Dreaming of the Emerald Isle

What better day than St. Patrick’s Day to reminisce on one of my favorite trips I’ve ever taken: My road trip through Ireland.

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To be perfectly honest, I never had a deep longing to visit Ireland like I had for Thailand or Morocco before my sister and I spent four days discovering this beautiful country. I think I’d written Ireland off as un-exotic, but now I can admit I was completely wrong.

I’d argue that Ireland is the perfect destination for an American traveler who’s itching to visit Europe. Flights from the U.S. to Ireland are inexpensive and fast. A flight from New York to Dublin runs about six hours and can cost anywhere from $200 to $800 depending on when you book the tickets. The time difference is just five hours, making jet lag easier to overcome if you only have a long weekend. Once you arrive, you can choose from a variety of different vacations, depending on what you desire:

  • Shopping and bar-hopping in Dublin;
  • Relaxing on the beach in County Kerry;
  • Road-tripping through the Irish Highlands;
  • Exploring castles in southern Ireland;
  • Soaking up music and culture in Galway; and
  • Enjoying a country cottage in central Ireland.

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My sister and I tried to soak up as much of Ireland as we could on a short timeline:

Day one. We met at Dublin Airport (she flying from the U.S., me from Switzerland) and immediately hit the road in our tiny rental car–headed west. We spent our first evening in Limerick, checking out the local art scene and having a proper fish and chips in a pub.

Day two. We drove northwest to see the Cliffs of Moher and the breathtakingly beautiful coast, picking up some wool goods on the way. By late afternoon, we arrived in charming Galway. We spent the evening strolling through town and eating our weight in their world famous oysters (try Oscar’s Seafood Bistro if you’re in Galway).

Day three. We drove from Galway to Dublin Airport and returned our rental car, and then headed into downtown Dublin. We paid a little more to stay in a Temple Bar area hotel so we could walk to everything we wanted to see. That night we found a raucous pub in our neighborhood with live music and made friends with the locals.

Day four. We visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral and then the Guinness Factory, taking in two sides of Ireland’s history. We strolled through St. Stephen’s park and shopped Grafton Street, enjoying the fantastic weather and local conviviality everywhere we went. We ended our trip at a decidedly non-Irish spot–an Indian restaurant–but man, that lamb curry was delicious!

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I was bowled over by Ireland’s natural beauty and charmed by her people’s friendliness. Our itinerary was a great introduction to Ireland, but if I’m lucky enough to return to Ireland I’d head to the coast or the Highlands. I’d be happy holing up in a little cottage for a few days. A fireplace, copper tea kettle and bicycles are non-negotiables. Meanwhile, Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Here are a few links to tempt you to book that Ireland vacation:

In preparation of bébé

This week I ironed our draperies, organized our spice rack and donated shoes I haven’t worn in a year. To say that I’m in “nesting mode” would be an understatement. The nest is clean and I’m running out of things to feather it with. Honestly, I can’t help myself. When it comes to expecting a baby, this is one of the few moments where I’ve felt like a stereotype straight out of a romantic comedy. Otherwise, the past nine months have been pretty uneventful.

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I keep reminding myself that no matter how many times I scrub the bathtub, it will not actually prepare me for the major life change I’m about to undergo. No amount of windex is going to ready me for parenthood. Which is why I’ve taken to asking my friends with children how I should actually prepare for our little one… due, any minute now. Their responses have been varied, but all on the same theme: Relax. Read. Bake. Get a haircut. Go for a walk. Enjoy time with your spouse. Do whatever you want and when you want to do it, right now. You won’t have that luxury again for a while.

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Unsurprisingly, one of my favorite ways to relax is to research future travel. Even if these dream vacations do not take place for months, I love visualizing myself in new places–stroller, diaper bag and bottles in tow. (Apparently, the three-to-nine-month age range is the sweet spot for baby travel.) Some of the places that are striking my fancy right now:

  • This Alpine retreat where neighbors wouldn’t hear a crying baby
  • This train that could allow us to see the Scottish Highlands car seat-free
  • A baby-friendly coastal home with rooftop pool in Portugal
  • A Barcelona hotel with cribs, babysitting and all-day snacks

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Do you have any baby travel tips? Would you travel with a baby? I’m all ears.

What it’s like living in the world’s ‘best country’

US News & World Report ranked Switzerland this week the “best country in the world” on its annual Best Countries report. The ranking does not surprise me–life here is pretty good–but it’s far from perfect, so I thought I’d delve into what Swiss life is like for an outsider.

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More on the report

The report analyzed 80 countries on attributes that are “relevant to the success of a modern nation” such as: Adventure, citizenship, cultural influence, entrepreneurship, heritage, movers, business, power and quality of life.

“Switzerland debuts as the world’s ‘top’ country, in part because of its progressive social systems, protection of human rights and business-friendly environment,” the authors wrote in their report. Overall, Switzerland scored nine out of ten points on metrics such as “cares about the environment,” “religious freedom” and “cares about human rights.” Switzerland also scored a perfect ten for “safety” and “economically stable.”

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My take on the report

If I had to pinpoint my top “quality of life” metric about living in Switzerland, it would be safety. Violent crime is basically non-existent in Switzerland, so I feel safe everywhere here. Every street I walk down, every bus I ride, every poorly-lit park I walk through as the sun sets. It is as if I’ve been holding tightly onto something inside of me–like I might hold onto my purse on a crowded D.C. metro–that I’ve finally released while living in Switzerland. I’m not looking over my shoulder. I’m carefree. And that feeling is worth so much more than I can quantify.

Switzerland cares about the environment more than any place I’ve ever lived and I was literally the poster child for composting in the 90’s (my one and only modeling gig). Recycling, composting and using public transportation has been ingrained in the Swiss mindset for generations. The Swiss do not brag about solar panels or eating farm-to-table, because it is simply something everyone does every day thanks to the government’s commitment to green initiatives. This country is the perfect example of how small, every day habits can slow climate change. Switzerland is committed to making big changes, too.

As far as economic stability, Switzerland certainly lives up to its ultra-wealthy reputation. National debt and unemployment do not often make Swiss headlines…if ever, come to think of it. That said, the Swiss rely on foreign businesses keeping money in their banks and their lenient tax laws may not be sustainable for much longer. But for an expat family who is paid in dollars, it is challenging living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. An average coffee is $8, a McDonald’s meal is $15 and a movie ticket is $25. We didn’t move here to eat Big Macs, but even grocery shopping can be appalling. Thank goodness the best Switzerland has to offer is free: Nature.

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Too good to be true?

Switzerland’s “top ranking comes from consistently high scores in ‘soft power’ areas, such as providing an inclusive society and a high quality of life for its people,” said US News contributor Christopher F Schuetze, adding that this perception doesn’t take into account Switzerland’s growing issues such as nationalistic populism, dependency on EU trade and difficulties foreigners have finding jobs.

Oh Mr. Schuetze, how right you are! 

Being a Swiss citizen is good. Very good. If you happen to have been born in Switzerland, you’ve won the jackpot. But even being born here like our son will be does not mean he’s a citizen, since Switzerland does not grant citizenship to babies of foreign parents. He will always be an outsider like us and the Swiss are not kind to outsiders, thanks to rising “nationalistic populism” which is being used as an excuse for the government to enact xenophobic policies.

So, you still want to move to Switzerland and become a productive member of its society? Don’t hold your breath. If a Swiss company wants to hire a foreigner it has to first prove that it advertised to and tried to hire any Swiss citizen who was interested in the position, despite his or her qualifications for the job. And having a job offer on the table first is the only way to obtain a temporary visa to live in Switzerland. It took us stacks of paperwork and countless hours to prove that we deserved a coveted one-year visa to live and work in Switzerland. Each year, we do it all over again.

Luckily, we are not seeking asylum from a war-torn country or trying to receive some of Switzerland’s top notch health care for a debilitating condition. We are living here to “have an experience,” which is something only privileged citizens of a first world country would do.

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Living in the world’s “best country” is good, but that “good” comes with an asterisk. It is good if you have enough money to afford living here and it is “#1 in the world good” if you are a citizen. Otherwise, Switzerland can be a very unwelcome place.

We’re going to enjoy the ride as long as we can!

Traveling with a bump: Should you?

We discovered we were expecting a baby about three weeks before leaving on our planned trip to Thailand, which gave me just enough time to question every part of our itinerary–including whether we should go to Thailand at all. I felt a weightiness in our decision like I had never experienced before. I now realize that I was feeling my first anxiety-ridden pangs of parenthood, even if I was parent to something the size of a blueberry.

This was my first test of motherhood and I really didn’t want to fail.

img_0116img_0176In the end, we went. We had a once-in-a-lifetime vacation that I’ll be dreaming of when I’m knee-deep in diapers, but we didn’t make that decision lightly. Nor did we do, see and eat everything we might have had we been blueberry-less. I’m writing about my experience now with the hope that it might help you, if you find yourself in a similar(ly wonderful) predicament.

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Talk to your doctor. I was ready to scrap the whole trip, but my doctor seemed pretty unfazed by the idea of visiting southeast Asia in my first trimester. Why? I am healthy and have a low-risk pregnancy. Moreover, I had already completed all of the vaccinations I would need for Thailand in years before. If you are planning a trip that requires a yellow fever or malaria vaccination, you may want to reconsider the destination or the timing of the pregnancy. I know many couples who’ve been on a “last hurrah” trip before trying to become parents.

Ask questions, don’t Google. I brought a thick notepad stacked with questions to my doctor, because no question is too small when it comes to health. I can’t underscore enough the importance of being your own advocate. In a previous life I was a timid patient who often felt I was “bothering” my doctor. Since becoming a health writer, I realize how little doctors can really help me unless I’m vocal about my concerns. Some of my questions included:

  • What should I do on long flights? Wear insanely tight, belly-button high compression stockings. Hydrate constantly. Get up and move every two hours (reserve an aisle seat). Use hand sanitizer like a germaphobe.
  • What foods should I avoid? All street foods, undercooked or raw meats, freshly-squeezed fruit juices, salads and fresh vegetables, tap water. Basically anything Anthony Bourdain eats on TV.
  • What should I do if I experience a health emergency? Always know where the closest hospital is in relation to where you are staying. Have your insurance handy (buy travel health insurance if yours does not cover care abroad). Contact your primary doctor immediately.

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Sadly, I had to pass on the sashimi and salads. Fortunately, my husband picked up the slack.

Prepare for every scenario. My husband and I had a running joke that we should ask for a hotel room with an ocean-view toilet, in case I spent the majority of my trip down with morning sickness. Luckily I never experienced any, but I had prescription nausea medication, saltine crackers, ginger tea and sea bands on hand everywhere we went. Research suggests you may be at a higher risk of morning sickness if you already have a history of motion sickness, your mother experienced morning sickness or are carrying multiples. In that case, I’d recommend waiting to travel until the second trimester.

Know your Zika. Another upside to being a health writer is knowing how to read an official infectious disease report, instead of getting caught up in headlines. Otherwise I might have written off Thailand as a Zika-ridden country, when in fact, it has only recorded a handful of cases prior to 2007 in one jungle territory. That said, I coated myself in mosquito repellent daily, wore unfashionable repellent bracelets everywhere and avoided mosquito-prone areas while in Thailand. Be careful not to write off a country because a friend’s sister read something online about Zika. Trust the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control.

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Listen to your intuition. Do not plan a trip while expecting a baby based on this article! Plan it because you’ve spoken with your doctor, your partner and yourself. If you feel good about the trip, you will have a good time. If something feels “wrong,” it will likely continue to feel wrong and prevent you from enjoying your vacation.

I’m looking forward to writing about “travels with baby”… Meanwhile, enjoy these links:

 

Joyeux Mardi Gras

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Some day, when I am not one month out from having a baby, I will fly to Venice for Mardi Gras and discover what true Carnevale is all about. But that is not the case, so tonight I’ll make my favorite pancake recipe as is my family’s tradition every “Fat Tuesday.” Maybe we’ll go crazy and have bacon, too. Meanwhile, enjoy these links I’ve gathered from around the world:

Dreaming of Paris

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When I pictured my life in Geneva, it involved many many spur-of-the-moment trips to Paris since it lies just three hours away from us by train. I’m embarrassed to say we haven’t zipped off to the City of Lights as often as I thought we would, but often enough to almost satisfy me…I’m one of those people for whom Paris never gets old.

Last time we were in Paris, it was just days after we had visited the doctor and discovered that a tiny poppyseed was living inside me–our son. Being the worrier that I am, I didn’t allow myself to buy baby things in Paris. I superstitiously thought that a knit cap or tiny socks would somehow jinx the whole thing.

Fast-forward 30 weeks: That poppyseed is now five pounds and I’m getting on a train to Paris.

It is sure to be my last real trip before parenthood and it already feels different than the other times I’ve visited. I am packing some sensible walking shoes (sigh), emergency granola bars and have no plans involving lazy afternoons over glasses of Bordeaux. But I’m happy to see my favorite city one last time sans bébé.

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Is there a city that you dream of visiting again and again? For Californians, it’s San Francisco and for East Coasters, it’s the City that Never Sleeps. I get it, but they’ll never be Paris in my book. If you’re dreaming of Paris too, here are some links to fuel your sleep:

Why I’ll never become a Swiss citizen

After a few months of living in Switzerland, I quickly came to the realization that I’ll never obtain that coveted red passport, even if I go through all of the motions of becoming a Swiss citizen. I’d heard enough stories of half-Swiss families and long-distance lovers who’ve been rejected for Swiss citizenship to fill a book–these kinds of stories are practically part of the national folklore. The Swiss are a notoriously closed society. They don’t need more people. They like to do things how they like to do things and they have enough money to get it done. (For example, the Swiss have never joined the European Union so they do not have to answer to anyone but themselves.)

When I came across this story in The Atlantic of a woman who has been denied Swiss citizenship because she openly protested the size of bells hanging around cows’ necks–yes, you read that correctly–I actually wasn’t fazed. I thought “that sounds about right.”

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Nancy Holten, 42, was born in the Netherlands. At the age of 8, however, she moved with her family to Switzerland, which Holten has called home for the past 34 years. Holten currently resides, with her three daughters, in the small village of Gipf-Oberfrick, in the far north of the country, within the canton of Aargau. She speaks fluent Swiss-German. Her daughters are Swiss citizens. She has been a member of the parents’ committee of their school.

And yet Holten was recently rejected for a Swiss passport—which is also to say, effectively, for naturalized Swiss citizenship. For the second time.

The reason? In Switzerland, applications for naturalization are decided not at the federal level, but rather by the country’s cantons and municipalities—and the applicants’ peers have a say in whether naturalization gets granted. And, unfortunately for Nancy Holten, her peers are not inclined to give her the “gift” of a passport. Because, despite all the ways she is Swiss, Holten—a vegan who is extremely vocal about the life choice—has also stridently opposed one of the most beloved cultural traditions of Gipf-Oberfrick, and of Aargau, and of Switzerland itself: the practice of putting large bells around the necks of cows, for reasons both practical and ceremonial. Insert your preferred “more cowbell” joke here.

Read the rest of the article here.

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It is a strange and beautiful place we’ve chosen to call home temporarily. I hope you’re having a nice week and feeling free to protest whatever you like. Meanwhile a few links: