Sunday, May 22, 2011

London, Beltane, Exams

Yikes! It's been about a month since my last update! Fail! In my defense, I have been pretty busy. I had to start studying for exams not long after I returned from Berlin, then I spent a few days in London visiting my cousins, then back to Edinburgh for a week of more intense studying, then a week of exams, then my computer spent a week in the shop being fixed. But now that I am not  besieged by exams and technical difficulties, or off on adventures, I can actually write about it all!

So first off, London!

I went down to London the weekend of Easter to see my cousins Norma, Geoff, and Sonia. Technically, I think they're my second cousins (I don't know what all that "once-removed" business means). Norma and Sonia are sisters, and they're my mom's first cousins (their mother and my mom's mother were sisters); Geoff is Norma's husband. It feels weird to talk about all these people in the third person, when I know some of them will be reading this, but I just wanted to clarify for non-family-members.

I made the mistake of waiting until the last minute to buy my ticket, so by that time train tickets were quite expensive (though I'd also forgotten that that weekend was Easter, which probably added to the price), so I opted to take the bus, since it was half the cost. However, the bus ride was 10 hours. The bus ride wasn't miserable by any means, but man it was long.

Norma and Sonia met me at the bus station after my epic journey. I had seen Norma and Geoff at my grandma Gloria's birthday party a few years ago, but this was the first time I'd seen Sonia since my last visit to England, which was about 10 years ago.

Norma, Sonia, and I chatted on the Tube; Sonia got off at an earlier stop, and Norma and I continued on to Totteridge, where Geoff was waiting for us. After a pleasant ride with Norma and Geoff to their house, I was able to take a much-needed shower and meet their adorable cats, Honey and Ginger.
Honey is the more reserved of the two, at least around me. It was hard to get a good picture of her before she decided I was getting too close and scampered away. She has the most amazing amber eyes, to which this photo does not do justice.
Ginger is Honey's more gregarious brother. He was very friendly and cuddly.
Regardless of how they felt about me, they were both extremely playful with each other. I have quite shots like this.
They're also very affectionate with each other.
Ok, sorry, I'll stop with the cat pictures. They're just so cute that it's hard to resist!

Saturday, Norma and I went to the National Gallery. To my tremendous excitement, I discovered that the National Gallery houses two of the best-known works of one of my favorite artists, Jan van Eyck--the Arnolfini Portrait and Portrait of a Man (which may or may not be a self-portrait). I also came across Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne, which was on the cover of my Art History textbook in high school. Unfortunately,  they don't allow photography in the National Gallery, so I couldn't get a picture of myself flailing with excitement in front of the van Eyck paintings.

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?)

Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait
After a look around the National Gallery, Norma and I met up with Sonia and Geoff to see a play--Flare Path by Terrence Rattigan. I don't think any description I can provide will really do justice to it, since so much time has elapsed, and Sonia's write-up was better than anything I would have written, so I'll just quote her here:
The action of Flare Path takes place in the residents’ lounge of the Falcon Hotel, in Lincolnshire, during a ‘weekend in Autumn’ 1941. The play mentions Germany of course, and Poland; Couldn’t imagine any sort of context for it for Emily, and couldn’t even remember whether Pearl Harbor was 1941 or ’42, but Emily did: 1941, she told me. Perhaps the action took place before America joined the war, since without checking, think Pearl Harbor was later in the year than setting, November or December. Either way, the play is a great weepie; the older man sitting next to me was unquestionably in tears, I too, and perhaps, didn’t check, Norma and Geoff. 
There’s an introduction to it in the programme by Max Hastings, a noted (right-wing) historian, and rave reviews on the internet in The Telegraph. Hastings points out that Rattigan simply had not been able to write for a couple of years; his psychiatrist recommended ‘hard discipline’ and Rattigan joined the RAF, after which he was able to complete this play, drawn very much from experience. First time I ever heard of a shrink helping a blocked writer … 
After walking around the city for a while, the four of us went to a very fancy French-Indian restaurant for dinner. The food was very tasty, and I got to order my first pre-dinner cocktail (I don't remember what it was, but it was something very pink and fruity), as well as an Irish coffee flambé.
Me, Norma, Geoff, and Sonia
The waiter preparing my Irish coffee
 The next day, Norma, Sonia and I went to the Tate Modern. Once again, I couldn't take pictures inside the museum, but I found this video about one of my favorite pieces that I saw:

That evening, I went to visit another cousin, Susu (the daughter of another first cousin of my mom and Norma and Sonia) and her partner, Vic, to watch a program on TV about the Busby Babes and the Munich air disaster, starring David Tennant. Susu's aunt (and cousin of my mom, Norma, and Sonia) was married to Dennis Viollet, one of the players who survived the crash (though there didn't seem to be any mention of him in the program).

The next morning, Norma and Sonia saw me off at the bus station. They had each packed me a lunch, so I was very well fed on the 10-hour bus ride home. I had a great time in London, and everyone was so generous and hospitable and fun. I had hoped to take another trip back before leaving, but unfortunately I wasn't able to make it work.

Once I returned to Edinburgh, I had a week of intense studying for exams. There were lots of long days (and nights) spent in the library. I did, however, take a break from studying to go to the Beltane Fire Festival.

The Beltane Fire Festival is a sort of Gaelic-influenced ritual drama involving fire and dancing, and takes place at night on Calton Hill, every year on April 30. There's a whole elaborate sequence of rituals with mythological significance (which you can read about here) but I mostly went for the visual spectacle, figuring I'd be able to take some awesome pictures. Tragically, my camera battery died the second I arrived, but you can see some pretty neat pictures that other people took on Flickr here.

The following week, I had my exams. They seemed to go okay, but I don't want to jinx myself. My laptop had also chosen this time to stop working properly, so once I finished my exams, I spent a week off the grid, while my computer was in the shop being repaired.

Not long after that, my flatmates finished their exams, and much post-exam celebrating ensued.

Right now, I'm at the point between post-exam partying and freaking out because I'M LEAVING THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW. GAAAAAHHHH. Seriously, how did the semester go by so fast.

Anyway, this post has gone on so long already that I'll save my thoughts on leaving Edinburgh for another post, later tonight or tomorrow.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Berlin was fantastic! IAMX was awesome, I had a great time hanging out with Eric and his friends, and the food was amazing! Getting there proved to be a bit of a challenge, but it was totally worth it.

Somehow I had gotten it into my head that my flight was at 9:00, but I realized once I got to the airport that my flight was actually at 6:15. When I went to check in, the woman at the counter gave me a confused look and told me that my flight had left an hour ago. After freaking out for a few minutes, I shelled out more money than I care to admit for the next flight to Berlin that day. Though I managed to make it work, there was much facepalming.

I had to transfer in Amsterdam, which would have been cool if I'd had more than 15 minutes between my flights. Sadly, my only experience of Amsterdam was running through the airport to another terminal, but I made my flight, and I at least got a stamp on my passport.

Eric met me at the airport, and we took the U-Bahn back to his place. After having a little snack, we took the U-Bahn over to his university, and I wandered around the area taking pictures while Eric was in class.
Humboldt University, where Eric studies

Mercedes-Benz restaurant

After Eric got out of class, we went to the Ritter Sport store, where you can actually get your own custom-made Ritter Sport with all kinds of crazy stuff. The line was pretty long though, so I just got a little miniature assortment.
This is only one small corner of the store

After that, we went to Mustafa's, a renowned doner kebab stand. Even though it was raining, the line was huge, but Eric assured me that it was totally worth it, and it absolutely was. Apparently this place wins all kinds of awards every year, and is featured in most guidebooks you'll find, and rightly so. This doner kebab was one of the best things I have ever eaten. I don't even know how to describe it. SO GOOD.

We picked up a couple beers and ate on the way back, so I could get changed before the show. Eric wasn't going to the concert, but the venue was just around the corner from a bar he wanted to go to, so after helping me find the place, he met up with some friends at said bar.

The show, of course, was awesome. The place was significantly bigger than wherever it was that I saw them in SF, and it was PACKED, but I still had a lot of fun. They did a German version of one of their songs, which was neat! Chris Corner is such a massive charismatic presence that I often forget that he's also quite tiny and cute. During "President" (one of my favorites), he sort of conducted the audience with his drumsticks and had us all swaying in unison. Good times! I bought a poster afterward, but unfortunately I accidentally left it in the border control area when I was filling out one of those landing cards last night, and they wouldn't let me go back and get it. I even called Lost Property at the airport today, but sadly it hasn't turned up. I might try again tomorrow, but I doubt I'll have any more success.

The next day, Eric showed me around Kreuzberg, home to the Berlin punk scene in the 1970s.
SO36, a famous club where David Bowie and Iggy Pop frequently played back in the day

A traditional German snack of Weißwurst (white sausage), a pretzel, and sweet mustard

That evening, Eric's friend was hosting an "ABC" party--that is, a party where you wear "Anything But Clothes"--so Eric and I picked up some supplies and headed back to his place to work on our outfits.
I rode the U-Bahn wearing this
Pippo didn't come to the party but he still got a little outfit
Eric won the costume contest
We did some more sightseeing the next day, though we had a little adventure first. When we got to the U-Bahn station, I needed to buy another day pass, but the guy in front of me was taking forever, and our train was approaching. You can get on the trains without a ticket, but you run the risk of being "controlled"--that is, when the "Controllers" randomly get on the train and check everyone's tickets. This is done pretty regularly, and unlike in San Diego, these people check everyone's tickets--not just one or two people who look like they might not have paid. The probability that the Controllers won't get on your train is pretty good, but the 40 euro fine generally serves as a deterrent.

Anyway, since there was no way for me to get a ticket in time to get on our train, we decided to just take the risk, and what do you know--the Controllers get on our train. I played the dumb American, and pulled out my expired ticket from the day before. "Dumb American" really wasn't a difficult role to play, since the Controler was only speaking German and I couldn't understand a word that was being said. However, after Eric explained the situation (or some version of it) of him, he was nice enough to not charge me the 40 euros, and instead give Eric the 7-euro fine for forgetting your student pass but still being able to prove that you're a student, which was the best possible outcome of this situation. As Eric pointed out,  the Controllers really are human.

After that, I bought my ticket and made sure not to lose it, and Eric showed me around more of Berlin.

Beer bike

Ampelmann in action

Gas lamp museum. They have all kinda of gas lamps from all over the place.

This place is historically or culturally significant for some reason, but I can't remember what
 After having some dinner with Eric and his roommate Jenny (pronounced Yenny), Eric took me to the train station where we got some coffee, and then I was off to the airport.

Walking back to my flat from the bus stop last night, I realized two things: 1) It's kinda nice being able to hide behind the language barrier sometimes, especially when drunk people approach you on the street; and 2) British food isn't bad in the sense that you eat it and go "Wow, this is unpleasant!", but there is a certain something that it lacks, that you don't notice until you go to another country where the food is exciting and delicious. I am now determined to find a Turkish bakery in Edinburgh. I'm not going to bother with doner kebabs here, because I know they won't even compare to Mustafa's.

Another thing that I've noticed since I've been in Europe, but I noticed especially in Berlin, is that people are treated like adults at a much younger age than in America. I'm constantly surprised to find that people I meet are my age or younger, when I assume that they must be older because they seem like real adults. I think German children's stories might have something to do with it.

I'm sure I'll think of more to say about my trip later, but for now, here are some more miscellaneous pictures:

Recycling things


The one on the right is a salt shaker

Goodbye scarf pixie!