Browsing Category

Travel

Javaholic/ Travel

Coffeeshop Love: South West Collective

December 26, 2019
Cayman Islands South West Collective coffeeshop

Possibly an unpopular opinion, but I like winter. Crisp air, moody grey skies, a fluttering of snow — it’s magical. That said, as I stomp through the slush of three-day-old snow, I have to admit that a tropical vacation doesn’t sound so bad (this is why spring break was invented, right?). Though I do have a warm locale on the books, that’s not for a couple of months, so I’m looking back to spring break last year and a belated but much-deserved coffeeshop feature: South West Collective in the Cayman Islands. If you’re planning a trip to the Caribbean, both this little group of islands and this hip coffeeshop are definitely worth a visit. If not, just pretend you can feel the warm tropical sun on your face and a tasty latte on your tongue.

For fruity cocktails and cabanas selling fresh fruit juice, the beach is a pretty sure bet. But this may not be exactly where you’d expect to find a hip coffeeshop. Luckily, South West Collective fills all of the aforementioned needs (and considering the size of the Cayman Islands, it’s pretty easy to make a trip there no matter where you are on the islands). Located in Georgetown, the capital of the largest island, Grand Cayman, this hip, light-filled spot is right in the middle of most of the hustle and bustle going on in the islands. In case you’re (unsurprisingly) not familiar with the Caymans, this tropical paradise is a trio of tiny islands in the Caribbean Sea, just west of Cuba. A British territory, they’re known for their beautiful beaches and abundance of sea turtles. Hardly a wonder, then, that many cruise ships stop off on Grand Cayman. South West Collective is right in the middle of Harbour Place, the bustling, colorful area of Georgetown where the cruise ships come to dock. As you sip your coffee, peek into the many shops nearby, or take a look at the local markets going on most days (trust me, there’s more than enough to look at!).

The coffeeshop itself is on the second floor of a collection of shops and restaurants. With naval-inspired blue and white décor, comfy seating, and stunning ocean views, it’s the perfect place to take a shopping break and watch the magnificent cruise ships glide into port. The menu is stocked with all your favorite hot and cold coffee drinks, plus fresh juices and smoothies and a mouthwatering selection of housemade toasts, sandwiches, soups, salads, and more. There’s even a chill bar and foozball area in back if you’re in need of something stronger than coffee!

I know hot coffee isn’t exactly tropical, but even in the heat, it was well worth ordering a latte, in my opinion — it was delicious enough to be worth a little extra sweating. And Cayman may not be the most common tourist destination (though I would argue that equals extra points in its favor), but I would highly recommend adding it to the vacay list. With a surprisingly diverse crowd, gorgeous beaches and water, and lovely hotels and restaurants (and of course, those turtles), it’s definitely worth a stop. And hey, you already know where to get your coffee there.

Travel/ Wanderings

Explorations: Mont Saint-Michel

December 7, 2019
Mont saint-Michel France explorations

An ancient castle, perched on top of a rocky island surrounded on all sides by the sea — sounds like a fairy tale, right? And really, Mont Saint-Michel is a bit like something out of a fairytale. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, go Google Mont Saint-Michel — I’ll wait. Stunning, isn’t it? I took a day trip from Paris, and I would highly recommend adding it to your bucket list.

Located in northern France where Normandy and Brittany meet, this ancient island settlement dates back over a thousand years. As the story goes, the Archangel Michael told Aubert, bishop of nearby Avranches, to build a church on the island in 709. A community of Benedictines settled on the mont in 966, and the Romanesque abbey church and first monastery buildings were built in the 11th century. In the following centuries, the spot became a great spiritual and intellectual center and a major pilgrimage site. The monastery and surrounding town were built up throughout medieval times, including protective ramparts added during the Hundred Years War. It was even used as a prison during the French Revolution! Today, the monastery is once again a working religious community, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site that welcomes over 2.5 million visitors a year.

The Village

As you might have guessed, the only caveat is that by these days, this site is a big tourist attraction. That said, it’s still spectacular, and I would highly recommend it. I went in the off-season — in October — and while it was definitely full of tourists, it wasn’t nearly as packed as it would have been in the summer (though prepare for rain if you’re there in the fall). In any case, the crowds really didn’t dim the magic of the place. The trick is to get off the beaten path of the little town (after you’ve grabbed your crepe and souvenirs) and up into the winding paths of the upper town and monastery. The village is mostly one narrow cobbled path lined with bustling souvenir shops and restaurants — like something straight out of Harry Potter (think Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley). All around this area, quaint little homes and hotels perch on the hillside, all the way up toward the monastery at the top.

But as charming as the town is, the real magic is in the narrow cobbled paths that snake up the cliffside toward the monastery. Pick a path and start exploring — I can guarantee you’ll get lost, but that’s the fun of it. Wander past charming little homes with colorful shutters, peek into an ancient graveyard, say hello to a meandering cat, and the next thing you know, you’ll be standing on top of ramparts looking out over the steely grey ocean. It’s a maze of unexpected discoveries, and while you’re likely to bump into fellow explorers, the entire area is surprisingly peaceful.

The Monastery

Once you’ve gotten your fill of wandering, climb to the monastery at the very top of the island (you’re likely to end up there anyway if you keep heading upward). Honestly, I almost skipped this part, reluctant to pay extra to get in. Luckily, I went for it anyway — don’t miss this. Yes, I have a penchant for turning everything into a Harry Potter reference, but I promise, this looks just like Hogwarts. You wander through a maze of vaulted stone ceilings, spooky corridors, and a stunning church, all nearly a thousand years old (some of it older). Even with other tourists around, the entire place is hushed and almost haunted, like stepping back into history. You half expect a monk to amble past or a medieval knight to be waiting in the knight’s hall. At the end, you emerge from the dim corridors onto a platform overlooking all of the village and surround ocean — the highest point visitors are allowed to go — with only the bell tower looming above you. It really was spectacular, and definitely worth the 10 euros to get into the monastery.

If you’re feeling adventurous on the way out, you can actually venture out into the ocean at low tide. The entire mont is surrounded by a flat plain of grey muddy sand at low tide that you can wander across. In all honesty, this was a little too messy (and cold) for me, but many people were pulling off their shoes and doing it when I was there. I’m not sure how high the water rises at high tide, so it’s worth checking the tide times before heading out, but if climbing the mont doesn’t quite satisfy your adventurous streak, it’s definitely worth a try. Just only go if you don’t mind getting a bit muddy!

How to Get There

In the art of full disclosure, I should mention that this journey wasn’t what I would call stress-free (in my experience, at least). The trip itself isn’t complicated, but in my experience French train and bus stations aren’t always the most clearly marked. I certainly wouldn’t consider this a reason to forgo this trip, but I would recommend giving yourself plenty of extra time and not being afraid to ask for help (even if your French isn’t perfect).

As for the nitty-gritty details, the trip is about three to four hours (depending on your connections) each way from Paris by train and bus. There’s no train station actually in Mont Saint-Michel, so the last leg of the trip will be a bus ride. Visit raileurope.com and search for tickets from Paris to Mont St.-Michel. There are usually several time options and various price options — most tickets are around 70-100 euros round-trip. I left from Paris Gare Montparnasse in the morning, took a shuttle bus, a train, and another bus to get to Mont Saint-Michel around noon for 78 euros (obviously, the more flexible you are with times and the more you’re willing to pay, the better connections you can get). Both the buses and trains are actually quite comfortable, and the trip isn’t difficult. Again, I would just recommend you give yourself plenty of time, especially if you’re leaving from a major Paris train station.

Once you get to Mont Saint-Michel, you can either take a shuttle or walk the 30-minutes or so on the bridge out to the island. Remember that the buses out of Mont Saint-Michel leave from where they drop you off, so pay attention to where you are when you arrive and leave plenty of time to get back to the bus stop from the mont (I’m not speaking from personal experience or anything here…).

For more info, check out the Normandy tourism website.

 

Musings/ Travel/ Wanderings

Wandering the Doors of Paris

December 5, 2019
Paris doors

I have a confession: I have a bit of an obsession with doors. Not your average everyday door necessarily, but colorful doors, intricate doors, eccentric doors. Have you ever noticed how many different types of doors there are out there? (No? Just me?) And it just so happens that Paris is particularly up on its door game. There’s a vast array of colors. There are intricate designs and incredible art. There are knockers in every design imaginable (Paris also has — pardon my French — great knockers). Some are ancient and a little worn, some are polished and shiny new, some are amazing Art Nouveau works of art — you get the picture. As a result, I became that crazy tourist stopping every few steps to take a picture of yet another door. What can I say? I’m obsessed.

 

I don’t actually know the stories of these Paris doors, which in a way maybe makes it more fascinating. How old is the door? What lies behind it? Who chose that lion or hand door knocker, and why? I’ve heard enough histories of specific doors and buildings in France to know that every flourish has a history and a meaning.

 

The one I do have some context for is the stunning Art Nouveau creation at 29 Avenue Rapp (first image, third row, first from left). Built in 1901 and designed by Jules Lavirotte, this intricate doorway tells an erotic tale of Adam and Eve, including peacocks, bulls, reptiles, and insects symbolizing sin (not to mention several other erotic motifs). It’s a gorgeous building teeming with symbolism that shocked viewers of the time.

 

Likely not every door in Paris packs such a metaphoric punch, but I’m positive they all have their own tales. Unfortunately, I’m no tour guide. I wish I could write an entire post about the stories behind these doors, but most remained closed to me. So we’ll just have to imagine, create histories and characters for them. All I know is, I took pictures of 39 doors in Paris, and no two looked alike, and I wandered by many more that I forced myself to keep walking and not snap a photo of.

 

If you’re wondering, “Why is she still talking about doors?” — well, I’m surprised you made it this far. If, like me, you enjoy a little quirkiness and mystery, then take a look at the collage of all my Paris door photos, enjoy the art and color, and create your own version of the stories they tell. And I’m positive they have many — it is Paris, after all.

Paris doors

Food/ Javaholic/ Travel

The Best Paris Coffeeshops

November 29, 2019
Paris coffee coffeeshops

What would a trip to Paris be without le café? Despite Paris’s vibrant café culture, it’s generally accepted that the coffee itself isn’t all that great. But in the past few years, the third-wave coffee movement has hit the city — with vigor — and these days there are legit roasters and more coffeeshops than even I could manage to hit in one trip. That’s not to say I didn’t try — I had a mile-long list going into my trip, and I drank enough coffee to fuel endless trekking around the city (which is a lot). Though I don’t want to think about how much of my trip budget went to coffee breaks, this did leave me with a pretty good sampling of the Paris coffee scene. Unlike years past, it’s pretty easy now to find a good latte or filter coffee in Paris (and the list of places offering alternative milks is also growing), not to mention that there’s a collection of friendly, charming cafés to visit. My list was a good one — I don’t think I drank a bad cup of coffee on my trip. That said, I narrowed it down to my top five picks for the best Paris coffeeshops (though the full list of spots I visited is included as well — all of which I would recommend, honestly). Thankfully, there’s never a need to wander Paris under-caffeinated again!

Boot Café

19 rue du Pont aux Choux

This might just be the tiniest coffeeshop in Paris — it’s also one of the cutest, and serves up delicious coffee to boot (no pun intended). Nestled in an old cordonnerie, or cobbler’s shop, in the Marais, this petite blue café has just enough room inside for the counter and a couple of tables. They manage to fit a lot of charm into a small space, though, with rustic-chic décor, art on the walls, and fresh flowers — plus delicious coffee and pastries, of course. Get a flat white to go as you meander through the Marais, or take a moment to perch on one of the outside seats and enjoy the charming street.

 

Paul et Rimbaud

40 rue Sedaine

Books and coffee — what’s not to love? Near Bastille in the hip 11e, this charming café is stocked floor to ceiling with books and filled with plants. It’s definitely worth taking your coffee to stay here — grab a seat at one of the eclectically mismatched tables or sofas and enjoy the tranquil vibes as you sip your café from a pastel-hued cup and munch on a house-made treat (I highly recommend the carrot cake — it was scrumptious). Though I generally think the rude Parisian stereotype is a myth, it’s also worth noting that the staff here are lovely (not a surly waiter in sight).

Strada Café

24 rue Monge

It should tell you something that I went out of my way to return to this little café several times during my trip. There are actually two locations, though I only checked out the bustling café near the Latin Quarter. This was one of the few places where I found a nearly-American-size latte (which is likely a point against me in javaholic cred but was a plus in my book). In any case, the coffee is delicious and the space lively and inviting.  If you’re feeling peckish, definitely try the brownie, which is essentially death by chocolate and worth every bite. Strada is a little out of the way of the typical tourist spots, but if you’re exploring the Left Bank (which I highly recommend) — especially Jardin des Plantes or the ancient Roman Arènes de Lutèce — it’s definitely worth a stop (or two).

Le Peloton

17 rue du Pont Louis Philippe

You can’t visit Paris without stopping into this friendly spot in the Marais. It’s the sort of place where the patrons are regulars and the baristas chatty. I was barely there a minute before I was chatting about my trip with a fellow patron and the baristas, and the owners themselves are often behind the bar, making drinks and talking to people. With Aussie and New Zealand roots, it’s a favorite gathering spot for the expat crowd in Paris, and for good reason. Don’t miss the delicious waffles with your flat white, and if you’re looking for a little guidance around Paris, they also host bike tours around Paris and Versailles.

Café Oberkampf

3 rue Neuve Popincourt

If you’re looking for a mean flat white and a tasty bite in the up-and-coming Oberkampf district, look no further than Café Oberkampf. This Aussie-inspired café serves up top-notch coffee and fresh, healthy eats in a bright, friendly setting. It’s another tiny spot, but it’s definitely worth grabbing one of the few tables and staying for brunch or lunch. Their specialty is the tartine (an open-faced sandwich or toast) — a perfect accompaniment to a delicious cup of coffee.

 

There you have it — the best Paris coffeeshops! Here’s the list of all the coffeeshops I visited. Anyone fancy a cuppa?

Café Oberkampf

KB Café

Café Méricourt

Honor Café

Boot Café

Strada Café

Fragments

Ten Belles

Le Peloton

Sylon de Montmartre

Paul et Rimbaud

Matamata

La Caféothèque

Republique of Coffee

Binici

La Recyclerie

Musings/ Travel

Notes on Parisian Style

November 23, 2019
Paris fashion style

Without a doubt, one of the best parts of visiting Paris — of traveling period, in my opinion — is the people-watching. I do this everywhere I go, but the Parisians are, after all, known for being a particularly stylish set. Now despite my *ahem* proclivity for shopping, I certainly wouldn’t call myself a fashion expert. But as I watched the busy Parisians clip along the streets, I picked up an idea or two about the ingredients of a chic Parisian look (or at least, the modern Parisian look, which is essentially the same thing). This isn’t to say that everyone in Paris is a fashion model — not at all. But the majority definitely have a style and flair that I couldn’t help noticing. As a dedicated people-watcher and Francophile, I had to take notes on Parisian style. As such, this isn’t so much a guide on how to dress Parisian as it is a few observations about how the Parisians of 2019 go about the city in their enviably Parisian way.

*Disclaimer: This is mostly centered on the women (sorry, guys), though I will say that Parisian men are also quite well-dressed!

 

Heels

Despite the prevalence of cobbled streets in Paris, there are (somehow) a lot of high heels clicking around the city. However, don’t imagine Sex and the City stilettos — these were more chunky heels and platforms, though still plenty high (granted, it was fall, but still). That said, I saw a lot of sensible loafers and sneakers as well, especially flat white Adidas sneakers. One thing was certain: no matter how high the heels, Parisians know how to walk. Everywhere in the city, clearly to get somewhere (and not car-to-door), often with groceries or other bags — and quickly. And I didn’t see a single person stumbling or acting as if her feet hurt.

Scarves

Scarves, scarves, and more scarves! Yes, it was getting chilly when I was there, but even on the warm days, nearly everyone was wearing a scarf. Bigger seemed to be better here — large scarves, wrapped all around the neck in a big bundle. I saw all colors and patterns, though in general I’d say the Parisians seem to favor neutrals over bright and crazy colors. A great benefit of this: all I had to do was throw a scarf around my neck, and I immediately felt more French!

Cloth Tote Bags

I’m really not exaggerating here — everyone, men and women, carried a cloth tote bag. Seriously, I started to get bag envy. I’m not sure if this is a fashion trend or part of rising eco-consciousness in France (which is definitely a legitimate trend there), but in any case, tote bags everywhere. Women usually had a purse or other bag as well, but always a cloth tote bag slung over a shoulder. This may have also been part of the reason I bought three while I was there …

Midi Skirts

Despite the dropping temperatures, midi skirts are definitely in in Paris. Usually worn with sneakers or boots, and with tights if it was cold, they were everywhere, in every style and color. Pleated and a-line seems to be the main look. I may have (literally) bought into this trend as well — did I mention there was a lot of shopping involved in this trip?

Hairstyles

This is something I’ve heard before and found to be true when I visited — French women don’t seem that into coiffed hair. I saw both a lot of messy buns and a lot of hair left loose, but barely any perfectly hairsprayed ‘dos. Up or down, hair wasn’t usually straightened or perfectly styled but more loose and natural. The French may have a reputation for effortless beauty, but in this case it seems to be true. Maybe a sign for us all to loosen up a little?

The Teen Uniform

Maybe no one else cares about this, but I found it amusing that the teen girls of Paris had a very distinct uniform. I made the mistake of hitting some vintage shops on a Wednesday afternoon (French students have Wednesday afternoons off school), and I felt like I was trapped in a chattering mob of clones. This (unofficial) uniform is very particular: straight-leg, ankle-length jeans or leggings, Adidas sneakers, and a big ‘80s- or ‘90s-style jacket. Ok, maybe the clone reference is a bit dramatic, but I swear the uniform is a thing! In fact, ‘90s style seemed to be big in general, especially in the thrift shops I popped into. The youth predicting the big style trends of tomorrow?

Well, there you have it — certainly not an expert analysis, but straight from the streets of Paris in any case. Whether you buy into the hype about French beauty and fashion or not, people-watching is practically a national pastime there, and you can’t deny the Parisians provide plenty of fodder. I know I picked up plenty of ideas, at least. Anyone want to go shopping?

Food/ Travel

The Macaron Quest, Part II: Paris

November 13, 2019

I promised a part II to the macaron quest, didn’t I? Well, here you are. I recently wandered over to the Mecca of macarons — Paris — and of course I had to test as many as possible to get a true scientific sampling of the macaron measure. Ok, in truth I went a little macaron crazy (can you blame me?). Macarons can be found in every corner boulangerie and candy shop in Paris, so I chose eight spots — mostly well-known patisseries — to see what a true French macaron tastes like and how KC’s offerings stack up.

Before I get into the nitty gritty (sugary) details, let’s summarize the overall Paris macaron scene. First of all, crazy flavors are definitely not traditional. The bigger-name (and more touristy) brands are starting to do all sorts of funky flavor combinations, but in general the classic macaron flavors (and the ones you’ll find almost everywhere) are vanilla, coffee, pistachio, chocolate, raspberry, and lemon. Second, as I mentioned, almost every boulangerie/patisserie has at least a few macarons. For the most part, I went for places that are pretty well-known and easy to find. (Most of these places have multiple locations around Paris; for those that have only one location, I included the address below.) The most well-known macaron purveyors in Paris are probably Ladurée and Pierre Hermé, which of course I had to visit. So without further ado, let the macaron quest: Paris begin!

Pierre Hermé

Talk about a smorgasbord of flavors! I spent a good amount of time here just staring, saucer-eyed, trying to decide which to choose. Pierre Hermé is an iconic patisserie, especially for macarons, so it’s hardly a surprise that the offerings were overwhelming and the place packed. I ended up with the Barbade (chocolate, vanilla, and tonka bean) and hazelnut praline flavors — see what I mean about funky flavors? Though definitely not traditional, the flavors here were unusual and delicious (hazelnut praline was my favorite). The macaron itself was very delicate, though almost too moist, not lightly crispy as I would have hoped. Still, there’s definitely a reason this place is famous.

Ladurée

Fairytale mint green shop, rows of delicate jewel-toned sweets, a cozy tearoom — what’s not to love? Ladurée is possibly the most hyped of all the macaron wizards (in fact, there are several in the US now as well). Despite this, I have to admit I think Ladurée lives up to its reputation. The hordes of tourists are a bit of a turnoff (for me, at least), but if you avoid the Champs-Elysées shop, this is less of an issue. I made multiple stops here, in fact, testing the caramel fleur de sel, pistachio, and chocolate hazelnut flavors. With a strong flavor, smooth and delicate cookie, and slightly chewy inside, these macarons are just as scrumptious as they’re proclaimed to be. On top of that, they nicely bridge traditional and inventive — there are a few maverick flavors, but nothing so outlandish that you forget you’re eating a classic macaron.

Stohrer

With a history stretching all the way back to 1730, this family-owned patisserie definitely knows its sweets (in fact, they claim to be the oldest patisserie in Paris). Unlike some of the other big-name shops on this list, Stohrer veers more toward the classic, with traditional flavors like vanilla and chocolate (I tried the coffee one). While not as inventive as Pierre Hermé, the texture of Stohrer’s macarons definitely takes the cake (er, cookie). Lightly crispy on the outside, slightly chewy on the inside, and perfectly delicate, it was an ideal macaron creation. The flavor was simple and delicious — not knock-your-socks-off scrumptious. If you’re looking for a classic and tasty macaron, Stohrer is the spot for you.

Jean-Paul Hévin

Famed chocolatier Jean-Paul Hévin falls into the same school as Pierre Hermé — ah, the flavor kaleidoscope! That said, the flavor offerings were as good as (if not better than) PH, which is saying something. Though not exactly traditional, I have to admit I loved the flavors here. I tested Pistachin’ (chocolate/pistachio), Normandy (chocolate/salted caramel), and Crème Brûlée, all of which were delicious. My only complaint is that there was almost too much filling — a lot going on in general, with all the flavor combos. Definitely not a purist’s macaron, but still one to remember.

Gwen Choc Boulangerie

5 rue du Temple

For an unintentional macaron testing (I stopped into this Marais boulangerie for a croissant), Gwen Choc held up against the competition. The hazelnut praline macaron was a little crunchier, with more filling than many offerings, but it was still delicate, and the chocolate/hazelnut taste was delicious. This isn’t one of the famed macaron purveyors you’ll hear whenever someone says “macaron,” but if you’re in the Marais, it’s definitely worth a stop (the almond croissants are excellent also).

Le Valentin Teahouse

35 Galerie Vivienne

Tucked into one of Paris’s nineteenth-century covered shopping arcades, this little teahouse was a welcome respite on a drizzly day. With a mouthwatering selection of pastries and confections, I had to use great self-control to get only a macaron. I chose one of my favorites, salted caramel. The macaron was nicely delicate and melt-in-your-mouth, though I couldn’t really taste a specific flavor. Overall, a good texture, and definitely tasty, but nothing to knock your socks off.

Eric Kayser

The US has burger and coffee chains — France has boulangerie chains. Go figure. You can find an Eric Kayser on almost every corner in Paris. When it comes to chains, though, this one is actually pretty reliable. The flavors of my bourbon vanilla and pistachio macarons were very good — you could actually taste the vanilla and pistachio — though the cookie was a little too crunchy (ie, makes a sound when you bite into it) and not super delicate. They certainly aren’t known for their macarons, but for a sampling of a more generic, mass-produced macaron, they’re not a bad option.

Maison Landemaine

Another decent chain option, Maison Landemaine can be found all around Paris. I had a whole sampling here, because they only came in a box set of four (whoops). The flavors were traditional — chocolate, vanilla, raspberry, and caramel — and tasty, nicely crispy and with authentic flavor, but they weren’t necessarily anything to write home about (even though I sort of am).

In the end, any of these will satisfy a macaron craving in Paris, though some are more worthy of a macaron quest than others. But the big question: how does KC’s macaron scene measure up? I’m certainly no expert, but I’d say pretty well. They aren’t as ubiquitous in KC as in Paris, but those who love them seem to know how to do them well. KC may not exactly play by all the rules of traditional macaron flavors, but then, neither do all the Parisian macaron makers! Good news, then: you don’t have to fly across the pond to find a tasty macaron (though I’d highly recommend it anyway).

And the final word on the Paris macaron quest (according to me, anyway):

Best flavors: Pierre Hermé, Jean-Paul Hévin

Best texture: Stohrer, Ladurée

Best overall: Ladurée

Anyone else craving a sweet treat now? Check out these KC macaron artists to satisfy your sweet tooth! Bon appétit!

Musings/ Travel

Wandering Solo: 6 Key Tips for Traveling Alone

July 24, 2019
Bird’s eye view of old Prague

The sky was nestling into velvety sapphire, the sun slipping behind rolling hills, and the red tile roofs stretched out like a doll village below. The bell tower was silent and empty around me.

Being alone gets a bad rap sometimes. Indisputably, we all need those close, two-peas-in-a-pod friends. But going solo can be an amazingly enlightening and strengthening experience. I remember a time when I would skip an event I really wanted to check out if I couldn’t find a wingman (or wingwoman). The idea of venturing around Eastern Europe alone initially seemed at best a pipe dream, at worst just plain stupid. Yet it was also a fleeting chance: recently graduated, “real life” waiting on the horizon — when else would I be able to tackle my bucket list head-on, on my own terms? As I booked a flight to Berlin, for once I didn’t allow any overanalyzing or second-guessing. Unsurprisingly, it was an incredible three weeks. It was also a series of ups and downs, but taking the plunge and doing it on my own left me with a few insights.

You’re tougher than you think.

The minute you’re lugging a suitcase alone across a cavernous Hungarian train station, or faced with a dinner menu that might as well be written in astrophysics equations, traveling solo begins to seem like a questionable idea. There’s no one to follow, no one else to bravely ask a stranger for help, no one to chuckle ruefully with over your hopeless sense of direction. But you figure it out. You stumble a bit, bruise your pride, waste some time, but you get where you’re trying to go, find something edible to order, and often stumble across something incredible in the meantime. And when you do, a delicious satisfaction arises in knowing you had the guts and smarts to figure it out on your own.

You will get lonely (and that’s ok).

As much as I loved being on my own, there were moments when something reminded me of home or a friend, and I suddenly felt a million miles away, stranded in Timbuktu. No matter how many awesome people you meet or amazing places you visit, at some point a familiar face would be a welcome sight. But feeling lonely doesn’t mean you’re any less self-sufficient or strong. It’s all about finding the things that make you happy, not being afraid to enjoy them, and knowing when to put FaceTime to good use.

It’s the unexpected moments that mean the most.

I’m a planner. And traveling alone, it seemed like a good idea to be prepared. But some days, like my first in Prague, I just picked a direction and started walking. Here’s the thing about Prague: all the streets resemble the twisting cobblestone paths found in fairy tales. One minute you’re passing a tourist-packed bakery, and the next you’re in a misty forest scaling steep stone and dirt steps (or does that only happen to me?). You somehow end up at a hilltop observation tower, and then all of Prague is magically laid out below you. With no one to plan with, it’s easier to simply wander (and get lost) by your own whim, and there’s something sweet about not having to share that discovery moment.

The best encounters are the random ones.

Random encounters occur, well, randomly (shocker), whether you’re alone or with a friend. But when there’s no one with you to puzzle over nonsensical train schedules or exclaim at stunning views, you’re more likely to strike up a conversation with whoever is nearby, however random that might be. I probably would have whispered to my companion over the doodads in a Prague antiques shop instead of chatting with the banged-up shopkeeper about the perils of biking home from the pub (take his bandaged arm as a lesson, folks). Or missed bashing the Hungarian train system with two British guys as we sat in the luggage compartment on a train with fewer seats than passengers. Obviously this calls for common sense, but it’s also an opportunity to meet some of the most interesting people in the world (literally).

It’s about finding the place that clicks.

For each city I visited, there was that neighborhood or café where everything slid into place and I felt like I belonged, like that was my place. From the funky hipster markets of Berlin’s Kreuzberg to the vibrantly graffitied, café-lined Jewish quarter of Budapest, I only had to set foot there to feel more content. That discovery of the spot where I feel more like a local than a tourist is one of the best parts of traveling in my book, and wandering the city streets on my own left my way open to find it.

It’s ok to be selfish sometimes.

Let’s be real here: part of the reason I wanted to travel alone is so I could go wherever and do whatever I wanted. Maybe that’s a bit selfish and inflexible. But we have a right to follow our own hearts and guts sometimes, to do something completely our own way. To do something just because we want to. Pure and simple. There’s plenty of time for obligations and compromises. I wouldn’t have had the same experience, discovered the same wonders, had the same insights about myself, if I had been traveling with someone else. It’s like that double chocolate cookie you know you want — we all deserve a little self-indulgence every once in a while, right?