Here we go

It has been approximately one week since I left home (again), this time to live in London for 4 months. As with any new destination, the first two nights were spent questioning the whole point of this exercise, what I was even supposed to do, or why I have even bothered to plunge myself into new waters. However, the past few days have answered many of those questions and have strengthened my initial inclination for doing a semester on exchange.

From meeting and getting to know my flat mates, the actual enrollment process at UCL to interacting with some of the points of contact at UCL, I am so glad to be relieved with my choice of this university. The staff and teaching body are very welcoming and I began to feel a part of their student community. Though I have yet to meet lecturers or the affiliate tutor, I am sure they will not disappoint me in terms of being professional, helpful and insightful. One of my initial reasons for going on exchange was to have a taste of what a world-class education at a leading university would be like. No doubt, USYD is one of the best in the world, but I would go as far as to say that UCL is perhaps in a different league all together. I know it will be an eye-opening experience and will give a point of reference for studies back at home. I also chose UCL because of its place in the heart of London, one of the biggest cultural and financial hubs of the world. Working in London may very well be in the horizons and at the moment it seems that I could get used to living here. (I’ll wait until the winter comes to qualify that…) But, perhaps, I will miss the coastal lifestyle that is Sydney and yearn to leave by the end of the term (hopefully not!)

I also have begun to live somewhat self-sufficiently, in a student dormitory. I don’t think I was mentally ready for college at the beginning of 2013, so this is perhaps a good time to start to become independent. Living in single rooms with en suites helps when living with 6 other people – I cannot imagine what it is like during the mornings in shared-bathroom accommodation! Much of the chat in the flat goes on in the kitchen, decked with two stove-top ovens (hobs, they call it…), shelves, two mini fridges and two freezers. The ratio of fridges to freezers should really be three to one, since the freezers are rather empty right now. There are two US exchange students, one French fresher, one Swiss fresher, a London fresher and myself. I think this is a really good mix of people, contrasted to some where whole floors have all US exchange students, or all British freshers. Everyone seems to be on the same page, too, which is a bonus. Hopefully I can become independent and move out after the honours year, perhaps overseas for further study or work. In any case, I think it would be in another metropolis like Sydney or London, but perhaps six months in the Japanese country would do me some good.

I can only anticipate good things to come in the next few months. It will hopefully be dotted with travel all over Europe, finishing off with a week in Japan. A week of contrasting culture and language will be intense, but I think I’ve got it covered. I am ready to start classes (it is already week 9 at USYD!) and cannot wait to be immersed in subjects that will direct my further studies. My initial feelings of ‘YOLO-just-go-do-something-interesting-for-once’ are slowly (or quickly, however you want to slice the cake) being realised and I could not be more glad for taking a jump into the darkness.

Here are some snaps of London by night! (Sony RX-100 M1)

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On language and being a citizen of the world

Throughout the last six and a half weeks, I have had the opportunity of hearing a myriad of different languages and dialects. Among them, English, French, Spanish, Catalan, German, Italian, Dutch, Turkish, Greek, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean.As a language student, it was an intellectual feast at every destination, whether it be road signs, menus, talking to waiters or other tourists. Perhaps the only thing possible when listening to a completely foreign language is to listen for the rhythm of it. Every language has a unique rhythm and I think it captures a lot about the flavour and character of it. French has its accented syllables at the end of words, Italian in the middle and German being very similar with English. To my ear, Greek had a similar feel to Spanish, although they are traditionally quite different. Having a extra language or two, whether it be a few words or native fluency, makes things a lot easier in general. Whether it be asking where the toilet is, overhearing arguments, overhearing people talk about you who think you don’t speak their language, or helping Japanese grannies recline a seat before three of them snapped the handle off. Language, especially abroad, is a passport in itself.

In a conversation with a friend, he suggested that for travel, that there should be a default, ‘standard’ language to assist in communication, and this would be, of course, English, Whilst this has been adopted by industries like aviation, where language barriers could cause planes to fall out of the sky, I did not agree with the idea of having a default language. It was rather easy for him to say this, since we are from an English speaking country. Granted, this has become the case in many parts of the world, especially in Europe and various places in Asia. Obviously the choice of English is completely arbitrary, only becoming such a dominant language due to the British Empire. In many respects, English is linguistically rather ugly and intuitively nonsensical. It seems the Angles had not much idea of sticking to one root language (early on, anyway), resulting in a mish-mash of multi-rooted words and letter combinations which make no sense, among other things. 

Perhaps language in the world should be treated like currency. ‘In X-land, we only speak X-ese and Y-nese’. But this is not in the spirit of spreading culture and language. Maybe everyone should speak all the languages. That would certainly be a terrific solution, when we get microchip brain implants at birth, somewhere in the future. A turn of a dial, a push of a button and viola, je parle français! Whilst it is rather unreasonable to expect all travelers to learn a comprehensible level of X before they go to X-land, the effort you do put into familiarising yourself with the basics of a language definitely pay off. Discounts, hostels going from no beds to ‘Oh, we have a bed for you.’ Perhaps the French are known best for their rather snobbish attitude toward English. Solely English speakers sometimes get bad treatment, get ignored, the list goes on (maybe it’s just Parisians?) It seems absurd, unfair, unjust! But it is reasonable – when in Rome, do as the Romans do, and speak Romansh. No, wait, Latin. (The fact that Latin is dead today says something about the Roman Empire, doesn’t it?)

Taking a step back from this, it we think of the basic purpose of language, it is to communicate. If this is achieved, then the proverbial deed is done. But language is, after all, so much more than that. It is a cross section of a culture, a people, their history, their social structure. Empire, subdued native peoples, minorities that are discriminated – all of this is accessible through language. This is one of the main reasons I enjoy studying languages, apart from the linguistics of it all (and communication). That is why I don’t understand when people say they do not like studying languages. It is an inherent part of being a human being. If you speak one, a second or a third are not that far off, if studied early on and in proper instruction. The way we think about foreign languages and its instruction in places like Australia reminds me of people’s reaction to mathematics. ‘Oh, I could never do maths…’ or ‘I hated maths at school’. ‘I was so bad at languages’ is in a very similar vain. But language and mathematics education should be for another post. That’s all for now.

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All good things come to an end

Tonight marks the last night before the long commute home begins. It starts with a 6hr 20min ferry to the port of Piraeus, then overnight in Athens, early flight to London, bus transfer to another London airport, flight from London to Kuala Lumpur and then Kuala Lumpur to Sydney. I dread the jet lag that awaits, but at the same time unsure of what to expect. I haven’t experienced such a time difference in the past and am secretly doubtful that I will feel any of the effects. Of course, it is a real phenomena, researched and documented, but I will report on that later.

I will have traveled for 45 days, visited 9 countries, 20 cities and 2 islands. I can’t put a finger on a favourite or least favourite place. Each place has a different flavour and it’s rather different to compare oranges to apples. There are experiences that stand out, though. Hot air ballooning at Kapadokya was incredible, as the photos evidence. As always, there are small things that make the whole experience a lot more interesting. Name dropping to find dozens of mutual friends, meeting people from Europe who have once lived 2 streets away from you, or meet a pair of people over several islands, or meet people who are doing exchange at the same university at the same time as you! It’s all been a bit surreal. I can now understand why some people travel so much. You cannot replace the experience with anything at home, nor can you recreate it. Even if the travel is domestic, you gain so much in terms of new perspectives, experiences, acquaintances… the list goes on. You learn a lot more about yourself, what you actually enjoy, what you actually dislike, what you really want out of travel. I’ve found that travel, for me, is about relaxing and doing things when you want to, how you want to. Although travelling with company has its great benefits: constant company, safety, etc., traveling alone forces you to meet new people and spend time getting to know them. In every hostel, though, there have been, without fail, Australians, with most of them twenty-somethings looking a break from their lives at home. I have not met a younger person than myself that is travelling either on their own or in a group. I guess this says a lot, but I don’t think much of it.

I currently write from the Istros Cafe at the Athinios Port of Santorini. The port is hectic, whistles blowing, people squinting at tickets, buses and cars rolling off huge ferries. This place is completely dead in winter, though, so I guess they have to have as much traffic whilst the sun still shines bright. The Greek Islands definitely keep Greece afloat while it has its bankruptcy. I feel that I should have visited more of the islands, some of the smaller, less touristy ones, but you can always come back. ‘I wish I did XYZ’ is rather redundant – the world isn’t going to slip away. Well, Venice might.

Home will be good. A solid month to relax, get in the right head space for living in London and just a time to do not much at all. I am so glad to have ended on several high notes and met so many fascinating people. See you on the flight back home.

 

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On my own in Greece

At the moment, I am sitting at a table at the Mpaipaktaphs restaurant in Monastiraki square. I have just finished a rather pleasant meal of grilled bream in tomato relish with rice and bread. I was sold by an empty stomach and a rather persistent, but friendly Filipina sales lady. Unlike in Turkey, the bread is not free and limitless, but I was charged 30 Euro cents for a large (rather stale) slice. No matter, I was aware of this thanks to my tour guide in Turkey. “What are you doing all the way in Athens?” i asked, as she chauffeured two Greek girls to a nearby table. “Working!” she replied, her face having, “What else?” written all over it. The places people will go to stay afloat. But Greece? Really? Was the economy booming that much that you came all the way from Manila to Athens for work? Anyway.

I overlook the square, which is bustling, even on a Wednesday afternoon. It is touristy, with flea markets and souvenir stores, but the locals also trawl this area. There is Mediterranean music in the background, an old man selling balloons to children, food and conversation. A couple of hours in and I am feeling very comfortable in this city. Travelling alone could be frightening and daunting, but I can definitely see how liberating it can be. It is 3PM – the restaurants are slowing down, tense clouds begin to creep into the square, but all the while tourists continue to flow through the markets.

The City Circus Hostel had good first impressions on me. Located in a quiet street near the metro station of Monastriaki, it had 3 stories. Clean, with ample common space and a laptop available, it was a functional hostel. I talked to one guy who was in my room shortly after I checked in. I made the first move, “Where are you from?” It turned out that he is from Zurich, Switzerland and studied English in Sydney, living in the next suburb to me in a street where a friend of mine lives! It was one of those moments, just like when mutual friends are found between hostel room mates, or when you meet people in another city after staying with them in another (all of which happened!) In some senses, travel is rather magical and I am honestly so glad I decided to take a leap into the unknown. Nothing can replace the experience and I am absolutely looking forward to living in London (despite the pound and the weather). Home will be good, too, of course, I do have things to do when I’m back in Sydney, though. Some of them include: getting a replacement drivers license, ISIC card, Debit MasterCard, learning some C++, Francais, some pre-reading for UCL and some cooking in preparation for a poor student’s budget. I will also be doing more driving in lieu of a P’s license…but I suspect I won’t get it until 2015.

I finish here, as the Filipino lady stops another tourist couple. I will make my way to the Acropolis for a free tour of the city. Ciao!

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The first month and being a second generation immigrant

It is the 3rd of August. Today marks one month that I have been away from home. I thought of opening with, ‘Today marks one month that I have been in Europe,’ but I think the former is more significant (or is it?) I am not particularly homesick, but exhausted. The last few days have involved more sleep and earlier nights, which has been welcomed. I will depart for Greece on the 6th, but I foresee a much more relaxed version of travel, as compared with the 3 weeks in Western Europe and 12 days in Turkey. Athens may involve free walking tours, photography tour, whilst Naxos and Santorini will involve beaches and not much else, perhaps. I think 6 and a half weeks is a decent time for travel for a first time in Europe. At moments it felt very rushed, but this means for better planning and selection (of places, people, destinations, activities) in the future. Returning to London for a day was a good decision. I felt like I connected with the place more and could definitely see myself living there for 4 months. If I become accustomed to the pound and the weather simultaneously, it may well be a place where I consider working in the future, perhaps. 

I had the pleasure of meeting a friend of a friend who recently moved to London for work, from Sydney. Throughout the conversation, the prospect of working in the financial capitals of London, Hong Kong or New York (or Sydney) came about. As a Chinese Malaysian with no Chinese (Cantonese or otherwise), he mentioned that it would be impossible for him to work in Hong Kong, because the locals would see him as a Chinese person and assume he was apt in Cantonese, Mandarin and lucid in his Chinese writing. Ah – the feels! Kind of. Not really. But his experience resounded with me. Being a second generation immigrant going back to your ‘motherland’ (where your mother came from) is a unique experience that cannot be fully experienced except by being one. Jen from YouTube (American-born Korean Makeup artist from YouTube – link here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QVWprUfEbg) details her experience and it is strikingly similar for all second generation immigrants. Anyway. The thing is, I could work in Hong Kong. My Cantonese is native, I would say I have a ‘professional’ level of written fluency and given 3 months I could have fluent Mandarin too, I think (you know, personal tutor everyday and trip to Taiwan for 3 weeks, that kind of thing). I had a conversation with my mother about a week before I left about the prospect of working and living in Hong Kong again. I questioned her, ‘Well if it was good to be there, then why would you come here?’ She responded, ‘It is completely different for you. You have higher education, some amount of wealth and opportunities. We had none of that! If you go back now, you will be at the top of the food chain – we were at the bottom,’ she said. There was truth in what she was saying. Obviously there would be a degree of trouble assimilating, somewhat, but I think I could meld into Hong Kong society fairly well. You just have to let go of all your Western luxuries like space, clean air, clean water and all that. Basically just stop being entitled and do as the locals do. On second thoughts of working in Hong Kong, I was reminded of the work culture there. Paper pushers, graphic designers… everyone in the ‘food chain’ was working long hours. In the office, it wasn’t uncommon for people to leave past 10 every night. But this was Hong Kong and this was the norm there. So, what if I was plunged into a quant job in Hong Kong – the work culture would be unimaginable. The inequality in Hong Kong makes me think twice about whether I want to return to the so-called ‘top of the food chain’ my mother had described, after seeing cage houses and people who can only afford boxes of rice for all their meals. 

In my parents’ generation, those at the bottom of the food chain had a choice to sink or swim. Most of them paddled out to other parts of the world, seeking calmer seas. It was a case of, ‘If you can’t beat them, join them.’ I think this saying has become more and more prominent in my way of thinking, recently. If you aren’t as X as Y, then just do your best to embody them, to be like them, to do the things they do. Social psychology tells us that this form of pretending actually turns into reality over time. However, unlike laughing whilst one is depressed to actually lift one’s spirits, mimicking or joining ‘them’ could be considered shifting one’s identity. People don’t like change, but I think it is one of the most natural things. People have evolved to be great adapters and this is also reflected in the way people perceive you. ‘You’ve changed,’ is a rather redundant phrase, isn’t it? ‘You haven’t changed at all,’ is a much more telling one. It means since the last time this person saw you, you have not progressed yourself, forwarded yourself, improved yourself. Sure, change isn’t always positive, but I think sometimes stagnation in one’s state, way of thinking, opinion can be just as detrimental.

I think that’s enough rambling for one night. Time for dinner!

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‘Me’ time, take 2, featuring cold

It’s one of those nights again. Alone in the hotel room with me and my laptop. I write from Gozeme, a town in the Cappadocia region. Its been days since I have posted and I’ve traversed much of Europe in that time. I’ve seen Rome in 8 hours, lost my wallet in the Fiumcino Airport in Rome, gawked at prices in Zurich, called MasterCard and 28 Degrees too many times to count, partied in Berlin and visited coffee shops in Amsterdam. After that, it was back to London for a mere day, where the London Eye was seen in archetypal London weather (heavy rain, wind, heat, sweat, humid) and off to Istanbul. 

Having parted with my travel companion, I made the journey from London Bridge to Luton Airport. Who would have thought trains going in opposite directions (ultimately) would come to the same platform in the same direction? I was early, so my mistake of taking a train bound for Charing Cross and not Bedford was not detrimental. The check-in line was long, but it was quick and I went into departures for security. After many bouts of security, I am still taken aback by people who somehow manage to fit their life savings of coins in their pockets and are donned with electronics, liquids and valuables such that it takes an age just to get all of it into the container, and another to get it all back on afterward. There are benches on which people can load their pockets with their coins, phones, wallets and belts again, but wouldn’t it be easier just to streamline this for themselves and be a minimalist when it comes to security?

Turkey has been a great surprise. To be frank, I booked it because I was rather sick of planning accommodation, destinations, flights and transport. Having done a good 3 weeks of planning previously and knowing how much time it took, I looked for a tour in the middle east or Greece and booked. The tour consists of 3 males and about 22 females, which is a surprising ratio. Our guide ‘Shaggy’ told us the maximum number of males in this new tour was about 5 males. No matter, I don’t really mind. This wasn’t Contiki, where the focus is alcohol, so it wasn’t too much of an issue. 

Then the runs came. Oh, the runs came. Gastro-Stop wasn’t stopping anything. I attributed it to a lack of hygiene with regard to washing of hands. I had body aches, the chills and other flu symptoms. Walking in the heat for extended periods of time and getting little sleep does not help, either. At the moment, the group is at a Turkish nightshow which does feature alcohol and lots of food, but I wanted to conserve on the funds, since I went hot air ballooning this morning. No words are capable of expressing the beauty of the Cappadocian valleys and the views from the balloon itself. I will let the pictures tell the stories themselves, but it was definitely worth the 4AM wake up and 140 Euro. I leave this a little rushed, because sleep beckons. Until next time. 

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A little ‘me’ time

I thought I should have an update before writing up all the recounts for London and Paris. I also realised I haven’t written anything on Paris, but many of the photos tell the story of it. I will definitely update this in the coming days if I have time. I write from the Saint Jordi hostel of Sagrada Familia in the north eastern quarter of Barcelona. It has been about 9 days since I left Sydney and I think I am really in need of some ‘me’ time. All the people in the room have left (for drinks, the bronze medal match of the World Cup, for clubs) on this Saturday night. People would say, ‘It’s SATURDAY, you have to go out.’ Or, ‘It’s a Saturday, let’s not waste it.’ This does not resound with me. I don’t mind going out to have some drinks and dance the night away, but in moderation – and for some, this would be on the not-so-often side of things. But this is me and I should be clear about it. Having a few drinks at a bar with good conversation resounds with me much more. I guess these few days have shown me that I am actually introverted, perhaps. Travelling with a person solely for an extended period of time is exhausting. Not to mention the constant compromises, interjections, annoyances, disagreements. I don’t remember Japan being this bad (no, I do, just that if we forget about that one person it would all be fine). Although I think travelling alone would generally be daunting, I can see exactly how liberating it would be (thanks, @SoniaTravels from YouTube). The rate at which we are progressing through cities is also rather alarming… I felt like I only really got to settle into a city and feel comfortable after 3-4 days. Upon arrival, it really is all strange and new, but once you are acquainted with the surrounds, culture and to a lesser extent the language, it becomes a much better experience. After I felt somewhat at home in London, Paris brought up some new doubts on the Eurostar, as did it did when we flew into Barcelona from Beauvais. It was the same feeling – oh shit, a new place…again – but that subsides within a few days. Even after 9 days of travelling, I will definitely be staying at cities for longer periods of time, not 2-3 days. Not only does it become less enjoyable, but you don’t get a full feel of the city that way. To me, the idea of a holiday is that it should be relaxing, fun, exciting, but not rushed, sleepless or panic filled. I will probably spend at least 4-5 days in the next few cities I visit, after my 12 day tour of Turkey (so excited for this!) That’s all for now, time to do some more planning and booking! More updates on Paris and Barcelona will come.

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