Saturday, October 24, 2009

California to Rhode Island: Five Days in August

After an incredibly truncated visit in California (less than two weeks to visit both Northern and Southern and umpteen friends and relatives), we set off for Rhode Island. I've driven cross-country before, in 1998, but at the time I had no schedule, no deadline, and no real destination - it was a sort of the-journey-is-the-destination-type trip. This time, however, there was a very definite deadline, and an equally definite destination. It was somewhat frustrating to have to hurry through the drive - with the exception of northern Nevada, which I would prefer to spend, oh, NO time in. I can't imagine how any pioneers managed to make it across that stretch without the help of at least an SPF 30 sunblock.

While the climate in Utah was just as hot and arid as the climate in Nevada, the landscape in Utah was a bit more interesting. I mean, have you seen this?

Salt / Train

Bonneville Salt Flats

The Bonneville Salt Flats. I've been to Utah before, but I've never really seen the Salt Flats. It's like the surface of the moon or something (note: I've never seen the surface of the moon). Brad picked up some of the damp clumps of solidified salt, but I chose not to - it had a strange smell, and there was something very alien about it. It was desolate, but not in the same way that Nevada was desolate. In Utah, the land still had an air of life about it, an air of activity. Maybe that's why the Mormons chose it to be their promised land.

Speaking of Mormons:


There's the Temple! Salt Lake City is a very strange place. Here's a weird thing about SLC, for those that haven't been there. A couple blocks northwest of the temple, the street will be called something along the lines of West 300 North Street. Southwest of the temple, the street would be West 200 South Street. Southeast of the temple....but you get the idea. It makes navigation very easy and strangely creepy. And despite the startling cleanliness of the streets, there was a much larger homeless population than I thought there would be. The city, incidentally, has changed a lot since I was there in 1998. Mormonism has grown since then, though, so I guess growth in the city is to be expected. (The interweb tells me that in April 2008, there were about 13.5 million Mormons, up from 12.8 million the year before - and there were supposedly approximately 10 million Mormons when I visited there the last time. I actually thought the growth would have been greater, but maybe I just think that because Mormonism has been so much more noticeable lately, what with Mitt Romney and Big Love. That was a long digression).

We didn't stay in Utah for the night; we continued on to Wyoming for our first night on the road. I breathed a little easier as soon as we got over the WY line, and when we woke up just after dawn the next morning, we found that the land had gotten much more varied. Trees, hills, wind power; it was a nice change from the rock rock rock of Utah. Wyoming was actually a beautiful state to drive through, and there was this incredibly hilarious landmark that I'd never heard of:

Little America, WYLittle America, WY

There were signs for this all along I-80 in Wyoming; it was less impressive than I'd hoped it would be, but it was entertaining nonetheless.

Continuing along. I hate to say it, but we didn't take barely any pictures through Nebraska or Iowa (which was very strange, considering we stopped in Iowa to see two different sections of Brad's family. They took pictures, but we somehow didn't manage. Immediately upon leaving, I wondered how we did that...). I managed to take one picture that might've been Nebraska...or Iowa...or Illinois...or Indiana...or Ohio...oh, disgraceful. Sorry about that. But the picture is at least interesting:

Wind Power

That's how they transport turbines. There were lines of these dotted all along I-80 through the Midwest, and I have to say - those drivers were hauling ass. I was shocked at the way they were bombing down the highway, pushing past drivers already well over the speed limit. It's like an extremely gigantic shark's tooth.

We did stop at the Iowa capitol building in Des Moines, where Brad talked to me about the Iowa Caucasus or something like that. Caucus - Iowa Caucus. The Caucasus are the mountain range separating Russia from Georgia. Apparently the Iowa Caucus "decides everything." There are some qualifications on that statement, but you get the gist.

Iowa Capitol

Despite the fact that I didn't take many pictures through the Midwest, it was actually very pretty. I do have one question, though: why so much corn? Corn corn corn. I was astounded at the corn. Who is eating all that corn? I know, corn syrup requires a lot of corn, and the corn-based ethanol uses up a lot of corn, but sheesh - I really like corn, but I don't eat it that often. Not often enough to devote about 125,000 square miles to corn, at least. Corn plants are sort of lovely, though - nice for movies and hiding from crop dusters, etc. It was calming. And I listened to the album Nebraska while we were driving through Nebraska at dusk; as cliche as it sounds, it really worked.

We pushed our way through Pennsylvania and upstate New York so that we could make it to New England by the evening of the 31st of August, and we actually met our goal. So here we are! The seat of the original 13 colonies! The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, officially, but there's some hubbub about that going on at the moment, apparently. When I get a break from my studies, I'll read up on the founding fathers and all that. It's not really my subject. B really loves this stuff, though. This was very exciting for him:

Newport / Constitution

That's Newport. Rhode Island was actually the last state to ratify the Constitution, making it the 13th state, and this is where they did it. Rhode Island, however, despite being the last state to sign, was the first colony to declare independence from the British, so it's all swings and roundabouts, really.

So here we are in Providence! We've got a great flat, and my program is incredibly rigorous but wonderful. The leaves are changing, the air is getting crisper, and I'm sure we'll be appalled by the New England winter. It was nice for our first few weeks here, though.


And I think that you, dear reader, are all caught up. As things stand at this moment, I'm working on a presentation on Aleksandr Blok and his drama, and will soon dive into an (incredibly harsh) critique of Nabokov's translations of Blok. (I am against Nabokov. I am willing to take a stand on this). I love (most of) what I'm studying, so be prepared to hear about it in the future. Hope autumn is treating everyone well...

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Leaving England

Admittedly, it has been two months and approximately 4 days since our departure from England, but somehow it seems much more recent, as if I could just walk out my front door, hop on the bus, and catch the train to London. It was the circumstances of leaving, I believe, that have me a bit confused. The final weeks of my time in Norwich were spent buried in my Master's thesis, so my finish line, rather than being at Heathrow airport, was in the Taught Programs Office at the university. A scant three days before leaving Norwich for one final night in London, I handed in my thesis, and my relief overshadowed my awareness that we would soon be back in the U.S. And then, all of a sudden, we were gone.

Before we left, though, we managed to visit some museums that I had been wanting to visit the whole time that we were in the UK. For instance, the Tate Modern.

Tate Modern

Now, I actually like modern art. I estimate that approximately 90 percent of it is gimmick, and the other 10 percent is brilliant, and the Tate Modern didn't let me down. 90 percent of their collection was head-scratching, brow-furrowing, money-making curiosities, while the rest was absolutely compelling and fabulous. It was interesting to see the differences between a modern art museum in London and one in, say, Berlin, or San Francisco. Some cities seem to lean towards more ebullient, dramatic works, while others seem to prefer a drier, more sterile style, while still others seem to be struggling to push boundaries that I believe were pushed to breaking several years ago. My thoughts on which cities bear which traits, though, may be controversial and/or disagreeable to some, so I'll keep the specifics to myself...

We also visited the Victoria and Albert Museum, which was incredible and so far-reaching that I had a hard time knowing which way to go, which hallway to walk down. Sculpture, fashion, stamps, props and opera garb, textiles, 80s appliances, antiquarian books, 15th-century Chinese furniture, contemporary photography, Middle Eastern tapestries - it was all there. It was a shocking variety, really. B couldn't help but try on some costumery.

Victoria and Albert Museum

He is standing in front of what I believe is an exact replica of Kylie Minogue's dressing room from a tour a few years back, which was, I thought, an odd exhibit. It's quite the dreamcoat, though, and flattering, don't you think?

And dear readers, I have a request. I took a picture of this amazing bust, and I cannot for the life of me remember the artist or the name of the piece, so if anyone has any ideas, please share them. I love it:

Rodin? At V&A Museum

I am, apparently, a bad museum-goer. I should have written it down.

In addition to the museums, we spent a final day walking through the city, eating delicious dim sum, visiting various sites, and generally acting like tourists. I'll be honest: in our final weeks there, I was ready to leave, and I was convinced that I wouldn't need to return to England for quite a while, and a short two months after leaving, I already miss it a little bit. I'm surprised - I didn't think that I would get sentimental about the UK, and pleasantly, I've proved myself wrong. It's such a quirky, paradoxical place, power and Primark side by side, imperial history running right up to Big Brother and council housing. It's fascinating.

English Power

Really, it was quite a year. England was never a place that I saw myself living, and now that it's over, I can't imagine not having done it. Though I didn't look back while I was leaving, I'm looking back now, and it's pretty from here.

Final night in England
Final night in England

Friday, October 09, 2009

Paris. A Little Over Two Months Ago.

This is perhaps the longest hiatus that I've taken from blogging in a long time. The story is this: I simply couldn't help it! Finishing my MA thesis, leaving England, spending a measly two weeks in California, driving across the country, and then looking for and moving into a new apartment and beginning school = no time for blogging! It has been, in a word, completelyhectic.

I finally have some breathing room, though, so I thought I'd sit down and do a little catching up. Truthfully, I could be doing work for my program around the clock, but I'm fairly sure my mental health would suffer from it, so here I am. And I present to you: Paris!

We spent a week in Paris at the end of July, which is a humid and sweltering time to visit, and it was glorious.

The Seine from Pont Neuf

That's a perfect example of how glorious it was. At the risk of sounding a bit maudlin, it was everything that I'd hoped it would be. Ever since studying French in junior high (more than 15 years ago! yikes.), I have wanted to visit Paris, and ta-dah! I finally did it. We really tried to make the most of it, too - we battled the heat and humidity and made it to nearly every landmark that I've been dreaming of for all this time.

We started, obviously, here:

The Eiffel Tower!

My head was hurting; the day was boiling; but it was fantastic. Somehow I managed to get a picture that isn't crushed by the crowd, which was a minor miracle. Paris in July is a crowded place; I suppose that, by being tourists, we were only adding to it, but at least we're a fairly unobtrusive pair.

We actually went back to the Eiffel Tower a couple days later, this time at night, so that we could climb it. Little did I know: I guess I'm afraid of heights. I've never really experienced it before, but on our way up the 300+ stairs to the first platform, I found myself believing that somehow this steel structure of approximately 10,000 tons would miraculously fall apart. Clearly, it didn't, but that didn't stop my nerves from jangling. I sucked it up, though, when a random stranger asked if we wanted our picture taken:

Over the Trocadero Gardens

(Because a second before that, I looked like this: Scared!).

Another incredibly famous Paris landmark: The Arc de Triomphe. It turns out that the Arc itself is, indeed, quite pretty, but the real attraction was the traffic surrounding it. It is possibly the worst roundabout that I have ever laid eyes, eight cars deep with absolutely no organization and death-defying cyclists cutting through it. We stood watching it for maybe twenty minutes. The picture doesn't do the madness justice.

Arc de Triomphe / traffic

We also, of course, went to the Louvre. We spent, in fact, the entire day there, so by the time we left at seven in the evening, my head was spinning from all the staring and elbowing. The elbowing was limited to only a few wings housing the most famous pieces in their collection, and the most intense clutch was right here:

Art Lovers?Insane crowd

The Mona Lisa. Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code craze really ruined it for people who want to see the Mona Lisa, I have to say. Leonardo isn't particularly one of my favorites, but I would have liked to have seen this painting in a less frenzied environment. Though there were a handful of other pieces in the museum that attracted large crowds, none of them were as bad as this. People were really flouting the rules of museum etiquette, which is one set of rules that I actually really appreciate.

Other areas of the museum, though, were a bit more easy to move through. One of my favorite areas was Napoleon's chambers and the furniture of the various royal families. It was truly opulent.

Post-revolution opulence

We spent maybe 10 hours in the museum, all in all, with a short break for lunch. But, as amazing as it was, I think I enjoyed the Rodin museum just a little bit more. I love sculpture, and Rodin is my favorite sculptor, and to see his work up close was absolutely amazing.

The Gates of Hell by Rodin

I'm not posting the large size photo here, but if you click through to the actual photo page, you can see the large one, and you may be able to better see the incredible detail in this, which is called the Gates of Hell. It's so intricate and full of so many subtleties that a picture can't really capture. His ability to infuse emotion into sculpture is simply incredible to me, beyond my comprehension.

Andrieu d'Andres by Rodin

It was a lovely day to be in the garden, too; the Rodin museum is actually made up of a garden and then a more formal museum, and the garden is the perfect setting in which to see his work.

We visited Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge; we walked along the Seine; we window-shopped on the Champs-Elysees; and we went to the bizarrely futuristic area called La Defense, which is apparently considered by some to be a blight on the otherwise austere and historic Parisian landscape. I, however, thought it was incredible and strange, full of curious buildings and an even more curious marriage of new and old.

La DefenseAt La DefenseLa Defense

I'm not sure of the purpose of the rainbow column. It was just that; a rainbow column. The whole district seemed to be full of mostly superfluous artwork, which I thought gave a surreal edge to the otherwise sterile and business-based area. Post-modern finance, I guess.

It's funny to think back on Paris from here. At the time, we were seeing it in the context of Not England, which surely had an effect on our perception of the place. We were so happy to be in a place that was, well, more European, so now it seems somehow twice-removed. Twice-removed in a good way, though; the distance makes it seem that much more magical.

Phew! That was a long post. I'll be back soon, with 1) tales of our final days in England, 2) a quick narration of our trip across the country, and 3) the beginnings of Rhode Island. Before I go, though, a little more Paris, because there are a couple things so quintessentially Parisian that I cannot finish without them. Thanks for reading.