London

London: Christmas at Kew

And I’m back (for now), with a long overdue Christmas post, though the belatedness is not entirely my fault. I couldn’t possibly have written this before Christmas, since I didn’t visit Kew until the 4th of January. This past month has certainly been interesting, and not in a good way, but I’m glad Biden at least managed to get inaugurated without further incident from Trump’s idiotic minions (though I was super weirded out to see people hugging and kissing at the inauguration, even with masks on). Here in England, we’re in lockdown again until at least the middle of February, so I’ve barely been leaving the house. It was lovely having a break over Christmas to sit on my couch and watch nonstop Christmas and Cary Grant movies (The Bishop’s Wife is both!), but going back to work (remotely, of course) has just made me a giant ball of stress. I’ve been asked to help finish up our NLHF project, which means getting out a TONNE of content in the next month, so I’m working an extra day a week to stay on top of it (with pay, but still), and since I’m mainly working with our WordPress-based website where I have to use stupid Block Editor and the formatting gives me migraines, I’m not feeling especially inclined to be regularly blogging in my free time. So I think that for the next couple of months or whenever things might start to open up a little bit again, I will probably just be posting once a month or so to give myself a break from WordPress (because spending like 30 hours a week on it for work is enough!) and not give myself the added stress of trying to develop posts when there’s no museums to visit (ironically, I took this job because I thought it would be less stressful than my old one and I’d have the mental energy to write more…).

 

But enough with the complaining (at least in the introduction), and let’s get to Christmas at Kew. I’ve been trying to visit this festive light installation at Kew Gardens for a number of years, but it always sold out before I could book tickets (they offer it to members first, and those jerks seem to book it all up). So when I saw last September that they were still hoping to go ahead with it this year, and there were still tickets available, I took a chance and snapped up two tickets for early December at the hefty price (off-peak, no less!) of £19.50 per ticket. And then, of course, the November lockdown was announced, which not only spoiled my intended wedding date, but also my Christmas at Kew visit. Fortunately, rather than cancelling, Kew added in more dates in January, and re-booked us for the 4th. Not as good as going before Christmas, but better than not going at all!

 

Marcus and I did have some concerns, since we knew Covid rates were on the rise pretty badly in London (though we hadn’t realised quite how badly until the lockdown was announced), but Kew is only a few miles away from us, and the event was entirely outside, required masks, and had limited numbers attending, so we decided it was worth the relatively small risk, and set out in early evening to check it out. Since we’d never been to Christmas at Kew before, I don’t know how it compares to what they normally offer, but it was pretty magical. Kew Village itself still had some nice lights up as we walked to Kew Gardens, and all the staff when we arrived were friendly and helpful. Because of Covid, they had three entrances open this year to space out traffic – you chose the entrance when you booked based on your intended method of transport, so we used Victoria Gate because we came by train, which didn’t have anyone else going into it when we arrived.

  

As you can see, all the paths were bedecked with lights, and it was easy to social distance on the pathways, but perhaps a bit less so in front of the larger light show installations where people tended to congregate, but I guess at least we were all outside, so it felt safer than some of the museums (looking at you, BM) I’d been to back when that sort of thing was allowed. Although eating maybe wasn’t the smartest thing to do, as it involved removing our masks for a bit, I was excited that Kew was still having food stalls this year. I visited Southbank Christmas Market in 2019 more times than I can count for the toasted cheese stall there (and considering what happened in 2020, I have no regrets whatsoever), so I do totally love a hipstery Christmas market, and since the delivery options are pretty poor where I live (nearly all chain restaurants except for a handful of Indian places and a falafel/hummus bar that is delicious but is only open until 4, so I have to be in the mood for a really late lunch or early dinner to eat it. Not gonna lie, I do love the occasional Domino’s (but only in the UK – the American version is gross), but not a fan of fast food or chains otherwise) I was thrilled just to eat some nice food that I didn’t have to cook myself. And the stalls we tried were actually surprisingly high quality. The chip “shack” had literally the best cheesy chips I’ve eaten in the twelve years I’ve lived in the UK – the guy even blowtorched the cheese on top so it got all gooey and delicious – and the waffle topped with peanut butter cremeux, banana, chocolate sauce, and honeycomb crumble that I had from Utter Waffle was amazing (and this is coming from a waffle purist who usually just likes syrup) and gluten free to boot (not that I care, because I love gluten, but it made the tastiness of the waffle even more impressive), so I was excitedly messaging my gf friend who lives in Kew whilst I was eating it and telling her she had to go there. I also may have had two hot chocolates, because fuck it, I was treating myself.

  

And the lights were pretty great too, though I confess I was more distracted by the food for some of the time. I especially loved the tree shown above left, the animal sculptures, and the dandelion pod things that were suspended over our heads. I’m team coloured lights all the way (white lights are just so boring), so I was glad the installations were mostly pretty colourful and the white lights were at least in interesting shapes. There was Christmas music piped in throughout, and a final large display projected on the fountains in front of one of the glasshouses, which was particularly cool but fairly crowded, so we didn’t hang around for long. Kew had made an attempt to accommodate this by clearing a large standing space in front of the fountains, but people gonna be jerks if given any opportunity, so they did still pack themselves in, albeit not as tightly as they would have done in pre-Covid times. I would imagine the whole thing was much less crowded than it would have been before Covid, and probably so much the better for it, as we could explore with ease, and staff members at least kept people moving along on the pathways.

 

I actually really loved Christmas at Kew, perhaps partly because it was the only Christmas activity I got to do this year, but I would definitely go back in a “normal” year too to check it out again (if such a thing as a normal year exists anymore). And it turned out to be the only activity we got to do at all for who knows how long, because whilst we were there, my friend who I messaged about the waffles messaged me back and said that it looked like they were about to announce another lockdown, which happened as we were on our way back home (luckily, the trains were super empty that day, and we were the only people in our carriage), so I guess Kew rescheduled our visit for the perfect time, as we wouldn’t have been able to go if it was even a day later. 1 in 30 people in London with Covid is a pretty terrifying figure, so I understand why it had to be done, but I am still happy we got to squeeze Christmas at Kew in first, because it was a much needed treat! 4/5.

  

See you again at some point in February, and really hope things have improved a bit by then, though I’m not counting on it!

 

London: “Unfinished Business” @ the British Library

I had some unfinished business with “Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights”. I was originally booked in to see it the day before lockdown 2.0, but then I ended up getting married instead, which took priority. So I made sure that Unfinished Business was the first exhibition I visited after lockdown, and as it turns out, it was also the only exhibition I got to see during the brief period museums were allowed to re-open, since I got word the day after my visit that one of my colleagues had tested positive, so I had to leave work and immediately start self-isolating (I wasn’t able to get a test since I fortunately never developed symptoms (and my colleague had a very mild case, also fortunately), so I still don’t know if I’ve actually had Covid or not, or if I was infectious at the time I saw the exhibition, so I guess it’s good I had a mask on the entire time I was in central London, even when I was outside). I was hoping to get in one more museum visit when my self-isolation period ended on Wednesday, but then the government decided to move us into Tier 3 starting Wednesday (instead of just reassessing on Wednesday, which was what I thought they were meant to do), so there goes my one day of freedom!

 

But anyway, back when I was unaware that I was a potential Covid Jessica (I know I’m being a bit flippant, but I would honestly feel awful if I knew I got someone sick), I headed up to the British Library for the first time in well over a year to finally see this exhibition (time flies when you can’t leave your house…at least up to a point if you’re an introvert like me. I enjoyed working from home in my pajamas instead of having to go into the office (and I was only working from an office again for a month before having to self-isolate (and this is at a museum with a very small team), so that went well!), but I do miss visiting exhibitions every week). Tickets are £15, or £7.50 with Art Pass, and you must pre-book, though there were plenty of tickets still available on the day when we visited. It is meant to run until February 2021, though this may be extended now that they’ve had to close again.

  

We were already off to a better start than our recent experience at the British Museum as soon as we entered the exhibition, because it was pretty damn empty. There were maybe only ten visitors in the entirety of the large PACCAR Gallery, and the one way arrow stickers on the floor were huge, so there was absolutely no way you could miss them (and there was really only one natural path around most of the exhibition, so we wouldn’t have run into the same issues that we had at the BM anyway). The BL normally divides the space into a lot of smaller rooms, but in this case they had wisely decided to leave everything open, which made it a lot easier to social distance. No complaints about the appearance or configuration of this exhibition!

 

As for the content…I definitely consider myself a feminist, and am interested in the women’s rights movement, so I was really excited to see this exhibition, and it didn’t disappoint. Rather than being divided into individual galleries, the exhibition was divided into zones on Body, Mind, and Voice, though there was definitely a bit of overlap between the zones. As always, the BL presented fascinating historical documents alongside contemporary art and artefacts, and I absolutely loved the little cartoons on the side of each large interpretation panel, most of which contained wry observations on being a woman in male-dominated industries (totally my experience when I worked in brewing and people used to assume I was the head brewer’s girlfriend, though definitely not in heritage, which is heavily female-dominated, at least everywhere I’ve worked), though there was also a delightful cartoon about the Bronte sisters that made me laugh out loud (with any laughter particles safely contained within my mask) and a chart mocking the idea of an “ideal” body type with different food-based body shapes (I’m definitely a pierogi, not least because I eat a lot of pierogi when I can be bothered to make them).

 

“Body” contained sections on beauty pageants, cross-dressing female vaudeville entertainers, transwomen, menstruation, and more. I was fascinated to see the correspondence between American suffragist Caroline Kennard and Dahl’s Charwin, as I call him, aka Charles Darwin, about whether women were intellectually inferior to men. Darwin believed they were, and Kennard tried her best to set him straight by pointing out that women didn’t receive equal educational or employment opportunities, but Darwin presumably had none of it because he was kind of a jerk. There was also a small section on family planning, and the exhibition didn’t shy away from pointing out Marie Stopes’s racist views (similar to her American counterpart Margaret Sanger, she was a big believer in eugenics. It’s a shame all these early birth control advocates had such awful beliefs). I was also super interested to read Urania, an early 20th century gender studies publication written by feminist activists (definitely ahead of its time!), and see how badly I fail at dressing professionally for the office according to a 1970s guide for women on “power dressing” (I’ve been known to wear things close to that exact outfit, sans the slouchy hat).

 

I’m not sure exactly where “Mind” ended and “Voice” began, but I have to assume the education section was in “Mind”. Throughout the exhibition, there were charts showing the proportion of women represented in various fields, like politics, the workforce, etc. (and a really depressing one on domestic violence, which we all know has gotten worse during the pandemic as more women are trapped at home with their abusers), and the only chart where women were surpassing men was on higher education (though not when it comes to the make up of actual faculty, and the number of BAME female professors is particularly low). I was disturbed by the photograph of the 1897 protest by male students at Cambridge against granting degrees to women, which was full of boorish looking men throwing fireworks and suspending an effigy of a woman on a bicycle from a building, and was apparently successful, since the Queen Mother was the first woman to be granted an (honorary) degree at Cambridge, and that wasn’t until 1948!

 

“Voice” focused a lot on the suffragette movement, and made a point to mention the role women of colour played, and how they were basically ignored by white British suffragettes, who showed no concern whatsoever for the plight of women living under colonialism. In fact, during WWI, the Women’s Party put out a really revolting publication called Brittania, full of “patriotic” garbage extolling the “virtues” of Empire. Blech. I found the sections on solidarity movements by BAME women really interesting, and I loved all the protest art. Although much of the focus was still on white women, as that is still what makes up much of the BL’s collection, I do think they really tried to focus on women of colour as well and point out the many inequalities that still exist. This was really driven home in the case of Khadija Saye, one of the artists featured here, who tragically died aged only 24 in the Grenfell fire along with her mother due to the ultimately hideously unsafe conditions they were forced to live in.

 

As the exhibition guide said, although the exhibition tried to represent as many voices as they could, an exhibition of this size covering so much ground could never be comprehensive, and was really more of an overview, though I think it could be a great starting point to encourage visitors to learn more, and there was definitely a lot of interesting looking feminist literature available for purchase in the exhibition shop (along with some cool badges and stickers). The BL generally excels at including a range of interesting primary documents in their exhibits, and this was no exception, with poems written on toilet paper by suffragettes in prison (and my god, does it look like coarse, unpleasant toilet paper), to manuscripts of Jane Eyre and Middlemarch, and even a good range of artefacts from ordinary women, like a housemaid’s recipe for lemon ice cream and a rad uterus quilt.

 

I really liked “Unfinished Business”, and was definitely impressed with the social distancing, easy flow around the exhibition, and friendliness of the staff. 3.5/5. If you have time to walk around the building (which takes a bit longer than it used to due to the one-way system), there is a free display of more of Khadija Saye’s art on the first floor. I’m also including a photo of the small case on the Glasgow Women’s Library because I thought Anabel might like to see it, and you get a bonus photo of the BL’s cat, who we encountered as we left. One of the security guards told us her name was Daisy, and she is very cute!

 

London: “Arctic: Culture and Climate”@ the British Museum

This was the last exhibition I managed to see before lockdown 2.0, and after visiting this, I could kind of see why we needed another lockdown, because this was a free-for-all (as I’m sure you’ll see from the photos). When I visited “Tantra” at the British Museum a few weeks before this, I had no issues. The exhibition was fairly empty, and the pre-booking only system seemed to be working well. For “Arctic,” however, I suppose in their keenness to get as many people as possible through a major exhibition, the British Museum had let far too many people in at a time, and it was impossible to socially distance in some areas of the exhibition, because they were as rammed as they would have been pre-corona. Even the permanent galleries seemed significantly busier – there were lots of families and what looked like school groups, and I had to queue for ages to get into the toilets, even though, like my previous visit, this was also on a Monday at the exact same time in the early afternoon. Lockdown hadn’t been announced at this point, so I can’t even say it was a last hurrah; just a general loosening up.

 

But let’s get down to the exhibition itself. Regular readers know about my fascination with polar exploration, so I was very excited to see this exhibition on the ways the people who live in the Arctic manage to survive in such a harsh environment, and how they were adapting to climate change. “Arctic: culture and climate,” was originally meant to run until February 2021, though this may now be extended. Admission was a hefty £18, or a more reasonable £9 with Art Pass. It was held in the Sainsbury Exhibition Gallery, which is on the ground floor in the back of the museum – I don’t think I’d been to an exhibition in this gallery before, or at least not for a while, as all of the ones I’ve seen lately have been in that tower thing in the middle of the Great Court.

 

The gallery space featured one big corridor lined with the larger eye-catching artefacts that ran the length of the gallery, with smaller rooms branching off from it, and it was these smaller rooms that were the biggest problem, particularly as a lot of our fellow visitors seemed to be big family groups with the maximum allowed six people, and if you were stuck in a room with just two of those groups, there was no way you could put two metres between you. There was apparently a one way system in place, with markings on the floor to show you where to go, but neither Marcus or I noticed these when we were in the exhibition – we only saw them when we were looking at some of the photos after we left, so they need to make this a lot clearer!

 

The exhibit opened with a collection of traditional clothing worn by various Arctic peoples, and moved on to both the art and more quotidian objects that they have used throughout history. There was a lot of art featuring animals, especially the seals, whales, walruses, and various birds that the indigenous people have traditionally been dependent on for food and clothing – obviously, I loved this (says the woman with whale wallpaper in her living room)!

 

I also thought the tools associated with whaling were fascinating (though whaling is never a nice thing), especially a sealskin suit from Greenland with a hole in the middle. The wearer could crawl into the suit through the hole, and pull the hole closed behind him to create a waterproof suit. The suit would then be inflated via a straw to provide extra insulation and buoyancy. The most remarkable thing about this suit is that it was made some time before 1834 (presumably the date it was acquired by some explorer or another), since we tend to assume waterproof clothing is a more modern technology (I get the impression that most people were walking around in wet wool all the time in 19th century America and Britain, or at least that’s what it seems like in the Little House books).

 

As you might expect, a lot of the artefacts here were related to hunting and fishing; although many parts of the Arctic have more plant life than people might think in the summer, which the people living there of course incorporated into their diets, for the rest of the year, they needed to hunt to survive. And even the non-edible parts of the animals were very much used, not only for clothing, but for various intricate carvings using bone and tusk, many of which were quite beautiful. I loved the wooden seal helmet – it was used for hunting purposes, but it just looks so cute!

 

There was also a section here on first contact, much of it with the various polar explorers that I’ve read so much about, who were of various degrees of jerkishness – some were keen to befriend and learn from the native people, but others just wanted to claim the areas for their respective countries, and saw the people living there as a nuisance (which was just dumb, because if you’re planning on exploring a fairly inhospitable land, wouldn’t it make sense to learn a thing or two from the people who have managed to survive there for centuries?). There were some fantastic drawings from these encounters from the perspective of both the native Greenlanders and the European explorers.

 

There was a lot of great contemporary art here too, but my favourite things were probably the historical artefacts, many of seemed surprisingly modern like the aforementioned whaling suit, such as the snow goggles used to protect the wearer’s eyes from the sun glare coming off the snow, and the waterproof fish skin bags used for storage, which are far more sustainable than most modern materials (though I don’t particularly want to carry around a fish skin bag!).

 

A small section at the end had information about climate change and how it might affect the people living in the Arctic going forward, but most of the exhibition seemed to be on traditional ways of life, which I admittedly found more interesting, though obviously climate change is a huge concern. I did have to skip a few of the cases because there were just too many people hanging around in front of them who wouldn’t move and I wasn’t comfortable standing near that many people for a prolonged period, but I did enjoy everything I saw – it was just too busy! There was a shop at the end that directed us to wait outside if there were more than 15 people in the shop, but as you couldn’t actually see into the shop from outside the doors, and there was no member of staff there to regulate numbers (like they have outside the toilets), I have no idea how you were meant to gauge that yourself. The shop was quite a big one, with various crafts and food from around the Arctic (mainly Scandinavia and Canada), but maybe they could have cut back on the amount of stock in the shop and limited the amount of people in the exhibition more, because now is not really the time to be going all out on a museum shop (says the person who used to run a museum shop and had their budget frozen for the entirety of this year, even before Covid).

 

Anyway, the exhibition itself was good, though not big enough to justify either £18 or the amount of people they were allowing in the space. 3.5/5. Hopefully when it reopens after lockdown, they’ll be a bit stricter about limiting numbers or making sure people leave within a designated span of time.

 

 

London: Bruce Nauman @ Tate Modern

Was Bruce Nauman an artist whose work I could have identified before seeing this exhibition? No, but my quest back in October was to pack in as many exhibitions within walking distance of Waterloo on my two journeys into central London as I could (both to minimise my time on public transport and to build up a bank of posts, since by the middle of October, I strongly suspected we would go into lockdown again, and look, I was right!), I looked to see what was at Tate Modern, and here he was. Given a choice between what I could see of his work on Tate’s website, and the Andy Warhol exhibition, I chose Bruce, and after seeing the queue for Andy Warhol, I think I made the right decision.

 

You had to prebook to visit Tate Modern, even if you were just there to see the permanent collection (though those tickets were free), but there were still plenty of slots available for Bruce Nauman when I booked it the night before, which I suspect would not have been the case for Warhol. Tickets were £13, or £6.50 with Art Pass, and the procedure at Tate Modern was that you joined a queue upon entry for whatever you were there to see (Bruce had no queue, so we could breeze straight through, but Andy’s stretched the length of the Turbine Hall), someone scanned your ticket and told you where to go, and then someone checked your ticket again at the entrance to make sure you were there at the right time. There was also no queue at the entrance to the exhibition, and we could go straight in, but the queue for Andy was very long indeed (yes, I am quite smug about this, first of all because I don’t even really like Andy Warhol, and if I did, I know there’s a museum in Pittsburgh that I could easily visit any time I go to visit my family in Cleveland, though who knows when that will next be).

 

The exhibition was spread out over 13 rooms, and since most of Nauman’s pieces were installation style, there were only one or two semi-immersive pieces per room, making it easy to socially distance (and of course, face coverings were required inside). Bruce Nauman is an American artist (from Indiana) who has been active since the 1960s, and is probably best known for his neon sculptures and video installations, though he has dabbled in a range of media, including more traditional sculpture and photography. He’s the type of artist whose work you have probably seen without realising it’s his work. (And yes, that is Nauman’s butt and face in the above pieces.)

 

I could definitely see some of the pieces here as being the reason some people hate modern art, like “Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square”, which is exactly what it sounds like – though we got the excitement here of looking at the square he had taped out on the floor and a plank of wood leaning against the wall, we couldn’t actually walk in an exaggerated manner ourselves, since it was behind a rope.

 

Nor could we go inside the “Double Steel Cage,” which is meant to provoke feelings of “anxiety and entrapment”, though since Nauman’s intention was that the door be left open so visitors could go inside and experience anxiety for themselves, I think this was probably a Covid-related decision made by the Tate. However, we could try out the “Going Around the Corner Piece” where we literally walked around a corner to try to catch a glimpse of our own backs on a TV monitor as we were being filmed on the opposite side of the wall, which was quite fun.

 

One of the reasons I decided to see this exhibition was because of Nauman’s clown pieces, since this visit took place in October when I was in full Halloween mode (as opposed to the partial but still enthusiastic Halloween mode I’m in the rest of the year), and I thought clowns were appropriately creepy and Halloweeny. This series of videos was called “Clown Torture” and filled the entire room, and was very creepy indeed. Nauman finds clowns very menacing, and this really came across here. There’s a clown screaming “no, no, no!” in one of the videos, and another where he keeps repeating the children’s rhyme, “Pete and Repeat sat on a fence. Pete fell off, who was left? Repeat. Pete and Repeat sat on a fence…” and so on, which I definitely remember reciting to irritate my mother when I was little (along with “The Song that Never Ends” from Lamb Chop. I was an annoying child), which made this installation very much an assault on the senses, as was “Anthro/Socio”, which is the piece pictured at the start of this post, with an actor shouting “Feed Me, Eat Me, Anthropology” and “Help Me, Hurt Me, Sociology” again and again whilst his head spun around on a video monitor.

  

Nauman also finds many children’s games quite sinister, as reflected in his “Hanged Man” neon, which was my favourite piece here (I mean, he’s not wrong about Hang Man – what a weird children’s game!). This was definitely not child friendly, as the hanged man goes from being alive with a flaccid penis, to dead with a huge erection, as you can see above, based on the old myth about what happens to hanged men (which maybe isn’t a myth? I don’t even know).

 

I liked the neons here generally – the coolest one was probably “One Hundred Live or Die” which is a grid of one hundred different declarations that light up in turn, such as “Live and Piss” “Die and Shit” “Smell and Live” etc. Unfortunately, I do not have a photo of it because it was impossible to photograph, so you get to look at “Human Nature/Knows Doesn’t Know” and “Black Marble Under Yellow Light” instead, and it is probably self-explanatory which is which.

 

There were also a couple more video installations; one featuring a mime (also creepy), and another showing sleight of hand tricks close up and various people falling, all shown in the RGB colour spectrum. Honestly, one of the coolest parts of the exhibition was all the huge period video monitors and projectors, mostly from the ’80s and ’90s, which reminded me of the technology we had elementary school.

 

Tate had a couple more of his installations scattered throughout the museum, including one on the wall of the cafe, and a sound installation in the stairs we used to exit. I think they have a couple pieces of his on permanent display too, but we didn’t attempt to go in the permanent galleries. Considering I’m not usually the biggest fan of modern art, I surprised myself by enjoying this quite a bit, since it was quite immersive – my only complaint would be that it only took us about half an hour to see the exhibition, even with lingering in some of the rooms, which is a bit light for a £13 exhibition, but since we only paid £6.50, I didn’t mind so much. 3.5/5 for Bruce Nauman – definitely worth visiting after lockdown if you’re in the area and don’t feel like spending your day queuing for Andy Warhol! It’s currently meant to run until February, and they might extend it further depending on when museums are allowed to reopen.

 

Recent Events: Wedding + New Job!

You might already know about some of this if you follow me on Instagram, but I wanted to share what’s been going on in my life lately outside of blogging, because the past couple of weeks have been totally crazy! First of all, Marcus and I got married on the 4th of November, which is a story in itself, so I hope you’ll either indulge me whilst I tell it, or just wait for my next post, which will be museum-related.

 

We’ve been together for nearly twelve years, but somehow never got round to the whole marriage thing, partly we’re both introverted and aren’t super comfortable with being the centre of attention, and were kind of dreading the whole process of doing it in front of a big audience, but didn’t really know how to get out of it without offending family and friends. And then Covid happened, and we saw an opportunity to have a small ceremony without hurt feelings, so we gave notice of our intention to marry at our local register office (which is awkwardly in the same building as the archives where I used to work sometimes) back in early October (you have to give at least thirty days notice in the UK, for those who aren’t familiar with the process), with the intention of getting married on the 28th November, which is our twelfth anniversary, and conveniently falls on a Saturday this year. Me being me, I immediately ordered a dress and accessories and only after that started thinking about logistics.

  

We definitely didn’t want a full-on reception at this point in time (nor would we have been allowed dancing etc), but we thought it would still be nice to be able to at least have a drink or two and some cake afterwards if we could do so safely, so we tried to find a venue for that. But, even though at that stage we were allowed to have up to fifteen people at a reception (this was when we were still in Tier 1, but even in Tier 2, you were technically allowed to be inside with people from other households for a wedding reception, even though I was feeling less comfortable with doing it), we had a hell of a time trying to find someone willing to accommodate more than six, other than very expensive proper wedding venues (and I’m sorry, but I’m not spending over £1000 on a reception for 10 people if that doesn’t even include food or drink). We finally managed to find a pub down the road from us with a private room big enough to socially distance in that was willing to host us and wasn’t even charging a booking fee, so I started to relax a little bit with that settled…and then lockdown was announced.

 

With all wedding ceremonies cancelled during lockdown, things were looking bleak until the registrar rang me on the Monday before lockdown and told me we could either postpone the ceremony indefinitely, or get married that Wednesday. After a hurried discussion with Marcus whilst I was still on the phone with the registrar, we said, “what the hell, let’s just do it Wednesday!” Cue two days of total madness, though since we had bought clothes and things weeks before, all we really had to do was tell our guests, order a cake (more on this below, but this was my number one priority after getting my dress. I’d already spoken to a bakery, but was holding off on ordering until closer to our original wedding date and the short notice meant I didn’t have time for anything custom anyway), try to find a post-wedding drinks venue, and book in a photographer, the latter of which proved the most complicated, since we had two people cancel on us before we found Louise Adby, who did an absolutely lovely job!

  

Because it was a weekday, not all of our guests could make it, so we ended up with only six attendees, but we’re grateful they were able to come on such short notice, especially the people who took off work on our account! Our original plan was to take pre-wedding photographs the first weekend of November in Painshill Park and skip a professional photographer for the wedding, but given the circumstances, we cancelled the Painshill Park session and just met our photographer in Bushy Park about two hours before our wedding to get some couple portraits before she photographed the ceremony. All the posing was super awkward (especially the eight million kissing shots she made us do, since we’re not normally super affectionate in public – you might be able to tell that I was wearing lipstick at the start, but it completely wore off over the course of the afternoon), but I guess it was worth it for the end result. I usually absolutely hate how I look in photos, but I’m actually pretty happy with most of these ones!

 

I’m obviously not a super traditional person, and a white gown is so not my style, but I didn’t really want to go full goth either at a registry office wedding, so I opted for a super sparkly black 50’s style dress from Vivien of Holloway (I already have several dresses from there, so I knew it would fit without trying it on first), an autumnal orange coat, because I will take any excuse to buy a new coat and I love a hood; a purple spiderweb wrap from Etsy, and pointy witch shoes from Killstar. Marcus put together my bouquet from orange, black, and purple artificial flowers I’d ordered, wrapped with black and white striped Beetlejuice ribbon that I had rush shipped from America because I couldn’t find any I liked here. I was actually intending on changing into silver heels for the photos, but it was kind of muddy in the park, so I just left my flats on until the ceremony. I had also bought an excellent black and white feather fascinator that made me feel a bit like a less evil Cruella de Vil, but I completely forgot to put it on before we left to take photos, so I had to do without. Good thing it wasn’t expensive!

  

The ceremony itself was super short (we all had to go wash our hands upon arrival, the guests had to wear masks the whole time, and all the chairs were distanced, but we were allowed to take our masks off during the ceremony), which we were fine with, except for the fact that we couldn’t choose our music, and I really wanted to have had our song(s) playing at the start and end of the ceremony (by Phil Collins and Huey Lewis – you can try to guess what they are if you like), but it’s not like they would have played for very long anyway, since they hustled us out immediately after we signed the book, so it’s fine (we didn’t even get our marriage certificate on the day, as that was deemed unsafe. They posted us a copy the week after). We actually made our own rings in a silversmithing class at Morden Hall Park last Valentine’s Day, so we’ve had them sitting around for ages! And let me just state that I will not be changing my name – I may or may not have gone on a rant about the patriarchy to the registrar before the ceremony – I’m not judging anyone who chooses to do so, but it’s definitely not something I’m at all interested in doing.

 

Because of the impending lockdown, we couldn’t find anyone to host a reception for this much earlier date, so we just ended up going to a local pub with three friends who all live together, but of course had to sit outside per the rules since we were a mix of two different households, so it was a very cold night indeed (we were just down the road from our house, so I ended up going home and changing into jeans after a couple of hours of freezing my ass off – I loved my dress, but I have my limits!), and the only place that was serving food outside didn’t really have anything that appealed, so I just had a bowl of chips and a Coke (and a cup of tea because of the cold!), because I barely drink anymore. Thrilling, I know. I think we probably will have to have an actual party when it’s safe to do so, because I at least want to eat some decent food! We did manage to get a cake to enjoy by ourselves when we got home from the bakery I had originally decided on (Flavourtown in Fulham, since they deliver) – I got the smallest size, but it was still an awful lot of cake for two people, so we ended up posting out slices to our guests the next day. Fortunately, it was close enough to Halloween that the bakery was still doing Halloween cakes, so I was able to snag this rad pink skull one, and Marcus made the topper himself, so it was pretty perfect even if it wasn’t custom. I also ordered cookies to pass out to our guests as favours after the ceremony (since we could individually bag them, which felt a bit more sanitary than handing someone a slice of cake) and those were delicious too (obviously we saved ourselves a couple!).

  

So that was our wedding, and since lockdown started the next day and we couldn’t go anywhere anyway, I just went back to work the day after (we will totally take a trip when we can though, whenever that might be), because it also happened to be my last week of work at my old job. Yes, as if throwing a wedding together in two days wasn’t enough stress, I was also trying to wrap up everything with my job, especially because there is a hiring freeze on, so I knew they wouldn’t be able to hire a replacement for a while. I will miss my lovely volunteers (and am worried no one else is going to advocate for them), but there were a lot of other aspects of that job that I absolutely hated, and it was generally not great for my mental health, so on the whole, I am relieved to be gone! I started my new job last week (and yes, I know how lucky I am to a.) have kept my job in heritage in the first place (this was mainly because my former museum was run by a local authority, so I was deployed to the Comms team for six months whilst the museum was closed), and b.) found a new job in heritage with better pay than my old job in the current climate). I was working as a Visitor Services Officer, which included shop management (amongst other things), and I was desperate to get away from the retail aspects of my job, because I HATE retail, so I was thrilled to land a Museum Coordinator position at another museum near enough my house to still be able to walk to work. It’s still not the curatorial role I would eventually like, but it is far more marketing orientated, which at least means a lot of writing, and the shop is not my responsibility, which is the most exciting thing about it for me! It’s super weird to be working in an office again after working from home for almost eight months (I’m splitting my time between the office and home for now, because even though the museum is closed to the public during lockdown, there are still things going on in the building that require someone on site and there’s only three people on our team, so we take turns going in), but the museum itself is a lovely space (much nicer than my old workplace). Lots of changes, but I’m hoping once I’ve settled in a bit more, I’ll be less emotionally drained than I was at my old job and will have time to do a bit more writing, as I would really like to start doing creative writing again at some point. Thanks for reading, if you made it to the end, and hope you didn’t mind looking at so many wedding photos!

 

London: “Tantra” @ the British Museum

Note: I wrote this post back in mid-October before the second lockdown was announced, and god, I was so optimistic and so excited about getting back into London then. I’ll leave it as is so we can all reflect on the naivete of Jessica from just a few weeks ago.

After an absence of many months, I have finally ventured into central London again! I had a dentist appointment for which I had to take the train anyway (since I never changed dentist after I moved last year, and good luck trying to get into a new one now!), so I thought I might as well just hop back on the train in Wimbledon and go all the way into Waterloo and walk across the river from there (I’m not quite ready to brave the Tube. The train is bad enough). I hadn’t been into London since March, and I didn’t realise how much I’d missed it until I went back. And honestly, public transport was the worst part of the whole experience, because central London is still pretty damn empty. Kingston is 10 times busier and full of non-mask wearing assholes, and I much prefer the atmosphere of London, I just wish there was another way to get there! (And don’t suggest cycling, because I will die if I cycle on city streets. I’m not a confident cyclist AT ALL.)

 

It was a grand day strolling around Bloomsbury and Covent Garden, getting cinnamon buns and excellent sugared brioche pretzels from my favourite Swedish bakery (Bageriet, much nicer than the more well known Fabrique, in my opinion), an ice cream from Udderlicious, and going into an actual bookshop and buying a book that I could look through first. Glorious! I also of course got in a museum visit, which proved to be a bit tricky since everywhere now requires pre-booking (rightly so) and many of the exhibitions I wanted to see were already booked up, but there were still plenty of tickets left to “Tantra: enlightenment to revolution” at the British Museum, which runs until January, so that’s what I opted for (you can book online on the day if there are still openings, but they will only let you book for a time at least two hours in advance, so you do need to plan a little bit ahead). Admission is £15, or £7.50 with Art Pass.

 

The British Museum still has its queuing system set up that ultimately leads you through a little security hut for a bag search, but unlike the last time I visited, there was no queue whatsoever, and we (Marcus came too) went straight into the hut. We had to get a picture in front of the museum, because I’ve never seen it without fifty million tourists crawling all over it before! The tranquility extended to the interior of the museum, and it felt good to be back in that familiar grand entrance hall. I certainly didn’t have a problem with the lack of people, though I recognise it’s not great for the museum itself.

 

You also need to book a ticket to visit the permanent collections, though those tickets are free. Currently, only the ground floor is open, and they have planned a one hour route to take you through it, but we skipped that and headed straight for Tantra. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this exhibition, because like many people, I associate the term tantra with weird sexual practices, like the days-long sex Sting claims to have, which just sounds unpleasant, frankly. But it turns out that Tantra, like many things, was perverted by the British occupation of India, and it actually started out as a practice of worship of female goddesses.

 

Tantra was developed in the 6th century CE in Southeast Asia as an offshoot of Hinduism amongst followers of Shiva, god of destruction, and Shakti, goddess of creation, and involved the worship of Shakti as mother of all things, as well as a series of rituals people could follow to invoke these deities. The word tantra literally means “loom” or “weave” in Sanskrit, and Tantra was a weaving together of new ideas from existing practices. There was a period of political turbulence in India in the medieval era that caused the philosophy to become popular with those searching for something new, especially as there was no caste system in Tantra and women were welcome to join. Tantra also led to the creation of Hatha yoga, which, whilst not a sexual practice, did involve strange contortions of the body, and some of the diagrams showing these postures may have led to outsiders construing it as somehow sexual.

 

Things carried on happily enough for centuries, but when the British took over India, they saw it as a challenge to their authority, particularly as some practitioners used it as a form of rebellion by trying to use the goddess Kali (you’ve probably seen images of her standing on a corpse and wearing a necklace of skulls, as in the above photos) as a figure of anti-colonial resistance, and fair enough, because Kali looks absolutely baller (I want a skull necklace!). This led to the British trying to paint its followers as sexually depraved and practitioners of black magic, which is why when many people think of Kali (I’m including myself in this number, since my love for Indiana Jones is well-documented on this blog), they think of the cult in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but these depictions came about solely because of British attempts to quash the religion. (There was a pretty excellent little set of figurines depicting the supposed Thug cult of bandits who practiced Tantra, which again, was just part of the smear campaign by the British.)

 

So Tantra is actually pretty interesting, and though I’m not into the hippy dippy Western interpretations of Tantra that become popular from the 1960s onward (which is where the weird Sting-esque sexual practices come from), I am definitely into all these awesome rebellious interpretations of Kali, and the attempts to use Tantra to drive the British out of India. This is honestly probably not an exhibition I would have chosen to see had there not been literally nothing else I could get tickets to that day, but honestly, I’m really glad I did, because I learned a lot, and there were some fascinating objects here.

 

As always when visiting exhibitions, I did encounter some annoyingly slow moving people (not the fact that they walked slowly, just that they paused in front of each exhibition for what felt like ten minutes), and unfortunately, in Covid times, I can’t exactly lean over their shoulder as I used to do in the old days, so I ended up doing a lot of skipping around and just coming back to areas when they cleared out. It wasn’t super busy, since it was ticketed, and it was fairly easy to social distance in all but the busiest areas, and then I just moved to another area until it was less busy (and of course everyone was wearing face coverings). Although for £15 I would have expected more content, I was happy enough with my half-price admission, plus the excitement of being in the British Museum again probably enhanced my enjoyment. 3/5.

 

London: Kensal Green Cemetery

Visiting Kensal Green means that I have finally seen all of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries! I’d of course been meaning to visit for a while, pre-pandemic, but it’s a long, convoluted route there on public transport from where I live, so it was actually much quicker and easier (not to mention safer), for Marcus and me to drive there whilst we had a hire car.

 

Kensal Green is London’s largest cemetery, which I was not at all surprised to learn after visiting, because it seems to go on for miles! It was built in 1833 as a sort of English equivalent to Pere Lachaise, and is the oldest of the Magnificent Seven. As you might expect from a cemetery with over 250,000 burials, there are also a lot of famous people buried here, from Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel to Lady Jane Franklin, Thackeray to Trollope, and hundreds of other names of varying degrees of (mostly Victorian) fame. However, because there is no cemetery map pointing out where these graves are, the only way you’re likely to find any of them is by stumbling on them accidentally.

 

I can’t understand why their Friends haven’t noticed this glaring oversight and produced a map to sell. A digital download would be great, and low effort for them once they’ve produced it, but even a stand holding photocopies with an honesty box attached to it within the cemetery would do the job, because surely some income is better than none (assuming some people would just grab a map without paying, because people suck), but they haven’t, so you’re on your own. We did look up some of the graves we were keen on seeing on Find a Grave, but there were no directions there either, so although we knew what the graves should look like, in a cemetery with a quarter of a million burials, finding them was still highly unlikely.

 

We did manage to stumble upon the Brunel grave somehow, which was surprisingly plain. Given my interest in polar exploration, I was also keen to find Lady Jane Franklin’s (even though she sucked as a person. She tried to discredit John Rae because she couldn’t handle the truth about her husband’s fate, and was pretty damn racist) but as it was apparently just a nondescript cross like the thousands of others in the cemetery, we struck out.

  

However, I serendipitously found George Cruikshank by the side of one of the paths we walked down, which I was thrilled about, since I adore his George IV cartoons. His body was actually moved to St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1878, but his headstone was left behind. We also encountered various obscure Dickens relations, but I’m not the biggest Dahl’s Chickens fan, and am really clueless about his extended family.

 

Kensal Green is home to four chapels, two of which we didn’t really look at as they’re located in the crematorium (where Freddie Mercury et al were cremated, but not buried). Of the two in the cemetery proper, the massive Anglican Chapel had fencing set up all around it, so we couldn’t get very close, though we did investigate the exterior of the much smaller Noncomformist Chapel.

 

Kensal Green suffers from the same neglect as the other Magnificent Seven – it is more open than some, and not quite as overgrown as places like Abney Park, where you can’t even access half the graves, but it is still very obviously in decline, despite being a working cemetery.  I would also say that because of its size, its location, and the lack of visitors/staff, other than a few workmen we encountered, it does feel a bit unsafe in places. I would be hesitant to venture to the farthest reaches by myself, because there would be absolutely no one there to help you if a mugger or rapist jumped out. I hope I’m wrong about that, and I was just being paranoid, but I genuinely did feel a bit uneasy when I wandered off on my own.

 

Despite this uneasy feeling, or maybe because of it, something about the sheer scale of it also made it feel a bit magical in places. For example, I stumbled across a beautiful tree-lined path at one point in our visit, and when I wanted to return to walk down it, I couldn’t manage to find it again. There’s lots of twists and turns and an abundance of horse chestnut trees. There is also a giant, somewhat mysterious structure that looks like a garden surrounded by columns. I didn’t try to go inside, because I didn’t realise that you could, but I happened to read Peter Ross’s excellent A Tomb with a View shortly after visiting (recommended by the always informative Kev), and learned it was a garden memorial built by a grieving father to honour his deceased son, and there is a statue of the son inside. People are welcome to enter and sit in contemplation. I honestly hadn’t realised it was a privately built memorial because it was so huge – I just thought it was part of the cemetery complex, like the chapels, but knowing this makes it much more poignant.

 

I would absolutely recommend visiting, because it is a fabulous crumbling old Grand Dame of a cemetery, but maybe bring a friend and don’t come too close to dusk. Our visit was actually on an unseasonably hot September day, but I would have definitely enjoyed it more with an autumnal chill in the air. I think Brompton Cemetery is still my favourite of the Magnificent Seven, but Kensal Green is probably third on that list, behind Highgate.

 

I’ve realised that although I have visited all of the seven, I have only actually blogged about three of them: Abney Park, Brompton, and now Kensal Green (which I guess gives me something to do if we go back into lockdown again). I’m saving my spookiest October post for next week, so hope you’re ready! By the way, this is the first post that WordPress has forced me to write in the new Block Editor, at least until I figured out you could select Classic Editor from the drop down menu when you start a new post (I didn’t discover that until after writing most of this post though!). Does anyone hate it as much as I do? There’s not even a word count on the bottom (is there a word count at all? I haven’t found it yet!), which I usually rely on to know when to shut up.

 

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: London and Brighton

We left 21 year old Jessica sobbing in a horrible hostel toilet because she couldn’t hack being away from home on her own for the first time. Fortunately, life was about to improve as she (I) discovered the joys of Brighton (sorry, I’m slipping into a weird kind of third person Jimmy from Seinfeld thing). First thing in the morning of day two, I marched myself down to Victoria Station and invested in a round-trip ticket to Brighton (34 year old me is aghast at the thought of buying train tickets on the day at the actual ticket window. They must have cost a fortune!), with which I instantly fell in love. Finally feeling flush in my independence, I got my lip pierced, which I had been dying to do for ages but hadn’t because I knew my parents wouldn’t be happy, to say the least (and yes, I was an adult, but living with them meant I was still very much under their control. I had a curfew until the day I moved out, aged 23). But now that wouldn’t be my problem for a while (I did also have several tattoos already at this point, but I was good at keeping them hidden, so no one knew). I had a wander around town, visited Infinity Foods (which I still really like) for some vegan sweets (I was just coming off of a year long flirtation with veganism, and was still eating mostly vegan. That lasted until I rediscovered the joys of cheese), visited Brighton Museum, and tried on vegan combat boots at Veg Shoes. I suppose I must have made it down to the pier, but I didn’t even mention it in my journal!

I returned to London that afternoon feeling much happier with the world, and even popped over to Buckingham Palace to have a look at the outside, and went inside Westminster Cathedral, which I’m almost certain I had confused with Westminster Abbey at that point. The weird thing is that I don’t think I’ve ever been back to Westminster Cathedral since, even to walk past (which is frankly all I would be doing anyway, since I’m not religious), so I’m not sure how I managed to find it in the first place! I still do love Brighton – I don’t think I could live there, but I like to make the trip at least once or twice every summer to grab a cone from Boho Gelato, which didn’t exist at the time of my first visit, and walk along the pier, though not at the same time. I learned that lesson the hard way after a jerk seagull snatched my cone out of my hand and ate it in front of me with all his jerk seagull friends.

In London, I had moved from my original hostel (which was near Victoria) to one in Bloomsbury, just across from the British Museum, so of course I felt compelled to spend a day there, and found it memorable mainly for the Ancient Egyptian collection (nowhere near as crowded in those days) and the incredible pain my feet were in by the end of it. This was also the day I discovered ICCo, aka Goodge Street Pizza, which is still one of my standbys if I need a cheap quick meal in the area. I liked it so much I went back the next day and accidentally made a date with a guy who worked there (he didn’t speak much English so I was just smiling and nodding and didn’t realise what I’d agreed to until it was too late) and subsequently stood him up, since I still technically had a (awful) boyfriend, so that put an abrupt end to ICCo, at least until a year later when I actually moved here and renewed my acquaintance with the place, which became my Friday evening treat to myself after class. The guy who asked me out was definitely still working there as of a couple of years ago, but I’m pretty positive he doesn’t remember the incident by now!

I also visited the Tower of London (for the one and only time. I got angry about how basic the Beefeater tour was. I was bitching in my journal because it cost £13, which to me seemed unbelievably expensive. I looked up how much it costs now and guess what it is?! £26! Of course, because the pound has gotten so weak over the years, it probably works out to a similar amount in dollars) and attempted to visit Whitechapel on account of my fascination at the time with Jack the Ripper. I’m not sure what I was hoping to see (Victorian London, alive and well?), but it certainly wasn’t what I got. All my journal says on the matter is “Whitechapel sucks.” I also made it to the Tate Modern and remarked on taking the Tube back, so I’m a little confused how I got to Tower Hill and Whitechapel in the first place. Surely I didn’t walk?! I definitely would not have taken a bus, so I’m a bit perplexed.

Day five was my last in London, and I spent it exploring Camden, which I loved in all my innocence of youth. I bought a horrible cheap black and white striped dress that I thought looked amazing, and a pink and black striped hoodie, both of which you’ll see pop up in pictures later on. I recall that I ended up in Camden because I was trying to walk to the British Library navigating solely by those arrow signs, and the signs crapped out at one point, so I just kept going until I hit Camden (I probably would have been disappointed with the BL back then anyway. It’s not much to look at from the street, and King’s Cross was pretty grim in those days). I also popped back to Westminster for some photos (I seem to have gotten Westminster Abbey and Cathedral straight by then) and prepared for my trip on the Eurostar the next morning, which I believe still departed from Waterloo at that point. My journal records that I bought a white chocolate Magnum for dinner because I couldn’t find an Indian restaurant or chippy to eat at. Must not have been trying very hard!

Sorry if this post was a bit uneventful, but after my first day, I did basically just have a nice time in London, so there’s not much to be said about it, other than the wry observations of a hardened Londoner looking back at my youthful naïveté. I also wasn’t interacting much with my fellow backpackers at that stage, so I don’t even have any stories to tell about other travellers.  I think it’ll get more interesting as things go wrong, so hopefully my next post, which will include my journey to Venice via Paris, and Venice itself, will be more exciting! Thanks for bearing with my reminiscences!

 

EuroTrip 2007: London Part 1

So, as promised, I am going to take you through my first trip to Europe, aided by a journal I kept at the time. I do have some photos, which I’ll be including where relevant, but not many. I don’t particularly like taking photos even now, though I’ve gotten better at it as phone technology has improved and made taking photos less obtrusive. But back then, with a bulky digital camera that just screamed “tourist!”, I absolutely hated it. I only have 59 photos from my entire six weeks in Europe, so this is going to be quite a wordy re-telling, for which I apologise in advance.

But first, I think I need to provide a little background to explain why this trip was such a big deal for me (and sorry, it’s going to get kind of depressing for a bit).  In 2007, my life was not great – in fact, that’s an understatement. I was completely miserable. I’d finished my BA the year before, and was basically just drifting at that point. I’d worked as a manager of an ice cream shop through some of high school and all of university, and I just kept my job after I graduated because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with myself. Also, I had never learned how to drive (it’s a long story), and public transport where I lived was basically non-existent, so I wasn’t really sure what else I could do. However, the ice cream shop ended up going out of business in late 2006, due to the owner going bankrupt. He was a disgusting pervert who sexually harassed all of his employees (mostly teenage girls), so it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person, but I did genuinely love that job. Pervert boss lived over an hour away, so I only had to see him once or twice a month, and the rest of the time was fabulous. I loved making ice cream and decorating cakes (what I lacked in skill, I made up for in enthusiasm), so I was quite upset when I found myself out of a job.

I was still living at home (in the suburbs between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio) and still dating my horrible boyfriend who I’d been with since high school. My relationship with my parents was extremely strained at the time, especially after I lost my job and failed to immediately look for a new one. Instead, I attempted to get my parents off my back by applying to some Master’s programmes for the following year, but my heart wasn’t really in it. I desperately wanted to move out, but I couldn’t afford to do so unless I moved in with horrible boyfriend, and though I wasn’t yet smart enough to break up with him at this point, I was smart enough to know that if I did move in with him, I’d never get out of the relationship. I was also desperate to move away from Ohio, but just didn’t know how to make it happen. I’d go for long walks at night, and just dream about walking forever into the moonlight.

Once I had submitted all my Master’s applications, I needed something else to do with my time (because it was that or work somewhere within a couple of miles from my house, which basically meant fast food establishments or retail), and I hit upon the perfect idea – why not plan a trip to Europe? I’d always wanted to go to Europe, but at that point in my life, my only experiences with foreign travel had been Niagara Falls and Tijuana, which don’t really count. However, when people would ask me why I hadn’t learned to drive, I’d always reply, “I don’t have to, I’m going to move to Europe.” I was fascinated with the continent without really knowing very much about it, other than what I’d gleaned from obsessively watching every episode of Samantha Brown’s Passport to Europe. But I had $30,000 burning a hole in my bank account, saved from five years of working nearly full time (I only had classes three days a week, so I’d work the other four just to get out of the house) with basically no expenses other than school books, clothes, and going to punk shows (even though I didn’t have the best relationship with my parents, at least they did let me live at home for free, otherwise there’s no way I would have been able to save so much. I only made $8 an hour), so I could definitely afford to do it, and being unemployed, I had nothing but time on my hands. The next step was to try to persuade someone to go with me, but since jerk boyfriend didn’t like me having my own friends (presumably because they might tell me what a dick he was), my options were basically him or one of our few mutual friends, and when everyone ended up flaking out, I thought, “screw it, I’ll go alone.” So I did (except for an interlude where my mother and aunt insisted on meeting up with me in Italy, which I’ll get to in a later post).

After months of planning (much harder in those days because whilst we did have internet, it certainly wasn’t to the extent we do now, and I was sharing a computer with my entire family. I still relied heavily on my trusty copy of Let’s Go Europe 2007 to find hostels and things to do. Seeing that cover brings back so many memories!), making frantic calls to the State Department to try to get my passport in time (I’d ordered it with months to spare, but this was around the time when Canada announced Americans would soon need a passport to cross the border, so they were processing way more applications than normal, and had a major backlog), and arguing with my family and boyfriend, none of whom were happy about me going, I finally left in late May, shiny new passport in hand. Unfortunately, at the time I got my passport picture taken, I was in the middle of an ill-advised experiment with blonde dreadlocks, and even though I had given up and picked them all out before leaving for Europe, my passport would bear the evidence of this disastrous look until 2017! (See photo below to get an idea of how much this look did not work for me.) First stop, London, the plan being that I could ease myself in slowly in an English-speaking country. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out that way.

Having never really experienced jet lag (other than a bit after a trip to California, but everyone knows going west to east is the worst part, and then I was just heading back home, so it was fine), I was totally unprepared for what hit me upon arriving in London after a sleepless night on a plane. To quote my journal entry my first day there, “I am miserable! If I could go back home, I would. Got to London surprisingly quickly, but it took me an hour to find the hostel. I thought I would die. I got here at 10 but they wouldn’t let me into a room until 2, so I wandered around looking for food. I went to a Sainsbury’s – the highlight of my day was the candy. Hula Hoops and Toffee Poppets are also rather good [yep, that was my first time eating Hula Hoops. God knows how many thousands of Hoops I’ve eaten since then (only boring red packet though, I don’t like the other flavours), and I wouldn’t even say they’re one of my favourite crisps]. I then came back and slept in the lobby briefly, then spent an increasingly frustrating hour looking for a phone, which ended with me locking myself in the bathroom and sobbing. I took a three hour nap and am now awake, bored, and miserable. Everyone has a friend but me.” Yes kids, I did not have a mobile back then. Honestly, I was fairly behind the times, as most people did by 2007, but this was still primarily a flip phone era, and certainly not one where WiFi was free and plentiful. I was a bit of a Luddite, and was opposed to having a phone for some odd reason, so I was still relying on good old payphones and internet cafes for this trip, and as I was soon to discover, those famous red telephone boxes were basically toilets for rough sleepers and a place for prostitutes to advertise their services, so were best avoided at all costs.

Given that I very much consider London my home now, and it is one of my favourite cities in the world, I think it’s kind of funny how much I hated it when I first saw it. I left this out of my journal entry, but I remember that I also almost got hit by a cab when crossing the road (presumably because I was looking in the wrong direction) and the cabbie stopped and screamed at me and it made me cry. I did a lot of crying that first day. Would things get better? Well, I’ve done an awful lot of rambling on in this post already, so come back next week to find out! And thanks for sticking with me if you made it through this block of text!