Sunday, January 21, 2018

2017 in Travel (A Roundup Post)

Ah, a roundup of my 2017. In mid-January 2018.

Only 3 weeks late, that's fine, right? I mean, if it's fine for me then I guess it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. I tend to do things on my own timeline (still haven't gotten around to New Years Resolutions yet'll happen eventually). And that's okay! 

So anyway, *I* want to remember what 2017 was like for myself before I grow old and forget what my youth was like, so here goes. 

Overall, I'd say it was a year that was I was expecting to be calm, and then it took me completely by surprise in both good and very very bad ways. I hate to complain and say that it was a bad year because in the end, it was a time of incredible personal growth and change. But yes, there were some low points mid-year the depths of which I had never imagined before I experienced them. Were these things ultimately my own responsibility? Yes, of course. Was it completely on me to make the necessary changes to better myself and my life? Yes. Buuuuuuut did it kind of suck along the way? Just a bit.

Have I piqued your interest yet? No? Oh well, here goes anyway. 


I started off January 2017 by taking a trip to NYC with my mom. I'd been before as a kid but I didn't feel I had a real sense of arguably the world's most famous city. This trip completely reaffirmed my gut feeling, which was that New York is a fun place to visit very occasionally, but I would never ever want to spend a lot of time there. I just don't get a good vibe from the place, and that's enough for me! However, I did spend my 28th birthday seeing Nathan Lane, John Goodman, John Slattery (etc.) in a play called "The Front Page" on Broadway, which was an awesome experience.

A little later in January, I went up to Madison to take my mom and eldest nephew to the Women's March there. While I'm very aware of the extreme privilege we had as middle-class white people in being able to state our opinions on the government with little chance of recourse, I found it a cool experience to know I was taking part in worldwide civic action. I enjoyed seeing people express themselves freely against the government, even in a state that was one of the major reasons Don Estúpido was elected in the first place.


In early February, my niece had a gymnastics competition in Milwaukee, so I headed up there for that and in our downtime, I showed my mom and sister my favorite parts of the city (including the Milwaukee Art Museum, whose butterfly-esque entrance was designed by Santiago Calatrava, a Spaniard who has designed many gorgeous buildings and bridges I've visited across Europe and America, including Valencia's City of Arts and Sciences and the new PATH station at the former World Trade Center site in NYC).

A few weeks later, my volunteer group (the Jaycees) and I went on a day trip to the Field Museum in Chicago, which was free in February for Illinois residents. After we worked up an appetite walking around the museum, we headed over to Chinatown for ALL. THE. DELICIOUS. NOMS. Can't wait to get back there again for more!

Speaking of noms, at the end of February my friend C and I went up to the International Festival in Madison to watch amazing flamenco dancers, have our names written in Chinese, see African drummers, and eat hands down the best tiramisu I've ever had in my life (including in Italy).


For my dad's birthday in early March, I went to see him up in LaCrosse, and while crossing the Mississippi River, we noticed all the bald eagles fishing. I'd never seen so many of them in one spot before, and trying to get good photos of them was a really fun experience (despite the freezing wind)!

At the end of March, I flew to California for my spring break week to meet some family there. One of the coolest things we did in LA was to go see a taping of the James Corden show. I have a cousin who's a bigwig in Hollywood, so after the show, we got to play around on the set for a bit taking pictures and pretending to be "guests." My tiny brush with fame, I guess!

While in California, we also spent some time down in San Juan Capistrano, where we checked out the Spanish mission. Being a huge history nerd, this place would have been fascinating to me no matter what it looked like, but it was also one of the most beautiful places I've ever been in my life. I could have sat in that garden for hours and scribbled down the most fascinating of thoughts!


Back in the Midwest, my friend K and I went to a Polish festival in Madison. We both have Polish heritage in our family trees (her much more than me, but it's there regardless), so this was a cool chance to eat faworki and pierogi, watch old men playing the accordion, and gaze at beautifully decorated Easter eggs.


As a teacher, one must constantly be improving one's skills. So on a sunny day in May, I took a trip down to another school on the Near North side of Chicago to see how they teach Spanish there. I learned a lot from them, and I also had time for delicious hipster coffee from Ipsento and saw this beautiful mural. God, I love the city.

Less than a week later, another work trip. Our whole school took an end-of-the-school-year field trip to Starved Rock State Park, where we all went hiking and looked at many beautiful waterfalls. I love this place in the summer, but I still haven't been in the winter when the waterfalls are FROZEN. I think this has been one of my New Years Resolutions for three years in a row. Maybe 2018 will finally be the year?

Over Memorial Day weekend, I went up to LaCrosse to see my family there. I have this crazy uncle who loves to fly around in a powered parachute, and he had promised my niece that she could take her first flight, so we all gathered around with the million gnats in the pasture to see her go. Such fun (minus being covered in bites for the next week)!


My best childhood friends J & L and I have a tradition of getting together a few times a year and taking a day trip somewhere. This time it was to Lakefront Brewing Co. in Milwaukee, where we took a tour and tasted a few of their wares before wandering the Milwaukee Public Market and ending the day with a bonfire.

A few days later, I was finally free for the summer! I immediately went off on another trip with two couples I met in Vigo (Spain), A&L and J&J. I drove with them up to the coast of Western Michigan for a few days of relaxing in the lake, cooking, and reminiscing. Oh, and getting soaked by a torrential downpour. Good memories!

These same friends were (mostly) from out of town, so we took some time exploring the sights of downtown Chicago as well. But from the river!

For Christmas and their birthdays every year, I tell my nieces and nephews that they're going to get to go on some kind of trip with me. These vary in distance and activity, but I always enjoy them. Hopefully, they do too! This year, my 8-year-old nephew went with me to the Cave of the Mounds in Wisconsin, where we saw formations like this and he was extremely amused by the expression "cave bacon."


On this day in early July, I drove to O'Hare International Airport to pick up a guy I'd been dating for the few months previous, and then we went to a White Sox game. As I'd always found baseball incredibly boring, this was obviously not my first choice of activities for the day, but I'd never been to a game before in person and thought I'd give it a try since he was obsessed with baseball. Other than not knowing WTF was happening most of the time and slowly turning into a lobster, it wasn't terrible. Mostly.

A few days later, my bowling team and I went to Famous Fossil vineyard in Freeport, IL. They have a beautiful patio overlooking the vines where we hung out for several hours just chatting, and I am definitely keen to repeat this experience in the future!

Just a couple of days after that, my parents and I were off on our summer vacation! We were driving west, so after visiting my sister in the Twin Cities, our next destination was Alexandria, Minnesota. Mind you, I had no particular desire to stop here, but my mom was obsessed with seeing this runestone recovered by a farmer in a field 100 years ago that supposedly has Viking runes on it, meaning that the Vikings had come this far west 1000 years ago. Except according to linguists, there are runes used on the stone that weren't invented until centuries later. Soooooo it's most likely a fake. At least, according to what I read online. But my mom has decided definitively that it's real, so we bickered about that for a few hours. However, Fort Alexandria (where the stone is now housed) has some history of its own, so that was interesting to learn about!

Next stop, Fargo, North Dakota. Mostly this town just makes me think of the movie Fargo, and probably for good reason (it seems like there's not much there). Thanks to Yelp, I managed to find the only hipster coffee in town at Red Raven Espresso Parlor, and this was the dumpster they had out back. Inspirational life stories on a dumpster, why not??

Crossing the Canadian border into Winnipeg, we ate in The Forks and went to the Human Rights Museum there. Honestly, I wasn't sure what to expect from this place, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up learning about the poor treatment of Canada's First Nations people in the past.

Next, I was pumped to start using the pass I got to enter all of Canada's national parks FOR FREE for their 150th anniversary as a country. We drove through Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba, where I'd reeeeeally been hoping to see some bison. And, well...there is one appearing in this photo, although you (like me) probably can't really see it at all behind the wild grasses. Oh well, I tried.

As we made our way across the (frankly, quite dull) Canadian prairies, we looked for stops to break up the monotony. One such stop was Wanuskewin tribal park in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. We learned a bit about the local Northern Plains First Nations tribes and how their people have been gathering at this spot for more than 6,000 years!

Growing up near the Mall of America, I'd always been told that it was a super special place, the largest mall in all of America! Silly me, I'd always thought that the "America" in the name referred to, well, all of America. North America, Central America, South America, all the Americas. Except, um, no. The estadounidense news bubble strikes again, because the West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, Canada is actually the largest shopping mall in North America, but there's also one in Panama that's even larger! The question of why there needs to be a capitalist competition for having more space to sell useless products, however, still remains unanswered.

Finally, finally, after days and days of monotonous flat driving across Canada, we made it to the mountains. Jasper and Banff National Parks in Alberta did not disappoint in terms of lakes, waterfalls, hot springs, glaciers, and beautiful spots to ponder life. The lake I'm sitting at here is called the "disappearing" lake because apparently, it drains in the wintertime due to weirdness with the way the water and the ground freeze.

After we'd spent some time in the glorious Canadian nature, it was time to head south to Calgary, Alberta, where I played around at the fort pretending to be a Mountie. 

We then crossed the border once more into the USA and went straight into Glacier National Park. My parents are over 65 and are able to get national park passes for free, which is a huge benefit to traveling with them around our country. When we got to Glacier, my mom and I hiked to this waterfall back in the woods WITHOUT bear spray, which was probably not the smartest decision, given that some people we passed said they'd seen signs of one not too long before. Oops.

Next, we drove over to Yellowstone National Park, which was crowdedWe were still able to see Old Faithful erupt, we still saw these beautiful thermal pools, and overall it was a good day. That is, until we hit a large deer just after leaving the park and it nearly totaled my parents' car. We were all fine (thank god), although obviously the deer not so much. Then, to make matters worse, the police and the tow truck got lost trying to find us out in the middle of nowhere, Montana, and it ended up being 5 hours later in the middle of the night after we'd been eaten to death by mosquitos that we got picked up. And THEN local rental cars were so expensive ($800 per day, HAH) that we got trapped in rural Montana for a further 4 days waiting for a flight home! Our huge stroke of luck was that my mom happened to have a high school friend who lives nearby, so she graciously let us stay with her while we figured things out. She completely saved us and I can't thank her enough!


I almost didn't want to go on this trip to New York after the traumatic end to the road trip with my parents. However, I had planned to meet one of my best friends in the world who I never get to see just a few days after getting back from Montana, so I anxiously got on a plane and headed off again. Seeing A (my Mexican roommate from when I was living in Saint-Malo, France) was amazing. It was also nice to be back in NYC in the summertime when it was a little easier to see why some people might find it a charming place to live. I mean, personally still wouldn't want to, but I enjoyed crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on foot, eating pizza in Little Italy, exploring Central Park, and also just sharing girl talk with one of my favorite people in the world. 

However, this trip too ended on a sour note, because the second I got back, I went through a really rough breakup, the repercussions of which lasted for months afterward. There were some emotionally abusive things that happened between us that were NOT. COOL. and unfortunately, that really didn't sit well with me. I had been going through some personal stuff even before that happened, and honestly, the breakup was the straw that broke the camel's back for me. For several months, I lost all desire/ability to do things that I normally love (like travel, eat, and sleep), and that really scared me. However, the positive note to all of this was that I got scared to the point that I decided to seek help, and I ended up making some positive changes that are already making 2018 SO much better than last year was. But it took some time and a lot of work to get to where I am now, and man, the end part of 2017 effing sucked.

So if the rest of this recap seems...different in tone than the first part, that is absolutely why.


My friends from my volunteer group (the Jaycees) took a trip over Labor Day to the Wisconsin Dells. I went along because I knew getting out of the house might help me, although (spoiler alert) I still felt pretty bad while we were there. We went on a boat trip through the rock formations of the Upper Dells, and I sort of felt like I was going through the motions of what having fun is supposed to be like, except I'd forgotten how to actually do it.

A few weeks later, I went to the Pretzel City Brewfest in Freeport, IL. with my friend C. Once again, even though we tried lots of interesting beers and even saw a DeLorean, I wasn't feeling like myself.


In October, I honestly kind of didn't travel anywhere at all. Given that I wasn't sleeping or really eating, it took basically all of my energy just to function at work. I managed once to force myself out of the house to Janesville, WI for a coffee at the interesting café there, but that was kinda it. Again, depressing, I know.


By the time November rolled around, I was starting to be able to eat again, so I went into Chicago a few times to try interesting restaurants there and celebrate my return to food. One of these was a place called the Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Company that makes pizza "pot pies," which really truly were delicious.

Another such restaurant outing was to La Tasca, a Spanish tapas restaurant in Arlington Heights, IL. While American-style tapas restaurants are a pet peeve of mine (overcharging for tiny plates is NOT how tapas in Spain work, this is so not authentic UGHHHHHHH), honestly going to this place was worth it if just for getting to have an Estrella Galicia. Just tasting this beer brings back so many good memories from my time in Galicia, but I can never find it anywhere in the States except this restaurant. Moitas grazas, La Tasca!

November was also an awesome month because one of the big positive changes I made was MOVING. I finally live all by myself now, and it is the best feeling in the world. However, after 5 years living abroad getting rid of all my possessions every time I left a place with just a suitcase, I had managed to reach the age of nearly 29 owning basically no housewares. Luckily, I have super generous friends who let me pick through the old things they are getting rid of. So I spent a day at the end of the month doing just that down in Chicago. Thank you SO much, B! You're the best!


One Saturday in December, I went up to Madison because my eldest nephew had gotten my mother and me tickets to the Nutcracker. This show is special to me because I played the Nutcracker (and Clara, and Fritz, and various other roles) back in my days as a figure skater. He thoughtfully remembered that from when he was little and wanted to go see it with us. So grown-up!

On another adventure with my childhood besties, we went to the Christkindlmarket (a German-style Christmas market complete with glügwein) in downtown Chicago. One of them works in one of the skyrises, so we were also able to go up and get some cool pictures of the Loop from up high, which I really appreciated!

I spent the Christmas holidays up in chilly Minneapolis with my family, doing all the typical American things like opening presents by the fake fire and some not-so-typical things like filming our own version of the movie A Christmas Story. Lots of work! This coffee break was well-deserved.

I finished off 2017 in Reykjavík, Iceland with my mother, seeing more fireworks than I'd ever seen before in my life. Apparently, in Iceland they're illegal the rest of the year, so people there will often spend a whole month's salary on them in December and then light them off for hours leading up to and following midnight on New Years. We watched the festivities from a hill near the church in Kópavogur, a suburb city of Reykavík proper. We had such an amazing view of the thousands of fireworks that just never seemed to stop, and it was an experience I will remember for a long, long time. 

And well, that's it! I was so glad to see 2017 end, even if by the time I made it to Reykjavík I was no longer the same person who had been a shell of herself for months. 2017 definitely changed me, and although it kind of sucked, I made it through and I think I'm better for it. I see 2018 as an opportunity to start fresh and see if I can be better to myself. No more toxic relationships, lots of self-love and care, firmer boundaries. Eating and sleeping and talking to someone when I have problems. I don't expect all of this to happen overnight and I know I'll always struggle with some of these things, but I already feel I'm on a much better path and I'm interested to see where 2018 leads me. 

How is your 2018 going so far? Will it be better than last year? Why?

To read some of my past yearly travel recaps: 2016 2015 2014 Part 1 2014 Part 2 2013

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

SMH, Rockford: Thoughts on the Condemnation of One of My Hometown's Most Famous Landmarks

Can you imagine what the world would have to say if London allowed one of its most famous monuments, Big Ben, to fall into enough disrepair to be condemned?

(Well, more accurately, if it allowed the Elizabeth Tower to be condemned--after all, it's hard to condemn a gigantic bell! /nerd)

Would people take it in stride, or would it be a huge scandal?

I feel fairly confident placing my bet on the latter.

And that's basically exactly how I feel about my hometown (Rockford, IL) allowing its own landmark clock tower to be condemned. Sad. Astonished. Embarrassed.

The comparison between Rockford's and London's famous timepieces jumps easily to mind because of an adorable moment with one of my students last year. He was studying about famous landmarks around the world. My wanderlust-ridden soul was instantly intrigued, and I moved closer to examine the pretty pictures. He must have sensed my presence, because he held up the card he was working on and exclaimed to me, "Hey, I know this place! My dad and I just drove past here yesterday!" The picture, of course, was Big Ben, and his comment was impossibly adorable. Since that day, every time I go past Rockford's clock tower, I smile, knowing that in the eyes of a 5-year-old they are the same and we as good as live in London.

The Clocktower Resort was repurposed from a small motel in 1969 and was once a place where rich visitors to Rockford clamored to stay. The resort and convention center has since been a representation of the city to travelers from near and far who passed by on I-90, despite being located on its far eastern border. In fact, I remember once getting a text from a former auxiliar friend who returned back to the States from Spain a few years earlier than I did. It was nothing but a picture of the clock tower, with the caption "Look where I was today!" For her, as for many, the clock tower and Rockford were one and the same.

Of course, the homicide at the building's hotel last October was essentially the last nail in a coffin that had been constructed for decades. Not only had the building's water resort been closed by the local health department over a year ago for various (disgusting) violations, but the Clocktower had become known over the years as a place where teens liked to party, and alcohol often incites violence.

In a way, this occurrence feels too quintessentially "Rockford" for words. Rockford is a town that has the resources to do and be so much, that is trying so hard to shake the rough reputation it's become known for in the past 60 years. And yet, it manages to keep shooting itself in the foot in ways just like this. It allows its old institutions to fall into disrepair and condemnation for decades, ever expanding further north and east with shiny new buildings that do nothing to paint over or replace what was lost.

In some future posts, I hope to spend some time highlighting some of the wonderful local places in this gritty "real American" city that I've always had such a tumultuous relationship with. But for today, I'm feeling that old embarrassment that caused me to run away at the age of 18 without a glance back.

(A sneak peek of a cool "Rockford" place)

Maybe this closure will be the catalyst for some kind of positive action on the part of Rockford's citizens. Maybe there will be a new buyer who will turn the place into something truly great. Maybe this condemnation isn't as terrible a thing as my pessimistic mind makes it out to be.

But right at the moment, all I personally can think is this...

SMH, Rockford. SMH.

Friday, April 21, 2017

How to NOT Celebrate Easter in America

It's funny how, when you're abroad small things like holidays seem like a BIG DEAL. When I lived in Europe, every holiday I missed with my family felt like a knife to the heart. Christmas alone, even when spent on vacation in beautiful Barcelona, is super depressing. Year after year, I hosted different expat Thanksgiving celebrations in order to feel like I wasn't missing out. I also remember remarking sadly to my local friends every year that I had nowhere to go for Easter, hoping they would take the hint and invite me home with them.

The first (and most difficult) of many years of expat Thanksgiving pies! It was my first time abroad in 2009 (though not my first Thanksgiving away from home), and I had no idea how difficult it would be to miss a holiday that had never meant much to me before. But having to go to school on that Thursday really, really sucked. 

At my Spanish roommate's family's house for New Years 2013/2014. Thank god for his family taking me in that year, as I REALLY needed some friendliness and familiarity during a difficult year, and especially because it was my first-ever Christmas not going home! 

At my French (now ex) boyfriend's grandparents' for Easter 2014. Another lifesaver of a family, they were so sweet to buy me a chocolate bunny so I could feel included in the celebrations!

A depressing-as-all-hell Christmas dinner in Barcelona 2014. I couldn't afford to go home for Christmas that year after an unexpected midyear trip back there for a funeral, so I thought traveling would be the next best thing. I tried my best to have holiday cheer anyway, but it was pretty rough, to be honest. 

Watching my little baby students meeting their idols, los Reyes Magos (the three wise men) made me miss my niece and nephews SO much. Even though we don't celebrate this holiday in the States, being alone for Reyes 2015 was still hard.

I had no desire to be alone during these "special" times of year back then, because it just made me feel homesick, imagining all my family was doing back home without me. I was constantly imagining that they were having so much fun, forgetting how boring holidays can sometimes be. Silly brain, selling me bullshit all the time.

But now that I'm back in the US, living close to my family, it was just was Easter weekend and driving the 3 hours up to my parents' place seemed like too much work. I'm too tired. Meh.

Maybe it would have been fun, but I've also been really busy the past few weeks and just felt like I needed a break. So while everyone I know was posting pictures of their children dying Easter eggs and going on hunts for them in their backyards in adorable dresses, I went out on a walk to enjoy the sunshine and the newly-blossoming flowers. While it wasn't the most exciting holiday in the world, and it certainly wasn't what I'd been imagining all those homesick years away from home, it was nice. I felt very happy to just enjoy my own company as well as that of my bestie Aníbal (my camera).

Easter flowers, 2017

So while I'm not leading the life I expected to be while missing my family back in Europe, I'm not unhappy about my recent decision to NOT celebrate Easter at all. It was a nice day spent taking care of my physical and mental health, and I have no regrets about that. After all, isn't one of the true marks of reintegration with a group that you stop feeling anxiety about FOMO (fear of missing out, for my non-Millennial readers)? There will be other Easters, other holidays spent with my crazy family. I mean, don't take your loved ones for granted, because they won't be around forever of course...But do what's best for you without guilt or sadness. At least, that's what I'm learning to do this Easter. Cuidaos, amigos.