Overnight Layovers in Riga, Latvia & Rome, Italy | February 2020

Tallinn to Tunis isn’t the most common of trajectories, and fortunately for me I got to take advantage of that with two overnight layovers in some pretty amazing cities!

After a particularly smooth 35 minute flight, I landed around 10pm in Riga, not looking forward to what I assumed would be a tedious journey to my hostel. However, the bus from the airport into town was so easy to find (hooray for small airports!), and the driver very helpfully told me when to get off (“the second stop after we cross the river”). The walk from the bus stop to my hostel was only about 15 minutes along a smaller river, gleaming in the darkness and flanking a park.

I was apprehensive about my hostel because I had a somewhat grimy experience at a hostel a couple months ago in Dublin, but Tree House Hostel was perfect! For only 7 euros (!!!), I got a receptionist who stayed up past check-in hours to welcome me; a common room with warm, artsy decor; free breakfast; pristine bathrooms; a comfy bunk bed with an outlet and reading lamp in an all-girls dorm; and polite guests. It felt like I was staying in someone’s house with the carpeting and big sinks and plush rugs. Even better news: I looked at my phone to see I’d gotten an interview for a job I’d applied to!

I woke up at 7:30am the next day to get the most out of a walk around town. The square that Tree House Hostel sits on is itself photogenic, even in the morning fog. Cat House, an adorable example of the art nouveau architecture that the city is famous for, was right around the corner, so that was an easy photo op!

I then made a beeline for Albert iela, a small residential street full of gorgeous art nouveau architecture. Feast your eyes!

Before heading back to the hostel to grab my luggage, I wandered around, unsuccessfully trying to find Riga’s town hall square. I still don’t know where it is, but Riga is so beautiful everywhere you look that I hardly felt like I was missing out!

Having searched online for the best cafes in Riga and stumbling across Crumble Cake, I spent the rest of my morning there, sipping on a silky smooth flat white. I’d accidentally ordered it with regular milk, but the barista gave me a discount when I correctly reordered one with almond milk, saying he understood because his girlfriend is also lactose intolerant. 🙂 A local Latvian caught me taking pictures of the cafe and made pleasant small talk with me, which surprised me given that it was pretty early and, well, he didn’t know me. I would’ve liked to chat more with him, but he downed the last drops of his coffee and ducked out to get to work. It was a Friday, after all!

While I’d originally planned to grab a 15 euro cab back to the airport, the bus was so easy to find that I saved myself 13 euros taking that instead. 😉 I used to be intimidated by the thought of taking buses because all the different lines and schedules confused me, but I really think I’m getting the hang of it all! And at the airport, I was treated to a surprise: one of my friends, Elsa, was also on a layover at Riga, and it turned out she’d even stayed at Tree House Hostel! We caught up on our lives (she was doing a Princeton in Asia fellowship in Beijing but had to evacuate because of COVID-19), then snapped a selfie in which I had to cover my eye infection and she had to cover her breakout. :p

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The next leg of my journey began on a couple-hour flight during which an Italian businessman talked my ear off and showed me beautiful pics of the places he’s traveled to. We talked half in Italian, half in English; my Italian education has been spotty at best, and I really don’t practice it much or care a ton about it. But he was kind about my bad Italian and even paid for me after I’d ordered a buttload of food! 😛 ❤ I wanted to cry when, as the flight attendants passed through again with products they were selling, he asked me if I wanted anything else. :,,,) I really can’t say that if I didn’t speak at least some Italian, he would have done that for me.

We landed in Rome while the sun was still out, but I knew that wouldn’t be the case by the time I got into the city. The bus was supposed to take 55 minutes but was instead 1.5 hours, and I grew increasingly anxious as the minutes wore on, fatigued by all the traveling and stressed by being in an unfamiliar, chaotic place. After the calm of the Baltics and of living in small-town France, being thrown back into a tourist hotspot with bad traffic was overwhelming. It didn’t help that an elderly Italian woman kept talking to me during the ride and trying to get me to stay with her at her b&b, though it did reassure me when I heard her speaking on the phone with a friend, complaining in Italian about how long the ride was taking. Good, I thought, I’m not the only one annoyed about this. And indeed, the driver got a good dressing-down by one of the passengers about the tardiness. I was just happy to have arrived and thanked the driver.

When we reached Termini Station, I knew I might have a panic attack – my first one in months – so I did something I’d never done before leading up to an attack: I called my best friend Sanchaya. Note to self: start calling close friends every time you think you’re going to have a panic attack!! The reason I don’t normally call is because I’m usually physically incapable of talking when I’m panicking. But wow, laughing and chatting with her literally washed all semblance of a panic attack away before it even happened. Then when I arrived at my hostel, I found out that the receptionist was from Barcelona, and we had a 15 minute conversation in Catalan! We both confided to each other that we’d been having a tough day, and that this conversation was the highlight of our day. Sanchaya was still on the phone during the entire interaction and said she’d never heard me speak a language so fluently before! 😀 Being able to use Catalan with a random person in Rome made me feel more at home, which further eased my anxiety. I was grinning ear to ear and feeling great between my call with Sanchaya and my conversation with the receptionist!

Still, I knew if I went out to see some sights like I’d originally planned, my body was going to collapse. So without eating dinner or taking a shower or brushing my teeth (!), I slipped into my pod and fell asleep, knowing I’d feel better at my wakeup call with 7 hours of sleep behind me.

And I was right! When I woke up at 4:30am, I was energetic and excited. Btw, Free Hostel in Rome was a great choice – for 21 euros, I got a very modern and well-equipped “pod” with a sliding door in an all-girls dorm, plus a clean, private bathroom. I didn’t have a towel so I couldn’t shower, but I slapped soapy water onto my upper body, went through my normal morning hygiene routine, changed all my clothes, and checked out.

The walk to Termini Station was annoying because the sidewalks switched off between being blocked off and just plain bumpy and cracked. But I enjoyed some of the views in the area, especially since there was no traffic and no people at that hour. I also saved money and time when I found I could catch a bus to the airport instead of a train like originally planned! Additional perk of the bus: we passed by the Colosseum.

With plenty of time to spare at Rome-Fiumicino before my flight, I sipped on a coffee at Cakes & Bakes, watching as flight attendants and security officers ordered espressos, downed them in one shot, and went on their way to work. I reflected on these two layovers; Riga was fun, but Rome was too much. I know my body can’t handle this much stress, so if I want to do the whole overnight layover thing again, I need to probably limit it to one.

Yet at the same time, I marveled at the fact that every time I have a panic attack or am close to having one, I always bounce back the next day! And thanks to the languages I speak and the general openness and warmth of my personality, I’ve found that I can find a way to call anywhere I go home. ❤

Tallinn, Estonia | February 2020

I first met Mari, who’s Georgian, and Konstantin, an RPCV Georgia who returned to his country of service to work full time, when I visited Tbilisi last year. Although they never took me up on my invites for them to come to Tashkent, we finally had our reunion in Tallinn! I admit that I didn’t spend as much time with them during this trip as I would’ve liked to, so this blog post will be less about us and more about the things I think you should do on your next trip to Tallinn. 😉

Coffee I drank & food I ate

No vacation is complete without a cup of joe to start (or end) your day and local eats to fuel your adventures! I’m no foodie or coffee snob – if anything, I’m the opposite. But I’m here to recommend a few places to you!

Balti Jaama Turg is a market/food hall situated right between Tallinn’s old town and Kalamaja neighborhood. I spent a ton of time here sipping on americanos and flat whites at the dreamy, pastel Risitikheina Kohvik and hipstery cool Surfcafe. The latter I found through some internet research; a blogger recommended their flat whites, so that’s what I ordered. It was so smooth that even though I normally dump sugar into my coffee, I didn’t need a single grain for this! Ristikheina is right next to Surfcafe, and I found it while looking for the latter. I ended up liking the former more, though, for its sweet (literally) decor and for its pre-10am 2 euro special on all drinks.

I also had a couple meals at Balti Jaama Turg, the first one being at Samsa Family Bakers for my beloved Uzbek food! I’ll be the first to admit that Central Asian cuisine is not my favorite, but I looooove lagmon (a hearty stew with beef, veggies, and hand-pulled noodles), and I’ll happily eat the occasional somsa (fried dough with a meat or potato or spinach or pumpkin filling) and plov. In this instance, I played it safe with lagmon and was not disappointed – lagmon never disappoints, really. The Uzbek owners weren’t there, but I chatted with the chef, a woman from Thailand who seems to really care about doing Uzbek food justice. It was like being home for me. ❤ The second meal I had was vegan ramen at Tokumaru next to Ristikheina, but I don’t have pictures. I never love food hall ramen; the noodles always seem to be chewy and the broth somewhat bland.

Some other notable mentions: RØST in the Rotermanni Kvartal (Rotermann neighborhood) serves up amazing pastries and coffee for a morning treat. I’m not normally a cinnamon or cardamom person, but their bakes had the proportions just right. La Muu is a gelato shop that can be found in Telliskivi Creative City, and they have dairy-free options! Their vegan marzipan gelato and raspberry prosecco sorbet hit the spot even in below-freezing weather. Head over to Must Puudel in the Old Town for retro Soviet-style decor and amazing food for reasonable prices. I was worried my salmon salad would just be some leafs of lettuce with the occasional chunk of salmon, but it was full of nutty grains, crisp edamame, and generous slabs of smoked salmon. And while you’re waiting for your flight out of Tallinn, kick back at the airport’s KOHVer, an adorable cafe whose name comes from a play on words. “Kohver” is Estonian for “suitcase,” and “kohv” is “coffee.” Indeed, all the tables in this space are vintage suitcases, and the cacao (hot chocolate) is decadent. Pictured below: RØST and KOHVer.

Things I looked at

All of Tallinn is a feast for the eyes, but the Old Town in particular will fill up your camera roll with pastels and cobblestone. For those who are more adventurous than me, there are plenty of medieval-themed restaurants that supposedly serve authentic, tasty food. Left to right: Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Toompea Castle, the Town Hall, the entrance to Old Town, and Rotermanni Kvartal.

Telliskivi Creative City is the foil to Old Town, full of third wave coffee shops, modern restaurants, and local artisan goods. I didn’t buy any of these goods, but I was treated anyway to the sight of clothes, crafts, and decor that can only be described as Scandinavian minimalism meets Estonian quirkiness.

Museums I visited

I’ve always loved museums, but for yearssss I was too lazy and usually time-strapped to visit any on my travels. During my study abroad year in Europe, most of my trips were weekenders, so I prioritized walking around town and hanging out with friends over visiting museums and “doing things.” Now that I’m 3 years older and wiser, I prefer to stay longer in each city and to squeeze as many experiences out of them as I can.

And what an experience the first museum I went to in Tallinn, the KGB Museum in Viru Hotel, turned out to be! Mari, Konstantin, and I went together, listening as our enthusiastic guide explained the history and workings of the hotel during Soviet Estonian times. The hotel was exclusively for international – usually Finnish – clientele and purposely modernized with foreign amenities and top chefs to show the world that Soviet was still luxury. For those reasons, though, local Estonians were not allowed in to see what they were missing out on unless they were accompanied by a guest of the hotel. Also for those reasons, the KGB took over the 15th floor of the hotel and spied on everyone, from guests to staff. Of course, the 15th floor was forbidden for guests to enter; the “amazing views” were “too much of a security risk,” they were told. 😉 Our guide became fluent in Finnish through some family friends who stayed at the hotel, and she recounted the times she entered as a child. There’s not a ton to see in the museum besides leftover artifacts and cheeky signs because it really is just a hotel, but for those reasons it’s even more important to simply listen to the guide; her stories took place during the living memory of many people still alive today. I asked her a few questions after the tour, and her answer took half an hour to expound upon!

 

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Fotografiska Tallinn is the Estonian branch of the Swedish brand of photo houses, and although the ticket price came in hefty at 14 euros for only two relatively small exhibition floors, it was so worth it and one of my favorite parts of Tallinn. The first floor featured a series of collections from James Nachtwey covering all manner of humanitarian issues, natural disasters, military conflicts, and environmental tragedies. I really don’t do well with gore and suffering, so I admit I couldn’t look directly at many of the pictures and even needed a break at one point before continuing. I did read every single photo description, though, and I even cried at the “Refugee immigrants” collection.

The second floor exhibit of celebrity portraits by Vincent Peters was what I used as a break from the first floor. I really don’t care about celebrities, but some of the photos were of actors who played characters in film adaptations of my favorite books, so it was cool for me nonetheless: Emma Watson who was Hermione Granger in Harry Potter, Mickey Rourke who was Darius Sayle in Alex Rider, and Miles Teller who was Peter in Divergent.

Kadrioru Park is home to three art museums, which you can access as a package for 16 euros. I hit up Mikkeli Muuseum first, which is in the former kitchen of Kadriorg Palace. Mikkel amassed a sizable collection of European paintings and both European and Asian china in his modest Soviet apartment, and it all now has a better home at this museum. I was super excited to see this museum after reading online that it has non-Western art, but it quickly became apparent to me that that just means china from China, Japan, and Russia. Still a cool visit, though, and small enough to take a good look at everything.

The Kadriorg Art Museum is located in the Kadriorg Palace itself. The Italian-influenced exterior and exquisite interior were more interesting for me than the art pieces, which were a mix of classic Estonian paintings and portraits from the University of Tartu. I did find a painting titled “Motif of Samarkand,” though!!

The pièce de résistance of this trio of museums was Kumu Art Museum. The ground floor featured a temporary exhibit called “Creating the Self: Emancipating Woman in Estonian and Finnish Art.” What could be more fitting for me? 😉 There was even a section where you could sit and read books like “Pride and Prejudice” or “The Bell Jar,” though there was a distinct lack of literature by women of color. The third floor was for classic Estonian art. I then skipped up to the fifth floor, which was showcasing works from three modern artists following the keywords of “monster,” “body,” “home,” and “explosion.” Finally, the fourth floor was a surreal world of Soviet Estonian art. If you’ve been closely reading my blog, you know I love art museums. But I think from a combination of general travel fatigue and how many art museums I’d visited prior to Kumu, I wasn’t loving the latter and was even feeling kinda freaked out by some of the more extreme or absurdist works. Note to self: go to the art museums first in your travels! Anyway, here are my favorite pieces from each collection. From left to right: an interpretation of death by a female artist, lots of heads, the “explosion” keyword, and some awesome Soviet propaganda posters in Estonian.

In the morning before my flight out of Tallinn, I headed to the city’s harbor on the Baltic Sea to clamber up and down Suur Toll, a former Russian icebreaker now open to the public, for the best views of the sea and other ships. Although I don’t know how to swim, I’ve always had a thing for military and shipping harbors because they remind me of the wannabe spy I was when I was 10, reading books about teenage spies hiding in shipping containers and ducking in and out of boats in international ports. I continued my playtime at Seaplane Harbour, a former hangar-turned-maritime museum. I normally like to read explanations in museums, but this time I just indulged my inner child and ran in and out of ships before heading back to the apartment to pack up.

People I spent time with

Mari, Konstantin, and I did spend a couple days together before they went back to Tbilisi, and we had particularly fun evenings binge-watching Netflix, jamming to music, asking each other invasive questions (okay, y’all know me, it was really just me asking the invasive questions), and playing trivia. (I lost to Konstantin in one round by only 200 points – it was 10,400 to 10,200. I blame it on the terrible internet and lag on my phone.) We’ve only known each other for a year; Mari and I met Konstantin at the same time, and she and I only knew each other for a few days before then. But we had good vibes and connections, finding common ground on everything from US politics to working abroad to K-pop. 🙂 We’re already thinking about our next trip together…

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And of course, because Uzbekistan turned me into a crazy person that wants to make every vacation into a work trip, I reached out to American Councils’ Estonia office a few weeks before my arrival to see if we could set up a gathering with Estonian FLEX alumni. They turned it into an official event, paying for ice skating and lunch at Must Puudel, then giving us a tour of Toompea Hill! Snaps to Katriina for putting it all together. ❤  It’s always a pleasure to chat with the ambitious, compassionate alumni of State Department exchange programs; THIS is what I wanna support with my tax dollars and labor! Konstantin asked a lot of great questions as I was slightly out of commission from lady cramps, and a lot of them were in the US during the 2016 election, are applying to US universities, and/or still spend a lot of time giving back to the FLEX community. 🙂

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To sum up, here are my absolute top recs for your first foray into Tallinn: Fotografiska, Balti Jaama Turg, Seaplane Harbour, and meeting with FLEX alumni if possible. 😉 Oh and a heated trivia night as you bump K-pop, though that can be done anywhere in the world.

 

What I’m Thinking About in Céret, France

Although I acknowledge that my life in Céret has been pretty idyllic and exactly what I needed both mentally and professionally after all that happened in Uzbekistan, there have been a lot of “worries” on my mind here. It’s interesting because many of these worries intersect with things I was cogitating on in Uzbekistan – it just goes to show that societies, in many ways, can be more alike than they are different. Moving from a less “developed” country to a more “developed” country doesn’t necessarily mean the problems disappear or even change.

French education system and motivation for students

This is something I’ve talked extensively about with one of my colleagues. There’s been a general trend toward cutting hours students spend in language classes while at the same time increasing the amount of work teachers must do. Meanwhile, with all the strikes about retirement reform happening and also poorly managed weather notifications (a region-wide “go back home to your parents” announcement instead of focusing it on areas that are actually going to be affected by inclement weather), students haven’t been spending that much time in school these past couple months. But wait, there’s more: unlike in America, where there can be a pretty cutthroat culture of shooting for Ivy League universities, fully-funded scholarships, and prestigious internships and jobs, this doesn’t exist in as widespread a manner in France. In some ways that’s good; I am so against that culture even existing in America, as I’ve seen how severely it’s affected my friends. Depression, anxiety, alcoholism, drug abuse, an everyone for themselves mentality, doing things just for a resume, etc. Yet on the other hand, in France, many students simply don’t feel they need to work hard at school when they know they won’t be continuing their studies after high school graduation. Finally, I simply think that what the state expects of students is not their reality; in most of my classes, we’re reading classic American literature and analyzing news articles about current science/technology topics and watching full episodes of Black Mirror. These are such cool lessons for me as a native speaker to attend, but most of these students still struggle with basic grammar and vocabulary. How can they feel that they have a chance of performing well if they only work hard, when the baseline is already so high above what their actual abilities are, with no time for them to catch up?

I’ve spent a lot of time here thinking about how I can motivate my own students and at least make them enjoy English class, if not see why learning languages is important. The things that worked so well with my Uzbek students flop with my French ones: debates about education, book discussions about authoritarianism, presentations about politics. The Uzbek education system is for sure not without its flaws, but a general understanding that teachers are to be respected and that learning English can be the difference between being a farmer in your rural qishloq (village) and making good money abroad made teaching there a pleasure every single day. I really like my students in France; they’re funny, liberal, and capable, and I love running into them around town and chatting with them. They just aren’t motivated by the same things my Uzbek students were or even I was when I was in high school. I valued education, even for the classes I didn’t like, and I wanted to go to a nice university and perform well. This doesn’t mean I’m better than they are; it just means I was motivated by different things than they are. And it’s this carrot of motivation that I’m trying to find for my students.

La grève

It’s a stereotype that the French will strike for anything, but it’s one that I’ve found to be pretty true and also, very respectable. I know a lot of people complain about the inconveniences that striking poses, but my background makes it so that this freedom to assemble and freedom of speech we see in France are to be valued, not ridiculed. I’ve lived in a country where the last protest resulted in the brutal government murder of more than 173 citizens. My parents only gained their green cards in the US when, while they were in graduate school in the Midwest, China’s Tiananmen Square massacre of student protestors happened. No need to link an article there.

That being said, it’s a shame that the reasons to strike exist in the first place. The current ones are about President Macron’s retirement reform proposals, which would function more like the US’s system: most people except the most privileged (i.e. highly-placed government officials) will be under the same retirement system, and oh yeah, you’re on your own and need to fund your own retirement. This is as opposed to the previous system, where there are different retirement benefits for different careers (giving people in difficult labor jobs a nice retirement), and everyone’s tax money goes into a pool for everyone.

This is literally all I know about the reforms, so I’m not going to keep going on a topic I’m pretty ignorant about. But it’s just difficult for me to see my colleagues in a precarious position with their futures, and meanwhile the problem of education doesn’t get solved while teachers are out for the day, striking. I love that the right to raise your voice like this exists in France; it’s just too bad that there exists things to raise your voice about in the first place.

Chinese? Japanese? Korean?

I wrote a blog post about how difficult it was for this question to be hurled at me 24/7 in Uzbekistan. I thought I’d be free from it in western Europe, where there are migrants from all over the world, from South America to North Africa to the Middle East to China. And yet, this is something I get hit with all the time here, both in France and across the border in Spain. Some people take my “I’m from America, actually” response pretty well; a farmer I was buying veggies from at the Saturday market in Céret immediately looked embarrassed, realizing his gaffe, and hastily answered, “Of course.” Others push it; one woman in Girona, as I spoke Catalan with her, finally forced out that my parents are from China, burst out, “Ni hao!” and broke into giggles. I think I was most shocked when my host mom said in front of our friends that I take a ton of pictures because that’s what “Chinese people do.” Luckily, I had the presence of mind to snap back at her not to traffic in stereotypes, and our friends insisted that my picture-taking is just a young people’s thing, not a Chinese thing. Fortunately, though, like in Uzbekistan, my colleagues and students unquestioningly accept my Americanness and don’t harass me with stereotypes and questions.

Caring for someone with mental illness

Someone close to me in this town deals with several different mental illnesses. It’s interesting because in Uzbekistan, what with my phobias and panic disorder, I was the one that people had to take care of. But here in France, I haven’t had a single panic attack, and my command of my phobia has improved by leaps and bounds. I owe this partially to the fact that I need to be strong and level-headed for this person; they can’t see me panic or break because I need to be there for them, not the other way around. It’s a really complicated relationship, though; I was initially happy to take on the role as caregiver of sorts, but after seeing that this person continually engages in self-destructive behavior, hurts others in their life, manipulates me for sympathy, and stays sick on purpose in order to be babied, I can’t be responsible for them any longer. Maybe this sounds cold and narrow-minded, and I’m sure there will be people out there thinking that you should never give up on a friend. But ultimately this person takes too much without expressing gratitude or giving, and as someone with mental illnesses myself, I can’t make excuses for someone who doesn’t try to get better. I wish I could say I learned patience and compassion from this experience; in seventh grade, being the angsty pre-teen I was, I made a promise to myself that I’d treat everyone, no matter how “fucked up” they were, with empathy and loyalty. But I think I’ve instead just learned that I have limits, and I can’t save people who don’t want to be saved.

Fitting in

I feel comfortable in Céret. I have friends that I hang out with, local shopowners and I greet each other, my colleagues are great, and my introverted personality makes it so that I can spend loooong periods of time alone without feeling bored or lonely. However, I still can’t shake this sense of not fitting in. I don’t feel like myself; maybe because I’m intimidated by the strong personalities and vastly different life experiences represented here, but I’m so quiet and awkward, things that do not describe me when I’m in places like DC, New York, and Tashkent! I know people here don’t care about diplomacy or Central Asia or any of the other things I’m passionate about, so I don’t talk about it. My absurdist, kooky sense of humor is not something that comes across well with the French, whose jokes are much more sarcastic. I’m pretty uncomfy when teaching because I know my students don’t want to be there, and I’m someone who’s extremely sensitive to how people perceive me. I mold my personality and speech to fit what’s palatable to them, something I can’t do when I’m the authority and I have a fixed lesson plan to get through. This isn’t a new problem; I tend to become a shell of myself around anyone I’m intimidated by or uncomfortable with. I almost feel like it’s very high school of me, to walk around scared of the “cool kids,” but alas, that’s how it is. Check in with me in another 10 years to see if I’ve gotten better on this front.

This isn’t meant to be a negative post, just a recap of some of the things I’ve been reflecting on and dealing with here. I think it’s important to talk about a lot of it, as they affect real people. How can we better educate our youth? What does the future of retirement look like? What do we do in the face of racism or a mentally ill friend? Just questions I will continue searching for the answers to during my last three months here.

Not Really Inconvenienced Anymore

Today I found myself in the bizarre situation of putting my Catalan to practical, not just social, use by showing a couple that didn’t speak English and that randomly approached me the approximately two restaurants open in Ceret on a Sunday afternoon. They were both busts; one was filled to the brim with waiting customers, the other wasn’t serving food at the ungodly hour of 1pm. The couple decided to head back to their side of the border for lunch, a flop for French culinary tradition.

This situation never fails to catch me by surprise even though I’ve now spent about 10 months of my life in France and should know better than to expect things to be open when I think they should be open. (Writing that sentence just threw me back to one of my favorite quips from one of my favorite childhood books. “”There can’t just be a road where you feel like there should be one,” he added helpfully. Nothing like cold hard logic to get my blood boiling.” Or something like that.) It seems to be a rule that French restaurants shutter close for an hour at 2pm, which has left me with hangry tears post-lessons on afternoons when my common sense and tolerance for a whining stomach escaped me. It’s also shocking here to order food before 12pm, something the waiters at my favorite restaurant in town, Le France, have been bewildered to see me seethe on as I settled for a coffee at 11am, killing the hour difference with a furious pen and notebook.

Of course, this is nothing compared to some of the other places my friends and I have lived. Sarah used to come to Tashkent from her tiny Uzbek city of Gulistan just to grocery shop and withdraw money. I, even living in Tashkent, had to maximize my ATM visits by withdrawing both 2 million in so’m (about $210) and $250 in USD during each transaction in case the ATM was broken on my next visit. Not acceptable when I needed to make rent (paid in USD) and otherwise sustain myself in a country that doesn’t often accept card.

Smaller quirks come to mind too. Having to “cash in” your train ticket in person at Uzbek train stations even if you purchased them online. Going on a wild goose chase around Perpignan, the closest French city to me, looking for a place to exchange my USD to euros, only to be told no at every single place and returning to Ceret with no more usable cash than I’d left with.

I no longer see any of these things as inconveniences, though. Every location, whether village or town or city or regional administrative division or country, has its own quirks. The game is to figure them out and play to them, and you’ll never feel inconvenienced again because you’ll know where and when to get shit done. Once I stopped being angry at the situation (“Why the hell wouldn’t you serve food at 11am? Why does this whole town shut down at 2pm? Can’t they stagger their break hours? Why does this country even have ATMs if five in a row just now didn’t work for me? Why don’t they take card, I have no cash on me!” and so on) and could blame no one but myself for not knowing the lay of the land, I felt a sense of freedom. Freedom from annoyance and inconvenience. Freedom to appreciate that some societies value rest and relationships over the grind – when working retail, I treasured the times I got one-hour breaks for lunch. Freedom to do the adjusting and researching myself so I could glide through my days knowing what to expect and prepared for things to go wrong anyway because that’s what happens everywhere.

Sometimes you might be surprised. On one of my aforementioned lack of common sense days, the owner of my favorite creperie in town saw my annoyance with ghosting restaurants and welcomed me in for a plate of pasta with him and his friends during their own break hour. I glanced at my phone. 2:30pm, still half an hour out from opening time again. Every rule has an exception.

Why Don’t You Talk Like Us?

One of the kids I tutor asked me that today. She was referring to the fact that unlike their former nanny, a British woman who spoke perfect French, I have an accent when I speak French.

Speaking French at an advanced level has given me what I feel is an in on a society that tends to take longer to warm up to those who possess no knowledge of French. I’ve never seen French people, even Parisians, as cold or rude because I’ve been able to speak their language since coming for the first time. Generally, the French are not like the Catalans or Uzbeks in that even if you’re just an elementary speaker, they’ll lose their minds and invite you to their family gatherings and consider you a trusted friend not only to them but to their people.

However, my accent is always something people here point out. In my unprofessional and undoubtedly biased opinion, although my pronunciation is usually correct and my accent is better than that of the average French-speaking American, it has a ways to go before it doesn’t immediately give me away as not French. My host mom likes to tell me how cute my “petit accent” is. The kids’ mom, while talking about the British nanny, mentioned that although she had a little bit of an accent, it wasn’t “like yours.” And today the daughter herself told me that even though the nanny was from England, she “talks like us, but you don’t.”

This isn’t something I’m usually given to feeling bad about since I used to be absolutely terrible with accents in all languages but now I’d say it’s one of the things I pick up on the quickest after years of training myself. Obviously, I don’t pick them up perfectly, but I don’t think my accent is what gives me away as a beginner even in the languages I am that in. Native speakers of languages like Korean and Russian have consistently told me my accent sounds native, even if they and I acknowledge my grammar is shite. (Okay, they don’t say that, but I know that lol.)

However, speakers of more “common” languages like French, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese are harder to please on that front, and the innocent question today threw me off more than my host mom’s remarks or the mom’s comment. I found it hard to focus afterward, and I’ve been reflecting on it ever since even though I know there’s no point. I think that because French is the language I speak at the highest level and because I get some pushback from peers for studying so many languages but not specializing in any one, I’ve always relied on pointing at French as the “one” I specialized in. And when I’m reminded that that “one” isn’t even as good as it could be, I wonder what people must be thinking about me and my seemingly other random linguistic pursuits.

But then I got home and did my weekly Thursday task of studying Italian using Youtube videos and Il Piccolo Principe, the Italian translation of the French classic. And I got my weekly reminder yet again that even though I only studied Italian for a year and honestly have no personal or professional interest in it, I can watch things, read books, write sentences, and talk to people in it. Doesn’t make up for my unsatisfactory accent in French, but it brings me back to the root of why I study so many languages: to interact with, whether through conversation with people or through experiences like literature and sightseeing, as many people in the world as I can. My language goals have nothing to do with translation or research, which do require extremely high specialization in one particular language, or satisfying what others expect of me.

I also reminded myself that I spent summers in high school listening to a French parody pop artist and singing along with the lyrics to work on my pronunciation. There was one day I stood in front of a mirror and practiced the throaty r until I could produce it, and now it comes naturally to me. When not living in France, I learn new colloquialisms by watching Youtube videos, testing out the phrases with my friends and hoping they land. Sure, none of it got me to a perfect accent or perfect pronunciation. And none of it ever will, most likely; from what I’ve observed, you either have a native accent in a language or you work to get nearly there, but not both. I look at the immigrant parents of me and my friends as an example; their accents don’t change that generally, our parents speak good English and can work, socialize, and live in a language that wasn’t originally their own.

Besides, I have friends who were told as kids that because of their then poor English abilities or learning disabilities, that they’d never speak English or any other language properly, respectively. I don’t see them losing too much sleep about it now, going to bed as US diplomats and polyglots. 😉

 

We were all wrong! A story from Barcelona’s RENFE train

It started when a drunk man kept leaning too closely into me on the train from Barcelona to Terrassa, babbling loudly in a language I couldn’t understand to his younger friend on my other side. The latter was decidedly more sober but equally as loud.

Because the latter started talking in Spanish to another passenger on the train, I joined the conversation, curious and wanting to be social, not resentful. A girl sitting next to me from South America was therefore dragged into our chat, as it was occurring over her.

Soon we reached the dreaded part of the conversation: “Where are you from?”

When I said America, the younger guy laughed and replied, “But you have China eyes!” And pulled at his eyelids to demonstrate.

At first, I ignored his remark, excusing him for being from Morocco and not growing up exposed to minorities. But he continued on, flirting with the now uncomfortable girl next to me and insisting that she looked Colombian even though she’d told him she was from another country. At some point the conversation turned back to me and my China eyes, and I snapped.

In a moment I’m not proud of, I snarled back, “Are you Muslim? How would you like it if I called you a terrorist? That’s just a stereotype, just like you’re stereotyping me!”

A tangible silence cut through the passengers on the train, and the guy frowned at me.

“Let’s not bring politics into this.”

“This isn’t politics – ” I was responding when the Spanish guy he’d originally been talking to cut me off in English even though we’d all been speaking Spanish the whole time.

“Sometimes… It’s better to not talk anymore,” he said with a light warning in his voice. Then as he got off the train, he shook the guy’s hand.

Feeling bad about putting the other passengers in an unpleasant situation and wanting to appease the guy, who was still talking to the South American girl and me, I tried to be pleasant and humor his flirting and jokes. The girl and I were clearly uncomfortable.

Seeing that, another man snapped from across the row to the Moroccan guy, “These girls clearly don’t want to talk to you and you’re still talking to them. I don’t like seeing men making women uncomfortable like that. Why don’t you let them be?”

“Why don’t you let us be?” the guy shot back. “We’re just talking, see?”

This classic retort didn’t go over as well as you’d think, and our defender continued arguing with our aggressor. Eventually, the former jumped out of his seat, and the latter mirrored his action in response. The two began a screaming match as the rest of us, alarmed and worried about upsetting a nearby baby, tried to break them apart. We thanked the man for standing up for us and caring about our safety, but he continued shouting down the guy, who in turn responded with his own threats to fight.

Another man appeared, but he was on neither side. He turned to our defender and seemed ready to fight too as he told him he was causing a scene and putting everyone else in danger. But then he swiveled to our aggressor and spat, “And you. Go back to your country!”

There was a collective gasp from all of us before we erupted into disapproving titters, insisting (albeit incoherently in our shock and stress) to the guy not to listen to the newcomer.

The three became more and more entangled even as the girl and I tried to separate them. Feeling like it was all my fault and worried a fistfight would break out, to my great horror, I started crying! It only made it worse when four people, bless their hearts, descended upon me to comfort me. I appreciated their concern and care, but I felt even more horrible for giving them yet another person to worry about.

The story ends with no fight; the girl, the defender, the people comforting me, and I all got off at Terrassa and talked about what had just happened. We thanked the man once again for saying something when no one else did, and I was profusely grateful to the people who came to my “rescue,” as well as to the girl. She had held it together the entire time, showing no fear and never losing her temper or composure. We actually exchanged numbers and are going to get coffee next time I’m in Terrassa!

Multiple aspects of this entire event upset me:

  1. My angry outburst. Although I obviously don’t think Muslims are terrorists and was using that example as one of why stereotyping is bad, it came out sounding quite insensitive and Islamophobic. I shouldn’t be letting my temper get to me like that anyway, but especially in a part of the world with so much anti-Muslim sentiment, I need to be careful not to add even more fuel to the fire.
  2. Making other people on the train uncomfortable with my angry outburst. I hate putting people in awkward situations, and given that the guy was drunk and very well could have had a knife or something, I was endangering the people around me by being belligerent myself.
  3. The fact that the Spanish guy silenced my defense and not the Moroccan guy’s attack.
  4. Our defender having great intentions but carrying those out in a destructive way.
  5. The newcomer stooping to xenophobia, which I of course wouldn’t wish even on our aggressor.
  6. My bursting into tears instead of being the calm, cool, collected person I’ve always wanted to be in these kinds of situations. Giving the people around me another emotional person to stress about and not contributing productively to de-escalation like my new friend was.

On the other hand, I left being grateful for the situation because I took some nice lessons and observations from it.

  1. I know now how I’ll react to inciting situations in the future; I’ll either ignore comments like that or take them with grace. It’s not my responsibility to change anyone’s mind, but if I should feel called to, it would be impossible to do so with anything other than patience and compassion.
  2. I also know I’d say something to look out for people in my situation, not to silence them. I did kind of do that for the girl; we pretended to be in deep conversation with each other to avoid the guy, and before I knew we were getting off at the same stop, I told her she could get off with me if she wanted.
  3. Despite his aggressive way of doing it, our defender really showed some character. I’ve been in countless uncomfortable situations with men; this was the first time anyone stood up for me.
  4. My heart soared hearing people on the train protest against the newcomer’s xenophobic comment. I did not expect this from Europeans, frankly.
  5. Good people can do bad things, and bad people don’t deserve bad things.

I’ll be going back to Barcelona a few times in February; what does the RENFE hold for me then? 😛 Given that every time I take the train from Barcelona to Terrassa, some kind of unwanted attention from men seems to happen, I’m not holding my breath.

Bodies of water, museums, coffee shops, and Catalan meetups in GIRONA, SPAIN | December 2019

I had a meet-up in Girona to attend with the team of Easy Catalan, but my travel buddy/ride had something come up last minute. Desperate, I asked my coteacher Michael if he knew anyone in Perpignan I could stay with overnight so I could take an early morning bus to and a late night bus from Girona, doing a day trip. Thank God I asked him because he was like, “I live right next to Girona! And my partner and I have spare rooms in our apartment, so you can stay the weekend with us!” Another reminder to myself that if you ask, you shall receive; when it comes to basically anything except my mental health (in which I think I ask for too much help lol, but that’s another story), I’m always reluctant to ask for help or favors.

Bodies of water

Michael lives in Banyoles, literally a one-minute walk from Banyoles Lake, which housed some of the aquatic sports during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. We didn’t end up going on a run or picnicking there like we’d planned to, but I enjoyed the brief views I got of it. The snow-capped mountains you see in the background belong to Le Canigou, a set of mountains right next to where I live in Ceret! Crazy that you can see French mountains from Spain.

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Girona itself sits on Riu Onyar, a river crisscrossed by 11 beautiful bridges and flanked by colorful houses.

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Museums

As I’ve been mentioning, I have a newfound love of museums. Our first stop was the Arab Baths, and with an entrance fee of only 2 euros for well-preserved ruins and detailed multilingual explanations of each room, it was a great deal! I’m only including in this blog post a picture of the first room with its gorgeous pool, as the other rooms were bare, and the interest in them came from their functions once upon a time.

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Next up we headed to the Museum of Art, housed in the old Episcopal Palace. That should give a hint of what the exhibits were mostly about: Christian art. As such, I didn’t love this museum, as religious art generally isn’t interesting to me, especially not if its western. Still, with the help of a brochure pointing out the highlights of each room, I was able to appreciate some aesthetically pleasing pieces even if the idea of organized religion has always made me uncomfortable.

The exhibits I did enjoy, though, were ones dedicated to colorful tiles of different functions and countries, antique furniture, and art plagiarism. The latter was mostly informational (and all in Catalan, so heads up if you don’t speak that or any other Romance language), with explanations of why people make fakes and some methods used to detect them. They also had fakes and originals side by side, and Michael had great success guessing which one was which. 😛

I did end up enjoying the art museum despite its mostly religious focus, but the Museum of Archaeology, located in a beautiful monastery and hyped up on every Girona-related travel blog post and top 10 listicle I read, was a disappointment. The setting of the museum had more to write home about than the museum itself, which had a first floor full of interesting ruins but a second floor mostly containing plastic models, garish interior design (or lack thereof), and basic information about geology and human history.

On the plus side, buying tickets to this museum gave us a 6-month 50% discount on tickets to ALL museums in the city!! Sooo worth it! So we made our last museum stop at the Museum of Jewish History, where I only took one picture because I was so absorbed in reading about the history and culture of Jews in Girona. Unsurprisingly and very unfortunately, the museum told many stories of pain and persecution. It’s disappointing that hundreds of years later, this behavior on the part of non-Jews to Jews continues, sometimes to lengths even more extreme. Do we not learn from history?

I didn’t want to finish this section without mentioning the Cathedral of Girona and the Basicila of Sant Feliu. Although I had no interest in entering either, from the outside, they’re impressive; the Cathedral has a gorgeous white Baroque exterior, and the Basicila features a flat-topped spire, something I’d never seen before.

Coffee shops

Even though, to put it scientifically, I don’t know shit about coffee (in the not-so-distant past, I happily slurped on instant, and I still think I’m fancy using a French press and pre-ground Target brand stuff nowadays), I love visiting cafes in every city I go to. I’m fascinated by each individual cafe’s vibes, decor, and offerings, and it’s a great way to people-watch, practice languages, make new friends, and of course chill with a book/journal and latte if you’re me.

Michael and I made a beeline for Federal Cafe when we arrived in Girona, in desperate need of fuel for the day. The sleek and minimalistic yet cozy feel of the place was very welcome, but I found the service to be a bit cold. Maybe it was just a Saturday morning and having to be at work thing. I downed my americano but didn’t love my breakfast; the caramelized onions were basically a pile of goop. Would definitely go back and try something else off the menu, though!

For lunch, Michael and I were joined by his partner at La Fabrica, a popular bike cafe in the city opened by a Canadian couple, the husband being a pro cycler. I wasn’t as into the vibes; predictably, there were a lot of tourists. I was a tourist too, but I can speak Spanish and Catalan at pretty high levels, whereas many of the people in the cafe were talking too loudly in English. Then again, I can’t complain, as I ended up joining the rowdy Americans in loud conversation, curious about what they were doing in this corner of Catalonia. 😛 Lesson learned: I need to talk to people so as not to judge them! But besides not totally feeling the space, the food was excellent. I wolfed down an iced gingerbread cookie (a craving I’d had all holiday season) and a salmon bagel!

My last coffee shop was the simply named El Cafe, which I’d been the most excited for. I’d seen pictures of its pretty tiled floors and read about its nighttime performances, so I imagined it as a hipstery, welcoming space. I’m not sure if I got the wrong location (but it doesn’t appear I did), but the place I found was a little grimy and very much unfriendly. The barista didn’t respond to my attempts to make conversation and did nothing to help me as an old man hit on me, purposely rubbing his crotch against my knees as he repeatedly squeezed onto the bar stool next to me. It appeared the latter was a regular and the former familiar with him. My americano was great, though. Too bad I couldn’t enjoy a second, as I made some excuse to escape as soon as the last drop was hastily downed.

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Catalan meetups, duh! 😉

When I arrived in Banyoles, Michael had a Spanish lesson with his neighbor, but he gave it to me because I really wanted someone to speak Catalan with. I expected Eva and I to just be correcting my practice sentences and then speaking in English, a proper exchange, but we instead talked in Catalan for 1.5 hours straight!! I’d never spoken so long in Catalan, and I had to mentally force myself not to fall back on Spanish every time I was stuck. It did wonders to boost my confidence and my fluidity; and anyway, the reason we talked for so long was because Eva was so flabbergasted by some random Chinese-American being so into and I guess good at her local language.

And the real reason I came to Girona: a meet-up with the team of the Youtube channel with which I self-study, Easy Catalan! It’s funny because I came to France in September knowing I wanted to reach out to the team and collaborate with them, and it actually is happening! I got along so well with the four members of the team who were there (the fifth lives in Dublin), relieved to find we have the same absurd, self-deprecating sense of humor. And we talked in only Catalan for three hours straight!!!! Damn!! I don’t think I’ve ever even talked for three hours straight in Spanish, and I’ve lived in Madrid before! We bonded, discussed the potential for me to volunteer with them, and talked about the Easy Languages “brand” that Easy Catalan belongs to. I’ve always dreamed of getting involved with the bigger team someday given that I speak to some degree many of the languages it includes: Catalan, Mandarin Chinese, Korean, German, Spanish, Russian, French, Portuguese, and Italian, though not Romanian, Turkish, Greek, or Polish. Anyway, just today, Silvia (the face of the Easy Catalan team and their main social media person) started sending me info about what I can do as a part of their team, and I’m so excited!!

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Basically everything I wrote about in this blog post happened in the span of a Saturday; I meant to do more museum and coffee shop hopping the following Sunday, but period cramps downed me. You can expect me to be making another visit during my time in Ceret and to be writing yet another blog post about the additional bodies of water, museums, coffee shops, and Catalan meet-ups of Girona!