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Living in Downtown DC During the Pandemic

Life in the time of COVID- DC edition

I feel kind of guilty about this, but if you ask me how this pandemic has affected me, honestly, I’ve never been better. Never before have I had the time to focus on my hobbies, or had time to breathe between weekdays. 

It’s not even that I have an aggressive work schedule; I work a calm 40 hours per week, and don’t have any responsibilities outside of myself and my small apartment. It’s just that after a week of heading into work everyday and braving the city, I wouldn’t feel like doing anything except relaxing. I’m not the best at time management, so I’d easily fall into patterns of just existing between work and Netflix, without carving out any time to work on stuff I actually cared about. 

But now, with working from home, I have longer stretches of time to talk myself into drawing, cooking an elaborate meal, or just cleaning my place. Of course like anyone I’ve had bad days, but overall I am really grateful to have this time to slow down and appreciate life. 

Here are some “gifts of quarantine” that I’m sure I’d never have gotten if not for ‘quarantimes’. 

Long neighborhood walks

Lack of directional sense has been my Achille’s heel my whole life! To this day, I don’t drive because the idea of getting lost on a freeway freaks me out. But being stuck in the house all day, I had to go somewhere, and the metro wasn’t an option. Instead I took long walks around the neighborhood.

I went to places during the day that I’d usually avoid at night. I found some amazing parks I never had time to visit before, like Kingman Island. It’s so tucked away and peaceful. I’m really surprised that more people don’t frequent it. I’m almost hesitant to write about it because I want it to remain a peaceful oasis. Kingman island is actually two islands; Kingman and Heritage, connected by a long wooden bridge that overlooks the Anacostia River and the old RFK stadium. Visitors will often fish off these bridges, and small groups of friends will picnic on the docks. Kingman is larger than Heritage, so it’s the perfect place for a music festival. I’m kinda mad I didn’t know about it until corona times, but the pictures look awesome. 

Standing on Kingman’s dock looking over at Heritage Island

I also found at least three new cute little parks that are just a bit farther south than I would normally wander.

Free stuff in my neighborhood 

Speaking of walking, I’ve been doing a lot of it picking up free stuff from my neighbors. I discovered the Buy Nothing Project through a Facebook group, and it’s made my life so much richer.

Buy Nothing is a hyper-local gift economy movement where members can give, receive, borrow or lend. It’s really cool because it isn’t just the stuff; it’s about building connections with your neighbors. But I mean, who doesn’t love free stuff! If you have something to gift, just post it on the group, and there are usually several takers. In COVID times, group members put things out for porch pickup so there’s no contact. I usually wave and message them a thank you. 

To date, I’ve received an air mattress, an immersion blender, lots of coffee, and so much more. I was able to gift an old tablet I never used, a cell phone, a bunch of clothes still with tags on, and party supplies for parents trying to throw their kids the coolest social distance birthdays. Buy Nothing is actually worldwide, so it exists in most major cities. You should definitely do a search to see if your neighborhood has one. Treasures await!

I feel much more connected to my neighborhood than ever before. It also just gives me a sense of calm to know that if I ever need anything, I can just ask. One time I met a neighbor who I had never spoken to in the three years of living here, and found out that we both worked at the same place. She then offered that I join her carpool to work every morning when things returned to normal. That’s the kind of neighborhood I want to live in, where everyone has each other’s back. 

Besides neighborhood connections, actually navigating the streets to pick up items made me more familiar with how some of those tricky slanted blocks work. I find myself using Google maps and getting lost a lot less, and that is a huge win. 

Running 

In high school I used to run cross country and track. I definitely wasn’t winning any awards, but I ran all four years to keep my sanity. I always needed to find ways to get out of my head, and running is still that for me. 

During regular times, I would run about twice a week, always wishing I had time for more. I was never serious about it. Just needed some cardio to work off the amount of ice cream I was eating. 

Now that I have the time, I downloaded Nike Running, which I love. It’s way more motivating because I can track my progress rather than just “feeling” like I had a good run. And I’m able to use it consistently enough to where I can see patterns in my speed and distance. Based on the stats, I’m way faster than I used to be and my endurance is so much better. I know that I’m pushing myself to go for longer runs because I’m not worried about getting home in time to prep for the next day. There’s nothing like a low pressure run! 

Foraging

Yes, DC is a city, but it’s also surrounded by an abundance of nature. I never thought I would be that person who sees a mushroom in the wild, picks it, and takes it home to cook it for dinner. But somehow, during quarantine, I found myself doing exactly that.

Once again, a Facebook group came to rescue me from my ennui. I’ve always been interested in the natural world, and spend a lot of time just observing. I’ve also always enjoyed stories of survival, and how to live off the land. I saw an intriguing mushroom one day and wanted some help from locals in getting an ID. This led to me finding a mushroom ID group on Facebook, which led to me finding an urban foraging group. Fascination followed.

I found my first two Chicken of the Woods mushrooms (laetiporus sulphureus) growing under a tree on the grounds of the Capitol building of all places, and it was GLORIOUS! I was taking one of my usual long walks, when I caught a spray of orange out of the corner of my eye. They were bright enough to make me stop.

I took that baby home and cooked it up with some rosemary and olive oil, and it was a satisfying meal. Even more so because I had “hunted” it. And yes, it did taste like chicken. 

Now there are these weeds called garlic mustard, and they are everywhere. I was passing them on the trails everyday, having no idea what they were. Apparently they are one of the most nutritious green vegetables available. Rich in antioxidants and vitamins, and freely available. Sounds too good to be true! I love my greens so I decided to take a bunch home and steam them. Unfortunately, I was not a fan. It tasted like something that was good for you, in other words, blegh. But that didn’t stop me from feeling like a badass for eating greens I just picked off the side of some neighborhood nature trail. Most foragers make pesto out of these greens because the basil and parmesan gives it a more forgiving flavor. I didn’t have any on hand, hence the plain swamp soup that I created. 

Mustard greens cleaned and ready to go

Before quarantine, I thought the berries I saw growing on trees by the road were poisonous. They were so purple and shiny and enticing. Of course they would be poisonous. It wasn’t until I did more research that I realized they weren’t. I learned to recognize the trees and the leaves, and then felt comfortable just popping a few off the tree and into my mouth.

One time I saw a guy in the woods filling a up a plastic shopping bag from a mulberry tree, and I kind of chuckled to myself because (1) I was relieved that I’d identified the berries correctly, and (2) I just love when other people appreciate what nature has to offer. I heard him tell his friend “I’m gonna make some wine with these.” I don’t know how to do that…yet.

My favorite are the wineberries though. They grow in bushes, and definitely have thorns. The fruits are a brilliant red or a juicy purple. Some of these were sour, but I learned to pick the sweeter ones. 

Anyway, I like to know that if there were a food shortage from, say…a global crisis, I can at least pick out a few foods from nature to keep me going for a little while. 

These are the ways I’ve been making use of my little slice of urban oasis in DC during the pandemic. It’s great to discover surprising things about my city that I wouldn’t notice over the noise of work and a busy social schedule.

What have you done to stay sane during quarantine? What are some things that surprised you? 

How to Get TSA Pre Every Time With Global Entry

I got Global Entry because I thought it would guarantee me TSA Pre for domestic flights, as well as a smoother reentry into the US after international travel. GE offered pretty much the same benefits as TSA Pre alone, for just a bit more money. Or so I thought. After not receiving it a few times, I googled around and found on TSA’s website, that TSA Pre is never guaranteed with GE. However, I found some ways around it that have gotten me into the TSA Pre line every time. As a disclaimer, I usually fly with American Airlines, so your mileage may vary depending on the airport and the airline.

Here’s a quick tip sheet on increasing your chances of getting TSA Pre every time, when you’ve only got Global Entry.

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When I didn’t get TSA Pre the first few times after receiving my Global Entry card, I realized I was doing it wrong. You must enter your known traveler number, or KTN, on the airline’s website to get TSA Pre. You can enter it at the time of ticket purchase when you enter all your other personal information, or when you are checking in online. Just make sure you do this BEFORE your boarding pass is issued of course.

There are a few different numbers on the back of your Global Entry card, and I wasn’t sure at first, which was the current KTN. Enter only the nine digit number that follows your ID, leaving off the alpha-numerics on the end. I made this mistake many times, and wondered why the system was never picking up on my membership number.

If you forget to enter your KTN at the time of online check in and you don’t see that beautiful TSA Pre logo on your boarding pass, it’s not too late! Just head to any kiosk at the airport and check in again; make sure to enter your nine-digit KTN and get your boarding pass reissued. I’ve done this a few times now, and it’s worked like a charm.

I have to mention that I tried this with Delta, but their kiosks did not give me the option to update any personal information besides basics like name and phone number. If you have time to talk to a live person though, they will likely be able to enter your information in time for your flight. I’ve always found it worth it to spend a few extra minutes getting a new boarding pass rather than waiting in the long lines at the security checkpoints. Not to mention, I get to keep my shoes on.

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24 Hours in Philly

It was only fitting that we were in Philly for a cooking competition — originally anyway –but it got cancelled. So naturally we had to find a way to stick with the foodie theme, so the concept was simple: four different Philly foods in just 12 hours…the other 12 were for sleeping!dsc_2575-1

First we hit &Pizza, which is actually a DC chain, so I didn’t take a picture of it! But believe that it was delicious. When a pizza place has a Chipotle array of choices for your personal flatbread, things can get real interesting; I think there was a mixture of broccoli, sausage, peppers, and pepperoni with a couple different kinds of cheese. Good job to our friend Sal on that one.

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Next up we knew we wanted tacos, so it was off to the famous Barbacoa in South Philly for us. But of course it was closed! There were having an art opening event with some people from Chef’s Table, so we just took pictures with them instead! That was a win-win because we got tacos at the place next door which was surely tasty.

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Cristina Martinez of the famed South Philly Barbacoa, in the center
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I am certain that Barbacoa’s Chef’s Table ensemble would have destroyed the competition, but its neighbor, Taqueria La Prima did the trick. I appreciated the setup of a charred onion on each plate, and loved biting into one after each delightfully greasy bite of al pastor, barbacoa, chorizo, and pollo asada.

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I found the barbacoa to be a bit rubbery and under-seasoned for my taste, but it was nothing the sauce couldn’t fix. The fiery red one was a top choice for me, with the green salsa as a close second. Everything was fresh and authentic, but the texture of the meat was just missing something. I felt like the secret was in the combination of lime juice, sauces, and garnishes used, and maybe we just didn’t get it exactly right.

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We were in the super Mexican and super Italian part of town, so of course we couldn’t leave without getting some cannoli! We hopped into a half Italian half Mexican bakery where the walls were lined with colorful pan dulces and the cases filled with tiramisu and chocolate-dipped biscotti. We found the corner with the delightfully mini cannoli and ordered a few. The shy girl behind the counter filled them up with fresh chilled  mascarpone from an enormous piping bag. That’s always a good sign. It was a delicious way to cap off our time in South Philly.

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Of course by now we absolutely had to pack in a Philly cheesesteak. I mean that’s why you go to Philly right? Might I remind you that all the places visited were on total opposite sides of the city. Don’t worry, it was worth it. Forget the Pat’s or Geno’s tourist traps –we were on our way to Jim’s. Let me tell you, by this time I was completely stuffed with 4 different kinds of taco and torta, and was definitely not thinking about food, but when we rolled into Jim’s at 12 AM and that cheesy meaty smell  hit my nostrils, I was…considering taking maybe… a bite?

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Sal grabbed one sandwich and decided that we could all split it since we’d been eating all day. The nice man at Jim’s ( Jim?!) obliged and quartered the greasy blimp for us, and we dug in. Oh my goodness, it was everything that I imagined a greasy comforting drunk food should be — but better! Those grilled onions and that fresh thinly cut steak blended together in such a way that just…made you want more. Sal picked up another sandwich, and I smashed another half. NO regrets.

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And like that, our Philly micro food tour had come to an end. There were definitely some places I saw that I didn’t get around to like Stock, which honestly looks like noodle heaven. And for sure I’d go back to Philly just for Jim’s. I am still dreaming about you Jim! Maybe I’ll take like 6 to go and freeze them for emergencies.

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Oh, and I stumbled upon this gorgeous little gem of a library called House of Our Own right on Penn’s frat row. The owners, a couple in their late 60’s now, started the store during the Vietnam War because they thought people just needed to be more educated. It was something of an organizing space back in the day the wife told me. I thought that was rad.  She agreed.

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Anyway, the city of brotherly love did not disappoint, and I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised. Philly 2020?

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My Experience with BlaBlaCar

I like to think of BlablaCar as a roadtrip-sharing service. It’s basically the Airbnb for transportation, but it’s a lot more than that too. I first found out about it when I was working as an English teacher in France, making 780 euro a month. Train tickets could be expensive, especially if I didn’t plan ahead, so BlaBla’s average 30 euro rates seemed like a great alternative. I have used the service about four times now; between France and Spain, and France and Amsterdam. If you want to know more about how it works, and my impressions, keep reading!

Rolling along in styleBlablaCar is a carpooling service, headquartered in France, that exists in 21 countries so far. These are mostly in Europe, but recently, Mexico and India have joined the pack. The most obvious benefit of using the service is cost. Where 130 euro train tickets are not an option, you could hop a bus for as low as 15 euro between Paris and London for example. But the bus is slow, it makes frequent stops, and it’s definitely not the best for comfort or personal space. BlaBlaCar offers a happy medium of faster service and a bunch of other benefits.

More Flexibility 

On my most recent ride, one of the riders needed to get to Rotterdam, which was about 45 minutes from the actual advertised destination. Our driver was happy to drop him off at a convenient location, and even waited until he was picked up by a friend. Of course, this depends on how nice your driver is, but this kind of customization would never be possible with a train or bus.

If you’re traveling with a pet, train travel becomes even more complicated. BlaBlaCar comes to the rescue, allowing you to filter for drivers who are willing to have furry passengers.

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“Paris? I was hoping I could just stay home and play with all your boxes, but OK, I guess I’ll come….”

Friendly Faces

Sometimes you will find that unicorn driver that goes above and beyond for you, and will drop you off right at your hotel for example. We had one such driver in Amsterdam, and she served as a sort of tour guide during our short stay. She was happy to share tips on the city, and show us all the good local spots. Generally, people who use the service are quite social and interested in other people, so you’re likely to meet some great people along your trip. It’s also worth mentioning that this could be a great way to practice your language skills. You’ll often end up in a car with people speaking 3 or 4 languages, and it’s a great way to pass the time, and learn something too.

A Note on Safety

Is it safe? Just like Airbnb, drivers need to pass verification steps like submitting ID and phone numbers to prove their identity. The site also provides the driver’s number of Facebook connections, if that is at all comforting. Other riders will also leave reviews which can help in choosing a reliable driver. For those who are still concerned, there is even a “Ladies Only” filter, where you don’t have to worry about those pesky boys!

If the car breaks down, you’re even covered my insurance. The website claims that they will try to repair the car, and if that’s not possible, will transport you to your destination free of charge. This all sounds great, and luckily, it’s never happened to me.

Are there any drawbacks?

Sometimes a rider or a driver can be late, which could affect your arrival time. Once I had a driver that “just needed to run a few errands” before leaving, which delayed us by an hour. If you have a flight to catch, or other inflexible appointments, it might be better to avoid the risk of being late.

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Also, because of the social nature of the service (it’s right there in the name!), you might feel pressured to talk, especially if you’re the only other passenger. This could be great for some people, but stressful for others, especially if you don’t speak the same language. If you’re just looking to pass out and listen to music, the train might be a better option for you. However–I mentioned preferences earlier–you can actually check a driver’s level of  “blabla” they are happy with. Most drivers say they are “chatty when they feel like it” and some are “all about the playlist”.

The bottom line 

All in all, I love BlaBlaCar. Can you tell? Apart from depending on another driver to arrive to your destination on time, and the possibility of strange co-riders, I’d recommend them 100%. You get more personal service at a cheaper price than train travel, and possibly friends.

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Have you tried BlaBlaCar or something similar? Let me know what you thought of it.

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Reasons to Travel While You’re Young

This is dedicated to all the millennials out there, and of course you gen X’ers.

You probably tell yourself you’ll travel when you’re older, when you’ve saved enough, when everything else in your life is stable enough to not blow up from you disappearing.
I still tell myself this.

But let’s face it — as a young person, you are (likely) money poor, and time rich. Think about this for a second: as a single twenty-something with no kids or partner, your time is your own.  Responsibilities will only increase from this point forward. This is it.

For many of you, this will likely be the only time in your life when your evenings and early mornings truly belong to you. You are time rich.

As a nonrenewable resource, time is worth infinitely more than money. This is why I say you should always choose travel if it is a goal for you to see the world. If not, that’s OK. But know that this is the time to explore because you’ll never get this time back.

Twelve Weeks at the Smithsonian

Recently, I completed a job at one of my dream institutions: The Smithsonian. Along with National Geographic, the UN, and other brand names, the Smithsonian was a place I knew I had to work.
I have been fascinated with history the natural world since I could read. Here are some of my favorite things as a kid: crystal-growing kits, animal fact flashcards, and immersing myself in magazine articles about tribes of the Amazon. I have always taken an interest in the world outside, and it was in these early years that I learned about Zahi Hawas, the Masai, the Tuareg, or coelecanths – and never forgot.
I had a freakish knowledge about a wide range of subjects, even body parts and medical conditions, from reading the collection of encyclopedias and old textbooks my parents had saved for me. Maybe this is why my interests range so widely today.

All of this to say that I enjoy museums greatly because they represent  a repository for knowledge, one which may as well be infinite because there is so much to explore! I get high off that feeling.

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Feelin Phalli’s Field

Anyway, I was thrilled to have a position at one of the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall–The Hirshhorn–for its blockbuster Yayoi Kusama Infinity Mirrors exhibition. These are the photos you’ve seen on Instagram with all the twinkly lights and the endless walls of glittery lanterns. Celebrities had taken photos in rooms at earlier installations around the country, further fueling the craze in DC (Thanks Adele!).

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For those who couldn’t reserve on the perpetually “sold out” online system, there was a line of consistently over 1000 ticket hopefuls. On our last weekend we likely had over 3,000 people in line. I say this to give you an idea of the traffic we were working with in the museum. This was a cultural phenomenon—we had students, senior citizens, Instagram models, and international tourists who all waited together to get a piece of this hype.

There were five infinity rooms, about the size of a small bathroom, all covered in mirrors, including the door. There was a narrow walkway that cut in to the field of each room with just enough space for up to three visitors to contemplate their reflections among the lights. But let’s be real, they were taking selfies. So was I!

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In between the mirror rooms were works on paper and photographs from NYC in the 60’s when Kusama was in her creative prime and doing trendy things like lying in a mass of fabric phalli in the streets or painting naked people in polka dots—herself included. Then there were her sculptures, reaching out from the pasty white floors like the tentacles of a black and yellow sea monster. And at last a small selection of her most recent paintings, done from a mental health facility in Japan. In these we see more color, more pattern, less dimension, something amoeba-like.

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And after the chaos of the snaking lines, moving in 30-second (sometimes less) intervals, and the roaring hum of indistinct conversation, there was the Obliteration Room. As the last stop, and only interactive part of the show, visitors were handed a sheet of punchy polka dots to adorn the white-washed room of Ikea furniture. No time limit, no restrictions; just people putting stickers on the floor, the walls, the table and chairs, and of course on themselves.

On Writing

Writing—especially when you haven’t done it in a long time—feels like you’re drowning. I haven’t written anything good in a while, and it’s so disorienting.

You’re in the middle of this vast ocean scrambling for anything in the distance to stay afloat. You find some piece of driftwood which feels good for a while, but before you know it, you’re back in the swirling sea of blank, once again adrift in your thoughts.

You feel like you can’t breathe, your thoughts scattered, your mind cut off; wasn’t this easier before?

The point is to build a raft, and that is when the journey begins.
I sat down and wrote something today with genuine effort, and it was terrible. I felt like a fifth-grader again going back to the process of my ever-diligent Language Arts teachers. That was my favorite class. I was good at writing once upon a time.
I guess my point in writing this is to get back to that point where I was interested in writing, fascinated by reading, and wide-eyed curious about the world. I think the over saturation of bad writing on the internet dissuaded me from writing well, and then from writing at all.

There’s so much junk already out there, does writing well even matter?
But all of life is an idea. Anything that was any good came from an idea, which was written down, and needed to be conveyed.

The point is that ideas have power, and writing furthers ideas. Therefore writing is power. Logical fallacy much? Hey, practice makes better.

Learning French with Netflix TV Series

Ever wondered how you can use regular ol’ Netflix to pick up on some French skills? Then check this list out!

I’m choosing to focus only on TV series in this article because they’re harder to search for, and also because they’re continuous, giving you (a) more input and (b) more time to adjust to the characters and their manner of speaking. Essentially, TV shows mean more material to work with.

Marseille TV Show

You can’t search Netflix by language yet, but you can enter “French” into the search bar, which will return a mix of titles with the word “French” and some French language movies.

The list isn’t exhaustive though, and most importantly, doesn’t include shows which have a dubbed French option. I know what you’re thinking. Everybody HATES dubbed shows! Yes, dubbing isn’t perfect, but spoken French is spoken French. Just try to ignore the mismatched mouths and words.

A good rule of thumb for finding French TV on Netlfix is simply looking for any Netflix Original Series. They usually have an option you can select during playback that will change the audio to French. Again, the audio isn’t perfect, but it’s grammatically correct, which is enough for me.

It’s helpful knowing that French subtitles are not verbatim. Here are some good examples from “Stranger Things”, of how speech and subtitles can vary on Netflix.

elle a un balai dans le cul” vs “elle n’a pas marrante, c’est clair

que est ce que tu racontes” vs “comment ca“?

The meaning remains the same though, and it’s good to be exposed to both (spicy and unspicy) versions.

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Below I’ve created a  quick reference list of some of my favorites, which I personally think are great for intermediate to advanced learners looking to improve their listening comprehension.

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Again, this list is by no means exhaustive, and should serve only as a starting point for your forays into spoken French. If you get through a few of these series, you’ll see surprising improvement to your listening comprehension in no time.

Bon Courage!

Accepting a Position to Teach at a Summer Camp in Guangzhou, China

So it seems I have somehow haphazardly accepted a short-term position as a summer camp counselor in China. I could have chosen to stay for 4 weeks, but I chose to stay for just 2 weeks. It’s unusual that you find an English teaching program in China that has such a  short-term requirement in exchange for a free return flight.

They call it an English village, and the company is based in Toronto or something. Most of us seem to be from the Northeast, and notably New York. The program is actually only 9 days long, which makes it much more bearable. As one of the former participants advised me over Skype, “You can travel to the worst place in the world for 9 days, and be OK.”

I was never one of those people who was really into Asian stuff, anime, and accompanying culture, and never was interested in travelling to Asia. But, considering I have Chinese ancestry, and the fact that China is this huge and influential country–not only in culture-but in politics, economics– I figure it can’t hurt to visit. I’ve also never been to Asia, after several trips to Europe, so it seems like the next best thing to do.

I have heard mixed reviews of China, but there is so much diversity in the country, that I intend to hold off my preconceptions until I see it myself. I am mostly intrigued–taking it in stride that I will be thousands of miles away with strange children who don’t speak English, likely working several hours a day into exhaustion–by the whole thing. I think this attitude is precisely how I’m so flexible in unusual situations, and what makes me an easy traveler.

Checking out the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum

The Cooper Hewitt is a Smithsonian museum located in the old Carnegie mansion overlooking Central Park on the Upper East Side. It’s a spiffy piece of property with a cafe and garden that I’d like to return to in the warmer months.

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I admit, I didn’t spend too much time analyzing everything or soaking up the labels in every collection ( it was pretty crowded!), but the gist of the museum was an overview of the basic design elements (eg., line, color, pattern, texture), and some examples. Historical was juxtaposed with contemporary, utilitarian with decorative. The bottom floor is a hands-on “design lab” where you can get your hands dirty by “redesigning” a lamp with tissue paper, chenille stems, and pieces of plastic, or leave your idea on a massive iPad on how to design something better. There was also a huge dry-erase board where people could mark up ideas on engineering a more efficient human. I think a lot of the kids enjoyed it. I also loved that “photos are encouraged” here. I definitely took advantage 🙂

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We’ll see what museum is next!