Thoughts on Egypt/Berlin 2019 A-Z

To get a better grasp of my recent travels, I decided to write up a little overview in A-Z form. Maybe it will play a part in the upcoming April A-Z challenge? Or maybe not. Either way, this post is mostly for me, but I would love to have your thoughts too! I did include a delicious recipe for lemon with mint that I recommend you try!

A. Anxiety was the name of the game for this trip. The side of me that loves challenging myself to take on new experiences was thrilled at the prospect of a trip to Egypt. But then the side of me that hates hot weather and thinks deserts are dirty and not the prettiest place to take a picture was less than thrilled about a trip to Egypt.

And then there was Berlin. We were traveling there with friends. In the past I have fallen apart when it came to planning where exactly to travel with them in our chosen location, this time was no exception. Despite having a book on Germany, did I touch it? No. Why would I? But Visit A City and Google Maps saved the day. Visit a City gave me a list of the most interesting places to see in Berlin including several different types of history museums as well as art museums and cultural destinations. Add in a department store and bam! Trip planned. I used Google Maps to lay it all out and confirm that Visit A City was giving me the best routes to get from location to location. With the Visit A City app downloaded on my phone, both with and without internet, we were ready to go. I felt like I had contributed, even as the plans changed during our time there, and, hopefully, my friends felt like I was putting as much effort into this trip as they were.

B. I stuck to basics when planning this trip. First I booked the flights to the major cities I knew we were visiting as soon as I knew we were visiting them. Obviously. Home –> Paris (the only city I was truly excited about visiting), Paris –> Cairo (for a wedding), Cairo –> Frankfurt (to visit friends and perhaps get some relaxation in? Worked out differently than I originally anticipated, but that's ok!), and finally Frankfurt –> home. We stuck with the cheapest flights and economy seating.

Next, I booked the hotels I knew we would be staying at.

With only one day in Paris, we went with the airport hotel. The idea was that we could drop off our bags and go. The airport is an hour away from the city, so we decided we would make better use of our time not lugging around our suitcases and being within walking distance of our terminal.

For Egypt, we decided to stay at the Marriott where our friends were having their wedding reception. It was fancy and expensive, but we knew it was a safe, easy choice. I only booked two nights there, at first, and added on to our stay as our trip developed over time and our itinerary became more clear.

Because we were visiting friends in Germany, we went with their choice for Berlin. It didn't require much thinking or research, which I was all in favor of given how busy our schedule, leading up to this trip, was.

We had one extra night in Frankfurt before flying home, so we chose to stay at – what else? – the airport hotel. We got back from Berlin so late and left Frankfurt so early the next day that we didn't explore Frankfurt at all. So much for needing to research a Frankfurt dinner or breakfast restaurant!

Last minute we threw in a trip to Sharm-El-Sheikh. I chose my favorite hotel chain for our stay there, the Hyatt Regency. And boy did they not disappoint. We got upgraded to a suite for our duration there! I can't wait to blog about it! It was a fantastic New Year's Eve surprise.

And then one more airport hotel in Cairo smack dab between Sharm-El-Sheikh and Frankfurt/Berlin. Yet again, it made our travel to the airport easy and less stressful than staying in the city would have. Walk straight from the hotel to your terminal? Yes, please!

Of course, after booking flights and hotels, then it is time for activities. We relied on friends, for the most part, to dictate what we were doing and where we were eating. Visit A City was also incredibly helpful. ANNNNNNND we stumbled upon an amazing English speaking taxi driving tour guide who helped us navigate our first day in Cairo. The whole trip would have been more complicated (or confusing) without him.

C. Cairo guides –– I'm not sure how we stumbled across a good guide, but I can tell you that there are many, many bad guides in the city. Or, even if the guide isn't "bad", there are many that are less helpful than others. We found at least three of them. The fourth guide was helpful, understanding, and kind, but less-so than the one guide we stumbled across accidentally at the beginning of our trip.

So? My takeaway? You can book guides online before you travel to Egypt. It is helpful having a guide, especially if you have never been to Egypt before. A mediocre guide for the first day or two is potentially better than no guide at all. I recommend Urban Adventures for that mediocre guide, because our Urban Adventures guide was slightly above mediocre on the bad to great scale. However, I can give you the name and contact information for the guide we had that we loved. He's a bit much at first, but overall it's clear that he gets American culture better than many Egyptians and can explain Egyptian culture in such a way that, if you trust him, you will find yourself falling in love with the culture too. I truly believe that my experience in Cairo and with the Egyptian people would have been more mediocre had we not had our terrific guide, even if for just one day, while we were there.

D. The City of the Dead –– I still don't understand the City of the Dead as fully as I could, but I do know that it is not a place to fear if you are with the right guide. And perhaps it is never a place to fear? Maybe our "right guide" was misleading us, but, from what I've seen, which is limited in perspective, I would recommend visiting just to say you did.

E. EgyptAir was a pain to book with using our American credit cards. We ended up booking with our Schwab debit card, and even then got a phone call immediately from security. If you are trying to book a flight with EgyptAir, first be sure to look at the price in Egyptian pounds! It can save you a ton of money! (In our case over $100.) Next, if you are booking online and your credit card won't go through, try booking with a debit card. Ideally one that won't charge foreign exchange fees, like Charles Schwab. I've read the Paypal debit card also works. You can try calling to book, but they may charge you the American price rather than the Egyptian. As a last resort, if you still can't book in any currency, I recommend going through Indie/BootsNAll, my preferred travel agency. I used them to book our trip to Egypt before I learned how to navigate and book on the EgyptAir website. Every flight I've ever booked with them has gone well, so I will definitely consider them again, in the future, if I'm struggling to get the price or deal I want and they have a similar price that works for me. <3.

F. Fun. Spending time with friends.

G. Gold or Money. Yeah, it's a stretch. 😛

We spent way more than we intended when we bought all of the hot chocolate and tea in France on our first day abroad.

We continued the trend in Egypt where most things were cheap, though we did make some mistakes in haggling for things we wanted. Apparently American prices, while they seem reasonable, are still incredibly high for Egyptians.

Comparatively, Germany was fairly cheap with most of the attractions paid for in advance. However looking back, I'm certain we paid more for the Welcome Card than we would have if we had paid for the attractions individually. C'est la vie.

H. Hot was the temperature in Sharm-el-Sheikh, especially compared to all of the other locations we traveled to. But it was so beautiful there that it didn't matter.

I. Ill. A lot of the people we traveled with weren't prepared for the water problems in Egypt. Justin and I brought a filter for our water and managed to stay relatively healthy. Others in our tour group found themselves with stomach bugs, holed up on the tour bus after only a day or two in Egypt. Were they really sick because of the water? Did we really avoid sickness because we were filtering our water? I'll never know. I think it's better this way.

J. Jetlag. Oh my goodness. I may have slept through an entire performance of The Nutcracker in Paris just so that I would be awake later that night for raclette! (The things you do when you only have one night in Paris!)

It got a little better when we were mostly traveling in the same time zone. Paris to Cairo is a one hour difference, then we had to deal with it again when we traveled from Cairo to Berlin. Overall, I think we handled it pretty well.

K. Khan-El-Khalili was crazy and I was so scared of the market at first. Luckily our first experience there was with a seasoned guide who directed us through the many parts of the market – the tourist section, the Egyptian section, the spices, the water pipes… He told us that we didn't need to worry, with him at our side no one would bother us. <3.

The next day Justin's friend asked to meet us at the market. But messages got mixed up when, as it turned out, the friend was going to a show there and we were going to … wait on the show to finish? Hmm… I was a little angry about that. Exploring a mostly unfamiliar area alone at night that I have been told to be afraid of is not typically the best of ideas. Honestly, the story gets more complicated than I am revealing right now, but the point is we survived.

So, tips if you ever go to Cairo and visit Khan-El-Khalili:
1. Don't be afraid. Lift your head high and act like you know where you are going even if you don't.
2. Most products sold there were made in China. But if you want something particular, they probably will have it. And because the items are made in China, you can bargain for a really good price.
3. BARGAIN. Never accept the first price. One of our tour guides suggested we ask for 10% less than the initial price, but we found that you should ask for even less than that. And if you are traveling with a tour group, all bets are off; you will get a bad price.
4. Have fun. Don't worry about paying the best price for an item, because it's very likely the item is worth less in Egyptian pounds than it is in dollars. So a reasonably priced $1 postcard is probably expensive for Egyptians. It's more likely that it is 25¢ for 10 postcards. But also keep in mind that many of these people in Cairo are excruciatingly poor; if you pay a little more than the item is actually worth, you are making their lives easier. You are happy because you got a cheap (to you) price and they are happy because they made just a little bit more off of their goods.
5. Don't be afraid to say no (or "la"). They aren't going to stalk you or chase after you if you don't want their items.
6. Don't spend more time than necessary glancing at items as you walk. If you are interested, by all means, look as long as you want. But once you stop to look, they will try to sell you something.

L. Lemon with mint was one of my favorite drinks in Egypt. I was a little skeptical at first, but I am grateful to have tried it. Now we make it at home on a regular basis.

3 limes
1 lemon
sugar (to taste)
a handful of mint

Blend everything together including the lemon and lime rinds until it is mixed well. Strain your liquid and drink.

M. And we will follow that up with Yellow Label tea and mint leaves. You cannot visit Egypt and not have this. (Or, rather you can, but you shouldn't.)

N. I was shocked to see, at the end of The Nutcracker Ballet in Paris, everyone just sat in their seats and clapped for the longest time. It felt really strange compared to the US where everyone is racing out the door to get to their vehicles during the final scene. This felt incredibly respectful. I feel like that amount of gratitude isn't common all across Europe, but maybe I've been seeing the wrong shows. Any thoughts from Europeans? Is it normal to sit and clap for 30 minutes after a show ends?

O. Palais Garnier Opera House is a beautiful building in the heart of Paris. They offer tours in English, French, and Spanish.

P. Paris in just over 24 hours:

7am Drop luggage off at the hotel.
10am Stores open. Head right for Galeries Lafayette and Printemps. Look at the Christmas lights outside the stores, then head inside. Buy too much Angelina's hot chocolate and French Breakfast Tea. Maybe buy a strand of Christmas lights. Eat donuts with an overlook of the Eiffel Tower. Maybe grab a sandwich.
1pm Take items to DHL to ship home. Pay too much.
2pm Visit an umbrella shop and admire $1000 umbrellas.
3pm Tour Garnier la Opera. Don't remember anything from the tour because you are so tired.
5pm Apertif. Nobody is serving dinner yet. Maybe snack on a crépe.
7pm Arrive early for The Nutcracker. Try to catch a nap before the show.
8pm Continue napping into the show. 😳
10pm Take a cab to a restaurant for a late night meal of raclette. The restaurant will stay open late for you. ❤️🧀

7am Wake up early for breakfast at Angelina's.
10am More shopping. Oops.
11am Head to CDG for your flight.

Q. Quintessential things to do in Berlin:
• See the wall. Both the gallery and the memorial.
• Eat currywurst.
• DeKaWe. Great for almost anything, but I would spend the majority of your time meandering the food section.
• At least one art museum – probably the Pergamon.
• Probably one history museum. This city is rich with history.
• Adventure outside of Berlin proper to Potsdam.

R. Rain in Alexandria makes the streets incredibly muddy. While the city is definitely worth visiting any time of the year, I think the warmer months might be best.

S. Rest and relaxation is paramount when you are on vacation. The only time we really stopped was in Sharm-el-Sheikh. It was absolutely beautiful and one of my favorite places to visit during this trip.

T. Tips for surviving 8 flights:
• Be as minimalistic as you possibly can be. Start with only carry-ons. The fewer, the better.
• Ship back souvenirs. The more luggage you have, the more you have to check with airlines. You will also pay based on weight. Shipping can be more expensive than just paying the checked bag fee , but you have to consider if it is worth lugging the extra weight around.
• Distribute your bags evenly. Perhaps have one roller bag, one over-the-shoulder bag and one book bag to make your luggage easier to carry.
• Take advantage of luggage carts and airport hotels. Save your energy for more important things, like sightseeing.
• Consider buying a new piece of luggage at your destination. New clothes also make for a great souvenir!

U. Apparently some political issues are more universal than I thought. Women's rights and black rights are not just important to US citizens.

V. One of the coolest videos we got was of a muslim singing his call to prayer. The guide we used our first day in Cairo asked the muslim to do this for us. It was very kind and a special treat for us.

W. The wedding we attended in Egypt felt very similar to one we attended in Germany except that it was louder.

Egypt (on the way to the reception): A small parade in the hallway walking from the elevators to the reception hall with a band. Immediate family and close friends follow the bride and groom as they dance their way down the hall. The elderly and people not quite as close to the bride and groom are already waiting at the reception. This process of parading down the hall takes at least 30 minutes. Then, when the bride and groom get to the reception the dancing continues. Non-alcoholic drinks and small appetizers are served. It is not until two hours in that the main buffet opens. During dinner, for us at 10pm, the bride and groom disappear for some alone time and the music slows down to give everyone a chance to eat. Of course, as soon as dinner is over, the bride and groom reappear and the dancing continues. Typically the party lasts well into the night (4am was the suggested ending time), but I think there were more Americans and elderly there than is typical, so the party for us ended at 1am.

In Germany (on the way to the reception): It's a parade of cars that follow the bride and groom to the reception. They tie ribbons on the car, so that everyone knows they are in the procession, and they honk their horns the whole way. (See? So not quite as loud as the Egyptians.) It's been a while, but I seem to remember mingling, finding your seat and dinner starting at a somewhat normally expected time. The biggest difference was that there was alcohol and that the food kept coming late into the night with the goal being to keep the bride and groom up as long as possible.

So lots of similarities, especially compared to an American wedding where we quietly drive to the reception site without fanfare and party until 10pm at the latest. Or maybe I just live in a calmer part of the world.

X. I'd be eXcited to go again. While I was a bit fearful from what I had heard about Egyptians (groping women randomly on the street, catcalling, taking advantage of tourists financially), I learned that Egyptians are beautiful, wonderful, heartfelt people trying to make a living in a very difficult economy. I learned how to interact with them in such a way that haggling was fun rather than stressful; they earned extra money (though perhaps not as much as they had initially hoped for) and I got a better bargain than I would have in the states (though more than I probably should have paid had I been Egyptian). Also, whether a fluke or not, I did not experience any catcalling or random groping. One friend seemed to think my darker skin tone helped. (I have an Italian background.) Or maybe it was the wedding ring?

If you want to go to Egypt, don't let irrational fears or government warnings stop you. Try to dress conservatively (which in some cases can be as simple as a light dress, scarf draped over your shoulders and leggings), consider wearing a wedding ring or traveling with a male (or a group?) and don't be afraid to say "la" to the venders trying to make sales. They aren't trying to harass you; they are just trying to put food on their table. Be kind, considerate, and respectful, and you will probably get the same in return.

Though one note of caution: Everywhere you go there are metal detectors. EVERYWHERE. And you will probably be body checked. With women, they tend to do it a lot less than with men. Either way, be prepared. And women, be prepared to go through a separate screener from your man at the airport. It's not a big deal; I promise.

Y. Yellow vest protestors in Paris were few and far between when we were visiting Paris. We saw one shop with broken glass, but that was it. Security was high within the city, though. They used a wand to check people going into the high end department stores (where we spent the majority of our time); of course these types of checks are not unusual for department stores in France. Every time we have been to a department store in Paris (Christmas 2015, July 14th, 2017), they have checked.

Z. Berlin Zoo and Tiergarten – Did you know that the Tiergarten in Berlin is approximately half the size of Central Park in NYC? Fun fact. :)

The garden is beautiful to walk through, though a bit boring in the winter. We didn't actually visit the zoo there, so I can't comment on that. If you are visiting Berlin in warm weather though, it may be a good place to take a picnic or rest during what is otherwise a busy day. :)

As always, traveling to so many different places (and the planning for travel to so many different places) taught me a lot. I now have a better understanding of geography, history, and I learned more about cultures that are different from my own.

What I shared today is just skimming the surface of what I learned and took away from the travel experience. I might need some time to soak it all in. It is nice to get some initial thoughts to screen, though.

Having read my initial thoughts, would this have been a trip you would have enjoyed? Did you learn anything? If you've been to any of these places before (Paris, Cairo, Sharm-El-Sheikh, Berlin), did I miss anything pivotal? Share in the comments!

2019 Resolutions

I started my list of resolutions in December before traveling to France, Germany, and Egypt. Now, two weeks later, having just returned to the states, I'm looking at my lists absolutely exhausted. While the following goals are my ideals, I want to recognize that life can get messy and I may not always complete the goals in as perfect of a way as I intend. Once a month might need to be changed to once every two months … or six months … or just getting by.

So, dear self, do your best in 2019, but don't stress out if you can't meet all of your goals exactly as written. It will be ok.

1. Finances
A. Pay off car.
B. Conquer interest charges.
C. Look at refinancing Justin's student loan.

2. Blogging
A. Start planning for April A-Z in JANUARY.
B. Start participating in Wordless Wednesday again.
• Organize images and make sure the DROBO back up is complete.
C. Re-join the travel blogging community.
• Write one travel post
• Or participate in one twitter travel chat … once a month.

3. Travel
A. Go to a new beach for July 4th.
B. Visit Justin's uncle in Boston.
C. See Billy Joel at Madison Square Gardens in NYC?

4. Health
A. Fewer calories and healthier food choices (veggies, fruits, tea).
B. More movement.

5. Home
A. Finish The Curated Closet
• Only have clothes in my closet that I wear and love.
• List more clothing on Poshmark.
• Alter clothing as needed or get rid of it.
B. And The Simple Magic of Tidying Up.
• Organize the spare bedroom so that everything has a place.
1. Exercise equipment.
2. Sewing supplies.
3. Financial Documents.
4. Empty box of books.
5. Find a place for electronics. Toss unnecessary electronics.
• Get the bedroom more organized as well.
1. Move blankets and sheets from the bedroom closet to the bathroom closet so they are easier to get to.
2. Replace decorative Euro pillow.
3. Get master duvet cleaned.
4. Replace master duvet feathers.

6. Other
A. Read. Ideally one book a month.
B. Practice German.
C. Drink wine (or tea) with friends and family. Relax.
D. Question the world. The grass isn't always greener on the other side. Sometimes it's the same grass … only painted. 😳
E. Assume the best in people. Don't be quite as cynical.

What resolutions have you set for 2019?

See goals from previous years here: 2014, 2015, 2016.