Winter Wonderland

On some level, it felt almost sacrilegious going to a Christmas/Holiday amusement park and market on Thanksgiving. But we were desperate for something to do while everyone else in our program stuffed their face with turkey.

It started with a couple of my friends asking me if I wanted to do anything on Thursday. No one had the time or desire to cook. Plus, it was only just the four of us and I was already planning on doing a Friendsgiving (a Thanksgiving potluck amongst friends) on Sunday. Ice skating was brought up as an alternative, and I immediately thought of Winder Wonderland in Hyde Park.

My friends and I pose for a picture in front of the wonderland's gates.
My friends and I  in front of the wonderland’s gates.

I’ve been seeing ads for this winter carnival everywhere: In the tube, in TimeOut: London, on buses, in the newspapers, etc. And as a good saturation marketing campaign should work, it kind of sunk into my brain and popped out again an option for a night out. Plus, I had already looked, that week’s tickets were discounted (off-peak is what they called it, the time right before the crowds start to appear). My friends had no objections, so we bought tickets to the ice skating rink online and planned on walking over together.

When the night came upon us, we bundled up and set out for Hyde Park. We could see the lights from Winter Wonderland as we approached, the rides sticking out from the tree like a distant…well wonderland. As we got closer, and the Serpentine came into view, the carnival’s reflection appeared and glittered in the dark water. The excited screams of riders drifted towards us in the breeze. We all took a movement to stop, stare, and smile, before continuing on.

The place was bigger than expected. Through a gateway proudly proclaiming that we were now entering Winter Wonderland was a maze of roads with minimal signs and maps. We got a little lost trying to find the ice skating rink. The lights and sights dazzled us, and we were easily turned around. But eventually we made it, just in time for our 8:00pm time slot.

Winter Wonderland reflecting in the Serpentine.
Winter Wonderland reflecting in the Serpentine.

After picking up our skates and checking in bags, we were out on the ice. It was a relatively small rink and the condition of the ice was terrible, but overall we had a good time. It took me a moment for my muscles to remember how to skate, but I eventually got into the swing of things. I wasn’t as good as some of guys who were quite literally skating rings around other people, showing off to all the girls in the crowd, but I wasn’t as bad as the people who refused to leave the ledge throughout the whole hour.

I did fall three times though. The first two were my fault. But the third, someone ran right into me. It had gotten pretty crowded by that point and this girl just plowed straight into me. We laughed and she apologized profusely as only the English can. Nobody was hurt.

Some of the dazzling lights in the carnival.
Some of the dazzling lights in the carnival.

After our hour was up, we returned our skates, picked up our bags, and then headed out into the market and carnival. We didn’t have much money on us (it was cash only) so we just wondered about: touching all the knick-knacks and ornaments in the market stalls, staying away from the numerous and deviously tempting candy stalls, gaping at all the rides that were lit up in an obnoxious amount of lights (there was even an haunted house), drooling over the smell of the German food wafting out from the food courts, etc.

There were a ridiculous amount of pubs and mulled wine stalls. This wouldn’t have happened in the states. The more time I spend here, the more I’m realizing how Puritan America still is. In the states, drinking is common but not commonplace, whereas here, it’s everywhere. You can even get a pint on the train or in a museum. So when we saw all the alcohol in Winter Wonderland, I all that wasn’t surprised.

We eventually couldn’t resist buying some freshly-made donuts, chowing down on the sugary goodness as we made our way out of the place. It was getting close to closing time. As we headed home through the park, we turned back and the lights were already off. The wonderland was dark and the further we went, the more the rides blended into the tree line. Eventually it looked as if it hadn’t been there at all.

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Cemeteries in the Belgian Cold

We woke up and it was snowing. Nothing dramatic, just a few flakes that refused to stick to the ground. We had seen worse in Boston, but that still didn’t bode well for the weather that day. We had to hit the road at 9:15am, but our professor enthusiastically described the Saturday morning market, insisting that we shouldn’t miss out on this piece of authentic Belgian culture. That was enough to convince us to wake up early and walk to the market.

The stalls were mostly still being setting up when we arrived, so a friend and I grabbed a fresh pastry from a bakery stall and walked around, watching the Belgians set out their local fruits, smelly cheeses, pre-prepared meals, mass-produced clothing, and more. It wasn’t a farmers market nor was it a tourist-y market. It was just a place for locals to do their weekly shopping, to gather everything they needed for the week. We understood what our professor meant by describing the market as a slice of the real Belgium. After we finished our pastries, licking the cream and crumbs off our fingers, we bought some bread, apples, and cheese. This was going to be our lunch or dinner. In total, it was one of the tastiest and cheapest meals I’ve had in Europe so far.

When we got back to the hostel, it was time to leave. We gathered our belongings, took one last look at Ieper in the early morning light, and boarded the bus. We drove through muddy fields and greying skies to a cemetery. It was a relatively small place. Headstones unevenly placed on a grassy knoll that, a hundred years ago, used to be a battle field.

As the snow that morning suggested, it was cold, a bone-chilling cold that made us shiver and stamp our feet. Our professor said to imagine staying out in this cold, covered in mud and water, for ten days and then we would understand what the soldiers in the trenches went through. We shivered some more. He then proceeded to give us all the gruesome details of the conditions in the trenches and medical facilities. Afterwards I gave a presentation on Fritz Haber, the German Jew who invented manmade fertilizer and chlorine gas. (To learn more, listen to this RadioLab episode.)

We then hopped back onto the bus, desperately trying to warm up before we had to go back out into the damp Belgian landscape. Next stop: An actual trench…so to speak. They had recreated it above a real underground headquarters in order to semi-mimic what that part of the Front looked like. The trenches were built of concrete and wood instead of mud and sandbags. The view was not of endless fields, but of an industrial park with wind turbines towering over us. Nevertheless, our professor said the place is typically covered with school groups and tourists. It was empty that day, the cold and the fear had made sure of that.

After a quick student presentation on trench diseases, it was back onto the bus. It was now time to see the other side of the conflict. After WWI, the Belgians gave acres and acres of land, scattered throughout the country, to the British so they could bury their dead. The Germans on the other hand were allowed only two cemeteries. Langemarck is one of them.

It’s a particularly gloomy place. The grave stones are a somber black, set flat into the ground in neat, sharp rows. Tower-like trees spread their meager branches over the sight, plunging it into darkness even on a bright day. At the entrance to the graveyard is the Comrades Grave, meant to mark the masses of Germans buried here without headstones.  It’s a small oak paneled room covered in names. They surround you. Many of them were student volunteers who were slaughtered during the First Battle of Ieper. The British weren’t the only ones to suffer mass causalities. The rain started while we were standing outside, gazing over the graves. We quickly hurried back to the bus.

But there was still more to see. Next stop: Tyne Cot. Placed on one of the few hills in the area, the cemetery and memorial is one of the biggest and most grandiose graveyards devoted to the British dead in WWI. In the center is a large white cross that sits on an old German gun post, and thousands of orderly white headstones circle around it. Our professor equated the place to Arlington Cemetery in terms of the amount of significance and emotional weight that this graveyard has for the British people. It was certainly overwhelming to behold.

The rain had continued as we stood upon that hill, getting chilled to the bone looking at the graves. So to warm up before we headed out again, we briefly stopped in the one-room museum located just outside the cemetery. We all stood in there, trying to get feeling back into our fingers and hoping and praying that the rain would stop. It didn’t and the wind picked up.

We rushed to the bus, and headed off to Poperinge, the village just behind the frontlines where the Allies gathered to take a break from the trenches. After a quick lunch (I had shrimp croquettes, which were good but not the best thing for my still recovering stomach), we headed to the military jail and execution sight.

Inside this little dank room, the florescent light bouncing off of the white-wash, cinderblock walls, our professor detailed how and why nearly two dozen British soldiers were executed by the British army. (He had literally written the book on the subject.) Many of the deaths were due to “cowardice.” They were soldiers who just couldn’t take the fighting and left. It was a consequence of what they later called “shell-shock” and what we now call PTSD.

It was then off to Talbot House and the adjacent museum. We were to end on a light note: learning how the soldiers relaxed. After briefly walking through the museum and watching a video of a recreation of the shows that were performed for the soldiers there, we entered into Talbot House. The purpose of Talbot House was to give an egalitarian, non-secular space for soldiers to relax and recollect themselves after the horrors of the trenches. It wasn’t a place of sex or booze like everywhere else in town, but a place of reflection, learning, prayer, and games.

Today, it’s still a functioning space. As well as being open to visitors, it also serves as a hostel, continuing to offer weary travelers rest and solace. We ended our tour in the chapel in the attic. It was a small, carpeted room full of simple furniture and natural light. Even after a hundred years the place still felt homely and safe. A perfect way to end our tour of one of bloodiest areas in WWI.

After a quick stop at a local bakery and grocery store to pick up our last minute Belgian sweets and beer, we stepped back on the bus for one last time and headed off to Calais. As easy as it was getting into France, it was twice as hard to get into England. Not only were there more coaches coming in and therefore more of a queue, the border agents were also much more suspicious. There was this one guy in our class who got grilled by the agent because he had been traveling around Europe so much in the past few weeks, trying to get the most out of his time here.

We eventually made it all through security in one piece, but then the real wait happened. The wind had gotten so bad that the ferry was delayed. Not only did it take longer for it to arrive, but it had to wait until the water was calm enough so it could dock safely without damaging the boat or the port. In the end, we waited on the bus for three and a half hours.

Our professor had brought the Blackadder WWI series, Blackadder Goes Forth, for emergencies such as this. I ate my bread, cheese, and apples as we all sat in the darkened bus, watching and eventually getting tired of the intensely black humor. We ended up finishing the series before we were able to drive onto the ferry.

The boat was ready in due course. We all cheered when the bus finally moved. The celebrations were a little preemptive though. The wind had not completely died down and we, consequently, had an extremely rough ride through the channel. The boat rocked and swayed the whole time. Occasionally booms could be heard as waves smacked into the sides of the boat. My still tender stomach couldn’t handle it. I didn’t throw-up, but if I hadn’t sat down and closed my eyes the whole time, I certainly would’ve.

It was 1:30am by the time we got back to London. Needless to say, when I got back to my room, I threw my stuff onto the floor and I collapsed into my bed.

Ieper and War

I’ve mentioned how my classes are required to field trips (see Day 10, 12, and 25), the same is true for my history class. However, unlike the other courses, we were not limited to London. As the topic was the history of the World Wars (with a particular focus on England), the Belgian section of the Western Front was a logical location to take us.

The plan was to take a bus to Dover, a ferry to Calais, then a bus to Ieper, the site of three major battles and the first use of chlorine gas in WWI. It’s a long journey but fairly straight forward (and cost effective on the part of the university). Usually, according to the professor, the trip goes off without a hitch. Only this year, we didn’t exactly have the best timing.

Brussels, the capital of Belgium, was on lockdown the weekend we were in the country as they attempted to search for the conspirators of the Paris Attacks. To make matters worse, both France and the UK were on high alert, hyper-sensitive to anyone coming in and out of the country. We found out later that the government had even stopped all UK field trips (both grade school and university) to the continent from now until Christmas. How we were still able to make our way to the Western Front, I have no idea. Perks of being American, I guess. Regardless, we were still, at the very least, expecting long security lines, and we were reminded to bring all necessary (and not so necessary) papers so that we could make it through border controls.

With all that in mind, we gathered outside the classroom building in the early morning to wait for the coach that would ferry us around for two days. The coach was late, a consequence of miscommunication. Then just as we were about to leave, someone released he had forgotten his passport. We had to wait as he sprinted back to his dorm.

My professor was worried. He knew London well enough to know that even in 10 minutes the amount of traffic can drastically increase, especially in the moments leading up to rush hour. He needn’t had wasted his energies though. We ended up on an earlier ferry then the one we had intended on getting on. We were quite literally one of the only coaches coming out of the country. The UK government had made sure of that.

Upon the decks of the ferry to Calais. © Violet Acevedo
Upon the decks of the ferry to Calais. © Violet Acevedo

Once on the ferry, we all headed to the café to grab a bite to eat. Most of us hadn’t had breakfast. We sat next to the window and watched the famously white cliffs of Dover shrink into the horizon. We eventually made our way onto the upper desks and braved the biting sea wind to witness the French coast slowly make its way towards us. It was the first time I had been on a ferry and I gazed out at the waves with wide eyes. Security problems or no, I knew this was going to be a great trip.

Once off the boat we wasted no time in heading off to Belgian boarder. On our way, we passed a refugee camp a few miles from the coast. We all saw the tent city: obnoxious blue tarp shelters, sticking out from the brush in semi-organized rows. We could spot people walking the improvised streets, hunched from the cold. It took us a moment to register what we were seeing. This wasn’t just a picture or a video from a newscast. These people were right there in front of us. It was hard to accept. Learning about news is quite different from witnessing it. But before we could fully understand what was in front of us, the refuges and their shelters were gone, pushed off into the distance by the speed of the coach. There was a moment of silence after that.

Looking out from the waffle shop in Ieper. © Violet Acevedo
Looking out from the waffle shop in Ieper. © Violet Acevedo

Needless to say we arrived in Ieper before schedule. After checking into the hostel, which we basically had to ourselves, we were allowed to roam until we had to meet up to go to the In Flanders Fields Museum. Nearly all of us headed to the waffle shop in the town center. I don’t think I have to tell you how good the waffles were. Let’s just say that we were all thoroughly sweet sick when we walked into the doors of the WWI museum.

The museum, like the rest of the town, was fairly new. During the fighting the whole of Ieper and the surrounding countryside was turned into a marshy wasteland. Everything was destroyed. It took 40+ years to rebuild each building brick by brick (with the Germans paying for all of it), so while the architectural styles of the town may be older, the buildings themselves are well under a hundred.

The museum is even younger than that. Refurbished in 1998, the place is full of dramatic lighting, interactive videos, and engaging displays. My professor happens to be one of the leading English experts on the Great War at the moment, and he even helped to write the captions for the museum. So while we were given free rein to wonder about, it was helpful to stick next to him as he explained the intricacies of the front and the battles that took place here.

The gas masks of WWI. © Violet Acevedo
The gas masks of WWI. © Violet Acevedo

It’s hard not to get moved by it all. Looking at and learning about how millions of men lived and died within a span of a few years, you’d have to be heartless not to feel moved. At the end of the exhibit, there is a list of all the wars that have taken place after the War to End All Wars. There’s dozens of names.

After we finished, we split up once again for a couple hours before we had to meet for a second time at a memorial. Zoe, who was also in the class, and I grouped together and headed out to a bar at our professor’s suggestion. We wanted a real meal but the bar wasn’t serving food yet, so we ended up gulping down our Hommel Biers and heading to a Belgian fast food place for some fries. Then after wondering around some shops and buying some chocolate, we met up with the rest of the class at the memorial.

The memorial, called the Menin Gate, is basically one big grave marker for all those, on the British side, who were never found either because they were blown to pieces or sunk deep into the mud or were never identified. Thousands of names cover the walls of this massive stone arch. Poppies and wreaths, mostly placed there on Remembrance Day but are normally renewed throughout the year, decorated the interior of the gate.

The upper level of the Menin Gate. © Violet Acevedo
The upper level of the Menin Gate. © Violet Acevedo

Before the ceremony, a local historian (who happens to be close friends with my professor) gave us a brief lecture about the memorial. He mentioned that when they were planning the structure, they realized there wasn’t enough room for all the names of the missing. Thousands were left off and other memorials had to be built. Add this fact to the overwhelming number of names already on the structure, and the Menin Gate should be a sobering sight for anyone, but that didn’t stop some of our classmates showing up mildly drunk and late to the ceremony. Zoe hated them for that.

The ceremony is nothing fancy, but meant to be extremely poignant. It happens every day at 8pm, a moment to commemorate the millions who were killed during the fighting. Trumpet players from the local fire brigade play the Last Post followed by a minute of silence. Everything stops (including the construction going on in front of the gate) and people gather from all around, crowding under the memorial, struggling to stay quiet as the wind blows.

Afterwards, my professor treated us to a drink at a local bar. We hung out for a little while and then a couple other people and I went to another Belgian fast food place to get some sausage. We were all craving it for some reason. But it was so fatty and rich, and along with the beer…my stomach was not happy. I woke up in the middle of the night feeling nauseous. But I forced myself back to sleep. I had a long day ahead of me.

‘Jane Eyre’ on Stage

There’s a lot I don’t particularly like about the BU London Abroad program. I could rant for quite a while about how much the program costs and then how cheap they are when it comes to some things, about how they can’t get their crap together when it comes to housing, about how they don’t provide us with enough information about certain things…See? Once you get me started, it can be hard for me to stop.

But, in general, I don’t hate BU. It’s just easy to complain sometimes. In truth, BU can be pretty helpful if it wants to be. For example, they use their magic group buying powers and tuition fees to offer us a limited number of discount theater tickets in London. That’s how I was able to see Jane Eyre at the National Theatre.

My ticket and the free program accompanying the show.
My ticket and the free program accompanying the show.

I set off early that night, so I took my time getting there. I stopped to admire the National Theatre’s ‘60s, modernist architecture: strong, solid concrete masses, standing proudly under colored lights. Once inside, I watched the people—tourists and students and workers—have a drink or a conversation before the show.

I eventually made it to my seat, and it really struck me then how good my ticket was. Here I was, in the orchestra, in the center of the row, and the stage fully fleshed out in front of me. Not too close, not too far. Goldilocks would’ve been ecstatic. I wasn’t going to complain about BU tonight. Other BU student eventually joined my section, and we chatted until the show started.

Now I’m not a theater critic, just an audience member who knows and loves the source material. If you want a critical opinion from someone who really knows theater, there are plenty of sources for you. All I know is that I was deeply moved and impressed by the performance.

The set was minimal: wooden platforms and metal ladders that converted from one location to another through the use of lighting. The cast was limited: everyone, save the woman playing Jane Eyre, took on several different parts, transforming themselves from role to role with the aid of simple costumes and props. Instead of hindering the imagination, the lack of artifice actually made the story more personal, more real. It was as if the empty spaces on the stage allowed the audience to easily slip in to the narrative and fill it with their own emotions. I came close to tears several times.

The stage and my view of it.
The stage and my view of it.

Overall, it was a wonderful adaptation of Brontë’s novel. All the famous speeches were included; all the famous characters were present. But what makes a good adaptation of a classic, something that stands out from the dozens of other versions, is the new way in which it presents the well-worn story. Besides the aforementioned minimalism, the play also offered the most complex and sympathetic take of Bertha that I’ve ever seen. (If you don’t know who Bertha is, read the book or watch the 2011 movie.) She became more of symbol of femininity and passion than the stilted archetype she usually is. (I will never listen to Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” the same way ever again.)

They did leave some things out, though. Largely, they were little, inconsequential details: the gipsy scene, Miss Temple, etc. The only point in the storyline they mentioned but never brought up again was Jane’s extended family on father’s side. (You know, the uncle that leaves her a bunch of money…) But in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t really matter. As an audience member, you still fell satisfied at the end.

And that’s exactly how I felt as I walked out of the theater and back into the London rain and gleaming lights.

The Doctor’s Cardiff

Full disclosure: I’m a Whovian (AKA a big fan of Doctor Who). Have been since 2007 when I walked into the room while my dad was watching it (read more about that here). The show is one reason (in many) why I was so excited to go to Britain. So forgive me while I geek a bit.

Cardiff had been on my to-do list since landing in Heathrow. The city is where they film most of the show. They even set a spin off, Torchwood, there. (Wales is to England, as Canada is to the US; they film a lot of things there simply because it’s cheaper.) In addition, BBC has set up a museum, the Doctor Who Experience, next to their studios. So like any self-respecting Whovian, I had to go there.

I was supposed to meet my cousin there (he’s stationed outside of Cambridge; I visited him in September) as he is a minor Whovian and wanted to see the Doctor Who Experience as well. He was running late, so I walked to Porth Teigr (the location of the museum) on my own from the city center coach stop I got off at.

Normally, it wouldn’t be that bad of a walk, a little long, but on the whole not that bad. But what I wasn’t counting on was the weather. I knew it was supposed to be raining that day and had prepared for it. It was the wind that I wasn’t expecting. It got so bad (even worse than Dublin) that I had to put my umbrella away for fear of breaking it. So I was left walking for twenty or so minutes, hunched in my raincoat, getting blasted with water from all sides.

I didn’t matter though. My excitement at seeing the Wales Millennium Centre staved off any ill-feelings that this kind of weather normally induces. The supposed entrance of the secret Torchwood base and site of numerous Doctor Who episodes, the plaza in front of the Centre is an iconic spot known to any remote fan of the newest incarnation of the series. It was deserted when I was there, and I had a hard time seeing it through the mist on my glasses, but I didn’t care. I was here. I squealed in delight.

I then made my way to the Doctor Who Experience (I was thoroughly soaked by that time) and waited for my cousin in the café outside of the exhibit. After waiting for about an hour, he called me and said he couldn’t get there. Google was not giving him a route to the area that could work. He was frustrated, tired, and I could tell that the weather was getting to him. He called to say that he was giving up and going home. I was now on my own.

So I got into in at the last entrance time. There were only about ten other people there: a couple of families and a few tourists. After going to so many places full obnoxious amounts of people, it was both refreshing and a little sad to be in this tiny group. I could tell that none of them were avid fans, just causal viewers looking for something to do on a cold and rainy day. The time of year and the weather had scared everyone else off. I felt a bit like a black sheep.

The Doctor Who Experience comes in two parts: the Interactive Experience and the Exhibition Hall. During the Interactive Experience, the visitor is placed within a specially created Doctor Who adventure and gets to go through all the thrills and fears of a companion. I won’t say anything more specific about the story (spoilers), but I will say that I felt a bit awkward during it. It would’ve been so much fun had more people gotten as into it as I had, but most didn’t. The adults just stood around, admiring the set design. The teenagers scoffed at how fake it all was. Some of the kids looked around in confusion (they were pretty young). I still tried to make the most of it though.

I really geeked out when I got to the Exhibition Hall. Similar to the Harry Potter Studio Tour but on a much smaller scale (ironically), the exhibit includes two expansive rooms full of sets and costumes from the 50+ years of the show’s history. From the original TARDIS consul to Missy’s costume, many of the highlights from over the years were there. I got to walk around the Ninth and Tenth Doctor’s TARDIS, peer into the eye of the first Dalek, examine the stitching on the Forth Doctor’s scarf, tap the glass of the Face of Boe, and stare up at the blank face of the Cybermen. I don’t believe I stopped smiling the whole time. Once again, I was by far the most enthusiastic. I took tons of pictures.

Afterwards a short stop in the gift shop, it was back out into the wind and rain, which was now accompanied by darkness. Without the anticipation of the Doctor Who Experience to sustain me, the weather started to get to me. Gloomy, wet, and approaching miserable, I ducked into the Wales Millennium Centre to take a moment to warm up. The place was packed with people, color, and lights. I had stumbled into the end of a Diwali performance. It was a pleasant surprise if I ever saw one. I lingered long enough to regain my smile and then left to get some food.

After a quick meal of fish and chips, I made my way back to the coach stop. It had stopped raining and I was finally allowed to enjoy Cardiff, dressed in its Christmas lights and full of late night shoppers. I wished I could stay longer, but I couldn’t. All the more reason to come back someday.

Irish Rain

Day 2. It was harder to get up that morning. To make matters worse, the skies looked gloomy and pregnant with rain. But we headed out anyway. Places to be. Sights to see.

First on our itinerary: St. Patricks’s cathedral. We had a small window before services started. It was Remembrance Sunday and special prayers were going to be held. Remembrance Sunday is the Sunday nearest Armistice Day, which original marked the end of WWI. Now, it’s used as a period of remembrance of those that were lost and wounded in the conflict. Initially, the occasion was used only to remember the Great War, but it has grown to encompass every war since. In England, people buy and wear poppies in the days leading up to Armistice Day to show their support for past and present soldiers.

Originally, WWI wasn’t marked as solemnly in Ireland because their fight for independence really revved up during the war, and both WWI and Armistice Day were seen as too English. So those that were lost during the conflict weren’t publically remembered for decades afterwards. Even now, the occasion is not nearly as big as it is in England. Even so, they were still selling poppies at St. Pat’s. We all bought one. It only seemed right.

St. Patrick's Cathedral on Remembrance Sunday. ©Violet Acevedo
St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Remembrance Sunday. ©Violet Acevedo

We wandered around, gazing at the numerous memorials and religious statues in solemn silence. Unlike in the other cathedrals I’ve visited so far, there was no music, just the echoes of our footsteps. We took a moment to observe the poppy wreathes and read the informational banners temporarily put up to teach visitors about Ireland’s involvement in WWI. We didn’t stay long after that.

It was still cold and damp when we left, and so we decided to head to Trinity Bar for an Irish breakfast. But while we were in there, it began to pour, water falling down in sheets while pedestrians huddled farther into their raincoats and umbrellas. We lingered over out sausage and eggs and puddings, listening to the ubiquitous U2 and hoping that we could just wait out the rain.

But it continued, and the wind eventually joined in, viciously pulling back hoods and yanking umbrellas inside out. There came a point where we couldn’t wait any longer. We chose a moment where it looked like it was letting up and then charged outside and started to make our way to Trinity College. Stupidly, I had forgotten to bring my raincoat (unlike the others) so I only had my umbrella and waterproof shoes for protection. But luckily, I had lived in Boston so I knew how to handle an umbrella in the wind.

The Old Library in Trinity College. ©Violet Acevedo
The Old Library in Trinity College. ©Violet Acevedo

The weather calmed down a bit once we got to the college, and we gathered with the other soaked tourists in the atrium, waiting for the tour to start. It didn’t take long before we were led out into the main courtyard. The guided view of the college would’ve been much more interesting and fulfilling if the rain hadn’t picked up again, causing the 30 or so of us to take shelter under porches and gazebos and giving me a very limited view of the buildings. But that wasn’t really what we were here for. We mainly wanted to see the Book of Kells.

After an informative exhibit that explained the historical context and significance of the illuminated bible, we shuffled into a dimly lit room and peered down at the medieval book. It wasn’t turned to one of the famous pages but we could still witness the details and artistry involved in the illumination of the bible verses.

The exhibit then lead to the Old Library, a tall, cathedral-like room lined with shelves full of dusty, ancient volumes. After gaping and wandering around for a while, I can understand why this is one of the most famous libraries in Ireland.

Sunset on the River Liffey. ©Violet Acevedo
Sunset on the River Liffey. ©Violet Acevedo

It was pouring again by the time we left through the gift shop, so we hurried to a restaurant by the River Liffey that my friend had heard about and we remained there until we had to leave for the airport. Just before we left, the sun finally came out for one last hurrah before setting, sending the streets glistening. Rain always gives the best sunsets.

Going Irish

Zoe and I flew into Dublin at night, zooming over the webs of light woven by human activity. Fireworks Night had technically already past, but fireworks still sprouted up and bloomed below. It was strange. These normally large impressive explosions were now only brief bursts of unsteady light. But they were still just as beautiful.

We were visiting Dublin because our friend is studying there on another BU Abroad program. She had already visited us in London (see Day 34 and Day 35). Now it was our turn. She had a schedule planned out (printed maps and everything) so we started out early, took the bus into the city center, and made it into the first tour at Kilmainham Gaol—the infamous Irish jail that was briefly home to hundreds of mostly petty criminals and political prisoners.

It’s most well-known inmates were the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916. These seemingly average people had attempted to fight for full Irish independence from the British. They obviously failed, and it being war time, the British showed no mercy. They rounded up the leaders, held them at Kilmainham and then proceeded to kill them one by one in the jail courtyard. Before the Rising, most people were generally ambivalent or against the idea of an Irish Republic. However, how the leaders were killed and the sympathetic stories associated with them turned the tide of public opinion. These rebels became martyrs and folk heroes still celebrated today.

We learned this from our tour guide (and, literally the day before, from our history class) as she showed us around the ancient walls of the jail. We started in the oldest wing of the building (build in the 18th century) and strolled through the cold, stone corridors. Centuries of grime stained the walls and dimmed the grey, rainy light coming in through the windows. After lingering long enough for our guide to point out cells that notable Irishmen had spent some time in (including the leaders of the Easter Rising) and a few other facts, we moved on to the newer wing of the prison.

Added on in the 19th century, it followed the latest thinking of the day, which including the healing properties of natural light. So after dim and dank corridors we were lead into a large, oval shaped room, flooded with daylight from the skylight above. It still wasn’t necessarily a happy place—the white washed walls were impersonal and the cells were cramped—but the sweeping lines of the design gave off a decidedly elegant flare. No wonder many films have been shot here.

We were then led to the inner courtyard where the leaders of the Easter Rising were shot. Another gloomy place built with dark grey stone that loomed over us, blocking out the meager sun. Appropriately, it was raining.

After the tour we spent sometime in the museum, had a snack at their café, and then headed off to our next stop: The Guinness Storehouse.

Even more Irish then the four leaf clover is a Guinness pint. Back in the day, they used to believe it was better for them then the water (which it probably was, but that’s beside the point). So, yes, the Guinness Storehouse (basically a Guinness museum located in the old distillery and next to the new one) is a bit of a tourist trap, but it kind of had to be done. Plus it was a very well-designed tourist trap: from the dramatic lighting to the engaging videos to the interactive elements, it was the most modern and user-friendly museum I’ve ever been in.

The ground floor and first floor take you through the beer making process from the ingredients to the distilling to the transport. Then up to second floor to the tasting rooms where they attempt to teach you and 30 over people crammed into one room how to properly taste a small sample of Guinness. Then on to the third floor to see statues of the zoo animals that used to sell the alcoholic drink. Some kids were climbing on the turtle and the seal, both of which were posed to steal the zoo keeper’s pint. Now there’s an image you won’t see in the states.

Then, passed the Guinness Academy where they teach you how to pour the perfect pint and the over-priced restaurant and bar, we went to the top of the building and entered the Galaxy Café to redeem our free pint. The room was jam packed with people all jostling for a place. It was amazing that there weren’t many catastrophic spills. We gathered our Guinness and were lucky enough to find seats near the windows. Now here was why we choose this bar (as opposed to the other two in the building) to have our pint: the 360° view of Dublin.

The clouds were breaking up, illuminating the bricks and stones of the city below. The mountain hovered in the background to one side and seagulls dove and soared on the other. Yes, you can tell that they knew what they were doing when they built the Storehouse.

After we (almost) finished our pints and bought our souvenirs, we made our way over the self-claimed “oldest pub in Ireland.” Regardless of whether or not that statement is true, the food was hardy, classic, and very good.

Once we finished our meals, we wandered around for a bit: Visited a couple bridges, spied on the statue of Oscar Wilde through the bars of the park gates, and strolled through a couple stores. We would’ve done more but it was still damp and much colder than expected so we ended up huddling in another pub for desert and live music before heading back to get some sleep.

Remember the 5th of November

“Remember, remember the fifth of November…”

The English have been celebrating the capture and burning of Guy Fawkes, a 17th century Catholic traitor, for hundreds of years. Traditionally, it’s celebrated with a large bonfire with an effigy of Guy Fawkes smoldering in the middle. But now, people don’t really pay attention to the gruesome origins of the holiday, and instead just use it as an excuse to blow off fireworks in the middle of the city. It’s officially known as Guy Fawkes Night, but more often than not, they just call it Fireworks Night.

It’s such an iconic English holiday that I knew I had to do something for it. It would be like visiting the US and not doing anything on the 4th of July. So I scoured TimeOut: London for suggestions on the best way to enjoy this quintessentially British celebration, which, of course, would mean going to see fireworks.

photo credit: Wakefield Fireworks 2014 via photopin (license)
photo credit: Wakefield Fireworks 2014 via photopin (license)

My search had to be limited though, because I was going to be in Dublin during the weekend of most of the firework shows. Thankfully, Nov 5th fell on a Thursday this year and I could find things to do before I flew off to Ireland.

So after finding a free show relatively near, I told my friends, and we all made plans to go. I got their first and started to make my way to the park. Along my route, I passed a banner advertising the fireworks show. I only barely glanced at it, at first, but then a phrase caught my eye: “No tickets, no entry.” Tickets? But I thought this was free?

Now you have to keep in mind that my only experience with firework displays are during the 4th of July where people bundle their picnic supplies, make their way to a field outside the city (preferably near a body of water), find a spot amongst the crowds, and hunker down and wait for the oohs and ahhs. That was what I was using as my point of reference.

After reading the banner a second time, I stopped and took out my phone, cursing myself in my head and hoping against hope that I hadn’t been wrong about the show. Well, it turns out that I was right about it being free, but you still needed a ticket to enter. The whole concept of having a ticket for a free event was completely new to me.

Needless to say all the tickets were all gone by the time I was standing there next to the banner, minutes away from the park gates. I cursed again and went to meet my friends at the tube to tell them the bad news. I was really pissed with myself and angry that everyone had depended on me to plan things (like they always do, but that’s another story). How could’ve gotten it all wrong? Now how was I going to see fireworks?

My friends didn’t help. They weren’t as disappointed as me. In fact, they just shrugged it off. And for some reason they really got on my nerves. The group was mismatched and uncoordinated, haphazardly put together. They mindlessly walked around, not really paying attention to anything but their loud conversations as Zoe and I tried to figure out what to do next.

Zoe then came up with the idea of going to Greenwich, climbing to the top of the hill at the park there, and looking down on London as the fireworks shot out from a distance. I was sick of being the one who planned everything, so I agreed only because I didn’t have to think up of an alternative. So, off we went.

We got a little lost on the way there, but we eventually made it to Greenwich. It was 6:45, 15 to 20 minutes before the show started. I had no clue where we were going (I had only been to Greenwich twice, and in the daytime), so a let Zoe navigate using her phone. The others trailed along, not really paying attention to what was going on. I was steadily growing anxious, constantly looking up at the sky to make sure we weren’t missing anything. And my friends’ apathetic attitude and constant questions as to what we were doing, really got on my nerves.

We got lost again, making me only more upset. I could hear the fireworks in the distance now: Large blasts, echoing across the city. Only without sparkling lights to soften those harsh sounds, it sound like a war had started without our notice. I needed to get to that park.

We eventually found the gates, but they were locked. Another thing we should’ve known: parks close in large cities to reduce crime. I once again cursed my suburban logic, and sulked away from the group. I couldn’t stand the brash, caviler manner of my friends. I couldn’t stand the boom of far-off fireworks. I couldn’t stand my mistake.

The very distant view of fireworks from a Greenwich side street.
The very distant view of fireworks from a Greenwich side street.

But then I stopped and looked up. There, in between a few houses and apartment buildings, something glittered and bloomed: a faint bouquet of fireworks. I stood there, transfixed as the lights shimmered and flashed in that little corner of the skyline. I calmed down at that moment. It wasn’t what I was imagining, but I was still seeing fireworks on Fireworks Night.

After the lights had faded, we regrouped and eventually ended up in local pub. Once there, we ate and drank and played board games for four hours. I’ll be the first one to say that the night wasn’t perfect, but at least it ended on a good note.

And as Zoe had said earlier: “We can use not really celebrating Guy Fawkes Night as excuse to come back to England.”

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November…”

European Halloween

It’s fairly obvious that Halloween in the UK is not like Halloween in the US. The October holiday is a multi-million dollar business in the states and is celebrated in our usual loud and brash manner. I will always remember walking around the Fenway area in Boston on the 31st last year, the amount of people, the amount of costumes…simply put, it was fantastic madness.

The UK, on the other hand, isn’t as enthusiastic. First of all, the holiday has Celtic origins and the English didn’t always have the best relationship with the Celtics. Second of all, they already have a fall festival, Guy Fawkes Day, to help them let off steam. And third, they aren’t nearly as commercialistic so the candy companies don’t push the holiday as much. All of it adds up to a Halloween that is considerably lackluster compared to the American counterpart.

As an American, it’s certainly strange to see noticeably less enthusiasm around dressing up, getting scared, and carving pumpkins. Interest is there, and it’s apparently bigger than it was, but still I’s annoyingly small. To make up for that fact, us Americans (i.e. my friends and I) decided we had to do something. Going out was eventually rejected, as everything cost £15 or more. Plus, we didn’t really have costumes (there was no obnoxious marketing to remind us). So alternative options had to be explored.

I was going to hang out and watch movies and bake a cake with a group of friends, but my roommate convinced me to go on a ghost tour with her. I literally bought the last ticket.

“It’s a sign,” my roommate exclaimed.

The tour started at the Tower of London and ended at St. Paul’s Cathedral, taking us on a twisting path through the City. You see, the financial heart of London is contained within one square mile they call the City (of London). I’ve walked the area during the day, and it’s usually bustling with men and women in suits speed walking through this glass, stone, and concrete maze.

Deserted Cock Lane (see below). © Violet Acevedo
Deserted Cock Lane (see below). © Violet Acevedo

But it was Saturday and around 9 o’clock at night when we were there. There were a few people about, some ghouls and witches and tourists on their way to a party of a hotel. But quite often we were on our own, strolling through the streets in our little group, trying to keep up with our tour guide. Our footsteps echoed off the old and modern buildings. Sometimes the streetlights would flicker from red and green and back with only the occasional taxi passing through. An interesting place to be on Halloween.

Because we covered such a large area, we spent more time walking than we did listening to stories about London’s hauntings. I didn’t mind. It was such an unusual way to see the City:

We lingered at the Tower to discover the saga of King Henry III’s polar bear from its life to its afterlife.

We dwelled at the Monument to the Great Fire of London to try and picture the suicidal men and women falling to their deaths from the top of the monument hundreds of years ago.

We stopped at the Royal Exchange just long enough to hear a tale about a Victorian widow supposedly still begging for spare chain.

We paused at the original sight of the Bedlam mental hospital and listened to gory stories of what they used to do to the patients.

We gathered outside Bunhill Cemetery to learn about the writer William Blake and other spirits who wonder near their graves.

Then near the end, we took a moment to mark the home of Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane, the famous Victorian hoax that garnered attention and attracted believers for decades. The ghost in this story was a trick created by a cash-strapped renter to avoid being evicted but he ended up attracting much more attention from the religious Victorians than he bargained for.

Outside St. Bart (see below) © Violet Acevedo
Outside St. Bartholomew the Great church (see below) © Violet Acevedo

In a way, Fanny’s story was a very fitting addition. From a cynical stand point, this tour was very similar to that hoax. In between stops, we talked to our tour guide. He was a college graduate from Essex and readily admitted that during all the years he’s been conducting the tour, he has never seen a ghost. And you can tell he didn’t really believe. He was just going through the motions for the tourists and the pay check. He kept mentioning his boss, and I couldn’t help but get the feeling that this was all a trick to take tourists money. It made it hard to believe in his stories.

I guess it’s appropriate then that creepiest part of the tour wasn’t ghost related. We had huddled together in the courtyard of St. Bartholomew the Great church to listen to stories about its name sake, the Henry VIII’s statue located inside, and the films shot here. Like most themed tours, fun facts about the city were sprinkled within. So even though ghosts were not the subject of conversation, it was standing there, in that dark and dank courtyard as leaves circled around our ankles and silence drifted in from the deserted street, that I felt a chill run up my spine. But it was a brief feeling and it was gone by the time we reached St. Paul’s.

I’m not going to say that I didn’t have fun. Roaming the relatively empty streets of London’s financial heart, listening to fascinating true-tales, talking to our guide about Halloween in Britain, all made the outing worth the £7.50 I spent. It was a fun way to spend Halloween.  I wasn’t expecting to see any ghosts anyway.

English Day of the Dead

While I was in school in Boston, I never really craved Tex-Mex (true proper Tex-Mex from Texas). While I was at home in Texas, I never really celebrated Dia de los Muertos or, in English, Day of the Dead. But now that I’m outside of the US, completely away from most Mexican culture, I’m yearning for both of those things.

Time Out had a couple pages in the latest issue devoted to Day of the Dead celebrations in London. In particular, there was a large festival with food, music, and plenty of sugar skulls. But because the tickets were £31.50 and it happened to be on a day I would be out of town, I looked into other options.

Day of the Dead decorations outside the British Museum. © Violet Acevedo
Day of the Dead decorations outside the British Museum. © Violet Acevedo

I found out that the British Museum was having free Day of the Dead festivities on Halloween weekend. Well, I simply couldn’t say no. I ended up dragging along a couple friends selling them on my high expectations. I mean, the description promised Mexican food, live music and performances, and large art installations. Why wouldn’t I be excited? In fact, I was so excited that we mistakenly arrived early and was left to wander the museum, waiting for the event to start.

Now that I think about it, there’s something so peculiar about having a Day of the Dead festival in the British Museum. The building is basically a palace devoted to the spoils of the country’s conquests. Back when they were an empire, the way Imperial Britain celebrated and recognized other cultures was to steal their historical artifacts and appreciate them in the comfort of a “civilized” setting. So to have a celebration of Mexican culture in this imperialist bastion is a little strange and slightly unsettling.

As the Day of the Dead event finally started, a friend and I grabbed a program and found a place in the crowd. A large, decorated skeleton towered over everyone and colorful, stylized skulls were projected on the walls around us. And then they came out: two dancers dressed as a skeletal bride and groom, standing high upon wooden stilts. The spun and tangoed around the area in a danse macabre. It was a huge crowd-pleaser.

Day of the Dead decorations. © Violet Acevedo
A skeleton towered over the Great Court. © Violet Acevedo

After these dancers shuffled to the back, new ones emerged from the audience. They wore elaborate costumes, complete with traditional jewelry and elegant feather headdresses. They gathered together and proceeded to perform repetitive dances for a solid half an hour. There was obviously meaning behind every step, every instrument, every costume but what that meaning was, was unknown. All the program said was that these performers would be “paying homage to the pre-Hispanic cultures of Mexico with a danza azteca.”

The novelty of the costumes and the surprise of their entrance quickly wore off. The audience got bored and started to murmur and fidget. By the end, in the conclusion of the performance, when the main dancer was attempting to say that these traditions still lived within Mexico and Mexicans, so many people were talking that I couldn’t hear his exact words.

This example reflected the general reaction of the crowds to the whole event. I got the impression that people there were, not contemptuous, but not entirely respectful. Some of them were truly curious, but others were only faintly interested in the novelty. I had the feeling that, to them, Mexico was so far away, and Mexican culture was so exotic that it didn’t seem entirely real.

I guess this is a good time to say that I’m a quarter Mexican. I never identified as a Mexican, but I can’t deny that its part of my heritage, however faintly I am connected to it. So I’m in an awkward position where I don’t know much about Mexican culture myself, but I get slightly offended when others are completely ignorant. (It’s a byproduct of being part of America, the land of immigrants and mutts.) This feeling has only increased the farther and farther away from Texas I get. So it’s safe to say, that while I understood why people were reacting the way they did at that festival, I still didn’t find it exactly comforting.

"The Hour of the Wolf" performance piece. © Violet Acevedo
“The Hour of the Wolf” performance piece. © Violet Acevedo

The rest of the night was a general let down. The Mexican food promised was guacamole and quesadillas, paired with imported beer and packaged margaritas. We couldn’t find where the Mexican films were playing and had to settle with a Day of the Dead inspired performance piece and a live DJ, both of which sounded cooler than they actually were. We did run into a female mariachi band, which was very entertaining and probably the only thing that lived up to the hype.

We ended up leaving early and finishing the night by eating nachos and watching The Book of Life. I really regret not experiencing Day of the Dead in Texas when I had the chance.