Vision of a gentle coast

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I arrived in Santorini after dark, so my bus ride from the airport into the town of Karterados offered me glimpses of little else than the island’s billboards and rural storefronts, and then in typical Laurel Ann fashion, I walked straight past the discreetly marked driveway for my accommodation. (Lucky for me, I came across two young women about a kilometer down the road who were able to point me in the right direction.) I finally rolled into the reception of Caveland tired and stressed, only to have all my worries wiped away by the bubbly and fast-talking Lauren, who had arrived only a few days before to work at the hostel after a three-month stint making beds in a beach town in Portugal.

Caveland was possibly the best hostel I’ve ever stayed in.* The property is a former eighteenth-century winery where you stay in converted “caves,” each with an ensuite bathroom. They offer sunrise yoga, free breakfast, and have a pool and two dogs. It was their first week of operation for the season, as the island was just waking up after its tourist-less winter, so I was one of only seven guests there at the time, which made for a very cozy social atmosphere. We ate breakfast, cooked dinner, played cards, and talked together. We hailed from all over (Brazil, France, Australia, USA, Hong Kong), so much of our conversation was devoted to sharing and comparing information about our home countries, which is one of my very favorite parts of traveling.

My first morning on the island greeted me with a sparkling view of the Aegean and a blindingly blue sky. Over breakfast, I made plans with two of the other girls from my room, Kim and Renata, to hike to Oia, the blue and white cliffside town of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants fame. It was a fabulous day; the weather was perfect, the trails not too strenuous, and the endless vistas nothing short of spectacular. Once we got to Oia, however, we found it eerily empty, and it took us nearly an hour of wandering to find a place for dinner that had a view and wasn’t obscenely expensive. Apparently we were there just a few weeks too early to find the bustling Greek island we see in the movies. Nonetheless, we enjoyed a beautiful sunset over a few bottles of local wine before hailing a cab to take us back to Caveland.

The following day was significantly chillier, so the girls and I took a driving tour of the island. We saw its red and black sand beaches, a lighthouse, and several more charming little towns. After returning to our hostel, we took a quick stroll around nearby Fira, the island’s capital, before settling in for a chilled out evening. I woke up early the next morning and left paradise all too soon to return to the hustle and bustle of Athens.

*Unfortunately, I don't have any photos of the place because I'm not a real blogger.

When Hailey came to stay

I woke up this Saturday a little bleary, surprised to find a fluffy white blanket had accumulated in the few short hours since I trekked home after a very late evening of unplanned shenanigans. My head pounded as I dragged my limp body around my room trying to put it in order to accommodate a guest, and the snow was still coming down strong as I boarded the 191 bus to once again make the long pilgrimage to Vaclav Havel airport.

I didn’t have to wait long before Hailey’s radiant face came trooping out from the arrivals gate. On the bus ride back to my apartment, she filled me in on all she’d done during the first week and a half of her study abroad program,* and after a quick lunch of chili at my place, we set out into the city, which was stunning in four inches of snow.

Our first destination was Petřìn Hill, a part of town I’ve been meaning to visit for ages as it’s said to provide the very best aerial view of the city. It did not disappoint. We hiked along the famous Hunger Wall, met a friendly kitty, and visited the Magical Cavern, a cavelike art gallery full of one man’s DeviantArt-style oil paintings. As far as we could tell, the building doubles as the artist’s home, and he offers unlimited hot wine and blasts Enya to heighten the mystical mood.

Descending from the hill proved a bit of a challenge, as none of the pathways had been cleared, and Hailey took a few spills, but after much tribulation, we made it to Malà Strana. We wandered around for a while, visiting the Lennon Wall, exploring tiny side streets and canals of Kampa, and crossing the Charles Bridge, which was beyond romantic in the moonlight. We ended the night with a delightful dinner at a restaurant with large selection of gluten-free traditional Czech dishes where Hailey had her first beer!!! She didn’t like it.

Sunday was a full day. We woke up early and went to breakfast at Café Savoy, a gorgeous Art Nouveau restaurant that I’d been dying to try for ages. Then we trooped up to Prague Castle, which was, as it always is, a great time. After a much-needed coffee break, we ventured up to DOX, the contemporary art museum in Prague, for a special exhibit called Brave New World, comparing the fictional worlds of Huxley, Bradbury, and Orwell to the realities of the twenty-first century.

Even though in retrospect, a lot of the exhibit was a bit fatalistic and overdrawn, we both enjoyed it thoroughly, and it felt great to finally start exploring the art scene in my new city. The highlight of the show for me was a giant packing-tape tunnel suspended two stories above the ground that visitors could go inside. Based on what I read about the piece, it was meant to represent the social isolation of the twenty-first century, particularly in reference to a growing population of millenial hermits in Japan.** However, watching people interact with the piece, I saw quite the opposite effect. From waiting in line to enter, to crawling in with friends, people were laughing, joking with one another, and even barriers between strangers were broken. Every person I saw became a kid again the minute they set foot inside and came out with a huge grin on their face.

By the time we left the museum, it was getting dark, so we stopped by the grocery store before returning to my flat to make bruschetta chicken, a new recipe for both of us. We polished off a bottle of wine and stayed up late talking. Unfortunately, I had to wake up early to get to my 7:30 Monday morning lesson, but the whole weekend, though short, was a delight. There’s nothing like reconnecting with someone with whom you have a shared past.

*She just couldn’t wait to visit me :)))))

**???? someone explain this please

There and Back Again

I thought returning home might feel surreal after being gone so long. And I suppose there was a note of strangeness in the moments following my initial disembarkation; being surrounded by the familiar accent, interacting with border control officers who actually looked at my passport, and making calls from my American phone number all seemed a bit new. But as soon as I set foot in my house, all that fell away and I was entirely submerged in my old life. Even driving, which I was sure would be somewhat difficult, or at least nerve-wracking at first, felt as normal to me as ever. In fact, in my two weeks at home I found myself wondering if the past three months had even happened, or if I had a European life at all.

For the first time in months, I was completely and totally comfortable.

I am so, so grateful for those two weeks. I got to help trim the tree, sing Silent Night on Christmas Eve, and squeeze fresh orange juice for brunch the next morning, surrounded all the while by my incredible, supportive family. I reunited with my old travel partner, Emma, and walked around her neighborhood for hours, just like we have during every sleepover since the seventh grade.* I baked sugar cookies with Meredith and her brother’s cat and got trapped in my L.L. Bean boots. I was enchanted by Longwood Gardens, as I am every year, this time with Ania and Sean, who drove an hour to see me because he couldn’t make our New Year’s plan. I rang in 2016 on a roof in Queens with my badass girl gang and spent the first of the year wandering aimlessly through two boroughs, trying to decide what to do but not needing to do anything. I celebrated my twenty-third birthday in front of a fire with my dog and my favorite cake. All was perfect.

On my flight back to Prague, I was somehow lucky enough to get upgraded to first class. I was tickled by the welcome-aboard mimosa, massage chair, and tiny salt and pepper shakers, but mostly I was thankful for my private cubby by the window, because as soon as the wheels left the ground, the weight of all I was leaving behind hit me, and I was seized by a display of emotion the likes of which I have never showed in public.

When I arrived here, though, I already had already begun to feel better. I was greeted by the same twinge of familiarity I felt when returning from London (plus Cody) and the ground was bundled in a coat of snow, which felt sort of like Prague’s little gift just for me.**

Still, it is strange to be here without Kim, and for the first time, I feel homesick; I didn’t realize how much I missed everyone and everything until I was granted just a taste of them. Sometimes, when I think of the next nine months, I feel utterly exhausted and unsure of what I am doing here. In New York, I saw many of my Penn State friends beginning their careers, finding their footing, and here I am, bumbling about.

Today I decided to walk a new route back to my apartment. There were many stairs, my butt complained, and I was out of breath, but at last I turned a corner and was greeted by a breathtaking view of this spectacular city. I stood on a bench for a while, feeling perfectly calm, not comfortable—calm. It brought me back to what I’d lost sight of lately: this isn’t about comfort. This is about strength. This is about building myself, and that means being afraid sometimes. I’m beyond lucky to have such a strong support system back at home, and it’s easy to miss them, but they will still be there when I come back, and I can still lean on them, even from the opposite side of the world. But this is the only time for this.

So it’s time to stop sulking! The rest of this year is going to be amazing, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

*Only this time for some reason it was sixty-five degrees instead of snowy.

**Then I was immediately fined on the metro for not having a valid transport pass, like, "welcome home, Laurel Ann, now screw you lol"

Under slate grey Victorian sky

A few weeks ago, the lovely Natalie Walden graced me with her presence for a fabulous weekend in the city of a hundred spires. Unbeknownst to her, that visit ended up being extremely well-timed as I’d just been dealt something of an emotional blow, and she served as the perfect distraction and the first step on the road to healing. That weekend proved important in another way as well: while guiding a friend through the labyrinthine streets of Prague, it began to feel less like a place I was visiting, less like an in-between, and more like my city. It was a good feeling, and an empowering one. I believe it marked a turning point in my time here. 12235024_10153861676031320_1327425597451481385_n

Anyway, I had so much fun with Natalie that I decided to visit her in London. After all, I came to Europe hoping to conquer unknown lands, seize new horizons! Yet aside from a very brief and entirely functional trip to Berlin, I had yet to leave Prague, much less the Czech Republic. So, a few days after her departure, I booked a flight for a four-day weekend* in Limeyland.**

I’d been to London once before during a quick trip with my family in the seventh grade. I fell in love with the city then, so I felt some trepidation about returning as an adult. Would the magic be lost? I did not let this thought dampen my excitement, however, and I boarded my Friday morning flight with a stomach full of McDonald’s breakfast and a smile on my face.

Upon landing, my first thought was how strange it was to actually understand everything—to walk through the airport reading every sign, to communicate with passersby flawlessly—what a luxury! Content, I took a train from the airport into the city and shared a joyful reunion with Natalie in Liverpool Street Station.

Friday was a delight. Our first stop (after scarfing burritos that we ate OUTSIDE! In DECEMBER!) was King’s Cross Station, just a few blocks away from Natalie’s dorm, where I finally got to live out my dream of having my photo taken in front of a wall with a stuffed owl! With that crossed off the list, we met up with Natalie’s friends and headed over to Oxford Street for a quick look at the lights (insert heart-eyes emoji) and a jaunt through an Etsy craft market which, much like the website, set my heart ablaze with consumerist lust that my shallow bank account could not satisfy.

In an effort to save our wallets, we left quickly and embarked on a stroll through the city to the South Bank’s Christmas markets, one of the largest in the city. I was blown away by Christmas in London. Every street was decked out in unique and original light displays and each square boasted its own carnival. The lights, music, and laughter delighted me, and for a few hours, I felt at one with twelve-year-old Laurel Ann who visited this enchanted place so many years before.

After a mulled wine and some overpriced chips, we headed back to the dormitory in order to get decked out to rage like all good college students.*** Something about England, whether the warm, humid air or the lack of a language barrier, empowered me, and I found myself acting far more bubbly than on a typical night at the pub. This newfound garrulousness allowed me to stumble into a conversation with a tall Irish man, which quickly turned into an argument when he told me that being an American girl living in Prague is “boring and overdone,” and that I ought to “find a new thing.” This, to me, is equal parts amusing anecdote and frustrating illustration of the mindset of many men that women’s lives are there strictly for their entertainment. But I digress!

Eyes bleary, heads boozy, we greeted Saturday’s sunrise in pursuit of five pound tickets to see Matilda on the West End. The Internet assured us that in order to nab them, we needed to be in line by 9 a.m. at the latest, so of course when we arrived at 9:07, we were the very first people there. No one else arrived until quite a bit later. I didn’t mind much, though, despite the cold and my sleepiness. The streets of London were practically empty, and the still and peace of it thrilled me, like something I wasn’t supposed to see.

Two hours later, tickets secured, we were scarfing down one of the best breakfasts I’ve had since moving to Europe, complete with fat, fluffy pancakes, human-sized refillable coffee,**** crispy bacon, eggs over-easy, and a garnish of unidentifiable fruit. If not for the cringey price tag, it could have been America.

We spent the rest of the morning wandering winding cobbled streets, taking in the architectural clash of Old and New. It was a fairly warm day, but the wind was brutal, and I felt I might blow away while crossing the Thames—Natalie couldn’t even hold the phone steady enough to get a quality snap of the quintessential touristy Big Ben photo, but more than one lucky passerby got a glimpse of her derriere.

We ended up at the Tate Modern in the afternoon. Now, I could write an entire blog post on my feelings about art, and maybe I will someday. But for now I will simply say that I believe it is the most important thing. Art shapes society. It shapes people, and it certainly has had a profound formative influence on me. A trip to any art museum rejuvenates me, and I’m particularly drawn to that which challenges me, as did much of what I saw at the Tate. In recent years, I’ve enjoyed watching strangers, particularly children, interact with art. It’s funny and beautiful and emotional and makes me fall in love with humanity over and over again.

When we’d had our fill of the museum, we headed out into the thick London air towards Covent Garden. At one point during the walk, we passed by a church whose bells were announcing the evening service. The street was nearly deserted, the night was clear, and the yellow lights cast a warm glow on the damp sidewalk. I wish I could describe exactly what I felt at that moment, but I fear that even with my expensive degree in Words, I am ill-equipped to do so. What I can say is that I felt very full, and very lucky to be twenty-two and intelligent and brave and beautiful, to have the world laid out at my feet, mine for the taking.

Then I ate a meat pie.

After dinner, we headed over to the theatre. It was full of children, and their excitement fed mine. The show was everything I hoped it would be, and let me tell you, I’ve been hoping to see this show for a while. There is nothing like a night of good theatre. I ended the night jittery, entirely alive, purely happy.

Here’s the part where I get tired of long-form narrative and turn to what Hemingway and twitter taught me: get to the point already.

Sunday:
1.) Notting Hill. Saw the house with the blue door, didn’t see Hugh Grant. Bought mulled wine and a scarf. Resisted vintage sunglasses. Still thinkin about them tho.
2.) Buckingham Palace. It was there, it was big. Prince Harry did not propose.
3.) WINTER WONDERLAND. While some might find it creepy, Natalie and I felt it was all the joy and love in the world stuffed into the confines of Hyde Park. Big Santa statues, bigger mysterious German man, fake snow pouring from every festive carnival ride. Basically if the cast of Monty Python had built Disneyland.
4.) First night of Hanukkah! We made latkes and watched a Hallmark Christmas movie. There was gelt also.

Monday: Natalie had to get to class so I adventured on my own to the Victoria and Albert Museum, the most incredible and bizarre museum I think I have ever been to. Imagine if the cast of Monty Python had built the Met. I want to live there. Sadly, I had a return flight to catch, so I was compelled to depart. Natalie and I said goodbye over Christmas cupcakes.

In the end, I was sad to leave London. It truly is an extraordinary place, and I know I’ll be back. But I was also happy to return to Prague. From the unsmiling faces of the Czech bus passengers and sickly yellow metro lighting to Kim’s stupid phone snapchatting me as I stepped through the arrivals gate, it all felt just a little like home. And that is what I’ve been waiting for.

*I actually was quite careless and booked the return flight a month later than I'd intended, a mistake I failed to notice until about a week ago when I had to quickly (and expensively) change it. Oops.

**Is that offensive? Sorry.

***Let me pretend.

****as opposed to the mouse cups they serve in Prague

Giving Thanks (from a land without Thanksgiving)

It’s been quite a few years since Thanksgiving was a big deal in our house. We do the turkey, sure. There is cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes and tense political conversation and my parents’ orphan friend who sports a ponytail, but we skip the whole “extended family cramming around one table and pretending to like each other” thing.* For the past four years especially, I’ve seen the holiday as simply a week off school, a chance to decompress and head to the mall to buy myself presents. As such, it hasn’t felt too strange to be across the ocean today, but being away has led me to truly see how many things I have to be thankful for. So in honor of this (slightly problematic) holiday, I thought I’d enumerate some of the most notable.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t begin with my incredible family. This week marks the longest I’ve gone without sleeping in my childhood bedroom, petting my dog, singing with my sister, hugging my mom, or teasing my dad. And I have never been more thankful for them. They are the most supportive people I can imagine being related to, and I can say with 100% certainty that I would not have made it through the last 2.5 months without them.

I’m thankful for THON, specifically for my OGC family. I’ve said it before, but my college experience would not have been what it was without those beautiful, crazy, drunk people. It is no exaggeration to say that they changed my life. A special shout out goes to Michael Belsky for snapping me about Thankskilling today and Natalie Walden for visiting me last weekend and gifting me with a new sense of ownership for this city.

I’m thankful for the friends back home cheering me on. I miss you every day. A special thanks to Emma and Jess, who have given me the extra support I needed in the last two weeks. Thanks for letting me call you at all hours of the night as I make my way home alone in the cold.

I’m thankful for the amazing friends I’ve made here in Prague, particularly Harrison and Cody, whose paths I’m certain were meant to cross with mine.

I’m thankful for the number nine tram line that takes me many places I need to go and offers me a daily reminder (pictured below) that I live in Prague, and that even when things are rocky, I am so absurdly #blessed to be here.20150930_190228.jpg

I’m thankful for music. For music that makes me cry, for music that makes me dance on the metro in spite of myself. For music that makes me nostalgic and music that makes me feel brand new. For Taylor Swift’s 1989 and Adele’s 25. For Rufus Wainwright, Karen O, Ingrid Michaelson, Twenty One Pilots, Vampire Weekend, The Beach Boys, the Pride and Prejudice score, and many more than I could (or should) jam into a blog post. Above all, I am thankful for the opportunities that music has offered me over the years and the absurdly talented and incredible people that came with them. Also for Mambo No. 5

Last, but far from least, I am thankful for Kimberly Nicole Anguish/Nicole Kimberley/My Rock/My Light/My Everything. For letting me moan about my boy problems when you were dealing with your own emotional turmoil. I will never stop being grateful to you for coming on this adventure with me. While I’m sad that things aren’t going to work out the way we imagined, I am so happy to have the memory of these wild and crazy months. Thank you for giving me a second chance even when you thought I was too weird to be your friend. I love you forever.

*disclaimer: my extended family actually like each other.

November Mixtape

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If there’s one thing I enjoy, it’s making playlists that I enjoy listening to. Recently I’ve been putting together short little collections at the beginning of each month that reflect how I’m feeling, how I want to feel, etc., and I thought I’d share them on the blog. This may become a series, or it could end up a one-and-done type of deal (likely, bc I suck).

Footnotes:

  • Last Thursday Kim and I ran into each other in the lobby of the building where we coincidentally were each teaching a lesson at the same time. Afterwards, we said poo poo to productivity and went to Kafka’s favorite cafe, Kavarna Slavia, for strudle. By the time we left, it was nearing dusk, and we walked across the river to take in the sunset. In taking this atypical route, we happened across a poster advertising a Purity Ring concert that very night! So I donned some purple lipstick and off we went. The show was stunning, visually and aurally, and the whole day was awash with just the early-twenties spontaneity I hoped would color my adventure year. Truly one of the best nights I’ve had since arriving in Prague.
  • Someone cool introduced me to Jamie XX this summer, and this song really makes me think of him, which is not a bad place to be.
  • Since I am actually a member of the Stones, I feel that they must be featured in every playlist I make.
  • The Front Bottoms’ new Back On Top was all I listened to for about two weeks of the TEFL course, and it often provided the angsty push I needed to make it through some very stressful evenings. Thanks Brian/Steven!
  • In the past week we’ve acquired a very wise and wonderful squatter named Harrison. Not only has he changed our entire outlook on life, but he introduced us to the charming Dan Reeder. Seriously, who can resist a song that opens with a harmonica solo?
  • I am completely unashamed to admit that Hotline Bling has been stuck in my head for the past two months straight. It has been the soundtrack to many a night getting ready, getting pumped, and getting our asses up the cruelly steep hill outside our apartment.
  • Say what you will about Mumford, but Babel helped me through a low point in my life, and I’ve found myself returning to it quite a bit lately as the weather’s turned cold. This song has particular power to remind me that no matter how bad a day may get, I will not float away from the world; everything will be okay.
  • I honestly don’t know where I would have been these past three years without Twenty One Pilots. These days they remind me of sunny days, driving with the windows down, and home.
  • The Zombies really hit a home run with “The Way I Feel Inside,” which actually makes me feel like I’ve stumbled into an abandoned diner whose jukebox has been stuck on this song despite the recent zombie apocalypse.
  • Empress Of opened for Purity Ring last week (we end back where we began, you see what I did here??!), and though we’d never heard of her, Kim and I both instantly fell in love with this badass, tiny, trendy Honduran girl.

Czeching In (at last)

Surely to no one’s surprise, I haven’t exactly been an attentive curator of this lil blog here. I’d love to say it’s because I’m busy with work or because my new wild and crazy European lifestyle is leaving me with little time to think, let alone write. That would be a lie; now that I have an apartment, Prague life is less romantic moonlit Charles Bridge strolls, and more potato chips and Netflix binges. You can take the girl out of college, but you can’t take college out of the girl.

In truth, I’ve been putting off updating because I’ve selfishly wanted to create the illusion that I’m soaking up all the life and culture that you’re supposed to when you move to Europe, and I knew that anxiety-ridden blog posts wouldn’t do that. But no more! The instagram filters are coming off, the truth is being spilled, the blog is being updated.

The relief that I thought would greet me when I completed the TEFL course never came. If anything, my stress level only increased, as it meant that for the first time since I arrived here, the next day was not planned for me. I hadn’t yet found a flat, and the process was proving much more arduous than anticipated. Now, of course, that hurdle has been cleared, and after a little over a week, the (huge! beautiful!) apartment is beginning to feel like a home. The job search is ongoing, but I have an interview on Monday that I’m trying to be confident about. In the mean time, my bank account continues to wail in agony as I slowly bleed it dry.

As part of the visa process, immigration requires you to travel to a Czech embassy outside the country to formally apply.* So, yesterday I begrudgingly awoke at 4 a.m., slogged on some yoga pants, and all but slid down the hill, trusty Kim by my side, to catch a night tram (a night tram!) to the hotel parking lot where our visa coordinator assured us a driver with a red van would be waiting to deliver us to Berlin. We reunited, bleary-eyed, with a handful of our TEFL friends/former housemates on the dark, dodgy street corner, and before long appeared a red van, out of which stepped a Peter Stormare lookalike who said simply “Berlin?” We followed him without question, and were all dead asleep within minutes.

While this may seem like the beginning of Taken 4, we made it to the embassy safe and sound, and all five of our visa applications went down without a hitch! Once the functional part of the visit was fulfilled, we were given an hour and a half for lunch, which proved just enough time to hit up the Brandenburg Gate, Dunkin Donuts (!!!!), and the hauntingly cool Holocaust memorial.

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It was far from a perfect trip, not to mention altogether too short, but it felt good to get out of Prague for a few hours. It felt even better to come back to Prague. Moving to a foreign country is a challenge, one that at times I feel utterly unprepared for. But it’s a challenge that allows me the privilege to live and work in one of the most beautiful cities in the world and put me within easy reach of iconic landmarks that many people only dream of visiting. I’m excited to see what the next few months bring.

*Seeing as how I know nothing about other nations' immigration policies, this practice could be completely normal, thereby rendering my disdain unwarranted. If this is be the case, I take it all back.