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Saba: My Paradise

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I’ve traveled to a fair number of places in my life (not as many as Taylor, but still), and I’ve loved most of them in some way or another. I look back over my photos from Croatia or Vietnam and think how beautiful it was; I remember the food I ate in Singapore, and get instantly hungry; I imagine myself in a Vienna cafe and smile; I think about the rich brown-blue beauty of Mexico and yearn for another vacation. I’m sure most everyone has these kinds of memories of travel to share.

But every now and then, there are some places you go that are different. That take you beyond just a great vacation. Places that make you rethink why the heck you are living the way you live. For me, Saba was such a place. I swear even now, a few weeks after returning to the bitter cold of dark, drab New York, I am still thinking about it, still wanting to go back as soon as possible, and imagining myself living there one day. This is not the most reasonable of ideas; Saba is a tiny island of 1,800 population that does not have any of the stuff I love about my (city) life: newspapers, movie theaters, coffee houses, shopping, any kind of food you want and, of course, Bikram yoga. But Saba is the kind of place that really gets into your heart and stays there; that’s my point.

I won’t go into the specifics of the travel stuff, since you can read my thoughts on all that in the piece I’ve written for WSJ and its accompanying slideshow. But here’s video of our dramatic landing and takeoff from the island (Saba has the shortest runway in the world):

Dubrovnik

The bus ride down the coast to Dubrovnik was stunning — the rest stop where we took a break along the way had a beautiful lookout. Once in Dubrovnik old town, we rolled our suitcases along the the Stradum in search of our apartment. Just above a lovely plaza, our apartment was perfection: tidy, ideally located, and outfitted with antiquey furniture and decoration. We paused long enough to change into clothing appropriate for the (finally) warmer weather and set out to walk the old town walls. Though there were definitely more tourists in Dubrovnik than anywhere else we had been thus far, it was still quiet and on our tour of the city walls, we were virtually on our own. We were incredibly lucky in this; I can imagine the experience wouldn’t be nearly as sublime with hoards of people on either side of you.

Dubrovnik was definitely my favorite part of the trip, and though I felt that every day there, every meal, every activity, was a highlight, walking the old town walls would have to top that list. Even at a fairly speedy clip, it took some time to encircle the city — mostly because at every turn and stretch, there’s a stunning view to stop and behold. Part of the fun is imagining what the city looked like when these walls were first built; and how they were used over the years. Part of the fun is peering into the modern apartments housed partially in the walls. I was struck by the juxtaposition of ancient stone with hanging laundry and satellite dishes. As we turned one corner, I espied on the other side of the wall a man sitting on his balcony, working on a laptop. The banal sitting just next to the sublime; modern life layered upon the old city’s historical frame. Here’s how I saw it:

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Split

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We had heard mixed reviews of Split. Some say its cosmopolitanism and nightlife make it yet another euro-trashy destination worthy of skipping. Some say its an architectural gem not to be missed. We stayed for 2 nights, and I found both to be true, to a certain degree. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on wandering through Diocletian’s Palace, shopping in the open-air markets and jewelry stores, and trolling along the waterfront with a gelato. Throughout Europe are cities where historical structures house modern life, but in Split this confluence is particularly apparent and especially enthralling. We didn’t spend much time learning about the history of Split or Diocletian’s Palace; mostly we were content to just meander and take it all in. This is, however, the kind of place where such knowledge may enhance one’s appreciation of the sights even more, so if I were to return, I might make more of an effort.

Peshteta

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While traveling, both Kai and I like to find new things to obsess over. In Croatia, we found Peshteta, a tuna fish pate eaten with bread and served as an appetizer at most restaurants. We had it first in Skradin, and I remember that peshteta being by far the best. We sampled many varieties, including one at a waterfront pizza place in Split (pictured above). I know it looks here just like blobs of tuna, but it’s so much tastier than that.

Hrvatska

This is a long overdue report on my travels to Croatia earlier this year.

It all began over drinks with Kai in San Francisco. She mentioned she was planning to travel to Croatia in the Spring. With who? I asked. Why, by myself, she replied. To which I naturally, and in my standard elegant mode of address, replied, I Wanna Go Too I Wanna go Too!

And so we did go. Since Kai is a busy doctor and all the time busy with doctoring things, she let me take on most of the planning for the trip. Which, naturally, suited me just fine. We had only 8 days in Croatia, with a few days in London on either end, but we wanted to experience as much of the country as possible. So we planned a whirlwind tour of the Southern coastal area, beginning in resort town Zadar, through Split and ending in Dubrovnik, with one venture inland to Skradin and the Krka Waterfalls.

Zadar

It rained the morning we were in Zadar, preventing us from exploring the city. Our one adventure here was taking the public bus to the bus station, which the guide book made sound quite simple, but was complicated by the rain, our bags, the crowds and the fact that the bus station was not labeled as such. We made it, though, and went onward to Sibenik, where we had yet another interesting bus travel experience in trying to decipher which bus was our bus.

Skradin and Krka National Park

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We were travelling just before Easter, which marks the beginning of the high season for tourism in Croatia. We arrived in Skradin to find it a ghost town — empty streets, shuttered restaurants and stores. In wandering around, we would see restaurants washing down their decks, dragging about tables and chairs, beginning preparations to open for the season. In our day and a half there, we had the place totally to ourselves, which was actually a bit disconcerting. It almost felt like we were interrupting the town’s last moments of solitude before they open their doors and welcome in the masses.

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We were the only occupants of our hotel and for the included breakfast, instead of opening up the dining room, they set us up our own little table in the lobby. It was comical, but in an endearing way.

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The town has a lovely pier, where the boat that takes visitors to the Krka National Park and its waterfalls docks.

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Though Krka is much smaller than the famous Plitvice Lakes, it was still a lovely way to spend the morning and was all we had time for anyway. We ended up having to hike there since the early morning boat never showed up to take us.

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Before leaving, we stopped for what was fast becoming a morning, noon and night ritual for us: cappus.

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Wien

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When planning this trip, I was told by a few people that they thought I’d love Vienna. I’ve heard many people say that, while cities like Paris and London are wonderfully cosmopolitan and chockablock with culture, and while the Spanish and Italian cities are amazing for their food or art or nightlife, Vienna is a city that you can see yourself living in.

Vienna is, of course, rich in history. One guidebook calls it a “head without a body” — it is the former capital of the uber powerful Hapsburg Empire, yet is the seat of a small country with little military might or global sway today. Its former glory is evident no matter where in the city you go, however; as is its past as the center of several revolutionary intellectual and artistic movements (see Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Freud, etc. etc. etc.) There’s enormous palaces to be seen, the largest collections of Klimt and Schiele in the world far as I can tell (including The Kiss), beautiful, monumental statues celebrating Hapsburg greatness, a zillion monuments to various famous dead white bearded guys (see Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Freud, etc. etc. etc.), and much like Prague every corner brings a new architectural gem. (The statue above is from the Belvedere Palace, a “summer home” built by Prince Eugene in the 1700s — if by “summer home” you mean two colossal mansions linked by sprawling Versailles-esque gardens. It’s now most famous as being home to Klimt’s The Kiss.)

But who cares about all that history stuff right? Some white guys plus Maria Theresa did some stuff, blah blah blah, built some stuff, blah blah blah.

Those people who told me I’d love Vienna? They were probably talking about the food. Scratch food. The coffee. And the cakes. Above all, Viennese seem to value the importance of plopping down in a beautifully appointed cafe, ordering a melange and a Sachertorte, unrolling today’s paper and then staying there for, oh, anywhere from an hour to a half-day. Why move? The waiters don’t rush you out, they’re happy to let you sit there all day. If you finish your Sachertorte, then you order an apfelstrudel.

THIS is what I’m talking about:

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Those are the cakes on offer at Oberlaa, a chocolatier and torte maker in the Naschmarkt.

Here is the Sachertorte I sampled at the Cafe Drechsler. It was very good, though a bit too sweet for me:

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This chocolate and sour cherry torte at the cafe Milo in Museumsquartier was Delicious. My favorte food on the trip so far:

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Ceska

One of the things I love about traveling is being exposed to the look and sounds of different languages, especially languages you rarely hear in the States. While traveling in Vietnam, I tried my best to learn some of the basics of the language — I even downloaded podcast lessons beforehand. But other than a few easy to handle words (Gam un = thank you; Ca = fish), I found the language extremely difficult to get a hold of in even the most basic ways, and naturally unnecessary given that 95% of people spoke basic English.

Here in Prague, it’ s much the same. Most people speak English, and it’s not necessary to even try to speak in Czech. Still, it seems unfair that it’s so easy for us English speakers to travel everywhere without even having to learn hello and goodbye, so I’ve given it a shot. But pronouncing Czech words is definitely just as difficult as Vietnamese words were. I mean, this is what I’m dealing with:

Na Phkope
Pstrossova
Na Perstyne
Vysehradska
(all street names)

You get the gist. And that’s without all the crazy accents. Navigating our way through the city — yelling out absurd, totally illogical pronunciations of street names while gesturing at nothing in particular — has made for quite a scene.

The Czech language is beautiful, though. It has the same rich chunkiness as German but with the elegant lilt of French or Italian. And thankfully the most important word is easy for even the most linguistically challenged among us to pronounce:

Pivo
(beer)

Praha

Here I am in Prague.

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In three days, we’ve managed to see quite a bit: the castle, a tour of all the synagogues in the Jewish quarter, a driving tour of much of the rest of Old Town and some of New Town, a few museum visits, and some fancy lunches and dinners.

But of course, you can read about tourist destinations in Prague anywhere. Here are some of the most interesting things I’ve noted in my time:

  • You can buy little bottles of Absinthe on the street. In cute little bodega-esque stands:
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  • Prague is no longer the budget travel destination it once was. My brother told me that just seven years ago, you could get 40 koruna per dollar. Today it’s about 14 koruna to the dollar. Yeah, that’s a big Ouch.
  • And that’s only partly because of how poorly the dollar is doing today. The Czech economy is apparently booming, and the tourist industry is certainly big-time booming, even for what is technically considered off season. Old Town, where we are staying, is packed with tourists all day long to the point where it becomes difficult to push yourself down the street through the mangle of Italian college students and Japanese families.
  • It’s true: You don’t come to Prague for the food. Now, I have yet to go to Kampa Park, supposedly the best restaurant in the city; and I spent much of yesterday sick in bed with a sore throat. But I was expecting street carts with sausages and sauerkraut piled on top of random dishes, and at least a few dishes per menu that end in -wurst. Haven’t had a real -wurst yet.
  • They really hate the Communists here. Given the history, that’s not especially surprising, but Prague’s history is filled with torment, persecution and corrupt governing. Our guide told us the story about how the walls in the New-Old Synagogue ran red with blood after the Catholics (I think it was the Catholics, but it’s hard to remember given how many groups persecuted the Jews in Prague over the years) killed off 90% of Prague’s Jewish population and how those red stains are still visible today underneath the synagogue’s white paint. But nearly every guide we’ve had or local we’ve spoken with somehow manages to get in a hard word or two about the Communists.
  • Speaking of the Communists, they built some darned ugly buildings in a city known for its beautiful facades. We happen to be staying in one of the Communists’ crowning architectural achievements (photos and comparison of Non-Communist Pretty vs. Communist Ugly architecture to come).

Are You There Weather Gods? It’s Me, Jessica

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We got snow last week, as you can see in this adorable photo of Taylor in front of our building, wearing his hand warmers. He was very excited to get to wear hand warmers. This is what winter in New York is all about, right? Snowflakes dotting the shoulders of your coat; lightly dusted sidewalks and tree branches; building lobbies aglow; periwinkle blue sky. Something like this:

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Here’s the thing. All that urban winter wonderland stuff? This is what it quickly deteriorates into:

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Yeah that’s not so pretty is it? Snow in New York City has some unfortunate aftereffects: the sidewalks turn into slippery channels of sludge; immense pools of black ice water collect at street corners and all the snow that started off so wonderland-esque gets molded into grotesque forms along the sidewalks, black with dirt and yellow with dog urine. Like the ugliest snow sculptures you’ve ever seen. Anyone who’s lived through a snow storm here knows this.

So why am I getting all Grinchy on what was, in fact, a minor little snow storm that did not in fact leave any such disgustingness behind? I guess it’s because I’m a little bit freaked at how mild this winter has been thus far. Where’s the nasty stuff and bitter cold I hyped all last Fall? I’ve barely suffered at all this winter. Maybe in part I’m getting more used to it (perish the thought). Maybe it’s global warming coming to get us. Probably it’s global warming coming to get us. But I can feel the weather gods out there, just taunting me with all this mild and 40-degrees business. What are they gearing up for? Is it possible that we’ll get through this winter without a major snow storm or prolonged period of blistering cold?

Best Valentine’s Gift Ever?

I don’t know about you all, but if I was given this on V-Day I’d be one happy gal.

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(Thanks Meg for the belated Valentine) 

Done!

For anyone out there just begging to know whether I finished the 30-day Challenge, ummmm, Of Course I did. Did you ever doubt me? In fact it was a bit anticlimactic, hence my nonchalance about posting an update to this blog.

But it’s almost the New Year and I figured it would be best to wrap this whole thing up.

So how did it go? Upon reflection, I struggled around Day 15 — boredom with the routine, feeling tired, etc. But around Day 18 or so, I pulled ahead of that and the race to the finish line felt great. I began to feel shifts in my practice — a small shift in my posture here, a slight increase in flexibility there. Little things that made the class as a whole feel fresher and more invigorating.

I’m back to five/six days a week now, and I’ve noticed those shifts slipping away. But every month can’t be a 30-Day Challenge and as many of my instructors would no doubt say, practicing balance in life is just as important as practicing dedication.

And I got my T-shirt. Boo-ya:

30 Days, 30 Classes