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


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.

1 comment:

  1. In my sophmore year of high school, I did a puzz-3D project on The Duomo (Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore). I was there in 1999. A friend and I run up the stairs all the way to the top, then ran down to meet up with the rest of the group.