In which a grown man rolls around in the snow

So, like I said before, my long-distance boyfriend is currently on exchange in the US.

Not just the US, but in Boston. At my school, Northeastern University.

How rad is that?!

It’s rad for me, but I think it’s been even more rad for him. The Northeast US is very different from what he’s used to. This boy is tropical, born and raised. His hometown has two seasons: hot, and hot and wet. His university, in Sydney, experiences 300 days of sunshine per year. This summer, he experienced temperatures in excess of 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

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As a result, he’s never seen snow. Not in person, anyway. Everyone’s seen it on TV– in those Christmas specials and the Harry Potter films– but he (and most Australians) has never seen snow.

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Thus, whenever I sent him snapchats all like

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He’d always respond

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When we finally found out that he was coming to the US, he was excited. I’m sure you can figure out why.

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Clearly, he didn’t understand just how horrendous the cold could be. How could he know? He’s never experienced it before. At my urging, and his mom’s insistence, he went out and got winter clothes for the first time.

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Finally, he arrived in the US. In the middle of December. I greeted him in the airport, where it was heated and warm and indicated nothing of what was to come.
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Then, we went outside.
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His face was priceless.
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He tried to laugh it off.
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I had to explain to him that, just because it’s below freezing, it doesn’t mean that it’s snowing. He looked like a wounded puppy.
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But he perked up real fast.
Back in Philly, however, it doesn’t snow all that often. Not as much as it does in Boston, that’s for sure. We’ll get snow a couple times a year, maybe. The boyfriend got over the novelty of the cold real fast, and waited eagerly for his first snow.
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Then, finally:
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That night, I went to bed. I’m not sure if he did, as excited as he was. The next morning, I was forcefully awakened.
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As it turned out, the snow had arrived, and the boyfriend had already gone out to play. As I sleepily ate breakfast, he shared his observations with me.
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He even took videos.
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By now, I had come to view snow mostly as a nuisance. It’s a pain to walk through. It’s even worse to drive in. I commute to school by bicycle, and nothing screws up your trip more than icy roads and snow in your face.
But seeing the boyfriend all throughout that day…
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…reminded me that snow is, actually, kind of nice.
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And that, as boring as I find my hometown, other people find it fascinating. It’s strange, being on the other side of a foreign exchange. Usually I’m the one freaking out, you know?
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Finally, the boyfriend and I went up to Boston. I figured he might like it. It snows a lot more here, so he’d get to see it more often!
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Maybe a little too often.
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I, as the good girlfriend, comforted him about the unfortunate weather.
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Looks like he’s adjusting well.
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By the way, the boyfriend is making a USA video blog! Here’s one he made about his first snow. I even cameo in it!

In which I go long-distance for a long time.

Apparently, it started with a game of volleyball.

It was back when I was in Sydney. I had just arrived and moved into my new residential college. The dorm had rented out some volleyball courts at the university gym, and invited all the residents to come and play.

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I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s when it began.

Although nothing happened until much, much later.

A couple weeks after I played volleyball, some kid approached me as I was going to lunch. Everyone in my residential hall ate in the same dining room. This dining hall always kept tons of fruit that residents could take back to their rooms. I have an unnatural fondness for bananas, so I would often take multiple bananas from the cafeteria.

This kid approached me, clutching two bananas in his hand.

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It was a sincere attempt to establish a rapport with me, I realize now. It didn’t work. Mostly, I wondered why this kid had a problem with my banana addiction. I completely forgot about the incident and went about business as usual.

It wasn’t until a month later that things began to move. I participated in the residential hall’s talent show, exhibiting my speed drawing skills alongside an actual artist. We needed someone to be the announcer for our act. This same kid volunteered.

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We had to rehearse for the act, of course. Check the lighting and practice walking on stage and all that. While we waited for our turn at the rehearsal, I started chatting with our announcer.

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At that time, The Legend of Korra had completed its first season. Fans had been waiting with baited breath for the next season to come out. It had already been months.

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Clever play, dude. Clever play.

So, I started watching The Legend of Korra with this kid every week. We got to talking. He seemed like a cool guy– likes comics, likes video games, likes reddit, just like me. We became fast friends.

After the 3rd week of watching Korra, he knocks on my door and asks:

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C’mon. I’m a middle-class American girl who grew up in white suburbia. Of course I was gonna say,

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Another smooth move. Props to you, kid. Anyway, you can imagine where this is going.

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We went from acquaintances, to fast friends, to dating. Just like that. For some reason we got along really well. Probably because we were both weird people and total nerds.

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But it was a doomed relationship from the start.

After all, I was only going to be in Sydney for so long. By the time we started dating, I had a month and a half left in the country. This guy wasn’t American. He wasn’t even Australian. He’s a citizen of Malaysia who is an international student at the University of Sydney.

Even as we continued to hang out…

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…it was tinged with worry.

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After all, this guy was from the other side of the world. Not an exaggeration. I had to think realistically. I could enjoy the time I had with him now, for sure. Everyone has that overseas romance, right? But once I left, we’d have to break it off. That idea, for some reason, didn’t appeal to me.

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Well, shit.

So we decided, against all odds, to try a long-distance relationship. This wasn’t the sort of long distance where you get to see each other once a week, or once a month. This was going to be a relationship where you’d see each other never, and maaaaaaybe in the far future you’d get to visit again.

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The day I flew out of Sydney– well, let’s just say it’s not one of my happier memories. He came to the airport with me and waited until I had to board my flight.

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At least I wasn’t leaving Australia completely. I dived the Great Barrier Reef after that, then toured Queensland with my friends. Then, I traveled Vietnam with my family. The day that I flew back to Boston, however…

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It was over. Everything was over. The warm sunny skies of Sydney were replaced with the sub-zero frost of the Massachusetts Bay. I got back to Boston on a Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday, I immediately jumped into my new internship. I didn’t have a chance to catch my breath.

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Like that, the long-distance began.

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First, we had to deal with the time difference. Even when we were awake at the same time, we’d be busy with work, school, or life. We were really only able to Skype on weekends. We did text and leave voice messages every day, though.

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Suddenly, I went from never-answers-her-phone girl to always-attached-to-her-phone girl.

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Those first few months were painful. Anyone in a long-distance relationship knows what I mean. The feeling of missing someone so badly, you’d give up a kidney just to see them again. I would sit around, wondering why teleportation hadn’t been invented yet.

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As time went on, the pain slowly numbed. I was more and more able to function like a real human being. I really hated to admit that one person could have such a huge effect on my behavior, so this was a small relief.

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I read fluffy listicles on long-distance relationships.

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Life goes on. Months flew by. Landmark dates passed: Valentine’s Day, my birthday, his birthday, our one-year anniversary. All spent alone. We sent postcards, packages, physical presents to make up for our absence.

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I ran my first half-marathon. He finished his final exams. I completed my internship. He landed a part-time job. I traveled Europe with my sister. Things kept changing, but one thing remained constant: Us. We continued to keep in touch. Neither of us wanted to let go, despite all the naysayers.

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They all had a point, though. Text messages and video chats can only go so far. Relationships require physical presence, and we were severely lacking in that.

Something had to shift. But what? It’s not like I could fly to Australia, or he to America, for a casual weekend visit. There was no way our relationship could continue like this for long. One day, he asked me to talk.

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He told me the details: for the last few months, he had worked at getting his grades up. That way, he could qualify to study abroad. It’s a long process, though. First, he has to choose the top schools that he wanted to go to. Then, the University of Sydney has to approve one of his choices. Then he needs to wait for the exchange institution’s approval, and then he has to go through the painful process of getting a visa.

Well, he’d only have to do all that if he got approved in the first place.

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I’ve never been so mad and touched in my life. The waiting began. The University of Sydney took a few weeks to respond. We waited impatiently, hoping that they’d approve his top choice– Northeastern University, my school.

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Finally, he got an e-mail.

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Then, Northeastern had to accept him. This took another month.

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It was a horrible waiting period. The Northeastern study abroad representative was unresponsive and slow. The visa process couldn’t start until Northeastern sent their approval documents. As the weeks crawled on, we texted and worried.

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And, then, the magic happened:

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At that moment, we realized that this was real. There was no turning back. He still had to go through the long and excruciating process of getting a visa, finding housing, and booking plane tickets, but it was set. This was happening. We were going to be reunited– not for a week or two, but for a full semester.

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He flew in right before Christmas, on a 25-hour flight.

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My dad and I picked him up from the airport.

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I looked around.

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And then, I realized.

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He was right.

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Despite all those months– over a year– of waiting.

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Even if it’s hard, it’ll be worth it.

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It sure was for us.

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Help, I’ve fallen and I won’t get up until May 2015.

Schools are always full of sick kids. I mean that literally. College students are stressed, sleep-deprived, and living off canned soup and instant ramen. Then, they get crammed into little classrooms together, where they spend hours coughing and sneezing and trying to understand the exact mechanism of a Hell-Vollard-Zelinsky reaction (whatever that is). Combine that with the freezing, bipolar weather of the US Northeast and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

And I’m part of the problem. I think I’ve been sick lately. Seriously! Call me a hypochondriac, but I’ve been kind of “off” for the last few months. This semester has been unlike any semester I’ve been through before.

You see, before, I was like this:

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Now, I’m like this.

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Before, I used to be on top of my game.

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Now, I’m at the bottom of the 9th inning with 4800 words to go.

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I used to never skip class.

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But this semester, I actually skipped a class. Once. Alright, I’m a huge nerd.

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Maybe I’m getting old. I used to be able to run on five hours of sleep per night.

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Now, I need to sleep. Like, all the time. I even have favorite spots to take naps on campus.

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It’s getting ridiculous. When I went home for Thanksgiving break, I was hoping it would go like this:

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Instead, it was like this:

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I kid you not. On my first evening home, I immediately took a three hour nap. I woke up, attempted to study for about 15 minutes, then went back to bed for another 12 hours.

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What is happening? I used to freak out when assignments piled up.

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But now…

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As for my grades?

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Basically, I give ZERO F#CKS. About ALL the things.

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What is the deal? 

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Some kids get the flu. Some kids get a cold. I’ve been stricken with the most common illness among college seniors…

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Oh, no! This can’t be! Not the dreaded senioritis! There has to be some sort of treatment, right? I consulted the source of all knowledge, Urban Dictionary.

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Looks like I have another semester before I fully recover. Until then…

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Is it Christmas yet?

Getting attacked by squirrels in Central Park.

I was sad when I left Sydney. During my time there, I had made some really good friends. One in particular was my running buddy. Despite our cultural differences– she’s from Denmark, I’m from the US– we got along really well. It was one of those friendships that would last a lifetime.

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She wasn’t kidding. Several months ago, her family planned a trip to New York City this October. New York City isn’t too far from Boston, so I made a vow:

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And I, too, was serious. My friend gave me the dates that her family would be in New York. I booked the bus tickets. I could only visit her for two days, because school– but it was better than nothing.

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So that’s how I, Vy, was adopted by my friend’s Danish family for the weekend.

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And it was an interesting experience for all of us. I’m used to traveling out of the US and having to adjust to new cultures. Now, the roles were reversed. I’ve been to New York countless times since I was young. My friend has never been to the States before.

Watching someone from a different country react to the US with is highly amusing. In the hopes of sharing my amusement, I present to you…

MY DANISH FRIEND GOES TO NYC

And gets surprised by a bunch of things

 

1. Copious amounts of sugar.

Americans, for some reason, like to put extra sugar in just about everything. Other countries are not used to this. My friends were no exception.

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2. Jamba Juice.

Some foods weren’t as disappointing, though. When I met up with my friend, she enthusiastically told me about a great breakfast place her family went to.

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Sometimes I forget how many fast-food chains are only common in the US. I was expecting her to name some fancy, NYC-exclusive froyo shop, but no. It was Jamba Juice.

3. Times Square.

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4. Everything is tall.

My friend hails from Denmark and has traveled much of Europe. She’s seen a lot of cities. She’s even been to Sydney. But they don’t really compare to the skyscrapers of NYC.

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The scale of everything in NYC is simply bigger. She excitedly described to me some of the stores her family visited.

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I, the United States native, wanted to impress her even further. At the Rockefeller Center, I pointed out one of my favorite childhood stores.

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5. Everything is cheap (in comparison to Denmark).

By my standards, shopping in Manhattan isn’t cheap. I’m used to being in the ‘burbs, where the strip malls are plenty and the sales are season-round. In Denmark, though, consumer prices are sky-high. America seemed like a bargain basement to my friend and her family.

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They knew this would be the case, and came prepared.

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We all felt a bit bad for the men of the group, since shopping isn’t their thing.

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But, how often would these gals get to shop in the US? They took advantage of the opportunity.

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6. And finally, the squirrels.

My Danish friend and her family visited Central Park. Do you know that Pixar movie, Up? And the one character, Dug?

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It was kind of like hanging out with six Dug’s.

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I didn’t get it.

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My friend and her family even tried to unload their ultra-sweet Dunkin’ Donuts on the squirrels.

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But those cute little guys are feistier than they appear.

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Yep, it was a fantastic weekend. It was refreshing to see a foreigner visit my home country, rather than the other way around. Though I too had my own moments of surprise. We visited two locations in New York that I had never been to before.

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The next location was even more stunning.

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And, of  course, it was great to see my friend again. She’s the greatest! I swore to visit her.

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So, hopefully, we’ll have more of this happening in the future:

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Central Park!

Brooklyn Bridge!

Brooklyn Bridge!

Top of the Rock!

Top of the Rock!

Because some friendships can span continents!

I have a smelly new friend, and his name is Mr. President.

When I was younger, I wanted a pet. I mean, what little kid doesn’t want a loyal dog or adorable kitten? Unfortunately, my parents didn’t think the same way.

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It’s true that having a dog is a big commitment. They live a long time and require a lot of care! Even as I grew older, though, I still wanted a pet. My IQ drops at least 100 points every time I approach an animal.

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I still wanted a pet by the time I reached college. But my parents had a point: owning a dog or a cat is no joke. They cost a lot of time and money. Was I responsible enough to have a pet like that?

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I just wanted something cute and fuzzy to play with! Is that too much to ask for? I kept obsessing over the idea.

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This went on for months until my birthday rolled around. This year, my sister bought me a special gift.

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She had bought me a pet cage! And some pet bedding! In other words, the first steps to getting my own pet mouse.

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I always joked about getting a pet, but I never thought that it could become a reality. Now, the possibility was there. I wanted a mouse. I needed a mouse!

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So, a few days later, my sister and I drove to the nearest PetSmart. There were only two mice in the rodents section.

The first mouse was white with brown spots. He was sleeping peacefully, curled up into a little ball of fluff.

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The other mouse was black and lean. He was frantically running on his exercise wheel like there was no tomorrow.

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You can guess which one I chose.

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Even the PetSmart employee wasn’t convinced.

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It was too late. I had already fallen in love with the hyper mouse. The PetSmart employee opened up the cage to transfer the mouse into a box…

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She was right. Soon after getting my mouse, I noticed that he had some interesting quirks.

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Male mice, like many other animals, have a habit of marking their territory. This behavior increases when the mouse feels nervous or threatened. This particular mouse is one of the most nervous, high-strung creatures I have ever seen. Accordingly, he pees constantly.

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To make matters worse, mice usually like to pee and poop in the same location in their cage. My mouse chose a problematic area as his toilet.

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Yeah. All night, my mouse will poop in his exercise wheel. Then he’ll run in it. By the time I wake up each morning, the wheel will be caked in a layer of trampled poop. Every day, I have to wipe it off.

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And that smell. He really likes to mark his territory. I stuck boxes of baking soda around his cage. I bought air fresheners. I opened all the windows. Finally, I resorted to drastic measures.

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Even with the air filter , the smell has only been reduced and not eliminated. I wash his cage weekly and remove the dirty bedding every day. As soon as I do, he makes a point to poop and pee immediately after.

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What’s even dumber, though, is my mouse’s name.

When I got my mouse, I pondered over what to name him for days. Finally, I consulted my friends for advice.

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Then, my dad came along.

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Although I rejected my dad’s suggestion, my dad continued to call the mouse Obama.

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Then, my mom caught on.

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Finally, my sister picked it up.

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Out of all the names I considered, this was the one that stuck the most. A few weeks later, I moved back to school and introduced the mouse to my friends.

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Thus, nowadays I regularly say stuff like this: 

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And stuff like this:

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Thanks, Obama.

Rome on drugs.

While we were in Europe, I couldn’t help but feel bad for my sister. Why? Well, she chose me as a travel companion. I think she forgot how dumb I am sometimes.

For example: Our visit to Rome. Europe, for some reason, was giving me and my sister horrendous allergies. Everywhere we went, it was a chorus of sneezing.

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On our first morning in Rome, I had the sneezes particularly bad. My sister gave me a friendly reminder.

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I checked my medicine bag, which I had hastily thrown together before we left the US.

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Uh… what was that again? I pulled out my phone. I only had limited internet, but there was enough for me to do a rudimentary Google search…

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And so my sister and I went about our day in Rome. We trekked from Trastevere to downtown Rome, passing by the Roman Forums.

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We went and bought tickets to visit the Roman Forums and Palatine Hill. It was an incredible place! As implied Palatine Hill is built on a hill. We were able to get a really beautiful view of Rome from the top.

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And the Forums! They were thousands of years old and still relatively intact. It was amazing, imagining what the ruins must have looked like when they were brand new.

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My sister knew something was wrong, but wasn’t sure what.

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She decided that I might be hungry. We ventured out in search of food.

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On the way, we ran into the Altare della Patria, a massive, marble monument built for Victor Emmanuel II. This building is enormous, and absolutely stunning.

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Though it wasn’t in our itinerary, we had to check it out. My sister and I climbed up the stairs, marveling at the beauty of the giant monument.

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At the back of the building was a huge door. My sister and I entered, finding a huge and ornate church.

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The church was completely silent. Besides me and my sister, only a few other people were there. Even the smallest footstep echoed through the entire room. And that’s when my diaphragm decided to betray me.

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In that church, as I was completely, inexplicably tired and neurotic, I was hit with the worst case of hiccups I have ever experienced in my life.

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Each hiccup bounced off the walls and reverberated through the room. As my hiccups became more and more violent, people in the church began to stare. My sister grabbed my arm.

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We ran out of the church.

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In all fairness to myself, Benadryl is an allergy medication. However, one of its side effects is overwhelming, soporific drowsiness. Which explained a lot of my behavior that day.

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And that’s how I ended up buying two espresso shots at the Altare della Patria cafe.

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But, whatever. As sleepy and loony as I was, I still had a great time in Rome.

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And I didn’t sneeze once that whole day!

In which firefighters get shirtless to save the day.

Since I’m back in school, I’ve started volunteering again. There’s a really handy website called One Brick that lets you sign up for events and simply show up the day of.

It’s a convenient way to find out about volunteer opportunities around Boston. It usually consists of normal stuff, like working in a soup kitchen or handing out water at a charity run. But last weekend, I saw an event that looked a little bit different.

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A non-profit called Project Smile was putting on a charity date auction, naming it “Boston’s Largest Fall Singles Event.” With such a declaration, how could I not be interested? Me and three friends RSVP’d for the event.

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Not that we’d be participating– we all signed up as volunteers. Still, it sounded like an interesting way to spend a Friday evening. Date auctions are one of those things I’ve only seen in the movies. Were they really the same in real life?

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The event called for “cocktail attire.” So, after class that day, I ran home, geared up, and got my game on.

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My friends and I headed to the venue, appropriately named “Venu.” Inside, we found a fancy nightclub, decorated for the occasion.

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There was a silent auction…

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…a backdrop for photos…

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…and a table full of vibrators.

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This was going to be interesting.

I was assigned to the money-handling table. Here, the auction winners would come up and pay for their date. My job? To make them sign a waiver.

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As we set everything up, more and more people started filing into the nightclub. Soon, the entire place was packed. The bachelors and bachelorettes being sold wandered around, chatting with prospective bidders. Finally, at 7:30…

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The auction started out strong. Miss Massachusetts was at the event, presumably as the celebrity guest. She was invited to the stage to say a few words. And then, a surprise:

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Whoa, you can’t just spring that on someone! Onstage, she has no way to say no! What if she wasn’t okay with this?  The bidding began, quickly escalating higher and higher. She is a beauty pageant winner, after all. Man, I was getting nervous for her.

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Finally, when the bids reached over $300…

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To my relief, Miss Massachusetts’ own boyfriend had stepped in and offered the highest bid, which ended up being over $300. This was a hard act to follow. Maybe we had a tough crowd that night, but it became hard for the MC’s to get anything beyond the initial bid.

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It started to get kind of desperate.

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For one lady, the awkward silence got so bad that the MC bought the girl himself.

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The MC’s even encouraged people to buy more than one date. One gentleman ended up buying three or four girls.

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As weird as that sounds, though, I think he did it out of goodwill.

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Well, and he got some cheap dates with cute girls.

The entire date auction wasn’t a bust, though. No, sir. There was a savior up ahead. The crowd started out lukewarm– but it wouldn’t last.

You see, my friends and I hadn’t signed up for the event just because it was a date auction. We signed up because we saw the flyers.

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You read that right.

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Yup.

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We were interested.

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The MC’s brought the first firefighter on stage. Not only was he a firefighter, but he was also a paramedic. A double-whammy lifesaver. This was the guy that we had all been waiting for.

You could hear the panties dropping. Or, more literally, the bids escalating.

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The bids stalled around the upper 300’s. Then, the MC offered:

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Almost immediately, an old lady raised her hand, pulled out her wallet, and bid $400. High-pitched cheers erupted across the room. The DJ put some sexy music on.

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Luckily, the firefighter was a good sport. He proceeded to strip down– first his vest, then his shirt, then his undershirt, then: no shirt. The MC even gave him a pink firefighter cap to complete the look.

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As this was happening, of course, the bids continued to rise.

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Finally, the MC pulled out the big guns.

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The crowd went wild, and the rest was history.

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After that, everything seemed to loosen. Bids went higher. The crowd seemed more at ease. And, most importantly, clothes just kept coming off.

"C'mon, ladies."

“C’mon, ladies.”

It was the most awkward and hilarious spectacle I’ve ever seen.

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Project Smile raised $18,000 in just that one night– all thanks to the shirtless firemen.

The Essential Guide to Airbnb

My sister and I figured that we’d be staying in hostels during our journey in Europe. We’d share rooms with 8 strangers and sleep in rooms of dubious cleanliness. It’d be overpriced and somewhat uncomfortable.

And then we discovered Airbnb.

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Airbnb is a website where people rent out lodging. I’m not talking about those hotels and motels: people rent out their apartments, houses, even spare rooms in their own home. Often, for what you get, Airbnb can be relatively cheap. With many Airbnb listings being equal to or cheaper than hostel prices, we were definitely interested in using the site.

My sister and I did a lot of research and ended up using Airbnb for the majority of our Eurotrip. Using Airbnb can be daunting, though. With over 500,000 listings in over 190 countries, it’s tough to know what place to choose. My sister and I stressed over it quite a bit.

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After going on our trip and staying at all these apartments, we are glad to say that our Airbnb experience was positive! Though, there are some things we wish we knew before booking some of those places. It’s hard to know when you’re using Airbnb for the first time.

So, I’m going to list a few things my sister and I looked for when we booked our Airbnb apartments. Everyone’s experiences will be different, so I can’t promise anything– but hopefully these tips will help your Airbnb experience go a little smoother.

Verify your identity.

You can book places without verification, but nobody’s going to rent to you if they don’t know you’re a real person. Airbnb lets you prove your existence in a number of ways.

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The most important is to provide an offline form of identity, usually in the form of a government-issued driver’s license or passport.

Now you’re ready to start booking!

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Obviously, pick one with good reviews.

Airbnb sends out professional photographers to take verified photos for the site. These guys are pros. Some of the apartments on Airbnb look beautiful, and often, they are!

Just for a comparison, here’s the Airbnb photos of the apartment my sister and I stayed in Paris…

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…compared to the photos I took myself.

The bedroom.

The bedroom! Don’t get me wrong: this Parisian apartment was one of my favorite places we stayed in.

The other part of the bedroom, covered with our luggage. This wasn't actually pictured in the Airbnb photos.

The other part of the bedroom, covered with our luggage. This wasn’t actually pictured in the Airbnb photos, so the table and the couch were a nice bonus.

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The bathroom: it was a bathroom.

You can see that what the site tells you isn’t always exactly what you get. A good way to know for sure is to read reviews! Ideally, the apartment or house has had a lot of guests and a lot of reviews. Our Parisian apartment had a high rating, which I would totally agree with.

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Sometimes, though, you’ll discover less positive feedback.

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So read your reviews! My sister and I played it safe, going only for listings with a lot of positive reviews.

Look for a high cleanliness rating.

An Airbnb is not a hotel, so you really can’t expect hotel cleanliness. Sometimes, you might even be sharing a kitchen or a bathroom with your host.

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I’m not the cleanest person, myself, but being in someone else’s messiness always makes me a bit uncomfortable. Anything less than a 5-star cleanliness rating means the place probably isn’t spotless, if that’s what you’re looking for.

Double-check the location.

When you’re booking an apartment in an unfamiliar city, it’s hard to tell how good the location is just by staring at Google Maps.

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A nice indicator is that the farther you get from center city, the cheaper the apartments become.

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And my sister and I did book one without really looking into the location. It was our first booking, for a lovely and cheap apartment in London. Or, wait. Look at that address. Is it really in London?

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When we landed at London-Heathrow, the passport security was baffled.

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My sister and I had booked a place in the London suburbs, not London itself. Luckily, we had at least done enough research to…

Check the proximity to public transport.

Our apartment in Tooting was a 15 minute walk to the subway, and a 10-minute walk to the public buses. It took us, then, at least an hour to get all the way to London’s most famous attractions. But at least there was transport: if we hadn’t had such convenient access, getting around a big city like London would have been difficult.

Besides, it was a good excuse to spend an hour on one of London’s famous double-decker buses.

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Watch out for hidden fees.

The price listed on Airbnb is not always the final price. Sometimes, there are “cleaning fees.”

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Sometimes, the host will charge a bit extra for every extra guest you bring in. For instance, the dude below will charge you the list price for two guests. But to bring a third friend, you’d pay an extra $13, and another $13 for a fourth friend… yeah. You get it.

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Sometimes, the host will ask for a security deposit.

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My sister and I avoided listings with security deposits, so I unfortunately can’t give any advice about dealing with those. Also, since most listings were made to accommodate two people, my sister and I never had to pay that extra guest fee.

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So those extra fees never caused us any trouble– but it’s certainly something to look out for when you’re booking a place.

It’s also worth checking out the apartment’s cancellation policy. Are you a wandering soul with no strict travel plans? Check the cancellation policy of the apartment to make sure that you’ll be refunded in the event that you change your mind. Airbnb cancellation policies come in the shades of flexible, moderate, strict, super-strict, and long-term. You can read more about that here.

Privacy is really nice.

Well, depending on what style of traveler you are. Some people have plenty of time, and just love to chat it up with whoever’s around. Talking to your host can actually be great– they can give you recommendations only a native would know. And shared rooms give you the chance to hang out and chill with other travelers

My sister and I, however, had barely any time at all in each city.

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At the end of the day, we just wanted somewhere to relax and unwind. When you’re that exhausted, having your own room to just chill is really nice– no need to tiptoe around sleeping strangers.

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It all depends on you, but we found that having our own room really enhanced our trip. A little comfort goes a long way, and Airbnb helped us afford the luxury of our own room.

You get what you pay for.

That said, not all Airbnb listings are created equal. There are a huge variety of apartments you can find, the quality and price of which differ greatly.

You could rent this entire apartment for $200 a night…

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…or this girl’s couch for $57 a night.

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What a steal!

My sister and I found a really cheap place to stay in Rome. The host described it as a “beautiful bright dorm” that was part of a “big, lovely, classy and fun apartment.” With all those superlatives, it HAD to be good.

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The reviews were all positive, and the price couldn’t be beat. We were going to have to share a room with two other strangers, but we figured that we could deal with that for a few nights.

And we could. That was fine– we bunked with two lovely girls from Texas. It was the apartment itself that was a problem.

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The apartment was pretty much falling apart. It was nicely decorated, at least– it was lived-in and frequented by artsy hipsters. But, hey: it was cheap! You could tell.

The extra little conveniences go a long way.

At least, they did for my sister and I. Firstly, we were backpacking. We only brought a week’s worth of clothes for a five-week trip.

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So, whenever we had washing machines, it was a godsend.

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Before you believe that we were totally smelly, though, I’ll tell you that my sister and I washed our clothes every day! Washing machine or not! When there was no washer available, we just washed our clothes by hand. It was a process, involving us carrying around laundry detergent, scrubbing out our clothes, rinsing them out, and drying everything on my sister’s travel clothesline.

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Washing machines: I appreciate them now. And if you’re traveling light, you will too! They’re really handy if you don’t have enough clothes for the entire trip.

Since we were trying to keep our expenses down, we would often buy lots of food from the grocery store. We would usually need a place to keep this food. The second convenience to look for: Refrigerators. Under the Airbnb listing, look for a kitchen, and read the reviews and description.

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And finally, check if your place has internet! We take it for granted these days, but my family actually stayed in an apartment in Budapest without WiFi. For those two nights, my family bemoaned the fact that we couldn’t look up directions or tourist attractions.

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Airbnb has even made it easy for you. Hosts can show which amenities they do and don’t have.

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Communicate with your host.

Did you read the description, check the reviews and have finally decided on a place? Awesome! Now you can try to book for the dates that you want.

However, even if your desired dates are available, you can’t book instantly. You have to talk to your host first. Introduce yourself, tell them what you’re dropping in town for, be polite. Then, you’ll receive a confirmation message when your host accepts your booking.

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Some places can be booked instantly, though. Look for the lightning icon next to the price.

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Be a good guest!

You can leave reviews for your hosts. Reversely, your hosts can leave reviews of you once you’ve stayed in their apartment. If you rack up a string of bad reviews, people are less likely to rent to you. So be a good guest! If your host requests you to do something, like close the door gently or be quiet at night, do it. Don’t be a college freshman in a dorm.

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It’s really just common courtesy. Most importantly, remember: you’re staying in someone else’s house. Sometimes, they have maid service. But if you’re staying somewhere cheaper, the likelihood is that they clean the place themselves.

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And that’s it! Those are just my little tips on things to look out for when renting your Airbnb. It’s not an exhaustive guide, but hopefully it’ll help out some prospective travelers. I was lucky enough to have a great time. But who knows? When I travel again, my experience with Airbnb might be better. It might be worse. But at this point in time, I know this: I’ll be using Airbnb again soon.

You are what you Eataly

Panna cotta in Rome!

When I came home from my internship last June, I got a bit of a surprise.

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My sister is a naturally slim and healthy person, so I was surprised to see her dieting. I asked her what brought this on.

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Europe is a special place: there are a ton of distinct, unique cultures clustered on one continent. These cultures have had centuries to develop and refine their cuisine. My sister compiled a list of the must-try foods in every country we were visiting. The list looked kind of like this:

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This was the case for all of the countries: Too many foods, not enough time. It didn’t stop us from trying, though.

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Oliebollen: fried dough covered in powdered sugar!

Italian fried cheese and fried meat!

Italian fried cheese and fried meat!

Bitteballen: Dutch fried meat!

Bitteballen: Dutch fried meat!

You get the idea.

The bakeries were the most irresistible. Every corner of Europe seemed to have a cute, locally-owned bakery filled with tempting sweets. My sister could barely resist the allure.

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And my sister indeed tried everything she possibly could.

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As for myself? Well, I kept up with my sister at first.

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But right before going to Europe, I had been on Weight Watchers. I had trained for and completed a half-marathon. My body couldn’t take the transition from super-healthy to super-indulgent.

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I was stuffed to the brim.

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But I continued to eat.

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Yessir, my sister and I ate as much as we were physically capable of fitting into our bodies. We had to. There was too much deliciousness for us not to. By the end, even my sister agreed:

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Coming home and trying to exercise again for the first time after 5 weeks was… interesting.

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And I still don’t.

 

 

 

For the foodies: Here are some of my favorite foods that we ate during our trip!

Stroopwafels: a Dutch dessert consisting of two thin waffles with caramel in between them.

Stroopwafels: a Dutch dessert consisting of two thin waffles with caramel in between them.

Panna cotta in Rome!

Panna cotta in Rome!

Duck confit in Paris! And that side dish is aligot, mashed potatoes and melted cheese.

Duck confit in Paris! And that side dish is aligot, mashed potatoes and melted cheese.

Bratwurst and potatoes in Traben-Trarbach! German food will always have a special place in my heart.

Bratwurst and potatoes in Traben-Trarbach! German food will always have a special place in my heart.

Parisian creme brulee makes my mouth go YAY.

Parisian crème brûlée makes my mouth go YAY.

Italian gelato cafes are really popular in Germany!

Italian gelato cafes are really popular in Germany!

Just some simple penne in Rome. What you'd expect, yet somehow infinitely more delicious than any pasta I've had before!

Pasta in Rome. Looks simple, yet somehow it infinitely more delicious than any pasta I’ve had before!

 

That time I cried in Paris

Whew, I’m finally home! After five weeks of backpacking through Europe, and then another week of visiting family, it’s a relief to sleep in my own bed. And to finally have a computer again!

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Now that I have a computer, I can blog again as well. So let’s get to it!

Since my sister and I returned from Europe, we’ve been asked a lot of questions about our trip.

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Since many of you might be curious as well, I’ll answer your questions.

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My sister and I saw so many amazing sights, but we wholeheartedly agree on one as our favorite.

You see, my sister and I happened to be in Paris on Bastille Day. We hadn’t planned it that way– it was a total coincidence.

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I did some research on the Bastille Day celebrations. One caught my eye.

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Fireworks at the Eiffel Tower? That sounded like a must-see! I did some research.

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It sounded like it was going to be chaos. My sister and I still wanted to see it, though, so we headed over to the Champ de Mars around 5PM.

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It was already crowded when we arrived.

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All there was to do was to picnic and wait. Which was fine with us– after touring Paris the entire day, we were glad to rest our feet.

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My sister and I arrived at a fairly good time. Although it was crowded, there was still space farther back from the tower. We had enough space to actually spread out our towels and lay down.  As the hours passed, though, people started packing in.

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Soon, getting anywhere was a challenge.

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There was a stage right in front of the Eiffel Tower, but we were too far to see it. Luckily, the entire park was lined with giant speakers. As the sun set, a concert began.

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Opera singers, choirs, and an entire orchestra performed classic French music. Though I’m not French, I recognized quite a few of the songs.

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The Eiffel Tower began to light up and change color with each new tune.

Eiffel Sparkle

One song– the love theme from French film Les Parapluies de Cherbourg– struck my sister and I particularly hard.

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Then, after a rousing performance of the French national anthem, the fireworks began.

And it blew my mind.

I’m used to just… normal fireworks, you know? I’m already impressed by the fireworks put on by my local county during July 4th. I expected a few fireworks to shoot off behind the tower. It’d be a nice photo-op. It’s be chill.

But then the Eiffel Tower started to do this:

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And this: 

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Also this: 

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I’ve never seen fireworks form words before.

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There was only one appropriate reaction to this sight.

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Not only was it Bastille Day, but it was also the 100th year since World War I began. Because of this, the entire 40-minute-long fireworks show commemorated the war. The fireworks were timed to music, matching each phase of the war. The colors would darken and the fireworks would slow for times of peace. For times of conflict, the music and fireworks would rise and explode.

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Sometimes there were so many fireworks that it was hard to see the tower.

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It was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Fireworks are awesome and lovely, but Bastille Day fireworks are something else entirelyNo GIF or video can really explain how incredible it was.

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40 minutes later, the fireworks finally concluded. I couldn’t believe thatit was already over– I could have stood there, repeatedly screaming “OH MY GODDD!!” for at least another hour.

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The Eiffel Tower still sported its Bastille Day colors, though– which is more than you might see on a normal day in Paris.

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It was almost midnight when my sister and I joined the crowds heading home.

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The streets were packed, traffic was stopped, and taking the metro was out of the question. My sister and I walked an hour and a half to make it back to our apartment. By the time we got back, we were hungry, exhausted, and in desperate need of a shower.

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The next day, we rejoined the throngs of tourists making their way around Paris. A lot of people say to not visit Paris near Bastille Day. July is peak tourist season, and the holiday makes the crowds almost unbearable. But after that night, my sister and I concluded:

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After all, that’s the only time a bunch of exploding rockets have moved me to tears.

 

Curious to see what the Bastille Day fireworks are like? Here’s a nice video I found of the entire 2014 show!