Tag Archives: Pandas

Travel is the Only Thing You Buy that Makes You Richer

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This past year has been one of great adventure for me. I’ve visited so many wonderful places, learned a great deal about the world and myself, and done a lot of solo traveling. As much as I love to travel and see the world, it is also difficult for me to spend my money. I am a very logical thinker and I know what my daily/weekly/monthly budgets are, and I adhere to them. Always. I sometimes get so focused on working and making money that I forget to enjoy life (especially the fact that I am living my dream in France). 2d47eeffb96a1b600d0d10e2d17c2c44While I am really good at budgeting and saving, it always stresses me out to see my bank accounts decreasing, rather than increasing. I’ve made it through some pretty difficult financial times this year, and finally feel like I am financially stable again. I don’t want to feel like I did at the beginning of last school year ever again. When I was presented with the possibility of several visitors this summer I had mixed feelings. I was of course excited about the possibility of having people visit, but also a little hesitant, as I wouldn’t be able to do my Freelance job while people were visiting me. In the end, I decided to do as much of my freelance work as possible before people started to arrive. This meant consolidating one month’s work into about two weeks. As stressful as this might sound, it helps me to feel more financially stable and secure, so that I can focus on having a good time and enjoying the company of the people around me.

After my adventures with Chris, I had a trip to Edinburgh, Scotland. While I would have preferred to have returned to France and picked up with my freelance work, I didn’t have a choice. My visa to stay in France expired at the end of May, so I had to leave the Schengen Zone and return to France as a tourist for the summer. If I didn’t leave the Schengen, a massive administrative nightmare would ensure, on both the French and the American sides. In order to try and prevent this catastrophe, I decided to willingly leave the Schengen. However, most of the countries which are not a part of the Schengen are very expensive countries to visit. The last couple of times I’ve had to leave the Schengen, I went to London. As awesome as London is, I was ready for a change. I began researching other countries that are not part of the Schengen. Many countries were possibilities at the beginning, but there were a few characteristics that set Edinburgh, Scotland apart from the others:

  • There is a zoo with pandas
  • There are several acclaimed vegetarian restaurants
  • There are castles
  • There are beautiful landscapes

Coming at the end of a week long adventure throughout Europe I was not feeling my best. The night before my flight to Edinburgh I tripped on a curb, twisted my ankle, and scraped my knee pretty badly. I felt like I was falling apart! I decided to push through the pain and tiredness and make the best of this new journey. Going through customs in the UK was a nightmare, as always. They asked me questions I had never been asked before–what are the credit limits on my credit cards, what are ALL of the places I’ll be visiting while in Edinburgh, and then the usual questions. While I understand being cautious, it was quite a different (more intense) experience than I’ve had while going through border patrol in any other country.

DSCF5495When I finally made it to Edinburgh, the first thing I noticed was how friendly and helpful everyone was being. I don’t know if living in France has jaded my perspective, but the people in Scotland seemed genuinely happy and willing to help in any way they could. I was able to take the tram from the airport to my hotel, which was very convenient. I arrived mid-afternoon in downtown Edinburgh and promptly checked into my hotel. I really just wanted to drop off my bags and begin exploring the city. My hotel was perfectly located–at the end of the tram line, next to Calton Hill. The hotel was very clean and modern with average-sized rooms (by European standards). It was perfect for me. I dropped all my things off in my room and set off to find the Scott Monument in the Princes Street Gardens. The monument was impressive from the ground, but it was possible to climb to the top. This was a major accomplishment for me, as it was a very windy day, so at the top of the monument I felt like I was going to be blown away. The views were spectacular and made me very eager to continue exploring this city.

After walking through the gardens I decided to just walk around the city for a bit. Just walking around was a relaxing DSCF5515experience. I decided I would try to find a cocktail bar before dinner. After some initial searching I found a bar called “Panda & Sons.” After reading a little bit more about this bar and a few reviews it was clear that I had to visit it. Unfortunately, I was almost two miles away. However, the walk to get to the bar took me through some interesting neighborhoods and near some cool looking gardens. This bar is designed to look like a speakeasy and is perfectly executed. Speakeasy-style bars have become one of my favorite types in recent years. Panda & Sons was the best executed speakeasy bar I’ve ever visited. You enter through a bookcase and walk into what feels like someone’s living room. The drinks are perfectly made, and relatively reasonably priced (considering it’s Edinburgh). Everything in the bar was panda themed (!!) which was an added bonus for me. After a few drinks I set off in search of dinner. I found a restaurant that claimed to have veggie burgers, and since I’ve yet to find a true veggie burger in Europe, decided to give it a shot. It was one of the most delicious veggie burgers I’ve had in a really long time. It was an actual veggie burger!

The next day was hiking day. In my research I discovered that there is some excellent hiking to be done in Edinburgh. Initially, I DSCF5550wasn’t sure if I was going to give it a shot or not. Hiking is one of those activities that I feel is best done with a buddy (especially when one is accident prone). After scoping out the situation and reading reviews/tips, I decided that I could handle it. However, with my still twisted ankle, hiking to Arthur’s Seat proved to be a more challenging task than I had anticipated. I didn’t end up making it all the way to the top, but I made it almost to the top. I encountered another American while hiking and she told me that the path got really narrow, rocky, and steep just a bit ahead. As I was already hurting, I decided not to attempt the last stretch, but rather to take a moment and enjoy the scenery.

After my morning of hiking, I spent the afternoon enjoying the architecture and visiting various museums. I was pleasantly surprised by how affordable the museums were to visit (most were free!). I have a weakness for art museums and could spend days exploring the lesser known museums of the world. As much as I love and appreciate the major and well-known museums, I think there is a lot to be said for the independent, local museums. I called it an early night after visiting many museums, as the next day was my zoo day (pandas!).

I awoke very early, as my scheduled panda visitation was with the first group of the day. Compared to the other zoos I’ve DSCF5784visited, this zoo was not one of my favorites. It was very confusing to navigate, with either no signs or misleading signs. Also, the animals were not very active, so I was a bit disappointed. Of the two pandas, I was only able to see the male. It was nice to see a panda, but I think my experience at Zoo Parc Beauval in France has ruined all future panda visits. Last December my best friend, Jeannette, and I were lucky enough to have the panda exhibit to ourselves for nearly an hour and the pandas were incredibly active. While I don’t regret visiting the Edinburgh Zoo, I don’t think I will be making a return visit anytime soon.

To conclude my weekend in Edinburgh, I spent the next day exploring Stirling. Several of my friends highly recommended visiting Stirling Castle, and now that I have, I can see why. It was definitely worth the train adventure, even in the terrible weather. I’m used to the romantic styles of castles, which are very different from the castles in Scotland. It was also at the Stirling Castle where I received a real history lesson about Scotland. I love learning about the history of different countries and cities I visit. It was also here that I learned about the significance of the unicorn to Scotland, and who wouldn’t love a country where the unicorn is a very important symbol.

OverDSC06950all, it was a wonderful getaway to Edinburgh. It helped me to realize that I would love to return to Scotland to explore other cities. While Edinburgh was lovely, I think there are many more equally lovely cities I need to explore. After returning to France I had about 10 days of normalcy before Jeannette arrived in France. I embraced those 10 days by trying to relax and regain my energy, while also working at my freelance job as much as possible, as this was going to be my last opportunity to earn money for the rest of the summer. Stay tuned for the next adventure: two redheads take on France, Portugal, Spain, and Morocco!

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On the Road Again!

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I love driving, but prior to my departure for France my car was going to be the death of me. It seemed like everything that could possibly go wrong with the car was going wrong. That being said, I was truly looking forward to a year without car repairs. What I wasn’t expecting was how much I would actually miss having the option to drive.

Being from Detroit, where any form of public transportation is, to be honest, non-existent, I was really looking forward to moving to a country/city with reliable public transit. As much as I love walking and taking public transit, I’m not going to lie, there have been days when I really wished I had a car. So, Jeannette coming to France was the perfect excuse to rent a car. And, because Jeannette does not know how to drive a manual, it was up to me to successfully navigate us around. Not only did we rent a car, we rented a Fiat 500, which I’ve wanted to drive since I knew they existed. The nice thing about the Fiat 500 is that it is similar in size to my Mini Cooper, so it was very easy for me to drive.

Our goals for the time during which we had the car:

  • wine tasting
  • castles
  • zoo
  • adventuring
  • meals in new and unusual places

We were able to accomplish each of the goals, in addition to many other accomplishments. After getting our car (which was an adventure that involved riding the tram and commuter train to the next town), we were off! I always have a difficult time figuring out how to put rental cars in reverse (manuals, not automatics). The night before I shared some stories about the last time I had rented a car, and neither Matt nor I could figure out how to put the car in reverse. Matt sent me back to the rental office to ask how to put the car in reverse. I felt like a complete idiot! “Hi, you just rented me a car, and I can’t even figure out how to get out of the parking space.” It turns out, that on the shifter there’s a small mechanism that you have to pull up on to put the car in reverse. It was the same in the Fiat.

Once we were out of the parking lot I remembered how touchy first gear is and how much I hate it. I will say that over the course of two days of driving I did not stall one time, which made me feel very proud. However, each time I had to downshift or get out of first gear it sounded like the car was a rocket ship/race car. By the end of the first day, I was used to driving a manual again and things went must more smoothly. Our first stop of the day was Château d’Amboise. We took the scenic route, as we didn’t want to (really, couldn’t) take the pay roads. Thank goodness for Google Maps and a large data pack, or Jeannette and I would still be lost in France. I actually prefer taking the non-autoroutes, as you are able to drive through and discover many small villages along the way.

Amboise was Jeannette’s first European castle, and she was fascinated as we walked around. When we were trying to decide which castles to visit, this one stood out in the brochure, and Clos Lucé is down the road, so we could very easily visit two castles without having to spend time driving. Additionally, this was the very first castle that I visited in France, so it holds a special place in my heart. It was also my first time visiting the châteaux during Christmastime. It was wonderful to see the châteaux decorated and with real fires burning in the fireplaces.

IMG_2346After wandering around Château d’Amboise we wandered up the uphill road with half sidewalks to reach Clos Lucé. It was supposedly 400m from the castle, but I think the signs were lying. If I’ve learned anything since moving to France: the French are not great at labelling things, or really at using signs in general. We eventually reached Clos Lucé and began our visit. I had also visited Clos Lucé before, but it was much different than I remembered it being in 2007. While we were wandering through the château itself, we stumbled upon a painting of the Mona Lisa (not a surprise). It was funny because Jeannette’s boyfriend had told her that she must see the Mona Lisa while in Paris (which we did not). This was our compromise.

By the time we had finished wandering through the gardens/grounds it was almost time for lunch. We decided to eat lunch in Amboise, prior to heading off in search of wine tasting. For lunch we found a restaurant that had vegetarian soup (very difficult to do in France). After lunch, we set off toward Chambord, planning to do some wine tasting along the way. We found a cute winery along the way and did some wine tasting. It was an interesting wine tasting, in that we were only given one sample of each wine and had to share the glass. Luckily, we like each other enough that it didn’t really bother us.

After wine tasting we decided to finish our journey to Château de Chambord. However, Google Maps kept changing our route and trying to make us take the freeway. We were able to catch it every time, except for one, and we were able to easily to around as soon as we discovered where we were heading. Again, we made it to our destination without any problems. I even managed to keep the car on the road, in my lane, without running red lights, or hitting curbs/driving on the sidewalk.

Unlike many of the other château, you had to pay to park at this one. Anyone who has ever driven with me when paying for parking is involved knows the adventure that ensues. I can never keep track of the little parking ticket. One time, I spent almost an hour in a parking garage looking for the ticket in my car…This time, I found a little piece of fabric on the visor I could slip it under, so I did so, and felt proud of myself that I found a safe place to store it. However, this parking lot was one of the lots that you had to pay before you could go to the gate. With the closets pay station being a good 250m from where we had parked.

Walking up to the château, Jeannette kept saying ‘this is what a castle is supposed to look like.’ I had been to Château de Chambord once before, but this time was much better because I was with my best friend. It was much more impressive than I remembered it being. I had also forgotten that it was originally built as a hunting lodge! We spent a good amount of time exploring the château and reading about the history of it. What impressed Jeannette the most (I think) was the double-spiral-staircase designed by Leonard da Vinci (or as we know him, Leonardo da Vinci). She talked about how we had seen where he was buried and his house today, and now we were walking on a staircase designed by one of the most intelligent people ever to live.

IMG_2348On our way out, I saw what was quite possibly the absolute cutest thing I have ever seen in my life. An old, French man, wearing an adorable hat, riding a bike, with a whicker basked with a dog wearing a sweater inside. It was way too much cuteness in one area. Honestly, I wanted to take them both home with me because they were so adorable! Unfortunately, the bike wouldn’t have fit in the Fiat, so that plan was quickly abandoned. After we returned to our car, we drove as close as we could get to the pay station, and en route, I almost hit the cute old French man riding his bike with the dog in the basket! It would have been such a disaster; luckily, I did not. 🙂

We took our time heading back to Tours, and meandered through many different villages in the region. Eventually, we reached Blois. Blois is an adorable town, and one I have visited many times. When we arrived in Tours, we unloaded our purchases (just a few bottles of wine) and went to my favorite bar in Tours for apéro, le Bartók. We had sparking wine with poppy liquor (super yummy). Then, we decided that we would venture outside of Tours for dinner, seeing as we had a car and all. We decided to head to the neighboring villages, with our back up plan being to eat in Amboise. Let me tell you about the fiasco that involves trying to find a vegetarian meal in France. This night was no exception. We ended up eating Italian (again!) in an adorable restaurant in Amboise. The food was yummy, the wine was delicious, and the ambiance was very French. However, the food was not French, which was disappointing, as we had yet to have a French meal since Jeannette arrived in France.

When we had finished dinner, we drove back to Tours and just talked and hung out at my apartment. It was a wonderful day, and was going to be followed by even more adventures the next day.