Yearly Archives: 2015

The most important disccovery of the 20th century

Apologies…more science

feel free to skip if science bores you, but I think it’s fascinating…

What do you thing the most important discovery of the 20th century was?  Flight?  definitely an important one, especially for us travellers. Einstein’s theory of relativity?   Sure, it’s important, but how often does the average person use it.  I’m going with the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928.  Yes, I’m a science nerd [I have a degree in microbiology] but the discovery of penicillin is arguably one of the most important discoveries if you think of its effects on the health of everyone.   So number three in my medical museum adventures in the Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum opened in 1993  Its centerpiece is a reconstruction of the laboratory as it was in 1928 in the actual room in which Fleming had made his discovery.  How cool is that?

Since photography isn’t allowed in the museum, let’s take this opportunity to learn a little bit more about our hero.

Fleming was born in a farming community in rural Ayrshire [Scotland] and had a very basic education – but he developed his powers of observation during the early years. Bored with being a shipping clerk in London he applied to be a surgeon but was turned down. [We can all be grateful for that ironic twist of fate.  He’d be the one spreading the germs instead of killing them.]

However, following receiving a small inheritance, he re-applied and became a medical student at St Mary’s excelling at all his exams. After graduation he joined the department of Bacteriology, headed up by Almroth Wright. He was one of those caricature flamboyant physicians who believed passionately in research, especially into typhoid, but not in keeping statistics [much like myself…I love experimenting, but keeping records, not so much]. His work was in immunization and this is the department that Fleming joined–working on lysosomes, one of our natural defenses against—wait for it— BACTERIA.

Everyone loves the story of how Fleming came to make his first major discovery regarding lysosymes. He had a cold and a drop of snot fell out of his nose on to a culture plate of bacteria which began to dissolve. Who would have ever thought snot would be the answer.

From there you probably know the  rest …  In the summer of 1928, Fleming left the lab for vacations but left some petri dishes containing the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus [a naturally occurring skin bacteria] on his laboratory bench. He was done with them, but for whatever reason didn’t clean up his work space before he left. On his return to work on 3 September 1928, he took one last look at them before asking his laboratory technician to sterilize them.

In a today’s lab, petri dishes are plastic, used only once and then destroyed. In 1928, they were made of glass and reused after being soaked in a shallow bath of disinfectant followed by a quick wipe. Let’s just say if lab hygiene in 1928 was similar to today’s standards penicillin may not have been discovered…. Anyway….. Something peculiar caught his eye and he said, “Hmm, that’s funny”, he said. The petri dish had been contaminated by a mold which had inhibited the growth of the bacteria.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Fleming went on to publish his findings – that the mold penicillin seemed to kill Bacteria – in 1929 and he continued to practice at St Mary’s. The problem then became how to manufacture ‘enough’ mold to be able to use it to combat sepsis, which was of the main killer of the times.

Ten or so years later the work continued at Oxford where two researchers, Howard Florey (from New Zealand) and Ernst Chain (from Germany), worked on the manufacture of penicillin. The start of world war II added impetus (and money) to the research project with the thinking being that wounded service personnel could be saved and turned round to fight again – by D-Day there was enough penicillin for every combatant.

Public recognition came in the shape  of a Nobel prize for all three men. [yay!]

Surgery, history, and chemistry, oh my!

I LOVE all things related to medicine–especially the history of medicine and the science that goes along with it so given that I was ecstatic to visit 6! nerdy, science-y, medical-y museum in a span of two weeks. Not a super well known fact, but IRL I am a registered nurse and before that I worked as a registered respiratory therapist. There isn’t a single area in a hospital that I haven’t spent time in as a professional… Emergency rooms, YEP. Operating Rooms, YEP. Morgue during autopsy, YEP. Pharmacy Prep areas, YEP. Delivery Rooms, YEP. Intensive Care Units, YEP, and regular ole patients’ room. I’ve worked in them all at some point or another. SO, it should come as no surprise to anyone, that I LOVE all things related to medicine. Enter the Operating Museum and Herb Garret, Science Museum, Hospital Museum, Pathology Museum, and Florence Nightingale Museum. All located in London and all open to visitors. [However, they are not all free].  The Semmelweis Museum in Budapest makes up the sixth museum in this sext-fecta of historical medical museums.

First up… The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret aka one of the coolest and best museums in LONDON.

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In the shadow of the Shard, near all the cool and modern construction that is going on near London Bridge, lies The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garrett.  It is a spectacular little museum filled with tons of historic and interesting items related to medicine, pharmacy, and surgery; it is also one of those museums that you don’t necessarily hear a lot about and even if you do, you are still not really sure where it is.  It’s hidden away in the roof space of what was once St. Thomas’ church. It was closed last time I was in London, so I made sure that I’d be able to go in this time. Missing the old Operating Theatre twice probably would have killed me. Thankfully, we won’t have to find out.

The Old Operating Theatre is a bit hard to find.  I found it as I find most things, by wandering, but that’s not the recommended way of getting there. It’s a bit off the beaten tourist path in London [still Zone 1, still in the city].  If you can find the fabulous Borough Market, which is celebrating 1000! [let that sink in a moment] years in Southwark, then you can find the old operating theatre. I whole-heartedly recommend visiting the market for food and drink and then some more food…[perhaps after the museum if you tend to be a bit squeamish] Anyway…you wander down St Thomas Street and as you do so, you are greeted by this ever-so-slightly alarming skull. And this is one of the many reasons I love London. It’s not often that a skull greets the visitor at a proper museum. operating museum 1

What’s far MORE alarming, at least to me and my propensity to trip and fall on staircases and hurt myself, is the never-ending spiral of stairs [32 tiny, narrow stairs, in case you were counting] that lead up into the old operating theatre. It DOES take some effort, but it IS worth it.

operating museum 8

First is the herb garret. The heady scent from the big bowls of medicinal herbs and spices will smack you violently in the face the second you go inside, so be prepared for that. Once inside there are numerous displays of herbs, spices, medicinal plants, distillations, tinctures and powders, all with thoughtful hand-written explanations and thoughtful captions such as this description for Motherwort, taken from Maud Grieve’s A Modern Herbal (1931): “Especially valuable in female weakness and disorders… allaying nervous irritability and inducing quiet and passivity of the whole nervous system. Good against hysterical complaints.”  [because you know those damn Victorians were obsessed with curing ‘female weakness and hysterical complaints’]

operating museum 5

There isn’t a square inch of free surface space in the place – it’s an apothecary of chaos. The ambiance created by the smell is absolutely fantastic – there’s a sense of life and of discovery, purely down to the mixing aromas of all the ingredients in the room. It is visually stunning, and somewhat overwhelming, but it *feels* real. I can almost imagine I’m in the old-school apothecary where they just grab a little of this and a bit of that, call it a prescription and send you on your way. And whether or not they’re sure of which herb goes where, who knows? But you get a real sense for the magic and the experimental spirit that lead us to modern pharmacy we have today.

herb manual

 

Once you’ve had your fill of the apothecary [or if the smell starts to get to you], head on to the back to the Operating Theatre. This is the earliest surviving example of an operating room in Europe, [circa 1850 or therabouts] ,and it’s pretty impressive. This one was a teaching theatre, and you really feel that priority was given to the spectators in this environment.

 

At times, I tend to have an over-active imagination, and it is easy to picture the gruesome scene– well-attired medics sawing through flesh, blood squirting everywhere, scholars craning their necks for a closer look, and for those without strong stomachs– swooning, or making a mad dash for the nearest bed pan; and let’s not forget the blood-curdling screams of the patients…imagine this…a patient is lying on the operating table…wide awake and staring wide-eyed right back at the surgeon. Anesthetics hadn’t been discovered yet and patients were given the option of whisky, opium, or being knocked out by being hit on the head with a mallet.

Surgical technique was still a bit of a idiomatic expression; surgeons relied on swift amputation techniques, the faster you could remove a limb the better a surgeon you were. Most patients died of infection rather than the actual blood loss or surgery and the old frock coats worn by surgeons during operations were, according to a contemporary, ‘stiff and stinking with pus and blood.’

Patients often had injuries which prevented them from taking the spiral staircase up to the theater, and were therefore transported into the theater via a pulley system and an opening in the wall behind the current chalkboard. The ground would also be covered in straw to help prevent blood from dripping onto patrons of the church below the theater. [because that would be rude… taking communion to receive the body and blood of Christ only to receive the ACTUAL blood of John Smith or some other mere mortal]

 

Museum visitors are also provided with a first-hand account for good measure:

The first two rows… were occupied by the other dressers, and behind a second partition stood the pupils, packed like herrings in a barrel, but not so quiet…The confusion and crushing was indeed at all times very great, especially when any operation of importance was to be performed, and I have often known even the floor so crowded that the surgeon could not operate until it had been partially cleared. There was also a continual calling out of “Heads, Heads” to those about the table whose heads interfered with the sightseers.

Having observed [and had!] surgery up close and personal as well as from a gallery [in the 21st century], I much prefer the 21st century way of doing things.

Exit the theatre and one can examine the instruments of torture: tools for trepanning; row after row of blades, designed for every imaginable variety of amputation; and even a physician’s stick, used for walking, but also held across the patients mouth as a restraint during surgery – as evidenced by the surviving teeth marks. This was by far my favorite part of the museum.

Elsewhere, there are areas dedicated to the use of animals in medicine (leeches or maggots anyone?), bizarre Victorian contraptions for the hard of hearing, and a number of human organs pickled in formaldehyde, including a pair of lungs blackened by the London smog.

 

Swimming with fairies and the beauty of Skye

When I was a little kid, I used to love to play make believe, and play in the creek behind my house. I’m sure that I wasn’t the only kid in the world who liked to play make-believe or play in creeks, but being as how I was an only child who lived out in the country far away from other kids, playing make-believe was a great source of entertainment for me. I loved to pretend that I was either invisible sea monster or a witch or better yet, an invisible sea monster-witch. Skye would have been a great place to grow up.

Can you imagine all the fun someone with an active imagination could have here?

Just imagine being an invisible fairy with eternal life and the power to enthrall people.. it’d make sense to live here, bewitching visitors to take off all their clothes [because now I’m a bawdy wench]. The spell of the Fairy Pools is that they look as if they must be warm…

I mean with that kind of vivid blue water it must be like the Caribbean Sea, but having come straight down from the Black Cuillins, they are anything but warm. The saying goes: temperatures in Scotland are either cold, bastard cold, or damn freezing cold. And checking in at a balmy 43F, I say these swimming holes are bastard cold.

Skye, Scotland
Skye, Scotland

Perhaps it is the fairy mischief that makes me want to jump into this amzing clear blue water. Water that is face-smackingly, lung-contractingly cold…wet-suit be damned… I jump in…ohmygod thisissofuckingcold…I clamber back out to catch my breath. Fairy magic…I haul my carcass out of the swimming hole, warm up, and dive in again and again. This is river swimming at its most magical.

The Isle of Skye is the largest of the Hebridean islands. It is easy to navigate, easily reached from the mainlaind village of Kyleakin, and has a huge variety of landscapes packed into a relatively small space. Scottish Gaelic is the predominate language of this part of the country , and in this area of around 10,000 people spread out over the islands, is raw wilderness.  Each sight is slightly more awe inspiring than the previous.

Just let the beauty of it all soak in for a minute, will ya?

Leaving Skye, I passed probably the most famous castle in Scotland. In my less than humble opinion, Eilean Donan Castle is the most beautiful castle in Scotland.  It’s even movie famous. Chances are you recognize it from a film or two.  Eilean Donan starred in Highlander, served as Sean Connery’s home in Entrapment, and was the Scottish Headquarters of MI6 in The World Is Not Enough. Anything related to the world’s most famous spy has my stamp of approval.

Off to see the wizard…

What I am about to say might be considered blasphemy to some… I didn’t travel the yellow brick road to see the land of Oz and meet the Wizard until very recently… as in I read the books Wicked and Son of a Witch before I ever knew of Dorothy and crew.

the way to oz

I KNOW… what can I say?  I missed out on a lot as a child by not having a TV or living in a town without a movie theatre.

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So not being a huge fan and being an infant when it closed, I hope I can be forgiven for never having heard of Autumn at OZ. In its heyday the Land of Oz could attract 20,000 visitors a day, but now the neglected Yellow Brick Road is missing some bricks, the Wicked Witch of the West’s castle is empty and the Emerald City has all but disappeared.

yellow brick road


Truthfully, it’s a little bit creepy.

Local actors dress up as characters from the book/movie. Kids [and some very strange adults] dress up in costumes. Parents take pictures of kids with Dorothy and crew as if they were Santa Claus.

cast of oz

What it is:   From 1970-1980, there was a Wizard of Oz theme park not too far from where I live now. It’s located in Beech Mountain, NC and is open to the public for one weekend only… usually the first weekend in October,although that varies as they are having a few more events for the general public. [This year is was open on Oct 3 & 4].  I say open to the public because it’s current owner is Emerald Mountain Properties and they rent out the cabins, property, ect to people who want to have private parties at the land of OZ.

If you want to go: Ticket usually go on sale in the beginning of August, and sell out quickly. This year they sold out in just TWO short Weeks. I’m not saying go or not go, but if you do, be aware that this isn’t a theme park by 2015 standards, or even 1975 standard; it’s a quirky, weird little park best suited to real, devoted Wizard of Oz fans.

Looking for bears

It’s fall…and in my opinion one of the best things about fall is leaf color. We don’t always get a lot of color in these parts mostly because of our schizophrenic weather patterns [yesterday it was 80 and sunny…this weekend 50’s and cloudy] BUT the mountains of North Carolina aren’t too far away and the magnificent Blue Ridge Parkway is an easy drive away.

A couple years I heard about a phenomenon called Shadow of the Bear.  It’s in an area of NC more famous for its spectacular waterfalls and day hikes, but in the fall, it’s famous for the leaves.

Let’s go bear-hunting…

no, not those bears [all though those bears are very cute if you come in contact with them in a zoo, not so cute if you come across them while on your afternoon run]…

these bears…

One of the wonderful things about living in Arden, North Carolina is its relative proximity to both the southern Appalachian mountains, the South Carolina coast, and the major cities of Charlotte, North Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia.

Less than an hour away, nestled in the southern corner of the Nantahala Forest, in southwestern North Carolina, is one of the coolest natural experiences around…the shadow of the bear.  It happens twice a year–once from late February to mid March and the other from mid-October to mid-November.  The fall event is by far the most popular since it combines fall color with the bear’s appearance.  I like to imagine that the bear is slowing making its way across the mountain on its way to its winter hibernation…or waking up

It’s starts off with just a small peak of the bear’s head.

The bear makes its appearance for about 30 minutes each day [when it’s sunny, of course] each day revealing a little bit more.

If you happen to be into hiking exploring Whiteside Mountain can make this a worthwhile day trip.  The mountain’s cliffs look like sheets of ice draped across the mountain. The rock is somewhere between 390 to 460 million years old [what’s 70 million years between friends]. The 2-mile ‘moderate’ trail starts as a old logging road and takes you on top of sheer 750-foot high cliffs [plenty of railings for safety].  Follow the road for about a mile until you reach the top. The trail continues about 1/2 long the ridge of the mountain, plenty of places to enjoy the views from the rock face. There are quite a few “educational” signs along the way to add interest. Toward to end of the walk along the mountaintop, look for the highest point with the rock carved “Alt. 4,930 ft.” The last 1/2 mile part of the trail is a steep downhill section that leads you back to the logging road near the parking area.

The best viewing spot for the shadow of the bear is right off Highway 64 at Rhodes Big View Overlook.

Follow your travel dreams–one weekend at a time.
Weekend-Wanderlust-Logo

Traveling the King’s Road from Montreal to Quebec City

Man oh man, do I love a good road trip.  Especially short, one day trips.  Why take the express route when there is a scenic, more enjoyable route available. And renting a car in foreign country always make me feel like an international princess.  Even if that foreign country is Canada–wait…. what?  that’s totally a foreign country… They even speak a language I don’t– French.


quebec king's highway 2

What’s even more spectacular about the King’s Road is that it can be bicycled in its entirety safely.  Not be me of course; I barely know how to ride a bike.  But if that’s your thing,  grab your bike and prepare for 160 miles of charm.  I’d stick to summer if I were you though  because Quebec can get quite chilly during those other three seasons.

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Lots o’ charm on the Kings Road

The King’s Road was the first navigable highway in Canada dating back to the 1700’s.  It is a charming way to travel from Montreal to Quebec City. It passes through little hamlets and hugs the St. Lawrence River making for some excellent photography… especially during the fall foliage season

Quebec king's highway 5

Beginning in Montreal, head north towards Berthierville.  Join up on Highway 138, which is the King’s Road. But if you have the time, stop at Lake St. Pierre Archipelago, a UNESCO world heritage site, which has amazing scenery such as this.

Continuing north on 138, you will reach the city of Trois Rivieres or Three Rivers, founded in 1634 with its amazing stone cathedral.

After exploring Three Rivers, (and stopping for lunch) continuing north along  highway 138, you will go through the oh-so-cute village of Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade, and its amazing church of the same name. Built in 1855 and bearing the features of a neo-Gothic cathedral, the church was modeled after the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montréal.

 


Continuing north on 138 you will come to a region known as Pontneuf. It is home to the municipalities of Neuville, Cap-Sante, Deschambault, among others, all of which are members of the Most Beautiful Villages of Quebec association.  Neuville was one of the first villages established in New France around 1665. Cap-Santé got its name from the sudden healing of the soldiers posted in the region. Its church is on the historical monument register and it is one of the last buildings of the French Regime in the region. Deschambault, where Jacques Cartier stopped on his second voyage because of the rapids, which were too dangerous for his ship and prevented him from going farther up the river. In each of these villages, you will find magnificent architecture dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries.

And finally, continuing on 138, you will reach Quebec City, a beautiful city of its own.

wandering around vieux quebec city in the fall

sometimes the weather gods are in your favour and you get not only spectacular blue skies but also incredible leaf colour*.

Leaves covering an old stone building

a white house, a slate roof, and a lime green door…next to a house covered in orange ivy

New England and by New England I obviously mean Quebec and eastern Canada know how to do Halloween. South Carolina is too hot for pumpkin carving. They turn to mush real quick.

more cities should have walls complete with cannons…way to go QC

chateau frontenac…in fall’s glory

Quebec City–early morning goodness


Stopping along the King’s Road to gaze at the beauty of driftwood…in Canada, and not near the ocean

more driftwood-y goodness


I hope you’ve enjoyed the visit to Quebec City by way of the King’s Highway. I know I did. I was quite taken with the charming city and even more so by the drive to get there.

quebec king's highway 7
stone cottages, red roof… I have died and gone to heaven.

 

*Sometimes when writing about Canada and to a lesser degree, England, I like to use the British/Canadian spelling and add in that -u- and reverse my -er to -re. Just one of many, many quirks.

Modern Medicine, circa 1900

 

Eric Johnson, Eve Hewson, Clive Owen in ‘The Knick’/Image © Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

I admit to being a nerd…especially when it comes to medicine, or more accurately the history of medicine.  Medicine today is strangled, but this is not about that.  I have recently discovered the TV show The Knick.  As per usual, I am late to the party as season 2 finished up last fall and it is uncertain whether of not, despite it’s good reviews, it will return for a season 3.  For those who have been living under a rock (much like myself) or completing nursing school (much like myself), here’s a quick synopsis:  Medicine, or more precisely surgery, in 1900’s New York City at a hospital  called The Knickerbocker or The “Knick” was a dangerous proposition. (To be fair, surgery anywhere in 1900 was a dangerous proposition.)  The Knick’s chief surgeron is a fellow named John Thackery (very loosely based on Dr. William Halsted, who happens to be one of my medical heroes). Thackery has a very serious cocaine addiction (because in 1900 cocaine was a wonder drug and it’s addictive properties were not known at all) as well as revolutionary – if not mildly terrifying – ideas that turn patients into guinea pigs at a time when doctors were only slightly more knowledgeable about medicine than barbers.

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I travel a fair amount, and not just to the beach for R&R, and in my travels, I’ve been to Semmelweis’ lab in Budapest, and the Old Operating Theatre Museum in London (you should totally go by the way, especially if you like The Knick)

operating museum 2
The old operating theatre museum, London

you see, ust like the TV show.

Summary:  The Knick is awesome.  It’s bloody; it’s gruesome.  It’s realistic.  But there’s only two seasons, and I have binged watched it in a whopping two days.  I have had to turn to books to get my fix.  A few I’ve discovered so far:

Fever by Mary Beth Keane: The search for Typhoid Mary, who is responsible for a massive outbreak of typhoid fever, is a fascinating side-plot during the first season, and Keane writes a great fictionalized account of the actual Typhoid Mary.

Genius on the Edge: The Bizarre Double Life of Dr. William Stewart Halsted by Gerald Imber: The character of Dr. John Thackery is loosely based on Dr. William Stewart Halsted, and this biography is a fascinating examination of his personal and professional life.

Blood and Guts: A History of Surgery by Richard Hollingham: Though it covers a broader period than The Knick, having a sense of where these surgeons and their work sit in the larger history of medical history is helpful for context. And it does shed some serious light on surgery during the Victorian era.

Dr. Mutter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz: Often described as the P.T. Barnum of the surgical theater, Dr. Mutter’s flamboyant approach to medicine is a great primer for appreciating Dr. Thackery’s methods

Adventures of DJ and M | Prague and Berlin

I don’t love Prague; I find it a bit touristy for my taste, but we had to make a quick exit out of Budapest due the political situation going on.  It seems as if we had waited one more day, we would have been trapped in Budapest since the refugees have decided to stake out the train track to attempt to hijack departing trains.  I’ve traveled by train in Europe several times and this was the first time where police boarded the train, checked passports, and tickets.

So Prague…

I first visited Prague in January 2013… snowy, winter, cold.  In retrospect, that was probably Prague at its best. Beautiful blankets of fresh white snow covering the tourist sites, the red tile roofs, the airport runway… Prague in August/September 2015 may have not been Prague at its worst, but it certainly wasn’t the Prague I remember from just two short years ago.

Touristy Things

The Clock: The clock was built in 1410 and is the oldest operational astronomical clock in the world. Even back then Prague was proud of their clock. Instead of  saying ‘thank you’ to the man who built it by offering money or fame, these Bohemians promptly bludgeoned his eyes out so he could never make another one for another city. How charming!

The clock face itself has different dials that identify that date and month both in ancient Czech time and today’s time, zodiac signs, the position of the sun and moon, and other such data. The real attraction, though, is that every hour on the hour during the day, two little windows at the top of the clock open and the apostles parade by. While this is happening, figures representing vanity, greed, death, and pleasure [the four biggest fears in 1410] also move, and a cock “crows.”

See death hanging out over there on the right side of the clock

The clock was built in 1410 meaning it’s 605 years old. The fact that it still works is little short of a miracle. It survived many wars and innumerable tourists crowding around and in it for hundreds of years. Considering that at the time electricity, the internet, cars, and power tools were still centuries from being invented, the technology is pretty remarkable. That being said…it’s a clock. If you want to see the display and it’s not the middle of winter, you probably need to get there at least 10-15 minutes early to get a good spot under the clock, and then the “excitement” lasts for all of about 20 seconds. If you’re looking for Disney magic, you’ll probably be disappointed.

The Bridge:

The Charles Bridge is, like everything else called Charles in Prague, named after Charles IV, officially the most beloved figure in Czech history This guy is like George Washington, FDR, and Abraham Lincoln all rolled into one Medieval package. Charles not only built this bridge, he founded Charles University [one of the oldest universities in the world], created much of the infrastructure for Prague, and was generally a good guy. There’s a random wall going up one of the hills in Prague. It’s not designed to separate properties, or keep people in or out: it’s a hunger wall. There was a famine and Charles wanted to help his people, so he commissioned this totally useless wall to create jobs.

Anyway, back to the bridge. It’s a bridge. A very old bridge with a lot of statues on it… but it’s really just a bridge. Until the nineteenth century it was one of the few bridges that crossed the Vltava river, which divides Prague… but today it’s one of many and most denizens of Prague give it a wide berth.

The bridge is architecturally striking  and quite pretty. There are some of the statues are cool and old/supposedly bring you luck if you touch them. BUT the bridge and the areas immediately on either side of it are usually completely crawling with tourists and people whose lives revolve around tourists. And these people can make you hate Prague.

Prague Castle:  You can’t come to Prague without seeing the Prague Castle. Literally. It’s visible from about half the city, easily the most striking silhouette on the Prague skyline. What’s known as “Prague Castle” is really a large complex of buildings that includes, in addition to the actual castle bits, St. Vitus’ Cathedral, St. George’s Basilica, and The Golden Lane. In fact, the most prominent part of the “Castle” when seen from a distance is St. Vitus’ Cathedral.

My winter visit to the Castle yielded a much better view than in August… when it was 100 degrees and full of people.

This is one of those attractions that you really should see at least once. The two churches make it entirely worth it for me, and lots of people enjoy the Golden Lane, where servants and later alchemists associated with the castle lived throughout history, as well. St. Vitus’ is really something of a fascinating tour through architectural history. It was commissioned by – guess who!? – Charles IV in 1344, but due to intervening wars and financial issues, the church wasn’t entirely complete until 1929. This means there are styles from about 600 years of history all combined in one building. It’s stunning from the outside, and also gorgeous from the inside, even if it is in a sort of over-the-top Gothic style. It’s not a place where I feel particularly spiritually moved, but there is tons of glorious stained glass, an intricately-detailed carved relief of The Battle of White Mountain, and the hilariously overdone tomb of St. Jan of Nepomuk. St. George’s Basilica and Convent, on the other hand, is the polar opposite Romanesque predecessor to St. Vitus’. It’s small, intimate, peaceful, and maybe one of my favorite places in Prague.

Not-so-touristy things

Just wander.  Prague is a good city to just wander around in.  The tourist part is really compact, so it’s not too difficult to get out of or find your way back to.

I found the ‘sex chair,’ and it said I was wild.

I also found these amazing statues

These amazing berries from the farmers market hit the spot when it was 100 degrees.

DJ even found a chair to sit in on our walkabout.

Sometimes by looking up you can see cool things too.

We found dancing buildings.

and a golden penis…

supposedly if you rub it, you’ll have good luck

And I may have had to go all the way to the Czech Republic, but I finally found a Coke with my name on it [or at least some version of my name].

 

Getting away from it all

I’d rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on Earth.                                                                                                      Steve McQueen

I have always been an independent sort.  As I kid, I often ‘ran away from home’.  I never went far –usually exploring the outer reaches of our 25 acres.  Many times I had my school backpack and stuffed it with a sleeping bag, snacks and a book and had a good day.  Summers were great as I often set up a tent somewhere on the property and was ‘gone’ for a few days at a time.   A couple of times, I  built a little raft a floated it on the creek pretending to be Tom Sawyer.  As a child, my fondest wish to be a boy scout… just one problem, I lacked a penis.  Our town didn’t have a girl scouts, but that didn’t stop me from checking out books in the library on ‘wilderness survival’.  I  taught myself cool things like how to build a fire, how to set up a tent, and how not to get attacked by bears.

Up until my mid 20’s I considered myself to be pretty outdoorsy, enjoying to spend as much time outside and under the sun as possible, hiking, biking, communicating with nature and all that crap. But somewhere along the line, things changed. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly when this happen, but I think it had something to do with getting my first big girl job. Working 6 days a week with minimal vacation time sucked the life out of my soul, and after about 2 years, I couldn’t do it anymore. It had been 2 years since I’d had a vacation so just after my two year work-anniversary, I took off to the North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

The Outer Banks is awesome. The northern half where Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is by far the more popular part of the Outer Banks. Ocracoke Lighthouse is gleaming white. It was built in 1823, the second oldest still in use in the nation. It’s not a tall as Hatteras or as famous but nevertheless it is an awesome site!

Ocracoke Island sits 23 miles off the North Carolina coast and a quarter mile south of Hatteras Island. It usually measures 17 miles long and a mile wide. The deserted, windblown beaches of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore make up the northern 90 percent of the island, and a small village of hotels, restaurants, shops, homes makes up the southern 10 percent. It’s a great place to get away from it all.

Going to the Outer Banks helped me re-assess my priorities in life. Did I want a life of relative security and stability? Did I want a life where taking a vacation was more of a headache than a means of relaxation? Hell no. I didn’t want that when I started, and after two years I didn’t like where that life was leading. Subconsciously I guess I realized how unhappy I was with my life, and deep down I was yearning to get back to my childhood roots, and to the last time I was really happy with life. I needed to get dirty, sleep under the stars again, and paddle about around on a body of water on a regular basis.

And where did I have this profound, existential realization? In a tent, under the stars off the coast of North Carolina in an area where the one of the most infamous pirates in history roamed.

I sure know how to pick my moments.

There is something incredibly cliche, but true about laying out under the stars, way out in the middle of nowhere, hearing waves crash on the shore that triggers some scary deep thoughts, right? Right? Please say this is not just me.

Seeing the sun rise over the ocean…

watching dolphins play in the ocean…

observing patterns in the sand…

These were the kinds of moments I had been missing over the past few years. Taking a step back away from all the craziness, all the rush, all of the stress that is involved with chasing the “American Dream” and realizing that simple, peaceful quiet moments abroad are often the most meaningful and profound. I exited the rat race at that moment [even thought it still took a while to start chasing MY American Dream].


It’s been 8 years since I’ve had that revelation. In that time I’ve traveled to more than 40 countries. I’ve had short adventures and long ones. I’ve become a registered nurse. I’m on my way to becoming a nurse practitioner. As I paddled around and explored the barrier islands off South Carolina’s coast, I felt the stress of the last few weeks melt away. I was light years removed from the stress of the last few weeks. With each stroke of my kayak, I felt so far removed from the hustle and bustle of life, I could feel a smile creep on my face for the first time in a while.

This was my kind of travel.

And I need to do it way more often.

Straddling both worlds

Part I [The Travel Life]

When I was little, my fiercest desire was to be a National Geographic Photographer.  [Or a veterinarian] I was the elementary school kid reading National Geographic and being mesmerized by the stories and photographs on those pages.  I stalked my cat–hardly taking National Geographic-worthy images, but getting some really good shots of her.  I took my little camera everywhere and there were tons of pictures to prove it.

Fast forward 20 or so years… I still take a camera with me everywhere.  I still stalk my cat.  [not the same cat, obvs] I know that I will probably never be published in National Geographic, but that doesn’t stop me from traveling.  And taking pictures. And making up stories to go with the pictures.  The only [well, not the ONLYdifference between me and those National Geographic photographers–I don’t get paid to do what I love… not one little cent.  In fact, every trip I take, costs money… $100 for a weekend trip away to $1000 or more for a month away.  I could play golf or tennis or going out, but I choose traveling as my hobby of choice.  I absolutely loved my time in South America.  I would do it again in a heart beat.

Part II… [The ‘normal’ life]

I have a job that I love.  It is not travel related at all.  It is not location independent.  I rarely have weekends off.  I have to be where I have a license to practice [currently SC and NC].  I have to be where there are sick children.  I am in  graduate school to hopefully get to what is my dream job… As it is, the program will take me about 4 years or so to finish.  I have an address.  I have a car and a cat. And I like that.

Part III… [Straddling the line]

How do I make it work?  I work in a field where 3 days a week is considered full-time.  I choose to work on an as needed basis [I am almost always needed somewhere so there no fear there]  so that I can make my own schedule.  Do I get paid time off?  Nope.  Insurance paid partly by the company?  Nope.  Participation in the company’s retirement plan? Nope, again.  Do I get ‘guaranteed’ hours each week?  Nope, but neither do the full-timers [I may be the first to go, but not usually the only one].

So how do I make it work?

First, I buy insurance as if I were self-employed.  I have a catastrophic health plan with a Health Savings Account attached to it [Tax benefits#1].  I am generally a healthy person and don’t take any medications on a regular basis.  Second, I opened up an IRA on my own.  Non-profits generally don’t have the best plans anyway, and I don’t have to wait until I am vested should I want to leave. [Tax benefit #2].  Third, I work in different facilities.  This way, if one place slows down, I can usually pick up more time at the other place.  It’s a win-win situation. Fourth, I have a $100 a week deposited into a separate account.  This is my discretionary income.  I could use it to go shopping or out to eat or whatever; I choose to use it to travel.  $5200/year can go a long way. Fifth, I let my boss[es] know that traveling is a priority for me.  When I am home, I am available to work 95% of the time.  When I go away, I am not.  It’s that simple.

Thinking about what to do

Since starting this way of life in 2007, I have managed to take 16 months off to travel in South America, one month off to travel in New England and Quebec, Canada, another month to enjoy Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite National Park, San Francisco, Seattle, and Mt. Rainier National Park, and another month to travel in Central/ Eastern Europe.

People constantly tell me how jealous they are of all my travels. They tell me how “lucky” I am. They say they wish they could travel like I do.

But you know what?

They absolutely can do it. They just choose not to.  For whatever reason. [Usually it’s a job, relationship, home, money, or some combination of these four things that holds people back]

A lot of travel blogs are written by professional nomads who are actively traveling. Or people who have been professional nomads at one point.  Many of them lack a home address, and can fit most of their worldly possessions into a [somewhat large] backpack. [I have one of those too] They flit from here to there to back again, and we ordinary people think –“wow, I wish I could do that”, or “this is so awesome that I will never be able to do that”, or “I  would do that if I didn’t have significant other/mortgage/car payments/ kids or whatever.”

We psyche ourselves out and buy into a lot of misconceptions about living a life full of travel. We begin to believe things like:

  • You must be rich to travel.
  • You must be single to travel.
  • You must be brave and outgoing to travel.
  • You must be free from responsibility to travel.
  • We convince ourselves that we can never be one of “those people” because we have a job and debt and a family and pets.

These misconceptions are just that — misconceptions. You can travel without being rich and single. [Although I am currently single, I am certainly not rich.  I traveled for nine months with a boyfriend at home] You can travel without being particularly adventurous [ I am not the most outgoing soul.  There are things that I will never do voluntarily such as jumping out of a plane or off a bridge with a rubber band on my ankles] And, most of all, you can travel without completely setting aside responsibility.  [Find a good pet sitter/house sitter.  Find a job that allows a modicum of flexibility.  Work two part-time jobs if necessary.]

There are ways to have a normal life and a traveler’s life…you just have to be more creative to make that happen than you do in either one.

I’m not going to lie and say it’s easy, though. Because it’s not. If you have a strict work schedule or a young family or a lot of debt to pay off, it may be challenging to live your “ordinary” life and still manage to fit in travel.

But just because something is challenging doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Here are some tips for how to fit travel into your ordinary life:

  • Start saving now. It’s never too early to start saving for a trip. Even just setting aside $25 per week can go a long way quickly [$1300/year and you will probably never miss it]
  • Plan your dream vacation. Even if you won’t be able to take it right away, planning a vacation can keep you upbeat about traveling and give you something to look forward to. I really, really, really want to go to Spain, but I want to have the time to do it right.  The right time for Spain is not now, but it will happen… someday.
  • Make the most of vacation time and holidays. Americans get a raw deal in my opinion when it comes to vacation time. 2 weeks is a joke, and if it’s like most places I know, you can’t even do the two weeks consecutively. If your employer isn’t cool about letting you work overtime or giving you unpaid days off, you’ll have to get creative in order to make the most of the vacation time you have. You can stretch your 2 weeks much further if you plan travel around paid holidays, or if you can elect to work your holidays and save them up for later.
  • Don’t wait for someone to travel with. I would love to have a travel partner, but no one I know wants to travel the way I do.  They all have full-time jobs and/or small kids. Sometimes it’s hard enough just to be able to coordinate dinner with friends. But that doesn’t mean you should forego travel. It just means you may need to consider adding “solo travel” to your vocabulary.
  • Pick up new hobbies. I am a shutterbug.  Part of my reason for traveling is wanting to capture a fresh perspective on life.  And see some amazing scenery along the way. I have taught photography in Peru, public health in Brazil, and English in Mexico.  I have helped with sea turtle conservation in South Carolina and Uruguay and animal conservation in Ecuador and the  Galapagos Islands.  I have volunteered with big cats in Bolivia.  My goal is to volunteer my way around the world.
  • Take advantage of all opportunities. Right along with picking up new hobbies, be sure to take advantage of any travel opportunities that those hobbies might afford you. For example, I traveled a lot during college because I was on our the fencing team.  We weren’t great and didn’t get to compete internationally [like Notre Dame’s football game in Ireland this year–so jealous], but we did get to go to a lot of places in the USA that I would have never thought of visiting before… and it was [mostly] paid for by the school.

Most of all [and this one is important]

  • Don’t make excuses. Any excuse you can make about why you can’t/don’t travel can be overcome.  I’ve seen parents eschew traditional schools in favor of the education traveling gives.  I’ve seen professionals take jobs in other countries.  I’ve seen couples travel in a RV [or motorcycle] from Alaska to Argentina.  I’ve seen people start location independent businesses so they can be anywhere.  In the famous words of Nike–JUST DO IT.