10 Things I Learned From Living Abroad This Year

If you’re newer to this blog, then you may not know that I spent a majority of this past summer living in Europe. I stationed myself in a wonderful southeastern town in Spain, called Alicante, where I had previously studied in 2008. But I also had the opportunity to travel to Edinburgh, Scotland for a week.

During my time away from American culture, allowing myself to be completely immersed in another culture, I learned so much about myself, my worldviews, and people. I experienced life-changing lessons, and as I reflected on the most important, I came up with 10 things to share with my readers.

1. I can live without

Less truly is more, especially when you don’t have to keep track of a lot and/or clean it! For the past 2-3 years, I have committed to simplifying and de-cluttering my life. It hasn’t been an easy task—not because I’m sentimental with my stuff, but because I just had so much, and I really had to ask myself if I could live without something or otherwise. Knowing I was leaving the country for quite some time was like that final push I needed to get rid of more.

I gave away and/or sold about 80% of my stuff this year! Less to worry about, less to clean, less to keep track of. Also, doing so helped me to begin to truly prioritize what was important in my life and my career. I learned that simplicity really is best.

Sunrise I witnessed yesterday morning on Playa Postiguet.

Sunrise at Playa Postiguet.

2. American society has some major problems with gender, sex, and sexual identity issues

Well, no duh, but it was disturbing and shocking to come back to after being out of the country for a few months to witness things firsthand. Here’s an example: When I returned to California, I decided to walk to the mall on a warm August day. It’s about a 15-minute walk from my house. In that short time, a few cars honked at me (or guys catcalled me) because I was a woman walking alone outside.

In Spain, and in Scotland, that NEVER happened. Even dolled up on the street and going out at night with my girlfriends—being accosted the way I have been IN MY OWN COUNTRY never happened in Spain. I felt safer being alone in public overseas than in my own neighborhood. How sad, huh?

Also, people in the States are very extreme when it comes to sexuality and sexual identity. I think the climate of talking about sex and sexual preference is slowing improving, but Americans have quite a ways to go. The fact that we’re still arguing about giving women access to contraceptives, etc., is baffling to me. In Europe (or most of it, anyway), I felt that there was a healthier view about sexuality and people’s bodies in general.

There’s so much more to say on the topic, but I’ll leave it at the few examples above.

A view of the sea from the Castillo de Santa Barbara in Alicante, Spain. Photo cred: Yours truly. :)

A view of the sea from the Castillo de Santa Barbara in Alicante, Spain. Photo cred: Yours truly. 🙂

3. I was able to home in on what really matters to me

As with my “Great Purge” of material goods this year, I also purged a lot of activities in my life. Many of them were really good things, too! Things like volunteering, tutoring, and singing. But those things had become distractions that were taking me away from focusing on my career as a writer and freelancer.

Because I was in a different country, I was able to be awake before my clients in the States, get a lot done, minimize distractions, and stay at home when I needed to rather than worrying about having to run errands or volunteer or tutor somewhere. Until you can walk just about everywhere within minutes, you don’t realize how much time you actually waste driving around town.

Beautiful view of the Alicante coast from the Castillo de Santa Barbara.

Beautiful view of the Alicante coast from the Castillo de Santa Barbara.

4. Sometimes, you need to physically remove yourself from . . . 

 . . . from where you don’t fit.

 . . . from distractions.

 . . . from toxic situations.

I have been unhappy for quite some time in my city. I needed a break—needed to get away so I could refocus, meet some new people, and experience a different way to look at the world. I also needed space to heal from some things in my past, and being in a different place really helped me with that.

Sunrise on the port. Alicante, Spain.

Sunrise on the port. Alicante, Spain.

5. Not having expectations can be the best thing ever

Though I am part Latina, know a fair amount of Spanish, and had been to Alicante before, I just kind of took a giant leap in going across a country and an ocean to live somewhere else for a while. I knew I’d want to stay because I love Spain and the Spanish culture so much, but I also knew that there was a chance I wouldn’t be able to. So, I went with the mindset that anything could happen, and I just had to take one day at a time.

And you know what? I had the BEST TIME of my life. I met so many cool people, learned a lot by myself, figured out a lot of things that were challenging, and re-learned how to live in the moment. Before I flew to Alicante, all I knew was that I had an apartment booked for the time I’d be there, but that’s pretty much it. I knew I wanted to go to Scotland as well, but I actually didn’t book my flight until I was in Spain. Without expectations, I was able to live and let live . . . and be content with my life every day.

My bedroom windows in my Spanish apartment.

My bedroom windows in my Spanish apartment.

6. Self-acceptance is one of the most important things to have

When you are on your own, you are stuck with yourself. You must face the most vulnerable and ugly things that you’ve been pushing down for far too long. I journaled almost every day while in Spain. I went to the beach often and took long walks, working through some really tough things. I had to face all my flaws and things I didn’t like about myself, in order to eventually accept it all and realize that I’m not perfect—or anywhere close to it. I think this is something I will grapple with for the rest of my life, but this year, I can honestly say that I have come to accept so much more of myself than ever before.

Making friends with a starfish in Alicante, Spain. (From 2008.)

Making friends with a starfish in Alicante, Spain. (From 2008.)

7. The best way to learn a language and culture is by complete immersion

As I stated previously, I knew enough Spanish to get by, but I was nowhere near fluent. I had experienced Spanish culture before, but never for longer than a few weeks. This time, I was IN it—all the way. I had roommates who didn’t speak a lot of English, so in order to get things done and communicated, guess who was trying her hardest to learn more Spanish? *raises hand* 🙂

I also met many people who wanted to learn English from me. (I actually have a TESOL certificate from Oxford Seminars and used to teach ESL in California.) Funnily enough, most people I met with ended up speaking more Spanish than English with me. I didn’t mind; I was learning from the natives, after all. My Spanish improved tenfold, and I learned all the things they don’t teach you in high school Spanish—including the most important thing: curse words. Ha!

Still not at this level! Maybe one day...

Still not at this level! Maybe one day…

8. Being present in the moment

In June, my friends took me to a Spanish rock concert. It was there, sipping on a beer and swaying to the music, that I realized I was finally living again. Like . . . really living. I felt free—I felt alive. I wasn’t worried about the next day or even the next hour. I was there with my friends, listening to great music, and enjoying the energy of the crowd. Why was that such a profound moment for me? I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt that way, and I didn’t want it to end.

At the concert with friends :)

At the concert with friends 🙂

9. People can really be amazing—if you let them

Many of us grew up with the “stranger danger” thing. And that is a very valuable and viable thing to learn. However, especially in the US, many of us look at people weird if they wish us a good morning and we don’t know them. In Spain, people say good morning, good afternoon, and good evening to one another. We greet one another with a kiss on each cheek—even when we meet for the first time. There’s something about the physical contact that breaks the ice, I think.

Because of this connectedness, I met the most amazing people who I am still in contact with. One of my new friends gave me his old printer because I needed to print some documents. My landlady took me out to lunch the second day I was in Alicante, just to make sure I was feeling good about being there. My roommate and I became close, and she painted my nails, and I taught her how to knit. A total stranger in Edinburgh let me shadow him an entire afternoon and we ended up climbing to King Arthur’s Seat together.

I have street smarts. I think I’m pretty good at reading people. I usually know a shady person when I see one. But I had an open heart while traveling and living abroad. I said yes to people more than no. I agreed to meet total strangers who wanted to learn English. Some guy played guitar while I sang two songs in a Scottish bar at an open mic and got a free pint. I went out on dates. I let people amaze me. I never met anyone who wished me ill will. And I wouldn’t have done it any other way.

View from King Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh, Scotland.

View from King Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, Scotland.

10. I am capable of everything I thought I was

Though I had no expectations of the experience itself, I did have expectations of myself. I had specific goals in mind, like finding more clarity and having more time to work on what was important to me. But I also knew that things would be challenging at times—that I would feel lonely. I prepared myself for all of that, even if I didn’t know what the final outcome would be. I wasn’t surprised because I had already told myself I was capable and would find a way—no matter what. I honored my commitment to myself, and I think that’s one of the great achievements I gained from living abroad. And that important commitment told me that I could apply the same tactics to my dreams and goals and plans. That I’m the only one who holds myself back. I have a choice, and I choose to keep moving forward, the way I did in Spain.

One of my faves from Edinburgh.

One of my faves from Edinburgh.

 ***

Whew! I know this post is long-winded, so thanks for making it this far. I will never forget my amazing experience in Spain and Scotland. I will always remember the wonderful people I met while on my journey, and I can’t wait for what’s ahead in 2015. I have already been making plans, so when I have news to share, it’ll be on this blog.

One more post coming tomorrow to finish out 2014, so stay tuned. xx

Canada + Spain + Cupcakes=A Mix of Cultures that Works

(As previously seen on the Writer With A Passport blog.)

It’s 1pm on a Wednesday afternoon, and I’ve finally managed to get out of the house. I walk down a few blocks, past the supermarket, and past the park, and hang a left on Calle San Francisco. My intention is to make good on a two-week-old promise: to go to Canada Cupcake Cafe and interview the owners of the shop. It’ll be a sacrifice to drink good coffee and eat a cupcake, but hey, I’m used to hard work.

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Thankfully, Arthur—one of the owners—remembers me when I enter. I order an iced latte and a really yummy chocolate ganache cupcake that I eat (in total) before I can remember to take a picture. When Arthur has a minute, he comes to sit with me and has his own cup of coffee. His partner, Shawn, is sitting close by and helps out any straggling customers before the shop closes for siesta time.

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I do a quick recap for Arthur—I’m a writer from California, I’m living in Spain for the summer, and I love interviewing people and making new connections. Then, I get straight to the questions.

“How long have you been doing this?” I ask him.

Arthur tells me that he and Shawn opened CCC last August. They’re just getting ready to celebrate the shop’s one-year anniversary, and are still in the process of putting something together to show appreciation for loyal customers and draw in new clientele.

Like any “new and/or newer” business, there are loyal customers, newbies (like me!), a healthy rotation of students—especially Americans, and tourists. CCC offers a relaxing atmosphere, custom coffee, fresh desserts and bagels, and free WiFi. It sounds like a normal coffee/dessert shop in Northern California, but here in Spain, CCC is somewhat of an anomaly. Arthur and Shawn run a slightly different business model than other shops like them (there are only a handful of cupcake shops in Alicante, by the way), and walk a fine line between offering something culturally new while still providing some cultural comforts.

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“Alicante chose us,” Arthur explains.

When he and Shawn decided to create a new adventure for themselves in Spain, they weren’t planning on making it to the south. They initially went to Barcelona, but the cost of living there is very expensive, and most people prefer to speak Catalan—a dialect of the region. Alicante drew in these Canadians with its good climate, lower cost of living, mix of people, and business potential.

At CCC, Arthur and Shawn make everything by hand with high-quality ingredients. They don’t use anything frozen or pre-made. And though this sounds normal to a California girl, it’s not so normal for everyone here. When the guys first began their cupcake endeavors, some people commented that cupcakes are cool, but just a “fashion” or phase in Spain. In other words, they didn’t anticipate the store to be a big hit—especially long-term.

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But I think Arthur and Shawn will be seeing said people eating humble pie–or maybe humble cupcake. Canadian Cupcake Cafe seems like it will not only remain a part of Alicante, but also will grow and expand in the near future. Arthur shares with me that the goals of CCC are to make North Americans feel like they’re getting a taste of home, while allowing the Spanish to symbolically travel through their taste buds.

Even purchasing coffee at CCC is a different experience for most of the Spanish people here. For example, when I order a latte at a cafe I frequent here, it’s always in a porcelain cup—one size. But at CCC, you can choose a small, medium, or large size, AND can even have it customized to your preferences. Kinda like that one really popular coffee shop in North America that starts with a S… Plus, you can take your stuff to go (para llevar).

And the cups and utensils are unique as well. Both Arthur and Shawn take decreasing our carbon footprint very seriously. Therefore, they use biodegradable cups and utensils. They even have a sort of recycling center set up. Arthur joked that at times, it has “scared” the Spanish people here to see such a thing in the store. (See image below of the recycling center.) But customers are catching on, and Arthur and Shawn are teaching many people here something good—something that will help the environment and generations to come.

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Though things seem to be going pretty well, success doesn’t come without hardship. Arthur tells me of the difficulties of all the paperwork involved in starting a business in Spain.

“Things are constantly changing,” he says. “At times, it feels like the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing—and that’s not a knock against the process; it’s just how it is.”

Especially for a foreigner to start a business, it can be a struggle. But Canada Cupcake Cafe made it through the hoops and jumps, and now, Arthur and Shawn can focus on things like defining their products (they have recently added bagels to the menu and offer ice cream in the summer), and defining their market.

To top things off, both guys are community-oriented. They host intercambio (language exchange) groups at their shop, and aim to create a comfortable and relaxing environment for everyone. Shawn also tells me that they are both passionate about animals, and have been developing treats for pets. They’d like to partner with a local animal shelter in the near future, and donate a portion of pet treats sales to the shelter.

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It’s safe to say that I’ll be making a return visit to Canada Cupcake Cafe—and soon. I’m glad I discovered this place and had the pleasure of speaking with its owners. If you find yourself in Alicante, be sure to visit them. You can eat your cupcake and drink your coffee in the store, or take them to go if you’re headed to the beach.

Virtually Connect with Canada Cupcake Cafe:

Website (English version)

Facebook

Twitter

Instagram

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The Day I Climbed Arthur’s Seat

(As previously seen on Writer With a Passport.)

It was Friday morning in Edinburgh, early May. The weather was unusually nice, and by nice, I mean that it was slightly overcast and in the low 60’s. I decided to take advantage of all things free in Edinburgh, and put the walking tour on my docket. There is no price charged for the tour itself, but the tour guides work on tips, so if you go on a walking tour there, bring some cash with you.

At 10:25am, one of the guides came to my hostel to lead us to the site where the tour would begin. There were a few friendly folks from my hostel who had the same plan as I, so we made small talk: Where are you from, where have you been, why are you in Scotland, etc.

We waited at the site pictured below until 11am, which is when the tour officially began.

Part of The Royal Mile, right in front of a Starbucks.

Part of The Royal Mile, right in front of a Starbucks.

Another part of The Royal Mile.

Another part of The Royal Mile.

We met our tour guide, Kiel, who happened to be from Australia, but called Scotland his adopted home. Right off the bat, Kiel was very amiable, knowledgeable, and just plain hilarious. My kind of tour guide. We started the tour by walking down The Royal Mile and headed to a church.

Sights on the way to the church on The Royal Mile. Like England, Scotland also has the famous red telephone boxes.

Sights on the way to the church on The Royal Mile. Like England, Scotland also has the famous red telephone boxes.

After walking for less than 5 minutes, it was already time for a sitting break. I thought: Man, I like this tour already! (Ha!) The church (or, kirk as they say in Scotland) is none other than the famous St. Giles’ Cathedral.

St. Giles' Cathedral aka High Kirk of Edinburgh

St. Giles’ Cathedral aka High Kirk of Edinburgh

Kiel gave us some history about the kirk, but I honestly can’t remember any of it. So, if you’re really curious, click HERE to read some history and facts about St. Giles’. (You’re welcome.) In between history lessons, facts, and perfectly-timed jokes, Kiel had us all make short introductions: names and hometown. During that time was when I saw him–Nick, my soon-to-be instant friend for the day. Only, I had no clue. But that’s one of the coolest things about traveling: when you keep an open mind and let shyness take a back seat, you meet the most extraordinary strangers who become some of the coolest people you could ever encounter.

We continued on our walking tour, seeing all the things I put on my “to-do” list, including the cafe where JK Rowling wrote a lot of Harry Potter (check!), as well as the graveyard where she would go for inspiration–like name ideas for characters such as Tom Riddle and Professor McGonagall. Finally, we reached Grassmarket (click HERE to read all about it) and took a break.

This is where I discovered Mary’s Milk Bar for the first time. You can read my review by clicking HERE.

View of the castle from Grassmarket.

View of the castle from Grassmarket.

Mary's Milk Bar. Best hot chocolate shop in the land.

Mary’s Milk Bar. Best hot chocolate shop in the land.

Just as I was finishing up the delicious and decadent dark hot chocolate with sea salt, the guy I had seen from earlier approached me. “How’s the hot chocolate?” he asked. “It’s SO good!” I excitedly told him. And for the rest of the tour, we chatted.

Nick told me how he was from the States but was living in Oxford for the year, working at CS Lewis’s house–don’t know what’s cooler than that! And I told him how I was living in Spain for the summer, but taking a holiday in Scotland.

When the tour was over, we happened to be in the same square as the admission-free Writers’ Museum, so we checked it out together. After that, I kind of invited myself along to hang out with Nick and be a part of whatever he was doing for the day. Since he had been to Edinburgh before, I relied on him to direct our next adventure. And what did he choose? To climb to Arthur’s Seat. I thought: How bad can it be?

Armed with my chucks, old lady beret, and chocolate running through my veins, I said: “Sure, why not?”

And, truly, it’s not a bad climb at 822 ft. But I hadn’t been on a hike of that magnitude for quite some time.

I stared up at the mountain, praying I'd be able to reach the top without much difficulty.

I stared up at the mountain, praying I’d be able to reach the top without much difficulty.

Things started out easy enough, and with such great company, I was like: I’ve SO got this. We took every opportunity to admire the view, and also stopped at some ruins.

At every turn, Edinburgh is a truly beautiful city, offering views of its plush green landscapes.

At every turn, Edinburgh is a truly beautiful city, offering views of its plush green landscapes.

St. Anthony's Chapel (ruins)

St. Anthony’s Chapel (ruins)

St. Anthony's Chapel (ruins)

St. Anthony’s Chapel (ruins)

Nick and I continued our ascent to Arthur’s Seat. Every time we paused (for my sake), I was overwhelmed by the beauty of this spectacular city.

IMG_5496 IMG_5500There was one point where I didn’t think I could make it the rest of the way…probably at the halfway point. While we sat, I confessed to Nick that I have Fibromyalgia. Though I am SO MUCH better, especially since living in Europe for the past two months, I sometimes get easily tired or have pain. I am by no means a lazy person, and I enjoy exercise. However, the past several years, living with pain and fatigue and trying to figure out how to improve my standard of living has been somewhat difficult. (Not to mention having knee surgery two years ago, relieving lots of pain, but rendering my knee changed forever.)

But Nick cheered me on, saying: “You can make it!” And it revived my determination. I was going to reach the top, no matter what.

So, I took a long sip of water, and started again.

Breathtaking panoramic view, about midway to Arthur's Seat.

Breathtaking panoramic view, about midway to Arthur’s Seat.

With Nick’s patience (thank you, Nick, if you’re reading this!) and the gorgeous views, I wasn’t going to let anything stand in my way of making it to the top for the ultimate view of the city in its entirety. We continued to take little breaks, and I took about a bajillion and one pictures.

IMG_5507IMG_5522Finally, we reached the top! I can’t fully describe it in words, but thankfully, I have pictures.

Another panoramic shot, from the very top of Arthur's Seat.

Another panoramic shot, from the very top of Arthur’s Seat.

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Nick is the one to the left. He didn't know he made it in my shot--ha!

Nick is the one to the left. He didn’t know he made it in my shot–ha!

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Why must people insist on defacing stuff?

Why must people insist on defacing stuff?

By the way, though it’s not certain that the legendary King Arthur himself sat on this “mountain” (it’s more of a grand hill, really), it is rumored that it is a possible location for the famous Camelot. Also, Arthur’s Seat has been mentioned quite a bit in literature. Regardless of the actual, factual reality, I’d say that it’s a must-see while visiting Edinburgh. Click HERE to read more on hiking the hill.

I was overjoyed that I was able to make it to Arthur’s Seat. The views were worth it, but it meant more to me than that. Maybe it sounds corny, but as I continue to recover from some difficult years of sickness and pain, it was a symbol of how far I’ve come–how much my body is now able to handle. And sometimes, part of traveling means that you accomplish extraordinary things–things you may not have otherwise done in your own hometown.

When we got back down to the bottom, I looked up to the top of Arthur’s Seat and felt a smile crawl across my face: I did it.

View of Arthur's Seat from the bottom of the hill.

View of Arthur’s Seat from the bottom of the hill.

I will always remember the day I climbed to Arthur’s Seat. And if I ever make it back to Edinburgh, I’d climb it again in a heartbeat. I’ll be forever grateful to Nick who was very encouraging while I made the trek with him, especially because I probably wouldn’t have done it without him.

After coming back “home” to Alicante, I was so ready to tackle another hill–the hill that leads up to the Castillo de Santa Barbara (which I’ll write about in another post), and I did it! It was easier than Arthur’s Seat, but still gave me a good workout.

As you travel, or even “staycation,” I would like to encourage you to try something new like I did. You never know what new friends and adventures are waiting for you.

Until next time…cheers! xx

Interview with Sergio López: A Quick Look at the Spanish Market

(As previously seen on the HelaWrite blog.)

A few weeks back, one of my friends in Spain let me write a guest post on his blog. (Click HERE to view.) I was only too happy to return the favor by interviewing him. Plus, since I am in Spain for the summer and have been immersing myself in the culture, I was eager to gain some perspective on business and marketing practices in Spain. And who better to answer my questions than a native Spaniard?

Without further ado, here is my interview with Sergio López Llobregat:

Coaching - Sergio Lopez Llobregat - Coach Ejecutivo y Profesional de AECOP

Interview

TH: What do you do for a living? What is your job here in Spain?

SL: I work as a Sales Rep in a pharmaceutical company; this is my primary job. And I try to help other professionals through Executive Coaching and through my blog.

TH: Where do you think the Spanish market/economy is now?

SL: The Spanish economy has had structural problems, and lately has remodeled its economic model. I think that the economy will grow this year; new companies have been created, and investors are regaining confidence in the Spanish market.

TH: I know Spain has “La Crisis,” but is there still growth in business and trade?

SL: Spain was growing in business and trade before “La Crisis” oriented itself, and now it is having the most important internationalization process. This is the main reason why we are growing in business and trade.  

TH: Are the numbers improving at all?

SL: Not really; we have very bad data in regards to youth unemployment, and there are no improvement expectations in that sense.

TH: What do you think is the future of business for Spain?

SL: Historically, Spain has been a country that has easily overcome even the biggest challenges. Our people’s talent, and the need for change, will produce new opportunities for our economy. Spain has now its focus in developing countries, in Latin America, where there are no language barriers, and in the Middle East, where Spanish construction and infrastructures companies have been moved.

TH: Is the manner/way of marketing in Spain comparable to the way the rest of Europe engages in marketing?

SL: Spanish marketing is now very similar to the rest of European marketing. In my opinion, most companies have the same problem, and it is this new situation which has made the marketing departments only focus on one of the four P’s: Promotion. This minimizes the possibilities of new strategies and tactics.

TH: If American companies want to market to Spain, what would they need to know? What would they need to do?

SL: Well, I think, and you know it too, that Spain is simply different, and what works in other countries doesn’t work here necessarily. One piece of advice that I would give to a foreign company is that they have to take into account that the Spanish market has special features, and it would be a good practice to hire advisors from here to help them adapt their strategies to our markets.

TH: What are your favorite business/marketing books?

SL: I have several favorite marketing books. If I had to recommend some of them, I would recommend:

The Power of Simplicity, by Jack Trout

Kotler on Marketing, by Philip Kotler

Marketing Permission, by Seth Godin

The Art of Enchantment, by Guy Kawasaky

TH: And finally, where can we follow/find you on social media?

SL: My twitter is @sergialc and my blog: www.sergialc.com

A HUGE thank you to Sergio for allowing me to interview him! Give him a follow on Twitter, and be sure to visit his blog. 🙂

Chocolate So Good, You’ll Skip That Pint

(As previously seen on the Writer With a Passport blog.)

The Scottish have simple names for many places. For example, the road that connects the castle in Edinburgh to the rest of the Old Town is named: The Royal Mile. A famous square with many pubs and shops is named Grassmarket, because that’s where grass was sold back in the day. And, in this square, there is a simple little chocolate and gelato shop: Mary’s Milk Bar. However, nothing inside Mary’s place is simple; everything is quite extraordinary.

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© 2014 Tamar Hela

I stumbled upon Mary’s Milk Bar during a free walking tour of the city. The weather behaved unusually well during my week in Edinburgh, but I wanted to sip on something warm during our fifteen-minute break. I don’t know whether it was the chocolate or the retro look of the store that called to me, but I trusted my choice. I was determined to try this so-called “amazing” hot chocolate, which our guide had mentioned during his spiel. Praying that this drink wouldn’t cost me more than a few pounds—and by pounds, I mean the money used in the UK—I marched over to Mary’s Milk Bar to see what all the fuss was about.

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© 2014 Tamar Hela

When you enter Mary’s, the aroma of chocolate is strong; you can almost taste it in your mouth. It’s like getting a free sample, right off the bat. I took my place in line—it was quite busy in the little shop—and looked around. Handmade chocolates are displayed on shelves and placed in clear bags with ribbons, or boxes with clear tops—just the way chocolate should be displayed. The lights on the wall are shaped like glass ice cream cones, and every item displayed is nostalgic of a 1950’s era American ice cream shop, but is actually modeled after milk bars that were popular between the 1920’s and 1960’s in the UK. Behind a glass counter, rows of gelato wait, like sweet and icy sirens screaming to be eaten. And, to make it all complete, Mary stands behind the counter, wearing a sweet smile, personally attending to each customer.

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© 2014 Tamar Hela

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© 2014 Tamar Hela

I looked at the menu, trying to decide which hot chocolate I wanted to try. Yes, you bet there are options! Dark chocolate has always been my favorite, so I opted for the dark chocolate with sea salt. I happily handed over £2.50 to Mary, and gave the concoction a taste. Were my taste buds blown away? Um… YES. I promised Mary I’d be back to try the other flavors, and practically floated out of her store because I was high on chocolate.

Why is this drink so good? Well, I’ll tell you why: Mary uses real chocolate (not the powder crap), which is melted, and then mixed with yummy, frothy milk. It’s the real deal, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but: It’s even better than the famous hot chocolate in Paris.

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© 2014 Tamar Hela

I kept true to my promise to visit again (and again) to try the other hot chocolate flavors. Mary was only happy to oblige. Besides, I wanted to chat with this lovely lady, and find out how she made Mary’s Milk Bar a reality.

On the second visit, I tried the milk hot chocolate with orange and cinnamon. However, my dreams of interviewing Mary melted away—no pun intended—because the shop was busy that day (no surprise). I slipped out to the Grassmarket square and bought a crepe with butter and sugar, prepared in the French way. It was the perfect companion to that particular hot chocolate flavor.

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© 2014 Tamar Hela

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© 2014 Tamar Hela

Finally, on the third day, I was able to open the floodgates of my curiosity in regards to Mary and her shop. I ordered a white hot chocolate with cardamom. It was nothing short of ecstasy in my mouth.

When Mary had finished with another customer, I asked her if I could take a few snaps of the store, and she was more than agreeable. After my mini session of capturing the elements of the shop as best I could, I sat down by the window and began to chat with the store’s namesake.

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© 2014 Tamar Hela

Mary, like most entrepreneurs, tried quite a few different things until she found her niche. She told me that she had intended to open Mary’s Milk Shop, but not until later in life. However, life has a funny way of presenting opportunities when we least expect them, and Mary took her chance. Not even a full year in business, and the shop seems to be doing quite well. But it’s no surprise; after all, its owner is very creative, amiable, and talented. Mary was actually trained at an Italian Gelato school in Bologna, and therefore is a gelato graduate. She also worked as a chocolatier for five years, prior to starting her business. It’s safe to say: the lady knows what she’s doing.

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© 2014 Tamar Hela

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© 2014 Tamar Hela

In between my questions and her need to attend to customers, I gazed out the window of the storefront, in awe of the dreamy Edinburgh Castle in clear view. Talk about a million-dollar view while sipping on melted, milky chocolate. I felt like I was in a fairytale with a touch of retro, surrounded by chocolate and gelato that will make you forget about that afternoon pint.

After leaving Mary with my best wishes and gratitude, I actually felt somewhat hollow, realizing that it would be a long while before visiting Edinburgh again and being able to make a jaunt to Grassmarket to drink the world’s best hot chocolate.  As I walked back to my hostel, I had a fleeting thought: Could Mary possibly mail me hot chocolate?

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© 2014 Tamar Hela

So, take it from a self-proclaimed chocolate connoisseur, who was taught the word “chocolate” at an early age: Mary’s Milk Bar is a must-see shop in Edinburgh. You owe it to yourself to make the trek. Perhaps, someday, Mary’s will be so well known, that people from all over the world make an annual pilgrimage. I know that if I get the chance to head back to the UK, this chocolate and gelato shop in Scotland will be on my priority list.

Add it to your list too, and when you drop in to see Mary and order a cup of her incredibly rich and drool-worthy hot chocolate, let her know I sent you.

By the way, to find out more about Mary’s Milk Bar, click HERE to view the website, HERE to visit the Facebook page, and HERE to follow on Twitter. Cheers!