My travel favorites of 2017

I think I can say for most people around the world that 2017 was such a strange and heartbreaking, yet wonderful, year. As an American expat, I don’t even want to begin to get into politics, and as someone whose current home base is Finland, I can’t begin to talk about climate change and the ramifications (which we see daily in the Nordics) of it, or I might just completely break down. 

Besides all the external factors, 2017 started off as an extremely rough year for me. I moved to Finland in August 2016 and had been having such a hard time adjusting. As the months went by, I kept feeling more and more out of place. I was in an extremely dark place (literally and figuratively) that I had no idea how to get out of. I have struggled with depression before and have learned the tools of fighting it when I see signs of it coming on, but this was a new color of depression that I had no idea how to approach. I had no idea how it was manifesting or how it would take shape. I became so exhausted from the crying and the tears and the pain that I didn’t even have the energy to pack up my stuff and leave: I just completely gave up. 

So, I decided during the summer I would travel as much as possible, in hopes of some alleviation. I would do the things I love — study languages, knock out some more UNESCO World Heritage Sights, listen to soulful live music, stuff myself to the brim with shrimp and oysters — and I would figure out how to tackle adult depression and the loneliness and beauty and enervation of feeling completely alone while living abroad. The summer was wonderful and it did just that. I was able to spend 6 weeks total in America with my family and re-forge my relationship with my best friends. I tried tons of new foods, had my new skin & hair problems somewhat fixed (my body is still trying to adjust to the water & weather in Finland!), tackled Arabic school, started my travel blog, and met tons of inspiring women solo travelers through all of it. 

During the summer of non-stop travel (not joking! This summer alone I had something like 32 flights), I realized the one thing that had significantly changed in my life and disappeared from my personality. American expats seem to try their hardest to differentiate themselves from Americans back home, and I have definitely become a part of that group. It’s not that I don’t tell people I’m American or that I love being back in America or that I think America does have good things to offer, it’s more just that American expats, more so than other groups, seem to really want to set boundaries of who they are. No expat wants to be seen talking so loudly in crowds or to be so outgoing that it makes others say, “Oh, that’s an American”. And this summer, meeting so many amazing Americans and being enveloped in their energy, made me realize that the one thing I had sub-consciously, and somewhat strategically, been trying to do — i.e. not look “too American” — was the one thing I really needed back in my life.

By January of this year, I had become hopeless on meeting new people in Finland. I stopped talking to strangers, I had stopped giving people hugs, I had stopped smiling randomly on the street (all extremely American traits!). But, it created a big hole in my life where I wasn’t meeting new people, I wasn’t getting the comfort of making conversations and learning random things about new people. My life had become completely static and wasn’t being molded or shaped or embraced by my interactions with others. This summer made me realize I wanted that back in my life. I wanted to start being bubbly and outgoing again. I wanted to smile at people on the streets for no reason. And if people think I’m crazy? Oh well. It’s me. 

And the best thing? When I arrived back in Helsinki for my second year of my master’s degree, I’ve instantly felt a weight lifted. I’ve started making friends, I’ve started feeling more comfortable in my city. I am still quite inhibited and cautious than I would be in a new city in America, but I feel more balanced and more true to myself — and to my confusing blend of my heritage, coupled with my expatriate & overseas influences from living abroad for years. 

SO, this year was an interesting year, with a conflux of feelings and emotions and events occurring. I met amazing people, revisited and deeper explored places I’ve seen before, had my heart broken and picked back up again. There was so much that happened and so much to go into, I figured I could best sum up my highlights and my lowlights in a “best of/worst of/favorite” list. 

Best hotel of 2017: 

The White Hart Inn. Absolutely stunning location. Still in awe of the landscape and the detail put into the rooms. Would easily go back to Bath just to stay again at this inn.

Best hostel of 2017:

Okay, so I’m not really a hostel stayer (I’m such a light sleeper!), but I did cave and stay in a few this year. I loved Bed & Bike Hostel in Barcelona. Decent location, but great design and tons of activities/extras included in your hostel price.

Worst flight:

We were flying back from Singapore to Helsinki and since we didn’t have internet, I missed the check-in and got stuck between two people in the middle section. I don’t sleep on planes, especially not 14 hour ones, and I get up a lot to walk and stretch (I need a knee replacement because my body has decided to age like Benjamin Button, so I’m in pain a lot). To top it all off, my tv wasn’t working and the two men on either side of me BOTH decided to sleep on my shoulder and NEITHER would move or wake up. The joys of traveling. 

Most interesting train ride:

When I missed my station while heading to Pamplona and had to ride another hour, have the train do an emergency stop in the middle of nowhere for me, making me stuck without a phone or any soul in sight in this ghost town, walked the streets with my luggage, until this old man (who shared no common language with me) because my complete savior. 

Favorite new city of 2017:

Lisbon. The food, the location, the people, the architecture, the art. Lisbon just can’t be beat. I only had 4 days though (I snuck it in as a long layover on my way to Morocco!), so hoping to get Portugal back on the travel schedule sometime soon.

Most interesting new food:

Definitely a tie, both in Lisbon. We tried barnacles, and embarrassingly enough, I didn’t even know animals were a living creature until the moment I was asked if I wanted to try one. Then, I tried live octopus. Morally, not the best. For interesting category though, it definitely tops. I think I hold the world record for most times someone has chewed one bite because I was so stressed it would wrap around my tonsils or uvula and choke me!

Favorite place to walk around:

Montmartre. Everyone that follows me on Instagram knows that 2017 is the year that I went from hating Paris to being absolutely head-over-heels in love. So in love that if anyone wants to offer me a job there…. But Montmartre, even when I didn’t like Paris as a whole, has always been special to me. Maybe it’s my obsession with Chopin that I’ve had from years of piano playing or the photogenic quality of all of it, who knows. It’s a magical area though.

Favorite budget eatery:

Yamal Acham in Rabat, Morocco. There were 6 of us and we stuffed ourselves with Syrian food for about $25. 

Most disappointing new country:

Australia. I feel like I shouldn’t harp on this, but I was completely let down by the country. Everyone kept saying “oh, but it’s because you need to go to ______”. And then we would go to that place, not be impressed, and we would hear, “oh but _____ is so much better”. And so on. As an American who spent a lot of her childhood in Florida, it felt JUST like Florida. Except a few different foods and a lot of different terminology. Plus a flight all the way around the world. 

Favorite airline:

Okay, this was my favorite airline of 2016 and most likely will be of 2018 too, but I LOVE Qatar. They are about the only airline that still gives a good experience in economy. Seats are plush and have some room, they give a travel kit when you board, the food isn’t just an iceberg lettuce salad, and unlimited wine/beer/spirits (even in economy). And, as a perk, a lot of flights have a stopover in Doha, so if you have time you can get a transit visa and see a new city for a bit before catching your connection!

Best credit card for travelers:

Chase Sapphire Preferred. How I didn’t have this credit card before this year, I will have no idea. This credit card is just absolutely incredible for those that travel a lot — the sign up bonus, the double points, you name it.

If you travel a lot in America, hands down the best card is the Chase Southwest. Within a year, putting only about $500-700/month on my card, I’ve gained about 50k in points. If you have ever flown Southwest or looked at their points, you know you can score flights for an extremely low amount of points. For example, roundtrip Atlanta to Havana will cost you only about 10 to 12 thousand points. A flight across the country might only be 30,000 roundtrip. It racks up really quickly and a great way to see more of America and nearby countries! 

Favorite museum:

Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rabat. We were all extremely surprised and awed by the quality of this museum. When we visited, there was a great international exhibit on Picasso, but there is also a permanent exhibit that showcases artists from Northern Africa (and across Africa). It’s great because it’s not focused on South African art, as almost all African art exhibitions are, but artists from a variety of places. 

Tied for first would be the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. The gardens, the building, it’s all stunning and they always have quality exhibitions there. And, on the plus side, it’s nowhere near as crowded as the main museums of Paris. 

Favorite camera lens of 2017:

Canon 28-135mm. I love using this lens as my daily go-to because it does pretty good with landscapes and great with portraits, which I love taking. 

Worst language school:

L'Alliance française Paris. I was extremely disappointed with the quality and what you receive for your money. The school has way too many students and teachers that don’t really seem to care (probably because their class sizes are way too large).

Best language school:

On the flip side, I was extremely happy with Qalam wa Lawh in Rabat. Class sizes are small, there’s a great learning community (I guess you have to be really committed to wanting to learn the language if you go to an all-day Arabic program), and I felt like I actually made a ton of progress. 

Best wine bar:

BA Wine Bar in Lisbon. Do not go to Lisbon without going here. Hands down the best place to try Portuguese wine and learn about the history of it. 

Favorite restaurant of 2017:

Mini Bar Theatre, also in Lisbon. I will probably talk about this restaurant until the day I die because it was such an interesting and quirky experience. The food comes in small portions, so you will eat maybe 20-25 different things, but a lot of them are extremely experimental. I wouldn’t want to tell you about my plates to give anything away, but there was some popping and cracking going on!

Favorite website for travel planning:

Atlas Obscura. I love this website because it helps me find quirky places I wouldn’t hear about elsewhere. I do not go to a new place without consulting Atlas Obscura first. 

Best travel app:

I use TripIt for pretty much every trip I go on. Everything I book I forward to TripIt, so then all my reservations and times and dates are saved in one app. It’s awesome. 

Best bloody mary:

I love blood mary’s, so this is an important section. You can’t go wrong at Beast & Barrel in Chattanooga (Tennessee, USA). And, they have awesome food to boot. 

Coolest festival:

OKTOBERFEST! It was my first time visiting and it completely surpassed my expectations. Okay, I had zero expectations because I thought it would just be a drunken fraternity party. It was a really cool experience and I would love to go back.

Best moisturizer for long flights:

I have had such dry skin since since moving to Finland, so this is a necessary for me. I adore Clinique’s Extended Surge Overnight Mask and will not board a long flight without it. 

Favorite mountain ranges:

The Dolomites. Oh my heavens are they stunning. I didn’t get to hike — which I’m hoping to do this next year — but did get to drive through and see them for my first time! 

Least favorite festival of the year:

Running of the Bulls. Okay, so the environment was awesome. People were excited, everyone was extremely friendly, and you can’t beat 2 euro liters of sangria. But I just couldn’t get over the premise of the festival and after seeing a bullfight, I was pretty much done.

Favorite subscription of 2017:

Kindle Unlimited. Why was I spending so much money a month of books when I could’ve been signed up to this?? They don’t have every book in the world, but for as much I read, it’s worth the monthly subscription. 

Favorite underrated city of Europe:

Like last year, it’s still Tallinn, Estonia! Tallinn is a great weekend trip and I love how much the city packs into such a small place. Great food, interesting history and fables, really good craft beer spots, and all at an affordable price. 

Berry Picking Estonia

I could keep going on and on, but the goal of this post was to have a short blurb of my year, and I think I quickly overdid it! Now to start planning 2018! 

Happy New Year's! Xoxo