Under the Tuscan Sun

In April of this year, my parents and my sister flew to Dublin for my Master’s graduation.  From previous blog posts, you already know my sister and I travelled to Prague, Ljubljana and Bled before I graduated. My parents arrived the morning after we returned to Dublin, I graduated the following day, and then my parents went off to Italy, on a trip that I planned for them. I was lucky enough to be able to join them for 4.5 days (3 nights in Quercegrossa [in the Chianti region], Tuscany and 1 night in Florence). We spent most of our time relaxing in the countryside surrounding our beautiful Tuscan home and then one day in Siena and one day in Florence.

I had to wake up at 3:15am on the Friday in order to make my flight to Rome at 6:20am. I then jumped on a train at Fiumicino airport to Florence, where I met my parents at the train station. We took the bus to Siena and then took a taxi to the car rental place (I’m exhausted just typing this), where we hired our Audi for the long weekend. I then attempted to drive us to our Tuscan home (an Airbnb), but Google Maps did not recognise the address, since it is in the middle of nowhere, not close to any major towns.

At this stage, I hadn’t eaten in hours and was purely exhausted from being awake since 3:15. I developed a bad migraine and we were stressed about finding our place before dark, which was fast approaching. We stopped and asked numerous people for directions, but they either had no idea how to help us or did not want to help us. We finally knocked on a random person’s door and they were so kind and knew exactly where to direct us. We arrived hours after we were supposed to, and were so relieved to finally be home.

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View from our Tuscan home

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The only restaurant nearby, where we had three meals (Il Mulino di Quercegrossa)

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The local grocery shop

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Quercegrossa town

After checking in, we immediately drove to the only restaurant in town, Il Mulino di Quercegrossa, and finally sat down to eat at 10pm. I hadn’t eaten anything since that morning, and I am the type of person who needs to eat every couple of hours, so you can imagine how I was feeling. My parents were just as bad. We couldn’t even talk, we were desperate for food and water. Luckily, the meal was divine.

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Our first (and in my opinion, best) meal – pici with black pepper and pecorino cheese

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We ate our breakfast and drank our coffee on our lovely terrace under the Tuscan sun and it was our favourite activity of the trip.

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San Quirico d’Orcia

We drove around the Val d’Orcia region on our first full day in Tuscany. We unfortunately got lost trying to find a certain restaurant, and ended up arriving just after they closed between lunch and dinner. Needless to say, we spent a silly amount of time being hungry on our trip, which is something I never thought could or would happen in Italy!

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San Quirico d’Orcia

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Val d’Orcia

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My favourite trees

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Views from our Tuscan home

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Views from our Tuscan home

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The beautiful Il Mulino di Quercegrossa restaurant

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I love the gorgeous light in these photos – the Tuscan sun beginning to set

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On one of our evenings in Quercegrossa, we heard a distant sound of bells. I ran outside to see what was happening and saw that a heard of sheep was coming up towards our home. I screamed for my Mum to come out and see what was occurring. We realised the sheep had bells around their necks and it was the most magical thing to witness. The sound was absolutely beautiful, not to mention the scenery of the sunset in the background of the rolling Tuscan hills.

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I am so grateful for the beautiful time spent with my parents in Italy. Tuscany is magical, and I cannot wait to go back and explore more. In my next post, I’ll talk about our time in Siena and Florence.

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The Magic of Lake Bled

Bled is an overwhelmingly beautiful place. So much so that it took me five months to write this blog post. Every time I sat down to try to choose photos to feature, I got so overwhelmed because I have thousands of beautiful options. I decided to just sit down on this beautiful Sunday, in my new apartment – sitting in the sun by the window next to a bunch of yellow roses that my friend brought me this morning, and randomly choose some photos to showcase how gorgeous Bled is.

My sister and I took the bus from Ljubljana to Bled, which was approximately a 1 hour and 15 minute journey. Since it was Easter weekend and shops would be closed for a couple days, we quickly checked into our Airbnb (15 minute walk from the lake) and rushed to the nearest supermarket, Mercado, to stock up on food. Afterwards, we ran down for our first sighting of the lake.

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It was foggy, eerie and honestly so breathtakingly beautiful. The weather forecast for the four nights we were staying in Bled was not looking good and we were worried because we wanted to see the lake in the sun, but we quickly learned there is no such thing as a proper weather forecast in Bled. We were awoken the next morning at 6am by the sun and we were SO excited, we didn’t even have breakfast, which was stupid because we rushed to the lake and ended up hiking to the Ojstrica viewpoint (views fueled and sponsored by a single banana).

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Our first sighting of Lake Bled in the sun – honestly just as magical in the fog!

The early morning hike up to Ojstrica was the best way to spend Easter Sunday morning and was easily one of the main highlights of our time in Bled.

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Spectacular views from Ojstrica

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We could have stayed up there all day but unfortunately didn’t have any food and not enough water with us, so we headed back down for some breakfast. Be prepared, you will want to stay up there for hours!

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Other random highlights:

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Kremna rezina / Kremsnita (Bled cream cake) was definitely a highlight and we shared a piece every day we were there. Such a nice treat with coffee!

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Vintgar Gorge was beautiful as well and we have a lot of memories attached to that trip. It’s quite a long walk there, so we decided to hire a van to take us there and then we were going to walk back. There were a few other passengers and I was the last person to get out of the van when we arrived. Just as my sister was getting out (I was next), the van started to roll forward and my feet hit the ground just as half of the van went down into a ditch. We have no idea how it happened, but thank goodness no one was injured. On our walk back, we had continuous views like this (we felt like we were in the Sound of Music):

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View from Bled Castle

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Summer tobagganing on the Straža ski slope – quite an experience!

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We took a Pletna boat out to the island which is something I do highly recommend. If you visit Bled, please make it more than a day trip! There is so much to see and do.

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Lots of orange in our adorable Airbnb apartment – bonus: we loved getting freshly squeezed OJ every morning!

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The temperatures plummeted, as evidenced by the increase of snow in the mountains!

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Above all, it was the perfect place to both relax and adventure with my sister. Bled is quite magical and I would love to see it in all seasons. It is quite touristy, so it was nice to visit during shoulder season.

15th – 19th April 2017

 

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Lovely Ljubljana

Everything I’ve ever read about Ljubljana, Slovenia is true – it is an amazing little city and is highly underrated. I truly think it’ll become extremely popular in the next five-ish years.  It reminded me of the European version of St. Petersburg, Florida – in the best possible way. It is so modern, relaxed, fresh, beautiful and trendy.

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Cacao – superb gelato!

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Fantastic gelato-eating views

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View from Ljubljanski grad (Ljubljana Castle)

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Funicular down from the castle

We unfortunately only had a half day in Ljubljana (and the previous night), but easily could have spent a few days meandering and eating our way around the city. It is a very clean, small, walkable city with tons of beautiful, trendy restaurants and cafes.

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The impressive Triple Bridge

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My favourite thing about Ljubljana is how welcomed you feel when you walk around. Unlike most major cities in Europe and around the world, there is no separation between locals and tourists. There isn’t a “touristy area” of the city where tourists tend to eat and drink. You will find locals and tourists together all around the city.

I fell in love with it instantly and immediately got the sense that I’d be happy living there. Definitely worth visiting!! My only complaint is it is so difficult to get to. I wish there were direct flights from Dublin!

Next up: Bled!

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Peaceful Prague

There is no one in the world who is a more compatible travel companion for me than my sister. My sister, rather spontaneously, decided to book a trip to come visit me and attend my Master’s graduation, but also to spend just over a week of my Easter break travelling with me to Prague, Ljubljana and Bled. It was an absolutely fabulous trip and just what we needed, since we hadn’t really had much one-on-one sister time in a couple years. The trip was not without its bumps and was far from perfect (e.g., we found ourselves trying to translate items in a Czech pharmacy and sadly went to bed hungry our first night in Prague), but I wouldn’t have changed a thing (except for we would have liked to sleep in Bled, more on that later).

First up – highlights of Prague!

We stayed in a lovely, spacious Airbnb apartment right on the riverbank near Anděl for 3 nights.

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Dancing House

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Lennon Wall

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We enjoyed a wonderful lunch on the terrace of the Lobkowicz Palace cafe at Prague Castle and this was the view. While it is rather touristy, I would highly recommend eating here. The service was friendly and fast, they didn’t rush us and the food was really nice.

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Trdelník

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I still dream of trdelník! This is a Czech pastry made from rolled dough that is wrapped around a stick, then grilled and topped with a sugar and almond mix, with optional chocolate on the inside. If you don’t have an extremely high tolerance for sweets, you may want to split one of these with someone – they are huge! So so delicious. Eat as many as possible.

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St. Vitus Cathedral

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Malá Strana

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nakládaný hermelín (pickled cheese) @ U Fleků

While the pickled cheese was gorgeously delicious, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend U Fleků. I loved this restaurant when we walked in, but as soon as we sat down, we were put off quickly. They serve you alcohol without even asking if you want it and while I understand it’s a smart sales tactic, it’s pretty unfair when you don’t want to drink. The staff got extremely annoyed when we said we didn’t want the drinks, so that really ruined the experience for us. Having said that, if I had to do it all again, I’d still go back for this dish!

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Old Town Square – Easter market

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Church of Our Lady Before Týn

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Perníčkův sen

We were on our way to this precious bakery (cutest one I’ve ever seen in my life!) when we realised they closed in 15 minutes. We trekked across Prague to make it in time and to try a couple of their gorgeous cookies.

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Malá Strana

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Kampa Park

I had zero interest in seeing Kampa Park because these statues really creep me out. We had a good laugh when we accidentally passed through Kampa Park on our way back to our apartment.

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Jindřišská věž – Zvonice

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Sauerkraut soup

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Zvonice

If you go to Prague, ensure you go to Restaurant ZVONICE. This was by far our favourite experience of our whole trip, and we still talk about it on a regular basis. Zvonice is located on the top two floors of a Gothic bell tower and is an absolutely stunning restaurant, with wonderful views of the city. It is one of the most unique places I have ever eaten. The staff was incredibly friendly and welcoming.

We went for the sauerkraut soup and oh my dear Lord. To this day, it is one of my favourite dishes I have EVER eaten. Ever. Description: traditional South-Bohemian fine sauerkraut soup with roasted chanterelas, baked mashed potatoes and sour cream. Neither one of us likes mushrooms, but if you’re like us, don’t let that put you off. I’ve also read reviews of those who don’t even like sauerkraut and they still love this soup – I can see this being possible. I cannot describe this soup but I’ll tell you it’s an experience we will never forget.

When we were leaving Prague, we were squashed like bugs against the windshield of the airport bus literally next to the bus driver for 40 minutes because the bus was that full. We had to remain standing like that the whole time but funny enough, we found the whole experience quite amusing and the bus driver kept laughing at us.

Prague is a magnificently beautiful city and we really fell in love with the people and the Czech culture. We adore the city’s rule of no noise after 10pm in apartment buildings and really noticed Czech people are pretty much always quiet. You can barely hear any talking in restaurants! I loved this.

Next up: Ljubljana and Bled, Slovenia!

 

Best of Barcelona

I used to think teachers had the life – work shorter hours and get the advantage of having all school holidays including the whole summer off!? I never knew, until I began my career as a secondary school guidance counsellor (and teacher), just how badly teachers NEED these holidays. And shorter work days? HA! We never stop working. Constantly planning what we are going to teach in class the next day or the next week, etc. Work never leaves us. My point of saying all of this is: yes, teachers genuinely deserve the holidays they get. And I will admit, it’s an incredible perk of working in a school.

This past February, on our mid-term break, I decided to go to Barcelona for the first time. It was only for 3 nights / 3.5 days, but I can honestly say, to this day, it’s probably the only proper (relaxing) holiday I’ve ever been on. And I had doubts before going – did I really want to go to Barcelona? Whenever I think of a relaxing holiday and my go-to place: it’s Italy. It’s always Italy. I agonised before booking my flight, but in the end, there are no words to describe how happy I am that I went to Barcelona.

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Plaça Reial

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Yurbban Trafalgar’s Rooftop – my home in Barcelona

Dublin in February is pure misery. Barcelona in February; however, (at least the few days I was there) was heavenly. I know, I got really lucky! Though I deserved it, because the Irish rain usually follows me everywhere I go. I never saw a cloud the whole time I was there. It was 17 degrees Celsius with full sun every day, which is my idea of perfect weather (I am not a fan of heat). I stayed in the Yurbban Trafalgar hotel (shoutout to the lovely Nuria at reception!) and I cannot recommend it enough. It was absolute perfection. The location was ideal, the room was modern, beautiful and quiet, the staff were so lovely and helpful, the breakfast made me excited to wake up every morning, they gave free portable wifi devices to take around the city with you (!) and best of all: THE ROOFTOP!! This was the main reason I booked this hotel, because I knew I wanted to spend a good bit of my time relaxing on a rooftop. The view was a panoramic view of the city and you could see all of Barcelona from it. Since I was there in February, it was never crowded. In fact, I was often the only person on the roof (to my delight), but there was never more than a couple others. I spent a lot of time up there relaxing in the sun, defrosting my Irish bones, eating fresh fruit and reading The Penguin Lessons.

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Barcelona is a truly beautiful city and has everything you could ever want – beautiful sights, stunning architecture. friendly people, the beach, unbeatable food and gorgeous weather. I had the best time wandering the lanes and many streets of Barcelona in search of different sights and beautiful meals, but I perfected balancing this with a lot of relaxing downtime in the sun.

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Enjoying the golden hour with La Sagrada Família behind me

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Ceviche at Sabes Una Cosa

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Yurbban’s truly exquisite rooftop

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Part of my breakfast @ Yurbban Trafalgar

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La Sagrada Família

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The famous Pinotxo bar in La Boqueria was my favourite meal (and favourite experience) in BCN

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My seat was reserved for staff, but the kind lady took “pity” on me for being alone and took great care of me.

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Octopus salad – I never liked octopus before having it in BCN!

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Park Güell

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La Boqueria – easily my favourite market I’ve ever been to

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My favourite item at the market – the fresh fruit juices and fresh fruit!

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Gaudí’s Casa Batlló

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This photo does not do this meal justice, but it was stunning! Pa amb tomàquet (Catalan tomato bread); Escalivada (a Catalan dish: Roasted red pepper, aubergine, onion); Xoriço a la sidra (Chorizo cooked in cider) with a glass of cava @ Vinateria del Call

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Park Güell

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More of Yurbban Trafalgar’s breakfast

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Park Güell

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Suís con xurros at the famous Granja M. Viader – the richest hot chocolate I’ve ever had in my life! There was a queue out the door for this place and when I was there, I didn’t see another tourist, locals only.

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Park Güell

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Park Güell

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Park Güell

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Park Güell

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Park Güell

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Passeig del Born

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Golden hour on the rooftop

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Park Güell

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El Born

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El Born

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Plaça Reial

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Plaça Reial

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Five constructions workers enjoying their siesta

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Don’t know what happened to my camera the last few hours I was in BCN; however, this lovely meal was pimientos de padrón, patatas bravas and cava sangria @ Bar Lobo

Next up: My adventures in Prague, Slovenia and Tuscany!

Reflecting on 2016

As I write this, I have been awake for 33 hours straight and my head feels like it is swaying from exhaustion and jetlag, half of my heart is broken into a million pieces, while the other half is whole and my hands are so cold I can’t feel them. But I am still feeling so very blessed. 2016 was a year full of blessings for me, so I would like to take some time to reflect on my year.

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Flying over Florida

I feel like a lot of people feel that 2016 was a rough year, but I am not one of those people. 2016 was overwhelmingly positive and quite literally life-changing for me.

It didn’t start in a great way. I was in and out of agony from gallstones for 13 months and was scheduled to finally have my gallbladder removed on the 11th of January. I stupidly did not have private health insurance in Ireland (I do now – I learned my lesson!) and the public system is awful here. They cancelled my operation. Thankfully, a new team took me on and my surgeon fought for me and I finally had my gallbladder removed on the 24th of January. I never thought I’d be so excited to be taken in for an operation. Life without a gallbladder is glorious and I am so lucky I have not suffered any repercussions.

In April, I was very busy interviewing twelve guidance counsellors around Dublin for my Master’s dissertation. I thoroughly enjoyed this process and feel I learned an incredible amount from them.

In May, I surprised by sister by flying home for her college graduation. It was a very quick trip home, but so worth it. I will forever be grateful that I was there for this special day.

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I started Sean Nós dancing in July and in less than two weeks, I am moving up to the advanced class! After a 6-year hiatus from dancing, my soul needed it again. I missed tapping the most, so I figured I would try something similar (but also very different) and a style that would allow me to dance to beautiful traditional Irish music. Now I never want to stop!

I went to the Fleadh in Ennis. Enough said. (Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann is a traditional Irish music competition)

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I celebrated my 28th birthday in Oxford with my life wife – an unforgettable, perfect weekend!

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I visited my dear friend H in Galway for 24 hours and we went swimming in the sea – my first time swimming in the sea in Ireland!! The water was 14C/57F.

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For Thanksgiving, my favourite day of the year, my life wife and I celebrated with 21 friends in our apartment. This was our 3rd annual Friendsgiving that we’ve hosted together in Dublin and our hearts were warmed more than ever with the turnout and enjoyment that was had that evening. In 2016, Thanksgiving helped me realise that, more than ever, the support system I have here is truly incredible. (I still can’t believe we squashed 23 people in our sitting/dining room!)

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Two hours after I submitted my dissertation, I got a call for my very first “career” interview – at the best school in Ireland. I didn’t get the job, but the interview went well and was great practice for me. I got the second job I interviewed for and it’s the perfect job for me. I am so happy. I am so incredibly proud of myself for beginning my career in another country.

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I took this photo right before I went in for my interview – St. Stephen’s Green

I went to northern Germany for a long weekend with my dear friend H in mid-December. She is from the small town of Schönberg, where we stayed with her loving parents. They welcomed me and treated me like one of their own for the whole weekend and I had a wonderful, relaxing time. We explored 3 different Christmas markets together and this was my very first time in Germany.

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Weihnachtsmarkt Stockseehof

I recently found out that I passed my dissertation with no corrections… meaning I am officially finished with my Master’s degree! I was also invited to present my results at the annual conference for guidance counsellors in March.

I was able to spend Christmas at home with my family. After spending two Christmases away, it’s not something I ever want to do again. I am so grateful that I was able to fly home this year, especially since I just started my new job in mid-November (perks of working at a school!). I had the most beautiful time at home, though it went way too quickly. This was a family focused visit; I unfortunately did not have enough time to see any friends on this trip.

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Christmas in Florida – Shephards at Clearwater Beach

To elaborate on my opening paragraph: I returned to Dublin yesterday from Florida and it was a longer journey than it should have been. As always, I had to take a red-eye flight, which I despise because I cannot sleep on planes, EVER. Half of my heart is broken into a million pieces because I had to leave my family. All expats can relate to this – it never gets easier. Ever. In fact, I think it only gets harder every time. I rarely feel lonely when I’m alone, but currently do, big time. I miss my family desperately and especially miss the little moments with them. The other half of my heart is whole because I am back in my favourite place in the world. I never thought I’d say this, but I am really missing the Florida sunshine and beautiful weather because my hands are so cold I cannot feel them. How quickly I forgot how perpetually cold my bones are here thanks to the dampness!

2016 was a year full of blessings for me and I am really excited to see what 2017 brings. Definitely on the list: enjoying my last guaranteed year in Ireland, hopefully travelling somewhere with my sister, graduation in April (and my parents are coming!), long weekend in Italy with my parents and enjoying my last months living with my life wife/best friend. The rest is still unwritten.

End of a Chapter

Today, I ended a big chapter in my life and on Monday, I will start a new chapter.

Today was my last day working at the hotel, a job I’ve had for the past 25 months. On Monday, I start my career… words I never thought I’d ever say!

I am feeling very thankful and loved today.

More updates very soon.