ENGAGED: BLAKE + RACHEL

Rachel and I lived together during my first year in Nashville and to say that watching Blake go after her from the very beginning was exciting would be an understatement. I've rarely known to people to be more complementary, and I am beyond thrilled to have been there from the start to witness how the Lord has worked to bring them together.

About a month ago, Blake messaged me and asked if I'd be willing to help him with his proposal plan: He was going to have a picnic set up for the two of them (which didn't sound all that different from the normal romantic and meaningful things he did during the months they were only dating, the blanket he used was "their picnic blanket"), and some of Rachel's closest friends would be hiding in the woods to the side waiting to congratulate them when she said yes. My task was to calm myself enough to not shake my camera lens, we were at least 500 feet away from them and that lens ain't light. I was also wearing a hooded green jacket to blend in with the bushes that surrounded me. I'd had help from Blake's friends, camouflage experts, in appearing as incognito as possible.

Later Rachel kept telling us that she had no idea what was happening until Blake started into his speech. After giving her the ring and a kiss, Blake had called in our direction and Rachel looked shocked, obviously, though her face couldn't tell us which shock she was currently processing. We headed out to snap a few photos and celebrate together for a few minutes before heading to a party with even more friends waiting. Still unsure if Rachel ever found out about this part before arriving.

Blake works part-time as a barista at High Brow Coffee + Tea, a sweet, intimate coffee shop in the Waverly neighborhood of Franklin, Tennessee. I zipped over there to arrive before the newly engaged couple, and was struck by the warmness of the place, and also by the amount of guests who had shown up to pack the little coffee shop out. A few would-be customers were sadly turned away once they realized the place was only open for a private event, but the shop was loud and bright and bustling as the guests waited for Blake and Rachel to arrive.

Rachel is one of my closest friends, and therefore Blake has become one of my favorite people as well. It's easy as pie to see these too going places together, and it's just the beginning for them, but God's been looking forward to this union for quite some time. Don't get mad about me being cheesy, I'm allowed.

TAIPEI + RUIFANG DISTRICT, TAIWAN

A few weeks ago I had the enormous pleasure of visiting East Asia for the first time. Unlike anything I had expected, the island of Taiwan is a mega-city paradise. The summer is sticky and hot, like other places I've been in Asia, but the colorful coast and city alike were the refreshing and vibrant jolt I needed to withstand the humidity. 

Our team was running a camp for some expatriate kids in the area, and before we headed to another city to set up and get started with all that we had a couple of days to explore the capital city and the surrounding areas. All five of us were big fans of the outdoors, so we planned to spend the day hiking and taking a look at some waterfalls.

About thirty minutes into our public transportation journey we met a friendly local named Yosef (actually, I bumped rather ungracefully into him at a train station and he inserted himself into our day, which we were incredibly grateful for). Yosef was a local professor on his way to an area near the one we had selected to explore to meet some of his foreign students who were practicing Chinese on the train. He invited us to come along with him, and he proceeded to tell us which side of the train had the more spectacular views, give a little bit of historical and cultural orientation, and generally wow us with his impressive knowledge of language and science. Example: the first thing he showed us about his job was a pill. With a camera inside. No lie.

After riding to the coast with us, Yosef dropped us off at Shifen, where we browsed (and ate octopus, bubble tea, etc.) a market, walked along some paths to a waterfall and park and then proceeded to second guess our route home about a million times. We made it, however unsure we were at the time, back to our hotel with time to spare before dinner.

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One of my favorite parts of visiting Shifen was the amount of paper lanterns folks were sending up. Locals and tourists alike write their dreams and hopes and wishes on the lanterns before sending them up and hoping they don't burn down. This is something I've seen done all over Asia, but never with so many colors as in Shifen. I didn't ask about the wooden rods hanging from the trees, but the same concept seems to apply to them, colorful wishes dangling and floating all over the market.

When we made our way back to Taipei, the city welcomed us with a veritable downpour, and we freshened up for a dinner of duck wraps and other traditional Chinese food at [insert restaurant name I can't remember] with our hosts.

In the morning I took a little time to myself at a café shop called E'pin Bakery where I sipped a latté and picked up some maple cinnamon croissants, which won out over the Earl Grey loaf. So glad I took a little respite before our camp week started, 'cause it was go go go for the next six days, and I definitely needed that little charge.

Below you can see the results of a trip to 7-Eleven, brought to you by two former Asia dwellers. Can you tell we missed a few of our favorite things?

ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND

Since I was only going to be in Scotland for four full days, and Dani had classes and such, our options for day trips were pretty limited. As much as I would have loved to go to Inverness, Isle of Skye or Glasgow, time didn't allow and I wasn't so sad about just having to visit Scotland again. We decided on St. Andrews, a seaside golf town recommended by a friend of mine in Nashville.

Just a couple hours train ride away, we headed to the station in the morning to purchase tickets to Leuchars with destination St. Andrews, and sat through hills and hills and green the likes of which I'd not seen in ages until we fell asleep. Waking in perfect time to be coherent before our bus to the city center, we boarded and found ourselves among the buildings of a baby Edinburgh.

When Google recommendations let us down, we wandered until we found the Cottage Kitchen, a busy and adorable café that had us considering coming back later in the day for dessert. Smushed up by the heater until the place thinned out, we switched to a bigger table to accommodate our massive breakfast and sipped our espresso like regulars.

Heading on from breakfast, we started what would be the first of many, many long walks during this day. Taking pictures as we went, you can see Dani succeeded in getting a few poses in, and making me look, well... normal.

We were headed toward St. Andrews Cathedral, some Roman Catholic ruins that date back to the 1100s. Anyone who says exploring old graveyards is odd has never done it before. So we walked through the ruins, amazed at the sheer size of them. When we'd finally had enough of looking at old graves, it was perfectly sunny and--we thought, a great time to head to the shore.

Our sunny morning had turned to a grey misty fog before we knew it. I was less than pleased, but finally accepting that if I wanted to see Scotland in real life, I wanted it's true, moody colors as well. Being on the beach in the winter rain is also a pretty contrasty moment, both chilling and peaceful. I tried to soak it all up but all I got was waterlogged from all the moisture in the air. When it truly started to rain, we headed toward the residential, wharfish area about a kilometer down, walking by tugboats and what I can only describe as convenience stores for fishermen and captains. 

Then, we walked. I mean. Walked. for at least six kilometers. Maybe ten. We passed the town again, at least three gold courses, and walked along the highway for one of the six. We finally emerged from the fog (was it a physical fog now, or was it in our heads, I have no idea) and stumbled into Balgove Larder Farm Shop, a fairytale of a restaurant.

Balgove greeted it's guests with pastures of goats and sheep, then welcomed them inside to an extensive sundry goods, wine and spirits, cheese/meats/spreads and paper goods store. It took all that was in me not to spend all my money here, and I'm glad I refrained, since I found the gin I'd been eyeing at a place in the states a few weeks later and picked up a bottle for some friends in Nashville. We took a breather at the cafe for tea and scones and hoped that by the time we got out the sun would be with us again.

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Turns out we were right, and the sun was peeking back out when we left for a beautiful but subtle golden hour, and we followed the sunset as we walked (the long long road) back to town. Instead of walking the entire way at once, we stopped for a drink at the Old Course (this is a very important gold course)'s Jigger Inn. St. Andrews is home to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, and many golfers worldwide play here to check it off their bucket list. As we left the inn, the sunset across the courses left everything around bathed in an orange glow, a nice redemption of our earlier misty run across the course.

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Starving, I truly can't remember where we stopped to get some sustenance, but I do remember having chips (fries) and sweet potato fries. While we were back in town, iPhone batteries dying, we ducked into Mitchell's Deli and the kind bartenders let us use a couple outlets behind the bar. Mitchell's was a gem, one we had barely seen from the outside for lack of battery panic. The place has a certain je ne sais quoi about it, a farm to table hole-in-the-wall that turns out to be your next trendy favorite. We tried a couple gin & tonics with that Eden Mill gin we'd passed up earlier and when Dani's phone was no longer in the red we checked to make sure we wouldn't miss the bus back to the train. 

As far as day trips go, this one was indicatively Scotland. For a place that neither Dani nor I knew anything about, I'd say it was a success. If you know me at all you know it's in my blood to research a place fully to make the most of my time, but this flying by the seat of our pants thing turned out pretty great. A little relaxing, a little (or a lotta) walking. Might have been good if I'd ever played golf, though.