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!

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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.)

How London can use Foursquare

Now that I’m able to successfully take my mobile crack, er, media addiction on the road (thanks to an iPod Touch and, I hope, an Android phone in the near future), I’ve become a major fan of Foursquare. What is Foursquare? Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember that not all of my friends are journalism/social media junkies, and most people probably aren’t familiar with it.

Think of it like Twitter on the move. Basically you “check in” at different venues to which you travel — shops, restaurants, bars, airports, train stations, landmarks, bus stops, churches, grocery stores, boutiques, shopping malls, a damn boat. Experience-wise, you get out of it what you put in — ideally you’ll leave tips and notes at places you’ve been, telling the people who arrive after you what to see, do or eat there. For instance, after having a stellar curry in Canterbury, I promptly listed a tip on the place’s Foursquare listing.

If you check into a place more times in the past 60 days than anyone else, you become the mayor, a post you hold until someone else boots you. You can see where your friends have been, and earn badges for various things, like checking into specific types of venues, checking into many different venues, or checking in a certain number of times.

If you use your imagination, the application is entrepreneurial gold. Several months ago, Gap and American Eagle (I believe) both offered discounts if you checked into their stores. Starbucks offers drink specials for its mayors. The mayor at a Wetherspoon pub in the UK gets 20 percent off his tab. It rewards brand loyalty and in turn, the venue receives your business, and your tips populate the venue’s Foursquare listing. Brands like Zagat, Bravo, The History Channel and the Wall Street Journal have their own special badges that you can earn if you follow them. To earn the Zagat badge, for example, you just need to check in at five different Zagat-rated restaurants.

But what about something such as, say, tourism?

Cities like New York, Chicago, Boston/Cambridge and San Francisco and even entire states like Pennsylvania have badges designed to give people incentives to explore them, like a scavenger hunt. As I was rooting around online looking for free WiFi hotspots in London (which I’m visiting tomorrow to see friends, woo), it occurred to me just how awesome a London-based collection of badges (both for tourists and people who actually live or work there) could be.

  • Check into 10 different Underground stations and get a Tube badge.
  • Hit 3+ musicals or other shows and get the West End badge.
  • 3+ gallery check-ins? Give ’em a Turner badge (a generic Warhol badge already exists for gallery check-ins).
  • Five words: “I’m on the London Eye.”
  • Hit Paddington, King’s Cross/St. Pancras, Waterloo, Victoria and Charing Cross and get a Rail Rider badge.
  • Multiple check-ins in the City gets you a Financial Whiz badge (I know WSJ does something similar for financial district check-ins in New York).
  • Check into 5+ castles or royal residences (not necessarily just in London) and earn a King/Queen for a Day badge.
  • 5+ churches, cathedrals or historical houses of worship, like St. Paul’s or Westminster Abbey, ought to be good for something … pious.
  • London pub crawl badge? Yes, please. Even better, narrow it down by the specific beer associated with each pub.
  • A Borough Hopper badge for visiting 5+ different boroughs, like Chelsea, Westminster, Camden and Southwark.
  • A Sloaner badge for checking into 3+ shops on Sloane Street, or Harrods.
  • The London 2012 badge is so obvious I’m not even going to elaborate.
  • 3+ museums should get you a Rosetta Stone badge.
  • Double-decker badge for 5+ check-ins on a bus.
  • There’s already a badge for checking in on or near a boat, but what about on or near the Thames?
  • Ultimate London badge for checking into 15+ predetermined landmarks (this would be an awesome scavenger hunt/travel itinerary thing).
  • London Nightlife badge for checking into 3+ predetermined bars or night clubs.
  • The Footie badge for checking into 3+ football matches.
  • Earn a Green London badge for visiting 3+ city parks.
  • Check in 5+ times while crossing the Thames and get a Bridge Too Far badge.
  • And this isn’t even counting event-specific badges for things like Fashion Week, the opening of Parliament, Wimbledon, general elections, Trafalgar Square rallies, major sporting events, the queen’s birthday and Guy Fawkes night.

I came up with 20 specific badges right off the top of my head. In addition to the badges, tangible rewards are also easy to figure out — check in on the Eye, get a discount on your next ticket. 15% off museum/gallery gift shops if you earn those badges. Discounted train fare, free entry to landmarks, store deals. So why isn’t anyone (the local government, Transport for London, a media group or someone) doing this already?

Do you really want the Yanks to have all the fun?