Half Year Recap

It’s the second half of 2016, and it’s been a very eventful last couple of months. I spent time in LA with family (~2 months!), traveled to Indochina with strangers, traveled to Eastern Europe with old friends, made new friends from said travels, achieved my travel goal (30 countries!), explored romantically and went on dates, spoke infront of a large audience (500+!) several times, visited two beautiful places in the Philippines (twice!).

I’m progressing on my goals for 2016. Those who are close to me know that I keep an intense 8-page list of goals, resolutions, affirmations, manifestos, that allow me to design how I’d like the year to unravel. It’s served me well over the years, so much so that there were many “reach” goals I jotted down at the beginning of every year, and keeping myself in check was the main reason I’m able to reach them. I’m happy and very grateful to say I exceed myself every single year. I attribute it to the willingness to be bold, challenging myself to be driven, exercising grit, mustering courage, and seeking inspiration. The universe has been good to me, to say the least.

I will be turning the big 3-0 in a few months. Lately, I’ve been extra reflective about my year, especially the big decisions I have made in the last decade. I made two big moves (Chicago and Manila), mainly because I wanted to step into uncertainty and promise, but not knowing what would happen. Everyday for me is like uncovering a story page by page, nothing is preconceived, nor routine. New people and events present themselves to me in my daily life, and I encounter them with a fresh set of eyes as any traveler would when placed in a new city. It’s both my curiosity and transient knowledge of the culture and history of a place that makes it seem all seem new.

In my twenties, I received two academic degrees– bachelor’s and master’s. This is important because education has always been a crucial tenet in my family. In the former, I studied two subjects I was incredibly passionate about, which were literature and global studies. In the latter, I took a more practical degree to formalize my training in the career I started in my early twenties. Individually, these have increased my curiosity and knowledge, and when combined, gave me what I need to be where I am now, in terms of location and phase in my life.

I’ve learned countless lessons in this past decade, and wouldn’t give up anything that had happened. Everything happened for a reason, and I’m starting to see how my decade would’ve changed drastically even with a minor tweak. The events in their chronological order happened because they needed to happen, in that order. While there’s still that normal apprehension for what’s to come, there is absolutely nothing to regret.

So many things have changed in me. I’ve grown to be more mature, more disciplined, braver than ever. I still get nervous, I still have a lot to learn, I stumble often, but knowing how the challenges and opportunities of this past decade have sharpened by wits (and tongue!), supported my dreams, structured my thinking, made my movement more sophisticated, strengthened by faith, steeped me in my values, solidified my dreams, and softened my edges… there is not much more I could ask for.

There is still so much more to hope for, but I’m optimistic about life in the coming years. There are still many places to explore, people to love, friends to be discovered, a man to look for, a family to create, a career to grow, a craft to nurture.

It’s been a full decade, and given the full toolbox of skills, lessons and values I’ve received in my twenties, I’ve excited to see what’s in store as I turn 30.

Seeing Europe with my Sister

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Musee D’Orsay, overlooking the magnificent Louvre, in Paris, October 2015

I’m still dreaming about the Europe trip my sister and I took together. It is really special to travel the world with a sibling.

We encountered so many breathtaking, varied sights.. immersed in a vast range of perspectives, observed from atop hills and beneath towers, touched deeply by the breadth and depth of the human condition… encountered within arms length the glitter of luxury and the throes of the refugee crisis, traveled through air, by train, taxis and traversed on foot… enjoyed modern travel lifestyle via Uber and Airbnb, felt the joys of welcome at each border and the sting of parting places that have become special, met challenges to my patience and some petty inconveniences, debated over the dimensions of identity and allegiance… came back to my literary senses, my artistic proclivities, felt again what’s it like to step into high creativity and just be… reminisced in past experiences, lived in the present and looked forward to greater ambitions…. and humbled many, many times over by the kindness of people, the richness of our experiences, intelligent design of natural things, and guiding grace. Ours is an incredibly awesome world and let me tell you.. in it exists a place for everyone’s interests, hopes, dreams and desires to happen.. with a little magic, in abundance.. so find your place in the world and put your mark on it.

Coffee Shop Diaries

Day 14 of #KateKimEuropa2015

I’m in Berlin at this coffee shop called Buchkantine, which is at the Moabit neighborhood, just slightly north of Tiergarten, where we are staying. I fly out of Berlin tonight, while my sister had already flown back to the States this morning. She must be flying over the Atlantic right now.

So where I am at this place, a centaurian shop that is half-bookstore, half-coffeehouse. The book titles in the store are all in German, and for a moment, I desperately wished I could speak and read it.

This seems to be a popular spot for locals. It’s tucked inside a little street by the River Spree, which goes through the city. I am the only non-German here. It seems to be filled by locals Europeans or, at least, people who are fluent in German and other languages I couldn’t understand. Interestingly, even if I am foreign here, I feel somehow at home. Even if I feel that I’m different, I feel that I share something with others in this place. I don’t know what it is exactly, it could be real. Or imagined. It might be the cafe culture, or the literary culture, both of which are a substantial part of my life. It could be the pleasure of poring through magazines, or the sheer joy of being surrounded by books. Or an afternoon spent with friends and loved ones. I might feel a sense of belonging because of my proclivity toward the logic, order, lifestyle, culture, art that are the norm here.

Is belonging dependent on others welcoming you to their environment, or could you feel a sense of belonging by merely sharing the same interests as them? I doubt that it’s the former, because people are generally detached and oblivious in Berlin. I don’t feel the warmth of welcome as I do in Asia or California. But I feel like I could live in Berlin, that I could call it home if I choose to.

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Berlin at dusk

Just before coming to this cafe, I spent my afternoon on a walking tour to see the alternative side of Berlin, through the counterculture (ie. hipster) neighborhood of Kreuzberg. We looked at street art and graffiti, and I learned the difference between the two: street art is more focused on images and graphics, while graffiti is mostly text.

We saw some important landmarks in the area, such as the treehouse built by Omar Klein, which straddles East and West Berlin, and is a historically significant spot. It’s a makeshift treehouse near where the Berlin Wall once stood, and amid the fighting, separation and aftermath of war, Omar Klein turned the spot into something beautiful. He planted a community garden, which brought people together. It built community, and it was the location of peaceful demonstrations. What a great thing to do.

In this tour, I met so many people from all over the world! There were two girls from South Africa, who both speak American English, but one lives in Munich while the other lives in Amsterdam. I think they are students because they look very young. Another young pair was a couple from Brazil, who are currently living in Budapest to study. They seem to be an artistic pair, since they were dressed so. How interesting are these people we encounter when we travel!

I like these brief encounters, even if they are fleeting. I get to see, even for a moment, how others live, think and act. I get to imagine possibilities of what one could do with travel. These young kids inspire me with their energy and curiosity. They impart a bit of their braveness to follow my dreams, regardless of where I could reach it.

Forward, Sideways and Upward.. Stories in All Directions

Day 9-10 of #KateKimEuropa2015

We had stayed in late last night and had a very good rest. We woke up feeling refreshed and so ready to start the day! We were close to a popular landmark, the Riegrovy Sady park, and thought it would be a good idea to walk through its hilly paths, lush trees that are slowly welcoming winter, benches that are enticing to sit on and mull over life, and of course, to be amid flowers before they wither.

We took streets called Borivojova, Polska and Vinohadry, which led to the main arteries, such as Vaclavske Namesti, that would eventually take us to Old Town Prague. Our excitement was palpable.

Prague is an interesting city. It is foreign even to me, who’s been to multiple European countries. I like it because it is not like any other European city I’ve been to. It has its own distinct character, and there’s a sense of covert action looking to be found. It entices with its rundown bookstores, vintage building that have escaped wars, cafes that remind you of Old World glamor, graffitied walls that speak of protests, alleys that hid many a rendezvous.

There were times when we felt we have to exercise a bit of caution when entering alleys or tunnels. We knew we were in Europe, but there weren’t a lot of familiar sights, sounds or smell around us. Personally, I was looking for the literary side of Prague, the city that birthed some of my favorite writers such as Milan Kundera.

We walked through cobblestone streets, made our way to Den Noc, the well-reviewed breakfast place in Old Town. It was a coffeeshop and wine bar combined, started by two best friends, one who loved baking and other who loved wine. We had these Czech pancakes; our savory dish reminded me of blinis, while our sweet dish reminded me of stuffed pancakes. 

Prague was exotic. We explored the cuisine and found many good surprises. Street vendors were selling pretzels, Trdelník, crepes, Kolbasa sausages.

Cobblestone streets with antique shops were plenty, and they come to you one after another, slightly turing left or right, some winding, some just plain right confusing. These streets would either introduce undiscovered streets that look uncannily similar to each other, or extend to modern parts of Prague. These streets were not grand boulevards, nor were small alleys; they were ordinary streets in any other place but in Prague, they had were labyrinthine in quality.

The city calls you to look for architectural delights in all direction: forward, through its cobblestone streets, sideways, through its maze-like streets, and upward. On the ground, the City of a Thousand Spires invites your eyes to trace the sides of its buildings, to the spires, all the way to the sky. From a high viewpoint, it seduces you to embrace with your eyes the great expanse of red-orange roofs, Baroque buildings, Romanesque colonnades, and Gothic towers that are all seem to continue infinitely to the horizon.

And of course, the churches. Oh, the churches. They look like castles. It would be hard to distinguish a church from a castle. They’re equally grand, ornate, and seemingly sacred. We stopped by St. Niklas church, a beautiful central church in the Old Town square. Its chandelier held my attention. There was a Mozart and Bach concert that afternoon that we won’t be able to make. In the square, there was also the Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn and Kinský Palace, among other visual delights. Farther out from old town square, were the Prague Castle complex which held even more surprises.

Our castle tour of Prague was magical. We went to St. Vitus’ Cathedral, which was a massive structure and absolutely larger than life. Its pointed Gothic roofs were everything you imagine being enamored with in Prague. The stained-glass windows inside were just as intricate, and would rival the Notre Dame in France.

The views from high points in Prague also give character to the beautiful city. When you’ve spent hours walking around town dwarfed by these grand, large scale edifices, you seek a breather and look to open spaces. Once you find a good spot, you take it all in as it whisks you away in a dream.

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A Steady but Ready Travel Pace

Day 7 of #KateKimEuropa2015

We’re getting the hang of our schedule, waking up early to get to the train station, grab a cup of cappuccino and croissant to dispense of our change in the currency of the country we’re departing, board a train, grab a taxi to our Airbnb apartment or hotel, rest for a bit, then take a stroll as we look for a place to have dinner.

In Salzburg, we were very close to the Old Town, which made it convenient for us to have some scrumptious, traditional Austrian dinner like potato mash and goulash! We went to Gasthof Alter Fuchs, which kept the thematic look of a medieval inn where hunters meet for dinner, but has an updated aesthetic. Lights were bright and tables were modern and clean. The food was all but modern- it’s traditional Austrian home cooking at its best, and just glorious.

Day 8 of #KateKimEuropa2015

Walking along the Schwarzstrasse along the Salch River early on Sunday morning when it’s peaceful and serene is such a gift in Salzburg. My sister and I headed out early to do just this. A woman and her son were looking for open bakeries. We walked down to the river to take pictures by the bridge, against a backdrop of a calm river, autumn foliage and rolling hills.

This is the city centre- and it’s a quaint town with beautiful landscapes, cute buildings, and Mozart being played in the streets. After all, this is the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. After we’ve absorbed the view and the autumn air as best we could, we went to the MozartGasthaus, where Mozart lived. We also went to the Franciscan church of Salzburg nearby, as well as the Dom zu Salzburg, or Salzburg Cathedral. These were very historical places and being there makes you feel connected to history, to events that happened centuries ago. It made me contemplative of humanity, how we’ve progressed as a race and society, and how far we’ve come in advancing ideas and technology. We’ve come far since the middle ages in terms of cultural, technological and creative production, but I think some of the challenges of society– inequality, slavery, fraud– remain.

Of course, we can’t leave Salzburg without having seen the Mirabell Gardens. In fact, we saw it twice, and perhaps passed by it a few more times. While we were there, there was a harpist playing at the entrance of the garden. He was perhaps in his 30s, a tall, lanky blond man with long hair tied neatly. The sound was beautiful, and it was a gift to behold because we don’t always get to hear harp being played around, even in church or orchestras. The rarity of such an experience, as well as the impeccable technique used to play the instrument was definitely a blessing that took hold of our ears.

 

 

That afternoon, we also participated in a musical tour that took us around the many different areas where they shot scenes of the American classic, The Sound of Music. From the Mirabell Gardens, to the gazebo (pictured above) where Liezl and her Nazi soldier had a romantic moment, to the Von Trapp villa.

 

We also passed by some beautiful sights such as the town of Mondsee with its picture-perfect lake that displayed the colors of autumn in a beautiful array, against a backdrop of mountains near and far, a tranquil lake, and a sleepy Austrian village with quaint houses.

We also stopped by the local church of Mondsee, designed in Baroque style.

In Salzburg, I discovered what Austrian coffeehouse culture is like. Many have spoken about this, in magazines, books, and conversations, and I never understood how special it was, how different it was from French or Italian coffeehouse culture. We went to Cafe Bazar along the Schwazstrasse, a historical cafe where famed writers, politicians, philosophers and actresses spent a lot of time.

So, in a nutshell, Austrian coffeehouse culture is marked by great coffee, earnest service and luxury of time. I think time is the most important thing you buy in an Austrian cafe. Buying a cup of coffee allows you to spend time in a coffeeshop, catching up with friends, writing a novel, or reading newspapers or magazines available to patrons. Coffee is served on a silver platter by a wonderfully well-dressed waitstaff, who would also encourage you to try any number of intricately created Austrian desserts, like the classic Sacher Torte. There’s also a style of coffee that’s typically Austrian, which is called Cafe Melange– espresso with milk and a dollop of cream on top!

You’re always seated in an Austrian cafe, as you would be in a restaurant. They give you a menu where you can order breakfast, light lunch or dinner. Some places even have a separate menu for coffee and desserts– it’s that special.

Isn’t it inspiring that an activity most of us think of as mundane is treated with such regard and art in Austria? It’s definitely a product of tradition, emblazoned by years of customs and appreciation for a cup of roast 🙂

What other things do we have in our daily lives that we tend to overlook, but can be infused with new life if we just pay more attention to it, devote time and effort in making it a true craft?

As I think about this, I’ve learned that paying attention to mundane things start off as tedious and insignificant, because who has the time of day or motivation to think about common things that blend into the background such as walking, grabbing coffee, speaking, etc? The solution to this, that I’ve found, is a combination of rituals and a habit of gratitude. Rituals allow us to keep a steady pace in our lives, collecting many habits into a symphony that make up our everyday life. A habit of gratitude allows us to pay attention to these rituals as well as new experiences that slightly alter these rituals.

The secret is to keep a steady pace by continuing to commit to good habits we want to form, as well as being ready to seek gratitude even in situations where it may seem like there’s not a whole lot to be thankful for. The more we seek something, the more we find it, and little by little, this act allows us to surface more joys and blessings in our lives.

Breathtaking Alps

Day 6 of #KateKimEuropa

If there is one word to describe the Swiss Alps, it would be breathtaking. Both in terms of beauty, and vertigo when you realize how high up you are!

It’s natural beauty at its finest. I shall want go to the Alps again and again, and never get tired of it. We took a cog train to Mt. Pilatus, with a height of 6800 ft. The train ride was a little shaky, but we felt safe inside it. As the train ascended, the view unfolded.. from the grass at the foot of the mountain, to the towering pine trees that surrounded us, as our eyes lay transfixed to the snowcapped Alps. It is hypnotizing and therapeutic to witness nature and creation. We transcend to a higher state of mind in its beauty.

We walked around the viewpoint planned for tourists, embracing Mt. Pilatus. It was slippery and snowy, and we trembled slightly as we held on safety rails. It was colder up there with all that snow, but the sun was shining very brightly that it was enough to help us stay outside a bit longer. After we’ve had our fill of the brisk Alpine air, we settled inside the restaurant, had traditional Swiss food (sausages and pasta), tea, and of course Swiss chocolate. It was complete bliss to be high up, eating good food, experiencing the view, and knowing how lucky we are to have the opportunity to be there.

Sometimes when we travel, we are so busy checking off our things to see and do, or we’re encumbered by the logistics of transit, then by the time we get to a place of rest, we are so exhausted. We rest, wake up, and do it all over again. We’re consumed by our need to take perfect pictures, taking multiple shots for a single pose. We’re all guilty of this. So it’s so special to me when in the midst of travel, I am aware that I’m traveling– that I’m in a different country, experiencing new things, and even if it sounds easy to book a flight and travel these days, there were so many little things that had to align (schedule, vacation approval, budget, itinerary agreement, availability of tour, weather, safe arrival, etc) and it all did for me. It’s all a blessing that I know I should never take for granted.

Beyond the travel logistics, I am fully aware that the things I’ve cultivated, prioritized, devoted to– my love of travel, commitment to it, list of travel goals–  along with the decisions I’ve made through it all, over the years, have all led me to this point, to be standing here at one of the highest points in my life I’ve ever had the pleasure of standing on. Literally and figuratively.

And this trip, these pictures, these stories, this realization… I’m blessed to be able to share with you all.

Train Diaries

Writing and reading on a train are some of my most favorite activities.

While on the train to Zurich…

I am on the train going to Zurich right now, on the high speed TGV train. This train goes 300 kmh/hr, so fast that we’ll get to Zurich in just a couple of hours. It is early morning, and sunrise here arrives a little later. At 9:50 am, there is light outside, albeit I can’t see the sun just yet. When I look out the window, I see fields of the countryside, cottages, and cows. There is an Indian couple next to us. The lady smiled at me when I happened to glance at them, as if to comfort us on this trip, or perhaps seeking comfort from us.

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I’m in the window seat. The woman infront of me is on her laptop, editing a presentation. From the crack between the seat back and the window, I can see the reflection of her laptop. It looks like she’s working on a plan for either human resources or international development. Some of the slides are in an Eastern European language or Greek. My observation makes me think about what life would be like if I pursued international development. To live internationally, among highly diverse coworkers, work on important issues and travel multiple countries… contributing my skills and global ideas. I’m drawn to that life, so much so that I feel it’s in the plan for me. But then again, I think about my life right now and that’s exactly what I’m doing– I live internationally, I travel in multiple places, and even if I don’t work in international development or humanitarian causes, I work in technology in a developing place where it is making a large impact in connecting people. I am living the dream, so to speak.

Traveling, especially when I’m in transit, makes me dream. The movement inspires me. I get ideas on how I can do more. When I travel, I get a sense of perspective that I can’t get anywhere else. I feel unhindered, filled with possibilities, and free.