Wednesday, August 11th 2010: Wake up far too early for a sunny day in August. Eat some melon. Head to airport.
Destination: Austin, Texas.
Purpose: Training as a Peer Mentor for Academic Programs International.
[Just wanted to set the scene for y'all. Why the James Bond writing style?...If I told you, I'd have to kill you.]
Once I passed through security - always a barrel of laughs, that process - I proclaimed it breakfast time. And whaddya know, but there was a UFood Grill in the American terminal. I have heard of this particular restaurant and have always wanted to go, but all its Massachusetts locations are in downtown Boston, and it's not easy to just hop down there. (Mostly because I refuse to drive in Boston. I value the lives of myself and my car far too much.) It's a super casual dining place that features all health-focused fresh foods - AND tart frozen yogurt. If I haven't mentioned it before, I have a frozen yogurt, erm, problem. The problem being that I love it and will get it at pretty much anytime of the day or night, irregardless of actual hunger. It's usually worth it.
But, I also saw they offered smoothies, and that sounded perfect so early on in the day. I grabbed a yogurt and the Mango Madness smoothie - mango, banana, and orange juice.
It was a little heavy on the OJ flavor, but it was pretty tasty. And it made me happy to see a substantial healthy breakfast option in the airport. It made me smile.
I had a layover at OHare in Chicago, and was equally as successful in finding a healthy lunch option!
It was lacking in the protein department, and was seriously screaming for some avocado, but it was really fresh and tasty. The cilantro made ALL the difference, and I was really impressed that it was even there! When I think of airports and herbs together, I see a flight attendant asking me if salt counts. Go OHare and cilantro!
Got to Austin and eventually found the other 3 Peer Mentors who were with me - we were on the same flight the whole time!
I'm just going to say it now: I have never, EVER in my life experiences humidity like I did in Texas. It was what I think rain forests and green houses are like. It was intense and inescapable. But I actually kind of liked it - the air conditioning never felt too cold!
Despite all the heat, we still saw plenty of runners and bikers and strollers out and about, sweaty and smiling. It was impressive. Insane, but impressive.
After getting to the hotel, my roommate Gab and I chilled in the room and literally talked for 2.5 hours straight. She had studied with the API Toscania program, and it was absolutely incredible to share our mutual Italy experience/adventures. In fact, the entire time in Austin was like the best therapy I could have asked for in the transition back to home life. I loved hearing about everyone else's experiences and even though we all went to different places, we all had the common ground of loving every minute of it and it was amazing to connect with that. It was just the coolest group of people. I kinda wish we got to work together more as Peer Mentors. But before I get too wish-washy...
On to the FOOD. We definitely ate well in Austin. The first night, we went to a Tex-Mex place. As we should have.
[Insert here bowls of some seriously delicious salsa, guacamole, and queso. I always thought queso was just glorified melted Veleveeta cheese....I was wrong. It's amazing.]
I went with the fish tacos for my entree. It was a tough choice, but I've always wanted to try them, and I do love me some grilled tilapia. It was a good choice :)
The corn tortillas were soft (my fave!) and tasted homemade, and I never thought I would say this, but the best part of the dish was the Chipotle Ranch dressing drizzled on top. I usually opt for no dressing, because the plate typically arrives drowning under a cloying, bland, cheap-tasting white goo. But this was unlike no other ranch I've ever tasted. It was light but wonderfully creamy, well-spiced but not too hot, and accented the dish without taking any other flavor away. Basically, exactly what a sauce should be. One of the best tex-mex experiences I've ever had. (The only one that was better was a seafood enchilada in downtown Boston when I was around 9. It remains in my head as one of the tastiest seafood dishes yet to reach my mouth. I could eat one right now.)
After dinner, the group of us wandered around downtown Austin (ha! that rhymes with Boston!...maybe I need to get out more.). Austin is such a cool city! It reminded me a lot of Charlotte, North Carolina which I was totally not expecting. Most of our group ended up doing a bit of bar-hopping on the [in]famous 6th street, but my 20-year-old status and very tired self prevented me from doing the same. Luckily, my roommate and one other girl were also still 20, so I wasn't alone. Yay for the youngin's!
After a none-too-restful night, I awoke groggy but excited to get started. It was so great to actually meet the people I had emailed obsessively and see the building where that rather hefty check was sent to. The API Staff is just awesome. And a lot of them are Gillianasana readers, which just makes me grin like an idiot to know. [Hi everyone!!!] And the office decor is SO cool. The creative director Mark is, well, creative. It's really colorful and fun, and I have plans to decorate my future apartment a la API. You're all invited to my housewarming party. Bring chocolate.
We went out to lunch & I had my first one of these:
A fried pickle! And the consensus was that it tastes like...um, a fried pickle. Yep.
Dinner was really exciting. Like, really really exciting.
Italian! What else would get me so excited?
[That was some delicious focaccia. Nothing like the focaccia I had in Italy...but delicious nevertheless. Crispy, cheesy, chewy. God I love bread.]
Remember my first garganelli experience? I loved the shape, and when I saw it on the menu simply done with a tomato & basil sauce, my mind was made up quite quickly.
Simple is always a good way to go.
The dining experience in Austin was really fun. Great food + great conversation. It was, well, great!
And lo and behold, what was across the street from this Italian restaurant but a frozen yogurt shop. I was all over that like white on rice.
This was my first experience with pay-per-ounce fro yo, and I must say, I am jealous of those of you who have one nearby. Although my wallet sure is happy without them.
But who can say no to this??
I went the next night too.
The next and final day, we all gave our presentations about our personal study abroad experiences. It was so much fun to hear everyone's, and made me want to go back. And then go everywhere they went. Global tour, anyone?
Earlier, we met with our program managers, aka the person I stalked via email for 3 months when I was dealing with the massive amount of paperwork involved. [Note to all those study-abroad hopefuls I just scared: most of it is now done online. I am jealous.]. Mine was absolutely awesome, despite the fact that I emailed her 3 times in a row in a period of 10 minutes, and it was so cool to meet her (and see a pic of her adorable son!).
Another highlight was lunch.
Turkey+sprouts+lettuce+tomato+mustard+"avocado". Apparently in Texas, when you see avocado on a menu, it means guacamole. Only one more reason I love Austin. More places should adopt that principle.
But dessert basically eclipsed everything else. There is a "cookie delivery service" nearby that the office orders from often, understandably. But the kicker? The cookes are delivered fresh from the oven.
That was hands-down the best M&M cookie I've ever had. It was all gooey and melty and warm and if I didn't have enough reasons to up and move to Austin, this would do it. I want to open a fresh-from-the-oven cookie delivery service. Seriously. Possibly one of the best business strategies I've ever heard of.
After our training was all over (*tear*), a small group of us decided to check out Barton Springs Pool, which is a public outdoor swimming area with natural water. (I don't know how else to describe it; by "natural," I mean not chlorinated. So before you start giggling about the concept of "unnatural water"...shutup.)
[I love that there is an award for "Best Swimming Hole."]
We ran back to the hotel and I fought with the hotel printer, and before I knew it, it was dinner time! We met at a tapas bar (we were going for barbecue, but the was an hour-long wait, and it was already 8 o'clock. Not happening.).One of the group studied in Barcelona, so needless to say, we asked him for recommendations. I
It was some fresh bread with some of the best grilled veggies I've had - and I have had a lot! It was leeks, artichokes, and asparagus in smoked olive oil + sea salt. The leeks literally melted in my mouth. That romesco sauce on the side was none too shabby, either. I wanted to partake in the bottle of wine, but that pesky age limit and my conscience stopped me. Oh, to be in Italy again.
It was really a great trip. Even better than I expected, and I was pretty excited to begin with! The job will be a lot of work, but studying abroad is something I'm pretty passionate about & I think it will really be fun.
That wasn't the only surprise; the trip seemed to trigger a bit if reverse culture shock. Perhaps it was all the talking about living in our respective countries and how much we loved and grew from it, but either way, I came home happy but a little hurtin'. But what it really did was remind me of what a crazy, confusing, beautiful experience studying abroad is and, for me, was. And I'd do it all over again.
I think I'll be back ;)
[P.S. - if anyone read this earlier, my mouse clicked the "Publish" button of its own volition when I was halfway through writing it. Hate it when that happens.]