How I Got Here – Marathon Training: Week 1

So here it is, after a lot of faffing around, getting injured and planning ahead, I’ve officially started training for my first full marathon. 26.2 miles!!

If you had asked me even 5 years ago I’d have said there was no way I’d even be capable of running a marathon, let alone have the commitment to train properly. I am not a runner, I don’t even like sports. I spent my high school gym classes yelling at the teacher and making jokes about how terrible I was. I once broke my toe because I played basketball with no shoes on, that’s how seriously I took the whole thing…

Fast forward to 2013, I was looking for something that summer, some self-confidence boosting, lose weight fast scheme that would take my mind off exams and give me something productive to do with my time. Enter, running.

I bought my first pair of running shoes at a discount warehouse store with no more thought than whether or not they were good value. I “ran” about 20 minutes per day around a lake near my house, and had no idea what I was doing. I made the rookie error of trying to sprint because it felt comfortable for my legs, only to stop, panting and wheezing, after about 100m. Slowly I got the hang of it, and built up to a solid 3km, where I stayed for the best part of a year. Meanwhile, I got into going to the gym and built up my fitness, but it never occurred to me to run longer because even after all this time, 3km still hurt.

In April 2014 one of my very good friends ran the Paris Marathon. I went along for moral support and I was blown away by how wholesome and motivational the whole experience was, even from the side lines. There were thousands of people, blaring music and just the most enthusiastic feeling in the air. If you ever lose faith in humanity, please go watch a marathon. Of course, it helped that the sun was shining, but still! Watching her cross the finish line after 5 hours of pain, and months of training, made me feel like there was nothing you couldn’t do if you put your mind to it.

Luckily for me, that friend is a big enabler, and when I told her I was interested in lengthening my running distance, and maybe running a 10km, she told me if wasn’t enough. She found a half-marathon in my area in September and said if I signed up she would come visit me and we would do it together. Who says no to that?? So, I registered for the Dublin half marathon 2014.

I spent the summer training, which was an exercise in itself given I was working in Tel Aviv at the time, the heat almost killed me, even running at night. I had no training plan whatsoever, nor any structure to my life. I was working full time and partying more than I should have been. I would just go out and see how far I could go basically (spoiler alert: bad plan). The furthest I went was 18km, and I only did it once. The day arrived and I survived, finishing in 2hrs and 30 minutes. I ran alone as my friend couldn’t make it in the end, but there was no way I was going to let that stop me. It was easier than I had anticipated to start with, I was 8km in before the suffering began. I hit a hell of a runners high around 12km and legitimately danced to Ellie Goulding for a while, but then my ipod Nike app told me I was at 20km, about 5 minutes before the mile-markers told me that I was only at 18km, and my heart broke. I lost all my spirit, and walked a lot. I somehow managed to run across the finish line thanks to a girl I had met about 300m earlier, and smiled in my finishers photo. My lack of nutrition plan hit me immediately, I felt freezing cold, nauseous and angry within 20 minutes and just wanted to go home, until I had a plate of nachos shoved in my face, then I felt a lot better. I had no real pain issues afterwards, somehow managing to go on a night out after a shower and a nap.

I quickly caught the bug, and had signed up for the Berlin half within a few weeks, it was in March so I gave myself a couple of months off, before getting back to it in December. Once again, I had no training plan and it caught up with me in no time. First day back, I got on the treadmill and slammed out 8km. The next day I couldn’t walk down stairs, at all. I had a classic case of runner’s knee. And with help from a physio, I got through it, but Berlin never happened. I was told that I shouldn’t run long distances anymore and that it would happen again, so I spent two years limiting my running to 5km, I did a lot of strength training and cycling, I also climbed a mountain but that’s a different story.

By the end of 2016 I was in the best shape of my life, but I couldn’t stop thinking about running., Which is entertaining and confusing in and of itself because most of running is pain.

I was living in New York and I didn’t have access to a proper gym, so a lot of my old routines were of no use to me, and I was in a rut. Coincidentally, the New York marathon route went right under my window, and thus once again I was enticed by the atmosphere of it all. I hatched a plan. For the first time, I was going to follow a training plan, exactly! I found a 3-month schedule which had me running 3 times per week. I stuck to it religiously, getting up at 5am to run before work, completely disregarding my cycle commute (one hour each way) as real exercise. However, as life caught up to me, I missed a couple of weeks and tried to compensate by running 4 times per week instead (mistake). In February I ran a trail half marathon in a forest an hour outside of Washington DC. It was a tiny race, there were maybe 10 of us running the full distance, and I finished second to last. The weather was unexpectedly boiling, so I went from training in the snow, to getting sunburnt on race day. On top of that there was very little in terms of support, water and Gatorade only every 6km or so. I have no idea how long it took me, but I survived. The drive home killed me though, I spent an hour in the car with little to no movement. I jumped in an ice bath the minute I walked in the door, but the damage was done, I was in a lot of pain. My left hip was suffering.

I flew to Europe the next day wearing compression socks. I gave myself a week and a half off, walking everyday but no other exercise. When I finally jumped on the treadmill, I almost cried after 3km. I was done, yet again. I took 6 months off, apart from one ill-advised 20km run that I didn’t train for at all, and ran entirely out of sentimentality. My hip kicked my ass, but I survived and finished in 2hrs and 40 minutes, which I was pretty proud of considering.

In September 2017, I was in pretty bad shape, apart from some yoga over the summer I hadn’t really done any exercise in months. I felt the pull, and within a week I was back on it. I played it extra cautious, took 6 months to train and spent the first weeks running a single mile. Though this was my most effective and injury-proof method, I felt the training burnout pretty intensely by the end. I just didn’t care about running anymore. This was also my first training cycle done entirely outside, with only 2 treadmill runs the entire time. Initially I hated it, I find it a lot easier to push myself on a treadmill, and a lot easier to talk myself into going into a gym than out into the cold/dark/rain. Either way, it all worked out well, and I completed the March 2018 Rock and Roll half marathon in Washington DC with no injuries, or problems of note.

Once again, I gave myself time off to recover, which probably turned into too much time. It took me a month to gather the heart to run again, I was just so over it, I didn’t see the point in pushing myself back to it for no reason. At this point I was studying for the New York Bar Exam, and was in serious need of an outlet for my nervous energy. I just ran, with no plan, no goal, and no external aspirations. I ran because my brain needed me too. As work intensified I signed up for a 10-mile race to keep myself accountable. On the 1st of July 2018 I ran 10 miles in 38-degree heat, full sunshine.

That was the last race that I ran. I have been running on and off since, but nothing to that level of intensity. I hiked Macchu Pichu in August, and I like to believe that it kept my fitness up, but mostly I did yoga, running to class and back, and cycled with my Dad.

Which, long story very long, brings us to now.

I have signed up to run the Midnight Sun Marathon 2019, in Tromso Norway on the 22nd of June. My program is 23 weeks long, running 3 times per week, including a half marathon along the Great Wall of China half way through (may or may not be a horrific, injury inducing mistake). Shit is getting real. My main goal is to survive, though the time cut off is 5 and a half hours, so I would like to finish before that.

I know that you’re supposed to cross train and all that, but realistically, I probably won’t. I’d like to aim to do some kind of yoga and some kind of strength work once per week, but knowing me, odds are that will not happen. I’ll have to manage with just walking a hell of a lot (I live in London so that’s a given), and cycling to work once I get my life together to sort that out.

Goals:

– I still have yet to figure out nutrition, so my first goal is to integrate gels on runs longer than 10km.

– Secondly, I want to get my 5km consistently below 30 minutes.

– Thirdly, I want to be consistent in following my plan, and miss as few runs as possible.

I don’t have heart wrenchingly emotional story about how I found running, and I haven’t discovered some hidden talent leading me to set world records. I am a very mediocre runner who often chooses wine or sleep over my training, and has spent two years saying I’ll try and break the 2-hour half marathon, without even pretending to put in the requisite effort. But running has taught me that I can push myself, and achieve something that feels impossible. It calms my raging brain, and gives me purpose. This is not going to be easy, or pretty, and it very well might kill me, but this is the story of how I am going to run a marathon.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Top 18 Books I Read in 2018

The Lost City of Z – David Grann

Non-fiction. A fascinating cross-over between biography, historical fiction, and adventure novel. It was a gripping true story about Percy Fawcett’s journey into first South America, then obsession. It brilliantly made me feel like I was there in the jungle too.

The House on Pooh Corner – A.A Milne

Classic. While we think of this traditional children’s book as juvenile or simplistic and therefore uninteresting to an adult, I found it refreshing, hilarious and sassy. I’m glad I finally read it, especially as an adult, so that I could experience the multi-layered humour and sarcasm that underpins so many children’s classics.

Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie

Mystery. Definitely a classic for a reason. I love the old format of her stories, always traditionally formulaic. The predictable nature of the build-up somehow doesn’t take anything away from the story. Having seen several TV adaptations, it was still interesting and worthwhile to go back to the original source material.

Vicious – VE Schwab

Fantasy. This book was like nothing I’ve ever read before, and I devoured it in a single sitting. I’ve heard it described as X-Men meets Frankenstein, and it’s great because I love both of those things. It wasn’t romance heavy, which is something I always appreciate, and its full of morally grey characters, which always adds depth. Short chapters keep the pacing fast and switching between timelines at the right moment leaves you on the edge of your seat.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo – Taylor Jenkins Reid

Historical fiction. I was very ready to be disappointed by this book, given all the hype surrounding it. There were a lot of things that I didn’t enjoy, especially how I felt that certain characters often came off as unconvincing and slightly cringe, I also predicted the plot twist and so the last-minute reveal did nothing for me. However, despite its flaws, I devoured this book in one day, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It definitely left you wanting more every minute, and excited to see how it all came together at the end.

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

Contemporary. For an embarrassingly long time, I confused this book with Middlemarch, and associated it with Victorian England, and so put it off. Mistake! This is a really, interesting and unique read. Our main character (and narrator) is Cal, a hermaphrodite, who discusses family, self-discovery, and American culture over the span of almost a century. I love a good sprawling family history that comes back to impact the characters in various ways.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

Classic. Once again, a classic that I put off for far too long, only to be really impressed. The naivete of the narrator allows for a lot of tongue-in-cheek humour, and sass, that would probably not be as well received from an adult’s perspective. A really interesting and compelling analysis of American society that doesn’t weigh you down.

The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

Classic. This a Victorian classic with a lot more to it, it’s very accessible, and I believe would be a good place to start for anyone wanting to delve into the genre. Considered on of the first ever mysteries, it’s very atmospheric and builds suspense almost without you noticing. As someone who doesn’t tend to enjoy thrillers, I was totally engrossed.

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

Science fiction. While I lived this story, and the wealth of pop culture that permeates it, I cannot deny that there’s a lot of cringe at times. I alternated between finding the main character super embarrassing and being really impressed by him. Loved the references, loved the idea, mindless entertainment at its best. Please don’t judge this book by the movie!

The Century Trilogy – Ken Follet

Historical fiction. I’m obsessed with Ken Follet, this was the second epic trilogy of his that I have read, and I loved it. It’s a very intense work of historical fiction covering the intertwined lives of many different characters during the period spanning WWI all the way to the 1980s. Incredibly rich world, crazy level of detail and research that makes you feel like you’re there alongside the characters. This was especially true as I have lived in two of the most prevalent settings, Wales and Washington DC.

Native Son – Richard Wright

Historical fiction. I found this fascinating, a difficult book discussing race, poverty, and the criminal justice system in America in the 1930s. Really interesting approach, because the main character does an undeniably horrible thing. I don’t want to give too much away, but let’s say it makes you think.

The Book of Dust – Philip Pullman

Fantasy. I feel like I’m biased in favour of this book, given its connection to the Dark Materials series, that I was very into as a child. What I love about prequels is that they cover a multitude of sins, because any mention to the earlier (later) story makes you feel like you’re in on a secret, and that rush can often make up for a less compelling plot this time around. Feels like a classic fantasy, doesn’t try too hard as the world is already so well expanded in the original series.  I think that it could be read first without too much difficulty.

Anne of Green Gables – L.M Montgomery

Classic. Are you seeing a pattern with the children’s classic here? Anne is my new favourite sass queen. The whole atmosphere reminded me a lot of Pippi Longstocking. Super uplifting and entertaining while broaching some serious issues. I wish I had read it as a kid.

The Raven Cycle – Maggie Steifvader

Fantasy. I have never wanted so badly to be a part of a fictional friendship group. I love the whole vibe in this entire series, the casual mysticism that surrounds the story and the kooks of each character. I predicted one of the plot twists (a rare occurrence) so it didn’t shock me, but I’m not mad about it. The plot itself is a weak point, but it’s made up for by the wonderful character development and lyrical writing.

Stardust – Neil Gaimen

Fantasy. I have loved the movie for years, so I thought it was time to explore the original material. I have a difficult relationship with Neil Gaiman as I so terribly want to love him and yet, just don’t. Overall, I found it really cleverly written, I’m a sucker for interconnecting plot lines that all come together in the end. Let’s be real, I wish I wrote it.

Unbecoming – Rebecca Scherm

Contemporary. This is a difficult one to describe, half heist mystery, part love story, and part coming of age novel…Initially, I wasn’t grabbed by the story, but I soon realised that couldn’t put it down. The double timeline was very effective as it built up the past and I was dying to know what had happened to lead our characters into their current lives.

The Hate You Give – Angie Thomas

Contemporary. Everyone has been talking about this book lately, and justifiably so. It’s very powerful and provides a refreshing and much needed perspective on a gripping subject that we’ve all heard a lot about lately. I really enjoyed the opportunity to see things through Starr’s eyes. The ending wasn’t all that I wanted, but I suppose that’s true of real life as well.

Radio Silence – Alice Oseman

Contemporary. It’s really difficult to describe why I liked it, but there was an element of weirdness that stuck out for me (in a good way). The characters actually feel like real believable people and their decisions make sense, which I don’t often find to be the case. Good representation (I’ve never seen demi-sexuality in a book before) and I liked the strong focus on friendship as a defining relationship rather than a backdrop for romance.

Kilimanjaro Packing List

This list has been created for a 6-Day Marangu Route Trek, obviously modify for more/less days on mountain. I had never hiked before and was resistant to buying a lot of specific gear. All of my cold weather stuff was my ski gear, and I found that it worked very well.  Some of these items were rented from our tour company. The bag I used was actually an old tennis bag, all that matter is that it’s water-resistant and doesn’t have a metal frame as the porters will be carrying it on their heads.

Most importantly: DO NOT PANIC, almost anything you forget can be rented at the base of the mountain. Don’t over think it, as long as you have good hiking boots, odds are you’ll be fine.

Clothing

Note: Base layers should be made of a moisture-wicking fabric; not cotton!

  • 2 sports bras
  • 2 workout style tops (I brought one short sleeved and one long)
  • 3 long-sleeved thermal tops (works best if one can be layered under another, to allow flexibility in your temperature management)
  • 3 fleece layers (again, great for layering over the thermals. Keep one 1 exclusively for sleeping, having clean pjs is a great morale booster)
  • Underwear (personal preference as to how many, most people re-use, wearing them inside out the second time)
  • 1 pair workout leggings (optional, can be good for the first day through the rainforest, or for layering, I brought them but didn’t use them)
  • 2 pair Thermal Tights
  • 1 pair water-resistant hiking pants (I used these every-day except summit night, with various layers underneath)
  • 1 pair ski pants (used for summit night, really convenient as easy to layer and totally waterproof)
  • 1 ski jacket (waterproof, windproof) Mine had removal layers and so could be adjusted to temperature which was great. A lot of people will say that you need down, I didn’t find that to be the case.

Hands

  • 1 pair thin gloves (to wear in the evenings or when the temperatures start to drop)
  • 1 pair thick ski gloves (necessary for summit night)
  • Hand-warmers

Feet

  • 3 pairs hiking socks (important that they keep your feet dry and blister-free, I discovered merino wool on this trip and have never looked back) Comfortable feet can make or break the experience.
  • 2 pairs thermal socks (ski socks worked well for me)
  • Hiking Boots (water-proof, preferably coming up above your ankles)
  • Camp shoes (to wear in the evenings and give your feet a rest, sneakers are fine, I wore sandals with socks simply for ease of getting them on and off)

Accessories

  • Sun hat
  • Woolly hat
  • Balaclava
  • Buff (multi-functional piece that can be worn around your neck or you head, really useful and adaptable)
  • Sunglasses
  • Headlamp

Food

  • Electrolyte tablets or salt pills (to help with recovery)
  • Whatever snacks you think will help keep you going when you have no appetite (no chocolate as it will melt and freeze). I’d recommend a mix of salty and sweet so as not to get sick of one.
  • I brought bouillon cubes to dissolve in my water because I’m a salt fiend, others brought fruit flavoured syrup, whatever works and will keep you drinking.
  • Gummy bears (for summit night, yummy, don’t freeze, easily shareable, and make everyone happy)

Medical

  • Paracetamol and Ibuprofen
  • Blister kit (varies from person to person, I use a needle and thread to drain them, then a plaster)
  • Sun cream
  • Insect Repellent
  • Lip Balm
  • Anti-Diarrhea meds and antispasmodics (for stomach trouble)
  • Antiseptic (cream or spray whichever you prefer)
  • Diamox (altitude medication)
  • Malaria pills (depending on what time of year you go and where else you’re traveling, ask your doctor)
  • Plasters
  • 1 dose broad spectrum anti-biotics (just in case)
    • Vaccination card, blood type card and a clean syringe (just in case)

Toiletries

  • Toothbrush and mini toothpaste
  • Hand Sanitizer
  • Baby Wipes (always useful as shower replacement, or for any mess)
  • Deodorant
  • Tissues
  • Toilet paper
  • Hair ties and pins (the last thing you’ll want is hair in your face)

Miscellaneous

  • Ziploc bags (I loved these, used them for everything from separating my gear in my duffel bag, to water protection for electronics)
  • Bin bags (really useful for extra water protection, or segregating dirty gear)
  • Waterproof backpack cover (better safe than sorry, they fold up really small, lifesaver)
  • Water container (3L, either reusable bottles or a camelback, must be able to hold hot water)
  • Bag locks (handy to have, can be useful, especially if you leave bags at the hotel during the hike)
  • Kindle (very convenient as it holds charge and doesn’t weigh you down, honestly though you won’t really have a lot of time for reading)
  • iPhone or music device (really helpful to keep motivation up on summit night, also audiobooks are good when you can’t sleep)
  • Solar charger or spare battery packs (no plugs on the mountain, anything you want to keep using will need an alternative charging mechanism)
  • Money (tips and emergency)
  • Proof of medical insurance, and any bookings, also flight details
  • Travel Adaptor (for use at the hotel)

Daypack

You don’t have access to your main bag during the day, so you’ll survive each hike on what you’ve got in your daypack. Weight is pretty much dependant on what you can handle and how much you’re willing to suffer, my bag was 30l and I never had any problems. This is all really personal and will probably change from day to day.

  • Water (3L, I carried it in 3 reusable bottles, others used camelbacks)
  • First Aid: Lip balm, ibuprofen, plasters, diarrhoea pills
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Snacks
  • Pack lunch (your cook will give you this each morning)
  • Rain Jacket and backpack cover (always! Trust me, the day you forget there’ll be a thunderstorm)
  • Camera/phone (be sure to keep it accessible, otherwise you’ll miss out on great shots)
  • Weather dependant extras (sun hat, gloves, fleece, sun cream…etc)

Rentals

No need to worry about bringing these as they are readily accessible for rent at the base.

  • Gaiters (a plastic protection worn around your ankles to keep things out of your shoes, I didn’t see the appeal at all, but ended up loving them! Also, as a girl, they kept me from peeing on the bottoms of my trousers more than once)
  • Sleeping bag
  • Hiking poles
  • Down jacket (I didn’t use one, but if you’re really worried about having one, you can)

The Nostalgia Diaries, Part 2: 10 Things I Won’t Miss about America

Public Transport

Apart from the subway in New York City, there really just is no comparison to the European system. Fundamentally if you want to make the best of your time in the US, you need to be able to drive. The Dc metro goes on fire more than I’m comfortable with considering that it’s a tiny metal capsule running underground. On a larger scale, I never thought I’d miss Ryanair! Low cost flights really just aren’t a thing, and while I know it’s partially because the distances are larger it’s very frustrating considering how much there is to see in the United States.

Intense Patriotism

While this is of course a generalisation, American society has a tendency to be very proud of itself. For starters there are flags absolutely everywhere, and I have never heard a national anthem so frequently. Not to mention freedom, and the requirement that every public speaker say “God bless the United States of America”. It can also extend to a resistance to criticism that can discourage debate or input from outsiders. While countries like Denmark and Israel do something similar, it still grates a little after a while.

Advertising

There are just so many ads on TV. It’s as if for every 10 minutes you watch of a program, you have to spend the same amount of time on ads (including during the news) with weirdly elaborate storylines like nothing I’ve ever seen. Also, they advertise drugs. At some concert venues they even have big screens that run ads between the bands.

Air conditioning

This is a big double-edged sword for me. Why do I need to bring a jumper to the cinema and the supermarket?? I spent my entire master’s year trying to figure out the correct number of layers that I needed to be comfortable in the classroom. Also, I’m emotionally attached to the existence of radiators in houses, so HVAC is a strange concept that took a lot of getting used to. Why is it so loud? And where am I supposed to put my wet shoes to dry when it’s raining?

Queuing for a table at a restaurant that doesn’t allow reservations

There isn’t much to elaborate on here, I hate queuing, and I’m a sucker for planning. Please just let me book a table instead of hovering around the door for 20 minutes!

Tipping

I think every European who has ever spent time in America is familiar with this one. It’s awkward and weird and involves maths. Mostly I just hate the game that you have to play where we pretend it’s an optional extra, while knowing full well I’ll get chased down the street if I don’t give enough. I’d say please just pay your staff, but in several states now the mandatory minimum wage for servers has been raised and yet the culture persists. Also, I have to tip the hairdresser? Seriously?

The “News”

Traditional news as I grew up with, just doesn’t really seem to exist. Instead, there are 24/7 panel discussions, where journalists ask other journalists their opinions on local American issues, mostly politics. There’s also a general lack of international news unless it’s a hot button issue. Finally, each channel has a distinct political affiliation and I just hate having to watch three separate channels to try and get an unbiased overview. While it can be more engaging, sometimes you just want a vaguely bland person to tell you what happened, no opinions necessary.

Obligatory small-talk with strangers

While I was aware of this stereotype going in, I had no idea how pervasive it would be. Everyone from the supermarket checkout staff to your Uber driver wants to have a slightly over-sharey discussion about life. I am a somewhat grumpy European, please stop asking me how my day is, you don’t care. Also, I have no idea how to react to your telling me that your estranged twin brother is visiting this weekend. It’s stressful, where are the boundaries? Who knows??

Needless Busy-ness

A big pet peeve of mine comes from the intensely work-driven side to the US. I don’t know if it stems from the idea of the American dream, or the vast difference in the social safety net, but it’s everywhere. There seems to be an overall rejection of taking holidays or days off (the tech sector is changing this, but it’s not pervasive). Not only do employers offer less vacation time in the US and limit your sick days, but people feel unable to take them for fear of being outed as replaceable in their absence. Additionally, everything must serve a purpose and so for many, the idea of a casual hobby is considered entirely wasteful. I know several people who, upon realising that they didn’t have any hobbies, got second jobs instead. The idea of rest as fuel for productivity is deeply unpopular, and as you can imagine, it makes things very stressful.

Crappy chocolate

To end on a light note, there is simply no decent chocolate to be found in the US. Though I can’t entirely complain about this because it definitely helped me keep lower my junk food intake. I will never understand the love people have for Hersheys, just no. Why is it so waxy? How can it simultaneously be waxy and dusty? It’s a sad, sad mystery. In fairness though, I grew up in Belgium, so America just never had a chance!

The Nostalgia Diaries, Part 1: 10 Things I’ll Miss about America

As I get ready to leave the US for good, I can’t help reflecting on my 4 years here (on and off), and how it’s really the little things that make life different all over the world. With a hefty does of generalising and triviality, these are 10 things that I’ll miss about everyday life in the United States.

Public Bathrooms

Free and guilt free. They’re everywhere and I love it, the supermarket, the mall, protests marches, even restaurant’s you’re not eating at. Of course, there are places that will turn you away, but as someone with a tiny bladder, it’s such a weight off my shoulders to be able to ask to use the restroom without dying of shame. In Belgium, a lot of times they aren’t available, or you have to pay which requires the forethought to carry coins.

Ever-Flowing Tap Water

This is a funny one because paying for water never bothered me growing up, I simply sucked it up or brought my own with me. However, since being in the US I’ve really gotten used to the never-ending stream of it at restaurants, bars and coffee shops. Also, why is the US so obsessed with ice?

Defined Seasons

While of course it varies daily, and DC just had the rainiest summer in forever, overall, it’s so nice to be able to divide the year into four categories with individual colour schemes and atmospheres. To know that in August we wear shorts because its roasting hot and in February you’ll need your gloves because its freezing, rather than just 50 shades of rainy and grey most of the year, which is what I grew up with in Belgium.

Air Conditioning

I have a tumultuous relationship with American temperature regulation, but sometimes it’s really nice to be able to sleep in a reasonable temperature when its 35°c outside.

Opening Hours

I grew up in a country where almost all shops are open 9am-5pm, Monday to Saturday. While I believe that there’s a lot to be said for restricting consumerism and all that, it’s a lot more relaxing to organise your week when you know that you can get whatever you need on Sunday or go to the supermarket at 11pm if you need to.

The Abundance of Non-Standard Foods

As someone with a lot of allergies and dietary restrictions, the fashionable nature of niche foods (vegan, gluten free, paleo, hybrid…etc) in the US is pretty convenient. While they aren’t all good (or even logical, see chocolate hummus) it’s definitely nice to know that if I’m craving cheesecake, there’s a dairy-free, gluten free one waiting for me in the frozen section. Equally, it makes eating out in restaurants more feasible for me than in a lot of countries that I’ve previously lived in.

Online Shopping

This is another case of over-generalisation, I don’t mean to say that we don’t have online shopping in Belgium, it’s just not as ubiquitous or as easy. For example, we don’t have Amazon, and so have to order from the UK or France, we also don’t have Prime, so delivery is slower and more expensive. It’s just not considered such a staple of behaviour at home.

Essentially Unlimited Data

This took me a while to figure out, as a very late and reluctant convert to the world of smartphone, I had no idea how much data was reasonable and so got a ½ gig plan. When I was living in New York I never had any problems with it, used google maps and YouTube whenever I needed to and thought no more about it. It was only when I moved back to Belgium and ran out of data within a week that I realised I hadn’t been staying within my ½ gig and that it had just kept ticking over from 4G into 3G with no more said about it. Talk about becoming accustomed to standard!

Random Discounts and Sales

In Belgium, we have officially regulated sales periods twice per year, once in January and once in July. Otherwise, it’s pretty trick to reduce prices. So, imagine how I felt when I moved to the US and got 10% off at a store because there was a line for the checkout desk. While I know that there are a lot of issues with sub-standard products being reduced, and dodgy representations as to the original prices, I definitely still get a buzz when I walk into GAP and get handed a 25% off voucher.

Substitutions

I grew up in a country where the menu was considered a sacred text, not to be messed with. I don’t care if you don’t like mushrooms sir, the chef designed it that was and it’s terribly arrogant of you to assume that you know better. So as a picky child, who then turned out to have a lot of allergies, even thinking about asking to change a dish used to break me out in a cold sweat. However, the blazé approach to customer service in the US has absolutely spoiled me in this way, and I’m now totally unafraid to change everything completely.

Washington DC: Things to See that Aren’t Monuments

“Washington is a town that creates myths for its own existence”- Karl Rove

“Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm” – JFK

FROM THE FIRST DAY that I arrived, I have loved Washington DC. A city built on a swamp, it’s beautiful and complex, with a rich history and of course a great political buzz. I also love the monuments and the museums that define the skyline and make-up every single available postcard. When I first arrived, I was so overwhelmed by being able to go for a run around the tidal basin, I couldn’t stop taking photos. One of my favourite views has got to be coming in to land at Washington National Airport, when the plane makes wide circles encompassing the Washington Monument and the Capital, as well as the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, getting ever closer like zooming in through a camera lens.

However, there’s so much more to this great city, and it often gets overshadowed by all the imposing white marble. So here you have it, my top DC attractions that do not contain the words monument, memorial, or museum. 

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NEIGHBOURHOODS

Adams Morgan

In this popular and eclectic neighbourhood, made very photogenic by the brightly coloured façades. you’ll find everything from vintage shops and hookah bars, to a gluten free bakery, and countless bars. Some of my favourite stops include Jack Rose for a rooftop terrace and up-market whiskey, Pitango for gelato (their dairy-free chocolate is to die for!), and for a real taste of what it’s like to be a student at 3am on a Saturday: Jumbo slice pizza. Madam’s Organ, a popular blues bar, is actually the site of the original Children’s Supermart store, opened in 1948, which later became known as Toys “R” Us. The Diner and Tryst both offer some wonderful brunch options for all types of foodies, including vegan and gluten free. There’s truly something for everyone in this quirky neighbourhood.

The Wharf

DC’s newest place to be, the revamped Wharf is chock-full of restaurants (especially fish), bars and general atmospheric bustle, in the summer, strolling along the piers surrounded by other people’s conversations feels positively Mediterranean. With the presence of The Anthem, the area has also firmly cemented itself into Washington’s music scene, and there’s always something going on.  The area is also home to the Maine Avenue Fish Market, the oldest continuously operating open-air fish market in the United States, dating from 1805, where you can have your purchases cooked before your eyes. While the wares are no longer served directly from the fishing boats, it’s definitely still a world away from the big city – but don’t say I didn’t warn you about the smell!

Georgetown

A new take: While the historic and fashionable area of Georgetown itself needs no introduction, I’d like to emphasise some different ways to enjoy the neighbourhood.

The Waterfront

The Georgetown waterfront is one of the oldest parts of the city. Now a park, it began life as a Colonial port and has transitioned via many roles including industrial hub and literal dumping ground. It presents a lovely view of the Kennedy Center and Roosevelt Island. Complete with several restaurants and coffee shops it’s great for an evening out, but also a summer picnic for the family. You can also grab a water-taxi here and take the scenic route across to the Wharf.

Water Sports

You can also get adventurous and (between April and October) head out along the Potomac itself. The Key Bridge Boathouse offers lots of different activities including kayaking, paddle boarding, workshops and tours.

Trails: Hiking and Cycling

There are also several beautiful trails ideal for running, cycling, or simply a quick walk allowing you to re-connect with nature before heading back to M street for some more shopping. Most notable are the C&O Canal Towpath, a waterfront dirt track which continues all the way to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and the Capital Crescent Trail which will take you straight to Bethesda, Maryland (and right to the front door of a lovely French coffee shop) in just over 10 miles of paved path. The C&O Canal also includes the Incline Plane, a stone platform and plaque marking the ruins of a boat elevator dating back to the 1870s, which was highlighted as the best of American engineering at the 1878 World’s Fair (along with the Brooklyn Bridge). It ran for 14 years, until a flood severely damaged the towpath and bankrupted the Canal Company.

Exorcist Steps

Located just a few streets away from the Georgetown university campus and tucked into a corner between a brick wall and a hedge, they’re easy to miss. But for fans of the classic horror movie The Exorcist, the hunt is worth the dramatic view down this imposing staircase, the site of the film’s climax. I recommend visiting at night for full effect. Don’t worry about getting too scared though, there’s a petrol station at the bottom to bring you right back into reality, and it’s entirely possible you’ll run into one of Georgetown’s sport’s teams running up and down it.

Embassy Row

In the North West corner of the city, sits a favourite spot for wealthy families who were looking to build mansions in the early 1900s. Originally called Millionaires Row, most of the houses have since been taken over by DC’s large contingent of diplomats. In 1974, following some controversy about demolition in the area, it became protected, its formal name being the Massachusetts Avenue Historic District. It’s a lovely walk, along wide roads with plenty of gorgeous architecture to admire and who doesn’t love a good game of “which flag is that again?”

Free walking tours are available. There is also a free open day that takes place each year on a Saturday in May, where the Embassies open their doors to the public; hosting events, providing traditional food and drink, and exploring some aspects of their national cultures. The entire neighbourhood takes part and it’s a wonderful occasion to witness.

Dupont Circle

Where trendy meets historic, Dupont Circle was constructed in the 1880s and quickly became a popular neighbourhood for the wealthy. Following World War II, the area struggled, but it was revived in the 1970s and became known for its bohemian atmosphere, similar to New York’s Greenwich Village. In 1975, a local bookshop (Lambda Rising), ran the world’s first gay-oriented television advertisement. Today it includes such sights as the Sunday morning Farmers Market, the Board Room (a bar for people who want to re-create a cosy night at home), and Kramer Books (a bookshop containing a restaurant).

The Cairo

One of the historical oddities of the area is a 12-storey apartment block built in the 80s. It dwarfs the area, drove residents mad, and ultimately led to the imposition of the city’s famed height restriction. While many believe the rule to be aimed at preserving the imposing nature of the monuments and the capital, the reality comes down to angry neighbours, which I find makes it that much more endearing. While the subject of considerable wrath, and the catalyst for not one but two acts of Congress, I shall be forever grateful to the Cairo for ensuring that DC stays unique among major US cities in its walkability, and lack of looming high-rises.

Dupont Underground

When the Dupont Circle Streetcar station opened in 1949, it was the first underground station in DC. Shut down in 1962, it served as a potential nuclear shelter during the early years of the Cold War, until 1975 when the tunnels were sealed off and abandoned. After a failed stint as a food court in the 1990s, the tunnels were opened to the public in 2016, with guided tours now available. As with metro tunnels everywhere, art has crept in, but here it has done so in a uniquely organised manner. Dupont Underground is a self-described cultural organization aimed at developing a multidisciplinary platform for creative expression, transforming the tunnels into a public infrastructure to support creative exchange, contemporary art, and an ongoing conversation about the city. They run exhibitions and host events such as comedy nights and concerts, where the unique acoustics of the environment make for a truly inimitable experience.

OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES

Roosevelt Island

For those who need a break from the city, it turns out you don’t actually have to leave. In the 1930s, landscape architects transformed the patch of neglected, overgrown farmland that sits in the Potomac between Georgetown and Arlington, into Theodore Roosevelt Island. Comprising 88 acres of trails, swamp and general wilderness, it was designed to mimic the natural forest that used to cover the island, and nowadays you’d never know the difference. It’s beautifully ungroomed, great for running, hiking and admiring the view while pretending that you don’t live in a capital city.

[Though there is technically a memorial to the President near the entrance to the island, you can totally ignore it without sacrificing any part of the experience, so I’m bravely declaring that it still belongs on this list]

Its accessible by footbridge from the Mount Vernon cycle path, and there’s parking available there. Bikes are not allowed (its enforced, I learned the hard way as a foolish tourist), though dogs are welcome.

Gravelly Point

Just outside of DC proper, in a lovely park next to Washington National Airport, is a unique and quirky spot used for plane watching, acknowledged as one of the best in the United States. Though I always associated airports with harsh, concrete environments, most often in the middle of nowhere, Reagan is nestled against the Potomac. This only serves to enhance the escapist atmosphere that comes with sitting on the grass watching planes come swooping in to land, the roaring engines echoing in your ears and stealing the air from your lungs. Great for a Sunday afternoon, the park has a very relaxed, family friendly atmosphere, surrounded by joggers, cyclists, and children. I know of at least one successful first date that took place there. It’s easily accessible along the Mount Vernon Trail cycling path.

Down In N’Orleans

“America only has three cities: New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” – Tennessee Williams

“Everything in New Orleans is a good idea” – Bob Dylan

A CITY ON DEATH ROW, like an aged rock star who will continue to be beautiful and talented long after their skin has turned to leather and their voice has given out, the realities of New Orleans are not the realities. Because it’s not the impressive stink or the horrifying crime rates or the tourists that stay with you, it’s not the centuries of death and violence and tragedy that have cursed this town that touches your soul, it’s the music and the magic, the food, the freedom and that something in the air that makes your spine tingle. Unlike other old cities that can make you feel inferior in the face of their experience, like you are an unworthy guest in a place shaped by those more deserving, New Orleans makes you feel like you are a part of the never-ending story. It invites you in and tells you to make yourself at home in its glittering decrepitude.

It strikes me as a uniquely paradoxical place, oozing that lazy-Sunday-morning vibe that is so unique to the American South, combined with a feverish sense of life and celebration that turns every day into a party. It’s a city so full of amazing history, ranging from the good to the bad and the quirky as hell.

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Garden District – Mostly residential area, quieter and more relaxed than the French Quarter. It was developed in 1832 for the “nouveau riche” Americans who wanted to separate themselves from the Creoles in the FQ. Gorgeous neighbourhood of elegant houses, and in typical New Orleans style there’s a 19th century cemetery planted right in the middle of it. P1160999P1170024

Magazine Street – Great place for a wander, running from the FQ down to the Zoo. Lots going on, from antique shops and hipster galleries, to hot dog stands and artisanal bakeries.

Recommendation: The scenic streetcar that runs like clockwork along St Charles Street is surprisingly still the best way to get around that part of the city. At $3 for a 24hr pass, it’s insanely cheap as well as being completely adorable; a must see!

French Quarter – Oldest neighbourhood in New Orleans, founded in 1718. Home to the infamous Bourbon St and the oldest Cathedral in America (St. Louis) as well as the oldest bar and the most haunted house. In the most predictably tourist-y way, this is my favourite part of the city.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s busy and messy and full to the brim of tourists wanting to see the exact same things as you, but it’s got a wonderful welcoming atmosphere and there is always always something going on.P1170046P1170047

Recommendation: Free Tours by Foot.

NB- -The typical American “no open container rule” doesn’t apply in the Big Easy, thus drinking on the street is not only acceptable, it’s also easy and encouraged by bars themselves, most places serve drinks in plastic cups so you can pop in to pick one up on your walk-about, or take anything you don’t finish with you to-go. But be warned, the caveat to the rule is no glass!

LaFitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar – One of the oldest bars in America, it was allegedly owned by famous pirate Jean Lafitte in the 1800s. Although I’m sure the choice of candles over electric lighting was a tactical and financial one, it certainly lends legitimacy and a great atmosphere. There is also a wonderful piano player who works on requests and he can play anything (like seriously, I requested the Little Mermaid and he did it). However, given its fame it does have slightly more expensive “tourist-hub” prices ($6 for a gin and tonic compared to the standard $4).P1170083.JPG

GLUTEN FREE ADVENTURES

Theo’s Neighbourhood Pizza: It’s a little out of the typical tourist way being at the far end of Magazine Street, but it’s well worth the trek. GF crust is the best I’ve had so far.

Juan’s Flying Burritos: While there are no explicitly GF options listed on the menu, once you go with a corn tortilla instead of flour it’s all fair game. Tasty and well-priced Mexican option.

Evangeline: Simple and tasty southern cooking, they only have a couple of GF options but are also very accommodating to it, I had a burger and they made it for me without the bun, no problems at all.

FARE Food Apothecary: Specialising in gluten and dairy free baked goods I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when I found this place on Magazine Street.  However, with the extra effort of no-added sugar, I was slightly let down by the flavour of my cupcake.

RESTAURANTS

Although I couldn’t actually eat any of this stuff because of intolerances, they came highly recommended, and my friends thoroughly enjoyed the lot!

Magazine Po-boy Shop

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Café du Monde

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Salon by Sucré

Felix’s Oyster House