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So we’re back in the US.

What a year. I’m so grateful to have had the chance to travel to all these countries and experience so much. We saved and planned for years so that we could hike the Annapurna Circuit, ride a camel, see the Acropolis, pet a koala, and eat amazing food from all over the world. I took some really fun cooking classes in Japan and Thailand and learned a decent amount of basic Italian. Scott learned how to ride a scooter. We both learned how to cross crazy busy streets (make eye contact with the drivers, walk slowly and steadily instead of running across or stopping suddenly).

One of the best parts was meeting people and hearing their stories. We met a fascinating Nepalese man who had married a Japanese woman and had run a Nepalese restaurant in Japan before coming back to Nepal to run a Japanese restaurant with his wife. A couple of women in Barcelona drove up to us by the sidewalk and offered us a ride just because we looked lost. We shared an apartment with a friendly Italian couple who cooked us dinner. An American who spent half the year in his cabin in Maui and the other half in Nepal making a documentary gave us a ride in his SUV.

And of course it was great to meet up with friends in Paris and Naples and visit family in India, Thailand, and Korea.

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Even as we came across puzzling differences like people in some countries who didn’t really use maps (even taxi drivers, which made it hard when they didn’t already know where a place was), ultimately our travels were an affirmation of how similar we all are. We all need people to love and be loved by. Everyone likes to laugh. A smile can go a long way when you don’t speak the same language. And we all need food and shelter, except that many of us are so used to having it that we hardly ever think about it. Sometimes we used squat toilets and stayed in some questionable hostels in Nepal and India, but that was a complete joke compared to the extreme poverty that afflicts so many in those countries. Almost all Americans are more fortunate than the majority of people in the world. Yet it’s so easy to complain and envy some people while forgetting about others. It’s easy to buy a cheap shirt for $5 without thinking about why it costs $5. It’s easy to forget about the massive amounts of trash that we create when we just have it taken away instead of seeing it accumulate in the neighborhood.

I hope that this year of travel has brought a little more perspective and mindfulness to my life. Probably one of the biggest changes for me was becoming vegetarian. Kind of funny that I once claimed that I could never marry a vegetarian because I love eating meat. I’m sure there will be plenty more occasions in my life when I will eat my words. There’s a chance I could change my mind if the U.S. starts treating its farm animals a lot more humanely, but factory farming is just utterly wrong on so many levels. And at some point last year I decided that it’s wrong for me to support that kind of suffering just because I like how meat tastes.

One of the best things about the year was just having time for myself, especially precious after 3 years in residency with frequent 80-hour weeks. With more time to just sit and think and reflect, I have a better sense of who I am. I became interested in unconventional blogs like Mr. Money Mustache and Miss Minimalist. I usually read mostly fiction, but I found myself devouring nonfiction last year. Some of my most eye-opening favorites were:

Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow

Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

I also really enjoyed Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, and Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

You’ll notice a lot of social psychology in there, which my husband happens to have gotten a Ph.D. in, but he didn’t seem that interested in reading or discussing them with me. If you read any of these, though, I’m happy to discuss them with you!

Anyway, I’m glad to report that we have come back safe (no need to worry, Uncle Ty), and I figure it’s a good sign that our marriage survived being together constantly for an entire year. The only regret I have is that we weren’t more social and didn’t book more accommodation that would have given us more interaction with other people.

After all the moving around, I’m looking forward to settling down in one place for a while and putting down some roots. It’s been strange to come back and experience sticker shock in the US, though – we’re wondering what happened to the 1 euro baguettes and 1 euro cappuccinos we saw in Europe, and we swear that US grocery store prices are way higher than we remembered. We’re still figuring out what happens next as we find jobs and hopefully start earning money instead of just spending it, but I think we’ll eventually travel again at some point, just a little more slowly. It’s funny how even after a year of travel, there are still so many places we want to see, like South Africa, Patagonia, Jordan, Greek islands, Sicily, the UK, and huge countries we’ve never been to (China, Russia, and Brazil).

As for this blog, this is my 105th post, and probably my last, although it’s possible I will revive the blog to post about other trips in the future. If you’ve been coming to this blog from http://www.scottandnina.com, that domain name will be discontinued by the summer – the permanent link to this blog is http://purplmarsh.wordpress.com. I wish everyone a wonderful new year as we finish this chapter and start the next one.

RTW Trip Summary

Length: 348 days

Continents: Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa (if you count Egypt)

Number of countries: 25 (28 with Vatican City, Monaco, and San Marino)

Favorite country: Italy

Favorite mode of transport: a scooter in Vietnam and Indonesia

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Favorite food:

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Italy

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Thailand

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India

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France

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Indonesia

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Japan (dishes above from my cooking class)

Best drinks: coffee in Italy and Vietnam, cardamom/masala chai in India, beer in Czech, wine in Australia

Best hike: 12 days on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal

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Thorong La Pass at 17,769 feet

Worst hike: Mt. Ngauruhoe in New Zealand, aka Mt. Doom from the Lord of the Rings movies

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Really steep, and we stupidly started going up the scree (1 step forward, 2 steps back) instead of along the ridge. Plus we lost each other at the end.

Favorite animal encounters:

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Australia – You won’t find animals like kangaroos, duck-billed platypuses, and echidnas anywhere else in the world. Scott’s favorite Australian animal is the wombat on the left (or else his koala neighbor); mine is the Tasmanian devil on the right.

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Riding camels in India

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Hanging out with penguins in New Zealand

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Caring for elephants in Thailand

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Monkeys galore in Nepal, India, and Indonesia

Most impressive structures:

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Taj Mahal

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Temples in Bagan

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The Parthenon in Athens

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Pyramids of Giza

Favorite museum: Te Papa Tongarewa in New Zealand

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I think the British Museum could have beaten Te Papa if we had had longer to spend there, and the Louvre was a close runner-up.

Prettiest cities:

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Kyoto

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Venice

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Ghent

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Paris

Number of times robbed: 0

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…unless you count the cookie monster in India

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Terrace of our rental house in Soriano nel Cimino

While it’s easy to wander around developing countries without booking anything beforehand, in Europe we had to plan ahead to keep accommodation costs low. Of course, we wouldn’t have had to plan so much if we had stayed in hostel dorm rooms, but we’re now a fussy old married couple who want private rooms and private bathrooms without the hotel prices. Renting apartments and cottages was perfect for us.

 

Why Renting Apartments Is Awesome

You feel like you live there

An apartment provides a better sense of what it’s like to live in a particular city than indistinguishable hotel chains. We slept on tatami mats in our Japanese house in Kyoto. We walked our Australian hosts’ dog to the nearby beach so he could gleefully bite ocean waves. We met neighbors like the elderly Italian women (and Paulina the dog) who gossiped in the courtyard of our rental in a small medieval hill town. We often stayed in residential neighborhoods and walked to our favorite bakery daily to buy fresh baguettes and chat with friendly workers who weren’t sick of tourists.

 

Apartments come with other stuff

Our Vienna apartment rental

We loved the extra perks that came with renting a place: the kitchen with a fridge, the little espresso makers everywhere in Italy, the washers when we didn’t feel like washing our clothes in the sink, the extra rooms and balconies where I went to read when Scott hadn’t woken up yet. The owner of our rental in Istanbul lent us a transportation card and cell phone to use during our stay. The apartment we rented in Prague even had a piano with sheet music in the living room. Owners often provided welcome gifts like a bottle of wine, regional specialties, or a half dozen fresh eggs from the chickens they were raising. We could chat with our Italian host’s girlfriend about the differences between northern and southern Italy or ask for recommendations on her favorite local restaurants without worrying about any ulterior motives.

 

You can get great value

You can pay quite a bit for luxury apartments, especially those maintained by property management companies, but there are some great deals as well. In my last post I already talked about some of our favorites, many of them significantly cheaper than a hotel room (let alone a hotel suite) or a private room in a hostel. Having your own kitchen and fridge can keep food costs way down, and a washing machine is handy for free laundry. Rentals also tend to have better discounts for longer stays.

 

Why Renting Apartments Can Be Not So Awesome

It’s not as easy as staying at a hotel

It can be a lot more work to find a good apartment and discuss the details with the owner (especially if there’s a language barrier) than to book a hotel. You may need to send a deposit and arrange a specific time to pick up and drop off keys. If something goes wrong, it may be difficult to get ahold of the owner or property manager. If you like fresh towels and sheets daily, most properties do not have daily housecleaning. You might have to take out your own trash.

 

Rentals vary

We enjoyed most of the places we rented, but we noticed a lot of variability. Some places (ahem, Soriano nel Cimino) outshined 5 star hotels, but we also stayed in a couple student apartments elsewhere that were not very clean. When judging a property, websites usually provide more reviews for hotels than for apartments or houses. Rental sites like Airbnb have a review system, but because owners also review guests, there’s an incentive to keep reviews positive.

 

How to Find a Great Apartment Rental

We found the following websites most helpful:

Sabbatical Homes

Homeaway

Airbnb

 

The first two websites are the hardest to navigate, but they’re also where we found some of our best deals. Sabbatical Homes is especially useful for longer stays of at least a month. Neither site charges a fee for contacting owners, but Homeaway requires an email address that will automatically start receiving promotional emails.

Airbnb has the largest number of listings, mostly local residents renting out everything from a couch in their living room to an entire apartment to a luxury treehouse. Airbnb takes a 6-12% service charge for each transaction, but I have to admit they provide a decent service and allow you to pay with a credit card, withholding funds until the day after you arrive to make sure you’re satisfied with your stay. They also frequently run promotions for $25 off a stay (search for Airbnb promotional discount codes before you book).

 

So how to wade through the thousands of listings you might find?

 

1. Think about the features you want

Do you want a whole place to yourself or do you like socializing with others in a shared apartment? Do you need elevator access if an apartment is on the 4th floor? If you’re visiting during the summer, can you handle not having air conditioning? How important is location?

Besides the basics, we tended to look for free wifi, a washing machine, and an entire property close to public transportation. You can narrow your search through first filtering by desired features.

 

2. Look at the listing carefully

Sometimes the best deals are new listings that might not have a lot of pictures or reviews, but you can always email the owner for more information and pictures and see how reliable they are in responding.

* double check the location (will it be a hassle to get there?)

* confirm whether they can accommodate your arrival and departure times

* make sure you see a picture of the bathroom and bedroom (avoid sofa beds)

* reviews can be helpful, but remember that the ones on Airbnb may be biased positively since guests are also reviewed by the owners

* read the fine print: note the possible service charges, deposits, or cleaning fees, and find out what the cancellation policy is

 

3. Confirm the type of payment

Understandably many owners would like a deposit to hold your reservation (although a few people like the owner of our month-long Japanese rental trusted us without one). Airbnb’s credit card system felt like the safest method, followed by Paypal and then bank transfer. A bank transfer has the least recourse if something goes wrong, so make sure that you get plenty of information and have a good sense that a person is trustworthy before sending any money, especially if it’s a significant sum (most places shouldn’t require the entire amount ahead of time). We did send several bank transfers without any problems, and some people who initially asked for bank transfers agreed to use Paypal instead.

 

If all that seems really complicated but you’re still interested in renting an apartment, I would start with Airbnb since it’s pretty easy to use and only a credit card is needed for payment. Or you could just hire Scott to find a rental for you since he was amazing at finding us great places, and he should probably be the one writing this post in the first place.

 

If you’re new to Airbnb, you can sign up through this link for both of us to get $25 off our next stay.

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Our rental house in Soriano nel Cimino circled in white

You’ve probably realized by now how much we loved renting apartments in Europe. I’m going to write a post soon on why and how to find a good one, but this post of our favorites is mostly for us so that we can remember the great times we had in these apartments.

If you click on the city names, you’ll be taken to the current listings with more pictures and information in case you’re interested in staying there too. The prices I list are what we paid at the time, including any service charges and cleaning fees. The prices for some of them, especially the ridiculously cheap ones, have since gone up as they become more established and build up positive reviews, but there are always great deals to be had almost anywhere with some digging and luck. And most offer significant discounts for longer stays, whether a week or a month. These rentals are in no particular order since I found it too hard to rank them.

 

Flinders Chase National Park, Kangaroo Island ($62 USD a night, sleeps 4)

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I’ll start with the Postman’s Cottage, which is where the postman used to stay when he came to the western side of Kangaroo Island to deliver mail. Now it’s part of Flinders Chase National Park and rented out to visitors. I already gushed about the fun old-fashioned wood stove and other appliances here.

Favorite part: the koala we found sleeping in a neighboring tree

 

Budapest, Hungary ($47 a night for 6 nights, sleeps up to 4)

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I had to drag myself outside to go sightseeing because I loved this apartment so much. It was beautifully decorated and the friendly, helpful owner obviously put a lot of thought into making the experience as comfortable as possible for us. She also gave us a free bottle of Hungarian wine. The location right next to St. Stephen’s Cathedral was amazing.

Favorite part: high ceilings and huge old-fashioned European windows provided tons of light

 

Vienna, Austria (well, we booked that studio but the landlord gave us this bigger one for the same price of $63 a night for 2 nights)

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This apartment was spotlessly clean and full of gadgets, like the fancy TV and stereo system and the espresso machine (unfortunately without any espresso included).

Favorite part: The best gadget of all was the shower. Scott and I still talk about that shower. It had a built-in radio that you could tune while taking your shower and all sorts of features with different sprays and even a steam sauna function. Did I mention we loved that shower?

 

Bruges, Belgium ($29 a night for 4 nights, sleeps 2)

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The price we got on this cottage was pretty ridiculous for the area. Technically it was a little outside Bruges and required a car to get to, but even with having to rent a car it was cheaper than it would have been to stay inside Bruges without a car. It felt like our own little cottage out in the countryside with a pretty patio and garden, chickens out back who we fed all our leftover pasta to, friendly neighbors down the road, and big corn fields all around us. The owners even gave us Belgian chocolate, two beers, and a bag of cuberdons (a cone-shaped Belgian candy).

Favorite part: the idyllic setting

 

Paris, France ($53 a night for a week-long stay, sleeps 2)

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This was the first apartment rental of our trip so it holds a special place for us. It was a tiny studio but used its space very efficiently so it felt cozy instead of crowded. It felt like our own Parisian pied-à-terre.

Favorite part: its location in the heart of Latin Quarter on a street surrounded by open-air markets, bakeries, crepe stands, and restaurants

 

Autrans, France near the French Alps ($39 a night for 3 nights, sleeps 4)

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Autrans is a picturesque little village that comes alive during the ski season. We were way too early for snow, but we enjoyed the wooden paneling and rustic ski chalet feel of our cottage (on the far corner with the white car in the picture above). The people there were incredibly friendly, and the owner introduced us to all of his family and eagerly showed us around. He was so excited to give us six fresh eggs from his own chickens that he dropped the egg carton and broke all of them while trying to put them in the fridge. He gave us more, but what a waste of delicious eggs! You can read more about our stay in Autrans and Burgundy here.

Favorite part: proximity to the hikes in Vercors Regional Natural Park

 

St. Boil, France in Burgundy ($63 a night for 4 nights, sleeps 3)

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We rented a cottage in the Burgundy wine region that had been fully renovated but also incorporated details like stonework from the area that was thousands of years old. The owners were a chatty Belgian couple who gave us a couple of Belgian beers when we asked them for recommendations on where to go in Belgium later. They even made a polished YouTube video of their cottage that I’ve included below.

Favorite part: the amazing view of the vineyards for miles around

 

Florence, Italy ($36 a night for a bedroom and breakfast in a shared apartment with the owner)

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We mostly rented private apartments for ourselves, but I wish we had done more shared apartments after meeting our Italian host Daniele. He was incredibly nice and friendly, providing us a giant breakfast every morning (including vegetarian “cold cuts” for us) and making a fantastic dinner one night while we chatted with him and his girlfriend. He normally had free bikes to rent as well, but they had been stolen right before we arrived, so he even gave us a good bottle of wine and a box of Italian cookies as an apology.

Favorite part: getting to know Daniele

 

Soriano nel Cimino, Italy ($100 a night 2 bed/bath for 1 week, sleeps up to 6)

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This was definitely the fanciest place we stayed in as we had planned to share it with Scott’s mother and stepfather, but unfortunately their plans fell through and we ended up there by ourselves. It was beautifully designed by an architect with giant windows and a rooftop terrace. I’ve already talked about it quite a bit here.

Favorite part: the views of the medieval hill town

 

Naples, Italy ($52 a night for one week, sleeps 2)

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Our large apartment on the top floor had a terrace with olives, grapes, sage, and tumbling purple flowers and provided a great view of one of our favorite cities. The terrace was even connected to a cave (although they told us not to go inside because it was dangerous). Our neighbor was a dog we nicknamed “The Scruff” and down the street we could buy the best pizza we’ve ever had for $5. You can read more about our love of Naples here.

Favorite part: everything except the mosquitoes

 

So those were our ten favorite vacation rentals. We enjoyed a lot of others as well, but they didn’t quite make the top ten. Next up: a post on why we chose to rent places so often and how to find a good one.

Whoa, We Saw the Pyramids

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Scott and the Sphinx

From Istanbul, we had toyed with visiting other parts of Turkey like Cappadocia, but since it was mid-November we instead decided to buy tickets at the last minute to warmer Egypt. We spent four days in Cairo gawking at the Pyramids of Giza and stuffing ourselves with cheap, delicious food.

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It was pretty darn cool to see the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still remaining. It’s crazy that the Egyptians built these pyramids over 4000 years ago. Or maybe it really was the aliens…

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In front of the Pyramid of Khafre

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Passageways lined by steep ladders led deep underground to the tombs where mummies and treasure used to lie. And I got to say, “I’m in a pyramid!” (We have a weird running joke where I say, “I’m in a fort!” when in a fort)

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We also took a picture of touching the Pyramid of Khufu in the same way that we saw dozens of people do at the Taj Mahal. We told ourselves that we did it ironically, but I think we’re just dorky and found it funny.

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Picture of the street from our hostel window

Scott loved being in Egypt. It had been a long time since we had been in a developing country, and it reminded us a lot of India. Scott enjoyed the vibrancy of life in Egypt, but I quickly grew tired of Cairo’s crowds, traffic, incessant honking past midnight, blow-your-nose-and-it’s-black pollution, and shysters who kept trying to wring Egyptian pounds out of us. I think what Scott especially loved with all his cheapskate frugal heart were the amazing food prices, some of which were on the same level with India (i.e. even cheaper than southeast Asia). The picture above shows the chain restaurant Gad across the street from our hostel, which we must have gone to at least five times.

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There we got falafel sandwiches (pita bread filled with falafel, veggies, and tahini) and fuul sandwiches (with mashed fava beans similar to how Mexicans prepare refried beans) for 1.25 Egyptian pounds each. Considering 1 dollar is worth a little over 6 Egyptian pounds, that meant each sandwich cost 20 cents. And this was at a pretty nice restaurant, so I imagine it’d be even cheaper as street food. Our first night in Cairo, Scott ordered three sandwiches there after already having eaten dinner on the plane, and I tried to stop him from buying so many, but he said he had to order three because they totaled 60 cents, and he just couldn’t pass that up. To his credit, he did manage to finish them, although he was pretty stuffed afterward.

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The fresh pita bread was delicious. We constantly saw people on bicycles carrying large trays of pitas on their heads from the ovens where they had just been baked to the street stands where they would be sold.

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We stuck our heads into one shop where they were churning out fresh, hot pitas hoping to buy a couple. One guy immediately decided to give us a tour around the shop and showed us every step of how they were made. He had pretty decent English, but he used the phrase, “My name is,” to mean “The name of this is,” and so he pointed out different objects in the shop as “My name is oven,” and looked at me and asked Scott, “My name is wife?”

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We were given some tea, too. Afterwards, we were offered pitas at 2 Egyptian pounds per pita, which we knew was at least ten times the normal price (Scott had bought 4 or 5 pitas for 1 pound at a stand the day before), but when a massive overcharge is still 30 cents a pita, we were happy to buy a couple and give the guy a little extra for showing us around.

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Another popular Egyptian dish that we liked was kushari, which is macaroni, rice, lentils, and chickpeas topped with tomato sauce and fried onions with a splash of something spicy. Not terribly exciting, but hearty and filling and a nice vegetarian option – look for big metal vats to find where it’s sold.

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We also loved the mango ice cream from a dessert shop across the street from our hostel. It was chock full of real mango and wonderfully creamy. I have to say that it even rivaled Italian gelato, except that two scoops of this stuff in Egypt cost less than a dollar.

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In addition to food, the huge bazaars sold everything you could possibly want to buy, but I found it a little scary to navigate through the crowds. A lot of people tried to pass through the narrow lanes carrying large loads on their backs or carts, and the way they announced their presence was to hiss like a snake from behind. If I didn’t hear it in time, I could get knocked around by a bunch of bulging blankets.

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But hey, at least I didn’t get run over by a truck full of blankets. Egypt was an exciting way to spend the last week of our trip before we went back to the comforts of home. Since we had such limited time in Cairo, we didn’t have a chance to visit its huge Egyptian Museum, but at least we had an overnight layover in London before going home, and we got to spend a whirlwind hour in the British Museum, which has a completely ridiculous Egyptian collection. Not only did they have a crazy number of mummies and giant Egyptian heads and sculptures, they also had the Rosetta Stone. And seeing the Parthenon sculptures there was pretty neat after visiting Athens. After way too short of a time in London, Scott flew to Grand Rapids to be with his family while I flew to LA to be with mine. I’ll write more soon on what it was like to go on a trip like this and how it feels to be back home.

Turkish Delights

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Nina in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

Istanbul can be a little tough for vegetarians with doner kebab on every corner, but they sure know how to do desserts well.

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My favorite sweet was the Turkish delight, chewy little squares with pistachios in a variety of flavors and colors. I liked the ones made with honey better than the ones with just sugar.

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Scott ate a lot of baklava, thin layers of pastry dough sandwiched between chopped pistachios and soaked in honey. I couldn’t eat that much of it, though, because it’s so sweet.

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Dondurma, or Turkish ice cream, contains orchid root, which is a thickener that gives it a dense, elastic texture and allows it to stiffly hold its shape without melting (see the picture above). Ice cream vendors will often perform little shows with the ice cream that take advantage of its unique properties.

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Even better is dondurma with helva, ice cream covered with a warm, dense confection made with semolina flour, sugar, and pine nuts.

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I loved sutlac, baked rice pudding. I know the top looks a little weird since it’s blackened from being broiled, but I thought it was delicious.

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If you get thirsty from all the street food, you can easily pick up a cup of fresh-squeezed carrot/grapefruit/pomegranate/apple/mixed juice from a juice stand. A small cup goes for 1 Turkish lira, or about 50 cents (pomegranate is more).

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Turkish pizza is pretty popular, too. For meat eaters, it often comes with a spicy minced meat topping. It has a long boat shape with light, crispy dough, especially good when it comes right out of the oven although it’s often sold as street food.

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Cig kofte, or spicy “raw meatballs,” probably wins the award for Most Misleading Name for a Vegetarian Food. It used to be made from raw meat, but when this was banned, most vendors switched to making it out of bulgur instead yet kept the name. Scott likened the taste to Taco Bell meat (I think he meant this positively?) and it’s often sold with veggies in a wrap.

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There are other vegetarian dishes that actually look vegetarian as well. I got a veggie platter with grilled vegetables and yogurt (the oblong shape above is an eggplant), and there are lots of salads and eggplant dishes in Turkish cuisine.

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One of our favorite places to wander was the open-air market near Galata Bridge. Crowded stalls sold tubs of olives, dried fruit (try the huge figs), nuts, dried fruits stuffed with nuts, loose leaf tea, spices, Turkish delights, baklava, gifts, knicknacks, knockoff clothes….pretty much anything you could imagine. Interspersed among the stalls were restaurants and street vendors selling roasted chestnuts, salep (a sweet hot drink made with orchid powder), sesame rings, and Turkish pizza.

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Scott kept returning to the cheese shops there to get what looked like string cheese, a mild and fibrous cheese.

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Oh, and we did do some other things besides just eat. That’s me in front of the impressive Blue Mosque.

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The inside was pretty impressive, too. After visiting a bunch of Christian churches and Buddhist temples on our trip, it was interesting to see the complete lack of sculptures or portraits of people or animals (to avoid idolatry). Instead, the interior was decorated with stained glass and mosaics with intricate geometric designs and Arabic calligraphy quoting from the Koran.

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Istanbul has a rich history as the capital of the Byzantine empire (when it was Constantinople) and then as the capital of the Ottoman empire. When we first got to the old city, we’d come across a large mosque, and I’d ask Scott, “Is that the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sophia?” and he’d answer, “No, that’s not even marked on the map.” The minarets and domes of numerous mosques towered over the landscape of the old city.

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I would recommend visiting the Topkapi Palace, the residence of the Ottoman Sultans for almost 400 years. Packed with relics and treasures, the extensive palace complex houses the Topkapi dagger (with 3 huge emeralds embedded in its hilt) and the 86-carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond. I hardly ever wear jewelry, and I was still captivated by the enormous jewels.

I think Scott was kind of disappointed with Istanbul because of higher prices than he had expected and the lack of vegetarian options, but I had a good time!

One Day in Marseille

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Unfortunately, we only had 24 hours in Marseille, but we tried to make the best of it. We took a train from Nice with beautiful scenery along the coast and arrived at Marseille by mid-morning. After walking to our hotel and dropping off our bags, we checked out the nearby Noailles quarter to grab some lunch. The colorful, bustling market and shops filled with immigrants selling Egyptian, Tunisian, Algerian, and Moroccan food and wares was a striking change from staid Nice. I bought some spicy potato balls and thin pancakes (I’m sure there are more accurate names for these, but I don’t know much about North African food), and Scott bought a giant round loaf of Moroccan bread that must have weighed several pounds.

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I was glad we had stopped by the information center at the Marseille train station and picked up their free detailed guide to Les Calanques, a 20-km stretch of gorgeous steep-walled inlets along the coast between Marseille and Cassis. Of course we couldn’t hike the whole thing with the limited time we had, but after only a couple stops on the metro from our hotel and a 20-minute bus ride, we were at the start of one of its beautiful hiking trails.

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We spent several hours hiking in the area until the sun started to set and cast a pink glow over the rocks.

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We headed back to our hotel as it got more chilly, first stopping by Noailles market again to pick up some hot takeaway pizza, and tried to go to bed at a decent hour so we could wake up early for some sightseeing in the morning before we had to leave for Istanbul.

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After stopping by a café for coffee and a croissant (which, by the way, I only recently realized was named for its crescent shape…I was a little slow there), we walked up to the church of Notre-Dame de la Garde, which sat on the highest spot in Marseille and provided great views of the city below.

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The interior of the basilica was beautiful as well and had old model sailboats suspended from the ceiling. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that Notre-Dame de la Garde (Our Lady of the Guard) was thought to protect the sailors who left the city’s harbor.

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Afterwards we walked down to Vieux-Port (Old Port) and wandered around the city center, exploring an old fort, Marseille cathedral, and le Panier, the old part of town with narrow streets lined by colorful, weathered houses.

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As much as we liked Nice, we loved the diversity and vitality of Marseille even more, and we wished we’d had longer than just a day there (the trains hadn’t been running for the four days before we’d gotten there). But we tried to make the most of our limited time there and enjoyed it thoroughly.

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