Annie Bananie en Europe

A blog about travel, life, and everyday tidbits

Tag Archives: thoughts

Short travel reflection: Window vs. aisle seat

If asked whether I’d prefer a window seat or aisle on a flight (or ride on any other form of transportation), I would almost always reply “window seat” for the amazing window views offered from the sky. City lights, mountains, coastlines and islands, oddly shaped clouds…you name it. One exception is if I had to run out of the aircraft as soon as possible after landing to catch a connecting flight. In rare situations, I may also find it to be in the best interest for me and my seatmates if I took an aisle seat, and this is when I have to access the lavatory frequently for whatever reason over a long-haul flight.

I found myself in such situation in January when I had to choose my seat on a 10.5-hour flight from Hong Kong to Amsterdam. I was on my period and knew that I’d want to use the lavatory several times during the flight. Not wanting to inconvenience those sitting in my row, I reluctantly gave up a window seat and took an aisle seat, which is still better than the middle seat.

Now, not too long before we were scheduled to land, the captain made an in-flight announcement notifying us that we were flying over Copenhagen and that the bridge connecting Copenhagen to Malmo is now visible to passengers on the left side – MY side. If you have any idea how impressive that bridge looks even in photos, you’d understand my excitement that we could see it from the air! With anticipation I turned to my side, hoping to at least get a quick glimpse even though I wasn’t right by the window. What do you know…the window shade in my row was CLOSED. WHAT. I had hoped that the lady who had the window seat would want to open the window shade to see the bridge after hearing the announcement, but she was reading a book or sleeping or something, anything but intending to open the window shade. It was at this frustrating moment that I regretted the loss of a potentially spectacular view and understood that perhaps ignorance truly is bliss. If only the captain hadn’t made that announcement…!

Soon it was time to land and I usually look out the window to observe the entire landing process and know when the wheels touch the ground. At this point, however, the window shade was still closed…! I couldn’t seen how close the aircraft was to the ground even if I wanted to. Being used to window seats, this “unknownness” was quite new to me (though not the first time), so all I could do was anticipate the instant of aircraft-ground contact and hope that it would be a smooth landing. And thankfully, it was. Safe and sound in Amsterdam!

All I can say is…hopefully my menstrual cycle won’t coincide with future long-haul flights ever again!!

A view of the Pyrénées at the border of France and Spain, seen on a flight from Lisbon to Brussels, April 2013. Such magnificent views were only made possible by choosing a window seat!

The places I called home, part IV

Grad school opened the doors of Europe for me as my PhD program was a “co-tutelle” between Bordeaux, France, and Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, which meant that every few months, I had to move between the two cities and work in two different labs. If it weren’t for my choice to come do grad school in Europe, I would probably only ever be in France as a tourist and never as a resident, integrating into and loving the culture of a country that I’ve always wanted to visit. As for Belgium, who knew how many surprises it could hide? (Read Part I, Part II, and Part III of the series.)

Bordeaux – Le Port de la Lune

I was fortunate enough to live in Bordeaux for almost 2.5 years during my PhD studies, and what a blessing that was! The very first time I set foot in Bordeaux, a city known as the “Port of the Moon”, I only needed to use the word “elegant” to describe it. Till the moment I left three years later, it was still as elegant as ever and I would use no other word to describe this French beauty. The smell of the sweetest red wine in every corner of the city, the sound of the gliding trams on the tracks, the sight of the glamour that is the Grand Théâtre and Place de la Bourse, the taste of succulent magret de canard and irresistible canéle (duck breast and rum-based pastry, both specialties of Southwestern France), and the touch of the gentle breeze as you stroll along the Garonne on a late summer morning…Bordeaux is an experience that conquers your every sense, making you fall in love with it with every breath.

Many feelings are intertwined when I think about Bordeaux because of my life experiences. The mid-20s was for me a time when the search for identity formed an invisible mission, and Bordeaux became part of that search. My studies, my interactions with the people whom I met in Bordeaux, whether locals or overseas students, and my plans for the future all contributed toward the search and consequently are a part of who I am today. To me, Bordeaux is not just a beautiful city, but also a name that resonates with me just by its utterance. My heart still yearns to go back one of these days, this time as a visitor and perhaps never as a resident again. But thank you for what you’ve given me, Bordeaux, that gift of the memories that only you could ever bestow.

Louvain-la-Neuve – Learning to appreciate

And finally, we come to Louvain-la-Neuve (LLN), a university-city-that-isn’t-really-a-city that once made me feel trapped and miserable. I was there during different periods of my PhD studies, for up to three months each time I went. Compared to Bordeaux, LLN was small and boring and definitely NOT elegant. I had learned to cope with not being happy in LLN, until autumn came. And magic happened. Autumn in LLN truly transformed the place. Maybe my eyes just decided to open one day as I noticed the golden orange colours of the autumn foliages, and LLN was never the same again. Gradually I began to appreciate the little details of LLN and discover its hidden faces – the little shops with such delicate gifts (Zig Zag is my favourite), the murals that are some of the best I’ve ever seen (in addition to the ones I would discover later in Glasgow), the enjoyable walks around the lake and through the Bois de Lauzelle, the various small neighbourhoods, the cats that are everywhere, the crazy 24-H Velo events, the delicious sandwiches at Mie d’Oli, and the Brussels waffle. YES, LLN has the best Brussels waffles I’ve ever eaten – take that, Brussels!

Belgium itself is a wonder and before I went to LLN, I couldn’t even point it out on a map. I didn’t know that the country has three official languages (French, Flemish, and German) and that LLN split from the University of Leuven as a result of language differences. Most importantly, little did I know that its capital, Brussels, would become one of my favourite European cities, if not my all-time favourite. Just like that, my studies brought Belgium and LLN into my life and this place, which I still hesitate to call a “city”, has stolen a part of my heart. To quote myself from a post that I wrote almost four years ago: “…travelling has taught me that it is only with an open heart and mind that you can learn to appreciate your surroundings…if I’m going to be living in a city for a relatively long period of time, rather than complaining about how it sucks, why not look for things that make a city unique and beautiful, and enjoy it to the fullest?”

This post concludes the “Places I Called Home” series and more than three years after its conception, I’ve finally managed to write it! And what a journey down memory lane that was! Be sure to check out Part I (Guangzhou and Toronto), Part II (Waterloo and Glasgow), and Part III (Hsinchu and South Bend) for the entire story. Until next time, my friends!

Short travel reflection: Revisiting Lisbon, Madrid, and Barcelona

I’m currently in the middle of a week-long trip in Portugal and Spain (Madrid at the moment), visiting a friend who is studying in Madrid and joined by some other friends coming all the way from Canada and the USA. I’ve previously visited the three main destinations of our trip – Lisbon and Barcelona in 2011, and Madrid (and Lisbon again) in 2013. Lisbon was definitely my favourite out of the three, but revisiting all three of these major cities one after another will give me a whole new perspective, especially after so many years already.

Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal in March, 2016 – Looking down onto an alley leading up to São Jorge Castle.

We left Lisbon this morning and arrived in Madrid, and in three days we’ll be in Barcelona. In Lisbon, we got to see some of the places that I missed during the previous two trips, including the Alfama district and the areas around Sintra. For Barcelona, one of my greatest regrets was not entering the Sagrada Familia when I was there five years ago, and now I finally have a chance to make it happen. So, while I don’t get to visit new cities during this trip (except for Córdoba as a day trip in two days), I do get to have the new experience of travelling with buddies with whom I’ve never travelled before, and going back to the places that I’ve missed in the cities previously explored. I do hope to write about these experiences when I return to Glasgow – that is, if I don’t get swamped with work. Oh well, let’s not think about work at the moment – let the travels continue!

Short travel reflection: Photographing people and streets

Lately I’ve developed a special interest in street photography, especially in photographing people, and I’ve had plenty of opportunities to do so while I was in Southeast Asia. While chatting with a friend and colleague, who is an aspiring photographer, we shared our experiences and talked about the types of photos we enjoy taking. My friend, who recently began to take photography seriously, said that landscapes and cityscapes attracted him, but when I told him about my recently developed interest in street photography, he couldn’t seem to understand the point of capturing photos of random strangers.

To be fair, I think I should use the term “street photography” cautiously because not every portrait is taken on what you’d call a “street” or even a city. And I’m really mostly referring to ordinary people and their everyday lives, so perhaps “people photography” is more appropriate. Anyway, our conversation provoked me to reflect on why I suddenly became so fascinated by people that I felt the irresistible urge to capture the emotions of all those strangers that I chanced upon, most of the time candidly. True, landscapes and cityscapes have vast amounts of beauty and can inspire unimaginable creativity in photography, and I myself enjoy them immensely, but people intrigue and even captivate me. When the truest and most genuine emotions or one inconspicuous moment of an individual’s life is captured on camera, for me, that is irreplaceable.

Perhaps my favourite photo taken during my first trip to Southeast Asia is that of this man sitting in Angkor Wat in Cambodia, December 2015. I was unsure if he was a worker there or a visitor, but the genuine and content expression on his face, with the hint of a sliver of a cryptic smile, made him so picture-worthy. And one ordinary person can outweigh all extravagant scenery you may see, and make the entire trip worthy. (Click here to see the original photo in colour.)

Why do we care about street photography? When people and their homes, those streets and alleys on which they set foot every day like second nature, become the subjects of interest in a photo, what does that tell us? What does it mean to us, the ones that immortalize these images? Perhaps we see a reflection of ourselves in the expressions and the movements of these strangers whom we will never meet again. And there is a certain beauty behind it that I can’t explain, an invisible connection that reminds me, through their eyes, what it is to live, to be merely human.

Somewhere that was only mine

The word “hometown” elicits complicated feelings in me because my true “hometown” is not a home. “Born in China and grew up in Canada” – that’s what I always tell people when they ask me where I’m “from”. While it is true that I still have extended family in my hometown Guangzhou, the place where I am most comfortable, the place where I feel the most sense of belonging, the one place I truly call home will always be Toronto.

Growing up in a city made me take the familiarity – or what I thought was familiarity – for granted. The same streets, the same buses, the same buildings – nothing ever seemed to change, except for me. It wasn’t until I went home after having spent three and a half years in Europe did I realize for the first time that I was so out of touch with my own home. Familiarity became the most unfamiliar part of my world.

During an 8-month period of idleness and unemployment, I decided to take full advantage of being in Toronto and to become a tourist in my own city, something I had wanted to experiment with for a while. It was then that a whole new Toronto began to unravel. Beyond the impression that Toronto has given the world as a booming metropolis and an urban centre, I ventured out of the heart of the city into its veins, to those little-known places that are so local and so authentic that perhaps only few are aware of them. I observed the city as it thrived, noticing the ever-changing colours of its ephemeral seasons and the sound of footsteps as people scurried through subway stations to and from their workplaces, day by day.

In the midst of it all, I fell in love with Toronto’s greenspace, almost to the point of obsession. I was fascinated to discover that there are parks, hiking trails, conservation areas scattered all around the city, and where were they but tucked behind the concrete highways and avenues? I really had to make an effort to find them, whether I had to drive to a secluded parking lot, take the bus and get off at a seemingly random stop, or just trust my instincts and follow a narrow path on the side of the road leading to an expanse of nature in the middle of nowhere. The sense of adventure was like looking for a treasure in your own basement – it’s got to be there, and the search is the most exciting part!

Pond in the middle of Moccasin Trail Park, Toronto, October 2014

Crothers Woods, David Balfour Park, Wilket Creek – these are just some of the places to consider if you’re looking for the perfect walk in Toronto, away from traffic and noise. And even Torontonians might not know about these places! Among the green areas that I had found, my favourite would have to be Moccasin Trail Park, right next to the Don Valley Parkway, one of the busiest and most important highways in Toronto. Most daily commuters on the DVP would probably have noticed large expanses of green areas on both sides of the highway, but few have ventured away from the main lanes and into the tree-covered parks and gardens. That was exactly what I set out to do.

Autumn was in full swing and it was the perfect time to see the exceptionally colourful foliage that Canada is known for. My walk into the woods of Moccasin Trail Park became a coveted date between my camera and me, a treasured one since it would be one of the last opportunities I had to capture Toronto through the lens before I left again. It brought me a supreme sense of serenity, especially since I was the only one there on that mid-October afternoon. Amidst the slow stroll on my way to the Rainbow Tunnel, I discovered an inconspicuous pond right in the middle of the woods, hidden from sight unless you went slightly off-road. I could still hear the sound of cars passing on the highway because as I had mentioned before, the park was right next to the DVP, but this place was like an urban oasis. The pond itself was a pristine mirror reflecting the beauty of the surrounding nature, one that I was surprised to find in the middle of the city. So calm, so eerily peaceful, so out-of-this world was the atmosphere that I marvelled at every colour and every sign of life. And at that moment, the park, the trails, the very spot where I captured the photo – they somehow became a special place within the city I thought I knew so well, somewhere that was only mine.

Perhaps I only felt this way because in my heart I knew I would leave Toronto again and wanted to cherish every unique secret that I found out about it. And I did leave, only to await coming back to the familiarity that would always welcome me. Perhaps the next time I walk the path of Moccasin Trail Park into my secret place, the leaves would have fallen, the pond would have dried up, and picture-perfect would have become a distant memory. Even though the park will still be there, I don’t expect to be ever able to duplicate the experience or reproduce the photo. And I won’t try, because one image is enough to remind me of the special feelings that only one moment could ever give me.

(I recently discovered a small camera that was released back in October from Light Co. It has the potential to be a good travel camera, combining 16 lenses into one about the size of a smartphone to keep it convenient without losing the quality. Check it out 😉 )

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