My trip to Europe after college... fun times.

        Few words can describe how wide my eyes were when I arrived in Paris. Walking out of La Gare du Nord, it was overcast, but it was still very refreshing. All around me were buildings with eighteenth century-style facades, typical of Paris. After the years of taking French classes in high school and wondering whether Paris was really like what they said in the books, I had arrived. London was interesting, to be sure, with its mix of grand old buildings and modern high-rises, but Paris promised to be much better. We were in France, in Paris! The people spoke French, all around us!

France and England, Chinese Tour Group?

        Indeed, I ended up using French far more than I had bargained for. Everywhere, people would shake their heads when I asked, “Parlez-vous anglais”? I hadn’t even brought along my French dictionary, thinking that I could just use English. Instead, I used French at the metro station, in restaurants, in shops. It was actually good practice for me in the end, because by the time I was finished in Europe, I had actually gotten into several good conversations with French people, in their language.

        My family and I saw all the major sights in London and Paris; we were in a tour group, after all. Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, The Tower Bridge, The Tower, Buckingham Palace, the British Museum, The Louvre, La Tour Eiffel, L’Arc de Triomphe, Les Champs Elysées, Les Invalides, Notre Dame, La Place de la Concorde, we saw it all. Each of these sights was very interesting, especially when we had time to pause and observe these sights more carefully, as when we visited Arc de Triomphe. All in all though, because we were in a group, we rushed through many of these noted attractions. But, we did have two days on our own, which we used to visit Notre Dame, Musee d’Orsay, Les Champs Elysées, and Les Invalides a bit more carefully. That really provided a nice respite to the hectic three days of churning through London and Paris with the group. We also did a great deal of shopping, though the only enjoyment I got out of that was bumping into two college classmates at the Disney Store on Champs Elysées.

        More important to me than visiting these monuments, was living the culture. In each of the countries that I visited, I really wanted to live the life of the locals, learn what they did. It’s said that, “When in Rome, do what the Romans do.” I believe that wholeheartedly wherever I go. I did get some of that in Paris when we went to the local restaurants, learning the European way of dining- lunch at three in the afternoon, dinner at nine, sometimes lasting until midnight. It’s an interesting life, certainly less hectic than the London or American hustle and bustle.

        I really got a taste of English life while back in England will family and relatives. My cousin had rented a fifteen-person minibus, and drove us around England in it. We went to Cambridge, Oxford, Blackpool, Liverpool, Chester. At Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, while looking at their Egyptian relics, I couldn’t but think, “My goodness! This museum is much better than the Stanford Museum!” Both Cambridge and Oxford were picturesque and seemed to be really cool places to go to schools, with their historic buildings and scenic canals, but unfortunately, the weather wasn’t so great, with the rain and all. Blackpool is an amusement park/resort beach area for the English, rather like Santa Cruz’s boardwalk, except larger and more gaudy. I didn’t really like it so much because of its amusement park atmosphere, but I can see how many English would flock to these beaches to get away from their hectic London jobs. Liverpool’s quayside was very nice, with a cute little maritime museum, but much of it is dangerous and crime-ridden. When we arrived at Chinatown at two in the afternoon, it was deserted, and only one restaurant was open. As soon as we walked in, the waitress warned us that our vehicle was liable to get stolen unless guarded. We learned later that many restaurants even hire someone just to look after their customers’ vehicles! Chester, on the border with Wales, has a nice Roman wall, which we walked around. It was very interesting to get a small taste of how Roman England was like and the battles that took place on this wall (including one during the English Civil War).

Rome at Last
        The day before I arrived in Rome, it was cold, wet, raining in England, much like the winters in Northern California. The first evening I was in Rome, I found myself sitting with a pretty woman at a nice outdoor café with candles listening to accordion music and drinking red wine, enjoying the warm humidity of early evening in Plaza Navona, an elongated square with beautiful Bernini fountains and Baroque buildings lighted up in the dark. It was just a gorgeous moment, just a perfect start to my train adventure phase of my trip. I normally don’t meet anyone on planes, but this was a nice exception. I met her on the leg from Paris to Brussels, and we found out that we were both going on to Rome, her for only that one night before going back to the States. So we had dinner at her favorite place (Navona), she walked me by the Pantheon and several squares at night, arriving at the Trevi Fountain, which was beautiful at night with the lights brightening the fountain, all the people hanging out, the guitar players singing American songs. It was just a really nice first night in Rome.

        The rest of Rome was pretty fascinating as well. I had great difficulty getting used to the heat and humidity, especially the first full day I was in Rome, when it got up to 35 degrees. PJ and her friends and I met up at the Colisseum. The Colisseum and the Roman ruins nearby were quite interesting (like the Arco di Tito, which interestingly had etches of Romans in triumph, carrying away menorahs and other loot), and would have been more so if I wasn’t so darn hot. All the heat made me just want to stay indoors the entire time. I saw the Capitolinini Museum, which had a large number of astonishingly complete Romanesque statues within it. Most impressive to me was a huge bronze statue of a Roman emperor on a horse, one of probably very few bronze Roman statues still around. Apparently, the only reason why it survived was that for many years, it was thought that the emperor represented was Constantine, the first Christian emperor (the statue actually represented a much earlier emperor). PJ and I took the walk that Lonely Planet advised us to take, and we saw several impressive squares and churches (i.e. Santa Maria) along the way. Of those, the Pantheon was most impressive. Originally a Roman pagan temple, the Pantheon is supposed to be the oldest continuously occupied structure still used today. The four of us went to the Vatican Museum, which was more or less worth the hype. Castel Sant’Angelo, a papal castle dating from Roman times, was impressive from the outside. St. Peter’s Square is just huge and absolutely gorgeous. St. Peter’s Basilica was huge, though, I wasn’t much impressed with its Baroque beauty other than the fact that many popes are buried in the church and that it was indeed, the largest church I had ever been in. The Vatican Museum had School of Athens, and of course, the great Sistine Chapel, in all its glory. The last morning I was in Rome, I saw the Borghese Gallery, which had its share of cool Renaissance paintings and a healthy collection of Roman sculpture. My favorite part of that gallery is that it limits the number of people inside, so I could enjoy the art by myself, instead with the hordes and hordes of people who were at the Vatican museum.

        Hostelling in Rome was one of the best experiences I had. It was neat to meet people from so many different places (though, to be fair, it was mostly America and Europe) and have short half-hour conversations with many people. It was great, because we were just making conversation, not really trying to be friends, but merely learning from each other. The most interesting person I met in Rome was the staffer at my hostel (called, interestingly, The Friendship Place) between midnight and eight in the morning. He was a thirty-year old from Bangladesh, who worked two jobs, the other one at the laundromat. He had studied Italian in school, but only learned English in the two years he had been in Rome at the hostel (and his English was quite impressive given this fact). It seemed like he did nothing but work and sleep, and it must have been difficult for him, separated from his wife and kids, who were due to arrive in Italy next year. Such is the life of the working man.

Switzerland and Geneva, The Singapore of Europe
        Next for me was a five hour ride to Milan and a four hour one from there to Geneva. I, unfortunately, somehow ended up in a smoking car from Milan to Geneva. I started chatting with one of the few people who weren’t smoking in that car, who as it turned out, was an advertising executive with Phillip Morris. We had a few interesting conversations about the positives and negatives of smoking and of European attitudes toward America, before he too, puffed up his Marlboro cigarette (which he noted is a Phillip Morris brand).

        I was staying at my Stanford friend Jacqueline’s house during my stay in Geneva. She has a younger brother and an English mother and a Turkish-Swiss father. It’s a most interesting combination. Jacqueline and her brother David would speak to their father in French, their mother in English, and to each other in French. Their family lived in a large wooden house, which, for my benefit, included a studio apartment complete with kitchen and bathroom and television for guests. Jacqueline showed me around in Geneva, quite possibly the cleanest city in Europe I have been to. I remarked to her that Geneva was quite like the Singapore of Europe, with which she responded, “Actually, I think they say Singapore is the Geneva of Asia!” I saw the fountain over Lac Leman the night I arrived in Geneva, but sadly, it was shut down during the day due to high winds. We visited the Red Cross museum (at the world headquarters of the International Red Cross), and took a tour of the United Nations grounds. I saw the place where the League of Nations used to meet, with art that much saddened me. The murals on the wall were all symbols of Man’s achievements and of peace, donated by the Spanish government in 1935. As we know now, Spain would soon descend into civil war, and the League of Nations would be no more in five more years. We also saw Vieux Genève, which was nice, but would have been nicer if the shops were open (it was Sunday). I got to see the lake, tried Mövenpick ice cream, had a nice time.

        On Monday, alas, Jacqueline had to work, so I was on my own. I went to Montreux on her recommendation, to see the Château de Chillon. The lake there is just gorgeous and so peaceful. Walking along the lake seemed so enchanted and surreal, like, wow, I’m actually in Switzerland! I saw some clay tennis courts by the lake, to my delight, and the castle, lying right on the lake, is as serene as Switzerland can get. The many rooms in the castle open for viewing were a delight, as was the dungeon, where the prior Bonivard was imprisoned for five years and where Byron and Hugo left their signatures on the pillars (Byron would even pen a long poem on the unfortunate Bonivard). I met a Scottish man at the castle, who was really nice and told me about his career and his retirement to Switzerland (actually, all three Scottish men I met on my trip were really nice; the first complimented Hong Kong, as he had served there in the sixties in the British Army). Before I went back, I also caught a performance by a jazz band outdoors, there for the Montreux Jazz Festival. I bumped into Jacqueline on the way back on the bus, and I used my unfortunate French again at dinner, which took place at Jacqueline’s parents’ friend’s house.

On to Spain and Warm Weather
        Then, I was off again, for quite possibly the worst train ride I’ve ever had to take. I was supposed to go from Geneva to Narbonnes, France, from 11pm to 3am, then take a train from there to Portbou from 4 to 6, then on to Barcelona from 7 to 9. Instead, the first train got too full with second-class passengers at Lyon, which resulted in an one-hour delay as two extra cars were added. That caused me and a whole lot of other people to miss our connection in Narbonnes. We spent two long hours waiting in Narbonnes.

        Suffice to say, I never want to see Narbonnes ever again. By the time we got to Portbou, we had missed our next connection, resulting in more delays. I arrived at Barcelona after 12, exhausted. But the worst was not over. Apparently, all the trains to Madrid that day had departed already or were full. I had to wait three hours at the train station in Barcelona (my number was 309, the number at the time was, gulp, 800), just so I could secure a train ticket to Madrid early the next morning. I scrambled around to get a hostel in Barcelona, and found one close to Las Ramblas, the popular and most lively street in Barcelona. The hostel itself was terrible; I was staying in a big room with about thirty beds. Las Ramblas itself was very fun; it was great to walk around, see the old buildings, the performers, the liveliness. I wish I could have spent more time in Barcelona. At the hostel, I met two French people having a very nice meal, with cheese, meat, wine, the works. I surprised myself by being able to make decent conversation with them, in French (I had to, since I evidently spoke more French than they spoke English)!

        The next day, it was on to Madrid, a seven hour train ride. Boy, was I glad to finally get there. I was rushing into the metro station, when someone all of a sudden asked me, “Do you go to Stanford?” Realizing that I was wearing my Stanford shirt that day, I couldn’t believe my luck. It turned out that Lindsey, a sophomore who did hurdles on the track team, was staying in Madrid for five weeks, tutoring a family’s children in English in return for room and board. During the weekday, she’d just walk around in Madrid every other day. She took me to my pensione (interestingly, the big printed lighted sign outside the hostel said, “Speaking Englisch”), translated for me with the hotel lady to get my room, then took me to the Museu Jamon, one of the more interesting restaurants I’ve eaten at in Europe. Everywhere in the restaurant, there were just lines and lines of ham, stacked one after the other. I had the meal of the day, which included paeillas (mmm…), pork, dessert (I had flan), and a drink. All for ten euros. The food was pretty darn good too. Isn’t it great to have the Stanford connection? Lindsey then took me to the national museum, where we saw really weird stuff from Dali and more Picasso. We also saw a photography exhibition of the works of Elliot Erwitt, which was awesome. I finally got back to the pensione, met up with PJ and company, ate at a pretty delicious vegetarian restaurant, went out for sangria with the pensione owner’s son; it was, all in all, a cool way to finish off the night. The next day, after getting my bus ticket for Lisbon, I had lunch at a small hole-in-the-wall place with PJ and them (the place was recommended by Lonely Planet). I had paeillas again (I’m so in love with that food now!). Then, after they took off for Lisbon, I spent the afternoon again with Lindsey, seeing the Plaza of the Sun (del Sol), Plaza del Mayor, and the main attraction of the day, a very nice Royal Palace (not quite as impressive as Versailles, but still, pretty cool).

Lisboa at Dawn
        I thought the bus ride that night to Lisbon was going to be pretty bad, but it turned out alright. I had a leather seat with earphones and many channels for music. It was like being on an airplane, except with more legroom. The only catch was, I arrived at four in the morning at Oriente, a train station way out from the city center, with the metro closed, with a busload full of Spanish-speaking and Portuguese-speaking passengers. Yeah, I was in trouble.
Thankfully, I was bailed out once again. I managed to strike up with the two people with backpackers on that bus, who also happened to speak English. It was a young couple; Graeme was from New Zealand, and Natalia was from Madrid. Natalia had actually spent six months studying in Lisbon, so knew the city well and also knew enough Portuguese to get by. I was, of course, in a quandary, for, even though there were overnight buses running, I wouldn’t even know where to stop even if I got on the right bus, since I had never been to Lisbon. Meeting Natalia and Graeme solved all my problems. We took the bus into Baixa, the central district in Lisbon. It’s got a great deal of Baroque beauty, with wonderfully laid cobblestones (much like in Macau). The streets are also all north-south and east-west in Baixa. In 1755, a great earthquake leveled Baixa, and the Marquis de Pombal took the opportunity to raze the area and build a model district, with two huge and wonderful squares, Praca de Commercio and Rossio. It was, after all, four in the morning, so we took some time touring around Baixa at night (which is beautiful with the lights illuminating the roofs and the statues), had an early morning coffee with Portuguese tarts and other treats. We saw the sunrise at a scenic vantage point (Miradouro de St. Lucia), got ourselves a pensao to stay at, and walked down the narrow Alfama district (its steep, narrow, twisted steps and run-down old houses are so in contrast to Baixa; Alfama was originally built by the Moors, and was left untouched by the earthquake), saw the Elevador de Santa Justa. It was all and all, a wonderful morning, definitely more productive than if I was asleep.

        I met up with PJ et al at nine in the morning, then went to see the archaeological museum and its collapsed-in cathedral (again, reminding me of Macau). Just walking around Lisbon was also, just so sumptuous! The weather was also great, only getting as hot as about twenty degrees. We went to see the Moorish Castelo de Sao Jorge, the site of the brutal sixteen week siege which resulted in the recapture of Lisbon for Christiandom. After that was some time in Alfama at the Internet café, and rest.

Sintra and the Portuguese Countryside
        I spent my second day in Portugal with Graeme and Natalia. We spent exactly one euro and ten centimes to take an hour long train ride to Sintra, but not before having another full and marvelous Portuguese breakfast with coffee and tarts. We saw a royal palace in the heart of Sintra, including, interestingly, the royal bakery/cookery. We then hiked up to see the Royal Palace of Pena, as well as another Moorish castelo nearby. Hiking up in the forest, someone insisted that going up “shortcuts” where the path was basically non-existent was the best idea. We hiked up, got lost multiple times, encountered some beautiful neo-Moorish fountains, but eventually, not before much anxiety by Graeme and I, found the Palace. The palace is definitely a trip by itself. A Disney-like fantasy, King Ferdinand I in the nineteenth century decided to built a huge, elaborate, somewhat gaudy and colorful neo-Moorish palace for his family on top of a mountain with gorgeous views of Sintra, the surrounding countryside, and the ocean. The palace is fantastic, as were the views. We then made it to the castle, where, somehow, using her feminine wiles, I assume, Natalia talked us past the two male guards, convincing them that we thought the ticket to the Palace de Pena also included admission to the castle. The views up at the castle were terrific, with music from a wedding band down at Sintra drifting up. We had a really cool dinner back in Lisbon at a really ghetto hole-in-the-wall place (much more ghetto than any other hole-in-the-wall place I had ever been too), which was a Cape Verde/Portuguese restaurant. The food was terrific, the African fado guitarists and drunken singer superb, and we were quite happy (as was the man across from us who was holding his bachelor party of sorts). If someone at the beginning of my Europe trip had told me that I would be sitting with two people I had just met the day before dining at a really ghetto African/Portuguese restaurant, I’d laugh. But as Graeme said, “You know what they say about strangers, they’re just friends you haven’t met yet.” It was a very nice day with friends indeed.

        Graeme and Natalia are an interesting couple. They had been to South American together, and for extended periods to Thailand on their own. To learn about New Zealand and Spainish life was enlightening. It’s good to meet people off the beaten path like that every once in awhile, and it's also good to hear about how Europeans view America and the world.

Back to Lisbon and the Rest of Europe
        I spent the next morning in Belem, seeing the coach museum, the monastery, built in the elaborate Manueline style (sort of Gothic, sort of Gaudi-like, with rope-like features), the Henry the Navigator monument, a great view of the April 25th bridge (which has the shape of the Oakland Bay Bridge, but with the same golden color as the Golden Gate Bridge), before going with PJ et al to the beach near Setubal. Dinner was pretty nice, at another Lonely Planet-recommended place up by Biarro Alto with PJ. I had pork cubes with clams, which was more delicious than I thought pork with clams would be, and very good wine.

        A day and a half later (with a lovely two hour stop in scenic Montpelier), I was in Nice. Not so lucky this time, I was there on my own, and weather was too hot for me. Nevertheless, Nice is a vibrant and beautiful city. The view of the sea at night, with the moon shining over it and the lighted up castle ruins off on the left, is unforgettable. Nice during the day, especially from above in the hills, is incomparable as well. I’m really not a big fan of the nude beaches, but there are other things to see in Nice, like the old town and the active flower market. I tried two interesting restaurants in Nice. One was Quick, the French restaurant with American fast-food meals (food was good enough), and I tried Vietnamese cuisine in Nice, since there were so many Vietnamese restaurants in Nice. The pho was quite disappointing though; the soup and noodles were okay, but there was only beef in the stock, nothing else.

        I took a sleeper train for the first time from Nice to Paris, thinking it was better than the hellhole of a cabin I was in going from Madrid to Barcelona (though, it was interesting chatting with the five Mexicans [one of them actually spoke some French] with their huge ornamental sword from Seville), but it really wasn’t that much better. I was in a cabin with six beds (three on one side bunked, three on the other), with a Norwegian family consisting of three small children and three women. The two girls who I met next door weren’t better off; they had a French family with three kids and two adults. The French husband was quite interesting, though; he works at an airport, was born in West Africa, and spoke French, English, Spanish, Italian, German, and two West African trade languages.

        I arrived at Gare Austerlitz (yes, yet another reference to the Napoleonic era), where I proceeded to have breakfast at a nice (but expensive) café on Ile de St. Louis. I had the famous ice cream there (de la Maison Berthillon), before taking off for England, so close but so different from the continent that I had traveled through for the last fifteen days.

        The last days spent in Northampton area with my relatives were interesting enough, though, the places weren’t that interesting. We went to Northampton, went into the town of Kettering, and saw Birmingham, with its wonderfully neo-classic Victoria Square. More than anything, the interesting stuff was talking with my aunt and uncle, who I don’t see too often, and meeting people from my uncle’s family, who are part Portuguese and part Chinese. Then, finally, onto the plane, and very quickly, I was back in Irvine, California, half a world away from the spoils of summer, the glories of European travel.


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