Chronicles of a writer abroad


24 hours in Freiburg

It’s hard to believe that I lived in Switzerland for over a year without once visiting Germany. In fact, before this weekend I’d never been to Germany at all — unless you count catching flight connections in some of its airports. So I took a first step towards rectifying my relationship with Switzerland’s neighbour to the north by visiting Freiburg this weekend.

Freiburg is a South-German university town with some 220,000 residents. It registers on the radar of a fair number of Euro-travellers because of its position in the Schwarzwald, or Black Forest (yes, this is where both the ham and cake originate). We went there in order to celebrate the birthday of a colleague and friend of Stelian’s. It was an easy less-than-two-hours train ride from Zurich, but in certain respects it felt as though we were a world away — it was amusing to watch our Swiss travel companions lapse into Swiss German and receive strange looks from the locals, and it was nice to spend an evening eating good food and ordering several rounds of drinks, only to be presented with what seemed a laughably small bill at the end of it.

On top of all this, this weekend was Fasnacht time again, so were were treated to music, parades and interesting costumes as we wandered the streets, and I now feel as though I’ve had better exposure to this important regional tradition.

Another thing that enchanted me about this city were the tile-decorations on the streets – they represented a range of things, from shields to pretty designs and helpful symbols. I think that they must have been put in not so long ago, because in many cases there was concordance between them and the retail space that they were in front of (e.g., an ice-cream cone tile design in front of an ice-cream parlour). This is smart, because Europeans like to own dogs and they often do not like to pick up after them (the problem is especially bad in Paris, I find, though my experiences of actually stepping in what the Parisians call merde de chien have occurred in Amsterdam and Targoviste). Anyway, you must watch your feet while you walk. In Freiburg you must also watch your feet because  there is a small canal along the edge of the sidewalk — you can see this in the top photo. So you didn’t necessarily have time to check out all the storefronts, but the street itself would point things out to you — ice cream here! jeweller’s here! and so on.

I compulsively  documented examples of these tile-designs (hey, I was looking at the ground anyway!) right up until my camera battery died. If you’re interested, flip through the photos below…



Barcelona Part III: A serrated mountain and a grating on the nerves

For the last post in the Barcelona series, I’d like to take you…outside Barcelona. Just an hour outside. No big thing — we’ll just hop on a train at Placa Espanya and relax as we are shuttled away from the coast and deeper into Catalunya. Here we are: the seat is comfortable, the world outside our window is beginning to look different — we exchange city views for pastoral ones, then move into a more arid zone, with dense shrubbery and reddish soil. Lulled by the scenery, our minds are starting to drift into–


Oh, sorry. Did I not mention? There are four middle-aged American tourists in the group of seats behind us. And they are obnoxiously loud, with one voice in particular rising above the rest. Now, there exists a stereotype concerning Americans being loud and obnoxious whilst traveling in Europe. I hate to perpetuate stereotypes, so allow me to say that I’m aware that many Americans are not like this when traveling. But I also know that respectful Americans sometimes pretend to be Canadian when traveling in order not to be associated with this type of person. So, let’s all try not to be this person. I’ll admit to you that I’m extra annoyed by her because of my North American love for Hershey’s chocolate, which I haven’t had for a long time because it’s not available in Europe. This woman has brought a case of it to Spain. How long can her trip be?

But I digress. So here we are, getting closer to–


Sorry again. I seem to be getting too distracted here. How about we pick this up again when we get off the train, okay?

(Incidentally, this is why I must do all my writing at home, as opposed to in cafes or other kinds of public spaces. Especially now that I am often ensconced in a foreign language, I cannot help but listen when someone is speaking English in public. It’s sort of a curse.)


Ah, so here we are — finally — at the Montserrat station. Montserrat, when translated into English, means “Serrated Mountain.” Here’s the best panorama I could manage, given the hazy day and my limited photography skills:

So, how cool is this? It’s a mountain that is almost as playful and wacky as Gaudi’s architecture. Maybe it lent…or he was inspired by…? I don’t know for sure, but let’s go up the mountain for a better look. Um, this means we have to take a funicular. It’ll take fifteen more minutes. But it’s going to be–


Yes. That’s what I was getting to. Uh huh, she’s here too. And she’s right. She’s irritating as heck, but she’s also right. As the train climbs the mountain, we can see the plains of Catalunya below (N.B.: I believe these to be the celebrated main-rain-in-Spain-plains). The expanse of green is broken at intervals by cities and the roads running between them. The sight reminds me of a human body, with the cities forming organs and the roads between them arteries and blood vessels…don’t you agree, co-narrator?


Oh, so you won’t cooperate. You won’t even be–


Ah, forget it. The ride’s nearly over.

After disembarking at the top, we’re going to notice a few things. Number one: It’s noticeably colder up here than in the city below. Number two: it’s noticeably quieter than in the train (Bonus item three: There is food. A restaurant, and a large cafeteria).

This mountain is probably swarming with tourists in the summer — I base this conjecture on the frequency of the trains, the aforementioned capacious eating facilities, the very large gift shop, and the fact that my guidebook said the Basilica’s Black Virgin (she is black due to centuries of exposure to candle soot, apparently, but for a long time the cause was attributed to simple miraculousness) draws many visitors of faith. But we’re lucky — we’ve come in January, and so we can enjoy the environs in peace and quiet. When we go ON SOME HIKING TRAILS, FOR EXAMPLE, WE WON’T SEE ANYBODY–

Whoa. That was weird. What, is it contagious?

I think this means it’s now my turn to stop talking. Here, enjoy some pictures of Montserrat. Enjoy them, if you can, in perfect, glorious silence — as we did the train ride back to Barcelona.


Barcelona Part II: A stroll through Parc Güell

It’s possible that Parc Güell was my favourite sight on our Barcelona trip.

Imagine: a vast green space, overlooking the city and studded with architectural delights like painstakingly-made and beautiful-to-behold tiled benches…

Gingerbread houses…

Wacky tunnels…

And space to be outdoors yet sheltered from the elements.

Parc Güell was built in the early 1900s, and as the name implies, it was another project commissioned by Gaudi’s patron Count. Güell’s vision for this project was that it would form a self-contained community — the covered hall above would serve as the marketplace, homes would be built, and there would be space for gardening and, of course, socializing on that great terrace where the benches are. It would have been a great place to live — the park is perched above the city, and thus benefits from fresh air and breezes — but though Güell himself moved into the park, there was lack of buyer interest in the other “show houses” built on the site — Gaudi eventually decided to buy one of them when it seemed that the community idea wasn’t going to pan out. According to a great anecdote that I stumbled across in my research, the park’s lack of success led Gaudi to remark to Güell: “Sometimes I think we are the only people who like this architecture.” To which Güell replied, “I don’t like your architecture, I respect it.”

Hmm…I’m not sure how I would feel if someone said that to me as a writer. Perhaps something was lost in translation here. In any event, it’s true that in his time, Gaudi’s works were not widely embraced and were, in fact, controversial due to their playful quality and their strangeness. Today, however, Barcelona positively flaunts them, they are UNESCO world heritage sites, and they are mobbed by tourists, even on rainy days in the winter (such as the one we chose to visit the park). But it’s worth noting that Count Güell, who with his bags of money could have lived anywhere he wanted, stayed in his house in the park until he died in 1918. Gaudi, too, stayed until his death 8 years later. It’s nice to think that at least the two men who dreamed up this beautiful place were able to enjoy it, even if they didn’t get to see all the hopes they poured into it come to fruition.

I quickly resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn't be able to get a picture of the park's iconic salamander fountain without other tourists in it.

The house in the park where Gaudi lived from 1906 to 1926.


On paying to be free of the net

I have sung the praises of our internet age in earlier posts. But the truth is that while this whole world-wide-web thing is a great friend of mine where communication and research is concerned, it is also a formidable foe where other things are concerned. Things like productivity on days when I feel unmotivated.

What is it that we call this thing, again? Oh yes, the net. Or else, the web. Have you noticed that these are both things designed to entrap?

And entrap they do, sometimes spectacularly well. I think we have probably all had the experience of sitting down to do something specific (write an e-mail or look up a piece of information) and found ourselves instead going down a facebook-youtube-twitter rabbit hole that we may not snap out of until an hour has gone by and we realize that we’re watching a string of terrible music videos from 20 years ago. Or is that last part just me?

The thing is, there’s just way too much content. And like some kind of dismembered monster, it never stops regenerating itself — facebook is beckoning with “new stories,” youtube with recommended videos tailored just to my taste, google reader with an onslaught of new blog posts each day. These are siren songs, irresistible but sure to lead to distraction and self-loathing if I look at them during times that I’ve apportioned for work.

I’ve been in this situation before. My first year of undergrad, I lived in a dorm. I thought I was lucky to have a (teeny-weeny, itsy-bitsy) single room, because then I could dictate the terms of my social engagement: I could study when I needed or wanted to, I thought, without having to negotiate with a roommate who wanted to talk endlessly or have people over or be otherwise distracting.

However, there were still six people living on my floor (which we called an alcove); six more on the floor below, six more on the floor above, and…you get the point. Someone was still always knocking on my door, asking if I wanted to go eat, to watch a movie, to go out…sometimes I’d say “no, I really have to study,” and they’d say, “ok, but we’ll be in the common room downstairs if you change your mind…” After that I would typically study distractedly for a short period, before giving in and joining them. My grades, as you might imagine, were not top-notch that year.

However, I did get around to reading, for my Classics course, about Odysseus having to lash himself to the mast of his ship and block his ears with wax in order not to succumb to the sirens. I might have followed his lead and tied myself to my desk and made use of earplugs, but I didn’t. I never found a good way to resist the pull of the social activity happening just outside my door. I had to move out of residence before I could become more conscientious.

Now I have been asking myself, how do I do a similar thing for the internet? How do I stop feeling like there’s a party (or multiple parties) on my computer that I could be joining any moment? I’m a fierce introvert by nature, but there’s something about those rolling newsfeeds that just beckons, making me believe I might be missing important news from someone, somewhere.  I also hate the way that I almost automatically click over to my e-mail or to my news page when I’m stuck on something in a story I’m working on. I wouldn’t call this problem of mine an addiction, but I would call it a set of rather bad habits.

So here’s an irony: I’m going to rely on more technology to save the day. For now, anyway, and until I develop the necessary self-restraint. I recently learned about a program called “Freedom” which you install on your computer, and each time you use it it blocks the internet for a time period that you specify (up to 8 hours at a time). You cannot shut it off once you have activated it — the only way to regain access is to reboot your computer. I have been using the software on a trial basis for a few days, and so far I’ve been happy with the results.

Now, let’s make note of the irony that in order to gain this “freedom” I will be paying ($10, but still) to install a program that actually denies my access to certain things. But I think this is necessary, for the moment. Distraction is a huge threat to any writer who has no one who makes them work, no company to feel guilty towards, no paycheque to feel as though they are not earning when they waste time. So I’m willing to swallow the irony and admit that I sometimes need intervention. Like Odysseus, I’ll do whatever seems necessary to stay on course.