Wandering the Zeroes: Reflections on a Decade of Travel

One decade ago — late December 1999. As people counted down and stockpiled their cans of beans in anticipation of a Y2K-related world meltdown, I visited Dan in San Francisco while on extended leave from my Peace Corps assignment in Estonia. The word from Peace Corps management: get out because there are two Soviet-built power plants nearby – one in Russia, the other in Lithuania — that just might blow.

Although there would be other catastrophes — numerous ones in fact — that would visit the world during the ensuing decade, the Y2K bug never really bit.

But for us, the travel bug did.

Journey Across Europe in 100 Days
The start of a long journey, four months around Europe in 2000.

We recently took stock of 2009, and in doing so, we opted to dial back to the beginning of the decade and consider our lives in the 2000s (or “the zeroes”, “the naughties” — whatever you like). As we recounted the past ten years, it occurred to us that our current journey is not quite as discontinuous as it might appear; travel has consistently been a part of our lives together.

In the zeroes, we would haphazardly marry in Tuscany, backpack across Europe, up stakes from San Francisco and move to Prague, sample Europe as residents, and don packs again to go much further and deeper afield with a focus on transitional countries and the developing world.

We would shape-shift from backpackers to expats to backpacking expats once again. And we would collect a raft of memories — a selection of which we’ll share with you here — that we’ll take with us into the next decade.

2000: Wedding in Tuscany, Backpacking Honeymoon Around Europe

We hatched the plan for our wedding over a dinner at a Basque restaurant in Paris that spring. The idea was spurred by my mom’s suggestion: “If you decide to get married somewhere, just give us a few weeks notice and we’ll come. We’d like to be there.”

Dropping the idea of a traditional and often expensive American wedding, we opted for a late summer wedding in Tuscany framed by some backpacking around Europe.

A few months later, I had my wedding dress made in Estonia ($100) and wound up my Peace Corps assignment.

After carving our way through Eastern Europe, we landed in the Val D’Orcia in Italy’s Tuscany region in late September. Our wedding ceremony was held in the 500-year old Pienza municipal house. The experience was less about our wedding day and more about a week that witnessed the gathering of a group of friends and family who used the occasion as a perfectly good excuse for an Italian vacation.

It was wickedly romantic. The food and wine? Outrageous.

Like Rain on Your Wedding Day - Pienza, Italy
It’s Like Rain on Your Wedding Day.

A European backpacking honeymoon, in two parts:

1) Pre-wedding trip (a good way to determine whether you can withstand 24/7 with your future spouse):

An Eastern European snack of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, followed by a genealogy research trip to eastern Slovakia. From Hungary, we hopped a train for Italy.

There, we bought a biglietto chilometrico (train ticket for up to 3,000 km) to take us to Venice, Florence, Amalfi, Positano and Rome before settling into a Tuscan agriturismo (essentially a farmhouse converted into a bed and breakfast) the week before our wedding.

2) Post-wedding honeymoon:

We began our honeymoon in Dubrovnik, Croatia and on the nearby island of Korcula. We continued with a drive up Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast and across Slovenia before dipping back into Hungary and down through Transylvanian Romania and Bulgaria — all before a 17-hour train delivered us to Istanbul. Cappadoccia, Mediterranean Turkey, southern and eastern France, Andorra, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal rounded out the remainder of a journey that reinforced a growing appreciation of Europe — all of it.

Photo Slideshow: 100 Days Around Europe in 2000

(Note: If you don’t have a high-speed internet connection or you would like to read the photo captions, click here for the photo set.)

 

2001: Moving from San Francisco to Prague, Czech Republic

Our European travels planted the seed of an idea: move to Europe sometime before the end of the year. After finishing graduate school in Monterey, California I began virtually networking with contacts across Central and Eastern Europe.

Just two weeks after 9/11, we attended our friends’ wedding outside Munich, Germany and embarked on what we refer to as a “research trip” –- an on-the-ground tour of selected cities to meet people we had connected with virtually and to scope out our next home. Even though we had previously visited these places as tourists, we considered them differently as we judged them as potential homes: Prague, Czech Republic; Bratislava, Slovakia; Budapest, Hungary; Zagreb, Croatia; Ljubljana, Slovenia; Krakow, Poland; and Vilnius, Lithuania.

A difficult choice, but we selected Prague. Destination in mind, we returned to San Francisco, sold our cars and downsized to a few boxes. Just before Christmas, we arrived in the Czech Republic with three bags each.

Estonska in Black and White - Prague, Czech Republic
The View of Our Courtyard in Prague

Admiring Prague Castle from the edge of Charles Bridge, we looked at one another: “Can you believe we actually live here?

2002 – 2006: Exploring our New Neighborhood – Europe

Within a few months of arriving in Prague, we both found work with five-week European vacation allowances. This may sound like an eternity to some — particularly to our friends in the United States — and perhaps paltry to others. Regardless, we found ourselves pushing the limit each year.

The beauty of living in Prague — smack in the middle of Europe — is one’s accessibility to scores of cultures within a few hours drive and even more within a few hours flight. In addition to our systematic scouring of the Czech Republic, virtually every year featured visits to Berlin, Munich, Dresden, and Vienna – to buy clothes, to visit Christmas markets, to see an exhibit, and often times just to hang out.

A few travel highlights outside of the Central European circuit:

2002:

Sicily, the surprising cultural melting bowl of mainland Italian, North African Mediterranean, and toe-headed Norman. The coffee was awesome: Sicily’s capital Palermo may be the home of the best cup of espresso we’ve ever enjoyed. Our visits to Palermo’s markets — Capo, Ballarò, and Vucceria — mark the beginning of our travel-meets-fresh market fetish. Amidst profoundly beautiful sights – the ancient in Siracusa, the resilient in Monreale, and the volcanic on the island of Lipari — we wondered how, in all of its facets, this island came to be.

Greek Amphitheater - Siracusa, Sicily
Greek Amphitheater in Sicily

2003:

To celebrate the New Year in Paris with friends in an intimate five-table restaurant run by a husband and wife team working out of an open-glass kitchen seemed decadent. To retire from this to our digs on the edge of Barbes and Marcadet Poissonnier (at that time, a North African immigrant neighborhood) provided the ideal balance of Parisian reality; we loved it. Neighborhoods like these — and their diversity — are what make Paris so refreshing.

Autumn in Nice? Nice. Really. When we think of two cuisines with opposing philosophies of sophistication and simplicity — French and Italian — Nice and the French Riviera seemed like ideal places to experience the culinary fusion first-hand. To taste what we mean, just try a dish of foie gras-topped ravioli.

France was sublime, but it was Cuba that forced us to think. We’ll tell you that we didn’t actually go to Cuba, but imagine that if we did and took photos, this is what it would look like.

During our imagined visit, we stumbled upon a Santeria ceremony in Trinidad, took a 17-hour train from Guantanamo to Havana, and enjoyed a cab ride with a Cuban MTV star at the wheel. Truly an unforgettable set of experiences — that is, if we really went there.

Kids Playing Baseball - Santiago
I’m Safe! Baseball on the streets of Santiago

2004:

An unscripted end-of-the-year vacation in Thailand introduced us to street food eating in Bangkok, rescued elephants in Lampang, Thai cooking in Chiang Mai, and a thoroughly rejuvenating beach (away from Haad Rin) on the island of Koh Pha Ngan.

Elephants taking a Bath - Lampang, Thailand
Bath Time at Lampang Elephant Conservancy

When we returned, one of Dan’s clients said to him: “You look too happy.” At that moment, we knew it was time to re-evaluate.

And so the seed for our current sojourn was planted.

2005:

An impromptu lesson in French viticulture by way of the French Independent Vintners Salon in Strasbourg kicked off another year in our extended exercise of European appreciation.

But our vacations require us to recognize a balance between eating and exercise. Italy’s Ligurian Coast fit the bill. While we spent our days hiking the length of Cinque Terre (including a terrific detour to the hill groves of Volastra just above Manarola) and the chain-assisted rocks from Camogli to Portofino, our evenings were spent exploring Ligurian cuisine and wines from local terraced vineyards.

View of Riomaggiore - Cinque Terre, Italy
View of Riomaggiore – Cinque Terre

2006:

Our year began in Spain’s Andalucia region where we confirmed our love of old port cities and small plate eating. While most others were hitting the beaches in Marbella and reminiscing about the Alhambra in Granada (a beautiful sight indeed), a special place in our hearts remains for the gritty, unpolished realness of Cadiz and the taste of sherry and seafood pinchitos at Malaga’s La Campana.

However, our food and travel highlight of the year: under-appreciated Bologna, Italy. The museums, including the one that chronicles the life of local artist Giorgio Morandi, were peaceful and pleasant. The parks were perfect for a picnic of piadina sandwiches stuffed with squacquerone cheese, parma and rucola. And in Bologna’s markets, we collected our ingredients, stoked our passion for food photography, and deepened our belief that a country’s cuisine is a window onto the soul of its culture.

Market Vegetable Baskets - Bologna, Italy
Market boxes full of freshness in Bologna, Italy

2007 – 2009: Exploring the Rest of the World

2007:

Although our travels in Southeast Asia, the Caucasus and Central Asia are among some of our best experiences, we are perhaps most thankful for the timing of our visit to Kashgar and western China.

Decisions by the Chinese government will likely see to the demolition of Kashgar’s old town over the next few years.

Uighur Children Guarding Donkeys - Kashgar, China
Wise Beyond Their Years – Kashgar, Xinjiang

We heeded the advice of other tourists who urged us to change our plans and detour to China. Our three months there — including visits to once wholly Tibetan towns like Xiahe – was well-timed.

2008:

Burma (Myanmar) inspires, if for no other reason than the warmth and strength of its people who serve as examples of shining humanity — even in the face of a totalitarian government.

Of all the do-it-before-you-die experiences, the Annapurna Circuit trek in Nepal may arguably be one of the world’s most compelling.

Morning Morning View - Annapurna Circuit, Nepal
Early Morning Views – Annapurna Circuit, Nepal

2009:

After attending the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States (I marched with Peace Corps in the Inaugural Parade while Dan had a press pass), we hit the road once again.

Guatemalans impressed us with their diversity of culture, the Galapagos blue-footed boobies with their mating dance, and the Bolivian salt flats with their otherworldiness.

Mother Nature's Exercise in Small - Salar Tour, Bolivia
Bolivian Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni)

And what of the next decade? That story begins tomorrow.

Happy 2010!

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Comments

  1. says

    WOW!!! What a decade of traveling you guys have done!

    Just wanna drop a quick Happy New Year and cheer to the next decade to you. But I know I will be busy reading back on each of your journey. The links from this post alone will keep me busy till next year. ;)

  2. says

    I absolutely love this round-up of the decade! Since I’ve only started following in the past year I am definitely going to go back and read some of these other stories! Happy New Year and looking forward to following more of your travels in the coming decade :-)

  3. Zoe McAlear says

    Hey D&A!
    Just wanted to tell you that this story is great, I remember hearing all of this going on when it was happening, such as when mom unfairly left us behind to go to your wedding. :) Anyways, thanks for the great story. We miss you guys. Happy 2010. Safe travels.
    Love and hugs,
    Zoe

  4. says

    It’s incredible…reading your decade recap gave me an even greater boost of inspiration than re-reading my own! I hope our wandering paths meet up one day so that we can share travel tales and a bottle of wine…

    Let me know if you’re in Mexico any time over the next couple of months!

  5. says

    Audrey- I never knew you were in the Peace Corps! My girlfriend (who is Ecuadorian) bought me a book called “Living Poor” which is about an American Peace Corps guy who came to Ecuador in 1950 and worked.

    It’s been one of the best books I have read this year and was wondering if you had heard or read it yourself. Just wondering your thoughts on it. Happy travels and sorry I missed ya while in Ecuador.

  6. says

    @Amy and Shannon: Thanks! Did we go overboard on the links? Hope you have fun going checking out the links and seeing photos and reading stories from our earlier travels.

    @Zoe: Although it was unfair for your mother to leave you all behind, it really meant a lot to us that your mother could be at to our wedding. Next big event, we’ll make sure everyone can come :) We miss you guys as well and all the best for 2010!

    @Earl: Mexico is not in the cards for the next few months, but hopefully our paths will cross at some point. It’s always fun to catch up in person with people we’ve “met” online.

    @John: When we moved to Prague in 2001, the Czech Republic was not part of the European Union (you’ll notice that none of the places we visited on our research trip were part of the EU at that time). This was deliberate since it was easier for Americans (non-EU citizens) to get jobs and visas in non-EU countries at that time. Were jobs thrown at Americans in Prague as some described in the early 1990s? No, but with a serious job search and active networking we both were able to find full-time work within a few months. In order for Dan to do consulting later on (i.e., so he didn’t have to rely on an employer sponsoring him), we set up an LLC in Prague. Now our LLC sponsors our residence visas. I believe this is still an option for people wanting to do freelance work in Prague (I have a friend who just did this in Budapest).

    @T-roy: I’m often mistaken today as a Peace Corps volunteer today in many of the countries we travel through. Sometimes people will get upset that I don’t know their language (e.g., Armenian) and I’ll have to explain that I’m not a Peace Corps volunteer and am only in their country for a short time. I take it as a compliment.

    No, I haven’t heard of the book you mentioned but I will add it to my list of books to search for when we visit the States. Too bad we missed each other in Ecuador earlier in the year.

    @Keith, Rita, Lauren, Julie, Lola, Tracy: Thanks for your kind words!

  7. says

    I just found your blog and stand in awe of what you’ve seen and experienced. I have had the good fortune to travel a fair bit so I really enjoyed your beautiful photos of some of the places we’ve both been to, like Cuba and Chiang Mai. I am currently doing a culinary tour (virtual) of the food from south-of-the-border and, in real life, will be visiting Argentina (it’ll be my third trip to that country) and, hopefully, Peru.

    Anyway, I’ve already added you to my RSS and look forward to spending more time on your blog. Happy travels!

  8. says

    @Bessie: Thanks!

    @Joan: We really appreciate your kind words about our experiences and our website. Thanks for adding us to your RSS!

    As a foodie, you will love Peru. I highly recommend spending some time in Lima – the food is incredible and can be very inexpensive.

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