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Solo Traveller’s Guide to Florence – Part 2

Oltrarno B&B

The windows in my room at the Oltrarno B&B

This is my last morning in Florence. I wake up, pull back the curtains, watch the traffic flow on the street outside. My B&B right now is in the Oltrarno (the other side of the Arno River), which has given me a chance to explore beyond the usual tourist bounds of central Florence. One thing I’ve noticed is that almost everyone who lives in Florence is originally from Florence, the opposite of melting pots like New York, London, Berlin or Barcelona.

I’ve found that the restaurants are better, on average, in the Oltrarno. I’ve met locals, enjoyed the slower pace, and only once felt uncomfortably stared at during lunch. I’ve also found myself overwhelmed by the age and artwork of Florence.

Pitti Palace sculpture

This sculpture was one of my favorite in the Pitti Palace.

I love the history of the city. It was once the most influential place on Earth, where Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo and Michelangelo helped the world move past the Black Death period and forward to what came next. I wish I could have seen Florence then.

In the past few days, I visited Donatello’s tomb and learned about the Medicis. I saw Michelangelo’s David statue in person, and it is categorically different than most other sculpture. It has its own life, apart from the crowds of tourists who throng the Accademia Gallery. I can only encourage you to see it in person if the opportunity arises.

Here are some other highlights from the past few days.

The Firenze Card

Final assessment: Totally worth it. For maximum enjoyment and minimum burn-out, activate it around 1pm on a Tuesday so that it expires around 1pm on Friday. This will allow you to avoid weekend crowds and Mondays, when many museums in Florence are closed. I skipped the lines everywhere I went and saw the major museums in about three hours a day, along with everything else I wanted to do (hint: eating, wandering). My favorites were as follows:

Michelangelo's David

Michelangelo’s David – different view

Uffizi: Great art and a sense of history.

Gallerie dell’Accademia: Michelangelo’s David.

Pal Davanzati: After the Uffizi and the Accademia gallery, this was my favorite museum in Florence. It’s a small palace once occupied by a wealthy family and meticulously preserved, down to the authentic drawings on the walls. Apparently, writing and drawing on the walls was a thing in Renaissance Florence (the Palazzo Vecchio also has drawings on the back of a fireplace there).

Pal Davanzati

Escheriffic – the Pal Davanzati.

The Duomo: The first medieval cathedral not to give me the shivers but instead to have an actually inspiring vibe. I also climbed the stairs to the cupola, a serious workout but worth it for the experience, especially the part where I edged around the giant dome, separated from space by a glass barrier.

Dante House: I was just walking down a street and saw this museum, so I went in and enjoyed it more than expected. Some great story-telling in the exhibits.

I must admit that I didn’t enjoy the Pitti Palace all that much — I think I had art overload — although the Boboli Gardens were nice. Note that they are populated by bees during October (I was hoping they’d be gone by now, but it’s still in the high 70s every day).

More Food

Trattoria Da Sergio: A meat-eater’s restaurant to the core. I treated myself to potato-filled ravioli with a sausage ragu. This was my best meal in Florence, bar none. I tried to return yesterday, but it’s closed on Mondays.

Perche No!: Great cioccolata gelato. Reasonably good mascarpone gelato. Perhaps my fault for ordering them together, allowing the cioccolata to overwhelm the mascarpone.

Grana Market: The owner made me a custom sandwich with ricotta, provolone and pecorino cheeses on a baguette. It cost about 3.50 euros and was amazingly delicious. I ate it at a wooden picnic-table in the back of the store.

Il Cantuccio di San Lorenzo: This bakery specializes in the biscotti, which was superb. The non-biscotti thing I got was just okay; focus on the biscotti.

La Via del Te: Yep, I found a tea house in the Oltrarno. The food is okay, but the tea is spectacular. I tried Oriental Beauty tea for the first time in many years, and it was as good as I remember. I stayed for a second pot of tea recommended by the staff, which was also great.

Bakeries along Via Pisana and Borgo San Frediano: Generally good and much better than bakeries in central Florence. Try whatever catches your eye. There is even an organic bakery. One thing that is hard to find is a bakery/cafe with good Wi-Fi and tables inside that invite lingering. I looked all week for a place like this, finally settling for a place that was half-bar, half-cafe. (Edit: I found one today near the Santa Maria Novella train station.)

The Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre

A view of the Cinque Terre in the morning.

I took a day trip to the Cinque Terre, a group of five small villages clustered along terraced cliffs by the Mediterranean Sea. It was a slow day, a nice break from the inland noise of Florence. Many of the paths between the villages are closed due to damage in a storm three years ago, but I’d love to return when they reopen to hike between and behind villages, through vineyards and rocks and waystops. For now, the trip I took was perfect, with boat and train rides among the villages and leisurely walks along the beach in Monterosso del Mare.

What’s Next

I’m heading to Tuscany today to spend some time on a farm. My goal is to remove distractions as easily as I added them in Florence. I’ll miss Florence, but at the same time I feel like I’ve seen most of the things I came here to see, and am ready for the next stop.

Tips for train travelers: At the Santa Maria Novella train station in central Florence, you need a ticket from a small machine in the biglietteria (ticketing) room before you do anything, even ask for information. Once you have this ticket, your number will appear on the overhead screens for you to buy a ticket or ask for information. The information window is window 19, and there is often a line at this window.

Also, if you’re going a short distance from Florence, you can go with your ticket to the Tabacchi (tobacco/convenience store) in the same room and get a “kilometric” ticket with only a short wait. It will allow you to travel a short distance to your destination without needing to reserve a specific train number/time.

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Solo Traveller’s Guide to Florence – Part 1

Florence is a museum. It’s a chaotic, beautiful, slow, delicious, bureaucratic, welcoming place. It’s full of history and contradictions.

Florence ApartmentI’m staying in the center on a small side street near the Santa Maria Novella train station. My host’s apartment is where she grew up as a girl, now occupied by her daughter and other guests, variably. Today I met the grandparents.

In the apartment, with its polished wooden ceilings and solid wooden doors and arched gateways, I feel at home, floating above Florence’s street noise.

Outside, I feel a bit lost, mainly because it’s easy to get lost! Cellphone GPS helps, but even so I’ve found myself lost three times. Each time, I encountered interesting places, and I’m finally learning my way around the Duomo and its environs.

A few tips for fellow travelers to Italy:

The Paperwork

Consider booking your first night in a hotel. Why? It turns out that hotels take care of some paperwork that you may need to complete yourself otherwise. In my case, that meant spending two hours in a crowded immigration hall instead of at the Uffizi this morning.

This is actually unlikely to happen to you. As far as I can tell (and I am not an expert), it only arises under a specific set of circumstances:

1.) You are staying in Italy for more than eight business days after your arrival; and

2.) You came to Italy via another Schengen (EU) country (this includes connecting flights), instead of getting your passport stamped at an airport in Italy; and

3.) You aren’t staying in a hotel for the first several days (e.g., if you are a guest, staying with family/friends, or hostelling/camping).

Granted, if you ignore this paperwork, nothing is likely to happen. But if you need to go to the police for any reason after your eight days, you could be deported, which sucks and could have other repercussions. I’m staying for a month, so I dealt with the two-hour paperwork process this morning. The whole process made me feel uncomfortable.

Next time I will just book a hotel for the first night.

The Firenze Card

Status in Uffizi

Great art, ignored, and appropriately distressed about it.

Consider buying the Firenze Card if you can make it work for you. This card provides access to nearly all of the major museums in Florence, plus the Boboli Gardens. It works for 72 hours from the time of activation. This is generally inconvenient because:

1.) You may feel pressured to go to as many museums as possible instead of exploring the city as a whole; and

2.) You could end up with museum overload, where you rush past great art because, “Hey, I’ve already seen 50 Botticellis today and I’m hungry.”

But here is the really good thing about the Firenze Card:

It lets you skip the lines.

Bird in Flight by Tower

A bird in flight by the Arnolfo Tower.

If you have seen these lines, which can be hours long, you will know this is a giant benefit. I waited approximately 5 minutes to enter the Uffizi Gallery today and 2 minutes at the Palazzo Vecchio. What is an hour of your time worth? Right. So I got the card. It also comes with a free bus pass; I haven’t used it yet since I tend to walk everywhere, but I like having the option.

I decided to try to spread the Firenze Card’s goodness over four days instead of three, allowing me to maintain a leisurely pace and do non-museum things too. So I activated it Tuesday at 1pm. It’s good until Friday at 1pm.

Tuesday afternoon, I saw the Uffizi Gallery, Palazzo Vecchio and Torre Arnolfo (tower). No lines, so all of this took about 3 hours. Then I meandered through the streets to my favorite gelato place. On my way home, I passed the Basilica de San Lorenzo, so I ducked in there just before closing time. Then I went back to the apartment to upload my pictures, went out for dinner, and returned home to blog and do nerd-related self-directed learning. So far, the Firenze Card is working for me.

The Food

The food is amazing if you know where to go: The TripAdvisor top restaurants list is a good start. I’ve tried four of the top 30 so far, plus some other places:

Mario: The owner of the apartment where I’m staying recommended this place near the Central Market, and it may be the best pasta I ever ate. Clearly homemade, al dente to perfection, with tomato sauce that was light, fresh and not overwhelming. Go early because there’s always a wait, but it’s shorter before noon.

Edoardo Gelato Biologico: There’s a huge line most of the time. It’s still worth it. The plain Crema flavor (fresh eggs with vanilla) is my favorite — always a good sign with food — though I loved the now-vanished weekly special, Honey & Poppyseed.

Ete Bistro: Organic bistro just a few blocks away from where I’m staying. Had a delicious spinach-ricotta gallette for dinner, which was the daily special.

Marco Ottaviano Il Gelato Gourmet: It was very good gelato, with great pistachio and Crema del Duca (lemon) flavors, but I preferred Edoardo. Both places far surpassed the gelato I ate in my life prior to Italy.

Amorino: Awesome panini and extremely friendly owner — I had tuna, capers and olive oil on flat focaccia bread.

Central Market food court: The cheese place at the end on the left has amazing fresh ricotta, which I paired with a small roll from the bakery a few stands down. The other cheese place has a wider selection, and I took home a piece of smelly but delicious raw cow milk cheese. The fruit stall has good fruit except for the squishy plum I received, and the yogurt was tasty. I took home supplies for several days because breakfast is not a big thing in Italy. Most people just have a pastry with coffee. I need a bit more substantial food.

On a not-so-great note, during an otherwise-good lunch at Gilli, I was charged 7 euros for a tiny pot of tea holding about 8 ounces of water. That’s about $10 for one teabag and a cup of water. I was planning to buy a pile of chocolates from this place, but I decided not to. Instead I bought a 2-euro pastry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it also was not that great.

The Language

I am learning a bit of Italian with the help of Rosetta Stone, about half an hour per day. Each day I understand a little more. Moreover, I have found absolutely everyone to be understanding (or at least tolerant) of my limited-language skills. I’ve also found almost everyone to be very courteous. As a solo traveller, I was a little worried about this, but Florence has been a largely great experience so far.

On to the next day! By the time you read this, I’ll be out of the apartment exploring the city. Ciao!

Six Months of Airbnb – Traveling in My Own City

Six months ago, I gave up my lease on a Manhattan apartment and embarked on an Airbnb adventure, living in a new place approximately every month.

Before then, I’d lived in a large studio in the east 20s for several years, filling my apartment with stuff and slowly realizing I needed to do something different. I didn’t know what “different” should mean. I’d have a tough day, come home, and buy dresses online to make myself feel better. It was a good feeling that lasted for about 30 seconds after I hit the “Buy” button. Dresses would arrive in boxes, and I’d let them sit in the entryway for weeks.

My parents would bring stuff too — more clothes, knick-knacks, kitchen implements, a form of love that fit my life at the time. I bought feng shui items to try to make my cluttered home feel more open. It worked for a while. But I came home one night last December, walked into my apartment bursting with stuff, and burst into tears.

I felt suffocated. I didn’t know why I was doing this. Why did I need to accumulate more, what was the point, if it held me down and prevented me from trying all the things I wanted to try?

I started to think about getting rid of all my stuff.

Getting Ready for the Leap

I watched videos online of people who’d done it. They had one backpack, and they were roaming the world, doing what they felt like.

That level of minimalism was not for me. I wanted more than one backpack. But I decided to start paring down and see how far I could get.

I gave notice on my apartment at the end of February and called the Salvation Army to set a pickup date. I browsed Airbnb to find promising listings for my new adventure. I wanted roommates, because I’d lived alone for too long. I wanted to shake up my way of life entirely.

One month later, I had three bags of stuff.

Empty Apartment

I walked through my apartment with the super, then closed the door behind me and took a taxi across town to my first Airbnb apartment. There was no moving van and no giant moving fee and no hassle. It was awesome.

Airbnb 1 – April

I chose a loft in Chelsea for the first month, April, living with a fashion photographer. It was directly across from Google and half a block from Chelsea Market. It was also convenient to the subway, which was great because I was still working. I was still weighing whether I needed a change of everything, including my job, or just a change of scenery. I gave myself one month to decide.

The loft was gorgeous, a self-contained space with a living-room area, desk, small mini-kitchen, and loft bed. The walls were covered with artwork, a friendly cat and dog lived in the apartment, and my roommate was the most amazing person I could have hoped for. We talked about life and he cooked delicious breakfasts and we watched Game of Thrones every week. I read programming books in my spare time. I looked out the window and felt life speeding up. At the end of the month, I gave notice at my job.

Airbnb 2 – May

On May 1 I moved to Brooklyn, to a two-bedroom apartment in Boerum Hill. My roommate was in technology, and with similar interests we had great discussions about technology and politics. It took a few days to adjust to the slower pace of Brooklyn — I’d wanted to try it, but at first it felt suburban, and I wasn’t sure about the low-key vibe. By the end of the month, I felt at home. I became friends not only with my roommate, but with his dog, and enjoyed the fully equipped kitchen and projection screen. Also, for the first time, I felt like part of a new community. I was moving toward something instead of away from something.

At the end of the stay, I decided I still had too much stuff. Moving was a struggle, and my suitcase was too heavy. So I left the suitcase behind for my June travels, and just took a backpack and a shoulder bags with a small purse inside of it.

Airbnb 3 – June

After my last day of work, I went to AltConf in San Francisco, so I didn’t rent a place in New York for June. Instead, I stayed in a Pacific Heights Airbnb for a week, in one of the most ideal rooms I could imagine. The Airbnb listing didn’t have professional photos, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. But the place was a tiny brick house on a hilly street, the apartment was clean and quiet and full of light, and the room in the back had a bed, a futon and a tiny fireplace and desk. I slept so peacefully there that, once again, I felt San Francisco embraced me as a visitor.

Airbnb 4 – June

In between trips to visit my parents and to see friends in upstate New York, I spent a few days in Manhattan in late June. I chose the West Village, since I’d always wanted to live there. It was a great experience but really no better than other neighborhoods, which allowed me to put to rest my inflated expectations. The best part was meeting my host and the other travelers staying with her. This is something I’ve found to be true with Airbnb — there’s almost always another roommate in the picture at some point. I’ve been fortunate to have great experiences, but it is something to be aware of, if you’re thinking of booking a private room instead of an entire apartment.

Airbnb 5 – July

After traveling in Canada (at an official B&B, not an Air), I returned to New York in late July for Hacker School. I chose an Airbnb room on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, directly across from a Le Pain Quotidien. I needed more than just a backpack for the next three months, so I bought a tiny carry-on suitcase that was easy to carry up and down stairs. Along with my backpack and shoulder bag, this was all I had and all I needed.

I loved living in Brooklyn Heights. The room was quiet, huge, and beautifully furnished. I could look out my window and see people dining on roof decks and then go downstairs to see people dining on the street. I didn’t see my roommate much, but enjoyed the conversations we had and then enjoyed the peacefulness of the space and the neighborhood.

Airbnb 6 – August/September

My final stay in New York was in Dumbo, where I’m typing this now. I live under a bridge, and the noise of trains is my companion. I love it, for the time and the place and the atmosphere and the industrial/new/old feeling. The apartment is a mid-century furnished loft, my roommate is amazing, and the little dog is incredibly friendly and playful. The water is filtered, there’s a trampoline to jump on for exercise, and I’ve gotten a lot done while living here.

Dumbo loft

I’m also ready to move on to what’s next. My “rent” next month will be in Florence and Tuscany, where I’m traveling for a post-Hacker School change of scenery. My goal is to maintain my pace of learning while seeing new places and having new experiences and considering what’s next.

I’ll be back in mid-November to decide for sure. My period of discovery will need to shift to a period of implementation or form a strange hybrid of the two, which could be even better.

But I still won’t have any stuff. And I’m happy about that. The important things in life are love, experiences and giving back — leaving something good behind. Stuff has no place in that equation, for me. It gets in the way. It’s a placeholder. I’ve learned to admit it, and clearing my life of stuff has done me a great good. It’s allowed me to see what’s important to me, focus on what’s important, and get things done.

Traveling in my own city, with Airbnb, has been an amazing experience.

The Day After the Carnival

I’m relaxed after a day at the dentist and a dose of Benadryl. This isn’t usually what I think of as relaxing.

Maybe because I’m coming to the end of Hacker School in a few weeks, maybe because I have a lot of work ahead of me and I’m excited about it, maybe because I’ve been thinking and coding and reading and writing nonstop since late July, but my brain is taking a breather.

I really want to pick up that JavaScript book. The one next to me on the table. But I listen to music my roommate is playing and put my head on my knees and smile and close my eyes.

I ate a bowl of pasta with olive oil, butter, garlic, tomatoes and Parmesan cheese. Perfect comfort food. My tooth doesn’t hurt. Giant relief. I can’t wait to go to bed, for once.

I look back at last spring and it seems like a different life. The space between now and then is well-trodden, like a field the day after a carnival. Walked on, laughed on, played on. Now I just want to walk forward. Or run.

That’s how I feel — like I’m running to do as much as possible, see all the sights and do all the things and be productive and valuable and make this the right decision. It’s a whirl and I love it. I’m never sure what to think. Just: Do as much as possible. Do as many things that scare me as possible. Make the most of this time. Enjoy life along the way.

Dreams, Decisions and the Subconscious

I dreamed of work. Not in a good or bad way, more as an alternative to what-is. I woke in the early-morning light, thinking, “Again?”

Be aware that if you make a major change, this will happen. The other will come calling when you least expect it. The decision not made.

I know why I dreamed of work this time. I ran into someone I know from that sphere — something that happens fairly often. I enjoyed our conversation. Now my subconscious is spinning, assessing the weight of different platters and decisions like items on a restaurant menu. Artichokes or linguine. Sushi or Thai curry. Neither better or worse, just different choices.

This dream wasn’t driven by dissatisfaction. I had an immensely successful week. I presented my first software to spontaneous applause and a flurry of questions, once to peers and once at a popular meetup. It was the reaction I’d hoped for and imagined. There is something there. I’ll keep working on it. I’m making progress and learning.

Who knows how the brain works. Maybe that was the trigger, the achievement of something, even if it’s a first something. I don’t feel as if I’m done with my sabbatical. But sometimes the decision not made drifts up at odd times, on a gray morning during a holiday weekend that doesn’t mean anything because holidays are irrelevant now. Maybe that’s it.

Regardless, I slept eight hours, and now it’s time for breakfast, code and laundry.

Keep Thinking. Go Faster.

I’m staying in a loft in Dumbo. It’s beautiful and furnished in a midcentury style, just under the Manhattan Bridge that rushes trains over the East River. It’s a dynamic, shifting place. Sometimes the apartment shakes when trains pass.

It reminds me of Hawaii’s Big Island, where I slept in a hotel room built on rocks near the ocean, which shook at night with the waves. I left the balcony door open and let the noise in.

Three weeks ago, I was living in Brooklyn Heights on a street with shops and restaurants. Climbing stairs to a view of roofs and balconies in utter quiet.

I prefer this, the moving and shifting and change in Dumbo, at least right now.

I have a pet again too, am enjoying the company of a small dog who runs to greet me and plays fetch and watches me jump on the trampoline in the apartment (which is amazingly awesome).

I work in my room at a white desk with a painting of a wave on the wall, or in the main loft at a long table that occasionally hosts dinner parties held by my roommate/host.

One of the great joys of my recent nomad-ness has been living with roommates again. It’s forced me out of my comfort zone and into contact with people who have adventurous lives different from my own. It’s made me more productive and imaginative, and I’ve made new friends as I explore new neighborhoods.

It’s like turning New York up to 11 — extending its influence right into my living space, which is usually a haven and a refuge from the noise and motion.

Amid this chaos, I am thriving. I have few belongings. I don’t do housework. I eat well but simply. I minimize everything that’s not waking up and working on interesting problems and learning things. Exploring new places and ideas.

Sometimes I feel scared by all the new things I’m doing. I feel like I’m on a train I don’t really know how to drive, staying on the tracks but pushing the accelerator harder and harder. On purpose.

“How does that feel? Terrifying? Great. Take it from 60 to 80.”

At least for right now, it feels like the right place, at the front of a speeding train, figuring out how things work. It’s what I needed. The purpose of these two years is to do as much as possible, and as many things that scare me as possible.

I remind myself I won’t get stuck if I keep adapting. If one approach doesn’t work, try another. Repeat until satisfied. Keep thinking. And go faster.

In the meantime, there’s a dinner party.

Name-Calling and Emotional Chaos

A few years ago, I realized there’s a phrase that consistently unnerves and upsets me when people use it as a weapon: my name.

Not like in an email greeting, or an in-person hello, or a, “Hi, my name is…”

I mean when my name is used to express frustration, to call me on the carpet for a perceived slight or shortcoming, to treat me as if I’m five years old being scolded by my parents. I react badly. It’s an instinctive, id-brain reaction that leads me to shut up, shut down or walk out. I simply lose the capability to conduct a rational argument, and sometimes end up in tears in a bathroom stall.

If It’s About the Work, It Works

On the other hand, I’ve taken plenty of criticism at the professional level that stayed at the professional level and was completely acceptable and even productive. Conflict is good in a war of ideas, bad in a war of egos. Criticism of the work is fantastic; criticism of the person who made the work is evil.

Names have power. And often the person using the name knows this. It’s unprofessional to let conversations devolve to the lowest common denominator simply to win or make a point. The best managers know this and rarely if ever do it.

Consider: If you hired a person because they were brilliant and productive and friendly, why would you take an action that strips those characteristics away and replaces them with upset and resentment, based on ancient evolutionary chemical reactions? It’s not logical.

Name-Praising Instead of Name-Calling

Another action we can take to stop name-calling is to start name-praising. Have you ever noticed that when telling someone they did a good job, the phrase is usually, “You did a great job on that, thank you.” It’s almost never, “Stephanie, you did a great job on that, thank you!” Or, from a friend, “Stephanie, I’m so happy to see you!”

Most of us mostly hear our names when we’ve done something wrong.

Over time and thousands of interactions, this usage pattern builds up emotional “muscle memory” that’s hard to undo. It’s worth undoing, though, to reclaim our names and make them sources of joy, pride and love — which is what they were at the beginning and really should be.

Staying on the Sidelines: A Rant and a Challenge

I don’t want to hear about how I can’t do it.

I believe the reason why so little gets done is because humans are so good at circumscribing our worlds to contain our immediate circumstances and no more. We forget about the entire world of possibilities outside of our little sphere, or choose not to think about them because thinking about them makes us feel sad or scared or angry or resentful.

We are very good — too good — at telling our fellow human beings they can’t either.

If you go out there — if you do that — if you climb that wall — if you look around that corner — the worst will happen. People will hate you. You will fail.

But if you listen, to your own cautioning voice or to others, and you stay on the sidelines in your comfortable little chair? You’ll always wonder what could have happened, if you climbed that wall or stepped outside your comfort zone or did that scary thing. You’ll think about it at night, when everything is quiet, and the small voice that speaks truth inside of you will say, “You could have tried.”

Resentment comes from failing the small voice inside of you, not from failing others or from failing yourself, but from being too afraid to try at all.

“It’s better to have tried and failed” is a proverb for a reason. The greatest regrets are usually the what-ifs. And we are capable of so much, and so afraid of trying already, that the last thing anyone needs is someone else telling them they can’t do something, or won’t succeed. If someone has gotten up the guts to try something we should applaud that person, applaud them for trying, victory or failure, and encourage them to keep trying and keep adding to the world.

If we all tried to add to the world, we’d have a much better world in aggregate. But instead we spend a lot of time telling people why they shouldn’t try, or can’t succeed, when we should be telling them the opposite and supporting them in their dreams and efforts. Real work is done by people taking real risks, not people watching safely from the sidelines, numbing their own still small voices and telling others to stay on the sidelines with them.

So let’s change this dynamic around. If resentment comes from staying on the sidelines, then staying on the sidelines is actually the scariest choice, and leaving the sidelines is lower-risk. Can we encourage people to get up from their chairs, make it the cool thing to do, cheer them on, welcome them back with open arms if they need a rest and some Gatorade, and then send them back out there?

It would be a better world.

The Last Days of Drifting

I wrote this during a long layover at Frankfurt Airport, on my way back from Barcelona to the U.S. in February. When I got home, I gave notice to vacate at my Manhattan apartment and gave away all my stuff, and this crazy adventure began.

At this point, I’m unifying my life, slowly merging my various social media profiles, learning and exploring and creating resources to help other people learn and explore. Looking back at where I was, I give thanks that I’m past that period.

Time in the airport spirals. It spirals in a haze of pleasant white light (in the business lounge) or harsh fluorescence (in the walkways) and becomes endless. I read half of a book (Nail It Then Scale It). I jot down ideas for iterating on a project. I get more tea. Then water. Then tea. Back and forth to the counter, aimless, sliding seamlessly on Lufthansa’s predefined paths. 

I’m bored. I thought a seven-hour layover was a good idea. 

I do like long layovers in a strange, undefined way. They are the fuzzy part of a trip. The pit of potential productivity. I could create something great here, in the airport lounge. I could write something, plan a new feature, get a new idea, implement new code, or just do nothing. Tea. More tea. Back and forth. 

Mostly people don’t talk to each other in the business lounge. I find I’m more productive, because I’m not constantly seeking the next conversation. I meet people on planes all the time, because we are stuck there and the proximity favors talking, at least before we fall asleep or tune each other out with headphones.

I imagine being stuck for days or weeks, walking endlessly from terminal A to Z in simulated comfort, buying boxes of Niederegger marzipan because it is the best thing in the airport. Washing it down with Courvoisier. Yuck. Or water, sold with a smile. Guten tag, Hola, Hello, Hallo, it all sounds the same. The food is better in Europe. 

The guy behind me left. That’s good, because I was uncomfortable writing with him there, felt that he was peering over my shoulder even though of course he was not. Airport privacy is transparent, artificial. We are each perfectly alone and completely seen. I am sure there are cameras in the ceiling. 

I wonder who is doing actual productive work here and who is aimlessly browsing the Internet or reading a book for pleasure or just staring into space. Staring into space is actually a good disguise for productive work, happening behind the scenes. 

Right now my life is in fragments. I am not on Facebook. I alternate between relief to have avoided drama, and wishing for a presence so I wouldn’t need to start a blog to post thoughts. I want to unify my social media presence, so my life is seamless and I can share what I want when I want with who I want. I have my LinkedIn persona and a new G+ page, a blog on organic food and general wellness, and a site for organizing MOOCs and online learning resources. I have a dormant site for people who want to move cities. 

I really want to unify my life, not my social media presence.

The airport is buzzing quietly with the noise of suitcase wheels and heels. People coming and going, in between. 

Quebec City as a (Sort-of) Solo Traveller

I spent the past week in Quebec City, now one of my favorite North American cities.

Old Quebec (Vieux Quebec) is a walled city with buildings from the 1600s. A great benefit of this architecture is that a car isn’t necessary. I traveled from New York City on Amtrak, switching to VIA Rail in Montreal.

Upon arrival in Quebec City in late afternoon, cabs were waiting at the train station, and it was a quick trip and a reasonable fare (about CAN$8) to B&B de la Fontaine.

B&B de la Fontaine

The owner wasn’t there when I arrived, but her instructions were clear and I easily accessed the lobby and checked in to my room.

It was beautiful! Wood floors, high ceiling, stone fireplace with exposed-brick wall, a comfortable queen-size bed, artwork, a small refrigerator, table and chairs, wardrobe, and work desk. My bathroom was small but functional, with enough space to move around in and a beautiful blue-and-gold mosaic tile design. Plants decorated the ledge atop the bathroom, and a fan spun lazily (there was also AC). Because my room was on the first floor, I drew the drapes, which were heavy and sufficient to block out any light or street views.

B&B de la Fontaine - Quebec City

After getting settled, I wandered around the old city. The location of the B&B was terrific, one block away from a park behind the Chateau Frontenac, away from noise but central to old Quebec and a short walk to the Lower Town stairway. The owner, Victoria, served a full homemade breakfast every morning in the dining room, which was included in the price. On various days, breakfast included eggs, pancakes, french toast, multigrain breads, jam, berries and other fruits, cakes, juice, tea and coffee.

This helped me save money because I basically ate one large meal out per day, plus a late-day snack.

Quebec City: No Car Required

I didn’t have a car, although my parents visited by car for a few days and stayed at a different B&B (thus the “sort-of” qualifier in this post title!). While they were in town, we visited Ile d’Orleans, which requires either a bike or car. (If you bike, I recommend spending an entire day at least. There are also plenty of guest houses on the island.)

Other than that brief trip to Ile d’Orleans, I walked. And I discovered that Quebec City is made for walking — if you have comfortable shoes. With hills, cobblestone streets and stone-paved sidewalks, stiletto heels are not a good idea. I wore low wedge heels, and I was fine.

Quebec City cobblestones

Best of Quebec City

Here are some great treasures I discovered:

The small park behind the Chateau Frontenac: Beautiful, quiet, an escape from the tourist buzz in front of the hotel.

Quebec City Park behind Chateau Frontenac

Lower Town: Turn left instead of right at the bottom of the first set of stairs, and you’ll explore a less-trafficked, more local part of the city, with restaurants, antique shops and art galleries.

Le Lapin Saute: Right in the middle of a touristic street in Lower Town (turn right at the bottom of the first set of stairs) is this brilliant restaurant that serves rabbit as its specialty. I ordered rabbit liver-and-kidney salad and onion soup with local Quebec cheese, and also sampled rabbit rillettes (pulled rabbit pate) and rabbit liver and kidneys sauteed with onions and served with vegetables and potatoes. Everything I tried was amazing, five-star quality, and the setting is beautiful, with outdoor tables and chairs next to a wooded square with flower beds. This was the best meal I ate in Quebec City and possibly all year.

Erico: The best chocolates I found in the city. The shop is on Rue St-Jean, which stretches from Old Quebec out to a more commercial and then residential neighborhood. It’s about a 15- to 20-minute walk from Old Quebec, so don’t get caught in the rain like I did! Their pistachio chocolates are sublime. They also serve different types of hot chocolate and gelato that can be dipped in chocolate.

La Carotte Joyeuse: A store featuring local and organic foods. Excellent if you like to eat healthy and have a refrigerator, and if you’re on a budget that limits restaurant meals. It’s a few doors away from Erico. I bought food here for the train trip back to New York.

Paillard: Budget-minded bakery cafe on Rue St.-Jean in Old Quebec where you can get a reasonable, delicious lunch and dessert.

Tournebroche near the Hotel de Vieux Quebec on Rue St-Jean in Old Quebec: This restaurant specializes in local, organic food. I had a cheese plate (good but not spectacular) and one of the best salads I ever ate, with mesclun, beets, tomatoes and vinaigrette, topped with ricotta and some kind of fruit paste. It’s weird to be recommending a salad, but I am.

Quebec Summer Music Festival

I was lucky to be in Quebec during the annual Summer Music Festival (Festival d’ete de Quebec). I purchased a festival pass for US$72, which allowed entry to any event on any day, and saw several great shows ranging from Bonobo to the John Pizzarelli Quartet. It was a perfect opportunity to let my right brain soak in abstract sounds and neon lights after a month of left-brain, programming-focused thinking. I left feeling refreshed, inspired and fired-up for the summer of hard work ahead of me back in New York (more on that later).

On Safety

I found Quebec City very safe, although as in any place, I tried to be reasonably smart. At night, I stayed on streets where there were other people, I looked around before entering the B&B, and I didn’t get drunk at the music festival or stumble home at 3am. I made sure my cell phone was always charged.

On Solitude

I will say it felt weird to be travelling out of the country by myself, even for a few days after my parents left. I’ve travelled alone in the U.S. quite a bit, but always with others beyond its borders. This was an experiment.

I found I enjoyed the days spent alone differently and more intensely, wandering through neighborhoods, discovering restaurants and stores, and enjoying the flow of people in their own worlds. At breakfast, staying alone had huge perks because I met all the other B&B guests and the wonderful owner. Our conversations ranged from, “Where are you from?” to restaurant recommendations to a comparison of public-health issues to the prisoner’s dilemma in economics. I loved it.

A Friendly Place

Lastly, my experience was that the people in Quebec City are among the friendliest I’ve met anywhere. I don’t speak French. I can say, “Bonjour,” quite well, and “Merci,” and “Ou sont les toilettes?” That’s about it. I did my best, smiling and greeting people with my limited French and then switching to English.

Unlike in Paris, I was not shunned. Universally, every single Quebecois I spoke with was kind, friendly and welcoming, willing to share information about the city, its history, and themselves. At this point I would like to learn French, just to speak this beautiful, descriptive language that surrounded me as I wandered the streets.

I love Quebec City and plan to be back. I hope this post helps those considering it as a solo travel destination to feel comfortable with the idea and get a head-start on finding some great places.