Saturday, July 21, 2007

So Let Go

Friday, 20 July 2007
Koningsstraat, Amsterdam

These are my last days in Amsterdam and, like any other thing that must come to an end, small things seem precious. Pigeons, which usually fly so annoyingly close to me when I'm biking, are cuter; the canals, within which usually float curious objects, are lovelier; friendships, which I usually need to drag my ass out of the house to tend to, are harder to let go.

I began to question myself: is gratitude reserved to the novel and the temporary?

When I first arrived, everything was breathtaking. Western Europe, with its enchanting historical buildings, museums, concerts, was an endless array of adventure and learning opportunity. Grocery shopping, bike rides in the snow, cooking - everything - was special.

But then the novelty wore out. I adapted. I tried all the good places to eat, every activity became a routine. Weekends: movies and dinner. Weekdays: studying and coffee with friends. Every new country I go to are countless churches and historical platforms and buildings and museums. What used to be exotic European languages became a spin of basic Latin words (honestly).

The premise in my head re-structured itself from the classic Western-Eastern paradigm of Advanced-Developing to New-Exciting/Adjusted-Boring. I realised that anything, no matter how amazing, surreal, out-of-this-world, will become ordinary once we've adjusted ourselves to survival.

Then you arrive to the ending of all that is normal. Everything becomes: the last time of .... (fill in the blank). The last time biking in Amsterdam, the last time I'll ever see my friends, the last time I'll ever bla di bla di bla. It's true, but come on. Virtual reality develops new forms of relationship and physical migration is more than just a possibility (statistically speaking, a person who has lived in a foreign country has a higher chance of travelling than a person who has never left their home country).

So what then?

I think it's not just me.

I think most of us have a tendency to exaggerate the novel, take everyday-life for granted and romanticise goodbyes. Ironically, the only part of life where we can really make a difference and be grateful for what we have, is the part that we take everything for granted: what you do after you wake up, how you maintain your friendships, how you love your family, what you say when you're unbelievably angry (do you deliberately say words for spite or take a step back, calm self down, and think: 'Would I really want my last words to [fill in with the name of any loved one] to be so hurtful?').

Life is not about what or who we let go, but what and who remains. The things and people we usually take for granted are the aspects in life we can still maintain. It's so easy for me, and most people I know, to belittle the things that are actually most precious.

So I am going to hug my husband, who has been such a good and supportive friend of mine for an unmeasurable 8 years. A companion for 4 years and a spouse for 2. Who has held my hand through the most defining period of my life up until now (I am pretty sure, if I am given the time, there are still so much more to come). Who is literally 'my home away from home'.

Sometimes it isn't what you are letting go, but what you will have for, hopefully, a very long time.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Haves and Have-Nots

Thursday, 22 June 2007
Koningsstraat, Amsterdam

I called my mom yesterday and we got to talking about her job. Being a 'public servant', the higher your position is, the more people treat you like royalty. My mom, with her non-feodalistic, 'egalitarian' approach refuses to be treated this way. She emphasised on how she thinks we are all supposed to be the same; that the rich, the educated, the physically capables - are all so by chance. Some say it's God's will and some say it's nature's course. But nonetheless, it's a thought to ponder: if all the fortunes we have are due to opportunity, how do we deal with inequality?

From all the Friendster photos of your friends, which are taken in the office (small cublicles and uncomfortable-looking office clothes) - perhaps hundreds of them - how many of these people actually have the necessary capabilities needed by a multi-national and/or national company to excel as manager within 5 years? How many of those who excel as manager, have the networking skills to become director in 10-20 years? How many of them got their position in the first place because a member of their families pulled some strings?

I wish I had numbers, but all I can do is assume that the answer is: a few (honestly, the thought that most of them will be stuck in dead-end jobs for decades scare the crap out of me). The underlying logis is: not everyone can be excellent, not everyone falls into the category of the 'social haves' - because if everyone is special, then no one is special. If everyone is smart, then everyone is mediocre.

Though fortune is fortune, it's not a curse and at most times, it is well-earned. However I think it's important to embed in our minds that in order to get to the position we are in, there are so many other variables other than ourselves that are put into play - including the 'have-nots' of other people, that supported some of us to be 'haves'.

This is why I really support the concept of zakat, persepuluhan, tax, charity - what have yous; in its broadest sense. If some of us are so fortunate to be able to be distinguishable and be the few who are weeded out as 'leaders', then in our money, in our capablities and in our achievements - lies the rights of others. If it were not for them, 'we' would never be. As Albert Einstein so elloquently puts it, "Every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving."

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Classic 'Us' and 'Others'

Saturday, 16 June 2007
Koningsstraat, Amsterdam

Traveling and relocation has been vastly studied culturally. One of the most interesting findings, I think, is the argument that the idea of being 'far away from home' can create a sense of fraternity. For instance, you commune with people from your country of origin and stick with them despite the fact that you would not hang out with these people if it weren't for you being in another country.

In other cases, there is the probability of an emmerging international community. You commune with people with the same values. You detach yourself from you national identity and decide to embrace the difference that comes with cultural incompatibilities.

None the wiser, none the better.

I just find it interesting how we attempt to deal with difference. Some people become very defensive with how they are and offend anything that disconfirms their perceiving of things (comparable to extremism) - basically for the fear of unknown threats. Some people are not offensive, but perceive anything different from their own as, well, 'weird' (comparable to judgemental). Regardless of how the 'challenged dealings with difference' surface, it manifests from the lack of willingness to understand.

At some points of my living in Amsterdam, I do find myself being on the offence. I feel threatened when a friend judges who or how I am, the choices I make or what I do. But at the end, I decide it is far more self-empowering to stop and think why they are like this, as opposed to protecting myself from something that shouldn't matter.

House to Cameron, "Why should you care what I think? What's important is what you think."

By understanding why certain things are as they are, we equip ourselves with the necessary tools to understand others. We are actually gathering data that is needed to approach 'subjects' and 'employ the signs that they understand'. For example (please ignore the over-generalisation), when talking to a Dutch person you talk about weather and winter trips to sunny Indonesia, when talking to a North American you talk about Hollywood culture.

There are limits though. Sometimes no matter how much you learn about someone's cultural background, your message can never come through. The conceptual maps that are planted in their heads are so different from ours that nothing we can formulate is acceptable/computable to them. It is almost as if we are speaking in different languages. At these times, we can only withdraw and retreat. Energy spent would be energy wasted (bak buang garem ke laut).

Sometimes I just think of how amazing it is the journey of finding yourself through your interaction with others, without even being 'carried by the flow'. We are ourselves. We have our chosen identities before our 'interaction with difference'. I guess sometimes difference helps confirm who we are. Without putting ourselves in other people's shoes, how do you know we are wearing the right size?

Choices and Responsibilities

Friday, 15 June 2007
Koningsstraat, Amsterdam

The dillema of being a 20-something-year-old: Do I have the right profession? Am I wasting my time with what I'm doing now? Can I really see myself doing this for decades?

A lot of variables come into play within the process of searching for answers. Parents' approval, financial security, employment security, community appraisal, insurance, vacation/leave, etc, etc. The list goes on from one aspect to another, rarely resorting to the most important thing: Are we happy with what we do?

In the middle of waking up at 6AM every morning and sighing with relief when we kick our shoes off - we fulfil all of our responsibilities as an adult and as a participant of a society that we no longer fulfil our 'selfish' needs. We feel more comfortable to be able to answer the question 'What do you do?' with 'I work at Telkomsel' than 'I own a small business unit' or 'I'm in between researches' because it's easier for people to fathom.

All of these questioning, as always, sprung from the fact that I'm currently choosing an 'unpopular' career path. I am aware of the need to remind myself everyday that it's easier to bear the uncomfortable conversations with people not understanding what I do, than having to live with myself doing something I don't enjoy. There is just so much we can do by explaining ourselves to others; how they interpret our message is completely out of our control.

'Let it go. It's beyond your control,' I say to myself.

We all need to set our priorities straight. What is the most important thing in our lives? Happiness? Money? Time with family? The ability to help other people? Then we need to operationalise our plans according to this single most important thing. Being consistent about something that is our lives' target is much more easier than pleasing other people's expectations - because we are in control of our own choices and, well, pursuit of happiness (pun unintended).

At the end of the day, we explain our life decisions to ourselves. We have to live with our choices and rationalise the costs and benefits. We are the ones bearing the consequences and taking in the experience of the profession we choose to do.

After all, regardless of faith, culture or gender, "In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility." (Eleanor Roosevelt)

The Markers of (Our) Limits

Wednesday, 24 May 2007
Koningsstraat, Amsterdam

The past few weeks of mine have been filled with writing, re-writing, editing, re-structurising arguments & chapters, and, well, practically blowing my brains out. I had to think so much my head, literally, hurt. Interestingly, during my re-reading of what I had written a few months ago, the thought: "What the hell do I mean here and what language is this written in?" made me realise how 'this' (my thesis) is just a small part of my life-long journey of learning (in its broadest sense).

Anything we are going through at the moment - the hardest things we have to go through in this moment - will seem like small pricks of our lives in the next few years. Be it the biggest project in your life, your wedding day, your dissertation; they are, I argue, not the monuments of your life, but the markers of how much you've learned.

Try remembering how it felt like when your heart was broken in high school. How 'real' it seemed and how much you want to laugh out loud now when you think of it now? "Ya elah, gitu doang diurusin" would perhaps be your thought (or if you still think it's horrendous, you can stop reading here because we're not on the same page - and that's ok).

The thought of 'this', whatever hard thing we have to go through, being something 'surmountable' is a real consolation. It means we can go through EVERYTHING life shoves in our faces. It might be a big deal now but not when you look back to it in a few moments' worth.

So hold your head up high and keep on 'learning'. Because the hardships you go through are the aspects that help you push yourself to your limits - and maybe exceed it, if you fight hard enough. We are defined by how hard we fall and how much we've learned in the process of 'standing up'. And in that sense, the worse you have to go through, the stronger a person you may be. Afterall, as said by Woody Allen: "Tragedy + time = comedy".

Let It Suck

Wednesday, 4 April 2007
Koningsstraat, Amsterdam

It seems that I'm counting the days I have left in Amsterdam. It's perhaps hardest to say goodbye to Lena, Agne and Thera since I don't know for sure when we'll ever see each other again. Maybe even never, thinking we all come from different parts of the world.

And so comes the much too familiar feeling of saying goodbyes and spaces in which this happens. Sometimes I even feel myself pulling back from them just for the fear of letting go if I get too attached. Because they know me so well, they let me have my space and at the same time letting me know that they sense my shutting down. Lena reminded me elloquently that 'it is better to deal with it when it comes instead of taking the pleasure away from it while you still have it.' She also reminded me that little-miss-know-it-all apparently does not cope well with goodbyes.

Indeed I don't.

I remind myself that farewells are in concept similar to airports. It is the space within which we say goodbye, true, but it is also the space within which we say hello. So each moment we are letting go, we're also embracing new (or old) loved ones. In this case, though saying goodbye to my newfound good friends here, I am going to say hello to my family.

At the moment though, it just sucks. And I'm letting it be. Because I have my own timeframe and I am not going to force myself to do something I am not ready to. But in the mean time, yes, I am not going to take away the pleasure while I still have it. I will really miss our conversations over coffee (me), tea/coffee (Lena), red wine (Agne) and black tea (Thera). But I know dwelling is not the answer. So ah, let it suck and let it leave a mark. I'll cherish them nevertheless.

Living on Borrowed Time

Wednesday, 28 March 2007
Koningsstraat, Amsterdam

I was gazing outside the window. Staring at people walking by on Willemsparkweg. A mother biking with her baby strapped behind her. A student with his huge backpack. An old lady with groceries.

They age. People, I mean. You are born, raised by parents, you go to school and, if you are blessed, you get the chance to grow old. It is one of the rare deterministic paths all human beings go through. Regardless of race, belief, nation or gender. We all grow older.

Do you fully realise how true the sentence 'we don't own our body, we are borrowing it' is?

That everything will die. Yor muscles will disintegrate and your body will incur more fat - if you're unlucky, maybe around your heart. You will wrinkle. You will lose hair. It is a fact that everyday, we lose our body bit by bit.

I suppose if dying is inevitable then we are living on borrowed time. Each moment we have we can never get back. It really makes you wonder if you have been conscientiously using the limited amount of time you have.

It was yesterday that I told Arya, to which he did not argue (intermezzo: this rarely happens). "If you have a child, don't miss him/her growing up. The moments you spend away from them can't be taken back. It is just that one time you have with them and you can never have it back. Be a good father. Watch your children grow and be there for them. (mulai ngelantur) It doesn't mean you should stay inside the house and do nothing. But you should really, really be there for them." And he just listened to me and nodded. Perhaps I was more talking to myself than to him.

The things we do and let go because we are so sure we can have them back.

I understand fully that we all have our costs and benefits. The things one person holds most precious might be another's trash. People might say I am letting go of a great career by holding back and getting married. Others might say I am taking hold of my serenity. To be honest, I just want to be happy.

To be content of what I have and not reel for the things I can't. Whether it's going back to school, making money or building a family: whatever you are trying to get hold of must be worth more than what you are letting go. If you keep 'looking over to the greener side', perhaps you opted for the less of the two choices.

Because believe me, if you are happy, nothing should make you question the worth of what you have.

Cost and Benefit

Tuesday, 6 March 2007
Koningsstraat, Amsterdam

I am coming home soon. Well, in a few months, after my thesis is done. Friends ask why we (Arya and I) aren't staying for a couple of more years instead and make money. This did cross our (my) mind and, to be honest, it is intriguing.

But I guess it's the simple measure of cost and benefit. Without discrediting those who decide to stay, which, believe me, I respect with all my heart and mind; it is too painful to see loved ones grow from a distance. It is undeniable that the love will always remain the same; near or far. But it becomes clearer what I am letting go when I realise how much my brother has grown or how much more lines there are on my parents' faces.

I suppose this is why I choose to oversimplify. Yes, there are so many benefits that I get by staying, and yes, family will always be family nevertheless the distance. But I guess at one point we need to ask ourselves what we truly want. None the wiser, none the better. What really makes you happy?

Self-actualisation is very important, as is family. Standing on our own two feet and maximising our potential is a must. And to those who resort to this decision, all the power to you. But same goes to those who return to family. It is not a question of weakness or strength. It really depends on what your aims are. To those who strive to be loved/love, weakness is to stay apart from them. To those who strive to make their dreams into plans, strength is to keep on going. To those who are torn between the two, process is the pain that goes with finding the balance. Sometimes it is painful no matter which decision you make. Pragmatically speaking, perhaps it's finding the least painful decision. Elaboratively, I would say calculating if the benefit we receive from one decision covers the cost that comes with it is the way to go.

As I always say: No matter how lucky we are, we can never have it all.

Choosing to Know and Reshuffling Priorities

Friday, 23 February 2007
09.38 AM
Koningsstraat, Amsterdam

It is perhaps almost a fact: We live in this haven where we choose to be unexposed to what other people, who have different skin colour and language than us, experience. We care more about celebrity gossip than the effects of Chernobyl.

The use of the word 'we' is not of euphimism. If it was not because I had moved to the Netherlands and made friends with people from Eastern Europe, I would not have even known about the many issues they had to go/are going through. Having long discussions and gaining insight towards their ideas of integration, segregation, marginalisation, oppression and human rights violation; sometimes I still stay in awe listening to their stories. How their reality is so different from mine. And how the empathy becomes real just as a result of knowing. What if I hadn't known? What about the issues of people I have never met? If information becomes a tool to care, and information has become ubiquitous with the presence of the internet, then the current premise becomes: we are chosing to not care.

Amidst cultural globalisation, listening sensitively about cultural differences and historical accounts are no longer a mandate - it becomes an obligation. Of course we would invest more time to our personal issues but believe me, you would care less about not having a dress to wear for this week's party after reading about how, in the year 2007, people are still dying of malnutrition. Perhaps what I am trying to say is that once in a while, it helps to reshuffle your priorities by studying what is currently happening outside our little box. It is best shown through the words of Edward Said: "For the intellectual the task, I believe, is explicitly to universalize the crisis, to give greater human scope to what a particular race or nation suffered, to associate that experience with the suffering of others." And with freedom to information, we are all intellectuals with tasks.

Just as it works in simple conversations: if you do not listen to other people when they speak, how do you expect them to listen when it's your turn? In another metaphore: when you know the person next to you is starving, could you still eat your dessert?

Nipple rings and multiculturalism

Tuesday, 6 February 2007
9.08 pm
Koningsstraat, Amsterdam

Inaya: I've been downloading American Idol and I find them being too harsh on some contestants. It's just too much for me to enjoy.
Thera: I can't watch American Idol. I think that they're being just too mean to the people they think can't sing.
Inaya: I know, especially with the close ups on their hair, thick glasses, or the way they dress to make something funny out of it.
Thera: It's almost just like bullying someone for being different.

Readers, meet my Canadian friend, Thera Martens, with her nipple rings and tattoos and amazing understanding of multiculturalism.

It makes me think about ideas vs. matter. How many times do you dismiss someone's ideas because they way the look or what they wear? Sure, it's our safety net to generalise from appearance because to some extent, what someone wears says a lot about who they are. But when you can disregard someone because they don't seem to be a person who could construct a decent idea, this says something about your pattern of thinking.

There is that of idealism and that of materalism. Idealism, in short, believes that the world is constituted by thoughts and experience. That we, as perceivers, make meaning of everything and things exists because we think. While materialism believes that things only exists because they have substance. I would say, based on these two opposing concepts, that this is the reason why some people, when stressed, could resort to buying clothes, jewelries or shoes while others resort to religion, culture or finding answers.

It's hard to pinpoint which is better because in terms of philosophy, or social science or cultural studies or whatever, everything is arguable. Somewhere in the back of my head lies the basic notion that overthinking is not worthwhile and let's just happily appreciate difference. It's when you impose what you think is right to others that social illnesses occure. Like, for example, how social activism argues that economic materialism, or what is more popularly known as consummerism, is the main cause of envy, frustration and war. It is when we flash our 'ideas of consumption' or 'consumption of ideas' to those who believe otherwise that, well, things crumble. Just imagine you being hungry and without money to feed your children while someone walks by with an expensive handbag and a thick wallet. What do you think would happen next?

I think it's every person's right to live as they believe. How we want to achieve happiness is our mandate, be it reading, shopping, praying or singing. But it is ignorance of other people's choice, the apathy, that complicates things. Just like how American Idol increases revenue by exposing several people's humiliation. Sure ratings prove that audience want to see other people's misery, but would you really want to be in that position of being bullied? Would you accept someone telling you that you're shallow because you only care about branded goods or that you're a freak because you listen to experimental music? Wouldn't the world be less of one problem if you would go the extra mile to close your eyes and really listen to the idea instead of who is saying it or what they look like? Wouldn't you want to be treated the same way?

This all came from just not being able to laugh at other people or calling them losers because they don't share the things you think are important. After all, as Albert Einstein so elloquently puts it, "Every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving." Our world is not the safe little tiny bubble we grew up in and once we see beyond what we are used to, we would realise how many insulting things we've said about other people and how conceited we are. If this doesn't shame us, I don't know what will.


Saturday, 3 February 2007
Koningsstraat, Amsterdam

Do you ever wonder whether you've made the right decisions in life, that brought you to where you are now? Do you occasionally, or perhaps frequently, realise that your life sucks as compared to others? That they go to more places, meet more interesting people or make a living from inspiring jobs. And these circumstances force you to dwell upon the fact that maybe, just maybe, you've made a mistake and this invisible ball and chain suddenly appears.

It's not just you.

Some cultural anthropologists think that women straighten their hair, men go to the gym and bulk up, and people in general follow trends because it remains a tendency for society to conform to a dominant view which have tools to spread cultural imperialism. Beauty means make up, tall = good, short = bad, fair skin = good, dark skin = bad. Some individuals or communities resort to the opposite just to rebel against the mainstream. It is the well-established theory of hegemony. It comes with a fight. But if you look further into the pond, the shallow end might appear so because we're just not used to the light.

Maybe we change how we look because we need change. Maybe we don't like listening to the songs everyone likes because we are simply, well, bored. Routine does help us systemise our lives, true. But once in a blue moon, you find yourself taking the long route just because you need a change of scenery. You take a day off work and play hookie because you know tomorrow you'll be in front of that desk again - at least then you would be able to smile remembering how you enjoyed that day off. Same goes for vacations, travelling, dining out, going to the movies, concerts. We all need a breath of fresh air now and again. Assuming that this is acceptable, perhaps it's not so much different from swimming: at some point, you need to come up for air.

So how does it relate to our decisions in life?

As adults, we are all inclined to make decisions and remain consequential. Consistence is the way to mature and any other pain in the process is to be suppressed by responsibility. It is wrong and ungrateful to want the things we can't have because we have made our bed and we need to sleep in it. But it's one thing to deny it by pressuring ourselves based on responsibility and it's another to accept it as a human tendency and rethink the bigger picture.

I would argue that maturity is not about being able to suppress your urges. I would say it is about accepting our flaws and being able to infer the broader view. For example, no matter how good a relationship you are in; there will always be an interesting guy/girl that might make you think, "Did I get married too soon?" But as Rob Gordon says to Laura in High Fidelity, '...every other girl will always have cotton underwear, but I am used to yours'. Sure, the things you can't have will always seem better than what you have. Because we all have a tendency to need change. Everything is fabolous the first minute and before you know it, you need a vacation. The two extreme poles of our reaction towards life are stressed on the left and bored on the right. It is when we reach either end that we want to get to the other. Considering this; you have two options: either assessing the cost and benefit of sticking to your original decision and accepting its flaws or just keep on moving to the next thing and suffer the risks of losing what you already have. Have bangs, start wearing skirts, buy a new car.

But one thing remains: it's sometimes simpler than the pressure we put on ourselves. It's knowing what you want and finding ways to get it. Pragmatically speaking, to go on with life 'maturely', would you rather be bored or stressed?


Despite strength and courage
And what seems to be all of what could be amended
The single certain thing in our control
Would be ourselves
Whether we are enough
Half of a person or a whole human being
Accepting our flaws and boundaries
Crossing the lines by actually
Realising that we are merely imperfect
Capable of a thousand mistakes
And ten thousand ways to make things better

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Winter Break

Friday, 5 January 2007
Koningsstraat, Amsterdam

It's awe inspiring why just writing a 7 instead of 6 behind the 2-0-0 is such a big deal. Perhaps it's symbollism or a ritual, nevertheless it's worth saying: "Happy new year." And in a more religious note, 'Selamat Idul Adha' and 'Merry Christmas'.

My hands have been itching all winter vacation to write about my (our) trip to Spain. For those who love travelling, today's blog is particularly for you. I hope it motivates you to get out of your seat and plan a vacation, anywhere - even another town next to yours -, soon. Just as other people's vacation stories has made me plan this one.

To give you a picture of the route I chose, here's a map of Spain along with the route we travelled. We started by plane from Amsterdam to Barcelona. Arriving on 8.35, we took the 10.00AM bus to Valencia. After thorough research, intercity bus remains to be the safest and most reliable transportation service in Spain. However, the 2 to 10 hour long bus rides can be too much. Though trains travel less frequently and takes even longer, the change of scenery and method could really help - it's less boring that way. If you have the extra money to spend, planes from Valencia to Seville and Madrid to Bacelona are available. They cost around EUR100-200 more expensive than bus (bus tickets are a mere EUR10-50).

First stop: Valencia

This city was one of Arya's personal favourite. I have to admit the stroll along the old part of the city was nice and just with a public bus ride away you can get a totally different, and modern, experience. But hands down, the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias de Valencia was my favourite part of experiencing the city.

Its enchanting exterior architecture is so indescribably beautiful that it took us an hour outside the buildings just to sink it all in. Alas! Wait until you get inside. Though the Art Centre is still under construction, the Science Centre and the Aquarium are both more than worth visiting.

The centres are for the child in us, a mixture of popular physics, biology to even sports sciences (did you know that gymnasts weigh less nowadays than in their early establishment?). One of my favourites though, was the mere everyday physics happening around us - that we never contemplated as much as it deserves contemplating.

Like this arch for example - it stands because the pressure from the left side is equal to the right side. To create it is by placing the red blocks in the exact place as calculated, pull it up vertically with the board (now lied down) and voila! I never knew this was the basic idea of building a bridge...

But for those who have less curiousity in science and more love to animals, the aquarium is just a stroll away; with a collection of penguins, sharks and seals (even ducks, the hell they put them there when these things run free in city ponds).

And after a long day of learning and experiencing, the cafe in the l'Hemisferic (cine imax) serves great coffee both on the taste buds and easy on the wallet. Enjoy!

Second stop: Seville

It's best to arrange the 9.5 hour bus ride from Valencia to Seville during the night since you can spend an overnighter on the bus - but if not, plane is perhaps a good alternative. This city however, was my personal favourite. I was a bit freaked out when I realised our hotel was in the middle of small alleys - but it turned out to be so beautiful and exotic (though located in the centre and a mere EUR 50/night) that I was beginning to think I was in an old film. I would say Seville is a good place to get lost in. The narrow alleys are maze-like and suddenly you find yourself in the old historic centre with the Giralda Tower on one side and the beautiful Alcazar on the other.

It was here, in the middle of the Alcazar gardens, when I realised that Spain, particularly the Andalucia, is perhaps one of the most controversial spots on earth (historically speaking). Just within the architecture you can sense the tugging powers between the two religions with the most followers in the world - Christianity and Islam. Cathedrals turned into mosques and mosques into cathedrals - and how Spain claims to be Catholic (even the atheists claim to be Catholics, isn't that interesting?). It never seizes to amaze me how power struggles are always apparent in art. And if you do think so, Seville would be a splendid journey for you.

Third stop: Cordoba

Ah, Cordoba. Ah, the Mezquita. Though under reconstruction (and one can only imagine how beautiful this old part of the town would be after everything is restored), the Mezquita and its surrounding environment was breathtaking. I carefully took my time lingering in the Mezquita - the Mihrab (where the imam leads the prayers), the history behind the restoration, the ideological brochures and the typicality of the arches. I couldn't put down my camera and had to take pictures of everything I could lay my eyes on and breathe in the charm of this former mosque/current cathedral. The old pictures of when the Christians rebuilt the mosque into a cathedral - though maintaining its mosque-like form, is worth studying. History has its own pleasure and Cordoba is the place to indulge..

Without even having to consider that, I would say the Mezquita alone makes Cordoba worth visiting.

Fourth stop: Granada

It is perhaps safe to say that Alhambra is the embodiment of Granada. It seems to me that most people travel to Granada to exprience the Alhambra (which is of course very true. The view is breathtaking and the walks soulfeeding). But Granada is a lively and calming city in the same time. The city centre is a mix of old and new (though mostly old) that has honestly exceeded my expectations.

Note: A wise friend of mine advised me to book ahead for tickets to Alhambra. She was absolutely right! Buy online and avoid the long lines! Pay attention to the time you reserved to enter the Nasrid Palace.

Take a long walk in the city centre and take small stops at the churches and fountains. Sit and drink their deliciously chocolate-flavoured cappuccinos and sugar buns while watching people go by. There is also a very delicious local eatery (which name I unfortunately forgot - but it's right in the centre facing West of the city) with tasty grilled chicken fillet and friendly service. If the weather is warm, sit outside and enjoy the laughing toddlers chasing turtle-doves away...

Fifth stop: Madrid

The bus ride? 5 hours. But after spending so much time on the bus that moment I would have done anything to ride anything but (maybe next time take the train by this stop).

We spent new years at the commercial Puerta del Sol, which was a mosh pit of human beings (women, bring your men - it is unsafe (in a less sexist more survival sense)). The fireworks were stunning though afterwards we were too exhausted to linger and stay for more.

The Madrid metro system is note-worthy and is number 2 to Paris' in my opinion. And since lodging in the city centre is ridiculously expensive, it would be a smart decision to either stay in a hostal within the centre or a known hotel in the suburb after buying a metrobus 10 viajes.

Note: Attention shoppers, Madrid is an excellent spree!!

Take a long walk through Puerta del Sol to Plaza Mayor and Plaza San Miguel for an experience of the old part of the town - then lead your way to Palacio Real de Madrid. Football fans, take the metro to the city's football stadium and take ego-indulging pictures. Art lovers, Museo del Prado is a must!

For those with partners (then again, also those who enjoy solitude), take a romantic walk in the city's park and rent a row boat for a good laugh.... In short, Madrid is definitely one the best cities in the world.

Last stop: Barcelona

By this stop, we have seen too many churches and old historic centres to be able to appreciate Barcelona sufficiently. But Gaudi's famous La Sagrada Familia is a must (though to be honest I am not a big fan of Gaudi's work). The city lights of Las Ramblas is the token of the town while, again, football fans should head to the stadium. Make time for Montjuic park and see Barcelona from above, hopefully when you visit the funicular has been renovated. My personal favourite was the long walks in Barri Gothic on our way to Museu Picasso (again, book ahead) that is full of street performers worth mentioning.

Note: Try hotel Sagrada Familia. Cheap (EUR 60/night) and close to metro with lots of restaurants since it's a tourist spot.

And (sigh) our trip has ended. Papers and thesis and reality checks ahead. I hope it was as fun for you to read as it was for me to write. Also, I hope I get to hear your stories soon...