Finally, I am approaching this blog entry. The final post for a particularly epic journey.
I always have trouble with this sort of culminating thought process because it doesn't exclusively feel like a verbal exercise, but also... it is, somehow, an existential exercise. Look At How Is This Is. Reminding myself that time is coming and going, and places are coming and going (or perhaps I am coming and going, and the places are staying still--one can never know for sure?), and before I know it, it is this winter and I am running somewhere else.
My favorite quote from Breakfast at Tiffany's addresses this sentiment.
You know what's wrong with you, Miss Whoever-you-are? You're chicken, you've got no guts. You're afraid to stick out your chin and say, "Okay, life's a fact, people do fall in love, people do belong to each other, because that's the only chance anybody's got for real happiness." You call yourself a free spirit, a "wild thing," and you're terrified somebody's gonna stick you in a cage. Well baby, you're already in that cage. You built it yourself. And it's not bounded in the west by Tulip, Texas, or in the east by Somaliland. It's wherever you go. Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.
But, perhaps it is better to run into yourself then remain stagnant in front of some sort of intangible psychological mirror. (It certainly keeps you in better shape.)
I adore traveling because I find packing a suitcase very therapeutic. 'These are the only physical things I absolutely require.' This backpack and I could make it out there (particularly in an English or romance language-speaking country) by our lonesome selves. At least for a bit. Long enough to write something in the spirit of John Steinbeck or Jack Kerouac.
Next, in December, I am going to Costa Rica to live on an organic farm for a week and a half. I will slowly but surely eat the entire property... like a very ambitious locust.
This post wasn't about Rome or Prague or London at all. But they never really are, are they?
...I suppose not. I wish I had more fingers for rings; which might require more hands, but it seems to work for Hindu gods. It's because I love totems/symbols/tiny markers of time and space. Collecting them is a reason for being (among others.) It's like collecting stamps, but if each of the stamps were a different interpretation of yourself in portrait form. It's fantastically conceited when phrased that way, I know, but it still somehow seems to be the appropriate metaphor.
No, this isn't really a travel blog at all. But if this truly were a travel blog, I would advise you to always bring a small tube of Neosporin! Perhaps even two, because my antiseptics have never made it through a trip without being stolen. But I don't mind that at all, really. I just bring two tubes, one for myself and one for the Universe.
The truth is that I want to write about catacombs. I spent the afternoon in a catacomb. It is my second to last full day in Rome, and I said to myself, "You know what? I want to breathe in the sweet, sweet air of 1700 years of death and deterioration," and I took the bus to Domitilla and I sat in that basilica and refused to budge (like so many before me.)
I took the Italian tour of the underground component. And I understood everything! Even the snide comments the Italian families were making about American tourists (naturally, they assumed that I was not American.) It was wonderful. Some of the frescoes looked as though they had just been painted. There was (inexplicably, given their ventilation system) a cool breeze. There were tiny display cases in some burial areas full of glass shards and sculptures and tiles that had been buried with the dead. I just wanted to fill my pockets with everything and flee the scene like a grave-robber in some Indiana Jones film.
But, I didn't. So--back to Florence. Florence is very commercial and very delicate. Florence is a hot air balloon where Rome is a soccer ball. I prefer the latter, but Florence is a fantastically pleasant escape from the bright hot brick-and-rock wonderland that is Rome. I climbed up to the top of the duomo's belltower, and I could see Florence for miles: with its green paint and bushy trees and cacophony of languages-that-are-not-Italian. It is very pretty, and very modern in its own way, and if I could go there for one weekend every summer... I would.
Many stores/restaurants/museums/galleries/etc. were closed for ferie (the work holiday taken by the entire country collectively in mid-August), but sometimes things are prettier when they are shut down, or abandoned, or at least neglected for a little bit. Like the sculpture man above. And maybe David, if I could just sneak him out of the Accademia for a few months. I scoped the place out, though, and I think that my chances of success are slim. There is a micro-fracture in his right leg, and I don't think that the whole body part would come with him if it were moved. Disappointing (but I guess Rome wasn't deconstructed in a day.)
I could live in Italy. I met with some friends in Florence, which was lovely. It is very easy to make friends here (perhaps everywhere, but certainly at least here.) The food is excellent... obviously. It is far easier to be a vegetarian here than it was in China. The water in the public fountains tastes delicious. Italo Calvino books in Italian sell at reasonable prices in bookstores. I enjoy all of my academic classes: all of the time. Tourists often ask me for directions, and I can answer them in four different languages (with emphatic gesticulation perhaps being a fifth.) I love that.
I want to want to live in Italy, but now I want to live in Cambodia. or Chile. Or Australia.
Take note: if you plan on visiting Rome soon, get dinner at Sora Margherita. I recently went there with a group of friends. It is a favorite of Roberto Benigni's, classic Roman food, and it is... amazing.
Leonardo da Vinci invented the flippers, as I learned at an exhibit in the city last week. This portion of the museum was not interactive, unfortunately.
This week was very feverish and strange. I became unreasonably sick last Sunday, and spent most of the week in the hospital, pharmacy, or apartment. I read most of the Game of Thrones series (that has been released so far.) I am on book 5, and I am learning about dragons. After that is completed, I will finally finish three books (that I started and never finished, which is essentially a crime): Infinite Jest, Gravity's Rainbow, and Cryptonomicon. My goal is to have all three of these finished by the time that I re-enter the United States. Otherwise, I have failed.
Tomorrow, I will start going to all of my regularly-scheduled Italian classes again. I will eat gelato every night, because gelato is a cure-all. I started with this regimen yesterday--I had tiramisu, crema della nonna, and pistacchio siciliano.
Yesterday evening, I bought Una Lettera d'Amore (an Italian pastry called a "love letter") at a little shop near my apartment, and I ate it, because I wanted to be made of love letters. Or at least one love letter. And now I am!
And late last night, I went out for the Notte dei Fori (the Night of the Fora), which was fascinating. The ruins were lit up in strange ways, and the Fori Imperiali was as crowded as Times Square on New Year's Eve, and there were stiltwalkers and singers and protests and all sorts of things and people. When I was walking home past il Colosseo, there was a group of guys sitting around its base, playing bluegrass on their guitars, which reminded me of home. I listened to them for a long time; it reminded me of my 4th of July in China a few years ago, where there was also unanticipated bluegrass.
There were peculiar folk about, as you can see on Stage Right above.
My dinner tonight was an enormous canolo (I can't bring myself to artificially pluralize it... cannoli... ahhh god it is vernacular but it burns) and a cappuccino. The cappuccino was a horribly touristy move, but I couldn't help it--I really like evening cappuccinos. I really like Italy. I like the fountains at the end of every alley, and how you can drink the water from the aqueducts, and all of the different colors of pasta.
Next weekend, I am going to Florence. And then, I want to go to Thailand! But I won't. Or will I?
I am in Rome! The city of sweltering heat and old things and sunny rains. I really like it. The landscape and context make me feel small and infinite at the same time.
Every panorama here feels like a postcard, but the sort
that Antonioni or Fellini would send. A few days ago, I was walking near
the Pantheon and a row of counterfeit bag sellers were busted by a
group of undercover police officers. At the exact same time, an entire group of
grown men threw armfuls of faux Gucci and Hermes bags into the air and ran in all different directions. It was incredible--seemingly choreographed if not for the screaming and aggressive brutality--because as the
bags all fell from the sky in unison... it reminded me of some sort of
grandiose consumerist parade, with colors and movement akin to releasing a cage of doves or a
fistful of balloons.
I don't normally do food photos, but this was an amazing slice of potato and rosemary pizza.
This is perhaps my favorite part of my walk to class every morning. I am not particularly fond of the area surrounding il Colosseo--it is very crowded and not very cute and also there is no shade--but it is such a surreal place. I do miss it on some days because I periodically use the public bus system, but let me tell you, there is nothing quite like a bus in Rome during the morning commute. The number of eyes that I have seen almost clawed out rivals the content of words such as "Mississippi" and "anti-authoritarianism" (IE, at least two sets of eyes.) It is not a pleasant or comfortable experience.
I have spoken almost no English during my time here! Che strano! One week down (almost), three to go.
It really is a lovely town. I'm not sure that I would want to live in it for longer than a few weeks at any given time, because it feels quite small, but the buildings are so beautiful and the histories of the colleges are fascinating. Last weekend, my class visited Bletchley Park and the American Cemetery in Cambridge (circa WWII), both of which were neat--particularly the former, which is the mecca of modern cryptology. A group of friends and I spent a day in London again: wandered around Shoreditch, got Greek food, wandered some more, etc. I could definitely live in London.
I am happy with my academic experience at Cambridge, though I cannot see myself doing a doctorate there. I am a huge proponent of interdisciplinary studies and cross-collaboration, and there is a remarkable amount of red tape present between departments and colleges in the British system... or at least at Cambridge. However, my professors within this program were excellent. Having the amount of discussion time with Christopher Andrew (one of the best Cold War historians there is, and current official historian for MI5) that I did was incredible, and having plenary lectures by Sir Richard Dearlove and James Pavitt was pretty great as well.
The formal dinners were certainly interesting. The appetizer soup on Thursday had a beet base, and included gems such as "vodka jelly" and "avocado sorbet" (and who knows what else.) It was definitely not what I was expecting out of English cuisine, that's for sure.
I am always grateful for experiences like my course at Cambridge because they remind me of how friendly, inquisitive, and profound other human beings can be. My favorite thing about traveling is so often the conversations that I have along the way, and seeing how much I have grown/learned/discovered by the time that they are done. Pubs are good for that. The English are doing pubs correctly.
And now, after much fanfare and ado, I find myself in Rome. Today is my first full day here, and so far I have successfully navigated public transport and bought groceries in Italian. I start my literature classes tomorrow. In bocca al lupo!
If I am not afraid of the choices that I make in life, I am not being daring enough. I would like to be surprised every day. I need to integrate more of my passion for exploring, sharing, and taking risks that I rely upon so heavily while traveling into my regular routine. I would like to be The Most Alive, and I can't help but feel that I am doing an insufficient job of that.
[Cambridge has a way of making one feel like this: inspired, but somehow constantly and irrevocably inadequate.]
There are some nights in which the heaviness of Feeling and Breathing and Past are simply too much, and you have to hold a sort of fragile vigil to remain afloat.
(It is well after 4 am, here.)
Around campus, as these images illustrate, there are many beautiful things. What you can't see are the people--how they are willing to discuss literature with me at the pub, how they pronounce their Ts, how they impeccably match their button-ups to their suit jackets, and how passionate they are about Their Things. It is invigorating. Going into London yesterday was spectacular--because I have been before, I could really direct my energy towards appreciating the gems of traveling: people-watching, local art galleries and food, more nuanced cultural details.
The coursework is fascinating. Tomorrow, I am attending lectures on propaganda throughout the afternoon and reading a number of books at the library (for the paper that I am writing on comparative intelligence tradecraft between Soviet and US agencies during the Cold War.) We cannot sit on the grass here, so I expect to gaze at it longingly (while sipping Earl Grey tea) and to write. If I feel really adventurous, I might jump around on the lawn for a minute or two in my hiking boots. Just to show it who is boss.
Budapest is a city full of wonder, and anyone who tries to tell you
differently is attempting to sell you a western European timeshare. I found
myself regretful of the fact that I budgeted so much time for Vienna and
Prague when I could have been learning Hungarian while sitting in a
Budapest has a rich history full of people writing over its history,
which is fascinating. Somewhat ironically (given this comment,) one of my
favorite parts of the city was the presence of not only one, but two
fantastic exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts: portrait photography
by Helmut Newton, and paintings/sketches by Egon Schiele (yes, again!)
(yes, my point is that neither of these artists were
Hungarian/affiliated with Budapest.) Also, Budapest has an excellent
zoo. The sloths roam free in this gigantic sloth-forest, and you can pet
them and feed them pineapples and they will look at you with their
tiny, gleeful eyes and readjust their babies--which look like gangly and affectionate pot scrubbers--on their back and make their little enthusiastic sloth noises.
The above is one of many European monuments devoted to protecting the public from the plague! We saw this shortly before going to the thermal baths. Apparently bacteria love 38 degree Celsius bathing water, and so I am uncertain of the efficacy of this sculpture. Despite this, I found the thermal bath experience super soothing and not at all awkward or overpriced.
Budapest is the land of the "Ruin Pub," and given my love of deteriorating things/elderflower syrup/absurd items chained to the ceilings of commercial establishments (EX: desks, mini golf scenery, 1950s vehicles,) I was an enormous fan. Szimpla was probably my favorite bar ever. If you are ever in Budapest, go to this bar. Also, go vintage shopping. Also, take the trek up to the castle and look over the city. Also, wander around aimlessly (and bring both an umbrella and sunglasses with you.) Also, stay for a week... or just buy an apartment there. I think it is a solid investment!
Now, I am in Cambridge. Stay tuned for more tales of adventure and intrigue!
Unlike the majority of people with whom I have spoken who have been to Slovakia, I actually really enjoyed it. Bratislava is an interesting town. It is like a pastry with a soft, fluffy interior and slightly crunchy crust. Like it was made in the morning, and it probably would have been best eaten by early afternoon, but it is about 5:15 and you would like to wait on dinner until 6:30 and so you will reheat the coffee pot but also snack on some leftover Bratislava.
Again, the free tour given here was invaluable. The city has a lot of grey statues with stoic faces, and I appreciated learning the context of their expressions (even though now, in retrospect, I remember very little of it.) In my opinion, Bratislava could have used more than two days (which was what we allocated.)
Their faces! And mannerisms.
Apparently, the waiting list to be married in the blue church of Bratislava is quite long. This is because it is reminiscent of a fairy tale. I think that 80% of this phenomenon comes from the font showcased on the face of the clock. If the lettering style were completely generic, would anyone come? This design element indicates magic (or sorcery, or witchcraft, given the history of the city... the first witch was burned at the stake in 1602.) Another magic indicator: at our hostel, the local cat had kittens, and they were beautifully fuzzy.
This is an abandoned hospital immediately across the street from the blue church. As much as I enjoyed Slovakia, I think that the country could use some serious infrastructural investment. The food was glorious--they even had vegetarian spatzle--but I need more. If only they had a more impressive array of music/art at their markets... next decade?
Now that I am officially settled into my comfortable existence at Cambridge, I have returned from my brief blogging hiatus. This post is on my experience in Vienna, which was mostly wonderful, though slightly less wonderful than Prague or Budapest, and slightly more wonderful than Bratislava. I was there for about six days, all of which were filled with art and delicious food (and love, and apple strudel.)
The above is my favorite painting by Klimt, which was on display at the Leopold Museum. The star of the show though, really, was Egon Schiele. Schiele was a contemporary of Klimt... and in my opinion, the superior artist. Google him. He is excellent. The Leopold Museum in general was actually really fantastic--they were doing an exhibition on clouds and were showing Warhol's Silver Clouds in one room, which is a glorious time if you enjoy comfortable seating, pleasant conversation and helium-filled plastic silver film pillows.
During the same day, we also went to the Haus der Musik (The Music House/Museum), which had some very interesting interactive exhibits on the history of music and the study of sound. It absolutely made me wish that I hadn't dropped AP Music Theory... and that I had a greater knowledge of classical music. One of these days, I will be a composer.
I photographed this bird at the Naschmarkt, which proved to be another highlight of Vienna. While the market's usual focus is on food, it hosts one of the best flea markets that I have ever attended on Saturday mornings. I bought a small Edra typewriter ribbon box for a couple of euros at it, and it has a very happy lizard on the lid, and it is probably one of my favorite investments. It had a small ivory carving of a girl sitting in the woods nestled inside of it (by mistake,) but this is an excellent omen.
As for the food, I did get to try a few Viennese specialties. I found a restaurant that makes vegan schnitzel, which was a fascinating (and delectable) experience, and I tried a number of different apple and custard strudels (however, my loyalty to American manifestations of pie remains strong.) Figlmuller proved to be a very neat restaurant, and had the best potato salad that I have ever eaten. I drank Almdudler, which is a great herbal soda, and tried Sacher Torte, which was a remarkably anticlimactic chocolate cake.
I photographed this excellent face-and-snake plaster sculpture thing during the free Vienna walking tour. I successfully completed walking tours in Prague, Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest during this trip (and intend on doing several in Cambridge... and perhaps even one in Rome.) Victory for history! And art, obviously, because this facade was/is great. St. Stephen's Cathedral was another architectural marvel in Vienna, and yet another was the first mental institution, which we also visited (in contrast to the cathedral, the institution was dilapidated and creepy and cylindrical in shape.)
Wandering around north of the river in Vienna was mostly not worthwhile, with the exception of this posh crocodile couple.
Certainly one of the best decisions during my time in Vienna was going to the state opera house. Julian and I waited in line for four hours for our four euro standing room tickets to see Capriccio (and then stood for another three hours to actually watch it,) but it was absolutely worth it. Our view was epic, and even though the final aria/conclusion of Capriccio is lousy (nice try, Strauss, maybe next time), the show on the whole was definitely entertaining. Fun fact: Music in Vienna is amazing. Even the street musicians are spectacular. Hooray for music! Next up on the blog: Bratislava, Slovakia!
I became very fond of Prague by the end of my three weeks there. The above photo was taken on the Charles Bridge. The city consistently surprised me (and not just through hot air balloons.) The prevalence of fascinating stories, second hand stores, interesting music venues, friendly acquaintances, and vegetarian restaurants was far superior to what I had expected. Having my boyfriend there as company during my last week in the Czech Republic was also a lovely change of pace.
The above image was taken in the cathedral near Prague Castle.I enjoyed the Tibetan restaurant affiliated with the monastery next to the castle more than the castle itself. If you go to enough European countries, all of the castles start to bleed together. (This may be a European royal lineage pun.)
These shoes hang next to the Prague metronome (that took the place of an enormous statue of Stalin) in the park in the northern part of town. The metronome is a little anticlimactic (but not in terms of elevation! Ha!) but the shoes were fantastic. They remind me of the film Big Fish, in that they are whimsical and indicative of a different era.
This cathedral was in Kutna Hora (the town.) For a non-Christian, I really enjoy visiting old churches. But only if I have enough time to just sit for a while and listen to their insides tick and thrum and whirl (and creak. Creek! If they are really compelling, that is. If they flow.)
Nonsequitur: Julian and I tried absinthe the French way: with water, and the Czech way: with fire. I prefer it with fire (like Robert Frost would.)
And of course, we frequented a number of beer gardens. Riegrovy Sady, above, turned out to be the best. I will certainly miss the view.
Another view that I will miss is that of the underground--we went on a ghost tour of the space under the town hall/astronomical clock, and while nothing particularly supernatural happened, it was beautiful. One of the rooms circa 1300 was completely unaltered, and full of candles for some sort of ceremony (or sacrifice, by the look of it.) While a lot of horrible things happened there (it was a prison for a number of centuries), it was a very peaceful way to spend an evening. And then we stumbled upon a fantastic bar near the Old Town, Al Capone's, and I tried my first (several) gin fizz(es.) And this was all following a Strauss/Mozart concert in the Municipal House by members of the Royal Orchestra, of course.
Some centuries were better at taming Death than others:
Many tried tying a leash around Death's throat,
Others made Death the leash,
Several tried to sport a necklace of Death,
And others used Death to lash together escape routes--made rafts of it.
Kutna Hora Ossuary is a record of man attempting all of these things. These last several images are from the renovations being done on the upper level of the church.
I adored it. In the 18th century, all of the bones were removed, white-washed, and carefully returned to their places. Who does that? I imagine some poor Czech Tom Sawyer sitting in a courtyard somewhere, quietly perfecting the finish on this tragic pile of 40000 (previously) deteriorating bodies.
The world is an absurd place. Some days make that more apparent than others.