In Full Bloom: The Brooklyn Botanical Garden

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Join me under the cherry tree. 

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to attend the Cherry Blossom festival at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. I was initially supposed to head to Washington for their festival but having just started a new job things just didn’t quite work out the way I had planned. However, it worked out in my favor because the Brooklyn Gardens are beautiful. There was an entire lane of Cherry Blossom trees my friend and I were able to walk under. We marveled at the beauty of the flowers in full bloom and the excitement that was radiating off of everyone. Besides Comic Con I have never seen so many people dressed up before. There were cosplayers in anime costumes and several women and men dressed up in kimonos and as Geishas. New York really is a big melting pot. I overheard several conversations of actual Japanese elders talking about their culture to anyone who asked them questions. There was a great sense of pride in their voices as they talked about the significance of the festival, their attire and anything related to their culture. With how the world is today it’s heartwarming to see so many people come together to respect and show appreciation of another culture.

Here are some of the flowers I saw in bloom:

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Je me baladais sur l’avenue: 48 Hours in Paris

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In the shadow of the Iron Lady.

It looks like it’s going to be a trend for all of my trips to spend 48 hours in another country. Italy might have stolen my heart years ago but Paris is an entirely different story.

Taking the Eurostar from St. Pancras station to Gare du Nord (The Paris Nord Train Station) proved simple. The tickets weren’t too pricy but the hotels were. I had misgivings about going to Paris. Everyone I talked to said the Eiffel Tower was ‘underwhelming’ and the food was ‘okay.’ What I say to these people now is: Ha! Utter blasphemy.

The train ride itself was comfortable. It took about two and a half hours so I occupied my time by reading a book. I thought I was going to get a view of the countryside but there wasn’t anything to see besides train tracks and wired fences. I lost myself in The Girl On The Train, which was an utter coincidence. I had been holding onto the book for the past three months trying to find time to read it but kept failing miserably. It was probably not the best time to read it because my imagination got the better of me and I started to look at the others around me before we boarded and wondered if there were any secrets they were holding. You know…were they or were they not killers, cheaters, etc. I swear I am perfectly normal.

I finished the final ten pages in a hurry as the train came to a stop in Paris. If I’m being honest the moment I got off the train I was underwhelmed with my first vision of Paris. Yes, I was still in the station but I had been really impressed with the Underground in London. If anything Paris was reminding me of New York. Men with guns everywhere (for your safety), the large scary drug sniffing dogs and people yelling all around you. It’s a good thing I’m a New Yorker. I knew how to push through the crowd.

Once I finally left the station it was extreme culture shock. I think I felt so overwhelmed because I couldn’t figure out at first how to purchase a ticket for the train. I was that person. You know, that person who doesn’t know how to use the MTA machine or has bills that are folded every which way so the machine won’t take them. That was me in another country creating traffic while travelers waited impatiently behind me. With sweat on my brow and what I assume were curses in French I gave up. I didn’t bother asking someone for help because I didn’t actually know where I was going.

I caved and took a taxi because my luggage was too heavy anyway. My first pitstop was my hotel. I felt dizzy as the driver sped past cars and circled roundabouts to the Hotel Elysees-Opera. Maybe it was because of the cold weather but I didn’t love the area of the hotel. There just weren’t enough people around. I wanted to experience the hustle and bustle of Parisian life. However, my wallet appreciated the hotel because most of the places to stay in Paris were pricey. It was between staying somewhere ritzy or splurging on food. I chose the latter.

Thanks to preconceived notions I was convinced I wasn’t going to enjoy my trip to Paris. I had this eerie feeling inside of me but I tried to push past it and I did. Naturally, I used the City Mapper app on my iPhone to locate the train and get me from point A to B. After checking in I ventured out again this time determined to buy a train ticket. I stepped to the side and was able to figure it out by watching other people and boarded my first train.

Can I just say I was extremely impressed, slightly confused and a bit horrified when I got on and off the train? I was impressed by how large the trains were and the fact that you could go from the front to the back of the train without any issue (on newer trains). I mean there was no partition, or door, to go through to get from one cart to another. Weird but I kind of wish it was like that in New York because hearing the rattle of the train as you go from cart to cart slightly terrifies me. I was confused and a bit horrified when I got on another train and the doors didn’t slide open. You had to unlatch a hook and then the train doors would open. Horrified more because I couldn’t figure it out at first and almost got stuck on the train. Ha! I am not equipped to handle any sort of machinery, no matter how basic.

Since I was in Paris for such a short time I took my classic Hop On, Hop Off Bus. Seriously, I recommend it especially if you visit when it feels like it’s zero degrees outside (really 25). Even though the bus itself was freezing due to no heat I got to listen to a short history behind Paris and key places/monuments.

My first stop might have been the touristy decision but I just had to see the Iron Lady. Ah, the Eiffel Tower! To the people that say it is small and it isn’t impressive I say you need to get your eyes checked out. The excitement I felt from seeing the Eiffel Tower from afar doesn’t hold a candle to how I felt when I saw it up close. I went to see the Eiffel Tower twice, during the day and at night so I could see it sparkle. Watching it sparkle was purely magical. Everyone stopped what they were doing and just stood there in awe (with their smartphones in the air). I felt part of something important as I basked in the glow of the structure.

Since everything closes relatively early in Paris during the wintertime I had to pick and choose what I wanted to see in a short period of time. I knew one of the stops I needed to make was at Palais Garnier. The Palais Garnier is an opera house with 1,979 seats built from 1861 to 1875. The theatre was used as the setting for the novel The Phantom of the Opera. I unfortunately have never seen the play but I was captivated by the film.

The entire opera house was gorgeous. The grand staircase was breathing taking. I wasn’t sure where to look, left, right or up. I could imagine these men and women from high society dressed up in their smart clothing and beautiful gowns walking up the staircase ready for the nights opera.

I stepped into the grand foyer with its gold ceilings and walls, marveled at the paintings and chandeliers and felt absolutely common. The auditorium was interesting as well. It’s the largest stage in Europe and where a scene of the Phantom comes from. According to our guide the crystal chandelier (7-tons, can you imagine having that hang in your dining room let alone dusting it?) in the theatre was loose, broke free and killed a member of the audience.

After marveling at the opulence of the Palais Garnier I quickly visited the Notre Dame. It was a quick visit because I was hungry and the temperature started to drop. I’m not a huge fan of taking photographs of religious relics so here’s the outside of the Notre Dame and a peek inside, where I lit a candle and said a short prayer.

 

Stomach rumbling, before I ventured inside my next spot, the Musee du Louvre, we stopped for a quick breakfast/snack. Our crepes were delicious and filling, giving my traveling companion and I (my mom folks) enough energy to master the museum. Heading to the Louvre is an all day event. I knew from photos, films and books the museum was expansive but to see it in real life was on a whole other level. We spent three hours getting lost in the museum, seriously, we got lost trying to find the Mona Lisa even though there are signs everywhere leading you to it. I spent too much time mulling over Greek history (because this is fromnytogreece after all). For the life of us we could not figure out how to use the gameboys they gave us to make our own walking tour. My advice is if you can fit it into your plans take the guided tour because we felt frustrated and a bit put off by the contraptions hanging around our necks.

IMG_1918For me, the Mona Lisa wasn’t the highlight. I had my mom running around behind me as I searched for the statue of Mary Magdalene. The nude figure is provocative, clothed only by her hair, I was impressed with the detail and carvings of the slight wave in her hair cascading down her back.

IMG_1953To end our trip, our final stop was a boat ride along the river. In my opinion it was too chilly to really enjoy the boat ride. I spent the ride back warming up inside the boat but everyone else around us enjoyed it. It felt serene as we sat down and passed the sites of Paris but I think you could pass this on a warmer day and opt to walk along the water instead.

Enjoy the song below that played on a loop on the Hop On, Hop Off Bus: 

 

 

62442: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

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The Palace Theatre 

I remember the first time I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I was in the third grade and the book was on the banned reading list. I had to remove the sleeve and read the book in my lap because Catholicism and magic didn’t go hand in hand. By the end of the first chapter I was hooked. I needed to know all about this Harry Potter.

Like most fans Harry is still a huge part of my life. The books and the films signify my childhood. Though to be completely honest I still read the books, own too much official merchandise that it embarrasses my family and I’ve had the inkling of wanting to get a tattoo (sorry mom!). When the Harry Potter Play was announced I knew I had to see it.

It didn’t matter that I lived in New York and the play was going to be in London. I would have traveled to the far ends of the earth to see the play. Hell, I would have spent half my yearly salary in order to see Harry come to life. The day the tickets were announced I was on the bus to work and kept obsessively refreshing the page in order to get my hands on some. The panic was real and my anxiety was at an all time high. I was sweating as I went through the tunnel on the express bus and lost my internet connection therefore losing my tickets just as I was about to submit my credit card information.

I had to start all over again. Refresh–head into the train station. Refresh-shit, there’s no internet connection on the 1 train.  Refresh–crap, I have a meeting at work.

Refresh. Refresh. Refresh.

Yes!

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The elusive tickets! Refresh, refresh, refresh…worth every penny.

The earliest tickets I could get were two years away but it didn’t matter. I was heading to London to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child! It was all I could talk about that day.

If I’m being honest it was all I could talk about for the past two years. With every month that passed I was getting closer to London. When the play started I refused to read any reviews and I went back and forth about reading the screenplay. Once I got the book in my hands I caved. I could still be surprised once the time came but I could also secretly memorize every single line (I told you I’m obsessed) and still shake my leg in anticipation throughout the entire play.

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I was in the third row! Here’s a view of the stage from my seat. Getting ready for Part II.

Two years later, once I finally made it to London, seeing the outside of the Palace Theatre was a dream come true. As I followed my map on my iPhone, each step I took was filled with an overwhelming sense of joy. I tried to play it cool as I stood on line but my heart swelled at the red and gold of Gryffindor scarves from the others waiting with me. We were all buzzing. It felt like magic.

The play was not a let down. I’ve read reviews and talked to people about the play after I saw it–and yes, they are mixed. I myself felt nervous when I was waiting for the play to begin. What if it didn’t live up to my expectations? But it did. In order to #keepthesecrets I won’t going into too much detail but I will say this:

During the last act of the performance there was not a dry eye in the theatre.

img_1774I wept openly as did everyone around me, men, women, people of all ages were moved by the performance of Harry and co. Since most of the scenes were relatively short, the ‘magic’ they were performing didn’t feel overdone. It came in quick bursts, sometimes in the blink of an eye, that even I had a hard time figuring out the mechanics behind it.

The actors were superb. They brought to life the magical world that I had fallen in love with. Jamie Parker’s (Harry Potter) performance was so raw. The emotions he was portraying felt real. There was a moment where I had the urge to scream out loud in order to warn him of the tragedy to come.

If you can get your hands on some tickets I’d recommend the play in a heartbeat. You’ll be experiencing more than a play. The sense of community is astounding, sitting there with more than a thousand other fans buzzing around you, the energy doesn’t compare to the one at a ball game or concert. It’s greater. The nostalgia factor will be high and if you’re a true fan once you sit in your seat you’ll feel a sense of home. Just remember to bring a packet of tissues and offer to share with your neighbor. Trust me, you’ll need it.

 

Hop-On, Hop-Off: A Tour of London

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A wide shot of Buckingham Palace.

 

Even though I’m a native New Yorker I get lost in my own city. No matter where I work (or how long) I rely on my map in my iPhone to get me from Point A to Point B. Public transportation? Yeah, not a fan. I find nothing thrilling about waiting in a dirty train station for a train that may or may not come in five, ten or fifteen minutes. Don’t get me started on the garbage, the rats or the smells.

However, I completely understand when people come from other countries the excitement they feel going on their first NYC train ride. It’s the same way I felt when I first got on the train in London.

The train was clean. It was quaint. The novelty didn’t wear off during my two week trip there. Hell, if New York trains were as clean as the ones in London I would cease all of my complaints.

Getting around London was easier than I thought. Still, I used to my phone as a guide. Yes, I got lost several times but taking the wrong route sometimes leads you to a better one.

When I was planning my trip to London there wasn’t that much planning involved. I went with one ultimate goal: to see the Harry Potter play. Of course I also wanted to see the sites and be a complete tourist. The easiest way to go about that for me was to buy tickets for the Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour.

I’ve taken the same bus tour in Spain, Greece and Paris. If you like to see things at your own pace like me with minimal guide then I’d highly recommend the bus route. I could have easily taken the train to get from museum to museum but the bus allows you to see everything you’d be missing while underground and with minimal walking.

I am a big fan of minimal walking.

Especially when it’s the middle of winter and snowing on your much needed vacation.

Even though I complain about the weather, the perfect vacation for me doesn’t involve tanning at the beach. I like to see museums, marvel at the architecture and eat too much food.

Here’s a list of the some of the highlights on ‘The Original’ bus tour:

  1. St. Paul’s Cathedral
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A partial view of St. Paul’s Cathedral

As a Catholic I make it my mission to visit at least one or two places of worship when I’m in other countries. With my anxiety it gives me a sense of calm to know there are other people out there in the same vicinity that are seeking guidance from a higher power, whoever that may be. The only thing about visiting religious sites is you usually cannot take pictures inside. To me that isn’t a major downside. Putting away your camera allows you to quietly reflect and capture the essence of the place even if it is for a short period of time. For Americans, seeing St. Paul’s Cathedral is especially interesting because Lady Diana and Prince Charles were wed there.

2. Buckingham Palace

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Here am I cheesing in front of Buckingham Palace. Enjoy the mother-daughter duo taking selfies next to me. They were just as impressed as I was!

Did you really think I was going to come to London and not visit the Queen? Go figure it was raining in London practically everyday I was there (or snowing) so I didn’t catch the changing of the guards. I couldn’t go inside Buckingham Palace either because they have summer tours. So if you ever get to go inside you have to promise me you’ll write in detail about the experience and share it with me. I didn’t feel like I missed out though because the outside of the palace itself was mind boggling.

For some reason I assumed because it was winter time there wouldn’t be a lot of people around. Wrong. Apparently I’m not the only one that likes a cold vacation. There were several groups of people (with selfie sticks) running around the palace taking photos. We all stared in awe at the gates and the crest of the House of Windsor.

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Not to mention the sheer size of the palace. All I’m saying is it would make a great AirBnB listing.

3. The Tower of London

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Do you remember sitting in history class and learning about all of the different battles, fights and beheadings that happened back then? Yeah, this is where they took place. The Tower of London was originally a royal palace and then became a defense system in the late 19th century. It is a fortress and it is actually extremely spooky. Maybe it was because of the snow but I felt an eerie chill the entire time I was there. I don’t believe in ghosts but twenty-two executions took place within the Tower, that information itself spooked me out just a bit.

It was worth fighting that feeling because the Tower of London is where the Crown Jewels are! For security measures you aren’t allowed to take photos but it was great to see a video of the coronation of the Queen and see the different crowns wore by several monarchs, the coronation spoon (over 800 years old–I mean really, a spoon!) and more.

4. Tower Bridge

As you exit the tower of London you will see a perfect view of Tower Bridge and the prettiest view of London. To be honest it is rather expensive to walk along the glass suspension walkway. I didn’t realize you had to pay. I’m sure photos from the top look amazing and granted it’s an experience but I’m also afraid of heights so it wasn’t a necessity for me. The bridge is a must see because it’s iconic and is a good photo opportunity.

5. The British Museum

If you wanted to you could spend an entire day here. The British Museum is huge. It has several floors all dedicated to different collections ranging from South Africa, Korea, China, Iran, Greece and more.

If you couldn’t tell from my blog I have a lot of love for Greece. I can admit I spent a little too much time looking through the sculptures and artifacts from Greece. However, the obvious highlight at the British Museum is the Rosetta Stone. As a lover of history to see the Rosetta Stone in real life was thrilling. Yes, I get excited over hieroglyphics and granite slabs. I know what you’re thinking…I am a cheap date.

The bus tour of course includes a number of other stops and sites to see but I wanted to put emphasis on these five locations because I visited these stops on my first day. Convenient? Yes! Traveling can be overwhelming, especially when you want to see everything but you’re on a time crunch. I’ll admit it might not seem like much but when you take into account the sheer fact I spent easily two hours at some of the bigger sites the day was practically over before it started.

London Calling

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My first day in London. A view of the London Eye and Parliament. 

After all these years I truly believed going to Greece was a fluke. I look at pictures and think ‘Did that really happen? Was I actually there?’ If it wasn’t for this blog I wouldn’t even remember the person I was back then or the experiences I had.

When I came back from Greece I never thought I’d have the opportunity to go anywhere again. To be frank it was expensive and traveling wasn’t the priority when I was just about to graduate from college. I needed a job. I needed a decent paycheck. I needed to #adult.

It wasn’t until 2015 that I started to plan my next trip. It happened unexpectedly. The funds were still nonexistent. I had a freelance job that paid me decent money and a second gig on the side but I was doing nothing. I felt unfulfilled, depressed and bored with life. Which is why when I received an e-mail that there was going to be a Harry Potter play in London I knew I had to go.

Call me a Potterhead. Call me a nerd. The truth of the matter is I felt a yearning. I had to get out of ‘dodge’ and the play gave me an excuse. It was 2015 and the earliest tickets I could get were for January 2017.

I can assure you I did not hesitate putting my credit card information in and pressing submit.

I was going to London…it was just going to take me a few years to get there.

Corfu Island: A Little Piece of Paradise

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Enjoying the view and the wind.

Here I am enjoying the view and the wind.

For a mere three days I visited Corfu Island. I’m pretty sure Corfu really means paradise in Greek because as we traveled by ferry (first, a four hour hellish bus ride) to reach the island I felt like I was in paradise.

The wind was blowing, the sun was shining and the water looked blue. If you haven’t visited New York before let me tell you a secret–the water isn’t blue, don’t go in the water, just don’t do it.

Seeing clean blue water is a big deal to me. The only time I go to the beach is when I’m in Puerto Rico and the strong waves make standing a workout.

Do you see how blue the water is? No filter people. This is unedited beauty right here.

Do you see how blue the water is? No filter people. This is unedited beauty right here.

A view of Corfu Island while on the ferry.

A view of Corfu Island while on the ferry.

Everyone was excited to visit the island (it was practically a vacation within a vacation) but after four hours on a bus and an hour and a half on a ferry (then a thirty minute bus ride to our hotel) we were all hungry, grumpy and hot.

A closer view of Corfu Island. The picture doesn't do it any justice.

A closer view of Corfu Island. The picture doesn’t do it any justice.

I’m not entirely sure how we survived the weekend. No one wanted to waste any time so the moment we got to the hotel we left about two hours later to check out the town.

Let me tell you something about Corfu that’s really unfortunate. Though beautiful, the downside is that it’s really expensive. We had gotten used to paying 8 euro at most for a taxi in Thessaloniki. On the island it cost my roommate and I 35 euro just to get back from the beach.

But the cost doesn’t matter much when you’re there because you have to experience and see as much as you can. According to my roommate’s Greek friend, Tassos, in three days you can only get a “smell” of the island, a small “taste.” Considering it’s the second largest of the Ionian Islands he’s right.

Embrace the smell and the small taste, ask yourself if sleep is really that important for a three day trip and when will you ever be in Greece again.

Here, I’ll help you with your answers:

Sleep isn’t important. Just get yourself a frappe.

Maybe never, so why waste another minute?

The city was actually inspired by Venice so the buildings and the cobblestone streets give you more of a taste of Italy than Greece.

The city was actually inspired by Venice so the buildings and the cobblestone streets give you more of a taste of Italy than Greece.

They have McDonald's. McDonald's is seriously everywhere in the world, isn't it? It's a little sad that I got excited once I saw it because the franchise reminds me of home.

They have McDonald’s. McDonald’s is seriously everywhere in the world, isn’t it? It’s a little sad that I got excited once I saw it because the franchise reminds me of home.

Music is sometimes played here. You can listen or watch while you sit or walk around the park.

Music is sometimes played here. You can listen or watch while you sit or walk around the park.

Apparently wealthy people take a trip on their boats to Corfu. Many of the girls I was with were excited at the possibility of meeting a rich man (one of them actually met two).

Apparently wealthy people take a trip on their boats to Corfu. Many of the girls I was with were excited at the possibility of meeting a rich man (one of them actually met two).

The food was expensive but seafood in general is expensive in Greece. It doesn't matter though, you need to have some while you're here. Our mussels were in lemon juice and just out of this world delicious.

The food was expensive but seafood in general is pricey in Greece. It doesn’t matter though, you need to have some while you’re here. Our mussels were in lemon juice and out of this world delicious.

Here was my main dish, chicken with potatoes and vegetables. The chicken fell right off the bone and nearly melted in my mouth (now I'm getting hungry just thinking about it).

Here was my main dish, chicken with potatoes and vegetables. The chicken fell right off the bone and nearly melted in my mouth

The highlight of my trip was visiting Achilleion palace where Empress of Austria Elisabeth of Bavaria loved. According to our tour guide, Elisabeth was a very unhappy woman and she suffered from anorexia.

The highlight of my trip was visiting Achilleion palace where Empress of Austria Elisabeth of Bavaria lived. According to our tour guide, Elisabeth was a very unhappy woman and she suffered from anorexia.

A look inside the palace and down the stairs.

A look inside the palace and down the stairs.

Elisabeth was actually a tall woman but her bed appears to be for a shorter person. During her time people used to sleep sitting up with pillows behind them because they felt laying down looked too much like the dead.

Elisabeth was actually a tall woman but her bed appears to be for a shorter person. During her time, people used to sleep sitting up with pillows behind them because they felt laying down made them look too much like the dead.

Besides the beautiful garden, Greek statues surround the outside.

Besides the beautiful garden, Greek statues surround the outside.

Take a quiet walk through the gardens, you won't be disappointed with the view at the end.

Take a quiet walk through the gardens, you won’t be disappointed with the view at the end.

The palace is named after Achilles. There are statues and paintings which depict Achilles and scenes from the Trojan War.

The palace is named after Achilles. There are statues and paintings which depict Achilles and scenes from the Trojan War.

Probably one of my favorite paintings, next to Las Meninas (by Diego Velazquez), The Triumph of Achilles by Franz von Matsch. Here he is dragging Hector's body from the gates of Troy.

Probably one of my favorite paintings, next to Las Meninas (by Diego Velazquez), The Triumph of Achilles by Franz von Matsch. Here he is dragging Hector’s body from the gates of Troy.

Another Day, A Different View

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“But that’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”

– Bill Bryson, Neither Here Nor there: Travels in Europe

The Walls of Thessaloniki

The Walls of Thessaloniki; photo credit: Michele Smoot

It is easy to feel lost when traveling in another country. Greek doesn’t make much sense to me, the letters are unfamiliar and strange. I squint when I read signs and am constantly puzzled when I make a turn on a block, always losing my way–the beauty of traveling to a new place, you never know what to expect or where you’re going to end up.

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Take an hour to examine the walls, notice the cracks, the history and soak up the view. The walls reminded me of Fort San Cristóbal in San Juan, Puerto Rico and a feeling of familiarity and protection overwhelmed me.

I wake up everyday and I make it my mission to explore. Instead of getting off at the correct bus stop I stay on, enjoying the ride for a few more stops, hoping I might see another jewel from Thessaloniki. Sometimes getting lost is intentional but most of the time it’s not (and that’s okay too).

After thirteen days of being in Greece I no longer feel worried, scared or alone. Before, it felt like my anxiety was going to swallow me whole.

I don’t feel like a tourist invading the country for a few week and then jetting back home, barely letting the city reveal it’s secrets. I feel changed but I am still the same person. I’m undergoing an experience that has just started but in the blink of an eye will be–unfortunately, regrettably (insert another synonym here)–over.

Take a peek over the edge and this is what you'll see.

Take a peek over the edge and this is what you’ll see.