В конце концов, путешествие, приключение, исследование совершаются ради того, чтобы вернуться и посмотреть на привычное новым взглядом.
Ultimately, travelling, adventuring and exploring are all undertaken for the sake of returning to the familiar and looking upon it with new eyes.
The brilliant quote above was pulled from a fabulous Russian magazine called Вокруг Света (around the world), a lifestyle magazine that reminds me of the little (and big) things that I’m missing out on in life. Вокруг Света was first introduced to me by a good friend of mine, who often prompts me to remember that even from behind one’s desk at home or whilst sipping coffee over breakfast, there’s always time to shift the borders of the known world outwards, expanding your mind. We live in the age of on-the-go technology, and we have access to information our forefathers wouldn’t have even dreamt of possessing. Alas, there is so much more to explore in this little world, too much for even the biggest of encyclopaedias to illustrate. But illustrate we must.
Thursday, January 30, 2014—Nizhny Novgorod, Moscow, Linz
My 7:40 A.M. alarm breaks the silence in the chilled room. It’s dark as usual, and as usual it’s impossible to get out of bed. However, if there’s anything I’ve learnt from being in Russia, it’s that nothing should ever be done in too much of a rush, and you should always give yourself a few extra minutes to get ready. With that, I go do my washing up and head to the kitchen to have a quick breakfast before my departure.
I was accompanied by a strange feeling leaving the dormitories this time around. It wasn’t the first time I’d left the dorms to go on holiday, the last time was just before Christmas when I went to Turkey. Every time I leave, however, I not only leave behind the dorms, I leave behind one or two people with whom I spent the best part of five months. At the end of December, I said goodbye to the Austrians, and this morning I said goodbye to Tom. Having spent five months in the dorms with Tom and Tolya, an interesting bond had formed. And when it came time to part with them, there was a strong feeling of hesitation. I couldn’t exactly put my finger on it, none of us could. We were just three dudes who, as it happened, were put in the same room. And we got along famously. But if all good things must come to an end, then at least we were able to “end on a high”, as they say. I know when I return to NN things will look very different. The dorms will be decorated with the faces of new students, excited and anxious to be attending classes in a Russian university. I know that feeling of uncertainty; I know that feeling of freshness. When I came to Russia more than five months ago, it was a big step for me, and many things came along with me—excitement, anxiety, longing, expectation, love. Five months on, I now carry none of those, apart perhaps from the occasional bout of anxiety when I need to speak in Russian. It comes and goes. The freshness is also reoccurring at times, like every time I get on a tram, or whenever I step out into a snow-filled street, breathing, filling my lungs with crisp, sharp winter air.
One of the inconveniences that comes with living in Nizhny Novgorod (or anywhere besides the capital, for that matter) is the fact that whenever I want to travel abroad (you know, abroad abroad), I have to go through Moscow. And that for me means an extra four and something hours (at least) on the train. I have nothing against trains. In fact I love trains. There’s always an element of childhood revisitation for me when I take a train because I used to build plastic train tracks on the carpet in my room. This somehow makes me feel like I take the fact that I live in Taipei for granted, forever being 40 minutes away from the airport. Travelling from NN to Moscow for a flight is the equivalent of taking a four-and-a-half-hour train from Kaohsiung to Taoyuan to catch a flight. And the crazy thing is that many people do this on a regular basis (some travelling even further). The little things in life and the tiny differences in lifestyle teach me new ways to appreciate the things I have.
So here I am sitting in the cabin of a fast train to Moscow, not for the last time, I’m sure, but perhaps my second-last time from Nizhny Novgorod. I just don’t imagine myself being in this city in the future. Even though I do plan on working in Moscow after graduation, NN for me is just a tad detached, for lack of a better word, from the capital. It’s not the furthest city from Moscow, but in such a large country, modern convenience can be easily missed.
As the земля (land) races past my window all-white, I am lucky enough to be greeted by sunshine on my way to Moscow. They say it’s colder in winter when the sun is out, but I wouldn’t swap it for anything else. Olaf the Snowman from “Frozen” was wrong. It is possible to have sunshine in the snow, and it looks stunning. The bright yellow beams spread wide, lighting up the snow-covered slopes and woods of suburban NN on the way to the capital. I will allow myself to shut my eyes, if even just for a moment, occasionally opening them to the never-ending landscape that is Russia.
When I pick this up next, I hope to be in a comfortable room, sitting in an armchair or on the bed. Maybe a carpet will do. My journey begins here, and doesn’t end until the fat lady sings.
(Unfortunately, not typing from a bed) I slept most of the time away in the plane and was woken by the pilot announcing our descent into Vienna. 5000m above Austrian airspace the temperature was -15° Celsius, still 15° shy of Russia at ground level—a bone chilling -30° Celsius.
Bursting through the clouds at 600km/h, turbulence hits and the passengers next to me grab on to their seats. It’s interesting how these marshmallows can cause so much discomfort.
One of my favourite things about flying is the fact that I get to witness my brain not being able to compute certain things at 10,000m above sea level. Why is it that when we travel along the ground, even at an unimpressive speed, everything races by so quickly, but when up in the sky the landscape below hardly moves. I’m sure there’s a perfectly sound scientific explanation for all this, but I don’t want to know. At least not now. I’m just going to enjoy my brain saying “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know” for now.
One of the first things I noticed about Austria is how nice everyone is. Even on the aeroplane from Moscow to Vienna, the flight attendants spoke with an overly-friendly tone. Perhaps I’m used to being in Russia, but overly-friendly is a bit scary now. The gentleman at passport control smiled at me with a “Guten Tag” (good day) and I left with an almost undeserved “Angenehmen Abend” (have a nice evening). I guess visa exemption doesn’t hurt either.
After almost losing all my clothes by forgetting them in the bus to the train station from the airport, I write now from the train to Linz, my first stop. The itinerary for these two weeks is incredibly widespread. I go from east to west to south and back up north again before I return to Russia. I could not have planned this trip any better myself. And I say that precisely because of the fact that I didn’t plan anything. As I noted earlier in a previous post, this whole trip was entirely unexpected. And perhaps that’s the best type of journey—an unexpected one.
Austrians love their winter sports, each more enthusiastic than the last. Growing up in and around the Alps definitely rubs off on them in that way. Much like the way I grew up, ever-ready for my next safari, they are forever looking forward to the chance to go skiing and sledging. Or to build a snowman.
After Judith drove us back to her house in Pichling, suburban Linz, we spent the evening drinking too much red wine and stuffing ourselves over dinner. Judith’s parents, Herta and Andreas, are two wonderful individuals. They run a modest business out of Linz, where they’ve now been for more than two decades. There’s something incredibly sweet about Pichling. It’s serene, and it seems like the perfect place to retire. Although I hear it can get a little boring sometimes. Understandable. Tomorrow—downtown.
Friday, January 31, 2014—Linz
Linz city centre is characterised by one extended street—Landstrasße (Land Street). Trams run through it every 30 seconds or so, and even though it’s not overly crowded with residents and tourists, the shops there nonetheless appear in enough variety to make you want to pop inside for a look. The architecture seen on the streets of Linz reminds me somewhat of Istanbul, with a uniform look to the way the buildings are designed, especially the little side streets and alleys. But one thing differentiates Linz from Istanbul—the silence.
Home to no more than 200,000 inhabitants, Linz was crowned Cultural Capital of Europe back in 2009. Walking through the city is a pleasure, even with temperatures hovering around 0° Celsius. Its quiet streets allow you to have the city to yourself, taking as much time as you need to soak up the atmosphere. I feel the centre of Linz is slow-paced. And it’s calming.
In the mountainous regions on the outskirts of Linz, we met up with a few of Judith’s school friends with whom she studied in Linz before moving to Graz for university. We stood outside a restaurant in the wind and snow, shivering but laughing, and had the best homemade alcoholic punch I have ever had the pleasure of tasting. It was fantastic to see the friendship between them, and it was great to chat with these modest young people. Enjoy the little things. The restaurant itself was a beautiful former cabin from Tyrol moved up north to Linz. Delicious Austrian beer and the most amazing Schweinsbraten (roasted pork) were on the menu. It was pure heaven. A perfect end to a fairly relaxing day. My kind of holiday. Oh, and I love bosna.
Saturday, February 1, 2014—Linz
This morning we had breakfast with Judith’s parents. It’s always a pleasure spending time with them around the dinner table. They don’t speak a lot of English with me, but just for the pure fact that they are lovely, humorous folk, it’s always a joy.
We visited Linz’s flea market at noon. I have always been a fan of flea markets, and just markets in general. There’s something extra special about a flea market though, because most, if not all, of the items on the tables displayed are second-hand. These things, be them however kitsch, all have their own story to tell. They all belonged to someone else at some point in time. Discarded and unused, these cut-price goods now await a chance to loyally serve another.
A further walk through Linz today revealed just how minuscule the city is. When you leave Linz city centre, what awaits you is silent neighbourhoods, fields and lakes. After crossing the Nibelungen Brücke (Nibelungen Bridge) we bused to a lake in the afternoon around sunset, when some people are still out strolling or walking their dogs and jogging. This is the type of lifestyle one can expect here in Linz, and it rubs off on me in a good way. I thoroughly enjoy the quietness and slow pace of the city, and I cannot emphasise this enough. Perhaps I’ve been in Taiwan for too long because even the 1,250,000-inhabitant Nizhny Novgorod gets my like as a somewhat quiet city. Well, at least the part in which I stay.
I realised tonight while enjoying dinner that Judith’s parents are living the life I want to be living in 15 year’s time. Residents of a great town, living in a nice house with a loving daughter to be proud of. All this accompanied by good food and an undying taste for excellent wine. Perhaps what is a luxury to me now is in actual fact not that far out of reach. It’ll be interesting to see how everything develops in the following few months. It’s better to focus on the present, though. So tomorrow—Leoben.
Sunday, February 2, 2014—Leoben
Tamara’s dad picked us up from St. Michael after our bus ride from Linz. The 20 minute ride gave me a chance to get accustomed to my new surroundings. A true synonym for the word “quiet”, Leoben epitomises what it means to be peaceful. 30,000 inhabitants sprinkled between the foggy hills of Styria, the fresh air here cannot go unnoticed. As little as Leoben is, I can’t help but immediately recognise how great Austria’s infrastructure is. Every small town having all the necessities needed to live comfortably, luxuriously, and at the same time tranquilly.
As Tamara’s parents sit us down in the living room before lunch, their warm personalities very quickly shine through. A former Yugoslavian handball player, Tamara’s dad, Goran, is now a trainer. He’s great around people and so too are Tamara’s brother Aleks and mother Sonja—all Serbians who, over the past two decades, have called Austria home. Beautiful, loving people just raise wonderful children. I hope to do the same in the future.
After our typical (typically excellent) Serbian lunch left me bloated but satisfied, I did a quick time lapse through Tamara’s bedroom window, capturing the foggy landscape, still partly covered with snow from the past few weeks. I’m even lucky enough to be able to include two horses into the shots as they gracefully graze away at their hay. Sigh, Austria.
Tamara’s family reminds me of my own on very many a level. Families who, for one reason or the other, decided to move to another country to seek opportunities. Our parents helped to define the new age of post-colonial immigration, raising children who grow up speaking not only the official language of the country of residence, but also their parents’ mother-tongue. The end result is the same, albeit Tamara’s parents didn’t need to traverse the distances covered by mine.
The afternoon was eye-opening as I got a chance to witness firsthand Austria’s favourite pastime—skiing. It’s a fascinating thing, skiing. Children start at such a young age, learning how to slalom their way down the steep incline with grace, but not escaping the odd moment of clumsiness. I could perhaps liken it to the way we learn how to swim in South Africa not long after taking our first steps. Some take up fishing with their dads while others love their dirt bikes. To each his own; every country has their own “thing”, and, in my opinion, it’s completely fine to marvel over something new.
I spend the night slowly completing parts of my time lapse from these couple of days, the end result of which I foresee to be immensely satisfying. I’m very happy to be doing a time lapse here in Austria because it’s just one of those hobbies of mine that won’t go away. I haven’t been doing time lapses for a long time, but I’d like to think that each one gets better than the last. There’s much to learn, so, long may this continue. Oh, and the hardest part of a time lapse for me is still the picking of a suitable song. What an absolute headache.
Writing this travel blog has also been very fulfilling. Many times over the past three or fours years I have let memories slip, not taking extra time to appreciate the little things that life has granted me. Never again. Recording my thoughts is the best way for me to remember how I felt at the time of writing, and also a method of reaching out. Like all blogs, what you see is what you get. There is not a more detailed description of the way my brain works out there. Not my Facebook posts, not my tweets, not even my photos can provide as clear a picture (mind the pun) of who I am as these words can.
I look forward to more exploration tomorrow; more strolling. There’s no rush, and that’s perhaps the best part of this holiday.
Monday, February 3, 2014—Leoben
Clouds covered Leoben town centre today and for the first time I felt the chill after leaving Russia. Leoben town centre, like Linz, has a small square surrounded on three sides by cafes and small shops, and a monument proudly erected in the centre. Perhaps it was the time of day or the fact that it was Monday, but besides the few people in and around the shopping centre, there wasn’t much activity.
We met Tamara’s friend Carina for coffee at a traditional, beautifully designed Austrian cafe. I never know what the names of the coffees actually mean, but the most important thing is that they taste heavenly. Inside the cafe were a handful of elderly folk who looked like they had nothing better to do every day than to cafe-hop. Now that’s what I call a happy retirement.
I managed to do a short time lapse of the town square before my battery died. We then made our way up to Massenburg Fort for an elevated view of the town of Leoben. I counted a handful of beautiful churches and a few rows of houses along the the Mur river with cafes situated every few hundred metres from each other. This is Leoben, and it doesn’t get any more small town than this.
Tuesday, February 4, 2014—Graz
As promised, the train ride from Leoben to Graz was a short one—40 minutes. We winded our way through the hills of Styria past small snow-white towns and along the Mur. The capital of Styria awaited us at a quarter-past 12, and we were met by a modern train station in a slightly wet -2° Celsius. We were in the so-called “ugly part of Graz.” I couldn’t wait to see the pretty side.
I’d like to give a special mention to Graz’s public transport system. We bought a one-week ticket for the bus and tram for €12.70. It’s not only useful, it also saves a lot of time and money. Austria’s second most populated city might only have a population of around 300,000, but these 300,000 definitely live and travel in style.
The city of Graz itself is a tight weave of low buildings. A bird’s-eye view would give the impression of a typically traditional European city—similarly coloured rooftops and the ubiquitous style of architecture that would make you want to stare at it for hours. Lined with green wooden window shutters, Graz’s flats would be the envy of all home-seekers in this part of the world. The tranquility is so thick you just want to grab it and stuff it in your pocket, take it home and use it on one of those hectic days.
After a well-deserved rest in the afternoon, we headed out along the Mur to stroll around the city. I did my customary time lapses and we went to a Chinese noodle takeaway to escape the cold. Being in Europe this winter has really taught me many things about surviving in the cold. And I will always remember that a windy 7° Celsius is much, much colder than a windless -20° Celsius. The city looks beautiful and doing time lapses has been a pleasure. I look forward to the following days. Until tomorrow.
Wednesday, February 5, 2014—Graz
I had been looking forward to today ever since I knew I was going to visit Graz. The famous clock tower awaited, and it didn’t disappoint. We skipped the long walk up because of the chilly weather and opted instead to take the lift—a vertical shaft dug straight through the heart of the mountain. The clock tower was much larger than I originally thought, and looking down on the city of Graz from atop the hill was another experience. The city of Graz was completely covered in snow and fog today, and everything looked extra distant and cold. They say summer is the right time to be in this part of the world, when everything glows brightly and the sun dabs some colour on the beautiful canvas that is Graz. After some time doing my time lapse, we headed for the cafe for something warm to drink, as per our new rule: one time lapse, one coffee.
I’m proud of myself for slowly being able to order drinks and food here in Austria in German. When the language is learnt this way, the bare minimal and practical way, it seems rather manageable to me. I’m also a big fan of the way they pay for their meals. The waiter or waitress comes to the table bringing the bill and a bag of change. Each pays their own with the possibility to tip individually (giving €10 for a €9.50 bill, for instance), which makes splitting the bill that much simpler.
We spent the afternoon walking around the city while I did a time lapse here and there. A trip into a bookstore reminded me that no matter where I am in the world, imported international magazines, newspapers and books in original are still expensive. But when they’re worth it, they’re worth it. You really can’t put a price on great journalism and quality material.
I experienced a fantastic moment in the city today when we went to the roof of Graz’s oldest shopping centre, Kastner & Öhler, to take photos for a time lapse. I stood next to my camera staring down at the main square and across the rooftops of Graz. Suddenly, across the road from where I was standing, someone started playing an old, dusty-sounding piano. It was majestic. And then and there I realised that it’s places like Graz that make people fall in love with life and all the little wonderful moments that come with it. I stood there in the cold on the top floor listening to the piano, enjoying every note, and I knew that it was exactly where I wanted to be. Nothing needed to be done in too much of a rush, and because I wasn’t travelling with a tour group, there was no fixed schedule. Things were done because we felt like doing them. And isn’t that just the essence of going on holiday?
In the evening I met up with a group of enthusiastic students from Graz University. They’re all studying to become teachers of English, and they at the same time all study a second degree—geography, psychology, history, so on and so forth. What fascinated me the most was how it’s always necessary when studying English at an advanced level to choose between British English and American English. So many things are different—pronunciation, intonation, word usage, idiom usage—and they had to be sure that once they had picked one, they would see it through to the very end. Out of the group present, more than half were leaning towards AE, which is absolutely understandable. We are exposed to AE in every walk of life. It’s impossible to escape. Hollywood, press, music; it’s the easiest language to learn.
BE on the other hand is a bit more special. Not only does learning BE entitle one to learn about British history and figures like Shakespeare, it also means that the learner must be willing to put himself or herself through rigorous pronunciation and intonation training; speaking, listening, etc. The learner would need to intentionally expose himself or herself to BE material, and although not uncommon, the amount available still falls short of AE-based material. I take my hat off to learners of BE. You hold the key to the door leading to a special part of the English-speaking world that many know of but not many appreciate. A place where chivalry and class strives to remain mainstream, and a place where scones and afternoon tea haven’t yet gone out of fashion. There exists a special type of romanticism there. One that I hope will remain this way forever.
Thursday, February 6, 2014—Graz, Klagenfurt
Sitting on the bus to Klagenfurt we temporarily bid farewell to the magical city of Graz, taking the highway to the Bundesland (state) of Carinthia through the thickening fog. Graz gives a final goodbye, hanging an orange bulb of light on the horizon that sets slowly behind the hills of Styria. It’s a beautiful sunset, but I have a feeling Klagenfurt will do one or two better.
It’s a shame that we have to leave the city now that the sun is finally out. The fog lifted this morning as we headed into the city once again for some sightseeing. As the temperature rose, the ice melted from the rooftops and branches of trees, creating the odd sensation that the whole city was raining. Drip-drop, splish-splash, puddles emerged and streets turned muddy. Large chunks of ice slipped from rooftops and city folk did their best to dodge, cover and shimmy their way through the alleys of Graz.
Graz represents everything great about the typically likeable ‘small’ European city—it’s moderately populated and has high standard public transportation. The relaxed citizens are friendly and responsible, like they generally are in Austria, and there’s an abundance of outdoor and indoor leisure activities in which to take part: parks, rivers, museums, theatres, clubs and bars. It’s no wonder so many people want to stay here after graduation. It’s perfect. Dare I say, I too would love to stay in Graz if I ever learnt enough German.
This brings me to another interesting point about language learning and culture. Some countries you visit require you to speak the language. Take Russia, for example. Outside the airport and train station, without Russian, it’s fair to say that you’ll have more than just a tough time. Because I speak a fair bit of Russian, this gives me the opportunity to travel around Russia with little or no trouble. And this is something I do not take for granted. It’s a delight to connect and communicate with Russians in Russian. It’s one of the most unique languages I have ever encountered, bar none.
Austria, on the other hand, allows foreigners to easily travel around from airport to small town speaking just English. This is something that no doubt attracts heaps of tourists and many more who aren’t afraid to resettle in Austria because they know there won’t be such a serious language gap. At least not to a level that would affect your comfort while touring Austria.
(I pause a moment from typing as we pass through more hills. The autobahns we were driving through were built in old gorges, and tunnels were blasted through the hearts of mountains. It’s a union of man and nature; a mutual respect that sees the best possible outcome. Austria is a true testament to the “win-win” that so many countries seek.)
I came to Austria not speaking a word of German besides the obvious ja, nein and scheiße. And that is OK. A large part of the population speaks a fairly good level of English, more than enough to make any foreigner feel welcome. In Austria I never believe a word when people tell me “I don’t speak English.” I’ve just spent five years in Asia. I know what it means when people tell you they don’t speak English. My point, though, is that even though it hasn’t been necessary for me to speak German as a tourist to enjoy Austria, everything here has made me want to learn German. Not out of necessity, but for the sole purpose of connecting with the fantastic people in this country. I want to be able to share a moment. From that first bus driver in the early, foggy morning that waits a few seconds more for you to catch the bus, to the last store clerk that sells you that delicious homemade sandwich, Austria is a pleasure. And if you speak even a bit of German (or better Austrian German), you’ll love it even more. Oh, and never underestimate drinkable tap water. Klagenfurt here we come.
We arrived at Elisa’s after sundown. Her mom, Doris, picked us up and brought us back to their home by the lake and to a scrumptious full course dinner in their 20-plus-year-old house. We were later joined by her dad, Christian, who was out playing tennis. In the evening I had the privilege of spending the night in Elisa’s room. It’s full of memories, distant and recent, and the balcony has a full view of the wide lake. As I write this, their cat Berlioz pops in from the door left ajar to an unfamiliar sight. He stares at me now, almost as if to say, “Who the hell are you?” It’s going to be a good night.
Friday, February 7, 2014—Klagenfurt
I wanted to do a time lapse of the sunrise this morning, but unfortunately the fog hadn’t completely lifted. I would have better luck later in the day, though, because today was super sunny.
Pörtschach is one of those beautiful places that makes me want to “steal” scenery home. As I stand beside the transparent lake outside Elisa’s house doing a time lapse, I just can’t help feeling like I would never be able to show this town’s true beauty through photos. What I hate most is when I take a photo I have to either cut off the left or the right, or the top or the bottom. Viewers never get the full picture. I once saw in a “Top Gear” interview that when visiting Buckingham Palace, celebrity guests are often overwhelmed by the strong urge to steal a piece of Her Majesty’s cutlery. Just because. And I feel the same way about Pörtschach.
I do not for a second dislike the time and place in which I grew up, but whenever I travel, even to India, I always wonder what it would have been like if I grew up there. How different I would be in terms of my impressions of climate and the norms of a simple breakfast. The language I would speak, affecting possibly my view on the world. It’s a fascinating subject. One that turns my brain inside out.
There’s a distinct difference between doing a time lapse of a city and doing one of nature. I’m not just talking about the change in scenery, higher shutter speed or the longer shot intervals. I’m talking about the solitude of it all.
When doing a time lapse in the city, I’m surrounded by thousands of passersby, some staring, some stopping, some not even paying any attention to me as my camera methodically clicks away every three seconds. The city around me moves as I stand still. I watch, listen and feel the people brush by, getting on trams and racing each other on bicycles. It’s…odd. I sometimes feel out of place being the only one not moving. But then again, it’s strangely satisfying seeing so much happen around me that I wouldn’t have noticed before.
A time lapse of nature is very, very different. As I type this sentence, two friends come walking by asking me to take a photo of them. One is visiting Klagenfurt from Germany and the other is a resident of this utopia. “You must come back in the summer,” she says. “It’s much more beautiful then.” And why not? I just might. Time lapses in the countryside are personal—private almost. It’s just me and the camera. Looking up at the sky, nothing seems to be moving. It’s only when you play the photos back that you notice the ripples on the surface of the water and the shifting clouds. Here it’s me who’s doing the disturbing. The swans and ducks don’t need me here; the reeds and the trees could also do without the clicks of my camera. Entschuldigung. I’m just passing by. I’ll be gone in a minute.
On the day the Sochi 2014 winter olympics opened, I had the fantastic opportunity to try my hand at Eisstockschießen (ice stock sport). Similar to curling, where competitors slide ice stocks across a lane aiming for distance and accuracy, the closer your stock gets to the target, or the daube, the higher your score. It’s not as easy as it sounds! The evening was great fun. I met a bunch of Elisa’s good friends from school and as usual, they’re all fine young people. One of Elisa’s friends notes that ice stock sport is most probably for old people who can’t ski anymore. Who am I to argue?
Saturday, February 8, 2014—Klagenfurt
The preliminary results of the time lapse video are out. Having visited four of the nine capitals of Austria’s Bundeslande, the time lapse is perhaps not the very best representation of Austria, but it is the best representation of Austria from my eyes during my stay here. And I’m very satisfied so far.
Elisa tells me that because her mom cooks most meals, her dad’s speciality is breakfast (especially at weekends), when he brings everything one could possibly find in the fridge to the dining table. She was right, and this morning I wasn’t at all disappointed. He’s a grand character, Christian. Doris, too. And as I’ve felt for these 10 days, great people just raise great children—an extremely heartwarming observation.
We’re well-rested and roaring to go—well, sort of. The sun’s not out today and the lake outside their house is covered in a sheath of heavy fog—a pool cover, like the ones we use when we close off our pools for the winter. We’re heading into Klagenfurt town centre today. There will undoubtedly be another hauptplatz and some more locations for a time lapse. I will be careful not to overdo it, though, because some scenes should be reserved for the eyes only. Being overly focused on wanting to do a time lapse of everything I see will easily kill the proper feeling of sightseeing. Again, enjoy the little things.
The usually quiet Klagenfurt town centre was bustling today—a direct result of it being a Saturday no doubt. Having been in Linz and Leoben, I knew what to expect of Klagenfurt. A familiar type of architecture greeted me, and I was as happy as ever to see some more small alleys and side streets. Over the past week or so, this is what I’ve been accustomed to. I hope I am able to return to Russia and enjoy it just as much. The same goes with Taiwan. There are always small things that I miss in and around the towns and the cities I live in. It’s a paradox, really, because as a tourist I pay more attention to my surroundings, realising it’s all fresh and new, but returning home, I don’t give things a second glance. This is something that I need to change. Perhaps this is something that I need to train.
This is our last night in Pörtschach, and so I’m taking the opportunity to appreciate the scene at night a little more. The lake outside the window has its beauties at night too. The small town is dimly lit and there is zero light pollution—something that is now all too common. I don’t know when I’ll be able to see a place like this again. I think perhaps it’s time I do some research about Taiwan to be a tourist once more, so as to show more appreciation to Formosa.
Watching the figure skating event in Sochi really got me going. This group of athletes have devoted their lives to this sport and are finally able to showcase it on the big stage. Some of the skaters were 17-, 18-, 19-years-old. What on earth was I doing at 17? I have massive respect for these athletes, and even though I’m just an average Joe, I’d like to extend my deepest wishes to them. I hope you all make your countries proud. Most importantly, though, I hope you all make yourselves proud.
For dinner I was unexpectedly brought to the most Austrian restaurant in Carinthia. The waiters and waitresses wore traditional Austrian outfits and they served the most amazing traditional food. Roast pork, grilled fish, etc. Another great chat with Elisa’s parents and the girls left me with the urge to want to return in the summer. Who knows? If everything with my internship goes swimmingly, perhaps there’s a chance for me to come back. What a fabulous experience that would be! For now, it’s time to call it a day. Tomorrow we head back to Graz, where more magic awaits.
Sunday, February 9, 2014—Graz
After another hearty breakfast, we bid farewell to Pörtschach. I look forward to visiting Carinthia once more. We drove through a mini-blizzard on our way back to Graz and encountered an overturned car on the autobahn. Driving at high speeds through the snow is really another challenge altogether.
It’s rainy in Graz today, so we parked in Judith’s flat watching the olympics. It’s great to see the joy these games bring to the world. Even Taiwan has a handful of representatives in Sochi this year, again falling under the name “Chinese Taipei”. There was big controversy in Taiwan when they saw the Chinese translation of “Тайбэй, Китай”, but personally I don’t see how they could have translated “Chinese Taipei” any differently without making it sound absurd. I dislike politics when they interfere with international events or organisations like the Olympics or the work of WHO or UNESCO. But that’s the way the cookie crumbles. And I don’t foresee a change in the near or distant future. The world is too occupied with matters elsewhere to pay any attention to this little detail, and I think the criticism of Russia in this regard is ungrounded.
Failed jumps and skaters falling over pulls out a huge amount of sympathy from me. It’s not embarrassment, it’s more the fact that I know how nervous I would be if I were in the their shoes (or skates). I don’t watch winter sports, but even I am glued to the screen whenever there’s an event on. It’s a world event, and people should be paying attention to it. I used to think the summer games were bigger than the winter games. I don’t think so anymore.
Monday, February 10, 2014—Graz
Having been in Austria for 11 days now, I spent my penultimate day in Austria walking around Graz. I had my camera, tripod and intervalometer in my bag, ever ready to shoot my next time lapse. However, today I didn’t feel like doing that at all.
The weather wasn’t the best, but that wasn’t the reason. I didn’t find a “perfect” location, but that wasn’t the reason either. I just wanted use these last two days to properly observe Graz one last time. I walked the streets I walked last week. I saw the Mur and the Mur Island again. I passed the town hall once more and revisited the squares I’d been to before. I didn’t take any pictures this time because I had taken enough last week. The magic of Graz remains, and it’s just as beautiful as when I first laid eyes on it.
These 11 days in Austria have gone by quickly but they’ve been so fulfilling. I’ve visited four of the nine Bundeslande and stayed in three of them. By the good graces of some friends and their families I’ve been able to see (and taste) Austria from a not only a tourist’s point of view, but also from a local’s point of view. I drank in cafes and dined in restaurants that oozed Austrian tradition and had the chance to taste some of the cheap but great food here—even a mouthwatering kebab in Graz. It might not sound like the best place to find foreign foods, but Graz is incredibly international. There are so many different people walking around, it’s easy to feel at home here. That said, every city in Austria looked familiarly gentle to me, with streets lined with cafes and bakeries. This is the Austria I want to remember, and this is the Austria I want to come back to one day.
One last homemade dinner gave me something else to miss in the near future. Tomorrow is my last day in Austria, and I am happy that I came. It is impossible to express my gratitude to those who have hosted me. I only wish to be able to repay the favour in the future. Danke.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014—Graz
Graz was cloudy and rainy today, but it didn’t stop us from doing our usual rounds. We headed for yet another beautiful cafe & bakery and found it full of people who seemed to have all the free time in the world on a Tuesday afternoon. I don’t know what it is about this city that makes it feel so free and chill all the time, maybe people really are just that free.
All the restaurants and cafes that I’ve visited have been fantastic these past 12 days. We never went to the same cafe twice and there are still so many stones left unturned. The cafes were all unique in their own way, owing to their individuality. I would never go to a Starbucks here. Ever.
Over dinner we spoke briefly about differences in lifestyle in Austria. Their undying love for classy cafes, for example, and the method in which they tip. Also details about German, such as how and when to use danke schön and bitte schön properly, or the fact that German, like Russian, does not differentiate between present simple and present continuous tense, which leads to quite interesting expressions such as “she studies” instead of “she is studying.” All these little differences make up the characteristics of a people, and the difference is very noticeable. It’s crucial to stay open-minded when travelling, and it’s even more important to remain open-minded when returning to one’s own country, because comparing other cultures to our own is a way for us to appreciate the differences and the uniqueness of the country in which we live. What is a custom or the norm for us might be radically different for others. And we shouldn’t be surprised or take offence, because that’s just the way the rest of the world is—different.
I bid farewell to everyone for the final time tonight. An early morning tram ride to the train station gets me to the airport. Then it’s another battle in Moscow until I return to NN, where my humble journey began just 12 days ago. It’s time to return to the old with new—different—eyes.
Good night, Graz, for the last time.
Wednesday, February 12, 2014—Graz, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod
I walked through a snowy Graz this morning at 5:30 A.M., waiting for my last tram to the train station. I bought a typically yummy sandwich from a bakery before my departure and also a bottle of sparkling water—one of my new fancies I’ll be bringing back from my holidays here. The train is racing towards Vienna now, the white countryside flies past my window—backwards. It almost feels a little bit like Russia. That’ll be in at least 12 hours’ time. It’s going to be a long day.
There were approximately 25 minutes between my train’s arrival and the bus’s departure for the airport. I unfortunately exited the wrong side of the train station and lost my way. Luckily mostly everyone in Austria speaks English, especially in Vienna, so all I had to do was ask a few bus drivers and passersby for directions, and five minutes before the bus left for Vienna international airport, I was standing at the station panting like Mo Farah after finishing 10,000m. Made it.
Check-in at the airport was faster than anticipated, and so I could afford myself 30 minutes of shopping in duty free. About a month ago, Carlos Reyes and I made a trade deal for when I return to Taiwan from Russia and he from Honduras: 1lt. of fine tequila for 1lt. of fine vodka. A deal’s a deal, so I bought him a bottle of my favourite—Столичная (Stolichnaya). Naturally, the bottle of tequila will forever remain untouched on the desk in the room. Or I will at least make an attempt to do so. I also plan on buying myself a bottle of Столичная or Русский Стандарт (Russian Standard), just to put on my desk of course.
Like the flight from Moscow to Vienna, the plane was half full (I know, what an optimist). In fact, the two chairs next to me were empty, and passengers sitting in full rows quickly changed seats. It was as relaxing a flight as I could’ve hoped for.
I’m writing from aboard Niki airlines, AirBerlin’s budget category. It’s important for me personally to remember that just because I’m flying budget, it doesn’t at all mean that I should have to get used to bad service (or no service) and an uncomfortable flight. On the contrary, Niki airlines not only provides excellent service, they serve drinks and an inflight meal too. This is commonplace amongst long-distance flights of course, but I’ve flown budget enough times (Taipei to Singapore, Taipei to Manila, Moscow to Istanbul, etc.) to know that this kind of service should never be taken for granted. Niki airlines gets my like for a flight that is more than one’s money’s worth. And tomato juice has never tasted as splendid.
It’s incredibly fascinating how the weather so high up is almost always sunny, especially after flying from Vienna, having left behind rain and wind. I will enjoy this for as long as I can because I don’t know what type of weather awaits me in Moscow after I land. At least I know it won’t be the harrowing -30° Celsius I left with.
I don’t know what sort of sensations I will feel after I return to my dorm room in NN. I will be going back to one or two old faces and quite a few new faces, too. The new group of international students have arrived, partly at least, and from what I hear, they are some pretty nice people as well. I look forward to making their acquaintance. There’s not much left for me to do in NN, apart from sending a box of things home by freight, collecting my certificates, packing my suitcase and leaving. There are a few gifts I need to give out here and there, too, but that won’t take much effort. I have around 10 days left in Nizhny Novgorod, an incredibly short period of time considering I arrived half a year ago. I don’t know how I’ll feel leaving the city, but I would like to try my very best to end on a high. I leave Russia during a beautiful time of the year, as we’ve already seen the worst of what winter has to offer (I hope), and what remains is mild. I would like to take a few more walks along the paths I’ve been to before in late August and early September; I want to take the same photos I’ve taken so many times before on the riverbanks of the Volga. I don’t know when I’ll come back again. Russia is definitely my medium-term destination, but after that? Only time will tell.
Actually, I look forward to returning to Russia. And I look forward to returning to Taiwan. As I said when chatting with one of the girls the other night, I believe it’s time. Being away from home is something I’ve already become very accustomed to. During my six-month stay in Russia, there has yet to be a single moment of homesickness, and I don’t know why. Perhaps this is my mind’s way of telling me that Russia is indeed where I want to be in the near future. I feel comfortable in Russia, speaking the amount of Russian I do. If I start an internship or work in Moscow, I will have to deal with so much extra scheiße, I can’t even begin to imagine. If I worked in Taipei, it would be a similar situation (or perhaps 1,000 times easier). But this is the price I am willing to pay for independence. If I get the green light from my mother, I’m off. There will be no looking back as I pass the point of no return. It has to be all or nothing if this is truly what I want for myself. Like I noted before, if I can survive in Moscow, I can survive anywhere else in the world.
After arriving in Moscow earlier than expected, I passed passport control in a record four minutes—trust me, I counted, Maria bought train tickets for me again and Kate met me in the metro station, ready to guide me to a foreign Ярославский Вокзал (Yaroslavsky train station). It was like a relay, every detail thought over. I am extremely lucky to have people in Russia. Thank you, girls.
It was like a marathon in Austria, too. From the Vienna pick up to the Linz pick up, we went from station to station, house to house. Each time we were welcomed by a different set of parents; each time successful and smooth, owing to the coordination of my hosts. Faultless.
I write from my slow train to NN now. I didn’t manage to catch the fast train because the tickets were already sold out. That’s the risk you run by booking tickets a few hours before the train leaves I guess! Maria told me this would be a ‘special experience, and she wasn’t lying. “Be prepared!”
I am in a плацкарт carriage, a sleeper carriage, with six-person compartments packed more tightly than a can of sardines. Three bunk-berths make everything ‘extra personal’. What a train!
Stepping on it instantly reminded me of the 52-hour train ride Eric, Masha, Katya and I took from Kannur to New Delhi in the summer of 2012. That was a great experience, too. It was these moments that we took from India in order to one day be able to say, “Hey, it’s not that bad. I’ve been to India, OK?” Kate told me that Russian trains are better than Indian trains, though, because for one, nobody goes around yelling, “Chai, chai, chai!” every 10 minutes.
My neighbours on the train are all Russian, which means they are all very friendly—no, really. The Russian type of friendly. I like it. Come now, be reasonable. We spoke for a few moments before I climbed into my berth to rest. I asked the couple sitting directly in front of me if they were also headed for Nizhny Novgorod, hoping to find someone who would share this dreadful near-seven-hour ride with me.
“Нет,” the wife said, giving two shakes of her head. No. “Мы едем до последней.” We’re going to the last [station].
Her husband started to laugh slowly. “В Нижний мы ходим пешком!” he chimed in with the biggest smile. We go to Nizhny on foot.
“Но это шесть с половиной часов!” I exclaimed. It’s six and a half hours! Not wanting to imagine anything longer. “Тогда сколько часов?” I asked. How many hours then?
“Двое сутки,” the husband replies. What does that mean? “Сорок восемь часов,” he adds, reading my perplexed face.
I immediately shut up and discontinued any thoughts of complaint about my seven-hour journey. I climbed into my tiny-but-not-too-uncomfortable berth to listen to my music and mind my own business. Staring up at the metal above my head that holds all our luggage I shut my eyes. Forty eight hours, he said. Jesus.
I listen to the sound of the train on the tracks and feel the rocking of the carriage. The driver sounds the horn every few minutes in true choo-choo fashion. Images from India pour back into my mind. My, how far we’ve all come. And come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind a chicken biryani right now.
I arrived in Nizhny Novgorod at 2:46 A.M. The taxi took me back to the dorms, where thankfully things haven’t changed at all. I start the final leg of my journey here—a 10-day goodbye to everything and everyone that has made this city special for me over the past six months—before my return to Taipei.
When does the next journey start? JSF.The time lapse project can be found on YouTube here. All photos are from my album Austria – Österreich.