Dear Future You,

It’s me! In 8th grade, I wrote a letter in my English class addressed to my 5-years-later senior high school self. Our teacher really did mail our sealed letters home at the end of 12th grade. It was short, sweet, and quite accurate. I hoped for “good friends,” an “ivy league school” (apparently an elitist college brand mattered to me in middle school), and “even better handwriting.” My dreams came true.

I’m a senior again, albeit in college. I’m sitting in Cafe Kubal (thinking of how Boreal has opened 2 new locations since I’ve left Switzerland), hiding from the hail, and humming along to their playlist of nostalgic songs I’d listened to in the early years of high school (like this, this and this). Exactly 1 year ago today, I was landing in Geneva for — a cliché lack of words — the most humbling, beautiful, and rewarding time of my life.

In tune with some other bloggers writing reflective après-abroad posts, this is another one. If you’re thinking about living across the ocean in the next week, few months, or a few years — here’s what I would write in a letter to myself based on what I’ve learned:

  1. This is what it means to be living your own life vicariously. Forget scrolling through Instagram on @travelandleisure, comparing your destinations, and spending time idealizing rather than doing. It’s okay that everything seems out of control at times – balancing going to class daily at 9am, choosing where and with whom you’re flying with for the few weekends that you’re free, and deciding which type of ravioli to cook for dinner. Slow down; intentionally take a deep breath (summer yoga and winter barre really helped me understand the importance of breathing.) Nobody really knows you if you trip on the folded carpet on the way into the grocery store, nobody really cares where you worked last summer, and only you know how uncomfortable you were when you woke up from an accidental nap on a solo-trip to Lugano to assess the situation of having two middle-aged men sitting across from you (reassured: Switzerland is incredibly safe). While abroad you often forget in the moment that indeed, you are living the best part of your life. Believe it. Cherish it. It’s a gift. Don’t think of it as being hedonistic — remind yourself how lucky you are to have scattered pieces of your ‘self’ on the Alps, the 40+ train rides, and fluffy cheap croissants to connect with others and your future.
  2. Just do it. Think a lot, regret a little, and get going. Remember those quasi-deep short French phrases everyone seems to know? joie de vivre, raison d’être, c’est la vie, l’esprit d’escalier. It’s possible to make them part of your life. At least you mustered up the courage make your freshman year dream a reality – applying to go abroad – that was the most difficult part. While sitting in a hotel with spotty wi-fi in the Napa Valley at the end of summer before your junior year, you sat down to channel your thoughts into actually applying to Boston University’s Geneva Internship Program. Despite feeling like you were “cutting into” precious vacation time in the moment, that was likely one of the best decisions you made in 2015. In 2016, you decided to apply to some of your dream futures — keep going and follow through with building the foundation of where and who you want to be. 2017 will be filled with uncertainty, adventure, and a learning-curve of maturity —
    embrace it.
  3. You can survive on less, but don’t forget: minimalism is a luxury. What does this even mean (???) In terms of Geneva: pack winterproof footwear (think of @Aneesh wearing soaked mocs while we trekked around the snowy park for an art history field trip), a warm coat for windy days, and your running sneakers – it’s all worth the weight.
    However, in terms of design: look at Squarespace. Its most popular commercial and portfolio templates are quite basic. In terms of consuming: remember that Burberry’s iconic item is a simple, unadorned tan trenchcoat. But it’s nearly $2,000 (womp). But maybe, it will be the only rainjacket you’ll be wearing for the next decade, so the price per wear + the number of prêt à porter coats you don’t end up buying + initial investment could be worth it. In terms of survival: if you can make it four months in Europe on three colors in your wardrobe (black, grey, and shades of white), two suitcases, and one backpack, how much do you really need day-to-day? Beyond eating well, exercising often, keeping up with your family, doing meaningful work, and forming friendships – what else truly matters?

Always,

thanks for reading!

P.S. Digital signatures are harder than they look.

Pokémon Go: A Public Health Paradigm

“The solution to public health issues… lies outside of public health.” 

My Controversies in International Health teacher was keen on this idea. That solving the world’s daily and greatest health problems would stem from sectors like finance, marketing, design, technology, and environmental fields. It reminded me of my population health course back at Cornell, which highlighted how many health issues are layered and deeply rooted in social factors.

For example, OpenIDEO’s interesting challenge hopes to make the end-of-life care process better for everyone. The proposed ideas look at the health system “problem” from a variety of perspectives, weighing in on different actors, resources, and ‘creative’ memory-storing ways. Hopkins refers to public health as “we prevent disease and injury.” Perhaps in the reality of end-of-life care, preventing disease is no longer an option. However, it is still a part of life that requires carefully calculated plans with consideration of a variety of priorities — especially from fields “outside” of the traditional boundaries of health care.

“High Above Cayuga’s PokéGyms” (Ithaca, 2016)

Walking across the Arts quad at dusk yesterday, I easily counted an above average number of people trekking across the grassy plains. Some were oddly congregated around an invisible intersection, like new friends destined to cross paths. Others chimed along with dangling lanyards, distinctively highlighting Cornell Summer College, and were likewise following their dimly lit compasses around trees and behind libraries. At first glance, it seemed like the poignant reality of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together had come true to its fullest extent. Instead, the opposite was coming true: these excited pairs of eyes were united through a strong commonality: Pokémon Go. This strategically simple game brings all sorts of ages outside. It gets people walking, connecting with their environment, and breathing in the surprise of finding Pikachu somewhere along the way up the slope. Especially promising is the potential to catch a Dragonite by walking a few more kilometers, and the necessity to move under 30km/hr to hatch eggs.

Here’s how Pokemon Go could be one of 2016’s best public health models: 

  1. Incentivizing an active lifestyle
    A long-term challenge of many public health initiatives is placing an emphasis on engaging in physical activity, yet struggling to find creative approaches to engage the population in moving. The University of Rochester lists physical activity, nutrition, and obesity as leading common health issues. Dozens of recent “school-based interventions have struggled to achieve meaningful and lasting changes to exercise levels.” The WHO reports “more than 80% of the world’s adolescent population is insufficiently physically active.” In a society cluttered with desk-centric workplaces, homebody-friendly video games, and comfortably convenient personal vehicles, it is difficult to stray from settling in a sedentary lifestyle. Pokemon promotes walking by increasing the chance to catch rarer Pokemon — and the game-internal speed limit prevents you from “progressing” while driving.
  2. Promoting connectedness & mental health
    The most popular video games require little to no physical activity. Pokemon Go now forces those who have been traditionally gaming at home or indoors to explore the perilous outdoors. With the popularity of this game attracting over 15-million downloads, you are bound to see some Pokemon players, gym leaders, and trainers — engaging in face-to-face interaction, or mimicing the actions of those around them.
    Groups ranging from two to dozens of people have formed in order to find Pokemon in this alternate reality world through the phone camera lens. Even the Mayor has tagged along in engaging with the Ithacan community. While there have been some national news coverage on the violence and accidents from Pokemon players, the majority of interactions seem cordial and calm.
  3. Allowing (almost) everyone access to play
    Many policy initiatives related to health struggle to gain attention, funding, and popularity. For instance, take a small survey sample of the people around you. How many have heard of First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign Let’s Move, and how many have heard of Pokemon Go? With Pokemon Go as a free download in the app store, the temptation is open to all smartphone users. There is no guilt in paying for no “price” initially, and now over 10 million players are part of this augmented reality world. The popularity of the game also helps attract new players — both new and old Pokemon fans — to become part of this community. Think about this as one of word-of-mouth’s most successful campaigns. The reality, however, of getting everyone on their phones, on the go, and searching for Lapras and Arcanine, is that you are selling part of yourself: the data the game collects.

The Way Home

“The Rainbow Ends Here” (Geneva, April 2016)

Running through Geneva on a day trip almost feels boring. The element of surprise is calculated out from most moments that it would be present in — in other cities, that is. Except it’s perfectly uneventful; the farmer’s market sets up at dawn on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, the street cleaner will drive by as soon as the vendors have departed, and you’ll catch the lingering savory scent of poulet rôti from down the street. Sometimes, you’ll find yourself standing next to the same lady with the navy blue Céline purse on the tram at 8:14am, because that’s when she routinely goes to work. Despite this predictability, I can pick out one particular evening walking home from work in April.

The sky wallowed in sunset pink as the air held on to the last bits of the storm. I rounded close corners to avoid puddles and walked parallel to the river until the main bridge. This bridge is easily one of the biggest surprises here in Geneva. It has this stretch of instability on the north end, where you pause for a moment and wonder if its you, the lake waves, or the world that’s gently bouncing. Tourists are revealed almost too easily by their confusion while walking across this part of town. The rest of the pedestrians acknowledge and keep moving along with their destinations fresh in mind.

That humid April evening, I watched people stop on the bridge. Not visitors — not tourists. Even to my last day in Geneva, I have never seen locals take photos of Lake Geneva with their smartphones. These were the people I walked by every day — the people upholding the model of business traditional attire and reserved eye contact — today they paused their daily commute for this. This wasn’t just any rainbow — this one ended, right in the middle of the lake. And there were two of them across the sky.

There’s a delicate magic aura surrounding rainbows. There’s a stark contrast of the sobbing skies and the welcomed trespassing color against an otherwise dark day. There’s the stories we’re told when we’re little, to explain this phenomena with a pot of gold at the end. I remember wishing to see the leprechaun dancing around, or even the elusive cauldron itself.

With the ends of two rainbows and a longstanding myth resolved– my curiosity was met with a few more questions. As I walked along the lakeside park home, the end of the rainbow followed me home across the lake. There wasn’t just one ending — it was clearly dependent on the observer’s position. Much like following the moon on a road trip or flying “parallel” to the big dipper, the end of the rainbow raced me across the width of the lake and disappeared into the neighborhood. It was a good day.

While I thought this would be another insignificant walk home from getting off of the tram early, this experience reminds me of the bigger picture — of undocumented pictures. Much like my favorite collection of photo-less memories from flying, this evening made it into the “remember forever” part of my brain. My phone was at a dazzling 0%, and I knew I wouldn’t have a chance capturing the fleeting rainbow as the sun was setting behind the higher-than-average skyline of the mountains. The ends of the rainbow would never meet my camera back at my apartment, but I learned that only a few moments can last forever. Only until next time, Geneve.

C’est tout Genève

 

As the train from Paris pulled into Gare Cornavin on Saturday morning, my 24 hours of goodbyes had begun. It reminded me of the time I said goodbye to my friends from international summer camp in 7th grade, with the in-denial but understood-reality there’s a chance we would never meet again (I’ve only seen one of the girls I knew — she lived in Austria and we met up in Beijing at a train station last minute 3 years ago). I had a second chance to re-visit the pockets of home I’d scattered around Geneva. Stepping onto the platform wrapped me in a sigh of relief — re-instilled with navigational confidence, I brushed by the midday crowd with familiar mouthed pardons. Here’s 10 recommendations for when you pass through Genève on your next trip:

  1. 9:00 AM Walk @Jardin Anglais | Start your day along the lake and (hopefully) seeing the Jet d’eau from the garden. Swing up Rue Muzy and around the corner to Céline et Sébastien for un sandwich au écrevisse et une tarte aux fraises (they only speak French!)
  2. 9:30 AM Coffee stop @Cafe Boréal | The original store is on Rue du Stand, next door to a La Durée. I filled 3 student coffee stamp cards here (free drink for every 7th!) The barista on the last day joked that it wasn’t my first time there, and sadly I had to tell him it was actually my last — too bad this was our first time meeting. Try the mochaccino, speculoos milkshake, flat white, or drip coffee! Better prices & service vs. Starbucks.
  3. 10:00 AM Chocolate for lunch @Läderach | There are 3 stores in Geneva between Rue du Rhône and the train station. Buy a box of chocolate from here for your friends who have been begging for a tasty life-changing souvenir!

    Runner up @Philippe Pascoet | You can also buy pralines & truffle by weight at any chocolatier, so I like to pick out five flavors to try (and maybe they’ll offer you a free sample along the way).

  4. 11:30 AM Effortless rescue @Uber | Legalities aside, Uber has been truly life-changing two times this spring. I soon came to terms with my pile of semester-long belongings on the sidewalk of a quiet one-way street, no prepaid funds left on my phone, and a strong existing wifi connection. Uber was the only way to go. My driver was more than enthusiastic; driving by the UN headquarters one last time, teaching me some survival French (trompe = deceived), and talking through his plans on launching a health-related startup in the upcoming year.
  5. 13:15 PM Window shop @Globus | This multi-level department store has eclectic gourmet snacks in the grocery section of the basement and an upscale-esque food court on street level. Think: high chairs, pedestrian square views of Place du Molard, and delightful seafood options. The pain au chocolat here in the bakery section is hard to pass up for less than 2 francs. Wishing I had the chance to try the oysters, sushi, and crepes!

    Runner-up @Manor | Manor feels cozier and more like home, with a delicious cafeteria-style lunch on the top floor every day, everything else in between, and a varied, fresh grocery selection in the basement. I like to call this place a perfect mix of Wegmans x Bloomingdale’s.

  6. 14:30 PM Cultural picks @Plainpalais | This large orange turf is home to Wednesday & Saturday farmers markets, a spring carnival home to bumper cars until midnight for nearly two weeks, and a skate park in the corner near a Frankenstein-inspired statue (Mary Shelley wrote the book with Geneva in mind!) My mom was visiting, so it wasn’t tough to decide on exploring the Patek Philippe Museum around the corner again. The inconspicuous exterior of the museum blends in with the surrounding neighborhood, but the three floors inside is home to delicate, extravagant, and decorative timepieces. From contemporary iconic watches to enamel pieces adorned with queen jewels — well worth a walk through time on the plush emerald carpeting and a strict no-photos policy.
  7. 15:30 PM Outdoor seats @Cafe Grutli | A relaxing atmosphere here. Modern-art adorns the walls in an ever-changing re-painting process. This is an extension to the theatre with a complete, vegetarian-friendly seasonal menu. Go for ginger tea (try it hot or cold), sharing stories over sunset, and friendly international waiters.

    Runner up @La Clemence | Cornered in at Place du Bourg-de-four in the hilly part of old town. Try the hot chocolate with whipped cream.

  8. 19:00 PM Fondue @Les Armures | A classic in the center of old town with impeccable service. Apparently Bill Clinton has had fondue here (!!!) The seasonal soup has been the best thing on the menu for me, twice.

    Runner up @Bains de Paquis | The fluffiest fondue is here, and bonus views: lakeside! Come in a group; this place is very casual, filled with locals and visitors alike (and swans), and offers unlimited bread and cornichons + onions (cash only).

  9. 21:00 PM Falafel @Parfums de Beyrouth | Save room for a late night snack here (or second dinner). The hummus is the absolute best. Try the vegetarian plate or chicken and falafel sandwich with added hommus. This is easily the busiest Lebanese restaurant in the area and lives up to its TripAdvisor ranking; usually packed at meal times with a diverse customer base. The owner has a great sense of humor.
  10. The 10 @Bel-Air | Not really an attraction, but the 10 bus runs starts at Rive, goes through many major places in town, and stops at the only “mall” before terminating at the Aeroport!

 

Birthdays & Beyond

 

“Better Late than Never” (Geneva, Switzerland May 2016)

Near the Palais des Nations, I saw the fountain today for the first time. It was seasonal, apparently. It was playful and unpredictable, with a certainty to the pre-timed splashes. The backside of the fountain is the home to the Broken Chair monument and headquarters of the United Nations, while pictured above you’ll see: WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization), UIT (Union Internationale des Télécommunications), and Deloitte. Of course, there are no railings or splash-zone warning signs just like alongside most waterway-sidewalk boundaries around here– you are responsible for your own safety.

We ended up at the Palais des Nations because every calendar has an end date — one you often look forward to, but with a swallow of bittersweet nostalgia. For us, the farewell dinner at Geneva’s hospitality school’s Restaurant Vieux Bois, around the corner from Nations, was exactly that event. The last one on our calendars which had been soaked in southern Europe sunshine and sleeting snow puddle commutes. This was the last real “day” of all 54 of us on the BU in Geneva program (shoutout to Spring 2016) would ever be together. We snacked on stories, on risotto, on cocktails. We met each others’ supervisors, discussed the refugee crises in Chinese, and reconnected with our bright semester instructors. We went through the motions of closure, with no intent of leaving this place until we were shuffled out of the hotel school restaurant upon its closing.

While our time in Geneva had an end date, most of the days in between arrival and departure didn’t operate on set dates. I found myself embracing the spontaneity of living in a slow-paced city — enjoying the old book sale with Srijesa while missing the tram intentionally, deciding to go to GIA’s pub night and getting to eat mediocre nachos with new friends who were old friends, and nodding to the cheese and meat shop owners while short-cutting through the Halle de Rive market hall. Content on operating on the adventures that sprouted my way, I did pencil in a few dates with set plans: 21st birthdays.

Turning 21 meant quite a bit for most of us, given our upbringing in the States and its symbol of conspicuous legality, weighted responsibility, and uncertainty with a dash of excitement. This sense, however, had almost no bearing here across the Atlantic — where 21 seemed to be a stepping stone through the zen garden of aging.

On birthdays, it’s easy to find ourselves drifting through a timeline of turning — turning 8, turning 16, turning 20. On birthdays, I’m met with a growing set of wordless emotions– feeling like time has caught up with me while stopping for moments throughout the day. On birthdays, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude and support from family and friends from various corners of the globe. How can an entire year be measured with one dripping pastel-pink-and-white striped candle?

___

“Big Red Woods” (Plateau des Glières, France, March 2016)

Kevin’s 21st.

I turned left instead of the usual right I took up the familiar street. Sometimes, you fall into a routine that’s hard to even raise the question there were other ways to go. Through the dimly lit evening in Geneva, I walked past empty storefronts and triple-checked the all-knowing Google maps. It was nearly 9pm on a weekday when I found Luigia, offset from the main road and still packed with customers, leading to a 45-minute quoted wait time. Families of all sorts were seated in this large, open room with the words LUIGIA lit in rusty yellow cast a glow over the Swiss-French conversations. Wafts of mozzarella and spills of laughter from the bar area mixed with our surprise to find so many people out this late in the day — this was an escape from the city’s implicit bed time. Also to my surprise, I was the first one to arrive at the restaurant out of our group — an event that my friends from back home would call a lucky accident I usually operate on a 20-minute grace period, but it seems like the Swiss-sense of punctuality has found its way into the back of my mind. We celebrated Kevin’s birthday at Luigia, complete with the congenial waiter singing to our table. Instead of living in the moment, our shared resurgence of piecing silly memories together from Florence and Venice took over as we ordered pastas and pizzas with gratzis — not mercis.

The next afternoon after spending a few hours squinting and running through the snow, a cacophonous melody of fifty voices chimed in with a surprisingly coordinated happy birthday dear Kevin. We were in a cozy chalet on our lunch break from a beautifully warm winter morning snowshoe excursion hike. A small candle atop of a blueberry tart darted its way to the embarrassed and very-surprised Kevin as all fifty of us had a moment where our souls crossed in a kind of genuine laughter with a round tone of pure gold.

Sunday — the next day — felt like an extension of Kevin’s birthday. He harnessed some birthday energy to fuel the weather gods, and by some miracle we ended up skiing with 50-degree sunny skies. As an avid skiier and outdoor adventurer (by avid I mean like 50 times this semester), Kevin organized a group of us to roll out to the bus station at 8am. Packed with our wallets and snowpants, soon I realized I had just signed up for one of the most beautiful winter days to spend outside at one of the world’s best ski towns: Chamonix, France.

____

Lauren’s 21st.

In contrast to a few weeks ago — where I spent more hours outside than inside feeling as one with nature as I could tumbling through the snow — celebrating Lauren’s birthday was quite the treat in a formal, social, upbeat dinner in one of Geneva’s lakeside hotels. Going out to eat dinner in Geneva already felt like kind of a big deal. Most of the time, our daily dinner routines included sharing stovetops, scissors, and salt & pepper. Lauren invited five of us to share her 21st with her at Arabesque — a Lebanese restaurant in a hotel I passed by on a run with Aneesh a few weeks ago and saw the Dalai Lama staying in. Around the table, we shared our first impressions and favorite memories with Lauren, with each of us fondly detailing sharing meals from Lucerne to Athens with a reflective twinkle in our eyes. We ordered a mix of small plates, enjoying each spoonful of the flavorful hummus types and my favorite — the roasted red pepper puree spread. Lauren has this magnetic pull towards enjoying and sharing life’s precious little moments, in making this dinner a full dining experience. There were perfect moments to laugh, moments to savor the complex flavors, and moments to understand how lucky we were to be together, across the ocean, in this corner of a restaurant on this day. The chef surprised our table with a piloted dish of creme fraiche and salmon sandwiched in crunchy papadum layers. And thats when I knew — I knew this wasn’t going to blur together with a collection of dinners in a restaurant — it was one with carefully calculated presentations, stringless loyalties to Geneva, and the sweetest of friends (and port).

___

What I’ve learned about getting old:
1. Birthdays are for sharing, giving, and loving. It’s never too early to think of or discover the perfect gift for a friend — and you don’t always need a good reason, just a good story.

2. Random people checking your ID will still be wishing you a happy birthday even months after turning 21, in the U.S. at least.

3. Take time to appreciate what you have, who is in your life, and where you’re going. The celebration part of a birthday is a small part of the day, tying together loose ends of excitement. But you can find time everyday to celebrate and enjoy.

Goodnight Moon

“Orion’s Belt” (Lausanne, Switzerland February 2016)

Peeking out from the kitchen window with a deep breath of cold, spring air, I found a sky full of stars. The moon was still hidden behind the low neighboring rooftop, waiting its turn to light the courtyard three floors below me. Geneva is a quiet place after the sun goes down. Quiet–like a stargazing Ithacan summer night on the Arts Quad–but with five times the population. It’s hard to imagine that the trams were once full in the morning for an endless count of consecutive trams. It’s hard to imagine that there are actually nearly 200,000 people wedged in this serene corner of French-speaking Switzerland. It’s hard to imagine that our apartment residence has “quiet hours” at 10pm, which are strictly enforced by every bit of the space –the house, the people, the norms– around us.

I learned the true art of being a chameleon this spring, while having the flexibility as a student to test the strength of the boundaries in place of the stringent Swiss style. The French cantons, while much more laissez-faire than the German center and less temperate-tropical-tourist than the Italian corner of Switzerland, soon became a sense of home — with house rules, of course. There are certain unspoken rules of the Swiss system that slowly unraveled throughout our four months here. That taking a nightly stroll in the park in one of the safest cities in the world was not really an accepted activity. That sitting outside in the middle of winter in your slim-cut suit for after work drinks is quite popular, especially when the cafe offers fleece purple blankets to complement your business-formal wear. That there was no way you could enter a half packed supermarket at 7pm if that store closes at 7pm to buy a bottle of water, because an employee will be standing at the door to turn you away.

“TPG x Red Cross Day #ICRC” (Geneva, Switzerland, May 2016)

There were times when we saw the system disrupted, but there were enough boundaries in place for the city to continue functioning in a fairly effortless, seamless manner. For example, once my co-intern had to buy a single-hour TPG (the transportation in Geneve) ticket, but fumbled for his wallet, payment and queued a small line behind him. By the time his ticket printed, the next tram had arrived and was about to depart. In the States during morning rush hour, I could imagine a slew of apologies would be exchanged with heated frustration between my friend and the line of passengers who wouldn’t make it on this incoming tram. Incredibly, instead, the morning continued to go on. We’re human and not perfectly efficient, but the Swiss system has enough in place to save us from falling from our imperfections. Since the “on-time” here is on the early end, these morning commuters likely had ample time cushioned in to make it to their destination. The next tram on this line would likely arrive within the next 2 minutes as predicted on the digital display, and the queued line of passengers would likely be on their way, as if it had been any other day without a cloud of doubt in mind. In the States, however, losing a few minutes here and missing the tram could easily tumble into being 20 minutes late from unpredictable, less frequent, and antiquated transportation systems.


A story I heard during Cornell reunion weekend weeks later led me back to leaning my head back to breathe in the night skies again. There’s a comforting certainty that the sky is always up, no matter which corner of the world you’re looking up from. “I took my wife to visit Japan about fifteen years after I was first there. We had arranged a tour for the day. It was for the Imperial Palace, in Kyoto. When we arrived, a well-dressed man grabbed my arm and escorted us away. This was before the scheduled tour time, and soon we found ourselves in a filled room of uniformed men — no women — around a television. They were so excited to see us, to be with Americans that day! It turns out we were invited into the Palace to watch the first man land on the moon.” Sometimes, you don’t know you’re in the right place at the right time, until it happens: July 20th, 1969.

Weekly Wisdom

“Looking out from Chillon” (Montreux, Switzerland, April 2016)

To appreciate the good, to see the best in everyone — to some extent, you have to learn to accept, sympathize, and understand the bad too. It’s not the contrast that makes you internalize the appreciation, however, I see it more as a coming to terms of learning the polarizing ends of the continuum of feeling. I loved last weekend in London, where I spent my first day power-walking from tea time to the Big Ben with Joyce and the second day on my own, squeezing through crowds of locals buying fresh flowers and hand made artisan goods. While sitting on the 35th floor of The Shard, I had a few breaths to catch and clouds to watch before my evening flight: LCY – GVA. As I leafed through a contemporary London design book with aesthetic space arrangements bleeding off the pages into the corners of the lobby, I understood why I loved being there. London made me feel. From the fiery energy of the Columbia Road flower market mediating my pacing disappointment from the iconic double-decker red bus being 20 minutes late to the teary blinks capturing the velvet-y performance of “but because I knew you I have been changed for good” at Wicked in the Apollo Victoria Theatre on Saturday afternoon and nearly tripping up the stairs with my steaming Americano and coffee-walnut cake from Cake Hole Cafe @ Vintage Heaven, every moment was a comforting sense of uncertainty, spontaneity, and warmth. This spring, I was torn in a number of moments in wars against the weather I knew I couldn’t win, prioritizing the reasons I had for travel, and learning to survive on the delicate balance of waking up early, drinking caffeine late, and chasing dreams during lunch breaks.

Three quotes from the locals have particularly stuck with me and what I’ve learned to feel and appreciate as the horizon of the white capped mountains slowly rose and the days became longer — only to go by twice as quickly.

But Where's the Matterhorn? (March 2016, Zermatt, Switzerland)

“But Where’s the Matterhorn?” (Zermatt, Switzerland, March 2016)

1. “How many minutes are in a moment?”

A little girl waiting for the train down from 10,000 feet up at the Gornergrat station asked her mother this after her mom and aunt had one of those learning-teaching-recalling moments of asking the girl how many minutes were in an hour and how many hours were in a day. She paused before jokingly huffing out a response “one hundred eighty five minutes are in an hour.” In a quick response before her mom could pry again for an answer, she inquisitively asked “how many minutes are in a moment?” I felt like the answer to this question was beyond any way I could compartmentalize time. I felt surprised by my own lapse in curiosity in asking a question like this, yet suffocated by my decade and a half of “experience” more than the young girl in feeling, living, and learning.

"Light at the End" (Chamonix, France, March 2016)

“Light at the End” (Chamonix, France, March 2016)

2. “Take a little time to enjoy, you have it.”

In Chamonix, we opted for a semi-guided tour on a tight itinerary in order to journey up the 3,842m peak Aiguille du Midi, eat lunch, and take the cogwheel train up another 1,913m to the Mer de Glace glacier to see the ice caves. Earlier in the day, I remembered walking by warm winds of Nutella and fluffy crêpes in the ski town and vowed to return before leaving for Geneva. The waiter in the cozy store, mostly serving après-ski customers who lounged in the sunshine on the terrace, was surprised when I asked for my crepe à emporter — to go. He encouraged me to sit and enjoy my snack here — which truly I wish I could — but I insisted I had a bus to catch home to Genève.

"Queen of Fleur" (London, April 2016)

“Queen of Fleur” (London, April 2016)

3. “Why not do what you love now?” 

I sat next to a young freelance photographer on my early bird flight to London last Saturday. Despite napping through the first half of the flight, we awoke to the British Airways staff pushing a cart of warm paninis through the cabin as the sun hung over blankets of low clouds. Our conversation wove through the depths of traveling through the countryside in India, developing sustainable solutions, and the power of AI and imaging in research. We chatted a bit about our families, about birthdays, about friends. It was like we had met before, but in a foreign, far-away memory tucked away behind millions of moments and under forgotten photographs. This reminded me of the power of human connection — that the world brings together people of all sorts and everyone is willing to share a part of themselves if you ask the right questions. The friendliness of strangers will never cease to fuel my curiosity about understanding what motivates our work.

 

A Lost Goodbye

“Up & Up” (Stockholm, Sweden, February 2016)

The daughter lingered for a moment in the doorway of the tram as she stepped out into the Östermalmstorg platform, pausing the energy of motion surrounding her hand wave. Our gazes met – hers, awaiting the other half of a goodbye from her elderly mother who had just sat down, and mine, looking forward to a long train ride across Sweden later that day. I was excited to have caught the moment, but the daughter was surprised when I picked up the wave instead. Her mother carefully chose to sit in the last empty seat and had her back to the closing doors. The mother had this brimming sense of curiosity, though today was probably a day like any other for her on the metro across Stockholm. I suddenly felt a bittersweet aftertaste lingering in my mouth, wanting to somehow communicate to the elderly woman across from me. I wished I could have told her to turn around in that moment seconds ago, to recreate the acknowledgement of exchanging departures. But in a blink, a new wave of bodies and stories flooded into the tram. I had no Swedish vocabulary to explain what had happened– I felt so helpless to have stolen the goodbye. All I could do now was to return to being an observer, blending in with this new kind of heat I was surrounded by. The quick wave was like an official goodbye from Stockholm, capturing the essence of the beautiful city – familiar, sweet, but rushed in our short 48 hours in Sweden.

Earlier, laughter danced its way into the quiet corners of the tram, around the brims of warm winter hats and through the tapping thumbs on glossy screens. The waltz led back to two women who were drafting a flurry of rushed, light-hearted stories in Swedish. From endearing hand gestures to loving smiles, they added a kind of energy to the space that you could find curling up neutral faces into slight grins. The two women appeared to be a mother and daughter pair. Their interaction looked comfortable and familiar. Soft wrinkles folded at the corners of the mother’s glossy eyes, tucking away a glowing life with decades of joy. Her daughter now appeared to be in her mid-50s – but mapping ages to faces was a precarious task in Scandinavian countries. In the slivers of silence between their conversation, I could imagine the mother raising her kids, picking her daughter up after she fell from her first walk or packing her son’s lunch for a special field trip. It reminded me though, as we age, the intersection of our lives gradually becomes less frequent with our friends, parents, and colleagues. But it’s okay to let it happen, because you can still keep up – with as much or as little as seven minutes on the metro.

 

Kindly Contagious

This is a loosely woven set of three stories, about the ebb and flow of strangers from our lives. It’s a kind of reminder that makes you feel good about valuing generosity. It’s a sort of gesture from the world to show how connected everyone could be. It’s a tailored collection of three separate moments of vulnerability, with one simple common denominator: the Kleenex tissue.

On the second day of our program, over two months ago, Rachel and I went to the grocery store at dusk. In the past 36 hours, we had flown across the globe on an overly-excited red eye, toured the neighborhood in a blur of snow flurries swirled in logistical details, and ran around the city for a scavenger hunt with our new floormates. During our tour earlier that day, it felt like the Migros– a large supermarket and retail chain here in Switzerland– that our student life director pointed out was at least a thirty minute walk away. By some magical brisk trek through the icy wind tickling our sniffling noses, we arrived at Migros in less than five minutes that evening. We wandered through the grocery store like it was a grand adventure, picking apart the playground of produce and cautiously filling our baskets with clementines from France, spinach from Spain, and mangoes from Peru. At the checkout, we soon learned we had to purchase paper bags or bring our own re-useable grocery bags. Rachel and I approximated we could fit our snacks into just one bag. In the hurry of paying, bagging our groceries, and piecing together “la carte” “oui” “thanks,” a quick exchange of the pasta sauce between our two pairs of hands sent the glass jar flying towards the tile floor. In our first of a hundred future trips to Migros, we had caused quite a scene. The shattered glass and sauce was relatively contained, except for a few red splatters that dotted the jean cuffs of the woman standing beside us. We apologized, in shock and in fear, with our powerless, American “sorrys.” We spilled sorrys for the cashiers, the witnesses, and mostly, to our fleeting attention. The least I could do for this Swiss woman was to hand her a tissue from my purse for her newly acquired, unwelcome-d tomato sauce droplets. “C’est bon, c’est bon” she told us. It would be okay.

On the third day of our program’s spring break, we found ourselves in Copenhagen, Denmark. It was nice to see familiar Cornell friends again, and despite it being our “spring break,” we spent most of the week dodging sleet and icy puddles. For moments that night, it almost felt like we were at home — home in Ithaca, home in New York. I felt like a stranger to this town, however, after just recently spending two days growing used to the aesthetic of Stockholm. The American-style diner we ate a late dinner at was interesting, steep in price but complete with milkshakes. A friend we had dinner with wanted to take home her leftovers for a snack later — but it appeared that it wasn’t a common thing to do here. The waiter scavenged for a plastic container and a sheet of aluminum foil to create the ultimate DIY doggy bag. We headed back to the residence on the public transit bus, but about three stops away from home, the spinach seemed to be leaking through invisible cracks in the plastic container. Within seconds, I watched my friend’s hand collect dozens of drops of green oil. A sweet elderly woman sitting across from us watched this small disaster unravel. She swiftly found a tissue from a pack in her bag and offered her sympathy as she laughed along with us until we got off at the Bispebjerg stop.

Four weeks flew by with my current internship at the International Hospital Federation. On nearly an hour commute each way to my structured, scheduled 9am – 5pm work day, I get to pass by dozens of different people along two trams and one bus ride. Fridays tend to be fairly busy on the bus home from the hospital in the afternoon. Next to me was a middle-aged woman with her two surprisingly quiet dogs sitting at her feet. Across from me was a man absorbed into watching something on his Samsung phone. Behind me was a young woman leafing through a novel. While the bus was fairly filled, it was still more quiet than any bus would be in the States at this level of capacity. On the other side of me, there was a man and woman sharing Pringles and a diet soda. At one point, the man sneezed perhaps mid-chew and had his elbow over the lower part of his face for a moment. Immediately, the man across from me on his phone dug his hand into his back pocket. I thought, here we are again, graced by the deeply rooted values of courtesy, respect, and friendliness. The man immediately extended a tissue from his pack across the aisle of the bus, and with a few breaths of a “merci” from the recipient, the bus returned to the normalcy of its orderly, contained disorder.

"No better way" (Lake Geneva, March 2016)

“No better way” (Lake Geneva, March 2016)

Später: Later

"A Day in Time" (Geneva, 2016)

“A Day in the Time of Day” (Geneva, February 2016)

There is a keen sense of time around here, ticking away from the luxury-watch company sponsored clocks lining the street corners, reminding us to always keep going. It never feels like a suffocating rush like it often does at school, rather it’s more of a little push to keep you interested in swinging toward the treetops, and never too much to sweep you off and send you crashing down into the woodchips. It’s so easy to take Ithaca pedestrian crossing norms for granted, which means you can almost always cross a street without thinking twice about the cars stopping for you. Here, most people only cross when the crosswalk notification is green, and don’t ever push the boundaries on crossing in the breaths between yellow and red lights. This feels different from back home, but in a clean-cut, orderly, and predictable kind of way.

In less than 24 hours of walking around Geneva in my daily routes, I encountered a number of clocks including one on display in the Musées d’art et d’histoire (top left), clocktower in the Place du Molard (top right), landmark Flower Clock in the edge of the Jardin Anglais (bottom right), and three clocks along major shopping streets.

The Swiss are known for their efficiency — meaning there might be a slight obsession with time in this country. From program-led excursions to art history class, it feels like being early is actually on time. Some days, I found myself wandering into class a half hour early, only to find a third of our class already chatting away in the room. On the other hand, arriving at 13:56 for a 14:00 class today, the first presentation had already started. Leaving earlier for places has really connected me with noticing my surroundings, making the hyperawareness of the people around me feel habitual.

“French or Swiss?” (Geneva and Lyon, February 2016)

The days here surprisingly don’t feel blurred together. Walking to class is never an identical point A to point B commute for me, as I try to shape the middle of the journey to expand my mental map of the city. Every day has its tailored pace and plenty of freedom for amendments to the unstructured daily schedule around class time. It’s the interactions with the Ladurée cashier encouraging me to try the hot chocolate, the couple asking me for the WiFi password at the café in French, and the warm smile of the nice woman at Globus who hands me my weekly pain au chocolat (a chocolate filled croissant-like bread) that makes everyday its own, little adventure. I have finals later this week, meaning the first 6-week portion of the program classes is ending. I’m finally forced to tie loose ends and continue exploring; to keep moving. I feel that little push to make the most of the time I have left, before the internship begins, to explore the libraries and coffeeshops around the University, meet the nice sandwich shop owner everyone raves about, and find a comfortable business-lunch destination.

“Going Home” (Lausanne, January 2016)

If you take the moment absorb a full minute in the train station, you’ll find that it’s a space that candidly captures the pace of Geneva. The visits to a number of cute neighboring towns across Lake Geneva – Lausanne, Fribourg, Lucerne, Nyon — have only reinforced the sense of controlled-rushing quite unique to Gare Cornavin (the train station here in Geneva). Sometimes, I feel out of place if I’m not running through the station to my destination departure platform. The intermittent floods of people seamlessly weaving through the clean, granite, renovated 1850’s station lined with shops are a staple to the life of the place, all moving along with the sense of a little push behind them. You’ll see women in their thick fur coats and pristine leather heeled-boots leaving no trace of their stories behind as they board on platform 4. You’ll see teens in their bundled scarves and bright snowpants, returning home from day trips skiing or snowboarding. You’ll see the men in their light-colored slim suits, caseless iPhones, and Canada Goose coats. What you’ll rarely see though, is the average, wandering tourist – everyone here has a very clear destination in mind. It’s difficult to pick out American English or Mandarin Chinese conversations through the crowds — they simply aren’t present. After returning to Geneva from a weekend exploring the beautiful Carnevale de Venezia (Venice Winter Carnival) and Firenze (Florence), we became very thankful we were living among working individuals, locals, and families, rather than in a sea of visitors.