Traveling: Unlocking Las Vegas, The Sin City

2019 was indeed good to me and in December when I started to work on a new project, I got sent for two weeks to the “Sin City”. At first, I had very low expectations, since it didn’t sound as it was a place that fitted my style, yet in the end, I loved every second that I spent in the crazy Las Vegas.

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December might not be the best time to visit this area, yet beggars can’t be choosers, therefore I embarked on the plane, and a lot of hours after, I landed in the sunny, surrounded by canyons city of Las Vegas. The first impression was that it has a lot more to it than the infamous Strip street.  The Red Canyon was the first thing I saw when I got to the hotel and I have to admit, the view was amazing, never have I thought that the dessert can be so beautiful.

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The Red Canyon area, has also, a lot of very good restaurants and pubs, the ones that I have tried (and loved) are Frank & Fina’s Cocina and The Bar. If you plan a trip there, make sure you are hungry since the portions are HUGE. Compared to Chicago, I can say that the food in Las Vegas is beyond amazing, pretty sure I have put on a few pounds while here.

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Getting to the “main star” of the city, The Strip, and the famous casinos, I have to admit those are not my cup of tea. I have imagined more of a Casino Royale style, not flip-flops and shorts, also the image of people losing the track of hours spent on slot machines is not a pretty one. I do have to give it to the Venetian for the interior that resembles the real Venice and the sky that will trick you into thinking you are outside. The rest of them I would describe as kitsch. Since this is the city center, I saw that the food is mainly fast-food and expensive, aimed towards the tourists. Would recommend stepping away from the Strip if you want to eat.

Bellagio fountain and the Volcanos are nice shows to see, tacky yet cute in their own way. I guess for a once in a lifetime experience, you can check those out.

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A couple of other disappointments that I had were: The Pawn Shop, maybe I had high hopes since I watched their show for a while, but the store had little to nothing to see. Fremont Street is nothing but a highly artificially lighted place where people like to undress and “shock” the tourists, again, not my scene. Hard Rock Caffe, where you can listen to Nicky Minaj (wtf???) and drink an overpriced cocktail.

Clubbin in Caesar’s Palace Omnia wasn’t on my favorite list either, but here I knew from the beginning that the electronic music will not sweep me off my feet. All in all the experience is a nice one, with enough alcohol any type of music can be a good one.

Moving away from the not so great things, to the amazing ones, here are my top picks: Red Canyon, Grand Canyon ( technically not part of Las Vegas, but it’s only a few hours drive), Hoover Dam and, saved the best for last Cirque du Soleil – Mirage show. I will append a few of my favorite photos below, yet I cannot recommend those enough.

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In the two weeks that I spend in the city, I cannot say that I was bored, maybe it was because of the fact that I spend at least 8 hours at work, but even so, I would love to return to the infamous city that makes everyone lose their mind. As for a piece of advice if you plan a trip here, keep an open mind and if you are not planning to gamble, focus on the other attractions that the city has to offer.

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As a European In US

Remember Sting’s song Englishmen in New York? Well, I can tell you this much, it’s a huge cultural difference between the two continents, and yes, you can really feel like an alien sometimes, luckily with the globalization, the gaps are starting to diminish, but until then, here is my list of noticeable differences when you are traveling to the US from Europe.

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  • Hi! How are you? 

In the US this is just another way of saying hi, none really wants to know how you are, it’s just a polite way of starting a conversation. In Europe, asking someone how he/she is, is usually the start for the broader conversation about what the person is doing.

  • Mix of cultures

One of my favorite aspects about the US is the cultural mix, the diversification and the unique beauty that each of the individuals brings. Working for a company that promotes diversification and equal rights gave me also the opportunity to work with different people coming from different grounds. Furthermore, big cities as New York and Chicago will impress any European for sure.

  • Smiles and compliments with no hidden reasons

In Europe, people are more composed and don’t really interact with strangers, also when they do, they keep their distance. In America it’s the opposite, people smile back at you and offer you compliments, without having an agenda. I was in TJ Maxx trying on a pair of shoes and this lady told me that she loves the color and those look really great on me. She was also a costumer, so she didn’t gain anything from trying to sell the shoes, she was just very nice and unfortunately, you don’t get to see this very often in Europe.

  • Everyone is willing to help you

This point goes very well with the one above. Have to say that whenever you need help and ask for it, everyone is willing to lend you a hand. They would all stop what they are doing and try to figure a way of helping you. Also, being in this mindset, makes you change your behavior.

  • Fast and heavily processed food served in HUGE portions

The food was the hardest area for me to adjust. It is true that I didn’t eat a lot in the high-end restaurants, but more of the budget ones, yet the heavily processed meat, the sugar and the amount of grease that it’s used, made my body react in a not so pleasant way. Usually, when I am abroad I make an exception and don’t really watch what I am eating, yet after 2 weeks in the US, I was anxious to get home and have a real meal, made with real meat and with raw vegetables. Seeing it from outside, the fact that fast food business is booming and that people eat that much unhealthy food is a bit scary.

  • Tips are a must and prices don’t include the taxes

Tipping in Europe is one of the nice to have in the northern countries, more expected in the southern ones, but not mandatory. In US tipping is a must, also the fact that you have to tip up to 25% of the check is also a big shock to anyone traveling there. Maybe it’s because we usually only tip 10-15%, or because we feel like we are obliged to do it, that makes this practice very hated by most Europeans. If tipping is mandatory, it should be added to the check, also while I was with Work and Travel and waitressing, the wage that I was getting was half of the minimum because I would get tips, and this made me feel like I wasn’t actually paid by the restaurant but by the customers.

Another odd thing is the taxes not being included in the price, I would never actually know how much I would get to pay at the counter because of it. I think the US is the only place in the world that I’ve seen this.

  • Politically correct

In Europe, we don’t really care about talking politically correct everywhere we go. When we are out with friends we usually make jokes and none gets offended since those are only for fun and are not meant to upset anyone. In the US people are more composed and try to stick to the rules all the time because they are afraid someone might get offended. Although I do understand that limits have to be kept, I feel like the world has become this place where anything you say can and definitely will be used against you.

  • Everyone says they are sorry for about anything

The most commonly used word in the US has to be ‘sorry’. Everywhere you go if you encounter a person that tried to go around you, that person will say sorry. If you are passing someone in the store, they will say sorry. I somehow feel like the word is being so abused that it lost its main purpose, that of saying sorry when you really feel sorry for something. Let’s be honest you are not sorry for wanting to get to the other side of the road. If you step on someone’s foot, yes you will say sorry, but not for passing near another person.

  • Water with ice even in the winter

I visited Chicago 2 times during the fall and winter seasons. Anyone who’s ever been to Chicago knows that it is extremely cold and windy, so you can all imagine my surprise when I saw water with ice cubes everywhere I went. Also, when I asked the waiter to switch my water with ice cubes with just water they were a bit surprised.

  • Flip-flops and sandals in the winter, because why not?

The temperature in Chicago in March is a very low one, the wind making it feel like a lot less, yet on Saturday everyone was out parting and some of the people were wearing sandals to match their outfit. This girl from the street was wearing a very short dress and some pumps, while I was covered in fabric and still feeling as if I will freeze to death. Also at the airport, as we went out, we saw a lot of people wearing flip-flops, perhaps at their departure, it was nice and warm, but at the destination, it was so cold that I wasn’t feeling my fingers although I was wearing gloves.

  • Healthcare is expensive

Coming from a country where healthcare is automatically paid from one’s salary, ER services are always free and when someone doesn’t have a job still receives medical care, it was a big shock to see how the American system works and it’s pricing. Clearly, we cannot compare the quality of the services that are given across the ocean and in Romania, but still, it surprised me that many people cannot afford a decent healthcare subscription. While I was traveling to Chicago, in the plane I sat next to a guy that told me he when into the ER room on his knees just so that he wouldn’t pay 2000$ for the ambulance to come and pick him. He said that even if he has health insurance, that wouldn’t cover all the expenses so he just took an Uber. Another thing that surprised me, where the number of commercials that I saw, especially in the subway, for medical research made on humans. When I asked my colleagues about this, that said that many people are signing up for those programs because they are offered apart from money, healthcare insurances.

  • It’s easier to procure heroin than antibiotics

I was “lucky” enough to catch a cold while I was in the US, it got so severe that I started to cough pus and knew that I was in need of some heavy medication. Since I know that during the winter I get this pretty often and I know the medication I need, I asked people where can I get some antibiotics. It was then that my colleges told me that in the US it’s way easier to buy heroin than antibiotics and that those are almost never prescribed unless absolutely needed. In Romania, in case of severe cases, as I was, you can get the antibiotics for 72h medication even from the Pharmacy if the pharmacists consider that you really needed it. I have to say that it took me almost 2 weeks to heal with the regular, very light medicine.

  • Drugs are sold in the supermarket

All supermarkets in the US sell drugs, even if those are the ones that don’t need a prescription, have to say that this looks very odd from someone coming from Europe, where drugs are only sold in pharmacy’s and the person selling them has to have a college degree in pharmaceutics in order to offer you information or suggestions regarding what medication you should take. Also, what is up with the 300 pills ibuprofen jar?

  • Homeless people are a real issue

In 2011 when I first visited the US, I didn’t really notice the number of homeless people that were wandering the streets of New York, perhaps it was because I was to focus on the city or because of the fact that their number was a lot lower, but in the last 2 years, at least in Chicago I got to see a lot of them. What surprised me even more, was the fact that most of them were young, perhaps in their 30′, yet they were standing in the severe cold. Nowadays we get to see a lot of people begging on the streets of Europe, but their number is not as high, furthermore, most of them have a home, yet they are begging to try to get some easy money, so they are not really homeless. Most countries in Europe offer them housing during the winter, and only a few of the beggars are young. For me, this was one of the most difficult things to see and pass by.

  • The entertainment is a must on about anything

When it comes to entertainment I have to say that America does it best, from a simple meal at the restaurant where the waiter will do anything to make you feel good, to the games that have a show designed to entertain the masses. It was the first time I got to see a basketball game in the US and I have to give it to them, the show from the breaks was a great one. Every minute was used to make the audience want more and come back. After seeing this, I definitely want to see more.

  • Fashion is affordable for everyone

On one of the weekends, I got the chance to go to one of the outlet malls from outside Chicago. Many big brands have outlet stores over there, and the prices are amazing. I have to say that I was very jealous of American people that they can buy designer items at such great prices making fashion and quality pieces affordable to everyone. Next time I visit Chicago I want to be more prepared since honestly I was very surprised by the brands and the discounts you can get.

Each place you visit will make an impact over how you see the world, as a foreigner in the US, I have to admit that it struck me at first. The different mindset and cultural diversity are one of the most amazing things you get to experience. Also, it doesn’t matter how many times you visit the same place, there is always something more to do and to explore. I don’t know yet if I will return to Chicago, but I am hoping that I will since there are still a lot of things on my list. Even if it will not be this same city, I will definitely return to the US, since I believe there are still a lot of places and experiences that I want to have.

Shopping in Chicago

Given the fact that I am living in Europe, there is no greater joy than coming to the other side to do some reckless spending. Even if I wouldn’t trade Cluj for a different place just yet, it’s nice to see what the US has to offer when it comes to a good session of well-deserved shopping.

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When I left home, the only “must” from my list was a Kate Spade purse, I’ve been wanting one for a while now and in the tragic recent events of her death, prices have been going up, unfortunately. Having also a budget and not so much time on my hands for shopping I went on a crazy hunt for both gifts and things for my little sole.

One of the best places to shop in Chicago is TJ Maxx, Bloomington or Marshalls, usually, there are 2 together, or at least this is how I saw them in this city. If you have the nerves to go through all of their items you will get some really great deals. In the week that I’ve spent in the city I think I went there almost every day, I could say that I am able to do all of my shopping in this amazing place. Yes I know there are others and I’ve heard of the big outlets near the O’Hare airport, but when you don’t have the time or a car to go there you just have to stick to what it’s offered.

 

Same as last year, I’ve spent a lot in these shops, but walked proudly out of them with 3 purses, one of them was the colored Kate Spade that my heart desired, the other 2 were just pretty, 2 Fossil watches, his and hers for me and my boyfriend, a blanket as an mermaid tale (you’ll get it once you see the picture), a pair of Sketchers (best shoes in the world, if you don’t have a pair yet, run to Bloomington now!), 3 pairs of sunglasses one from Guess and 2 from Tommy Hilfiger, a Tommy Hilfiger wallet, that I am still debating if I should keep for myself or offer it as a gift as initially intended, and a set of t-shirts from Polo for my boyfriend. Since the limit of the budget was reached and also the maximum allowed for a number of purses I could buy, I had to give up on a Guess and Michel Kors bags that I fancy, but there is always next year. 😀

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Having done the heavy shopping in the places I mentioned, there were just a couple of more stores that I love in the city: Sephora, brought the Kat Von D eyeliner(not as great as I’ve hoped), Old Navy, a cute top for a few bucks, Victoria’s Secret, you can all guess what I brought from there and Walgreens for some drugstore makeup.

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While in the US I don’t usually go to the stores that are also found in Europe, like Zara, Forever 21, etc, since these have more or less the same prices everywhere. Same for the European designers, Burberry, Michael Kors, Louise Vuitton and so on, most of them will have higher prices in the US compared to what they are offering in their country of origin.

Since Chicago is not a very touristic place, any souvenir that you want to buy will cost you, even a magnet can reach up to 10$, compared to a touristic place where you can get the same item for about 2$. Last year I replaced the magnets with panties from VS for my girlfriends and sweets for the others, this year I preferred bringing them wallets, t-shirts, miniature cars, sunglasses or shot glasses. Keep in mind that Chicago has 10% taxes and in the US the prices are displayed without them, so when you will reach the counter you will pay 10% more, in Europe the prices including the taxes are always displayed.

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After 8 days in the US, 14 km walked every day, a suitcase that just wouldn’t close and so tired that I could sleep a week, I was happy that I managed to check everything on my list while still visiting and doing all the activities I’ve planned. I already started the list for the following year, even if I don’t know 100% sure I will be returning to Chicago. If there is one thing that I love about shopping in the US is that you will find about anything if you just do your research in advance. With the new GDPR law in the EU, many of the online stores stopped shipping in Europe and unfortunately there is no sign of them changing their mind.

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Traveling: New York, the City that Never Sleeps

I have been holding this article for a while since the Big Apple is a journey I took almost 7 years ago, but this is so worth mentioning that I couldn’t hold myself not talking about one of the most magnificent cities in the world: New York. Songs and books have been written about it, movies have been inspired by this place, models have been discovered here, Audrey Hepburn had a breakfast at Tiffany’s, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, if you have the chance don’t ever miss the opportunity of visiting the city that never sleeps.

 

Ever since I was able to spell America, I have dreamed about going to New York, to see where all of these amazing stories are written, where people go to make a career, where writers sit on coffee shops and lay down the words for the best seller books. So when the opportunity presented itself I sign off to the Work And Travel program, had a hell of a summer, but ended it with 5 days in New York. A dream come true, in the end, it was so worth it.

Even now after 7 years and after traveling to many countries I still haven’t seen anything like it, it has a rhythm of its own, a beat that never stops, a mixture of people that make it so diverse. You could never get bored here, there is so much going on, that you need 2 lives to do it all. I cannot put a finger on what is making this city so amazing, but what I can tell you is that you could wander around the streets and no 2 will be the same. The relaxation from the Central Park is the opposite of the hustle you will see on the Wall Street at rush hour. Central Square makes it look like it is night even during the day when the tall building is filled with the lights of the commercials.

 

There are thousands of people on the streets at any hour of the day, tourists and locals all fight for a tiny space in the city streets. Cars that stay still for hours, honking like crazy, people wearing suits on bicycles, people running to get to work or to get the last bus home. Also, if you will go under-earth to the metro, you will see a new world altogether, the shiny city shows you the not so nice face, with poor people, beggars and lots of rats, but somehow this only adds to the magnitude of this megalopolis.

If you ever had contact with the outside world, you definitely saw the iconic pictures of the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. So those should definitely be on your list for touristic things to do if you haven’t already. To those add a mandatory coffee in Central Park, a trip to China Town, a walk on Central Square, Wall Street, Brooklyn Bridge, a visit to Madame Tussauds and the American Museum of National History. If you want to visit more than 2 paid attractions, you should think about purchasing the New York City Pass. Also if you stay for a few days, the Big Bus is also a mandatory experience, it is a big city and it is hard to cover on foot and you should definitely see it both by day and by night.

 

I left New York brokenhearted for staying so little, but I promise myself that I will return to it and that next time I will stay longer. One of the things I want to add to my list is a show on Broadway, I didn’t add to the list since I cannot give a recommendation, but for me, it would be an amazing experience. Until next time, I am once again going through the photos I took then and dreaming of a future visit. See you soon New York!

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Traveling: Unlocking Chicago, The Windy City

For the second time in America, I got the chance to visit one of the most famous cities in the country, Chicago, home of Chicago blues and “Chicago-style” Dixieland jazz.

Chicago at night

Although the buildings are not as big as the ones in New York, there is something about Chicago that makes you feel like you are living the American dream. Most of the tall buildings had a pink light on the top in October for the Breast Cancer Awareness Month and in the city center, the Cancer Survivors’ Garden is placed. It is a good place to visit and read the survivor’s stories, a beautiful tribute that the city has brought to its people.

In the Millennium Park, the Cloud Gate is found, but most likely everyone will be referring to it as “the bean”, a modern sculpture that attracts thousands of tourists each day, The stairs in front of it are usually filled with people having coffee and enjoying the sun. For me it was amazing to see a mix of cultures all together having fun, it is the absolute vibe that a city can give me.

During the night the city lights up, the clubs open their doors and line gets formed at the entry of almost all the bars. If you have a chance try a Malicious, Maligned Malört shot, it is probably the worst shot I ever took, but it was definitely an interesting experience. If you had too much to drink, make sure you grab a “Chicago Hot-Dog” before you go to sleep, trust me when I tell you, it is not your usual hot-dog.

Another dish that you have to try while you are here is Giordano’s deep dish pizza. Tastes nothing like pizza, but more like a lasagna on a pizza dough. One slice was enough for me and the boys couldn’t have more than 2 slices, so make sure you are hungry when going to Giordano’s.

The most breathtaking view from Chicago will be from the Willis Tower, a 110-story skyscraper from where you get the 360″ view of the city.  Also, you will get the chance to walk on glass and see the city right under your feet, make sure you are not afraid of highs, it is a rush to walk on glass.

On my only no-work day, I manage to go to the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum. In the museum, the Jurassic World exposition was held, so I relived one of my childhoods favorite movie. I highly recommend both places for a cold day when you want to learn some new stuff.

Since my time in Chicago was limited to a week and a half and I also had to work in 5 of the days, I didn’t get the chance to see all that was to see. Furthermore, the weather wasn’t on my side and I had rain in 4 of the days and I couldn’t take the architectural boat tour, but it is definitely on the list for the next time.