Saturday, 15 January 2011

IV. In Which Waxing Abstractions Encounter the Land of Tartan, Paris's Drunken Uncle, Venices of the North, and a Green Fairy Christmas

I shall start this entry with a song: Everybody's Changing by Keane. I fell in love with it the first time I heard it and have fallen in love every time since. Its meaning is relatively obtuse, but it is still clear enough to be real, to be sincere—at least to me. As I mentioned in my last post, change is exciting but equally frightening, especially when it involves people. It is frightening to wake up one day feeling completely different from how you felt before, and even more frightening when someone you know suddenly changes, and you have no idea why. Which is what the song expresses perfectly, at least on the surface. The utter bewilderment that one feels when confronted with change in other people. And this change is what effects change in ourselves, as much as we may try to prevent it. We are more than somewhat defined by our social relationships; we have an inner sense of self but this sense is dependent upon how we are perceived by others (or how we think we are perceived). But we may not want to change, so when we are "forced" to by some seemingly inexplicable reason it is the strangest feeling in the world. We are convinced that there has to be a cause for everything—more often than not, however, this cause cannot be articulated. And the unknown is the most frightening thing of all.

I have faced this unknown so many times, too many times to count, and it is no more knowable than it was the first time. I'm not alone, however. I am most certainly not alone.

But enough of abstractions (at least for now). It's been about another two weeks since my last post, and I didn't plan it this way. I probably might maintain this rhythm in the future, though, since it's quite nice. It gives me just enough time to pause and reflect, to create a "big picture" from all the smaller details that have accumulated, but not so much time that these details disintegrate into the wasteland of memory, until they become fusty and stale and unappetising (which sounds way over the top, I know—I cannot help but indulge in hyperbole when no one is stopping me). Although it could be different now that I am back at Oxford, back in one place, instead of gallivanting around like a chicken with its head chopped off. I ended up going to 24 cities in six weeks... that's an average of approximately one city every two days. Christ.

And even more surprisingly, I'm still not tired. Maybe it's just a perpetual denial (I'm awfully good at that). But I have relaxed since I got back here. My plans to visit London were cancelled at the last minute, because of an inexplicable change, and I haven't strayed too far from my room apart from a few grocery runs and a lovely two-hour stroll through Christ Church meadow late this afternoon. I also slept in until half past ten today for the first time in a week and a half; it was glorious. Unlike most of my fellow Oxonians, I do not have any collections to sit (I was alone for both of my tutorials last term and was able to personalise them to a great degree). This period of "free time" will soon pass, however, and I intend to make the most of it that I possibly can.

Before I properly begin to recount the last of my travels, I'm going to slip back into the language of abstraction for a little bit, if only because it is 3am and my thoughts tend to get wilder and wilder the later the hour. This is a realisation that I have had before, but I've never quite attempted to articulate it, at least not in words on a page. I have basically come to acknowledge once again that loving is just another name for feeling. Or, rather, intensity of feeling. The same goes for anger, hate, despair. What is important is not so much what the feeling is called as its intensity; it's essentially one and the same, under different guises. It's just semantics. What matters is that the feeling has to be extreme. It has to be real.

I've also come to acknowledge that I am indeed an intense person. Everything I do, everything I say, is or has to be extreme. On our trip, Anna even pointed this out to me: she told me that I express myself in extremes; I was either "positively certain" that something would happen or "absolutely confident" that it would not. I laughed and tried to think nothing of it at the time, but she was right. I intensify everything, whether consciously or subconsciously. And I do this because I am a writer, because I novelise. That is to say, I think of my own life as a novel and of myself as the protagonist, and of other people as characters who interact with me. I create identities for them that may or may not be close to the truth; I am constantly making assumptions based on instinct so that they fit better into my romanticised vision. As one can imagine, this complicates things. Immensely. I do have expectations for people that are impossible for them to fulfill, and I know this, and sometimes they know this, but I still go on having these expectations until denial of the truth is no longer an option. And then I fix the messes that I have created with words, with the exact medium that caused them in the first place (i.e., more words). It's all one big Catch-22 (a book that I actually have yet to read, but will soon).

So my "problem" is that I feel too much. I care too much. I take too many risks, and I take them again and again and again. I am persistent, I am ruthless to the extreme. But to me life is risk, one huge risk, and I would not want it to be otherwise. Part of me does not want to care about anything, just to know what it would feel like, but I also know that that would be impossible. People can change but not fundamentally fundamentally, if that makes any sense. Otherwise I would not be me.

Enough of this. Once again I shall begin from the end, and backtrack my way to Prague (which is where I believe I left off).

Before Oxford I was in Scotland, one of the most beautiful places on earth. I experienced its desolate wildness—and many a snowy cliff dotted with sheep—almost first-hand on the long, long bus ride from Liverpool to Edinburgh because my flight from Amsterdam to Edinburgh was cancelled at the very last second (an e-mail was sent at 5:30am, but the flight was departing at 10am). So we had to fly to Liverpool instead. The only problem was that my final destination was Glasgow, not Edinburgh, so I had booked a bus from Edinburgh to Glasgow at 1pm, two hours after the scheduled arrival at Edinburgh. Obviously I had to miss it, and I had no phone so I could not call the friend I was supposed to meet at the station, but luckily I met another girl who was going to Glasgow at the airport, so everything worked out in the end. I've had such incredible luck meeting people in my travels; it's more than compensated for the things that did not exactly go according to plan.

There is something to be said for happenstance. I have always believed this. I had not believed, however, that there is something to be said for throwing up on airplanes. I had never seen anyone do it until the flight to Liverpool. He was sitting across the aisle from me, one seat back, hunched over a plastic bag with the steward at his side. I found it strangely pathetic and hilarious, and I knew I had to talk to him, if only to laugh. As it turned out, he had been partying until 2am the previous night (well, technically that morning) in Amsterdam, and was a bit hungover. Also as it turned out, I had by then a ridiculous drunk story of my own from Berlin, which I had to tell, if only to laugh at myself in juxtaposition. But more (and less) on that later.

Despite (or, perhaps, because of) the hurling, there was something about him that intrigued me. Perhaps it was the fact that he used to work in a cheese factory and was born and raised in a small village (population 1,000) in northern Scotland. Or perhaps it was the fact that he agreed to visit me in New York and Oxford and show me around Edinburgh the next day, after having spoken to me for only a few minutes.

I know that people never quite mean what they say, and never quite say what they mean. I know that people make promises that they cannot keep all the time, because it is polite, because it is convention. So I did not expect to hear from him or see him ever again. But the next morning I saw that he did in fact e-mail me, and so I e-mailed back, and we did in fact meet up in Edinburgh. He gave me and my friend a very enlightening tour (definitely comparable to the official guided tours I had been on in Munich, Berlin, Prague, and Budapest). Then we went to his flat and talked some more, and listened to non-American music, and watched my little sister's Lady Gaga parodies, and had drams of scotch (which I discovered for the first time is synonymous with whisky). Then he walked us back to the train station because it was getting late and my friend and I were going out in Glasgow that evening with the ridiculous (but very loveable) Scandinavian guys she lives with. I've always wanted to visit Scandinavia, but now I absolutely have to, if only to encounter more of its inimitable people.


At the train station, we had an outrageously funny encounter with a customer service person. The departure times for Glasgow were not showing up on the screen, so we had no idea what train to catch and decided to ask for help. The person was wearing a neon yellow jacket with "customer service" printed in black letters on the back, so I made a beeline in his direction. Only he had his back turned and was wearing long billowy trousers that made his legs look skinny... and feminine. I turned to Neale, our Scottish tour guide, and we had a conversation about the gender of the customer service person. Neale said that he was definitely male, but I was utterly convinced that he was female. I genuinely did think that he had a feminine physique and carriage. So I went up to him fully expecting to see a woman, but when he turned around and I saw his undeniably masculine face, I burst into laughter. Uncontrollable, gut-stifling, irrepressible laughter. I literally could not speak for the next five minutes, and I even turned away from him, and there were an awkward few seconds of silence. Then my friend stepped in, excused my behaviour, and asked about the train. The guy had a pretty heavy Scottish accent, so we could not interpret exactly what he was saying, but luckily Neale was there. So all three of us ended up having a significant role to play in this asking for help scenario. It will definitely be one of the most memorable moments of my life.

Glasgow was just as beautiful in Edinburgh, but in a slightly different way. It was more edgy, more modern (except for the university area), more glitzy even. It is also the real Hogwarts, as I discovered to my surprise. Oxford comes close, but it is not the same. Diagon Alley is also modelled upon Ashton Lane, which is where we began our night out. We ended it at Viper, which was quite possibly the most crowded club I have ever been to (it also had to do with the timing, as classes at the University had not quite begun yet). By midnight, there was literally no more than a foot of space in which to move, and this wasn't only on the dance floor. It was definitely an experience, but I was able to survive a 12-hour bus ride back to Oxford the next day without even the slightest inclination to hurl.

Glasgow University (i.e., Hogwarts)

Now for Holland, by far the most relaxing point of my trip. I'm going to backtrack a little bit more to Berlin, though, because I went to Holland two days early as a consequence of what had happened on New Year's Eve. We never ended up going to Düsseldorf and Cologne, as planned, but luckily we had not reserved any train tickets.

So Berlin was big. Very big. The biggest city I've been to so far in Europe. We had to tram or subway or train literally everywhere, which was a little annoying but at least did not come at much financial expense. It was also intensely modern, which I should have expected given my knowledge of European history but didn't, given what I had already seen of Central and Eastern Europe. On our first evening we met up with Sam and Ashley, two friends of mine from Oxford, as well as Ashley's girlfriend and his brother. We had a marvellous time drinking champagne and mulled wine (with amaretto for an extra kick) and embracing our inner five-year-olds by going down a giant snow slide near one of the markets multiple times. It was loads of fun.

Most of our time during the day was occupied by museums, for which Berlin is renowned (there are over 60 in total). They are damn good, and damn cheap. We invested in a 9 euro three-day pass, which allowed access to most of them. We conquered Museum Island in a day, around a lovely walking tour, and spent another entirely in the Topography of Terror. On New Year's Eve, before heading to the infamous Party Mile, we dropped by the rather curiously-shaped Jewish Museum. And what happened on Party Mile stays on Party Mile, but I will say this: because of me and my insanity we ended up missing the epic celebrations entirely, despite how much we had been gearing up for it. One could say that our New Year's ended up being terribly climatic or terribly anticlimactic. Regardless, I've learned that it is not prudent to consume one litre of mulled wine in less than an hour on a relatively empty stomach and scanty sleep. And no, the cardboard box and straw do not make it any classier. [But at least there was no plane the next day.]

Mulled wine aside, when you have been spending time with people for 30 consecutive days in a row, tensions are bound to arise. It does not matter who these people are or how much you love them (and in fact, the more you love them the likelier it is that the tensions will arise). I cannot even tolerate the company of my family or closest friends for more than a few days in a row, because I am an incredibly independent person and I need my private space. I am actually more surprised that Anna and Andy were able to put up with me for as long as they did; I'm too much for normal people to handle, and I know it. I don't even know how to deal with myself more than half the time. But for some reason nothing major erupted until New Year's, for some reason we held it together, and very well. And I do not regret a single thing that's happened. As Andy told me one day (I forgot in which city or context), he loved travelling with me because it was "always such an adventure." That was once of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me, and it has been an adventure—even more than one, at times. I had so much fun. An inordinate, ineffable, insufferable amount of fun. But all adventures have to end. The party cannot last forever [although the same cannot be said for the earmuffs]. And the thing is, I didn't want it to. By the end of four weeks I was already ready to return to academia, to my lovely ivory bubble.

I still had a week and a half left, however, and I definitely made the most of it. In the six days that I was in Holland, I went to eight cities: The Hague, Bruges, Amsterdam, Leiden, Gouda (for the express purpose of purchasing a toponymous cheese), Delft, Maastricht, and Utrecht. I'd only been to the Hague and Amsterdam before, but the other places were very manageable because they were so small. It also helped that I was staying at my friend's house, devouring delicious meals prepared by her mum (I did cook one of them as a gesture of thanks, however: another version of my specialty fried pasta and chicken), and catching up on loads of sleep in a perfect periwinkle-coloured room. All of the cities were romantic, veritable Venices of Northern Europe, with canals and swans and cobblestones and medieval-style buildings et al., but the most romantic was Bruges. My friend and I resolved that we would both return with guys and be proposed to there. I want it to happen in a hot air balloon followed by a horse and carriage ride, and to involve a periwinkle diamond. And it will. Because my life really is a novel, at times.



Gouda Cheese in Gouda


Fried Pasta Dinner

Before I move on to Prague, I want to tell one more story that corroborates my claim that I have had an immense amount of luck meeting people on this trip. My panda mittens have attracted an inordinate number of strangers, mostly elderly men and women, and it has been such a pleasure striking up a spontaneous conversation on the street or on a train (or as I'm exiting a restaurant). But this story isn't about the panda mittens. It involves a very sketchy-looking man who approached me at the train station of the Hague the day I arrived, after a gruelling eight-hour ride on next to no food. This was the day that Anna, Andy, and I split up; Anna and Andy were heading to Amsterdam instead of Cologne and I was heading to my friend's house two days early. I had called my friend that morning after looking up the schedule to tell her when I would be arriving, since I had no phone on me, but I told her the wrong station. Luckily, though, I arrived in the other station half an hour early, so I had a bit of extra time. The only problem was that I was out of money. I had been converting currency the entire trip because my American debit card didn't work (I had created an eight-digit PIN and ATMs in Europe accept at the most six), but I hadn't been able to find a currency exchange in Berlin. I literally had only 46 cents left by the time I arrived in the Hague, not enough to purchase anything except a pack of ketchup at the train station. There was a currency exchange, but it was closed. There were no public pay phones in sight (but it's not like I could have used one anyway).

The man approached me from seemingly out of nowhere, and the first thing he said was "Do you need help? I can help you." Of course I needed help, but I most certainly did not want it from him. So I shook my head and started walking away, but he kept following me and repeating "I can help you, I can help you." I spotted an information desk nearby and headed toward it, but the man behind the desk ironically could not help me. The sketchy man was still with me, however, so I turned to him and asked to use his phone. He immediately pulled it out from his jacket and gave it to me. I used the phone to call my friend, who picked up and agreed to meet me at the correct station in twenty minutes. I gave the phone back to the sketchy man, shook his hand, and thanked him for saving my life. And that was that. I suppose knights do not always come in shining armour; looks can definitely be deceiving.

And now, finally, Prague. I'll try to keep this short and simple, although there is one more hilarious story involved. After the most uncomfortable (and only) overnight train ride of my life (there were three beds stacked on each side and not even enough room to sit up on one's elbows), we arrived at 4am, as planned. The hostel was nice enough to provide us with a cab ride from the station, and allowed us to check into a room early (so we essentially had half an extra night). And the room was by far the best one we stayed in, as the hostel was just like a hotel. It essentially was a hotel. There were only two problems: the Internet access was insufferably slow and erratic for some reason—Facebook worked fine but Gmail did not—and the kitchen lights kept flashing on and off when they were switched on, allowing every night to be a dance party.

It was Christmastime, so we took our four days easy. We went to more markets, of course, and we also visited the Castle and the Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments. We went on a walking tour, but it wasn't the best; the guide was a boisterous American lady with a very loud voice who had only lived in Prague for two years. I was louder than her at one point, however, when she began talking about the defenestration of Prague. A split-second after she mentioned it, I bellowed "I LOVE THAT WORD!" at the top of my lungs and jumped in the air. Everyone stared at me like I was insane. I was (and still am, the last time I checked). We actually saw the very window through which the defenestration was done in the Castle, and it was one of the most exciting moments of my life.

There was a very lovely (and reasonably priced) restaurant a few blocks away from our hostel that we went to the first night, and returned to every other night except one, when we were on the other side of the river. We became good friends with one of the waitresses, who served us when we dropped by again for shots of the "green fairy" for Andy's 21st birthday (and baby Jesus). If I ever go back to Prague I will definitely return; I hope she'll still remember me.

For Andy's 21st (and Baby Jesus)


Anyway, back to the hilarious story that I alluded to a few paragraphs earlier. There is a famous king by the name of Wenceslas, and a square in Prague is named after him because his statue is there. There also happens to be a delightful song about this very same king (and he was a good one). I sang the song in choir as part of our Christmas service, so it was still relatively fresh in my head. We were on the tram one morning, and an old man sitting next to me suddenly turned to me and pointed at Wenceslas Square on his map (presumably because he wanted to know how to get there). He did not speak a word of English, and I did not speak a word of Czech. I also had no idea how to get to the square. But I did know the song, so I began singing it for him—and coincidentally the song does disclose where Wencelas resides ("underneath the mountain, right against the forest fence by St. Agnes' fountain"). Only before I could reach that part Andy came over and helped the old man out. So all's well that ends well, I suppose.

All's well that ends well indeed, in the greatest sense of the phrase. I am back, I am very much alive, I am as energetic as ever. To finally wrap this insanely long entry up, I'd like to share a few memorable quotes that I've collected from the entirety of our adventure. There are many, many more that I failed to record, but these will have to do, at least for now.

Me: "I don't trust anyone."

After every possible minor mishap: "I'm going home."

At the hot baths: "I'm staying here."

Me: "The earmuffs are the party."

Anna: "Item number 64—bottle opener. This is why your suitcase is so heavy!"

Anna: "If you had a dog and a kid and had to name one Duke and the other Hunter, which name would you give to which?"

Andy: "Jesus, not Jesus."

Me: "Anyway, whatever." [This would make the loveliest title for a film or a book, would it not?]

Andy: "Europe didn't change Yin. Yin changed Europe." [And Physics.]

"...And the hills are alive."

Finally finally, one more song: Take That by The Flood. I heard it on the radio the other day and fell in love. It is not often that this happens; most songs have to grow on me. I have no idea what it means but that does not matter. The feeling is there, and the video is beautiful.

Although no one understood
we were holding back the flood
learning how to dance the rain.
There was more of them than us
now they’ll never dance again.
Now we'll never dance again.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad that sketchy man turned out not to be so frightening after all!!

    I miss you, Yin! <3 Your post/photos are amazing, as always!