Tuesday, 28 December 2010

III. The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Beer, Pretzels, Mozart, Opera, Spanish Horses, Ruined Pubs, and Hot Baths

I'm on a train from Prague to Berlin, listening to Pachelbel's Canon and lost in the beautiful snowscape outside my window. It is more than postcard-perfect: small colourful houses scattered against a backdrop of mountains and forefronted by a river that's still flowing. Everything is magical, white, and serene. I have no idea where we are (we could still be in the Czech Republic or already in Germany) and it doesn't matter.

It's been another two weeks since my last post, and our pace has indeed slowed down, as we had anticipated. Ever since Vienna, we've been staying at hostels for at least three nights, and the extra day or two makes a huge difference. It's not that we're seeing any more of the cities (we're still doing everything we want to, with down time to spare), but rather that we're spacing it out so that we aren't killing ourselves trying to milk every day for what it's worth, as we did in Italy. Moreover, the weather is significantly colder, which really inhibits our desire to walk around—we're not tired so much as numbed to the point of losing complete feeling in our extremities after just a few minutes outside. We're also waking up significantly later now (on one of our days in Budapest we got out of bed at 11, a record!).

So our rhythm has changed, but the novelty hasn't worn off. Apart from my current window view, everything is still stimulating, still beautiful—perhaps even more so. Budapest and Prague especially: every building in both of those cities is an architectural marvel (or just really damn old, which is something in itself). Vienna, of course, was very pretty, but in an elegant, sophisticated, less colourful, yet slightly overstated way (although not in places far from the center of town; some of the neighborhoods were quite disappointing). Salzburg was a delightful surprise; it was the definition of quaint with an old-town feel, just like a medieval village. Generally speaking, though, everything has definitely been a lot less eye-assaulting when compared with Rome.

And I've come to realize what I've known all along: that New York isn't my city. Midtown West aside, it's undeniably beautiful and exciting, but not in the same way. It has history, but not enough. It's not steeped in centuries of old age, and that makes a huge difference (at least to me). I've always thought that I was born in the wrong century. Perhaps I was, perhaps I wasn't, but that doesn't matter. All I know is that I feel more of an affinity with old things, with old places. Perhaps the problem is that I've been living in the wrong cities.

My favourite from this trip by far was Budapest (and I'm sure Anna and Andy would wholeheartedly concur). So I'll start with that. I might even go so far as to say that it was the most beautiful city—as I noted above, every single building was eye candy to some degree, and not ostentatiously so. There were many rich, vibrant hues, especially in contrast to Vienna, which had a rather washed out palette (mostly whites and creams). Not only was it beautiful, it was also cheap: one American dollar is equivalent to roughly 200 Hungarian forints. I felt rich after making my first transaction—I was going to do it at the currency exchange in the train station, but a random guy stopped me outside the booth and told me that he would give me a much better deal. I was, of course, skeptical at first (having stupidly forgotten to look up the rate beforehand), but we were pressed for time and I really needed the money, so after a bit of talking I gave him $70 and was awarded with a whopping 14,000 forints. The guy probably worked for some illicit organization (euphemistically speaking), but it was a win-win situation between the two of us, so I won't complain... especially not after getting ripped off at a currency exchange in Florence, which had a hidden 19% commission rate (I gave the lady $200 and was given 106 euros in return—there is definitely something outrageously wrong with that!).

It was beautiful, it was cheap, and to incandescently complete the trifecta, it was chill. The people were incredibly nice (we didn't have to even ask for help when we were trying to find the hostel, as a random guy just came up to us when he saw that we looked confused). And it was busy, it was alive: especially in juxtaposition to Vienna, which I had thought was strangely quiet the night we arrived (yes, there had been a mini blizzard of sorts, but still... the atmosphere, the mood, the feeling, was different). In Budapest, our ears were greeted with vivacious folk music as we emerged from the train station; I think the group had been clad in Native American garb? [Believe it or not, that's actually been a recurring sight on our trip.]

It was especially alive after the sun went down. We went out the first two nights, to various bars and pubs. Budapest is renowned for its ruined pubs, which look as if they haven't been changed for 500 years. Each has a distinct personality of its own, and all are decorated with the most idiosyncratic furnishings (e.g., a huge wooden owl-woman, clementine tree lights). The history was literally breathing out of the walls. Definitely my kind of place.

The hostel we stayed at was also lovely. The facilities were sufficient (although I had issues with the shower), but more importantly, it had such a cozy, homey atmosphere and very friendly staff. We were in a six-bed dorm (which didn't feel at all like a dorm, as it was a really big room with high ceilings; I now understand why the hostel is called "Guest House and Apartments"), but the other three beds weren't occupied by anyone else so we had the entire space to ourselves. One of the staff, a chap from London, took us out on the second night, and we've gotten to know him pretty well.

Within half an hour of knowing me, in fact, he made some rather bold pronouncements about me that coincide with what other people have been telling me all my life. Things that I've been well aware of and have grown even more conscious of, if that's even possible. At our first bar, he told me that I was career-driven and overly organized, and loved control too much. That I needed to calm down and let loose. Which is true—but only to a certain extent. I know I can be incredibly uptight sometimes, and that I need to learn how to relax. To take it easy, at least once in awhile.

The thing is, I try, I do try, to take it easy. I've been more carefree than usual this entire trip, as I noted in my previous post. I'm happy, really and truly happy, despite the insufferable cold and the occasional ridiculous mishap. But I cannot completely give in and let everything go (unless under the influence of an inordinate amount of alcohol, in which case my inner five-year-old tends to come out). It's always a balance, and you're always tipping more to one side of it. Having control, letting go. Letting go, having control. To be human, you cannot be completely on one side or the other. I happen to tip more often to the control side because I am, admittedly and fundamentally, a control freak afflicted with more than the typical dosage of OCD, and I cannot help it. Having control makes me happy. I need to have a schedule, to know exactly what I'm going to do next, in order to wake up in the morning, to get going. I need a purpose. Of course I know things will never turn out exactly the way I expect them to. And that's okay—that, I've learned, is part of the fun, part of the thrill. But I still need the hypothetical plan, the ought. That is what gets me going. There has to be a constant goal to be reached, a steady line of progress toward something, no matter how inconsequential. Right now I'm on vacation so yes, I can do whatever I want, but I know that it's only temporary. Especially in the context of an entire year away from home, it's more surreal than ever. I feel as if I've either lost or discovered myself. Perhaps both, perhaps neither. Regardless, the possibilities have expanded considerably; I no longer feel stuck in an unfathomable rut. I no longer feel lost and helpless, confused about what I want, so terribly scared that perhaps my deepest convictions of who I am don't actually match who I really am (whatever that means).

Perhaps I can change, and perhaps I will change, but why should I force anything when—for one of the only times in my life—I'm completely satisfied with the way I currently am? I'm not fundamentally worried about anything; I'm not even worried that this will end and that I will be worried in the future. I have come to realise, however, that while we tend to define ourselves by our convictions, we are all inevitably prone to change. We can only predict, we can only define so much. We are all fickle. And the scariest thing of all is when you realise that you aren't who you thought you were. When your deepest convictions get overturned and you are forced to reevaluate. Then your whole world literally does come crashing down and you wonder what the bloody hell you're doing.

I want to be perfect. But I also don't want to be. Life is about trying to be perfect, not being perfect. That would ruin all the fun.

Oh, and one last thing. I am not career-driven, just ambitious. There is a marked difference. If I were the former, I wouldn't be getting my degree in English and Linguistics. So there.

Anyhow, I'm thinking too much again. I have such a terrible tendency to do this. So I'll stop this "train" before it gets too far (please pardon the pun, as I am technically sitting on one at this moment...).

I shall now rewind to Munich, where we went after Zurich. Basically, it was cold. Really, really, really cold (perhaps the coldest point of our trip). It snowed the entire time we were there, but thankfully it never quite reached blizzard status, or even came close. On our first night, we ate dinner at a traditional pub and wandered around the magnificent Christmas market, then went to Hofbräuhaus, which is by far the largest beer hall I've been to. The fare was also, to put it bluntly, enormous. Andy and Anna both ordered a litre of beer, but since I absolutely cannot stomach beer of any kind—it took me six solid hours to finish a half litre bottle of grapefruit-flavoured Radler—I ordered a rum tea. The rum came in an adorable little bottle that looked even more grossly disproportionate when placed next to the beer mug, as evidenced by the picture below.

Rum vs. Litre of Hofbräu Original

We also played 20 or so rounds of President (or Asshole, depending on perspective), of which Anna won every one but the last. I kept being dealt an abysmal hand and became incredibly frustrated, and the rum tea wasn't exactly helping. It was hilariously fun, though, and we also met some rowdy Australian guys, which wasn't surprising in the least as we've seen an inordinate number of Australians so far; it's very easy for them to leave the Land Down Under.

On our second (and final) day in Munich, we went on a walking tour in the morning, which would have been wonderfully enlightening had it not been for the fact that I was concentrating more on getting the slightest scintilla of feeling back into my toes and fingers than on what our tour guide was saying. After lunching on the second floor of Hofbräuhaus (which is graced with an enormous stage on one end), we hopped on a bus to Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp in Germany and the model for subsequent sites. It was, needless to say, one of the most serious moments of our trip. By the time we arrived, it was already getting dark, there weren't too many people around, and the snow made it seem even more desolate. As I walked around the displays in one of the buildings, examining every word and image, I was half in a state of denial. Of course I knew that it had happened—what shocked me was the fact that such a thing could have happened. That human beings were capable of such... such inhumanity. Such devastation. It also made me appreciate everything I had so much more, made me even more aware of just how privileged I am. I didn't complain of the cold for quite awhile afterward.

We headed to Salzburg that evening, the home of Mozart and The Sound of Music (which I had watched for the first time on the train ride from Zurich to Munich). On our first day we walked around the city, venturing into its Christmas markets and its very own Old Town, and explored the glorious Hohensalzburg Fortress on top of the hill. The views were incredible, and the fairytale atmosphere was only enhanced by the snow.

View from Atop Hohensalzburg Fortress

The next day we had been planning on visiting a nearby lake and the surrounding markets (essentially pulling a Montreux), but our plans didn't quite work out because we didn't have enough time if we wanted to catch the train to Vienna we had been planning on catching, so we just ended up wandering around a bit more—all in all it was a pretty low-key stay.

Vienna was, surprisingly, also fairly low-key. To be honest, it didn't quite meet my exalted expectations at first, but then it did meet (and in some ways surpassed) them. Our hostel wasn't exactly in the prettiest of areas, as it wasn't too close to the city center, but once we reached the center on our first full day I was very pleasantly surprised. Everything was so majestic, so classy; there were palaces (and palace-like buildings) galore—even the major library resembled a royal household. We moseyed around the Hapsburg area, went to St. Stephen's Cathedral, walked over to the Danube, and ended our evening at the State Opera House (we purchased standing room tickets for only four euros, and the view wasn't terrible at all, as we were on the parterre section, behind the orchestra seats). The opera (Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera) was magnificent, utterly magnificent, although I must admit that it did pale a little in comparison to the first opera I had seen, Verdi's La Traviata, at the Met in NYC this spring. The stage wasn't as grand, nor were the props—but the performance itself was spectacular.

At the Opera

The next morning, we woke up relatively early to see a performance at the Spanish Riding School, for which we had also bought standing room tickets (normal tickets are apparently reserved months in advance). It's another Vienna must, and although it wasn't quite what I had expected—the horses and their riders were very dignified and mostly trotted around, with the occasional rear into the air—I did enjoy it. The hall in which it was shown was itself dazzling; there were three enormous chandeliers dangling from the ceiling.

Then, for the first time on our trip, we took both the afternoon and evening off to do laundry and cook dinner. Yes, our Vienna laundry plans did indeed work out, and this just goes to show that planning ahead does have its benefits! [And thank goodness it did, or else we very well might have suffocated to death from the noisome odor emanating from our suitcases.] Cooking again was also lovely; the kitchen was very well-stocked, and I went out on a limb and made the most impromptu pasta dish ever, using no soy sauce or vegetables as usual but rather rosemary, oregano, oil, vinegar, and some ginger sauce I'd never encountered before. The effect was quite interesting; it was sweet and sour but not too much of either—all in all a success that's motivated me to try crazy new ways of frying pasta. Perhaps someday I'll put together a cookbook. The possibilities truly are limitless.

On our last day in Vienna, we visited Schönbrunn Palace in the late morning before leaving for Budapest. It is a masterpiece of Rococo architecture, Maria Theresa's imprint, and I loved every square inch. We went on a self-guided audio tour, and learned quite a lot about Maria and Franz Joseph I. The archduchess was utterly insane—she had 16 daughters and gave all of them away for marriage for political reasons except one, her favourite, whom she let marry out of love. Talk about career-driven.

I'm going to save Prague for the next post, but before I end here I absolutely must describe our last day in Budapest. We went to the Szechenyi Bath and Spa (hot baths, imported by the Turks along with paprika, is another Budapest must) for the late morning and afternoon. It's the biggest bath complex in the city, equipped with 15 pools (three of which are outdoors), saunas, gymnastics, massage treatments, et al. I've always been convinced that there is something to be said for hot water, whether you're drinking it or soaking in it, and this has confirmed my thoughts beyond belief. I felt like I was in a vacuum. It was timeless and placeless because of the fog, emanating from both the outside and the inside (caused by the steam); in some areas you literally couldn't see more than two feet in front of you. Definitely the most transcendentally relaxing day of the trip by far, and one of the most relaxing days of my life. I wanted to stay there forever.

On that note, I shall finally end this entry. But not before mentioning the lángos (Hungarian deep-fried bread soaked in garlic), which transcends the meaning of fast food. Dripping with oil and grease, it's necessarily high in everything that will render you vulnerable to a heart attack, but it's completely worth it; like the hot baths, it's an experience in itself. What happens in Budapest stays in Budapest, but what's eaten in Budapest also stays in Budapest, as you can't get anything like it anywhere else. Don't even try—it's not worth the effort.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

II. From Cannoli, the Pope, and Piazzas to Chocolate, Banks, and Army Knives

When you're on vacation (viz., an epic conquest of Central and Eastern Europe), keeping a blog is harder than it seems. A lot harder. I meant to update this once every two or three days, but given our hectic schedule and haphazard internet access, that simply hasn't been possible (at least not until we get to places where we'll stay for longer than one or two nights). It is now day 12 of our journey—we are about 2/5 of the way done. And I'm not dead or even ridiculously tired, even though I never got a chance to "crash" after the end of Michaelmas. I never quite caught up on sleep; if anything I've lost even more of it... we departed at 4am on Saturday the 4th, and I was so busy packing, running last-minute errands, and singing in two choir concerts that I didn't even have time to rest for longer than half an hour. Not to mention the fact that since our first official day of travel, we've been getting up at around 7-8am and going to bed at 1-2am, which is pretty much how it had been for me at Oxford.

But I'm completely fine. It's probably the adrenaline, as well as the thrill of being in a new place. We're always moving—the longest we've stayed thus far in one place is two and a half days—and of course it's always different (re: scenery, atmosphere, cuisine, people... everything). And I love it. I've come to realize that I am a traveller. As I noted in my first post, I'm not as resistant to change as I had imagined. If I've learned anything in the past one and a half weeks, it's that my life has to involve some sort of movement, some sort of perpetual activity—I cannot be sitting in one place for eight or nine hours a day, five days a week. This past summer was more than enough corroboration of that.

I'm now sitting at the bar of our hostel in Salzburg, after another long, tiring, yet incredible day (in Munich—i.e., the temple of beer and pretzels). But I'm going to begin at the beginning, or at least try to. I don't want to make a laundry list of what I saw and what I did—that would be incredibly tedious to both write and read, and it wouldn't really mean anything. I'm just going to pinpoint the highlights, the special and interesting moments of our trip, and make some general comments when appropriate. I also, of course, have an inordinate amount of pictures, which will do a much better job at encapsulating specific moments than any amount of description. I'll try to go in chronological order, but the way my brain operates that might not be possible...

Actually, I'm going to begin not quite at the beginning, but close to it. At a bar in Milan, where Anna and Andy and I went for aperitivo (a delightful conception that to the extent of my knowledge does not exist outside Italy—it's basically drinks with unlimited amounts of little snacks, but sometimes the selection is much more substantial). As we sipped on wine (some of the best I've ever had) and nibbled on our finger food, Anna echoed what I've been thinking for the past week—the past two and a half months, in fact—exactly. "I'm happy," she said.

It was so simple, so seemingly obvious. But it was quite a statement, precisely because it is not voiced aloud too often.

Oh, I'd had moments of happiness back in New York and even New Jersey. But nothing so prolonged, so unadulterated, so uninterrupted as this. This is new, this is different. I am more than just content—I am happy, actually happy, and there is no other way to express it. For perhaps the first time in my life, I am able to truly immerse myself in the present, to literally "seize the day." I am not stressed at all; I am free (not completely, but more than ever before) from thoughts of the past or anxieties about the future. I am feeling again, actually feeling. Like Clarissa Dalloway, I am excited, about the most seemingly trivial things: an island on a river in Rome connected to the mainland by a bridge. Giant cupcake-shaped jars at the aforementioned bar in Milan. A sugar holder carved like a wooden chair at a café. Taking a hot shower in Geneva with just the right amount of water pressure (I literally felt as if I had been reborn). And Oxford is, of course, a huge part of it. It is my home. It has become my home. Perhaps it always was.

We have had some serious moments, however. As we walked along the most beautiful lake I've ever seen at Montreux (our day trip from Lausanne), passing through an incredibly lively Christmas market, we talked about nothing other than life. What we would do with ourselves after college. Anna was worried about medical school (she's already gotten into Georgetown's four-year program), and I was utterly convinced that my future would be far more uncertain—one can do anything and nothing with an English major, after all.

But that is the beauty of it. The uncertainty, the unlimited possibilities. That is at once the danger and the thrill. And although I still have absolutely no idea what I want to do with myself in two years' time, I'm not terribly concerned about it. I've ruled out several options entirely (namely medical school, full-time journalism, and getting a Ph.D. in English), but I've also decided that I definitely want to live and work abroad, for at least a few months. If I could somehow get a job and a work visa in England after I graduate, and/or return to Oxford on a scholarship for more studies, I would be beyond happy. Hopefully I'll be able to get a "sneak peek" of this in the spring, when we have a ridiculously long seven-week vacation between Hilary and Trinity. I'll be travelling for most of it, but I want to stay much longer in one place to become acquainted with it inside and out. Ideally, I would rent an apartment in a French-speaking town that isn't too touristy (so Paris is not an option)—I want to be fully immersed in the culture, the language. I thought I had lost my French almost completely after a year of not taking a class, but when we arrived at Geneva it came back. Rather rustily, yet definitely enough for me to get by. So there is still hope.

Besides the occasional quarter-life crisis, everything has been going well. Incredibly well. We're alive, we're on schedule, we've been having too much fun. The sailing has not been perfectly smooth, of course; we haven't missed out on our fair share of mishaps. But nothing too serious has happened. Our biggest problems have stemmed from my ridiculously large (and heavy) suitcase, which has developed a personality and identity of its own (we've christened it Tipsy, a distortion of one of the Teletubby names, for quite obvious reasons). Unlike my companions, I do not own a rucksack, which would have been much more practical given the nature of this trip. Then again, I've never exactly been practical when it comes to packing. I am the girl, after all, who brought no less than four 50-pound suitcases and two carry on bags to Oxford, which is more than double what any of the other visiting students brought. It seemed really minimal to me at the time, though, in comparison with what I usually take to Columbia—i.e., an entire minivan-load of belongings. I suppose I've been rather spoiled. But I can't say that I haven't been making full use of everything; all the formalwear and dresses have come in very handy.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I had a mini meltdown over packing for this trip. We booked our flight on Ryanair, which has a luggage weight limit of 15 kg (roughly 30 lbs), or 25 if you paid an extra 10 pounds (which I foolishly hadn't). I was very, very careful when selecting what to take, but my suitcase ended up being far too heavy—I wasn't able to weigh it before arriving at the airport but it definitely felt like it was at least 40, maybe even 50 pounds. With the help of my lovely Italian friends at Pembroke, I discovered this at 2am, two hours before I was supposed to leave Oxford, after finally squeezing all the rest of my belongings into suitcases and boxes and moving them to the storage area (we have to completely vacate our rooms during vacations, because they're occupied by people who come for interviews and conferences). It was almost too late to purchase another bag for the flight, but that would have been even more impractical. So I had to take out a few more items, and knock on wood for the entire bus ride to the airport.

Luckily, thanks to the fact that Andy's bag didn't quite meet the weight limit, I was able to transfer a few things to him, and my suitcase came in at just under 25 kg. The luggage person was very nice, and I wasn't charged an exorbitant fee for surpassing the 15 I had purchased (apparently they can charge as much as 10 euros for each extra kg!). That was only the beginning, however. The more serious repercussion of having a big heavy suitcase is restricted mobility, unless one is cruising downhill (in which case it can be quite fun). I have to take lifts and ramps whenever possible, and about half of the hostels we've stayed at are not even equipped with the former (the worst by far was Florence, because it was located up ten steep flights of stairs). When we arrived in Rome, I lost Anna and Andy after taking the lift because it let me out nowhere near the stairs. But that was nothing compared with what happened on our way to Lausanne. The train had already arrived at the station, and Anna and Andy rushed up the stairs and hopped on, while I struggled to move as fast as I could up the ramp. By the time I made it to the platform, however, it was starting to push off. Andy was jamming the door open, yelling at me to hurry and try to make it, but it was obviously no use. I ended up waiting for the next one, which luckily came 10 minutes later (it's only a half hour from Geneva), and found my companions after a stressful 15 minutes of searching at the station in Lausanne. Things would have been much easier had I had my UK cellphone, but it had disappeared very early on in the trip—I think it fell out of my bag either on the plane ride or on the train to Rome. Definitely not the best situation, but we've managed pretty well with Anna's and Andy's. [And as inconvenient as it is, it's sort of liberating to not have a phone; I've always had a vendetta against them.]

Well, I think I've made far more than enough generalities for this post. I shall now attempt to encapsulate our travels through Italy and Switzerland in a more detailed manner... and I will truly begin at the beginning.

After 14 solid hours of travel (bus from Oxford to Stansted airport, flight to Ciampino airport in Rome, bus to Termini station in Rome, train from Rome to Florence), two very staggered hours of sleep, and no food (except one cough drop) since 4am, we finally arrived at our hostel in Florence—the city of leather, gold, fleur de lis, the Medicis, and the Renaissance—on Saturday the 4th. It was a pretty decent space, clean and relatively quiet (although a little chilly), and we had a three-bed private ensuite. There wasn't too much time to rest upon our arrival, as we were meeting up with Anna and Andy's Georgetown friends for dinner (they're studying abroad in Florence for the semester near a villa) at a very nice restaurant. I was dazzled by Florence itself; all the streets were lit up with lights, and they were all different (it surpasses Columbia's trees and even Oxford's main street). It seemed so much prettier than Rome, parts of which we had passed through on our bus ride from the airport.

Due to an ill-timed museum workers' strike, we could not see David or the main art gallery, but we did manage to visit pretty much everything else in a day and a half—too many beautiful piazzas to count (one of which had a fake David), churches and statues and monuments galore, Mercato Centrale (where we lunched on incredibly authentic paninis), and, of course, the incomparable Duomo. My favourite piazza was probably that of Michelangelo, which was across the river Arno from the center of town and elevated on a hill. We arrived at twilight, so the panoramic view was embowered with shades of blue, and it was just so, so, so beautiful. I won't even attempt to encapsulate any of this in words, so I'll let the photographic evidence speak for itself.

The River Arno

The Duomo (Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore)

Piazzale Michelangelo

After visiting the villa and the hotel where Anna and Andy's Georgetown friends were living in the morning, we headed to Rome on Monday afternoon. Needless to say, it was the most intense part of our trip. We relaxed on the first night after a ridiculously long and uncomfortable train ride (we got on the slow train for some reason, even though we had made reservations for the fast one), but our second and third days were completely packed. We conquered the Vatican and 12 monuments on the first, the Coliseum and ancient ruins on the second (where we were joined by a very friendly British boy we had met at breakfast). It was more than tiring—there is only so much outrageously beautiful art and architecture one's eyes can absorb in one day, to the point where even a luxurious marble palace is reduced to yet another "thing"—and Anna and I crashed after dinner on the first night (at 7pm), but it was ultimately incredibly rewarding. And the glorious weather definitely helped, as it was in the mid 60s F the entire time; I could hardly believe it was December. Again, I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Saint Peter's Square

Bernini's Baldacchino in the Basilica

Sistine Chapel

Castle Saint Angelo

Trevi Fountain

Coliseum

Ancient Ruins

Tiber Island

Spanish Steps

Our final stop in Italy was Milan. It was a lot less touristy than Florence and Rome, which was such a relief; the atmosphere was so relaxed. We finally were able to take it easy, as there were only two main things we wanted to see (besides the multitude of shops): the Duomo and the Last Dinner at the Da Vinci museum. We unfortunately weren't able to see the latter because we arrived an hour before the museum closed and you have to apparently make a reservation for a ridiculous fee, but we did pop inside the church next door. In the evening, we were planning on going to a Tchaikovsky concert, but a local we met at the aperitivo bar suggested going to jazz near the canals instead, so we headed back to that area. The concert didn't start until half past ten, however, so we had about an hour and a half to kill, and ended up settling down at a very American-style bar nearby to share a bottle of wine (and watch the ridiculous American music videos playing on the TVs). The bar was invaded by a large group of Italian students at around ten, and we struck up a conversation with one of the guys, who had studied abroad in Canada and could speak English pretty well. So it turned out that we missed both of the concerts, which just goes to show that there is only so much you can plan. Most of what we've done so far, in fact, has been determined spontaneously (apart from the hostels and the order of cities, of course).

Milan's Duomo

After Milan, we were off to Switzerland. We first went to Geneva for the Fête de l'Escalade, an annual three-day festival celebrating the defeat of an attack on the city in 1602 by a cauldron of hot vegetable soup (which was poured over the heads of the attackers, who were attempting to scale the wall). There were hordes of people dressed up in costume on the streets of Old Town, much singing, mulled wine, and parades galore; we stumbled upon the first of them quite fortuitously when we first ventured into Old Town.

The next day we went to CERN, site of the world's largest particle accelerator (located underground, stretching all the way to Switzerland's border with France). I know nothing at all whatsoever about physics, having never taken a class in my life, but I was able to appreciate the main exhibition in the Globe—and now I'm more inclined than ever to take a class when I get back to Columbia, or at least finish reading Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos. Anna stayed for a 3-hour tour, while Andy and I ventured back to Geneva to see the Palais des Nations, which was unfortunately closed because it was the weekend. We meandered around the area (a rather foreboding mass of private fenced-in property with scarcely a soul in sight), and cut through the Botanical Gardens to the lakefront, where we hopped on two ferries and met up with Anna again at the Bains des Pâquis for lunch.

After heading back to Old Town to catch some more festivities (and drink our first mulled wine of the trip), we left for Lausanne to stay with a family friend of Anna's (i.e., the aunt and uncle of one of her closest friends). It was lovely, just lovely—exactly what we needed after a week of hostels and two months of living in a dorm. We had an incredible home-cooked dinner (my first in almost three months) upon our arrival, and a very relaxed 3-hour conversation about anything and everything with our gracious hosts. They have two sons, an adopted daughter (possibly the cutest little girl in the world apart from my little sister), and a golden retriever puppy, which kept jumping all over me (apparently I was starving her of the attention she deserved, but I am completely incompetent around dogs)—truly a cookie cutter, picture perfect family, yet also so much more. Before bed, we watched two episodes of Modern Family, which I had never before seen but am dangerously inclined to start getting addicted to.

Fête de l'Escalade

Lake Geneva

Bains des Pâquis

After a delicious breakfast of crepe pancakes the next morning, we hopped on the train to Montreux to see the Château de Chillon on Lac Léman, but it was actually quite a walk away, so we ended up strolling leisurely along the lakefront (and having our conversation about life), which was perfect in itself. We also passed through the most boisterous holiday market I've yet encountered—there were so many people that I kept losing sight of Anna and Andy as we tried to squeeze through, but the crowds were much more uplifting than irritating.

Before leaving for Zurich, our next (and final) stop in Switzerland, we headed back to Lausanne to meet up with a friend of mine from Oxford who owns an apartment there. We were planning on getting fondue (finally!) at Café Romand in the center of town, which is renowned for its authentic Swiss Valesian cuisine, but it was closed... as was practically every other café and restaurant in the area (excepting Starbucks), due to the fact that it was Sunday. Thanks to the Christmas market, however, we were able to find a raclette vendor that was selling fondue as well, and split a big pot. It was heaven, and definitely made me hungry for more... I have a feeling that cheese is going to be an ineradicable part of my diet for at least the next three weeks, if not the rest of my life.

Montreux Lakefront

Pot of Cheese Fondue

We arrived at Zurich that evening and headed straight for our couchsurfer host's apartment. Yes, that's right—couchsurfer host. It was the first time any of us had ever done it, and I am so glad we did, because it is definitely not at all sketchy if you do your research carefully (like with hostels and even some hotels). We did actually sleep on a couch, but it was immense and had the perfect amount of space for all three of us. Our hostess was a delightful young lady in her twenties (no more than a few years older than us), and her apartment is perfect, in terms of size and newness; it's exactly what I would want to have myself after graduation. Only I wouldn't live in Zurich because the city, while pretty, is somewhat drab (the "palette" of the buildings and streets is rather washed out). It also happens to be one of the most expensive places in Europe; everything cost at least double what it would in the States.

The highlight of our stay was actually the second night, after we spent the whole morning and early afternoon exploring the older areas of the city and its many shops, including a toy store (where we became five-year-olds again and slid down a giant dragon snake slide that spanned both floors). We went grocery shopping and cooked our host a grand dinner as a token of appreciation: I made my specialty fried pasta, Andy breaded and fried chicken, and Anna heated apples in butter and garlic on the stove for dessert. It was absolutely divine; we all ate ourselves into an extreme coma. It was also the first time I had cooked since my departure to Oxford in early October (since dinners are pre-paid and I wasn't able to bring any of my supplies). I'm happy my skills haven't really deteriorated in the least!

Andy Emerging from the Dragon Slide

Old Town Across the Limmat River

Commencement of the Food Orgy

I'm going to save Munich and Salzburg for the next entry, because this is getting far too long. And, of course, the food. I've had so much of it, most of it beyond ineffable (all I can say is, a gelato will never taste the same again). The pictures will well merit another post of their own, perhaps at the end of this whole adventure... it would be a very interesting way of representing my travels, that's for certain. My only complaint is that my usual intake of fruits and vegetables has been severely curtailed, especially the former: I've only had several clementines and two applies in the past one and a half weeks, compared to at least two or three different fruits in one day. Oh well. One must make sacrifices. I'll just spoil myself rotten once I get back to Oxford....

I shall end by recounting a few moments, of the surprising and borderline ridiculous variety, from random parts of my trip thus far (since I couldn't quite incorporate them into my condensed description above).

Moment I: on our first day in Milan, we were hunting for a place for lunch, and found one near our hostel with a menu outside advertising 3 euro paninis (which are quite cheap!). To our extreme bewilderment, however, when we walked in we saw an Asian man behind the counter, who apparently knew neither a word of English nor of Italian (even though the menu was written entirely in Italian). He asked me in Mandarin whether I spoke Mandarin, and I answered yes, and we had a conversation about the menu before we decided that the place probably was not very authentic, excused ourselves, and left. I'm so happy I never gave up on my native language—this goes to show that you literally never know when it will be useful!

Moment II: Snow, magical snow, the first I encountered since Oxford, the afternoon we left Zurich for Munich. It was of the perfect variety: light, sticky, and windless, dusting over everything and making it beautiful. I definitely made the most of my window seat on the train ride.

Moment III: On the train from Lausanne to Zurich, which passed through Bern, I was confronted firsthand with the extreme polarization of the language divide in Switzerland. Lausanne is French, whereas Bern and Zurich are German (and they don't coexist anywhere). Up until Bern, people on the train had been speaking French, but once it arrived at Bern, there was an abrupt turnaround, and my compartment was inundated with German-speakers. I felt completely flummoxed and lost. An old lady who sat down across from me could only speak German, but the lady sitting right next to me spoke in French, and when she spoke to the old lady, she (the old lady) replied in German. It was more than slightly bewildering, to say the least, especially given the size of the country. But I suppose the situation is just as, if not more, extreme in the Netherlands and India...

And, finally, to really put the maraschino on the cheesecake, two inevitable "Yin" moments. [I happen to live in a cave in a cave, and occasionally I make a very ridiculous remark that completely violates common sense, but unwittingly so—all of my friends are more than used to it.]

At the Fête de l'Escalade
Me: I can't find Grand-Rue on this map!
Andy [scrutinizes the map of the festival]: That's because there are no road names on the map.
Me [still not quite convinced]: ...Oh.

Fondue in Lausanne
Me [examining three-pronged fondue stick]: Oh wow... I've had fondue before but it was completely different!
Saba, Andy, and Anna look at me perplexedly.
Saba: How was it different?
Me: Well... we didn't use sticks like this.
Saba: What did you use then?
Me: I don't remember... I mean I think I used a stick but it didn't look like this. It only had two prongs.
Andy: And it didn't have a rubber handle?
Me: Exactly.

Monday, 29 November 2010

I. The Beginning... of the Beginning

So, to begin. Oh, how to begin...

A dear friend of mine, Binnie Kirshenbaum, wrote a book called The Scenic Route. About travelling, about storytelling. About life.

As Auden once said, "A real book is not one that we read, but one that reads us." Binnie's book did indeed read me. I felt something, really felt something, when my eyes absorbed the paragraphs, the sentences, the words. I found myself reading them aloud, reading the stories aloud, as if they were real, as if they were mine.

I am not Sylvia, the protagonist. But that does not matter. Our stories are still the same.

And now I will truly get to live it, with the two delightful people below. Aren't we adorable?


We are going. It is certain. In the next thirty days, we will conquer Central and Eastern Europe on our very own Scenic Route. None of us have done anything like this before. Nothing even close—my longest vacation before this had been only six days, and it was only to four cities (Amsterdam, the Hague, Brussels, Antwerp).

Our Route: London, Rome (airport), Florence, Rome, Milan, Geneva, (Lausanne), Zurich, Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Berlin, Cologne. Then, instead of heading back to London with my companions, I'm off to the Netherlands to stay with two dear friends of mine who live in the Hague. After that I will fly to Glasgow to visit another friend, before returning to Oxford.


Armed with Eurail passes and four weeks of time, we shall do laundry in Vienna, celebrate Christmas (and Andy's 21st birthday) in Prague, and welcome the New Year in Berlin. We will get lost, meet strangers, change our minds, sleep on trains, and possibly die from exhaustion. The rest is up to happenstance.

We leave on Saturday morning, to catch a 10am flight to Rome. My first stop, however, is Sheffield, an industrial city in northern England. The place where I lived for four years when I was little. I can still remember bits of it, including my infant school (Broomhill) and an unpleasant experience involving baby pigeons. I might be seeing it again, as well as the University (where my father obtained his PhD in Chemistry). I'm staying with some old family friends whom I have not seen in thirteen years. I cannot possibly articulate my excitement and anticipation.

I've been meaning to start a blog for years. Years. Yet I kept delaying, making excuses, because I've dutifully kept a journal since I was eight years old, and I was hesitant to share my thoughts with the world, much less my closest friends. I wanted to keep them to myself.

I have always been resistant to change. But now I am fully embracing it, and I am ready to share my thoughts. For change is possibility, change is feeling, change is life. Yes, it may be frightening, and yes, it may be unpleasant. But in order to live, you cannot stay in one place. You cannot do nothing. [Apathy is the worst emotion, after all, because it is the lack thereof.]

I take risks. I make mistakes, and I make them again, and again, but I do learn from them. I repeat, but with variation. Always with variation.

And this academic year has been the biggest change of my life thus far—I am at Oxford, my spiritual hometown. In England. Every day, every hour, every moment is magical.

All my life, I've been complicating things. "Making mountains out of molehills" would be putting it lightly, with a severe pinch of salt. I wanted my life to be interesting, to be like a novel. I wanted to write myself. I resisted following the crow—taking the direct route, the simple solution. I would always take the scenic.

So let me begin.

This is the story of periwinkles and incandescence.

It has a good beginning. And it will never end.