I'll admit, planning any trip can feel like a daunting task. There are so many variables to consider, so much preparation, but the end result is so worth it (read: there are still bound to be f*ck ups). Europe was no different.
I wanted to go to London since I was a little girl watching the Olsen twins in the direct-to-video film Winning London. It had a lasting effect, similarly to the way Passport to Paris did. I was going to delay my travels until 2019, but ultimately decided why should I wait any longer? I can work anywhere, the nature of my life warrants flexibility, so I am finally free to move like the water I have always felt a special connection to. And so, I decided to start planning my long lusted after trip to London, England with plans to also stop in Paris.
Initially, I chose April, but after a death in the family inspired me to press pause for just a bit, reconnect to what I really want (hello, apartment), and second-guess traveling this year once again altogether, I was going to cancel. But luckily, my heart sang a different tune and I decided to sing to that instead - opted for October, paid the $308 fee to change my flight, and was London-bound for the fall.
And for those of you who might be feeling overwhelmed by the planning of it all, I've done some of the necessary work for you by gathering some of the tips that helped me plan my first European travel excursion. Check 'em out below:
Do All The Necessary Prep Work Ahead Of Time
Arriving at St. Pancras International in London
Photo Cred: Terrence Porter
Note that while there's no such thing as an "off-peak" season in Paris, you can find cheaper airline deals between September-December range (anytime after or before summer is best to avoid the heavy tourist crowd). Ensure that your passport is up to date, also read up the parameters of travel limitations for the place you plan to visit. You can read up on that via the Bureau of Consular Affairs for the given country's international travel information. Before you travel abroad, also be sure to make copies of your important travel and identity docs, i.e. your passport, license, and perhaps your social security card. In addition to your plane tickets, book any additional transportation plans, like a rental car, public transportation passes, or a train if necessary.
In our case, purchasing our train tickets for Eurostar ahead of time were a must too. It's advised to start booking your train from London to Paris at least three months in advance (find them here). We did our best to leave a couple of hours between our flights' arrival and our train's departure so that once we touched down in London, we'd take the train to Paris to pack our travel day as much as possible and do a one-shot to our next destination.
In reality, what actually happened was we missed our train by about five minutes and had to pay 44 euros for a new ticket for the next train to Paris. Some research on my part would have been helpful in figuring out how to map out the train departure in relation to our flight arrival, especially because London St. Pancras International ended up being kind of far from the airport (about 35-45 minutes to be exact). And if you do nothing else, get an International plan with your cell phone service because the data will be needed for Ubers and such. Trust. And because my friend and I had Airbnbs in both locations, WhatsApp and some data comes clutch for the check-in process. So again I say, TRUST.
Hotel Emile - it's located in Marais, relatively close to a metro station, and offers free breakfast with direct booking.
Airbnb - we stayed in this studio apartment. It was very quaint and located in a trendier complex in the North part of Paris. Close to laundry, cafes, food, grocery stores, and only a few miles away from big attractions.
The Pilgrm - it's located in Paddington, relatively close to the tube station, and is very stylish. If I didn't stay in an Airbnb, this was going to be the one.
Airbnb - Huma's Victorian townhome feels so authentically London, it was so dope to stay there for a few days. Definitely recommend.
See All The Must-See Attractions
Capturing moments at the Louvre
Photo Cred: Terrence Porter
It is impossible to see everything a city has to offer, especially in the span of three days. Think about it, there are people who call these cities home and still haven't seen everything it has to offer. On your first day, make a running list of attractions that you feel are the Must-See places and hit them up when the day breaks. See as much as possible, and do as much as possible, especially during your first day in a new place. This will give allow you to see all of the touristy spots, while also allowing the freedom of sticking a pin in some of your favorite sights to potentially go to again before your trip is over.
In London, everything was very centralized and the tube was really easy to navigate, so hitting up Big Ben, London Bridge, the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, and Kensington Palace was done pretty effortlessly. On our first day in Paris, we walked to Montmartre, the Arc du Triomphe, and the Eiffel Tower. Because we chose walking over public transportation, we saved the Louvre for the next evening and allowed ourselves to indulge a little with the next tip.
Tour The City Like A Local
Taking in the Seine River in Paris
Photo Cred: Terrence Porter
This is the day to get lost, to take your time, and really take in the beauty and the history, the sights and sounds of the city in a less strategical way. While in Europe, I noticed that people had places to go but I also noted how lax a lot of the locals were with spending time in a state of experiencing. In Paris, they'd bring espresso and crepes to talk and gaze at the Seine or drink beer alongside the Thames. I even saw a guy outside of the Gare du Nord train station with an espresso cup that he rested on a newspaper stand as he stood and people watched in the middle of the sidewalk. Or in London, where people took midday breaks at the pub with a draft beer and wrote in their moleskins as the city moved around them.
My point is, everyone seemed to take their time a bit more. So, as we got lost, it was important to me to take breaks and take in the city, take in the life, take in the quiet and just be still. It was a lesson in being present that I really enjoyed.
Sit Back & Relax Your Mind
A glimpse of our beautiful Airbnb
Photo Cred: Terrence Porter
Don't let the go-go-go mentality of travel stop you from relaxing in the moment and showing gratitude for the fact that you are there. Make sure you don't allow guilt to dictate the moves you make or don't make. If you want to relax and recoup from your 16-hour travel day, take your time. Rest up. Enjoy yourself. You've earned it. My travel buddy was an up and at 'em kind of traveler that wanted to be up by 7 am to explore until 11 or noon, and then we'd convene and spend the day and evening together until I was ready to wrap up the night (especially because this ninja had the motto of walking everywhere in Paris). I took my time though. I slept in. I did my morning routine. I read a book and highlighted passages. I updated emails and checked on my site. And when I rose to reemerge into the city for hours on end, I lived.
Europe was absolutely magical. 10/10, I definitely recommend. Click through the gallery below to see some of the things I saw and experienced while over there.
Paris Photo Diary
London Photo Diary
*Originally published on Postcards & 808s
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Amber Riley Is In Her Element
Amber Riley has the type of laugh that sticks with you long after the raspy, rhythmic sounds have ceased. It punctuates her sentences sometimes, whether she’s giving a chuckle to denote the serious nature of something she just said or throwing her head back in rip-roarious laughter after a joke. She laughs as if she understands the fragility of each minute. She chooses laughter often with the understanding that future joy is not guaranteed.
Credit: Ally Green
The sound of her laughter is rivaled only by her singing voice, an emblem of the past and the future resilience of Black women stretched over a few octaves. On Fox’s Glee, her character Mercedes Jones was portrayed, perhaps unfairly, as the vocal duel to Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), offering rough, full-throated belts behind her co-star’s smooth, pristine vocals. Riley’s always been more than the singer who could deliver a finishing note, though.
Portraying Effie White, she displayed the dynamic emotions of a song such as “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” in Dreamgirls on London’s West End without buckling under the historic weight of her predecessors. With her instrument, John Mayer’s “Gravity” became a religious experience, a belted hymnal full of growls and churchy riffs. In her voice, Nicole Scherzinger once said she heard “the power of God.”
Credit: Ally Green
Riley’s voice has been a staple throughout pop culture for nearly 15 years now. Her tone has become so distinguishable that most viewers of Fox’s The Masked Singer recognized the multihyphenate even before it was revealed that she was Harp, the competition-winning, gold-masked figure with an actual harp strapped to her back.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that Riley began to feel like she’d found her voice. This sounds unbelievable. But she’s not referring to the one she uses on stage. She’s referencing the voice that speaks to who she is at her core. “Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind,” the 37-year-old says. “It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women. I got so comfortable in [doing so], and I really want other people, especially Black women, to get more comfortable in that space.”
“Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind. It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women."
If you ask Riley’s manager, Myisha Brooks, she’ll tell you the foundation of who the multihyphenate is hasn’t changed much since she was a kid growing up in Compton. “She is who she is from when I met her back when she was singing in the front of the church to back when she landed major roles in film and TV,” Brooks says. Time has allowed Riley to grow more comfortable, giving fans a more intimate glimpse into her life, including her mental health journey and the ins and outs of show business.
The actress/singer has been in therapy since 2019, although she suffered from depression and anxiety way before that. In a recent interview with Jason Lee, she recalls having suicidal ideation as a kid. By the time she started seeing a psychologist and taking antidepressants in her thirties, her body had become jittery, a physical reminder of the trauma stacked high inside her. “I was shaking in [my therapist’s] office,” she tells xoNecole. “My fight or flight was on such a high level. I was constantly in survival mode. My heart was beating fast all the time. All I did was sweat.”
There wasn’t just childhood trauma to account for. After auditioning for American Idol and being turned away by producers, Riley began working for Ikea and nearly missed her Glee audition because her car broke down on the highway while en route. Thankfully, Riley had been cast to play Mercedes Jones. American Idol had temporarily convinced her she wasn’t cut out for the entertainment industry, but this was validation that she was right where she belonged. Glee launched in 2009 with the promise of becoming Riley’s big break.
In some ways, it was. The show introduced Riley to millions of fans and catapulted her into major Hollywood circles. But in other ways, it became a reminder of the types of roles Black women, especially those who are plus-sized, are relegated to. Behind the scenes, Riley says she fought for her character "to have a voice" but eventually realized her efforts were useless. "It finally got to a point where I was like, this is not my moment. I'm not who they're choosing, and this is just going to have to be a job for me for now," she says. "And, that's okay because it pays my bills, I still get to be on television, I'm doing more than any other Black plus-sized women that I'm seeing right now on screen."
The actress can recognize now that she was navigating issues associated with trauma and low self-esteem at the time. She now knows that she's long had anxiety and depression and can recognize the ways in which she was triggered by how the cult-like following of the show conflicted with her individual, isolated experiences behind the scenes. But she was in her early '20s back then. She didn't yet have the language or the tools to process how she was feeling.
Riley says she eventually sought out medical intervention. "When you're in Hollywood, and you go to a doctor, they give you pills," she says, sharing a part of her story that she'd never revealed publicly before now. "[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that's not fixing my problem. If anything, it's making it worse."
“[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that’s not fixing my problem. If anything it’s making it worse.”
Credit: Ally Green
At one point, while in her dressing room on set, she rested her arm on a curling iron without realizing it. It wasn't until her makeup artist alerted her that she even realized her skin was burning. Once she noticed, she says she was "so zonked out on pills" that she barely reacted. Speaking today, she holds up her arm and motions towards a scar that remains from the incident. She sought help for her reliance on the pills, but it would still be years before she finally attended therapy.
This stress was only compounded by the trauma of growing up in poverty and the realities of being a "contract worker." "Imagine going from literally one week having to borrow a car to get to set to the next week being on a private jet to New York City," she says. After Glee ended, so did the rides on private planes. The fury of opportunities she expected to follow her appearance on the show failed to materialize. She wasn't even 30 yet, and she was already forced to consider if she'd hit her career peak.
. . .
We’re only four minutes into our Zoom call before Riley delivers her new adage to me. “My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway,” she says.
On this Thursday afternoon in April, the LA-based entertainer is seated inside her closet/dressing room wearing a cerulean blue tank top with matching shorts and eating hot wings. This current phase of healing hinges on balance. It’s about having discipline and consistency, but not at the risk of inflexibility. She was planning to head to the gym, for instance, but she’s still tired from the “exhausting” day before. Instead, she’s spent her day receiving a massage, eating some chicken wings, and planning to spend quality time with friends. “I’m not going to beat myself up for it. I’m not going to talk down to myself. I’m going to eat my chicken wings, and then tomorrow I’m [back] in the gym,” she says.
“My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway."
This is the balance with which she's been approaching much of her life these days. It's why she's worried less about whether or not people see her as someone who is humble. She'd rather be respected. "I think you should be a person that's easy to work with, but in the moments where I have to ruffle feathers and make waves, I'm not shying away from that anymore. You can do it in love, you don't have to be nasty about it, but I had to finally be comfortable with the fact that setting boundaries around my life – in whatever aspect, whether that's personal or business – people are not going to like it. Some people are not going to have nice things to say about you, and you gotta be okay with it," she says.
When Amber talks about the constant humbling of Black women in Hollywood, I think of the entertainers before her who have suffered from this. The brilliant, consistent, overqualified Black women who have spoken of having to fight for opportunities and fair pay. Aretha Franklin. Viola Davis. Tracee Ellis Ross. There's a long list of stars whose success hasn't mirrored their experiences behind the scenes.
Credit: Ally Green
If Black women outside of Hollywood are struggling to decrease the pay gap, so, too, are their wealthier, more famous peers.
Riley says there’s been progress in recent years, but only in small ways and for a limited group of people. “This business is exhausting. The goalpost is constantly moving, and sometimes it’s unfair,” she says. But, I have to say it’s the love that keeps you going.”
“There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman,” she continues. “We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
"There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman. We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
Last year, Riley starred alongside Raven Goodwin in the Lifetime thriller Single Black Female (a modern, diversified take on 1992’s Single White Female). It was more than a leading role for the actress, it also served as proof that someone who looks like her can front a successful project without it hinging on her identity. It showcased that the characters she portrays don’t “have to be about being a big girl. It can just be a regular story.”
Riley sees her work in music as an extension of her efforts to push past the rigid stereotypes in entertainment. Take her appearance on The Masked Singer, for instance. Riley said she decided to perform Mayer’s “Gravity” after being told she couldn’t sing it years earlier. “I wanted to do ‘Gravity’ on Glee. [I] was told no, because that’s not a song that Mercedes would do,” she says. “That was a full circle moment for me, doing that on that show and to hear what it is they had to say.”
As Scherzinger praised the “anointed” performance, a masked Riley began to cry, her chest heaving as she stood on stage, her eyes shielded from view. “You have to understand, I have really big names – casting directors, producers, show creators – that constantly tell me ‘I’m such a big fan. Your talent is unmatched.’ Hire me, then,” she says, reflecting on the moment.
Recently, she’s been in the studio working on original music, the follow-up to her independently-released debut EP, 2020’s Riley. The sequel to songs such as the anthemic “Big Girl Energy” and the reflective ballad “A Moment” on Riley, this new project hones in on the singer’s R&B roots with sensual grooves such as the tentatively titled “All Night.” “You said I wasn’t shit, turns out that I’m the shit. Then you called me a bitch, turns out that I’m that bitch. You said no one would want me, well you should call your homies,” she sings on the tentatively titled “Lately,” a cut about reflecting on a past relationship. From the forthcoming project, xoNecole received five potential tracks. Fans likely already know the strengths and contours of Riley’s vocals, but these new songs are her strongest, most confident offerings as an artist.
“I am so much more comfortable as a writer, and I know who I am as an artist now. I’m evolving as a human being, in general, so I’m way more vulnerable in my music. I’m way more willing to talk about whatever is on my mind. I don’t stop myself from saying what it is I want to say,” she says.
Credit: Ally Green
“Every era and alliteration of Amber, the baseline is ‘Big Girl Energy.’ That’s the name of her company,” her manager Brooks says, referencing the imprint through which Riley releases her music after getting out of a label deal several years ago. “It’s just what she stands for. She’s not just talking about size, it’s in all things. Whether it’s putting your big girl pants on and having to face a boardroom full of executives or sell yourself in front of a casting agent. It’s her trying to achieve the things she wants to do in life.”
Riley says she has big dreams beyond releasing this new music, too. She’d love to star in a rom-com with Winston Duke. She hasn't starred in a biopic yet, but she’d revel in the opportunity to portray Rosetta Tharpe on screen. She’s determined that her previous setbacks won’t stop her from dreaming big.
“I think one of my superpowers is resilience because, at the end of the day, I’m going to kick, scream, cry, cuss, be mad and disappointed, but I’m going to get up and risk having to deal with it all again. It’s worth it for the happy moments,” she says.
If Riley seems more comfortable and confident professionally, it’s because of the work she’s been doing in her personal life.
She’d previously spoken to xoNecole about becoming engaged to a man she discovered in a post on the site, but she called things off last year. For Valentine’s Day, she revealed her new boyfriend publicly. “I decided to post him on Valentine’s Day, partially because I was in the dog house. I got in trouble with him,” she says, half-joking before turning serious. “The breakup was never going to stop me from finding love. Or at least trying. I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness, and you enjoy it and work through it.”
Credit: Ally Green
"I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness and you enjoy it and work through it.”
With her ex, Riley was pretty outspoken about her relationship, even appearing in content for Netflix with him. This time around is different. She’s not hiding her boyfriend of eight months, but she’s more protective of him, especially because he’s a father and isn’t interested in becoming a public figure.
She’s traveling more, too. It’s a deliberate effort on her part to enjoy her money and reject the trauma she’s developed after experiencing poverty in her childhood. “I live in constant fear of being broke. I don’t think you ever don’t remember that trauma or move past that. Now I travel and I’m like, listen, if it goes, it goes. I’m not saying [to] be reckless, but I deserve to enjoy my hard work.”
After everything she’s been through, she certainly deserves to finally let loose a bit. “I have to have a life to live,” she says. “I’ve got to have a life worth fighting for.”
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xoNecole's New Visual Hair Story "The Root Of It" Is Here
For Black women, hair isn't just hair. It's our mouthpiece and our magic.
xoNecole is proud to introduce "The Root Of It," a visual hair story in partnership with SheaMoisture. For this cozy and no-frills experience, we tasked world-renowned hairstylist Ursula Stephen with creating hair transformations on three of our favorite influencers: Jasmine Moses (@slimreshae), Mel Mitchell (@itsmelmitch) and Tiffany Renee (@iam.tiffany.renee). Hosted by former beauty editor turned content creator Blake Newby, "The Root Of It" takes us on a journey of hair as the ultimate expression. We pay homage to the innovators in Black hair that have birthed a generation of styles. Most importantly, we get a little scalp education, learning the basics of how to care for our crowns by focusing first on the scalp.
Watch episode one of "The Root Of It" now, and stay tuned for episodes two and three!