The February Book Review

This month was slightly more fruitful in terms of reading than January, although not much. I managed to read a novel and a novella. I’ll be covering both in this review. Please beware, there are spoilers ahead. 

Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris

Joanne Harris is an English author, best known for the novel Chocolat, adapted for film in 2000, starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. Chocolat is the first novel of a series of four, which I finished two years ago and completely fell in love with. So, naturally, I wanted to read more from this author, and “Five Quarters of the Orange” seemed appropriate since its main character is briefly mentioned in the Chocolat series. 

What’s it about?

The main character, Framboise, is also the narrator of the novel that takes us through her childhood years during World War II. The story takes us back and forth in time, with chapters covering Framboise’s childhood and adulthood, in present times, when she’s in her 60s. The story starts when she returns to her hometown, Les Laveuses, under a different name (Simon), opens a patisserie and tries to lead a normal life while hiding her true identity – Framboise Dartigen, daughter of the infamous Mirabelle Dartigen. 

We see two sides of Framboise and the town, the past, and present. For the past, the story unfolds rather slowly, with Framboise taking her time, describing her childhood home, the farm, her family, and their relationships, especially the one with her mother, who was suffering from a mental disorder that would make her lose control, have short-term memory loss and terrible headaches. And here’s where the title comes in – Framboise’s mother hated oranges and the smell of them would trigger her illness’ symptoms. 

The little girl, then no more than 9 years old knew of her mother’s sensitivity and took advantage of it every time she could get her hands on an orange – seems cruel, isn’t it? But this way, she had more time to play, to run wild, without being reprimanded by her mother. The child didn’t feel the love of her mother and so she reciprocated in kind. Besides, her father died in the war and there was no one else around to keep her in check.

The story truly starts when Framboise’s elder brother and sister start attending school in Angers, the closest town, and become spies for the Germans stationed there during the war. Framboise enters the “game” as well and becomes fascinated with one of the German soldiers – Tomas Leibniz. The young soldier had a way to make himself liked by everyone. And by the end of the novel, we discover that Mirabelle Dartigen – the mother, liked him enough to become his lover. 

We get a bit of a Proustian throwback thanks to the mother’s diary, in which she mainly wrote down different recipes, but also scribbled here and there plenty of “juicy” insights into her thoughts. As she passes away she leaves the diary to Framboise and a while after, Framboise starts getting harassed by her nephew and his wife, who are trying to get their hands on the diary, not only for its recipes but also as the diary belonging to Mirabelle Dartigen – the infamous woman guilty of mass murder… the plot thickens. 

However, let me give you a sense of the atmosphere 😛 The book’s main motif is food. From the characters’ names: Framboise, Cassis, Reinette, Noisette, etc to the actual food described, not to mention the title and the huge significance of the orange, everything seems to revolve around a recipe, food, flavors, smells and we’re talking French cuisine, so you can imagine the drooling that goes on as you read. 

Besides revolving around food, this novel does a great job of exploring and showing a mother-daughter relationship, along with sibling relationships. And because of the dynamics, and how everything gets twisted by a 9-year-old’s mind, it makes it hard to like or even root for any of the characters, including Framboise. At first, this made the story almost infuriating to me. But, as we step further in, we truly realise the novel is more about the mother than about the daughter, more about family and about small-town small-mindedness that eventually makes the people of Les Laveuses turn into a pitchfork-carrying, torch-throwing mob, just like the ones Gaston leads to the Beast’s castle – I guess that’s some sort of French motif 😀

Did I like it?

The novel managed to surprise me with at least two things that seemed predictable at first – we learn that something very bad (potential mass murder) happened and the mother was connected. However, the truth runs so much deeper than that and I thoroughly enjoyed the surprising turn of events. 

I’m trying my best not to give spoilers here, so I’ll just stop here and say I really liked this book, however infuriating I found it at first. If I were to rate it, I’d give it 4/5 stars, or even 4.5/5. I whole-heartedly recommend it to people who enjoy realistic fiction, even historical fiction, food fiction, etc. 

Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh

The second book I read, a novella, is called “Silver in the Wood” by Emily Tesh. After a bit of research, it appears that this is the author’s debut and I’d say she’s off to a good start. The novella is also the first part of a series.

What’s it about?

It follows Tobias, a magnificently large man who leaves in the forest and has been there for around 400 years. He is one with the forest and people in the village tell stories of him – the giant wood dweller. So, yes, you guessed it, we’re talking fantasy here. The forest is enchanted, there are dryads, a giant oak that seems to hold not only the forest alive but also Tobias. And as Tobias is leading his regular life, caring for the dryads, protecting the forest and the villagers from forest creatures going rogue, here comes Andrew Silver, the owner of the mansion and domain that holds the forest, turning poor Toby’s life upside down. 

The two men like each other and develop an unlikely friendship. Silver gets flirty with Tobias and it gets obvious that Tobias likes him too. However, the dreaded time of year comes, when something stirs in the forest, something that Tobias needs to save the villagers from. Except now, he needs to save Silver as well. But he doesn’t. And the rest…well, enough spoilers for now.

Did I like it?

It was a nice read and I enjoyed the feel of the forest. I am not sure what lays ahead in the second part of this story of “The Greenhollow Duology” but I felt that perhaps this short novella could have been a novel. The reason for that is some of the parts seemed a bit rushed, brushed over, and more details and in-depth focus would have been welcome. For example, Tobias’ back story would have deserved a few chapters maybe. Nevertheless, I’d rate it 3/5 stars and I am curious to read the sequel.

My Story of Rome, Italy

Rome. Probably one of the best cities in the world. I finally managed to see it two years ago, in the middle of February and I loved it. I was there for only 4 days which I packed with all the tourist objectives I could think of, having the Google map of the city marked with so many stars, you could barely see anything else. 

This was actually not the first time in Rome for me, though when I first went there, back in high school, I only had half a day in which I toured the Vatican Museum and took a tour bus on a rainy, cloudy day with heavy traffic – I barely saw a thing. Naturally, this time I would make the most of it.

From the Rome Ciampino Airport, we took a bus to the city center, as our accommodation was near Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II. The ride took less than an hour, I believe and from there we only walked for a few minutes. The accommodation was a small room with a private bathroom in an old building. I vaguely remember it as it was one of those trips when you only see your room at night and immediately fall asleep after a long day of walking. 

Being in Italy, we started with a gelato. Then, we headed straight to the Vatican Museum. Although we’ve both visited it before, it’s simply one of those attractions you can’t get enough of. TIP time! It was the middle of the day, a Friday, and there were only 2 people in line at the ticket office. However, there was a pretty big line outside for groups. So, if you get there, and you’re not with a group, make sure you stand in the right queue. 

After visiting the museum, we thought we might try the Basilica San Pietro as well. However, the queue was rather long, encircling over half of the Piazza San Pietro, so we decided to try another day. Instead, we headed to Castel Sant’Angelo, a large castle, very near Vatican City. After this, we crossed the Sant’Angelo Bridge, passed through Piazza Navona, and visited the Pantheon, which is a circular temple, a quite impressive structure.

View of Rome from Sant’Angelo Castle

TIP time! We wrapped up our day with Fontana di Trevi, where we threw the smallest coins we had and discovered one of the most delicious foods in the world – porchetta. Porchetta is a pork roast, a roll made out of pork belly and various herbs and spices. It is to die for and you have to try it if you have the opportunity. 

Fontana di Trevi

We spent our second day in Rome going around the Ancient ruins of the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, Trajan Forum, then waiting in a queue at the Basilica San Pietro for about two hours before finally getting in. The entrance to the Basilica was free, although there was a fee if you wanted to go up on the roof or visit the catacombs if I’m not mistaken. 

TIP time! For the ancient ruins, if you’d like to enter and do a thorough visit, I suggest buying tickets online or trying to use either the entrance to the Palatine Hill or the one to the Roman Forum, where you might have a better chance at not growing old before getting in. I very much enjoyed looking at the Roman Forum from above, without going in and getting a nice panoramic view. So, if you’re not one who enjoys walking around ruins, you can save some money by doing the same. 

Part of the Colosseum

We ended the day on the Spanish Steps, among a huge neverending crowd that seems to populate this area at all times. 

On day 3, we decided to discover the area near Termini, the largest train station in Rome. We visited the Roman Baths, Palazzo Massimo Alle Terme then headed to the Villa Borghese Park. By the time we got there, it started drizzling, but it wasn’t that bad, so we walked through the park, got out, and reached the top of the Spanish Steps, again. 

View of Rome from Villa Borghese Park

On our last day, before heading to the airport, as we had an afternoon flight, we decided to take a last walk through Rome and hit some other places on our list. We walked from the accommodation, through the Park del Colle Oppio to the Colosseum. From there, around the Palatine Hill, to Circus Maximus, with a stop at the Pyramid of Caius Cestius and the Non-Catholic Cemetery of Rome. This was possibly the biggest surprise as it ended up being one of the places we most liked in Rome, without ever being on our list. The cemetery houses the graves of Keats, Shelley, and other well-known names and is also the house of various cats, who pretty much own the place in the most regal feline way. We spent at least one hour strolling around and trying to befriend the cats. We sadly said goodbye to them and headed to our next stop, Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Somewhere along the way, we stopped for a porchetta sandwich and after visiting this massive cathedral, we finally got on the subway and to the airport for our flight back home. 

Pyramid of Caius Cestius

As you’ve probably gathered, we almost couldn’t leave this wonderful city, where every corner brings something new (but usually old) and unexpected. There’s always something to see, to eat, to enjoy. I would gladly return to Rome as often as possible.

The January Book Review

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

I’m hoping to read at least one book per month this year and so far I’ve managed. I’ve started with The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E.Schwab. Now, I’ve seen the name of the author several times before and thought I should have a go at one of her books and this one caught my interest because of the title. I wanted to know how a life can be invisible. 

I found an audio edition of this book on www.scribd.com, a 17-hour narration by Julia Whelan (aka the author of “My Oxford Year” of which I wrote briefly about in my article “19 Books I read in 2020”). 

Beware that the following review contains spoilers, so… SPOILER ALERT!

What the book is about:

The novel is about a young woman, Adeline LaRue, living in a village in France at the beginning of the 18th century. She is supposed to enter an arranged marriage, but instead, she runs away into the forest, prays to the gods, and receives an answer. She sells her soul in exchange for freedom but the deal cuts both ways and before long she realises that her freedom is also a curse. No one can remember she exists and so she passes through life as a ghost, stealing food or clothes, staying no more than one night in one place as people see her as a stranger and throw her out. She can’t leave any mark: she can’t create anything, cannot write, draw or even break anything, as everything she does, becomes undone. Everyone who meets her forgets her as soon as they turn their back or a door closes, so an encounter can happen several times and the feeling of deja vu reigns in Addie’s life. 

After 300 years, in which she’s seen history in the making, wars and revolts but also art and beauty, travelling from France to Italy to England to America, Addie is now in New York where she lives her life as she always had: one day at a time – stealing food (and everything else). One day, she discovers a small used bookstore, from where she decides to steal an old copy of the Odyssey. The shopkeeper comes after her but lets her have the book. She then comes back another day to swap another book, knowing no one will remember her or the incident from before, except…the shopkeeper does remember. 

We also get into a parallel story now, the one of the shopkeeper – Henry. A rather unhappy young man, whose girlfriend rejected his proposal about one year before he meets Addie. [SPOILER ALERT] Later on, we find out that the reason he can remember Addie is that he also made a deal: he wished to “be enough” for everyone, to be loved. Of course, what Addie most wanted was for someone to remember her and therefore, he was enough for her. 

How I feel about this book:

I won’t tell you the ending so as not to spoil quite everything. The concept of the story is quite interesting. It makes you think of the meaning of life, of time, of how much we as individuals matter in connection with everyone else. It also makes you curious to find out how Addie learns to live with her curse. The love story is nice, but not uncommon, which I think was actually the intent of the author – to show a regular, mortal life and love between Addie and Henry. On the other side, we have the love-hate relationship between Addie and Luc (the name she gave to the spirit/devil/god she made the deal with). Luc is possibly the most interesting character to me. A dark spirit, perhaps the devil or the darkness itself, with raw feelings and emotions, as far from human as a god could be, Luc seems to fall for Addie – but does he truly know what love is? I would say that for me, this part of the plot was the most interesting. Addie and Luc would meet on their “anniversary” and every time, he would ask her to surrender her soul and every time she would not. After 300 years of such meetings, their relationship turns into something more, a form of dependency. 

Although this is a novel for adults, it seemed a bit more young-adult to me. The characters, though old and experienced (especially Addie and Luc) still had some very “young” attitudes and perspectives. Also, what was obviously supposed to be a plot-twist – Henry’s deal, was also quite predictable to me. Most of the story had a high degree of predictability, which is not necessarily bad, but I was expecting a bit more surprises. 

From the audiobook narration, I understood that each part would start with some sort of visual of an art piece – a mark Addie managed to leave through different artists she has met over time. However, I, of course, missed those. In terms of interpretation, Julia Whelan does a very good job, to my taste, as she changes her voice and tone to match each character, she interprets the characters’ feelings very accurately and gives you the feeling that you’re inside their minds, or at least somewhere nearby, which helps a lot with immersion in the story. 

It’s already been a week since I finished the book, so my brain had plenty of time to process it, and I would say, if I were to rate it, I would give it 3/5 stars, meaning “I liked it”. I do recommend it for those of you who enjoy fantasy novels, young adult fiction, magical realism, etc.

My Story of London, UK

or the best birthday ever!

I’ve just turned 30 this week and since I didn’t get much of a celebration (with the pandemic still in full session) I couldn’t help but reminisce about previous birthdays and how I spent them. By far one of the best ones, if not THE best was my 28th birthday, back in January 2019, when I went on a city-break to London, UK. The best part – I got this trip as a present from my boyfriend. 

How did that happen, you might wonder? After tireless inquiries of “What do you want for your birthday?” and the answer: “Nothing, really, there’s nothing I need”, I finally gave in and spurted: “I want to see The Making of Harry Potter at the Warner Bros. Studios in London!” Yes, I am a massive Harry Potter fan and I had gotten it into my head that I HAD to go there. So that we did. We were in London from the 11th to the 14th of January and we loved it.

The big clock from Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban

The beginning

We landed at Luton Airport, which is rather far from central London and we had to take a bus. The ride was fairly comfortable, but once we hit Baker’s Street, we moved at a very slow pace because of the traffic. Tired of just sitting on the bus, we got off at Hyde Park and walked through the park, to Kensington, where we had our accommodation booked. Hyde Park is amazing. Why? Because SQUIRRELS. They were everywhere and we spent time trying to lure them to us and take pictures of them. Not that we haven’t seen squirrels before, but we like animals, and really, now, who can resist those bushy tails and gleamy eyes? The cuteness is unbearable. 

One of the lovely squirrels

I also loved Kensington Gardens with the Albert Memorial, standing right across the street from the Royal Albert Hall, a somewhat circular building, where concerts are held. We exited the gardens right by Kensington Palace, rather less impressive than the previous two buildings, in my opinion. The Albert Memorial is the one that most surprised me as it looked nothing like Occidental architecture, but reminded me more of some of the constructions I’ve seen in Thailand (might have been the gold touch). 

Though parks and gardens might not usually be on your list of things to see when visiting a new city, don’t miss Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, especially if you have an extra day to relax. 

Once we left our stuff in the hotel room, we headed back towards the centre, with the first stop at Westminster Abbey, which, after seeing the entry fee, we decided not to enter. Especially since, in most cases, when it comes to this type of building (cathedrals, churches) we prefer to enjoy the outside architecture. Big Ben was closed for renovations, but I did love the architecture of the Westminster Palace. We then walked to Buckingham Palace, which we also skipped, scared of long lines of tourists. 

Westminster Abbey

It was already late when we got to the British Museum, where the entrance is free and where we only got to spend maybe half an hour before we were ushered out as it was closing for the day. I, of course, made a mental note of returning someday and visiting it whole. We spent the rest of the evening wandering the streets of London, having a bite in Chinatown, going to Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square, and taking a bus back to the hotel.

The build-up

A reenactment at the Tower of London Museum

The following day, we went to a different side of London, visited Saint Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London, which we actually entered. Here’s the deal, most tourist objectives in London (museums, cathedrals, palaces, etc.) cost about 20 GBP to get in, which for low-budgeters like us, can be quite a lot once it adds up. So we decided to enter only a few and skip the others and so, Tower of London won 😀 And we loved it. It was actually really interesting, I enjoyed seeing the jewels section in particular. Also, they do some reenactments from time to time, so you get to bump into people dressed up in period costumes and having full dialogues about whatever happened in “their” time. 

After this, we crossed Tower Bridge (you know, the one they always show in movies, so you know the action is happening in London – also featured as the cover of this article) and walked to Borough Market. This is an open market, where you can eat and drink and shop. It’s quite eclectic and was also packed when we got there, so it wasn’t easy to move around. Also, if you wanted to have a bite, you’d most likely stay in line for some time, before getting to order anything. Overall, it’s worth checking it out, at least for the experience. We walked back along the bank and ended the evening around the London Eye, which was closed at the time. 

The climax

Platform 9 3/4

On our third day, my birthday, we took the metro to King’s Cross Station and looked for the 9 ¾ platform. Of course, there’s nothing between platform 9 and 10, but there’s a sign right next to a Harry Potter shop just outside the platforms. Here, you can stay in a veeeery long line to get photographed in different poses with different effects, such as you running with your trolley while your Hogwarts scarf flutters behind you. By the time we got to the front of the line, it was time to get on the bus that would take us to the Warner Bros. Studios outside London. So, we gave up on the platform and went straight for the bus. The trip there took about one hour, which we spent watching part of the Chamber of Secrets movie. Once there, the tour was amazing. I was overly excited, while my boyfriend was probably thinking “what am I doing here?!?”. As you start the tour, you’re invited, along with the entire crowd to a sort of small cinema room, where you’re presented with a few rules of the tour. Once the screen goes up, the great doors to the Great Hall are revealed and someone asks “who’s birthday is it today?” It was very difficult to not jump up and down saying “me!me!”. Long story short, I, a 28 yo, along with 2 kids aged 9 and 4 I believe, opened the doors to the Great Hall, towards a spectacular view of it decorated for Christmas. It. Was. Magical.

From there, you move through different rooms where all sorts of props from the movies are exhibited, such as costumes from The Goblet of Fire, a full wall of wizard hats, entire scenes, like the kitchen of The Burrow, the Gryffindor Common Room, Dumbledore’s Office or Hagrid’s Hut. You get to go through part of the Dark Forest and meet Aragog and his friends, walk on Diagon Alley and even get to take a photo at platform 9 ¾, then board the Hogwarts Express. There’s also an outdoor exhibit, which we briefly enjoyed, as it was quite cold outside. There, you can see the Dursleys’ house, the Knight Bus, and the wobbly bridge from Hogwarts. You can also enjoy a butterbeer at the bar, which was surprisingly good, if not overly sweet to my taste. 

Model of Hogwarts

The whole tour ends, of course, with a big shop, where you can thoroughly spend your money on anything and everything HP related.

The end

On our last day, before heading to the airport, we visited The National Gallery. There’s no entrance fee for this one either, just like for The British Museum. You can, of course, make a donation, or spend some money in the gift shops, which sell all sorts of art-related things. The Gallery is huge, and so it took us some 2 or 3 hours to see everything. Just as with animals, we have a soft spot for art museums, so we enjoyed ourselves, although we’re far from being connoisseurs. 

Epilogue

On this note ended one of my favourite trips and one of my favourite birthdays. Later that year, while returning from a trip to the US, I had a full day layover in London, so I continued my art education with the Tate Britain, another free-entry art museum, which you should check out as well if you have the time. I hope i’ll get to visit London again. There’s still so much left to see.

19 Books I read in 2020 – how I traveled fictionally in Covid times

I’ve always enjoyed reading, and I prefer fiction for the way it makes me feel rather than the information conveyed. I enjoy wandering into a story, only to get back to real life a few hours later. I studied philology so I can be quite critical of literature, but I usually prefer no to. One of my New Year resolutions in 2020 was to read more, and luckily, I managed. I’ve read a total of 26 books actually, as some of them were parts of series, and one was non-fiction. I’ve read most of them as e-books, and some I’ve listened to as audiobooks. I have a www.scribd.com subscription, which gives me access to a large library and a www.goodreads.com account that helps me keep track of my reading.

Here are the 19 books* I’d like to talk about and my ratings** and rantings.

*I do not own the pictures (or the books) in this article. All of them are linked back to http://www.goodreads.com

**Be advised that the ratings below are highly subjective.

  1. Kingdom of Ash and Briars by Hannah West (3/5)

I started the year with a fairytale-inspired novel. A fairly good young adult fantasy, in which several classic fairytales mix, the main seeming to be Sleeping Beauty. It’s a world of magic, where witches and wizards protect different kingdoms and try to keep them from going to war with each other.

  1. Shantaram by Gregory David Robert(5/5) 

Then, I fell in love with Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, an adventure novel about an escaped Australian prisoner in India. It was a long read (around 1000 pages) but so worth it. Lin arrives in Bombay, makes an incredibly good friend from day one, and discovers India and its people. Though his actions are questionable, you cannot help but follow Lin in his adventures, romance, and friendship, as he moves from slums to five-star hotels to prison cells and back, trying to find his place in life.

  1. My Oxford Year by Julia Whelan (3/5)

After recovering (yes, I mean it) from Shantaram, I listened to My Oxford Year by Julia Whelan. A romance novel in which an American girl, Ella, goes to Oxford to study Victorian poetry and falls in love with her professor, an intriguing Brit with a secret. Not my favourite, but it was catchy, and I couldn’t help dreaming of Oxford and the professor myself, as I listened to the audiobook.

  1. Harry Potter (5/5)

Then the lockdown came and as I started working from home and spending way too much time indoors, I was feeling a bit down, and what better pick-me-up than the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. I listened to the audiobooks for the first time (after reading them countless times before) interpreted by Stephen Fry. I wasn’t sure what to expect, whether I would like it as much if someone else read them to me, but they were perfect, as usual. Stephen Fry does an amazing job, and the audiobooks were a great companion to me at the start of the lockdown.

  1. The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan (2/5)

Another romance novel, a light read about a librarian who moves to Scotland, and opens a mobile bookshop, and falls in love with a local man. I loved the idea of a mobile bookshop, and it seemed so quaint and magical. I wished I could visit it.

  1. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch – Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman. (5/5)

This. Book. Is. Genius. The way it was written just stands to show how brilliant the writers are. Filled with humour and unexpected twists, it gives a unique view of how our decisions impact our lives – or do they? An angel and a demon become partners in raising the Antichrist. Will they manage to stop the end of the world?

     7-8. The Book of Dust (vol 1 & 2) – La Belle Sauvage & The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman. (5/5)

A fantasy and adventure series with some religion and ethics here and there, The Book of Dust is linked to Pullman’s other famous story – His Dark Materials. While La Belle Sauvage happens when Lyra was just a baby and has new characters take the role of protagonists, The Secret Commonwealth takes place when Lyra is a student, a young woman in search of the meaning of life. This series is much darker than His Dark Materials and so far, I would say maybe even slightly better. But I will decide on this as soon as I read the last volume, which is yet to be published. Suffice it to say, so far the story has been catchy enough for me and it has surprised me with some pretty dark twists as well as incredibly good scene descriptions, such as (SPOILER ALERT!) the murder of the patriarch.

9. The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway (4/5)

This was a “classic” choice of mine as I realised there’s a huge gap in my “classics” reading, and since it was a short novel, I thought I’d give it a try. I was not disappointed. It was unusually gripping and sad, and I’ve never been so mad at sharks before.

10. Anne of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery (4/5)

This is the last book of the Anne of Green Gables series, which I started about 3 years ago, and which became one of my favourites of all time. Although none as “good” as the first book, all six volumes have that enchanting and endearing atmosphere to them, and I cannot help but adore them. Though considered to be for children, anyone with an ounce of childhood and love for life in them would be delighted by Anne’s stories.

11. Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie. (3/5)

I decided to read this right after I saw the trailer of the upcoming movie. I’ve read some of Agatha Christie’s novels, so I knew I would enjoy the writing. However, either I’m older and more perceptive now, or the plot was indeed obvious as there was no secret for me as to who the murderer was. 

12. Nightbird by Alice Hoffman (2/5)

This one was a slight disappointment. And I say slight, mostly because I didn’t read the description before starting the book, so I didn’t know it was more for children and therefore very predictable. It wasn’t a bad read, but not good either…somewhat in the way one of those Hallmark movies is – not great, but works for an “I have nothing to watch” night.

13. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. (4/5)

This is a book I read for its title. I had no idea what to expect, and I was surely surprised. I would say it falls somewhere in between drama/romance/young adult fiction. It was a good read for me, and I think, definitely a good choice for a teenager. It tells the story of two boys who become friends and struggle to find themselves – a coming of age story if you wish.

14. Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. (2/5)

I read the description of this book, and I was immediately intrigued: children slip between unseen cracks of the world, to other worlds, magical places, where they feel more at home than ever. As they return to the real world, they are extremely unhappy, and many of them are taken to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, where they try to become more at ease with their new life. Although the idea of it is still enthralling, I must say I remember little of the book. However, it appears to be the first of a series, and I might get a crack at the next ones this year, just to form a better opinion on it.

15. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (5/5)

By far one of the best books I read last year. A science-fiction drama, where scientists experiment with increasing a person’s IQ. The experiment works, and Charlie, who began with a very low IQ, becomes what seems to be the smartest person in the world. We are also shown the development of a lab rat – the first successful experiment, and we follow Charlie’s train of thought that changes remarkably throughout the book. The style and format of the writing is also something I appreciated very much. 

16. Galatea by Madeline Miller (5/5)

A short story following a sculpture brought to life and her struggles with her husband and creator. For only 30 pages, it’s a masterpiece. Very captivating and vivid. I am actually curious to read more by this author.

17. Let It Snow (2/5)

A collection of 3 stories by John Green, Maureen Johnson, Lauren Myracle was an easy read before Christmas, which I thought to be only fitted. However, maybe too much of an easy read. Sure, it was pleasant, but by the time I’ve reached the third story, the characters were less and less interesting, and I wasn’t as keen on finding out what would happen next. Each story follows a teenager over a night or a couple of days around Christmas. At the end (or way sooner than that), we realize the lives of these teenagers are somehow linked, and they all get to meet in a Starbucks. 

18. The Library of the Unwritten by A.J. Hackwith. (4/5)

A fantasy novel that intrigued me with its name and description. One of the wings of Hell’s library is the Unwritten wing where all unwritten books are kept. Sometimes, characters escape, and they are being dragged back into their book by librarian Claire and her assistant. However, one character goes too far, an angel finds a piece of the Devil’s Book, and all Hell, Heaven, and Earth break loose as the story unfolds. Each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view, and although there were times when I thought things were a bit too stretched, the idea was still too good to let the book go.

19. Have You Seen Luis Velez? by Catherine Ryan Hyde (5/5)

The last book I read in 2020, and it was worth it. Although slightly lengthy, I enjoyed every bit of it as I was delighted and frustrated and happy and angry at it with every page. It follows the story of Raymond, a 17-year-old who befriends his 90-year-old blind neighbour. The old lady used to have help from a guy called Luis Velez, who seems to have disappeared without a trace, so Raymond decides to help her instead, while also secretly looking for the mysterious Luis Velez.

And now, I’m looking forward to a new year of reading, hopefully as bountiful as the last.

What books do you recommend? Did any of these catch your eye?

My Story of Southeast Asia part 4:

Phuket and Pattaya, Thailand

After 2 weeks of visiting everything we could in Bangkok, Thailand, Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, it was time to relax. We reserved the last 2 weeks of our trip to Southeast Asia for lounging in the sun, sleeping, and relaxing, although our restlessness still got us to stray from the schedule at times. So, we spent one week in Phuket and one in Pattaya, Thailand. 

Phuket, Thailand

Phuket is the biggest island in Thailand and our accommodation was right in the main town – Phuket. We were rather far from the beaches, but we rode a bus every day to the one called Patong. The ride took between 30-60 minutes, depending on how many stops the bus would make. The busses were open, and you would hop on from the back and then sit on one of the benches on the sides. You could also take a taxi to the beach, but we never thought it was worth it. The bus tickets were really cheap and we weren’t in any hurry. 

As we’ve heard of the beauty of the Thai islands we wanted to go on a boat ride and see them or at least some of them and so our hotel receptionist arranged for a car to take us to the port one morning, where we embarked on what must have been one of the longest days in my life. Unfortunately, the sea was particularly tormented that day, with high waves that the big motorboat was riding and breaking with its bow, then proceeding to drop on its hull with a bang that threatened to break it in two. 

The crowds of Maya Bay

Before leaving, all passengers were offered sea-sickness pills, which I dutifully took. However, after roughly 15 minutes at sea, I proceeded to give up on what seemed to be my meals for the past week. Which started a mass throw-up among passengers of the boat. Suffice it to say, it was 4 pm when I got off the boat, scared even to hop into the van that would take us to the hotel, as the land was still moving underneath my feet. 

Nevertheless, the islands were indeed beautiful. We saw Phi Phi Islands and we accosted on Maya Bay, which was filled with boats and many many tourists taking photos. We also saw an island full of monkeys that were hanging from the rocks. I’m not sure about the name for that one, though. Anyway, definitely go on a boat tour of the islands, but make sure you find a day with a calmer sea. 

After such a bumpy ride, all other days in Phuket were spent at the beach, and on the very last day, we climbed to the top of the hill at the foot of which our hotel was situated, to enjoy a panoramic view and some more quality time with a bunch of monkeys.

In Phuket, at a local, modest restaurant we also discovered Tom Yum, the traditional Thai soup made with shrimp that has a spicy-sour taste to it. If you ever order one, make sure you ask first about the “spicy” part, so your mouth doesn’t catch fire.

Tom Yum soup

On the second to last day in Phuket, we decided to hit the cinema. We passed a shopping mall every day on our way to the beach and we figured it might have a cinema. At the time, Star Wars: The Last Jedi had just premiered and we couldn’t wait to see it. Luckily, they were running a subtitled version, besides the dubbed one, so we got our tickets and enjoyed the movie, but not before standing and listening to the Thai hymn just before the movie started. It was an interesting experience. 

Pattaya, Thailand

On Christmas Eve, we arrived in Pattaya – a sea resort located about 2 hours from Bangkok – and we spent Christmas day at the beach. Although at its heart, both literally and figuratively, a very touristic place, Pattaya was much like an oasis to us. Our accommodation was very far from the city centre and about 2 minutes walk from Jomtien Beach where we went almost every day. As opposed to Patong Beach in Phuket, which was rather wide, the one in Pattaya was quite a thin strip of sand along the road. However, it was also much emptier – at least the part where we went – with just a few people here and there. 

Some very different Christmas trees

One day, we decided to visit the 3D art museum, called “Art in Paradise”. We spent a few hours there, taking pictures with all the exhibits, as you could get a very interactive experience. There are several of these museums around the world, but this was the first I visited and I was pleasantly surprised to have so much fun. 

We also took in a bit of the very crowded city centre with its shopping malls. In one of the shopping malls, at the food court, we discovered a very cheap (compared to Romania prices) sushi place, where you could mix and match all types of sushi, getting 10 pieces for something like 24 baht (i might be mistaken about the price and I’m sure it has changed in the last 3 years, but the point is, it was cheap). 

I broke the bridge (at the 3D art museum “Art in Paradise”)

In terms of food, we also took advantage of the Jomtien Night Market, located roughly 2 km away from our hotel, where we walked (or took a tuk-tuk/bus) every night for delicious fresh fish and seafood, as well as fresh fruit. We also bought some souvenirs there, as it was a mixed market.

Speaking of souvenirs, on December 30th we took a bus back to Bangkok, to the biggest market there – Chatuchak Weekend Market. This is a massive market where you can find clothes, decorative objects, art, food…anything and everything. The prices are generally good, so it’s a good place to stock up on souvenirs, memorabilia or simply to wander around in awe.

For the night between years, we bought some drinks at the supermarket, got our beach rug, and headed to the beach, where people (mostly locals) were lighting floating lanterns, so by 12 am the night sky was full of them. It was a quiet, warm, peaceful New Year night – also our last in Thailand, as on January 1st, 2018, we flew back home and our one month trip ended. 

My Story of Southeast Asia part 3

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

From Siem Reap, Cambodia, we continued our one-month journey through Southeast Asia in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. After days of walking and seeing what felt like “everything” – though it was really just a tiny bit of Thailand and Cambodia, we arrived in Malaysia already tired. On top of our tiredness, the weather seemed to wear us down with its suffocating humidity. Although still around 30 degrees Celsius, the humid air made the heat almost unbearable for us, poor mortals not used to it. For Malaysians, it seemed fine. I mean, they were wearing jeans whereas I would have given anything for the possibility of wringing my breezy pants after 5 minutes outside. I kind of got used to it after the 3rd day, which was also the last, so I guess, if you spend more time, you’ll be fine, as long as you’re wearing breathable fabrics.

Of course, everything indoors was air-conditioned at possibly fridge temp, so whenever you got inside your body would be confused “should I be happy? Should I be hot? Cold? Did my brain just freeze? I need a blankie.” 

The hotel we stayed at was a modern, comfortable one, very close to Chinatown. So, of course, our first outside trip was to Chinatown, where we checked out the shopping potential. However, as we were only travelling with a backpack each, we mostly refrained from buying much and we were hoping to get some souvenirs when we went back to Thailand.

Monkey on the stairs to Batu Caves

On our second day in Kuala Lumpur, we went on a trip to Batu Caves, just outside the city. The caves hold a complex of temples and are home to numerous monkeys, some of which are not necessarily happy you’re invading their space. We took a train to get there, which made for a very comfortable trip. I’d say it is a nice way to spend your time, so do visit, but be ready to climb many steps to get inside the main cave. Actually, if it weren’t that hot, climbing the stairs and admiring the monkeys, was one of the highlights of the trip. 

Once back to the city, at nightfall, we decided to go check out the famous Petronas Towers. They were impressive to see, especially lit up in the dark. It was already almost closing time and we weren’t sure we wanted to go to the top anyway, so instead, we spent about an hour or more taking pictures from the ground. 

Petronas Towers from the ground

After this, although we’ve planned to visit the Menara Kuala Lumpur Tower the next day, someone…was very impatient. You could see the top of the tower from Petronas and as it didn’t seem to be terribly far, we decided to walk. Bad, bad decision. It was very far. By the time we finally reached the tower, it was very late and also, nearly closing time. We got on the last ride that takes you from the base of the hill to the top, where the tower is situated. We went up on the sky deck and were the last ones to take pictures from inside the Sky Box. The panoramic view of the city was splendid and perhaps the photos don’t make it justice. But sitting on the floor of the sky box was truly an exciting experience, so if you ever get there, do try it.

Deciding if happy or terrified in the sky box

On the following day, as we’d already checked everything on our shortlist for KL, we went to the botanical garden, a huge park that holds the Orchid and Hibiscus Gardens, the Butterfly Park, a zoo, a lake, and a planetarium along with many other interesting attractions. We preferred to walk around the park and visit the Orchid and Hibiscus Gardens which were beautiful. Again, the heat got the best of us and after a long walk, we returned to the air-conditioned room of our hotel. 

Orchid in the Orchids and Hibiscus Gardens

On our last day in KL, we spent the morning at a shopping center nearby, called Central Market. I do recommend checking it out as it had some art shops and traditional memorabilia. Outside, we ate something we called “schnitzel bananas” – panko deep-fried bananas and had some coffee too. Later, the humidity went overboard and it was pouring rain for the rest of the day. So, we got some food and drinks and spent the day lounging and enjoying the rain from the hotel’s terrace.

Weirdly, besides the schnitzel bananas, I cannot remember anything else I ate in Malaysia, though with the weather, I know I didn’t really eat much. Small pastry shops were in the neighbourhood and we did get provisions there. 

Overall, with the tiredness and humidity, the days in KL weren’t spent as well as they could have been. However, I did enjoy my time there and if we were to have stayed longer and gotten used to the weather, I’m sure we would have explored a lot more. I’m hoping one day to get back and visit Penang as well. Until then, I still have two more chapters of this story to share with you.

Next on the list: Phuket, Thailand.

My Story of Southeast Asia part 2:

Siem Reap, Cambodia

After leaving Bangkok, Thailand, we arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia, on December 11th, 2017. Siem Reap is the town where everyone comes to see the nearby complex of ruins of Angkor, the seat of the Khmer kingdom between the 9th – 15th century. This means that the town is mostly a tourist one, a sort of resort, with huge luxurious hotels but also smaller, less impressive hostels, for the low budget traveler, which we were. 

The hostel staff was kind enough to arrange a tuk-tuk to pick us up from the airport. After a rather dusty ride, we arrived at the rustic hostel, checked in, and left in search of food. We found a sort of shopping center nearby where there were a couple of restaurants as well and where I enjoyed a meal of prawns and vegetables that also included peppercorn, which I have never tasted or seen before. Though spicy, the food was delicious. 

Prawns, vegetables and peppercorn

As my partner is not one to enjoy rest, he insisted we went check out at least one of the temples. We again were driven there by the same tuk-tuk driver. You might remember me mentioning a tuk-tuk in Ayutthaya, Thailand, a sort of pick-up truck contraption. However, in Cambodia, a tuk-tuk is more like a chariot pulled by a motor scooter. All these motorbikes seem to be quite pollutant and combined with the dusty road, it makes it hard for the passengers not to squint their eyes or crinkle their noses. Otherwise, the ride is rather pleasant and once you’ve visited a few temples you’ll be so thankful for the life/feet-saving tuk-tuk. 

As it was already evening and the sun was setting, we only got to see one temple. However, our “tuk-tuk-er” (i cannot remember his name) was ready to take us on a whole tour the next day, provided we were ready for pick up at 4 am. That meant we woke up around 3 am to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Prepared for the dusty ride this time with sunglasses (yes, in the middle of the night) and masks (pandemic omen), we promptly arrived at Angkor Wat, where people were already gathering around a small lake with cameras and tripods to catch the best photo of the sunrise – some of them even went knee-deep into the water. We got a spot right at the muddy shore of the lake where we stood for probably about 2 hours until the sun rose.

Angkor Wat

After that, we decided not to visit Angkor Wat at the time, but rather return later on, as we saw the crowds entering and thought we might want a less stuffed visit. Instead, we returned to the parking lot where we left our tuk-tuk-er and…surprise! The parking lot as well as all surrounding areas were now full of tuk-tuks and we had a few minutes of panic as we were looking for ours. We finally saw one that I thought might be the one, but our driver was sleeping in a hammock resembling a cocoon hanging from the ceiling of the tuk-tuk and it was impossible to see his face. Some other drivers noticed us and before trying to wake him asked us if we were sure it was our driver…Luckily, he was. A bit groggy from his sleep and probably pissed that we woke him up, he drove us to the next temple. I think we might have seen a total of 10 temples, although everything is fuzzy now.

Ta Prohm Temple (“Tomb Raider” temple)

After this tour de force in which I most enjoyed a temple raised on an island in the middle of a small lake and the temple featured in the movie “Tomb Raider” as well as, of course, the grand Angkor Wat, we were back at the hostel by 2 pm. Judging by the clerk’s surprise, we were done with the temples in record time. You can buy Angkor Wat passes for several days, so I guess, more thorough tourists will take a longer time. It also depends on how crowded the complex is.

After a cold shower (the hostel didn’t have hot water, although, with the heat, there was no actual need, unless you count my long hair that needed washing) and a long nap, we went for a massage. I must say I preferred the massages in Thailand, although I only went to one place in Cambodia, so I’m probably not a reliable source on this. 

We also found a restaurant near the hostel with a thick menu, serving really good food, both traditional and international, and where we ate every day. Speaking of the restaurant, another first for me was drinking juice straight from a coconut. 

Neak Pean Temple

On our 3rd day in Siem Reap, we booked a trip to a floating village in Tonle Sap – a very large lake in Cambodia. A van picked us up from the hostel. After a longer ride than expected, in which the guide told us a bit about the history of Cambodia and where we noticed the agricultural landscape and the terribly skinny cows, which we found out are mostly kept for work rather than milk and meat as they are in Europe, we arrived at a quay, where we boarded a boat, that took us to the floating village.

In this village, the houses are raised on tall wooden pillars, so when the water rises, the houses are not flooded or taken away by the river. The only way to travel around is by boat, although there is a piece of land where the school and temple are located. We were told that the village has electricity for only 2 hours per day and that drinking water existed thanks to some donors who brought in water tanks. 

It was incredible to see how simply these people lived and how children diligently went inside the school as the bell rang, how most of them were barely aware of how other people live in other parts of the world, as this life was all they knew. Most of them were fishermen or they dealt with tourists as there wasn’t much else to gain a living from. After this impressive tour through the village, we were taken out on the lake to watch the sunset, which came as a bittersweet end of the day. 

Sunset on Tonle Sap

Being so wrapped in our own lives, we rarely think of how others live…or rather our brain can barely grasp the concept that people live different lives, and have such different perspectives as each one’s happiness is brought by something different. The village and its people still come to my mind from time to time, and all I can think about is that whole day, imposing on their daily routines, just stumbling in there, a total stranger, peering into their lives, I felt completely inadequate and dumbfounded by their happiness, as I slowly became more aware of mine.

On this note, I left Siem Reap the following day and moved on to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. But that’s a story for another time.

My Story of Southeast Asia

Chapter 1: Bangkok, Thailand

In 2017, I spent the month of December in Southeast Asia, staying for several days in each of the following locations: Bangkok, Thailand > Siem Reap, Cambodia > Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia > Phuket, Thailand > Pattaya, Thailand. To be able to get there, we needed to apply and obtain a Thai visa from the Embassy of Thailand, here in Bucharest, Romania, a few months before our departure.

For my fellow Romanians, interested in travelling there, make sure you do a thorough research a few months before travelling and start putting together the file needed for visa application. As we wanted to leave Thailand to visit Cambodia and Malaysia and then return within 30 days, we also needed a sort of re-entry permit, which we obtained once we got there from the Immigration Bureau. But, although this all sounds very complicated, it was both doable and totally worth it, as we had the experience of a lifetime. 

Today start a series of 4 stories, beginning with my story of Bangkok, Thailand. 

We arrived in Bangkok, Thailand on the evening of December 3rd, and got lost while trying to find our accommodation. So, off to a good start, once we got settled in, and being very hungry, we headed towards a night market I saw on the map, some 3 subway stations away, where I, luckily found some more weather-appropriate pants, that I wore almost every day for the whole month and as we were unfamiliar with the food, we thought we’d go for the “safe”, familiar option: KFC. First off, the menu looked nothing like the one back home, so we ended up ordering what looked good in the pictures. Bad idea. If you think KFC is spicy, you’d probably die eating Thai KFC. I barely got down 3 tiny pieces of chicken and 3 spoons of rice before tears came tumbling down my cheeks and I had to abort the mission. 

Wat Pho

Later that evening, we visited the closest farmers’ market in the neighbourhood, which we reached by dangerously crossing a 6-laned road because we didn’t see the footbridges, thus giving me a tiny heart attack. Once we got there, though already dark, the market was still open and running and we got to marvel at all the fruits and vegetables, some of which we were seeing for the first time. We also tried a bunch of them, from which I only remember the “rose apple”, a very watery, red fruit that felt like a God-sent, in the extreme heat my body was suddenly experiencing in the middle of winter.

Speaking of weather, in December, Thailand – or at least Bangkok – has temperatures around 30 degrees Celsius, which is what we have in Romania in July. However, the difference is in the humidity which makes the heat less bearable, for someone not used to it. We also had some cloudy, slightly rainy days, but with roughly the same temperature.

On our second day in Bangkok, as we were concerned with our plans of leaving and re-entering the country, we went straight to the Immigration Bureau, located on the other side of the city. We took an Uber and I think it took us almost 2 hours to get there, which might give you a sense of what traffic in Bangkok looks like. As we were obviously rather late, we took a ticket and waited to be called for about 2 hours or so, until an announcement was made that we had to clear the room – it was lunchtime – 1-hour break. We tried the food in the cafeteria there, most of it traditional Thai food, that wasn’t great, but not too bad either, although it came with a smell that was rather strange and not very appetizing to us. We blamed it on the fish sauce, although even now, I couldn’t say for sure if that was truly the culprit. We sensed the same odour in many other food places, which made us not so keen on trying out different Thai foods. By the time we left Bangkok, however, we managed to discover some delicious food right in the neighbourhood of our accommodation. Although street food, the place and the ladies cooking were very clean and the food was simple and tasty: rice, omelette, pork – simply lovely.

By the time we got our re-entry permits, it was already late afternoon, but we couldn’t help not satisfying our curiosity and seeing at least a bit of the city. We headed to Khaosan Road, probably one of the most popular tourist places in Bangkok.

Khaosan Road

Khaosan Road is a conglomerate of street food stalls, buildings holding hostels, massage parlours, and some restaurants. At night, the street is brimming with tourists flocking around, getting drawn by vendors of scorpions on sticks or stalls of yummy squirming worms. Funnily enough, that was the only place I saw this type of exotic food. Although Thai food is completely different from Romanian or European food, I think the “eating worms and snakes and scorpions” thing might be a bit embellished. But then again, I might be wrong. We were looking forward to getting a massage, especially after standing in line for what felt like an entire day and were glad to find foot massage available at every parlour and at what seemed to us very good prices. We finally decided on a parlour and were taken over by two masseurs who massaged our feet for a full hour. It was so relaxing, I nodded off at some point.

If you’ve never had a foot massage, I can tell you a bit about how the Thai one goes. Once you decide on a parlour, depending on the looks of it and how convincing the masseurs are “Hello sir! Hello lady! Massage? Foot massage? 200 baht!” you go in and you can further negotiate the price. Once set and even paid for, in some cases, you are invited to take a sit on a very comfortable leaned-back armchair, take off your shoes (if you haven’t already done so before entering the venue) and the masseur proceeds to wash your feet. Once washed, they start off with a cream or oil and they also use a small wooden stick, rounded at the ends, the type of which we ended up buying and using at home – a very good investment 😉 

The “Temple Run”

The following day we started a sort of “Temple Run”, that lasted for about 3 days. We started with Wat Pho (The Temple of the Reclining Buddha) where we saw, of course, a gigantic golden statue of Buddha, lying on his side. What was interesting and something that we saw in many other temples, was that the statues are often covered with a golden-orange cloth and believers also stick golden foil to the statues in a form of prayer. After Wat Pho, we took a boat to the other side of the river and visited Wat Arun, a beautiful white structure, with impressive and intricate decorations – probably one of my favourites. We ended the day by climbing some stairs up to “The Golden Mount” – the Wat Saket Temple, where we found at the very top a sort of bell-shaped golden statue. However, what fascinated me more, was the stairs and some smaller statues on the way, such as the one with eagles. 

Wat Arun

On the next day, we left Bangkok, for a trip to Ayutthaya, the old capital of Thailand, now a town about 3 hours away from Bangkok by train, a town that holds over 10 ancient temples worth visiting. Experiencing public transportation is probably one of our favourite things to do wherever we go, so naturally, we were fascinated by the train. It looked quite old, made a lot of noise, and most importantly the “air conditioning system” was made out of fans, stuck on the ceiling from place to place, some working and some not. However, in that heat, you can’t afford to complain. Every gust of wind is a blessing, although it sometimes comes with another heatwave.

Once off the train in Ayutthaya, we quickly booked a tuk-tuk right in front of the train station, where they were all lined up, waiting for tourists. This tuk-tuk was a pick-up truck made to accommodate 2 to 4 people in the back, sitting on small benches and being hidden from the sun or rain by a tarpaulin. The driver showed us a map and pictures of the temples and took us to 10 of them. Although fascinating, by the time we reached the 6th it started to feel like we’ve seen everything already and the tiredness was settling in. One of the temples definitely worth mentioning was the one with the Buddha head embedded in a Banyan tree. Not that the others weren’t very nice, but this is the one that stuck with me after 3 years. This particular temple is called Wat Mahathat. 

Ayutthaya

The day after visiting Ayutthaya, we resumed our visit of Bangkok, with the Grand Palace. We spent plenty of time here, as it is quite a big domain and it also, of course, contains a big temple, the Wat Phra Kaew. Once out of the Grand Palace domain, we headed to Sanam Luang, a sort of a park/public square, that holds different monuments and at that time was fully dedicated to the late king, which the Thai people were mourning. It was very impressive to see how much the people of a country can love their king.

The “animal tour”

After this, we visited a zoo, where I saw a real-life giraffe for the first time in my life, which for some reason, I’m still excited about. We also took a long boat ride on the river and visited the Museum of Royal Barges, which we didn’t take photos of, but I do recommend going there, though it is a bit out of the way. All the boats are very impressive. The next day we also went to an aquatic park, called Sea Life Bangkok Ocean World, which was quite small, but still fun, and finally, on our last day, we wrapped up our “animal tour” with a visit to the Snake Farm, where we attended a short presentation about different snakes and even got to take pictures with one. 

At the zoo

Some final tips and advice:

  • Try as many types of food as possible – though it might seem weird, street food is very good in Bangkok and very popular among the locals
  • Use public transportation as much as possible. Both the subway and the Skytrain are very fast and reliable. Also, you should take at least one bus trip purely for the experience. The drivers drive as if it’s a race and a lady snaps a metal box to cut your ticket and collect the payment. Probably one of the most exciting bus trips i’ve had.
  • Do take a trip to Ayutthaya if you have enough time.
  • Drink a lot of water and try some bubble tea as well
  • Wear sunscreen and breathable clothes that cover you as much as possible. Most temples won’t allow shorts and tops, for example.
  • Enjoy the smiles and hospitality of the locals – all of them are very nice, pleasant people who try to help you as they can.

My next story will continue the Southeast Asia experience and take you through a whole new adventure in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

My Story of Torino, Italy

I went to Torino (or Turin), Italy in the autumn of 2017. It was October and we decided to have a short city-break in one of the cities of Italy we thought to be less “touristy”. Torino is located in the north of Italy, and it is the capital city of the Piedmont region. It is also a business and industrial forum, being very close to Milan, in terms of such development.

We arrived in Torino sometime in the afternoon. Our accommodation was rather far from the city centre, some 4 or 5 subway stations away, plus an extra 10-minute walk. Somehow, it never actually bothered us. We rented a one-bedroom apartment in a quiet neighbourhood and getting from there to the subway felt like walking our home neighbourhood. 

Besides being a comfy apartment in a quiet neighbourhood, the best perk of this accommodation was actually the gelateria on the ground floor of the building. Possibly, the best gelato we ever had, every day we were there, at least twice a day…we basically lived on gelato for 3 days. So, if you ever go to Torino, even if you feel it’s out of the way, do go to Gelateria Telesio. It is totally worth it.

After getting ourselves settled in the apartment and obviously having some gelato we decided to do a recon mission in the city centre. By the time we reached it, darkness had already descended over Torino, so of course, there was no point in trying to visit any museums, but rather just stroll around the city center and make mental notes of what to return to the next few days.

Small pyramid in the Egyptian Museum

And so, the following day we started with the Egyptian Museum, which we thoroughly enjoyed, although it did give us the creeps from time to time, with its mummies and sarcophagi, though, I guess, that’s what made it interesting. If I remember correctly, the visit took about two hours, although if you are a “meticulous” tourist, it will probably take you longer, so if you plan to visit it, make sure you set aside enough time.

After the Egyptian Museum, we headed toward Mole Antonelliana, probably one of the most popular buildings and tourist points in Torino. This building was originally meant to be a synagogue but it now holds the National Museum of Cinema and it is believed to be the tallest museum in the world. The interior is a big circular room and you can get to the top with a lift that goes through the middle of the building, which makes the trip up quite thrilling. We didn’t visit the Museum of Cinema, but we did admire the inside and outside of the building and hopped on the lift that took us to the top, where we enjoyed a beautiful panoramic view of the city. 

View of the city from the top of Mole Antonelliana

Once out of the Mole Antonelliana, we stopped at a restaurant nearby where I ate, for the first time, ravioli. After satisfying my appetite, we continued our discovery of the city, at Porta Palatina, an imposing gate-towers structure, a remnant of Roman times, and The Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, which is accompanied by a completely different bell tower, in terms of architectural style. This Cathedral, also named “Duomo di Torino”, is considered to be the most important church of the city. What makes it so important and attractive? “The Shroud of Turin”. This is a linen sheet, made in a manner used in ancient Egypt, that was used as a funeral cloth. Of course, the connection between this and the shroud of Jesus was made, making the linen sheet a holy object that attracts many tourists and pilgrims to the Duomo. And of course, whether it was the shroud of Jesus or another crucified man, the object is still impressive for its story.

Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist (Duomo di Torino)

On our third day in Torino, we visited the Royal Palace (Palazzo Reale di Torino) where we spent almost the whole day, as it comprises various parts. We started with the main building, the actual Palace, saw the Sabauda Gallery, the Royal Armoury, and spent some time relaxing in the Royal Gardens. We also had a cappuccino at the Caffe Reale and this gave us a chance to unwind after all the walking we did. After the cappuccino, I, of course, just had to see the Royal Library, which still functions as a public library and is somewhat smaller than I expected. However, the old architecture and the walls lined with books still give you a feeling of an insignificant speck of dust in the greatness of time. 

The Royal Library

After seeing all there was to see of the Royal Palace, we started moving away from it and we got to Piazza Solferino and took a short stroll through the park there, then ended up having dinner in an American restaurant, called the T-Bone Station, where i devoured a big burger and fries. You didn’t think I could actually live solely on gelato, did you? 

For a city-break, I would say Torino is the perfect city. It still gives you enough places to visit, many of them with some surprising features, such as the Mole Antonelliana with its lift or the Duomo di Torino and its Shroud, while allowing you to take a slow pace, enjoy walks through the city center and have plenty of great gelato – if you know where to go. Besides this, we somehow felt very much at home in this city, so we probably wouldn’t have gotten bored even if we’d stayed longer. As I was looking at the pictures we took and following Google Maps to pinpoint all the places we’ve seen, I realised I actually miss it and hope to someday return to this weirdly familiar, yet extraordinary city.