Archive for July, 2009


What I learned on my summer vacation. Part 2.

little girl in chefchaouen, morrocoFrom Tangier we took an old, un-airconditioned bus to Chefchaouen, a small town in the Rif mountains. We slept on colorful beds on the roof of our hostel in the medina. The loud, melodic 5 am prayer woke us with a start and lulled us back to sleep. We wandered through the maze of blue-painted buildings, our path crossed every now and then by a scrawny feral cat or a group of shy, scrappy Moroccan kids with a soccer ball.

We haggled for 45 minutes with a young merchant and ultimately ended up with a big, beautiful traditionally woven blanket. After walking away and being called back at least 3 times, Jordi talked him down from 600 dirham to 175 (about 17 euros). Moroccans always say about the Dutch (in Dutch), “Kijken kijken, niet kopen,” essentially, “always looking never buying.” Their reputation for being cheap is world-renowned. But Jordi stuck to his price, and we got that blanket.

That evening, we took a bumpy 5-hour bus ride through the mountains to get to Fes and, although we arrived late, easily found a cheap room in a hotel right inside the medina. The center of Fes is a labyrinthine tangle of little, unmarked alleys and crowded market streets. A map does no good, so you have to pay a little kid to show you the way, or ask a new person for directions on every corner. After a dizzying few hours of exploring, dodging the relentless advances of vendors, we sat down for a lunch of olives, couscous and sweet mint tea. The rest of the day was spent finding ways to survive the heat and buying small treasures before indulging in big pink and green ice cream sundaes at a delightfully garishsweet shop.

In the last little stall we went in, full of painted ceramic bowls, the shop owner sold us a small carved wooden box. It’s a special Moroccan design that only the owner (and the guy who sold it) knows how to open. There’s a little key hidden inside, but you have to know where to look. We’d had about enough of the typically aggressive sale tactics, but this man was kind and tactful, so we gave him our business. Like many Moroccans we spoke to, he said over and over again, “You are welcome,” and it somehow meant more than just the stock reply to a thank-you.

We thanked him and walked off after he said “You are welcome” a few more times, and holding the secret box, locked up tight at my side, I wondered what I’d ever been so worried about.

Next time, I’ll be sure not to ask “What if?” quite so much, because the best thing I can do to calm my inner worrier is pack my bags, leave the neurotic planner in me at home, and give the world a chance to prove that it can actually be very accommodating, if you just know where to look.


What I learned on my summer vacation. Part 1.

harbor at sunset in faro, portugal

Hi, I’m Shannon, and I’m a chronic worrier. Sometimes I think it must be in my blood, that old doubts constantly circulate in my veins until they are recycled and become new, fresh fears. Travel, not surprisingly, can exacerbate this tendency. Going new places and doing new things, while exhilarating, also comes with countless new worries built right in.

Earlier this summer, my boyfriend—an optimistic Dutch fellow who purposely avoids making concrete travel plans—and I were discussing our summer holiday. We had 10 free days in July at our disposal, but we’d gotten ahead of ourselves and started talking about August, September, and anything but the matter at hand.

“Hold on,” I said. “We have to worry about July before we do anything else.”

He stopped and stared at me. “Worry? What do we have to worry about, exactly?”

Without even realizing it, I’d used ‘worry’ as a synonym for ‘think’—and it wasn’t the first time. Somewhere along the way, amidst all the life changes, decision-making and risk-taking, I’d allowed worrying to become more than just a bad habit. It had become a state of mind.

As for July, we ultimately decided–due to the cheapest flights offered by Ryanair–on flying into Faro, Portugal, traveling over land through southern Spain and taking a boat to Morocco where we would take a flight home from Fes. We didn’t book any hostels ahead of time, didn’t research transportation between stops, and didn’t bring a guidebook. For me, this was pretty new; for my seasoned travel companion, this was nothing.

To my incessant questioning—‘What if we can’t find affordable places to stay on such short notice? What if there aren’t any buses going to that town when we need them? What if I get sick from the food and have to make the bus driver pull over in the mountains? What if someone breaks our knees and robs us and leaves us for dead in a ditch?’ (That last one was an exaggeration, I swear)—he always replied, “It’s gonna be OK, really.”

And as it turns out–surprising to all of you, I’m sure–it was.

Better yet, it was wonderful.

In sleepy Faro we explored the quiet streets, white buildings dotted with big red flowers. We took refuge from the heat on a shady cafe terrace, where a tiny, white-haired Portuguese woman brought us cold beers on a plastic tray. We sat and watched the sunset at the end of a narrow, empty pier on the peaceful harbor, little boats settling into sleep as fish leapt out of the water all around us, catching bugs and flopping back down on the surface with a lazy, muted splash. We ate a 5 euro dinner, invited by locals to join some group function under the stars, and were brought a pitcher of beer and platters of rice, salad, grilled pork, sweets and coffee. We spent a day on the beach, dozing in the sand after playing like little kids in the cool Atlantic. The next morning, we took a 4-hour bus ride to Seville, wishing we’d gotten better souvenirs than the needle-sharp sunburns on our backs.

In Seville, the capital of Andalusia, a Spanish friend of Jordi’s showed us around the city, teaching us about the Islamic and Christian architecture, and how the two existed peacefully in the area for years. We stood with little Spanish children, their backs a toasted brown from the July sun, in the cool spray of the giant fountain at Plaza Espana. We ate a late dinner of heavenly tapas–randomly ordered from a menu we couldn’t read–sitting outside at a little table in a narrow alley, ancient bricks adorned with glowing sconces lighting our meal. We drank peach juice on a dimly lit rooftop terrace, the adjacent cathedral luminous in the black sky, bats circling its tower.

In Cadiz, said to be the oldest city in Western Europe, we climbed the Torre Tavira for a 360 view of the city’s white rooftops surrounded by the bay. At dusk we swam in the cliffside pool of our hotel and dried off in the evening sun, watching the waves wash against the wall below. We walked along the stone path leading through the water toward the lighthouse and saw restless boys jumping off an old bridge into the ocean.

In Tarifa, a relaxed, eccentric surf town, we ate el secreto standing up in the corner of a small, crowded tapas bar that smelled like meat and old, wine-soaked wood. We drank a 5 euro bottle of red wine on the beach, laying in the cold sand and looking at the stars near the spot where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean. We swam in the calm waves the next morning, enjoying one last dip before boarding the boat across the Mediterranean to Tangier.


5 Tips for the Aspiring Au Pair

photo from design mom

Here’s a little article I wrote for Matador, an independent online travel magazine. A lot of fellow au pairs I’ve met in Amsterdam didn’t suffiently prepare for a job with a family, and found themselves in a situation they didn’t realize they’d signed up for. 5 Tips for the Aspiring Au Pair offers some advice on finding a job, and making sure you know what you’re getting into.


Late Work

de muziek boot

It’s a Tuesday afternoon in July. I’m sitting on the waterside terrace of the café de Jaren near my home in Amsterdam, drinking bitter coffee and reading A Farewell to Arms. After spending the morning letting the rain lull me in and out of sleep, I brought my computer out with me because I need to write. I know I’ve already begun to forget too many of the details that color my experience, and if I don’t write them down, not only will my friends and family never know of them, I am likely never to think of them again.

So here I sit at this little round table next to the canal, having reluctantly closed my book and opened my computer. The sun is having a dispute with the clouds and I keep taking my jacket off, then putting it on again. It is warm, but only every other moment when the cool wind holds still and the sun has a brief chance to really touch you. The cold air feels nice after a couple weeks of hot, muggy weather that I never thought I’d experience in Holland.

A man wearing a flowered shirt smiles and quietly plays his guitar. Two old women at the table next to me drink tall glasses of cold milk and their friend, older still, drinks white wine. I’ve finished my coffee and ordered a large orange juice.

There is a small boat in the water, elaborately decorated and filled with flowers and ribbons, and inside an eccentric man with a shiny green vest and a hat plays a french horn and a tiny organ. The music lifts up and floats through the sky as he raises a small wooden clog on a fishing pole to the bridge to be filled with the spare change of onlookers. He is a regular Amsterdam attraction. Traffic rolls by behind his crowd of listeners—a man with his daughter sitting on the back of his bike, her curly hair twisting in the wind, a horse-drawn carriage carrying tourists, a woman in a leather jacket pushing a stroller. There is a quiet hum, a melody even, from the chatter on the terrace and the movement of the city steadily trickling over the canal and the street beyond it.

These are the kinds of details I want to remember from the places I go and the things I do. I have some catching up to do from the last few wonderful months and I know I need to write now, but I’m having trouble drawing my attention away from this moment to focus on moments passed.

While I sit here nagging myself the way a teacher might nag a procrastinating student, I have to acknowledge my good fortune in being so often surrounded by interesting things that I struggle to relinquish enough time to write about them. But if I succeed in said struggle (which I can’t promise), you can expect an onslaught of posts about my spring and continuing summer in Europe. Though, they probably won’t appear until the end of the month, as I leave for another trip on Friday, one that will take me over 10 days to Belgium, Portugal, Spain and Morocco.

Happy Summer!

"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" -Henry James, The Art of Fiction
July 2009
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