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Why Paris will always be the most magical city in the world to me

It’s not the lights, or the Eiffel Tower, the smell of baguettes, or the fact that every single bakery on every single corner sells the most amazing tarte aux fraise. Being serenaded by accordion on my train ride into the city, Laduree macarons, and late night escapades at the Jardin des Tuileries and metro station photo booths were all also contenders! But the thing that will always make me think of Paris as the most magical city in the world is: its magical rollerblading policemen.

It was summer last year, early July. I had been in France for a week and a half and on my last night in Paris, I was biking parallel to the Seine on my mint green bike, on the Rue de Rivoli, hoping to get some last minute shopping in at Colette before they closed for the night. I had my phone in my pocket and was checking my location on the map every few blocks. The bike lane along the Rue de Rivoli is a little bit scary because it is shared by impatient buses. At a stoplight, i was checking my position, when a bus behind honked at me, really loudly because the light had turned green, and i hurriedly shoved my phone into my pocket and resumed pedaling. A few blocks later, I went to check my position again and realized: my phone was gone.

My heart sank. It had surely fallen out of my pocket, and dropped onto the busy street, it had been probably crushed into a bajillion pieces by a car or bus. But in the super slim chance it hadn’t, or perhaps to give myself closure by seeing its tiny crushed body, I walked my bike back to where I remember having my phone last, keeping an eye out for shattered glass on the street.

After I walked a block, I was approached by two French policemen. In shorts. On rollerblades. “Can we help you?” they asked. I told them the sad story of my phone falling out of my pocket while biking, and that I was looking for it, but not very hopefully. One of the two policemen held out his hand, empty. “Is this your phone?” he asked, in a super heavy (charming) French accent. He waved his free hand ceremoniously over his empty palm, and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, my phone was there in his palm. He grinned, proud of his sleight of hand trick.

“Omg yes, that’s my phone! How did you know?” I exclaimed. I was so flustered.

“But of course we know. We are psychic. We are ze police!” he replied in his once again super heavy (charming) French accent.

“No no no, just joking”, the other policeman explained (in an equally charming accent). “A stranger handed this phone to us. They saw you drop it. ‘Please look for a girl on a mint green bike and give this back to her’, they told us. So, here we are!”

“Omg thank you so much. You are so amazing! You don’t know how thankful I am to you two, and the person who found it too!” I was blushing and stammering at this point.

“But of course! Have a nice evening!” the replied and skated away.

What other city could possibly compete with literally magical rollerblading policemen? I rest my case.

Posted by Amy on Wed 11 Dec n 2013 | No Comments »

Labels: exploring

peppermint patty, assemble!

bike hands, so glamorous!

A few friends have told me that they think the pictures of biking and camping in the Finnish countryside are super picturesque, but that they wonder if it actually is that idyllic when it is happening.  ”Aren’t you struggling and sweating?”  ”Isn’t it super hard to bring your bike?” “Did you really bike 100 miles in a dress or are those just for the pictures?”

There is definitely a less glamorous side to international bike camping, which I’m more than happy to talk about!  I’m happy to talk about the logistics for anyone interested in trying it themselves, and to hear tips from other people who’ve done it.  But to be honest, I love that side just as much!  I love taking my bike apart and putting it back together.  I love getting my hands dirty with bike grease.  Building things with my hands is a thing I don’t get to do often and it’s so satisfying.  Building something and then riding off on it?  Incredibly satisfying.  (And the answer to do I bike 100 miles/camp/assemble/disassemble bikes in a dress?  Of course I do, doing things just for pictures is silly!)


Getting your bike there by plane

Some people purchase an actual hard case for their bike, but when you arrive at your destination what will you do with that case?  That’s why I’ve found it easiest to pack my bike up in a cardboard box, which i can dispose of and not worry about.  You can pick one up from any bike store, for free– it’s what the bikes come shipped in, and they’d just throw them away anyway.  Just call ahead and ask them to save one for you.  In all the places I’ve traveled to, I’ve never had a problem getting a cardboard box for the return trip.  Depending on the size of the box, you might have to disassemble part of your bike– most likely it will be turning the handlebars, removing the seat and pedals.  I bubble wrap and tape any sharp-ish metal edges.  You might also have to remove the front wheel.  You probably want to practice ahead of time and not follow my example– I learned to disassemble a bike 2am the night before a flight to Paris (using these guides from Public Bikes).  No matter your type of bike there is probably a guide for assembling/disassembling it on youtube if you don’t know how!  Since tools can’t be brought as carry-ons, I put bike tools, pedals and any screws/bolts in a ziplock bag, and tape them to the inside of the bike box.  And tape up the bike box well with duct tape.  Also, might as well pack some tape in your luggage for the return trip.

Is it worth bringing your own bike vs. renting one?  Well, how attached are you to your bike?  I’m incredibly attached!  I love my bike and don’t have much experience riding other bikes.  If I’m going to ride long distances in a bike, I would rather it be one I’m super familiar with.  Also I get really attached to things and Peppermint Patty is something of a best friend!  I want her to see the world, too.  I’ve personally had bad experiences with rentals, so for me, if I am going to be riding it more than a week, and riding long distances, it is absolutely worth the hassle, which is not so much a hassle as a logistical puzzle that I find fun!

Will it cost anything to bring it on a plane?  You can check it in as oversized luggage, and in some cases, (Scandinavian Airlines for instance) the airline requests to know in advance that you’re checking in a bike.  Airline websites vary how much they say they’ll charge for bikes, but often, if you pack light and only have a backpack besides your bike (which I do!) the staff will just wave off the bike as your checked in luggage and not charge.  (Thank you airline staff!  You’re so sweet!)

I’d love to hear about other people’s tips getting bikes to another country if they have any!


What to do when you land

If you’ve packed your bike, after you pick it up from oversized luggage, the best thing to do next next depends on how far you are from your final destination, whether public transport allows bikes or bikes in boxes, and whether your final destination has a bike-friendly route.  Airports are usually far from city center, and most public transportation is more friendly towards boxed than unboxed bikes, so I find myself most often dragging my bike box to the nearest public transport station, riding public transport a reasonable distance into town, getting off and assembling my bike at the station, and riding the bike to my lodging.  As an aside, it’s kind of amazing what being in a slightly precarious situation can show you about the country you’re visiting.  While dragging my bike, I’ve never not had super kind people offering to help me.  That said, it’s still important to me for my plan to be self-sufficient– I would never plan on getting help on anything and would make sure that I could carry out my entire plan without help in the worst case, but I’ve never had to.

Find an empty space to cut open your box and put your bike back together!  The great thing about large train stations is that you have so much privacy!  People are so busy going on about their busy daily lives they do that they’ll ignore you for the most part (which I bring up because the first time I assembled my bike in a train station I felt suuuper self conscious about it.  But for naught.)  Some random strangers might come along and be really nice and point out that you’ve accidentally installed a part backwards (this has happened) or run up to you with wet wipes when they see your grease-covered hands, telling you that they’ve noticed you’ve been working so hard (this has also happened)!

Check the pressure in your tires, and ride off!  There’s an indescribably amazing feeling from landing and immediately assembling your bike and riding off to explore this brand new city on it!


Reasons to bike in a foreign country (whether you rent or bring!)

Taking public transport is fun, but on a bike you’ll get to see so much more above ground (compared to a subway) and not behind a window (compared to a bus or train)!

You can stop whenever to take pictures!

You’ll feel so much safer traveling around at night and you don’t have to worry about the last train/bus/subway of the night.

If you get lost super easily like I do, it’s comforting to be able to get back on track faster and have wasted less time than if you walked the wrong way.

Instant fun!  Pick a random direction to go riding and you’re bound to see something interesting.  Minimum planning required!

Feel like not a tourist!

Day/multiple day trips to the countryside

This also all of course depends on what foreign country, and I have only experience bringing my bike to Europe.  I would like to take biking trips in Korean and Japan some time though!

I’ll write more about the logistics of international bike camping next time!

Posted by Amy on Wed 27 Nov n 2013 | No Comments »

Labels: exploring, peppermint patty diaries, travels

Our second night camping in Finland, we finally fulfilled our dreams of camping by a lake!  While we were eating a Fancy Dinner in Salo, we researched nearby lakes and that’s when we came across something even better!  We found a campground in a little island in a lake (called Vuohensaari).  And it was a 20 minute bike ride from where we were having dinner!  (We biked over a little land bridge to get to the island).  Since it was an actual camp site, once there we had to do a little searching for a spot unobstructed by the sight of RVs.  And since it was a camping site, there were bathrooms and showers– all in all it turned out that my cousin and I were soooo lucky when it came to hygiene on this bike trip.  It sort of felt like cheating on the whole roughing it front, but when it was handed to us, we weren’t going to say no.  After setting up our tent in a grove super close to the waterfront, we washed up for the night, and left the bathrooms to find that it was pouring down rain.  We laughed, and ran all the way back to our tent with our toiletry bags over our heads, thankful that we hadn’t had to set up camp in the rain.

I grew to really love falling asleep to the sound of rain pattering on the tent.  It made me feel like the tent was so safe, and so cozy.

We woke up to super glorious views.  I parted our tent door flaps, and looked out onto the lake, through trees.  Our dream!  It had come true.  We had slept by a lake, and on an island in the middle of the lake no less!  It still brings in instantaneous smile to my face to think of how lovely it was.

The campground canteen had coffee and delicious cinnamon donuts.  We felt even more spoiled.

My cousin laughed and took funny photos of me in the tent in my morning routine (putting on moisturizer and powder and chapstick on in the pink tent in the middle of the woods).

We were sad to say goodbye to the island, but we knew that we were making good time and almost in Turku!  It was so exciting.

Biking had become more routine by this time.  Our route had regularly spaced hills (medium sized ones by San Francisco sizing) but I feel like I had developed a pattern to manage them, and this last day seemed to pass faster than others.  We didn’t want to take up too much time for lunch, so we had a quick picnic on some rocks by the side of the road in the early afternoon.

We had been passing signs on the side of the road indicating “Helsinki (this many km)/Turku (this many km)” signs our whole trip and so after lots and lots of biking we were so proud to finally see the one that said: Helsinki 147/ Turku 19.  We were sooo close and we had biked so far!

And then, we fulfilled yet another dream that day, and it was: we got to pick and eat wild berries!  We had wild raspberries (vadelma) from the side of the road.  They were so cute and tiny!  And so sweet.

Finally we arrived in Turku!  We were so proud that after biking 3 days, we arrived within 15 minutes of when we had told our Airbnb host we would arrive!  Once we arrived at the Airbnb, we greeted the cats and realized how tired and dead our legs were and joined the cats in lazily laying down sprawled in the hallway.  It was glorious.

Posted by Amy on Sun 06 Oct n 2013 | 2 Comments »

Labels: dreams, exploring, outdoors, peppermint patty diaries

I had told my cousin to get lots of sleep our last night in Helsinki, assuming that sleep would be less comfortable on the road.  But I had an amazing night’s sleep after our first day of biking (was it being lulled to sleep by the rain?  was it that I was so ungodly tired from biking 8 hours?) and woke up super ready and excited to bike some more.

We snuck up to the pink house to leave a thank you note and some San Francisco chocolates to the lovely Finnish couple that had let us camp on their property.

We started the day off in our tent, eating tiny forrest blueberries that we had packed, along with delicious (Icelandic!) vanilla yogurt that we had picked up in an S-mart.

The most ambitious schedule was for this 2nd day (the first day was for getting adjusted, the third day, we wanted to leave plenty of time for buffer) but we were feeling good about making it since we had more of a rhythm, now.

We biked and biked, and took pictures of flowers, and farm houses, and stopped to drink delicious packs of chocolate soy milk (soy milk doesn’t spoil!  What a good bike camping treat!)  We lunched in a clearing in the woods, that we spotted while biking.  We had rye bread, brown cheese, berries.

The couple had warned us that the weather would not be good on our way (they had been thoughtful enough to look up the forecast for us).  Biking in the rain was not pleasant.  Sweating under a rain jacket left me about as wet as when I didn’t wear a jacket.  But the rain was not too heavy, and was sporadic.

My cousin and I talked about what order we should bike in.  Whenever there was an explicit bike path, the must fun was biking side by side.  We were about exactly the same speed.  I had more experience biking longer trips, but my cousin is more generally athletic.  So, it evened out.  When we were biking on the side of the road, sometimes I biked ahead and navigated.  And once in a while, she biked ahead.  Later, she said she preferred me in the front because it was comforting to see that she had someone biking with her.  Which I hadn’t thought of, and thought was cute.

We were so proud of making it in good time (8pm-ish) to the town of Salo, so we decided to treat ourselves to a fancy dinner there!

Posted by Amy on Thu 26 Sep n 2013 | 2 Comments »

Labels: exploring, outdoors, peppermint patty diaries

There’s only so much you can plan from google maps and google street view, halfway around the world.  So on the night of our first day of biking across Finland, my cousin and I had assumed we’d be able to find somewhere to set up camp easily, since we had passed by so many suitable places earlier in the day.  We had this dream of sleeping by a lake, and we located nearby lakes on google maps, and would pass them, but would find that they were situated too closely to houses and private land.

It was starting to get closer to 10pm.  We found a lake on google maps that looked promising.  We walked a path to the lake and found a sign.  GUARDED AREA, SURVEILLANCE CAMERA, it said, in Finnish.  I looked at my cousin.  ”Well, it doesn’t say ‘Don’t enter!’  It’s probably fine!” she said.  I laughed.  She was much braver than I was.

“Um, I’m not sure I want to be under camera while I’m sleeping,” I said.

“That’s probably a bluff,” she said.

I laughed again.  I was still hesitant.  We saw a house nearby with a light on upstairs.  A pink house.  ”There’s a pink house over there with a light on.  Pink means they must be nice, right?” I said.  ”Might as well try!” she said.

So we were about to knock on the door of the pink house when the owners stepped out.  A couple, not much younger than our parents.  They greeted us.  We explained to them that we were visiting Finland, and biking from Helsinki to Turku, and asked if they owned the property near the lake and if it was ok for us to set up camp there?  ”Set up camp anywhere you like!” they replied.  ”Except probably not too near the lake, because those neighbors are not very nice.”  They motioned toward the GUARDED AREA sign.

“And actually, you must be so thirsty?  Can we get you coffee?  Can we get you water?  And, you must be so tired!  Would you like hot water to shower?”

“Oh!  That sounds amazing!  But we don’t want to trouble you, we’re just so happy to have a place to camp!”

“It’s no trouble at all, just set up your camp and come into the house, and the water will probably be ready then.”

We set up camp, and came into the house and met their 5 super eager dogs.  The dogs loved Novi, she is very much a dog person and they could tell!  In the middle of my shower, the hot water turned off, and it became freezing cold.  But really, I wasn’t expecting to shower at all during the bike camping trip, and my cousin and I had even brought wet wipes to clean up with and no-water shampoos to experiment with, so it mostly just felt luxurious and refreshing.

After we had washed up, they asked us if we wanted any dinner?  ”We made chicken and… I’m not sure what the English word for this is, but in Finnish it’s called macaroni.”  ”Haha, in English it’s the same!” we laughed.  ”We just learned a new English word!” they said.  We had already eaten dinner at the gas station, so we politely declined.  But then they offered us milk and cookies (maito ya keksi) instead and that, we did not refuse.  They were so cute.  We learned that they had grown up in the countryside, moved to the city for school when they were younger, and back to the countryside to raise a family.  We learned that they considered India their spiritual homeland, and had visited 7 times.  We learned that they rolled their own cigarettes, very perfectly.  They said “This is so funny, this has never happened to us before.  Can we take a picture with you?”  We laughed and nodded, and got our pictures taken together, all of us.  We talked to them until 1am and said good night and headed to our tent.

My tent is pink and covered in flowers, but it is a serious tent.  It has an attachment at the top to hook a headlamp for room lighting, slots on the sides to hang muddy shoes, glow in the dark zipper pulls, rainfly, rain tarp.  And that night, we really needed rainproof-ness.  After my cousin and I had crawled into our sleeping bags, and started dozing off, we heard the patter of rain on the tent.  I slept so soundly that night– so grateful for an adventuresome cousin.  And for my trusty pink tent in the rain.  And so grateful for strangers with hearts of gold.

Posted by Amy on Wed 25 Sep n 2013 | No Comments »

Labels: exploring, outdoors, peppermint patty diaries

A year and a half ago, I didn’t know how to ride a bike.  I’m super clumsy, and I never learned properly as a kid, but had been vaguely wanting to learn for real for many years.  In the end what pushed me over was finding a super cute mint green bike to finally learn how to ride.  I’m maybe a little ridiculous like that.  My ridiculousness can be very strong a motivation for lots of things.

Fast forward to this summer: my cousin, my cousin and I took a 3 day bike ride across the countryside of southern Finland, from Helsinki to Turku, motivated mostly by eagerness to reach Moominworld, the Finnish equivalent to Disneyland, celebrating hippo-shaped trolls that live in the forrest with other oddly shaped creature friends, based on comic books that every Finnish child (and me) grew up reading.  I’ve been bike camping before, but this was my longest such trip.  At night we set up a cute pink tent (Finland conveniently has an “every-man’s land” law that states you can camp anywhere that is not private property) and in the morning we’d eat yogurt and fresh forrest berries. The whole thing was one of the happiest things I’ve done in my whole life.

We had spent a happy 2 days exploring Helsinki before starting our trip.  I had brought my mint green bike of course, and my cousin rented a touring bike in the city.  The morning we left, our Airbnb host sent us off with a breakfast of karjalanpiirakka (she thoughtfully remembered that it was our favorite Finnish pastry!).  We loaded up our bikes with all of our supplies and gear (tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, toiletries, clothes, water, snacks, emergency supplies), and we biked city streets to the western edge of Helsinki until we hit a lovely tree-lined bike path (the one in the first picture!).  After city biking, it was such a luxury to bike on this bike path, completely away from cars and surrounded by green, sans helmets, and letting the wind blow through our hair.  Sometimes during the 3 day journey, though, the bike path would join the road and disappear, and total, we’d spend about half of our trip biking on the side of the road instead.

The first day, we biked and biked and stopped for an afternoon snack at a small town slightly beyond Espoo.  We ate korvapuusti (literally “slapped ears” in Finnish) and piirakka (savory pies not unlike quiche) at a pink-walled cafe.  Getting to try new Finnish pastries at little cafes we passed was a huge source of excitement.  We also passed by fields and fields of green, aspen forests, and silver lakes.  We were particularly excited about the lakes.  (We had both packed pink bathing suits).  Whenever we passed by a lake, we’d call out to each other “Omg look it’s a lake!”   and the other would call out “A lake!!!!!”  The same for cows or horses.  Or sometimes we’d just call out “Wowwwwww, it’s so pretty here!” and the other would reply “Yes!!! Isn’t it!!?”  Any time we’d get tired, we’d stop and drink and eat snacks and take pictures.

My cousin is the perfect traveling partner!  I almost went on this trip alone, but I’m so glad she came along.  The story was something like this: I had this dream to bike across the Finnish countryside for a bunch of reasons: because I had a dream to see Moominworld, because the Finnish countryside looked so pretty in photos, because I’d been taking Finnish classes (well I started taking Finnish classes because I had dreamed to take this trip, but it turned into a feedback look), because I was fascinated by Finnish art and design.  I’d mention this whenever anyone asked about my summer travel plans, and people would mostly express surprise and ask “Finland!  That’s so random!” but when my cousin heard about my plans, she said “That sounds amazing!  I want to go with you!”  And in a few days she’d asked permission from her professor (she works in a university chemistry lab in Singapore) and a while later she had her flights– even before I bought mine!  It’s so great to have such a spontaneous and adventurous cousin!

We grabbed dinner at a gas station near Veikkola, possibly the fanciest gas station food we’d ever seen!  Open faced sandwiches with hard boiled eggs & shrimp, or fried egg & pickles!  I had bought a solar charger to keep my phone (our map) alive but since it worked only up until the trip started, we were grateful that the gas station cafe had outlets.  (You learn to be grateful for the tiniest things when bike camping!)  We went grocery shopping at an S-market for breakfast and snacks (granola bars!  yogurt with real vanilla bean flecks!  chocolate soy milk!) for the next day, and set off to find our camping spot before it got too dark.

Posted by Amy on Mon 16 Sep n 2013 | 1 Comment »

Labels: dreams, exploring, peppermint patty diaries