Category Archives: Travel

Fall Break European Tour 2013: En Route To Oxford

I am currently riding on a train up to Oxford. This alone is a treat; riding a train through the British countryside is romanticized for good reasons. Even in the early fall, trees are still a wonderful mix of green and yellow. The houses are as red brick as your heart could desire, the grassy lawns are rich and emerald, the rivers brown yet clear.

Thames from the Tate Modern

Thames from the Tate Modern

London has been a wonderful contrast to both Granada and Prague. It is a simple gift to be in a city so westernized yet a city with such strong particularities and cultural character. It many ways, as far as diversity of individuals and eateries are concerned, it feels like a sister city to New York. And yet, London feels cleaner, classier and more modern than New York, and certainly more vastly spread out. The distance between places can make London a little overwhelming, but also lends its neighborhoods a great deal of individual character and diversity. Unlike New York, it feels wholly lived in, and, if you’re a fan of classic red brick like myself, this is immensely comforting. Last night I visited “Ye Old Cheshire Cheese,” a pub that Charles Dickens apparently went to. Sitting on an ornate blue velvet couch in a burgundy room warmly lit by small wall-mounted lamps and a large (unlit, unfortunately) fireplace, drinking a classic bitter English pint, looking at ancient portraits and pictures on the walls,

IMG_3620I didn’t feel the weight of formality and precociousness that often leaves me disenchanted with stereotypically British things. Rather, I felt a reassuring sense of home.

Hawt N Dangerou$ n London

Hawt N Dangerou$ n London Town

Although London proudly continues its staunchly traditional double decker busses, red telephone booths, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, ect. ect., what impressed me most was its clean, modern feel. Even my hostel, which feels so large and corporate, is brightly and immaculately––if a bit cheesily––designed (posted rule plaques say, in a skinny handwriting-styled font: “Rule Number 1 is have fun!” The same font adorns hallways where token Britishisms mixed with American slang are stenciled on the bright blue walls. My personal favorite says: “You only live once. Live like Bond!”). The hostel harnesses an immediately appealing mixture of bright colors, light brown softwood,and sleek chrome, coming off like the Ikea or Whole Foods of hostels: large, impersonal and imposing yet impressively sleek nonetheless.

IMG_3611This modern-and-clean-yet-bright-and-welcoming feel carries over into restaurants, the National Theatre, The Tate Modern, The London Eye… ect. ect. Even crowded pubs feel clean and welcoming and smoking has been outlawed in all of them. London is an immaculate aesthetic combination of old and new, lacking the imposing vacuity of high modernism (and postmodernism, one could argue) and the red brick formality and conformity of classically industrialized cities. It has overcome architectural and aesthetic hurdles with class and brilliance, existing as a wonderful model of what a modern, multicultural, pluralistic city should look like… in all areas except expense. I am grateful to not live in London simply because of how quickly the city would drain my finances. I do note that expensiveness probably helps explain how the city can afford such aesthetic impressiveness; the two usually go hand in hand.

Laura n Me n r mutual Friend Ben

Laura n Me n r mutual Friend Ben

Some highlights from London: first, seeing my friend Laura and meeting her friends from Furman University. Something reinforced by this trip is how appealing it can be to see old friends in new contexts. Although I’ve known Laura for a couple years, I mostly know her from the context of Laity Lodge Youth Camp, a hermetically sealed community and cultural atmosphere. And in my experience, one of the best things about camp friendships is not engaging them at camp, but precipitating, deepening and enriching them within the contexts of the world at large.

Laura is involved in a very unique program through Furman, one where she gets to see a variety of plays and write about them. She was kind enough to get me a ticket for the play her group saw on Wednesday night, “nut,” at the National Theater’s “Shed,” a small black box with a striking red exterior. It was a peculiar play, the kind where its characters continually argue in a circular fashion for its entire running time. Sometimes this sort of writing is a bit unnerving for me, feeling a bit forced, a billboard screaming “NATURALISM.” I’m not sure about you, but the people I talk to tend to actually communicate in conversations that move, even when they’re arguing. Some admittedly do result in deadlock, but this sort of insistent circularity often rings a bit false for me as a viewer. However, considering the subject of the play––a woman with a mental illness who consistently argues with herself (or at least people who are most likely mental manifestation of herself)––this sort of dialogue seemed fairly necessary.

And “nut” was structurally interesting, only subtly, carefully revealing how its first act character were fantastical manifestations. The point wasn’t the reveal, the sort of self-impressed “ta da” that revels in writerly vanity while exploiting mental illness. The whole play was firmly rooted in compassion and, the more I think about it, the more insightful it becomes. It deals with relational tensions, how all external struggles actually stem from internal struggles in response to others, and how we consistently find our own identity through external comparison (“She’s/I’m not like you” are consistent refrains that most characters say in the show, anthems of internal isolation and longing for stable forms of self-definition”). Although little in the show is concrete, none of it was too abstract and, particularly through its wonderfully subtle, symbolic staging (various giant metal beams are imposingly fused, crisscrossing and jutting out forebodingly above characters, precariously and uncomfortably appearing to push down on them throughout the projection), the show is ultimately poetic and even a bit heartbreaking. The more I think about it the more I like it, and I’m sure if I were to see it again I would appreciate it even more.

(If you’re going to London and want a bit of avant-garde theatre instead of the typical big name shows, you can buy tickets here. It’s playing through December 5.)

Fall Break European Tour 2013: En Route To Granada (via Malaga)

I am currently sitting in the Milan airport. It is 5:15 in the morning. I left my hostel at 3:00 AM in order to get here.

One of the most interesting things about traveling as a young person without significant financial resources is the peculiar spheres you can find yourself in. In the shadow of the Sheratons and Best Westerns and Grand Hotel Fill-In-The-Blanks lies an underground teeming with inexpensive youth hostels, non-corporatized (well, there are some chains, but none are particularly large) establishments that fill up every night with young people trying to fulfill their birthright and “see the world.” As places that lure in young adults with extremely attractive prices, their quality is inevitably inconsistent.

In Milan, I took the risk of staying in “Kennedy Hostel” even though it only received at 63% approval rating on This was for one simple reason: it was the only available hostel within an easy (15 minute) walking distance from Station Centrale, launching point for the Milano Malpensa airport bus. The Milano Malpensa airport is a little less than an hour away from Milan—a lovely cab ride that would cost you euros in the three-digit range––and the private bus is the only other available option for getting there.

I got into Milan on this bus a little after midnight on the 8th. A wet, thick fog weighed down the city, creating an atmosphere that almost reminded me of a colder Southern California. This part of Milan was not the nicest section of town (graffiti covered every building), but it was far from a ghetto. It felt modern, lived in, and even the grunginess reminded me (wistfully, somehow?) of New York. The New York association was compounded when the first Italian restaurant I saw was called “Little Italy” and New York subway maps and littered its walls. The irony was wonderful: Italians are now capitalizing on Americans’ capitalizing on Italians. And so the simulacrum continues….


This restaurant was actually a good introduction to the general spirit of Milan. While the city has a nice urban appeal, it does not have a particularly aged appeal. And the even more archaic, architecturally beautified portions of the city (statues, the enormous Duomo, giant arched Romanesque ceilings and passageways besieged with ornate glass panels) are consistently punctuated by and mixed with the iconography and advertisements of High Italian fashion. The story of Jesus and the moneylenders in the temple comes to mind, except imagine those moneylenders selling Prada and Gucci with giant, ornate black-and-white advertisements featuring Matthew McCaughey and Scarlett Johansson pretending to be lovers (a peculiar romantic combination, if you ask me). It felt a bit like the most impressively authentic Orange County high-fashion mall imaginable, and I mean that as a mixed compliment. As peculiar as it is to see a giant LED Samsung advertisement awkwardly plastered onto the side of of the world’s second-largest cathedral, at least the interior of the Duomo was free to enter (ah, the paradox of global capitalism).


And the interior was truly breathtaking, nearly moving me to tears by its sublime scope and intricate architecture; if the Duomo isn’t the most beautiful cathedral I’ve ever seen, I can’t recall the one that surpasses it. There was still a section near the front left wing containing several operation confession booths in parallel formation; local Italians trickled into these one-by-one, ready to hand off their wrongs and get going with their day.

When I arrived at Hostel Kennedy, I pressed an exterior button to unlock the door (“Hello?” I hopelessly muttered into the speaker when nobody said anything. What in the world are you supposed to do in those situations?). After riding up a rickety elevator to the 6th floor just large enough to fit my bulging backpack and myself, I arrived to find the young, dark skinned male concierge watching “God of War” cheats on YouTube, full-screen. I informed him that I was checking into my reservation. Briefly taking a break from his video, he said he couldn’t find my reservation. As I was about to get my printout, he found my reservation. The desk had a new-looking credit card machine; I said I wanted to finish my payment by card (I had no Euros). He said that the credit card machine wasn’t plugged in. Through a thick accent, he tried to give me directions to an ATM. Finally giving up, he took me to a window to point to the ATM on the street down below. After using the machine and paying with the cash, he owed me two Euros but he didn’t have any coins. “Can you get it tomorrow?” he asked. “Sure.” I said. The gold star of the service industry, this guy.

He led me to my four-person room only occupied by two sleeping Polish girls.

Hotel Kennedy felt like a 1940s hotel that was occasionally renovated yet mediocrely kept up. One got a sense that it actually was a nice hotel at some point, and this gave it a hominess and comfort that was simply countered by the age of the place. At the very least, the bathroom seemed recently remodeled and quite clean. My bed was another story. It felt as if the mattress were divided into two unequal sections, as if there were a long gaping chuck literally ripped out of the middle—not a gap large enough to fall into, but one that certainly made sleeping uncomfortable. Fortunately, I was tired enough that I didn’t really care.

I woke up at 9:30 the next morning. There was a woman at the desk now. I asked for a key to a storage locker in my room. She asked me if I needed to pay, and if I had a reservation for that night, because apparently it didn’t look like I did (or this much I could gather through her accent). I said that I already paid and, yes, I had a reservation. She launched into a long explanation in broken-English about why I had to put down a security deposit in order to use the locker. After placing my backpack in the locker, I decided to head out. Right as I was about to enter the little elevator, I heard a voice behind me.

“Roberts!” the concierge belted in her rich alto voice, rolling the “R” like a good, strong-spirited Italian stereotype.


“Where are you going?” she accusatorially asked.

“I’m going to… the Duomo, to walk around… to do some sight seeing?”

She backed off, lowering her voice a little. “Oh, ok.”

“Uhhh… ok, have a nice day.” I turned to leave.


After breaking a twenty at McDonalds in order to pay for a metro ticket (a McCafe cappuccino and croissant for breakfast in Milan—how multicultural of me!) I made my way to the Duomo and walked around the surrounding shops. As tempted as I was to browse through The Gap and the Disney Store, I declined. After a while I wandered into an Italian marketplace, full of cheeses and olives and vinegars and prototypical Italian things. Considering its proximity to the Duomo, and the fact that all of the booths were all decorated with the Italian flag, its authenticity seemed a little suspect, but I nevertheless got a large cheese pizza for lunch that was quite fresh and filling.

After this I headed over to the only museum I had time for, (sorry Rafael’s “School of Athens,” you’ll have to wait. Oh, and “The Last Supper,” which I couldn’t see because ticketing system is more or less overrun by sanctioned ticket scalpers—I mean, tourist companies. Again, Jesus and the moneylenders come to mind) Museo de Novecento. This was a clean, nicely assembled Italian modern art museum, with works organized thematically and by movement instead of by chronology. The highlight of the museum was Italian Futurism. As a lover of cinema, an art form defined by movement, the futurists and their love of movement have fascinated me ever since I’ve been exposed to them. Their attempts to represent motion through the inherently static forms of painting and sculpture are both aesthetically appealing and theoretically


“Unique Forms of Continuity In Space”

interesting. Some of their more literal-minded paintings even resemble long exposure photographs or several corresponding film stills juxtaposed on top of each other.  Yet unlike the more sterile object dissections found in Cubism, Futurist art tends to ripple with dynamism; it’s full of contradicting, layered curvatures and twisting, contorting shapes. A highlight was seeing the paradoxically curvaceous, sharp, malleable, solid, and altogether striking sculpture we studied in class, Boccioni’s “Unique Forms of Continuity In Space”.

After this I met up with my NYU friends at Milan’s castle and we proceeded to walk through a park, visit a canal and a nearby cafe. Fulfilling Italy requirements, I had both espresso and gelato, choosing an absolutely killer mix of nutella and mint flavored gelato. Since a couple in our group had to catch a 9 PM train, we ate dinner at a rather unremarkable bakery. However, this bakery did sell bottles of sparkling wine for three euros, which were quite useful in helping me fall asleep by 9:30 PM, a feat I literally don’t think I’ve accomplished in years.

I woke up at 2:45 and went to check out, but there was nobody at the desk. Heavy breathing clued me in: my beloved concierge from the first night was sleeping on the couch in the tiny lobby, snoring long, wet snores. I went up to him and tried talking to him, but he didn’t awake. I poked him a little bit, talked a little more, and he slowly opened his eyes.

“Hi, I’d like to check out.”

“Oh, ok.” He paused. “You can go.”

“But… I need to return my locker key and get my deposit back.”

“Ok, ok.”

He didn’t have any coins to give me, only a ten euro bill. Fortunately I had change for him this time.

It was misting again as I walked to the bus in the dark, so very early in the morning.

I am now on the plane headed to Malaga, and I will take a bus from there to Granada. It’s 8:12 AM.

Fall Break European Tour 2013: En Route To Milan



I am currently riding in an EasyJet plane headed to Milan. My black backpack is resting in the overhead compartment above my head, thick and full to the brim with clothes intended to accommodate 70-degree temperatures and freezing temperatures. My trip is only beginning, and yet, somehow, I feel at peace.

Perhaps this is false confidence. I am certainly not logistically and directionally talented, so travel doesn’t come extraordinarily easy to me. I am not versed in multiple languages. I do not have an unlimited budget.

And yet, because of this I tried to plan as extensively as I could. I have a thick packet full of papers—tickets, directions, hostel reservations, ideas of places to go, eat, ect. sitting in the pouch in front of me. This was fairly nightmarish to put together. I spent hours on the computer, buying and researching and writing instructions and reading through Let’s Go Europe as if it were the night before a final exam and that snarky guide was my lifesaver of a textbook. My ultimate hope is that this planning will confirm my belief that the further you plan in advance, the more things you buy early, the more places you know you’re going, then the easier and less stressful the work of traveling will become. We will see. Even my attempts at being organized have caused me to purchase two different nonrefundable tickets twice without even realizing it. So it goes.

I need this to be somewhat easier because it feels (or at least it felt during those god-awful planning hours) that I have bitten more than I can chew. Traveling to five vastly different European countries over eleven days, on my own? Seriously?

This is certainly ambitious. I have never traveled by myself before (oh, you know what I mean. Car trips and one-way San Antonio to New York trips don’t count), and this is a helluva way to start. I feel greatly empowered yet simultaneously overwhelmed by the notion of traveling hundreds of miles and through several countries without another pair of eyes to deal with the logistics. “The lone traveler” is both an literary cliché and an existential reality. For while the challenges I face will be of an undeniably upper-middle class nature, I feel that this sort of trip can undeniably bare the thematic heft of a bildungsroman regardless. No, I’m not traveling in the wilderness for days before returning to my tribe. But I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that I’m embarking on the globalized, pluralistic 21st century version of a similar quest, what Victor Turner would call a “liminal experience,” an undetermined period of time when I can contemplate the elements of the world around me as they’re twisted and pulled into contortions that are both strikingly beautiful and frighteningly grotesque.

I will witness the heart of modern, urbanized Italy in Milan and its many museums. I will bask in the Islamic architecture, snow-tipped peaks, and warm sun of Southern Spain in Granada. I will experience the classic heart of London and have a pint in the Oxford pub where CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien regularly met. I will finish with an all-out feast of chocolate, waffles, pommes frites and wonderful beer in Brussels; a several-hour dip into Amsterdam will prelude my flight back into Prague.

Like all great, lasting life events, pondering this one gives me a peculiar mix of anxiety and excitement. And after all, there is no need to overstate the difficulties because I won’t be completely alone; I will be (quite by chance, actually) spending the day in Milan with some NYU friends. I will see a lifelong friend in Granada and another fine friend in London. And above all else, I somehow know that the God of the Universe is with me, inside me, gently turning me toward Himself and my True Self: the person that I, in the heart of my being, implicitly long to become.

I can’t promise that I’ll write regularly during this trip. If I don’t update you or update Instagram, please don’t think that something awful has happened to me. But if you check this blog, maybe you’ll see a couple updates here and there. Who knows. The plane is about to land in Milan now.

It’s an adventure.