Monday, February 20, 2006

Weekend in Hamburg - Now in Berlin

I arrived this morning in Berlin. So far I've just checked into my hostel, got used to the metro system here (very extensive!), walked around the Postdamer Platz centre, had the ice cream at the famous Italian gelato store, and bought a ticket for the Berlin Philharmonic concert tonight at 8pm.

After a fantastic time with Meng in Oxford where we spent the last evening listening to a girl's choir from Acadia in Nova Scotia (Ali, i clapped extra loud for you!) in a gorgeous chapel at Exeter college, and where, as a side note, Matt's Grandfather attended University years ago, I flew out to Hamburg to spend the weekend with Matthew.

It was a blur of meeting people, walking around, seeing the sights and of course trying out all the German cuisine, which included a large assortment of cheeses, breads, currywursts, and all that other delicious and heavy German food.

I'm not one to get a sore stomach after eating spices or greasy food, but ever since I've been consuming an extraordinary amount of heavy starches, butter and fat, my stomach is pleading with me to go easy on it.

On Saturday night, I met several of Matt's colleagues from work. A really nice bunch of people, we dined at a very typical North German restaurant by the river. Famous for their fish and green cabbage, we gorged in amounts i never thought humanlypossible.

Yesterday we spent five hours walking non stop from our hotel to the Rathaus (government building) along the river to a big city park and back down again where we eventually ended up at an outdoor skating rink.

It's been a couple years since I've laced up and I've almost forgotten how much i enjoy it. The absolute best was the blaring techno and German pop music that deafens everyone within a 3 km radius.

Getting around the city is very easy and relatively cheap. The metro system in Germany is based on an honour basis, where there are no ticket booths or officers, just automatic machines to buy a ticket (single journey, day pass, greater city area, etc.) So to regulate travellers, there are plain clothed officers that come around and check your ticket.

If you're lucky, you won't meet one, especially if you chanced it and didn't buy a ticket to begin with, but while on my way to the hostel from the train station I got stopped. I had a ticket but the officer thought it was from a different day because i hadn't put it through a machine that punches a hole it. I didn't know i had to do it so after a lot of not understanding each other in German/English, he let me go. Phew. The fine is 40 Euros, which i didn't have in my wallet anyways.

I'm nursing a sore throat right now and although it was almost a given that I'd get one having come to a colder climate, i just don't like how my energy is drained so quickly. There will be no testing out the infamous Berlin nightlife for me, that's for sure. I only hope to stay awake during the concert tonight. Conducted by Philippe Jordan with Nikolaj Znaider as solo violinist, tonight's repertoire includes Debussy, Szymanowski and Tschaikovsky. And all for a mere 10 Euros!! What a great incentive to encourage more people to attend such concerts, I don't understand why it's not as common in Canada.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Reunion in Oxford

Here i am in one of Britain's most visited cities: Oxford. It's as beautiful in real life as it is in the films. Everywhere you turn, you are faced with a 16/17/18th century building, and every last detail of these monstrous masterpieces has been an obvious labour of love for the architect, builder, sculptor, etc. Besides being awed by the urban landscape, it seems that i've landed myself into an intense city where the majority of its population are students, all bright, keen, eager and itching to learn and swallow as much as possible in the world of academia.

I'm only here for several days but the people i've met in this short time all come from faraway places and have fascinating stories and diverse backgrounds. Most are extremely opinionated and relish the opportunity to engage in a debate of any sort, or as they call it, "an exchange of ideas." It puts me back into my uni days where we would stay up discussing, challenging and expressing our opinions, but here I get the sense that what you have to say is worth just as much as another's, or at least the respect of listening is given to every speaker. Afterall, active listening is an integral part of learning.

Let me back up. The flight from HK to London was extremely enjoyable and smooth. There were only about 40 people onboard and so we could lounge out and switch seats to our hearts content. Matt had a business class ticket but so lovingly gave it up to sit with me and the other commoners ;) It worked out well though because he was still given business class food, which i of course helped myself to!

We feasted on duck, shrimp, dim sum, cheeses, etc. We even got our own bottle of champagne - a delightful thirst quencher to pass the time at 9 in the morning.

We parted ways at Heathrow where he had to catch a connecting flight to Hamburg while i hopped on the bus to Oxford. It was only to be a few days but parting is never easy.

Meng met me at the bus stop and it was super to see her again, we did a little dance on the sidewalk when we saw each other. She took me to her flat at her college, Lincoln College, and then had to rush to her German class. Her flatmate, Katrin, from Berlin, took me to Hall where we met some other friends for dinner. I was not prepared for this dining experience at all. We had to leave our coats at the door and don a black cloak before entering the room. Inside, it was all dark wooden panels with a high arched ceiling. We sat on wide wooden benches by the enormous fireplace. I couldn't stop looking around and admiring the huge portraits of past deans and fellows of Lincoln. At 7pm sharp, the bells rung and in walks the present dean and his buddies, cloak and all. Before being allowed to sit down again, someone read a prayer in Latin. That done, dinner was served. And what a dinner! First it was bread, pate and crackers, then seafood lasagna with spinach and potatoes, and finally desert was a scrumptious apple crumble with cream. The whole meal was very filling and very rich and very delicious and totally English. Needless to say i slept like a baby that night.

Yesterday I visited Meng's lab at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology and she took me around the building and introduced me to her lab colleagues. Apparently 70% of the world's penicillin was invented in that building alone! We took lunch at the dining hall and i met some of her Chinese friends. They were very nice and were doing interesting work but, of course, the major complaint was the food here. Ah, it seems no matter where the Chinese go, nothing can ever compare to a steaming bowl of jiaozi.

In the afternoon, Meng took me around the whole of Oxford, visiting the many colleges such as Christ Church (saw the dining hall where Harry Potter was filmed!), Merton, St. John's, Oriel, Exeter, and others i can't recall the names to. She also took me to the boat houses where a team of rowers were practicing on the river. Each college has their own team and apparently during the summer the place is packed with students cheering their college on as they sit atop their boat house in the outdoor pub drinking sangria.

Later that evening, we went to her college common room for a cheese fondue party. Two Swiss guys had just returned from home bearing 3 kilos of cheese each. I couldn't believe it when i saw these guys chowing down a loaf of bread each, dipping each piece into the smouldering bubbly cheese in front of them. I could barely manage three pieces myself it was so filling. Still, it was delicious, especially with the white wine to wash it down. Afterwards we moved the party to their college pub and after some more intense "exchange of ideas", it was 11 o'clock and closing time.

I have to say it's been very amazing to see the transformation in Meng from when i first met her 9 years ago as an exchange student. A 15 year old naive Chinese girl from Beijing, pretty outgoing (for Chinese standards that is) and totally friendly and curious about everything in the outside world to a mature and sophisticated young lady on scholarship at a world-class school and still just as friendly and curious about people and places. It's one of those rare and precious relationships where circumstances and fate brought us together, but where constant communication and friendship has sustained it for years.

Today we took a walk and visited the Ashmolean Museum where one of their special exhibits is entitled "Pilgrimage, the Sacred Journey", a story of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hindiusm, Sikhism and Jainism, and how their followers have managed to preserve a religion in the face of history and time. It was pouring out when we left the museum and so we quickly made our way to a beautiful church-turned- restaurant for lunch. We sat right at the end with a good view of the ceiling and stained glass windows. Without needing to strain your imagination, one could envision how it must have looked a few hundred years ago when it was first built, magnificent and intimidating, and still in present day, it commands a sort of respect from visitors when they pass through the wide wooden doors and look up.

Well, must be off now. Going to check out Blackwell's (bookstore) for some road maps of Austria and Czech and then meet Meng for cream tea and biscuits. mmmmm...

Sunday, February 12, 2006

1 year later!

It's our one year engagement anniversary. YAY!!!! We played some ultimate frisbee this afternoon and then afterwards, we went up to the Peak Lookout Restaurant for a gorgeous meal, took the tram back down, ferried home, made some chai and watched another one of our beloved LOST episodes. Amazing to think back to all that has happened in these past 365 days... like we tell ourselves, there are so many anniversaries to remember in just a single year, but we think the key is to make each one special for their own reasons and to remember fondly how it was when it happened. It's been just another perfect day.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


So it was a good Chinese New Year. Witnessed my first ever road rage here in DB. A man was standing, arms flailing in the air and shouting je ne sais quoi, in front of a packed bus to protest the lack of frequent service there was on that particular day, probably the busiest of the year. From what i could see, it was all Chinese people who were lined up in long queues at the bus stops waiting to go to HK island, Kowloon, NT, or wherever to meet family for New Year's. There was a bus leaving every 15 minutes from the plaza but because we're at the end of the bus line, they were already always full and so never stopped for us. I overheard some people complaining that they had been waiting for over an hour and a half and still couldn't get on! I only felt bad for the bus drivers themselves who had to work on a day that is usually solely reserved for family and friends.

Visiting EE-po in Tuen Mun was fun. We took her out for lunch but unfortunately none of the restaurants were opened so we ended up going to a fast-food Japanese joint. She ordered a mushroon congee meal, but realized that japanese congee (rice dumped in hot water) was much much different than the chinese type (more porridge-like). She took Matt and I up to her flat on the 6th floor. Her frail little body made it up all those stairs without pause while we were huffing and puffing at floor three. We took pictures and a short movie with our camera which i've sent to my Grandma back in Toronto, had some treats to nibble on, saw some of her old photographs, and admired the 'view' from her rooftop. She's been living there for 30+ years and has seen a lot of development in the neighbourhood. It was disturbing to see the garbage strewn all over the streets and rooftops of other buildings, there seems to be a sort of unanimous ambivalence to waste disposal here also as there is in Urumqi and much of China for that matter.

That evening we met Max and Stephen, 2nd cousins of mine, for delicious Thai food. We then saw the CNY parade, sqaushed into other parade-watchers like sardines behind the street barriers. I was not so impressed truthfully, some of the floats were ok, but overall, many of the groups were just walking and waving with a big grin on their face.

This past Thursday, I supply-taught for Blink Think, the English language centre that i'll be working for. It was DAY 2 of a three day Chinese New Year class. My 5 students were all four years old and so adorable! I've never taught a class so young. We sat on these teeny stools, i read to them, taught them some songs, did some worksheets together, played some games, made a doggie hand-puppet, sang more songs, and then it was over - an exhausting 90 minutes. My voice was dry from singing and yelling, my legs were sore from being crunched up on such a small seat, my butt hurt from only having one cheek on the chair, my legs hurt from running around with them, and my mouth hurt from smiling too much - the munchkins are so darn cute! I betcha working with such young children for 90 minutes straight is a better cardio workout than running a half marathon. I treated myself to a brownie afterwards, just to restore the calories i lost, of course.

We attended a CNY party at one of Matt's work contacts here in Hong Kong. This woman is your typical Cantonese woman: loud, stubborn, money-oriented, a go-getter. She's done well for herself and lives in a beautiful flat with a gorgeous patio. We ate a very non-traditional Chinese meal of baguettes and a whole variety of barbq'd meat. I have to admit i was surprised there was no white rice to be seen, but hey no complaints there. Met some very interesting people (investment banker, pilot, writer, antique dealer, body artist) and all in all, had a good evening.

Our friend, Dave, is back again (for a week this time) and it's great to hang out and enjoy HK together. We all went to the pickup frisbee game on Sunday followed by a tasty Canto meal of steamed fish, gai-lan veggies, an assortment of meat and hot soup. Yesterday we went on a hike from DB to Mui Wo, the little fishing village in the next bay. It's a windy steep path that takes you past the golf course and the trappist monastery (all i know is that monks there take a vow of silence and produce milk for HK). We took the ferry back to DB and finished off with a yummy lunch at one of the only opened restaurants at the plaza. The entire place is undergoing renovations so a lot of businesses have been affected.

Dave's from Seattle, and so yesterday morning we got up to watch the Superbowl. We picked up lots of Chinese pastries the night before to binge on as our Superbowl munchies, my favourite being 'dan tat' (egg tarts). We managed to see the game on a Japanese network and Dave had set up a Skype connection with his family back home so he could talk to them as everyone watched the game together. It was funny though, our broadcast was a good 5 seconds ahead of the American broadcast, and so we could see each play and touchdown 5 seconds before his family could. After we would cheer at a certain play, we could hear his realtives cheering 5 seconds later. Apparently the reason for the delay in the US network is after that shocking halftime show by Janet Jackson in year ?, where she revealed her breast (you remember that incident, it was they only thing they talked about in the news the next day), they have had to delay the broadcast in case anything needed to be censored out.

Today i'll be glued in front of my computer, organizing my Dependent Visa forms which will finally be sent out soon, doing the readings for class on Thursday, filling out my application form for the program i want to enroll in this coming fall at HK University, and planning my next travel destination: Central Europe! Yup, from Feb.14-March 6, Matt and I will be gone again, this time for work and pleasure. Well, solely pleasure for me. He's got a few meetings spread out and while he's in Hamburg discussing strategy, I'll be going up to Oxford to visit Xu Meng, my exchange partner from Beijing way back in highschool. We've kept in touch all these years and our parents are quite good friends, having visited each other in Canada/China. She came to our little party in London in July but i can't wait to see her place and meet her friends. Matt will have a week off in between meetings and we'll go to Prague to visit my old childhood friend, Rena, who's living and teaching there. We'll head down to Salzburg for a Mozart concert (the city's putting on a huge year-long celebration to commemorate Mozart's 250th birthday) and some snowboarding, something i've never attempted but am told is extremely fun. I'm also in the middle of trying to convince my darling hubby that we should go on the "Sound of Music" tour. I didn't know they filmed it in Salzburg but what luck - who knows when we'll be back huh? Apparently they play the soundtrack and clips of the movie during the whole tour, they even make a disclaimer on the website that this kind of tour attracts a 'strange mix' of tourists... that's enough incentive to make me go on it!

So, off again for a bit, excited to say the least. New countries to explore and old friends to visit. Posted by Picasa