School’s Out Forever – What’s Next?

Hey everyone, it’s been a while. The past 6 months have been a whirlwind, leaving me with little time to focus on blogging. But now I’m back and ready to provide some updates.

The last time I posted on A Girl and Her Visa, I was finishing up my first year in Brussels, so excited to go home for the holidays. At the time, I was interning with Women’s Economic and Social Think Tank (WESTT) in Brussels, a job that required lots of writing. I could feel myself getting a bit burnt out and I decided to take a break from the blog before writing started to feel like a chore, rather than a creative outlet. Now that my life is calming down a bit, I finally feel like I have a chance to do my adventures justice – so here we go.

I spent the second half of December in the U.S. with my family. We started off by visiting my family in New Orleans (rest assured, we stopped at Pat O’s several times) and made it back to Cincinnati by Christmas. Although I had to work on my final papers, it was such a relief to be back with family and friends after a year away.

In February, I returned to Brussels to work on my dissertation. During this time, I also accepted my current job as Program Coordinator of the American Cultural Ambassadors Program (ACA), in which I participated the past two summers. Although the days were long while I worked on these two projects, I made sure not to waste my last few months in Europe. Work hard, play hard – am I right?

In February, I met my friend Sage in Athens for a long weekend. Fun fact – although Sage is American and went to college a few hours from me, we have yet to hang out in the U.S. We met in China last summer and decided to reunite in Greece. Yay for friends who like to travel! Two weeks after Athens, I went to Rome with some friends to see one of their cousins perform in a touring dance company. Rome was as I expected – impressive and full of great food.

March 15th was the long awaited due date for my dissertation. In celebration of both my dissertation’s completion and my roommate’s wedding, a big group of us went to Spain and Portugal for a week. I absolutely fell in love with Sevilla and the Portuguese coast. I’ll be writing a blog post completely dedicated to this trip, as it was one of my favorites.

A couple weeks after Spain, my dad came to visit for eleven full days of travel. Last time he visited, we tackled Paris, Barcelona, and Madrid. This time, we decided to go a different direction and made our way through Prague, Budapest, and Krakow. This trip, once again, deserves its own post.

After some difficult goodbyes, I left Brussels and returned to the U.S. to work on ACA and wait for my Chinese work visa to process. It was so nice getting to live in Cincinnati as an adult with some of my favorite people in the world. But obviously I couldn’t stay in one spot for the whole two months. In May, my dad and I went down to Florida for my brother’s track meet (go Robby!) and visited my cousin who works at Disney World. My inner child came out for a few days while we rode roller coasters, met princesses, and visited Harry Potter World at Universal Studios. If you want to get an embarrassing story out of me, ask about the Avatar ride in Disney.

But after two wonderful months at home, it was time to leave again. I flew to China the day I received my visa and immediately started working; as usual, my exit was spontaneous and a little chaotic. But hey, that’s what makes life exciting, right?

Currently, I am traveling around the Zhejiang Province, managing a group of American college students as they teach English at Chinese summer camps. I’ll be spending the summer here, teaching and working on ACA until the end of August. From there, I’ll be starting a new life in Taiwan as a full-time English teacher!

Now do you see why I’ve had no time to write?

More updates to come!

– Christine

 

Why You Should Visit Brussels in December

Winter has finally arrived in Brussels. It’s cold, sometimes rainy, and the sun sets at 5pm. While most people visit this beautiful city in the summer, there are a few special things that make a winter in Brussels something to look forward to. Here are a few reasons why you should think about visiting Brussels in December.

  1. The holiday decorations – Almost overnight, the city comes alive with lights and decorations on every corner. There is nothing like walking through cobblestone streets with Christmas lights overhead.
  2. Waffles! – Who wouldn’t want a warm waffle to eat while walking along those decorated cobble-stone streets?
  3. Beer! – If you’re cold, pop into a bar and grab a Belgian beer. They won’t disappoint, I promise.
  4. Fries – Okay, I promise this is the last food item. But seriously, all of Belgium’s snacks are made for winter.
  5. The Christmas Market – You’ve never seen a Christmas celebration until you’ve been to a European Christmas market. Ferris wheels, food tents, vin chaud, ice skating, and more. It’s a dream.
  6. It’s less crowded  – In the summer, many European cities are packed with tourists. But if you choose to travel in the off-season, you’ll have a lot more space and better prices!
  7. Hot Chocolate – Okay I lied about the food thing. Belgian hot chocolate is special for two reasons. 1. Belgian chocolate 2. The hot chocolate is made with actual pieces of chocolate. If you’re not into beer, this will definitely warm you up.
  8. Mussels – I already broke my promise once, so I might as well do it again. Belgium is known for its mussels and fries, a hot meal that is perfect for winter.

 

These winter specialties are a perfect addition to everything else Brussels has to offer like Grand Place, Mannekin Pis, the Atomium, museums, parks, the EU institutions, and more. While the winter may prevent you from sitting outside at an outdoor café, Brussels can still be a great travel destination for the winter! In fact, my best friend is visiting next week and I am going to make sure she experiences everything this city has to offer. If you’ve been to Brussels in the winter, let me know what I missed!

 

Visiting Tenerife – the island that has it all

It’s hard to pass up the opportunity to visit friends AND explore one of the most beautiful places on earth. So when my friend Nicolette told me she would be teaching English in the Canary Islands for 10 months, I knew I had to visit. This past week my friend, Annmarie, and I traveled to Tenerife to see Nicolette. With its beaches and mountains, this island ended up being the dream location for our reunion.

Tenerife is one of the seven Canary Islands that rest off the coast of Morocco but belong to Spain. While the flights aren’t as cheap as they are to the rest of Europe, I still found a round-trip flight for less than 200 euros. Compared to most international travel, that’s a steal. My friends and I found an affordable Air Bnb on the edge of Puerto de la Cruz that overlooked the ocean. Since it’s an island, I was expecting things to be expensive here but the prices were half of what they are in Brussels, which was a pleasant surprise. Before I go into the details of my trip, here are a few quick facts if you’re looking to travel to Tenerife:

Transportation

The island has a great transportation system with busses and an above-ground tram they call the Tramvia. However, if you rent a car, the entire island is accessible – my friends and I decided this was the best option for us since we would only be there for a few days and wanted to see as much as possible.

Language

Spanish is spoken throughout the Canary Islands but the accent is very different from mainland Spain. If you’re a non-native Spanish speaker, you might have some difficulties at first. Otherwise, most people speak some English, especially in the tourist areas.

Nature

Tenerife is a volcano. So in addition to its black sand beaches, it has beautiful mountains throughout its center. Teide (the mountain) is actually the highest point in Spain. As you drive to the top, you will pass through several different landscapes including pine forests and something that looks like a desert. The contrast is mind-blowing.

Food

The food in Tenerife is nothing short of incredible. While traditional Spanish food can be found, las Canarias have their own famous foods. A few of my favorites were papas arrugadas (which literally translates to wrinkly potatoes), arepas, and mojo (a sauce from heaven)

The five days I spent in Tenerife were so full of peace and joy that time stood still. So without further ado, let’s talk about the trip.

Nicolette picked me up from the airport on Thursday night and we checked into the Air Bnb on the outskirts of Puerto de la Cruz. Then we went to a restaurant where I tried papas arrugadas with mojo sauce which was so good that it brought tears to my eyes. After trying these potatoes, I knew this trip would be incredible. We walked around Puerto a bit but it was late so we decided to go home and get a good night of sleep.

The next morning, Nicolette and I went to the beach. It was my first time seeing black sand and my jaw hit the floor. It’s been on my bucket list forever so it was a really special moment. We spent a few hours on the beach (yes, I wore sunscreen), then Nicolette left for a teacher meeting. I decided to walk the coast and explore Puerto and the town is beautiful. I even accidentally stumbled upon an area full of stone piles (I’m not sure how to describe this in a way that sounds appealing. See picture). Afterward, Nicolette and I picked Annmarie up from the airport and we rented a car. Although we took several wrong turns on the way back, we finally ventured into Los Realejos for the best arepas we will probably ever have. In fact, we returned to this little hole-in-the-wall place (called Millenium) for arepas twice more throughout the trip. After the arepas that changed our lives, we spent the night drinking champagne and catching up in our Air Bnb. There’s nothing like seeing old friends.

 

 

On Saturday morning, we took a drive up the coast to a restaurant overlooking the ocean. Here we ordered Arroz Caldoso de Mariscos (a soupier version of paella) and gazpacho. This was yet another life-changing meal. We spent the afternoon laying on the beach and at night, went to a Christmas festival in La Laguna, the university town. It was like a Christmas wonderland. We ate more arepas and got vegan hot chocolate. Oh, and a couple of beers, of course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday was the day we decided to tackle Teide, the mountain. Our little Fiat, who we lovingly nicknamed Fifi, had a hard time making it up some of the steep inclines but we eventually made our way up. Like I mentioned previously, the contrast between the landscapes on the mountain was like nothing I had ever seen before. From pine trees to desert-like canyons with lava rocks, I had a hard time believing it was real. Teidi is a must-do if you visit Tenerife.

 

 

On my last day, Annmarie and I revisited the beach while Nicolette went to work. I’ve never seen such big waves before and the lifeguards wouldn’t let people near the water due to the riptides. But we had a pleasant time just sleeping on the sand. We ate lunch at a nearby restaurant and then drove up to Monje winery for a wine tour. The view and the wine were spectacular. Once again, it was hard to believe I was living in reality. Nicolette met us at Monje and we returned to La Laguna for dinner and more vegan hot chocolate. It was a sweet end to a sweet trip.

 

 

Thanks for inviting us to visit, Nicolette. It was an incredible adventure.

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Falling in Love with Solo Travel – Prague

When I ask people which cities I absolutely have to visit while in Europe, Prague is always at the top of the list. I didn’t quite understand why until I visited the city last week. From the Prague Castle to the Charles Bridge, there is so much to do in Prague that I wish I could’ve stayed for much longer than three days.

I flew into the city on Wednesday night and took a bus, then the metro, to the city center. The public transportation is super easy to figure out and the system is very convenient for using multiple types of transport. Instead of tickets being valid for “one trip,” for example, they are valid for one hour or ninety minutes. Within that period of time, you can use any public transportation – tram, metro, or bus – for as many trips as you need.

I had booked a cheap room in an apartment on Air Bnb and was pleasantly surprised to find it was located right along the Vltava River. I took that night to walk around the city, eat a trdelnik (basically a giant cinnamon roll that is sometimes filled with ice cream), and listen to some live music on Charles Bridge. I hadn’t even seen the city in daylight and I was already in awe.

 

 

The next day, I went on a free walking tour with Sandeman’s – this is an awesome company that gives tours in cities throughout Europe, asking only that you tip the tour guide at the end. I’ve found that these tours give much more depth to the cities in which I’m traveling because without them, you miss so much history while you’re walking around. They’re also a great way to meet people! I usually do a free walking tour on my first day in a city in order to orient myself with my surroundings and get an idea of some things I want to do while I’m there. On this tour, we saw the famous Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square, which may seem a bit underwhelming without the historical context so read up before you go. We also explored the Jewish Quarter which houses beautiful synagogues and is home to the Golem of Prague.

 

After the tour, a new friend and I decided to try a cool vegetarian, Indian place that his hostel recommended. It was called Beas Vegetarian Dhaba; it was incredible and cheap. I spent the rest of the day exploring the city, walking through its parks and squares, soaking in the history and the beautiful nature. Prague in October is a must-see. I’ve never seen such a stunning autumn. That night, I met up with a few people from the tour for a pub crawl. We had a great night.

 

 

 

On Friday morning, I visited the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius, where the soldiers of Operation Anthropoid hid while Nazis searched for them. They were ultimately killed in the crypt, which is open to visitors and includes a small museum.

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Afterwards, I met back up with some friends for a Prague Castle tour (also with Sandeman’s) and let me tell you, I am so happy I didn’t try to explore the castle by myself. The “castle” is more like a 70,000 square foot palace grounds with architecture from at least nine different centuries. Without a guide telling me the historical contexts of each part of the castle, I would’ve had no idea what I was seeing. It ended up being a really great experience and we even got to see the Changing of the Guards.

 

After the tour, two other solo travelers and I made our way up to a monastery that our tour guide told us about. Here we had dinner and were able to try some of their beer. I will admit, I’ve become a bit picky about beer after living in Belgium but this beer was really great. They even had a blueberry flavor that was surprisingly good. Strahov Monastery, with its stone walls, candlelit rooms, and live violin, was honestly one of my favorite parts of my time in Prague. It was too dark to get proper pictures but I would definitely recommend it.

Just when I thought the night couldn’t get any better, we found a rooftop bar called the Dancing House, overlooking the river. As we were sitting on the terrace, taking in the view of Prague, a fireworks show began on the river. It was one of those moments where time stood still and I felt incredibly overwhelmed by gratitude. It was a beautiful end to a beautiful trip.

Thank you, Prague. I hope to be back soon.

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Note: I was traveling alone and felt completely safe walking about the city center by myself. That being said, I always made sure to stay on busy, well-lit streets. As long as you’re using common sense, Prague is a great place for solo travel.

Becoming a Champagne Expert in Epernay, France

Okay I’ll admit, I’m still no expert. But after a weekend in Epernay, I do know what good champagne tastes like. I also know how it’s produced, sold, and that the Avenue de Champagne is arguably the most expensive avenue in the world. For this knowledge alone, I would encourage you to take a trip to Epernay. But this unique little town in France has a lot more to offer than just its champagne. The three days I spent in and around Epernay gave me a glimpse at why this town is so popular among European tourists.

Upon arriving in Epernay, I felt as if I had been transported into a fairytale. The architecture is beautiful, the streets were clean, and the weather was perfect. My family and I stayed in an Airbnb in the city center, surrounded by restaurants and shops. My first meal? Onion soup – a MUST whenever you are in France. Trust me, there’s a reason why Americans called it French Onion Soup.

We spent that first night getting acquainted with the town. The small tourist office near the town hall provides services such as bike rentals, maps, and even a tourist train that drives around the city while playing an audio tour. Yes, my mom and I rode the train and yes, it was worth every penny. We also may or may not have ridden rides in the street carnival taking place that weekend. I have no regrets regarding this decision.

 

 

 

The next day, we embarked on a champagne tour with our Air Bnb host; she runs her own tourism business – Aÿ Champagne Experience. We visited several vineyards in the town of Ay and a family-owned home champagne house that produces the brand Ergot et Filles. The family showed us the cellars, the fermentation process and gave us a taste of a few different types of champagne: Brut, Extra-Brut, and a vintage called Millèsime. I personally preferred this experience over the large champagne houses on Avenue de Champagne. However, after our tour, we weren’t quite done tasting champagne so we tried a flight at Champagne Janisson-Baradon et Fils (yes, champagne flights exist and yes, they are amazing). Check out the picture below.

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My family and I are outdoorsy people. So on day three we decided to hike to a nearby town called Hautvillers. The hike consisted of a beautiful walk along a river and through famous vineyards such as Moët et Chandon. While in Hautvillers, we explored the Abbey d’Hautvillers where Don Perignon is buried, and stumbled upon a small market where we spilt a bottle of champagne in a garden. It was about as magical as it sounds.

 

 

 

We knew our visit wouldn’t be complete without trying some champagne on the Avenue de Champagne, known for its cellars storing copious amounts of the world’s finest champagne. So after our return hike, we stopped inside Champagne Georges Cartier for a tasting. At this point in the trip, I started to feel like I could really compare and contrast the different types of champagne we’ve had. So basically, I’m declaring myself a champagne aficionado.

The only problem we ran into while in Epernay was limited restaurant and store hours. Many businesses close in the middle of the day and don’t reopen until around 7pm. We had a few failed searches for food. Additionally, it is harder to find English speakers here than in bigger cities like Paris. This trip forced me to use more French than I have since moving to Brussels. So if you’re looking for immersion, this is a great place to be. However, the people were incredibly helpful and gave me pointers when they heard me struggling with my French. I truly loved every minute in this town. For champagne rookies and experts alike, I definitely recommend a weekend trip to Epernay.

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