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I started September in Minsk, eager to visit four new European countries. I finished the month in New York, recovering after a very busy six weeks of on-and-off travel. And now I’m sitting in my apartment, totally pooped and yearning to travel like crazy while savoring all the time I have at home.
Here it is — the best of September!
St. Petersburg, Russia
New York, NY, USA
St. Petersburg. It far surpassed my expectations with its beauty and grandeur.
Visiting four new countries — including one that I thought would be quite difficult. I would really love to visit 100 countries, and being at 74 now puts that goal within reach. Also, I only have one country remaining in Europe — Cyprus!
That said, the last thing I want to be is the kind of person who lands in a capital, spends a day and a half there, and yells, “Country done!” I hate that. And I know that sounds ironic considering that I only visited one city each in Belarus, Lithuania, Estonia, and Russia. That wasn’t my intention at all for Lithuania and Estonia; see “Challenges” for why. So as I move on, I’ll be making an effort to visit more when possible.
Vilnius delighted me from the start. Coming from a tricky destination like Minsk, arriving in Vilnius felt like Scandinavia — people spoke English! There was wifi! Taxi drivers didn’t rip me off! I had a door code and could walk right into my apartment rental without having to meet the owner! But beyond that, I found Vilnius to be a beautiful and artsy city, as well as a major bargain compared to Western European capitals. One highlight was dining at Grey, where they have a Lithuanian tasting menu for just 14 EUR ($16), including beer. Thanks for the recommendation, Alex!
Tallinn entranced me with its beauty. Of the three Baltic capitals, Tallinn is easily the prettiest, and it reminded me very much of Prague. Once I left the old town, it reminded me a lot more of the Nordic cities I’ve seen, which sets it apart from the other Baltic capitals. I felt like I got to know the city much better once I headed away from the tourist zone, dining on Korean food and hanging out in coffeeshops among the locals.
The Hermitage is my new favorite museum in the world. It seriously blew me away — I could not believe the sheer level of art and beauty on display. The analogy that kept coming to mind was if the French had decided to put the art of the Louvre in Versailles instead! St. Petersburg as a whole was a delight from start to finish. It’s now one of my favorite cities in Europe! I loved the grandeur and the fashionable people.
Chill time in Helsinki. One thing I love about Helsinki is that there aren’t a ton of must-see sights — it’s a place for hanging out, drinking coffee, eating Fazer chocolate, and especially SHOPPING. I didn’t do much during my final days in Helsinki — more on that below — and it was what I needed.
Lots of fun times with friends and family in New York. Not one but two sets of college friends came to see Hamilton and I met them for eats in Hell’s Kitchen afterward. One night my sister, her boyfriend, and my friend Dave, a.k.a. the blogger behind Go Backpacking, and I competed at trivia at At the Wallace, one of my local bars, and we WON! My friend Anna from The Legendary Adventures of Anna turned 30 with a bang (and lots of wigs and jello shots), and my friend Amelia hosted a clothing swap where we brought several nice items of clothing we didn’t want anymore, swapped what we wanted, and donated the rest to Housing Works.
Also, my dad came to visit New York for the weekend! He split his visit between September and October, but I’ll share the September highlights here. First we went to see Kinky Boots on Broadway, a super-fun musical with great songs and a heartwarming message. Billy Porter has returned to play his Tony Award-winning role as Lola, and I haven’t seen an actor so perfectly suited for a role since Daveed Diggs in Hamilton. He was that good.
We also spent a lot of time uptown, hanging out at our favorite bars and restaurants in Harlem, visiting the Museum of the City of New York, and did a historical food tour with Taste Harlem. The tour in particular was awesome, the chicken and waffles from Red Rooster were rapturously good, and there was a hilarious little Australian boy on the tour named James who ran off everywhere, high-fived everyone, tried to befriend cops, and kept us all in stitches.
A lot of things went wrong on my Europe trip. I didn’t expect that, and the challenges unfortunately ended up putting a damper on what was otherwise a very nice trip.
Minsk was a tough destination, as I wrote last month, but the most difficult part of all happened on September 1. I was planning to get to Vilnius by train, and one of my readers pointed out on Facebook that I was supposed to leave Minsk by air. Some nationalities including Americans are allowed to visit visa-free if they arrive by air and stay less than five days. That was my plan. I double-checked the official US international travel resource, travel.state.gov, and it said the same thing: arrive by air, stay less than five days. Then I checked the website for the Belarus embassy in the US and it said you had to arrive AND depart by air! Eek! Talk about a major oversight on travel.state.gov!
I found a flight to Vilnius for much later that day and booked it — thankfully, it only cost $60 and Uber exists in Minsk, so I could get a ride to the airport (the airport is WAY out of town). I actually found a cafe with wifi that didn’t require an SMS (!), so I was able to summon an Uber from there.
I am so thankful to my reader for pointing that out in the nick of time. You guys really are the best readers in the world, and part of that is because you saved me from a scary experience at the Belarus-Lithuania border!
As for other mishaps, one of my flights was cancelled in Vilnius, and my tour of Lahemaa National Park in Estonia was cancelled. I was not notified by email in either case, which irked me and wasted my time. These two incidents and having to book a late flight from Minsk meant that I lost a lot of time that I intended to spend exploring Kaunas in Lithuania and Lahemaa and Tartu in Estonia. I did not want to only visit the capital and leave. That disappointed me.
Arriving in Russia was a nightmare. Just read the post for the details. Next time I visit Russia, my passport is going to be pristine.
Finally, I dealt with anxiety during the end of my trip in Finland. I sometimes get hit with waves of of anxiety, usually brought on from stress while traveling. The first time was in Chiang Mai in 2015, when I suddenly felt so overwhelmed and suddenly doing easy things felt impossible. I even felt petrified of visiting a new restaurant. My anxiety never been quite that bad since, but it surfaces from time to time.
In Helsinki, I just felt like I was being pressured in every direction. So I did nothing. I walked around, I ate, I shoppedI met with my friend Eva. That was enough to make me feel like an overachiever. It was also pouring at Biblical levels, so I didn’t feel bad about not getting good photos.
The trains in New York have been AWFUL lately. One weekend I went to Brooklyn twice within a 24-hour period and spent about seven hours in transit total. SEVEN HOURS. To the next borough over. In other news, this is why I read as much as I do…
Most Popular Post
The Emotional Labor of Female Travel Bloggers — Required reading for both women and men.
How to Plan a German Christmas Market Trip — This is a trip that I think ever Europe lover should take
Visiting Russia Without a Visa on the St. Peter Line Ferry — The complete guide on how to take this unusual trip.
Vail, Colorado, Might Be Better in the Summer! — I had the best time hiking and enjoying the summer beauty!
In Kiev, a Stylish and Surprising City — Kiev was a lot of fun, even though my expectations weren’t high.
Most Popular Instagram Photo
Who knew Vilnius would get all the likes? This photo was taken in Užupis, a neighborhood in the old town that has declared itself a separate republic, not unlike Christiania in Copenhagen. For more live updates from my travels, follow me on Instagram at @adventurouskate.
What I Read This Month
Hell yes — I finally finished the Popsugar 2017 Reading Challenge! This is the second 52-book reading challenge I’ve done, and while I enjoyed it, I think it’s best an every-other-year undertaking. I went on to read several other books this month, making my tally 59 in 2017 so far.
Lately I’ve been laser-focused on reading the most noteworthy books published in 2017. By December, when all the best-of lists come out, I want to have an intimate knowledge of the best books of the year.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017) — This may be my favorite book of the year. It tells the story of four generations of a family in Korea that immigrated to Japan and all the hardships they faced. Before I read this book, I had no idea Koreans in Japan were treated so poorly. So much of this is directly analogous to how blacks were treated in the United States during Jim Crow, even though you couldn’t tell the difference between Koreans and Japanese — which really hammers home how much race is a social construct.
This novel is lush and detailed, immensely readable and easy to devour. It’s about family, and sacrifice, and destiny, but also social mobility. The characters are drawn vividly and the scenes are cinematic. I can see Sunja in the market in Osaka, struggling to sell kimchi, yelling, “Oishii!” until it all starts to click. I would love to see this become a film but I don’t have faith in Hollywood making a movie with all Asian characters.
Pachinko is now nominated for the National Book Award. If it wins, that will be two years in a row that the NBO winner was also my favorite book of the year (last year’s was Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad).
A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carré (2008) — This was the final book for the reading challenge: an espionage novel. I had never read any of Le Carré’s popular spy novels, and frankly, I don’t think I will read any others. This book is very much a reflection of the post-9/11 years and the war on terror. But what bothered me the most was the overt sexism of the book.
The only primary female character, Annabel, is a passionate civil rights attorney doing everything she can to save her client, a Muslim refugee from Chechnya with a mysterious past — yet every single time she is mentioned, and every time she’s in a scene, there’s such a focus on her attractiveness, her attractiveness in spite of her lack of fashion sense (oh, thanks for throwing her a bone, Mr. Le Carré!), her romantic life, her sexuality, how apparently this 30-year-old lawyer is both attracted to the 20-year-old refugee and the 60-year-old banker. Come on. I’d love to read an espionage novel where a woman does her work, does it well, and is respected for it. Category: an espionage novel.
Wendy Darling, vol. 3: Shadow by Colleen Oakes (2017) — This is the final installment of my cousin Colleen’s YA series that tells a darker, more mature version of Peter Pan. In the first book, a teenage Wendy and her brothers soon learn that behind Peter Pan’s charisma is a manipulative, controlling, bloodthirsty villain. In the second book, Wendy makes unexpected allies and enemies. In this conclusion, she fights to save her brothers and all of Neverland — not with her body, but with her intelligence.
A lot of readers expected Wendy to come out wielding a sword in this book — but Colleen was insistent that Wendy did not need to be a warrior in order to be strong. Here’s what she wrote: “To me the best thing about being a woman is that you can be whoever the hell you want. You want to be a bad-ass, slicing your way through a kingdom? Fine. We have a need for the Dinahs, the Katniss Everdeens, and the Tris Priors of the world. But we should also be cautious about equating the worth of a character based on her physical, violent ability…A woman standing in front of Congress is as strong as a woman standing up to the bully of her child. A character can be sweet and kind and still be strong.”
I love that quote. The Wendy Darling series is my favorite of Colleen’s books so far (she’s seriously Picasso-level prolific as a writer!). I highly recommend picking it up. Start with the first book here.
Al Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken (2017) — Oh ho ho, Senator Franken. I absolutely loved this book! After being elected to represent Minnesota in the Senate in 2008 by the closest margin in his state’s history, comedian Al Franken decided to turn the humor way down and focus on working hard for Minnesotans. After winning a second term and establishing himself as an effective Senator, he’s finally bringing the humor back in this new memoir.
Franken and I have very similar political views, and I most appreciated how deeply he detailed the obstruction of the GOP and showing why when people think it’s both parties that are the problem, it’s actually only one obstructing anything at any turn. But beyond that, I appreciated this book for its in-depth look at what the day-to-day of being a senator is actually like. And it is HILARIOUS, especially his entire chapter about Ted Cruz (as he says, he likes Ted Cruz more than most senators do, and he hates Ted Cruz). A lot of people are encouraging Franken to run for president, and I think he’d be great, but I actually appreciate having him as a senator — he gets so much done, and that might be the best use of his talents.
Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay (2014) — I first read Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger this year and I fell in love with her writing — it was time to check out her bestselling essay collection. And WOW. I adored this book. The title comes from the fact that Gay tries to be as good a feminist as she can, but she knows she falls short in many ways, whether it’s that she loves misogynistic hip-hop or she sometimes fakes orgasms or even that she knows nothing about her car. But what does it even mean to be a good feminist? To just be a woman who doesn’t want to be treated like shit?
Gay’s writing is warm and friendly, and she writes from an intersectional perspective — she examines feminism through race, class, size, sexuality. I feel like she and I would be friends if we knew each other in real life (but I’m sure everyone who reads her thinks that as well). I especially enjoyed the essays she wrote about pop culture, on everything from The Hunger Games to Chris Brown to Django Unchained to competitive Scrabble.
Also worth mentioning? Gay said in an interview that her favorite book of the year was Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko as well!
The Worrier’s Guide to the End of the World by Torre DeRoche (2017) — My friend Torre’s first book, Love With a Chance of Drowning, was an uplifting story about falling in love with a handsome man and facing her fears to sail across the Pacific with him. Well. Not long after, her father became terminally ill, her boyfriend couldn’t handle it and broke up with her (and told her she never would have written a book without his help — I wanted to smack him when I heard that!), and her father passed away. Meanwhile, Torre was still doing publicity for Love and having to answer questions like, “So when are you two getting married?” How awful.
So she met a friend named Masha and decided to join her on two pilgrimages, one in Italy, one in India. They became like platonic soulmates as they traveled across countries on foot, having misadventures and trying to find meaning in facing your fears and moving on after loss, and trying to figure life out. I felt so hard for her throughout the book and laughed at their quirkier mishaps. This book was sweet and kind, and it really made me want to do a pilgrimage of my own. I’ve wanted to do the Camino de Santiago since long before the blog existed; I should really get to planning that!
The Incest Diary by Anonymous (2017) — This is not the kind of book I would ordinarily seek out, but it had a lot of buzz this year, so I decided to give it a look. This memoir is written by a published female author who is choosing to remain anonymous. Her father began sexually abusing her when she was a very young child, and the abuse continued through her young adulthood. What makes this book different is that the author wanted the abuse, and her father, as she became older.
This book was extremely difficult to read. That’s probably the most that I should say about it. As troubling and horrific as it was, I absolutely loved the author’s writing style and descriptions.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (2017) — I read Ng’s first novel, Everything I Never Told You, a few years ago, and got swept up into a tale of an interracial Chinese-American family living in suburban Ohio in the 1970s. The setting is similar, in the upscale town of Shaker Heights, Ohio, but the plot flips on its head — it tells the story of a perfect-seeming white family with four teenagers, the single mother and teenage daughter who move into their neighborhood, and how the characters become entwined. Then a local tries to adopt a Chinese-American baby under dubious circumstances and the trial and scandal tear the town and characters apart.
I loved this book, the characters, and the mythical setting of the perfectly planned community of Shaker Heights. My favorite thing about this book is that Ng showcased a character who is white and thinks she’s woke as hell (though the story takes place in the late 90s, not today), renting her duplex to people of color, donating to charity and people in need, protesting war, thinking she’s not racist at all — until it’s time to actually put herself on the line, and she fails people of color at every turn. It’s searing — and a worthwhile read.
What I Watched This Month
Jerry Seinfeld has a new special on Netflix called Jerry Before Seinfeld. It’s a comedy special that looks back at how Seinfeld began his stand-up career in the late 1970s. Back then, stand-up comedy was in its nascent stage.
I expected to laugh, but I didn’t expect to relate to it so much. Like Seinfeld, I launched a career for myself in a brand new creative field where most people didn’t believe it was possible to earn money. “You can get paid to blog about travel?” isn’t far off from “You can get paid to tell jokes?” At one point, he said, “If I earn enough money for a loaf of bread each week, I’ll be fine,” and that hit me hard — that was me in 2010 and 2011! Only it was, “All I need to make is $1000 a month and I’ll get by fine in Southeast Asia.”
If you enjoy this special, I highly recommend reading Born Standing Up by Steve Martin, a memoir of his stand-up years, which dovetails a lot with Seinfeld’s experience. Martin’s writing is not what you expect — it’s gentle, ethereal, exquisite. I consider Born Standing Up one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read and Seinfeld considers it one of the best books ever written about comedy and being a comedian.
Image: Ryan McKee
Coming Up in October 2017
I’m going to Tybee Island! Tybee is off the coast of Savannah and I’ve often pointed out that you can easily do a side trip to this getaway, but I’ve never done so myself. I’m excited to have three days to explore this island — and to have one last beach getaway before winter.
While Tybee did experience some flooding during Hurricane Irma, they are open for business and eager to welcome visitors!
Those are the only solid travel plans I have for the month. I do, however, plan on going crazy for HALLOWEEN! It’s my favorite holiday but I’ve missed the last several Halloweens, so I want to make up for it this year. I plan to visit multiple dog costume parades (Tomkins Square on the 21st and my neighborhood, Hamilton Heights, on the 28th), head upstate to the Great Jack-o-Lantern Blaze in Croton-on-Hudson, and I’d love to attend the legendary parade in the Village! My costume? I think it’s time to dress up as my childhood idol, Carmen Sandiego.