"Do What You Love" / London street sign / JessOnThames

A lovely friend sent me a list last night entitled “Things people don’t know about their astrological signs.”

Under my birth sign, Taurus, it read “gets nervous about any change in their life because they fear the unknown and other things they aren’t used to.”

Once upon a time this was very true (apologies to my parents for the 6 million panic attacks I had before leaving for college). Don’t get me wrong, I’m usually the hesitant one ensuring risk assessments are mentally checked off before making a big decision. But it is with a smile that I’ve come to realise the change I often fight against can also make me immensely happy.

And that has been one heck of a life lesson I’d like to share…

That first travel bug

I was first bitten by the travel bug in high school when my mom rightly pointed out that “No, I didn’t need a car. I needed to travel abroad.” (On behalf of teenage Americans everywhere, I – again – apologise.) I’d started taking French and my school’s study abroad programme had a fantastic three week trip to Paris, the Loire Valley and Provence – with a week long family stay in Switzerland in the middle. I signed up and was immediately horrified to learn I was the only 16-year-old girl paired with a host brother. Funny how those things pan out: fast forward 5 years later and you’d have still found us dating.

While ultimately that relationship may not have lasted, that first trip changed me in hundreds of ways. It taught me about cultural differences and gave me a respect for tradition and history. It taught me that, no matter how embarrassed I was to make a mistake in French, it was worth it the first time I wasn’t corrected and got through a conversation. It taught me that I love the countryside as much as I love city life. And it occasionally shocked me (you won’t see as much violence on French TV but, man, will you see nudity. Try discovering that for the first time sitting next to your 16 year old host brother…)

Perhaps most of all, that first trip opened up a curiosity I’ve had a hard time getting rid of ever since.

Years passed – countless trips to Geneva and a year studying in Paris – and I embraced living in countries where I didn’t speak my mother tongue. I moved to Brussels. Brussels was never really an “end destination”, as many who live there will tell you, but it was one I found myself “embracing”. And by “embracing”, I mean, tried to get a visa.

Going for it with a visa

I’m often asked: how did I manage to get that first visa and how have I managed to stay abroad this long? And the simplest answer is one third perseverance (I applied everywhere I could think of), one third creativity (I started on a student visa to gain time to find a job) and one third luck (I was ultimately in the right place at the right time).

Perseverance is highly inter-changeable with patience.

In an effort to get a visa, I threw myself into the EU world, learning the ins- and outs- of the EU and NATO. I did everything I could to prove I was worth keeping and that I “got the EU” even though I wasn’t European (not an easy task for anyone who has ever slogged through comitology… European or not.)

Staking it all on Brussels

The “EU bubble,” as they like to call it, is a unique beast. Career bureaucrats, shorter-term politicians, corporate lobbyists, NGO activists and armies of over enthusiastic interns all mix together… like any political town, you’re going to find a whole cast of characters.

I found the constant mesh of nationalities fascinating and, for awhile, I loved being in a city of people who were all searching for what they wanted. You bond really quickly. I was lucky to have wonderful mentors. But it was also for that reason that I found it hard to stay. So many friends left for their next posting. Others made it clear that Brussels was “great for now” but not for the long term. I was one of those.

For a very long time – and here we get back to the point of the story – a fear of change held me back. I’d worked so hard to specialise in the world of EU policymaking that I worried I would never be able to work anywhere else. Would my skills translate elsewhere? All this niche knowledge I’d build up… did anyone outside of Brussels see a value in it? Something held me back from feeling like the Brussels track was what I wanted to be doing when I was 40…  but what did I want to do? The idea of starting over was exhausting.

Here’s one thing I’ll say: I quickly assumed the answers to all of my questions would be negative. I didn’t realise that testing new opportunities was half the fun.

Don’t be scared. Give yourself a long, hard talking to. And then give change a test drive.

It took an honest assessment of what I loved, turning 30 and an opportunity practically landing in my lap from London to make me really start thinking about change. And then I wished I’d done it earlier. Just because you’ve spent 10 years in a place doesn’t mean you can’t leave it. And change doesn’t mean you abandon what you’ve come to love and leave it behind.  You take it with you.

Travel means a lot of things to a lot of people. It can mean leaving home, exploring far off lands or it can mean relocating to the country next door. I haven’t really had an adult life in my home country. Belgium is only just across the English channel from the UK and yet sometimes it seems like I’ve traveled much further away. I feel at home and like a tourist at the same time in London these days. And I often wonder how long I’ll feel that way…

I’ve made wonderful friends here and have fallen for neighborhoods I can’t bear the thought of leaving. I’ve found distractions that I didn’t know I craved in the form of theatre and museums and books and culture. I wake up on weekends wondering “what’s next?”

That curiosity I crave is always on in London. And that, for me, is proof enough that changing careers and countries can be good for you.

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View over Lisbon / JessOnThamesLisbon is inching steadily up on my list of favorite cities in Europe.

Its informal but trendy, a bit run down but beautiful. There is tons to see and do and easily navigable. You can scale the (many!) hills or jump in a super cheap taxi. Its pretty much the perfect weekend away and especially if you’re looking for a spot of sun. Stay in town or (highly recommended) prolong your trip a bit and take a day trip to Sintra or Belem. Eat tons. And be sure to learn about Vasco da Gama (whose name I find endlessly entertaining to say) at the height Portuguese influence.

It took me a few trips to really get to know how much Lisbon has to offer. And here are some of my favorites tips.


EXPLORE

The Castle of São Jorge for amazing views over the city – its the best place to get perspective of the layout of Lisbon and for views of the 25 de Abril bridge. While very little of the Moorish castle is left, you can wander its walls all the way around the city. When we visited, there was a tiny wine cart from which you could buy a plastic wine glass and then wander the ruins with Vinho Verde in your hands. Now that is a business model I want to see replicated at tourist sites everywhere.

The Alfama neighborhood is the best place in Lisbon to get lost. It has an old, local feel to it. And one that you can’t help but feel is being slightly ruined by tourists like myself scrambling through with camera in hand. But it is a maze of stairways and tiny courtyards, of tiny restaurants and fado joints. For a great walk, start at the Ingreja de Santo Estevao and wind your way down to the narrow streets below.

Bairro Alto is also a great neighborhood to stroll around during the day for its little boutique shops, bright colored houses and tiles. At night it turns into the hopping (and at times a little bit seedy) bar district. Either way, it makes for great discoveries.

Sintra is a must. An hour’s train journey from central Lisbon, the multicolored fairytale castle of Pena Palace is one of the most spectacular buildings – inside and out- in Europe. Prepare for crowds, but the visit is worth it. Take the bus up the hill to Pena (or ready yourself for a workout…) and then get off at the gardens. You can continue the ride straight up to the castle entrance, but the cooled gardens on a warm summer day are magical and shouldn’t be missed. Inside, you’ll find painted walls and lovely courtyards. (For more on Sintra, read here.)

A trip out to Belem is a must to see the Torre de Belem and the 16th century Mosteiro dos Jeronimos. Take a walk along the river, visit the ultra modern art museum and then stop to eat some of the world famous “nata” cinnamon creme cakes at Pasteis de Belem. (Tip, if you just want to buy some to carry away, you can walk to the front of the line and buy some from the counter… most of the line are people waiting to cue for a table.)

The view from Lisbon castle / JessOnThamesAlfama housesBairro Alto / JessOnThamesTorre de Belem / JessOnThamesMosterio dos Jeronimos / JessOnThames

Above: The view from Lisbon’s Castle / Alfama
Bairro Alto / Torre de Belem / Mostario dos Jeronimos


EAT

Mercado da Ribeira – If I recommended one thing everyone has to do in Lisbon, it is this. One of my favourite places to eat. Ever. I like it so much, I’m usually there several times on every trip. Think of it like a big covered market, where individual stalls have been taken over by the best chefs in Portugal. Come hungry, grab a big communal table and prepare to try at least 3 stands. But start with Chef Henrique Sa Pessoa and his black porc sandwich with garlic mayonnaise. (Especially if you have a hangover!)

Cantinho do Avillez – Hands down, one of the best meals I’ve ever had in Europe from famed Portuguese chef Jose Avillez. Not formal in the slightest, but with outstanding food and wine (try the Quinta Nova Grainha Douro Reserva). We dined on Alentegano style black pork and tuna tartar that were were out of this world and tried the local specialty of deep fried green beans with lemon salt and tartar sauce. But it was the service that put this place over the top – our server took the time to walk us through all the dishes, pointing out the local specialties and things we shouldn’t miss. To top it all off, we’d given the bride-to-be on our trip 25 challenges to complete (one for each letter of the alphabet) and one of which was learn how to make a drink behind a bar. The Cantinho not only let her do it, but the bartender set up glasses and all the ingredients she would need to use in advance and patiently walked her through it. I’ll be singing about this place from the hilltops for ages. (And Jose Avillez has other eateries you can try: Belcanto, Cafe Lisboa (next on my list!) and Mini Bar.)

A Cevicheria (link is to the interior designer’s page, I couldn’t find a restaurant website) – we tried to get in here but the wait was too long and it is tiny. Just looking inside however made me ache to try again. Great interior decorating with a giant octopus on the ceiling. Food is in the name: Peruvian ceviche. Great street for other good restaurants and bars.

A Taberna da Rua das Flores – small, traditional tapas dishes and drinks served in an informal, cute atmosphere. Be prepared for a very long line.

Cervejaria Ramiro – this place was INSANE. Lines out the door, mental servers running their feet off, receipts scattered across the floor and an interesting mix of locals and tourists groups. But they all come here for one reason: gigantic seafood platters. I mean scampi the size of your face. If we hadn’t stayed out until 5am the night before, I’m sure we would have enjoyed it more. Be sure to reserve if you go otherwise you’ll find yourself in the giant line!

While I didn’t try it on this trip, I loved the look of A Baiuca, a tiny no-frills whatsoever restaurant serving local cuisine with fado performances in the Alfama. Its on my list to try next time.

Mercado da Ribeira / JessOnThamesNata from the Pasteis de Belem / JessOnThamesAbove: The stalls at the Mercado da Ribeira / Nata from Pasteis de Belem


DRINK

(Miradouro or “vista”) Portas do Sol – You may wait 5 years for service but you won’t mind in the slightest with the view. Grab a couch or a bean bag chair and soak up the sun.

Pavilhao Chines – very quirky, iconic bar on a great street for restaurants and bars. Pricey, but for a fun cocktail, its worth a visit

Wine with a view – the best idea I’ve ever seen for a tourist site is a little wine truck parked within the Lisbon castle walls. They give you a chilled plastic glass you get to keep, a generous pour and off you go to explore the site. We sat on the castle walls and looked out over the city.

Portas dos Sol, Lisbon / JessOnThames

Wine with a view at Lisbon castle / JessOnThamesAbove: Looking out over Portas do Sol / Wine with a view at Lisbon castle


SHOP

A Vida Portuguesa, in Chiado (Rua Anchieta, 11) but also with a little stand in the Mercado da Ribeira, is like a little shop of curiosities. Gorgeous smelling hand creams, selections of salts in test tubes and beautiful stationary. Lovely packaged soaps are a big thing in Lisbon and you can find some of the prettiest here.

Bertrand, also in Chiado, is the world’s oldest bookshop dating from 1732. They have a selection of books in English and French so you might not come away empty handed.


STAY

If I wanted a special treat, I’d try a stay in the Palacete Chafariz d’El Rei down by the port side of the Alfama. I found this by accident, drawn to the bright fuchsia flowering plants on its terrace. I rang the bell to request a card and stood in the main hallway for a minute. To my mind’s eye, I felt like I was standing inside a Moroccan palace with different colored lamps hanging from a dazzlingly tall stained glass ceiling. If I don’t stay there on my next trip, I’ll try their tea for sure.

Well, actually, the Palacete has competition. Because I also want to stay at the Palacio Belmonte. 10 gorgeous suites at prices I can never afford. (But a girl can dream and stare at their website, can’t she?) Check out the Padre Himalaya Honeymoon Suite.

On our last trip, we stayed at the Sheraton not far from the Parque Eduardo VII for a friend’s hen do. I grew up with chains like the Sheraton and I have to say, this one did not feel as refined as you should expect from a four-star hotel. Our room was beautiful, but they kept stocking it for just one person when we were two (fine for shampoo, challenging for towels) and a friend of ours was given keys to a room that hadn’t been cleaned. Then they didn’t believe her when she asked for a new room. Come now, Sheraton, that’s not why people choose to stay in a Sheraton… Though their rooftop bar has fantastic views over the city as the sun goes down.

If you decide to go out to Sintra and want to drag your trip out a bit with a splash, try the Penha Longa Resort in the countryside. My mom (who I refer to as the travel research genius) once found us a spectacular deal to stay here. This is a place to feel spoiled and a wedding venue of dreams, with the modern hotel right next to a 14th century palace and church. Its simply stunning with wonderful service and several restaurants. Oh, and they have Asprey bath products.

But for the foreseeable future, I think I will be returning to one of my favorite AirBnBs – this lovely and remarkably well-priced apartment in Lapa, a lovely suburb of Lisbon on the way to Belem. A huge sofa so comfortable we wanted to fall asleep on it, two sizeable bedrooms and bathrooms and a terrace with a view straight onto the 25 do Abril bridge made this a winner in our book. And there’s a hammock on the terrace. It may look further away from the center of town, but it was very well connected by bus and tram. Its also a great area to catch the 28 tram before it reaches the center and gets so crowded you can’t get on anymore!

Fabulous AirBnB in Lisbon / JessOnThamesAbove: The view from our AirBnB in Lisbon


You can find all the places mentioned above marked on the map below, just zoom in or out & click on the blue markers for more details.

 

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Mohawk in Brighton / JessOnThames

Sometimes in life, you come across a scene that makes you stop in your tracks and take a picture. I found myself doing that all over Brighton a few weeks ago.

I ventured down on the first teasingly gorgeous day of the British summer, without having done any research. I just unpredictably jumped on a train. Which is one of my favorite ways to travel. (Except when it comes to sleeping… I like to know there is a bed at the end of the day and I prefer to know which kind… there’s a kind of mental preparation that needs to accompany camping.)

The gorgeous day in Brighton had brought everyone out. And when I say everyone, I mean the entire country of England. The crowds swarmed the pebbly beaches and invaded the pier. And two goths – one complete with florescent blue mini-mohawk – were just chillin’ in a boat, looking out over the water. They appeared to be the calmest people in the city. And I loved it so much I took a creepy stalker photo.

On that note, I give you some favorite recent internet finds:

Super

The Call your Girlfriend podcast (two long distance friends catch up every two weeks and its addicting)

This happened on my birthday and I was oblivious…

Taylor Swift’s top 10 power plays

800 years of English history in 20 day trips

The most poignant article I’ve ever read that uses the word f*** 127 times (you’ve been warned)

Pretty

Nomadic Habit’s tribute to her mom & travel

The magic of photoshop (includes a “painted” giraffe)

For the love of a dog (for the Maddie fans)

Funny

Hotel humor – a saga of soap

 

 

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St Pancras Station, London / JessOnThames

Random name for a post, eh?

It is but one of the interesting facts we learned last night as we sat in Searcy’s Champagne Bar at St Pancras for a lesson about perfumes, oak smoke machines and funky French syrup cocktail concoctions. Such are some evenings in London.

A few weeks ago, the lovely Emma spotted a deal in Time Out for an event with lovely fragrance expert Odette Toilette. We’d be given a lesson in all things perfume along with a few cocktails & macaroons. With a price tag of only £10 and the forecast more than dreadful, she had Rebecca and I at the mere mention of cocktails.

Plus, I never need an excuse to hang out in St Pancras. Call me odd, but I simply adore that train station. (Even more so since they opened the Hatchard’s bookstore… but closed the Foyle’s… can there be only one??) I digress.

Back to our event: after being presented with two cocktails in ten minutes (seriously), we were led to a long table with menus on them. The menus outlined 8 perfumes paired with… 6 more mini shotglasses of cocktails. We’d had no idea we would be plied with drink all night; and I mean champagne, followed by chartreuse, followed by lager, followed by gin, and more gin, and more gin and finally brandy.

We quickly learned this event – alcohol aside – was masses of fun and Odette gave some wonderful twists on each perfume as each was presented, pairing them with famous French women. As each new scent and drink came through, we “tasked” Rebecca (code for: she volunteered) to offer her own analysis of each perfume. And it was so funny, we determined it must be documented for posterity’s sake.

As such, I give you: Rebecca’s Guide to French Perfumes (our apologies to France in advance)

#1: Aqua Vitae by Maison Francis Kurkdjian
Cocktail: Chartreuse, Teisseire Lemon, Soda (not a fan)
Odette: Something Clemence Poesy would wear
Rebecca: “Toilet Duck”
Jess: “That’s 100% nuts, its lovely – reminds me of Acqua Di Gioia
Emma: “Not a huge fan”
Conclusion: be suspicious of Kiwi smelling powers

#2: Gris Montaigne by Christian Dior
Cocktail: Teisseire Peach, Lager, Orange, Angostura Bitters (delicious)
Odette:  Something Marion Cotillard or Audrey Tatou would wear
Rebecca: “Something a pimply young boy would wear but trying really hard on a nice first date.”
Jess & Emma: Uproarious laughter thinking about what Dior would say
Meanwhile: Rebecca decides she really likes the cocktail but not the scent… Video evidence.

#3: Vetiver by Carven (1957, men’s scent)
Odette: For a tomboy like Charlotte Gainsbourg – or what you wear on a day when you need to be really productive
Rebecca: “Its like a used ash tray but in a really clean place that has   just been bleached.”
(Jess distracted by beautiful bottle… )

#4: Sancti by Liquides Imaginaire
Odette: A “Bobo” scent for Vanessa Paradis
Emma: “Church!”
Rebecca: “So, you mean THE SCENT OF GOD??… I smell that spa in Marrakesh.”
Jess: “Incense.” (Making mental note to go to a spa in Marrakesh)

#5: Shalimar by Guerlain (1925)
Cocktail: Gin, Teisseire Vanilla, Lemon Juice, Oak Smoke (oak smoke overpowers everything)
Odettte: Produced during a time when perfumers were looking towards the East for oriental scents, this perfume was inspired by the Taj Mahal. Something Catherine Deneuve might wear.
Rebecca: “The scene: Harrod’s. Its what you would wear when you see a very wealthy older man and think… no… but… it might be nice to have a sugar daddy.”
General assessment: We all kind of liked this one. Not because of the sugar daddy thing.

#6: Fleurs d’Oranger by Serge Lutens
Cocktail: Gin, Teisseire Raspberry, Lemon juice, Lemon peel, Absinthe
Odette: Honeyed & sweet oranges with a little cumin for a tropical scent, like what Ludivine Sagnier might wear.
Rebecca: “What one of those Shoreditch shop assistants would wear when they are lingering a bit too close while you try on your clothes… so you ask her to back off but not before you want to know what perfume she is wearing”
Jess: “Where on earth does your imagination come from?? It reminds me of Seville.”
Emma: “I hate oranges.”
Rebecca & Jessica: blank stares
Emma: “Its true. When I was little in New Zealand there were these kids who used to set oranges on fire and ever since I’ve hated orange juice.”
Jess: “We need to talk about what kids in New Zealand do for entertainment…”
Rebecca & Jess make a pact to constantly send Emma images of oranges, agree “Emma hates orange juice” needs to be the title of this post and then decide we’d love the perfume as a room fragrance.

#7: Dans tes bras, Editions de parfums Frederic Malle
Cocktail: Gin, Teisseire Pink Grapefruit, Campari, Soda, Fernet Branca
Odette: Carine Roitfeld – or salty skin…
Entire table: Blank stares at mention of salty skin… no one understood that one
Rebecca: “This is that shot you order at 2am when it seems like a really good idea but REALLY isn’t.”
Jess & Emma: Still trying to get our heads around that salty skin analogy.

#8: Nuit de Tuberose by L’Artisan Parfumeur
Cocktail: Brandy, Cold Brew Coffee, Teisseire Blackberry (pretty darn good)
Odette: A perfume for the Femme Fatale like Eva Green or Laetitia Casta
Rebecca: “Christmas Tree”
Jess: “You guys have Christmas in the middle of summer… are you sure?”
Rebecca: “We do this wonderful tradition in New Zealand called Mid Winter Christmas… I will totally volunteer to throw a party for you, Jess, because you are American and have never seen one.” **This may not be an accurate representation of how this conversation went… but it is reminiscent of how #SinterThanksgiving was born**

At this point Odette warned everyone that they might want to be careful getting down from their stools because we’d all been given approximately 50 mini cocktails.

But the real take-away was that some London evenings surprise you in a way that you cannot recreate, even if you tried. Sipping champagne with a gigantic glass ceiling overhead, 10 feet away from a platform’s edge, listening to a fragrance expert while trying to stifle back tears of laughter with lovely friends who are always up for a new adventure. And knowing that if you wanted, you could jump on a train to Paris at any moment.

But you don’t need to. Because sometimes, London is 100% fine by me.

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