the settling, or lack thereof

so i've been stateside for a few months now, ambling along, trying to implement the things i learned abroad into the remnants of my old american lifestyle. it's been a struggle of extremes, but i am so grateful for it all. because i've learned that i just don't fit the way i used to---i am wholly and unapologetically changed.

since my return in september, i have gone from ohio to vegas to ohio to vegas to ohio and soon to vegas again (literally that many times). i've spent invaluable time with some perfect new friends, and reconnected with special people i hadn't seen in ages. i've experienced live music in the form of coffee shop singers, talented friends, a concert in cleveland, and a music festival in las vegas. i worked at anthropologie for all of one month, before quitting materialism, once and for all. i got rejected from a job for the first time in my life, because my resume showed that i travel too much. i planned a birthday surprise, visited family in kentucky, saved a beagle puppy, hosted dinners and game nights, and visited best friends in florida a couple times. 

i was terrified to return to the states for the first time after a year of living away, because i had a sinking feeling it would be really difficult. and it's been even harder than my fears predicted, but i've come out of it all more motivated than ever before. i've replenished myself on the love of friends who have such moving faith in me. and made my plans to leave again. IT'S ALL HAPPENING.

there might not be a place for me here just yet. which makes me think there's more out there for me to learn first. so i depart in a week. and will return again when the time is right.

adventures in normandy

before i left europe, i took one last trip to see a boy i knew in a ritzy little beach town, nestled in the northwest corner of france. we spent a week lounging on the colorful beaches of deauville, cooking the most delicious food i never knew i loved, dancing with new friends who only spoke french, and exploring some surrounding views of normandy. 

we spent a day at les falaises d'etretat. and it was one of the most beautiful days of my whole summer.

^^ note: the tiny black hole at the top of this cliff? we sat on the edge of it. see: 4 photos down.

we drove over big bridges and through small villages, past fields of cows and down dirt roads, until we reached the cliffs on the coast. our first glimpse of them from a hidden spot at the end of a narrow road we weren't supposed to go down. i stepped toward the edge and lost my breath. 

we drove a little further, until we reached the trail. we walked along winding coastline covered in the softest grass. when we reached a spot with a view we couldn't pass up, we laid down and soaked it all in. we smoked a cigarette and talked about the connectedness of everyone, while seagulls circled overhead and laughed at our theories. the sun wasn't too high and the temperature in the breeze was just right, so we fell in and out of sleep on the side of the cliff. 

we kept walking along the procession of strangely shaped cliffs that jutted out of the shoulder of france. we found a hole near the top of one and filled it with our cautious bodies. the exhilaration of sitting on the edge of that space, after having just seen the immensity of it from afar...

i giggled with anxiety, at the ironic realization that beneath all of the hard-carved passions and aggressions and self-involved emotions of our day-to-day, WE ARE SO FRAGILE. and so very small.  

he and i went down to the town and perched ourselves on its smooth pebble beach. people all around us watched the sunset. and i watched the people watching the sunset. and he skipped the stones across the curling waves, over my head. 

he treated me to dinner at a cafe on the beach. the sun went down and the cold set in. we drove back down pitch black roads all the way to deauville. i was reminded of georgia. i envisioned the starry pastures of florida. i missed long road trips to the north. i longed for those seamless in-betweens.

and just like that, i was ready to go home. 

wine talks and sunrise walks in malta

my last week in malta, noelle left to northern italy to meet up with vlad, and i had the penthouse all to myself. it was the first time i'd been totally alone in MONTHS. at first i twirled through those empty rooms, to soak in that rare feeling of not interfering in anyone's else's space. and then a few hours passed and i was over it. what good are large places if they aren't filled with friends?

i was soooo happy when scarlett arrived a couple days later for a vaca away from school in amsterdam.

a familiar face in a very foreign land.

one night, we sipped wine in the cobalt blue dining room and talked about everything under the sun. she told me about school and i told her about travel plans. we talked about relationships, past and present, romantic and platonic. we agreed on the curious magic of a good french man. we talked of all kinds of philosophies and had many "ah-ha!" moments and new realizations. we wondered at what exactly motivates people to not  follow their dreams.

we accidentally wondered and sipped and laughed until that odd hour of the morning so close to sunrise that you know you'd be a fool to fall asleep and miss the show.

so we walked along the silent sliema waterfront, not talking, in awe of the scene. the tide made the sweetest lapping sounds against the rocks. and the sun emerged, gentle and delicate.

it lit up the sky and we went off to sleep with dreams of whimsy.  

i must be dreaming*

when i look back on the most magical moments from all my travels (from all my LIFE, for that matter) almost all of them involve a sunset. there's something about the fast changes of all our surroundings at that time of day that feel so surreal and sacred.

we three hurried over a rocky path of limestone steps, rushing to get to the right spot while the colors were at their most vibrant. we turned the corner of a cliff to find the azure window---a space where a cave once collapsed and sank into the sea.

the other tourists watched the sun sink from the safety of the limestone steps, some near the top of the cliff, and some even still in the parking lot. but we three wanted to be enveloped by the scene. so we swam in it---a perfect little pool with a view of the silhouetted window, the clearest horizon i've ever seen, and the little globe that was soon swallowed by the sea. 

valletta by day // the best day*

the second day that noelle and i went to valletta was mayyybe definitely one of the best days of my life...

nothing very significant happened. it wasn't a particularly special day---i didn't accomplish some feat or earn a degree. i didn't win money or witness a miracle. i didn't even really fall in love. ;) but this day, as a whole, surpassed many other monumental days i've lived. because it was just really damn perfect from beginning to end. 

and it was so because of my perspective. i woke up that day and chose to feel GRATEFUL.

i was so overwhelmingly grateful to be doing every little thing that i was doing, noticing every unique and cliche detail under that ancient sun, hearing every musical maltese accent, every vibration of a busking band's guitar, every click on the steep cobblestone... all of my senses were tingling on overdrive. i was so happy it made me dizzy. 

we walked through sliema to the ferry dock to cross the harbor to valletta. i must admit that the entire time noelle was leading the way, i was constantly 10 steps behind, curiously marveling at some open balcony or detailed door knocker or effortlessly perfect flower arrangement or THAT BRILLIANT BLUE SKY. 

we had walked through our little temporary neighborhood a couple times by then, but something about the vibrancy of that day really got to me. every color demanded my attention. 

we took a small cobalt blue ferry boat across the glistening harbor and i was positively manic with joy at being on water for THE FIRST TIME since i left my sailing job in st thomas last may.

i never thought i'd be the kind of girl to ever have fluttery heart palpitations at the sight of steel cleats and neatly coiled lines... but learning to sail in the caribbean was such a growing experience---such a testament to hidden strength, such a lesson in resilience---that i will always, always be a sailor at heart. 

so the body parts of boats that i spent so many months learning and gripping and hooking and tying and polishing will ALWAYS symbolize that time in my life that i finally talked back to the condescending little voice in my head that used to say don't bother stefanie, you could never do that!

cause i proved it wrong once and now i know i can do it again. and again and again and again. ;)

we climbed the streets of the capital to the upper barakka in search of an art festival called patches. local artists set up booths of colorful goods---everything from handmade clothing to recycled jewelry to woven rugs to vintage finds.

there was a band with this angelic lead singer who we insisted on knowing. we insisted on knowing e-ver-y artist. we made friends with a brazilian jewelry maker, a maltese videographer, and a polish sociology writer. i bought a bracelet made out of cut plastic bottle covered with beautiful fabric from an artist's favorite torn dress. it is hands down my most meaningful maltese souvenir. 

the view from the upper barraka was unreal. as in it looked more like a green screen than real life. which is maybe why JMW Turner painted the grand harbor and made it look sublime.

after patches, we walked through the wine & music festival still going on in another part of valletta. we searched the streets until we found the perfect spot for dinner---an outdoor cafe in front of a massive church, with a live performer singing moby. noelle ordered rabbit ravioli and i had a pizza with olives, mushrooms, hard broiled egg, and artichoke... deeeLISH.

we two giggled in disbelief at all the joys our senses were experiencing in that moment: music, food, beauty, friendship, culture, and some really luscious warm winds.

after dinner, we started the trek back to sliema, at which time we were mildy harassed by funny young italian boys who hardly spoke a word of english. to get our attention, they spouted out the only italian words they figured americans would understand, "pizza! italia! mafia! bella!" and then we resorted to a google translate app to carry on a hilarious faux conversation, which everyone on our bus watched for entertainment. by the end of this bus ride, i was engaged to a 19-year-old sicilian who likened himself to scarface... ha! dream come true, right?

once off at the bus stop, i awkwardly bid farewell to my 10-minute-fiance. then noelle and i walked along st julien's lit up waterfront JUST as their epic religious festa was reaching its climax.  

crowds of people had flooded the space in front of the church. men in white robes held up religious figures and a full orchestra performed. fireworks erupted in the bay, casting red and purple sparks across the sky. then, just as we were weaving our way through the masses of people, they started lighting sparklers all around us. i looked over the crowd at all the anonymous hands holding up their glittering ignition, and my first thought was THAT's dangerous... but my second thought was holy god, this is SO MAGICAL. 

we hurried back to the apartment just in time to watch the very end of the firework show from our 9th floor balcony. finale.

sunrise in germany // sunset in malta

we made the trek through the graffiti-soaked streets in the black of night, just before sunrise. i was so glad to see berlin becoming a blur in the rearview mirrors on that long, quiet bus ride to the airport. but i couldn't tell if i was disappointed by berlin, or just too excited about the destination on my boarding pass to give it much of a chance.

noelle and i had a layover in milan (the only taste of italy i'd receive this summer). we went to a cafe where i drank tea to soothe yet another sore throat. noelle napped peacefully beside me despite the swarm of italian voices around us. 

on the flight to malta, i sat next to a handsome young australian guy who had maltese relatives on both sides of his family. he'd been to malta before and was going again this time to finish off a 6 week tour of europe with his mates. and he knew enough fascinating facts about the 7,000-year-old culture to give us an hour long history lesson in the air.

i am forever enchanted by all there is to learn in this world. college taught me a good bit, but there's nothing quite like a traveling classroom. i've learned more in these quick couple months than i did my entire senior year of university. 

when we got to malta, the hot air hit us like a wave. our limbs penetrated, immediately. berlin was fairly hot, but malta was HOT. dry hot. vegas hot. in that way, it felt a bit like home. and in other ways, i felt like i'd stepped on another planet.  

it was the first time i'd be on an island since i moved away from st thomas. so that felt a little familiar, too. but my virgin islands are green, mountainous little things.  malta is a big, flat slab of limestone. 

on the ride from the airport to the apartment where we'd be staying for the next couple weeks, i stared out the windows in a quiet awe at what was racing past. dusty brown buildings all made of limestone, jagged along the winding road like crooked teeth. colors and shapes and terrain that i'd never seen before. 

this isn't like europe at all. this is what northern africa looks like. holy shit, am i that close to africa?   

malta felt so inexplicably foreign. not like spain or france or holland or germany. like AFRICA! but not quite. like africa, with hints of italy. and dear god, was it breathtaking.

we watched the sun set on that long day of travel with red wine in hand. and we gave thanks for the unbelievable variety that this life affords.