Ten Realizations From A Three-Month Trip

(Photo taken from atop the Kanonenplatz; Freiburg Stadt)

I remembered that night when I was packing the last of my things in, and we had to rush at eight in the evening to beat the traffic.  It was already raining that day, as if the sky mourned with me.  I couldn’t stomach the thought of being alone — in a country with a foreign language, with no friends, and my family was definitely not going to be there.  I revisited that feeling when I arrived home, on the first day of my encounter with jet lag.  It still brought tears to my eyes, and my heart constricted the way it did on August the first. 

But three months after, I was back.  And while I went through some great and not-so great times when I was away, I’d like to think the great outweighed the bad.  I could honestly say so.  And I wish I had the diligence to narrate every single day that happened, but we all know that just can’t be (unless I write a memoir, hehe) so in classic internet listography, I present to you the ten things I learned while I was away.

1 People may have broken me, but the solution to that is not withdrawal.  It’s openness.
I’m not going to sugarcoat this.  March, specifically, was the most emotionally tumultuous month this year.  I promised myself that 2014 would be the year of happiness, and where else could I find that except in the circles I was familiar with? But imagine losing eight of the very people I thought I could depend on, both to betrayal and broken promises.  I have forgiven two, but those are about the only people I could really think of mending fences with.  What person wouldn’t go ballistic over that? And to think the dead was the only heavy real loss people go through.  No one ever talks about the death of the living.

My friends saw a side of me I never realized I had: withdrawal, self-blame, and self-pity.  All I could talk about was the boy who left me when he promised he wouldn’t, about the unexplained reasons why the friends turned their backs against me.  I would find myself crying in the night’s silence, wondering what I did wrong to deserve such treatment from the people I placed my trust on.  Even I was tired of that person I was becoming, but the thing about this kind of sadness is the wallowing is addictive.  It gave me so many excuses just to lie on my bed and to see the world in a darker shade of gray, as if the world punished me in some way.  But again, the world owed me nothing.  It has no debt to humankind except to rotate around the sun, in the same exact place for four billion years, and to exist.  That’s it.  It provides, but it is not my friend.  It is art, but it does not paint a picture for humans to enjoy. 

And when I was told I was going on this trip, I thought it was another way of letting me go, of breaking me off with the life I was familiar with.  I resented my parents, to be honest, I really did.  Call me spoiled, call me irritating but what I went through just mixed with a decision I did not make on my own.  But upon my arrival there, I met some of the greatest people — in Germany, in London, in Switzerland, in France, and in Italy — who taught me different things.  I was caught between the extreme age groups: the seniors (the elders) and the young ones (babies to almost-teenagers).  The young ones taught me to run around, to get off my phone, and to see life through the natural lens — my eyes.  And the elderly ones taught me that while I had seen a lot life had to offer, it’s still not enough.  It will never be enough.  Life was too much to quantify.  There’s just so much to it.  And instead of withdrawing in my room, I began to open myself to whatever these countries had to offer.  Let me tell you, there was beauty beyond Snapchat.  At least when you stare at the sun, it doesn’t delete itself instantly after ten seconds or so.  It slowly sets and rises, as is its purpose.

2 There is peace in solitude. 

I can never be left alone — I can tell you that.  I actually shake and hide away when I am not in the company of a friend.  It was pretty difficult doing things by myself during the first few weeks of my stay, knowing that I was constantly watched over and accompanied by the people in my life. But I never really appreciated the peace behind lying down in my bed alone, reading the next chapters of my novel or cleaning my closet with acoustic Taylor Swift on.  There was a silence that wasn’t so haunting.  It was a silence that pushed me to relax, to let go of any negative thoughts that were sinking me slowly at the back of my mind. It was a silence that begged me to shut my eyes and to shut off the words that hurt me, that woke me when I was not supposed to. 

It was not loneliness, but solitude.  I knew the difference slowly, when I began to go to the gym by myself, when I ran errands, and when I went to my different classes.  It was the biggest test I had to go through, and yet as the months turned to weeks, I appreciated the moments when I was by myself, when I could finally silence the mind that wouldn’t shut up.  It was a slow process, and I still cling onto certain people, but at least I know I’m capable of being by myself now.

3 Vicarious living is beautiful if it were in books, but a vicariously lived life is not a life that is worth living the whole way through.

Imagination is my strong suit, and is a place most people would run to in a heartbeat.  But even words cannot fully describe the beauty of a place or the experience of running after a punctual train or a bus (12:47 is 12:47, after all).  Words are beautiful by themselves, but are limited.  It isn’t enough to read about the punctuality of the Germans or the clear-as-glass lakes of Switzerland, you have to see it.  You have to experience it.  You have to experience life that is not found on the screen.  And coming from someone who has her nose in a book constantly, this totally rings true.

4 All the pills in the world do not have a 100% cure guarantee.  At least not in the way time does.

If I could take a Paracetamol or something legal that could have taken the hurt away from me, I could.  If I could do what was advised of me — to move on and to forget — I could have.  Although, everything is always easier said than done. 

“Move on, man.  He’s not worth it.”
“Sure, yeah, moving on.” I reply, as I scan his Facebook profile for the 100th time.

“Why are you still so hung up? He clearly does not care about you.  Stop talking about him.”
“I know, I know,” I bury my head in my hands.  “But remember that time he…”

Advice, like pills/tablets/medicine, are taken in doses.  Everyone can give me an A-Z list of recommendations on how to get over this, how to move on from a mistake, etc but why does it take more than the recommended time I set myself on? It’s because while time moves too fast, it is the greatest healer.  At least for me.  No matter how many times I tell the story of him, it does not bring the dead back.  No matter how many times I try to find the reasons why, my answers will always be echoes.  It’s because I’m talking to dead air. 

But soon enough, I realized that the story I used to love telling made me lose the passion that once colored my words.  It was because time made me see that while I could tell the story of him and I, it was always just going to be coming from me.  Not from him.  And the wounds that used to hurt me have now become scars.  Just because I’ve moved on does not mean I have forgotten. 

5 Pride and Prejudice may have been Jane Austen’s greatest achievement, but it’s not a trophy worth holding onto.

My aunt said that “travel is the enemy of prejudice.” And traveling to Germany? Cue the long list of pre-judgments I made.  Let’s not even get started with their history.  And add that to the growing resentment I had.  But three months of being surrounded by these people have erased what I have thought of them: cruel, rude, and cold people.  Yeah, they can be unfriendly but only because they’re not the most open lot.  But once you really get to know them, they can be the warmest people.  I still can’t appreciate their humor though, but we can get to that later.

6 The strength you have been searching for does not come out by beating yourself up, but by restoring that belief within yourself.

Refer to the first realization: I constantly blamed myself for the things that went wrong. 

“Why did I have to do this?”
“Was my attitude the reason why they went behind my back?”
“Was I too into it? Maybe I was.  I shouldn’t have.  Ugh.”

(Repeat cycle 100x.).

I lost that confidence I had before March happened, and I thought I would forever become the person who loved to sink in self-pity, begging for compliments and flattery left and right.  I was too traumatized by the words, the repeating insults of my incapability to do anything that it suffocated that smidgeon of self-belief I had that could have gotten me out of that quandary sooner. 

But being alone taught me that I can do things, that I can accomplish tasks as needs be.  I can become who I am without anyone treading upon what I thoroughly believe to be true and right.  I may still not know what I truly want, but knowing that I can is strength enough for me to get to that next step.  How? I know so.

7 Words may destroy you, but they can also mend the pieces.

At The Guardian, our memoir class taught us to always tell the truth.  And while I loved to pepper my writing with some slight exaggerations, I knew that writing always had to go back to its roots, to what really happened.  Lo and behold, our first assignment was to write about the saddest event of my life.  Surprisingly, I picked the backstabbing bit over August the first.  I thought I moved on from the pain, but revisiting the events for the sake of my piece stung me again and instructor Mark McCrum (and the rest of my classmates) saw the sadness within my words.  They too were crying because of their own work.  Thank God I had enough strength to hold in the tears, but it goes to show that while the pain has diminished, the scars still exist.  They remind me everyday of the capabilities of the person and at the same time the consequences post-mistake.  But as the weekend came to a close, the last piece we had to make was a profile of an antagonist — and I wrote about the boy who broke me.  Instead of having my classmates break down with me, we ended up laughing about the event.  I injected some thoughts I never thought I could realize until I read them out loud, and over lunch my classmates told me how mature and hilarious I was for a twenty-one year old which I gladly took with stride.  Just like in my intensive writing class, a classmate I have never spoken to pulls me by the arm and says, “you’re a damn good writer.  You better make sure you continue it.”

The words I thought would betray me became the very bandages that healed me.  Some stories may have outlasted their expiration date, but some still last on to be the very things that bring us back together again.

8 A place does not have to be the most popular to be the most beautiful.

When I go on trips with the family, we always make sure to go to Tripadvisor’s top 100 cities (or a list similar to that).  Aside from us having this internal code of WE SHOULD NOT MISS SEEING THIS PLACE EVER, it also gives us some kind of security that “hey, at least this’ll be worth it.  I mean, the whole world says it’s pretty awesome.  Let’s have a go at it.” So, hey, New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, Prague, etc!

But being with someone who was more or less an expert in Germany showed me the places that were not as tourist-y, such as the Black Forest panoramic tour that was really a couple of bus rides that showcased the different areas of the Schwarzwald in all its tree abundance.  Or riding the cable car up to Feldberg to see the Swiss Alps covered in snow.  Or that time when we went into the St. Beatus Cave for an hour! I could name more.  It was the same in London when my aunt and her husband drove me through the countryside of England, and showed me the castles, lakes, forests, and the golf courses.  Who could forget the villas and the expensive towns? And believe me, they were even more beautiful than the top 100.  Even the quaint cities, wow.

Beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder, but it takes a great deal to search beyond what is the world’s definition of beauty.

9 It is in fear that makes you question.  It is in fear that eventually gives you the chance to open your mind.

London is a city that I love, but traveling alone for the first time there depleted some of that admiration. After all, my parents were almost rattling their heads off with their concern of safety and sketchy people and places.  Their concern almost got me to want to cancel my flight.  My fear worsened on the day itself when I was shaking in the bus station on the way to the Basel-Mulhouse airport.  On top of that, the airport didn’t even have any wi-fi.

Just get me through without any problems, I prayed to God as the landing announcement came.  The city was glowing — bright lights, big city — but my fright topped my excitement.  I rushed through the crowd, went through immigration, hurriedly got my luggage off the baggage claim, and panted all the way to the Gatwick Express Station where the kind train conductor said, “Platform Six, love!” Even if I had to stand up the whole time I was on the train, I shakily sent a Viber message to everyone concerned that “I survived.” And believe you me, that was just the beginning of trying to.

London security was at its peak, when threats came in about bombing a major train station there.  It happened once, it could most definitely happen again.  Guards swarmed the areas with big guns and that to me was fear staring at me in the face.  When I decided to go out after my class, I told myself, ‘Be back before the sun sets.’ It was still early September so the sun was to set at about 8:45 or 9 in the evening.  My goal was to check out the nearest Waterstones’ and the one I remember distinctly was the one in Trafalgar Square.  So instead of sitting in my room, I set out at 7:30 in the evening and wandered off into its center.  It was like I was back in 2011 again, when I was here with my parents.  But when I moved a little bit to take a photo of the traffic, I saw the Big Ben staring back at me.  And before I knew it, I ran down the roads until I reached Westminster.  I quickly photographed the clock in its dusky glow, and proceeded to run off again.  I found the Trafalgar branch and lost myself in there for a while, realizing later that it was 9 in the evening.  It was pitch-black.  Whoops. 

But my fear dissipated as I explored more of the city more, even when I was living in Bracknell in my aunt’s house.  I would take the bus to the city, explore the parks with my Google maps and my portable charger, and go back home.  I got to explore Windsor too, and I did that all by myself! The biggest test, though, was taking the Tube and the trains to get to my The Guardian Masterclass.  I was avoiding the trains the whole time, but once I got the hang of it during the bootcamp weekend, I did it! It got a little crowded on Sunday going home (which was surprising?), but I s u r v i v e d. 

If I hadn’t questioned what was beyond my hotel, if I hadn’t questioned what was beyond that corner, I wouldn’t have seen what I saw.  And even if my fear of my phone battery running out wholly existed, it never would have made me explore different parts of the city I never had access to on my first visit.

I walked, I took the train, I took the bus.  I commuted.  I commuted in London.  Oh my god.

10 There is such a thing as a good bye.

What made me realize this was during the last session of French class.  Honestly, I really wanted it to end because not only was there no existing structure of teaching, it was taught to us in German.  I was learning French in German.  Don’t even get me started on the umlauts.  But as I said goodbye to my professor and my classmates, I realized that I have been saying goodbye to every person I met during my stay in Europe.  I said goodbye to friends, to strangers, and to cities I know I will only visit once.

David Levithan said that there is no such thing as a great goodbye (or a happy goodbye).  It simply does not exist.  And I thought that to be true (as I am in complete agreement of most of his beliefs) for a long time.  But as I hugged or beso’d these people, made my peace with the walls and streets I could never touch again, I never felt this aching sense of longing or attachment.  It was as if I was made never to hold on for so long, a feeling I was slowly getting used to as the days passed. 

The only constant in my life there was my aunt in Freiburg, and that to me was the only not good bye I had to make.  But the others? It wasn’t that I wanted to say it, but I had to.  I was just glad that it didn’t hurt too much, as I was always in transit.  I was a nomad for three months, and consistency was not something I should get used to.  But having felt the feeling of a detached farewell was something I needed to feel.  It was not because I needed to be distant, but because I needed to feel that such a thing existed.

A Thousand (and More) Miles Away

I am sitting on the carpeted floor with my sole piece of luggage open before me in a room I cannot call mine. It was given to me upon my arrival, and it has provided so much more than a shelter I can at least call familiar. It is the place where I can be alone (as if 6,418 miles isn’t enough a span between the country I’m in and the country I love), the place where I am more or less who I am, and the place where I can dream of home.

Yet, this is the room that can never belong to me. You see, the view I’m used to seeing is of two kinds: one, a sea of green leaves from the tree in the garden shooting up to greet me– as I see the streets lined with the rush of cars and the protection of barbed wire; and two, the buildings soaring to the heavens and the flash of city lights. When I look at the window outside, I see bikes, the Theaterkasse, and a swarm of strangers walking past.

‘Who are you?’ is a question I have to ask each day as I walk by people with blonde hair saying “Danke,” “Bitte,” or “Tschüss!” ‘Who are you?’ is a question I hate to ask everyday, and sometimes I wish I’d wake up and see my parents getting ready for the daily grind, my sister rushing into the bathroom. Instead I wake up periodically to go to the bathroom — and finally to get out of bed, eat my oatmeal, and dash for the Carl-Schürz Haus for work. Instead of finding solace in the language I have learned to love, I am swallowed in a whole new other understanding where kids struggle to learn English and instead find comfort in their own gritty native tongue.

I remember the first night I arrived, physically and emotionally tired from the sleepless transit and the endless amount of tears I shed (some I secretly let loose in the confines of the airplane bathroom). I called my dad up and I cried, wanting to come home and at the same time realizing immediately that it was something shameful for me to do for the two people who were kind enough to welcome me into the place they called their own. I could hear him break down too, but he tried harder to put up a brave front knowing that coming home would thrust me into the shadows of my namesake and was, in the long run, not good for building up who I will become for the world to see. After all, I always believed that the human being is a spectacle among many things, and I knew I needed to be on my own to realize the talents I could bring to fruition.

As I wept and wept, I knew that I was heartbroken for the right reason. The pain of separation is always the worst, because you have to forcefully pull yourself away from the comfort of something you’ve held dear all your life, but it gives you the right reasons to yearn to be whole with it again. I no longer weep for the boy who broke my heart because he may have been a part of the reason why I needed to leave, but I know he’s not the reason why I want to come home.

Despite the hardships of not holding my family at arm’s length, I know I’m no longer confused and broken as I was months ago. I know I’m okay because I’m missing the people who are still relevant in my life, the people who have chosen to stay instead of go, and the reasons why I yearn for the 90th day.

(And so far, it’s been a great stay. I’m learning to love myself more. It’s so refreshing to be able to connect with other people in the world, and as I walk the path to Eschholzpark with the kids I’m teaching, I know that I’m slowly forgiving the one person who has beaten me down and has become impatient with the flaws I have built up in time: me.)

Santorini (Summer in Europe 2014)

(Sorry for the late, late post!)

Unlike my previous post on the city of Athens, I won’t do much talking for Santorini.  It’s because (1) the photos speak for themselves, and (2) Santorini is meant for visual entertainment and not so much for its history (same as Mykonos).

We took a 10am plane to the island and headed straight to Pantelia Suites, our hotel.  The good thing about the place is everything’s just super near to each other.

Pantelia Suites is perched on a hill in the city of Fira/Thira, the center part of Santorini.  Our view is in front of the volcano that caused the split of the island (if I’m correct?).

(Still looking for a dish quite like you, triple mushroom risotto. 😦 )

We decided to eat lunch first at Sphinx, this awesome awesome fusion restaurant that had such a killer triple mushroom risotto (pictured above).  We then had their chocolate souffle.

OIA

After lunch (and a bit of roaming around in Thira), we took a bus to Oia.  It’s the place where the famous Santorini sunset is (although aren’t sunsets the same everywhere…), and also where most of the postcard-worthy photos come from.  The city (town?) is located at the northern tip of the island and it takes twenty minutes to get there.

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Obviously shooting for their wedding photos.  The view was spectacular, by the way, when we climbed up that hill.  And I had to credit the photographers, too!

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The Aegean Sea’s color is described as sapphire blue, and when you look down, you don’t have a murky view of what’s under the sea.  The water is crystal clear and has no trash in it.

We then had a splendid dinner at the famed Kastro’s.  The place is usually overbooked because it’s the best place to watch the Santorini sunset from.  But sadly, the weather conditions proved cloudy and we only got like a dot of the sun sinking down.  So no photos from Oia re: the sunset.

The guys at Kastro’s were super, super, super nice especially since we met their relatives who owned shops in the town.  They gave us a free chocolate souffle to enjoy!

Coming from the bathroom (lol wow), the Santorini evening was also pretty great.  While the island basked in the glory of the sunlight, the evening is surrounded by moderately bright porch lights and the moonlight.  It can also get pretty cold (and windy!).

AKROTIRI & (more of)THIRA

After a fabulous breakfast by the sea (aka enjoying the view from our room terrace), we ate lunch at Naoussa, a great seafood place.

We rented a car to drive to Akrotiri, the southern tip of the island.  We first drove to the Akrotiri Prehistoric Museum to check out the ruins of the old city of Santorini then we proceeded to drive up to the hill with the lighthouse.  It’s also the highest point of the island, and from there you could see the other two cities/towns.

Unlike the white sandy beaches we’re used to, Santorini had “black beaches.” They were called that because the sand is not white, but “black” due to the volcanic ash.  The water was pretty cold too, so we decided not to swim.

After driving back to the city (and having some awesome Greek frozen yogurt at Chillbox!), we had ice cream at Haagen Dazs to catch the sunset.  Mind you, this was what we expected over at Oia so Fira/Thira wins this one.

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Fira/Thira is pretty beautiful on its own, and what I love about the island as a whole is it proves its “overratedness.” What I mean is initially, I didn’t want to go to the island because of how overrated it was.  But after seeing the place, it is visually stunning and so full of color.  It’s saturation overload.

Taken from Naoussa.

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So the Greek adventure ends for now.  One more place to go.

Athens (Summer in Europe 2014)

“Nothing shall part us in our love till Thanatos (Death) at his appointed hour removed us from the light of day.”
– Apollonius Rhodius

The quote above pretty much sums up my love for this country.  I felt it when the plane took off in Budapest and my heart was beating excitedly when we landed in the city of Athens.  But I have to admit that Athens was not as beautiful as Prague and Budapest.  It was just like any other major city: it had terrible traffic, it was full of graffiti, and it was a bit sketchy (lol).  When I took all that in, I had a lot of doubt about forcing my family to go into Greece, knowing that they had high expectations, especially after seeing the showcase of sights the previous cities have given us.

But that doubt lasted only a short while as the city grew on me, not because of its buildings, but because of the stories.  I always knew that I loved Athens for a reason.  Maybe it’s not the modern infrastructure,  but the stories behind the old ones.  Since I loved Athens (and Santorini, which is upcoming!), I’m going to give more narrative, yay. Continue reading “Athens (Summer in Europe 2014)”

Budapest (Summer in Europe 2014)

Our initial impression of Budapest (and Hungary as a whole) was an ugly city, to put it plainly.  Since it was a Communist country, we expected dilapidated buildings, scary people, and dirty streets.   But as Gabriel (our driver and one of the five strangers we met) put it, the city has changed, and with it every aspect of the city changed with it.  And after spending two days in such a marvelous place, I can say that Budapest is way, way better than Prague.  Yeah, it just had to be said. Continue reading “Budapest (Summer in Europe 2014)”

Prague (Summer in Europe 2014)

(Note: All photos were taken by the author through the iPhone 5s and edited in VSCO.)

People have been beating down our backs about going to Prague.  Every time we spoke of our travels in Europe, our friends and other family members would ask, “Why haven’t you checked out Prague? It’s beautiful and wonderful there.” Indeed, when I was looking through the What To Do articles for our trip this year, I did see how wonderful it was.  And upon arrival, it was even more beautiful than it was on print. Continue reading “Prague (Summer in Europe 2014)”

Europe 2014: A Photojournal

Due to the fact that I have so many photos from this year’s summer trip, I decided to collate them here, thus this introductory post is necessary.  You can refer back to this page whenever you feel like my blog’s going to be too crammed up with other posts as I will be writing about each place that we went to.

Before I link you to the pieces, please note that the photos were taken by me through my iPhone 5S and edited in the VSCO app.

To look through the individual write-ups, click on the corresponding place.

athens

SANTORINI

rome