Tag Archives: reviews

A San Franciscan’s Guide to Abbot Kinney

Deus Ex Machina. Click through the image to read the full story.

When I lived in LA, I always thought that Abbot Kinney was just about the coolest place there was in the city. It has that hip, laid back vibe that you’d expect to find in Los Angeles; though if you’ve ever actually visited Los Angeles, you’d realize that this relaxed, sunny, beachy hip way of life is actually not as all-pervasive as the postcards may have led you to believe. It’s in Venice, but it’s how you want Venice to be before you actually visit it; not the Venice Beach Boardwalk with its horrifying cast of grotesque characters and more tie-dyed shirts than you can shake a corn dog at, but something subtler, more charming, and just really LA. I mean, there are literally “Venetian” canals right nearby. You can’t get more quaint than that.

Today, 7×7, a pretty awesome local magazine about life in San Francisco (which measures 7 miles by 7 miles, in case you were wondering where the title came from), ran an article about visiting the little Venice neighborhood from the viewpoint of a Northern Californian. Now, I must say, though I live up here, I am definitely a born and raised Southern Californian, so I can’t empathize much with the point of view, and to be perfectly honest, it’s been a couple of years since Venice was graced with my presence, but hopefully this provides a good starting point for anyone looking to visit the area. Even if their recommendations aren’t spot on, they at least got the Intelligentsia Coffee part right. My recommendation is to fuel up with a cup of that yummy stuff at their beautiful storefront and just start exploring.

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Design*Sponge Barcelona City Guide

If you like pretty things, or DIY projects, or good design or delicious food and you don’t know about DesignSponge, well, you really should.

It’s a great little website filled with all kinds of projects, before and afters, recipes, and lots of other cool stuff. They also have a regular feature where different authors contribute travel guides to their home cities, in the US and abroad. Usually these fall a little flat for me because even though I know the content is probably pretty good, there are very few pictures to go along with the recommendations, and the lists are so long that I get discouraged by the thought of having to more thoroughly research each and every rec. A lame reason, I know. But today they released a Barcelona guide by Judy Kaufmann, an illustrator who calls the city home, and I must say I really like it! I’ve stayed in both of the hotels she recommends (Inside BCN is in fact wonderful!!) and shopped and dined at many of her other suggested locations, so I can officially give this one two thumbs up! A definite good addition to any travel planning you may be doing for a visit to the most wonderful little city in the mundo. Click on the photo to be linked directly to the guide.

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Practicing Spanish with Movies: A Review of Casi Divas

Everyone’s heard a story at some point in their life about a person who taught themselves to speak [insert foreign language here] by watching lots of television and movies in their target language. Especially for people learning American English, Hollywood productions and popular TV series can provide a window into American social and linguistic norms and practices that textbooks often can’t, even if it is a somewhat distorting window. We all know that watching The Help or Bridesmaids or Friends doesn’t provide the viewer with a flawless picture of how people live and communicate in America, now or in the past, but even exaggerated versions of American life on screen can provide insights into the things we as a country value and how we interact with one another. All in all, I am a strong believer that the benefits of watching movies far outweigh any risks that might be involved  (like accidentally picking up Sylvester Stallone’s weird slur/drawl after watching Rambo one too many times or thinking that “E.T. phone home” is an appropriate, colloquial way to request use of a telephone).

I watch Spanish-language movies as often as I can. While the Netflix Watch Instantly selection in this genre is quite disappointing, it still gives me instant access to way more movies than I had available to me before. Subtitles, for better or for worse, are turned on, with no option to be turned off. I’ve found that the DVD options they offer are much more complete, but I like my instant gratification so I’m sticking with the online rentals for the time being.
One movie that I discovered through the service was a Mexican comedy called Casi Divas (Almost Divas). The plot (which at times takes on a vague-mockumentary-ish feel that I wish they had pursued further) centers around a nationwide casting call for a new movie based on a fictional telenovela called Maria Enamorada. With the telenovela’s leading lady growing too old to play the part in the movie (and not happy about it at all), the studio holds an open American Idol-style casting call, complete with acting competitions and telephone voting to find the new Maria. The movie follows four hopeful contestants from different parts of Mexico and very different walks of life as they compete for the starring role.

This is not the type of movie I normally watch, but I have to confess, I love it. It’s in large part a very silly comedy, but there are very serious undertones that address a number of social issues of importance in modern Mexico.

A rich contestant from Guadalajara struggles with her self-image and relies on her wealthy family to get her through the competition, another from Oaxaca is discriminated against because of her race (she is a Zapoteca Indian), another has a secret that could eliminate her from the competition (revealed halfway through the film), and one contestant from Ciudad Juárez hopes to use the fame she’d acquire by winning the competition to escape the murderous city she’s grown up in, and the numerous disappearances and killings that have plagued the city’s women for years. I do think the film glazes over many of these issues, but their mere presence as plot elements keeps the movie from being too fluffy and adds a little heart and soul to an otherwise lighthearted story line.

This is a bit of a screwball comedy, a bit stereotypical,  and it definitely focuses on the ladies (the male characters are not necessarily painted in the most flattering light), but overall I would highly recommend it. I don’t think it got the best reviews overall, but honestly, it’s enjoyable. If you want to read some more critical perspectives, NPR and The Los Angeles Times both gave it fairly favorable, though by no means rave reviews.

Language-wise, there is a lot of fast talking, but there was clearly effort put into differentiating the characters’ different personal styles, and I think that comes through in a number of very distinctive speaking styles that are nice to see side by side. I’m not used to all the Mexican colloquialisms that appear throughout the film, but overall I think it’s a great vehicle for learning some new vocab and grammatical structures more commonly used south of the border.

Don’t have Netflix? You can also get the DVD from Walmart for $5.

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Packing the Perfect Carry On Bag: Ten Things to Bring to Make Long Flights Less Awful (For Girls)

Practical Carry-on to Europe
I have a love-hate relationship with packing. I love the excitement that comes with shoving all your stuff into a bag, imagining what your fabulous upcoming trip is going to be like, and how you’re going to use each and every one of the meticulously selected items. But I hate the fact that it’s so hard to tell what you will actually use until you’re halfway around the world, likely weighed down by pounds and pounds of things you don’t need and missing at least one necessary item that you can’t believe you forgot. But more than anything, I hate having a bag full of junk in an airport or a train station, having to dig around through a million things to find your passport, fiddling with straps that are too short or a bag that (literally) rubs you the wrong way, all while trying to get your shoes on and off and wondering if anyone is ever going to see the full x-ray photo of your body that was just snapped by that TSA machine. A well-packed bag can make the difference between a relaxing, easy airport experience and an absolutely horrible one.
My favorite personal example of the horrible carry-on-effect was the day that I was trapped in Madrid Barajas airport for 27 hours due to an unexpected holiday season snowstorm. Upon arriving at the airport I found out that my single checked bag was drastically overweight and I ended up having to check the backpack I was using as a carry on to redistribute. As a result, I had to use a re-usable polyester shopping bag as my carry-on (great bag, just better used at the market!), I accidentally checked my iPod (which, as an extra slap in the face was later stolen out of my suitcase), my cell phone ran out of batteries (charger, again, in checked bag), and I had LITERALLY 2 (euro) cents left in my checking account. I ended up in tears, alone, sleeping in a luggage cart after fruitlessly waiting for ten hours in a line to get on a new Iberia flight, and very, very hungry. Eventually I got back home (about 42 hours later), ate, and recovered most of my possessions, but I will ALWAYS pack and prepare more carefully as a result of that trip.
Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you won’t have to check a bag at all. But if you do have to check a bag, or if you just want the convenience of not having to lug all of your belongings through the airport, you’ll have to bring something with you on the plane. The above is a typical carry-on for me when I am traveling long-haul to an urban destination (let’s be honest–a trip to Berlin required slightly more frivolous packing than schlepping through Albania or exploring Costa Rica did) with a checked bag. I would pack very differently on a domestic flight or on a flight where I have everything in the cabin with me.
For me, the carry-on fulfills two purposes: 1. To hold all the things I want/need during my flight, and 2. To hold the things I would absolutely need in the event that my checked bags were lost. If bags are lost on your outbound flight, there is no guarantee you will see them at all on your trip, and that could be a major bummer/vacation-ruiner. For that reason, I make sure to wear a layered outfit on the plane that could take a re-wearing or two if necessary, like this (disclaimer…these are random items picked off polyvore, I WISH I could afford $500 shoes and a $500 scarf…..I must confess I do have the bag though!):
Comfy Travel Outfit

That outfit is comfy (and warm) enough for the plane, but also appropriate enough for whatever I might run into upon arrival, if I needed to re-wear it. Obviously you’ll need to adjust this based on your destination and the weather, not to mention your personal style and comfort-gauge, but for me, tank top-sweater-jeans-ballet flats is the go-to option, with a jacket if the weather requires one. Now, if I was on a domestic flight, I would get dressed in whatever I wanted, stick my Kindle and a snack in my purse and be ready to go. But for those longer flights, I get a little more intense and, after dressing strategically, I always make sure I’ve checked off the following boxes:

1. Medium-sized bag: Not too big that it can’t be used as a carryall-style purse later in your trip, but not too small that it can’t hold all the essentials. For my last trip I used the Baggallini Only Tote which was affectionately nicknamed “the diaper bag” by my traveling companions, because that is exactly what it looks like. I am still deciding how I feel about this bag…on the upside, it’s super lightweight and can fold up pretty well if it needs to be packed, it’s shallow so you can easily see what’s inside and get to it, and it has incredibly convenient pockets. It also holds a lot of stuff, including my DSLR. On the downside, it tends to get a little too wide when it’s fully packed to be held comfortably on your shoulder, and, well, it looks like a diaper bag. I’ll go into more detail in a later post, but the point is, bring a bag that can hold what you need, make sure that it’s comfortable enough to carry around on the plane and once you’ve hit the ground, and make sure you can easily get to the things inside. In the future, I’d like to upgrade to something a little less diaper-baggy, something like this beauty, though leather can be heavy and I would hate to get that thing dirty!

I also try to bring a small purse with me inside the bigger bag (way smaller than the one pictured, which is what I carry daily). For me, this eliminates the frustration of juggling two bags and the difficulty of digging through a bigger bag to find my documents at the airport, as well as keeping all my most valuable items contained in one easy to access place. Once I land, I then have the option of carrying the big bag, for days when I want to take my DSLR with me, or the little bag, when I need less stuff.

Inside my big bag, I have the essentials:

2. Phone/Music Player: I have an HTC Evo 3D which is great because it has the ability to be phone, music player, ereader, translator, camera, etc. etc. etc. all in one. Basically, travel with a smartphone! It’s great. If you don’t have a smartphone, an iPod Touch is a fabulous and totally under-rated travel tool. I used mine to death living in Spain, and I highly recommend it if you don’t want a smartphone or a phone contract. I also use Spotify premium and LOVE it. You can take playlists with you offline, and I think it’s totally worth the $10/month to have unlimited access to music (including a lot of international music) anywhere you go. I have yet to find a reliable way to access Google maps offline, but maps in general on the iPod Touch/Smartphones are a lifesaver and much less conspicuous than a big paper one, though in some places it might be better to wave a paper map around conspicuously than an expensive electronic device…your call.

3. Kindle and charger: I love my Kindle! Before I got one, I read a lot of public domain books on my iPod Touch which is super compact and great for those of you with good, young eyes, but most people find the tiny LCD screen irritating. The Kindle on the other hand, is truly easy on the eyes. Now they’re even smaller (and cheaper) than ever, and with access to tons of free ebooks through the library, I love reading again. If you have the version with 3g you also have the added bonus of free internet access around the world. Not many people realize that, but you can use the 3g to actually go online, check your email, etc. It’s not perfect and it’s a bit of a pain to type, but it’s great in a bind or if you’re unable to travel with a cell phone. And did I mention it’s free??? Instapaper is another great tool that allows you to clip online content to a kindle-friendly offline format. I use it to clip articles about my destination for plane reading. The charger also works with my phone, which means one less cord to pack!

4. A snack and an empty water bottle: You should definitely keep TSA in mind with this category, but it’s always a good idea to bring snacks on the plane and usually they don’t have a problem getting through security. Airport food is gross, expensive, and unhealthy and typically makes me feel horrible, and many airlines no longer offer any food at all, even on the longest of domestic flights. On my last trip, my friend and I brought cheese and crackers, carrots and hummus, and some homemade brownies that in total only cost us each a few bucks and lasted us from SFO to YYZ. It was a bit weird that the hummus wasn’t confiscated, but it was only a $2 investment and was well worth the risk! I also bring a small (empty) nalgene bottle and ask the flight attendants to fill it with water every time they go by to keep hydrated en route. It makes for a much more pleasant journey, and you end up with a little extra space in your bag once you’ve devoured everything.

5. Socks: I like to wear ballet flats because they are compact, dress up or down well, and are easy to deal with at security, but once you’re on the plane, they can be less than snuggly and your feet can get cold. I pack one pair of wool socks that I slip on once we’re in the air. It makes me feel a bit comfier and keeps the airplane chill away.

6. Toiletries: I bring a little mesh bag of a few select toiletries with me that will last me through my journey and will hold me over if my checked bag does not survive the trip. Toothbrush and toothpaste, a baby GoToob filled with facewash, travel-sized deodorant and face/body lotion, nail clippers, tweezers, and only the most essential of make-up supplies: powder, blush, mascara, and chapstick. If I am stranded without all the other stuff, I will survive very comfortably with those things. Never underestimate the usefulness of nail clippers and tweezers when you’re traveling; I literally never go on a trip without them!

7. Pashmina: It’s a scarf! It’s a blanket! It can protect your hairdo from drizzle! It can make you decent enough to enter a Catholic church/temple/other place of worship when you have no sleeves! It can cover that nasty armrest you want to lay your head on at the airport! You can sit on it on the beach! So many uses for a $5 purchase. Pashminas, I love you.

8. Passport-friendly wallet: I don’t like having my passport and my wallet separate from each other. Some people like to spread things out so they don’t lose everything if they get pick-pocketed, others like to go for the money belt. I’ve tried both. I don’t like them. I prefer to have one place where I keep cards, cash, and passport, and I protect it with my life. I found a wallet at Forever21, of all places, that is perfect for this. It’s exactly passport sized, clips shut so nothing falls out, and is still slim enough to carry daily. I’ve also used it every single day for three years, and it hasn’t malfunctioned yet. And it was $6! Woo!

9. Breathmints: Chances are you will be sleeping and/or eating if you’re traveling for more than like 6 hours, and you can’t always break out the full toothbrush, so these are mandatory.

10. Camera: This is just one of those items that I’m never putting in my checked bag. Camera bags do not work for me, so instead I keep my Canon Rebel in a neoprene sleeve that costs….wait for it….$5. And then I pop it in my carry-on. It’s about as compact as you can get, and while the sleeve won’t protect it from everything, it’s a pretty good safeguard from normal bumps and scratches.

So that’s it! It’s not the shortest list in the world, but when I’m going to Berlin, or London, or Barcelona, I’m not exactly in survival mode. I’ll save my survival-mode packing instructions for another post. Packing light doesn’t have to mean being uncomfortable or ill-prepared, and if you do it right, you can make it anywhere in the world while staying pretty, comfy, and entertained!

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Book Review: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Throughout this blog I’ve tried to address the many sides to travel, good bad and ugly, and I hope I’ve made a point of acknowledging that many of the best travel experiences you can have aren’t going to be 100% positive or smooth or easy (I hope I’ve also made clear that those experiences will almost always seem more positive, smoother, and easier (not to mention more glamorous) once they’re behind you).

I am not going to say that I always travel to learn, to put myself outside of my comfort zone and experience new people and places, because often when I go on a trip my #1 objective is to have a good time and experience something new, nothing more (example: Oktoberfest!). But still, the more I travel, the more I am interested in forcing myself into situations that I know will be awkward or unnerving or completely alien to me, because those experiences always make the most powerful memories (examples: Albania! Couchsurfing!). Those experiences can also be the most helpful in bringing you face to face with your stereotypes and assumptions about different people and places. It’s easy to assume that you know about a place because you’ve read about it repeatedly in the news or because you make assumptions of what you would be like if you lived there. There’s nothing like seeing a country in real life or talking to real live humans with a completely different worldview than you to make you realize just how different some places are from what you know and are comfortable with–and how similar some things can be, even in the most distant corners of the globe. I haven’t been able to travel nearly as much as I’d like to in my life due to a lack of vacation time and money, but even getting a little bit beyond your border has the potential to expose you to things that you never knew existed. Looking at yourself and your country from a distance is a remarkably revelatory thing.

But back to those restrictions of time and money. Those can be a problem if you’re hoping to broaden your horizons by zooming across continents to connect with foreign cultures. I get the opportunity to do that maybe once a year, and I must say I squandered my valuable cultural connection time last year on a Mexican beach resort and Oktoberfest….buuuut I will also say that those trips were totally worth their weight in vacation days and I don’t regret them at all!

So 2011 was not my year for meaningful, enlightening travel. It was however, the year of the kindle. I will wax poetic on the many wonderful features of my kindle at a later time, but let’s just say that it has allowed me to get a lot more reading in, and there were a number of books that I read over the past year that allowed me to travel vicariously through their narratives and characters to some of those exotic locales that I missed in 2011.

One of the more exotic (or less, depending on how you define exotic) locations to which I decided to pay a literary visit was North Korea, via Barbara Demick’s non-fictional Nothing to Envy. I’ve always wondered about North Korea, mainly because the place seems SO DAMN WEIRD. How can a country be so backward, especially when surrounded by some of the most quickly advancing societies in the world? How can one leader be so controlling? How can people who are clearly being wronged be so devoted to such a strange little man? How can the entire country just seem so crazy? I feel like most accounts of North Korea come from a very American perspective, or maybe more accurately a very non-North Korean perspective. Coming from a place as open as the States, it’s hard to imagine the kind of control that a truly dictatorial, completely closed government can exert on its people. It’s hard to imagine all the things that we take for granted in a wealthy, capitalist society, and it’s especially hard to imagine what it would be like if all of our sources of information were cut off and controlled by a government that only wanted us to see, learn, and experience certain things. Accounts of the country typically focus on the eccentricities of the recently departed Kim Jong-il or the absolutely ridiculous (but admittedly amazing) performances of the Arirang Festival. What’s refreshing about Demick’s book is that it tells the story of North Korea from a new perspective, from the point of view of ordinary North Koreans. These people weren’t all party members, didn’t all live in Pyongyang, and they weren’t groomed by the regime to tell a certain story. The result is a collection of sincere, captivating stories of normal lives in a decidedly abnormal place. The six stories woven together by Demick together create a rather compelling narrative that I really couldn’t put down. It lacks some of the elements of your typical page-turner, but the stories are so revealing of what life is like above the DMZ, and the topic so typically unexplored, that I plowed through the book, emerging with a new fascination for North Korea. The passing of Kim Jong-il a few weeks back makes this book rather timely and even more interesting. I highly recommend it for anyone looking to broaden their horizons on an empty wallet.

And for those of you looking for a bit more information on North Korean, check out the following photo essays on life in the country.

Rare visions of Rural North Korea

Exposing North Korea

8 Amazing North Korea Photo Essays

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The Eagle Creek Pack-it Folder: A Review

Normally when I go on a trip, packing is easy. Or at least that is the way it’s always been for me in the past. Twice I’ve utilized my enormous rolling suitcase (like 50-70lbs when fully packed enormous) for trips lasting over four months where I knew I’d be staying in one place. Once I even used that same enormous suitcase for a two week trip that didn’t involve much moving around. Other times, I’ve packed my backpack with the essentials for my destination of choice and the appropriate season. Summer in Albania was easy: It would be hot and dry and I packed super light. Spring in Costa Rica was also a piece of cake: nothing fancy, just bathing suits, shorts, and tennis shoes for muggy, hot outdoorsy-ness. I never really needed to pack super tight because I always knew what was in store. But packing for my last trip (to Germany and Denmark in the fall) was a different story. I was traveling for only about ten days, but the weather was all over the place: 50 degrees one day, 80 the next. Raining, then blazing sun. On top of that, it was an urban trip and I wanted to look presentable: no dirty tank tops and flip flops on this trip (well, not at the beginning of the trip at least!). Packing light is nice, but there were pictures to be taken people! I also knew that I wanted to take my backpack (no more pulling rolling suitcases up metro stairs for me!), but was concerned about having to get in and out of a top-loading pack when I knew it would be absolutely crammed with stuff, not to mention fitting it all in there in the first place! Enter the completely unexpected solution to my packing problem: the Pack-it Folder. I had been looking around at a variety of websites and travel blogs where people go into rather crazy detail about their packing habits and preferences, and this weird little envelope just kept popping up. The idea of folding all my clothes into one pile didn’t seem like the logical solution to my problem. I was skeptical, but I decided to give it a try.

The Eagle Creek brand of these packing folders (there are others by Magellan and similar companies too) is available lots of places, including REI and the Container Store.  The idea is that you use the plastic insert as a guide to fold up your clothes and then you stack the folded items into the envelope, folding the whole package together with velcro closures. It seems to be designed with men’s collared shirts in mind, but I found that it works even better for casual women’s clothes since they tend to be smaller and less finicky to fold. I gave up on using the folding board after my first use because I realized that I could fold my clothes in any way i liked and still get a LOT of stuff into this folder. The label says 8-12 shirts, but I found that its optimal capacity was more like: 5 women’s tank tops, 5 cardigans, 1 pair jeans, 1 pair black pants, 3 blouses, 2 dresses, 2 pairs shorts, 1 pair pajamas….basically everything but thick sweaters and jackets will fit surprisingly nicely.

Once your clothes are in, you place the plastic folding insert back on top and velcro it all up like an envelope. It seals up pretty tight, so things stay in place and don’t shift around too much (I found that when it’s super packed things do shift a bit, but far less than they would loose in your bag!). I have the 18-inch model, which slides snugly into my Osprey Exos but might be too tight for bags even a little bit smaller. It doesn’t fit into my smaller North Face Recon or my Baggallini Only tote at all. When you need to access your packed clothes, you simply pull out the whole folder and peel off the layer you need, replacing the rest. Clothes stay as neatly folded and wrinkle-free as you’d expect them to be in a well-filled drawer in your house. The whole process is much easier than pulling out everything each time you need to get to those socks at the bottom of your pack, and less frustrated than pulling out a bunch of small vacuum or compression bags and trying to remember which item is in which bag. I even managed to add a new purchase, my Oktoberfest dirndl from C&A, into the envelope, which I totally thought was at capacity when I departed California. All in all, this envelope is awesome for both for urban backpacking as well as singe-destination trips where you want more room in your suitcase or are just trying to stay wrinkle free.

This folder won’t fit everything; I mentioned jackets before but bras, socks, etc are also not going to fit into this thing with any kind of efficiency, so little mesh zipper bags are a great addition to this method of packing. I get mine for $1.50 at Daiso in San Francisco, but you can probably get them at any dollar store, or travel stores if you want to pay more.

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I am starting to put together a little map of some of the places I enjoyed in Madrid. Here’s the first bit!

Note: For some reason the map isn’t centered, so click on it to see everything!

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The Osprey Exos and Osprey Atmos: A Review

Backpacks at the Blue Eye, originally uploaded by jhoolko.

When I found out I was going to be living in a relatively boring town surrounded by lots of other NOT boring places in southern Spain for nine months, I decided it would be a good idea to buy a backpack so I could get the hell out of my town on the weekends and explore.

I had a small daypack that I had used during other short-term travel (A North Face pack similar to the Recon), but I wanted the possibility of doing some more intense travel and that baby just wasn’t going to cut it. So I logged onto REI and started shopping.

I am a picky shopper, especially when it comes to spending loads of hard-earned money on something as boring as a backpack, so I did my research. I wanted something that could get me through a month-long trip or a two-day trip. I wanted something that would fit into the overhead compartment of a Ryanair plane, I wanted something with lots of convenient little pockets, and most of all I wanted something that would be comfortable. I have a weak, finicky back, and backpacks usually are not something I look forward to putting on, so being light and ergonomic and having some form of a supportive frame were all requirements this bag would have to meet. And I wanted all of this for less than $200.

My research led me to a fancy new superlight pack by Osprey; the Exos. The Exos is like a feather. It also has a lot of cool features like easily accessible trekking pole loops, a sleeve for up to three liters of hydration, and a bunch of other stuff that I will probably never use. Half of the cool gizmos and gadgets on this thing actually almost scared me away at first. I was planning on daytripping through Andalucía, not trekking through the snowy Himalayas. I didn’t need poles or hydration systems, I needed a place to put my laptop, a couple shirts and my camera in a way that wouldn’t give me a backache. And I found it!

After a one-on-one session with an unfortunate REI employee who was subjected to intense questioning and a try-on session that involved maybe dozens of backpacks filled with dozens and DOZENS of beanbag weights, I was hooked on the Exos. It was super light, and the suspension system kept the pack off my back without keeping it too far off my back so I never felt like I was falling backwards. The straps didn’t cut into me anywhere, the frame hugged my body, and the capacity of the 46 liter model was plenty big to last me for just about any length European backpacking trip without tempting me to pack too much (though there is a larger model Exos out there if you need that extra capacity). The 46 liter pack was $179, and it was quite possibly the best $179 I have ever spent.  My boyfriend settled for the slightly more heavy-duty, slightly bigger, slightly less-pricey Atmos (the green pack in the pictures) which I will touch on as well.

I backpacked through Spain for a month in September 2009, then lived out of the backpack every Mon-Thurs from October until March of the same year. In December I took a winter trip to Poland and the Czech Republic with the thing, and most recently in June I spent 10 days backpacking in Albania and two in Italy. Throughout the year I took a bunch of side trips to places all around Spain, by plane, train, and bus. The backpack has been thoroughly tested, and I am happy to say that it is amazing.

First of all it is light. This is great. If you are going away for a day or two, you don’t even feel like you have anything on your back, and the bag compacts down enough that I would even consider using it as a daypack if I didn’t have another bag available, which I don’t. If you are going away longer, the lightness can be essential in situations like hiking down a cliff in the dark to camp on an Albanian beach or when you are being ordered by an Italian airport security officer to repack your bag to get it under the ridiculously strict 10 kilo Ryanair hand-luggage restriction. On the downside, the pack is only so light because everything on it is a little smaller, a little thinner, or a little more hollow than a normal pack. At first I was worried about tossing it around or checking it on a flight where it might get banged up, but after a few months I realized that it was tough enough to take some bumping about. The only thing that really bothers me about the lightness is the waist belt. The belt itself is very thin compared to the Atmos or other similar packs, which means it can cut into you a bit if the bag is particularly heavy. The clips also sometimes pop out or get loose due to the fact that they just don’t have the bulk of a normal bag. This bothered me a bit but it was worth it because the rest of the pack was so great, though I could imagine it being a little more bothersome if you are doing more serious trekking.

Otherwise, the pockets and straps and everything are wonderful. You can fit so much stuff into that 46 liter pouch that you could easily travel for months. Even when carrying a sleeping bag,  a tent, my DSLR, and clothes for two weeks in there, we were still able to get the bags through Ryanair as carry-ons without a problem. The soft stretchy pouch in the front is great for shoes, wet clothes, or anything you might want at hand, provided that there are no sharp edges involved. I have a few little cuts in the stretchy front pouch material from things as soft as a book, so be careful before putting anything with corners or points in there. The front pouch below the stretchy pocket has zipper access running down the left side of the pack and is great and huge, though not always 100% easy to get your hand into when the main compartment is filled, partly because it is so large and smaller items can get lost in the folds of the pocket. I rarely left loose items in there, instead grouping them into zipper bags to make them easier to pull out. Having a shallower zipper pocket in the front area might have been nice, and the Atmos does separate that front section into two smaller pockets which sometimes made me a little jealous. The water bottle holders on the sides are roomy and easy to access while wearing the pack, and there is enough netting and straps that you can easily keep lots of things in there besides a water bottle without worrying about anything falling out. The compression straps on the side, though thin, are excellent at compacting everything down to a manageable size. The mesh pockets on the waistbelt are big enough to hold things like small change, chapstick, a digital camera, passport, etc, which was always convenient while walking longer distances or at the airport. The cell phone holder on the shoulder strap came in handy often, and the removable pouch on the top of the bag was in constant use and smooshes down nicely when empty, though I often found myself wishing it was waterproof to provide some coverage for the rest of the pack.

The shoulder straps in general could be a little thicker and more padded, but honestly if you are going to be carrying so much weight that the straps are causing you pain, an ultra-light bag probably isn’t a good choice for you.

And lastly, the colors are a super cool grey and burnt orange which I swear had nothing to do with me picking it….

So the jist of this all is that the Exos is an excellent pack for backpacking, if by “backpacking” you mean through Europe or something similar. I assume that it will be just as good out in the woods or wilderness or whatever, but I can certainly give it an A+ for the budget traveler set, if you can recommend a $179 pack and still be using the word “budget.” It easily transitioned from walking the streets of Milan into camping in Albania and it looked good doing it!

And if the Exos is just too light or delicate or whatever for you, the Atmos offers basically everything that the Exos does, but is a little heavier (emphasis on little), a little more sturdy, and a little cheaper–an excellent alternative. For my boyfriend, the Atmos just felt better on his back, and he decided that ultimately comfort was worth an extra pound or so of weight, and it was a great choice for him. Either way, both packs have proved to be well worth the investment. I highly recommend doing a fitting at REI or a similar store where you can try on the different sizes, talk to a salesperson, and even add lots of weights to make sure nothing pokes you in the wrong places, which is definitely something you want to look into before purchasing the pack, loading it up with 30lbs of (absolutely necessary) supplies and hitting the road.

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Foie a la Plancha

I think that one of the most prevalent and difficult-to-defend-against stereotypes about the U.S. is that we all eat greasy, disgusting, fattening, butter-smothered crap fast food for every meal in portions large enough to kill a normal healthy European, Asian, African, bear, elephant, alien, etc. When asked about typical American food, the first response is always hamburger/McDonalds, then french fries, hot dog, then people start getting into food which some defend as food of other countries (Pizza, Mac and Cheese: people go crazy about these two being Italian), and then they start talking about eating an entire turkey, as if we each sit down every night and personally consume the corpse of an enormous bird. Then inevitably breakfast comes up where people are shocked and alarmed at the idea of eating anything other than toast and coffee before 2pm, and then they just start naming off unhealthy foods that they saw once on some TV show about how horrible Americans are. Now, while this offends me as a reasonably healthy eater and someone who hasn’t eaten McDonalds anywhere outside of EUROPE in a number of years, after many years of consideration, I think that the stereotype is misguided but in essence totally true. I also blame “American” restaurants abroad for about 70% of this stereotype. Also I am currently craving Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles so I guess I also have myself to blame a little bit.

What I have also realized is that Europe is no stranger to horribly unhealthy food or large portions of food. Some examples: Menu del día: MY GOD this is a lot of food to eat for lunch. Two courses plus a dessert and a beer? I would normally eat a sandwich or a salad and a glass of water or something at home. But here, because I am here, I can eat stew followed by ossobuco with french fries and a salad, all accompanied by a large beer, and then polish it off with coffee and cream puffs. No big deal. Also, the incredible foie a la plancha:

This particular specimen was collected and consumed at La Cuchara de San Telmo, a fantastic pintxos bar in San Sebastian with one of the worst websites I have ever seen. Anyways, it was accompanied by a nice little pool of some kind of apple preserve (basically fancy European apple sauce), some sea salt, and a nice little swirl of obligatory extra virgin olive oil. And oh my god.

I will try my best to explain foie to the uninitiated because before this trip, I thought that it was just paté from happier ducks/geese. NOPE! Foie gras comes in a variety of levels of quality, ranging from the kind you get in a can that is only a certain percentage of force-fed duck or goose liver, to the really really awesome stuff which is literally just a liver of a duck or goose that has been fattened via tube feeding its entire life. Poor duck/goose, I know; but lucky me. I would never eat liver in the U.S. just because I imagine 7th grade biology and all the fun images that might conjure up for any person, and also because any paté I’ve ever tried before this trip (even paté of foie gras) just kiiiinda tastes like cat food to me. BUT THIS. This is different. Imagine the most succulent, flavorful, sinful piece of food you have ever eaten, then stick it on a grill to get the edges a little crispy, then put it and all its delicious juices into a pool of subtly sweet apple compote and eat it with  some nice bread. I’ve also tried the fois-on-toast iteration at a tiny little tapas bar in Chueca here in Madrid, and honestly…just as good. Just as incredibly, incredibly, good. But, the point of all this is, it’s not healthy. At all. I mean this is the opposite of healthy for you, for the duck with the tube down its throat, just for everyone involved.

But I mean look at that thing! What you may not be able to tell from the picture is that it’s small. That plate is the size of the plate you’d get your dinner roll on and the foie itself is the size of a meaty little cell phone (I apologize to the world for not being able to think of a better comparison). It’s bad for you–it’s oh so bad for you–but it’s small and genuinely totally enjoyable. I savored every last bit of that thing, even towards the end when I was starting to think about it too much and get creeped out. And that is what makes the bad foods here different from the bad foods I am used to. The bad foods here are really good.

I still think it’s unfair to generalize about the evils of the American  diet versus the virtues of the Mediterranean/European, but I think I can really see why Europeans will so genuinely defend their eating habits as being so much healthier than Americans’, even with a caña and plate of deep fried fish in hand. They eat to enjoy, to pass time with friends, to have something to do for hours and hours and hours. We eat to eat, to get energy in, to satisfy a craving, whatever, but rarely do I see people sitting for three hours at a restaurant in the U.S. without getting dirty looks from the entire waitstaff.

I went out to lunch here with Marshal the other day because I wanted a menu del día. He was tired and we decided to do an early lunch so we could fit in a pre-train siesta. We ate our two courses and our dessert and were basically the only people in the restaurant when we walked in at one. At the end of the meal, which lasted just over an hour and included salmorejo, risotto, chicken, lamb stew, a kiwi, berry cheesecake, and two beers, the waiter said to me “You guys eat really early and really fast!”

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I have been to this little bar in Malasaña about five times. Let me remind you that I have only been in Madrid for about a month. I don’t know what it is about this place, but I just keep coming back!

Ok, I lie, I do know exactly why I keep coming back. Pollo con Krispies. I am hooked. It’s a three euro plate of chicken, coated in corn flakes, fried, smothered in mustardy curry sauce, and SERVED WITH A SIDE OF ICE CREAM. Coconut curry ice cream. On a bed of sprouts. Just trust me and try it.

And while you’re at it, try everything on the menu except for the pear salad (parmesean ice cream just doesn’t work in salad) or the frogs legs (taste like fish, look like humans).

Their whole deal is having really weird, bizarre seasonal tapas, and even though there are some misses, most of the time it works. Do it!


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