How to Become an Au Pair in France

How to Become an Au Pair in France

One of the biggest reasons people visit my blog is to find out how to become an au pair in France. So today we are hearing from Marianne, an American au pair who is currently working in Brittany, France.

Here she walks us through every single step of the au pair application and tells us about her living situation in Brittany.

As many of you may know, I was an au pair in Paris, France back in 2012-13, so this is a post I’m super excited to share with you. Take it away, Marianne!

How to Become an Au Pair in France

When I started researching how to become an au pair I found that there were few resources on the internet, other than a couple blogs (some good posts I found were on Ashley Abroad, iminparisgonoles and relokate) that had really helpful pages on how to become an au pair in France.

So now that I’ve actually successfully completed the process, I thought I’d explain the process for those who’d like to do it as well. In this post I will address exactly what was needed from me, as an American, to become an au pair in France.

Just so we’re all clear, an au pair is a domestic assistant from a foreign country working for, and living as part of, a host family. Typically, au pairs take on a share of the family’s childcare and housework in exchange for free room and board as well as a small amount of spending money.

1. Set up an account on an au pair website

First, set up an account on an au pair website – there are many of these sites that pair au pairs with families but the most popular is Au Pair World. It’s kind of like a free OkCupid for au pairs and families.

You can go with an agency where they’ll do all the work for you and match you up with a family themselves, but this is rather expensive.

I decided to make an account on Au Pair World. You can add photos, description, specifications, age, etc. Fill this out thoroughly because the more information you put, the better.

You can also search through families’ photos and bios as well as contact them directly. My family contacted me directly but this will vary case to case.

2. Find a family

My advice as far as picking a family: get to know them. Send emails back and forth, Skype with them, seriously think whether you could live with this family for a whole year.

How well do you feel like you can talk to them? Are they in a location that you like? This is your time to be picky because you don’t want to get there and find out that you’re unhappy in the situation.

In my case I almost agreed to be an au pair to one family merely because they were the first family to express interest in me. But when I skyped for the first time with my current family, I knew they were the ones. Even though we spoke to each other through garbled English and broken French, we could relate to each other and we found a way to communicate.

How to Become an Au Pair in France

3. Figure Out Which Visa You Need Based on your Nationality

If you are a citizen of the EU/EFTA (this link will tell you whether or not you are one) then follow these instructions. However if you’re not a citizen of the EU (like myself, if you’re from the United States) then continue with my steps.

4. Apply for Your Passport

This is kind of a given, but make sure you have a passport otherwise you won’t get very far. You can get the form online and apply for the passport in most post offices. They’ll even take your picture there!

5. Translate Your Diplomas

You’ll need to get copies of your diplomas (a good idea is to include both high school and college if you went to both) translated into French. I used OneHourTranslation because it was the cheapest translation service I could find ($.072 c. per word!) and they have it translated in under an hour.

Other services are much more expensive. I’ve heard that some people have just plugged the diplomas into Google Translate and they were fine, but this wasn’t something I wanted to bet on so I went with onehourtranslation. I ended up spending something like $10 to translate both my High School and College Diplomas.

[Editor’s note- I used Google Translate and it was totally fine. But of course I understand if you’d rather use a more reliable service.]

6. Make an Appointment With A Doctor

You will need to get a signed medical certificate that states that you are in good health. You can get a copy of the health certificate on the AuPairWorld website here.

Call your doctor and ask for a general physical, then bring the certificate you downloaded and printed out and have them sign it. If you don’t have a doctor – you can get a physical at most Planned Parenthood centers.

The only thing is this is a bit tricky – you can’t have the signed date be any more than three months away from the date you’ll be arriving in France.

How to Become an Au Pair in France

7. Ask Host Family To Register You In A French Language Course

To receive an au pair visa in France means the visa you will apply for will be a long-stay student visa. In order to receive a student visa you must be enrolled in a French language course. These are fairly easy courses of all levels, designed for people who are learning French as a foreign language.

Make sure that your family signs you up for a class otherwise you won’t be able to get your visa. 

8. Sign the Au Pair Contract and Send the Documents

Once you have found a family, they will send you over the au pair contract to sign. Scanning and emailing will work just fine, no need to actually post documents overseas.

Make sure you are very detailed in the description of your duties in the au pair contract. You want to make sure that you won’t end up being a maid for the family, or doing things that you may not have agreed to.

Be very clear and ask your questions now. Then when you’re done, scan and email the documents back to the family. Make sure you include all the following documents:

  • Au pair contract, signed by both parties
  • A copy of your diplomas, translated into French
  • A health certificate signed by a doctor, saying that you are in good health.
  • A photocopy of your passport
  • Motivation letter written in French (one page, totally okay to write in English then translate with Google Translate).

9. Host Family Takes Documents to be Approved

The host family will take the necessary documents to be approved. Once approved see #9. This can be a pain as the DIRRECTE may ask for additional documents to be sent.

For me, I ended up also needing to send a copy of my current resume and proof that I took French language classes. I used screenshots from the online portal at the university I had attended, but a transcript could work as well.

10. Have Host Family Mail Approved Contract and Certificate of Enrollment

You’ll need to have your host family mail you the approved au pair contract as well as the certificate of enrollment in a French language course as you will need the originals when you apply for your visa.

My family sent it by mail and it took about two weeks to arrive. I’m not sure if you can just take a scanned, approved contract to get your visa, but it was not something I wanted to test out.

[Editor’s note- as far as I understand your family has to send over a paper copy of the approved contract and certificate of enrollment, which of course is a total nuisance and should be done by scanning/emailing- oh, France. At least that was my situation as well.]

11. Make an Appointment to Apply For Your Visa at the Nearest French Consulate

To apply for your visa, you need to make an appointment. Depending on the French consulate you go to you may not be able to make an appointment that is any less than three weeks out. I made my appointment for the French consulate in San Francisco in late June and the earliest appointment I could make was July 25th! Something to be aware of.

In order to make an appointment go to this page (this one links to the consulate in San Francisco – you’ll want to find the equivalent at the consulate that is closest to you – just Google “French consulate” and then the state you live in) and find the link to make an appointment.

12. Book Your Flight

Depending on the time of year flights will be cheaper. I primarily used skyscanner to find the cheapest tickets, obsessively checking it each day. It has a unique feature that allows you to browse by date to find the cheapest day to fly.

You can also look for flights through Student Universe. They provide discounts for people under the age of 26, or if you’re a student.

I found that the sweet spot for cheapest flights is to purchase your ticket about 6 weeks before you wish to fly. I ended up purchasing my tickets about 6 weeks before I was set to leave and was able to get the cheapest ticket through Student Universe.

Keep in mind that flights will be the most expensive during the summer travel months and much cheaper in the fall or winter months. 

[Editor’s note- always request that your family pay for your flight. While not all will, some do so it’s worth asking. For reference, my family paid for my ticket.]

13. Apply For Your Student Visa

In order to work as an au pair you will apply for a student visa, or long séjour mention étudiant. Allow for at least three weeks before you leave for the visa to arrive. Find the nearest French consulate near you and search through their information. I needed to visit the consulate in San Francisco, and on their website it’s categorized as “long stay visa for au pair.” They had details on how to make an appointment, how much the visa will cost, everything you’ll need to bring, etc.

If you’re going to the French consulate, here’s what you’ll need:

1. Passport valid for at least three months after your return to the US + 1 photocopy of the identity pages. Your passport must have been issued less than 10 years ago, be valid for at least three months after your return to the US and have at least 2 blank visas pages left.

2. Processing fees ($68) – may vary for different consulates. (This changed – their website said $68 when I checked, I ended up being charged $138)

3. One application form (English version) filled out completely and signed by the applicant. This can be found on the consulate web page.

4. One ID picture glued/stapled onto the application form

5. “Au Pair” Contract approved by the French Ministry of Labour. This contract is obtained by the host family in France at the “Direction Départementale du Travail, de l’Emploi et de la Formation Professionnelle -D.D.T.E.F.P.”

6. Proof of your previous studies (your most recent diplomas) – I’d take copies of both the English and French versions that you had translated.

7. Proof of registration or letter of enrollment in a language school specifying exact dates of attendance.

8. If you are not a U.S. citizen: a valid U.S. permanent residence card (“green card”) or a valid U.S. visa with valid I-94 or valid I-20, or an Advance Parole document.

9. One residence form duly filled out (upper part only) – you’ll find this on the consulate website.

10. E-ticket or reservation confirmation showing the departure date for Europe.

11. A self-addressed prepaid EXPRESS MAIL envelope from the US POST OFFICE ONLY – NO FEDEX / UPS / AIRBORNE EXPRESS accepted.

Keep in mind that you’ll have to make the appointment for a weekday, you’ll need all of your paperwork, and you’ll expect to wait three weeks before you’ll receive the visa. My appointment was at 9:30am, so I stayed with a friend in San Francisco.

Upon arriving at the French consulate, it took maybe 15 minutes to get everything done. They will make sure you have all of the correct paperwork, plus copies of everything. They’ll keep the copies after confirming the originals. Then I was fingerprinted and they took my photo.

I was told I would receive the visa in the mail in 2-3 weeks and I received it just over a week later. It was incredibly easy, but I hear it does not go easily for everyone.

14. Once You Arrive in France, Register With The URSSAF

Ask your host family to register you with the URSSAF. Your family may give you this ahead of time but it’s not required before you leave. You’ll just need to get it done within the first eight days of being in France. This will cover your social security and health insurance while you’re in France and your host family should take care of this for you.

15. Register with the OFII

Within three months of arrival you’ll need to register with the OFII (Office Français de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration). This will make you officially a resident of France during your stay. In my case this just involved sending the confirmed OFII paperwork via the mail to the necessary administrations. The paperwork is complete when the visa office sends it back (with the visa/passport) to you. This is something very important to remember when packing, otherwise you’ll need to have a family member send it over.

I suggest bringing the paper and then handing it over to your host parents once you get to France, they will know what to do with it.

. . . . . . . . . . .

There you have it! Lots of steps and a lot of work, but with good time management and the drive to have such a unique experience, it can be accomplished. The whole process was fairly easy, considering how many things needed to be done.

 

What to Expect When You Arrive:

Expect to not be able to understand the language. Even if you’ve had French education, the actual spoken French will be very different from what you studied.

I thought that I had an alright comprehension of French and when I got to France, I found it to be very difficult to speak and understand conversations. It helped that all of the family friends that I met were very welcoming and happy to help me learn. Every family will be different so you may not have a situation that is anything like my own.

Bretagne Red Door, au pair

My situation: I live with my host family and their two children and I work about 30 hours a week, which is the max that you’re allowed to work. My host family pays for my French language classes, my cell phone, my gas for the car that they provide for me (because I drive the children to and from school), and they give me 85 euro/week. I paid for my own airline tickets.

I live with the family but I have my own living quarters. I also am welcome at all of their meals and they will purchase any food I may want. I am free to do whatever I want in my free time. On holidays that the children have from school, I have time off and I can travel freely.

My Schedule: Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri: 7:30 – 9:00am and 4:30 – 6:30/7pm, Wednesday: 7:30am – 6:30/7pm. These are average times, sometimes they vary greatly. Weekends I am free.

Other examples:

Friend #1: Works 30 hours at 80 euro/week. Two very young children. Language classes and cell phone provided by the parents.

Friend #2: Works 30 hours at 100 euro/week for three boys. School is not paid for by the parents but cell phone is provided. During school holidays Friend #2 is sometimes required to travel and work with the family.

Would you like to be an au pair in France?

Marianne_au_pair Originally from California, Marianne lives in western France where she currently is working as an au pair and struggling daily with the French language. A lover of dogs, bicycling, bread, and chocolate, she does freelance marketing and web design, and writes at www.californienne.com. She can be reached by email at californienneblog@gmail.com.

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?

Back to Paris, My Home Away From Home

Back to Paris, My Home Away From Home

After my five-week Eurotrip across Italy, Switzerland, England, Wales and Spain, I knew there was one place in Europe I still had to drop by- Paris.

As long-time readers know, I spent a year in Paris working as an au pair, drinking cider on the Seine and becoming the oh-so-clichéd American expat in Paris. I made a lot of close friends during that year, both French and foreign, so I knew I had to pay them, as well as the city I called home, a visit.

My week in Paris felt… exceedingly normal. A friend even commented, “Honestly, it feels like you just never left and still live here!”

And as I remembered, there is nothing like spring in Paris. Between the pollarded trees and the plentiful picnics, a huge part of me just wanted to say, “Forget the rest of the world trip! I’m not leaving!”

Here’s how I spent my week in Paris.

 

 

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The view from my friend’s apartment! Pas mal !

Seeing Friends

As I’ve mentioned before, this year’s visit to Europe was all about seeing friends. And see friends I did, from picnicking in Parc Monceau and the Bois de Vincennes to partying until the dawn in Oberkampf and getting a ride home on a French guy’s motorcycle. Let’s just say not much had changed.

While some nights I crashed at “The Cupboard”, my friend’s shoebox apartment, I spent most of the week with my friend Vens at his place in Puteaux. Vens was an excellent host, and we spoke about 80% French- exactly what I needed to brush up!

IMG_1617 A weeknight picnic in the Bois de Vincennes with my former au pair family. Ah, just look at those rillettes! IMG_1640 Pre-gaming on the Seine like old times. Though I have to say, the Seine’s a lot busier in summer!

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset Picnicking and painting nails in Parc Monceau on my last day in Paris. Wahhh.

New Sites Around Paris

Although I tried my damndest, somehow I still have not seen all of Paris’ sites. So this year I checked a few more of my list: Sainte-Chapelle, a tiny Gothic chapel, the Promenade Plantée, a railroad track turned park, and Musée Carnavalet, a museum dedicated to the history of Paris.

Thoughts? I loved both Sainte-Chapelle and the Promenade Plantée but would give Musée Carnavalet a miss.

And on my next visit I still need to see the Picasso Museum and the Catacombes. Good God there are way too many tourist attractions in Paris.

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Paying Saint-Germain-en-Laye a Visit

I couldn’t very well visit Paris and not stop by the town where I lived, now could I? I popped over to Saint-Germain-en-Laye to visit my au pair family and was pleased to see not much has changed. The château still stands proud next to the métro, the rôtisserie chicken still turn in the streets and the teenaged girls are still rocking the I’m-so-effortlessly-thin-and-gorgeous-I-don’t-even-have-to-brush-my-hair look.

I can’t help but miss my snooty but stunning little town. IMG_7577 Paris blog1

Eating French Food

While in Paris, I ahem, attempted eat light- did you see what I scarfed down in England and Spain? I still made room for lots of my Parisian favorites: duck confit, gâteau basque, baguette, my favorite yogurt ever and steak frites with a glass of red wine.

And although I’m far from a pastry lover, one morning I even had pain au chocolat. Because, Paris.

IMG_7681 Cardiac arrest-inducing duck confit with potatoes and salad. Why are salads in France SO delicious?

IMG_7558 Gâteau basque with a pistachio filling IMG_7647 The obligatoire pain au chocolat IMG_7691

Discovering My New Favorite Bar

While I admit I filled my week with lots of unblog-worthy things, this one is worth sharing!

Blog readers, meet Café de l’Industrie. If Hemingway were still alive, this is where he would hang. From the neo-colonial décor to the inexpensive wines by the glass, it’s everthing you want in a Parisian café/bar/restaurant. IMG_7766 Paris blog

Overall writing this post and seeing these photos makes me sad- I have no idea when I’ll next see Paris, a city where I’ve made some of my fondest memories. But I’d like to think I’ll be back soon enough- there’s too much calling me back not to visit.

Have you ever returned to a place where you lived abroad? What was it like?

Thank you to Vens, Laura and Rach for letting me crash! Come visit soon!

A Long Weekend in Madrid: A Photo Essay

A Long Weekend in Madrid: A Photo Essay

Madrid was a weekend of small pleasures. Of leisurely waking up over coffee, of snapping photos in the rain, of eating every local specialty I could get my hands on.

While I already wrote about my Madrid experience via Instagram, I wanted to share my SLR shots. I also wanted to tell you about our Madrid Food Tour with Lauren from Spanish Sabores, because um, holy deliciousness. While I love Spanish food and have lived with two Spanish host families (in Granada and Mallorca), there were still a few Spanish specialties I hadn’t tried.

New favorites? Campo real olives and bacalao. How I dream of that crispy, salty, flavor-dense fish…

Along with fantastic food, it was a weekend of great company. I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed so much in one weekend, and crashing with Amanda, Julika and Jessica in our travel-themed Go With Oh apartment was one for the books. Or, for the blog, rather.

Without further ado!

Classic Spanish clothes in the Plaza Mayor…

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Faux angulas, or baby eels, in the Mercado de San Miguel, our first stop on the Madrid Food Tour… IMG_7205

Vermouth (on tap!) with quail eggs, boquerones (white anchovies) and campo real olives, which are marinated with thyme, garlic, fennel and oregano. ¡Riquísimas!  IMG_7212

Revisiting some of Spanish favorites, gazpacho and pintxos. IMG_7227

Other patrons of the Mercado de San Miguel, enjoying the tapear or tapas crawl. IMG_7233

Waiters at Mesón del Champiñon, literally the inn of the mushroom. IMG_7237

Pimientos de padrón, fried green peppers. IMG_7245

Tasty stuffed mushroom caps. IMG_7253

My favorite eat of the whole trip, fried bacalao, at Casa Revuelta. IMG_7271

More pintxos!

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Walking off our food coma the next day in the park… IMG_7309

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Stopping for coffee and churros con chocolate at Chocolatería San Ginés. IMG_7377

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Sampling Madrid’s craft beer scene at Fábrica Maravillas. An awesome spot if you’re in Madrid! IMG_7434

Have you ever been to Madrid? Did you eat amazing food too?

A big thank you to Madrid Food Tour and Go with Oh for the complimentary food tour and apartment stay. As always, all opinions are my own.

Gorse and Goodbyes: A Week in Scotland

Gorse and Goodbyes: A Week in Scotland

I have wanted to write about the week I spent in Scotland for years now, but never knew where to start.

Because Scotland was a lot of things. Scotland was a week of new love, saying goodbye to an old friend and discovering a beautiful, wild and wind-whipped country. Scotland was finally figuring out that your travel life and personal life will collide sometimes, and that the result can be complicated.

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I quickly booked a place to stay and headed to Edinburgh to meet my childhood best friend and her boyfriend. I was about to study abroad on Mallorca and figured, why not squeeze in a trip to Scotland beforehand?

Back when I was 20, I wasn’t happy. My long-distance relationship was crumbling and my family situation was intolerably hard. But much of my discontent came from inside; I was stuck in a rut. And despite my valiant efforts, I felt I would always be overweight and unhappy.

But as always, travel alleviated my sadness if only briefly. As always, travel gave me respite from my worried head.

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Instead of thinking about life back home, I threw myself into enjoying Scotland. And Scotland was easy to love; it was Celtic and gorse-covered and gorgeous.

When I think back on Scotland I remember the wind whipping my hair across my face while climbing Arthur’s Seat…

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The starkly beautiful expanses of land on the train ride north…

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Stumbling upon a rainbow AND a castle on the Isle of Skye…

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Meeting a kind and hilarious Australian with whom I’d spend the summer with across Europe, in Paris, Rome and Sardinia.

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When I remember Scotland my heart stings as it was the last time I ever saw, or will probably ever see, my childhood best friend. While we had fun in Scotland, things quickly fell apart once we got home. But on some level, I’m glad our friendship ended the way it did. As high-schoolers we had always dreamed of our trip to Europe, so it was an apt and poetic ending for our friendship to finish abroad.

But more than that, Scotland taught me that compartmentalizing travel and real life is a fruitless endeavor.

Before Scotland, I equated traveling with freedom and discovery and bliss, and my home life with all that is banal and sometimes painful: bills and grades and and friendships that just aren’t working anymore.

In Scotland I learned it’s impossible to saunter around unmoored from reality. Because no matter how far you run, you can’t escape the things you inevitably carry with you: your insecurities and your history and your shame, your fears and your friendships and your heartbreaks.

So thank you Scotland, for helping me grow up. Thank you for giving me a beautiful week with my friend and someone wonderful to spend the summer with. I’m sure (or I certainly hope) that I’ll be seeing you again.

Eating the Delicious East End

Eating the Delicious East End

Over my three weeks in London, I finally settled upon my dream neighborhood- the East End. The East End is everything you’d want as a twenty-something; it’s packed with street art, cute cafés, lively bars and some of London’s trendiest restaurants.

The East End also has hundreds of years of history. For centuries it was synonymous with poverty and over-crowding, and Huguenot refugees, Irish weavers, Ashkenazi Jews and Bangladeshi immigrants have all called it home.

So when Eating London invited me on a food tour of the East End I was totally on board- as both a foodie and history buff how could I pass up the chance?

And if I haven’t already convinced you that London’s a foodie town, prepare yourself, dear reader.

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St. John Bread & Wine // Bacon Sandwich

Our first stop? St. John Bread and Wine. Featured on my favorite travel show ever, No Reservations, St. John is known for its nose-to-tail dining approach, which as an offal lover, I’m all for.

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This bacon sandwich was near perfect: thick, cut-with-a-spoon-tender slices of bacon slathered with a secret ketchup sauce and held together by grilled white bread. And what’s neat is that both the bread and bacon are baked and cured in house.

And while normally I prefer American-style bacon over English, this was the bacon sandwich to rule them all.

The English Restaurant // Bread and Butter Pudding

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What’s that you say? Who eats bread and butter pudding at 10 a.m.?

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Well at the English Restaurant, you can! Between the creme brûlée crust and the luscious crème anglaise sauce, I was literally sighing with happiness over my bread and butter pudding. And plus, the English Restaurant had the most cozily English atmosphere- I could’ve nursed a pint there all afternoon.

Androuet // Cheese Platter

To my delight our third stop was Androuet, a little French cheese shop! We tasted two of my favorite English cheeses, cheddar and stilton. And from the first mouthful of perfectly ripe cheese I was in fromage-ophile heaven.

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The young French owner explained that Androuet was started in Paris in 1909. I also learned that the owner and I are cheese twins; both of our favorite cheeses is Sainte-Maure de Touraine, an unpasteurized, full-fat aged goat’s cheese with a piece of straw through the middle.

 

Poppies // Fish and Chips

British readers, please skip this paragraph. But to my palate fish and chips is overkill- why pair fried with fried?

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But the fish at Poppies was light as fried cod can be, and was especially delicious when doused in vinegar. I also loved the throwback American diner interior and kind of wanted to play Elvis on the jukebox.

Pride of Spitalfields // Ale

Next it was time for drinks, so we headed to Pride of Spitalfields for an ale tasting.

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While I love beer, my inner hipster hates that I can’t get myself to love ale- it’s just too lukewarm and still! And although I sadly hadn’t been converted into an ale-drinker by the end of the visit, I’d definitely return to Pride of Spitalfields for its cozy, red-plush interior and dozens of beers on tap.

Aladin // Indian Curry

Would a tour of the East End be complete without stopping by Brick Lane? Probably not.

Brick Lane, also known as Curry Mile, is home to a large Bangladeshi community that immigrated to London in the 1970’s and 80’s.

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The chef served up three curries for our visit, and all were scrumptious- I especially loved the lamb curry. But by this point I was so stuffed even the tastiest curry could hardly entice me.

(But don’t worry, I made room. You think I’d let a lamb curry go to waste?)

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Street art by Stik on Brick Lane

Beigel Bake // Salt Beef Sandwich

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There was quite a line outside Beigel Bake, and from my first bite of this salt beef sandwich I could see why. The fatty, melt-in-your mouth meat paired with the yeasty bagel and dab of sharp yellow mustard made for a perfect fatty-acidic taste combination.

Pizza East // Salted Caramel Tart and Tea

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And the grand finale? Dessert at Pizza East! I fell in love with Pizza East for two reasons- first, the uber-chic, warehouse interior which oddly enough we weren’t allowed to photograph. And secondly, this salted caramel tart was possibly the best thing I had all day- decadent, chocolaty and topped with coarse sea salt.

My only regret- I wish I would’ve had room for pizza as the pies coming from the kitchen looked to die for!

Final remarks on the tour

As you may have guessed, I absolutely loved the Eating London food tour. I loved that the tour guide, Nicole, provided so many interesting facts about the East End’s history and culture- I was jotting down facts on my iPhone during the tour. And as I’ve mentioned, the food was bar-none.

And my favorite eat of the day? It’s a two-way tie between the bread and butter pudding and the salted caramel tart.

. . . . . . . . . . .

After lunch I burned off a fraction of the calories I had just consumed by combing the East End for street art. Sigh… I love London.

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Have you ever eaten in the East End?

A big thanks to Eating London for providing a food tour in exchange for a review. They in no way insisted that I write a favorable review, and all opinions are (as always) my own. If you’d like to join the Eating London food tour, here are a few tips: don’t eat breakfast, bring a camera, show up on time and DEFINITELY wear loose-fitting pants and comfortable shoes.

Brighton: England’s Coolest Seaside City

Brighton: England’s Coolest Seaside City

Due to growing up in Michigan, the seaside has always been a treat for me. Around the world I’ve loved all kinds of seaside towns from grungy port cities like Valpo, Chile, to upscale and elegant Biarritz.

But Brighton is special. Brighton is like the San Francisco of England with a Victorian seaside flair. Young, colorful, LGBT-friendly and on the sea; what’s not to love?

This March I took a day-trip to Brighton with Amanda and by the end of the day I was swooning.

Here’s what I loved most about Brighton.

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Spotting My First Banksy

I love Bansky and have followed his work for years. So right after alighting from the train, I beelined for the famed “kissing coppers” piece, conveniently located near the train station.

Needless to say, mysterious Mr. Banksy did not disappoint.

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Window-shopping

While I wasn’t in the market for a $400 pair of heels or a pearl ring, hey, I still had fun window-shopping. I even spotted lots of my favorite French stores in town: COS, Comptoir des Contonniers, Maje and Sandro.

For the record, COS, H&M’s high-end spin-off, is kind of amazing. It’s where I’ve bought some of my favorite clothes, including a backless black dress I purchased in my Paris days.

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And even if you can’t afford to buy anything, the colors of Brighton make it worth a gander. How cute are these doors?

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Riding Roller Coasters on the Pier

As a lifelong lover of roller coasters (Cedar Point, anyone?) I jumped at the opportunity to ride a few on the old-fashioned pier in Brighton. And while the rides cost £4 each, Amanda and I had great fun careening over creaky rails with the sea directly beneath us.

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And you have to love the ever-so-English touches from the candy floss stand to the fish and chips takeaway. The views of Brighton Beach weren’t so bad either.

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Exploring the Royal Pavilion and The Lanes

Brighton does not lack for quirky architecture. First we stumbled upon the Royal Pavilion, a former royal residence built in 1787 in the Indo-Saracenic style. (A.k.a. revival Indo-Islamic designed by British architects. You know.)

As far as architecture is concerned, there’s a very fine line between whimsical and downright tacky and I’m not really sure where the pavilion falls on that spectrum.

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Next we headed to The Lanes, adorable little alleyways filled with shops, cafés and restaurants. I loved the red brick streets and narrow buildings and kind felt like I was wandering Diagon Alley. (Sigh- if only.)

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Enjoying the Seafood Dinner of my Life

I’d like to think I’m something of a seafood connoisseur. Between working at an oyster bar in San Francisco and dating a Chilean for years (Chile being the seafood capital of South America, in my humble opinion), I know good seafood.

Which is why I was surprised to have the seafood meal of my life at Riddle & Finns, a local Brighton restaurant.

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I ordered smoked mackerel on a bed of colcannon, drenched in a sauce reminiscent of my beloved New England Clam Chowder, topped with a poached egg and crispy prosciutto. Heaven.

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And Amanda loved her crispy-skinned sea bass with polenta and eggplant purée. In fact we kept trading dishes and arguing about whose was better- it was really that good.

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And have I mentioned the ambiance yet? The restaurant was snug and intimate, with tiled walls, old fishing photos and antique candelabras. Swoon.

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By the end of the day Brighton had taken top-spot for my favorite city in England, and I’d go as far as to say one of my favorite cities in Europe. I can’t wait to visit (and order the entire Riddle & Finns menu) again in the not too distant future. And because Brighton is only an hour south of London, it’s luckily an easy day-trip.

Have you ever visited Brighton? Would you want to someday?

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Aberystwyth, Wales’ Sweet Seaside Town

Aberystwyth, Wales’ Sweet Seaside Town

I love seaside towns; they’re some of my favorite places to spend the day when I travel. From Valparaíso, Chile, to Brighton, England, there are few things I love more than a colorful coastal city. (Preferably with really good seafood, of course.)

Which is why I was so excited to day-trip to Aberystwyth, a university town in Wales where my friend Liam went to college.

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And as soon as we arrived I could see why Aberystwyth was once a summer destination for the well-to-do, and is still popular with tourists. Aberystwyth seems almost seems transplanted from the Victorian era with an elegant promenade, Royal Pier and pastel-colored buildings.

Hey, it wasn’t nicknamed the “Biarritz of Wales” for nothing.

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Aberystwyth may be tiny but it doesn’t lack for ambiance. From the crying seagulls to the old-fashioned arcade I felt I had stumbled into the Welsh version of Boardwalk Empire.

When I asked Liam what Aberystwyth was like in summer, he replied  “It’s chockablock.” Which for all us Americans, apparently means crowded.

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And as this is a Welsh town there is naturally a castle in town. Or rather, a castle ruins. Liam recounted that he and his friends used to have “epic NERF battles” there in college.

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Wales

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As an American that is something that will never cease to amaze me, the idea of playing a game on a castle ruin. It’s surreal.

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Next we headed over to the harbor.

One of the boats was named, “Taid’s Out”, which Liam noted was clever as “taid” means grandfather in Welsh but sounds like “tide.”

And as usual in the U.K. the weather was a bit brisk and I kept feeling cold, warm and then cold depending on if the sun was shining. The sea breeze wasn’t helping.

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As we had already been to York to see Lauren’s college town, it was fun seeing Liam’s as well. As we walked past his former house he pointed out which room was his, just as Lauren had done.

And as we looked out over the Royal Pier, watching the waves crash to the pebbly shore, Liam asked, “So Ashley, how does this compare to the rest of the world?”

I laughed and replied, “Well, this is pretty special.” IMG_6804

Have you heard of Aberystwyth? Would you want to visit?

9 Things I Didn’t Know About Wales

9 Things I Didn’t Know About Wales

When I arrived in Wales I knew almost nothing about the country. I knew of Wales’ tenuous history with England, that the Tudors were originally Welsh and of course, had heard a few bawdy jokes about “sheep-shagging.”

Beyond that I was clueless.

But luckily we had a local to show us around. Liam, my friend Lauren’s boyfriend, grew up in Wales and offered to host us for a few days at his home in northern Wales.

So one rainy morning the five of us (me, Lauren, Liam and two of their friends) set out from Lincoln and drove across the Peak District, whose wet, lonely moors made me feel I was a character in Jane Eyre.

Soon the moors became beaches, the signs featured Welsh and we were in a brand-new country.

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I quickly learned that Wales is kind of like the Shire but with more castles, beaches, mountains and slate houses. In short Wales is a country that is equally quaint and striking, with a unique kind of Welsh charm all its own.

1. Wales is beautiful

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Wales is an undoubtedly gorgeous country. As we drove south along the sea I marveled at the landscape: miles of blond-sand beaches, gorse clinging to the mountainside, ivy-clad stone sheep paddocks, rows of slate houses looking out over the sea.

And there were so many lambs! Sometimes the sheep were so far away they just looked like cream-colored dots on a hill, but up close I noticed their wool was blowing in the strong wind and that many were spray-painted with little blue circles.

 

2. Wales has tons of castles

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As you drive in Wales it seems there’s about a castle every mile- it’s incredible.

While the only castle we visited was Harlech Castle, it sure is a beauty. Harlech Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage site that UNESCO declares is “the finest examples of late 13th century and early 14th century military architecture in Europe.”

I loved snapping photos of the corbelled towers and crumbling staircases- the castle was straight from a medieval fairytale.

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What’s neat about Harlech Castle is that locals get in free. Liam joked that everyone would be able to get in free if it weren’t for the elephant in the room, “Ashley’s American accent.” Whoops.

Liam also told us tales about how the local high schoolers sneak into the castle and drink there. Why did I never party in a medieval castle in high school?

3. People die on Snowdon

As my friend’s town is so close to Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales, I proposed that we hike it. But apparently it’s not for beginners; hikers get lost in fog there and sometimes die. Next time?

4. Everything in Wales is made of slate

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After I got over the medieval castles, I noticed the abundance of slate. Apparently the slate industry has been important in Wales since Roman times and considering how many slate mines we drove through, must still be.

Can we talk about how charming slate houses are?

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5. Welsh is spoken more in the north than the south

While not everyone in the north of Wales speaks Welsh, the majority of the population are bilingual. To me Welsh sounded like the sloth from Ice Age was speaking Martian; a lispy, consonant-filled language like none I’ve every heard.

Also, fun fact- “popty ping” means microwave in Welsh. As Liam explained onomatopoeia is a big thing in the Welsh language.

6. Lots of common last names are Welsh

Did you know Morris, Williams and Jones are all Welsh surnames?

7. Harlech is adorable

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I kind of fell in love with Liam’s tiny Welsh town on the sea. Along with an unpronounceable name, Harlech has a population of less than 2,000, a sea-breeze scent and the freshest tap water I’ve ever tasted.

As we walked about town I realized that Liam literally knew everyone in town which definitely gave me small-town envy.

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8. The Welsh sea is cold in March

Well, I suppose I could’ve guessed this.

One night we headed to the pub and after several pints, I convinced everyone to walk to the beach. But alas the glacially cold water foiled my plans to swim- I only made it to my mid-calf and decided to put my leggings back on!

And while I was shaking sand out of my boots the next morning, the glittering stars and empty beach were worth it.

9. The Welsh language is in danger

Sadly, I think I could’ve guessed this too.

I chatted with a local Welsh guy about his perspective on the Welsh language. “The biggest mistake is that,” he said, pointing to the elementary school. “The Welsh government is forcing kids to speak Welsh at school. But if you force them, they won’t want to speak it.”

As you guys know, I’m kind of a linguistic freak and love learning about local languages. And while language preservation is something I’m very passionate about, it’s kind of an awkward cause because you can’t donate to it.

Anyhow, the Welsh guy said speaking Welsh was very important to him and he wanted his children to grow up speaking Welsh. And while he doesn’t speak Welsh with everyone in town, he said he couldn’t imagine speaking English to the WWII vet down the street.

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As an aside I wanted to thank Lauren, Liam, Steve, Dylan and Liam’s family for showing me such a great time in Wales. Diolch yn fawr!

Have you ever been to Wales?

Finally Journeying to the North of England

Finally Journeying to the North of England

I’d wanted to visit the north of England for years. Maybe it’s because most of my English friends are northern, or because I’m obsessed with medieval British history or heck, because I love Game of Thrones (the Starks, anyone?). Regardless, I knew I’d have to venture north during my three weeks in England.

Going north also meant visiting Lauren, one of my good friends from my Paris days! (You may remember her from posts such as this one and this one.)

I found a lot to love up north, from the incredibly friendly people to the winding medieval alleyways of York.

Here were my highlights from my long weekend in the North of England.

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The Train Ride

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The train ride up north was as quaint as a train ride through the English countryside ought to be.

I scribbled down notes as I gazed out the window: Back and white magpies flying low over barren fields, bales of hay stacked like wine barrels, work-horses with muddied legs, a man in a black blazer walking a small white terrier.

Also, blessedly, there were no billboards. America, we need to follow suit.

 

A Hilarious Night Out NorthX

While in Lincoln we had a fantastic night out which featured pre-gaming with Cards Against Humanity, swing-dancing to metal at a trashy local club called Cubes, scarfing down kebabs in the street at 2 a.m and me declaring one poor girl the next Margaret Thatcher. (My drunk brain thought this was a compliment, evidently.)

Also I really enjoyed playing Cards Against Humanity because I won like five times, and when I play in the states all of my jokes are fails. Clearly this is a sign, guys.

 

Crumpets for Breakfast

So, crumpets are a real thing. Who knew? And they’re also the best thing ever- like spongy English muffins that soak up buttery beautifully.

 

My First Cream Tea

Is it weird one of my travel goals was to have cream tea in England? Whatever.

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It turns out cream tea is every bit as good as I expected: piles of buttery scones, moist lemon cakes and the best smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwiches ever. And for only £9, what a steal! (Good luck finding cream tea in London for that price.)

Plus, the tea shop we visited couldn’t have been more adorable; a quaint, timber-framed address with views of the river.

 

Exploring Lincoln and Visiting the Cathedral

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When I arrived in Lincoln, I was surprised to see it was as flat and green as my native Michigan.

And though I had somewhat imagined a Billy Elliot-esque town, Lincoln is a small, well-to-do city with an 11th-century cathedral jutting above the other buildings.

Fun fact- Lincoln Cathedral was the tallest building in the world for 238 years (1311–1549). #nerdalert

One must-do in Lincoln: Trekking up the Steep Hill to reach the cathedral. (Plus, Steep Hill looks just like Hogsmeade.) And once you’re inside the cathedral keep an eye out for the Lincoln Imp!

Relaxing with Friends

Sometimes when you travel you crave the mundaneness of  la vie quotidienne.

Which is why I relished the normal things in Lincoln: grabbing Indian take-out, eating duck ramen at Wagamama’s, spending a lazy Monday seeing the (fantastic) Grand Budapest Hotel, doing nothing but watch War Horse and Orange is the New Black one day when Lauren was at work.

Yep, I’m such a good traveler.

 

Day-tripping to York

Being a history nerd, I couldn’t skip out on one of England’s most historically important cities, now could I?

So I was delighted when Lauren suggested driving up north to York on Sunday. York is also where Lauren and our friend Victoria went to college (or uni, as they would say).

As it was Sunday, we had Sunday roast at Evil Eye. And I nerded out about trying Yorkshire pudding for the first time IN Yorkshire.

Overall I enjoyed Sunday Roast, but I won’t lie- I still think Thanksgiving dinner trumps it by a mile.

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I enjoyed every second we spent exploring York. From peeking into a few shops… IMG_6278 To shooting a fake band album cover at the York Minster… IMG_6324

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to strolling down the narrow street called The Shambles…

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To retreating for tea at the House of Trembling Madness, or as it is known locally, Delirium Tremens. Delirium Tremens is a medieval drinking hall, the first Norman house built in York in 1180 and constructed with 12th century ship beams.

Also, everyone was incredibly cavalier about the fact that we were drinking tea in a 12th century drinking hall. I love England.

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Have you ever spent time in the North of England?

I used thetrainline.com to book my train to Lincoln and it only cost me £ 11.25 for a one-way ticket– so inexpensive! Just to note this is not a sponsored mention- I was honestly so surprised by how cheap it was.