What did you do in 2020?

Many years from now, I imagine my children asking me: “What did you do in 2020?” as they scramble to study for a history exam for what seems like the strangest year in memory.

This year has felt like a blur, not least because working from home makes every day the same. I decided to write out some highlights of what I actually did in 2020 if only to prove to myself that I did in fact do things.

Work

It’s sobering to consider that this wasn’t a given for many people. I’m thankful for a job that allows me to work remotely. My work days lost a commute and gained a number of virtual meetings. I definitely miss being able to interact with coworkers in person, so this year I organized some activities to try and bring us together:

  • Virtual Photo Scavenger Hunt – Early in the pandemic, I posted prompts in our team group chat to get folks to share photos of things in their lives, like the view from their window, 10 yellow things, something they did over the weekend, etc. It was something to look forward to every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday in place of the casual conversations around the office we lost when we moved to WFH, and a bit of routine to bring stability to those chaotic early days when it seemed like everything was changing constantly.
  • Walk-Off Competition – Each October, our office hosts a “Walktober” competition to see who can walk the most steps during the month, so I organized a competition between the two halves of our team. It was fun to see who our top walkers ended up being, and at least for me it was great motivation to get out of the house and move throughout the day.

Connect with Friends

While the weather was good, I went for (masked and socially-distant) hikes in the Fells, walks in local parks, played games of Among Us or Portal 2 or Stardew Valley over Discord, and chatted through phone calls and group chats. Playing D&D with friends from college was definitely a highlight, as was going camping in New Hampshire. This year also marked the end of my first long-term relationship, which made me extra grateful for my friends’ support.

Old & New Hobbies

  • Knitting – I decided to try knitting again, and made my first ever hat and mittens.
  • Weaving – I made some circular weavings inspired by an Instagram artist I follow.
  • Gardening – My roommate, Sam, and I both grew some vegetables on our porch this summer. I planted some tomatoes, peas, peppers, and strawberries
  • Biking – To avoid public transport, and since I don’t have a car, I started biking more places and rediscovered how much I enjoy cycling!
  • Hiking – As I started biking more, I explored some new places to hike (anywhere reachable by bike) as a way to safely get out of the house. Thank goodness for nature.
  • I also took some beginner lessons in ukulele, though I’m not sure how well they’ll stick.

Started Therapy

This one kind of speaks for itself. I’m learning how to better take care of myself so that I can be more confident and effective at work and with friends, and unpacking bad habits and coping mechanisms that are no longer serving me. The progress can feel slow, but it’s there.

Volunteer

PPE Gowns with Artisan’s Asylum

Just before the pandemic, I’d started going to the free Fiber Arts Work Nights at Artisan’s Asylum. These ground to a halt with the start of the pandemic, but the Fiber Arts workspace transformed into a volunteer-run production operation making hospital gowns as PPE for COVID-19 responders. From April to October, I went in ~2x a week to help cut, fold, and package gowns to be shipped across the country.

When the pandemic first started, I remember feeling powerless and overwhelmed. Things were changing quickly, there wasn’t clear information about how to stay safe or what people could do to help other than staying home and staying socially distant. Volunteering helped me feel like I was contributing in some small way to support healthcare workers on the front lines. Getting to interact with other volunteers was a ray of light among the dread and I‚Äôm so thankful for the people I got to know. ūüíú

Papercut Zine Library

Before the pandemic, I’d been volunteering with the Papercut Zine Library (PZL), a free volunteer-run zine library, as the catalog director. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the library closed for in-person browsing, so we shifted to online activities where we could:

Other

Watch/Read Media

YouTube

I was definitely drawn to feel-good, low stress channels this year (and no wonder). My coworker, Naji, introduced me to the SteadyCraftin channel, which is an awesome overview for making all kind of craft projects. Jun and Rachel’s channels are a staple for comfort watching for me, and I may have watched years back into their content… I also got back into doing Yoga With Adriene since going to the yoga studio was no longer an option (in fact that yoga studio closed for good during COVID-19, which is a real shame).

15+ TV Shows

This year I got a TV as a birthday gift, which came in very handy during quarantine. My roommate introduced me to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which I’d heard of but not seen before) and we watched the first three seasons this year! In turn I introduced her to Avatar the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra (the latter of which I hadn’t seen before either).

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The Witcher
Legend of Korra on Netflix
Dungeons and Dragons Cartoon
The Midnight Gospel on Netflix
Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts
Tiger King
The Great British Baking Show
Alone
Midnight Diner on Netflix
Kim's Convenience
The Big Flower Fight
Survivor Cagayan

10+ Movies

I’m not as big on movies as some folks, but I watched a decent number this year. Some highlights:

Enola Holmes
The Big Lebowski
Hocus Pocus
My Octopus Teacher on Netflix
The Silence of the Lambs
Coneheads
13th Film
The Social Dilemma
Stalker (1979 film)

6+ Podcasts

Throughout gown volunteering, I listened to a lot of Darknet Diaries. In late summer I binged all of The Magnus Archives and a good portion of Stellar Firma. I started Sawbones and The Daily in December, and picked up the Critical Role Podcast (Campaign 1) for the first time in many months.

The Magnus Archives
Stellar Firma
Darknet Diaries
Sawbones: A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine
Critical Role Podcast (Campaign 1)
The Daily Podcast from the New York Times

9 Video Games

Looking back I played more games than I thought! I got a huge number of games from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality on itch.io, so I’ll be working my way through those for a while.

I recently started Mutazione and I’m really enjoying the slow storytelling. On the other side of the spectrum, my roommate, Sam, and I have started playing Don’t Starve Together, a game I previously avoided because I kept dying very quickly ‚Äď but Sam assured me that this is the point of the game and now we’ve almost made it to winter!

Mutazione
Untitled Goose Game
Stardew Valley
Don't Starve Together
Gris

Botanicula

10 Books

I didn’t quite meet my goal of 20 books read this year, but almost a book a month isn’t too shabby either.

Expectations Are the Thieves of Joy by Luke Winter
Stories for Strangers Vol. 3 by Luke Winter
A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor by Hank Green
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Night Watch by Terry Pratchett
The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
Girl Decoded by Rana el Kaliouby
White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

Webcomics

I love webcomics. I have a list of them bookmarked in my browser and in the Tapas and Webtoons apps, that I check weekly (or as they update). I’m forever amazed at the artists and writers who are able to create these beautiful stories, and they bring me a lot of joy. Here’s a subset of my favorites:

Gunnerkrigg Court
Never Satisfied webcomic

Fruit Stickers

I just started a project where I paint fruit stickers at 4x actual size in gouache. I find the tiny format and personality in each sticker really endearing, and wanted to show my appreciation for this tiny artform by recreating the designs by hand.

Turns out I’m not the only fan ‚Äď there are entire archives¬†like The World of Fruit Labels¬†made by some very diligent enthusiasts. After a bit of digging, I found these other cool folks making art with fruit stickers.

Kelly Angood

Kelly Angood collects fruit stickers and showcases them on her Instagram. She talks about the reach her interest has had in a blog post, in particular how several fashion brands have been inspired by (or blatantly imitated) her collection.

Seeing so many stickers in one place makes me really appreciate the thought and time that went into the design of each one.

A number of colorful fruit stickers on a plain background.
Image from Angood’s blog post

Barry Snyder

Barry Snyder creates painstakingly-collaged produce art. I thought it was interesting that his full time job is working with roofing shingles; I wonder if the skills help in his art. Something about his collages is really charming, especially this still life:

A still-life of a bowl of fruit and a bottle on a table, collaged out of fruit stickers.
Nick’s Arm

Stickers aren’t like tube paints, where you can buy another packet and squeeze the color on. I have to look through hundreds and hundreds of stickers and peel off the ones I want with a knife.

It’s stupid, but I do it anyhow. Everyone’s got a curse and this one’s got me.

Barry Snyder

I feel where he’s coming from. Fruit stickers feel like a silly interest to focus on, and yet there’s something oddly compelling about them…

A collage made from fruit stickers depicting an elongated butterfly.
Myron Butterfly
A collage made from fruit stickers depicting two high-heeled cowboy boots on a solid background.
Dos Boots

Joan Davidson

Joan Davidson creates fruit sticker mosaics, recycling the stickers in part out of a desire to reduce waste. I’m most impressed by her repetition of specific designs ‚Ästit really drives home the volume of stickers that gets released into our trash stream.

A circular, mandala-like collage made from fruit stickers that resembles a church window.
Rose Window
A photograph of a three-dimensional six-petaled flower made from fruit stickers, which is part of a larger fruit sticker collage.
An Apple A Day

Essentialism

Book Review: Essentialism by Greg McKeown
My Rating: ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÜ‚ėÜ‚ėÜ

To be honest, I was disappointed in this book. McKeown presents some good points, but you really have to hunt for them between the fluff and “essentialism” marketing hype. It felt like the key points of this book could have been more succinctly summarized in a long-form journal article; as it was, it seemed like the same idea was rephrased six different ways in each paragraph, making it feel a bit like the author was talking down to his readers. It’s a shame, since it seems like McKeown has lots of interesting anecdotes from his consulting experience, and I wish there had been more of a focus on that.

My other main gripe was that a lot of the advice seemed inapplicable to the everyday reader. In part this was my fault for misunderstanding the target audience for this book ‚ÄĒ I picked it up in what seemed to be the “self-improvement” section of the library, not realizing that Essentialism is primarily written for business leaders and managers. McKeown assumes that his audience has the luxury of being able to do things like take time off from work to sort out their priorities and make meaningful decisions in what they invest their time on. While it’s true that anyone has a choice in what they focus on, those choices are also constrained by circumstance ‚ÄĒ you’re not going to be able to (as easily) choose to pursue your creative passions if you have to take care of an ailing family member or support your kid through college. It would have been nice to at least see an acknowledgement of these kinds of differing circumstances.


TLDR;

If you’re in a leadership position and want a book that promises a way to have it all while simultaneously chiding you about the impossibility of having it all, read Essentialism. Otherwise, I’d say give it a pass.

Digital Minimalism

Book Review: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
My Rating: ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ

An equally accurate title for this book would be Digital Mindfulness. That seemed to be Newport’s main advice for readers: to pay closer attention to what technology we allow into our lives and how we use it. Maybe I’m biased because this is a topic I think about a lot, but I really liked this book. Newport showcases research that shows the ways technology companies have engineered their products to be attention-sucking, and offers a compelling argument for why we should closely consider the effects that technology has on us.

Unlike some other digital self-help books, Newport also offers concrete and feasible suggestions on how to “practice” digital minimalism, such as:

  • Taking long walks
  • Leaving your phone at home when running familiar errands
  • Journaling, or as Newport calls it, “writ[ing] letters to yourself”
  • Fixing or building something every week

Newport also recommends that readers take a 30-day break from using all non-essential technology (that is, anything you don’t need in order to do your job or communicate with the people you need to be in contact with day-to-day), and then slowly re-introduce technologies into their life as needed. This is based on an experiment he ran with 1,600 volunteers from his email newsletter subscribers. I didn’t opt to do this exercise since I was in the middle of a busy senior semester of college, but I did take his advice to implement some rules for how I use technology.

Putting technology on a leash

Newport suggests applying three criteria to each technology we use:

  1. It must serve something you deeply value.
  2. It must be the best way to use technology to serve this value.
  3. Have rules for when and how you will use it.

I found the third rule the easiest to implement. I like to spend a lot of time browsing Tumblr, to boost my mood and get inspiration for art. However, this habit can get out of hand if I start browsing blogs instead of doing work. After reading Digital Minimalism, I decided to set a rule that I would only use Tumblr on my phone, and logged out of the website on my laptop. During the first few weeks, I often caught myself mindlessly switching tabs to Tumblr while working, but since I was logged out of the site I didn’t get sucked in the way I would have in the past. It was a little unnerving to notice how often I used to let myself get distracted during a particular work session. I now feel a lot more focused when I’m at my computer, and have less of a tendency to procrastinate.

Get your hands dirty

The other part of this book that really resonated with me was the chapter titled “Reclaim Leisure,” which talks about the importance of having non-digital ‚ÄĒ and more importantly ‚ÄĒ hands-on hobbies.

Ever since I changed my major to computer science, I’ve almost certainly spent more time behind a screen than away from it. I try to make time for hobbies like art (especially non-digital art like watercolor painting) or reading, but it can be tricky to tear myself away. Luckily, this semester I took a 3D Fundamentals course where I got to learn more about how to use power tools and a laser cutter.

At first, it was a frustrating process. It turns out that wood is much less forgiving than paper, and designing in three dimensions required me to flex mental muscles I’d rarely ever used before. Despite this, there was something immensely satisfying about having to slow down and be methodical and precise when measuring wood, cutting it, sanding it down slowly, and waiting for the glue to dry. I found it almost meditative ‚ÄĒ I could let my hands just do their job while my mind went blank.

Newport argues that becoming “handy” in this way is one way to unlock a variety of satisfying high-quality leisure activities, which just means activities that give you a sense of inward satisfaction when you complete them. Watching TV would be a low-quality leisure activity, for example, while knitting a scarf or going hiking would count as high-quality.


Book cover for Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, showing the title and tagline "Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World" in a white circle surrounded by a yellow striped pattern.

TLDR;

I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in a new perspective on the role technology plays in their life, whether they are making an effort to live more intentionally or just curious!

Mindset for the New Year

Happy New Year, everyone! This time of year is always self-reflective, and I’ve been rereading some old favorites as a way to reset my mindset for 2018. Among these:

  • Show Your Work¬†by Austin Kleon
    I really admire Kleon’s writing (particularly his blog posts, which are a breath of fresh air whenever I’m in a creative funk), and this book offers solid advice on how to stop overthinking and get back into making art and sharing it.
  • Mindfulness¬†by Ellen Langer
    Langer’s research is insightful and in-depth, and I definitely recommend reading this book for yourself. What resonated with me most on this reread was the recurring theme of focusing on process over product, including being aware of the decisions you make along the way. What an elegant way to shut down FOMO.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance
    There’s a lot to take away from this essay, but I keep coming back to, “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.” It’s a good reminder that there is value in trusting your intuition and letting yourself pursue what matters to you, without worrying about what others may think.
  • Some Rules for Students and Teachers by Sister Corita Kent, inspired and popularized by John Cage
    My high school IB art program first introduced me to this list, and each point still rings true today. Right now I’m most drawn to rules four and nine: “Consider everything an experiment” and “Be happy whenever you can manage it.” Good reminders not to take life too seriously.

It’s harder to maintain this kind of exploratory, unapologetic mindset once the holidays are over and the daily demands of work and life set in, but I think it can be done. Here’s to creative confidence and enjoying the process in 2018!

Gallery

Glimpses of Russia

This summer I got the chance to visit my grandparents in Russia. My last trip there was a whole three years ago, and it was strange to see that everything is¬†exactly as I remember it, even while I (as a person) have changed so much in the time that’s passed.

Russia is hard to describe. The people smile little, partly because that is the culture, but mostly because their lives are hard. The land, on the other hand, is expansive and open: endless rolling fields smattered with forests. Small villages dot the highway at intervals, but are increasingly empty as people scatter to cities to find different work than the back-breaking agricultural labor their forefathers carried out. The trolleybuses in the cities are full of these grim-faced crowds that work, and drink, and find love, and survive.

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Gallery

Travel Sketchbook Snapshots

While studying abroad I kept an almost daily journal / sketchbook.
Here are some of my drawings.

Reflecting on Lyon

Last Sunday marks exactly¬†one¬†month since I came back from studying abroad in Lyon. I saw Katherine’s lovely reflection a while back and thought I should write one as well.

It was a transformative trip. Though at times it was tough to balance schoolwork with traveling and exploring¬†Lyon, by the end I managed to¬†figure things¬†out¬†and¬†enjoy my time there. When signing up for this program, I was worried that six weeks would be too short a time to get to know a whole new city. I still don’t know Lyon as well as a local, but I have a slightly better understanding of the city and the mindset of the people who live there. Honestly, I’ve come to think of Lyon as another home.

I was¬†lucky to find a group of friends with whom I could explore Vieux Lyon on a bank holiday or plan weekend excursions to Marseilles and Barcelona. At the start of the program, we talked excitedly about doing homework outside in the plazas or while sipping coffee in cafes. Unfortunately, the reality soon hit that we’d actually be spending a¬†minimum of six hours at school each day: a two-hour morning class, an hour for lunch (not enough time to go far), a second two-hour class, and then at least another hour to work on homework and meet with our project groups. At times, I felt frustrated to be¬†spending hours studying when all I wanted to do was get out and see¬†Lyon! Weekends and scattered evenings out¬†were not enough to get to know the city like a local.

Fountain

What snapped me out of my workaholic routine was my friend¬†Jackie visiting¬†from London. Suddenly, I was very aware that time was precious! I only had five days to spend with her and three of those I’d be in school. She¬†explored on her own¬†while I was in class, and afterwards we’d¬†meet¬†up and¬†wander around Lyon¬†in our own version of¬†fl√Ęnerie. One of my favorite memories¬†from Jackie’s visit was when I had to study for a midterm exam for marketing. I’d spent at least an hour and a half lying on my bed reading through flashcards and skimming my notes while Jackie lay on the trundle bed and painted. I could feel myself sinking into the mattress with each minute that passed, and the air felt¬†stifling. Abruptly, I threw my books down and asked – “Do you want to go for a run?” I lent Jackie a pair of shorts and we jogged down the apartment steps into the cool post-rain air. The ground was wet and the sky¬†was pink and blue reflected in the Rh√īne river as sunset neared. We ran from Jean Mac√© almost to the city center at¬†H√ītel de Ville, carrying nothing but the apartment keys.¬†Just soaking it all in.

While Jackie was visiting, we made the most of every hour we had. After she left, I began to notice all the pockets of free time I had to spare. I thought about how many days passed with me sitting in my room studying while the city of Lyon bustled outside, and I resolved not to let another day slip away. I made a list of places I wanted to see, and set out to visit each one before my time abroad was up.* Doing that research and making a definite plan of what to do helped motivate me to set my homework aside and go out while museums were open (most close at 6pm, gift shops and all) and the sun was still out. I knew I could get all my assignments done in the evening. I only wish I could be that productive back home in New York and Boston!

MetroAs Katherine mentioned, Lyon’s super-punctual metro system and our unlimited metro passes¬†were a blessing for exploring the city and being able to go anywhere in the city on a whim. But¬†even further, being able to speak and understand French was what really opened the city’s doors to me. When eating out in restaurants with my friends, I often acted as group translator – helping explain the menu items to the best of my ability and asking for vegetarian options for my friends. I could also go to museums like the Institut Lumi√®re¬†without worrying about the lack of English captions.

JoranneEtCha2One of my favorite parts of the trip was one such French-only event: I went to the Lyon BD [Comic] Festival and had the chance to see an interview with webcomic artist Boulet!¬†While I was there, I also got to chat with two other young artists – Joranne¬†and Chakare.¬†They were super cool and fun to talk to (though we had to switch to English because I was having trouble finding the right words in French) – turns out they had recently been to New York, as a matter of fact! They even signed and drew in the copy of Petites choses du Japon that I bought from them; I love the little “hen”/”haine” pun.. Meeting them was one of my absolute¬†favorite parts of the trip, and I am so happy that I had the opportunity to go to the Festival BD! {Plus, I just¬†saw¬†that Chakare drew me in one of her comics¬†– the jeune americaine is me! Merci beaucoup, Chakare, je me sens tellement honor√©e!}

Thanks to my new¬†drive to¬†explore, I started going¬†to more places alone. Before, I’d often worried about not finding anyone on the trip that shared my interest in say, comics or graphic design, and I felt like a bit of a loser to be walking around on my own. But toward the end of the trip I came to understand that if I wanted to do¬†things like the BD Festival,¬†I’d have to go by myself. And what’s more – I realized that I¬†didn’t mind breaking out on my own!¬†When our schedules aligned, it was definitely fun to go places with friends – like visiting the¬†Chamourai Cat Cafe with Olivia – but I realized I didn’t have to rely on having company to go out and do interesting things. Plus, exploring on my own let me recharge after a day of classes, and it was nice to embrace my quiet side.

I learned so much on this trip – not just in class, but about Lyon and about myself as well. I would say that I feel like a new person, but it’s more that I feel more fully¬†me. Thanks to studying abroad I’ve had the chance to experience so many new things – from a local jazz club in Lyon,¬†to a vintage market in Marseilles, to clubbing in¬†Barcelona, to being surrounded by a¬†thunderstorm at Lake¬†Geneva. There have been times of amazing fun and incredible frustration, but¬†I am so glad I had the chance to go through all of them.

Before the farewell dinner on our last day in Lyon, I went up to Vieux Lyon and La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvi√®re one last time to say goodbye to the city. The basilica stands on a hill overlooking the city – like a protector – and it felt only right to say thanks to her for watching over the city and over us students. I felt peaceful as I¬†looked out over the Lyon skyline… even though I then had to run¬†to catch the funicular down and find the restaurant for dinner. Though I definitely miss Lyon, I don’t¬†feel sad about leaving the city. It¬†feels like a fact that I will come back one day.

Panorama


*P.S. Here is my list of what I simply had to do and see in Lyon:

Geneva

Whoever told me that there is nothing to do in Geneva was greatly mistaken Рthere are loads of things to do in Geneva! The question is: do you have enough time to do them? On our day and a half trip to the city, we found ourselves fighting the time constraint at every step.

Our trip also did not start off according to plan. We had hoped¬†to leave for Geneva early Friday afternoon, but then found out our company visit time slot required us to push our plans forward to leave in the¬†evening and arrive in Geneva at 9pm. We got back from the company visit (which I really enjoyed!) and immediately had to get ready, and in our distraction we didn’t think to bring our passports with us on the trip. Actually, that’s not true – I even checked online whether passports were required to enter Switzerland and saw that it said yes, but convinced myself that¬†the rule was about¬†entering from outside the Schengen area. After all, going from Lyon to Barcelona we hadn’t¬†needed passports since¬†both countries are part of the Schengen area,¬†within which¬†there are effectively “no borders” (especially if you are an EU citizen).

However, Switzerland is more strict about their border control, as we found out at the bus station twenty minutes before our departure. The lady at the Eurolines register was very kind but firm on the fact that we absolutely had to have our passports. She even offered to have the bus wait for us for 5 minutes, but unfortunately there was just barely not enough time for us to rush back to our dorms, grab our documents, and return in time to catch the bus. Frustrated with ourselves, we paid a small fee and changed our tickets to arrive at 11am the next morning and return Sunday afternoon. On the plus side, we now had the chance to get most of our homework done before traveling, but it was still an inconvenient change of plans.

Saturday morning arrived, and after quadruple-checking that we had our passports this time, we successfully rode the bus to Geneva. And as it turned out, there was simply no way we would have gotten away with just photocopies of our passports – we got checked by passport control three times!

Visiting CERN

Finally,¬†we arrived in Geneva and¬†met up with our two friends who had gotten there the night before (though they’d also missed their first train). We started our day¬†by taking the tram to CERN (Conseil Europ√©en pour la Recherche Nucl√©aire) – which is a little bit outside of the city. Alas, when we got there we learned that the part open to visitors is closed for technical maintenance until the start of 2016! They definitely could have put that little bit of information on their website. It was still cool to see the big dome that is the Globe of Science and Innovation, and the mobius strip-like steel sculpture called “Wandering the immeasurable,” which is inscribed with 396 important discoveries in physics (each written in their language of origin).

Touring the UN

After another tram ride, we arrived at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva! It was definitely an impressive-looking building Рall those flags!

Across from the UN is the Broken Chair sculpture, which is dedicated to landmine victims and was commissioned by Handicap International to urge all countries to sign the Mine Ban Treaty. It is an unusual sculpture, and I really appreciated it Рthe shattered and splintered chair leg is jarringly evocative.

After some trouble finding the visitors’ entrance (we had to walk past the Mus√©e Ariana to get to the Palais des Nations) we took a¬†guided tour of the UN, where we got to see four conference rooms:

    Conference Hall

Room XX РThe Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room  

The Council Chamber

 The Assembly Hall

Room XX used to be nicknamed the “Swiss Room” because its all-white decor made it completely neutral. Now, the cave-like ceiling decorations created by a Spanish artist make the room decidedly not neutral, and apparently the artwork has been the source of some controversy¬†of opinions among the delegates. I rather like the colorful ceiling, but some find it distracting.

In the Council Chamber, each¬†wall depicts a stage in the development of human society, and the destructive effects of international war. The ceiling depicts a representation of international cooperation. My favorite part of this room was the pair of brass doors on either end of the chamber, which are used during diplomatic disputes so that both countries’ delegates can enter and exit the room at the same time and thus be given equal respect. It seems silly that a key¬†part of diplomacy is protecting the egos of the countries involved; as far as we have come as a society, I guess we’ll never escape the fact that we¬†are only human.

I also learned that the Palais des Nations was formerly home to the League of Nations! In fact, all of the doors in that building still bear the French/English logo of the LN (or, in French, SN for Société des Nations).

Overall I was surprised at how¬†interesting and¬†informative¬†the tour was. I wasn’t really expecting it to be, because when we were touring there were no committees in session (in fact I believe they no longer allow the public to observe those meetings for security reasons), so we were just looking around an¬†empty-ish building.¬†If you want to be literal, the UN office is just a¬†fancy convention center for government representatives; the buildings themselves are not imbued with any sort of innate diplomatic power, and the organization and its workers¬†do not actually make decisions – they¬†serve to¬†facilitate the conferences.

However, after some reflection I realized that thinking about the UN like that¬†doesn’t do justice to the importance and magnitude of the international cooperation efforts that take place¬†there. These days we take it for granted that the governments of different countries around the world work together to try to peacefully make decisions and resolve conflicts, but that is still a monumental achievement for humanity and this visit to the UN¬†definitely¬†reminded me of that.

Cooling Off in Lake Geneva

After several hours in the July heat, our next goal was to take a swim in Lake Geneva (which I learned is actually called Lac Léman). It took us yet more time to get back to our airbnb and then find a tram to the beach; and we also had to make a detour to withdraw some more swiss francs, as Geneva is about twice as expensive than Lyon!

We arrived at the lake just in time to swim a bit and then watch the sunset, which was stunning with the Alps in the background.

Geneva weather is¬†capricious since the city is in a sort of microclimate caused by the surrounding mountains, and soon after the sun went down a huge thunderstorm rolled in. There was lightning on either side of us, and towering clouds overhead but no rain. Soon the wind picked up so much that Geneva’s landmark Jet d’Eau was shut down right as we walked past it (although apparently they turn it off every night, so it’s not that big a deal).

A Tour of the City

Our plan for Sunday morning was to hike up Mont¬†Sal√®ve, take in the view of the city below, and then take the cable car down. Unfortunately, we had a late start to the morning and then lost 40 minutes getting on the tram headed in the wrong direction. With time ticking away, Olivia and I decided that we would rather try to explore some of the Geneva city center (since we hadn’t done much of that the day before – CERN and the UN were on opposite edges of the city, so most of our views of the town were from the tram or at walking through the empty streets at night). But of course, this being a Sunday, all of the shops were closed.
We did end up finding an outdoor trinket market, and stumbled on a statue of Frankenstein’s monster!

IMG_8158Plus, we saw the large flower clock in the English Garden by the river. Its second hand is 2.5m long – the largest in the world! Since it’s in Switzerland, there are a lot of watchmakers in Geneva, so we did some dutiful window-shopping for watches.

Our biggest regret was that we couldn’t find a chocolate shop that was open on a Sunday, but we were able to stock up on Swiss chocolates from a souvenir shack by the river. So far, I haven’t actually tried any of the chocolate I bought – I only bought enough to give to my friends back in the U.S.¬†so hopefully I’ll try some then!

The bus ride back home to Lyon¬†was much less stressful than the one coming here. In fact, there were only four people on the entire bus, including Olivia and me!¬†It seemed like there is just one bus that drives a circuit back and forth from Lyon to Geneva Airport to Geneva and back again; I guess our trip time wasn’t a very popular one. They also¬†played a great¬†movie called¬†Billy Elliot¬†on the bus¬†that had me on the edge of my seat for the whole trip. And of course, I was able to see some beautiful views of Switzerland¬†from¬†the window.

    

Overall, this was not my favorite¬†trip that I’ve had on the Lyon study abroad, but on the whole it was cool to see what we did and visit some very important sites like CERN and the UN.¬†I don’t know if I would come back to Geneva for a vacation, but I would definitely like to return to Switzerland and hopefully do some hiking in¬†the beautiful Alps!