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.

Paris at Dawn, In Transit

Day 5 of #KateKimEuropa2015: Paris, Zurich, Salzburg, Vienna, Prague, Berlin

On our last night in Paris, my sister and I went to our Airbnb apartment early to pack our bags to catch an early morning train to Zurich, Switzerland. We prepared the layers of clothes we’re planning to wear, set on the counter the toast and jam we were going to eat, made sure the clothes we hand-washed were rolled up and packed, and our electronic devices were safely stowed in our bags.

We woke up before daybreak. It had been drizzling. The alleys were quiet, the shops and galleries that were typical of our St. Germain-des-Pres neighborhood wouldn’t open in another 3 hours. In this quintessential Parisian neighborhood where tourists would stroll by the Seine two blocks away and locals would discreetly move their way through streets known only to them. There was nobody to be seen, except for one or two delivery trucks slowly cruising; the sound of their engine and tires moving within earshot but their heft would only be visible every now and then. The street lamps glistened, the puddles moved softly as the drizzle prodded them. The early morning spirit of Paris’ 6th Arrondisement was absolutely serene and beautiful.

The beauty of transition physically manifested in this moment.  The watch did say it’s a new day, but the day was slow to wake up to its call. The sun was taking its time to show its face. Amid the hurried rustling of our bags in our Parisian apartment and internal deluge of thoughts as we recount our itinerary toward the next city, the morning felt no similar rush, it was unfolding as it should be at this time of the year.

These are the kind of moments that we normally don’t pay attention to when we travel, because they are mundane and uneventful. I’m sure my sister and I have missed a thousand situations that called for a slower pace, or event a quick second of attention.

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This quick shot from a camera phone isn’t saying much, it’s not a picture worth a thousand words. It, however, symbolizes a single moment in our trip. A single moment so uneventful, but somehow speaks to the many succeeding moments just like it when we found ourselves in transit to another place, city, destination, journey. It’s like a leaf so insignificant on its own but makes up a tree that makes a forest. The transitory, negligible parts of travel actually bridge the narrative of our journeys.

Living the Parisian Lifestyle

Day 4 of #KateKimEuropa2015

Paris is a city that is made up of many beautiful things to see, touch, smell, hear, taste. It is a place to indulge because all of these are within reach no matter the time or day.

You wake up in the early morning and you hear soft French music playing. Then, you go out in the streets and walk along people with such varied sense of style, but all so intriguing to to look at. You stop by a bakery, even if a tiny one with no signboard for its name outside, and the croissant you get is the best of its kind you’ve ever eaten. You walk down the street further, and you arrive by the Seine. There are more people in the streets now, all with their own unique sense of style. Also, a lot more cars are making their way into the intersections, and a number of bicycles and motorcycles appear in different directions. The sunlight is still gentle, adding a subtle glow to all that it touches.

You finally arrive at your first stop: a museum, where you plan to spend your morning. It just happens to be the Louvre, the greatest museum in the world. On your way there, you go through an expansive garden called Jardin des Tuileries, where French kings and queens used to roam around. You take a break, sitting on a ledge or bench, to admire all the sensorial experience that have befallen you thus far, and you haven’t even gotten inside the museum. After a few minutes, you make your way to the museum entrance. On your way there, you simply cross the “invisible line”, a spatial designation that connects the most important sights of Paris to each other. Then, finally, you see the entrance to the museum. Before you reach it, you are greeted by a modern architectural masterpiece that enhances the original museum bearing centuries-old foundations and containing historically significant works of art, a display of human creativity at its pinnacle.

After a full morning at the museum, you step outside and the sun is high, and it’s more pleasant to walk around, basking in all its warmth. You take a break for a sip of soda, and you chance upon a bistro by the Seine. You see the Notre Dame from where you are. Accordion music is being played somewhere nearby. Tourists are taking pictures. Friends are having mini picnics. There’s an energy abuzz. It’s probably a good idea to have lunch. You order from the menu and everything looks delicious– cheeses, baguette sandwiches, quiche, salade nicoise, or heavier options like poulet roti or coq au vin. The food tastes natural and fresh. Even the water is delicious. After lunch, you decide to take another stroll, passing by the numerous bridges that cross the Seine, vendors selling water color painting in the street, crepe and coffee stands at every corner, fountains and statues every now and then. You decide on your next stop along the way. You pass by businessmen on their phones, lanky models, old men wearing berets, teenagers with their headphones on, women with a baguette sticking out of their tote bags. No one is in a hurry.

You look up to gauge how much farther you have to walk, and there’s the Eiffel Tower on the horizon.

Being in Paris reminds me to pay more attention to the mundane, because it is extraordinary. The city invites me to live life deliberately, artfully. To immerse in art, beauty and everyday blessings.

Dabbling into French Cooking

Day 3 of #KateKimEuropa2015

I’ve been to many cooking classes before but taking a cooking class to learn classical French cooking in Paris beats them all.

We went to a cooking school by Hotel D’Ville, along the Seine. It was such a fantastic location and a perfect de-stressing activity in the evening after a whole day of walking along Champs-Elysee and doing some shopping 🙂

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The foyer at La Cuisine Paris. Look at those Parisian-inspired items!

 

 

In the class, we learned how to debone a chicken, hold a mallet to tenderize chicken, use animal membrane to hold stuffed chicken together, using the same ingredients (vegetables, herbs, mushroom, chicken broth, etc) in different ways to make multiple courses… the French do make creative use of anything and everything in their cuisine!

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Menu: salad with Dijon dressing, mushroom sauce, vegetable stuffing with Provence herbs and pine nuts, baked chicken, white wine

We got a copy of the recipes we used, and hopefully one of these days I’ll get to make a version of this at home 🙂

There were two other women in our class, a woman nutritionist from San Diego, and a flight attendant from Sydney. Our instructor is a Danish-American currently living in Paris teaching culinary arts and working at Parisian restaurants.

It was a nice hanging out and getting to know such a well-traveled and international cast of people!