Prefacing this post with acknowledging that I’m extremely privileged to have been able to visit all these places! A word of advice: Apply for every scholarship you can because no one else actually does, they’re easy to get once you write the damn essay, and there’s tons of money up for grabs when you’re a student. Also it helps if you have a big family flung across the country. You’ve got to see your family.
Favorite US states I’ve visited
– MAINE: The best childhood summer memories in this northeastern seaside state. Cabins at Steamboat Landing on Brandy Pond with the cousins, Camp Kippewa for Girls, family reunion in Kennebunkport. I didn’t even like lobster til 2009, really missed out on that front. Pine trees. Homemade ice cream parlors. I freaking love Maine.
– Louisiana: New Orleans will always be my favorite city. There’s something in the air there that you can’t find anywhere else. Food, history, vice, music, oak trees. When the air is heavy with misty rain and humidity and all you can hear are cicadas in the middle of the city on your screened-in porch. Really fun exploring out in the deep Bayou and out in Cajun country. I shall return there one day, mark my words.
Least favorite US states I’ve visited
– Connecticut. Just Connecticut.
US states that have pleasantly surprised me
– New Jersey: As a little kid, my parents would drive me and my siblings out to New Jersey on the weekends to places like Wild West City and The Land of Make Believe. I used to ask them, “Is New Jersey open today?” Jersey Shore and Elizabeth aside, NJ is a beautiful state with lots of nature, quaint towns, and come on, Bon Jovi!!
– Kansas: My cousin got married to his college sweetheart in Kansas City a few years ago, and my siblings and I were overly excited to go to Kansas. The middle of the country! Home to Dorothy! Tractors! We ended up not seeing as many cornfields as we thought we would, loving the BBQ, and finding everything we needed in KC MO. And I got to try my first Burger King Bacon Sundae. Two thumbs up.
– California: So far, it’s not overrated.
– Upstate New York: I’d only been up in the winter before, and it was pretty brutal, like one large icy sheetrock. But a few summers ago I drove up to Western Mass through Upstate and really enjoyed it. Lots of rolling green hills and valleys, roadside egg baskets, and waterfalls.
Random wonderful memories from other states
– Rhode Island: My Uncle Jim and his family lived in one of the oldest farm houses in the state (the smallest in the Union!) until a few years ago when he moved to Newport to run his Newport Tower Museum (yea, he’s that guy from the History Channel!) When we were kids still living in NYC, going up to Uncle Jim’s 17th century rural abode for the weekend was always a trip inspiring excitement tinged with complete and utter terror at being in the middle of the wilderness, a land sans Duane Reade and where the closest pizza delivery actually came from the next state over. I was constantly on the lookout for foxes, which probably due to Doctor De Soto were scarier to me than all the lions, tigers, and bears.
We would always leave busy, bustling Manhattan in the late afternoon, piling into our ramshackle 1982 pea green box of a Volvo covered in stickers (and at one point with black duct tape where there had once been a functioning window). Three hours later we would arrive in Foster at night, well after the sun had bid adieu. Sh*t had gotten real. Dad would always make a quick beer run beforehand in Connecticut, because Rhode Island had stricter laws on when you could buy beer at night, and Dad’s gotta have his Becks.
Six-pack secured, we’d then turn off the highway onto Tucker Hollow Road, which was flagged by several mailboxes. It was too out of the way for any postman to drive all the way down to deliver the mail to these lone stars, my relatives being among them. We would then begin our descent into obscurity, driving what seemed like miles down a long dirt road in the deepest darkness imaginable. With woods on both sides, all you could see were the silhouettes of the trees surrounding the road and the dirt road that continued ahead of us, lit up a pale, ghostly yellow from the headlights. Dad would drive slowly down as if something might dart out in front of us and swallow us whole (one time a frog did jump out in front of us, not sure how that ended for the little fella).
And then all of the sudden the warm lights of Uncle Jim and Aunt Lucy’s would twinkle in the distance, I’d stop holding my breath, and we’d park the car in front of their farm house. My siblings and I would fall out of the car, and as we stretched our stiff legs and arms after the long drive, squished up against each other in the back seat (Emily always got b*tch), we’d look up at the sky filled with more stars than we’d ever seen combined in our little lifetimes in New York City. I always expected us to be wrapped in silence, since there were no sirens, no other cars, no people, no honks, but nature is always abuzz. The sounds at Uncle Jim’s were different than the ones we knew, and we’d listen to the howling of the wind, maybe the croaking of a frog, the hooting of an owl, bugs singing themselves to sleep or to keep themselves awake as we ran down the stone pathway to rap on the front door.
Uncle Jim’s house was built in 1726 by some rogue European settlers, probably from England – the doors had latches instead of doorknobs, tin sinks, lots of quilts, and wooden everything. They even had a big working fireplace – we had one in New York City, but it had a fake fire that lit up orange only when you plugged it into the wall. Sometimes field mice would sometimes get in the house through old cracks in the wall. I was always petrified of seeing a mouse, ever-wary of all the eaves and rafters, but it added an extra edge of intrigue to the whole trip. Uncle Jim and Aunt Lucy had kind of gone with the whole old-timey feel, and there were antique dolls and kitschy trinkets around the house, which at when we arrived at night always seemed to amplify my jitters about being in their historic, isolated house. But I loved to scare myself as a kid, and I still kind of do, and I’d let my mind race when I’d wake up and have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, convincing myself the porcelain dolls would come alive and put me on a Salem Witch Trial.
My fears of the darkness were always assuaged when morning came, and the sun would light up the fields and woods of the property, just beckoning us to run right out the old Dutch doors to play. When we would wake up we’d run outside into the field, our shoes tingeing wet with the morning dew, something that entirely bewildered me as a city girl (“It didn’t even rain last night!”), and we’d push each other on the huge swing that our cousins had put up on the most massive tree that overlooked the house, and run around the barn. The woods surrounding the house were extensive, and lands nearby were open for game hunting at certain times around the year, so sometimes we would wake up to gunshots, or more poetically to the death of a young deer.
I remember it snowing heavily once, and my cousins taking us out back to sled down a big hill. I didn’t understand the concept of “rolling off” and sled myself right into a tree, knocking a blood-riddled tooth out of my mouth. I was so embarrassed to have been so lame in front of my older cousins, but at least the tooth fairy doesn’t judge you on how you lose it! My cousins also installed a rock climbing wall in one of the barns, Uncle Jim made his own camera obscura, Aunt Lucy had stunning Icelandic horses, and at one point one of the barns was home to the largest ad-hoc live sound systems I’ve ever seen, and since there was no one for a couple of miles we could bang the pots and pans as loud as we wanted. By the end of the weekend I was never scared anymore, but looking back on it I think I enjoyed going into trips to Uncle Jim’s half-petrified – a little suspense never hurt anyone, especially an unruly 7-year-old on the way to the woods for the weekend.
– North Carolina: Roadtripped from New Orleans to New York in May 2009 with three friends from school, and our car broke down as we crossed over into North Carolina. My Aunt Joanna lives in Charlotte, and I hadn’t seen her in a few years. We called her up and asked to spend the night, and we ended up leaving a week later. She lives in a beautiful house on a lake with a pool, loves to cook, introduced us to Carolina-style BBQ, is an absolute blast to hang out with, and let us drink wine even though we were only 19 🙂 Got to know my Uncle Biff better and saw my cousin Philip doing really well. I did break a toe playing bocci barefoot, which was pretty bougie, but it didn’t damper the good times. My friends still ask how Aunt Joanna’s doing 🙂
– Mississippi: We all had to evacuate New Orleans on the first day of my sophomore year at Tulane because of a hurricaine, so I hightailed it out to Tallahassee to crash at FSU til the storm passed over. Hurrication! We somehow ended up 60 miles north of I10 (I wasn’t driving) in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, which I only knew from an obscure Gone With the Wind reference. We pulled off at a gas station to turn around and it hit me that we were in the middle of the “Deep South”, a mystical and somewhat fear-inspiring place in my 19-year-old New York state of mind. My friends and I tiptoed into the gas station to buy candy, and the owner of the gas station fit every stereotype I had of Mississippi men – he actually looked exactly like Elmer Fudd incarnated, and we clearly looked like we were from out of town. He took one look at us and in the slowest, thickest, almost viscous drawl I’d ever heard asked, “Wherrrrrrre y’aaaaaaall frooooom?”
Favorite European destinations
– London: My first favorite foreign city. I was 11, and it was my first big trip out of the country, and I loved everything about it, except for the food. I was still a picky eater at the time even in America, and there was just no way in hell I was going to eat a minced pie. My mom also wouldn’t let me eat hamburgers, my usual MO, because she was afraid I would get mad cow disease, so that caused some problems. But I remember being completely rapt with the mysterious and creepy stories regaled to us by a beefeater at the Tower of London and jumping to and fro over the Greenwich Mean Time marker. A geography and history buff I still am to this day 🙂 Just an amazingly diverse and vibrant place with tons of history, class, and energy.
– Bath, England: I went to England on a school trip at 15 and we spent a day in Bath at the … baths. When we left in the late afternoon the sun was setting as we drove up out the city through the very green hills surrounding it. All the buildings in Bath are made out of the same limestone per an ordinance to keep the city looking just the way it always has, and the sun set on the city such that as we drove further and further up and away it looked like a pot of twinkling gold in the middle of the greenest emerald valley. I actually shed a tear looking out the window of the bus I was so moved by the sight. I was probably mortified at the time to be so emotional in front of my classmates, but looking back it’s nice to know that the teenager me had a little depth.
– Ireland: Honestly every single place I have been in this country I loved. My dear friend Roisin and her family have made each of my trips there such a warm, homey experience. Christmas this year in Maynooth was really special, it was so nice to just slip into the family festivities when it was so far from my own. The cities are quaint and colorful, and Connemara is possibly the most beautiful place I’ve ever travelled to. It looks like a fairytale illustration, or a Thomas Kinkade drawing (a guilty pleasure of mine, the first 1000-piece puzzle I did was a TK original).
– The Isle of Mull, Scotland: Also another fairytale-esque place. A lot of what I saw in Scotland and on the Isle of Mull was just absolutely epic – Gigantic cliff sides, highlands where the fog rolls over the tips and tops (now I see this everyday in SF!), colossal hillsides spotted with hundreds of grass-munching sheep. So. Many. Sheep. Didn’t end up hiking them but did learn about the Munros, 282 Scottish mountains all over 3,000 feet high (!) named after the man who surveyed them all. You get all the grandiose on the Isle of Mull, but there’s also little precious woodlands with berries and brambles and moss and dew that had to have inspired many a fairytale, or at least the Brambley Hedge books of my childhood (although I know those really takes place in England, oops).
– Brussels: Complain as I may, I lived in this city for about two years and really feel like it’s a place I know well. It’s not the boring dirty place a lot of people seem to think it is – at one point it was a playground for Art Nouveau artists and architects, and there are SO many beautiful buildings around the city it inspired an Instagram account! It’s extremely diverse as well, not just because of the EU but with large populations from former Belgian colonies across North and Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as influxes from the former USSR. There are a million different kinds of people doing a million different kinds of things, and there’s always a terrace to enjoy un café or one of an endless variety of beers.
– Warsaw: Spent nine days in this one city and was honestly blown away by the friendliness of the Poles and the energy of this upcoming city.
– Istanbul: Did not have any where near enough time to explore this city, really just the tip of the iceberg. But wow, just wow.
Favorite North/Central America places
– Oaxaca, Mexico: I’ll always remember the beautifully blazing heat, the bluest sky, and boldly colored buildings all around. Bright oranges, pinks, blues, greens, yellows, and those trees with the red blossoms all over. It was a big city that just felt really local, funky, and cared for. I had a blast the first morning I arrived walking around and taking photos of the buildings under the bright, blistering sun. The kind of heat I just live for.
– Lake Atitlán, Guatemala: The most idyllic lake in the world. Always a perfect temperature. So many different unique towns, you never get the same vibe twice. Got roped into kayaking the whole thing and doing my first real camp out that wasn’t in an RV park, and it was awesome, even though I apparently can’t row for the life of me. I can, however, make smores and pancakes anywhere in the world 🙂
– The beach in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua: Specifying the beach here because this town is one of the most touristy places I’ve ever been, and I really didn’t like it. At this point in my trip I was jaded and thought I was “sunsetted out”, but then I saw the sunset here and stopped being such a douche. Wow.
– Port-au-Prince, Haiti: My cousin had lived there for a while as a foreign service officer, and would go on hikes with her dog up the massive mountainous neighborhoods that make up the city. From far away these towns built on the side of these hills look like unattainable Lego boxes, but when you’re halfway up it’s like you’re in one of those ant farms you had as a kid, with tiny makeshift streets, lanes, and alleyways of people darting in and out, lugging water up barefoot, trash burning in large pits, kids playing, soccer balls falling…It’s not something a lot of tourists get to experience when they visit Haiti, so I feel really lucky that my cousin had such deep ties to the communities around Pétionville and that she didn’t just stay in her Range Rover the whole time. If Haiti ever gets it together I think P-au-P will feel a lot like San Francisco.
Places I’d like to visit next
– Santa Fe, New Mexico
– All of Southeast Asia
– Bora Bora