International and Interpersonal OR Familiar Faces in Unfamiliar Places (but that’s a little too cliché)

In this increasingly interconnected world, I don’t think I’m unique to experiences like this, but it really made me stop and reflect when I considered everyone and everything I was lucky enough to see the past week and a half during France’s version of Fall Break, “les vacances de Touissant.”

I start off by seeing a friend from Finland, whom I met in Toulouse for a brief second last summer, and with whom I had coffee in the Toulouse airport an hour and a half before our respective flights left, the first back home to Finland (with the requisite stop in Paris) and the second to Geneva. (When did I imagine I would even know one person from Finland, let alone two?)

Proceed to Geneva, where I hung out with my dad’s cousin and her family, a Colombian family through-and-through, but one who has lived in Geneva for ten years, and whose two younger sons speak (practically?) perfect Swiss French. Include a weekday lunch at the WTO (or “OMC” in French; could that be any more confusing?), where we converse in English with the self-dubbed “African representatives” of the Statistics division—one from Mauritius and one from Morocco.

Continue on to Lausanne and Bern, two French- and German-speaking cities, respectively, within Switzerland, where I met up with a friend who is from Louisiana, but whom I met at Georgia, and who is currently living in Lyon. And who do we talk with at a bar (called “The Great Escape,” no less) than people from Greece, the Netherlands, the U.S., and Ecuador?

Next go to a little town called Nyon, in between Geneva and Lausanne, where I met up with a friend who is French but whom I met when I was doing an academic exchange in Brazil. Can you manage to have conversation flow in four different languages, in a neutral (pun intended!) country? Apparently so! (And how cool is that?)

Return back to France and follow through to Lyon (now that’s a real city!), where I met up again with my friend from Georgia. If food is a place or a language, I definitely visited and learned it in Lyon, where I ate the most decadent meal I’ve ever had in my life. This was a meal that spanned two hours, not because Sara eats slowly but because that is how much I was savoring every single bite. Delicious doesn’t even begin to cut it (ha!).

Whether it’s looking out over Lake Geneva, with the bright lights of luxury houses reflecting off the giant Jet d’Eau; gazing at the sunset (cloudy and all) from the overlook beside Notre-Dame Cathedral in Lausanne; taking in the city’s astonishingly bright fall colors from the Rosengarten in Bern; seeing little kids trick-or-treat (but more like Easter egg hunt?) in a thirteenth-century castle in Nyon, or just watching the Rhône flow through the city under a drizzly sky in Lyon, I couldn’t be more thankful for the opportunity of seeing new sights and experiencing new places, but in doing so, meeting up with familiar faces all along the way.

Posted on November 6, 2013 at 8:32pm

One Hundred Years of Home

On the train ride to Jonathan’s grandmother’s house in Spain, to where I escaped for a brief four days in order to get my head on straight before classes commenced in Pau, I was watching the arid, straw-colored landscape whisk by, when I turned my eyes to an older man who was reading a book.

Looking out the window of a moving object, whether it is a train or a car or a plane, makes one feel immediately nostalgic, so even had I not been homesick, those feelings would have been elicited regardless. And that nostalgia is for home, of course, but what is really home but the people who make it so? Home is not a place but a feeling, and I was aching for that feeling, at that moment, on that train.

As the man in question briefly took a pause from reading, keeping one finger in the book to mark his spot, I saw a familiar dark green cover bordered with lighter green leaves. This book, one I know from having read multiple times and having seen on the shelves of people I know dearly (we have three copies of it at home), is one of my most favorite books—One Hundred Years of Solitude, written by Colombia’s only Nobel Laureate, Gabriel García Márquez.

This book travels with me wherever I go, to remind me not only of great literature but of home. Encountering a perfect stranger reading the same words, discovering the same story, that I’ve taken part in several times, filled me with an unexpected sense of fondness and comfort. It was such a light, a beacon of sorts, saying, “Sara, you’re far away from home, but home isn’t far away from you.”

With various emotions already washing over me, seeing this man reading this book so near and dear, while I was so far away from both my homes (because Athens is as much my home as Colombia is), made me feel like the world really is “un pañuelo,” as we say. It’s a small world. I, sitting on a one-wagon train, traveling through the middle of the Spanish countryside, was thus granted a little piece of home. What are the chances? Maybe statistics would prove they are higher than I felt they were at the moment, but it doesn’t really matter.

I thought about approaching him and making an attempt at a connection, but I let the moment pass, smiling as he flipped back and forth between the Buendía family tree and the Colombian Spanish glossary, as all readers (seasoned to the story or not) are wont to do. As he finished his section, he removed his fingers, letting the book fall closed, and proceeded to look out the window himself. Who knows to what home he was thinking back on, but he was surely letting the nostalgia wash over, just like seeing him reading the book had done to me.

Even if we are in what feel like the most remote places, where we don’t know a soul and not a soul knows us, there are pieces of home that travel with us, are around us, or just serendipitously appear. And that’s important to remember. Because even had this man not been on the train, had he not been reading this book, it’s still a part of me. The book is home, and home travels with me, wherever I may go, wherever I may be.

Posted on September 24, 2013 at 8:10pm

Hellooo from Medellín!

Eduardo and I have just begun our cross-country road trip, and we’re writing this from one of the most modern and acclaimed cities in Colombia right now, Medellín.

[In brief summary, the past couple of weeks have been great! My grandmother’s party was a huge success. If I’m doing as well as she is when I’m 80, I will be in great shape. Even though only about half of the family was invited, there were 100+ people there, and it’s totally going to be known as the party of the decade. Two days after the party, I got on a plane to Quito, Ecuador and spent a week with my aunt and cousins who live there. It was really nice, laid-back, and I got to see the main highlights of the city. My mom has a cousin who lives out there, too, on the most magical farm in the countryside, and we spent the weekend there, eating and reading and writing and sleeping in hammocks and swinging on a “columpio de vuelo”. It was so lovely. Afterward, I spent a week in Cali with my mom and her two others sisters and my grandma; we took a day trip to Armenia to visit el Profe Gilberto and see Salento (and eat bandeja paisa!), and then my little bro arrived!! We went dancing at La Matraca, and then spent a lovely afternoon in San Antonio and El Palomar, and then got on an 8-hour bus ride to Medellín!]

And now they’ve finally let us loose, and here we are!!

We’re in Medellín right now, staying with some friends of my parents, and since yesterday was a holiday, they took us around the “oriente de Medellín,” places we needed a car to get to. We went to “Pueblito Paisa”, which is a replica of what a typical town in Antioquia looks like, and we went through a couple of other little towns, including La Ceja and San Antonio de Pereira. The countryside is beautiful, and they have built some beautiful houses and “fincas” for people to go to on the weekends or on holidays. Weather here is perfect 365 days a year, so no wonder my parents both loved this place when they were university students here three decades ago (doesn’t that make them sound old?). We also went to a restaurant called “Los Kioskos”, where Eduardo had a media bandeja because a full bandeja paisa is too big, and I ate a cazuela paisa, which has many of the same ingredients, but all chopped up and mixed together in a bean soup! Delicious. After that, we drove around some more, went to the waterfalls El Tequendamita, which is a mini version of el Salto del Tequendama, which is near Bogotá. And then, to top off our giant lunch, we went to a little shack off the side of the road on the way back to the city, and had fresas con crema and obleas, both of which brought back memories from Popayán, even though I was tiny when I lived there, and Eduardo was just one or two. It was a lovely, lovely day, and the weather cooperated beautifully. Eduardo took pictures on his phone, which are on Facebook!

We’re doing a city tour bus this morning, and then in the afternoon, we’re watching the Colombia-Perú game at a sports bar. We’re super excited to get to know the capital of Antioquia, the home of the Atlético Nacional, and the place where my dad chased my mom around until she finally fell for him. Ave María pues hombre, nos fuimos!

-Sara y Eduardo

Posted on June 11, 2013 at 9:44am

Blog blog blog revival???

I haven’t slept in 48 hours, and in less than 12, I’ll be getting on a plane to Colombia!! First time using my American passport, which arrived the day after I graduated! (Good things, good things; hopefully we can stay on a roll!) It’s going to be a whirlwind next couple of days, but after, I hope to get some downtime to gather thoughts, ideas, and of course, pictures of food. I’m going to try updating this via random, sketchy Internet connections, so we’ll see if that pans out. Regardless, I’m super pumped!

On an unrelated note, here’s a picture of my dad taking pictures of the construction site across our street on Milledge, sneakily taken from my brother’s Twitter (and I don’t even twitter… tweeter. Tweet. Whatever).


Edit: The squirrels sure are frisky at 7 in the morning. I just remembered I ate squirrel stew at 1am last night. Maybe they’re just a figment of the zero remorse I have for eating them. They were delicious.

Posted on May 21, 2013 at 7:03am

The Mango Tree

My ideal house would have a mango tree outside, although I would have to live somewhere tropical for that to be possible. When I was little, in Colombia, we had a mango tree in our backyard, which I still remember fondly. The mango tree was great not only because it regularly produced large, delicious fruit, but because its branches were perfect for climbing. The trunk wasn’t so high that we couldn’t clamber up, and once in the branches, it was the perfect place to be. The mango tree provided shade below and within its branches, so it was the perfect place to escape the heat of the day. I used to take books up in the mango tree to read, or just find a comfortable place to sit and lazily pass an afternoon. The mango tree served as a refuge from the hyperactive dogs in our neighborhood, who we would wait out until someone took them away. It was also the site where We buried some of our unconventional pets when they died, for whom we held little ceremonies. The principal reason for having a mango tree would be to remember that mango tree, and to create new memories with a new one.

Posted on April 6, 2013 at 7:53pm

Pastéis de Belém

Canada Day! Not really, but I did spend the entire day hanging out with Canadians, although only one of them constantly said “ey?” We met at the front of the hostel early, and this girl who worked at the hostel took us to Belém, a town(?) right beside Lisbon (I think it’s actually part of the city, but I’m not sure), and pointed out the main attractions. Although it’s pretty condensed, there are enough things to do to spend a whole day there, so that was our plan. We went to the Museu Coleção Berardo, a museum of modern/contemporary art first, which was interesting (or the concepts were, at least, like most modern art for me).

But there was this section on psychological horror or something like that, and one of the works was this really creepy recording of a girl crying “no, no, no…” and then screaming. And there were people hanging from the ceiling on nooses and other disturbing stuff, and it was just too much and it made me feel really sick.

So after that, it was time for lunch, so we went to a little restaurant which was in Robin’s guidebook (I’ve never traveled anywhere with a guidebook, but I guess they’re useful), and it was pretty good food. We were basically the only customers, and the lady serving us was super nice and chatted with us for a while. They did charge me 1.50 Euro for some bread and butter though—really? But all was well, and for dessert we went to…the famous pastéis de Belém!

Which were first created in 1837 by some nuns living in the monastery right down the street, and are known throughout Portugal for being the originals, and the best. And they were marvelous! Super flaky, crispy pastry on the outside, and creamy, vanilla-y but with a hint of lemon custard on the inside. They were perfection, and we bought 12 between us and just chowed down on the steps outside of the monastery. Typical tourists for the win.

Afterward, we went into the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, where Vasco da Gama is buried, so we got to see his giant tomb!

Then we walked to the Padrão dos Descubrimentos, which is this giant, bow-shaped (like the front of a ship) monument pointing towards the sea, in the direction where the Portuguese explorers set off to conquer the world.

The structure itself is pretty impressive, but there was this eerie feeling around it to add to the majestic-ness of it, too.

We climbed up to the top and had another pastel, with the city of Lisbon as the background. (I forgot to charge my camera the night before, so Robin was the one taking pictures, and since we failed to exchange contact information, I have no pictures of the day… but Adam took a couple, so these are his pics). Then we walked to the Torre de Belém, which is just that, a tower, but it’s pretty big and historic.

Then we went to the Museu da Eletricidade, which was legitimately very cool. It was a self-guided tour but everything was automated, and the setup was really very impressive.

We also saw some actors or something shooting a poker scene in one of the old boiler rooms. Random. And there was a hands-on part at the end, like a science museum, so we got to see how electricity conducts currents and things like that!

Then we took the bus back to the city, got dumped at a random stop when the bus decided it didn’t have enough passengers so it stopped running (apparently this happens all the time), talked to a friendly policeman who told us where to go, and hiked back to the hostel. It doesn’t sound like that busy of a day, but it was actually really tiring.

Good thing it was “Africa night” at the hostel! One of the ladies who works at the hostel is from Cabo Verde, and she spent the entire day making food for the theme dinner, so that’s what greeted us when we returned. Robin and Nia had already made dinner plans with a family friend, but Adam and I were ready for dinner, and it ended up being us, a couple of other travelers, and the entire hostel staff. The owner of the hostel (or the guy who checked me in the first day) was a total fox, but his girlfriend/wife(?) showed up, so that was that. The food was really delicious though, “cachupa” a typical dish from Cabo Verde, and there was copious sangria to go around, so it was a hearty, enjoyable evening. For dessert, there was “arroz da Índia,” which was basically arroz con leche but with white corn instead of rice, and it was really tasty!

Wine and conversation after dinner rounded out Lisbon.

Posted on April 6, 2013 at 7:48pm

Sintra: A Fairy Tale

“Sintra is like a real-life fairy tale.” My roommate in Porto had just come from Lisbon, and he told me that he spent the entire day he went to Sintra hiking up and down mountains, so I was prepared. Kind of. I took an early train out of Lisbon (along with a bunch of elderly tourists), and arrived to be greeted by the Castelo dos Mouros sitting way up on a mountain.

The entire city of Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site…

…so just the vista of the little town and the surrounding mountains is beautiful. I went to the Palácio do Sintra first, which was pretty and detailed, but it was one of five palaces I went to the whole day, so it was just getting my feet wet.

Afterward, I asked around for where the trail to climb up to Castelo dos Mouros began, and everyone looked over me skeptically and said “it’s a long way up” but it’s in (point) that direction. So I followed, and once I hit the trail, I could tell it was going to be a climb. But the trail itself was actually pretty shady, and the incline wasn’t awful, and there were signs the whole way, so I wasn’t just scrambling around in the wilderness.

I reached the castle, and it was awesome. Like, there were walls and turrets and flags…

…and a spectacular view of the little town I had just left below, in addition to just the surrounding area, which was really beautiful. I was up there for a while, taking cheesy solo pictures/videos and eating my picnic lunch…

…and all of a sudden, clouds rolled in, and I couldn’t see the top of the towers ten feet away from me anymore. The castle was in a cloud!

But once that passed, along with a brief burst of cold mist, it was time to climb the next mountain!

…to the Palácio da Pena, which was unlike any other castle I’ve ever seen.

It really was like a fairy tale. Unfortunately, it was also kind of cloudy when I reached it, so I couldn’t really see the vista from this peak, but just seeing the castle was incredible.

There were pretty colors and tiles everywhere (for which Portugal overall is famous), and turrets and just little details that make a palace a palace.

I took lots of pictures and took a break, too, since I had just climbed two mountains…

…and then I hiked on down, and just as I was passing the house where Hans Christian Andersen had once lived, my camera died.

So no more pictures of the fantasy land that is Sintra!

But I didn’t let that stop me, so I went to two other palaces, the Quinta da Regaleira, which wasn’t as well-kept as the other places but I thought was one of the coolest palaces, and where I met three British guys who were just hilarious. There was this one room in the palace where they had put mirror around the edges on the bottom so it looked like the hardwood floor in the middle was just floating (it’s hard to describe).

But the story is the guys were afraid to step on the mirrors, and so I ran into the three of them, crammed into the landing right after a spiral tower, scared to be the first to step. I was like, “it’s alright, guys, you won’t fall” and stepped in, and they laughed nervously, and were like “oh, of course.” But I saw them just tapping the floor with their toes, making sure the floor was solid, before they followed me in.

Then, hearing it was a 4km walk to the next castle, I gave in and bought a bus ticket, and I went out to the Palácio de Monserrate (como Monserrate en Bogotá, pero nada que ver), which was the most beautiful and unexpected building of the ones I saw, although by far the smallest. In retrospect, they were all really beautiful, just in very different styles and detailing. Monserrate was once the extravagant vacation home of Sir Francis Cook, and it was completely inspired by Indian architecture, so the hallways and archways were so beautiful! And the walls and everything were carved in the most intricate detail. Pictures can’t even really do it justice. Funny, too, because from that palace, I could see the two mountains I’d climbed up just a few hours before. What a day.

I took the train home, and was prepared to do nothing that night (I was so tired!), but it was Thursday night in Lisbon, so how could I be the lamest person ever and not go out? I joined some other people from the hostel, two Canadians and three girls from the Netherlands, and two guys from France. We went to the Pavilhão Chinês, the oldest cocktail lounge in Lisbon, which was really cool and the drinks were predictably pricey, but it was worth it, to see all the eclectic decorations in the lounge, although I felt we were a little younger than the typical patrons. Then we went to Bairro Alto, which is where night stuff really happens in Lisbon, went to Magic Mushroom, a store that “legally” sells pot (I thought it was sketchy but apparently it’s legit), and finished off the night hanging out and talking on the street, among a bunch of other young people out doing the same.

Posted on July 14, 2012 at 6:01am

Caracóis em Lisboa

So I’m a genius and booked my train ticket to Lisbon before asking anyone, and it turns out my train leaves not from Porto’s downtown station, but the larger station on the outside of town. Too bad it leaves at 6am. So I figure out how to take one train from São Bento to Campinhas, and of course, I miss it by a minute. There’s this other guy who also needed to take that train to the other station, so a security guard suggests us share a cab, and after a couple of seconds of hesitation, I go okay. Possible being kidnapped occasion number 2. But the guy is from Brazil and he is visiting his children in Portugal, and he helps me with my suitcase, and it’s a friendly interaction, so it’s fine. And the taxi man isn’t too sketchy, although he does drive super fast, and he takes us to where we need to go. So I get to Campinhas and wait in the cold for thirty minutes until my train for Lisbon arrives.

I arrive in Lisbon still relatively early…

…and then it’s time to find my hostel! Which is not a piece of cake, especially since it’s located in the Chiado neighborhood, which is a little removed from the waterfront, and so is definitely not flat. But I ask a million people where to go, drag my suitcase all over the place, and finally take a tiny elevator up to the fifth floor of a sketchy building, and lo and behold—my hostel! Finally. I check in, and just chill out for a while, tired from having woken up so early and from being in transit for what felt like forever.

Then I decide to go exploring, and go down the main pedestrian avenue all the way down to the water. There’s this interesting set of stairs that just goes down into the water, with some columns in the middle, and there’s a mix of people soaking up the sun and looking out at the water, as in regular people from Lisbon, but tourists, too. It was kind of strange.

I walk around some more, see a huge wall covered in post-its with “your dream for Lisbon” written on them (part of an ongoing city campaign)…

…and go past the main giant plaza with some statues in it (this makes me sound really culturally insensitive, but I was just walking, without a map, not asking questions [turns out it’s the Praça do Comércio])…

…go through a neighborhood that is all bedazzled with streamers for an upcoming party…

…as well as through little alleys covered in tiles, for which Portugal is famous…

…and follow signs to the cathedral.

I start seeing signs advertising “caracóis” all over the place, and decide to hop into a little restaurant and investigate. Instead of the escargot I’m expecting, it’s a giant plateful of tiny snails, cooked in a clear, spiced broth…

…just like the snails we had in Marrakech! And there’s where I really see the connection between Morocco and Portugal, which are so geographically close that there’s a lot of cultural mixing as well, due to immigration and history and all that jazz. These are really tasty, and I feel like a pro, knowing how to pull the snails out of their shells with a toothpick and popping them in my mouth.

I still manage to get the broth all over my hands and use up twenty seven napkins, but it’s okay because since I’m alone no one cares!

Except the surly waitress who glares in my direction twenty times in the hour it takes me to eat a little plate. I’ve nowhere to go.

I slowly wind my way back up to the hostel, asking people where Chiado is, and eventually stumble back into the plaza right beside our building.

In the meantime, three Brazilians have arrived in our room, and they’re “gaúchos,” from the real south, further south than Curitiba, and we have a nice conversation. They’re going out, but I tell them I’m too tired and I’m leaving super early the next day, so I Skype with some folks and doze off. (Too bad Wednesday is the traditional night for Fado music, which was just declared an “intangible cultural heritage” by UNESCO. I find this out Thursday morning…too late).

Posted on July 12, 2012 at 10:02am

Porto Dia 3: Castelo do Queijo, pescadores e Sandeman

The next day, I slept in given the previous night’s activities, and I took a train out to Castelo do Queijo, which is neither a castle, nor is made of cheese. It’s actually an old fort, right on the beach, but it is called Castelo do Queijo for some reason.

I actually got off at the wrong stop (too early), but I ended up on this pier where there were all these fishermen, who had thick ropes with hooks on one end and sticks on the other, who were baiting them and tossing them down into the waves.

I went up to take a picture of one of them, and this gooey tentacle made its way out of the plastic bag it was in, squirmed a little, and then the bag plopped on the ground—an octopus! It was the coolest thing.

I took the bus back and decided to give the wine caves a go, because how could I not? I was in Porto!

So I went to the Sandeman tour, and I am actually really glad I went because the tour was super thorough, and we got to see the barrels where wine is kept and some really old, vintage bottles (dating back to 1944!), and there was a wine tasting at the end.

I learned that Porto is not all red, and I actually really liked the white (they have some name for it, but it’s not tawny, which is confusing) because it wasn’t as overpoweringly sweet as red Porto usually is. I’m super glad I went, and the tour wasn’t expensive at all, it’s just the products at the end that’ll get you, naturally.

That’s Porto!

Posted on July 8, 2012 at 1:52pm

Porto Dia 2: Centro histórico, Livraria Lello e “noite de baldes”

The next day, I woke up early for a free walking tour (where donations are suggested but there’s no set price), and we went around the city, to the beautiful, hand-painted São Bento train station…

…to an old church covered in gold, up to one of the old walls that used to guard the city…

…down a little colorful side street I’d gone down the day before, and we learned a lot about the history of the city. There’s a bridge connecting Porto and Gaia, which was built by the Eiffel studio, and it was built and named in honor of the king, but since he skipped out on the opening ceremony, they took the title away, and now it’s just “Ponte Luiz I.”

Our tour guide told us that J.K. Rowling used to teach courses in Porto, and she got the inspiration for the cloaks in Harry Potter from the black cloaks that students at the Universidade do Porto traditionally wear. How cool!

We also went to the Livraria Lello, which is considered one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, and it was indeed really beautiful, with a double spiral staircase going up to a second level, and wooden latticed panels on the walls and the ceiling. Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed because the bookstore sells its own “professionally-made” photographs, but it really was something to see. The final stop on the tour was the lookout we’d gone to the night before, this time in daylight.

After lunch, I went into the Torre dos Clérigos, the main landmark for the hostel, and I wandered around some more, had some coffee and wrote in my journal, went down by the river again…

…and headed back to the hostel for dinner, where I met some other cool folks who said they were going out for “buckets night,” which is every Monday night down by the river. So I went, and that was fun and loud and interesting, but around 3am it was definitely time to head back, so one of the German guys who we had been hanging out with offered to walk me back. He dropped me off, and then he walked all the way back down to the river to meet his friends. What a gentleman.

Posted on July 8, 2012 at 1:44pm