I’ve sat here for the past hour, trying to string together in a logical manner words that might adequately sum up what the past five years have meant to me – to us, as a family – and I’ve failed miserably. I’ve typed a hundred sentences and deleted them all before they could even benefit from the satisfying closure of punctuation.
Perhaps it is because I’m still seeking closure on this part of our lives myself, something I didn’t expect to still be waiting for almost three weeks after returning home, but that’s a discussion for another day. Today is about properly, or more likely not so properly, recapping the extraordinary journey we’ve been on the past half decade.
A little over five years ago, we left everything familiar behind and moved to a strange country where peas come mashed, the queue is sacred, and despite sharing a common language we often had no earthly idea what people were saying. After three years in London, we traded our 11-months-of-the-year winter coats for shorts, flip-flops, and copious amounts of sunscreen on the sunny shores of Singapore where we lived for two years with several uninvited reptilian houseguests and where mushy peas were no longer the most exotic thing on the menu.
Five years isn’t quite so long in the grand scheme of things, but the significance is hardly ever in the amount of time that passes, but the moments that occur within it. And in the 1,855 days we spent living overseas, we certainly enjoyed more than our fair share of memorable moments, many of which were made while taking advantage of our favorite perk of being expats – traveling.
Having planned and been on only ONE family trip prior to moving overseas, I think it’s pretty safe to say we had no idea what we were doing when we first started traveling. Over time, and through many mistakes, mishaps, and successes, we figured it out, though. And in doing so, collected a whole host of priceless souvenirs in the form of memories we’ll carry with us no matter where in the world we happen to be living.
Today, in honor of our family of three’s expat chapter officially coming to a close, I’d like to share just a small sampling of our favorite highlights from five years of travel. (And believe me, culling this list down to just 20 was no easy task!) But first, let’s talk numbers.
Five Years of Travel: By the Numbers
Here’s something you probably don’t know about me – I’m a bit of a closet spreadsheet junkie. I keep meticulous lists and spreadsheets of everything, from every book I’ve ever read to every mile I’ve ever run, and this obsession extends to our travels as well. Some people count countries, I count countries, cities, planes, trains, nights spent in hotels, and so on. It’s a little crazy, I know, but comes in handy on the rare occasion, like this one, where it’s helpful to have numbers to illustrate exactly how much we’ve done and seen. With that said, here are the final stats from our five years as expats:
- New Countries Traveled To: 20
- Old Countries Returned To: 15
- Trips Back To The US: 8
- Day Trips: 2
- Total: 45 Trips Taken
- Nights Spent In Hotels: 118
- Airplane Journeys Survived: 88
- Trains Taken: 31 (Not counting subway trains. Even I have to draw the line somewhere.)
- Buses Taken: 23 (Again, only counting ones that take us to a different city.)
- Rental Cars Hired: 9
- Boats That Didn’t Sink: 8
- Boats That Did Sink: 0
And how much did all of that cost? Usually, sharing exact figures makes me uncomfortable, but in this case I’m going to suck up my pride to prove a point. In five years of travel, we spent exactly $44,936. That includes every single expense from flights to spare change used to buy a bottle of water. I’m sure you can do the math, but that’s under $9,000 per year for three people, so less than $3,000 a year per person.
Not counting our trips back to the US which are the only trips we don’t pay for ourselves, it costs our family $9,000 to travel an average of 7.5 times (!) every year. I’m aware not everyone has a spare nine grand to drop on a non-necessity like travel, but I also think most of us spend a decent amount of money every year on things that aren’t necessary without even realizing it. If you learn to pay attention, it’s not too difficult to start funneling that cash into something more meaningful. I promise, you don’t have to have oodles of money to have a good time when you travel. I would think this blog is perfect evidence of that.
But hey, what do I know? I haven’t had a haircut in over a year, my clothes are so old they’re practically see-through, and I’m currently writing this on a computer that smells like burning plastic if I keep it on too long, so maybe I’m the one with the upside-down priorities. But if we hadn’t made travel our priority, we wouldn’t have been able to experience any of the following things, none of which I’d ever trade for more fashionable clothes or an age-appropriate haircut.
20 Highlights from Five Years of Travel
1. The First Adventure into Europe
Our first trip after moving to London was always going to be special, even if it turned out to be a disaster, which thankfully it wasn’t because we picked the very best place for people who have no idea how to travel to travel to. Easily reachable from London, compact enough to make attempting public transport unnecessary, reasonably priced, full of fun things to do but not so much that you stress out trying to see it all, and a population of people who almost always speak English in addition to Dutch – Amsterdam is perfect for first-time travelers.
Early morning walks along the canals, long dinners on outdoor patios at sunset, a sneaky peek into the Red Light District, and a moving visit to the Anne Frank family’s hiding place – I can’t even remember now what made us decide on Amsterdam for our first foray into Europe, but I’m so glad we did. Amsterdam was our first date with travel and it was definitely love at first sight!
2. Accidentally Attending Mass at Notre-Dame Cathedral
Besides the Eiffel Tower, the place I was most looking forward to visiting in Paris was Notre-Dame Cathedral and so that’s where we headed on our very first morning in the city, completely oblivious to the fact that it was a Sunday. We arrived to find a morning mass taking place, restricting the areas visitors were allowed into.
Disappointed at first that I wasn’t going to be able to see the cathedral like I’d originally hoped, my disappointment quickly turned to astonishment and awe as the voices of the choir rose to fill every nook and cranny of the church and the rich tones of the organ sent vibrations clear through to my soul. It doesn’t matter what religion you are or even if you have no religion at all, hearing music so perfect and heavenly in a setting as beautiful as Notre-Dame will cause goosebumps to cover every square inch of your body.
Read More: A Sunday Visit To Notre-Dame Cathedral
3. Making a Spectacle of Ourselves in the Alps
Of the three of us, only I had ever skied before and it had been 17 years since my last time, so I’m not exactly sure why we thought we’d be able to ski for three days in Austria without taking lessons first, but we did. And what ensued was nothing short of complete and utter (albeit hilarious) failure.
Poles were flying, legs were going in all sorts of unnatural directions, and one of us even fell off the ski lift. (Ugh, fine, it was me.) I’m pretty sure you could put a bear on skis and it would look more graceful than we did that day. Needless to say, we snowplowed our way straight to a ski school. If you’re up for a good laugh, the link below has all the embarrassing details.
Read More: A Beginner’s Experience Skiing In The Alps
4. Listening to Traditional Irish Music in Ireland
The Irish are amazing storytellers. I don’t mean to stereotype, but it’s true. Between their lilting lyrical accents and their ability to exaggerate a tale just enough to keep it interesting and believable, the Irish have a certain way of telling stories that really make you remember them, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the pub. I’m not talking about the guy three pints in who wants to tell you about the time he met the Devil one night in Dublin (although that’s sure to be a worthy tale as well), I’m talking about the stories told inside these walls to the tune of a fiddle and a flute.
Nothing made us feel more a part of Ireland and its culture than spending every evening listening to haunting Irish folk songs about love, war, and the sea and hearing lively tunes that made us want to dance and sing along even though we didn’t know the words. Ireland’s capital is well known for its traditional music scene, but if I had the choice, I’d pick a booth inside Gus O’Connor’s Pub in Doolin every time.
Read More: Finding Traditional Irish Music In Doolin
5. Spending Our 11th Anniversary in Spain
Never ones for candlelight dinners with white tablecloths and good service, we chose instead to celebrate our 11th anniversary by speed-walking our way through Seville before traveling by bus to Ronda where we attempted a hike that started off scenic and pleasant and ended with us bushwacking a new trail through the El Tajo gorge. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Through some sort of divine providence, the sunset we watched that night over one of southern Spain’s most beautiful landscapes happened to occur at exactly the same time we’d been saying our vows eleven years earlier. That night, it felt like the golden glow of the setting sun on Ronda’s white villages and the soft colors that painted the sky above the mountains was just for us.
Read More: Watching The Sunset In Ronda, Spain
6. Taking This Picture in Berlin
I took over 15,000 pictures during the five years we lived abroad, and you want to know which one is my favorite? This one. This imperfect, hastily taken photo of us with one of the East Side Gallery in Berlin’s most iconic murals. I didn’t even take it myself (obviously), Lexie did.
I love everything about the picture itself, but the real reason it’s my favorite is because I never dreamed I’d be able to take it in the first place. How does a girl who raises chickens in Tennessee and hardly ever travels anywhere over 300 miles from home end up sharing a kiss in front of the ‘Fraternal Kiss’ on the Berlin Wall? I asked myself something similar nearly every time we traveled those first few years.
7. Being in the Right Place at the Right Time in Copenhagen
Looking forward to Christmas markets, cozy Scandinavian cafes, and what we were positive would be an epic day at Tivoli Gardens, we excitedly boarded our flight to Copenhagen – our first time traveling to somewhere other than the US over the holidays. Everything we planned turned out just as perfectly as we’d hoped, but it was something we hadn’t planned for that ended up being the most memorable part of this particular holiday.
On our first evening in Copenhagen, while we sat shivering on a freezing cold dock taking long exposures of Nyhavn canal, a man approached us asking if we were there to see the celebration. We looked at him quizzically, unaware of what was to come, but decided to stay just in case it was something special. Just a few minutes later the first of several hundred Christmas-light bedecked kayaks floated into the canal and a crowd began to gather along the banks. Once all the kayaks had made it into the canal, the people in the water and those along the banks all began to sing in unison a song to St Lucia. In the cheerful togetherness of that special moment, we got our first taste of the Danish concept of hygge.
8. Celebrating New Year’s Eve in London
The only thing I regret about the New Year’s Eve we spent celebrating along the Thames in London is that it has now ruined all other New Year’s Eves for me forever. Bundling up in big coats and cozy hats, the happy, celebratory atmosphere along the river, Big Ben loudly announcing the first minute of 2015, the spectacular fireworks show over the London Eye, 100,000 Londoners joining together to sing Auld Lang Syne – how could anything else ever compete?
I don’t think I was ever so grateful for the opportunity to live in this amazing city as I was this night. I’d give anything to do it again. NYE in London, I mean, but I wouldn’t be opposed to living in London again either! Also, Cory and I do know how to take a photo without kissing, we just prefer not to. :)
9. Chasing the Northern Lights in Swedish Lapland
By far the most expensive trip we ever took, traveling all the way to Swedish Lapland for only three nights was definitely a little crazy, but it was so worth it. We were taking a big chance that we’d miss getting to see what we were coming for – the northern lights – by staying for such a short length of time, but it’s all we had and we were crossing every finger and toe that by going in February, we’d raise our chances of seeing this extraordinary phenomenon.
And, of course, because this wouldn’t have made the list if we hadn’t, we got lucky enough to witness the northern lights not just once, but twice on our short stay. Because I’ve never been so cold in my entire life and because night photography is not my forte, I hardly took any pictures, but for once I didn’t actually care. I think you could probably make the case that all things are best experienced without a camera lens separating you from the action, but in this particular situation, that’s never been more true. Watching those strange green lights dance across the star-filled sky, disappearing and reappearing in a pattern only it knew, is something I’m so happy I imprinted on my brain instead of my memory card.
Read More: Seeing The Northern Lights In Abisko, Sweden
10. Roadtripping Through the Scottish Highlands
Filled with mystery and steeped in ancient legends and folklore, I suppose our road trip through the Scottish Highlands was always destined to be magical. With my parents in tow, we drove from Inverness all the way to the Isle of Skye where we spent several beautiful, windy days hiking through some of the most dramatic landscapes the UK has to offer.
Between the drive there and back (which included no less than 150 stops), the shocking beauty of Skye, the much-needed fresh air, the lambs (oh my goodness, the lambs!), and the fact that the lovely weather took a pause for an afternoon so we could experience a true Scottish haar (fog), the Isle of Skye and the Scottish Highlands in general have certainly earned what I believe will be a permanent spot in our Top 5 Trips for life.
11. Seeing a Painting Come to Life in Amalfi
Normally we’re inspired to visit a new place because we’ve seen someone else travel there, or because it’s such a popular destination, like London or Paris, that we naturally just assume it’s where people go when they visit a particular country. But in the case of Amalfi in Italy, we were inspired to visit thanks to a beautiful mural painted on the wall of our favorite Italian restaurant in Chiswick.
After discovering that the fairytale town depicted in the mural was an actual place, we booked tickets the following summer and had the pleasure of seeing that beautiful painting come to life when we arrived in Positano, the jewel of the Amalfi Coast. I took one look at that picture-perfect coastline with its cliffside covered in charming, multi-colored houses and determined right then that if there was ever a place I’d consider returning to every single year, it would be Amalfi.
Read More: How To Spend 5 Days On Italy’s Amalfi Coast
12. Cruising Down the Danube River at Christmastime
Two hours. That’s how much time I’d spent with Lisa before she asked me if I wanted to join her on a week-long trip down the Danube with Viking River Cruises. Having met through Instagram (which is like match.com for friendships apparently) just a few months prior, we hardly knew each other, but never one to turn down an opportunity to travel, I immediately said yes.
Which meant I ended up saying yes to one of the most fun weeks of my life. As if cruising through three countries, waking up in a new city every morning, and visiting almost a dozen of Europe’s best Christmas markets wasn’t enough, I also forged a new friendship with my travel blogging soul sister and got to eat my weight in German and Austrian pastries. Job well done, I’d say.
13. Seeing the Pope in Rome
There have been a few celebrity sightings over the past five years – a flight shared with a Top Gear star, unexpectedly spotting Bruce Springsteen’s band in Dublin – but by far our most exciting encounter with a “celebrity” was getting to see the pope in Rome. Or, I suppose Vatican City, if you want to get technical about it.
Every Sunday that he’s in the country, the pope delivers a message to the crowd that gathers at noon in St Peter’s Square and we made sure to be there for it while we were in Rome. As we stood in the square that sunny Sunday morning watching the pope give his speech from a window of the Apostolic Palace with one of the most famous churches in the world only steps away and white birds flying over our heads in a cloudless sky, I found myself completely overwhelmed with happiness for the 100th time since we’d arrived in Rome. It didn’t even matter that we couldn’t understand his speech which was in Italian, we were just thrilled to be in the presence of such an iconic figure in such a famously historical place.
14. Climbing to the Top of Big Ben
For almost a full year I’d been trying to secure tickets for us to be able to climb the Elizabeth Tower and hear Big Ben chime the hour from the inside. To do this costs nothing, but you must be a UK resident and contact your local MP (Member of Parliament) for a visit. After exchanging dozens of emails with almost as many different people, we got confirmation just two months before we were scheduled to leave London that they could fit us in on a tour.
I honestly can’t think of anything that would have been a more fitting farewell to London than climbing its most famous monument. I still haven’t forgotten what it felt like to see Big Ben our first week in the city and I’m positive I’ll never forget the deafening experience that was hearing that 13-ton bell chime from two feet away. As a bonus, we also got to tour the Houses of Parliament on this visit and watch proceedings in the House of Lords, powdered wigs and all!
15. Sneaking into the Marina Bay Sands Infinity Pool
I’d already come to terms with the fact that I’d likely never get any closer to Singapore’s famous Marina Bay Sands infinity pool than the observation deck they let the poor people onto to see what they’re missing, when some of our friends from London showed up and generously made this once-in-a-lifetime experience a reality for us.
The only catch? We’d have to pretend to be them while we were there. I nearly fainted from nervous excitement as we went through security, but once my heart rate returned to a normal, non-cardiac-arrest-inducing rate, we had a blast. I don’t know what was more fun – getting to swim in one of the world’s coolest pools or pretending for an afternoon that we were actually rich enough to afford it!
16. Seeing the Spectacular Landscape of Ha Long Bay
A maze of limestone islands rise out of the blue-green waters of Ha Long Bay like hundreds of hulking, foliage-dressed sea creatures, their heavy bulk casting unusually-shaped shadows onto the gently moving water at mid-day and blending into an endless stretch of dark mountains at night. With the sun shining brightly overhead, creating sparkling diamond patterns in the water below, and no noise save for the sound of junkboats chugging through the water, it’s nothing short of pure magic.
Having read conflicting reviews over the past few years about this stunning UNESCO site, I arrived with my expectations low, or as low as they can be when you’ve been anticipating something for 20 years, but I needn’t have worried. Everything about the two days we spent exploring Ha Long Bay was unforgettable perfection, adding further support to my claim that Vietnam is, in my opinion, the best country to visit in southeast Asia.
17. Waking up on My 33rd Birthday in a Rural Village in Vietnam
There’s a reason I keep returning to Vietnam over and over again, and it’s because it never disappoints. So if I had to choose just one place to spend every one of my birthdays from here on out, it would be exactly where I woke up the morning of my 33rd birthday – on the floor of a Vietnamese stilt house in Mai Chau, encompassed by the protection of a lacy mosquito net, with rain gently falling outside and roosters sending happy birthday wishes with their early morning anthems.
I’ve had a lot of great birthdays in my 34 years, but none so memorable as this one on my 33rd. Lex and I woke before everyone else in the house and spent the morning walking through the rice fields in the fog and watching the rest of the village wake up. Later we biked through those same fields, I helped build a house in another village, and we climbed over 1,000 steps to a cave at the top of a mountain. The bar has officially been raised for all future birthdays.
18. Hiking to the Hidden Lagoon in Thailand
If you’re a regular reader here, then you know hiking trips are our favorite sort of trips. We took them all the time when we lived in the UK, but with malaria and dengue fever being a real threat here in southeast Asia, we haven’t risked jungle hiking all that often. Just once actually, and what do you know, I contracted dengue. In this particular case, it was almost worth it, though.
I’ve never been on a more challenging, terrifying, or thrilling hike than the one we took in Thailand to Railay Viewpoint and the hidden lagoon. Requiring an ascent up a cliff face at a near 90-degree angle and then a descent through a dark, muddy jungle where one wrong move could end in disaster, I found myself questioning our judgment several times over the course of the hike. Luckily, we survived, the only casualties being our red clay covered clothes, and I have never been more proud of myself for accomplishing something difficult and scary than I was that day.
19. Watching the Sunset in Boracay
We have seen hundreds of beautiful sunrises and sunsets while traveling, but rarely have any taken up permanent residence in our memory like the ones we saw in Boracay. Between the outrageously vivid colors and the perfectly spaced sailboats that look like they’ve been dropped onto a canvas, even in person sunsets in Boracay look photoshopped. (FYI: The photo above has actually been desaturated.)
A lot of things went wrong for us in Boracay, so the fact that anything from this trip makes it onto our top 20 list just goes to show that even when a destination or a trip is full of disappointments, there is almost always something good to be found in it.
20. Touring the Temples of Angkor
And finally, just like we knew our first trip as expats would be special, we expected our last would be, too. For this one we headed to Cambodia to explore the ancient temples of Angkor, but we weren’t doing it alone. This time, my whole family came out to join us (littlest member included), making our last destination in five years of travel one of the most special yet.
I haven’t blogged about Cambodia yet, but it was such a fascinating country. Sandwiched between two of my favorite southeast Asian countries, I think I expected Cambodia to share more traits with its neighborhoods, but it was definitely a place all its own. I can’t wait to share more about it in the months to come.
Well, that turned into a beast of a post. If you made it to the bottom (bless you for reading all of this), you just read over 4,300 words – congratulations! :)