Friday, July 31, 2009

A Comedy of Errors

So it went like this. We woke up around 10am yesterday, we packed, we emailed confirmation with Jason one more time to make sure the situation was settled, and we went to Gare de l'Est (East Train Station) to get our train reservations.

Problem #1: There was no availability for Eurail pass users--the nifty, any 6 days of travel within 2 months in the 4 countries we picked (Benelux, aka Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands; France; Germany; and Italy, which we won't use)--until the 5:40pm train! Badness: we were planning on taking the 2pm train! Okay, fine; we emailed Jason, he said no problem, we put our luggage in storage at the train station (10 euros!), and decided to walk around.

Lovely! We saw a whole lot just walking around. There was the Louvre and the whole Royal Palace, then the Tuileries Gardens (the royal palace's gardens), then the Place de la Concorde which has a genuine Egytpian monolith. From there, we could see: the Royal Palace and gardens behind us, the Eiffel Tower off to the left along with some dome that was covered in gold, and more gardens in front of us ended by the Arc de Triomph. We wandered looking for food and internet, and found the Academy of Music or something like that, and fancy schmany stuff. We ate a rather bad meal in this tacky place running "classics" on VH1 that was billed as the Great American Dream Diner--couldn't make this stuff up. We also hung out for a bit at Starbucks to use their internet, then went back to the train station and had a snack and read.

So, we took the train from Paris to Metz. We went outside and it was a gorgeous train station with this charming garden. We went back inside 15 minutes before our train was due to leave, went to the right platform, got on, and then I hopped off to double-check because the wrong departure time had been listed. Oh, my God, wrong train! I jumped back on and CHARGED Matt, but we didn't make it!

Problem #2: We were on a train to STRASBOURG! (The completely opposite direction!) Damn Matt wanting to be overprepared and being a little panicked at this, only his second day in a non-English-speaking-country. I managed to actually speak French with the conductor, who told us we could get off at the next stop (after 20 minutes) and wait an hour there for a train directly to Luxembourg. We would therefore miss our connecting train to Trier, Germany, and not arrive in Germany until midnight!

OH MY GOD. Matt had a little GAAAAARRRR moment, but it was all good. A German kid from Koln had done the same thing! So we hung out at this tiny, nothing train station in Morhange, France, where this absolutely nuts guy--French, German, Dutch, Austrian???--talked nonsense, but DID lend Matt his phone card, so that Matt could call Beth, Jason's wife, and explain. She basically laughed at him and said no problem. Phew! We talked with the very nice German kid, on his way home from a couple weeks on a quiet beach in Lisbon, and then climbed on an hour later to Luxembourg. We hit the train station, and it's all being redesigned and remodeled, so it looks almost the same as I remember, both inside and in the area just across from the station. Strange, like a dopelganger. We waited for an hour and were very, very cautious getting onto the train for Trier, because we didn't want to mess up again.

So then, we arrived and saw Jason right away waiting for us. We drove back to his house in a small town next to the air force base, we talked for a few hours and met their 7-month-old, I tried a corn dog (not bad, but pigs in a blanket are still better), and went to bed.

Hence, a comedy of errors.

Voila. Three countries in six hours, though, people. That's nice.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ahhh Paris

Well... it's been a rough couple of days, people.

I'm not playing the blame game here, but I made the first mistake when I accidentally booked us on a flight at 7am this morning from Glasgow to Paris, instead of around 4pm this afternoon. Then, irritated about that, Matt and I both failed to even so much as consider that Glasgow, for the love of Pete, had two mother-freakin' airports, when there's an airport in Edinburgh--the two towns are a 50-minute train ride apart, that's closer than Chicago and Milwaukee--until it was too late to change / cancel the hotel reservation. The Tourist Info office in Glasgow sucked; I've been in a lot, and I can say with great authority that they sucked--they didn't even have bus timetables to look at! I wouldn't have minded if the girl had said, So sorry I can show you the timetable but it's my only copy. But she didn't have one, told us we'd have to go to the bus station; the bus station said that the airport itself, not a public transportation service, offers the bus to Glasgow and we'd have to book it online; and the website for the service said you have to book more than twelve hours in advance.

So yeah. The only upside about Glasgow? We ate a Pizza Hut--yeah, yeah, yeah, but it was actually delicious, a real restaurant WITH FREE REFILLS and a nice waitress. I had mastacoli (however you spell that) with alfredo sauce that had a nice little pepper bite to it and garlic ciabbatta and Matt had a sausage and ham pizza and stuffed mushroom, plus Pepsi. Too full for the fried cookie dough dessert they had. They had a salad bar! Then we went back to the hotel, Matt read for two seconds and conked out, and I read for a while and went to bed.

We woke up at 3:30 this morning, were out of bed by 3:45, out of the hotel by 4:00, at the bus stop by 4:20, on the bus at 4:25, and at Glasgow Prestwick (not Glasgow Airport) by 5:15. We'd checked our luggage by 5:25 and then when we went through security, I was MAD GROPED impersonally by a lady security guard, including making sure the underwire of my bra wasn't a dangerous weapon and that my butt is all real, because the gate thing beeped at me. By 5:50 we were having a little breakfast, and then we were on the plane, nice flight (we napped).

And Paris! I love Paris! I was here for two days the first time I was here (June, 1999), two days the second time I was here (summer, 2000), for an hour between Luxembourg and Bordeaux (fall, 2005), for a day one weekend in Luxembourg (winter, 2005), and that was it. And Matt's kind of like, "So, Zoe--what do we do?" As if I know! I haven't bought a Metro ticket myself EVER, it's not like I have the system memorized, and I was tired, dazed and cranky as hell. And he was cranky too and I wanted to smack him and he wanted to smack me. Fine. It takes a few minutes, but we get it all sorted out, including probably way overpaying for two limitless number of ride tickets for the Metro and intracity trains. Whatever. We get to the hostel at long last--and by that, I mean like 11am local time (Paris is an hour later, so I'm now seven hours ahead), and it's STIIICKY in Paris. We stashed our luggage, walked around, saw a church, the Pantheon (the French one...), Notre Dame and the Ile de la Cite, the Bastille monument in the middle of a roundabout, a long walk to Pere-Lachaise Cemetaire. Then we took a very long walked on bad cobblestones to see dead people's gravestones; for instance, Balzac, Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde (the best), Gertrude Stein, lots of very sad World War II and Holocaust memorials, and a couple of painters, plus other just nifty ones with art. We had our first real gelato and a lot of water, now we're at the hostel.

And so, tonight we shall walk around the biggies a bit, to the Louvre complex, the Arc de Triomphe, walk down Champs Elysees back to the Louvre and then Metro it home to sleeep. Tomorrow morning, we don't leave until around 2pm, but we need a train reservation so we'll need to get there a bit early, so we don't know what we'll do. Sit at the train station and write postards, probably.

Still, I love Scottish people and French people, even Parisians, and there's nothing anyone can do about it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Why do you have three guitars?

As I write this, to be typed and posted later on, I'm sitting on the train from Edinburgh to Glasgow, listening to the fife and bagpipes over electronica beats sound of the Peatbog Faeries, realizing that dozing off on the train probably won't happen. I'm also realizing, far too late, that Scotland holds as much appeal to me as Ireland did, and that we're not spending nearly enough time here. We'd need to hire a car to spend weeks exploring the Highlands and the surrounding islands. But my imagination is sparked, my curiousity piqued and so it shall stay until I make it back here.

Fields of heather roll by and I'm tired enough that my mind gives the impression that maybe the train is still, that its the world outside the window is moving by, like some old film backdrop from the 40s. The illusion is ruined by the arrival of a train station and new passengers, but the sentiment stands. And I'm truly tired, my eyes feel fuzzy, my mind functioning at half-clip - at Edinburgh Waverly I forgot how to count change while trying to pay for my coffee. I have a hard time falling asleep in a mixed dorm, alone in a twin bed, room full of strangers lending me a slightly unnerved feeling to an already frayed and care-worn psyche. To make matters worse, one of the bunkmates began snoring, ripe full of allusions to the timber industry, his gaping, cacophany-producing maw mere feet from my forlorn aural channels. I plugged in my headphones, hoping the Peatbog Faeries would help, but alas, not even the droning of bagpipes could drown out this psychological terrorism.

Sleep is something I'll only be peripherally acquainted with over the next few days, it would seem. Due to an error in online booking, our flight from Glasgow to Paris is at 6am, which hurts my brain to think about, but Ryanair charges more than our combined flight plus baggage fees to make changes to our flight, so we cowboy up, as it were. We have a full day in Paris, which will be exciting. Maybe I'll have some revelations about my relationship with the French.

Edinburgh, for the record, feels much older than London, partially because most of the places we saw in London were Georgian in era and kept sparkly clean by the wealthy and pretentious inhabitants. Edinburgh, in contrast, looks filthy, and its much easier to imagine the medieval inhabitants living in squalor when staring at its soot-stained walls. I like Edinburgh as much as I liked Derry, and maybe even a little more.

We went on a free walking tour in the morning yesterday, one that lasted for several hours, on a twisting meander through the older parts of Edinburgh. Our guide, a Scots-Irish-English girl named Elspeth, regaled us with tales of the city's more illustrious residents, places and moments, sordid stories of the lives of the commonfolk, and she was generally and genuinely charming and amusing, and immensely engaging. We saw the monuments to David Hume, Adam Smith and Sir Walter Scott, the imposing Edinburgh Castle perched high on its crag and saw the place where J.K. Rowling was supposed to have dreamed up Hogwarts and Harry Potter.

Later that evening, leaving Zoe in the hostel bar, I rejoined Elspeth and about 40 others for a nightwalk around the newer (circa 1700AD) parts of Edinburgh, up through Old Carlton Cemetery and Carlton Hill on a ghost walk. It was fascinating to hear these tales of woe and despair, of suicides, cannibals and desecrated graves, to feel a palpable sense of dread, and it was a bit inspiring.

*~*~*~*~*

About an hour or so later, in a Starbucks, on an overpriced wireless connection:

And so now we're in Glasgow, which, for reasons unbeknownst to us, has two airports. That's right. Two. One, the one we need, is international. The other is domestic, which is where our hotel is booked. And of course there is no connectivity between the two, they're about 50 miles apart and we can't cancel our booking. Of course, our flight is at 7am and there is no way but for a 50 Pound Sterling Cab Ride to get between the hotel and the airport we actually need to fly out of at 5am. So it looks like we'll stay in Glasgow proper and catch a ridiculously early busride to the airport. Did I mention that we can't cancel our booking at the hotel we can't actually use?

We're both pissed at Glasgow, for having two airports and being needlessly confusing, pissed at the hotel for not letting us cancel, pissed at Ryanair for its ass-early flight and generally sleep-deprived and cranky. So now we're off to find someplace to stay, someplace private where we can hole up from the outside world and sulk and sleep until our 4:30am bus ride.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Rum, Sodomy and the Lash

Woe betide the dusty, ill-forgotten blog. Okay, maybe not forgotten. We were sick, what are you going to do? But now we're leaving London, an event I think of with both joy and remorse. There are things I've yet to seen, and I'm sure I could find some sentimental attachment to the cats if not this place. We never hung out with locals of our age, we didn't make new friends (beyond Sally and Rocky, bless them for their hospitality this long), and we missed a lot of sights. Hell, I didn't even see Big Ben or the Parliament. Well I suppose that's not completely true. I have a picture of Big Ben looming up over the top of several buildings, but I didn't stand right there and look. I waved at the Gherkin (the giant Faberge Egg-looking building that has appeared on the London skyline in any movie made in the last few years, officially known 30 St Mary Axe), I wandered the Tower of London (which was architecturally impressive, but as a whole disappointing), saw some free museums and generally enjoyed myself (except for that sick thing).

So we head to Scotland, to Paris, to Germany and Amsterdam and Belgium and then home, and I'm excited for all of those things. I've had good food and terrible food (and I'm fed up with the English habit of overusing mayo in everything. EVERYTHING!), cooked some lovely meals and even imparted a few pearls of culinary wisdom. I see now this end in sight, that everything is in planning stages, if not already planned and I feel like this has been a good trip. As my mother pointed out, 2 months of travel in Europe is more travel than some others have had in their lives.

London itself is a strange thing, something I'm not sure how to speak on. Or write on, as it were. I feel detached from the City, some visitor, some voyeur, and what I've seen is quite ugly. Cities are prone towards isolation, and the English (in comparison to the Irish, but in general) are unfriendly. But there is this feeling dwelling inside of me, this kinship with the labyrinthine sprawl that is London, that if I lived here, I'd be alright. That, I think, is something of the city-dweller in me, and the thought that I could soak up all this history through osmosis. So I will miss the city in a way, but I'm glad to be moving forward at least.

So we spend a couple nights in Edinburgh, and I'm looking forward to the train ride up there, then a night in Glasgow before an early-riser flight to Paris. I feel that same sort of excitement as Zoe, of continuing this adventure, and it feels glorious.

Friday, July 24, 2009

...And I'm back in the game!

So, we've been in London since July 8. That was seventeen days ago. Day one was mostly just a night, then there was a day of mostly parks, then our hosts left, and then we did some exploring: Oxford Circus, the West End, streets of bookstores, Piccadilly Circus, the National Gallery, the science museum. Then we did some solo exploring: I went to Notting Hill and the Portobello Market, while Matt went to Charing Cross and Tottenham Court Road.

Next, we got sick. Sick! Not everyone may know this, but I've been to London several times, each time for a very little span of time, before this time, I mean. First time was two days with my parents in 2000; the third time was getting to London last summer, where I was here for less than ten hours; and the forth time was getting back to London for an evening and a morning last summer, when Laura and I had the coach bus ride from hell. But the second time was late December, 2005, and I had left Luxembourg for Frankfurt, flown to London, took the train to Victoria, the tube to Kensal Green, and gotten out, late in the evening, at my hostel, where I ate a hamburger and fries, which were delicious--and smothered with mayonnaise. I hung around with a kid from Washington State, I did this and that, I went to bed--and an hour later, I woke up and galloped down the hall like a dizzy giraffe to get to the bathroom, to puke. I was sick every half hour for I think twelve hours, I called Mom more than once from a pay phone out front of the hostel with change, and finally, I managed to hold down water. Off I went to Ireland and Scotland to Brussels, where I saw a lot, met cool people, and ate... very little.

So I'm peeved. I have a sticky note on my desktop that's the whole of the screen from top to bottom of teeny tiny letters listing all of the things I wanted to see! And I had seventeen days--well, I thought it would be more like fourteen--to get them all done. And I could have, except for this flu that just knocked the crap out of Matt and me. Lame!

On the other hand, we did get through a lot of The West Wing, as Matt pointed out, and I'm actually reading, sort of slowly and feet-dragging, a work of non-fiction, incredible for me. I managed to get to Little Venice and Matt got to the Tower, and the other day, semi-recovered, we took a lovely walk to Marble Arch. We've cooked some good meals with our hostess and we've both gotten a decent amount of writing done.

But we also had to reconfigure our plans for the trip, many times. Our hosts offered us another gig the last week of August / first week of September, and we agreed; we could do it. We wanted to! Alas, we don't have the money (on the practical side), we're homesick, and we're a little bit daunted, or concerned about, what we're doing when we get back Stateside. We're still doing another couple of weeks, mainly because we have to get a flight together and also we have our Eurail passes that we won't let go to waste. So, we're heading Sunday to Edinburgh for two nights, Glasgow for one night, then Paris for one night, then to Matt's friend's in Germany for four nights, then Amsterdam for four nights. We have nothing booked after that, though we know we want to go to Nice for a couple of days and also into Italy, definitely Rome but we haven't picked anyplace else for sure. And then to wherever we're flying out of, lastly.

For myself, I'm excited about the places I haven't been yet, happy to be retracing some of my steps, and I'm looking forward to being more rapidly mobile than we've been since the first ten days of our trip when we were on the walking tour. Coming home earlier than we'd planned was kind of a blow to think about, as though it was wrong of me to change my mind or want to come home earlier / not want to stay longer, but I'm okay with it now. It's not like I'm scared of staying, and I'm certainly not fed up with Matt or Europe or travel or adventure. And while, yes, I do have a rather neurotic tendency of being overly practical and too concerned about the more mundane aspects of life, these things can't be ignored. We do have to firm up plans for where we're moving, for how we're getting there, what we're going to do when we get there, and some of that's even fun, like daydreaming about palm-sized balls of kitten fluff to have and keep.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Bad timing...

So lets see, free accommodation in one of the cultural epicenters of the world. Check. Lots of places to see and explore, check. Mostly excellent weather, check. Extremely painful headache for the last three days running, despite treatment, check. Painful, wracking cough, check.

Zoe and I are both sick, which is why there haven't been any updates. See, in such a glorious city, with all this time on our hands, we've both felt like absolute hell. So we haven't really gone anywhere. I suppose that's not completely true, I ventured out of the house to investigate bookstores yesterday, but came home early because my stomach was upset. We've been laid out, miserable and irritable, and most of all irritable because we're on vacation. In London.

Fortunately the kitties have been good company and Zoe and I have been watching The West Wing, we've got plenty of books to read and hopefully this will go away soon. The plan at the moment is to head up to Edinburgh on Wednesday, spend a few days there and move on to Amsterdam, and we're starting to hash out the final details now. Oh yeah, and I've been weaning myself off of cigarettes. So send us happy thoughts, all you loyal readers.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

I saw Art!

We went to the National Gallery today, one of many fantastic museums here in London that have absolutely free admission, even to temporary exhibits. This one sits in Trafalgar Square, a great open space with fountains, a traffic circle, two lion statues almost exactly like the ones guarding the Art Institute of Chicago, and right now a set-up for some sort of event tonight. The National Gallery is a beautiful neo-classical sort of a building, lots of columns, and the entrance is clean and modern, marble and white walls. The ceilings are very high, the floors are old but don't really squeak, there's polite knee-high ropes and lots of docents and guards, and the wallpaper is incredible, each room a solid tone that's glossy but a little faded and has a raised pattern on it, so stately, and there's beautiful doorframes. The museum, all paintings, is divided up into four sections--13th to 15th Century, 16th Century, 17th Century, and 18th to 20th Century--but each specific gallery has a name and a plaque explaining the full significance of each room, as well as a plaque alongside each work describing the specific piece's significance.

Lovely. Let me list some of the most famous artists whose work I viewed today: Titian, Veronese, Caravaggio, Rubens, Velazquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer!, Goya, Turner, Degas and Monet. Those are the guys the map mentions as the highlights of each section. Some of my other personal favorites: Delacroix, Fragonard, Lord Leighton, Renoir, Gainsborough, Berthe Morisot, Elizabeth-Louise Vigee le Brun, and surprisingly a Gustave Klimt, one I've never seen before. Some new guys I haven't really noticed before: Tiepolo, J.M. Nattier and Johann Liss. Also of particular interest to me was a fabulous piece called The Finding of Moses by Orazio Gentileschi; his daughter, Artemisia, is one of the handful of female artists taught in a general art history course, and one of the first pre-20th century female artists that I studied. My favorite piece of hers is Judith Beheading Holofernes (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GENTILESCHI_Judith.jpg). I had a ball, and I admit I got very sentimental and emotional when I saw the Berthe Morisot; her Femme a sa Toilette is one absolutely one of my favorite works of art.

Only one thing dimmed it a little bit, and that is that Matt isn't as crazy about painting as I am. (And that crowds annoy him, so that with those forces combined, he didn't even last with me to the 18th century.) I'm really, really crazy about art; I grew up with artists, I went to galleries when I was in utero, I danced and tried to do art and wish fashion had more functional artistry in it. My love affair with art has never dimmed, and I never want it to, of course. Never mind that I rant against about 95% of what they call Modern or, I hate to even type this phrase, Post-Modern (ugh), art. I love art. Love it. Being in a room of all Degas made me want to cry, and seeing Van Gogh's Chair choked me up. Getting close enough to see all of the incredible detail on Vermeer's A Young Woman standing at a Virginal, backing up to see the full beauty of Turner's Dido building Carthage, or The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire, or having to move sort of sideways to see sky details for a Constable, or the way you can stand anywhere you like and not miss a thing for any Seurat, made me so, so elated, so serene and enthusiastic all at once. And so it's just plain confounding to me that Matt--that anyone--doesn't feel the same way... To be fair, I'm sure he thinks it's insane that the most enthusiastic thing I can say about an Aston Martin V12 Vanquish is that it's very pretty and that never in my life will I be able to comprehend what is so damn exciting about rock climbing or skydiving or pocket knives.

So that made me float on a cloud.

Plus, we're going to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince tonight. In London. Oh, yeah. I think Tony will agree: 10 cool points for me, at least. Right? C'mon. And going to a cinema with assigned seating--that's right, they assign seats here, just like they queue up for everything--reminds me of the good old Utopolis in Luxembourg, which had the comfiest seats ever.

I hope all of you got to do or see or eat or read something you absolutely love today too.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Promised Photos!

 
As promised, perhaps prematurely since they're technically a little bit late, here are fresh pictures.  My pictures, at least; Matt's will come in a little bit once he labels them the way he wants them to be labelled; I'd never dream of guessing his organizational process.  Today was rainy in a London kind of way, which means that it was kind of cloudy, one end of the sky grayer and cloudier than the other, and the tiniest drops of rain sort of mostly-misted towards the ground.  It was irritating, not debilitating, and yet, in a city where they say it pretty much always rains, everyone was like tiptoeing around with umbrellas and raingear like it only rains twice a year--like in Chicago, when during the first snow flurry, all the drivers flip the hell out.  Anyway, we stayed in and had a lazy Saturday.  It's called a lie-in here, by the way.  We lounged and are in the process of marathoning the first season of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a part of Sally and Rocky's collection; earlier, we ate some mac and cheese and potato croquettes and some ice cream, ran to Tesco's this time for some reasonable groceries, I almost went into crisis mode when we couldn't find my memory card for five minutes, and we've been petting the two cats.  Tomorrow, we might venture to the Burrough Market, I'm 99% sure that's the name, and then to nearby Charing Cross, famous for its bookstore after book stall after bookstore.  We're going to pick up two copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, so that we'll be fully up to speed for when the film releases within the month here.  What else?  Oh yeah, we found Jude Law doing Hamlet and As You Like It at the New Globe, so that's on the theatre menu for us!
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Friday, July 10, 2009

And the writers say...

I promise we'll put more photos up on Picasa, but only if you creepy stalker-types actually start interacting with our blog, perhaps by commenting, as opposed to just observing silently from a distance. Like creepy lurking stalkers. Creeps.

Quick Thing About Pret...

Quick thing about Pret a Manger, while I'm reading Matt's entry: I have a fierce and irrational love of my favorite You Pick Two combination at Panera, and even though I've enjoyed the freshness, the tastes and the ingeniousness of Pret every time I've been, it hasn't yet supplanted Panera in my mind. The notes on their napkins (serviettes here--napkins are cloth things you wrap around baby butts) and boxes are tongue in cheek and rival many I've read on Chipolte cups, and I do appreciate their fresh ingredients as Matt does. But, my loyalty to Panera drove me to make this tiny, rather irrelevant note...

But don't worry, I'm working on download, labeling and then uploading my next installment of pictures right now, with a break for dinner and probably a movie. You all back home will have it by the time you're done with dinner and free to lounge about, and I'll a note on today myself, a longer one than a shout-out to the shoppers today on Regent Street: ARE ALL YOU PEOPLE CRAZY? THIS CLOTHING IS RIDICULOUS AND MAKES YOU LOOK RIDICULOUS!!

On the viciousness of London shoppers and the downside of free...

London, or at least what I've seen of it so far, really is everything I've expected from it. Lots of gorgeous architecture, twisted streets and a far more diverse mixture of people than anything I've seen in Chicago. Granted, this is only the second full day we've been here, but we've done a bit of walking around. The flat we're sitting is in Kensington, a roughly 15 to 20 minute walk to Kensington Palace, the Albert Memorial and Royal Albert Hall, and just a short ride down the Tube to Oxford Cross, where you too can bear witness to a commercial district so affluent and so crowded, it makes Chicago's Magnificent Mile look like a dingy, dusty flea market in the middle of nowhere. Which is where we happened to wander today, while Zoe searched for some form of cute sweater or what have you. She had no success mind you, and we were both driven to distraction by the press and swell and the masses, frenzied like sharks by the scent of sale prices.

Yesterday was far more pleasant, with a luxurious ramble through Kensington Gardens and the Serpentine Gallery, followed by a walk through the Museum of Natural History. The Serpentine Gallery has a brilliant Jeff Koons exhibition that just opened, and I found it immensely interesting, even if I'm without the words to describe it. Even still, a link should be provided: Clickage.

And the Natural History, it is by far one of the most spectacular museums I've ever had the privilege to walk through. And that's all we really had time for, just a walk through. We had already walked quite a ways that day, and while both thoroughly intrigued by everything we saw, the place was incredibly crowded and we were both sort of tired. So we walked and browsed and vowed to return to examine various places much more in depth. Some points of note though were a physical and kinetic recreation of an earthquake (from inside a Japanese convenience store), a full-size replica of a Blue whale (that thing is bloody huge) and a fantastic collection of dinosaur skeletons. My favorite thing about museums (or at least the majority of them) are that they are free. It enables me to point at a museum and say "That is the one I will wander aimlessly through until I am bored and disinterested." and then proceed as such without fear of spending twenty quid to do so. The downside to the free bit is that they become crowded, due to the free-ness of them. But it enables people to learn, or at least roam around and feign interest while we intellectual effete pray that some knowledge seeps into their skulls through osmosis. Point in case, I witnessed two pre-teen'd English children wandering with their mother, and from display to display they would exclaim "Awesome!" or "Wicked!" without actually paying attention to what it was they were walking past. In the States, and especially places like the Field or MSI, you'd have to pay $20 for your children to have such a valued experience.

After the Musuem and a lazy, slow walk back through the Gardens, and a shower, Zoe and I were taken to a fantastic little Chinese restaurant a few blocks away by Sally and Rocky, our delightful and in absentia hosts, where we discussed a wide range of topics not limited to Allen's capability to eat restaurants out of stock during a dinner rush. Zoe and I relaxed in our room at the flat, watched Sweeney Todd and read our books and fell asleep in our wonderfully comfortable bed.

Today we lazed around the house a bit, chatted with Sally before she left to catch her flight and the ventured off to Oxford Circus (which really is a circus, if you replace feral beasts and acrobats with rabid shoppers and dodging vicious taxis and rather large buses) where we failed to find clothing and I failed to get a free USB cable out of Apple. We ate at a cute little cafe (part of a chain that hasn't quite hit the States yet, called Pret a Manger) that serves delicious pre-made sandwiches and wraps that are actually made in-house, with bread actually baked that day, and that taste far better than anything Panera has offered us, and an incredibly reasonable price. We wandered back home, lazed about some more, reading our books and then headed out to Marks & Spencers.

For those of you who aren't familiar, M&S (or as Zoe calls it, Marks & Sparks) is a gourmet grocery store, somewhat like a less expensive but somehow more posh Whole Foods, filled with quality produce in the name of M&S. I had planned a huge long diatribe on the difference in types of grocery stores, but this post is already feeling long-winded and thinking about it is making me realize that I should probably be cooking dinner. So that is what I'll be off to do now.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

For it is we who see the deep...

Derry. It was a farewell of sorts, because I empathize more with Derry than most other places I've been. Derry, to a degree, is an outsider, existing between places. Derry is more Irish than British, more Industrial than Countryside, but none of those things all at once. As I've had this sort of self-image of myself over the course of years as straddling many lines, whether it be actualized or not, I feel kinship with Derry not just as a place but as an entity. I think I've babbled enough about my attraction to the city already though, so I'll move on.

We made some friends at the hostel, our Aussie friends Shannon and Damien, our Canadian friend Lachlan, and they were fantastic people that I'd love to travel with, or hang out with, or have visit. Ruairi is someone who'd be welcome in my home anytime, a fantastic specimen of humanity. I spent a fair amount of time with Ruairi, discussing the finer points of where to find a decent cup of coffee, the politics of humanity and the struggle of peace around the world, as well as which girls he'd have the best luck with in a particular tour group. We hung out at Pedar O'Donnells, I stole a beer coaster that had a painting of the bar front on one side as a memento, I bought a badge to show solidarity with Free Derry, and I drank more than a few pints. I talked politics, romance and philosophies of varying kinds with varying people from varying countries and it was gloriously beautiful.

And it gave us a chance to rest up, to get our minds in order. I caught a hot streak, finished one short story and began something entirely different. Zoe overcame literary hurdles of her own, and as always, with every breath we learned something new about ourselves, we made steps forward in passing through our own illusions, and we found that we only get deeper into sympatico with each other. I also apparently have taken to rambling, run-on sentences.

So now I'm in London, which is far beyond exciting. I knew so very little about Ireland, beyond that I loved their booze, their music and their stories. But London, this is a place that is a living thing in my mind. I have visions of London from books, from comics, from music and movies and all these things, but I've never actually been here. And now that I'm here, now that I've seen only a fraction of it, I'm giddy. I feel effervescent and alive, riding the Underground, recognizing all these names and finally able to understand them in a properly tactile fashion.

I hadn't meant to post, but I was reminded that it had been a while. I'm never sure if I'm making sense, or even whether it really matters, whether I should write for myself or aim at an audience.

A Summary & An Introduction

A Summary:

Matt pointed out that I haven't really talked about Derry itself all that much. I briefly talked about the changes in architecture and landscape and farm animals between Westport and Derry, and I wrote about Bushmills and the Causeway, and about our life. But not so much about Derry itself. That's remiss of me. I was telling our really good friend Eddie last night--standing outside, cobble stoned street lightly angling downwards, him with a Stirling cigarette and a Guinness, one in each hand, me with a Magner's Pear Cider, because you can take your drinks outside around here--about my undergraduate thesis. A lot of it involved, in a background way, how literature can help shape a mythology about a city, or give other people an idea of what the city's like, what its atmosphere is and how one might generally characterize its citizens. I would love to do that for Derry, to succinctly characterize its people, but that would just be shortchanging it all. There are so many cool facts about its construction and design, such as that its wholly intact city walls have never been breached, and there are so many sad facts about its place in the history of "the Troubles," or the fighting that took place from 1969 to 1972 in Northern Ireland, such as that more than 3,000 people died throughout it. I could point out the immediacy of that versus the length of the history that led to it; I could talk about how bizarre it is to feel such affinity towards those Irish who wanted to be independent of British rule, as a Jewish woman, while those same Irish have a very strong feeling about supporting Palestine. But in the end, to summarize as promised, all that I really want to say about Derry was that I was expecting it to be a changeover from the end of the walking tour and arriving in Belfast, and it turned out to be a perfect place. Strangers who knew I was clearly a visitor, who knew I might be a bad American or a terrible stereotypical tourist, took the chance, came up to me and just introduced themselves, asked why I'd come to Derry and did I like it--and more, asked me where I was from, what that was like, what kind of work I've done and what else I like to do in life, and what kinds of books I like and where else I've gone. Everything, they were just interested in everything! The best thing was, they talked back. More than just wanting to hear about me, they wanted to share about them, things that some at home would be shocked to hear a relative stranger tell you. I don't know if that character is Derry wholesale, or that Matt and I just happened to meet a few of the right types who helped us find the right places to have those fantastic, genuine experiences, but it was this gem of an experience. I've traveled before and made what I think of as "trip friends," people I hug and love and over share with for two, three days, and then I never see them again, though maybe we're Facebook friends. People I met in Derry, I want them to come visit me, to stay at my house and email with me until they do, I want to go visit them wherever they are, travel more with them. I have some lifelong friends I wouldn't extend an invitation like that to! So that's that, vehement and gushing.

*

An Introduction:

London! There's songs and movies and famous plays and novels about it, and there are billions of Americans I know who have been there or studied there who are like London fanboys and fangirls for it, as though there's a cult of Londonphiles, stranger and stronger than Anglophiles. How fascinating! There's so much enthusiasm in them that I can't help but be... intrigued--and I've been here more than once. Still, if you had asked me yesterday about it, I'd have said, because I was, that I was more interested in having our own space for a while, because all I'd been hearing recently was silly tourists who were studying in London--"Oh. My. GOD! London's THE BEST!" and travelers I've met who say, "Oh, London's shit, the people are mean, the food's only okay, but the art's good--go to Camden, go to this 'shire, go for a day and head straight to ----." And now that I'm here, and this house is so cool, and we have hosts who are American but who have been living in London for 10 years, the best of both worlds, and I'm super excited. I want to be swept up, I want to be reminded of some stories of London that I love, including The Picture of Dorian Gray, Pygmalion, Falling Angels, Down and Out in Paris and London. I want to try to find the Londons I've seen depicted in so many movies that I love: Shakespeare in Love, Snatch, some of Enchanted April, An Ideal Husband (adapted from a lovely Oscar Wilde play--can't forget him), About A Boy, Match Point... And the lure of art: I haven't been to the Art Institute in Chicago in more than a year, a record for me, I think; merely reading da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Van Gogh, "rooms stuffed with Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek and Roman antiquities" (Lonely Planet's Europe on a Shoestring), Blake, Bacon, Moore, even Rothko, makes me shiver! I can't wait to drag Matt around and hopefully do a not-overwhelming job of explaining to him what I love so much about painting, and how the art is connected to things he finds more interesting, like politics and history and literature. Plus... I might buy some new clothes, like a few sweet dresses or a nice belt or a cardigan, and some shoes that are good for walking but aren't hiking boots, and good for hot weather, but aren't tacky Miami U flip-flops (or, thongs, as they're called here). And used bookstores! Massive gardens! Day trips to see things that were built and no one knows how, like Stonehenge!

To top it all off: there's a roof garden patio type thing here, and a bathtub!!

You can tell how wonderful life is because of all of my exclamation points. If this were a novel and I were reading it because someone else had written it, I'd put it down and mutter, "F***in' over-usage of exclamation points--stupid moron fool idiot overexcited overenthusiastic unoriginal hack..."

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Photos!

 

This is a sample photo of about 80 pictures I just uploaded at Picasa for all of your viewing pleasure.  It's sadly devoid of the people we've been meeting; we're taking all of those pictures now, so don't think I've forgotten or failed to notice that there's basically only Matt and the odd tourist in this batch.  These pictures were taken over the last two weeks, basically, from Westport to Derry to Bushmills and back to Derry.  The photographs of the murals on the buildings here in Derry are historical and leftovers from the war that happened here, as is the photograph of the Free Derry wall.  I'll write an actual entry a bit later in the day when my mind's not fuzzy like it is now.
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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Farewell, ye streets of sorrow...

The trials of hostel life, the hazards of meeting other travellers. We've been helping Shannon and Damien out a bit at the hostel, just some minor cleaning and whatnot, keeping an eye on the other guests, doing some cooking and what have you, and both of us are getting a feel for what is required to run such an establishment. We had a group of German university students travelling with their teachers for the last few nights, and the students spoke not a lick of English. They never seemed to settle down, always talking, playing cards, playing pool. It was rather strange, as they seemed to be unable to just settle down.

Speaking of pool, the table here is odd. No stripes and solids, only half red and half yellow, with a cue ball and an 8 ball. The thing is that the balls are a lot smaller in size, the cue sticks a lot shorter, so it completely threw off my game. Then again, I was also playing sober, which could've had a greater effect than I desired. Needless to say, I lost horribly and blamed it on being a different game than what I play back home.

We also met this girl last night at the hostel, a girl from San Jose, CA, who was surprised that I knew where her town was. We were all shocked at the vapidness of this girl who has managed to travel abroad to Europe completely on her own. She thought Chicago was close to New York (and I suppose to her credit, its closer to New York than California) and she didn't know that Washington, D.C. was its own district separate from its neighboring states. I've met travellers and locals alike here in Derry that have a better grasp on North American geography than most Americans, and that's just a sad thing for us. This, of course, spawned a lengthy discussion on the education systems of Australia, Canada and the US, comparisons, foibles and regrets.

I'm still greatly enjoying Derry, and I think Zoe is as well. Its nice to still be abroad but not travelling, not constantly gypsy-ing our way around foreign lands. Nice to stop, to build friends abroad, to rest and keep our sanity. Zoe is camped out on the couch at the moment working on a story, and I'm taking a break from the creative process after finally finishing the first draft of Sophie's story.

I briefly mentioned the political situation of Derry in an earlier post, but I don't feel versed enough in it to do more than mention its existence, so I went and found the Wiki entry for it ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derry ). Not quite the same as getting the story from a man who grew up during The Troubles (our friend Ruairi - pronounced "Rory"), but at least gives some details. We went to the Tower Museum the other day, which has the full story of Derry from prehistory through to the modern day, and I found that it was a little biased towards the Protestant side of the story. As a contrast, the Museum of Free Derry is biased towards the Catholic end of the conflict, though with enough of a sympathetic ear to the Protestant to be very informative. Ruairi is keen to point out that when the Irish in Derry speak of the English, a word containing more venom than one could truly understand, they don't speak of English people as a whole, or Protestant descendents of the English. They speak of the Government and the Armed Forces that perpetrated crimes against humanity, crimes which are still being committed.

I find myself sympathizing more with the Irish in the Bogside than with anyone else. Not that I support the violence committed by the IRA, just that I can understand why they felt the need. A people oppressed and persecuted for hundreds of years, treated as lesser, as inferior, just because of their religion. English Protestants who rallied the Scottish Presbyterians to support them against the Catholics, then turned around and betrayed them as well (actions that led to the Siege of Derry in 1649). Even now, Derry is a segregated city, with the majority of the City Proper (including the area of the Bogside referred to as Free Derry) on the west side of the River Foyle populated by Catholics and the east side of the River Foyle by the Protestants. A small section of Derry, known as the West Bank, just outside of the City Walls, is gated off, with lampposts painted in the red, white and blue of the Union Jack, and the 500 Protestants that live within this section claim to still be under siege (referring again to the Siege of Derry in 1649).

And yet while Belfast is still sectioned and separated by the Peace walls and tensions still run high, here in Derry there is an feeling of peace settling in the city. The history, however recent, doesn't stain or taint the air of the city, but encourages its inhabitants to be more conscientous of each other. I'm not sure if any of the above makes sense, but check out the Wiki entry for a few more details in a more sensible presentation. Needless to say, I'm enjoying my time in the city and I feel more of a connection here than any place in the States with the exception of Chicago.