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.
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.
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):
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
2007 – 2009: Exploring the Rest of the World
Decisions by the Chinese government will likely see to the demolition of Kashgar's old town over the next few years.
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.
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.
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.
And what of the next decade? That story begins tomorrow.