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.

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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.

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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

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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)!

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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.

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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).

Beijing Transience

It’s been almost two months but I never feel quite rooted in Beijing – like I’m only half there. (Err here).

Maybe because every past visit was a half-return, knowing that I will always be back in a few years for more family reunions in smoky restaurant dining rooms. And this visit, I saw it as a stopover between my college graduation in Chicago and my adventure year in Cairo. In my mind, Beijing was not an anticipated destination with a culture shock to boggle my mind, but the faded city of my birth. Beijing is a transfer stop. I had left it for good 18 years ago.

Recently, I’ve realized that this is a terrible, if not detrimental, perspective and attitude. It’s never a good idea to be only half-present in a place, environment, community, what-have-you. It leaves a lot of room to detach from reality and float into depressing introspection. So we’re just going to skip over that chapter of my summer.

These days my brain’s been simmering on the chasm of differences between living in a Western country versus an Eastern country. Pre-arrival Wendy was like: I lived alone for seven months in France, no problem. Not an ounce of homesickness, not even during the Fourth or Thanksgiving. I’m set for a life in international diplomacy! I can fly anywhere like a free bird! 

Ha. Ha. How ridiculously naive it was of me to assume that that meant I was invincible and beyond ties. If France is the sleek tabby cat that brushes up against your leg as you sit out on a terrace cafe, Beijing is the running of the bulls, a wild gazelle stampede. Which is to say, all the briskness, alertness, avoiding, sweating, and people are beginning to wear down my body and mind. I really have to fight for myself here – a spot on the subway, my way up the stairs, the right to cross the street. At least this is good for my character which has always erred towards the side of passive. As much as the smog of a million cars and roars of a million screeches silence everything, the monstrous din also pushes me to strengthen my voice and shout louder for myself. If I don’t, I really am only half here.

In the midst of transience, I have fondly discovered three places in Beijing where I do feel grounded, solidly planted into the cement.

1.) The Bookworm

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Coffee, books, friends. Nothing feels more familiar than that.

2.) Xiwai Cultural Leisure Plaza Footbridge

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The view looking east.

3.) Yonghegong Lama Temple

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My photos don’t do this place justice. Also, you can’t smell the greatness that is incense from a photo.

Just writing this post makes me feel better. It’s a relief. The mind is a muscle one can exercise and mold. No matter where you go, there are tangible steps you can take to mitigate homesickness. It could be grabbing your subway card and hightailing it to one of your grounded places. It could also be listening to that one album while walking, or sketching a landscape that strikes you, or drinking crazy amounts of bubble tea (like dangerously unhealthy amounts of bubble tea). Conceptualize those steps – whatever they may be for you –  as a fertilizer that nurtures deeper, more penetrating roots.

Brasil (Or Unexpected Encounters with my Inner Latino Fire)

Disclaimer: This was written in Brazil but it’s been gathering metaphorical dust on my desktop for a while. Please excuse the belated posting.

I can still taste the Atlantic salt on my lips. Digging my toes into Ipanema’s blindingly white sand is certainly a contrast to sitting in the Santos Dumant airport food court, sandwiched between the stiff fabric of Samsonites and the red plastic trays holding McDonalds. It’s ok, the grains of sand still lodged in various crevices of my body is enough of a memory for now.

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Today marks the end of my first venture into Brazil – home of the bikini, beautiful women (and men), Havianas, and more bright colors than I’ve ever experienced. The trip was made under the pretense of a university-funded business trek, but I’ve never been about all work and no play. In total, I spent four days in Sao Paulo and three in Rio de Janeiro. One week was definitely not enough. The feeling is akin to when you’ve just polished off two scoops of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream. You’re pretty satisfied but if you had more money, you’d definitely scarf down two more scoops with equal enthusiasm.

On Thursday evening of my last finals week ever, I ditched Chicago’s grey sleet for the lush greenery of Sao Paulo. Friends who’ve been have had varying opinions. Some lauded it’s cultural offerings, some waved at its sterile business vibe. All agreed that it is a true beast of a city.

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The sprawl is enormous but Sao Paulo’s buildings aren’t super tall.

Honestly, Sao Paulo exceeded my expectations. My first two days, I stayed at Café Hostel in the Vila Madalena area which I’d describe as the Wicker Park of Sao Paulo. Vila Madalena is nestled amongst several steep hills and features some of the best street art I’ve ever seen. Tons of art galleries, quaint bars, concept coffee shops, and boutique bookstores complete the Wicker Park-y feel.

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The view from the hostel’s balcony.

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A hipster neighborhood staple – that café that takes coffee as seriously as vineyards take wine.

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At the end of the main Avenue Harmonia (think Wicker’s Milwaukee Ave.) was a beautiful cemetery, similar to many across Brazil with above ground family crypts and winding paths lined with trees.

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Despite its reputation for being a concrete jungle, Sao Paulo has little pockets of lush greenery as a reminder that nature can’t be completely conquered.

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One late night after a full day of visiting companies, a few of us decided to hit up Skye Lounge for a panoramic view of the city. There are a handful of spaces and moments wherever I travel that make me think, “How can a place like this possibly exist in the world?” Well, this was the place for Sao Paulo.

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You have no idea how difficult it was to capture the city lights with an iPhone camera.

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Seafood. Always seafood.

Rio’s just a short 45min flight from Sao Paulo. The coxinhas and papaya smoothies taste the same but Rio definitely moves more sensually – probably following the beats of live Samba more than the ticks of the stock market. And for sure, the curves of Rio’s women definitely mirror the curves of the landscape 😉

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I must have eaten three a day. Cheesey bread balls!

We stayed in Centro, near the famous Lapa district that is the historically bohemian hotspot of Rio (sensing a theme here…). Colonial style houses line the streets surrounding the aqueduct that the Portugeuse built in the 18th century to bring water from the mountains. I have never in my life been even remotely described as having a spicy, Latina fire, thus I didn’t expect to enjoy so much the liveliness of Rio’s late night eateries and Samba bars. There’s must be something in the air…

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….or something in this drink.

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Caipirinha is Brazil’s national cocktail, made from cachaca (a sugar cane based hard liquor). You basically mash lime and sugar together, then pour cachaca and some ice cubes over it.

I grew up brainwashed to believe that sun equates to wrinkles, but even this sunscreen addict couldn’t resist Rio’s beaches. The waves, oh the waves. For all its beauty, clarity, warmth – the Atlantic tosses you around a bit. “Respect the ocean,” my Brazilian friend’s mother had advised us. Ipanema definitely earned mine.

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I’m blessed to have experienced a taste of that Brazilian friendliness. I fell in love with the canga that the bed and breakfast lent us. A beautiful abstract representation of Rio’s beachfront and sun rendered in bright green, yellow, white, and blue. A bunch of vendors sold cangas along Ipanema but I couldn’t find any pattern that came close to it. Back at the B&B, I offered to buy the canga from the owner. But all she said was, “It’s your last day in Rio, consider it a gift from Magareida.”

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I believe that you have to visit the highest point of any city you travel to.

From the beach to the airport, from Rio to Sao Paulo, from finals week in the Reg to spring break in Brazil – life is peppered with these movements between extremes. That displacement is the addictive quality of wanderlust. My traveler’s high doesn’t come from any specific cultural atmosphere as much as it comes from the constant change itself. Constantly lost, constantly discovering, constantly being reminded of just how massive and different the world is from my little, individual perspective. Obrigada Brasil, por tudo.

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An American Girl in Paris: Part 3

I’ve officially now been to Paris more times than I’ve visited New York City. Then again, I’ve never been particularly drawn to the aesthetic of the Big Apple. Religiously watching Sex and the City is enough for me (snaps for you if you get the title reference). It’s one of those charming, life’s blessings to have experienced Paris in three separate seasons. I think I can do without trying Paris in the winter though – I hear the sun goes down at 4:00pm and after fall quarter, God knows that seasonal affective disorder is real. Anyway, being in Paris again felt so incredibly familiar. Each time, Paris is still a mecca for artists, it’s still incredibly stylish, its selection of perfectly baked carbohydrates is still fantastic – this city just perfectly fills the Eiffel Tower shaped hole in my heart.

Despite all that time clocked in Paris, this visit was marked by several firsts and I left with many things still on my checklist for the future. A mere five hours after arriving in Paris, I dragged my lazy-ass and my lovely host, Amy, up to Sacre-Coeur in Montmartre. Better late than never, right?

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But I’m also such a creature of habit. We went for my third time to Bouillon Chartier for lunch. It’s just such a rustic, typically French interior design with wall-to-wall mirrors and wrought-metal bulb lighting. Not to mention the free wifi.

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I took my last requirement for my Visual Arts minor last quarter on contemporary art and that made me all the more excited to check out Palais de Tokio. It went above and beyond my expectations. It also helped to share the experience with a cute art design school French boy. I know a lot of people are perplexed by contemporary art. Or more like, “What the hell is this crap?” But Palais du Tokio would impress even the most skeptical. From Jackass video installations to large-scale mechanical instruments powered by magnets to a freakishly realistic female robot, there is something for everyone. Outside of the actual exhibition space (which is huge), there’s also a café, restaurant, movie theater, and dance club. Everything is open late into the night. And is there a better time to experience art than in the creative vortex of after-sunset?

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Kenji Kawakami, the artist responsible for the famous series of “ingenious” inventions that went viral a few years ago, had his exhibition at Palais!

I finally found it, by the way. The best croissant in Paris resides at the Café St. Regis on Ile St. Louis. Dense and fluffy and warm – if this was the last croissant I ever eat, I’d contently state, “It’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.”

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Other than that, most of my time was spent visiting the museums for my B.A. thesis research and shopping for warmer clothes as I completely underestimated Europe in early April. Being from Chicago kind of does that to you – you think nowhere is as freezing as Chicago but actually you don’t have a monopoly on annoyingly cold temperatures in spring.

I always fit in a dinner and walk through Paris at night. It’s not called the City of Lights for nothing.

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Today also marks the one-week checkpoint of my trip. I don’t know how those people who go backpacking for months do it. I have already developed a persistent tickle in my throat and a dull feeling in my feet. It’s the middle of Easter Break for most of Europe. That means more tourists but also more young people traveling which then means more random friends to make on long train rides. Oh, I forgot to say where I am at the moment. I’m sitting on the TGV from Strasbourg to Mannheim, having successfully completed part one of my two transfers en route to Berlin. First time in Germany! I will have to remember to not jaywalk.