After seeing photos of famous cities empty and almost deserted as a result of halted travel lately, I couldn’t help but think of my favorite reason to travel, the best part of exploring any city.
Even when people aren’t around to fill streets or marvel at impressive landmarks, cities and their architecture remain. Architecture is a testament to a city’s underlying culture and history. Striking geometric patterns, textured surfaces, and majestic facades tower over the neighborhoods they inhabit. Beautiful buildings are physical expressions, my favorite subjects to enjoy and photograph.
Lebanon, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, France, Germany, Austria
It’s 10am and the sun is pouring into the apartment.
It’s an impossibly pretty Spring morning. On any other normal day, I’d be tempted to get dressed and head into the city to spend my afternoon there. I would pick my favorite co-working cafe and work there for hours, energized just by being around other productive people. These days going for a walk near our place is as exciting as it gets. Home has become my haven, and like many people lately, I’m trying to become best friends with this newfound isolation and space. These are strange times and Coronavirus seems to be on everyone’s mind.
These are my observations of life here in Switzerland as the world adapts to this global pandemic, the new normal and the not-so-normal.
Today, I woke up at 10am. I notice I’m waking up later than usual. What used to be an 8am morning starts around 10 now. I fall asleep later and the sense of urgency to be out and about is gone. My routine includes turning on the TV to the news to catch up with the latest, rolling out of bed, stretching and doing yoga, followed by coffee on the couch. Then I stagger my day out with online courses and job applications. The day evolves from there, but what I’ve noticed is that the days go by so quickly now.
Monday, March 16th: As soon as I step outside onto the balcony, the normally quiet neighborhood is filled with sounds of kids yelling and laughing. With all schools closed and most people mandated to stay home from work, it sounds more like summer these days. I see parents outside on phone calls trying to work and entertain all at once. Some put the laundry out for the sun to zap it dry and others just look like they’re taking a break from their kids. 😅
Wednesday, March 18th: I walk up to the forest behind our apartment for some much needed fresh air and am shocked at how many people had the same idea. The steep incline gets my heart pumping fast and I feel my cheeks get rosy. Once at the top I see an insanely beautiful view. Now one of the only activities people can enjoy is exercising, so there it is: families burning bonfires and the walking trails so packed with people and their pets that I have to find a less congested route.
Thursday, March 19th: I’ve been dealing with bad pain in my lower back lately. Sciatica. Today the pain is so bad that I can only manage to work from bed and do 400 steps in the entire day. I get temporary relief from working on my stomach. It’s a day full of pain and in the evening I cried a bit. It felt good to let it out.
Friday, March 20th: My mood is much better today but I’m still in pain. At night, Laurens gets home before sunset (which is pretty rare) so we sit outside and enjoy a La Chouffe beer together on the balcony. The sky lights up in fiery reds, oranges, and pinks. This is the new weekend norm. No choosing which bar or restaurant to try, but staying in, enjoying home and Netflixing our hearts out.
I’m worried about what’s going on in the world but realize I’m lucky to be isolated with my favorite (and very handsome) human. I also think we need more board games in our apartment.
Saturday, March 21st: I head to the grocery store to pick up a few essentials (read: peanut butter) and notice there’s a line to get into the store. In my daydreaming state, I walk a little too closely to the woman in front of me. She whips around with her face mask and tells me to stay back. Before entering people spray their hands with hand sanitizer and depending on the store, use gloves to pick up the small basket. In these pandemic times, distance is everything and you can feel the tension. Even in the grocery store I feel rushed as I pick the week’s vegetables and fruits.
Later that evening, our two neighbors who live under us come up for drinks and a chat. They stayed for over five hours and I felt re-energized to have that simple social moment over some beer. It’s a weird thought that having people over is going to be a rare treat in the coming weeks.
Sunday, March 22nd: Heavy-hearted. I helped a family member apply for unemployment online today. I knew closures would effect the hospitality industry in Texas but the reality of the situation has hit me. With the amount of people trying to access the site, I’m not able to log on. What will happen to the millions in the service industry in Texas? And in the US? How will the government step up to alleviate things? Above all I think, will Trump continue to be a complete failure of a leader?
Monday, March 23rd: On my way back home up the hill, I notice a young girl wearing a maroon Texas A&M (my alma mater) beanie. I smiled at her and had the urge to strike up conversation to find out if she was Texan or not. I mean, what are the chances? I would in any other circumstances but for now I pass up the chance. I’m reminded the world is a small place and hope to run into her again in more social times. As I’m thinking this, an oncoming couple goes completely around me by walking on the street.
Tuesday, March 24th: It’s another stunning day. Somehow the days are going by faster than I expected. As my friends in Texas are in the swing of their day, we jump on FaceTime and catch up. I feel happy to have these connections and these video calls lift my mood. Since most of my friends are scattered across the globe, I’m not new to staying in touch like this, but this feels different. We’re all at home sharing in on this strangeness and it’s kind of nice.
How are you experiencing staying home amidst Coronavirus? What are things like on your side of the world?
Let me know in the comments below. Stay safe and healthy everyone.
Moving to a new country is a thrilling way to start over. Emotions and hopes run high, and there’s nothing like the lead up to moving day. In the back of your mind you can hear new country, new life and it can be terrifying and exciting all at once. I love how the anticipation of a new place turns into reality overnight. And then, just like that, it’s the moment to try and make this foreign place home.
After the ever-changing ‘student’ year that was 2019 (living in France and Singapore), you could say Switzerland came at the perfect moment for us. Last year was full of amazing amounts of travel and the chance to take ‘break’ from our normal lives and jobs. That year came to an end of course, and before heading to Zurich for Laurens’s new job, we spent two weeks at home in Belgium reconnecting with old friends and family, rearranging ourselves and things for the impending move. My immune system finally crashed and I had some version of a cold for almost two weeks. I kept telling myself that just after New Year’s we would set off for another exciting life change, a restart, the fifth move we’ve made together as a couple.
Moving day: 7 Hours to Zurich
A few days after New Years, we woke up at 7am with the Volvo crammed to capacity, no crevice left to fill. It was a seven-hour drive to Zurich, mostly through wide German highways, grey skies, and lots of drizzle. I listened to as many podcasts as my ears could stand and then we just drove. It was a relaxed cruising, but I knew it was a big moment for us to take in. Eventually we got to the Stadhuis twenty minutes before they closed, and a super-Swiss-looking-man behind the glass wasn’t very happy that we arrived just before closing time. After some disgruntled administration on his part, we were officially registered as new residents in Zurich.
We didn’t now it then but that first encounter came to symbolize how efficient our settling in would be in the coming weeks.
First impressions of Zurich
There’s nothing like seeing a city for the first time, especially a city as renowned as Zurich. I had a feeling Switzerland would be a perfect country for both Laurens and me to thrive and start over in. A prosperous, stable, beautiful country in the heart of Europe; what else could we want at this stage in our lives?
After registering at the Stadhuis, we walked out with smiles on our faces and took a few steps to the edge of the Limmat River, a river that winds through the city. We admired the swans and the quaint bridges leading to the impressive lake with its snow-capped mountain views. We made it.
As we drove to our temporary apartment, I studied the streets and the people I could see with the light of day that was left. The street signs with their impossibly long names, the maze of tram tracks and cables. At first, I saw a city in the dead of winter that was classy, quiet and stunning. We would be livinghere. I was relieved.
The first flush: Awe, surprise, and novelty around every corner
It’s been different in each country we’ve moved to, but the ‘honeymoon phase’ here in Switzerland has been euphoric yet steady. My first feeling of this place was that it’s a calm, predictable, clean, and safe city with surprising elements that need to be discovered in time because they probably won’t jump out at you.
Runs to the grocery store or working at a coffee shop had all the excitement I had hoped they would in the first days. The beauty of the city would peak at sunset on my way home with the mountains and lake being beyond breathtaking. On my way home, I would get off the tram just to gawk at the sunset from a bench and admire The Alps turning to shadows in the skyline. I couldn’t believe this was the new backdrop of our lives.
Observing with fresh eyes+ Swiss Sensibility
As a writer, observing a new culture with new eyes is the ultimate inspiration and material. In the first month and weeks here, the superficial differences were the most notable and the ones I took in gleefully. Things like the style, weather, smells, sounds, people’s general behavior. At my cafes, I study people – their faces, their mannerisms, the general vibe. In some moments I’m reminded of Berlin and its hipster vibe, in others I realize this is a unique place all its own. Many people have told us that Swiss are really reserved, love rules, and that making friends with them is rare. So far, the few Swiss people I’ve met have been really friendly with me in the small interactions I’ve had and have a good sense of humor. Let’s see what stereotypes hold true. 😉
One of the first things that struck me here is the sense of fashion. I see Zurich’s style (and its people) as posh, sophisticated but not prone to too much flair. Although there is the occasional fabulous fiery red coat or a luxurious floor-length mink coat. A ride on the tram during rush hour will reveal impeccably polished leather shoes, beautiful wool coats and hats, three-piece suits, and perfectly coiffed business people. Then there’s the language. Down in the city, most people speak English but it’s not a guarantee outside of touristic areas. Swiss German is a soft-sounding language, but based on how impossible it would be to learn (so I’ve been told), I’m going to try my luck at High German.
(Finally) a place to call home
When we visited our current apartment at an open viewing, I was instantly in awe. So were the other couples roaming through the apartment hoping to snatch this place up. We didn’t want to get our hopes up, but I couldn’t help leave that apartment with this strong longing. The view, the location, the space; for Zurich we had heard it would be near impossible to find a place like this yet there we were.
January 10th We met the landlord today and he has the final say. He opened the door with a lopsided gait but was friendly with us. An elderly and robust gentleman, he welcomed us to sit at his home office while behind us an unobstructed view over Lake Zurich was screaming our names. There were long pauses and he evaluated us in his own casual way. After some polite banter and more long pauses, he decided we could have the place if we wanted it.I tried not to jump out of my chair, but I was on the verge of tears.We had our dream place in one week of being in the country.
February 5th Our new place feels like a nest perched on a hill overlooking Lake Zurich and the snow-capped Alps. In the mornings I wake up, pinch myself, then grab coffee to sip on our couch by the window. If I get up early enough I can see the valley light up and the snow caps change in their luminance. I’ve seen snow blanket the landscape, storms brewing over the valley, and on perfect clear days, sunsets of a purple and raging pink. If I time it right, I can run through the forest as the sun peaks through and end up at the lake view to see the city turn to night. Not a surprise, but I don’t feel the urge to go into the city as much anymore.
There’s a time and place for everything.
As a couple, I feel like our twenties were a time for moving and exploring, and I loved every bit of it. I still want to travel but I realized having a home base is so important to our and my wellbeing. Last year I started to feel the urgency for stability, the desire to have a place to call home, to display our belongings and feel good about coming home.
Citysploring and culture shock
Luckily, our experience here in Zurich has been smooth and the culture-shock virtually non-existent. I felt comfortable here and maybe that’s because 30% of the population are foreign nationals. Laurens was back at work within a week and I made it my job to learn the city better and get my footing. As someone who feels most comfortable in a city, I loved discovering or citysploring the transport routes, distinct neighborhoods, the best coffee shops, and familiarizing myself with shops.
The biggest shock? Zurich is one of the most expensive cities in the world, and as such, I used these few weeks to get used to its prices. According to Eurostat, Swiss prices for food and drinks are 60% more expensive than the rest of Europe. After living in Paris and Singapore, I can say that Zurich’s restaurant/bar/eating out scene is on another level. People living in Zurich enjoy a high salary to compliment the high cost of living and that’s not shocking considering the luxury sports cars zooming around, and in the designer bags that teenagers wear tote.
After the first month, the dazzling effect started to dull slowly and everyday experiences started to feel more normal. I also started to get more serious about my job search, and small interactions with the mailman or the checkout lady proved difficult without German. It goes without saying that learning this new language has been on my mind lately.
Feb 18th The last few days I haven’t been feeling like myself. The fantasy of moving here has materialized into reality: jobs, finding friends, hobbies, ticking off to do lists, and honestly, I feel overwhelmed by the list of things I still need to do, the goals I want to achieve. Some days I wake up with so much energy to attack and take on the list; others I drag my feet until it’s mid afternoon. I know I’m just being impatient.
March 3rd Today I’m happy, content, but also a bit restless. This always happens when we move to a new city and settle in. I’m craving a purpose, a mission, and having so much free time can work against me.
Still on the job hunt…
March 5th I’ve hit a wall. Endless searching and applying have proven fruitless so far and I’m starting to wonder how long it will take.I’m reminding myself it’s only been two months.
As some of you know, I took last year off from my job in Belgium to join Laurens for his MBA program abroad. I spent that time in 2019 working with hotels and restaurants in Europe and Asia to create content for them and for this blog. It was an absolute eye opener as to the creative outlet I so want to keep even in Switzerland. Lots of people told me finding a job in Zurich would be easy, but finding the right job might be a different story. I’m looking to get back into content marketing/copywriting at the moment, so let’s see what gives.
Contentment in simple things
February 25 After spending the morning inside and cocooning, I took my 15 min tram down into the city. It’s clear and crisp out, with the rain having let up hours before. I walk around with a stupid smile on my face. I’m happy here.
The last few weeks in Zurich have taught me that happiness can be sweet and simple. Last year it wasn’t a guarantee that things would be as good as they are now. I realize that and am really grateful for it. Laurens landed the job he’s been working so hard for and I’m determined to make something for myself here. I’m finding contentment in starting over and in being so near nature as great as this. For us, finally having an apartment that we love in a city we both enjoy is a joy I can’t really describe. It’s a feeling of relief, wholeness, and stability that I ached for.
Coronavirus Update in Switzerland
Things are getting more serious. At the time of posting this blog, Switzerland has reported 4,800 cases and 40 deaths due to Coronavirus pandemic. The news has unraveled slowly over the last few weeks, especially when the severity of Italy’s situation made it clear this was not going to fade away. It’s been over two weeks since people have been able to work from home in the city, and as of yesterday, restaurants and bars are closed for over a month. Going to the grocery store means waiting in line to go in and spacing ourselves at checkout. Life here and in most of Europe is grinding to a halt in a way that many people have never seen before and in a way none of us had expected. Who knows how long the social distancing and lock down will last.
As a social animal, it’s been challenging being in a new country and not know that many people to begin with. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to make friends and get out there to network for my job search, but obviously social isolating will have to put a hold on that mission for now. Luckily I love being home and if I get too stir crazy, I go for a run in the forest behind our place to clear my mind and get rid of extra energy. I know these next few weeks will force me and many people in the world to look inward and get creative and productive with our time. Let’s see how things unfold in the coming weeks and months…
Please stay safe and healthy wherever in the world you are. ♥️
Walking around Rome alone is a surreal thing. One of the oldest cities in the world, is, in my mind, one of the most charming and spellbinding. The tiny side streets, the architectural glory standing boldly without regard to the passing of time, the hot-blooded and charismatic locals; there is a certain passion and excitement that saturates the air there. It’s a city I’ve visited before, but never alone. As a huge believer in solo travel, I was excited to experience Rome’s warmth come alive in the summer. I set out to take in the city with my camera, no real plan, just the goal of capturing its grit, glory, and elegance through photo.
There’s a lot to be said about taking time off to recharge and reconnect with nature. But how many of us actually do that? The end of 2019 had me running on fumes and I was craving a meaningful moment to reflect on all that the year was. After my first retreat experience in Bali, I was reminded of how beneficial detoxing the body can be, how stillness and nature can help us consider new ways of working through the stress we carry around.
As we wrapped up our time in Asia, I knew I wanted to visit Thailand again, so after some research, I found an all-inclusive spa retreat tucked far up north in the hilly, lush part of the country. It promised a nature-filled experience with restorative massage every day.
Disclaimer: my trip to Museflower Retreat & Spa was part of a collaboration for this blog; all thoughts and opinions are my own.
Museflower, a retreat with a healing and green mission
Retreat owner Tania Ho has had a fascinating journey with wellness. It started at a young age, with aromatherapy opening her up to its healing possibilities. Several years later after her father’s passing, she took her experience as a professional in the luxury spa world and set out to create a down-to-earth retreat experience for people needing the healing power of nature torelax, tune in, and get inspired again. Museflower, an eco-conscious property was born! That means energy efficient, chemical free, organic and sustainable food, and a commitment to supporting the local economy.
My conversations with Tania were enlightening and dipped into subjects I knew nothing about like energy and crystal healing. She’s a kind and gentle spirit who really helped me understand holistic therapy better and that it’s not as mysterious as people imagine it to be.
You don’t need to be a yogi, health nut or stressed urbanite to join us! We welcome all travelers who want a mindfully green, health-conscious place to stay while visiting and exploring Chiang Rai.
A setting to reset, recharge, and reconnect
Thirty minutes driving from Chiang Rai’s airport and through scenic village roads, you’ll find the sanctuary that is Museflower. It was much bigger than the photos let on, with the property sizing in at 44,000 square meters. The grounds are immaculately kept, naturally beautified by the vibrant landscape of the region. It’s a peaceful and unbothered area where the sounds and sights are enough to put you at ease. The photos don’t quite do it justice and I was surprised by how radiant the place felt. In my lazier moments, I took naps on the floating pavilion where the sun kept me warm and the sounds of the birds lulled me to sleep. It was exactly what I was hoping for.
Natural and organic food for the soul
Coming to Museflower means de-stressing but it also means detoxing the body from stimulants and process foods. That means no alcohol, coffee, or meat. I thought I would struggle without coffee for four days, but honestly, the abundance of tropical fruit, tea, and entirely vegetarian meals was so satisfying that I never missed meat or coffee. The team serves three meals a day at the Soul Food Center and those mealtimes were the highlight of my day (Thai food is one of my favorites!). Guests commune together to indulge in healthy and hearty portions of curries, soups, stir fry, and more. I miss starting off my morning with a cold, fresh coconut looking out onto the lake, oh and the copious amounts of mango were so sweet and tasty.
Traditional Thai spa treatments
Stepping into the spa garden was immediately peace-inducing.
It’s no surprise to the people who know me, but when it came time to choose between a yoga or spa package, I didn’t hesitate for a second. The 4 day 3 night spa package meant 90 minutes of massage as the focal point of an already relaxing schedule. Yes.
The massage and spa team was highly professional, kind, and talented; each session I was treated with a phenomenal level of attention and care. Their skilled technique was great for pain relief and they really worked to fix my problem areas. There were some massages that were meant to be relaxing and less intense; I feel asleep in those! (My favorite was the foot acupressure massage.) The cherry on top of these blissful massage sessions was the time spent in the female lounge area after. A hot and humid herbal steam with Himalayan salt had me melting in the best way possible every day. 100% in 40 degree heat.
A wealth of wellness activities to choose from
On my last day, I went on an early morning guided cycling tour around the nearby lake and local villages. The sunrise over the lake was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen yet.
As a self-professed morning person, I still find it hard to wake up early for working out. But, I was curious to do an early morning yoga session with Khun A, a radiantly kind instructor with many years of experience and wisdom. Her kind and carefree spirit was the perfect way to ease into the day and it didn’t hurt that light streamed into the lakeside pavilion facing the sunrise. The session was just what my aching body needed to warm up and relax. She shared her philosophy of self-healing and gratitude and it stayed with me ever since.
A gentle way to wake up was doing an early morning meditation session with Eugenie. It was a cold, crisp morning and we sat on the ground, blankets and all so we could start off with visualization meditation. It was a really special moment of reflection where I called to mind the idea of love and the people in my life who support me and champion me. Time flew by!
You’ll find that Museflower is a great place for trying more holistic and alternative therapies. There are mind, body, emotion, and energy focused sessions you can do.
Other activities offered by Museflower include Tai Chi, Kaoshikil Dance, Massage workshop, Sound Bowl Vibrational Healing, Nature Mandala, Chi Yoga, Cooking Demonstration, and more.
Quaint, eco-friendly cottages
Landscaped paths lead guests to their cottages which are spacious and definitely have all the basic amenities you need. It’s no-frills accommodation I didn’t spend much time in my room except at night and during the day, my cottage had a nice porch that would get drenched in sun during the afternoon. Something to note: there is no Wi-Fi in the rooms but if you need it, all the common areas have it.
Creative studio, Himalayan salt pool, and gym
In the free time between doing yoga and getting a massage, I escaped to the creative studio past a large arch of bamboo trees. This space is dedicated for creative and relaxing endeavors like swimming in the Himalayan crystal salt water swimming pool Unfortunately it was too cold for me to try this time around! Above the gym, the top floor is equipped with stunning views, and all the materials you need to draw or color, or workout if that’s more your kind of thing. Coloring in the mandalas was really therapeutic and relaxing!
Museflower, although not a luxury retreat, is first class in the spa services it offers, the team it has, and the delicious cuisine it serves. From the moment I arrived to the moment I left, I was in caring and attentive hands. The accommodation is quaint and basic but has everything you need to soak up the down to earth experience. I liked that there was no Wi-fi in the rooms because it forced me to write, read, and be out in nature. I left with a valuable lesson on gratitude and intention, that no acknowledgment and thanks is too small, especially the one you give to your own mind and body.
For a taste of authentic Thai wellness and hospitality, I really recommend Museflower as an affordable and authentic retreat experience. It’s special place and if you’re open to it, it will strip away pretense and will immerse you in nature and into what matters most, peace of mind.
As I write this there are only a few hours left in 2019, and I can’t help but reflect. I began 2019 — a lot like we will start 2020 — in a new country, with plenty of questions, and a healthy dose of hope for our next challenge. The truth is, it’s hard to really summarize 2019 and do it justice. It was a year that felt like five condensed into one; it was a year that surpassed my expectations, one that took me by surprise, one that schooled me (and us) in more ways than one. What I will say is 2019 was one of the richest years yet, one of the hardest, one of the busiest, and one of the most fulfilling that I can remember. It was a year where Laurens and I both achieved, explored, lost, grieved, hoped, and gained.
Here’s a glance at the lessons, the people, the food, and of course, the wonderful places that made 2019 what it was.
The non-stop travel of 2019
Honestly, if it weren’t for the amount of photos I took, I might not believe the places we saw this year. Travel was our automatic mode, and we savored quiet moments and slow weeks because we knew there were busy times around the corner. I traveled to the middle east, the Mediterranean soul of Europe, the jungle of SE Asia, the sprawling desert of the US Southwest…I traveled for this blog; I traveled with Laurens; I traveled to reunite with friends and family. I can’t remember a time where I was constantly looking forward to the next trip, dreaming up my next place to explore; I have this blog to thank for that. I reviewed hotels and travel experiences in some of the following countries.
France – Belgium – The Netherlands – Portugal – Spain – Lebanon – Switzerland – USA – Italy – Germany – Thailand – Singapore – Malaysia – Indonesia
My latest trip to Thailand got me thinking about intention. In January 2019, I set out to explore the world of hospitality, design, and architecture as part of growing this blog. It started simply enough when I aimed for doing at least one press trip; by the end I did 12. Here’s a quick look back at my work exploring boutique hotels:
Solo travel. It can be lonely at times but more often than not, it’s fantastic. I traveled to Rome, Chiang Rai, and Porto by myself and each time enjoyed writing, taking photos, and walking until I couldn’t anymore. I’m proof that an extrovert can enjoy solo experiences, too. 😉
Friendships. There’s a time for solo travel, but this year taught me that the company makes the trip. I reunited with the people I love the most from all over the globe, and honestly, there’s nothing better than that.
30 felt like a slow-moving tectonic shift. I felt more confidence as a woman, more urgency to tackle my dreams, a craving for stability this year…Let’s see what 31 brings.
Paris. Living in Paris for 8 months this year reaffirmed my love for cities. After all the cities I’ve touched down in, I can still say Paris is my muse, my happy place. Mysoul city. There’s no other place like it!
Gratitude. Every morning for the last few months I’ve been jotting down what I’m thankful for in my Moleskin journal. These small acknowledgements of what’s good in my life are a great way to start the day on a positive note and reduce the negative vibes.
Love. With all the change this year brought, it was hard to maintain true harmony in our relationship at times. Four years of marriage and 2019 brought the biggest lesson of all: it’s crucial to prioritize the health and balance of our connection. When our love is out of whack, so is everything else. Luckily, we’re now stronger than ever.
The intriguing faces of strangers
Ever since I bought my Fujifilm XT-1 camera, I was excited to test its street potential. 2019 was a year of diving into photography using my new camera for hotel assignments, but also, it’s a great travel companion, especially the 27mm lens which is lightweight, unobtrusive, and creates great results for candid shots. Here are some of my favorite shots of the year from the US, Europe, and Asia.
Reunions across the globe
As a couple who moves every few years, I don’t take for granted the friendships I keep and the people who still make an effort to be in my life, no matter where I am. I’m lucky to have friends and family who will meet up with me regardless of the place. 2019 was proof of that. ☺️
It can be hard to keep tight bonds with the distance and time difference. I’m lucky to have amazing friends scattered across the globe, and 2019 was the year of celebrating new and old friendships; it was also a year of family and realizing how important my bond with them is. Of all the places we pass through, I’m grateful that my bond with these friends is stronger than a country or border, and I’m also grateful that I have the chance to meet amazing new people in each country we live in.
The food I fell in love with
This year’s travels were just as much about the cuisine as they were about experiencing the countries themselves. I got acquainted with dishes and the chefs who love them; fell in love with Portuguese bifana, savored bright and fresh Tuscan wine, tasted impossibly smooth Lebanese hummus, fell in deeper love with French patisserie, chowed down on Texas BBQ…I could go on. I was in food heaven and learned more through my tastebuds than maybe anything else.
Looking back on one year is dizzying enough! The change, challenges, and triumphs are too long to list in one blog post. When I start thinking of all that happened in the past decade, I smile. 21-year-old-Monica was a junior in college in Texas, dreaming of moving to Europe every single day, and completely unsure of the coming years. Fast forward: 2019 was a year completely marked by change. Every month of the year was dedicated to exploring more of this gorgeous globe, to being surprised by it; it was a year where my intentions materialized and goals became reality. It was surreal.
Now we’re headed to Switzerland to see what this year has to offer us in 2020. Here’s to a new decade of hoping, risking, achieving, eating, and traveling, of course!
Having been to Bali several times in my life, I can honestly say it’s like no other place I’ve visited. There’s an overwhelming sense of calm and bliss that comes over me there, and the Balinese vibe begs me to slow down and enjoy things. As an admittedly anxious soul, I had been craving a different travel experience recently, one that could speak to my pursuit of wellness and peace of mind. With the last few months being the busiest ever, I was aching for a trip to get me out of my head and more into my spirit for a change. What better place than Bali?
Sukhavati Bali was an amazing place to soak in the splendor of jungle surroundings and get restored and balanced through Ayurveda, for my birthday, and with my husband no less! This is my two-day experience at one of Bali’s finest wellness retreats (2018 winner, Best Luxury Holistic Retreat in Asia.)
Disclaimer: my trip to Sukhavati Bali was part of a collaboration for this blog; all thoughts and opinions are my own.
What is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda is one of the world’s oldest healing systems, with its roots in India dating back over 5,000 years ago. Its holistic approach tries to balance the mind, body, and spirit through healthyeating, massage, herbal medcine, and meditation. The Sukhavati experience relies on Ayurvedic medicine to nurture its guests during their stay. Ayurveda attributes each individual’s physical and mental makeup to the three doshas below. The idea is that we’re all a combination of either both or all three doshas; the doctor told me my constitution was Pitta-Vata.
Doshas are derived from the 5 elements
Pitta: “Dominated by the fire element, which makes them innately strong, intense, and irritable” Vata: “Vata types tend to be thin and lanky. They are very mentally and physically active and enjoy creative endeavors, meeting new people, and traveling to new places. Kapha: “The influence of the earth and water elements makes them innately stable, compassionate, and loyal.”
My consult with Dr. Raju: the shockingly accurate pulse diagnosis
Everyone’s stay at Sukhavati starts off with a 45-minute consult with Dr. Mithun Raju. With the relaxing sound of a dripping fountain in his outdoor office, we began our conversation calmly. Before I could mention much, he put three fingers on my pulse and was still for minutes. With closed eyes, he listened and uttered one sentence at a time. Not asking, but telling.
“You have pain in your right shoulder.” “You’ve been experiencing joint pain in your right knee.” “You struggle with sugar and sweets. You love chocolate”
My jaw dropped with each revelation that was 100% spot on. Especially the sweets statement.
We talked about the source of my stress and anxiety; about my physical ailments and how to treat them naturally with herbal medicines and a more routine lifestyle. He stressed the importance of stability for a healthier life and a calmer mind, especially with our expat life. After years of stomach issues, I was shocked when he promised that taking castor oil every night before bed would get rid of my acid issues, forever. Our chat was an intense and special experience; I felt he truly got my pain and understood my situation without me having to say much.
2 bedroom Saraswati Villa w/ private pool
Intoxicating scents of frangipani and orchids, outdoor shower and bathroom, eco-friendly touches
Walking through the beautifully carved wooden doors and into our Saraswati villa felt like peering into Eden. At Sukhavati there are 8 luxury villas spread over immaculately kept grounds. Some, like our Saraswati villa, feature a private pool and a nice seating area with a couch and chairs. Our modern yet Bali-chic room featured a very comfortable four-post king-size bed with luxurious amenities, daily tropical fruits, ayurvedic teas, and even books to read up on trascendental meditation. In the breaks we had between treatments, it was a joy to go back to this lush haven, nap, lounge and dip in the gorgeous private pool.
Heavenly & healing ayurvedic treatments
Each day at Sukhavati meant a new customized itinerary full of different blissful experiences to nourish mind, body, and soul. Our two-days were planned from sunrise to sundown but in the best way possible:
– Morning walks through the village and rice fields – 2x daily yoga sessions overlooking the jungle – Daily meditation moments – Four-handed massage treatments (90 minutes) – In-room facials
Jungle serenity, trance-inducing massage, 90 minutes of pure bliss
As a massage lover, I was thrilled to indulge in ayurvedic massage (known for its heavy use of essential oils and longer strokes). The treatment area of the property faces out to the river and wild jungle and two ladies started tending to my neck and feet as I faced out to this incredible view. I was already melting away by then.
Once on the table, I enjoyed a four-handed Abhyangga massage of rhymic long strokes with herb-infused oils. The two women massaging me were so in sync that I forgot there were two different people. The massage ended with Shirodara, a steady pouring of oil over the forehead. This part of the massage took me to another place entirely; I was so incredibly relaxed and dazed after the massage sessions.
My knee treatment, as prescribed by the doctor, meant the two women damming off both knees with a metal contraption to then pour hot oil over my knee caps. They massaged my knees gently for what felt liked 30 minutes. I haven’t had knee pain since. Our in-room facial was another heavently taste of spa treatments at Sukhavati. We sprawled out on the bed and three ladies took turns massaging our head and feet, followed by a mixture of heavenly smelling scrubs and lotions.
Food at Sukhavati was fantastic clean eating and featured all vegetarian dishes. Breakfast on the patio by the river overlooking the jungle, to lunch and dinner under the pavilion meant digging into delicious vegetarian food with no alcohol, or coffee. I noticed that people were open and willing to talk at these meals on a deeper level and I enjoyed the communal part of the day. We met solo travelers and couples who came because of ‘burn-out’ from life or work, and some who needed a detox. The funniest thing was how we all found giving up coffee for a few days so difficult.
Sukhavati Retreat is a special place for people craving serenity, rejuvenation, and a professional and kind team to tend to their aspects of physical, mental, and emotional wellness. The nature was enough for me to get out of my head, and then the treatments came…The biggest de-stressing happened on the massage table facing the river and with the sounds of the jungle lulling me to sleep. There are no words for how I felt after. The serene and spiritual feeling created by the place and the team impressed me most, and a few weeks after my stay there, I can say I’m more interested in natural remedies, listening to my body better, slowing down with the caffeine, and finding mental peace through mindfulness. The fact that my knee pain that had been bothering me for months disappeared after my treatments also made me a believer.
+ Located perfectly between the beach, rice fields, and jungle + Professional and extremely kind staff + Top notch facilities, treatment and design – Prescribed medicines are quite expensive if bought on-site – It would’ve been great to have left with literature or a recommend diet/lifestyle plan based on the consult with Dr. Raju
Through a wrought-iron gate and down a small tree-lined alley, you’ll discover Hôtel des Grand Boulevards. What used to be a grand hôtel particulier in the 1700’s is now a stylish 50-room boutique hotel that’s equal parts regal, romantic and relaxing. It has all the dreamy design you would expect from designer Dorothée Meilichzon; she’s preserved the building’s history in an artful and elegant way, referencing Pre-French Revolution era opulence with provincial elements in one of the liveliest districts of Paris. Just 30 meters from the bustling metro, I stepped into a secluded slice of design heaven and had an amazing time.
Disclaimer: my trip to Hôtel des Grands Boulevards was part of a collaboration for this blog; all thoughts and opinions are my own.
A friendly girl down at reception leaned in and said, “That is one of my favorite rooms. You’ll see why.” As soon as I got up to my room, I quickly understood what she meant. The bliss of this hotel lives largely in the beautiful bedrooms themselves. Spacious in size by Parisian standards (32m²), I was instantly drawn into the place that felt like a reimagining of Marie Antoinette’s boudoir. The designer’s nod to the era’s opulence (red marble à la Louis XVI, plush velvet) merges perfectly with elegant minimalism (brass accents, modern lighting fixtures, worn wood side tables). I was in love and didn’t know if I wanted to sink into the bed or people watch on the terrace.
Ohhh the bed. At the focal point of the room, the Baldachin canopy frames the bed (hand-made in Brittany) perfectly. Think relaxing jewel tones, exposed wooden beams, premium linens. The afternoon sunlight flooded into the room and accentuated the beautiful hues and delectable details.
Hotel Room Amenities
Sjostrand espresso makers w/ organic coffee
Mirror flat-screen HDTVs
Revo radios look vintage (bluetooth)
Housekeeping and turndown service
Rotary-style phones can be used for free calls (VoiP)
The Eaves Terrace
Pretty privacy high above the city’s rooftops, views into the glass atrium below,
As if the beautiful room wasn’t already enough, my heart jumped at the site of the double doors leading to our own private terrace. In the Paris hotel-scape, I can’t tell you how swoon-worthy that is. With iconic views of Paris rooftops and a view down into the glass atrium of the hotel restaurant, I enjoyed lounging outside with my coffee in the morning and taking in the rare October sunny days. I would highly recommend the Eaves room for a longer Paris stay as it gives you a more homey feel and spacious experience for your French capital city trip.
Art deco-style mirrors, brass accents, premium products, dreamy white tile
Up-scale toiletries (Paris-based Codage and Malin+Goetz lotion)
Old-fashion weigh scale
The Shell Cocktail Bar 🍸
Carmine red, pinks, and blues, velvet chairs, 12-seat bar
It only makes sense the people behind Experimental Cocktail Club group would bring their drink expertise to this design hotel. Master mixologists there created the menu at The Shell and it shows. Fun fact: the bar was named after Marie Antoinette’s favorite shape and popular decorative motif from the 1700’s. The bar feels wonderfully speakeasy, moody and intimate thanks to the romantic design. I ordered an Old Cuban cocktail that was made to perfection at the bar.
The restaurant is the heart of the property once you walk through the dimly lit hallway. The retractable roof atrium is a special touch here and the semi-open kitchen serves breakfast, lunch, dinner. Continental buffet (€22 a person) includes freshly squeezed juices, pastries, cakes, eggs and more. The French-Italian menu has been created by Italian chef Giovanni Passerini, an important figure in the Parisian food scene.
The hotel also offers a swanky outdoor eden on its rooftops with its bar The Shed. It has a cozy, seating area perfect for laid-back lounging where you can enjoy an impressive cocktail menu and small snacks.
Every design detail at Hôtel des Grands Boulevards was impeccably done and was a treat to see. The ambiance is regally romantic, with any of the stuffiness. Of course the place is amazingly photogenic and I had a fantastic time experiencing it. The best part of Hôtel des Grands Boulevards has to be the prime location that allows for exploring the heart of Paris all while enjoying a secluded haven when you turn down for the night. Get a room with a terrace like Parisian Eaves to feel tranquil and pampered in one of the busiest parts of the city.
Worth mentioning: The service was practically perfect at Hôtel des Grands Boulevards except for lackluster service down in the restaurant for brunch. No gym or spa to speak of.
Address: 17 Boulevard Poissonnière, 75002 Paris, France
Everywhere I went today I marveled at the eccentric, the fashionable, the strange. Paris is surprising that way.
What can I say about the City of Light that hasn’t already been said? I could, like Hemingway, wax poetic about how the city is a moveable feast, how it’s a place that stays with me long after I leave it. What I will say is that I’ve always felt that this is my ‘soul city’, a place I was destined to meet, a nexus of growth in my twenties. And sure, like any love affair or soul mate situation, some days were blissful and others maddening.
I arrived straight off the train at Gare de Lyon, and instantly was stunned by the characters I saw. Normally, I don’t give it or them much thought but today was different. Then once on the platform and in a sea of commuters, I set off fast and swift, moving with determined feet down towards the metro to get where I wanted to go.
The metro lines in Paris are the arteries of an incredibly busy city. Certain lines are a nod to an avant-garde past, especially its cast iron entrances. As old and dirty as some of the lines are, I don’t mind it. I remember using the metro when I first moved here, picking random stops on a whim and getting to know the city that way. Before I had a job I had the time to explore, and being back this past year without a normal job afforded me the same free time. I studied people then and I study them now: their fashion, their lack of eye contact, their indifference. A man playing saxophone in the hallway, a teenager reading Voltaire, lovers making out, an old woman doing soduku.
I look around the Line 14 today; it’s full of business people and hipsters in oversized wears. Even a skinny musician with a tuba in tow makes an appearance. At my most whimsical, I imagine that some tourist spots me and mistakes me for a French girl.
Today I take in the scenery. I never get tired of the cityscape here and each time I leave feeling in awe. I’ve swapped my phone out for my camera because today I know that my time in Paris is coming to an end – in just a few days and we’ll be driving off. I push my sentimentality down at the heavy feeling.
We’re moving again.
As I cross the street on the way to my coffee haunt in the 3rd, I see a young woman in all black, tough and punk looking with blazing pink hair, but a second glance reveals she’s weeping under pitch black sunglasses. I continue on past street cafes and see business people in suits sipping on their morning buzz.
A few minutes later, a girl enters my coffee shop in stylish workout attire – probably Lululemon – with a pink beret tilted to the side. She’s definitely not Parisian, I think. I watch as she interacts with another customer with her American accent. The clothes were a sure tip-off because a French girl would never be caught in workout wear outside the gym. Parisian style is an art I have yet to master, an effortless elgance that can be summed up by classic wardrobe pieces (muted colors), a fresh face, little makeup, and a pop of red lipstick.
Throughout the day, I hop from neighborhood to neighborhood. Like phases, I go through cravings for the ritz of the 1st, the picturesque perfection of the 6th, or the artistic and easy-to-love 3rd. I adore these streets and realize that Paris has been my muse, my playground. It’s a place that I feel tapped into like nowhere else in the world. One of my favorite things to do is to simply look up. Paris is a never ending treat with historical style and artistic beauty: medieval, gothic, renaissance, classical, art nouveau, contemporary. Paris has it all.
Not always at the forefront of innovation or change, France, and Paris in particular, is a surprisingly static in its way of working. Sure, the people are notorious for their less than warm demeanor but this time around I’ve found them to be much nicer than I remembered. You’ve heard the reputation: Paris is great, but the people…The flippant attitudes and shocking sass have been enough to make me fume at times. But lately, my luck has turned and I’ve encountered kind locals, shop and cafe owners who are refreshingly warm. I’ve discovered something lately, though. When someone is rude to me, I bite back with a bit of attitude. And just like that, they act as if nothing happened. Maybe it’s a sort of sass sparring that doesn’t actually come from a bad place, maybe more of a bored one. That’s my theory at least. 😉
Paris was the manifestation of my European fascination and dreams. I made it come true here, so it makes sense I feel tethered to it. I’ve made some of my closest friends here, met my husband here, enjoyed major professional moments, too.
It’s true that enjoying a city is about finding a mix of offerings. Can you have fun there? Can you grow there? Can the city be a good backdrop to the life you want to live? Maybe Paris isn’t the answer to all my dream city questions, but as I walked along the Seine and took it in today, I realized it’s a damn good blueprint for my future dream city, wherever that might be. I know Paris will be always here. I also know I will always have the softest-of-city-spots for it.
As I head out the door to catch my train to Paris, I look my outfit once over in the mirror. Once outside, a cold breeze blows over me so I quickly dash inside to grab a pink scarf, the one that’s been on the coatrack for months. And just like that, fall is here. Days like today the rain is relentless and the sun isn’t guaranteed. Instead, our lawn is more likely covered in orange foliage and drizzle. With this new season blowing in, a new season is coming for us, too, so I thought it was time for an update.
Having Paris as a base for our experience this MBA year has been surreal. It’s no secret that I’m in love with the City of Light, so it’s been a treat to be close and to fill my days there with exploring, hanging out, working in the city, and meeting up with friends. The city still has this hypnotizing effect on me, and I’ve been happy just to be back again. The thought of leaving in a few weeks makes me sad, but I also feel somehow, someday we’ll be back. I really hope so at least.
As I reflect back on the year so far, I realize it’s been an extraordinarily busy one, our busiest ever.
It’s been a year with much less predictability and lots of spur-of-the-moment planning. Realizing this year ‘off’ is a luxury for us, we decided to go full force after it and our aspirations. For me, that meant trying my hand at becoming a full-time travel content creator. For Laurens, it meant putting work to the side and enjoying his MBA experience with people from all over the world. The door of opportunity opened up to us and so far, it has meant travelingmore than ever.
It’s been ten months of many feelings, changes, and events, but mostly it’s been invigorating, exciting, and eye-opening.
The year isn’t even over yet, but I can proudly say I’ve visited thirty cities in over ten countries: France, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Lebanon, and the USA. With each country I’ve touched down in, I have felt alive and completely in my element. For some of the trips, I’ve been lucky to travel with my good friends, sometimes I’ve traveled alone; either way, like the addiction travel can be, I’ve been chasing the high of discovering new places, knowing this year probably won’t repeat itself again.
This kind of constant travel has been a dream, but with all the coming and going this year, I have to admit my energy has been a bit scrambled. There were moments where I needed to slow down and take stock of all the change, challenges, and amazing moments we were having. There were weeks of going, going, going and being back in Fontainebleau meant recharging and planning my next trips.
When that free time did come, it invited me to reflect. A year without a normal schedule or job has given me a clear and honest look at the life I want to live and the conditions I thrive in.
From a creative standpoint, the time off this year has rejuvenated my passion for photography and travel in a major way that reaffirms my dreams and aspirations. From a personal point of view, it’s been a bit more ambiguous. My level of homesickness has been high, but my idea of home is still murkier than ever. I’ve reached peak expat fatigue (do I still want to live abroad in the coming years?), and I miss my tribe and the people who know me best. Those people are scattered around the US, Europe, and Asia, but definitely not conveniently in one city or country. And maybe it’s my age (hello-almost-31), but the craving for stability and the familiar has crept up on me in a surprising way. All of this at a time when I’m enjoying traveling more than ever. It’s a lot.
For the first time, my energy to keep moving and meeting, shuffling, and reshuffling is starting to wane. Although I always considered myself a diehard nomad, I’m also open to the possibilities that my values are starting to change and that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to plant some roots. Maybe the doubting is a phase, maybe it’s not. What I know for sure is forcing ourselves to have all the answers right now won’t help anything. More on this later, though. 🙂
Learning, trying, and learning some more
Just like everyone said it would, Laurens’s time at INSEAD is speeding past. It’s been an intense, fun, and good time, although I’ve been pretty removed from the experience myself. He’s doing really well in his classes and I’m proud of him. While he’s living his best student life, I’ve been pursuing my blog growth goals, the ones I set in January.
Here’s a small summary to get you up to speed:
As a photographer and travel writer, my ultimate dream has always been to work with hospitality brands. In the last few months, I’ve been able to travel to some of the best cities in Europe taking on assignments for this blog; that in and of itself has been an immense experience, an experience that has me pinching myself long after the trip is over.
As I look back, these last months have been a master class in honing my photography skills, learning more about cuisine, design, and architecture, and most of all, navigating the content creator niche.
I’ve worked with ten businesses – boutique hotels and restaurants – in France, Germany, Portugal, Spain and Italy to create travel content like articles, photography, and social media consulting. By choosing to work with the best boutique hotels possible, I’ve been opened up to an amazing world of design and architecture, a world I know I want to be in. With the productivity and progress I’ve made, now it’s time to take what I’ve learned from these press trips to grow my business even further. I’m really excited to update you with a longer post about my experience with sponsored travel, soon! In the meantime, check out my dedicated Gorgeous Hotels page.
The endless summer
In June, Laurens’s classes stopped and since he decided not to do an internship, we had two consecutive months off! Realizing how rare of an opportunity it is to have that much time to ourselves, we decided to go home for a month to the USA and spend the rest of the time enjoying summer in Europe.
We did a road trip of road trips, exploring Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and then Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, and France to finish things off. It was a dreamy and surreal display of beauty, culture, and nature in most places we went to. We experienced the wild beauty of the desert southwest and the mountainous nature of Colorado. The trip was jaw-dropping in terms of beauty. We covered thousands upon thousands of miles, and I took almost as many photos. Those are coming soon as well, but here’s a preview:
As amazing as the trip back home was, it was also bittersweet. I visited my grandfather in Brownsville for the very last time. It was a tender visit, one filled with long chats and quality time; completely clear of mind, he told me things I had never heard before and joked like he always did. I said my goodbye to him knowing it was our last visit. Sure enough, as soon as we were about to drive off to Italy on the second leg of our trip, my brother called me to tell me the news that he had passed away.
Although I wasn’t completely shocked, it still hurt tremendously. He was proud of me no matter what, happily championing me to pursue my passion for writing and photography. He bought me my first DSLR camera as a graduation gift, the same one that jumpstarted my love for photography. I miss him and think of his face lighting up at my travel stories and mishaps, his mischievous laugh and joking manner. Unfortunately, Laurens also lost his grandfather just a few weeks later. It was a sad and heavy experience for us both since we had never grieved something like that together as a couple.
Full circle moment
The year might be winding down, but our plans definitely aren’t. In a little over a week, we’ll be moving to Singapore to finish out the INSEAD MBA year. It hasn’t really hit me yet that we’ll be moving for such a short amount of time. I’m starting to get excited, though. As our time in France comes to a rapid close, I’m packing our things slowly, all the trinkets we’ve collected over the last eight years, the ones that deserve to make the many moves with us. After three and a half years of leaving our life in Asia, we’ll be back to close out this busy, fulfilling, and change-inducing year.
So the planning and looking forward continues. Two of my best friends are flying to Bali to visit and I’m planning on taking as many trips as I can fit into two months. I’ve missed many things about living in Asia (the food, the massages, the kind people!), so I’m ready to dive back in if even for just a few months. Also, it will be so nice to see our old friends again who still live over in Malaysia and Singapore.
As for the next steps, we still have no idea about our next move after two months in Asia. That element of mystery isn’t new to us, but the excitement surrounding it remains the same…As soon as we know, you know I’ll be writing about it.