October 2, 2012

Oh Paris, what can I say? I have had the best few days in the beautiful city of light, and I am so sad to leave. It was my first time in France, and I can now see why Paris seems like the center of the world to so many people. I have a lot to cover, so I will try to keep my descriptions brief. I won’t even be able to come close to capturing all that we experienced in these few days!

On Thursday afternoon I left the archives and headed into central London to catch my train to Paris. After a lovely, and quite fast, train ride, I arrived in Paris in the evening. My mom met me at the Gare du Nord, and it was so great to see her and explore Paris together! We hopped on the (very) crowded and hot Metro and headed down to our hotel in Montparnasse. I must say, that despite all of the charms of Paris, London has it beat as far as public transportation! But it’s ok, because you really don’t need to use it very much, since most of the best areas of Paris are within walking distance of each other. We arrived at our hotel on the Rue Delambre, which was the same street that Jean-Paul Sartre lived on. Montparnasse was a cultural and intellectual haven during the early twentieth century, and it has a fantastic history and charming atmosphere to this day. We stayed on the top floor of an adorable hotel, with two tiny balconies attached to it! It was the perfect place for us to use as home base as we headed out to different parts of the city (and it was very European—tiny elevator, tiny bathroom, so charming!).

Since I had been traveling for a while, I had worked up a bit of an appetite, so we headed out in search of food (which, in Paris, is abundant and delicious!). We got some warm panini at a little street stand, and walked around the neighborhood for a while. Paris is so similar to how I always pictured it—wide boulevards, hundreds of cafes with dozens of tiny tables spread out in the front, awe-inspiring architecture, beautiful gardens, and artists and students galore! I was pretty much in heaven from the start.

On Friday morning we headed out to conquer the first sights. We walked to the Luxembourg Gardens first, which is one of the most beautiful spots in the city (and only ten minutes walk from our hotel!). We found some strong coffee at a little stand and sat around the gardens, taking in the view. It was a beautiful start to the morning! From there we kept walking and wandered through parts of the Latin Quarter towards Notre Dame. On the way we discovered our favorite crepe place, which is just a little hole in the wall but has some of the most delicious and cheap crepes in Paris. With warm crepes in hand, we headed to Notre Dame. The cathedral is beautiful and intricate, and completely impossible to describe. You really have to go and see it for yourself! It was amazing to see such an iconic structure in person. We were blown away by the architecture and grandeur of it all, and we also had some fun outside. There was a man feeding pieces of churro to all of these little birds outside of the cathedral, and he gave some to us so that we could feed them as well! We had clusters of tiny birds grouped around our hands taking bites of this churro, and then he would hold pieces over our head so that the birds would land in our hair for a snack as well. It was so fun!

After Notre Dame, we went to the Shakespeare bookstore and explored all of its nooks and crannies. I loved it! It’s a truly amazing little place. I just pretended that I was an American expat living in the 1920s, reading and writing out of the corners of this winding store and having life-altering conversations with fellow wanderers. I could have set up residence in there! But it was off to see more of Paris after that.

We went back to the hotel for a break and then headed to the Eiffel Tower. It looks much bigger in person! It’s very cool to see, even though it’s in a pretty boring part of town (more of a business district). From there we went to Montmartre to walk around until dusk, when we planned to climb the Sacre Coeur. Even though Montmarte is very touristy and seedy in some places, it’s also very beautiful up in the hills. It reminded me of the hill town where I studied abroad in Italy— Bergamo. The streets wind around and with each twist and turn, you get a new and ever-breathtaking view of Paris. It’s fun to just explore and get lost, it made me feel like I was transported back in time (this was away from the inevitable tourist traps, of course—they are an epidemic in Montmartre!). As it got darker, we headed to Sacre Coeur to take in a view of Paris at night. The church itself is gorgeous once illuminated in the evening, but of course, the view of Paris at night beats most sights that I have seen in my life. It’s really beautiful but impossible to describe!

Exhausted and full of baguettes, crepes, café crème, and panini (have I mentioned that we ate our way through Paris? There is always an excuse for a snack when you are there!), we headed back to the hotel and collapsed. The next morning, we decided to take it easy and check out the market in our neighborhood. Paris has a really great rule regarding local markets. Each arrondissement is required to hold an outdoor market twice a week, so the residents of each neighborhood can buy all of their produce, meat, cheese, bread, and other goods fresh every few days. It’s so fun to walk around these markets and see the array of food that is available in France—it’s mouth-watering! We bought some peaches and some Breton crepes, and mingled with the locals who were out purchasing their food for the next few days. After that, we went to the Montparnasse cemetery to walk around and look for the graves of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (we completely missed them, but went back another day and found their joint headstone, so all in all it was a success!). The cemetery is beautiful, with such a cool array of headstones and monuments. From there we explored a few more of the back streets of Montparnasse, and then headed to walk around the neighborhood of the Pantheon.

The Pantheon is enormous, and has a very interesting history (look it up!). The whole area around the Pantheon is beautiful, with hilly, twisting roads that reveal fun little shops, cafes, and of course, tons of university students because the Sorbonne and other universities are in the same neighborhood. After a good bit of exploring (and some more French snacks!), we crossed the Seine to check out the Marais. This area of Paris became one of our favorites. It has an incredible history, and because it wasn’t destroyed when Haussmann redesigned Paris in the nineteenth century, it has lots of winding medieval streets. It’s also the historic home of Parisian Jews and other immigrant populations, so it has great energy and diversity (of course, in recent years, it’s become very trendy and expensive—so there are also lots of upscale shops, hotels, and cafes!). We wandered around for a while and checked out the beautiful Place de Vosges, then went to what became one of our favorite cafes in Paris, Café Martini. It’s an adorable little place with incredible hot chocolate and bountiful meat and cheese plates. We were in foodie heaven when we got our “mixte” platter, which ended up feeding us both for two meals because there was so much (and all for 10 euros! Excellent). Full and happy, we did some more exploring of the neighborhood. Mom wanted some new eye shadow, so we stopped at a fancy French makeup shop (Guerlain), We ended up getting free makeovers from the sweetest Parisian woman, which made us feel like we fit in a little better in fashion-conscious Paris despite our tennis shoes!

Very tired from our exploring, we headed back to our hotel to rest (and eat our leftovers from dinner). After refueling, we went back to the Marais to watch a very cool outdoor digital exhibition about French history outside of the Hotel du Ville. It was really cool, and there were hundreds of people there, but we didn’t stay for too long because it was all in French and we could only understand so much! But never fear, there is always something wonderful to do in Paris. We took a beautiful nighttime stroll along the Seine, stopping at the Pont Neuf for a view of the city and walking along until we arrived at the Louvre. The Louvre is much bigger than I ever imagined, and it’s even more beautiful and breathtaking at night. The whole time I was in Paris, I was constantly amazed at the power that the French monarchs and clergy have had throughout French history. The cathedrals and palaces in Paris are ridiculously huge and awe-inspiring, and of course, very expensive to build and maintain. I can understand why there were so many revolutions there, with such wealth serving as a constant visual contrast to great poverty and suffering.

On Sunday, we headed back to the Eiffel Tower to meet up with a group to do a bike tour. On the way, we checked out a truly great neighborhood market that was buzzing with people and goods. The best part for us was the petting zoo! Yes, we found a petting zoo in Paris. The market had several pens with farm animals in them that you could pet and hold, from geese, chickens, turkeys, and peacocks (ok, maybe you can’t hold them) to bunnies, chicks, lambs, and piglets. It was so fun! I got to hold a tiny little lamb, it was super cute. We reluctantly left the market and headed to the Eiffel Tower, stopping along the way at a boulangerie. There we bought the most amazing prosciutto and cheese sandwich that I’ve ever had—and I’ve lived in Italy! I will judge all future sandwiches by this sandwich, and I can’t imagine that any will ever come close.

When we got to the Eiffel Tower, we met up with our group and headed to the bike office. The company is called Fat Tire bike tours, and they are a wonderful little group of American expats (along with guides from many different countries) that do really fun tours by bike in multiple European cities. We signed up for the day and night tour, since we knew that we could see much more of Paris by bike than by foot (and, since we don’t have credit cards with smart chips, we couldn’t rent the Velib bikes which are scattered all over the city). Following our American guide, Preston, we rode all around the military school, Louis XIV’s dome church, the Invalides military hospital, the Place de la Concorde, the Tuileries Gardens, and the Louvre. We covered a lot of ground, and Preston stopped along the way to tell us about different buildings and bridges along with their history. It was a great way to see this part of Paris, which is very sweeping and grand and exhausting to see by foot! Preston also taught us how to “dominate” Paris traffic and use the “palm of power” to stave off aggressive Parisian drivers, very useful since Paris streets are pretty crowded and tumultuous.

A few hours later, we returned for our evening bike tour with Andre, our Portuguese guide. He was a wonderful guide, and has lived all over the world, so he speaks four different languages fluently. The night tour was even more fun than the day tour, especially since Paris is absolutely bewitching at night. We rode down the Boulevard Saint-Germain, which brought us into the heart of the Latin Quarter, and around to Notre Dame, where we received a fascinating history lesson from Andre with the illuminated cathedral in the background (we also got some of the best ice cream I’ve ever had!). From there we crossed the river, took a very fun stop on the Art Bridge, and headed back west. Along the way, Andre would stop to tell us even more about different buildings and historical spots. We really felt like we got to know this part of the city with him! We biked through the Louvre at night, which never stops being enormous and beautiful, and headed down the Seine for our boat ride. The night bike tour includes this boat down the Seine, which is something we had planned to do anyway, so we got to kill two birds with one stone. A boat ride is a fabulous way to see Paris, since so many of its iconic buildings are along the river. We sipped French wine and saw the entire city by night from the river, it was really the perfect way to end the day.

On Monday, we stopped at a café near our hotel to have some café crème and drink coffee Parisian style: slowly, at a tiny table facing the street, with a wonderful musical ensemble playing in the square out front. One of my favorite things about Paris is that there is always some sort of live music being played, whether on a street corner, in a park, along the Seine, or on a moonlit bridge. There is nearly always music! After our incredibly delicious coffee and impromptu concert, we walked over to the Latin Quarter to do some more exploring and find some fondue. The Latin Quarter is, unfortunately, super touristy, but it still retains much of its charm and intrigue if you get off the beaten path. After some delicious cheese fondue and French onion soup, we decided to learn more about this hidden Latin Quarter by taking a walking tour.  As you probably know, I’m a little obsessed with walking tours in London, so I was delighted to find that my favorite walking tour company there has a small branch in Paris. Our British guide, Chris (who has lived in Paris for 16 years and is VERY knowledgeable about its history and architecture), took us all around the small streets of the Latin Quarter that remain untouched by tacky souvenir shops and endless gyro restaurants. He brought us into a beautiful old cathedral to teach us about its architecture, imparted stories of French pilgrims, told us about how Parisians lived during the medieval and early modern periods, shared rousing stories of famous poisonings, showed us the street where Voltaire lived, showed us Roman ruins, and taught us all about the history of Parisian education as we ended at the Sorbonne. When we were finished, I felt like I had seen a completely different side of the Latin Quarter and gotten a glimpse into a whole new chapter of French history. This is why I love walking tours—I get to see parts of cities that I would never be able to see or understand otherwise, it’s such a great way to get to know a place.

On Monday night, we decided to go back to the Art Bridge and take a picnic. We gathered the essentials—baguette, wine, cheese, and charcuterie—and headed for the bridge. We took in beautiful views of Paris as we overlooked the Seine and enjoyed our spread. As it darkened, we decided to walk up the Seine for a while and head towards the Arc de Triomphe (after stopping for some ice cream, of course). It was a very long walk, but a nighttime walk along the Seine never gets old! We gawked at the Arc and walked a couple of blocks down the Champs Elysees to catch some iconic sights of the city. Then it was back to the hotel after another very long, exhausting, and fantastic day.

This morning, we were quite sad to wake up to our final day in Paris. We wanted to fit in a few more things and enjoy our last day, so we decided to take one more walking tour to learn more about the Marais. We walked through the Luxembourg Gardens again on our way to that side of town, and I don’t think I could ever get tired of walking through them! It’s such a beautiful way to begin the day. We arrived at our meeting spot on the Rue de Rivoli, and set off once again with Chris to learn about the history of this fascinating neighborhood. He taught us all about the hotel particuliers (or the mansions of the neighborhood’s wealthy residents) and how they operated, along with the amazing house and story of Anne of Austria’s famous chambermaid, “One-Eyed Cathy” (look her up!). We saw two different churches and learned about how cathedrals changed before and after the Reformation, and walked through the winding streets of the Marais as Chris pointed to this and that and illuminated the history of the neighborhood as we moved. We ended at the Place de Vosges, and afterwards headed to the home of Victor Hugo to see his rooms. It was a fun little free museum, made the more interesting because it has been set up to reflect how Hugo and others of his class would have lived in the nineteenth century. These walking tours are worth every penny!

After the tour, we headed to an old Jewish neighborhood for some falafel. The falafel pitas that we had were some of the best things that we had over the whole trip! There was a huge line out of this falafel place when we arrived, and when we got our pitas, we completely understood why. Fully satiated, we ventured to the nearby Carnavalet Museum, which is the museum of the history of Paris that is contained in one of the old enormous hotels (mansions) of the Marais. The museum is very cool, with dozens of rooms decorated and furnished in the style of different historical periods in France. We saw the salons of the Enlightenment, the decadence of Louis XV and the nobility of his time, amazing artifacts and paintings from the French Revolution, the armor and weapons of Napoleon Bonaparte, and rooms reflecting France’s different republics, empires, and revolutions. It’s a fascinating museum, made more so because it is housed in one of the enormous hotels that we learned about on our walking tour earlier in the day.

After the museum, we only had a few hours before we had to head back so that I could leave for the train. Heavy-hearted at my approaching departure, I tried to enjoy and soak in the last bits of Paris that I could. We got some coffee at a café, had some macaroons, marveled at the enormous museum of modern art (the Pompidou), discovered a really cheap French cafeteria hidden in a basement, took a last visit to Notre Dame for some more pictures, had one last panini, and took one last beautiful stroll through Luxembourg Gardens. I am now back London for my last week of research. I have to give a huge shout-out to Dr. Ottanelli and Dr. Fontaine for all of their amazing Paris recommendations, it would not have been as great a trip without their help! The city captured my heart, and I’m pretty sad that it’s now behind me. But I have lots to see and do during my last week in Europe. So for now, I must bid you au revoir!

September 25, 2012

This weekend I braved the cold, wind, and rain to go into London and continue in my quest to get to know the city and its history. On Sunday I went to Westminster to take a walking tour, which was quite interesting in the terrible weather! It was freezing outside and raining, but to make it worse, the wind was gusting through the city and blowing the cold and rain everywhere! This didn’t stop throngs of tourists from coming to check out Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, and Westminster Abbey, though. The funniest thing was to watch everyone’s umbrellas, most of which were inevitably turned inside out by the forceful wind. The umbrella sellers were quite entrepreneurial, walking along with their carts and selling “brollies” to poor tourists, only to come back around half an hour later to sell another round to the same people as their first umbrellas had been torn to shreds. Many people went through several umbrellas that afternoon, to the delight of the brollie carts!

As for me, I was wearing a raincoat with a hood, so I didn’t have to worry about a broken umbrella. I was surprised when I showed up for the walking tour to find that there were about ten people willing to brave the elements to learn about the history of Westminster! Our guide was a delightful old Scot named Graham, who pressed through the gales to show us all he could about English history in two hours. He took us on a wet and windy romp through some of the oldest parts of England, and we learned about the history and workings of Parliament, the architecture of Westminster Abbey, and the many famous and notable figures that have traversed the same streets that we walked. Despite the weather, it was an enlightening and informative tour.

After the walk, I decided to take shelter in a museum. Since I was decked out in my rain gear and about three Tube lines were down (very common on a Sunday), I hunkered down in my jacket and boots and walked along the churning Thames all the way to the Tate Modern. Now, I am not an art aficionado. I really don’t know very much about art at all, though I do enjoy a good art museum and know a few things here and there about techniques and art history. But modern art completely flummoxes me. Every few years I decide to be brave and go to a modern art museum, but inevitably, I just leave confused. Case in point: when I got to the Tate, a large group of people were walking very, very slowly up and down the ramp of the main hall. Apparently this was some sort of performance art display, but I had no idea what they were doing, or why, or what it was supposed to mean. My hosts went to Tate Britain themselves today and said that the people were still going at it, and they didn’t understand it either. Anyway, if you like modern art, you can’t go wrong at the Tate. It’s a giant warehouse of everything modern art has to offer, and well worth a visit—incomprehensible displays notwithstanding!

On Monday it was still raining, so I decided to visit some more museums. I went first to the Museum of London, which is a wonderful museum near St. Paul’s that has galleries and displays of London’s history from prehistoric times to the present. I love any history museum, but especially museums of cities. This one did not disappoint, and took me from ancient tribes in the Thames River Valley to decolonization and multicultural London. I saw fascinating displays about life in Roman Britain, gory galleries about the plague and various conquests, and fantastic strolls through nineteenth-century London complete with recreated shops and figures in full Victorian dress. It’s amazing to see how much a city can change over centuries, and the many different identities and shapes that it takes over time.

After the museum, I headed west to have lunch with one of my old professors of British history. We had a delightful Thai lunch and talked history shop together. As luck would have it, her office is next to the British Museum, so I decided to take another break from the rain and spend a few hours there. The British Museum is absolutely stunning, and one of the largest museums in the world. It’s one of those places that would take weeks to really see and appreciate, but it’s also fun to go for just a few hours and hit the highlights.  I decided to take yet another walking tour, but this time of the museum itself (I’m a little obsessed with these walking tours, as you may have noticed). The guide of this tour, Isabel, was a walking encyclopedia. I’ve rarely encountered someone that can recall so many facts and details from memory as she could! She took us from the Rosetta Stone to the Assyrian lion-hunt panels, from the Parthenon sculptures to the burial rituals and cuneiform of ancient Mesopotamia, and from Egyptian mummies to Britannic Roman artifacts. Now, I confess that I can get a little impatient at many museums. Unless it’s a certain type of history museum, or a very moving art display, I tend to very casually run through priceless galleries like grocery aisles. I get especially annoyed with pieces of pottery, bits of rock, and other objects that seem so separated from the people who made them. And in a place like the British Museum, which contains an embarrassment of riches, ancient sculptures and monuments can start to seem commonplace. So it was very good to go with a guide, who pointed out objects and explained their story in a way that can’t be explained on a small plaque. She pointed out the unique artistry and movement of Greek sculptures in a way that my untrained eye wouldn’t catch, and explained the idiosyncrasies of an ancient panel depicting a lion-hunt that I wouldn’t have understood. When the tour was over, I walked around some other galleries, but was disappointed that the displays didn’t come alive the same way without her narrative!

After the museum, I had a little time to kill before the trains went off-peak (making it much cheaper to get home!). So I wandered over to Covent Garden, which is a wonderful neighborhood that I hadn’t explored yet. The best part was the enormous piazza, which contains a three-story market. This market is much more upscale than the ones in Camden, so it was a completely different mix of people and goods. The best part, however, were the street performers. A cheeky classical ensemble played in a courtyard downstairs, flirting with the audience and following hapless tourists up and down the stairs with their violins. Outside, in the square, an Italian man wearing a red tutu brought in audience members to do ridiculous dances, skits, and tricks with him. The atmosphere of the neighborhood was energetic and festive, and I wanted to stay all evening to watch the different performers and wander through the stalls. But it was getting late, so I left London and headed back home to Kingston, ready for the next day back at the archives.

This weekend I will be going to Paris, which I am VERY exciting about! So no London adventures this week, but I will have a dispatch from France and all of the marvels that it surely holds in store. Until then, adieu!

September 17, 2012

Ok, I know that I have been here for a week now and haven’t blogged yet. But it took me five days to recover from my jet lag and resemble anything other than a drunken zombie, so here I am! I spent my first days here in Kew at the National Archives, which have been wonderful (and exhausting!). More about that on another day. For now, I want to record some of my experiences of the last two days before I forget them!

The archives are closed every Sunday and Monday, so I get to play around in London during those days. I’m staying in Kingston upon Thames, a charming village outside of the city itself, and it takes me about twenty minutes via train to get to Waterloo station. Yesterday, after a lovely service at my hosts’ local parish church, I headed into London to do some exploring and relax after a long week of research.

Traveling solo can be very isolating and lonely, so I have found that going on organized tours or something of that nature helps break up the solitude of being in a new place alone. One of the best parts of being in London is the amazing walking tours that they offer. The first time I came to London, I took a Jack the Ripper tour with London Walks, the main walking tour company here. It was a blast, and so I knew that I wanted to try some of their other walks. The rates are very reasonable (only 7 pounds, or 11 dollars, for students) and they last for two hours. The best part is that the guides take you to parts of London that you would never see or understand otherwise! It’s a really great way to get to know a city and also get some human interaction.

For my first walk yesterday, I decided to go with a guide from Little Venice to Camden Town. Little Venice is a beautiful and quiet section of London along the canals, with funny narrow British houseboats and grand estates along the canals that were frequented by great writers and artists at one time or another. The canals in the U.K. have towpaths running alongside them (called towpaths because, before the invention of the steam engine, horses would pull the boats down the canals by walking alongside the water on a path). Apparently, it’s possible to walk or cycle all the way from London to Manchester or Birmingham simply by following the canal towpaths!

I met my guide, Peter, by the subway station. There were only four of us on this walk, which was great because we got to ask Peter as many questions as we wanted! He led us along the canal all the way to Camden, which is about a mile and a half away. Along the way, he narrated the history of the canal system, the people who lived alongside them, and the life and culture of the people who live on the many houseboats that crowd the canals. It was a very nice and relaxing walk, and I learned way more about this part of London than I ever would have realized if I had gone on the walk alone! We ended our walk at the Camden lock, and I was completely unprepared for what I saw there. I knew that Camden is famous for its markets, but this was overwhelming! It’s really impossible to describe, you just have to see it for yourself. You can buy any sort of food that you want (Polish, Jamaican, Turkish, English, Malaysian, vegan, Chinese, Thai, Pakistani… anything!) and any sort of product that you want. And I mean ANY product that you want. I’ve never seen this much stuff packed into a market before. And when I say market, don’t imagine a nice contained little area with stalls and tents. This market is serious! It winds and twists, goes above ground and below, upstairs and downstairs, in circles and in dead ends, and never seems to stop. I wandered around the market for two hours and never found the end of it! It puts any Middle Eastern souq to shame.

After being completely bewildered (and scandalized) by some of the things that I saw at the market, I decided to make my exit and come back another day. The Camden market is really something that I need to prepare myself for before I return—but I WILL return, it’s a fantastic place. Just not for the faint of heart! My next walk was in Soho, so I decided to head near that area and hang out while I waited for the walk to start. I hopped on the Tube and went to Trafalgar Square, which never fails to amaze me with its largesse. I really don’t feel like I’m in London until I’ve seen it, so I was pretty excited when I turned the corner and saw those big lions! I had over an hour to kill until my next walk, so I took my pick from one of many nice pubs and decided to settle in with a beverage and a book. I love pubs in the U.K., they can really be the best places to sit and relax! This one was particularly charming, with private booths and many comfortable areas to sit. I sat in the pub and continued my reading of Sherlock Holmes stories, which I have been using to pass the time while on trains and buses over the last week. It’s so fun to read literature set in the place where you are visiting, and reading Sherlock Holmes while in London has really made the book come alive as I recognize the places that Holmes and Watson are going.

As the evening approached, I left the pub and headed to meet up with my next walking tour group. I was taking a night tour of Soho, and I really can’t recommend it enough! Soho is a funny little area of London, just north of Trafalgar Square, and it’s known for theaters, restaurants, Chinatown, and brothels. I didn’t know very much about it, but my guide (also called Peter!) took us through the whole history and culture of the place over our two-hour walk. He took us through the winding streets of the neighborhood and told us that it’s called Soho because it used to be a hunting ground, and that was the call that the hunters would call out to each other (he also informed us that Soho in New York is just a crass imitation of the real Soho in London. Put that in your pipe!). This neighborhood has a fascinating history, and I was thrilled when he took us to one particular apartment building and pointed out that this was where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital. In another part, he showed us where Charles de Gaulle and the French Resistance met during World War II. Crazy! Other famous residents include Mozart, Lord Byron, and George Orwell. It’s really a fascinating neighborhood, and I took lots of notes of places to visit the next time I make it over there.

Today I returned to London for my second day off, and started out with a walking tour entitled “Darkest Victorian London.” We met on the north side of London Bridge and walked across to the South Bank, as the guide told us wonderful stories about London’s working class during the Industrial Revolution. It’s a history that I’ve always found compelling for various reasons, and it was wonderful to walk the streets of the old slums and hear the stories from the guide. Completely nondescript buildings would have some interesting tidbit behind them, and I learned a great deal about the really terrible lives of working people in Victorian London. One of the most amazing aspects was the Cross Bones graveyard, which was a graveyard for prostitutes and paupers. It had been covered up and forgotten over the last century or so, and a few years ago, the British rail companies wanted to build a new route through this empty land. They discovered all of these skeletons, and since then, a whole group of people in the neighborhood have rallied together to preserve the graveyard as homage to all of the people who were buried there and forgotten. Every month they bring flowers and ribbons to the gate of the graveyard, and the gate is completely covered with tributes to those who are buried there to make sure they aren’t forgotten again. It’s one of the more moving things I’ve seen in my travels.

After the tour, I went to the Old Operating Theatre Museum. This is a really amazing little museum near London Bridge that features medical instruments and herbs from the medieval to the Victorian era. It also contains a small theatre (the “operating theatre”) where medical students would come to learn how to amputate limbs and so forth. What’s so interesting about it is that it was closed in the mid-nineteenth century and forgotten about until it was rediscovered in the 1950s. This means that all of the instruments, medicines, and materials from the nineteenth century were left intact! It’s pretty disturbing, though. I learned all about how amputations were done from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries (nasty stuff) and saw all of these awful medical instruments that I just can’t believe were ever used on a human body!

After the museum, I crossed back over London Bridge and headed to the Monument. The Monument was built in 1677 and is a tribute to the Great Fire that destroyed most of London in 1666. It’s 202 feet tall, so it’s simply an enormous structure! The best thing is that there is an old stone staircase inside that you can climb to the top, so I of course had to climb those 311 (!) steps to see the view. Needless to say, I was completely exhausted by the time I got to the top! But the views of London were well worth it. I could see so much of the city, which is great to view from up high because you can never see very far in a large city when you’re on the ground!

After descending from the Monument, I walked all the way from there to just past Trafalgar Square (quite a long walk, I might add!). I saw some truly breathtaking things on the way, such as St. Paul’s Cathedral (where Princess Diana was married) and the Houses of Justice, all of which are much larger than I ever imagined! If London knows how to do anything, it’s build grand and enormous structures. The whole city from Tower Bridge to Parliament just screams “empire” to me (of course, this was the point when these places were constructed). My goal was to walk all the way to Horse Guards Parade, but I took a few wrong turns and got lost (as I often do). What to do when you get lost in London? The very best thing is to find a Boris bike and find your way back! And this is exactly what I did. I found one of the many Boris bike stations scattered around the city (so named after the mayor of London) and rented a funny blue flashing bike. For a pound, it was mine for half an hour. I cruised around with the other bikers, cars, and buses (on the left side of the road, a bit of an adjustment!) and saw some more of the city. Biking is a little crazy here, but really fun. I’m already planning my next Boris bike excursion!

That’s about all that I can describe tonight. I’m really tired from all of my sightseeing, and I’m back into research mode tomorrow as I return to the archives. Until next time, tallyho!

June 16, 2012

After a long day at the archives, I headed down to the West Village on Thursday night to walk around and explore. I first headed to Washington Square Park, which is one of my favorite parks in the city. It has such an interesting mix of characters, and there are always random musicians playing around the main circle. When I first got to the park I saw a small circle of Hare Krishnas chanting and playing small instruments, which of course made me think of that excellent Mad Men episode a few weeks ago when Paul Kinsey made his excellent comeback. As I watched them chanting, I could almost imagine that I was back in the Greenwich Village of the 60s, when it was full of delightful artist types and Beatniks (not that there aren’t artists in the Village now, but it’s pretty much too expensive for most artists to live there anymore!).

Since I was at the park, I made a pilgrimage to the Brown building, which is the building where the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire took place in 1911. The fire killed 146 garment workers, mostly young immigrant women, and was one of the largest industrial disasters in U.S. history. The fire and the horrible conditions that it exposed led to the establishment of the International Ladies’ Garment Worker’s Union, which helped achieve better conditions for sweatshop workers. After leaving the park, I wandered around for a while. I think it’s possible to spend days walking around the Village and exploring. It’s such a fun, winding neighborhood, with tons of interesting shops, restaurants, and of course, fantastic coffee shops. I had some dinner and coffee, and then walked around some more. I was surprised to see a few hundred cops out on the streets blocking off roads and causing a general hullabaloo. It turned out that the President was coming to the Village for a fundraiser at Sarah Jessica Parker’s house, and I ended up getting stuck on a street while his motorcade passed by. It was pretty fun to watch, though- streets in that area are tiny, so I got to watch a presidential motorcade much closer than any I have seen in Tampa’s wide streets!

Yesterday, when I was done researching, I had plans to go to the Chelsea Highline. But I realized that I still had gifts to buy, so I went to the ultimate New York cheap souvenir mecca- Chinatown. I told myself that I wouldn’t go to Chinatown this visit because I’ve been there every other time I’ve been to New York, but it is pretty much impossible to find inexpensive gifts anywhere else in New York (especially in swanky places like the Village!). But in the end I was glad that I went to Chinatown, because it really is a fun place. I love the crowds and the energy of the area, as well as the dirt cheap, delicious food. I made my way through the side streets off Canal, getting bolder with my bargaining skills as I went on. After finding the requisite number of gifts for my family, I hastened down to Little Italy. Now, Little Italy is one of my very favorite parts of New York. I hate how small it’s gotten since the first time I came to New York fifteen years ago- Chinatown has really started edging it out. But the two or so blocks that remain are still fun to walk around. It’s overpriced and touristy, but it still reminds me of the summer that I spent in Italy, so it will always have my heart.

After leaving Little Italy, I finally headed to the High Line. The High Line is an old above-ground rail track that local residents have helped turn into one of the coolest parks in the city. It’s basically a long, wide elevated linear park that winds for about a mile through the lower West Side. Throughout the park, the community has planted gorgeous gardens along the old railroad track, and there are multiple innovative seating arrangements ranging from built in wooden lounge chairs to amphitheater-style seats for better viewing of different city vistas. It was such a cool experience to walk the distance of the park, looking down on the city in the midst of a beautiful garden. I went right as dusk fell, so I got to see the city lights and enjoy the soft lighting provided by the park. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to the city, and I was reluctant to tear myself away from the park and go back down onto the city streets. After all, once you’ve traveled through the city on a beautiful elevated park, who would want to go back down in to the regular old street?

Right now I’m at the airport, and it is with a heavy heart that I’m leaving New York. I had a fantastic trip and got to do many things that I’ve never done before- but I still feel like I haven’t seen a quarter of what New York has to offer. Hopefully it won’t be nine more years before I get to come back here again!

June 14, 2012

I was way too exhausted when I got home last night to write, so I’m going to try to summarize the last two days as best as I can! Yesterday morning I woke up with aching, blistered feet from my walking marathon on the first day. When I travel, especially when I travel alone, I have a hard time setting limits with myself. I get so excited about seeing new places and exploring that I refuse to stop until I am actually limping and hobbling down the street. But even though I ruined my feet on the first day, I still couldn’t stop myself from getting up and seeing the neighborhood.

I’m staying in West Harlem, pretty close to Columbia University. When I first booked my trip, I was looking for an inexpensive place to stay uptown, since I am researching on 135th St. But, if you know New York, you know that “inexpensive hotel” is an oxymoron. So I decided to go through Airbnb, which is a website that matches people up with short-term sublets. It’s much cheaper than a hotel, and you get to meet new people to boot. I am renting one room in a four bedroom apartment, and it’s been a great experience so far. I have lots of privacy and quiet, and I couldn’t ask for more polite roommates (in fact, I hardly ever see them!). I recommend this route for anyone looking to stay in an expensive city on a budget.

On the first day I just dropped off my bags and headed downtown, so yesterday I decided it was time to see Harlem. I’ve never been here before but the geography seems really familiar to me. The Caribbean activists that I study lived, worked, and wrote here, so each street rings a bell- that’s where Claude McKay lived! That’s the corner where Marcus Garvey debated with communists! It’s pretty cool to experience a place firsthand that you have been reading about for years. Yesterday morning I dragged my poor feet down 125th St and the adjoining streets to see the sights. Among many other things, I saw the headquarters of the New York Amsterdam News (Harlem’s major newspaper and a primary source that I use heavily), the Apollo Theater, and several important churches that have played a big role in Harlem’s past. This part of Manhattan is incredibly unique and vibrant, and absolutely loaded with history. 

After exploring for a few hours, it was time to head to the archive. I was excited to dive into the collections and begin gathering sources. I can’t describe how fun it is to receive a box from the archivist that contains letters and documents that are almost a hundred years old, and to be able to touch and read words that were written in longhand so many years ago. As I went through box after box, I felt as if I was eavesdropping on Richard Moore’s life as I read his letters and notes. Most primary sources I have used to this point have been newspapers and government files, so reading a handwritten letter is a much different and more personal experience. I got a kick out of finding his phonebook (pictured above) and looking through the names, which included some famous historical figures like W.E.B. Dubois. It’s a bit eery to handle old handwritten sources- there’s something about handwriting to me that still seems alive, even though the author is long dead.

I won’t go into too much detail about researching right now because it would just take too long, and I’m still trying to process everything. Research is a very up and down experience- hours of frustration and dead ends followed by fifteen minutes of epiphany, and then back to the dead ends. I will have to write about it in more detail when I’m all finished. 

When I left the archive yesterday I walked right into a lovely New York rainstorm, which lasted all evening. I was excited to go to the Museum Mile Festival yesterday and was a little bummed about the rain, but decided to go anyway. The Museum Mile Festival is a truly fantastic summer event in New York, when all of the museums on the Upper East Side open their doors for free during the evening. The streets are blocked off from traffic and filled with vendors, performers, musicians, and chalk art from 82nd Street to 105th. New York museums can be pretty expensive, so this is a great opportunity to explore museums you might not have seen before. I started out at the Guggenheim but skipped it when I saw that the line wrapped around the corner (however, this didn’t stop me from staying for a bit and enjoying a fantastic band that was performing there). Instead, I went to the National Academy Museum, which was gorgeous and had some lovely exhibits featuring women artists. The best part of this museum, though, was that they had a live model for children to sketch. It was so fun to watch this circle of young kids very seriously trying to draw this model, especially considering what their end products looked like!

Next I headed to the Jewish Museum, which I loved. I don’t have a very good eye for art (I much prefer history museums), but the Edouard Vuillard exhibit was amazing. He was a French Jewish artist at the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth century, and his work really captures belle epoque Paris in a way I haven’t seen before. After lingering on some of his paintings, I went upstairs to the truly fantastic Jewish history and culture exhibit. This was pretty cool because they had artifacts from Jewish communities around the world, spanning hundreds of years. I’ve always loved Jewish history because I love the history of diasporas. The unique culture of the Jewish diaspora was really apparent in this exhibit- for instance, various Seder dishes from around the world were displayed side by side. While the dishes from Syria looked completely different from the ones in Poland, reflecting geographical and cultural differences of those Jewish communities, they still retained a similarity that evoked the traditions of Judaism that have kept this religious and ethnic group together for thousands of years across great distances.

My favorite museum, though, was the Museum of the City of New York. Going to a New York history museum is kind of like going to a more general American history museum, because New York City has played such an important role in this country and has always been the major gateway for immigration. The best exhibit was probably the one that showed how the city came to adopt its grid system. It’s mind-blowing to see what Manhattan looked like in 1800 versus how it looks today. It was basically an island of farms, full of hilly, rocky terrain, with a small city at the southern tip. In 1811, the mayor of New York decided to transform the island into a logical network of streets and avenues that would allow the city to support more people and, ultimately, commerce. In order to create all of these streets, the city planners had to nearly level the entire island. The exhibit showed how city planners dug streets through hills and rocks to make them flat- in many places, they would dig down forty feet or more, and then level the surrounding land to match. How did they do this in 1811, before the invention of heavy machinery? It’s one of the coolest exhibits I’ve ever seen, and I absorbed way too much information to share here. Ask me about it sometime if you are interested, and be prepared for a long tale.

The city museum had some other great exhibits like the history of banking and capitalism in New York (I’m morally averse to finance capitalism, so I just peeked into this exhibit), and then one that was much more up my alley- the history of activism. Going from the Quakers to abolitionists, suffragettes to unions, and civil rights to LGBT rights, this exhibit displayed something that I think makes New York truly great- it’s potential for social change. I would love to come back to this museum for longer next time I’m in New York, and I highly recommend it as a destination.

This morning I decided to go see Columbia, which is a university that I always longed to attend. The apartment in which I’m staying is only a few blocks east of Columbia, so I set out to see the campus and explore Morningside Heights. To get there, I crossed Morningside Park, which is a really crazy park uptown. The west side of the park is several stories higher than the east side, and separates the university and Harlem by a wall of rock. It’s crisscrossed with really cool patterns of stairs that reminded me of the stone stairways in the hills of Bergamo, the town that I lived in when I studied abroad in Italy. Hiking up the park is completely worth it, as I was rewarded at the top with a gorgeous view of Harlem from above. I would love to spend more time walking up and down the park and finding new views, as it provides a completely different perspective on the city.

After leaving the park, I walked down the east side of Columbia’s campus and headed towards the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (pictured above). This cathedral looks like it belongs in old Europe- it’s a completely enormous, gothic-style structure. Around the corner is a great little Hungarian bakery, where I sat for a while with some coffee and did some writing. The cafe was full of people reading, writing, and talking seriously about Important Topics, so I naturally felt right at home. 

After my coffee break, I walked around Morningside Heights and the Columbia campus for a while. I would love to stay in this area the next time I come here, because it is a lovely part of town with a very different feel than other parts of the city. It has great little independent restaurants and cafes, unique stores, and an intellectual vibe because it’s surrounded by the university (this is probably why I liked it so much- I’m a sucker for college towns). Columbia is very cool because it blends in with the city. Unlike universities in places like Florida, which are self-contained little units, urban universities intertwine with non-university buildings and areas. The nice thing about this is that you still get the college feel while retaining the vibrancy and excitement of a city. While walking around I made a pilgrimage to the Columbia Library (pictured), which it is a truly beautiful, majestic old building. The library across the lawn is just as large and Grecian-inspired, and inscribed with the names of literary greats like Ovid, Plato, Joyce, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, et cetera. Ivy League libraries are always super pretentious, but this is part of their charm.

After Columbia I headed back to the archive for another afternoon of researching. I felt like I was getting the hang of it today and finding my rhythm, which is always a good stage to reach. But I still can’t process it all, so I will have to skip this part until later. On the bus ride home, I had a very entertaining conversation with an older gentleman who regaled me with stories about his eight children, debated with me about the merits of Android vs. iPhone, and surprised me with the revelation that he and his wife, while very happy together, live in separate houses. He lives on the Upper West Side and she lives in Harlem, forty blocks northeast. According to him, this is the secret to a happy and healthy marriage after thirty years and eight grown kids! I should really ride the bus more- I never encounter these types of delightful characters on the subway.

After a tiring afternoon of researching, I was ready to relax and have some fun. Earlier today I bought a ticket to attend Amateur Night at the Apollo, which is only $12 for students. Amateur Night is one of those really fun and unique things to do in New York that, in my opinion, everyone should try at least once. The Apollo Theater is worth visiting anyway, because it is a cornerstone of the Harlem Renaissance and the history of American music. Amateur Night (which is pretty much what it sounds like- a night for amateur singers and other artists to perform) has been a staple of the theater since the 1930s. It has launched the careers of music greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Diana Ross, The Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, and Lauryn Hill. The best part about Amateur Night is that the audience gets to decide who wins. It makes it a very dynamic experience, much different than attending a Broadway musical or a play. The audience is basically a part of the show, and the energy that this foments is electric. As each performer begins their act, the audience either cheers or boos, and their feedback determines who stays and who goes. The best part is the executioner, a dancer who comes out when the audience starts booing a bad performer and sends them offstage. His dancing is hilarious, and of course it’s a relief to get rid of bad singers! One family, who had come to watch their son perform, got so incensed when he was booed offstage that they leaned off their balcony and started heckling the audience. It was a performance in itself! The singers that we cheered and sent through to the next round were truly amazing, and I would listen to any of them again. 

Tomorrow brings another day of exploring and researching. I’m loving these opportunities to see and do new things in New York around my archival work!

June 12, 2012

My first day in New York was pretty crazy. I woke up at 3:30 am (!) this morning to catch my flight to Newark, which means that I have been awake for almost 21 hours. Needless to say, I’m a little punchy right now. I didn’t take many pictures today because I was afraid my phone would die (which it did), so I will just have to remember some of the great things I saw today.

Since the Schomburg Center is closed on Mondays, I got to spend the whole day wandering around the city. I haven’t been to New York in nine years, so I was pretty excited to re-visit old haunts as well as find some new ones. One of my favorite things about traveling is exploring- I can (and will) walk for hours and hours, and completely lose track of time. This can be a bad thing for my feet, and I now have huge blisters on the bottom of each of my feet to show for my day. 

After dropping off my bags at my place in Harlem (more about that later), I decided to make my way downtown. I started in north Central Park, since I’ve never been to that part of the park before. I walked around the North Woods, which is this incredible series of hiking trails (including a great waterfall). Central Park always amazes me, because in many parts of it, you can completely forget that you are in the middle of one of the world’s largest cities. That’s how I felt in the North Woods- like I was hiking in the North Carolina woods, not Manhattan.

After about an hour in the park, I was getting hungry. I decided to head down to Madison Square Park to find something to eat. Madison Square Park is one of Manhattan’s many beautiful small parks, and it’s always really crowded at lunchtime because of its central location and access to many great restaurants, food trucks, and diners. I picked up an amazing salad from Chop’t (seriously- can we get one of these in Tampa?) and sat on a bench in the park to do some people watching, which really never gets old in this city. Case in point: I was pretty entertained by the two nerdy guys sitting next to me who got into a heated debate about the difference between a duck and a mallard. 

After that I headed down to Union Square Park, which is one of my favorite parks in the city, and watched a great impromptu jazz concert by some street performers. Since I was in the area I had to go to The Strand (of course). The Strand is an enormous bookstore with four levels, and they claim to have 18 miles of books (I believe it!). This store has every book you could ever want, and the best part is that their used book collection is enormous. I resisted the urge to seriously augment my library and settled for just one secondhand book, a David Sedaris collection I’ve been meaning to read.

After I left the Strand, I decided to spend some time exploring the Lower East Side and the East Village, since I never spent a lot of time there on prior Manhattan trips. I love the Lower East Side because it has such a rich (and brutal) past. This neighborhood, one of the oldest in Manhattan, was where most of New York’s immigrants settled in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sadly, much of the historical character and diversity of the neighborhood is being lost to gentrification. One of the really cool things I discovered on my way down there was Colonnade Row. This row, part of which still stands, is where many of New York’s wealthiest citizens used to live, such as John Jacob Astor. Some of the buildings have been preserved, and the difference between the marble columns of the row and the tenement buildings of the Lower East side (only a few blocks away) is still striking.

After walking around the Lower East Side and spending a lot of time playing immigration history nerd in my head, I made my way to the East Village (technically, the East Village used to be part of the LES, but it split off in the 60s). I love the East Village because it has more of a diverse, artsy, and hippie vibe to it than the West Village. People-watching here is a blast- there is such a unique blend of characters. 

Since I was so close to the Williamsburg Bridge, I decided to head over to Brooklyn to check out Williamsburg. This trendy neighborhood of Brooklyn has received a reputation as a hipster mecca, and I was naturally drawn to seeing it for myself. I was not disappointed- Williamsburg takes people-watching to a whole new level. I love hipsters, despite their sometimes tiring hipness. The crazy clothes and hairstyles, the witty banter, the rejection of all things “mainstream,” the whole counter-culture of it all- it makes me happy. I would love to get into a good debate with some of them over a cup of fair trade coffee. I had a great time exploring the unique shops and restaurants of Bedford, and an even better time examining the residents of Williamsburg. I also went to a really fun beer garden that is in the old warehouse of an authentic German brewery from the 1890s. I ate some great German food while reading my new book and listening to live music.

Before I left Brooklyn I decided to walk up to the pier so I could take some pictures of the Manhattan skyline and the Brooklyn Bridge. When I was taking a picture of the skyline, some hipster guys thought I was photographing them and started putting on a show for me. So of course I started taking pictures of them too. They asked if I would put their picture on my blog and I said I would (little do they know that my “blog” has about two readers). 

On my way back to Harlem my phone died, and I got a little turned around on Broadway (I somehow walked ten blocks downtown without realizing it- my phone’s map is my crutch). By the time I got home I could barely walk- I spent about six or seven hours today walking around Manhattan and Brooklyn without taking a break, and my feet are in rebellion. I don’t know how I’m still awake right now, but I knew I had to write all of this down before I forgot what I did today (which is highly likely, considering my extreme lack of sleep). Despite the debilitating blisters, this city is a blast, and I’m looking forward to diving into some of its history tomorrow during my first archival trip.

May 24, 2012
The Schomburg Center, a division of the New York Public Library, was established in 1926. It is one of the world’s leading research institutions for documenting the history and culture of the African diaspora. 
Here I will mostly be working with the Richard B. Moore papers. Moore was a Barbadian civil rights activist and communist, and he remained active within Caribbean political circles while living in Harlem. Hopefully his papers will give me more of a grassroots perspective on transnational anticolonial politics.

The Schomburg Center, a division of the New York Public Library, was established in 1926. It is one of the world’s leading research institutions for documenting the history and culture of the African diaspora. 

Here I will mostly be working with the Richard B. Moore papers. Moore was a Barbadian civil rights activist and communist, and he remained active within Caribbean political circles while living in Harlem. Hopefully his papers will give me more of a grassroots perspective on transnational anticolonial politics.

May 24, 2012

In the next few months, I will be traveling to archives in New York, London, and Barbados to conduct research for my dissertation. Here I will be posting pictures, travel tales, and experiences from different archives in an attempt to document this process. 

First up is New York City on June 11, where I will visit the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. While I will be focused on working while the archive is open, I’m looking forward to exploring the city in the mornings and evenings! 

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