Saturday, October 8, 2016

College Advice

We've had two weeks of school. I am busy but with good things, worthwhile things. I've been missing Deutschland, especially Berlin. But being back at school has its advantages, one of which is being surrounded by other students and being in positions of authority--some de jure and some de facto.

Now a junior, I've gone through two of the most transformative years of my life since coming to college. I was thinking today about things I do that have improved my college experience, and have assembled a list of ten:

1. Be considerate of the staff.

If you make a mess, clean it up yourself. Pick up your trash, use the doormat so you're not tracking leaves and mud inside the building, and so on. If you take dishes, cups, utensils, etc. from the dining hall, bring them back. Be patient if something is taking longer than usual. Say hello to people.

2. Refrain from assuming you know people's lives.

Race/ethnicity and assigned gender may seem visually obvious, but be aware that people's experiences are not monolithic. Economic background can be more difficult to determine and no matter the patterns of behavior that people exhibit, be aware that you could be reading them incorrectly. The two factors that I have been most surprised by, because I wrongly assumed things about people, are 1) mental health and 2) relationship to family.

3. Avoid buying textbooks at full price.

Some classes may not really require the textbook, or you can get an old version and copy problems from a book in the library. Do a thorough search for PDFs. I have no sympathy for textbook publishers.

4. Maintain a calendar.

I need to be able to orient myself in time, so I have a lot of calendars. But keep track of assignments, long-running projects, deadlines, exams, events, etc. because they pile up really fast. A term-long calendar, taped above your desk, is great. Leave a column to write down a list of things due that week, it actually helps a lot.

5. Decorate your room.

Whether you spend a lot of time there or just use it to park your body while you sleep, making the space your own helps counteract any homesickness that may occur. Or, if like me you don't really get homesick (...because home is half an hour away), it still feels nice to have a place that is yours.

6. Try working in different places.

If your original study place happens to be the best, you can always go back to it.

7. Combine food in the dining hall.

I learned what an Arnold Palmer is in freshman year (lemonade + iced tea) and my life is improved because of it. Adding pasta or rice to soup is also good.

8. File old notes and work.

Cheap paper folders, stacks on your bookshelf, whatever. Keeping old stuff organized by course helps a lot when reviewing for finals. If you file stuff away promptly, e.g. at the end of every week, then it's a super low-maintenance system. Much worse is letting stuff pile up and needing to block out an hour or more to sort through it all--not that I don't enjoy that kind of thing, it's just less efficient.

9. Schedule in vacuuming and doing laundry.

You don't need to put them in on your calendar formally, but doing them at the same time every week (or two weeks, or three weeks, depending on your desired frequency) builds the habit of doing them. Same goes for any sort of housekeeping task.

10. Check in with yourself.

Some stretches you barely have time to think, you're so busy. But if you have a chance to catch your breath, gather your thoughts as well. They may surprise you.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Return

I am back in the US, back on campus, all moved into my dorm room and with a full week of classes behind me. Not going to lie, it's strange being back.

After leaving Hamburg, I spent a few days in Berlin. My host parents from the spring were kind enough to let me stay with them, and I had two full days--Sunday and Monday--which I spent in exactly the way I wanted, saying goodbye to my favorite city.

On Sunday I went to the Flohmarkt and got souvenirs, finally made it to the DDR Museum and the museum in the Holocaust Memorial, and watched the news coverage of the Berlin elections with my host parents. On Monday I had some business to take care of and experienced the thrilling paranoia of walking home with over 1000 Euro in my backpack from cashing out my bank account. Then I watched Tschick in a near-empty theater and spent too much money on notebooks and wandered around the Freie Universität.

I woke up on Tuesday at 0530 in Berlin and went to sleep on Tuesday at 2200 in California.

My Wednesday to Friday were spent writing emails, eating, walking, and sleeping. On Saturday I moved back and got my room all set up. I'm fairly pleased with how it turned out.
(I particularly like the parallelism of these decorations. The Polaroid-style postcards are from Berlin and Hamburg; the MRI is of my head; Memento Mori e Festina Lente. The art on the bookshelf is all by the infinitely talented Lieutenant Sarcasm.)

I want to write more in-depth posts about my six months abroad before it all fades away in the rush of the school year. The bubble is really a vortex that strips away everything you may bring with you until you remember no life before setting foot on campus--or at least that's how it felt freshman year. And this year feels like a second freshman year for a variety of reasons more or less superficial--I started a new journal so I can't read back to the previous two years, I'm in a dorm where I don't know most of the people, some of my most important people are far away (on the other side of campus, abroad), I've been away for six months so campus feels new--but I have begun, slowly, to regain the feeling of being a continuous creature, of building something that will last me the rest of my life.

This quarter I am taking four civil engineering classes (or rather, five but one is a weekly seminar), which is a little scary. Fluid mechanics, geotechnical engineering, structural analysis, and steel design. I really want to do well in all of them. Somehow I ended up in leadership positions for two extracurrics, so those are also taking a lot of time, but I also greatly enjoy having power and being the person making executive decisions.

The first week back is always exhausting, and the rest of the quarter is likely to be the same--although once things settle into a routine I'll be better able to manage it. It's going to be a long year, I can feel it, but also one where I really build the knowledge and skills that will (ahem) be the foundation of my professional life.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Tschüß, Hamburg

Warning: image heavy post.

I am leaving Hamburg today. Yesterday was my last day of work, and my Probe-BahnCard runs out today, so I'll be heading back to Berlin for a few days before flying home to California. I'm going to write more posts about my summer and about my almost six months abroad, and I also plan to write a Hamburg guide similar to the one I did for Berlin.

The whole summer I've been comparing Hamburg to Berlin and finding it wanting in many ways. But on Thursday, as I was showing a friend around the city, I surprised myself with a rush of sentiment. Hamburg is a dynamic, interesting, fun, Free and Hanseatic city with a long and complex history, and although it had the misfortune of being the next city I lived in after imprinting very strongly on Berlin, it is actually pretty great. There are things I regret not seeing (such as, er, the Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte) and things that I will miss dearly (Frau Larsson, the Swedish cafe ten minutes from work that has the best cakes ever). I got lucky and ended up both living and working with extremely nice people. Overall, I have just been very fortunate.

Not really feeling in the mood for a lot of words. Here are some photos from the past thirteen weeks, instead.

Birds along the Alster
Schlager Move parade, described to me as "Love Parade but with 70s folk-inspired pop"
Harbor on the Alster
Sankt Pauli, the cool neighborhood
Old turbine (?) in front of the Museum der Arbeit
Frau Larsson's cake display
Fields near Neuengamme, a concentration camp on the outskirts of the city
Friedhof Ohlsdorf
Probably the Alster
Cranes in the industrial area south of the Elbe
Bremen, Hamburg, and Lübeck (the three major Hanseatic cities) in front of the Justice Building

Danke schön, Hamburg. Ich hoffe auf ein Wiedersehen.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

What I (Will) Miss

And suddenly, we are a week into September already. When did that happen?

The past few weeks have been quick. The pace at work quickened briefly, and the project I've been working on since the end of July will wrap up neatly for the end of my internship. Last weekend I was in Berlin, on Friday for the seminar with the other interns that had me stressing, and on the weekend with friends. This weekend I will be traveling again. Next weekend I will travel to Berlin and stay with my host parents a couple of days, and then I travel back to the United States.

Last week, on September 1, I found myself stunned at the thought that on September 1 I was on a different continent. Until college, school always started before then. Now it is the first month of autumn and I am in Hamburg, not the Bay Area.

I've been thinking about things I miss and will miss, and have been too busy planning travel and sending real-person-emails to come up with anything more substantial to post. Here, then, are the lists.


What I miss:

Consistent good weather. The rain I don't mind, and after living in drought-stricken California it's refreshing. But the cold! North German summers are like California winters. I wondered if I was being dumb getting more sweaters after coming here, but they have been absolutely necessary.

Meat. I've been eating vegetarian this summer because I'm living with a vegan, and once I get back to Berlin you know I'm going to go to my favorite sushi place and get one of their combos.

Various foods. These are things I will obtain in short order once I get back to the states:
-burrito with guacamole
-cajun fries with BBQ sauce and honey mustard (from TAP or Five Guys)
-chicken egg drop corn soup from any Chinese restaurant
-In-n-Out. I've been abstaining from mammals for a while now so I might not actually make good on this one. But something about being away from the US for months at a time makes you want a burger.
-chili. I was going to cook it for myself this summer and never got around to it, because I'm lazy.

Friends and family. Of course. I've already written about feeling isolated here.

Speaking English. Not because it's easier (although it definitely is) but because I speak German in a higher register than I speak English, for whatever reason, and I don't like that.

My own bike. These city bikes are absolutely fantastic, but I want mine. This item also includes having a helmet.

Being in the same time zone as people. I'm sure it looks super professional to these engineering firms to get emailed back by this college kid at 0300--but no, that's just me sneaking emails in on my lunch break.

Drying machines. Not that the drying rack is all that inconvenient, but it is slower.

All the music that is blocked in Germany but not in the US because of copyright issues.


What I will miss:

The clouds. German skies are gorgeous.

Cheap groceries. Food is way less expensive here than in the US, although I'm not sure why.

Various foods. These are things I will miss having in close reach:
-falafel dürüm
-savory baked goods like the Kartoffel Teigtasche I had for lunch and the Tomaten-Paprika Strudel from the Podbielskiallee U-Bahn Imbiss in Berlin
-croissants for under 1 Euro
-cake from the Swedish cafe ten minutes away from my work place
-cheap Ritter sport chocolate. My sister informs me these are also available in the US, but pricier.

Living independently. This includes cooking for myself and having to run household errands. I don't know, I kind of like that stuff--although cooking sometimes takes longer than expected and doesn't turn out consistently well.

Living in a city. I like having a lot of different things clustered together. The convenience of being able to run almost all my errands in the stretch between work and home is excellent.

Good public transportation. Good cheap public transportation, I should add. There's a real network here, and although I think Berlin's system is better than Hamburg's, Hamburg outshines the Bay Area a thousandfold.

Perspektiv. In the US it's easy to get insular, and here...well, you can get insular, but the bubble is not quite as present.

Speaking German. I am at a reasonably good level of German for a year and a half, and I want to keep building on it. Living in Germany and absorbing the language I hear around me has been good.

The potential for a rational sleep schedule. Admittedly I have gone to bed past midnight a few too many times this week, but at least I had the option not to. Next quarter when I'm in my four technical classes and trying to figure out how to lead a team, that will not work so well.

High background level of environmental consciousness. Separate your trash. Separate all your trash.

Convenient far-distance travel. The number of countries I've been to has doubled since I landed in Germany in March. An hour and a half to get to various other capital cities? Amazing. Long-distance buses and the rail network? Also amazing.

Not being in a drought.


It's been over five months. This is much longer than the last longest time I was out of the country, which was two months last summer. I don't know the next time I will be in Europe--so I need to enjoy the time while I have it.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Roma Amor

It's taken me a while to get around to writing this, partly because Rome was a lot to process and partly because I had to play the role of the responsible adult more than usual this week, which took all of my energy.

Before I start: in case you have not already heard, on Wednesday a 6,2 magnitude earthquake struck Central Italy. The town closest to the epicenter, Amatrice, has been all but destroyed and the death toll, last time I checked, is over 280. Thousands more have been displaced. Here is a link with ways to help.


I landed in Rome on 19. August 2016, the two-thousand-and-second anniversary of Augustus Caesar's death. I hadn't planned it that way, had picked this weekend because it was when flights were cheapest, but--although I do not believe in fate--it does hint at the tenor the weekend would take.

Rome. What does one think of, when one thinks of Rome? For me it has always been the Roman Republic, the Roman Principate, the Roman Empire. Marble arches and columns, aqueducts, togas, war, blood, iron. Cypresses. Piranesi's carceri d'invenzione. I am a stereotype of the Grand Tour jerk who travels to better themself and goes to Rome to touch eternity, with barely a thought spared to the modern city and its more recent history. If this is reprehensible, then I am reprehensible.

Because I've been in Germany for--wow, five months now, I did wonder several times about the lack of reference to fascism in the city landscape. Where are the memorials? The monuments? In Berlin one does not have to seek them out, one sees them everywhere. Not so in Rome. But I wasn't there to see Mussolini. I was there for Augustus.

I'm struggling to figure out how to present my weekend in Rome. The visit had a strong enough emotional charge that I could go full melodramatic/pretentious. It was also a really fun vacation with lots of sun and gelato and practicing my Italian. An itinerary is probably the most straightforward format, but the narrative of the weekend is not fully linear. But Rome is a palimpsest and if I throw together a bunch of approaches, from various angles, perhaps that is after all the most honest way to approach it.


The basic itinerary:

Here is a photo of the ticket stubs and maps I accumulated. One of the first things I did after landing at Fiumicino was go to the tourist info point and purchase my 72-hour Roma Pass, which is a darn good deal: access to all public transportation (except to/from airports), two free museums/sites, reduced price on everything visited thereafter. If you're an EU citizen under the age of 25 you get the reduced price anyway (or free if you're under 18) but for the rest of us, definitely a good deal. Then I got my train ticket and went to the hostel. At the transfer from train to bus I got turned around in the station and asked directions from an Italian soldier carrying a machine gun. To be fair, I had just seen a pair of French tourists do the same thing. Still intimidating.

After checking in at the hostel, the first thing I did was walk along the Tevere (Tiber, but in italiano e' tevere) to the Museo dell'Ara Pacis. I've written before here about why Augustus is important to me (and if you've forgotten/are a new reader, there will be plenty of that later in the post) but the Ara Pacis is particularly special because in an archaeology class I took my first quarter of freshman year, my final project was about Augustan Rome using the Ara Pacis as a jumping off point.

Some historical background: the Ara Pacis, or Altar of Peace, was built by the Senate to celebrate Augustus's return from victories in Spain and Gaul. It features carvings with a procession of notable Romans, including my favorite three (Augustus, obviously, and also Agrippa and Livia); plant motifs with palms and swans to represent Apollo, Augustus's patron god; and of course Lupa with Romulus and Remus. It is the most perfect thing I have ever seen.

After writing an essay in the guest book (not really, it was just a very large paragraph [and in Italian, I'm proud to say]) and getting kicked out (it was closing time and I'd been there for almost two hours), I walked around the Mausoleum of Augustus right next door and then went along Via del Corso, looking at famous sites--the Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona, eccetera--before eating dinner (spaghetti pomodoro). At this point it was dark, which shocked me because in northern Germany it doesn't get dark until very late. Flux doesn't even kick in until around 2030.

But it's Rome. The city was still very much awake and I wandered around for another few hours, seeing more famous sites under the stars. The Fontana di Trevi is a lot larger than I expected and the marble is stunning. I couldn't quite believe it was real.

A quote from Rilke was dancing around the edges of my thought, and I couldn't remember it verbatim, but here it is:
"Waters infinitely full of life move along the ancient aqueducts into the great city and dance in the many city squares over white basins of stone and spread out in large, spacious pools and murmur by day and lift up their murmuring to the night, which is vast here and starry and soft with winds." (source)

The next day I got up early and went straight to the Musei Capitolini. Well, not quite straight, because I stopped at Coop, an Italian grocery chain whose name I vaguely remembered from learning about it in middle school, in order to purchase the fizzy citrus soda and bio crackers that were destined to become both my breakfast and lunch.

I spent three hours in the museums and wondered what I'd have to do to be allowed to live there. I am an utter pleb when it comes to art appreciation, because my criteria for enjoying art is 1) do I like how it looks 2) does it make me feel or think something 3) is anyone I know in it. By "anyone I know" I mean historical figures about whom I know something. For Rome, that means Julius, Augustus, Livia, Agrippa, Tiberius (sort of, his treatment of his mother makes me not so okay with him), Hadrian, Antinous, Marcus Aurelius. For mythology, I get the most excited about Athena/Minerva, Apollo, and Artemis/Diana. The museums had plenty of depictions of my favorites, so I was happy.

Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius
This did mean, though, that by the time I got to the Forum/Palatine area I had missed the last turno accompagno for the Casa di Augusto/Casa di Livia. I didn't realize that you need a tour to get access and went in anyway, which royally (imperially?) upended my itinerary but about which I can't really be upset. When I realized my mistake, I considered staying with my original plan for about half an hour.

Then, as I wiped tears from my eyes at the short film A Elegia di Augusto playing in the Palatine Museum, I thought--when Octavian met Livia they were both married and both Livia and Scribonia (Octavian's then-wife) were pregnant. He broke up both marriages in order to be with her. You cannot be serious in saying that twelve euro is the wall at which you will stop.

So I threw out plans to visit the monuments to Garibaldi and the Napoleonic Museum and decided that, well, I'd go back the next day in time for the tours.

I visited the Museo Etrusco next, which is a bit out of the way but astonishingly well-curated and informative. Got dinner to go and ate it on the bench in front of the Ara Pacis.

I decided to walk around the Ara Pacis, just to see the carvings again, and ended up having a breakdown. It's private so I won't say much more about it, and if you know me in real life please don't bring it up, but I did break down. The Res Gestae is inscribed on the wall below the museum (it's on a slope) below the face of the Ara Pacis that has the procession with Augustus, and I spent a lot of time there.

The enormity of what Octavian/Augustus achieved hit really hard. I've been very slowly making my way through a German biography of Augustus and one of the comments in it is that Octavian's decision to accept the responsibility of being Julius's heir is one of the few instances when an individual choice, more than prevailing historical forces, changed the course of the world. He was nineteen years old.

After my breakdown I felt perfectly, blissfully happy and at peace. I crossed the river and wandered around a bit and the Castel Sant'Angelo was open for the night (some special program, I'm not sure) so of course I went in, because fortresses. I went up to the top and looked out over the city at night and somewhere there was a fireworks show. It was beautiful.

The next day, bright and early, I got my new Forum/Palatinate/Colosseum ticket but eyed the line for the Colosseum and thought I'd take my chances later. Instead I went to the Pantheon, which is marvelous, bought some souvenirs from little shops, and wandered around the Altare della Patria, or the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele, il primo re d'Italia. Gorgeous architecture.

I went to the Forum/Palatine early and saw the A Elegia video again, and cried again, and then was twenty minutes early to the meeting point for the Casa di Augusto/Casa di Livia tours. These were as expected wonderful. I got the turno accompagno which is "accompanied" not guided, and I think the guided tours get you access to more areas, but I saw what I came to see.

Inside Casa di Livia

After that, I braved the line for the Colosseum and got in in about forty minutes, which really isn't too bad. The deep intense personal part of the trip was over, and so I just enjoyed walking around the Colosseum and taking group photos for other people. I spent a little time reflecting at the Circus Maximus, looking onto the Palatine Hill, then bussed to the train station. I bought tomatoes for my flatmates and took the train to Fiumicino, and sat on the floor writing postcards (which I need to address and mail soon if I want them to get to the US before I do) and then--back to Germany.

A good weekend.


Bad travel advice/travel advice for people who are bad at traveling.

1) Who needs lunch when you have citrus soda and crackers? Not this kid, apparently.

2) Right after making an inconvenient change of plans, do something nice like ask to take group photos.

3) Visit sites that have deep personal meaning alone so no one can see you break down.

4) If you want to practice a language just keep talking until the person you're talking to switches.

5) If you bring a hat, use it.


California has a Mediterranean climate. I've been aware of this for decades but it surprised me how at home I felt in Rome, just because of the weather. Northern German summers are quite different from what I am used to and although I love the clouds in Germany, these perfect blue skies made me smile. I was also surprised that walking around the Forum/Palatine it even smelled like home. The trees smelled just the same as hiking around in California--or perhaps I have just been away for too long and they simply smell closer to California than the trees in Germany?

View towards the Colosseum

I enjoy being able to communicate with people in their language. Back in the day I was actually pretty darn good at Italian and though I no longer have any idea what to do with passato remoto or congiuntivo and I almost forgot that the word "dunque" exists, I could communicate at the basic level of asking for directions, buying things, and so on. I'd like to keep up my Italian. I'm going to try to get B2 certification in German when I go back to school (and need to email my German prof to ask how one makes that happen) and I'm planning to learn Spanish and my Mandarin is in bad need of repair...but I'd like to keep up my Italian. We'll see how that works out. I'll come up with a plan; if there's one thing I can't stop myself from doing, it's making plans.


I am glad that I ended up going alone. This visit was not just a "trip," not a "weekend getaway." Because I was alone I could experience Rome entirely on my own terms and on my own terms, it became a pilgrimage. This sounds stupid, but it is honestly the way I have been thinking about it. And if I had someone else there it could not have been as deeply personally meaningful as it was.

"In my nineteenth year, on my own initiative and at my own expense, I raised an army with which I set free the state, which was oppressed by the domination of a faction..." (source)

The Ara Pacis on the night of 20. August 2016, 2002 years and one day after Augustus died. The most perfect thing I have seen. This is what winning looks like. This is victory. This is careful planning and opportunism and tapping directly into the wishes and longings of the people and giving them exactly what they want in exactly the way most beneficial to you. And yet when you say Caesar most people think Julius--but Augustus, Augustus is the one who made Rome into Rome. Without Octavian, without Augustus, would there have been a Rome? Imagine Marc Antony at the helm of the Republic, imagine Cleopatra as its queen. I happen to like Cleopatra (and am indifferent to Antony) but I truly do not believe they could have established the systems that Augustus did, could not have set Rome on its course towards empire.

I like to visit things multiple times, to see and then circle back. In Salzburg I visited the fortress twice. In Rome I visited the Ara Pacis and the Forum/Palatine twice. Repetition is a form of prayer.

I don't believe in gods, just as I don't believe in destiny. But I do believe that the right person can be at the right place in the right time--because Octavian was. And I believe that if your deeds are great enough and move the world deeply enough, you can asymptotically approach immortality, which is one aspect of divinity. Augustus and Livia are nowhere near as Romantic and dramatic of a couple as Antony and Cleopatra--you will see them less in art, in literature--but they were the ones who created more lasting change in the world. Gaius Octavius was a short, sickly guy who was afraid of cats and of storms, and got nervous enough around his wife that he would take notes to prepare for conversations with her, and he created the world that we know today.

Festina lente. Make haste slowly. Change takes time, and you cannot lose focus and you cannot lose patience. I believe that when Octavian accepted Julius's inheritance he dreamed that the Ara Pacis could exist. I believe that he knew his endgame. I am not so sure of mine, but I know that now, having been lucky enough to touch eternity, I want to create some more of it myself.

"I found Roma a city of bricks and I left it a city of marble."

Now go forth. It's your turn.