At the end of every year (or in this case, beginning of the new one) I make a list of all of the good things that happened or in general am grateful for in the past year. I usually have to scroll through my photos and backtrack month by month to help me remember. 2020 made this a harder exercise…but there are still many things that were good. While I’m not an advocate for forced positive thinking — that can be toxic in its own right — I am a big advocate for finding every little thing to be grateful for. Here are a few good things from 2020 beyond having my health, family’s health, a job and a new president elected:
SO. MANY. WALKS. (And bike rides.)
My world has felt very small this year but my neighborhood, beloved Forest Park, and one truly wonderful hike on Mt Hood have been sanity savers and mini-adventures this year. Mt Hood took the cake for being the furthest outside of Portland I’ve gone in over a year. On the other hand I spent more time on my bike than years past and cycled all over this city in Spring and Summer. I made friends with 8 of the neighborhood cats…the best being Handsome Tuxedo Cat with the stinking cute little plaid bowtie. Crossing my fingers for some longer backpacking hikes back on Mt Hood and beyond this summer…
I got some stories published which was exciting. I finished a book, started another, and wrote a few short stories — finally dabbling in fiction which has been really fun. This was a good year for sitting my butt down at my desk, spacing out a lot out the window overlooking the squirrel highway, and drinking enormous quantities of tasty warm beverages typing away. (Favorites: Coconut Oolong Tea and Cola Cao — hot chocolate mix from Spain that tastes like childhood and nostalgia and malty deliciousness.)
I work with some of the best humans I know. It’s a ridiculously great crew that cracks me up all day. I wrote about them here (scroll down to the November 12 entry.) When I was a kid I watched a lot of Jetsons cartoons and the idea of talking to someone via a screen seemed UNREAL to me. Thank you, technology, for making it easy to see family’s faces via so many screens. Friends have been an anchor for me this year (and every year) and family talks that hopefully sometime this year will turn into IRL talks.
The only time I’ve ever had this cake, the real deal, was in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees.
Many of us are still in quarantine. We can’t travel, but our taste buds sure can. I dug through the internet for a recipe that would replicate the texture of the Gâteau Basque I had in St. Jean and this one did it. If food tastes like memories then, for me, this cake tastes like adventure and new beginnings and excitement and freedom. Which are all of the things many of us are craving right now.
This is why I love this cake: it’s not fluffy or frosted. It’s a shallow, thin cake with some kind of decadent filling. Often vanilla pastry cream, lemon cream, or cherry preserves. The texture of this cake is somewhere between a crumbly tart and cake. There’s this papery thin layer on top that I was determined to replicate. It’s kind of dense, kind of crumbly, very buttery. Oh yeah, and RIDICULOUSLY DELICIOUS.
In one bowl whisk flour, baking powder, salt. In a standing mixer (or a large bowl) fitted with a paddle, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg yolks and then whole egg along with almond extract. Beat until thoroughly mixed. On low speed add the flour mixture and almond flour.
Form into two disks. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight.
Lemon Curd Filling
Thank you, Ina Garten, for this recipe.
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 pound unsalted butter at room temperature
1/2 cup lemon juice (about 3 or 4 lemons)
1/8 tsp salt
Optional: A handful of raspberries, fresh or frozen, to add later during cake assembly
Cream the butter and beat in the sugar. Add zest of three lemons. Add the eggs, one at a time, and then the lemon juice and salt. Mix until just combined.
Transfer to a two quart saucepan and cook over low heat 10 -20 minutes, until thickened, stirring constantly. If the mixture looks grainy whisk it the whole time. The lemon curd thickens around 170 degrees or just below a simmer. Remove from heat and cool then refrigerate several hours. It will thicken up a lot more when it cools.
Assemble the cake
Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease an 8-inch cake pan or tart pan with removable bottom. Cut out a circle of parchment or wax paper to line the bottom of the pan and grease that too if you are using a regular cake pan.
On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the first disk of dough to a 1/4-inch thickness and cut out an 8 inch round. Use the scraps with the second disk. Slide the round onto a lightly floured baking sheet and refrigerate until firm, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, roll the second disk out to a little over 1/4-inch thickness. It should be bigger than the 8inch pan. Transfer it to an 8-inch pan. Lightly press the dough onto the bottom and up the side of the pan. Trim off the excess and refrigerate the tart shell until firm, about 10 minutes.
Pour in the lemon curd. Dot the top of the curd with a handful of fresh or frozen raspberries. Place the 8-inch disk on top of the curd and seal the edges. Trim the edges. Brush with egg wash. Using a fork, lightly skewer the top to make a diamond pattern.
Place on a baking sheet and bake on the lower third of the oven for 20 minutes. Then transfer to the top third of the oven about 40 minutes longer until golden brown on top. Let it cool in the pan for 10 minutes and then transfer to a wire rack. Enjoy warm or room temperature.
Excess dough can be made into cookies! Roll them out to 1/4 inch thickness and bake at 350 about 20 minutes or golden.
I get it. Staying in hostels isn’t for everyone. But for saving money, traveling solo, and meeting others it can be great. Yes, they are more often than not primarily occupied by younger folks in their twenties. But there are plenty of us in our thirties traveling on a budget – and until I feel either way too old to stay in them or just uncomfortable in any way, and until my budget allows for fancier accommodation – I’m happy staying in hostels.
A nice middle ground, if budget allows, is to stay in private rooms in hostels. So you get to sleep (far more of a priority in your thirties, I’ve found) and still meet others if that’s what you want. Plus, hostels tend to organize day trips or walking tours which I love.
I research hostels via hostelworld.com and booking.com and read many, many reviews before choosing one. I tend to favor quieter hostels instead of party hostels because, again, sleep is a priority.
Here’s a list of a few of my favorite hostels I’ve stayed in (in my thirties):
HOME LISBON HOSTEL in Lisbon, Portugal
When researching for my Portugal trip I discovered Portugal has a reputation for fantastic hostels. I stayed in several, all but one were really wonderful, but this one in Lisbon took the cake.
24 hour reception, a common room that is both a bar and extremely cozy, it’s SUPER CLEAN, and the offer family dinners. I’m a sucker for family dinners.
The hostel is run by a family and friends. Mama – head matriarch – cooks dinner many nights and sits and eats with everyone. The food is simple, tasty, and really it’s all about the company. At the end of the meal she gives everyone a splash of moscatel or ginginha, dangerously tasty Portuguese liqueurs, and raises her drink for a toast, often declaring “It’s not a shot!”
One night she made a cake for my new Dutch friend for her birthday. Need I say more?
I stayed in a four bed women’s dorm – very cozy rooms, sturdy beds, thick walls, and clean bathrooms. There are group tours available many days to Sintra, surfing in Nazare, or Obidos. There’s also a daily walking tour of Lisbon, which is always recommended.
METEORA CENTRAL HOSTEL in Kalambaka, Greece
I chose this hostel because it was highly rated and had glorious AIR CONDITIONING in the rooms. (Temperatures were in the mid-nineties when I visited in early June. Uffda.)
It’s run by a couple who also own the bar/restaurant downstairs. Small hostel, with a nice women’s dorm sturdy wooden bunk beds instead of squeaky metal ones. There was a curtain over each bed for privacy, outlet and little lamp inside each one, with a tiny shelf, and huge lockers underneath the beds.
This place was not busy when I was there. Meteora seems to be more popular with older folks who bus around the monasteries and stay in hotels and BnBs.
Also there’s a cute back patio to hang out in.
I ate very well there at tavernas and gyro stands recommended by the owners. The smoothie shop across the street is pure heaven after a hot day hiking. The local KTEL bus stop is across the street if you want to take a bus up to the top of the mountains and monasteries. Or hike from Kalambaka to the top via one of the old pilgrim trails. Loved my stay in Meteora!
BEEHIVE HOSTEL in Rome, Italy
The hostel is two blocks from Termini Train station in Rome. I don’t like taking taxis at night alone, so I picked this place because it was highly rated and a quick walk from the train station. I fucking loved this Hostel.
Run by an American couple that moved here twenty plus years ago, it’s located in two buildings a block apart. There’s the traditional hostel dorm rooms and common area in one building, with a terrace garden, and the private rooms on the fifth floor of a building a block away. This is where I stayed. As I get older I’ve come to prioritize SLEEP. It was also mid-March, so lower prices. 50E for a private room and bath.
They host group dinners three times a week. Steve, one of the owners, cooks. The breakfast room is cozy and lovely, they make their own bread and pastries. It’s small so easy to chat to your neighbor if that’s what you want. Also the staff and owners are just really down to earth, good people.
Beehive was one of the nicest hostels I’ve stayed in. They have a great app with recommendations of where to eat in the Termini neighborhood and beyond. They recommended a Napoli restaurant around the corner from the hostel which was the best pasta I’ve ever eaten. They also host a writing/book club night once a month (I was bummed I missed it!). I will 100% stay here next time I’m in Rome.
SAMESUN HOSTEL in Vancouver, BC
The pod bunk women’s dorm gave me some of the best sleep I’ve ever had in a hostel. I also love tiny spaces—they are comforting to me. If you get claustrophobic…maybe don’t sleep here though. Six bunk beds in a room, lockers too. Each pod has its own little light, curtain, and fan above your head, along with a tiny shelf for charging your phone. Basically a brilliantly designed bunk. Comfortable beds, bedding and towels provided.
Vancouver is expensive and this is why I stayed in a dorm. ($50/night for a dorm bed. Yikes.)
It’s right downtown, a half mile from the Skytrain. Not my ideal location – it’s surrounded by several bro-y Irish bars. But despite that, I slept really well (always bring earplugs for dorm hostels, btw.)
Breakfast is a basic contintental but at least included.
It’s an enormous hostel. The common room and kitchen are pretty big but also cozy for hiding out on a rainy afternoon. I met a lot of folks of all ages staying here.
Also a few blocks around the corner are several really great ramen restaurants which are total comfort food on a rainy Vancouver day.
What other hostels have you stayed in and loved? I’m always on the lookout for recommendations!
The U.S. is full of weird, random sights right off the highways (like the World’s Largest Armchair in Anniston, Alabama) and no cross country road trip is complete without stopping for at least one of these sights.
On my long cross country drive from Georgia to Oregon a couple springs ago, I decided to visit Monument Rocks in Kansas.
I was driving alone, with my car packed with all my earthly possessions, so I didn’t want to make a lot of stops along the way. I mainly wanted to haul ass across the country. But I saw a photo of Monument Rocks somewhere on the internet and decided this would be my one random stop.
I arrived in Oakley, Kansas after a 12 hour boring yet sunny drive that began in Illinois. The receptionists at the Sleep Inn told me sunset was a perfect time to visit Monument Rocks.
Around 530 I headed back out. These rocks are technically on private property that still welcomes visitors on a goodwill basis. You drive down a dirt road that if wet would be a total muddy nightmare, so definitely don’t go if it’s rained recently. I lucked out with dry weather, so the dirt road was passable, though very bumpy. My little car was filthy afterward.
It feels weird to drive on someone’s private property.
Cows meandered on the road. The babies came up and sniffed around the car. The moms peed on it.
You drive down this bumpy dirt road for a good while, with no other cars around, and then suddenly these massive limestone rocks appear out of nowhere. From a distance, they reminded me of a chalky stonehenge.
A couple other cars parked nearby. I got out, camera in hand, and wandered around.
These chalky, limestone rock formations have a few different names such as “Eye of the Needle” and “Charlie the dog”. Visitors are asked not to touch or climb the rocks in order to preserve them.
I met a girl in her late twenties wandering around too. She asked if I’d take her photo, which I did, and then we spent an hour talking and taking photos. One of my favorite things about traveling alone: the random people you meet. Even in what feels like the middle of flat nowhere.
I also learned that night: in tiny rural American towns, places often close early. Even restaurants. I wound up eating gas station food for dinner in my hotel room (yogurt, granola, banana, a bag of potato chips) and called it a night.
Monument Rocks are not something I expected to find in Kansas. They aren’t as grand as the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon, say, but they are definitely worth a detour and arguably one of the coolest things in Kansas.
Going South from Oakley on HWY 83, turn left (east) onto Jayhawk Rd. There will be a sign at this intersection for Monument Rocks. Travel down Jayhawk Rd about 4 miles then turn right onto Gove County Rd 14 which turns into 16. You’ll see the rocks appear on the flat horizon.
I have driven across the U.S. between Georgia and Oregon twice. The last time I drove solo. It is roughly 2600 miles (or 38 hours of driving time, without traffic) between Atlanta and Portland. That is a lot of time to spend in the car by yourself. If you are moving with all your earthly possessions crammed into your car like I was, the drive can be even more stressful.
Here are mytips to stay sane driving solo as a woman across the U.S.:
Okay, first, shitty fast food coffee is your best friend. And actually, you’ll discover that it isn’t really that shitty, because it will taste like hope and comfort and pure joy. As much as I hate fast food the burnt coffee in McDonald’s and precious wifi saved me from having a breakdown in Wyoming. (I was driving through a snowstorm, with no cell service, for the entire day, with hardly any cars around me. Stress was high. Coffee and a call to my Mom in McD’s helped.)
Also, when you’re in Wyoming and find yourself asking: Is it worth it to go ten minutes off the highway exit for Dunkin Donuts coffee and chocolate cake donut holes? The answer is ALWAYS.
MUSIC. Download all of the music you can onto your phone and then add more than you think you’ll need otherwise you’ll end up listening to the same ABBA album over and over again. Also, Podcasts. Because then you’ll be both entertained and feel like you have company. Especially necessary to keep you from falling asleep out of boredom when you drive through Nebraska or Kansas.
SNACKS. It’s okay to just graze. You’re driving solo. You’re bored. Also, I get really hungry on long drives and refuse to feel guilty about snacking constantly. I tend to always crave crunchy, salty foods so nuts and crackers and popcorn are always in my snack pile. Plus dark chocolate. Because if you’re having a bad hour, or feeling angry and hopeless driving through a rainstorm in Wyoming, dark chocolate will help you feel like everything will be okay. My car trip snack pile: trail mix, salty crunchy crackers, corn chips, bananas, apples, and granola bars.
EMERGENCY SHIT. I carry at least a gallon of water that I often don’t touch unless there’s an emergency. Have a car jack and lug wrench and LEARN HOW TO CHANGE A TIRE yourself. Just in case. Keep your phone charged at all times. Have a paper map too! A flashlight and plenty of food in case you get stuck somewhere is also essential. Carry a blanket and extra layers if you’re traveling during a cold season and for the love of God get AAA.
TAKE LOTS OF BREAKS. Your butt will thank you. Your lower back and shoulders will also thank you. Inhale the sweet, sweet smell of fertilizer in Kansas. Marvel at the Rockies on the horizon in Colorado. Make friends with the old couple and their pomeranian at a rest stop. Call someone you love periodically to check in and let them know where you are.
SENSE OF HUMOR. Seriously, this along with dark chocolate is a lifesaver. This country is huge and weird. Laugh at it. Kansas has a lot of funny yarn store billboards like “Knaughty Knitters” and “Second Friendliest Yarn Shop in the Universe!” (What is the FIRST friendliest yarn shop in the universe??) Laugh at yourself as you almost shatter your windshield with your terrible rendition of “It’s Raining Men.” Laugh at that truck driver picking his nose, too.
ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS. If you have the time and means, find places or people along the way to visit. It makes the trip a hell of a lot more fun. On my last trip I checked out Monument Rocks in Kansas, visited friends in Boulder, Colorado and stayed with family in Salt Lake City. If I’d been with someone and didn’t have a car full of all my belongings, I would have taken my time driving across the country more. I would have visited Yellowstone, the John Day Fossil Beds, and possibly just gone out of my way to drive through Montana, which I’m told is insanely beautiful.
ACCOMMODATION. Everyone has a different safety threshold. I do not like to camp by myself. In the U.S. I generally feel safer staying in hotels rather than motels. Sometimes I book a place ahead, sometimes I don’t. I rely on my gut instinct for where to stay a lot. Does this place feel weird or sketchy in anyway? Are there creepy dudes hanging around in the parking lot for no discernible reason? If your car is packed with all of your belongings, as it was with mine, definitely bring the most important things into your room with you.
CHECK YOUR GUT. I’m obviously not talking about nausea or flatulence here. As a woman traveling solo, trusting your gut is ESSENTIAL. If anything feels off or weird about a place, I get out immediately. It’s not worth the risk.
I’m an introvert, so like and need large stretches of time alone. This last drive probably pushed me a bit to the edge there. This country is vast and varied, and even when I felt like I would never leave Wyoming, I felt just fine on my own. Take photos, think deep thoughts about your life, and have fun.
A few summers ago I took a train ride from Madrid followed by a nauseating bus ride through switchbacks in the Pyrenees to here: St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. A ridiculously cute, charming French village snuggled into the mountains and popular starting point for the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. It was evening and I should have looked for a place to sleep but my first order of business was to find a slice of Gâteau Basque—A light, thin buttery crust filled with lemon cream and a few raspberries. (My nausea from the bus ride was immediately replaced with squealing, happy tastebuds.) Then I sat on this stoop here, eating cake for dinner, waiting for the Pilgrim Office to reopen from their dinner break, thinking this was the best damn start to the long walk ahead.
You can’t spit without seeing a bakery in St. Jean. Highly recommend getting a slice (or two) the evening before you begin the Camino, if you plan on beginning your walk at dawn. Since there is only one reliable stop for food between St Jean and Roncesvalles (the bar at Orisson) a slice of Gâteau Basque for snack/second breakfast is pretty great.
How to get to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port from Madrid
I took the train from Madrid’s Atocha station to Pamplona. It was 3 hours, around 50 € if booked on the same day (you could save money by booking ahead on Renfe’s website.) From the Pamplona train station you can walk to the bus station (Estación de Autobuses de Pamplona) or take a taxi. It’s about 2.5 km (1.5 miles).
I arrived during late afternoon, siesta time, and the streets were basically empty. As a solo woman I felt perfectly safe walking from the train to the bus station during the day. (Might as well walk since you’re about to embark on a 500 mile journey on foot anyway, right?) From there catch the bus to St. Jean. (Cost around 20 €) It also passes through Roncesvalles, which can feel a little weird to drive through a town you’re going to walk back to the next day.
If you have a smartphone it’s a good idea to download an offline Google map of Pamplona so you have walking directions between stations, without using data on your phone.
Side note: The bus only runs direct to St Jean in the busier months of Spring — Summer. Check the ALSA bus website for times. I took the bus in August.
Also: I’ve heard about the horrendous crowds of pilgrims beginning in St Jean and the lack of beds in Roncesvalles since one of the big albergues closed. Why not begin your walk in Pamplona instead?
When I first booked my flight to Greece, I decided that I wanted a taste of island life and a taste of mountain life. I knew I would go and spend three days hiking in Meteora. But which island to visit out of them all?
There are a
shitload of travel blogs out there. And basically all of them list
Santorini or Mykonos as THE islands to visit. Milos is getting a bit
more attention for it’s moon-like rocky shores, and Ios is apparently
the second popular party island next to Mykonos (but for a younger
crowd, so I’ve read.)
I hate parties and crowds and that fact that over-tourism is ruining places like Dubrovnik and Santorini….So I went to Paros, a five hour direct ferry ride from Athens. Yes, it still gets tourists. (Hello, these are the Cyclades!) But in early June there really weren’t that many. Early June is still considered the slow season on Paros, though.
This is what I love about Paros: it’s not a party island. It’s not overrun by Instagrammers elbowing over each other for that perfect sunset shot. Locals live and vacation on this island. One bar owner told me that locals can’t even afford to live on Santorini anymore. They just rent out their homes and live on another island. That is insane to me.
Paros is chill. Though it is extremely windy, which makes the temperatures really pleasant. Maybe don’t wear a super short airy skirt here. It also felt very safe, which is a high priority for a woman traveling solo.
Parikia is a lovely port town. You can wander the cobbled maze of streets with white buildings and round blue tops and pink bougainvillea for hours. A postcard view around every corner. And SO many cats. I highly recommend just wandering the streets and getting lost for a while. Definitely have a coffee or lunch at Distrato cafe under the shade of an enormous tree growing out of the centre of the square. Peek into shops selling olive oil lotions, olive wood cutting boards, and handmade jewelry.
The beaches are chill. The people are warm. There’s a tiny produce market in the center square by the ferry pier with an excellent bakery right next door. How many ways can you eat honey-drenched phyllo for breakfast, snack, or dessert? Also, I’m obsessed with Greek iced coffee – espresso freddo!
Craving mountains one day, a friend and I took a bus to Lefkes, a town in the centre of the island. Lefkes is old, beautiful, more cats, tons of little shops, and it’s surrounded by terraced hillsides and scraggly olive groves. There’s also an amazing footpath on the outskirts of Lefkes called the Byzantine Road.
The Byzantine Road is the oldest road on the island. The path, paved from Parian marble, links Lefkes with Prodromos and is about 3.5 km long, mostly downhill. It rambles through the countryside, showing off the white buildings of Lefkes, myrtle, olive and fig trees dotting the hillside. The whole path smells like oregano. At one point there’s an opening between hills that gives you a view of the ocean. Bring a hat and/or sunscreen, plus water since there’s little shade.
The bus from Parikia to Lefkes takes about 30 minutes and cost around 3€.
I stayed in Paros Backpackers, a hostel only open a couple of years and constantly renovating. A private room with a bath and balcony cost 25€ when I was there. A steal. The rooftop terrace is perfect for watching the sunset.
Santorini is beautiful, yes, I was there as a child many years ago. But seriously, THIS IS GREECE. There are plenty of other gorgeous islands to be explored for half the price and just as much beauty.