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gemtiger ([personal profile] gemtiger) wrote on August 12th, 2010 at 09:55 pm
this oughta make up for something
Here is the monster post about my nine months in Europe. I've focussed mostly on the travelling bits, since daily life is still daily life.


This is the view from the hostel where I spent my first night in Lyon. My getting there was clearly a lot of luck. Still, if you ever go to Lyon, stay in this hostel! It's got a fantastic view and it's right above the oldest part of the city (and also the most touristy, but those are fun sometimes.)

My initial euphoria at landing in France and getting around melted away eventually, overtaken by daily living kinds of concerns (bank account, phone, residence permit, getting paid, etc.) I never found Lyon particularly charming; strolling along the riverbanks are pleasant enough, but there were too many people everywhere. Privacy and space were things I had to learn to let go of for a while.


I got to the lab and was immediately faced with this. (Well, after the paperwork: it turns out paperwork in France is a really huge deal.) My supervisor took me around, and said, "you've used a vacuum line before, right? Well, this is the exact same thing, it just has this one little extra boulette to deal with. And indeed, by the end of the week I was manipulating it more or less correctly.

The lab seemed clean to me---no piles of dirty glassware---but I soon realized that was due to the preciousness of glassware. Glassware wasn't common; you had your pieces, and if you broke them, you fixed them if you could, otherwise you sent them to the glassblower. (One thing I'm really glad I learned to do in France was basic glassblowing. I can seal things and join things together. The results weren't always pretty, but I managed.)


By December I was starting to get restless; I hadn't gone anywhere, I hadn't even hopped on a real European train! I confessed my anxiety to a co-worker one day:
Me: So I'm taking this train to Strasbourg this weekend, and I don't know what to expect!
Him: What do you mean?
Me: Well, I've never taken a train before! What am I supposed to do?
Him: Show up at the station, find the platform, find your seat, put your bags away, and sit down.
Me: Oh.

Strasbourg was so lovely though. Wonderful Christmas markets, far more authentic than what I saw in Paris. Plus, everyone was so kind! I walked into Germany, where I realized that I really spreche kein Deutsch in a bakery; luckily the server knew some English.

I passed through Strasbourg again in the spring; it hadn't lost any of its sheen.


Before I left, my brother gave me a Paris guidebook. "But you know I'm not going there, right?" "If you live in France and don't go to Paris, you'll be wasting your time." I don't know how true his assessment is, but when you can buy a round-trip train ticket for 60 Euro, it was too good to pass up. It turned out I had a high school classmate living there, so it worked out well for me.

It was difficult to pick one photo from Paris, but I went with this shot from the interior of my favourite attraction: Sainte-Chapelle. I hadn't heard of this before reading the guidebook, but the minute I walked onto the upper floor, I knew why it was up there with the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. This place is a real jewel: the walls of the upper floor are almost entirely stained glass.

Paris is romantically glamorous, especially around the Seine. It gives off this strange vibe; I felt like I wanted to live there, but at the same time was acutely aware of the fact that I could never do so. Perhaps Paris is one of those cities that are best enjoyed in short, intense bursts; too much of it would take away the magic.


I had almost a week in Paris, and took one day to head to the Palace of Versailles with some hostel buddies. It was too bad we went there in the winter, when the gardens were dormant; I imagine they would be breathtaking in the summer.


Emboldened by my postive experiences, my next trip was a bit further afield, to Munich. By this time I had my residence permit and was able to freely move within the Schengen Zone. Munich is, of course, famous for Oktoberfest, and the beer culture there is certainly very strong; you'll see people drinking at beer gardens at 10 in the morning! The old town is really lovely; I adore the automatons that decorate the Old Town Hall.


Nerdy board games were the inspiration for this trip; it turns out Carcassonne the board game is based on Carcassonne the fortified city! (I was a bit disappointed to not see any Meeples around.) I spent a very pleasant afternoon wandering around the fortified city and walking through the castle. It was still a bit too touristy for me, though, and somehow things don't seem as amazing when you're travelling on your own.

That was fixed when I spent a few days in Toulouse with a friend I'd made in Paris. He actually hated living in Toulouse (coming from Manila, he thought it was tiny and uninteresting), but changed his mind when he forgot his camera at a restaurant.
Him: Oh no, I left my bag at the restaurant!
Me: It's only been 5 minutes, I'm sure it's still there.
We hurry back. At the restaurant, we ask a server if they've found a small black bag...
Server: Oh, were you sitting over there? We've got it behind the counter.
As she says this, the woman who'd served us walks by and wags her finger: "tsk tsk"
Me: Just make sure you still have everything in there.
Him: It's fine! Oh, Toulouse is the best French city ever! The people are so honest! And kind!
Me: ... you'll be back to normal in a few days, right?
Him: Probably.


I took a quickie day trip to Switzerland when a friend came to visit me in Lyon. We arrived on Sunday, and eventually made our way to the Olympic Museum. Lausanne had already kind of reminded us of Vancouver (it'd been a while since either of us had seen mountains that close, and the placement of mountains and water made us both a little homesick), but the Olympic Museum was wrapping up their Vancouver exhibit that day! The woman at the counter was so excited and so welcoming when she heard that we were both from there.

The French say the Swiss speak slowly, and it's true. Perhaps it was my accent (or my Asian looks?) that tipped them off, but I had no trouble understanding anything said to me in Switzerland (whereas I still couldn't catch things sometimes in France.)

Switzerland is clean and efficient, but terribly expensive. My Lyon-Geneva RT ticket was 25 Euro (a 2h ride each way); my Geneva-Lausanne RT ticket was 30 Euro (a 30 min ride).


Annecy is known as the "French Venice" for its canals. It's also right at the foot of the Alps. It is incredibly pretty; it makes a nice daytrip from Lyon. I think le lac d'Annecy is one of the 3 largest lakes in France.

My next stop was Chambéry, where I stumbled onto an exhibition of the history of the Savoie region. I had never appreciated before just how fluid borders had been in Europe: this isn't the kind of minituae they feed you in Canadian schools.


I hurriedly cobbled together plans in April to see Vienna Teng in concert one last time, as she's heading back to school this fall. This was also around the time of the Icelandic volcano, so I endured a few days of wondering whether or not to keep my train tickets. I wasn't particularly interested in visiting Stuttgart.

Eventually Vienna announced that she didn't think she's be able to make it for Stuttgart, and my heart fell; but the next day, she and the band had managed to get plane tickets and Stuttgart was duly UNCANCELLED. I jumped for joy when I read that tweet.

I had arranged to meet another fan there (also coming from France, it turned out!) and we spent Saturday afternoon before the concert wandering the streets of Stuttgart and discussing a whole bunch of topics: movies, sustainability, travelling, careers...


Faire le pont is a French expression I first learned in high school. Literally it means "to make a bridge" but idiomatically it's "to take a long weekend." Ascension is a national holiday in France, and since it falls on a Thursday, many people take the Friday off as well. Mindful of this, I planned a 4-day trip to London on the Eurostar train!

London is a city after my own heart. It's kind of got a muffled prestige, very distinct from the glamour of Paris. London works; Paris philosophizes. London grinds; Paris hums.

It was bizarre being in an Anglophone city again. I came around, though :P

I found one show to go to: a Canadian double-bill featuring the Rural Alberta Advantage and Jason Collett. There I met an ex-pat (from the other London) and we had a great time. We both had our fangirl moments; she loved the opening act (Zeus) and contrived to get us backstage before Collett came on. :D

I took the last two weeks for a train tour of Europe. I had my heart set on going to Prague for some reason; I also wanted to hit up Belgium if I could. I bought my rail pass about 20 days before the first leg of my journey. I do things better under pressure, apparently.


I have a bit of a thing for astronomical clocks; it strikes me as amazing that you can build something mechanical which will predict things for 50 or 60 years before needing to be reset.

I was also anxious about going to the Czech Republic because of my complete and utter lack of Czech. My Slovakian friend assured me that people in Prague would speak English because of the number of American tourists, and she was right. My French came in handy, too!

Prague was beautiful (remember that sunset? yeah, you do.)


I went into Vienna not knowing much about it besides the fact that St. Stephen's Cathedral was there, and this only because the final track on Vienna Teng's Inland Territory is "St. Stephen's Cross." (If I ever get around to making a Europe mix, this song is definitely on it.) I never did find "the shadow of St. Stephen's cross", though there was a crucifix hanging inside!

Besides Mozart, Vienna is famous for Sachertorte, a chocolate cake which is said to have originated in Hotel Sacher. Perhaps it'd been overhyped to me, but I didn't immediately fall in love with it. I did fall in love with the café of the Hotel Sacher, though!

This was also the first time when I asked "Sprechen Sie Englisch?" and got a "Nein" in return. Luckily the language of gestures (I was at a souvneir stand) is pretty universal :D


Salzburg is, of course, where The Sound of Music is set. I ended up heading to the fortress, which was very well laid-out and had spectacular views of the landscape.


I hopped on a night train to get from Munich to Amsterdam. For 20 Euro I was able to reserve a cot in a sleeper car, which turned out to be more comfortable than I was expecting. This was also one of those rare times when my height was an asset rather than a liability; I was just able to stretch out completely.

Ah, Amsterdam. To be frank I didn't like it that much; travelling alone meant I was more cautious about things, so although I would have liked to try a coffeeshop, I also didn't know how I'd react to it. (I also realized at this point that my finances were getting pretty tight.) I did take a stroll through the red-light district. It was unsettling. I would never pay for sex, but by going and looking, was I really doing any better than a sex tourist?

Aside from drugs and sex, Amsterdam also has some lovely museums. Anne Frank's House was so sad and touching; the van Gogh museum is a bit overrated (14 Euro entry!!); the Amsterdam Museum was an interesting exploration of the city's history.


I had heard over and over how pretty and romantic Luxembourg was, so I had to check it out (besides, what's Benelux without Lux?) So, um, it is really pretty, but not much else.


Last day of my rail pass, and I decided to dump my luggage in Brussels and take the 30 min train ride to Ghent. I'm glad I did. It was a bit of a shock; I've always thought of Belgium as a Francophone country but obviously it's bilingual. All of a sudden I was back among Dutch-speakers; and Ghent reminded me of Amsterdam in more than one way. I would have liked to spend more time there, but I had to check into my Brussels hostel that night, so....


I headed to the EU capital to finish off my mini-tour. Belgium is famous for three things, I feel: fries, waffles, and beer. I'm proud to say I had all three. Otherwise Brussels isn't that great for sightseeing; it'd be a fine city to live in, though. The Belgians have a rather playful spirit, as the comic murals around town will attest.
This is the Atomium, a structure/building built for Expo '58. It's based on the crystal structure of iron. Where else would a chemist go in Brussels, after all? :P

A few days after that I flew home.

I miss my friends. I miss the travelling. I miss sharply-dressed people. I miss bakeries on every block. I miss morning markets where the produce is fresh and cheap. I miss fromage frais. I miss the freedom I had there....

But I'd missed my friends and family here, and the proximity to nature, and the relaxed tone of life.

Not to mention cheap sushi. Some things you just can't compromise on.
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