Have bags, will travel.

Czech Republic is a bit like the Mexico of Europe. Everything is a bit janke, a bit questionable, and you’re never really 100% sure if something is going to work. When you’re driving to a specific destination it feels as though you’re going in the completely wrong direction, because there’s no way an establishment could be in the vicinity of the random fields and villages you’re in. But, alas, suddenly you round the corner and there’s the magnificent chalet you were looking for. There’s a lot of occasions where you find yourself simply saying “Well, I hope this is right.” Or “Please let this work, please let this work.” Or, even in the case of the beginning of tours I had one leader tell me that when she’s goes to retrieve the guests on day 1 for their shuttle to the staging area, it’s always a bit of a gamble as to whether our bus driver will actually be there. Old, run-down buildings from the communist area are still woven in amongst the newer houses. There’s Jesus statues everywhere, but most of the country is agnostic and they’ve left them up as a joke. There are rules in Czech, but they’re more like guidelines. I’m pretty certain the grand majority of the drivers here have a death wish based on their decisions they make at 80 miles an hour.

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Cesky Krumlov–the nearest town to our random village.

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A rare night out! Cece, Austin, and me.

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Some of our Backroads Czech region family.

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Me and Cece.

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Views of Czech.

I was told that Czech people are often a bit closed off due to their communist past, but I’ve found it to be a fairly welcoming country. Even if you have no common language with them (Czech is absurdly difficult so I haven’t gained much ground on that one, but some people speak German, some speak English, some speak neither), they’re generally willing to communicate with hand signals, drawing pictures, pointing, and doing it with a smile and a laugh. The staple in each Czech village is the bewildered-looking old man wandering down the road, often with a 2 liter bottle of beer (Czech drinks more beer than any other country in the world) as well as a very happy and oblivious old man riding a bicycle and saying things to you in Czech despite clearly indicating you have no idea what he’s saying. Less common, but still popular, is the grandma on the bicycle, wearing a bikini top and not giving a fuck about much of anything. Traditional food here is mainly meat and vegetables. Carp is a specialty and very common dish here, and you’ll find a carp pond in every village. Trout is also on almost every menu and served whole, head and all. And Czech is cheap. I mean really cheap. For example, one night, for the 3 of us, we ordered 2 steaks with sides, a chicken dish, trout, French fries, mashed potatoes, fried spinach, green beans, and drinks…..the grand total was the equivalent of about $40.

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Traditonal Czech cake I made for the first tour.

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Lillies on a carp pond.

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Your meal often looks back at you if there’s fish involved.

I’m underway on my 3nd tour. I’ve been on the Premier Inns trips as a support leader. After returning from my unit drive with Ola, I turned around and embarked on yet another adventure,. The Manwich Adventure is what it came to be called, due to the fact that I spent most of it in the front seat between two fine fellas who I work with here, Andy and Austin. We spent 4 days together learning the Premier Inns trip (also known as FAM in Backroads lingo). That’s one of the many common scenarios in Backroads—You meet someone for the first time, and then suddenly you’re around each other 24/7, sharing beds, sharing a tiny space, wedged against each other for hours of driving, biking together, eating together. There’s no room for being shy and you just have to be upfront and honest, for everyone’s sake.

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The manwich.

The theme of our trip together was everything being closed, except the select convenience stores run by Vietnamese (God bless the Vietnamese), bacon flavored potato chips, and Mars bars. Due to everything being closed, our lunches generally consisted of the latter two items. It was also on this trip that we were able to recycle the beloved plastic bags I had transported all the way from France. While I was in Pernes, unloading all those new bikes, the Oregon flower child in me couldn’t turn a blind eye to the copious amounts of plastic bags that arrived along with the bikes. Each bike had atleast 3 plastic bags on it, which, with 400 new bikes, equals over 1,200 plastic bags. France’s system doesn’t recycle plastic bags, but I knew that Austria’s did. So I saved all of them and then some. However, since we got delayed in France, we ended up getting to Austria on a Saturday, on which of course, the recycling center is closed. So the bags packed on another 700 kilometers to the Czech Republic. However, there wasn’t enough room at our house for all of them in the recycling, so onward they went to northern Czech Republic with us. It was finally, 1,500 km later they were able to find their resting place in a random recycling bin in the middle of nowhere. That being said, I am never going to live down the plastic bag debacle and have made a name for myself as the recycling fiend. I also got dubbed the bag-lady due to my packing style, so apparently my destiny is just all things bags. One day it will all become clear. Until then I’ll continue in the pursuit of recycling and inefficient packing.

 

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Hard at work on a FAM.

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Me and Andy being super helpful while Austin changes his flat tire.

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A hot mess. And bag lady.

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Just when we thought we might die, we found a store run by Vietnamese and loaded with chips and chocolate.

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Sadly, these cows are GMO cows, but they sure were cute, and needed some loving.

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One of many lunches of our bacon flavored potato chips (now known as BFPC’s) and candy.

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Andy described our lunch as looking like when a raccoon gets into a garbage can. I’d say that’s fairly accurate.

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So happy to be swimming in the Danube!

 

Anyways, this Premier Inn trip is brand new, as the previous one didn’t work out, so it got an overhaul. Kinks are still being sorted, as this is only the 4th trip ever, but over all it’s a great trip and the leaders putting it together did a really nice job. The hotels are pretty swank, and my personal favorite is the place where I get to eat lox, caviar and cheesecake for breakfast. There is no shortage of gluttony on these trips, that’s for sure. However, working support you don’t always stay in the same hotel. My personal charming favorite is the hotel that plays pop albums in their random, dark, dated restaurant at dinner, and Bruce Springsteen in the mornings at breakfast. I have discovered at this hotel as well as other places along the way, is that while you’re ordering the exact same thing, you get a little something different every time. Literally, the menu or request for what we want for our guests, or what we’re paying for, does not change, but without fail, there’s a variation every time. Czech Republic, man. The trip is 6 days long and starts in Prague and ends in Vienna. It covers a lot of ground, but the cycling along the way is gorgeous.

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Bike staging area, Hruba Skala,  for day 1 of the Premier Trip

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Typical Czech Forest

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Snack table of my dreams.

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Heralec. One of the castles that we stay in. 🙂

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Welcome roses and the world’s most comfortable beds!

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Beautiful trout dinner at Heralec.

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Lamb and risotto.

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Orange and fresh fennel salad.

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The grounds in front of Chateau Mcely.

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Chateau Mcely. Nights 1 and 2.

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Outdoor patio at Mcely. Not bad.

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Caviar and cheesecake for breakfast? Don’t mind if it do!

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Day old baby cow I found along the long option of day 5! There was a whole barn of them!

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My weekly Coupe Denmark in Melk. It’s soooo good!!

 

Also, tourists are quite possibly the most clueless, out-to-lunch population of humans. I’m sorry, but even the smartest, most highly educated people, put them on vacation and their brains turn off. Just gone. And I don’t mean that just for our tourists. Try backing a van out of a tiny space when team touron unit decides to come walking through in search of the perfect picture. My God. Reverse lights on, beepers on, car is IN MOTION, and la-dee-da they’ll just walk right out into your trajectory, completely oblivious to the fact that there’s a 15 passenger van next to their face that’s trying to get out. And a line of cars backed up because European streets weren’t made for monstrous vans, that in true Backroads style, is completely taking over the place. Just when you think you’re about to make it out, the next wave of Rick Steve groupies come walking through backwards with selfie sticks in one hand and diet Coke in another. Unbelievable.

That is all.

 

 

 

 

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Drinking the Backroads Kool-Aid

So Backroads is pretty much a cult. You become a bit of  a brain-washed puppet, programmed with the Backroads Bible. You can’t sit in a group of leaders for longer than 30 seconds before the conversations turns to something Backroads related. You become fluent in acronyms and start speaking in the lingo like “outsiders” are going to understand what you’re saying. “So what have you been up to?” “Oh you know, just going to do some FAMing after this GRAF. This trip has a lot of ETTM’s on it’s taking awhile. This afternoon we’re going to FAM the OYO. I also need to update my BETSy and ATLAS. I don’t want it to impact my LPF negavtively.” You see bikers and instantly check the bike to see if it has Backroads written down the side. You think: Do they need any M & M’s? Water? A hug? They even stock you with Backroads shirts, shorts, hats, socks, sweaters, vests (although our training groups schwag is still stuck in a container in the French customs). Stay long enough and you never have to wear anything not-Backroads ever again.

I have also now successfully managed to find yet another random place to live in that not even people from that country know about. First it was Biloela, Australia, then Fulpmes, Austria, and now Stekre, Czech Republic. The village where we live consists of about 5 houses and some sheep. The leader house is a Penzion that Backroads rents out a chunk of for us to live in. Down the road is the town of Ceske Krumlov, with a cute town center with cobblestone streets and good restaurants, and shopping. The land here is gorgeous-very pastoral—and makes for excellent biking.

 

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Our little village

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Canola fields are everywhere here!

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Cesky Krumlov

The land around the house.

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Sunset over the village carp pond.

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Fire sky.

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At the top of a mega hill near the house with other Czech-Austria leaders. There’s even soup and beer at the top!

 

After the information overload of our GRAF (Group Regional Area Familiarization) I had some time off, so I used the opportunity to go to the Stubaital and visit Monica, Jamie, Rob, Paula, Ben and Nia, and my Austrian family. We went to Italy for a day to do some Via Ferrata (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Via_ferrata), hiking, proper Italian espresso, and some wine tasting. We also went to Vienna for a night because Mon’s friend who was visiting from Oz had a flight out of there. The weather was crazy—we went from shorts and tank tops to full-on snow. The glacier got over 60cm of fresh snow, so we bolted to the mountain, only to turn back after 2 horrible runs. The visibility was so awful you couldn’t even see your hand, or tell if you were moving. But hey, still skied at the end of May, even if it was brief! Then spent Saturday night at the new sauna complex built near Fulpmes. Just me and all the old Austrian men hanging out naked together and sweating. Wild times in the village.

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Getting ready for some via ferratta in Italy!

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Views of the Italian valley.

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Up on the climb.

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🙂

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Some Fulpmes sheep.

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Making new friends.

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The stellar skiing conditions.

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One of my beloved Austrian cows near Andrea’s house.

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The tiniest little lamb!

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Creek in the valley.

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Nia’s little girl, Evie.

 

That Sunday, a co-worker, Mel, (a new leader from Vienna) picked me up in the Stubai, because conveniently enough, it is en-route to Pernes, which was my next destination. So we road-tripped to San Remo Italy for the first night, which took far longer than it should, but was a blast in Mel’s tiny little car, packed to the brim. We got to Pernes Monday, where, originally I was supposed to load a unit (vans, bikes and equipment needed for a trip) to drive back to Czech with another Czech-Austria leader from Poland named Ola. However, as it tends to happen in this job, our schedules got thrown up in the air at the last minute and no one was really sure what they wanted us to do. But being marooned in Provence isn’t the worst thing in the world that can happen to you, so we hopped on board with warehouse work. This entailed unloading and sorting out 400 new bikes. With Missy Elliot and Shakira blasting, and the 2 hour lunch breaks at our villa Backroads rented for 2 months, it wasn’t so bad 😉

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View of Monaco on our trip to Pernes.

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A small town near Marseille.

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The trailer with new bikes arriving and backing up to the warehouse.

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Some of the fruits of our bike-labeling and sorting labor on the shiny new bikes.

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Backyard (with pool!) at the villa Backroads rented since the leader house was so full. (Typical Provence winds pictured here as well!!).

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Living room inside the villa.

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These 2 French cheeses will change your life (Goat on the left, sheep on the right).

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A neighboring town, Venasque, on a post-work cycle.

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Provence is certainly not ugly.

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Some things just don’t translate.

Ola and I lucked out and got to take back a walking unit, one van, no bikes, no trailers. So we could rock out together the whole road trip home (3rd time in a month I have driven from Pernes to Czech Republic!). We got a brand new Fiat van, who we named Vanny. In the same day we swam in the mediterranean in Nice, France and in Lake Garda. Was pretty great. Funny enough, the route that they have us takes, sends us right through the Dolomites and into the Stubaital. So we made a stop there, had tea with everyone, and then I gave Ola a valley tour and we visited a waterfall, had the obligatory Thai meal once again (it’s the most random thing—a Thai woman who speaks a little German, married to a German man who speaks a little Thai, and they have a hut in the middle of nowhere in Austria and serve burgers and some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had) and carried on our way. I wouldn’t call us the most efficient road-trippers but we sure do have fun!

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Vanny, ready to go from the Pernes villa.

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Hitting the road!

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On the beach in Nice.

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Me and my Polish princess, Ola.

 

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Sunset over Lake Garda.

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Going for a night swim in Lake Garda.

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Nuggie!!

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Tirolean traffic jam.

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Ola and the cows.

 

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Grawa waterfall in Stubai.

 

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Me and my beautiful alpine rocks that I took back to the leader house in Czech (they sparkle!).

 

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Our beloved Vanny and the mountains.

 

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Me and my precious Austrian cows reunited once again!

 

 

Leader Training Bootcamp Part Deux

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More Provence beauty.

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Wine and farm land.

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Wheat fields in Provence.

Being in France made me realize something: I don’t know French. Like any. I can count to 5, say hello, good-bye, I don’t speak French, thank you, please, threesome, Do you want to come to bed with me?, cheese, and chicken. So, depending on how you look at it, either I’m completely screwed or completely set. I had my foreigner moment when I tried to buy a rotisserie chicken. I hadn’t set out to buy a whole chicken–I’d only gone out for what I was wanting to be quick run to the store for some lemon yogurt and ginger. But hey, poulet happens. I walked into the store, and right there in the front was a rack of rotisserie chickens roasting. It’s like walking past the rotisserie chicken section in Costco–MOM CAN WE PLEASE GET A CHICKEN!? I mean seriously, what on earth to they put on that chicken that makes it smell that way, all over the world much-a-less!?! It’s like a drug. You smell it and suddenly you become crazed and absolutely have to it.

But….I saw no price or method to retrieve the chicken from it’s rotation on the spit. Normally, I would just ask. But alas, none of my vocabulary aside from “Poulet” was going to help me in this situation so I abandoned my rotisserie chicken dreams just as quickly as I had gotten them.

I got to the check-out line and I could see the chickens looming by the door, their delicious aroma torturing me as I stood in line, staring them down, unable to ask if I could buy one. I finally got to the check-stand and couldn’t take it anymore. I pointed to the case of rotating birds and said “Poulet?” She said “Oui”, punched in 9.50€ into the register. I was committed now. The poulet was paid for, but now how the hell do I communicate that I don’t think I’m qualified to reach into a rotisserie and pull out a burning hot rotating chicken and is there somewhere here that can. Of course, there was a giant line forming, and then their machine decided to hate my credit card and I didn’t have any cash. And I didn’t have my chicken. Finally the card went through, and I did some more pointing and said poulet a few more times and she gave me very clear instructions how to get it. Or at least I think she did. She resorted to circling the poulet purchase on my receipt and pointing to the butcher. So I took the receipt to him, he asked me something, to which I replied that I don’t speak French, and he continued talking to me, confused about what I was asking for and getting rather annoyed.

I took the receipt back to the lady at the register, gave the universal sign for “I have no idea”. She took the receipt, scribbled the butchers name in big letters followed by “CHICKEN PLEASE”. Dear God, yes, please, chicken. Not so surprisingly, the butcher still had no idea what he was supposed to do. For the third time I went back to the lady at the register with the receipt, who now decided to stand up and starting yelling across the store at the butcher. Meanwhile, the line that had formed during the beginning of the great chicken debacle, was now growing and watching-on with more annoyance as my frickin chicken continued to delay their day further. At this point the butcher had now come out from behind his counter all the way across the store and was at the register hashing it out with the clerk and finally it clicked. Chicken. Rotisserie chicken. In a bag. For me. I got my poulet, and it was delicious.

Aside from chicken, week 2 of bootcamp was equally as busy and sleep-deprived as week 1. However, there were lots of peanut M & M’s. I’m going to get so fat working for Backroads. They say first year leaders gain an average of 10-15 lbs their first year. Between getting fed 5 course meals at fancy (sometimes Michelin Star!) restaurants and the company’s obsession with, and bottomless supply, of peanut M & M’s (if you’re working in a country that doesn’t sell them they’ll have you bring over a suitcase full of them with you. It’s serious M & M business around here.) I believe it. And the picnics. Oh Lord, the picnics. The Backroads Picnic is another staple in the trip experience for guests. There’s always 1-2 picnics on each trip, and we got specific training on how to shop for, make, and present these picnics (it’s all about elevating the food and proper garnish!). Never underestimate the power of the picnic!

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Picnic practice.

 

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Our team picnic! 🙂

On the first 2 days of week 2 we had a  mock-trip. So basically it was closest  thing to a trip we could experience and  ran it as such. Mentors played guests and  gave us scenarios, we had the vans and  trailers, route maps, prepared daily talks  you would do on a trip, van support,  picnics, wine-tasting, etc. It was a lot of  fun, great weather and great cycling.

 

The rest of the week was more logistics, learning about our clientele, more public speaking, more reading, and the final testing was all day Saturday. However, the most exciting day was Thursday, because we got our placement for the start of the season. I got my first choice: Czech-Austria. Woohoo!! The trips start in Prague and end in Vienna, winding through the SE of Czech and into the Wachau Valley.

We finished testing Saturday evening, went home to pack, went out with the mentors, and then the next morning Pavel (token Czech Republican) and I hit the road to Czech (he got placed there too and had driven his own van from Norway to training, so it was road trip time). We were supposed to start Tuesday morning, so the go-go-go was not about to stop! Driving in a van for 2 days with Pav is a bit like being stuck in a metal box with a 12 year old. We managed not to kill each other and only had 2 incidents that caused us to stop speaking to each other for a couple hours. We drove all day Sunday and made it to Lucerne, Switzerland by 10:00 that night, visited one of Pav’s friends, then slept in a parking lot. I was told we were going to be camping by a lake. No. We slept in a van in a parking lot, sort of near a lake. Not the alpine lake dreams I had envisioned, but oh well.

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Scotty, me, and Lulu (another mentor).

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Me and my mentor Scotty.

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Roomies from training.

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Road-tripping in style.

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Chapel Bridge in Lucerne, built in 1332.

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You can even still walk on it! Good work, Switzerland.

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The paintings that were added in the 17th century illustrate scenes of Swiss and local history

 

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Austria!

Then we bombed it the next day into Austria, took a side trip into the Stubaital to meet up with all my friends from last year and to eat at my favorite random Thai food spot in the valley. We made it to Czech late that night to our leader house, which is in the middle of nowhere in the Czech countryside, then turned around the next morning to be on the road by 8:00 for trip familiarization. The next 4 days were a jam-packed jumble of more information and further sleep deprivation. My brain just gave up on life. We were being familiarized on multiple trips (that they usually give you 6 days to do, but scheduling decided to have us cram it into 4), meeting hotel managers, seeing the spots along trips, restaurants, biking some routes, and learning the ropes. It was overload, but I loved it, and the Wachau is absolutely gorgeous. And the breakfast at the hotel we stay at there is really good, so really I don’t care about much else after that.

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Coming over the border into Western Austria

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Entering in Zürs-Lech area in Voralberg.

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Back in Fulpmes with Monica!

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Nuggie doing her bat-dog look. She’s the latest addition to Doug’s Mountain Getaway.

 

 

 

Leader Training Bootcamp

Welp, my plan to write weekly quickly went by the waste side, cuz it’s been BUSY. Holy moly. We hit the ground running, and it was AWESOME. For reading and time’s sake, I’ll make this a two-parter.

But first, look how pretty France is…..

POPPIES!

Olive trees

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Olive grove.

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The snails here are HUGE!

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Oh hi, friend!

Week 1:

There were 25 of us at training and I was surprised to find that only 6 of these people were Americans (all women. Yeah girl power!), and all the rest were Europeans. I didn’t realize that Backroads hires so many Europeans! There was a small herd of señor sexy’s from Spain, a group of Italians who spoke with their voices as much as they did with their facial expressions and hand motions, (and offered you an array of food the second you stepped into their house. Love it.), some Portuguese, an Irish, Brits, and my recent sidekick, the token Czech Republican (I don’t think that’s what they’re called, but I’m going with it).

We get a mentor for the training which was nice. Mentors are people who’ve been with Backroads for a while and know the ropes. They’re there to help you with any questions, give you constructive feedback, tell you what you’re doing well, but also be there for you personally if there’s anything you need. My mentor was Scotty and he was fabulous. He had actually been at my hiring event as well, so that was fun!

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Inside the Pernes warehouse.

Our first day we got the joy of playing Backroads guests and went on a bike tour. It was pouring rain, but then again it was in Provence, so rain or not, it’s still glorious and there’s nothing to be complained about. Then we got the lowdown on the coming 2 wks and after that it was nose to grind stone and ass-kicking time. We were literally so busy every day that there was barely time to eat, definitely no time to sleep, and nearly no time to even use the toilet. There was intensive training starting early in the morning and finishing in the evening (but with a lovely bike commute on either end), then by the time you got home there was dinner to be made, a million pages of things to be read, information from the day to be reviewed, speeches to be written, things to be presented, wheels of delicious sheep cheese to be eaten, 25 cool, worldly people to socialize with, then someone of course opens a bottle of French wine that you can’t say no to, and suddenly it’s midnight, you have to get up at 6:00 in the morning, and you still don’t have any of that speech written or your assigned route researched. Phew! And of course, there’s the hills of Provence to be cycled, calling your name each evening after getting done. Can I just have an extra 24 hours in my day, please?

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St.Didier, one of the towns we cycled through (on a much sunnier day).

But…..We learned SO. MUCH. There was no ease-in period, no adjustment, no babying, no bullshit. We just started. That’s one of the many things I like so far about working for Backroads, is that it’s step up and get it done, or don’t be here. We learned bike mechanics–handle bar conversion, changing brakes, adjusting brakes and deraileurs cables, pedals, saddles, bike adjustments, took apart bike stems, put them back together, racked bikes in the special Backroads racking-way. It was intensive, but super interesting and fun.

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Bike mechanics! Woohoo!

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Racking bikes (in formal dinner-ware of course. No time to change around here!).

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My mentor, Scotty, on the right, and my driving buddy Shay on the left.

Then there were the vans and trailers. This part was the one area that I was a bit skeptical of, as it was trifecta of all things that alone are fine, but when put together are seemingly disastrous: 15 passenger van, manual shift, towing a trailer. Then load it up with excited, chattering tourists, music playing, directions to be read, you’re running late, and you’re in a tiny European village with roads built for horse carriages, not van and trailer monsters. And of course, it’s on a giant hill, as European villages tend to be and you’re trying not stall out (which I only did once on a really steep hill with the trailer! But it all worked out 🙂 ). However, that being said, the van and trailer went surprisingly well and I really enjoy driving it! It’s fun! And backing that trailer into tiny spaces is extremely satisfying. All together, knowing how to fix a bike (up to a point….not an expert–Yet!) and how to tow a trailer with all those factors is pretty frickin empowering.

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The van and trailer beast.

Additionally, we worked a lot on public speaking, how to interact with guests, deal with conflict, learned about the leader life, how to format your days in the field, route talks to give, etc. These trips are pretty dang posh, and the company is extremely feedback oriented. So when people are dropping $10,000 on a week long vacation, it better go well and it better be done right, and the leaders of the trip better have it together.

It went by incredibly fast but I loved every minute of it!

Taking the Backroad

Well,  I’m in France. Pernes les Fontaines to be exact. I realized I didn’t really make much of a public announcement about my plan to make a move back over to Europe. I’m not really sure who I told and who I didn’t. Partly because I was strangely not excited about it and also because I don’t really have much other information to give other than I supposedly got a job as a trip leader for a company called Backroads, but I technically don’t have a contract yet, and I don’t know anything about my life after May 3. I have no idea when I start working or when I end.  I got hired in January after a hiring event in Berkeley and then had 4 months of interim. You would think with all this time inbetween I would’ve been quite on top of things, but I let’s be honest–I never learn. Extra time is a curse for me, as the phrase “I have plenty of time” turns quickly into “Oh crap, I never did that!” So hopefully it all works out.

As pathetic as it sounds, I have realized during this process that out of all things I’ve done in life, muchaless by myself, I have never participated in an organized “thing” that doesn’t hold your hand along the way. Either it’s just me traveling by myself, so having little organization and just winging-it is fine, because I’m the only one it impacts and don’t mind the spontaneous, mishap adventures along the way. Or, I get very grumpy emails from Austrians telling me I haven’t done something yet, and everything you need to do is completely spelled out every step of the way. There were no reminder emails sent about paperwork, and there were no snacks upon arrival or a number to call if you got scared at night. You’re supposed to have your shit together. So, here’s a new curve on getting my shit together. We’ll see how it goes. I feel like I have little clue of what’s going on, but the clue that I do have tells me that it’s kind of supposed to be that way at this moment and that no one really knows what’s going on.

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I didn’t take this picture, as I haven’t really seen past the grocery store, but this is Pernes.

The description of this job is basically you’re an active adventure guide. Trips can be biking, biking and hiking, just hiking, or biking, hiking and kayaking combo. Backroads operates year around and is in over 40 countries. You’re not always leading trips, as they like to diversify your experience and there’s many other things to be done. Other jobs are going to be working as a co-leader, moving vans (15 passenger, manual, with a trailer. Yikes.) from one country to another for tours, and doing site scouting (i.e. getting sent to a country and getting acquainted and getting a paid to find cool spots to eat, etc. Sounds terrible.).  I’m supposedly going to be given a schedule after training, and then every 45 days you get a new one. Not even the company knows where’ you’re going to be that far in advance because they’re waiting for tours to be booked and seeing where the demand will be for guides.

I spent this last month of April saying bye to everyone, getting in all the Oregon goodness with hiking and biking, cramming in every annual doctors appointment I could, getting in my fill of all the good Portland food and eccentric, weird people, packing up my apartment (with a lot of help from my parents. Thanks, mom and dad), and traded in my long, glorious, acrylic nails for pathetic stubby ones that will be more conducive to things such as bike mechanics–although, for the record I CAN change flat tire with long pointy talons. But seriously, call me vain or whatever you want, saying good-bye to my nails was rather heartbreaking. I managed to keep my packing to 2 bags. Although, one turned out to be nearly 70 lbs (the bag itself weighs 11 lbs though to be fair). Oops. BUT in my Boy Scout and mama bear nature, I’ve packed an entire naturopathic pharmacy of herbs for anything and everything, enough Tulsi and Yogi tea to last a month, gluten free organic pasta (being the good Portlander that I am), gluten free cookies, some cowboy boots, a variety of printed FUPA pants, all the biking clothes I own, too many dresses, a stuffed unicorn and penguin, and much to my dismay had to leave behind the Beyonce sweatshirt that says “I Woke Up Like Dis”, but was able to fit in the Twerk It sweatshirt. And matching crop top. You win some, you lose some.

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Good-bye, claws.

 

So, here we are. After 27 hours of travel I made it to the apartments where I’ll be for the next 2 weeks. They retrieved me and a few others from the train station last night and dropped us off at our bare apartments with a box of pasta (good thing I had brought my own gluten-free variety!) and sauce and a couple yogurts, got pointed in the direction of the supermarket that would be open in the morning, told we’d meet early Monday morning and that was that. I thought we’d be staying in a complex with just our group, but it’s an actual vacation spot. None of my other apartment mates are here yet, it’s been just me. So I called dibs on the big bed, been running around in underwear and blasting all the Beyonce, Die Antwood and 2 Chainz I can before I have company. Nearly had a meltdown this morning when I thought I might not make it to the store in time before it closed at noon (because it’s Europe. A miracle something’s even open!) and be rationing cranberries and Clif Bars for the next 36 hours. But, I made it. And I got coffee. Crisis averted. Tomorrow morning we meet at 7:30 to go biking and then the games shall begin.

Krampus Christmas

I think that the Krampus deserve their own post, as it is hands-down one of the strangest traditions I have ever seen. Krampus is the anti-Santa. How festive, right? It’s a massive furry demon with goat horns that storms the streets to beat the bad out the children and drag the naughty ones to hell. And no one bats an eye. These runs, or “Krampuslauf” in German, begin at the end of November and end on December 6, St.Nikolaus Day.

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Generally Krampus groups are organized by village, and it is just men inside the suits, ranging from teens to adults. However, we did see a group baby Krampus (Krampi for plural??) or Krampus-in-training at one lauf, which actually were children learning how to do it properly.

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The Krampus carry bundles of birch branches, chains, and whips. And then they beat the shit out of you. No, but really, they do. It’s not like they whack you once and you say oh, that was fun, and move on. They will grab you and repeatedly beat you, hold onto you, throw you on the ground, sling you over their shoulder, grab your face, and genuinely terrorize you. The way they move is very specific, and of all the Krampuslaufs that I’ve seen, there seems to be a formula for the “Krampus walk” as it appaers to be pretty much the same across the country. They either walk very aggressive or creepily slow, tilting their heads, staring at you in the eye, then lashing out.

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Krampuslaufs in tourist cities are supposedly regulated now, but that pretty much just translates to now each Krampus has to wear a number so you can identify them. Whereas before, if you got seriously injured by one, the description of “the tall hairy one with horns” wouldn’t get you far. Other than that, it’s pretty much a free-for-all. However, the ones in the mountains are even more violent and out of control than the city ones, the Krampus don’t wear numbers and often the men inside the outfits are completely hammered, only adding to violence.

Going to these events is this strange, slight masochistic addiction. It’s my favorite and least favorite tradition all at the same time. It’s incredibly miserable, horrifying, and scarring, but at the same time it’s an absolute thrill and you keep going back for more.

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Team America

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Ok still playing catch-up here…..Can’t believe the trip is almost through!

A week after arriving, my friend from university, Lizz, and her friends Jackie and Aaron came to join me in Austria. The 3 of them live in Spain with the navy, and while Lizz’s husband Simon is on deployment, Lizz and I are deployment wives (spent 6 wks living with her earlier this year on Simons previous deployment).

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Deployment wives.

I was entertained by the level of Stars and Stripes we were representing, and there was no way we were going to stealthily make our way around Europe with out being insta-outted as Anericans. Number 1 reason being our standard volume for talking is shouting. But moving in a group of friendly, loud, outgoing Americans seems to serve as entertainment for the Austrians more than anything and became a good conversation starter, leading us to make lots of spontaneous friends. My favorite! In this trip I actually met more nice Austrians than I had between living there 2 years. The best was the one who asked where I’d lived in Austria and when I told him Stubaital he goes “You found zee worst place in all of Austria to live!!” I said what! Have you seen it? It’s gorgeous! He says “Yes, I am from Innsbruck.” Haha!

We stayed in the valley for the first 2 nights, in a nice apartment owned by Gitti. The Stubai is filled with apartments that you can rent for 25€ a night/person and they’re absolutely massive, well maintained and charming. Naturally, Gitti insisted we drink 3 rounds of über strong and extra-burn Schnapps with her before paying her. That’s something about the mountain Austrians that I love (I’m sure it exists outside of the mountains in Austrian culture but it seems to be most prevalent there), is that if you’re in their space in any way, they want to sit with you and share a coffee ,or tea and cake, or Schnapps and have a chat. There aren’t any fast transactions in an Austrian home, not even if you leave something at their house and have to pop by to pick it up you can count on staying a minimum of an hour. I think it’s nice, because it reflects their slower way of life and genuineness in getting to know people. Often times they find Americans to be somewhat superficial and overly friendly, extending invitations they don’t really mean or being in-genuine when speaking with people. If an Austrian invites you into your home you say yes and it’s an honor. When they say stay as long as you want, they mean it, unlike our culture where that translates to “don’t stay more than a couple nights.”

Our week of activities included saunas (duh), walks in the mountains, a trip to Salzburg for 3 nights, with a detour to Fucking, Austria (it’s an actual place) where we defiled the city sign, Christmas markets, then more saunas and mountains, Krampuslaufs, and about a million trips to my favorite restaurant in Neustift called the Jagdhütte (they now know me by name there and are probably thinking I have no life other than eating at their restaurant).

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Fucking, Austria

The highlight in Salzburg was visiting Rene, who was mine and Lizz’s director when we were at University of Portland’s Salzburg study program. He’s still a dick and I love it. For example, when we were driving in the car, I was cold, so he turned on the AC and said that’s what happens when you complain. What a guy. He also took us to an off-the-beaten-path Christmas market where we got incredible wild deer sausages filled with bits of cheese (Käsekreiner) and marching around a pretty down over the border in Germany.

Towards the end of the week, Aaron and Jackie went to Munich and Lizz and I went to stay with Andrea and family once again. They took her right in as well and were so confused as to why she was only staying a few days. Andrea kept asking why she couldn’t and wouldn’t stay longer and suggesting that she should. We made them an American dinner, which they were first very skeptical about on th a lot of levels. One being that we were using a Croc-Pot, something they’d never seen before, and that we were using packets of Hidden Valley Ranch seasoning, also a new item to them. But the pesto-ranch chicken ended up being a big hit!

After Lizz left I had a few more days in the valley at Andreas. Monday was a national holiday so the whole family came (as in 30 of them) came over for breakfast as it was also Daniel’s dad, who died 25 years ago, birthday. Every year they get together and all celebrate his birthday and then go to mass. In a room of 30 Austrians who didn’t speak English, and only couple who is met once briefly, were so warm, friendly and talkative with me. I half expected to just mind my own business and help out, as to them I’m a complete stranger at a family event, but they nearly instantly took me right in as part of the family just as Andrea and Daniel did. It was wonderful.

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Top of the Stubai glacier

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A bit of Austrian Christmas kitsch

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The adorable Haflinger ponies commonly found around here!

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Sporting spring dirdnls in winter and waving our tourist flag

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Part of a pretty village we stopped in in Germany. Claimed to have some of the purest air you can find and people come here when they are ill to heal.

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Rene and his beloved dog Walli

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Visiting Hallstatt on the way home from Salzburg

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A very pretty cemetery in Hallstatt

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Overlooking the church

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More of the gorgeous village.

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From Homeless to Having an Austrian Family

Well my plan to write more frequently with shorter posts has failed miserably.

This trip is flying but at the same time my pre-travel freak-out in Portland and arrival here feels like ages ago. I can safely say that I’ve been having an incredibly wonderful time in Austria. All my hopes and dreams of me and Austria reconciling with each other have come true.

All summer I said I needed to practice my German–watch films, listen to podcasts, work on my writing–I had so much time! Come November 21, the day I left, German had yet to be practiced. But somehow I became more fluent in the interim than I have ever been before. My first few days here I stayed with my Austrian family who speak pretty much no English and I could communicate with them completely in German. It was amazing! This family is on the list of some of the best things that came out of my time last year in Austria. Andrea, my Austrian mom (title approved by my mother, so that’s when you know it’s real!) worked at the same school as me and would drive me to work on Mondays. She and her husband Daniel have 3 kids, Matthias (10), Johanna (13), and Florian (18) and live in Neustift, which is just a bit up the Stubai valley from Fulpmes, where I lived last year. Andrea insisted on taking me in last year for a couple weeks when I was spontaneously homeless. Since then we’ve fostered a relationship that I know will last a lifetime. They are an incredibly warm, gracious family and the more time I spend with them the more family-like our dynamic becomes. Johanna has become a little sister to me (people say we look like twins) and we bicker and are sassy (and mean) to each other. She constantly texts me asking when I’ll be home, where I am and what I’m doing and the kids refuse to go to bed before I’m back. It’s adorable. Andrea has taken to giving me a hard time and making fun of the things I do (and shaking her head at the massive amount of clothing and luggage I have) as we pick up on each other’s personality nuances. She coordinates schedules and makes sure I’m home for the family lunch and insists on feeding me copious amounts of food. Every friend I bring over to visit she invites to stay as long as they want and always pulls out schnapps or champagne to drink together. I’ve been melded into the family child-herd and I love it.

In my first week back I was able to visit the school I was at last year and see some of my students. They didn’t know I was coming so it was a fun surprise. I also got yelled at by a horrible tax lady, ate absurd amounts of speck and cheese, and caught up with a friend who is living in Vienna as well as a tutoring student from last year.

I am learning that coming back to visit a place where you once lived is the biggest gauge in seeing the community that you did or did not make. You know it’s there when you’re living in it, but it’s upon return that you truly see the life you made and can continue to foster. It’s amazing to be experiencing right now and see the relationships that were built and to see that I will always have a home here.  I don’t really feel as though I am visiting Austria for a few weeks but rather that I am just back in my life here for a bit and jumping back into the daily Austrian routine.

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Visiting my class at the farm school I worked at last year.

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Never trust an Austrian when they ask to go for a walk. Translation: 3 hour march in the mountains.
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A Tyrolean homestay wouldn’t be complete without baby farm animals.imageimage

Matthias’s baby goat Fritzi.

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 Me and my little Austrian twin sister Johanna. She’s a fan of the selfies.

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My Dysfunctional Marriage With Austria

Austria and I have had a very tumultuous relationship. It’s one of the prettiest places you will ever see in your life. You could be jumping up and down on a pogo stick, be blind-folded, and taking a picture with a flip phone from 10 years ago, and the image would still be worthy of a postcard.  Visually, it’s a magical place. It’s culturally rich, with traditions that have been preserved for far longer than America has even existed. You can eat at cafes that have been around hundreds of years and eat food from recipes equally as old, in a wooden hut filled with stuffed dead animals being served by women in dirndls. And at Christmas, the place is a fairytale winter wonderland with an immense amount of kitsch (Austrian’s favorite), Glühwein, Schnapps, magical snow, and twinkly lights just to name a few. The list of perfect things in Austria is very long. It is also a country that sucks my soul. Yes that sounds a bit dramatic, but seriously, a little piece if me dies when I live in Austria. It happened the first time and it happened the 2nd time. It’s perfection and monochromatic, conservative nature, closed-off social culture and abundance of black and grey clothing palettes kill me. That being said, Austria can be that way and that is perfectly ok. Austria didn’t make me move here. You tell people you’re going to Austria and the general response is “Are you going to New Zealand too?” No…..I’m going to Austria. It’s in Europe. “Oh that’s cool, I’ve been to Germany before.” No no no, AUSTRIA! It’s its own country. The alps? Sound of Music? Edelweiß? The winter Olympics?Point being–most people (or maybe just Americans) don’t even know Austria exists. And if they do, their view of it is pretty much a lady spinning around in alpine fields in dirndl singing. Austrians don’t really leave Austria too often and they don’t tend to invite anyone in. They don’t really even import many things (They’re sustainability masters–they supply 80% of their own food from 20% of the land) muchaless export them. Austria can be what Austria wants. They aren’t hurting anyone. My issues with Austria are my own deal. The first time I lived here I said I’d never come back. Where did I not just return to but go to live for another year? Austria. Aside from America I have spent more time in Austria than any other country and yet it is the country that gives more internal conflict than any other place I’ve been. Austria kind of turns me into a monster.

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That being said, I think Austria and the people there have come into my life for many reasons and I have come to the realization that I will probably be coming back here time and time again. Having spent so long here, I have placed a little life-root in Austria. The other day the words “my valley” slipped out of my mouth when we were walking in the Stubaital.                                                                                     IMG_1897

I am excited for this trip because it is the first time I get to simply visit Austria. Third time’s a charm? I can experience all parts of it knowing that I am not living here and only get the good things. This is mine and Austria’s long awaited honeymoon together. While the context and circumstances for being here right now were not the original plan, I am happy to sit back, relax, and enjoy the Austria ride. Because sometimes, plans change, and you roll with it, because in the end everything will be just fine.

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