La vie est belle

Dear friends!

Life has been so absolutely amazing and filled with activity since our last post. We’ve started class and are even taking a couple courses in German! After attending class for the first week with the courses I (Lea) had picked from abroad with the computer science faculty, I realized that my passion lies elsewhere. The exchange staff at ETH were extremely supportive, and thus it looks like I will be able to switch to take my courses with the Masters of Environmental Science program, specializing in Sustainable Water Resource Optimization.

Water Resource Optimization?

Since travelling to Jordan last year, and experiencing firsthand what it is like to live in a country where one cannot drink the tap water, and the entire country relies on bottled water, I have been intrigued with studying this issue. I am now almost officially doing a minor in Environmental Engineering at U of T, and absolutely loving my courses here at ETH! It makes such a difference when you are studying something you are passionate about!

I (Hanna) also switched many of my courses, from Bioengineering to Management of Technology. I was originally planning on completing a minor in Bioengineering, but it turns out that U of T might accept my Bioengineering courses from Budapest (where I was on exchange last semester) so I decided to take courses which I can hopefully get accepted as core courses, so that I will only have to return for 1 semester of 4th year!

The world is one small place! Last night at the Déjà Bu party in our apartment’s basement, we met a guy who we had skated with at an international exchange event in Toronto two years ago! It was quite a funny conversation: he introduced himself as a physics student here, and mentioned that he had studied on exchange in Toronto a few years ago, and remembered having some intense conversations about life with two Hungarians. He has a completely different hairstyle now, so we didn’t recognize him at all, and started commenting how interesting it is that we met a guy in Toronto who had the same first name and was studying the same thing! And then he pulled out his cellphone and it had a picture of us from the skating party two years ago… It is definitely worth it to get involved in the exchange student network, even at your home university. You usually find fascinating people, and you never know when and in what part of the world you will bump into those friends in the future!

Come again?

The greatest challenge about living here is the Swiss German. It legitimately is another language from High German, and is very widely used, so it is hard to find opportunities to use your High German on a day to day basis. Thus, Hanna and I have started a weekly Deutsch party at our apartment whose goal is twofold: to create a greater sense of community between the exchange students, and to offer an opportunity to speak German with others who are learning.


Flumserberg (~1 hour from house to ski hill!)

Since we have posted last, we went skiing to another incredible mountain in the Swiss Alps. It feels so weird to draw the parallel between the phrase: “the Swiss Alps”, an epitome in the skiing world, and our backyard. We hop on a train every Saturday and in an hour or so, we are soaring down some of the best ski slopes in the world, high above the clouds, with the tips of the mountains showing out above the cloud layer in a splendid panoramic view.



Lunchtime on the mountain

This weekend we are heading to the mountains yet again, but this time for another sort of experience. We will be spending the weekend in complete silence in a monastery high in the Swiss Alps. In today’s world, lived at a rat race tempo, we both find that it is an incredibly valuable experience to spend some time in contemplative silence and prayer, to start the semester with deep peace and defined goals. We’re taking the train as soon as we finish writing this. Can’t wait! Tschuss!

On the streets of Brussels

It’s been now a couple of months that I’ve been living in Brussels and studying at Université Libre de Brussels and there are few habits that I have developed over time since I arrived. First of all, I am very lucky that I live very close to the university, however this blessing is also a hidden curse; I live so close that I am always late and I run to class 5-10min before class starts. Thankfully I always arrive right on time, but out of breath. I should really try to leave my house on time; my goal of the month.

IMG_0521Secondly, I have started to stare at the ground while I am walking. Let me explain, Brussels isn’t the cleanest city and it has lots of dangerous and not straight paving everywhere, thus while you are walking you have to watch out. Also when it snows or snow is frozen, everything is very slippery for 2 reasons: they don’t remove the snow because it’s hard to do considering the paving is not straight, and they don’t put salt on the street.

However, I have been taking the same road for months to go to the Plaine Campus and only last week for the first time did I try not to stare constantly at the ground and I realized that the wall next to me had sentences in several languages and complementary art.

Mur XL (Wall XL): There is a play on words with XL and the city “Ixelles”. The artist of the wall is Emilio Lopes-Menchero and the poet is Chantal Maillard.

The scent of grass in the morning. A pool of water stagnant at the bottom of a barrow.

Laughter is a weapon of defense. So let’s defend ourselves! Where’s the enemy?

Going away counting each step. Stunned that one has stayed put and stops us counting further.

One side of the wall or the other, what does it change if on both sides the wall separates us.

On my street, my neighbour always puts paintings on his window and one night I saw this sentence in a frame : Le bonheur, c’est renoncer au plaisir d’être malheureux (translation: “Happiness, it’s to abandon the pleasure of being sad”). (Note the interesting paradox in “pleasure of being sad”)

This week, I also saw these interesting signs, from a just-a-little-bit-angry people:
HONTE A VOUS! ET BRAVO POUR VOTRE CIVISME! RAS LE BOL (translation: “Shame on you! And good job for your civisme! I’m fed up!”).


On a mailbox, PAR PITIÉ: PAS DE PUB POLITIQUE!!! (NI DE PUB TOUT COURT) (Translation: “For goodness sake: no political commercials!!! (or any publicity for that matter)”.
I realized this week that I should be more aware of my surroundings. The world is a ravishing and interesting place and I really suggest everyone this week to look around, you might be surprised at the things you have missed. For example next time you walk from cimetière d’Ixelles to a TD party, look at the wall on your right.
Nevertheless, you should still look sometimes where you are walking…. yes you’ve guessed right, I stepped on dog poop on Sunday! Thank goodness for the cold weather (the only time I am ever going to say that I am happy that it’s freezing cold outside) and no harm was done.

Travelling East Asia From Within: Japan (Part 2)

The next morning we awoke at 2 pm, not surprisingly and after showering we went over to Asakusa, one of Tokyo’s oldest districts which is home to a famous temple and myriad stores selling traditional goods. It was there that I was treated to my second geisha sighting of which I took a number of pictures and purchased a souvenir headband with the Chinese character for “sincerity” printed on it (a staple of a certain group of samurai that I’ve studied in detail known as the Shinsengumi). After wandering around Asakusa we next visited the famous fashion and shopping district known as Shibuya where we ate all-you-can-eat sukiyaki which was really delicious. After that we headed back to my friend’s house, picked up a few beers on the way and chatted until we felt like sleeping.

The next morning we woke up and bid farewell to our host and set off for Harajuku, another fashion district in Tokyo mostly noted for being frequented by Tokyo’s much more “eccentric” fashionistas and also the subject of many a Gwen Steffani song. There we saw a number of unique boutiques with rather agreeable prices, but alas being poor students we could not indulge. To my disappointment we were unable to see many of the aforementioned fashionistas, however it was still a neat little place.

After Harajuku it was getting dark and we decided to head back to Shinjuku to see it by night as Shinjuku is home to the infamous Kabuki-cho, the definitive entertainment and red-light district of Tokyo. Not surprisingly upon entering Kabuki-cho we were immediately approached by a number of shady characters offering us. . . let’s say “morally ambiguous” pastimes which we were quick to reject as we were there more as observers than anything else. However we did find a pub that offered a two hour all-you-can-drink service, which we took advantage of and we also found a “robot restaurant” which was brightly coloured and super flamboyant. Upon asking about the robot restaurant we were told it was a spectacular show in which robots and flamboyantly dressed dancers, danced, fought dinosaurs, fought each other, fought panda bears, played instruments, etc., etc. Simply put, we had to see it. The robots were mostly people in robot costumes but the show was none-the-less spectacular – think Medieval Times meets Vegasesque robot cabaret. Sounds enticing, no? The show was about $40 and was both the most fun and insane thing I’ve ever seen in my life – only in Japan.

After the robot show we headed back to the bus terminal to take another overnight bus to Osaka. After the hustle and bustle of Tokyo we were eager to head to another small town like Kyoto, but because we weren’t really sure how to get to one, and didn’t have a travel guide, we ended up just heading back to Kyoto. We liked our original hostel so much the we just stayed there again and were given a different but equally pleasant traditional tatami room for a cheaper price.

We were quick to grab bikes again and this time biked to another temple which was situated on a mountain which had tori-gates running up the side of it with family shrines all over the mountain. It was a beautiful, almost magical place – the stuff of legends (and it actually is). After that we biked to another mountain which ended up being much farther then we had expected. After that we headed back to Gion for some dinner and went to bed because we were dead tired.

The next day we headed to Osaka where we booked our next hostel and opted to check out the famous Osaka castle. Though a very interesting museum, we were a little disappointed to find that the interior of Osaka castle was totally modern as the castle had been almost completely rebuilt after it was all but destroyed in the WWII bombings. Still, it’s definitely worth checking out. Next we headed to Dotemburi, Osaka’s main drag and shopping district situated over the Dotemburi river which is a really cool place to be and there we met up with two Japanese friends that I had made in Toronto, another Canadian friend of mine who was working in Japan and two of his friends

That night we ate at a very agreeably priced Izakaya and had some Takoyaki, a local food which is essentially spherical breaded octopus, drank and talked into the night. It was all good fun. After that we strolled around Dotemburi for a bit and then headed back to our hostel. On the way back to the hostel we picked up some Japanese spirits to celebrate our last night in Japan. When we got back to the hostel after we started drinking in the hostel’s common room where we spied a Korean couple. I felt like practicing some Korean and approached them. They turned out to be super friendly and we ended up sharing our spirits with them. After the lounge closed we continued drinking and watching TV in my American friend’s room, all the while speaking Korean! It was totally cool.

The next morning we woke up, checked out, and went to Shinseki Tower which was very close to our hostel, located in famous old area of Osaka and home to a local spirit named “Biliken” of which his statue is everywhere around there. The Tower acted as an observatory and museum of Osaka’s local history. We wandered around there for a bit and ate some Okanomiyaki, a staple Japanese dish famous especially in Osaka. I bought myself a little Biliken statue as well. After that we wanted to check out the famous Aquarium in Osaka which is the 2nd largest in the world, but to our dismay it was closed! So instead we went back to Dotembori where I did a bit more shopping and after that we headed to the Airport to board our flight for Manila!

Travelling East Asia From Within: Japan (Part 1)

As with Europe one of the great things about being in East Asia, especially South Korea is the multitude of other countries that are within just a few hours of travel time away. Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, much of mainland China and even many South East Asian countries will likely take no more than four hours in a plane to reach. This is less time than the average bus ride between Toronto and Ottawa. What’s more is that these flights will likely not deplete your finances either, hence, my American friend, who I met in the international student’s dorm at Yonsei and I took it upon ourselves to head over to visit Japan and then the Philippines. The result? An affordable and exciting trip!

To get to Japan we used a discount airline called Peach Travel which specializes in flights to and from Japan and neighboring countries, South Korea being one of them. The flight from Incheon international airport to Osaka’s Kansai Airport took less than two hours, cost a mere $126 and was very comfortable. We touched down in Osaka at around 11:30pm and were forced to take a limousine bus from the airport because the public transit was closed. Fortunately on the bus with us were a small group of South Korean students whom had been to Osaka before and they were able to provide us with some useful info. From where the bus let us off I was able, albeit with some difficulty due to my very limited Japanese vocabulary, to communicate to a taxi driver where our hotel was.

The hotel we chose was a capsule hotel in which you sleep in tiny enclosures which house a furnished bed, a TV, cellphone charger, radio and alarm, the hotel also had a free bath house. It was like being in science fiction novel and was surprisingly comfortable. The next day we had breakfast and headed to Kyoto. The Korean students we talked to the night before, informed us that you could get from Osaka to Kyoto for under $4 which sounded too good to be true, yet lo’ and behold we hopped on a local train for around $3.50 and rode the 40 minutes to the famous city of Kyoto, famous for all manner of traditional Japanese things, temples, shrines, geishas, etc.

We arrived in Kyoto and haphazardly mapped out the bus route to our hostel, Haruya Aqua, which we eventually found after getting rather disoriented, and found it to be in a beautiful, traditional Japanese house that was over a century old. The room we got was a traditional “tatami” room complete with traditional Japanese futons and a backyard garden. It was beautiful! The hostel also had very reasonable bike rentals (about $5 for the entire day) but because on our arrival we were the only guests the manager let us ride them for free for the first day!

We biked around Kyoto, which it turns out is a perfect size for biking as you can get just about anywhere in the city by bike within an hour or two if you have the energy. We visited Kyoto station to get our overnight bus tickets for Tokyo (which turned out to be a 7 hour ride!) checked out a few restaurants and then in the evening went to Gion, which was the “pleasure district” in times past. I had read that it was still possible to see geisha in Gion (contrary to popular belief, classically trained geisha do still exist but are quite rare, very expensive to hire and are not the same thing as prostitutes) and we did actually get to see one strolling down the street, powdered face and all! It seemed that much of Gion was still a pleasure district in the present day as we soon noticed a number of “red light” establishments and their respective solicitors, however we opted for a more wholesome pub experience which we found in the restaurant area some ways away from the red light district. We found a Karaoke pub, had a few drinks there and went back to our hostel to prepare for the bike trip the next day.

The following morning we woke up early, hopped on our bikes, had breakfast at a famous Ramen shop and then biked to the first of three temples that we were going to visit. This was Kinkaku-ji also known as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion for quite literally having a golden pavilion (not made out of gold but gold coloured) surrounded by a beautiful pond with ducks, koi and all. It was quite a sight to see. The next was Ryoku-ji which was a famous Zen temple that housed a well-known rock garden which was very tranquil. The last place we visited was a massive temple complex which had a bamboo forest and was nearly in the countryside, also quite spectacular. By then it was getting dark and we proceeded to bike back downtown for some dinner, getting lost on the way but eventually figuring it out. The bike trip to and from these various temples was also very interesting as we essentially started downtown but ended up in the countryside and were thus treated to a number of interesting sights.

That night we checked out of our hostel, the manager of which was kind enough to hold on to our bags while we biked around, and hopped on the bus to Tokyo on which we slept for the night. The next morning we arrived in Tokyo, stored our baggage in a coin locker and proceeded to wander around Tokyo’s famous Shinjuku district. By day Shinjuku is a large shopping area and there we found department stores, street performers and restaurants. It was all very lively. Since we were on a fairly limited budget we didn’t end up doing much shopping and instead headed to Akihabara, Tokyo’s “electric city” which has been referred to as a “geek’s paradise”.

Akihabara was a strange place to say the least and there we found all sorts of shops selling video games, Japanese animation paraphernalia, giant video arcades, people dressed up as animated characters, maid cafes and all manner of oddities, some of which I feel would be inappropriate to name here. My friend and I decided that we had to experience a maid café because, well… we were in Akihabara, the place where maid cafes were born. It turned out to be a fairly bizarre experience and consisted of my friend and I drinking a massive mug of beer each while a young women dressed as a maid tended to us and referred to us as “master” (a tad unnerving). There were other maids too who talked in extremely high voices and energetically danced and sang along with Anime theme songs. It was all fairly harmless but pretty darn weird. Still it makes for a good story.

After Akihabara we went to meet one of my old Japanese friends that I had met in Toronto while she was on a working holiday, whose house we were staying at in Tokyo for two nights. After we met up with her we changed into more formal wear and headed to a club in Ropongi of which we were on the guest list. Ropongi is one of Tokyo’s swanky clubbing and dining districts. There we ate at a Japanese style pub or “izakaya” had some drinks and went to the club. The club was, well… a club! If you’ve been to a club before you know what to expect, clubs are fairly universal it seems. Big, dark, sometimes elegant places with lots of people, booze, base heavy music, lots of fun if you’re in the right mood etc. Despite having only slept about four hours or less on the bus to Tokyo we still managed to have some fun and danced until 5 am in the morning when we headed back to my friend’s house.



Caitlin visits Barcelona!

Well Reading Week 2013 for U of T was a day that I had been waiting for for a very long time, this was the time when my best friend Caitlin from U of T was going to be flying over to come and visit me! What a trip it was! We did all of Barcelona in 8 days and managed to get up to Montserrat to get some hiking done as well! With some incredible stories to remember and some great evening adventures on the beach, it was great to have my best Torontonian friend out to visit and see a bit of my life here in Barcelona! Take a look at the photos for a bit of what Barcelona had in store for us! 12512768 DSC01887 DSC01901 DSC01905 DSC01907 DSC01909 DSC01936 DSC01937 DSC01946 DSC01958 DSC01966 DSC01987 DSC02010 DSC02019 IMG_4251 IMG_4259 IMG_4261 IMG_4263 IMG_4264 IMG_4284 IMG_4482 IMG_4532 IMG_4546 IMG_4576 IMG_4674 IMG_4703 IMG_4708 IMG_4720

Friday Photos: Rock Climbing Cape Town



Rock Climbing, everyone’s got their hobbies


This picture was taken in Montagu where I spent the past weekend with the University of Cape Town Mountain and Ski Club. It was a three day trip camping at De Bos Campground. Which is for the record–beautiful, though it IS full of roosters and horses. Very loud roosters. They have a pool though, and showers, so all and all, pretty cozy camping. My only real regret from this trip is that I didn’t take more pictures! Montagu is located about a two hour drive from Cape Town.

IMG_5081The picture to the left is also from Montagu. This wall was a little too difficult for me. It was all 30+ climbs, and was this massively beautiful long overhang. Over the weekend I went to the Steeple, Legoland, and the palace. Favourite climbs were at The Palace. It was awesome.

South African Rock Climbing Grades

For those interested, or who climb, South Africa follows a different rating system for its climbs. Its the same system as Australia and New Zealand and basically it begins at 1 which you can walk up to 38 which is the hardest reported sport climb. SO

  • 5.9 -> 17IMG_5078
  • 5.10a -> 18
  • 5.10b -> 19
  • 5.10c -> 20
  • 5.10d -> 21
  • 5.11a -> 22
  • 5.11b -> 23
  • 5.11c/d -> 24
  • 5.12a -> 25
  • 5.12b -> 26
  • 5.12c -> 27
  • 5.12d -> 28
  • 5.13a/b ->29
  • 5.13c -> 30

The Mine


The picture on the left is from an area closer to Cape Town. The Mine is mostly overhung area that doesn’t have very many ‘easy’ climbs. Most of the climbs begin in the 20s and go up from there. The nice thing about the Mine is that it generally doesn’t get very wet, and so you can climb there whenever there’s not a bad south-eastern wind (it makes the holds kinda slime-y). The Mine is about a 30 minute drive from Observatory, and the view is pretty wonderful. You hike up past a military compound-thing, and it overlooks Muizenberg, and the old pine forests.


IMG_5046This wall is Blaze of Glory ( i think), and its become one of my favorites in Cape Town. It’s beautiful, and despite my awkward picture, is actually I think slightly overhanging for the most part. A lot of the climbs have really cool sections through them–the rock here is sandstone, and it’s beautiful. Think lots of cool slope-y holds, tiny crimps, and lots of pinches. It’s super sticky, and has been pretty awesome so far. Silvermine is located about 30 minutes from Observatory, and it’s on top of the Mine (sort of). Basically the mine you climb up to from the bottom of the mountain, and Silvermine, you start closer to the top and walk down paths/gullys.


More Climbing Information!

South Africa is fairly unique in that you can sort of climb any type of Rock here. There’s limestone in Outshoorn and granite in Cape Town as well. Table Mountain/Lion’s head have a granite base, and then turn into sandstone further up. For those who are interested in coming here to climb, here are some really useful links.

If you need to find other people to climb with check out the Climbing Forum. That site provides one of the best guides to South African climbing, and has a forum where you can buy/sell gear, and find other people who need climbing partners. They also have a good wiki with more information about South African climbing crags.

If you are here on exchange and want to meet other to camp/climb/hike/hangout with check out the Mountain and Ski Club at UCT. (facebook link as well) They go to Silvermine almost every Friday, help people find lifts, and THEY ALSO RENT GEAR. So if you do come here and want to try climbing/ need to borrow a tent or rope, they’re a great club to join.

If you want to see a crazy video check out this video of Andy Court Slacklining taken in Echo Valley –which is a really really amazing bouldering area.

If you want to climb inside check out cityrock, they’re the only ‘official gym’ but there is also the UCT climbing wall. If you’re not a student, you can join the MCSA and use it I believe.

If you want to compete find someone who’s in BOULDER LEAGUE. Sorry there’s no link for it. It took me a long time to track down the information, but basically its a series that starts in Feb and there’s one every week either at the UCT wall or at cityrock. (Tuesdays or Fridays).

Lastly areas I still want to hit up and future climbing plans (AND I PROMISE BETTER PICTURES)

– Table Mountain (trad)
– Lion’s Head (trad)
– Rocklands –(APRIL :D)
– Oudtshoorn (get a chance to remember what limestone feels like)
– Kleinmond (March 8!)
– Paarl (March 16)

Other things coming up climbing wise! Montagu Rock Rally in April and the Easter Bouldering Festival!