Saturday, December 2, 2017

London Weekend

I went to London! (Almost a month ago now, but this is the first chance I've had to write about it.)

It's funny that this was my first proper outing since moving to the UK, because I didn't have any particular urge towards London. I've been there before, but I haven't been there often. So I'm in that in-between place where I've been a couple times, so I don't feel a need to go see the tourist sights, but I haven't been there enough to have favorite haunts to visit back to. London? I'd rather go somewhere new, where I've never been at all!

But. There's this writer I really admire, John Finnemore. One (among many) of his projects is a radio sketch comedy show on BBC Radio 4. BBC radio shows are recorded in front of a live audience, for which the BBC holds a random ticket drawing. The tickets are free, but you only get one if your name comes up in the lottery. So when I heard that John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme was going to be recording a new series now, now that I too live here in the UK, of course I put my name in. (Frankly, this is one of the most exciting thing about living in the UK – suddenly having such proximity to the people who write and create so much of the cultural stuff I read and listen to.) John Finnemore is massively popular, though, so of course I didn't expect to get a ticket.


Time to plan a London weekend!

I figured I would make a whole cultural weekend out of it and see some theater as well. I have a friend who knows the London theater scene inside and out, so I got a bunch of recommendations from her; another friend who used to live in London got excited and gave me more restaurant suggestions than I could go to in probably several weeks.

And you know what? As much as I'd thought I was uninterested in London, as soon I started planning the weekend, I got super excited for it. Oh, right, this is why people go to London: because there's SO MUCH there.

I took the night train from Aberdeen: the Caledonian Sleeper. I hadn't been on a night train in a while, I guess since I took one back to Berlin from Budapest in 2014 – so, not since I moved away from Europe, in other words. I love trains, I love night trains, and letting me on a night train is one of the best ways to get me to run around like a fool, taking giddy pictures. Night train!

The next morning, I woke as the train was pulling into Euston Station. (Usually I wake up before arrival, especially since in mainland Europe, conductors generally come around beforehand announcing the approaching station. But not here, apparently.)

I stumbled off with my backpack (so nice to travel light again, after last summer's 2 1/2 months of schlepping several climates' worth of gear all over Europe!) It was 7 a.m. on a workday, and Euston Station was a-bustle. I've rarely seen such a frenetic public space. In New York, maybe.

London is great but the Tube is a nightmare – hot, stuffy, so crowded. A major reason why I would never consider living in London. (Well...along with the cost of living.) If I had to ride the Tube even occasionally, I would hate the world and everything in it.

But then I came up out of the Tube, and...I was in London! People getting coffees and striding purposefully off to work, on a gloriously sunny, mild November day. Sunshine in London, who would have thought?

I spent the day wandering around central London, mostly by foot, taking it all in. The Thames, which is indeed an impressive river. The bustle of Fleet Street, the Strand, Soho, Covent Garden. London in all its big-city bustle. I don't generally think of myself as a city person, but there was something invigorating about being among so many different people, all going about their different lives.

(Link to the full album of photos will be at the bottom of this post.)

THEN IT WAS TIME FOR JOHN FINNEMORE. i.e., time to head over to the BBC Broadcasting House and join the queue.

I'd debated how early I should get there: the BBC gives away somewhat more tickets than there are seats, on the assumption that since the tickets are free, some people will request them but then not bother to show up. This system breaks down, though, when it's a super popular show for which everyone shows up. So being early is important.

In the end I got there a little before 5 pm (for an 8:30 show). And found that the queue was already down the block and around the corner! Oh no!! But it turned out they were queuing for the first of the evening's two Souvenir Programme recordings, whereas I was there for the second one. So in fact I ended up being number eleven in the queue for my show. As in, the eleventh person to arrive, out of everyone, which meant I would be in the first group allowed in when the studio doors opened. Yes, I was proud enough to take a picture of my number sticker:

The recording itself was fantastic, so worth it. Seeing John Finnemore in person, after following his works all these years. Putting faces to the voices, of a cast that's so familiar after listening to six series of this show (many times over!). Getting to see all the "behind the scenes" details of how a radio show is made. I found myself wondering why I'd never thought (after years of doing stage managing in theater) of trying out something similar in radio. It looked like fun.

And then, because I am a dork, if I've maybe not mentioned that lately, I took pictures with the (model of the) TARDIS in the lobby. Being in London, at the BBC Broadcasting House, with the TARDIS. Pretty great.

The rest of my time in London was no slouch either, though. The next day I figured out the bus system (rather proud of that – I find even the largest subway and tram systems a piece of cake, but the intricate tangles of bus routes daunt me) and rode down to Camberwell, to try out a small fraction of the restaurants my friend in Aberdeen had recommended.

She'd said Camberwell was a great place to get good food cheaply, and oh boy was it ever. Even more, though, I loved the atmosphere of the neighborhood. The main streets felt very urban and incredibly international (visually, it reminded me of Neukölln, for anyone who knows Berlin), brimming over with shops and restaurants and produce markets from every imaginable corner of the world. An immigrant place, not fancy, but vibrant. So many cultures coming together. So many cuisines on offer: Turkish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Mongolian, Portuguese, a French bakery, a traditional English pub, a West African health-food-vegan-crêpes café, falafel, fish and chips...that was just a section of one street.

I was intrigued, too, by the striking contrast: from the gritty-urban-international vibe of the main streets, I only had to turn a single corner into the side streets to suddenly be in the most placid, leafy, residential neighborhood imaginable, lined with stately brick rowhouses. Fascinating.

Here was my breakfast, at the Yucca Garden Café in Camberwell. (I swear I'm not generally someone who takes pictures of my food, but this was just too excellent. I went in looking for a simple, even diner-style breakfast, and at the same price a diner breakfast would have been, I somehow ended up with this gorgeousness.)

That afternoon, I met my friends Pete and Nína (friends from Reykjavík!) They showed me the Seven Dials area of quirky shops and classy cafés (plus, the place they said has London's best coffee, which is quite a claim). We went to the Nordic Bakery (but of course), and a wine bar, and wandered Denmark Street, which is an entire street of guitar shops. An entire street of guitar shops! (Basses and ukeleles also allowed.)

Then I went to the theater. I hadn't been able to get tickets to the shows I'd looked into at the National Theatre or the Donmar Warehouse, but I was equally excited for what I did get, which was the Young Vic. The play was called "Wings," by Arthur Kopit. It's actually a play from 1978 (I did think the use of a tape recorder seemed a bit anachronistic...) but the Young Vic did this extraordinary adaptation where the main character – a woman recovering from a stroke and struggling to regain language – spends the entire time hooked into a harness and being whizzed about the air over the stage by wires, to represent her disorientation. The actress did an amazing job.

Also, can I just say: £10 for an excellent seat at top-quality professional theater? Now I see why people go to London especially for theater!

On my last day, I actually went to Camberwell again, because I liked it so much, then continued on over to Brixton. Like Camberwell, it was a wealth of cultures. So many produce shops, African groceries, Halal shops... In short order I saw a poster advertising a Basque brunch, then walked past an Eritrean restaurant. Brixton!

Then I stumbled across Pop Brixton and fell immediately in love. 

Pop Brixton is "a community initiative that has transformed a disused plot of land into a pioneering space that showcases the most exciting independent businesses from Brixton and Lambeth." The place is built out of old shipping crates. They provide space for local businesses, community gatherings, even little garden spaces. There's a free fridge where anyone suffering from hunger can take what they need. Yeah, I fell in love. 

The last bit of the afternoon, I just wandered, wending my way through the city to eventually end up at St Pancras Station, to head to Luton Airport. I flew back to Aberdeen (boo, such a poor substitute for a train, but it's how the timing worked out), but it happened I was traveling on Bonfire Night (Guy Fawkes Night), so I got to watch fireworks going off all over the country, from above. I don't think I'd ever seen fireworks from above before!

All in all, it was a perfect "mini-break" before diving back into the intense demands of grad school. (I worked like mad on my assignments beforehand, and I worked like mad after, but I let those three days be purely for London and discovering new things, no stress about deadlines allowed.) It also powerfully reminded me how much I need that jolt of newness and excitement that travel gives me, letting my brain step out of my daily life and soak up something new.

Here's my album of photos from the trip, if you want to see more:


(Just a reminder that in Google Photos – and I am still not over them replacing the supremely smooth-functioning Picasa with this nonsense – the photos appear not to have captions. Which is a frustration, since writing the captions is where I have the most fun! But there's a little "i" (for info) symbol near the top right, and if you click on that, an information box expands that lets you see each picture's caption.)

Friday, November 10, 2017

Prood Tae Say

Speaking of Scots language...!

"First book in Harry Potter series translated into Scots" (BBC news article)

Awww. This makes me happy.

"Mr and Mrs Dursley, o nummer fower, Privet Loan, were prood tae say that they were gey normal, thank ye verra much..."

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Say It in Doric

Today our professor gave us a lecture in Doric. By which I mean: He gave a lecture, and the language that he was speaking as he did so was Doric.

Doric is the variety of Scots spoken in this region of Scotland, the Northeast. Scots, in turn, is a language related to English (unlike Gaelic, which is a very different language). I've seen Scots described as a language...or a seems to be one of those gray areas where linguists can debate endlessly what constitutes a language and what a dialect. My professor just referred to it as the "vernacular."

This came up when we were in class, working on topics relating to the provision of bilingual English/Gaelic library services in the western parts of Scotland where Gaelic is spoken. And our professor started talking about Scots, and how there hasn't been as much support for maintaining it as there has been for Gaelic. Then it turned out a couple years ago he gave a lecture in Doric (he grew up speaking it, switching between Doric for home and English for school) and he asked if we'd like to hear some of that lecture.

We said YES. (Or at least, I did!)

It was so fascinating. (Both the content of the lecture – about Doric language, literature and culture – and simply the fact of getting to hear so much Doric spoken at a stretch.) I would say I got the gist of pretty much everything he talked about, even if I certainly didn't understand every word, and I'm very pleased about that.

To give you an example of how different Doric is and isn't, here's the title of the talk:

Fa div ye think ye are
Or fit we hiv forgottin tae mine aboot 

(translation: Who do you think you are
Or what we've forgotten to remember)

You can see how it's in some ways recognizable as English or at least English-adjacent, but also has very different vocabulary and pronunciation. ("What" becomes "fit," "when" becomes "fin," "who" becomes "fa," etc. – so there are regular patterns of vowel shifts and such between standard English and Scots, but the overall result ends up looking quite different between the two languages.)

SO COOL! Definitely another thing I would not have gotten to learn about if I'd gone to grad school in Boston.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Libraries on the Move (Literally)

Okay, mobile libraries are officially my new favorite thing. What an amazing way to provide a lot of service to a really wide (rural, low-population density) area. And they all seem so very, very cheerful about it!

(Yes, I got sucked into watching yet another charming short video about one of the mobile libraries in the Outer Hebrides. And you know, just saying that – that my research for an assignment led me to the looking into the mobile libraries of the Outer Hebrides – really drives home that that's not something I would have gotten to learn much about if I'd done library school in Boston or New York, is it?)

If you feel so inclined, and if you want to be seriously impressed by how much a library can do with quite little, check out the Lewis Mobile Library:

Or, for that matter, the Harris Mobile Library:

 (There's a wonderful little bit of Gaelic spoken in the Lewis one. And charming shots of schoolkids filing into the library van to check out books in the Harris one. Some of the roads the van is traveling in that Lewis video are single lane, with periodic pull-out spots for those rare cases when there are actually vehicles traveling in both directions at the same time – that's how remote some of these places are.)

Also, because I can't ever go long without pointing out how awesome Orkney Library is, I'd just like to mention that Orkney's mobile library is named "Booky McBookface" and it tweets out which of Orkney's islands it's going to visit each day. E.g.:


Sunday, October 22, 2017

Library Dork

Oh, goodness, I am really such a dork.

My master's program is already having us submit preferences for the fieldwork placement we do in April, so I'm doing background research by looking up lots of interesting public libraries. (Anyone who knows me will probably not be surprised to hear that my definition of "interesting" tends towards obscure locations, remote/dramatic/stormy-northern-Atlantic islands, and communities that speak dialects or minority languages.)

Anyway, so I spent an afternoon getting misty-eyed over charming little videos shot by various local libraries to promote their services. Videos showing all the many ways kids and adults use their library in Gaelic-speaking County Donegal, Ireland, for example, or the vital services provided by the mobile libraries that drive around to small communities and housebound individuals in the remotest parts of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland.

Libraries! Communities! Books! Languages! So many things I love! I want to go to all these places...

Meanwhile, though, I'll leave you with the delight that is Orkney Library's Twitter. They have a Twitter feud with Shetland Library (Shetland is also a remote Scottish archipelago, but even more remote than Orkney). They got J. K. Rowling to show up to their book club. They create puns entirely out of book covers. Oh, and just incidentally they provide award-winning service to a part of Scotland that seems like it should be the far-flung edge of the world.

Orkney Library is my new crush.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Aberdeen First Impressions

Nearly three weeks in Aberdeen, and I have first impressions to share!

(This is going to be quite long and scattershot, since it's a jumble of impressions from these entire first three weeks. I still can't promise I'll have much time to write anything during the semester, but if I do, future posts should be a bit more coordinated than this first one!)


I arrived in the city under relentless rain, which I sense will become a theme. I've lived in a lot of changeable-weather places, a lot of places that take a perverse pride in saying things like "If you don't like the weather – just wait five minutes!" But I've never experienced anything quite like this.

Aberdeen goes from bright sun to pouring rain with whiplash speed, so many times in one afternoon that I lose count. I went on a walking tour of Aberdeen street art (more on that later) and in that hour or so I can't tell you how many times I went...Oh wait, is it raining all of a sudden? Better put my umbrella up. Wait, it's not raining anymore, why am I holding this umbrella? Wait, is it raining AGAIN?

Here's the view out my window, in a rare moment of sun:

Aberdeen is known as the "granite city" and it is indeed a sea of granite grey. It doesn't quite have that "seriously every single building looks like a castle" vibe of Edinburgh, but it's definitely got a bit of that.

It's a maritime city, centered around the offshore North Sea oil industry, which has apparently made it very international. (Someone told me that there is or at least used to be a French school, an American school, even a Dutch school, because so many people come through here for the oil industry.)

I accidentally went to the Maritime Museum (I was actually only trying to find a bathroom, but a museum employee handed me a brochure the moment I walked in the door, and everyone was so nice that I felt I really ought to look at their museum) and got this view over the harbor:


I'm still laughing at myself because long before I'd done the more necessary things like setting up a bank account or even a phone, I'd already gone and gotten a public library card. And accidentally checked out eight books the very first day I had the card. You can take the girl out of the library, but, well, you know the rest!

(One of my flatmates also made the mistake of asking me for book recommendations, and I wrote her out a whole page of titles... I hadn't had a chance to do "reader's advisory" – as it's called within the library field – in a while, and I got enthused.)

Both the central library and the little library in my neighborhood are quite charming. Among many other things, it made me grin that they'd made their own display signs for various genres. Here's a sign for "romance" with their own made-up titles incorporating specifically Aberdeen things:

("Claimed by the Oil Tycoon" (self-explanatory); "One Night at the Thistle Hotel" (thistles = a Scottish symbol); "Dalliance in the Duthie Park" (a big local park in Aberdeen))

Ah, so many quirky British things I could talk about! Most of them are things I knew before, from previous trips here, but it's fun digging into what it's like to live with them.

Hot and cold water from separate taps in every sink. So you can have cold water, or hot water, but not a mix of both. (Unless you're willing to plug the sink and fill it with your own custom blend of water from both the hot and cold taps, but who actually does that? Every time you wash your hands?)

Also: THE HEALTH AND SAFETY OBSESSION IS REAL. On/off switches on every electrical outlet. (Yes, you have to plug your appliance into the outlet, and turn on the outlet itself.) On/of switch for the shower. (Yes, the shower only works when you turn it on if you also previously turned on a specific switch outside the bathroom.) And no electrical outlets in bathrooms, no, no no!

And at our "inductions" (basically just information sessions) at the university, each lecture started with a little mini-lecture about where to go in event of fire, where to find the first aid kit in the lecture hall, etc. Bless, as the British would say. (As in: Aw, aren't they sweet.)

Also, though, here's health and safety gone off the rails: In my building (a university residential hall), they regularly check that the fire alarms still work. And by regularly, I mean: every week. So every Thursday around noon-ish, they set off the fire alarm. We're not supposed to react to this as if it were an actual fire drill; we're suppose to know that it's not a real fire alarm going off...unless it keeps going for a long time, and then we should think that it's a real fire and leave the building. So in their zeal to test that the system is "working," they're essentially creating a system where they've trained us not to react to the fire alarm when we hear it. ???

The UK, man. So many things that make delightfully no sense at all.

And so many turns of phrase that make me grin. Like this surprisingly existential street sign:

More things that delight me:

The price of food! It's actually affordable! I mean, I arrived here straight from Iceland, so I nearly swooned with delight the first time I went to the supermarket and found a block of cheese for £2 instead of $17. But compared to the US, too, this feels like being back in a reasonable place where the cost of living is bearable. (Like Germany. And definitely not like the US.)

Postcodes! I still can't quite fathom how they've made this work, but British postcodes (zip codes) are incredibly specific – as in, pinpointed to one particular building level of specific. So unlike in the US (or Germany), where a zip code applies to a whole town or a big section of a city, in the UK someone can tell you their postcode and you know exactly what building it is. (As far as I can tell, the first half of the code is for the city as a whole, and the second half is building-specific.)

And the whole driving-on-the-left thing is, of course, an adjustment, no matter how much you know it in theory. This is less because of the actual driving on the left, and more because of all the other things that are subtly different because of it.

Like: When I as a pedestrian am standing at a corner, waiting to see if that approaching car is going to turn into my path or if it's safe to cross, the turning car takes a different arc than my brain is expecting, because it's turning into a different part of the road, the left side instead of the right. So it takes real concentration to follow those little cues that are usually automatic. ("Car hasn't started to turn yet, so it's clearly not going to come this way. Safe to cross. NO WAIT, it's turning after all! Why did it turn later than I was expecting it to turn!")

Anyway, mostly I've just been moving in and getting set up in a new country and figuring out how to do this whole university thing again after so long (though lectures have barely started – things should get properly going this week) but here are a few fun things I've also done:

Castle visit! The university arranged a bunch of outings for new students, so my flatmates and I went on a trip to Dunnottar Castle, a nearby one of Scotland's approximately 50 billion castles. I was surprised that my Scottish flatmate came along, given that she'd just been saying how many castles she went to as a kid on innumerable class trips. But Scotland has so many castles that she still hadn't been to this one.

If you're going to build a castle, do choose a dramatic cliff-top location like this:

Street art tour! Aberdeen hosts an international street art festival, and I went on a guided tour of some of the amazing art created by this year's participants, from whole-side-of-a-building murals to little sketches and figurines hidden in unlikely places. Or, in the mid-range, this delightful picture of a girl and her baby unicorn:

(Yes, the unicorn is Scotland's national animal. No, I don't know, either.)

Biking the Deeside Way! The university has a bike hire (rental) program, where you can have a bicycle for the whole semester, which makes me deliriously happy. I went out for a first exploratory foray along the Deeside Way, a lovely long-distance path that stretches all the way from Aberdeen at the coast into Cairngorms National Park, 41 miles inland. I only went as far as Drumoak (about 19 miles round trip), but I can't wait to explore more. Oooh, idyllic Scottish countryside:

And: first house dinner! My residential hall is pretty small, only about 25 people, and it felt strange that I'd seen the others coming in and out but nobody had really introduced themselves. So I suggested to our RAs that we have some kind of get-to-know-you event... It was a success, and everyone brought a ton of food!

And I'll leave you with a note about the river, because I'm in love with the River Dee already. The campus sits directly on its bank, and I've discovered there's a footpath that runs all along the river: not just here by the campus, where we're a bit outside of town, but along its whole length, even closer to the city center.

My Scottish flatmate was unimpressed, when I mentioned how excited I am by this footpath ("in Glasgow, the footpath by the river would be where the junkies hang out") but for an American, used to the ultra-possessive nature of US property laws that so often leave no public access at all to lakes and rivers, I think the fact that anyone can walk anywhere along this river is downright amazing.

Here's a shot of my beloved river, on an unusually beautiful September day in Aberdeen:

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

All Year

I'm traveling again! So I may start doing a little travel writing here again, though no promises. (Right now, too busy doing the things to write about the things...)

BUT I'm moving to Scotland in a week (!) and on the way there I'm visiting Iceland for a bit: seeing friends, helping out with a music festival or two, and just generally being in this place I love so much.

This sign, in Keflavík Airport, made me laugh:


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

"First Song": One Second of Fame!

I met so many great musicians in Iceland this summer, while helping to run the Melodica Reykjavík festival, but probably my favorite discovery was a German singer/musician/painter named Peter Piek, a guy with a sweet, strange voice and a gentle presence and mad skills with a guitar and a bass and a looping pedal.

He collaborates with a video director named Marcus Grysczok to make these stop-motion music videos where Marcus photographs Peter jumping in the air lots and lots and lots of times, so that in the final product it looks like he's flying. They were shooting a new video while they were touring in Iceland, so on an idyllic, sunny day down by Reykjavík harbor, during an outdoor breakfast we hosted for all the musicians between performance nights of Melodica, a whole bunch of us put in cameo appearances: We each took a turn standing in one spot and jumping on Marcus' command – 20 jumps, I think, which at one frame per jump is just enough to make up one second of footage. See if you can spot my one second of fame!

The video is finally out, and it's cool and catchy as I knew it would be, but also way more beautiful than I could have imagined. Iceland...sometimes I look at pictures of Iceland and wonder how it's even possible that we're not all in Iceland, all the time. Plus, it's full of familiar faces and beloved places, from Reykjavík to Ísafjörður and in between, from my friends' amazing house where they host concerts in a converted former dance hall to all those wonderful Melodica folks jumping in the sunshine down by the harbor on a Reykjavík day nearly too beautiful to be true.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Ísafjörður Glimpses

Here, at long last, as snow settles over upstate New York, are the pictures from my beautiful, unforgettable summer in Ísafjörður, the little town perched up in the far reaches of the West Fjords of Iceland:


Everything from waterfalls to glaciers to northern lights, with a whole lot of road trips and puns (in Icelandic!) and grammar cramming sessions in between. I went there to take a three-week language course, but in the process made so many friends, and found yet another place that now feels like home.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Reykjavík Glimpses

I've now officially been back home for 1 month, and I'm almost-kind-of-not-quite-just-barely managing to catch back up on Life*. I've caught up on one subset of my photos from the summer – so here are pictures just from Reykjavík, with others still to come:


*(Searching for an apartment, moving into the apartment, starting back at my job, starting back at my other job, catching up with friends I haven't seen in three months, struggling to manage the return of my daily debilitating headaches, struggling to get back into my school year work schedule of 6 am wake-ups (and I have never, ever been a morning person), planning a big trip to a family wedding, single-handedly organizing a local show by an international musician I've been wanting to bring to my town for ages... Those are just some of the things I've been juggling this past month. Sheesh, no wonder I'm exhausted.)