One month and three days ago, I was living in Brussels. It still feels like a dream that didn’t quite happen, and yet this life I’m currently leading also feels bizarrely temporary.

Life back in the states: I’ve picked up right where I left off, miraculously. I’m the new editor in chief of my college newspaper, The California Aggie, and I’ve been interning at the San Francisco Chronicle’s Food & Wine department for the past two weeks. These were two dreams I dreamt up pre-Belgium, that I didn’t quite think would ever happen. And here we are. Somehow, they happened.

Most things are the same. In Davis, I still do work at the Delta of Venus, the cool cafe cool people like to slyly name drop in writings such as this one. I order the same large coffee and breakfast of scrambled eggs, sundried tomatoes, sweet peppers, cheese and pesto, with organic walnut toast. The same students wander in and out and have the same conversations. Didn’t she graduate?, I think over and over again. Obviously graduation doesn’t mean moving on. Nothing guarantees moving on.

Will I move on?

Or is it exactly as everyone else is telling me — I’m moving too darn fast to notice.

The readjustment is still happening at a snail’s pace — that, I am noticing. Social situations still feel unnatural, a challenge I know I must accept, and I do accept, but that I just can’t conquer just yet. I feel silences in full force. I feel myself having nothing substantial to add to any conversation, because if I bring up Europe again, eyes will surely glaze over. I purposefully try to see friends who can talk about themselves for hours so the pressure is loosened. I secretly text my old friends from Brussels under the table, as we continue our extravagant game of pretend, where we live a short bus ride away as opposed to a long flight.

But! I am done complaining.

San Francisco is still one of the most fabulous cities in the world and I have already enjoyed exploring it more than I ever have before. Commuting in every morning using public transit, getting off at “the world-famous Powell Street” (as the conductor says nearly every morning), and dodging all sorts of commotion before getting into the Chronicle’s office each morning is an enviable time in itself. I’m determined to force myself to stay in the city after work more often, despite how cozy my bed and a couple episodes of Battlestar Gallactica sound. On the days I’ve successfully forced this situation, I’ve experienced beautiful, big-city, exciting things — a futurist lecture series on our robot overlords and a free Comedy Central taping with Kristen Schaal, for example.

A couchsurfer I met up with in the city, from the East Coast but who had lived in Spain for a couple of years, told me he had the worst reverse culture shock coming back to the states. But he knew there was one place in the country where he could still be happy. San Francisco. The most European city in America.

And of course, I am endlessly appreciative of every opportunity I had this past year. And I am endlessly appreciative of my family and friends for supporting me the whole way through, and welcoming me back despite my awkward demeanor. There is really no reason to complain.

So this is it. The end of the blog. Until my next big adventure, that is. And that will happen. Promise.

A list: My Top Ten Moments on the Road

I’ve been back in the US for a few weeks now, moving quickly into my fast-paced, appointment-filled existence. I’m drinking a lot more beer than I used to, though, with the typical evening spent nursing a new local brew before bed. It’s the most noticeable, immediate change to my every day life that points directly to Belgium.

Of course I miss little Belgium, still. I miss traveling all the time, and in some ways, I still feel like I’m not fully allowing myself to settle down just yet, as if another big adventure was scheduled in just a few weeks time.

Now that I’m back, I’m always asked about my favorite cities or countries that I visited. I’ve been anticipating these questions, and I knew that I’d have a near-impossible time giving a straight answer. It’s so hard to judge a city off of a three-day experience. And said experience is dictated so much by the human connections made. Interactions really determine a love for a set time and place, but to allow it to determine a love for just the place, over any indefinite time period, isn’t exactly fair. That’s where revisiting comes into play, which, of course, I’d love to have the luxury to do.

I still can’t tell you my favorite places. But I can tell you what experiences stick out.

In alphabetical order by city, because trying to order these would take weeks of deliberation, a list: My Top Ten Moments on the Road. Titles are linked to a corresponding blog post, except in the case of number one, where there isn’t one.

1) Spooning with two best friends on a boat in Amsterdam

This sounds like a really silly thing to include in a list that should be made up exclusively of epic shit, or really interesting cultural shit. I can participate in platonic cuddle puddles any day, anywhere.

But this one felt special. It was special.

The ISA group went on one final weekend trip together to The Hague in May. It came with a real sense of finality, of too-near goodbyes. To best friends, of course, this sense was unwelcomed. We extended our trip, skipped class and booked a night in a boat on a canal in Amsterdam.

There was something about that tiny, tiny room: bunk beds on one side, another twin bed tucked under a little, circular window, with less than a foot of space in between. A sink against the wall. A door. A toilet under the shower head. The lack of space is exactly what we signed up for, though, when all we wanted was to be close to each other, in all respects of the word.

2) Rejection at the Bordeaux airport

This moment will live on in my memory for a long, long time, mostly because it was so dreadful.

Getting rejected at any point in life is rough. When you feel so wronged, when it’s completely beyond your control, when it’s bureaucratic nonsense behind two countries you thought you loved, and really do love, which almost makes it worse… When it’s at an airport and you have somewhere you need to be.

It sucked.

But. Returning to my couchsurfing’s hosts pad for a hearty vegetarian dinner, laughs, some finger painting and a jam session with a dozen international students was not a bad way to end my stay in the region. In fact, it strengthened my perception of Bordeaux, of the French lifestyle in general, even more.

3) Cooking for three generations of Slovaks in Bratislava

Watching my couchsurfing host’s mother eye my homemade potstickers with skepticism, and maybe even some fear, was funny. Having her actually thoroughly enjoy the meal was truly gratifying. And the conversation that ensued about marriage, communism and being a single female traveler, was one I’ll remember for a long, long time. It solidified my already sky-high happiness toward the couchsurfing project as way to connect across cultures, generations and general opposite ideologies in a way that, against all odds, makes perfect sense.

4) Christmas magic in Copenhagen

I loved my weekend in Copenhagen, and in addition to my awesome couchsurfing host, I think this love has a lot to do with the weekend I was there: the first weekend of Christmas.

Copenhagen explodes with Christmas markets the first weekend of December. It isn’t freezing cold yet, but everyone’s excited. There’s real life cheer.

In particular: there’s the most epic artificial man-made Christmas wonderland that, despite being artificial and man-made and commercial, was no better way to start off the holiday season. Tivoli, the tourist classic, old school amusement park. I will probably never feel that much child-like joy, see so many twinkly, dramatic displays, or 100% believe in my heart that reindeers could fly, ever, ever again.

5) Moshing on broken glass in Madrid

Madrid was easily the most punk rock city I’ve been to. General badass feelings emanated from all over, from the kalimotxo (red wine and coca cola) being consumed in the streets to the crazy lack-of-sleep schedule to the somehow-still-cool scene haircuts.

One of my favorite nights in Europe, ever, has got to be my one in Madrid. In a small circle of semi-familiar Californian faces, in a greater circle of crazy Spaniards, all moshing together in synchronized chaos to a live electro-synth band playing “Here Comes the Sun.” On a floor completely covered with broken glass, of course.

6) The night alone in the Macedonian mountains, and hitchhiking in Ohrid

I explained these two experiences with fairly high detail already, so I’ll spare you.

On this whole list, though, these two experiences were by far the most unbelievable, the most outrageous, showcasing the Macedonian Man in two distinct forms with two very different ends.

Regardless of how ticked off I was when my host got too drunk to return to the cabin, leaving me alone in the apparently bear-filled mountains, and then bringing rotten fish the following morning when I had already not eaten since the previous afternoon, and then… Well, regardless of all of that, my time in Macedonia was likely the most memorable time of all.

7) Walking three dogs through the French countryside

My entire time working on a small farm in Western France, the Poitou-Charentes area specifically, was memorable. What was perhaps the most memorable, though, surprisingly were the daily dog walks.

I acknowledge that dog walks are pretty normal, pretty domestically universal, unlike other things I was doing, like herding goats and mating rabbits. But these! These were wild times.

There were three dogs of varying sizes. One black Labrador pup, undisciplined and strong named Kai. One big, white mutt, with a scrunched up bull-dog face named Bone. One tiny fluffy thing named Muffin.

Bone was in heat. Like, hardcore heat. To the point that Bone was attempting to ride Kai about every 20 seconds. Occasionally, little Muffin would try to get in on the action, which was just awkward. Being dragged around by three dogs is rough enough, being dragged around by three horny dogs continually trying to mount each other is a whole other story.

8) Christmas dinner in Prague

For me, Christmas at home is not a big deal. Of course I spend it with family, but it’s almost more like an out-of-default situation, not because our bones are seeped in tradition.

Being in Prague on this family-oriented holiday, without my family, was probably the most beautiful Christmas I’ve had. Not because I was away from my family, but because I was welcomed into a new one, one both of people and traditions completely foreign to me.

The three-day affair was mostly spent around the dinner table, where my Czech mom dished out the same potato salad over and over, and we never tired of its charms. I never tired of any of the charms of that tiny flat in the Communist-era suburban sprawl of Prague — the old-fashioned paisley wallpaper, the tea breaks, the tiny, Charlie Brown-esque Christmas tree, the fat orange cat, the Christmas candles, wreaths, bells and general decor.

This winter, I will realistically be dreaming of my temporary Czech family, their cozy flat and potato salad.

9) A snowball fight in Salzburg

Anyone’s first real snow is magical. But a first real snow in Salzburg, a city that evokes all fairytale mindsets at all times, is truly worth remembering.

I awoke in a shoe closet, my bedroom for the evening, to a white Salzburg.

I walked to the city center with my host, a masters student on her way to a lecture. We engaged in a snowball fight, or more like, she engaged me in a snowball fight. We laughed and laughed, shooting off frozen missiles until our hands went numb. Then she was late to class.

10) A double rainbow in Tuscany

I was slowly waking from an afternoon nap when I heard my sister screaming bloody murder. Only it was followed by (still screaming): “DOUBLE RAINBOW!!!”

It wasn’t just the incredible sight — a full double rainbow spanning across the already glorious Tuscan hills — that made the moment so special. It was the timing. It was the Bitkers’ first real family vacation, borderline reunion, with extended family, and it was our final day together.

Italy could not have chosen a more beautiful way to say goodbye.

The departure. The return.

Our host mom, Martine, was watering flowers in the front yard when my roommate and I were leaving for our farewell dinner with the rest of the ISA gang. We hesitated on our way out — wait… is this the last time we’re seeing each other? Ever?

We tried to express our gratitude. “Martine, merci, BEAUCOUP. C’était incroyable!” We probably sounded silly.

Martine did not sound silly in the slightest. She was sad. She told us we were like her daughters, if only for four months. Then she cried.

Saying goodbye to Brussels was difficult. It wasn’t just a goodbye to a city that I came to cherish, or to Europe in general. It was a goodbye to an existence. It was a goodbye to the life that I built from scratch over the course of nine months — a life that I would never have again and a life I can only hope to visit a shadow of one day.

I’m being melodramatic. I can always visit Brussels.

I can always return to the Manneken Pis to giggle at the hoards of tourists in disbelief. I can always return to Place Saint Gery for a cool Hommel beer and cool-people-watching. I can always return to Place Saint Catherine for shrimp croquettes on the street, exceptional gourmet ice cream served by an exceptionally grumpy man, gooey almond croissants alongside organic honey beer bread…

But I won’t be living there. I will have no justification for pretending to be an expert on my surroundings. My French will be awful again, and I won’t be able to have silly exchanges with the silly locals all the time. And I won’t have the fantastic friends, the families, that made it all so memorable.

This “existence” can’t be replicated. It’s being an American 20-year-old studying abroad in the capital of Europe. It’s not being tied to anything except a few courses a week and self-inflicted desires for adventure, high-brow culture, epicurean delights and bizarre conversation. This existence could only last a year, which I acknowledge in full. Much longer, and a real life would start to form, and such fun is tough to maintain in a real life.

That free feeling could happen again. I could lead a more exciting life in the future. I could visit 15 new countries in another short-term stint abroad, somewhere, someday. It’s very possible. Yet, settling back in the States has so quickly made those dreams seem even more dreamlike. Brussels in itself feels like a dream that never really happened.

Less than one week ago, I was celebrating my last night in Belgium. There was a party, sponsored by my college, where the top floor to a swanky club was rented out. There was bottle service and flashy wristbands that said “VIP Guest.” We danced all night and said our goodbyes. Closure. A friend and I took a cab back out to the suburbs. To home. We sat on an apartment ledge, the cobblestones beneath our feet glittering from the rain from hours ago. Another friend took his cab to the airport. He waved goodbye, and that was it. The birds had already begun singing. We held each other and cried for hours. We slept for minutes. And then it was time for my own taxi, a gorgeous ride through the lush Eastern suburbs. Brussels winked at me as the sun came out for the first time in weeks.

The initial feelings about America, after coming back, are what you would expect. Everything’s so big. Everyone’s so wasteful. Everyone’s in such a hurry yet life is so slow. Consumerism. Consumerism. Consumerism.

I have photos and memories, but already, they somehow don’t feel real. I continually tell myself: “Yes, Janelle, that happened.” Speaking in past tense is sad enough, but not speaking at all, when no one around really cares, is quickly setting all those memories into sepia tones.

I’m ending this post with an excerpt from an email from a new friend, an amazing friend, from New York, who I met in Brussels, in a chance encounter that feels like long, long ago:

“When I returned from my first study abroad in Estonia, a close friend of mine from there left me with an Estonian proverb: ‘Kes on läinud välja maailma seal viibida.’

It roughly means: ‘Who has gone out to the world will stay there.’

So where do we wander to next my friend?”

Pre-departure musings

Between studying for final exams, packing my current life away, and getting around to doing things I never did in Brussels, this is proving to be a busy week.

My checklist of “things to do that I never did in Brussels” is nearly complete, though. I’ve devoured Brussels’ art house cinema scene. I’ve finally sat back at the Cinematek and listened to a live pianist while a video montage of Berlin in the 1920’s crackled before me. I’ve perused the Comic Strip Center and am taking home some Tin Tin, en français, bien sûr. I went to the Belgian Royal Greenhouses. I’ve done a lot. A lot. And I’m comforted knowing I won’t be leaving with Brussels with too many regrets.

As part of my studying-procrastination, I went through some of my old blogposts, starting with my pre-departure musings. Reading my fears and expectations for this study abroad experience was strange, as I’m feeling virtually the exact same way now that I’m prepping to return home.

In this post, a month and a half before I left for Brussels, I was depressed. I thought too much would change in California while I was gone, that all my friends would move on to new things, and that I’d return lonely and lost. I feared having to start anew in Brussels and then come back to California and start anew again.

I tearfully hugged several friends goodbye last summer, hoping that wasn’t the final hug between us. I have since let go of those hopes — semi-permanent goodbyes abounded then, and they are abounding now more than ever. Likewise, I did miss a lot this year in California — a death, a fire, a pepper-spraying incident, an engagement — and there’s no way I can assimilate into such dramatic social situations fully.

In this post, two days before I left for Brussels, I expressed disbelief. I was all prepared to jet off, but I felt nothing. This is also how I’m feeling right now. My anguish and dread is being felt on a theoretical level.

In terms of real life emotions, I don’t have any yet. Brussels has turned into a second home and I am having trouble convincing myself that I’m leaving it.

It’s the same situation — just as I spent my last week in California soaking up all of my favorite things for “the last time,” I am currently plotting my farewell meals, nights of dancing and other things for “the last time.” In the summer, it included cuddling with old friends in a mass of blankets on a couch in Alameda, drinking tea and watching TV. This time around, it’s including cuddling with new friends in a mass of blankets on a couch in Ixelles, eating cereal and watching movies.

And again, I don’t feel like I’m actually going anywhere. Yes, I’ve de-registered from my Belgian commune, I’ve given up my identity card, I’ve got my flight confirmation printed out, and I’ve got my last dinners, my last goodbyes, with my families and friends all lined up. But still. I can’t believe that I’ll be driving a car again. I can’t believe that I’ll be reading signs in English. I can’t believe I’ll be able to eavesdrop on people all the time. I can’t believe that come fall, I’ll be in a school with more than 400 people, that I won’t be engaged in adventures every weekend. I can’t believe the levels of mundane I am surely going to feel every day my first weeks back.

In the past week, I’ve had two new friends from CouchSurfing come visit me in Brussels to say goodbye. One: a 33-year-old I met in Luxembourg, who has lived all over the world, and works in something boring like finance. But he lives with vigor, spontaneity. He has dreams that are both lofty and practical. He wants to live and feel fulfilled and he wants to take his time doing it. Another: a 23-year-old cook and future tour-guide from Ghent. He found himself traveling, found himself on CouchSurfing. He just got back from Israel, Iceland is up this summer, working in Australia is on the agenda, as is another long trek in Asia. He’s not staying still. His life goals can wait. He’s living with his mom still, sure, but why would that ever matter when he’s living his life so voraciously?

Both of these fine gentlemen told me the same thing — break away from the American rat race and live out all those globetrotting journeys that I babble on about as if they’re mythical. Aim high and aim far away. And there’s always that little detail that I keep forgetting when I draft my life plans, when I consider succumbing to societal pressures to settle: I’m only 20.

Both men left me with hugs and the customary kiss on the left cheek, which I’ll dearly miss, and both men said this wasn’t goodbye. “I’ll see you soon, somewhere.”

How to Fall in Love with Brussels

Nearly nine months ago, I arrived in Brussels with one backpack, one suitcase, and not much else. I was easily excitable. I was nervous. I was uncomfortable. I was overwhelmed by city life, by options, by people.

And here we are. Nine months later. I’m leaving Brussels in a week, as easily the best year of my life comes to a close. What has changed? What has studying abroad done for me?

While my parents were visiting, they said I was more worldly and confident. Those seem like obvious traits to contract from a long stint in any hyper-international city like Brussels. I’d hoped there would be more differences, more improvement, but maybe worldliness and confidence is good enough. Those are, after all, pretty valuable.

And from what I’ve gleaned from other international students, the real internal changes comes during the reverse culture shock stage — the return home, the reassimilation, the hurt, the longing, the confusion, the disconnect.

The disconnect.

I’m banking on my new friends spread out across the states, across the world, as a support system for these inevitable moments of feeling alone, alienated and disenfranchised with everything normal.

But until then, prepare for some reflections, guides and lists, as my way of attempting to summarize this experience into comprehension. An attempt to remember and continue to remember the things I’ve cherished most as an American studying abroad.


How To Fall In Love with Brussels

I’ve rarely found anyone during my travels that understood why I chose to study in Brussels. I’ve rarely found anyone that understood what I saw in this city, how I could be enamored with a city that’s so dirty, dumpy and boring, with its top monument being a little peeing boy.

Brussels is weird, full of dichotomies, and so long as you don’t dig the conventional, it’s easy to fall for the city.

1) Cultures, Languages

As I’ve said before, Brussels is incredibly international. It’s the home to the European Union, and for that reason alone, diverging European cultures are brought together and present everywhere.

Legally, all signs are in French and Dutch, the country’s top languages. But German is also an official language, so sometimes you’ll see signs in all three, or if you wander east, signs exclusively in German. Then there’s English, because in Brussels, more people speak English than Dutch. Then there’s every other language in the world.

I hear new languages on public transit every day, and I can rarely identify them. Is that Bulgarian or Macedonian? Is that Polish or Czech? Am I hearing Arabic? Which of the many, many African dialects is that? Why would I even bother asking myself such questions?

In turn, exotic restaurants abound. Japanese specialty shops have made it to the suburbs. Street markets can transport you to Turkey.

But at the same time, Belgium has its own unique and quirky culture that’s absolutely evident in day-to-day life in Brussels. It’s something that sets it apart from the likes of New York City or London — international cities that, while are obviously fantastic, can’t exactly be considered emblematic of their countries.

2) Architecture

Brussels isn’t uniform. The Grand Place is, of course, stunningly gorgeous and remains the most beautiful city plaza I’ve ever laid eyes on.

Outside the center, you have examples of 19th century Parisian style apartment buildings, pristine, beige and permanently royal looking. Then there are the typical, narrow brick homes you’ll find all over the country. And then there’s a sprinkling of truly unusual Art Nouveau, and nothing says cool like stumbling upon a Victor Horta.

Some find the modern architecture, particularly around the EU quarter, an eyesore. Maybe they have a point, but I find it all part of the charm. Brussels is old and new, in all respects, like most of Europe.

3) Food

Belgians are the butt-end of many French jokes, but Brussels has more Michelin starred restaurants per capita than Paris. So, ha!

Where else in the world can you dine on a moving tram???

In all seriousness though, it’s real difficult to have a bad or mediocre meal in Brussels. The restaurant scene is thriving and diverse, with traditional, rustic bistros just as popular as the most cutting edge, modernist dining rooms. It’s all here and it’s all more affordable than, say, Paris.

I could never tire of the smell of caramelizing Liege waffles in the streets of downtown. I always relish the opportunity to pick up top quality chocolate at the grocery store for next to zero euros. And there’s not much else as satisfying as a cone of fries after a long night of beer tasting. In fact, there’s not much I’ll miss more than the fast food — deep fried meats served simply so, and juicy, meaty kebabs. Sultan’s, move to California, please?

4) Art

Brussels doesn’t have a museum that every tourist “must” visit. There’s no Louvre, no National Gallery, no Albertina, no Prado. But there’s a lot of smaller stuff, and in fact, the artistic community in Brussels is really active. It’s easy to enjoy without any pretension.

Apart from festivals and little galleries and stellar rotating exhibits (hint: the current Stanley Kubrick photography expo), there are some permanent gems.

The Magritte Museum has an unrivaled collection of the Belgian surrealist’s works. And the Belgian surrealist’s works are awesome. The BOZAR consistently churns out interesting, high-brow exhibits in Victor Horta’s palace. Tucked away far from the center, the Musee d’Ixelles has a surprisingly impressive and vast permanent collection, including original posters by Toulouse-Lautrec.

And there are concerts, lots of them, all the time, all over the place! The options are overwhelming, with high-profile artists coming through constantly. Good and bad: the venues are small, meaning the shows sell out quickly. But when one manages to get tickets, the reward is tremendous. Particularly beautiful and intimate venues include La Botanique, Cirque Royale, and Ancienne Belgique.

What I adore even more, though, is the love for cinemas. The BOZAR holds Cinematek, a separate film museum that screens classics, with occasional lectures, and silent films with live piano. Film festivals abound all over the city, in art house cinemas like Cinema Nova or the Vendome. Walking through the super touristy Rue des Bouchers, you’d never know that if you walked through one hotel lobby, you’d end up in an adorable cinema called Actor’s Studio, with just three small screens. Even smaller: Le Styx, in Ixelles, where screens have space for a dozen or two. Wherever you go, there’s likely an unusual film, from somewhere in the world, in its original language, with trendy moviegoers lining up, nearby.

5) Green

Yes, Brussels is pretty sustainability-minded, but I’m talking about accessibility to greenery. Brussels has a lot of natural beauty for a place many mistaken to be urban sprawl. I’ve heard folks claim it to be the Greenest Capital in Europe, and they could easily be right.

Part of this distinction is owed to the massive forest that spreads across the southern part of the city, along with the huge Bois de la Cambre, whose center is a lovely lake, whose center holds an island, whose center has a Swiss chalet turned restaurant. To the east, there’s Parc de la Woluwe, which combines hilly forests and large ponds. Wandering any of these spaces, it’s easy to forget you’re in a metropolis.

The obvious parks — Parc Royale in the city center and Parc du Cinquantenaire with its giant arch — are both enjoyable with feelings of importance. But nearby are other gems: a few steps from Parc Royale lies Parc Egmont, completely hidden and incredibly peaceful, and close to Cinquantenaire in the EU Quarter is Parc Leopold, a prime spot to people watch around a pond, surrounded by modern architecture.

Also: Parc de Tervueren, the most pristine and manicured of them all, a gorgeously green tram ride just outside city limits. And Parc de la Sauvagere in Uccle, rough and hilly, with horses grazing. And in the spring, there are extra opportunities for floral escapades, my favorite being the Groot Bijgaarden up north to admire beautifully curated carpets of tulips.

Nine months later, I’m still discovering new things about this city on a daily basis. And from what I’ve heard from many locals, Brussels can continue to surprise for years.

Italy and France: Foodie Edition

I recently uploaded a photo album to Facebook exclusively of food I’ve consumed this semester, mostly during travels. My host mother had one thing to say to that.

“Did you come to Europe for studies, for culture, or to eat?”

She laughed. I laughed. We all laughed, because we all knew the answer. I’m sure you know the answer, too.

Needless to say, two weeks split between Italy and France — primarily Tuscany and Provence — was pure bliss for this foodie. Especially because the trip was with my parents, who pay for things, and thus I could actually dine at actual restaurants instead of my usual scrounging around, with a heavy reliance on street food.

Throughout the trip, the question of where we were going to eat was of the utmost importance. Each meal could be a glorious cultural experience, and a bust would be a waste of a far greater degree than a mediocre one at home. I can’t possibly share every single dinner with you, but I can go into the top 10 highlights.

1) Florentine Steak

It doesn’t really make sense. Bistecca alla Fiorentina is basically a Porterhouse steak, a giant T-bone. Why would it cost 50 euros and why would I call it one of the finest carnivore pleasures I’ve ever had the honor of meeting?

I don’t know what to tell you.

Somehow, this steak proved to be pure, meaty heaven. The porterhouse is grilled, lightly seasoned with salt, pepper and olive oil, and served with Tuscan wine. That’s it. It’s so simple, and yet…

We devoured ours at Ristorante Adriano in Cerreto Guidi. The steaks were split among three, expertly sliced table side, and the bones were nibbled on for hours.

2) Magret of Duck

Whenever I see duck on a menu, my heart flutters. Maybe it’s the memories of my childhood, feeding old breadcrumbs to the ducks at our nearby lagoon, or of my mother bringing home succulent roast duck from Chinatown. More than likely, it’s just because a properly prepared duck breast is so good.

Luckily for me, Provence is a hotbed for the sweet meat, and the French always seem to do it right. Never chewy, never too gamey. The skin always crisp and the fat always rendered.

A couple of standouts were devoured in Montpellier. The photo above was taken in an adorable hole-in-the-wall by the name of La Symphonie. The 15-seater was the definition of intimate, charming and local, with the chef constantly out of the kitchen, and even taking smoking breaks outside with nearby restaurant folk. The breast was perfectly perfect, with tart red currants and pillowy gnocchi. Another gem was at Thym et Romarin, another small, bustling and local spot with an infectious joyousness. Their magret was hearty and rich, slathered in a pear compote, with roasted potatoes, bacon and onions on the side.

3) Gelato

This goes without saying. Italy. Gelato. Duh.

I indulged in gelato virtually every day. There were days when I indulged twice, three times, maybe even more. Who really keeps track of gelato intake, anyway?

The best gelato I had in Italy was easily that of San Crispino in Rome. The product is all natural — no preservatives, no artificial coloring, no chemical emulsifiers — and the shops are incredibly sleek and clean. In fact, the goods are hidden from view in stainless steel, unlike so many gelato shops that fluff and stack their ice cream into brightly colored mountains, with fruit accents and flashy signs. At San Crispino, you pick by name, and you experience that name in full.

The signature crema is the most basic Italian ice cream flavor, but enhanced with honey and of absolute perfect consistency. The fruit flavors were absurdly fresh, and obviously filled with real, fresh fruit. The apple was like a dense, creamy version of the best applesauce you’ve ever had, with soft, melt-in-your-mouth chunks.

4) Pasta

Again, this is silly to say. Italy. Pasta. Duh. But Italy actually surprised me with how fabulous and creative their pasta could be. We tasted the classics, of course, but we also delved into pastas sauced with exotic spices, or raviolis stuffed with fruit.

A personal favorite: fresh paccheri with salt, pepper, butter, pecorino romano, and dark, dark chocolate. It was a combination that the entire table agreed, surprisingly to some, actually worked. The pepper and chocolate only heighten one another, making for the ultimate sweet-savory dish.

That genius restaurant remained a standout throughout the trip, and that should have been an obvious fact based on photos hanging on the wall of George Clooney dining. In the heart of Siena, Osteria Logge uses organic ingredients in a daily, handwritten Tuscan menu. Everything that night, from the heavenly burrata to the smoky duck carpaccio to the rich lobster gnocchi, was spot on.

5) Markets

The outdoor markets in Tuscany were the stuff of dreams. Only the best of everyone’s favorite products — pig, cheese, wine, olive oil — were on display, for tasting and for the taking.

We splurged many times, and there was really no reason not to. In the States — and elsewhere in Europe — quality cannot be matched, and forget about the price.

I’m still drooling, dreaming about the thick prosciuttos, spicy salamis, salty porchettas, bright wild boar sausages, and of course, all that cheese.

6) Tea salons

Call them frou-frou and overpriced and whatever else you like, tea salons abound in France for good reason. The French can do pastry, and no one can resist an afternoon temptation of fancy tea with a slice of glory.

This, in particular, was to die for. Pistachios were melded into a shortbread-like crust, and then into a bright green pastry cream. Enormous, juicy raspberries were generously piled on top, along with fresh, chopped pistachios, creating a textural experience unlike any other “tart” I’ve tasted.

7) Foie gras

I’m not obsessed with foie gras, but I can definitely appreciate exceptional variations. France is full of exceptional variations.

Foie gras layered with poached pears, spread on buttery toast, then dipped in reduced balsamic.

Another, at La Symphonie, was scented with Moscato. Velvety, yet light and fruity, and all in all, exceptional.

8) Ribollita

My family never tired of Ribollita, the famous Tuscan soup, and it was revisited frequently. In every restaurant, in every city, the soup varied — thickness, the presentation of the bread, the vegetables. But the flavor, the soul, always remained. Cannellini beans, bread, basic veggies, stewed until hearty and comforting.

9) Salads

Prominently features on many Provencal menus were salads — big, beautiful, luxurious salads. The portions, as starters, were impressive. The accompaniments, more impressive. On one such occasion, my mother took a seafood salad, where perfectly seared scallops, local fish with crispy skin and juicy prawns surrounded a pile of fresh greens. At the same meal, my father opted for a duck salad, where the generously long, thick slices amazed us all.

10) Osteria di Giovanni

I’ve singled out some restaurants already in the context of individual dishes, but L’Osteria di Giovanni really cannot be categorized into any context.

Our night at Giovanni’s was basic absurdity. Nine Americans without a reservation somehow sweet-talked our way into the Florentine restaurant’s wine cellar, which hid our faces from local diners, but not our laughter. Hours passed in that cellar. Four? Five? Who could keep track? We surely couldn’t, not when the wine flowed so easily, and not when our fabulous waiter treated us like royalty.

It felt like we ordered the whole menu. But perhaps that’s just because our waiter allowed us to split our main plates into two — a “special” for our indecisiveness. We indulged to no end: Pear tortellini. Goose carpaccio. Florentine beef stew. Pepper ravioli. Lamb. Rabbit. An onslaught of desserts: Tiramisu. Warm apple cake. Pineapple carpaccio. Chocolate torte. Biscotti dipped in holy wine.

To put it plainly, we were pigs. Happy, gluttonous pigs, who never wanted to leave that wine cellar, who never wanted to leave Italy.

A trek through the Balkans

We get into the car. We’re off to Somewhere, Macedonia, approximately 15 kilometers away from Bitola. Somewhere, Macedonia, is beautiful.

Our host, Vlad, wants to show us some Macedonian village life. We stay in a mini-house, cold and destroyed from winter cruelty. We strain homemade wine through an old sock for the evening, take shots of rakija — classic highly alcoholic beverage throughout the Balkans — with the villagers and sip on brandy before breakfast.

Vlad prepares goulash with a recently shot wild boar. He takes us on a mountain hike, to a small monastery, and then to a little cabin deep in nowhere, Somewhere, Macedonia.

What is this place?

“Heaven,” they said.

A house built collectively over 30 years ago, owned by no one and for the use of everyone. Locals make the hour, multi-hour trek daily to sit in the sun, sip on the mountain spring water and compare homemade wines.

The group laughter fades away but the afternoon sun is still going strong, and Vlad suggests camping out for the night and waking up for a most beautiful sunrise. I’m on fire duty, and he and my friend go back to the village to bring back fish, candles and supplies. They’ll be back in two hours.

They are not back in two hours.

Villagers and rakija happen, apparently, and Vlad passes out on the trail. I’m left in the cabin, with fire, mountain spring water, homemade wine and the stars. I have nothing left to do but think and hope the wine will lull me to an early sleep. It’s interesting the things you think about in such situations.

The wine worked, and at sunrise, I was rescued. And then we hitchhiked to civilization.

Perhaps this anecdote doesn’t perfectly represent my time in Macedonia, or my 5-day journey through the Balkans. Maybe I could detail a night in Sofia, staying with a gamer who crafts figurines out of aluminum foil. Or an afternoon at the Rila Monastery, the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria, high in the mountains and overwhelmed in peace. Or strolling downtown Bitola, feeling out of place and staring at all the posh people.

Or an early morning tour of Ohrid, while the lakeside town was still asleep and all of its picturesque churches commanded wonder.

Or an excruciatingly long road trip to Thessaloniki, with skeptical controllers questioning why two Macedonians would be driving two Americans across the border. Or the countless conversations about Macedonia’s name, and Albanians.

But I think I’ll leave you with a hitchhiking story instead.

We hadn’t been waiting more than 15 minutes. But we were already doubting the likelihood that we’d make it from Ohrid to the Monastery of Saint Naum, about 30 kilometers away, along the lake, on a road rarely traveled.

But an orange Peugeot pulled up, and the smartly dressed man ushered us in before returning to his iPhone. Up through the hills we went, and our new friend, a local hotel owner who was on his way to Skopje, kindly went way, way, way out of his way.

He took us to his friend’s restaurant, a classy place on an island, for a drink. The drink turned into two bottles of local wine, a platter of meats and cheeses and a serene boat ride in the mountain springs. Then there was a tour of the monastery, and rakija, and souvenirs. And a ride all the way back to Ohrid. And a tour of his hotel restaurant, with coffee and a platter of desserts — dense nutty chocolate, moist white cake with cream, baklava. Then we said our goodbyes, endless thank you’s, and he sent us away with more bottles of wine.

This unbelievable kindness followed so many other unbelievable moments, unbelievable for various unbelievable reasons. It was the Balkans — beautiful, bizarre, open. Thumbs out, thumbs up.

An ode to France, Provence and Montpellier

This question frequently comes up: “What is your favorite city you’ve visited so far?”

This question kills me.

I immediately mentally scan the list of capitals I’ve seen this year: London, Paris, Amsterdam, Madrid, Prague, Copenhagen, Vienna, Berlin, Rome, Bratislava. Then I scan the list of obvious second-cities: Barcelona, Rotterdam, Florence, Munich, Salzburg.

This question kills me.

Then it’s changed: “What is your favorite European country?”


At least with this proposition, I can struggle for different reasons. I don’t think I know any country well enough to properly compare it to any other. Talk to any Austrian who doesn’t live in Vienna, and they’ll tell you that Vienna is not Austria. The capital is rarely a full or accurate representation of a country, but when you only have time to visit one city…

With the exception of Belgium, there’s only one country I feel that I’ve gotten under the surface of. France.

So perhaps by default, I can say my favorite European country, as of right now, is France.

It seems like a fair assessment. I’ve spent a cumulative of roughly two and a half months of my life in France on various trips. I can knowingly say that Paris is definitely, definitely, definitely not France. Paris is Paris. And France, is, well…

It’s the Loire. It’s Bordeaux. It’s the Dordogne. It’s the Cote d’Azur. It’s Marseille. It’s Lille. And one day, I’ll be able to say it’s Lyon, Normandy, Dijon and Toulouse, too. But at least now, I can also say it’s Provence. It’s Montpellier.

A vacation in Provence can convince anyone that France is a beautiful country, with beautiful people, beautiful produce and beautiful wine. And really, what else do you need?

We stayed in Vaison-La-Romaine, northeast of Provence’s mainstay, Avignon. Straddling the Ouveze river, Vaison-La-Romaine is divided into a lower, modern town juxtaposed against ancient Roman ruins, and the Haute-Ville, a medieval century village that blends into cliffs.

The Haute-Ville is the quintessentially French beauty you’d expect to see in Provence. It’s the windy town of tinkling fountains, shady squares and ivy-laden doors you’d only hope for and never actually expect to stay in. It’s all that, with fine dining, a chateau and views of the vast countryside.

And a short drive away lies a trail of vineyards and wineries, showcasing the best of the Côtes du Rhône. Coat your mouth with Grenache at all hours of the day — you made it to Provence, and hey, you probably deserve it. Traverse the super famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape and be surprised that the wine isn’t overrated. Still, the smaller towns are less touristy and more picturesque. I recommend Séguret, a village that miraculously clings to the foot of a hill, and Sablet, a fortified town that can be viewed from that hill.

And then we arrive at Montpellier. Stunning Montpellier.

Walking around Montpellier for the first time was an interesting experience. I felt like I had been there before, like I already knew each narrow street and precious tea salon. I could see myself drinking wine on the steps of its unassuming cathedrals in the early evenings, reading a novel sprawled out on its lush, green squares.

And when my father couldn’t stop glowing, in complete awe of the mere feel and look of Montpellier, I realized that this was his first French city that wasn’t Paris. And that’s when I realized that I knew French cities. I knew Montpellier already. I loved it already.

The carefree energy and simultaneously infectious relaxation. The calm, quiet evening strolls through perfect bourgeois streets that bustled with fashionistas in the daytime. The smiles. The food. The wine. The love for food. The love for wine. The swing dancing in the street. The simplicity and miraculous accessibility. France. France. France.

A family vacation in Italy

To sum up nine glorious days in Italy in one short blog post would be insulting to the country’s idyllic views, charming chaos, unbeatable history, and endless onslaught of thick prosciutto.

But I’m going to have to be insulting, to a degree anyway. There isn’t time to go into much detail, and regardless, such details wouldn’t come close to capturing the essence of Italy that entices dreamers from every corner of the world.

It was a family reunion of sorts in a beautiful villa in Tuscany. Queue rolling hills, whose descriptions write themselves, morning hikes to cappuccino-bliss, and double rainbows.

After traveling essentially alone for six months or so, being on a real “vacation” with eight other people — family-people — was bizarre at first. Driving around? An actual bed? For me? And fancy meals? All the time? And eight other people?

Decisions were slow, walking was slow, maps were constantly consulted, and in general, our first day-trip to Siena was exasperating.

I ended up bolting for a couple of days to Rome, escaping the frustration of a house of nine in favor of one of the busiest, most touristy cities in the world.

Yet I found peace in Rome. Yes, of course, the Colosseum had a long line. And the Trevi Fountain was overrun with tour groups posing for photos. And the Pantheon wasn’t all that impressive. But Rome’s quieter alleys of pizzerias, the simultaneously adorable and booming Travestere district, the piazzas filled with drunk teenagers kissing and screaming at night, the old Italian men wandering for hours, waiting for something but probably nothing… they all make, combined with the essential sights, for a most excellent, well-rounded holiday.

I returned to Tuscany both relaxed and re-energized, and I had found my family in a similar state. We hit Pisa, Lucca, Florence, Cinque Terre and nearby towns with far more ease, and it occurred to me that perhaps it was simply Italy that got to them.

An American friend I was visiting in Rome talked about Italian culture a fair bit and the way that it was changing him. One thing was clear: he had gotten really lazy.

Obviously not lazy in the American in-front-of-the-TV-eat-artificial-potato-chips-and-other-shit way, but in the Italian take-it-easy-drink-more-wine-eat-more-homemade-pasta-and-enjoy-company sort of way.

And that just about sums up our family reunion in Italy. We took our time exploring the region. We ate. A lot. Incredible amounts. We drank wine. We savored.

Look for a post on said savory savoring in the near future.

A List: Things that are Better in the States

If it’s not obvious, I’m a Europe lover. I often talk ill of the USA, whether it’s the political system or the ubiquity of awful fast food. With my parents coming into Brussels — gasp, tomorrow — and my two worlds soon colliding, I have been thinking about home a bit more than usual. I’ll admit it: there are a few things that the states definitely does do better, in the food realm no less.

Please note this list is not exhaustive, and it does not consider specialty shops.

1. Peanut Butter

This may surprise you, but peanut butter is extremely uncommon in Europe. One of my old hosts in France gets a friend to bring her peanut butter from England because it’s a near-impossible find in the country. And when you can find peanut butter, you can bet it’s nowhere near as wonderful as our creamy or crunchy artificial American stuff. The European versions I’ve tasted have felt chemically off, chalky on the tongue, or organic without actually being organic. You know what I mean.

2. Mexican food

A friend from Germany told me a funny anecdote the other day: on every free tour of a big city that he’s been on — the tours that attract college-aged backpackers — an American always asks the tour guide at the end where there’s a good Mexican joint in the area. Americans love Mexican food, for good reason. And the lack of Mexican food in Europe is more pronounced than any other cuisine, especially to this California native, whose small hometown has at least five spots on the main drag. Europeans don’t know good guac, fatty carnitas, or smoky mole. It’s sad. They don’t even know shitty tacos from Taco Bell.

3. Hamburgers

It doesn’t really make sense as to why Europeans can’t make a decent hamburger. They have all the right ingredients, and often times, better ingredients, but the result is always lacking. Usually the supermarket bun is pathetic, which doesn’t make sense when fantastic bread is churned out of nearby bakeries every day. The patty itself is too thin and never fatty enough, likely due to the widespread fear of American obesity. As if that was bad enough, the meat is almost always grossly overcooked, with zero hope for licking juice off your elbows. There’s also zero hope in this regard because Europeans insist on eating burgers neatly with a knife and fork. Even more bizarre: you can find prepackaged, fully assembled hamburgers in supermarkets. Even more bizarre: hamburger in a can.

4. Deli sandwiches

I do appreciate the sandwich scene here — you can find a sandwicherie anywhere, offering baguettes sliced open with a slice of cheese or ham or cheese and ham. It’s cheap and healthy fast food. But I also miss obscene sandwiches. I’m talking meaty monsters, where it takes a careful plan of attack to take each bite. I’m talking tall and layered, with sometimes even two types of meat. Yeah, the gourmet sandwiches at restaurants with fancy pickles, herbed mayo, balsamic-glazed onions and steak are fantastic explosions of flavor, but even just the basic thick layer of pastrami on rye sort is missed.

5. Coffee

I absolutely adore European cafe culture, and how just about every city has a wealth of bustling cafes and terraces full of people-watchers. But the coffee itself? Frequently mediocre. There is excellent coffee to be found in Europe, of course, like in Berlin or Copenhagen, where the new wave culture is going strong. But there is a general consensus amongst expats in Brussels, and even in France, that the coffee is a grand disappointment. There is probably no hope for high-end cafes though when the love for quality brew hasn’t made it into homes. Check out the coffee aisle in the supermarket and be shocked at your options for instant coffee, and the lack of options for anything else. Most households simply boil water and stir in some Nescafe, with freshly ground beans and French presses nowhere in sight.