Chronicles of a writer abroad


Award for best metro chime goes to Budapest

Yesterday I was talking with my mom about how riding local forms of transit is a very enjoyable part of travelling to new cities and countries. Last week Stelian and I visited Budapest, a truly fascinating city. But I was disappointed to find, after our arrival, that I’d brought my camera but neglected to bring its battery, which I’d left in the charger at home. One of the things I most regretted not being able to document during the trip was the city’s metro system.

I was tipped off by a Zürich friend before going that the Budapest metro was great, and it did not disappoint. The stations are far underground, with escalators so high they bring on vertigo, and fixed to the ceilings above them are giant fans whose blades look like they could propel bomber planes, which force air to circulate down below.

The platforms are wonderfully old-timey — most we saw were identical, white tile trimmed with magenta, and a wooden booth that probably used to be for selling tickets (now, as in most places, you can get them from a machine). They evoked an earlier razzle-dazzle era so powerfully that I expected a man with a striped jacket, straw hat, and a cane to do a shuffle-dance onto the scene each time our train pulled into one.

Perhaps the tones that accompanied the arrival at each station helped to foster this illusion. The subway cars, while not the most modern, played the jauntiest, most cheerful metro chime I’ve ever heard, and I laughed each time I heard it. It was disappointing not to be able to record it. Then today I remembered, in a facepalm moment, that it’s possible to find absolutely anything on the internet. So in the video below is Budapest’s metro chime, courtesy of a random youtuber.  Tell me: have you ever heard a better one, or have you been to other places with interesting/amusing transit systems?



A week in Paris

So, I didn’t fall in love with Paris at first sight. Nor did I realize we were meant for each other the second time I went. On my third visit, I still failed to swoon, but I did begin to better understand and appreciate the city’s diversity. I realized that while I don’t so much enjoy being a tourist in Paris (given my aversion to crowds and lines), it could be nice to live in a city where work-eat-sleep routines are punctuated by feasts for the eyes, ears and taste buds. For me, Paris’ charm lies in the man who stands up from his seat to preach salvation through Jesus the moment the metro doors have snapped shut; in the saxophone music issuing from another car as I exit the train; in the sense that dessert is sometimes obligatory; and in art that is unexpected and whimsical.

For my week’s stay, I rented a small (small enough that there was considerable toe-stubbing) apartment in the 15th arrondissement. From there, my commuting options to the American University of Paris, where the workshop was held, were either a 40-minute walk which took me right past the Eiffel tower, or a 10-minute metro ride. I did a mixture of walking and metro-ing during the week, and while the former was lovely, it was being sardined with office workers in a stinky, humid metro car that made me think, “Look at me! Comme une vraie Parisienne!”

The Eiffel Tower pops up unexpectedly

The workshop itself was great. Our instructor for the morning master class was, in addition to being an accomplished writer, also a very gifted teacher. He arranged our five days of class around five core themes: Structure and plot; consciousness and thought; dialogue; description; and narrative. Each of the twelve participants had submitted a manuscript in advance, and certain of them were chosen to be discussed each day to tie in with the given theme. I have left other workshops feeling deflated, but I came away from this one full of ideas about how to revise my piece, and excited to try out some newly learned techniques.

A week was also long enough for friendships to form among the participants. By midweek the excellent Café Constant, near the AUP and quite affordable at midday, had been deemed “our place” for lunch; in the evening we ate crepes — both sweet and savoury, the latter being a revelation to me — discussed books and writing, and walked around the city. Here are some of us at the Shakespeare and Company bookshop, a place I had long dreamed of visiting but hadn’t made it to on previous visits to Paris:

Since the workshop finished on Friday but the apartment rental lasted through Sunday, Stelian came to stay the weekend. Together we spent some time poking around the Marais district and the Porte de Vanves flea market. We considered buying a lamp made to look like a robot before we learned its shockingly high price, and we went to the combined museums of Magic and Automation, where I had the dubious honour of being the only non-child selected by the magician to take part in a trick during the “spectacular,” or magic show.

At the Porte de Vanves flea market

All in all, I had a great week away, and I will continue to savour my third taste of Paris, that bustling, glittering, maddeningly unpredictable city. As always, though, I breathed a sigh of relief upon coming back to Zürich, where things are wonderfully clean and quiet, and where I revel in simple pleasures like running through the city’s forests and drinking my beloved pasture milch.


Vienna Part III: Worth the price of admission?

As promised, here is a round-up of the things we paid to see in Vienna, and my thoughts on whether we would pay to see them again…

Schönbrunn Palace 

As I noted before, the exterior of Schönbrunn, one of Austria’s most important palaces, is a delight to look at, especially from certain vantage points on its grounds. As I also mentioned, the grounds themselves are vast and beautiful, with fountains, mazes, and even a zoo (more on that in a moment). You could easily spend a day here without even going inside the Palace.

The grounds of Schönbrunn, as seen from the Palace. To the sides are flower beds, just ahead is a beautiful fountain, and if you hike up to the structure at the top of the hill (called the “gloriette”), there is a cafe with great views and delicious apfelstrudel!

But I felt compelled to see what the inside was like, so we did a quick tour. My problem with the interior of palaces is that I get quickly overloaded by detail. Three or four rococo rooms and I’m done, no longer able to see anything new. One thing I did note is that the beds of royalty always seem so disappointingly utilitarian…why would you rather deck out all this furniture that you rarely sit in, instead of the place where you spend one-third of your life sleeping? It’s a mystery to me.

Uniforms interest me somewhat more than furniture.

The best thing I saw while touring the palace was actually a fluke — I stuck my head out an open window and saw this strange apparition in a window across the courtyard. I have no idea what it was doing there, but as an anachronism and an unexpected surprise, I found it delightful.


My verdict: The interior of Schönbrunn is worth the price of admission if, like me, you sorta have to go in to settle your curiosity (in that case, buy the cheapest, most limited tour, as I did — it costs about 10 Euros, and you’ll see enough that way). If you love architecture/design, you’d probably find it more interesting than I did, and might want to consider the more deluxe tour options.

Schönbrunn Zoo

Stelian and I love a good zoo. But our time in Vienna was short — were we really going to spend part of it looking at animals we could see in many other places?

Our guidebook mentioned that this is the world’s oldest zoo, which made us decide it was special enough to warrant a visit. But just as we bought the tickets, I  started to worry that oldest might equate to most inhumane — I remembered the original bear pits in Bern, for example, and the general inhumanity of menageries in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Happily, like Bern’s bear habitat, the animal enclosures in the Schönbrunn zoo have been expanded and made more species-appropriate.  Some of the original cages remain for people to look at, and for kids to play inside of — a few parents were snapping pictures of kids inside the old lion cages, which would make for a cool keepsake.  The zoo overall is full of trees and is a lovely place to stroll through (but you have to pay for the privilege, of course). In terms of diversity, we initially thought its offerings would be fairly limited, since it is after all just a side attraction of the palace (and once belonged to a single family!). But after a few hours we had to concede that we wouldn’t be able to see it all. This is a large and serious zoo — it even has exotic animals like pandas and koalas, which I’ve only seen in one or two other places.

Just try to resist that sweet face and those prancing feet.

My verdict: The Schönbrunn zoo is worth the price of admission (I forget exactly how much, but between 15 and 20 Euros) if you are an animal lover. You have to not mind that most of the other visitors are of the typical zoo-visiting demographic (i.e., parents and occasionally-very-cranky children).

Morning Exercises of the Lipizzaner Stallions

We were interested in seeing a performance by these horses, whose forebears were brought to Austria from Spain in the 16th century, leading their home in Vienna to be called the Spanish Riding School. For hundreds of years, the mostly-white horses have been carefully bred and used to entertain patrician (and now, tourist) audiences. No performances were scheduled during our visit, but we found out that we could see the horses go through their morning exercises. Sounds like fun, we thought. And it was…we watched a succession of horses and trainers running through the strict patterns and dainty, mincing steps that they have been trained for. We got to watch this in the Riding School performance arena, which is impressively opulent. The only problem was that the training session was two and a half hours long, and I reached my saturation point after about half an hour. At about the hour mark we ended up tiptoeing out, along with a number of other people who had grown bored of seeing the same thing done over and over with different horses.

The stallions in the Riding School

My verdict: I wouldn’t do this again. The price of admission, at 14 Euros, seems quite high in retrospect. Plus, you can see the horses in their stables if you walk past the Riding School stables at night (there are windows that the public can look in). I would only pay for this if you are crazy for horses. The performance area of the Riding School is grand, but so are many other places in Vienna.

Freud’s Apartment/Museum

Even though a lot of his ideas are no longer in vogue, Freud was a towering presence in my undergraduate psychology degree, and I always thought that if I went to Vienna, I’d go check out his apartment (which doubled as a place where he saw patients). Once we got there, Stelian and I decided to go into the museum (admission is 8 Euros). We soon found that the museum was mostly papers and photographs — you have to have time and patience to go through them (by this point, you may be picking up on a theme — we didn’t have a lot of  time and patience for things that felt tedious. And why should you, when on vacation?). It turns out that Freud (like anyone, I guess) wrote a lot of banal correspondence, and appeared in a lot of not-so-exciting photos. In my view, the highlight of the museum was this:

My mental images of Freud’s couch were much more…comfortable-looking.

My verdict: The Freud museum felt to me as though someone said, “You know, we really ought to have a museum here,” but then they didn’t put their heart into making it interesting (whereas the Einstein museum in Bern is, in my opinion, an example of a person-based museum that does succeed). I did see this right before lunch, when low blood sugar makes me easily critical, but Stelian also thought it was a bit of a bore.

Naturhistoriches Museum

Whalebones flank a doorway

This one is again tailored to our interests — specifically, to Stelian’s love of dinosaurs. 🙂 It, like the zoo, offered an impressive number of well-designed and interesting exhibits, was a beautiful space in itself, and gave us an opportunity to walk through the lovely Museum Quarter.

Hello, up there!

My verdict: This was worth the price of admission for us, but Vienna has many museums, and there may well be one of more interest to you. I recommend learning about the options in advance. There were major attractions — such as the Hofburg Palace and the Belvedere — that we chose not to see during our trip. Vienna is a city of many attractions, so the challenge is to spend your time wisely.

Kudos to anyone who read all the way through this post — I hope it was interesting and/or helpful to you. I’m finished talking about Vienna now, I promise!


Vienna Part II: The best things are free

In the spirit of offering genuinely useful travel advice (which I occasionally aim to do), I planned to write a post about which Vienna attractions we found “worth it,” in terms of the time and money spent, and which we might not recommend or do again. In the process of writing said post, I realized how many enjoyable things on our trip were completely without cost. Vienna is a high-class city, but there is a lot to savour, for free, outside of its fancy restaurants and decked-out palaces. So here, I present

The Top Ten Totally Free Things to Enjoy in Vienna 

(and we’ll talk paid attractions next time).

10. Wander the streets in the city centre — the sights are magical by day and by night.

9. Watch people taking carriage rides. Bonus: by watching, you get all of the nostalgia and romance, with none of the personal embarrassment.

8. Stop to listen to some very talented street musicians.

7. Visit a very famous church (one that I wish I’d taken a better picture of — es tut mir leid, Stephansdom).

6. Visit the grounds of Schönbrunn Palace — it costs to tour the interior, but the exterior and grounds are the best part, in my opinion.

5. Take a stroll through a great city park (the Stadtpark).

4. Appreciate art on the street.

3. Do some window shopping.

2. Take in an opera al fresco — when playing, operas are projected live on a screen outside the Opernhaus.

1. Tiptoe through the tulips (also in the Stadtpark).

I feel compelled to explain that I am not actually trampling on flowers here; I am standing on a swath of concrete separating two differently-coloured flowerbeds, but the photog (Stelian) did a good job of concealing that.


Vienna Part I: What we ate

I have a special fondness for Austria. Perhaps that’s because it was the first European country Stelian and I visited, back in 2006. But it also has a lot going for it — nice people, gorgeous Alpine scenery, spoken German that is clear and resembles that in my lesson books (this last being something I really appreciate since living in Switzerland).

And let’s not forget the amazing food. During our recent three-night stay in the nation’s capital, we didn’t eat anything that disappointed us, which is rare, since we tend to have hit-and-miss experiences as we try out new places on trips. So let’s kick off the Vienna series with a recap of some of our delicious meals and snacks, shall we?

For the evening of our first full day, I made a dinner reservation at Figlmueller, based on the advice of our guidebook. When we arrived at the appointed time, we saw a long line running out the door and onto the street, which is always a good sign. The restaurant’s menu is built around its famous pork schnitzel (need I remind you that Wiener Schnitzel originates in Wien, the German name for Vienna?). In Figlmueller’s version, 250 grams of meat is pounded flat and then breaded and fried into an enormous schnitzel:

Stelian's dinner - a ginormous, plate-overlapping schnitzel with a side of potato salad. He would like you to know that he exercised restraint and did not finish it.

I had the chicken version, which was a little more reasonably-sized, but also incredibly delicious.

The restaurant only carries Austrian drinks, so this was the perfect opportunity for us to try an Almdudler.

This is Austria’s national soft drink (like Rivella is Switzerland’s). We both enjoyed it — it is a carbonated, herbed lemonade that tastes something like Ginger Ale.

The next day, we had lunch at Trzesniewski — another Vienna institution, one that gets very crowded at midday. The deal here is that they offer a couple dozen varieties of small, open-faced sandwich (the red one below shows the full size) and you pick and choose the ones you want. Most are based on eggs, mayo, and relish. The partially-eaten plate below includes relish-tomato (red), egg-and-relish (green and yellow), egg-and mushroom (grey and yellow), and cream-cheese-horseradish-carrot (white and orange). Not pictured is Stelian’s favourite, liver paste, which he ate three of. All of the sandwiches were delicious, and a fun way to try a variety of different Austrian flavours.

On our final night, we tried Tafelspitz, or boiled beef, which is one of the most famous Austrian dishes. For this we went to Plachutta, again on the advice of the guidebook, and we were again very happy with the choice. Here is the set-up:

In Tafelspitz, beef is boiled in broth with root vegetables. We were given the choice of noodles or strips of pancake (and chose the former, the latter striking us as too bizarre) and the broth was ladled onto these for the first course (see Stelian’s bowl above). After the soup, our waiter fished out the beef and plated it alongside the excellent creamed spinach and roasted potatoes. The beef tastes rather like pot roast (a comparison I would not have been able to make before I learned to cook it a few months ago), and is meant to be eaten with the apple and cream-chive sauces on the far left of the picture. I would label this a must-do in Vienna, and it will certainly be a do-over if we go back!

And so, that’s it…no, don’t despair, I’m kidding. I would never forget to talk about dessert. I would, however, forget to take pictures of it, since I usually devour it within seconds of it being placed in front of me (hey, it’s all a part of marathon recovery). I did manage to snap a picture of this slice of Sacher Torte when we were halfway into it, though:

We ate this at Demel, one of Vienna’s most famed coffeehouses — we might have gone to the Sacher Hotel, where the cake originated, but Demel is also celebrated for its cake. This was our second time trying Sacher Torte, Austria’s beloved chocolate-cake-with-apricot-jam-under-the-icing confection: we also sampled it in 2006. Both of our experiences with it have been somewhat anticlimactic — it’s nicely flavoured, but is also a fairly dry cake. It’s still very good, just not the blow-your-mind good that you might expect based on all the hyperbole and history surrounding it.

Other dessert highlights on our trip included an unbelievably good apfelstrudel drowning in vanilla sauce, a delicious almond/Amaretto cake, and an ice-cream dessert with apricot puree at the centre (the Viennese are very fond of  Marille, or apricot, in desserts).

I’ll get my pictures organized and be back soon with a link to an album and more tales of Austrian adventure!


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.