A Chocolate Lover’s Paradise

Milka, Tolberone, Lindt, Caffarel, Nutella.  Not to mention the chocolate climbing walls, laptops, alcohols, shot glasses.  Every sense was bombarded as my roommates and I made my way through the winding streets crowded with other chocolate lovers.  Not even the constant pushing could impede my happiness as I made my way from one stand to the next, sampling everything available at Europe’s largest chocolate festival located in Perguia, Italy.

“I want some drinking chocolate!” Tierney called over the din created by a multitude of languages.

“What about those chocolate posts that look like kebabs?” I pointed at the interesting structure that combine white, milk, and dark chocolate, carefully shaved off into different tasty treats.

“Oh, I need a chocolate covered banana,” Juliette chimed in.

We wandered through the endless twisting Italian avenues, continuously accosted by new variations of chocolate.  How were we ever going to decide?  I had never seen so many forms of chocolate, especially not in one place.

No one could decide where to go next, what item to buy.

At each stand we asked in broken Italian for a description of the sumptuous chocolates available.  Neither their broken English nor the Italian words we understood seemed to be able to do it justice.  We stopped trying to make informed decisions and gave into our baser instincts.  I spent all my money, buying whatever caught my eye and anything that mixed chocolate with coconut.

My bags filled with truffles, brownies, and plain old chocolate bars, I needed one more piece of chocolate to eat on my way out.  We passed the same stands, each still as appealing as when we first arrived.  Every table provided descriptions of their special chocolate, in Italian and English, all equally alluring.

Eating our delicious Nutella Quesadillas!

And then I saw it: Nutella quesadillas.  Mexican food combined with chocolate; how can a Texan girl resist?  My decision made I rushed toward the stand.  My friends followed, equally intrigued.  We watched intently from our spot at the back of the line as the chocolatiers poured warmed Nutella over flat round bread, a little thicker than your average tortilla.  Folded over once, they plopped the concoction onto a grill, flipping it back and forth until it had an attractive dark gold complexion.    Finally reaching the front of a long line, I pulled out the last of my Euros and with an obviously American accent, I ordered.

“Un Nutella quesadilla, por favor!”

Having a Home Base

It’s five in the afternoon on June 26.  Any other day, Celebration Park would be sparsely populated, with just a few kids playing in the water garden while their parents consider joining them.  Even though it is approaching evening, it’s just too hot.

But today is June 26, the Saturday before Independence Day, and the park’s name seems more fitting.  You can barely see the perfectly groomed emerald grass for all the blankets spread across the field that has suddenly become a concert venue.  On the stage that was constructed this morning in the shelter of darkness, a seventies cover band, La Freak, sings songs that are barely recognizable to anyone under forty.

At the edge of the crowd, where the blankets thin out enough to provide a walking path, the makings of a carnival begin.  Bounce houses and mini rides have appeared overnight. Right along side them are massive signs for corn dogs, ice cream and corn on the cob.  It is like a taste of the state fair just popped up in the middle of town.

We have at least two hours to kill before the headlining band makes an appearance.  From our blanket near the center of the red, white, and blue sporting patriots, my best friend Laura, her sister Alyssa, and I entertain ourselves by observing everyone’s ‘interesting’ outfits.  Designer clad, bleach blonde, Polo wearing families intermingle with overweight women in bikinis showing off for their pot bellied husbands.  It is the perfect mix of red neck hicks and east coast WASPs.

“I want cotton candy,” Alyssa declares.  The children on the next blanket are wrestling a little to close to my feet for comfort, so I quickly agree that leaving is the best idea.  Hoping my napping mother won’t wake before we return, we wipe the sweat of every exposed body part and attempt to navigate the maze that has built up around us.

Away from the cozy family blankets we are suddenly surrounded by the teenagers that  overrun the city on a daily basis.  Only usually it isn’t this obvious.  They are at every turn.  Girls in short shorts and tight tops with too much make up on eyeing the jerseyed football players who are trying to look as if they don’t enjoy being at such a family friendly event. Nearly all of them are mainstream, decked out in American Eagle or Abercrombie and Fitch, carrying Coach purses, or wearing Allen Eagles t-shirts.  There are a few rebels, wearing black despite the heat, with neon colored hair and facial piercings. But they are so few and far between they too get lost in the crowd.

Waiting for Fire Works by Sheri Vasinda

And without fail, every few feet we recognize someone.

“She goes to my church,” Laura points out a girl I’ve never seen before.

“Oh, that girl is in my history class,” Alyssa comments.

And then as always, Laura or I inevitably mutter, “He was in band,” since one fifth of the high school made up our six hundred person marching band.  This seems like the only town event the band doesn’t participate in.  Which is probably good because there would be no where for them to stand.

After waiting in a line of at least twenty people for a four dollar bag of cotton candy, we all decide the romping children are more desirable than an outdoor replica of the high school halls we thought we had escaped.  The sun is dipping close to the roofs of the houses that line the park as we weave back to our spot, losing Alyssa along the way to the teenagers.

Just as we settle back onto our picnic blankets, The Comadores take the stage and my mom hops up, clapping and jumping in place.  Pumping her arms, motioning for us to join her, she breaks into song with the band as we just stare.  We shake our heads and grin.  Laura and I are not here for the band.  We are here for the fireworks.

No Fourth of July celebration is complete without fireworks.  So each year, the Saturday before the Fourth, Allen sets off the largest fireworks display in North Texas.  As soon as The Comadores finish singing Brick House, we are given five minutes to get where we want to be.  Five minutes before all lights are turned out and we are plunged into complete darkness.

A few little screams erupt when the darkness hits, even though we were warned multiple times.  As our eyes attempt to adjust we are just as suddenly blinded.  The boom crack that fills the air every night during the beginning of July is accompanied by bright colors and little drops of fire filling the air.

The dramatics of it all sends a chill down my spine.  Laura laughs at my shiver, seeing as it is completely dark and still ninety degrees outside.  We gaze back up at the sky, intermittently ohhing and ahhing over the fantastic somehow made into an ordinary by the city of Allen.

Largest Fire Works Show in North Texas by Julia Vasinda

The Wonders of Waco

Mark Being an Eagle
Photo by Julia Vasinda

People always think of travel as going somewhere exotic.  But as I wake up before my alarm, again, I push aside my inability to sleep as I remember today I’m going on a trip.  I don’t struggle long with the decision to just go ahead and get up or lie here for a few more minutes.  I force my feet onto the floor and head downstairs to rummage up something for breakfast.

Even though I woke before my alarm, I barely have time to pull on my workout clothes before Laura, my best friend of 15 years, pulls into the driveway to take me to Zumba.  I love Zumba.  But today I hope it goes quickly so I can put distance between me and the drudgery of every day life.

We’re late to Zumba, not that that is a surprise.  And it is not our normal teacher.  This woman is much more stiff than our fluid salsa stepping instructor who always makes us giggle with her super sexy moves.  This woman causes class to drag, or maybe it is the anticipation.  Although I’m sweating like a pig (as usual) by the time we leave, I almost wish I skipped the strained class.

“I’ll see you in an hour,” I call over my shoulder as I step out of Laura’s car.

“Some of us need longer to do our hair!” she responds as I slam the door and shrug before hurrying up to the shower.  We have to leave in an hour if we want to get to Waco before two, even though one-thirty was the original meeting time.

A thrill of excitement shivers down my spine.  I love going new places.  Well, I’ve been to Waco before, but just stopped there to eat on my way to places like Austin and San Antonio.

Was it really only less than three years, and countless countries, ago that travel really caught my attention?  It seems like it’s always been part of my life.  It almost feels like oxygen.  A need.  That first trip to Spain was like meeting your soul mate, or finding your calling.  It made the world stop and accelerate at the same time.

I don’t remember half the things we did.  But I recall the attempts to walk down cobblestoned streets in heels after my first run in with alcohol.  Climbing in turrets of actual castles, wondering if I was ever going to see anything besides the butt of the person in front of me ever again.  Going to a club that used to be an actual palace.  Oh, and I guess learning absolutely everything there is to know about every place possible.

Hook, line, and sinker.  I was done for.  Next thing you know, I’m signing up for three semesters of study abroad.  After just one week!  Talk about life decisions.

It is like I suddenly saw this whole new world.  There aren’t just other continents to explore, although I’m certainly set on that, there are so many things I’ve never seen miles from home!

Enter Waco.  A city consisting of Baylor University and to the unknowing eye, not much else.  Since it is the closest thing to a halfway point we could find between Dallas and Austin and where Laura and I would be meeting up with my college buddy, Mark, we were determined to find more to do.  Because who wants to drive two hours to go to a mall.  And on top of that, who wants to go to a mall when there are way cooler places just waiting to be discovered.

Although the Dr Pepper Museum is not exactly the Palacio de Oriente and Cameron Park Zoo not the same experience as the Toledo’s countryside, the now familiar excitement fills my stomach.

The $3.00 student discounted entry fee gets us into the Dr Pepper Museum, where we quickly discover a scavenger hunt that leads us room to room.  Mark loudly shouts the answers, and we continually seem to be in every families’ way. Conversation flows between my group and the others around us in line as we pay almost as much for a Dr Pepper mixed right before our eyes as we did to get in the museum.

Still sipping our drinks we get back in our cars to head to the Cameron Park Zoo.  None of us had even been aware this oasis existed, surrounded by a normal neighborhood.  After forking over a significant amount for what we assumed would be a quick trip with glimpses at a few local animals in caged habitats, we hurried down the path leading towards those cages.

As the first few animals come into view, we break into a trot, and lean excitedly over the wooden fence separating us from the cage.  Mark immediately starts to mimic the birds, in sound and stance, and I pull out my camera.  We spend the next few hours running excitedly between the exhibits, received by disapproving looks from the parents who usher their children away from us.

Exhausted from the hours in the beaming Texas sun Laura, Mark and I decide it is only right to enjoy a hearty dinner at Texas Roadhouse.  I relax into the faux leather seats, feeling them pull at my sweat sticky skin and take pleasure in the relief of scratching my travel itch.

But by the time I being driving home, the itch is back.  My eyes gaze longingly at each exit sign we pass, though they should be gazing at the road.  As we come up on the exit for Italy, TX, a smile spreads across my face.

“Let’s do an ‘around the world’ trip in Texas….”

Laura just laughs and rolls her eyes.

Top 10 Ways to Get the Most Out of Studying Abroad

Photo by Sheri Vasinda

Studying abroad is the surest way to catch the travel bug.  Unfortunately it is normally before you have enough money to afford such a sickness!  Thankfully, my major requires at least 2 semesters abroad, so I’ve gathered quite a bit of information on the best way to get the most of your time abroad.

1. Talk to as many people as possible who have already been there. They can tell you the best (and worst) places to eat, sleep, and party.
2. Make sure you eat all the local food. Ask the locals about their favorite places.  I guarantee its better than what any guidebook has to say.
3. Read reviews before you stay anywhere. And always rent the cabin on a “cruise ship”.  20 euro is so worth not getting bed bugs!
4. Ask everyone (locals and friends who have visited) their favorite places to party. Pub crawls are the best way to check out the hottest night clubs and meet really interesting people from all over the world.
5. Take tons of pictures, but be sure to actually be in the moment. If you get too caught up in remembering it, you will forget to focus on what it is like when you’re actually there!
6. Get lost. Wandering allows you to find things you never would have thought of looking for.  It’s an adventure that you don’t have to plan for at all!
7. Take risks! Do all the things you have always been too afraid to do.  Whether it is skydiving, paragliding, canyoning, skiing, or just trying crazy foods!  The rush will make your trips even more memorable.
8. Look for all the cheapest options possible, and make some plans. Or let someone else do it for you.  Many cities have groups that arrange trips for American students, such as Florence for Fun in Italy, so there is usually a group discount and a chance to make new friends.
9.  Do anything and everything that is free. New Europe is a company that gives tours working only on tips, which is the cheapest you will find.  Get a little bit of history and I’m sure the tour guides can tell you the most interesting places to hang in the city.  And its a great plan for a future job if you can’t get over the travel bug by the time you graduate!
10. Most importantly, meet as many people as possible. Networking is the way to go in today’s job market, and the most people you know, all of the world, the more likely you are to get a nice travel job, or at least a free place to stay.

These are my top ways to get the most out of your study abroad experience.  And if that one semester isn’t quite enough to fulfill your cravings, pick a major that requires more : )

P.S. Let me know if you need any tips on studying abroad in Australia or Italy!

Travel is…

Ok, so I finally figured out exactly how to write this for my purposes.  I want to tell you about the year I spent abroad in Australia and Italy (as well as next semester when I’ll be in London) without just saying “I did this and it was cool”.  So I have decided to model it kind of after “Love is”.  Because travel is love to me.  But there will be more than just the one sentence.  Haha!  So today I will start with what travel actually is!  And what it means to me of course.

Riding in a cab in Capri
The Coolest Cab Ride I've Ever had in Capri

Travel is “to go from one place to another, as by car, train, plane or ship; take a trip” according to dictionary.com.  I think they left out  a few modes of transportation, but maybe that’s just me.

Even when I was a kid, I loved the actual act of traveling.  It didn’t matter were we were going.  My family and I always took trips, once or twice a year.  I remember the anticipation the night before, not being able to sleep even though I had to get up early.  Then my parents would wake me well before the sun rose, and barely opening my eyes I would climb into the back of our sea foam green van.  Where I would sleep for hours in a nest of blankets.  Wish it was that easy now!

My dad always told me I loved these trips because I didn’t have to drive.  But I found him to be wrong.  Since sophomore year of college, each semester that I actually attend my school in America, I drive halfway across the country from Dallas to Philly.  Usually by myself.  And I love it even more.  I can stop to pee as much as I want.  I can eat whatever I want.  Listen to whatever I want.  And nothing gives you the feeling of freedom and accomplishment that finally arriving at your destination brings.

But driving is not necessarily my preferred method of traveling.  I really enjoy anything that takes me to a new place. Or even an old place I haven’t been in a while.

I love travel by plane, boat, train, kayak, camel, walking, paragliding, swimming, horseback, or hiking!  And I’m sure there are many I have yet to try.  But I’ll save those for another post.

This is just the beginning of finding out what travel is.

You Can Always Go Home Again

Oh, the end of the semester.  Papers, finals, piles upon piles of stress.  Hence why there have been no posts.  But no worries, I am home for the summer with lots of free time!

The 2 day 1,492 (give or take) mile drive was completely worth it.  Crossing over that Texas borderline gave me chills and maybe a little bit of a lead foot as well.  Luckily, no tickets so far.  Knock on wood.

Every time I get back to Texas, there is the biggest feeling of relief.  I know its a strange thing to say, seeing as this is a travel blog.  But one of the things I love so much about traveling is the thrill of coming home.  It always seems at least slightly new.  Just small things like a new water tower, or the town hall being moved.

And of course, it gives me the option to change a few things about myself as well.  While attending school in Pennsylvania, I do not get my hair done, as my sister is my stylist.  So coming home means getting a hair cut.  And a little bit more!

I decided to go blonde.  I’ve done this once before, sort of.  Right before I ventured to Australia, I decided I wanted to be a blonde beach babe.  But seeing as I’m a natural brunette and would not be able to get touch ups for five months, it ended up being a dirty blonde.  Not this time.

This time my sister and I decided on super blonde!  I was shocked the first time I looked in the mirror.  Never in my life has my hair been this light.  And, as much as I’ve always thought  brunettes were better than blondes in every way, I have to admit, I love the blonde.

So I guess its time to see.  Are travels more fun blonde?

I love travel

To me, traveling is everything.  Anything besides travel is secondary. But it’s those secondary events that make traveling so worthwhile.

Although I live in the best place on earth, Texas, traveling manages to remain my favorite activity.  As much as I love Texas, I love pretty much every new place I visit as well.  I mean, you always need a home base.

So what do I love about traveling?

I love the actual act of traveling. Whether it’s in on a bike between vineyards, a car between cities, on a plane between continents, or floating on a boat from Italy to Greece with EuroAdventures.  It’s the feeling of moving towards a new adventure.  The feel of just moving between where I’ve been and where I’m going.

Then, there are the new experiences when you finally get to the destination.

The best experience: the food.  I eagerly await the food in every new country.  I feel the same anticipation whether it’s food from Australia, where most travelers’ don’t give the cuisine a second thought or in Italy, a country many people go to only for the indescribable flavors.  And every time I come back to Texas I am immediately ready to get back the best of the best, Tex-Mex.

So what experience could be as good as food?  Well, parties rank pretty high on my list.  Everyone, everywhere loves to party.  Visiting the  most popular parties in the entire world is my favorite way to pass the time.  After sitting down to a desirable dinner, of course.  Who can resist a quick trip to Oktoberfest or partying on a beach in celebration of Australia day?

As much as I love the food and the parties, they are nothing without considering the relationships I form. Relationships tend to be the most critical element of my travels. I’ve met my best friends, my worst roommates, some people I’ll never see again but can’t forget.  These people give me the best stories and make each moment worth every trial it took to get there.

This is what gets me, these are the reasons I travel.  These are the reasons I live.

And it doesn’t hurt that it gives me something to write about!

Tex-Mex Madness

Texas is the best place on Earth.  Not just the best state, the best place ever.

The main reason I love my home state is the same reason I love any place I travel. The food.  No matter what kind of food you’re craving, Texas has something to offer.  But my personal favorite is the Mexican food, or should I say Tex-Mex.

For anyone who’s been to Mexico, you are missing out on what is only a few miles north.  The Tex-Mex cuisine creates the most tantalizing tastes that will ever touch your tongue.  This specialized zest is captured by combining about five ingredients and tons of spices into an endless variety of dishes. Whether its tacos, fajitas, or the scrumptious chicken quesadillas shown above, you can find it in Texas.

I search high and low for good Tex-Mex in each country I visit, but nothing has come close to the food I grew up with. Chuy’s, Mexi-Go, On the Border, Chipotle offer some of the best Tex-Mex in Texas. Or if you happen to be in London and need a fix, stop by the Texas Embassy.

But if you’re just traveling around the United States the best part is you don’t need a passport to get it.