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On the Swedish Farm / A Day in the Life

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It’s ridiculous that I spent weeks waiting for people to come into Uppsala, and the minute the trickle of incoming students turned into a steady stream for Orientation Week, I feel overwhelmed. I haven’t yet spent a full weekend in Uppsala, I realized. The first weekend was attending a festival in Stockholm with friends. The second, Berlin.

This third weekend, I went to my farm.

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It’s not my farm – but I call it that, anyway. While the owners are Swedish, it really is an adopted home of sorts to free spirits, hailing from all over the world. It’s one of those places that I simultaneously can’t believe actually exists; and keeps me grounded; knowing that it’s there. I am so glad I found it. It’s apple season now, the musteri is running full force in the brisk autumn sun. I’m already planning entire weeks of trading in books and student pubs for fresh-pressed apple juice, crisp fall weather, and stomping around in boots.

The sense memories I glean here  are so specific and different from my “real life” – Clipping flowers still wet from the morning dew, taking lazy naps in the light-flooded greenhouse, home-made dinners under the apple trees. I always keep my iPhone tucked into the pocket of the usually (ratty) oversize jacket I throw on the minute I arrive on the farm, because magic lurks around every corner.

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In the mornings, I wake up on “the bus” around 7:30am; where I’m swaddled in blankets to fight off the cold at night. Last year, my friend Stephanie and I took this trash filled VW bus and cleaned, painted and organised it into a cozy little home. I stagger out to get ready for the day – and someone’s usually been on breakfast duty, setting out oatmeal, honey, cream, dried fruits, bread and butter. First order of business – a massive cup of coffee out on the veranda overlooking the farm.

At around 9am, we gather around a whiteboard for the morning meeting, where we review tasks to be done for the day and get assigned duties. The morning meeting, thanks to Lars, Emilia, and that sarcastic Swedish humor, is always subtly hilarious. Each worker on the farm is assigned, on their arrival, an area of the farm to tidy  up and clean before visitors come, and that usually takes up the first hour or so of the day – it’s one of my favorite times at the farm – everyone bustling about, doing their individual tasks; the farm still hushed and quiet; slowly waking up to the day. Last year, when I was an official worker at the farm, I was assigned the barn “dining area”, and, in the process of readying the space, discovered the joy of working with flowers (which may or may not play a role in years to come. I’m still thinking on it).

Then there’s always people needed in the dishroom (to clean up after the cafe customers) and, now that it’s fall – the musteri, or apple press. The cafe is busiest in the summer season, while the musteri opens in the early weeks of August. Everyone who isn’t in the dishroom, musteri, or on some sort of special task (i.e, building a chicken house) stomps into the fields to do some weeding or harvesting.

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When I arrived on the farm last weekend, I had already missed the morning meeting and the chance to sign up for cafe shifts. The musteri was relatively quiet, so Stephanie and I headed out with a few baskets to gather fallen apples (and, naturally, to snack on a few good specimens while we work). Rotten apples are salvaged and thrown into one basket for the pigs to eat;  the relatively whole ones go in one basket for the cafe to make juice with. Typically, people bring their own apples (from their backyards, etc) to press and pasteurize at the musteri for a fee. There’s also the option to pick apples from the farm’s own orchard – or to buy the ready-made juice available in the cafe. It’s interesting that in the US, “cider” can refer to pressed apple juice (“hot cider”)  – but in Sweden it seems to refer solely to an alcoholic beverage (and there can be pear cider, blueberry cider, all kinds of alcoholic ciders).

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I press a batch or two in the musteri just to re-gain a feel for working there, and then I’m off to the fields, instructed to go and help harvest beans. They’re big, purple ones this time. The produce grown on the farm is either used in the cafe dishes, or arranged in a little produce stand to be sold to visitors. If you don’t have a chance to stroll all the fields, the produce stand is a convenient way of telling what season it is at the farm. When my family visited less than a month ago, the stand was quite different – but now pumpkins have emerged in the line-up, little warm-hued heralds of fall.

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We work until we’re finished with our tasks for the day, and the more brave of us head off towards the lake for a brisk bike ride and swim before dinner. I’m more of the coffee-on-the-porch set, and everyone is on the alert for the dinner bell, ringing across the farm. While lunch is more of a rushed affair, dinner never disappoints – one night, we have fresh-caught fish from the lake: a few kind souls had stayed up late to throw in the net, and gotten up at the crack of dawn to haul the bounty back. I could write a post on all the wonderful dinners we’ve had at the farm. Everyone eats with gusto –  no shame, when you’ve been engaging in wholly physical labor, all day.

Night-life in the Swedish countryside doesn’t always match the purity of the water, air and trees – I’ve seen many a drunken soul staggering about in the orchard after the numerous weddings and parties that take place on the farm – but most nights, it’s games, bonfires, and quiet chats in the darkness. This weekend, we made a bonfire of unwanted books, piled haphazardly in the “give-and-take” shop at the edge of the farm property. Some truly strange titles went into the fire, and then it’s time to pile on blankets, get on the bus, and hit the hay - a very apt farm metaphor, indeed.

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All pictures taken with my iPhone 4S.

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Swedish Shit / What is Fika?

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Fika is a Swedish term that essentially means “to have a coffee with a pastry / cake”. It differs from, say, the way Americans say “go for a coffee” or Taiwanese say, “喝下午茶” in that it can be used both as a noun and a verb – you can fika (Shall we fika in an hour?)  or have a fika (Where do you want to go for our fika tomorrow?). Another purported difference is that you must have a pastry, or some kind of sugary sustenance – along with your coffee. I entirely sympathise with this rule, official or not – Swedish coffee is strong.

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It’s described as an inherently social act, vs. the American cultural context of “coffee break” - coffee time is seen more as an act of physical recharge (mission: get as much caffeine as humanly possible into bloodstream), or about being a fucking hipster sitting in cafe for hours staring into the depths of your Macbook.

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Taipei Nightlife Guide / 2014

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Note: I originally published this post as an “honest” guide to nightlife in Taipei. I took it down when I changed the direction of my site, but by request, I am putting it back up – with changes. While it’s relatively justified to be snarky and judgmental in terms of night-life, I’d much rather focus on the spots I love; the spots that make Taipei nightlife so incredibly fun, and something I look forward to returning back to, no matter how far I’ve wandered afield and how sophisticated other nightlife scenes are; whether I’ve been in Stockholm, Dubai, or Hong Kong; seeing the neon glow of Taipei at night is not just fun, it’s home. 

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 I wrote a Taipei nightlife guide in 2012, and I was surprised to see that it still ranked amongst the top hits when one searches “taipei nightlife guide”. 

Horrors! In the rapidly evolving nightlife scene, two years may as well be two thousand years ago. The thought of some poor tourist attempting to hit up Primo (doesn’t exist anymore) or Myst (whatever I said in that article, I totally lied – Myst is awful) became a nagging weight on my conscience until I finally decided to man up and write a new mini-guide of my current favorite spots around the city. This is my no means comprehensive – just a list of spots that my friends and I frequent; spots that I like – and maybe you will, too.

Read on, you creatures of the night.

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(Obviously all opinions are my own, and are strongly influenced by my general distaste for house/EDM,  my love for hip-hop, my preference for horrifically girly, flowery drinks, my friends, my genetic make-up, my Social Security number, etc. etc.)

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BARS

Although the cost of drinking in Taipei may be a bit lower in comparison to its more cosmopolitan neighbors, don’t come here expecting to get a quality cocktail for a fiver – many of the bartenders at the bars listed below do meticulous, creative work, and you pay accordingly. Expect to pay 350 NTD ($12 USD) to 550 NTD ($18 USD) per cocktail, on average.

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  • WOOTP /窩台北 / Woo Taipei

No. 39, Ln. 205, Sec. 4 Zhongxiao E. Rd. / 忠孝東路四段205巷39號 / Facebook / 02 8771 9813

My absolute favorite bar in Taipei. Don’t get it mixed up with Woobar at the W Hotel, listed further down. WOOTP has the best interior of any bar in Taipei – think funky, upscale British gastro-pub.  One of the only spaces that I think could go head-to-head with hipper-than-thou watering holes in cities like Hong Kong, but with a refreshing lack of a pretentious “scene” – and, of course, that unimitable Taiwanese friendliness in regards to service.

Must order –  Blossom Sangria. Like smelling an entire bouquet of roses – except even better because you get drunk at the end. Friends are far more proficient drinkers than my lightweight self, and many a night has begun (and ended) with Wootp’s deadly absinthe drips. An Italian-inspired dinner menu is available.

  • OUNCE 

No. 40, Ln. 63, Sec. 2, Dunhua S. Rd. / 敦化南路二段63巷40號 / Facebook / 02 2708 6885

Ounce is a cozy speakeasy tucked into the back of a hipster espresso-joint storefront. Rock up to the back and press a secret button to signal your intent to enter. Though I’m far from a cocktail aficionado, I do know from tried-and-trustworthy alcoholics that the concoctions here are some of the best in Taipei. Be prepared to wait, as they’ve done away with their reservation system and the place is tiny. 

  • ALCHEMY

2F, No. 16-1, Sec. 5 Xinyi Rd.  / 信義路五段16-1號 / Facebook / 09 5358 5759

Alchemy is another speakeasy set on top of scene-y watering hole Marquee. Hopefully you’ve made a reservation, so walk up to the hostess and signal your intent to go up to Alchemy. Upstairs, through a hidden doorway, lies a far more relaxed atmosphere – and quality cocktails from the award-winning head bartender. One of the last cocktails I had before leaving Taipei was an incredibly creative miso-inspired concoction, served up in a bowl.

  • WOOBAR / W Taipei

10F, No. 10, Sec. 5  Zhongxiao E. Rd. / 忠孝東路五段10號10F / Facebook 02 7703 8887

Anything associated with the hipper-than-thou W hotel chain is far too swank of a scene for the likes of me – in fact, I prefer drinking without a scene at all, and the drinks here are as over-priced and under-whelming as you’d expect. But the decor is on point, I do like their range of fruity mojitos (passionfruit) – and I’ve been known to smash a plate of their insanely delicious truffles fries before going out. (On a separate note, their free-flow champagne brunch on Sundays – at a table by the pool – is a Taipei must-do)

  • Caffe Libero 

Like many cafes around the city, Libero operates as a cafe by day, and serves alcohol alongside, at night. No cocktails here, but a selection of whisky, beers, and spirits. The interior is the star factor – the place drips with nostalgia, located in a renovated historical mansion.  I bring friends here when we’re not planning to do more than grab some late night eats at Shida before heading home – it’s for chill nights, rambling conversations in a haze of smoke and the clink of ice in whisky glasses. Only open until midnight.

  • MARSALIS / Home Hotel 

Intimate “whisky gallery” lounge at the Home Hotel. Come here for a glass of whisky, a bottle of wine, and jazz.

  • WA-SHU

No. 96-4, Linsen S. Rd. / 林森北路96-4號 / Website 02 2563 5468

A Japanese bar with a focus on infusions. Recommended by friends.

 

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ON THE CHEAP / DIVE BARS 

This is where you’ll find beers on tap, more relaxed service, and simple mixed drinks for 150 NTD ($5 USD) to 300 ($10 USD).

  • RECHAO / Find your favorite.

By far Taipei’s cheapest way to get drunk is by downing bottles on bottles on bottles of Taiwan beer while eating your way through a huge variety of stir-fried goodness at a traditional Taiwan drinking house; “rechao” / 熱炒。 I could write an entire primer on 熱炒 - there are hundreds in the city, and each person has their favorite spot, usually in their neighborhood. I never pay more than 300 NT ($10 USD) for a tableful of food and enough beer to get me going for the night. 八仙炭烤, located on the edge of Da-an Forest Park and 5 minutes from my house, is my go-to spot.

  • TAIWAN BEER FACTORY / 台北啤酒工場

It’s a 熱炒 on steroids, and not for the faint of heart (or those who want to have an actual conversation). A warehouse crammed full of tables, plates on plates of fried foods, a stage, and general drunken mayhem. I celebrated Swedish Midsummer with friends here, and it was pretty much as much of a shitshow as you’d expect.

  • THAT FUCKING PLACE 

Perhaps Taipei’s most beloved “dive bar” – favored by the city’s cinematic crowd.

  • CAFE ODEON

Taiwanese university life doesn’t involve much drinking, but a few student bars exist, and this one is the best – comfy couches, a decent selection of craft beers and comfort food abound at this little dive located in the Gongguan area, within walking distance of National Taiwan University.

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CLUBS & LOUNGES

This section is definitely not a comprehensive primer, though Taipei (unlike Berlin, for example) doesn’t have a huge range of clubs. But you’ll want to take my advice on this, anyhow. I’m not up-to-date on the entrance fees, but I’m guessing they fall between 700 NTD ($23 USD) -1000 NTD ($33 USD). Again, this is not cheap – many people opt for bottle / table service, which is significantly cheaper here compared to other cities.

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  • HALO

Not a huge fan of lounges, but I’ve found myself at Halo more than once the past few months. The music really varies depending on the night – but when they play hip-hop, it’s a good time. Amazing view of 101 from the balcony tables. I haven’t ever ordered a mixed drink from the bar – though I’m sure it’s just standard Xinyi District lounge fare.

  • CHESS TAIPEI

Much love for this place – since it’s hip-hop all night, every night. Even though my friends and I always plan on switching things up, we usually just find ourselves heading for this tiny one-room club located on the far side of the nightlife district. It gets good fairly late in the night – 2am is a perfectly adequate time to show up – giving you plenty of time to linger over dinner and drinks (or randomly take shots of vodka while dancing to Youtube videos, which is more along the lines of what my friends and I do) before heading over.

  • SPARK ATT

Only including this because it’s the place I go when I don’t go to Chess. It’s much bigger than the fire-hazard original located at the base of Taipei 101, which is a plus, and it is a cool space, when it isn’t operating on over-capacity. I’ve never loved the music, being EDM/house-format, but it is indisputably the place-to-be nowadays, judging from the crowds of people packing out the place every night, shoving, being shoved, and sweating into their glasses of champagne.

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SAMPLE ITINERARIES / SORT OF 

Just for your reference, and possible amusement, I will proceed to outline a few of my nightlife movements over the past few months, before I left Taipei. The insanely cheap taxi prices in Taipei, and the small size of the city, mean that you can change locations several times during the course of a night out, and many people do. Many of the places mentioned in my guide are within minutes of each other, in the Xinyi (信義區) and East (東區) Districts.

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One.  Shots of vodka in my friend’s apartment, while trying to frantically do up our faces and dance to Youtube videos at the same time. Quick dash up to Woobar for a plate of truffle fries. Chess Taipei. More dancing. Champagne. 

Two: After dinner at my favorite 熱炒/ rechao, I head to drinks with a big group of school friends at Wootp. Plans are made to head to Luxy. No! In an attempt to distract them, I order six absinthe drips for the table. Night over.

Three: Random Sunday night beer pong at Marquee. Smash a plate of truffle fries up at Alchemy with my best friend, purely as a taste test against the W’s version. Lose beer pong, so forced to wear a pair of bunny ears the whole night at Chess Taipei. Dancing, champagne. 4AM: incredibly random influx of drunk people flood in and pack out the club. Did I mention that it was a Sunday? Stare in shock. More dancing.

Four. Friends have balcony table at Halo. Watch in wonder as two grown-ass men have a Turn Down For What dance-off underneath the glowing lights of Taipei 101. Do my nails, because they’re not playing hip-hop tonight and I’m bored. Head down to Spark ATT. Horrified – exit Spark ATT in approximately 3.5 minutes. Chess TaipeiChampagne. Dancing.

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Very, very relaxed Night: Shoot the shit over whisky and coffees at Caffe Libero for hours and hours, until you can’t find anything else to argue about anymore. Or you can opt for hipster-spotting and beers at The Fucking Place. Either way, head over to Shida Night Market / 師大夜市 or the late-night porridge restaurants on Fuxing S. Rd / 復興南路 for some late night grub – I’m partial to fried oyster mushrooms, myself.

Relaxed night: Make it all about the cocktails – stop by for a starter drink at Ounce; before it gets too crowded. Optional: dinner and pre-starter beers at neighboring gastropub EIEIO. Move on to Wootp for a few more concoctions, and the cheese plate. End the night (maybe) at Alchemy – since you’ll already be in the heart of the nightlife district, you’re flexible to continue on (or not).

Turn down for what? Go all out at a local 熱炒. Bust out the Kaoliang / 高粱 if you dare, or smash at least 2-3 crates of Taiwan Beer / 台灣啤酒.  Carry on drinking at Halo or Marquee – classier setting than the 熱炒, but still the same basic concept of people getting absolutely shit-faced. From there on out, it’s on to Spark ATT to be moshed by the champagnes-swilling crowds – or carry on getting shit-faced at your lounge of choice until it’s “Chess time” at Chess Taipei. 

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Photos sourced from Pinterest. 

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Small Beginnings / Exchange Life in Uppsala

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I just completed my first official week in Uppsala, Sweden. It’s the early days. Strange that someday – perhaps someday soon – I will look back at this post and laugh. Right now, I’m not laughing.

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I’ll be living in Uppsala until December. Located less than an hour’s train ride from Stockholm, Uppsala is the picturesque European town (and actually the fourth largest city in Sweden). It’s pastel colored shops along a lazy river, the spires of a cathedral casting a shadow over grassy hills, charming cobblestone streets. Uppsala University, where I’ll be studying, is the oldest in Scandinavia – historical landmarks and perfectly preserved structures await at every turn.

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Everything’s so expensive.

Everything’s so orderly.

But mostly it’s just so – quiet.

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I didn’t really expect my longing for Asia to supersede the thrill of moving to Sweden, but oh, it has. I miss Asia. I miss it, I miss it, I miss it. I crave it – feel like I’ve been disconnected from a lifeline. I crave the energy of of Asia like a drug –  a junkie with an addiction to tangled mazes of tiny, back-street food vendors, huge bowls of cheap noodles, late-night taxi joyrides and the neon glow of convenience stores. I even miss the grunge, the grime -waking up to the honking of a hundreds horns; the clogging smoke of thousands of scooters, zipping through the city streets.

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Change is on the horizon – the city is starting to fill up with students:  thousands are due to come pouring into the city once the end of August rolls around. Flogsta, the student housing area I live in,  is supposedly famous for wild  “corridor parties” and a shocking range of worst behavior, including the throwing of furniture out windows when weekend pre-drinking hits a climax. But for now, I’m one of the few denizens of this college-town, wandering about each day in an attempt to get my bearings.

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Amidst the chaos of moving to a new environment, life is reduced to taking things one step at a time, lest it get too overwhelming. Small victories, that make you feel like you’re gaining back ground, bit by bit.

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The smallest things – on Saturday, discovering a store I love.

I spotted Urban Collection on my very first day in Uppsala – it’s got an extremely different feel than many of the “quaint” stores in the city center. It stocks a range of both Swedish and Danish paper products, fabrics, and home goods. The best thing about it is that it also serves take-away lattes – which makes it kin to my beloved Good Design Institute - a reminder of Taipei, and home.

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On Thursday – a bike.

Far from some hipster accessory, a bike is crucial to time in Uppsala, unless you’re willing to pay the $80 USD for a pass for the public buses, which only run around the fringes of campus. Through a slightly questionable Facebook bike buy-sell group, I found a Swede who was selling refurbished bicycles out of his parents’ garage. Out of self-preservation, I took three friends with me and ended up meeting a charming, ramshackle Swede (can a person be described as “ramshackle”? Well, he definitely was) that sold me a gorgeous thaaang of a bike for less than half of what most of my classmates have been paying out for plain-jane mountain bikes.The bike is cobbled together from several different sources, but the pink frame is vintage Monark - one of Sweden’s oldest bike companies.

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On Wednesday, getting my room in order. There’s a hint of it in the photos above – I’ll post a bit more once I’ve pulled the entire room together. It’s one of the things for which I’m most grateful since moving here – compared to the dorm rooms I’ve experienced in NYC, my place in Flogsta is palatial.

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I may be fighting my apathy off with small steps, but not fighting too hard, as I’m off to Berlin tomorrow, to spend the weekend (and a few naughty skipped days of Swedish classes) with some close friends. Then back to Uppsala, it gears up for the beginning of the term.

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Summering in Gnesta

One of the glorious things about Stockholm summer-time is the concept of going away from the (relative) hustle of city-life to a country retreat. The city virtually empties out as Stockholmers leave to chase the sun, with plans to return near the end of August. Of course, some do leave the country to pursue larger, saltier bodies of water and margaritas on the beach (Greece seems to be a particularly popular spot to vacation) – but many are content with the distance of an hour-long boat or bus rides out to one of thousands of  adorable country cabins in the Swedish archipelago or countryside.

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When in Sweden, do as the Swedes – and thus, my family and I found a countryside retreat to call our very own for the weekend. We head to a town called Gnesta, in Södermanland County, located just an hour’s train ride south of Stockholm.. It was on the property of a  Scottish-Swedish family that had bought a piece of land with an unused horse-stable and had converted it into a gorgeous little cabin. We spent a sun-drenched weekend lazing about in hammocks, taking walks through the forest, and swimming in a lake so pristine were were instructed to simply drink in the lake water in case of thirst.

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I’ve found that vacations, to the Swedes, seem to be true retreats:  it’s the art of having no agenda other than to enjoy closeness to nature, rather than rushing about to cram in as many trophy destinations as they can (Well, I could only fit in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand during this winter break, but next winter break I plan on going to…etc etc).

The phones are off, ignored, lost, even. Life is reduced to the senses – the feeling of the sun warming your face, the sizzle of freshly caught fish on a grill, the sharp hunt for clusters of wild blueberries amongst the path to the lake. You may do the same things every single day – wake up to morning coffee, blinking lazily in the sun, biking to the lake for a swim and a tan, long lunches topped off by a nap in the hammocks, a forest walk – but again, it’s not about novelty, or the adrenaline rush of accomplishment. It’s a different type of exploration, small, quiet pleasures that are equally satisfying.

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Though I didn’t know when I planned the trip, Gnesta has garnered a bit of a reputation as a gathering place of like-minded individuals wishing to living close to the earth, simply and sustainably. It would be a disservice, as well as limiting, to call these people hippies. They’re just people who answer questions you face, I face, that thousands of Stockholmers face – and answered those questions differently. 

Want a roof over your head? Instead of rent or commission, why not learn to make it by hand. Want food to eat? Why not grow it, or ask your neighbor if he or she grows it?

And perhaps the most crucial question of all – What does it mean, to live authentically? Do I really need all the “stuff” that I think I need? Are the things that currently compose my life things that contribute to that oh-so-ambiguous concept – “quality of life” – or do they end up hindering it?

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Note: If you ever find yourself in Stockolm and are interested in renting the cabin for yourself, the listing is hereSay hello to Joe and his amazing family for me, if you do.

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All pictures taken with my iPhone 4S.

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STOCKHOLMYELLOW

Stockholm Syndrome

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In my ideal life, I’d spend winters in Asia – I need bowls of hot noodles during the winters, and I need them to be good. But summers, they’d be for Stockholm. Stockholm summers are perfect.

None of the stickiness of Taipei, when every foul stench of the city rises with the heat, and going out & about on the city sidewalks is more of an act of swimming rather than walking. Quite different from being limited to exiting the house either before 5 am, or after 9 pm – and oh, the awfulness of humid, hot summer afternoons…

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Once, again, my writing has spiraled into blathering on and on about Taipei. This will no longer be the case, as I’ve just officially made the move to Sweden until the end of the year. Though I’ll be studying in a university town called Uppsala, my family  accompanied me to Sweden, and we started the trip off in Stockholm. I rented two beautiful Airbnb apartments in Södermalm, the southern island of Stockholm, and planned a few days to show them the city.

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Behind the colorful pictures and Instagram shots, it’s been pretty damn stressful. Up to shouting arguments in the street stressful – shocking all the mild-mannered Swedes, who are probably wondering why this Asian family is choosing to air their disagreements in such a shockingly public manner.

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I’ve been thinking that it may be due to the fact that we’re in a strange in-between stage, Stockholm and I.

I spent the bulk of my time last summer working at a farm on an island outside of Stockholm, so I’ve  had limited exposure to the city. I have my favorite restaurant in Stockholm, but I’m just barely starting to learn the T-bana (their public transport) lines. I have a favorite cafe, but admittedly – I’ve only been to three cafes in the entire city.

My single night out in Stockholm last summer turned out to be pretty fucking surreal – it involved Sandra meeting some banker-type on the street that she hadn’t seen in years, being coerced into ordering dessert we didn’t want one at one of the fanciest addresses in Stureplan as banker-type blathered on about his new venture, one of those giant, douchey magnums of champagne, and a small stint at some terribly exclusive, tiny rooftop club crawling with Swedish celeb-types.

And yet – I don’t even know a single place to go for drinks with friends, or where to go when I’m feeling a hip-hop kind of night out (which is, to say- always).

When can you say you know a city, anyway? Is it after you’ve been to three cafes, or had five weekends out? Is it like with a person? Is there a point where you allow yourself to say you know a person after a certain amount of time, a set of questions?

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Showing my family around Stockholm has been a bit like introducing a new lover to your family, I suppose. At the same time that you’re practically sick with excitement, you’ve been talking so much about them and now they’re finally going to meet - every hair is bristling at the merest hint of criticism or doubt.
Most importantly: The shock of realizing, through being tasked as their official representative,  you perhaps don’t know someone – or a city- as well as you thought you did.
• • •

Nevertheless, summer-Stockholm is as gorgeous as it always has been. And if sweating out champagne alongside the Swedish jet-set  felt surreal, it pales in comparison to the feeling of  knowing that I’ll be spend  fall and winter with Stockholm, too.

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HONGKONG

Vignette B / Hong Kong

• • •

photo by Jamie Kao, of bytuesday

• • •

For a few nights, I crashed at his one-room box of an apartment, right within the sight of Asia’s most luxurious towers. Fit nothing but a mattress and his shoes, all lined up against the left side of the narrow hallway.

There’s an old man who lived in the building across from him, his window facing ours. And whether we stumbled in at 6am in the morning—him high on cocaineand me delirious from the smoke—or came to drop off cameras and laptops in the middle of the day, he was always still sitting there, never moving. I thought about that old man, a few times.

• • •

When we were in the apartment, he would always crank the air conditioning to the highest setting, and leave the window open. I told him that it was like throwing money out the window. He yawned, and turned over in bed. That’s decadence, when you’re young. Not a cent to your name but a thirst to live.

• • •

I wonder if he, too, has ever looked across at that old neighbor of his, that white tuft of hair sitting there in his decrepitude night after night. I wonder if he thinks about growing old, no longer being young and beautiful; no longer a prince in this concrete jungle. I wonder, as he watches the city skyline unfold before him in a series of late-night cab rides, if he ever thinks about how he’d rather die than be in the same place day after day, how he’d rather die than be mundane.

They’re raised by wolves, boys like him, they’re raised by the road; feral, beholden to no one. They revel in doing whatever the fuck they want. You can’t ever keep them, these sons of leisure. But what can you live without, to pursue leisure? What can you forgo, to chase freedom? Can you live without a bank account, a sofa, a home-cooked meal?

But more—can you live without a hand in your hair when you come home; your smoke-stained shirt shucked off; can you live without a comforting voice at night, when the city is hushed, quiet—when it’s no longer your kingdom?

• • •

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Young & Hungry / 10 Days in Hong Kong

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photos via my immensely talented friend Jamie Kao of bytuesday

• • •

Hong Kong blindsided me. It all happened so fast. I’ve never given the city much thought – for many Taipei expats, Hong Kong is alternately a destination for a three-day weekend of no-limits decadence and indulgence, or a convenient destination for a visa run. I personally had a vendetta against the city, being completely overwhelmed on a previous visa-run fiasco of a weekend. It took two visits to strike Paris is off my list, for good. Hong Kong, I opined, had been crossed off in one. 

• • •

I was swamped in a bout of finals madness at the end of June, desperately browsing Facebook in the off-chance that it would miraculously provide motivation for me to hit the books again. A message came in from a friend, a Taipei-based tech writer who’d always been vigilant in providing me with job listings…“I know you hate Hong Kong, but this position is too perfect of a fit for you not to go for it, and I’m guessing you could hammer out a deal to work remotely,” it read. I scanned, I considered. I was moving to Stockholm at the end of July. I still had loads of things to do in Taipei before I left. It would be entirely irresponsible for me to go – decadent, even.

• • •

A mere week later – I was hired and on a plane to Hong Kong. I stayed for ten days, learning Central and Sheung Wan, Kowloon and Causeway Bay.

• • •

I’ve left Taipei dozens of times since I moved to the city over two years ago. Every single time – whether I was coming in from Sri Lanka or Sweden – landing in Taipei never failed to feel right. It had been fun, all those beaches, all those monuments and marble-tiled echoing halls…but Taipei was the place. 

And yet this time, when I returned, I watched the plane taxi slowly into Taoyuan, I took the bus ride into the city, through the palms and the sleepy Sunday streets. I was shocked by the sense that Hong Kong was the reality – while I was drifting back into a dream.

 • • •

In my ten days, Hong Kong overwhelmed me. I was constantly confused, always exhausted, my eyes never seemed to be wide enough to see it all. I cried two times, once in a cab and once sitting in the fluorescent glow of a grimy stairwell.

But I came away with an insatiable craving for city nights, city streets, dizzying heights. Scaling rooftops and weaving through crowds and  staying out too late and falling in love every week and seeing the sunrise too many times without sleep.

Hong Kong is a city of decadence tailor made for the young – a place where you can eat a bowl of organic granola in the morning out of a misguided fit of conscientiousness and be drunk as a skunk in by mid-afternoon, shot glasses still stinking of tequila in the heat, before cleaning yourself up for a gallery opening full of art you don’t even understand -  because it seems that all things are permissible for the young, bright eyes hungry to make their mark, unafraid to be generous with their mistakes, all under the mantra of -

- wellaren’t we young?  Aren’t we hungry, aren’t we fearless?

• • •

And so all this to say – I’m planning on making the move to Hong Kong come January, provided that I’m able to find a university to accept me as a visiting student. I plan to both study and work (and network). As much as Taipei has given me, what it can’t give me is the type of writing opportunities that I need to truly make a career of it. I made more viable connections in Hong Kong within ten days than I’d probably garner in ten years of Taipei living. I spent a portion of my time in Hong Kong interviewing notable creatives and entrepreneurs. One of these people, a veritable man-about-town, rattled off a list of things he loathed about Hong Kong before explaining why he still called Hong Kong his home. It had to do with the hunger of the city; Hong Kong as this place that’ll push you around, beat you up – but can take you where you want to go, if you want it badly enough. If your mind is young enough, if your heart is hungry enough.

 You know, moving to Taipei was a bit of that as well – things fell in place for me to move and  study in the city within a couple of weeks. Or perhaps they didn’t really fall into place at all. I’m willing to admit that perhaps it was more due to the fact that I chose to interpret all the signs as go, all the lights as green.

With this impending move to Hong Kong, I may be doing the same.

• • •

Because who knows what’ll happen. Perhaps the worst.

But for the young and the hungry, the very worst thing we could do is not try. 

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Vignette A / Ekerö, Sweden

I chose to go work at a Swedish farm for the summer because it seemed just about the farthest thing from Taipei I could possibly think of. It was no great escape—living in Taipei was my bliss, my constant, never-changing bliss. Falling asleep to the puttering of motorbikes, waking up to the lilting chatter of the ladies at the corner breakfast store regardless of month or season. There wasn’t a single morning that the breakfast store wasn’t open, and the sturdy line of palms, planted in the era Taiwan was still ruled by the Japanese, stood guard over the broad path leading towards my university, day after day.

* * *

I arrived at the farm in July, backpack slung over my shoulder. The very first thing I saw was a flaxen-haired Swede (though, I later found out he was actually Dutch) painstakingly twisting together a wire cage for a single, fat white bunny that sat imperiously at the side, munching grass.

I began to be charmed by the farm, which looked like a cross between Pee-Wee’s playhouse, Woodstock edition—and an Anthropologie catalogue set. I slipped into the role of wide-eyed city-slicker with ease, cooing over crops of smiling little daisies at every corner, marveling at the waving tufts of elkflowers in the ditch down by the parking lot, where we’d hold a swap meet on the weekends. The blueberries growing in the forest were small and so, so sweet.

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And I began to be charmed by other elements of the farm. He had a Bon Iver-esque beard, piercing blue eyes, and spent his days fixing things around the farm in an oversized flannel shirt. I was intrigued by his air of pastoral geniality. To a girl recently raised in the neon-glow of nightclub bottle service, smeared mascara, and  late night cab rides, he came to represent – like the farm – a certain kind of wholesomeness I became convinced was missing in my life.

I left the farm for three weeks to travel with friends in London, Reykjavik and Paris, with plans to return. He messaged me as I was sweltering in Paris in a gorgeous, parquet-floor apartment with friends, talking lazily over flat champagne and warm strawberries. “I heard you’re coming back—and I don’t think we should continue on as we did before.”

* * *

I came back to the farm in August, but to a different place than I had left. There were now sunflowers in the garden, two kinds: the classic bright yellow, and a dusky orange stunner with fragile petals. The garden had matured from its shy green self to a cornucopia of food: the sweetest little tomatoes, swiss chard, beets, carrots being pulled up every day. I was put in charge of sorting crops of string beans: dark purple, light yellow and classic green.

But the daisies were gone. The elkflower had long been made into cordial. It had become too cold to swim in the lake like we used to, after our daily work. When I took a walk through the forest, I noted with alarm that the blueberry bushes were on the decline, juice-stained leaves littering the forest floor, clearing the way for the swathes of bright red-lignonberry patches. I slept with four blankets in the bus at night, but this time, I was sleeping alone.

And to think—I had only been gone three weeks.

* * *

I wasn’t satisfied; I wasn’t heart-broken; I was plain offended. In the end, what I wanted was platitudes, even if they were empty. I wanted the “I’m going to miss you so much” and the “Stephanie, please, please don’t leave, I’ll be heartbroken when you go”.

I used to think that I needed all these verbal promises and confessions, even if I knew that they were empty. I basked in them as I did in the neon-glow of midnight convenience stores, humming with the promise— of longevity. I couldn’t imagine how I could function without them—these platitudes that were the only proof that a person was appreciated.

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But the truth is that things come, they are beautiful, and then they go, in seasons that are gone all too fleetingly, without the added pressure of us silly people, trying to make them last longer than they can.

Living in Taipei, I haven’t really experienced a seasonal nature of life. Due to the nature of modern farming practices, the import- export flow and the dearth of green in cities worldwide, we have every kind of thing we could possibly want, all the time, all year round. We scuttle in and out of the shadows of looming skyscrapers, laze around in air-conditioned malls day in, day out, month in, month out. You never feel the keen lack of something—but then again, you never have the knowledge of enjoying something, knowing that you will be feeling its absence all too soon.

I always think that things would have been different, would have been easier—if we had the wisdom to say to each other: “The time we had togetherwas good, but now it’s come to an end, and we’ll both go on. But thank you.”

* * *

 That summer, I learned how to appreciate the beauty of a thing in its moment whilst also understanding that it can’t possibly last—and seeing that as a beautiful thing, too. Upon my departure of the farm, there was plenty of affection, but there were no clinging entreaties, no avowals of “I’ll never forget you”. The owners of the farm kissed me on the cheek and told me that I was “just so, so good”.

For those who have been through too many seasons of life and seen too many of nature’s vicious spin cycles know that, given time, even the most gorgeous flower slips away into a faint, fond memory. Life goes on, and it’s good.

We, me and him, me and the farm, me and Sweden—had a beautiful, sun-drenched summer together, but the important thing is not to spoil the original beauty of a time by trying to hold onto it too long. Open your hands, your clenched fists—and let it go; that you might receive more.

Seasons of sun and blueberries and laughter, seasons of early mornings, late nights at the office, library study rooms, of gritting your teeth and bearing the utter mundaneness of life. None of it lasts, and the incorporation of that knowledge into your thoughts, actions and emotional well-being—that is wisdom.

 • • •
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Forgiveness with Pablo Neruda

• • •

I don’t think that I’m the kind of person that lets go easily.

It is certainly the front that I put up. When I initially meet people, I don’t hesitate to reel off a list of cities I’ve come to, and left.. New York City. Los Angeles. Kansas City. After that followed Ho Chi Minh, Colombo, Reykjavik, Rome…

• • •

This guy I was seeing once got me a stack of business cards for Valentine’s Day. Under my name, he’d had printed: IDEALIST. “Just show this to anyone you meet, and they’ll understand you a bit more,” he explained. I agreed, then. I thought that the world was mine to explore—and reveling in newfound sexual freedom after a conservative upbringing, I thought I’d never slow down; that I’d never come down from the high.

But if the road is my religion, forgive me in my recent moments of weakness, when the world no longer seems to be full of horizons, only that of a swiftly approaching night. When the world no longer seems filled with love and possibility—only unfamiliar faces.

• • •

Because now, sometimes, I stay up all night, after. My eyes can’t drift shut. Not because I’m in love, but just because I want to grasp the simple bliss of sleeping next to someone, of burying my face in the curve of a shoulder.

I know that it’s dangerous to look back. Sometimes, I’ve fled from the scene, a refugee from impending attachment. But when I think back of the people that have come into my story, even for a night – I think of a quote by Pablo Neruda, a ten-word mantra that is perhaps the only reason why I can slip on my clothes as the city wakes and let myself out the door, why I can wave a jaunty good-bye out of a train window; why I can give a someone – backpack already slung over his shoulder- a parting smile, and mean it.

• • •

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• • •

This is why I write. Writing is my exorcism, my bloodletting – my way of forgiveness.

• • •

With words, I forgive you, for breathing my breath, for looking into my eyes, for sharing a pillow and having it not be enough, never enough to quench your thirst for the road, never enough to change your life.

Writing is my way of forgiving each pair of laughing eyes, each strong pair of hands that have combed through my hair and stroked my face and never picked up the phone to call me again—you who didn’t greet me at the airport, you who weren’t there in the middle of the night to quiet the pang of loneliness. Even wolves howl at the moon, sometimes—because it’s a big world and sometimes you just can’t sleep.

I forgive you for climbing a mountain with me at 6am in the morning, holding my heels in your hand; I forgive you for threading your hand through mine in the dark corner of a music hall, I forgive you for laughing affectionately as you watched me meticulously dissect my breakfast at a corner café. And then getting on a train, plane, car—and vanishing into memory, until I resurrected you again with my words.

• • •

I hope you forgive me, too.

• • •