March 2018

A Weekend in Edinburgh

Maddie and I planned a three-day weekend in Scotland as a chance for us to experience traveling together while abroad.  The journey was interesting, as we had to finagle some tricky logistics with our overnight train.  But the final train ride itself was gorgeous.  The Scottish countryside has such rich colors, with beautiful palettes of blues, greens, yellows, and earthy browns and reds.  We passed by bodies of water that were so blue as to make Bermuda reevaluate itself.  And the rolling hills perfectly illustrated why the area is known as the Highlands.

Almost immediately after stepping off the train we were greeted by the sound of bagpipes, reiterating to us that we were indeed in Scotland.  Edinburgh is similar to Bath in its depth of history but this is demonstrated in a different stylistic way.  Bath has more Georgian/Victorian architecture, whereas Edinburgh has more winding cobblestone streets.  These shadows of two different histories are fascinating echos of the past that add to the atmosphere of these cities.

Our hostel was conveniently placed just off of the main thoroughfare for tourists.  Thus we were close to all of the major attractions, but just far enough away to keep the noise level down.  The hostel was castle themed, with stony exteriors and carpeting with deceptive stone patterning.

Our assigned room was aquarium themed (I was labeled a bass and Maddie was a jellyfish).  We each had our own sections of bunk bed and a lock box for important personal belongings.  A room of 10 girls from all different cultures is surprisingly manageable.  Even with potential language barriers, what ultimately matters is respect.  As such I actually slept pretty well (though this may have been due to exhaustion).

The first major attraction we visited was Edinburgh Castle, which was absolutely amazing, especially in terms of its history.  The site has been fortified for almost 2000 years.  It’s incredible to think years ago someone pointed to this rocky hill and said, “This is the perfect spot for a fort.”  And so it remained for millennia.

The castle featured a great mixture of authentic artifacts and newer models and recreations.  These helped both to put the castle in context while illustrating how people lived.  I was also struck by the power of symbols.  People fought and died for representative objects, whose great power is granted simply by those of us who give it power.  It was a huge victory to capture a standard, let alone the Scottish Crown Jewels and royal stone.  Women were also central to this story, as during a siege two women supposedly smuggled out the great honors of Scotland.

We were able to see sections of the castle where prisoners would have been kept during wartime.  This history of imprisonment continued through WWII.  It was fascinating to consider the conditions of the prisoners.  Hammocks were the bedding of choice, and rations involved basic items such as bread, cheese, and alcohol.  Though unfortunately prisoners from the American Revolution would have been considered pirates, and hence they would be given less bread rations than their prisoner of war comrades.

But I was perhaps most struck by the beautiful views of the city laid out at your feet when standing at the top of Edinburgh castle.  The weather was very cooperative, and thus a wonderful blue sky was our backdrop throughout the weekend.

As we left the castle it was interesting to note what what segments of American culture crossed the pond.  For instance, we saw a Pancho Villa Mexican restaurant while walking along High Street.  And then we saw a most surreal sight in the form of a cowboy (from Michigan of all places) demonstrating bull whip techniques to a large collection of tourists.

Later that evening we attended a free ghost tour.  There were fun but harrowing tales of grisly deeds (in the words of our guide, “No Netflix; we had torture”).  She was a great storyteller, laying out stories of murder, witches, and cannibalism.

We later discovered that many of the tales were true.  The horrific murders of people who were then sold to anatomists was a notorious tale in the city’s history.  And while a local clan of cannibals may have been grossly exaggerated or may not have existed at all, the tale has indeed captured the city’s imagination.

The following day we decided to focus on the sights of Edinburgh.  But as we walked down the street after breakfast, we came upon a massive event.

Hundreds if not thousands of people dressed in red were marching down the street, led by numerous powerful drums and a flamboyant fox.  It became apparent that these were people protesting fox hunting in Scotland.  It was a well organized event led and escorted by police, and was a fascinating demonstration of Scottish politics in action.

As we continued on our way we then passed by the palace (where the queen will stay when visiting Scotland) and abbey ruins (the site a king’s crowning) to take some pictures from afar.  The indirect visit made us glad we had explored the castle the day before, as we were already familiar with the impact and history of these buildings as we viewed them.

From there we began a trek to King Arthur’s seat, a local hike to the high point of nearby hills.  You could see the city below, the water by the city outskirts, and distant hills on the horizon.

As we descended we saw the ruins of another abbey, whose date suggested this casual section of stonework was older than our home country.  As we continued on our way we passed by a beautiful lake (or perhaps a loch?) where numerous birds apparently accustomed to being fed resided.  We ended up vacating rather quickly when the birds became a bit too eager for food.  I didn’t want to be around for the documentary version of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous bird-related movie.

From there we worked our way up to Carton Hill.  It gave us beautiful views overlooking the water, complimented by nearby Grecian style columns (part of a monument whose funds dried up and thus was never completed).

After grabbing some lunch and stopping by our hostel, we headed to the Museum of Edinburgh.  This was an interesting place highlighting local events, people, and craftsmanship, and was a nice contrast to larger museums that aren’t necessarily specific to the region.

That evening I had some excellent chicken and sampled some Scottish whiskey (I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you what feature makes Scottish Whiskey Scottish.  But my palette isn’t that sophisticated).  We then visited the Banshee, a location mentioned to us on our ghost tour.  A free cinema was present, so we were able to catch the second half of The Guardians of the Galaxy.

Our last day focused on local landmarks and museums.  After grabbing breakfast at a french owned cafe, we visited the statue of Greyfriars Bobby.  This was in memory of a 19th century dog who captured the heart of the city through his great loyalty.  Supposedly his master died, and his dog visited his grave for years.  The city seemed to love Bobby, who was cared for in his old age by a particular Edinburgh family.  He is now immortalized in stone, in addition to the naming of some nearby commercial venues.

We then perused the National and Royal Museums of Scotland.  Here we saw great displays highlighting science, history, and culture.  But perhaps what was most interesting was a section devoted to Scottish history and culture in particular.  It was clear that Scotland maintains a unique and strong national identity, even when sharing limited island land space with other neighbors.  We were also able to go to the top of the museum to get some lovely views of the city, including Edinburgh castle and King Arthur’s seat.

From there we visited the people’s museum, which focuses on everyday lives throughout the city’s history.  The exhibit may have been a bit dated (I’m going to guess 1980s), but this was a great way to connect with the past on a more human level.  It’s main features were displays that included wax figures demonstrating various historical occupations and situations.  The figures helped one to humanize and imagine the circumstances of the people who lived through these eras.

Finally after grabbing some dinner to go we boarded our train and began the journey back.  While appreciating our view of the countryside I realized that the large body of water we were passing was in fact the North Sea.  It was a gorgeous view complimented by the setting sun.  After some more transportation finagling with the tube and trying to find some water to quench my thirst, we eventually made our way home, having experienced the amazing country of Scotland.

 

 

Jane Austen Dancing: Take Three

After a week’s break from our new routine of historical dancing, it was nice to get back in the swing of things (somewhat literally).  Before the session, Pippa graciously cooked pasta and meatballs, providing some much needed (and delicious) dinner before the workout that is Jane Austen dancing.

Once we arrived, I began my calf stretches and warm-ups.  Improvement was clear during the dances.  Knowing the terminology makes it much easier to follow the directions of the caller.  It somewhat reminded me of learning yoga (everything’s easier when you know what the names of moves are).  It was a slightly smaller group, but we were able to do many of our favorite dances.  We performed the sea shanty again.  While I still struggle with performing a successful solo, it’s quite amusing to see the male dance, and it’s very fun to weave around, especially with a smaller circle of people and thus more room.  Bea specially requested the stomping dance during one of the breaks.  So for the last dance of the night, the organizers obliged their “American friends” with the request.  With less people, the stomping was not as pronounced, but boy our group tried to make up for it.

We had been sad to hear that tonight would be our last opportunity to dance this semester.  It was thus fitting that I danced for what could have been my last time with the veteran participant who first danced with me during my very first session.

Luckily I don’t think this is the last session.  It looks like they’re pausing for Easter break, but should resume again in April.  Thus (fingers crossed!) we should be able to continue Jane Austen dancing!

 

Bath Storytelling Circle: Take Two

It was lovely to revisit the Bath Storytelling Circle and the oral tradition.  Once again we heard great tales, ranging from folk tales to simple humorous pieces.  It was so nice to just get away from everything, and focus on the most basic form of human connection: stories.  It’s enthralling to just hear a tall tale and be entertained.

I also greatly enjoyed the musical pieces.  With it being so close to St. Patrick’s day, we heard many Irish songs, accompanied by guitar and a drum.  These ballads contained stories themselves, and it was wonderful to simply listen to the rhythm and the meaning.  There was also this great sense of community as others joined in.  Whether because of the ease of repetition or because the song was a familiar one, it prompted this sense of belonging and a certain simplicity.  After a long day, you could listen and connect.  It was a slower paced and refreshing moment.

Bath Comic-Con

I’ve always wanted to attend a comic-con.  The idea of a gathering of all sorts of fandoms and nerdiness sounds absolutely incredible.  So I was very excited to hear that I would have the opportunity to attend one in Bath.

While there were no panels, there were booths with various actors ranging from Dr. Who to Game of Thrones, ready to sign autographs and take pictures (all for a price of course).  Other booths sold all sorts of merchandise, from fake weaponry to figurines to comics to t-shirts.  Other features included great displays, including the the robot from Lost in Space, the Tardis, and various Daleks.

The costumes were amazing.  Various Star Wars characters roamed around next to Two-Face, Harely Quinn, Iron Man, and Bumblebee.  The time and effort that had gone into crafting these characters was very apparent.

It was amazing to have all of these fandoms represented in one place, with awesome soundtracks and theme songs blasting overhead.  It was this wonderful atmosphere that was the greatest aspect of the event.

Warner Bros. Studio Tour

Bea and I had coordinated a trip to do the Harry Potter studio tour in London.  The logistics were an interesting feat.  Only select dates were free in the coming months, one of which was the Friday following Oxford week.  We ultimately determined that it would be easiest to leave directly from Oxford to London (as opposed to Bath).  After finagling tickets (the studio is outside London, and thus required a lot of transport hopping) and rectifying wrong purchases, we eventually secured our Harry Potter experience for Friday.

It was worth all the logistical hassle.  The immediate reaction stepping off the shuttle was amazement and wonder.  We were actually here and we were actually doing this.

After grabbing some food and attempting to charge our phones, we began the tour.  It started by taking a large group of us to a theater, where we watched a video discussing the legacy of Harry Potter, featuring the original actors.  This video concluded by the screen dramatically lifting up to reveal the door to Hogwarts, which then opened to reveal the Great Hall.  Costumes from the original actors were proudly displayed throughout the room.

From here we began a self guided tour where you could wander around all sorts of displays, the atmosphere of wonder complimented by music from the Harry Potter movies.  Some of these amazing displays included props from the production.

Other displays included pieces of actual sets.

And boy were there a lot of props and sets.

There were also various interactive activities.  Bea and I took a great picture that provides a fun example of the power of forced perspectives.

We saw all sorts of famous sets, including the cupboard under the stairs.

Various scene recreations were also displayed, including this amazing piece mimicking the coming of Harry’s letters.

All of the intricate details reiterated just how much time and effort and dedication went into these movies.

We were able to see various designs, demonstrating the process of bringing the magical wizarding world from concept to reality.

The end of the tour included an amazing model of Hogwarts followed by a room filled with wand boxes labeled with the names of those who worked on the films.  Here you could spot many of your favorite actors.

This was a wonderful opportunity to take a brief respite from ASE and take some much needed time to ourselves in the magical world of Harry Potter.

Oxford Week

We had the opportunity to live at the University of Oxford for about five days (specifically at the University College campus).  We began with an introduction to Oxford (which especially highlighted its graduate programs) and tours.  Our programme then hosted a disco night at the university bar, advertised as a time to “let our hair down” (and my hair is almost always down anyways).  Once requests started coming from students, the 70s disco theme quickly transformed into an 80’s night.  Us millenials seem to have a greater affinity for the music of our parents’ generation.

The next day we were able to explore the town of Oxford itself, including the original Blackwell’s bookstore.  It was a nice spot to finish some reading for my journalistic writing class.  One of reading subjects was Oxford, and ironically mentioned Blackwell’s as I was literally sitting in the store.  Then later that afternoon we treated ourselves to some English tea in a spot that claimed to be the first coffeehouse in England.

Shortly thereafter we visited Turf Tavern just beyond this archway.  It’s a historic pub famously visited by Harry Potter actors and Bill Clinton.  I tried my first mulled wine here, which was surprisingly delicious.

Other beverages of choice this week included Paul’s hot chocolate, which is essentially liquid chocolate in a cup.

On Tuesday I went on a tour of Christ Church, which also had connections to the Harry Potter franchise.  These stairs were used in the Sorcerer’s Stone scene where new students meet Professor McGonagall for the first time, and the great hall was the inspiration for the great hall of Hogwarts.

I didn’t have any classes Wednesday, so I decided to focus on seeing the city sites.  After a bit of trouble determining when places where open, I visited the Pitt Rivers museum.  This was a fascinating anthropological take on human society and culture.  The museum was organized by theme (leatherworking, firemaking, tattoos, armor, etc.) and then presented various ways different cultures addressed these themes.  Perhaps one of the most striking examples was body modification, which presented neck rings, foot binding, and corsets all in the same display.  The exhibit thus simultaneously highlighted the diversity and commonalities among human cultures.

Attached to the Pitt Rivers museum was the University National History Museum.  This had wonderful displays of all sorts of creatures, including dinosaurs and the Oxford Dodo.

Later that afternoon I met up with Maddie and Jennifer.  We visited a library exhibit highlighting women who dared, from Sappho to the suffragettes.  We also visited a museum exploring the history of science.  But perhaps the best place we visited was the Worcester college, recommended to me by my internship adviser.  The grounds included a beautiful lake and greenery, populated by numerous aquatic birds.  It was lovely to just walk around and take in sights, and really was, as my adviser put it, “like stepping into Wonderland.”

I concluded the afternoon by visiting the Ashmolean, an absolutely huge museum with displays covering all sorts of areas and history.  One of my favorite finds was a display containing an outfit worn by Lawrence of Arabia.

The next day Bea, Pippa, Emma, and myself went on a tower tour, where we climbed up to the top of a nearby church tower.  From there we could see the whole of the city.  We had very limited space, so maneuvering around often involved backing into alcoves to let others pass by.  But the do-si-does were worth it for the magnificent view.

Our last night in Oxford concluded with a formal three course dinner in the University dining hall.  We then came full circle by returning to the university bar to conclude the festivities.  It was wonderful to see an institution so steeped in history, and it will be great to be able to truthfully say that I lived and studied at Oxford, however briefly.

Blenheim Palace

Last week we were able to visit the gorgeous estate of the Churchill family.  The grounds were beautiful, including two different bodies of water with rowboats peacefully meandering along.  We made our way to the Column of Victory, which was curiously surrounded by sheep who didn’t seem to appreciate our presence very much.

As we continued our tour we found a great hollowed out tree that was perfect for taking pictures.  Bea took and edited a picture that my mother absolutely loved (you can actually see my eyes).

We next visited the butterfly garden.  It was designed to mimic a tropical climate, so it was a bit of a shock to go from chilly English air to a very warm and humid environment.  My glasses immediately steamed up.  But once the fog cleared, the sights were beautiful.  All sorts of colorful butterflies and moths of various shapes and sizes and patterns were present.  They seemed to particularly like my housemate Bea, absolutely loving the color of her scarf.  But one moth with a giant eye spot particularly liked Bea’s leggings, deciding that this was the perfect place to perch and take a nap.  Poor Bea was walking around the garden with a moth glued to the back of her thigh, which simply refused to leave until a nice English lady prodded it.  Realizing it had overstayed its welcome, it fluttered off.

Finally, we made it to the palace itself.  With our limited time we focused on visiting the Churchill exhibit.  Incidentally, at one point he apparently wore something that resembled a onesie, which was preserved and put on display.  We then quickly dashed back to our bus, and continued on our way.

Jane Austen Dancing: Take Two

Another week of Georgian style dancing showed how much we had improved even after only a single lesson.  I’m picking up on the terminology and step patterns for many of the dances, which makes learning new ones much easier.

There were several dances that I particularly enjoyed.  One was a sort of sailor jig where everyone was in a giant circle and the ladies got to weave past their various partners.  In another you worked your way around in a square for a section of the dance, rhythmically stomping your feet along the way (so much fun!).  Finally, I was very excited that I recognized the last dance that we did from the week before.  One of my more experienced dance partners complimented my ability to remember the sequences of moves.  I also learned my lesson from last week, and stretched out my calves after the class (to the great amusement of my housemate Bea), which I believe was the determining factor in preventing me from being sore the next day.

We’ve improved so much already, and I’m excited to continue to improve in the coming weeks!

 

Improv Night

I haven’t participated in much acting, and certainly not much since college.  So it was definitely a new and exciting experience to attend an improv night in Bath, where participants reacted to various scenarios on the spot.  The session began with some fun group warm-ups, walking around in different moods or trying to one up one another with increasingly tall tales.  But the real fun began with small group skits, the first of which Maddie and Bea participated in.  They were part of a group of three people who had to speak as one “expert”, each saying one word at a time to create speeches during a debate with another collective “expert”.  The woman running the group asked for ideas regarding what each group should be an expert on.

“Husbandry,” I declared.

Everyone looked at me.  There was a bit of a discussion about what husbandry actually was (multiple people thought it was connected to husbands), but eventually the two groups were assigned their expertise, vegetarian husbandry experts and meat loving husbandry experts.  The results were hysterical.  One side was using the cuddlebility of animals as a defense, while the other was claiming their tastiness trumped all.  The next version of the skit (with new actors) involved a debate over aliens (the extraterrestrial kind), who ended up advocating for a nudist lifestyle in the course of the discussion.

Bea roped me into participating in the next skit, where I was part of a final showdown of an Olympic sport for spring cleaning.  Two announcers helped guide our actions, and thus I somehow was a contestant with ten years of professional cleaning experience, from Australia no less.  I started off with some light marching and yoga to warmup (which greatly amused Maddie) before the actual showdown.  Spring cleaning is surprisingly competitive.  Bea kept fouling me, whereas I only wacked her with my imaginary broom once.  At one point I apparently utilized a roomba run by nanotechnology, and I ended my skit by sawing a hole that poor Bea fell into.

Maddie was part of the next Olympic sport: birthing lambs.  After more hilarious warm-ups, the contest began.  I’m afraid to say that Maddie’s opponent creamed her, having birthed a Christ lamb, whereas poor Maddie lost many of her lambs in the birthing process…

Bea than took part in a skit where she was on a blind dinner date with a person who had three different personalities that would alternate places.  One was afraid of forks, one would sporadically imitate a chicken, and the other was an aspiring axe murderer.  One of my favorite parts was watching Bea chase Emily (the forkphobic personality) around with the offending utensil in a bid to get her to overcome her fear.  This was topped only by Emily wittily maintaining that while she could not eat with forks, she would be more than willing to spoon after the date.

The night was a hysterical exploration of spontaneous wit and creativity, and was a great way to stretch my comfort zone.

The Importance of Being Earnest

I was able to see a great performance of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.  I had seen a production of this play once before at my high school, where American teenagers were hysterically engaging in witty banter in period costumes and British accents.  I have very fond memories of that production, so I was excited to see an authentically British performance of the play.

We were able to get the cheapest seats possible with bench seating (which was honestly on one of the nicest benches I’ve seen).  The main discount seemed to be because of the dizzying location of the seating, as these were the highest seats in the theatre, and thus you were essentially peering down at the the actors far below you.  But as this was more of a play of verbal wit, and the actors could still be heard, the odd viewing angle wasn’t too much of a disadvantage.

The play itself was quite good.  The costuming was amazing, and the acting was great.  I really enjoyed Lady Brackwell’s performance, especially her outrage over Ernest’s handbag heritage.  Cecily’s frank discussion regarding her fictitious relationship with Ernest was also hysterical, as was her flip-flopping sentiments towards Gwendolen.  Algernon’s misadventures and fondness for food was also quite humorous.  While the actual problem at hand is a bit odd by today’s standards, and the ending is a rather convenient one, the play still holds up very well over 100 years later.

While it’s hard to compare watching a professional production with the fondness of seeing a play with many of your friends as the principal actors, the authentic British version did not disappoint.  I’ve really enjoyed seeing British Theatre, and I hope to watch at least one more production before I return to the states.