A Weekend in Florence

Five years ago…

I raised my hand to block the May sun’s glaring rays. Across the street from the train station, I saw a church, decorated in contrasting black stripes and rectangles, a remnant of the past that survived the Italian Renaissance.

Was I dreaming? Did I really make it?

There was a million mistakes I made on that trip that I swore not to repeat. This time, I would have lighter luggage. Working Internet. Close-toed shoes. Enough Italian words to get me by. Enough euros to get me by.

After I left Italy, despite how frustrating it had been at some times (or like, the entire time), I began to think about it daily. I was obsessed with the old country. I daydreamed about strolling down cobblestones through narrow alleyways. The church bell ringing at the strike of noon. The chocolate, metallic aroma of espresso, and the clink of a spoon as I stirred in my sugar. I missed it. I wanted it. And I promised myself I’d be back again.

Coming out of Switzerland, the snow began to dissipate as we entered northern Italy. Wintery Swiss wonderland transitioned into a fairytale mountain paradise. There were waterfalls, there were palm trees, there were mountains that reached high above the clouds. We switched trains in Milan, and then to Florence, my home away from home, we went.

Italy is a country that’s stuck in time.

The Roman Empire and its gods forever captured in stone.

Roman Catholic power still towering over everything and everyone.

Hundreds-of-years-old castles and estates in the Tuscan distance.

Farmers making the same movements (but with improvements) that their ancestors did, producing meat and cheese and wine from the land and undergoing whatever means necessary that ensure that it’s perfect every. single. time.

Who needs a time machine when you can have Italy?

There’s a million reasons why this country’s special to me, but I think the two main reasons are it’s 1. where I found my appetite and 2. realized there was power in my words. I used to think I wasn’t a good writer, even though I’ve been writing stories since I was seven years old. I remember the first time I read my words out loud to my teacher and my classmates, feeling the weight lift off my shoulders as I spoke my truth. I remember biting into a piece of prosciutto and melon, the sweet and saltiness mingling in my mouth, and thinking, “Damn. This is actually really good” and not feel the self-loathing as I ate another then another. I ate and drank and wrote freely during my time there despite my demons. It was only right to return to the place I found my yellow brick road. Italy was the first place that I finally felt like I was in control.

The Boboli Gardens

The Uffizi Gallery

And last, but not least:

Il Cibo

The Swiss Alps

here is Winter
she is a storm
from chaos & ice
Spring is reborn

As our train sped out of Strasbourg, I could feel the chill in my bones and smell snow in the air. It was strangely nostalgic as I felt the same way when I drove west of Denver, into the mountains, except this time I was heading east, out of France, and into Switzerland.

I glanced at my shoes and my little red carry-on in dismay. The snow was falling quite thickly now, reminding me of winter countrysides in the Midwest as blankets of snow enveloped the small towns we passed by. I don’t remember ascending into the Alps as by then, our train was engulfed by the storm. I sadly thought about my snow boots. My boots, along with the rest of my winter gear, were stuffed in a closet thousands of miles away in Colorado.

Nothing feels worse than being unprepared. I should’ve known better though. In the Rockies, you’re supposed to be prepared for all seasons. The same goes for Switzerland.

We arrived in Wilderswil, Switzerland, during an April snow storm.

We chose to stay in Interlaken as there was a train station close by, and it was on the way to Italy. It’s nestled between the gorgeous lakes, Thunersee and Brienzersee, and surrounded by mountains. We found an Airbnb in Wilderswil, just a ten minute train south of Interlaken. However, the train was down due to snow so they had complimentary buses that dropped us off at the Wilderswil train stop. From there, we walked to our Airbnb, Hotel Bären, which had a sauna, restaurant, and very nice concierge to help us during our stay.

Waking up in Wilderswil

We took the the regional Swiss train (which was not covered by our Eurail train pass) to visit Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald, the sun now shining brightly on the fresh snow. Frosty creeks rushed along the train tracks; the snow had begun to melt from the spring trees. It had also snowed so much, said our barista in Grindelwald, that they had reopened the ski lifts for just that day, too.

Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland

J.R.R. Tolkien based Rivendell in Lord of the Rings from his stay in Lauterbrunnen.

Grindelwald, Switzerland

P.S. As far as where to eat in Switzerland, I recommend heading to the grocery store and packing up a lunch and snacks if you want to save money. Most restaurants I found were part of bed and breakfasts, which had limited hours and were guest-only. Interlaken had more options, but it was not convenient to us as we were out in the mountains, so plan accordingly.

Next on the blog: A Weekend in Florence

A Day in Champagne Country

It is time, my friends, to talk about Europe.

There’s no real explanation on why I’ve held off on telling you all about the beauty that is France, Switzerland, and Italy, but that writer’s block has passed, and I’m ready to tell you all about the Old Country.

I’ll start off with Reims.

When roundtrip tickets to Paris are only $400, what do you do? You book tickets to Paris, that’s what you do. After a memorable study abroad trip, l’Italia era nella mia mente, and I finally found an inexpensive ticket to get there.

I knew I had many options of how I was going to travel, but I knew my best bet would be by train. After all, there’s fast trains all over Europe. I knew the one from Paris to Florence would take a day at least, so we decided to make a trip out of it. Starting with a little break to ease our jet lag in Reims.

Reims, France

Pronounced RAHMs, this quaint little town’s main attraction is living in the heart of Champagne country. I know that the meaning of “Champagne” has been lost in translation as some of you consider it as any kind of fancy white bubbly. NO. Erase that debauchery out of your head at once. In French wine country, wines are known and honored by region, and Champagne is no different. Only wine grown and bottled in Champagne can be called Champagne. The perfect trifecta of the grape varietals Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay, Champagne used to only be exclusive to the elite and the royal.

Reims was relatively easy to get to by French TGV (their fast train line) from Charles De Gaulle Airport as they have a train station at the airport. We exchanged trains at Marne la Vallée Chessy (aka Disneyland Paris) which then took us to Champagne-Ardenne. From Champagne-Ardenne, we took a quick regional train to Gare de Reims, only a ten minute walk from our Airbnb.

Reims was quiet at night, but by morning was bustling with pedestrians and bikers who, I kid you not, seemed to all be carrying loaves of crispy fresh baguettes. We ate at Maison et Tartine, which also doubled as a boutique decor shop, making our breakfast super homey. We made the mistake of thinking we could just go to these grand Champagne houses and pay a tasting fee like we do in the States, but no. You must make a reservation or book in advance. Honestly, I really didn’t plan our day in Reims as it was only a stopover, but we did want to drink bubbly as what else are you supposed to do in Champagne country?

Champagne tasting & history lesson in Veuve Clicquot’s crayère cellars

We snagged an English-speaking tour at Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin where we ventured down into crayère (chalk) caves that Champagne bottles are stored and rotated. As we sipped on flutes of their peachy vanilla Yellow Label Brut, our lovely tour guide told us the story about widow Lady Clicquot, a business woman who made the best of her circumstances after inheriting a dwindling vineyard in 1805. After, we checked out their Insta-worthy boutique shop and personalized airstream trailer.

Our tour guide then pointed us in the direction of this amazing growers champagne tasting room called Trésors de Champagne. In the past, Champagne houses such as Veuve Clicquot, G.H. Mumm, and Moët & Chandon would collect only the best harvests from surrounding French vineyards, but in the last fifty years, those same vineyards are making a name for themselves by developing their own concoctions of bubbly. At Trésors, you could opt for a flight, glass, or bottle from their library of only growers champagne. Needless to say, after an afternoon of Champagne, we passed out at our Airbnb (only to wake up at 10 p.m. and cure our bubbly coma with moules frites, or steamed mussels and fries, at l’Édito.)

Trésors de Champagne’s interactive tasting room had informative bottles you could pull from the ceiling that coincided with its library and regional map of Champagne, which took up the entire floor.

Next on the blog: The Swiss Alps

What to Do in New Orleans, Louisiana

It had been awhile since I had been back in the Bayou. The last time I went was in 2014 to visit my aunt and uncle who worked as teachers in Belle Chasse, just 10 minutes southeast of the city. I’ll never forget the end of that 11ish hour drive when we arrived to a feast of crawfish, oysters, and shrimp étouffée.

I’ll love New Orleans forever because of that.

I went back this past Labor Day weekend to celebrate Danielle, someone who has become like a soul sister to me for the past five years. We bonded over breadsticks and margaritas and Southside karaoke during our time at Mizzou and have stayed close ever since. It’s so nice to have someone in your life that you will always just click with no matter how long it’s been. The same goes for places like New Orleans.

Without further ado, here’s what I recommend doing if you’re ever in NOLA:

THE FRENCH QUARTER

I can still hear the thunder rumbling in the background as this violinist performed. The French Quarter is one of the most interesting places I’ve ever visited the States. Not only is it steeped in colonial history, it’s one of the most diverse corners of America that continues to celebrate its multiracial roots. There’s Spanish, French, Creole, Natives, and Africans who have all contributed to La NouvelleOrléans in some way, shape, or form.

We took a Saints and Sinners Tour with our tour guide Justin, who was very knowledgeable and entertaining. He told us about General Bienville, a 19-year-old French military man who tattooed himself with local tribe marks to get along with the 40+ native tribes who inhabited the area. He also tricked the British to not attack the rising French settlement. New Orleans history is as wild and scandalous as you can imagine it to be, as it was a port of entry for many immigrants during the start of the New World. Home of Bourbon Street, Royal Street, Jackson Square, and the best freakin’ food I’ve ever had, New Orleans is definitely a must-see for travelers and foodies.

EAT & DRINK

New Orleans cuisine is a whole other level of Southern home cooking. I would fly across the country for its aforementioned seafood, along with seafood gumbo, shrimp po’ boys, and some of the best sweets I’ve ever had in my life.

These cookies from Willa Jean were probably the best cookies I’ve ever had. Sea salt, peanut butter, and chocolate chunks with a glass of milk AND cookie dough on the side.

Must-Go Spots: Cafe du Monde (sit down wherever there’s an open seat and your server will clean your table and bring you treats!), Palace Cafe, Saint Cecilia, Riccobono’s Panola Street Cafe, Willa Jean, Cafe Beignet on Bourbon Street, Fat Catz, Pat O’Brien’s, Saints & Sinners

SHOP

Mosey on over to the corner of French Market Place and Barracks Street if you want to start the demise of your credit card. Just kidding — bring cash. There’s an open air French Flea Market that sells just about everything such as local art, clothing, and jewelry. I found lots of little trinkets to take home, plus there’s food stalls at the end so you can cool down and refuel.

ART

Pink Satin and White Fur by Daniel Bilodeau at Red Truck Gallery

I highly advise spending an afternoon strolling through Royal Street. I was invited to check out the Red Truck Gallery (who’s hosting a brilliant exhibit curated by ThinkSpace at the moment) and its sister gallery right across the street. I found this amazing piece that gives me all the Alice in Wonderland vibes, as well as art pieces that reflect the modern revolution of sex, feminism, and the environment.

Jackson Square used to be where prisoners met their executioner but now is lined with tons of local art, shops, and the occult. I met an artist who actually grew up in Leadville, CO, but is now happily selling portraits of very cute animals.