Monday, 28 July 2014

Final Reflections

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

I guess I've been putting off this last post for a while, number one because I'm lazy and number two because it's another weird transition for me—I actually managed to keep this blog (for the most part) updated throughout my year, and it's just one more goodbye that I have to do for this year. This last weekend I was in Decorah for Nordic Fest, eating lefse and lingonberry ice cream, repping my I Love Sweden shirt and hanging out with friends and seeing people I haven't seen in a year. It was a great weekend, but so hard and just so weird. After living abroad for a year and everything that I've done and seen in all my travels, the transition into my senior year of college is already more difficult than I could ever imagine.

This year has been, without a doubt, the year of all my dreams. I got to spend an entire year with my people in the country I love most, seeing the places I've only ever dreamed of and growing so much as a person throughout all of my (mostly solo) travels. I know it sounds cliché, but this has been the best year of my life, and I will never forget it. Not only was I able to fully immerse myself in British life and culture, I had amazing opportunities to travel around England, fully indulging in my love of history to the maximum point possible. I also had incredible opportunities to travel all over the world, meeting different types of people and experiencing different cultures—and seeing how everywhere the world is both absolutely different and completely similar.

Since I really enjoy lists, I thought it would be best to sum up my year abroad with a couple lists that exemplify the extent of my travels this year:

Places in England I Visited:
-Nottingham (duh)
-Peak District (Haddon Hall and Chatsworth House)
-London (9 times) (!!!!!!!!)
-Middle of fucking nowhere to go to Hardwick Hall
-Peak District (Eyam and Crich)
-Kenilworth Castle and Coventry
-Bosworth Battlefield
-Land's End
-Dartmoor National Park
-Random ass village I walked through to get to Leeds Castle
-Bury St. Edmunds
-Tutbury (for Tutbury Castle)
-Peterborough (twice)
-Leicester for Oadby Library and Alison Weir
-Hadrian's Wall
-Manchester (technically twice for Taco Bell trips)
-Hever (for Hever Castle)
-Southwell (for the Workhouse and the cathedral)
-Leicester again (unfortunately)
-Winchcombe (Cotswolds for Sudeley Castle/Hailes Abbey)
-Blenheim Palace/Bladon

Countries I Visited:
-Ireland (twice)
-Czech Republic

So…I guess I went a fair amount of places! Shit. Not gonna lie, I think these lists are pretty impressive. During my year, I finished my (primary) Cathedral List, got halfway through my "50 Tudor Places to See in England" list, and visited every country that was on my main list. With all the places I've been, I have a great idea for the countries I can't wait to go back to (Ireland and Croatia are at the top!!!), and countries that I feel like I can skip now that I've been there. On a smaller scale, I now know the places in England I never intend to set foot in again (Leicester, "where people go to die") and the places I will dream of going back to every night until my return (Peterborough, London, okay not even going to try to do this list).

And even though I feel like I've done and seen and experienced so much, I still have so much more I want to do. There are so many things in England I have yet to see (mainly my Secondary Cathedral List), so many more countries to visit in Europe, and my god I want to see the whole world and travel to literally every single country and every single corner. I've already started formulating my next dream (1-2 month trip across Eastern Europe, from the Baltics down to the Balkans and hitting up everywhere inbetween), as well as planning out more trips across northern England (and Scotland) (and Wales)… once the travel bug hits you, I don't think it ever ends. The world will always be calling.

Most importantly, I feel like I have grown so much as a person through all these amazing opportunities. I hope it's obvious to anyone reading just how grateful I am to have been able to have these experiences, but it's still worth saying. My entire life and my entire perspective on life have shifted and changed completely—I have learned so much. About myself, about people, about the world. I think most importantly to me, this year was a complete and total validation of something I've always known: I belong in England. Very rarely do I talk about "fate" or "destiny," but after watching all my dreams come true, I think it was too amazing to say it was all just coincidence.

So I'd like to make one last list to finish up this blog before I (inevitably) break it out for the next big adventure. This list is one of the things I've discovered and learned in my time living abroad and traveling extensively. I don't really want it to read like an advice book, but at the same time… no one should be getting charged $67 to check a bag at the gate (still not over it EasyJet, still not over it). So if I had to sum it all up…

Most Important Things I've Learned:
-Be brave, be fearless. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Up there with FDR, I'd like to include my good friend and flatmate John's quote to me before I went to Latvia and I told him I was scared: "Either you're going to go and have a great time, or you'll die." Never, ever, let your fear stop you from doing something.
-Listen to your gut instinct. There is a reason this exists. And you should listen to it. There is a fine line between brave and stupid. I spent a fair amount of my year walking this line. If something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't right. Always put yourself and your own personal safety and wellbeing first.
-Everyone should try traveling alone, at least once. You might decide it's not for you, or you could be like me, and realize that you are absolutely 100% in love with traveling by yourself. Seeing the things you want to see, doing the things you want to do, napping when you want to nap, eating when you want to eat, etc. Seriously what could be better? And if you decide it's not for you, well then you can say you've done it once and you won't have to do it again!
-The key to traveling alone is all about common sense and street smarts. Seriously, once you travel alone enough, you realize that all new places are basically the same. Having the ability to navigate one new city is a transferable skill that will easily shift as you get to the next new city. And the main thing I learned as a woman traveling alone:  that confidence and planning can make anything possible. Walk like you know where you're going (even if you don't) and avoid looking like a vulnerable tourist when you're alone. Know where you're going when you're walking (aka get a map and also learn how to read it) and avoid situations that make you look particularly vulnerable (ex. Asking a stranger for directions alone at night). And always, always, choose to be safe rather than sorry!
-Making new friends can be suprisingly easy. As an introvert, traveling has completely transformed me socially. Most notably after my first trip with Sigrid, when I learned how to talk to people I don't know. This trip, with so much solo travel, I learned how to be friends with people I don't know. The easiest thing to do is say a quick "hi" to the new person checking into your hostel room and ask where they're from.* I have met some of the most interesting people and made some truly amazing friends through my travels this year. I wouldn't have gotten to know any of them if I was too shy to say hello and chat. They, too, have helped transform me into a different person. I can't imagine my year without them.
*This is assuming that you want to make friends. We've all had those times when all you want to do is shower and go the fuck to sleep since you only have one night to actually rest and you're leaving at 5:30 the next morning. I feel you.
-How to pack, and how to pack only a carryon. Literally, I think I brought 3 shirts on a 2-week trip to Russia. Bring nothing. If you want to pack light, give up on the dream of all those "cute" travel pictures, where you're wearing the cutest outfit, with the cutest shoes, and your purse is the trendiest thing ever. Pack practically—bring a couple shirts, a couple bottoms (leggings—especially my amazing underarmour ones—are highly recommended as they can double as sleepwear!), one cute dress/outfit/nice shirt, and one outfit for going out. I also recommend packing enough socks/underwear to last you about a week. I also recommend packing an obscene amount of socks if you are traveling around England, since your socks will get wet. And as someone who traveled for a month in only a carryon backpack, my tips for flying: make sure your bag is within the carryon restriction (usually 55cm x 40cm x 20cm, or at least that’s what Ryanair is), know your carryon very well (just how much it can expand), and if your bag doesn’t fit in the sizer, here are two tricks: take your jacket/coat off and carry it (always carry it on the plane instead of packing it!), and take tons of shit out of your bag and stuff it in your jacket pockets. (Fuck you, AirBaltic bitch leaving Russia.) Also, something that will work on most airlines: carry a plastic bag of stuff and say it is airport shopping. This is how my fur hat and purse came home with me from Russia. Certain airlines (or airports) may require a sealed Duty-Free Shopping bag and/or receipt, so it might not always work. But having a plastic bag of shopping or snacks can usually get through.
-Travel essentials. For me, this included my watch, my water bottle cause ain't nobody got money to pay for water everywhere (unless you're in Russia/somewhere you can't drink tap water) (also RIP to my water bottle that I threw away in the St. Petersburg airport, I miss you), a padlock for lockers and keeping stuff safe in hostels (also some hostels will rent locks out and ain't nobody got money fo dat), and sandwich bags. This final one is clutch, because first of all you will need plastic bags for all kinds of shit, but mainly because sandwich bags can (and SHOULD!) be used for stealing food from the hostel breakfast and eating it for lunch. I've done this at literally every single hostel I stayed at that offered a free breakfast. This means free lunch. Free breakfast+free lunch=2 free meals. My mad skillz in Paris and the amazing breakfast my hostel offered meant that I'm pretty sure I spent about $15 on food the entire 3 days I was there (and about $5 of that was on this fucking amazing peanut butter pastry thing). This will save you a TON of money! Literally never go on a trip without these things.
-How to walk literally everywhere. I say this as the girl who took the Metro twice in Paris. I spent the year honing my map/directional skillz to the point where I didn't have to use my map the last two times I was in London. Learn how to read a map, and learn how to walk. You will see so much more of a city if you walk it, as opposed to spending all your time underground or on a tram or on a bus (etc). You might have to get up a little earlier to get to your destination, but it will be worth it. Enjoy the walk. Enjoy the location. Experience it fully.
-Time management. Never have I been more proud of my time management than this year. Remember how I was supposed to be "studying" abroad? I had to pretend to do school all year—this meant figuring out when exactly I would have to write that 10-page essay, when I could skip a class to have a long weekend trip, when I needed to spend all day in the library. I also learned how to schedule all my own trips—I had a 21 day period where I was in Notts for 5 days. It was a lot of travel, but then I spent 12 days at home working on an essay and catching up. I also took 3 short trips during a 2-week exam period. Squeeze as much in as you can do, and be careful of running yourself ragged. Also picking the places to go—I'm still disappointed that I didn't get to do another weekend in Scotland (see Glasgow and Stirling), but I chose to spend 5 days falling in love with Croatia after my spring break instead.
-Planning trips in general. I have a routine for every time I plan a trip. This will be much easier once you have The Book. No, not the Bible, but the latest edition of a travel guide book for Europe (I highly recommend my Europe on a Shoestring by Lonely Planet. And Lonely Planet in general. Rick Steves has way more money than I can spend). I figure out the things I want to do in a city and how many days I'd like to have there (including day trips). Find a flight/train/bus that will get me there and back. Based on transportation, I might have to adjust my ideal trip time (go back a day earlier since there's a cheaper train, stay two days longer in Croatia because there's a 20€ flight on Friday, etc). Find a hostel in The Book for various cities (check it out online, see the location, check out pictures to make sure it doesn't have rats, etc.) and book accordingly for the number of nights needed. Figure out your transfers to/from the airport/train or bus station. Make a list of the things you want to make sure you see/do in each city. And then go and do it. (Note: This is obviously making it sound way easier than it actually is. But once you plan one trip, you can plan a million.)
-BUDGETING. I essentially had a lump sum in my bank account for this year and had to make it last until I started working again this summer. Budget out a trip—think about money for food, money for souviners, money for everything and anything. I gave myself a budget for my spring break and (for the most part) stayed on track enough to not feel bad about going to Croatia 4 days later. Find out what works best for you, find out your priorities for spending money. I will always choose castles over food, which is why I ate a lot of kebabs and sandwiches and saw a fucking shit ton of castles. And most importantly, always have more money accessible than you will need to spend (an extra $100 in your checking account, a credit card for emergencies, whatever works). You never want to be stuck in a situation where you don't have the ability to get yourself out. This is especially important if you're traveling alone! Rather be safe than sorry. (And if you're an impulse buyer, make a list of what constitutes an "emergency" and stick to it.)
-Doner kebab is the same in every language. Seriously, I'm not kidding. As long as you can hold up one finger and say "doner kebab," you can literally eat in any city anywhere in the world. (Off topic, but I'm also seriously considering writing a book on why kebabs are the best traveling food ever. EVER. #allaboutthekebabs #datyungkebablife #stillmissingmyboyinWrocław #bestkebabsinEurope)
-Being comfortable in your own skin. My relationship with myself has changed drastically this year as well, although it might not be the most noticeable. I have learned to accept the days where you sleep on a bus and can't shower, you look gross and you smell bad, you had to wake up at 4:30am to get to the airport and ain't nobody got time to put on makeup that early. I've learned to accept all of it and embrace it as part of the traveling life. Actually, I basically stopped wearing makeup this year. I've learned to feel the most beautiful when my face is clean and fresh. (Although, of course, if you feel most beautiful in makeup it is entirely your choice to use it!) I've also learned that some of the times I felt the most beautiful was when I probably didn't look the most beautiful on the outside—those times when I would wake up early and spend an hour hiking to a castle and not wear makeup and show up sweaty and panting and wearing the same shirt I've been wearing for 5 days straight. But I'd feel like a badass, and I'd feel smart, and I'd feel confident, and for me, that's what makes me feel beautiful. Travel will push you to your limits, and teach you things you didn't know were important. Accepting yourself for the person you are, and embracing that person, is one of the most valuable lessons you can learn in life.
-The world is so big. You are a tiny speck on the radar. There are so many new people you haven't met yet, so many cities you haven't visited, so many countries you haven't explored. The possibilities are endless, the list of things to experience stretch to infinity and back again, the vastness never ceases to amaze me. You are only one person out of 7.178 BILLION people on this earth (according to Wikipedia). Accept that you inhabit a tiny, miniscule niche of humankind, and enjoy the ride.
-People are wonderful. Although the song "I Hate Everyone" is my theme song, in general life I have to admit people are good and one person can make a difference. The kindness of strangers has influenced my year more than I could ever imagine. I was walked to a train station when I was lost, given directions for the correct bus stop I needed (multiple times), taken care of when I was sick, had my suitcase carried up a flight of stairs… this list could go on and on. I remember all these small acts of kindness, and I remember the people who made them. People who went out of their way to help me and to be kind to me, for no reason and for no other reward rather than a quite relieved "thank you!" and a grateful smile from me. The wonderful people I have met just in this year helped remind me that there's still good in this world, and that it's worth fighting for. (And if you didn't understand that quote, no. Just no.) I can only try to repay the small acts of kindness I've received by small acts of kindness for strangers myself. And I know this is impossible since probably none of these strangers will ever read this blog, but to all these people I've encountered: THANK YOU!

Okay, this blog post is officially getting too long. Save the best for last, right?! I thought I'd end it with a quote from a song that was constantly my badass traveling jam. In an effort to recap the last year, I'll just say: it was the year that all my dreams came true. Thank you to everyone who supported me and helped make it possible! The memories will stay with me forever. Here's to the next dream and the next adventure!

 I’ve been a long time gone now 
Maybe someday, someday I'm gonna settle down
If you ever want to find me I can still be found

Taking the long way
Taking the long way around
Taking the long way
Taking the long way around

Until next time. Cheers! :)

Friday, 11 July 2014

One Last Day in London

 I wanted to do one separate post for my last day in London, just because it was the most perfect goodbye England could ever have given me! After spending two weeks alone in Russia, and getting sick for part of my trip, I was definitely ready to go home and see with my family. My time had come to say goodbye to England, but now that I'm home, I'm not entirely sure I was ready to leave. I still feel like there's so much I have left to see and do, and after spending the better part of 10 months in such an amazing country, it hasn't necessarily been easy readjusting to life without it. So! My last day in England!

My friend Jared helped me haul all my shit across London (again) to the hostel I was staying at for the night, which was great because my god did I have a lot of shit. I left my stuff in the luggage room, and then headed out in the best weather possible—probably the nicest day of the year. High 70s for a temp, sun shining, blue sky, no clouds at all. Perfect. It's those moments that I know England loves me: once again, on the day I need it the most, they give me the best weather I could ever ask for. It was so perfect.

First I headed to Piccadilly Circus to close my bank account, which meant an extra £33.42 to blow on souvenirs I don't have room for in my bags! Afterwards I rewarded myself with a celebratory Cinnabon (remember! The Piccadilly Circus one is now one of FIVE Cinnabons in the UK!) and went to Trafalgar Square. Little did I know, West End Live was happening that day, which is a free outdoor event (you do have to wait in the queue to get tickets though) and basically they have cast members from West End musicals perform songs. It was one of those quintessentially London moments for me—there is always something going on, and never a dull moment.

To quote Samuel Johnson and my favorite quote about London: "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." I was just walking through, expecting to just sit on some steps and eat my Cinnabon, and instead I got to see songs from Wicked live and sit in the grass and listen to musicals. The best.

I headed back home, to the National Portrait Gallery, after I had had my fill of Cinnabon/musicals. It had definitely changed a bit in the three months since I'd been there (where is the portrait of Oliver Cromwell?), but it was so great to spend some time saying bye to all my people. I already can't wait to be back! I walked down to see Buckingham Palace, and then hung out for a bit at my spot in St. James' Park. I hit up my other favorite spot on Westminster Bridge, and then walked all the way along the Thames to the Tower of London. I was walking around the Golden Hinde and there was this man busking, and all of a sudden he started playing All My Loving by the Beatles. I literally stopped in my tracks and started bawling—I was crying so hard I even gave him money! And not just like a couple pence, but like real money! All My Loving was one of my bedtime songs, and always makes me think of my family and my parents and home, and considering that I was by this point counting down the hours until I got to see my family again, I basically lost it. It was a very touching moment.

I finally made it to the Tower, and, unfortunately, found out that the chapel was closed for a wedding so tour groups weren't being allowed in. I nerded out on the Yeoman Warder tour, as per the usual, and went in the rest of my favorite buildings. I could definitely tell that it was summer and high tourist season, since the place was packed—and the queue to see the Crown Jewels was horrendous and ain't nobody got time fo' dat. And, after regretting that I hadn't bought it every day for three years, I finally bought Henry VIII and His Disappearing Wives mug! When you pour in hot liquids, the pictures of Henry's wives disappear! And a good thing I bought it while I still got a discount with my Historic Royal Palaces membership :)

I slowly made my way back to the hostel, stopping for food and plane snacks in preparation for tomorrow. I consolidated all my stuff (luckily I didn't have to do too much repacking) and then went to bed early. The next (and final) day, June 22nd, went like this: woke up and hauled all my stuff down two flights of stairs to check out, walked around the corner to the tube station, took the tube to the airport, waited a painfully long time to check my bags, paid a painfully large amount of money for my second checked bag, then spent 8 hours on a plane, where I was so tired/exhausted/sick/stressed I couldn't even take advantage of my first non-Ryanair/budget airline flight all year and drink ALL the free drinks! As my plane started landing in Chicago, me and the girl sitting next to me both started crying—she had been studying in London for the last month and Chi-town was her hometown. She gave me a bunch of kleenex, which I'm forever grateful for. I got to go through customs and then recheck my bags and then go through security again, had a few hours of a layover which turned even longer as my flight to Minneapolis was delayed by half an hour. Finally I got on the last plane and spent most of the flight crying and/or trying not to cry. Our plane circled downtown Minneapolis before landing at the airport, and I got to see the skyline of the most beautiful city in the whole world.

This really has been the most amazing year of my life. I have had so many incredible opportunities to explore the world and grow as a person, and I am so grateful to each and every person who has helped make this happen and supported me, and to all the wonderful people I've met along the way. I spent the better part of ten months traveling and seeing some of the most beautiful cities Europe and the world have to offer, but it is so good to finally be back in the most beautiful city of them all, Minneapolis.

P.S. I was so excited to buy alcohol legally in the US that the guy working at East Lake Liquors gave me and my sister free shirts. #612pride

I'll probably have another post or two before I finish up this blog! Here are some pictures from my last day :)

West End Live in Trafalgar Square
My girls :)
My spot!
Headed to the wedding at the Tower of London!


Sunday, 6 July 2014

Russia: St. Petersburg

Things have been pretty crazy busy lately, getting back into the swing of things at work. But I do want to finish up my blogs about Russia before I forget how it all happened! It’s crazy to think that just a month ago I was packing up all my stuff and moving out of the flat. It seems so long ago, but at the same time I feel like it just happened.

So to continue with my Russia trip in St. Petersburg… (note: the next two days were some of the worst I’ve ever experienced due to the fact that I was still sick.)

June 14: I spent most of the day willing myself to feel better, which I didn’t. I was able to go and buy some tea (recommended by one of my friends from Belarus for these infections) and get some food and cranberry juice and water from the grocery store. I also got Cinnabon because there was one 3 minutes away from my hostel on Nevskii Prospekt and look at all the fucks I give. However, I finally decided that I was not feeling better and needed to go to the doctor. Again, note: one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. I went to the EuroMed clinic, which has English-speaking doctors (thank god). Side note: on the trolleybus on the way there, my proudest Russian-language moment happened—a woman asked me how much the trolleybus trip cost, and I responded with the correct amount in rubles (25). That’s right, I used numbers in Russian in real life!!! To continue with the story of being sick: first I had to sit (and cry) in the lobby since they wouldn’t let me see the doctor until they worked out my insurance stuff. Unfortunately, the European coverage I had bought through Luther expired a week ago (it began 9/9/13 and ended 6/8/14 and this was written American, not European style because my life sucks) so I ended up having to pay $431 up front. Luckily all they did was a urine sample and blood test, and Dr. Andrei was a very nice man who held a cup of my pee in one hand and my hand in his other hand when I got my blood drawn and was crying and said I wanted my mom. I got a bunch of different prescriptions, paid my $431, and got to the apteka and bought all the stuff. I would love to say that my horrors were over, but one of the medications was the most painful thing I have ever experienced in my life.

June 15: Due to being in extreme and unbearable pain, I was up around 5:00am and met an angel named Yulia at reception, who hugged me as I was crying and gave me her water and sat me down and talked to me and did my laundry for free so I could have clean clothes and made me a bed on the couch in the hostel common room so I could sleep. Needless to say, I did not feel well enough to start doing tourist things, but I was able to walk to the grocery store and buy more cranberry juice (since I was chugging a carton a day). I took the painful medication for the last time this night, since as I was lying in my bed I realized that it hurt to cry, since my chin was slightly trembling and that hurt. So since I’m not masochistic I decided to be done and stop taking it since nothing that is supposed to make you feel better should put you in that much pain. In case anyone is reading this in horror, I would just like to say that the worst is over from this point on.

June 16: My amazing Yulia came in that morning with tons of different things and medicines for me, which worked and I felt significantly better. I knew I needed to take it easy, so I only planned on doing one thing: the Peter and Paul Fortress to see Nicky and family’s graves. I walked along the Neva past all the palaces and got onto the fortress, which is on an island. The fortress itself is free, but I got a ticket for the cathedral and prison. I saw Peter the Great’s creepy as fuck death mask, and then went to the cathedral. It was weird, since I felt like I had already been there, since I’ve watched the Romanov funeral (more than once…). It is a beautiful cathedral, with all the Romanov tsars buried there—Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Nikolai I, Alexander I, II, and III (Alexander III and his wife, Marie Feodorovna have a beautiful grave), along with so many others. The Romanov family, my family, is buried in a separate chapel which is roped off. I could tell that they knew I was coming though, since there was a break in the tourist action just long enough for a nice Asian lady to take my picture there. I felt really calm, and I barely cried—I was just at peace. I have spent so much time waiting for this moment and dreaming of the day it would finally happen, and being able to finally be with my people, especially after having been so sick the past few days and feeling like I’d never make it, was incredible. To sum up the experience with my favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quote:

"Occasionally in life there are those moments of unutterable fulfillment which cannot be completely explained by those symbols called words. Their meanings can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart."

Other things that happened on June 16 after this: I started on my most important task, buying every single Romanov souvenir possible, went to the prison and learned a lot about the conditions of prisoners and the jail itself as it switched hands to the Bolsheviks, as well as seeing Gorky, Trotsky, Lenin’s brother, and Anna Vyrubova’s cells. Also walked and got to see a lot of St. Petersburg (Rostral columns) on my way back to the hostel, where I was taking it pretty easy. Crazy small fucking world: one of the friends I had met at my hostel in Moscow turned up this night in my hostel in St. Petersburg AND in my room. Small. World. Absolutely crazy!

June 17: Guess who was finally feeling better and then got to stand in line at the Hermitage for an hour and a half?! Me! It was totally worth it though, since I was able to get in for free (after some disaster trying to buy a ticket and no one in Russia accepting/being able to read my Notts id). FO FREE!!!!! They didn’t allow water bottles, which was bullshit, so I had to check it in the cloakroom. BUT I finally made it in and got to wander around the Winter Palace pretending I was Anastasia from the 1998 20th Century Fox animated movie and singing Once Upon a December to myself. Yes, that happened. Best surprise of my life: they had an exhibit that had the clothes of the royal family!!! My family’s clothes!!!!! Nicky’s jackets, Alexei’s uniforms, Alix’s dresses, dresses belonging to the girls, tons of beautiful dresses belonging to Marie Feodorovna (Nicky’s mom—she was such a stylish lady!), and stuff Catherine the Great wore too. It was amazing! You know you’re a Romanov nerd when you walk into a room and recognize Alexei’s coat from pictures before you even read the description… Besides that, I bypassed a lot of the art shit there because I hate art, but just being in the rooms was amazing. They were all so beautiful, I can’t believe how many there were. And even the ugly rooms were pretty! I saw Da Vinci’s “Madonna with Child” since apparently that’s a famous painting…it was just incredible to be there. Next up I went to the Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood, which was beautiful! From the outside, I kind of feel like it was St. Petersburg’s answer to St. Basil’s Cathedral. It was totally different inside though, all these beautiful mosaics covering all the walls and ceilings and tons of marble/stone. It was so tall! They had a canopy roped off where Alexander II was assassinated and a red cross of flowers. It was hard to blink! I hit up the Kazansky Cathedral on my way back to the hostel, which was gorgeous and really interesting, since it’s actually a working cathedral. So I got to observe Russian Orthodoxy at it’s finest, which was great.

June 18: Saw the statue of the Bronze Horseman (!!!) and hit up the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in the morning. It was cool and interesting—they had displays about the peoples of China, Mongolia, Korea, Japan, India, Malaysia, Native Americans, etc. The major attraction is the exhibit of Peter the Great’s collection of “monsters,” which was gross and creepy but the main reason I went. Lots of deformed fetuses with a variety of different problems, animal fetuses, skeletons of deformed animals, etc. Gross but really cool. I walked around Isaac’s Cathedral (beautiful!) on my way to my next stop, the Yusupov Palace. In a basement room in this palace is where Rasputin was murdered, but unfortunately they weren’t doing a Rasputin tour that afternoon. BUT the palace is absolutely stunning, wow. So beautiful, every room was something different, and they even had their own theater!!! Started my hardcore souvenir shopping, and finally went to the greatest place on earth, a fast food chain called Teremok where I ate blini and gave zero fucks. It was clutch. I took a nap at the hostel and then went out to go do more souvenir shopping and try to buy a shapka (fur hat), and ended up buying 14 postcards of Nicky and fam instead. #lookatallthefucksigive

June 19: My last full day in Russia! Started the day off right by ending my shapka quest—I am now the owner of a beautiful rabbit gray-colored shapka! I headed to Moskovskaya Metro station, where I successfully got the right minibus taxi out to Tsarskoe Selo. Let me just say, minibus taxi’s are sketch as fuck—it’s basically a big van that you hop in, pay the driver (if there are no seats in back you just hop up front and sit with the driver) and whenever you want to get off you just go tell the driver. #russia I got to Tsarskoe Selo (“tsar’s village”) and waited in the queue for the Catherine Palace for TWO GODDAMN HOURS (IN THE RAIN!) to get inside, but it was definitely worth it. I didn’t get a headset thing, and was able to go on the next tour group but it was all in Russian. So I didn’t understand what the lady was saying, but damn is that a nice palace. It was gorgeous. Even though we were there for less than an hour and constantly shuffled around other tour groups (and I felt like we barely saw any of it), it was amazing. The rooms were just all so beautiful! Gold everywhere! Wow. I wandered around Catherine Park for a bit before making my way to the significantly less crowded (aka there was no queue at all and there was probs a grand total of 10 other people besides myself there) Alexander Palace. Nicky and fam always loved the Alexander Palace way more, since it was smaller, more intimate, and less crowded. I agree. They only have 3 of the State Rooms furnished, since the other rooms (the Romanov Suite--!!!!!!!) didn’t have any surviving furnishings. It was just incredible to be there and stand there and walk there and know that these are the very rooms that all my people lived in. Alexei’s Bedroom, Alix’s Mauve Boudoir (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!), Nicky’s Library, Nicky’s Garderobe, everything. In the last room (Nicky’s Study), they had a photograph on the wall. It was my picture, the one of Nicky and George in their matching sailor suits with their boys. I cried so hard, it was just like my entire life had come full circle. I’ve had a copy of almost this exact picture framed on my desk for years, and then I was standing in this room where they had this same picture on the wall. Wow. Anyway, the rest of my day after sobbing my way through the Romanov Suite: got back to St. Petersburg and ran around on the Metro to two stations that were used in filming Stilyagi (Стиляги). Ate more blini and bought more expensive souviners. I got this beautiful scarf, it was really expensive but I just don't care. Then I packed all my stuff to get ready to leave the next morning!

June 20: I got the Metro to Moskovskaya to get a bus to the airport. Now, here is a nice story called Vanya Tries to Go to Pulkovo Dva: when my dear friend Vanya visited me in England, his (international) flight was supposed to leave from Pulkovo 2, the international terminal. Instead, he showed up to find out (to his horror), that there was no airport and no flights were operating out of Pulkovo 2 and that he had to get to Pulkovo 1. Now, wouldn't it have been helpful if I had remembered this story before I got on the bus to Pulkovo 2?! Yes. Yes it would have been helpful. So to sum up, this is the reason why I plan on giving myself 3 hours at the airport before my flight leaves. I got on a bus to Pulkovo 2, and got off at Pulkovo 2 only to realize, to my absolute horror, that there were no planes, no airport, and no people. (And wouldn't it have been nice if any of the 50000000 Russians crammed on the bus with me had mentioned that no flights were leaving from Pulkovo 2?!) So, stranded alone with my backpack in the rain in the middle of literally nowhere Russia, I managed to get on a bus. However, it was not going to Pulkovo 1 or back to the city center. Luckily, by some miracle, a very nice man and/or angel who spoke English told me that I could take this bus and then switch for another one back to the city. So I got on a minibus taxi back to Moskovskaya and then took the correct bus to Pulkovo 1. I arrived at Pulkovo 1, waited around for fucking ever, then this AirBaltic bitch tried to scare me about my bag. It fit into the sizer just fine, but since only one item of hand baggage was allowed she said I would have to repack my bag and put my purse in my backpack. (She also tried to give me shit about my plastic bag with my shapka in it which I obviously said was airport shopping, and she asked "duty-free airport shopping? " to which I responded with a resounding "yes. ") So basically I got through security and passport control with no problems (they let me out of the country! Yay!) and then panicked, and went and took tons of shit out of my backpack so that it would look smaller, because the AirBaltic lady said that if it still looked big she would ask me to put it in the sizer at the gate and if it didn’t fit she’d charge me 60€. Now, ain’t nobody got money fo’ dat. Anyway, she was messing with the wrong person. I used all my favorite tricks (took tons of shit out of my backpack and instead put it in the pockets of my jackets and there was barely anything in my backpack now, put my purse in my “airport shopping” bag, threw out literally everything I didn’t need, had my shortalls on top just in case I would need to wear them on the plane, etc.) and then I finally get to the gate and this AirBaltic bitch is letting EVERY SINGLE PERSON ON WITH TWO ITEMS OF HAND BAGGAGE. Like seriously?! SERIOUSLY. Every single person in front of me had a purse/bag and a backpack/suitcase. Seriously. I had a quick flight to Riga, where I had a 3 hour layover (I spent 2 hours of it freaking out that the bus to switch terminals wouldn’t come and that I’d miss my next flight), and then had my flight to London. It was so beautiful, coming back home to England for one final day. Flying over the country I love most was incredible. I made it safely back through passport control (a country where people are nice!!! And chat with you! And are nice!) and to my friend’s flat where I got to finally shower and then repack all my stuff. Again.

I’m going to leave it off here for now, because this blog post is insanely long and I can’t really deal with it. I think I’ll do one more about my last day in London because it was just incredible and amazing and perfect.

I still can’t believe my trip to Russia happened. It was something I had been dreaming about for so long, a big part of my life. I faced so many setbacks, especially as a woman traveling alone. People said some pretty horrible things to me, things to try to scare me and convince me that I couldn’t follow my dream because I was a woman and women can’t go to Russia alone. (For the record, I would just like to say that Russia was the only country out of every country I visited this year where I was not catcalled or harassed on the street at all. Not once. I wish I could experience more cultures and places where I don’t repeatedly experience street harassment and sexism every time I walk outside the door. Anyway, moving on.) But, I knew that I was a good traveler, a safe traveler, and I’ve been blessed with a lot of street smarts and common sense that have made me a very confident solo traveler. I’m officially that girl who goes off to Russia by herself for two weeks, and I couldn’t be prouder. It was a trip for me to be with my people, who will forever be a part of my life. I’d just like to thank everyone who supported me and help make this dream possible! I couldn’t have done it without you and your encouragement. It means everything to me. Okay! Here are some pictures :)

Cathedral in the Peter and Paul Fortress
Finally at the Romanov graves :)

Winter Palace
Inside the Hermitage!

Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood
Kazansky Cathedral
Bronze Horseman
Isaac's Cathedral
Yusupov Palace Theater
Catherine Palace in Tsarskoe Selo

Alexander Palace
Alix's Mauve Boudoir
My picture :)