Tuesday, 18 February 2014

First impressions of a city I already know

There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself altered.
-Nelson Mandela

Here I am again, this city which I often passed through, during the past five years, where I spent money, ate sushi, or simply bypassed. This is where it all starts and ends, or at least if you look at it from a certain point in history or from a certain perspective. This is where I started off my travels back in June. I was just dropping in then, using the airport to go elsewhere. I came back again in July on my way to Switzerland, fitting in a quick Japanese lunch. I returned yet again on the way back, though only for a few hours. Yet again I found myself here the night before heading to Grenoble for the first leg of my year abroad. Here I am again, now, in the same room, with the same person.

la mia nuova città

This similar feeling of familiarity and self awareness arose when I returned to Geneva in December after having visited in July, and much earlier when I was 11. We keep moving, and yet the basic skeleton of the city and in turn of its organs, its people, are just the same.

What makes this time different? The freedom. I have a room without curfew (though admittedly with a dark-ages "no guests past midnight" policy) and a monthly transport pass. This makes all the difference. I have no sensation of "fretta", no need to rush. I can go anywhere without worrying about accumulating costs and running out of time. I can take opportunities as they come. A whole city is now open to me, of which before I could only scrape the surface. Again, excuse the cheesiness of this introduction. I admit to having watched too many French movies.

I have now, surprisingly, been here for 2 weeks.The first week was like staying in a luxurious bed and breakfast. My friend Dorothy has been looking after me incredibly well, especially considering I didn't expect anything, just potentially a place to sleep. We have eaten a lot of delicious vegan food, overindulged in crepes at le colonne, walked aimlessly around the centre and zona navigli, been to the cinema, brought each other up to date on everything that has happened in the last 6 months. Whilst she was working I managed to sort of the few administrative tasks that l'Università di Milano asked of me, choose my courses, find a place to start climbing and a yoga centre, check out the local pools, get a transport card, go clothes shopping, running, write my blog, catch up on the Walking Dead and Breaking Bad, meet Milanese friends and so on... It was a week to remind myself that I too need some TLC.

oh my, I just put this online...?
Giving myself a vitamin blast to fight off the February blues

cancelling out everything with this massive veggie burger with vegan cheese

Familiar sites in a new context. I do feel different, looking at these streets and monuments I know so well. Happy, in a weird way. I wasn't yesterday. I felt anxious about moving around and an inexplicable fatigue. 

I moved into my university accommodation one week ago. This meant carrying lots of heavy stuff up and down stairs, through a couple of metro lines and finally on a tram. It was raining, but fortunately there was hardly any administration, unlike Résidence Ouest in France. The secretary was kind enough to tell me that basically, I could go rest and come back to deal with admin later. All I had to do was sign a few things, and I got told where I could do the washing, how to get into the building etc. The room is quite spacious for a student accommodation in Milan with very modern furnishings. I share the kitchen with 3-4 other girls (haven't met them all yet so not sure) and the bathroom with just one of them. There is plenty of storage space, good blinds and a kitchen with a freezer and oven. Three minutes away is a tram stop, from which it takes about 20 minutes to get to the duomo/university area. The only downside to this halls of residence is that I cannot host anyone here overnight, as visitors get kicked out between midnight and 8am. If I want guests, I guess we will all just have to readjust our sleeping schedules and become nocturnal. After having a week in which I felt like my cooking utensils were a little on the scarce side (I have a spork and a swiss army knife), a Milanese friend took me to Ikea on Friday, which was super useful. I now feel slightly better equipped. 

I started most of my classes last Monday, though Filologia romanza does not start until tomorrow.Indologia was extremely interesting, Linguistica generale? Not so much... Surprise surprise, my Erasmus coordinator decided she wouldn't accept credits for the interesting course. Letteratura Italiana seems interesting, more for the teaching style than the actual course content. The teacher swears, blasphemes and gets distracted by his own discourse. I could write a short humerous coffee table book called "le citazioni di Marazzi". I still have to try out filologia romanza which starts next week. Had a conversation with the teachers from both the French and German department, I can apparently do third year French for advanced students and 1st year German for beginners if I can catch up on what was studied in the first semester. I am currently trying to catch up on everything I missed, from irregular past conjugations to case endings...  Challenge maybe not accepted, considering that there is a less intensive beginner's course which provides the same amount of credits for the third of the time. I know it is still quite early to make a statement like this, but so far I much prefer the Italian university system to the French one. Here I feel more independent, less mollycoddled and thus more motivated to actually work.

I had a friend in town this week, Vivek. Though I was a little tied up due to administration, class, and a general sense of fatigue after my move-in, we managed to get a few things done. Namely walking around the main sites of Milan and eating some incredible ice cream.

Salted pistachio soyagelato, Maracuja, Raspberry

On the day he was leaving we were sat in Parco Sempione chatting, when we spotted two pigeons "kissing" and nuzzling each other in a very affectionate way. What a cute, romantic little scene. My thoughts moved towards the little bacio note I found the other day:

Then they started procreating.

In more news, after a successful job interview I am now employed! I will be teaching at various locations around the city, teaching private classes and larger groups, but had my first private lesson on Friday. It went spectacularly. Much needed considering the amount of spending I am doing and will be doing in the near future; I keep eating out, shopping, going to Venice next week for the carnival, not to mention my recent long haul flight trip-I am going to Japan and Vietnam this summer!
It's really difficult to believe that I have been here for 2 weeks. I have a feeling this semester will fly by.

There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.
There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Revisiting old lands and discovering something new

I was kind of at a loss regarding what I should call this post. After a whirlwind touristic and culinary trip to Berlin, I was visiting people and less famous cities. So I just arrived in Milan on Saturday after two weeks in Germany. I have visited Germany on several occasions; once when I was 11, again when I was 14 (on both trips I was with my parents), and then when I was 15 with my school. The first time I had my cheeks pinched in an affectionate manner whenever around  maternal-looking ladies (at the time it seemed as if there were many), the second time a childhood friend and I went crazy for the chocolatey creations on offer and ran and climbed everywhere we weren't supposed to go, the third time I got to meet the youth of the country, as I took part in a sort of cultural exchange in Hamburg. That was an Italianesque sentence, long and it might have left you feeling breathless. I apologise. There. Short and snappy. Besides the picturesque mountains and cute and colourful little towns, during the first few trips I also got to see a few German stereotypes in action, namely:

1. A strict adherence to rules (with a tendency to actively enforce them too). Germans are known to be law-abiding, but such generalisations never seem real until you seem them in action. Germans often wait at zebra crossings if the pedestrian crossing lights are red, even if there are no cars coming. They often come and remind you of the law if you are parking in the wrong place, cycling on the pavement or running in a swimming pool.

2. Beer drinking and sausage consumption. I saw plenty of beer gardens and people enjoying a social pint, this is something you can see all around the country. Sausages are also very common, most seen as street food. A hotel breakfast is also very likely to contain a lot of cheese and meat. These two unsurprisingly add to the stereotype that Germans have beer bellies.

There was one non-conformist guy during my school trip to Hamburg who made me rethink seemingly true stereotypes. It was already quite a revelation that the students were allowed to dress as they pleased. Whilst we had to wear uniforms back in England, this guy wore his baggy jeans, a nose piercing and spiky bracelets. I had once been sent home for dying my hair red for charity, I wonder how my school would have reacted to the following story... One day we went on a historical trip to a little town in Eastern Germany, visited a palace, then had 30 minutes to explore the town. The aforementioned guy came back to the school bus with a blue Mohawk. His teachers didn't blink an eyelid, whereas mine looked a little stunned. Cool!

So I had seen one person break away from this stereotype, but I could hardly just deem this representative of German society.

Over the years I started to hear a lot about how Germany was becoming the best place to be vegan/vegetarian. I also met artists and photographers who swore that Berlin was the coolest, most bohemian city in Europe. Photos appeared of the graffiti found around the city, and I became increasingly aware of the underground movements which had roots in Germany. Less of a novelty-German society is a lot more tolerant of the naked body. Whilst prostitution is legal for pragmatic reasons, people enjoy the freedom they find in the many parks in German cities during the summer, for example the Tiergarten. Saunas are also places to get back to nature.

Facing -12.6 degrees celcius

As always my introduction has become rather long and dissuading. Please keep reading.

I had 3 short-but-sweet days in Berlin. Strangely enough I had previously managed to visit almost all cities in Germany, minus Berlin. It was a little out of the way. Thus, I used the first day to see all the main tourist sites: the holocaust memorial, the Berlin wall, the East side gallery, the deceivingly recent cathedral, the Brandenburg gate and Alexanderplatz. My hostel was well located-Generator mitte is really close to museums like the Pergamon and German history museum. I met two very nice guys from Sao Paolo in my dorm room, with whom I visited many of the main sites. Someone also gave me a breakfast token so I got free access to the breakfast buffet (twice as they didn't take my token the first time). So... I also spent a day in the museums. During the weekend I indulged in a lots of vegan food, from the elusive vegan kebab and felafel to the surprisingly animal-free white chocolate filled crepe at Olàlà. Veganz is a vegan supermarket chain which is fortunately coming to London soon. Friedhrichshain and Kreuzberg kept pulling me back with the promise of dim but cosy candlelit windows, intriguing graffiti and vegan eateries. I played mini golf in an ex-World War II bunker, now illuminated by neon lights and 3D images, brought to life by the 3D glasses. I met up with an old friend, a course mate from Edinburgh, and found some new friends. The Tiergarten was hidden by a snowy blanket and the abandoned airport was a no-go zone with the weather as it was, so instead I promised myself I would make a return trip in Summer.

East Side Gallery


The holocaust memorial


What was left of the Tiergarten...

"Berlin is poor but sexy"

Standing on Hitler's bunker, now an uninspiring car park with no sign, so this site could not become a shrine.

A few vegan culinary experiences...

Vegan doner at Vöner kebab

Vegan white chocolate crepe and quiche at Ohlala

Raw berry and chocolate cheesecake at Goodies

Hoarding vegan products at Veganz

Surprisingly amazing tofu teriyaki salad in some art gallery cafe on oranienburger straße, so sorry I cannot remember the name!

Vegan croissant from Goodies and almond olive cheese from Veganz, apfel schorle, rye bread, organge, coffee, tea etc from hostel breakfast.

 Berlin still managed to live up to its reputation as a cool city. So many different old buildings have been occupied, the most poignant examples being ex prisons, communist buildings and architecture from the fascist era which have been redefined as temples of tolerance and free-thinking.

The next stop was Osnabrück, a city near Münster and in the region formerly known as Westphalia. This sparked my imagination, as I thought about Candide leaving the baron's kingdom and encountering disaster upon disaster. I caught a bus from the ZOB in Berlin, a place annoyingly awkward to get to, especially when weighed down by a semester's worth of bags and dragging them through snow, across road salt and up and down the stairs to platforms. The bus journey lasted five and a half hours, all of which were spent listening to music whilst losing myself in the monotonous autobahn. 

The next part of my trip was conducted for more personal reasons, though Osnabrück turned out to be a pretty little city. It had the stereotypically clean streets that one expects when visiting Germany, the toy-town appearance. There was a nice park and botanic garden, which also gave a little respite from the town life. Despite being a small city, there are many organic shops. Vegetarianism is definitely on the rise, and I noticed that the majority of people living in the student house in which I was staying were drinking soya milk. It doesn't stop with a concern about ethical living; Germans of the 2000s seem to be very concerned about health. Surprisingly German indoor swimming pools seem to be amongst the best equipped in the world. When I visited Iceland I was told about how much Icelanders loved their swimming pools, but in Germany this is taken to a whole new level. The local swimming pool in Osnabrück was massive, boasting a children's pool, a warm pool, several jacuzzis, a "whirlpool", a natural thermal pool outside with salty water, a large pool for swimming laps and diving, a sauna and solarium, and three water slides. One of these water slides was a real thrill seeker's event.




A 5 hour car journey later, and I was in Karlsruhe, a town known for its circular shape, political importance, in that it hosts two of the highest federal courts in Germany, and its early 18th century palace. It is conveniently located next to the Rhine. It is also close to Baden Baden, a place I visited when I was 11 and to which I was eager to return. Here I got a taste more of a taste of German day-to-day life: eating seeded breads with various jams and spreads for breakfast, cycling (tandem style!), going to the cinema, eating in a vegetarian canteen restaurant, browsing aimlessly and walking around. The ZKM gallery (the centre for art and media technology) was pretty cool. It was a large ex-warehouse, now housing various exhibitions. I got to see the media exhibit, which had many interactive installments (including video games and ipad apps) and a surprisingly impressive collection of holograms, some of which looked really life-like and three-dimensional. The other exhibition was on global activism, a collection of banners, films, posters and photos from various global movements. I spent a day in Baden Baden just walking around aimlessly, sitting in the park and trying to put together old images. I also found the maracuja sweets I had been looking for since I had first tried them in Osnabrück. I realized during my stay (and for a while before actually) that the German language does not deserve its reputation as a harsh sounding language. English also has many sounds which can sound harsh to people from more voiced languages such as the romance language family, like the spitting /t/. German can also sound quite nice.

 Karlsruhe Palace

The Rhine

Baden Baden, as seen from the park

In Karlsruhe I also got to try another very German experience-the naked sauna. After an hour in the aqua park area of the swimming complex (and another terrifying acqua rocket), we went to the saunas. As mentioned previously, Germans have a reputation for getting naked when the opportunity arises. Here is an opportunity. Moving from the swimming pool to the sauna came the scary moment when you are meant to exchange your swimming costume for a towel. There were many different saunas, varying in temperature, humidity and smell. The most humid was probably the lemongrass scented roman bath, whilst the hottest was most likely the 90 degree sauna outside. The Finnish saunas were very pleasant, whilst I hardly sweat at all in the 50 degree coffee scented sauna. The most surprisingly pleasant part came when I threw myself in ice cold water after the 80 degree heat for a couple of seconds. The pleasant tingly sensation that rang through my body made me forget I was naked. Between saunas we lay on the sunbeds in the tranquil winter garden, or threw ourselves in the heated pools outside. I noticed that whilst most women were wrapped in their towels, the men were walking around quite proudly. By the end though I also felt a similar liberation, and in my head I started off an age old chain of thought: why are we so ashamed of our nakedness? How would sexual attraction and desire respond if we wore no clothes? There is however something very none-conformist about this acceptance of the human body as it is, without decoration. After the sauna I felt really relaxed, clean and probably had the best nights sleep I had had in a very long time.

 It isn't a cultural observation nor a suggestion for tourists, but I don't think this blog post would be complete without mentioning something horrible which I witnessed on the way to the cinema in Karlsruhe. Cycling along the road we came across a car stopped in the middle of the road. In front of it we saw bags spilled across the road, yogurt pots rolling out. What came next was quite a shock: a man who had fallen off his bike, his head in a pool of his own blood. There were three onlookers. Needless to say we read the next morning that this man died in hospital. Though I didn't know this man nor the circumstances for his death, I felt a great sadness thinking about how one moment he was alive and the next he wasn't, his family's loss and the fragility of the human body. A reminder to stay safe, and well, stop postponing life. If you keep saying "one day", that one day may never come...

After an evening spent in a Berlin style hipster vegetarian restaurant in Mannheim, I got up early the next morning to fly from Frankfurt Hahn to Milano Bergamo. I was sad to leave, but delaying it once I had already gone through the motions of mentally saying goodbye would have left me in a kind of limbo state. 
 I was a little apprehensive about returning to Milan and Italy, hearing Italian again and seeing familiar sites from a new perspective, but so far I have been enjoying myself with my friend Dorothy. To quote a rather bad movie which I didn't enjoy, We have walked a lot, eaten a lot of really good vegan food and the so-called best Indian restaurant in Milan, been to the cinema and explored her local area. I have already sorted out most of the administrative tasks that the Erasmus procedure asks of me, bought a metro card, made a provisional selection of courses, spent way too much money on clothes and started my get-fit regime. I have been running, plan to go swimming, climbing and continue ashtanga yoga. I am moving into my university residence on Sunday, so that will be another change. I feel happy here and actually really excited about life.