Chasing the Magic at Harry Potter Land - Universal Studios Hollywood




For true Harry Potter fans, visiting Harry Potter Land at Universal Studios Hollywood is an experience like none other. 

I recently went to Harry Potter Land as a part of a birthday surprise from my bf who went above and beyond. We had an absolute blast running around the park (Instagram followers were privy to the live story.) If you are a fan and grew up reading the books, Harry Potter Land is a must-do. The attention to detail is impeccable. Everywhere we turned we found little nods to the books we loved. Of all the things to do at Harry Potter Land, the wand ceremony at Ollivander's and the Harry Potter & the Forbidden Journey ride in Hogwarts castle were our favorites. (And both were well worth the wait!) Plus, you can do "actual" spells with your interactive wand in Hogsmeade. It was so fun! As well as good practice for my O.W.L.S.

If you are a fan and grew up reading the books, harry potter land is a must-do.
Read on for a list of magical experiences straight from the pages of Harry Potter.



The must-do list at Harry Potter Land

get a wand

do Spells!

harry Potter & THE FORBIDDEN JOURNEY ride  

drink a butterbeer  

visit the owl post  

eat at the three broomsticks

ollivander's wand ceremony  

explore hogsmeade shops

exploring hogsmeade



I remember my first butterbeer.  




Action shot of me doing spells and general witchcraft in hogsmeade. 


Inside the Owl Post (top left and right) and Honeyduke's candy shop (bottom left). 


Why You Should Spend A Christmas Abroad in Italy

Image of nearby town, Civitanova Marche, courtesy of Matty L. (2011)

Image of nearby town, Civitanova Marche, courtesy of Matty L. (2011)

No matter the holiday you celebrate, spending the holidays abroad is something that everyone should do at least once. 

Three years ago I lived and studied abroad in Macerata, a medieval hilltop town in Le Marche region of Italy. Unlike well-known regions like Tuscany, Emilia Romagna, and Lazio, Le Marche is remarkably tourist-free. It's a breathtakingly beautiful and quiet region stretching from the Appenine Mountains to Adriatic beach towns. Macerata boasts a few beautiful churches, a university founded in 1280, and a world-class opera amphitheater, but remains a close-knit, sleepy university town perched up on a hill. While I could have spent my time in the big cities, Macerata felt like my Italian home away from home. On a clear day from my apartment just outside of the walls, I could see the Adriatic Sea about a 30-minute drive away. I loved watching the seasons change in Macerata. Summer, Fall, Winter— no matter the season it was always beautiful.

During a weekend trip to Florence, Italy over Thanksgiving weekend, my friends and I flipped on the TV. After three months of being removed from American culture, seeing the madness of Black Friday on CNN came as a shock. The scenes of Black Friday shoppers stampeding the doors of mega-stores were sensationalized, sure, but it was a reminder of how differently the holidays are celebrated in America versus other parts of the world. In the midst of focusing on what we want for Christmas and getting our Black Friday deals, it’s easy to lose sight of what this time of year really means: simply celebrating the holidays with family and friends.  If you ever have the chance to spend the holidays abroad, it may make for some of the best memories of your life. I wouldn't have traded my days in Macerata, Italy for anything. Should you need a little convincing, here are a few of my reasons as to why you should spend a Christmas abroad...

Macerata's Christmas market. (2011)

Macerata's Christmas market. (2011)


One of my favorite parts about spending the holidays in Macerata was that the town was nearly void of the advertisements or the typical holiday commercialism that bombard us every December in America.

The Christmas tree in Piazza della Libertà. (2011)

The Christmas tree in Piazza della Libertà. (2011)

As one may predict, medieval hilltop towns aren't exactly equipped with endless outlets and power sources to deck the halls Clark Griswold-style. Macerata didn't even receive electricity and running water in every home until the 1980s. And so, the elegance of celebrating the holidays in Macerata was in its simplicity. Every day that I walked through Macerata that December, I was reminded of the beauty of celebrating Christmas in Italy— a Christmas tree in the main piazza, star lights sparkled above the main streets, shops decorated their storefront windows with chocolate displays and nativity scenes, and for one weekend, the entirety of the city within the walls turned into one sprawling Christmas market filled with local antique sellers and artisans. It wasn’t Christmas overkill. It was just simple and elegant. 

 keeping the spirit OF THE HOLIDAYS alive

As we grow older the holidays start to lose their meaning in other ways. The magic and excitement we felt as children is replaced by worrying about everything we need to do before the holidays even arrive. The holidays become more of a check off the to-do list, rather than a time of celebration. My first time experiencing the holidays abroad in Italy, I felt like a kid again. Suddenly everything about the season— the festivals, the Christmas market, the beautiful lights— it was all new and exciting. Experiencing another culture’s traditions helped spark the joy of the holidays and to re-prioritize my own traditions in more ways than one. There are so many reasons to celebrate holidays abroad, but this has to be one of the best.


One of the biggest lessons I learned during my time in Italy was learning how to slow down and focusing on my time spent with family and friends. The most convenient convenience store in Macerata is located just outside of one of the central piazzas, Piazza della Libertà. As it happens, the store was closed for every saint or feast day, which, (being that this is Catholic Italy and it was December) denotes nearly every single day of the month. Now, I'm not sure if the family actually observed each holy day or if they simply took it as an excuse to close up shop. (They were hardly ever open so I never got the chance to meet them and find out.) But after I got over my frustration of just trying to buy a pack of stamps, I began to appreciate that this family prioritized their time spent together over everything else. Their commitment to each other and to their community was really refreshing. 


La Passeggiata is a popular time in Italy where families gather together on Sunday evenings (typically) and take a walk through the neighborhood. Although La Passeggiata is a year-round custom, it seemed to be particularly special during Christmastime. Everyone from Macerata bundled up, strolled around the centro storico, chatted with neighbors, and waved hello to their favorite shopkeepers underneath the Christmas lights. Sometimes we would stop for a glass of wine or pop into our favorite cozy, artisan chocolate shop, Magna Cacao, for a cup of the best hot chocolate this world has ever seen. La Passeggiata is one of the cultural parts of living in Italy that I miss the most. It was all about gathering with friends and neighbors, and just spending time together.

 After my last Passeggiata in Italy, everyone in the community gathered for mass and then a festival around a roaring bonfire in the center of the piazza. Multicolored candle lanterns were passed to the crowd, everyone sang Christmas songs, and the children held hands and danced around the fire. My American heart grew three sizes that day. 

The festival with lanterns and Christmas carols in Macerata, Italy. (2011)

The festival with lanterns and Christmas carols in Macerata, Italy. (2011)

In talking with my friends about their favorite Macerata holiday memories, my friend Matty also loved feeling welcomed into the community at the festivals.

“…We went into this tiny village where the whole community was celebrating the Christmas season! There were booths of crafts selling Christmas-y items (especially the Christmas Witch!) and Christmas foods: panettone, roasted chestnuts, and, of course, Italian Christmas carols. Towards the end of the night, the musicians that were playing started cranking out the Italian national anthem. It was just magical to be surrounded by 100% locals with their families in this village, where I could minutely communicate with anyone, but yet still feel so a part of their community. I knew at that point in time that if I wasn't home for Christmas, it would be ok—I was so happy in Italy!”
Matty L.

A FOCUS ON GIVING and gratitude

My friends from studying abroad are still close and keep in touch often. We all have different stories of why we loved the holidays in Italy, but the underline theme from our stories is one of above and beyond generosity from our Italian friends and host families.  One of my favorite stories is from my friend Shannon who became like a daughter to her host family in Italy. Her host family graciously decorated their home and served a special Christmas Eve dinner a week early so that she could celebrate with them. 

“I was incredibly lucky during my study abroad trip to Macerata, Italy to have an Italian family adopt me. I became close with my Italian language partner, Chiara, and she and her sister would pick me up from my apartment in the city every Sunday for a long lunch at her home in the countryside. Their mother was the sweetest little Italian woman who spoke not one word of English. She would cook us an incredible meal every Sunday that lasted four hours and always ended with dessert, then espresso, and then Kinder chocolate because I was always "troppa magra." (Too skinny.) Chiara's mom often asked me if there was any food I wanted to learn to make and I, being a little overly obsessed with Christmas, asked to learn how to make Tortellini en Brodo, a traditional Italian Christmas Eve dish. I didn't realize just how traditional my little family was until Chiara expressed to me that they have never had this dish other than on Christmas Eve… On one of the last Sundays before I left for home, my Italian family surprised me with an early Christmas. Not only did I learn to make Tortellini en Brodo, but Chiara's mom also prepared other Christmas foods for dinner and decorated the house. It brought tears to my eyes to be taken care of so well. What really hit me was after dinner when Chiara, her sister Katerina, and I were getting ready to go shopping and their mom handed each of us twenty Euros. I protested, but she insisted, "Tu sei mia figlia Americana." (You are my American daughter) and as such, I got twenty Euros too. I loved sharing in Italian traditions while studying abroad, and food is a huge part of those traditions.”
- Shannon M.

Whether it was times spent with our host families, close friends, or even strangers, the spirit of giving in Macerata was so apparent that I was continuously blown away by how generous everyone was with their time and unexpected but thoroughly thoughtful gifts.

Our last night together as a group in Macerata, Italy. (2011)

Our last night together as a group in Macerata, Italy. (2011)

On one of our last nights in Italy, my friends and I met in the loft of our favorite coffee shop/ bar. The table next to us, all Italian students of the same age, were celebrating Christmas with their university friends before they all were to go home for the holidays. They asked us if we were American and if we had ever tried panettone, the traditional Italian Christmas fruitcake. They shared their cake with us and we ended up spending over an hour talking with them and telling stories. 

That's the spirit of giving and graciousness that I found while spending the holidays in Italy.

No matter what holidays you choose to celebrate, there is so much that can be learned from spending one abroad. The new traditions, the spirit of giving, the sense of community, and getting back the meaning of Christmas during my time in Macerata has always been one of my favorite memories. To my Italian friends who may be reading this, you made all of our holidays so special and we could never thank you enough. Grazie mille

Have you ever celebrated the holidays abroad? Let me know in the comments. 

Happy holidays and Buon Natale!



P.S. Next week's hint? A New Year's Day tradition that's taking 2015 to the next level. 

A Night Out at Dreamgirls with Portland Center Stage

Based loosely upon the career of the Supremes, the current musical theater production of Dreamgirls (September 20 - November 2) at Portland Center Stage is nothing short of fabulous. "It's got soul!" as one of the characters, Jimmy Early, would say. The show follows the story of three friends, The Dreamettes, as they fight to make it big during a momentous time in American music history. And, as they say, there's no business like show business. 

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The Paper Airplane Summer Reading List


If you can't travel this summer, there's no better way to experience another land or culture better than through a book. There are so many great pieces of fiction out there, you owe it to yourself to skip the fluff this summer and read the books that will make you stop, think, and maybe laugh or cry along the way. Now presenting The Paper Airplane's list of summer reads that explore new places, cultures, and ideas. What's on your reading list this summer? 

The Paper Airplane Summer Reading List 

1. "A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini
Setting: Kabul, Afghanistan 
In a few words: In his second novel, Hosseini tells the story of Miriam and Laila, two women who become unlikely allies in a war-torn Afghanistan. "The Kite Runner," Hosseini's first novel, is one of the best (and most important) books that I've read in the past year. Hosseini's writing is beautiful, raw, and exposes a lot of truth about life in a country that is so different from life here in America. 

2. "A Walk in the Woods" by Bill Bryson
Setting: The Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia, USA
In a few words: Hilarious travel writer Bryson rediscovers America by thru-hiking the Appalachian trail from Maine to Georgia. Hiking the Appalachian Trail is near the top on my "must-do before age 30 list" and I'm told that, "[I'll] die (of laughter presumably)" from the accounts of odd characters Bryson meets along the way.

3. "Big Sur" by Jack Kerouac
Setting: Big Sur, California, USA
In a few words: Falling off the high from the success of his first novel, Jack Duluoz-- the Jack Kerouac personality-- doesn't know how to deal with his fame and seeks out to sequester himself in Big Sur. Having just road tripped to Big Sur and City Lights in San Francisco, one of Kerouac's old haunts mentioned in the opening of the book, I'm interested in reading about the places from his point of view. 

4. "The Sun Also Rises" by Ernest Hemingway
Setting: Paris, France and Paloma, Spain in the 1920s
In a few words: "The Sun Also Rises" details Left Bank Paris, gory bullfights in Paloma, the angst of The Lost Generation, and since this is Hemingway we're talking about, I'm assuming copious amounts of booze and ego as well. 

Past Favorite Summer Reads

"The Offshore Pirate" by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I love Fitzgerald because he knows how to write a strong, well-rounded heroine. Ardita is just the opposite as the anti-herione in this short story. She's a brat, to be blunt, and yet this story is funny, mischievous, and charming all at once. In true Fitzgerald fashion, the story opens with the young heiress lounging on a yacht somewhere off the coast of Florida in the 1920s. Enter the oddly sentimental, jazz-playing pirate Carlyle and a commandeering of the yacht ensues. 

"A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor
If you haven't read this Southern Gothic short story yet, it's an absolute classic and the suspense will kill you. It's set on the road in between Atlanta and the Florida state line in the dead of summer... and, well, I won't give anything away. Just read it. Or listen to this rare 1959 recording of Flannery O'Connor reading the story herself at Vanderbilt University.

"The Best American Travel Writing" series compiled by various editors 
An anthology of the best travel writing published throughout the year, The Best American Travel Writing series includes articles that are smart and poignant while also funny and light. Topics range from agriculture to politics to culture to travels gone wrong from publications of the likes of National Geographic, The New Yorker, Condé Nast Traveler and everywhere in between. It's hard to pick, but my favorite edition would have to be 2011 by editor Sloane Crosley. (Pro tip: You can almost always find a past edition on sale at Powell's.)

A West Coast Music Festival Primer

The view and natural acoustics at The Gorge are pretty tough to beat. Photo taken at Dave Matthews over Labor Day 2013

The view and natural acoustics at The Gorge are pretty tough to beat. Photo taken at Dave Matthews over Labor Day 2013

Keats once said, "Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." While you may not find books or French wine, you will find fine weather and a whole lot of music played outdoors at musical festivals this spring and summer. If music festivals aren't your cup of tea, there are plenty of outdoor concert venues for you to get your fill of music. The Portland area has a variety of venues ranging from concerts at the Oregon Zoo, McMenamin's Edgefield, and the waterfront. Outside of Portland, I can't recommend The Gorge in Washington enough. My friends and I saw Dave Matthews over Labor Day weekend and it was quite the experience (but that's another post for another time.) 

In honor of this being the first weekend of Coachella, I compiled a West Coast musical festival primer on the biggest music events taking place this season. Many of the festivals are already sold out, but don’t let that discourage you. Searching Craigslist, StubHub, and asking around on Facebook are all good options to find last minute tickets. To get you in the spirit, here's an Outside Lands 2014 playlist I created on Spotify. Just hit shuffle and enjoy! 

Indio, California
The festival kicked off Friday for another year of showcasing the hottest bands on today’s music scene. Started in 1999, Coachella is known for hosting top acts as well as up-and-comers on the music scene. Plus, it’s a great place for premium people watching. 
What to expect: sun, flower crowns, more sun, and maybe a run in with an “incognito” celebrity.
Tickets: SOLD OUT both weekends

Indio, California
April 25th – 27th
This year, California’s country music festival brings a whole lot of twang to the West Coast with the best acts out of Nashville. The 2014 lineup features headliners such as Eric Church, Jason Aldean, and Luke Bryan playing alongside Easton Corbin, (classic) Lynyrd Skynrd, Hunter Hayes, Jennifer Nettles, Florida Georgia Line and more.
What to expect: cowboy boots, non-Southerners saying ya’ll, and general debauchery.  
Tickets: SOLD OUT

George, Washington
Memorial Day Weekend, May 23rd- 25th
A favorite of college students, Sasquatch! is a 3-day music festival set in a concert venue carved out of the cliffs overlooking the Columbia River Gorge. The campground is half of the entertainment and in past years people who weren’t able to buy passes have been known to go for the camping alone.  Acts at Sasquatch include: Outkast, The National, M.I.A., Kid Cudi, HAIM, Portugal. the Man, and more.
What to expect: a lot of college students, tent camping, great natural acoustics and an incredible view of The Gorge.
Tickets: Still available, but limited

Outside Lands
August 8th-10th
San Francisco, California
Held in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Outside Lands offers a little bit of everything for all music tastes. The 2014 lineup released this week features headliners Kanye West, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, The Killers, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Arctic Monkeys, Tîesto, and more. In addition to music, Outside Lands also hosts food, wine, beer and art “lands” respectively.
What to expect: a little bit of everything
Tickets: 3-Day General Admission SOLD OUT, 3-Day VIP on sale
Listen Up: Outside Lands 2014 PLAYLIST

Labor Day weekend, August 30th – September 1st
Seattle, Washington
On Labor Day weekend Bumbershoot closes out the major West Coast music festivals of the summer. Set on the lawns of the Seattle Center at the foot of the Space Needle, Bumbershoot hosts a wide variety of bands ranging in genre from alternative rock to bluegrass to house. The 2014 lineup will be released at the Pink & Purple Pickwick Party at Neumos in Seattle on May 8th.
What to expect: a diverse crowd and lounging on the lawn
Tickets: Still available
2014 Lineup: TBD
Last year included MGMT, Fun., Teagan and Sara, Alt-J, and Death Cab for Cutie played a special set dedicated to the 10th anniversary of Transatlanticism. 

The scene from Bumbershoot 2013

The scene from Bumbershoot 2013