On to Firenze

Florence is a majestic, low lying yet sprawling city and an ideal image of Tuscany. The brick buildings with red roofs sprawl out around the Duomo and has a much calmer feel to it than Roma. This is the only city where we stayed in an apartment (not Air BnB though) so it was a neat experience to sort of live as an Italian.

The Duomo is sort of like the opposite of the churches in Rome. Instead of a plain exterior, its interior is not especially impressive although it’s exterior is magnificent. It took several decades to build the patterned facade that truly makes the Duomo instantly recognizable from any other church. The ticket you purchase covers the five separate parts: the Cathedral, Crypt of St. Charles, Duomo Museum, Baptistery, Terraces, and climbing the top of the Duomo itself. The last one requires a (free) reservation which is understandable since, unlike St. Peter’s, there’s only one staircase at the top leading up and down so it gets a little crowded trying to enter/exit. The Terraces are just a little shorter than the dome but has an equally spectacular view of the surrounding area.

We also covered the Renaissance Walk and passed the Medici chapels, Medici-Ricardo Palace, Laurentian Medici Library, Piazza Della Signoria, and Loggia dei Lanzi (sculptures housed outside the Uffizi Gallery). Among the subjects I want to learn more about, the Medicis are near the top (along with religion, Chinese calligraphy, and how to change a tire). They were so important to not only putting Florence on the map but very much financing the Renaissance.

We also hit almost all the major Firenze sights. We visited David at the Accademia (he’s huge and so are his hands). We viewed dozens of Medici and Madonna with Baby Jesus portraits at the Uffizi as well as saw Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Da Vinci’s Annuciation. We marveled at the various globes, machines, telescopes, and fingers (two of Galileo’s plus his thumb) at the Galileo Museum. We walked across the shiny jewelry store lined Ponte Vecchio, the only bridge not bombed during WWII. And we took pictures in the Giardino Boboli in Palazzo Pitti. Again, we sort of stumbled across the Boboli Gardens as we were walking through the Oltrano neighborhood. The gardens turned out to be much bigger than we thought (they evidently partially inspired Versailles) and since the palace was at the top of a hill, it also happened to be another great spot to snap Duomo pictures.

On to Firenze

Città del Vaticano

The Vatican is a small, beautiful, artistic, extremely Christian sort of place. St. Peter’s Square (actually an oval) is hugged on two sides by giant marble columns with saintly sculptures sitting on top. In the center of the square is a fountain and an obelisk. Only after this visit did I start to appreciate how many religious symbols are represented on our currency.

St. Peter’s Basilica is easily the most grandiose and cavernous church I have ever been to. It’s interior and exterior are both richly decorated with ornate sculptures and art. There was a huge gold and brown altar in the center with twisted columns towering over visitors. You could even give confessions there in more than 5 different languages!

We climbed the stairs all the way up St. Peter’s dome and the view was breathtaking. Aside from St. Peter’s, we also toured the Vatican Museum which includes the Sistine Chapel. There were many rooms dedicated to Raphael (his School of Athens was my favorite) and several Michaelanglo works too. I wish the Sistine Chapel had room for you to lay down and fully appreciate Michaelangelo’s ceiling since it’s a substantial strain on your neck to keep looking up and take in the enormity of his work. As we wandered away from the Vatican, we stumbled across Castel Sant’Angelo (Mausoleum of Hadrian). It was a very stony and stoic structure but had a great view of St. Peter’s from afar!

View from the top of St. Peter’s Basilica
Vatican at twilight
Città del Vaticano

When in Roma

Rome is such a beautiful, historic city. But it is still a city nonetheless with its own busy, crowded streets of impatient Romans tired of tourists blocking their paths, vendors selling their wares on every corner, and zig-zagging vehicles unbound by lanes or traffic signs.

I took a one-hour bus ride from the airport to our hotel near the Termini train station. After dropping our stuff off at Hotel Quirinale, we walked to the Spanish Steps and then down to the Trevi Fountain. In my opinion, the Trevi Fountain completely lived up to its name in size and grandiose. The water was such a beautiful Mediterranean blue and the statues were so well preserved, skillfully carved, and sparkling white. The fountain was extremely crowded with people speaking all languages but I still managed to squeeze in near the basin and make a wish.

Trevi Fountain

As we walked around, we admired the beautiful architecture with its unique way of blending the old and the new together. Although the streets weren’t as narrow as Florence’s, they were still, to me at least, very unnaturally spoked in all directions and without Google Maps, it would’ve been hard to find any of our destinations at all. On the other hand, it was very easy to find churches. There was almost one at every corner. They’re all free to enter (even the most famous ones) and have the most gorgeous Christian artwork inside.

On our first full day, we toured the Colosseum and Roman Forum using our Roma Passes.  The Colosseum is, of course, all ruins by now but wandering around inside you still get a great sense of just how spectacularly large the arena was and the noise that the 50,000 person crowd must have made whenever the first gladiator or beast or whatever walked out. The Roman Forum was my favorite Roman sight. Although also ruins, it covers a much larger area outside and with every column, arch, and statue, you really get a better understanding of how impressive it is that anything at all is left. There’s also plenty of green space outside that was a much more attractive sight after the dull brown of the Colosseum. After the Forum, we also walked up the colossal Victor Emmanuel Monument and walked inside the perfectly engineered Pantheon. On the way back to our hotel, we went through the Heart of Rome Walk and spent some time admiring the fountains and churches around Piaza Navona.

Roman Forum
Victor Emmanuel Memorial

Before boarding the train to Florence, we visited the Galleria Borghese (Borghese Gallery) which houses a number of original statues and paintings by Bernini, Raphael, and other masters. The walk there was pleasant as the gallery is located inside a very beautiful park with lemon and orange trees.  The Borghese Gallery was small but the statues were very, very impressive. At the same time, they were also a bit sad and violent. That seems to be a theme with the original Greek & Roman myths. My favorites included Bernini’s David (much more action filled than Michelangelo’s version), Canova’s Paolina, Bernini’s Apollo e Dafne, and Tiziano’s Amor Sacro e Amor Profano. Afterwards we also stopped by the Chiesa di Santa Maria Della Vittoria (Our Lady of Victory Church) to see Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstasy.

I wish I had brushed up on my Roman mythology/Bible stories before seeing all of this amazing artwork.

When in Roma

Skiing at Lake Tahoe!

In January, I spent some time out at Lake Tahoe for the first time.

On the drive up I could already tell that this trip would be a completely new experience. I’ve been up in mountains before, but not in winter. And never in my life had I seen that much snow. It was piled everywhere, so white and brown and cold. For the first time I saw people using mini slow plows to clear their driveways. And they needed them — shovels would’ve taken too long. One of our bus drivers said that they had received 10′ in the last week. And even though it only snowed the first two days while we were there, the weather predicts even more snow now.

We were forced to take some back roads up to Tahoe from Berkeley since a stretch of Highway 80 was closed in the morning. The first thing that hit me when we gained enough altitude was how gorgeous the pine trees looked weighed down by all that snow. This is where those winter car commercials were filmed and what Pat Cuomo is singing about in White Christmas. It was such a gorgeous wonderland! When we arrived at my friend’s family cabin (which her aunt very generously let us borrow), I was amazed how less like a cabin and more like an actual house it was. Three bedrooms with a hot tub out back that we spent the better part of one evening digging out. My friend’s uncle and cousin even joined us for one night and we couldn’t thank them enough for letting us stay in their lovely house.

Overall we spent 3 days skiing at Northstar Ski Resort and 2 days snowshoeing around the cabin. Since I hadn’t skiied in 5 years and only done so at a small resort in Missouri, I was a little nervous at first. But I found that, just like ice skating, you never really forget once you learn the basics. I was somewhat satisfied to learn that my first two bunny slopes weren’t challenging enough. I spent the rest of the time pizza-ing down some “More Difficult” blue routes. Some were scary steep faces with lots of powder and moguls while others were gentler, long and winding. On the entire backside of the mountain, the views were absolutely stunning as you looked out at the snow covered mountains. By the last day my confidence had grown a lot. I was stopping less, skiing faster, and really getting into a groove. My legs were sore almost every run but at least I never crashed!

We snowshoed one day at Donner State Park going along a loop by the lake. It was my first time snowshoeing but I was glad it was no more difficult than hiking and just as fun. I love the snowy crunch your shoes make with every step and it was so beautiful being able to actually walk through the trees I had admired from a distance. We also spent sometime exploring downtown Truckee, a cute little ski town, and built a snowman named Snowdust!

I’m so grateful to know such a kind family. Thank you so much for the snowy adventure! I can’t wait for more winter fun in the future.

Skiing at Lake Tahoe!

The Definition of Summer

What is your definition of summer? Is there something special you eat or somewhere you always visit?

For most families living in the Midwest, the pinnacle of summer is the pool. It’s a fun, cheap way to keep cool for families and especially kids. That what I learned today. Pools are full of children. And could definitely use more diversity (including the lifeguards). Oh and you can completely dry off in under 10 minutes when the sun’s out and it’s 97 F out.


The Definition of Summer


A couple weeks ago, I visited a village named 水头村 (Water Head/Source Village) on the outskirts of Beijing, China.  It was a beautiful drive past the Great Wall and up well paved roads around tight mountain bends and breathtaking scenery.  However, it was a very long drive and we literally kept going until the road’s end.  When there was nowhere else to go, we reached the village.

Leaving the car, I felt like I had stepped into a ghost town. The village seemed huddled together and each house almost seemed to sit on top of its neighbor on the sloping hill. While small, the houses looked well-kept and quaint, with many gardens out front. The air was clear, the mountains painted a nice picture in the background, but not a single person could be seen in the streets.IMG_5105After timidly knocking on the closest home, we were led by an older lady to 李恩宗’s (Li En Zong) house.  李恩宗 greeted us happily and his wife quickly busied herself with setting out lunch even though we’d eaten on the way.  They were both around 60 years old and seemed very easy going and satisfied.  Their house was long but well-lit with seemingly three rooms; the entry way/kitchen where a huge wok called a 灶 (zao) stood in the corner, another room behind it, and the bedroom/living room.  Easily the largest room in the house, it was also the brightest.  Windows along the wall allowed light to flow in.  They were covered with thin white paper, many of which were ripped.  The opposite wall was decorated with pictures of loved ones and posters.  In the corner stood a table with our lunch and stools around it and next to it was a TV, bookshelf, and wardrobe.  A huge bed called a (kang) lined the wall and took up most of the space.  Underneath it, heat from the neighboring stove would flow in to keep the bed warm in the winter.

IMG_5101The house was nicely decorated and homey, complete with electric lights and a TV.  李恩宗 talked about how the reason that the village was so quiet was because almost everyone had moved away and many of the houses were actually abandoned.  Everyone who stayed behind were older and therefore less willing to start a new life somewhere else.  The work was still hard and there was a drought, but this was their home.  However, 李恩宗 did mention that his son and his family would come to visit from time to time.

After a while, we decided to visit the village’s namesake: the water source only a short hike away.  On the way there, we saw more empty buildings and no people.  李恩宗 occasionally pointed out a plant that had special properties or was especially delicious.  My uncle mentioned how we had seen a decent amount of tourists while driving through the mountains.  It was almost a tragedy that none of them came here because the area had truly spectacular scenery and some of the largest, prettiest wild flowers I had ever seen.  But while the vegetation all around us was a deep green, not a single water body could be seen and that’s what 李恩宗 said attracted the crowds.  They wanted lakes and rivers.  李恩宗 explained that while a stream used to run down the mountains, it has long since and now we could only somewhat hear a faint trickle.  When we reached the spring itself, it was black, completely unmoving, and surrounded by mosquitoes.  It was hard to imagine that at one point, even Beijing had used this water source.  Looking up, we could see the yellow rocks marked in one area by white where a waterfall had long ago run down.  It was sad that we’d missed its prime.


IMG_5166Walking back to the car, it looked like it was finally going to rain.  We came across the first two people in the village besides 李恩宗 and his wife.  They were large circular straw hats and were plowing the field.  One pushed the metal plow as the other acted as a mule pulling it along.  They didn’t look down about the work and joked a little with 李恩宗.

IMG_5193Visiting my first Chinese village, it struck me how similar not only people are across the world, but entire communities.   One of the problems that a previous professor of mine, Charles Piot, was trying to solve in Farandé, Togo was how to deal with the flight of the youth and how to make them stay in the village.  The reasoning is identical: why stay in a place to be a poor farmer when you can get rich quick in the city without breaking a sweat?  It’s sad to think that some societies may be disappearing forever but for the families involved, it must be nerve wracking to go out and seek your fortune but exciting when you win it.

I was also once again captivated by the happiness and generosity of 李恩宗 and his wife.  Although they had running water and electricity, village life cannot compete with the extravagance or luxuries of a city.  But they seemed happy.  They shared their stories and food with strangers through only a connection of a friend of a friend and welcomed them into their home.  Many times in cities (whether it be New York or Beijing), I am flabbergasted by how rude some people can be.  Everyone busies on their way and tries to make the least connection possible with the strangers around them.  It seems that time and again I see that people with the least are willing to give the most.  And it’s not with a Bill Gates philanthropist flair or an American post-disaster guilt.  It’s just sharing.


My Beijing 2015

After visiting Beijing many times, I’ve now gone to nearly every major tourist attraction. Here’s a list of the ones I visited this year in order of how much I enjoyed them.

1. Summer Palace (颐和园) – Empress Cixi bankrupted the Chinese navy to build this. It’s so big we didn’t even get to go everywhere!
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2. Forbidden City (故宫): It’s ancient.
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3. Shi Cha Hai (什刹海)A pretty place for boating.
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4. Lama Temple (雍和宫): Real monks walking around and incense to burn!
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5. Wang Fu Jing (王府井): A swanky area.
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6. Nan Luo Gu Xiang (南锣鼓巷): An old alley lined with cutsey (and not so cutsey) shops
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7. Tian Yi (天意): A big shopping center with everything from batteries to clothes for cheap.  Sort of like a giant Wal Mart but with individual market stalls and haggling.
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8. Pan Jia Yuan (潘家园): An antiques market. My uncle said it’s the best place to get ripped off.
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Notable Mention: Hai Di Lao Restaurant (海底捞火锅). It was a hot pot restaurant with complimentary fruit and where you could make your own sauce! And if you order noodles they come out and make it right in front of you twirling and dancing with music! It had the best service ever. Everywhere else in Beijing the workers were straight up rude but these waitresses and waiters delivered food seconds after you ordered, delivered hot hand towels four or five times, and even gave my grandma gifts upon leaving!IMG_7467

My Beijing 2015