New York City, NY

Returning to America felt a little strange. On one hand, I was finally back in my home country! It felt comforting to speak the native language and know the cultural norms. But on the other hand, I had never been to NYC as an adult, so it felt like a new adventure. I still felt like a tourist!

I landed at JFK at 9pm and had to wait forever for my checked luggage. I debated taking public transit into the city, but it would have required 3 different trains! I decided to splurge and take a Lyft (like a taxi but shared between multiple passengers.)

I rode into Manhattan with one other couple. We didn’t talk much, but I had to listen to them bicker about what to eat for dinner. The ride took around an hour, so I got an earful!

Katrina welcomed me to her apartment and it fit the stereotype of “NY shoebox apartment.” It was a tiny studio that was just big enough to fit her bed and a couch. But it was cute and in an amazing location in the Upper West Side. Before coming to NY, the boroughs were all a blur to me, but now they at least make a bit of sense!

On my first day, I explored midtown on foot. I walked through Central Park and saw Times Square. I never realized how massive the city is!

I stopped by several dessert shops that are famous on Instagram and I had been dying to try! The first was Magnolia Bakery. They make a bit of everything but their banana pudding is famous. I ordered a small cup and it was actually pretty average. Definitely a disappointment.

I ended up walking 10 miles and treated myself to a chocolate chip peanut butter cookie from Levain Bakery. It was absolute heaven!!

The next day, Katrina had to work again so I headed further south and explored Chelsea and Tribeca and Lower Manhattan. I walked along the Highline which is a park built on an old subway line above the city. It was nice but filled with tourists!

I kept walking and saw the Wall St charging bull and the 9/11 memorial. The memorial was very well done. There are two large fountains built in the footprints of the two towers. The victims names are engraved along the edges of the fountain. The staff even place a rose next to each name on their birthday.

In the evening, Katrina and I met up with my friend Lauren who I met during study abroad in Jordan. We ate at Russ and Daughters and I finally had a bagel and lox!

We spent the night visiting different bars and speakeasys. New York is expensive! Almost every cocktail was $15 and we even went to one bar that had a $700 cocktail!

In the morning, we went to CoffeeCon in Williamsburg. For $15, we got unlimited coffee from different roasters. And snacks! It was fun, but soon we felt so caffeinated and sick. We walked around Williamsburg and it definitely lived up to its hipster reputation. I liked how small and casual it felt. The rest of New York feels so massive and stuffy.

Afterward, we went to Madison Square Eats and got tacos. I was surprised how long it takes to get around. We had to take 3 different trains to get to Williamsburg and it took over an hour! Katrina said that most people never leave their borough and stay in their bubble. I see why!

On my final morning, I took it easy and hung out in the park with Katrina and her dog Tessa. It was nice to catch up with them. Being an introvert, I find it difficult to spend all day around people, but living with Katrina in her studio didn’t bother me. I’m getting better at not getting stressed out over small stuff! As a treat on my final day, I got an “Everything Donut” and it was so good! It’s supposed to mimic an everything bagel. I was skeptical, but the flavors were amazing.

My flight wasn’t until 6:30, so I decided to leave Katrina’s apartment at 4pm. I checked the traffic and it said it would take 1.5 hours to get to the airport! Taking public transit would take longer. I immediately called a Lyft and sat for 90 minutes in traffic.

My flight started boarding at 5:37 and I arrived at the airport at 5:25. Luckily there were no lines to check my bag (since it was so late, she said it probably wouldn’t make the flight, but it did!) and I have TSA precheck so I could skip the security line.

The flight to Portland was 6 hours. So long! But I made it and I am so glad to be home. I finally unpacked and now I’m working on getting my car insurance reinstated and my car battery jumped. I’m still going to wait 2-3 weeks and enjoy the freedom before looking to see what jobs are out there. It’s so rare that you have time to not work, so I want to enjoy it!

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Bayeux & D-Day Sites, France

Although I stayed in Caen, I didn’t spend any time exploring it. I arrived in the evening and my host picked me up. His name was Olivier and he worked as a sound engineer. His job took him all over the world! Unlike most French people I met, he actually spoke English! We went to his apartment and it was actually very clean and well decorated. My last Couchsurfing experience ended up being a great one! His apartment was gorgeous!

Olivier had to work a lot, so we didn’t get much time to chat. He did help me figure out how to see the D Day beaches, though. I always want to do everything on a budget, so I didn’t want to spend nearly $100 on a tour. Olivier said there are busses that go to the beach but they take hours and are unreliable. He said a tour was the only way. I sucked it up and booked a tour for the following morning. The only downside was that they all left from the city of Bayeux. I had to buy train tickets for the 20 minute ride from Caen to Bayeux before meeting my guide.

I arrived in Bayeux with 2 hours to kill before the tour. I walked around the Medieval town and it was like a fairytale. It gave Amsterdam and Bruges a run for their money!

I found a little cafe with a prime view of the cathedral and enjoyed a coffee. Bayeux was certainly a tourist town. I felt like the only foreigner in Le Havre and Caen, but Bayeux barely had anyone who wasn’t speaking English! I missed the cheap coffee in Italy. I got two tiny cups of black coffee and it was 6€!

I met my tour group in the afternoon. I had booked the “Half Day American Sites” tour through a company called Bayeux Shuttles. All of the other tourists were Americans. It felt nice being around others with the same accent as me!

Our first site was Pointe Du Hoc. It’s a tall promontory halfway between Utah Beach and Omaha Beach. The Germans had six guns located there that could easily defend both beaches. Leading up to D Day, the Allies heavily bombed Pointe Du Hoc to try to destroy the guns. Only one was successfully destroyed, but the Allies had no way of knowing. Reconnaissance photos showed all six guns still in position. The rest of the “apple orchard” story is extremely interesting and it’s worth a google search to read!

The most interesting thing was how the ground still had the scars of the bombs. There were deep holes everywhere. Our guide joked that it looked like Swiss cheese from above.

Another interesting part was getting to go inside the German bunker. On D Day, the weather was extremely foggy and rainy which made visibility low. The tiny sliver of window made it even more difficult to see the rangers, nonetheless shoot at them!

Our next stop was Omaha Beach. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. The only scenes I had seen were in Saving Private Ryan and a My Chemical Romance music video. Our guide warned us that before the war, Omaha Beach was a popular holiday destination for locals. After the war, it reverted to the same thing, so there may be people sunbathing and picnicking.

When we arrived, there were only a few other tour groups on the beach. It was low tide, so there was a wide area of sandy beach exposed. During high tide, the water goes all the way up to the road lined with beach houses. The Germans had put many obstacles in the water like Czech Hedgehogs and Rommel’s Asparagus. During high tide, they are invisible and dangerous, but at low tide, they can be dismantled and avoided. There were a special team of engineers whose only job on D Day was to move the obstacles to clear a path for tanks.

The memorial on the beach was very tasteful. A small monument and plaque were near the enclosure that housed an original gun that was used on D Day.

We had time to wander the beach. I collected a shell that I want to take home. It would have been nice to bring back sand but I didn’t have a jar. I wondered what life would be like if D Day had been unsuccessful and the Allies lost. Would my trip have even been possible? Would all of the countries I visited simply have been Germany?

Our final stop was the American Cemetery. It is an expansive memorial to all of the lives lost. There are countless rows of headstones and it is a shocking visual. Most of the markers are white crosses, but there are a little over 100 Stars of David. This is quite a low number considering the several thousand of casualties. Our tour guide explained that many servicemen chose to omit their religion from their dog tags. If they had been captured by the Germans, it would have been a much worse fate to be labeled as a Jew than a Christian.

The entire day was filled with history. It was one of the best tours I went on and I am glad to have been able to see the beaches of Normandy. It’s still unsettling to think that such a gruesome situation happened on a now-picturesque beach.

I traveled back to Caen and my host messaged me saying he was with friends for the evening. I had the apartment to myself and relaxed while downloading new books to my kindle.

I had to wake up early the next morning to catch my ride to the airport. I used BlaBlaCar to carpool the 4 hours to Charles de Gaulle. If I had taken the train, it would have been almost $100! I paid $20.

Unfortunately my BlaBlaCar was 45 minutes late, so I spent quite a long time watching the morning unfold from the sidewalk. It’s always funny to see how the basics of life (going to work, walking the dog) are the same no matter where you go.

My flight to JFK was one of the best. I flew XL France which is a budget airline. The seats didn’t have personal TVs and you had to pay for any snacks other than the hot meal, but neither of those bothered me. Luckily no one sat next to me so I could lay down.

I spent 3 hours reading and then the remaining 4 sleeping. I arrived at JFK around 9pm, but my body thought it was 4am France time. I found my way to the Upper West Side where I’ll be staying for the next 5 days. Instead of Couchsurfing, I’m staying with Katrina, my roommate in Denver during junior and senior year of college. I’m excited to continue being a tourist in my own country!

Le Havre, France

Just when I think everything is running smoothly, it all explodes! But that’s life, right? Nothing ever stays predictable – and if it did, how boring would that be?

On the day I was supposed to be traveling from Brussels to France, I realized I didn’t have my host’s address. I had booked a BlaBlaCar and asked for the address, but my host only told me the neighborhood, not the actual street or number.

I had 4 hours before I had to leave Brussels, but once I did, I wouldn’t have WiFi or cell service. I needed to know the address ASAP to tell my driver where to go. I messaged my host, assuming she would reply quickly, but she never did. I explained the situation and sent an additional message asking for the address. Nothing. Thirty minutes before leaving Brussels, I had no choice but to book a last minute hotel. Well, my other choice was to arrive in Le Havre and find WiFi and hope she would reply, but I was already stressed and exhausted so I chose to spend the money for a guaranteed private room.

I met my BlaBlaCar and it was so much different than the first one! This one was a brand new car and had ample room in the backseat. I was riding with a middle aged French woman and her sister. There was one other traveler – a student from Le Havre. When he found out I was just traveling for fun, he asked why I picked Le Havre.

Why DID I pick it? When I was planning, I knew I didn’t want to see Paris again. Anything south or west of Paris was too far to do in my limited time. I always regretted not seeing the D-Day beaches the last time I was in France, so I decided to head to the coast to do that.

When researching cities in northern France, I came across Le Havre. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its architecture. The city was heavily bombed during WWII and had to be rebuilt. Timber was scarce and stone was impossible to transport due to the damaged infrastructure. The only option was concrete. Auguste Perret gained fame from designing the concrete buildings of Le Havre. He was a tutor to the father of contemporary architecture, Le Corbusier.

Plus, the BlaBlaCar options from Brussels to northern France were few and far between. Taking the train would have been more expensive and quicker, but the French rail system has a series of scheduled strikes throughout summer and one of them fell on the exact date I needed to leave Brussels. Driving to Le Havre was the only way out of Belgium! The drive was long. We hit traffic and were delayed an hour. Neither of the sisters spoke English, so it was a quiet ride. I ended up watching two documentaries I had downloaded on my Netflix app. Each time I looked up from my screen, I was greeted by the gorgeous French countryside.

I was surprised how much open space there was. Farmland stretched on as far as the eye could see. I felt the same way about the Netherlands and Belgium. For being fairly populous, Europe certainly doesn’t have the same sub/urban sprawl issues America does.

I arrived at my hotel and was pleasantly surprised. It was one of the cheapest options at $50 per night. It was located downtown but wasn’t a traditional hotel with a lobby and numerous rooms. It was more of a guesthouse with an open terrace. My room had its own kitchenette but I had to rent plates, pans, utensils, and a kettle from the front desk (which closed at 10pm, right after I checked in) so I ended up eating cold salad out of my own Tupperware instead.

I got a very good night’s sleep! I slept in and checked out around noon. Since there wasn’t a kettle or even a mug, I couldn’t make my morning coffee. The hotel held my bag while I ventured out for the day.

It was Monday, which meant many shops and cafes were closed. I’m not sure why, but I guess it is part of their weekend. Every country has different non-working days, so it’s hard to keep up! I spotted a cafe with several people sitting outside.

Le Havre is the second largest port in France and several cruise ships dock there. I assumed since this cafe was in the main square, they frequently dealt with tourists and spoke some English. Nope. Not at all. Ordering a coffee at this cafe was one of the most difficult behind Italy where it was always a mystery if I was allowed to sit down to drink my coffee without getting charged extra.

I walked into the cafe and took at seat. There wasn’t a bar or anywhere to order, so I assumed it was table service. Other people were eating food, so it seemed like a good guess. I waited. And waited. And waited. Finally another couple walked in and sat down. I was waiting to see how they ordered so I could follow along. Imagine my surprise when they yelled their order at the barista from their table! I waited to see if this was really how to order. Surely enough, an old man walked in and barked “CAPPUCCINO!” in the direction of the kitchen and soon one appeared for him. Before I had to do it myself, the busboy saw my confusion and asked (in French) what I wanted. I replied with a simple “Americano?” and he didn’t understand. He had to get someone else who asked me the same question. I feel like I’ve said this about many countries, but France really doesn’t speak a lot of English! Luckily I learned this the hard way when I visited Paris, so I was prepared, but it’s still tough when all I wanted was an Americano and had to endure the entire cafe giggling at the language barrier.

After coffee, I explored Le Havre. It was a chilly, overcast day and that added to the ominous ghost town feel. There were plenty of people walking the streets, but almost all of the businesses were closed. Where were they going?!

I walked to the harbor where there was a large art installation. New Zealand is famous for using shipping containers to build malls and restaurants, but Le Havre built art with them!

I continued along the harbor, but it was bleak and windy. I spotted the famous landmark cathedral of the Saint Joseph Church in the distance. It was also built out of concrete and looks like a NYC skyscraper from the outside, but inside it is a spectacular stained glass masterpiece.

I continued my walk back toward my hotel. I was getting hungry and wanted to find a grocery store. I wasn’t about to endure another English-French showdown. As I walked, I found a beautiful park in the middle of the city. Europe really appreciates having green spaces. It’s unfortunate that most of America’s parks are hard to enjoy due to the homeless population who have been forced to live there.

As I walked, I realized I was disappointed by Le Havre. I can appreciate the history of the city and see how the architecture was new and unique at the time it was built, but in the present day, it’s nothing special. If anything, it’s drab and depressing.

Thankfully I only scheduled myself one day in Le Havre before heading west to Caen! Why Caen? Again, it all came down to transportation! I wanted a direct ride from a city in the north to CDG airport in Paris. I didn’t want to stay in Paris since it’s so expensive and I likely wouldn’t find a host. Caen was the only city that was near the beaches and had a BlaBlaCar going directly to the airport.

One thing that’s changed during my travels is my tolerance of transportation. I used to think it was fun to figure out a bus schedule and get somewhere only using public transit. But now, I have realized that hauling my backpack on a bus or train is NOT fun. There’s no where to put it and people get upset since it takes up so much space. I’m thankful I discovered BlaBlaCar because it’s taken the stress out of traveling between cities. Plus if I’m lucky, they drop me off exactly at my hotel or host’s house!

Brussels & Bruges, Belgium

I arrived in Brussels in a bad mood. I was stressed from trying and failing to find a new host. I was irritated by having to spend money on a hostel. And I was exhausted from hauling my 40lb backpack around in the 85 degree heat. I had to walk a mile to the Antwerp station and then walk 2 miles from the Brussels station to my hostel. The walk in Brussels wasn’t great. It was through a fairly sketchy neighborhood that even had its own res light district. The entire time, I was preparing myself for the typical hostel experience: a stinky room, a messy kitchen, and dirty everything.

But I was pleasantly surprised. I was staying at the Train Hostel in the Schaerbeek neighborhood. Despite it being the cheapest option, it had high reviews and I was shocked when I checked in. The dorm room was spacious and I even got the coveted bottom bunk! Each room had its own bathroom with clean slate tile and modern stainless steel fixtures. It felt brand new!

I chalked the day up to a “de-stressing day” and sat in the quiet courtyard and caught up on reading. I enjoyed the free coffee and even made dinner in the spotless, non-crowded kitchen. It felt like I had a private guest house since no one was around!

In the evening, I was relaxing in my bunk when a new girl named Esther checked into the room. She introduced herself and we got to chatting. We hit it off and ended up leaving the hostel to explore the area together. She explained she was from England but living in Paris. Her friend Valerie was living in Luxembourg but they planned to meet in Brussels for the weekend.

Esther asked me what I had planned for the next day and I explained Ascension Day in Bruges. The Christian holiday is a big deal in the Belgian town of Bruges and a massive parade carrying the holy blood travels around the city. In addition to Bruges being a UNESCO Heritage City, the parade is considered a UNESCO Heritage Event!

Esther expressed interest and asked if they could join me and of course I said yes! Valerie arrived late in the night, so I met her the next morning and she was great.

Sleeping in the dorm was surprisingly good, too. Even though it was an all female room, there was one light snorer. But the bed was comfortable and it wasn’t too hot or cold. Overall, this was the best hostel I’d ever stayed at!

In the morning, the three of us headed to the train station to take the hour train to Bruges. We arrived to a massive crowd walking toward the city center. I guess we weren’t the only ones who wanted to see the parade!

I was also eager to see Bruges after the recommendation from the pilot in Amsterdam. If you remember my trip there in 2017, I met a pilot at dinner who highly recommended I see Bruges. I couldn’t go during that trip, but I made it a priority to see it during this one.

Bruges definitely didn’t disappoint. It’s known as the “Forgotten City” because the rest of Belgium progressed and modernized while Bruges stayed historically preserved. It has gorgeous canals like Amsterdam feels even more quaint.

We wandered the streets and felt the excitement in the air. Holidays always feel different than normal days. It’s like everything is buzzing with anticipation and energy.

We made our way to the town square and waited along the parade route. We didn’t know when it was set to start, but everyone else was waiting, too. We stood there like sheep for 45 minutes before it started to rain. We could hear drums in the distance and decided to go investigate. It turned out we were waiting at the very end of the parade route and wouldn’t have seen the parade for another hour or two! Luckily we intercepted it on a different street near the beginning of the route.

It was a bit hard to see, but it was definitely interesting. I’m not sure of the reasoning behind it, but it seemed like different groups of people were represented by costumes. First the religious clergymen, then the wealthy men on horses, then the jesters and paupers, then a large singing chorus and band, and finally the holy blood. There were even some parade floats depicting rocks and castles!

It would have been interesting to have explanation behind each section, but I just enjoyed watching it. To have such a massive parade in a small town really is a cultural sight to behold!

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring Bruges. Luckily the weather cleared so we window shopped. I was amazed by the number of chocolate shops! There were at least 5 on every street! Waffles were also a popular option. Every cafe sold them and they were even available from vending machines. I saw so many people walking around eating plain waffles.

We found a quaint park and sat in the sunshine talking about Portland and laughing about yoga. Then we explored a bit more and took some photos. Even though I had just met them, it felt like we had known each other for ages. After spending so much of my trip solo or having awkward conversations with hosts, it’s ironic I find an easy connection in one of the last cities I visit. Funny how life works, huh?

The next morning we woke up and made breakfast together. They asked if I wanted to come with them to explore downtown Brussels and I happily agreed.

Even though I’ve been Couchsurfing and meeting hosts during this entire trip, I’ve secretly dreaded it. I’m an introverted person by nature, so meeting new people isn’t a fun task for me. I thought about what changed and why I suddenly enjoyed the company of these strangers. Even though Luigina in Antwerp was nice, I secretly preferred the hours she was away at work.

I think it is just a matter of finding the right personality match. Finding a romantic relationship takes several dates and having compatible traits, so why wouldn’t a platonic friendship be the same? You wouldn’t date any random person off of the street, so how could I be expected to be sudden friends with all of my hosts I met randomly? Especially when my hosts have typically been a bit older than me and with different interests. But with Esther and Valerie, we were all the same age and had a common interest in laid back travel.

I often clashed with my hosts because they wanted to go out and party, but Valerie and Esther shared my interest in casual coffee shop hangouts and relaxing in the park during the afternoon. I had finally found my people! I never realized how rare that was until now. It definitely makes me appreciate my friends in Portland.

I also forgot how nice it felt to laugh with friends. I enjoy my own company and often laugh at myself when I do something stupid, but sharing a silly moment with friends just feels good. I’m grateful I found that in Brussels.

We took the train downtown to the Comic Book Museum. I didn’t want to pay the 10€ to look at a bunch of comics, so I went to a cafe to work on my blogs while they went through the museum.

Afterward, we went to the Grand Place – the most famous square in Belgium. It was stunning! Each side of the square had buildings with golden facades. It felt like being in an outdoor palace.

We also saw the famous statue of a baby peeing! Legend has it that there was a fire in Brussels and it was extinguished by someone peeing on it. It’s incredible this silly, tiny statue garners so much attention. As always, I try to capture all of the tourists surrounding the point of interest!

We were eager to get out of the center of the city, so we took a bus south to the Bois de la Cambre Park. It was so big! There is a tiny island in the middle of the lake that is only accessible by boat. There’s even a bar on the island! We spent the afternoon drinking outside and laughing while they tried to name all 50 states.

We headed back to downtown Brussels to go to the most popular bar – Delirium. They’re famous for having over 2000 beers! I asked the bartender for one that tasted like caramel and he recommended a 10% beer for 4 euro. Such a steal.

Valerie and Esther had to leave early in the morning but I slept in. I was getting surprisingly good sleep in the hostel. No one was being rude or loud in the dorm room.

I spent my final day in Brussels on a trek to see the Atomium. It is a giant sculpture of an atom and you can go inside! I chose to admire it from afar and then enjoy the sunshine by walking around the nearby park and admiring the statues.

Unfortunately my hostel-luck ran out as I was kept awake for hours by loud people in the hostel. Our room faced the outdoor terrace so all of the noise came in through the window – but if we shut the window, it got extremely hot because there was no central air. A lose/lose situation!

In the morning, I packed my bags and headed to the train station to catch my carpool BlaBlaCar. It was going to be a 4-hour ride from Brussels to Le Havre, France, on the north coast. Luckily I downloaded movies!

Brussels was similar to Antwerp, but larger. I know I keep saying each city is diverse, but Brussels really takes the cake. It’s known as one of the main European capitals and it lives up to that reputation. Most cities I’ve been able to walk across, but Brussels is massive and, honestly, not that pretty! The parks and historical buildings are the only scenic gems. If you visit Belgium, definitely see Bruges, but spend minimal time in Brussels!

Antwerp, Belgium

I am a very analytical person. I love when data is clear cut and black-and-white. I don’t work well with grey area. Maybe that’s why I ended up majoring in geography. I love the definitive borders of countries and being able to point at a map and say “This side is the Netherlands and that side is Belgium.” But what does that mean? How can an imaginary line in the dirt separate two communities that are so similar?

I started to think of it in terms of Cincinnati, Ohio, vs Kentucky. Technically, I grew up in Kentucky because our house was physically on that side of the border. But what about culturally? Did I have more in common with the rural, agricultural, and conservative Kentuckians or the urban, hipster Cincinnatians? Definitely the Cincinnatians. That’s why my Dad always told me to specify I was from NORTHERN Kentucky – because our lifestyle was so much different from the rest of the state.

Antwerp was in the same situation. It was only 30 minutes away from the Netherlands border. The landscape was virtually identical and they even speak Flemish, which is actually just Dutch. Travelers are quick to assign differences to the two countries (eating stroopwaffels vs Belgian waffles) but they really are more similar than different. I was expecting a new experience crossing the border into Belgium, but actually it was more of the same – which is great because I love this region!

I arrived in Antwerp and met my host, Luigina. She is originally from Curacao which used to be another Dutch colony. Her flat was in the center of the city (and I later discovered it’s government housing!) and she was so warm and welcoming. You know the stereotype of the southern housewife in America? She was exactly that. Always offering me food and asking me about my day. We stayed up late watching our favorite channel – TLC – and laughing at all of the wedding shows.

In the morning, I signed up for a free Antwerp walking tour. There was an elderly couple also on the tour who were from Portland, Oregon! We talked about the city and my world journey. They were sweet and made several recommendations.

The tour was one of the more boring ones. It focused mostly on history which is interesting, but felt like being back in school. Tours in other cities usually blend history with modern stories and legends.

I did learn the reasoning behind the construction that seemed to plague the city – it’s an election year! So all major streets, plazas, and buildings are undergoing renovations. It’s frustrating that I can’t see it in all its glory, but I can’t help but be happy that cities are continually working to preserve things for future generations.

The biggest takeaway from the tour was that Antwerp used to be a giant merchant hub with a port more important than Rotterdam. Our tour guide also told us the unfortunate history of Belgium colonizing the Congo and using that venture to fund most of the development of Antwerp. He said that during his education, the Congo was glossed over and no one talked about the exploitation. Only recently are schools starting to openly address and value how the Congo allowed Antwerp to become what it is today.

After the tour, I wandered around on my own and realized the city is in three main areas: the old city, the fashion streets, and the diamond district.

Antwerp is a prime city for diamond shopping. I didn’t delve into the history behind the trade, but there were countless stores around the station. I also saw a large orthodox jewish population in the neighborhood around the station. The Antwerp train station is often noted as being one of the most beautiful in the world!

The fashion streets look identical to the Miracle Mile in Chicago. Store after store of expensive fashion lining the streets. It was fun to walk down, but not actually shop at.

The old city is where I was staying. It had gorgeous old cobblestone streets lined with quaint homes. The stunning cathedral acts as the centerpiece of the city and can be seen from virtually anywhere as its one of the few tall buildings in the city. I got to go to a rooftop and get a panorama view of the city. You easily see the low lying old city!

My two days in Antwerp were mostly spent wandering and relaxing. The city doesn’t have many tourist attractions so there wasn’t much to see. I hung out at several cafes and spent the evenings at home talking to my host. She works at a school and always had amusing stories to tell about the children.

On my final day, I spent the morning taking a long walk to the Port Authority building. It was designed by Zaha Hadid, the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, which is the equivalent of the Novel Prize for architecture. She also designed the stadium in Qatar that will be used for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

In the evening, another Couchsurfing guest arrived. My host was at work so I had to greet and entertain him. He was visiting from Poland. I’ve always wondered what it was like to be a host and it’s very strange! It’s hard to make someone feel at home. Unfortunately I was quite distracted as I had just found out my host in Brussels cancelled my stay. I had less than 12 hours to find a new host as I planned to leave Antwerp the following morning to head to Brussels. I spent the entire evening sending messages to hosts in Brussels asking if I could stay.

I woke up in the morning to discover I had no luck. Everyone was traveling out of town for the long weekend. Luigina even offered for me to stay another night, but I didn’t think I’d be able to find a host even if I waited a day. Locals simply weren’t in town. Plus I had nothing else to do in Antwerp and the thought of wasting a day sitting around sounded torturous. I booked the cheapest hostel I could find and headed to the train station.

Antwerp was interesting, but not somewhere I’d recommend people to visit. Unless you want to spend all your time at museums for the Red Star Line or the printing press, there isn’t much to do except drink Belgian beer!

Rotterdam & Utrecht, Netherlands

After falling in love with Amsterdam and northern Holland, I knew I had to see the South of the country. Rotterdam is known as being the modern port city of the Netherlands. After it was bombed and leveled during WWII, the entire city had to be rebuilt, giving it a very different appearance from historic cities like Amsterdam.

I arrived in Rotterdam and was in awe. The train station was gorgeous and the view from the plaza was stunning!

I had arranged to stay with Jan. He had a flat in the center of the city, within walking distance from the station. I began my trek to his apartment (around 1.5 miles) and was shocked by how the city felt so… normal. It didn’t feel like I was traveling in a foreign country at all. I walked on flat sidewalks instead of the usual uneven cobblestone. I passed modern strip malls and AstroTurf sports fields. It felt like I was back in America!

I arrived at Jan’s apartment and was surprised how cluttered it was. It was nowhere near hoarder level, but it was getting there! He showed me to my room which was actually a storage closet with a cot. At the beginning of my trip, this would have horrified me, but now I was just happy to have a private room!

It was dinner time, so Jan offered me food which I declined. It might be rude, but I had already eaten! We chatted about life in Rotterdam and I asked about the diversity of the city since I noticed there was much more than in Amsterdam. He said the city has a very large population of Surinamese immigrants, likely because Suriname was once a Dutch colony.

The next day, I followed the walking route given to me by Jan. I walked along the water and saw the famous Erasmus bridge which is now the symbol of the city.

I continued to the center of downtown where the true star of Rotterdam lives: The Cube Houses.

In all of my urban planning classes in college, we discussed the cube houses. They are a unique experiment in urban housing. The geometric cubes are intended to resemble trees and the series of apartments is considered an urban forest. Each tree has a narrow “trunk” with the front door and stairwell that leads up to the living space above. It looks confusing from a distance, but there is a nice plaza surrounding the base of the trees that acts as a courtyard for the apartments.

Next to the cube houses is the famous Markthal market. It is a giant modern building that’s home to countless vendors. I spent an entire hour wandering from stall to stall. Most sell food and offer samples. I ate enough samples to qualify as a meal!

The day had gotten very hot. When I was in Greece, I looked at the weather in Europe and it was in the 60s each day, so I sent all of my shorts and dresses home with my mom to lighten my load. When I arrived in Amsterdam, it was so cold I even had to buy a new winter coat!

But now, the temperature was soaring to the 80s! It was extremely sunny and I was even getting a bit burnt from walking all day. Packing for the weather has not been my forte during this trip!

Jan’s kitchen was a mess. There was clutter everywhere and a swarm of fruit flies. It wasn’t somewhere I wanted to cook, but I also didn’t want to eat take out. I stopped by a grocery store and got a pack of lettuce, a pack of chopped leeks, peppers, and onions, and a package of smoked mackerel. I managed to make three meals out of these ingredients and the smoked mackerel was absolutely delicious. I’ll miss the fresh fish in Europe, for sure!

The next day, I decided to take a day trip to Utrecht. It is one of the Netherlands’ four largest cities and its known as being the youngest and hippest due to the large university. My Portland friend Tess had studied there and has been begging me to go.

It also happened to be Liberation Day, a national holiday honoring the day that the Nazi occupation ended. Large festivals occur in each of the Big 4 cities and I planned on attending the one in Utrecht.

When I arrived, I was shocked how busy it was. Walking around the city center felt like being back in Amsterdam, but with crowds of locals instead of tourists. Utrecht has mostly stayed off of the tourist map, but slowly the numbers are increasing.

I later found out that Utrecht is known for its “terrace culture.” Every restaurant and cafe has a massive section of outdoor seating that is in high demand on sunny days.

Utrecht is also known for its unique canals. Unlike Amsterdam, Utrecht has canals that have wharfs. They used to be used to unload cargo without blocking the streets, but now shops and and cafes use the space. I saw many people using them for sunbathing, too!

The biggest landmark in Utrecht is the Dom Tower. Of course it was under construction when I was there. Why does this keep happening? All of my photos seem to feature scaffolding instead of the actual landmark!

In that photo you can also see my favorite store, Stach, to the left. It is like a local convenience store but very modern and carries super healthy, paleo food!

After exploring, I headed to the festival grounds. It was a 2 mile walk outside of the city, but it was a nice day, so I decided to do it. The walk wasn’t nice at all! It was along a highway with factory views.

I arrived at the festival and the line to get in was massive. It wasn’t even a line. It was a giant crowd of people pushing to get in. There also seemed to be an entrance fee, but all of the signs were in Dutch. I could see inside the festival and it looked just as crowded and chaotic. I decided to save my money and avoid the mess. I chalked it up to a 4 mile round trip walk!

I headed back to Rotterdam and had another evening chatting with Jan. I never found out exactly what he does for a living, but he has traveled quite a bit. I always love getting advice from fellow travelers, but his was a bit bizarre.

I told him how I was considering renting a car in France to see the countryside and avoid all of the train strikes. However, the plan didn’t seem to be working out since all the rental cars are manual and automatics are nearly $100 per day instead of $10 like the manuals. Jan’s advice? Rent a manual anyway and teach myself to drive it in France. What?! I’m not about to rent a car in a foreign country and potentially ruin it or get in an accident while teaching myself a new skill on an unfamiliar road. Worst advice ever!

One piece of advice I got from my Amsterdam host was to use BlaBlaCar to get around. It is an app where locals can post their roadtrip route and travelers can pay to join them for a portion. It is much cheaper than the train, but often more difficult to get to specific pick-up and drop-off points.

I decided to use BlaBlaCar to get from Rotterdam to Antwerp. I paid $9 instead of $15 as I would have for the train. My driver was a woman from France!

The experience started off rocky and only got worse. First, she wouldn’t give me an exact pick up location. She only said “the main train station,” but the station has multiple carpool locations! When I asked for specification, she replied “I don’t know, I’ve never been to Rotterdam.” Helpful.

Then, she was 15 minutes late. Her car was very messy and she had booked 4 passengers, meaning 3 of us had to squish into the back. There wasn’t enough trunk space for everyone’s luggage, so we had to pile it on top of our laps for the entire ride.

The final straw was that the AC didn’t work on an 85 degree day and she planned on keeping the windows rolled up. We were all sweating and dying. Finally the French passenger in the front seat insisted on rolling down the windows and saved us all. When the driver left to make a call, everyone told me this BlaBlaCar was the worst they’ve been in and usually rides are much better. I have one booked from Brussels to France, so hopefully it is!

I managed to get delivered safely (sort of – she almost hit a cyclist) to Antwerp and set off to find my new host!

Amsterdam & Haarlem, Netherlands

Before I decided to commit to a half- year solo trip around the world, I wanted to do a test run to see what traveling alone would be like. In December of 2017, I found a cheap flight to Amsterdam and decided to burn my vacation days before giving notice at my job. You can read all about that adventure on a different post.

During that trip, I absolutely fell in love with Amsterdam. I didn’t expect to like it. I thought it was where lazy Europeans went to escape responsibility and enjoy partying and semi-legal weed. I was so wrong! The city feels so refined and charming with the cobblestone streets and canals. I loved every minute of my trip in December and knew I wanted to come back. So when I saw a cheap flight from Greece to Amsterdam, I booked it!

Even though I published my Copenhagen blog first, I actually spent my layover exploring the Amsterdam suburb of Haarlem. It is around 30 minutes outside of Amsterdam, past Schipol airport. I figured my layover between my flight from Greece and my bus to Copenhagen was the best time to see it!

I arrived in Haarlem on a sunny day and instantly fell in love. It had the romantic canals of Amsterdam without the boards of tourists. I spent hours wandering around. You know when you return home from vacation and feel a sense of comfort and relief? I felt that way once I was back in the Netherlands.

Haarlem doesn’t have much to see other than museums and the famous giant windmill. (I later learned that the NYC Harlem was named after this city by the Dutch who settled in NY!) When I was at the windmill, there was an art class sitting along the canal and painting it! It only added to the charm.

I didn’t expect it to be so cold! I came from Greece where it was in the 80s, so I only had a few light layers. I stopped by a store and found a sale on winter jackets. I picked up a very warm one for only 20 euros! As I exited the store, I stumbled upon a giant carnival in the center of the old city. It was pretty magical to find something so exciting in such a sleepy town. The contrast of the bright lights and colors against the old buildings was pretty funny.

I got lunch at my favorite salad restaurant, SLA. I’ve been dreaming about returning for 4 months! Luckily they have locations all over the Netherlands so I can keep eating there to get my fill.

Unlike in Italy where baristas and cashiers were rude and curt, the barista at SLA took a keen interest in me. She asked where I was from and about my travels. It was a nice change and reminded me why I love the Dutch! After my meal, I headed back to the airport and off to Copenhagen.

Let’s fast forward to my flight from Copenhagen to Amsterdam! I was somehow upgraded to the very first row on my Norwegian Air flight. Unfortunately there wasn’t a first class on the plane, so I was still in economy, but I had plenty of leg room!

I took the train from Schipol airport to Amsterdam Centraal. I had arranged through Couchsurfing to stay with Sitesh. Finding a host in Amsterdam was definitely the hardest! Just ask my mom and she will tell you how much time I spent in Greece sending requests to hosts in Amsterdam! There are so many tourists so there’s a high demand. I got lucky and found a host with an incredible apartment in the heart of the city. The apartment even had a canal view!

Sitesh moved to Amsterdam a year ago and mostly explores the city via bike (like most people!) He welcomed me and we instantly hit it off and had a long conversation about travel. Usually the first day is a little awkward since it’s hard to live with a complete stranger, but Sitesh was the most welcoming of all. The only downside was the he only had one set of keys, so when he was away from the apartment, I also had to leave. Not a big deal, but it was very hard to coordinate being let back in! Often we would agree upon a time and then he would be late, leaving me standing outside for awhile.

On my first day in Amsterdam, I took another walking tour. I learned so much I didn’t know before! Especially about the VOC or the Dutch East India Trading Company. Apparently it was the single most valuable company throughout all of history!

We continued the tour to the famous Waterlooplein bridge where stolen bikes are pedaled. Our guide said he goes through one bike per year because they keep getting stolen. Instead of buying a brand new one, he simply goes to the bridge and buys a stolen one for 10 euro. Everyone expects to have theirs stolen and to have to buy a different stolen one. It’s the bike cycle of life!

In the evening, I went with Sitesh to the ADAM Lookout. (ADAM is the nickname for Amsterdam!) This building has a big observatory deck on top. I wanted to go during my first time in Amsterdam but didn’t get around to it. It was a great view! There is also a mechanical swing you can ride that swings you over the ledge, but we didn’t do that.

Afterward we walked to Pllek. It is a restaurant made of shipping containers. The entire north side of Amsterdam is a relatively new area that is still up and coming. The ferry companies give people rides for free to encourage them to go to the north. The restaurant was pretty cool! It was weird walking through a shipping container to get inside.

I ordered a salad with eggplant and artichoke. It was tasty but very fancy! Over dinner, we talked about our hobbies and jobs. I started to get a little offended by how judgmental Sitesh was of my hobbies. He scoffed at my enjoyment of cooking and said that it was a waste of time. He eats every meal from a restaurant or grocery store because it is “still homemade because someone is making it.” He asked about my job history and I told him how I was a social media manager in 2014. He asked “Is that even a real job? It sounds unimpressive.” Well, yeah. Almost every successful company in the world has someone in charge of their social media, so it’s a real job.

The next day, I had booked a tulip tour! Holland (a region within the Netherlands) is known for its colorful tulip farms. I was lucky enough to be in the country during the blooming season.

I didn’t want to go to the famous botanical gardens where all tourists go to see tulips. I had heard that it was mass chaos. Instead, I booked a small group tour led by a local named Leander. He picked us up in the city and drove us through small, local tulip fields.

I learned that the blooms are actually an unwanted byproduct. Tulip farmers are actually focused on the underground bulb. When the flowers bloom, they use machinery to chop the flowers off of the stem. This allows the bulb to preserve energy and grow bigger. A few months later, they pull the bulbs from the ground and sell them. It’s sad to see such beautiful flowers chopped up!

After seeing the tulip fields, we went to the coast. There’s a large sand dune national park where locals go to cycle and picnic. It was pretty but not overly gorgeous.

I returned to Amsterdam in the afternoon and went shopping. I was determined to find a hot coffee tumbler, but failed. Most stores seem to be focused toward bikes or fancy clothing! In the evening, I was exhausted from a long day of walking, but Sitesh insisted on chatting. My bed was in the living room, so I couldn’t exactly escape. He was asking philosophical questions like “Do you think if someone else was you and had your experiences in life, they’d end up where you are now?” We had already been talking for an hour so I said “I am way too tired to think about those deep questions!” Still, he insisted on chatting, saying he used Couchsurfing as a way to have entertainment and socialization in the evenings. Finally I went to bed at 1am after giving short “yes” and “no” answers to his questions. He clearly didn’t have any respect for his guests’ feelings. We had just spent 6 hours together the day before, so I wouldn’t say I was irrational in wanting some quiet alone time!

The next day, I went to the famous street food market. Last time I was there, I couldn’t find fresh stroopwaffels or herring – the two Dutch local foods all tourists must try! This time, I got lucky.

I had tried stroopwaffels before, but never fresh. They are essentially two very thin cookies with a thin layer of caramel in the middle. They are sold in the grocery store but also from street vendors. The smell of them being made fresh is incredible! The idea of a stroopwaffel is the epitome of the Netherlands – cozy, comforting, and you can’t get enough!

Next, I tried raw herring. They serve it with onions and a pickle. I thought it would be fishy but it wasn’t at all. Quite savory and delicious!

After the market, I got another SLA salad (this time it was Thai tempeh flavored!) and sat in the park at the Rijksmuseum. Being in Amsterdam in the spring is much different than winter. The Dutch love being outside! I relaxed on the grass and listened to a jazz clarinet player perform nearby. It was a perfect afternoon.

Around 6pm, I went back to Sitesh’s to say goodbye and get my bag. I caught a train south to Rotterdam – the next stop on my adventure!