Musings 2

By pure number of workers, “selfie-stick salesman” is the most popular job in the world.

It takes about 2.5 rolls of toilet paper to clean up a shattered full bottle of red wine.

If you play your cards right with the tour guide, you can extend your 3 hour group tour into a 12 hour private tour.

Sometimes you know someone you met 2 days ago better than someone you’ve known for years.

When falling out of a plane in the Swiss Alps, you’re too amazed by where life has brought you to feel any fear.

It’s difficult to not smile when you spot a happy family.

Life is a comedy to those who can laugh at their misfortunes and a drama to those who can’t. Take your pick.

Change is inevitable, but you have the option to create it or simply react to it.

Italian trains run on a strict schedule: No earlier than at least 15 minutes late.

Sometimes you just have to stop asking other people for permission to do what you want to do.

When you haven’t seen family or friends from home in a few weeks, every new person you meet  looks like someone from your life.

Contrary to popular belief, you actually can see Rome in a day if it’s your last day of three in the city and you spent the first two in bed with strep throat.

Life is found in the unexpected moments in which you think “I never imagined I’d be here,” such as in the audience of a three-person Italian theater production which you can’t understand in a tiny theater in a Roman alley.

Travelers Advice: when traveling alone, always carry a cheap bottle of wine and some plastic cups in your backpack. It’s the quickest way to make friends in any situation.

Americans’ relationships with friends and family are severely harmed by open container laws.

On Italy: Part II (Rome, Florence, Naples, Amalfi Coast)

Rome

After 7 weeks of travel, I entered Rome feeling… sick. I had planned for three days in the ridiculously historic city, but thanks to a case of Strep Throat, found myself with one day (and a lot of drugs to take) left to explore ancient Rome. Who says you can’t see Rome in a day? At this point in my trip, I’m about museum-and-churched-out, so it was the ruins and remains of ancient Rome that I was most interested in seeing. It’s hard to imagine that the Colosseum is nearly 2,000 years old, as modern sporting venues are still so similar. There were gate numbers, “season ticket” seats, and of course vicious crowds rooting for blood.

Afterwards, I visited the Roman Forum, a vast expanse of ruins of the Roman city. All throughout Rome, there are small squares containing ruins of pillars and walls, easily accessible by pedestrians and yet just sitting there. It’s a bit strange to think that throughout the ages, someone was conscious enough of their importance and relevance to just leave them be.

The Vatican and Sistine Chapel was next on my list, and did not fail to disappoint. It’s a bit incomprehensible the amount of work that went into painting the chapel from floor to ceiling in dozens of bright, colorful scenes. I finished up my day in Rome walking to The Pantheon and Trevi Fountain, but had only accomplished seeing a very small portion of all there is to see in the expansive city.

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Florence

Florence was a return to the heat and humidity that I felt in Portugal, and walking around the smaller city was sure to get you sweating. As the birthplace of the Renaissance, the most noticeably unique characteristic of the city was the style of the Duomo and nearby clocktower – white, green, and red granite in a very particular geometric pattern. All around the city were impressive sculptures, statues, and fountains. The highlight of Florence for me was watching the sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo across the river, with a view of the entire city below.

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Naples

I spent only a short time in Naples, but long enough to appreciate a few Neapolitan pizzas, identifiable by their leopard skin crust and soupy, olive-oil centers. One of my favorite strolls thus far has been a Sunday night walk along the bay in Naples. People lay out along the rocks and beach in the sun, children blow bubbles and play, and couples sit on the railing enjoying gelato. To me, it’s one of the best examples of a community of people living in the moment and enjoying life.

Amalfi Coast

The southern coast of Italy was where I had planned for the “relaxing” part of this journey, and it has served just that purpose. After an hour bus ride along a beautiful but small coastal road (no doubt, the most skilled bus drivers I’ve ever seen. I would have bet that it was impossible to fit two coach buses on this path, but they do it regularly), I arrived in Atrani. Atrani is a tiny town with a small black sand beach. Within a day of arrival, you already feel like a local. Beyond the beach is a small tunnel, which brings you to the town square with 4-5 restaurants, and that’s pretty much it. There are very few international tourists here, and most of the conversations on the small beach are in Italian. The magnificent coastline is made of jagged rock formations topped with small trees and bushes. The sun sets early in the town – around 5:30pm – due to it’s location in a narrow valley. Hours later across the sea, the moon rises and for reasons I’ve yet to look up, appears larger than I’ve ever seen it, shimmering in the Mediterranean and illuminating the coast. Atrani has been the perfect quiet get away to retreat within oneself while among the fascinating views of the Italian coast.

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Atrani, Italy

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On Italy: Part I (Venice, Cinque Terre)

Venice

I didn’t know what to expect before visiting Venice besides understanding the novelty of a city built with waterways instead of roads; with boats instead of cars. I found the beauty of Venice to be that it’s a small, self-contained, winding maze of walkways and waterways which is lined with colorful buildings on all sides. My favorite activity in Venice was to wander along the less-traveled walking paths trying to avoid dead-ends. Each bridge presented a priceless view – a slice of life in this unique city, with clothes hanging out to dry, boats full of groceries or goods floating below, and of course a gondola or 10 (€80 for a half-hour loop, FYI). Venice at sunset is Venice at it’s best, as the golden light reflects off of the red and yellow buildings and shimmers in the canal. The easy way to spot an uniformed tourist was to see someone with their feet in the canals, which 80% or so of buildings in Venice drain their sewage into. While there are very few rooftops available to the public, I spotted one on top of a hotel and decided to try my luck. I paced quickly past the reception and straight to the stairs, figuring that whatever rooftop bar existed was for customers only, and the elevator probably required a room key. At the top of the stairs I found my oasis – a quiet rooftop terrace with a bar and a view of the orange rooftops of Venice. I enjoyed a beverage up top pretending to the bartender that I was a guest of the hotel (I was having a drink while waiting for my fiancé to get ready, you see), before he told me that this bar was actually open to the public. So a word of advice: if you’re ever in Venice, have a drink on the rooftop of Hotel A La Commedia.

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My apparently not-so-secret rooftop bar at Hotel A La Commedia

Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre consists of five small towns on the coast of the Tuscany region of Italy. The towns are known for their pastel colored buildings right on the hilly coast. I stayed in the middle town, Corniglia, which is the smallest of the five. For me, this region was about two things other than the views: focaccia and gelato. On my one full day in the area, I took it upon myself to hike from the northernmost town (Monterosso) to the southernmost (Rioggamore). As added incentive, I treated myself to focaccia in each town, along with an Italian beer at the later stops and gelato when overheated. It was a real health-hike. The paths wind along the coast and include steep paths and steps up and over the hills between each city. Total hiking time without stops was just about 4 hours, while my total journey was closer to 8 hours. The scenic coastline includes tiered farming, giant boulders, and the clear-blue Mediterranean waters.

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Just…
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Hiking along the five towns
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Vernazza from above
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Picturesque Manarola

On Switzerland

Interlacken

After 5 weeks of travel, I found myself in the least populous place I’d visited yet in Interlacken, Switzerland. Interlacken, somewhat in the middle of the country, is situated between two lakes: Thun and Brienz, and nestled in a valley between the Swiss Alps. My hostel was in even smaller town called Iseltwald, right on the shore of Lake Brienz. The color of the water is something you’d expect to find in the Caribbean or some other tropical paradise – a blueish turquoise that seems impossible. I spent my time in Interlacken outdoors – kayaking on the lake, jogging through the forest hiking trails and stumbling upon waterfalls (and apparently a Wes Anderson set – see below), hiking up the Swiss Alps, and jumping out of an airplane. This place is truly a nature lovers’ paradise, and I found myself swearing under my breath in disbelief of my view a multitude of times.

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Lake Brienze
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I can only assume a Wes Anderson film has been / is being / will be shot here

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Zurich

Zurich is not traditionally known as a tourist destination, and upon arrival I had two observations: it is very clean and very expensive. The city itself feels brand new and futuristic – the train station is immaculate marble and black tile and feels as though you accidentally wandered into a private mansion. A public tram ride will set you back €4.30, which meant I didn’t buy any tickets and spent each ride hoping I wouldn’t be busted by authorities checking for tickets. I arrived on July 4th and had a goal of finding some way of appropriately celebrating American Independence Day. My google searches for “American 4th of July Zurich,” yielded no promising results, so instead I took off to wander among the city. After walking along the river just north of the city center for a few minutes, I found it. Something in the river caught my attention – it was a body floating by. Thankfully, the body was that of a still-alive person, and I followed it down a little ways to an opening where hundreds of young people were laying out along the river in their swimsuits, listening to music, and drinking. There was a bar and grill right along the river, tables to eat at, and even a beach volleyball court. People were jumping into the river, floating down a ways, and getting out to return to their spot. I quickly grabbed a beer and dipped my feet in the river while sitting in the sun. This was freedom. I found it quite interesting that this was an average Monday for these people. While some of them were surely still in school, I could certainly spot people who had just come from work, took off their business attire and had a swimsuit on beneath. Not a bad way to spend a Monday. 

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On San Sebastian, Spain

San Sebastian, Spain

San Sebastian quickly became the favorite city of those I’ve visited in Spain. Much smaller than Barcelona and Madrid, the lifestyle in the small town (relatively) was much more my pace. After the heat and hills of Portugal, the cooler temperature and flatter land was a welcomed change of pace. The city itself is mainly a beach town on the Atlantic Ocean, only a few miles from the French border. In fact, it’s one of the 7 Basque regions, of which 4 are in Spain and 3 in France. Many locals don’t recognize themselves as part of Spain, and even during the Spanish Euro Cup football games, I couldn’t find a single Spanish jersey. While they do speak Spanish, it is often secondary to their own Basque language, which has no known origin and is unlike any Romance language.

My favorite part of San Sebastian is the landscape – a beautiful cove with a picturesque island in the middle, yachts in the harbor, and rising hills on both sides. Hiking up Monte Iqueldo reveals even more stunning views of the coastline and bay. La Concha, the larger beach is mostly used for sunning and swimming, while Zurrioula is known internationally for its surfing – and rightfully so – the surfable waves are both intimidatingly large (for this perpetual beginner) and non-stop. After a couple of hours in the water I was absolutely drained.

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San Sebastian Bay from Monte Igueldo

The Old Town of San Sebastian consists of streets between 3-5 story yellow stone buildings, where nearly every shop is a “bar.” Bars in San Sebastian are usually one room with a few tables if any, where the bar-top is completely covered with plates of small snacks called “pinxtos,” which cost between €2-5. You enter, order a drink, grab a plate, and load up whatever pinxtos you want. My hostel friends and I would often wander from one bar to the next, having a drink and a few pinxtos at each. A note on beer in Spain: when at a bar, you often only order the size of the beer, instead of the type. They’ll serve you what they have – a light lager similar to your Bud Light. The craft beer scene has definitely yet to find it’s way to Spain.

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Streets of the Old Town
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La Concha, the main beach
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Zurriola, known for the surf

On Portugal

Lisbon

I arrived in Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, around 8am and could already feel the heat of the sun beaming down on my shoulders. While near the coast, the city of Lisbon is actually inland a bit, although it is situated right along a river which also contains a familiar looking bridge. My two days in the city would come to be looked back on as a few of the hottest and sweatiest – there was not a cloud in the sky and the sun is unforgiving until 9:30pm. To make matters worse, it’s a very hilly city, with paths that go uphill steeply, downhill, and then uphill once again (at times, there’s a completely flat pathway one street over). The streets of Lisbon are hand paved using mostly white stone, which reflects the sun’s rays back onto you from below, leaving little respite from the heat.

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Golden Gate?

I found the city to be a bit overly tourist (speaking as one, of course), and many of the areas that I was in were overpriced and packed. As with any area, wandering off the beaten path paid dividends by finding quite niches of authentic Portuguese establishments. The real saving grace of Lisbon is the view from above. The collection of orange clay rooftops cascading into the river when viewed from the hilltops is certainly a sight to be seen. I was also fortunate enough to attend a public viewing party of the Portugal vs. Poland Euro Cup game (Portugal would go on to win the tournament as a major underdog) in the town’s biggest square, with a few friends a had met in Madrid earlier in the week. 

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Porto

By pure happenstance, I arrived in Porto, Portugal on the day of the Sao Joao festival – the biggest party of the year. To the outsider, Sao Joao is one of the more ridiculous traditions – but I’ll get to that. Walking from the train station to the hostel, the streets were lined with shop owners setting up bars, grills, and decorations one after another in preparation of the evening. After a group dinner of traditional Portuguese food at the hostel, a group of travelers led by our hostel guides headed out to watch the fireworks around 11:30pm. There are many traditions of Sao Joao, and fireworks are probably the most familiar. It’s also a night of luminaries, where thousands of floating lanterns fill the sky (and at times, crash into crowds). My favorite tradition though, is that of the hammers. All around town, plastic hammers in all sizes are for sale. These are the types of hammers that make a “squeaky” noise (for lack of a better description) when hit.  Children and adults arm themselves with these hammers and throughout the evening… hit absolutely everyone else on the head with them. As strangers pass you, hit them on the head. Sneak up behind someone, hit them on the head. If someone hits you, hit them on the head. The streets are so crowded that it’s difficult to move quickly anywhere, so most of the night is spent in a slow crawl being hit on the head with hammers by children and adults alike. It brings out the inner child in everyone and fosters a real sense of community and camaraderie to the town. The longest surviving festival goers stay out until 5am wandering the streets drinking, listening to the music, and hitting each other with hammers. 

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Note: Blue hammer

Beyond Sao Joao, Porto is a beautiful city nestled on hills and bisected by a river. The main city center is on the north side, while the south side is primarily warehouses for Porto Wine. Along this southern riverside is stunning greenery.

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Musings

The world shrinks with every new person you meet.

There’s a criminal lack of outdoor seating for restaurants in Los Angeles.

The price of a pint of beer is the best index for cost of living in a city.

It’s important to eat fiber.

The word “tourist” is too similar to “terrorist,” especially in some European accents.

There are three universal languages: Happiness, Kindness, and English.

At least 1 in 4 people snore.

Intentionally getting lost is the best way to learn a new city.

While it’s important to have a plan, it’s much less important to follow it.

Logos are lifesavers.

Almost nothing is as dangerous as you’ve read about.

Kindness is infectious.

New experiences, especially stressful ones, expand your empathetic abilities.

You’re probably on the wrong train.

The only way to become fearless is to do the things you fear.

Happiness is usually found in the presence of other people.

If you have the choice, always choose the top bunk.

The best restaurants and pubs are a few blocks away from any main avenue.

When you don’t have common people or work to discuss, the conversation is guaranteed to be interesting.

Nude beaches totally desexualize breasts.

Compassion is important, even at a hookah bar in Madrid at 3am on a Sunday.

Sometimes the “daily routine” sounds pretty darn attractive and stress-free.

The most difficult things to say are often the most important.

You should spend more time with people and less time with Netflix.

On Barcelona and Madrid

The pace of life in Spain is palpably different than anywhere else I’ve visited thus far. Without any effort, one quickly becomes caught up in the timing of the locals. There’s no rush to begin the day which is evident if you wake up before 10am and wander the quiet streets. In Barcelona I found my day shifted hours later, waking up around 11am to eat a quiet breakfast before easing into the day. This time of year the sun is up for 18 hours, which makes each day feel extra long.

Barcelona is a very lively city – wandering through the small streets, which would more aptly be called alleys, you pass restaurant after restaurant, bar after bar, shop after shop, which are mostly housed in small, narrow openings guarded by a garage door when not open. I found Barcelona to be a bit claustrophobic, but the saving grace was definitely the beach. The city actually didn’t have a beach until 1992 when it hosted the Olympics – the sand was imported from the desert in Egypt and the palm trees from Hawaii. My favorite day was spent at the beach with a friend from Austin Texas that I met in the hostel, playing volleyball and looking out to the sea.

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Barcelona from Montjuic
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Fountain at Parc de la Ciutadella, Barcelona

At any time during the day, many of the outdoor tables are filled with people sipping on beer and hanging out with friends. It doesn’t feel as though restaurants ever get too quiet, as they rarely appear empty. In the afternoon, the city quiets down as people take the afternoon siesta. Dinner begins around 9pm, and the young crowd stays out until the early morning at the multi-level clubs.

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La Familia Sagrada, under construction since 1882; estimated completion 2028
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Egyptian sand, Hawaiian trees, Barcelona sky

I preferred Madrid over Barcelona – the streets are wider and cleaner, the buildings are colored beautifully, and there are trees and greenery everywhere. It’s interesting to learn the history behind the way of life in a city. For instance, three of the most popular things in Madrid (and much of Spain) are pork, tapas, and Sangria – and there’s a historical reason for each (warning: the following were told on a free tour, and could be completely false). During the Spanish Inquisition, the only way to prove that you were Christian and not Muslim or Jewish was to eat pork. You could attend church and pretend you were Christian, but if you weren’t seen eating pork in public, your life could be in danger. Sangria became popular during the Black Plague. With the water contaminated, the safest thing to drink was wine. In order to be able to drink all day (and not get their children hammered), they mixed in orange juice. Still, drinking sangria all day could get you in trouble – so tapas were popularized as a way to absorb the alcohol with each drink.

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Again, since dinner isn’t served until 9-11pm, citizens of Madrid have a lot of time between getting off of work and eating dinner. Many will visit a few bars with their friends after work, sitting outside and enjoying small beers. That is one of the most notable changes in habit that I’ve at least temporarily adopted – small portion sizes. In the states, I’ll usually order the largest coffee or beer served (as a true American). I’ve become acclimated to much smaller sizes in Spain, ordering a cana (small beer) to sip on at one outdoor patio before moving along to another. I’ve actually thought at times “this beer is too big!” something a younger version of me never thought I’d say.

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On one of my last days in the city, I ran into a familiar face in my hostel – the hostel mate from Barcelona. Funnily enough, we didn’t know each other was going to be in Madrid and randomly chose the same hostel. We went out with a small group that night (Sunday) and the bars were absolutely packed, even at 2am. Spain does a few things very well: sleep, eat, and drink.

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Pond in El Retiro Park, Madrid

On Paris

Amid record setting floods, striking garbage and train unions, and a heavy increase in police presence, I made my way to Paris on Friday 6/3/16. That day happened to be a record level for the Seine river, which was at its highest point in 34 years. What first appeared as a normal large river to me soon became a spectacle, as I began to notice streetlights, signs, and stoplights mostly underwater along the side of the river.

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By chance, my cousin Thomas and his wife Loreyn happened to be in Paris the very same weekend. With wi-fi being my only connection to the world, and Paris’ lack of ubiquitous wi-fi, we hadn’t had an opportunity to discuss meeting up on Saturday. I decided to start the day off with a free walking tour of the city which happened to end at The Louvre. As I stood listening to the tour guide, I recognized Thomas and Loreyn standing just 20 feet away – a completely unplanned encounter in a city of so many sights!

After they left Paris I became a bit anxious – until this point, I had always had friends or family to look forward to seeing on this trip. For the first time since moving to Los Angeles, I had absolutely no idea when I’d see a familiar face again. Those qualms were quickly quelled when I arrived at a new hostel and met a friendly group of people who were all traveling solo. It began with sitting around in the common room watching TV, evolved into drinking and discussing politics, religion, philosophy, and materialism, and was cemented with a game called Werewolf. The group of 12 was aged from 20-34 and hailed from New York, Austin, Boston, London, Germany, Chile, Brazil, Iceland, Montreal, and Australia. A day later, I ended up on the lawn of Versailles drinking wine and eating baguettes and cheese (as foreigners, we decided that’s as French as it gets) with 12 people who didn’t know each other 24 hours earlier.

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The beauty of staying at hostels is that they are generally occupied by people who are open, positive, and have their guards down. On top of that, the diversity of age, homeland, and profession allows for very invigorating conversation in which you are able to laugh about both what you share in common and what you don’t.

I ended up staying in Paris a few days longer than initially planned due to the train union strike, but I’m thoroughly glad that I was able to spend more time in such a spectacular place. The detail on every building, the history on every corner, and the lifestyle among locals is all something to cherish. Parisians have a much slower walking pace than I’m accustomed to; they sit for hours outside at a cafe, looking into the street while enjoying coffee or beer with a friend (without a laptop or phone visible); they read books while they wait in public places. It’s provided a welcomed contrast to what I’ve become accustomed to as “the norm” in Los Angeles, where there’s a heavy sentiment of “if you’re not getting ahead, you’re falling behind.”

On Ireland

The first stop on my journey was Ireland — a country which I had honestly never had a huge desire to visit, believing that it would only be foggy farmland with not much to see or do. I’m fortunate that the airline gods chose Dublin to be the most cost effective city to fly in to, because my ignorance otherwise may have prevented me from seeing some fascinating landscapes and enjoying Irish hospitality.

After spending one night in Dublin I headed to the southwestern part of the Island by train to meet a friend of my father, Ogie, who was kind enough to host me for the day. From Tralee, he and his wife gave me a scenic tour of the Dingle peninsula – a coastline that rivals Malibu with its beauty without any of the traffic or commercialization – and with many more sheep.

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We stopped in the small harbor town of Dingle, which is a colorful village of fishermen. We settled into a beer garden for some fresh fish and chips. Once the restaurant became a little busy, the older gentleman who owned it actually shut the gates to the entrance in the interest of not being too busy – seeming to value a calm and relaxed lifestyle over a busy business.

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The charming fishing village of Dingle

After a few pints along the coast, we headed to Ballybunion, a small Irish coastal town, and ate dinner at a steakhouse while watching the sunset over the cliffs and the sea around 10pm. Afterwards, we walked to a pub which had a local musician playing cover songs of classic American rock and pop songs. I have been a bit surprised by the ubiquity and popularity of American pop culture – in Ireland alone, I heard “Sweet Home Alabama” covered by three musicians at three different pubs. As the night wrapped up around 2am, both of the local cab drivers were busy (yes, both) so the musician ended up giving us a ride home.

Ireland provided me with some perspective on lifestyles around the world. I often get entrenched in the Los Angeles bubble, thinking that buying a house is insanely expensive; living in a small town means living in midwestern America; and that productivity is a key contributor to happiness. To see small towns on a beautiful coastline full of kind people who enjoy a slower pace and know nearly everyone they encounter was to expand my horizon of how one can choose to live.