Brugge, Belgium: Halve Maan Brewery

We made it into Brugge (Bruges) the day after visiting the Ardennes, and though there were any number of museums we could have visited (I was hoping to return to St. Jan’s Hospital Museum, which I haven’t been to since long before my blogging days. It is a former plague hospital!), we instead ended up on the Halve Maan (Half Moon) Brewery tour. I had been on this before (the same trip where I visited St. Jan’s), but not for over a decade, and frankly, I didn’t remember much from the original tour other than the free beer at the end. Tours in English take place every hour on the hour for €10, including a beer, and we managed to get there just as one was starting (I’d imagine, judging by how crowded ours was in the off-season, that they do fill up from time to time, so may be worth pre-booking if you’re more organised than we were).

  

Even if I had remembered the first tour better, it was still worth going again, because a lot has changed since 2007. They have doubled their production, which created the need for a new bottling facility (everything used to be made under one roof) outside of town, which in turn created the need for a pipeline to get the beer to the bottling facility (at first, they were using trucks, which is obviously cumbersome and not the most eco-friendly way), which was opened in 2016. It stretches 3.2 km underground, and Halve Maan are clearly quite proud of it, as it was the focus of much of the tour. The pipeline actually consists of four interior pipes, two for beer, and two for water, so they can clean out the beer pipes by pumping water through, and can track a leak to within a metre of where it occurs, which is pretty impressive for something that long!

  

An important thing to know about the tour is that it has a lot of steps. We were warned before starting that there were 220 steps over the course of the tour (not all going up, fortunately), and some of the steps were so shallow that we were advised to go down backwards, which is far from my favourite thing, but I managed. The benefit of going to the top of the brewery was that it offered excellent views of Brugge, so we had no need to climb Belfort, which had the most awful steps (as I learned on our last visit to Brugge) – however, it was also incredibly windy, which was less ideal. I was very glad to re-enter the warm brewery.

  

In addition to learning about Halve Maan’s beer (which only comes in a few traditional varieties – the blonde is the one you get to taste at the end of the tour), we also learned a lot about the history of the company and about the history of brewing in the city, which to me was the most interesting part. Up until the 1950s, Belgians used to have beer delivered straight to their homes, first by horse-drawn cart, and later by trucks, and the beer industry in Brugge thrived. However, when supermarkets moved into the city, they began to drive small family breweries out of business, and now only a handful, including Halve Maan, remain. In an attempt to diversify before they were driven out of business, some of the breweries began manufacturing soda as well, which frankly is more appealing to me than beer! Halve Maan made a lemonade (I assume 7-Up style rather than still lemonade), but it was discontinued in the ’70s, much to my disappointment.

  

As I mentioned earlier, the entire brewing process used to take place under one roof, which is why the building has ended up with so many different levels, each of which used to be dedicated to a different stage of brewing. Until the 1950s, they even roasted their own malt, which was done in a room with grating on the flooring, to allow the heat from a fire several stories below to penetrate. It got crazy hot in here when the fire was going, so men would only be able to spend a minute or two at a time stirring the grain before they risked passing out (and speaking from experience, breweries are pretty damn hot in general. I worked in one during a heat wave, and it regularly topped 40 C in there, which is no picnic, and that was just from the heat of the kettle and pasteurising tubs). There was also a special room with a copper floor that the wort was pumped into to cool down to around 20 C before yeast was added.

  

Our guide also told us about the patron saint of brewing, St. Arnold, who actually became a saint because he encouraged people during a plague epidemic to drink beer rather than water, because it was safer (frankly, I don’t see what that would have done against plague, which is not waterborne, but it’s certainly good advice against cholera and intestinal parasites. I think they meant plague in the sense of epidemic disease, rather than bubonic plague specifically). A comfortable retirement as a monastic brewer seems like a solid way to get sainthood – far better than being martyred! St. Arnold is commemorated with a statue inside the brewery and in the tap room, which was of course our last stop, where we claimed our free beer. I’m not a huge fan of non-fruit beers, but Halve Maan do produce a very consistent, drinkable product, and you can’t beat their logo! The brewery was so named because the brewery originally on this site was called the Moon, and when Henri Maes took over in 1856, he decided that by calling it Halve Maan, he could include his initials and pay tribute to the brewers that had gone before (the Maes family still own the brewery). I do love a moon (I’ve currently got four tattooed on me!), so of course we picked up a poster, even though as I’ve said multiple times, I really don’t have room for more wall art.

  

Most of the rest of our time in Belgium was taken up by drinking beer, eating chocolate and waffles (and frites, sans mayonnaise), and hanging out in our unexpectedly amazing hotel room (it had two bathrooms and was bigger than my flat!), though I did force my brother to a WWI site in the form of Passchendaele 1917 Museum, which I visited on my last trip to Belgium. I won’t be blogging about it again, as it is roughly the same and still very entertaining (and moving. It’s impressive that they manage to achieve both aims), but they did add a temporary exhibition in an outbuilding on America’s entry into WWI, which I found quite interesting (the exhibition was all in Flemish, but they had free exhibition guidebooks in English). We also dropped by Tyne Cot again, since it is right by Passchendaele, and that too was incredibly sad, as always, but very worth a visit. We ended our Belgian sojourn in Brussels, where we took my brother to Delirium Cafe, enjoyed waffles near the Grand-Place, and almost missed the Eurostar back after waiting in an incredibly long queue only to get to the front and be told we shouldn’t have been waiting in the queue after all (there were no signs anywhere to indicate this. I checked), but we made it in the end. I also discovered this amazing village called Beselare en route to Brussels, where everything was witch-themed (including the Sand-Witch shop). We sadly didn’t have time to stop, but I googled it after and they apparently host a witch parade every year, so I will probably be back for that or the next Kattenstoet (2021) before long!

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Bastogne, Belgium: Bastogne War Museum

As regular readers will know, my brother visited me for a week a couple of weeks back, and while he’s generally pretty up for doing stuff, it’s not necessarily the same stuff I like doing (though the things I like doing are basically sitting inside, eating, and reading), so I wanted to try to find some activities we would both enjoy. He’s not too much of a museum kind of guy, but he does have some interest in the Second World War, so I thought a trip through Belgium would give us a chance to combine some of his interests (WWII and beer) with some of mine (eating chocolate and waffles). I prefer Flanders to Wallonia, but Flanders is of course very much WWI country, and for WWII, we would have to venture deep into the French-speaking part of Belgium, to the Ardennes.
  
Things didn’t get off to a great start when I really had to pee about an hour outside of Brussels, and there was nowhere to stop. We finally found a gas station large enough to have a toilet, but they had a sign on the door stating it was 50 cents to use the bathroom for non-customers, and none of us had any cash, having forgotten to get some in Brussels. This was obviously complete nonsense (charging to use a toilet at a gas station is almost literally taking the piss. Or maybe the opposite of taking the piss? I can’t decide), but I was willing to buy a bag of crisps with a card if it would give me access to the facilities. My brother asked them in English if we could use the toilet (he’s not accustomed to being in non-Anglophone countries), which got him a blank stare, so I just urgently shouted, “la toilette, s’il vous plait!” which got me the key, but the two women working there did mock me in French for quite some time, which I let slide because they did let me use the damn toilet in the end, but I obviously still bear a grudge (I took seven years of French, which is apparently enough to make my need for the toilet understood, but not quite enough to reply to insults in an appropriately biting manner).
  
Anyway, we eventually made it to Bastogne, and the Bastogne War Museum, which happily offers numerous free toilets once you’ve paid the admission fee (€14). Admission includes the use of their audio guide, which is one of those fancy modern ones that is triggered when you enter each audio zone. This is easier than punching in the numbers yourself, but annoying when you accidentally wander out of one of the zones and the audio guide gets cut off, with no way to bring it back. I liked that the sound came out of two little prongs that sat on the side of your head just above your ears, because those headphones that cover your entire ear make the outsides of my ears ache after a while (and don’t get me started on ear buds!). I read somewhere that the Bastogne War Museum was recently redone, and the new design was heavily influenced by the In Flanders Fields Museum, which everyone but me appears to really love (I didn’t hate it, I just think there’s better WWI museums out there).
  
This was apparent from the audio guide, which aimed to give us a more human perspective on the war by having people who lived through the war serve as our guides – though unlike the In Flanders Field Museum, which assigns you a historical counterpart based on your age and where you’re from, in Bastogne War Museum, everyone was given the points of view of four different people throughout – Robert, an American soldier, a 12 year old Belgian boy named Emile, his 20-something year old teacher Mathilde, who worked for the Resistance, and Hans, a German soldier (they emphasised that he was fighting because he had pride in his homeland, rather than being pro-genocide (which is still problematic because of the horrible things people do in the name of nationalism) but it seemed a bit odd to ignore that major aspect of Nazi Germany, though the Holocaust was covered elsewhere in the galleries). Actually Hans was probably the most interesting to listen to, just because it’s a perspective you don’t always hear – Emile was kind of irritating, but you ended up feeling bad for him in the end once you heard his story – and I think the four perspectives all together made for a more nuanced view of the war than what we got at the In Flanders Fields Museum (cool though it was to have been given someone to identify with based on your own stats), though obviously WWII was a very different war.
  
In addition to the audio guide, there were also three “multi-sensory” experiences dispersed throughout the museum (a bit hard to describe – basically you entered a themed theatre and sat down to watch some projections and audio commentary, with sound and light effects) – an Allied General HQ from 1944, the Ardennes forest during the Battle of the Bulge (my personal favourite, even though it was really really cold in there, but I think that may have been intentional to enhance the atmosphere), and a cellar under a cafe in Bastogne, where our four audio guide characters finally all met in real life. The rest of the museum was a fairly standard layout, with a few interactive things for children exclusively in French, though of course you had your audio guide popping on and off in the midst of reading signage.
  
I’m personally much more into WWI than WWII, so I didn’t know much about the Battle of the Bulge going in, other than the few episodes of Band of Brothers that I’ve watched (and I don’t even know if I watched the Battle of the Bulge one. My grandpa was stationed in Belgium for a while, but not until after the war ended, so he didn’t take part in any of these battles). But the museum offers a more comprehensive view of the war than just what happened in Bastogne, which was only one section of it (though it was the subject of two of the “multi-sensory experiences”), albeit a very sad part, as civilian casualties during the battle were very high (around 3000) due to all the bombing (from both sides), and the Germans also randomly executed a bunch of Belgian civilians just because they could (including, spoiler alert, Emile’s father).
  
By the end of the museum, I was fairly attached to all of the audio guide characters, even Emile, so it was interesting when we discovered they were all based on real people, and were told what happened to them after the war. They are now all dead, except Emile (at least at the time the audio guide was recorded), who took over his father’s bike shop in a nearby town, and apparently can still sometimes be seen walking down the road in Bastogne (as I’ve said, I wasn’t that keen on Emile, mainly because Emile had an accordion which he insisted on playing whilst hiding out in a cellar with a group of random villagers throughout the long days of bombing, and he played the same song over and over again (I think I would have left the cellar and taken my chances with the bombs!), but I loved the characterisation of Emile’s dad, who apparently said things like, “Holy Handlebars!” and “Holy Spokes!” because of being in the bicycle business. I think the latter phrase works better than the former). Overall, I think it was quite an interesting and fun experience, so I’ll give it 4/5.
  
This wasn’t all that was on site though, as there was also a huge, rather hideous sculpture of the famous scene of the sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square during V-J Day located behind the museum. As the nurse tells it, they didn’t know each other and he just randomly grabbed her and kissed her (she said it wasn’t even a good kiss!). I get it was the end of the war and people were excited, but it’s still a bit unpleasant and has nothing to do with Belgium, so I guess it’s just here on account of being an iconic image? The Mardasson War Memorial is also right behind the museum, and wow, that is a pretty imposing structure! It was built in the late 1940s to commemorate those killed in the battle, and includes a weirdly modern arty crypt underneath, decorated with the mosaics of Fernand Leger. I actually quite liked the crypt, it just wasn’t really what I was expecting from a site connected to the military, which tend to be much more staid, and I dunno, eagle-y?
  
It had gotten really cold and kind of rainy whilst we were in the museum, but my brother still wanted to view a few nearby sites, so we spent some time driving along the roads outside Bastogne, and quickly jumping out when we got to a memorial. My favourite one was the one that abutted a pine forest – though it was clearly planted after the battle, it was eerily silent inside, and gave you some idea of what the soldiers might have experienced before the fighting commenced. There was also a memorial paid for by Tom Hanks, who keeps on living up to his decent guy reputation (That Thing You Do is seriously one of my favourite movies of all time, and I actually really enjoyed his book of short stories, so I am kind of a fan).
  
We also walked through the town of Bastogne, and despite the tourist brochure’s assurance that “shops are open even on Sundays!” apparently they weren’t open on Mondays, as we were starving, and virtually everything was shut (echoes of our experience in France). We did enjoy the animal sculptures that we found lining the high street, but with no prospect of food there, we didn’t linger (so staying in Bastogne may not be a great idea on a Monday). We ended up stopping by a small crappy Carrefour just outside of town for bread and cheese (not knocking Carrefour, because I love the hypermarche versions), and didn’t find much more open, even when we got to Liege, so whilst my brother and Marcus wandered the cold streets in search of a hot dinner, I was perfectly content to pop down to the Delhaize next to the hotel and read a book in the warm hotel room in my jams whilst eating crisps and packaged chocolate waffles (and I think I chose wisely, because they went to some revolting taco place where my brother couldn’t even eat his food because it had unadvertised mayonnaise all over it. Mayonnaise is one of the things we both detest, but because I don’t eat meat, I find it easy enough to avoid, even in Belgium). Fortunately, we were heading to Flanders the next day, where things are open on weekdays!
  

Oxford: Spellbound @ the Ashmolean

Wow, I look truly spellbound by “Spellbound.” Well, I look kind of witchy anyway, which isn’t a bad thing.

Here I am, back to the Ashmolean again, and sooner than I thought I would be. I did say when I posted about it previously that even though I was pretty annoyed with them for not having the dickhead plate there, or at least for not telling people that it was on loan, I was debating going back for the witchcraft exhibition in the fall. And that’s exactly what happened, the lure of witches being far too great to resist. Besides, Halloween events in London were pretty lacking this year – mostly just lectures, which I would normally have attended, but with my brother here the week most of them were on, I skipped them in favour of doing stuff with him (as you’ll see in future posts), since he’s not a big lecture person. And of course I had to have a Halloween post, so “Spellbound: Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft” fits the bill nicely.

  

But I didn’t travel all the way up to Oxford and only see “Spellbound.” Even though we were only visiting Oxford for about four hours on this trip, we still had time to return to the Weston Library. After the success of “Sappho to Suffrage” and “Designing English”, I was keen to see what else they were offering. Well, “Sappho to Suffrage” was still there, but they did have a new display in the foyer called “Unhealthy Times of Kings and Queens” which was right up my alley (I’ve only just realised that British people say “up my street” instead (after co-workers kept sending me links to various weird exhibitions with the subject line, “This looks up your street.” They weren’t wrong), which I can’t quite bring myself to do). This was only one small case, and I would have loved a whole exhibition’s worth, but what was here was pretty great, including little blurbs about various British monarchs and their ailments and plenty of artefacts to illustrate how those illnesses were viewed at the times these monarchs suffered from them. Daniel Lambert (Georgian Britain’s fattest man. I have a Staffordshire knockoff figurine of him) even made an appearance, and I absolutely love the description of him in the pamphlet on display: “a truly astounding prodigy of human dimensions.” It seems a rather nice way of calling someone fat.

  

Rather less excitingly, the main exhibition at the Weston (which has since ended) was on Tolkien. I think I’ve probably said this before, but I hate The Lord of the Rings books, I hate the movies, I hate all of it. A librarian recommended The Hobbit to me when I was a kid, and extremely keen reader though I was (and am), I only made it about a third of the way through before giving up from sheer boredom. I know that many people love Tolkien, and I’m glad that they’re passionate about books and all, but those particular books are just not for me. Nonetheless, we were there, it was free, and so we went.
Pictures were not allowed inside, but it was about what you would expect, both in terms of content, and the people visiting it. I sometimes make a half-assed effort not to say terrible things about people, but this exhibition was full of some real nerds (not that there’s anything wrong with being a nerd, but I just don’t quite get that type of nerd). It was really crowded, and everyone here looked like LotR fans, if you know what I mean. Balding men with long hair (which sounds like an oxymoron, but isn’t. It’s when they’re bald on top but grow the back part really long, kind of like Bill Bailey) and gamer t-shirts, women with hair down to their knees, elf ears, that whole sort of scene. Honestly, I barely looked at the first editions and Tolkien’s drawings of elf-land, or whatever the hell it’s called, because there were so many people crowded in front of them, and since I’ve never read the books, they didn’t mean anything to me. I was more interested in the story of Tolkien’s life, though the exhibit seemed to skip oddly from his student years, to him being a full on professor at Oxford (though I’ve been reading ghost stories all through October, which means a lot of M.R. James and E.F. Benson, and honestly that’s just how it seemed things worked back in the day. Graduate from Oxbridge, and we’ll hand you a professorship that you’ll hold until you die. Must be nice, at least if you ignore all the curses and hauntings in those stories). I did think the letters he used to write to his children, as Santa, were quite sweet, and those were probably the highlight of the exhibition for me.

Matthew Hopkins, self-proclaimed Witch Finder General. This guy was seriously the worst.

Having made it through the Tolkien exhibition in 15 minutes, we had time to head over to a street market for a quick snack (I got polenta fries with pesto, but in retrospect I think I should have gone with the Sri Lankan dhal and potato fry with roti or the vegetable momos) before going to the Ashmolean to see “Spellbound.” It normally costs £12, but we got half price tickets due to the National Art Pass, and I did pre-book, since we were making a special trip to see it. It runs until 6th January 2019. It was on the third floor, and also did not allow photography, more’s the pity, since of course there were some rad things in here (I’ve found a few images online, but not many).

Witches apprehended, examined and executed for notable villanies by them committed both by land and water. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

While I liked the very beginning of the exhibition, which tested your belief in superstition by asking you to walk under a ladder, I was a little disappointed with the next gallery, because the focus was more on medieval magical practices, like sorcery, alchemy, the use of saints’ relics, and the like, which are interesting, but not really what I think of when I think of witchcraft, especially as these were usually practiced by men, and were mainly tolerated by the authorities. Nonetheless, there were some fabulous old texts in here, and one of the coolest objects in the entire exhibition: a human heart encased in lead. I also liked the witch quilt (which if I remember correctly, was sewn by female prisoners), and was kind of shocked by the size of the narwhal horns – I hadn’t realised quite how big they were, which made it even more perplexing that people would have thought they were unicorn horns.  How big did people think unicorns would have been?!

Disease of the eye caused by witchcraft.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
I know this shouldn’t make me laugh, but it does, every time.

The next gallery was about the objects that people had concealed in their houses throughout the early modern era to try to protect themselves from witches. Obviously I loved the mummified cat and rat, but all the witches’ bottles and random shoes and things were great too, and it was much more atmospheric in here, being a dimly lit gallery with little cubbyholes that you had to enter to view the artefacts. This was more like what I was expecting, especially Katharine Dowson’s installation at the end of the gallery, called “Concealed Shield.” It was a darkened room with a red-lit glass heart in the centre and red lights playing on the walls, with scrabbling sound effects that were meant to sound like demons. I loved it so much I went inside three times.

Helen Duncan producing ectoplasm and manifesting one of her spirit guides, who looks like he (she?) belongs in the Puppet Museum in Lyon.

The final, and fullest gallery, was more straightforwardly about witches, as in the women (and some men) who were wrongfully executed during the early modern witch craze, and how that formed our idea of what a witch is. There were fantastic prints here, some reminiscent of the ones I saw at the BM a few years ago; a lovely book showing a witch and her toad familiars (I would definitely have toad familiars), and some general witchy objects borrowed from the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle, though none quite as cool as the stuff that had been at the Harry Potter exhibition at the BL. There was also a room where you could listen to the “confession” of a woman who was accused of witchcraft (and executed as a result), and another just filled with flames (though I feel I should reiterate this until society at large gets it: English and American witches were hanged, not burned, unless their alleged crime also included petty treason (for women, this meant the murder of their husband). Plenty of people were burned for witchcraft in Scotland and the Continent though, and the point stands that all of those people were wrongfully executed, regardless of how it was done). There was also a small section about mediums, in particular Helen Duncan, who, in the 1940s, was the last person convicted under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 (still on the books until 1951, though the 1735 Act repealed earlier ones that called for executing witches. The 1735 Act merely carried penalties of a fine or prison term). Although Duncan was undoubtedly a fraud (firstly, because ghosts aren’t real (probably), and secondly, once you’ve seen the “ectoplasm,” which was just a piece of fabric, and the pictures of her manifesting it and her “spirit guides,” you have to wonder how anyone took her seriously in the first place), people were angered by the use of this clearly obsolete act in prosecuting Duncan, and it was replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which prosecuted them for bilking the gullible out of money, rather than for the practice of witchcraft. I actually loved this section, because ghosts are possibly even more Halloweeny than witches, and having them both here was a nice surprise.
  
The shop had looked great before I went in it, since I spotted some cool looking pentagram candle holders from the door, but it turns out initial appearances were deceiving, as it was mostly full of non-witch related scarves and shawls (not even witch-looking ones, because I am totally down to buy a witch cloak if I can find a suitable (non-Harry Potter related) one). Still, I bought a skeleton pin badge and a couple postcards. I was a little disappointed in the exhibition, because it was too heavy on medieval magic for my taste, and some of the artefacts weren’t exactly what I was hoping for, but I still enjoyed it. It wasn’t as good as the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle, or even the Harry Potter exhibition (though it was pleasanter to look around than the latter, being much less crowded), but it was still the kind of exhibition I love seeing in October. 3.5/5. Oh, and we went back through the Ashmolean to check for the dickhead plate, and guess what? It is finally back, and it is so worth seeing in person (actually, you probably already guessed that, due to the positioning of that photo). Happy Halloween everyone!

I spotted this cake in an Oxford bakery, and I kind of wish I’d commissioned one with my face on the decapitated head, though I suppose the one already on it looks a bit like me.

London: “Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up” @ the V&A

Frida on the bench 1939. Nickolas Muray. V&A Museum

Tickets had sold out for the day the first time I tried to visit “Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up,” back in the summer when I ended up visiting “Fashioned from Nature” instead (and I remember that day well too. It was unbearably hot so I got an ice cream that dripped all down the front of my dress on the way there, and I didn’t notice until after I entered the exhibition, so people probably thought I was a slob). So I went home and booked for the first available date on one of my days off, which ended up being the 15th of October. Despite the lengthy wait, I suppose I should consider myself lucky for having gotten in at all, as the exhibition is now sold out for the remainder of its run (through 18th November).

Guillermo Kahlo portrait, V&A Museum.

So clearly, there are a lot of Frida Kahlo fans out there – even with my timed ticket (normally £15, £7.50 with National Art Pass), I still had to join a queue to be let into the exhibition (there was presumably a one in, one out system). And of course, once I made it inside, it was super crowded (and photographs weren’t allowed, though it didn’t stop half the people there from attempting to take them. It was gratifying when the stewards caught them and yelled at them. To avoid this fate myself, I am illustrating this post with objects and art in the exhibition that I found images of online). Not quite Harry Potter exhibition bad, but unpleasant enough. The worst part was the opening gallery, which was long and narrow and had photographs grouped together in clumps, which does not lend itself well to orderly viewing. It was very much a “push in where you can” system, at least at first, and I am not shy about shoving myself in if it means avoiding a queue.

Frida (far right) and her sisters, taken by Guillermo Kahlo.

The exhibition was based off of a selection of Frida’s clothes and personal possessions which were walled up in a bathroom in her home after her death, which was opened fifty years later (so, 2004). It wasn’t really explained why they were walled up in the first place, but this exhibition marks the first time they were shown outside Mexico, which does explain its popularity. The opening section was about Frida’s family background; she had a German father, Mexican mother, and three sisters; two older, one younger. After she contracted polio as a young child, she became very close with her father, who struggled with his health himself, but had a rather distant relationship with her mother; obviously her style and artistic interests very much favoured the Mexican side of her background, but she always used the Germanic name her father had chosen for her. The polio left her with uneven legs and a resulting limp, but she was still on track to attend medical school when she famously suffered a horrific accident after the bus she was riding collided with a streetcar, forcing an iron handrail through her body, damaging her spine and reproductive system, and leaving her in chronic pain for the remainder of her life.  However, this was also the catalyst for leading her into art, since her poor health made it impossible for her to return to medical school. This section covered all of this biographical information, as well as Frida’s communist leanings (although it didn’t go into great detail), and contained a rather splendid collection of photographs of Frida and her family, many of them taken by her father, Guillermo (he adopted the Spanish version of his name, William, after moving to Mexico), who was a keen photographer.

Frida Kahlo, by Leo Matiz, 1943, Coyoacán, Mexico. Private Collection. © Alejandra Matiz. Leo Matiz Foundation.

From there, the gallery progressed into a section about Casa Azul, Frida’s childhood home, which was also the home she returned to as an adult with her husband, Diego Rivera, and painted it an amazing deep blue. I loved the map that Frida drew of the house, with a little unibrowed stick figure to indicate where she was born (which wasn’t accurate, since she was actually born at her grandmother’s house, but was no less charming for that), and all of her animals carefully labelled, with the exception of what were clearly ducks in a pond, because, as she put it, she didn’t know the English name for them. She owned a special breed of Mexican dogs that looked rather like larger chihuahuas, and also had pet monkeys and a deer.

Votive offering dedicated to the Virgin of Talpa. I don’t remember if this particular piece was on display, but it’s just so you can get an idea of the style.

The next room was about Frida’s interest in native Mexican art, in particular votive paintings, which are amazing. Votive paintings are a tradition that originated in rural Mexico as a way of thanking the saints after someone was saved from bodily harm. If someone survived a life-threatening experience, they would commission an artist to paint a small picture showing the event in question, which they would then hang as an offering in their local church. Though they are obviously very heartfelt, due to the melodramatic nature of the things they depict, and their rather primitive style, they are often unintentionally hilarious, and I love them, as did Frida. She had a whole wall full of these paintings at Casa Azul, and they were a major influence on her art, as can be seen in the paintings she made of herself after various operations (some of which were in the final room of the exhibition). The best piece here, in my opinion, was one that showed a man being hit by a train, and this was Frida’s favourite as well, because of its similarities to her own accident.

Frida, by Guillermo Kahlo, about 1926, Coyoacán, Mexico. © Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera Archives.

The next gallery was probably my favourite, and was all about Frida’s health and how it affected her art. She was very frail, and had to wear a corset to support her spine, which she used her elaborate and beautiful dresses (based on the traditional dress of the women of Tehuana, Mexico, which was a matriarchal society known for its exceptionally lovely clothes) to try to conceal. The central theme of this exhibition was that everything about Frida’s outward appearance was very much an intensely cultivated persona, and a way for her to transcend her pain and frailty and become something magnificent (hence the double meaning of the exhibition’s title, in that she both made herself up with makeup, and she made her “self” up). She even tried to make her plaster corsets (which were moulded to her body, and could stay on for months at a time) reflect her personality by painting them with things like sacred hearts and hammers and sickles. I would say that it seemed like a lot of effort for something she tried to keep concealed, but that wasn’t quite the case, as Frida, despite her marriage to Diego, had a number of affairs with other artists (as did Diego, including one particularly hurtful one with Frida’s own younger sister, who lived with them), and allowed herself to be photographed topless, and in her corsets, by one of her lovers. I can’t say I blame her, as in addition to Diego’s affairs, he was also a rather unfortunate looking man – her nickname for him was Sapo-Rana (Frog-Toad), and I can see why.

Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holán. Photograph Museo Frida Kahlo.

While celebrating Frida’s indomitable spirit (there were plenty of photographs of her painting while on bed rest, on an easel suspended above her head), this gallery was also depressing, because of course her ill health got the best of her in the end. She struggled with gangrene in her toes, which eventually led to the amputation of one of her legs, so the exhibition included a prosthetic leg clad in one of Frida’s signature red embroidered shoes, though by this point Frida was confined to a wheelchair. She died only a year after her leg was amputated, because her body had pretty much given up the fight at that point (after more than 30 surgeries), even though she was only 47. She also had some struggles with addiction to painkillers (there is some speculation that her death was the result of an overdose), which is understandable, given the amount of pain she seemed to have been in at all times from the aftereffects of both polio and her bus injuries.

Dress display inside exhibition, Wikimedia Commons.

I know talking about her death probably makes it sound like I’m approaching the end of this post, but there was one remaining gallery. This was the one that held all of Frida’s dresses, which were incredibly gorgeous, especially a blouse embroidered with animals and Aztec dancers. I did find the labelling a bit confusing though, as the dresses appeared to have been arranged more to make a statement than for clarity, and with dresses displayed in rows, it was hard to tell which sign went with each dress. There was also some of her jewellery – my favourite piece had little leg and arm shaped prayer tokens, which were probably chosen somewhat ironically by Frida in reference to her health issues (she renounced her Catholicism after discovering communism).

Aztec dancer blouse.

This gallery was even darker than the rest of the exhibition (which was already quite dim), presumably to protect the fabric, but I think it led to a woman mistaking me for her daughter, as she put her hand on my shoulder and began speaking to me in Spanish (at least, I think that’s what was going on. I did have similar hair to her daughter, so we might have looked the same from behind, but it did weird me out a little). It also contained some of Frida’s art, which had been on rather short supply in the rest of the exhibition (where the focus was more on photographs and the art Frida collected), so we could see for ourselves how she created her image from all the aspects of her life the exhibition had been talking about.

Necklace of coral beads with metal milagros in the form of legs Mexico, early 20th century. Photography Javier Hinojosa © Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives.

Although I think some people may have been disappointed by the fact that more of her art wasn’t here, since I’m not that familiar with most of her work anyway (other than all the iconic images of her with unibrow in full bloom. Not snarking, because mine would look exactly the same in a couple weeks if I stopped plucking today), I wasn’t all that bothered by it. I was less impressed by some of their poor choices of signage materials – the labels in the corset room were all just stickers stuck on the outside of the cases, and some of them had peeled off to the extent that you couldn’t even read them. Actually, they were difficult to read anyway, because they were white letters on a glass case in a dark room, so you had to angle yourself just right to see them, which wasn’t always easy to do in an exhibition as crowded as this one. That said, although it was quite crowded, other than in the first gallery, the objects were generally spread out enough so that you didn’t have to queue to see everything, and could just kind of wander around to whatever was free, which was a pleasant change from the initial part of the exhibition.

Self Portrait with Braid, 1941.

Given my love of medical history, I actually really loved that the focus was primarily on her health, with a bit of fashion thrown in, as those things are so much more my cup of tea than art. I think there could have been more about her life in general, because as I said earlier, her political beliefs were only very lightly touched on, as were some of her family relationships (I didn’t realise she’d had a difficult relationship with her mother until I did a bit of research whilst writing this post, because all the exhibition said was that she was upset because she was suffering from her own health problems (it might have been one of her miscarriages. The accident left her unable to carry a child to term) in America around the time of her mother’s death, so she couldn’t make it back to see her, which seemed to imply at least some sort of loving relationship). But I think, given the title, the exhibition did pretty much deliver on what it promised, which was to explore Frida Kahlo’s artistic persona and what went into creating it (and my god, it must have been an effort for someone as ill as Frida was. She got fully dressed in her ensembles every day, regardless of whether she was expecting company. I change into jimjams the second I walk in the door, and if I don’t leave the house at all, I might not put on actual clothes for days at a time).

Frida Kahlo in Blue Blouse, 1939, Nickolas Muray. Bentley Gallery.

I guess I should also comment on the shop, because the V&A’s exhibition shops are always so fabulous it makes me feel a bit sick with jealousy, given how crap it makes the museum shop I run look in comparison. They had brought in a lot of Mexican art, and even though I kept bitching about how much cheaper it was to buy these things in Mexico, I still paid £6 each for two little Dia de los Muertos style metal skeleton wall hangings (I know that sounds cheap, but they really are very thin and small. I reckon I should just go back to Mexico one of these days though – I’ve only ever been to Tijuana, and that was 15 years ago. I would absolutely love to go for Dia de los Muertos one of these years), and there were plenty of other things in there I would have bought as well, if I were a wealthier woman. In the end, it was actually more enjoyable than I was anticipating, despite the crowds, and I’m glad I had the chance to see it. 4/5. The V&A is also hosting a Day of the Dead celebration this Saturday which they’re tying in with this exhibition, but as it’s free and unticketed, I’ll probably give it a miss, though I will of course report back if I decide to go. My brother’s visiting this week, so I’m off doing vaguely touristy London things, but I will have something relatively Halloweeny to post about next week!

East Grinstead, Sussex: East Grinstead Museum

I am, as I so often say, motivated mainly by food, and my visit to the East Grinstead Museum is a perfect example of this. We only stopped off because it was on the way to the Kent and Sussex Apple Juice and Cider Centre, which I need to visit every fall to procure cloudy apple juice in an attempt to satiate my autumnal appetites for American-style apple cider (if you get a good cloudy apple, it kind of fills the void, but is nowhere near as full-bodied and delicious as actual cider. Given the prevalence of hard cider here, I still can’t work out why no one seems to utilise all those apple presses to make the soft stuff, but I digress…). I get the impression that East Grinstead got HLF funding at some point in the relatively recent past to redo their museum, both because I had never noticed it before when searching for stuff to do, so it either didn’t exist or looked so unremarkable that I was disinclined to visit; and because the building itself looked relatively new, as did the displays.

  

East Grinstead is a free museum, and we found a car park that was free on Sundays just around the corner, though it appears that the museum itself has limited parking. The museum is all on one level, but the building clearly has an upstairs level (and was purpose built for the museum), so perhaps they only use it for storage or events. Therefore, the museum isn’t all that big, but it is split into two distinct galleries (three, if you count the small display area for art).

  

East Grinstead is remarkable mainly because of the Guinea Pig Club, which was founded here, at Queen Victoria Hospital. The Guinea Pig Club was described as “the most exclusive Club in the world, but the entrance fee is something most men would not care to pay and the conditions of membership are arduous in the extreme,” by their surgeon Archibald McIndoe. Basically, Queen Victoria Hospital was where airmen with severe burns were sent during WWII, and they were guinea pigs in the sense that they underwent radical and pioneering plastic surgery techniques to rebuild their faces. Despite all the pain and mental anguish that these men went through, they still maintained a sense of humour, and thus formed the Guinea Pig Club, primarily as a drinking club, for the men to socialise and talk about their shared experience.

  

Obviously this is an incredible story, and the museum devotes roughly half its space to telling it, including the experiences of some of the men in the club and the surgeons, nurses, and anaesthetists that treated them; and graphic descriptions (and depictions, in the form of wax figures, much to my delight) of the techniques used by McIndoe, including the rather old-fashioned (perfected by Harold Gillies during the First World War) but effective pedicle (see example above), where a strip of skin was cut loose along the bottom and sides, formed into a tube, and stretched and attached to another part of the body, for example, the nose, where a new blood supply would form. Once the new patch of skin had blood flow, the skin would be severed from the original area and reshaped to rebuild the patient’s facial features. While this worked very well, and helped to avoid infection in a pre-antibiotic age (since the inner layer of skin wasn’t exposed to air), it did mean that the patient would have to walk around with their arm attached to their face for a number of weeks (hopefully it was worth it in the end, but you can see why they needed a drinking club!). The residents of East Grinstead did their part to help these men transition back into society – it was known as “the town that didn’t stare,” because the people who lived here made a point to try and treat these men as normally as possible to help their mental recovery, and many of the men said that it was their acceptance by the people of East Grinstead that gave them the courage to resume normal life when they returned home. This was by far the best and most interesting section of the museum, and I really enjoyed hearing the stories of the men, and of course seeing all the wax figure tableaux.

  

The other main gallery of the museum was devoted to the history of East Grinstead, and this was more typical of every local history museum – some local memorabilia, a handful of prehistoric stuff, and some random ye olde artefacts (sorry if I sound less than enthused, but the museum I work for is very much in this vein, so it’s become hard for me to get excited about seeing much the same thing somewhere else, especially if I’m slightly jealous of their much more modern displays). However, this too appeared to have been relatively recently redone, and I did like some of the slightly more interactive elements, like the children’s table full of board games (including Operation, appropriately enough) and the wall of mystery objects where you had to guess their use and then use a mirror to check your answers. I also liked the little Iguanodon figurine (named Iggy) that they used as a sort of mascot on some of the object labels to tell us various facts about the town, apparently chosen because Iguanodon footprints have been discovered in East Grinstead.

  

There was also a small gallery filled with some artwork, as I mentioned earlier, although it was right next to the toilet, so not the easiest place to look around (it actually looked like there might have been more art in an adjacent room, but when I tried the door, it was locked, so perhaps not). But I have to give them props for having a very clean toilet with cute little rhymes in it encouraging visitors to donate to the museum to keep it running (effective too, as I dropped a couple pounds in the donation box on my way out). I also liked all the Guinea Pig Club themed merchandise in the shop, including t-shirts printed with their adorable logo, and especially the stuffed guinea pigs, though I couldn’t really justify buying one. I loved the story of the Guinea Pig Club – I would say that portion of the collection would be the reason to visit, rather than the local history stuff, unless of course you are a resident of East Grinstead (not to be mean about their local history collections, which are perfectly nice, I just think that if you’ve got a story as unique as the Guinea Pig Club, you might as well flaunt it!). 2.5/5.

London: “I Object” @ the British Museum

Wow, it’s been a long time (almost three months) since I’ve done a London post, even though I live here. Actually, there really weren’t many exhibitions over the summer (or at least ones I was interested in), so it’s probably a good thing I went to France and America – it gave me something to blog about! But autumn is looking much more promising on the exhibitions front, including this one currently at the British Museum (until 20 January 2019): “I Object: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent.”

  

I do quite like Ian Hislop (I really liked the Wipers Times musical, and I like a bit of HIGNFY as well, though I would not recommend actually going to see it filmed, because you will be there for HOURS with no toilet breaks), so I was eager to see this. Admission is £12, though we were able to get half off with our National Art Passes, and because it is not the British Museum’s main special exhibition, there was no need to pre-book (at least not on the day I visited, though if you do pre-book, be sure to leave time to get through the (newish) security/bag check shed, as there is often a lengthy queue). This isn’t to say that it isn’t still popular – there were definitely more people inside than I find ideal (bearing in mind the number of people I find ideal is zero), which would have been fine in a larger space, but because it was fairly cramped, I did have to contend with annoying people who spent way too long standing right in front of various displays and refusing to move, even when people were obviously queuing behind them.

  

I’d read a few reviews before visiting, which were mainly negative, so my expectations were not terribly high, but I think the exhibition got off to a strong start with Hislop’s five favourite objects, one of which (seen below left) was also my favourite object (so much so that I went home with a print of it, though I really don’t know why I keep buying prints). Unfortunately, it went a bit downhill from there. The whole premise of this exhibition is that Hislop believes history is written by the winners, so he was trying to find subversive objects that challenge the traditional historical narrative. Of course, these objects were taken from the British Museum’s collections, so were thus already part of the narrative in some sense. Ironically, the exhibition itself didn’t have much of a narrative; rather, the commentary was in the form of those little talk bubbles you see above, showing Hislop’s thoughts on each object, combined with a curator-written description of what the object was, but there was nothing particularly tying the objects together, and it skipped from different historical eras the entire time, with no coherent timeline.

  

That said, a lot of the objects on display here were pretty great, so even though I didn’t always understand what was going on with society at the times they were made (I was fine with the British stuff, but a lot of it was Egyptian and Roman, and my knowledge of those periods is pretty damn patchy, so just naming random emperors and assuming the general public would know who they were talking about was a bit presumptuous, even for the British Museum), I could still enjoy looking at them. And who doesn’t love a fart joke? Or a skeleton? (OK, maybe I’m the only one that loves skeletons, but I think a lot of people find fart jokes funny, judging by their prevalence throughout history.)

  

Or a poop joke for that matter, as seen above in the rather mean-spirited take on George III’s madness. Georges III and IV were well represented here (it’s hard to talk about satire without showing Georgian cartoons, because they were so brilliant), as was Louis XVI, though I suppose in that case the satire took a darker edge, given what ended up happening to him. I was intrigued to see that there were some dollars with political messages on them here – money that has been written on is still legal currency in the US, so I spent much of my teenage years scribbling poems and punk slogans on every dollar in my wallet, and I think I would have peed my pants in excitement (to go with the bodily fluids theme) if one of those dollars had someone ended up in here, but alas, these were much more boring than my angsty defacing.

  

I did laugh out loud when I saw the brilliant Louis Philippe pear drawings though (a caricaturist noted his resemblance to a pear, so that was how he was regularly portrayed in French satirical publications). Obviously it’s much easier to see the hilarity in a cartoon than in something like a statue – Hislop told us that the one above left was definitely satirical because of the “deliberately unattractive shape of the body,” (by the standards of that culture) but I just don’t really see it, given that it just looks like a normal fertility figure. I guess maybe if I had more of a background in ancient cultures and their standards of beauty, I could have appreciated the satirical bent of some of the objects more, but frankly I think the reasons given for the inclusion of some of the artefacts were a bit far-fetched, or else merited more explanation so they didn’t seem so far-fetched, because it kind of felt like he had run out of obviously satirical objects and was clutching at straws.

   

The most famous thing here was undoubtedly the copy of the King James Bible where “Thou shalt not commit adultery” was changed to “Thou shalt commit adultery,” which Hislop definitely views as satire because he thinks it seems too perfect to be a genuine typographical error – even if he’s wrong about that, at least it was a cool thing to see. The fake artefact that Banksy put inside the BM back in the early 2000s (it took a few days for anyone working there to notice) was more obviously satirical, and the caption is pretty great.

  

There were a couple minor opportunities for interactivity, such as listening to protest songs on headphones in various places in the exhibition, or drawing a protest badge, which Marcus did to what I think is great effect. Other than that, though, it was a traditional, fairly staid exhibition, so there was certainly nothing subversive about that aspect of it. I think maybe if there had been some opportunities for object handling, or otherwise interacting with the collection, it would have helped carry the theme through a bit better than being confined to looking at things in cases, as you would in the rest of the British Museum.

  

The exhibition was fairly small (only three rooms), so it didn’t take us very long to look around. Worth 6 pounds, but definitely not 12. In the end, it seems that much of satire does just come down to fart jokes, which I certainly don’t have a problem with, but I guess it’s not very highbrow, which may have been why a lot of the reviewers took issue with it. I think it was entertaining enough, but if you’re looking for a lot of analysis, an actual “alternative history” of the world, or just want to expand your knowledge of other cultures and civilisations, this is probably not the exhibition for you, as the commentary was mainly limited to the objects themselves, with no real background or narrative. Still, I liked it a lot better than “Living with Gods,” the last exhibition I paid to see here, and there was some pretty great merchandise in the exhibition shop (in addition to the print, I got a “Truck Fump” badge). 3/5.

  

Cleveland, OH: The USS Cod

Oh god, the USS Cod. Where do I begin?! Actually, if it wasn’t for the strange incident at the end of my visit, I would have rated it quite highly overall, so in all fairness, I should leave the weirdness for the end, and focus on the positive that was the bulk of my experience there (and leave you in a bit of suspense for once), starting with the excellent tagline on their brochure, “In 1944 she terrified the Japanese fleet. Today she will fascinate your family!”

  

The USS Cod is a decommissioned WWII submarine that is docked in Cleveland’s harbour, near the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (which I have visited exactly once, about fifteen years ago. That place is expensive!). Because there wasn’t anything particularly enticing that I hadn’t already seen at Cleveland’s museums at the time of my visit, I was searching for alternative attractions, and the Cod popped up. It had been dimly on my radar for a while (ha!), but I’ve toured a few ships before, and they usually involve climbing up and down ladders, which I am not keen on (when I worked in a brewery, I had to regularly climb down into the 1000 litre kettle to scrub it out, which remains the most terrifying thing I have done to date). Plus the Cod is only open from May-September, which doesn’t usually coincide with my visits, but as we were there in August, I had no excuse. Because Marcus was interested, I agreed to go, provided we could get pancakes first, and ice cream after, since I am motivated primarily by food. This of course presented no problem for either of us.
  
So we headed downtown, and happily discovered that the Cod had its own free parking lot, so we didn’t even have to pay for expensive downtown parking. Admission to the submarine was $12, which was collected by a cheerful man in the admissions booth who handed us brochures containing a self-guided tour, and told us more about the ship (which unfortunately I wasn’t really paying attention to because they had a sign saying they needed dollar bills, so I was digging through my purse to find four ones to give him so he wouldn’t have to make change).
  
Cod was launched in 1943 – because so much of the US Navy’s fleet was destroyed at Pearl Harbor, there was a real rush to produce a new fleet, including submarines, and Cod was part of that, so it was quite a technologically advanced submarine for the time, though apparently with terrible torpedoes, as they were defective. Cod has a couple of Cleveland connections, the first being that her engines were built here, and the second is that she was towed to Cleveland in 1959 to serve as a naval reserve training vessel. After she was struck off the Navy register in 1971, Clevelanders fought to save her, and in 1976 the Cod was opened to the public as a museum.
  
The Cod is the only decommissioned US submarine on display that has not had doorways cut into her hull for access, which is jolly well for authenticity and all that, but not so great for me with my fear of ladders. You have to actually climb into a narrow hole and launch yourself bravely over the edge onto the ladder (I’m smiling nervously to hide my fear). It wasn’t just any ladder though, as it strangely bent at an angle for the bottom few rungs, which you could not see when you were actually on it, so I had a brief moment of panic where I thought I would have to jump three feet to the floor, but then I felt one of the rungs with my flailing foot, and all was well. I would recommend not taking a bag with you if you go, as it was quite tricky manoeuvring down the ladder with my purse, but I saw some portly older gentlemen and a child come down the same ladder with relatively little difficulty, so maybe it’s fine if you’re not as afraid of ladders as I am. Fortunately, I am not claustrophobic, so once my feet had safely touched down, I was fine (at least until I had to go up again).
  
We had entered via the forward torpedo room, and we were pleased to see that our brochure guides were actually quite comprehensive. In addition, some of the rooms had audio guides in them that were activated at the press of a button, so we were able to learn quite a lot. I find the most interesting thing about submarines to be how so many men lived in such close quarters, so was more interested in the aspects of daily life than in the details of its missions or torpedoes. Therefore, it was neat to learn that the torpedo room was apparently the preferred spot for bunks, because it was the quietest part of the ship (when they weren’t actively launching torpedoes, of course!).
  
The officers’ quarters were directly behind the forward torpedo room, and frankly, I think I would have had to have been captain to have survived aboard this sub, because it was the only way you got a room to yourself (even the officers had to bunk two or three to a room, though at least it was theirs, and they didn’t have to hot bunk like the men). Their dining room had nice plush booths, and actually seemed quite cosy. They got china with adorable little anchors printed on it, and their shower seemed nicer than the one I have at home! (I’d take a pass on the toilet though. There was a long list of instructions on the wall that had to be followed every time you used the damn thing!) I could even deal with the yeoman’s teeny tiny office I think, because at least he got his own space (hell, I’d take that any day over awful open plan! I’m glad I only have to share my office with one person at work, and they’re often not in). One thing I loved about the Cod was that you could touch almost everything, and actually crawl right into some of the bunks, as you can see above!
  
The conning tower/control room area was all lit in red, and had another ladder to climb up to get a view of the conning tower, but I only made it up about halfway before I chickened out and gave up (there was nowhere to put your hands once you got past a certain point, which freaked me out). I was relieved to climb through yet another portal into the crew’s living quarters (the portals/doorways/airlocks (not 100% sure of the correct term) were pretty low – 6’2″ Marcus struggled a lot more than I did!), which had my favourite part of the audio guide, done by the submarine’s cook (or someone pretending to be the cook), who was of Italian ancestry.
  
Men on submarines had a reputation for being much better fed than the rest of the military (everyone who served on a submarine volunteered for it – as in, they were part of the Navy, and were still paid by the Navy, but they volunteered to be put on a submarine rather than a ship), because it was such dangerous and mentally draining work that they wanted to keep morale up somehow, and that was with food! The sub had giant cans of food stacked in every available space, which was apparently historically accurate. In addition to three very hearty meals a day, they also had access to unlimited snacks, and the Italian-American cook introduced many of the men to pizza for the first time (although he mentioned having to improvise based on what supplies they had on board, so I’m picturing ketchup instead of sauce, and horrible government issue cheese instead of mozzarella). They even had an ice cream machine, and with space at a premium, ice cream must have been REALLY important! The men also used the small mess hall (there were only 24 seats, and usually 72 men on board, so they had to eat in shifts) for movie nights, listening to records, etc.
  
After that, we made our way through several more engine and manoeuvring rooms before emerging into the aft torpedo room, where we were greeted by another very friendly gentleman who was telling a story about Andrew G. Johnson, the Cod‘s only wartime casualty, who was swept away and drowned whilst trying to fight a fire in one of the torpedo rooms. On a happier note, he also told us about how the Cod saved a Dutch submarine stuck off the coast of Japan in August 1945. They tried to pull the sub free, but it wouldn’t move, so the decision was made to take all the Dutch crew on board and blow up the Dutch submarine, so it wouldn’t fall into enemy hands. This meant that for the two and a half days until they reached Australia, there were over 150 men on board. This also coincided with news of the Japanese surrender, so the entire ship was basically a massive, crowded party for the whole of that trip. Obviously, the Dutch were very grateful, and they still send dignitaries over every year to re-enact the saving of the crew of the O-19, which I think is pretty cool.
  
There was some memorabilia in this torpedo room relating to the O-19, as well as flags and things to show how many Japanese ships the Cod had sunk. The volunteer offered to take us back through the sub and point out things we might have missed, but neither one of us relished climbing back through all the portals, so we politely declined and instead headed up another scary ladder into the extreme heat outside (it was such a hot day that I was initially a little worried about visiting the submarine, since I imagined something with metal sides and no air conditioning would get pretty steamy, but they had fans on throughout and it was actually quite pleasant).
  
This is where things got weird. There is lots of fun stuff to take pictures with on the deck of the sub, including a big wet gun with seats, so we were walking around doing that when a female volunteer approached us and offered to take our picture together in front of the submarine, which was very nice of her. This would have been all well and good had she not started talking to us. I could tell when she started going on about how she thought Princess Diana’s death was a conspiracy that it would be better to get away sooner rather than later, and started inching my way towards the exit, but she followed us and just kept on talking. She went on to say that she wanted to visit Ukraine, but was waiting until Trump “sorted things out.” By this time, I was desperate to get away, but as we were about to make a run for it, she came out with, “I don’t know what your politics are, but I just want you to know that Donald Trump is a great president. Anything is better than the last one,” and carried on for some time about her love for Trump while we politely smiled and nodded and frantically eyed the exit. We were finally able to break away and get in the car, but wow, what an odd experience! I understand that a site like this is likely to be pro-military, and that’s completely fine – if she had wanted to talk about how great the US military is, that’s a different thing entirely and I’m certainly not going to argue with a submarine museum staffed by veterans – but it was not really a comfortable experience for politics to be brought into it, especially since we hadn’t mentioned it at all; to the contrary, I was trying to steer her away from the subject! I didn’t say anything, because it wasn’t really the time or place to do it, and of course she is entitled to her opinion, but I don’t really think it’s appropriate to bring up such a controversial subject to visitors who hadn’t mentioned anything even vaguely related, especially when said visitors were trying to look at the Cod merchandise for sale, because I probably would have bought something if I hadn’t been so keen to end the conversation.
  
If it wasn’t for that volunteer, I would wholeheartedly recommend visiting the Cod, as it is a very interesting experience, and I guess even with the incident at the end, it was still certainly an interesting experience, though not in the way I would have hoped. I’m pretty sure proceeds from your admission fee only go towards preserving the submarine, and not to any political causes, so I certainly wouldn’t tell people not to visit on the basis of one volunteer (and coincidentally, I happened to read an article in Cleveland Magazine a couple days later about a different volunteer on the Cod who sends letters every day to Trump about all the people that already make America great (implying that he doesn’t need to “Make America Great Again” because it already is great) The woman in the article was actually a Republican, she just didn’t support Trump, and after reading that, I’m thinking maybe she was also there that day and had said something to get our volunteer riled up, which was why she was otherwise inexplicably on the subject of politics) – but maybe once you’ve seen the sub, best to just hightail it out of there before you get drawn into anything (and I’m not just saying this because I don’t support Trump – if she had started going on about how much she loved Bernie Sanders or someone, with nothing else political in the conversation preceding it, I would have found it odd. Maybe not as awkward, but odd nonetheless)! If I ignore the end of our visit, 3.5/5.

Butler County, OH: The Donut Trail

This is a bit of a departure from my normal posts, but I’ve kept mentioning the Donut Trail, and I realise some of you are probably curious about it, so here we are. There is clearly some kind of PR genius working at the Butler County Visitors Bureau, because the Donut Trail is a brilliant way of attracting tourism to an otherwise unremarkable part of Ohio. I had never even heard of Butler County before the advent of the Donut Trail, and I certainly wouldn’t have thought of planning a trip to Southern Ohio before it – I took a trip to Wapakoneta as a teenager, which I suppose is actually central Ohio (I tend to think of everything south of Akron as “Southern Ohio,” at least culturally), but nonetheless, that experience was enough of a taster for me (this will make me sound like a snob, but I had driven down there with my jerk ex-boyfriend to see his friend’s punk band play a show, which turned out to be at a 4H Club. We accidentally went to the wrong place when we first got there, and walked into a room full of hunters gutting a deer, who didn’t take particularly kindly to two weird looking kids. Even after we hightailed it out of there and made it to the correct 4H Club, it was…interesting. I’m sure those kids were perfectly nice, but man, were they ever hicks). But once I heard about the Donut Trail, I was willing to brave just about anything to get my hands on all those doughnuts, not to mention the t-shirt.

   

Basically, someone noticed that there was an unusually high concentration of independent doughnut shops in Butler County, Ohio, which is just north of Cincinnati. Therefore, they had the clever idea to devise a trail incorporating 12 of them, with an accompanying passport. Visit all the shops, get your passport stamped at each one, and you get a free t-shirt, which you have to go to the Visitors Bureau to collect. As I’ve said, this is brilliant, because it not only attracts tourists, but it gets them to spend money at local businesses, all for the price of a t-shirt, which I’m sure they get cheaply printed in bulk.

  

Now, I love doughnuts, but I am a realist, and I know there was no way in hell I could eat a dozen doughnuts in a day and remain in any kind of functional state. Therefore, we decided to spread the trail over 3 days. This was also useful because a lot of these establishments open at 4 in the morning, and are closed by noon, if not sooner, so unless you want a much earlier start than I find acceptable, there is no easy way to hit them all in a day, given that the trail is about 80 miles long. We also had to first drive the four hours to Butler County from Northeast Ohio (where my parents live) before we could begin, so unless we left around midnight, we couldn’t have made it there early enough anyway. One of the doughnut shops is optional because it is much farther away than the others, so we decided early on that we were going to have to skip it to make the trail work, which I guess is not ideal, but it was a fully sanctioned cheat, so we took it.

   

Our first stop was the Central Pastry Shop in Middletown, and I started in the stupidest possible way – by ordering a giant cake doughnut. I love cake doughnuts the most, and this one came highly recommended by the woman working there (almost everyone we encountered on this trail was super friendly, and once they saw we were doing the trail, were very keen to point out all their specialties), but as I learned (actually, this was something I already knew going in, I just chose to ignore it at first), if you’re eating doughnuts in bulk, raised doughnuts are the way to go. The doughnut I chose was called an ugly, because of its crusty, irregular surface, and though it was delicious, it was very very fried.

   

By the time I’d eaten it, I kind of never wanted a doughnut again, which was unfortunate because we’d arrived at stop number 2: Milton’s Donuts. Here I just opted for a simple glazed (to the disappointment of the man working there, who really wanted us to get some kind of cream cheese concoction. I didn’t mention that I hate cream cheese with a passion, even if I had been in the mood for something rich, which I definitely wasn’t), and even though Holtman’s, our next stop, had an impressive variety (shown at start of post), I just went for a basic chocolate iced, along with an orange juice in an attempt to cut the grease. We tried to visit Stan the Donut Man on the way, which was already shut despite it supposedly being open until 5, and though I didn’t think much of it at the time, this would prove a bad omen.

   

Having already eaten two more doughnuts than I wanted to, we called it quits for the day, and headed into Cincinnati for Taft’s House, then checked into our hotel, and paid a visit to the excellent Rhinegeist Brewery (we specifically stayed downtown so we could walk there and both drink some beers for once. One of the annoying things about America is that they have like a million breweries, but no public transport outside major cities, which normally means that because I can’t drive, Marcus doesn’t get to drink, unless we go somewhere with my parents and they drive. And I don’t even like drinking very much, but I feel obligated to do it to at least justify not driving). The next morning, we got up bright and early and headed straight back to Butler County to Ross Bakery, which had a really nice man working there who was keen to hear all about London. I got off to a much smarter start by ordering a glazed twist, though I think the doughnuts might have still been with me from the day before, because I almost immediately started to get a stomachache. Things started to blur together at this point, but I know we visited Mimi’s, because I told myself I was only going to have a bite of their sprinkle doughnut and save the rest for later, but it was so damn delicious I ate the whole thing. We also went to Martin’s and the Donut Spot, and I was spending the time in between doughnuts slumped over in the car seat, clutching my gut with one of the worst stomachaches I’ve ever had. This was not a particularly fun day (you can actually see how much my enthusiasm plummeted between Ross Bakery and the Donut Spot).

   .

Fortunately, things eventually settled enough that I was able to grab a picture with the Alexander Hamilton statue in Hamilton, visit the Harrison Memorial outside Cincinnati, venture into Kentucky so Marcus could take a picture in front of the awful Creation Museum (we definitely did not go in, and it was kind of creepy even being near it), and even eat one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had from Taft’s Brewporium, which also has an excellent logo, based on the story of Taft and the bathtub (shame their beer was just OK, but I would go back for the pizza in a heartbeat), followed by soft serve from Putz’s Creamy Whip. We even made it to Jungle Jim’s later that night (the largest grocery store in the world, which I have wanted to visit for years, though sadly it was disappointing. It was big, it was just not as nice as I’d been led to believe, feeling more like a bargain store than anything), where we developed a problem with the brakes in our car (borrowed from my parents).

   

Because of this, Marcus was understandably a bit anxious about driving it the next day (I should point out the brakes still worked, they just made a terrible grinding noise every time we stopped suddenly. I can be a bit reckless, but I’m not suicidal), but we’d come so far that I wasn’t ready to give up on the Donut Trail. So we successfully visited Jupiter Donuts, Kelly’s Bakery, and the Donut House, just leaving old Stan the Donut Man. As it was only 9 in the morning, we weren’t really worried about them being closed, because who closes at 9, when you’re supposed to be open until 5?! Stan’s, that’s who. By the time we got there, there was a sign on the door reading, “Sorry, Out of Doughnuts!” At 9 in the morning. On a weekday. I mean, that’s a hell of a business model – making only enough doughnuts so you sell out eight hours before you’re supposed to (we were aware that a lot of these places closed as soon as they sold out, we just didn’t think anyone could possibly sell out that early). Needless to say, I was pretty damn pissed off, and spent a fair amount of time in the parking lot bemoaning my fate, and life in general, when I noticed a man going into Stan’s. Curious, I followed suit, and though they were indeed out of doughnuts, there was a woman working there who was more than happy to stamp our passports, so I could claim my damn free t-shirt. So while we did technically complete the Donut Trail, I felt a bit unfulfilled, having not actually eaten the final doughnut. Still claimed the hell out of my t-shirt though (there are more doughnuts printed on the back).

   

We had wanted to spend the rest of the day in Columbus, but because of the car issues, we paid a quick stop to Brewdog in Canal Winchester (since it was on the way anyway and we needed to stretch our legs), which now has a beer museum (which was OK, not really worth blogging about though) and headed straight back to my parents’ house. Although the Donut Trail didn’t turn out quite as I was hoping, I am still glad we did it (and honestly, I would probably do it again if I could space it out more. Writing this post has really made me want a doughnut!). All of the doughnuts we tried were good, and some were exceptional, though I would have loved to be able to complete it in a more leisurely way so I could have tried more of their specialties rather than limiting myself mainly to plain glazed so my stomach didn’t explode (I did allow myself one cake doughnut a day, so there was some variety, just not as much as I would have normally gone for). If you live in Ohio, I’d recommend doing it in a series of smaller trips rather than all at once. From talking to the people at the doughnut shops though, we certainly weren’t the only people who had travelled to do it (they mentioned people from all over the US, and a few other Europeans), and some people actually did complete it in a day, so I guess it is doable, though probably not particularly enjoyable. Now someone needs to come up with an ice cream or pizza trail, so I have something to do on my next trip to the States! And I think someone at the Butler County Visitors Bureau definitely deserves a raise!

Bonus incredibly unflattering action shot of me eating a doughnut.

Cincinnati, OH: The American Sign Museum

Doing the Donut Trail ate up a fair chunk of our morning the day after visiting Taft’s House, but we still had time in the afternoon to visit a museum, and though I suppose I should have done something more worthy and intellectual like the Underground Railroad Museum, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s House, or the Taft Museum of Art (founded by President Taft’s wealthier half-brother (he married money)), really I just wanted to see the American Sign Museum, so that’s where we headed.

  

The American Sign Museum is, appropriately enough, housed next to an old neon sign manufacturer, in a somewhat industrial looking part of town. It is apparently the “largest public museum dedicated to signs in the United States!” (exclamation point theirs). It is also probably the most expensive, with admission clocking in at a whopping $15, but honestly, from the moment I stepped foot in the parking lot and was greeted by a pig, a genie, an oversized bowling pin with a face, and many other giant vintage signs, I was ready to pay pretty much whatever they asked. (It was actually reminiscent of “Attack of the 50 Foot Eyesores” from The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror VI (one of my favourites, next to the “Shinning” one, and the one where Homer sells his soul for a doughnut. Actually every one of the first eight Treehouses of Horror is pure gold, and I’m glad it’s nearly the time of year for me to re-watch them all again!) which was both delightful, and somewhat concerning (though there was fortunately no lightning storm when we visited).)
  
Anyway, we parted with our $15 (each) and in turn received a souvenir button reading I ❤ Old Signs, as well as admission to the museum, of course. Walking into the museum was kind of like walking into a massive kaleidoscope, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend visiting if you’re susceptible to seizures. I loved it though, and had even worn my kitschiest 50’s style “atomic cocktail” print dress so I would fit right in (it makes me happy to theme my outfit with whatever I’m doing, if possible).
  
The museum was divided up into three main areas, plus a workshop where they restore the signs (you could go into the workshop, though no one was actually in the act of restoring whilst we were there). The first area made some effort to trace the history of signs, the second was a vaguely chronological progression of neon signs until the mid-20th century, and the third was kind of just a free-for-all of giant signs lining a street of yesteryear, including ones for McDonald’s (gross, but the sign was cool) and Howard Johnson’s (which I have never had in my life, though I think there are still some around, or at least there were when I was a kid. I feel like it’s more of an East Coast thing).
  
Many of the signs had their own signs (as in object labels) telling you more about them, but it was hard to focus on reading them with all that neon staring you in the face, so I think the best thing to do may just be to stand and soak it all in. This is a popular wedding venue, and I can certainly see why, though I suspect the background of the photographs might detract from the actual couple a little (not gonna lie, I would still totally get married there).
  
One of my particular favourites was the giant rotating Sputnik inspired sign shown above, which reminded me of a retro Christmas tree decoration (hell, I would just have that thing in lieu of a Christmas tree, and stick ornaments on its points), though I also loved all the ice cream and dairy signs, especially this one with a moving cow (and I want a chocolate malted right now, but Britain does not excel in the making of milkshakes (here’s a tip: a milkshake should contain ice cream, and not just be literal shaken milk) so I would just have to make it myself, which isn’t the best idea with shakes, because then you see how much ice cream goes in (a hell of a lot, if you like your shakes as thick as I do)). And the big Popsicle wall ad brought back memories of childhood, even though cherry is obviously the best flavour of twin pop, not orange. (It seriously must be at least twenty years since I’ve had a twin pop, and I don’t really know why, since I love them. Oh wait, maybe it’s because they’re impossible to snap in half cleanly, so more often than not, the whole damn thing ends up falling on the ground.) This definitely seems to be the kind of place where people go to reminisce, and you’d probably get even more out of it if you actually grew up in the ’40s, ’50s, or ’60s.
  

The theme was even carried through to the bathrooms, which of course had neon signs pointing to them, and the shop had quite a few reproduction signs and American Sign Museum t-shirts (with a retro-look logo) available for purchase, but I just went for one of the glow in the dark enamel pins of an ice cream cone (I have about a million enamel pins, but I keep buying more of the damn things. I also keep buying jackets, so I guess it all balances out). So, was this worth $15? No, absolutely not, but I had a fabulous time in the kitschiest (I know I keep using that word, but it fits better than anything else), most neon environment imaginable, and I am so glad I went. 3.5/5 based sheerly on the amount of joy this museum brought me.

  

Cincinnati, OH: William Howard Taft National Historic Site

Remember how I said on my post on Rutherford B. Hayes’s house that if I could drive, I would hightail it down to Cincinnati to see Taft’s house? Well, I didn’t suddenly learn to drive or anything, but I was accompanied on this trip home by Marcus, who can drive, so although I didn’t head directly there, I did manage to finally squeeze in a trip to Cincinnati. I was visiting the US over my birthday, which I used as the perfect excuse to do something I’d been dying to do since I read about it, which was to travel to Southern Ohio and complete the Donut Trail (of which more in a later post), and while we were down there, spend some time in Cincinnati, which despite growing up in Ohio, I had never visited.

  

We went to Taft’s house (or the William Howard Taft National Historic Site Ohio as it is more properly known) first thing after arriving in Cincinnati, because it was about a four hour drive down, not counting our stops for doughnuts and Grandpa’s Cheese Barn, and they shut at 4:45, with the last guided tour at 4. The site is run by NPS, and is free to visit. They only give tours every half an hour, and we had just missed one (honestly, I was hoping to miss it because I really had to pee and wouldn’t have been able to cope if I’d had to walk around a house first), so after a quick toilet break on my part, we were shown a short video about Taft’s life, and spent some time looking around the displays in the education centre opposite the house, which were mainly about Taft’s “goodwill tour” to Japan, the Philippines, and China, undertaken when he was Secretary of War under Teddy Roosevelt, which meant he was accompanied by the irritating sounding Alice Roosevelt (I have to admit that I might have liked Alice better for her rebelliousness if she hadn’t been such a bitch to poor Eleanor, but in various anecdotes she does just come across as a massively unpleasant person. Not that I’m really one to talk). This trip was undertaken to make new trade agreements and help end the Russo-Japanese War, and also helped usher in the age of American empire. Other than the exhibition, the most memorable thing in here was undoubtedly the animatronic version of Taft’s son Charlie who told various stories about his father when you pressed a button. I would have preferred an animatronic Taft himself, but I’m not going to turn my nose up at any kind of animatronic.

  

When it was time to tour the house, we headed over with the volunteer who had put on the video for us. As is not uncommon at NPS sites, we were the only people on the tour (to be fair, it was the middle of a weekday, and I don’t think Taft’s house is one of their more popular attractions), which I didn’t mind because at least we didn’t have to listen to a load of questions from fellow visitors. Although I keep calling it “Taft’s house”, it was really just his boyhood home, so “the Tafts’ house” would probably be more accurate. Taft’s father, Alphonso, was a judge and politician (he also helped create the Skull and Bones Society at Yale, which has notoriously produced a number of presidents since its foundation), and William very much followed in his footsteps. William was the product of Alphonso’s second marriage – he married Louise Torrey of Boston after his first wife died, and brought her back to Cincinnati with him. Apparently the Tafts, while certainly comfortable, were not particularly wealthy, and the house, while good sized, wasn’t really all that large for eight people, plus a few servants (Alphonso had two surviving children from his first marriage, and he and Louise had four children who survived infancy). The volunteer told us that they had a constantly rotating nursery, as the oldest child would move out from the nursery when the youngest was born, and move upstairs to the room of his older sibling, who would have departed for university by then (this worked pretty well due to the age gaps between the first and second sets of children). Mount Auburn, the area where the house is located, is evidently nowadays a fairly poor neighbourhood, but it was solidly middle class whilst the Tafts were living here, though there was apparently a divide between Irish and German immigrants, so typically homes would have either all Irish or all German servants, to discourage fighting. The Tafts bucked this trend, and had a mix of both (they especially wanted a German nanny, since they thought she would be stricter than her Irish equivalent).

  

There were only about four or five rooms downstairs, of which the parlour was the most noteworthy, as even though it wasn’t terribly big, it used to be even smaller, being divided into a men’s and women’s parlour. However, all that Louise Taft wanted for a wedding gift was a piano, and after it was purchased, they realised that neither of the parlours were large enough for it, so they knocked out the wall and the two rooms became one (and now I’ll have the damn Spice Girls stuck in my head for the rest of the day). There were some crazy long drapes in here, which was evidently the style at the time (though rather ugly), and the wallpaper and upholstery matched the drapes.  I also liked the children’s fireplace, decorated with storybook tiles (shown above), which was installed tile by tile by the children’s grandfather to commemorate every time he and the children finished the story that goes with each tile (there were a lot of storybook tiles being produced in England at that time), which I thought was rather sweet.

  

One of the downstairs rooms has been converted into a museum, as have all the upstairs rooms, which we were free to wander at our leisure, so the tour portion of the house didn’t actually take very long. The museum rooms were actually my favourite part, and they contained a few great artefacts, including an amazing (and amazingly expensive) law desk used by Alphonso, a lot of excellent Taft cartoons (mostly spurred on by the conflict between Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, after Taft refused to become Roosevelt’s flunky once in office), and a massive chair belonging to Taft. I have to admit that one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by Taft is because he was America’s fattest president (one of these years, I do want to host a completely tasteless “Girth of a Nation” President’s Day party celebrating all of America’s largest presidents (except Trump, even though I’m quite sure he’s not far off from Taft weight-wise)), although the story about him getting stuck in the White House bathtub is apocryphal – a new bathtub was installed during Taft’s presidency (as can be seen near the end of the post), but it wasn’t because he got stuck in the other one.

  

Although Taft was an unremarkable president (which angered Theodore Roosevelt so much that he formed the Bull Moose Party just to run against his one-time protege), he seems to have been a reasonably pleasant person, and by all accounts, a surprisingly elegant dancer. He had a fairly interesting life as well, serving as a governor of the Philippines before becoming president, where he (at least according to the museum) did his best to fight against the prevailing racism towards the Filipino people at the time. Most notably, Taft got to live out his lifelong dream of becoming a Justice on the Supreme Court when he was made Chief Justice by fellow Ohio president Warren G. Harding in 1921 (never mind the slightly corrupt bargaining that got him there). I definitely can’t say I agreed with most of Taft’s decisions, but for better or worse, he was instrumental in shaping the Supreme Court into what it has now become (at the time he started, they didn’t even have their own building. This may have been good for Taft, as he managed to slim down quite a bit simply by walking to and from work every day, a distance of 3 miles each way).

  

Although there wasn’t a tonne of information in here about Helen “Nellie” Herron Taft, his wife, she seemed to have been an interesting person, as First Ladies tend to be. She traveled with him and their three children to the Philippines, and did her best to respect the local culture by learning Tagalog and inviting locals to events. She was responsible for many firsts, including being the first First Lady to ride in the inauguration parade, the first to fight for better standards in the workplace, the first to own and drive a car, and the first to publicly support women’s suffrage (and the first to smoke cigarettes, but that’s not really a good thing); but she is probably best remembered as being responsible for planting Japanese cherry trees around the Capitol (they were a gift from Japan, and she and the wife of the Japanese ambassador personally planted the first two saplings, though I’m quite sure gardeners did the rest!).

  

Though Taft’s house wasn’t anything like the extensive home/museum complex that was Rutherford B. Hayes’s site, which was what I was hoping for (nor was Taft smoking hot like Rud, but I already knew that), it was still an enjoyable enough experience, and I’m glad I finally got to see the childhood home of one of our truly “larger than life” presidents at last (poor Taft. I’m really trying not to fat shame, but it’s difficult when that was basically his defining characteristic, even during his presidency. When I did a unit about him in AP US History in high school (we focused on a different president every week, which is one of the reasons I’m into presidential history today), our teacher told us to remember him by saying his name backwards, which is T-fat, so that’s how I refer to him more often than not). I picked up a pin from the shop, and they had some nice general presidential merchandise as well. As always at NPS sites, everyone working here was very welcoming and friendly, and I do hope they get more visitors than were there on the day we visited (I think they do get frequent visits from local schools, though those are probably in the morning) so they can stay open, since they’re the only Taft site I know about! (I don’t know exactly what happened to the house he lived in as an adult, but I assume it’s no longer standing.) 3/5.