Noodles and Pie

This is the first trip I’ve ever really been able to keep a consistent travel diary, and it’s probably the least interesting reason for a trip–data collection. But maybe that’s why it happened this time. I usually get too caught up in my own thoughts and neglect the mundane plot of the story—although I suppose to everyone else, the whole story is rather mundane after all.

Honestly, I find the mundane fascinating. I would love nothing more than to be able to follow people around, just watching every moment of their day. Do they need their environment organized in a certain way? Do they have a habit of starting the day slowly, like I do, needing time to warm up the brain box both at home and then again at work, or do they just jump into the most complex problems headfirst?  How do they decide when the day is over? Do they feel guilty about wasting time, and how do they decide what their day’s work was worth?

That’s the thing about traveling for me—so much is happening at every moment and I have this need to get it all out, my observations and thoughts and the things that hurt and the things that excited me, and I need to share them with someone just so that it feels like I’m not existing totally alone in this weirdness of a foreign world in this moment.

Day 1

I arrive at 8am after an overnight flight. For the first time in my life, I accidentally get into an illegal taxi and the driver is a  kind of loud ditzy woman. She gets to the university area but can’t find the hotel, and leans out of the window yelling at people. We drive around in circles for a while before she drops me off in front of a building and assures me that’s the right one. It’s not. The people inside help me find the right place, which is two blocks down and one over. I drag my suitcase with an angry look on my face, trying to avoid the biggest bird splatters on the sidewalk.

It’s more of a hostel than a hotel, although I have my own small room and bathroom. No one speaks any English at all. There’s a water boiler in the room but no tea or coffee.

Meetings, rescheduled meetings, planning, planning to plan more meetings, emergency rice bowl, sleep.

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Day 2

Second morning and for the first time in a few days I feel fairly comfortable. Back and shoulders still sore from carrying two huge laptops and a docking station in a backpack, but feeling that sleepy warmth of muscles that have been used and stretched and rested. I’ve developed a traveling sleep cycle–I sleep for only a few hours at a time. It doesn’t seem long enough for much REM, but it feels at least partially restorative.

I saw the sky for the first time ever in my three trips to China. This morning is crisp and chilly, with clear blue sky and wispy whitish clouds. I don’t think the air smells any better, but the wind whistling through empty trees probably helps.

Afternoon

I’m getting less and less comfortable as the day goes on. Getting tired, getting hungry again. Tired of thinking so hard, tired of hurry-up-and-wait, tired of being “on.” Work wise, several crises appear. Things I thought were already dealt with are not ready, or have changed. Doors I need to enter are locked to me. I feel like I’ve said the same things over and over again, but they aren’t coming through. Things I expected to be prepared based on information I gave aren’t prepared, or things don’t match, and nobody told me it wouldn’t work that way.  I still don’t have all the information, or the full schedule, and even if everything here was perfect, I’m not confident in my own skills. I start wondering if my colleagues could have done this better. I keep wondering how I got here, here precisely now but also in a more metaphysical sense. On paper it looks like all of these “here”s are moving in a positive direction, toward who I want to be, but each time it feels like a fluke of nature, mere chance and happenstance. And that only makes me feel less in control of all of this life stuff.

I need to stop thinking of my project success as a moral issue. I know this is a problem for me, that I feel like I’m a bad person or bad at doing my job if a project doesn’t work out, even if I’ve tried my best. How much does it reflect on me as a worker, and how much does it reflect on me as a person? I’m doing the best that I can. What if it’s not enough?

Do other people have more “enough” than me?

It’s hard not to feel a little bit abandoned, with this attitude of pushing the little bird out of the nest in order to learn to fly. I’m sure in the future this will feel like a valuable learning experience, but right now it feels like a waste of time and funding. I’m not important enough to demand that things be done for me, so it’s hard to use up so much time of other people by asking. And putting me in charge of all the things just increases the chances of something going wrong.

I’m cold. The wind howls outside the lab window. Single paned windows, and the outer screen is dirty. All the windows are very dirty here, not just the everyday dirt that we forget about, the fingerprints and dust, but a thick, reddish-brown crust that covers everything that’s left outside. I wonder that no one seems to clean their windows or bicycles, and I guess it’s a losing battle, but it’s often a weird contrast with what’s inside the buildings, and I wonder how long it takes for the windows to go from clean to status quo. The students are all shoved into several large rooms with small cubicle-like office spaces that are covered in their things. Colorful, communal. I can barely function when there’s a full office of four of us, and I like all of them.

I’m hungry.

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Day 3

Breakfast is already starting to get old. Instant coffee with sugar upsets my stomach, as does the vast amount of refined carbs so early in the morning—white bread, stuffed steamed wheat buns, fried noodles, fried rice. I still try to hide my spreading-butter-with-chopstick move in case that’s rude. People here are morning people—I make it to breakfast much later than yesterday, around 8.30, and there are only stragglers left.

At the university, I’m very cold. It’s apparently normal to wear coats indoors because of the cold. There are heaters in the lab, but some windows in the hallway are open. A group of men are talking nearby, the only westerners I’ve seen since I left the airport. A student walks by wearing a short coat that looks intentionally inspired by Santa—it’s bright red with fluffy white trim and a wide black belt. A few student-frequented shops have Christmas stickers in the windows, and my hotel put up a small tree. The students tell me that young people have started to celebrate Christmas.

That big muscle in the heel of my right hand starts aching, and I remember this from my previous visits. I’m good at using chopsticks, but I don’t use them every day for every meal, and my hand feels the use. I feel my helplessness and loneliness, and every interaction is stressful.

I keep repeating to myself: I’m doing the best I can. I’m doing the best I can.

I’m really confused and uneasy about the pollution situation. Most people are wearing masks. If I think about it too long it makes me feel crazy.  Why is this okay? Who is trying to solve the problem? Why are people not rioting in the streets to get air that is safe to breathe that doesn’t smell like smoke and dirt and water that is safe to drink so that all this disposable plastic is not making the situation worse?

I find myself still baffled by the contrasts I see and I wonder what really are the values here. Comfort seems to not be a value at all, and cleanliness is an odd one—there are a lot of cleaning personnel I see around, but I’m not sure what it is that they’re doing. The toilets are constantly out of soap and hand paper, and the stalls often smell terrible. The floors and even walls don’t seem very clean, and the windows definitely aren’t. There’s a lot of litter and dirt on the streets, even outside fancy hotels or near nice landscaping. Maybe Finland is too efficient, too comfortable. This sort of lack of caring about the basic comfort of public spaces is odd to me. On the other hand, my hotel room is pristine apart from the outsides of the windows. The university has fancy nameplates on the departments, this lab has a beautiful logo and motto right as you come into the floor.

Personal etiquette is also confusing to me. I’ve heard about the table manners being different to Western culture, but it’s very apparent and starting to grate on my nerves. Slurping is everywhere and drives right into my skull as something that was never allowed in my own culture.   It sets my teeth on edge. People don’t cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze, which is really offputting to me. The spitting, too—I’m used to it now in Finland but still give perpetrators a nasty look because it really is disgusting, and it only takes one ill-timed loogie to land on your shoe before you develop a deep-seated hatred for everyone who spits in public. But here it’s practically a hobby—this morning I watched two security guards at the entrance to a building which was atop some stairs walk over to the edge and spit, one after the other. Extended, loud, aggressive hacking followed by a surely record-breaking distance of several meters.

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Day 4

I tried a new shop that is now my current favorite and managed to order some noodles with meat, in a broth with some Chinese spinach leaves and what I think were soynuts. They turned out to be thick, chewy noodles I recognized as udon, although I knew that udon are Japanese. Back at the hotel I did some research and learned that these thick noodles are called cu mian and are probably the predecessors of udon, which were actually invented in China in the early parts of the last millennium and imported to Japan as udon. In any case, they’re thick and chewy and delicious, and I resolve to learn how to make them back home. I also learned some words for noodle types: noodle dishes with “mian” or “mein” are made of wheat, while noodle dishes “fun” (tom fun, chow fun, etc.) are made of rice.

Again I fell asleep almost immediately after eating. I’m not inclined to blame jet lag because the pattern of sleepiness doesn’t make sense. It never does, for me. This pattern of falling asleep right after dinner and having a few hours of wakefulness in the wee hours is fairly normal during stressful situations for me no matter where I am in the world, and even if it were jet lag this time, it would be in the wrong direction—I’m waking up five hours even earlier than I should be. I’ve had the same thing happen before when flying east, so I just accept it as something my body does.

The weather is nice again today, at least nice for here. The sky is blueish. I’m so interested in the colours of the sky at sunrise and sunset—a kind of vivid, angry tangerine that’s very different from the clear, bright pinks and oranges of Finnish sunset. It’s a cloudier, glowier colour, like grapefruit juice with pulp in it, or like something is on fire.

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Day 5

I managed another crisis, a bigger crisis, and things seemed to come out better on the other end. I think I’m some sort of junkie for cognitive exhaustion—I think that’s why I do this.

Had the same noodles again—too tired to try anything new. Trying to walk around here is like playing a boss level of Frogger—jumping through different kinds of traffic and hoping they’re all going the right way.

I’m feeling very frustrated that people sort of assume that I can function in simple things like getting food—they don’t seem to realize that when you can’t read anything at all, and you have no shared spoken language, it’s almost impossible to do basic things.  It’s like there’s some sort of weird mental block that keeps people from comprehending what it means to have an unfamiliar language character system. You don’t realize how much writing there is that you rely on, even in a foreign language, until you can’t attach any meaning at all to it. No pictures, no word length, no cognates, no shared lettering system. It’s not even really a translation of anything you know, because it’s a different phonetic system entirely. Nothing. It’s as if you wake up one day and all the writing in your world is in Wingdings.

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Day 6

This morning I actually felt fairly rested for the first time, and I was finally able to figure out the breakfast rules. I had to go to the front desk to get a double paged voucher, sign it, and take the green carbon copy to the lady at the entrance of the breakfast room. She smiled and nodded at me today like this clueless western girl has finally got her shit together. I’ve decided the safest thing is to stick with the same breakfast every day–two steamed pork buns, fried rice with cabbage and sprouts, and a bowl of what I think is congee, a sort of pan-asian savoury breakfast porridge made of rice. I prefer the one made of corn to the rice, which sometimes has an odd bitter taste to it–the corn porridge is like very glutinous, watery grits but is pretty good with the pickled bean and peanuts. Today there was pickled cucumber in two different ways. And sweet, milky instant coffee, which I’ve grown to drink without noticing it’s too different from filter coffee.

Because I had gotten ready in enough time, I decided to check out the 24 hour convenience shop next door—maybe they would have something small I could bring for lunch. It had some Christmas decorations on the door and was playing “Jingle Bells” when I walked in, and was very similar to a Siwa (or a Safeway) in that it has a lot of snack food, small cakes and candies, nuts and things like that, some small personal products, and then a whole wall of ready to eat food, some hot, some cold–everything from regular cold takeaway sandwich packets to salads to Chinese noodles to warm steamed buns and hot breakfast sandwiches, even sushi!

It makes me feel so much better to know that there’s this available. One of the most stressful parts of traveling, especially traveling alone, and to unfamiliar places and often with less-than-fancy accommodations, is the feeling of not knowing where my next meal is coming from, and having to balance the need for food with the stress and anxiety of trying to navigate this foreign world. It’s a feeling of safety and security when you know there is always a backup option.

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Day 7

I go back to what I think of as the “rice bowl place”, which is actually called Running Chicken. While I was in there picking up my food, there was again a communication problem but I managed to point to what I wanted. As always, they were gracious about everything. It seemed like a cheerful place for students to hang out. To my right, two girls were sharing a bowl of chicken in some kind of sauce, and they were cheersing their bottles of juice. As I walked back to the hotel, I passed a young couple holding hands and laughing and an old man sitting on a bench. It was one of those moments of thinking, we are really all the same. We just want to share moments with each other.

Day 8

Objectively, I know I’m doing so much right now. I almost can’t believe that this autumn is nearly over—this is the last thing to do. This autumn that I didn’t know how I would survive. There are still logistics to work out, but the doing part is almost done.

Another day, another crisis. Trying to keep positive, trying to keep going. I’m tired.

Evening

Tonight, I was SHAT on. By one of these huge birds that cluster in the tall bare trees lining the road. It landed on my hat, which I guess was lucky because it would have been harder to clean out of my coat or my backpack. Still, it felt like a fittingly frustrating end to a frustrating day. Mistakes, busyness, hunger, tiredness, irritation.

I got some kind of hangover style club sandwich from the western style restaurant and ate it standing over my bed, half-dressed, trying to take off items of clothing in between bites. It’s a familiar form of hunger to me, that I can’t seem to wait to sit down to actually eat.  It’s a hunger that comes from cognitive stress, from 12-14 hour days, when it doesn’t matter what other comforts I don’t have, but my brain just needs some power and I can focus on nothing else. So I eat standing up, with one shoe still on and a cardigan wrapped around my neck.

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Day 9

A day off, but because I have to feel like I’m really taking advantage of my travel time, I go on an adventure to the tea market, where I went on my first trip here. Maliandao tea street. It’s fairly easy to find, although the metro itself was a 35 minute walk from my hotel. I have no idea why there isn’t a stop closer to the university. Beijing is enormous. The metro is very easy to use, but you have to get there first.

At the tea street I found a large indoor market which on the bottom level reminded me of the silk street—a big mall-like building with glass cubicles where vendors stand in the doors and yell at you to buy things. There wasn’t much tea laid out, and I couldn’t read any signs, so I checked out the upper levels. The top level was extra fancy, the kind of place where the salespeople follow you around and expensive teapots sparkle behind glass cases, but the middle level seemed like a wholesale-style setup with vendors arranged in open areas on the floor, with low walls made of tables stacked with their wares. It was friendlier and more low-key. Huge bags and big ceramic pots of tea stood open, so you could see clearly what you were buying. I spent a long time in there, asking around for prices and looking at everything. I ended up buying a few different types of tea–some lapsang souchong on request, and two types of oolong because it’s missing in my collection: a very floral, balled-up greenish oolong and the da hong pao, “big red robe” super-oxidized variety. I found some odd small round fruits that had been dried out and stuffed with puerh, but I already have two boxes of it and nearly half a kilo each of jasmine and a really lovely green tea I got from a small shop the first time I was here. I use a yixing clay pot and Taiwanese cups to brew the jasmine and green tea, and this time I also bought a beautiful little gaiwan cup that goes prettily with that set, for the oolong.

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I found myself drawn to the vendors who were women, which I think is a normal self-preserving sort of attitude when one is a traveling woman alone, but also to the vendors with younger women or family-looking groups. The girl who sold me the gaiwan cup was drinking tea with an older man who looked to be her father or uncle, and the oolong came from two different young girls. I think it’s also this feminist idea that I like to meet the strong, interesting women wherever I go, see what they do in their country, learn things about their culture from them. It makes me feel connected to the world, to all the amazing women out there.

I took the metro back without issue, but when I arrived at the stop to walk back to the university, I realized that that station had many exits and I had no idea which I was supposed to take. I walked around for a while trying to figure out where north was, and ended up giving up and hailing a taxi on the street. That particular station was in the middle of a huge highway ramp overpass system with roads that wound and circled around each other with a series of pedestrian underpasses leading to the other sides of the road—there was no way I could have figured out how to walk back. Luckily if you’re paid in euros, taxis are fairly cheap.

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After that I really needed a beer and some comforting environment, so I went to the Western place to sit down for dinner. It’s called Laker’s, run by young, cool people. The bartender has a small ponytail and big glasses, and the servers chat and laugh. It’s a festive feeling. The décor is really something else, something cobbled together from many interpretations of Western culture. It’s like a budget American ski lodge somewhere out West, decorated by your wacky great-uncle who has a particular liking for rock music, pinups and snarky novelty signs, and who hasn’t bought new Christmas decorations since 1962.

The tables are old picnic benches, lacquered in a dark stain with red cushions.  There’s a kind of kitchy string of wooden snowmen hanging off the bar that says “let it snow,” the paint distressed and very cute, like the things I saw all the time at craft fairs and flea markets and crafting shops growing up in the Midwest. On the bar, someone has drawn nipples on a small plastic mallard duck figurine. A New Jersey Devils pennant flies above the bar, and small flags of many nations are strung twice across the eating area, prayer flag style. A real leather saddle hangs above a fire grate that’s not in use, and there is writing all over the warm yellow-orange painted walls near built-in shelves of English books. A big wooden beam across the ceiling says “Carl was here” in thick, smudged marker. Around the bar towards the back of the place, there’s a foosball table. On the wall above the bar there hangs some kind of animal pelt, flanked by a Playboy bikini photo of Pamela Anderson and a photo of a young Michael Jackson.  The old fashioned Christmas kitch just pervades everything–decorations that are covered in sticky glitter for no apparent reason, faintly creepy plasticky Santa Claus cutouts with too-rosy cheeks, sprigs of very fake-looking mistletoe and holly. That familiar decorative wire with small plastic silver shiny stars hangs from a wall, the kind you can now get for any holiday—the décor that it just strikes me now was probably made in China all along.

The food is expensive compared to other places, but it’s something other than noodles and rice, so I go there several times. It’s pretty basic diner food, although interestingly—it’s clear that the cook has some kind of talent but it’s not really being fully expressed. The burgers are excellent, but the pasta was far too spicy, and the matcha cake was freezerburnt. The beer list is a pleasant surprise, focusing on Belgian ales. The menu is half in English, mostly successfully, although a few humorous translation errors remain, like the Frankfurt Bowel Flower in the snacks section. I’m assuming that’s some kind of sausage dish, but who really knows.

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Day 10

I can’t tell if I’m the kind of exhausted where everything is numb and I just don’t feel it anymore or if I’m getting to a point of normalcy where exhaustion feels like suffering. Why am I so tired? I’m seemingly getting enough sleep. I think it’s stress, and the pressure of being in charge of this. I think the idea of “retrospective fun” à la Sheryl Strayed really applies to things like this—I’ll see the value later, or it’s more valuable to me as a thing on paper, or as a thing that I have done, rather than feeling value in the doing.

There’s something about feeling comfortable and familiar in a new environment that makes a weird shape–it’s not linear. It starts out strong–every interaction, every stimulus gives you so much new information that you feel really aware and pick up on small things. When things go even a little right, it’s like everything is easy. And then it slows down and you realize how much you don’t know, and suddenly everything feels very foreign and difficult. It oscillates back and forth as it attenuates over time, but it never quite reaches zero. At least it hasn’t yet for me.

Sometimes I get this feeling in Finland, of wondering whether I really do fit in somewhere. When people ask why I want to stay in Europe in general, I answer because the culture fits me more, but am I really understanding the culture? Or am I still standing on the outside looking in, still interpreting everything through this lens of newness? Will I always be standing on the outside looking in? It’s a depressing thought.

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Day 11

It’s cold, so I get noodles for dinner. There are only five pictures on the menu and no words that I can read, so each time I point to a different picture and take whatever it is that they give me. So far it’s been beef. Not tonight. Tonight I get what I think at first glance is duck, but the edges of the meat strips are oddly hairy. Not like mammal hair—it’s thicker and coarser, and very hard to describe. It’s sort of flesh colored, maybe a bit orangeish, nothing extraordinary, and the rest of the meat texture and flavor is like duck. I try googling (bing…ing….) because being unable to identify a food is unnerving to me. No luck. Maybe it’s sea cucumber? Last time I unquestioningly ate what was given to me it was bugs. I eat the noodles around the meat.

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Day 12

No subjects today. I wish we could spread them out more evenly, but there’s only so much I can control. At least the data is being collected… I still don’t know how useful it will be. I’m trying not to think about that.

I participate as a subject this morning in a different study. Afterward I go to the student bakery and walk around for a while watching people to see how it’s done. You pick up a large deep-walled tray, place a lining paper in it, and grab a pair of tongs that are all by the door. Then you go around to the boxes and pick up what things you want. I got two savoury things, one that is like a savoury bread pudding with vegetables and bacon, and one that is some kind of flat pizza type roll. I also got a sweet muffin that also looks sort of like bread pudding with raisins, and a piece of bread that’s like very soft, fluffy Texas toast with some kind of very buttery, slightly sweet custardy coating on top. It’s unlike anything I‘ve ever had but totally captivating. I find out later that it’s known as Taiwanese sweet butter toast or brick toast. I also try some more small snacks—a tiny bread bun that last time was full of chestnut, although this time it seems to be a different flavor, and a lemon cracker, and some kind of wheat cookies. I stock back up on mandarins and I still have one delicious apple.

Snacks are important when traveling. You never know when you won’t get a meal. I usually try to have a few different kinds—something salty and with protein, something carby, something sweet, something fresh. Some that give me a quick shot of energy and others that will let me keep going even if I have to miss a meal.

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Day 13

I’ve become very effective at hoarding water. Every day I get a new water bottle in my room, and there’s an office-style water cooler in the lab that I refill two or three empty bottles with. Sure, I can buy water from the convenience store—it’s not expensive, but it comes in tiny plastic bottles and I haven’t seen any recycling containers.

I’m starting to get really fatigued, the kind of fatigue where you’re just done with it all, losing focus, losing motivation, losing positivity. There was a mix-up this morning that left me feeling angry and out of the loop, once again thinking some things are assumed when they are not.

Day 14

Frustrating. I’m really done by this point, just counting the hours. I’m tired, I’m bored, I’m irritated with people in general. Tired of the anxiety and all the physical exhaustion and mental irritability that comes with it. And I keep feeling that I want some kind of recognition for how hard this is for me. I know things are not as dire as I feel they are, and that in the big picture, it really doesn’t matter that much and on a bigger level, it’s such a great opportunity, a real honor. But it’s been so stressful for me, and I think things can be good but also hard.

Something else I struggle with that I think is related to the feeling of moral consequences of failure is this idea of whether my mood should be impacted by how successful I feel at my work. Not whether my mood can be impacted–of course it is–but whether I should feel sad if I’m not entirely sure whether I’m doing successful work at the moment. Am I allowed to be happy or to relax if something is wrong in my work? It doesn’t seem to work the other way around–I think it’s perfectly okay to find satisfaction in my work if something is going wrong in my personal life. If I think of it in terms of other people, of course I think it should be okay to find value and meaning and a sense of wellbeing in things other than work–you can’t work 24 hours a day and it’s healthier to make sure that holistically, you are okay, and that will make work more productive too. But I’ve never felt like I’m allowed to be happy unless I’m being successful. Which I think is a big problem.

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Day 16

I’m so close! One more subject, and then some time to pack in the afternoon. For a rare moment this autumn, I want time to go even faster. I keep fantasizing about myself on the plane–things are so easy once I get there. A few more challenges–getting a taxi to the airport, hoping I have enough cash left for it. Dragging my suitcase through check in. Carrying the heavy backpack. I have to change planes this time, a quick layover in Stockholm. I will probably only have time to get to my next gate. Wishing at this point I had brought a book–maybe there’s something interesting in English at the airport. Wondering if I’ll have cash left to get some snacks, or a nice chopsticks set. I know the airport shops now. Just have to be careful not to drink my coffee too fast after not really having any real coffee for two weeks.

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Finally Home

I got the snacks, a collectible stamp, an adorable set of wooden chopsticks with pandas carved into them. The first flight wasn’t great–questionable food, absolutely no electronic devices allowed, most in-flight movies in Chinese, rough landing. Flight from Stockholm delayed twice.

Home. Hugs. Pizza. Sleep.

A 9am meeting the next morning.

And then, Christmas, and some time at home, some time to myself, some time with friends.

And now, back. A new year.  A new thesis plan. More energy than before. (A fresh supply of tea and chocolate.)

Still doing the best I can.

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