Christmas season hobbies

When I was 6, I loved drawing, coloring, and pastels. I was obsessed with depicting abstract landscapes with a multitude of colors, and my first grade teacher Ms. Jamison encouraged me and said one day, I’d become one fine artist. I went home one night and showed my dad the landscape drawing, and he said it was nice. I triumphantly declared, “One day, I’m going to be an artist.” My dad looked a little confused and annoyed, and in response he said, “But you’ll be poor. Artists don’t make any money. You won’t be able to support yourself.”

My dreams were shattered in a matter of just a few words out of his mouth. I was going to be destitute with no money to my name if I pursued my days-long dream of becoming an artist. I still drew and did pastels for a couple years after that, but I eventually stopped and decided to find another hobby.

I’ve realized that most of the things I like doing for fun are things that would make me little money if I actually did them professionally – cooking, baking, scrapbooking, card making. I thought about this exchange regarding my future failed career as an artist tonight as I made Christmas cards for my friends and family with heat embossing, ribbon, and glitter glue. All these little things that bring so much joy are valued so little in our capitalist society.

The American people

There are endless reasons I love to travel, but one of those reasons is that I love being exposed to other languages and cultures that I’m not accustomed to being around every day here in the U.S. I actually love listening to people speak other languages, especially the ones I cannot readily recognize. So when I hear people, all American, tell me that they get tired and frustrated being in a “foreign” country for as short of a period as just two days and not hearing English, I always feel part annoyed, part embarrassed. I feel annoyed because — why are you traveling to non-English speaking countries if you cannot handle hearing other languages constantly? And I feel embarrassed because these people are representative of my country: they feel entitled, as though the rest of the world needs to learn and speak and know English just because we do and we are clearly the center of the entire universe, and they think that our way here is the best way. And sadly, what this ultimately reveals is our own inner prejudices and biases against cultures other than what we are used to.

I don’t know where we learn this from – it must be the inane American exceptionalism that is taught in a lot of classrooms across this country. It is absolutely atrocious. But hey, we live in Trump Nation now, so I guess this will be part of our everyday rhetoric that I better start getting used to.

Christmas lights

Christmas time is here once again. All of Park Avenue South is lit up with Christmas lights and little mini Christmas trees. Trees are being sold on every other street corner in Murray Hill and the Upper East Side. Store fronts are starting to get decked out in pine cones, wreaths, and candy canes. Some boutiques are even playing Christmas carols when you pass their windows. This time of year always makes me feel excited, but at the very same time, I always feel sad and teary, too.

People always say that holidays are supposed to be about family, but I will never have my own blood family to spend the holidays with ever again — at least, not in a meaningful way. I remember that I didn’t even spend Ed’s last Christmas with him, and every year it gets me choked up to remember how miserable he was that day when I called him to wish him a merry Christmas from the other side of the world. Being the person he was, he didn’t want to make it seem like it was a big deal, that my parents ignored the holiday altogether and ate a regular everyday meal, and our dad didn’t wish him a merry Christmas. Instead, he spoke cheerily to me about what a jet setter I was, spending Christmas in another hemisphere and country, asking me about what Chris’s family was doing for Christmas in 2012. I told him the day was already over in Melbourne and that it was already the 26th, or Boxing Day there. He seemed so surprised that I was almost 24 hours ahead of him yet speaking to him.

I try not to live a life of regrets. Regrets are so futile; they are empty feelings about things that you cannot change because those times have passed. But it’s hard not to look back and think of what I wish I had done with Ed. I can still hear his voice in my head, getting excited about buying Christmas gifts each year and watching cheesy Christmas movie reruns on TV. That’s why Christmas time is always a season I look forward to but simultaneously dread. I can’t have the joy without remembering the pain.

Race the movie

On our flight back from Madrid to New York, I finished my North Korean defector book The Girl with Seven Names, and watched two movies: Race the 2016 movie, and The Man Who Knew Infinity. Race is a movie that highlights the racial tensions of the 1930s in the U.S., and how that compared with Nazi Germany during the same time. Segregation was all over the U.S. at that time, where blacks were separated from whites for everything from entrances to bathrooms to businesses. Yet, when Jesse Owens comes to Berlin, he is confused and surprised when he is told that there are no segregated dormitories for blacks and whites. In Nazi Germany, he can actually coexist with whites, and it is fine. So when Hitler gets negative press in American newspapers for not congratulating Owens for winning the first race, Owens comes back to the U.S. and says, “Hitler didn’t snub me – it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.” The often elevated and revered FDR didn’t even shake his hand or acknowledge his four-time winnings at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It wasn’t until 40 years later that he would be recognized and given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Ford.

FDR isn’t the only president who is forgotten for terrible things he did and failed to do. JFK was similar in that he didn’t really seem to care about civil rights until he was absolutely forced to; this is highlighted very vividly at the National Civil Rights Museum in Tennessee that we visited in October. I mean, FDR and JFK were rich white men in power; why did they truly need to care about people who looked different than them? It’s all about pandering to their parties and making sure they get the vote. It’s frustrating to be reminded of these sobering facts at at time when we’re about to usher in one of the most openly racist and intolerant presidents in history.

Valencia’s paella

Paella is not understood in the U.S. Maybe it’s not even understood in the world outside of Spain. People in Valencia don’t even think that people outside of Valencia understand paella, so I guess the rest of the world is absolutely screwed then. I always associated paella with seafood since that’s how it’s typically served at Spanish restaurants I’ve been to in the U.S., but I learned today that similar to sushi in Japan, paella was originally considered poor man’s food. When meat and seafood were rare and expensive, working men prepared paella, mainly with snails, because rice and snails were both plentiful and extremely cheat. Original versions of paella had a combination of chicken, rabbit, snails, and green and white beans. The current seafood variations we now embrace today are more modern interpretations, and they’re actually not called “paella” in Valencia, but “rice with seafood” translated. They call it paella at the restaurants to cater to foreigners’ tastes. We still ended up getting the seafood paella at the famous paella restaurant we visited here, and at 3pm, we were eating at especially Spanish time for lunch. The rice was cooked in a shallow pan the authentic way over a massive fire, and each grain of rice was distinct, infused with the strongest and richest seafood taste. The socarrat bottom, or the crispy bottom that I loved eating in the rice I had growing up, was also present in this pan along the perimeter. This massive plate was a plate of heaven. It’s as though all my feelings about Spanish food and paella have been changed just because of this one meal.

The 18-euro bottle of red wine also helped. These are all the joys of traveling abroad and learning about other cultures that could never fully be recreated back home.


During my AP Art History course in high school, we studied artwork that came from so many cities I’d never even heard of. Granted at that point, I’d never left the country, much less the west coast of the U.S., so I was quite sheltered in my understanding of the world, and my geography knowledge was pretty much nonexistent. One of the famous paintings we studied was painted by a Greek painter known as El Greco, who relocated to Toledo, Spain, and remained there until his death. Although he was known for painting portraits and vibrant, passionate religious scenes, he painted two rare landscape paintings, one of which has remained in my head since I studied it. It was the painting View of Toledo, a view from the Mirador de Valle of Toledo overlooking the entire city in the late 1500s, and the sky was violent, threatening to storm at any second. It’s strange how I’ve forgotten so many paintings I studied in art history, yet this one has still stuck in my head. The sky was notable at the time and is said to be one of the most famous landscape paintings of all time, as high up there as Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

We ended up taking a half-day trip to this UNESCO World Heritage city from Madrid today.  The train ride was only half an hour, yet in half an hour, we were in a completely different world. The entire town looks just like it had over 400 years ago when El Greco painted this scene; because of its World Heritage listing, the entire city is banned from allowing any modern structures to be built; all the buildings and the historical landmarks must be preserved. It’s strange to imagine that this city looked exactly the way it did over four centuries ago. With us walking around it all day today, it felt so strange; we look out of place in this city that existed during Medieval times. It’s also a city that is known for having Christianity, Judaism, and Islam coexist all at once. Perhaps Trump should go visit this city as a reminder that not all Muslims are terrorists and mass murderers.

Art history

In my sophomore year in high school, I took Advanced Placement Art History, and it was a real struggle in the beginning. I got a D on my first exam (only because of the curve; otherwise, I would have gotten an F). The lectures were incredibly boring in the beginning. Looking at old-school slide after slide of these flat paintings and sculptures was tedious and made me sleepy. I found the textbook we were using to be so long and dry, without much context for what each art period really meant in the overall context of history. Why should our history classes be separated from our art history classes, and why should European history be separated from U.S. history? None of that made sense to me then, and it still doesn’t make sense to me now. We only remember and truly understand ideas when they are in context, and it frustrates me to no end the way the education system here is set up. So, it makes sense that progressive countries with high worldwide ratings like Finland are proposing to eliminate subjects altogether and emphasize the interconnection across everything we’re supposed to learn.

I ended that year with a A in AP Art History even though my teacher then probably thought I was a complete moron (she said she was very proud of me at the end), and I also got a 5 on the AP exam (that’s right, haters — the highest score). And of the paintings that we studied that was said to be one of the most important and famous paintings in the world was Las Meninas, painted by Diego Velazquez in 1656, and at the Museo Del Prado, which we visited today in our first day in Madrid. The Mona Lisa may be the most famous painting in the world among people who don’t know much about art, but for those who study and analyze art, Las Meninas is the pinnacle, the most elusive, the most confusing and the most complex. It’s mainly because there are so many subjects in the painting, and even the painter himself is depicted in it. I always thought the little girl, Philip IV’s daughter Margaret Theresa, depicted in the foreground was the most interesting; her eyes tend to follow you in the same way that the Mona Lisa eyes follow you. I also love the way her dress, skin, and hair appear. She’s perfect, like a porcelain doll, but her expression is so odd. She’s like this little pampered, innocent creature about to be tainted by the world.

Chris said she resembles JonBenet Ramsey. I reminded him that this was in the 1600s, so way before JonBenet’s time. Maybe the Ramsey family wanted their daughter to look like the infant Margaret Theresa.

Random observations about Spain

Every time I travel, I am always looking for things that I’m not used to seeing or experiencing. These are some of the things I’ve noticed since we’ve arrived.

  1. Dogs are oftentimes not on leashes in Barcelona, and they are no where as manicured and clothed and groomed as they are in cities like New York, San Francisco, and LA. These dogs look scruffy, dirty, and like they need a brushing. They look like… dogs. Real dogs. Not the ones that get bathed and brushed and preened every day.
  2. Like in Korea, no one seems to care if you use their restaurant bathroom even if you didn’t eat or drink at their restaurant. I guess when you gotta go, you gotta go.
  3. Wine is so cheap here, and unlike in the U.S., cheap does not necessarily mean crappy quality. Here, cheap actually means really good wine. I suppose that’s the case in most of Europe, but it should be odd to you when a glass of extremely delicious, fruity, and easy to drink red wine is 2 euros, and your bottle of water is 4 euros. Okay, let me correct that. It should be odd to you if you are American. We really take water for granted in the U.S. in restaurants.
  4. You’ll never get water served to your table unless you ask for it. And when you do ask for it, you will definitely be paying for it. So enjoy it, and as much of it as possible.
  5. Here, we’re on Spanish time, so it will never be as on time as in countries like Japan or Korea. Your train isn’t really going to depart at exactly 8:22. Slow down, take your time, and relax.
  6. Why is the subway here so clean?! There’s not a single piece of trash on the subway tracks anywhere. In New York, it’s laden with trash to the point where we get track fires because of dumb people’s littering and laziness.
  7. In markets in New York, the common fruits and vegetables you will see are the most boring ones: apples, regular Cavenish bananas, oranges, tomatoes, carrots, broccoli. In markets in Spain, you get to see their version of “common” and “everyday,” which include cherimoyas (WHAT?!!! I’m in heaven), dragon fruit, endless artichokes, and the most beautiful and colorful tomatoes ranging in shapes, wrinkles, sizes, and colors (even purple, pink, and bright green). And the produce is cheap. It’s like robbery.
  8. There’s a massive obsession with preserved white asparagus. I really don’t get that. The clear glass bottles of preserved white asparagus are literally everywhere.
  9. People jay walk here. We really haven’t seen this at all in any other European city. Chris fits right in.

Antoni Gaudi

This trip, at least the Barcelona portion, has become the trip all about Antoni Gaudi. Yesterday, we visited his Sagrada Familia cathedral. Today, we’ve visited his Casa Batllo and La Pedrera, and tomorrow, we’ll be seeing his Parc Guell. Gaudi was a deeply religious man, and hence he was called “God’s architect.” He felt that his work was a calling from God and the Catholic faith. Though I found little information about his wealth or lack thereof, we assume based on how he died that he did not live a materially wealthy life, as he got hit by a tram during his walk to confession and was completely nondescript, wearing shabby clothing and having no identification on him. No one knew who he was and all assumed he was a beggar, so they took him to the hospital for the poor. The next day, he was recognized by the Sagrada Familia chaplain, but by that point, it was too late. He died two days after being recognized. He was 73 years old. That made me feel so sad; all of life seems to be about material wealth; people care about you if you are rich and dismiss you if they think you are poor. Or as Chris said, “Why didn’t he have any money? What a loser. This is why we need capitalism.” Great.

These moments also make me question what my purpose here on earth is. Gaudi felt that the Catholic faith drove him in his quest to build architecturally stunning works of art. What drives me to wake up every day, and what contribution am I going to be remembered for one day when I die?

Tapas education

Our first day in Barcelona began with a timed ticket to the famous Sagrada Familia cathedral built by Antoni Gaudi, the revered Catalan Spanish architect. The cathedral is one of the very few churches that Chris and I have actually paid to visit (the only only church I distinctly remember paying to get into was the Sainte Chapelle church in Paris in 2011), and after visiting it, I have zero regrets. Given the number of times it was started and stopped and incomplete, it makes sense that it shows so many influences, from Gothic to Art Nouveau to Catalan modernism. When inside the cathedral and looking up, I can’t help but feel a little spooked at how eerie the entire feeling of this massive complex is. It’s like I’m in the Twilight Zone, except this is reality. It also felt like A Nightmare Before Christmas was going to begin in the church at any moment.

If that wasn’t already surreal and overwhelming, we then went to La Boqueria, the famous market in Barcelona, and sat at Pinotxo Bar for lunch. I’ll be honest: at the risk of sounding uncool, I’d never really been that into Spanish tapas before. I was never sure if it was me or the restaurants I was going to, but there was never a Spanish restaurant I’d been to where I had small plates and thought, “wow, I can’t wait to go back there!” or that I had a craving for those same dishes again. Pinotxo Bar made me realize that there was plenty to be obsessed about with Spanish cuisine. We shared four small plates of ham and cheese croquetes, grilled venison, grilled lamb, and grilled octopus, and from that point on, I will never say I don’t care for Spanish tapas again. The croquetes were teeny tiny and literally bite-sized, but they were fried to a point where they weren’t greasy at all and had a rich melty cheese mouth feel. The venison was the best venison of my life: a bit medium rare, perfectly seasoned and gamey. The lamb was the same; no confusion about whether it was really lamb or not. But I think the octopus was really what blew both of us away. This little plate of sliced octopus was lightly grilled, then sprinkled with Spanish paprika, grey salt, and drizzled with the most delicious and fruity olive oil. The salt itself was spectacular and so distinctive that I found myself picking off tiny grains of salt off the plate and eating them.

The food was all so simply prepared but so incredibly good and satisfying. We didn’t leave too full or hungry, but just satisfied to the right point. And with rioja wine at just 2.75 euros a glass, I wondered why we hadn’t indulged in much Spanish wine before this trip. If this is what Spanish food is about, lots of small plates of simply but beautifully prepared food with perfect little ingredients, I could get used to this.