Millionaires, Moths and Chicken Rice: An Intro to Singapore

Off the tip of the Malay Peninsula, barricaded from the Southeast Asian haze by skyscrapers and architectural marvels lies a thriving city-state and island country. I’m here squeezing the remains of a used teabag in what seems like one of the five or six homes not owned by millionaires…

I’m Sarah, an engineering undergrad at U of T with an incredible and overwhelming 13 months of travel experience to 21 countries and over 60 cities in Europe, Africa and Asia. This summer, I am working on a corrosion-based research project – go figure, Singapore’s busy port is also renowned for its ship repair services – in my field of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

I have boldly begun my exchange by dragon boating, traveling to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with the NUS rock climbing team, and much more. The following are my first impressions of Singapore.

Cargo ships lining the Port of Singapore just before landing at Changi airport.

Cargo ships lining the Port of Singapore just before landing at Changi airport.

The first and most obvious spur of culture shock is the climate difference, causing me to throw in the sweat-ridden towel and submit to the dewy island air and temperatures that are never short of 20°C. Since my immobile and sticky beginnings, I have progressed to sleeping comfortably with only a ceiling fan and appreciating the detoxifying process that is an evening run. Nevertheless, when the will to beat the heat is hanging by the cumbersome thread of my lab-appropriate clothes, air-conditioning is hardly scarce. Dehydrated and weary, I still managed to make some new friends, some of which have migrated here all the way from Malaysia in a rare swarming.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

Processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset

IMG_7333

Otters, a white-faced saki monkey, a cheetah and a Malaysian giant moth. In the spirit of abusing the privilege of writing a public blog and for the sake of having someone know the reason behind my future trauma-induced illnesses, look up the Malaysian/Singaporean giant moth swarming for yourselves.

Otters, a white-faced saki monkey, a cheetah selfie and a rare Malaysian giant moths. In the spirit of abusing the privilege of writing a public blog and for the sake of having someone know the reason behind my future trauma-induced illnesses, look up the Malaysian/Singaporean giant moth swarming for yourselves.

Like other city-states I have visited, including Monaco, Vatican City and, debatably, Dubai, Singapore has an ultra-modern appeal attributed to its post-independence booming economy. Not even hiked up registration, taxes and insurance can prevent the Maseratis from flying in the face of minimalistic religious roots. Gardens by the Bay, near the man-made stretch of land carrying famous Marina Bay Sands Hotel, houses a grove of “super trees” that capture solar energy to put on an evening light show! Even campus is riddled with luxuries; rooftop infinity pools, free shuttles, terrace restaurants etc. In what I can only assume is an attempt to preserve these landscapes, there are strict laws prohibiting littering, chewing gum, eating on public transit, and even not flushing the toilet. I was greeted by my first vacant stare from a local Singaporean when I asked for a napkin with my meal. I have yet to see a napkin in this country.

Super Tree Grove

Super Tree Grove

Speaking of meals… My supervisor and new-found friends (not the animal kind) have been very helpful in feeding me and stoking my will to try Singaporean, Indonesian, Malaysian, Chinese and Indian cuisine like kway teow, laksa, kaya coconut jam, chicken-rice, and stingray! Despite finding the first actual use for my tongue scraper after eating my first mouth-full of chili peppers, I am now head over bowels in love with sambal chili. I have also had my fill of exotic tropical fruits and fruit juices, like the notoriously potent durian, whose smell renders it banned from many public places.

Laksa (top left); rice cakes (middle left);  sesame peanut ball (bottom left); sambal sting ray wrapped in banana leaves (top right); sautee (bottom right).

Laksa (top left); rice cakes (middle left); sesame peanut ball (bottom left); sambal sting ray wrapped in banana leaves (top right); sautee (bottom right).

Once, after I extinguished my tongue with some grass jelly, washed my hands, and tossed my chewing gum, I ventured out for a night on one of Singapore’s lavish rooftop nightclubs. With $30SGD entry and only $50SGD per alcoholic beverage, you’d be a fool to stay home!

View of Marina Bay from one of the rooftop joints.

View of Marina Bay from one of the rooftop joints.

Stay tuned to find out how I almost met my future spouse on a dragon boat, climbed my arms off at Asia’s largest rock climbing gym and planned a trip to the location where ‘The Beach’ was filmed!

A Reflection

Am I already writing my final blog for this semester? It seems like yesterday I just wrote my first blog in September when I talked about my excitement and expectations for my upcoming year abroad in Berlin. Because of the Centre for International Experience at U of T, I was given the amazing opportunity to blog for the first time in my life. I am happy I made that decision back in 2013. Blogging gives me the opportunity to reflect upon my experiences and think exactly about all I have done and what I have seen.

I am happy with what I have accomplished and how I have contributed to all the student blogs. From moving here in the summer, to the festivities at Oktoberfest, to dealing with the German bureaucracy, to explaining how the university system works, to my trip to Hamburg, to the differences between Canada and Germany, to the Christmas season, to the major sights, scenes and history of Berlin, to my trip to Poland and the UK….. I have tried to document and share as much as possible about what life is like here.

BMW World in Munich- Lucas and I checking out a sports car

BMW World in Munich- Lucas and I checking out a sports car

Not much has happened the past two weeks. The highlight would be a trip down to Munich with my friend from Toronto who was still with me. We did a walking tour of the city and saw all the main attractions. The BMW World and BMW museum were amazing. All the latest technology is displayed and the museum took us through the history of one of the best auto makers in the world. I would highly recommend a visit there.

The Olympia Park, Munich

The Olympia Park, Munich

In front of the Bavarian Victory Gate in Munich

In front of the Bavarian Victory Gate in Munich

A soccer game in Berlin was also seen. The Berlin team, Hertha BSC, plays in the German Bundesliga, the national German soccer league. They play in the Olympia Stadium, the same place where the 1936 Olympic Games were held. It is massive with a total capacity of 75,000 people. For Easter, I met some friends and we had an outdoor BBQ at the Tempelhof Airfield. This is a massive, abandoned airfield located just south of the city center. It was the location where the Berlin Airlift in 1948 took place, when American and British cargo planes delivered thousands of tons of food and supplies to West Berlin. Today, it is a gigantic park where hundreds of people go to walk, have picnics, BBQs, run, play sports, cycle or simply walk the dog. It is an amazing use of free space within the city.

Olympia Stadium, Berlin

Olympia Stadium, Berlin

Tempelhof Airfield

Tempelhof Airfield

I would like to say one more thing about writing blogs and about my year abroad in general. I am really starting to see who I am, what I want, and where I come from. After reflecting on all the things I have done, I know what it means to come from Canada. I know I will miss my time here in Germany and all the friends I have met, but it all needs to eventually come to an end. I will never forget the experiences and great times I had overseas. I still have one more semester to complete and it goes until about July or August. Until then, I must focus on learning German and continue to enjoy Berlin and all the new experiences that will come my way. I plan to travel as well a bit more. I know the time will go by way too fast.

I want to thank the Centre for International Experience for giving me the chance to blog. I had a blast and as I said, I learned so much about what I am doing here through my personal reflections. To all my readers, I hope you enjoyed reading my posts. Hopefully you were able to learn something. Please feel free to contact me if any of you have any questions, I would be more than glad to help :)

I wish you all the best and the utmost success in the future! Take care and Auf Wiedersehen!

England, Ireland and Scotland

Red telephone box in London

Red telephone box in London

Abbey Road

Abbey Road

For the past two weeks, I had the opportunity to travel across the English Channel to the huge, more or less, island of the UK. I planned this trip with Lucas, a friend of mine from Canada. We both agreed to meet up at London’s Heathrow airport. I flew in from Berlin and he came all the way from Toronto. We saw various different cities and many great experiences were had.

View of the Thames River

View of the Thames River

Lucas and I in front of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

Lucas and I in front of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

The first leg of the trip started in the massive city of London. First, we saw of course all the sights that tourists must see: the Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the Thames River, Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace and so on. We even went to see Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and then took a trip to Abbey Road looking like goofs as we were tried to imitate the Beatles album cover. One night we attended an Arsenal soccer game. It was my first ever soccer game and it was very entertaining. The crowd was packed with fans cheering chants and going crazy.

Arsenal soccer game

Arsenal soccer game

There was one shock to me with going to London for the first time (or the entire UK for that matter): driving on the left side of the road. I remember staring at the traffic at one busy intersection, trying to grasp such a foreign concept. On one occasion, I almost got simultaneously hit by a car and then a street cyclist. They actually paint on the streets at crossing points: “LOOK RIGHT”. I guess this is for all the new people like myself to the city who are simply not used to such rules of the road.

A must for those new to the traffic rules

A must for those new to the traffic rules

Our travels then took us north to Manchester. After about 4 hours in the bus, we arrived in this industrial city. Firstly, there was already a change in the dialect. The people became harder to understand, even though they were speaking English. We walked around the city, looking at famous landmarks and buildings. Also, from the people we had spoken to, they were all fans of the Manchester soccer team and they did not like other football clubs. They made that very clear with us.

Liverpool was our next destination. This was my favourite city of our whole trip. It is a port city, so there was an amazing waterfront. Even worse than Manchester, the people here were almost impossible for me to understand. Numerous times we had to ask some individuals to please repeat themselves as we had no clue what they were trying to say. The Beatles came from Liverpool and hence we had to visit the Beatles museum. It was a great experience, taking us through the history of one of the greatest bands ever.

The Beatles Museum in Liverpool

The Beatles Museum in Liverpool

To change up our mode of travel, we took an 8 hour ferry from Liverpool to Belfast. We were pleasantly surprised with the whole experience. We expected it to be simply a wooden bench and a loud engine while we were trapped for the whole trip within a metal hull. Instead, it was quite luxurious! There was a great on-board restaurant, a cinema, sleeping cabins, lounges and cafés. It didn’t even seem like we were on a ship, as the engine was so quiet.

The ferry from Liverpool to Belfast. Liverpool city skyline in the background

The ferry from Liverpool to Belfast. Liverpool city skyline in the background

Belfast was a cool city. There is a great history and it is similar to parts of Toronto. Kind of like Queen Street West. We saw the Queen’s University, the harbour, an old jail and we were even there when the Belfast Film Festival was taking place. We saw a very strange movie and I am still trying to figure out what it was about exactly. It was probably the worst movie I have ever seen in my life. It was called “The Distance”. Look it up and try to watch it if you can.

The Scottish Highlands- breathtaking

The Scottish Highlands- breathtaking

The last city on our list was Edinburgh, in Scotland. Comprising of a central castle on top of a hill, many old and beautiful buildings, parks, a rich history and Scottish accents, Edinburgh is a great city. One night, we did a haunted tour into one of the ancient vaults underneath the old city. It was quite creepy. The highlight of our stay was a 12 hour bus tour of the Scottish Highlands. We went all the way up to the northern part of Scotland and it was beautiful. There were mountains, rolling hills, lakes and little villages. We even saw the famous Loch Ness Lake where the mysterious monster is supposed to live.

Loch Ness Didn't catch a glimpse of the monster

Loch Ness
Didn’t catch a glimpse of the monster

Well, that was about my experience travelling to the UK. Much was seen, many kilometres were travelled, and now we are back in Berlin. I will show Lucas the main sights in the capital of Germany. Thus far, he is really enjoying the city. For me, my second semester starts next week. I had enough of a break- time to learn again! :) It is hard to believe that all of you back home are now writing exams and I am just starting. Just another difference I guess between the two university systems.

Final Thoughts

Paris

How does one begin to conclude the end of something incredible?

In all my blog posts, I have tried very hard not to romanticize Paris or the exchange experience. But I think the time for critique and for the cynicism so in vogue with intellectuals is over. Paris simply is. It exists for our interpretation. I will try to assign descriptors, but any attempt will inevitably fall short.

As much as the time for critique has passed, it is not yet time for critical reflection. With one week of class remaining, and two weeks left in France, I can barely start to describe the incredible things I have experienced this month, not to mention offer an insightful reflection on my entire experience. With more time and distance, I would be able to extract the themes, the lessons, the threads that will shape this experience into some sort of coherent dialogue. For now, I can only endeavour to sort through a jumbled mix of sadness, denial and deep gratitude.

View of Montmartre & Le Figaro

View of Montmartre & Le Figaro

It is difficult not to become somewhat teary-eyed when attending my last classes. Time seems to have contracted with the start of my last month in France until every day, every hour has become saturated with feeling. Everything is more meaningful. Every little detail has become precious and new. As much as time seems to pass so much faster, Paris seems to have been distilled to a series of intricate instances – the smell of fresh bread from the bakery downstairs, the snatches of fast conversation, the cool bite of the wind, the press of people as I mutter pardon while hurrying to class.

It is also incredibly difficult to contemplate the end of such an incredible journey. And my time in Paris is very much a journey in learning about the world, about people, and most importantly, about myself. I could have learned the same had I stayed in Toronto, but I would not have learned as quickly, as powerfully, or as pleasantly as I have now.

I started my study at University of Toronto with the decision to go study abroad. In many ways, and perhaps paradoxically, going on exchange was a safe choice for me. Sure, I will be living in a foreign country, learning a foreign language, and accustoming myself to a foreign culture, but it was something for which I had years to mentally prepare. But for all my plans and ideas, this experience went far beyond what I had expected.

It has challenged me. And it has changed me.

My experience has not always been positive, but it has always forced me to be honest with myself. It has forced me to re-evaluate my priorities and my values. I am endlessly frustrated with the administration at Sciences Po, but I am infinitely grateful for the people I have met. These people, so incredibly diverse even after having lived in Toronto for the better part of my life, are the pillars of my time in Paris. We have stumbled through the streets of Paris, awed and lost together. We have explored the countryside and other countries together, always eager to look for something new, something meaningful and something that strikes our fancy. I have had provocative and ruminating conversations in cafes, hunched over the tiny cups of espresso, emulating those great literary figures in bygone days. I have butchered and reconstructed my French, and realized that for all the political and cultural differences between us, we all shared the same worries and the same dreams.

I think this exchange has given me a personal experience with the commonality of humanity, which is infinitely more precious and hopeful than any of my classes on the economy or on defence and security.

Giverny - Monet's water lilly garden

Giverny – Monet’s water lilly garden

Exchange is not the only opportunity out there to experience the world. But these opportunities do not come easily. There is a often quoted sentence from Hemingway.

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

It is an apt statement. Paris is cruel and infinitely kind towards her children. And as her child, even for a few short months, I will always carry a part of her with me.

I would extend this quote to all exchange experiences. No matter where you go for your exchange, if you open yourself, the city, the people, and the culture will stay with you.

People have different things to which they are striving, different things they desire. Exchange was mine. And it may very well be yours. Good luck to every one of you on your personal journeys.

Au revoir, et à bientôt. 

Grace Gao

 

Should you have any questions, or just want to talk, you can reach me at my utmail address.

Last 30 days in Paris

Seine

View of Conciergerie and Pont Notre Dame from Pont d’Arcole

I spent much of my exchange leaving Paris. Without realizing it, Paris had become a fixed landmark to which I return from visiting unfamiliar European countries. The novelty of studying in Paris may wear off until only the daily minutiae remains, but the exchange experience is singular and exceptional. I may have become complacent and take Paris for granted, but something would inevitably happen or catch my eye, and the months would pull back to present me with the Paris that I had seen when I landed back in August. It is beautiful, quirky, rude, charming, and full of culture. The weather also helps. With temperatures going to the mid-twenties, Paris feels reborn.

Interior of Orsay Museum - seen from the 5th level observatory deck.

Interior of Orsay Museum – seen from the 5th level observatory deck.

Due to early onset of nostalgia, I decided to visit and re-visit all the sites I love best, and those I would regret should I return home without fresh memories. I spent the past weekend at the Musée d’Orsay for the exhibitions on Van Gogh and Gustave Doré. As a student, showing my student card allowed me to enter the museum for free and bypass much of the tourist lines. For those interested, one of Sciences Po’s lecture courses this semester is actually held in Musée d’Orsay. A similar class was held in the Louvre last semester. I was not fortunate enough to enroll in these classes, but it must have been surreal to learn art history and art theory with the original art work less than a meter in front of you.

Musée d’Orsay is a 10 minute walk from Sciences Po, and has the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist works. Paintings from Monet, Renoir, Degas and countless others in the 19th and 20th centuries are displayed in the permanent collections of the museum. The 5 euro audio guide is fantastic for those who want to learn a bit more about the history behind some of the artworks. The museum itself is located in a converted train station, and absolutely beautiful. Sadly, Musée d’Orsay does not allow photography of the artworks. I was able to take a picture of the interior main hall of the museum, but it was incredibly difficult to restrain myself from taking photos of some of my favourite impressionist paintings.

Orsay is a relatively smaller and more intimate museum, nothing like the daunting grandeur of the Louvre. Even so, I easily spent 6 hours moving from painting to painting. As the museum closes and I was politely herded outside, I encountered a sizeable group of protesters gathered at the front squares of the museum demanding the government for income equality and housing subsidies. It is an incongruous sight. But Paris is good at this – balancing its rich cultural history with the modern demands of big cities. It is one of its many charms.

Some Differences between Germany and Canada

From the eight months being away from Toronto, I would like to dedicate this post solely to the differences I have noticed between Germany and Canada. Both countries are very similar in numerous ways, yet there are still some large disparities.

I’ll start with auto transportation. Most of the cars here are much smaller than in North America- and I mean extremely small. There are no pick-up trucks or SUVs for example. I rarely see large sedans on the streets; mostly just compact models. I think this has to do with the streets themselves. Most side streets, especially in smaller towns, are very narrow- there is literally only enough room for one car to fit. I don’t know what happens when two cars meet head on, I imagine they would need to drive halfway on the curb in order to pass each other. In comparison, my neighborhood in Toronto (North York), the streets allow that even with cars parked on both sides a large truck can still easily pass through.

The Volkswagen Up!

The Volkswagen Up!

Almost ALL cars use a manual transmission. Every single car that I peek into has a stick shift. This is true even for the typical family van, something that is almost unfathomable in North America. There are of course different kinds of cars as well which come from European manufacturers. Ford and GM are rare to see, where as makers which are not seen in Canada, such as Peugeot and Skoda, are common. Furthermore, there are specific models here which are not available on the North American market. Volkswagen makes the Polo and Up!, both of which I have never seen back home.

Normally what we have back home

Normally what we have back home

The 18-wheelers that are in Germany look totally different from those back home! They are much smaller. Their fronts are completely flat, almost as if there were squished.If I could give them descriptive words I think ours look much more “mean” and “intimidating.” I find ours look better. They’re more serious looking ready-to-haul-a-heavy-load trucks.

The version that is used over here

The version that is used over here

Oh and one more thing- the gas prices. If you think our prices are expensive in Canada, try coming here. It is crazy! While we complain at $1.25/litre, here the average is at about 1.60 Euros/litre. And don’t forget, that is in Euros, even more than the CAD. Perhaps that is another reason why the cars are much smaller.

Many people, especially in Berlin, roll their own cigarettes. They buy the rolling paper, tobacco and filters separately, then simply make them themselves. It is cheaper that way. I have noticed there are a lot more smokers here as well. In comparison to Toronto, many people are smoking on the streets. Smoking is allowed in the bars and clubs in Berlin. I find that disgusting and afterwards all of my clothes smell.

There are cigarette vending machines on the streets. You only need an ID to “prove” your age and then you can buy a pack of cigarettes. I assume underage kids take advantage of such a system. Furthermore, there are advertisements for cigarettes. Unlike in Canada, where the advertising of cigarettes is prohibited, I regularly see ads in magazines or on billboards.

A typical cigarette vending machine

A typical cigarette vending machine

What else can I say? The German computer keyboards are different. I especially get confused with the “Z” and “Y” keys when I use a public computer which are switched around. You can buy alcohol pretty much anywhere. There are no specific stores such as the LCBO or The Beer Store. Also, the alcohol is much cheaper here, but hey, it is Germany after all; they are known for their beer! Open drinking in public is also allowed.

There are many smaller, privately owned stores, such as bakeries and cafes. It is more common for people to go to a cafe to enjoy a coffee outdoors and buy a dessert. It is more common to buy bread from a local baker than go to a massive grocery store. There are no Wal-Marts for example.

Everything is closed on Sundays. And when I say everything, I mean everything. Tough luck if you forgot to buy some groceries on Saturday; you would have to wait until Monday morning. There are many more casinos too. Unlike back home, where there are the massive ones, such as Casino Rama or Casino Niagara, here there are little ones located all over. In most situations, you need to pay to use the public washrooms. Whether in the mall or on the side of the highway, 9 times out of 10, you need to pay about 50 cents to use a washroom.

"Sunday Shopping"- I took this picture during the Christmas season. An advertisement showing that a mall is opened on Sunday.

“Sunday Shopping”- I took this picture during the Christmas season. An advertisement showing that a mall is opened on Sunday.

The clubs and bars are opened much later, unlike our 2am closing time in Toronto. In Berlin for example, certain clubs are opened all weekend long, not closing until Monday morning. Germans like to use the 24 hour clock; it took me a while to get used to this. Their electrical sockets are different as well. They use 220-volt system unlike the 110-volt system, which is what we use. I needed to buy an adapter in order to use my electronic devices.

What the plugs look like over here

What the plugs look like over here

Well, those are some of the major differences I have noticed during my time here so far. There are some smaller observations, such as the fact that cashiers sit while working, or that there are barely any STOP signs in side streets. Yet I think I covered the most of them. The next two weeks I will be traveling the UK with a friend of mine from Canada, so there will be lots to share with my next post. I hope you learned something from this one!

The layout of a German keyboard

The layout of a German keyboard

Poland: An Adventure of Discovery for Me

The Palace of Culture and Science at night

The Palace of Culture and Science at night

For the past eight days I travelled Poland, visiting three major cities with friends I had made while studying in Berlin at the Humboldt University. During the trip, many laughs and fun times were had and overall it was a great week excursion. Wrocław, Krakow and Warsaw were the cities we visited and this entire trip opened up a whole new country, culture and history to me, all of which I did not know much about before. Oh and of course the food! But I will get to this part later on.

Perogies!

Perogies!

We took coach buses for our travels. In particular, the company ‘Polski Bus’ took us everywhere we needed to go. All the buses were fully loaded and super cheap. For example, our bus ride from Wrocław to Krakow, which lasted about four hours, cost only 1 złoty, which in conversion to the Euro, is only 25 cents! It even included complementary snacks and drinks along the way! This comparison speaks to the entirety of Poland, I would say. The prices of food, drinks and city transportation for example are inexpensive in contrast to many other cities (Europe and North America) that I have been to.

Ordering my obwarzanek from a typical street vendor

Ordering my obwarzanek from a typical street vendor

We first spent one night in a hostel in Wrocław. We stayed in the city centre which was surrounded by many historical buildings and rivers. We visited many old churches and landmarks, finding our way around with a tourist map. We then spent three nights in a hostel in Krakow, the second largest city in Poland. The hostel was called “Let’s Rock Hostel” and I would really recommend it to anyone who wants to visit Krakow. The staff were extremely friendly and always there to help you with anything you needed. There were even themed evenings; for example we drank sangria one night and ate waffles another.

Krakow- Cathedral beside the Wawel Castle

Krakow- famous cathedral beside the Wawel Castle

On one day, we went on an excursion to the Auschwitz concentration camps. We took a bus from the main station and the journey was about an hour and a half. I visited two concentration camps before, but nothing compared to this one. The content was heavy and the themes were deep. The entire set up of the experience was very well done, with documentation, artifacts, authentic buildings, information panels and pictures explaining the camp’s history. If anyone plans to visit in the future, it takes a whole day; there is so much to see.

Auschwitz

Auschwitz

On another day, we jumped on a free walking tour of the city. The entire history of Krakow was narrated to us and we visited the most important sights to see such as the main square, Wawel Castle and St. Mary’s Basilica. Walking tours are great- you get to walk around and get some exercise, breath fresh air, enjoy the sights, all while having someone explain to you the history of the city, pointing out important landmarks. Afterwards, we went to Oskar Schindler’s former factory, which was turned into a museum dedicated to Krakow’s history of German occupation during the Second World War. In particular, I enjoyed the section about Schindler himself and his role within the city. Like from the movie, “Schindler’s List”, pictures and documentations were given about the history of the man who saved the lives of over 1000 Jews through the running of his factory.

The Palace of Culture and Science- beautiful architecture

The Palace of Culture and Science- beautiful architecture

One viewpoint from atop the Palace of Culture and Science

One viewpoint from atop the Palace of Culture and Science

Finally, the last stop of our tour took us to the capital city of Poland, Warsaw. With much thanks to a Polish friend of ours who also studied abroad for the first semester in Berlin and who currently lives and studies in Warsaw, we were able to stay at her apartment for the duration of the trip. We all did a free walking tour again, which allowed us to visit some of the important sights of the old city. Our guide was hilarious, so it made the experience that much more enjoyable. We visited the top of the ‘Palace of Culture and Science’, a building built by the Soviets in 1955. The architecture was impressive and being located within the centre of the city, it offered an amazing 360 degree view of Warsaw; definitely a highlight of the week. We also went to the ‘Warsaw Uprising Museum’. It was very well displayed and the content was great; weapons, artifacts, movie clips and documents were displayed. There was even a full-sized bomber plane hung up on the ceiling! The entire experience there reminded me of our ‘Canadian War Museum’ in Ottawa. This museum is a must if anyone ever visits Warsaw. It speaks directly to the courage and strength of the Polish fighting spirit during the German occupation of World War Two.

A massive memorial/list of names of the Polish insurgent soldiers killed during the Warsaw Uprising

A massive memorial/list of names of the Polish insurgent soldiers killed during the Warsaw Uprising

And again thanks to our host friend, I was introduced to the amazing world of Polish food! This part of my Polish experience was one of the best portions (no pun intended). Our first stop was at a traditional Polish restaurant which served authentic Polish cuisine. Here I ate perogies and they were absolutely phenomenal. It is a sort of dumpling which is made of dough and the inside is filled with different ingredients ranging from meat, to a type of potato-like filling, to cabbage, to cheese. They are boiled and then fried in butter: pure deliciousness! I also had a hot beer with this meal (shots of flavour such as ginger and raspberry could be added upon request).  It was alright, but I think next time I will stick to a good old ice cold beer 😉

Also, before when I was in Krakow, I also ate an obwarzanek, which is pretty much a pretzel. They are a known specialty within the city, as the street vendors were literally everywhere to be seen. It was really cheap and fresh. Back now to Warsaw, we went again to the restaurant but this time I ate the recommended flaki. It is a beef soup, which literally translated, means “guts”. Yes, I know it doesn’t sound too appetizing, but it was amazing. Let the taste do the talking, not the sound or impression of the ingredients! Finally, we all tried zapiekanka, which is sort of like a long-shaped baked pizza made with mushrooms and cheese. I would say it is more a take-out, fast eating type of food. Again, it was inexpensive, yet very filling and of course, like all the food I tried, truly appetizing.

My zapiekanka. This one had bacon and garlic sauce

My zapiekanka. This one had bacon and garlic sauce

Flaki

Flaki

So Poland, what can I say? You showed me a country rich in culture and you have a lot to offer to all visitors. I had a great time this past week and it didn’t hurt the wallet at all. I tasted amazing food and learned a lot about history firsthand through the museums we visited and the tours we took part in. Before I head back to Canada, I will visit Poland again because I had such a good time. Furthermore, I will definitely be going to the annual Polish Festival that we have in Toronto- I always heard about it, but never went. I just did some research, and it is actually the largest Polish festival held in North America. I need to get my fill of perogies somehow!

My first zapiekanka was so delicious, I ordered another one: salami and Mexican sauce this time

My first zapiekanka was so delicious, I ordered another one: salami and Mexican sauce this time

Detour to Central Europe

Last week was reading week for all university students in France, which inevitably meant I went travelling instead of getting a head start on all my assignments.

My friends and I decided to visit Prague, Vienna and Budapest. 3 cities in 5 days was not a good idea. Especially because we refused to use public transit and walked for 9 hours each day trying to see everything there is to see in the city. We were completely exhausted by day 3, but persevered and climbed the hills at Budapest. Twice.

Prague as seen from the steps leading to Prague Castle

Prague as seen from the steps leading to Prague Castle

Seeing the actual windows where the defenestration of Prague occurred at Prague Castle was amazing. I had vowed to see it with my own eyes when I learned about it in my grade 11 world history class. 4 years later, it was surreal to stand next to it and look out at the steep drop below.

Prague - my first trdelnik. It's Hungarian in origin, but every other street stand in Prague sells them,

Prague – my first trdelnik. Every other street stand in Prague sells them, and they are absolutely delicious!

 

 

 

 

 

Aerial view of Vienna from the top of the St.Stephen's Cathedral.

Aerial view of Vienna from the top of the St.Stephen’s Cathedral. Somehow climbing seems to have become the theme of this trip.

 

 

The first thing I noticed about Vienna was how clean it was. I did not have to look down at my steps every few minutes for fear that I might step in dog poop (I’m judging you, Paris). The second was how white the buildings are. The aerial view shows a much more colourful Vienna than at street-level. The contrast is big when I was so used to the pastel-coloured buildings in Prague.

Vienna

Graben street, Vienna

 

Biggest tip I can give about Budapest is to wait to exchange your currency until you are in city proper. There are currency exchange stores everywhere, and their rates are extraordinarily good. Do not exchange your currency at the train station or the airport, I learned the hard way how much of a rip-off that was (1 euro was worth 310 forint in city center, while it was only worth 240 forint at the train station. You do the math).

Buda Castle as seen from the Chain Bridge

Buda Castle as seen from the Chain Bridge

As tiring as the trip was, I had an amazing time. With only 6 weeks left in my exchange, this is probably my last outside-of-France trip, and it is well worth it.

Budapest seen from Buda Castle

Budapest seen from Buda Castle

Canadians in Berlin

Proud to be canadian_thumb[1]

Not having access to television sort of put me behind following the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. I was not really into the ‘Olympic spirit’ this time around. Usually I am always one for the Olympic Games and I am an avid follower every two years. Whatever following that I did do was either watching the replays on the internet or following my CBC mobile app with updates whenever possible. Of course, I did manage to watch the most important event of the entire games: ice hockey. For us Canadians, it all comes down to that. I was so happy and proud when both our men’s and women’s hockey teams won the Gold medal.

Yet there was one event, the men’s gold medal hockey game, which I will never forget in my life. I took a German friend of mine to a sports bar in the afternoon (not as early as 7am in Toronto, good on ya for doing it) to catch the most important hockey game for all Canadians, which arises only once every four years. As I walked in the front door, I forgot for a second that I was in Berlin, Germany- a country thousands of kilometres across the Atlantic Ocean away from my home. I thought I entered a Canadian bar.

IMG_4697

First of all, I was wearing my Toronto Maple Leafs toque. As soon as I entered, some Canadian dude, who already had a few to drink, put his arm around me and yelled out: “EH buddy, awesome toque you got on there, EHHH!” (the “eh” was of course accented for the joke between us two). I was not expecting such a welcome. I honestly thought I would merely arrive at some empty German sports bar in the middle of a Sunday afternoon to watch a sport that is not so popular (it’s all about Soccer here).

I arrived halfway through the first period, so the whole atmosphere was already in full swing. I walked into a sea of red and white. There were people with Canadian Flags wrapped around them, Roots jackets and sweaters, hockey jerseys, red plaid shirts and a Blue Jays ball cap. Hearing phrases around me such as “that’s a beauty Owen Nolan retro jersey you got on there!” or “oh yah bud, that was a big period for the boys eh!” or “I went to the Winter Classic this year!” really made me feel at home.

IMG_4702

... and a lonely Swedish fan

… and a lonely Swedish fan

Most of the people watching the game were from Canada. I met a group of travelling students from Toronto and we immediately struck up a conversation. From who I talked to, there were Canadians from Edmonton, Montreal and British Columbia. The amazing part, which I found really cool, is that some of the waiters and bar tenders were wearing something that was red and white or something that said ‘Canada’ on it. Quite a few native Germans wore Team Canada hockey jerseys too! To see my home country being so embraced and welcomed abroad warmed my heart. It was one moment in my life where I felt so proud to be a Canadian. Yes, I know that many of the spectators were in fact Canadian and hence the booming atmosphere, but the way we were greeted and supported by the locals was the best part of the whole experience.

As the game was winding down and we had the game in the bag with a 3-0 lead over the Swedes, our national anthem ‘O Canada’ suddenly erupted from us all within the bar. Singing ‘O Canada’ in Berlin with many other people on a Sunday afternoon was something I will never forget. I got the goosebumps during the entire song.

There is one thing I can say for sure about my year abroad thus far. As ironic as it sounds, being away from Canada hasn’t brought me further away from who I am, but rather brought me closer to my country. I am learning more about myself and Canada in these past months than I ever did living in Toronto for the past 21 years. People actually notice that I sometimes, unintentionally, throw in an “Eh” in my sentences. Many don’t know the rules of ice hockey, which is understandable, but knowing them makes me feel uniquely Canadian. I have, no joke, been told that I say “aboot” and not “about”, something I never would have noticed myself. I know what real ‘Canadian bacon’ tastes like and I miss it. I know what a ‘Double-Double’ is from Tim Horton’s. Being recognized as the guy from the huge land of Canada with vast wilderness and brutal winters makes me feel somehow special.

Flag raising ceremony

Flag raising ceremony

I would never trade such experiences away for anything and I am sure that I will continue to learn more about who I am and where I come from. To end this blog post and to echo the famous Molson Canadian beer slogan:

I AM CANADIAN!

Weekend culinary delights

This past weekend, I’ve finally decided to make use of the oven in my apartment. It is apparently very rare for apartments in Paris to have an oven, not to mention the full oven that I currently enjoy much to the envy of my culinary-savvy friends. I am not, by far, an excellent cook. Nor does my cooking expertise lie in the art of baking. However, struck by a moment of whimsy and with a friend who actually knows how to bake, I made quiche lorraine and crepes – which doesn’t use the oven, but let’s include it here to make the list look more impressive.

Quiche Lorraine - pretty good for my first attempt

Quiche Lorraine – I would say it’s pretty good for my first attempt

The result of two hours of mucking about in the kitchen was, in my opinion, surprisingly aesthetically pleasing and tasty. I fully believe there is something in the dairy products here that makes them so delicious. Speaking of dairy products, there is a popular cafe across the street from Sciences Po called cafe Basile that has the most amazing butter on their tartines (which is nothing fancy, just sliced baguettes with butter and jam on top, but very good!).

Crepes! I've mastered the technique of flipping crepes. It is very simple to make, and a lot cheaper than those 4 euros you have to pay outside...

Crepes! I’ve mastered the technique of flipping crepes. It is very simple to make, and so much cheaper than those 4 euros you have to pay to get one at a street stand.

More culinary efforts may follow in the future. Now that I have taken the first step, I might try my hands at making other traditionally French food. Maybe one day the smell of the desserts I have made will finally overcome the tempting smell of freshly baked bread from the boulangerie downstairs.

On another note, next week will be reading week for university students in Paris. Classes are starting to become emptier as the weekend approaches as people fly off to their destination of choice. I have friends who are going to Morocco, Iceland, Sweden – all over Europe. There are just so many places to visit, and only 7 weeks left in the semester! No doubt I should be working on my assignments due after the break, but I will be travelling to Czech Republic, Austria and Hungary instead! Photos to come when I return.

Until next time!