Poor Stevie

December 2010 archive

high five: my favourite cities

This is a lot like picking a puppy at the pound. You feel guilty for picking just one, because you know all the others will be put down. It’s just a blog, Steve, it’s just a blog. Here’s a brown paper bag and some Panadol, now calm down.

I’m going to list five cities you must visit, in no particular order. I loved them all the same, for different reasons.

PARIS

paris

I have always wanted to go to Paris for all the obvious reasons: the romance, the art, the stripy t-shirts, the berets and the food. But I loved it so much more than I could have anticipated. Yes, we did all the things you’re supposed to do in Paris – we saw the Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower and we said “oui” a lot. But it really was the little things that ended up being the most memorable, because the city is just so beautiful. We walked along The Seine almost everyday, we explored the nooks of the Montmartre district, we watched the light show on the Eiffel Tower huddled under umbrellas and we had a picnic in the Jardin des Tuileries. Le Sigh.

My Paris must-dos:

  • Have breakfast at Café des Deux Moulins, which is the cafe featured in Amelie. We ended up there by accident, having wandered into the first open cafe we spotted after a 16-hour bus ride from Milan. The staff were a little grumpy, but the place was really beautiful, lively and full of French people. Also, it didn’t really play up the Amelie angle to a vom-inducing level.
  • Explore Montmartre. After having your strong espresso at Amelie’s, wander up the hill, stopping in at all the amazing boutiques, gift shops and thrift stores, for a lovely view of the city.
  • Pack a picnic and head to the Palace of Versailles. We ate our picnic of baguette, hummus, fruit and Maltesers in the incredibly manicured gardens and it was one of the happiest moments of the trip. Walk around in the gardens and visit Marie Antoinette’s estate first, because they are just glorious (glorious? I can’t believe travel has turned me into such a wanker), and touring the palace first will wear you out.
  • I know this is probably sacrilegious, but if you’re not that into Renaissance art just skip the Louvre. It’s kind of huge and overwhelming and, after months of looking at religious art, I was kind of a bit “meh” about it. “Meh” about the Louvre, look at me all fancy. Yes, the Mona Lisa is pretty, but there are so many idiots shoving you and taking pictures that you don’t really get to experience what the Ninja Turtles actually intended. I preferred the Musée d’Orsay, a converted railway station on the banks of the Seine, which houses Van Goghs, Manets, Monets and Renoirs. It was awesome and less packed.
  • Eat some Parisian pastries. You might remember I had an exploding bro-fist macaron that blew my mind grapes. But we also bought a lot of baguettes from Le Grenier à Pain in Montmartre. The baguettes have been named many times as the best baguette in France, thus the world, and you get them for just over one euro. We bought one in the early morning and it was still warm, crispy and heavenly. Apparently Nicolas Sarkozy buys his bread from there. Let’s not imagine what he does when he gets it home to Carla Bruni.

NEW YORK

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NYC was the first stop after four months in Europe and it almost felt like home. For me, it was like going to a wonderland filled with all my favourite things – fresh food, music, culture, art, fashion and a Burger King on every corner. I always woke up feeling excited to be there and we made the most of every single day. It has a vibe like no other city I’ve been to that just makes you feel invigorated and grateful to be alive.

My New York City must-dos:

  • Spend an entire day in Central Park. We were there in the autumn and the colours were just incredible. We packed a picnic and lay on the grass, watching joggers, dog walkers, rollerbladers and New Yorkers talking loudly into their phones. There were buskers, musicians and crazy dudes on every corner, so it made for some amazing people-watching. We were lucky enough to catch the Afrobats in action. Even though it’s in the middle of the city, it feels like an isolated sanctuary.
  • Walk the High Line, an elevated train track that has been turned into a garden. It has great views of the water, the Chelsea Piers and the meatpacking district. Plus, it really is a beautiful and innovative garden.
  • Go to the Rockefeller Centre. You can go up the top for a view of the city, but we went there mostly because we love television. And boy did it pay off. Just as we were perusing the 30 Rock merchandise in the NBC shop, an intern came up to us and offered us free tickets to see Jimmy Fallon practice his monologue for Late Night. It was a lot of fun going into the famous studios, seeing the man himself and getting a tiny glimpse of what life is like in The Showbidness.
  • Explore Brooklyn and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. We stayed in Brooklyn, so we got to see quite a lot of it in a week. It really is a great place if you like music, shopping, art, flea markets and food. And who doesn’t love those things? I strongly recommend the popular Bedford Avenue area, which is jam packed with record stores, second-hand bookstores, thrift shops, delis, cafes and independent designer stores. So, so awesome.
  • Go to a sports bar. Yep, you can get beer everywhere in the world. But you can’t always get it with a side of enormous nachos, hot wings, feisty New York sports fans and flirtatious bar gals. We had a great night at Professor Thoms. You must not go there without ordering the nachos. Best ever.

LONDON

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London actually felt a lot like home, too. I guess it’s all those years of watching The Bill, gov. It really is a wonderful city for so many reasons. The parks are beautiful, the good museums are free, there’s wacky art installations everywhere, the tube takes you everywhere, old English traditions live on and the beers are sold as pints. Woo! Also, everyone always goes on and on about how expensive London is. Yes, the pound kills the dollar, but there’s plenty of things to do on a budget.

My London must-dos:

  • Make the most of the free museums. The British Museum, the Tate Modern and the Victoria and Albert Museum are all amazing and the permanent exhibitions are free.  The Tate was probably my favourite. We saw Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera (not a permanent exhibition), which I loved. Plus, on the recommendation of a lovely Londoner, we had a drink at the bar on the top floor, which has stunning views of the Thames.
  • Go to the markets. The famous Portobello Road market is totally great for antiques, souvenirs and a bit of fresh food. It gets very packed, which is kind of fun, but if you don’t like crowds get there early. My absolute favourite was the Borough Market, which buzzes with hungry foodies and has delicious fresh food, chocolate, wine, fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese and everything nice. Plus you can sample things – oh boy.
  • Hang out in Hyde Park. Again, an amazing stretch of nature smack bang in the middle of a bustling city. I went with my friend T on a warm day and we sat with our toes in the Princess Diana fountain (didn’t everyone?). It’s a great way to mix with Londoners – there’s lots of families, chavvy teens, rich old ducks and dog walkers with a million pedigree dogs on leaches.
  • Eat, drink and be merry at an English pub. We were staying near Notting Hill and liked a lot of the pubs on Portobello Road, including Portobello Gold, which served strawberry beer. Woah. English pub culture really is something – the food and beer is great, they are always packed and most still have their wood-panelling-ye-olde-England appeal.
  • Take a day trip to Brighton. There’s nothing like this weird seaside town anywhere else in the world. There are streets and streets of lovely, arty shops and good cafes juxtaposed against the world’s most tacky little amusement park on the pier. My friend T and I stayed the night in a B&B called Snooze, which has themed rooms and lots of quirky little details housed in a lovely terrace.

BUDAPEST

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We were warned that Budapest was big, dirty, dusty and generally awful. Budapest was actually grand, clean, beautiful and generally incredible. It actually reminded us a lot of Vienna, without the rip-off factor. I would say skip Vienna, go to Budapest. It is definitely a young city, with lots of cool bars, live music and art, surrounded by the old and grand.

My Budapest must-dos:

  • Go to the House of Terror. Hands down, my favourite museum in the world. We went there on a whim one rainy, faintly hungover day and, not really knowing much about Hungary’s history, I kind of expected to be politely bored. But I was blown away. Part art installation, the exhibits cover the country’s communist and fascist past in a completely compelling way. There are TVs playing videos of survivors telling their stories, rooms decorated with disturbing propaganda and – probably the most chilling part – a darkened elevator that descends slowly into the basement as you hear a man describing the execution of a prisoner. A definite must.
  • Visit Buda Castle and then walk across the chain bridge, which links Buda and Pest. A beautiful cobble-stoned path leads down towards the bridge, with a breathtaking view of the city and the Danube.
  • Try Kürtőskalács, a traditional Hungarian sweet bread. The cinnamony aroma can be smelt all over the city and I indulged several times. What with goulash, potato stew and Kürtőskalács, it’s no wonder everybody I ever met thought I was up the duff.
  • Go to the famous thermal baths. With my well-documented hatred of the entire human race, it was actually kind of hellish to spend a couple of hours in warm water with a bunch of hairy strangers. But, most normal, well-adjusted people really seem to like it and I just wanted to make my tormented husband happy. I actually really did appreciate the architectural beauty of the Szechenyi Baths, but not so much the dude swimming around in his stained underpants.

SARAJEVO

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The story of how we ended up in Sarajevo is pretty funny. We met an Australian guy at a hostel in Split, Croatia, who was telling J-man all about how much he loved Sarajevo and the Bosnian people. The real drawcard, though, was his description of a hostel that gave amazing bike tours of the city and greeted guests with slippers, fluffy robes and a shot of the local alcohol. We booked our trip to Sarajevo and later found out the hostel was in Belgrade. Oopsies! Turns out to be the best semi-mistake we ever made. You can still see the scars of the war everywhere – bulletholes on buildings, shrapnel scars on footpaths – but Sarajevo is a buzzing, happy city that has made an incredible effort to get back on its feet.

My Sarajevo must-dos:

  • Stay at Haris Youth Hostel.  A young dude, named Haris, set it up as a teenager on the top floor of his parents’ house after it was bombed. Haris himself takes guests around the city in his bright orange van and gives the most amazing tour and personal accounts of his experience of the war. The hostel itself seems to attract less dickheads than most other destinations and it’s incredibly comfy and homely. It’s definitely a privilege to have stayed there.
  • Try Ćevapi, a traditional Bosnian dish of fried meat served in warm bread with onions and cream cheese. When served, it kind of looks like a gift the family cat might give you, but it’s incredibly delicious.
  • Drink Bosnian coffee and eat baklava. Bosnian coffee is much the same as Turkish and Greek coffee – bleeping strong. It’s served in traditional silver and copper coffee sets and people sit on little stools on the footpath sipping it all day long.
  • Go to the Bosnian Historical Museum  (I can’t find a link, unfortunately). It has an exhibition put together by survivors of the siege, which is beyond moving. The exhibit, made up of photos, news reports and personal accounts, succeeded in its goal of being balanced and simple. In most cities I felt it was important to get an understanding of the local history, but I think it’s mandatory in Sarajevo.
  • Walk from the old town into the city. It’s amazing how the city transforms from old to new.  Look out for the shrapnel scars on buildings and the very beautiful Sarajevo Roses, but also take in and appreciate the city as it is now.

Honourable mentions: Athens for its ancient ruins and gyros. Florence for its romance, art and aperitivo bars. Rome for its ancient ruins and gelato. Berlin for its history. Krakow for its history and vodka. Of course, San Francisco is definitely a favourite city, but I plan on doing a separate post dedicated entriely to SF. Wee!

world tour

Backpacking has really made me want to help other people see the world. I could open a hostel, but that would require me to actually enjoy the company of others. I could be a tour guide, but I hate people too much. I could become a bus driver, but that requires driving and also people. I could become a travel agent, but I hate desk jobs and customers. I could sign-up to host couch surfers but, what with all the aforementioned hatred of people I have in my heart, I would probably end up charged with someone’s murder.

I think the best thing I can offer other backpackers, or those planning to do some budget travel, is some comprehensive advice. That way no one dies. Before we left for our six-month trip I had a hard time finding a lot of very basic information about backpacking. Every time I searched for something like “backpacking six months europe america”, Google would ask “Did you mean: That’s totally fucking impossible you complete idiot. Give up your lame dreams already”. Our trip has been crazy, wonderful, challenging, inspiring, life-changing, best-thing-I’ve-ever-done-incredible and totally possible. And I want you to have the same. Hence, I give you:

A BACKPACKER’S GUIDE TO BACKPACKING FOR ANYONE WHO HAS EVER WONDERED HOW TO ACTUALLY BACKPACK LIKE A REAL BACKPACKER

Our trip: We flew out of Sydney on July 4, 2010 and will return on January 10, 2011.

Our route for the first four months looked a little like this:  Sydney – Bangkok – Koh Samui – Bangkok – London – Brighton – Cambridge – London – Bath – Rotterdam – Amsterdam – Berlin – Dresden – Berlin – Warsaw – Gdansk -Krakow – Vienna – Salzburg – Zagreb – Pula – Zadar – Split – Dubrovnik – Sarajevo – Split – Budapest – Kecskemét – Cluj – Brasov – Sofia – Veliko Tarnovo – Sofia – Thessaloniki – Delphi – Athens – Rome – Florence – Venice – Milan – Paris – Tours – Paris – London – Barcelona – Madrid.

tours

Riding a bike in the drizzle in the countryside near Tours, France.

After Madrid we flew to New York in November, where we stayed for a week before we got in a car with a couple of friends and drove across the states, staying in the following places: Philadelphia – Washington DC – Roanoke, Virginia – Asheville, North Carolina – Charleston, South Carolina – Atlanta, Georgia – Gatlinburg, Tennessee – Nashville – Memphis – Little Rock, Arkansas – Tulsa, Oklahoma – Oklahoma City – Amarillo, Texas – Albuquerque, New Mexico – Holbrook, Arizona – Flagstaff, Arizona – Las Vegas – Los Angeles.

After three nights in Los Angeles we flew to San Francisco, where we are right now.

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Welcome to Texas, baby!

Budget: Basically, I had been putting away money each week since working as a check-out chick at Big W throughout uni (I graduated in 2007). When I got a job in Sydney I tried to put away about $200-250 every fortnight. I was able to save so much money by doing things like op-shopping for clothes and homewares, only drinking beer or wine when I went out, making my own lunches for work, cooking at home, avoiding taking taxis anywhere and never really buying myself anything new. Even so, I was still able to do things like go out to dinner most weekends, go to the movies, buy the odd book and the occasional piece of clothing that didn’t belong to someone’s dead aunt.

I opened a high interest savings account and put my savings and any other money I ever got – including birthday and Christmas money and tax returns – straight in there and watched the figure slowly grow. J-man did much the same with his money and we worked towards contributing the same amount to the trip.

By the time July rolled around we had enough money to spend at least $200 a day for a 188-day trip. We also saved up a nest egg to come home to, which was beefed up by money various family members gave us for our wedding to go towards new furniture upon our return. Yep, you did the maths right – we could have bought a house made of gold instead of going overseas. But who wants a lump of metal when you could be eating baklava in Bosnia? Or riding a bicycle through 50 kilometres of French countryside in the autumn? Or devouring the most amazing red velvet cake in a deserted playground in Madrid? Or exploring Brooklyn flea markets? Or peering into the Grand Canyon? Or getting your vows renewed by Elvis in Las Vegas? NOONE.

At first we weren’t sure whether $200 a day was enough. But, it was more than enough in most places. In fact, the way we travelled probably isn’t everyone’s idea of backpacking – we slept in a bed every night, ate every day and bought ourselves little treats every now and then.

In western Europe $AUD200 a day was enough to get the two of us:

  • Accomodation in a hostel dorm room
  • Transport
  • Entry into a museum or attraction, or both
  • Dinner at a cheap restaurant with drinks

To try and keep under budget in places like Germany, France and Italy, we tried to book hostels that provided breakfast, we would buy our lunch (usually fruit and nuts) from supermarkets and we would refill a drink bottle with tap water. The only countries that made it impossible to stick to our budget every day were France and Austria, where the economy is based on the exchange of newborns and kidneys for goods and services.

In places like Croatia, Bosnia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece $AUD200 was enough to get us:

  • Accomodation in a hostel or budget hotel
  • Transport
  • A sickly sweet bakery breakfast
  • A cafe lunch
  • Coffee
  • Entrance into at least two or three attractions
  • Dinner at a cheap restaurant with drinks
  • The occasional movie

In eastern Europe we were able to actively stay well below our daily budget, which we did in an effort to “save up” for more expensive countries and our US road trip.  We probably spent less than half of our budget on an average day, but we were still able to do absolutely everything we wanted to do and had a bunch of fun on the cheap.

bulgaria

Cliffside in Bulgaria.

Thanks to our brave efforts in eastern Europe, and trying desperately to stick to our daily limit everywhere else, our budget for the US became almost $300 a day.

We booked our road trip through Auto Tours USA and prepaid for our hire car and all our accommodation. That amount averaged out at $185 per day for 28 days. We then had enough money to allow ourselves $AUD100 a day for everything else.

That 100 clams (keeping in mind the US dollar was almost parity) was always enough to pay for:

  • Petrol
  • Coffee
  • Entrance into museums, attractions or national parks
  • Parking
  • Dinner with drinks

It helped that we had two friends with us for half of the road trip, which meant we could split the costs three ways (yep, marriage morphed J-man and I into one superbeing).

My basic budget travel tips:

  • Choose hostels/hotels that provide you with everything you need. There are a lot of amazing places around the world that have internet, breakfast and touristy activities included in the price.
  • If you are staying in a place that doesn’t provide any food, head straight for the supermarket for cereal, milk and bread to save on expensive cafe or bakery breakfasts.
  • Buy easy-to-carry lunch food and snacks, like fruit, nuts and biscuits, from supermarkets.
  • Walk everywhere – so many major capitals are very walkable and it really is the best way to see and experience a city.
  • Drink tap water where it is safe.
  • Buy alcohol from liquor shops and supermarkets, rather than downing a million expensive drinks at bars.
  • Hotels in the US almost always have bar fridges in the rooms and ice machines, so we bought ourselves an esky to keep milk and other perishable groceries for our breakfasts and lunches.

Before you go: I am an anal freak. Yep, you heard it here first, I am extremely organised and hate being ill-prepared for anything. So I was really worried about how our trip would turn out without a whole lot of pre-planning. But the only things you really need to organise are your flights, travel insurance, any required visas (the Smart Traveller website is really comprehensive, but suggests you contact embassies before you leave), credit cards and/or travel money and your first few nights of accomodation.

Tickets: We did the easiest thing and went to Flight Centre. We lucked out and found ourselves working with a really cool, young woman who helped us find cheap flights, so we didn’t shop around and check prices with other travel agents. We ended up buying round-the-world tickets that were part of  a Lufthansa promotion, which was super cheap and great.

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Weird tour bus we saw in Croatia. Hmm, enticing!

Packing: After six months, I can safely say I definitely packed the right amount of stuff and the right type of stuff. J-man packed way too much stuff and had to send a lot back to his mum, who emailed to ask him if he wanted it washed, ironed and returned to him. Teehee!

A few days before we left, I bought a 65-litre Black Wolf backpack. It was super handy because it unzips almost all the way around, making it easy to find things, and also has a removable day pack. The girl who sold me the bag gave me the best packing advice: to pack with the bag extensions zipped up and only to unzip them well into the trip.

backpack

Trunks full of junk in Venice

This is what I packed:

  • Three summer dresses, which could easily be rolled up
  • A pair of shorts
  • Two singlets
  • A pair of jeans
  • Three light jumpers
  • Basic toiletries
  • Swimmers
  • Hat
  • A travel towel (I got this as a farewell present and it was super useful in hostels where towels weren’t provided)
  • Thongs (as in shoes – also useful in hostel showers)
  • About 25 pairs of undies, in anticipation of rarely being able to do washing

All I really had to buy overseas were a pair of Converse, a t-shirt, lots of socks, cheap wool gloves and a big winter coat that I found for $AUD10 at a Romanian op-shop. Even in the northern hemisphere winter, light jumpers, jeans, a scarf, gloves and the heavy coat have been enough to keep me warm (we left Europe in November and stuck to the southern states in the US, so it’s not a good indication of what it might be like in deep winter or in scary, blizzard-prone areas).

Travel books: We schlepped the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget all over the place. It gave pretty good advice on budgets, accommodation, transport, eating and nightlife. It was also really user-friendly and gave tips for travelling “off the beaten track” and suggested a lot of quirky sights and destinations. We didn’t use it religiously and found it led us astray a couple of times (it told us The Hague was a bit lame, but we found it to be awesome, and directed us to go to Kecskemét, which was a bit of a hole) but it was really useful for quickly finding out essential, basic information about a place and how best to get there. Also, we went to a few smaller places that didn’t have hostels and the book always had great suggestions for budget hotels or guesthouses that couldn’t be found online.

Europe rail passes: We researched the benefits of buying rail passes (Eurail is the option for non-EU citizens) for a while before we left, but didn’t end up getting them. Firstly, it didn’t seem like there was a good option for a trip as long as ours. Secondly, we wanted to be really flexible with our trip and it didn’t look like we could do that with a rail pass. Thirdly, we didn’t want to part with that much money when we didn’t have a concrete itinerary. As it turns out we made the right decision because we spent the majority of our Europe trip in the east, where all forms of transport are incredibly cheap and train trips are about a third of the cost of similar trips in western Europe. So it wasn’t for us, but I reckon it’s worth investigating if you’re planning to do a shorter trip in the more expensive parts of Europe.

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Watching election coverage in Krakow at an internet cafe, where THEY LET YOU DRINK BEER.

Travel cashola: The Australian consumer website Choice was a really great resource for comparing different types of travel money. We ended up using the ANZ travel card, and loading one card up with Euros and one with US dollars. It’s hard to know how beneficial that ended up being because you get the conversion at the bank rate and other fees apply. Also the Australian dollar almost matched the US dollar during our trip and we cursed having bought dollars when it was around the 88 cent mark. For the majority of transactions we used the Wizard Clear Advantage credit card, which doesn’t have any international transaction fees and we just kept it in the black to avoid interest. But it wasn’t a dream run with that card – they changed their name towards the end of our trip, sent us a new card to an Australian address and suddenly deactivated the card we’d been using, just as we were about to pay for our hire car return fee. Thumbs down, dudes. J-man and I also have debit cards with our banks, which we kept as a backup.

florence

Overlords of Florence.

Getting it on: All the way through Europe, J-man and I totally travelled on the fly. We had a rough idea of where we wanted to go, but would often only make solid plans about three days before, or a week at very most. We even changed the entire route of our trip about a month in, after realising it would be incredibly expensive and annoying to travel in western Europe during the peak season (umm, no shit Sherlock). So about once a week we sat down in front of a computer and figured out where to go next, how to get there and where to stay.

For accommodation our first stop was always Hostelbookers or Hostelworld. We had more luck finding things on Hostelbookers, which we thought was a bit more user-friendly and cheaper (no booking fee, you just have to pay a 10 per cent non-refundable deposit). Each site lists hostels by their ratings and reviews, which are given by other travellers. The ratings system was spot on – without fail, the hostels rated in the 90s and high 80s were always amazing places. There were only a few places – Kecskemét, Delphi, Thessaloniki and Venice – that didn’t really have hostels, so we stayed in little budget hotels that we found online or in our travel book.

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The hideous Parthenon.

Organising transport was always a little harder, but you can get just about everywhere from just about anywhere in Europe if you look hard enough. For trips in western Europe, you can go online to book trains, buses and planes (we only ever found cheap fares with Easyjet, though other people suggested Ryanair and Wizz airlines, as well as Kayak to compare prices). One of our favourite websites for figuring out how to travel by train in Europe was The Man in Seat 61, which gives you tips on buying tickets online, in advance and links to transport and ticketing websites. In eastern Europe you almost always have to go to a train or bus station to see timetables and buy tickets. I found talking to someone was better in these countries anyway, because the little that could be found online was often outdated or just some loser guesstimating on a travel forum. Croatia, which is an amazing place, BTW, is one of the few countries we went to that had limited train connections. It does, however, have the most efficient and well-organised bus system we experienced.

The US was a different kind of trip for us because it was planned, booked and paid for well before we got there (we actually organised it from Sarajevo over a cup of tea, while I ate peanut butter from the jar). Even though we totally loved the way we travelled in Europe, we figured we’d be over winging it by the time we got to the states. After researching Amtrak, Greyhound and talking to other travellers, we realised early on that travelling in the USA is near impossible without a car. Most US cities (except New York, Washington and San Francisco) have pretty pathetic public transport systems and are very spread out, so walking often isn’t an option. Although we booked our US trip through a company, it would be very easy to wing a road trip in the US. Budget hotels like Red Roof Inns and Best Westerns, which often have free wifi and breakfast, are a dime a dozen and we had a very smooth, trouble-free experience hiring a car through Hertz. There are also about 12 zillion websites and travel books that outline American road trip itineraries. Also, a GPS is totally necessary because US roads can be freakin’ labyrinths.

Other general tips:

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Waiting for a cinnamon roll at the Route 66 cafe in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.

  • To preserve your budget and sanity, head east during European summer and save your western adventures for autumn and winter. We rarely had trouble finding accommodation and were never anywhere (even Paris) where the crowds were overwhelming. I am sure we made the right decision to do it that way, no matter how beautiful western Europe would have been in the summer. We didn’t have to wait to get into the Louvre, the Sistine Chapel, the Acropolis or any other major tourist attraction, really. Plus, a drizzly Paris was beyond romantic and I’m glad I didn’t have to share it with 50 billion sweaty jerks.
  • Learning basic greetings and manners in each country is invaluable. If you can say “hello”, “thank you” and “goodbye”, you will have a much easier time and locals are far more willing to help you if they see you are trying. That myth that French people totally hate you if you don’t speak French? Not true. We just tried our best with the basics and we had a wonderful time and were showered with macarons. Also, we had a lot of fun saying “shizer!” and “nine” and “ich libre dich” to some German gals we met in Hungary. I think they probably hated us.
  • Do some overnight travelling if you feel comfortable with it, because it saves a bunch on accommodation. Night trains can be quite fun and are reasonably comfortable, while overnight buses are kind of arduous but you feel smug and accomplished when you disembark alive.
  • If you’re travelling as a pair, it’s worth shopping around for accommodation. Sometimes a budget hotel room can be cheaper than two beds in a hostel dorm. Plus, it’s a lot sexier.
  • If you’re thinking about travelling alone, you’re awesome and brave and I applaud you. It’s worth looking out for hostels with common rooms,  so you can meet people, and places that offer pick-ups from stations or airports. A lot of girls I met who were travelling alone felt safer catching buses and would ask around the hostel to see who was thinking of going to the same place, so they had company.
  • Think about bringing a laptop or iPhone or whatever. Wifi is absolutely everywhere and J-man’s beloved iPhone saved us from certain death many times, like when we arrived in Warsaw late at night and got lost in that big, scary, humid, concrete city of misery. Also, a lot of hostels have free wifi but will charge you for using their computers.
  • Use Skype. We didn’t have a mobile number in Europe so it was incredibly useful on several occasions. We bought a bit of Skype credit too, so we could call home every so often for cheap.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for advice – it’s not cheating. This sounds obvious but sometimes the people who can give you the best tips on what to do, where to go and how to get there are the people behind the desk at the hotel or hostel. Locals know all about train timetables, bus routes, laundromats, the best bars and restaurants and they actually want you to have a good time in their city/town.
  • Ignore the naysayers. Weirdly, the most common topic of conversation at hostels is travel horror stories. We were told we were going to be murdered on night trains, robbed to death in Barcelona and that Athens is hell on earth. Night trains were completely fine, we didn’t get robbed in Barcelona and Athens was amazing. Anywhere where kebabs are sold with hot chips inside is not my definition of hell.
  • Backpacking is hard work. Sometimes you sleep in gross beds, you hear people having sex all the time, you wear the same old clothes, you eat weird food, you get sick, you share showers with people you wouldn’t share a bus seat with, your bags just get heavier and dudes? You have to pretend to be interested in churches.  Sometimes you need to ignore the budget and treat yourself. Go and see a movie, eat a decent meal or find yourself a comfy bed.

Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to compile a bunch of top five lists of my favourite places, foods and travel moments, so y’all know where to get the world’s best raspberry tart. Hoorah!

Feel free to comment if you reckon I’ve left out any important travel tips.

buffalo gals won’t you come out tonight

Today is the first Christmas J-man and I have had together in the six years we’ve been dating and marriaging the hell out of each other. It’s also the first Christmas I’ve ever had without my family, so we decided to combine some of our families’ traditions to make it one giant superhero Christmas.

As you probably don’t remember,  J-man and I are total cheap skate hippies and instead of buying a plastic Christmas tree (they’re so bad for, like, the earth and Bambi and junk) each year we collect sticks and decorate them.  This year we are in San Francisco and I was afraid any sticks we might collect would have tarantulas in them. Tarantulas and rattle snakes and Michael Myers. So we decorated a candelabra instead:

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We collected the decorations from around the world and plan to keep them forever and, when we have kids (which, if I have any say, will be tomorrow), we can tell them the stories behind each of the little trinkets.

  • The wooden black cat at the top and the apple at the bottom were decorations we bought at the Holiday Market in Union Square in New York. It was a super cold day and I was so excited to be having my first cold Christmas. The apple is because of The Big Apple and the cat is sort of a memorial to J-man’s late cat Lucky.
  • We bought the egg-shaped decoration at a flea market in Sofia, Bulgaria. There was a funny cast of characters behind the market stalls, including a legless man and a faintly-bearded woman. Lots were selling military paraphernalia, so I really hope this innocent-looking decoration isn’t actually a Christmas grenade.
  • The little wooden man was bought from a flower shop in Salzburg. It cost something like six euros and the woman told us he was uniquely Austrian. We later saw them in every country for about one sixth of that price. Still, I guess it’s a nice reminder to never, ever return to Austria.
  • The wooden red and white heart is from Paris. I would have loved a jewel-encrusted Eiffel Tower bauble, but I would have had debt collectors cutting off my fingers and threatening my family. We bought this little number from a supermarket, along with bananas and footless tights.
  • The little angel next to the wooden man is from Budapest, one of my favourite cities ever. We were there in September but already the city was lit up and Christmasy and beautiful.
  • The little Venetian mask is from Dubbo. Oh, you’re so gullible. It is, of course, from Venice – a seriously magical, out-of-this-world place. I’ll look at this and remember the pink and peach sunset we watched just after I’d thrown a hissy fit when a hawker forced J-man to buy me two roses for ten euros. I really have been the most wonderful travel partner.

Yesterday – Christmas Eve – J-man and I did our present shopping, food shopping and a little baking. One of my favourite Christmas memories is helping mum make a chocolate Christmas tree, complete with icing sugar snow. So while J-man talked to his family for the first time in six months, I tried to recreate the joy. I think what I actually made was a chocolate cow pat:

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Last night we drank Gingerbread man cocktails – made from vanilla vodka and ginger ale – and ate an array of dips and salads. All my Christmas dreams came true when we found It’s A Wonderful Life playing on cable television. It made me cry, poor old George Bailey.

This morning we woke up and exchanged gifts. I bought Joel his newly-discovered favourite beer Dogfish Head and Jonathan Franzen’s book Freedom. He bought me some bow earrings I’d pointed out, a Macaron cook book and a necklace with an Eiffel Tower charm. Am I not the luckiest gal in the world? Afterwards we cooked a breakfast of pikelets, strawberries and bacon and eggs. After that, we devoured:

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Later today, we’ll eat more and nap. Merry Christmas, y’all.

wear some flowers in your hair

The pros and cons of our first 24 hours in lovely San Francisco.

+ Pretzels and water served on flight from LAX, while I sit next to a delightful teenager who does that cute head-bobbing-on-the-brink-of-sleep thing. I resist all temptation to guide his head onto my shoulder, stroke his hair and tell my mum’s famous “…And all the little lambs are in their barn. And all the little spiders are in their webs. And all the little snails are in their shells”  bedtime story. Realise husband may be affronted.

– Stand at luggage carousel for about 40 minutes, hoping and praying for our bags to turn up. Bags never come, so we lodge a delayed baggage report and are told they’re probably just on the next flight in. Little do we know the grinch is about to steal Christmas.

+ Get a shuttle bus to our hotel. The driver is a kindly man, who has decorated his van like a portable Buddhist temple. Am instantly calmed, converted and we take a copy of a free book he offers called “Heart of a Buddha”.

– Enter hotel room, which will be our home for the next five days, to find it has a distinct hourly rate feel to it, if you know what I’m sayin’.

+ Realise we are close to Japantown, where we discover an amazing shop selling all things awesome Japan. Things include a children’s book I wish I had written entitled: ‘Everyone poops’. We eat from bento boxes and walk back to our hotel amongst the Christmas lights and drizzle.

– I awake the next morning in despair, realising everything I have ever loved is in my bag. Things include black and white photos of Bulgarian strangers we bought at a flea market in Sofia, beautiful Christmas decorations we’ve collected from each country we’ve visited, my remarrying dress and the junior version of my beloved blankie.

+ We find out our insurance policy is reasonably sweet and can go and buy ourselves some replacement things. On the way into the city, we find a great coffee place that sells all kinds of crazy blends. We think we’ve found a San Francisco gem and feel it’s a sign of things to come.

– Things do come – rather too quickly – and I spend about half an hour in the bathrooms at Westfield cursing strong jumbo coffees with cream.

+ I find myself three pairs of underpants and four pairs of socks, which is luxury after wearing mostly hand-washed underwear for six months.

– I feel guilty and hopeless for spending money I had saved for Christmas on emergency underwear and walk home alone through the Tenderloin district, while J-man goes in search of emergency fashion.

+ Married to Rock and 16 and Pregnant are on the telly when I get back to the sex hotel. Such reality programs make me feel smug and superior. I know how to defy nature!

– Realise that babystoppers are also in my missing luggage. Prepare to re-marry Joel again in his drag racing gear and move into a barn set up in my parents’ backyard with baby Jeph and Soel.

+ Go and see Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman in a grand old theatre.

– Get to thinking that maybe I am too much like her crazy-insane-insane-crazy character, complete with nervous breakdowns, way out sensitivity and awkward make-out sessions where the kiss-ee yells “ow, you bit me! Why did you bite me?”

+ Eat dinner in a 50s style diner, where juke boxes are on every table. Amongst other things, I choose Bing Crosby’s ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas’. San Francisco makes everything okay.

sometimes i think of my baby in michigan

I’m no Jack Kerouac, but I’d like to show you what a day on the road looks like.

0800 – Wake in a mysterious budget hotel room and make sure valuables and innocence are still in check.

0815 – Eat breakfast. Sometimes it comes from the red WalMart “cooler” we bought and other times it is provided by the hotel, with a healthy dose of Fox News on the side. Democrats are such idiots, y’all. Also, imma gonna picket me some funerals.

0845 – Pack the car. Originally we had a silver Honda with Michigan number plates. We called her Michelle, because she was classy like the First Lady. Michelle was in desperate need of a service though, so we had to swap her for a blue Camry hybrid in Memphis. We have named her Blanche.  Please note the Girls! Girls! Girls! sign in the background, below. That should give you an idea of the calibre of our accommodation.

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0900 – Set up the GPS  (named Wendy, who has a beautiful Brooklyn accent and a penchant for spontaneous, illegal U-turns) to guide us to our next destination. Open door on advent calender pinned to the back of the driver’s seat.

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1200 – Have an in-car snack. The best thing I’ve found at petrol stations in America, other than fresh bananas and transvestites, is a hazelnut cappuccino. I love them, but limit myself to one a week because I’m pretty sure they’re flavoured with pure corn syrup and pigs’ blood. Joel tried his first twinkie on the drive between Oklahoma City and Amarillo.

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1330 – Stop at some road side attractions, which have included everything from road signs (Texas, duh), a big blue whale (just outside Tulsa, OK),  VW Beetles driven into the sand (also Texas), NATURE (Texas) and dead raccoons (not shown).

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1500 – Check into our new hotel, usually in the boondocks. Surf cable channels (my favourite discovery is the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills).  Make prank calls to other rooms. Remove pants.

1515 – Realise we should actually do something with ourselves. Sometimes these things include having Christmas at Elvis’ house in Memphis, or having a chocolate soda at Nashville’s original soda shop (again, I have to limit myself because my trunk is getting so full of junk I’ll have to take out insurance on dat ass, just like Beyonce)

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(This is our friend Garth. Garth and Dale, two of Joel’s friends from home, joined us for a couple of weeks. I don’t think they expected me to love bum jokes with such a passion)

1900 – Eat dinner. We’ve had some incredible meals in the US, but I think my favourite was barbecue in Memphis. We shared the dining room with a bunch of fat truckers, some cops and rowdy families. It was the most genuine American experience I’ve had.

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pour myself a cup of ambition

Dollywood was closed.

I will admit that I cried when I found out.  Visiting Dollywood and supersizing a McDonald’s meal were the only two things I desperately wanted to do in the states.  I know, dream big! I’m not a huge fan of Dolly Parton’s music, but I love her kitsch southern style and I like to imagine she is exactly like her character in Steel Magnolias. She’d paint your nails in a nice, coral shade, gossip with you over biscuits and grits and then come to your funeral in something tight and low-cut.

Anyway, it turns out Gatlinburg, Tennessee – the neighbouring town of Pigeon Forge, where the great Dollywood lies – is possibly the greatest place on earth. It’s pretty much a permanent amusement park, so it was a nice consolation prize.

Observe:

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This was an amazing shop called Aunt Mahalia’s Candies, where they had all kinds of dreamy fudge, boiled sweets and candy canes. It was near a tobacco shop where the shopkeeper told J-man he was welcome to fill up his pipe with free samples. I also saw my first Mormons here, but thought it would be rude to take photos or ask for hairstyle tips (no, really – back combing? teasing? shoulder pads to lift the pouf?)

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On the next floor was this boot, hat, whip and gun shop. Channelling Dolly, I thought briefly about buying a pair of red cowboy boots. As J-man was trying to convince me to get them, the owner (who was wearing denim overalls and, for the purposes of this story, chewing straw) said in a rich, southern drawl: “Be careful it might bring out the cowgirl in ‘er and we won’t be held responsible for anything that happens”. Needless to say I wussed out and didn’t buy the boots, fearing I would uncontrollably rip my shirt off and mount a raging mechanical bull, before birthing an illegitimate child called Something-Ray on the spot.

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This was taken in the same mall, between a nunchucks and knuckledusters outlet and a quaint shop that sold hideous glass figures of barnyard animals. I was trying to do my best Dolly Parton sexy wink to go with my hooker outfit. As you can tell, that definitely needs more work. It’s hard to wink with a lazy eye and fishnets that are riding up.

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Lining the streets were all kinds of wack things like this. Countless fair rides, fudge shops, permanent Christmas villages, gun and ammo shops, diners, grills and fast food chains. There were even the equivalent of carnies in residence – two tattooed brothers who ran the local Burger King and were spotted smoking cigarettes they’d found on the footpath. Only after J-man finished eating his handmade triple cheeseburger.

But it wasn’t all fairy floss and incest. Before leaving Gatlinburg we took a short hike in the Smoky Mountains National Park.  There were icicles hanging from rocks, dramatic waterfalls, beautiful tall trees, autumn leaves and… snow!

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What an amazing way to spend the first day of December.

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Only 23 days ’til Christmas!