at home in... w| Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

Look Closer, Learn More, #GetAtHome In This World

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“Drifting” through Shinjuku & Shibuya, Tokyo – Blade Runner Parkland

Tokyo, on my arrival and first days, presented itself as a megalopolis from high up, that felt like a collection of villages on the ground.
Back again, with the Autumn Festival taking place in the Meiji Shrine park and with the hustle and bustle of Shinjuku and Shibuya, it was parkland – and Blade Runner.

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Traveling with Memories: Back from Kyoto to Tokyo, Thinking Back to Twenty Years Ago

We don’t often have reason to think of where we’ve come from and where we’ve gone. In this world of instant communication and a fascination with youthful impulsivity, even less so.

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Osaka Impressions and the Expectations of Travel

It’s better to have seen once for yourself than heard a hundred times from others. Supposedly.

But is it? Do we really even see for ourselves?

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Santa Maria del Fiore

Florence, Italy, Travel Advice: The Must-Sees and the Overlooked

You can’t go to Florence and not see the Duomo, but how and why should you see and do what?

Here are my recommendations for things to see and places to be in Florence, Italy, looking at the must-sees and the overlooked in the middle of it (beyond the street art I posted before):

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Vatican - Swiss Guards

Violence and Vagabonding (via ‘Vinjabond’)

We hear so much about the violence in the world, it’s enough to make you never want to step foot out your door.

Terror attacks not just in Pakistan or Beirut, but in Paris and Brussels. Mass shootings. Planes that disappear and trains that crash.

At the same time, when we go out to travel, let alone about our daily ways, we hardly ever stop to think about the potential for violent attacks and accidents.

Getting on a plane comes with trepidation for some, but the more-routine drive to the airport doesn’t register as the (far) greater danger it statistically represents.

People who prepare to defend themselves are seen as rather weird, and the vibe off people who are gun-nuts or think that dressing themselves in military-looking garb in their everyday life will somehow make them more special ops-like special doesn’t help.

Inspiration in Unlikely People

Carryology has been running features with John V. Cain, “Vinjabond” , and he’s been an excellent example to wonder about.

(Which, I would like to point out explicitly, is the reason I’m using his example, same as I used the example of Tim Ferriss and ultramarathons: Not to try to push down a person, but to point out problems while suggesting lessons and learning from others, anyways.)

While talking about world travel and the great potential to meet new people and have new experiences, his number 2 “top travel tip” is that “meeting other people in a new country is the best part of travel — locals and other travelers alike. Make this a priority.

Nice, but he also presents himself (and his site) as all black-ops, where “[t]he way I look and dress apparently gives off an intimidating aura”  (Source: Carryology)- and in the process, he breaks the first rule of covert ops (the world he presents himself as belonging to) as well as simple travel: Don’t present yourself as a stranger, a tourist, someone who absolutely does not fit in.

Even Clint Emerson’s “100 Deadly Skills”, which “teaches us how to turn common household objects into brutal weapons in a pinch, which is almost as funny as it is terrifying” as Outside Online described it, in between seeking to hotwire cars and prepare for gunfights using books for body armor, points out that it’s a good idea to try and blend in:

Page 17: “Due to the highly covert nature of their missions, operatives go to great lengths to ensure that they blend into their surroundings. A carefully managed appearance allows them to operate undetected…”

Page 49: “[The] contents [of this gear bag for crossing enemy borders] should include mission-specific gear such as a change of clothes that will allow the operative to blend into the area of operation…”

Or, of course, you could look into any travel advice book and you’ll find similar suggestions to not draw undue attention to yourself by looking like an obvious tourist.

Meanwhile, Vinjabond vagabonds full-time, no matter how, no matter where, in Triple Aught Design all-black military-inspired gear, and with at least three items as part of his everyday carry-on-only travel gear that most airport security would not let pass, and with a pack made theft-proof in a way that screams for attention.

So, interesting as the Vinjabond Packing List was to see, I fear that such “This is how I travel / This is my everyday carry” posts would get mistaken for sensible advice rather than the theater of self-advertising they are (all the more so as the timeline of this blogging vagabond’s “covert operator” career, and his money-making via posts on money-making by travel posts, seem dubious to me).

The Real “But Wait!”

That having been said, this is not the point I truly find worthy of consideration and attention.

Rather, similar to the way things went with Tim Ferriss and his ultramarathon “Four-Hour Body” hack, I fear that the way these issues may draw controversy overshadows themes it would indeed be good to consider:

For one, in learning and training, it may not be a bad idea at all to play at a special ops-attitude, train hard and look for challenges.

“If it doesn’t suck, we don’t do it.”

The “Living with a SEAL“-attitude to want to do things exactly because they are hard may be a lot better, at least for the person who doesn’t overdo it and overlook when ‘softness’ is called for instead, than the take-it-easy approach to life that ends up wasting it away.

If you want to “enclothe” yourself in the fitting gear for that and it makes you feel more motivated rather than stupid, go ahead.

I’m not entirely innocent of a liking for dark and muted colors myself… but if you can’t let go of your one approach, you’re limiting yourself in a way that is a weakness.

Vatican - Swiss Guards

(Also, you might want to remember that even gaudy costumes can hide highly capable fighters…)

Martial Artist StereotypeSecondly, I think that it is not only good but even essential to be and look non-aggressive and approach people with kindness in everyday life, including and especially when travel is your everyday.

An intimidating aura” may be something you like to tell yourself you have, but it’s not the best method for getting to know others well.

However, it is not just the ominous “predators” that cynics and scared people fear everywhere that seem to mistake kindness for weakness, it is ordinary people who seem to assume that kindness cannot go hand-in-hand with strength and skill.

Preparing yourself for the potential of violence is not a bad choice or one that shows cynic pessimism, it is an attitude that is realistic.

While you learn self-defense against attackers, don’t forget to also learn how to treat those wounds you fear may happen, though.

In all likelihood, that skill is much more likely to come in handy.

When you are strong and skilled, when you know how to handle yourself and how to evaluate and avoid danger, or how to face danger if you must, preferably without a constant aura of violence hanging around you, you have not given up on optimism and kindness.

Ideally, you are putting yourself into a position where it is much easier to be kind.

Then, if you never need those “dangerous” skills, you’ll still have learned something useful, developed skills that may come in handy and make you more useful and in control of your life.

There are definitely worse ways to be. Just don’t go all “gear-queer” and think that that’s enough…

Morning Sport on the Limmat, Zürich

A Weekend in Zürich, An Earth-Shaking Birthday

Travel makes you a better person, they say.

Traveling, in my opinion, should be something that makes you more at home in this world. Which, contrary to what many people love to argue, it will not automatically do.

Just a quick trip, just so you can say how much you “travel” and how many places you’ve been – as so many travel bloggers and vagabonds seem to take and do, in order to present themselves as knowledgeable and inspirational “world travelers” – won’t do it.

On that, I’m with Werner Herzog (paraphrased) saying that “Every idiot can go to [any place]”

That said, In the middle of a life getting more at home where it is located, side trips can be rather nice.

Aside from a family visit to China this summer, my wife and I will not get too many chances to travel, and so I decided to sweep her away to Switzerland for my birthday weekend.

Enough snow (and some snowfall) still...

Enough snow (and some snowfall) still…

Suunto Kailash in Innsbruck

Past Innsbruck, with the Suunto Kailash showing that we’d be there now

Worse things than having seen a bit of Zürich, and the Austrian railways’ “Sparschiene” (“savings track,” one could translate it) made getting there cheap and comfortable enough, expensive as the city itself turned out to really be.

With the Zürich Card for three days, another pile of money was gone, but we could take all the public transport and visit quite a few museums for free, which made it worth it.

What’s there to be found; what did we find? Well…

Of course, given the Bahnhofstrasse and its upscale boutiques, there was quite a bit of a window shopping opportunity to make one feel truly poor in comparison.

Window Shopping in Zürich's Bahnhofstrasse

Window Shopping in Zürich’s Bahnhofstrasse

That the very first quick meal of fried noodles at a mall cost some 26 bucks did not exactly do anything to change that perception.

The city itself, though, is pretty nice to just walk and have a look around, even if the first day turned progressively more rainy and uncomfortable.

In fact, while we were sitting in the café/restaurant Odeon (which is nice) for a hearty Swiss breakfast (which wasn’t too well made, actually), there was some pretty heavy snowfall. Funnily, the café looks a lot like any traditional Viennese coffee house, but the people outside in the snow seemed decidedly less fazed by the bad weather than Viennese.

Café Odeon, Zürich

Café Odeon, Zürich

Next stop, the Kunsthaus. A place where a ticket was to be bought separately, with only a rebate thanks to the Zurich Card, but also a place for the person with any interest in art at all to definitely visit.

First off, for the Rodin sculpture outside… Did you know that a (the?!) famous thinker is part of a bigger sculpture, which portrays the door to hell? Gives rise to interesting thoughts to see that, but should it? ;)

Rodin's Thinker as part of the Gate to Hell

Rodin’s Thinker as part of the Gate to Hell, Kunsthaus Zürich

Older (yeah, yeah, classical) art abounds inside, some of it showing that those artists of yore had almost as many issues with breasts and breast feeding than some modern Facebook readers, with less of a knowledge of or care for human anatomy…

Showing breastfeeding in public - and little knowledge of actual anatomy...

Showing breastfeeding in public – and little knowledge of actual anatomy…

… some of it a lot of fun if only you make it so.

Classical Sculptural Pose ;)

Classical Sculptural Pose ;)

And funniest of all, there was an exhibit on artist’s self-portraits across time. Interesting to see, and great food for thought, in this age of the selfie.

Food-wise, the greatest find was the Hiltl, Zürich’s oldest-in-Europe vegetarian restaurant.

Frankly, I was a bit dubious at first about going there. Good thing we did, for they also have a buffet with a great selection of foods. Much of it is Indian-inspired, all of it was tasty and great as example of all that can be done with “nothing but vegetables”.

Hiltl, Zürich

Hiltl, Zürich

And they are having fun with it, too, which is missing from so much of the food discussion…
We ended up going there three times during the two days.

(I also paid a visit to Beat Heuberger and his chilli and pepper and wine shop. More on that to come on ChiliCult!)

For my birthday, in the middle of the final lectures on geology and mineralogy I’ve been having to take for my current teacher training study program and which are pretty universally abhorred by students, we paid a visit to the FocusTerra exhibit.

ETH Zürich Focus Terra

ETH Zürich Focus Terra

The mass of information about geology and all the ways we encounter it in daily life was already interesting; the part that admittedly drew me most was that their Sunday tour includes a visit to the earthquake simulator.
It only traces the 2D movement of different actual earthquakes, but that alone is enough to get a little glimpse of what it would be like to be in an earthquake:

That exhibit/experience was also the perfect excuse to head to the ETH Zürich, on a second day that really turned into the “first day of spring in Zürich”, as Beat had told me it would during the rain of the day before.

My wife has a physics background, so the ETH is something of a pilgrimage site… and Google Photos turned the mass of photos I took into the full picture I wanted to make of it:

ETH Zürich

ETH Zürich

The view from the Polyterrasse was quite rewarding, as well:

Zürich View from Polyterrasse, ETH

Zürich View from Polyterrasse, ETH

And with a few more views, I’ll just bid you Goodbye from this post which, for once, will not try to encourage you, my dear readers, to do anything in particular ;)

Morning Sport on the Limmat, Zürich

Morning Sport on the Limmat, Zürich

Fun can be had anywhere... (not just) in Zürich, on the cheap

Fun can be had anywhere… (not just) in Zürich, on the cheap

Mediterranean-Alpine Flair, Zürich

Mediterranean-Alpine Flair, Zürich

Café Peclard, Zürich

Café Peclard, Zürich

Cabaret Voltaire, Zürich

Cabaret Voltaire, Zürich; the birthplace of Dada

View from the Uetliberg above Zürich, at sunset

View from the Uetliberg above Zürich, at sunset

Austria by Train

And back we went again…

Run under Orion

The ONE Thing You Must Do Before You Die

You will often hear that you should “buy experiences, not things.

This anti-materialistic piece of life advice has solid foundations in psychological research; even less-than-stellar experiences can (and probably will) eventually turn up as interesting memories and good stories to tell, while even the greatest of purchases will likely turn out less than satisfying in the long term.

Unfortunately, though, the misunderstanding taking “buy experiences, not things” rather too literally is all around.

When that gets started in its consumerist, touristy attitude, it focuses on the buying, we get to the shopping lists of “100 things to do” and “1000 places to see“, often “before you die” and sometimes, even worse in its tourist-consumerist nature, “before they disappear.

Experiences are meant to make a person and a life more interesting, but these lists – even while purporting to be for that – often do just the opposite.

Ted Trautman, in The Atlantic, discussed the rise of the “bucket-list books” very nicely, but I think that Henry Wismayer on Medium put it best:

“Look, I’m not saying that certain types of travel are without value. Get away, get some sun, write a journal, prostrate yourself before the altar of benumbing technology and record every step of your journey on social media if it makes you feel better about yourself. Just realize: if your travelling is a box-ticking exercise; if you predicate even one iota of self-worth on how many countries you’ve visited; if you think in bucket-lists inspired by clickbait ‘10 best’ listicles appealing to the lowest common denominator, from one deluded c*nt to another, travelling isn’t making you interesting. It’s just confirming your position as one of the crowd.”

Trying desperately to live life in a more special way and looking for other places and other people to make it so, you just distract yourself from actually, truly, living your life where you are.

There is truly only one thing that you must do before you die: you must live.

Run under Orion

One possibility for experiencing the well-known in new ways that I keep coming back to: Running at night.

Sure, you will have been alive before you die, anyways. That doesn’t mean anything much by itself; and ultimately, a life doesn’t mean much, anyways.

Your life will be somehow like those of all others, for you are a human being, and the (ancient) Roman playwright Terence’s words “homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto” – I am a human being; I consider nothing that is human alien to me – still ring true. Childhood and adolescence, partnerships and heartbreak, pleasures and sorrow, they are all somewhat alike.

No, even if all lives are going to be somewhat alike, and even if it looks like only a truly extraordinary life, of a person who will be remembered through the ages, really makes for anything much, it is still just ordinary living that you will probably experience – and that you can make extra-ordinary for yourself, good for yourself and others, without much of what we keep considering oh-so-extraordinary.


Your life will also be uniquely and distinctly yours, after all. The more so, the more you actually live it on your own terms rather than guided by the same lists of things that must be done and places that must be seen as everyone else.

You can create a positive influence on your patch of soil, in your community, and probably with much more of a positive effect than any highfalutin rich person wanting to change the world (and have you ever noticed how that is typically change for all the others, not much of a change in how they themselves live?).

All the distraction of the lists of special places and things comes to a head when you consider this:
What you really need to learn in order to grow is what you don’t even know that you don’t know.

Sure, there is probably, hopefully, a lot you want to learn and a lot you (think you) know but don’t quite know as deeply as you think you do.
Lots to do even there, with things you know and want to know.
There are, probably, places you want to go, are fascinated by, and could learn about by experiencing them, at least.
So, go.

Just don’t forget that you’re probably overlooking a lot that can be learned – and created – right where you are, in places you would overlook because not everyone is talking about them, but that might talk to you and teach you something that will deeply matter to you.

Neither forget that the deepest growth is not in the comfort of adding a few details here and there, having been to a place and now thinking you know it because you have seen it, expanding a little on something you are already somewhat good at. Learning and growth happen a lot when you are shown where your limits lie, and when you move beyond them.

Following a list of places one must have seen is nothing if not superficial; it just takes a glance, maybe moves on after a few snapshots, leaves a checkmark next to another “must-do,” but it isn’t a life deeply lived.

There is no surprise, no learning, no growth.
Just the “been there, seen that, done that” that gives a quick shot of excitement but isn’t much more.

To really learn, to really live, you must live more deeply, go where you wouldn’t normally go and where no guidebook tells you to, stay in a place and make the grass greener where you are.

Make yourself at home.

Old Globe, Vatican Museum

The Stay-at-Home Traveler

There I was, watching a documentary about Tibet, dreaming of snow-capped mountains and fascinating traditions… as I looked out at snowy mountains and wondered about the views and traditions at home that we forget.

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The (Non-)Traveler’s Dilemma: You Travel, You Learn?

At the end of July 2012, my wife and I had gone to Italy to see a bit of Rome and Florence. From Vienna, close to which we have been living (and where I’m from), it’s just not so far or expensive as to make that look at a bit of European culture and history avoidable.
Presently, it’s summer 2013, and we find ourselves in China to pay a visit to her parents. Farther away and more expensive, it’s a trip that’s quite necessary, given how well it’s possible.

And right there, the dilemma lies.

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