Annie Bananie en Europe

A blog about travel, life, and everyday tidbits

Category Archives: Others

My stories 06: The old green trains

I remember when I was little, I used to take the old green trains with “the adults” from Guangzhou back to my mom’s hometown in Gansu province of China. Then we’d take the train back again, and each way took two days and one night. That route still exists now and I guess the duration is the same even today. When I was very young, we went in the hard sleeper coaches. We even travelled with hard seats once and that was quite a terrible experience…yep. Along the way, there were three stops that left the deepest impression in my memory. The first stop was Wuchang (one of the three major districts that make up the city of Wuhan now), which I can’t be more familiar with in present day. On the return trip to Guangzhou, the train must cross the Yangtze River Bridge before arriving at Wuchang station. Every time we were crossing the bridge, my third grandpa would remark with excitement, “We’re at Wuchang, we’re at Wuchang!” And that was the earliest that “Wuchang” entered my vocabulary as a place in China. The second stop was Zhengzhou. I didn’t know where Zhengzhou was back then (now I know that it’s the capital of Henan province) and I only knew that it was a major station, as the train stopped there for nearly half an hour. The adults would get off the train to stretch and walk around, but I’d always worry that the train would leave before they returned, so I’d keep urging them to get back onto the train. The third stop was Xi’an, also a major station. During those years, there’d be vendors selling food and snacks on the platforms. You didn’t even have to get off the train – you could open the window and buy whatever you wanted. I remember there was someone selling roasted chicken at Xi’an station and oh man, that chicken looked extra mouthwatering and irresistible. But then, the adults never bought anything from the train stations. As a small child, I could only watch as that delicious-looking roasted chicken, which I never got the chance to taste, disappeared in front of my eyes. Today, I can most certainly afford to buy a roasted chicken myself, but no one sells them on the platforms anymore…

Slow green trains on the platform. Nowadays, many people in China choose to travel with the high-speed trains for speed and convenience, but many of the slow train routes, including the one from Guangzhou to Gansu, still exist.

(This short essay was written on August 26, 2019.)

One year of marriage

Today is my one-year wedding anniversary with J and I am glad to say we didn’t rip each other apart during the past 366 days, yay! We spent the day in my hometown Guangzhou, where it all began – it was here two and a half years ago that J told me he loved me and we entered a relationship, which naturally led to marriage. Our wedding last October took place in France (where we met) and since then it had been heck of a year, what with COVID-19 and J developing anxiety (not related to COVID). Throughout our marriage, I am learning more and more about this man each and every day, and even though he has habits that annoy me to no end and make me want to kick his sorry ass, I am also completely aware of my own shortcomings, which are perhaps 1000 times more difficult to bear than his. Yet this man has managed to put up with me with his insurmountable patience and not get a mental breakdown from me being unreasonable most of the time, which impresses me and can only be explained by the magnitude of love that he displays on a daily basis. Every moment, I am grateful that God has allowed our paths to cross and I recognize how blessed I am to have J as my husband. The marriage is still young and growing, and both of us have unknown challenges that must be faced together and lessons that must be learned, I am sure. Most importantly, I am constantly trying to remind myself to learn how to love, not in a way that benefits myself only, but with the aim of supporting my husband and fortifying our relationship as a team. This won’t be easy and there will be hardship, but with you beside me and God above us, no fear can hinder us. All in all, every ordinary day has been an indispensable page in the journey of our marriage, and as long as I am with you, I can welcome each new page with joy and anticipation. Here we go, year 2!

Just one of the many days where I want to punch this man’s face… πŸ€”

Ten years of blogging

The first entry of this blog was posted exactly ten years ago, on September 27, 2010. That’s a whole decade. Let me take a moment to let that sink in…

If you’ve read my “About” page, you’d have had some idea of how this blog ever came into existence at all. I remember when I made the decision in 2010 to go to Europe for my PhD, I was telling my friends and the reaction of one of them, Albert, was, “Oh cool, you’ll be blogging, right”? I don’t think he said it in a sense of “I’ll be reading it when you post” (he probably never did), but with more of a “everyone’s blogging (back then), so I’m assuming you will too” tone.

So I said, “Uh, yeah!” without really having the intention of blogging to begin with, but having kept an online journal for 8 years already at that point I thought…well why not. And thus, “Annie Bananie en Europe” came to life. Where do I start…let me summarize these ten years briefly, year by year.

  • Year 1: the beginning of my PhD
  • Year 2: still struggling through the PhD
  • Year 3: finally getting the PhD!
  • Year 4: unemployment and pause
  • Year 5: back in Europe again?!!
  • Year 6: Glaswegian post-doc days
  • Year 7: final year in Europe…for now
  • Year 8: meeting J and moving to Wuhan
  • Year 9: surviving Wuhan
  • Year 10: making Wuhan my home amidst COVID-19

Looking back, the blog started out as a venue for me to document my travels in Europe and my experiences as a PhD student in France and Belgium. (The order in which I mentioned travelling and the PhD really does tell you my priorities, huh… πŸ˜› ) That was the “en Europe” part. Then I finished my PhD and went back to Canada for a year of unemployment and what’d you know…I ended up BACK in Europe, in Glasgow, of all places. And dare I say that Glasgow was where I had my most memorable European days – sorry Bordeaux! Then the real unfathomable happened when I moved back to China for work – or for LOVE, truthfully. That ends the “en Europe” phase (for now) but Europe will always have an irreplaceable part of my heart, so the name of the blog will not change for as long as it exists.

The site has also transformed from a blog that was exclusively about travel adventures to one that included musings about other aspects of my life, including but not limited to lab life, cooking experiments, short reflections, and random stories. Having said this, I also want to take a closer look at the major changes that have happened throughout the decade, aside from the changes in location:

  • Snobby 20-something that didn’t know any better in 2010 — a-little-less-snobby 30-something that still doesn’t know any better in 2020
  • Single and making stupid relationship mistakes in 2010 — married and still learning to love every day in 2020
  • Intensive, don’t-waste-any-moment travel style in 2010 — relaxed and spontaneous travel style in 2020
  • Photographing everything I see with my DSLR from 2010 to 2015 — taking a lot fewer photos in 2020, still the same DSLR but a lot more with smartphone for convenience
  • Writing almost weekly about almost every trip taken from 2010 to 2013 — writing a lot less now but on a variety of topics in 2020
  • Freshly stepping into the global society in 2010 — gaining a broader and more comprehensive worldview in 2020, ESPECIALLY after living and working in China for two years
  • Happy and thankful in 2010 — still happy and thankful in 2020 despite the crappy year it had been!

In this list, I’ve mentioned three of my five greatest joys in life: travel, photography, and writing (food and music being the other two). I’m glad that after ten years, I still haven’t given up on any of these joys (I don’t want to use the word “passion” lightly), although the time spent on these joys have dwindled for various reasons. Still, if life were a school project where I am presenting what it is to be “me”, then these five joys will encompass much of what I am, and I think I’ve built up quite a decent portfolio. I also want to mention that my “career” isn’t really linked to any of these (except for maybe writing), and I hesitate to define any part of myself using my current “career” situation. I strongly dislike my job and that’s all I will say about this for now.

To avoid being too verbose, I will end this post with the following reflection on travelling (since this is still primarily a travel blog). Amidst the pandemic I am gaining a whole new appreciation of the luxury of travelling. Luxury not as in staying at five-star hotels or drinking expensive wine, but as in having had the opportunity and privilege to freely travel and see the world in the first place. I still maintain that travelling is a privilege, not a right as others believe. Being in China, I am currently allowed to travel domestically, though as a foreign passport holder there are more than just a few restrictions and inconveniences. But I won’t complain because being able to travel in these times is already more than what I could or should ask for. That is one thing. Second, although the blog isn’t as active as it used to be and there probably aren’t many regular readers, I won’t let it die so easily πŸ˜‰ It holds so much of the memories that I dearly treasure – the words, the photos, the feelings embedded within each composition and each thought. A pat on the back to myself, one for each year. On to the next decade!

My stories 05: Everybody’s Changing

“So little time
Try to understand that I’m
Trying to make a move just to stay in the game
I try to stay awake and remember my name
But everybody’s changing
And I don’t feel the same
You’re gone from here
And soon you will disappear
Fading into beautiful light
Cause everybody’s changing
And I don’t feel right…”

The song “Everybody’s Changing” has been on my phone ever since I discovered it, and I remember very distinctly the circumstances under which I first heard this song. It was October 26, 2017, my final week in Glasgow. I was having lunch with a friend at Chaiwallah, a cafe/restaurant nearby the University of Glasgow that popped up a few months before. (Side note: the site of the restaurant used to be a public toilet but has since been revamped into a cafe. As far as I am aware, at the time of writing, the cafe has closed down.) The space was small but cozy, fitting only approximately 15 customers. I wasn’t very close with the friend with whom I had the lunch date, and within the less than one year that I had known her, we never had a one-on-one conversation. Yet, there was an unspoken mutual bond between us, so it was only natural to finally have a chat with her in a relaxed atmosphere, before I left Glasgow for good.

We ordered our food, and mine was a sandwich with sweet potato, avocado, onion, and cheese. Though the portion was small, it turned out to be one of the best sandwiches that I’ve ever had, but in fact, food was not the spotlight of this meal. Our conversations were light but pleasant, brief but memorable. We talked about God, aspirations, relationships, the past, the present, the future. And then I heard it – a song played in the background that instantly caught my attention. I don’t know what it was that appealed to me. The instrumentals? The voice of the lead singer? The vibe? It didn’t matter – I knew I had to find out the title of the song and who sang it. Thankfully I had Shazam on my phone, which opened up promptly despite my phone usually being sluggishly slow. I told my friend, “I’m sorry, give me a moment, I like this song.” She smiled and waited. In a few seconds, “Keane – Everybody’s Changing” appeared on my screen, and it was like a dose of epiphany…of course!

Keane. I should have recognized that voice, and I shouldn’t have been surprised. “Somewhere Only We Know” and “Perfect Symmetry” were songs by Keane that had significantly impacted various phases of my life, and now, “Everybody’s Changing” made its way into my heart. The song speaks of embarking on the walk of life while all of a sudden realizing that nothing is the same anymore. It speaks of the struggle to accept change in order to stay alive in the game of Life but at the same time, trying to remain true to oneself and remember one’s own identity. But in this day and age, we are all sacrifices of our own products, aren’t we? When we are twisted, bent, and scarred beyond recognition, is it those around us who have changed, or is it us and only us?

Just imagine the sweet potato, avocado, and onion fusing together in a warm cushion of cheese – oh it was lovely!

(This short essay was written on January 16, 2019.)

Regaining my love of reading

COVID-19 has allowed me to pick up the habit of reading again and I’m loving it. It’s strange, sometimes I would wonder how I spent my time after work pre-COVID. I then realized how much time I wasted doing…nothing? Or perhaps nothing meaningful, shall I say. I would maybe scroll mindlessly through my phone or watch short videos that don’t require much thought, and before you knew it, it would be time to sleep. The cycle repeats day after day till I’m numb toward my perception of time, and then there’d be the perfect excuse of “I don’t have enough time”.

Then COVID hit and all of a sudden I found myself in quarantine/lockdown with all the time in the world. There’s only so much on my phone that I could mindlessly scroll through before I’d go crazy, especially during COVID when the news is either about conspiracy theories or overly sentimental positivity that does nothing but exploit emotional vulnerability. So then I turned to books – physical, paper novels. I had made the resolution to read more since the end of 2019, and COVID just seemed to make that resolution easier to achieve. For a long time, I had forgotten what it felt like to be immersed in adventure through flipped pages, to be gripped by the rich emotions of imaginary figures, to be able to experience worlds I would never have otherwise even known of. I had forgotten what it was like to have to force myself to NOT start a new chapter in order to not sleep too late (last time was Count of Monte Cristo) or to anticipate the gleaming introduction of a new book. I loved reading – and I wanted to regain that love.

Books on the small shelf of my rented home – can’t wait to move into our own home soon and get a nice big bookcase!

I started buying books, most of them classics that have stood the test of time. Some I have been meaning to read for a while (like the Japanese work “Norwegian Wood”) but many were titles that I was discovering for the first time (like those from HonorΓ© de Balzac). Of course, these were Chinese translations of the original works. I deliberately avoided English works for the moment because I prefer to read their original versions, which are rather hard to come by in Wuhan. That’s why most of the novels I’ve read so far were either Chinese originals or Japanese/French, translated into Chinese. (My French reading skills are only at the “Le Petit Prince” level so I won’t embarrass myself by attempting Balzac or Hugo in French…)

Regardless of depth or reading difficulty, there is something to be learned from each piece of literary work, whether superficial or profound. For example, “Norwegian Wood” by Haruki Murakami, while ruthlessly exposing the gravity of depression, made known to me two classic pieces of music, both named “Norwegian Wood” (English by The Beatles, Chinese by WuBai, and they have nothing to do with each other). “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera introduced me to the Prague Spring and Czech history. “The Sound of the Mountain” by Yasunari Kawabata (Nobel laureate) and “Paradise Lost” by Junichi Watanabe sparked my curiosity in the city of Kamakura in Japan, as it was the primary setting of the former and an important location in the plot of the latter. I’m currently reading “Notre-Dame de Paris” by Victor Hugo (a difficult read) and though I’ve never lived in Paris, my connection with France made me ponder about and want to explore the themes and motifs mentioned in the book (architecture vs. literature, piety vs. compassion, virtue vs. vice). (On a side note, I wonder how Hugo would have reacted if he found out about the fire at Notre-Dame last year.) As for “Dream of the Red Chamber” by Xueqin Cao…that’ll warrant its own essay, when I finish reading it in mid-June.

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