Through the Fire(nze): Florence, Italy – April 23

PonteVecchio

One of my favorite shots from the whole trip: Ponte Vecchio is stunning.

I don’t think that Firenze (Florence) knows how to do “plain”. Everything is lavish and over the top.

It’s lively and bustling…and LOUD. I had to learn to stop being alarmed every time I thought I heard Italians having a heated debate. They were just having normal conversations. But with passion. And lots of hand motions. As a Latina I totally get you, Italy. We do that, too.

Like, Latina women are guilty of wearing too-small skinny jeans with rhinestones on the butt, paired with a stretchy neon orange low-cut top and heels.
…to the grocery store
…while pushing a kid in a stroller.

I saw a girl in Rome wear bright green Ugg boots with leopard leggings and gold hoop earrings…
Go ahead. Do you, boo.

I don’t know why I’m so surprised at how many tourists there are, seemingly mostly Americans. Holy crap they’re EVERY-fricking-where! I know I’m technically one of them, but I’d like to think of myself as more of a tourist ninja cause nobody ever knows I’m a foreigner.

Lavish_Firenze

And between The Jersey Shore filming at Pizzeria O’Vesuvio and the KimYe (Kim Kardashian/Kayne) wedding all taking place here, I’m pretty sure Italians secretly wish Americans and our shitty reality TV shows would stay the hell out.

I feel you, Italy. We think they’re douchebags too.

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And while Florence might signify art and culture to most, I made it an adventure.

You can keep your 7 euro Gucci coffee with fancy sugar. I prefer haggling with street vendors and drinking Fragola liqueur straight from the bottle.

Firenze in a nutshell:

  • Taking a chance on Fragola liqueur instead of Limoncello and discovering it tastes like strawberry Quik with booze in it. Sweet Jesus.
  • Making fun of people who spend 7 euros on coffee at the Gucci Museum Café because it’s served with brown sugar shaped like the Gucci symbol.
  • Girls taking selfies kissing the Gucci sign outside the museum. Girl, STOP.GucciSignKiss
  • Girls taking pictures of each other pointing to the Statue of David’s penis.
  • Successfully haggling street vendors down from 40 to 25 euros for a new suitcase.
  • Checking out girls’ asses and wondering which have more booty: Barca girls or Firenze girls.
  • Gaining 8 lbs and immediately wanting to work out console myself with more pizza.
  • Getting neck cramps from looking up at the gorgeous domed ceilings of Orsanmichele, Santa Croce and Santa Maria di Fiore.Churches
  • Aggressive street vendors who insist on touching the small of your back while they try to glance at your ass sell you a leather bag.
  • Leather as far as the eye can see – belts, jackets, bags, wallets, you name it. In EVERY color.
  • Fake designer shades fo’ days. You need some Fucci shades, boo? They got you! Unless the cops are coming, cause then they gotta pack up and run.
  • Falling in love with Mercato Centrale, where the best food stands have the longest lines.
  • Reaching the front of the line and being shouted at by a little old Italian lady trying to seat you.
  • Feeling strangely comforted by the above.
  • Amazing street musicians in Piazza della Repubblica.MercatoCentrale
  • Italian couples making out. EVERYWHERE.
  • Best gelato ever. Bless you, Grom.
  • Getting so tired of pizza and pasta that I went to McDonalds and ordered on a machine. Because every single McDonalds I saw in Europe replaced their cashier with machines.
  • Knowing you would all judge me for admitting I ate McDonalds in Italy.

I felt a little guilty not visiting the museums, but given that I had done so in every other city, I didn’t have it in me to do anything other than eat and wander.

No matter how gorgeous the destination, traveling alone wears on you after a while. I feel like I didn’t fully appreciate my time here because I’m just so tired.

Next stop, London! It’s time to go home to my boo and enjoy not living out of a suitcase for a while. That sounds like heaven right now.

But seriously, once I’m there it’s GYM time. Like HARD.

Cause after all these months of careless eating, my ass is gonna need its own passport to get home.

Being Bulletproof: Florence, Italy – April 21

heart-in-beartrap

And just like that, I said goodbye to Cinque Terre. My time there was way too short, but that’s how it should feel when you fall in love – like your time together is never enough.

I arrived in Florence with a newfound optimism. Despite a wheel breaking on my suitcase and having to drag it three blocks from the train station to my AirBnB, I laughed it off and made a mental note to buy a new one from a street vendor later.

My AirBnB host is out of town so his neighbor let me in. She didn’t speak English but between my fluent Spanish and minimal Italian, we completely understood each other. Long story short, I have a three-bedroom flat in central Florence all to myself – buonissimo!

It’s amazing that AirBnB hosts will allow complete strangers into their homes, especially when they are out of town.

I’ve noticed hospitality is different in every country. In England, France, Ireland and Holland, my hosts were fairly hands off. It was their way of giving me privacy. But in Spain and Italy, my hosts treated me like a member of their household.

On my last night in Barcelona, my three flatmates and their friends cooked a huge dinner and invited me to join them.

In Cinque Terre, my host called me down to her kitchen to eat dinner with her and her daughter. And on my last day, she dropped me off at the train station so I wouldn’t have to drag my suitcase onto a bus.

In Rome last year, my host took me to a cooking class at Eataly and then we had lunch and chatted all afternoon.

When I was stranded in Ventimiglia during the train strike, a group of friends saw me sitting alone at a cafe and invited me to join them for dinner and bar hopping, during which the men insisted on paying for everything.

Seriously, who ARE these people?!

This sort of blind, unconditional welcome is foreign to me. It’s foreign to most Americans, I think. We tend to begin new relationships with a wall built up, which we lower slowly over time. We often keep people at a distance until we get to know them.

I had to learn that not everyone who does something nice for me wants something in return.

Sometimes we focus so much on protecting ourselves from the “wrong” people that we prevent the right people from getting close to us, too.

But living life on the defense only works when you’re under attack.

When you’ve been hurt a lot, you get accustomed to wearing that armor every day. I know that all too well.

I tend to say things like, “This is why I hate people.”

But what I really mean is, “I hate being disappointed so I would rather expect the worst from people.”

The truth is, I’m so sensitive and easily hurt that I’ve mastered the art of using cynicism and sarcasm as an emotional bulletproof vest..

…although I prefer to call it my sense of humor.

SarcasmRealShit

And you know why sarcasm is f*cking awesome?

Because you can say whatever the hell you want without being held accountable…because you were obviously kidding.

Or because you can break the ice in awkward social situations and make people laugh…or offend them. It’s their fault if they don’t get it.

Or because nobody can hurt you because you never really told them anything real about you. You can’t hurt me because you don’t know me. Haha I win.

I’m so sarcastic that people who know me expect it from me. It’s part of my personality. In fact, I’m pretty sure some of my non-American friends think I’m either a complete idiot or a total bitch based on my Facebook posts…

Just kidding. They think that because I really am a bitch.

See? I can’t even tell the difference between sarcasm and my real thoughts anymore. And that’s bad.

My blog needs more cats. And this one speaks the truth.

My blog needs more cats. And this one speaks the truth.

I instantly bond with other sarcastic people but I have probably pushed a lot of others away or given them a bad impression of me.

It could be because of the language barrier, but I’ve stopped using sarcasm during my travels because it is often taken literally. It’s refreshing because I can’t use it as a shield anymore. I’m getting comfortable speaking genuinely, even if it makes me feel vulnerable.

This experience has opened me up so much.

Being spoken to with sincerity makes me want to be sincere.

Being trusted by strangers makes me want to prove I am trustworthy.

Being invited to the dinner table makes me want to welcome new people into my life.

Getting hurt is not the worst thing that can happen. In fact, the bravest are those who have had pages torn from their lives yet remain an open book. They are the ones I admire most.

So lower your armor.

Until you do, you’re living life from inside a bulletproof case. Sure, people can’t get to you. But you can’t get to any of them either.

P.S. I went off on a tangent and didn’t talk about Florence at all in this post, but I will next time. Here are a few photos from my Instagram (instagram.com/maaridee), but I promise you it’s more gorgeous than anything I could capture. 

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Because I’m Happy: Cinque Terre, Italy – April 18

The universe has been speaking to me more and more lately.

The more trust I’ve placed within myself, the more the universe guides and provides for me. Some may call it God, but I just know it’s a force greater than all of us.

After wallowing in loneliness and anxiety for a couple of days, all of a sudden, the storm was over.

It happened in an instant.

The sun’s rays broke through the clouds and fed the hungriest corners of my soul, and a sense of peace and immense gratitude replaced the parts of me where uncertainty once resided.

In one spontaneous moment, the universe spoke to me through the innocence of a child and showed me why I was here – and it’s the same reason why we are all here on this Earth.

“Umm, are you talking about the meaning of life? Cause THAT sounds a little cray.”

Weeeeell, I wouldn’t go that far. I don’ t want y’all to think I’ve completely lost my shit. I obviously don’t have all the answers – I’m only beginning to discover my answers. But they could be yours, too.

Let me explain.

I kept letting things get to me the past few days. It all started when I arrived in Cinque Terre a day late due to the Italian train strike. And when I finally arrived and felt how life-changing this place was going to be, I wished I had another day to soak it all in. I felt cheated.

To top it off I was exhausted from country-hopping for the past two months, and the mild discomfort of living in other people’s homes was wearing on me. I felt like I was squandering away this beautiful experience by focusing on the negatives – by focusing on what I didn’t have.

Monterosso

Monterosso’s beach is magic

I continued making my way through Cinque Terre’s five villages, and on my final day I visited Monterosso and Corniglia.

Monterosso’s beaches were sunny and gorgeous. I didn’t have a swimsuit but I didn’t think twice to strip down and sunbathe as hang gliders jumped from the cliffs and landed on the beach in front of me.

With my earbuds in and Spotify on, I observed my own personal paradise to the tune of a hip hop soundtrack.

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Some plots of land in Corniglia remain in rubble like this one, while the home behind it still stands.

A few tanlines later, I hopped back on the train and traveled further down the coast to Corniglia, a village perched high on the Ligurian cliffsides with no beach access.

I walked around the village and noticed it was still recovering from damage caused by the floods and mudslides of 2011. Many of the structures were still being rebuilt.

Seeing as this village was still under construction, it seemed less picturesque compared to the others.

Selfishly, I wished I had ventured to Vernazza instead, or back to Riomaggiore or Manarola which had captured my heart. Since I only had three full days in Cinque Terre, I felt pressured to make use of every moment. I didn’t want to “waste time”, which in retrospect, is a very American way of thinking.

After walking through Corniglia and snapping some photos, I stopped for dinner. I claimed a table in a rustic little courtyard in front of this dilapidated church covered in scaffolding. I sipped my wine and observed the people around me.IMG_2012

All of a sudden, I hear a familiar song. It’s a song I had heard in several countries during this trip, but it didn’t resonate with me until now.

“It might seem crazy what I’m bout to say…

Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break..”

Pharrell’s song “Happy” flooded the courtyard, and a toddler at a nearby table lept out of his mother’s lap to dance!

Soon, the courtyard united in laughter, watching him shake his little diaper butt. I wanted to tell the boy’s family how much their son had made my day, but all I could mutter was “Bambino prezioso.”

They spoke no English, yet an American song transcended language and made us all feel the song’s message: happiness.

Then I started thinking about how I had also heard “Happy” at Placa Nova in Barcelona. A little boy wearing a Messi jersey stopped kicking his soccer ball around to dance, while his father watched and smiled. And in Brighton, England, a cover band sang it at a beachside cafe and people stopped eating to grab their friends by the hand to dance to it.

So what does it all mean?

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The rays of light peeking through this dark alleyway in Corniglia was another reminder to follow my sunshine…my Happy.

Well, on my walk back to the Corniglia train station, I played the song on my Spotify app and listened closely to the lyrics, with the gorgeous cliffsides of Corniglia as my backdrop.

I was inspired. I can’t explain why, but it hit me so hard.

Tears started streaming down my face from behind my shades. My pent-up anxiety and loneliness began to fade, because I felt like the song had been following me on this trip, cheering me on for finally living out my “Happy”.

I was doing what I had always been scared to do. To move away from San Francisco and leave family, friends, my career, and put myself in an unknown situation where I could fail, and fail hard. Because I didn’t have a plan, but “winging it” kinda was my plan.

It was then I knew that I was exactly where I needed to be.

What I realized is…

The purpose of life isn’t to struggle and sacrifice and shut out our sense of adventure so that we can be happy someday. Life is happening around us, all the time. And most days, we miss living because we’re too busy merely existing.

… too busy commuting to a job we hate, face-down in our smartphones, surrounded with people who don’t inspire us or reciprocate our efforts, participating in obligatory activities, forcing smiles, faking enthusiasm.

And we become good at it. So good, that even we believe the lies we tell ourselves.

Day after day, doing the same thing…

Usually the safe thing…

Usually the predictable, familiar thing.

All for what?

So we can work our way up at a job to maybe get a raise that we’ll probably end up spending anyway? So we can have people around us to pass the time with so we’re not alone? So we can avoid failure by never trying?

I know this all too well. I spent my 20s working hard at things I thought would give me my Happy:
college, grad school, promotions at work, bought a house, got married…you know, typical stuff. And there’s nothing wrong with these things if you want them for the right reasons.

When I finally left my job I was raking in an enviable salary, even by San Francisco’s standards. But with every promotion, I allowed my lifestyle to become more expensive to compensate for the fact that I was missing something.

I was in a marriage where I felt like a shell of myself. I was his property and he controlled my body and mind. I spent over a decade feeling insecure and numb, living life on autopilot with a rehearsed smile.

From the outside, it looked like I had it all. But that was far from the truth.

The day I decided that starting over was less terrifying than staying on my current path is the day I began reclaiming my life.

I saw this quote just before I booked my flight to London last summer, and it resonates with me to this day: BirdTrustsInItsWings

Live your Happy today, not tomorrow or someday.

To think you can wait is presumptuous, because you may not be given the gift of tomorrow. It’s normal to procrastinate while you work up the courage to make a change, but after a while, the excuses get stale and you’re just using fear as a crutch.

If there’s something you’ve been talking about doing for years, why aren’t you actively working towards doing it? Because trust me, your friends and family are tired of hearing you talk about it already.

So shut up.

Stop talking about what you’re gonna do or what you should do and start doing it. Go chase after your Happy.

Before you go to bed tonight, do something that brings you closer to your Happy. Whether it’s browsing through job postings, taking a photography class, looking into licensing requirements for a new business, or making a long-overdue phone call to tell someone you forgive them.

Whatever it is, take a baby step towards it today.

Start by waking up every morning with gratitude for everything you love about your life, and a tenacious drive to change all that you don’t.

“Happiness is the truth”. And happiness waits for no one. Happiness chases no one. Not even you.

Companionship Detox: Cinque Terre, Italy – April 16

The train strike ended and I picked up right where I left off. The next morning, I said goodbye to Ventimiglia from the window of my eastbound Trenitalia train.

I had a feeling that my next destination would forever change me. Even from the pictures I had seen of Cinque Terre, I felt a stirring in my soul. I couldn’t wait to see it in person.

Cinque Terre, Italian for “The Five Lands”, is comprised of five villages – Manarola, Riomaggiore, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. They are only accessible by train or hiking trails. There are no cars, buses or corporations here.

Needless to say, it’s a tricky place to get to. When my train arrived, I lugged my suitcase 1km uphill because my AirBnB is in the mountains of La Spezia, Italy. But as in life, any destination worth getting to won’t be easy.

When I left California, I didn’t know where I would end up. I booked a one-way ticket and purposely left my travel plans open. I found Cinque Terre by way of a travel blog. All it took was one photograph to know I was meant to be there.

Manarola

Manarola is breathtaking. Bucket-list worthy.

The next morning, I began making my way to each of the five villages. And when I arrived at Manarola, I had to stop and wonder whether it was a mirage. Maybe I should just rub my eyes because this place just can’t be real.

Only it is real.

To know that I’ve lived a lifetime not knowing this inexplicably gorgeous place exists, makes me feel like I’ve been living life wrong. I’ve been missing out. I haven’t been living.

Because if Cinque Terre exists, with its multicolored houses perched high along the cliffsides of the Italian Mediterranean coast, then what else have I been missing?

It’s too much to bear. I don’t even know what to say. I can’t stop staring. This place is magic. It’s so beautiful it almost hurts.

Riomaggiore

Even if real life, Riomaggiore doesn’t look like real life.

On my second day, I make my way to Riomaggiore. I find a rock to sit on, just below the cliffs. My senses drink in every sight, smell and sound as if they have been starved. I sat there for hours, just listening…

To the fishing boats sploshing around where the river meets the ocean.

To the distant call of seagulls.

To the waves crashing along the cliffside.

It looked as if Mother Earth had turned up the saturation, because every color was as vivid as I’ve ever seen it. If heaven exists on earth, this would be mine.

The picture I just painted with words don’t do it justice, so here is some footage I shot. Like Jhene Aiko says in this song, “There’s no place quite like here. There’s no better time than now.”

And then I start crying.

I swear I’ve been hella emo (emotional) on this trip. I probably could’ve burst into tears at the sight of two birds preening each other. I need to get my shit together.

RiomaggioreLockBridge

Couples write their names on a lock and secure it to this bridge overlooking the ocean in Riomaggiore.

In the midst of my entrancement, I suddenly realized I had no one to share this view with. No one to take pictures with. Nobody to stare off into the ocean with.

Even if I could Skype home, they’re not even awake yet. I look around me, and I seem to be the only person without a companion. People around me are taking pictures of each other, holding hands, sharing gelato cones.

I feel so fucking alone right now. I know it sounds ridiculous to be feeling sorry for myself when I’m in a city that would top anyone’s bucket list. But somehow, I yearned to connect with someone in that moment…to share in the beauty of what I was seeing.

Even if we didn’t speak a word.

To just sit there, in silence, on a giant rock and watch the waves crash along the rocks.

Or watch hang gliders land right in front of you on the beach (yes that really happened!).

I’m so proud of myself for being here. For my whole life up until year ago, I couldn’t stand being alone. I never had to be. I purposely kept my social calendar full, even if it was with the wrong people.

That’s part of why I’ve traveled so much – to know what and who I really need in my life.

CinqueTerre

If heaven existed on earth, this would be mine.

I’ve lived out of a suitcase for a while now. The only people I communicate with regularly are my boyfriend, mom, and two best friends. And I’m okay with that. I don’t need my travel experiences to be validated by anyone, but I’ve spent so much time alone that I longed to share this moment with someone.

I started to feel like I did in Barcelona at Fontana de Montjuic. My solitude is starting to catch up with me. I just want to be seen by someone who knows me. Someone whose eyes tell me that they recognize me and are happy to see me. I miss having the companionship of someone familiar. It’s different when you converse with strangers.

Although the anonymity can be liberating at first, eventually it starts to feel quite empty. I’m not in each city long enough to make friends. And even when I have, I inevitably have to say goodbye to them. Familiar faces replenish the soul, and mine is starting to run on empty.

And then I realize that, until now, I had never enjoyed my own company. I couldn’t stand to be with myself in silence. It gave me too much time to think.

But that’s all starting to change now. By traveling, I’ve put myself into Companionship Detox, in a sense. Because if I’m not comfortable spending time alone, then I’m making it too easy for the wrong people to occupy that void in my life.

Don’t allow people to occupy space in your life unless they are contributing something – unless they are reciprocating your time and your efforts.

Otherwise, you will inevitably find yourself drained and disappointed. I know this all too well.

This isn’t the realization I expected to have during my time here. But it’s a realization that was long overdue.

I’m All I Need to Get By: Ventimiglia (by way of train strike), April 14

Sometimes you just have to laugh.

Have you ever had one of those days with one setback after another? You might even bust out laughing just to avoid cutting someone or bursting into tears.

That was yesterday. After finally receiving my new phone in the mail and the data STILL not working, I left Nice with no way to navigate to the mountains of Cinque Terre, Italy except screenshots of maps on my phone.

So when my train inexplicably stopped at the French-Italian border and all passengers got off, I was like “Oh well of COURSE this is happening right now. PERFECT!”

I have no clue where I am except that I’m 300km from my next destination. I don’t know what the train conductor is saying in French except that we all need to get the fuck off the train because no trains were entering Italy.

I overhear a group of British ladies on my train and they graciously offer to let me tag along with them while they figure out what’s going on, since one of them spoke French.

It turns out there was an Italian train strike until 9pm. Apparently train strikes are fairly common in Italy, but it just haaad to happen when I was traveling, with a non-functioning phone. Ugh!

So all four of us squeeze into a cab and cross the border into Italy. Our taxi let us out at a bus station in the sleepy, seaside town of Ventimiglia, Italy, where my British saviors planned to board a bus to San Remo, just a few kilometers away.

“Okay perfect, I’ll just take a bus then too!”

“Oh no, darling. We’ve been to Cinque Terre and that’s much too long. You’d spend an entire day and night on different buses. You’d better stay the night here. Good luck.”

And in a flash, the taxi had taken off, the British ladies were gone, and I stood outside in the rain with my luggage. And as much as I wanted to feel sorry for myself or be overcome with fear, I couldn’t. I was stranded. I had no time for that.

My inner hood chick came out like “Bitch you better stop sulking and start walking! Ain’t nobody here to feel sorry for you. Figure it out. GO.”

I had to find a hotel. Without a functioning phone, my only option was to roll my bag with me around town looking for a bed and breakfast. In larger cities that would be easy, but not here.

IMG_1851It took me about half an hour to stumble across Hotel Posta. When the front desk receptionist told me a room was 70 euros I was like “Oh thank GOD!” It could’ve been so much worse.

IMG_1871 IMG_1867 No sooner did I settle into my room when the rain suddenly stopped and the sun beamed brightly. Perfect timing, Mother Nature. *side eye*

So I spent the afternoon walking along the gorgeous waterfront, admiring the colorful little boats on the beach and the palm trees swaying in the wind. Then I explored the hills of Old Ventimiglia, where steep, narrow staircases and dark, twisted tunnels WERE the streets.

IMG_1866 Houses sat perched on cliffsides, overlooking the sea. It’s a city of inexplicable, effortless beauty. This city is rustic and charming with views that took my breath away.

I could’ve easily gotten lost but my sense of fear had almost diminished at this point. I allowed myself to get lost in the twisted tangle of winding alleys, with faith that I would find my way back.

IMG_1862Every person I saw in Ventimiglia greeted others by name as they passed each other in the street. There were no tourists here. So needless to say, I stood out with my Chucks, Run DMC shirt, and neon orange nail polish. But this is Italia, after all, so the glares I caught were always friendly ones.

After finding my way back near my hotel, I stopped at Brasserie Oceane for a limoncello. I was alone, but not for long.

“They would like to buy you a drink if you go and sit with them. It’s ok?” My bartender pointed to the next table.

I glanced over and saw Giada, Angela, Massimiliano, Natalina and their golden Labrador retriever puppy, Roy.

I nervously walked over and sat down to a table of smiling faces. The one who spoke English quickly became my translator. They ordered me an Aperol spritz and began asking about who I was, why I was here and where I was going next.

At first I had my guard up. I wondered what they wanted and why they were being so nice.

But then I was like “Shut up bitch, they’re buying you drinks!”

So I stayed. Three bars, one sushi dinner and several Aperol spritz later, we found ourselves comparing notes on the state of excessive taxation of the working class in our respective countries.

A conversation facilitated by my Spanish, broken Italian and the iTranslate app. I remember stopping mid conversation to revel in the serendipity of it all…

If there hadn’t been a train strike or I’d chosen to travel on a different day, I wouldn’t be having this conversation with these people right now. I would’ve passed this city on the train and gone straight through to Cinque Terre, which was my plan. But this experience was given to me by the universe, not my own doing.

In a situation where I had every right to freak out, I didn’t. I was strangely calm. I embraced being stranded in a new city with an open mind and dare I say, enthusiasm?

As someone with a headstrong Type A personality, who makes checklists for everything, who until now had approached life as a project manager instead of an artist…this was a huge step forward for me.

I let go. I relinquished control to something greater than myself, even though I’m not quite sure what that something is. I had to have faith in myself instead of my plans.

In retrospect, my newfound disdain for monotony has a lot to do with being raised in a strict, old-school Mexican Catholic household. Girls (and women) are seen as frail creatures to be protected, first by their parents and then by their boyfriends and husbands.

We make decisions for them, tell them what’s best, what’s too dangerous, too late, or not good enough. We tell them who to date, how to behave, how to dress, and to avoid risk at all costs.

Women raised in this environment often equate love with control because we are accustomed to having those who love us tell us what is in our best interest.

For me, this mindset continued into my marriage. He was my first boyfriend and he took on the role of Controller. But this role was familiar to me. And even though I was educated with an established career, I let him retain control because I associated control with love.

As I had been accustomed, I silenced my own judgment and intuition. When my intuition tried to surface, I shoved it deeper into a soundproof box in my mind and locked it away. Until one day, something in me was awakened and I no longer wanted to silence it.

Since walking away from that relationship more than two years ago, I’ve challenged myself to use a set of emotional muscles I never used before.

I think that’s why I’ve thrown myself into situations where I am forced to rely only on myself – by traveling alone and “winging” my travel plans instead of planning everything in advance. By removing myself from familiar people and places. By leaving my marriage, my hometown, my job and my family.

I felt the need to go to great lengths to prove to myself that only I know what I need best. That I can do anything, go anywhere, be anyone. That I can dismantle my life and start over.

I called a train strike on the path of my life and forced it into a new and unknown direction. And it saved my life…not in the physical sense, but spiritually. I no longer need to silence my spirit in order to sketch my path to fit another person’s blueprint.

Doing so is worse than dying, because you have to wake up every morning and live someone else’s idea of the life you should be leading.

When the train strike ended and I boarded that train to Cinque Terre the next morning, I stared out the window and couldn’t stop smiling. Because I know that I am who I needed all along.

Caviar dreams on a fishstick budget: Nice, French Riviera, April 11

One week and 190 euros later, I got my phone back!

Too bad it DOESN’T WORK.

I didn’t realize this until I was at the Barcelona airport headed to Nice. So I spent my entire first day in Nice talking to AT&T Wireless customer service via my laptop (bless you Google for inventing G-Phone though Gmail), only to conclude my phone was officially dead.

I was so mad at myself for wasting my first day here in my room, worrying about a phone.

But since my next destination is in the Italian mountains, I need a phone to navigate. So I shelled out another $200 and had my best friend overnight me a phone from San Diego (Thank you Bev, I love you.) Until then, it’s back to technology-less exploring!

NiceFranceI always love the oldest parts of a city the most.

That’s why I find Vielle Ville (Old Nice) so charming. It’s a winding maze of colorful houses, shops, churches and cafes. The hills are so steep in some places that the streets are actually stairs!

Oh my God is that a little old French man playing an accordion?!

Yes. Wow, that really happens here. I feel like I’m in a romance movie. I must’ve stood atop the Chateau de Nice viewpoint for hours on multiple days, just listening to him play. And tipping him so he wouldn’t leave 🙂

I love this city so much. It’s not at all like I imagined.

When I thought of Nice, I imagined rich people spending their winters in the South of France, soaking up the sun in the grand French Riviera, eating caviar and a drinking fancy wine I can’t pronounce.

And then all of a sudden I hear Robin Leach’s voice in my head like:

“Oh good, you’re here. The Beckhams need their pillows fluffed! And why aren’t you in uniform? Do you even speak English?”

Even in my dreams, I am mistaken for the help. FML.

And while Nice has its fair share of Jimmy Choo-wearing, Hermes bag-toting tourists, it’s not exclusively for the rich…

…well OBVIOUSLY, cause my unemployed ass is here.

I never feel like I’m compromising anything by not arriving with a purse full of euros. By venturing a bit from the main restaurant strips, you can get dinner and a ½ litre of wine without breaking the bank.

I bought groceries at Carrefour and eat breakfast at home every day. My AirBnB hosts work during the day and let me use their espresso maker, so I have proper French breakfast every morning for only the cost of groceries.

And the beach doesn’t cost a thing. I pack lunch to take to the beach – and a yoga mat because the beach is all rocks, no sand.

So I save my euros for dinner. And gelato. Must have gelato.

IMG_0735When I was in Paris with my friend Jaime in October, we would buy baguettes from the patisserie and pate and wine from Monoprix. Then we would find an empty bench in a park or across from the Eiffel tower and have a picnic….all for just a few euros.

Nevermind that it’s “technically” illegal to drink alcohol in the street – the machine gun-armed policemen seemed to have bigger problems to worry about. So drink away!

Living caviar dreams on a fish stick budget, BITCHES!

The thing is, anyone can do it. Affordable alternatives are everywhere if you put in the effort and do a little research.

And reading my blog doesn’t hurt either, obviously. Look at you, you are SO smart!

Put down your phone and start living: Barcelona, April 5

Smartphones are a safety net.

They prevent us from having to expose vulnerability by admitting we are lost. They help us to not feel awkward when we are having lunch alone, riding the bus alone, or when we don’t want to be approached.

We can revel in the comfort of the familiar glow of a 3 x 5.5” screen, and only occasionally look up to ask our server for the check, or make sure we’re not tripping on anything as we walk down the street.

We record beautiful moments on our phones instead of actually watching them.

Sound familiar? Yeah. You’re not the only one.

I’ve gotten better at navigating without a phone. At first I was afraid of getting lost in one of the million little winding alleys of El Barrio Gotic. But I had to suck it up and get used to the idea that I might have to actually TALK to people and maybe even…**gasp**…ask for DIRECTIONS!

Friday night I went to dinner at 9pm, typical Catalan dinner hour, at a Turkish hole-in-the-wall, Salterio. My AirBnB customer service representative randomly suggested it in an email, so I found the directions via my laptop, memorized the turn by turn directions from my house, and walked over.

The restaurant was small but it was rammed: there was a large group celebrating a birthday, several couples…all locals, it seemed.

There was only one seat left. It was at the bar, near the front door.

I quickly realized the entire restaurant was being run by only two people – an old Turkish woman and her son. He looked frazzled and warned me my order would take a while because they were so busy.

“Esta bien. No estoy de prisa,” I told him.
(It’s okay, I’m in no rush).

He gave me a look of relief and handed me a menu, as he continued to mutter orders frantically to his mother.

Seated directly in front of the old woman, I watched her intently. Her wrinkled, veiny hands trembled as she calmly sliced up one fresh tomato, onion, and mint sprig after another.

Her son’s frenzy seemed to have no effect on her. She noticed me watching her and smiled,

“Todos quieren todo al momento. Todo el mundo esta de prisa. Hacemos lo que podemos.”
(Everyone wants everything at once. The world is in a rush. We do what we can.)

The old woman offered to relocate me to a table if one opened up. I politely declined. Because what she didn’t realize was, I was enjoying watching her cook.

I walked past Salterio nearly every day and she was always here, chopping vegetables and greeting customers.

She reminded me of my abuelita (grandma) Chuy who passed away years ago. I used to love watching her cook, cross-stitch, or pretty much do anything with her trembling, yet steadfast hands. Her hands didn’t work as quickly as they used to, but they created magic, upholding multiple generations of tradition within them.

I sat at that bar for nearly two hours, completely entranced by this woman.

It felt like my grandmother was reaching out to me through her. And the crowded chaos around me slowly disappeared.

And do you know WHY I noticed these things?

Because I didn’t have a phone.

I didn’t have a phone to curb the awkwardness of sitting alone in a crowded restaurant on a Friday night.

I didn’t have a phone to prevent me from making accidental eye contact with a stranger.

I didn’t have a phone to Instagram my meal with, or check in on Yelp with.

And in that moment, I was grateful. I realized why my phone broke down during my trip and not before. The universe needed to show me that until now I was merely visiting these cities, I wasn’t really seeing them.

This was the beginning of a change in me that has lasted to this day.

When I Skyped with my parents the next day and told them about my dinner experience, I noticed my mom remove her glasses to wipe her tears. And then I kept talking to cover up the fact that I was crying, too.

During dinner, my five senses became a living canvas upon which the universe painted the masterpiece of this night…and every night that would follow from this day forth. Because I finally understood what I had been missing this whole time.

BarcelonaCathedralStairs

Stairs of Catedral de Barcelona

As I sipped my sangria, my ears picked up the clanging of distant church bells, the clacking of women’s heels on the cobblestone streets, to the guitarist whose distant tune sounded a hell of a lot like Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”…

…which caused me to follow the music after dinner and find him playing in the plaza behind Barcelona Cathedral, to a small audience huddled along the cathedral stairs.

I would’ve missed it all.

Listen. Look around. Make eye contact. Talk to strangers. Smile at them, even.

Feel awkward and embrace it. Get lost. Ask for directions.

Live. Because no other moment exists except the one that is happening right now.

Lost and Found: Barcelona, April 4

IMG_1676I’m so screwed. This city has me sprung.

It’s like when you’re in love and everything they do is endearing. And it doesn’t even have to be anything extraordinary, but to you it’s beautiful because it’s them. To me, Barcelona can do no wrong.

I’m in love with Barca for the simple things others may not appreciate…for the peace I feel when I’m here. This city is alive and loud and bustling but I’m part of it – I’m not an outsider. Everywhere I go, I belong.

I’ve gotten more comfortable being phoneless, so I wander around a lot more. And it has resulted in the most beautiful accidents.

I’ve allowed myself to get lost in order to find the heart of the city.

LaPlataCounterFor example, when I discovered Bar La Plata, I stood at the counter elbow-to-elbow with fast-talking Spaniards drinking vino rosado from tiny cups. The place is no larger than a livingroom, with only four tables which are always taken. But the best “seat” in the house is standing at the counter. An old man runs back and forth from the kitchen serving everyone. And there is no menu because they only make four things. One of the simplest but best meals I’ve ever had.

IMG_1648And when I randomly came across a marching band parading through the El Born streets at sunset. Children instinctively followed them, dancing their little hearts out as their moms chased after them. As they made their way down Carrer de Sant Pau…

I looked up and saw windows begin to open, one at a time, as neighbors popped their heads out to listen.

Or when I got caught in a freaking DOWNPOUR that resembled the end of days, and ended up laughing and chatting with locals as we huddled in a doorway and waited for the storm to ease up.

Or when I got lost trying to find the Cathedral of Barcelona and stumbled upon the beautiful plaza of Placa Nova. I ended up forgoing my plans and soaking up the Mediterranean sun on the plaza stairs instead, along with 100+ others, as street musicians plucked away at their guitar strings and time seemed to stand still around us.

My best days have been complete accidents.

The days that my plans didn’t go as planned.

The days I left my flat having no plan at all.

And sometimes, that’s the best plan of all.

Being phoneless isn’t so bad.