*Filler post: Travel log*
Day 1 in Zürich "Unique" Airport
I seemed to have miscalculated the time it would have taken for us to travel from Bangkok to Zürich. Should have checked the itinerary a little closer and relied less on my ahem...astounding powers of math. Regardless, I now find myself with lots of time to burn and have thus embarked on typing what is hopefully, the first in many days of travelogue. Besides, it would save me from having to come up with individual blog posts when I returned dazed and numb.
Anyhoo, we hit the airport at around 6.15 am local time and the bus will only be leaving at 11 am. So it's now about 8.30, drinking a cup of processed coffee which is just slightly more expensive than the stuff you get in Singapore with interestingly more kick it seems. Either that or the jet lag is working in my favour despite the absolute lack of sleep I managed to get on the really cramped Swiss Air seats. If I ever want to be rich of a singular reason (other than to save the world of course) it has to be for the business/first class seats, which are simply so much roomier. Bah humbug.
So after exploring the shops what has hit me isn't simply the prices. NB: Singapore has a GDP per capita of over USD25k, which is merely the 1996 Swiss Standard of Living. What else is interesting is a) the erotic magazines are really not all that high up and are unwrapped and b) there's an erotic shop within the airport itself, something unthinkable in most countries.
And yes, upset because I couldn't get my FA in Thailand and the one in Zürich is freakishly expensive. It;'s about 26 SFr (multiply it by 1.32 to get a figure of what I would have to pay). Oh well, got The Economist, got teased about it by my colleagues and Priyam and Shuvam from SMU.
Just as your beloved intrepid author was struggling for things to write about or ditch this attempt to continue playing his newly purchased RPG, we were pleasantly interrupted by two of our NUS colleagues who actually took the time and were of the inclination to explore the surrounding areas and thereby came across this rather pleasant hilltop garden which we were by way of the recent caffeine charge and absolute lack of anything else to do (the Swiss may be voracious readers but it's entirely in German or French, the other stuff that does not require such linguistic skill to comprehend is unfortunately not for public consumption.
And so it came to be that we spent the next hour trudging out of the airport in the nice brisk weather to said hilltop garden. Very very pretty (a phrase that will recur rather constantly in this little travel log) where I took the opportunity to blow on some dandelions, yes city boy that I am. Took a couple of photos and went down on a roundabout fashion.
Time passed rather swiftly and we soon departed by taking the long leisurely circular path down back to the meeting point where the final administrative stuff was to be finalised. The only point of note was our *ahem cough* lunch pack which consisted of three pretzels, one nut snack pack, one green apple, one granola bar and a whole load of chocolate. Oh yes, and I got the sparkling water, the first of many in the day by which time I had pretty much got used to it and could see its appeal.
Eventually we pushed off and got onto one of those really cool and plush double decker buses (I noticed an espresso machine which I unfortunately did not get the chance to utilize) for our trip to the UNESCO town of St Gallen. If I had to sum up the ride there and th town itself, I could do no worse than to use the following terms, picturesque, idyllic, small town feel and very very pretty (or purty as I found myself using for some strange reason). This was confirmed by the two longish walks I had in the town itself whose architecture simply reinforced my perception (well the Marcerati and Ferrari showroom was um...just drool worthy).
I don't have a strong desire to describe the talks that we had primarily because the jetlag killed my cognition and because I've got the notes if you're really that curious.
What I have to point out was the buffet at the end of the day. Other than the fact that the reds and whites were consistently good throughout the day (quite unlike the plonk that they call house wines locally), the food was simply excellent. Never had I for example had so much meat and so much good one at that. The beef was insanely tender and nearly melt in your mouth, the sausages all good and in fact the other thing that wasn't bada bing bada bang bada boom was the fried pike perch (apparently from Lake Constance), I was so stuffed with the main courses that I basically just ignored desert which was a perfectly fine trade off for me.
Anyway, we took opportunity of the late sunlight and the fact that we were only to go to our host's place at 9 by walking around town again by which time unfortunately, everything was now closed. But even when 9 hit, it was still pretty bright out, which was disconcerting for your poor jetlagged author whose body told him it was 3am in the morning.
So we finally come to the end of the day. I'm staying at the pleasure of my kind host Stefan Fuch who seems incredibly nice and has honestly one kick ass decorated appartment. And with that, I bid you adieu and until tomorrow where we return to Zürich (it seems that I would have gone to Zürich in one form or another a total of 5 times)..
Day 2 in Zuirch
After a good night's sleep and sun shining in my face at 6 in the morning (helped no doubt by the jet lag), my host kindly showed me the way to school. I got to know him somewhat well in the long conversation we had last night as well as that over breakfast in the school cafe (absolutely tasty chocolate crossaint). It seems that law students are very similar all over the world,. After dropping me off at the meeting point, he went off straight to the library to do his reading.
As I type this in the cool double decker bus on the way to Zürich and Swiss Re, I'm pretty thankful for the opportunity,, notwithstanding the crazy Aristotelean confluence of events and the nightmare of rushing my essay and my inability to speak for the NUS Debate Team one last time. C'est la vie.
IT seems we arrived a little late and as a result we missed the little reception thing that was originally planned for us, which would be fine if I have had sufficient coffee. So we walk into the Swiss Re building which could so very easily pass off for a 6 star hotel (I later find out it's the Swiss Re Centre for Excellence which isn;t just a think centre but also a hotel so yes, my earlier assessment was partially correct) and I think further increases my desire to work for them. But the programme looks very interesting and it should be a very fine day ahead indeed. I doubt I'm going to be very active until I had a second cup of coffee thought.
I think I should now devote an entire paragraph to the food thus far. How does one describe excellent and sumptuous? The beauty of this entire trip so far is that we are seen to be good enough to court, not as much perhaps as the top 4 firms when they want you but the food has really been extraordinary, not just in terms of the quantity but also in terms of the quality and range, simply wonderful and incredible.
And now, for the journey back to St Gallen.. Unfortunately, when I shut down this palm, I found myself stuck in a very very bad jam almost entirely all the way to St Gallen itself, and sitting in a seat that was backwards to the flow of traffic, I found myself in a very uncomfortable position and getting rapidly nauseous. Good conversation all the way to the next event though with various members of the Singapore contingent on issues like law, the judiciary, law school, teaching in RGS and deprogramming young students.
The pre-conference briefing was held in what was (I was told) a created cellar. To be honest, the only nice part of it was the walk through the greenery of the abbey. I have no desire to write much about the actual briefing itself because it was almost purely administrative in nature although the talk was very very good.
Day 3 (Day 1 of ISC Symposium)
Had a very early start to the day as a result of the ostensible start at 8 am. The lack of coffee was to hit me very hard despite the generally high level of the speakers present. One thing that was interesting was the provision of a SpotMe, a sort of device which gives you the ability to send messages, register for the various work sessions as well as the various day tours and a cool radar function that allows you to know who is in your immediate vicinity.
One thing I have learnt is that just as there is physical stamina, which in and of itself can be subdivided into the various physical activity that one is involved in, there is too, a form of very specific stamina for surviving such symposiums where you have many high level speakers hitting you with very high level ideas and speeches (generally) in a short burst repeatedly.
Nevertheless, I survived till lunch. What was nice was that I got to call CL although I have to admit that our conversation as severely restricted given that I could not get to the free IDD phone until very late and it left me with something like 10 minutes to finish the call and to get to my next special session. However, it was still good and it's nice to know that my team all made it safely to Manila and seemed in general high spirits and look to have a promising tournament ahead of them.
One of the most interesting and best part of the St Gallen Symposium is the personalities you meet. I'm currently seating in on a Work Session by Mathew Bishop, the US Business Writer for the Economist and I'm seating next to the Vice Chariman of the Californian Republican Party. As a little tidbit, he's using a Sony Viao.
One thing that I regret now is that my essay wasn't specific enough, instead it was a rather general and broad overview. One of my current pet peeves right now is that ASEAN seems to have simply disappeared off everyone's radar despite a) it's geopolitical importance, b) it's Regional Organisational Importance and c) we ASEAN people make up one of the largest contingents in this place. But it seems that we have been eclipsed by China and India despite the oddity that we're here and now whereas they are "future potential". *Sigh* oh well. Anyway, I'm now off to listen in on a session on how the EU could inspire EAST Asia. Bah humbug.
Well, would wonders never cease? I suppose I should have expected it given how the speakers have always tried to broaden the topic at hand and thus ASEAN gets a good mention in Prof Dr James Davis's speech.
Given a choice between a Jazz Dinner Night and a St Gallen Night, I chose the latter on the sole basis arguably because more people I knew was going there. Which turned out to be a good choice because of the ambiance as well as the food. Both of which were absolutely excellent and that includes the company and the discussion I was able to engage in. The only drawback which was to have quite a big repercussion was the way in which it started late and dragged on. I left a little early because I had to catch the last bus but eventually got back home near midnight anyway. The result was that I couldn't get up the next day, not helped by the fact that I was awaken by a HR dept who seem to have some congenital defect and incapability to transmit information and to retain it. I was very rudely awaken sometime at 5 in the morning to a lady who thought, ) I was still in Singapore, b) it was a reasonable time and c) I was returning to Singapore on the 1st despite 2 earlier email much to th contrary.
See previous day's account for what happened in the morning.
I hit St Gallen University in the afternoon just in time for lunch and had the opportunity to sit in on a keynote panel session which was absolutely fascinating in particular for its spirited defence and explanation of Globalisation.
The highlight arguably was the trip to the Abbey and its library which was a UNESCO Heritage World Site and it was simply amazing. Pity I couldn't take pictures of it but it was absolutely great.
The last special session of the day was pretty good. Discussing the issue of how Europe could benefit from the dynamism of the Asian markets, we had a wide and diverse range of views with strong and critical (we had an Indian uber nationalist and optimist) speakers. What was also good was the Q&A session and in particular Ajung, an Indonesian doctoral student from St Gallen University but based in Singapore raised the issue that I had previously mentioned above i.e. what about ASEAN? Nevertheless I think what was massively missing was the lack of a forum on SEA and ASEAN. After all, a quick perusal of the student participants reveals a huge bulk (a majority even) of students who are either of ASEAN nationality or studying in ASEAN universities.
My very kind host offered to make me a fondue dinner and as such, I was very happy to accept and not to go for the international buffet. There were a number of reasons for this., Firstly, I was tired of crowds. Two, this would be the first time I would have fondue. Three, conversation with my host tends to be a blast.
A quick description of my host here or as much as I could accurately describe him in 4 days. He is a St Gallen student and from a village an hour away from the city which has a population of 600. While he claims his standard of English isn't great, nevertheless, it's conversationally much better my mandarin. While we don't necessary hold the same views of capitalism and globalisation (naturally a dichotomy between readers of Naiomi Klein's No Logo and Martin Wolf's Why Globalisation Work), nevertheless the Swiss and Singaporean mindset is similar enough but not identical to support great long conversations about Federalism and Political Unions developing from an Economic one. So sometimes, it would seem, being a debater is a good thing after all. Then again, even if I hadn't been interested in Europe, I think two law students wouldn't find it too hard to find SOMETHING to talk about.
Day 3 and final day in St Gallen
Perhaps it's the Singaporean kaisu mindset, or my hatred of being tardy, or maybe simple paranoia of being late, but due to a confluence of events i.e. the symposium finishing early, my early booking of an early train to Zürich, my host sending me early enough to the St Gallen Bahnhof to catch an even earlier train to Zürich and for some inexplicable reason, my buying and taking of a transit train to the Zürich HB early (and skipping dinner in the process) left me with a good 5 plus hours to spare before my train to Rome.
While the shopping, browsing and general walking around opportunities were great, the problem was that I overpacked as usual with the result being that my forearm felt like they were on fire a short hour after walking around the station itself. Unfortunately, I was at the same time unable to find the Left Luggage station and was under the mistaken assumption that the coin operated lockers were insufficiently large enough to fit my luggage, which I was to discover to my detriment some time later.
That time later was when I was despairing of finding a place to rest until my train arrived when I found a waiting room. This was when another NUS guy from the St Gallen Symposium saw me and came in. And yes, that was when he showed me where those big lockers were, which was way too late simply because there really wasn't that much time to justify me paying 8 SFr for. Similarly, while I was tempted, 12 SFr for a shower was just a mite too exorbitant..
Fast forward to 10:30 when the train arrived. Due to again, another extraordinary confluence of events mainly involving mistakes in booking (on all sides curiously enough), I was forced to purchase a much pricier ticket but which turned out to be a pretty good deal because I only had to share the cabin with 2 others instead of 5. And it turned out that I had a very decent night's sleep. Oh yes and a cuppacino in the morning. That always helps.
Day 1 in Rome
It seems that my g-shock watch despite having world time function i..e. I can choose which city's time my watch should display, does not factor daylight saving time. As a result, thinking that I had over an hour left to Rome, I was mildly surprised to find the conductor knocking on the cabin door telling me we were hitting Roma Termini in 10 minutes. No biggie since I was ready to go anyway.
Rome Termini is a study in contrast because coming into the station it looks rather decrepit and insipid. But once you walk to the head of the platform into the station proper it is totally modern and well Changi Airport like. Not a big surprise considering it was renovated in 2000 (Holy Jubilee, always a good time for those renovations that always seemed to cost to much).
But with my luggage, my first and sole concern was to check into the hostel and dump the luggage. An so I opened my bag to retrieve my Palm to get directions. And what do you know, but I packed every single thing EXCEPT the electronic map. To cut a long story short, which basically involved calling home and walking my mom through the directions to retrieve the document but to no avail. Fortunately I had the “presence of mind” (and absolutely nothing to do one night and refusing to read anymore public law) I imput the number of the hostel into my Palm. So calling the hostel, I managed to get directions but still got partially lost anyway.
In the end, I managed to find it (it had an incredibly discrete sign compared to the other places) and did check in only to find that I could only go to my room at 3. Fortunately they had a luggage room and a place to shower, which left me feeling more human again and ready to tackle the city. Of course it helped that the computer was down so they couldn't create an internet account for me.
I don't really want to go into details as to exactly where I went but just some general comments. Where St Gallen was picturesque, Rome was just dripping with culture and history. What was amazing was walking through a street full of really pretty shophouse and the like-streets with cobblestones to boot and then suddenly you come across something from before 1 CE. Trevi Fountain was a blast of coolness (yes it's spring but the sun was out), The Pantheon emerged from nowhere to blast the sense along with the Coloseum and almost every other single historical site.
Oddly enough, I met quite a large number of Americans on the trip, specifically from USA. First was a pre-med student who asked me for directions but I eventually ended up following her to the Coloseum because she seemed to know the place better than I did (she arrived on Friday). Next was a pair of brothers from Tennesee and a father and daughter pair whom I met in my room.
A note here about coffee. While there was suppose to be a cold spell hitting Europe this spring, nevertheless it was blazing hot, only tempered by the cool wind and frequent fountains (note, you may not feel hot but the sun is still going to burn your skin so bring tanning lotion, it will save you from redness and pain). I was guzzling water like nobody's business, helped in part by a drinking sprout I found in the exit of the ruins (there are a bunch around but not quite enough I feel), but even so, I now found myself at Trastevere, the supposed poorer part of Rome (been gentrified now really) but honestly, it feels more human as ruins are great but there is simply too much history and awe involved. Regardless, I happened to stop at a cafe and decided to pop my head in for a drink. As previously mentioned, it was too hot and fortunately, what little Italian I picked up seemed almost exclusively useful only for identifying and ordering coffee and so I ordered a cafe fredo. It was ice cold, thick, black and really good although I probably had a better one near Santa Maria as that one was served over crushed ice. But with sugar, caffeine and a slice of pizza (purchased from a cart vendor although still somewhat tasty), that basically fueled my walking for the entire day.
All in all I walked for other 9 hours and traversing all over the southern part of Rome. 5 plus in the afternoon and another 3 plus in the evening. And because I got partially lost I had to retrace my route to places I had seen in the afternoon. The beauty of this was that I could see the same sites but this time bathed in golden light. Gorgeous in another manner.
Day 2 in Rome
Jun Yang, an NUS student who was also at the Symposium was due to arrive at Roma Termini at 9.50, having taken the same route as I did from Zürich. I promised to pick him up from the airport and to bring him to the hostel before showing him around and as such I found myself once again at the Termini at 9.40. Unfortunately Murphy's Law struck and the train was delayed by 20 minutes which left me about half an hour to burn. This I did by watching a performance of Momzart pieces by a group of dressed up musicians in celebration of his 200th anniversary. This is perhaps one of the reasons why I am excited about going to Salzburg although all the major musical events will be at Vienna.
Anyway, in the interest of time and because I once again overestimated the time it took to walk around Rome, I basically retrace the route I took yesterday morning but skipping the jaunt across the Tiber. Of course it did not help that I received a call that informed me that the hotel I was expecting to stay at had to be canceled and effectively had to travel all the way to the airport to meet up with the tour group there. So no, I wasn't entirely a happy camper seeing as I had undertaken some effort to confirm the hotel (including a slight battle with a rather obtuse travel agent who needs to understand the word, "listening") and the route by which I was going to go there. Oh well, such are the unfortunate circumstances of life.
Jun Yang was kind enough to send me off at the airport which I was very grateful for but again a combination of things including my going here early, the flight being slightly delayed, the baggage chain breaking down not once but twice, all added up to me having to wait about 3 hours before mom eventually emerged from the airport. Further compounding the problem was the fact that I was then told dinner would not be served as everyone else has had dinner on the plane already. On the bright side, the area around Piazza Monteloeone Di Spoleto was pretty nice, kinda like suburbia Rome, a nice change from the overwhelmingcity itself, not counting Trastevere of course.
Day 3 in Rome
And we're off to the Vatican, Holy See. I'm partially tempted to play Catholic for today and while I can probably fake my way through most of it, the lack of cathecism classes means that there will be some gaps in my knowledge.
Oops, it seems I was mistaken after all and today's tour will be within Rome itself. And while I tried as far as possible not to overlap my personal tour with the Chan Brothers one. Unfortunately, given the major tourist attractions in Rome as well the place I was staying at made it such that I visited the Colosseum and the Roman Forum for the fourth time. But on the bright side, this gave me the opportunity to show mother around. And the photo opportunities were better simply because I finally got my camera from Singapore.
I do apologise at this point because the recollection from this point may not be as rest as before. 2 reasons here, firstly, because the trip was so packed that it was night impossible for me to find any place to settle down to type. Secondly, while the trips got longer, the problem was that the new bus did not have any platform for me to type on and as such I do beg your indulgence as readers.
Firstly, let's talk about the Vatican as that was the only place in Rome that I did not cover that was in the tour itinerary. I confess that the rush, heat and crowd did not make it particularly conducive for sightseeing and all these factors combined made me a little short on temper. But here's what's impressive. I think the museum and the Sistine Chapel and the St Peter's Bascillia were all worth the trip and visit. My only problem was that with the exception of the last, they were not awe inspiring, I guess I was disappointed by all the hype about the Sistine Chapel, it's a lot smaller than I expected which I think personally odd because it is a chapel after all. But in my defence I think this was because everything is on such a grand scale (the St Peter's Basilica has to be seen to be believed and trust me, because of its Baroque nature i.e. illusions are part of the design, you have to go in and walk through it to appreciate it all. But one of its major drawbacks I feel is in its very size. It's hard to feel a communion with anything in something as large as a decent size museum I think.
But back to the Sistine Chapel. I think on reflection that one could well and easily safe the money and the trip and just look at the reproductions. It isn't cheap €20 plus and the crowds are just insane. I honestly don't think there could be a time when it isn't filled with people, which means it's stuffy and noisy despite the valiant attempts of the guards to quiet down the crowds, for short of using tasers judiciously, I doubt that it is possible.
Just one last fun fact. Apparently the guide who showed us around Rome that day was the same one who showed Zoe Tay around on one of those travel shows on Channel 8. He was good to be sure unfortunately his name slips my mind after all these days.
In case you were wondering when I'm typing this, I'm in hour 6 of what is to be a 36h journey home. I have to travel from the hotel to Paris Gard du Nord then to Gard de l'Est, and then to Basel where I have to make a quick jaunt to another platform to catch the train to Zürich HB where I have o catch another train to the airport where I face the prospect of a 14h plane ride home with a quick stop over in Bangkok.
All in all, I would have travel to or passed through Zürich a total of 6 times in this past 3 weeks.