Wednesday, 6 August 2008

The End or the Beginning? Italy, Part 1

Days, weeks, months later, I finally get around to recording my grand finale of Europe. The last few days in St. Andrews were a strange mixture of crazed anxiety, realizing my year had ended (months too soon!), and a calm acquiecsence to the fact that I was ready to go home. I delayed my travel plans, wasting a plane ticket in the process, to stay in Britain longer. I decided to skip traveling in France alone and go directly to Italy a day before I was to be kicked out of my university owned flat.

A side note for all those wondering what happened in Britain after I left and for more British customs: in Britain it is quite common to rent out university halls as "suites" for the weary traveller. These in fact are flats or dorms that students normally live in and the "staff" is students working for lesser wages than the Polish immigrants. We had to move out on a Saturday by 10 a.m. I later heard from my flatmate who was last to move out that promptly at 10 a.m. a warden walked into our flat demanding she be out right then. She happened to be in her bathrobe making breakfast with her brother and dad, who had driven up to move her out. I thought it was a bit unreasonable they would be so demanding, but then again this was the same warden who we encountered in the Fire Alarm Incident. There are always those who thrive in the power that university housing situations give them and lets just say this guy was the prime pimply example. Not exactly like they were going to turn the flat into for the golf tourists right then at 10 a.m.

Meanwhile, I was sailing away on my EasyJet flight to Milan. There was the usual 3+ hours to get from St Andrews to the Edinburgh airport by public transportation. Then the usual wait around the Edinburgh airport, with the important stop at La Boulangerie de Paul (a Parisian institute right here!) to get my lunch and then the restless waiting at the gate with too few seats. Unfortunately one of Edinburgh's finest rugby clubs was also travelling on the same flight. The thirty or so young gentlemen ambled around, their 20 year old bodies jostling like 7 year olds. "This is going to be quite the flight," I thought to myself.

I sat down in an empty row, observing the rows of rugby boys up ahead. "Should be ok here," but I made too many assumptions too fast. Not only did two of the boys sit down in the empty seats, but across the aisle a hen party took roost.

Now, hen parties are not just another bachelorette party. They are the most godawful British women imaginable - they are loud, hideously ugly and fat, and the most raunchy women (then add 5 hours later when they are all completely sloshed). I've tried to think of an American equivalent with little success. I guess if you imagine an ex-Hooter's woman at 45 crossed with Mae West you are starting to get close. Now imagine 30 of them together. A fair number of British pubs have signs reading "Hen Parties NOT WELCOME" and their reputation far outstrips any American bachelor party. Just do some googling if you don't believe me.

The combination of a group of young rugby players and the Hen party was almost too much. The boys kept passing around porn magazines and talking about various sports, the Italian stewardesses ("She said 'Prego' to me - that must mean she fancies me,"). Then one of them, a very precocious young man, started chatting up the bride-to-be across the aisle and after congratulating her, asked if any of their party was single. One woman was - she was a youthful 38 (the youngest in the party) - and so somehow it a process of witty Edinburgh banter, she convinced him to put her underwear on in exchange for his. So he waddled down the aisle in her panties and decried to his friends the pair he was wearing had streak marks. He was pretty horrified over the state of his boxers considering his outward nature. Eventually he came back down the aisle with his underwear in a ball and gave them to her.

Meanwhile, looking for an excuse to talk to me, one of the guys asks me what time it is and then what time we are supposed to land. Suddenly I have a throng of rugby players surrounding me - they are all about 18 or 19 and want to know where I'm from, why I'm going, what I think about Scotland, how they are going to add me on Facebook - it went on and on. Their coach came by to see if they were harassing me, but when I said no, they all beamed and continued on their tirade of questions. I was honestly enjoying the attention, more attention I'd gotten from British (or Scottish or Irish) men in an entire year, and they seemed pretty good natured. They denied knowing where the porn came from and insisted I would have had a better time at Aberdeen Uni, because of course that's where a few of them went.

Eventually the plane landed and the Rugby players went to join their teammates. I went off to hunt down my luggage and learn how to travel on my own.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

A Night at the Theatre and the Lessons Learned

The other night my family went to see Wicked, the musical based on the Gregory Maguire book. My mother had thought it would be a good way to celebrate both my younger brother's and my June birthdays. Unfortunately, the trip to the theatre was more than a learning experience.

The show itself was not badly done - the cast was extremely good, the production was a glorious fantasy of lights and fabric and set design, and the plotline was a solid reconstruction of the novel. The music itself was absolutely dreadful, recalling the sonorous heydays of Andrew Lloyd Weber and Rent. If I heard one more synthesized piano ballad I might have flung myself off the mezzanine where we were sitting. Early 90's musicals have little musical value (if any), so a 15 year later spinoff is less than enjoyable.

What shocked me most was the audience. Now, I understand that while at the places like the Pantages, which produce the grand cult status musicals (The Producers, Mamma Mia, Legally Blonde, you get the idea...), they attract a crowd that might not normal vacate the theatre, I did not expect the chaviest American audience possible. "Not the usual theatre going crowd," I comment to my brother as we watched the parade of strangely dressed women (its about 65 % women there) and their entourage.

Not only did the usher proceed to scream at everyone "No cell phones, no talking, no photos, no singing!" up and down the aisles as if we were at a Hannah Montana concert, but when my mother leaned over to tell him how she thought this was inappropriate theatre tactics (her words were "In any other theatre we don't have someone yelling at us like we were a crowd of monkeys or groupies, especially not in Europe"), some woman walking by said, "This ain't Europe. This is LA, baby!" The way she emphasized "baby" made me wonder how long she had been practicing that line.

The women behind us were equally ridiculous, complaining extremely loudly about the light being emitted from my mother's cell phones as she was trying to turn them off and then proceeding to chew gum through the entire show. Every denouement was accompanied by a loud "SMACK SMACK SMACK." One of the women was also deaf and had her companion repeat every line. "What did they say? What did they say?" Unfortunately her companion was either deaf herself or extremely obtuse and would repeat incorrect lines and information. "He's an antelope," she said right after the goat character mentions he is a goat. This went on for the entire performance.

I also now understand why formal theatres refuse to seat patrons during the middle of the show - watching lights and heads bob up and down aisles during the middle of the show is extremely distracting and ruins parts of the performance.

I guess I've complained enough, but I wasn't ready for this to be the equivalent to going to a 2 p.m. matinee for a Disney movie. Lesson learned.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Oh July

A million and a half apologies for the lack of anything. I think the internet needed a break though.

I do have lots to write about regarding my trip to Italy and my last days spent in Britian and of course, returning a solidified ex-ex-Patriot now. Woe! This new job and working over 40 hours of week kills my drive to sit down at my laptop and type out my sweet nothings to a blank page.

Soon! Soon! And a new sub-heading with it.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Coffee Ratings Revised

I almost forgot to rate the coffee in Budapest! I had heard so much about Budapest coffee houses (they are similar to the Viennese ones) and while atmosphere was abundant, the coffee was unfortunately lacking.

Here is my new international rating of coffee so far (Note - I will be in Italy next week and am expecting greatness):

1. France
2. Germany
3. The Netherlands
4. Poland
5. Egypt
6. Hungary
7. United Kingdom

France has moved up since my earlier ratings in February due to the excellent cappucinos I had along with their atmospheric cafes. Although Germany has excellent coffee that is cheaper than France, it does not have the same cafe atmosphere. The Netherlands have good cafes, but nothing extraordinary. I did not have much coffee in Poland (besides at homes or in the hotel that my friends parents own) but overall, they also had good coffee. Egypt made good turkish coffee and Hungary's coffee was drinkable. I have found one place here in St. Andrews that actually makes a real latte, but it is off the beaten track (and they get extra points for an attractive barista who is overly attentive). Otherwise most coffee in Britain is a weak mixture of bad coffee and too much milk.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Budapest, Part 4: Miscellanea

Some leftover thoughts on Budapest:

One of my favorite fixtures of Europe are the unique architectural oddities that each city or region has. While cellars are numerous in other cities, Budapest has a special claim. They are bars and tea houses and restaurants. There was a very traditional, yet utterly un-kitsch Hungarian cellar restaurant we went to one of the last nights I was in town. I was able to try a lot of specialties in restaurant form. I had venison stew with potatoes and a tomato salad. Then I ordered dessert, crepes Gundel, which was a wonderful flambed crepe filled with walnuts, raisins, and chocolate floating in a walnut (?) liquor (that the waiter lit on fire with quite ceremony).

The Hungarians believe in dessert. Not only did I have the excellent crepes Gundel, but I also sampled various pastry at several Viennese coffee houses (one was in a cellar!) and various poppy seed creations. While I was not very fond of generic Hungarian cooking, at least they do enough correctly - wine, dessert, and tea. They're already outdoing the British by at least one.

As for museums, I wandered in several history museums, all of which have such vaguely similar names. However, the National Museum was my favorite, documenting the history of the cities of Buda and Pest, starting with neolithic carvings and ending in the modern era at the fall of the communist regime. Not only did they have historical items of interest, but they incorporated clothing, furniture and standard objects in their displays. Unfortunately only half of the signs were in English and my general lack of Hungarian history left me curious and dissatisfied. The Historical Museum was very similar in themes, but with less objects and more English signs with repetitive and useless knowledge. They did have a portion of the old palace that it is housed in open and I was able to wander in the cellar, built sometime in the 1500s, I believe. Not only was it deliciously cool and crisp inside, I felt I had discovered some hidden passage in the tradition of Indiana Jones. With the lack of tourists, besides two older British women wandering away, for a moment it was as if I had my own castle.

I did not have time to go to any art museums unfortunately. I tried to go into the National Art Gallery, but I walked in through an unlocked side door. There was a sign outside saying it was the National Art Gallery, but as soon as I entered some woman came up to me and started to say something to me in Hungarian. I said in extremely broken Hungarian, something along the lines of : "I No Speak Hungary." She then asked if spoke either German or English and then explained that I had to go through the main entrance. After escorting me over to the pain entrance, I was too confused (and tired of museums) to bother figuring out the proper way to get in. I wasn't particularly interested in any more medieval carvings, which is the brief glimpse of what I saw when coming in through the side door.

I did go to the Terror Haza, or Terror House, which was once the headquarters for the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party, the Hungarian Nazis, and then the later communist terror organizations, the AVO and the AVH. As it was a museum of "terror", they tried to document the crimes of both organizations against the people of Hungary. After reading the guidebooks, I was not sure I wanted to go as they described it as a shocking exhibit of past crimes against humanity. But I felt I should go, if for no other reason to see the building. I did take an upper division history class on the history of the Soviet Union at Berkeley after all.

The museum itself was one of the most beautifully curated museums I've ever seen. It is visually stunning, in its subtly vibrant colors that all seem to accentuate each other. The displays were simple, but aesthetically pleasing, and the orientation was easy to follow. I think what I enjoyed best was seeing the various memorabilia and objects from the communist era. The stairwell of communist art was incredible - the busts of Lenin and Stalin and others moving spirally upwards.

What struck me as strange though was the fact that the museum was not that shocking, at least in the terms the guidebooks used. Perhaps it was because I knew a lot more about the specific "terrors" of communist regimes in Europe. Compared to visiting the Nazi work camp Dachau, it was not even as close to being as horrific. The other thought I had while walking through the museum was the extreme bias. I understood and in many ways agree that the museum was an attempt to create a remembrance for all those who were persecuted then. But the general sentiment was that everything the communists did was evil (they did not focus much on the Nazis, besides including some uniforms and relating how many Nazi Arrow Cross members became part of the communist secret police). One of the things I realized while taking the history of the Soviet Union class was that although there were many things done as a means to solidify communism that were horrendous (ie. Stalinist purges), we have a hard time differentiating the propaganda we were fed against communism. The Soviet Union was one of the most progressive places for feminism and literacy, two things a lot of people don't realize. I am not trying to suggest communism is the means for a successful government, far from it actually, but I think as an American I long thought of that "great Communist evil" which I am now unsure exists or ever did. Rather, it was a much more complicated process, one in which communism folded in on itself.

One aspect of communal living I did enjoy while in Budapest was the Roman baths. At first I was a little nervous about parading around in early April in a bathing suit. But the baths are extremely user friendly - old men were playing chess in the outdoor bath while drinking beer, Italian tourists running around in droves, the one little boy kept narrowly missing other bathers when jumping into the pool, and of course there were the euro trash couples making out in broad view. But this just made it more comfortable to be there. I also learned how to properly enjoy a sauna, moving from it to a cold pool and then back again. It was extremely refreshing, unlike the claustrophobic experiences I had as a child in random hotel saunas.

I'm sure there are a million other things I am forgetting about my trip to Budapest. But at this point, with another trip, looming on the horizon, I feel like I've covered enough of it. Lena will have to remind me if I forgot anything.

Soon to Be an Ex-Ex-Patriot

It's hard to believe that exactly four months ago, I was anticipating my trip to Cairo. It's even harder to believe that less than a year ago I was anxiously awaiting the beginning of a year in Scotland. Now, I'm approaching my last final exam here and my next adventure.

Lately it seems that the general preponderance is the uncertainty of what waits ahead. There are the usual anxieties of starting another year or a new job or moving to a new place. But what is stranger is to return to a place, a very familiar place, knowing it will not be the same. In my Scottish literature class, we read several short stories that dealt with Scottish ex-patriots returning home and what they found on arrival. Now, I'm neither Scottish nor from some tiny island village nor have I been gone for thirty years, but I think the sentiments and underlying emotion are similar. There are times that I feel that I have to glorify everything here. I must be the Roman returning victorious from battle and I am not sure I can always keep that charade up. Not to say that there haven't been many wonderful experiences, but they have been fully tempered by the difficulties.

There are so many myths and expectations of studying abroad. This year has been the strangest, loneliest, most adventurous year yet. And for all of that, I wouldn't take it back. However, as the Chart of Emotions that one of my friends was given (in the conclusion that a visual bell graph would help explain what to expect while studying abroad), I am now approaching the reverse effects of studying abroad. What are those? Tune in next fall.

I think I might delaying travelling for 2 or 3 days and enjoy some more time in the company of people here. Not that I have money to waste, but the extra expense of changing a plane ticket seems well worth it at the moment. Then I'm off to Italy for about two weeks and then a quick jaunt to the isles of Ireland and Britain before I sail home.

Strange how the time flies in a foreign country, even when every moment isn't necessarily fun...

Friday, 16 May 2008

Budapest, Part 3: Night

There is a gentle intensity about the Hungarian nightlife. It is similar to its Eastern European neighbors in that Budapest loves a good night out, drinking and dancing until the sun comes up. But the Hungarians have a spirit about them that seems more easy going and less intense than the Polish or Germans. They are definitely not pretentious like the French.

When I was in Budapest, Lena made sure I saw all the various aspects of the nightlife. Well, I will specify that we did not go to any strip or sex clubs, a reputation that Budapest somewhat encourages due to the number of tourists. However, despite being named the "Sex Capital," the streets were remarkably safe and as long as you stayed away from the crazy winos and alcoholics like the one we encountered on the airport bus, you were fine.

Enough about the merits of walking on Budapest streets at ungodly hours!

The first night I arrived I was too incapacitated by lack of sleep (I'd woken before dawn) to do anything. However, the next night Lena took me to a party in a friend's flat where I promptly met her international crew of friends. I was informed by the Hungarian that the wine label Danko was "a lifestyle" and given the quality of Hungarian wines, I would fondly join this lifestyle. (Note: Danko is only a lifestyle for those who can afford bottles of 3 euro wine or less) We then all went to a student night at a club called Living Room. Let's just say it was like a student night at any club anywhere in the world. Too many bodies, one "free drink," bad music, and guys to avoid. However, it is in someways both better and worse when you can't speak their language. They might actually be interesting people in their own right, but there is no way to ever figure it out. However, it also becomes an easy escape mechanism when there is no way to communicate. After several hours of this, Lena and I decided to go back to her apartment.

The next night proved better, or at least made for a more interesting story. We had been invited to a Polish dinner party - Lena's Polish friends were throwing a dinner party for their friends to introduce them to their native cuisine. That said, what I did eat was excellent. I can always go for a good pierogi. However, what we had thought was a sit down dinner became much more of an epic battle to get food. The Polish group had originally only invited their Polish and Slavic friends but it quickly morphed into 35 people for dinner and food for 10. Luckily, one of the skills I have mastered being a poor undergraduate is how to quickly navigate a buffet of free food. Of course, there's also an art to being polite at the same time. Another point of interest: there was more than plenty vodka to go around multiple times for everyone.

Afterward, Lena convinced half of the dinner party to join us at Szimpla, one of Budapest's "found bars." By "found bar", it is an old decaying building which is now a bar and that has been decorated by objects found around the streets. I believe I've seen these kind of establishments in various German films. Think found art plus cool hangout and a little post-communism mixed in. Clubbing seems to be the preferred option among many Europeans, but I absolutely adored this place. It was artlessly cool and had the perfect mix of ambience and people. No one was too hip or too touristy or too anything in particular.

Of course when we went to a jazz club, Fat Mo's, later on, we encountered a completely different environment. This place had once been a sleek bar of the 1920s and still looked so. The jazz band was remarkably good and the Hungarian twist to the music was all the more interesting. Unfortunately Scotland is a bit of a wasteland for music unless you like Brit rock or traditional Scottish music, both of which are fabulous. But forget about jazz. And if I hear another cover band playing "Sweet Home Alabama" in a Scottish accent, I am going to kill someone. The folk/rock band we heard at some other bar also was surprisingly good and they were singing in Hungarian. Europeans seem to think that if they sing in English it makes the music better. No comment.

I'm sure there are other things I'm missing from our night adventures. There are still plenty of other things I haven't even gotten around to like going into a random side door of a museum and having to be escorted out, or the adventures of the Roman baths. But all in good time. I must get back to reading Ian Rankin's Black and Blue for my Scottish Culture and Society final. Now that I'm on page 311 it's getting pretty good, however it's not exactly high brow literature. However it is Scottish:

Glasgow wasn't such a bad place: he'd been to cities in the States that could eat it for brunch.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

The Art of Revision

I have another complaint about the British school system, one that most Berkeley students would ridicule me for complaining about until they had experienced it themselves. Here in St. Andrews there is a period of time in between the end of classes and the beginning of exams and it is called Revision Week. There is nothing scheduled during this time and students are expected to use it to revise for exams.

However, this is too much time for us Berkeley students, used to the pressure chamber effect of building essays and exams and, don't forget, socializing.

Instead I will give some key rules to Scottish revision:

  • make a shopping trip to Dundee. You will now have new clothes to wear to the library which is the place to be seen.
  • only study when the sun is out. Then you must put on sunbathing appropriate clothes and pretend to study while you really nap.
  • live in the library. You have a whole semester's worth of reading to do in the upcoming week. Oh and getting those notes for those lectures you never went to would be helpful. When you only have two classes a semester, why bother going?
  • Drink until you remember why you might want to study.
  • Go home - its not like you'll do any studying anyways.
  • Revise your knowledge of YouTube videos and facebook while "studying" in the library.
Ok, perhaps I'm a bit biased. But as a dear friend of mine fondly termed her European university of high caliber, it was really just "fake school."

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Adventure in Budapest, Part 2

I was going to continue documenting the rest of my Budapest trip in a more timely fashion, but somehow time swept away as usual. Better late than never.

The second day of my trip in Budapest, I awoke to the pleasant sounds of a city neighborhood. People laughing, cars moving, and the faint drill of construction in the distance. How nice to be back in the urban jungle, I thought! And I meant it - never again will I question my need for the city after living in a village for a year. Lena and I awoke fairly early and ate the standard Northern European breakfast - bread, meat, cheese, yogurt, and tea. She thought it would be the perfect day to visit the traditional Hungarian town of Szentendre. And in fact, it was. It was a beautiful April day - the sun shining just enough to make the temperature pleasant, but not overbearing.

We boarded a bus - overall the public transporation system in Budapest is quite user friendly, even to those who have never seen a word of Hungarian in their lives, like me - which was a much better experience than the night bus the night before. We arrived in the village, which reminded me of a combination of the villages I'd seen in Bavaria and Poland. Szentendre is known as an artists colony and is quite touristy. The flocks of Italian tourists was quite astonishing in my opinion, but we left them alone.

We wandered around the village, looking at the old churches and the terraced houses, built in a Hungarian-Serbian style. We tried a traditional Hungarian street food - langosh - which is a piece of deep-fried bread with various toppings like cheese and meet. Some British woman came up to us and asked if it was a pizza and then if it was fatty. 'Well, it is deep-fried', replied Lena. 'Then it's not a pizza?' the woman asked. However fatty it actually was, it was delicious with the garlic paste on the side of the counter, replacing the standard condiments of pepper, brown sauce, or ketchup. We wandered over to a point next to the Danube and ate our lunch. Afterwards, Lena and I decided to go back into the city.

That afternoon it became overcast, but the city of Budapest was only more resplendant in its decaying beauty with a layer of clouds overshadowing it. We wandered around the main streets, looking at St. Stephen's Basilica, the Grand Market, the main shopping district, and the Pest side of the Danube. What I did not know when I first arrived in Budapest was that it was once two cities - Buda and Pest - and they were united in the mid-1800s. There is also a section which was a separate area, the island of St. Margaret, which before the Turkish invasion was a convent. The majority of Pest was built after 1800, during the glories of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and are all magnificent in the tiniest architectural details. In 1896, in celebration of their 1000 year anniversary, the city redesigned major areas to resemble Paris and put in the first metro in continental Europe. Most of these places are still in use, although many still neglected from the years of war and communist regime.

After wandering around for awhile, Lena and I stopped at the Grand Market, also built in 1896, in order to buy dinner. It is an indoor market, with stall upon stall of almost everything imaginable. And my god the paprika sausages! I do not recommend them in general as the are in the best circumstances as good as a very poorly made salami. However, the pickled bell peppers were excellent and the amount of produce surprised me. I had rather thought it would be like Poland, which had very few fresh vegetables. Then again, I was there in November and this was now April.

Eventually Lena and I wandered back to her apartment with our bounty and made dinner, complete with the very drinkable 60 cent wine. However, an interesting night was to follow.

Monday, 5 May 2008

April Showers Bring May Flowers

It's been a long while since I last posted here. Unfortunately, the end of a semester is always the most tense, wound up period of days, no matter which university I am at. Not only is the workload greater than at any other period of time, but everyone has a mad rush to have the last great party of the semester.

Here in St. Andrews May has brought an assortment of things: beautiful sunny days (I spent two hours today reading on the lawn), barbeques, and the realization that I am going home in about a month. The previous sentence can be interpreted like this: I am trying to do as much as possible right now.

On May 1st, I jumped into the North Sea at dawn. St. Andrews has a lot of 'traditions', ones that no one is quite sure where they originated, or they were actually started about five years ago. The May Dip is one of the traditions like Raisin Weekend, that no one is quite sure where it started. Yet no one really cares. The student body traditionally jumps into the North Sea at dawn on May 1st.

I knew there was no way I would actually wake up at 4am and walk down to the beach in the rain, so my two friends named Chris and I sat around drinking wine until the early hours. Then Scottish Chris and I walked down to the beach in the dark during a torrent of rain and hovered around the few bonfires. It was so dark that we could not recognize anyone, but we didn't much care. We were just waiting for enough daylight to be present for us to run into the sea. We also decided that we did not want anyone to steal our clothes, so we hovered around a nearby group and when we undressed put our clothes next to theirs. Meanwhile hoards of people ran around in the dark with swimsuits or clothes, a group of guys dragging a plastic raft into the sea. People shrieked everytime a downpour of rain fell unexpected from above.

Having been out in the rain for an hour already and having had enough wine to keep the blood circulating, I did not feel that cold walking around in just a swimsuit at dawn in Scotland. Perhaps this goes to my water polo days - although many have kindly pointed out that that was only winter evenings in Southern California, not mid-spring at the North Sea. Chris and I eventually ran in, although I was only able to go up to my waist before deciding this was good enough.

We marched out, got dressed, and took a taxi home in the wee hours of the morning. I had enough sand in my shoes to last for all the other years of May Dips I will miss.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

A Visitor

Krista came to visit this past week and besides having an awesomely good time, we did the usual Scottish round-up. A Scottish round-up includes going to almost every pub in St. Andrews, travelling by bus through the Scottish countryside (although I made Krista go to Edinburgh on her own - my schedule was not very flexible this past week), I made haggis, we were entertained by my British flatmates, and we discovered one of the finest beaches in Scotland. Of course, there was the usual St Andrews tour, which takes about 2 hours: the castle, the cathedral, the campus, the town, and the golf course. Add on another half an hour to walk back to my flat.

Correction: As Krista pointed out, as did several other visitors, I do not exactly walk through fields to get to class. There is a paved path. But the fields border it - one side being hay fields and the other being a hedge and playing fields. The rabbits and ravens are the most frequent site along this walk.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Budapest, Part 1: Arrival

It's been awhile since I set foot in the land of writing blog entries. For the past several weeks, I travelled to a myriad of places. Nothing too obscure - unless we want to discuss the Beckett I read for my Irish literature class - I jaunted my Bohemian self across the plains of Europe to better explore Budapest and Paris. Of course, if I needed any less Bohemia, it might be now. But that may be another story to follow.

I arrived in Budapest around midnight, following a day of airports. If I ever appreciated train travel, it is now after spending at least 2 full days at airports in order to acquaint myself with Europe on a budget. I have come to learn that the budget airlines of Europe are all talk - they are extremely uncomfortable, inefficient, and often make up the 'budget' price with a variety of fees. However, after a jaunt with WizzAir from London to Budapest, I was more than happy to meet the transportation of Eastern Europe. (My experiences of public transportation in Poland were very limited.) Lena, who I was visiting, met me at the airport and we then took the night bus back to her flat in the center of the city. Unfortunately, she had never been on a night bus this far from the center of Budapest and it proceeded to become an adventure, one in which we picked up some random Italian guy, also hoping to get to the center of town.

After getting off the airport shuttle at the metro stop, we waited for a bus, Lena, me, and the Italian. We waited at the stop, trying to ignore the exceedingly drunk and fat Hungarian man. But unfortunately this was no ordinary drunk, content with talking to himself. He kept making noises at us, "Wsht, wsht, wsht" he would say, and then he kept getting closer, close enough for us to see the spittle we had previously imagined. Luckily for us, the bus arrived. Unluckily for me, the drunk decided to climb on the bus ahead of me, and as I tried to climb the stairs with my suitcase, he fell backwards off of the steps. I jumped off before he could hit me, jamming my finger against the handle of the suitcase, while tentatively trying to get past him. Eventually, I joined Lena on the bus and we were off.

After about forty minutes, we made it back to Lena's apartment, a grand relic of the Soviet era. It was like the similar Polish relics I had seen, but it was surprisingly decent on the inside. While small, the apartment was comfortable and the owner had made a thorough attempt at decorating it. I readily admired the various retro Hungarian ads the filled the walls and the simple, yet attractive mixture of antiques and Ikea. As it was late, we went to bed, Budapest waiting for the next day.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

The Laundry Conundrum

I've noticed a strange phenomena among British students: before they go home for a break, they always do their laundry! This seems very unintuitive to the American student. To go home means good food, no work, and a suitcase full of dirty laundry. Among my friend in Berkeley, there were many who went home specifically to do their laundry. It was a littler harder for me, home being six hours away, but when I did go home, I remember packing suitcases full of dirty clothes. On one occasion, even the clothes I were wearing were the least dirty out of everything.

Yesterday, I went to the laundry room to do my laundry. I needed to do it since spring break was shortly approaching and as I will be travelling for several weeks, I needed to make sure I had the right clothes to travel with. However, this past Wednesday afternoon, the laundry room was packed. It was the laundry rush hour. Everyone was doing their laundry before going home and I heard several students mention they had to do it before they caught their train that afternoon. I was extremely perplexed.

Another thing I have yet to figure out is the laundry code of law here. In my dormitory in Berkeley, when someone's washer or dryer was done, you waited at least 10 minutes before unloading it and then you would put it in their basket, which was normally sitting on top of or next to the machine. Yesterday however, I arrived five minutes after my laundry was done and found it heaped in a pile on the bench in the middle of the room! They hadn't even bothered to put it in the empty dryer overhead. There are always bizarre stories with college laundry (one of my friends had all of his underwear stolen from the washers at Caltech), but generally there's an unwritten courtesy. And no one really wants to touch a strangers 'delicate' items.

I have yet to find out the reasoning behind this British phenomenon of laundry. But when I do, it will be another mystery of British academia unsolved.

Bike Lanes

For all the bicycle enthusiasts (and those who enjoy pavement, roads, etc.), SlateV posted this video recently.

On another note, I always enjoy when I recognize places in films or online videos.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

A Foul Foul Beast

I woke up yesterday morning thinking I must be sick I felt so cold. Despite getting dressed and turning up the heat, I still felt cold. When I walked outside, which did not seem too cold, I felt chilled. I was wearing a wool coat, a wool ski sweater, a tee shirt, jeans, knee socks, and leather shoes. Later I found out it was negative one degree celsius and everyone was just as cold as I was.

The weather has been a tumultous beast this week. On Friday, several friends from California were visiting and as we walked into town, we encountered rain, sleet, hail, and snow. Then there was the wind. The BBC had predicted it would be around 40mph, but considering the sheer force I would have believed it was stronger. Lena commented that even the hurricane winds she experienced in Florida weren't this strong.

We went down to the beach and saw the waves washing over the top of the stone pier. We could barely climb the path back up the hill to the cathedral ruins.

This past week I've encountered snow three of the four days. Yesterday it did not snow in St. Andrews, but I had to go on a field trip to the Grassic Gibbon Centre in Aberdeenshire and along the way, the bus had to drive through an actual snow storm. In the safety of the Gibbon Centre we watched the snow pour down, tea in hand, wondering where our crazy Scottish professor would take us next. Luckily, our next jaunt to the old Norman church ended before the next wave of snow came down. By the time we reached St. Andrews, we were back in the land of sun and gale force wind.
Strangely enough on Saturday I got sunburned while we walked around the fishing town of Anstruther. It was snowing lightly and I was only outside for several hours. However, this only proves that I am fully adapting to Scottish culture, or have enough Northern European blood in me to fully weather the climate like a native.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Sporting Rumble

With March brings the hollerings of March Madness, but here in Scotland, we seem to have forgotten the inner call of all things sportif. While reading such interesting articles on Slate, like Teams We Hate 2008, I found such tidbits of juicy university sports gossip. Apparently some Oregon State basketball players challenged their Washington opponents to a rumble in the parking lot. As everyone good West Coast college sports fan knows, this is probably the most impressive thing any Oregon State team has done practically ever. It's a very bad fate if Oregon State beats you at anything.

Here in Scotland March lacks the luster of their American sporting counterparts. Then again, my knowledge of British sports, while vastly improved, has yet to compare to any local's. Everyone asks what kind of expectations I had when I arrived in Britain and how they altered or were confirmed. I usually forget to mention sports when this comes up, but one expectation that was fully confirmed was the downright passionate love of football. Yes, I mean soccer.

The British are born with a downright love of football. You root for one team and that is your team. No exceptions. There is no separation from the sport and you. I'm not sure if this makes any sense, but football does run in the veins. It does not matter how disinterested a Brit may seem, they do in fact care.

The other national sport that seems to dominate Sundays along with the latest football match is rugby. I knew it was popular but not this popular. I think the guys in the flat next door care about rugby more than they care about football. But then again, rugby is considered a classier game. (I wonder what Frank Deford would say about this.) Rugby is considered a more elite sport. It is not dominated by chaves (the British equivalent of white trash) and their even trashier wives (Footballers' wives - there's a sitcom on it). Instead, it belongs to the boys who went to the British public schools and eventually inherit some estate. But yet it reaches to a lower class as well, showing pure bouts of aggression and passion. Emotion is acceptible in this sport.

Of course the most elite sport is polo. No description needed. Although at St Andrews, the membership is extremely high, riding lessons essential and not included (they are 40 pounds a lesson; minimum 2 a week). Several of my friends have had run ins with the polo team and the lasting impressions are now infamous. (I only wish it had been like the Oregon State rumble: Californians vs. St Andrews Polo Players.)

My favorite sport (and least known) is shinty. As it was once described to me, it is the more violent, Gaelic cousin of hockey. Played in a field, shinty uses hockey sticks, although one is not required to only hit the buck/ball. This sport is known for its brutality and impressive players. If you think hockey players don't have teeth, go find a shinty player.

Traditionally shinty encouraged stamina and better swordplay during battle, or so I've been told. One English friend of mine tried shinty his first year and decided that although fun, even shinty players were too 'hardcore' for him. This is a guy who is over 6 feet and drinks like no other most nights of the week. In fact, I believe what got to him was the extreme parties.

I don't think any explanation of cricket is necessary and despite any rumors, is nothing like baseball. The British do like to compare their game, Rounders, to baseball. I however believe that baseball is a much more complicated and intellectual game than the childhood physical education game of Rounders.

For all who were wondering, I still think golf is boring. No amount of Scottish scenery is going to change that.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

The Watergaw, or My Last Wild Look

Ae weet forenicht i' the yow-trummel
I saw yon antrin thing,
A watergaw wi' its chitterin' licht
Ayong the on-ding;
An' I thocht o' the last wild look ye gied
Afore ye deed!

There was nae reek i' the laverock's hoose
That nicht - an' nane i' mine;
But I hae thocht o' that foolish licht
Ever sin' syne;
An' I think that mebbe at last I ken
What your look meant then.
-Hugh MacDiarmid

This morning I arose at 6am, after a mere two and a half hours of sleep, and caught the bus to the train to the airport in Amsterdam. When I landed, I took another bus to the train station, caught a train, and then took a bus back to St. Andrews. That took approximately 5 hours. The flight was an hour and a half.

Despite my near deathly state of fatigue, it was nice to walk around the streets of Utrecht, a few other scattered early risers joining my morning, but equally ready to keep it a solitary experience. I saw the sun rise, red lines stretching among the clouds and scattering into faded pink blurs. It was surprisingly not cold and fairly sunny.

A more delightful moment of being so fatigued was the sheer surprise when I handed the conductor my ticket on ScotsRail and learned I'd accidentally bought a first class ticket. He promptly helped me move my stuff, had the tea trolley man pour me a cup of tea and give me some shortbread, and settled me into the 1st class compartment. There was one man there, in his middle ages, reading a variety of local papers, as all Scots of a certain age are prone to do. And once again, I found myself in the strangely comforting and solitare world of the landscape. (Even better, the 1st class ticket equalled the price of a 2nd class ticket and a cup of tea from the trolley.)

Last week I realized that I have seen the more sunrises this year alone than in any other part of my life. The fate of the poor traveller is one of odd hours and odder company. Just the week before I arose at 5:30am in order to catch my 10:30am flight in Edinburgh. I was going to take the bus that stopped in front of my building at 6:30am, but after a serious debate I decided it was more important to eat my still cooking fried egg and walk the mile to the bus station. Although exhausted and nearly shattered, the walk was incredible. For as much as I normally hate the long walk between fields, with nothing to greet you but crows and North Sea winds, those few isolated moments are perhaps some of the most momentously beautiful. I walked dragging my suitcase in the cold pre-dawn air, while rabbits hopped around nibbling grass and looking at this strange intruder. The birds whistled and chirped, all varieties I had never seen before, and grouse flocked among the fields trying to find a seed here or there.

Then the sun rose, slowly waking people and cars and the isolated townie walking a dog. Correction, not walked, but let run among the fields and grass, and with a well pursed whistle, the dog would immediately come running. Then as I stepped into town, I could feel the gray cobblestones dissolving their frost and the tendrils of sun creep along even the darkest Medieval alleys.

These are the moments I love Scotland. I love its grand gestures and its outwardly harsh landscapes. Even the clouds are violent, moving against a timid sky. One evening I was walking home, once again among the fields, and found the world falling asleep. The rabbits once again nuzzled the grass and the light quickly withdrew itself, pushing the trees and the distant ocean into darkness. In an instant, the stars were visible, point upon point of distant sky revealing itself. I had thought the stars in the remotes of the United States were magnificent, but nothing compares to a fierce evening wind revealing a fragile night sky.

They say if you hate something, you had to have loved it. I am starting to believe Scotland is just as fierce in its love as in its hate. The earth has some magnetic force driving you towards it and the harder you try to pull away, the stronger the grasp. I escape every time, falling in love with a new place, only to be driven back with an even fiercer longing for this strange home.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Time = Narrative Cause

I've been thinking about the concept of time a lot lately. Perhaps it is because the paper I'm writing on Alfred Hitchcock's The Thirty-Nine Steps has led me to do some research on the discourse between what makes a novel and a film different. One writer believes it is time and how time is portrayed. I won't go into his very long and very dry paper, but it is an interesting suggestion.

On a different note, I've been watching some of Mad Men, a tv show that premiered on AMC awhile back. It is promoted as a recreation of the world of Mad Men, or advertising on Madison Avenue in 1960. Watching the show, which I enjoy a lot, I wonder at what point is this supposed to include some sort of accurate portrayal of the time or is it more a unbelievable fiction set in a past era? None the less, I think it captures some sort of zeitgeist, although who actually lived in that world still makes me question the plausibility of it. That brings me to another comment: for all the fictional tv shows, novels, and movies, if they are set in a contemporary setting, we do not assume that this is the one and only portrayal of life. But how often is our perceptive of history based on the one film we ever saw about the court of Louis XIV? Then again, I think with any specific time period, we can apply the general philosophical question of what is reality? And what is an individual's reality compared to another's? That just brings us back in a full circle.

And of course, I am only writing this to waste time and not work on my paper.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Shameless Self-Promotion Found Here

I just finished finalizing my playlist for tonight's set. I probably should have started with the fact that I am the guest DJ for the show I normally produce, Alternative to Alternative. Earlier this week, I also guest DJed for a friend's show and it went extremely well for my first radio show ever. Although I think I only had a total of 8 listeners: 2 friends from home and then my flatmates and some of the guys next door. They did say they enjoyed listening to me and it was quite impressive. I wonder how the playlist went over though.

Tonight will be even more of a stretch to get listeners since most people are either in bed or out at midnight on a Saturday night. I'm excited all the same, especially since I get to infiltrate the air waves with music I choose and none of the commercial crap you normally hear. No ten song playlists for a month thank you very much. Anyways, if you are interested in listening tonight you can catch the stream here.

Peas, Cream Cheese, Marmalade - Or the Contents of My Fridge

There is a serious lack of food in the fridge. Or in the cupboard, for that matter. This has led to some interesting combinations of what is left: avocado and pasta, creamcheese and marmalade sandwiches, green onions and yogurt. Well, those are the hypothetical combinations. I've been lucky enough to salvage very edible meals - although today I think I ate way too much yogurt for my own good.

It is a twofold problem. One is I can't be bothered to walk the mile into town and carry groceries another mile back. Especially if I was not going to town in the first place. (Someone commented the other day on how 'British' I sound when I say, 'I had to go into town today' - personally I think it sounds more 1800s living on the homestead, too bad I don't have a trusty stead here). Secondly, I am facing the major problem of any other college student: second semester brings about a more restricted budget.

All in all I've been able to survive and eat well. I also have become much more creative about leftovers, turning them into soups (lamb, parsnip and barley) or adding them couscous (I got the idea from my Italian roommate last year) or salads (I made coleslaw for the first time in my life with some cabbage I ended up with). Then of course, there is always the hunt for the free meal which I've had some success with. I learned this lesson early on in Berkeley and any event that had free food warranted an appearance. Although, I was never desperate enough to want to go to the Asian Baptist barbeques. The best dinner by far was when my friend Teresa convinced me to go to a dinner of the Women Postgraduates Association, catered by a local Mexican Restaurant. Neither of us were postgrads, but no one seemed to care.

The British Higher Education system does not seem to believe in giving away things for free, or at least they don't in St. Andrews. Perhaps it is because all Scottish students do not have to pay tuition (same goes for English students at English universities). Or perhaps it is because it is a university full of wealthy Brits and even wealthier Americans (that is another tirade I will save for another time). None of the activities and events put on by the student union at the beginning of the year were free. Very few societies offered free events either. In comparison, most of the events at Berkeley are free. Maybe it is made up with my high fees and tuition, but somehow for a University System notorious for its budget cuts I doubt that is the case.

However, I think I would attend more university sponsored events if I didn't have to pay 5 pounds and upwards for every function. One of the reasons anyone at Berkeley turns up to school sponsored events is the offhand change that it will be an incredible bargain. And when it comes to free beer and tacos, it's a hard offer to turn down. My dad made some comment before I arrived here that because of the rough post-war economy in Britain, luxuries were not as readily available and people tended to be more cautious with their money. The economy has obviously recovered and more so, but I often wonder if that explains the relative conservatism among Brits when it comes to money. Americans have had a tradition of wealth and expendable wealth for much longer and one of the things they warned us about before we left was that British students often are shocked by the amount of things their American peers have. In St. Andrews this is not really a problem as compared to some of the universities that have a wider spectrum of students. St. Andrews is one of the most expensive towns in the UK and it has a reputation for educating elite members of society, like Prince William.

If students do not have to worry about money, maybe that is why no one has ever thought of 'free events'. I have seen some of the guys next door make absurd comments about how their flatmates would prefer to buy generic brands from the supermarket and how they actually would drink cheap wine! This is coming from a guy who insists on using the proper type of wine glass for each type of wine. His father brought them up on one of his past visits. Then there was the shipment of wine from an elite French vineyard for a birthday. I definitely like nice things, but then again as a student, I know there were probably be a time when I can enjoy having a collection of proper wine glasses and a full bar.

This now leads me to a horrible confession - the few sponsored events I have attended ranged from the bizarre to the horrendous - and I only went for the relatively free food.

1. Anthropology Society's Orientation Week Welcome, Free: We walked into the meeting to find the usual assortment from any university's anthro department - mainly dominated by what one of my friends called people who were 'crunchy - you know like granola'. However everyone was extremely friendly. There was a theme, Hangover Cures from Around the World (I had no idea kim chee was a hangover cure), and when I went to get something to drink, the guy told me they were out of punch, but he could make me a cocktail. It was 1pm on a Wednesday. We got cornered by some characters, including one guy who refused to answer where he was from and then quickly said something about London. Overall grade: C+, Food: C-

2. 1 Pound Thursday Lunch Brought to You By the Campus Christian Group: My friend convinced me to go with her - it was only a pound and as much as you could eat and she was pretty sure they would not try to convert me. The food was not bad as it was as much as you could eat DIY sandwiches. We sat down and there were the usual Christians milling around introducing themselves, but they did not asked me if I was saved or anything else. I was genuinely impressed with their lack of proselytizing. Until they announced their special guest, a travelling minister who sailed around Britain on his yacht trying to spread the goodnews. He was also dressed in a 19th century vicar's outfit. Spent half an hour talking. I noticed the local high school students who had come in for lunch had the better sense to take their lunch to go. Overall grade: D+, Food: B

3. Arabic Society Dinner, 3 pounds entry: An actual dinner with actual food! If I convert the cost, it makes me feel a little less victorious, but overall it was worth it. They even tried to create the atmosphere of an Arabic room, with carpets and cushions. The people were genuinely nice, did not try to convert me to Islam, and the food was great. Too bad it wasn't free. Overall grade: B+, Food: A

Unfortunately, I have become more of a hermit now, at least in attempting to find events with food. I missed the town fair where local vendors promoted their foods and gave away samples. Apparently there is a farmers' market on Saturdays but I have yet to attend it. I might actually have to try to understand Scottish, unlike half the time when I just smile and nod. The only time I could not truly understand a word someone said was when I went to the local butcher and after buying some pork chops, he said something, smiled and laughed. I laughed too, despite having no idea what he said. Although he was missing his front teeth and had a local accent. Or at least I assume so.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Oh Monotony!

I keep getting emails from Berkeley about the senior class gift. The latest was entitled 'Now's Your Chance to Make the Honor Role'. Half me wants to marvel over the creativeness in luring the over-achiever Berkeleyan and the other half of me is revolting in disgust because they never fail to try to lure in money from anyone. I would like to point out that I am not actually a senior - I only have senior standing due to my high school AP scores. I will admit I was a little caught off guard when I read the heading and then realized who the sender was.

On another note, the St Andrews class schedule is beginning to get to me. Although I am taking the maximum credits, I still only have four hours of class a week and the same amount of work I would have for two Berkeley classes. I know it seems an irrational thing to complain about, not having enough work, but it means that everything becomes boring a lot faster. Here, people seem to waste a lot more time and party incessantly. I thought I would enjoy that, but after 3 weeks, I was broke and boozed out. When you go out Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and the occasional Wednesday, it feels like you don't really deserve the fun. Instead, class time has become the novelty.

I'm actually looking forward to writing a paper. Then again, I get to write about Alfred Hitchcock, something I've been itching to do for ages.

Thursday, 28 February 2008

To a Communist

I was going through my journal and found something I had written while I was on a train in Poland this past November. Poland was a very strange place and while Cairo was more foreign, Poland was the stranger. It lurks between the two world of past and present, trying to move forward and yet the past surrounds it. It is not just in a the intangible details of history, but in the streets where most of the buildings are remnants of the Communist era. Only a few places have hidden historical gems, like the old city center of Gdansk (or Danzig, as it is known in German). We were discussing James Joyce's 'The Dead' in my Irish literature class and our professor brought up a poem, 'To a Communist' written by Louis MacNeice, which compares communism to snow. It would have been a perfect read for my trip to Poland.

In order to give a little more context to what I wrote on the train, my host Michael is Polish and his family is quite wealthy. We were their guests at their family home in Sopot and then at the hotel they run in the tiny village of Wiejce (pronounced Vee-et-sah). The hotel was once the estate of a German baron and used as a hunting lodge. Michael is also an ardent believer in true 'libertarianism' and he quickly deemed me a 'socialist'. Unfortunately, he also loves to argue politics (at once point, I accused him of arguing for the sake of hearing his own voice and that in a true political discourse, he would actually listen to what I was saying) and on the train rides which totaled about 12 hours, we were constantly subject to it. Here's what I wrote on the train:

We sit, some beings of ourselves, in our myopic journey of politics. Words flail round, some pretty sound to the harsh consequence of meaning and measure. The landscape calms our dictation in its frost covered world, trees fragile without leaves and the once long rays of the sun mellowing at an early hour.

Our journey had begun in the gilded age of Gdansk, the harbor glittering, reminding of some
other time when merchants were hallowed on these streets and ships were a common sight. The snow softens the harbor and the murkier history of an unforgotten past. But on this night, the light is soft and the air quiet as we stroll along the harbor. We dart into a building, the remains of what belonged to some merchant family. Behind the wooden doors hangs a curtain. We step past its folds to what is a small bar. It is tucked away like some forgotten relic, the lighting becoming more blurred and intricate the longer we stand there.

We climb the rickety stairs to a tiny room full of tables and chairs - the decor recalling some past world. We order 'warm beer', beer warmed like cider and laced with cinnamon and cloves. We settle into what feels like our own private world. But after an hour, Michael tells us we must leave and we all rush outside to catch a taxi. We run down the crooked stairs, past
the curtain, and into the street where we find that the snow has covered everything. The street is empty - it is 10pm on a Tuesday - the cellar doors that during the day become stalls selling amber are shut, the heavy wooden panels a most intriguing sight. There is a golden haze over everything, as streetlights blend into the fog, and standing in the snow, watching the flakes catch our coats, we forget that there is anything else besides this.

After minutes or hours, we remember that we are cold and that Mrs. Danucia is waiting with our Polish supper at home. Michael is quite insistent, not because we are keeping her waiting, but because food is something a Pole would never miss.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Weathering Colds and the Radio

It's raining and I'm at home nursing some variant of the virus that seems to be ensnaring the student population of St. Andrews. This means I feel like doing absolutely nothing and watching tv all day. Oh, wait! That's what I feel like doing every day!

No, I'm just joshing, as my friend Michael would say. I just happen to be a very miserable person when I am sick. That is, sick enough to still do everything but with a head that feels like it might explode, or already did due to the strange side affects of cold medicine.

I was told by a friend of mine today that the Scottish weather has once again returned and brought us winds predicted to be around 40mph. He was upset as he won't be able to golf. I was more upset about the upcoming walk I will have to undertake to get anywhere in this town. Basically, my residence is a mile outside of town and the easiest way to get there is to go through a path through a field. I thought last week's 20mph were bad enough (there are no windbreaks).

St. Andrews suffers from a microclimate, although far from the legendary La Jolla one, due to its position on the Scottish coast. Unlike the west coast, we escape a majority of storms and end up with one of the more temperate Scottish climates. Until the winds arrive. I can deal with snow and frost and rain and sleet. In fact, I like the cold and varied weather. But when you walk through an empty field with no one in sight for miles and hear the howling wind and a few lone crows, it seems more reminiscent of death. Or in Paradise Lost when the devil is about to appear.

On a better note, I am now volunteering at the radio station as a producer. Last Saturday night was my first show. I don't do any announcing - that's what the DJ is for - but I make sure everything goes out on the air, music, DJ's voice, etc., and give feedback to the DJ for the show. The show I'm working on is called Lucien's Alternative to Alternative, which is broadcast at midnight on Saturday nights (that's 4pm for CA listeners). You can stream it online at I believe that is enough of a plug.

I had a ton of fun the other night throwing it together. There were a couple of snags - like when one of the CDs wouldn't play - and then when the DJ forgot to give me the right cue for a song, but all in all, it went well. I'm sending the DJ some track suggestions and hopefully he'll play some of them.

I should get back to my bowl of tea - I was inspired by the French breakfast ritual of drinking coffee out of boules. I also uploaded my pictures from Cairo which you can view here and more of the pyramids here.

An Animated History of Evil

I had to post this youtube video on the history of evil for everyone else who enjoys history and parodies as much as I do.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Un Cafe Creme, Milchcaffee, etc.

One of the biggest frustrations from living here in Scotland is the absymal lack of good coffee. Originally, I thought I wouldn't be drinking it because lattes are around 3 pounds and who needs a $6 cup of coffee? Luckily for me, I am not even tempted by $6 dollar cups of coffee when they are most similiar in taste to the free burnt coffee you get at church socials or other such events. With the exception of Egypt, where they serve turkish coffee, this is how I rated the coffee of each country I've traveled to:

1. Germany
2. France
3. The Netherlands
4. Poland
5. United Kingdom

Unfortunately my coffee drinking in Poland was very limited. But so far British coffee has been the absolute worst. Tea is another story...

Friday, 22 February 2008

Cairo Continued

I keep thinking about other things I want to blog about, so I better hurry up and finish the Cairo posts.

My Cairo trip was filled with the various tourist sites the rest of the week. I went to the Egyptian Museum and saw the everything they had removed from King Tut's burial site as well as thousands of other objects from the Golden Age of the Pharaohs. Compared to the King Tut exhibit that was in Los Angeles a few years ago, the Egyptian Museum supposedly takes months to go through. For me on the other hand, it took a solid five hours just to walk through the entire museum and take a brief look at the objects. In comparison to the travelling exhibit, the museum gives a much better context and was fascinating. I normally am not very interested in ancient art, but almost everything I saw was brilliant in its beauty and awe-inspiring because of the brilliant craftsmanship and sheer age. To think that these were made more than 3000 years ago!

Another interesting place was Coptic Cairo. It is also known as the Roman Fortress of Babylon and is the oldest standing part of the city. However, Duso and I had a bit of an adventure in getting there. Duso told the cab driver where we wanted to go, but I guess he heard something differently. The next thing we knew we were being driven through a slum that was filled with heaps of garbage and garbage trucks navigating the narrow dirt streets to dump more. The neighborhood seemed to be Christian - the women didn't wear headscarves and there were vendors selling plastic Jesuses. Suddenly we arrived at a gate where the guard asked what nationality Duso and I were and when hearing American, he was satisfied. As for the cab driver, he asked for identification and searched his pockets. When this was done, we continued up a very nice white driveway along the mountainside. We suddenly reached a parking lot where there were busloads of Asian tourists and Egyptian school children. There was some sort of church looking building and grass. The mountains formed a wall around us and on the sides of the hill were carvings of Jesus' life. Under one of them, it read, in English, 'JESUS IS THE SECOND COMING'.

We quickly realized that this was not Coptic Cairo and told the cab driver where we really wanted to be. He took us to the real Coptic Cairo, which I think was one of my favorite places in the city. The churches are in a Byzantine style and there are portraits of St. George all over. There were also tons of palm trees (which reminded me of home) and narrow alleys, giving it a very mysterious Indiana Jones-esque feeling. Afterward, Duso and I had turkish coffee, which I adored.

Besides the Indiana Jones moments (no lost ark, though), I got the whole Lawrence of Arabia feel. One evening Duso and I took a horseback ride through the desert at sunset. We galloped through the sand dunes and took a rest at a campfire set up to resemble some sort of outpost. In the distant, we could see the pyramids as well as the Cairo skyline.

There was the night-time Nile boat tour as well. And no, there were neither crocodiles nor lilies. Mainly there were oil slicks and blackish water. Duso told me not to touch the water either - it was known for having tons of bacteria and chemicals in it.

We also went to some of the few bars and clubs Cairo has to offer. There was Cafe Houria, where they serve Egyptian beer, Stella mostly, and tasty bar snacks Egyptian style, which are little yellow bean like things resembling soy beans. They were really good and salty, perfect with the beer. We also went to Odeon, a hotel, known for its decaying colonial style and rooftop bar. There was the Cairo Jazz Club as well which played live music, but with a cover band (no jazz was to be heard the evening we went).

And then there were the Pyramids. Despite the familiarity of them, there were incredible in reality. The structures are massive and despite the years of Egyptian school children climbing on them (we saw many, adults too, climbing up specifically where it said 'No Climbing'), they are still there. Like everything in the Egyptian Museum, it was incredible to think what marvels of engineering they were! And how they still are standing! The Sphinx was the least impressive and the erosion is extremely evident. It was also strange to see the massive fences and hordes of badly dressed Eastern Europeans posing in front of it.

Overall, I am extremely glad I was able to visit Cairo. I'm not sure how much of a hurry I am to return to it - I think Paris wins when it comes to a fabulous city - but it was by far the most culturally different place I've been to. Though as Duso's American roommate pointed out, he was glad he had had the transition of visiting Europe before moving on to Egypt and the Middle East.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

The Natural Disaster of Fire Drills

The British are obsessed with fire safety. Well, to be more exact, fire protocol. This morning we had a fire drill at a lovely 7 am and despite being warned the night before, it still came as an unearthly shock. There is nothing more horrifying and jolting than a blaring noise to whisk you from the warm comforts of your bed into the early Scottish morning. Luckily, it now being February, there was some light - unlike December - and it was not raining. Yet I envy all those first year Berkeley students in their flipflops and sweatshirts and lack of frost and frozen ponds. Then again, bed seemed all the better when I did finally return.

I understand the need for fire drills, especially when you live in a housing block of something like 900 students. But my building has been cursed with an unfortunate amount. What was worse was that there is no warden (the equivalent of a Residential Advisor, except usually a grad student looking for cheap housing) specifically assigned to our building and it took one about 20 minutes to arrive the last time. We were later told, after the fire brigade arrived, that the discovered the reason for the alarm. Due to hi-tech software, the alarms record what triggered them. Last time, it was because someone had used too much aerosol deodorant and the fumes had triggered the fire sensor. Today's drill was merely routine.

What I was especially surprised by when I first arrived here was the amount of fire doors everywhere. Not only do they seem to appear every five feet, but they are made from the heaviest wood possible. You must pull to open them if you are indoors (which is the opposite of current California building code, note part d) or as the code states 'in the direction of exit'. The doors in my building often take both arms to pull open and god forbid if you have a laundry basket! Coming from the land of fires, it seems like the British are overly worried. There is a sign in our kitchen about cleaning the hob (the stove burners) as it is a very likely fire hazard. And then we are not allowed to keep our kitchen door open at any time! Another fire hazard! I don't even want to go into the warning we got about leaving our front door ajar and unlatched. Yet, in a four story building, there is only one fire exit - the main staircase. Luckily my window is big enough for me to jump out of and be able to escape with maybe just a broken arm. Too bad for those people on the 4th floor.

I guess there are enough stupid undergraduates at this fine university though. Earlier this week, some fine specimen of British higher education had a candle burning in his room. However, this candle was not very stable and fell over into his shoe and ignited it. It then spread to his laundry, burning his wardrobe and the wall. He's no longer living here anymore.

As for all those poor Berkeley (and St Andrews) undergraduates who live off campus, what happens to them when they don't have a fire drill? Martina and I often had to take down our smoke detector in our apartment last year. The slightest bit of smoke from the oven or a pot boiling over would set it off. Yet at nineteen years old, I think we would have been able to evacuate the building if there was a fire, despite not having a drill. I'm not sure how our neighbor who had just had hip surgery would have done.

I guess the British do have a traumatic history with fire. The fires at Camden Market did not bolster their confidence either. I personally believe they never got over the Great London fire of 1666. (I wonder if Chicago has the same problem after the Mrs. O'Leary cow thing.) Then again, maybe I'm taking too blase a standpoint. But when you are constantly in the midst of natural disaster, you learn to work with it, or at least understand what you cannot do to prevent it.

Although I still wonder if an earthquake just happened every time a lorry rumbles by in a distant street.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

First Two Days in Cairo

I am starting to wonder what I did in Cairo - but it is all coming back to me. Having been back in Scotland for over week, I have quickly been returning to my Scottish lifestyle and getting away from worldwide traveler mode.

The first day I arrived in Cairo it was 1am. Duso met me at the airport - thank god! - and we went back to his apartment, which is in the Al Manyal district, close to the city center. The airport was not as horrendous an experience as I thought it was going to be. I did get very confused due to lack of signage and got into the wrong line. I didn't help that all the Germans on my plane were equally confused - the plane had left from Cologne, Germany - and Germans do not know how to form a proper queue. The British do know how to do that right. There is even a joke that Brits will get into a queue for absolutely anything and often they do not even know why they are in a queue.

Eventually I made it through passport control. I had to buy my Visitor's Visa for $15 from one of the many banks next to the passport control lines and then had it stamped by passport control and was set free to try to get my luggage and avoid people trying to sell me stuff. By the time Duso and I made it to his apartment, it was pretty late. We had a quick snack and went to bed.

The next day we did a grand tour of Cairo, visiting the old Islamic citadel and the bazaar. The Citadel was built in response to the Crusades as a military strong point for the city. There is also an absolutely gorgeous mosque there and as the whole complex is on a hill, the view is outstanding. In the distance we could see both the pyramids of Giza and the older ones of Saqqara. There are also a strange assortment of museums there including an old Ottoman palace, a military museum, and a police museum. Like any great country, Egypt believes in Revisionist History and Duso and I found it very funny to see which wars Egypt had actually won. We were also very intrigued to see if the military vehicles parked in the garden were made of metal or plastic. They certainly looked like they were plastic, but they sounded like metal when we hit them, and the signs said they were real.

A sidenote - in Egypt, no one follows the rules. We were going to go into the Police Museum, but the guard told us it was closed. We started to walk away when he called out, 'If you are quick, you can go in'. But then we would have had to give him a 'tip' and we didn't really care that much about a police museum. As for the rules, it is most apparent in the traffic. Although there are lanes painted on the streets, no one actually drives in them, creating their own variety of lanes ranging from 2 to 20. If I had driven like that, I would have been dead in instants. But I guess the Egyptians have figured it out as pedestrians follow similar rules as the drivers. I have learned to be an excellent jay walker since I got to Britain - all motor vehicles have the right of way - but no where as near to as good as those who have lived in Cairo.

Later that day, we went to the bazaar. From what Duso was telling me, there is only one true bazaar in Cairo and it is much more a Middle Eastern tradition than North African. I kept forgetting that Egypt, despite being Muslim, is in fact North African. The bazaar was exactly as I imagined it - narrow alleys with vendors selling absolutely everything imaginable. It is a major tourist destination as well so the vendors speak almost every language and try to lure customers in with their best English phrases (which I mentioned before here). Most of the stuff is pretty useless - need a fake copper Egyptian cat with hieroglyphics on it? - although I think my favorite random stuff was the giant baskets of spices and herbs. For some reason all the vendors kept saying, 'Want belly dancing?' and would gesture to a back room. I kept thinking it was the Islamic version of strip clubs and when I mentioned this to Duso, he laughed. 'They have belly dancing outfits', he said. That explained a lot. Although why would I want a belly dancing outfit? Then again, I saw tourists buying tons of junk.

I did make several purchases in the bazaar. Postcards, for one, but I was planning on buying them anyways. Then I, with Duso's help, bargaining for two beautiful linen scarves, one of which I gave to my friend Kat in Germany to thank her for hosting me. The best thing I bought though was a beautiful pair of earrings. Duso and his roommate have gotten to know a shop owner in the bazaar named Hani. Hani and his brother run an antique shop that sells a lot of interesting artifacts from Iran, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. Hani also runs a jewelry shop where he handmakes all of his pieces. I bought the earrings which are made from beautiful red stones and a carved wooden scarab with copper and turquoise details. Unfortunately, the scarab fell off when I later went horseback riding, but that's another story.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Culinary Concoctions of Cairo

As a foodie who likes to proudly boast of my latest culinary concoction - earlier this week it was baked trout in a bed of potatoes and chorizo with a marinade of lime juice, garlic and green onions and a salad of arugula, blood oranges and camembert - I found the food in Cairo to be just as much of an adventure as the city.

Initially, I had thought that Egyptian food would lie somewhere between Lebanese and Persian. Wrong, wrong, wrong. As my half-Jordanian flatmate later said, 'Egypt is like the Wales of the Middle East'. The food was not exactly bad, but it was far from the land of pita and hummus. It was not the worst regional cuisine I've had yet - England still wins that one, with Poland being a close second. I will make a distinction between English and Scottish food, one in which I will proudly admit that I adore haggis. That's already on the list of things I will miss.

Back to Egyptian food. The majority of the food I tried was street food. None of it was necessarily bad, as it was all edible and initially I enjoyed it a lot. It's just very boring. For breakfast, Duso and I would normally go to the little sandwich-esque shop and buy a pita-like sandwich that had falafel (or the Egyptian equivalent) and hard-boiled egg. Then for lunch it would be shwarma (or doner, in Turkish, or gyros, in Greek), the roasted meat on a spit in a sandwich. Traditionally, koushari is eaten for lunch. Duso called it the 'poor man's food' and for about $0.20, you get a giant tub of pasta mixed with chickpeas, tomato paste, and spicy sauces.

My personal favorite of all the Eygptian dishes was ful mudammas (pronounced fool), which is traditionally ate at breakfast, although we had it for dinner. Made from broad beans, it was most akin to a bean stew. We asked for spicy, although in Egypt and what seems like most European countries, they have no true notion of the word 'spicy'. The restaurant we went to for the ful was one of the most picturesque places I ate at. Duso's friend, Morgan took us down the strange maze of streets that make of the Garden District where she lives. It is also one of the most colonial areas of the city housing the British and American embassies. When we got to the restaurant, it was little more than a built up stove, several shelves, and a wealth of plastic patio furniture. Lights were strung from every which way and among the variety of plants, it felt like our own personal oasis.

Setting aside, the ful was very good, worth eating again. They served the ful with tomatoes and onions and brought an omelette and bread to eat with it. The other notable items I found were the pastries, although not quite as good as the ones from the Armenian bakeries in Pasadena, and the Turkish coffee. But coffee deserves it's own post.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

My Introduction to Cairo

Luckily it has been pretty warm here in St. Andrews since my return from Cairo. I was a little afraid that the warm days in the high sixties (in a desert!) would leave me unprepared for the Scottish winter. However, unlike January, the pond has yet to freeze over and I haven't encountered any frost filled mornings since my return.

Unlike my past trips, it is hard to say that my trip was amazing, awesome, or any other awe-inspiring adjective. I think out of all the places I have been so far that Cairo was the most interesting and the most challenging destination. Unlike the European countries I've been in, perhaps with the exception of Poland, the language was completely incomprehensible. It's amazing what the knowledge of a few key phrases can do for you. My Arabic vocabulary now consists of: habbibi, or 'dear/love', a constant in all modern Arabic music; halas, 'enough', useful in getting camel ride operators to leave you alone or any other variety of hasslers; shukran, 'thank you'.The other problem I found was being a white woman. It did not help that I was the fairest in colouring for miles around and that wherever I went I got a ton of attention whether it was just stares or people asking 'How much?' in Arabic. In other words, they were asking my male friend Duso, who was the one I was visiting, how much he would sell me for. I did get one of the highest offers - six million camels - which is impressive even for Egyptian standards. Whether it was the amount or the fact the guy knew the word million in English which Duso kindly pointed out, it was still a lot. As for the most ridiculous line I heard, some guy at the bazaar (most of these incidents occurred there where the majority of vendors attempt their best English 'phrases' to win over customers) said, 'Look! You dropped something!' I turned and looked down and when I saw nothing, he replied, 'It was my heart falling as it broke!'

It was also amusing to watch the attempt to approach all cultures. When they saw Duso, who is Asian, the vendors would often greet him with a 'Ni Hao!' He was very offended being Chinese neither in nationally or heritage. What was even better was when one camel driver approached him with an 'Aloha!' Again he is not Hawaiian and what are the chances of someone being Hawaiian in the middle of the Egyptian desert? I think proportionately the chances for Chinese are greater.

In general, as long as I was prepared for the comments, the touching (some girl grabbed me and called me 'Moon' in Arabic - a compliment I later learned, as the moon is a sign of beauty in Arabic poetry - while her friend demanded for money), and the stares, I was fine. There were only a few moments where I was not comfortable - i.e. when some guy kept following me through the Egyptian Museum and a different guy attempted to film me at the Pyramids. Unfortunately for us white women, our media has given the Arab world a wonderful view of us - white, non-Islamic women are considered extremely promiscuous, especially in the Islamic world where dating is not allowed, let alone physical demonstrations or public displays of affection. Suddenly, that literature class I took, Passionate Puritans and the Roots of American Literature, is coming back to me.

I got into several discussions with friends before I left for Cairo over the concept of the headscarf. They felt it was a threat to women, and I do agree that with the abstract concept of it comes the repression of women as seen in the various extremist regimes of the Middle East. However, just as I would expect a traditional Islamic person to understand why in my country I would never follow such a rule, I felt that I needed to have respect for their culture and if necessary, follow their rules. Countering my friends' opinions that they would absolutely refuse to cover their heads even in a mosque, I felt my general philosophy applies: If you want to break rules, you must first follow them. The women that do bolster the general equality of women (yes, feminism) are those who follow the rules but use their position to assert change. I think it is most obvious in the realm of the professional: journalists, doctors, teachers, etc.

Currently in Europe, there is a giant discussion over immigration and the immigration of Muslims. In countries like France and Germany, not only is there a mass influx of Muslim immigrants, but a large portion of them are having an extremely difficult time assimilating. Whether this is due to them refusing to assimilate or the governments ignoring that there was a problem is up for debate. Even in Britain it is a major issue with Pakistani immigrants. Just last week the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams ignited Brits over the Islamic tradition of sharia. However, in regards to Cairo, I must have followed the Anthropological view of 'observation'. Although a few acquaintances of mine from Berkeley tend to take passionate roles, whether politically demonstrating in foreign countries and the like, I decided I'd rather just observe for the time being and then decide what my ardent opinion was. No need to call the embassy to ask for legal advice yet.

I did get the sense of repression in Egypt though - whether it was sexual or otherwise. Most of the attention I got was from men. However, after being in Egypt for a week, there was a general atmosphere of despair. The LA Times recently had an interesting article about the buses in Cairo and the average life of an Egyptian. The writer pointed out the terrible pollution, the rising prices and the stagnation of wages. All of those were noticeable while I was there. The dollar does stretch pretty far - it was about 5 Egyptian pounds to 1 US dollar. Duso lives in a very middle class neighborhood, far from the usual haunts of tourists and I saw a variety of interesting things. His apartment (the picture to the left) was previously occupied by a minor Egyptian tv actress. Outside there was the usual view of a variety of other middle class apartments.

When I first got to Cairo, I knew it was not going to be the ideal desert setting, a la Bogart's Casablanca, but I think I was a little more than surprised at the overwhelming poverty. What I would consider middle class was far from what the middle class there had achieved. What also surprised me were the hours people kept. The streets were packed and busy for what seemed like the entire night. The usual hours Egyptians keep are from 10am or 11am to 3am. The shops are not open before that and often don't close until the wee hours of the night. And no one ever seems to be at work. My general overstatement of the day: everyone just hung out at cafes or the local shawarma stand. There is a joke in Egypt that if they say it will take a week to get something done, it will really be ready in a month. Apparently public sector jobs are even worse.

When I was in Poland, my Polish friend Michael explained the poverty situation. 'They are poor because they are lazy. They just take the money the government gives them and drink it all away', he said. Somehow I doubt that in an extremely Islamic country (I think I saw a total of 3 non-hotel establishments that served alcohol) that drinking the government's money is the problem. Then again I'm just another 'rich' girl talking politics. Or a Socialist, as Michael so kindly put it when contrasting his Libertarian ideals.