Out in The World and Off To Spain with Las Morenas de España


Saturday, June 20, 2015

A few months while in Barcelona I caught wind of a fantastic Instagram account @LasMorenasdeEspaña. Black women traveling and living throughout the beautiful cities of Spain, all sharing exquisite photos of their individual yet collective experience. It took will power to still myself from "liking" every photo on the page.

And soon after I returned back to the States I received an e-mail from the founder and wanderluster behind LMDES: Sienna Brown. Energetic, excitable, passionate, and full of love for Spanish culture and travel in general, I knew I instantly had a kinship with this woman. We exchanged a few e-mails, one of which Sienna shared a new initiative she was soon to launch via the site: an exclusive set of three curated travel packages for those who would be traveling to Spain whether for the first time or just wanting insider tips.


Depending on the package you purchase (they range from $25 - $150), you'll be treated to a different set of perks that range from exclusive discounts with partners, best flight, restaurant, and hotel recommendations, as well as a curated itinerary and tips for where to experience some unique events of the beaten path, all from an experienced expat. Check them out by clicking on any of the photos above.

While experiencing a new country for the first time on your own terms can be wonderful and freeing, it's quite nice to have a little girlfriend in your back pocket or on your phone helping to make sure the experience is one to remember :)

A Road trip Through the Hills and Heart of Charlottesville, Virginia


Sunday, June 14, 2015

Charlottesville's art scene is bursting with creativity, as exhibited by the vibrant and innovative IX Art Park, June 12th, 2015

I'm a fairly excitable person by nature. Simple things like curling up on my couch in ankle socks with a pint of Butter Pecan ice cream to watch a marathon of The Golden Girls makes me pretty giddy from the inside out. And let's not get me started on the topic of food in general. But utter the word "road trip" and I become the little girl at the slumber party who freaks out because she gets to stay up late playing Truth or Dare while watching The Babysitter's Club and eating peanut butter cups.

This year I had initially planned to attend the Look3 photo festival in Charlottesville, Va alone. The previous two festivals I had attended with my former boss and a colleague, and both times were amazing. I even decided to stay with a Couchsurfing host who lived just a few minutes from the downtown mall, and we hit it off so well that when I left she and her partner generously gifted me with two vintage Minolta film cameras, lenses, and several unused rolls of film. Talk about being excitable!

For those not familiar, Look3 is a massive summer camp/reunion for photographers, photo editors and photo enthusiasts that takes place every three years in the beautiful and quaint city of Charlottesville located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Aka my favorite happy place in Virginia. The scenic drive through rolling, lush green hills, beyond farms and vineyards and little fruit and vegetable stands along the road is the escape I most look forward to in the late Spring. The entire 3-day festival is truly one of the most rejuvenating experiences for me because all across the downtown mall there are exhibits that feature new and older works by veteran photographers and burgeoning photojournalists. The artists talks are by far the most inspiring. Held in two hour blocks, photographers take the stage of the historical Paramount Theater to engage in conversations about their life's work, their inspirations, anecdotes about what it was like working behind-the-scenes of a photograph, and takeaways about their careers that they can reflect on and pass down. Everyone blows me away with how eloquently they're able to speak about their life's work, and this year was no different. It felt almost surreal to witness master photographer Larry Fink talk about work and then break for a moment to play the harmonica to a silent crowd while his photographs flashed across the screen. Or to hear Alec Soth talk his way towards finding his philosophy about his work on stage in front of a full audience. Or to see the always charming and humble Nat Geo photographer Vincent J. Musi, who I had the wonderful pleasure of interviewing for the In Sight photo blog. And afterward I ran up to him on the sidewalk like a giddy fangirl to gush about how much I admired him.

There was also the fantastic WPOW happy hour where I was able to finally meet so many editors and photographers that I've only had the pleasure of corresponding with via e-mail or stalking their social media accounts from afar. That moment when you recognize the person's face with the name and the work you've associated with that name for so long. It was wonderful to attend Look3 again as a fan of everyone there, and be lucky to feel like I was part of the club, too. It really is a transformative festival for anyone who allows it to become that for them.

This year I also had the pleasure of experiencing the festival with someone not in the photo industry. I got a little more excited when my buddy Jason accepted my invitation to attend because as much as I love solo travel, the joy-o-meter shoots up even higher when you go with someone who equally loves a good road trip and has an excellent sense of humor to boot. After walking our feet off in the 90 degree weather, the outdoor patios lining the center of the downtown mall became our watering holes that we took respite in for long stretches of time. Ice tea, soft drinks, Ice cream, hamburgers, lobster ravioli, caprese salad, Moscow mules, mint juleps, charcuterie and fried boquerones (sardines). You name it and we partook. At the end of this post are some of the spots along the downtown Charlottesville Mall that I highly recommend visiting!

My friend Jason attended the festival with me this year. And pretty much played guinea pig to my photos all week.

As respite from the wonderful festival, we ventured out to my favorite orchard in Charlottesville to pick peaches: Carter Mountain. The air up on the hills of the orchard seems to have this secret, and it swirls around you whispering that secret in your ear, through your hair, across your skin until you feel intoxicated and free. In the Fall, that same secret is present, only it's wrapped in a cooler shell. The view looking out to the Shenandoah valley is breathtaking, and I love standing as high as I can, knowing how small I really am in the world.

Pie from The Pie Chest, June 12, 2015.
The iconic Paramount Theater, June 12th, 2015
Checking out Walter Ioos' exhibit on athletes at The Haven, June 11, 2015.
Black raspberry ice cream from Chap's Ice Cream, June 12, 2015.
Studio of artist Rebekah Graves at the McGuffey Art Center, June 11th, 2015
Look3 co-founder and National Geographic animal photographer Vincent J. Musi's "Estuary" exhibit, June 13, 2015.

Enjoying drinks on the patio of The Whiskey Jar, June 12, 2015.

Great places to eat if you have 72 hours along the downtown mall:

Citizen Burger:
Best burgers. 1/2 pound of meat, and their cows are from farms that are 5 miles away. I recommend the mushroom and Swiss burger. It comes with black onion that will make you feel like you've never really had a decent charred onion before, and garlic aoli. Also, cannot stress that you NEED their fried pickles in your life immediatley.

Chap's Ice Cream:
The black raspberry is tops! But really you can't go wrong with any flavor, and they are open at 8am so it's never too early for two scoops.

Their charcuterie plate is fantastic. Pate, pate, pate!

The Whiskey Jar:
We stopped for two starters: the hush puppies with Apple Butter jam (my fav) and the spicy mixed pickles. The latter is actually more pickled carrots and jalapeno than pickles, but Jason really loved it.

Cinema Taco
The number of options for mixing and matching tacos, topped with the number of salsas you can choose from makes this one of my favorite spots.

This place rivals Citizenburger for some of the best burgers in the land. A bit more uspcale without the air of prention, it also offers a beautiful rooftop deck called Skybar that is perfect for enjoying lazy summer evening happy hours or an intimate date. You can look out over a portion of the mall as well.

Sal's Caffe Italia
The lobster ravioli is perfectly cooked in a creamy tomato and alfredo sauce. Order with the caprese salad starter. The salad features beautiful summer ripe tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, and comes with a side of perfectly cooked and marinated artichoke.

The Pie Chest:
Sweet and savory pies made fresh each day. Lemon chess, banana cream, chocolate, etc. The decor perfectly suits this minimal little shop, and their homemade ice cream is tops.

Finding Myself in the World, From the Seat of My Couch


Thursday, May 28, 2015

A peak at my apartment last summer

 *Editor's note: Lengthy post!

Last summer after I moved back to D.C from Maryland and stumbled upon a gem of an apartment in a charming neighborhood by some odd luck, I realized soon after that I wanted to fill my home again with faces and stories that would make the walls and floors feel warmer.

For as long as I can remember the doors to my past apartments have always been revolving with guests. Friends coming by for weekend brunches, late-night talks over wine that went until 2am, five family members cramming into a space fit for two, friends needing a place to crash for a night after traveling or partying, hosting holiday parties, entertaining book clubs, etc. I love having a crash pad, if you will. A place that feels as much like home to me as it does to anyone who stops by.

I had the idea to join the site Couchsurfing almost overnight, really. Because life and scheduling didn't allow me to travel as often as I had hoped in 2013 and 2014, I wanted a way to still connect with others around the world, and with my natural penchant for wanting to host people, Couchsurfing seemed like a good fit.

I recalled my friend Erin first telling me about her couch surfing experience a year prior, and after doing about a day or two of research--reading stories of people successfully hosting and surfing and meeting potentially life-long friends--I knew this was exactly the kind of personal experience I wanted.

I like that Couchsurfing was a bit different from other home sharing or swapping sites in that it was an exchange program where guests wanted to see the city from your eyes along with you. They want you to be apart of their experience by showing them around. They want to share meals--whether at your home or on the town. They want to tell you about their home countries, their friends, their cultures and dreams. The experiences I had with each of my surfers turned out to be some of the most life altering I've had to date, and I can say with no hesitation that each of them have become friends in the world.

I didn't tell friends that I had joined Couchsurfing because it didn't cross my mind. I only remember being so excited and clear that this was what I wanted to do that I simply began the process of creating a profile, practically giddy at the prospect of people from France, Italy, Germany, Korea, or California e-mailing me to say "I'm traveling with my best friend and we would love to meet you! May we stay on your couch for a few nights?" It wasn't until much later--perhaps even after I had already hosted two people--that I mentioned it casually in conversation to a few friends. The initial reaction was something along the lines of "Oh, Nicole. Always the carefree one in the group." Followed closely by "What? Are you sure that's safe? Are you hosting men?? Aren't you concerned about bed bugs??" And I get all of it and didn't take it as more than genuine concern, which I appreciate. I don't see myself as a frivolous or haphazard person, and after sharing some stories of my experiences with couchsurfers and the precautions I had taken prior to accepting their couch request those friends relaxed a bit.

The very first person I hosted was a woman named Annika from Barcelona. Sporty and cool, and incredibly smart and genuine, she stayed for just one night. We met up after I got off work and walked the city for a few hours as the sun set, and then talked for a few more hours over pizza at one of my favorite spots: Comet. I remember admiring her for traveling solo for so many years, since barely out of her teen years, and moving freely throughout the world. I was even more curious to host her because I knew I'd be traveling to Barcelona a few months later and wanted to pick her brain about Spanish culture, great places to see, eat and dance. And later, when I was in Barcelona, we touched base again but weren't able to physically meet up because of scheduling. But I'll be back, Annika!

Among others that I had the chance to host, there was a beautifully spirited Irish couple who had been traveling together for years: energetic and kind Andrea and Eoin. They had been wwoofing across the country together, working on farms and in fields doing all types of labor, and had just gotten engaged shortly before coming to D.C! For about three nights we all talked like old friends over oysters, lobster, hamburgers, pizza, drinks. And Andrea inspired me to keep a travel journal on my future trips. Hers was robust, filled with photos, ticket stubs, stamps, notes. Every type of memorabilia you could think of, neatly placed on the thick pages amid notes about her day, the people she had met or observed, the things she smelled or ate, quotes she wanted to remember. Soon after we parted ways on a Monday morning train, I began my search for the ideal travel notebook and found one via Toms Shoes, which I suppose is very fitting. I made excellent use of it in Barcelona and London recently.

There was the handsome, stylish and incredibly chivalrous Amr from Syria. He had been traveling all over the world and was traveling before settling in Eastern Europe for a banking job. Though he requested to stay for three nights he never stayed for any because he was so popular :) He wasn't sure if friends would be in town that particular weekend, but as soon as he confirmed that he was coming friends began reaching out from all across D.C wanting to meet up with him. And understandably so. He was incredibly friendly and kind, and apologized profusely for not being able to stay at my place. I wasn't concerned or upset at all. I would most likely be out on the town as well if I had friends I hadn't seen in years suddenly in one place. But he asked to treat me to dinner on his last night in D.C and we talked about his life and his family's life in Syria, his hopes to find a great job (which he ended up solidifying right after he left!), girlfriends, his adorable niece who he's crazy about, and everything between. To this day we still check up on each other via Instagram or texts.

With Amr from Syria

There was Amelia. Amelia! Sweet, jovial, cool, and funny as hell, Amelia from England. She had been traveling with a friend earlier in her trip, but after they parted ways and her plans changed she stayed with me for a few days longer and it was the most wonderful time having her here. We hit it off almost right away. Gabbing away into the night about EVERYTHING. You name it, we talked about it. You name it we walked it! We even ventured out to Frederick, Maryland for a little day trip walking through antique stores. Having found someone who is like a long lost girlfriend was awesome, and I was excited when we were able to reconnect in London during my stay there in May.

Amelia during our day trip to Frederick, MD.

But the surfer who really changed my perspective on myself and my life was a young 21-year old skateboarding engineer student from Austria named Frido.

We first greeted each other outside the metro station near my job during my lunch break. He arrived--tall and thin--in camouflage shorts, white graphic T-shirt, holding his skateboard, the top part of his hair dyed blond and the sides brown, a big smile across his face. He had this unique ear piercing where a thin black pin was shooting from the top to the bottom of the inner ear. I'm still contemplating getting one myself! Little did I know this guy would come to feel like my kind and cool little brother, despite being a whole foot taller than me :)

I remember I had to go back to work so I gave him my spare key and my address, but I had forgotten to give him my apartment number and didn't realize it until after we parted ways! I spent hours trying to e-mail him or call the number he had provided because I felt terrible that he'd be sweltering in the August heat in front of my building and bored for five hours. But to my surprise when I got home he was sitting on the couch cooling out. Ever the resourceful guy, he had scoured for names on the mailboxes in the lobby, and of the three boxes that didn't have names on them (mine included), he found mine.

I hosted Frido longer than any other couchsurfer, roughly four or five nights, and we probably saw more of the city in those few days than I had seen in months! Typically with couch surfing, the surfers offer to cook for the host or pay for meals as an extension of their thanks. But me being me and wanting to make sure Frido still had money to enjoy himself in Miami--where he was traveling to next--I didn't feel comfortable taking him to all these spots and having him dish out money that he might have preferred to save. There was this instinct to make sure this trip was special for him. We walked around the National Mall, ate Mexican food from a place called Mission in Dupont Circle that was so spicy we were both crying at the table. I introduced him to my friend Leslie over dinner, and later to my friend Sasha at a pool party. We talked about his girlfriend back in Austria and spent time picking out a beautiful scarf for her at Eastern Market. We ventured out to the infamous D.C. drum circle that happens on Sundays, walked around Georgetown's cobblestone streets, went to a pool party in Yards Park, and spent a lazy afternoon watching hula hoopers while he practiced flips on his skateboard. In an odd way, hosting Frido was like a vacation for me as well.

The time with Frido also made me reflect on the idea of image and perception. A mellow guy, he was the most thoughtful, friendly, smartest person you could have met, and anyone who had the chance to meet him during his time here felt that spark about him. I thought about how odd people must have thought we looked walking around together: a lanky, white skateboarder with graphic tees and Vans shoes smoking cigarettes, and a short black girl with flowy sundresses, DSW wedge sandals and a bushy Afro sticking out from under a summer hat like I was going to the horse racing track. But I loved how completely comfortable with himself and in the world Frido seemed to be, seemingly oblivious to any outside perception. By the time he left, a seed had been planted in my spirit, one that confirmed how free I was to be myself--a person in the world with many contradictions and quirks--not tied to the worry of being misperceived. It's almost like a "duh!" concept. But I needed a personal revelation for it to become an "aha!" moment.

Frido doesn't know this, but after I had dropped him off at the train station in the wee hours of the morning and returned home, I cried, but not out of sadness or loss. It was a completely unexpected, vulnerable moment in my living room. And as I looked down at my coffee table to see the kind note he had left for me, it was like the dam had officially broken and I was awash in joy from having met a friend who touched my life in the most positive way.
And after Frido there were two incredibly sweet girls from Hungary: Csilla and Georgina. I loved their energy. One more quiet, the other more brazen. But both equally cool and open-hearted. We strolled all across the downtown area, visiting the Georgetown waterfront in the September humidity. The stories they shared about Budapest made me add it to my wish list of cities to visit. I still regret that I wasn't able to host them on their final night in the city because of a previous engagement.

I'm grateful to all of my guests--and to Couchsurfing--for letting me see this city again with fresh eyes. I realize I take living in D.C for granted because the ground is always here and the doors to museums are always open. Gratis.

But more than that I'm so thankful that couchsurfing has opened me up to people who live a world away and who still managed to leave a part of themselves with me. Who entered at a crucial moment in my life, when I was going through a personal transition of accepting my oddities, my carefree attitude, and helped me shed a last shred of timidity that was preventing me from fully living out loud as myself. And I'm grateful to CS for letting me see others in the same way by all of us being open to sharing stories, vulnerabilities, hopes, ideas, bad jokes, and great meals. And for the gift of letting us keep in touch long after they've packed their bags. I encourage everyone to open your doors to the world and try Couchsurfing. We're all guests here so why not try to become friends in the process ;) And I'm planning more trips abroad to meet each of you, too.

Europe at 30: Part II: Barcelona


Sunday, May 17, 2015

I couldn't have predicted the wonderful, serendipitous experience that Barcelona would end up being if I had wanted to. When I chose it as the last destination on my trip all I really knew was that I wanted to go someplace warm and that was near the water. I had no idea of the way Barcelona would reinvigorate my spirit, but thankfully that is the essence and the beauty of traveling in itself.

Disclaimer: Extremely photo heavy post :)
Our El Palauet apartment suite in Barcelona, Spain, April 2015.
El Nacional restaurant and bars in Passeig de Gracia, Barcelona, Spain. April 2015.

Choosing where to start is going to be the most difficult part, so let's start with the accommodations. Being that I was celebrating my 30th birthday, along with a desire to want to celebrate having come through a pretty tumultuous year in 2013 and finally seeing the dust settle on the issues that year kicked up, I wanted to treat myself to something luxurious and beyond my wildest dreams. Essentially something I had always seen in Conde Nast Traveler.

I researched several hotels via Tablet Hotels, which I absolutely love as a resource for luxury hotels and boutiques. I heard about Tablet Hotels via Bri Emery of DesignLoveFest several years ago and was hooked on their hotel recommendations every since. The locations are always exotic and the photographs beautifully shot. I soon found out about a place called El Palauet in the heart of Barcelona's Passeig de Gracia, and was immediately in love with the bright white modern decor. My friends will tell you, I'm a complete sucker for white anything. I have the wardrobe to prove it :)

I contacted El Palauet to see if it would be possible to stay at their accommodations for a week along with three of my best girlfriends, and was incredibly excited that the dates we had chosen were available.

Our room was the beautiful Mezzanie Tibidabo, on a mid-level of the apartment. Our concierge opened the suite door to a room full of natural light, floor to ceiling windows bedazzled by a gorgeous floral mural that has been there for over 6 decades, modern and state-of-the-art amenities, a fully stocked refrigerated complete with all of the things we had requested prior to our arrival, and two huge bedroom suites. Each suite featured an open floor plan bathroom with glass doors and porcelain sinks. There was even a beautiful terrace just off one of the bedrooms. Each evening, the staff of El Palauet would prepare the room for bed by setting the lights on dim, turning down our beds, and leaving a little goodnight note.  I still smile at the memory of our four women giggling and dancing and recalling each day's events in the dining room over jamon, cheese, champagne, ice cream, and...wait for it...Trolli's gummi worms. That's right ;) I can't thank El Palauet enough for letting us use them as our home base for the week, and being able to experience Barcelona from such a first class seat.

We Instagrammed and Tweeted our hearts out over this place. You can see those posts under the hashtags #europeat30 and #elpalauetlivingbarcelona

The Hotel

My friend Dian standing in the threshold to the balcony at El Palauet in Barcelona, April 2015.
Beautiful living room of the Mezzaine Tibidabo at El Palauet in Barcelona, Spain, April 2015.

Grabbing an early morning cortado at Yokoama in Barcelona, April 2015.

The aftermath of a beautiful dessert with raspberry jam, and curry with ice cream at the restaurant Kaiku in Barceloneta. Sounds like a complicated mix but it was amazing.

My friend Tina on the boardwalk in Barceloneta after lunch at Kaiku, Barcelona, Spain, April 2015.
Strolling by Casa Batlo, just down the street from El Palauet on Passeig de Gracia. April April 2015

Requesting extra jamon to take-away from the restaurant Tapas 24, Barcelona, Spain, April 2015.
I couldn't get enough of all the colorful scooters! Barcelona, Spain April 2015.

My friends Melissa and Dian, Barcelona, Spain April 2015.

One of my best friends Melissa joined me on the trip. We celebrated her birthday the next day! Barcelona, Spain, April 2015.

Dian, Janet Piven, and I in a post-lunch glow during our stroll through Gracia. Barcelona, Spain April 2015.

Illustrator and our unofficial tour guide Hanoch Piven, Barcelona, Spain April 2015.
This really was one of those serendipitous trips where all the beautiful ways in which worlds and people could collide did so.

Several months before our trip, I met a Spanish artist in D.C named Hanoch Piven through my friend Dian. I had no idea who Hanoch was and no knowledge at the time about his incredible portfolio of illstrations. His career is rich in the who's who in the design business. But all of that aside, he is one of the most generous, kind, smart, and thoughtful human beings I've ever had the pleasure to meet. When he found out we would be in Barcelona, he invited my friend Dian and I to speak to his daughter's art class just north of the city to share our perspective on working in the design and photo industry. It was a morning I won't forget. But before that class, we met Hanoch and his equally kind and talented wife Janet for lunch.You name it and Janet is more than likely skilled and mastered it: baking, cooking, hand making hats, writing and illustrating and PUBLISHING a children's book, teaching, etc... Together they made up the sweetest couple and best tour guides in the city.

Walking among the stone walls and pastel colored buildings among the ubiquitous balconies that Barcelona offers, we wandered through a large market where fresh seafood, meats, vegetables, and tapas were in no short supply. Hanoch and his wife led us to one of their favorite restaurants, La Pubilla, where we dined on a fantastic and memorable meal of handmade pasta with Parmesan cheese, a slow cooked soup with fresh tuna, and a dessert of fresh cream and apples cooked in a sweet wine and cinnamon.

A quick snap while strolling through the Jardin Laribal. Barcelona, Spain April 2015.

 Melissa and I arrived a few days before our friends and found some homes with lemon and orange trees out front that we wouldn't mind owning in the future. Barcelona, Spain April 2015.

 Tina and Dian with the American artist and sculptor Jack Champion, who spent the afternoon showing us around Figueres. Spain 2015.

 Melissa and I at Park Guell. Barcelona, Spain April 2015.
The W Hotel in the distance in Barceloneta, Barcelona, Spain April 2015.
My fascination with the city's posters and scooters knew no bounds! Barcelona, Spain April 2015.

Just outside Salvador Dali's home in Cadaques, Spain. April 2015.

I wish I could pinpoint on particular highlight of the trip, but in truth there were so many! Celebrating one of my best friend's birthday on the beach after a seaside lunch of black rice paella and banana cheesecake, dining at the amazing Vietnamese-Creole fusion Restaurant Me, where the chef sat down with each of the tables and spoke about each individual dish and his world travels. Walking through the beautiful home of artist Salvador Dali and being reminded to surround your home with people and things you adore the most because it really is your sanctuary in the world. Wandering the streets at all hours of the day and never growing tired of the scenery. Fawning secretly over every Spanish man that walked by you because they were all just so beautiful. I mean...Spain, bottle up whatever secret sauce is turning everyone into a movie star and send me three cases, please. Riding on the back of a golf cart down the cobble stone streets through the coastal town of Cadaques and then serendipitously bumping into a retired American artists and sculptor who showed us around neighboring city Figueres and imparted some great reflections on life and work.

Banana cheesecake aftermath at Kaiku. Barcelona, Spain, April 2015.

Cockles dressed in lemon and ginger sauce at Kaiku. Barcelona, Spain April 2015.

The magnificent ceiling at El Palauet. Barcelona, Spain April 2015.

Couldn't stop looking up at all the lovely balconies. Barcelona, Spain April 2015.

Rooftop pool at Hotel Onix Fira, Barcelona, Spain April 2015.

TAPS restaurant in El Poble Sec neighborhood.

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