MonthAugust 2011

Summer Hailstorm

Day 230

The past two months of weather in Stuttgart saw a majority if days that were partly cloudy without a lot of sunshine and a lot of random rain.  Since the beginning of last week, the temperature in Stuttgart rose from a comfortable 20 degrees Celsius to a phenomenal 30 degrees Celsius over the course of a day.  Also part of this dramatic change was the sudden disappearance of all the clouds.  This weather persisted for a few days and I was beginning to think that summer in Stuttgart finally arrived.

Last Wednesday, I noticed on the weather report that Stuttgart would get more rain today and when I saw that I thought it was kind of strange.  As usual though, the forecast here was generally pretty accurate.  As predicted, it started raining as I got to work.  The rain was so light that it may as well not be considered rain.  Not long after, the weather reverted to the 30 degree sunshine.  That was disappointing.  I wanted more rain.

Later that day, as I was leaving work, the bright summer sky was overrun by a large gathering of storm clouds.  A large rainstorm started pretty much around the same time I decided to leave work. I walked from the research building to the main building, which usually takes about a minute, and during that time, it rained so hard that everywhere that my umbrella didn’t cover was soaking wet, namely my jeans from the knees down.  I could squeeze the pant leg and water would gush out like a wet towel.

Like everyone else, I waited for the bus by the guard booth at the gate under shelter.  Looking out, everyone could see the rain turn into hail.  Hail the size of loonies rained down.  The sound of the hail hitting cars just made a loud and persistent rattling noise.

When the bus came, everyone opened their umbrellas and ran to the bus.  While inside, we could still hear the loud rattling from the impact of the hail and we were all thankful that we didn’t have to be outside anymore.

As the bus passed under an overpass, we could see the drain on the overpass disposing the drainage water onto the side of the road beneath it and because of that, it ended up flooding the road.

About halfway down the mountain, the rain stopped and almost immediately, a rainbow appeared.  After getting off the bus, I started feeling the intense summer heat again.  The wet ground now just reflected the intense summer like a giant mirror.

I don’t think I’ve ever encountered that large of a rainstorm in recent memory and definitely not one where it started hailing in 30 degree weather.  Haven’t been that soaked from rain before either.  It was really like movie rain – it comes out of nowhere all of a sudden and gets everyone soaked, but it stops really quickly.

Really Handy LaTeX Commands

I just started writing in LaTeX and all too often I find myself forgetting commands that I had looked up a few minutes ago.  Therefore, I thought it’d help if I compiled a list of these.

Paragraph Spacing

setlength{parskip}{7pt}

This goes in the preamble of the document (after the document class stuff, but before the begin document line).

Removing Page Numbers

thispagestyle{empty}

This gets rid of page numbers for that particular page, but the numbering sequence continues on the next page.

Adding Unnumbered Sections into the TOC

section*{Introduction}
addcontentsline{toc}{section}{Introduction}

 

By default, unnumbered sections do not appear in the table of contents and therefore they must be added manually.

Defining a New Style with fancyhdr

fancypagestyle{plain}{%
fancyhf{}}% clear all header and footer fields

New style definitions should go before the very last curly brace.

Unnumbered Sections Not Working with leftmark and rightmark

section*{Introductionmarkboth{Introduction}{}}

For some reason, unnumbered sections don’t play nice with fancyhdr and don’t get treated as real sections when the leftmark and rightmark commands are used.  By using markboth, it fixes the problem.  Now my headers show the correct section name.

Bulleted List

begin{itemize}
item Here is a bullet.
item Here is another bullet.
end{itemize}

Numbered List

begin{enumerate}
item Here is item one.
item Here is item two.
end{enumerate}

Referencing Sections by Name

section{MyFirstSection} label{marker}
section{MySecondSection}
In section~nameref{marker} we defined…

Requires the hyperref package!  Put the line below in the preamble.

usepackage{hyperref}

Linking to a Website

href{http://www.example.com}{Link}

Umlauts

“{o}

That gives an o with an umlaut.  Just replace the letter to get an umlaut on a different character.

Really Basic Android Programming Learning Resources

I’m pretty new to Android development and it was only a few days ago that I got my development environment completely set up.  It’s now time for me to do some real learning.  I’ve put together a list of some learning resources that helped me a lot.

1.  Hello World

Link: http://developer.android.com/resources/tutorials/hello-world.html

It goes through the steps of installing the proper packages in the Android SDK, the fundamentals of using the emulator properly, setting up projects, and the basics of setting up a UI using XML files (loading strings and UI elements from resource files).

2.  Android UI Layout

Link: http://techieboycdo.blogspot.com/2010/03/tutorial-on-android-layout.html

This tutorial here goes through different ways of laying out the UI with Views, ViewGroups, and Widgets within a given Activity (see link for a definition of the terms).  The code examples on that site pretty much demonstrate how textboxes, buttons, and the like can be added to the screen.

Apart from the links, options also exist for creating Android UI’s with XML.  One is DroidDraw and the other is the plugin inside ADT for Eclipse (just open an .xml file and the UI editor should open).

I found it’s easier to just edit the XML files by hand rather than rely on ADT, although ADT does preview them really well.

3.  Android Developers Website

Link: http://developer.android.com/index.html

This isn’t really a tutorial site, but it basically covers everything to do with Android programming.  It basically is a documentation for all the classes with some descriptions on what you can do with it.  Some of the language in it is super technical though.

I didn’t list many sites here because after understanding the content from the first two, it really feels like Android programming becomes super open ended from there.  Depending on what people want to do, the Android Developers site should have information on how.

Really Old and Nostalgic Arcade Games

During a coffee break today, my friends and I somehow ended up discussing all these super old arcade games.  It made me feel super nostalgic.  I remember those days at Playdium playing all these fantastic titles.  Pretty sure this is why I was so into computer games.

Area 51

Area51 Area51SS

I think this was the first rail shooter I ever played.  All I remember from this game was shooting aliens with the light gun at the arcade or on the PlayStation.

Gauntlet Legends

GauntletLegendsGauntletLegendsSS

I played this game when I was like 9 and I’d all I’d do was mash buttons and things on the screen would die (except when I ran into those stupid door traps).  It was great.  Surprisingly, one of the most memorable things about this game was when the narrator would say something like, “Warrior needs food — badly!”, with the most epic tone possible.

House of the Dead

HotDHotDSS

Here’s another super classic rail shooter.  I played this when I was like 8 and it was so scary back then.  Now that I look back, this game came out way before people thought the idea of zombies were cool.  Each boss in the game had a special weak spot that the player had to shoot at in order to kill them faster, but the last boss didn’t have one.  And…I always shot the hostages…

Hydro Thunder

HydroThunderHydroThunderSS

The most memorable thing about this game for me was when the game narrator would announce “HYDRO THUNDER!!!” really loud the moment the game started.  It made the game sound more epic than it was.  I don’t think this game was ever as good as the shooters though.

Metal Slug X

MetalSlugXMetalSlugXSS

This is the game that every Asian shopping mall had.  People put in quarter after quarter trying to beat this game.  The player died so easily in this game and the game made so much money that way.  I don’t think I played this at the arcade often, but it was a great game.  The player had to fight through hordes of enemy soldiers while rescuing POW’s that looked like Tom Hanks in Cast Away and for some reason, these POW’s would somehow give the player powerups (as if they couldn’t use it themselves).

Star Wars Trilogy

StarWarsTrilogyStarWarsTrilogySS

This rail shooter was probably one of the most unique ones.  Rather than using a light gun, the player had to use a joystick and shoot at the enemies on the screen.  Since it also followed the Star Wars storyline, the player got to shoot TIE-Fighters in an X-Wing to blow up the Death Star(s), use a blaster against invading stormtroopers on Hoth and even tie the cable around the AT-AT’s legs to knock them over.  The player even gets to fight Darth Vader and Boba Fett.  Even though I played this game so much, I could never defeat Darth Vader.  Every time he threw down his cape right before his next slash, I’d always miss the block.  That was annoying.  The best level was Death Star II.  The recreation of it in that game was just amazing for its time.

Time Crisis II

TimeCrisis2TimeCrisis2SS

I thought this game was so cool just because the player got to step on a pedal to hide.  That never happened in all the other rail shooters I’d played.  It was so awesome.  Each click on the light gun felt really nice too because the slide would go back every time the gun was “fired”.  It gave a really nice plastic clicking sound that I always associated to this game.

Tokyo Wars

TokyoWarsTokyoWarsSS

This was one of the few multiplayer games at the arcade where people could play against each other (other than racing games).  It was so fun to just rush in with a tank and just start firing without a care for any strategy whatsoever (as if I had any when I was 9).  Somehow I was still pretty good at the game.  I’d always look at the minimap to see where the enemies were so I never drove around randomly.  The narrator in the game would also say something like, “enemy tank to the rear!” and every time the player fired a shot, the whole chair would shake. 

Restaurant Amani–A Japanese-Chinese-Korean Dinner

Day 217

A while back I bought Groupons for a sushi platter at this restaurant and so today my friends and I went here for dinner to use them.  When we walked in, I went up to the counter and told the lady in German that I made a reservation for four people yesterday.  I then overheard her speaking Mandarin to her colleague.  It threw me off since I expected the staff there to be Japanese (even though a lot of Chinese people run sushi restaurants in Vancouver).  Knowing that the lady spoke Mandarin, I started speaking that instead and I told her that we wanted to use Groupons.  She seemed really surprised at how I started speaking Chinese and asked where I was from.  I told her I was from Hong Kong and she told me she was from Korea.  That totally took me aback.  For a Korean, she spoke Mandarin as well as someone natively Chinese.  She said that I spoke pretty good Mandarin for someone that came from Hong Kong (but maybe that’s just her being polite).  After that brief chat, she then invited us to sit anywhere we wanted and gave us our food menus.

Looking through the menu, I realized the restaurant had more than just Japanese food.  It had Korean and Chinese food.  The last few pages of my menu had some items written only in Chinese and my friend didn’t have those pages in their menus (likely because they knew that I knew Chinese).  It turns out they served the Cantonese style chicken feet (鳳爪)!  I definitely had to order that one.  I also ordered a bowl of Kimchi as I hadn’t eaten that in a while.  I had both of those along with the sushi platter that the Groupon got me.  My friends ordered Gyoza, spicy fried squid (I think it was 椒鹽鮮魷), miso soup, and Inarizushi (fried tofu filled with sushi rice).

My friends didn’t know what it was so I explained it as a Korean version of German sauerkraut except spicy.  I don’t eat Kimchi much, but this one tasted really good.  It had the perfect amount of spiciness.  I guess that is kind of subjective since everyone can handle a different amount of that.

The chicken feet that I ordered didn’t taste as good as I thought it would.  I can’t help but compare the taste with the kind I’ve had in Vancouver.  Some people do say that Vancouver has the best Chinese food in the world and now I’ve begun to see that.  Compared to Vancouver, the meat (pretty much skin I suppose) on the  chicken feet I got here seemed to be a lot “tougher”.  I was really expecting it to be really soft.

Although I didn’t try the miso soup, it looked really delicious.  It looked a lot different that the usual kind that I’ve seen in Vancouver.  I wouldn’t know which one is more legit or better tasting though.  Everything else looked really good and super legit too – especially the fried squid; that looked really good.

After eating our appetizers, we chowed down on the sushi platter.  Almost immediately, the mediocre seafood quality of Stuttgart revealed itself.  The taste was a lot more bland and had less of the natural flavour of the animal itself.  Again, I compared it to Vancouver and it’s really no contest there.  Vancouver has such good access to the ocean for fishing, while Stuttgart is landlocked and relies on frozen fish being delivered. 

Despite that though, I thought that this place had good sushi for a landlocked city. Although, the biggest drawback in eating sushi in Stuttgart is that it’s really expensive. The only reason we went was because of the Groupon that gave us 50% off the sushi platter.  I don’t think I would have gone otherwise.  Seeing that I’m going to be back in Vancouver really soon (16 days by my count), I can have all the amazing Japanese, Chinese and Korean food I want!

On our way out, I had another brief chat with the lady there and it was really difficult for me to understand Mandarin.  It wasn’t the way she spoke, but more so the way I really had to focus my attention to her talking because my Mandarin ability wasn’t that good.  My mind literally zoned out of everything and focussed purely on understanding what she said.  I ended up saying something back in like a mix of Chinese, German and English.  It was kind of strange, but she understood what I wanted to say.  It was kind of random yet really fascinating to have a trilingual language conversation and tri-culture meal going on.

Configuring Eclipse, Android Development Plugin and SDK To Work Properly When Directory Pathing Is Wrong

Today, I started delving into programming in Android and I downloaded all the tools I needed.  I went through a part of the tutorial on building a Hello World app as every beginner does when starting something new in programming.  I went through the tutorial up to the point where it required me to run the app.  I got an error saying that it couldn’t find the ini file for the Android Virtual Device (AVD) I created.  It turns out that these files are supposed to be in my C:Users folder, but they weren’t.  Instead, all the directories pointed to my Dropbox folder, which in turn messed with the pathing of my folders since I had symlinks going everywhere (even the Desktop, which is what broke it I think).  This caused a whole slew of problems that I had to take care of.

Problem 1: Android SDK and AVD Manager is using the wrong folder to store it’s AVD’s

The Android Virtual Device is an emulator for the developer to test their program.  It should be stored in C:Users, but mine went into Dropbox for some reason.  This kept giving me an error saying something like “PANIC: Could not open: <some ini file needed for the virtual device>”.

To fix it, I had to create a new environment variable called ANDROID_SDK_HOME and pointed it to C:Users.

Problem 2: The Android Development Plugin on Eclipse is also looking at the wrong folder

The ADT plugin on Eclipse allows the developer to test apps with the virtual device.  The developer can create/modify/delete new AVD’s using this plugin.  After I fixed the first problem and created a new AVD, the plugin on Eclipse did not recognize this change because it too was looking in the wrong directory.  I found that the directory information was stored in a variable that Eclipse users called user.home.

To fix it, I had to go into the Eclipse options > Run/Debug > String Substitution and add a new entry with variable user.home with a value of C:Users.

After fixing problems 1 and 2, there should be two folders inside the folder for that particular user.  One says .android and the other says .m2.  Before, I was seeing these two folders in my Dropbox folder – not where I wanted them.

Problem 3: Eclipse complains about an invalid command-line parameter

Thinking that my problems were resolved after fixing the directories, Eclipse gave me this error message when I tried to run my code:

[2011-08-16 23:24:00 – Emulator] invalid command-line parameter: Files.
[2011-08-16 23:24:00 – Emulator] Hint: use ‘@foo’ to launch a virtual device named ‘foo’.
[2011-08-16 23:24:00 – Emulator] please use -help for more information

It turns out that the issue was caused by the SDK not knowing how to handle directories with spaces.  I installed the Android SDK in C:Program Files (x86), which is clearly the culprit here.

To fix it, move the whole SDK installation to a directory without spaces.  I just used my C drive.  After changing this, I had to tell Eclipse the new directory that the Android SDK was now in.  This also means changing the registry key at the following places:

 HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINESOFTWAREWow6432NodeAndroid SDK Tools

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINESOFTWAREWow6432NodeMicrosoftWindowsCurrentVersionUninstallAndroid SDK Tools

Anywhere that has the old Android directory must have its value changed to reflect the new directory.  For mine, I changed everywhere that said C:Program Files (x86)Android…blahblah to C:Android…blahblah.

Annoyance: The .m2 folder for Maven doesn’t appear in my user folder either

I don’t know what this Maven thing is or what it is used for, but I do know that it is part of my Eclipse installation.  For some reason, it’s local repository didn’t appear in my users folder (which is supposed to be the default place), but rather in my Dropbox folder.  I ended up getting rid of this too.

I wrote a new settings.xml file for Maven and put it in C:Users.m2 with the following content (but with the part changed):

http://maven.apache.org/SETTINGS/1.0.0″
  xmlns:xsi=”http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema-instance”
  xsi:schemaLocation=”http://maven.apache.org/SETTINGS/1.0.0
                      http://maven.apache.org/xsd/settings-1.0.0.xsd”>
  C:Users.m2

Afterward, I went into the Eclipse Preferences and pointed to this settings file and restarted the program.  Result: no more .m2 folder in my Dropbox stuff.

Final Result: A working setup for Android development!

My code now runs and I actually see something!  Hooray!

Barcelona

Day 215

Flight to Barcelona

I woke up at around 3:30am to get ready for the flight to Barcelona.  I had slept at around 10:30pm the night before in order to not feel absolutely terrible in the morning.  We took the first train out to the airport at 4:40am and got there about an hour before our departure at 6:45am.  While going through security, I forgot to take of my belt and because of that, the security personnel checked me with the metal detector wand all over the place.  For some reason, he seemed to also have a huge suspicion that I was hiding something in my pants.  Once he let me go, we were on our way.  On the plane ride there, I tried by my best to take a nap, but this little kid cried for the whole duration.

Sagrada Familia

After dropping off our stuff at the hostel, w went to the Sagrada Familia, an unfinished church that began construction in 1882.  When I saw it, I thought it was really weird that the construction crew used modern cranes to build architecture of the old style.  We tried to go inside, but there was a huge line up.

After wandering around town a little bit, we came across this market that sold all sorts of things.  Apart from pretty normal items like clothing, vendors there sold N64’s, used power tools and even military regalia.  A lot of that stuff was probably stolen.  We walked around some more and then headed down to the beach.

Barceloneta

The area we were in, the Barceloneta, was a stretch of beach coastline looking into the Mediterranean Sea.  It had the nicest beach water and sand – even better than what I saw in Volos.  Looking around the beach, I learned that it was legal for women to sunbathe topless. It was actually quite prominent.  The weather was really hot too – perfect beach weather I suppose. 

I lay down under an umbrella on a beach towel while the others went for a swim.  I ended up falling asleep.  I suppose that made up for not having a good sleep on the plane.  After spending about an hour and a half at the beach, we went on a walking tour.

The Walking Tour

The first destination in the tour was in the Gothic Quarter.  We reached the memorial for Eulalia of Barcelona, a 13 year old girl that was brutally subjected to torture from the Romans for refusing to give up Christianity.  She died from the 13th and final torture that involved her being put inside a barrel with blades shoved inside it and then having that barrel rolled down in incline.  It is said that a dove flew out of her dead body as she ascended to Heaven.

The next destination was the oldest synagogue in Europe (as opposed to the one in Prague, which is the oldest active synagogue).  From the outside, it doesn’t look anything like a synagogue.  It just blends in perfectly with the buildings around it and the building itself doesn’t have any valuable looking ornaments or decorations either.  The only things that separate it from the other buildings is sign in Hebrew on the doorway and some signs for tourists to know that it’s there.  In this Jewish district, the tour guide mentioned the expulsion of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition.  I thought it was kind of amusing when I was caught by surprise at the mention of it – kind of like that quote from Monty Python.

Afterward, we went to Plaza de Sant Felip Neri.  The significance of this place was that the plaza was the site of a air attack from Italian bombers during the Spanish Civil War.  Shrapnel damage from the bombs still scar the walls of the plaza.  On another side of the plaza, the bomb damaged was repaired but one can still see the slight difference in colour between the bricks which shows how much of the wall had been destroyed.

One thing about the streets in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona is that a lot of them are really narrow – probably only about 10 feet wide.  We walked through these streets for most of the tour.  In one of those streets, we came across a mosaic of Space Invaders.  Apparently, there is an artist who goes all over the world putting them up.

The next destination was the Placa Nova, which used to be the location of the city gates back when the Romans lived in Barcelona.  The remnants of the gate and the aqueduct still exists.  Across from the gate is the City Architecture School, which has a joke drawing by Picasso splattered over it.

After walking some more we saw the Barcelona Cathedral which housed the tomb of Eulalia of Barcelona and also the Placa del Rei, the historical location where Christopher Columbus reported his discovery of the Americas to the Spanish royalty.  We also saw some Roman ruins after climbing a mountain with a height of 16.9 meters (that’s what a plaque actually said) as well as the Placa de San Jaume, the political center of Cataluña (the area of Spain that Barcelona belongs to).

The tour guide also talked about the origins of the flag of Catalonia (Cataluña is the name in Catalan).  It is said that a great warrior Wilfred the Hairy, after being wounded in battle, drew stripes along a copper shield with his blood-stained fingers, hence the four prominent red stripes on the Catalan flag.


We also walked along La Rambla, a popular tourist street in the city.  The tour guide also showed us a city square that featured some of buildings designed by an architect named Gaudi.  Apparently, his designs are all over the city.

Next was the Placa George Orwell.  As a memorial to him (he was involved during the Spanish Civil War), the city named a city square after him.  Ironically enough, this plaza used to be under 24 hour surveillance kind of like Big Brother in his book “1984”.

We finished the tour at a bar and socialized with other people in the tour group for a little bit and drank Sangria.  I got to talk to these people who used to work at the same hostel we stayed at in Hamburg.  It was such a coincidence.

Barcelona’s Skateboarding Fame

After that, we walked around the city to look for the skateboarding spots that Barcelona was so famous for among skateboarders.  I’m not a fan, so I could not recognize the place from skateboarding videos, but it was cool to see a lot of skateboarders in one place showing off their tricks.

Tapas

For dinner, we tried Tapas, a Spanish delicacy.  Tapas are basically a small appetizer dish, but patrons generally order a few of them for a full meal.  Along with Tapas, Paellas are another Spanish delicacy that’s also really delicious.



Sangria is Evil

That night, we spent a little bit of time at the hostel bar.  We all drank Sangria and the thing about that drink is that it tastes a lot like juice, which means it is really easy to drink too much.  And that’s what I did.  I puked a bunch and got a pretty bad hangover the next morning.  I never intended to drink that much in the first place.

While we were drinking, we talked with this black dude and he always had racist jokes to say.  He went on about how white people could never get away with saying racist comments, which was so true.  He didn’t even get angry when I jokingly used the “n” word on him.

Park Güell

I spent the next morning puking too which sucked a lot.  We went to the beach again that morning, but I felt so bad at that time that I decided to go back to the hostel to rest up a bit before doing anything.  I felt a lot better in the evening and so we all continued sightseeing and went to Park Güell.

Park Güell was basically a park that featured a lot of Gaudi’s architectural exploits.  Since he hated the use of right angles in his work, much of the design had curvy edges.  Spanish architecture here was so different from the architecture I’d seen everywhere else.  It was really distinct and unique.

A Less Intense Night (at Least for Me)

After visiting the park, we went to the hostel bar like the night before.  Except this time, I didn’t do any crazy drinking.  We met the same black dude from the night before again and this time he went on about how much he loved eating fried chicken, which just made me crack up so hard.  He perpetuated that stereotype.  Once the hostel bar quieted down, my friends went out for clubbing while I stayed at the hostel and went to sleep.

Mini-Sandwiches

I found out later that they returned at around 6 am.  Two of them were really high on weed apparently when they came back too (weed is legal in Barcelona so long as one possesses less than 50g).  They missed the hostel breakfast that morning and slept in until 12pm.  Once we all got ready, we went out for lunch at a mini-sandwich restaurant. 


The place had so many varieties of mini sandwiches and they all looked and tasted delicious.  I wanted to try all of them, but I was pretty certain that I couldn’t eat that much since I wasn’t hungry for lunch yet.

Montjuïc

After eating, we went up to Montjuïc.  The mountain had a lot of really nice architecture, just like a lot of places in the city.  Also on the mountain was the site of the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.  We walked around the Olympic stadium and got a really good view of the city.


We walked further up the mountain and reached the fortress at the top.  At the time, we didn’t know there was a gondola that took us up there, so we walked the whole way, which was super tiring in the intense heat that day.  Fortunately, seeing the fortress was worth it.  From there, we got a really good view of the entire city, all the way around. 



After walking around so much, we all got really hungry and took the gondola back down and looked for a place to eat.

Paellas

After trying Tapas on the first day, we decided to try Paellas this time around.  Paellas are basically a rice dish and consists of either vegetables, seafood, or different varieties of meat depending on the type.  We ordered one with seafood and chicken in it. 

Being able to pick meat off bones and peeling the shell off of shrimp was so satisfying.  It was totally unlike the German dishes that involve none of that peeling whatsoever.

Writing at the Beach

We spent the rest of the night at the beach to get one last look at it before leaving the next morning.  When we got there, the sun was already setting so it was quite comfortable at the beach without the sun constantly cooking us. 

As the sun set, it actually got really cold.  While sitting at the beach, I started writing bits of this blog entry in my notebook.  Writing on the beach was really satisfying.

My Joint-Rolling Experience

When we got back to the hostel, two of the people I went with wanted to use up the rest of the weed that they bought.  I refused to do any weed when they offered it to me – even if it was legal here, but I did want to try rolling a joint.  They passed me some of the weed and rolling paper and then taught me how to do it.  In the end, I rolled a better joint than both of them and it was only my first try too.  They called me a “stoner prodigy” and said how I’d be a really good stoner if I ever did weed.  No way I’m going to smoke it for real though even if rolling a joint was an interesting experience.  When the others started smoking the rest of the weed, I returned to the hostel and went to bed.

Flying Back

The next morning we all woke up at 6 am to get to the airport for our flight back to Stuttgart.  For pretty much the entire trip home, our whole group barely talked.  We all had this zombie look on our faces from waking up way too early and not sleeping enough.  It took a few hours for us to return back to our normal state.  We all felt it was a good trip – except for the part where I had too much Sangria.

Vatican City and Rome (Day 3 and 4)

Day 209

See the post for Day 1 and 2 here

We woke up in the morning to find that the hostel staff restored the hot water again.  So after a nice long shower, we resumed our sightseeing.  We would have liked to have breakfast at the hostel too, but we took too long (or woke up too late).  Instead, we had to find a supermarket to buy food.  We carried the bread, ham and cheese to the Coliseum and ate it there.

The Coliseum

We sat outside under the shade of the massive structure and just took out all the food.  While we ate though, bees kept annoying us and went after the package of ham.  It made no sense to me.  I thought bees only wanted nectar.  After spending a bit of time killing the bees, we resumed eating.  After finishing up, we walked around the Coliseum until we found the entrance.

From the outside, we could already see the massive structure.  It was clear that much of the structure had fallen apart since it was built.  Entire layers of the coliseum had collapsed over time.  What remained didn’t look that sturdy either.  A lot of preservation work must have been done to it to prevent the whole structure from collapsing.  Even on the walls, one could see many holes in it that used to hold up ornaments and other decorations when the structure was still in use.  The structure is certainly a great feat of Roman engineering.

Now that the structure is used purely for tourism, a lot of street vendors naturally set up shop here (it’s kind of weird sometimes because every single one of these street vendors I’ve seen are black).  It’s quite funny to see them all pack their stuff up really fast (it’s like they’re used to it) when cops showed up.  It really reminded me of those food vendors on the street in Hong Kong except without the carts.  Even better were the people dressed up as Roman Legions that got their pictures taken with people.

Because we purchased the Roma Pass (thanks to my friends European travel book) when we arrived at the airport, we were able to get free direct entry into any two museums in Rome (as well as unlimited travel on the metro system) for 3 consecutive days.  We used our pass at the coliseum and walked straight inside.  We didn’t even have to wait in line.  As we walked, everyone seemed to look at us wondering why we didn’t have to wait.  It was like being a VIP.

Walking into the main arena area of the coliseum really reminded me of the movie Gladiator.  The floor of the arena had long since collapsed so looking into the center only reveals the hidden rooms and passageways that used to serve as the barracks for the other gladiators.  To show what the area would have been like, there was a reconstructed portion of the arena floor.

The seating areas of the coliseum seems to have collapsed as well.  At first I wondered where people actually sat when watching shows.  We pretty much walked around the entire circumference of the coliseum and did not find any.  They must have all collapsed, which could explain why some areas had concrete poured over it to preserve the structural integrity.  At least that’s what I think based on the slabs of concrete that covered a lot of the area.

Some parts of the coliseum featured exhibits of its history too and that was quite interesting to see.  After going through the exhibits, we tried to go up to the third floor, but it had been closed off for some reason.  Somehow, a few people managed to get up there anyways.  Since we didn’t know how to get passed the locked metal gate, we saw whatever else we could and then afterward, we went to the Roman Forum.

Forum Romanum

Again, we used our Roma Pass to bypass the line and it felt so good being able to do that.  The Roman Forum was a large excavation site and so there was a lot of Roman ruins in the area.  It was basically the ruins of an entire city.  Looking on the map, we saw that there was so much to see there.  In the few hours that we were there for, we didn’t even go through it all.

We hadn’t completely recovered from all the walking we did the day before and the walking at the coliseum so we took it easy.  It would be interesting to see just how many kilometers we had all walked since the start of the trip.

Memorial to Vittorio Emanuele II

We ended up staying at the forum until the attraction closed and then afterward, we went to the memorial to Vittorio Emanuele II.  This memorial was the largest memory I’d ever seen.  It seems that this person was so important to the Italian people that they gave him a giant memorial with ceremonial guards. Seems kind of pompous to me actually. I looked up this person on Wiki and apparently, he was the first king of a unified Italy.

When we looked at the whole memorial, we wondered how long the ceremonial guards stayed out there for and how the guards would change shifts.  As we were discussing it, we saw three guards march out from the memorial to relieve the current ones.  The new guards switched places with the old ones by marching into their previous standing spot.  The relieved guards would then march away.

Trattoria Der Pallaro

By now, we were really hungry and after looking at my friend’s guide book for restaurant recommendations, we decided on going to a place called Trattoria Der Pallaro.  The cool thing about that restaurant was that it had no menu for people to pick food from.  Guests were served what the restaurant chose to serve.  For 25 euros, people got served a multicourse meal and didn’t get to choose what food they got.  It seemed like a really cool idea.

When we sat down, the waiter asked us whether we wanted red or white wine (probably the only choice for the entire meal).  After we answered, he returned with jugs of wine that amounted to about half a liter per person.  We all thought that was a little too much wine.  Next up was some bread and side orders of olives, ham/smoked meat, lentils, tomatoes and these fried fish balls (I don’t know what they are called).  That amount of food would have been enough for most people.  But knowing that was only the first course, we knew that there’d be more food to come.

For the next course, we were served a penne carbonara.  Half of it had this really delicious cheese sauce while the other half had a less delicious tomato sauce (but still super good compared to other pasta I’ve eaten).  I think that was the best pasta I’ve ever had, but then again, I don’t eat much pasta.

While we ate, I observed how the restaurant functioned since I reasoned that the place would be really efficient at cooking since everyone got the same dishes.  Indeed it was true.  The chef cooked batches and batches of the same thing and the waiters just scooped out the proper proportions for serving.  All they needed to do was keep track of which part of the meal each table was at.

In the third course, we got another serving of bread, but this time with veal, mozzarella balls, zucchini, and potato chips (I guess that random food thing can be a hit or miss on some dishes).  During all this eating, we kept drinking the wine, and I’m sure we would have gotten really drunk (or at least really buzzed) from it if not for all the food we ate.

In the fourth and final course, we were served this lemon cheesecake (at least I think it was cheesecake) with a small glass of peach juice (probably the size of a shot).  Best juice I’ve ever had.  The cheesecake was super good too.  We ended up finishing all the food and the wine.  Despite how expensive that restaurant was, it was totally worth it.

Basilica of the Sacred Heart

The next day, we tried to go to the National Museum of Rome, but we didn’t know that it closed on Mondays.  Instead, we went to the nearby Basilica of the Sacred Heart.  When we went in, this old man who was part of the church greeted us and started talking with us.  He asked us the usual questions like where we were from and what not.  He also talked about the history of the church.  It really surprised me how good his English was.  I didn’t even expect an old Italian man to know it.  He seemed like a really nice guy. He showed us around and insisted that we take some free postcards of the church.

We stayed at the church until it was time to take the bus back to the airport.  We bought our bus tickets from a fellow that I thought looked kind of shady and for some reason he insisted that I put my backpack in the baggage compartment of the bus.  I did as I was told, but I worried so much for my stuff.  I really hoped that no one would steal anything while the door was open when the bus waited for people to board.  From where I was, I wouldn’t have seen anything if someone stole my bag.  I asked my friend sitting close to the window to spot my bag for me just in case.  When we got to the airport, I got my bag and made sure everything was still there.  My friend then told me how he saw the man that we bought the tickets from rummage through someone’s stuff and it looked like he could have stolen something too.  If my bag had been stolen, I would have lost everything.  I guess that taught me to keep all my important documents on my person.

Going Home

On the way back, my friends and I had a nice and long conversation about our views on certain things in life.  It was a super random conversation, but it was fun to talk about this like our childhood and how we were raised.

When we got off the plane and walked towards our bus, we got stopped by these two police officers.  We showed them our passports when they asked for them, but then they walked away with them for a little bit.  When they came back, they asked us if we were in the military.  We all thought it was an odd question and just told them no.  Then they said, “ok”, gave our passports back and we were on our way.  It was really weird and random.  Did we stand out that much in Germany?

During the two hour train ride, we talked about more random stuff.  During the conversations, I realized a lot of things in my childhood, the way I was raised, and my culture that really affected who I am today.  The whole conversation just seemed really profound.

We got home at around 7 pm and after cooking and eating dinner, I sat down to blog and upload my pictures as I always did after each trip.

Vatican City and Rome (Day 1 and 2)

Day 208

On Thursday, the day before we went to Rome, I learned from a colleague at work that the organization that ran the U-Bahn would go on strike on Friday. Knowing that we had to go to the train station the next day, we had to figure out an alternative route.  It just so happened that the nearby town of Ditzingen was only about 3 km away and from there we could take the S-Bahn (these ones weren’t on strike) to the main train station.  It took about 40 minutes to walk there, but it was necessary.  Along the way, we walked past a bunch of farmland that connected the two towns.  It seemed like we didn’t have to walk very far to reach the rural area.

We arrived at the main train station about an hour earlier than we needed to be so we just sat down for beer before beginning our trip.  Our train to the airport in Baden-Baden took about 2 hours and flying to Rome from there took about an hour and a half.  We arrived at the hostel pretty late in the evening, so we didn’t do much sightseeing except go to the nearby Piazza della Repubblica.  Since Rome was so hot, we were sweaty all over and it made good sense to take a shower when we got back to the hostel.  The worst part about it was that the water was freezing.  For some reason, the hot water didn’t work.  We talked to the reception about it and they said we’d have hot water by morning.

We didn’t get hot water in the morning either.  I followed my friend’s strategy for taking cold showers that he used during this stay in Uganda.  It pretty much worked by standing in the cold shower for as long as possible and then getting out.  It was really uncomfortable.  I didn’t really feel clean, but that had to do.  When we got ready, we took the metro to Vatican City and that’s where the real sightseeing started.

When we got on the metro at Termini Station, we couldn’t help but notice these people standing against the wall of the metro tunnel in the area where people got on the train.  It seemed as if these people were scoping potential victims for pickpocketing.  My friend let me borrow a pouch that I could tie around my body and was hidden under my shirt, so I wasn’t worried about getting pickpocketed.  I noticed that these people kept staring at other people as they walked by.  It seemed super suspicious to me.  In order to avoid these people even more, we boarded the metro at the end of the train, where there’d be the least concentration of people.

Vatican City

When we walked out of the metro and walked toward St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, we could see into it a little bit, and it kind of prepared us for getting our minds blown when we saw the whole thing.  From the plaza, we could see the Apostolic Palace and St. Peter’s Basilica.  As I expected, my mind was totally blown away by how awesome the place looked.  We proceeded to the line up to see the inside of the basilica.  At that time, I thought the line up we were at was for the Vatican Museums, but apparently that was somewhere else.  It was only after we waited in line that I realized that we were in the wrong place.  We had an online reservation for 11 and we only figured out where we needed to be at about 10:50, so in those 10 minutes, we walked about a kilometer around the outside of the Vatican in the burning heat just to make that deadline.  We got in though.

We had bought tickets for the Vatican the day before so we didn’t have to wait in line for tickets when we were there.  Even if it cost us an extra 4 euros each, it was totally worth it.  The line up looked like it was going to take hours.

Inside the Vatican Museums, it looked like people just wanted to see the Sistine Chapel and the other exhibits didn’t really interest them.  I can understand since a lot of the statues and busts that they showed there are of people that are of no particular significance to most people.  Most people probably don’t even understand the paintings everywhere.  I know I don’t.  To me, these exhibits just look really cool and that is about it.  I don’t know the history behind them at all.  Maybe the only painting there that I sort of knew was the one of Euclid.  The painting of him showing off geometry in the street is in pretty much every single math textbook.

The museum was set up such that there was a linear path for everyone to follow and near the end of the path would be the Sistine Chapel, the highlight of the visit.  In this part of the museum, guests were not allowed to take any photos and also had to be silent in the area of worship.  Most tourists obeyed these rules except for a select few who insisted on taking photos (myself included).  Every now and then the guards would call out for everyone to be silent and many guards patrolled around the crowd telling people to put their cameras away.  I too got caught by one of the guards when I tried to take a photo, but all he did was tell me to put my camera away.  Some tourists though, kept using the flash and made it so obvious that they’re taking photos.  Little do they know that they were slowly destroying the paintings.  At least I know how to take photos without the flash.

On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, was the famous painting of the Creation of Adam where God can be seen giving the spark of life to Adam.  I was surprised that this painting blended in so well with the others.  I had originally thought that this painting would be much more prominent.  It seemed that way because the painting was so famous.

After finishing up the Vatican Museums, we went back to St Peter’s Square to see the basilica.  By now, all the tourists were out and about and as a result it took us about an hour of waiting in line to reach the security checkpoint for the basilica.  It sucked because it only took us about 15 minutes when we were there earlier.  We had pretty much already waited, but were forced to wait again.  We found that the church required a certain attire to get in.  People wearing shorts, tank tops, and short skirts weren’t allowed in.  Luckily, I had jeans on and that was allowed (although it was awful wearing them in 30+ Celsius weather).

The wait was worth it though because St. Peter’s Basilica was the best church I had ever seen.  When we got inside, we immediately noticed how beautiful everything was decorated.  To make it all better, the position of the sun was just right so that the light shone into the church as glory rays.

It seemed like every single part of the church had some sort of decoration.  There was hardly any section of white space.  There was always a statue or some sort of engraving.  I was totally blown away by this sight.  I tried my best to capture the beauty of the glory rays.  In the ray of light, I could see small particles of dust floating around that I never managed to capture with my camera.

The sight of this church instantly made me believe that the look of all the churches I’d seen to simply be inferior.  It’s almost as if I no longer see a point in visiting any other church when I know that this one is just going to be the nicest looking one.

Walking through the Town in the Evening

After leaving the Vatican, we went to the Spanish Steps to meet the walking tour that we learned about from our hostel.  The tour wasn’t very good for me since I had so much trouble understanding the tour guide’s English.  He didn’t speak very loudly either.

From the Spanish Steps, we walked to Piazza Navona. Along the way, we saw some Roman ruins and also the most beautiful fountain ever – the Trevi Fountain.

The Roman ruins we saw were of the Pantheon and the Temple of Hadrian.  Over the years, much of the Temple of Hadrian had collapsed and the only remaining parts were just the pillars. 

Next was the Pantheon.  We couldn’t go in at the time because there was a service going on, but we went back later once it ended. 

 

Our next stop was the Piazza Navona, the location of a very beautiful city square.  It was surrounded by very traditional Italian architecture and a very beautiful church with an Egyptian obelisk in front of it.

Once the tour ended, we went back to the Pantheon to wait for the service to finish.  We knew when it ended and timed it so that we only had to wait a few minutes.  Many other tourists knew this too, so the crowd of tourists just waited outside and just stormed in when it was time.  When we went in, the smell of incense was still in the air and it gave the Pantheon a good smell.

After all the walking around we got really hungry and ate at a restaurant in the nearby city square of Campo de Fiori.  At that restaurant, we got to try some delicious Italian pasta and beer.  That beer tasted so good at relaxing.  Definitely needed after walking in the baking heat all day.


After eating, we revisited some of the sights along the walking tour at night before heading back to the hostel.  The next day, we would visit the Coliseum and the surrounding Forum Romanum.

Okonomiyaki

Day 204

One of my friends, who had spent 10 months in Hiroshima, had the idea of cooking Okonomiyaki.  It consists of a batter cooked like a crepe, but with soba noodles, cabbage and eggs plus whatever people feel like adding (cheese, bacon, etc.) with Japanese mayonnaise, okonomiyaki sauce, green onions, and katsuobushi (the dried fish flakes) on top.  My friend bought all of this stuff at this Japanese grocery store in his home town.  To make it, we followed this recipe.

To begin, we started off by chopping up the cabbage, green onions and making the batter.  Since my flat did not have a large enough bowl, we ended up making the batter in a cooking pot.  It was quite difficult stirring the batter while adding in the flour without everything spilling.  Chunks of flour would always get stuck on the side of the pot too.  Once we finished the batter and cut up the veggies, we took out the teppanyaki grill.


At first, we didn’t oil up the surface before we started using the batter for the crepe layer, so it ended up sticking.  We couldn’t separate it to flip it either.  When we tried, we tore up the entire layer so bad that we didn’t try to proceed with that one.  We poured on some more batter and tried again, and the second time around, it worked slightly better – at least not so bad as the one before.

We added the cabbage on a vacant part of the grill and let the cabbage and crepe cook for a while before flipping the crepe over the cabbage.  We learned later that it was better to throw the cabbage directly onto the crepe and let both parts cook together.  Afterward, we started frying the Soba noodles.  We took the entire slab of noodles and spread it out as best we could on the grill.

Once the cabbage was sufficiently cooked, we moved the whole slab of cabbage and crepe and stacked it on top of the noodles and let that cook for a while.  Next came frying the egg.  We cracked the egg over the grill, popped the yolk, and swirled it around for a little bit to spread out the leaking yolk.  In the end, the egg just looked like a badly scrambled egg.  Then, we scooped up the stack of noodles, cabbage, and crepe and placed it on top of the egg.  After letting the egg cook until it was done, we took the entire stack off the pan.  We added okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, katsuobushi, and green onions.  As we added the katsuobushi on to the okonomiyaki, we could see the individual flakes shrivelling up due to the heat.

Between the layer of egg and crepe was soba noodles and cabbage.  We made others with different ingredients like cheese and bacon.  It was probably super fattening, but it tasted so good.  The sauce made it taste 10 times better.  I don’t know how Japanese mayonnaise is different from regular mayonnaise, but it’s definitely better.  We had enough ingredients to make 10 of them, so that each person could have two each.  As we kept cooking them, we got better and better at lifting the stack and flipping it.  The end product tasted so delicious and eating two of these filled me up real good.  I’m totally going to try and find a restaurant that makes these in Vancouver or if I’m feeling up for it, I can make it myself!

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