Books

1356, and Taipei- book reviews

These two novels may have single-word titles but that is the only similarity. One is about a military conflict hundreds of years ago between England and France, while the other is a contemporary semi-autobiographical novel about a New York writer and his aimless, drug-taking life.

During the 14th century, England and France fought a series of battles and campaigns which went on so long they were known as the Hundred Years War. The majority of these battles were fought on French soil, though at that time, much of France was actually semi-independent duchies or English possessions like Poitiers and Normandy. One of the most famous battles was Poitiers and 1356 is a novel by historical fiction master Bernard Cornwell about events leading up to it. But instead of being a retelling of real events, Cornwell puts a fictitious quest for the lost sword of St Peter led by The Bastard, Thomas of Hookton, a knighted archer from England.

While European military history in the Middle Ages is best known for armored knights, it is a time of great violence and brutality, which the book sometimes casually describes such as in the beginning, when the losing count of a skirmish is castrated and tortured to death. On a greater scale, the English were trying to force the French king to fight a battle by launching campaigns across France, destroying countryside, ransacking cities and raping, killing and pillaging. The English longbow was especially feared during this time, being a weapon that could destroy knights from great distances and launched dozens of times per minute in the hands of a skilled bowman.  The Catholic church also played a large role in the novel, with the Papacy based in Avignon, France, during that time and very much on the side of the French. As with the circumstances of that time, the church held a lot of power and wealth (it still does). Among the key church characters are a stern bishop and his enforcer, a callous priest who uses a hawk to terrorise and blind prisoners.

With a name like Taipei, you’d think the novel would be about Taiwan and perhaps take place mostly in Taipei. But nope, the only association with Taipei is that writer Tao Lin’s parents are Taiwanese, and in the book, the main character, Paul, is also from Taiwan. But other than brief trips to Taiwan and to Canada, the book takes place wholly in the US. Paul is a writer in New York who basically just hangs out, goes to parties where he hardly knows anyone, and takes a lot of drugs. Now, Paul is allegedly Tao Lin, and.

Here’s the thing about Taipei. It’s a unique novel that charts Paul’s life through every interaction, feeling, and conversation he has. Unfortunately, the end result is probably the least interesting novel I’ve ever read. I think that it’s a useful indicator of how empty modern urban life can be, but surely, readers did not need this point to be figuratively beaten into them repeatedly.
Once I realized midway there was no plot, it was a chore to struggle and finish the book. Paul is not interesting to me, and neither are his drug habit or casual relationships. Near the end, he gets married to someone almost on a whim, then he takes her to Taipei to meet his parents, and within weeks, he is already thinking the marriage was a mistake.

It’s a pity that the title Taipei was wasted on such an insipid book, because the city certainly deserves better.

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Books

Swing Time- book review

The most recent novel from Zadie Smith, Swing Time, is about two women from a London working-class neighborhood who grew up together and shared a love of dance. However, the book is not as jaunty as its title suggests. The story starts during the biracial girls’ childhood, then alternates between the present and their teenage and young adult years, where we see the narrator and Tracey grow apart.

After graduating high school, the narrator becomes the PA of an Australian singing star and becomes consumed by the jetsetting lifestyle, while Tracey settles into family life back in their neighborhood after a lowkey dance career. A major part of the plot centers on the singer deciding to fund a school for girls in an African country (I think it’s the Gambia) which requires the narrator to spend a lot of time in the village where she bonds with locals and tries to understand the culture. Things don’t progress too well as the school creates complications, which is true for international development, among the locals. There is a brief romantic relationship with the narrator and a local teacher which fades away in a surprisingly callous manner.

The name of the book derives from the two girls’ enthusiasm for dance, which they shared in dance class and which saw them idolizing stars like Michael Jackson and even oldtime celebrities like Fred Rogers and Ginger Astaire. Dance represents the one common area for the two girls, whose families and other interests differ significantly. The relationship veers from friendship to frenemies and there are some terrible incidents alluded to regarding one of the girls.

Zadie Smith, a biracial British writer, is a huge literary star, but somehow I’ve never really liked her books that much. Swing Time was a bit boring in the beginning, then improved in the middle, but after finishing it, I thought it was just decent. With Smith’s previous books, especially NW, I found the plots to be kind of complex and the writing all over the place (NW was divided into sections with distinctly different writing styles). I think the issue with Swing Time was I never really cared too much for the main protagonists.

Where I find Smith is good at is describing the bits of disappointment, tension and turmoil that fill her characters’ everyday lives, which reflects the struggles of real life working-class Londoners. Tracey’s broken dance dream signifies the difficulty of escaping the working-class neighborhood while the narrator’s somewhat aimless life, despite taking her all over the world, suggests the hollowness of taking the practical way over passionate pursuit.

Books

Art of Thinking Clearly, and Lionheart- book reviews

Earlier last year, I went to Singapore for a brief trip and what I came away with were a bunch of photos that I took and these two books.

From its title, The Art of Thinking Clearly makes an impressive, bold claim. People, like you and me, often have  cognitive biases that influence how we approach problems and make decisions. But these biases are often misleading, inaccurate or dead wrong. Summarizing various cognitive errors people often make, Rolf Dobelli presents 99 clear and brief lessons on how to identify and overcome these errors and make better decisions.

For instance, when should you overthink and when should you rely on your intuition? The answer: take your time to think things through for complex situations whereas for regular, repetitive tasks you should heed your gut. Other interesting lessons include the base-rate neglect and false causality. The former is about how easy it is to ignore the frequency with which something major happens and so exaggerate the possibility of that event, while the latter tackles how people often mistake the cause of something for the effect and vice versa (for example: a study shows smarter kids have more books at home. But that doesn’t mean the books cause them to be smart, since maybe smarter kids enjoy reading more or have parents who are more educated). Another interesting lesson is to use different mental models when facing problems, inspired by a saying attributed to Mark Twain: “If your only tool is a hammer, all your problems will be nails.” If you use the same approach or mindset to solving every issue you encounter, your solutions will always be the same and not necessarily effective.

There are many more lessons covering common scenarios such as loss aversion (fear of losses), groupthink, confirmation bias (interpret things that happened to fit preconceived notions), and sunk cost fallacy (reluctance to give up in hopes of recovering losses). There are also lessons for the corporate world such as why teams and meetings don’t often work. This is because social loafing happens, as the more people there are involved, the less the individual participation, and hence the less useful (something most of us who have to attend long work meetings would probably agree).

Dobelli did not do original research, which he openly admits, but put together his lessons from extensive reading of different sources, so it wouldn’t hurt to follow up on additional sources to get more details. Nevertheless, the book is a very useful tool for re-evaluating your thinking and decision bias.

I’m a big fan of historical fiction and have read a lot of novels in this genre, but Lionheart is the first one I’ve read about the Crusades from the Christian side, specifically Richard I the Lionheart and his quest to retake Jerusalem in the Third Crusade. Starting in 1189, the novel follows the English king as he stops at Sicily, then captures Cyprus, and eventually lands in the Holy Land to retake Jerusalem. The book is full of characters and details, though at times there is a bit too much exposition and not enough action. The author Sharon Penman does well to explain the turbulent backdrop of that time, which followed from after Richard I had actually fought a civil war with his father, Henry II, after he imprisoned his own wife and Richard I’s mother, Queen Eleanor, and prevailed. Richard I must contend with not just the Muslim Saracens, but enemies from within in the form of the French King, Philip II, who is supposed to be the co-leader of the crusade but also a rival. The two are actually related, given the ties between European royalty which the book also does well to describe (Richard’s sister was married to the Sicilian king and thus the queen of that island kingdom, for example). Richard I manages to retake Acre and Jaffa from the Saracens before going on to Jerusalem. The novel is followed by a sequel, so I won’t give away the ending of Lionheart (history buffs will know how everything ends though).

Europe travel · Travel

England travel- Cambridge


Besides London, the only other place in England I’ve been to is Cambridge. Done as a daytrip from London, visiting Cambridge (as opposed to say, Oxford) was actually my mother’s decision, since a famous 20th-century Chinese poet had gone to Cambridge and written a memorable poem, which has since attracted many Chinese and Taiwanese to visit there. Anyways, we took the train to Cambridge, passing through some beautiful English countryside. At the town, we headed to the university, took a boat (punt) ride on the river Cam, toured King’s College Chapel, a neat and exquisite church, and strolled through an open-air market. The university is large, open, with university buildings spread among the town, and boasts a lot of impressive stone buildings, as expected from such a great university founded in 1209. We spent several hours there but still weren’t able to see all the main buildings.

The punt (flat bottom boat steered with a pole in front) ride was quite pleasant. During the ride, we passed a lot of attractive buildings on the riverside while treated to commentary by the boatman about the university college buildings, and self-deprecating anecdotes about his personal life. At the end as he drew up to the pier, he warned us not to get up yet, but he correctly predicted that the father of a mainland Chinese family on our boat would do exactly that.

  

Europe travel · Travel

London travel- British Museum and Parliament


Two grand British institutions are the British Museum and Parliament at Westminster. The former has been home to artifacts and works of arts since the mid-18th century, the latter has been the site of parliamentary governance since the 13th century.

Whenever I visit major cities, whether it be Cape Town or Hanoi or Xian or Tokyo, history museums are always near the top of my list of places to visit. Obviously in London, the British Museum was a must-visit and it didn’t disappoint. The only thing I regret was not being able to spend more time. There are splendid displays of ancient Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and Greek artifacts, as well as sub-Saharan African collection. The huge, central atrium or Great Court features a circular reading room (closed to the public) in the middle, several statues including a giant lion from the 2nd century BC, and a nice, overhead ceiling with an interlacing or tessellated design. The exterior of the museum is a grand but somewhat dowdy gray facade with multiple columns.

Besides the sheer quantity of the collections, it was impressive to be able to view giant pieces such as ancient Egyptian pharaonic statues and tombs and Assyrian lion statues up close. The Elgin Marbles, which were taken from the Parthenon in Athens, were in an entire hall. In the African section, there were entire walls of weapons, colorful cloths and the fascinating Benin Bronzes. These were produced by the kingdom of Benin which was situated in Nigeria (the country of Benin is named after this kingdom but was not where it was located).

I managed to see some of the most famous pieces like the Rosetta Stone, Elgin Marbles, as well as Benin bronzes, from Nigeria. Incidentally all of these are claimed by their country of origin, which raises the point that many of the items in the museum, such as many Greek and Egyptian artifacts, were taken or bought from other countries, sometimes through surreptitious means. The Louvre in Paris is similar, with many of its famous exhibits hailing from other places.
Meanwhile, the British exhibits were alright, but not particularly memorable other than some Roman-era artifacts. I had hoped there might have been exhibits from the British Empire from the Commonwealth countries such as India and Pakistan, but then that is probably unrealistic because it would be like glorifying the empire.

Ideally many of the items should be returned to their countries if they had been illegally bought or taken. On the other hand, there is no certainty that they would be displayed and maintained in such secure and pristine environments in their home countries as those at the British Museum. Also, the best archaeological techniques and knowledge of the day, when these artifacts were obtained, belonged Western explorers and archaeologists, though of course, they honed this from roaming around the world and obtaining other cultures’ artifacts. While a bit self-serving, the availability of these pieces all in one place in the British Museum allows visitors to enjoy and appreciate the history and past civilizations of almost the whole world.

Short of returning all their exhibits, which would be unrealistic, institutions like the British Museum and their governments should provide more funding to countries from where they got the exhibits from, to help them with their local museums, historical research and archaeological efforts and so on.



Lying on the north bank of the Thames River, the British Parliamentary building or Palace Of Westminster houses both the House of Lords and the House of Commons. It is easily recognized, with its gray Gothic features, multitude of windows and spires and the Big Ben clock atop Elizabeth Tower on its flank, though its tallest point is Victoria Tower at its southwestern corner. Alongside the building is an impressive black statue of Richard I, the Lionheart, atop a horse with sword in the air. There is also a statue of Oliver Cromwell, who helped defeat royalist forces in the 17th century and then ruled England as Lord Protector. There were armed policemen on the grounds, befitting the site of the nation’s parliament, though unfortunately this didn’t prevent a terrorist from running over dozens and killing several people, including a policeman, there earlier this year.

But Westminster Palace isn’t the only attraction in the area. Around it are several impressive old buildings such as Westminster Abbey, where the coronations of British monarchs have been held since 1066, St Margaret’s church, the Sanctuary, and Methodist Central Hall. Meanwhile, to get a good view of the Westminster Palace from the river, we walked down along the riverbank to a park and then onto Lambeth Bridge. For some reason, there was even a small rally opposite the parliament building on Myanmar’s upcoming election urging people to vote NLD, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi and which ended up winning over 80% of contested seats in that election.



Westminster Abbey

The Sanctuary, located next to Westminster Abbey
  

More British Museum photos
  
The Rosetta Stone, from Egypt
     
Close-up of the Benin Bronzes

Books

NW- book review

A woman in apparent distress desperately knocks on the doors of homes in a northwestern London neighborhood. Leah Cooper opens the door, then thinks nothing of helping the wretched woman by letting her in, hearing her out, and then giving her 30 pounds so she can take a cab to the hospital to see her sick mother. Afterwards, it turns out the woman is a liar and Leah has been scammed. And with this dramatic and bewildering episode, NW begins, taking us into the lives of several northwest Londoners.

Leah is an NGO staffer with an outspoken Irish mother and a African-French husband; her best friend Natalie, formerly Keisha, is an ambitious lawyer; and then Felix is a former addict who has been through some tough times but is trying to put that behind him. Connecting them all is their origin from the same working-class NW London neighborhood in a rough part of London, where public housing estates of blocks have walkways and “lifts that were to be avoided almost as soon as they were built.” Not surprisingly, they have all tried to escape their working-class roots with Natalie/Keisha being the most successful at first glance. Married to a charming but vain Trinidadian-Italian banker with two children with a nice house and a successful career, she has it all or at least it seems so.

NW is divided into several sections, each written in a different style and focusing on a different character. It is confusing and I wasn’t too comfortable with the obvious inconsistencies and disjointed effect when you go from one part to another. One entire section consists of 185 (not a typo) numbered segments, each one a bit of Natalie/Keisha’s past and which lead up to a surprising finale. Meanwhile, the most interesting section has a tragic conclusion that is linked to another section in something that, to me, is not very clear.

The book’s complexity and inconsistent tone mirrors real life, while providing a stirring reminder that even supposedly ordinary lives are interesting if one dives into the details and background. Things do not always work out as you would hope, the past is not always easily put behind oneself, and sometimes life is unfair. These aren’t exactly mysteries but NW puts a human face on them. Race, class and where one grows up all matter, and Smith portrays these in an intimate and pained manner through the characters’ struggles and clashes. But, I don’t think I can agree with the underlying notion that people cannot escape their past regardless of how hard they try. If that is indeed true, then society is even more bleak than what we . At the same time, the book is entirely set in London so some of the circumstances are inevitably unique to London and English society and not applicable to everywhere.

It may not be to everyone’s liking but NW is certainly a memorable novel.

Europe travel · Travel

England travel- London calling

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The first country I went to on my first trip to Europe last year was the UK and the first city, London. This was by choice, because the UK is a country I greatly admire and have always lived under, despite never having been there before. I was born in Hong Kong when it was a British colony, grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, an English-speaking Caribbean nation and a former British colony, and I went to university in another former British colony. There were several aspects of British culture like the language, Premier League football, cricket, and literature that I was familiar with.

Flying into London via Dubai from Taipei, my mother and I had an uneventful entry at Heathrow and took the subway or Tube straight to our hotel. While that sounds convenient, the journey traveled through over 15 stations though it was a nice way to ease into London, seeing houses with gardens and overpass walls marked with graffiti, both sights that are unusual in East Asia.

The next day, we started with Sky Garden, which is not a garden but a free observatory hall located at the top of a tower in the financial district. From the hall, you can walk around and enjoy a 360-degree view of London and see famous landmarks like the Gherkin, Tower and London bridges across the Thames below. The hall is huge and over two stories high, with bars and restaurants. The large front glass panel is covered with steel bars which does interfere with the view, while you walk up the stairs at the side to look at the rear windows. It was raining slightly, typical stereotypical British weather, which marred the view but since it was free, there was no harm.
The building has an unremarkable official name – 20 Fenchurch Street – but it is nicknamed the Walkie Talkie and for good reason. From below, the tower curves gently outward at the front and back as it gets higher and has a rounded roof.
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The next stop was the famous Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, where so much history, much of it unsavory such as executions and imprisonments, occurred. Unfortunately we did not actually view this history because we were in a rush and in a frugal mood. We walked across the Thames on the famous bridge, which is sometimes confused for London Bridge but is more attractive, to the other end and strolled along the riverbank where further ahead the World War II cruiser HMS Belfast, which serves as a floating museum, was moored. The view across the Thames was a fine combination of the old Tower of London fortress with the gleaming Sky Garden and Gherkin towers looming in the back. To be honest, while these are ultramodern buildings, their modest height and weird appearances (the Gherkin in particular has an obscene resemblance if you know what I mean) make the London skyline seem underwhelming, especially compared to East Asian cities. But otherwise, that was the only real complaint I had about what seemed to me a fascinating old city, having existed since Roman rule, which seemed to preserve its many historic structures and illustrious past with modern times so well.
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The Shard on the left, and the “Walkie Talkie,” or Sky Garden tower, at right, look onto the Thames.

From there, it was on to another of London’s countless famous attractions, St Paul’s Cathedral. Again we didn’t go inside, but just walking around the massive church, the first of several grand cathedrals I’d see during the trip, was enough to appreciate its grandeur and size, topped by a giant dome. More memorable than the cathedral was getting lunch at a French bakery inside a courtyard at the side, where the French cashier misunderstood the amount I gave him when I paid (to get exact change) and sniffed audibly. Incredibly, that would be the only rudeness I experienced from a French service person during the entire trip, which included 8 days in France itself.
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The next place was Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. The square, named after the famous 19th century naval victory over a French fleet, is a vast open space that features the National Gallery on one side, two fountains, and the 51-m tall Nelson’s Column, atop which is perched a statue of the famous admiral who won the Battle of Trafalgar but paid with his life. Across the street are the embassies of several Commonwealth countries like South Africa, Jamaica, Malaysia and Canada, though not Trinidad. The square was lively, with hordes of visitors and street performers including a bagpiper playing the Game of Thrones soundtrack.

The National Gallery was impressive, more so given it was free. Though I would see even better art galleries later on during my trip but at that moment, I enjoyed the National Gallery’s works of art from English and European masters, including Vincent van Gogh, and as someone who wasn’t exactly an arts enthusiast, it helped me appreciate paintings a lot more.

After leaving the gallery, we walked a few streets north to Chinatown, passing by the theatre district. As Chinatowns go, it isn’t too big and had several pedestrian lanes filled with typical Chinese restaurants and a few bars. It did have a large Chinese arched “paifang” gate on one street. We had dinner at a well-known restaurant and that was that for the first full day in London.
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The Tower of London fortress
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Old and the new
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Looking down at the HMS Belfast, a floating military museum, from the Sky Garden
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It was drizzling when we were in the Sky Garden, then the skies cleared up when we walked along the Thames.
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This guys seem to be levitating though it’s more likely the pipe structure provides some kind of support.
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Two of the many masterpieces inside the National Gallery – the rape of the Sabine women by the Romans, above, a historical event when the Romans invited a neighboring tribe, the Sabine, to a feast and then proceeded to kidnap their women, and, below, one of several Venice paintings that I really liked

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Books · Travel

You are awful (but I like you)- book review

Judging from just the title, You Are Awful (But I Like You) might sound like a twisted love story, but it is actually a travel book about the author’s native Britain. One could say the title is an example of dry British wit, but actually there is nothing ironic about it because the author Tim Moore really decided to take his patriotism to the limit by visiting the most depressing, rundown and unloved places in his country. The book’s subtitle is Travels through Unloved Britain which clears things up more. It’s a travel book, not about magnificent cities, beautiful scenery and cheerful people, but the complete opposite.

This book itself is full of dry, sardonic humor, with almost every paragraph dripping with it. It was kind of tough to get through in the beginning, but after a while I started getting used to it. Mind you, there is very little genuine joy in the places Moore goes to, which include the likes of Hull, Skegness and Barrow. If anything, a lot of them don’t exactly repudiate their reputation, which Moore gleamed from online “most boring” lists and articles. As if going to rundown cities and decaying beach resorts weren’t enough, Moore compounds this by staying at the dingiest and shabbiest hotels and inns, which he deliberately finds by trawling Tripadvisor and similar sites. Moore picks apart the cities and towns, both for their general decline and for the ugly town center structures and car park monstrosities that were put up during the seventies. And he visited all of them while driving an Austin Maestro, an early 80s British car which he describes as “a very British tale of delusion, sloth, incompetence and on-the-cheap botch-jobbery.”

Rather than be depressing, somehow the book becomes interesting and a few of these cities, despite their utter lack of anything remotely attractive, as Moore points out at every opportunity, still manage to seem decent to read about, if not visit. It’s not all ridicule and snark, as Moore does provide some history about these places, some of whom like Middlesbrough, were actually important and booming cities that played important roles during the Industrial Revolution. Modernization, such as the replacement of coal by oil as the main means of powering ships, and the decline of fishing, steel and shipbuilding industries, hastened by the Thatcher years, also played a part. In the end, Moore laments the shoddiness of these fallen cities, not just for their grim fates, but for their testament to a different Britain that was proud and full of confidence, even if it meant building crap town centers.

The book is a weird combination of a travelogue, albeit the most depressing one ever published, and a history book about the decline of a nation*, comes out better than it sounds.

* Don’t get me wrong, I think the UK is still a pretty good country, those are the author’s own views.

Books

Kingdom- book review

I’m a big fan of historical novels and of Robyn Young, one of the top writers in this genre who wrote a great trilogy about the Templars and the Crusades. Kingdom is the final book in Young’s trilogy about Scottish nobleman Robert Bruce and his fight to become the king and win independence from the English.

While Robert Bruce is famous not just for his victories and ascension to Scotland’s throne, he is also well-known for his many failures against the English. In Kingdom, newly-crowned Bruce has embarked on another uprising against the English but suffers defeat after defeat, forcing him to retreat to the isles off Western Scotland and putting him into a precarious position. Meanwhile, the fearsome but ailing elderly English king Edward I, or Longshanks, having seen off William Wallace (the hero in the 1995 epic movie Braveheart) by capturing, hanging and quartering him, mounts one final campaign to eradicate Bruce and bring Scotland into England’s grasp once and for all. The English are beset by bickering nobles and a gay scandal involving the prince (people will have also seen this played out in Braveheart). The story concludes with the Battle of Bannockburn where Robert Bruce fulfills his destiny.

The novel does not include the popular legend attributed to Bruce of how after suffering his seventh defeat, he was in a cave and saw a spider trying to spin a web, only to fail again and again until it succeeded on its eight try, which then inspired Bruce to mount one final battle against the English which he won. Instead, Young replaces this with the inclusion of a female wizard and her “web of destiny” for Bruce. In addition, there is also a fictional plot about the English king Edward I exploiting the legend of King Arthur and a prophecy to try to “unite” Britain, including creating his own version of the Knights of the Round Table to induce elite British knights to carry out Edward’s vision.

Despite being full of battles and sieges, the novel relies less on action than on recreating the historical drama, intrigue and urgency of Bruce’s desperate campaign, whilst including a strong element of myths like the wizard and the prophecy. Bruce encounters so many setbacks and defeats, including the destruction of his army in an ambush and the capture of his brothers and family by the English, whilst continuously being pursued by superior forces that at times it seems that he will never win. The doggedness of Bruce in attempting to achieve victory is almost as big a part of the story as the fighting.

As this is the third novel of the trilogy, Young uses lengthy recollections by the characters to bring newer readers up to date on events, which proves very useful and not distracting.

Kingdom proves to be a stirring story that blends history, drama and action to create a deeply satisfying read and a fitting conclusion.

Travel

Overview of a first-time Europe trip

For many years, I often had to say to people when talking about travelling, “I’ve never been to Europe.” Well, I no longer need to say that because I finally did go to Europe.

Specifically, I went to the UK, France, Italy, and Germany in October. My destinations were mostly cities – London, Paris, Rome, Milan, Berlin – since those are among the most famous places in Europe, plus I like cities, not to mention my lack of familiarity with Europe and my wonky foot meant I couldn’t really do any hiking. I stayed a few full days each in most of the cities so it was not one of those whirlwind, 10-day, 8-city kind of trip. Actually the trip was a little over 3 weeks but it did feel too short. Originally I was planning a shorter and less ambitious trip but then my mother asked to come along (we went to London and Paris, then she went back first) so I extended it and decided to go to Italy.

It was a real eye-opener and I left with a positive impression, that Europe, or at least those countries I went to, despite all the news about struggling economies and old societies, is still very much a beautiful, modern and advanced continent. It was easy to see and feel the history all around, especially in cities like Paris and Rome, which was integrated with modernity in a way that was charming and different from cities in China or Taiwan. The sights were beautiful, the food was great, people were courteous in general, the service was good, despite expectations about supposed French haughtiness which were proven wrong. On the other hand, what was not so charming was the lack of toilets in places like the Louvre or the old subway in Rome. I also had strong concerns about pickpocketers and scammers, which I read a lot of worrying accounts about. I had a few encounters with the latter, but luckily I was unscathed. I should also say it was good to have gone to Paris before the terrorist attack last week, as some things may never be the same security-wise in the short term, with even other countries like Belgium affected.

In short, I found Paris to be the most beautiful city, Rome the most historic and impressive, and London the most modern. Germany was good though I was a little disappointed by certain aspects of society (surly service staff, people walking into you etc). However, I liked each country I went to, and could have easily spent more time in each of them.

I may have missed out on Spain, and Northern and Eastern Europe, but hopefully I will get there another time.

The itinerary
I started off in London, where we stayed for a few days and did a daytrip to Cambridge. Then I took the Eurostar to Paris, stayed for a few days, then moved on to Chambery, a town near the Alps in southern France, by train, stayed one full day, and crossed into Italy by train. I stayed in Milan for two full days, then went to Rome, again by train. After three full days, I flew from Rome to Berlin, stayed for two days, which I admit is too short for that city, then took the train to Frankfurt, stayed one full day, then flew back to Asia.

The highlights

England
London
-I’ve been to a few good museums but the British Museum was pretty impressive, the first of many great museums I’d visit in Europe. It features famous objects like the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles taken from Greece, and a Egyptian gallery, plus it’s got a cool African section.
-Tower Bridge was attractive, with the Tower of London on one side, while crossing the bridge provides nice views of the river Thames, HMS Belfast, moored lower down the Thames, and London’s weird towers like the Shard and Skygarden.
-Westminster Parliament with neighboring Westminster Abbey were both large, grand buildings
-Trafalgar Square was much livelier than I expected, and the National Art Gallery, which is at the square, was full of nice paintings.
-I’m an Arsenal fan so Emirates Stadium was a great place to visit. As a bonus, it is near one of the oldest and most attractive subway stations I’ve ever seen – red-brick Holloway Road station.
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France
Paris
-The Louvre was great (I only saw about one-third of the exhibits).
-St. Chapelle doesn’t look like much from the outside but inside, it has the most beautiful stained glass windows I’ve ever seen.
-Looking down across Paris from the Montparnasse Tower (it’s much less busier and actually lets you see the Eiffel Tower)
-The Champs-Élysées by itself is not so spectacular but walking on it to reach the Arc de Triomphe was really cool, especially as the avenue becomes more busier the nearer you get to the Arc.
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Italy

Rome
-The Colosseum is magnificent, but the neighboring Forum ruins are more interesting and the neighboring (all three are right next to each other) Palatine Hill lets you have a good view of the Forum.
-The Piazza Navone is a large, beautiful square surrounded by attractive buildings, restaurants and a large church. It is in the middle of a historic district with the Pantheon just east of it.
-The Castel Sant’Angelo (St. Angel’s Castle) is a round Roman imperial fortress that overlooks the river Tiber and the Vatican.
-Vatican Museums feature so much great art that it was almost too much for me to take in. There were impressive sculptures of Roman emperors, huge masterpieces and fantastic painted ceilings, such as the Sistine Chapel’s painted by the great Michelangelo.
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Milan
-Milan’s main attraction, the massive Duomo cathedral, is an impressive sight both inside and outside and on top. The cathedral is next to the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II, an open-air luxury mall which is strikingly beautiful.
-Castello Sforzesco (Sforza Castle) is a formidable 15th century castle that serves as a museum. It’s actually a collection of mini-museums ranging from art to furniture and also features Michelangelo’s last project, an unfinished sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus.
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Germany

Berlin
-German historical museum is only two floors but is full of interesting exhibits and paintings that range from the Middle Ages to German reunification. It also has World War II items such as Nazi posters and newspapers about the Allied victory.
-Gendermenmarkt is a square flanked by the three awesome old buildings – the Konzerthaus (Concert Hall) and the French and German churches.
-Berlin Cathedral is one of the most attractive cathedrals I’ve ever seen. Its green dome-shaped roofs make it different from all the tall, stern, rectangular cathedrals you see all over Europe.
-East Side Gallery is an over 1km-long stretch of the Berlin Wall that is covered with crazy and beautiful graffiti “masterpieces.”
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Frankfurt
-Romer is a historic square that features distinctive picturesque traditional wooden buildings.
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