Monday, July 03, 2006

Swansong post - end of a beautiful dream?

1. July 22 '06 - Rome pics are uploaded. Click HERE to go to that post. More updates likely.
2. July 23 '06 - post updated with one pic of each country.
3. July 30 '06 - Budapest pics are uploaded. Click HERE to go to that post.

And I'm back in Singapore.

Reality sinks in, and it bites hard. I haven't seen so many Asians clustered in one place before. Ain't heard so much Singlish spouted in my face before. Hell, I haven't seen my family in 6 months. So it's good, at least for the time being. After all, home is where the heart belongs. And for the time being, my heart still belongs to Singapore. Whether it is for the long term or not, I cannot say. I can only say that the exchange has changed many things about me and my ideas.

The future burns bright and opportunities abound, as they say, so why restrict yourself?

The end of exchange was like awakening from a beautiful dream. People, strangers from all over the world, come together in one place and start interacting, forging friendships, talking and laughing like they knew each other from years before. Parties, none too wild, but free flowing alcohol of all sorts, induced even the shy ones to come out from their shell.

And of course who can forget the travelling I did in the past one and a half months. So much of Europe crammed into 40 days, so much sightseeing, so much walking, so much sun. So many languages in my head. French in Paris, Italian in Rome, Hungarian in Budapest, German in Austria, Czech in Prague and of course English in London.
The first night I had back home was a sleepless one, as most people would have, reminiscing about the times I had in a then-foreign now-familiar land, the people and friends made, the things that were said and those that weren't, the regrets (if any; I certainly didn't!), the places I went to, the sights I have seen. All I can say is, I fell asleep with a smile on my face.

I could write on and on about this period I had, but I figure that not many will bother to go through all the words. So I will chronologize (is there such a word? Sure, I invented it! =P) the times I had, so it's easier for everyone to visit it in chronological order.

=-=-=-=-=- THE START OF IT ALL -=-=-=-=-=

Helsinki, Finland (28/12/05 - 02/01/06)
Part 1 (1st post from Europe)
Finally reached the northern part of the world, didn't know what to expect, but full of excitement cos it's my first time out of Singapore for an extended period of time. Total independence beckons, as does travelling around in Europe.

Oulu, Finland - the settling down (Jan 2006)
Pretty much the whole of January, read it from bottom upwards.
How a Singaporean slowly melded into the European landscape and interacted with the people.

Estonia, Tallinn - first trip out of Finland (20 - 22 Jan 06)
Part 1
Part 2
It was a on-the-spur-of-the-moment decision that proved to be a great trip. My first backpacking trip out of what was to be my motherland in Europe (Finland). Travelled around with many Americans, 1 Canadian, 1 German, and a few Spanish.

Thoughts during the rest of the exchange period (Feb and March 2006)
Had exams at the end of March, then I was to be a free man, which partially (no, fully) explains the heading below this. Again read it from bottom up for the chronological sequence.


Party times
The crazy times I had in April, really mixing with the Europeans. Before that, my interaction with them was kept to a minimum cos I was mugging for the then upcoming exams in Feb and March. Did St Pete's and Moscow during this month too.

In retrospect, Russia was one of the most unique places I visited in the entire duration of the 6 months. The whole place is just chock full of HUGE buildings, topped with gold. I went to both St Petersburg and Moscow and I must say that the experience was amazing. I wouldn't recommend anyone to go without a guide though, unless you speak Russian.
Moscow (12-14 Apr)
St Petersburg (15-17 Apr)

The last few days in Finland and travelling
The saddest part of my exchange - no it wasn't missing my family or friends or getting homesick - leaving my new found friends from all over Europe in Oulu. But this experience was to be something that I could take with me (at least in my head) forever. I would leave my European friends for Poland, and then come back to Helsinki for 2 days, then around Scandinavia with ZM, WL and his family.

Poland (11 - 21 May 2006)
Sailing was a great experience (it was a new one actually) and I got to know another bunch of European people! From sailing, we went back to basics on the first night, dealing with nature as we knew it, starting fires to keep warm etc. After that, we had restaurant meals everyday, so it was really fun and enjoyable. But what I won't miss was cramming into a small sailing boat with 7 others at night to sleep, and I have to say I didn't catch much shut-eye during those 5 days.

Cracov, as the locals would have it, is a charming city, largely untouched by World War II, and hence has a wealth of old architecture inside the city. Its Town Square, a UNESCO Heritage site, is the largest in Europe, measuring 200m by 200m (or thereabouts). Be sure to visit the market square as well, the Wawel Castle and the Wieliczska Salt Mine when you are there. For the daring and those interested, you could also visit the Auschwitz death camp where the Nazis committed genocide and wiped out so many of the Jews. A largely depressing place and one should steel yourself for it before even entering.
(Aw shit, this sounds so much like a brochure. But really I typed this all myself!) I mean, I really enjoyed Krakow. It's cool, lah.
By the way, everyone should join the Mazury Sailing Festival (click to go to their website), held every year during this period. The organizers are 2 young guys, one from Poland (Piotr) and the other from Finland (Aleksi). They are doing the trip for fun and it's really cheap, like 10 days for 290 euros! Great fun to be with them and one of the best organized tours around in Poland.

Scandinavian capitals

Stockholm (23 - 26 May)
One of the most amazing Scandinavian capitals, in terms of architecture. I liked the way how all the buildings were, but on the day we saw the change-of-guards, it wasn't as impressive as I thought it would be. Apparently they have different parades for different days.

Copenhagen (26 - 30 May)
Well, I have nothing much to say about this place, except that it has nothing much to offer (in terms of things to see.) Even its iconic Little Mermaid is just that - little. But prices there are crazy, just like in Oslo. It was also a stone's throw away from Malmo, a Swedish town. We went there for a day trip after we got bored of Copenhagen.

Norway (30 May - 5 June)
Oslo (will update with pics when I have time)

Crazy prices, nothing much to offer. Was at the park of statues (Vigeland Park) to see the famous Angry Baby. I was surprised that this famous statue was actually hidden behind a pillar! Luckily my friends who were there before pointed it out to me. Might not have seen it myself if I were there alone.


Easily the most amazing place for nature that I have ever seen. Can draw parallels with New Zealand for its steep fjords, vast tracts of virgin rainforest, meandering rivers, astounding waterfalls, mysterious snow capped mountains. That was a breather from all the other capitals which we only saw buildings.

Summary of Scandic trip (words only)

Travelling in Continental Europe (June 2006)
After that, I met up with CJ and JX for the real backpacking trip around Europe - London, Paris, Rome, Budapest, Vienna, and Prague.

United Kingdom (5 - 9 June)
London - the most similar place to Singapore. Can actually meet other Singaporeans here as well cos there are so many of them studying here (full-time degree and exchange students). Some of the bus companies and some hotels are Singaporean-owned too! It's hard to tell I am not in Singapore if you throw me into a neighbourhood and remove all the people from the streets. And the Brits drive on the "wrong side" of the road as well!

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

France (10 - 13 June)
Paris - An amazing place, but the weather was too hot for me to really enjoy myself. We visited Sacre Couer, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and some other places. Unfortunately, we decided not to enter the Louvre cos of the expensive entrance fee. Argh, anyway, I think there will still be a chance that I might go back, after all, Paris is a popular tourist destination!

Part 1
Part 2

Italy (13 - 16 June)
This place will strike fear into your heart if you know the stories behind it all. Many would know about the pickpocket stories, the woman-who-throws-her-baby-at-you-so-she-can-make-off-with-your-stuff case, and policeman-who-asks-for-your-passport-then-runs-away-with-it story.
Just play it safe, wear a money belt and use common sense. Not rushing into crowds, and generally keeping your eyes open for danger will help you save more than your dollars (or euros), remember they also want your identity cards or passports.
We visited the Vatican City(Basilica di St. Pietro, Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museum), Fontana di Trevi (pickpockets' hotspot), Colosseo and Foro Romani (I only took photos outside cos I was sick that day) and Spagna (Spanish Steps). The typical tourist spots as most would visit whilst there.

Pics of Rome *updated*

Hungary (16 - 19 June)

Budapest (in words)
Budapest Pics

We got to stay in Gábor's sister's house and saved on accomodation. Met up with Gábor on the last night we were there and I was glad to see him again. Budapest is a really nice place and the scenery along Danube River is amazing. The buildings were built in such a fashion that it was like it was made out to be a postcard view. The Chain Bridge, the Castle and Castle Hill (on the Buda side of the Danube) are a must to visit. For shopaholics, there's the Pest side, where shopping streets abound.

Austria (19 - 21 June)
Vienna (words only, pics maybe uploaded later)

The City of Music, as most would think of Vienna. Maybe Salzburg can have that reputation, but it is not as widely known, cos it is not a capital. Remember the Sound of Music? It's from Salzburg! We wanted to go there, but didn't have time nor accomodation. Vienna is great looking (in summer, at least, cos CJ's friends told him there was nothing to do in Vienna, having visited it in winter.) We toured the Parliament building, the Inner City (Volksgarten, Hofsburg Palace, St Stephen’s Cathedral) and caught a ballet on the first day, then visited the graves of the famous composers, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Strauss on the second before leaving to Prague.

Czech Republic (21 - 28 June)
Prague, Český Krumlov, Kutná Hora

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3 (1st 3 posts words only)
Pics for the past 4 days
Last 3 days

Prague is quite similar to Budapest, and almost equalling it in terms of charm and beauty on the banks of its Vltava River. I say almost, because somehow I still feel like Budapest is better cos both banks of its Danube River are built up with intriguing architecture. And as most other East European countries (sorry Eva, I still think Czech Republic is a East European country, cos of its wonderful side - cheap prices!), we had good and cheap food everywhere, so we ate like kings.

CJ and me took 2 day trips out of Prague to Český Krumlov and Kutna Hora. But I really preferred Český Krumlov to Kutna Hora, cos its castle is really like a castle (in terms of looks at least) and the river surrounding it adds to the charm. We even went rafting and it was so fun! met up with Lucie, Joe, Judita, and Eva during the one week I was there and it was great to reunite with old friends from my exchange in Finland.

Helsinki - the last few days in Europe (28 - 30 June)

Paula, my good friend from the Poland trip, made my stay in Finland for the last 2 days really comfy. I had such a big bed that I couldn't get used to it! Read more of it in the post proper.

Paula, come to Singapore again yeah and this time I will show you around and bring you to eat good food!

Home in Singapore! (1 July - ?)

Home is still best, where I am concerned, but well, we will see how things go as time passes. By the way, you can connect to my Singapore blog here.

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Friends I made whilst on exchange

This post shall chronicle the friends I made whilst on exchange. Most of the people here I chat to regularly or hang out with when I was in Finland. Cool guys and girls. You're all invited to Singapore and I'll show you around if you want! =)
Nima (Iran). One of my bestest buds in Oulu, my flatmate, my bitch-mate. Always with a joke in mind, the life of any party. Master of several languages, even though he insists that he can't speak them well. Speaks Persian, Italian, French, and gawd knows what else. He's always trying very hard to pronounce my Chinese name and always never failing to make a joke out of it. And yeah, of course, the only other Haka dancer. Gawd, he even shed tears when I was leaving. Man, I never knew this joker could be so emotional.
Gabor (HU), one of my good friends who always comes down to our flat to chat with Manu, Nima and Thomas and also to the sauna with us. He can't really stand his flatmates, so yeah, perfectly understandable why he comes to our place.
Mirja (GER), another one of my good friends whom I got acquainted with only during the last few weeks of being in Oulu. Who can forget the German girl with a Finnish name and American accent? She was at the last ice swimming session and after that we went to Piet's place to watch a movie. Funny how people get to meet. She bakes great chocolate muffins. I want some more!
Paula (FI), one of my good friends whom I got acquainted cos of the Poland trip. She's really interested in Asian culture, and Chinese too. She can pronounce my Chinese name pretty well too. Quite amazing eh?
Mikko (FI). Oulu ESN leader from 2005-2006. He's a funny guy too, but he likes to drone on and on and on. Bad habit. LOL!
Lucie (CZ). Doctor-to-be. Hosted me at her house when I went to Prague. She's really nice to me and her boyfriend Joe is a nice guy too!
Hanka (CZ). She's very friendly and I think I knew her better on one of the supermart trips I made to Lidl. Always ready to party!
Eva (CZ). I can't really remember when I started hanging out with her, but she's a really friendly girl and one whose command of the English language beats most Czechs hands down. Speaks other tongues as well!

Manu (BEL). One of my flatmates and he's a very sociable guy. He hated computers when he came to Oulu but during the time he was there, he grew some love for MSN and Finnish babes. Oops Frauke, I mean this as a joke. A favourite with Finnish girls. =P He's a great guy to hang out with.
"Clarence, let's go to the sauna."

Kathy (BEL). She's another one of my coffee session mates. Baked my farewell party cake with Melissa. Thanks duderine!
Thomas (AUS). One of my flatmates. He's a great climber and shares common interest in climbing with Gábor.
Irida (ALB). She didn't want to know me at first, but soon she was always laughing when I said something. Haha... Always with the Italian guys cos she's studying in Italy.
Nesli (TUR). One of Jurate's course mates, which means she's a dentist as well. A really nice girl, and she's invited me to Turkey! =)Jurate (LIT). Met her during one of the early session at Caio, Oulu's student bar near the university. She's really pretty eh? Even Jiali commented on her good looks. She's a dentist by the way. AHHHHHHHHH...
Stefania (IT). Language student and hence speaks good English. One of my coffee session mates and with Melissa, can go on and on for hours during coffee. =)
Melissa (IT). Language student and hence speaks good English (speaks French and Finnish too), unlike most other Italians. She's good friends with Stefania. One of my coffee session mates!

In case you were wondering how come there are so many females in this post, it beats me as well. =P Don't be too nosey, ok?

People I got to know during my exchange period

Friends that I have made from the exchange period (the bulk of them in Oulu, a few on the Russia trip, and some on the Poland trip) are from all over Europe, America, Canada, New Zealand and in Asia too! It's been a great time with them =) and I hope to meet them soon, anywhere in the world.

Tanja (FI) and me outside Oulu University.
Noura (FR), Nima's labmate. Got to know her only after my Russia trip during the last few weeks I was in Oulu, cos she just arrived from France to do her Master's thesis in Oulu.
Natacha (FR), got acquainted with her during the Russia trip. She was also studying in Oulu Univ, but I, for some reason, never got to see her around.

Markus (Austria). A lady charmer with good looks. He's a really funny guy, and never fails to crack me up with his antics. It's great he's gonna be a teacher. The kids will surely love him.

Brecht (BEL). He's well loved by everyone. Nice guy to have lunch with cos he's always saying some joke.

Jiali (China). Knew her from Finnish class. Quiet and reserved, but the only person besides WL that I could speak Mandarin to.
Reetta (FI, also from the Poland trip), a very smiley girl, always smiling throughout the whole day, even when she just woke up.
Malin (SWE). An instant looker and hot favourite with all the guys in Oulu. (I didn't say that, it was my evil twin. =P) Great to dance with, especially when the music gets hot.
Soraya (ESP). Knew her through one of the parties. Course mate with Manu.
Eder (ESP). Knew him during Finnish class. Hangs out with Jihye a lot, for some reason.

Jose (ESP). One word to describe him in his own language: "Cabron". HAHAHAHA!

Vicente (ESP). Studying in Oulu too, but knew him better during the Russia trip. Haha, this guy is a master voyeur shot-taker. Learnt from him the art of taking not-so-secret pics of hot babes on the streets of Moscow and St Pete's. Look at his shirt and you know what it means, eh?

Annie (FR). Vincente's girlfriend. OK, I know this looks really scandalous, but Vicente was the one who asked me to take a photo with his gf ok! LOL. He was the photographer!
Jihye (South Korea). Cute and shy girl. Acquainted durin Finnish class.
Vladic (SL). Doctor, loves alcohol and parties. This pic was taken during his farewell party and he's almost drunk already.
Tom (SL). Slick dancer with all the cool moves. I get a lot of inspiration from him on the dance floor. Haha!
Chico (Mexico). Hard at work, signing my guest book. Great guy with lots of knowledge. Beer guzzler.
Stelvio (IT). The first guy I talked to in Oulu. Has smouldering good looks, intense eyes and a great twinkling smile, but he's not too tall though and that's a real pity. Should see him on the dance floor. Always has a roving eye for hot babes.
Stefano (IT), girl charmer. For some reason, he is able to attract girls like no other guy can. And he doesn't even have extraordinary looks. Must learn a thing or two from him. Unfortunately, I didn't really talk much to him.
Gaetano (IT). Great guy to hang out with.
"Clarence, Onnela tonight?"
"Yeah, viva la fica!"
Dario (IT). For a while I was mixing with the Italian "mafioso". LOL, together with Stelvio, Gaetano, Nima and Ida (aka Irida), these "Italians" always know how to joke around.

Tomash (HU), met during sauna.
Susi (GER), knew her during the Estonia trip. She's really tall (>1.8m)and in this pic, she said "I'll let you be taller than me, ok?"

Judita (CZ). Pretty Czech. I thought of her as quiet for most of the time I knew her until one party when she was quite high on alcohol and she spoke a lot to me. Well, people are different when they are drunk.

For people who didn't have their pics here, it was because
1. I didn't get a photo with you or
2. I misplaced those photos.

But we are still friends if you know me =) Regards from Singapore!