ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA

If you've known me for any length of time, you know that Asheville has been and always will be a place incredibly close to my heart. My first experience in this heaven of a city was a summer I spent living in Black Mountain, a small town outside greater Asheville, with FUGE, where my duties included documenting a bunch of middle and high schoolers' adventures in the mountains for three sunny and sweaty months.

I've spent loads of time in this area of the Blue Ridge Mountains exploring, backpacking, driving, eating, drinking, listening to music, dancing to music, looking for jobs, interviewing for jobs I never got, etc. It was only fitting that it was a stop early this winter, and it was only the BEST THING IN THE WORLD that two of my closest gal pals came with.

Sarah and Alex and I met in February 2014 at an international job fair, where we all proceeded to accept jobs that plucked us from our southern homes in the states and chucked us over to the other side of the world. Thankful beyond just about everything that I was able to see both of them over the following three-ish years, we had not all three been together since that job fair so long ago. When Alex, the last of us to return to the states, got back home, we planned a trip to celebrate all that God had done in our lives since our last meeting.

Kindred spirits like these two are INCREDIBLY hard to come by, and I say that because I know for a fact that God put sisters in three different families and we are them. We share so many interests, and one that I'm thankful for is a love for new, good and "twist-on-this" foods. Alex and Sarah will tell you that my list of researched and desirable Asheville restaurants would have lasted us for nigh a month, so we had to be picky.

Night one, we ate in Black Mountain at My Father's Pizza, a local favorite, casual and delicious. Afterwards, we headed to Jack of the Wood, a bar/music venue in downtown Asheville, where we listened to smooth tunes from Moonshine Rhythm Club, a group of talented guys from Music City.

Our first stop the next morning was Early Girl Eatery. We arrived at 9am, the perfect time to arrive, as the dining room filled up immediately after we were seated. Per usual for us, we ordered three delicious plates to pass to the left every ten-ish minutes. Best hash of my life. Best french toast of my life, best benedict of my life.

We continued spending the morning downtown, grabbing some fuel at Trade & Lore per the recommendation of a trusted coffee-loving friend. We wandered to several shops downtown that fed our love of Asian culture and quirky interior aesthetic. See Asheville Market Basket and LOFT.

We stumbled upon our favorite stop that afternoon, Horse + Hero. They offered an incredible selection of art prints and cards, and it was here we discovered our next days activity, The Big Crafty.

Before spending time exploring the River Arts District, we stopped for drinking chocolate and macarons (Let's be real. I stopped for these things.) at French Broad Chocolate Lounge, which had since my last visit expanded to a much more spacious and lovely location. We ordered and tried an incredibly intimidating drinking chocolate, something with rose and citrus in it, I'm sure.

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While at the arts district, we chatted with a few of the artists, some creating while we were perusing. We took advantage of the outrageously colored brick walls and met the folks who run Sunnyside Trading Co., a bohemian furniture company who gets their textiles and fabrics from overseas: I recognized several Thai designs and some quilts I'd seen in the Chiang Mai markets.

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Grabbing a cuppa at Pennycup nearby, we headed back to our cute Airbnb in Black Mountain to do a little wandering around and enjoy the blue-grey weather.

That night we had one of the most divine dining experiences ordering small plates at Rhubarb, a rustic and farm-to-table restaurant on the main drag in downtown. We ordered the preserved plate (the best thing I've ever eaten), Mongolian barbecued lamb ribs, and a couple other things that have since exited the constantly changing local menu. We finished up with some cakes at Old Europe, where we decided that it was much to cold to try to use the hot tub at our place, even with the spicy ginger ales we'd picked up to enjoy. Asheville had reminded us all too well how cold the NC mountains get in December.

We spent our last night watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty since Sarah hadn't watched it (shocking, yes), and turned in rather early, since the next day was our departure and we still had lots we wanted to do. In the morning we ate at Biscuit Head, home of the gravy flight and the jam bar. The rain kept us from exploring quite as much as we had hoped, so after browsing the colorful and loud (and beautiful) craft fair, we spent our last hours at High Five Coffee reading (typical of each of us, actually) to waste the time before we dropped Sarah off at the Greyhound station.

Our weekend, though full, was relaxing and packed with some of the best conversation I'd had in months. If you've ever lived overseas, you know what it's like to connect with those who've had the same experience. There's something about those who have repatriated as well, no matter how long it took them, is taking them, or where they lived and loved before. I am forever grateful to Alex and Sarah for sharing their lives with me, and will think back on this trip with so much happiness. Honestly, it's only a matter of time before we just recreate it. We still have the other four fifths of the list of things to see, taste, do that I'd made before we even left.

LONDON, ENGLAND • PART 2

While I whiled away the days before coming back to the US, I spent some time with Alex and Megan in their quaint town in Reigate. I'm a city girl, and good friends that they are, they remembered and took me to London for a day, but I, crazy that I am, forgot to look at the photos until now.

We started out the grey, albeit lovely day walking to the train station, where we met Megan and continued on to Londontown. Reigate is beautiful, and after leaving the lush colors of Thailand, the floral brightness of the small town in a misty grey day was welcome and familiar.

I can't tell you anything about the route we took, since my tour guides got us to our destination without any snafus. All I know is how much I love public transportation (tubes, trains, etc.) and how badly I wish that Nashville had something along those lines. Not sure at which station we ended up disembarking, so if you know, tell me! I need to get these places down if I'm ever going to live in the UK...

Our first order of business was afternoon tea at The Orangery at Kensington Palace. We walked through the gardens and grounds passing the Albert Memorial, something else that reminded me of Thailand, oddly enough. The tea was amazing, and I'm eternally grateful to our wonderful server who explained (in great detail) the order of things, and every ingredient that was included in the little cakes and sandwiches. Just after this tea was when the "where on earth am I" moments began, what with struggling to use a chip card and feeling incredibly awkward when I realized that I was working in dollars instead of pounds. Little did I know this would definitely not be the worst of these feelings.

After tea we headed over to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, and yes, I was freaking out. A ton. We were able to watch from the floor a particularly whimsical production of A Midsummer Night's Dream for 5 measly pounds. Bucket list item #43, check. Afterwards we walked through Borough Market to grab some snacks and coffee.

One of my closest friends in Chiang Mai is a coffee connoisseur, so I picked him up a bag of beans from Monmouth Coffee Company, a famous shop in London. I got some for myself as well, loving the opportunity they give each customer to try each flavor, and the extensive notes they provide on each different roast and each different bean. Also, below, is Alex tying a piece of string to her finger because that's a thing. 

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After scrambling around looking for Ben's Cookies on Dani's recommendation, Alex headed to a previous engagement and Megan and I wasted time in shops and walking around Richmond. We met up with Megan's Sam at a Young's pub where I tried Pimm's for the first time. It really was spectacular until I realized that Young's brews my favorite stout, and I was partially devastated that I hadn't made the connection in time.

We wrapped up the day meeting a couple of overseas friends for dinner at Nando's and walking around that led to some frozen yoghurt at the Farmery. All in all, a chill London day in more ways than one, always making me long for more time to spend.

OXFORD, ENGLAND

As much as I love London, there is a large part of me that still longs to explore more of the United Kingdom. While daydreaming about my upcoming trip, I asked Alex for some good suggestions for a day trip, and the literary nerd in me was thrilled when the prospect of Oxford finally became a reality.

Every street in Oxford is beautiful, charming, unique and worthy of having its portrait painted. Alex and Megan and I arrived mid-day, making our first stop, my most anticipated: The Eagle and Child. This pub is where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien named themselves the 'Inklings,' and encouraged each others' works of art in writing. The place is still a frequented spot by locals and tourists alike, and it was just like any other pub I'd been to in England. Not to say it was a let down, it most certainly wasn't. The food was great and I drank the first beer I'd had in two years here: the best. It was a little more comforting to know that this was just as if me and my friends were discussing my life's work over a table at a favorite coffee shop or some great Italian chain restaurant we love. 

After lunch we walked through the university, gaping at every angle, gawking at those on campus who were just going about their daily business as if being in a place like this were normal... We headed into the School of Divinity, a place Alex prefaced as one of her favorites in Oxford. I walked in and was immediately struck with a familiarity I couldn't place, but finally realized with complete assurance that this was the filming location for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire's dance lesson scene with Professor McGonagall. I turned a corner and, low and behold, my suspicion was correct: a poster telling just that fact with production shots from the movie.

The room was heavenly, the ceiling carved with such impeccable skill, the light streaming in the windows and the glass distorting the ancient buildings around the school. No idea how I would have ever concentrated on any classes if I'd been a student. Too much architectural distraction.

We continued to see idyllic scene after scene as we moseyed around the university. We made a visit to the university church, where C.S. Lewis first delivered 'The Weight of Glory' in 1941 to a congregation of future Oxford alumni. Several other notable speakers have preached there, but let's be honest. We were there for Lewis.

Alex led us to a little shop hidden on a backstreet called Objects of Use, where we perused a carefully curated group of items that were both practical and pretty. Ceramics, fairly expensive everyday sundry items like matchboxes and rolling pins. It's worth a visit for the visuals alone: the place is very well done. 

Because no trip is complete without some sort of garden, we visited Oxford Botanic Garden, which housed some of the best greenhouses and wildflower mixes I'd yet seen. We walked (sometimes barefoot) through the beds, picked our way through the greenhouses and I geeked out at all the insectivores. The true Pokémon, I guess.

We kept walking and taking in the beauty of the forgotten backstreets, finding our way to Chiang Mai Kitchen, because I can never eat enough Thai food and others like me being there as an excuse to try some exotic cuisines. The curries and coconut soup we ordered were incredible, and I glimpsed a whiteboard completely covered in Thai script as we left the little alley that hosted the dive.

This place transported me back in time and out of time to a year when I was a student at Oxford. I lived in a beautiful old row house and spent my time in between classes eating Thai food in back alley ways and biking over cobbled streets to class. Also I sat in fields of grass and took the bus across town for Ben's Cookies and bookstore shopping.