Tourist Info Desk

Welcome to Fernweh, a blog concerning the (mis)adventures of one Fulbrighter during a year spent in Europe teaching English.
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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Wandering In Wells and Gallivanting Across Glastonbury

Unfortunately, the Internet connection here at the hostel has been spotty, so I haven't been able to post anything before it shuts down on me, which is why there's now four new posts up. It's a significant amount to read, so sorry about that.

Anyway, today was my last full day in Bath, so I had to pack in everything that I wanted to see in this area into this last day. Whew.

I started out in the Bath Markets for a very specific reason: there was a stall full of discount paperbacks that I had heard from a very reliable source (i.e. Shannon) had books I was looking for. Sure enough, I found literally stacks of books by Jeremy Clarkson and even a couple by James May; I couldn't find Richard Hammond's autobiographies, which was somewhat sad. One of these days, I'll write a little more about my interesting relationship to Jeremy Clarkson, but for now, just suffice to say that I bought three of his books, sacrificing a dinner's worth of money, and have been reading Clarkson instead of Dickens all day.

I moved on with my treasures to the imposing and gorgeous Bath Abbey, which I posted a picture of in my previous post on Bath, to take the guided tour. The tour was just delightful: we climbed up the levels of the bell tower, saw beautiful views of the city from the tower in every direction, and looked at how the inner mechanics of the abbey's architecture and machinery work. I would've liked to have stayed longer in the abbey, but I was off again, this time to the Fashion Museum.

If you just said, "Fashion Museum? Jennifer? ...What?" then you know me better than Rick Steves does. He told me to get a combo ticket with the baths, so I did, but the Fashion Museum was rubbish and pathetically short. 'Nuff said.

From the museum, I walked across town and hopped on a bus to Wells. After careening around Bath all morning, the bus ride to Wells was very pleasant. I read my new book for the first half of the ride, then looked up at the rolling, sun-drenched hills and realized that not only should I enjoy the views, but I had no idea where I was. The bus trundled along between golden-green fields, cut into patches by ruler-straight hedges, on roads lined by chest-high stone walls and hardly wide enough for two cars to pass each other, even if you asked really, really nicely. The gentle hills were dotted with small houses, and every now and then we'd pull into an utterly adorable little town with some quaint English name, and I would barely have time to wonder where we were before we were off again through the countryside. I realized that if I had accidentally gotten on the wrong bus, or if I neglected to get off when necessary, I would never know until they finally threw me off at the end of the line in Bristol or Cornwall or York or wherever. Given the beauty of the view and the tranquility of a warm summer's day in south England, I couldn't really find any real problem with this, but it turned out to not be a problem, because the bus deposited me right in the middle of the market in the twee little town of Wells.

If you've never heard of Wells, that's fine, because I hadn't either until RFS told me about it. Apparently, its only draws are its markets, its general English-y cuteness, and, like a Lamborghini in a country shed, its gigantic and utterly gorgeous Gothic cathedral. The mighty structure towers over the town, its spiky towers looming across the rooftops, and looks, to me, altogether out of place. It is still breathtakingly beautiful and grand, and was the main reason for my visit.

I was facing a time dilemma at the moment, and in order to resolve the issue of having mismatching schedules and too much to do in too little time, I said "Screw it," bought a bag of strawberries from a nice lady in the market, and had a picnic on the lawn to admire the cathedral. That done, I ventured inside, which was similarly magnificent. I didn't, however, take any pictures, since I was unwilling to sacrifice £3 for copyright fees, and just chatted with one of the welcomers and bought a postcard instead.

The problem that I mentioned above was that I was planning on seeing both Wells and nearby Glastonbury that day, and I had to be back in Wells for Evensong in the cathedral and then catch the last bus back to Bath. By the time I arrived in Glastonbury, I had only an hour and a half or so to get the bus back to Wells for Evensong, so I cut the number of my sightseeing goals in Glastonbury by half and contented myself with the abbey.

Now, Glastonbury's a little bit different. It's also cute (I don't think there's much here that isn't), but to start, it's been overtaken by hippies and New Age types. Why? Because Glastonbury is the source of the King Arthur legends, and all of the Celtic mythology surrounding him. Chalice Well, which supposedly holds the Holy Grail and produces waters with healing properties, is nearby, and the abbey I came to visit has the tomb of King Arthur--or used to. Supposedly.

In the center of a town filled with Tarot readers and Egyptian goddess worshippers stands the grand old ruins of Glastonbury Abbey in their own beautifully quiet park. Only bits of the abbey and the surrounding buildings remain, and in some cases are just outlines in the grass; they are now carpeted by daisies and roofed by clouds. It was quite a jump from the cool and polished grandeur of Wells' cathedral to the warm, golden smell of summer and the rough remains of the ruined abbey. It was a sad but peaceful place, and I would've liked to have had much more time to explore and think about history and the passage of time, but I didn't actually have much time to spare.

Just outside the town of Glastonbury rises a huge hill (500-some-odd feet) with a tower, creatively called the Tor, at the top, with lovely views of the countryside. This had been my other goal in Glastonbury, but by then it was clear that I'd have to choose between climbing the Tor and hearing Evensong in Wells. I chose Evensong, so instead of taking the shuttle to the hill and climbing to the top, I just took a picture of it and returned on the bus to Wells.

Even though I returned in time for the service, I could only stay for about 20 minutes before I had to hurry back to the bus station to catch the last service of the day back to Bath. I didn't get to hear much of the service, but I strongly believe that, as beautiful as churches are during visiting hours, they are meant to be experienced in a service. The vaulted chamber reverberated with the hum of the choir's voices, which followed me out into the afternoon sunshine as I regretfully headed back across town to the bus station. I'd been fortunate enough to hear the organ being played when I had come earlier, but there is nothing like the harmony of a choir's voices in a church.

The ride home was uneventful, and I decided to celebrate my last evening in Bath by allowing myself to spend a little more on my dinner. I have been averaging £50 a day for everything except lodging--so food, transportation, souvenirs, admission prices, et cetera. I still had £15 left over from my original £250 at the beginning of my travels, so I decided to finish off a day of adorable Englishness with a very traditional (er, not at all, actually) meal of yakisoba and plum wine at a hip noodle bar. Tomorrow I depart in the morning for a week in London--a big change from the peace and relative quiet of the countryside. I am looking forward to London, though; I think I'm ready to move on.

Why Can't The English...?

I beg your indulgence to air some thoughts that have been brewing in my distracted globe...

As I may have mentioned, I chatted with a local named Mark on my first night here in Bath, and naturally one of things we talked about was language. If you act like a normal tourist (go on tour buses, read your guidebooks, listen to the audioguide and don't talk to the locals), you can almost imagine that you haven't left home at all, as long as you remember that "rubbish" is "trash" and that sort of thing. If you're like me, though, you much prefer to talk to people than listen to a recording, so the language issue becomes unavoidable.

In the musical "My Fair Lady," Henry Higgins sings of dialects, "The moment [an Englishman] talks, he makes some other Englishman despise him," right after he's demonstrated his prowess at guessing where someone is from just from a few words and expresses his disgust for dialects such as those of Yorkshire or Cornwall. I was always told that I would love this movie because it's all about linguistics (sociolinguistics and phonetics, really), but I, like most people, find Higgins insufferable. It's not just that he's arrogant and insensitive, but his elitist attitude about language--particularly the educated dialect he speaks, which, by random coincidences and freak chances having nothing to do with any sort of inherent merit the language, has become prestigious--is painfully and inexcusably wrong. (Diagram that sentence, I dare you.) Linguists now are carefully trained to parrot on command that there is nothing in any particular language that makes it better or worse than another by any absolute-truth sort of measure. According to personal taste, a language can be more or less beautiful than other, and there are most certainly grades of social prestige and importance. But every language is fundamentally arbitrary; what matters is the communication.

Being here, it's impossible to ignore the gradients of social prestige encoded in the language. Despite my aforementioned tolerance training and my disdain for Henry Higgins' supercilious attitude, walking down the sidewalk in touristy Bath, I draw instant conclusions about the people around me by their language without even having to see them. If I asked someone on a street corner for directions, I would take directions from someone who sounded British as accurate, while I would take an American's or Australian's directions with a grain of salt. Hearing an American dialect here grates on my ears; we don't sound like we belong here. The only things keeping me from attempting to disguise my accent altogether (and I've already adopted some vocabulary and prosodic patterns to make my own voice less painful to my ears) are that (1) my pronunciation and cultural knowledge aren't extensive enough to pull it off properly and (2) I fear the backlash when I'd inevitably be identified as an American.

I could write all day about this odd feeling that I have--like being a country girl in the big city for the first time, just linguistically. I don't think it's anywhere near as obvious to me as it is to the locals, who probably speak to American tourists all the time. And yet there's some sort of inferiority complex encoded in my language that makes me ashamed to speak my own native tongue.

Why? Why do I feel simultaneously that I have to defend the use and existence of my mother tongue, while at the same time I feel vulgar when I speak it? I think that in large part it comes from that fact that language use and its social implications are consciously discussed by Brits and Americans, and not favorably. I've heard several Brits express the idea that the Americans have ruined the English language, that we speak it wrong--that we've stolen their lovely language and sullied it, like a teenager borrowing Dad's Merc only to bring it back pimped out, painted with racing stripes, and with all of the levers and buttons replaced with gag toys from the dollar store. It's like they're simultaneously shocked, amused, disappointed, and disgusted. When the Brits impersonate Americans on TV, it's almost always with a Southern twang and an obligatory joke about shooting someone or marrying one's cousin. I've already had my vocabulary or pronunciation corrected to the "proper" word or vowel by half-joking, half-indignant Brits.

And this hits on something deep and scary and unpleasant. One's mothertongue is something precious, no matter what it is. Having been raised monolingual and then having studied other languages later in life, I can comprehend something said to me in German or Japanese, but English, particularly the northwest dialect of American English, speaks to my heart. There's something beautiful and affective about hearing something in my own language that my adopted languages, no matter how much I love and study them, don't have. This is why Bible translation is so important to the spread of Christianity; why, when minority peoples are conquered, their languages are forbidden to keep them under control. One's mother tongue is a function of the heart and soul.

And yet the Brits would have me believe that the language I've grown up with, my own tongue, is stupid and silly and vulgar and wrong--a corruption of the ideal that was stolen from them. My indignation comes from the fact that such an attitude attacks the safety and sanctity of my mother tongue. Yes, of course, I should laugh this off as cultural differences and move on with my life. But there's something interesting here under the skin.

The British attitude toward "the colonies'" languages (by which I mean primarily American, Australian, and Canadian English) is, of course, ridiculous. What is, after all, "correct" English? It can't be the Queen's English, because no one speaks the Queen's except maybe the Queen. English has been developing and evolving constantly for centuries, and modern English diverges from the ancient tongue just like all the other dialects do--look back at Henry Higgins' dialectal disdain and the wealth of dialects that English is comprised of. It's useless as well to say that England has a claim to the ownership of "true" English because English comes from England. It may be better to say that English was partly synthesized in England out of a mishmash of Latin, Greek, French, Germanic, and native tongues. But the development of English in England was just one stage of the language's life, and its offspring that have migrated to other continents are just as legitimate as languages as the one that has grown up on British soil.

It's better and more accurate, to my mind, to speak and think of English as an idea instead of a reality. There are so many dialectal nuiances, cultural eddies, social connections, phonetic variations, and historical transformations that make up the network of the English language that it is impossible to point to one and proclaim that that one is "true English" and the others are just variations. In the same way, there are so many people on our planet, all of which are human, but it's impossible to pick one out as being "the human", of which the other 5,999,999,999 are "just variations." Some are older and have produced others, some have higher social or economic status, but they are all legitimately humans in their own right, just as all languages, no matter how strange or familiar, beautiful or unlovely, high or low, ancient or modern, are all legitimately languages.

Of course, the Brits and I are welcome to feel about our respective tongues however we like, and to prefer one word, one vowel, one turn of phrase over another. And that's lovely, because a world with one language would not be one I would wish to inhabit, and nothing beats a good heated discussion about the relative merits of the features of different languages. But despite the fact that American English is unlovely to my ears now, and the British tongues much more melodious and interesting, my language is above all mine. And no one's allowed to make fun of it but me.

Cruising Around Cardiff

Cardiff. Doesn't the very word just beg you to give it a Celtic lilt and curl back your tongue for a retroflex "r"?

Alrighty then, maybe it's just me. (Not even sure that Welsh has retroflex rhotics...I'm probably getting that from David Tennant's Scottish pronunciation. Sorry.) But this was my first-ever excursion into the lovely land of Wales. Shannon and I have been planning to meet up to to go to Cardiff ever since we realized that we'd be in England at the same time. And why Cardiff, you say? Prepare to roll your eyes, my spellbound audience: Cardiff is where they film Doctor Who, and has a DW exhibition and many locations from both Doctor Who (which, as you know, I love desperately) and the more adult spinoff, Torchwood (which I loathe with almost as much vehemence). There's no point in trying to be coy about it: we went to Cardiff because of Doctor Who.

Accordingly, we met up and drove straight to Cardiff Bay to begin our trip with the exhibition. I took pictures of almost everything, but I'll spare you the gory details of set pieces, props, and costumes, all of which were geekishly fantastic, and just give you this adorable picture of me and the TARDIS. Unfortunately for my daily food allowance, there was a gift store as well, so now I've got to figure out how to safely transport my new poster...

Given that most of you are probably not Whovians, we'll move on to...more Doctor Who stuff! The Cardiff Millennium Center has two main attractions for me: 1) it's a towering, imposing, impressive structure inscribed in Welsh and English, and 2) it's the site of the Rift, a supposed crack in space/time where the Doctor can refuel the TARDIS with energy from the universe. In case you've missed it, the Doctor's saved the world many times over, and several of those times have happened here in Cardiff, especially on this spot. Pictures were taken and more geekery ensued.

Then the randomosity of the universe kicked in. We were walking on the bay in the lovely (and quite warm) sunshine when we came upon a beautiful red building filled with music and voices. Intrigued, we poked our heads in, only to find a cultural and educational celebration of Gypsy Roma Traveller culture. There were displays about the lives of Travellers and the issues that they face, including discrimination, educational problems, and (especially in the Nazi era) persecution. There was also free food, so we stuck around, had some sandwiches, and watched some adorable children do ribbon dances to Lady Gaga. I tell you, it was completely surreal.

Anyway, after dropping by the visitor's center for a map and strolling along the waterfront (where we came across the Ianto memorial totally by accident!) we headed toward the city center and Cardiff Castle. I was surprised how much Cardiff reminded me of Dublin; it was probably the pedestrian-only zones lined with nice shops and the bilingual everything in English and (to me) a gorgeous but unintelligible Celtic language. We spent the rest of our time in the Castle; we went on a tour of the Marquess' apartments (absolutely gorgeous and very interesting), climbed the Keep, and walked around the grounds. Not to sound like a snob or anything, but although the apartments were beautiful, I've seen more impressive castles. There wasn't much to it but the apartments, the wall, and the run-down keep in the middle. Of course, we didn't have time to go through the museum part as well, but my favorite castle remains the Chateau de Chillon on the shores of Lake Geneva in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The rest of the evening was uninteresting: I got some dinner at a pub and came back here to talk to my mother, but then my Internet died and stubbornly refuses resurrection. In the morning, I have a very busy last day of sightseeing before I return to London on Thursday. And so, as it is getting late, I bid you good night.

P.S. I learned today that the word spelled "quay" is, for reasons completely beyond my understanding, pronounced "key." For heaven's sake, why? I assume that I should just go with my gut instinct and blame the French language, and sure enough, the Online Etymology Dictionary says: "1690s, variant of M.E. key "wharf" (c.1300), from O.N.Fr. cai (O.Fr. chai) "sand bank," from Gaulish caium (5c.), from O.Celt. *kagio- "to encompass, enclose" (cf. Welsh cae "fence, hedge," Cornish ke "hedge"), cognate with O.E. haga "hedge" (see hedge). Spelling altered by influence of Fr. quai, from the same Celtic source." That last sentence there is the material point; given a lack of transcriptions, I'm not sure how the previous forms of the word were pronounced. In any case, I absolutely refuse to pronounce this word as "key", because 1) "key" is a stupid word for a wharf; 2) "quay" (like "kway") is a lovely word, taking advantage of the totally superfluous letter "q" that I quite like and 3) it's all-around more mellifluous and (to my ears and eyes) more aesthetically pleasing. And lists my reading as well, so I'm never ever saying it "key." Grr.

P.P.S. On the motorway on the way to Cardiff, a jet-black Audi R8 flashed by us in the other direction, looking for all the world like a Night Fury on the way to ransacking a Viking village. My heart melted a little bit...

 P.P.P.S. For those of us who are Whovians, something I should note here: Despite all our previous assumptions, Daleks actually are fricking scary. There were three of them at the exhibition in a dark room filled with smoke, shrieking and blinking and firing lasers. Facing down one of those is basically staring down a screaming, hate-filled tank. I've never been afraid of a Dalek before, but now that I've looked one in the...eye-stalk, I can see how they could be such a menace. If they weren't so, y'know, pathetically inefficient and facepalmingly dense.

Bumbling About Bath

Okay, the rumors are true. Bath is indeed super-adorable, beautiful, and fun. I like it here. But let's rewind...

I got here on the bus at about 1pm on Sunday and went straight to my hostel, which is a pretty nice place for a YMCA hostel. In my dorm room, I met up with another American girl traveling on her own named Nicole, and we decided to explore together. We took a two-hour walking tour around the city (it is very beige, yet somehow it works), got some dinner from the grocery store, and lounged in the sun by the river. We returned to the hostel in time to watch a rerun of the Doctor Who finale with two adorable little British children and then the premiere of Top Gear. (I really do talk about the same things over and over, don't I?) I spent the rest of the evening watching TV and chatting with a new acquaintance about the proper spelling of "color", the proper term for football/soccer, and the stupidity of American movies.

Nicole and I began the next morning with the Roman baths for which Bath is named and has been famous for centuries. The museum and baths were just delightful, with lots of information and preserved structures from the hot spring's long history of luxury and decadence. It's amazing to stand over the stones of a ruined temple and imagine the men and women of long ago who trod on the same spot, never dreaming that we'd be digging up and treasuring their ear scoops and hair pins to put on meticulous display. I opted not to swim in the spa or drink the water (too expensive/don't care), but by the time we got out of the baths, it was time for me to go meet my afternoon bus tour.

At the recommendation of RFS, I'd booked a Mad Max bus tour. I'd decided for a while that Stonehenge was too far out of the way and too expensive, so I would just skip it, but that didn't seem right once I got here. The bus tour whisked us to hopelessly adorable Lacock, a tiny village whose only claim to fame is the many movies (like Harry Potter and Pride and Prejudice) who use its quaint streets and flower-hung houses as sets. We also pulled over to look at some thatched-roof cottages (seriously, my brain was screaming "TROGDOOOOOOR!" the whole time) before we finally got to Stonehenge.

We finally parked at Stonehenge and were herded through the gate and a tunnel under the road, but after that, it didn't matter anymore, because directly before my feet, Stonehenge towered over the windswept field. The flocks of tourists in their gaudy plumage gawked at the stones in their silent and dignified decay, audioguides chattering in their ears. I got fed up with the long-winded audioguide quickly and ignored it from then on, although I did have a very nice conversation with a couple of the guides/guards standing on the path. I thought it was terrible that the hordes of tourists were ignoring the real people in favor of their boring, long-on-facts-short-on-humanity audioguides, and chatted with the rangers about Doctor Who, Bluehenge, and the aura of the stones.

Because although I can see how some people would be completely unimpressed and nonplussed by Stonehenge, I'm just the sort of person who loves that kind of thing. Perhaps it's because that everything in American is new (nothing really older than 250 years or so--not from our civilization, at least) and the general attitude seems to be that newer is better. That may be true with cell phones and laptops, but that all melts away when you place your fingers on the cool, smooth stone of a church that has stood for longer than your country has existed, and stood before a pile of stones that were, with great effort, coordination, motivation and purpose, brought to this place, in this alignment, for completely unknown reasons. It reminds me that the world is not only bigger than I am, but that time stretches far beyond me, into the hazy past and into the future. It astounds me to stand in the grass near Stonehenge and hear nothing but the wind flowing over the rolling hills, ancient and solemn, and wonder who before me has stood on that same spot. Many tourists before me, with many lives of their own; Victorians, come to chip off a piece of the stones to take home; farmers, construction workers, Doctor Who film crews...and back, further and further, to the Druids, and thousands of years before them, the initiators of Stonehenge, about whom we know very little. It blows my mind. I love that.

I could easily bring a blanket, a picnic, and some art supplies and spend hours at Stonehenge. As you walk around it, the stones touch and interact with each other, constantly playing with shapes and shadows. I ended up having to run to get back to the tour bus, and I was still five minutes late. I didn't want to leave.

We arrived back in Bath at about 5pm, so I returned to the hostel and had some dinner with Nicole. At 8, I left with another new friend, Jessica, to go on the Bizzare Bath walk, which came highly recommended by pretty much everybody. The crowd was enormous--100 people at least--and the show was quite good: basically a one-man stand-up comedy act using the streets of Bath, the assembled crowd, and passersby as fuel. Highlights included a magic trick with a lost ring and the miraculous escape of a toy bunny from being chained up, weighed down, tied in a bag and thrown in the river. If you're ever in Bath, don't miss it. I met Shannon and her mother randomly at the beginning of the walk, and afterwards we grabbed a bite to eat together before splitting up for some sleep. Because the next day was a big day--the reason I was in Bath to begin with. Yes, it was time for the epic Cardiff excursion! But more on that in another post...

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Warum ist die Banane krumm?

Some questions simply don't have answers...

I woke up this morning with a headache, and my fingers on my right hand ached where I had accidentally slammed them in trunk under my bed the night before. I'd woken up what felt like once an hour throughout the night, and when I tried to put my contacts in, I found out that my bottle of contact solution had gotten shampoo in it and ruined them. I finally staggered out of the hostel to head for the bus a little disgruntled.

And yet, as soon as I got on the big red double-decker and found a seat in the front of the top deck, I couldn't stop smiling like an idiot. Who cares about aching head and fingers and slight sleep deprivation when you're in England? In this case, I had no trouble following the DCR (in song form here), despite that I woke up feeling awful. On a beautiful day in England, it was impossible to stay irritated.

I write to you now from the coach to Bath. The sky is a lovely azure with puffy white clouds and the English countryside rolls by in varying shades of verdant greens. Since we're on a freeway (er...that's not what they're called here, but I've forgotten the proper word), I have a lot of interesting cars to see; in fact, there's a Aston Martin DB9 right in front of us. I've been keeping my eyes peeled for an R8 (my favorite), but no luck so far.

I've been surprised again by how happy I am here. Yes, I know, it's only day 2, and I have lots of time yet to be frustrated, stressed, and homesick, but I really do love this country. Why? Much like with Top Gear, I can't really describe or even identify what it is about this place that fascinates me. Honestly, I'd rather it didn't so much; I'd like to have the same gut-level emotional reaction of excitement about, say, Germany, for instance. But no--it's Britain. I hesitate to even speculate about the possible reasons, since as I run through them in my head, I know that none of them are quite right, or the whole story. But I feel like I could live here very happily, and I feel that way very, very seldom. Maybe it's just idealistic puppy love. We'll see.

I feel I should apologize for the rather uninteresting post, since there's not much yet to tell, but I like to document my thoughts and feelings as I experience them, as much for me as for you. I'm sorry for any boredom you may have suffered. :)

Everything that I've heard about Bath is that it's brilliant, beautiful, and fun, so I shall certainly tell you what I think when I get there. You may even get some pictures if you're lucky!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Der erste Tag

"And here...we...go!'

Sheesh, this day never ends. It began almost 24 hours ago, in quiet little Snohomish...

Mom and I got to Vancouver quickly and easily and I sat for nine long, uncomfortable, boring hours on the plane. Seriously, they design airplanes to be right on the border between mildly uncomfortable and painfully uncomfortable, so you're constantly in a state of discomfort but can't quite put your finger on why. However, one of the shows they played in flight was Top Gear: the one with Geoff and the R8 V10. I watched it twice. :D

Anyway, a funny thing happened in the hideously long passport check line at Gatwick. I ended up next to this tall guy in line who asked me a random question, and we started chatting all the way up to the customs desks. I got through first, and I though it would be rude just to bail on him, so I waited for him to come through as well and we kept talking. We got our baggage, took to the train to Victoria Station, and since it was still hideously early in the day (like 10 am!) and we were starving, we decided to wander a bit. We met some nice blokes playing tennis on the pavement, came upon Westminster Cathedral entirely by accident, got lunch at a store called Boots (go figure?) and wandered down to Buckingham Palace to look around and catch the tail end of the changing of the guard, at which point we went our separate ways. It was an extremely pleasant way to begin a solo trip, and certainly upped my expectations for meeting awesome people on this odyssey of mine. He's now off to heaven-knows-where (he doesn't even know!) with his 80 pounds of baggage, on an adventure around the world. Evan, wherever you are or end up, good luck and and I wish you the best!

At that point things went a little sideways. I staggered to the Tube station with my luggage--it's hot and muggy here, and I'm wearing thick, warm, summer-in-WA clothing--only to discover that the entire Jubilee line, which is the only one that serves the stop where my hostel is, is closed for construction. There's always something that you need or want being renovated in Europe! This meant I had to take two other subway lines to go three stops, wander around helplessly looking for the right bus, and once I found it, plead with the bus driver to let me off at the right stop. Once at the right stop, I then had to find the blasted place, using only my wits and vague memories of my four nights staying here a year and a half ago.

On my way up the hill, I saw a lime-green Lambo cruise by, growling like a rabid lion. I am in the land of Top Gear. That made me smile. I'd like to take a joyride on one of the buses just to go car-spotting.

So that brings me to where I am now: lying in my bunk, struggling to stay awake, hoping I'll get to watch the Doctor Who finale tonight. Tomorrow I'm leaving bright and early for Bath.

Bottom line: I made it. I'm safe. The adventure has commenced. And now I'm going to take a nap.

UPDATE: After my nap and shower, I wandered down to the hostel’s TV lounge just in time for the start of Doctor Who. If you haven’t seen it yet, I won’t spoil it, but it was epic; and if you don’t watch Doctor Who—for heaven’s sake, why not?!

Anyway, at the hostel’s restaurant, I struck up a conversation with a very kind young woman from Quebec. As we were talking, one of the waiters came up to us and asked me if I was American. When I applied in the affirmative, he asked me what to do in America if you liked someone and wanted to demonstrate your admiration. I said I didn’t know, so he proposed that one might buy a drink, then offered to buy one for my new friend. The two of us (my Canadian friend, Laurence, and I) had dinner together, and afterward the waiter came by again and looked me straight in the eyes.

“Are you American?” he demanded.

“I think we’ve established that,” said I.

“Then would you like some apple pie?”

This was so unexpected a logical leap that my brain couldn’t quite make the jump, and I ended up just nodding dumbly and then dissolving into giggles. He brought very delicious slices of pie for both Laurence and me, and never charged us for them. Go figure. Anyway, I got free pie and a delightful evening with a very interesting and fun dinner partner. Now I’m exhausted (I made it past 10 pm!) and I have to catch a bus in the morning, so off I go to bed!

Friday, June 25, 2010


Well, it's (more or less) official: my time as a resident of Bellingham, Washington, has come to an end. It was a very lovely four-ish years of meeting new friends, packing knowledge into my distracted globe, discovering new things about myself and the world, and all kinds of other squee-worthy heartwarming things that university should be. Of course, there was also a hefty dose of tears, anger, frustration, stress, and sadness, but that's all over now, right? (Hah...)

Anyway, having decided that we should end our time together in Bellingham with a bang, and that there's no better bang for your buck than a four-hundred-year-old tragedy about murder and incest, three of my friends and I took a road trip south, primarily with the goal of seeing Hamlet in Ashland, OR. That original idea (dashing to Ashland, seeing the play, and hurrying back up in a weekend) somehow mutated into a week-long odyssey including two plays and a "side trip" to San Francisco, a mere six-hour-each-way detour. However, as road trips go, this was definitely just about as good as it could get.

We drove through Washington the first day, stopping to say hello to various parental figures before we arrived in Vancouver, WA, at Shannon's house, to stay the night. The next day was the Vancouver-to-Ashland leg, but before we left the Portland area, of course we had to stop at Powell's Books, which might be one of the most wondrous and joyful places in existence. We barely managed to make it back to our car in time after an hour inside, and regretfully continued on our way--although now well-stocked with reading material.

In Ashland, we met our first couchsurfing host. If you are unfamiliar with couchsurfing, it's essentially a worldwide network of hosts who are willing to open their homes to travelers. Through CS, I found hosts for us in both Ashland and San Francisco. Our Ashland host, Karen, was cheerful and generous woman with a very energetic and adorable four-year-old son. She was an employee of the Shakespeare Festival, so she gave us some insider tips and advice on getting the most out of our time there.

We spent the day wandering around Ashland, buying more books (it's an addiction) and enjoying the sunny weather. That evening, we saw Twelfth Night in the open-air theater. As much love and respect as I have for Shakespeare, comedies don't really interest me, but this one was fairly well done. I'm not sure what other details to add but that the costumes were beautiful and the comedy adult enough that the sweet pastor lady on sabbatical that had been sitting next to me didn't come back after intermission.

We left bright and early the next day and sprinted to San Francisco. Our second CS host, Edie, and her husband live in a beautiful townhouse with one of the most glorious red-walled, floor-to-ceiling-bookshelved rooms I've ever seen. Both were very kind, and Edie helped us plan our one-day whirlwind tour of San Fran for the next day. We went out for dinner and a short walk around the town--I tried avocado ice cream. No, don't grimace, it was nice. :D

Next day we got a later start than we had hoped because we had some trouble meeting up with friends of Caitlin's who were meeting us downtown. We saw Alcatraz across the water (but didn't visit), ate clam chowder on Fisherman's Wharf, rode a cable car to Ghiradelli Square, and had a delightful sushi dinner in the Castro distract--basically everything you're supposed to do in SF. We finally staggered home at about 10 (aren't we just party animals?).

Next day was the trek back to Ashland. We made it back with plenty of time to spare for a picnic in the park and a look around the bookstore before our show. This was the most important part: the reason for this trip in the first place and what we had all been waiting for for months. We were some of the first through the door.

We had heard a little bit about what to expect from Hamlet from one of the actors who had given a talk previously, but seeing it was something else altogether. When we entered the theater, the actors were already on stage: a dark wood casket draped with the flag of Denmark sat before rows of chairs, only one of which was occupied by a solemn and motionless man in mourning black and sunglasses. Some of the palace staff were trying to clean up after the funeral, but unsure of how to proceed since the young prince showed no sign of moving, they scurried about whispering to each other and bowing to the prince as they cleared away all the other chairs and put out the candles over the course of half an hour. When the theater was full and the crowd settled, Hamlet finally rose, walked to the casket, put his hand out to touch it--and the lights went down to begin.

The play just kept getting better from there, and pardon me if I spend a few minutes describing the glory of it all. One of the most marked additions was that Hamlet's father, Hamlet Sr., was deaf, as is the actor playing him. Hamlet and Gertrude both worked sign language into their acting throughout the play, and the graveyard scene between Hamlet and his father was entirely signed, with some interpretation by Hamlet. The overall effect was both fascinating and chilling; the sign for "murder" especially was repeated several times throughout the play, and lent a visible as well as audible strength to the word.

The script was also slightly rearranged to incorporate Hamlet's soliloquies into the action. In the original script, there is some scene between several characters--for example, Act I Scene II, where Claudius and Gertrude talk to Hamlet and Laertes and set up most of the main plot elements. In Shakespeare's original, everyone then leaves except Hamlet, who then gives his first soliloquy ("Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt..."). The OSF instead had the entire cast except Hamlet freeze on stage in the middle of the scene; as if merely voicing his thoughts as the action happened around him, Hamlet, strutted, stalked, and slunk across the stage, raging in his uncle's face about their o'erhasty marriage. As he ended, he returned to where he had begun, and the action started up again around him. This reinterpretation seemed perfectly natural and presented the soliloquies as Hamlet's thoughts in the moment instead of his reflections afterwards. We all loved it.

Of course, the entire play was brilliant in too many ways to list here. Claudius was excellent: smarmy, falsely friendly, and mocking, and did his one soliloquy in his bathroom. Hamlet was somewhat pitiable and somewhat terrifying, reminding me in mannerisms and voice of Dark Knight's Joker while being altogether too sympathetic. My favorite addition, though, was that at the very end, after Fortinbras had taken control and all of the nobility of Denmark lay dead, the ghost staggered back out on stage to hold his son in his arms.

Of course, none of us could stop talking stop talking about the play on the way home, which was good, because we drove all the way from Ashland back to Woodinville (and for Stacy and I, all the way to Snohomish) the last day, with the compulsory stop in Vancouver, WA, to drop Shannon off and watch the first half of the season finale of Doctor Who. I shall be watching the last episode in London!

So that, in a nutshell, was the AshFranShakespeare trip. It was way too much time in a car, but it was with some wonderful friends, and we had a great time. The whole thing would've still been worth it, though, if all we had seen was Hamlet.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

More details

I've been in contact with Katrin, my mentoring teacher, who has kindly sent me some more details about the school, the town, and my particular situation.
Hello Jennifer,

I am sending the information about our college I promised in my e-mail.

Accommodation: is no problem as we have got a well-equipped hall of residence; everything has been refurbished recently. There is a kitchen on every floor. You will live there with our students, who are used to language assistants, so it will be easy for you to integrate. And it is just a five-minutes’ walk from the halls to the college. The rent is 145 Euros a month for a single room.

The town: Stadtroda is quite a small town (about 6, 000 inhabitants), so practically everything is within walking distance. There is a fitness centre with gym, sauna, badminton and squash facilities and a brand-new outdoor swimming pool. You can easily get into Jena, Weimar, Gera and Erfurt by train or bus.

The college: You can find information on the college on our website: Our students are 19 or older, so you will work with young adults rather than children. All our assistants have felt that this makes teaching a lot easier and more fun. The number of students per group varies considerably but does usually not go beyond 20.
     As regards material, books etc. I do not think you will need anything specific. But it would be a good idea to bring along something about your home town, family and/or the region where you live and work (photos have always been a success!); this way we will be able to combine introducing you to the students with a bit of what we call Landeskunde.
 Most of this sounds excellent to me, since I've done most of my TESOL training with IEP and AUAP. The only thing that I'm a little iffy about is the dormitory. I'd hoped to have my own apartment and not have to share space with anyone ever again (I've been living with five other girls for the last year...) but it seems that it is not to be. I also had a neutral-to-negative experience in the dorms in Marburg. However, I hope that I can take better advantage of the situation this time.

I've also contacted the university in Jena to ask if I might be able to matriculate for a year. This brilliant university has classes in:
  • German as a foreign language
  • German linguistics
  • German literature
  • German studies
  • Greek studies (<3!)
  • Indogermanics (which took me three reads to decipher)
  • Linguistics
  • Latin studies
  • Medieval and modern Latin (they might have a German Eduardus!)
  • Romance languages and studies
  • Slavic languages and studies
Besides the unimaginable joy that all of this linguistic goodness sends coursing through my veils (Fulbright what?), being able to take university classes would let me get to know some students with similar interests, continue studying topics in my field, and get me a semester ticket, which means free transport throughout Thüringen. That all sounds quite handy, but I'm waiting to see what the university and my Betreuungslehrerin say.

Speaking of which, Katrin sounds very nice. She says that she's had assistants for 15 years, so she won't be surprised by my presence or scrambling to find me something to do.

That's all the news for now...updates when they come.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Und endlich...!

I got an e-mail this morning (in perfect English...huh) from my Betreuungslehrerin (mentoring teacher) in Germany this morning out of the blue. Apparently, Fulbright received my grant authorization on time...

Anyway, on to the important stuff. Here is the text of the e-mail:
Hi Jennifer,

I'm Katrin, your Betreuungslehrerin for your time as a teaching
assistant in Thuringia.

I'll send you further information about your assistantship in a few
days, because we are really busy at the moment with exams etc.

I just wanted to let you know that we're really happy about getting a
TA for the next school year and that I'm very much looking forward to
working with you.

Best regards,
The address at the end of the e-mail indicates that the school is in Jena, specifically a little north of the city.

View Fachschule in a larger map
Jena itself is university city (yay!) and the second largest city in Thüringen after Erfurt. It has museums, an orchestra, and several unis, but most importantly, the Christmas market looks brilliant! Wikipedia article here. I'm just really happy that I'm not going to be out in the middle of nowhere.

Speaking of which, the school (which has a website here) seems to be a vocational school for agrarian and household economics, agriculture, etc. Hmm, I can see I'll need to brush up on my German agrarian vocabulary. The school website doesn't seem to even mention English...but I assume they have English classes, since I'm, y'know, going there. Right?

That's really all I know for now. It's just a blessing to have a concrete answer at last.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

To eBook or not to eBook?

In preparation for this trip, I've been researching various electronic gadgets to make my life easier as I travel. Given that my current laptop has a broken optical drive, a dying power cord, and about 2-3 pounds more weight than I'd like to schlep across Europe, I've been considering a new, lighter and smaller laptop and leaving this one (which still runs beautifully) with my mother to use to call me on Skype. However, as you may know, I've also been doing a lot of reading and intend to continue building up my literary repertoire, and the weight of paper books add up quickly, so I've also given some thought to getting a Kindle or another of its ilk.

Mostly unrelated side note: Does anyone else find the name "Kindle" vaguely ominous? I mean, "kindle", as in "set fire to"? What exactly is Amazon suggesting we do to the books that the Kindle replaces, eh??

Now, as an (very) amateur bookbinder and general bibliophile, I dislike eBook readers on principle. Although this could be dismissed as a conservative and very human preference for the familiar if inconvenient over the new and improved, there's more to it than that. I get the same feeling reading on a Kindle (which I have tried before) that I feel when riding in a car without a seatbelt: it's the same basic idea, and you get to your end point at the same speed, but there's still a creeping and slightly panicky sensation of something very important missing.

Like I mentioned in an earlier post, I just got my new Rick Steves book a few days ago, and I've been furiously researching and underlining ever since. Fine, yes, eBook readers will allow highlighting and bookmarking as well, although the interface is a little irritating and considerably more awkward than just putting pen to paper. Digital readers also don't let you crack the spine and tear the book into sections like I intend to. Okay, fine, it wouldn't matter because that's a function of saving weight and space, and a Kindle will weigh the same whether you have six books or 274 in there. So what is it? There's still something missing.

The nearest I can get is that reading on a Kindle is not like reading a book. There's something very tactile and emotional about reading and using a book that eBook readers lack: the sound and feel of turning pages, the opening of a book to a bookmark, the pages falling open to a well-loved chapter, the (admittedly problematic for a traveler) heft and form. And I'm going to be a teacher, for heaven's sake; how would I loan an eBook to a student? How, if I were reading on a Kindle, would anyone know what I was reading and then be able to start a conversation? When I'm finished with the book, how do I trade it in for another on a hostel bookshelf or with another traveler? In short, what eBook readers gain in convenience and portability, they lose in serendipity.

Then, of course, there's the minor fact that buying a Kindle is basically like buying a (slightly) cheaper, limited-use, greyscale-only computer that looks and feels like an iPod that's lost a joust with a steamroller. And since I'm going to be buying a laptop and will need a lot of money for traveling in one of the most expensive countries in the world, that's not really too practical. It's also just a matter of time--and probably not much time at that--before there are full-color touch-screen versions that will have full internet capabilities, satnav, and the ability to tie your shoes for you as well. Furthermore, when I already have perfectly good paper copies of Huckleberry Finn and Murder on the Orient Express and Romeo and Juliet, it seems silly to spend $300 to buy a reader gadget so I can spend more money on digital copies of the exact same text.

So, despite the definite advantages in size, weight, and convenience, it's not worth the sacrifice in terms of money, serendipity, and joy. Although honestly, it's mostly about the money.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Three Rules of Travel

First of all, happy June! In true Washingtonian fashion, Bellingham has celebrated with an epileptic seizure of sun and clouds all day, finally settling on a dreary drizzle. Lovely.

But never mind that, because I've received my new Bible answer to all my problems Rick Steves' Britain book today! As anyone who isn't my mother who has traveled with me will tell you, I have an inordinate amount of faith in Rick Steves, but so far, he's never let me down, so my unwavering devotion continues. I've basically been waiting to get this book to plan the rest of my trip, and it took me all of thirty seconds to start paging hungrily through it and covering its soft white pages in yellow highlighter. It even comes with a detachable fold out map, and--I'm sorry, you don't care and I totally understand that. Onward.

This last weekend, I had a planning meeting with my mother and Janna that lasted several hours and involved a Starbucks, three laptops, and some embarrassingly oversized cups of coffee. Various decisions were made and reservations booked and so on, which is boring, but what we did get to discuss were general rules for our travel this summer. We agreed on two, but I'm adding a third, which seems to be self-evident.

First, an important definition: disaster. From Greek, meaning "without/away from the stars," but now meaning "a calamitous event, esp. one occurring suddenly and causing great loss of life, damage, or hardship."* This is not really the sense I'll be using it in; for the purposes of the Rules, "disaster" means anything that doesn't go according to plan, from personal injury, canceled reservations and lost luggage to closed museums, renovations, getting rained on on a hike, accidentally ordering the wrong kind of coffee, or going to a party that you thought would be fun only to find that it's much more raucous, obnoxious, and drunken than you expected. Basically, it's any situation in which frustration, disappointment, and problem-solving skillz are involved. This overlaps in some places with emergency, in which your safety (personal, financial, etc) are in jeopardy. So:

I. The Golden Rule
Yes, that Golden Rule. Although applicable in all situations, it's especially important in the heady distillation of all of the highest and lowest experiences of living that is traveling. As Jesus puts it in Matthew 7:12:
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
This means that in every situation, especially in disaster situations, the first reactions should be grace, compassion, and respect.

II. The Disaster Contingency Rule (DCR)
This has been my personal rule for a long time. You can state it a bunch of different ways, but the basic idea is:
No matter what happens, make the best of it and move on.
Whatever disaster strikes--and the great philosopher Murphy has decreed that it will--no moaning, complaining, weeping, or bad attitudes are allowed. You make the best of every situation, and if you're not getting the most out of your time, you problem-solve and adjust your attitude until you are. Which brings us to...

III. The Top Gear Rule
Named after my second favorite TV show, the Top Gear Rule evolved out of the usual conduct of the lads on the show when out on a challenge across some corner of the world in crappy cars: when someone's car breaks down, the other two just leave them behind and keep going. Somewhat modified and only applicable to interpersonal disasters (and not emergencies of any kind!), the Top Gear Rule reads:
If someone's having a problem, split up and meet up again later.
The value of this rule is that it not only allows but requires time apart, which is vital for people living together in high-stress, high-anxiety situations for weeks on end. It's imperative that when one or more of the group gets irritable, cranky, rude, or unpleasant (or in any other way breaks Rules I and/or II), the group can split up for some time apart and reconvene later. It's really just a specific application of Rule II, just that the bad attitude of the other person is the relevant disaster.

So there you have it. I've got all my rules figured out and a beautiful new book to do my planning. Now there's just that blasted senior thesis to finish...

*Side note: This sentence has been bothering me for days, and I just figured out why. I automatically read the phrase "great loss of life, damage, or hardship" as "great loss of (life or damage or hardship)", which makes sense for the first element ("great loss of life" is definitely a bad thing) but is a definite "qwha? Oo" for the other two: a great loss of damage is nonsensical, and a great loss of hardship doesn't sound like a bad thing to me. Naturally, the reading should be "(great loss of life) or (damage) or (hardship)"; this sort of governing error is exactly the kind of thing that my ELLs do all the time. Of course, the ambiguity can be resolved by moving around the pieces around ("damage, hardship, or great loss of life"), which makes more sense to me anyway since they're now in ascending order of...badness. Okay, linguistic moment over, move along...