travel

Coffee Break Spanish

Over the past few years, I’ve used a number of different methods to improve my Spanish proficiency. I attended group lessons, studied at a Spanish school in Guatemala, and worked with a tutor from that school, here in NYC. I’ll occasionally read news (or celeb!) stories in Spanish and chat in broken Spanish with other amigos who speak it to some degree.

All that has slowly improved my comprehension of the language. My accent still sounds like El Bloombito and I can’t have a full conversation with a native speaker. But I can see how far I’ve come since I started.

Of all the resources I’ve used over the years, “Coffee Break Spanish” is among my favorites. It’s a podcast series in which each episode only runs about 20 minutes—the length of a short coffee break. (It originally ran from October 2006 to September 2008, but is available for free online.)В In the months leading up to a Latin America trip, I listen to one episode a day, on my way to work, and take notes.

For me, language learning is tiring, and I have to do it consistently to get anything out of it. “Coffee Break” had allowed me to get a dose of Spanish every day in a way that’s not so overwhelming or exhausting that it leaves me tired or frustrated. It’s enabled me to make studying Spanish a habit.

Plus, the “Coffee Break” hosts, Mark and Kara, do a fantastic job breaking down tricky grammatical points (like direct and indirect objects) and all the tenses (including the subjunctive!). I’m amazed at how much I learned from the series. I’ve used phrases and concepts from the lessons in all my Latin America travels.

Yesterday, I reached the end of the series—I listened to the 80th and final episode. I was actually a little sad, but also proud that I made it all the way through.

Luckily, there’s a second series for those of us who finished “Coffee Break.” “Show Time Spanish” promises to pick up where “Coffee Break” left off, with more conversations with Spanish speakers. (Something I definitely need!)

Of course, if time and money is no object, immersing yourself in a language in another country is the best way to learn. As is studying regularly with a tutor. But if you’re where I am right now, with limited disposable income, vacation time (or just time, in general!) “Coffee Break Spanish” is a great way to boost your proficiency little by little, every day.

spanish notebook

My notebook, where I’ve jotted down all the Spanish I’ve learned over the years.

Skycats

This week has been pretty crazy (in a good way, though!), so I was thrilled to stumble across Gemma Correll’s genius “Skycats” series in the midst of all the madness. Her comics are so cute and witty—I couldn’t help but laugh out loud and smile at her illustrations.

Some of my favorites:

how long is this flight again? how long were you in africa for, exactly? who are you waving at? awkward

Check out Correll’s complete “Skycats” seriesВ and be sure to follow her Tumblr for more awesome illos!

(Images via Gemma Correll’s Tumblr)

Fall Fun: Chris Christie Corn Maze and Apple Picking

I’m never thrilled when summer ends. But a day of fall ridiculousness outside the city always brightens my spirits.

Last year, we “hit the hick jackpot” in Long Valley, NJ, a pretty area about an hour outside the city, with lots of farms and apple orchards. Though we didn’t set out to visit that area, specifically, we ended up nearby, this year, for one reason.

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Stony Hill Farm (just a few minutes from Ort Farms, last year’s destination) has a giant corn maze shaped like Chris Christie’s face. (And Barbara Buono, the Democratic challenger. As a liberal, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t name Christie’s gubernatorial opponent until I read about this maze!)

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When it comes to fall ridiculousness, it’s hard to beat a political theme.

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Last year, we made it through Ort’s corn maze pretty quickly. So we were surprised when Stony Hill’s website said it could take three hours to get through their maze.

How hard could it be?

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Once inside, we soon learned. There didn’t seem to be an obvious way to the finish and we didn’t see many markers telling you whether you were on the right track.

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We walked around…

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…and around…

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…and around the corn for almost an hour, back and forth between Buono’s hair and Christie’s face. Finally, we gave up and went out through the entrance. (Luckily, Stony Hill’s awesome cider and donuts took the sting out of defeat!)

Afterwards, we drove a few minutes down the road to Stony Hill’s apple orchard.

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While the trees weren’t massively tall…

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…apples were plentiful (and cheap!) and we picked baskets full to bring back home.

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I’m still eating my way through several apples a day.

On this trip, I also found out that my dear friends, Karen and Steve, live just a few minutes away from this “hick jackpot.” I think they’re lucky to have easy access to such pretty farmland—and amazing cider donuts!

Enough with the “Travel Shoulds”!

WithВ my brief foray into tango, I almost broke one ofВ my travel philosophies. And that’s not to fall prey to “travel shoulds.”

As in, the things you think you should see/do/experience in a particular place.

For years, I felt like I needed to hit every museum in each city I visited. I thought it was necessary to learn about that area’s history, culture and arts. Never mind that I’m not a huge museum-goer in my day-to-day life; I almost never visit the world-class institutions here in NYC.

On other occasions, I made myself eat what I felt I “should” be eating: Chinese food for every single meal in Hong Kong, even though I was really craving a break from the cuisine. A loco moco (white rice topped with a hamburger patty, gravy and a fried egg) in Hawaii, when I actually just wanted a fresh fish sandwich.

I thought that I had to go-go-go on every trip. I hopscotched across cities, beaches and mountains (and climbed every volcano, hit every attraction and tried every restaurant in my path) in an effort to see as many parts of a country as I could in a week or two.

But over the years, I’ve realized that vacations should be exactly that—time off from all the pressure, stress and guilt of everyday life. And there’s no need to make yourself do something you don’t want!

I’ve learned that you can learn tons of culture and history outside of museums. Talking to locals at your hotel or on the bus yields fantastic stories and information about a place. Eating a non-indigenous dish can show you how a culture interprets a cuisine that’s not its own. An awesome family trip to Negril, Jamaica reminded me how re-energizing it can be to stay in one place for an entire trip.

There’s no good reason to force yourself to do something you don’t want to, because you feel you “should”! If you hate staying out late, you shouldn’t feel obligated to experience another country’s nightlife. If you’re frazzled from your flight, or from several days on the road, don’t feel guilty about lounging by a pool for a few hours.

That sounds obvious. But it’s so easy to get caught up in vacation excitement and the feeling that you have to pack tons of activities into your precious few days away from work. (I’m always on the go at home, so it takes conscious effort to slow down, once I’m out of NYC!)

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t get out of your comfort zone—you should definitely seize those opportunities that fill you with nervous excitement. That’s when you’ll often experience the most rewarding moments. I’m talking about those times when your heart isn’t into an activity. Or when you’re exhausted and need a break. Or when you’re convincing yourself to do something over another option you’d truly prefer.

One of the best parts of travel is experiencing a place the way you want to. So go ahead and skip the trendy new restaurant and return to that cute hole-in-the-wall you ate at the night before—and order the same exact dish. Or sit outside people-watching (and eating gelato), instead of strolling through that famous museum. Or go to bed early and wake up refreshed, instead of dragging yourself to that street with all the music bars.

And enjoy.

volcan santa maria

(Climb that volcano only if you want to—not just because it’s there. Volcan Santa Maria, Guatemala—which I did climb, last September!)

End-of-Year Trip Booked: London

london

For weeks—months, actually—I’d been debating whether I could squeeze in a London trip before the end of the year. It’s an expensive flight for a relatively short distance. And I’d only have a few days there.

Finally, I decided to go for it. I caved and booked a flight to London, a week and a half before Christmas. The pros were just too strong:

  • I’ll get to see my best friend, Reen—whom I haven’t seen in nearly a year, since she moved to London! That, alone, is reason enough.В 
  • I’ll get to experience the city as a local.В On my previous trip to London, I hit up all the must-dos: Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, the Globe Theatre, the Tate, the V&A, the Portrait Gallery, Harrod’s—and dozens more. Now that I’ve already seen those places, I’m interested in having Reen take me to her favorite haunts: cute restaurants, local pubs, favorite markets and the like.
  • Even though I hate winter, I love the idea of London at Christmas time.В I’m picturing the streets adorned with pretty lights and decorations. And we’re planning to see the Royal Ballet perform the Nutcracker. Of course. 😉
  • I wanted to pre-empt my post-vacation blues.В As I’ve learned, I tend to get pretty bummed after a great trip—and the best cure is to book another one! I knew I’d be blue coming back from spring in Buenos Aires to winter in NYC. I figured that booking another getaway would be an investment in my sanity.
  • YOLO.В Seriously. And embarrassingly, I actually did think this as I typed in my credit card information for my ridiculously pricey flight to London. I’m halfway through my first year in my 30s, and I’ve felt like I’ve reached that tipping point where everyone around me seems to be settling down and getting married and having kids. And while I still plan to do all those things, myself, I’m not anywhere close, at the moment. And I figure I should take advantage of this time to live it up.

…even though “living it up” also means that I’m being super-careful with money so I can pay off my two trips. (Hello, homemade huevos rancheros for dinner, every night! Not happening: shopping for cute fall sweaters.) But I’m already thrilled with my decision. Instead of being down about the end of summer, I feel nothing but excitement for the fall and winter.

(Photo via Pinterest)

On Solo Travel

Over drinks last week, two of my girlfriends and I were discussing a travel phenomenon that we’d just recently noticed:В When you tell people where you’re going on vacation, the first thing they’ll ask is not, “What will you be doing there?” or “How did you decide on that place?” But “Who are you going with?”

Though I’m sure I’ve been guilty of that, myself, it strikes me as so odd! That instead of inquiring about the amazing experiences lying ahead—the restaurants you’ll eat at, the trails you’ll hike, the neighborhoods you’ll explore—most people first want to know who you’ll be with.

I suppose I’m especially attuned to this now, with my fall trip just a few weeks away. Because when I tell people I’m going to Buenos Aires by myself, unless they know me well or have traveled alone, themselves, their reactions tend to be similar: They look impressed. They look surprised. And sometimes, they look like they feel a little sorry for me.

To be completely honest, my solo trips haven’t stemmed from a burning desire to travel alone. It’s more that I have insatiable wanderlust—and if no one is available to join me when I’m ready to go somewhere, I’d much rather head out on my own than miss an opportunity to travel.

Last year, I took my first solo trip in six years. While I was considering it, I was a little nervous about traveling on my own, again. I wondered if I’d get bored and lonely being on my own for so many days. And I worried about my safety in a country with a high murder rate and a dubious public transportation record. Deciding to study Spanish through a school assuaged those fears. I knew I’d definitely meet people to spend time with, when I wanted company. And I’d have plenty of time to be on my own, as well.

I ended up having an amazing time. I met lots of smart, interesting people, climbed a volcano, ate mountains of tortillas, immersed myself in Guatemalan culture and history—and improved my Spanish a ton, too! And I relearned an important lesson I’d forgotten from my first solo travel experiences: That traveling alone is quite a luxury.

Because you can do whatever you want.

You can sleep as late as you choose, go to whatever restaurant you desire (even if it’s the same one a few nights in a row), hit whatever museum looks appealing, and then leave after a few minutes when you realize you’d rather not waste a sunny day inside. As a college kid, I got my first taste of doing things on my own: I went to anВ Australian music festival alone, and spent long days wandering around hip Sydney neighborhoods. On my last pre-Guatemala solo trip, when I was 23, I hit up Lan Kwai Fong bars by myself, and spent one night doing nothing but relaxing and staring out at the Hong Kong skyline for hours.

Those are the kinds of things I’m looking forward to doing in Buenos Aires. I’m excited to rent a studio apartment that’ll serve as my home base, and take my first ballet classes in Spanish. I’m eager to explore different neighborhoods and find a cute cafe where I can get coffee and medialunas every morning. I’ve found a few restaurants I want to try, and I’m seeking places to tango.

None of those activities are all that different from what I do every day in NYC—usually on my own, as well.

Earlier today, Peter sent me this.gif"http://nycexpeditionist.com/img/2013/09/4ngb7yr.gif">iguazu falls

That’s all I want to hear when I tell people about my upcoming trip—no awkward looks of surprise or awe or pity. Just excitement.

(Image via Reddit)

Summer Snapshots: Delaware and Maryland Beach Weekend, 2.0

I’m back from my long weekend on the Delaware/Maryland coast, and it was pretty much everything I wanted it to be: relaxing with tons of beach time with a few of my favorite people!

Mal, Peter, Paul and I rented a little bungalow in north Ocean City, a prime position close to all our favorite sandy spots—like the quiet beaches just a few blocks away. (The beaches farther south, near the boardwalk, are much more crowded.)
ocean city, md

The weather was chilly on our first afternoon, so we practically had the beach to ourselves. I was thrilled just to have my feet in the sand, once again.

sandy feet

We all ended up taking long afternoon naps—not a bad way to start a trip!

beach sleep

At sundown, everyone else ran sprints along the beach to warm up and get some exercise. I opted to stay on the blanket—only one vacation per year involves running, at least in my mind!

sunset sprints

The O.C. beach was so nice that we returned the following day. But after that, we decided to switch things up and go to Fenwick Island State Park, just over the border in Delaware. I’d forgotten how much I liked that beach. They only let in as many cars as can fit into the small lot.

walking to fenwick island

Which means that the beach never gets too crowded! Plus, the sand was soft and clean.

fenwick island

Also, unlike many other beaches along the east coast, there are no buildings or high rises adjacent to it. The view is just a little nicer that way, isn’t it?fenwick dunesOne of the reasons Mal, Peter, Paul and I travel so well together is that we all appreciate ridiculousness. That’s why we ended up at Seacrets, the spring break-esque beach bar, for a second year in a row. (Apologies about the slightly blurry pics—I took them through a waterproof bag.)
seacrets

We had a few drinks on the giant floats before the sun went down. Unlike last year, we didn’t end up dancing (and drinking) for eight hours.

mal and peter, seacrets heather, seacrets

Mal and I believe that you have to eat at two types of restaurants when you’re at the shore: an old school, red sauce, family-style Italian joint. And a blue crab place. (I know I’m stating the obvious with the latter!)

For this trip’s Italian, we went to Mancini’s, on Fenwick Island. They make an awesome marinara, whose scent hits you, upon walking in. I ordered the spaghetti and meatballs based on that, alone, and wasn’t disappointed. We ate in their small, outdoor area, which was much airier and brighter than the spartan indoor seating sections.

We also made two trips to Bethany Beach’s Blue Crab, our all-time favorite blue crab restaurant: once for the all-you-can-eat dinner, and a second time for our final lunch before heading back to NYC. During that last meal, I felt a little sad when I realized I was savoring my last crabs until next year. But it was a pretty perfect way to close the summer.

blue crabs