Some thoughts, pre-trip

In about four days, I’ll be heading to London and Prague for a week. I’m putting the final touches on my packing, checking my to-do list and making sure I have everything printed out that we’ll need. I’m very excited to see my boyfriend again after almost a year apart.

I wanted to share a final list of what all we’ll be doing. I’m actually pretty amazed that we’ll be able to fit it all inside a week, and it’s a testament to our teamwork and planning abilities. So without further ado, here are the highlights of our upcoming trip:

  • The National Gallery in London
  • The British Museum
  • A proper curry dinner
  • BBC Proms concert featuring Yo-Yo Ma
  • The Spanish Synagogue and Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague
  • Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral
  • Our Lady Victorious church
  • An evening Prague ghost tour
  • A visit to Petrin Hill and the Stefanik Observatory in Prague
  • Lunch at a Michelin-starred restaurant
  • The Beer Museum
  • An alternative walking tour of Prague
  • A Prague cocktail bar specializing in Prohibition-era drinks
  • A breakout game in Prague
  • A boat tour on the Vltava River
  • SkyGarden in London
  • Borough Market in London
  • The Tate Modern
  • Dinner with one of my friends in London
  • “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Globe Theatre
  • A picnic in Hyde Park
  • Harrods
  • The Victoria & Albert Museum
  • Two “secret” places we’ve each picked out to surprise the other

It’s a lot, isn’t it? And yet somehow we’ll be doing it, and more. I can’t wait.

Trip-planning as a couple

As September gets closer, I’m putting final touches on my planned holiday with my boyfriend. This isn’t our first vacation together, but it’s the first one that requires international travel for both of us, and the first one to require substantial planning and booking ahead of time. With our previous trip to Manchester and the Lake District, we showed up at hotels where we’d booked, ate where we wanted and went to whatever museums we wanted. It was generally unhurried and relaxed. This year, though, the planning is more intensive.

I booked my flight for September back in March, and at about that same time, booked tickets to see “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Globe Theatre in London. This was for a play six months away and seats were still mostly sold out or unavailable. This past weekend, I managed to secure tickets for a Yo-Yo Ma solo performance at Royal Albert Hall, part of the BBC Proms concert series. The tickets sold out the same day they became available and I was lucky to get them.

Still ahead for booking: our return flight to Prague, Gatwick Express return tickets, tickets to visit the Sky Garden in London, ghost tour tickets in Prague, the Prague Card combination museum/transit pass, seven of our eight nights in hotels, some restaurants (including the Michelin-starred Alcron in Prague) and Thorpe Park tickets. Some things we’re doing were my idea, some were his idea and some came from both of us. It’s compromise, and it’s wonderful.

Just thinking about the sheer amount of stuff we’re fitting into this week is taxing. But that also makes it unique and amazing, the second in what I hope will be an extensive series of holidays, both long and short, for us as partners.

I’ve heard before that if you and your partner can travel successfully together, you’ll be OK. While we didn’t travel too extensively last time, we were able to catch trains and find hotels smoothly. I’d say we passed the initial hurdle. We didn’t fight or get frustrated with each other. This coming trip will require a little more coordination and put us more to the test, but I can’t wait. I love talking about it with my boyfriend and I love the two of us working together to create an experience that’s ours.

September to remember

I’ve spent the past couple of days meticulously planning a late summer trip with my boyfriend. We have a lot to celebrate, as he recently achieved an internship/training placement with a job offer at the end of it.

We decided to move our holiday from August to September, because his work placement starts in August and he wanted time to arrange his holiday time off.

Assuming he can get the time off, we’re spending a day in London, then heading off to Prague for four nights. Our Prague sightseeing list includes Prague Castle, the Old Jewish Cemetery, Charles Bridge, St. Vitus Cathedral and the Clementinum. The plan is to head back to London on a late flight, spend another day in the city (“Much Ado About Nothing” is playing at the Globe Theatre; it is my favorite Shakespearean play so it feels like serendipity), then visit Thorpe Park on our last day.

If he can’t secure the time off, then I’ll simply stay with him that week and we’ll do what we have time do in the area. The important thing is that we’ll be able to see each other after a year (?!) apart. Everything is coming together, and I couldn’t be happier to head back to my favorite city and discover another one.

Czech mate

My boyfriend and I have decided to spend a few days in Prague this August. The plan is for me to fly to London, for us to spend a couple of days together there, then go to Prague, and then fly back to London for another couple of days.

Prague is one of the major cities I’ve wanted to visit but haven’t been able to yet. We agreed to go somewhere neither of us had been, and Prague fit the bill. Its weather in the summer, numerous museums, gorgeous architecture and inexpensive food and beer made it a clear choice.

So that is my next international adventure. The time should go by quickly, as I prepare to move into a new apartment, visit my parents in July and go through major transitions at work.

Anyone with good tips for what to see and do in Prague, let me have it. Likewise, if anyone has a good language resource for Czech, that’d be great, too!

A breakthrough in the News International fiasco

Earlier today, Rebekah Brooks, the ex-chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s News International, finally had to pay the piper. Namely, Brooks, her husband and four others were charged with “perverting the course of justice” by concealing evidence from the police who were investigating NI’s phone-hacking allegations.

I was in England for much of the early investigation. I saw both Rupert and James Murdoch questioned before a committee, and I saw Rupert’s wife Wendy smack the guy who tried to pie him. Good times.

Today’s news, though, seems like sound evidence that what many people had feared — nobodies would fall on the sword and Brooks and others like her would get away clean — won’t come to pass. There’s still a lot to go; these are only charges, of course. But I think it’s a step in the right direction.

This entire debacle has been a stain on British journalism, much of which is controlled by Murdoch. The allegations tossed around — hacking a murder victim’s phone, among other things — are atrocious, and seem to point to a systemic culture of “the ends justify the means” behavior.

But now, with Brooks and others finally on the chopping block, there might finally be some closure, or at least a sense of justice being done. Stay tuned.

A comment on David Cameron’s social media remarks

Earlier today, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband both spoke in the House of Commons about the English riots. While browsing a timeline of the remarks, I was struck by something Cameron said: The government and the police were reviewing the “role of social media” in organizing the riots. At about 1 p.m., the Telegraph reported that Cameron went on to clarify, saying that sites like Twitter “could be closed down during periods of disorder.”

That general line of thinking set off my squick alarm. In the U.S., at least, speech that deliberately incites rioting or lawbreaking isn’t protected. On that note, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to A) single out social media and B) set a precedent of police and government interference in social media platforms. One night Twitter may be shut down to prevent rioting, but what else could a shut-down prevent? Who gets to decide what constitutes a “period of disorder”?

The Register took a similar tack, and wondered why Cameron wasn’t also chastising news stations for round-the-clock helicopter coverage. Such coverage, The Register suggested, gave as much of an idea as to which areas were unprotected as Twitter did.

Two years ago during the Tehran protests, Twitter was one of the only ways to get information into or out of Iran. It also played a large role in the recent Arab Spring uprisings. At its core, Twitter can be used by the disenfranchised to spread information and share their experiences. It has, I believe, a legitimate democratic underpinning, which is why I also believe that a short-sighted knee-jerk decision to shut it down in the face of yob rule is well-intentioned but ultimately misguided, if not overly authoritarian.

No one wants to see looting, rioting or property damage, but rather than simply cut off social media, the police would be wiser to adapt and use social media to infiltrate planned outbreaks. Eliminating all information would make law enforcement blind and deaf, too.

I see Cameron’s point, and I understand that much of it is the product of legitimate anger and frustration over the past few days, but if ever there was a “be careful what you (they?) wish for” moment, this is it.

Show me your badges

Here’s a true story.

Last fall, I started using my Foursquare account more. I was very jealous of my friends’ badges, including a Cupcake Connoisseur badge from TLC. I wanted it (it was cute!). I found a couple of London bakeries on the TLC page and visited one the next time I went into London. That bakery was The Hummingbird, and I’ve been back multiple times since and I kind of want them to make my wedding cake if anyone’s crazy enough to ever actually marry me.

I never got the cupcake badge (it retired and I had eventually had to settle for Bravo’s Just Desserts badge), but the moral is simple: I sought out an entirely new business and became a repeat customer based on a circular graphic.

Foursquare badges are a lot of fun and I’d argue that they’re more satisfying to collect than mayorships (although I wouldn’t turn down 20% off at Starbucks). I have 39, and each one is a happy reminder — an ode to my coffee addiction, another trip to the cinema, a late night at the library, a day in London, airports on different sides of the world. They can mark an event — were you at the Colbert and Stewart rallies? Or access — so you got into five different SXSW parties? Or sheer dogged determination — 20 different pizza shops, really? And, I’d wager, no one has the same exact set as anyone else, apart from newcomers.

In the wake of Google+, Google announced a couple of days ago that you could start earning badges based on stories you’d read on Google News. I mentioned on Twitter that I loved badges and thought the idea was neat, and a New York Times interactive editor tweeted back to ask why.

I thought about it and replied back that it’s in our nature to hoard and collect. Foursquare badges (and soon-to-be Google News badges, I hope) are like digital postcards or keychains. They’re reminders of where we’ve been and what matters to us. You can tell a lot about someone from their badges: where they live, where they eat and shop, what brands they follow. As a committed anglophile eager for others to see the London that I see, I once wrote about how London could use Foursquare, and I stick by that still.

It can be easy to get consumed by social media, but Foursquare is brilliant in its mobility. It’s a social media app that necessitates breaking away from your computer cord and going out. Likewise, Google News badges reward you for expanding your knowledge and learning and reading about different things.

Are badges somewhat silly? Of course. Only a few Foursquare badges are ever linked to any tangible monetary reward. At the end of the day they’re just cute graphics on a profile. Will I keep having a blast earning them, and smile whenever I unlock a new one? Oh absolutely.

Going to Berlin: Mostly business, a little pleasure

In a little less than two weeks, I will be taking the Foreign Service Officer Test, which is used to determine a person’s eligibility to serve the State Department at overseas embassies and consulates in tenure-track work. I wanted to take the test in February and the only place I could do it by the time I was able to register was the U.S. embassy in Berlin.

I’ve been to Berlin before and I read German very well — I sound dumb trying to speak it, but I just haven’t had the practice in a long time — so I wasn’t terribly worried to go back. It’ll be like a mini adventure!

I’m going to have to skip a Tuesday class, but my teacher understood what I was doing and said it wasn’t a problem. I’m taking the train from Canterbury to St. Pancras, then another train to Luton airport, then hopping on a plane to Berlin Schoenefeld and then taking an express train from the airport to the Hauptbahnhof (the main city train station). I’m spending the night, then taking the U-bahn (subway) to the embassy in the morning, taking the test, grabbing a bite to eat and flying back to London. Piece of cake, right?

The exam itself is split into four parts. One part is mixed bag of questions about U.S. history, world geography, economics, culture, government, computer literacy and management skills. The second part is all about written expression, including grammar, reading comprehension and editing. A third part is unassessed and asks you to give biographical information. The fourth part is a critical essay, which is graded in the event that you pass the multiple choice portion.

If you pass the exam, you’re invited to complete a broader biographical survey. If that’s sufficient, a panel of current foreign service officers looks over your full package and determines if you’re fit for an oral examination. Following that, then you may be offered a post off of a list, depending on your qualifications. Whew. So as important as the upcoming test is, it’s really just the first part of the gauntlet.

I’m hoping I have time to get a nice German meal that isn’t from a train station cart, and can maybe run over to Brandenburg Gate and/or the Reichstag again for some quick photos.

Wish me luck!

Art in London

Sunday, after a relatively low-key weekend, I decided, kind of off the cuff, to go into London for the day. There was nothing I really went in for — other than some Christmas shopping — but I figured I’d wing it.

I had planned to shop a bit at the big Waterstones bookstore right off Trafalgar Square, but unfortunately, they didn’t open until noon. Having some time to kill, I wandered down the Strand. The skating rink at Somerset House was packed, so I ducked into the courtyard for a couple of photos. I noticed on the way out that the Courtauld Gallery inside the Somerset House complex was open. Intrigued, having never visited before, I went in to take a look. As a student, I got in free, which is always a bonus.

Paul Cézanne's "The Cardplayers"

Paul Cézanne's "The Cardplayers"

If you haven’t been able to tell before now, I’m something of an art enthusiast. I’ve never taken a formal art class — either history or practice — but I’ve been to several of the major galleries of Europe and developed a taste for viewing pieces. Italian Renaissance art and French Impressionism are my two favorite categories.

The Courtauld Gallery is comparatively small, but I was impressed with its pieces. The Gothic religious art, namely several triptychs and polyptychs, and its collection of Peter Paul Rubens paintings are excellent. The Impressionist collection, particularly a few Renoir works, was also awesome to see. A Botticelli painting depicting Christ being lowered from the crucifix featured a portrayal of Mary Magdalene I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a painting, with her hair loose around her in typical Botticelli waves.

The real experience at the gallery, though, was the fabulous short-term exhibit on Paul Cézanne’s “The Cardplayers.” Cézanne is one of those painters whose style is so defined, you can immediately identify his work. I’m a fan of his still-lifes in particular. “The Cardplayers” is a series of paintings depicting French rural peasants playing cards (obviously). The exhibit showed Cézanne’s process, including pencil “cartoons” (early sketches) of the figures and other portraits he had done of the subjects. At the time, his treatment of the peasant class was somewhat cutting-edge, especially given that he often depicted them in more genteel settings, such as his studio or a country house.

After I finished there, I walked (it was nice!) to the Tate Modern. I’m not normally enthusiastic about post-Impressionist work, but I had yet to see Salvadore Dali’s “Metamorphosis of Narcissus” and the Andy Warhol exhibit. After a quick espresso in the cafe, I headed upstairs to view the Dali painting.

The painting has one of the most clever visual tricks I’ve seen. On the one hand, you can see the kneeled figure of Narcissus, who in Greek mythology fell in love with his own reflection in a pool and drowned. The gods turned him into the narcissus flower. On the other side, you see a hand gripping a cracked egg, from which emerges a narcissus flower. Though the two figures are different, they are, in terms of shape, mirrors of each other.

Salvadore Dali's "Metamorphosis of Narcissus"

Salvadore Dali's "Metamorphosis of Narcissus"

I next visited the Warhol exhibit, a room plastered with gauche cow-print wallpaper that Warhol concocted after a friend told him that “no one does pastoral work anymore.” A self-portrait is there, as well as a camouflage installation, a stark black and yellow painting of a dollar sign, and a visceral (tinted with red, like blood) painting of two guns, done after the artist was shot by an admirer.

I spent the rest of the day roaming the city, going across the Millennium Bridge, having lunch at Chipotle (where else), getting a gingerbread cupcake at the Hummingbird (of which I’m now the mayor on Foursquare), walking through St. James’s Park and through Westminster and Whitehall (luckily the student protests have died down), browsing books at Waterstones and going down to the Imperial War Museum to view its Holocaust and crimes against humanity exhibits, in preparation for my human rights class next term.

Another great day in the city.

A damp day in London

I get a bit of a rush whenever I step off the train at a London station. I got it when I went from Reading to Paddington, and I get it when I go from Canterbury to St. Pancras. I love going into London, because it exhausts me — I’ll sleep like a baby tonight — and it challenges me, as I try to find my way around, discover new places and keep up with the fast pace. Best exercise I’ll get all week.

I don’t get to go into London very often, about once or twice a month, so when I go, I leave early and come back late, so I get a full bang for my buck (quid?). Take today, for instance. Instead of leisurely seeing two or three things, I covered a lot of ground, most of it in the West End or in Chelsea/Knightsbridge.

First I hit Hummingbird Bakery near Soho, where I picked up a red velvet cupcake (the house specialty) and a cola cupcake (Friday special). I ate my red velvet cupcake with a peppermint mocha at Starbucks on Regent Street, and visited the Regent Street Apple store, the world’s largest by area.

After that I walked from Piccadilly Circus to Trafalgar Square, where I ducked inside the National Gallery to see a few of my favorite paintings: Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, Raphael’s portrait of Pope Julius II and Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. I went to the National Portrait Gallery to say hello to the Tudors and all of their associates — Elizabeth I, Henry VIII, Henry VII, Catherine of Aragon, Mary Stuart, Mary I, Catherine Parr, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Edward VI. They’re all there, although poor Anne Boleyn was getting her portrait cleaned.

It was lunchtime after that, but I was dismayed to find that Tsunami wasn’t accepting lunch walk-ins. Making a note to make a reservation next time, I braved the Charlie Foxtrot that is Tottenham Court Road(work) for the foreseeable future, and had tacos at the UK’s only Chipotle on Charing Cross Road. Verdict: Just as yummy as at home, but they get brown rice as an option!

I was in a museum mood today, so next I stopped by the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Natural History Museum has all kinds of animal skeletons, ecosystem exhibits and fossils, so it’s a popular place with school kids. The V&A Museum has a lot of sculpture, textiles and “industrial”/useful art. Harrods was just down the road so I went to look at expensive handbags, Seven for All Mankind jeans and the selection of dog collars. Harrods is already dolled up for Christmas, and the display theme this year is Peter Pan (when I was at Reading the theme was Casino Royale).

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Harrods was also unbearably hot, so after I finished there I went to Kensington Gardens and found the Peter Pan statue (I saw it once before but it was dark) and walked over to Hyde Park. By then it was getting a little dark and rainy, so I took the Tube to Covent Garden, where I promptly walked out onto the street, slipped on the wet stones and fell flat on my rear. How embarrassing.

There was another bakery near Covent Garden that I was going to try and find, but with the early darkness and rain I didn’t get to it. I grabbed coffee to give myself a boost and get out of the rain, before I went to a hopping Leicester Square to see “Let Me In” at the Odeon. The movie was pretty good and a nice twist on the vampire genre.

After the movie I took the Tube back to St. Pancras, where I observed the people just getting in from Paris and Brussels, grabbed some McDonald’s for dinner — first time I’ve had it since moving here — and caught my train home. Whew!

I’m going in again on Wednesday, and that day I’m shooting to see the Tate Modern, the British Museum and a few of the other parks, or at least St. James Park. Oh, and that second bakery …

(Today was also Guy Fawkes Night, but more on that tomorrow.)