Tourist Info Desk

Welcome to Fernweh, a blog concerning the (mis)adventures of one Fulbrighter during a year spent in Europe teaching English.
If you'd like to know what's going on, please see the welcome message here.
If you're wondering what the book reviews are about, I direct your attention to the reading list/classic lit challenge here.
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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Book: Persuasion

Author: Jane Austen
First Published: 1817
Original Language: English
Themes: the opinions of others, etiquette, selfishness vs sacrifice, patience

In A Nutshell: Poor Anne Elliot is mostly ignored by her family, being the gentlest and plainest of the three daughters of Sir Walter Elliot, a careless and vain baronet. Due to Sir Walter's extravagances, it becomes necessary for the family to remove to Bath and let their house, Kellynch Hall, to Admiral Croft and his wife. Unbeknownst to almost anyone else, Mrs. Croft is the relative of one Captain Wentworth; although now a successful and rich sailor, his prospects were less certain when he was engaged to Anne eight years before. Lady Russel, Anne's friend and adviser, persuaded her to break the engagement off for the sake of duty, and the two were sundered in anger and regret.

Now Anne is forced to renew her acquaintance with Captain Wentworth, who is still dashing and charming but seems to have no interest in her. Anne spends much time with the Musgroves, her brother-in-law's family, where the captain is very popular, and seems to be developing an attraction to one of the Miss Musgroves. During an excursion at Lyme, this Miss Musgrove injures her head accidentally and Captain Wentworth withdraws, allowing another captain to win her heart. Although encouraged by this news, Anne finally goes to Bath to be with her family but finds the rank-obsessed parties of Bath stagnant and uninteresting. A cousin of hers, Mr. Elliot, shows great interest in her and means to marry her, but an old friend, Mrs Smith, warns Anne that he's false and self-serving. Finally, Captain Wentworth can contain himself no more and professes his enduring love for Anne, and after those eight long years of regret and pain, they can finally be joyously married.

Thinking Makes It So: I should say from the outset that I am disinclined to like Anne Elliot. She's one of those sweet, gentle, obliging creatures who take no notice of themselves, who let other people command and override them with no apparent inclination to stand up for their own thoughts, feelings, or desires. She's so perfectly, submissively, wonderfully, angelically gentle that you just want to scream...if you're me, I guess. I can't help thinking that the whole silly painful awkward situation could've been avoided if Anne had stood up for herself and asserted her own wishes in the first place.

That said, Anne is surrounded by a lot of obnoxious, self-obsessed, overbearing people. Her father is so absorbed in himself and his gentility that he's gotten their family into debt, and he treats less fortunate people with disdain and scorn, as does his arrogant daughter, Elizabeth. The youngest daughter, Mary, is even more insufferable; she constantly wheedles, guilt-trips, and manipulates people's emotions by professing herself ill or very ill-used whenever something doesn't suit her fancy or she feels too neglected. Somehow, out of all of this, Anne emerged as a gentle soul, primarily concerned with maintaining the peace and comfort of others.

The selfishness of others is less obvious. Mr Elliot had formerly scorned an acquaintance with his relatives, but when he suspects that Sir Walter may remarry and thereby jeopardize Mr Elliot's position as heir of the Elliot title, he insinuates himself into their family with flattery and good manners to make sure it doesn't happen. In fact, there are very few major players in the whole story that are at all worthy of a positive opinion, since everyone seems to be operating out of purely selfish motives--even Captain Wentworth, who admits that everything he does through the whole book is motivated by his love for Anne. The only one apparently totally free of this vice is, again, Anne herself, whose first concern is always to make sure that everyone around her is happy at the sacrifice of her own happiness, contentment, solitude, or companionship.

I knew how this book would end when I started it--I knew that Anne would eventually reconcile with Captain Wentworth--so all I really needed to know was how they got there. Although I didn't dislike it, I didn't like it much, either; there was far too much of Anne being confused and upset but sacrificially hiding it so that no one might have any idea that, I don't know, something important might be going on in her life. Although granted, since almost all the people around her are self-absorbed snobs, they probably either wouldn't care or treat her as a nuisance, so maybe she has a point.

Although I assume Persuasion is, indeed, about persuasion, it seems to me that it's also a good close look at the different types of selfishness and pride in this particular rank and style of life at the time, and how the character of Anne defies what was, I imagine, rather typical of the time. Anne is humble, charitable, and giving; she visits a poor friend in need; she does chores and volunteers for work that other people don't want to do so that they can enjoy themselves, and she gets little thanks for any of it. I guess the problem for me is that she's so perfect as to be a bit irritating, compounded by her apparent inability to assert herself. Really, I prefer Emma.

That You Must Teach Me: I think, given that I'm now sure that I won't be teaching any of these books in the foreseeable future, I'm going to discontinue this section, since I can do research later if I have to. I would say, though, that if I were to pick one of Austen's books to teach, it wouldn't be Persuasion; there simply isn't enough happening, clever social commentary or no.


September 23rd

While working at my computer by my open window, I heard over my music a voice shouting, but it took a good few seconds for it to register consciously. Someone out of the view of my window was announcing something important about the Realschule in a megaphone, something that I couldn't quite catch. Bethany and I both poked our heads out in curiosity, but as nothing seemed to be on fire and there were no screams of panic, we shrugged and went back to work. This only lasted until strains of music began drifting in some minutes later. Leaning out the window, we found that a marching band was coming down the street, playing brightly, accompanied by brigades of fireman in their black-and-reflective-yellow gear and followed by a long parade of people of all ages. Most of them, from adults down to young kids, were carrying lanterns or, more often, lit firebrands. I'd seen enough; I grabbed a coat and my keys and dashed from the room to check it out.

Bethany and I stepped out of our dorm and joined the firelight flow of people, which must have comprised the entire population of Stadtroda by the size of it, in a circuit through the apartment complexes around the Wohnheim. We tried to ask what the parade was about, but all I could gather was that it was for the "Feuerwerk" (firework), which made some degree of sense, given the torches, but still wasn't entirely clear. We strode along anyway; I was burning with curiosity, and was just starting to contemplate the most subtle way that I could steal a torch from an unsuspecting child when a bright light flashed somewhere nearby. I looked around for the camera, but that mystery was solved a few seconds later by an ominous rumble from the darkening sky. And sure enough, soon fat raindrops were plonking us on the head, and within minutes it was an outright downpour, complete with atmospheric lightening and thunder. I couldn't help feeling a rush of deja vu and wondering: for Heaven's sake, what does God have against lantern parades?

We trotted on after the rest of the parade through the rain, and shortly we turned into a small field near the Wohnheim, where sausage and beer stands had been set up (anyone surprised?) and the arriving paraders tossed their torches into an enormous pile of brush and firewood piled at least 12 feet high. Party, anyone?

Bethany and I dashed back to the Wohnheim to get proper rainjackets and cameras, although the heavy rain had quit before we stepped through the door and settled instead on a drizzle. It seems God knew what He was about, though: by the time we returned to the field, the pile of brush and torches was an enormous raging bonfire, like a miniature volcano with a baby dragon at its heart, blowing clouds of sparks defiantly up at the unfriendly skies--so all told, it was probably a good idea to douse everything thoroughly first.

Having not yet eaten dinner, I got in line for a bratwurst while Bethany (a vegetarian) went to find some popcorn. I finally worked up the courage to ask some nice ladies in the line behind me and found out that the party was for the Feuerwehr (fire department), which seems both beautifully appropriate and wonderfully ironic, and explains either way the surplus of tough-looking guys stumping around in neon-lined boots and jackets and casting baleful, watchful glares over the bonfire. I got my bratwurst, Bethany got her popcorn, then we shared a perfectly ginormous cotton candy that was melting in the rain as we ate it. Finally, we both bought some Gluehwein and stood back to watch the fire burn spectacularly.

The entire thing was completely surreal in its suddenness and sheer randomness. It was like everyone in Stadtroda, having not a whole lot better to do on a cloudy afternoon in late September, looked at each other and said, "You know what would make this so much better? An humongous raging bonfire. We can have little kids carry the lit torches! To, y'know, celebrate the Feuerwehr and drink some beer or whatever." And the concensus was: "That sounds brilliant. I'll go get the grill and some kerosene!"

I love Germany.

September 25th

I slept in late today (11 at least) and finally managed to drag myself through the cold drizzle to the train station just in time to miss the train to Jena entirely. Luckily, I always come prepared, so I just pulled out my copy of Emma and waited for the train going the other way instead. This was how I ended up in Gera, a big-ish town about 20 minutes from Stadtroda, wandering in circles trying to figure out which street the signs to "Zentrum/Tourist Infos" were pointing up. I never did find either the city center or the TI, as far as I know. I just set off in the right general direction and wandered into any open shop doorway that looked interesting.

There were a lot less of these than you would think to find on a Saturday afternoon, and not for lack of interestingness but rather for lack of openness. While Saturday is I'm-not-working-today-so-let's-go-shopping-or-do-something-interesting-for-Pete's-sake day where I come from, apparently it's I'm-going-home-at-2-today-because-I-feel-like-it-so-if-you-wanted-to-buy-something-you-should've-come-during-the-week day in Germany. Many of the shops were dark and locked, although in their defense, the wide streets were almost deserted, and the whole center had a ghost-town vibe about it, especially on the rare occasions when I did pass another pedestrian, almost inevitably with their eyes fixed on the pavement and in total silence. It was somewhat creepy.

Nevertheless, I've been on a mission for the last few weeks: to find and buy a Sheepworld pencilcase. You see (those are the opening words of a story you most likely won't care two socks about, so feel free to skip the next couple sentences), I bought one last time I was in Germany and loved it dearly right up until it unceremoniously disappeared sometime between winter and spring quarters this year. Although I found one in Cologne, I foolishly assumed that I'd be able to find them everywhere, and have been searching for them in vain ever since. To my joy, I found just the one I'd been looking for, and bought it with a minimal amount of the prerequisite dithering that accompanies every purchase over 4 euro.

To suppliment the somewhat unreal feeling of the deserted streets of the rain-drenched city, I emerged from a shopping center to find that Milka (the chocolate company) had a little...booth/exhibit thing set up, where they were letting passersby play Milka-related computer games, sample their chocolate, and pet a stuffed purple cow. The best bit was the giant inflatable cow atop the main trailer, which looked a bit odd to me, mostly because it wasn't upside down.

September 27th

Mm, my fingers smell like beeswax. Yum.

Today was Bienenkunde day, but ever since the Feuerwehr Day downpour, the weather's gone from sunny, warm, and gorgeous to cold, wet, and miserable. In fact, it feels almost entirely exactly like Washington--fancy that. Anyway, apparently the bees really don't like it if, after all the trouble they go to keep their hive warm and dry, you go about pulling it apart and letting the water in, so we weren't allowed to peek in the hives today.

It seems I've simply been adopted as the new apprentice beekeeper. That's fine with me, although I regret that I can't understand nearly as much as I would like, since it's all explained to me in German. At this rate, I'll have elevated nodding and smiling strategically to an art form. This also means I don't actually know the English names of half the things I learned about today, but I'll do my best.

My main task today was sorting the Waben, which are easily removable and replaceable wooden frames in which the bees build the wax cells for storing food or raising young. Because the honey is extracted from the Waben without destroying them, they can be reused when the bees become more active again next spring. I learned to identify the difference between Futterwaben (Waben with, uh, Futter in them, which is, I think, like nectar) and Pollenwaben (Waben with pollen and honey in them...the distinction is harder than you'd think). I started to learn to tell apart cells built by workers (Arbeiterinnen) and drones (Drohnen)--the drones' cells are bigger, and ofter have specially-shaped cells for a new queen--and I had to keep a lookout for the larvae of the Wachsmutte (wax moth?), which lays its eggs in the Waben, and when the eggs hatch, the larvae eat through the wax and destroy them. The Wachsmutte has to be killed wherever it's found, although apparently, the earwigs that I found in several combs are good, because they eat the Wachsmutte larvae. Eurgh--spiders and bees and such I can handle, but I really don't like earwigs. They're worse in German: Ohrkriecher (ear-crawler).

Jürgen, the head bee man, seemed to be apologetic that today's tasks weren't nearly as exciting as last week's, but the way I figure it, whenever you get a new pet, you get to name it and play with it and coo and take pictures, but you also have to learn how to take care of it properly. I guess he just doesn't want me to give up on the oh-so-glamorous world of beekeeping because of the boredom of sorting through boxes of wax looking for larvae and brushing away earwigs. I thought it was interesting, I got to practice my German, and the smell of those Waben is absolutely lovely.

If I ever do build that dream house that I'm designing in my head, which already has a red Dublin-style Gregorian front door, a Japanese tatami room with sliding rice-paper doors, and German windows, I may have to have a little styrofoam tower of bees in the backyard, too.

September 28th

Oh, have I mentioned that I joined the church choir?

This is the best opportunity so far to actually speak some German and meet other people in the community, although the first session, two weeks ago, was unportentious: I'm totally out of practice with minor skills like, say, reading music and singing in tune/harmony, and the first practice was a whirlwind of German music terms and songs I don't know. Bethany and I kept exchanging overwhelmed glances as we tried to catch the rhythm, sing in tune, read the notes, and pronounce the German lyrics simultaneously. I didn't go last week partly because I was feeling sick, and partly because I didn't want to go through the frustration.

Bethany convinced me to go again tonight, though. I felt like I could hear my harmony part more clearly (I am really miserable at singing in harmony) and the other girls in the choir were very kind and helped me keep track of where we were. After an hour, we took a break for a small potluck dinner, and as we were eating, more people arrived, almost all significantly older. Apparently there's a second choir (?), and we were all going to practice together. This was just as confusing, but after a good hour and a half of fighting with music I'd never seen before, we adjourned and were warmly greeted by all the sweet ladies, who had also brought cake for someone's birthday that they eagerly encouraged us to try. One lady in particular struck up a conversation with me, and she invited Bethany and me over to house for coffee repeatedly, saying that she was all alone now that all three of her kids are grown.

Being treated with friendliness, interest, and warmth is certainly a welcome change. I've decided that I officially dislike German dorms on principle, but really, it isn't the building's fault (entirely; it is in part). The students are either too shy, too lazy, or too disinterested to actually come seek Bethany or me out, or even really talk to us when we meet by accident. I'd almost started to think that we were doing something wrong, but from the choir's friendly welcome, I must conclude that the students are just self-conscious and busy young adults. That's rather sensible, isn't it?

Also in music news, I was accepted to the music school for guitar lessons (YAAAAAAY!). The only downside at this point is that the lessons are one-on-one, so I won't be able to meet other Germans interested in learning the guitar. My own beloved instrument is still in WA, but Katrin's son has kindly agreed to let me use his, so soon I'll be recklessly annoying anyone who dares to come within hearing distance with my painstaking twanging noises. I start on Friday!

Tomorrow I'll take the train to Jena to meet my university Tutorin, who's been corresponding with me about starting uni and how to matriculate. She's been kind enough to agree to come and meet me and go to the office with me. I'me excited to meet her, although I was a bit embarrassed to find out today that although she addresses me as "du", I should be addressing her as "Sie", and I haven't been. Oops. Curse you, L2 politeness distinctions, for being so confusing!

While I'm here, I wanted to mention the students again. As anyone who's ever been in more than one class session in their life knows, every class group has a different personality, made up of not only the students' individual personalities but also their attitudes, past experiences, willingness to talk, willingness to act, and their interactions with each other and the teacher. Some classes simply click, others simply don't, and the teacher can only improve a curdled classroom to a certain degree.

I have one class that I particularly love that is especially effervescent. There are two students in the class who don't care much, but four of the students are reasonably competent in English and willing to talk, one is shy but willing to participate, and two are low-level beginners. The disparity in ability makes this class tough, but they're all such fun that it doesn't matter as much. I definitely look forward to working with them, and I hope to get to know some of them outside class as well.

Unfortunately, they're pretty much the exception. The attitudinal temperature of the other classes ranges from lukewarm to downright subzero. I haven't encountered any outright hostility yet, but there seems to be an American/German culture gap over the acceptability of talking while the teacher's talking that had me really pissed off today. I'm determined, though, to try to think of more engaging activities so the students won't be as likely to look for amusement elsewhere.

September 29th

The reason this is taking me so long to post is that my Internet is still down, and the tech guy for the Fachschule seems to have no interest in fixing it. There's a monthly 1 GB limit which I unknowingly overstepped, but a few days after he fixed it, it stopped working again, and although I've sent him an e-mail, it's still kaput. Luckily, the end of the month is only two days away now, so I should be able to survive until then. The upside is that I get to bed much earlier, since I don't have the temptation of wandering down the Internet's many twisting alleyways until the wee hours of the night. Also, I can't check my Facebook every half hour.

On the topic of frustrating delays, ARGH German universities are so silly! I understand the need for health insurance certificates and other such guarantees, but whereas American universities (well, mine, at least) seem to be able to condense all the registration and information exchange processes,  the German ones seems to delight in making them as complicated as possbile.

I met my tutor, Kati, at the train station, and had a delightful time talking with her the whole day (in German, too! Go me!). She took me to the immatriculation office, where the lady explained to me in clear, simple German that I still had to send in more paperwork and pay the semester fee before they'd give me the student card I could already see lying tauntingly in my folder. Having not accomplished much except having recieved a whole lot of new info-papers, we set off again. To pick up my free planner, we had to take a voucher to a small office tucked away in a different building; to sign up for my e-mail address and log on to the university system, we had to visit a completely anonymous office in yet a different office building; the library was on the other side of the town center, where we discovered that not only would I have to sign up for yet another account, I couldn't do so until the official start of the semester on the first of October. Does this seem needlessly complicated and vaguely sadistic to you, too?

Take, for example, the library. Like I said, I can't register for an account at the library until Friday, so I can't even go in yet. (What?) Also, the library doesn't let you bring any food or drink or anything, and I guess they're afraid you'll try to (somehow) smuggle books out or something, so they provide lockers where you have to leave all the stuff that you aren't going to actually use in the library--your backpack, coat, wallet, etc. This seems to me like a completely pointless precaution; I know that I've ordered pizza for a group project in the library at least once, and somehow nothing caught on fire or was wantonly destroyed. You may think that this was to protect the clearly new library, but the university library in Marburg was as new and as aesthetically pleasing as a warthog carcass, and they had a similar system. They have those scanner things that you have to walk through, too, so stealing books'd be tough. So, seriously, WTF?

I can only conclude that American universities feel like they have to treat their students well (ish) and make things convenient for them (ish) because we have to pay so blasted much. The uni fee in Jena is like 500-600 Euro, Kati told me--whether that's per year or per semester, it's still facepalmingly small compared to American tuition. I didn't even mention that I have to sign up for this thing called Onleila, which is the interface that allows me to register for classes, but my tutor can't tell me how to use it because it's different from the one she uses. The motivation behind these inane complications must be spite, fueled by having to give away an education practically for free. It's the only logical explanation.

Alright, enough with the griping. I may or may not have mentioned before (and I can't check, because my Internet doesn't work) that Bethany and I attend an English Stammtisch (discussion group) on Wednesday nights. The group gets along well; they're all adults wanting to practice and improve their English. Tonight we talked about the word "Fackel" (say it out loud and you might see why it's so funny), whether or not to pronounce the "h" in "herb", and the American words "nuke" and "floored" and their British counterparts. Tonight the group even considerately offered to make one night a month a German night so that Bethany and I can be sure to get some practice in.

Also, tomorrow I'll go to my mentor teacher's house to start teaching her  daughter Japanese and pick up my guitar. Hooray!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Busy Little Bees

Well, here's something I never thought I'd get to do in my life.

My mentor teacher and I have been talking about beekeeping, since she helps take care of the bees, and she invited me and Bethany to visit and see how beekeeping works. So Bethany and I showed up this afternoon, met Katrin, and soon found ourselves in a long shed, climbing into beekeeping suits (like this except yellow). This was not the first time I was cursing that I hadn't brought my camera.

We traipsed out of the shed and into a small neighboring field, where ten or so green-painted towers of Styrofoam sat benignly in the sunlight. We met Jürgen, who is apparently the bee expert, and then Katrin led us to one of the hives and gave us a tour. This involved taking the roof off to make sure that the bees have enough food (since their honey was harvested, the beekeepers feed them a sugar mixture that they can feed off but won't turn into honey) and then taking off the feed level to expose slats of honeycombs hanging inside.

The amazing thing was being so close to a beehive--looking down inside it, hearing the monotone buzz all around--and not having to be afraid. Only my hands were bare, but the bees were totally uninteresting in attacking us, and mostly ignored us, despite the fact that Katrin proceeded to reach in and pull up the slats of honeycombs one by one, showing us where the bees keep their food and their growing young. The bees just continued about their business as usual, apparently unconcerned that three humans were pulling their hive apart and then putting it back together.

As usual when I find myself learning about a new skill/area of expertise that I know next to nothing about, I found that it is way more complicated than I would've imagined. The beekeeper has to monitor the health of the hive: if the bees are eating enough, if they have enough food, if there are too many blood-sucking mites on the young, if the queen is healthy, and many other things I don't know about yet.  If the queen isn't healthy, if she's dead or defective or mean, then steps have to be taken.

The most important bee is, of course, the queen, who is responsible for laying eggs. In this capacity, she also determines the attitude--"genetic disposition"-- of the hive. We didn't go near one of the hives because it was described as "richtig böse" (really mean); Jürgen had to look after those in a full suit with boots and gloves, and they swarmed him furiously. As we were working with another hive, he came over to us with one of the honeycombs and showed us the queen, which simply looked like a bigger version of all the swarming workers. The hive follows the queen, and because the queen was passing on an aggressive attitude, she had to go, and was therefore killed. The hive also can't survive without the queen, so the beekeepers will wait until all the late queen's larvae are sealed up and her "smell" is gone, then they can be safely combined with another hive that has a more benevolent queen.

Another small hive that Katrin, Bethany and I checked didn't appear to have a queen at all, as there were no larvae in the hive to be found. To keep the hive from dying out, Katrin and Jürgen simply put it together with another small hive. They say that without a queen and any young to remind them of her, the queenless hive will simply accept the new queen as their own.

All this new information is certainly fascinating, but the best part for me was the opportunity to see a beehive firsthand and up close. I held, with my bare hands, one of the combs, and watched the determined, fluffy little beige-and-black bodies push and buzz busily by. They really are beautiful, and, as long as you don't piss them off or do anything stupid, mostly tolerant of intrusions. I'm looking forward to going back next week and having another look at them. I'm also looking forward to some honey next summer!

P.S. I'll try to remember to take pictures next time. Sorry!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Schöne Stadtroda

Hello again, everyone.

I've been in Stadtroda now for...oh, a bit over a week. I can really hardly believe it; it seems like just a little while ago I was hearing about my placement and sending my first e-mails to my mentor teacher. Now I've moved into the dorm, met my suitemate, taught a few lessons, and had a few adventures, albeit of a very different sort than those that dominated my summer. I was going to try to do a sort of play-by-play introduction, but now 1) over a week has passed and that's just disgraceful and 2) there would be way too much of "then I took a nap" or "then I Internetted for a few hours", so I'm just going to ramble about this place for a bit, if that's okay with everyone.

So, if you weren't paying attention before, I'm in Stadtroda, a small, quiet town just southeast of Jena in the German state of Thuringia ("Thüringen", if you'd like to try for that high front rounded vowel followed by the German "r". No? Didn't think so.) This means I'm in eastern Germany--former GDR territory--and in the countryside. Neither of these things are by any means bad, just...not quite the same as last time, when I was in a good-sized university city just an hour from Frankfurt in Hessen, which is in the West.

I'm living in the Studentenwohnheim (student dormitory) owned by the Fachschule (technical school) where I work. Like the dorm in Marburg, the Fachschule is stark, white, and echo-y, usually oddly quiet and sparsely populated--at least it feels that way, because you rarely actually seen anyone. As I usually do when presented with an empty room with blank white walls, I went a little crazy and stuck posters, postcards, patches and pictures all over the place and dumped stuff everywhere so it now looks lived in. Normally, this Jenniferizing process takes weeks or months, and the collages are added to gradually over the duration of my stay, so I'm rather pleased that I've put all of the major and most of the minor stuff up in a week. It looks pretty awesome, if I may say so. This is, of course, a frantic effort to combat the echo-y starkness of the dorm in general. Living in a place like this would drive anyone mad in short order without getting to know some fellow humans relatively quickly, Batman posters or no, so thankfully I've been blessed with a suitemate.

My room shares a bathroom and a short hallway connecting to the main hallway with another room, wherein dwelleth my new friend Bethany. Bethany comes from England--from north Yorkshire, she would probably like me to say--which of course means we have plenty to talk/laugh/argue about, since she's a fun, friendly, cheerful, optimistic person and I'm a snarky, eternally curious Anglophile. We've spent a lot of time together over the past week, in large part because we quite enjoy each other's company, but also in small part because there isn't really anyone else to hang out with.

That brings me on to my students, with whom I share the dorm. They are mostly between 19 and 24 (with a few older outliers, up to one 51-year-old) and are studying agriculture and household management in order to do stuff like farm management and hospitality services. So far, they've been generally civil and polite but not overly welcoming or friendly. This is not to say they're unfriendly, just...reserved. Many of them go home for the weekends, and during the week, they're shut up in their rooms, out working, or in class. Anyone who may remember my Fulbright application will know what I mean about the closed-door policy, which is common in Germany but signals "I don't want to talk to you" to me and, apparently, to Bethany as well. In response, we've made cookies. I'll let you know how that turns out.

The school is a lot like a specialized community college, and is apparently well-known, at least in Thüringen. The students are separated in different English classes by their area of study and not by English proficiency, which means that in the same class I have a couple upper intermediates, some mid and lower intermediates, a few mid to very low beginners, and maybe even one low advanced. This makes teaching complicated, since on any given task, either the beginners will be bored, the upper intermediates and advanceds will be bored, or both. Whew. Good thing we spent so much time in TESOL class talking about mixed classrooms; now I get to see how it works firsthand. In any case, I won't be using the books I've been reading to teach these students, since they're not nearly that advanced, but I'm still glad I've been reading them, because that's had the unexpected effect of getting me addicted to reading and making me a compulsive book-buyer. My total book count at the end of this summer is somewhere around 20. I started with one.

Anyway, thankfully, in addition to a fun suitemate, I've also been blessed with a great mentor teacher. Katrin met me on the train station on the first day, gave me a tour of the town, and made sure I had everything I needed to survive the first few days. She also set up appointments for me at all the different official offices and went with me to make sure that everything went well. So, with little effort or pain on my part, I'm a registered resident of Stadtroda, I've opened a bank account, and my visa is on its way.

Also, Katrin is very generous with her class time, by which I mean that half of each 90-minute class period belongs to me. This is both great--I don't have to spend (much) time handing back papers or observing when I could be teaching--and intimidating, because I'm expected to plan those 45-minute lessons on my own, making my own materials and worksheets and handling the class with little support from Katrin. Honestly, though, this is wonderful for me, since I feel fairly well-prepared for the responsibility by my training in TESOL and volunteering and working in classrooms for years now.

The first classes were somewhat frightening, though. I had to do an introductory lesson for six different classes--I did a Powerpoint about myself, introducing my state, city, family, and hobbies, then asked them to interview each other and introduce each other to me. For the first couple times, this went well; Katrin started the class, asking them some warm-up questions so I could get a feel for their English level, then she'd introduce me. But for the last few intro classes, there was no chance to hear them speak before I started, so I was going in blind, hoping they'd understand me. However, there's only one class where I've really had trouble getting them to respond--the "lame" class, as Katrin calls them.

Apparently, many of the Fachschule's students are still out working at the end of summer jobs or internships, since it's still the end of the agricultural season. After the break in October, they'll all come back to start classes, and our six-classes-a-week schedule will get a lot more complicated. Eesh. I'm glad at this point that I'm being eased into it gently! At the moment, the class schedule fluctuates each week, so although I had classes ever day but Thursday last week, this week I don't have any on Monday or Tuesday. At this point, I just shrug and show up when Katrin tells me to.

Speaking of October, although it seems a bit odd to me to have a two-week break so early in the year (especially when we get only one week for Christmas!), I'm not going to say no. I've started looking at the options, and it looks like it would be great fun to spend those two weeks exploring Spain, Portugal, and maybe even a bit of Morocco. I've never been to any of those places before. And Ryanair flies to Barcelona for cheap! I really do love living in Europe.

Right. It can't look good that I'm already daydreaming about going elsewhere when I just got here. It's just that adjusting to a new place is always daunting, and Stadtroda is so very quiet. As I mentioned, the students are difficult to get to know--with one very friendly exception, who baked cookies with me and Bethany last week--and even in the middle of the day, the streets feel deserted. The "old town" is all bright pastel buildings that look very pretty except that there is almost never anyone around; the "new town" where I live, up the hill a bit, has a few stores (a Lidl, a bakery, a Sparkasse, a couple flower shops) but, again, rarely very many people. Where is everyone?

Most likely in Jena. Unfortunately, the train station is a good 20-minute walk from the Wohnheim, but from there it's only about 12 minutes to the much bigger city of Jena, that has real shops (hooray!) crowds of people (wow!) and a university, where I shall matriculate come the beginning of October--although, with our accelerated Fachschule schedule, I doubt I'll be able to take many classes. Doesn't matter too much to me, though; my main aims are to get the Semesterticket, which gets me on all public transport in Thüringen for free for the semester, and to meet other students. I also may be able (hopefully) to join a guitar class in Stadtroda, but Jena definitely has more options. Bethany and I spent the afternoon there on Saturday, just shopping and looking around, and I may go back tomorrow or Tuesday to try to get a cell phone finally.

Hmm, I'm not sure what else to add, except my own feelings about all this stuff. Mainly, I'm still waiting to see how it all turns out. I really hope to make more connections with the students at the Fachschule, to spend more time getting to know Katrin with her family, to make friends with the university students, and just really to make a place for myself in this town. This is hard when just finding people to talk to is a challenge. I remain, however, confident that this will improve, and I feel like all the ingredients are here for a really wonderful experience, if I can just make the most of it.

Please feel free to comment if you have more questions. This is, after all, what this blog is supposed to be about!

P.S. I have pictures ready but Blogger isn't letting me insert them. It's late so I'll try again later.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Book: Oliver Twist

Author: Charles Dickens
First Published: 1837-1839, England
Original Language: English
Topics: Childhood, adulthood, poverty, generosity vs greed, indifference vs compassion, crime, murder

In A Nutshell: The book follows the childhood years of one Oliver Twist, an orphan raised in abuse and poverty. Through some absolute miracle--the persistance of innocence and love in the fact of horrible circumstances, I guess--Oliver is sweet, loving, naive, and generally the most perfect and adorable child you could imagine. The weird thing is that against all proof (and reason), almost everyone he meets immediately assumes that he's a deceitful, villianous little demon, and treats him accordingly, despite which Oliver continues to be innocently honest and perfect. At a very young age, he is apprenticed out to an unsympathetic master to learn the trade of undertaker, but when he is accused of attacking an older apprentice, he runs away to London, where he is taken in by a gang of child pickpockets run by a greedy Jew (yay stereotypes) named Fagin. At first grateful for their kindness, Oliver soon learns that they are theives, and on his very first outing with them, gets accused of pickpocketing (of which the Artful Dodger, and not he, is guilty) and is arrested.

During the trial he meets Mr Brownlow, who believes in his innocence and takes Oliver in.
Oliver's domestic bliss in the loving care of Mr Brownlow and his housekeeper is shattered when he is kidnapped by Nancy and Bill Sikes, associates of Fagin's, and dragged back to their lair. They force him to help them with a robbery at a countryside house, which goes horribly awry when Oliver tries to warn the family within and gets shot for his trouble. The baddies leave him to die, and he is found and cared for by the Maylies, with whom he finds great happiness and a return to health. Sikes, Fagin, and a mysterious man named Monk are plotting Oliver's death, but they are overheard by Nancy, who goes to the Maylies to warn them. Sikes finds out and kills Nancy in a rage, but through the actions of Mr Brownlow and the Maylies, Oliver's persecutors are finally confronted.

The twists (lol pun) and turns in the plot are endless, but eventually, they find out who Oliver's parents were, restore his name and inheritance, and the baddies get their comeuppance, so they all live happily ever after the end.

Thinking Makes It So: I very much enjoyed this book, but I was a bit surprised to discover that despite the title, the book is not really about Oliver at all. It follows his story, and the plot revolves around his identity and the events of his young life, but the real focus of the book is the people around him, who act for or against him. Oliver has very little control over anything that happens, and is generally totally at the mercy of these people, and so he acts as a mirror to show their personalities and characters as they interact with and respond to him. In this capacity, Oliver has really little to no personality of his own beyond being, as mentioned above, unfailingly sweet, innocent, and almost irksomely angelic all the time.

On the other hand, there is a wealth of characters in this book with greatly varied personalities, motivations, and conflicting desires, which are thrown into sharp relief by the problem of Oliver's destiny. Of these, my favorite is Nancy, who, although considering herself to be inextricably tangled in the life of abuse and crime she has known all her life, has pity on Oliver and tries to help him as best she can, at terrible cost to herself. While for Oliver, as a mirror at best and plot device at worst, it is difficult to feel anything beyond concerned compassion, Nancy's plight evokes sympathy, frustration, rage, grief, and pity as she struggles between the urges of her compassion for Oliver to do the right thing and the entanglements of her horrible, dysfunctional life that try to keep her where she is.

Dickens' use of language is one of the best parts about the book, being simultaneously wry, satirical, sarcastic, and critical of the callous way that people treat Oliver as a fictional stand-in for orphans and unfortunates everywhere. Dickens is particularly sharp-tongued over the aptly named Mr Bumble, a parish beadle who, far from fulfilling his Christian duty to take care of the poor, tries to give them as little as he can, uncaring of whether they survive or suffer. His punishment comes in the form of his selfish marriage to Mrs Mann, who, true to her name, wears the (metaphorical) pants and browbeats him to her will. Dickens describes Mr Beadle's uncompassionate treatment of the poor with mocking sarcasm, and his subsequent enslavement by his wife with almost gleeful understatement. Dickens' tongue-in-cheek statement of the attitudes of selfish and uncaring people towards the poor evokes both indignation and a little guilt, as if he's muttering between the lines, "You laugh, but I know you've thought this way too." It's simultaneously amusing, frustrating, and unsettling.

Anyway, there are so many characters and convoluted plot resolutions packed into this one book that I'm sure I could study it for ages and still have something to say. The self-serving greed of Fagin, the careless joviality of the Dodger and his friend, the angelic compassion of Miss Maylie, and the brutality of Sikes are all magnified by their proximity to Oliver for the reader's benefit to examine and wonder how, if they were presented with a poor, lost orphan child, they would choose to respond.

That You Must Teach Me: Although amusing and ironic to a native speaker, I can easily imagine that much of Dickens' clever social commentary will be lost on a long-suffering English learner in a tornado of incomprehensible snide remarks and sarcasm. I'd be careful to draw this out by asking students what they think Dickens' opinion of the different characters are, what his views on the poor and charity are, and what the students themselves think of the same things. It would take a long time, though, to get through this book, because of the combination of a fairly convoluted plot and a lot of snarkiness.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Orientation, or, How It All Began

Originally written September 8th

So here we go. After many drafts of essays, an unhealthy dose of stressful waiting, and a long summer spent traveling that was over far too soon, I find myself finally at the Fulbright orientation in Cologne. It seems just a tiny bit ridiculous to be here, both because I can't believe it's arrived so quickly and because I can't wait for it to be over. As a general rule, I don't like orientations.

This one, though, could be a lot worse. We met up at the Cologne train station on Monday and took a couple of buses out to the much smaller village of Altenberg, which has a big conference center that can hold all 200-odd orientees. After dinner, we had a brief introductory session and were then set free to mingle and drink beer at the temporary bar. (Ah, I must be in Germany...)

Yesterday morning began early, and varied from interesting and relevant talks about life in a German school to the boring and necessary stuff about housing and insurance. The rest of the day was devoted to working on a 45-minute lesson plan, which will be presented tomorrow. Just after dinner, we all reconvened for a Q&A with some of last year's participants.

Today was excruciatingly long, consisting almost entirely of the presentation of the lesson plan project. The level of experience of the assistants with preparing and teaching a lesson is, as expected, quite varied, although there were definitely no unqualified disasters. The tutors, German teachers who had come to help prepare us for teaching, observed and commented on our work, which was simultaneously helpful and frustrating--the latter because different tutors sometimes gave us conflicting advice. After all that, we then had two hours straight of lectures about Fulbright-related stuff--how to get reimbursed, who to call if there's trouble (Ghostbusters!), official channels of communication, etc.

I've been trying to interact and pay attention, but I've felt drowsy and odd for the last few days. It's an odd combination of feeling lethargic and being desperately excited to get going. At this point, I'm so close to the place that I've been looking forward to for months that the couple days that stand between me and Stadtroda don't seem to be much more than inconsequential formalities.

I've met several nice people here, many whom I'm sure I'll never see again for the most part. Socializing is all well and good, but I'd rather spend my time getting to know my students, my teacher, and my town than other Americans who will be living a hundred miles away.

Now at the end of it, I found the orientation session, at least for me, not so helpful. The most important parts were the sessions of genuinely helpful information, such as about insurance, the school schedule in our areas, and getting money refunded, and meeting other people who will actually be living in the same area. I didn't feel like the lesson plan practice was that helpful, although I've been working in ESL classes for a while, so it was very similar to what I've been hearing in my TESOL classes for years.

Now, though--now it gets real. Now, off to Stadtroda, to finally, after such a long and winding journey, get started.

Viva Colognia!

Ahh, Cologne. I have a special place in my heart for Cologne.

Part of it is because of the towering and fantastic cathedral, which never ceases to be breathtaking no matter how many times I see it. The Kölner Dom is one of my favorite churches that I've ever visited, in large part because when I was here for the first time, it was a sanctuary of quiet and calm in the middle of the chaos of Karneval.

Part of it is memories of visiting the city during Karneval: the nuns wearing bandoliers of hard liquor, the schunkling and singing, the ankle-deep drifts of broken glass littering the streets, the complete insanity of a parade of clowns banging through the Hauptbahnhof and getting odd looks for not wearing a psychedelically colored costume, watching a Chinese grandma beat up a towering, drunken German dressed like a surgeon who was trying to muscle his way into his restaurant's bathroom and bullying her employees. I love Cologne.

This time, of course, it was much quieter. Our bus from Frankfurt Hahn was delayed by a horrible traffic jam caused by a triathalon along the Rhine, so it was midafternoon already when I staggered into the hostel. I headed out again to a flea market in Neumarkt and looked in the shop windows, but many of the stores were already closed. I wandered down to the bank of the river and, while examining a water sculpture in a park, was approached by a Frenchman who struck up a conversation and asked me out for coffee. (Why does this keep happening? Odd...)

I met up with him a couple hours later, and we got some coffee, sat outside at a cafe overlooking a brightly lit square, and chatted for hours about language, culture, travel, stereotypes, and life in general. Fouad, my new friend, was very gentlemanlike, and we spoke in a combination of German and English, sprinkled with French and, when I could coax it out of Fouad, Moroccan or Arabic. As it got later, I insisted on going back to my hostel and getting a good night's sleep for the beginning of orientation the next day, so Fouad and I walked back past the cathedral and I returned to my room to crash.

I got up, did my laundry, and spent a few hours wandering around the city, looking for a Caffrey hat in the fashionable streets of Cologne. I ended up with something significantly more on the Michael Jackson side, but hey, I like it, so don't judge. At about 3pm, I picked up my bags and lugged them to the train station to meet up with the Altenberg group.

The hour-long bus ride to the conference center was not that eventful, but the key thing is that finally, I'm beginning the thing I've been waiting for and looking forward to for so long. Now all that remains is for the excitement to turn into nervousness.

Adventuring in the Aran Islands and Kicking around Killarney (and Discovering Dingle!)

I peeled myself out of bed early on Thursday (the 2nd of September) and got myself down to the shuttle bus for a 45-minute ride to the ferry dock. From there, it was onto the ferry for another 45-minute crossing to Inis Mor, the largest of the three Aran Islands.

I debated getting on a minibus for a tour, but eventually pride and adventure won out, and I rented a bike instead. In retrospect, this was rather stupid. I haven't ridden a bike in at least two years, and I've never been very good at it. But I couldn't stomach the idea of being squished into a minibus and just staring out the window for three hours, and the lady at the TI said I could probably handle it, so off I went.

After a stop at a Spar for a picnic, I set off in earnest. It quickly became apparent, in the form of a series of gentle uphills, that I was not well-prepared for what I'd gotten myself into. I was soon getting quite tired, but I pushed on, and only had to walk my bike once. Finally, I came to the turn-off for the steep track leading up to my first destination, the lighthouse, so I left my bike there and continued on foot.

A short but intense hike later, I was standing at the highest point of the island. The sun was shining in a watery sort of way through the screen of swiftly-blown clouds high above. This might explain part of why the landscape looked so washed out. The bleak hills went rolling away in all directions down toward the sea, scruffy short grass and thistles, crisscrossed by chest-high stone walls with, apparently, no rhyme or reason to their paths. The lighthouse itself sat boarded up and silent, a cylinder of grey stone, beside some kind of house of similar material that had long since begun the process of decay. What with the powerful wind sweeping over everything and, beside its wailing, the vast, empty, open-sky silence, there was a sort of forlorn sadness about the whole place.

I followed a path down to a circle of grey stone, across and over the walls that crossed the way, and talked with a Canadian couple going the same way. At the circle, I climbed up on the precariously loose rocks and looked back and the unsympathetic lighthouse, and across over the fields again, and decided it was time to get going.

Back at my bike, I found to my delight that all of the uphill had been taken care of. I cruised down the gently sloping road until I passed a crescent-shaped beach of white sand and turquoise water, which looked oddly out of place, like someone had transported an entire Caribbean beach to this gritty, tough, windswept island in Ireland. A short bit later, and I was at the Dún Aonghasa visitor's center and hiking up yet another path toward the sea.

This is the main attraction on the island: a semicircular stone-age fort on the edge of a 300-foot cliff over the ocean. There are no railings and no warning signs; the stony ground simply ends in a straight drop to the turbulent seas below. The fort itself, while I'm sure it's very historically significant, isn't much except for its incredible age. The really awe-inspiring bit is that spectacular cliff.

As I am my mother's daughter, I found a nice spot on the edge and dangled my feet over, much to the surprise of other visitors. The thing is, though, that if you're careful, you're no more likely to fall off a cliff than you are to fall off a sidewalk, and sitting on the side of the ledge isn't any more likely to pitch you into the sea than a stool is likely to spontaneously throw you to the floor. The key is to move slowly and deliberately, with no sudden movements to throw you off balance, and to have respect for the death that lurks around those edges. But there's no reason to panic.

I ate my lunch there on the edge of the cliff and looked out over the endless ocean until my fingers started to go numb from the wind. Then I got up carefully and made my way back to where I'd left my bike. I still had some time before I really needed to head back to the ferry, but I decided that given my physical condition and the distance involved, it would probably be wiser just to head straight back.

This turned out to be a very good idea. I had to pedal constantly most of the way back, and I was already tired. I rolled back into town with about 20 minutes to spare, which was just enough time to buy some Fanta at the Spar, return my bike, and stagger onto the ferry, where I promptly fell asleep for the entire journey back.

Back in Galway, I was powerwalking through the shopping area to try to get to the jewelry store I'd decided on, which was closing in just a few minutes. I made it in time and picked out the ring I wanted, which I'm now very happily wearing. I hope it'll last longer than the last one!

Dinner, a cappuccino, and a shower later, I finally crawled gratefully into bed.

The next morning, I again got up early (what is the deal?! Augh!) to catch the bus out of Galway. I arrived in Limerick (what a fantastic name for a city, eh?) with two hours of layover waiting for the bus to Killarney, so I spent it looking for a new book to read--I'm an addict, so sue me--and having a nice lunch in the sun. I got a bed in a nice hostel upon arriving in Killarney and set off again toward the national park that abuts the town, forgetting two things: 1) I'd biked like 4 or 5 miles the day before and 2) 6 miles is a long way to walk.

By the time I made it to the park, I was already tired, but I explored the ruined abbey, partially restored and partially dilapidated and nestled amid a small forest of cockeyed Celtic crosses. From there, I had the choice to turn around or go on, and that was how I ended up another mile down the road at Muckross House, a beautiful old manor house on the lake. I poked around a bit, but the day was ending and almost everyone had already gone. Leaving the park, I began the long trek back to town, stopping on the way at a pub for some water. It was close to 9pm when I finally made it back, but I stopped in a bookstore anyway. I can't help it.

On the 4th, I went on a bus tour to Dingle. Now, I'd planned on actually going to Dingle and staying there for the two nights preceding my flight, but it turned out that 1) Dingle's really far away and 2) my flight leaves at 9am, so I have to be close by. This is how I ended up in Killarney instead, which is near the airport, taking a bus day trip out to Dingle instead.

Turns out it was a really good thing I did. Although I'm not, in general, a huge fan of minibus tours, this one was more than worth it because of the absolutely spectacular scenery and a wonderful guide. We drove across rolling green pastures first to Inch Strand, another little stretch of soft sand and gentle waves, that looks into the long inlet between Kerry and Dingle peninsulas. I took off my shoes and padded down the beach, looking for shells and wave-smoothed stones, soaking up the sunlight for as long as possible before I had to dash back to the bus.

We dove through twee little Dingle Town, perched on the side of a wide harbor and packed with runners in a marathon around the peninsula. We drove on out to the very end of the peninsula and looked out towards the Blasket Islands and, over the edge of the glittering horizon, America. Circling back around, stopping now and then to take pictures of the fantastically vibrant emerald landscape against the glimmering sea, we came back to Dingle Town for a late lunch and a quick look around the town before we headed back to Killarney.

The hilarious part of all this was our guide, John. He laughed and joked with me every time we pulled over for pictures, and invited me out to a drink at a pub after we got back. I agreed, but first he let me borrow his bicycle to ride for a bit through the national park near Killarney. I cruised out to the old castle on the lakeshore and back, then headed out to find the pub.

It took me a few tries, but I eventually found the right one and found myself in an Irish pub, in Ireland, drinking cider and trying in vain to understand most of what was being said to me. When they spoke to me directly, I could usually understand what the denizens of the pub said, but when they spoke to each other, they might as well (and could have been) speaking Gaelic. After a couple pints of cider, John, a friend of his, and I went up to a 21-year-old's birthday party, then to a couple other pubs to hear different types of music, ending in a real Irish pub with real Irish music, drinking Bailey's Irish creme with an Irishman. I felt, as you can imagine, quite Irish.

I should mention at this point that John is old enough to be my father, and it was fun and relaxing to hang out with him as he showed me around the town. We got to talk about life and the future, and I returned to my hostel tired and happy.

I got up at (what felt like) the crack of dawn to take a taxi to the airport and, regretfully and reluctantly, got on the plane to leave the British Isles. I'd gladly move there and I didn't really want to leave, but duty called me across the Channel back to the Continent. With a mixture of sadness and excitement I watched the green hills of Ireland drop away below me and looked forward to the upcoming orientation.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Galway! Hooray!

Sorry, lame title, moving on.

So I've got to get back in the habit of writing regularly so that I don't end up two weeks behind, as has happened all too frequently. Also, I need the writing practice so I don't forget how to turn a phrase intelligently. If I ever knew.

SO! The train left me right smack in the middle of lovely little Galway. Now, when people said Galway was a small town, I thought they meant that it was like...small. And a town. Like, I don't know, Wells, or Keswick. Galway is not small. It's small compared to, say, Everett, but not compared to Snohomish. But no matter, because it's cute, and as any new pet owner can tell you, being cute makes up for a lot.

I hung out in the hostel for a bit, waiting to check in, but eventually got fed up by the long line and was lured away by the warm sunlight. I wandered through the town to the cobblestone pedestrian shopping area to actually do some shopping. I'm looking for a Claddagh ring, since my last one broke and the ring originated in this area. I spent some time perusing the shops and getting an idea of the price range before heading off to see more of the town. I walked up the canalside promenade to the impressively huge stone cathedral, and from there dropped by the local university's lovely old quadrangle before heading back to the hostel.

I finally got checked in and met some of my roommates, who told me that they weren't expecting to come back from partying until about 3am--eurgh. Getting hungry, I headed back into town and ended up at a small coffeehouse near the quays, where I had a wonderful salmon quesadilla for dinner. I got a cappuccino to go and headed out to walk along the beach as the sun set. A ways along, I found a causeway leading out to a lighthouse perched on an island. The island was off-limits, but I stopped to chat with an older Irish gentleman who was fishing off the causeway about his catch of mackerel. When I could hardly see him anymore, I headed back through town to the hostel.

Looks like the plan for tomorrow is to visit the Aran Islands. Hopefully the weather will be tolerable. I'll let you know what I think. So far, this seems to be a lovely corner of the world.

Dublin Revisited

Hello again!

Missed me? I hope so. I haven't posted anything in a long while, mostly--okay, entirely--because I've been stuck on writing the post about Edinburgh, and my OCD won't let me post anything out of order. But as you can see, that's now been fixed. Hooray!

So. Today is the first day of September, if you can believe it. September! What happened to the summer? I seem to recall something about cow bells and cream tea, but beyond that...

(I have a theory about the "time flies" phenomenon in memory. Ask me someday when you get tired of living.)

I'm on yet another train, looking about the window at...well, an embankment covered in blackberry bushes, so I could be just about anywhere, but I'm not; I'm heading across the middle of Ireland from Dublin to Galway. Galway is the second-to-last stop on this long venture of mine before the pull of Germany becomes inescapable. I'm also hoping to buy a new claddagh here, as my last one is fairly thoroughly dead.

I arrived in Dublin two days ago and managed to find Heather with a minimum of trouble. I went out to dinner with her and her friend Anya (that name may not be right, sorry) at a Mexican restaurant, then we headed back to Heather's house. I met her family, who are very lovely and welcoming people, and their utterly adorable puppy (AHHHH PUPPY SQUEEEEE!). Heather and I stayed up watching telly and chatting for a while, making plans for our day of sightseeing.

We headed into town the next day and got one of those open-top tour buses around the city. It's something of a comeuppance for me; I always see those things go by and laugh at the tourists, and there I was, avoiding eye contact with the people on the sidewalk laughing at me. Somewhat surprisingly, the bus was rather convenient; I mean, clearly people use them for a reason. They do connect all of the important tourist sights, provide commentary, and make sure you don't get lost.

Our first stop off was Trinity College. Oh, let me explain something first:

This is not my first time in Dublin. Two Februarys ago, I was in Germany and my friend Jewell and I decided that, since it had been over a month since our last epic adventure, we were overdue for another. We called up the Ryanair website and hey, they had a special fare round-trip to Dublin! So, Dublin it was. We had a fantastic time, despite almost everything with our accommodations going wrong, and I totally fell in love with the city of Dublin. Ask me sometime about Andrew and Diego and the burnt pizza and being drunk on fail if you want to hear the whole story.

Anyway, Jewell and I had come to Trinity two years before, but the Book of Kells had been off display for restoration. Despite the steep admission price, I couldn't pass up a second chance to see it, so I left Heather outside and went in. It was totally worth it, not least because I know an (admittedly tiny) bit more about the subject now that I've taken some book arts classes, so the bookbinding displays were even better than last time. And the book is simply astounding--gorgeous penmanship, with some letters enlarged and embellished with stylized drawings of men and beasts, their limbs wound into Celtic knots and their faces suitably bemused. The illuminated pages are simply breathtaking, not only in the richness of color, fineness of detail, and exquisiteness of design, but simply in the knowledge that just as you lean over those velum pages in awe, an artist leaned over them hundreds of years ago, painstakingly planning every line. The book is a window into the creativity, dedication, and genius of people long gone. Plus, it's just gorgeous.

The exhibit leads up from the book's display room to the Long Room of the old library. I've talked about this with my friends before, but they really should bottle and sell the smell of that room, because it's one of the best smells in the world: the soft mustiness of old books and leather, the sweetness of wood and the golden warmth of sunlight. Like the main room in the Rylands Library, the Long Room is a vaulted two-story space packed with old books and display cases and busts of famous thinkers. You feel older and wiser just standing in a room like that and breathing. Except for the other visitors, everything in there is perfect--that fantastic smell, the glow of the sun dimmed to protect the books, the dark brown wood, green and red and brown leather with glints of dusky gold on the spines of innumerable volumes.

I don't know how I tore myself away, but I met up with Heather again and we got back on the bus to Temple Bar, where we stopped for lunch at the Elephant and Castle. If you're in Dublin, it's worth going just to try the chicken wings. We grabbed some ice cream and got back on the bus, this time to St. Patrick's Cathedral, where we wandered in the cool dimness, admiring the stained glass windows and the tattered flags of battalions honored in the cathedral. I particularly enjoyed reading the memorial plaques on the walls; it's easy to pass these by, but some of them tell amazing stories of valor and love. One told the story of a young officer--a lieutenant, I think--and his eleven or so men, who had held back the advances of the enemy to protect their retreating army and had all fallen.

From the cathedral, we headed to our final stop: Kilmainham Gaol. Much of the Dublin tour revolves around the Easter Rising of 1916, the fifth and final rebellion against British rule in Ireland, which eventually turned the tide of public opinion against the British and led to the War for Independence, followed shortly by the Irish Civil War. Some of the statues on the main boulevard, O'Connell Street, have bullet holes in them, as does the post office, which was right in the center of the fighting. Anyway, after six days the leaders of the uprising surrendered and were taken to this jail, where they were held awaiting execution. Their treatment and execution, not their uprising, was what eventually inspired the Irish to revolt. We visited the cells of the leaders, where they sat and waited for dawn to break: innocuous little rooms, whitewashed and featureless. In these rooms the men wrote their last letters and said final goodbyes to their families. It's strange to be standing in a place like that, that seems so clean and guileless, that has been the spot of so much anguish.

After we left the jail, Heather and I returned to her house, since she had a date to go to a concert that night. I had dinner with her family and considered going out to a movie, but eventually decided against it in favor of planning the last few days of the trip and getting to bed early. I also got to talk with Heather's family, who are very wonderful people, and got a good night's sleep.

I left quietly this morning and took the bus into town, got some breakfast, and got on the train, where I find myself now. I have to say that I'm really touched by Heather's family, who took me in, basically as a complete stranger, and gave me my own bed, fed me, and took great care of me. I had a lovely time with Heather as well, being tourists together in her hometown.

Now I'm on my own again, although not for long. I have two nights in Galway, two nights in Dingle, and then a flight to Frankfurt Hahn and a bus to Cologne, where the orientation will start. It's less that a week away now...

Being Boring in Belfast and Pottering around Portrush

I trundled into the city of Belfast from the airport on the bus and made my way to the hostel to drop my stuff off, then headed straight back to wander around a bit. My first stop was the St. George Street Market, a huge, crowded, noisy event filled with families munching crepes and little booths selling overpriced jewelry. I loved it and looked around for a while, but the market closed just an hour after I got there. I therefore headed out into the city and tried to maintain interest in what I was seeing, but my sight was getting bleary and I couldn't breathe through my nose. I made it to the Victoria St. shopping center (the first proper mall I've seen in Britain), went up to the observation tower for a good view  over the city, and took a look at City Hall, but by the time I finally staggered into the TI, my body was in full mutiny. My ears were so stuffed with cotton that I couldn't hear either myself nor the information guy, who took one look at me and suggested that I just get some rest. This sounded pretty good to me, so home I went.

It was still mid-afternoon, but 1) there was nothing in particular that I had my heart set on doing and 2) I felt awful. I know I said that I wouldn't complain anymore, but I'm trying to faithfully record the events as they transpired. I decided that it would be a better idea to just take it easy, so I watched some videos on the iPlayer and chatted with my mother until dinnertime. I bundled up for the cool evening wind and tottled down to the Tesco, which did not stock any real fruit juice (!) so I got fruit instead. Oh, and chicken soup; my Portuguese, Canadian, and Australian roommates agreed that this is the best food for a cold, so maybe it's a universal cure. I ate my dinner and chatted with the aforementioned roommates as they primped to go out for the night, then I just Internetted until I finally fell asleep.

As a side note: What is so wonderful about "going out"? I cannot understand it for the life of me. First, since you're traveling, you have to bring extra clothes, shoes, jewelry, makeup, etc., which all translates to more weight to lug around. Second, then you have to take the time and energy to get dressed up. Third, you then have to go out through the cold to a too-warm, too-loud pub/bar where you have to shout to be heard, where everyone around you immediately sets about getting themselves thoroughly besoffen, and all chance of intelligible and even vaguely interesting conversation goes out the window to find a nice cafe where people are less drunk. I wouldn't be interested in doing this even with my own friends (although they probably wouldn't be too interested in it either; we're kind of "drink Mike's Hard Lemonade, watch movies, play board games, have interesting conversations" kind of people), much less with people I'd never met before.

And yet, sometimes I wish that this sort of thing appealed to me. I wish occasionally that I had the desire, much less the self-confidence, to do something with my hair, wear a stupidly uncomfortable dress, and drink beer. (Eugh.) The problem is, I simply, genuinely, don't. Everything I say to the sort of people who do comes out tied in knots. It's ridiculous. I've been lucky enough to find friends in my life who like to do other, more fun and less alcohol-focussed things with their evenings, and I hope I can find more, but wherever those wonderful people, they don't go backpacking through Britain in August.


Feeling significantly better in the morning, I packed up, checked out, and headed to the Botanic Gardens and Ulster Museum. I gave the museum a quick once-over, lingering for a few extra minutes in the exhibits about Ireland, and then took myself off to the Mela, a big festival being put on by the Indian community. I had a train to catch, so I only saw the very beginning of it, but it looked epic--Rama, , and  were there on stilts and everything. I got myself a bowl of stew and headed reluctantly to the train station.

Since I had a day to spare and Belfast wasn't keeping my attention, I'd decided to spend the extra night somewhere more up my alley, and I have a soft spot for oceans. With a bit of guidance from Rick Steves, I found myself gasping and gwaping out the window like a four-year-old as my train pulled into the gorgeous seaside town of Portrush.

Portrush is...well, it reminded me quite a bit of Cannon Beach in Oregon. It's pretty cute, but almost everything there is holiday-oriented, and since it's getting cold (September comes in just a few days!), most of the summer crowds are gone, so the whole town feels a bit abandoned and deflated. This suited me just fine; I dumped my stuff off at the hostel and caught the next bus up the coast to the Giant's Causeway for a bit of nature therapy.

The Giant's Causeway is, essentially, some oddly-shaped rock formations that the ancient Irish decided must have been made by giants. ("Obviously." -Sherlock Holmes) It's actually not too hard to see why; the Causeway is made up of hundreds of hexagonal stone pillars, all interlocking but separate, that extend out into the sea towards Scotland. It's the bizzare regularity that's striking, really, because the whole structure isn't very big. Although, being American, maybe I'm biased, because "big" in my book is like Bryce Canyon or something, and we're not talking f****** huge until we get to the Grand Canyon. THe scale here is a bit different. Anyway, although the Causeway was interesting, the best bit was just walking around the cliffs, hearing the crash of the waves, enjoying the sea air and the dramatic ocean views.

You know how they say that people tend to resemble their dogs? On the way back up from the Causeway, I inadvertantly started to talk to an older gentleman that--and I mean this in the nicest possible way--resembled his bloodhound in every respect except for the giant floppy years. Despite moving at a snail's pace as he huffed up the hill, in the time it took to get to the top he told me that he and his wife had been breeding champion bloodhounds for years, that they were going to a wedding in Scotland, that some relative's son had killed himself, and that people who persecute homosexuals are usually closeted gays themselves. Imagine hearing all of this in a North Irish accent, with no warning or connection between topics  whatsoever. I did a lot of nodding and smiling.

I had dinner back in Portrush at a cute little cafe and then took a walk to the end of the spit of land upon which Portrush is perched. The wind howled and shoved me all over the place, but I watched the sun go down in a somewhat unimpressive splutter of pinkish orange before heading to bed.

I dragged myself out of bed this morning much later than I'd hoped, but I still had a couple of hours for a leisurely walk on the beach before my train left. I padded down the soft sand, admiring the wind and the waves, all the way down to where the beach encounters some imposing white cliffs strongly reminiscent of Dover's. It was such a relaxing treat to just meander and look out over the waters, but eventually I had to get back to the train.

Which gets me to where I am now: on a train. I'm heading to Dublin to meet Heather, a relative of some sort of one of my mother's patients. It'll be nice to have someone to talk to!

Hello Glasgow

First of all, I'm going to take a couple of paragraphs to complain for a bit. This will get it out of my system and then, if everything goes according to plan, you won't have to hear about it ever again. If you don't want to hear about it the first time, feel free to skip down until the whinging stops.

I woke up yesterday morning with a sore throat and a headache, and my excursion into Glasgow was cut short around dinnertime because I just couldn't muster up the energy to want to tour a museum, an art school, or a 20th century tenement house. (Although really, can you blame me much?) Also, my eyes and nose had begun to leak alarmingly. By the evening it was clear that I had caught the plague, which is bad for a number of reasons. The chief of these is that today, I'm flying to Belfast. This meant I was hoping for a good night's sleep, an uneventful trip to the airport, a quick-as-possible flight, and a whirlwind day of sightseeing in Belfast.

What happened was that between being too warm, coughing, having an excruciatingly squeaky bed, and my nose leaking like a faucet, I can't have gotten more than 20 minutes' real sleep, mixed in with spats of half-conscious, bizarrely lucid dreams. I was so worried about getting to the airport on time that I finally gave up trying to sleep at 6am and started the packing process.

Turns out I shouldn't have worried so much. I caught a train to the airport, got checked in, and waltzed through a nonexistant security line to find myself in a just-slightly-too-cold lounge with aching eyes, stuffed sinuses, a very tempting WH Smith, and two hours of waiting stretching out before me. I am both anxious to get on the plane and go so this whole obnoxious travel business can be over, and dreading it, because the moment we leave the runway, the pressure behind my ears will be unable to equalize and my head will explode. Also, it's a lot less fun to do a one-day whirlwind tour of the city when your nose starts dripping spontaneously and you can't hear anything not pronounced through a megaphone.

I am taking steps to combat this disease, like drinking enough water to drown a mackerel and taking some vitamin C/Zinc tablets from Boots, but although I've been carefully warned to only take one pill a day, they are so tiny and I'm accustomed to measuring my vitamin doses by the handful so I've broken that rule already. Not that it matters, since soon, between flogging microwaved sandwiches and lottery tickets, the Ryanair staff will have to scrape my brain matter off the cabin walls.

Alright, I said I'd complain for a couple of paragraphs and I've already taken four, so I'm going to stop. Hopefully this will have successfully and subliminally communicated my desperate plea for sympathy and we can all get on with our lives. Assuming my head doesn't explode.

Anyway, let me tell you about Glasgow.

The train ride from Edinburgh to Glasgow was only 50 minutes, but that made a huge difference. I felt like a weight had been lifted from me; here I had a new city, all shiny and ready for me to explore, with no preconcieved notions of grandeur burdening it. I felt vaguely apprehensive about Glasgow, actually, having some indistinct impression that it was the metropolitan, slightly skeezy cousin of cultural, funky Edinburgh. In fact, Glasgow feels, to me, a whole lot like Liverpool. That is, in both cities I had been expecting dark back alleys and seedy pubs, and found them, but also found clean, spacious pedestrian areas, nice shops, beautiful architecture, and not a whole lot to do outside of shopping and admiring the architecture.

My hostel was somewhat out of the city, so I had to take the bus from the train station. Two different people noticed my age and my enormous backpack and drew the not-unlikely conclusion that I was heading to the youth hostel, and volunteered helpful directions--which helped soothe my ruffled feathers after the surly glare the bus driver had treated me to. I located the hostel easily and found in my room a very friendly and completely jet-lagged new arrival from San Francisco to talk to. I finally made it out to find some food and wander around the city a bit but got completely sidetracked by the spectacular sunset unfolding directly before me. Unfortunately, there was no convenient open high point from which to view the light show, so I had to peer at the rays of magenta and gold between the branches of the nearby park's interfering trees.

I finally began my trek into the city, but actually didn't make it very far. It was quickly getting dark, and I had no real interest in venturing into a bar, so I bought a sandwich at Tesco and made my way back. Upon returning to the hostel, I stopped at the reception desk to ask a couple questions and ended up talking to the receptionist and manager for what must have been an hour at least. This astounded me; in trendy, cultural Edinburgh, I could hardly find someone to talk to me, and in Glasgow I couldn't get them to stop--not that I wanted them to, anyway.

The next morning, I was determined to do RFS's self-guided city walk, so I trekked out to the starting point and made it to the city viewpoints, pigeon-filled squares, and various museums with only a few detours. I took a break for tea in an apparently famous teahouse (the Willow Tea Rooms, for anyone who cares), and from there RFS was trying to direct me to tour an art school and a preserved 19th-century tenement house. As I said above, I was feeling ill already and couldn't be bothered, so I wandered around the pedestrian shopping areas, poking my head into bookstores, until I just gave up, bought some dinner, and headed back to the hostel.

The rest you know. You'll be glad to hear that my head didn't explode after all, much to my surprise, and this is because we had barely cleared the rooftops in Glasgow before we began our descent into Belfast. And to my utter shock, the Belfast City airport is actually within reasonable distance of Belfast itself. Ryanair being convenient...who would've thought?

The Fringe Diaries

Edinburgh. Scotland. Land of bagpipes, kilts, thistles, haggis, the Picts, William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and all manner of absurd stereotypes. And also, incidentally, of an enormous festival (several, actually) that takes over the city every summer. The original International Festival has been overshadowed by the Fringe Festival, mostly composed of theater and comedy, that grew up on the fringe (hence the name) of the original.

I was expecting something like a perpetual Cologne during Karneval: ankle-deep drifts of broken beer bottles, drunk people dressed up in inexplicable clothing staggering down the streets at midday, loud singing, and total chaos.

Hmm, well, not exactly...

Day 1: True to one particular stereotype, it was drizzling as I arrived in Edinburgh. I dumped my stuff at the hostel, checked my email (free WiFi, w00t!) and headed out to explore. Shannon had told me to look for the Walter Scott monument, which I promptly found: it's an enormous black Gothic spire in the middle of Princes Street Park. The Scottish really love this guy.

I wandered past the half-price booth and watched a Polish fire juggler's show before continuing up the hill to the Royal Mile. The center of the city is this stretch of road, actually a bit longer than a mile, defined by the castle on its volcanic-rock cliff at the top and Holyroodhouse Palace at the bottom. In between are pubs, bars, cafes, restaurants, historic buildings, theaters, houses, museums, and far too many tourist shops. Despite the overdose of national stereotypes spewing out of stores all too eager to sell you a kilt in "your family's" colors or salt and pepper shakers shaped like bagpipers (I seriously saw people buy these), a walk down the Mile is truly delightful--especially during the Festival, when parts of it are pedestrianized to allow for craft sellers' booths, flyerers, and street performers.

Just trying to take in the scenery and the feel of this place, I was nevertheless stopped by a street performance. The guy's entire routine consisted of interacting with his audience: mocking them, imitating people going by, digging through women's bags, and pretending to be in love. After his show, I wandered a bit more, but felt somewhat aimless; I didn't have anywhere to be, and in a busy city and busy festival where everyone else was going somewhere, it was a bit depressing. I ended up in a cafe run by a local church, which was offering free tea. Mm, tea. Coffee makes me confident and ready to go; tea makes me comfortable and calm. After I had drunk my tea and chatted with the staff a bit, I went back to the hostel to use my computer. I ended up in a conversation with two drunk Brits and two Canadians who were trying to play chess in the hostel bar. They were all very nice, but when they left to play pool, I headed off to bed.

Day 2: I started the day off with a "free" walking tour around the city, which took a staggering 3 1/2 hours--usually such tours are about 2 hours long. It was worth it, though, and very thorough. If you would like to know what I know about Edinburgh now, I suggest you go there and take the tour, because I'm not going to take the time to repeat what little of the tour I've retained. We talked about the castle, Greyfriar's Bobby, Harry Potter, and the Queen. It was great.

Afterward, our guide offered to take us to a pub where we could try fairly good haggis. A group of us from the tour decided to give it a shot, and I ordered the first plate of it, which all of us tried. To my utter astonishment, it was delicious. We hung out in the pub chatting for a while, then dispersed to go our separate ways; I stuck with a German girl who'd offered to show me where the university's offices were, and after getting lost a couple times, we finally found them. I got far more information about the university than I'll ever need and found out that there's a campus tour--something to file away.

I split up with the nice German girl and went to check out St. Giles' Cathedral on the Mile. The cathedral (which isn't technically a cathedral, but whatever, right?) sports some lovely stained glass and a very macho organ, but the best bit is the Thistle Chapel, where the Knights of the Thistle are inducted (or whatever they do to knights). For example, Sean Connery was knighted here. The chapel's itty bitty but very beautifully decorated, and there is a cherub playing the bagpipes. I love Scotland.

I got some dinner and headed to my first "real" show: a drama called 2020 vision, which turned out to be in the basement of a church. The play revolved around the idea of a future where everyone is microchipped and dependent upon technology for everything when a huge natural disaster strikes. It was very interestingly done and I was still packing up and thinking when the actors came back out to clean up and ask me what I thought. This is the thing that I love most about the Fringe--the opportunity, not just to see interesting shows, but to talk to the people who made them.

Day 3: I'd intended to spend the morning at the castle, but it took me too long to get going in the morning, and then the lure of the festival was too strong. I saw a free stand-up show in a somewhat dodgy bar and then headed back to the hostel to reserve tickets for the castle the next day and a show the day after. I'd intended to go to another show at 4, but I didn't have enough time, so I went to an improv musical at 5:30 instead.

If you haven't seen an improv musical, you should. The audience supplies the title of the musical, and with no opportunity to discuss anything, the actors improvise an entire hour-long musical from that single suggestion. Ours was entitled, "There's an Owl in the Shower," and started out as a story about shampoo coming alive and ended up with a ghost siccing a homicidal owl on a witch. Epic, to say the least.

The wet and drizzly weather had turned into a right downpour by the time the show let out, but I wasn't ready to go home, so I got a pizza for dinner from a takeout place and trundled off to the back room of another bar for another free comedy show by three guys I had talked to in the street earlier. It was getting dark when they finished, so I went back to the hostel to make some calls on Skype and eventually sleep.

Day 4: I finally managed to get myself going at a reasonable time and took myself up to the castle. Edinburgh Castle dominates the town's skyline and layout, even though it is (to be quite honest) not as imposing or impressive as other castles I've seen. It seems to important because it's perched on an extinct volcano, high up on sheer black cliffs on three sides, the fourth leading down the Royal Mile. Anyway, in the castle I saw the Honors of Scotland, a big-ass cannon, an interesting museum about Scots in war, and a demonstration about Scottish swordfighting, among other things. I managed to get myself some cream tea at about 4pm, after which I decided that it was high time I walk the whole length of the Royal Mile, since up till then I'd only seen about half of it.

At the bottom of the Mile I found the new Scottish Parliament building, which, while very significant politically and culturally, is kind of ridiculous to look at, all modern-art-y and covered in wooden accents. From there, some jutting hills frown down at the town, so I decided to climb up. A short, steep hike later and I had 360 degree views from Arthur's Seat: the rolling mountains in the distance, the Mile, the Castle, and all of Edinburgh looking very tiny, and the enormous expanse of water all the way to the horizon. It was gorgeous but very cold and windy, so I headed back down and began the trudge back up the Mile. Now, it was Sunday, and while this isn't usually a problem in big cities, that day every pub and restaurant that I poked my head into was either 1) shut or 2) full. Desperate for food--I hadn't eaten since tea, and that had been my whole lunch--I finally relented and got a sandwich at Subway. I watched part of a street show and then staggered back to the hostel.

Day 5: I started off in the National Museum of Scotland, which had a surprisingly interesting collection of artifacts from Scottish history, from ancient magical talismans and jewelry to harps, traditional garb, and some big-ass swords. I sadly only got through the first two floors (of six!) before I had to leave to go to another show.

This time it was more improv with a group called the Oxford Imps; they did many of the games that I've seen the Dead Parrots do at WWU, so it was quite fun, although I think the Parrots are better. (Uni loyalty and all that...) The best bit that they did was an improvised Shakespearean play about a foot doctor. After the show, I was right near the university, so I went on a walking tour around the university grounds. Although largely unhelpful in itself, the tour did give me a chance to talk to a U of Edinburgh graduate about life at the university and get some ideas with how to proceed. Accordingly, after the tour, I hunted down a linguistics professor to ask some more questions about applying. I also found Professor Pullum's office to take a picture (since he wasn't there...sadface), which was my one concession to my linguistic geekiness.

After some dinner, I had another show to go to. This was the only big-name show I'd chosen to see, mostly because it'd been recommended to be by the receptionist at the hostel, who said this guy was brilliant. It was a one-man stand-up show by a guy named Danny Bhoy, and his show was wonderfully hilarious and far too short. He's cute, too. All told, very good.

Day 6: I decided that I needed something a little different, so instead of heading straight for the Mile like usual, I went the other way and wandered into Edinburgh's Georgian New Town. The New Town is street after street of dignified, bay-windowed, grey-brown Georgian buildings, pretty but monotonous, but soon I came across a beautiful church to look around, so then I was happy. From there I headed back to the Mile and ended up seeing a half-price show called "Of People and Not Things", which, while touching, was essentially two half-hour monologues about losing the one you love being the end of the world. From there, I went on to a free show that had been recommended to me, but it ended up being so raunchy that I left early and went instead to another show that I'd been wanting to see: a showcase of comedians who were required to give a completely clean show. After what I'd just seen, that sounded very good to me.

The clean show was a big improvement, and I left feeling much better. Outside the door, I got into a conversation with a girl doing flyering for a show by Kev Orkian. We chatted for a while and she invited me to go to the show with her and a friend, so I agreed--why not? On our way to get tickets, I took some of the flyers and tried my hand at flyering, something I'd wanted to try ever since I'd started talking to flyerers on the street.

Kev's show was one of the best I'd seen. He impersonated Elton John and made jokes about being an immigrant from Armenia, complete with linguistic jokes (hooray!). I even got a hug from him after the show. I walked around for a bit with my new acquaintance, Naomi, and her friend, then I split off to get a late dinner at a pub before bed.

Day 7: Whew, last day. Through chatting with a flyerer, I ended up at an American's stand-up show that was just short of painfully bad, so after I escaped I decided to take a break and enjoy the sunshine a bit. I therefore headed to Calton Park to have a picnic lunch and enjoy the view of the city center and Arthur's Seat. Wandering back into the city, I stopped to watch a street magician and got selected as the "volunteer" assistant to help the magician in his death-defying stunts. That's never happened to me before, so I'm still smiling about it.

I'd been wanting to go to a show called "I bought Richard Hammond's underpants on eBay", which is how I found myself sitting in the dark in a musty cellar with about ten other people, singing along and playing a paper drum with a plastic spoon. The show was very cute, and I got some pin badges with the show's name on them that I shall wear proudly. I'd heard about another free show that happened to be just up the street, so I popped in just in time. The pirate-themed show, entitled "Jollyboat", was definitely the best free show I'd seen and included a Darren-Brown-type act by a kid bearing a remarkable resemblance to Ron Weasley. I thought that I should just go home after than and end on a high note, but it felt too early to go home, so I got a ginger beer at a bar and saw a final free show that was mediocre at best. I trundled back to the hostel and watched White Collar until a ridiculous time in the morning.

Day 8: I left my stuff at the hostel and headed back to the National Museum to see some of the stuff I'd missed, but I couldn't really make myself concentrate. After lingering on the Mile for a while, I finally picked up my bags on hopped on the train to Glasgow.

Now I know that was detail-less and boring, so if you're still reading, congrats and here's why. Edinburgh was something of a turbulent and weird week for me. Everyone I'd talked to about Edinburgh was rapturous about how wonderful it is, so my expectations were already sky-high. Besides that, every day I was there I was in a constant state of agonizing indecision: should I stay the full week? Could my time be better spent somewhere else? How many shows did I want to see? Whenever I was in a show, I felt guilty for spending the money to see another show, and whenever I didn't go to a show, I felt guilty for wasting time that I could've spent doing something more fun. No matter what I did, I simply couldn't get myself to relax. Add to this that two months of travel are starting to wear on me and the whole thing felt like going to a beautiful venue for a concert of Beethoven's 9th by a master musician playing the kazoo. Almost all the ingredients were right, but there was always something buzzing in the back of my head.

That said, I really did like Edinburgh. least, I've thoroughly convinced myself that I did, and there's no reason not to. First of all, the idea of city with a castle right smack in the middle always makes me smile, and Edinburgh is kind of shockingly beautiful, with the imposing buildings of the Mile, the New Town, and all the monuments and parks and such. I met many nice people there, and I do quite love Scotland. But because of everything I said in the last paragraph, I don't love it as much as I might've under other circumstances. There's something standoffish about it, something a little bit off. I can't describe it, but having visited a few different cities this summer, I have a pretty good sense of which cities I like--Dublin, London, Venice, and Salzburg, for instance--and which I don't. And Edinburgh is somewhere in the no man's land in the middle.

So, if you ask me whether I had a good time in Edinburgh, whether I liked it there, I honestly don't know. It's weird, I know. Sorry.

Anyway, by far the most interesting thing I did during my week in Edinburgh was talk to the flyerers. The top half of the Mile during the day is a guantlet of people--either the performers themselves or people paid a pittance to stand in the street for five hours--handing out flyers for shows of all kinds. I took every flyer offered to me and requested quite a few as well--for some reason, I often wasn't offered one--and ended up throwing away a stack of paper several inches tall when I left. The great thing is, though, that the flyerers are there to talk to passersby and convince them to come to the show. They have to be friendly or they risk you walking away. This means you can have some really interesting conversations with flyerers, especially paid ones, since they don't have the vested interested in getting as many people as possible to come. The performers doing their own flyering were also very interesting, too--you really just get to chat with them about their show, why they've come to the festival, where they're from, etc. I had some really nice conversation with some very interesting flyerers and ended up going to a lot of the shows when the flyerer took the time to talk to me. Since I was so interested in this, it was really cool that I got to try flyering myself with Naomi.

So, come time to apply for grad schools, I will definitely be applying in Edinburgh. It seems like a great place to live and a very good university. There're tons of the things to do and the people tend to be fantastic, as well as having a perfectly delightful dialect. In my head, Edinburgh was everything it should've been, for some unfathomable reason, it didn't capture my heart.