Cinque Terre Day 1: Vernazza to Monterosso

Today was a perfect, beautiful day. We slept in, popped the prosecco, and drank it on the porch overlooking Vernazza, alternatively consumed with reading and talking.

At 11 we set out to the train station to get hiking passes and then back down into the village and through a maze of stairs to the official hiking trail from Vernazza to the northernmost and largest town of the cinque terre: Monterosso. Before leaving the main street we popped into a bakery and grabbed focaccia topped in garlic and salty cheese. It was heavenly. Here, instead of pizza (although there’s plenty of that too), several shops in every town will sell squares of thick bread covered in cheese and a variety of simple toppings, but no sauce. Morning bread+cheese snack: check.

The trails are thin, narrow, and windy, guiding you through cliff-edges, forest, and terraces of vineyards and olive trees. But that made them perfect: it wasn’t a paved, quick stroll; we got tired, sweaty, out of breath, and thirsty. But we were surrounded by THIS.

The classic views I have been ogling and dreaming of stretched out right before me. And the two hours of work made the gelato at the end all that sweeter. And the beer, sandwich, and cappuccino were just as rejuvenating as the chair at the cafe that they came with, a place to rest shaky knees and wary feet. And then off again to explore.

We climbed more stairs to overlook the fort below – a relic of when turkish pirates haunted these shores. Pirates and weather forced the small villages to build high onto the cliff-sides. Coastal housing and sandy beaches are modern tourist-driven installations. St. Francis of Assisi is perched at one of the stair platforms, one arm on his pet wolf the other outstretched toward the other four towns of the cinque terre, each a small speck on the craggy coastline.

Up more stairs sits a monastery with one remaining monk. Up a final set of stairs is the cemetery of Monterosso. Half columbarium and half New-Orleans-esque above ground city of the dead, the walls and crypts seemed to continue forever into the hillside. True locals could probably visit generations of their family here and many stones had adornments like they do.

We boarded a ferry to return back to Vernazza from the water. By this time, large tour groups filled with the elderly or Asians had descended upon Monterosso, the gaggles blindly following an umbrella or flag sticking up over herd. Hilariously, one of these groups was in front of us in line for the ferry when suddenly a whistle went up, the flag went in another direction, and the sea of elderly parted to allow us immediate access to the ferry and empty seats in the back.

There are no true docks in the cinque terre – when the ferry “docks” near the concrete walk and wall abutting the tides, a one-person-wide gangplank is deployed with tires on the end. As the waves swing the boat up and down, the tires roll back and forth, as if debating on how close to the edge to let you off. It’s a slow, unnerving process. But overall the ferry is your cheapest leisurely cruise of the mediterranean shoreline.

Back in Vernazza, we took a nap. When sunset approached, we walked back down to the main street, grabbed a pizza to go, and sat on the large pile of rocks protruding out into the water to protect the small harbor. The sun set as we stuffed our faces with cheese in blissful peace.

Venice to Vernazza

Train: Venice to Florence

Mike and I got to the train station two hours early like we were catching an international flight. But we are in Italy now where trains seem to be able to do what they want and we waited and waited. The growing crowd of nervous train departure screen watchers grew and we all cheered when the track number was finally posted – 20 minutes late but supposedly still scheduled to leave on time.

Train: Florence to La Spezia

Mike and I had a tight connection we were convinced we had missed. But lo and behold the train was still listed under departures and we sprinted to the other side of the train station (isn’t your connection always on the opposite side of where you are?!). We found seats near a family from Long Island who were kind (although their luggage took up four entire seats) and caught our breath…and then waited and waited. Something wasn’t right.

Train: Florence to Lucca to Pisa to La Spezia to Vernazza

Eventually, we investigate and are told that there’s an accident on the tracks and our train won’t make it all the way to La Spezia. The lady dishing out this information started suggesting to the crowd other routes to take – but mostly it was a maze of connections through Italian cities I had never heard of. We walked away confident but then stared at the departures board in lost confusion.

I’m proud of us though. We didn’t freak out. We didn’t yell at each other. We didn’t bemoan that the entire trip was ruined. We didn’t rush decisions or re-purchase tickets. The long island people we had been sitting next to took forever to get all their luggage off the train and then immediately called their travel insurance to complain before even figuring out a plan. We met another group later that looked exhausted and pissed off after re-purchasing three different train tickets and feeling routed all over the place.

Instead, when we couldn’t figure out an alternate route on the departure screen or Mike’s phone or the timetable map, Mike went up to a security guard to see if the train station had a better information booth. Instead the guy told us to hop on the train leaving now right in front of him and connect via a city we had actually heard of: Pisa. So we just went with it and hopped on. Onboard I found a Tuscany train map that helped reassure us we were headed in the right direction and during train stops and connections we found drinks to stay hydrated and watched each other’s stuff during bathroom breaks. We handled the small mishap by treating it as a small mishap; we later learned the accident on the tracks was that someone had been killed by a train earlier and we were grateful to have not been on that train or the family of whoever was killed – someone always has it worse.

The one moment I felt bad about our late arrival was that we had told our AirBnb host that we would arrive at 3pm and we didn’t get there until after 5pm. Our host’s Italian-only speaking parents had been sitting there waiting for several hours to welcome us and give us the keys; the nice honeymoon prosecco they had put on ice for us was now sitting in a bucket of water. I said the word train over and over again in an apologetic tone but who knows how that translated.

We dropped our stuff off, meandered back down the stairs to the main street of the village and toward the harbor as the sun set. We grabbed a table right on the water and I enjoyed Italian pesto gnocchi and a local wine. Between the views from our AirBnb, the promise of hiking, and our sunset dinner, Cinque Terre grabbed us in the most wonderful way possible from the very beginning.

Venice: Photoshoot

All photo credit goes to Anthony who we found on AirBnb Experiences – here is his instagram:

So, we did a thing and I’m in love. (With both the boy and the photos.)



Venice: Day 1

When the hurricane canceled the wedding and we got married near the register of deeds in Manteo instead, I wore black shorts, shiny sandals, and a white off the shoulder top. It was not the original plan but it was beautiful and simple and perfect. But what to do with this wedding dress? The obvious answer: stuff it into a bag and take it to Europe.

I thought I was so spontaneous and original getting back-up wedding photos in Venice. I booked a photographer on AirBnb experiences and he even offered to photograph us at 7am before all the crowds arrived rather than the noonish time we booked. While the crowds weren’t there, at least three other groups with brides in weddings dresses were also having photoshoots! On a Monday. In October?! I guess I’m not that original 😉

I wore some ordinary sandals and didn’t pack makeup or jewelry – it was just me, the dress, and a lot of (mostly brushed) hair – for once, my outfit was way less complicated than Mike’s. At 7am the sun was just rising off the sea, sometimes creating that “glow” photographers love and sometimes piercing through the horizon and creating eye-squinting contrast between sunlight and shadow. I’ve never been in such a posed photoshoot before so I’m curious how it will all turn out – if forced smiles and straight backs amplify or dampen our awkwardness.

By 9am we were done and marching back through the alleyways of Venice to change back into normal clothes. Then a shot of espresso and back to San Marco.

The Basilica was overwhelming to both look at and navigate. Instead of buying one ticket, you bought little tickets to every corner of the church: want to see the altar? Ticket; want to see this room full of gold chalices? Ticket. Added up to one ticket, it probably would have been one reasonably priced museum but instead you kept making value judgements on whether a view of the altar was worth three euro. I don’t remember that in my research – maybe we did it wrong…

We tried to pick out all the fun murals in the gilded church and make up stories about them. Sure, Jesus and the saints were shiny and stern faced and everywhere but the Arab merchants that made Venice so profitable were there too. So were men and women getting eaten by a giant whale-like creature and soldiers battling two different multi-headed dragons. Fun stuff.

We found our way up a narrow staircase to the one thing I was definitely ready to pay money for: a glimpse of the bronze horses and a spot on the balcony overlooking San Marco square. The sun was rising up by the ferry port to the east behind the church, casting half the porch in bright sunlight and the other half in shade. It made the horses look majestic, like they were ready to leap into the open air. These horses featured prominently in a young-adult book called “the thief lord” I read while “researching” our trip (basically any documentary, tv show, or book that took place in Germany, Italy, or Greece – more on that later). The horses almost look like they don’t belong – sort of because they don’t. First of all the symbol of San Marco (St. Mark) adorned on the Venice flag is a pretty badass gryffindor-esque winged lion. So why put four ordinary horses in such a prominent spot when you could have put a cool mythical creature for your patron saint? Secondly, the horses are made of bronze which comes across as a dull brown and, while they’re large enough up close, a dull brown blob amongst towering architecture, gilded mosaics, and bells and clock towers just doesn’t stand out the way you want it to. Bet you didn’t even notice the horses in the picture above. But all that is gold does not glitter…

Bronze is actually an incredibly precious metal – especially during war time when you have a greater need for cannons and swords than statues. And over the past 2000 years, there have been a couple of wars. No one actually knows the full history of these horses but they are believed to have been cast in the 2nd or 3rd century AD, stolen from Constantinople during a crusade, and then stolen again and returned through various invasions of Venice (most notably Napoleon stole them on his way through in the 1800’s). Horse-pulled chariots used to be a common enough statue, but these are the only set of complete horses still around (later, in Delphi, Greece, we saw one of the only bronze charioteers ever found.) For something so old, the detail is phenomenal – the artist gave the horses expressive faces, detailed muscles, and even scratch marks on the metal supposedly to diffuse light and make them less blinding in the sun – and all of this accomplished by hand made, one time use casts which could hold enough boiling metal for a 10ft tall horse. I experimented with casting at Virginia Tech’s foundry lab for a summer – and let me tell you a 1ft rectangular box ended up being one of my most useless projects – awesome safety suit, legit molten metal, useless results in my hands.

The balcony provided a perfect view of the clock tower across the way. It was this unexpected mediterranean, bright blue with gold decorations against a white building. The clock hands were the sun and moon, pointing to twelve white stone roman numerals encircling the zodiac symbols and stars which were gold against a dark blue backdrop. Above the clock was Mary holding Jesus; above that was the badass winged lion of St. Mark with a paw on a book; and above that was a giant bell and two figures posed to strike the bell. Mike thought the two figures were actually striking the bell, but from below I thought they were just statues caught in a moment of movement – I had to climb all the way up to the balcony, squint, and wait for the bell to chime to believe him – but Mike was right, they move!

Exhausted and a little cranky, we went to find Alfredo’s – a cheap, to-go pasta joint in one of Venice’s many winding side-streets. Three years after visiting my friends still RAVE about this place but when we found it, the restaurant was no longer called Alfredo’s, was advertising that it had franchised itself throughout Europe, and had average pasta in chinese take-out containers. Its saving grace was that it was cheap (a very important thing in overpriced Venice) and we were full and ready for a nap.

We marched back across Venice to our hostel and passed out for the afternoon.

Post nap-time, we were ready for our Gondola lesson.  Awhile ago, I made Mike listen to this podcast on the first “female” gondolier during a weekend road trip. From the outside it seemed like this great feminist-battles-the-establishment story but instead the podcast dove beyond the headlines and found this great twist of complexity with identity and sexuality.  (Listen to it here

So on top of the sexist undertones, Mike and I were also a little disappointed at seeing congested canals of gondolas stuck in bow-to-stern traffic – all taking the exact same route, all waiting their turn. Some even had operatic singers backed by an accordion – it almost seemed more pleasant to stumble across a bridge and listen to the music on the waterways for a couple of minutes than to be stuck on a boat with it for an hour.

Mike and I instead opted for Gondola lessons (actually the boat is called a Voga and has its own rich history and practicality and boating people would probably be mad that I’m equating the two – but we’re stand-rowing a boat in Venetian canals so I will call it gondola lessons). The company (Row Venice) is all women instructors who seem to row semi-professionally on the side. So instead of being rowed around silently and awkwardly by a man, we learned a new skill in the quieter, northern part of Venice from some badass women.

Growing up with my Dad’s canoe, I thought I would have a slight advantage in at least knowing what I supposed to be doing with a paddle: the front of the boat is the powerhouse, the back steers with some fancy swishes of the oar. But of course I’m not the greatest powerhouse and standing up on the boat and feeling like you’re gonna fall off while trying to steer with an oar twice your height with fancy swishes is like a whole new level of patting your head and rubbing your stomach: lots of focus, lots of brain-arm coordination mismatch. Mike of course was a brilliant powerhouse from the beginning. I like to think I finally did better at the end of the lesson by steering the boat straight through a canal and not hitting anything for 50 feet.

At one point we rowed past the original ghetto. As a trading city, Venice saw the value of different cultures. At the time, Spain was in the middle of kicking out all of its Jews and Venice – seeing value in an educated population known for the useful occupations of jewelers and bankers – invited them to the city. But this is still a different time and Venice’s open door policy only allowed Jews to be quarantined in one small neighborhood; a neighborhood that was gated and locked at night (you can now see the gates in the Holocaust Museum in DC). Over the years, if a three block radius is your people’s only sanctuary, then you can visualize small cramped rooms stacked as tightly and as close and as tall as you can imagine. Apparently there’s an Italian word for that chaos and it sounds kinda like getto. As we rowed by, a handful of men in yamakas seemed bowed in deep conversation – I am sure there has been 800 years of tumultuous history since the ghetto was first created but it is kind of nice to see a Jewish community still here.

After the lesson, our final, circuitous and slow, walk back to the airbnb for the evening involved stopping for several glasses of wine, a mango desert, some bruschetta, and a bookstore. The bookstore was part touristy, part used books stacked floor-to-ceiling along the walls and in a gondola that takes up most of the floor space, and part new releases in a variety of languages and topics. I found a giant coffee table book on the history of map making. It is brilliant and totally worth making Mike carry it around the rest of the trip :p

Overall, Venice was exhausting. This was partially our fault for cramming so much into one day. But the maze of canals and alleyways and bridges and streets was both romantic in a get-lost-and-explore sort of way but also tiring in a oh-my-god-why-are-we-always-lost-and-why-is-there-nowhere-to-sit way. It was beautiful and overwhelming. We learned some of the history but couldn’t cram it all. We walked AROUND THE ENTIRE CITY but barely saw the grand canal in the middle (see map). Our only respite was running back into the comforts of our AirBnb or pausing at a cafe or stopping and appreciating some detail – but there are no parks, there are no benches, there are no trees – just endless alleyways of stone and water; it’s the craziness and opulence of manhattan without the calm of central park.

Train Adventure: Munich to Venice

In the morning, I pushed us to venture out into the rain for some last-minute souvenirs. I pondered a cuckoo clock, hand-carved with wood from the black forest, but at several hundred Euros decided against it. Instead, we got a giant, classic beer stein with the words Oktoberfest and 2018 and depicting a man guzzling beer straight from the keg. It seemed appropriate.

We were warm and dry and safe in the train. The rain outside shrouded the alps in mist, dramatizing the mountains spiking up over scattered villages below. We moved from rolling hills with cows in Germany to steep mountains with pockets of terraced agriculture in Austria to oddly flat valleys filled with grapevines flanked by tall walls of mountains in Italy.

In Germany and Austria, every train station had free wifi. So as we pulled up at beautiful, picturesque stops, I’d quickly pull out my phone and google pictures and maps of where we were, trying desperately to hold onto odd names for potential future adventures – Innsbruck, Brenner, Borghetto…but I still can’t find all the names and pictures to match the breathtaking castle ruins perched atop hills or the breezy waterfalls dropping toward picturesque villages nestled into valley crevices.

As we moved further south, rail station signs shifted from German and English to Italian and German to finally Italian and English.

When we arrived in Venice it was already dark and the rain had gotten worse. We caught a vaporetto (water bus) toward our stop at San Basilio in the south west corner of the island. We found our AirBnb relatively easily – a gate on one of the dizzying side streets that led to a courtyard filled with laundry hung to dry but now getting soaked which then led to the door of our temporary little corner of the world. – and then

We dashed out into the rain again for the simplest and warmest thing we could think of: Italian Pizza. Google led us to a little hole in the wall near the university and with good reviews but with the odd name of gecko. We took it to go, ran back over bridges and through a maze of alleyways in the rain, and had dinner in bed for the second night in a row. It was cheesy and delicious.

Munich Day 3: Oktoberfest

Today, we attempted Oktoberfest.

Before such an adventure, we needed a good breakfast. Shout-out to Mike’s Dad for using his points to get us a hotel room in the heart of Munich and for being a Platinum Member which made the pricey and beautiful breakfast buffet free to us. This buffet was the bomb – like they legit served an entire honeycomb you could take a spoonful out of to sweeten your fruit bowl.

Oktoberfest was an adult’s dream festival. Hordes of people spilled out from the metro and into the fairground. Our Lederhosen and Dirndl blended in perfectly. Classic carnival rides sat beside fun houses, stands that sold pretzels the size of your head, and stalls that sold feathered hats and flower crowns. A row over, a dozen beer tents spilled out into the streets. Tent is really the wrong word for these things…they are real beer hall structures that seem to hold thousands, have second floors, and a center stage for oompah bands. We had to confirm with some locals that these are really only up for a couple of weeks every year!

We toured a couple of tents and wound up in the Pschorr-Braurosl tent when a beer maid approached us and then sat us down at a random table. Soon, more random people were seated around us. We met a couple from Tulsa, OK who sat across from us. We talked engineering, traveling, and living on the east coast for awhile. Soon, two of their friends squeezed in at the table too. To our left, four local Munich people stopped by for a Sunday afternoon pint. They half ignored us Americans and half explained traditions, tried to make us drink more, and pulled us up onto the benches to dance.

The oompah band marched in to great uproar before becoming loud background noise. Every 10 minutes or so, they played “Ein Prosit” which caused everyone to pause their conversation, raise up their beer, shout along to the song, and then drink. It is very hard to drink slowly when you are toasting every 10 minutes. Here are the lyrics if you are drinking along in your living room:

Ein Prosit, ein Prosit
Der Gemütlichkeit
Ein Prosit, ein Prosit
Der Gemütlichkeit.

Later, there were performers who stood in two rows at every other table and cracked whips in the air to the beat of the oompah bands. This caused the three to four engineers at the table to discuss that whips make noise by breaking the sound barrier and that they were the first man made object to do so. #drinkingnerds

Behind us, guys would take turns throwing food into the air and catching it with their mouth. Every time they succeeded, they ran around hyping up other tables to celebrate. At one point, a guy was so excited he caught a strawberry he threw his hat into the air and it landed perfectly in the folds of one of the many billowing yellow sheets that line the roof of the tent for decoration. Undaunted, they spent the next half hour throwing loaves of bread up to push the hat out. When they were finally successful, I think the whole tent cheered. This was at about 1pm on a Sunday. But what is time?

Don’t believe people when they say they can handle 4 pints (I just read a girl’s blog on her visit to Oktoberfest where she said she averaged 4 pints a day)…or do and be properly amazed…because 1 pint in, I was feeling it. Another half pint later, I knew we could no longer handle the peer pressure and needed to leave our new friends and table before we wound up with the many people passed out on benches or in the grass, the police casually prodding them with a boot to make sure they’re alive. The beer was genuinely smooth and easy to drink, but unlike the craft brewery wave in America with flavor options and percentages and self-pour taps, Oktoberfest has at best four beer options and only one is served in each tent. You literally find your closest beer maid, say beer, and a pint comes your way.

After leaving the tent, we tipsily rode the carnival rides, got a pretzel larger than my head, expressed our undying love for each other, and got lost finding the metro.

When we made it back to the hotel it was immediately nap time. When we woke up at 7pm that same day, we got room service for dinner and watched several more hours of Jimmy Fallon. It was all actually a pretty well-timed whirlwind.

Munich Day 2: Neuschwanstein

After a restless night and an alarm that never went off, we woke up late and missed the train we intended to catch to Neuschwanstein. We threw on our warmest clothes (the high for the day was going to be 55), packed cameras and wallets and ran for the metro to the train station. Luckily, this is Europe and a train runs this route every hour.

Unfortunately, in our rush, we tried to buy the proper train ticket on Mike’s phone instead of figuring out German buttons again. This worked ok when we had service in Munich, but when the grumpy train ticket lady came around half way through our journey, we no longer had service and could no longer open our ticket. Luckily, some Germans sitting nearby jumped to our defense and translated the situation, to which she rolled her eyes and walked off.

For two hours the train rolled through beautiful German countryside. Mike and I played a game where we would spot cows and then moo at each other. I noticed roof after roof had solar and some farms even had scattered wind turbines – proof that even in northern, cold Germany solar is somehow reasonable. Later, Mike and I geeked out over Germany’s energy portfolio on Wikipedia.

The train ended in a cute town called Fussen where a small historical downtown on the water held winding, narrow cobblestone streets lined with shops and eateries. Here, we got bikes at the local hostel and met our tour guide (right on time!).

From the outside, Neuschwanstein had seemed a bit complicated to plan: you had to take a train to Fussen then a particular bus to Hohenschwangau (try saying that 5 times…or at all…) where you could then stand in line and hope for a timed ticket into the castle 2-5 hours from then. If we had been early, we could have attempted all of this ourselves. As it was now, the biking tour guide we had previously booked also became our travel agent and arranged last minute and perfectly timed tickets into the castle (albeit at a premium). Given our morning rush, it was totally worth it. The tour guide herself was pretty average (I probably learned more from Rick Steves than her) but the bike ride was amazing – a leisurely, flat, 20-minute ride from the train station to the base of the castle. Instead of rushing or worrying about getting lost, we got to appreciate the local architecture, look across wide fields, and bike over a river.

As we biked, the castle peeked from around corners and finally into full view, building anticipation as it appeared larger and larger atop its perch on the mountain.

After 17 years of building, “Mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria had only resided in the castle for 5 months before he was declared insane, dethroned, and imprisoned before dying a mysterious death with his psychiatrist two days later, supposedly an accidental drowning in 1 meter deep water. He was actually in the middle of building three castles and was having money problems – only 1/3 of Neuschwanstein was ever actually completed. Hearing this, I wondered if touring the inside was even worth it – who wants to pay so much money to only see 1/3 of a castle of a guy with money problems when the outside is the GORGEOUS, fairy tale portion you could hike beneath?

dragons and turrets and angels, oh my!

But it was fascinating. King Ludwig was a King in the late 1800’s, a puppet of his larger neighbors Austria and Prussia, on the eve of unification where Bavaria would become part of a larger Germany, and in a Victorian era filled with new technology but also the beginnings of Democracy where the role of Kings had been reduced. And in the midst of this, this wealthy but not powerful man dreamt of the middle ages where Kings could be Kings. A set designer for plays designed the outside of Neuschwanstein before an architect was forced to make Disney’s Cinderella castle a reality. The interior used modern steel to support the structure, modern plumbing, a telephone to the neighboring castle, and battery-powered lighting and servant callers. The modern foundation supported gilded walls of panels of Wagner plots, bed frames and chairs with intricate carvings, and even an entire hallway re-imagined with plaster and lighting to be a cave/grotto. The entire house was designed to be the setting of a medieval play with an actor and audience of one. There were roaring lions, snarling dragons and elegant swans – none of which I had associated with a Bavarian King before.

We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the castle – but here was King Ludwig II’s view:

Back in Munich, we braved the dark and cold to find Mike a dinner of Schnitzel at a proper biergarden (apparently, one can not survive on pretzels and pastries alone). The inside was surprisingly concrete and modern-looking, but with low-ceiling nooks and crannies for your party to escape into. We sat at the bar, surrounded by revelers in Dirndls and Lederhosen. The bartender was kind and talkative and after the house beer we had him craft us a drink that became a sort-of-mojito with the house made ginger lemonade.

Munich Day 1

The beauty of coordinated, European transportation immediately greeted us upon our arrival: an airport connected to a train station to get you to the city center from which you take the metro to anywhere you want. Rick Steves is my favorite and his guidebook came through on how to buy the right ticket for all of this in German. (Mike and I donate to PBS purely to get more access to Rick Steves’ shows; I would build a pagan shrine in my closet made out of gum devoted to him if I had room.) I also want to move to Europe so we can go anywhere by train instead of car.

We boarded a train to the city center, drained from lack of sleep on the red-eye but surrounded by people dressed in lederhosen and a group of English guys clearly on a bachelor party outing to Oktoberfest.

Our hotel seemed to have its own metro stop and the view outside of the city center, green roofs covered in moss, and solar panels was beautiful.

That evening we ventured out to Marienplatz, the city center of Munich and stumbled upon the glockenspiel parading a medieval wedding story after the bell tolled at 5pm. The characters only turn twice a day – we couldn’t have planned that better if we tried.

The statue of some random Munich guy turned into a Michael Jackson shrine…I don’t know the details either :p

We got dinner at a table on the square. I ordered the one vegetarian dish: two lumps of beer cheese with two slices of bread, surrounded by random vegetables that I could easily push to the side. Mike ordered some very German beef and potatoes thing. We shivered as the sun set and the temperature dropped from comfortable to freezing.

We struck up a conversation with a German woman at the table next to us. Her English was impeccable until she started talking American politics and got so flustered she struggled for words. She knew Brett Kavanaugh by name and yet I didn’t even think to get a local’s perspective on the EU and Angela Merkel, although we did discuss Poland’s democracy issues.

Exhausted, we were in bed at 7:30pm. Then awake at 9pm, then midnight. My phone remained on American time for some reason while Mike’s had switched over to the correct Munich time zone. One of two channels in English seemed to play the Late Show with Jimmy Fallon on loop. Once again, the relativity of time blows my mind.

In memoriam to the little things

So, if you don’t know: Mike and I are married! Hurricane Florence swept through, forced evacuations, and cancelled everything. Mid-evacuation of Nags Head we went to Manteo, got our marriage license, and were married by a clerk at the register of deeds who also happened to be an ordained minister – bless her. Both our parents were there and it was actually a beautifully sunny, breezy day. Later in the week, we held a hurricane party with most of Mike’s family and a bunch of friends in Northern Virginia.

From the beginning, we talked about eloping. Our marriage would be a pact to each other, a vow between the two of us to take on the rest of the world together. But we also love our families. And that saying- where you only see your family at weddings and funerals? It kind of wrung true.  And my family has been to too many funerals lately, why deny us a happy party? So we wanted to host this wedding as a party for you all – sure we would get to be the center of attention, but we wanted this to be a big family reunion (with a good photographer).

So we made budgets and started saving and touring venues. It rained every weekend we toured wedding venues. The cheap, giant, backyard grill-out in a state park at the peak of October leafing that I could picture so vividly crumbled in the rain. Suddenly we needed something with a roof and that roof needed to hold a lot of people. Tents didn’t seem sturdy enough and every hotel ballroom felt austere with drab curtains and musty carpet. Our guest count was an issue now that we required a roof: every homey, cute venue held a max of 100 people – we needed a room to fit almost 200. On a gray and rainy Sunday morning in July in the Outer Banks, we toured Jennette’s Pier as an afterthought before leaving town. It was a state-owned facility – so it was cheap – and part of the North Carolina Aquarium system – so it was chasing after all the things I believed in: education, renewable energy, and oceanic stewardship. It also fit 175 people and had a wrap-around porch that made you feel like you were standing on top of the ocean, on the brink of an adventure.

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When we called to book over a year in advance, every Saturday in October was gone, one weekend was left in August, one weekend in November, and two in September. August would be hot and in the middle of pricey peak season. My gut hated September – I knew it would be hurricane season, still hot and muggy, and there were so many emotional dates already in September: my mother’s birthday, my cousin Paisley’s car crash, Mike and I’s first date, and talk like a pirate day – just to name a few. September seemed tempestuous and I wanted a lazy fall day, even if it was on the beach and not in the mountains. I tried to convince myself September 22nd would work – it was the equinox and I appreciated the symbolism of equality and the changing of the seasons. Of course even that date didn’t work out and we were stuck with September 15th.

From there our costs ballooned. It was like every vendor was cackling at what we had thought would be a reasonable budget. How could renting a tablecloth be more expensive than buying one? But then what would we do with 20 tablecloths? But we slowly planned, disseminated information, signed contracts as best we could, and tried not to think too hard on how much we were spending for one silly – but supposedly perfect – day. I am not the kind of bride that ever dreamed up her ideal wedding and vendors always looked puzzled when we didn’t get excited over traditional moments or minute details. The “first look” controversy was always the funniest one to me – is the groom allowed to see the bride before the wedding or only when she is walking down the aisle? – lol I wear that dress around the HOUSE. I wore it to the royal wedding as it played on the tv screen in my living room and I sipped tea and Mike rolled his eyes. I wore it cause I wanted to feel pretty one Saturday. I wore it as I read a biography of Leonardo Da Vinci on the porch. Why does no one get excited about the first look of the groom?! Will he have a beard or not? Liberty spikes or Jimmy Neutron?

Finding that dress was probably the highlight of this whole process though. Normally, people bring their mom and a friend shopping. My brides-people were scattered across the country and my mom died when I was 13. How do I pick amongst all the women in my life for this apparently coveted role? So I didn’t – all 14 came to David’s Bridal with me. My entire mother’s side of the family held a birthday party in Virginia Beach for my grandmother’s 90th birthday. On Sunday, my grandmother and every aunt and female cousin invaded the stacks of dresses and tried to find me “the one.” For most, so many people and opinions in one room may sound like the worst experience ever – but I hate shopping and my family is wonderful and gets me. Earlier, amongst David’s Bridals thousands of online dresses, I had found exactly two that were worthy of a bookmark. Somehow, completely on their own, my family picked out one of those two and within a couple of painless hours, I had a dress. Even as the fittings wore on, my aunt Lauren and cousins would show up to alterations for support and suggestions and twirling.

My wedding planning style was: be organized enough to get all the details together, but laid back enough to give zero shits about them. I stressed over pinterest-perfect DIY ideas so that they could be pretty enough to ignore. Once we bought event cancellation insurance, I would openly wish for a hurricane to take me out of my misery and give me my money back. It was mostly a funny joke – but now feels like I was “asking for” a devastating hurricane to force evacuations and flood homes. The funny part is eloping would have meant no work for us; a hurricane meant we did a ton of work only to elope and not enjoy the fruits of our labor. 

So, here I am with all the cute details in boxes in our garage. To keep control of costs, Mike and I were the planners, decorators, DIY-ers, and event coordinators for everything – except the day-of where my bridesmaid’s sister Becky was going to step in and beautifully boss everyone around. Mike and I and our families put time and effort and thought into a lot of things only for them to never see the light of day. So here, via pictures, they will see the light of day dammit. And you all can read about what a good time you could have had and how much we actually had our shit together.

Tables and centerpieces

From the beginning I wanted dark purple and gray. We rented gray tablecloths and dark purple cloth napkins for the tables. Centerpieces consisted of wood rounds that Mike’s brother-in-law and sister cut and then promptly killed a chainsaw over. When they got to us, Mike took an entire Saturday to research the right oil they needed to be soaked in so the wood wouldn’t crack as it dried (something called Pentacryl, which could only be found at Woodcraft, and which is still in our garage). I then took another entire Saturday, right as the hurricane started looking dangerous but we needed to pack and finish anyway, to sand off all the edges that had fallen off and the rough parts of the top and bottom. We bought the entire stock of tiny jars at a labor day sale at Michael’s the weekend before the wedding. We bought giant whelk shells off the side of the road during a visit to the eastern shore, after which I carefully soaked them in bleach and laid them out to dry in the sun in an attempt to get them not to smell so badly. We bought little lighthouse lanterns and then debated for days on the dangers of tea lights. I bought gears to act as table confetti – in a nod to Mike’s fraternity, our occupation as engineers, and because of the constant search for nerd-chic decor.

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Name Cards

My aunt Colleen came up with the idea to use lighthouses as our table numbers so we found 18 lighthouse names and pictures all along the east coast, printed them, and carefully cut A-frame paper stands for each table. On a table as you walked into the reception area would be 110 compasses attached by string to a little tag that held a couple’s names, table number, and star chart. A sign would have read “navigate to your seat” beside two maps of every lighthouse on the east coast.

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Other Hallway stuff

I digitized Mike’s parents entire wedding album and most of my own parent’s wedding before printing my two favorite candid shots. These would have been adorned with my mother’s veil and Mike’s mother’s veil. Nearby, we would have had skeleton key beer openers as wedding favors – I never figured out the stupid sign for these – the key to love? Barf.

We would have also displayed our dirt. Wherever we have traveled or wherever an important moment has happened, Mike and I have pinched dirt or stones or shells or sand into old chemistry test tubes I stole from Virginia Tech. We have a picture from our engagement shoot/hike that says “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” – John Muir.

We got the pier’s “AV package” which funnily enough did not include any sound system but did include a TV that would have displayed a slideshow of family and friends and a piano where my uber talented cousin Henry would have played the Lord of the Rings soundtrack.

Memorial Mantel

I struggled for a very long time on how to incorporate my mom into this day. I genuinely hate what people normally do for deceased loved ones at weddings: a sign that reads “we know you would be here if heaven weren’t so far away” …just, ew. Or black and white photos on a table shoved into a corner and quickly forgotten. In the end, my Aunt Colleen came through again with the perfect suggestion: a wall of quotes. A burst of personality and life lessons to be displayed on the pier’s fireplace mantel, in the center of it all. I threw a little Disney in there because Lilo and Stitch are the best. And lastly, we added a pair of Cranes. These were also bought from the side of the road on the eastern shore of Virginia – when we told the artist we would use them for our wedding, they quickly made us a “pair” of cranes – male and female – instead of just the one we had been eyeing. We watched him cut pvc tubing and use a hair dryer to melt and shape the crane’s legs, wings, and curved neck. In Japanese culture, the crane can symbolize hope and something to wish on. So on either edge, these majestic shoreline birds, served as the ambassadors for Mike and I to surround the loved ones we wished were there.

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Food and Drink

Mike and I went through months of negotiation only to be dropped by our first caterer. We found a second caterer and then re-did all the back and forth of what we wanted out of the menu. Mostly, a Mac and Cheese bar for me. But also a buffet that felt inclusive for all of our vegetarian and gluten-free friends (although Vegans…I’m sorry…that was so hard…I really just need cheese in my life). We even found two different gluten-free cakes for yall. And of course, shrimp for my Dad, a traditional anniversary meal between him and my mom.

Mike’s parents bought boxes and boxes of wine for beach week and for the wedding – mostly because Mike and I don’t like wine, and when we do like wine, it’s the sweet, grape juice variety – so we decided to defer to more expert wine drinkers. My aunt Ruth and bridesmaid Tracee’s mom were both scoping out the Navy Exchange in Norfolk for champagne, beer, and cider.

Mike and I worked very hard on finding the right champagne and juice combinations for the mimosa bar. And with so much extra champagne, we will continue to work very hard on this issue. Also, instead of fancy people carafes we would have had chemistry beakers holding your juice selections – there’s that nerdy chic aesthetic again 😉

Wedding Ceremony

I became absolutely obsessed with circle arches. My one moment of wedding hysteria. Circles are just the best though – you know? The circle of life, circular rings, pi(e). But apparently they were the trend this year and all sold out. In a last ditch effort, I asked my Dad how hard it would be to make one, three weeks before the wedding. The best thing about Dads is that without hesitation or question he agreed and just asked what diameter I wanted. With a nail, free pallet wood, and pencil, he made a makeshift protractor in our garage. I did some geometry and made a couple of drawings at work. And over a weekend we traced, cut, sanded, and nailed the arch together. Mike made the feet and after a disastrous bout with wood stain, we painted the whole thing white – outdoor paint, 3-4 coats. This baby better stand the test of time in our backyard. Now to pick a climbing vine – roses or honeysuckle? Or both?!

The other half of my wedding hysteria was that I really, really wanted an oak barrel. I’m still not even sure what the barrel’s purpose was going to be? Wedding alter? Adventure dirt holder? Platform for the wedding speakers? One problem is that I somehow made enemies with the barrel supplier of Raleigh – I had been on the hunt for a compost barrel, rain barrel, and oak barrel all at the same time – and somehow she supplies all three, does not enjoy haggling, and no longer returns facebook messages. Anyways – I found another one near Kings Dominion instead for $100 and made Mike bring a U-haul of otherwise expensive but free-to-us furniture to the middle of nowhere for this splurge. As we were loading up cars to go to the Outer Banks, we discovered that our barrel was leaking. Instead of packing it up as it dripped wine-colored water, we put the barrel under a sprinkler, rotating every half-hour, for half a day, hoping the wood would soak up enough water, expand, and stop leaking. Our foolproof plan seemed to work.

Finally, we would have lined the aisle with starfish hanging off of the chairs on the pier. Our two Ushers, Addy Stover and Chloe Cookson would have passed out water bottles and drinks from my Dad’s canoe-turned-ice bucket and a pair of our custom sunglasses – green & gold for William  & Mary, maroon and orange for Virginia Tech, and purple and gray for our wedding colors – a rainbow to choose from.

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Ceremony Readings

Reading 1: Carl Sagan inspired
“The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home. And yet our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise. In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is prerequisite to survival. Our little planet floats like a mote of dust in the morning sky. All that you see, all that we can see, exploded out of a star billions of years ago, and the particles slowly arranged themselves into living things, including all of us. We are made of star stuff. We are the mechanism by which the universe can comprehend itself. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth. We should remain grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides. The sum of all our evolution, our thinking and our accomplishments is love. A marriage makes two fractional lives a whole. It gives to two questioning natures a renewed reason for living. It brings a new gladness to the sunshine, a new fragrance to the flowers, a new beauty to the earth, and a new mystery to life.”

Reading 2
I fear that I will always be
A lonely number like root three
The three is all that’s good and right,
Why must my three keep out of sight
Beneath the vicious square root sign,
I wish instead I were a nine
For nine could thwart this evil trick,
with just some quick arithmetic
I know I’ll never see the sun, as 1.7321
Such is my reality, a sad irrationality
When hark! What is this I see,
Another square root of a three
Has quietly come waltzing by,
Together now we multiply
To form a number we prefer,
Rejoicing as an integer
We break free from our mortal bonds
With the wave of magic wands
Our square root signs become unglued
Your love for me has been renewed

“The Square Root of Three,”a poem by David Feinberg, film “Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay”

The vows

Mike never wrote vows so in all the hurricane hysteria it seemed weird for only me to deliver them. So, internet, here’s how much I love this kid. Picture a beautiful day on a pier in the middle of the ocean, a circle arch and barrel are behind us, 175 of our closest friends surround us, the sun is out, personalized sunglasses are on, and the wind is perfectly swooshing my hair:

I’m sorry my love of cookout destroyed you having abs. I hope you can forgive me.

Because I love you just the way you are.

I love our quiet moments where we do nothing together. The uncontrollable giggles as we brush our teeth, our quiet walks around the neighborhood, and the long hot tub discussions looking up at the stars in our backyard.

I love our loud adventures. When I was scared of turning 25, you took me to Harry Potter world so I could turn 13 instead. I used to plan trips that packed in a thousand museums and cities in a week – but now you remind me its ok to schedule naps. When I underplan trips (like when we were lost in the grand canyon without water) you keep a level head and help make sure everything turns out ok.

I love how much you care. You are a rollercoaster playground for my cousins, serve as Lauren’s handyman, cook breakfast for everyone who visits us, and share matching jackets with my Dad with an ease and kindness that blows me away.

When I’m sad, you know exactly what Disney movie to play; when I’m lazy and complaining you remind me that “I’m a strong, independent woman”; when I’m happy, you share in the joy with beer, awesome dance moves, and ceremonial dirt. I feel so safe and at home in your arms.  

I am so excited to have you as my partner in life – I hope we can work through anything – and I can’t wait for all of the adventures to come.

Lava and Roar

For those not in the know: “Roar” means “I love you” in dinosaur, obviously, and is from a card Rachael sent Mike while she was in England for a summer. Lava is from the Disney short before Inside Out where the two volcanoes fall in love and sing “I Lava you.” We are aware dinosaurs and lava have a tumultuous history.

In conclusion

It’s been cathartic to be able to spill out how much a year and half of wedding planning can deliver. But in the end, most of this is just stuff. We can repurpose it or give it away. Even our vows are unimportant – I can tell Mike I love him every day as he plays VR and I read a book in the hammock. I am incredibly grateful none of our friends and family were harmed by the hurricane and I hope that those who were impacted find shelter, kindness, and strength. A giant, expensive party being canceled in not a true disaster. The real thing I am mourning is the stuff I can’t take pictures of – all of our friends and family forced to gather in one time and place to just enjoy each other’s company. I imagine we will have half a dozen wedding reenactments over the year to make up for that and I hope I have the presence of mind to capture pictures of them all. I’m happy to wear this dress as many times as necessary 🙂