Jul 1, 2015

A Month in Italy

Miss me? Since my last update, I've traveled through central Italy, spent 10 days with my sister, and then two weeks in Sweden with Laurén and friends. I feel as if I've been so busy out doing things, I haven't spent much time in front of the computer updating about it. This has also led to me being out of touch -- a weakness of my character I'm aware of and trying to become better at, at the least to assuage my conscience. And so, here I am!

After going to the World Expo in Milan, I intended to visit Venice. Little did I know that it's impossible to book accommodation in Venice last minute for a weekend. Even the camp sites were full. Instead, I spent a few days in the city of Parma, the home of parmesan cheese and prosciutto di Parma. During this time I lost my voice, saw a work by Da Vinci up close, became familiar with the uncomfortable treatment of women by Italian men, and had dinner with a Parisian passionate about language learning.

Once in Florence, I took an oil painting class as my "skill to learn in Italy." When I wasn't painting in the open-windowed studio loft, I explored the magnificent old city. One night I happened upon an English-speaking church that put on cultural performances in the evening. Thus I saw my first opera, Carmen.

Painting a blue-eyed Mona Lisa

The opera Carmen


After Florence, I met up with my sister in Rome. From there we traveled by train, ferry, and bus to Napoli, the Isle of Capri, back up to Florence, Greve in Chianti, Pisa, and finally Rome again to take our respective flights. What an amazing whirlwind it was! My favorite memories from our time together were:

(1) Dinner inside the wine cellar of a Tuscan farmhouse that extended to 3 hours of talking and laughing over many gratis glasses of expensive wine and grappa that our waiter – who looked like Michael Bublé – served us. The stars that night over the Tuscan countryside were very clear and beautiful.

(2) Taking a walking tour from a hand-drawn map of Napoli by our hostel host, Giovanni. His passion for the city, combined with his wry sense of humor, put our fears of Napoli's purse-snatching reputation at ease. Thanks to him we saw beyond the scuzzy exterior and enjoyed a deeper look into Napoli's unique spirit.

(3) Climbing the Tower of Pisa, where every "round" of the stairs has gravity pulling you in a different direction. The view from the top of this crooked bell tower was incredible.

(4) The look on Sarah's face when she saw the Coliseum for the first time. Just a few hours after she'd landed, we were eating lunch and having a glass of wine just across the street from this ancient world wonder... and she couldn't believe it!

(5) Climbing up to the top of the cupola in St. Peter's Basilica cupola. The stairs were incredibly narrow, and tilted on an angle to follow the shape of the dome. The steps were worn and sunken from the millions and millions of those who, for centuries, have walked before us.


Italy's reputation for amazing food precedes itself, and it's well-earned. Here is a sampling of the many dishes I had the pleasure of tasting:

Home-cooked two-course Italian meal with my host Lia in Florence.

Prosciutto di Parma, handmade gnocchi with from-the-source parmesan cheese, oven-fired pizza, Florentine house red wine, flower-shaped gelato

Gelato, Tuscan salad, home-cooked meal, fresh-shaved beef sandwich

Handmade linguini, stuffed peppers, Napoli pizza (so good! Pope Francis ate here, too), Tuscan beef served in a wine cellar in Chianti, chocolate-brownie dessert, Chianti Classico wine

Roman eggplant, tiramisu and tea by the Spanish Steps, Tuscan farm salad, breakfast looking out over the Tuscan hillside, savory chicken and prosciutto


I've spent the last two weeks hanging out in Götborg, Sweden. Laurén, our new friends, and I celebrated midsommar, the summer solstice, at a small cabin along the sea. From here we ate pickled herring and Swedish meatballs as the sun lowered in the sky but never seemed to set. The nearly 24 hours of sunlight fills you with energy, as if midnight were mid-afternoon. That is, of course, when the rainclouds part so you can see the sun.

In no time I'll be boarding my next flight, this time to Berlin. There is only 5 weeks left on my Schengen visa for mainland Europe, and I intend to go through Germany, France, and Iceland with the time I have left. That, and a stint in the U.K. in-between. There's no denying it though, that this trip is quickly coming to it's close. Today begins the 10th month of this amazing journey... and I have come to the point where, instead of dreading the end, I am at peace with moving on to the new chapter when that time comes.


May 31, 2015

The 2015 World Exposition

Welcome to the 2015 World Expo, or "around-the-world-in-80-minutes." Each attendant country has built it's own multi-million dollar pavilion down a long outdoor hall in Rho, just outside of Milano.

The theme this year is "feeding the planet, energy for life." The countries showcase their technology, culture, and innovations and how they relate to food and diet. How can we sustainably feed the future? Some countries hit the mark, while others I think mistranslated their invitation email.

Bouncing in Brasil

 had a fun bouncing floor that was actually very hard to fall over on because of the sure-footed way the ropes were constructed. It was an entertaining, albeit unexplained, entrance to their showroom where you could learn about their culinary history. However, they didn't offer any sustainability solutions.

Refined Relish in Russia

Russia had a beautifully decorated pavilion with pictures of modern and traditional foods. They passed out free samples of an incredible (radish?) filled bun unlike anything I've tasted before. There was also an informative section on a product they developed to eliminate the poisons of pesticides on crops. They're presentation was very well done (as were other countries' explanations on how Russia damaged their ecosystems by rerouting rivers).

The Corridor of Countries

Belgium had one of the best presentations, I thought, because they introduced a device that operated a wheel of plants on top and a fish tank on the bottom. The ammonia excreted (and is poisonous to) the fish is converted into nitrates for the plants, which release nutrients back into the water for the fish – it's more effective than soil farming! It's called aquaponics.

Japan had the most popular pavilion, with a queue of 50 minutes just to get in! I unfortunately did not get to go inside, but I read that its presentation was related to trying to get its cultural diet recognized by UNESCO (France, for example, has this honor).

Colorful Corks in France

Then you had countries like Azerbijian who treated their pavilion like an advertisement for "Come visit our country! Win a trip to our country!" They had colored lights (half didn't work) that turned on when you put your hand over them. Wow...cool? What does this have to do with food and sustainability? Who cares, come visit our country!

In Ireland they had photos and movies of their beautiful green hills....and the exit. Um, did I miss something?

USA... I can't even. I can't even. They chose the most unhealthy, sallow-looking people on video to talk about how great the food is now that it's genetically modified. I would not want to eat whatever those people are eating.

Thailand was practically begging investors, "exploit me, exploit me!" They showed several videos of all of their undeveloped land and how you can grow many different kinds of crops there, and how everyone is a hard-working, white-toothed smiling farmer who loves to labor in the sun.

A Complex Core in Britain's "Beehive"

The fact is, our natural biodiversity of plants and animals are going extinct one by one. How do we feed the future when the world's population is already over 7 billion people and growing? What kind of future does our generation have to look forward to? The Slow Food Movement addressed these topics and called for action. We can all make a difference if we educate ourselves.


May 25, 2015

Mementos: The Swiss Alps

A surprise blizzard greeted me when I arrived in Switzerland; big, clumpy flakes had covered Lauterbrunnen in half a foot of snow in hours. A map at the hostel showed a giant waterfall right in front of the village, but I couldn't see it due to the heavy fog.

Luckily, the next morning heralded clear blue skies. Not just one, but several waterfalls were in view cascading down both sides of the mountains that lined the Lauterbrunnen valley. I spent the majority of my time hiking through the area. I even felt like a 'real outdoorsman' when I filled up a water bottle straight from a crystal clear stream!

When I swallowed back my apprehensions and took the first gondola up and over the lip of the valley, the snow-dusted titans – the actual, live Swiss Alps! – were in view as far as you could see. Of course the photos can't do them justice, but I hope you can feel a sense of their incredible power and majesty. Enjoy!

View from Lauterbrunnen valley, facing south

View from Lauterbrunnen valley, facing north

View from Lauterbrunnen valley

Cascading Waterfall

View of Mürren from the gondola

Gondola heading towards Gimmelwald

The village of Mürren

An overhanging balcony over the mountain's edge in Mürren

Staubbach Falls

A beautiful day in Switzerland

Like Heidi, I spent a brief time among the Alps and a part of me will always long for them.


May 13, 2015

The European Adventure Begins

Welcome to Munich, the cultural center of Bavarian Germany! This means an abundance of beer, wood-roofed houses, blue-and-white checkered maypoles, and bratwurst. My hostel in Germering is a 20-minute train ride from the city, plus a 45-minute walk into the forest. It is one of the most beautiful walks I have ever taken – you can see the dome of the blue sky, fields of yellow flowers, and the green forest on all sides. Germering is near several lakes; this, combined with the familiarity of the trees and climate, reminds me a lot of Michigan's natural landscape.
Maypole in Germering

Tulips in Germering
At the end of the S8 train line, you can walk onto the pier over Ammersee lake. On a sunny day you can see the Alps on the horizon, blue and and majestic with bright white snow caps. The actual, real Alps! I was in awe... seeing them for the first time with my own eyes made them real.

Just south of this scenic spot on a steep hill is the Kloster Andechs Monastery where monks have been brewing beer for hundreds of years. A group of us from the hostel grabbed seats next to the live band in lederhosen, and with full liter beers (yes, liters) we said cheers with a hearty “Prost!

Kloster Andechs Biergarten
Bavarian Food
View from Kloster Andechs

In Munich's city center, most buildings had to be restored after the war, but the Neues Rathaus (New City Hall) has survived from the late 1860s. The chiming clock tower, or glockenspiel, has dancing figures and jousting knights that come to life at certain hours.

Neues Rathaus

At the Englisch Gardens, there’s a permanent wave where Munich’s surfers come out to practice their skills. You can't go far even in these scenic gardens without finding yourself at an overflowing, open-air biergarten.

Wave at the Englisch Gardens
The Englisch Gardens
The National Bavarian Museum
I also spent a half-day at the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial. It is very difficult to describe the visit… I feel it's an important trip to make, and worth going to.

When I returned to the hostel in the evening, a dozen guys were watching the Munich vs. Barcelona football game. Several had on their team jerseys.

I feel I'm in a whole new world.


Apr 28, 2015

The Worst Trip to the Hospital Yet

In an instant, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake leveled Nepal's capital with over 4,000 in casualties. By grace I had changed my travel plans to visit the country in mid-May instead of throughout April (aka right now). After I read the news of the natural disaster, I couldn't fathom exactly how terrible it was, or what I would have done if I was there. In a macabre mood, I watched online footage of the 2004 and 2011 tsunamis, trying to instill a sense of horror in myself so I could take in the magnitude of such devastation. It only served to make me feel more numb.

One should not seek the horrors of death.

Since returning to Thailand I've been working at the KUMON tutoring center helping children learn English. As a reward for the teachers and student assistants' hard work, the principal decided to have a pool party at the local "resort." It's been over 100 degrees everyday since the oppressive hot season began, so when we arrived at the pool six of the boys and I jumped right in. The other teachers and guests sat around the perimeter watching us splash around.

We were in the pool for what felt like less than ten minutes when I saw the oldest – Tete, 19 – swim out to the center. Someone was floating there, so I called out he was going to swim right into them, which he did. Tete pulled the person – Ford, 12, another student – to the side of the pool. He tried to push him up the side, but Ford slid back in. It was then I realized what was happening.

I raced over as the other teachers pulled Ford's body out of the pool. Now on his back, water streamed from his nose, then gushes of foamy blood poured out of his nose and mouth. He was unconscious and not breathing. I thought, He is going to die.

What words can describe what that moment felt like? I remembered you're supposed to do CPR, but... There was a short in my brain circuitry. I couldn't tell right from left to know what side to press down on Ford's heart, or even if that was really the correct thing to do. I didn't think I could breathe into his mouth with all the bloody foam pouring out of him.

A teacher pushed down on Ford's belly, trying to get the water out. We shouted his name. Bubbles came from his nose – then his mouth opened and he suddenly gasped in a breath. Then another. He was alive. A few moments later his eyes fluttered slightly open. The teachers struggled to carry his heavy weight up onto a pool lounge chair, where he proceeded to throw up blood. His eyes were open now, and he was talking a little.

My arms were shaking terribly. I couldn't do anything except rub his back when he sat up. His hero, Tete, stood beside the scene watching it all. Some time later the paramedics arrived and carried Ford away into the ambulance on a wheelless rescue stretcher. The younger boys were standing on the opposite side of the pool, dripping wet and watching in a stunned daze. Everyone at the resort had evacuated the pool, regarding it with a sense of distrust.

The principal went with Ford to the hospital. When she returned in the evening, all of us went together to visit him. In the open-wall hospital, families had set up bamboo mats and mosquito netting tents along the cement "patios" to spend the night near their sick loved ones. In the pediatrics ICU, only three visitors could go in the small enclosed room at a time. The boys took turns with the teachers first, then I walked in.

I passed incubators of impossibly tiny babies to reach Ford's bed. He had a tube through his nose and another down his throat. He was hooked up to a machine that kept beeping warnings about his frequency of respiration. His lungs still had water in them, so the hospital was waiting to give him medicine. However, his eyes were wide open, aware, and teary. His mother – a nurse who was on duty when her son came in – stood at the head of the bed. His father was behind her, his body tensed with so much worry he looked crumpled in on himself.

I said a few words to Ford; it was all I was capable of. His parents and the hospital staff were there, he was under good care... I couldn't do anything for him. His mother pulled out an extra large adult diaper from a bag at the foot of the bed; it was our signal to go. The principal, teachers, students, and I left and went back to the resort to sleep the night. And by sleep, I mean watch foamy blood pour from Ford's nose and mouth a hundred, hundred times in my mind's eye.

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