Chanoy Honeymoon: Cixi, Zhejiang Province, China, April 2016

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.

Finishing our long European honeymoon with a quick stopover in China to see the maternal side of my family only helped to emphasise how ridiculously lucky we were to take the trip and to have the opportunities that we had. It’s not just that a trip of this magnitude would be entirely unaffordable for most of my Chinese family members. It’s also the education and the worldliness that we had growing up in Australia that has contributed to us wanting to go overseas to explore different places.

My family members are all entirely content living where they live in China, and never venturing outside of the country. “You don’t have this ingredient in Australia do you,” is a frequent sentence uttered at my grandmother’s dining table as they take delight in serving up strange sea creatures up for dinner. The idea of having to travel overseas and only eating hamburgers and steaks is horrifying, because they simply don’t know that there’s anything else available.

They’ve never been taught about the nuanced differences between different “Western” countries, and so French, Polish, Greek and English cuisines all meld together as a homogeneous cuisine of hamburgers and steaks. Why go overseas for that when you can have fresh fish and clams for dinner every night? After all they believe that it’s not like there’s any other historical or cultural things of interest to be found in other countries, because China is the greatest country in the world with the best culture and history.

This insular world view is made all the more ironic by the fact that the village where my family live is now more developed than ever with a greater exposure to the Western world. I even saw Westerners on local business in the hotel we stayed in! I spent a lot of time reminiscing to K about how things used to be whenever I visited as a child, and how different it now is.

Where we once had to do our business in a chamberpot, now there’s indoor plumbing. Where my grandfather once toiled in the fields, now the fields have been turned into factories and tiny one-room homes for the migrant workers flocking to the area for factory work. Where we once had to take an overnight ferry to the area from Shanghai, now there’s a new bridge that cuts the travel time to two hours on a public bus.

Just the fact that there are now restaurants and street food stalls in the area highlight how things have changed. They never used to exist because everyone cooked at home – what was the point of going out to eat? It’s only with the growth of the migrant worker population (now outnumbering the ‘locals’) that cheap restaurants and street food stalls have opened up to cater to those who don’t have full kitchen facilities in their tiny one-room residences.

I guess it just goes to show that even as the country develops at a breakneck pace and the standard of living is raised in China, it will take much longer for people’s mentalities and worldviews change. It certainly doesn’t help when the local CCTV news station reports on news the way that they do. My relatives remarked to me at one point, “Oh, isn’t it lucky that China doesn’t have shootings the way America does? We’re so safe here.” Yes, if you ignore all the corruption, human trafficking, drugs and domestic violence statistics…

I love China, the food, and my family of course. But I can’t help but wish for them to have greater exposure to the world and different ways of thinking that aren’t dictated to them by the Communist Party.

Chanoy Honeymoon: Krakow and Warsaw, Poland, April 2016

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.

There’s a friendly rivalry between Krakow and Warsaw in Poland that reminds me of the rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne. Krakow holds a grudge against Warsaw for taking the title of ‘capital city’ away from them, and proudly claims that they have a longer history and local culture. For their part, Warsaw generally pretends that Krakow doesn’t exist and claims to be the epicentre of everything truly Polish.

Both cities have their attractions but just as I’ll always be a Melbourne girl rather than a Sydney girl, I have to say that Krakow rather than Warsaw holds more appeal for me. Built on a slightly smaller scale, Krakow feels more real and authentic, rather than artificial and manufactured. To be fair, Warsaw can’t help being a bit artificial – their ‘old town’ might look old, but it was actually only built in the past 50 years as the city was almost completely devastated by World War Two. As a result, what looks old is actually quite new, and what’s new are entirely cold and alienating monolithic Communist-era buildings.

By far the highlight of our time in the two cities were the free walking tours we did with the Free Walking Tour Foundation. While there are many cities that offer free walking tours, Poland does it particularly well. In each city, they not only offer the standard sights and history tour, but also a handful of themed specialist tours.

We did the Food Walking Tour in Krakow, as well as the Street Art Tour. In Warsaw, we did the Warsaw at War tour and the Alternative Warsaw tour. These specialist tours give you a fantastic insight into not just the ‘old town’ touristy parts of a city, but also into local culture, food, lifestyles. It’s an experience that I can highly recommend – guides are well-informed, knowledgeable and very engaging in the way that they talk about their city as well. You can tell when someone is passionate about their work, and these guides definitely were!

I also recommend doing a daytrip to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Auschwitz when in Krakow. It’s not a fun or exciting trip. It’s incredibly bleak and sad. But it’s important. There was a quote by George Santyana that was painted on a wall in one of the buildings in Auschwitz, and I think it applies in this case: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

While most of us will spend some time in school learning about World War Two, it’s hard to truly understand the true human impact of the atrocities committed in camps like Auschwitz. It’s not until you start to see the photos and hear some of the personal stories of people who were sent to the camps that you really begin to see what it meant to a whole generation of people. Lives were changed irreparably. Families lost loved ones. Whole families were lost. A whole community of people were lost.

Couple a visit to Auschwitz with some of the free walking tours focused on the Jewish history of Poland for a greater understanding of the devastation wrecked by the Holocaust. Be prepared to cry.

The food in Poland can a bit hit-and-miss, more so in Warsaw than Krakow I think. Our meal at Na Bednarskiej Pierogi in Warsaw was highly disappointing and it was really just the pastries we bought from Croque Madame that were particularly enjoyable. Our meals in Krakow were much better, with a good meal at Polakowski and a fantastic food walking tour around the city as well.

To finish this entry, I’d like to reiterate what I said about our meal at FamilijnyIf you feel lucky in being able to travel, then spread your good fortune where you can. Visit a canteen that welcomes homeless people if you go to Poland and order more than you need. Your leftovers won’t go to waste.

Chanoy Honeymoon: Budapest, April 2016

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.

One of my uncles on my father’s side of the family goes to Budapest regularly for business. I don’t quite understand precisely what it is that he does, but I think he’s a property broker of sorts, helping wealthy Chinese buy properties in Budapest to kick-start their applications to become citizens of a European Union country. Whether or not that’s the right thing to do is irrelevant, it’s just something that will continue to occur as the size of wealth grows in China.

Anyway, he always raves about Budapest and Hungary but I’d never given it much thought as he does tend to speak in hyperbole most of the time. He’s entirely correct though, Budapest is a fantastic holiday destination. It really does have everything to offer: 1) old castles; 2) great river views; 3) surprisingly good and cheapish food; 4) a spa and public bath culture; 5) a fantastic city park; 6) amazing stories from their cultural history.

The real highlight of Budapest city is the old Jewish Quarter. Formerly the Jewish ghetto during World War 2, it’s now a very cool enclave of hipster stores and great street food as I’ve previously mentioned. It’s hard to forget the history though – we joined a very sobering tour of the Jewish District where we learnt about the fate of the Jewish population during the Holocaust amongst other facts.

The same company does a few other great free (tip-based) walking tours which we joined. The Original Tour visits many of the key sites around Budapest and covers some local history and cultural talking points as well. The Communism Tour is less of a walking tour of sites, and more of an oral history of life during the Communist era of Hungary.

We were particularly lucky with the tours that we joined as the guides were perfectly suited – an older lady who had lived through the Communism years ran the Communism Tour, a guide from the Jewish museum ran the Jewish District tour, and a born-and-bred Budapestian ran the Original Tour. I’d definitely recommend joining some of these tours for an understanding of Budapest, its people, culture and history!

Other highlights of our stay in Budapest included a visit to their Cat Cafe! It was a real treat for me to be surrounded by cats again, as I had been missing my own cat back home. Seven months is much too long to be separated from one’s pet! I also enjoyed the afternoon tea we had at the Book Cafe in Lotz Hall. They do great hot chocolate and cakes, but the real highlight is its location in a former pre-war ballroom which is a fantastic example of ornate Neo-Renaissance gold-gilded decor.

We had meals at Belvarosi Lugas Etterem and Ket Szerecsen, but I think the real highlight in Budapest is its street food. I loved our visit to Street Food Karavan in the Jewish Quarter, as well as the snacks of langos (deep-fried dough with sour cream and cheese!) and the kurtosh chimney cakes along the way.

I’m going to join my voice to my uncles’ – visit Budapest! It’s like a less touristy version of Prague, but even that is going to change soon as more and more travellers visit Budapest for their cheap prices, great food, and variety of different activities. Get in now while you still can.