9 Things Traveling Taught Me About Life

I love discovering a new city or exploring new sides of a familiar one.  But traveling isn’t always without its speed bumps and detours.  While I’ve learned a lot about traveling, I’ve learned that many of those lessons apply to life when I’m not on the road.  Here are 9 things travel taught me about life.

King's Chapel Burying Ground, the oldest cemetery in Boston.

King’s Chapel Burying Ground, the oldest cemetery in Boston.

1. Time is limited.
If you want to do something, do it now.  That means if you want to go somewhere, see something, eat something, or experience something, do it now before your trip is over and your time is up.  As morbid as it sounds, life is no different.

2. A little bit of planning goes a long way.
Some travelers (and people) will argue this one with me, but I’m a huge planner.  I’ve found that by doing a little bit of research (either before the trip or prior to heading out for the day), it saves me a lot of headache, confusion, or outright problems down the road.  You don’t always have to stick exactly to the itinerary, but having a general idea of where you want to go will keep you on track and prevent you from ending up somewhere far from where you intended.

Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto, Japan.

Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan.

3. Save more money than you think you’ll need for piece of mind.
Because you never know when your cab ride suddenly costs 100€ and you thought it’d cost 20 or when you stumble upon a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that requires an extra few bucks, having more money than you need is both a safety net and an opportunity producer.  Same goes for the real world.

4. Take a chance.
I have a tendency to be more daring about life when I’m traveling.  (Probably thanks to #1.)  If I see a cute guy, I go talk to him because I know the chances of running into him again are next to impossible.  When I’m served a dish that may otherwise make me squirm, I dive right in while on vacation because it’s part of the experience.  I try to bring that bold attitude with me when I’m home.  Besides, isn’t there a saying about trying everything once?

Hôtel de Ville de Montréal, Montreal’s City Hall.

Hôtel de Ville de Montréal, Montreal’s City Hall.

5. Know when to splurge and when to skimp.
Some people use traveling as an excuse to splurge on literally everything–hotels, food, transportation–but it doesn’t need to be that way.  Some of the best food is found on the city’s streets for pennies and some of the best experiences I’ve had while traveling were free.

On the flipside, some things are definitely worth splurging on.  I like to treat myself to an extravagant splurge meal on every trip and I’m not a fan of hostels so I always opt for the pricier hotels.  Where you decide to splurge versus skimp all boils down to preference, but know that you don’t always have to stay in one camp over the other.

6. Comprise is the key to getting along with your partner.
Nothing tests a relationship like traveling, whether it’s platonic or romantic.  I always say that if you can travel with someone, you can do almost anything with that person.  Not all friends make good travel companions but even good travel buddies know that the key to remaining friends after your trip is compromise.  Also, spending time apart never hurts.  Both of these translate perfectly to real life (non-traveling) friendships and relationships.

Barcelona's opera house, the Gran Teatre del Liceu.

Barcelona’s opera house, the Gran Teatre del Liceu.

7. Follow your passion.
If something calls you enough to make your heart sing, chase it.  I travel for opera because nothing moves me the way seeing one live does and that passion has taken me to 15 cities (and counting) around the world.  I’m often on the younger spectrum of patrons at the opera, but I love talking about it at intermissions with people.  I get teased all the time for my opera obsession.  And you know what?  I don’t care one bit.

If something moves you, do it.  Don’t let the opinions of others eat away at you.  Go after what you love and follow your passion.

8. Give people the benefit of the doubt.
It’s easy to assume that because someone reacts differently than you do to something, you can’t relate to them or that because you don’t fully understand their way of life, you can’t understand them.  But that’s not true at all.  Most people, regardless of their cultural differences and language barriers, are genuinely nice people.

At home or abroad, I’ve learned to remember that while it’s good to stay on my toes and be cautious (especially when traveling alone), most people are good people with good intentions.  And if you treat people with respect and kindness, usually they’ll return respect and kindness back to you.

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

9. Know the difference between tired/hungry and angry.
Confession: I get hangry.  That is, I get angry when I’m hungry.  Years ago, I realized I got hangry while traveling a lot, making my travel buddies flat-out angry.  So now I make sure to eat breakfast when I travel and eat regular meals to prevent Hangry Kelli.  (Nobody likes Hangry Kelli, not even me!)  Whatever it is that sets you off, know it so you can prevent it–both when you travel and when you’re in real life at home.  Everyone around you will thank you.


Every time I take teaches me something new about life and about myself–not to mention about the place I’m visiting.  That’s why I love this quote so much: Traveling is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.  What lessons have you learned while traveling?

Related :: 6 Tips for Dining Out Alone, 7 Tips for Seeing the Opera, 6 Things I Hated About Paris

Utah Updates & Events :: October 2014

Fall is still in full swing (at least for another few weeks) and there are still things happening aplenty.  The past few weeks saw a whole handful of new restaurants open up in Utah (Gastronomic SLC has a great list of them here) that I can’t wait to try, plus here are some food-related events to keep you busy on these last few fall days of the year.

Epic Beer Pairing Dinner at Faustina :: October 23, 2014
The fine folks at Faustina are hosting another beer pairing dinner with Epic Brewing on October 23, 2014 at 7 pm.  Brewmaster Kevin Crompton will be on hand to tell about each beer and how it relates to the four-course dinner.  The food is $40, plus $20 for beer.  Call 801-746-4441 for reservations.

Witches Tea at the Grand America Hotel

Witches Tea at the Grand America Hotel

Witches Tea at the Grand America :: October 25, 26, 31, 2014
The traditional afternoon tea at the Grand America Hotel has been transformed into a Halloween-inspired event for the end of October, with special spooky treats.  Costumes are even welcome.  Sittings are available at 1 and 3:30 pm; $24 for adults, $20 for children 12 & under.  Call 801-258-6707 for reservations.

Wine & Spirits Certification Class :: Starts October 20, 2014
If you’ve ever wished that you knew more about wine or spirits, now is your chance to become actually certified by one of Utah’s most knowledgeable in the field: Jim Santangelo of the Wine Academy of Utah.  The Level 2 class teaches how to professionally assess 44 wines and 6 spirits, review the varieties and regions, and includes the textbook and study-guide.  The 8-class course starts October 20, 2014.  Click here to register.


Aristo’s in Salt Lake City

Aristo’s has been one of my favorite restaurants in Salt Lake City since the first time I went there, nearly five years ago.  It was always at the top of my list of restaurants I recommended people to go and for awhile I went there about once a month.  Then Guy Fieri brought his Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives to Utah and filmed a segment at Aristo’s.

And everything changed.

The patio and exterior of Aristo's in Salt Lake City.

The patio and exterior of Aristo’s in Salt Lake City.

Before the camera crews arrived, Aristo’s received a welcome facelift with a remodel cleaning up both the interior and exterior of the restaurant.  After Guy Fieri and his bad haircut left, Aristo’s changed their menu and crowds of people flocked to the restaurant.  Both of those could be positives except that some of my favorite items were removed from the menu.  Heartbroken, I didn’t return for months.

Driven back by my craving for their Skordalia, one of my favorite dishes in all of Salt Lake Valley, I was determined to find some new favorites on the updated menu.  For those of you who haven’t seen the new menu, it’s more condensed than before with portions regulated into better sizes (for some dishes that means downsizing, which is actually good for some of the heavier, richer dishes).

Skordalia and kafteri dips in the Orektika sampler at Aristo's in Salt Lake City.

Skordalia and kafteri dips in the Orektika sampler (I double up on the skordalia).

The skordalia ($7.50), a dip made of garlic, garlic and more garlic (swoon) is something I dream about.  I order it in the Orektika sampler of three dips ($13) with the kafteri, a dip of roasted Macedonian peppers and feta cheese with a touch of cayenne pepper.  It’s slightly spicy, but the prominence of the red peppers has such a unique kick when contrasted with the soothing feta that it’s lovingly addicting.

The Kotopoulo at Aristo's in Salt Lake City.

One of my absolute favorite dishes at Aristo’s: the Kotopoulo.

One of the favorites that remains on the menu is the Kotopoulo ($20), breaded chicken stuffed with garlic, spinach and feta, served with a rice pilaf in a mushroom sauce.  Juicy chicken filled with slightly savory mushrooms and spinach surrounded by a slightly crunchy coating, it’s a must-try dish that’s flavored to perfection.  Another remaining favorite is the rich Yemista ($17), a sort of Greek lasagna with tomato, green bell peppers and zucchini in rice with heavy seasonings of mint and oregano.

Boureki, a Greek dish of sliced zucchini and potatoes with feta at Aristo's in Salt Lake City.

The new portion of Boureki is thankfully downsized.

Another classic that made the cut: Boureki ($10), although its been gratefully downsized, with layers of sliced zucchini and sliced potatoes, packed with feta and Athotyro (a Greek ricotta-like cheese).  Satisfyingly rich, the smaller size is much more enjoyable.  (Order it as an appetizer or as a small plate paired with octopus.)

The Oxtapodi, or octopus, at Aristo's in Salt Lake City.

The Oxtapodi, or octopus, is my new favorite dish.

I finally tried the famed octopus (Oxtapodi, $12 for small, $20 for large), now deemed a “Fieri favorite” (after Guy Fieri).  The tender, luscious chunks of octopus arrived dripping in olive oil, oregano, and lemon.  Tangy and delicious, it’s my new go-to dish.

Other go-tos are traditional Greek favorites like Spanakopita ($9), rich wads of spinach and feta wrapped in flaky phyllo dough, and dolmathes ($6.50) with lamb, beef, rice and mint wrapped in grape leaves.  (Note that the vegetarian dolmathes are no longer on the menu.)

The lamb ribs at Aristo's in Salt Lake City.

The lamb ribs were surprisingly full of flavor.

New items like the flight of gyros (a tasting of three gyros, $12), lamb tacos (with horiatiki pico, mint and feta for $5), and souvlaki skewers (pork, $4, chicken, $4, or shrimp, $5) are filed under Street Favorites on the menu.  Simple but tasty, they are reminiscent of your favorite fast food Greek joint but much better tasting.  The Plevrakia ($11), char-broiled lamb ribs, are so incredibly tender they slip off the bone; a salty, juicy sensation that I can’t wait to repeat.

Lamb chops at Aristo's in Salt Lake City.

Lamb chops.

Pork chops (“Brizoles,” $18) marinated in oil, salt, pepper, garlic and oregano then char-broiled and served with fries, or the lamb chop version (called Paidakia, $30) are easy to love classics that are so basic, yet somehow manage to still be surprisingly delicious.

Lamb tacos at Aristo's in Salt Lake City.

Lamb tacos are a new addition to Aristo’s menu.

After enjoying the feast at Aristo’s, I had one of those regretful Why did I wait so long to return? thoughts.  Yes, the menu changed and yes, some of my beloved dishes left with it.  But just like in life, not all change is bad, even when you miss what you once had.

Go to Aristo’s for :: an amazing meal of Greek favorites and Greek surprises that will surprise you, then keep you coming back again and again.  Notes :: Many dishes are vegetarian- and vegan-friendly and are clearly marked on the menu.  Reservations are accepted online here.  Aristo’s is open Monday-Saturday, 11 am-10 pm and Sunday 4 pm-9 pm.

Aristo's on Urbanspoon

LA Opera’s La Traviata

There is always a little bit of pressure, of nervousness, when sharing one of your greatest passions with someone else for the first time.  You’ve no doubt talked up its grandeur in order to convince them to join you; you’ve likely confessed the way it moves you in ways nothing else can.

And so, here is this newbie at your side with high expectations, and suddenly you worry: what if something goes wrong and they completely hate it?

A few weeks ago I convinced my aunt and uncle to join me for their first opera.  Luckily it wasn’t just any opera, but LA Opera’s La Traviata at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles.  And if that wasn’t enough, it was starring the legendary Placido Domingo.

Kelli Nakagama in front of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles before La Traviata.

In front of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion before La Traviata.

In the days leading up to the performance I had given them tips for seeing the opera and given them the synopsis.  But in the hours before the opera, I got the pre-performance jitters.  What if they hated it?

We arrived at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion early enough for a glass of wine on the plaza and for people-watching, an essential part of the opera experience in my opinion.  An R&B trio sang on the plaza, friends and couples of all ages enjoyed wine and food, and we watched all of this as the southern California sun slowly set in the evening.  So far, so good.

The stairway in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.

The stairway in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

We entered the opera house in time to catch the last few minutes of the pre-opera talk, this time led by LA Opera’s conductor James Conlon and art director Marta Domingo, who explained that setting La Traviata in the 1920s art deco period just “made sense.”  And truly, with an era obsessed with extravagance, it does.

As we took our seats, I was both nervous and excited.  But as soon as the music started and, moments later, when Nino Machaidze released her first burst of passion from her voice as Violetta, all was well with the world.  The power in her voice and the graceful beauty in its sound was stunning.

The chandeliers in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.

The chandeliers in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Together with tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz, who played her lover Alfredo, their voices created a perfect harmony.  And later, in the second act, when Placido Domingo arrived on stage and demanded everyone’s attention with his commanding presence, it was incredible.  His capacity and tone paired well with Violetta but, at times, drowned out tenor Alfredo, although it’s hard to keep up with someone with 3600 performances under his belt.

After the last curtain fell, I was on a high from such an outstanding performance of one of my favorite operas.  I turned to my aunt and uncle, anxious for their reaction.  My uncle said it wasn’t bad.  My aunt said she was surprised how much she enjoyed it.  At first I didn’t know if that was good or bad, until she immediately asked, “what’s playing next in Salt Lake City?”

I smiled.  She got it, she understood my passion.  And I thought to myself, success!

Interview with Yunah Lee and Nina Nelsen of Utah Opera

Life has a funny way of spinning in circles, creating Aha! moments years after something happened that are so serendipitous that they are hard to believe.  When you catch yourself in those moments, all you can do is laugh about how you never dreamed that one day you would be where you are now.

I recently experienced one of these moments when I got to interview two singers of Utah Opera’s upcoming production of Madame Butterfly, Yunah Lee and Nina Nelsen, for Fibonacci Arts Digest.  The arts magazine asked me to write about opera and I jumped at the chance to gush about one of my favorite passions.

While researching Nina Nelsen I discovered that she sang the part of Cherubino in Utah Opera’s 2009 production of the Marriage of Figaro—the second opera I ever saw.  My first opera didn’t exactly cause me to fall in love, but Le Nozze di Figaro had me smitten.  I specifically remember Nina’s portrayal of Cherubino making me laugh so hard—something I never expected from opera.

It was that opera that truly marked the beginning of my opera obsession.  At the time I didn’t even have a blog, just a dream of being a writer.   And here I was five years later, interviewing her for a magazine.

Yunah Lee as Cio Cio San for Utah Opera's production for Madame Butterfly.

Yunah Lee in costume as Butterfly at the media day at Capitol Theater.

Here’s an edited transcript of my interviews with Yunah Lee, who plays Cio-Cio San (Butterfly), Nina who plays Suzuki, and her son Rhys, who plays Butterfly’s son.  For the full story on the timeless art of opera, check out the upcoming issue of Fibonacci Fine Arts Digest (I’ll be sure to share a link here too).

Kelli Nakagama: What was your first experience with opera?
Nina Nelsen: I started out as a violinist, majoring in violin and psychology. I started taking voice lessons while I was in college and it just kind of all clicked all of a sudden. And I was like, This is really cool. I love singing. I feel like I can really express myself in a way that I wasn’t able to with the violin. After that it all fell into place, with a lot of hard work.

Yunah Lee: I was a member of church where we sang in choir and I played piano so music was always there but I was about to turn 16 and I just heart a calling. And I accepted and the next day I went out to look for a voice teacher and that is it.

KN: I always tell people that nothing moves me like opera.  I always wonder how it is to be singing it and to be on stage with that power.
NN: It’s so amazing. I’ve sung Suzuki in Butterfly somewhere around 50 times now and it never gets old. I just love it. It’s so wonderful to see the way it touches people in the audience and it’s a really neat gift that we are able to give audience members.

YL: When it goes well, it goes great! It feels the best. I mean, it’s an expression. People scream when they’re happy or when they’re sad. We are able to do that in a refined way. It’s the same release. And it’s unbelievably fulfilling.

A handmade kimono made by Utah Opera for Madame Butterfly.

The costumes for Madame Butterfly were handmade by Utah Opera’s costume department.

KN: Do you get stage fright in terms of opening night?
NN: I don’t so much anymore, I have things I do and there’s always a little bit of jitters, of course, but we’ve rehearsed this so many times that it’s just another performance. There’s definitely more energy but, well, I’m more nervous about this production than I’ve ever been about anything. [Motions towards son, Rhys.]

KN: Are you nervous how he’s going to react?
NN: He turns four on Monday and four-year olds are… you just never know. We’ll see what happens! He loves to play dress up and he loves to act so it’s the right thing for him.

KN: What drew you to this role in Madame Butterfly?
NN: I think why I was first cast as Suzuki is because I’m half Asian, so in one way it’s type-casting, but it’s really perfect for my voice.

YL: Oh it called me. Because I am a lyric soprano and because I am Asian… it is a good package.

Yunah Lee has performed the role of Butterfly 136 times while this will be Nina’s nearly 50th time as Suzuki. KN: Are there still challenges in this role for you?
NN: It changes from production to production. I think the biggest challenge is always finding new things and finding ways to make it different and interesting and make it true to whomever I’m working with and it changes with the chemistry of the cast.

YL: Oh every night. Because it’s a live show and you’re using your body–you feel different every morning and like my voice teacher always says, “you never recreate things, you always create.” So your voice feels different every time.

The view of Capitol Theater from the stage.

The view of Capitol Theater from the stage.

KN: What is your advice for people who have never been to the opera? 
NN: A lot of people think of the fat lady singing in opera, but it’s not that. It’s theater, it’s drama, it’s music. You’ve got an orchestra, you’ve got costumes, you’ve got sets and props, and it’s really accessible to anybody. Especially in Madame Butterfly, you’ve got themes that you will recognize. You’ve got the national anthem, you’ve got the Japanese national anthem, you’ve got all this stuff where you hear little bits and pieces and you go, “Hey I know that from somewhere,” even though you may have never seen the opera.

The other thing I think people are often time scared of is that it’s in Italian and they think, “I won’t understand what’s going on.” And the best thing about opera is there’s subtitles and you will understand, there will be words in English going across and you will know what’s going on. It’s not something that’s not accessible to anybody.  And there are tickets that are available at any price.

YL: For the first time, you don’t have to worry about it or be intimidated by this opera because the story is so simple and tragically beautiful. It is coming with this gorgeous tune. And it is the best tragic love story that it cannot go much better than this. I don’t think it’s complicated to anybody, it’s just simply sad tragedy that will break everyone’s heart.

It was so much fun talking with the singers!  See them in action at Utah Opera’s production of Madame Butterfly opening October 11, 2014, at Capitol Theater and continuing October 13, 15, 17 and 19.  Tickets are available online here.

Caputo’s Cooking Classes

Long after the high of being in Spain evaporated, after I’ve gone through the thousands of photos I took an equal thousand number of times, and after all the stories of adventures in Spain have been told, I find myself missing the little parts of my trip the most.  Like the lunches of small plates filled with anchovies drenched in olive oil paired with tomato bread and glasses of Sangria, and the dinners built of manchego cheese plates, morcilla sausage, and stuffed piquillo peppers.

There are two ways to remedy my longing for these things: 1. frequently dine at Salt Lake City’s Spanish restaurants, and 2. learn how to make these dishes at home.  The first one is easy and I do it all too often, but the second one, well, I’m not exactly known as a cook.  But whenever I encounter a food-related dilemma, somehow Caputo’s is always the answer.  And this time is no different.

The newest location of Caputo's in Holladay.

The newest location of Caputo’s in Holladay.

In addition to the many food classes at Caputo’s, like cheese and wine, chocolate and beer, even whiskey and scotch, Caputo’s also has cooking classes.  I’ve been a huge fan of the food classes for years; they are incredibly informative and a great way to expand your taste buds and experience with everything ranging from cheese to olive oil.  Caputo’s cooking classes are no different :: they teach pasta-making, Italian cooking, holiday feasts, Spanish tapas classes, and more.

Caputo’s cooking classes aren’t hands-on, but the instructor makes the dishes in front of the class.  The recipes are provided so you can follow along, plus you get to taste everything.  Many classes have a beverage pairing component, like wine, cocktails or both.

Tomato bread at the Caputo's Spanish tapas cooking class.

Classic tomato bread.

The Spanish tapas class started with tasting some of Spain’s most beloved bites, like anchovies, jamón, and manchego cheese topped with quince paste, paired with a Vermouth cocktail.  I was instantly transported back to Spain.

Next we moved on to tomato bread, or pan con tomate, a simple recipe involving garlic, tomatoes and olive oil on bread, served at almost every restaurant we visited in Barcelona.  Then came the stuffed piquillo peppers.  The instructor Adrianna told us some short cuts and suggested some products, like using Ortiz Bonito del Norte canned tuna that’s nothing like the “chicken of the sea crap found in grocery stores.”

Cojonuda at the Caputo's cooking class.

Morcilla sausage on fried eggs, called Cojonuda.

Then we had the tapas version of sausage and eggs using Spanish morcilla (blood sausage), the one food I said I’d never eat but accidentally tried in Madrid and fell in love.  Adrianna fried eggs, placed them on slices of baguette and topped them with lightly fried pieces of morcilla.  This was paired with the traditional Sangria, filled with fresh peaches and oranges (we got the recipe for that too).

We ended with a Barcelona Fish Stew, a hearty stew with heavy paprika flavors filled with chunks of halibut and Serrano ham, served with Pedro Ximenez Montilla-Moriles Solera sherry from 1927.

Adrianna of Caputo's at the Spanish tapas cooking class.

Instructor Adrianna dishing up the Barcelona Fish Stew.

Caputo’s cooking classes are filling, fun, and informative.  The recipes and subjects change with the season, so check Caputo’s website for the current list of upcoming cooking classes and food tasting classes.  Most cooking classes are $45 for food, $15 for alcohol pairing.  Classes are held at all three locations (downtown, 15th & 15th, and Holladay).

Related :: 7 Must Eat Foods in Spain, Caputo’s Scotch Class and Caputo’s on 15th & 15th.
Disclaimer :: I was graciously treated to the Spanish Tapas Cooking Class by Caputo’s.  All opinions are my own. 

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