This week meet Colleen of Leap, a travel blog with a focus on food and striking imagery. Having recently left the comfort of her D.C. firm, Colleen moved to Germany with her boyfriend for a year sabbatical. Now, four months later she is learning German, exploring the world of German cuisine and writing about her adventure–one plate at a time. Here I interview Colleen on her favorite destination and what inspires her to travel.
What inspires you to travel?
Everything. There are so many beautiful places, beautiful people, and delicious foods out there. So much to be inspired by and to learn from. How could I not travel? I moved to Germany for love, and now that S (her boyfriend) and I are together again, I travel (we travel) to experience the amazingly varied cultures (especially the foods!) around us.
For those who don’t yet know you, can you explain your travel style? My travel style is one focused on comfort, but not total luxury (although I would if I could). In terms of planning, I like to do a fair amount of research on the location, it’s culture, history, and cuisine, but then once I arrive, I like to explore and take my time and have long, relaxing meals. I think that one of the best ways to experience a new place and culture is through its food, and usually the best stuff is sold by street vendors and in off-the-beaten-path locals-only spots. And I like equal parts activity and relaxation. A perfect day for me includes a few long meals of the local cuisine and lots of conversation and something active like kayaking, swimming, hiking, or just wandering. And wine (or beer if I’m in Germany or Belgium)!
How do you afford your travels?
I started planning my sabbatical about two years ago and saved using a lot of the steps that most travel blogs suggest:set up an automatic transfer to a savings account, eat out less, skip the daily 2pm vente soy latte, and stop shopping. While I was not always very disciplined when it came to shopping or eating out (DC has some amazing restaurants!), the best thing that I did was start an online savings account separate from my checking account with an auto deposit so that a certain amount went into my savings account without me ever seeing it. Once my sabbatical is over, I plan to keep this account active so that travel can remain a part of my life. When I’m planning a trip, I use websites like skyscanner.com to try to find a low priced flight (this is often how I choose where to go next) and homeaway.com to rent an apartment (especially when I travel with a group) in order to stay comfortably without paying for an expensive hotel and be able to cook a meal or two in a private kitchen. Also a lot of my trips are two or four day weekends, which is usually enough time to take in a new place, but short enough to keep the cost low.
Where has been your favorite destination?
Over the last year, I’ve been to some truly amazing places and it’s hard to pick one favorite, but I think that today I’ll say it’s Istanbul. Not a minute passed where I didn’t look up and think, “Wow. I can’t believe I’m here.” It’s such a magical city, with unparalleled architectural beauty, rich history (what an understatement!), flavorful foods (S and I ate stuffed mussels by the handful and I’m embarrassed to tell you how many döners), and incredibly friendly people. Ok, I’m going to cheat and name a second favorite. My last big trip was to to Normandy and it was an experience that I will never forget. My weekend there was the perfect combination of history, nature, and fantastic food – cheese and butter, need I say more? I’d like to go back and take my parents one day.
If you had to settle down in one location forever, where would you choose and why?
Right now, I’d choose Baltimore, Maryland, although it’s really hard for me not to say Paris. I grew up just outside of Baltimore and when I go back now it’s always really hard to leave. The city has changed so much over the last ten years and is now a vibrant center of young professionals, young families, farmers’ markets, yoga studios, dog parks, and fantastic restaurants. At the same time, it has still retained its no-nonsense blue collar charm and strong sense of community and pride. And then, of course, it has the Ravens, the Orioles, Old Bay, Maryland Blue Crabs, lacrosse, and Natty Boh. It’s nickname is Charm City and it fits.
This is funny to my inner sixth grader: I’ve noticed that people all over the world who learn English by watching American movies tend to insert curse words at really inappropriate times. My German teacher, for example, who is the cutest little middle-aged, balding man was telling me about his upcoming summer trip to the US. He said he’d need to brush up on his American slang to fit in and then busted out a gang sign a few phrases that would make Shaft blush. I guess we’re misrepresenting everyday life in American movies (or not), but it cracks me up every time.
What keepsake do you have to get at all your destinations? (Whether it’s something free like ticket stubs or brochures, or something you have to buy)
Everywhere I go, I try to take a really great photograph to frame in my home or I buy a piece of art that represents the local culture or reminds me of the trip.
How about the one thing you cannot travel without?
My camera. My family says that we’ve all inherited a compulsion to photograph everything from my grandfather, Santo, and I’ve certainly embraced it.
What is the best piece of travel advice you’ve picked up over the years?
Don’t crowd your experience with expectations. It’s pretty much impossible to have no expectations when you land in a new place, but I try to keep an open mind and let a place tell me what it’s about rather than force onto it what I think it should be. I learned this the hard way. S and I showed up in Malta last year without doing a ton of research. Maybe we were expecting a beautiful and relaxing island-version of the Amalfi coast, but that is not what we got, at least at first. It turned out that our hotel was in a party area and not really close to the natural wonders and off-the-beaten path restaurants frequented by locals that we were hoping for. But after a Cisk or two or three (Malta’s local beer), we let go of our expectations, explored the less populated parts of Malta and Gozo and had one of our best trips ever. We’re even hoping to go back.
Why did you begin your website? And how did you come up with your website name?
Before I started my sabbatical, I agonized over what I would do with my time out of the office. I knew that I couldn’t be climbing the Eiffel Tower and swimming in the Mediterranean the entire time (although that would be a great year), and that I’d be very quickly bored and unhappy if I didn’t have a somewhat academic pursuit, so I decided to write about my experience both to keep my brain active and to keep my family and friends up to date. I chose the name “Leap” because leaving my job and moving to Germany was the scariest thing I had ever done. It felt like jumping off a cliff into the ocean, which was both completely terrifying and exhilarating. I was also taking a leap of faith that this was the right decision for me personally, for my relationship with S and our future, and for my career. “Leap” to me is a crazy adventure, a kind of “just do it,” a sort of “lean in” to what you really want, and a belief that your hard work will make the risk worthwhile.
What is your one piece of advice to budding travel writers looking to start a blog or website?
I consider myself a budding travel writer, but if anyone is interested in my advice, it’s to write about your experience and what you care about rather than what you may think a travel blogger is “supposed” to write about. To me, real experiences are much more interesting than anything too glossy.
What’s next for 2014? (Trips planned, etc.)
A lot! I’m spending May with my family in Baltimore and then S is meeting me in one of our favorite places in the world and where we got engaged, Charlottesville, VA, for our friends’ wedding. Then we’re heading back to Germany together and have plans to visit Croatia and Crete and to celebrate Oktoberfest in Stuttgart and Munich. We have a long list of places to experience while we live in Europe, including the Fjords of Norway, Sardinia, Sicily, Santorini, Southern Spain (a lot of S’s), Budapest, Prague, Chamonix, Bordeaux, Morocco, and Ireland. It’s a long list and I’m excited to see where we go!
Follow Colleen and her travels here: