August 31, 2012
BUSAN. I’ve I recently returned from my first summer of classes at the European Graduate School for my PhD study. I had received a good amount of advance knowledge regarding the way things work there prior to my arrival. That, plus the fact that it was a another bubble experience, a pull further inward from my existing bubble life in Korea, meant that the shock was probably less weighty for me than it probably was for other first time students. Even so, it was quite an experience.
Before arriving, I took advantage of the Swiss location to do some traveling around Western Europe. I arrived in Zurich, a typical European city—attractive, old, pleasant enough, and expensive. After two days of surviving on doner kebap, I moved northish to Freiburg. There I caught up with my sister, niece and nephew. They were in Brussels with my cousin, and so I invited them to meet me in Bavaria. After a few days there, they moved on to Paris and I went to Marburg, a gorgeous old German city. Upon arrival I thought: I could live here. Maybe I will spend some extended time there in future, but this was a mere four nights before I met up with my sister again and cousin in Brussels. After a few nights in Belgium, I flew to Pisa, which was frankly something of a shithole from what I could see. But it was a cheap landing point allowing me to connect to Rapallo, the Italian riviera, and Cinque Terra.
I met Geoffrey there, my friend who lives in Nanjing and the one who introduced me to EGS; and George, a Busan friend, who like me is a newby to EGS. We spent a good week hanging out in the surroundings there and also in gorgeous Lake Orta in the mountains. Then we grabbed a train and crossed over the Alps to Visp, where we caught a bus to Saas-Fee, Switzerland, home of EGS.
Saas-Fee, at roughly 6,000 feet above sea level, is the postcard image of Switzerland. It quite literally is in the middle of nothing but pure beauty—no cars, little technology. The hills were indeed alive, and you had to constantly resist giddy urges to bound through the green grass while gaping at towering peaks and glaciers. It is quite stunning, but while it may feel somewhat blasphemous to admit, there is something of an artificial quality at work. Switzerland works hard to keep everything sparkling clean. But it’s evident that the manufactured tourist village of Saas-Fee is constructed to produce of artifice of old-world charm. That clinical aesthetic, if you choose to cock your head a certain way, can be slightly creepy.
But that would be quibbling and is meant more as an observation than a judgment. My three-plus weeks there were rich beyond belief. School began by arriving at the central hotel and meeting a few fellow students. Then we marched up the hill for our orientation, delivered in a madcap speech by our program director. The next morning the starting gun fired and we were into our schedule. Days began with breakfast at 9 and ended when night lectures finished at around 10. Then, if the mood strikes (usually) it was off to the bar to bond with students and, in some cases, faculty. We only had one day off per week, and I used both of mine to get away and explore the mountains.
It’s difficult to summarize my experience there. I met some fantastic people, folks who I believe will remain friends for a very long time. I had my mind blown by philosophical ideas many times over. And the uniqueness, the isolation, the concentrated dose of mental churning all combined into something that seemed to open up new areas of thinking, not just about ideas and academics, but my relationships to others in my world.