Celebrating Christmas in Taipei, Taiwan

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I have a little secret to share: While I continue to report on locales across Latvia and Europe, for the past few months those dispatches have been sent from the tropical island of Taiwan. Technology is amazing, no? Although I missed Riga terribly at first, Taipei has charmed me with its fascinating mix of cultures and religions. Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Christianity coexist peacefully, with temples, churches and shrines tucked in every nook and cranny. Although Christians make up just 4% of the island’s population, the Christmas holiday is widely embraced. The friendly people of Taiwan love all things cute, including Santa and Rudolf!

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Christmas decorations around Taipei range from the adorable (an inflatable Canadian moose) to over-the-top consumerist (an electric beer bottle topped with a star). Santas can be found shimmying up palm trees and strings of twinkle lights brighten the balmy December nights. With snow only a remote possibility in these parts, I give the Taiwanese a lot of credit for creating such a festive atmosphere!

Christmas at the Taipei Zoo

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Creepy anime Santa outside the Miramar Entertainment Park.

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Surprisingly, I was able to get my European Christmas market fix at the Strasbourg Christmas Market in Taipei. 15 wooden cabins were set up in a plaza under the shadow of the Taipei 101 and stocked with everything from mulled wine and pastries to embroidered dish towels and woolen hats. I wasn’t able to purchase any French treats, as all the tickets for the event had been sold out, but was content to wander under the vibrant illuminations and soak up the holiday cheer.

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While I decided to forgo getting a tree for my apartment, I did stock up on colorful poinsettias at the local flower market. Considering they cost less than US$5 a pop, how could I resist? Taipei’s Jianguo Weekend Flower Market is a veritable treasure trove of seasonal plants and lawn decor. It’s also a great place for watching locals push their pampered pooches around in baby strollers. Yup, that’s a thing!

taipei weekend flower market

taipei weekend flower market

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One thing Asia does exceedingly well is seasonal desserts. Meticulously embellished with vivid details, these confections are almost too pretty to eat! Krispy Kreme’s red Santa donuts filled with dark chocolate pudding were my favorite, though the green matcha cakes filled with red bean paste were a close second. (This was a surprise as I didn’t think I liked red bean paste. I guess tastes change!)

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Where are some of your favorite places to celebrate the holidays?

Do you want to see more photos from around Taiwan?

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Celebrating Christmas in Taipei, Taiwan

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How to Travel and Have Fun Alone

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As the only child of two working parents, I learned to keep myself entertained from a very young age. I would create elaborate soap operas for my Barbie dolls and challenge my alter ego in games like Connect Four and Battleship. (I grew up before computers and smart phones. Can you imagine?) But as a young adult, the idea of going out to dinner or the movies alone was terrifying. What would people think?

My memory of the first time I dined alone remains vivid. I had just moved to Manhattan after college and knew no one in the city. After getting my fill of bagels and pizza I wanted a real meal. So one day I took a book to a charming restaurant I often passed on my neighborhood walks and requested a table for one by the window. There I was: all alone, on display for the world to see. Or so it felt at the time. In hindsight I’ve realized that the only person thinking about me was me.

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Just me and my shadow. Or something.

When it comes to overcoming the fear of doing stuff solo, the first step is really just getting over ourselves. We are our own worst critic and waste too much time worrying about the opinions of others. Who cares what strangers think, anyway? We will likely never see them again – and if we do, so what? Should their opinion have so much sway over our daily joy?

After that first solo dinner, I soon branched out to Broadway shows and movies. These are perfect activities to enjoy on your own because a) it’s dark, and b) there’s no talking. Plus, the concession stand clerk has no idea that that extra large popcorn is yours alone. Did I mention that you won’t have to share your snacks?

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All for me! Yeeeesssss.

Now I think nothing of hopping a plane to Barcelona or Hong Kong, or a long-distance bus to Vilnius, and exploring the city completely by myself. Think that’s crazy? Read on for some strategies that will have you singing a different tune!

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Sometimes you have to just grab life by the horns!

Start Small

Attend a movie matinee. Treat yourself to a pedicure. Watch a fashion show at the local mall. Go to a cafe and sit down with your coffee instead of taking it to go, then work up to having lunch. Museums are great for solo exploration because they encourage quiet reflection. Ride the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus and listen to the often-interesting tidbits on your headphones. The opportunities are endless! Once you are comfortable doing some things by yourself, the next challenge is to put down your phone or book and simply enjoy the experience for what it is.

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I had this view – and this glass of port – all to myself.

Cultivate a New Hobby

Like photography? Grab your camera and go for a long walk. Always wanted to know how to knit/bowl/ski/etc? Take lessons or join a league. Many cities have clubs for outdoor running or public speaking. I once came across a group of people staring silently up at a tree in Central Park. Creeping over, I eventually saw the bird they were watching with keen interest. Whatever you’re into, there’s a group of people out there already practicing it. Join them! At the very least, the experience will give you some stories to tell at happy hour.

Horseback Riding in Yunnan

Horseback Riding in Yunnan, China

Be Open

Doing something alone doesn’t mean avoiding people. Consider joining a free walking tour or taking an art class. Grab a beer in a pub and chat up the locals. One of my best nights in Hong Kong happened after asking directions from strangers on the street and then accepting an invitation to join them for dinner. Once you open yourself up to new possibilities, it’s amazing what fun you’ll have! And you might make some new friends in the process.

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Rooftop selfie in Hong Kong.

Practice Makes Perfect

My first experience with solo travel was a business trip. My company sent me to meet with a vendor and I used my downtime (lunch, dinner, the morning before my return flight) to do a little exploring. Sent on a return trip a few months later, I asked to go on Sunday instead of Monday and used the extra day for sightseeing. After that, I was hooked! I worked hard and was rewarded with more business travel and thus more adventure. One trip required me to fly into Salt Lake City and drive a rental car to Provo for a meeting the next morning; I took a short detour to Park City to marvel at the snow-covered mountains and Old West architecture. Those opportunities boosted my confidence tremendously. Once I moved to Shanghai, visiting a far flung temple or enjoying afternoon tea by myself didn’t seem scary at all.

Sure, the first few times you venture out by yourself might be intimidating. But it will get easier, and the confidence and self-awareness you gain will be priceless. Don’t miss out on all the fun just because there’s no one to go with!

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How to Travel and Have Fun Alone

What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done alone?

Have any tips for overcoming fear?

Swooning Over Spring in Riga

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Just like autumn before her, spring arrived in Riga seemingly overnight. The grass grew a vivid shade of green and flower beds erupted in colorful blooms – the speed of this change was almost dizzying! All it took was a few sunny days and a good soaking rain to wash away the last vestiges of winter. Azaleas, rhododendrons, tulips, lilacs, violets, and even cherry blossoms brightened the city’s parks one by one, a new dazzling display tempting me out each week with my camera in tow. As if Riga weren’t pretty enough already, spring comes along and gilds the lily!

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What better place to revel in spring’s bounty than the Riga Botanical Garden! Operated in conjunction with the University of Latvia, the 15 hectare park boasts over 6,000 plants, flowers and trees. A large greenhouse contains a rain forest habitat along with an impressive array of orchids and cacti. During the spring and summer months, the butterfly house is a fun diversion – though be warned there is a separate entrance fee (worth it) and the temperature inside exceeds 30C! In a bit of canny entrepreneurship, bottled water is for sale at the ticket booth.

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Not to be outshined by Mother Nature, Riga’s chefs got in on the action during Restaurant Week, serving up spring on a plate. Seasonal produce including artichokes, asparagus, rhubarb, and sea buckthorn livened up meats like duck and rabbit, while rye bread crumbs and fresh dairy added Latvian flair to the desserts. I partook of the specially-priced set menus at a few restaurants, with my favorites being Locale and Tinto.

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Artichoke risotto, roast duck, and vanilla semifreddo at Locale.

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Asparagus soup, fish salad, and chocolate cake at Tinto.

Always a bit of an adrenaline junkie, I jumped at the chance to enjoy views of Riga from 50 meters up with Dinner in the Sky. I went with the “Champagne in the Sky” option, which included a drink, light snack, and 20 minutes of air time. After being strapped securely to our chairs – which swiveled! – the large platform was hoisted by crane into the stratosphere and gently turned so that we could appreciate the city from a variety of angles. The fearless staff handed each guest a flute of G.H. MUMM champagne and a beautiful appetizer plate, though most of us were so busy gaping at the view and taking photos that we didn’t consume either until the way down. I’ll be eagerly awaiting this spectacle’s return to Riga next year!

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Latvians seem determined to enjoy every last second of the fleeting sunshine, and nowhere was this more apparent than gada tirgus, or the annual market. Each June, virtually every handicraft maker in the country converges on the grounds of the Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum, and eager shoppers turn out in droves. Pottery, rugs, iron works, wooden furniture, beeswax candles, sausages and cured meats, wicker baskets, mittens, fresh cheese, wool sweaters, children’s toys…the list goes on and on. If I hadn’t been worried about getting my purchases home on the bus, I would have been tempted to buy one of everything!

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The weekend before gada tirgus, Riga hosted the 5th annual Latvian Beer Fest in the centrally located Vermanes Park. With over two dozen breweries represented, it’s the largest festival of its kind in the Baltics.

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Please pardon the low resolution, these were taken with my phone. And the cup on the left is pear cider. Yum!

The unofficial start of the spring season coincided with the celebration of Latvia’s Restoration of Independence. On May 4, 1990, Latvia broke free from the crumbling Soviet Union and reestablished itself as a free democratic republic. Because 2015 marked the 25th anniversary of this momentous occasion, Riga threw one heck of a party! Marching bands from cities around Latvia performed in front of the Freedom Monument before a formal ceremony featuring a steady stream of Latvian political leaders, members of the military, foreign dignitaries, and distinguished guests. Everyone laid flowers at the monument’s base and filled in a “flower map” of Latvia.

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Bottom left: Former President Andris Berzins; Bottom right: Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma.

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How have you enjoyed spring in your part of the world?

Top Ferreting Experiences of 2014

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I can hardly believe it, but another year is about to come to a close. And what a year it’s been! I spent the first half reconnecting with friends and family in the U.S. before pulling up stakes again and moving to yet another continent in June. All told, I visited eight states, five countries and four UNESCO sites in 2014.

Without further ado, here are my favorite experiences of the past year:

1. Moving to Riga, Latvia

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Obviously this one’s hard to beat. We moved to Riga at the end of June and enjoyed three blissful summer months getting to know our new home before the rapid onset of winter. I’ve been so busy exploring Riga that I haven’t had a chance to write much about it yet. I plan to rectify that in the coming year, with posts about my favorite restaurants, cafes, shops, museums, parks and more!

2. Exploring Latvia

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After a short time in Riga I was extremely excited to explore further afield in Latvia, a country I knew precious little about before the move. In the six months we’ve lived here, we’ve visited the coastal city of Liepaja, the mountain hamlet of Sigulda, a country palace that would make the Hapsburgs proud, and a resort town on the Gulf of Riga. But there is plenty more of Latvia for me to discover, with Jelgava, Kuldiga, Ventspils, and Cesis on the short list for 2015.

3. Visiting Tallinn, Estonia – TWICE!

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I made my first visit to Tallinn in August, and loved it so much that I took my mother back for Christmas. I have a new goal of enjoying the beautiful old city during all four seasons. Two down, two to go!

4. Wandering Through Prague’s Terraced Gardens

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As if a trip to Prague isn’t special enough, we spent half our time there traipsing about magnificent gardens spread along Castle Hill. We were able to enjoy sweeping views of the city’s red rooftops, with hardly a soul in sight.

5. Visiting Niagara Falls

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Despite growing up in Virginia and living in New York for five years, I somehow never made it to Niagara Falls. That changed in June with a road trip up and down the U.S. East Coast. We made visiting the Falls a priority, and it was definitely worth the wait! The sight of all that water rushing over the cliff, and the sound of it reverberating through the gorge, is awe-inspiring. I want to write about the experience, but quite frankly, I can’t find the words.

6. Dinner at Komi

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I’ve eaten a lot of memorable meals around the world, but the best unequivocally was this past year at KOMI, a Greek restaurant in Washington, DC. There is no menu; rather, the chefs prepare a multi-course tasting to delight your palate. We enjoyed a total of 16 courses, each more exciting than the last. What began with an unassuming sunchoke chip topped with aged cream and trout roe ended in the mad marriage of white chocolate and vichyssoise olives. Other thoroughly-delicious-but-sometimes-challenging ingredients included foie gras, sea urchin, goat, tripe, and duck hearts. My favorite dish was a pudding of candied olive oil, sea salt and dark chocolate. My mouth waters at the memory of it, nearly a year later!

7. Spending a Day in Helsinki

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During my second visit to Tallinn, I took the ferry over to Helsinki and spent a day exploring the lovely city. Since it was December, the sun set at 3pm and I was barely able to scratch the surface of Finnish culture in that short amount of time. A weekend trip will be a must for next summer!

8. Eating All the Barbecue in Texas

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Another adventure I have yet to write about is a June weekend in Dallas, Texas. We toured the set of the eponymous television show, cheered on cowboys at a rodeo, saw where President Kennedy was shot, tried on Stetson hats, and ate tacos and barbecue. It was an amazing weekend that was overshadowed by our little overseas move, but I hope to share more about it – if only to go through my photos of the delicious food!

9. Exploring Kutna Hora, Czech Republic

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With a week in Prague, we had enough time to take a day trip to explore a little more of the Czech Republic. We opted for Kutna Hora, site of the famous Sedlec Ossuary, or Church of Bones. But we discovered that the medieval town has much more to offer, such as a UNESCO-listed cathedral and a miniature version of the Charles Bridge. A post about this special place is forthcoming!

10. Tiptoeing Through the Tulips at Longwood Gardens

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Often there are treasures in our own backyards waiting to be discovered. While I was home in the States, a friend and I drove to Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania to enjoy the springtime flower display. And it was magnificent!

11. Festivals Galore

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One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about Latvia is joining the country’s many cultural celebrations. From Riga’s birthday and Latvia’s Independence Day to the annual Festival of Lights and Winter Solstice, it seems there’s a party for every month! I am very much looking forward to New Year’s Eve fireworks by the Daugava River and the Summer Solstice jubilee in June.

12. Having a Charming Time in Amish Country

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Buggies, and bonnets and bucolic scenery, oh my! Driving through Ohio’s Amish country is always a delight, and a must whenever I’m in the area.

13. Eating Buffalo Wings in Buffalo

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On the way to Niagara Falls, we stopped in Buffalo, NY and ate our body weight in wings at Anchor Bar, where the classic dish was invented. “Epic” is one way to describe it.  Another is “filling.”

14. Sitting Front Row at Riga Fashion Week

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I watched three shows by Latvian and Lithuanian designers while sipping champagne and ogling the local equivalent of the Kardashians. Four months in country and already front row at Fashion Week – what will 2015 bring!?

15. Getting Chased by Elmo in Times Square

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Enough said!

What are your favorite moments of 2014? Do you have any special plans for the coming year?

 

Celebrating Christmas in Riga, Latvia

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One of the things I was most excited about when we moved to Europe was getting to celebrate Christmas on the continent most known for its holiday markets and festive decorations. I had especially high hopes for Riga given its claim to be the birthplace of the decorated Christmas tree, and fortunately the city has delivered in a big way!

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Site of the world’s first Christmas tree.

According to local legend, in 1510, the Order of the Blackheads – a guild for unmarried merchants – decorated a pine tree on Christmas Eve, then set it ablaze. Today, a similar tree stands in front of the beautifully restored House of the Blackheads, giving visitors a glimpse into Riga’s medieval past. As far as I know, there are no plans to burn down the current tree.

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In a nod to that storied past, local artists have created a Christmas Tree Trail, a collection of 77 works inspired by the Christmas tree and other Latvian traditions. The artistic trees are made of a variety of materials and many are illuminated. Maps are available at Riga tourism offices should you want to hunt them all down.

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You might think this represents a letter to Santa, but you’d be wrong. It’s actually a letter to the Christmas tree!

The Riga Christmas market is situated in the heart of Old Town, in the large square next to Dome Cathedral. The market consists of dozens of wooden stalls with white-and-red striped awnings selling an impressive array of reasonably-priced items, such as wool hats, beeswax candles, straw baskets, and glass Christmas ornaments. Food options are just as plentiful, ranging from the traditional Latvian feast of sausage, sauerkraut, and potatoes to ostrich meat pies. You can wash it down with karsts vīns (mulled wine), Black Balsam with hot black currant juice or hot sea-buckthorn juice. The Riga Christmas market is your oyster!

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A toy house is filled with cats available for adoption.

The small white house is filled with toy furniture and cats available for adoption.

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Not content to have just one market, Riga has set up two others to spread the Christmas cheer around. The market in Livu Square, near the main entrance to Old Town, is riotously colorful, with blue-and-white striped stalls and bright red signs.

The Christmas market in Riga's Livu Square.

The Christmas market in Riga’s Livu Square.

The third market is set up in Riga’s Esplanade Park, near the onion-domed Russian Orthodox Cathedral. While this market might not be as visually stunning as the other two, it’s still worth a wander. It’s also the only place in town where you can get roasted corn on the cob.

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My favorite addition to the holiday scene is the Bunny Kingdom in the middle of the Esplanade Christmas market. A miniature walled city complete with wooden churches and watch towers has been created for dozens of resident rabbits. Men dressed as Santa walk around the perimeter carrying buckets of cabbage and carrots, which delighted visitors can feed to the bunnies through the chain-link fence. I stop by so often that the Santas are starting to recognize me!

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I have no idea why this exists and I don’t care. It’s awesome!

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On top of all this, Riga has strung Christmas lights along nearly every street and installed fanciful decorations in many parks and public squares. If this city doesn’t put you in the holiday spirit, nothing will!

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It’s raining presents in Riga!

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Even Riga’s famed Art Nouveau buildings have put on their holiday best.

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Christmas in Riga 2

Merry Christmas! Where in the world are you celebrating?

Awed by Autumn in Riga, Latvia

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Over the past few weeks, Riga has undergone a dramatic change. Most of the outdoor patios and beer gardens have been dismantled, the number of tourists has dwindled and the temperature has dropped twenty degrees. Seemingly overnight, Riga’s population swapped out t-shirts and sandals for jackets, boots and scarves. Summer was glorious – and brief. But I haven’t had time to mourn its loss because autumn is proving to be just as amazing. The leaves have turned a kaleidoscope of colors and the soft light filtering through the trees is dazzling. I wish the foliage would stay frozen like this forever, but already the boughs are shedding their brilliant autumnal blooms, carpeting the ground.

Autumn Canal in Riga

Autumn in Riga Latvia

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” – Anne of Green Gables

Riga Fall Foliage

Riga Autumn Leaves

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Riga Bastejkalns Park

“I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne

Riga Autumn Colors

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Autumn in Riga Latvia

“Autumn…the year’s last, loveliest smile.” – William Cullen Bryant

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The city’s already stunning World Heritage-listed architecture seems to have gotten prettier, though maybe that’s just because more of the exquisite details are visible through the newly bare branches. Walking around town these days leaves me slack-jawed.

Riga in October

“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” – Albert Camus

Riga in October

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Even the graffiti looks more charming when seen through a screen of autumnal yellow and orange.

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Riga graffiti

The Riga Zoo takes on a dreamy quality in the golden sun-dappled afternoons. I wonder if the animals can appreciate the changing season. I must have taken several hundred photos of them ambling about their lovely enclosures, staying until the park closed its gates and there was a chill in the air.

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Riga Zoo

Riga Zoo

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The days may be growing noticeably shorter, but that just means I get to see more sunrises …

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“Days decrease, and autumn grows, autumn in everything.” – Robert Browning

… and sunsets.

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What is your favorite season? Autumn just might be mine.

Riga, Latvia: First Impressions

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It’s been two weeks since I moved to Riga, Latvia and some days it still feels like a dream. The place is mind-boggling gorgeous and almost defies description. Riga’s Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a medieval beauty filled with candy-colored buildings and a maze of narrow, winding lanes. Beer gardens are set up in the public squares and nearly every cafe and restaurant has space to dine al fresco. Music wafts on the Baltic breeze, with street performers on most corners and professional musicians entertaining the beer garden crowds.

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Town Hall Square

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Looking down on Old Riga from the spire of St. Peter’s Church

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Enjoying summer along the Daugava River

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The only remaining section of Riga’s Old City Wall

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Egle beer garden, my favorite place to spend an evening

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Riga Castle

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The Freedom Monument

Old Riga is bordered by the Daugava River and Kronvalda Park, both of which are lovely spots to take advantage of the endless summer sunshine. Follow the cobbled streets northeast and you’ll end up in the stunning Art Nouveau district, where one whimsically carved building is more impressive than the next.

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Albert Street, the heart of Riga’s Art Nouveau district

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The beauty of living here is that there is no rush. I don’t need to check off as many attractions as I can in a week. Rather, I can take my time and get to know my new city slowly, intimately. I’m working my way through the many cafes, trying to find my favorite. I’m learning how to shop for ingredients at the market and scouting out the local dry cleaners. I’m developing routines.

I’m also learning things about Riga that might escape the casual visitor: there are A LOT of seagulls in this city; cats aren’t just for building ornamentation; and a little Latvian will go a long way – even a simple “paldies” (thank you) is guaranteed to bring a smile. Also, the food is hearty, delicious and beautifully presented; wine tastes better when sipped on a patio in the shadow of an 800-year old castle; and the Northern European sun sets ridiculously late in summer. I’m sure I’ve learned more interesting things, but right now I’m still taking it all in and processing the fact that this is my new life and not a vacation with an end date.

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This photo was taken at 9pm

I still have much to explore, but so far I’m smitten with my new home! Would you enjoy living in Riga? What’s the most interesting place you’ve ever lived?

 

Friendship and Chocolate in New York City: Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

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My travels around the East Coast continued last week with an all-too-brief sojourn in New York. Having once lived in the city, I have many friends there and try to go back as often as I can. I usually take the bus from DC, relaxing with free WiFi until the famous skyline first comes into view along the Jersey Turnpike, when my excitement starts to build. Even after making the trip countless times, I still feel a thrill when we pass the New Jersey / New York demarcation line inside the Lincoln Tunnel and emerge into Hell’s Kitchen, the west-side neighborhood I called home my first year in Manhattan.

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My returns to the Big Apple usually take place on weekends, when my pals are off work and able to spend time with me. But with preparations for our move well underway and time pressing in, the only days I had available were during the week. I took the opportunity to see one friend in New Jersey, rather than ask her to make the trek into the city like I usually do. She has two lovely children, whom I met for the first time, and it broke my heart to leave, not knowing when I might see them again.

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A bit melancholy after that visit, I went for a long walk around Midtown Manhattan, where my friend and I used to work. It was hard to stay sad for long with the stunning displays of tulips erupting all over the city. A perimeter of vivid orange surrounded the New York Public Library while small fields of red brightened up Park Avenue. I paused to photograph an abundance of pink tulips on the Upper East Side and shared a smile with several passers-by who seemed to notice the flowers only after seeing me with my camera. It was one of those rare moments between strangers which lifts everyone’s spirits.

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Spring is bursting forth in Bryant Square Park.

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I had planned to take a Circle Line cruise of the island the next day, but the weather didn’t cooperate; instead, I treated myself to some beautiful art at the Frick Collection. Once the home of steel tycoon Henry Clay Frick, the mansion now showcases his impressive collection of Old Master paintings and antique French furnishings. It also offers a tantalizing glimpse into the lives of America’s 19th century elite.

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Photographs are only allowed in the Frick Collection’s elegant central courtyard.

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Later that evening, another friend met me at Chelsea Market where we joined a Great New York Chocolate Tour. I found a super deal on Groupon and thought it would be a fun way to explore our old stomping grounds. We ambled from the Meatpacking District to SoHo, tasting decadent sweets at some of Manhattan’s best shops, all while a quirky guide shared interesting tidbits about the city. My favorite stops included Magnolia Bakery, Chocolate Bar and Bisous Ciao Macarons. We purchased additional treats at about half the stops and had quite a chocolate bounty by the end!

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Once the tour ended, we were hungry for something more substantial and walked along West Broadway until Sanctuary T enticed us with its charming facade. I gobbled up a bowl of sweet corn ravioli with bacon and tomatoes while my friend went for the spicy beef meatballs and the surprisingly tasty cauliflower steak. The service here was really exceptional, with a genial and attentive waitress who even gave us plates and extra cutlery so we could gracefully enjoy the chocolates we’d purchased on the tour!

Leaving the next day was bittersweet. Even though I’ll miss my friends and the city dearly, every “goodbye, for now!” takes me one step closer to a brand new adventure. And hopefully my friends will come visit!

New York Skyline

How do you stay connected to loved ones while you’re abroad? Is there a place you miss more than any other?

 

How to Have Fun Almost Anywhere

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When I started this blog two and a half years ago, one of my hopes was to show a few naysayers that I was capable of living beyond the comforts of North America and Europe. From the wilds of the Cambodian jungle to the crowded Beijing metro, I have tried to make the most of every experience and tackle every challenge with a smile. While I have bad days like anyone, I’m an eternal optimist who never stays down for long. Some writers highlight their travel mishaps and point out what they didn’t like about a particular city or sight. That information can be useful, but it’s more my style not to dwell on the negative. In this spirit, I bring you my six tips for having fun almost anywhere!

Loy Krathong Festival

1. Keep an Open Mind

Try not to be too swayed by any one person’s opinion. Just because one person loves or hates a place doesn’t mean you will. Personal experiences and preferences can vary wildly, and factors such as weather and travel season can have a big impact. We were warned against visiting Bangkok because of the touts outside the royal palace (which we didn’t encounter). Others have sworn off tuk-tuks because, allegedly, all the drivers are swindlers. (Yet we’ve taken dozens of tuk-tuk rides across Asia and our drivers have ranged from pleasant to downright awesome.) The Huffington Post recently had the gall to say the Statue of Liberty was overrated (it’s not). If we relied solely on others’ opinions, we’d probably never travel anywhere.

Bangkok temple

Bangkok tuk-tuk

2. Have Reasonable Expectations

This goes hand-in-hand with the first point. If your hopes for a particular destination are sky-high, you risk setting yourself up for disappointment. I’ve found that when I go in managing my own expectations, I often enjoy myself more. This can be tough, especially when visiting famous cities and landmarks you’ve dreamed of for years. Just know that you probably can’t recreate the Eat, Pray, Love experience in Bali or meet a dashing stranger on a train and have an unforgettable night in Vienna à la Before Sunrise. It’s better to visit a place for its own merits and let yourself be pleasantly surprised. You won’t fall in love with every place you visit, and that’s okay. You don’t need to move there.

Yangshuo China

I had no idea what to expect in Yangshuo and it ended up being one of my favorite spots in China!

3. Be prepared

I’ve found that understanding some of a place’s culture and history will enrich your travel experiences. In addition my trusty guidebook, I like to read as much as I can before packing my bags. Novels set in the destination country can provide a wealth of historical and cultural context. Heading to China? Check out Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. Cruising the Greek Isles? Get lost in Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. Crossing Angkor Wat off your bucket list? Read First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung, a non-fiction account of Cambodia’s civil war. That last one was absolutely heartbreaking, but it gave me a much deeper appreciation for the kind people of Cambodia.

Cambodian girl

Doing a little research about your destination is also a great way to stave off disappointment (see Tip 2). I saw countless people turned away from the temples and ruins in Thailand and Cambodia because they weren’t dressed appropriately. Even just having an idea of how you’ll get to your hotel from the airport can spare you some stress.

Bug spray

Reapplying mosquito repellent in Bangkok. Nothing spoils a good time like malaria.

Koh Lanta, Thailand

Taking a speed boat to our hotel on Koh Lanta. This was infinitely more enjoyable than a public ferry.

4. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

This is another one that can be tough to pull off in the heat of the moment. But some things you just have to let roll off your back. Did the street-food vendor charge you more than the local in front of you? It was pocket change, so let it go. Does your hotel in Southeast Asia not have running water when you come back from a day of sightseeing? Go for a swim if there’s a pool, otherwise get a drink at the bar. No one cares if you’re sweaty; they are too, and you’ll never see them again anyway. Did a gust of wind blow a US$50 bill out of your hand and over a cliff? (True story.) Take a deep breath and forget it.

The restaurant is going to mess up your order, your flight is going to be delayed and your bus may even break down (on the side of the Autobahn in August – another true story.) Mishaps on the road are inevitable. It’s how you deal with them that counts and earns you your travel stripes. If you can laugh at yourself and some of the situations you find yourself in, your trip will be much more pleasant.

The Netherlands

Trying to enjoy Keukenhof gardens in the freezing rain.

Chicken foot

If you find a chicken foot in your hotpot, just laugh it off.

5. Be True to Yourself

Whether you want to hike the Inca Trail or relax at an all-inclusive resort, there is no right or wrong way to travel. I’m all for immersion in the local culture and for pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. But you don’t need to make yourself miserable doing that every hour of every day. Travel can be exhausting and if a Big Mac will prevent a meltdown at the airport, by all means, enjoy one. There is nothing wrong with ducking into a local mall to enjoy the air conditioning or getting your Starbucks fix when you’re abroad. Once the craving for creature comforts has been sated, try to get back out there!

Santorini

This is how I spent five days on Santorini. And I’m okay with that.

KFC China

A delicious lunch in Xi’an, China.

6. Take Delight in the Little Things

It doesn’t take much to amuse me. Ice cream on a hot day. Baby animals. People walking around town in their pajamas. A cardboard cutout photo prop is sometimes all it takes. I’m not saying that every travel day has been smooth sailing, but I would have missed out on so many great moments had I let a negative attitude get in the way. Once, after spending the better part of a day exploring the Forbidden City in Beijing, we rushed across town to see the Temple of Heaven, only to find the gates closed. Our disappointment was short-lived, though: walking back to the subway, we came across a group of older Chinese women dancing gleefully to Jingle Bells. This odd scene in the middle of spring remains one of my favorite China memories, and one we might not have witnessed rushing off in a huff!

Xi'an warrior

Why yes, that is a bronze Terracotta Warrior with a fork head.

Dancing in Beijing

Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way…

How do you make the most of your travels? What are your tips for dealing with stressful situations?

 

The Big Reveal: We’re Moving to LATVIA!

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As you may recall, a few months ago I mentioned that we would be heading overseas again later this year. Well, I just can’t keep the secret to myself any longer. We are moving to Riga, Latvia in June!

Riga 1

Image source: Daring Planet

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You might be wondering where Latvia is. That’s the first question most people ask when they hear my news. The largest of the three Baltic countries, Latvia sits between Estonia and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea. It also shares borders with Russia and Belarus to the east and south, respectively. Ferry service runs between Riga and Stockholm, and cheap Air Baltic flights should make it easy to travel around Europe!

Europe Map

Why move to Latvia?

Though we thoroughly enjoyed our two years in Shanghai and Asia, we were eager to explore another part of the world. Well, it doesn’t get much more different than Latvia! The country’s population is around 2.1 million, which is a drop in the bucket compared to China’s 1.35 billion. Trees will outnumber people and Baltic sea breezes will replace China’s pollution. Blending in with the locals will be a refreshing change. Plus, the Latvian language uses a Latin alphabet and should hopefully be more intelligible than Chinese characters. If that’s not enough, Riga is the European Capital of Culture for 2014 and is hosting hundreds of unique events and festivals this year!

Riga 3

Image source: To Be Continued Magazine

Riga 2

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Latvian blonde parade

Image source: The Beautiful Latvia Project

What am I most excited about?

Old Riga is a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its well-preserved medieval buildings and large collection of Art Nouveau architecture. I can’t wait to wander the cobblestone streets in search of cool and creepy facades! Riga is also home to a 600-year-old castle, an 800-year-old cathedral, numerous museums and a brand-new public library. The city, which straddles the Daugava River, is dotted with parks and cafe-lined squares.

Riga 5

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Riga 7

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Riga 6

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Riga 4

Image source: Mastering the Art of Travel Photography

One of the things I most enjoy about being an expat is the opportunity to explore the food and culture of my temporary home. In China, this manifested itself as a love for dumplings and fiery Sichuan dishes. I know little about Latvian cuisine, but I’m expecting an array of local treats with some Scandinavian, Russian and German influences.  I hear Latvia has rye breads, salmon, pickles and beets, not to mention pierogi and cheese – music to my ears and a death knell for my waistline!

Popular Latvian activities that I’m keen to try include picking mushrooms and berries, birdwatching and cross-country skiing. An artistic friend has introduced me to Latvian mittens, while my guidebook has extolled the benefits of Latvian saunas. Apparently you get whacked with birch branches (to enhance circulation) while partaking of the traditional steam bath, and then jump into some freezing water to cool down. THAT should make for an interesting blog post!

Latvian_dinner

Image source: Wikipedia

Latvian food

Image source: Share Latvia

Latvian mittens

Image source: FolkCostume & Embroidery blog

Latvian sauna 2

Image source: Medzabaki Hotel and Spa

The resort town of Jurmala is located just 25 kilometers from Riga so white sand beaches are under thirty minutes away! The arctic water may be too cold for me to dip a toe in, but the sound of crashing waves should be relaxing all the same.

Baltic_beach

Image source: Baltic Beach Hotel

Germany is famous for its extravagant Christmas markets, but I’ve learned that all the Baltic countries have them too! Did you know that Riga is credited with the creation of the Christmas tree? Germany might dispute this, but there’s a plaque in Old Riga marking the spot where the original tree allegedly stood. I’m guessing that means Christmas is a pretty big deal in Latvia. I’m hoping for lots of decorations around town, oven-fresh gingerbread and handmade ornaments to hang on my tree.

Riga Christmas

Image source: PhotoRiga.com

Riga Christmas 2

Image source: PhotoRiga.com

What I’m most apprehensive about:

As much as I’m looking forward to celebrating Christmas in Latvia, thoughts of a long Baltic winter have me a bit worried. With only seven hours of daylight during the winter months, how does everyone not come down with Seasonal Affective Disorder? I’ll just have to nurture a penchant for snow sports and be sure to get outside every single day. Or maybe I’ll sit by the fire and learn to knit while mulling my own wine. Whatever it takes to chase away the winter blues! And, of course, the 16 hours of daily sunshine during the summer should more than make up for any lost vitamin D.

Latvian winter 2

Image source: Live Riga

Latvian winter 3

Image source: PlayRiga.com

Latvian winter

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Have you been to Riga? Do you have any tips or recommendations on what to do/see/eat? What should I pack to survive the winter?