Freedom!

Yesterday I turned in my final essay of the semester; I’m free from academic work at last, and can spend my last two weeks traveling and having fun in Belfast!

I am too ashamed to count how many days it’s been since I last blogged.  Final essays and presentations and a stream of visitors have given me plenty of excuses not to.

Here’s a quick recap of what I’ve been doing while my parents, British friends Jan and Alan, and sister Kelsey have been visiting at various times.

The Grand Opera House.  A glorious old theatre in Belfast, where Kelsey and I saw a beautiful adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire by the Scottish Ballet.

Being a diva as we wait for the curtains to rise.

May Street Presbyterian Church, one of the oldest churches in Belfast, where Kelsey and I were welcomed warmly by the tiny and rather geriatric congregation.  One of the men who spoke to us was a retired police officer; at one time, about 90% of Belfast police were Protestant, which was a huge source of controversy (and often power inequality) during the Troubles.  A perfectly friendly, grandfatherly man, he alluded to the Troubles in describing the church’s history; the central location of the church was at one time very dangerous, contributing to the decline of its membership.

Titanic Belfast.  The new museum covers everything from Belfast’s booming industries at the time of the ship’s building to the building and fitting out processes, the sinking and the aftermath.  It’s elegantly designed, very interactive, informative and a lot of fun.

Kelsey in the sign outside the museum.

St. George’s Market.  Of course, I go here all the time, and I couldn’t wait to introduce my visitors to its wonders.  Kelsey and I went after the May Street service, as St. George’s is just down the street, and I finally bought the pretty apron I’ve been eying at Tees and Toasts, hand-stitched with rainbows, clouds and sunshine in differently patterned fabrics.

Derry/Londonderry.  Kelsey and I met up with Kathryn Dean to take a wee day trip to Derry, where we had our own personal trolley tour, visited the Bloody Sunday memorial, and climbed about on the city’s historical walls, built in the early 1600s.

One of many civil rights murals in Derry/Londonderry, this one in the historically Republican “Free Derry.”

The three of us with our personal tour guide.

A lovely view of Derry from atop the city walls.

“Londonderry…No Surrender” – historically Loyalist territory.


“You are now entering Free Derry” – historically Republican territory.

The Ulster Folk Museum.  My parents and I enjoyed learning about urban and rural life in Belfast and County Antrim at the turn of the century.  Highlights included my mom and I eating soda bread we found sitting on the kitchen table in a demonstration house (clearly free samples) and petting the hens in one of the farm areas.

Giant’s Causeway.  You know all about this, but now I’ve been three times in total, and explored Dunluce Castle (Cair Paravel), which was a dream.  I think they ought to let you camp inside the ruins during the summer months.

Kelsey on the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge.

Dublin.  On my second trip to Dublin, Kelsey and I visited the National Leprechaun Museum (a pure delight), toured the Guinness Storehouse (where I discovered the Guinness tastes MUCH better than in an ordinary Belfast pub) and went on a literary pub crawl, led by two hilarious and knowledgeable actors who performed excerpts  from Joyce, Beckett, Plunkett and many more.  We stayed the night in the lovely Globetrotters Hostel, had a full fry in the morning (minus the meat for me) and went on a Mary Gibbons tour to Newgrange and the Hill of Tara.  Both were amazing!  Standing on the Hill of Tara, where the ancient Kings of Ireland were crowned,  took our breath away.  There is an incredible energy about the place, and you can see practically all of Ireland!

I’m enjoying more sunny weather in Belfast, and I’ll be traveling more in the Republic soon.  Trip planning begins now, so feel free to post suggestions if you’ve been somewhere in Ireland I shouldn’t miss out on!

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Adventures in Amsterdam

Get ready…We’re going to go back in time.  Since my original blogging-on-the-continent plan flopped, I’ll be interspersing my Northern Irish blogs with chapters about my spring vacation!  So first, some more on Amsterdam.

Kathryn and I enjoyed our sightseeing in Amsterdam, and there is much to recommend about this beautiful city!  Each morning, we awoke to the sounds of church bells playing elaborate melodies; as Kathryn remarked, “The buildings sing!”

We got up with some pretty early churchbells Tuesday morning, with the goal of getting ahead of the crowd at the Anne Frank Huis.  It was a lovely morning to walk along the canals, stopping every so often to squint at our map, until we found the museum at about 8:40 am.  It was still twenty minutes before the house opened, but there was already a line forming!  We were glad we had planned ahead and didn’t have to wait too long.

It’s been a while since I last read Anne Frank’s diary, and the exhibits reminded me of how thoughtful, honest and articulate Anne’s writing was.  And is, truly, as people have engaged with her words for sixty-five years now, in over seventy translations.   Her story forces the tragedy of the Holocaust into sharp focus, allowing readers to get to know one bright, young mind who was lost forever in that colossal horror.

At the same time, it is a delight to know how charming and funny and wise Anne was in her writing even in the worst of circumstances.  As a writer myself, I found it incredibly moving to stand in the rooms where Anne wrote and to see the red plaid clothbound diary in which she began her now famous diary.  I also loved seeing the pictures she writes about in her diary that she posted on the walls of the room she shared with Margot: fashion ads, nature photographs, pictures of celebrities like Ginger Rogers and the baby Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, to name a few.

After Anne Frank, we revived our tired selves with coffee and went to find a far less serious museum: Kattenkabinet, an old house filled with famous cat art.  Part of the draw of this museum was that two real cats actually live there, but they were hiding in the garden when we visited.

We  bought our cat-themed postcards at Kattenkabinet, then had a simple but delicious lunch at Toos and Roos (meaning uncertain): Dutch cheese sandwiches with arugula salad, sweet chutney and warm pumpkin soup.

Continuing the theme of small, quirky museums, we then headed for the Houseboatmuseum, an actual houseboat that’s no longer occupied so that tourists can visit.  I happen to love small, cozy spaces, so I was ready to move into a houseboat!  They have electricity and running water; the only downside is that houseboats require a lot more maintenance than the average house.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering through the pretty Jordaan neighborhood, eating ice cream and stroopwafels  (sweet wafers filled with syrup).  On our way back to our hostel, we stumbled upon De Oude Kerk (The Old Church), which is a stunning church dating back before the Reformation.  It was originally Catholic, of course, but later was turned over to “the same kind of Protestants as you have in Northern Ireland!” as the docent told us.  Interesting.

We’ll move forward in time a bit when I blog about the next day in Amsterdam, with pictures and all….

In Firenze!

My plan to blog a little along the way hasn’t exactly worked out, but I promise to fill you in!  I’m currently on the last leg of my journey, in Florence with fellow Scottie Emma Kearney, an Art History major.  My association with Florence up until this point has been the Broadway musical The Light in the Piazza, but I must say that it’s not entirely unlike the romanticized version in my head.  Tuscany is beautiful, and I have already eaten quite a bit of delicious pasta, pizza and gelato.  I’m getting reading to go see Michelangelo’s David in about an hour, after which we’ll tour the Uffizi Gallery, which according to Emma contains, “about 50 percent of Florence’s art.”

Yesterday was a fun day as well.  I slept in after getting to Florence by plane and train Tuesday evening, then met Emma and two of her roommates at the Duomo, which we climbed for an incredible view of Florence.  We ate delicious panini for lunch, then had tea and warmed up in Emma’s gorgeous apartment (it was raining).  In the afternoon, we went to the market to buy food for dinner.  We made pasta with asparagus and eggplant, which we ate with salad and goat’s cheese.  Then we got inspired.  With the assistance of Emma’s roommate Fran, who’s taking an Italian cooking class, we made pear pecorino tortellini with truffle oil and balsamic cream!  It was stunning.  I can’t wait to show you the pictures of making (and eating) the tortellini!

Just to recap and give you a taste of the what’s to come in my blog, after Amsterdam Kathryn and I spent a day in Brussels, a day in Rennes with our friend Sally, three days in Paris with Sally and three days in London with yet another Scottie, Uyen.  Kathryn flew back to Belfast and took the train to Coleraine, while I flew to Madrid to visit my cousin Anna Burns.  From Madrid, I flew to Pisa and took the train to Florence.

Stay tuned for more Florentine and generally European adventures! 🙂

Day 1: Easter Break Adventures!

I’m blogging from the Shelter City Hostel, where Kathryn and I are staying in Amsterdam!  We arrived here yesterday afternoon and will stay until Thursday, when we move on to Brussels, then Rennes, Paris and London.  This is the beginning of our Easter Break Adventures: two weeks of travelling for Kathryn and three for me!  I won’t be able to upload pictures while I’m travelling, but I’ll try to update my blog as often as possible so you get a sense of what I’m up to.  Then I promise to post an album of pictures once I’m back in Belfast!

Kathryn and I really wanted to come to Amsterdam after both reading John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars recently, in which the main characters take a trip to Amsterdam.  You should read The Fault in Our Stars when you get a chance; it’s sad, but funny and poignant as well.  John Green is a talented young adult author with an adorable young family, so buy his books and support him!  After checking into our hostel and napping, we very fittingly visited Bibliotheek, the Amsterdam Central Library, for our first tourist destination.

Bibliotheek is not just a free public library with seven floors of books, magazines, films, music, computers, etc.  It’s also an architectural wonder and a truly delightful place to visit.  Every floor has eye-catching and ergonomic work spaces.  For example, one of the computer areas has Macs set up in the center of low cushioned beds, an arrangement of which the Agnes Scott McCain Library should probably take note! 

We had great fun exploring the library, especially the children’s section on the ground floor.  Here, we hugged a gigantic stuffed animal polar bear, took cat naps in brilliant red ergonomic chairs, and took a good look at Mousenhuis.  Mousenhuis is an elaborate dollhouse, like Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House for mice.  These mice have cosy bedrooms, bookshops, music rooms, an art studio, even an archeological museum with large skulls that perhaps once belonged to cats (though I doubt they were real).  It’s a veritable mouse village.

The Bibliotheek was a wonderful mixture of relaxation and charm, perfect for our first outing in Amsterdam!

The Princess in London: Part 2

When I left you, I was just about to tour the state apartments at Windsor Castle.  This part of the grounds is closed to visitors when the Queen is actually staying there, but she was away when I visited.  The state apartments are vast, a maze of drawing rooms and reception rooms, ballrooms and dining rooms, queen’s and king’s bedchambers.  Some of the rooms are used more than others; for example, it was hard to picture Elizabeth II settling in for the night in the museum exhibit bedrooms we saw, but the Waterloo Room, a grand hall at the entrance to the apartments, is used regularly for formal state dinners and events.  Another dining room, a circular room with an incredible view of the town and countryside, is still used for the royal family’s private dining.

My favorite part of the state apartments was the beautiful and impressive art collection.  I didn’t expect to find a small art museum in the Queen’s house, but the rooms are filled with portraits by Rembrandt, I really liked van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I’s five eldest children, all younger than 10 and gathered around a huge bull mastiff, who sits patiently with the eldest child’s hand on its large doggy head.

Once I’d finished wandering around Windsor, I left the castle and crossed the Thames into Eton territory.  I saw a bit of the campus, as well as some Etonians wearing their funny uniforms, which include pinstriped trousers and a coat and tails.  See a very young Prince William at Eton below.

(Picture borrowed from http://resources0.news.com.au/images/2010/01/15/1225820/064716-prince-william-wearing-traditional-eton-uniform.jpg)

I was also very amused by this poster I found on the Eton Societies notice board.   That very night, the Eton Debating Society would be impersonating Republican Primary Candidates and debating the issues as though Eton had just become the 51st state.  Too bad I had to get on the train and couldn’t stay to see what the Etonians made of the absurdities in American politics.

Another sunny day dawned and I rode the train to Hampton Court, which was inhabited at various times by Henry VIII, Queen Mary I, James I, Charles I, Charles II, William III and Mary II, and George II.  The castle was originally Tudor, as reflected by what is now the front half.  In the late 1600s, William and Mary commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to rebuild the palace in a Baroque style, which is now the back half of the complex.  The original intention was to tear down all of the Tudor palace, but funds were short and the mix of architectures is all the more interesting!

A few sections of the newer half of the palace were closed for setting up a new exhibit, but I did enjoy exploring the Georgian Apartments.  I spent most of my time in Henry VIII’s palace, however.  He’s the kind of historical character who’s so disturbingly fascinating you can’t look away (even though, to be honest, he’s not nice to look at).

For example, I started out my exploration of his castle in the vast kitchens, housed in the castle’s basement.  Always one to make a Harry Potter connection, I thought of the Hogwarts kitchens, but no house elves were to be found.  I’d like to believe that the Hogwarts community eats more sustainably than Henry VIII did.  As you might surmise from the picture, about seventy percent of the royal diet was meat in Henry’s time.  And the tradition of courts moving from one castle to the next at various points in the year?  It all started because the king would eat up all the resources in one area and the court would have to move to allow the community to replenish itself.

As everyone knows, Henry VIII went through wives about as quickly as he went through local livestock, so after touring his kitchens I headed to the courtyard to hear the latest gossip about his upcoming marriage.  Henry VIII’s niece Lady Jane and his son Edward’s nurse met in the courtyard to “speculate” about who the sixth queen might be.   As they led us through the palace and into the Great Hall, we learned all about the previous five wives and how their fates might affect Henry’s next choice.  Lady Jane showed us a picture of one Elizabeth Brook, a young beauty from a well-connected family who she was sure would be the next queen.  Lady Frances reminded Lady Jane that Henry’s most recent young wife, Catherine Howard, had been unfaithful to him, so he would be unlikely to choose another young bride.  She expected Henry to take back his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves.  The lively pair invited the audience to place bets as to whose speculation might be correct.

Eventually, Henry VIII himself came along to put a stop to the gossip.  Neither of the ladies were correct, as Henry had already chosen to ask Catherine Parr for her hand.  She is the only bride of Henry VIII’s to “survive” being married to him.  The first and fourth wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves were divorced, the second (Anne Boleyn) and fifth (Catherine Howard) executed, and Jane Seymour, the third, died after giving birth to Edward.

Once that matter was settled, I spend some time touring the grounds of Hampton Court.  It was a gorgeous day to wander around the Palace Gardens and get slightly lost in the maze, one of the oldest mazes in Britain.  My strongest association with a hedge maze is the mammoth one built for the final Triwizard task in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, so the experience was just a tad creepy.  Luckily I found the maze centre and my way out without using a Portkey or running into Voldemort, a sphinx or a Blast-Ended Skrewt.

All in all, I had a delightful time in London!  I’ll be returning to see more of the city itself in a little over a week’s time; but more about my spring break plans tomorrow!

Even Sunnier Days in Belfast!

I know that I owe you two long posts, one to finish up my experience in London and at least one more about Drama at Queen’s.  I’m working on those!  Trip planning is dominating my time at the moment.

Here’s a picture of Belfast’s Botanic Gardens to entertain you while you wait.  It’s been in the 60s (Fahrenheit) for four straight days in Belfast, and people are delirious with joy!  Everyone’s wearing their shorts and sundresses.  Starbucks baristas are frantically whipping up iced lattes and Frappuccinos.  Students are barbequing and sunbathing on the lawn outside my dorm every afternoon.  There’s barely an inch of free grass in the Gardens, as you can tell from this photo, which I took on my way to peruse the charity shops on Botanic Avenue for…you guessed it, shorts and sundresses!  I didn’t pack a lot of warm weather clothing…

This kind of weather is outright balmy for Belfast.  It may be short-lived, but all of us here are enjoying it while we can:)

A Royally Good Time: The Princess in London

While I love the intrepidity of traveling alone, it’s also wonderful and necessary to see a familiar face every now and again.  I’m lucky to have Scotties studying abroad all over Europe, a cousin teaching English in Madrid, camp friends and family friends throughout the UK.  This past weekend, I stayed with Nikki and Nancy, friends from my summer job at Camp Aloha Hive who live in Weybridge, outside London.  I really enjoyed catching up with them, playing with their cats, and eating lots of delicious vegan food.  We also talked a lot about camp, which got me super excited for the summer and all the cool things still in store for me after my adventures abroad.

I also got to have dinner with Jan, my mom’s friend from when she worked in London during college, her son Alan and partner Dick.  They were in Paris for much of the time I was in London, but I’m so glad I got to see them, and dinner was delightful.  We went to a Persian restaurant in Richmond where Jan and I shared some hummus, and I had okra stew and a magical dessert: saffron and rosewater icecream.  Happily, I will get to see Jan and Co. more later in April, in both London and Belfast.  Sneak peak: Kathryn Dean and I will return to London during our European travels over spring breaks, beginning in a little over a week!  Details to come.

In addition to catching up with good friends, I fit in two castle tours: the working palace Windsor Castle and the history-rich Hampton Court.  Both were incredibly interesting and fun for different reasons.

Windsor was my first stop.  As soon as I left the train station at Windsor & Eton Riverside, I could see the castle looming above the town to my general left.  (“You literally can’t miss it,” Jan had told me.)  So, having no trouble keeping the castle in sight, I started walking into town until I found the visitor’s entrance.  The grounds are vast.  The picture below can only give you a sense of the scale if you consider that there is more castle to the left that matches the right side of the path, and much more castle at the distant end of the path, where you can see white towers on the horizon.

I decide to go St. George’s Chapel first, when a guide helpfully pointed out that it would be closing before the State Apartments and other attractions.  The chapel architecture is stunning.  I couldn’t take pictures inside, but I wouldn’t have been able to capture it anyway, especially the glorious afternoon sun radiating through the massive, west-facing stained glass window.  Here’s an artsy view of the chapel exterior, however.

Completed in 1528 (after more than 50 years of construction), St. George’s Chapel has since been the site of royal baptisms, weddings and, most often, funerals.  Quite a few royals are buried there, my favorite examples being King George VI and the Queen Mother (Elizabeth II’s mum and dad), King Henry VIII and Jane Seymour.   The grave of the latter two was apparently unmarked for quite some time until, after breaking into it several times accidentally during renovations, someone decided to put an engraved marble slab in the floor.

This last tidbit of information I got from a very knowledgeable docent who was giving a tour of the chapel.  Apparently, this tour was for very fancy people who knew things about art history and architecture or perhaps had lots of money, but I did not realize this.  I started listening to his tour so that I could learn more about this beautiful place, and he engaged me and didn’t make any funny faces, so I assumed it was all right.  He pointed out interesting details in the west window, which portrays an array of saints, but also the stonemason who finished the chapel.  At the bottom of the window, some of the faces are scratched blank, the work of some rebellious folk during the Reformation.

It was not until we got to the Albert Memorial Chapel that I realized I was not technically supposed to be on this tour.  After introducing the room to the group and pushing aside the velvet rope for them, he said to me quietly, “It’s not open to the public, I’m afraid, but…” he kind of glanced around, “Are you by yourself?”  I nodded.

“Well…” he said, “Come on.  You’ve been with us most of the way.  It wouldn’t be fair.”  He must have recognized me as a princess, or at least as an earnest college student.  So, I got to learn even more about the chapel in this richly elaborate Gothic room.  This is actually the oldest part of the chapel, and used to be all there was.  The chapel was renovated and made even more elaborate after Prince Albert’s death, at which point Queen Victoria renamed it the Albert Memorial Chapel.  A funerary monument to Albert resides in the chapel, along with several monuments to lesser known royals.  The walls are adorned with dyed, engraved marble pictures of Biblical scenes.  The room is exquisite, and I wish I could have taken a picture to show you!

Next, on my way to Queen Elizabeth’s state apartments, I visited the exhibit of Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House.  I’m including a picture of one of my favorite rooms, the queen’s bedroom, because the detail is just too amazing to settle for not showing you.

Since we couldn't take pictures inside, I borrowed this one from <telegraph.co.uk>

The doll’s house was built for Queen Mary between 1921 and 1924 by British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens and is fully furnished, a little palace in its own right.  The exhibit also included dolls and doll clothes given to Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in the 30s by “the Children of France” on a state visit to England.  I thought it was very cute to see toys the Queen would have played with as a little girl!

Speaking of cute, there was also a special photography exhibit, “60 Photos for 60 Years,” to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.  A few of my favorite pictures: the Queen as a young woman stopping work at her desk to pet a corgi, the Queen and Margaret Thatcher in mostly darkness, looking at each other in profile (very intense and creepy) and the Queen meeting Lady Gaga.  The cutest one was of her inspecting some royal troops, all of whom looked very serious except for William, who was smirking as though his grandmother had told him a joke as she glided past.

I’ll let that sink in, then post about the state apartments, Eton, and Hampton Court in Part 2!