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The Journal

An artist + photographer's story blog. Nashville, TN.

Two Hearts, One Forest

Amy Roberts

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When I was beginning the third grade, I was thrown mercilessly into class with my frienemy. It didn't last long, though. Soon we became absolutely inseparable, to the point that our favorite past time during recess each day was to walk far away from the playground into the fields surrounding. Just talking and wandering. There was a golfer nearby who routinely lost golfballs in those fields, and so our self-assigned "jobs" were to find and collect those golf balls.

Stealing? Maybe.

Still, not as a bad as when we literally stole candy from the reward jar during recess the next year.

We were very good at recess.

No matter where life has flung us (mostly her, to Germany and around the U.S.A.) we have always managed to take a walk together every so often. This spring, when we both needed it desperately, we walked together once again in our hometown.

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Ever in her own Wonderland and fond of deathly things, she is incredibly good at finding mushrooms.

Ever obsessed with anything living and adorable, I found multiple snails.

A good haul, even by our 3rd grade standards.

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It's crazy to me that, while far-off adventures are magical and hard and worth it, the most joy we ever really find is in moments of connection with each other.

Love you.

xo,

Travelogue: Shanghai

Amy Roberts

First things first: The hospitality of the people we encountered in China was absolutely staggering.

Our flight from Yantai (read my post about that leg of our trip here) to Shanghai was at 7:00am, so we were up by 4:00am to be sure we had plenty of time at the airport. We were travelling with our friend, Wenbo, which was an incredible experience in itself! We had met his roommate, Kay, maybe twice in the States, but when Kay learned we were visiting Shanghai he immediately offered to have his family meet us there (and show us around, and lend us their only car...!). Kay's parents greeted us at the Shanghai airport, took us to our hotel, and helped haggle for our rooms (a new concept for us).

Once we were settled in, we all went to lunch at a restaurant that specializes in Yunnan province food, where we had some of our favorite food of the whole trip. Scrambled eggs with lavender buds, black fungus with greens, rice, some kind of barbecue... it was all incredible.

After lunch, we hit the pavement and headed toward a small, older area of the city. Right away, we found a beautiful Buddhist temple and, as it was on our list to tour a temple at some point on our trip, we stopped and looked around.

The temple was home to lots of kitties, who lived with the monks in a mutually advantageous situation. They kept the mice off of the food offerings which worshipers would lay on the altars, and they got a home and fancy pillows to sleep on in exchange. It was pretty clear how much they loved the monks, too - they followed them around everywhere!

It rained off and on while we were in Shanghai, and one this afternoon became one of the highlights of our trip to China. After visiting the temple, we ducked into a small, sweet-smelling tea shop, where we spent about an hour being served tea by a very kind woman who owned her shop and took pride in its independence. As she showed us the tea ceremony, she spoke to us in Chinese and our friend translated for us. Her tea was hands-down the best tea I've ever tasted. 
This was also during our second week in China, and I had been traveling with two men for the entire trip. I remember wishing desperately to have some female interaction which wasn't an aggressive sales pitch or a request to take a photo. This hour with this woman, as her grown sons wandered around her shop, filled that gap in a tiny way. I was grateful, even though I couldn't really tell her directly.
As we looked through the teapots available, since I had planned on buying one and hadn't found what I wanted yet, we saw one which wasn't quite straight (not the one in the picture, that was HER teapot). She said this other one was imperfect as it was made by hand, and no one had wanted it. Our friend was really confused when our eyes lit up at its teeny indications of human touch. He pointed out the things that made it imperfect, and frowned when we said, "We know, that's what makes handmade things so special!" Home it came, along with tea of several sorts, quickly jotted-down instructions for brewing, and a happy, grateful memory.

We continued walking the ancient strip, the clouds threatening to break into rain. We were eating meat on stick when it started pouring, so we took refuge in a crawfish shop, where we chatted with the staff (I say we, but I mean Wenbo) while eating crawfish (Wenbo and Justin actually ate the crawfish) and sipped on Tsingtao beer until the weather cleared.

The day ended with a moon bridge sighting and a lot of happy feels.

The next day, we ate lots of food and looked around in some of the nicer shopping areas. We weren't all that interested in buying a lot, but we were thoroughly entertained by the excess of badly translated phrases printed on most of their popular clothing. I came home with one which says fittingly "More Less." I'm not really sure what they were going for in terms of translation, but it feels like the right idea for Meanderblog values, don't you think?

From there we headed to Shanghai's famed waterfront area called The Bund, which abuts the Huangpu River and offers a skyline you'll never forget. We saw it during the day, though the weather was still very heavy and there was a thick grey fog obscuring our view. Still, it was really quite spectacular.

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We ate at a lovely fancy buffet, where we had a booth near a window that looked out onto the river below.

On our way back, we took another look at The Bund, this time all lit up for the evening. Stunning!

Our last day in Shanghai was just as wonderful. We spent some time in the well-known Tianzifang district, another ancient part of Shanghai which has been transformed into a hub for food, craft, and architecture. After hours exploring, we breezed through a city park and flew back to Beijing in the evening.

This is merely a highlight reel of all we experienced in beautiful Shanghai. Thanks for coming along with us! The next and final installment of our adventure through China will outline our day trip to Suzhou, the loveliest leg of our journey. 'Til next time,

xo,

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Birkenstocks: How They Fared

Amy Roberts

My last post of the summer, before school begins and my life is consumed in books... (actually that sounds pretty ok to me). I've got big plans for the blog this fall, though, so keep your eyes peeled for more good stuff. Anyway...

Before my trip to China, I decided to take the plunge and get my first pair of Birks. I'd read about them for years and I knew I would need something easy to slip on that could take a bit of walking. I decided on the traditional Arizona Birks in Habana, and I have to say, they did not disappoint!

I didn't get to use them quite as much as I thought I would, since I learned that it's not wise to wear open-toed shoes out too much in China. But I did wear them to the beach on our trip to Yantai, and they were perfect for a stroll on the shore of the Yellow Sea (though I did try to keep them relatively dry to protect them).

They are comfortable, easy, and they don't make my feet tired, which is what I was hoping for.

HOWEVER.

The only complaint I have is that they rub right in the arches of my feet, so I can't walk far in them - a problem, since I bought them for walking. I'm working on researching the reasons why this might be happening and what I can do to fix it, but if you have any advice I would love to hear it! I've read that you can sand or hammer down areas of the cork bed that rub, so I might try that.

Do you have a pair of beloved Birks that have worked for you? Tell me all about it!

xo,

Edit

10 Months Later...

Time-warp forward to Mid-May of 2018 and these shoes have seen some pretty good wear. After I got back from China, I developed calluses where the gigantic blisters were in my arches which allowed me to wear them as much as I wanted. Once winter set in, though, my Birks went to the closet. I pulled them out for a full day of walking this past weekend and unfortunately got the same blisters as last year. Looks like I either need to try hammering the cork or trust my feet to form some annual armor every spring.

I can’t deny it. I still love them. Do I have for Birkenstocks the same inextinguishible love that other women have for bright red stilettos? Because that would be fitting...

Travelogue: Beijing

Amy Roberts

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The Travelogue series narrates my adventures journal-style. 

"The air burns our eyes."

Not to start out on a sour note, but that's one of the first things I wrote down in my journal when we arrived in China. I learned later that some of the grey haze that tinged the light in the broad day was cloudy weather, but not all of it. Before we left our home-grown Tennessee town, we had wondered to each other whether we would notice the infamous air pollution in the world's third largest city.

We did.

Our friend and guide, Wenbo, was about to take us through this massive city. But one of the programs that his father works on at the China Agricultural University is aimed toward helping absorb the smog that drives even spiders out of the city. China's capital is truly a marvel, and they're doing their best to care for their citizens and repair the environment at the same time (which is more than we ca...). Whoops! Did I write that out loud?

After a pair of red eye flights that totaled about seventeen hours, we walked out from under the airport's hanging sign, flashing simply "Foreigners," and blinkingly slipped into the back of Wenbo's car. The car swerved from its place into oncoming traffic! Wenbo wove like a crazy person in and out of lanes, honking loudly and carving an aggressive path to the freeway.

"Now you will learn how to drive in Beijing" he said to us with a grin.

 

The Great Wall

The next day, despite our massive case of jet lag, we headed to The Great Wall of China to kick off our trip with a bang. As we got further from Beijing, we began to see mountains we didn't realize were there, because they had been hidden in the haze of the city.

They were other-worldly - lumpy mounds of earth's meringue pulled up to a peak and baked under a China sun. They were stunningly beautiful and filled with flocks of birds. Our drive was beautifully scenic and passed through several villages. At one of these we stopped for gas and shopped along the mountainside streets, where I bought a beaded bracelet made from the wood of a peach tree, designed to keep away evil spirits. Couldn't hurt, right?

After about an hour's drive, we made it to the village where the entrance to The Great Wall was. On our way in, we bought fresh hawthorn fruits and cherries to snack on as we walked - something we discovered Wenbo was very fond of doing to keep hydrated. I bought a hat to help block the sun, and - would you believe it - I haggled for it! I hate haggling as a rule, but it's the only way to buy much of anything in China. The woman was so kind and couldn't believe it when I chose the simplest hat they had, but I gently waved my hand "no thank you" as she cocked her head and pointed to brighter hats with lace and flowers. We laughed at each other and ourselves and didn't mind that any words we spoke fell on ears that couldn't understand them. 

Then we saw it, and it sank in. We started up the steps of The Great Wall of China and we knew we were walking on the work of ancient hands. It was a staggering, humbling feeling to be that small and brief in the midst of mountains and feats of humanity both very huge and very old.

I was vastly unprepared for the amount of steps involved, and the late June sun was intensely hot; nonetheless, The Great Wall was a joy to visit. Part of this could be because we went to a lesser-known section and found the wall nearly empty (you can find out how we did that on my post here).

And it was beautiful.

Pictures will never do justice to the way the ancient stones snake along the ridges of the mountains. At the section we were visiting, the original wall could be seen dipping in and out of the reservoir that filled the valley. We walked halfway around the lake and then took a boat back through the water and to the car. What an amazing way to start our time in China.

 

 

Buns and Other Meanderings

This was a very special day.

This was the day we learned about China's best kept secret and fully understood the entire Kung-Fu Panda saga in one go.

BUNS.

Italics, caps, and bold all completely required there. We ate stuffed steamed buns for breakfast at Qingfeng Bun Shop, and it's honestly the thing I crave most now that we're home. I got to try mushroom + veggie buns (the best!) plus sweet pumpkin soup, which reminded me strongly of grits in a mild-flavored, squishy sort of way.

 

Fun Fact: Often in China you will be asked whether you'd like a drink OR soup with your meal - these are viewed as interchangeable there, and it actually makes a lot of sense for a country without potable water to expand their qualifiers for hydration.

I just... there are no words. I don't think of myself as a foodie, but that soft, fluffy bun with a tacky outside and a savory inside dipped in spicy garlic sauce was absolute heaven. Chinese buns are the best ever.

 

Ok, now we can move forward.

Fun Fact Which Was Learned The Hard Way:
The Forbidden City is closed on Mondays.

So, wouldn't you know it, the day we went to see the Forbidden City was on a Monday. After lamenting our spilled milk, we realized we were still able to go to the top of the Tiananmen Gate and look out into Beijing's sprawling skyline and Tiananmen Square.

Tiananmen Square - the Monument to the People's Heroes and the Mao Zedong Mausoleum behind it.

Since we couldn't see The Forbidden City quite yet, we grabbed a tuk-tuk ride - a cart attached to a motorcycle - to the next best thing (which turned out to be the first best thing IMHO): Jingshan Park, where we knew we could at least see it from a distance.

Our tuk-tuk ride was one of the highlights of our trip for me. Not only did our driver confirm our suspicions by admitting that, had our Chinese friend not been with us, our trip would have cost ¥60 (about $9) rather than the more reasonable ¥20 (about $3). He was also very charming and wanted a picture at the end of our ride (I wanted one, too). 

It was the best form of travel we experienced and gave us no motion sickness because we were too busy having a blast and clinging to our seats to notice.

Fun Fact: The only reason we braved a tuk-tuk ride was because we had a friend with us who knew the ropes. We had read about potential scams related to tuk-tuks aimed toward foreigners, and we knew we were prime targets. Be careful and be informed, and have fun!

 

 

Jingshan Park

Jingshan Park was originally a private imperial garden and was part of the grounds of The Forbidden City, but it was opened to the public in 1928. It sits atop Jingshan Hill to the north of the city, which was made by human and animal labor during the Ming dynasty with the soil gathered from the moat at the south side. This was done not only to block cold northern winds and fortify the city, but also to fulfill the requirements of Feng Shui. 

If you're interested, there's an excellent two-part documentary on Netflix called China's Forbidden City from the Smithsonian Channel which I watched before we left.

The hill features five peaks, each crowned with its own pavilion. Several of these house large Buddhist statues and the higher ones give you a taste of the views to come. It's not until you reach the very top, though, that you get to see the entire Forbidden City perfectly squared off from the center point of Beijing.

I loved this park. The lush greenery made the paths almost exclusively shady, and the view was magnificent. At the top, we sat and rested for a while as we watched the birds swoop out into the city below. Peaceful, beautiful, and ancient - yep, that's what we went to China to see.

This day was also a day of public transport, something Justin and I aren't very accustomed to using. We rode in a private car, a bus, a taxi, a subway, and a tuk-tuk all in one day! It was really great fun.

After the park, Justin and I were really beginning to suffer a bit from our jet lag and worn out feet, so we stopped for a meal (eggs with black fungus, cucumber with garlic, and egg drop soup) and then went to our hotel to launder our clothes in the sink and hang them out to dry overnight.

Fun Fact: While there are washers in China, there are few laundromats - and dryers aren't really a thing. Everyone hangs their clothes to dry on a line, and as the price of getting our clothing cleaned for us at the hotel was astronomical (about the same as the U.S.), we went to the store and bought hand washing detergent and washed our clothes in the sink. This saved us a ton of money, but it was tedious and made us really appreciate our grandmothers as we rung out each piece with blistering hands. After our first batch of old-fashioned washing, we were much more economical with our clothing and totally slept naked (TMI? ha!) so we wouldn't have to wash any more than we had to. That actually turned out to be an ok system, though, so I would do it again.

These chill evenings and our many bus/train rides were made even more relaxing with Audible Audio Books. This summer, I listened through the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy plus The Hobbit. It was really great fun for a bookworm like me to be listening to a fictional epic adventure while living one in real life.

 

The Forbidden City

"We feel like we are almost used to China now."

This log entry turned out to be only slightly true, but by this time on our trip we had fallen into a very tentative rhythm.

  1. Get up (much harder than it sounds).

  2. Eat something for breakfast (whatever was handed to us, usually).

  3. Ask Wenbo what we were doing that day (because he was the language-speaker and therefore the plans-maker).

  4. Go do that thing and try not to get sick or overheat.

After our failed attempt the day before, we decided to take the train ride again to The Forbidden City before we ran out of time in Beijing. We thought leaving early would get us inside quickly, but when we arrived just after 9:00am, there was already a massive line of people spilling out onto the sidewalk. It turns out there's not really a great workaround for avoiding crowds in The Forbidden City.

80,000 people are allowed into The Forbidden City every day, and by 10:45am 33,000 had already gone in. It was hot, crowded, and just stunning. Everywhere we looked there was sacred decoration and historical significance.

Fun Fact: They have interactive maps with earphones which you can rent in any language imaginable. These were worth it, but I recommend just one person get one and relay the info to everyone in your group - otherwise, your maps will be slightly out of sync and you'll end up waiting around while everyone's recordings finish.

1420. That's when this sprawling puzzle of gates and thrones and walls began housing the emperors of China, during the Ming dynasty. 1420. That's a very long time ago, folks. How incredible to stand there and see the work of ancient hands preserved in a monument of accomplishment.

The Imperial Garden was my favorite bit. I admire how revered the natural beauty of these rocks is in Chinese culture. Often we would find displays of just really nice stones, which I found extremely charming.

The Forbidden City is infused with the number nine. Most doors (like this one) have nine rows of nine knobs. The highest single-digit number, nine is made up of three threes; nine nines is 81, a number whose digits add to make nine again (eight plus one is nine). It's a circular, harmonious, eternal number, associated forever in China with the majesty of the emperor.

Our time in the Forbidden City was amazing, but we had other things to see in Beijing, so we headed out a little early and went by cab to the famous Hutong villages - something I'd been really dying to see.

 

 

Hutong Village

We ended up at an ancient Hutong village called Nán Luó Gǔ Xiàng (南锣鼓巷) which is famous for its shopping and food.

Guys.

This is what I was so excited about! I drank in every ancient stone, every artisan vendor, every street food chef. We stopped in at a silver shop where we got to see smiths meticulously working metal into delicate engraved jewelry by hand.

Each alleyway was enticing. We spent the entire rest of the day here until our feet just gave out entirely.

When we'd had enough and the sun was sinking, we got another cab to take back to the car.

I have to include here that the next day we got Starbucks, China version! I got something called The Macha Earl Grey Jelly Frappachino, and I want frozen tea drinks every day from now until I die. We also went with Wenbo's father to try a special Chinese delicacy - puffer fish.

Fun Fact: Puffer fish is fatally poisonous if not cooked properly. Even once it's cooked, some of the poison remains in the broth of the soup it's served in - not enough to kill you, just enough to make give your tongue a tingling sensation as you eat. Chefs must be specially certified to make it, and they are required to try the first bite of each fish and wait forty-five minutes before serving it to customers. In case they, you know, messed it up.
EDIT: Unfortunately, we found out once we got back to the USA (and had access to Google) that puffer fish are being fished into extinction for these type of dishes around Asia. So, we won't be doing that again.

On our way to the ticket station for our train ride the next day, we swung by to see Tiananmen Square lit up at night. Just lovely.

 

The Summer Palace

On our last day in Beijing, we we pressed for time. It was rainy, so we forwent the Temple of Heaven (heartbreaking!) in favor of a quick visit to The Summer Palace before catching our train to Yantai.

It turned out to be one of my favorite stops during our entire trip.

We went up the mountainside to the palace of kings - or emperors - from the very deep past. The kind of past that feels alien when you play the stories in your head like a movie.

Some of these places still feel a bit alien today, and walking through them feels like you're walking through a picture book. And you keep having to remind yourself it's real - real, in the same way the past is real but so removed from anything you've ever lived that it's easy to say, "Oh, yes. That's a story from the past," and move on never having felt that it really had any form or tangibility.

This place gave me that lovely sad questioning feeling, when you think you might be a little afraid of dying after all, when you realize you'll never realize how small you are, or what words like "truth" and "real" even mean, and it's ok because no one else knows either. I cherish those moments, because I think they make life deeper.

The train station was an hour away and we still had to pack, so we headed back to the hotel before we really wanted to. 

We left Beijing in the hopes of seeing the sea in Yantai with our imaginations filled to the brim with new material that we'll never finish remembering.

In the next installment of this series you'll read about our experience in Yantai, a city we wouldn't have visited had we not gone to China with our close friend Wenbo, and one that had some of our most unique experiences.

Have you been to Beijing before? Let me know what tips you might have in the comments below!

xo,

On Being Alone

Amy Roberts

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I grew up in a quiet, sunny home.

As a kid, I would spend hours on end in my room, playing with my toys and stretching my imagination's muscles with no restraints. Because I was alone.

An only child, I spent a lot of my free time alone - but I wasn't lonely. Being alone felt as obvious as a fish being in water. I was comfortable there, able to stretch and build and think freely without distraction.

Of course, adult life eventually caught up with that, and distractions came bounding in from every direction. For a while, I didn't know how to structure my time to accommodate all those distractions, and I certainly didn't know how to say a polite "no."

You see, for some reason our culture pushes on us to be busy all the time. Something in society says that, in order to be a good, engaged, successful person, you must fill your time to the brim with stuff. Work, education, family, friends, community, home, food, hobbies... the list gets long pretty fast.

And all of those things are important, but there's one thing that is left out of that equation.

What about being alone?

There is something really valuable about spending time with yourself. After all, we live our lives in duplicity, viewing ourselves as us and someone else at the same time. Don't believe me? Answer this: When you ask yourself a question, who are you talking to?

Whoops. Sorry if I broke your brain, there.

But when we prioritize ourselves, society calls that "selfishness." I just don't buy it anymore.

But, don't you get lonely?

Not really. I tend to feel rejuvenated when I've had some time alone, where I give myself permission to do whatever I gravitate toward in that moment. It doesn't mean I don't like people or that I'm socially inept, but I find that I need time to myself, for no other purpose than to allow my thoughts to wander. Usually, my hands wander, too, and I do some creative project that I'd been putting off. Or I dance, or sing, or just sit.

Life wants me to be busy. Life wants me to say "yes" to every invitation. But if I curate my schedule and allow for some down time, then a few great things happen.

 

I actually get mental rest.

They say sleep is a mystery - we shouldn't really need it, but we have to have it to survive. I know it's the same for me with mental rest. Sleeping isn't enough - I need time to let my brain put on its fuzzy socks and veg.

 

I'm kinder to others.

"I can care for others better when I'm taken care of myself." We hear the words, but we feel the guilt and don't seem to follow through. It's hard, but it's also true. Weeks when I get time alone are the weeks I'm the most present with the people I love. Maybe it's because our brains get distracted with our own exhaustion and can't focus on the needs of others. I don't really know. But this works for me and my family, so there's got to be something there.

 

I get back in touch with who I am and what I want.

This one is interesting. I find it really easy to get swept up in the projects and interests of others and loose sight of my own goals. Being alone invites me to have a conversation with myself (not crazy) and check in with what I really want out of this season of my life. When I do this, I feel more authentic to who I am and more confident in the direction I'm going.

 

So, now, I schedule time to be alone. I literally block out time in my calendar so that I can be alone during that time.

It's not always the same time every week. It's not always consistent. But I find that, if I know that I have alone time guaranteed in the future, I can relax better during the busy parts of my schedule. I'm not afraid to spend all my energy because I know I'll get to replenish it later, so I live life more fully and with more dedication.

Give this to yourself. Value your own self, and allow time to remember who you are and what you want. Because giving it to yourself is also giving it to everyone in your life. I hope you get value from this post, and I would love to know any practices you might have for giving yourself space, so please feel free to comment below!

xo,