My 25 Euro Cornetto

I just missed my train and am drowning my sorrow in a giant cappuccino at the station café. Is there anything more depressing than a train station waiting room at 7:00am? Maybe the Reg bookstacks during finals week.

My original plan for this morning was to stopover in Florence for 2 hours before my train to Naples. I had already day tripped there last week but I did not get a chance to see the Galleria d’Accademia, which houses Michelangelo’s David. But this dummy here just had to stop to get the pisctacchio cornetto she spied in the bakery window, didn’t she? So now I get to spend two extra hours in Bologna Central Station – 25 Euro poorer and kicking myself over and over again for making such a rookie mistake. I am angrily chewing. The brioche should taste perfectly sweet and doughy, but all I taste is salt.

frittelle-tonolo

Sometimes these were filled with strong rum cream. Venice was pretty great because of that.

I should rewind and first say, Buongiorno! Back in November, I spotted a $350 round-trip ticket from Cairo to Rome for January and I went for it. The great thing about working at AUC is that we get the American, Coptic, and Islamic holidays off, allowing me to take a 15-day (!!) vacation this month. What’s not so great is the little spending money I have saved up from my job. But through proofreading and babysitting gigs, I’ve managed to scrape enough together to travel quite comfortably for two weeks.

After five months of living in a Muslim country, I kicked off in Rome with a huge fanfare of prosciutto. Melon-wrapped prosciutto, prosciutto Panini, prosciutto and mozzarella sampler plate, cheap supermarket prosciutto on a 1Euro baguette – alas, I am now officially done with prosciutto.

From Rome, I went on to Florence and then Venice, which together constitutes the holy Trinity of any Italian trip. Though each city has a distinct individual history, they all are located in Northern Italy and you just feel the reliance on tourism in the restaurants, stores, and sights. Well of course there are natives (even native Venetians though they only number 66,000), but I couldn’t easily shake off the “Disneyland” vibe from any of those cities. If you will allow me a few myopic generalizations, Rome is for the famous monuments, Florence is for Renaissance art, and Venice is for honeymooners.

Thus, I’m dedicating an entire post just for Bologna because:

  • I think it’s under appreciated.
  • I had to hunt for the Bolognese tourist attractions amongst a sea of local spots, whereas the exact opposite was true for the Trinity.
  • There are already thousands of travel articles written about Rome, Florence, Venice.

I’ll definitely get that Bologna post up soon. Recently, a lot of my friends are planning trips to Europe and have asked me for backpacking advice. As I wrote my lengthy replies, I realized that I actually am qualified to share practical tips and design itineraries for 20-something kids who want an exciting yet affordable travel experience. A lot of travel sites with lengthy forums and discussions seem to be dominated by an older demographic and those with families. It’s probably because us youngins’ tend to wing it, which I’ve come to believe is always not the best way to travel.

But for now, I will say ciao to the North as I make my way South to the sun-drenched region of Campania. I’m planning on hitting Naples, Pompeii, and the Amalfi coast. It’s also going to be my first time Couchsurfing! Please pray that no pistaccio baked good will cause me to miss another train. Grazie.

Untitled design

The coat of arms for Rome, Florence, Venice, and Bologna. Sorry Rome, but why are you so basic?

Not Farewell, but Another “See You Later,” 北京

Every morning, twenty-one million people wake up to tackle the third largest city in the world. Three millenia of history reflected in its tea houses and imperial gardens, bundled together by glass steel shopping malls and 15-lane freeways. A city housing 7,000 hutong alleys and 3,000 McDonald’s with 24-hour delivery service. Four kuai beer and five kuai jianbing. Miles of zhajianmiangallons of suanmeitang, a ton of spiced lamb skewered into yangrouchua’r

img_3543

I could eat jianbing for days. Straight.

…and yet I decided to spend the better part of the summer tethered to my Mac, bitching about Beijing’s smog to my friends back stateside.

Don’t get me wrong – they’re incredible support during a time of bewildering change, but there is such a thing as relying too much on Skype relationships. I can recount my cramped subway ride into a speaker and show off my new purchases over a screen, but no app can truly allow me to share Beijing with them viscerally. The result was a rather lonely, unfulfilling June and July.

After my refresher trip to Japan, I genuinely made an effort to reach out more to people I knew in Beijing. Man how I wish I did so earlier. With the company of friends, old and new, Beijing quickly transformed from a grey concrete expanse into a dazzling 热闹 metropolis. I found my grounding, and it turns out not to be the perfect cafe or park bench, but to be in people.

This got me thinking – how do we evaluate a city? Most people would tick off concrete fixtures. For Beijing, that sounds like “the subway system is so extensive” or “it’s such a bicycle-friendly city” or the ever popular “dude, clubbing is ridiculously cheap.” Convenient transport and affordable nightlife may set the scene, but my experience of any city is intensely colored by the people with whom I share the scene. After all, it’s our friend groups that decide how we spend the night out (seedy sports bar or upscale dance club?), and how we utilize top-notch metro transportation (oh you live just two stations away? Let’s get coffee more often)!

10023288506_96c5434006_z

Nightlife in Beijing is super….neon. Not here (Gulou) though! (PC: Michael Chen)

So thank you, to everyone I met in Beijing and who colored my experience with lively conversation and laughter. Without you guys, Beijing really would have been just the pollution and humidity. I didn’t expect to, but I am going to miss it here. Funny how that always happens.

Of course, there’s still a few things left on my Beijing checklist that I didn’t get around to this time, most notably climbing the Great Wall of China (lol). It’s like how Chicago natives never go up the Sears Tower (yes, Sears) or the Ferris Wheel. We always think that we’ll get around to it, if it’s even worth visiting.

10229208386_49b702d390_z

I have a feeling that the Great Wall is worth a visit, of course. (PC: Michael Chen)

Live update: I leave in four hours on a flight bound for Cairo, Egypt. Another city, another life (it seems).

Tokyo in 24 Hours: Vlog

I originally wrote my usual casual-yet-witty-and-insightful styled post for my trip to Tokyo (hehe), but then I decided to experiment with a new form of memory documentation called video. It is now almost 2am and I have work tomorrow. But it was so worth it to have churned out something creative. And learned a new skill to boot. Enjoy!

Disclaimer: I know Shibuya Crossing is not actually called “Title Text Here.” It took forever to convert the video, then compress it, and upload it to YouTube – all on unreliable Beijing wifi. And I tried fixing it and reuploading that version but iMovie wouldn’t save the new one. Whatever, I forgive myself.

Music by Oliver Heldens & Shaun Frank, Shades of Grey (feat. Delaney Jane) (Leeyou & Danceey Remix)

Takasaki: The Iowan-Bellybutton of Japan

It was 1:00am. Technically a Thursday morning. My backpack straps were securely fastened into the marked indents on my shoulders. Under the alien-blue lighting of the train station convenience store, I browsed Pocky snacks of every flavor imaginable. Each box was only around $1. I knew then and there that I was in a good place. An out of breath, slightly shrill voice yelled my name from behind. I whipped my head around to see a tiny girl in blue-speckled glasses too big for her slim face, huffing at the glass entrance. Embracing in the middle of the potato chip aisle was the most comforting feeling I’ve had in months.

takasaki view

The view from Takasaki City Hall.

Greetings from Takasaki, Japan! My saintly host and friend, Angela, who’s doing two years of the JET programme here, describes it as “the Iowa of Japan.” I’ve never been to Iowa, but despite the boring and slow connotations associated with Iowa, I think that “idyllic” is the best word to describe Takasaki, in the summer at least. Angela lives right by the river – a slow moving body of water cupped by twisting green banks with tall, shooting grass. There are always people riding their bikes along the raised sienna paths. Chatty bands of school girls off to cram class, uniformed office workers singing bar songs as they pedal home… it’s a view straight out of an anime.

collage takasaki

The first day, Angela let me be her shadow. We followed her JET friends to the mall to set up their phone bills and bank accounts. Later, Angela’s boxy white Honda was delivered to her apartment. Her apartment is very Japanese. In my crude American mind, I want to describe everything in Japan as shaped like a bento box. But it’s true! Even the tatami mats in her room are fitted together like Jenga blocks. I’m very happy to be helping her move into her new home and new life. I’ve seen many glimpses of friends’ post-grad lives over snapchat or skype, but it’s a real treat to live it with them in person. Finished the night with an absolutely stellar bowl of Hokkaido miso ramen and girly chats.

ramen

Gyoza chilling in the back.

Writer at her desk

The writer masters her craft in the early morning.

On Friday, we drove up one of the mountains surrounding the eastern edge of Takasaki. This area of Japan is famous for its decadent onsen (hot springs) and I desperately wanted a good soak. I forgot how much I love driving, especially in the countryside. At ikaho onsen (which doubles as a traditional Japanese inn), Angela and I were lucky enough to have the entire women’s onsen room to ourselves. The spring water looked a dark, murky jade and the entire experience felt like sitting naked in a cup of steaming green tea.

onsen outside

After onsen, skin-a-glowin.’

That evening, I had katsudon at a family restaurant recommended by Angela’s former host mom, Yoko, who says it’s the best katsudon she’s ever had. Yoko has been all over Japan but has never found katsudon comparable to Kiyosumi’s. Washed down with a bottle of Kirin Beer, the egg-battered pork cutlet definitely hit the spot. If you’re into reading fiction books that explore the healing comfort of great food, I suggest Kitchen by Banana Yakamoto. Katsudon makes an extra special appearance.

propic

I drove an hour for this and it was 100% worth.

Saturday (this) morning, I finally finally finally had the opportunity to do a morning run somewhere that didn’t damage my lungs (I had started to develop a Beijing cough). Japanese people are quite active. May it be jogging, cycling, golfing, soccer practice – there were a fair amount of people up and about outside at 6:30am. Rising early rewards you with a luxuriously long, lazy morning during which Angela and I completed our first vlog. It’s basically fourteen minutes of us eating pudding and chatting nonsense. View at your own peril.

iowa

Early morning traffic buzz even on a Saturday.

Now, I’m on the Joetsu Shinkansen (bullet train) en-route to Tokyo. Takasaki gave me slowness after almost two months of China mayhem, but I’m pumped to take in Tokyo’s neon lights and crowds. Harajuku, Shibuya, Shimokitazawa and more in 24 hours? I’m definitely down.

Anti-Reflection on Paris

Leaving Paris broke my heart.

I have unfinished business, months of exploration left in me. Now that I’m sitting home in my bed, propped up with pillows and hearing the suburban nothing-ness… Paris really does seem like it was a dream – a three-month long slumber and plunge into the depths of looping arrondissements, clacking metro cars, and the interconnections of my brain wires as I try to process that this city literally encompasses all that excites me. How can it be real? How can it be that just a day ago I was breathing in all that cigarette smoke outside the Bastille bar alleys and now I’m reclining in my white-grey-flower patterned sheets, listening to people mowing their lawns?

Do you ever ask yourself, why am I here? Not in the philosophical sense of like “with what world view do you ascribe meaning to your life?” But geographically, why are you here? Right now. In Chicago? Yes, I go to school here, from which I will graduate in June. The question then inevitably becomes, why am I here and not in Paris?

Why did I go to Paris in the first place? Because, in November 2012, I walked down the quai along the Seine for the first time and I made a mental pact to myself that I will find some way to spend more time here. It was one of the most intense, romantic feelings I’ve ever experienced. I looked around, saw the building where Voltaire was born, the fricking jade green river, and it sounds ridiculous but damn, love at first sight is real. Is it possible to love a place as much as a person?

In my mind, BP and AP will not refer to a gas conglomerate or college-prep standardized tests. They will mark my life as “Before-Paris” and “After-Paris.” Does it sound like I have lost my mind? Perhaps. I said at the beginning of this post that I lost my heart to Paris. Are the head and the heart not the same in some ways? Without my heart, my mind is useless. Without fierce determination fueled by heart-felt obsession, my work ethic becomes sub-par. I’ve lost my mind to my heart and that’s ok.

So I refuse to write a definitive reflection post just yet, simply because I am not done with Paris.

Impersonating a classy person.

I Amsterdam? We armsterdarm!

Eclectic. That’s the best word I can find to begin to sum up Amsterdam’s vibe. Yes all the eclectic cliches are true – prostitutes in red-lit windows, weed everywhere, joints everywhere, “magic buddha mushrooms” everywhere – but so were the charming cliches. Amsterdam was one of the most bicycle friendly cities I’ve ever seen, the canals are engineering marvels woven into the very structure of the city, the hilariously tilted townhouses, and oh gosh – the sheer breadth of Van Goghs and Rembrandts. My favorite experiences in Amsterdam were mostly all visual (interwoven with some pretty damn good Dutch pancakes) so perhaps pictures would be better informants.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We armsterdarm shameless, freezing tourists awaiting our night canal tour.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

See what I mean about the bikes?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Note the houses toppling over the street, the shrooms shop, and the generous bike lane. If it looks like all we did in Amsterdam was walk around and being cold, that’s not so far from the truth. If you’re going to Amsterdam, buy all your tickets online to avoid the two hour lines. Van Gogh museum and Anne Frank’s House were both completely worth it though.

903869_10201107878201952_488479640_o

I strongly believe you can only really know a culture if you try some of their traditional foods. This was our massive Dutch pancake, or pannekoek. Less traditional ingredients of pineapple, bacon, and cheese but just as delicious.

1396719_10201107882482059_1963170131_o

Dutch split pea soup and smoked sausage served with katenspeck (Dutch bacon) on rye bread. Also known as snert. 

1403271_10201107894802367_1583721670_o

But of course.