The Taj Majal at Sunrise: A Photo Essay

The Taj Majal at Sunrise: A Photo Essay

Before leaving India I knew I’d have to make one last stop- the Taj Majal.

The Taj Majal is located in Agra, a few hours south of New Delhi. Built in memory of the Emperor’s third and favorite wife Mumtāz Mahal, the Taj Majal is one of the world’s most beautiful examples of Mughal architecture in the world. But you already knew that, right?

Honestly, I didn’t really want to see the Taj Majal. I kind of resent “the things you have to see while traveling” because the list is just so damn long.

So we awoke before dawn to see the Taj Majal in all its splendor. Impressions? It was smaller than I thought but the early morning light turned the marble a pretty shade of pink-orange conch shell. And dawn turned out to be an excellent time to visit, as the temperature is cool and the crowds are minimal.

Of course, we took the super touristy optical illusion and Princess-Di-on-a-bench shots. Obviously.

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And okay no, the Taj Majal isn’t my favorite tourist attraction in Asia. (I’m looking at you, Angkor Wat.) But I’m still glad to have laid eyes on it, and am especially grateful we went at dawn.

Mini Taj Majal Travel Guide:

Where we stayed: the ITC Mughal. It’s a steal with SPG points!

Where we ate: Peshawri. Amazing!

How we got there: We hired a private car from Le Meridién and it was a huge rip-off- something like $80 a person! Unfortunately all the trains were booked weeks in advance so we couldn’t take a train. The highways were an absolute joy though- a world away from the dirt roads on the way to Rishikesh!

Is the Taj Majal on your bucket list?

High-rolling in Delhi

High-rolling in Delhi

After a month of Yoga Teacher Training and 10 days hiking the Himalayas, we were back to civilization in New Delhi.

In the past five weeks, I had eaten meat once (goat stew), drunk one beer (Kingfisher- blergh), completed 100+ hours of yoga in 110-degree heat and lost countless pounds due to extreme physical exercise and a diet of lentils.

It was time for some fun. And some air-conditioning.

So after dropping off Alice at the airport, Joe, McCall and I headed straight to Le Méridien, courtesy of McCall’s SPG points.

I was thrilled not only to stay in a luxury hotel, but to feel air-conditioning on my skin and to have power that didn’t go out 15 times a day.

And then in one of those ironic, are-you-flipping-kidding-me-India moments, the power went out in the entire hotel while I was in the elevator. India, you got me good.

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On our first night back in civilization, we gussied ourselves up and headed to Le Méridien’s cocktail lounge for some complimentary snacks and champagne. Upon the first sip of bubbly, I was reminded why I will never give up alcohol for a prolonged period of time ever again.

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That night we headed to Varq, a swanky restaurant where Joe sweetly bought us dinner along with many bottles of wine. I have generally good feelings about the night but don’t remember precise details- apparently champagne and I had too intense a reunion.

The next day we headed to Agra to see the Taj Majal, an adventure that deserves its own post.

When we returned to Delhi, we stayed at Leela Palace, one of the most luxurious hotels in India.

And how did we come to stay in such a nice hotel, you may be wondering? Well hours before the Himalayan trek I realized I had forgotten to book a hotel for our return so I shot my dad a quick email- I needed a cheap hotel in Delhi, please put it on my credit card.

But instead of booking a crappy hotel on my card, he booked a really nice hotel on his.

When we waltzed in, a string quartet and a lobby full of lilies greeted us. My singular thought was, OH MY GOD THANK YOU SO MUCH DAD.

Sidenote- my dad is ridiculously thoughtful and knew I would be craving luxury after not showering for 10 days. When I asked why he chose Leela Palace he said, “It seemed like the kind of hotel where I would stay.” The man has good taste.

Also what’s great about India is that this five-star hotel cost only $200 a night- a bargain.

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Apologies for the poor iPhone photos, but Leela Palace was amazing. The bed was made of angel’s wings and the bathtub had a TV and was about four feet deep. As we settled into our room, a waiter brought us homemade lemon iced tea on a silver tray.

While we only got one night in the lap of luxury, it sure was blissful. Leela_palace_delhi_3

Leela_palace_delhi_4 Have I ever mentioned how much I adore room service?

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One night we went to Bukhara, a fancy restaurant where the Clintons have dined. Okay yeah, Bukhara is touristy and wildly overpriced for India. But the food was insane- I don’t think I’ll ever stop dreaming of the ridiculously tender lamb skewers.

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Cooking class Delhi

We also did some cultural stuff, okay?

I love home-cooking classes, so on our last night in India we signed up for Farheen Cooking Class. Farheen, our chatty, pink-cheeked instructor, taught us how to make lots of our Indian favorites: chapati, parantha, chai, paneer butter masala and lentils.

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I learned a ton. Who knew chapati and roti are the same thing, just called by different names?

Also Farheen told us that North Indian cuisine is spicier and uses mustard seed oil and wheat flour, while South Indian relies on coconut oil and rice or white chickpea flour. Someday I’d love to travel to South India to taste the difference firsthand.

When we asked if her husband helped in the kitchen, Farheen laughed. “Men in India don’t cook!”

She also taught us tikka means cooked in a tandoor. I probably should’ve known that.

Indian_cooking_class_Delhi_1 The spices used to make chai…

Indian_cooking_class_Delhi_chai Homemade chai, which is crazy delicious…

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Making paneer butter masala, my favorite…

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So yeah, we had a great time in Delhi. We both ate and slept in style, capping off our trip with a bit of luxury.

And then- Joe and I were off to Thailand. With only one problem- we were flying into Bangkok during a military coup. So stay tuned for that adventure!

Mini Luxury Delhi Guide

Where to stay: Le Méridien, Leela Palace

Where to eat: Varq, Bukhara

What to do: The Red Fort, home-cooking class

Have you ever visited Delhi? Did you live it up like we did or travel more moderately?

Magic in the Mountains: My 10-Day Himalayan Trek (Part II)

Magic in the Mountains: My 10-Day Himalayan Trek (Part II)

You can read about part one of my Himalayan trek here.

After three days of trekking I finally started to get the hang of hiking. Okay, fine- both sleeping in a sleeping bag and uphill hiking were still miserable, but I was acclimating. And as we ascended higher and higher into the Himalaya, it was so beautiful I could almost forget my badly blistered feet.

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At higher altitudes, we saw less villages and more nature: magenta rhododendron, thick groves of oak and deodar, hawks circling in the crisp blue sky.

On day five we passed a flock of long-haired goats. The goatherd told us that one of his goats had broken a leg and he had to slaughter it. Would we like to buy a leg?

Why, yes. We would. And I will never forget watching our mule walk by with a freshly skinned goat leg in the saddlebag, hoof up. Hygiene, schmygiene.

That night we sat down for goat stew, and I can’t remember anything so satisfying. Ever. The goat was surprisingly tender and blanketed in a rich gravy. And after five meat-free weeks, the goat stew might as well have been a medium-rare ribeye with béarnaise sauce.

We awoke early on day six to hike to the top of the Kuari Pass. I knew the hike would be trying, so I used precious iPhone battery reserves to listen to music.

The ninety minutes to the summit were a battle. I paused to catch my breath frequently, and tried to bar negative thoughts which were invading my mind at an alarming rate.

Ultimately I felt ashamed for being the slowest hiker, and I couldn’t decide if it was my body or my mind that was the problem. In retrospect I know I was being too hard on myself; I was hiking the freaking Himalayas, jeez! But at the time I was beating myself up every step of the way.

The only consolation prize was seeing a Himalayan mouse on the trail. It was round and furry like a chinchilla, but brown in color. As far as rodents go, quite cute.

Once we crested the Kuari Pass, we were rewarded with the Himalayas in all their snowy glory.

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Fun fact- did you know Himalaya means “House of Snow” in Sanskrit?

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The rest of the day was blissful. We trekked across snow and golden grass on relatively flat terrain. The views were straight out of Middle Earth, which prompted Alice and I to quote Lord of the Rings at possibly excessive length.

Maybe it was the 14,000 foot altitude, but Alice’s impression of Gollum in her Essex accent just about killed me. “Why do you cry, Sméagol?”

Gotta love hypoxia.

This was also the day when I realized my hands were absurdly swollen. Twice their normal size, lobster red, skin as tight as a drum. Seriously, they were Frankenstein-esque.

That night I had a decision to make. Would I wake up at 4 a.m. to hike to the top of the pass, or would I sleep in? While I’d liked to say I was racked with guilt over the decision, in reality it was easy: sleep in, duh.

I’m not sure if it was the high-altitude sunburn, the blisters or the exhaustion, but I had no desire to squeeze in an extra five-hour hike. But I was a bit jealous when the others came back with photos of holding yoga poses high above the clouds.

The rest of the afternoon was the perfect rainy day. The four of us spent the day just relaxing: listening to Joe read Scott Foster Wallace, debating American/English pronunciations in the tent and taking dramatic mountain portraits.

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That night the chef prepared us an adorable cake in honor of our last night- how do you even make a cake camping?

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After dinner and cake the four of us huddled up in the meal tent and played Egyptian Ratscrew, Asshole and Oh Hell while sipping ginger tea out of Little House on the Prayer tin cups. It was freezing; we were blowing on our fingers all evening just to play cards.

Despite the cold, we headed out for one last bonfire with the crew. They sang songs in Hindi and Garhwali, passing around a strange local herb. The stars above us were dazzlingly bright, but unfortunately my attempt at astrophotography failed.

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The last day of hiking was so beautiful I’ll let the photos speak for themselves:

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And then the second we descended from the mountain I saw an errant brown cow with a tie around its neck, and a group of Indian men who asked me for a picture. I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself; Yep, I was back to reality.

Our trekking company, Red Chilli Adventure in no way paid or perked me for this mention. Overall we were blown away by Red Chilli’s food, service and professionalism- I couldn’t recommend them highly enough!

Magic in the Mountains: My 10-Day Himalayan Trek (Part 1)

Magic in the Mountains: My 10-Day Himalayan Trek (Part 1)

Let’s just get the tough stuff out of the way: my ten-day Himalayan trek in Northern India was hard. While I didn’t get altitude sickness, I did suffer from blood blisters and sunstroke. And obviously, there was the whole not showering for 10 days thing and hiking EIGHT HOURS UPHILL under the blazing sun.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not that outdoorsy. My cardiovascular health leaves something to be desired and as a Michigander I’m naturally adverse to hills.

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So yeah. The trek was character-building. But it also got me in the shape of my life and was full of some of the most beautiful moments (and views) of my travels.

Plus, how often do you get to spend 10 technology-free days with good friends in the Himalayas?

And thankfully this was no bare-bones camping trip. This was glamping. We had two guides, a cook, five porters and a team of mules to carry our bags. Not only did we enjoy multi-course meals each night, the crew set up our tents before we got to the campsite.

We even had a TOILET TENT. Who knew those existed?

Also, because this was India, our ten-day trek cost us $440 each- an absolute steal.

I set off from Rishikesh with my three trekking buddies (McCall, Alice, an English girl from Yoga Teacher Training and Joe, McCall’s friend) to reach the starting point of the trek. Meaning we endured the dreaded Party All Night song for ten hours in a minibus on tiny mountain roads. Also Alice puked about 10 minutes into the trip so not only did we have to listen to moronic Hindi music on repeat, the bus smelled strongly of vomit.

The first night, and I kid you not, we camped in a field of marijuana. And we took selfies with a few ornery water buffalo.

After our first night camping, the real work began: hiking. And despite a rigorous month of Yoga Teacher Training, hiking uphill made my heart beat faster than a chipmunk’s.

The highlight of the day? (Besides the rest stops?) Passing through a lovely little mountain village.

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The village was quaint in a ramshackle Himalayan way: awash in turquoise and blue and smelling of sun-warmed cilantro. As we passed the villagers said, “Namaste” and tipped their heads to bow.  The streets were strewn with red rose petals, and golden wheat and fields of potatoes grew outside the slate walls.

And being India, there were lots of cows.

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We stopped at a middle school for a lunch of yak-cheese sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs. The kids seemed excited to see foreigners, smiling and waving. They lined up in uniform to greet us, the girls with floppy white bows in their hair. I noticed their features were almost Nepalese and many of them had beautiful yellow-green eyes.

When we finally trudged into camp that afternoon the tents were already up, and water buffalos, donkeys and cows grazing.

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As I gazed out of the tent I had a “I’m-so-lucky-what-on-earth-did-I-do-in-a-past-life” kind of moment. It was surreal. I felt so much joy and gratitude to be in the mountains.

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Soon after we settled in dozens of kids approached, and we ended up spending the rest of the afternoon entertaining them. I felt like I was babysitting again as McCall, Alice and I played jacks with the girls, while Joe played cricket with the boys.

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At one point we sat in a circle with the kids and sang Sanskrit hymns. Oh yoga school, what have you done to me?

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At four we convened in the tent for a chai break. Over the course of the trek I grew to love tea time, as we sipped our chai over cards, cookies and jokes. There’s no quality time quite like camping.

That night we fell asleep among craggy rocks and little white flowers, listening to the jingling of the cow bells and the snort of water buffalo.

Okay fine, that made sleeping in the tent sound way more idyllic than it actually was. More like I slept fitfully during a violent, tent-shaking rain storm. Also I decided that I hate sleeping bags as they make me feel like I’m going simultaneously sweat and freeze to death.

The second day of hiking was a bit less blissful, as blood blisters began forming on my feet. Also McCall got severe food poisoning and we had to wait out a storm in a shepherd’s hut. A.k.a. we spent two hours wet, freezing and crouching in animal excrement.

But our campsite that night made up for any of the day’s woes. We slept in a fairy glen full of enormous white flowers and tiny streams.  IMG_8188

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(Confession- when I was drying my boots by the fire I partially melted off the back of them. I would.)

And if I didn’t think sleeping in a sleeping bag could get any worse, I was wrong. Because that night I tried sleeping naked as I heard it would help me stay warmer. Uh, no. During the night I periodically awoke shaking from cold and slick with sweat, my nose transformed into an actual icicle.

The third day was the hardest of the entire trek. Despite my SPF 50, I developed a high-altitude sunburn on my hairline and nose. During our eight-hour, mostly uphill hike, motivational mantras buzzed through my head, “Hike at your own pace”, “clear the chittah”, “stronger and stronger.” None of them worked very well.

And finally, out of desperation, I prayed to God to carry me the rest of the way because I was so blistered, sunburnt and exhausted I wasn’t sure if I would make it. I blame sunstroke.

Moments later three children spotted us, shouted for “candy” and followed us all the way up the mountain. As they got closer they started singing songs like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, which in their adorable accent sounded like “Tinkle Tinkle Little Staa”.

I joined them in song, racking my brain for childhood ditties like “Baa Baa Black Sheep” as well as the Gayatri mantra, Wakatrunda and Om Asato Ma Sadgamaya.

So what I’m trying to say here is that God sent three adorable Himalayan children to help me get up the mountain. Or something like that.

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As I crawled to camp, I knew I had just begun my Himalayan journey. But already I was proud of myself for pushing myself further than I ever thought I could go.

Have you ever done a trek in a foreign country? What was your experience like?

Our trekking company, Red Chilli Adventure in no way paid or perked me for this mention. Overall we were blown away by Red Chilli’s food, service and professionalism- I couldn’t recommend them highly enough!

What I Learned from Giving Up Meat, Alcohol and Complaining in India

What I Learned from Giving Up Meat, Alcohol and Complaining in India

This spring I attended a Yoga Teacher Training in India with my good friend McCall. Upon arriving in Rishikesh we took an ascetic wellness pledge. For the next 30 days we were to abstain from the following: meat, alcohol, coffee, sex, social media, make-up, body-hate, soda, complaining, swearing, smoking and worrying.

Not only that, but we would practice the following daily: flossing, sleeping for eight hours, hydrating,  praying before bed and waking up at 6 a.m. to run. We would practice self-control (Sanskrit- yama) and maintain an aura of positivity.

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On graduation day when the pledge was over! Hence the make-up.

So how did I do?

Honestly, quite well. I 100% abstained from meat, alcohol, coffee, sex, make-up, soda and smoking, and I mostly abstained from body-hate, complaining and swearing.

What did I not do well on?

While I refrained from worrying aloud, my mind was an anxiety-ridden chatterbox that wouldn’t leave me alone. A few pledges completed fell to the wayside (sorry, flossing), while others we abandoned midway through (running, due to the macaque attack). I also failed to give up social media entirely; I wanted to stay in touch with friends as well as post updates for the blog. And okay fine, frivolous social media usage is one of my vices.

But overall I drank tons of water, slept eight hours a night, practiced four hours of yoga a day, read dozens of books, drank fresh-squeezed juice and behaved more or less like a yoga-obsessed nun.

Here’s what I learned from the experience:

Tough love hurts, but it helps.

I’m a huge fan of tough love. Which is why I tried to have a thick skin when my fellow students (lovingly) gave me critiques such as, “You’re breathing like a basset hound”, “You slouch too much”, “You need to be more patient in your yoga practice.”

As a result? I stood up straighter, learned to breath properly and was easier on myself in class. Tough love works.

When you vocalize a negative thought, you internalize it.

Due to our no-complaining pledge, I wasn’t able to vocalize my worries or paranoias. Because I couldn’t ask a friend, “Um, so do you think x was being rude to me at lunch?” I let go of the imagined snub much more easily.

And because I couldn’t vocalize deeper insecurities like, “Do you think I’m bad at yoga?”, the insecurity didn’t manifest and I kept working hard.

I’m not cut out for a vegetarian diet.

I had an idea of how a vegetarian diet would make me feel: clean, light, nearly transcendent. Unfortunately, I felt none of these things. I had less energy and bruised like a peach, and often found myself fantasizing about burgers.

But one plus is that giving up meat for a month gave me so much admiration for vegetarians. You guys are seriously rockstars.

Correcting your posture sucks at first.

For years I didn’t stand up straight. Having a big bust as a teenager caused me to slouch, and since then I’ve had chronic pain in my neck and shoulders.

The first few weeks of standing up straight were painful. I had to remind myself every moment to keep my spine straight, and it hurt to sit cross-legged as the muscles in my upper back were so weak from disuse. (Meditation was hell at first.)

But eventually standing up straight became (almost) second-nature, and the chronic pain went away! And it turns out you look worlds thinner and more confident when you have good posture.

Giving up coffee made me sleepy at first.

For the first week of Yoga Teacher Training I fell asleep in our academic classes frequently due to both jetlag and caffeine withdrawal. I hadn’t realized how thoroughly addicted to caffeine I was until I gave it up!

But after a few weeks I began to feel alert in the mornings even without coffee. (I’m sad to report that I have since relapsed.)

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My hilarious and lovable meditation teacher, Swami Ji, meditating on a rock in the Ganges. My lethargic tendencies prompted him to nickname me, “Sluggish baby.” And when he read my palm he discerned I was intelligent, and said, “Ah yes, sluggish people often have good minds.”

I care way too much about other people’s opinions.

Halfway through training a friend pointed out to me that I have a bad habit of asking for reassurance. For example, I say, “Wow, it’s so hot out.” And if no one agrees I say, “Don’t you guys think it’s hot too?” (P.S. I have since nixed this obnoxious habit.)

Yoga Teacher Training taught me I care way too much about other people’s opinions in terms of small things, but also big things. I’ve learned that if you were to follow everyone’s advice you would be paralyzed by indecision because their advice would contradict one another’s. So it’s best to take the advice of others with a grain of salt, and ultimately rely on yourself to make decisions.

I am way too hard on myself and it gets in the way of my progress.

I realized during Yoga Teacher Training that I have a complex and fear that I’m a lazy, pleasure-seeking person. While many of my accomplishments would point to the contrary, I carry around the idea, especially in regard to physical activities, that I’m lazy.

This self-doubt doesn’t help me; rather it hinders my progress because instead of focusing on the task at hand, say, a challenging yoga position, I berate myself for not being flexible and strong enough.

While being too hard on myself is still a problem, I’ve tried to learn to forgive myself and treat myself with the same compassion I would treat anyone else. Because self-doubt gets you approximately nowhere, ever.

Gratitude is the enemy of anxiety.

This is a lesson I’ve learned time and time again; gratitude is the enemy of anxiety. For me, anxiety goes like this: first I compare myself to others, then I worry why I don’t have a perfect body/Ivy League diploma/highly lucrative blog, proceed to feel inadequate, wonder what I’m doing with my life, retrace my past to see where I went wrong and ultimately declare, “Well, I’ve already messed my life so badly that I’ll never be able to remedy my mistakes. I have left nothing to live for.”

The best way I’ve found to combat anxiety (along with drinking a jug of water, spending time in nature, going for a run and laughing) is practicing gratitude for what I do have, and realizing how lucky I am.

So each night before bed McCall and I each came up with three things we were grateful for, from the opportunity to come to India to the fact that we had electricity that morning and we were able to toast our bread.

(One of the funnier gratitudes was when McCall unironically stated she was grateful to have both running water and electricity in the same day. Lolz.)

I don’t want to be perfect.

Personally, I feel society (and Pinterest) pressure us to be this idealized, near-perfect woman. This woman has rippling abs, drinks green juice, gets to bed early, Instagrams sunsets, runs, does yoga and never swears.

India taught me that I don’t want to be perfect. By the end of the month I missed IPAs and cheeseburgers and feeling pretty and talking to boys. The ascetic lifestyle, while great for a time, is dull and restrictive.

And you know what? Sometimes I swear and sometimes I’m sarcastic and sometimes I sleep in. And I’m not sorry about any of it. Because you never remember the nights you stay in and get a good night’s rest. And flawed people are entirely more interesting than perfect ones.

I may not want to be perfect, but I do want to be better.

India taught me that I’m no monk- I will never forgo meat or coffee permanently. But I do have a few vices I aim to cut out completely like complaining, body hate and worrying. But ultimately giving up so many things taught me so much about myself and bettered me as a person- though I won’t be doing it again any time soon.

Have you ever done a similar ascetic pledge?

What to Pack for a Yoga Teacher Training in India

What to Pack for a Yoga Teacher Training in India

When I was packing for my Yoga Teacher Training in India, I failed to find a single packing list on the great wide web. And unsurprisingly, once I got to India I realized that I had packed poorly: I brought one pair of athletic shorts, one maxi skirt and absolutely no snacks. I also didn’t consider that the near-vegan diet would leave me in dire need of iron pills.

So please allow me to humbly remedy the internets and share what you should pack for a teacher training in India.

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As an aside, you will inevitably buy hippie pants in India, regardless if you do yoga. Accept it.

Your Own Mat + Yoga Towel

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The shoddy mat I used for a month

When you’re doing four sweaty hours of yoga a day, you might as well do it on a clean, cushy yoga mat. My yoga school provided thin, ratty mats so I purchased my own. If I could do it over again, I’d bring my own mat as well as a yoga towel to prevent slipping.

(Personally I love the Jade Harmony with a YogaRat towel.)

Iron Supplements

Despite eating a vegetarian diet rich in spinach and lentils, I still wasn’t getting enough protein or iron at Yoga Teacher Training. A daily dose of iron would have been a godsend, though I imagine a multivitamin would have done nicely as well.

Protein Bars, Almonds and Peanut Butter

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Love you mom and dad! 

During Yoga Teacher Training, I woke up at 6 a.m. every day but breakfast wasn’t until 10:30 a.m. I don’t know about y’all, but I struggle with waiting so long to eat. Pack non-perishable snacks like Lara Bars, almonds or peanut butter that are high in protein and calories and will give you a boost.

A little parental shoutout- during my training my parents sent a box full of Lara Bars, almonds and other essentials all the way from the states. I seriously don’t know how I would’ve gotten through teacher training or my 10-day Himalayan hike without those Lara Bars!

Pepto Bismal and Imodium

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The eggs and crêpe that launched 24 hours of misery

Ever heard of Delhi Belly? Well it’s a thing. Chances are you will get food poisoning in India and it’s better to come prepared. I took Pepto Bismal when I had an upset stomach and Imodium when I had diarrhea- let’s just say both were essential.

Shorts and Sleeveless Athletic Tops

This is very Captain Obvious of me, but India is hot, especially during the rainy season. Pack shorts rather than full-length yoga pants, as well as lots of breathable athletic tops. (Even thinking about doing vinyasa in 110 degree heat wearing full-length Zellas gives me heatstroke.)

I personally love Gap’s athletic line because it’s attractive, sleek and often on sale.

Eyedrops

The air pollution in India is bad so your eyes may suffer from dryness- mine certainly did. I found even reading in bed irritated my eyes quite considerably! So pack eyedrops and you’ll be good to go.

Face Wipes

Again, the air pollution in India is really bad, so I used face wipes throughout the day to clear my face of grime and sweat. Trust me, you’ll be so happy to have them.

A Multi-subject Notebook and Pens

In India I took seven classes a day: hatha, mantra, anatomy, yoga philosophy, therapy, vinyasa and meditation. While I used a single moleskine for all of them, it would’ve been smarter to use a notebook section per class in order to easily go back and review.

Maxi skirts and dresses

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My India travel uniform. Plus I got the skirt at Primark for only £10!

In India, women often expose their midriffs but never expose their legs. So ladies, bring a few maxi skirts and dresses for exploring the streets- they’re cute, comfortable and colorful, and you won’t get unwanted attention. (Okay, you still will. But it’s not as bad.)

For more info on what to wear in India (and India travel in general!) check out Hippie in Heels- I especially loved her Do’s and Don’ts of How to Dress in India.

Miscellaneous:

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When the power was out (which was 10+ times a day) we would hang the headlamp from the showerhead in order to shower. #OnlyInIndia

Other essentials include a headlamp (above), doorstop (to use at night for safety),  hair ties and flip flops. I also used this antitheft crossbody bag while in India and it served me well.

Have you done a Yoga Teacher Training in India? What did you forget to bring?

Note- this list contains Amazon affiliate links and I will earn a small profit if you purchase through them. Thanks for keeping Ashley Abroad afloat!

What is a Yoga Teacher Training in India Like?

What is a Yoga Teacher Training in India Like?

This spring I completed a 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training in Rishikesh, India. My 30-day training was hard, physically, emotionally and spiritually, but ultimately so worthwhile.

Yoga Teacher Training improved me in a myriad of ways, from my posture to my anxiety to my downward dog. Ultimately it was a humbling experience; I realized I had so many things I wanted (and needed) to change about myself, and I left the training a calmer, kinder and more patient person.

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My awesome, international classmates!

I chose to go to India for Yoga Teacher Training for two reasons: India is the birthplace of yoga, and India is the cheapest place in the world to do a Yoga Teacher Training. My month-long program cost $1,250 and that included instruction, food and accommodation- quite the bargain!

So I wanted to show you a day in the life of a yoga student in India, as well as share with you you the logistics and costs.

6:30 Wake up

I wake up to my alarm at 6:30 a.m. for my first breakfast of a Luna bar and a handful of almonds. (Thanks to my dad for sending snacks all the way from the states!)

7:00 Shatkarma

Today we have shatkarma on the rooftop, a cleansing ritual we practice every other day. While one morning this meant imbibing a half-gallon of salt water and vomiting (I chose not to partake for ahem, “feminine” reasons), usually shatkarma just means we cleanse our nasal passages with a neti pot. Which is way, way easier than puking.

7:30 Hatha Yoga

Next up is hatha yoga. It’s a great class to wake up to because it’s a lot gentler than vinyasa yoga!

“Hatha” is a combination of “HA” (our right side, associated with aggressiveness, action, the sun) and “THA” (our left side, associated with stillness, peace, the moon). Thus, Hatha yoga practice is the unification of our right and left. Hatha yoga is the foundation of all modern forms of yoga, and its mastery gives you a solid base to progress in other forms of yoga.” – Vinyasa Yoga School

We end the class with pranayama, or breath control, which I find boring and unpleasant.

9:30 Mantra class

After hatha is mantra, in which we learn to chant Sanskrit mantras. Our resident monk, Swami-ji, teaches this class. While many students complain about this class because they “didn’t come all the way to India to sing”, I love it because I think the hymns are beautiful. And okay fine, I love to sing.

10:30 Breakfast

And finally, second breakfast! (Why yes, I am a hobbit who needs two breakfasts.) Every morning we have a western breakfast of fruit and toast, paired with crazy delicious chai.

Though sometimes the power is out during breakfast so we can’t toast the bread. Considering toast is my favorite food I’m quite the sad panda on those days.

11:30 Yoga Philosophy

In yoga philosophy we learn all about important Hindu texts and ideologies like the Yoga sutra, Bhagavad Geeta and the eight limbs of yoga. I enjoy yoga philosophy because I find Hinduism fascinating, though sometimes I mix up the texts- there’s a LOT of yoga philosophy to learn!

12:30 Therapy India_Yoga_School_massage

Therapy is everyone’s favorite class. In therapy we essentially learn how to give a really good massage. My favorite subsect is marma therapy, in which we learn how to manipulate pressure points and release energy blocks in the body and mind.

1:00 Anatomy Rishikesh_Yoga_School_Classroom

Okay, I’ve never been much a of science/math person so anatomy is admittedly not my favorite class. And by 1 p.m. I start to get hungry and I’m kind of over sitting on the ground. But still, it is useful to learn about the body’s muscular and skeletal systems in reference to yoga.

2:00 Lunch

After anatomy is lunch! Lunch is a simple, vegetarian meal of chapati (flatbread), steamed vegetables, dahl (lentils) and fresh vegetables.

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I won’t lie- this meal was great for the first week but I grew tired of it quickly as it’s nearly identical each day.

2:30- 5 p.m. Break

After lunch we take a much-needed break. I spend this time either reading Game of Thrones in my room, drinking mango juice on the Ganges with classmates or practicing my yoga flows upstairs. (Okay fine, I did the latter option like twice. A girl’s got to get her GOT on.)

The one thing I don’t do? Walk the streets. This is the hottest time of the day in India so I avoid the heat, cows, monkeys and crows by not venturing outside.

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My friend McCall at work doing a headstand!

5 p.m. Vinyasa

After break is the most physically strenuous class of the day, vinyasa. As a person with the natural flexibility of a Russian lumberjack, vinyasa is my daily torture session, but one from which I leave feeling refreshed and proud of myself.

Also during vinyasa it’s often 110 degrees outside and the instructor turns off the fans.

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6:30 p.m. tea break

After vinyasa we have our second cup of chai of the day!

7:00 meditation

We cap off the day with meditation. Interestingly enough, meditation is both a physically and mentally strenuous practice. Although the longest we ever meditate is for 45 minutes, my upper back aches something fierce and my brain takes ages to quiet.

Sometimes we meditate outside under the stars, which is lovely. I love watching the sun set over the Ganges and hearing the peacocks squawk in the mountains.

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8:00 Dinner

And after all that work, we enjoy a well-deserved dinner. Dinner is simple and vegetarian, just like lunch, though I’m often too tired to eat much.

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Logistics:

In Rishikesh I attended Vinyasa Yoga School. The training cost $1,250 which included training, three vegetarian meals a day, hotel accommodation and a weekly field trip. (Or as I not-so-lovingly called them, the weekly clusterfuck.) The training was 30 days long and six days a week.

I loved the instructors at my school but was less fond of the management- essentially every time we voiced a concern, it fell upon deaf ears. Also the owner tried to get us to pay under the table which was shady, needless to say. The hotel where we stayed was passably nice but the power went out 10-15 times a day and there was no AC.

The last week of classes we taught class to our fellow students. This was the toughest part of the course as we had to put our yoga skills to the test and direct two hour and a half long yoga classes (both hatha and vinyasa). We also had our final yoga philosophy and anatomy exams.

Overall I would recommend doing a yoga teacher training in India- while there are some downsides, it was overall so interesting to learn about about yoga where it comes from. Although if I could do it again I might’ve done it somewhere rather than in Rishikesh as Rishikesh is quite touristy and dirty.

Have you ever been interested in doing a Yoga Teacher Training? If so, would you do it in India?

A Weekend on a Montana Ranch: Experiencing Big Sky Country Firsthand

A Weekend on a Montana Ranch: Experiencing Big Sky Country Firsthand

I won’t lie- domestic destinations have never held as much allure to me as international ones. I’ve always saved my dollars for overseas trips- in fact, I’ve visited twice as many countries as I have states! (That would be 38 and 19, for your information. The shame, I know.)

But there’s something about Montana that has always intrigued me. Maybe it’s because I love horseback riding, or because I like Westerns, or because I not-so-secretly dream of living in the country someday. Regardless, when my friend McCall (the friend I went to India with!) invited me to her Montana ranch for Labor Day weekend, I booked a ticket immediately.

Well, it turns out there’s a reason they call Montana Big Sky Country, and there’s also a reason why celebrities are buying up all the land. Montana is gorgeous.

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After some obligatory cowboy boot shots at the ranch, we headed to town.

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Livingston is as cute of a Wild West town as you can imagine, though it’s a little more yuppie than cowboy with both a yoga studio and sushi restaurant. And thank God- I would never be able to do country life without sushi in a thirty-mile radius.

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I came close to buying a cowboy hat but opted out last minute. Because when will I ever wear a cowboy hat again?

Plus, I would’ve had to buy a men’s hat because fun fact- I have a huge head. (I’d like to think this is because of my hair. Or my brain. Or both.)

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On the way back home we passed a golden field filled with grazing black cows. Naturally, Eleanor and I hopped out to snag some new profile pictures.

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Once we got home we tried to coax Lulu, the shy Bernese mountain dog who melted my heart, out of the car. No cigar, but look at that face!

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And then (and this makes me a terrible travel blogger as I didn’t take a single photo), we had a huge barn party with kegs of Blue Moon and local ales, a live country band and even some celebrity guests. (Well, sort of, but I was told Aaron Eckhart’s parents stopped by.)

The next morning we woke up (a bit groggily, I admit) to this view from the kitchen.

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For breakfast we had homeground whole wheat pancakes with homemade chokecherry syrup. They were so good we didn’t even bother to pass out plates, and ate them standing in our pajamas.

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We then headed outside to play with more dogs. I was kind of obsessed with Pepper, the English setter. Isn’t he handsome?

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Cowboy, the aptly named Leonberger, was pretty dapper as well. Montana_Ranch_Leonberger

And in effort to burn off those pancakes we then went for a mild hike in the woods. As in like 15 minutes. That probably burned off like a teaspoon of chokecherry syrup. Right? No? Montana2

After our “hike”, we spent the rest of the afternoon riding four-wheelers through the property and soaking up views like this: Montana_Ranch_Clouds

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Once we had our fill of big sky views, we high-tailed it back to the cabin for beers and the best peach cobbler I’ve ever tasted.

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We capped off the weekend by swinging by a local country bar for dirt-cheap beer and dancing. And for my last night in Montana, Big Sky Country went all out with these cotton candy clouds.

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Well thanks Montana, for contributing to my country life fantasies and just for being so goddamn gorgeous. And thanks of course to McCall and her lovely family for having me!

Have you ever visited Montana? Would you want to?

Intro to India: What I Loved (And Didn’t Love) About India

Intro to India: What I Loved (And Didn’t Love) About India

I’m super excited to blog about India, but first let me to say, India is far too vast and diverse a country to sum up in a blog post. So please note that I am only reporting on my personal experience in Northern India; these observations in no way apply to India as a whole.

While life in Northern India was trying at times, overall I enjoyed my six weeks in India.

What I loved most about India is that it’s so rawly, uniquely Indian. On my travels I’ve found globalization and modernization have diluted much of the world’s culture. India, though it has been affected, is still so Indian. And with nearly 5,000 years of civilization, would you expect any less?

Indian people have a uniquely Indian way of doing almost everything, from to dressing to dancing to worshipping. I could’ve spent years in India and barely scratched the surface on its extraordinarily rich and diverse culture.

And truly, India was the adventure of my life. Out of all the 38 (!!!) countries I’ve visited, India was by far the dirtiest and poorest, but also the most colorful, spiritual and fascinating.

Here’s what I loved and didn’t love about India.

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What I Loved…

How Easy It Is to Connect with Locals

Overall Indians speak fantastic English so it’s fairly easy to meet locals. I was surprised that even in rural areas of India most people spoke great English!

Also I love how Indians speak; their speech is peppered with everything from British colonialisms like “bathing costume” to direct translations of Hindi phrases like “what to do” (kal kare) and English bastardizations like “prepone” (as in we’re going to prepone, or move forward, this meeting).

I even miss hearing- “You know what happen?”

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Beautiful Traditional Clothes and Jewelry

As anyone who has ever wandered an Indian neighborhood or seen a Bollywood film can attest, Indian women dress beautifully. I loved spotting women in saris gathered together; it was always such a blend of emerald green, saffron and other technicolor shades.

Along with beautiful clothes, Indian women wear lots of gorgeous jewelry. I wore a silver anklet the entire time I was in India and before leaving bought fistfuls of anklets for friends back home. (Setting aside no less than four for myself, ha.)

Also I found it interesting that women can expose their bellies in India but not their legs, the sartorial opposite of the west. The one day I wore a knee-length dress in India I got a ton of attention and sent the dress home soon after!

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Delicious Food

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A home-cooked meal in Delhi

Oh my. Indian food, as everyone knows, is delicious. I fell in love with everything from baingan bharta, a Punjab eggplant dish, to batata poha, a Gujarati breakfast dish made of potatoes and rice flakes.

While admittedly I did get sick of rice and lentils, I swear I could eat paneer butter masala all day long.

Chapati

Chapati, or roti, our daily staple for six weeks.

What I miss most? Chai. While in India chai is really sweet (I normally ordered it without sugar), it’s so spicy and flavorful. Yum.

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Hindi Music

Confession- I love Indian music, from traditional sitar to modern-day pop.

One song we all couldn’t stop singing was the “Pani” song. Listen at your own risk- it may be stuck in your head for the rest of your life.

One song I never want to hear again is Party All Night, which our bus driver played no less than 12 TIMES IN A ROW while driving hairpin Himalayan roads. Yeah.

The Extraordinary (And Cheap!) Massages

Move over, Thailand. India is where it’s at for inexpensive, life-changing massages.

While in India I treated myself to weekly $12 massages. My masseuse specialized in a blend of Ayurvedic and deep tissue, and I won’t lie- at times it was painful. When I asked for a softer massage, he retorted, “But I’m already doing it medium! Don’t worry this is good for you.” And considering how many knots he worked out of my back, he was probably right.

Learning about Hinduism, Yoga and Spirituality

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Performing a puja ceremony in Rishikesh

While I will write on this at length soon, Hinduism was a huge part of my experience in India; after all I was studying yoga in a holy city on the Ganges! During my four weeks in Rishikesh I learned to sing countless Sanskrit hymns and meditated daily under the stars; I have so much to share about how my own spirituality has changed.

The Incredibly Low Prices

India is by far the cheapest country I’ve ever visited; it even makes Southeast Asia look expensive in comparison! I especially miss my daily fresh-squeezed mango juice ($1) and paying $2.50 per person for a dinner of  fresh-squeezed juice, an appetizer, naan, three main courses and tea.

The Adorable Cows

While I had mixed feelings about the cows as they contribute to the flies, filth and foul smell of the streets, they sure are cute. There are tons of cows in the streets in India, and they often wander into shops or block doorways; it’s like they’re aware of their own holiness.

Though I do wish I could herd them all up to a Himalayan pasture where they could feast on grass, not trash!

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And as for the things I didn’t love?

Lack of Food Hygiene

If you visit India, never, ever, ever, take a peek inside the restaurant kitchens. Just don’t. Because the food hygiene standards are often horrendous.

In general, I’m the least germaphobic person ever. I live by the motto, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and have loved everything from dirt-cheap seafood stalls in Chile to napkin-littered holes-in-the-wall in Vietnam.

But India is in a class of its own. For example, one morning a friend and I were enjoying a leisurely Western brunch. I ordered an omelet, she ordered a crêpe. My friend’s crêpe came and had several long, black hairs inside. And then I noticed my omelet tasted a little funny. So I called the server over and said, “Sir, I think these eggs are rotten.”

He replied matter-of-factly, “Yes, they are rotten.”

I was indignant. “WHAT? Then why did you serve them to me?”

“It is not my fault. The man who was supposed to bring the eggs this morning did not come.”

The rotten egg aftermath? I went home right away and had food poisoning all day, and my friend decided to meet friends and consequently threw up in a bush. Good times.

The Rampant Monkey Problem

Monkeys are kind of like the evil squirrels of India; they’re everywhere. From nearly being attacked by teeth-baring macaques on a morning run to having monkeys jump into our classroom, I became a little too acquainted with monkeys while in India.

The monkey below? I took his photo after he banged into our bedroom window one morning. Actually my roommate and I were routinely woken up by monkeys slamming loudly against the window.

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This monkey is a gray langur- they’re actually no trouble at all. It’s the dreaded macaques you have to watch out for!

The Filth

There’s no two ways about it- India is dirty. And it smells. And there are lots of flies.

Here’s how it happens; cows are sacred, so they roam the streets unharmed, eating trash and leftover food. They defecate and flies lay their larva in the cowpies. The flies hatch from the cowpies.

And the smell? Just imagine how cow shit and rotting trash smell on a 110-degree day, and there you have it.

Naturally, there’s lots of air pollution. I noticed my eyes were unusually dry in India, and resorted to using eyedrops multiple times a day.

Overall the filth didn’t bother me too much, I just avoided going outside from 12pm-4pm every day as that’s when it was hottest and smelliest.

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The Poor Infrastructure

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Traffic is also a problem at times! Talk about gridlock.

The infrastructure in Northern India isn’t great. The roads, power outages and lack of waste disposal all take a good dose of patience, especially at first.

A few examples: Our taxi ride from Delhi to Rishikesh took about six hours, even though it’s a mere 140-mile drive.

The power at our hotel in Rishikesh went out 10-15 times a day. Sometimes there was no hot water, and sometimes there was no water altogether. It got to the point when the power was out so frequently I would shower in our windowless bathroom in pitch blackness. Honestly I found it kind of relaxing.

The Unhealthiness of the Food

I was very surprised by how unhealthy Northern Indian food is. I learned first-hand that just because food is vegetarian does not by any stretch of the imagination mean its healthy! In Northern India cooks use a lot of ghee, or clarified butter, and much of the food is deep-fried. Also I found many foods were far too sugary for my palate.

The Gender Inequality

After a particularly trying day of street harassment I wryly remarked, “The social hierarchy in India is men on top, then cows, women and foreign women.”

But jokes aside, India has a long, long way to go when it comes to gender equality. Days after I left India, two teenage sisters were murdered, allegedly gang-raped and hanged from a mango tree in Northern India. A few months later, two more teenage girls were killed in the same fashion.

Most of the attention Indian men paid me was harmless. Usually it was no more than, “I like your dress, madame,” which happens in any country.

But once the attention wasn’t harmless. I will write about this soon, but a group of men circled two friends and I in a park in Delhi and it was among the scarier things that’s happened to me on my travels.

Have you been to India? Would you be interested in going?

French Eating Habits I’m Taking Home With Me

French Eating Habits I’m Taking Home With Me

One of my favorite things about the French is that they tend to be well-rounded: The French dress fashionably, travel, read a ton, keep abreast of politics and quite famously, eat well.

Collectively I’ve spent about a year and a half living with French families so I’d like to think I know a thing or two about French home-cooking. But returning to Paris this year reminded me of so many French eating habits I have yet to work into my daily life.

While there are many French food customs I’ll never get on board with- like oeufs en gelée (blergh) and small, sweet breakfasts, there are others, like a salad with every meal and good wine that I’m more than behind.

*Note- not every French person or family does these things, these are just food customs I’ve observed personally.

A Salad with every meal

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Salad is truly an art form in France. In fact I never liked salad until I lived there.

When I lived in France, I made a simple green salad every day to accompany the main dish at dinner. I loved how it wasn’t a question- at dinner you always have baguette, and you always have salad.

You start with fresh, butter lettuce that you wash and dry with a salad spinner three times. It’s usually from the farmer’s market and speckled with dirt so it’s important to wash thoroughly!

Then you always, always, always make the vinaigrette from scratch. (I’ve never even seen bottled dressing in France!) Here’s my recipe.

And voilà, you have a delicious salade verte!

Yogurt after every meal

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After dinner in France we would bring out an assortment of yogurts: mousse au chocolat, lemon and strawberry, among other flavors. In my opinion, yogurt is the perfect low-key, weekday dessert, and boasts plenty of health benefits as well.

Sadly, this is one French food tradition I sadly won’t be replicating in America as American yogurt is sugary, processed and terrible for you. You might as well just eat half a candy bar.

Also, if you’re ever in France, the above yogurt, Fjord, is the yogurt of dreams: thick, tangy, creamy, addictive. As in like worth smuggling through US customs.

Apéro dinatoire

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Interestingly enough, there’s actually no viable English translation for apéro dinatoire! Cocktail party with snacks? Drinks and finger food?

Essentially an apéritif dinatoîre is when you invite guests over to drink and snack on an assortment of hors d’oeuvres. You don’t “officially” serve a meal so it’s not a dinner party; it’s more of a casual, often weekday gathering that lasts late into the night.

(Fun fact- did you know no one says hors d’oeuvres in France? It’s an antiquated word.)

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Gougères, or cheese puffs, I made for an apéritif dinatoîre last year. They’re surprisingly super hard to make- this was my third batch!

Sparkling water

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Sparkling water always makes me feel kind of fancy. Plus, if you’re trying to cut out pop, it’s a healthy carbonated alternative.

Always using a tablecloth

Another thing that makes me feel a little more put-together? A tablecloth. The French never sit down to eat without one.

Epic, five-course dinner parties on the regular

Oh god. French dinner parties are so much work yet so worth it. Here’s the drill:

1. Decorate your house beautifully, with a fresh tablecloth, flowers, chic stemware and your best china. Your best china isn’t just for holidays- it’s also for impressing your guests. And turn on some music!

2. Wait for your guests to arrive- they’re always a little late. Once they arrive greet them with a kiss and serve them hors d’oeuvres and cocktails (kind of like an apéro dinatoire but with a lot less food).

And don’t forget to thank them for their gift, usually a bottle of wine or flowers. In France it’s rude to show up empty-handed.

3. Sit down to the table for the first course (entrée in French. Yep, it’s backwards from English!)

4. Serve the main course. It is imperative for everyone to rave about the food- in France people talk a lot about food. Points for serving more exotic dishes like tagine or goulash.

5. Serve the cheese course. Ideally you will have at least 3-4 room-temperature cheeses on a plate- here’s my guide on how to serve a good cheese course.

5. Serve dessert. Also, this isn’t a throwaway course- it’s a lot of work. Ideas: financier with a berry coulis, omelette norwegienne, a poached pear in a salted butter caramel sauce.

6. Serve coffee.

7. Chat about politics/sex/family life until as late as three a.m., serving up plenty of wine.

 8. Wake up mildly hungover and wash about 8,000 dishes. Each of those courses had a fresh plate, remember?

Buying good wine

Once I grow up (ha) I vow to never buy Yellowtail again- good wine is worth paying extra for, in my book. Unfortunately, good wine in the states is pricey, but in France you can pick up a decent bottle from 3-5 euros!

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Also, someday I will have a badass wine cellar like my host dad in France with a gravel floor and a million wine bottles. #seriously

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Farmers markets

Ah, I love a good farmers market, especially in France. Most French farmers markets are open two-three days a week, and serve up all the good stuff: charcuterie, seafood, cheese and fresh produce. French_Eating_Habits_Farmers_Market

More picnics

Um I think if I mention one more picnic on my blog you are all going to kill me, but really- I never have them in the states. Picnics=the best.

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A cheese course before dessert

Because… cheese.

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Eating healthy on the weekdays and indulging on weekends

This is one healthful custom I’ve observed in France. The French often eat simple foods during the week, and on the weekends indulge in pastries for breakfast, barbecues for dinner and sinful desserts. It’s the perfect mix of abstinence and indulgence.

Omelets for dinner

I’ve actually never seen anyone in France eat an omelet for breakfast! But we did often eat them for dinner with chives and other fines herbes on top. Yum!

More cheese and butter in my life

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And especially more goat’s cheese.
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My actual favorite food in the world. Also it kills me that this cost literally two euros.

Which French eating habits would you like to adopt?