Visual Travel Journal

I started painting about a year and a half ago, on a whim. It’s a hobby that has been very calming and fun during tumultuous times. This summer when my Pop and I went to New York, I started keeping a visual travel journal. I use an A4 Leuchtturm journal and a gouache set to keep track of things I’ve found interesting or pretty from place to place. Sometimes I just make a quick sketch, and sometimes I spend a few hours on them. Some of the pages are fairly neat, and some of them are a bit more messy. But they have all been lots of fun to work on, and I’m looking forward to continuing in 2017!

A Grand Budapest Adventure

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They had to tear me away from Budapest, but I am back in my little city, in my favorite cafe, with a view of the Christmas lights being set up outside. I am content to be here, but thinking back to the wonderful long weekend I spent away with a few other Fulbrighters, I am already nostalgic and dreaming about going back.

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Our Airbnb

We arrived on Thursday for Thanksgiving, all of us having survived various difficulties leaving Romania, and found our gorgeous airbnb apartment on the Buda side of the river. Rita, our host, welcomed us with still-warm pastries, which tasted especially good after our 7-hour train ride. We picked a restaurant on the Pest side, and enjoyed a Thanksgiving dinner toasted with delicious Hungarian wine, and three hours worth of food.Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

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Thanksgiving dinner

On Friday, we continued our mission to eat all the things in Hungary, starting with a cafe across the street filled with books. The food was delicious, but the atmosphere brought us back every morning we were there.

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We spent the rest of the daylight hours attempting to make up for all the food we were eating by climbing up and down the hills of the Castle District. The exercise kept us warm on a cold, but sunny, day. In addition to the stunning views, we discovered all kinds of little shops and bakeries and cafes.

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#FulbrightFunFam on Gellert Hill

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Pure exhaustion

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In the evening, we soaked our sore muscles in the famous thermal baths of Budapest. The Gellert Baths were closest to our apartment, and we were stunned by the beautiful tile work and the views of the outside bath. After a long day, we couldn’t stop smiling as we let the warm water relax us under the dark and cold night air, with views of the Liberty Bridge and city lights. After a few hours, we stumbled next door to the attached restaurant, continuing our quest to eat all the things.

On Saturday, Melanie and I decided we needed to stay an extra day, and emailed Rita to ask for her advice on changing our ticket. The next thing we knew, her 87-year-old father, Matyas, approached us at our favorite cafe and had Rita explain over the phone that he would help us change our train seat reservations.

We quickly discovered that he did not speak a word of English, but did have a bit of French as well as strong German. He talked us through a neighborhood walk, took us to the metro station and showed us how to buy the kind of ticket we needed, explained the construction of the new metro line, and took us to the counter at the train station. Between the three of us and the clerk, who didn’t speak English either, we managed to complete our mission. Matyas put us back on the metro and embraced us before leaving. Later, Rita told us that even though we hadn’t been able to communicate very well, her father had enjoyed our enthusiasm and persistence, and would have coffee with us if we came back to the city. She told us a bit of his experience during World War II, and we listened to his story incredulously. Melanie and I agreed that we would love to hear more of his stories–they reminded us that history is not abstract, but personal.

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Matyas and Melanie

We spent the rest of the day on the Pest side of the river, exploring Parliament, lots of little cafes and restaurants, and St. Steven’s Basilica. But we were reminded that no matter how beautiful a place is, it is impossible to escape ugliness: we unexpectedly found monuments and reminders of Hungary’s complicity in the Holocaust, and shed tears for the Jews, the disabled, the gays, and the communists who were murdered. Especially emotional for me were the identification patches these different groups wore, displayed next to personal items such as suitcases, shoes, and a violin case.

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We turned ourselves towards fun again for the evening with a girls’ night at the opera. We saw Lucia di Lammermoor, and were blown away by the beautiful voices, particularly the soprano. She gave an athletic performance, writhing and twitching on stage during her mad scene, climbing ladders, and generally astounding us while hitting perfectly clear high notes.

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On Sunday, we explored the main Christmas market, sampling Hungarian street food and mulled wine as we shopped.

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Since the Christmas market was near Gerbeaud (one of the top 10 chocolate shops in the world, according to some) and we were on a mission to eat everything, we stopped in around dusk to warm up and refuel.

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Dobos torte at Gerbeaud

Finally, we sat down for the evening at St. Steven’s Basilica for a string concert. Although not quite as overwhelming as the opera, it was lovely music. I was particularly happy to hear Massenet’s Thaïs Méditation, which makes me think of my sister.img_3713

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With Melanie atop St. Steven’s Basilica.

With our final day, Melanie and I explored the Castle District, visiting the stunningly painted Matthias Church, and indulging in two lunches and a visit to a bookstore for some Hungarian literature in translation.

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At Matthias Church

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Matthias Church

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Homemade chicken soup with healing properties

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Chocolate cake and rosehip sorbet

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A magical bookstore

We made it back to Cluj, Romania the following afternoon (with a 5am boarding time), both utterly exhausted. Stories of our adventures in Budapest keep running through my head, and even though I didn’t sleep 5 consecutive hours our entire trip, every moment was worth it. The food, history, and company were totally captivating. We are already trying to plan our returns.

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Melanie braved train station falafel and a Coke Zero for breakfast

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I stuck with a grocery store iced coffee

Ta-da! I’m here!

Dear friends and family,

I’m safe and have arrived in Targu-Mures, my home for the following semester.

The last week has been a whirlwind, so I’ll start with the main bullet points:

  • Spent a week in Helsinki. Managed two sauna trips with my AFS friend Sara, lots of coffee, and visits to museums.
  • Took a day trip to Tallinn, Estonia, with Sara and new friends Rachel and Shasha.
  • Woke up at 3:30 am in order to make my 6am flight to Bucharest, via Berlin.
  • Fulbright orientation in Bucharest: so many cool people, so much information. Reception dinner: so much food.
  • Fulbright adventure to Peles and Pelisor castles. Another meal.
  • Drive to Targu-Mures with my faculty contact, Corina.

And here I am. Exhausted. Happy. Excited. Still without Romanian SIM card. (Soon, friends. The freedom of cellular data will be mine!)

I want to write about everything that has happened in the past week, but honestly, it’s all gone by so quickly my mind hasn’t caught up yet. I’ve been so lucky to be surrounded by friends, old and new, to keep me sane.

The next adventures include:

  • Finding an apartment
  • Teaching (starting Wednesday!)
  • Getting my residency permit
  • Romanian lessons (starting in November)
  • And countless more I can’t imagine

I’ll check in again soon–lots is happening, and I’m excited to share.

From the Archives: Thoughts on Traveling Solo

This post has been sitting in my drafts since my study abroad semester in Greece in 2014. I’ve since traveled alone to Paris, and plan to travel solo again in the near future. So I cleaned up this old post and added some thoughts:

One of the things I love most about study abroad the chance to meet lots of people who also love to travel. If you’re lucky, you get to travel with them to new places and see new things.

I also gained a lot of confidence in myself in travel, and for various reasons, I spent a significant chunk of time traveling alone. This fall break ended up being one of my favorite trips.

My fall break in 2014 lined up with Thanksgiving and lasted 10 days. I left on Thursday (the week before Thanksgiving) right after my Greek class and returned a week and a half later, around midnight on Sunday.

I started my break  with a visit to my French host family from when I studied abroad in 2011.

Lise’s partner, Nicholas, is behind the camera–but he’s also very much a part of the family!

I spent the night in Paris in an airbnb, with the most charmingly eccentric Parisienne who fed me buttered bread and strong black coffee before I caught the earliest train down to Poitiers, where my host sister, Claire, studies. It was such a relief to see her waiting for me at the train station. I hadn’t seen my host family since 2012, and I was only expecting to see two of my host sisters (plus my oldest host sister’s family), but my host parents surprised me and drove out on Saturday with my third host sister, so the whole family was there! I had an incredible experience staying with them when I was seventeen that I can’t help getting a little emotional when I see them.

My host family has a habit of downplaying future plans, and although I was told that my host parents were coming for “a little lunch together on Saturday,” the whole weekend blended into one long “lunch” with all eight of us sitting around the table, feasting, playing games, catching up on news and taking walks in town. During the 48 hours my host parents were visiting, I wouldn’t be surprised if we had spent half of those hours at the table.

Also, we may have cleaned out an entire bakery. If you think I’m exaggerating, you haven’t met my host family.

With tears in my eyes and a heart full of love and butter, I left France for the next leg of my journey: Berlin. I planned to meet my roommate, Emily, and our friend Mae at our hostel, but getting there meant navigating public transport, by myself, at night, after a full day of travel. A daunting task, made all the easier by the friendliness and efficiency of the Berliners! Again, I was relieved when Emily and Mae greeted me and we all collapsed into our beds for the night.

We only had two days in Berlin, but we filled them with a walking tour of the city, visiting the Christmas markets, walking along the East Side Gallery, and, of course, eating our weight in meat and potatoes (washed down with German beer). I spent one evening with just Emily, and the two of us wandered into a used bookstore (where I found a book from my to-read list, in English!), went snack-shopping at a convenience store, and had dinner together at a trendy restaurant.

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Seeing history in person

For the final leg of my journey, I spent four days in Amsterdam. Again, reaching my hostel was my most daunting task: my flight out of Berlin was at 5:30 a.m. (but only about $20), and upon landing in the Netherlands, I stumbled around in what seemed vaguely like the right direction until I made it to my hostel, where I drank coffee in a stupor until I could check in to my room.

I mostly spent my time in Amsterdam alone, except for a day with my Dutch friend Melinda (we went shopping and had coffee at Starbucks–she was missing her year in America much more than I was missing home!) This was probably the hardest part of my trip, since I arrived on Thanksgiving Day, and spent it alone for the first time in my life. It was an enjoyable day, though, spent seeing Dutch art at the Rijksmuseum followed by a hearty meal of Indian food and a good book. I found this to be a good way for me to spend my days–lingering in museums longer than I could if I were with friends, eating when I got hungry, and sneaking in afternoon naps without worrying about keeping to an agenda.

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Melinda in Amsterdam

Although I made plans for all of these trips on my own and found more quiet moments to myself than I would have if I’d been traveling with friends, I realized that traveling solo didn’t mean that I was alone. From the French teenagers who offered to carry my bag for me in the metro and made small talk on our ride, to the other woman eating Indian food accompanied only by a book on Thanksgiving night in Amsterdam, even in my loneliest moments, I felt a sense of companionship with those around me. Traveling alone gave me more confidence in myself than study abroad could on its own–while study abroad is an adventure, there’s a sense of comfort in knowing that someone else is planning your travels.

Even with my success, I was happy to return to my home base in Athens and my friends.

The Road to Romania

When I tell people that I’m preparing to spend a year in Romania, one question always follows: “Why?”

Like many decisions in my life, the decision to apply to teach in Romania came about through a convoluted process of questioning what I would gain from a year in various locations and the practicality of each option. As a historian with global interests, I knew I could be happy exploring almost any corner of the world, so I took into account different factors like cost of living, safety (hi, parents), language, availability of modern comforts (*cough cough* wifi), and the potential for me to continue my work in public history at a cultural institution.

Romania came about as an option with a relatively low cost of living, and while I don’t know the language, I’m hoping that my background in French (another romance language) helps in my immersion class this fall. More research only enforced my choice: the landscape looks gorgeous, the food is right up my alley, and friends who have visited Romania have nothing but good things to say.

I’m especially interested in the museums in the two cities I’ll be living in. Unlike many museums in the United States and other countries I’ve visited, Romania’s museums seem to focus less on important people and events, and more on the history of the common man and folk history. I have some ideas about how to explore this and bring their history to a wider audience–watch this space!

The decision to follow through with this year in Romania wasn’t an easy one. Although I invested a lot of time, energy, and stress in my application and interviews, I didn’t immediately want to accept the grant. I began to question if I could picture myself living in Romania or if it would be practical to move abroad for a year right now. I had a lot of energy and enthusiasm for graduate school, and thought about striking while the iron was hot rather than waiting a year.

In the end, I reminded myself of what had drawn me to spend a year teaching abroad, and specifically in Romania. Even with the uncertainty about where I would live and what I would teach, I was confident that I made the right decision. I am still apprehensive about my move, but my contacts in Romania have been lovely and reassuring in every way.

Most of all, I want this year to be an adventure–and something tells me I’ve signed up for the adventure of a lifetime.

Thank You

I’m in transit today, and this is the first year I’m without my family on Thanksgiving. But I’ve never been more thankful in my life. I’m so thankful to have loving family and friends around the globe looking out for me. I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to study in Europe not once, but twice, opening my eyes to so many new points of view and making me braver and stronger. I’m thankful that I’ve been healthy this whole semester. I’m thankful for all of the classes I’ve taken with smart and kind professors. I’m thankful for good food (even though the turkey and cranberry sauce are lacking over here).

And a huge shoutout to my parents for being supportive in letting me go on crazy adventures to learn about the world. I love all of you, even though I don’t say it enough. I’m missing you today, but you’re in my heart and even though I’m having a great time, I can’t wait to see you at home!

A Weekend in Istanbul

So I’ve neglected this blog for a little longer than I meant to (whoops) but between midterms, a trip to the Peloponnese (you can see pictures here but I don’t really have a lot of extra words to say) and a weekend trip to Istanbul, I’ve been quite busy. But I do have some things I want to say about Istanbul before I leave for fall break tomorrow!

I want to say first and foremost that I had an incredible time. I traveled with my roommate, Emily and a friend of ours, Amber. We did have a little bit of a hard time with Turkish men–we found them to be much more aggressive and forward than Greek men (which is saying something, since Greek men aren’t known for being shy!) and I was glad I was with two friends as, even all together, I still felt ill at ease at some points. Still, it was a wonderful trip and we had a fantastic time. I would definitely recommend a visit to any of my friends, as long as they travel in groups!

We arrived at our hostel at midnight, after some confusion at the airport, and we were happy that a young man from reception met us downstairs and helped us carry our bags to check in on the 7th (!) floor. I realized right away that Istanbul is a very vertical city–most places we went into were very long and narrow but were several stories high. We were treated to Turkish hospitality right away, with a warm tea while we checked in. The little caffeine boost was just what we needed to venture out for a little midnight walk!

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Unlike Athens, central Istanbul was nearly deserted at midnight, with no cars on most of the streets except for a few cabs hopeful to gain our fare (they wouldn’t have any luck–our hostel was a three minute walk from the Blue Mosque). While we were exhausted after our travels, our eyes widened as we took in the sight of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque lit up in the darkness, windows chock full of Turkish Delight and baklava, and storefronts displaying silk harem pants and cashmere scarves.

That night, as we settled in to our room we shared with a friendly young German woman named Nora, we slept lightly, too full of excitement to sleep soundly. We were all awoken at 5am to the Islamic call to prayer ringing out in beautiful, clear voices before the sun was even close to rising. Groggy from our lack of sleep, we wondered if the beautiful music was a part of our dreams, but when we woke up later that morning until we realized we’d all heard it. Our hostel offered us fresh, soft bread and jams, hard boiled eggs, and of course all the tea we could drink for breakfast, with a view from their rooftop balcony:IMG_0934After we’d filled ourselves up, we set out for our obligatory first stop: the Hagia Sophia.

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This place left me speechless. It took my breath away. No pictures can do it justice. The scale is absolutely incredible and the mix of Orthodox iconography and Islamic script was not only beautiful, it spoke to Turkey’s long and complicated past. I was so moved by this experience, I can’t put it into words.

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Afterwords, we found a comfy, dry space to eat traditional Turkish pancakes stuffed with potatoes, spinach, and meat.

Our energies renewed, we headed to Topkapi palace. I was nervous at first as the first few rooms of the complex we moved through were full of impatient, pushy tourists, but after we reached the courtyard, the crowds eased up and we were able to spend some time relaxing in this beautiful corner.

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We somehow managed to fit in a visit to the Grand Bazaar about an hour before it closed and while it wasn’t as crowded as we had been warned, it was still an overwhelming experience. So many things to buy, such a limited student budget! We did try our hands at haggling, and I think we got some pretty good deals (or at least got prices down to reasonable). Again, I was shocked by how forward and bold Turkish men are–I’m not really a fan of this, but sticking with friends, I felt pretty safe. We had one really cool experience when my friend wandered into a carpet store. She did not intend to buy a rug that night, but we sat on the second floor of this carpet store and sipped on tea for about an hour and haggled without the intention of buying, which ended up helping us get the price down to a point where Amber couldn’t resist any longer and bought a pretty rug she’d had her eye on. Maybe that was the salesman’s ploy all along, but whether this was the case or not, we had a lovely time chatting with him about life in Turkey.

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Can you tell I’m uncomfortable?

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After walking around all morning, afternoon, and evening, we stopped for a quick coffee and checked back with the hostel to see if they had found any activities for us to do that night. Our friend who had given us tea the night before had found two things for us to do: see a whirling dervish and visit a Turkish bath!

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We arrived at the cafe just as the dervish was taking the stage, and as we sat in the shadow of the Blue Mosque, surrounded by hookah smoke, listening to live music and sipping on apple tea, I truly felt that I had been transported to another world.

But this was nothing compared to the experience of the Turkish bath, or hamam. This experience was a little bit more spur of the moment than our main priorities, but it was something I’d heard other people say good things about, so I was excited to go. We went to the bath recommended by our hostel and opted for the massage option to treat ourselves after a long day of walking in the rain, and it was worth it! The whole experience was so relaxing, from the warm towels we received when we first walked in, to the sauna, to our massages (with buckets of foam!), to a dip in a cold pool afterwards. We ended up staying for two hours and when we were finally done, I felt the cleanest I think I’ve ever felt. We smelled heavenly as we walked back to our hostel, and we all slept like babies that night.559625_743337452368656_8622285633170787637_n IMG_6115The next day we took things a little bit easier. We started with a visit to the Blue Mosque, which was absolutely stunning. The Blue Mosque, unlike the Hagia Sophia, is still a functioning mosque, so women are required to cover their heads and everyone is required to take their shoes off. We spent quite a bit of time here, hypnotized by the beautiful painting all around the mosque and discussing our feelings on covering one’s head. It was my first time covering my head in public and I have to say, it was quite warm and hid the fact that I hadn’t showered that morning!

We slowly made our way to lunch (pita with barbecued meat and hummus for me!) and then the Egyptian Spice Market. I was a little turned off by how crowded this market was and actually ended up getting separated from my friends. Luckily we had set a meeting point and I found them there a few minutes later, but I was traumatized by the experience and we headed back to our home base to go to a quiet cafe and write postcards.

Since we were leaving early the next morning and we had to use up the rest of our Turkish lira, we decided to treat ourselves at the bakery a few floors down from our hostel room to baklava and Turkish delight for dinner (with a healthy side of apple tea, of course). I managed not to eat the entire store full, and had our friendly neighbors wrap some up to take home as a sweet memory from Turkey.IMG_0937

Discovering Another Side of Greece: A Weekend in Metsovo

We arrived in Metsovo in the early afternoon on Friday, and as we stepped off of the bus we noticed something unusual: the smell of a wood-burning fire, yellow-tinged leaves on the trees, and a distinct chill in the air. Those of us from the Midwest immediately broke into huge smiles, not realizing how much we had missed fall back home. Not that Metsovo is entirely similar to my home in Ohio–in fact, Metsovo was entirely different from what I expected and unlike any other place I’ve ever been.

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We started out by talking a little bit about the unique history of the town and learned that many residents still speak Vlach, an unwritten language completely unrelated to Greek, and consider themselves to be Vlach as well as Greek due to their isolated location and strong cultural heritage. The combination of this culture plus the geography made arriving in Metsovo quite the surprise.

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One of our first stops was the church in Metsovo. This region is known for wood carving and icons painted in the Cretan style, that is with olive oil mixed into the paint. The colors are absolutely stunning and brighter than the typical orthodox church.IMG_9498

We also visited a folk art museum, which was a restored home of an aristocrat. Again, the interior was completely unexpected: the thick walls and cozy tapestries made me feel like I was visiting somewhere much further north, as opposed to the Greece we typically consider to be warm and Mediterranean. While the fireplaces weren’t lit and there was no food cooking on the stove, I can only imagine how snug families who lived in this house must have been in their furs and large communal beds.
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Before dinner, some friends and I wandered into a small park on a hill and saw a stunning sunset overlooking the valley. The weather got even chillier right away, and we hurried to a taverna our professors had recommended. The choices were limited: the taverna offered 2 types of meat (sausage and souvlaki), 2 types of cheese (feta and a traditional smoked cheese called Metsovone), bread and red wine. Naturally, we ordered everything and the owner brought out the fresh food on wax paper. We devoured it and then sleepily wandered back to our hotel to enjoy some hot chocolate and Greek delight next to the fire.IMG_9550 IMG_9562

On Saturday we took a trip to the college town of Ioannina. Ioannina is on a lake and, like Metsovo, has a unique history. During each period in Greek history, Ioannina has been able to absorb new cultural ideas and populations while also maintaining a surprising degree of autonomy. As a result, it has seen Muslims, Jews and Christians living together in peace throughout most of its history.  It’s easy to see why–this town is so peaceful I couldn’t imagine any conflict ruining its tranquility. At the same time, it has known its fair share of notorious characters, including the infamous Ali Pasha, who was known for beheadings and throwing dissenters off of cliffs, but also modernizing the town. He was killed in a monastery on the island in the center of the lake by a single bullet, which can still be seen at the monastery today.IMG_9629 IMG_9720

To round out the day, we stopped by the temple and theater of Dodona, the largest theater in Ancient Greece and the second most important oracle.  Although it has been destroyed and rebuilt many times (and is in the process of being restored now), this temple has been in use since neolithic times. At its peak, the theater could seat 18,000 people. I shivered a little bit when I stood at the center and thought about how thousands of years’ worth of people came here for advice and entertainment.
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Finally, on Sunday, we visited Meteora. Meteora literally means “suspended in midair” and it’s easy to see why. Monks and nuns have considered Meteora a holy space for hundreds of years, and although it is now a major tourist destination, the monasteries and nunneries still feel as though they are floating in an alien landscape, far removed from anything familiar. We visited two monasteries (Megalo Meteoro and Varlaam) as well as a nunnery (Roussanou). While each was stunning in its own respect, I particularly enjoyed the nunnery. I found the monasteries to be a bit more impersonal because the monks hide themselves away to avoid tourists. The nunnery was far less crowded, although it was smaller than the monasteries, and the nuns seemed to be happy to see us. They showed us the traditional food, drinks, and crafts they make at the nunnery and were happy to answer our questions, although their English was limited. Even though I’m not religious, I felt much more of a connection with Roussanou than I had at either of the monasteries. It was secluded (it was quite the hike to reach the nunnery from the road!) and quiet and much easier to reflect on our beautiful surroundings. I spent a few minutes by myself on a small balcony with this view and could have stayed there all day.IMG_9769