The Coming of Spring

While photos have the ability to make almost anything look beautiful, the corollary is that there is beauty to be found in most everything.

Of course some things may be more obviously beautiful than others, but the trick to recognizing beauty is in allowing yourself to feel it—the calm in the morning before the sky has fully brightened, the smile that stretches across your lips when you notice that the cherry trees have precociously started blooming though it’s not yet the end of February.

This time last year I couldn’t wait for spring to come. It was my first winter, by way of which I mean that as a California girl, I grew up spoiled with full blooms in February and year-round flora. I got through the cold all right, kept warm most of the time by my stylish wool coat and in the times I wasn’t, knowing I’d live. That experience of my first winter, joined with my newly acquired skill of artfully wrapping a scarf, turned out to be quite useful when this year I ended up in DC, a city in urban design and architecture Paris’ (arguably less classically beautiful) twin.

By mid-February I was growing depressed by the barren limbs of the trees and feeling resentfully undercompensated in snow. I hadn’t learned to appreciate the quiet of the city, the way my breaths froze in air and time. But this absence of liveliness made it such that when the flowers did start to bloom, it was exquisite—a slow reprise that, having all but disappeared, was all the more anticipated.

The flowers bloomed slowly and in turns. For weeks I passed buds on my walk to school, and though day after day they did not seem to grow, in a few weeks’ time they had blossomed. The first to do so were the cherry blossoms; then it was the wildflowers and tulips, and finally the magnolias.

On the first of May, the florist above which I lived sold sprigs of muguet de mai, or Lily of the Valley, to give to close friends and family, as is the custom.

In Paris, the magnolias were the first to bloom. Having visited the third weekend in March, I’ve yet to truly see Paris in the springtime, but the magnolias in the Jardin du Palais Royal were spectacular, their thick pink petals reaching up into an overcast sky. 

Only the bravest of cherry trees near the Petit Palais had blossomed. The Grand Palais, however, had opened a temporary exhibition called, appositely, “Jardins,” which I adored: analog photography and silver bromide gelatin prints, cut paper, watercolors of crumpled irises with edges like eyelash lace. My favorite work was one of two botanical drawings from Conrad Gessner, Orlaya grandiflora, a sketch of the white lace flower from between 1555 and 1565.

Last year taught me to find beauty all around. Perhaps it was in part my environment that taught me this—Europe, a continent of history, where an old beauty is literally in the details of its palaces, its opera houses, its bridges, an homage to opulence. This year I look forward to the blooming of the cherry blossoms—to the Yoshinos and peony-like Kwanzans, with their layers of tulle, to the paper flowers of ancient Sakura—to the anticipation.

Close-up of the anemone from Eugène Delacroix’s Étude de fleurs: pavot, pensée et anémone (Study of Flowers: Poppy, Pansy, and Anemone).

In the final space of “Jardins,” René Magritte’s Le Grand Style (1951) took a room to itself, depicting a dark stalk growing upwards into a star-filled sky, planting there a strange flower: Earth, iridescent like the moon. This year I will appreciate spring as it comes, one of the gentle workings of the Earth.


La Fête des Lumières and Georgetown Glow

It’s ineffable, really, light’s capacity to hold a crowd of people in total silence—each person, for the heartbeat before a projection begins or a candle is lit, caught in the space between hoping the light will make them feel something new and fearing that it might abandon them, leaving them with nothing but their expectations.

The captivation is global: I first knew of La Fête des Lumières, an annual festival of lights in Lyon, France, a college friend having gone during her year of study abroad. In the year since I moved to Washington, DC, I’ve discovered that light festivals like this are common, the Norrköping Light Festival, in Sweden, among them (it’s on my list). They also exist in DC.

La Fête des Lumières in 2016 was spectacular, the light installations artistic, elaborate, or intricately choreographed, sometimes all three. The first of the two nights for which I went, my friend and I started in the courtyard of Hôtel de Ville, where “Platonium” was walls of magenta, a red clock tower, and strips of paper-thin material lighting up in waves above a mirror.

Through the opposite side of the courtyard was Place des Terraux, where on the facades of Hôtel de Ville and the adjacent Musée des Beaux-Arts played “Sans Dessus, Dessous” (Upside Down), a film that can only have been trying to make an environmental statement about humanity’s wastefulness (a very French thing about which to be concerned) and sinful destruction of both itself and, so the story goes, those whom we were put on this earth to look after.

A bridge spanning one of Lyon’s two rivers had been transformed into “Bright Boat,” swirls of white light from which blue spotlights rotated in small circles, as oars paddling, while across the river Saône, at the base of Fourvière Hill, “Soleil” evoked the natural progression of the sun from sunset to dawn, sparkling at midnight as the Eiffel Tower sparkles on the hour.

Place de la Bourse was a winter garden filled with my favorite flower—peonies, or “Les Pivoines”—and at Place des Célestins, “Coups de Cœur” was a heart beating in time with the combined pulses of couples who went on stage and kissed.

The jewel of the festival was the Ferris wheel at Place Bellecour, onto which a short animation, “Un songe forain,” or “A Fairgrounds Dream,” explored themes reminiscent of those on which I wrote papers in school—fairy tales, sexual death. I watched it both nights.

It began with teacups and then a carousel and the animals on it, horses and dolphins, only on the top of the carousel were numbers like those on a roulette wheel. This carousel transmogrified into a spiral target, red and white, on which a girl who looked not unlike Rapunzel or Elsa laid provocatively across it, dressed in gypsy attire, while knives landed all around her and finally an axe narrowly missed her head, which as I learned from Gilmore Girls is a common ending to dreams. Next we saw a Cinderella carriage driving off into pink clouds, clouds which soon obscured the screen, turning into cotton candy through which hot air balloons floated. We were then dropped into a rib cage roller coaster car, which moved on bloody tracks from which a giant arachnid emerged but finally turned us out into bright blue sky filled with real balloons.

Before nightfall the second night, my friend and I went to the Marché du Noël in Place Carnot, where we crowded into the prettiest vin chaud stand and looked on as the trees of the Forêt des Lumières, not a part of the festival but illuminated all the same, changed colors.

Once it was dark, we walked down to Confluences, which as anyone who has visited Lyon will know is removed from the rest of the city. Along the way we saw “Caprice” on the water. The reason for our trek was “Deep Web,” a light show set to trance-like music wherein LED orbs suspended from wires moved like caterpillars in red, pink, and blue-violet oscillations and promised new formations that wanted to be stars but weren’t until finally they were, white and shimmering.

The most technically impressive show was our last: “Evolutions,” projected onto the Saint-Jean cathedral. It matched perfectly every pane of every window and even a small clock to one side, reimagining the cathedral’s construction, first in paper and then in silk, steel, light, and energy.

I immediately thought of this when I watched the light show projected onto the Freer Gallery of Art, “Perfect Harmony” (created by 59 Productions, which designed the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympic Games), at IlluminAsia, a festival celebrating the reopening of the Freer|Sackler Galleries (Smithsonians that house Asian art). The light there similarly fit all of the details of the building, telling first the story of Charles Lang Freer’s collection of art coming to America and then celebrating that art in a classical number full of twinkling in time with notes and dancing in red, white, and blue. It even incorporated those details into the third story it told, that of the building’s creation to serve as a home for the art: Asian characters ran across the top of the building as steel and stone gave it shape until finally, script of many languages flashed across the center of the facade, followed by “THINK FREER” diagonally and then, simply, “Freer|Sackler.”

The most recent light show I attended—and the one most similar to La Fête des Lumières—was Georgetown Glow, a collection of light installations sprinkled throughout Georgetown December 8–January 7 (tonight), of which my favorite was “Open Lounge,” by Géraud Périole in collaboration with Light Art Collection and Amsterdam Light Festival, Bordeaux, France. Located in Cady’s Alley in the Georgetown Design District, twenty chandeliers invoked magic, inviting us to imagine that we were in a grand palace or beneath a starry sky. I’m always up for a little magic.

Annecy and the Lake

My trip to Annecy was short and sweet.

My host during my stay in Geneva (between the municipalities of Troinex and Plan-les-Ouates), a truly lovely and inspirational woman and my first cousin twice removed, drove me to Annecy for a half-day trip. We took the scenic route: rolling hills the color green all flora seems after a rain—verdure among which were nestled small, isolated collections of homes—and a medieval bridge no longer used, white and unlike anything I’d seen, like the drawbridge to a castle (retroactively trying to determine what it was, I’m supposing it was Pont de la Caille).

Coming into Annecy, we passed beds of pink and white flowers in the middle of roundabouts and parked next to Parc Charles Bosson, in which beautifully landscaped beds of flowers were filled with fringed tulips, white and purple pansies, white anemones, and white flowers with yellow pollen centers that looked as though they would feel like clouds when touched.

Lake Annecy is thought to be one of the world’s most gorgeous lakes, and this is why: its color is like that of no other lake—not like that of the lakes on the German-Austrian border, a shiny gray-blue as if their water filled pools of obsidian, nor like that of Lake Geneva, a deep, pure blue (Évian, the town from where the bottled water comes, sits on Lake Geneva). It’s more like the aquamarine of a Monet painting, only clear, as opposed to a beautiful mess. The water catches and holds the sunlight, at the time subdued by clouds, allowing it to transpire from its surface only in shimmers with the rippling of the water.

Into the lake dip shady trees, their broad leaves made greener by the light of the water, while pedal boats float near a dock, waiting for summer. Across the lake, on forested mountains, sit half-clouds. They look like snow.

We walked along the lake into Annecy and between the canopies of the morning’s farmer’s market in the rain. Winding through people, umbrellas, and vendors quickly trying to pack up their goods, we walked alongside canals and flower boxes of poppies drooping under the weight of raindrops. The rain becoming heavier, we sat for tea and crêpes, and when we had finished, the sky had brightened. We walked back along the lake, now even more crystalline.

Cassis: Picturesque Coastal Provence

A picturesque port town of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, Cassis is everything and more one might expect from the south of France.

From the grape vines at the top of the hill, apricot and raspberry buildings cascade down to the waterfront, where clouds like cream puffs hover above the horizon at sunset and sailboat lines run high into the sky. As on any Mediterranean coast, the water turns from turquoise to blue in places, and one can sail to the limestone and calcium cliffs of the Parc national des Calanques in no time at all. The less adventurous can stick to the village, as there are plenty of restaurants and boutiques, but wandering reveals some of the loveliest of spots.

I thought the prettiest spot in the village to be on Rue Adolphe Thiers, looking towards Cap Canaille. Tea-green and bateau-blue shutters face one another across the intimate street, continuing its length, in varying shades, to trees. It’s the narrow streets like this one—and the unexpected views at the ends—that give Cassis its charm. I spent the morning of my one full day in Cassis walking, half-heartedly looking at a map as I more mindfully chose to allow serendipity to lead me where it would. Walking up the hill, I found a library, a camel-colored villa with blue-green shutters and palm trees, filling the courtyard—walking down, bright colors and sunshine, and a glimpse of the port.

Walking around the port, I looked up at the flower boxes hanging from second-story balconies of buildings, shades of pink, almond, and white sand. In the water were French blue boats; boats with “Cassis” written on their bows, in a row; a single soft-lime-green boat in the middle of a perfect line of others. Behind the boats, on the hill, was a castle, while on the far side of the port was a mini lighthouse.

Directly next to the port was La Plage de la Grande Mer, a beach proportionate in size to Cassis but far from small in beauty. At the moment the sun broke through the clouds, it turned the water to sparkles. The crests of the waves were the color of light blue seaglass. They reminded me of clean laundry.

At a small booth just before the beach, I purchased a ticket for the “Discovery” tour of the calanques, which took us to the three closest: Port Miou, Port Pin, and Calanque-en-Vau. While Calanque-en-Vau is the tallest and most popular and has the biggest (still small) beach, I liked Port Pin the best: it’s cute and unassuming. The captain offered to take my picture there, too. Going, we saw an island in the distance; returning, we had spectacular views of Cap Canaille. The water was darkest blue.

Once on land again, I set out on foot past pretty estates with names to a small summer restaurant, open from April to September, called La Plage Bleue. It appeared I was a bit early for the season, as the pool was being filled, but benches cushioned and decorated with pillows turned the outdoor patio to a lounge, with an unbeatable view of the sea. I ordered my first Caipiroska and vanilla ice cream before searching for the start of the Sentier du Petit Prince, a 30-minute walk around a peninsula that leads to a vista that overlooks Cap Canaille and, according to Antoine de Saint Expéry, author of The Little Prince, is “le plus beau et le plus triste paysage du monde.” All along the trail were wildflowers, including wild red poppies! I had contemplated visiting Provence to see the poppies, whole fields of which I had seen pictures, but decided against it because I read that gardeners consider them weeds, so the only fields one might find are in places impossible to reach without a car. Here I found some anyway, though, and bright coral ones too, in planters in the village.

Walking back through the village, I started in the other direction, towards two coves named Anse du Corton and Anse de l’Arene. Through palm trees on the walk to the Anse du Corton, I saw a small vineyard, and once there I spotted fuzzy white flowers like bunny tails. By the time I had reached Anse de l’Arene, the sun was most of the way through its descent in the cloud-filled sky. I was nervous about the tide coming in—I didn’t know whether it did or not—but made my way down a staircase, past a door to nowhere, and over rough white rock that gave way to stones, to pebbles, and finally to clay as I approached the base of Cap Canaille, where the cove, illumined in white light, reminded me of Butterfly Beach, in Montecito. At sunset, I asked the bartender at the single wine bar in the village for a glass of his best Clairette, a light, white grape variety for which Cassis is known.

The next morning, Place Baragnon, around which are arranged the city hall, the museum, and a historic fountain, was overflowing with vendors selling hammam towels, fruits, and flowers. The towels were gorgeous—I went back for one in rose and light blue—and the cherries delicious, lunch, along with a pear tartelette from a local bakery, for my train to Geneva.

The Tulip Fields

Spring in Holland: instantly it brings to mind images of blooming blocks of bold pinks and reds, whites and purples—fields of tulips as far as the eye can see. These fabulous preconceptions we have are not so fantastical: such images do exist. However, spring in Holland is also more real than this idea we have of tones swirling and blending together in a phantasm of color. Tulips are everywhere in spring—in parks, on corners, planted in pots and hidden in secret gardens—and though this may not be the 17th century, they are people’s livelihoods, cut and sold to the rest of the world, which demands the bit of spring the tulips are and bring.

For six weeks every year, all of Amsterdam comes together for the “Tulp,” or Tulip, Festival, a celebration of Holland’s famed flower. This year, the festival took place from April 1 to May 14; I planned my visit to Holland so as to arrive in the middle, in mid-April. Select shops and museums sell maps that show where tulips may be found throughout various parts of the city, including Centrum (Central), Noord (North), Zuid (South), and Oost (East), the most tulips being in the city center; I picked up my map for a euro at the Tulip Museum, where I began my tulip tour.

The Tulip Museum is small but a good place to spend half an hour or so. It tells the history of tulips in Holland, how they came to Holland and rose in status to such an extent as to cause Tulip Mania, nothing with which most people aren’t already somewhat familiar. One room, however, shows the steps of harvesting tulips, and in another, interactive touch screens display the name and a picture of different varieties of tulips when you touch numbers scattered throughout Europe and Asia. In the gift shop are beautiful amaryllises, the prettiest, I think, the Amaryllis charisma—pomegranate red in perfect lines radiating from the center, transparent where the color doesn’t quite reach some of the petals’ edges, and trimmed in a thin line of the same red, as if the flower were sketched on white organza.

Of the many tulip locations, including Damrak, the square across from the Royal Palace, Amstel Hotel, and the EYE Film Institute (a recently opened, architecturally modern cinematography museum that also screens films), those where I found the most remarkable tulips were Museumplein and Vondelpark. In Museumplein, in front of the Rijksmuseum and I amsterdam letters, is a long, rectangular pond stretching towards the other side of the park in and around which were big pots planted with tulips—purple tulips that caught the light, baby pink tulips, and more decidedly pink tulips that looked as though they’d been swept with a highlighter brush. Schoolkids had planted tulips of many colors that were in full bloom around the statue in Vondelpark.

Less conspicuous but worth searching for were those in the so-called “secret garden” of the hotel Andaz Amsterdam. The tulips themselves, of the “White Dream” variety, had actually for the most part either already or not yet bloomed, but the garden—Alice’s garden, the one to which the door is always locked in Carroll’s story—more than made up for the scarcity of the flowers. A black and white wall in the back shows Alice in Amsterdam in her light blue dress, holding an oversized navy spoon and surrounded by a rabbit, windmill, and of course, tulips! A hedge is kept trimmed to look like the mouse, while a watch face stands to the side. The floor is patterned as a chess board.

My final day in Amsterdam, I cycled through flower fields along “Bollenstreek,” known as the Flower Strip or Flower Route, in what was easily the highlight of my stay in Amsterdam. “Bollenstreek” stretches from Haarlem to Leiden, and as the train tracks parallel the length of it, it’s possible to rent a bike in Amsterdam, bike south until you feel tired, and hop on a train to go back. Having taken the train up from Rotterdam, though, and already seen the fields of red, pink, and yellow from afar, I opted to catch a train to Schipol Airport, from which buses to Keukenhof, manicured gardens to which tourists from all over the world flock during the two months of the year in which they’re open, depart every ten minutes. The gardens are located in Lisse, between Haarlem and Leiden, and while the gardens’ theme this year was “Dutch Design” and I’m positive they would have been beautiful, it was the tulips in nature that I wanted to see, so I avoided the Disneyland crowds and rented a bike in the parking lot for €10.

Four bike paths encircle the gardens. As soon as I exited the parking lot, I went the wrong way, taking Route 4 to the additional fields, on the wrong side of the road for taking pictures. When I realized this, I turned around and soon found myself on Route 3 and in Halfweg, where I thought were the most fully blossoming tulips of all of the tulips I saw that day (and I saw them at the beginning!). To the far left were light red ones like the tips of flames, their petals confused as to whether they were supposed to be red or pink. Closer to me were dark pink tulips, slightly more sparse but brilliant in color, and across a small river were tulips of the same and a lighter color, growing in luxuriant rows.

Farther on, the bike path led past a lake, which wasn’t flower fields but was nice nonetheless, giving to the route a sense of serenity and a good deal of green. On the other side of the lake, the path turned onto a road on either side of which were working fields. Workers picked tulips in one; another was filled with pink striated tulips; another with red, purple, orange, and yellow ones, and beyond that, light and dark pink ones; another with red, white, and yellow.

At the end of the road, I cut across from Route 3, which continued on towards the ocean, to Route 2, to see more tulips. On this route I saw fields that looked as though their flowers had been recently cut, crushed pink petals littering the spaces between rows. but biking around a bend onto the first of them, I thought even this sight lovely. Many of the fields I saw were less full of tulips than I had imagined, but this is why the tulips in Holland are “real”: they are cut and sold, not grown to simply sit there and look pretty.

I didn’t expect to see so many hyacinths, either. My favorites were a whole plot of baby pink ones and another of deep purples.

Finally stopping for lunch, I watched a woman get out of the car where her husband waited and carefully make her way down the hill from the road to be closer to the tulips. These fields were messy but gorgeous—all yellow diamonds, red satin, ballerina slippers, lavender kisses, and fresh cream. After the woman had left, I made my own way down the hill and disappeared into the tulips.

Dutch Windmills and Ducks

One of Monet’s Champ de Tulipes en Hollande, housed in the Musée Marmottan Monet, in Paris.

For picturesque views of original windmills, Holland’s Kinderdijk is just the place. A small town seemingly as devoted to preserving its heritage as to carrying on in quiet spaces, Kinderdijk offers visitors a more authentic and natural setting to see windmills than do more touristy towns around Amsterdam.

Just outside of Rotterdam, Kinderdijk is a little tricky to get to but by no means inaccessible. In the summer, Waterbus Line 202 takes passengers directly from Rotterdam’s Erasmus Bridge to Kinderdijk; in the off-season (when I visited), passengers can take Line 20 to Ridderkerk De Schans and transfer to a small yellow ferry called the Driehoeksveer (Line 6), which drops off at Kinderdijk.

From the moment I looked left and right at charming buildings and crossed the street, where a sign posted outside a gift shop on the corner made the intriguing proposition of coffee, the air threatened rain. A single cloud overhead was so dark that I was surprised it had held onto its water for so long, but it made for dramatic contrast in pictures. Then it rained.

Down the way a bit was a ticket office, but there is another, less crowded one at the first of two windmills that visitors can enter. I continued down a long, paved road bisecting a river, from which already one can see all of the windmills of Kinderdijk and over which I crossed a bridge to the first windmill, where I paid the entrance fee and went inside. The interior was a sort of museum intended to model family life inside a windmill; I’m not sure it was worth the entrance fee, but all proceeds go towards upkeep of the windmills, and climbing the slender steps like those to a loft and looking up through the last level to the wheels that made the whirligigs spin was fun. The second windmill is a bit farther on and much smaller, with only a kitchen and bedroom.

More agreeable was the walk along the path. The whole area looked like a marsh—a part of the Low Countries, truly! It was cold and windy, but by this point the sun was trying its hardest to break through the clouds, making the light soft and illuminating, and all along the river were tall grasses and lily pads. At a bend in the river, a wooden platform just wide enough for two people extended into the water as if put there for people to dock rowboats or, as it’s used now, for taking pictures. The walk continues along to the left for a long time. A few picnic tables border the water, but beware of the ducks. One dog-duck begged me for some of my green grapes and was so demanding that it bit my jeans.

Deciding that food could wait, I followed the path to the end, where a wide bridge crosses to the other side of the river and rows of swards fill the landscape in every direction. Rows of water no more than a meter wide separated me from wild animals, so I could look closely without having to worry about getting too close: four white cows with patches in caramel, munching (the word is an onomatopoeia) on grass; white goats and black goats; a single swan, sitting silently, watchfully, I think possibly aggressively. All of this where just on the other side of the grassy plots were people’s homes, clothes strung along lines outside.

I’m not opposed to all ducks, though. To go back to the ferry, I took a dirt path paralleling the paved one and in that first section of river, by the first bridge, saw four adult ducks, one on each corner of a square, shepherding many more fuzzy ducklings, so ugly but so adorable, across the middle of the river towards the banks! The windmills were classic and worth the trip, but the ducklings were undoubtedly the cutest part of Kinderdijk.


Of all of the places I’ve visited, perhaps the one most difficult for me to describe is Berlin. It has an unthinkable history, most notably the horrors that took place during World War II (i.e. the murders committed by the Nazi regime) and the Cold War (i.e. the construction and reinforcement of the Berlin Wall), and so has a striking coldness to it of which I doubt it will ever rid itself. Like many large cities, however, Berlin attracts a diversity of people who, in contrast to the city’s gray past, give it color, made bright by political expression and creativity. From somber memorials to classical architecture and industrial marketplaces to chic nightclubs, Berlin is a city brimming with vibrance that makes it as socially acceptable to dress all in black (and in other, more decidedly weird ensembles) as to graffiti art onto the walls. It is a city that draws energy from its past to define its future. The following are the highlights of my stay.


Brandenburg Gate
I wanted to see the sunlight shining behind and filtering through the columns, so I arrived in the late afternoon. An information board stated that the gate was modeled on the Propylea of the Acropolis; that the chariot at the top is steered by Victoria, goddess of Victory; that it became a symbol of national unity and freedom in 1806, when Napoleon marched through it; that it was in fact one of 14 original gates and that all but one of the four horses were destroyed during World War II and had to be rebuilt; and that from 1961 to 1989, it was closed off, only to reopen a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Reichstag Dome
If, like me and many other tourists, you haven’t had the foresight to make reservations to visit the dome far enough in advance, you can queue outside the Visitor Information Center across the street to make reservations for dome visits taking place within the next two days. I visited the dome my final morning in Berlin. It wasn’t one of my favorite activities, but it was worth doing.

In this beautiful square are located the Französischer Dom, or French Dome; across from it, the Deutscher Dom, or German Dome; and the Konzerthaus, or concert hall. Construction of the two domes was begun in 1701 (the French one was completed in 1705, the German in 1708), and side by side they look like twins. The Französischer Dom was built with the Deutscher Dom at the order of Frederic II for decorative purposes. It’s not itself a church but was given to the French Church in Berlin, founded in 1672 by religious refugees. The Deutscher Dom houses a small German government museum, but all of the information is in German.

When I visited, a musician played down the way from the Französischer Dom and next to an outdoor café, giving a sense of liveliness to the air. On the far side was a beautiful walkway resembling an orchard, with leafy trees at intervals and benches in the shade they cast. In the middle of the square was a white statue that contrasted with the red carpet leading up the steps of the Konzerthaus.

Berliner Dom
I first saw the Berliner Dom, or Berlin Cathedral, from the S-Bahn at dusk and, allured by its prettiness, abandoned my plans to go closer. I saw it from the side, across from the bridge that crosses to Museum Island. Its green roof sparkled through leaves, and it seemed perfectly proportioned, one miniature dome on each corner. When I walked around to the front—over the bridge, through a tree-lined path, and past the Neues Museum—I also thought the Altes Museum very pretty. From the steps of the Berliner Dom, which offer a serene view of the park Lustgarten, it’s to the right and extends the length of the park, which is long. Behind trees at the back of the park, I could see a long pink building, and centered in front of the cathedral was a fountain made of stone resembling slate. Up the steps were two blue and metallic gold mosaics, one a tree with a flower at the top.


Berlin Wall Memorial
The history that has taken place in Berlin is truly awful. I think this is from where Berlin drives its austerity, but with the Berlin Wall Memorial, a comprehensive structure, it clearly makes a conscious effort to remember some of that history.

In the Documentation Center are informational boards with blown-up black-and-white photos and years on one side, and narrative, stories, and sometimes, artifacts, on the other. A map showed where the wall intersected 300 streets across the city, and a bar graph indicated the number of people leaving the GDR every year between and including 1951 and 1961. I learned a lot. For example, at a press conference held on June 15, 1961, only two months before the wall was built, GDR leader Walter Ulbricht explicitly said, “No one has any intention of building a wall.” In mid-August, massive protests were held against the construction of the wall, to which the U.S. sent 1,500 soldiers.

Once the wall went up, people struggled to maintain connections from one side of the wall to the other, and many escaped over the wall or died trying. Who made it and who didn’t was somewhat arbitrary: a 17-year-old girl succeeded, but an 18-year-old boy failed. His body was left at the wall for 50 minutes before it was carried away. A cyclist named Harry Seidel was barred from participating in the Olympics but got his wife and baby and 100 other people over the wall. The wall was 12 feet high, there was a patrol, and border soldiers made changes to border fortifications without cease until the wall fell because they could never stop everyone from escaping.

In Area A of the memorial, The Wall and the Death Strip, is a cross for the Sophien Parish and the work it did to build a new cemetery for the graves over which the wall was built, and the Window of Remembrance, a board covered in pictures behind glass of people who died trying to escape over the wall.

In Area B, The Destruction of the City, anecdotes about families torn apart by the wall are written in front of excavated basements of border houses on Bernauer Straße. When these houses were still standing, people escaped over the wall by jumping out of the windows.

Areas C and D, Building the Wall and Everyday Life at the Wall, contain informative exhibition stations, as do Areas A and B.

Checkpoint Charlie
At the Checkpoint Memorial is a U.S. Army Checkpoint and photos in the air of a Soviet soldier and a U.S. soldier (though I only saw the U.S. one because the Soviet one is on the other side, and I didn’t know this).

East Side Gallery
I wasn’t going to go to the East Side Gallery, because I’m usually not into street art, but enough people I knew had gone that I decided I ought to. It’s very Berlin. Most of the 1316-m-long wall—and this is the original Berlin Wall—has a fence around it because the murals that have been spray-painted onto it are art. One, a tribute to GDR refugees, said “Curriculum Vitae” and listed all of the years for which the wall stood, accented by tiny pink flowers. Another had a red star and American flag. Two doves carried Brandenburg Tor, each holding a string in its beak. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and East German president Erich Honecker kissed, and they kissed again in varying colors above a Checkpoint Charlie caricature.

Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism
Walking through the trees behind Brandenburg Gate towards the garden (which is lovely, particularly the walk alongside the memorial coming from Potsdamer Platz), I ran into what I thought was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe but was actually the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism, a pool of water reflecting the sky, through frosted glass on which was a chronological history of the genocide.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is 2,700 stelae of varying heights, arranged in rows. Walking through the rows was unsettling. The light so far away at the other end, they seemed endless. I saw stairs but didn’t realize that they led to the Information Center. It would seem obvious that of course, like the Berlin Wall Memorial, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe would have an information center, but I wasn’t focused. I regret not descending the stairs to the Rooms of Names, Families, Sites, Dimensions.


April First
This pretty little boutique sells candles, sweaters in soft pink, and tops and dresses in sweet but unconventional silhouettes.

Bikini Berlin
This concept shopping mall in the City West district, the largest shopping district in Berlin, is made unique by its wooden “pop-up boxes,” like oversized kiosks, and origami art to which shoppers can add that looks like a garden, though shapes also hang from the ceiling.


Markthalle Neun
Every Thursday night from five to ten, this indoor market hall is packed with people come to enjoy the drinks and international food of Street Food Thursday. The complex has an industrial vibe, with strings of lights, tucked-away tables, and a wooden staircase to nowhere for diners to sit on. From a “natural wine” stand near the front I took a glass of Tardana Orange, a Spanish wine, after tasting a French wine to which I was initially drawn for its transparent purple color but that tasted like flowers. Unfortunately, by the time I arrived, a Japanese bakery and a Vietnamese dumpling stand were both nearly out, so the only food I tried was a vegetarian hummus burrito, but that was yummy.

Distrikt Coffee
This warm coffee and brunch hotspot with wooden tables and copper accents makes an iced flat white, which I’d never seen on a menu, served in a trendy mini mason jar. I didn’t order food, but the plates I saw on other sides of the table at which I sat—the tables are communal—looked delicious.

Hallesches Haus
Bouquets of fresh flowers sit atop every table, and the coffee shop makes scrumptious French toast with whipped cream, strawberries, and pistachios.

Kauf Dich Glücklich
This quirky little café and ice cream parlor was recommended to me by a friend who is from Berlin. As it turns out, it’s a chain, and many of its stores also function as clothing boutiques. This one doesn’t, but the lettering of the sign is the same: individual letters in squares, looking like they’ve been cut out of magazines. I was told that the waffles are excellent, but from across the room, I saw someone with something that looked delicious and so ordered that. The menus were all in German, so I wish I had taken a picture of one so I would remember what I ordered was called, but it was essentially a breakfast parfait with a thick vanilla-yogurt-like ingredient (quark?), strawberry sauce, muesli, and fruit—still dessert, but lighter than a waffle.

Zeit für Brot
The name of this bakery translates to “Time for Bread,” and its cinnamon rolls are fluffy and perfect, the best I’ve had. The whole place smells of cinnamon!

Rose Garden
This airy café is popular for breakfast and lunch. It has a small coffee bar and drinks refrigerator full of coconut waters and fizzy drinks, and it offers many healthy menu options (I recommend the matcha latté and avocado hummus, not together). Its design is intelligent, too: the room nearest the windows is made to look larger than it is by mirrors on the far wall, lights hanging from the ceiling lend the café a romantic feel at night, a high table on the other side is perfect for writing, if you’re into that sort of thing, and another room is hidden in the back.

Si An
I’d read that many Vietnamese people live in Berlin and so there are a lot of Vietnamese restaurants. For dinner my last night in Berlin, I went to a highly rated one called Si An. It was easily the most beautiful restaurant, Vietnamese or otherwise, I’ve ever been to. Lanterns hanging outside made the restaurant visible from the end of the block; up close, they were finely textured like threads crisscrossing on a spool, in varying natural colors. The name of the restaurant was carved in calligraphy onto a stone tablet mounted on the wall. Inside, eggplant-colored fabric cranes hung from the ceiling, and the biggest pink lilies and pale yellow peonies that looked as though they would smell of good dreams tumbled over the sides of a clay vase set into the corner. Tealight candles and small yellow and lavender flowers floated in pots of water along the walls. The air was warm with incense. I ordered the Pho Bo and café noir—Vietnamese coffee dripped through a French-press-like filter onto condensed milk.


House of Weekend
I was poised to floss, the string wrapped around my fingers, when the American who was sleeping on the bunk below mine and her two friends invited me to come to House of Weekend with them and some other Americans. It was a Thursday and my first night in Berlin, and though I desperately needed sleep, having slept only four hours the past two nights, I had read about this place and saw this as my opportunity to go—for a solo female traveler, opportunities to go out are few and far between. So I went, and though the small nightclub, to my disappointment, played American songs the entire night instead of the techno and deep house for which it’s known, it had two floors, paper lanterns for décor, and a rooftop garden, from which I was able to look out at Berlin in the cool night air.

GRACE Berlin
This is by far the classiest bar to which I’ve been. I went with my German friend and her boyfriend, and we had to walk around to the back of the hotel of which it’s a part and ring to go in! Past the coat check and down the hall was a royal purple velvet couch that wrapped around the wall and tables and cushions perfect for two. The drinks, especially one made with lavender flowers and champagne, cost a small fortune, so I found happiness sipping on a virgin elderflower tonic and trying to figure out what other people had ordered. At first the music was relaxing, but not long after we arrived, it changed to club music, and on our way out, we saw that a DJ was actually playing! Particularly telling, I think, was the fact that the hand towels in the bathroom were washcloths.

A Very Near (But Not Quite) Disaster

In all of my travels these past eight months, I made one travel mistake. I suppose if I’d gone the whole time without making any mistakes, that wouldn’t have been fair. When I finally messed up, though, it was bad, probably the universe’s way of making up for all of the times things did go according to plan.

I’d intended to take a day trip from Vienna to Hallstatt, a fairy tale lakeside town in northwest Austria, and I did, but whereas I was supposed to have spent seven and half hours on trains round-trip, I spent twelve and a half hours and an additional one hundred euros. I was sleep-deprived, having worked into the wee hours the past two nights, and that plus the facts that I’d bought my tickets far in advance and that they were in German led me to forget that I had a connection to make, even though I’d researched endlessly how to get to Hallstatt and knew there was no direct way there. I simply wasn’t thinking. Actually, I was thinking about sleeping on a train for three hours.

Anyways, I didn’t realize I’d missed my connection until it was what would have been almost time for me to get off the train, at which point there were still another 50 minutes before we would arrive at the next stop. I would go two hours in the wrong direction and was in Germany. I’d spent the whole day on this trip, though, a day I could have otherwise spent in Vienna! I had to go to Hallstatt, and so a sort of customer service conductor, mildly annoyed by my exasperation but also bored enough with her job to help me, looked up train times that I proceeded to write down: there was one trip itinerary left that could still get me to Hallstatt and back to Vienna that day (I had a flight out of Vienna the next morning, so it was imperative that I return before then).

As one might imagine, I saw a lot of the countryside. St. Valentin, a small town outside of Salzburg, was cute. Prettier, though, was the final part of the route, the part after I made the connection I was supposed to have made in the first place. At first I looked out the window to see tiny white flowers in the grass and white-flowering trees; then we came upon a lake, larger than Lake Hallstatt and around which various small towns were perched. This lake was dark gray and blue at once, reflective of the mountains but phosphorescent, too. I believe only the lakes in Germany and Austria look like this.

A bit farther on was the town of Ebensee, which actually appears on a map in a larger-than-microscopic size but is the most village-like small town I’ve seen. As our train passed, a woman on the sidewalk below paused to let us go by. The path on which she walked wandered all through the town, which was composed of pastel and lime-green houses, houses paneled in light and dark wood, magnolia trees, and more white-flowering trees. I tried to imagine what it would be like to grow up in a town as tiny as Ebensee, peaceful yet so removed from the rest of the world.

We followed a river tinted green past cyclists and colts in the grass. By the time we had reached Hallstatt Station, the light glowed that misty glow that arrives only with the early morning or early evening, when the sun is preparing either to hoist itself into the sky or to demount, having finished its routine. Across the river, the town of Hallstatt was in shadow, but I could see the iconic steeple of the church and a yellow house on the far right, marking the edge of the town. Light shone through a space between two mountains and onto the water in an inverted fan, white on black water.

Getting to Hallstatt from the train station requires taking a ferry across the lake. It’s a short ferry ride, and I thought it a pretty little introduction to the town. I had one hour in Hallstatt before I had to catch the first of my return trains. Searching for the highest point in town, from which I thought a photo I’d seen had been taken, I passed the town square, ringed in restaurants; a museum; a small crêpe cart and an ice cream shop; and postcard and jewelry shops. I found the spot, but it was the wrong time of day and the wrong time of year to take a photo there of my own.

Instead, I took one from a viewpoint at the far side of the town, close to the yellow house, where one can look across Hallstatt at its houses, cream and red and dark wood, and churches, contouring their figures to the curve of the lake.

One Day in Vienna

Of all of the places I’ve gone, Vienna is the only one with which I fell in love at first sight—not Paris, though for Paris I’ve a fondness one might have for a second home, and not London, the vibrancy of which I liked from the start.

Vienna glitters. It glitters in gold and shines in sea green, a simulacrum of newness. The buildings are beautiful, all smooth stones and green domes; everywhere I turned was another of which to take a picture, pale sage, cream, taupe, or poolwater blue and ornamented with stately decorations over the windows or, as in the case of those more simplistic in style, little flowers between the stories.

I spent one day in Vienna, and Belvedere Palace was my first destination. It, too, glittered. From behind the windows in the back of the palace, opaline and tinted bluish lavender, shone dots of light, no doubt from chandeliers. In front of the palace, a tree-lined walk led to a black gate topped with a golden crown guarded by lions. Just beyond the gate was a bed of pink and dark purple flowers ringed in dark pink and more dark purple flowers, the same flowers that bordered a broad, flat pool, aquamarine with tiny wavelets brushed onto its surface. To the left, outside the palace grounds, stood stately buildings in all shades of off-white and cream that flirted with the yellows of summer sunflowers and dandelions the size of a five Swiss franc coin. From the top of the palace flew the Austrian flag; the entrance doors, in back, matched the gate.

The entrance of the Upper Belvedere led to the Sala Terrena, an all-white room of statues for columns supporting a ceiling, into each section of which were carved mythological scenes. Up the Grand Staircase was the Marble Hall, but it’s the staircase that was the most wonderful part of the palace. It split in two and wrapped around on either side to become one again at the uppermost landing, where lampposts on either side matched a lamp hanging from the ceiling as well as the windows, which were lined in black. The lampposts were statues, and like the ceiling in the Sala Terrena, the walls depicted scenes in carvings. Everything else was white, including the light streaming through the windows, except for the benches under the windows, which were red velvet.

Belvedere Palace is a museum. In the Marble Hall was both a fresco on the ceiling and contemporary art on the walls: Fredrikson Stallard’s Hurricane. It comprised two gold aluminum sheets twisted to look like elegant wrapping paper. In addition to this room were rooms dedicated to Baroque and early nineteenth century art, Gustav Klimt, Realism and Impressionism, and Neoclassicism.

From the Baroque and early nineteenth century rooms, I most liked Triumph of Aurora by Franz Anton Maulbertson, a small circular painting in tints I don’t know that artists can make anymore. They were pastel but of a faded quality, and I don’t think from age. Aurora, in Roman mythology, is the goddess of the dawn, so maybe Maulbertson meant the painting to look like newborn light. In any case, it looks as though on Earth there are angels’ wings, billowing fabrics, a chariot the color of new leaves, and a tree, and in Heaven two figures impossible to make out through the mist. I appreciated also some of the Josef Ignaz Mildorfer and Josef Rebell, both artists from Vienna.

After walking through the palace gardens, I walked into the city past the Heroes’ Monument of the Red Army and a large fountain to St. Stephen’s Cathedral via Kärntner Ring, a stately boulevard lined in gorgeous spring green trees. I was to find the same trees in Museumsquartier, where in Maria-Theresien-Platz, between the Kunsthistoriches and Naturhistoriches museums, stood a statue of a woman with horses all around her. Under the trees and along the walk towards the Austrian Parliament and a structure I thought resembled a castle from afar (it’s actually Rathaus, the city hall) were stationed horses and carts; I was taken with two white horses, one of which kept nuzzling the other.

Vienna’s Baroque and Classical music history were reborn in Augustinerkirche, a church near Hofburg Palace (which is the quintessence of imperial Vienna and in front of which also gather many horses and carts), where the organ in the back played to fill the room. The church really was small, far smaller than I’d imagined it, but it was beautiful. Gold and crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, which was quite tall, for the length of the nave. To the right of the church almost immediately upon walking through the doors was an Antonio Canova cenotaph erected for Archduchess Maria Christina Augustinerkirche, daughter of Maria Theresa of Austria and Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor (Canova is the artist who crafted Psyche ranimée par l’Amour, my favorite work of art in the Louvre), a pyramid through which walked several people and upon which laid a lion and an angel. I sat in the pews and stayed a while, listening to the music in turns violent and gentle.

More music history was to be found in Burggarten, where there was a statue of Mozart behind a treble clef made of flowers. On the sides of the statue frolicked baby angels; on the front were opera masks and instruments and a keyboard set into the stone; on the back was a scene of Mozart at the piano, his father accompanying him on the violin and his sister looking on. There was a wait at Palmenhaus, a greenhouse café on the edge of the gardens decorated on the interior with palms, vines, hanging plants, and ferns, some flowering, most not, but it made for a good photo anyway.

I walked to Naschmarkt, Vienna’s most famous market and an extensive one, with both boutique restaurants and local vendors of fresh produce, and past the Secession building, an example of Art Nouveau architecture, with its orb of gold leaves sitting atop it and what look like doodles of owls and flower petals on the sides.

Then, tired from having walked all day, I sat outdoors in the sun at Café Mozart, which wasn’t far away and was only around the corner from the Staatsoper, the Vienna State Opera. I was to have there the perfect Vienna experience, made so by the violinist who played across the street as I sipped an elderflower spritz (spritzes are popular in Vienna—I even passed a “sparkling bar”!) followed by a Haferlkaffee (coffee with lots of foamed milk), which I paired with a sachertorte (a dense two-layered chocolate cake with an almost invisible layer of apricot jam in between). Thoroughly relaxed, I queued for a four-euro standing-room ticket to the opera that night, which was horrible. It did allow me to see the inside of the opera house, though, all red, gold, and crystal, the crown jewel of a city that respires music and romance.

The Bluebell Forest in Belgium

Just a hop and a skip from Brussels is a fairy tale forest called Hallerbos. This forest is known for its floor that every spring is carpeted in purple, blooming with bluebells.

Though this past winter’s cold wave in Europe had me worried that the bluebells wouldn’t be flowering as vivaciously as they normally do this year, a half-hour train ride and shorter bus ride took me to a forest so pretty in purple that I think my lower jaw was dropped open a little bit for a long time.

The map of walking trails I found confusing, and after trying to track where I was after the first three turns, I stopped trying and started going whatever which way looked prettiest. That may not have been the brightest idea, as I got lost. I figured I’d turn around a bit earlier than it would take me to walk back if I knew where I was going and simply walk the other direction, but I ended up at a different entrance than the one I came in, and I half-ran past people’s homes and grassy fields, at one point running into an elderly French couple and their two golden retrievers who were as lost as I was, to find my way back, only to watch the bus back into town drive past just as I was exiting the forest and wait an hour for the next one.

The trip was so worth it, though. The bluebells were tiny, really, so small I had to look closely to see them, hanging in threes from their stems, and not the blanket that together they formed. Among them grew innocent white and sometimes light purple flowers called wood anemones.

Some of the trees were covered in leaves an iridescent green, the kind of green one might expect to find in a fantasy world, not in this one, and formed a canopy above the floral undergrowth. A path of dirt so soft that one padded over it wound through secret spots like thickets and from time to time turned out onto woods: tall trees, trunks bare, straight lines drawn right up into the sky, between them blossoming blue-violet, in every direction.