothing to do but strap on your boots and keep putting one foot in front of the other.

13.   Traveled Alone – I was bummed when Jenna bailed on me in Croatia. We were supposed to spend five days along the Dalmatian Coast, but her last-minute plans had her canceling her flight just days before we were scheduled to take off. 

I went anyway, after a short foray into solo travel in Italy earlier that year. 

cat on dubrovnik city walls

Traveling alone quickly became one of my favorite ways to disconnect, to travel on my own accord and to do and see what I felt like. Too many times I felt that I’d ticked places off of a list just to not miss out on anything, felt obligated to only talk to my travel partners. Croatia felt like a safe and accessible destination to do that, and I spent five days reading lazily with my feet in the sand and meeting couples who invited me to pizza or local Couchsurfers who showed me around town.

If you only travel once in you lifetime, do it solo.

14.   Traveled to 30+ countries – When my uncle turned 70, he recounted tales of living abroad as a career soldier. I resolved to travel as often and as far as I could, having booked a trip through for European countries that summer. My goal was 25 before 25.

At my wedding, he confessed that he’d grossly exaggerated (something I’d come to know in the last 15 years) when he called himself responsible for my wanderlust and consequent marriage. 

China 5: Harbin pre-Universiade

Hungary was number 25, and as we pulled into the bus station at dawn on a March morning, I felt very little emotion. Yes, I’d been up all night on a bus, but I felt like it wasn’t enough. I’m on a mission to see at least 50 in my lifetime (currently at 32) and feel like this world is only getting bigger.

15.   Visited my Ancestor’s Home Countries – When I found out about the bountiful long weekends in my auxiliar schedule, I began booking flights and draining my savings. Within five months of arriving in Spain, I’d been to Ireland, Scotland and Germany, visiting places where my family once lived.

Hopped up on Hops in Ireland

As a third generation American, I’m about as guiri as they get, but as a traveler and expat myself, it took on a whole new meaning to touch down in the very places my family had come from. I loved and connected to Ireland so much that I’ve visited four times!

16.   Traveled to Places like Morocco and India as a Woman – Once I’d conquered Europe, I had an overwhelming need to visit places a little more far-flung. RyanAir opened a route to Marrakesh in 2010, and a SkyScanner promo had me in India for half the cost of returning to the US. Those trips were taxing on me in many ways, but as a confident woman, I felt that I needed to do them before settling down.

Learning in India - the Jama Masjid

Travel has certainly broadened my horizons and given me perspective on social and civil issues in a new way. As I close this decade out, I know that I’ll literally be hitting the breaks as we talk family, finances and what comes next (please, cry. I know – I’m the worst). Thirty-two countries and four continents isn’t terrible, though!

Next week I’ll disclose 17 – 30.

What have been your biggest lessons or accomplishments in your life?

Three Things I’ll Miss From the USA, and Two I Won’t

The plane took off on the first clear Chicago day in a week, passing over I-294 and seeming to hang just for a few moments in the air. I could faintly make out the skyline a few miles away, and as the thin clouds enveloped the plane. 

They say parting is such sweet sorrow, and my eyes certainly pricked with tears as I pulled the curtain and the plane rose higher, bound for Boston, then Santiago de Compostela and finally Madrid.

And I’m sitting in a Starbucks right now – what does that tell you about wanting to leave America?

For 40 glorious days, I walked my dog, I took advantage of having a dryer and I zoned out in front of Bravo for hours on end. Well, that, as well as planning a wedding, entertaining the Novio on his trip out here, and making sure to not gain too much weight. Forty days, by any measure, is not a long time, but it was heavenly (once I got over the reverse culture shock, that is): The pulse of the big city, the warm hugs of friends, the brilliance of a home cooked meal.

Even with the stress of the new house and a huge, bilingual party to plan, it was so comforting to be home with my family for the first time in two years. As someone who will be perpetually straddling the Atlantic – and thus two languages, two cultures and two continents – having two months off to visit is something I appreciate about teaching. I will never have it all, and I’ll always miss things about one home when I’m in the other. Call it my personal expat dilemma.

Usually, I’m ready to board a plane and head back to the land of 1€ beers and the social acceptance of a midday nap, but this time was different. I was sad to leave, finally feeling settled and comfortable. Apparently a few friends echoed that sentiment:

There are several things my heart will ache for once back in the Madre Patria, like

Craft Beer

I am in love with the idea that beer doesn’t have to taste like the beer of my college days, but can be full of hops or taste like a handful of blueberries. Trips to the basement for a bottle for me and my dad with dinner often resulted in me brining up four or six varieties so that we didn’t settle into a routine. I drank my fair share of microbrews, visited three local breweries and smuggled New Glarus – the darling and a new favorite – across the Wisco-Illinois border for the sake of my younger sister.

My father swears he drank more in those 40 days than he had since last summer. The Novio, despite a new love of wheat beers, was disappointed when his beer didn’t really taste like beer.

And I feel that way about coffee, for that matter. When I walked into a gorgeous little coffee shop to meet my wedding photographer, I stared blankly at the menu for maybe 90 seconds before the guy behind the counter offered to help. His bone dry cappuccino was exactly what I needed.

America, you have endless choices, but this little guiri was overwhelmed. But, really, I will be excited to just order a beer and not have anyone ask me what brand, what size and what the hell they’re thinking for charging so much. Cruzcampo, I am waiting for you.

Wi-fi everywhere

I had forgotten what it was like to be able to connect to wi-fi anywhere in the USA. Seville’s half-assed attempt to put in hot spots has reduced it to, well, Starbucks. For someone whose mobile battery lasts about an hour, this saved me during endless errands for the wedding and friends who thought I’d adopted the Spanish habit of being late to everything.

My friends. My wonderful, hilarious friends.

I don’t really miss American much when I’m in Spain, but I do really, really miss my friends. Cheers to every single one of you for making the time to see me, even for a quick drink at happy hour or a ten-minute chat on the phone.  It was especially telling when I announced that the Novio wouldn’t be at the engagement party my parents threw us, and we ran out of the keg her in 90 minutes because my friends still came.

Being home is like an endless carousel of meals out and money spent, but every penny of it was worth it. I love being able to fall easily into a conversation, even after so many months away. Suffice to say, I am already looking forward to being back home next year and throwing a huge party with all of my nearest and dearest.

And then there are a few American annoyances that I won’t miss:


Ugh, if I didn’t drive again for forty days, it would be too many. On the multiple trips to see friends, to interview vendors and venues for the wedding and to visit family (plus the road trips to Wisconsin and Iowa City twice each, as well as Indiana), I must have spent a whole week trapped in the confines of my mom’s 2004 Plymouth van.

I love the convenience of having a car in Spain, but I’m already looking forward to breaking out my bike and walking to meet friends or go to work. Traffic and gas prices are just a pain.

The Food

Now, I won’t miss all-beef hot dogs or sweet corn on the grill, but I am ready to eat food that isn’t laden with artificial colors and flavors. Those strawberries my dad bought me the first weekend? They’ve only begun to sprout mold. And the yoghurt I got for breakfast at the hotel? I took one bite and pushed it away, convinced it was just a combination of chemicals.

Since adding preservatives to food or livestock is illegal in the EU, I feel heavier and unhealthier after six weeks back home in Chicago. One thing I love about Spain is the cuisine, and knowing that a banana from Canarias is, in fact, a banana from Canarias makes me feel better about my average daily intake of food.

When my plane rolled into Barajas a few hours ago, the depression of going back to work and having to start paying for my groceries seemed to evaporate. Even with a serious lack of craft beer, I’ll be happy to have a plain old café con leche and stay off my phone when catching up with Spain friends.

How do you deal with being an expat when it comes to missing things? What do you miss about your home country when you’re gone, and vice versa?

My Biggest Travel Fiasco (or, the time I spent New Year’s Eve alone in Romania)

Budapest, Hungary

The clock reads 7:32 a.m. The man in the front seat is antsy, nervously playing with the manual lock system on the minivan. 

“Where are these people? Don’t they know we could be late for our flights?”

I assure Fidgety Floridian that the Budapest airport is quite small and easy to get through, but his wife isn’t convinced. She rolls her eyes and says, “We have the worst luck with planes. We nearly didn’t make it on the cruise.”

My flight to Tirgu Mures, Romania doesn’t leave for four hours, so I’m cool. I settle into the jump seat at the back of the van, wedged between luggage.

Three hours later, I’ve sailed through security and pursue the food options. I decide to wait until I land in Tirgu Mures, as I will need something to do for three hours before leaving for Madrid. My foot taps impatiently against the floor as we begin to embark. Wedged into an airport bus, I choose to stand next to someone who hasn’t showered.

For thirty minutes.

After which we are unloaded back  into the terminal and delayed another thirty minutes. I settle into my third book of my holiday break and return to tapping my foot again while doing the mental math: I have a one hour flight, a one hour delay and a one hour forward time change. I have just enough time to grab my bag, check in again and head to my gate once we touch down in Tirgu Mures. 

My foot taps faster.

In the air, I relax a little, as I’ve been assured that it will be taxi, takeoff, ascent, quick passage of the metal cart for snacks, descent, landing, taxi. Plus, I’ve snagged a seat on the aisle in the third row (thank you, Amazing Race, for teaching me how to get on and off planes quickly). Flipping through the inflight magazine for the third time, the captain announces something in Hungarian. Then, in English: Due to zero visibility in Tirgu Mures, we’ve been rerouted to Cluj, to which we have begun our descent. There will be buses on hand to take you to Tirgu, unless you’d prefer to stay in Cluj. We apologize for any inconvenience.

My heart skips a beat and I call the flight attendant, slightly panicked. How long until the buses arrive? Is it a far drive to Tirgu Mures? Will I have to go through customs here? I continue to fire, but she comes back with two responses: first, I don’t know anything about Romania and second, we are a point to point airline, sorry.

No shit. 

Cluj-Napoca Airport, Romania

Once on the ground, I call the Novio, fighting tears. Our New Year’s plans were to spend the night with his extended family which had come from London, Peru, Murcia and Madrid. He assures me they’ll come and pick me up from Madrid when I get in, whenever that may be. I hastily get through customs, and my checked bag comes barreling down the belt first.

My first stop is the tourist information counter. Unfortunately, the woman speaks limited English. There is no bus to Tirgu Mures out front, and I check my watch: with the time change, my flight closes in 90 minutes. I return to the desk and slow down: How long in taxi to Tirgu Mures? 

“One hour thirty, maybe two.” Remembering my Romania road trip, I think of the poor state of most highways in Romania and bite my lip.

Other travelers are taking pity on me, asking if there’s anything they can do to help me or if I’d like a lift to the center of Cluj. I rack my brain – I’ve been here before. It’s a large university city where we made a quick stop, and the food was cheap. A large, domed church with a fountain in front gets shaken from my head as I try to think straight.

The Cluj airport flies to many more destinations, including Barcelona and Madrid, I tell myself. If I fly out of anywhere, it will be here.

I have to say, I have never been a nervous flier. I always arrive to the airport early, pack my bag without liquids and know how planes work and why they just don’t fall out of the sky. Yes, I even pray to the Virgin of Loreto, patron saint of pilots (and I can’t believe I just admitted that). But now I’m antsy, channeling Kevin McCallister’s mother as I half-run to the Wizz Air ticketing office in the departures terminal.

The woman is quite nice and speaks English, and looks up flights to anywhere in Spain – Valencia, Alicante, Palma. Nothing more will fly out today to Spain, just to Budapest at 8pm, more than six hours in the future. She assures me there are flights from Budapest to Madrid the following day for a mere 145€, and the woman in the other information booth looks up overnight buses and prices for me.

Just then, a young Lufthansa worker touches me on the shoulder. Nothing is flying out of Targu this afternoon – there’s no ground visibility and they’ve already sent word that we’ll be getting flights bound for other destinations here, he tells me.

Feeling a stroke of good luck, I buy myself a cold sandwich and a warm Orsus beer and pace the empty departures hall.

For the next five hours, I jockey between the Wizz Air office, the check-in counters for news and the information desk. Passengers from other flights to Lutton and Beauvais pass through, looking at me as if I am in the movie Terminal. Time ticks by slowly, but I don’t pick up a magazine until several hours into the ordeal. Food doesn’t appeal to me, and even the nice Romanian girl who offers me tea gets a no, thank you.

The Lufthansa worker is nowhere to be found, so I ask another for help. Thankfully, he speaks English perfectly and makes a call. 

“We’ll know in thirty minutes, but I think you’re in luck. Just stay within sight.” Doing as I’m told, I finally start to try to occupy myself, returning to my e-book. Still distracted, another hour flies by and the Novio calls back. He tells me, pity in his voice, that no one could help him in Barajas, then, angrily, “And the call costs 1,15 a minute, joder!”

Just then, nice Lufthansa man steps out from around the heck-in desk with a long face. “Yeah, so, your flight will leave in 15 minutes. From Targu Mures. I’m sorry, the weather has cleared up.”

Well, crap.

Nice Lufthansa man turns into an angel when he gets on the phone with Wizz Air and scores me a new ticket, free of charge, for the misinformation he alleges I’ve received. An email in my inbox confirms this. I could hug him, but instead I give him the bottle of wine I was carrying home for the Novio’s family. One good deed deserves another, and he gladly accepts it, saying that he was made to work an extra eight hours with the influx of re-routed flights.

I grab my things and find a taxi after seven hours in the terminal. There is general confusion, as the taxi driver asks me which bus station I want to go to. I dart back into the terminal to find it completely deserted. I leave it to blind faith and nod when he asks the name of the company and just takes off, racing towards the city.

Cluj-Napoca City Center

We pull up to what appears to be an abandoned junk yard with a few plastic huts. “Bus!” the driver calls out and dumps my bag on the cold, wet ground. Never mind the vintage stein I’m bringing back…or the other bottle of wine.

Everything is dark. I can’t read anything. My watch read 8:22, or one hour, forty-eight minutes until the bus apparently passes. Music is playing at the hotel around the corner, so I go in and plead my way into sitting in the still-cold lobby, tired enough to want to cry, or just curl up and say to hell with an overnight bus.

Welp, turns out there was no overnight bus, or any bus or train on New Year’s Day, so I turn on my Internet data (happy Christmas bonus, Vodafona) and look up hotels, figuring it would be money well spent. There’s a Hilton.

There’s a Hilton.

The closest I can get to home is a Hilton, and they would definitely have wi-fi and breakfast. I realize, rubbing my eyes, I’ve barely eaten or even drank since 6:30 in the morning, adding to my drowsiness and overall pity party.

The Hilton glows green on the empty street, just a few yards from the city center. I practically collapse as the receptionist charges my credit card and writes down my information to the tune of 58€. Giving him the cliff notes of my sob story, he promises to call me a taxi.

Upstairs in my room, I’ve just taken off my bag when the phone buzzes. “Um, yes, my friend can take you to Budapest Airport tomorrow. It is five, maybe six hours. It will cost 250€. Yes?” Without even thinking, I say yes. Besides, I already did the mental math. If I waited another day, I’d have to spend another 58€ for the hotel room, over 300€ for the flight from Cluj on the 2nd, and then another train ticket from Madrid. 

I kick off my shoes and run the shower. I stare at the water and steam for about a minute before I decide I’m too tired to even stand under the jet of water. The clock says 11:23 p.m., a full 15 hours since I left the dock in Budapest. I should have arrived to Spain three hours ago.

My night is sleepless, punctuated by fireworks, whatsapps from well-wishing friends and a very nervous mother. My in-laws send pictures of themselves eating my 12 lucky grapes, and all I can think is, vaya suerte. 

Rural Romania

The driver nods his head at me as I slip in the back seat of his car. He punches something nervously into his GPS and I wish him a happy new year, surprisingly sunny, given the circumstances and the money I am about to fork over to him. It doesn’t seem that he speaks English, which both relieves and disappoints me.

One thing I can say since my road trip through Transylvania and Mures: the roads have definitely gotten better. We speed out of Cluj along the E-61 towards Hungary, and I am flooded with memories of my trip. The intricately carved wooden crosses on the side of the road, the haystacks behind homes and the women in black fly by as we take the twisting roads west.

There’s definitely a common theme amongst Romanians – they’re all so damn nice, and it’s amazing what a terrible night of sleep did to me – I feel 100 times better and pray to the travel gods that I will be back in Spain on the first day of 2014.

Romanian-Hungarian border

The driver is nervous. He backs his car up, pulls it back in, changes positions, smokes his smokeless cigarette pipe thing. I’m sipping down water in small amounts, not sure if he speaks enough English to know I need a pit stop. After seven long minutes (for him, not me), the guard approaches the car and hands me back me passport and Spanish residency card.

On the first day of 2014, I’ve already got two freshly stamped entries in my passport. Every cloud…

Budapest, Hungary

Once we’re into Hungary, the roads become straight and the hills disappear. While I can understand some words in Romania because of its Romantic language roots, Hungary has me completely stumped. All I can make out is the ever-dwindling number of kilometers between our car and the airport.

The driver drops me off right in front of the terminal. I’ve given him a tip of close to 30€ (after all, he charged me in Romanian leu and that conversion is not easy on a sleep-deprived brain) for his trouble on New Year’s Day, and he shakes my hand firmly after helping me put my heavy bag on my back. I thank him on the only word in Romanian I know, multumesc. Thank you very much.

My phone picks up the wi-fi immediately in the airport, and I re-book a train ticket for 9:30 p.m. I have three hours before my flight, which will give me time to finally have a beer, get checked in and get through security…and maybe eat fast food and not feel ashamed about it. Spanish permeates my consciousness and I relax.

Once on the plane, the sky is a dreamy pink with streaks of red until night falls.

Madrid, Spain

As soon as the plane touches down, the first thing that comes to mind is Manolo Escobar’s famous Spain anthem, Que Viva España. My phone is turned on before we reach the gate, and I send whatsapps to everyone I know. I feel like I’ve returned to a place where everything makes sense and where language is no longer an issue. I get Spain. 

Time seems to pass by in three seconds as I grab my bag, transfer to terminal 4, hop on the cercanías line and make it to my train – the last of the day – with 20 minutes to spare. Being a holiday, my car was only half full, so I could curl up across both seats and sleep for two hours. Stepping onto the platform and seeing ‘SEVILLA – SANTA JUSTA’ as I take a deep breath reminds me that I am, at long last, home.

Sevilla, Spain

I arrive home five minutes to midnight on January 1st. The travel gods heard my plea, it seems. I’ve traveled, by my estimate, over 3900 miles in 40 hours. The Novio hasn’t changed the sheets in two weeks, but I hardly notice as I sleep, finally, in my own bed for 10 hours.

I’ve since recounted the short version of the ordeal to my friends. While some are shocked and glad it didn’t happen to them, I can say this: I am relieved that I am a seasoned traveler and that I’ve watched my parents navigate standby and weather delays like champs. My nerves and even my tear ducts were put to the test, but I got home, unscathed (just poorer). Had I been new to international travel or unaware of European flight compensations, I may have made rookie mistakes.

One thing I have realized? I am not cut out for round-the-world travel. While it seems challenging and fun, I’m too accustomed to my comforts and hate wearing dirty clothes (there, I admitted it). I can handle when things don’t go as planned, but I don’t like it because I am not spontaneous. I like feeling grounded. I like the feeling of familiarity. I like having wi-fi and no roaming data (my bill came yesterday…ouch).

That’s not to say that I won’t travel for extended periods of time – I most certainly will travel as far as my body and my salary will take me, and have big dreams when it comes to doing it. But I think I’ve finally mató el gusano. The idea of round-trip travel is no longer a little tickle that flares up once in a while.

The idea of becoming an expat in another city or another country? THAT is the new gusanillo.

Have you had any travel disasters recently? I’d love to hear them, and if they’re Spain-related, feel free to send me the story for publishing!

What happens at the Weis’n: Oktoberfest, a Beer-Lover’s Dream

A three a.m. wake up call two days in a row – first to drive to Málaga and catch a flight to Frankfurt, and then to pull on a dirndl, braid my hair and brush my teeth.

Ja, I was on my way to Oktoberfest, echoing my college days when I would get up at dawn to tailgate and slam a beer on Melrose Avenue as the sun came up.

The Weis’n was like a full-blown, Bavarian style Feria de Sevilla – tents that were difficult to get into, carnival rides operating around the clock, vendors selling all kinds of local fare that filled the air with scents of smoked sausages and fries.

Have I died and gone to beer-lovers heaven? Ja.

Christyn and I arrived to the enormous complex shortly before 11am. Knowing the weekend would mean an influx of tourists and reservations at beer tents, we beelined directly to where the line seemed the shortest, the Löwenbräu tent. An enormous plastic lion with a mechanical arm was drinking more beer than we were – we learned that once the reserved tables were full, we would have to wait with the other tourists, as the bouncer with a scary-looking neck tattoo who looked like he’d never eaten anything but bratwurst and sauerkraut would only let patrons in when others came out.

Even in Spain, an orderly line would form, so what’s with the Germans letting the entrance be a free-for-all wherein the scary doorman chooses how desperate or thirsty or Bavarian you are?

After 40 minutes, we were led to a long wooden table outdoors. Being late September, it was chilly, but the heat lamps and constant toasts and chants kept us moving about and a bit warm. I borrowed a friend’s dirndl, carried a cardigan and wore two pairs of tights, and thanks to the large amount of beer I drank, had few problems keeping warm.

Once inside and seated, the busty server slammed a litre beer down for each of us at a cost of 10€. The heavy glasses were empty before we could even order a snack (an enormous pretzel, exactly what was missing in my guiri life). Only five types of Munich-based beers are allowed to be served, and of the several we tried during the course of the day, Lion’s Brew was my favorite.

After two enormous beers and getting creeped on by some Italians at the table over, Christyn and I needed to go to the bathroom. I was relieved to see that the German efficiency at the door (as in, lack thereof) was back when it came to the women’s toilets, but mainly because the entire beer hall was rocking – a lederhosen-clad band was playing German folk songs and Sweet Caroline from a raised stage in the center.

I knew we wouldn’t get beer unless we were seated somewhere, but Christyn had already taken care of that problem. A few locals scooped us up and squeezed us into their table. They were already standing on the wooden benches, rocking out, and invited us to some food and topped off our steins.

The interior of the tent was like a raucous mess hall of school cafeteria. I felt right at home. Case in point:

In need of some fresh air around 2pm, we walked towards the carnival rides, past booths with the traditional tirolerheut hats and lavishly painted steins. I somehow convinced a local to ride on the rollercoaster with me when my cousin refused to lose her pretzel and the gingerbread cookies we’d snacked on. I got a glimpse of the entire Teresenweise – the place was enormous. Then, it was over the hill and plunging back towards the ground.

The rest of the day passed in a haze – the beer sold a Oktoberfest is stronger than the beer served in local bars – but we were befriended at another tent where we (thankfully) could not get another beer. After currywurst and a sudden downpour, we were tuckered out and found a little Indian restaurant for a bowl of warm soup and a litre of water – my first of the day.

I’ll be back in Munich for two days in December. Apart from the beer and Christmas markets, what else should I see? What should I eat? Where should I stay?

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