I flew to Rome last Monday with a single black backpack containing everything essential for a week-long romp through Italy.
To be completely honest, I’d been having a bad week. It didn’t help that before Rome I was in Berlin, where dying leaves littered the ground and the clouds poured rain whenever I forgot my umbrella. For the first time this semester I wanted to go home. Even though I knew how lucky I was to be abroad, I continually battled stress and exhaustion. Italy felt like an escape, a chance to find myself again.
My friend J- and I arrived in Rome on Halloween night. We navigated the train station and a few tram stops later we arrived at our apartment, where J-’s childhood friend A- had offered her couch. It was small, but centrally located, and in our excitement to explore Rome we dropped our backpacks down on the living room floor and rushed outside.
I fell for Rome in the hour we spent outside – how could I not? We wandered past ancient ruins in the middle of cobblestoned piazzas, leaping fountains, a blur of arches and columns. The night was so warm I wore a short sleeved t-shirt and a skirt. I had nothing with me. No passport, no wallet, no cell phone. For the first time in weeks I felt free.
We walked back, ready to fall into bed. The barred metal gate to the apartment building was ajar. Inside, the door to our apartment stood wide open. First, I saw my clothes on a pile on the floor, my journal tossed a couple feet away. In one hazy moment I realized my backpack was nowhere in sight, and without thought I opened my mouth and said, “I think we’ve been robbed.”
I sat on the couch and experienced my first real panic attack. J- had his arms around me as he tried to help me breathe again. A- ran from room to room. Laptops, cell phones, cameras, even expensive headphones and cologne – gone. I cried and cried as A- called the police and the seven people living in the apartment, whom I hadn’t even met yet. I’d been in Rome for three hours.
When the police arrived, we made lists of everything we lost. I sat on the steps outside with my torn piece of notebook paper and a pen, absolutely numb. The thieves had taken my backpack itself, leaving only my clothes and my journal. I lost my toiletries, souvenirs from Berlin, and worthless but sentimental things – a friendship bracelet from a dear friend, a bag from my dad, my favorite earrings.
My laptop was stolen. So was my Canon DSLR and 50mm lens. The moment I realized they were gone, I also knew I couldn’t afford to replace either. J- held my hand as I repeated, over and over, “I don’t know how to live without my camera.”
In the morning, J- and I ate a quick breakfast and left the apartment without a map or itinerary. We just wanted to wander. When we stepped outside and I saw Rome in the light for the first time, I exhaled all of the negative energy inside me and knew that everything would be okay. Being robbed was terrible, but in a superficial way, I’m glad it happened.
Honestly, things are just things. All I lost was money, and convenience. Nobody was hurt. We returned to the apartment so early last night, we’re lucky we didn’t run into the robbers, who I’m sure would have been armed. I can live without a laptop. And while it was painful to explore Italy without my camera, I used my iPod instead, and that’s where the photos in this post are from.
Most of all, the robbery provided an emotional outlet I’d needed. For weeks I’d been feeling miserable, but I supressed everything in an effort to appreciate the opportunity I’d been given. But the emotions I experienced during the robbery were so intense – fear, anger, depression, confusion, hurt – that I woke up cleansed the next morning. A blank slate. Ready to embrace Rome fully and whole-heartedly.
And we did. Rome is my favorite city of the five countries I’ve visited, and this trip – robbery included – has been my absolute favorite.
J- and I ate gelato twice a day. We walked through the forum in silence, absolutely spellbound. I stood beneath the Sistine Chapel, and I peered over the stretch of Rome from the St. Peter’s Dome. I sat beneath the Italian pine trees, soft and strong and older than I can imagine, and wrote in my travel journal, which I am so grateful to still have.
Whenever I snuck an olive off J-’s pizza or borrowed his pen, he wrinkled his nose at me and said, “I’ve been robbed!”
Sometimes, you have to choose to laugh.
The next day we filed a police report with the seven other people who were robbed. As I sat in silence in the Roman police station, that familiar numbness seeping through my skull, I wondered, “Since when is this my life?”
J- and I decided to treat ourselves to a fantastic dinner. We wandered until we found a beautiful restaurant, with outdoor seating and twinkling Christmas lights. We were the only people there but the prices were affordable and the fragrant air beckoned us to sit down. I ordered a seafood spaghetti with mussels, clams, and cherry tomatoes; J- ordered gnocchi with arugula and cream sauce.
I think I may have cried when our food came out. I wish so badly I had a camera to take a picture, because it was the most beautiful plate of pasta I’ve ever seen. J- moaned when he took his first bite, but I thought mine was even better. We split a bottle of chianti and then treated ourselves to dessert.
If that night, that conversation with J-, that astounding plate of spaghetti, doesn’t turn out to be the highlight of the semester, I don’t know what will be.
I’m back in the Netherlands now. Classes start again tomorrow. Life moves on.
I’m writing this in the computer lab, which is drafty and continuously buzzing. The internet is spotty and I am missing my laptop more than ever. When I head to Morocco for my next travel weekend, I’ll ache for my camera until my heart bruises.
But my life isn’t made rich by money, or by photographs. I have all the memories I need, and as long as there’s wifi, I’ll continue to share them with you.
When I originally set this weekend aside as a stay-on-campus weekend, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. It was a smart idea for a couple reasons… Midterms are next week, my past few trips have been over budget, and I’m feeling under the weather. But I still felt a desperate restlessness when Friday rolled around and my friends packed their bags and flew away. Somehow it seems crucial to travel every week as I study abroad – a wasted opportunity to stop and breathe.
I didn’t realize how exhausted I’ve been until I experienced my first lazy Saturday in Europe. Instead of getting lost between train stations, I watched Spirited Away in the castle lounge and ate raisin bread. Today I curled up in an armchair with my art history notes, ready to absorb everything about Romanesque churches, when it hit me. I wanted to write. And for the first time in weeks, I had time.
I hadn’t meant to go this long without sharing my semester with you. Maybe photos of Scotland will help?
Our flight was delayed five hours and we arrived in Edinburgh far later than expected. It was so dark we couldn’t see a single building or street, but we found our way to the hostel and crashed on teetering bunk beds. I woke up early the next morning with no idea what Scotland looked like.
I found the shower room, pushed open the door, and groggily cursed the bright light coming from the window. But when I opened my eyes and looked outside for the first time, I actually dropped my bottle of shampoo, rushed back to the room, and returned with my camera. We woke up to one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen – the whole city bathed in fog, planks of light skimming across steeples and trees and rocky crags.
We walked outside and realized, in the daylight, that our hostel rubbed up against the Edinburgh Castle. My life is unreal.
I spent my first day exploring. I tried to soak in the stone buildings, made up of a million colors – almond, tan, khaki, black, a few blush pink. I walked through a park and stumbled upon this beautiful cemetery. Some gravestones weren’t completely rubbed down by wind and weather, and the people laid to rest dated back centuries.
I watched a street performer breathe fire, swallow swords, and lay beneath a bed of nails.
More than anything else, I loved the layout of Edinburgh. I didn’t realize until we stood high on a ridge and looked down at the city, but the streets weave and tangle like a knot. The city has layers, with some roads above and some roads below, and massive inclines in between. For some reason, we always ended up walking uphill both ways to and from our hostel.
It didn’t make sense to us either.
Our first day in Edinburgh was absolutely gorgeous. People kept telling us not to be fooled by the beautiful weather… I thought it was modesty. Then one afternoon the rain turned on and never turned off. Up until that point I’d marveled at the way I could stand on a street and look all the way down, stretching out forever – that day Edinburgh fog swept through until you could barely see anything.
At night, we tried (somewhat unsuccessfully) to find late night food. We sang Brown Eyed Girl at a piano bar and went to a ceilidh – “kaylee,” in my American accent – or a traditional Scottish dance.
I befriended some of the kindest, warmest people I have ever met.
I left Edinburgh fulfilled and awakened, thinking that I could see myself living here someday.
This semester is a gift. I can’t wait to share more of it with you in the coming weeks!
I’m sitting on a windowsill, trying to write this post, but I keep getting distracted.
There’s the jet lag I can’t seem to shake. I find myself asleep throughout lunch and wide awake at three in the morning, powering through the headaches that come and go and the occasional ear pop.
There’s the noise. In the hallway outside my room, I hear every step on the creaky wood floors that are older than me. Downstairs someone is playing the untuned grand piano. Whenever a door slams – and they have to slam or they won’t shut – the sound bounces up every flight of stairs, around the high ceilings, and into my jet-lagged head.
But most of all, there’s the beauty. From the window opposite me I can see into the courtyard, four even brick walls and a stone tower around a square of cobblestone. If I lean I can see the path continue into a drawbridge, then an open field. My bedroom window looks over the moat, slowly churned by a single fountain and home to one black swan.
I’m blogging from a small castle in the Netherlands, a three-hour bus ride from Amsterdam and a seven-hour flight from Boston. For the next three months, this is home.
I found out I’d be studying abroad way back in first semester, but it didn’t feel real until I was loading my bag onto the bus, lugging it through Logan Airport. I didn’t think I slept much on the flight but I blinked and the sky changed from charcoal to pink and apricot. Then the plane touched down onto the flattest country I’d ever seen, and “Welcome to Amsterdam” crinkled over the speaker.
Even though the airport was filled with English, nothing was familiar. I instantly regretted wearing my Boston sweatshirt, which made me feel extra touristy and kind of guilty. We boarded yet another bus and passed windmills, grassy stretches, and lots of cows until finally we arrived at the castle.
There’s a village ten minutes from here, where we can buy shampoo from “Everything Under One Roof” and applekorn shots from the bar (Wednesday nights are American Night.) Cars always honk warmly at us when we walk through town, elderly couples smile when they pass on bikes. So far I can’t help but adore the Dutch. Every local I’ve run into is friendly, to the point, and has a good sense of humor.
Still, the culture feels so new, with distinctions I haven’t really learned. I asked a teacher if I could find an oven somewhere in the village and her reply was polite, but brisk – “No. The Dutch are a private people. Nobody will let you into their home just to use a kitchen.”
I can’t cook, but I can eat. Our castle tour guide passed around a bag of stroopwafel, two thin waffles sandwiched with caramel syrup. I bought apricot tart at the village bakery. The dough was like bread and the apricots were so sticky sweet, they perfumed my fingers for hours. I’m obsessed with the tomatoensoep from the little café. It’s like marinara! I ended up dipping French fries into it because – sorry – I didn’t like the weird custard-like mayonnaise that came with them instead of ketchup.
I didn’t expect much from the castle’s dining hall, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Breakfast and lunch usually includes breads, deli meats and cheese, even fresh fruit. Dinner always has potatoes in one form or another, and a heavy white sauce. It kind of feels like home until you reach the spreads. Literally, a table full of various jars, available at every meal and totally strange.
There are two chocolate spreads. One is kind of like Nutella and the other is a milk/white chocolate swirled duo. I tried to read the back for ingredients, which were offered in six languages, none of which were English. I tried a strange black syrup on a dare – it turned out to be apple. There are cheese spreads, vegetable spreads, and more of that European mayo.
Then, for no obvious reason, every table has peanut butter and jam.
For the first time, I was reminded of something wholly American. I was thrown back to childhood afterschool sandwiches, thumbprint cookies, and this Peanut Butter and Jelly Loaf I made in Seattle. The pound cake is soft and sweet, and the sugar coating on the pan makes the edges slightly crisp like a peanut butter cookie. I couldn’t help but add dollops of grape jelly, which became set into a sticky swirl after baking.
I ate my potatoes and heavy white sauce but I kept thinking about that loaf. Finally I decided to make a PB&J. I expected the unexpected, because everything that looks familiar ends up being strange. The milk is extra thick, the yogurt is extra thin, the butter has a texture I can’t place. But I opened the two jars, spread each onto bread, and sandwiched them together.
Unbelievable. The peanut butter was creamy and sweet but really… A whole lot like Jif. And the strawberry jam? Maybe a few more strawberry chunks than I’m used to, but exactly like jam at the Boston dining hall. I ate my peanut butter sandwich and felt wholly American, and kind of okay with that. I have plenty of time to adjust, travel, and adapt. Next weekend I’m off to Amsterdam, and the weekend after that, Edinburgh. For right now, though, I’ll enjoy the occasional PB&J.
The internet is a little spotty, but I’ll keep blogging! Expect some photo-filled travel posts…
Everybody has guilty pleasures.
For my mom it’s a hot croissant, one with crispy edges that flake all over her lap. Maybe you have a friend like my floormate J-, who herds people out of the room on Tuesdays when Gossip Girl airs. Is it terrible to admit I sometimes sneak downstairs and swipe a spoonful of leftover hot fudge? I don’t even reheat it or drizzle it over ice cream. Instead I eat it cold and truffle-y, straight from the fridge.
Recently, though, I’ve been obsessed with wedding blogs.
I especially love the photography. Close ups of the bride’s shoes, a brilliant pop under the white hem of the dress. The color palettes, more flowers than I can name, the blown out look of Christmas light strings as the dancing begins. Every wedding is a fairy tale.
I’d never been to a wedding I could remember. So when my boyfriend I- invited me to his cousin’s wedding at the end of August, how could I resist?
We arrived at the barn where the wedding was set. Because we were early, and because we were staying at the venue, I got to see first-hand the absolute mania that takes place before “I do.”
The flower girl cried because she didn’t like her hair, makeup running down her face. One aunt couldn’t find her beige pumps, and another broke the lens of her glasses. A bridesmaid made a frantic last minute run for basil. Wedding photography never shows the groomsmen all distraught, mixing more pink lemonade, or the wind that keeps knocking vases over.
Despite everything, this wedding was beautiful. The couple looked happy, so truly in love, that misplaced napkins and creased dress pants didn’t matter. The ceremony was short and sweet, everyone clapped, and we felt connected standing there in the sun.
I haven’t seen the photographs yet, but here are some things I don’t think they’ll capture… The bride’s unplanned thank you speech, which brought people to tears, or the square of star-flecked sky visible through the barn’s window. The way I felt dancing with I- to the first song, the hum of crickets outside.
When we got home I noticed a new entry on my favorite wedding blog. I scrolled through the photos and couldn’t help but smile. Not a hair out of place, every bouquet perfectly arranged, even the cupcakes looked done up. I still loved reading the post, but it didn’t compare to the raw imperfection of a real live wedding.
I’m starting to think the same is true for food.
Food bloggers have the luxury of writing and photographing their own posts. I can pick the five prettiest cookies to stack for the opening image, and you’d never know that the rest of the batch came out like shapeless amoebas. If I burnt the first pan of caramel, I don’t have to say so. You can’t imagine the splatter of egg whites or the smudges of chocolate that end up all over the counter when I’m done cooking. There is no baker messier than I.
Enter this Red Wine Chocolate Cake. I almost didn’t share the recipe. Not because it didn’t taste incredible (it did) and not because it wasn’t liked (not a crumb survived.) No, I almost didn’t post out of vanity. The photos aren’t very good.
This loaf is tight crumbed and soft as a lamb’s ear. The color is so dark and rich, I expect flowers to bloom from it. The wine gives the chocolate a flavor that impressed everyone, something deep and complex and mystifying. And it tastes even better Day 2.
But none of that comes through in the photos. (In my humble opinion, they’re kind of flat and ho hum. They don’t make me want to open a bottle of wine.)
My excuses are that the light was poor, I was too lazy to reshoot, and that this everyday chocolate cake is plain to begin with. But let me tell you what the photographs don’t show.
My disappointment when I smelled our buttermilk, and my recklessness when I decided to use merlot in the batter instead. My friend D-’s surprise as he tried to pin down the mystery ingredient. The thick, unashamed second slices my neighbors cut for themselves.
My mom’s sneaky footsteps down the hall in the middle of the night, the click of Tupperware being opened and shut again, and quiet chewing as she returned to her room.
Guilty pleasure for sure.
August makes me think of peach skin against my lips, of yellowing grass, and inevitably of the coming school year.
I remember exactly where I was last August – the kitchen. There were only a few weeks before I moved to Boston for college, and I went into a baking frenzy. In the mornings, I preheated the oven before I brushed my teeth, and I photographed enough desserts to keep the blog alive across the country.
This summer, though, I haven’t spent much time baking. I don’t leaf through cookbooks when I’m bored or brainstorm flavor combinations in the car. I’ve lost something I can’t place. Whenever I think about it, unease seeps through me like melting ice. I don’t know why I’ve fallen into a baking rut or how to fix it.
A year ago, I remember standing with my dad in the kitchen. I’d spent the week baking, and I handed him fork after fork of desserts to sample. He’d just tried the Oat, Pear, and Raspberry Loaf when he said, “You’re really going to do this. Keep the blog going.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant. I hadn’t even considered ending the blog, giving up on the baking, moving on with life as I moved into college. “Yeah.”
He shrugged a little and said, “You never know. After a while, you might not want to be 17 and Baking anymore. You might lose interest.”
“Never going to happen.” I wrapped up the loaf, started on the dishes, and the conversation faded from memory.
Now I can’t get it out of my mind.
I didn’t spend as much time with my parents this summer as I expected, or as I would have liked. I think the ritual of family dinners would have helped me rediscover that “feeling.” I think tossing ideas back and forth with my dad would have inspired me. Now, it’s too late. Here I am a year later, nine days from my flight, with almost nothing saved up.
This semester I’m going to Europe, where baking opportunities will be even scarcer than they were in Boston. I’m so afraid. I didn’t realize it until I typed the words a moment ago, and now it’s more real than ever. I’m afraid of wasting the opportunities I’ve been given. I’m scared of failing. I’m scared that I have burnt out, and that I can’t recover.
But I am more than my insecurities. I know that when I put my mind to something, I can make it happen. I have the strength to pull through baking ruts, to breathe life into my writing, and to conquer fear. I’m afraid, but I’m also more passionate and determined than ever.
D- is a new friend, but already a good one, and his first visit to Seattle is wrapping up in a few days. I wanted to make something really special to celebrate his 19th birthday and last night in the Emerald City.
This week I rediscovered the process of finding The One. You know, The Recipe that is everything Your Friend would want, their sweet tooth soulmate. I remembered that his favorite cake is red velvet, but his favorite dessert is cheesecake. I immediately wanted to combine them. I’d seen red velvets split by cheesecake on several other sites, but that didn’t make it less special.
The excitement mounted as I bought ingredients at the store, while I creamed butter, when I scattered sprinkles across the frosting. But everything became clear when I eased the first slice onto a plate and passed it to D-, drank in his expression of surprise and joy.
The thrill! It lit me up like a sparkler – burning slowly, but unbelievably brightly. I almost forgot that feeling, but now, all I want to do is relive it. I’m an addict.
The cream cheese frosting is thick, tangy, and sweet, just like I like it. The cheesecake is dense and creamy. But the star is the red velvet. Heartbreakingly red, soft as satin, fine-crumbed and fluffy… As I watched him scrape the fork across the plate, I couldn’t wait to come home and share the recipe with you.
I never lost the passion. I just had to stop taking it for granted.
I’ll probably be on the east coast when the next post is up – thanks for staying with me. See you on the other side.
[Too hot to bake? Check out my Chocolate Raspberry Icebox Cake in the Boston Globe! It's a heat free, ridiculously easy recipe that comes together in half an hour.]
Ten days in LA weren’t enough.
As the plane lifted, I caught my last looks at California through the gauzy clouds. I was already thinking about the restaurants I couldn’t try, the neighborhoods I hadn’t seen, and the gems I didn’t discover. The state was simply too big to experience in a mere week and a half. When we’d parted, my friend and host C- said, “But you’ll get to see Seattle!” I rolled my eyes and told him, “I live in Seattle.”
During this summer, I’ve lived up north by the bluest water in Maine. In Atlanta, I embraced the heat in sundresses, the warm air dampening my skin in minutes. And in California, I rummaged through antique cast iron skillets and pearl rings at farmer’s markets and artisan festivals. I’ve visited more places in the past year than ever before. But the few days I spent at home? I sat around, spinning the dusty globe in our office.
By the time I unpacked my suitcase and fell onto my bed, I’d decided to make things different. I needed to change my perspective. What would I do if I only had ten days in Seattle?
We live slightly outside the big city, enough distance that it can feel foreign or familiar depending on my mood. I tackled Seattle with a fearlessness I’d never shown.
Downtown, I drove in circles trying to find parking before giving up and walking a good distance to reach any kind of store. I explored the U District alone, the little boutiques and second hand shops. I ducked into the independent theaters, painted seafoam green and dusty pink, outlined in bulbous lights, signs cracked with age… Somehow, the same movies come alive in a new way inside a theater with character.
My favorite sweets come from Seattle. In Boston I craved bullseye donuts from Top Pot, sticky with sugar glaze and raspberry jam, and Molly Moon’s Theo chocolate ice cream, so thick it’ll snap your spoon. I’m realizing just how much is still undiscovered. Last week I walked into a Middle Eastern restaurant the size of a closet and ordered something I couldn’t pronounce. I still don’t know what it was, but it was tangy and spiced, followed by a slice of cake drenched in honey.
If I approach summer in Seattle as an extended trip, the potential is incredible.
When I exit I-90 after an afternoon in the city, I’m filled with a strange appreciation for home. I pass my favorite old school diner, the one with the dumpy sign and the bad coffee. I like to drive slowly around the gentle, winding curves of my neighborhood.
Inevitably my eyes are drawn up to the unbelievable trees. Until I spent time out of Washington, I never knew how special our evergreens are. They tower, so tall and old, so richly green you can smell the color. In other cities the trees feel planted for decoration – but here, the houses have been nestled where the trees allow space. And when the sun is at the right angle, the light filters through in hazy planks, and suddenly my life is breathtaking.
My house is green, from the soft moss carpeting our cement patio (Mom hates this, I sort of like it) to the homegrown lettuce patch beyond my bedroom window. Our family doesn’t have the greenest thumb, but plants line our living room window, stems bowing towards the glass. My favorite of the bunch is the fragrant pot of basil.
Basil is my favorite herb. I like it sautéd with pasta, baked onto pizza, layered in sandwiches and churned into ice cream. With bunches of fresh basil at my fingertips, it’s hard to resist experimentation. When it results in something as lovely as basil olive oil, can you blame me?
We had a bag of bright lemons, so olive oil cake was necessary. I love the way this cake gently rises and falls, the way the sugar-sprinkled crust cracks, the way it perfumes the mouth. Each bite tastes like sunlight and comfort and dare I say it… green.
[Unsure about the 4th? Why not tackle my 4th of July Flag Cake? People have been making it ever since its creation 2 years ago. It's deceptively simple and always impressive. Check out the post for instructions, plus a video of me making it. Have a great weekend!]