22 November 2014

Living Abroad \\ Do your research

I've neglected this series a little bit, but hopefully that doesn't mean you've forgotten about those travel dreams. Is it even possible to forget travel dreams? It certainly isn't for me. While we don't have any travel plans in the near future, the idea is always on my mind. I think 2015 will be a pretty quiet year for us, but I've already got my sights on at least five different big trips before we truly "settle down". Wanderlust, I tell you.

While we were planning our honeymoon my favourite part (aside from the actual experience itself) was the research. It's always my favourite part. I love giving people ideas on what to do (also known as, what to eat) in different cities I've visited. Even when I haven't got a trip planned, I love reading about things to do in different places around the world. I love hearing about someone's experience with travel & living vicariously through their adventures (& especially their misadventures). If wasn't obvious before, my obsession with wandering the globe should be apparent by the end of this post.


I'm also a big nerd when it comes to research. & I really think it's a key factor in ensuring the success of your experience abroad. I've done the bulk of my travelling alone & when I lived abroad, made all the arrangements to go on my own. When I have travelled with others, I've usually been the girl who shows up to a coffee date to discuss plans with a long list of things I've already looked into. I enjoy this kind of thing, so I'm more than happy devouring the information available.

Here are a few of my tips for getting organized before a trip:

1. Look into visa requirements & laws for entering the countries you plan to visit. This one isn't very interesting, so get it out of the way first. I haven't run into many issues with this when in comes to travelling to other countries. It's usually as simple as submitting a form online nowadays. Get it out of the way early though. There's nothing worse than planning a entire trip & realizing you missed this crucial step too late.

Living in another country is another story & often requires a lot of paperwork & proof of anything from the necessary funds to live for a few months to a clean bill of health. I can only speak to my experience with obtaining a French visa, which I have applied for twice. Luckily I had some help from our exchange Center my first time so I knew what to expect. I can't thank them enough - they prepared me for the bureaucracy & offered support while I navigated the system once I arrived. Most countries are a bit easier from what I understand, but do your research. Ask people who have been, look into online forums, use the Google. Just get this step out of the way early. 

I drove 12 hours to Vancouver for a 15 minute meeting to get this document. Hurrah!

2. Decide what kind of traveller you are: do you like to have a itinerary planned out & booked in advance or do you like to decide day by day? Personally, I like to book most or my accommodation in advance. I like to know that I have somewhere to sleep that night. This is especially true when I travel on my own. It's usually difficult to get away without booking flights in advance as well. Round trip winds up being the cheapest option.

I'm certainly no expert on getting the cheapest fare; in the past I've used anything from travel agents to expedia. Lately, the Google flight search has been coming up with great results. The internet is a wealth of information here so I don't have much to say about it.

In terms of train travel, you can definitely get away with booking more last minute. This isn't always the case & you may pay a higher fare, but generally, it's not a problem. I've always had good luck with French & German trains, at least. Sometimes you may have to wait a few hours, but that's usually the only risk. This happened to us in Venice. The next train was fully booked & we wound up hanging out at a restaurant next to the train station for a few hours, giving up precious hours we could have enjoyed in Cinque Terre. Rookie mistake. It'll happen. 

Gare de Lyon, Paris

As for accommodation, I think it's getting increasingly difficult to leave booking to the last minute, even if you're not travelling in the off season. It's certainly still do-able, so don't completely discount the idea if you want flexibility. In some cities, namely Paris in my experience, it can even be very difficult to reserve a hostel bed in advance. Again, this just comes down to doing a little bit of research. 

When I've travelled on my own, I've had a definite preference for hostels. The few times I was forced to stay in a hotel were some of the loneliest. Although, I enjoy wandering the streets & eating lunch or enjoying a beer or café on my own, there's something about returning to an empty hotel room at night that intensifies any feelings of loneliness.

If you're looking for a safe, clean, & reliable hostel, the HI network will certainly provide them. I've stayed in many & they're generally great. Their downfall is that they aren't always the most lively or fun hostels. They sometimes have a curfew even. That's why I tend to gravitate towards the independent hostels. There are no rules with these. That can be great & I've stumbled upon so many gems this way. Just be aware that the lack of standards can go the other way too. I rely on hostels.com and hostelworld.com as well as online recommendations. Location, a good night's sleep, & a fun atmosphere are usually the top things I look for. That criteria has served me well so far. (Although I've sort of knocked the HI hostels, the one in Lyon is actually great. I lived there for a week when I was apartment hunting.

Now that I'm getting older, I've moved away from hostels. I certainly didn't want to share a dorm room with 20 other people on my honeymoon. We've been using AirBnB for most of our travel in the last couple years & I love it. I'm such a nerd for research so I'm sure that's part of the appeal, but we easily stayed in the absolute BEST places on our honeymoon. Our hosts were amazing, the apartments we rented were gorgeous, & they often provided us with ideas for what to do during our stay. Check it out, if you haven't already. I can't say enough good things about it.

Our Genoa apartment's rooftop patio
Lyon apartment

3. Research what to do! This is fun part. Since my first trip backpacking through Europe in 2005, I've learned what I really want to do when I'm in a new city. That first trip, I spent a lot of time going to museums because I thought that was what you were supposed to do. Maybe it is & maybe that's exactly what you want to do when you go to Europe, but if it isn't, that's ok too. There are some museums that I will still take the time to visit: the Vatican Museum & the Louvre (although I'd skip the Mona Lisa), for example. For the most part though, I pick a couple main sights (I'm a sucker for a beautiful church or a good view) & spend the rest of my time wandering around, usually getting lost along the way. I really enjoy history so if there's a New Europe Free Tour, I almost always jump on that. (I don't generally recommend tours, but these ones have been really great. & free. Win!)

New Europe Tour in Munich

It's obvious that I love to eat so that's what I do the bulk of my research about. I make a list of all the restaurants that I'm interesting in with a little description & bring that with me. It's like my little guide. Obviously this isn't for everyone, but I love those lists. Before iPads & iPhones, I wrote it all out on loose leaf and carried that around with me, usually in the pocket of my moleskin journal. I realize I've probably lost most people here, but that's my jam. Find yours & own it. Get excited!

Incredible Pasta in Portland
Birthplace of Pizza!
Wandering in Prague
Wandering the Beach after brunch in Mexico
Fried Cheese in Prague. The best!

4. Get a little bit organized (or if you're me, a lot). Since I love research & organization, I'm so into this. You are likely not the type of person who is. I mean, I'm the girl carrying around a list of restaurants, a moleskin journal, a good book, & a DSLR when I travel. I'm seriously into documenting my trips as much as I am into planning them. & I'm all about the details (obviously, my travel posts are rarely less than 1000 words. Sorry!). 

The first few times I travelled, I only got online if I went to an Internet cafe so things have changed substantially since I last went. I still like a lot of those old school resources (you can still find me sitting on the floor of the travel section of the library or book store, taking notes & devouring books), but we used our iPad and iPhones a lot on our last trip. Here are some great apps: 

- Evernote. This is my number one. I have it downloaded on every computer or mobile device I own & it syncs with all of them, as well as with Nathan's phone. It's so easy to use & organize. We primarily use it for meal planing, but it was also great when we travelled. I made lists & reminders & scrapped those loose leaf notes for an online version. When we had online access it was really easy to copy a restaurant address I'd saved & paste it into google maps to get directions. We could easily access it on the go from our phones too. You can't make everything available offline with the free version, but I was able to make enough of our notes available that it was incredibly useful. 

- Google Maps Engine. Everyone knows Google Maps & we use it a lot too, but I really likeGoogle Maps Engine. The difference is that it allows you to save personalized maps & drop pins with locations & notes. I'm an extremely visual person, so this helps me to get a sense of what to do on a day & what sights are near each other. I'm not against taking the metro out to the middle of nowhere for a great meal, but it makes a lot more sense to do things that are nearby on the same day, if you can. Sometimes we inevitably zig zagged our way across cities, but this helps to limit that a little bit. 

- Blogger. I only used this app once while travelling & it definitely has it's downsides (um hello, hyperlinks?) but in a pinch, it's an easy way to blog. I tend to write a draft in it & then edit it on a computer before publishing, but that just me. 

Those are the main apps I find useful for travel. Both times I lived abroad, I used substantially more online resources. I brought my laptop both times & was always connected to emails, my blog, & photo sharing. Facebook was only in its infancy when I first travelled so I mostly kept in touch with email & shared photos on photobucket. (My friends will remember my weekly novels about what I'd been up to. My penchant for long winded story telling hasn't changed much over the years.

5. My last tip is to look at a budget. I know it's so boring, but it's also so necessary. If you don't have any means to supplement your travel while you're actually travelling, you have to pay a little bit of attention to what you're going to spend. I try to do this before I leave so that I can enjoy my trip. 

This is where some of the research comes into play. I like to start with the big things: flights, trains, & any sights or activities that are important to me. I add those up first. If I'm really on a budget then I don't include my accommodation in those numbers because I'm doing that as cheaply as possible. Hostels in Europe will usually run you about $40 a nights if you're staying in a dorm. I budget $100 a day so that leaves me with $60 for food & drink. Most of the sights I plan to see are either already budgeted for or are free (wandering the market, sitting in a park, getting a feel for a neighbourhood). Hostels usually include breakfast & I tried to make dinner in the kitchen or spend around $10-15 on dinner. You can enjoy nicer restaurants at lunch at a cheaper price in Europe, so I tried to do that. In France you can get the plat du jour (three courses, usually) for around $20. That left me with $25 for drinks - beer, coffee, or actual partying. Some days I inevitably went over. Some days I wanted to go for a really nice dinner (I tried to budget for that in advance). Some days I grabbed a baguette & some cheese & had a picnic on a bench or in the park. My point is that's thought about this a little bit in advance & even on my smallest budget, I had a great time in Europe & didn't max out my credit card.

Giant Pickles in Munich. Cheap & delicious market snack.
Hostel Happy Hour Drinks. Always budget.  
Picnic in the Park. Market finds are a great budget lunch.

It doesn't have to be a huge chore either. These couple calculations usually take me a few minutes. It's not an exact science & I always add a little bit for emergencies, but I definitely find it helps to think about it a little bit before. (& knowing the ways you can save a bit helps too. Taking an overnight train will save you a night in a hostel & get you to your next destination bright & early, for example.) 

This is what I've found useful over the years. I've gotten better at planning my trips & found myself enjoying travel so much. A lot of my tips apply to my trips through Europe, but I think they apply to other places as well. I've just done the bulk of my travelling on that continent & am most familiar with the costs & culture there. 

How do you plan your trips? Feel free to share your tips in the comments! (& congrats if you made itto the end of this post!)

15 November 2014

Saturday morning thoughts \\ House Hunting

I like to start my weekend mornings with a cup of coffee in bed, catching up on reading or a few blog posts, before I face the day. When I have the choice, I'm a slow morning girl. I suppose that's a bit funny since I'm also the girl who wakes up before dawn for a spin class, but that's usually a workweek thing - Even a 9 am class on the weekend feels too early for me sometimes.

This morning, I caught up with the fresh exchange and their house hunting story. This post couldn't have come at a better time for me. N & I have started the daunting, albeit exciting, process of becoming homeowners. We've been saving for a few years & living in an inner-city condo that we have a love-hate relationship with. We love the location. We hate a lot of little details about the condo itself (such as the incredibly frustrating laundry situation). It's time to find a place of our own. 

When we first looked at buying a home a few years ago, we saw ourselves in a condo. There are many things I love about the condo lifestyle & it fit our budget for the neighbourhoods we're interested in. As time has gone on though, we've fallen out of love with certain aspects of condo living & since we decided to rent for a couple years, it no longer feels like the type of place we'll still want to be in five years. If we're going to put this much money into something, I'd like to feel comfortable with it for at least five years. 

So now we're looking at houses - houses in inner-city neighbourhoods in this crazy oil & gas town. I know it's going to be a huge challenge to find the right house. For one, many of the houses in the areas we like have been renovated or are infills, bumping them far out of our budget. There are also many that require the kind of structural overhaul that we cannot afford. We're looking for that perfect blend of character home that everyone our age would like, a needle in a haystack if you will. I'm hoping that the fact that we're willing to put some work into any home we buy will help us. While many people want a renovated kitchen, I'm actually hoping for something older. Of course, it needs to be functional since we won't be updating it right away, but I'd prefer it didn't have the granite countertops & new appliances yet. I'd like to be able to update a kitchen to be my kitchen. 

We know this is a tall order & are expecting it will take some time. We'll undoubtedly want to give up. (I'm sure I will throw my hands up at some point & say, alright let's just move out to the suburbs like everyone else our age. Urban sprawl it is!). I hope when I do, I can remember both this post & Megan's. 

That's my main reason for writing this: to remind myself that we'll find it. We're in that rare situation where we can take our time & find the right place & I want to remember that fact. 

Happy Saturday! 

10 November 2014

Honeymoon 004 \\ Lyon

The first time I arrived at Lyon Part-Dieu was in February 2006. My train was two hours late, having hit a car enroute, & I was worried about my hostel reservation. Another girl on the train noticed & set my mind at ease, offering to let me stay with her if worse came to worse. As soon as the train stopped, she put me on the quickest bus towards the hostel, her contact info saved in my phone in case my reservation had been cancelled.

I didn't wind up needing to take her up on her kind offer, but it was nice to have made a friend & experience such kindness from a total stranger. It was the beginning of my love affair with Lyon & when I decided to move to France in 2008, it was the first city that came to mind. It turned out to be the best choice. If you've never been, I highly recommend a visit. It's big enough to keep you occupied, while still being walkable & friendly. Three days is plenty of time to see the city, eat at a few fabulous restaurants, & get a feel for daily life.

During my seven months abroad, I had three visitors for whom I gladly played tour guide. It's so satisfying to show people close to you your home. I've told N so many stories of this place & when we started planning our honeymoon, I hoped he'd be game for a visit. This place is such a huge part of my identity that I couldn't wait to share it with my new husband.

I've taken to referring to Lyon as my French hometown & it felt like that from the moment we stepped off the train. I know the city & that was apparent as we navigated it with ease. I excitedly pointed out landmarks & shared memories from my séjour around every corner. There's something so special to me about this level of ease in a place. It goes beyond comfort. I'm struggling to explain what I mean, so I can only suggest you live abroad yourself. I've talked about how life changing I think this experience is before & I'm sure I will continue to do so for a long time because I really & truly believe it. (You can read those posts here.)

We had rented an apartment on AirBnB again & (again) it did not disappoint. Around the corner from Place Sathonay (a square I passed daily when I lived here), our apartment featured two large windows that framed the beautiful Fourvière Hill. It doesn't get a whole lot better than that. The living room was perfect for relaxing with a bottle of wine & some cheese & charcuterie from the market up the hill (which we did, of course) & we were just down the hill from my old apartment. Thank you, AirBnB!

Our temporary Lyonnaise home
It was a bit of an odd time of day by the time we got settled - too early for dinner & too late for lunch.  We'd eaten on the train but I knew we needed some fuel for our climb up to Fourvière. We settled on moules & frites to share at a Léon de B just off the pedestrian street, rue Mercière. It's a bit of a touristy spot, but they serve great Belgian beer, unlimited fries, & large servings of moules. I can't argue with that.

Rejuvenated, we headed out for our hike. We made a quick stop at Bellecour & the statue of le Petit Prince & Antoine de St Exupéry. If you attended our wedding, you know that I translated a passage from this famous book. My favourite quote is inscribed on the side of this statue. The fact that Exupéry is from Lyon had a lot to do with my choosing this particular passage. Ah the symbolism.

On ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.

Fourvière is known as la colline qui prie (the hill that prays) because of the iconic white basilica atop this hill. It also features the remains of a roman amphitheatre & smaller odeon. You're rewarded with these incredible, & slightly unexpected, roman ruins as you near the top. You can see the basilica up a little further, but I can rarely resist a visit of the ruins first. We explored the site a bit before continuing our climb.


The view of Lyon from the basilica is gorgeous. You can see the whole of Vieux Lyon & the Presqu'île as well as both rivers. I've always loved this basilica, perched up on the hill above the city. Walking down the street to my little apartment when I lived in Lyon, I would drink in the sight of it, all lit up on that hill, a beacon for the city below. I can't imagine I'll ever tire of it.

We wound our way back down through the gardens & stairways back to View Lyon to grab a beer on one of the cobblestoned terraces in the old town.

Impressive doors

We picked a cafe on the edge of the old town. In some cities, it's only tourists all the time in this type of area. Here I found it to be a good mix of locals, exchange students, & tourists if you stick to the outer edges. It probably helps that people actually live in Vieux Lyon. 

It was getting dark as we wandered home to change for dinner & I snapped some pretty photos in the fading light. We also caught some Russians jumping off bridge. My photos are quite blurry, but it's a funny memory. 

Jumper 1 in the water, Jumper 2 on the bridge
A pile of clothes on the bridge
We had planned to get dinner in Croix Rousse that night but we let time get away from us & by the time we arrived, they said they were full. We wandered around disappointed for a while (a few of the other places in the area were closed due to the August vacation thing) until finally settling on dinner on the main boulevard. It was nothing special sadly, aside from the location.

After dinner we wandered through Croix Rousse & stumbled upon a festival of some kind. It mostly consisted of salsa dancing so we sat & watched for a bit before continuing down the montée de la grande côte. This pedestrian route is lined with shops, restaurants, & bars. It was Saturday night so we found ourselves a lively terrace across from a couple bars & ordered a few beers amongst the locals. It was busy which made for some great people watching & eavesdropping.

We enjoyed a couple drinks there before I decided to show N the club we used to go to when I lived in Lyon: Ayers Rock. We lasted about 30 seconds before we realized I was 6 years younger when I last went to Ayers on a regular basis & it's not quite our scene anymore. It was good for nostalgia though.

Outside Ayers
We finished off the night at a pub next to Place Sathonay before packing it in for the night. We had a big day planned for Sunday so we thought we should get a good nights sleep.