Saturday, April 30, 2011


Buon giorno! I spent the past 4 days in Rome with Jeffrey Atkinson ’12, and invited him to guest edit this blog post.
We had a busy itinerary:
21/4 (Thursday): Walked around Rome at night
22/4: Colosseum, Pantheon, Trastevere (the less touristy Rome), Good Friday mass in St. Celia (from 300 AD!)
23/4: Vatican museum, Sistine Chapel, Roman Forum
24/4: Easter Sunday mass in St. Peter’s Square, St. Peter’s Basilica, Borghese Gallery

Famous landmarks

I’ll begin with pictures of famous landmarks in Rome. No explaination needed. (Ed. note: well, they're really interesting, but you can look them up on your own.)


St. Peters square (oval)

Easter Sunday Mass

Before arriving in Rome, we arranged with the office of American visitors to the Vatican to receive our tickets for Easter Mass in St. Peter’s Square (hosted by ‘Papà Benedetto’ XVI, our tickets read).
We actually saw the Pope twice in Rome, first while trying to cross an intersection that was blocked off – all the pedestrians were waiting on the sidewalk for some reason we couildn’t quite discern. Suddenly, a police motorbike sped by at 50 miles per hour or more, followed by three more bikes and three SUVs. A black Maserati sedan flashed by, offering the impatient crowd a glimpse of a white-robed figure in the back of the well-lit interior... Hey, that’s the Pope, we exclaimed. The pedestrians started clapping, although they seemed as surprised as us. It was a surreal moment for a random street corner in Rome – a good thing we didn’t try to cross the street in front of the police!

The second time was, obviously, expected: we woke up early on Sunday to line up at the Vatican for Easter Mass.
I think this picture was taken when the Pope said “Happy Easter, Christ has risen” in Spanish, as evidenced by some Chilean flags waving.

Even if you’re not Catholic, Christian, or religious, there’s something powerful about thousands of people from across the world gathered, at times in almost complete silence.  Some proudly carried their country’s flags into the square – symbols of thei r culture rather than government, and cheered at the end when a short Easter message was read in their language out of the dozens represented.

Blobs, umbrellas, flowers

What do all these things have in common? They’re all popular items sold by street vendors all over Rome. These street vendors are at times annoying, but also entertaining

Blobs: turn the corner into a piazza, and you’ll see a man flinging an animal-shaped gel blob into the ground. Apparently kids like the fact that the flat shapes the blob forms when it hits the ground. Jeff says he saw this same random product all over Trento and other places he’s travelled in Italy. So… here’s our theory: some centralized distributor must supply these toys all over Italy. And why the blob? Because some factory, likely Chinese, overproduced these toys this year, and so the distributor could buy them at really cheap prices

Umbrellas: one time, it started raining in Trevi fountain. In less than 2 minutes, tens of street vendors appeared selling umbrellas. We saw one guy trying to sell umbrellas to a man who already had an umbrella.
  • Vendor: only 2 euro, buy this umbrella
  • Man: “I already have an umbrella”
  • Vendor: “Then buy this super compact foldable umbrella” [pulls out small umbrella]
  • Man: “I have the  same one. Your colleague sold me one earlier”
  • Vendor: “Then buy this even bigger umbrella to protect you from the rain even more!” [pulls out huge, noncollapsible umbrella]

Flowers. Everytime in a restaurant, we had street vendors walking into the restaurant, trying to help couples increase the romantic setting by selling them flowers. And the waiters didn’t care at all!

The most  ridiculous situation happened on the Spanish steps, apparently the place all romantic young couples go in the evening:

The street vendor, eyeing a young French couple trying to take photos of themselves, offers to take pictures for them.

They refuse. But their fatal error- instead of ignoring the street vendor, they make eye contact.
Street vendor then offers the couple flowers. The woman politely says no thanks. Error #2: she should’ve just said no and walked away.

Street vendor tries another strategy. He continuously offers the couple flowers by putting the flowers into the woman’s hands, saying “it’s OK, it’s OK”, implying he’s given up selling the flowers, and since it was late at night with no on else around, willing to give them out for free. Again, woman is too polite, and wanting to stop the annoying vendor, finally gives in, takes the flowers.

The couple tries walking away, is politely followed by the street vendor (this time he heckles the man), who reminds them everytime they try to kiss that the flowers are still unpaid! 

The lone street vendor, politely following the couple. After all, they still have to pay for the flowers!

This ridiculous situation continues for 20 minutes until the couples gives back the flowers and the persistent street vendor finally gives up.

How to visit a museum

I had an epiphany while visiting the Borghese galleries. The evolution of my museum-going strategies
The first time I visited the Louvre, I walked, tried to understand statues just by looking, failed, and got bored of seeing so many statues in 1 hour.    
Later I discovered the power of audiotours- especially Rick Steves- for giving context to artwork.
Cardinal Borghese, whose collection was expanded upon and turned into a museum.

At the Borghese, I discovered the magic of sitting down, and sketching the artwork. It forces me to sit down, and relax, and allows me to appreciate the work put into every chisel/brush stroke. Besides, even I can get RickSteves-fatigue sometimes.

Monday, April 25, 2011


As a quick stop before Rome, I stopped in Nice, on the Cote d’Azur on last Wednesday. The town wasn’t too impressive (felt like most other resorts), but this was the original beach resort.

It was a scenic train ride along the Mediterranean sea

I also met an artist who was excited because I was from michigan

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Saturday, April 23, 2011


Barcelona: tourists abound!

*Normally I would have more pictures, but bandwidth limits at internet cafes prevent me from doing that

Everyone I talked to seems to rave about Barcelona. Now I see why. Tons of young adults come here for the nightlife.

Of course, Barcelona has lots of history too.

But it’s hard to not like the over the top tourist culture in some places here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Lisboa: a small village

I was lucky enough to have Alexandre’s friend be my tour guide in Lisboa. He showed me all the good views.

In Lisboa, I found, downtown was full of old, small buildings, while the suburbs where full of high-rise apartments. Exact opposite of U.S....


I went to Sintra, a nearby picturesque town with royal palaces and castles. There I met Emma and Martin, fellow travellers from London.

I went to Sintra alone. It was the first time in a while I was travelling in touristy places without a guide. It was good to remind myself of the mantra “a strager is a friend you haven’t met” and meet new people

On the way up to the moorish castle on top of the mountain (see above picture), I ran into Fabia and Pierre, a middle-aged French couple from Paris. I had no idea I would use French again so soon! 

On top of the castle. Reminds me of the great wall of China!

At one point, I was explaining something from the guide book to Pierre, and he remarked “Nous avons de la chance d’avoir un chinois-americain, qui nous explique en francais, les choses portugaises”


start 15:30


I’ve been all over the Iberian pennisula this past week. My itinerary looked like this:

13/4 Wednesday: Night train to Madrid
Thu: Madrid, with Miguel, Rich, and Ariel (Olin students studying in Madrid)
Fri: Madrid, night train to Lisboa (Lisbon in portuguese)
Sat: Lisboa, with Eduardo, friend of Porguese friend Alexandre (you know the guy who’s on my blog with food :) )
Sun: Lisboa, night train to Madrid,
Mon: Madrid to Barcelona train
20/4 Tues: Barcelona

Madrid: sunny plazas

My biggest impressions is its sunny plazas. Huge open spaces surrounded by big 17/18th century buildings. My favorite is Plaza de Major:

This plaza represents 2 things I found unique about Madrid compared to Paris:
1. Lots of sun
2. Vibrancy: people seemed more energetic (and louder). I’m not trying to make a stereotype. Just my limited observations of a part of the city.

Rich, Ariel, and Miguel took me out to some tapas bars

Las meninas

This became my favorite painting after I saw it in the Prado museum:

Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez, 1656. Picture from wikipedia

At first I couldn’t understand why art critics like this so much. But afer sitting in teh room for a few minutes, I understood.
(The following “critique” comes from my own experience, and very little prior art history training)
First this painting is introspective. At the surface, Velázquez is painting the Royal family. But I think the painting is more about himself. He does this self-portrait in a creative way. Look at his face. What is he thinking? Perhaps he’s reflecting over his life as a painter. Looking at the other paintings in the museum, I realized just how unique this painting is. About all other 16th century paintings are just portraits of royalty, dramatized Biblical scenes/history, or landscapes.

Biscuits from nuns

Rich and I heard about a convent in Madrid that sells baked goods. We found the convent tucked in the corner of a unpopulated plaza. On the door: “Biscuits for sale”. Rich pressed the button and said “Dulce!” (sweets). Door opens. We walk down the corridor into a small courtyard. No one around. We walk down a hallway and run into a big lazy susan built into the wall. We heard a muffled woman’s voice form behind the lazy susan. We put money into the lazy susan. It spins, and out comes change and biscuits (with a muffled “gracias”).
Afterwards, we go out into the courtyard and share the biscuits with our fellow voyagers from Belgium. They too read their tourbook carefully to find out about this place. Finally, the Belgian woman bursts out laughing, and we all do as well, in reflection of what just happened. A magical moment.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

My Tour around Europe

My tour around Europe.

As I wrote earlier, I’m going around Europe for a month. Specifically, Western Europe - Switzerland - Scandinavia
Red indicates side trips I’ve already done. Blue is my month-long tour. Current location: Madrid.

I’m meeting various Oliners and friends along the way, so I won’t be alone the much of the time.

Traveling is done with this backpack + railpass:

At the end, I’m meeting with my parents and brother in Belgium, 14 May

Also, Mr. Rick Steves is a great help.

Travel as a political act

A day in the life of a Parisien

I’m currently in Lisbon, Portugal, on the 3rd leg of my around-Europe trip. But because of my travels, it takes about a week to post a blog post. So just pretend everything is a week in the past!
We were astonished by how well we cooked our breakfast!

A week ago I had the opportunity to stay for a few days at Guillaume’s appartment in Paris. Gui is a PhD student at Polytechnique, and we were on the same team for our start-up class.

Friday, April 8, 2011

La Rochelle- "Paris is not France"

This weekend I went to La Rochelle, a seaport town on the Atlantic coast

I also lost the Olin Challenge when I saw some random guy on the street wearing an Olin sweatshirt! 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"Steven, tu as fini..." - a song by Alexandre

A song by Alexandre, which sums up my experience at Polytechnique

Here are the lyrics:

Hey Rouje… ne ple-ures pas!

This was week was bittersweet. Although there were no classes, and exams were over, my class, or promotion, as we say in French, X2008*, stayed until the final get together Friday night. I packed up my stuff and left Saturday morning

*2008 is the year of entry of this class, X is the thing you prepend to represent Polytechnique. Why X? Because one of the emblems of Polytechnique involves two swords criss-crossed in a X form. Plus P doesn’t sound as cool.

Alexandre, portuguese friend, helping me move out!
Read on about the symphony concert, and the Polytechnique rendition of Hey Jude, don't make it bad (hint, see title of this post)

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Guest post from Xavier Ziemba: weekend in Paris

Another guest blog post, this time from Xavier Ziemba. Xy and Jeff Atkinson (both Olin ‘12) came to visit me last weekend, just after my last exam. Xy is studying in Belgium, and Jeff in Italy.
Being little kids in the village in Versailles