Surrey: Lavender Fields and a Walk through Puttenham

As I said in my previous post, we wanted to take advantage of our rental car as much as possible whilst we had it and venture into the countryside a bit. A friend of mine is always raving about the lavender fields near Epsom, and the end of July/early August is peak lavender season, so we’d thought we’d give it a go. Unfortunately, apparently everyone else in London had the same thought, because the place was completely rammed, even though it was early afternoon on a Monday. With cars queuing down the road just to get in the car park, and another queuing system set up once you got out of your car that didn’t look like it was allowing for proper social distancing, plus the £4 charge just to walk around a field, I was most decidedly not keen, so we gave up on that idea. (I had to laugh when I saw the lavender farm posted on Secret London’s Instagram a few days later. Sorry mate, secret’s out.)

However, all was not lost, because we spotted another lavender farm down the road that made a point of advertising their free admission. The fact that the car park was almost empty probably should have been a clue that there was a reason it was free, if the appearance of the place as soon as we got out of the car didn’t make that clear. Still, we’d come all that way, so we persevered. And boy, it’s good we did, since you can see all the fun attractions we spotted! There’s the random hay bales and empty greenhouses surrounded by hoarding, and the big dirt/rubbish heap.

 

And of course the beautiful lush ankle-high lavender fields, filled with millions of bees and other insects that flew up into our faces when we walked past. Just like being in Provence (actually, sort of, since I don’t like Provence much either, but their lavender is definitely more impressive)! There was a small stall set up selling lavender products, but I think lavender in food is vile, and I’m not all that keen on lavender soap either, so we went home empty handed. I probably shouldn’t be too hard on them, because they are a new farm and it takes time for lavender plants to grow to impressive heights, and at least we didn’t pay for the experience or have to encounter other people in a significant way, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend it or Mayfield Lavender Farms, which is the insanely crowded place down the road, to anyone at the moment. Total waste of a trip.

 

Our walk in the North Downs was more successful. We used to go for walks in the North and South Downs quite frequently back when we had a car, but I’ve never been very into walking, so we would usually have to combine it with a visit to an ice cream shop so I had some motivation. However, we sold our car back in 2016 to finance our trip to New Zealand, and have only rented them occasionally since then. So we thought it might be nice to visit the North Downs again, since I’ve gotten sick of Richmond Park even though I’ve really only started going for regular walks there fairly recently. (I know I’m lucky to live near it and have a massive green space to use practically on my doorstep, but it does get old after a while. There’s just too many damn people to dodge.) I checked out the North Downs walks on the National Trails website, and we settled on the Puttenham Circular based mainly on the length of the walk (I get real sick of walking after 4 miles or so, so 3.5 miles is usually perfect) and the ease of driving there (I think Marcus may also have been enticed by the mention of hops, though we didn’t end up seeing any).

  

I was definitely irritated for a lot of this walk because the sun was much too strong, even though it wasn’t a particularly hot day, but I actually enjoyed following the route I downloaded from the National Trails site rather than the clearly marked trails everyone else was following, both because it meant we were the only people on our particular walk, and because it made it feel more like a scavenger hunt since I had to keep looking out for landmarks to know where to turn. On the downside, the fencing seems to have changed since the walk was written, and we were definitely lost for a bit, though we came out where we were supposed to in the end; also, there were portions of the walk where you had to walk along a winding road that had lots of blind corners, and even though there wasn’t much traffic, I was so paranoid I was going to get hit by a car that I fairly sprinted along those stretches to get back into a field again.

 

Most of the walk was just fields and small stretches of woodland, but we walked through the village of Puttenham, which was quite quaint (though undoubtedly still expensive to live in, as it’s close enough to London to be considered a commuter town), with a parish church and some oast houses (still not totally clear on what an oast house is, other than that it relates to hops somehow, but no matter). We also came across various fields full of horses, which was a bit stressful at one juncture where we had to open a gate right next to a horse. I warned the horse I was coming from across the field so it didn’t freak out, and tiptoed very quickly around it in case it tried to kick me or something (I was never one of those girls that loves horses. They kind of make me nervous because they’re so jumpy themselves. I feel more comfortable with cows because I think I’m a bit of a cow whisperer). I spared you the view of a different horse’s giant erect penis in the photo at the start of the post, which I took from an angle where the tumescence is blocked by the horse in front of it.

All in all, it’s not a terrible walk in dry conditions if you bear in mind that “gently undulating” is code for “there are lots of hills,” and don’t go in actually expecting to see hops, because we certainly didn’t (maybe it’s for the best. One of us might have ended up like Fanny Adams). The various “dog fouling” signs made me laugh anyway!

 

Woking, Surrey: Brookwood Cemetery and the Necropolis Railway

Since we needed a car to go cherry picking anyway, we rented one for the entire week and I took a bit of time off work so we could do some things that were actually fun (unlike cherry picking). I have to admit that I was tempted by the Grayson Perry exhibition at the Holburne Museum in Bath, which I was fully intending on visiting before Covid happened, but I ultimately decided that was farther than I wanted to go in a day as it meant I would definitely have to use a public toilet at some point, and I am still not keen (I did admittedly have to use one at the orchard where we went cherry picking, but I didn’t see anyone else using them, and they came fully equipped with cleaning supplies which I availed myself of before and after, so it’s not quite the same as a heavily-used public toilet in a city would be. Still not ready for that!). So we settled on doing a few walks within an hour’s drive instead, because although I am definitely more of a city woman at heart (saying that makes me think of the I Love Lucy where Lucy tries to scare off Cousin Ernie by dressing up as a “wicked city woman”), this pandemic has forced me to embrace the countryside due to it being blissfully free of other people. One of these walks was in Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, which I have wanted to visit for ages, and this provided the perfect opportunity.

 

Brookwood Cemetery is the largest cemetery in Western Europe, and also contains a separate CWGC-run cemetery, which is impressive in itself, but the main reason I wanted to visit was because Brookwood was once the home of the Necropolis Railway, which I am endlessly fascinated by (it’s just so perfectly gothy Victorian). If you’re a regular reader, I’m sure you’ve heard me mention London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries, which were opened in the 1830s and 1840s as garden cemeteries in what were then the outskirts of London, in an attempt to solve the problem of London’s overcrowded burial grounds. However, after all the burial grounds within the City of London were closed in 1852, the authorities were worried there still wasn’t enough room in the cemeteries around London to accommodate future burials, and the London Necropolis Company was established to find a solution. They decided to start a massive cemetery (at one time the largest in the world) in Surrey, and transport bodies there from London by railway. Although demand was never quite as high as the company anticipated, the railway opened in 1854 and successfully ran until 1941, when part of the line was bombed, and the company decided not to rebuild the railway as it was no longer economically viable in the age of the automobile. In the years the railway was operational, the trains ran from a special station in London Waterloo to two different stations within the cemetery – one for Anglicans, and one for Non-Conformists – and the trains were divided into first, second, and third class carriages, just like a normal train. This wasn’t only because class distinctions persisted even after death (though they definitely did), but because the trains also carried mourners who were snobbier about that sort of thing than a corpse would be. The trains would depart from London at 11:35 am, and leave Brookwood at 2:30 pm (the journey took anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour throughout the railway’s history). Mourners were sold return trips, whilst the corpse only had to buy a single fare.

 

There is absolutely nothing about this that I don’t find amazing. I’ve only seen photos of the exterior of the trains (when I attended a lecture on the subject at the Frederick W. Paine Funeral Museum in Kingston a couple of years ago, which probably merits a post of its own someday) but I bet the interiors were a masterwork of gothic elegance. Travelling by rail feels like a very sophisticated way to have a funeral, though I guess you wouldn’t be able to enjoy it yourself. The second Necropolis Waterloo station, which opened in 1902, is still standing (the earlier one was demolished), although it obviously doesn’t house the railway today, and I know roughly where it is (I’ve almost certainly walked past without realising), so I will definitely go investigate when I feel more comfortable with using public transport again (I don’t want to end up the guest of honour on a Necropolis train just yet). Sadly, neither of the stations in Brookwood are still standing – the North Station was demolished in the 1960s, and the South Station survived as a snack bar until the 1970s, when it was destroyed by fire (I know the idea of a snack bar in a cemetery might sound weird, but as someone who visits a lot of cemeteries, I honestly think it’s a nice idea, provided people weren’t just throwing their rubbish all over the place. Cemeteries shouldn’t be scary to people; they should be seen as a lovely place to enjoy nature and visit your dead relatives) – so other than the old platforms, which we didn’t manage to find, there isn’t a whole lot relating to the railway itself to see, but it is still a really big cemetery with plenty of Victorian gravestones, so I wanted to have a look.

 

You can actually still travel by train if you’re so inclined, but it is with notoriously unreliable South Western Railway, rather than what I assume was the punctual Necropolis service, and you’d be going to Brookwood Station in the nearby village of Brookwood rather than the cemetery itself, but since we had the car to use, and the whole point was to avoid public transport, we drove. There is still a North and South Cemetery, though those now have lots of small divisions, including Catholic sections, a Muslim section, an Oddfellows burial ground, and most intriguingly of all, a Zoroastrian section (intriguing because I thought one of the key tenets of Zoroastrianism was sky burials, and there didn’t seem to be an area for that here (though there was a natural burial section elsewhere, which I assume means being buried without a coffin or grave marker rather than just having your body left in a field), but they did have some splendid mausoleums, as you can see below left). There is also quite a large military cemetery for WWII soldiers, including an American cemetery (it was a bit surreal to see the American flag flying proudly over it in the middle of the Surrey countryside).

 

Because people are still actively buried here, it was more well-kept than the Magnificent Seven, but there were still quite a few overgrown and neglected areas, which is a shame (I actually quite enjoy the aesthetics of the overgrown sections, but I feel bad for the people buried there with broken tombstones that never get replaced). I do wish there were still more things relating to the Necropolis Railway, because despite attending the lecture and reading all I’ve been able to find on it, I still want to know more. Marcus did manage to find a sign stating that the site where the South Station used to stand is now a monastery, but they don’t really want people walking back there, so we didn’t investigate further. During normal (non-Covid) times, they run tours tracing the route of the railway through the cemetery, so I am definitely keen on attending one of those in the future, especially if it allows you to access areas of the cemetery the public isn’t normally allowed in.

  

There are a handful of famous people buried here, including John Singer Sargent, Robert Knox, and William De Morgan, but the only one I really wanted to see was Edith Thompson, who was hanged in 1923 after her lover, Frederick Bywaters, killed her husband Percy. There was nothing to implicate Edith in the murder, other than the fact she was having an affair with Bywaters and had mentioned that she wished her husband would die in some of her letters to him, but apparently that was enough for the jury, who sentenced her to death. Even though she is still mentioned on signs within in the cemetery, when I googled it to try to find the exact location of her grave, I found out that Edith was exhumed and moved to City of London cemetery in 2018 to be buried with her parents in accordance with her wishes, so good for Edith, but bad news for people hoping to see her grave here (and also weird considering what I said earlier about the burial grounds within the City of London closing in 1852. I guess they must have relaxed the rules at some point).

 

Although it wasn’t the most impressive cemetery I’ve ever seen, and I was disappointed that there wasn’t really anything relating to the railway left (I knew there wasn’t much going in, but I was at least hoping the platforms would be a bit easier to find), it is still a large cemetery with some interesting monuments and gorgeous sequoia trees (supposedly the first to be planted in Britain), so it was worth visiting, not least because it was somewhere quiet where we didn’t have to worry about people not social distancing! (I’m sure they must still hold funeral services here, but there were none on the day of our visit, and aside from a handful of other visitors who were easy to avoid, we pretty much had the place to ourselves.)

  

 

 

Too Many Cherries!

Enough with the throwback posts for now – here’s what I’ve been doing recently, and it mainly involves dealing with too many damn cherries. I know things are opening back up, but I haven’t been on public transport since March, and I’m still not super comfortable with the idea, which means museums are out of the question for the time being, since the only one I can walk to is the one I work at, and we’re fortunately not opening for at least another month or two. But Marcus and I did have a commitment in the form of the cherry tree we rent in Sussex that needed to be picked, since ripe cherries wait for no one. Since it was an outdoor activity (obviously), and the orchard said they would enforce social distancing, it seemed like a safe enough outing, so we rented a car last week to make this happen.

We rented a tree in the same orchard last year, and it was such a miserable experience that I told Marcus to never rent one again. It decided to absolutely piss it down the whole time we were picking (and of course the rain stopped as soon as we stopped), so we got drenched and covered in mud, and since we were planning on spending the rest of the day in Brighton and I hadn’t brought a change of clothes, I had to walk around wet and cold for the rest of the day (and with a swollen face, because we visited Marcus’s sister right after we finished picking and I was so allergic to her cat that half my face swelled up).  As if that wasn’t bad enough, we then had to spend days pitting all the bloody cherries, because the problem with renting a tree vs. pick your own is that you can’t just pick what you want, you have to pick the entire damn tree whether you like it or not (and because cherry trees are at risk from an invasive fruit fly that breeds in the cherries themselves, you also have to pick up all the horrible mashed rotting cherries from the ground with your bare hands, which is no picnic). But Marcus clearly didn’t listen to me, and went ahead and rented one anyway, so here we are. This time I was smart and packed a raincoat and a change of clothes because I knew if I was prepared, it wouldn’t rain. I was not wrong.

When we arrived at the orchard, the woman working there greeted us with a cheery, “your tree under-performed this year, so we’ve given you two trees to pick!” as though it would be a treat for me to have to pick a second bloody tree. I was not happy. But we didn’t really have a choice (well, I wanted to go back and tell them we didn’t need the second tree, but Marcus was gung-ho), so we got picking. Normally, if I have to do manual labour with other people, I kind of fart around and do as little work as possible until I’m allowed to leave, but in situations where the work’s not going to get done unless I do it, you better believe I am a fast worker (when I used to work in a brewery, I would occasionally get told I could leave early once I finished a certain amount of work, and I usually finished so much earlier than they thought I would that my boss would attempt to renege on the deal. I hated that place). So I was probably a bit rougher on the trees than I should have been in my haste, but we easily picked the first tree in half an hour and moved on to the second one, which was right next to an older couple picking, despite the promise of social distancing (we were outside, and we were still two metres apart when picking at opposite sides of our respective trees, but I would have been more comfortable with more space). We had picked the other tree first in hopes they would have finished by the time we moved on, but they were clearly taking their time, so we just masked up and got on with it (this did allow me to eavesdrop, and I overheard the woman saying that the cherries keep for three weeks in her pantry, since she doesn’t have a fridge. Who has a pantry but no fridge?! You must be fairly wealthy to have a house big enough to have a pantry (I certainly don’t have a pantry), so why would you not have a fridge too? So bizarre). Unfortunately, this tree had WAY more cherries on it than the first one, and even though about a third of them were rotten (which makes me suspect the real reason we were given it to pick was because the renters didn’t turn up this year), we still had to pick every bloody one, which took about an hour and a half. I suppose at least it didn’t rain this year, but it was too sunny, so even though I slathered on the sunscreen, I was still paranoid that I could feel my skin crisping (as it turns out, I didn’t even slightly tan, because I am really keen on sunscreen. I like to maintain my pasty glow). Towards the end, I felt something drop onto my neck and then down my arm, which I initially thought was just a leaf from the tree until I looked down and discovered it was a daddy longlegs (what British people call harvestmen), which really really freak me out, so it was lucky we were pretty much finished, because that was it for me. I will never be a fan of nature.

Having made it through that ordeal, we then had the fun of processing what was at least 15 kilos of cherries. Last year, I was at least able to pawn some off on people at work, but since I’m working from home at the moment, I couldn’t even do that (I did give some to my friend when I met her to play tennis, but she only wanted a small bag. We offered some to our neighbour, who said he would check with his partner and get back to us, and then never got back to us. Why don’t people want free cherries? They’re delicious in reasonable quantities! I did check to see if we could donate them, but our local food bank doesn’t take fresh fruit, which is understandable). We ate some fresh, but obviously you can only eat so many before doing a Zachary Taylor (who died from stomach troubles after eating cherries and milk on a hot July day), so that meant a whole hell of a lot of them had to be pitted, and we were working against the clock, because no matter what pantry lady says, fresh cherries only last for a week tops, and even that’s pushing it. Because I had to work the day after cherry picking (and I’m lazy), Marcus took on the bulk of the pitting operation, and then froze most of them. I still don’t know what we’re going to do with kilos of frozen cherries, but at least once they’re in the freezer I’m not actively stressed about them rotting (though I am stressed about the lack of freezer space for more important things, like ice cream. I guess I could make cherry ice cream, but I prefer unhealthier flavours like cookies’n’cream).

It doesn’t help that although I love fresh cherries (in moderation), I don’t actually like cooked cherries much (I find they stay too firm, and I don’t care for the texture. I hate cherry pie for that reason), so we have gotten creative with some of the fresh cherries (the variety we picked is Regina, which is a sweet, medium firm burgundy-coloured cherry that makes your hands end up looking bloody after you’ve pitted a bunch). We made cherry jam last year, and I might do it again (though we still have a bit of last year’s, since we’re not huge jam eaters. I tend to prefer blueberry or blackberry if I am going to eat it, but my allegiances primarily lay with peanut butter and lemon curd (though not together, blech)), but for now I just made a small amount of compote that I used in cherry crumble bars (though I should have pureed it, because it still has a bit too much texture for my liking, even though I mashed the cherries. I am very weird about textures).

As mentioned above, I LOVE lemon curd, so Marcus made some cherry curd, which weirdly tastes more like key lime pie filling than cherries, though that isn’t really a problem since I also love key lime pie. And I made some cherry syrup, which we mix with fizzy water to make a very delicious cherry soda. Marcus is also soaking some in gin, but I’m not much of a drinker, so I’m not super keen on that (or any of the other things to do with cherries that involve alcohol). Last year, I just ended up throwing most of them into smoothies (if you mix them with chocolate protein powder and milk, they make a fairly tasty chocolate covered cherry flavoured smoothie. You can toss spinach in to up the nutritional value if you don’t mind it turning a disgusting colour (you can’t taste it, it just looks gross)). Despite all this, we still have far too many cherries, and I’ll probably be trying to use them up until next cherry harvest, since no doubt Marcus will book the tree again regardless of what I say about it!

Krakow 2008

I got an “overnight” train from Budapest to Krakow, via Katowice, which unfortunately meant I had to get up at 4 in the morning to transfer trains, so I’m sure I was not a happy camper. Still, I was excited about visiting Poland. I’m of 75% Polish descent, as far as I know (my paternal grandfather was Slovenian, but everyone else was Polish), so, like many Americans, I had weird fantasies about visiting the land of my ancestors, like I’d somehow instantly feel like I was among my people. Not so much. Instead, what I mostly felt like was an outsider, especially when old men would stop dead in their tracks when they encountered me in the street, make the sign of the cross, and start ranting in Polish at me. I’m still not sure what that was about, but it freaked me out. Could I somehow be a vampire without realising it?

Having been raised on my grandma’s pierogi, chrusciki, paczki, and various other stodgy Polish foods (though I wouldn’t eat the weird meaty ones), I was very excited to try the Polish versions to see how they compared. So, I went to a restaurant that only served pierogi and eagerly ordered a platter of potato and cheese ones. Unfortunately, what I was served was basically a platter of unadvertised fatty bacon chunks, with a few pierogi around the edges. Being a vegetarian, this was very much not ideal, but I don’t like to waste food, so I tried my best to scrape the bacon off, but the strong meaty flavour tainted the entire dish and I ended up just dumping them all in the bin. Undeterred, I decided to try an all-vegetarian place next, where at least I didn’t have to worry about surprise meat finding its way on to my plate. However, when the pierogi arrived, they turned out to be filled with this disgusting sweet cheese – they were literally full of sugar, and whilst I made a valiant effort to eat them, after a pierogi or two, these too found their way into the bin (I know sweet cheese pierogi are a thing (my uncle really likes them), but that wasn’t what I thought I was ordering; even without the sweetness, I hate the gross curdy farmers’ cheese they’re made from. I just make potato and cheddar ones normally!). And I quickly discovered that they only sold chrusciki just prior to Lent, so I struck out there too. I did manage to find a paczki-esque doughnut, but instead of being light and pillowy and filled with my choice of delicious jam, nuts, or chocolate, it was dry as a fart and contained a tiny plop of some kind of unidentifiable red jam, with some shrivelled chunks of dried pineapple that looked older than I was glued to the top. At that point, I just gave up, and for the rest of my time in Krakow, I subsisted almost entirely off these delicious bagel-esque breads coated with sesame seeds that street vendors would set up shop to sell every morning (you had to be early though, because they disappeared by noon), and Polish soft serve ice cream, which was surprisingly rich and delicious. It barely even melted, maybe because the butterfat content was so high, and a giant cone only cost about $1, so I was not totally unhappy with this turn of events, nutritionally void though it was.

I wasn’t doing well with either the people or the food, and my choice of hostel wasn’t much better. It was basically a party hostel full of French people. I tried to go out on one of their pub crawls one night, but it involved doing shots of strange colours that I knew would make me puke, and since I could barely speak to anyone there, apart from this Australian guy that worked at the hostel who kept trying to take his clothes off, I gave up trying to befriend people from the hostel pretty quickly, and resigned myself to spending all my time alone and open to harassment from strange old men. (There were some Irish girls in my room, but they just ignored me because they “thought I was Spanish,” as they told me when I finally tried to initiate a conversation. Weirdly enough, this wasn’t the first time in my backpacking adventures when people told me they thought I was Spanish, which I really don’t get since I don’t even speak Spanish.)

I felt like I should probably see Auschwitz whilst I was there, but the bus tours left very early in the morning, and I’m sorry to say that at that stage in my life, my sleep was far more important to me than visiting the scene of one of the worst atrocities in human history, so that was out (Jessica of the past was really kind of a jerk, but in a slightly different way to the way I’m a jerk now). I didn’t even make it to the famous salt mine that had a salt statue of John Paul II in it, even though I love salt mines, because again, you had to get up early. I did make it to Wawel Castle though, as that was in town, and open all day. I don’t remember much about it apart from the grotto and fire breathing dragon statue, but I do like a dragon (I don’t like the giant dragon tattoo on my thigh that I got when I was 18 from a heroin addict who would shoot up whilst he was tattooing me, but it’s far too big to remove, so I live with it, and compensate by having super cute tattoos on my other leg). I even bought my brother a little ceramic figurine of a dragon eating one of those bagel things I loved so much, which he attempted to “return” to me years later when he finally moved out of my parents’ house (the ungrateful little turd) by leaving it in my old bedroom.

Actually, it seems like most of what I did on this trip was shop. Although my face apparently isn’t very Polish looking, I guess my body must be, because the clothes they sold there seemed to fit my body shape oddly well, and I ended up buying some jeans that were my absolute favourite pair for years afterwards. My mother wanted me to bring her back a nativity set, and I did look, but they were all big and expensive, and when I got home and found out she never bothered to tell me that the transcripts I had ordered from my former uni had never arrived, delaying my already very late Master’s applications by another week, I was glad I hadn’t bothered.

I guess I must have done something other than the above, but I don’t remember what it was at this stage – I think mostly I was stressed out about having to go back home yet again, since I didn’t know if my MA applications would work out at that stage, and of course the applications themselves, so I wasn’t in the best of moods. Sadly, the weird experiences with old men and the sub-standard food (apart from the bagels and ice cream) have put me off from returning to Poland – frankly, by the time I left, I could see why my great-grandparents got the hell out, but I’m probably being unfair. Maybe I should give it another go eventually, though if anything, I probably look even more like a vampire/witch than I did back then (if that was the issue with the old men!).

Budapest 2008

I mentioned at the end of my EuroTrip 2007 series that although I missed out on most of my planned Eastern European itinerary in the summer of 2008 due to deciding to apply to Master’s programmes in London, I did manage to visit Budapest and Krakow. I didn’t keep a journal this time around, so although there were plenty of memorable events, I might have them out of order since the chronology is a bit harder to keep straight without daily journal entries to guide me. I flew directly from London to Budapest, and I remember getting money out of a cash point at the airport and being fascinated by forints, as it was my first travel outside the EuroZone in Europe, apart from Britain (the first time I went backpacking, I took some traveller’s cheques, as advised by most travel guides at the time, only to realise that almost no one used them anymore. This time, I got smart and got a debit card for cash withdrawals, even though I’m sure the fees were astronomical).

I was staying in a hostel called Carpe Noctem (which looks like it’s still around), which I initially really liked because it was run by a bunch of chill British people and had a comfy couch and little library in the reception area where you could curl up with a book. However, I had an incident fairly early on in my trip when I was hanging out on my bed in the co-ed dorms reading a book during the day, and some guy from California came in and started talking to me. He was kind of creeping me out, but we were alone in the room so I was trying to be friendly so he didn’t turn all angry and rapey (because this is the kind of shit women have to do), but it didn’t really work, because he suddenly walked over, scooped me up onto his lap, and started trying to slobber all over my neck. I had to physically fight my way out of his arms and push him off of me, and as I left the room, he made some creepy comment about catching me that night. Now, I don’t remember why I didn’t report this to the people who ran the hostel, or if I did and they didn’t do anything about it, but regardless, I now had to spend a night in a room with this guy, and I was absolutely terrified (I don’t know why I didn’t just change hostels, but my mind worked in weird ways back then). So I befriended this British guy in the bed next to mine, and begged him to keep an eye out for me in the night in case anything happened. I ended up going to a bar with this British guy and a few other people from the hostel until late (I remember he kept talking about how much he loved British milk, and how much better it was than milk anywhere else, and I don’t even like milk, so I wasn’t disagreeing with him, but he still wouldn’t shut up about it), even though I was quite tired and I just wanted to go to bed, since I was trying to avoid creepy guy. I stayed up late the next night too, and ended up getting sucked into reading Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, since it was one of the books on the shelf in the reading nook, which led to me becoming obsessed with Murakami for a number of years afterwards (which probably made me insufferable to the people around me). Fortunately, California creeper left after the first couple of nights, and I was able to avoid seeing him again by staying up late enough that he was asleep by the time I went to bed, and getting up early and staying out of the room during the day, but I really should not have had to deprive myself of sleep because of that jerk.

Fortunately, after Cali creeper left, he was replaced by a nice Welsh guy named Jamie and his friend (maybe girlfriend?) Cassie, and I spent a fair bit of time hanging out with them. We went to the House of Terror together, which is a museum about the horrors of communism in Hungary (I don’t remember much about it, other than it being really depressing), and to Body Worlds, which happened to be in Budapest at the time, and ate a lot of Wok to Walk, which Jamie, a fellow vegetarian, was obsessed with (they just did takeaway stir fries, hence the name. I think there’s a few in London). They were both there to attend Sziget, which I had never heard of, not being much for music festivals. However, after listening to them rave about it, I decided to give it a go, and bought a day pass for a random day, since I had no idea who was playing.

Sziget takes place on an island in the middle of the Danube, and I got a tram there with a couple of people who worked at the hostel who were also going (I became MSN Messenger friends with the guy, and he sent me increasingly pervy messages that I eventually stopped responding to for a year or so after). As soon as I got there, I realised had made a huge mistake. I had only been to one festival before, which was a punk festival that took place in the basement of a Unitarian church in Philly, and that was ok because you could stay in a hotel and just wander around the city if you didn’t like the bands playing that day, but Sziget was the full muddy fields festival experience, and I was so not into it. Also, the headliner that day was REM, who I loathe, and before them were bunch of crappy NuMetal bands, including the singer from System of a Down, and it was not my scene at all. Still, I tried to make the best of it, and split a bucket of Jagerbomb with the woman from the hostel, which was fortunately pretty weak, so I didn’t have a repeat of my usual Jager experiences (like in Munich), and found a tent of obscure ska bands that were at least playing a type of music I liked, even though I didn’t know any of the songs. I was starving, and the only vegetarian option seemed to be langos, which they were selling at a load of stands (basically a savoury elephant ear), but they were all topped with sour cream, which makes me gag, and I was worried my attempts to tell them I didn’t want it would be lost in translation. So, I was thrilled when I found a kurtoskalacs stand instead, which was frankly the highlight of the whole day (if you haven’t had one, it’s basically like a sugared cinnamon roll-esque bread that’s cooked slowly on a spit so all the sugar caramelises on the outside. So delicious). I haven’t been to a festival since, though I have eaten kurtoskalacs every chance I’ve gotten!

I also went to the castle in Buda one day by myself, and I seem to remember it taking hours to walk there from where I was staying in Pest, so that I’d pretty much lost the will to live by the time I arrived. I mainly wanted to see the labyrinth, but it was not where my map indicated it should be at all, and whilst I was looking for it, some obnoxious American tourists started making fun of me. I don’t know if they thought I couldn’t understand English, or if they just didn’t care, but I wasn’t bold enough at that stage in my life to tell them where to stick it, so I just gave up on the labyrinth and wandered away from them so I didn’t have to listen to their jerkishness. I do remember the castle being fairly empty apart from them, though, which was definitely different from when I was in Budapest a couple of years ago and it was absolutely heaving.

I’m sure I must have done more, but that’s really all I remember from that particular trip. On a positive note, I did stay friends with Jamie for a number of years afterwards (we’re still Facebook friends, but he moved to Sweden a few years ago, and I’d kind of fallen out of touch with him a while before that) – he stayed with me once when he was visiting London, and we shamelessly cheated on a pub quiz and won a bottle of wine, which was a blast, and though he and Cassie weren’t together for long after that trip (actually, I was never totally clear on whether they were dating, or just friends. It may have been the latter), I did meet up with her once shortly after moving to London to see a Jack the Ripper exhibition at Museum of Docklands, which was also really fun. On the whole though, I enjoyed Budapest much more when I went with Marcus in 2018, since I didn’t have to deal with any creepy guys, and we ate a lot more cake! I’ll talk about Krakow next week.

Object Focus: Crafty Creations

Although I do enjoy visiting museums, I honestly just like staying home best (which is why, unlike many people, I am in no hurry for things to open back up), and one of my dreams has always been to acquire enough weird stuff to have my own museum (though I would have to severely restrict access, since I do not like visitors!). My very talented partner Marcus has assisted in this ambition by creating many marvellous things for me over the years (he’s very good at crafts, and I’m definitely not), and this week, I thought I’d do a mini tour of my own “home museum” (such as it is) and show you some of them (I also wanted to give myself a little break with something a bit lighter after finishing that EuroTrip series. I found writing about some of that surprisingly emotionally draining). If you follow me on Instagram, you might have seen some of these things already, but I hope you don’t mind seeing them again!

I’m starting with Martha the magpie, who you can see at the start of the post. I love all birds in the crow family, but I’m especially partial to magpies. Those iridescent blue-green feathers are just so pretty! Although I’m certainly not averse to buying antique or ethically sourced taxidermy (in fact, I have a taxidermy jackdaw), and I’m not normally superstitious, something about buying a dead magpie just felt wrong and probably unlucky, so Marcus got around the problem by making me one out of paper and card, and I love her.

These are our clown eggs, which I feel require a bit of explanation. There is a thing called the Clown Egg Register at a church in Dalston, where professional clowns are represented by ceramic eggs showcasing their unique clown makeup designs, thereby trademarking their clown persona in the clown community. Even though they are undeniably creepy (as is the very idea of a clown community, if I’m honest), I’m fascinated by them, and I’ve always wanted to go see them but haven’t quite managed it yet, in part because their collection was temporarily on loan to a circus exhibition in Newcastle that Marcus visited without me when I was in the US visiting my family a few years back, which I’m still mildly salty about. To make amends, he bought me the Clown Egg Register book, which inspired us to sketch out clown personas for each other. Marcus’s is named Lembo (a play on his surname) and is a sad clown, hence the droopy flower in his hat, and my clown persona is named Waffles, because everybody likes waffles (which Waffles often says menacingly whilst performing), and I LOVE waffles (the food). I actually put on Waffles clown makeup one day to freak out Marcus, but I won’t show you here because I genuinely looked shit scary. Anyway, this whole thing led to Marcus creating clown eggs for us out of real eggshells, which is what you see above. Mine has my actual hair on it, which makes it even more creepy/amazing. When we moved house last year, I held the box on my lap the whole time in the moving van because I was so worried about breaking them, but they survived intact.

 

I also love Indiana Jones, as regular readers will know, so for our anniversary a few years ago, Marcus made me a replica of the Indiana Jones voodoo doll from Temple of Doom, as well as (most excitingly), doll versions of the two of us, with hand-carved wooden heads. He made the doll bodies and clothing as well – I’m wearing a chicken dress, and holding a book of ghost stories. He was secretly working on them for ages whilst I was at work, and I kept coming home to find him with all these cuts on his hands and couldn’t figure out what he was up to. He’s had to update mine every time I get a new tattoo, unless they’ve just been appearing on their own… I don’t think they actually work (I had to jab a pin through the hand of the Marcus doll to hold his phone on until I could sew it, since the thread had come loose, and he didn’t show any reaction (the actual Marcus, that is)), but that’s probably a good thing.

We discovered Bernard Moss pottery whilst watching Antiques Roadshow one night a while back, and I thought it was super charming, but also incredibly expensive. Marcus managed to find the bathtub from Good Clean Fun on eBay for a reasonable price because it was missing the little man and woman figures that are supposed to sit inside the tub. So he bought it, and made his own figures that look like us, which is better than the originals would have been anyway!

 

The piece de resistance is definitely my witch cabinet. I always wanted an arsenic green room (without the actual arsenic), so when we bought a house and could decorate any way we wanted to (after years of living in rented accommodation), Marcus painted one of the rooms arsenic green for me, and I sort of turned it into the goth room/library (well, all the rooms have gothy touches, but this is where it’s the most concentrated), and I definitely wanted a witch cabinet for it to display some of my weird stuff. He managed to find a used china hutch online that was already delightfully black and gothy looking (I think it might be haunted, or else just our house generally is), and I filled it up with some of my best stuff, including the skeleton rag doll he made me (named Roger), the glass pumpkin I made at the Corning Glass Museum, and some specimens in jars. We already had preserved pig hearts that we made at a workshop at St. Bart’s many years ago, and we also had our fake specimens from a Halloween late at the Hunterian Museum (you can see Marcus’s fetus above). Marcus also made me a jar full of moles, which you can also (murkily) see above.

 

As if this wasn’t enough, for Valentine’s Day this year, he surprised me by transforming the inside of the cabinet (the door at the front opens up, and I never bothered to look inside because I hadn’t put anything in there, so he was able to work on it when I wasn’t home without my noticing) into a truly witchy delight. He stenciled on a Ouija board, and filled the shelves with all kinds of good stuff like charms, protection kits against werewolves and vampires (all homemade), and my personal favourite, cryptozoological specimens that reference some of my favourite films, like a werewolf paw print from the Yorkshire Moors (American Werewolf in London) and a Sumatran rat monkey ear (Braindead). It obviously couldn’t be more perfect, and I know I’m super lucky to have someone that lovingly creates all these things that cater to my strange interests.

I have many more unusual things in my house, but I thought it would be nice to specifically draw attention to all the lovely things Marcus has created this week (and probably inadvertently embarrass him a little), and maybe talk about some more of my non-homemade possessions in a future post, if you didn’t find this one too boring (since I don’t think I’ll be museuming in person for a while, at least I can show you some of my own artefacts!). Marcus’s next project is recreating Book from Hocus Pocus (which we’re meant to be working on together), so I’ll let you know how that goes when we finish. Hope you enjoyed a peek at some of my decor!

EuroTrip 2007: The Aftermath

Celebrating my 22nd birthday after returning home. Don’t ask me why one of the 2 candles is backwards – I didn’t put my own candles on!

And just like that, my fabulous adventure was over, and normal life resumed. I had to go back to my awful boyfriend and my boring life, and pretend like all of this hadn’t happened. My jerk boyfriend certainly wasn’t interested in hearing about my travels, and my family were pretty sick of me as well, so we just started getting in more fights than ever. The only Master’s programme I had ended up getting into was my safe choice, the university where I had done my BA, and though I liked the history department there very much, I couldn’t bring myself to commit to spending another two years in Ohio. So, I deferred enrolment for a year whilst I tried to figure it all out, and got a job in the department store nearest my house because it felt like less of a commitment than trying to find something that might have actually used my degree; plus in those days no one would hire you for an office job with facial piercings and weird colours in your hair, and my appearance was more important to me than gainful employment (I’m happy that the world has at least evolved to the point where I don’t have to choose between them anymore!).

Unfortunately, this was probably the worst job I’ve ever had, and there’s a lot of competition for that honour. It paid $3 less per hour than the department stores in malls, but because I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t get to anywhere better paying, and they treated us like absolute crap. You weren’t allowed to sit down at any point, except during your half hour lunch (if anyone ever says “if you have time to lean, you have time to clean” to me again, I might punch them in the face), and one of the managers thought I was stupid because of the way I looked and because I wasn’t familiar with her obscure retail terminology, having never worked at a department store before, and she spoke to me in this real condescending way, like I was a moron (she was shocked when I eventually told her I was quitting to do a Master’s, since she didn’t even think I was capable of getting a Bachelor’s). And don’t get me started on the customers and the disgusting things they did to our fitting rooms! The only things that made it bearable were a few of the other employees I made friends with, and the fact that it minimised the amount of time I had to spend with my parents. This was obviously not a sustainable way of life, and things with jerk boyfriend were worse than ever. He had started working second shift, and had taken to picking me up afterwards at 11:30 at night, when I would be expected to cook him dinner. He would eat it, drink some beer, and then immediately fall asleep, and then get super angry when I tried to wake him up to take me back home – one time he threw me across the room, and he claimed he was still asleep and didn’t know what he was doing, but considering this was the same man who used to shoot me in the ass with a BB gun whilst laughing hysterically as I tried to run away (I was genuinely terrified he was going to shoot me in the face), I don’t believe that for a second. Asshole knew exactly what he was doing.

That November, World/Inferno came through town, and though I was super pumped to see them, I was definitely not on the guest list as promised, possibly because of an unfortunate incident where I took ‘shrooms again and sent a long rambling email to Jack Terricloth about how much his music meant to me, having obtained his personal email address from Dan and Ed. This is also possibly why I never heard from Dan and Ed again. No matter, I still went to the show and befriended their photographer, Konstantin, and ended up working the merch table with him during the opening acts, and I basically thought I was the coolest person ever when various acquaintances walked by and saw me sitting there. The band invited me to hang out with them after (Jack clearly didn’t realise I was the person who sent the email), so I told the person I had gotten a ride with to go ahead and leave without me, and I was on top of the world until I realised they only asked me because they wanted someone local to tell them where to score cocaine. I have never done hard drugs in my life, and though I knew of people who did, I certainly was not about to procure drugs for anyone, so I had to call my jerk boyfriend to come and pick me up from downtown Cleveland, and as you can probably imagine, he was not pleased. I did go to a couple World/Inferno shows after that, and I still like their music, but that was definitely the night when the infatuation started to end for me.

Since my entire life was even more miserable than before I had left for EuroTrip at this point (having seen that there was something better out there), I needed some form of escape, and that came in the form of Tim, the British art student I had met in Barcelona, who had left me the lovely handmade card and promised to keep in touch. We became Facebook friends, and it soon emerged that Tim had a bit of a crush on me, which led to us sending each other increasingly flirtatious messages over the following months. I took to staying up half the night just to talk to him when he got up in the morning, since it was the only time I could use the family computer without my parents hanging around. And I started saving up my crappy department store earnings, and planning on visiting him that summer. I thought since I would be in Europe anyway, I might as well go backpacking again, and started planning a trip through Eastern Europe this time (I still had some savings left after my first trip, and was basically stashing away everything I made, even though it wasn’t a lot). And I finally started to make some moves towards independence by trying to split up with horrible boyfriend (well, I thought we were broken up, but that clearly wasn’t his understanding of the situation) and reconnecting with my old friend Kim, who I had known since kindergarten, and was absolutely joined at the hip with all throughout middle school and high school until I started dating jerk boyfriend, who drove us apart early in our relationship because she tried to tell me how awful he was. I’m happy to say that we were able to rekindle our friendship, and remain close friends to this day, even though we only get to see each other a couple of times a year.

And so June rolled around, and I put that whole awful year behind me as I prepared to embark on a second EuroTrip. Tim still lived with his parents, so he had found some friends I could stay with in Romford for the week I was planning on visiting, who generously let me crash on their very comfortable couch that you can see me pictured with, above. We had a great time that week – or at least, I did. I didn’t realise that British people bought each other rounds (it’s not as common in America, plus jerk boyfriend usually just bought all my drinks), so I thought everyone was just treating me on account of being a visitor, totally oblivious to the fact that they were all probably silently seething because I never bought any of them a drink in return, but were far too polite to say so. I thought they were all really lovely people because they had never met an American before and seemed really interested in me and my life. I also didn’t realise that I was coming on a bit strong for Tim, who had become very religious over the course of the past year, and was intending to become a minister. I think my heathen ways were a bit much for him, because despite all the intense flirting, our in-person relationship basically consisted of a few make-out sessions, and in retrospect, he made it pretty clear he wanted to get rid of me after that.

Unfortunately, I was completely unaware of all of this at the time, and decided that because I loved London so much this time around, I should try to move there, which I could most easily do by getting a student visa. So I decided to forego most of my Eastern Europe trip, and instead spent time researching Master’s programmes and getting applications ready, and basically invited myself to stay for another week at Tim’s friends’ house. I had actually become friends with two of them by this point, and they weren’t that bothered, but the other housemates clearly were, and sort of passively aggressively tried to get me to leave, but since they wouldn’t actually kick me out, and I was real bad at reading signals, I just stayed on until I had taken care of all the school related stuff, and then left to return to Cinque Terre for a bit, and finish off the last portion of my intended holiday by visiting Budapest and Krakow (I might talk about that trip in another post since I don’t see myself wanting to hop on public transport to visit a museum any time soon, even though I know some are reopening in July, so I won’t say any more about it now).

When I got back home in July, I did not have time to mope around, because I was a woman on a mission! I applied to four different MA programmes in London, and to my amazement, got in to all of them, even though they were mostly with better schools than the ones I had been rejected by in America (it’s amazing how that hefty overseas student fee gives you a foot in the door), and started the student visa process in August. For September admission. I couldn’t decide between three of the programmes (metropolitan history at the University of London, a creative nonfiction writing course at City, and early modern history at King’s College London) until Lucy, the programme convenor at King’s, had a word with the British consulate in Chicago to get them to rush my application through, and as she had also been really lovely to me on the phone, I decided that was the programme for me. I literally didn’t know if I would be able to go or not until the middle of orientation week, when my visa finally came through, and I booked a flight for the next day, broke up with jerk boyfriend again (he had been harassing me over the phone, as he still seemed to think we were together), and packed my life into two suitcases to start again in London.

At the airport with my brother before moving to London.

This was without a doubt the scariest and most stressful thing I had ever done, but I rushed into it without giving myself time to think, and I was fine (for a while, until the adrenaline started to wear off). There hadn’t been any student housing available due to my late admission, so I booked a room in a hostel to live in until I managed to find a place. After two weeks of frantic house hunting using the Spareroom website, I settled on sharing a terraced house with a group of people my age in Elephant and Castle (chosen mostly because the room was the biggest and cheapest by far of all the ones I looked at, it was an easy bus journey to King’s, and because Toby (one of the housemates) and I shared a mutual love of Bruce Campbell). Unfortunately, I’d inadvertently burned bridges with Tim et al (he definitely thought I was moving there on account of him, which was not the case, but I can certainly see how he would have been creeped out if that’s what he thought), and I didn’t befriend anyone in my MA programme either (they’d all already bonded during the orientation week that I’d missed, and though I tried to make friends by going to the pub with them after class, I gave up after overhearing one of them telling everyone else not to tell me about the party she was planning because she didn’t want to have to invite me. It’s one thing if people don’t like me after they get to know me, because I know I’m opinionated and certainly not to everyone’s taste, but these people didn’t even know me, and I hate not being given a chance. Takes me right back to being bullied in elementary school), so it was lucky I had my housemates, one of whom was Marcus. Thanks to tequila and Futurama (it’s a long story), we got together about two months after meeting, and have been together ever since. And I’m still good friends with Toby too. In many ways, that first year here was one of the most difficult emotionally of my life (I thought once I got out of Cleveland, all my problems would magically be solved, and had a bit of a breakdown when I realised that wasn’t the case), but I made it through, and things eventually got a lot better (and awful ex finally got the message when I started dating Marcus and told him I was applying for a working visa after I finished my course. I had no plans to move back to Cleveland, at least not if I could help it). There are many more stories I could tell about that year, but I think I’ll leave it there for now with the whole EuroTrip 2007 series, on a sort-of happy ending, and talk about something a bit different next week.

EuroTrip 2007: Amsterdam

Amsterdam was the last stop on my backpacking adventure, and being well aware of what the city had to offer, I made sure to allocate myself a full five days here. This was during my relatively brief pothead phase, which basically lasted from the age of 20 until I stopped dating my jerk boyfriend, since his brother grew it and could always be counted upon to ensure I had a steady supply (said brother has since done time in prison for vehicular manslaughter whilst high on cocaine, but I wouldn’t use this as an argument that weed is a gateway drug, since his brother never actually smoked it himself, he just sold it). But I digress, let’s get back to the more cheerful subject of Amsterdam. Just a heads up that there is a LOT of soft drug use throughout this post – I’m not advocating it, just being honest about what happened at the time.

I was due to meet Dan and Ed, the World/Inferno roadies, the day after I arrived in town, so I decided to wait to begin the weed-smoking until I had some company, and instead rented a bicycle and attempted to navigate my way around town. I had never done city cycling before, and the idyll didn’t last very long, because within a matter of hours: I managed to get spectacularly lost and then got screamed at by some woman when I stopped to consult a map, as I apparently wasn’t far enough off the bike path when I stopped; got yelled at by several more people for not going fast enough (because I didn’t want to get lost again); and almost died when I got the front wheel of my bike lodged in a tram track with a tram fast approaching (I managed to get it free in time (obviously), but making tram tracks the exact thickness of a bike tyre in a city like Amsterdam seems like a recipe for disaster). After that, I rapidly decided a bike was not the form of transport for me, but as I had rented the bike for four days, I was for some reason too embarrassed to return it so soon (why did I care what the bike rental place thought of me?), so I just chained it up securely to a railing, and basically abandoned it until I had to return it.

Because I had originally planned on cycling everywhere, I had booked a hostel quite far out of town, but after I put the kibosh on the whole bike idea, I decided to move somewhere a bit closer after the first night, and found a place that was still outside the centre (because the places in the middle of Amsterdam were expensive!) but was a reasonable walking distance away from all the action, and then headed out to meet up with Dan and Ed. It was a very cold and rainy day, and I soon found myself smoking weed with them in a dirty wet alley (don’t ask me why we didn’t just smoke it in one of the many, many cafes dedicated to that purpose). As our two previous meetings had been relatively short, I got a chance to know them better (doing Class B drugs together will facilitate that) and quickly discovered I preferred Dan, who was shorter and quieter, to Ed, who was sort of gawky and geeky, and was frankly a bit of an embarrassment once he was high (despite my extremely low alcohol tolerance, I had a strangely high weed tolerance, and definitely thought that I wasn’t being annoying, though I’m sure I was). Nonetheless, they came as a pair, so I went with them to eat noodle bowls, and then to a cafe where we smoked some more and I ate a space muffin. At some point, we decided to wander through the red light district (depressing), and ended up in the Erotic Museum, where I took the only pictures in my entire stay in Amsterdam, other than the one from the boat tour you can see at the start of the post, but because the photo involved me hugging a giant penis, you will not be seeing it (not so much on account of the penis, but because I look awful).

The next day, I started smoking early, before I had even met up with Dan and Ed, and after we met, I drank a strawberry space shake and smoked some hash, so I was pretty far gone and just wanted to sit down somewhere, which led to us taking a boat tour of the canals. Unfortunately, there was a German guy on the tour who was even higher than I was, and he spent the whole time screaming things in German in an annoying falsetto voice and then laughing hysterically, so I couldn’t wait to get off. I tried to take an upper to counteract all the marijuana in my system, but eventually decided it was a losing battle, and retired to my hostel room with a load of snacks procured from a nearby health food store (including really delicious seitan broodjes), with plans to meet up with Dan and Ed again that evening. But when I went back into town to our arranged meeting place, feeling much better after a nap, they never turned up (and in the age of no mobiles and no internet unless you had access to a computer, the only thing I could do was go to their hostel and leave a message at the front desk telling them I’d be at the same meeting place the next morning, if they fancied meeting then), so I thought, “screw it, I’ll just do some ‘shrooms instead,” and bought myself a big old box.

Despite my proficiency with weed, I had never done ‘shrooms before, and didn’t really know what to expect. In a total rookie move, I ate half the box, didn’t feel anything, so I ate the rest of the box and ended up the highest I’d ever been as a result. I couldn’t sleep at all that night because I was busy exploring the inner dimensions of my mind, and what the inner dimensions of my mind mainly contained was Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, after spending the past five weeks reading the books nonstop, so I found myself wandering through Discworld. God knows what the other people in my room thought of me, but I was having a great time, at least until I went to the bathroom and looked in a mirror and my face freaked me out so much I had to just hold in my pee for the rest of the night, rather than risk seeing myself again (as a side note, throughout the entire trip I had worn flipflops every single time I used a hostel toilet, including in the shower, because I lived in fear of getting a wart from someone else’s dirty feet. This night was the one time I went without flipflops, because I was too high to consider them, and I ended up developing a big painful plantar wart on the bottom of my foot shortly after returning home. Took me months to get rid of it – I tried everything, and the only thing that worked was sticking a piece of duct tape to the bottom of my foot for a couple of months until the whole wart, including the surprisingly deep core, just peeled off with the tape. So satisfying! As a bonus, my stinky foot marinating away in the duct tape produced one of the most disgusting smells I’ve ever smelled, and I used to chase my brother around the house with the used pieces of tape, because I am a jerk).

After a completely sleepless night, it was time to meet up with the guys, per the message I had left at their hostel the night before, so I dragged myself out of bed in case they turned up this time. They were there, and it turns out the reason they hadn’t appeared the night before was because they had also decided to do ‘shrooms, and were too high to leave their room. So we were all in a bad state, and tried to compensate by taking more uppers and some “herbal XTC” they had acquired, which basically just upset my stomach and made me really emotional, which was unfortunate as we were headed for the Van Gogh Museum, and Van Gogh makes me sad at the best of times. I basically spent most of the time crying at how much beauty Van Gogh saw in the world, despite his difficult life. I felt pretty ill by that point, so went back to my hostel to have a nap and a shower (and let’s be honest, to have access to a toilet for my diarrhea, because those pills destroyed my stomach and I didn’t want a repeat of Paris), and came back out that evening to go get a pizza with Dan (Ed kept insisting he didn’t want to eat in a restaurant, and I was equally adamant that the pizza from street food vendors in Amsterdam tasted like potatoes, and I wanted a proper Italian pizza, so just Dan and I went) and then met back up with Ed to say goodbye to both of them, as they were headed to London the next day to rejoin World/Inferno. We promised to stay in touch, but I never saw or heard from them again.

On my last full day in Amsterdam, I was really upset about my trip ending, and was ready for a physical transformation so everyone could see how I felt I had changed inside as a result of the trip, so I headed to a hair stylist I had encountered on the street soliciting business a few days before, which would typically not be a good sign, but this guy was crazy in the best possible way and gave me exactly what I wanted at the time – short and spiky black and purple hair. After buying some last minute souvenirs, I got another space shake and smoked two bowls of weed, and then ate way too many candy bars and gave myself a stomachache again. I also had to retrieve my bike from where I had left it so I could return it and get my deposit back, and miraculously, it was still there! (It was very obviously a rental bike, with the logo of the rental company welded to the frame, so I don’t think anyone wanted it, frankly.) And then it was time to spend my last night in a hostel before heading back home.

Because this post is already ridiculously long, and I feel like I can’t just end the journey here (and most museums aren’t going to be opening any time soon, so I have plenty of time to keep waffling), I’ll explain what happened after I got home and how I ultimately ended up moving to London in next week’s post.

Me and my new hairstyle shortly after I returned home. I had poison ivy on my face at the time, which is what the weird rash is.

 

Black Lives Matter: Museums, Online Courses, and More

Although regular readers can probably easily guess where I stand politically, the aim of my blog is mainly to talk about museums and travel in a (hopefully) humorous way, so I don’t talk that much about politics or current events, except as an occasional aside. However, I don’t think basic human rights and equality is something that should be a political issue! I don’t live under a rock, and have been very conscious of recent events in America, the UK, and around the world as they have unfolded the past few weeks, and I think the time has come when I need to use my platform (small though it is) to speak up and say that Black lives matter! I like to think that I’m the kind of person who will speak up when I see injustice, and whilst I don’t hesitate to call out sexist behaviour, for example, because it is something that directly affects me, I acknowledge that I haven’t been anywhere near as proactive about calling out racism because I’m privileged enough for it not to affect me directly. Like a lot of people, I’ve been recently re-examining myself and my actions (or lack thereof) and have wanted to do a post on this topic for the past few weeks, but since blogging about museums is normally my raison d’etre, I didn’t want to rush something out half-assed but actually take the time to put something thoughtful together that ties into the theme of my blog.

I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, which, like a lot of Rust Belt cities, is still pretty segregated (not officially, mind, but it might as well be), and unfortunately, casual racism is rife, at least in my experience. I grew up hearing the n-word just thrown into casual conversation by members of my family, went to a high school that had a group of redneck kids who were allowed to drive their Confederate flag covered pick-up trucks to school, and encountered similar attitudes in the punk scene as a teenager (there were various gangs of skinheads that would pop up from time to time and start fights, but I’m talking the normal, supposedly progressive punks), which is even more appalling when you think about what that scene is supposed to stand for (though I always found the Cleveland scene to be incredibly sexist and homophobic, so it’s not really surprising it was racist as well). Although I didn’t really have that much meaningful contact with people of colour, as there were only ever a handful of non-White kids at my schools until I got to the university level, I always read extensively and understand enough to know why these kinds of attitudes were wrong, and I wanted to be better than that. And of course, moving to London in my early 20s, and living in a much more diverse big city also helped open my eyes to the wider world (though London is obviously not without its own problems, including police brutality). And frankly, for many years, I thought that since I came from where I did, and managed to grow up and not be actively racist, I was doing well enough, and didn’t put any more thought into it. But, you know what? It’s not good enough! Being anti-racist is hard, especially when it means confronting friends and family, but I know it’s nothing compared to what some PoC have been through every day of their lives, and it’s what I’d like to strive for.

To that effect, I’ve started taking a free online anti-racism module, and it’s been really interesting so far, so I’d definitely recommend it (I’m honestly really disturbed by all the things I didn’t know about, especially considering how much I like medical history. I knew about the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, and had even written a paper on them in university, but I had no idea about the awful Dr. Sims and his horrible experimentation on African-American women, and if a history major like me didn’t know, I’m betting most people don’t). You can find it here if you’re interested! (You have to list the state you live in to register, but they don’t actually check, so you can put whatever if you live outside the US.) I’ve also found one on British Imperialism that looks really interesting, and I’m planning on starting it after I finish the anti-racism module (though since I haven’t taken it yet, I’m not sure if it has any bias).

Of course, being a museum person, I think museums can be a great educational resource when done well, and I’m sorry to say that I’ve definitely been guilty in the past of skipping museums on serious topics for ones that look more fun, like when I decided to visit the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati instead of the National Underground Railroad Museum. I don’t know when I’ll next find myself in the US (coronavirus aside, I’m not particularly keen to give the US government much tourism money at the moment), but here’s a list of museums on civil rights, etc that I would like to eventually visit:

The National Underground Railroad Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio

National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, Tennessee

Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, Big Rapids, Michigan (I found this one through the anti-racism module, and it looks like it would lead to some really important discussions, but will also make for very uncomfortable viewing.)

National Museum of the American Indian, Washington D.C. and New York, New York

Rosa Parks Museum, Troy, Alabama

The King Center, Atlanta, Georgia

Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit, Michigan

National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington D.C.

The Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

Northwest African American Museum, Seattle, Washington

The NPS has helpfully made a list of their sites related to civil rights, though I think the NPS probably has more to offer on this topic than just the places in this list, as there are certainly some sites related to abolition etc, like the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, that aren’t included here.

The above is by no means meant to be a comprehensive list, just some places I found that looked interesting and relevant. I’ve tried to see if someone else has done a more complete list, and haven’t come across anything, so if anyone has found something more in-depth, please let me know!

I’ve visited a hell of a lot of museums in Britain over the years, and whilst some of them do make an effort to tell the story of slavery or colonialism (I’ve noticed maritime museums in particular, like the National Maritime Museum and the Museum of London Docklands, tend to have galleries on slavery because it is so closely tied into our maritime past), many other ones just ignore the topic entirely, and don’t even seem to make an effort to include anything from a non-White (or male) perspective in their collections. You can see proof of this in the way some British museums just haven’t mentioned #BLM at all on social media – frankly, I think they’re embarrassed that their collections don’t do more to reflect the experience of people of colour. I say this because that’s exactly what seems to be happening with the museum I work for – for years, myself and a few of my colleagues have bemoaned the fact that the content of our museum is overwhelmingly White and male, but every time we have a chance to acquire more objects, there never seems to be any effort to make them more diverse. Our borough contains the largest population of Korean people in Europe, but there is absolutely nothing about them or any other minority group in the museum, which I think is appalling, and though I’ve done what I can to try to redress that balance by featuring more displays that actually reflect the makeup of our community in our community case (which I manage) and giving talks on more diverse topics (when I’m allowed), it isn’t nearly enough. I hope what’s happening in the world now will be a much-needed kick up the arse to museums like mine, but somehow I highly doubt it. I have looked very hard to try to find some UK museums that address colonialism and other civil rights issues, and the following is all I could find:

The Museum of British Colonialism: I had never heard of this until researching this post, but apparently they hosted their first physical temporary exhibition last year in South London. They appear to be largely online otherwise.

The Migration Museum, London: I have visited this one, and I really enjoyed it! Since my visit, they have moved to a different location in Lewisham, and I definitely plan on going back when museums reopen!

International Slavery Museum, Liverpool: I suspect this might be part of the Merseyside Maritime Museum, in which case I did visit it quite a few years back, but I can’t quite tell from their website.

Black Cultural Archives, London: Again, I only discovered this when researching this post, although I’ve been to Brixton many times. Clearly these places are not getting the publicity that other, even relatively obscure museums, enjoy.

Museum of Colour: This is solely an online project at the moment.

And sadly, that’s it, and most of these were founded in the very recent past, so there probably would have been next to nothing a decade ago. I hope there are more that I’m missing, and like I said, I do know there are other museums that have exhibitions on slavery, but these are the only ones I could find dedicated mainly to issues around racism and colonialism. If you know of any more, please comment below, as I’d love to include them! I’m focusing solely on US and UK museums for this post since those are the countries I know best, but I also welcome suggestions of museums in other countries around the world. Most of the museums listed here are currently closed to the public because of COVID-19, and I know museums in general are really struggling at this time, so if you’re in the position to make a donation to any museums covering these issues, I’m sure it would be appreciated!

I’ve felt like things has been changing for the worse in the past few years, with the terrifying rise of far-right populism and fascism throughout the western world, and I’m definitely not the sort of person that has much faith in humanity, but I do hope this is one time that we can all do the right thing and carry the momentum of the BLM movement forward to make some positive changes! I know that I personally have some ways to go, but am making an effort to educate myself, even if it makes me uncomfortable at times (I admit, the historian in me did struggle with some of the statue removals at first because it initially felt to me like erasing history when what I thought we should be doing is digging even deeper into our history to uncover all the racial injustice that so many people in power have tried to gloss over, but I have to admit that keeping up a statue that glorifies someone who was a prominent slaver isn’t doing anyone any favours, and that the newsworthy manner in which it was disposed of is bringing that history to the forefront in a way that leaving the statue up never could). I would hate to be one of those people that becomes so set in my ways that I can’t accept change or grow mentally to become a better person.

I will continue with my EuroTrip posts next week, I just thought this was far more important to post about this week, and I do hope it can be of use!

 

EuroTrip 2007: Liege and Bruges

Arriving in Liege after a long and complicated train journey, I was immediately struck by how cold and rainy it was for June, especially as I’d become accustomed to the heat of Southern Europe. I was also slightly taken aback by the ugliness of their train station, which was still under construction. I managed to catch a bus to my hostel, despite the driver not understanding me when I asked if the bus went where I needed to go, and spent as much time as I could be bothered wandering the town and eating waffles and chocolate, though I was thoroughly unimpressed with Liege (this trip was the beginning of my hatred of Wallonia, and my love affair with Flanders). But you may be wondering why I was there in the first place, especially since I took such an awkward journey to get there. The answer is of course World/Inferno, who you may recall were my favourite band at that time, and were playing a show there that night.

While hanging out at the hostel prior to the show, I started talking to a couple of Aussie guys who expressed an interest in coming to the show with me (maybe they had designs on me, I don’t know, but certainly nothing ever came of it), and I was happy enough to not have to find my way back late at night alone, so we all set off together, picking up some frites on the way. The venue was called CPCR, which apparently stands for the Centre PolyCulturel Résistances, which I’m guessing is some kind of anarcho collective not dissimilar to the venue in Paris, though this one was less weird, containing a bar, a kitchen, and a small show space in the back. When we arrived, the band were all sitting around a table eating soup, and I went full fangirl on Jack Terricloth, the singer, who was quite a bit older than me and not an attractive man by any stretch of the imagination (he was balding and had black teeth), but I loved his voice so much that I was super excited to talk to him and give him some British change I had knocking around, since they were heading to England next, and he promised to put me on the guest list the next time they came to Cleveland, which I was thrilled about (never happened, but I’ll explain more about that in a future post). And I got to meet up again with Dan and Ed, the roadies I had befriended in Paris. I loved this show even more than the one in Paris, probably because Jack specifically mentioned me on stage a handful of times (it was a fairly small crowd, so it wasn’t really as impressive as I thought it was), and I waltzed with Dan, who, unlike the Frenchman in Paris, did not urinate on my feet, so that was a definite improvement! Dan and Ed had a week off before heading to Britain with the band, and since we were all getting along so well, we agreed to all meet in Amsterdam in a few days’ time.

After an uneventful remainder of the night in Liege, I gratefully left the city and set my sights on Bruges, which had similarly crappy weather, but it was so pretty, especially after Liege, that I didn’t really care. I was pretty unimpressed with my hostel when I saw it, particularly the shower facilities, but I was kind of used to being smelly at this point in the trip, so I wasn’t too bothered about going a couple of days without showering, and instead headed out to explore the town. I had more frites (sans mayo, which is the devil), and discovered my favourite soda of all time, Fanta Pomelo, which unfortunately turned out to be a limited edition flavour that only hung around for a couple of years (I have found on subsequent visits that Schweppes sells an Agrumes soda in Belgium that is similar but not quite as good – my kingdom for a delicious pink grapefruit soda!), and ate more waffles and chocolate (when in Belgium). I ended up at Dumon, which is apparently recommended by Rick Steves, but for once the man got it right, because I LOVE their chocolate. I’ve gotten at least a kilo box of it every time I’ve been back to Bruges, and excitingly, Marcus found a place in Chiswick that sells it and got me a box for Valentine’s Day (though they’re not even doing mail order since lockdown started, so I’m shit out of luck for now), and on this occasion, I picked up a box for myself and one for my grandpa, which I stashed in my locker back at the hostel, and endured a sleepless night thanks to the guy snoring like a chainsaw in the bunk below mine.

The next day, I wearily headed out into the cold again to check out the produce and flower market in the Markt, which was very quaint, though I would have liked it even better if it had been the day for the weird antiques market that I discovered on a return visit. I also went to St. Jan’s Hospital Museum, because I had read in my guidebook that it was formerly a plague hospital, and how could I pass that up? Nowadays, it is mainly an art museum, but I was given an English audioguide that talked about its plague-ridden past, and there was a death cart that they used for the bodies inside the museum, so I was still pretty happy with my visit. I then went to the Halve Maan brewery for the tour, since it’s an obligatory Bruges kind of thing (you can read about the tour I took a few years ago here) and ate yet more frites and some ice cream (which I suspect might have been from Da Vinci Gelateria, which still has my favourite ice cream in the city). All in all, it was quite a pleasant day…and then I returned to the hostel.

If you were hoping the scatalogical stories were over with, I’m going to have to disappoint you here, but I think this was the last incident of the trip. That night, I was having a beer in the hostel bar, when an Australian guy I recognised as the human chainsaw in the bunk beneath me approached me and tried to hit on me. I rebuffed him, and asked if he could try very hard not to snore so much tonight, as I wasn’t able to get much sleep the night before. Well, he was clearly already completely pissed and instead wrapped me up in a big smelly bear hug I had to fight my way out of, and offered to buy me a drink in apology. I again rebuffed him and made another angry comment before heading upstairs to try to get some sleep before his drunk ass rolled into bed.

At some point in the middle of the night, Snores McGee came in and passed out and started snoring like a chainsaw again. I was already ready to kill him at this point, when the unthinkable happened. He jumped up, and started puking up spaghetti in the middle of the room. It was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen. The strands of pasta were stuck in his throat, and he was standing there gagging and pulling them out and dropping them on the floor. He left the mess there, and returned to bed, starting to snore again almost immediately. Whilst this was happening, I reached down from my top bunk and pulled my bag, which was sitting on the floor, onto my bunk with me, so it remained clean, but some of the other people in the room who somehow managed to sleep through this were not so lucky, and their luggage was covered in vomit. I just sat there for an hour in total disbelief, not really knowing what to do as I would have to walk through his puke to find someone to clean it up, and I really did not want to do that.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, he then woke up again, and puked twice more, again, all over the floor, with no attempt to even leave the room. This time, it woke up an American guy who had a top bunk across the room from mine, and we just sat there staring at each other in horror whilst this was taking place. The room was equipped with six or eight sets of bunk beds, with an extra single bed on the floor, which a Mexican guy had to sleep on because there was no room in the bunks. While we looked on aghast, the puker started violently farting, and all of sudden, abruptly pulled down his pants and took a shit right on the Mexican guy’s duvet while the poor guy was sleeping under it (and how he managed to sleep through it, I will never know). At that point, the shitter ran out of the room and fortunately, the door locked behind him (I later found out that he had also smeared shit down the walls of the corridor and on the outside of our door). Somehow, the American guy and I were still the only ones awake who had seen the whole thing, and we had to wake up the poor Mexican guy who was still innocently slumbering away with a giant turd on his duvet, so the American guy, who was closer, shook him a bit with his foot and told him to get up because there was shit on his bed. He was still half asleep, but it obviously sunk in when he saw the turd, because he freaked out and threw the duvet across the room, as would anyone in that situation. In the meantime, the shitter had returned from his fecal depredations of the hostel and started pounding on the door to be let back in. Well, that woke up some more people, but I kept telling everyone to not let him in under any circumstances, as he had desecrated the room. After an hour of straight pounding on the door and yelling, one guy couldn’t take it any more and let the shitter in, where he immediately collapsed back into his bunk and started snoring again. I have never been so angry and disgusted in my life, and I couldn’t even complain without getting puke on my feet!

The next morning, the puke was still on the floor, so I had to just suck it up and step down on the least vomity part in my flipflops to head down for breakfast, not that I had much of an appetite. There, I encountered the guy whose duvet had been shit on, and we discussed the awful night before. He said, “I thought it was a bad dream, but I woke up, and the shit, it was real!” which is one of my favourite quotes ever. The shitting chainsaw got kicked out of the hostel, but as it was my last night there anyway, it didn’t do me much good, and the owner also made him clean the room, all the luggage he had puked on, and forced him to take the duvet to the laundromat, though I was personally disgusted that they would even try to reuse it at this point. If it wasn’t already obvious from the awful showers, that was a clue that the hygiene standards of this establishment were not the highest, as was the fact that when I went to pack up the chocolate I’d put in my locker, I found out it had been gnawed by rats, and I had to go buy more before I left. I would tell you not to stay there, but I can’t remember the name of it, and I would sincerely hope it no longer is in business anyway! (Lest you think all establishments in Bruges are like that, every place I’ve stayed since I’ve been back has been very nice, so maybe just stick to hotels and avoid the hostels!) Surprisingly, this experience did not put me off Bruges, since as you may have gathered from my asides, I have returned a few times (and have been to Belgium probably more than any other European country – I really love Flanders) – the chocolate, waffles, and prettiness of the town overrode the awfulness of that night – though it did very much put me off hostels! The next post will cover Amsterdam, which is now all a bit of a blur, for reasons which will not surprise you.