Change of Plans

Growing up, my family and I would spend a week once a year vacationing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. During those trips, we’d typically get beautiful 80-degree days perfect for hiking, boating, swimming or biking, but there was always that one day that would be a wash—literally.

I remember once we had planned to take a train up to the top of a mountain, but because of a forecast of pouring rain, we had to cancel that plan, and instead spent the day indoors shopping and catching a movie at the theater. My mother told me that this was part of traveling—that with every trip, you have to plan for a bad day, so whatever the reason, you’ll have a backup in case something goes wrong.

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This is what you call a ‘classic’ tourist in Greece photo opp.

When I studied abroad in 2008, I spent a good part of my spare time planning my fall break trip to Greece. That was the first time I had to plan a trip all on my own, from the transportation, to the hotels, to the activities, and I had everything scheduled down to the hour. Day 1: Fly to Athens and spend the afternoon wandering the gardens near the Acropolis. Day 2: Visit the major tourist sites; Eat gyros; Day 3: Nine-hour boat trip to Santorini; Sleep on beach. You get the picture.

In between the basics I had a list of all the things I wanted to see and do, but I forgot one very important fact: things go wrong, and plans change. During that trip my companions and I encountered three transportation strikes—one in Italy where we nearly missed our train to Milan, a second in Athens which shut down public transportation for a day, only to reopen as soon as we landed in Greece, and a third the morning we had to catch our boat to Santorini (in all cases, we nearly missed our ride, but by some miracle were able to have everything work out at the last minute). On the third leg of the trip, a violent storm was expected to blow through the Mediterranean and we were unsure if our high speed boat would take us to Crete (almost all of the boats leaving Santorini that day were docked, but we got lucky—ours was the only boat allowed to leave. The water was incredibly choppy, and I hit another life milestone that day—first time throwing up from sea sickness).

Things could have gone very differently on that trip if we were delayed at any point. In my mind, I had pictured Greece’s weather as sunny and warm every day—I never factored in that rainy day. We got lucky though, we caught every plane, train, bus and boat to get us to where we needed to be, and we managed to see almost everything on our list. We hiked a volcano, drank with strangers who later became friends on a beach and soaked in as much of this beautiful country as we could.

But every trip has its bad day. Our final day on Crete was short—16 hours total, with four spent on a bus, and six spent sleeping. It was disappointing because we had wanted to see the palace at Knossos, the former capital of the Minoan empire and potential home of King Midas, the guy with the golden touch. But poor planning on my part led us to only seeing a small portion of the island before rushing back to the airport to go home.

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It was a cloudy morning in Rethymno that day.

We made the best of it though. While I realized my mistake, I kept reminding my companions that this happens—that on every trip there is always one day where things don’t go as planned, and you have to make the best of it (I was repeating what my mother had told me ten years earlier). It’s an essential part of any trip, and it forces you to make something out of a bad situation. It teaches you how to go with the flow.

For all the travelers out there, there’s three ways you could approach this type of scenario. For all of my Type-A, obsessive planning types (you are not alone, this is how I describe myself most days), I would recommend before your trip researching alternative options you can do on a rainy day. That way, in the case something changes your plans, you can rearrange your schedule to make sure you still get to see the important stuff. Option 2 is to just wing it—if something goes wrong, don’t fret, instead, talk to your hotel concierge and ask about what you can see or do in the area. Usually they’ll steer you towards something you never would have expected, and you’ll head home with a story that is truly and uniquely yours. Option 3, which I’ve done a few times, is to say screw it and just stick to your original plan. If the site is open, you can still go, even if you get a little wet. As long as you don’t let a bad moment ruin your day, you’ll still get to enjoy your trip.

I will also stress that for the planners like me out there, prioritize what sites you want to see most. Unfortunately, there’s never enough time to do everything, so when I travel, I make a list of everything, and star the places that are top on my list. I feel that it’s better to devote as much time as you see fit towards the things you want to do, instead of trying to squeeze the most things into one trip. Plus, if you have to skip something because of time, it gives you an excuse to go back.

Our last day in Greece was spent in Rethymno, a city two hours from the capital of Crete. We arrived at our hostel around dinner time, and had enough time to shower and grab food and a drink before we had to go to bed. That night, we met travelers from all over the world, backpackers who would stay in the town for a day or two to freshen up before heading back out into the island’s backcountry. It was a hiker’s paradise, and I still regularly fantasize about how I want to return to Crete and hike and for a week (see, there’s always a reason to go back again). We woke with the sun the next morning, and got donuts and wandered the street just so we could get a taste of the town we settled in for one night. The trip was short, but it was worth every minute there.

And even though we weren’t able to see everything we wanted to see, that blip of a day still sits strong in my mind—Greece was my first time planning a trip, and it was my first time making a travel mistake. It taught me to adapt to changes and to go with the flow while traveling, because sometimes the things you don’t plan for are the most memorable.

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Remember: With every bad day, you get five great ones–our hike through Santorini’s volcano crater was a highlight of the trip.

Clarity is a series of personal essays or vignettes about my travels and the lessons I learn while there. You can read more pieces of Clarity here.

Find Your Park

The United States’ National Park Service turns 100 this week. Specifically, August 25th. On that day in 1916, Congress approved of the agency and tasked it with the role of preserving the natural and historic sites it is entrusted with, keeping them available for public use. Today, the NPS employs over 20,000 people, and has 59 official national parks, and also oversees thousands of historic sites and preservations across the country. It’s pretty cool.

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National Parks come in all shapes and sizes–here’s my view from the North Cascades in Washington State during a quick lunch break on our hike.

To celebrate their birthday, the National Parks Service’s marketing team put together a year-long social media campaign #FindYourPark, where participants post photos, stories, etc. etc. about their favorite national park experience. It’s been a fun year of celebrating all that the service offers, and a great reminder of the importance of supporting this organization to help preserve these sites in the future.

It’s also a great reminder of what our own country has to offer. Over the years, I’ve noticed a big trend in the destination choices of Millennials—it’s no longer cool to travel to somewhere new, now you also have to travel to some obscure place just to up your cool factor. In my own experiences, when you start down the path of conversation about travel, most of these hipster types will rate your travel juju based on where you’ve been—Europe isn’t cool enough anymore, so any tales of your semester abroad in France should be set aside.

Part of this has to do with privilege—Millennials are a part of a generation where their parents were able to expose them to world travel at a younger age because they could afford it. My own parents stuck to local vacations growing up, and didn’t even travel to Europe until my sisters and I were in high school. A big trip to another country was a luxury, where for Millenials, it’s just another badge of coolness on your Instagram. We had the opportunities to see Europe and much of the US at a younger age, so our desire to find new and exciting experiences is heightened—and thanks to technology and engineering, getting to farther places has become easier and easier.

So I get the desire to explore somewhere new, but in this race we sometimes forget about all of the destinations the US has to offer–we can hike through jagged mountains, run with Buffalo on the plains, and watch the sun set over the Pacific, all in our big backyard.

I think that’s what I love so much about the National Parks’ #FindYourPark campaign—it lets us celebrate the majesty of our country, and inspires us to visit the incredible variety of places in our own country.

It took me some time to find my park—there’s so much I desperately want to see, but to celebrate the anniversary I had to trace back to my first love—the Appalachian Trail. This ‘park,’ as you may call it, is a National Scenic Trail stretching 2,180 miles along the east coast, from Georgia to Maine. Every year, thousands of people hike through the trail, either in segments, in day hikes, and for a few, all the way through. For New Englanders like myself, it’s a common activity in the warmer months, and encountering a ‘Thru Hiker,’ as we call them, is as much a tale as actually doing the hike.

I think I first became enamored with the AT in middle school. I had hiked Mt. Greylock in western Massachusetts with a camp group, and learned all about this culture of hikers and their multi-month living and walking in the woods lifestyle. I read up on the AT, trying to learn anything and everything about becoming a thru hiker. It became my obsession, something I desperately wanted to achieve. Of course, years passed and between college and a full time job (that I enjoy!) and the glamour of quitting so I could camp for four months seemed distant. Occasionally, I dream about hiking the whole trail, but to still make this more of a reality in some way, I’ve dedicated my free time to hiking the AT in pieces—sometimes just a day hike, sometimes a few days, just to get the experience I crave, while still making money and trying other hobbies. Plus, hiking the AT has become a regular part of my life, versus a one shot attempt of the whole thing.

So my park is the AT. It has the most beautiful views and has challenged me as I grow, change, and become stronger (both physically and mentally). It’s been there for me through high school, through college, and it was a lifeline during my years in New York City—the AT was more than just a hike, it was home.

Ten years ago, I graduated high school and spent three days hiking the Presidential Range up in New Hampshire’s White Mountains with my dad. It was my first taste at real hiking, and after that I was hooked. I’ve returned to those mountains many times, most recently trekking through Franconia with my sisters. Ten years have passed, and my list of hikes has grown, but there is one thing I know for sure—as long as I am able, I’m going to keep hiking.

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Here’s me in 2006 hiking the AT (I was 18).

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And in 2016 (Age 28). Not much has changed….right?

 

Want to learn more about the National Park Service? Visit their website here.

Clarity is a series of personal essays or vignettes about my travels and the lessons I learn while there. You can read more pieces of Clarity here.

 

Return to Florence

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When you return to your home you realize you can be a little cheesy–tourist photos are allowed.

I have this necklace that at some point became more than just an accessory. It’s part of who I am, like a tattoo, but a little less permanent (the whole ‘you must keep this symbol on your body forever’ thing kind of creeps me out). It’s a simple chain with three charms attached, each with its own meaning. The first is a golden hen with a tiny pearl egg under it, like it’s nesting—that one is a gift from my mother. It’s my little reminder of the family that raised me. The second charm is a Tibetan dorje, which in Buddhism is a symbol of sudden enlightenment, of finding happiness within yourself. I wish I could say that the charm itself is a symbol for my own inner happiness, but I actually bought it in a store on MacDougall Street on my first day living in NYC—it was my official new home, and in my mix of excitement and fear for my big move, I wanted to buy something to commemorate the moment. So I bought the charm, and it has become a symbol of courage for me throughout my 20’s.

My final charm is my favorite—it’s a small silver heart with a blue cloisonné decoration inside, traditional to the craft done by Florentine artists. I bought this charm back in 2011 when I visited Florence again after four years of being away.

There are certain places in a person’s life that you can consider a true home. For some, it’s where you grew up, and no matter where your life takes you, that place will always be home to you. For me, it’s a little more complicated than that—home is where I evolved, where I spent time growing and learning to become the person I am today. And the list keeps growing.

Florence, Italy fell into the literal term of my home in the fall of 2008. It was my semester abroad in college, and I wanted to join a program where I could study art by looking right at it, and Florence, well, it was the perfect place. I immersed myself in the sculpture of Michelangelo, studied fresco techniques in a studio near the Arno River, and ate every type of pasta I could find. It was, to express my love for Florence, my Bella Citta, my amore. But even with four months of living in a city, you run out of time to explore, so a few of my ‘must sees’ fell by the wayside. One in particular was Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library, a manuscript repository and reading room in the cloisters of Florence’s San Lorenzo church.

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Family dinners were a regular item on the menu in 2008 Florence.

That was what brought me back to Florence in 2011—first, I wanted to carve out time to see the library, and second, I wanted to spend time with my home again, doing nothing but walking the streets, listening to the chatter of local Italians and sip coffee from an outdoor café while the world flew by.

The first thing I noticed when I returned to Florence was that there are more students there than I expected. I guess I forgot how popular this destination was for students and tourists, and I was disappointed to find that as I crossed the Ponte Vecchio I could hear young girls complaining about their art final in clear English. I wanted to decipher Italian conversation, I wanted to try my hand at speaking the language, an instead, I was dropped into a tourist destination overrun with Americans.

But I was being overdramatic. The memory of Florence in 2008 was still engrained in my head. I returned to recapture the days when I was 20 years old, reading about Botticelli in the morning, grabbing paninis with a friend for lunch, and walking down a new street in the afternoon with no real destination in mind. I wanted the fuzzy, wine-induced nights at the bars, I wanted the dance clubs, the late night snacks with my friends. What I forgot was that while Florence had left an imprint in my heart, the city itself would change and evolve, just as I had.

You cannot recapture a part of your life that has passed. This was the first time I really encountered this lesson—I saw Florence as one thing, but that part of my life ended when I boarded my plane back home. In the four years I was away, I had graduated college, landed my first job and was creating a new home. I was different, and I saw Florence in a new lense.

On our second morning in Florence, after spending the night dancing at one of my favorite clubs, I woke with the sun and slipped out while my friends still slept—I left them a note saying that I would return in time for our wine tour out in Tuscany, scheduled for the mid-afternoon. I was on a mission, I wanted to find that café, get my coffee, and just sit with my city. That’s the thing about these ‘homes’ we create throughout our lives, as we grow and change, we can always come back to that familiar place. We feel safe there—for me, Florence was my first time living in an apartment, cooking for myself and being away from my family. It taught me how to be confident, how to navigate city streets and find comfort in a new place. I missed Florence, and even though some things had changed, the spirit was still there. I just had to take some time to find it.

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The steps of the Laurentian Library, designed by Michelangelo.

I took that morning to relax, I wrote in my journal while sipping coffee, and at 10 a.m. I was the first person to enter the Laurentian Library, right as they opened the doors. For a short period, it was just me and Michelangelo’s work. I had the time to walk down the center aisle of the reading room, the click of my shoes echoing on the walls. I saw every curve, every panel of the staircase for what it was, and I felt complete. I had found that feeling I was looking for, the feeling of home, of returning to a place I loved, and it gave me the renewed energy I needed to bring back to my life in the states. It’s funny, how those moments alone with something you love are the most rewarding.

I still dream about Florence. Every time the summer air cools, I’m brought back to those months of exploration in my favorite city. It was a city that taught me how to be independent, how to survive on my own, and it was the city that taught me how to embrace change. That is what keeps bringing me back—even though I don’t live there, Florence will always have lessons for me. It’s my home—like New York, or Rhode Island, or Worcester—and it will always be a part of who I am.

Clarity is a series of personal essays or vignettes about my travels and the lessons I learn while there. You can read more pieces of Clarity here.