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.

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.

In search of “home”

I do some of my best thinking on the Metro. There’s nothing to do, really, except think and go over things in my mind.

My little epiphany this morning was in my realization that, while I can safely say that I don’t feel much emotional attachment to where I grew up — without my friends and parents and other family there, I’d have no reason to go back — I also don’t have that many roots in D.C., despite living here for a year and a half. I think deep down, I see my time here as temporary and transient. Will it end up being so? Maybe. Maybe not. Plenty of people in D.C. planned to stay for a year or two, and lo, 30 years pass and they’re still here.

Then I thought about what makes a home. How do you decide to lay down roots? When should you decide? Should you fall in love with a place, and stay out of love for that place, or should you fall in love with a person, and lay roots with them wherever? I don’t think it’s too much to ask to love someone and stay with them in a place that you’d love even if you weren’t with them. I hope to be so fortunate.

I’m also not sure that time expended counts toward a feeling of home. I still think of England as “home” on some occasions, despite only living there for two years. On the one hand, almost two decades in the Midwest hadn’t done much to solidify nostalgia for that place. The jury’s still out on D.C., I have a certain fondness for it, but can’t help this nagging feeling that it too is just a pit stop on the road to … somewhere else.

Traveling is something I have to do, almost compulsively. Even my trips that get planned months in advance receive almost obsessive attention. Is my travel bug some subconscious method of “scouting” a possible home? Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes I’m afraid that I’m destined to just be a wanderer, moving here and there whenever I manage to overcome inertia.

At the end of the day, I think a true home has to combine both people and location. It’s not enough to live somewhere you love if you have no one to share it with, and it’s not enough to be with someone you love if the location makes you miserable or unhappy.

Wish me luck eventually finding that happy balance.

Back to Blighty, for a little while

It’s no secret that I’ve put off going for my Ph.D. Mainly it’s an issue of finances and the fact that my job in D.C. is going well. But I still miss England fairly often, so I decided to head back to visit for a little more than a week in September. I’m flying to Manchester, not London, and seeing some parts of the country that I haven’t before, or haven’t seen in a long time: Manchester, Liverpool, the Lake District and that general area.

I plan to be joined in this adventure by my good friend Deborah, with whom I went to Uni. Kent and formed part of a formidable pub quiz team (Grandma’s Wisdom for life!). I also hope to meet my pen pal (which sounds archaic and quaint but is the best way to describe it), a fellow nerd (we bonded over “A Song of Ice and Fire” and it doesn’t get geekier than that) and software developer/physics enthusiast who lives near Liverpool. I’m hoping a beer or two can help us figure out if it’s worth traveling down the Kingsroad, so to speak.

I have mixed feelings going back, even though it’s just for a brief period. I was probably at my personal and emotional nadir when I left the last time, and I’ll be going back on a far, far higher note, with good friends and a great job and other prospects. I’m hoping that that change in perspective lets me see the country more pragmatically and maybe figure out if going back long-term is really something I still want to pursue. If nothing else, I’ll get to see some great people and have some new adventures.

Since my tax rebate is funding this little sojourn, I splurged for an exit row aisle seat on my flight over and back. Worth every penny. Or pence.

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.

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.

Bodiam Castle and Rye

On Saturday, I went on a day trip with the university chaplaincy (I’ve been attending Anglican services on Sundays) to Bodiam Castle and the small town of Rye, both in East Sussex.

The castle was built in 1385 by Sir Edward Dalyngrigge (that’s a mouthful), who served King Edward III and received permission to build the castle from King Richard II. Its intended purpose was to stave off a French invasion during the Hundred Years War. The castle itself was built with an artificial moat and was the seat of the feudal Bodiam Manor.

Its owners seem to have had a bit of rotten luck over the years. Dalyngrigge himself died in combat on a knightly campaign, and its next owner, Sir Thomas Lewknor, made the mistake of supporting the Lancastrians during the Wars of the Roses. King Richard III confiscated the castle, although the Lewknors eventually got it back when King Henry VII took over.

During the English Civil War, its owner was John Tufton, who was a Royalist. Another owner on the wrong side of the victors, Tufton had to turn the castle over in the face of heavy taxation. The castle was torn apart, and passed down to Lord Curzon, who tried to fix it up and gave it to the National Trust in 1925. The castle is mostly ruins inside, but has a remarkably intact exterior.

Not too far away is the town of Rye, sitting up on a hill. Back when it was founded, the sea came much farther inland, and the town’s position on the hill kept it from getting washed out. The village is very attractive, with cobbled streets and a wide variety of tea houses, antique shops, cottages and cafes.

Enjoy photos of the castle and village below.

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Note: Just giving a big thanks to everyone who’s been reading The Canterbury Tales. October 2010 has been my most-viewed month so far, and it’s not even over yet!

An afternoon in Whitstable

My friends (Deborah, Hannah and Rachel) and I had planned to head up north to Whitstable, a small satellite village on the North Sea renowned for its oysters, today. After a couple of weeks of drippy, overcast weather, we couldn’t have expected a truly gorgeous day, as you can tell from the photos at the bottom.

After a lovely Anglican service early this afternoon in Eliot Chapel (during which I read the liturgy and after which I indulged in some lemon cake a few local ladies brought in), I met up with my friends and packed into Deb’s car and drove up to Whitstable.

The beach there reminded me a lot of Maine — more rocky than sandy, windy and cool. We didn’t swim, obviously, but I’d wager it was chilly. Lines of lovely houses, some private, some turned into bed-and-breakfasts, stood up and down the seaside. You could see people swimming and on their boats. I lost track of the number of dogs: spaniels, terriers, retrievers, labs and shepherds of all kinds, some on leashes, some not, all well-behaved. We also found oyster shells to collect.

Up the beach is Whitstable Harbour, which has a fish market and several fresh seafood restaurants. A few boys were catching nice-sized crabs right off the pier using nets. We headed into the town centre, passing all sorts of little shops, cafes and pubs. When we’d exhausted the high street options, we settled in for a late lunch at Coach and Horses. All four of us had a typical “Sunday roast” dinner: Beef (cauliflower-and-cheese bake for Hannah), yorkshire pudding (not really pudding; it’s a pastry used to sop gravy), roasted potatoes and vegetables.

On the way back, we stopped for a few minutes at a penny arcade (I won some sort of magnet game) and then at a little ice cream parlor called Sundae Sundae, where we got cheap waffle cones. Then we had a nice leisurely walk back up the beach to the car. All in all, a lovely day, and it makes me want to go back to Whitstable on a Saturday morning (the buses go there) for the farmers market.

Perhaps most importantly, the evidence of an actual beach in England torpedoes my uncle Tim’s rationale for not coming over in July to see my graduation.

Enjoy the photos below.

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Note: The period from now until December is VERY busy! So be sure to check back for photos and news from Bodiam Castle and Rye, Guy Fawkes night, Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Bruges and Paris.

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?

A possible dissertation topic

I said the D word, run for your lives!

Since we had a brainstorming session in my research methods class last week, I’ve been trying to think of a possible dissertation topic. This is especially important because, even though we don’t begin formal work on the paper itself until this summer, a lot of prep work for it is due in November (a research methods outline) and January (a formal proposal that must be department-approved).

After slightly stressing out over it, I think I may finally have a topic — foreign aid. Namely, aid that the United States gives to developing countries. While I’m going to do more in-depth reading before choosing a precise angle on the topic, I’m considering writing about aid’s effectiveness, or lack thereof. What does the U.S. hope to accomplish by distributing aid — security, goodwill, humanitarian success — and what does it actually accomplish? How efficient is aid? Would another form of assistance or demonstration of soft power be more practical or successful? How much aid actually gets to people who need it, and how much ends up on the black market? How much does the U.S. actually distribute versus what it says it will?

A final, streamlined approach, which may very well be just a single question listed above, will probably have to wait until I’ve done more research and had a chance to chat with a supervisor. But for now I’m fairly confident that the final product will be something to do with developmental economics and aid.