Finding the Magic in Simplicity

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Last week, I got to witness something truly magical. It was an early day for me, not by choice—I had just flown from New York City to Venice, Italy, the day before, and the jet lag had really affected me. I had trouble falling back asleep, so around 5:30am, I pulled myself out of my bed, threw on some clothes, and wandered out the front of the remodeled, twelfth-century monastery where I was staying. Venice was still asleep, so it was just me on the streets and a few workboats on the water.

And that’s when I saw it: the sun rising over the lagoon. I sat on the dock, my feet hanging over the dirty lagoon water as I watched the sun’s hues change from red to orange to yellow before its light diffused into the clouds.

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I can’t remember the last time I saw the sunrise. I’m an early riser for a college student, but I’m never up by dawn. And that made this sunrise even more magical—it was probably the first one I’d seen in years, and I probably won’t see another one for a really long time.

I’ve been in Venice for over a week now, and I have a little less than two weeks here. It’s been such a wonderful trip so far, although it’s been far less glamorous than I would’ve expected. I didn’t think I’d miss the United States as much as I do. Italy is wonderful, but especially as someone whose Italian only goes as far as “posso avere una pallina di gelato” (“can I have one scoop of gelato,” probably the most important phrase), I miss being in a country where I speak the same language as everyone and where people share the same cultural values as me. My feet have been swollen from so much walking, the heat and humidity of this time of year is killer, and I don’t have the academic background in art history and European history to truly appreciate all of the lectures and cultural sites I’ve been visiting. Travel is hard. I miss home, and I miss my country.

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At the same time, I’m so genuinely glad that I’m here. The Veneto region is beautiful. I commute throughout the island by vaporetto (water bus). I’m seeing beautiful basilicas, churches, synagogues, and museums every day. I eat my fill of pasta, pizza, and gelato every day. And because I’m here through Stanford, I have the help and support of the university in terms of affording meals (which includes a meal stipend for lunches and dinners), knowing where to go (the program has a busy but eventful itinerary), and just generally having peace of mind. I’ve met such wonderful Stanford students here from a variety of disciplines, I’ve gotten to learn a lot about the history of Venice, and I’m getting a pretty cool crash course in archeology—this weekend, we’ll be at our excavation site in Torcello Island, which will be hot and grueling but also such a unique experience.

I’m surrounded by such extreme beauty here, but in reflecting on this past week, the most meaningful pieces of my time in Venice—and even in New York City the week before I arrived—have been the moments where I’ve found the most peace and simplicity.

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On Friday, I took a wooden boat to San Francesco del Deserto, a small island within the Venetian Lagoon where a small monastery sits. Saint Francis of Assisi came here after returning from the Holy Land during the Fifth Crusade—during that crusade, Saint Francis spent time with the Sultan of Egypt, either to attempt to convert the sultan to Christianity or to bridge religious divides, depending on who’s telling the story. (It’s theorized that Pope Francis even took Saint Francis’ name as a way to outreach to Muslims.) According to legend, Saint Francis of Assisi told the birds around him to be quiet while he prayed, and for the entirety of the time he was praying, the birds remained silent. Saint Francis then stuck his wooden staff into the ground, and miraculously, it grew into a large oak tree. The Franciscan monks who now live in the monastery have kept the stump of the oak tree near one of their altars as a reminder of God’s miracles.

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I’ve written on this blog about my own difficult relationship with organized religion and the Catholic Church in particular, but there was something especially soothing about being in this quiet monastery, surrounded by natural beauty and a handful of praying Franciscans. The Franciscans in particular have always given me much hope, and their focus on protecting the environment and the most vulnerable in our society have always been in line with what I believe that religious groups should care most about. Apparently, this monastery used to be open to tourists so that they could stay there for very low prices, but as tourism to Venice rose, the monks decided to end that practice in order to retain their sense of isolation. Even as someone who cares deeply about globalism and wants to see the world become more interconnected, even though the world’s political headwinds seem to be drifting toward isolationism in this period of time, I can see why these Franciscan monks would want to separate themselves from the rest of the Venetian Lagoon and hold onto the peace and quiet of San Francesco del Deserto.

Unfortunately, these kinds of monasteries are in danger of disappearing completely. The number of people who run the monastery is in the single digits, and because they and other monastic groups often don’t have any real source of income or financial support, the costs of keeping the monastery open can sometimes be too much. The other trip participants and I were encouraged by our professor leading the trip to buy something if we were able so that it could help support them. Even though I don’t really pray, I bought a small wooden rosary as a keepsake, a reminder of this short but impactful stop.

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These moments of peace and simplicity are usually pretty hard to come by in my daily life. I’m someone who tends to move toward hustle and bustle: I’m a Stanford student, and competitiveness weighs so heavily in the air sometimes that it can be hard to move without it suffocating me. My fieldwork this summer is a dizzying schedule in which I will have crossed the country and the Atlantic Ocean far too many times for just ten weeks. And my time in the Veneto region of Italy and the Slovenian coastal cities of Piran and Koper is busy and fairly exhausting, and even though the academic work load is dramatically lighter than what I’m used to, a five-page paper isn’t exactly what I would define as a vacation.

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Tea time at Ladurée in SoHo

Before I left for Italy, I found a rare moment of peace and simplicity… in Manhattan of all places. New York City is probably the best example of hustle and bustle, where one of the fastest ways to tell whether someone is a tourist is by looking to see whether they’re looking at their phones/straight ahead or whether they’re taking in the sights of the city. I had been staying with my friend Whitney* for the past couple days, and in our first of two excursions into New York City from Newark, New Jersey, we were definitely the latter; having been thrown off track by a late train from Newark, we ended up taking the ferry across the Hudson River and then walking through SoHo, taking in all the energy of New York City as if it were either of our first times there.

From a lovely lunch and tea time in Ladurée—when I unsuccessfully attempted to get Whitney into tea—to rapid-fire visits with some of Whitney’s friends from when she was studying abroad in South America in the spring, the day felt very characteristic of the hustle and bustle of New York City. All of that was amazing—when else do you get to explore SoHo with a friend, meet a bunch of other students filled to the brim with stories of their adventures across Latin America, and even get to visit Squarespace? But the most meaningful moment for me was when it was all over.

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Whitney and I met up with another friend from Stanford who was living in Brooklyn for the summer; she, a sociology major, had just started working on an independent research project—funded by the same grant that’s been funding my travels, so we’re part of the same grant cohort—on Bosnian Muslim identity. She was still adjusting to life in New York City, so she didn’t want to be in Manhattan too long after dark. Whitney and I met her in Battery Park, about as close to Brooklyn as you could get within Manhattan without actually crossing over into another borough. After catching up for a few minutes and taking pictures at golden hour, we sat down on a bench and watched the sun set over the Hudson River, the Statue of Liberty looming large in the distance.

For those couple hours that the three of us were together, we talked about the state of the world, our differing approaches and praxes, and gave each other insight into how our specific social sciences—political science, sociology, and anthropology—approach societal issues. We spoke at length about the struggles that intelligent leftist discourse has on campus, often squeezed out by a vocal right-wing minority and reactionary left-wing responses to that majority, and we talked about our hopes and plans for the future—academically and personally. And every now and then, we’d all just stop and take in the beautiful sights in front of us.

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New York City from the Hudson River

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Today, I’m in Koper, Slovenia. It’s on the very small strip of coastline that Slovenia has, and it’s incredibly beautiful. Tomorrow morning, I return to Venice. It’s been a dizzying past week or so, but I’ve been really enjoying it! I spent some time studying medieval anti-Semitism, so getting to see the Jewish Ghetto here—which is actually where the term “ghetto” was coined—was especially exciting. And by the end of the week, I’ll be excavating. But until then, the goal of today is to rest—much needed after all the traveling!

Top of the Rock: The New York City Skyline

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All of these photos were taken on July 23, 2014 at the Top of the Rock in Manhattan. After fighting my way to some of the more optimal spots and waiting around for hours and even getting rained on, I was able to get these pictures of Manhattan at dusk, during sunset, and after dark.

New York City truly is one of the most beautiful, interesting, and breathtaking cities in the world—a city ripe with dreams and opportunities. Hopefully you can get a glimpse of it through these photos.

For my photo blog of Times Square (that includes a short video panorama), click here.

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Falling in Love with Columbia University

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I’d like to mention that this post definitely goes over key parts of Columbia University, partly because I want to share what I learned with all of you AND so I can actually remember everything when college admissions season rolls around.

I’ll be honest, I think I fell in love with Columbia University.

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And how can you not fall in love with this Ivy League school in New York City? When I was in New York in July, Columbia University was my second stop—after Times Square the night before. Since college is on the horizon (sort of) and most people my age aren’t thinking about it yet, I might as well get a jump on it, right? Most people don’t realize this, but I’m going into my sophomore year of high school in about one week.

So there I was, sitting in Low Library and listening to people from the admissions department talk about Columbia University—their different programs, their engineering school, stories, and anecdotes—while surrounded by people who were actually going to start the application process this year! Um, whoa, just whoa. Continue reading

Times Square

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DSC_0037Sunday was my first day—well, more like “night”—in New York. And, despite only going from about 7pm to 11pm, it was actually very eventful!

I got the chance to meet my aunts, uncle, and cousin, all while looking over Times Square! It was beautiful, and I couldn’t have asked for any better way to start off my trip!

Times Square was absolutely breathtaking. I can’t even begin to describe how crazy it is. But it’s a good kind of crazy, and I love the hustle-and-bustle of the area… even if its only tourists like me who are hustling-and-bustling.

What’s absolutely crazy is that you don’t even realize it’s nighttime when you’re there. All of the flashing lights and advertisements fool you into thinking it’s daytime!

And there’s got to be an ad for everything imaginable. With so many ads flashing around me, I almost want to just pull out my wallet and wave my credit card in the air and just let the consumerism, well, consume me. It’s capitalism at its finest. Lots of photos after the jump!

Morimoto

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Who doesn’t love sushi?

I ate my last meal in New York at Morimoto — a Japanese restaurant on 10th Avenue. I definitely didn’t want to leave New York City without having great sushi, and luckily, Morimoto delivered.

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Our meal began with the toro tartare.

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Our waitress served us the raw, chopped toro, topped with domestic caviar, in a large bowl filled with ice. Inside the bowl was a tray filled with dashes of sauces — wasabi, sour cream,  nori paste, chopped chives, guacamole, and rice crackers — and a cup of dashi soy. To eat the tartare, you use the metal spatula-like spoon to scoop out toro, add condiments, and dip in the dashi soy.

The toro tartare tasted delicious! It’s one of those foods that I’ll want again if I go to New York, but not all the time — it costs $31 on the lunch menu. It’s definitely worth the price for a non-local, though.

Maki and nigiri sushi were next on the lunch agenda.

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The shrimp tempura rollspicy salmon roll, and sake (salmon) nigiri created a triumvirate of flavor, headed by the sake nigiri.

The sake nigiri was absolutely phenomenal! The salmon practically melted in my mouth. The chef’s inclusion of wasabi in between the slice of cool, raw salmon and the sweet sushi rice made the sushi taste ten times better. In Japan, the sushi chef lightly smears a small bit of wasabi in between the fish and the rice, as wasabi should not be mixed in the soy sauce, which is commonly done in the West.

Taking a short break from sushi, I feasted into the crispy rock shrimp tempura.

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The rock shrimp tempura had both a green chile and a wasabi sauce. Our waitress gave a ranch dip along with the rock shrimp tempura, which added a cooling dimension to the spicy shrimp. Honestly, I think I should have started with the shrimp, as it’s quite filling. Plus, its hot properties clash with the coolness of the sushi I just ate.

I ended the meal with two more maki rolls.

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The spicy tuna roll and California roll were calm and somewhat “safe” endings to the meal.

The standout roll was definitely the California roll. What made it stand apart, especially from other California rolls, was the use of real snow crab meat — very different from the usual imitation crab found in most sushi restaurants and grocery stores.

The Verdict:

I definitely recommend trying out Morimoto if you visit New York. Would I go back to Morimoto if I take another trip to the Big Apple? Possibly, but probably not. I won’t lie — Morimoto is ridiculously pricy, even for lunch. Is the food worth it? I’d say yes, but it’s not the place for someone on a budget (unless you want to leave hungry and underfed). I’d say try it once, then decide to return if you think it’s worth it. Just watch how much you’re ordering.

J’aime les Macarons: An Ode to Ladurée

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I’m not much of a dessert person, but I have a special place in my heart for a certain French sweet… namely the macaron. (Not the coconut macaroon, the extra “o” makes a huge difference.)

It’s no secret that I love macarons; I think this is even my second post about the French confection. My love affair with macarons started a few years ago in Paris at Ladurée, which is famous for its luxury cakes and pastries, as well as inventing the “double-decker” macaron (its current form).

When we visited New York, one of the places on our list to visit was Ladurée’s only North American location on Madison Avenue. (Another Ladurée is supposed to open in SoHo in the near future.) Note: As of April 2014, the SoHo location is open.

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Mesa Grill

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Note: Mesa Grill’s New York location is closed. As of posting, the only open locations are in Las Vegas and the Bahamas

On Day Two in New York, the lunch destination was Mesa Grill, one of Bobby Flay’s restaurants.

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I’m from Texas, land of beef and all things meat. I was actually quite surprised that a restaurant owned by a man well-known for grilling (and Mexican food, which is something else I’m used to) excited me.

There are a few things that made my time at Mesa Grill very significant in my New York journey — first, Mesa Grill was the only restaurant where we, rather my mom, actually ordered from the Restaurant Week menu (which took place between July 16 through August 10, 2012). Second, Mesa Grill had the best service out of any restaurant I went to in New York. I’ll never forget the wonderful waiter we had — he was so personal and friendly, it was great!

On the restaurant week menu was a spicy salmon tartare as an appetizer, wild striped bass as the entrée, and a vanilla bean custard for dessert. I ordered the Mesa Burger — which had the usual lettuce, tomato, and cheese, but also included grilled Vidalia onion, horseradish mustard, and Southwestern fries.

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