Columbus, OH: Thurber House

Despite what I said in the last post about being happy it’s finally autumn, the truth is a little more complex. Even though I do love it, fall is always a difficult season for me because spending it in the UK just makes me homesick for fall in the US. Since I hadn’t made it home in October for a couple years, I was planning on going this year…until I received a job offer. Though I was excited and grateful for the opportunity, I was feeling down about not being able to go home, until I realised that I had two weeks before I had to start, so I booked an extremely last minute (but surprisingly cheap) flight to Cleveland, and settled for being there in the latter half of September instead of October. Which was basically fine, except for the weather, which climbed above 90° Fahrenheit for all except the last few days of my trip. I do not cope well with heat. Nonetheless, I had a lovely time (thankfully, everywhere in Ohio has air conditioning, except my brother’s car, as we discovered to our dismay one extremely hot day), and even managed to visit some new-to-me historic homes and museums. The first of these is Thurber House, in Columbus.


I find myself stopping by Columbus pretty much every trip home now in order to visit my uncle and his partner and their two adorable dogs (and eat frozen custard with them at Whit’s), so I’m starting to get a good idea of the museum scene down there, and this time decided to finally visit Thurber House, because it’s closed during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, which is exactly when I’m normally visiting Ohio, so I don’t usually get the opportunity. James Thurber was an American writer, illustrator, and humourist in the first half of the 20th century, and although he was nationally famous in the 1930s and ’40s (he wrote for the New Yorker, and is the author of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”) I’m not sure how well known his work is these days outside Ohio. I definitely remember reading some of James Thurber’s pieces at school, though I recall his illustrations more vividly than the stories themselves. Even though he was blind in one eye as the result of a childhood accident involving an arrow (ouch!), and went blind in the other one later in life, he created the most charming illustrations (especially of dogs) to accompany his humorous stories, some of which are brought to life in statue form in the garden.


Thurber House is where James Thurber lived with his family between 1913-1917, while he attended OSU, and it is open daily between 1-4. They offer guided tours for a small fee on Sundays, but the rest of the time the house is free to visit via self-guided tour, with the use of a detailed brochure to help you along. Not that you really need it, because the house isn’t terribly big, but there is a lot to read inside, particularly on the ground floor. There was also an exhibition of Funky Winkerbean comic strips when I was there, which despite its stupid name, is one of the most depressing comic strips ever, but its creator, Tom Batiuk, is from Ohio (Akron, actually), which is probably why they were there.


Anyway, the signs in one room contained information about Thurber’s life, and the house (it’s even been visited by ghost hunters, who claimed they verified Thurber’s somewhat facetious belief that there was a ghost in the house (see Thurber’s story “The Night the Ghost Got In” for details (but be aware that the link goes to a pdf, as that was the only place I could find the story for free))), as well as copies of some of Thurber’s best-loved short stories. I’m particularly partial to the one about “Muggs, the Dog That Bit People” mainly on account of Thurber’s drawing of Muggs, which was also available in t-shirt form in the gift shop.


Upstairs was a little odd. Some of the rooms were done up roughly as they would have been when the Thurbers lived there, but others were now office space, and there were people sitting inside them working (Thurber House is also a non-profit literary centre). Though we were encouraged by the woman at admissions to go inside the offices and look around, and even ask questions of the people working there if we wanted to, I felt awkward doing that, so I just peered inside as discreetly as I could, and then headed for the rooms without people in them, which included a room full of Thurber memorabilia: manuscripts, illustrations, etc.


I also liked Thurber’s old bedroom, which is fortunately not an office either. It had some of his old class pictures in it, and the closet was special too, because it was filled with the signatures of visiting authors. I only saw a few names that I recognised, but the sign telling visitors not to autograph it unless they are asked made me want to develop a professional writing career simply so I can put my name in there when I return. Apparently some of the writers have even spent the night in James Thurber’s bed! The Thurber House also supports a writer-in-residence; the top floor of the house has been turned into an apartment so writers can stay and work there, which I think is pretty cool (even (especially?) if there is a ghost living up there). I spent some time looking at the walls next to the stairs and in the upstairs bathroom, which were covered with photographs of famous visitors to the house, including Burgess Meredith (who was from Cleveland!), who I think was adorable because of his work in The Twilight Zone and Grumpy Old Men (I can’t even watch the second one all the way through because he dies in it).


The shop had some good t-shirt designs (Marcus bought the aforementioned Muggs one, I declined because they only had basic man-cut ones, and I’m not a fan of the neckline or thick fabric of those), but the most charming part of the museum was undoubtedly the garden(s). The one behind the house was full of dog statues, and there was a unicorn in the garden in front of the house, based on another of Thurber’s stories, which was written on a plaque by the statue.


Although the office situation was a little bit outside my comfort zone (though I’m sure the people working there were perfectly friendly, I am just not the type to barge into someone’s office and start making conversation), the rest of the house, and the gardens especially, were a delight!  I appreciate that it is free to visit, and I very much enjoyed learning more about James Thurber and his stories (and I really must get my hands on one of his story compilations, I want to read more!). 3.5/5, well worth the visit for the statues alone!

Prague: Franz Kafka Museum

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Kafka’s another one of those authors that I feel I should know better than I actually do.  I have a vague recollection of reading “The Metamorphosis” at some point, but none of his other works.  Nonetheless, the English major in me clearly likes the idea of visiting literary museums, and I’d heard the Franz Kafka Museum was (appropriately enough) meant to be rather surreal, so I was game.

The museum was clearly aimed at tourists, with a pricy (by Czech standards) 200 CZK (£5.50) admission fee, and guidebooks available in a range of languages, but everything in the museum is translated into English, so English speakers can safely skip the guidebooks (even though the lady at the desk may try to sell you one).  Other than the attempted upsell on the guidebooks, I quite liked the shop (across the courtyard from the museum, it’s where you have to go first to buy tickets), as they had an excellent range of postcards, much better than any I’d seen elsewhere in Prague (albeit with a price tag to match).  I also loved the “fountain” right in front of the museum; there seems to be some kind of phallic fixation in Prague, and this fountain was no exception.  The man on the left had a rotating pelvis, so that his pee-stream was directed from side to side. I was so impressed, I took a video (you can find it in my old posts on Instagram if you’re interested).

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There were no pictures allowed in the museum, so photos of the courtyard and of one of the passages into the museum will have to suffice.  Basically, you immediately head upstairs when entering the museum, and go into a dark room (seriously, if you wandered too far into the edges of the museum, you risked smashing into the weirdly shaped walls, it was so dark) that details Kafka’s childhood growing up in the Jewish quarter of Prague.  I was relieved (literally) to find a bathroom in the corner, as free public toilets are hard to come by in Prague; unfortunately, there was only one unisex stall, so I ended up waiting for quite a while to use it (please, add some more stalls!).  After that ordeal was over, I was able to read about some of Kafka’s friends (fellow intellectuals), and then move into the next room to learn about Kafka’s romances courtesy of some hanging shelves that gave me motion sickness.  For real, they swayed back and forth like we were on a ship or something, and trying to read them was slightly nausea-inducing, which was a shame, because they were interesting.  Finally, I was most keen to learn about the progression of Kafka’s tuberculosis (before visiting the museum, I wasn’t even aware that he was consumptive), since tuberculosis is one of my favourite diseases.  Yes, I know it’s no laughing matter to the people who contract it (and it’s one of the top killers throughout human history), but I find it fascinating (and I still maintain that the only time Val Kilmer has ever looked good was when he was Doc Holliday dying from TB in Tombstone…I think I just have a thing for gaunt, pasty men).

There was a red-light infused portal at the end of the floor with steps leading down that I joked was the descent into hell, and I suppose it was, in a way.  This was the point where things got surreal (as I’d been hoping all along); really it dealt with the inspiration behind some of Kafka’s books and stories, but it did so in a rather fantastical way.  The gallery was basically configured like a giant filing cabinet that stretched on for the length of a couple rooms, and included constantly ringing phones and jabbering voices to give the visitor a real taste of the bureaucratic experience.  I could see how working in such a place (even a less exaggerated version) could be enough to drive one to the brink of madness (which is why I’ve always been terrified of office jobs (though it’s not like I’ve had much luck with non-office jobs either)).  There was also an odd little film in an all-white room that I think depicted a sketch coming to life (Kafka was a doodler, and I really liked his pieces of artwork that were in the museum.  I forgot to check if they had any prints in the gift shop, but I didn’t notice any).


The museum finished, rather lamely, with a boring round room that had early editions of some of his books, kind of a let down after all the surrealism (which also included a section about an imaginary torture device that Kafka dreamed about and used in one of his stories; the mock-up of it was really rather horrible).  I was a bit annoyed that no one had bothered to check our tickets at any point, but I would imagine they do sometimes, so I certainly wouldn’t recommend trying to sneak in without one, pricy (relatively speaking) though it may have been.

I do wish the museum was just a bit cheaper, but by British standards, especially that lame-ass Lamb House that the National Trust charges £6 for, I don’t think £5.50 was that unreasonable.  I really enjoyed all the surreal stuff, and I learned enough about Kafka’s life to make me interested in reading more of his work, though I’m still not convinced existentialism is my thing.  To be honest, the whole reason I have any kind of fondness for Kafka is because I read Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore in my early 20s when I was going through some emotional stuff, as people in their early 20s tend to do, and I loved it to bits and memorised a bunch of quotes from it, which maybe says more about my partiality for Murakami than Kafka, but it was still nice to find out more about him, especially as his life seemed so closely tied to the city of Prague itself (he once said something about all his life being contained within a certain square within Prague)…in this way I suppose he was similar to James Ensor and Ostend.  At any rate, I think the Kafka Museum is worth a look if you have literary inclinations/interests.  And definitely at least stop by to check out the fountain in the courtyard; it was one of my favourite things in Prague!  3/5.


Broadstairs, Kent: Dickens House Museum

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Dahl’s Chickens strikes again!  As soon as it starts to warm up, in addition to ditching socks as soon as possible (I hate when my feet are all hot and constrained), I want to go to the seaside.  This is obviously a relatively new phenomenon for me, as the lakeside was the closest I got as a kid, and if you’ve ever been swimming in Lake Erie, you will understand why it is not that thrilling (dead fish, insanely high bacteria counts, random floating garbage).  I certainly don’t swim in open water these days (in addition to being terrified of crabs and things, I am not a good swimmer and fear death), but I’ll happily go wading if there’s a nice sandy beach, and it’s even better if there’s somewhere to procure ice cream nearby.  Which brought me to Broadstairs.

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Broadstairs is a fair drive for a day trip (over two hours from SW London), so we saved it for a bank holiday weekend (yeah, this post has been sitting around for a while too).  It is in Thanet, so we were slightly apprehensive that it might be somehow “UKIPy,” (which I don’t know, it might well be), but to all appearances it is just a nice early Victorian seaside town built on cliffs, from which you descend some stairs to reach a beautiful sandy beach (with very cold water, but hey, it was still May).  Though I was freaked out to see some crab bits laying on the sand, it was otherwise very clean, and we strolled for quite a while before grabbing an ice cream from Morelli’s (the most expensive damn ice cream; this was beyond London pricing, and waaaayyyyy more than it should have been at a seaside town.  And there was no pistachio, which never bodes well).  Of course, it’d be remiss of me to not take in a museum as well, which brings me back to Dahl’s Chickens, er, Charles Dickens (yep, I’m still using that BFG joke).

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Charles Dickens was a regular visitor to Broadstairs from 1837-1859, and befriended a local lady there, a Miss Mary Pearson Strong, who became the inspiration for Betsy Trotwood in David CopperfieldI have never read David Copperfield, but apparently Betsy Trotwood had some sort of problem with donkeys using the street in front of her house, like the real life Miss Strong.  At any rate, her house has been turned into the Dickens House Museum (not to be confused with the Dickens Museum in London), complete with a parlour where Dickens once took tea with Miss Strong, and can be seen for £3.75.

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Neither the house nor the museum are particularly large, but there was a charming volunteer there on the day we visited who told us the history of the house and just generally made us feel welcome, which was much appreciated.  The main room downstairs holds a desk actually purchased by Dickens, a chest given to him on one of his trips to America, and a number of pictures of a rather dashing young Dickens (as we learned at the other Dickens Museum, he was something of a dandy, and favoured bold waistcoats even into his later years).

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There were also a couple small back rooms filled with maps of London and more pictures, but not a whole lot of information.  What was there was mostly written on the pictures themselves in prohibitively tiny text (my boyfriend remarked that he wished he brought his glasses, but my vision’s perfect (not to brag, it’s thanks to LASIK), so I did alright), and was really too lengthy to stand there and read the whole of it.  I do quite like old-fashioned museums with piles of text, but sometimes it could do with being broken up a bit more, and this was one of those times.

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The parlour in question was roped off, so you could only peer at it from the corner of the room, but it contained an unusually comfy looking chaise longue, and seemed like it would be a nice place to take tea (though I think it is a re-creation done with period furniture, and not the actual furnishings Dickens would have used).  There were a couple more rooms upstairs, but these were largely filled with random objects (I guess just common objects in a Victorian household, not sure if there was a specific Dickens connection), and this is where more signage would have definitely come in handy, as there was only a board listing the names of everything, but not what they were used for (and a very confused German lady kept asking her English travelling companion what each thing was, because it wasn’t obvious, even to native English speakers).

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I have to confess that the museum wasn’t terribly comprehensive or informative (a framed poster from a 1970 edition of the Sunday Times was the most helpful thing there, and though I enjoyed reading Dickens’s (largely negative) comments on America, the museum really shouldn’t be relying on a 45 year old newspaper insert), but it was quaint, and I feel bad being too harsh on it because the volunteers were so nice, which goes a long way with me (having encountered unpleasant or uninterested museum staff on far too many occasions).  Besides, it was fairly inexpensive (as were the postcards, when we asked the volunteer how much they cost, we thought he said 50p, and he was shocked when that’s what we tried to give him (“50p?!  No, of course not, they’re only 15p!”), when really I’ve paid 60p and up for postcards some places, so 50p would have not at all seemed out of line, though of course 15 is even better!), so I have no regrets about visiting, even if it wasn’t quite as informative as I would have liked.  2.5/5.

And I think Broadstairs is probably worth a visit in its own right if you manage to hit it on a warm day, as the beach is lovely, and there seemed to be quite a few independent bookshops and tearooms scattered around its narrow streets.  They also celebrate Dickens in the form of a festival every June, so it may be worth going for that if you’re keener than I am on Dickens (in which case you might get more out of the museum than I did as well).

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London: Carlyle’s House


As you may have surmised by now, I embark on a number of food-related quests in London. Most of them revolve around trying to track down much missed American foodstuffs, but an ongoing one is based around the ubiquitous croissant.  I’ve had many good croissants here, but I want to find the best one.  Poilane seemed like a contender, by virtue of actually being French; the only trouble was the need to justify (to the hermit in me who balks at leaving the house for anything unnecessary) venturing to Chelsea for something other than pastry (delicious and buttery though it may be). I gave consideration to the National Army Museum (which I will visit, one of these days), but Carlyle’s House won out in the end.

The Carlyles are a couple you can’t really avoid hearing about if you’re keen on either Victorian Britain, or the history of domesticity (I’m keen on both).  Jane Carlyle was one of those epistolary types (rather like Lady Mary) who left behind a sheaf of letters and a diary, which are often referenced in books about the history of the home, as she spent quite a lot of time bitching about her servants.  Thomas Carlyle, her husband, was known as the “sage of Chelsea,” primarily for writing books on topics like the French Revolution and Frederick the Great, which almost no one reads today because they are nearly incomprehensible (or so I’m told).  Essentially, they were famous because they were well placed in literary society, and enjoyed entertaining, so that everyone who was anyone in Victorian Britain came to visit them.  Also, they tended to make catty remarks about all their acquaintances, which is the main reason I like them.

The house is kind of a pain to get to, the nearest stations being South Kensington and Sloane Square, which are both a 15-20 minute walk.  I chose to go to Sloane Square route so as to pass Poilane, which meant a long stroll down the King’s Road where I was sidetracked by a random street market (I acquired some cheese bread that, whilst tasty, made my purse emit a disturbing miasma which I was concerned other people in the house could smell) and down to Cheyne Row (pronounced Chainee, apparently).  Obviously, it’s all rich people that live there now, but back in the Carlyle’s day, it was fairly cheap real estate.

Carlyle’s House still has an old-fashioned bell-pull (you pull a little knob out, which causes a bell to ring inside) in lieu of a doorbell to summon someone to let you in, which I found exciting. Admission was £5.10 for non-National Trust members, and I suspect they don’t take cards, though I could be wrong.  The lady working there gave me a brief introduction and then left me to wander around on my own (which is grand, guided tours usually bore me).  She described the house as a bit of a time capsule, with almost all the original furnishings, and it indeed had a hushed atmosphere (amidst the very creaky floorboards).  I don’t think I was necessarily the target audience for the house (judging from my slightly stilted welcome, although maybe my purse odour had something to do with that), as I was a good 30 years younger than everyone else there, but I’ve often felt like an old person inside a young person’s body, so I had no issue with that.  I hold out a vague hope that perhaps when I actually am old, my cantankerousness will be appreciated and I’ll have friends, but I suspect that cliques exist even amongst the elderly, and I’ll still be a misfit.  Anyway, it’s probably not a good place to bring children, as it is just a load of things to read, and antique furniture they’d likely just want to smear their sticky fingers over.

The house is a typical tall yet narrow Georgian, with only a few rooms per floor.  You begin in the parlour and work your way up (or down, to the kitchen).  Spread throughout the house are informational sheets and lots and lots of books (both by and about the Carlyles) and a selection of chairs where you can sit and read said books.  As I tend to share Thomas Carlyle’s views on reading in public libraries (something to the effect of being constantly annoyed by people sniffling and coughing), I skipped the books with the intention of just checking out a collection of their letters from my local library to read at home.  Actually, because he disliked the Reading Room at the British Museum so much, Thomas helped to create the London Library, which I aspire to someday joining (if someone wants to give me the £460 for yearly membership to help me achieve my dream, it would be much appreciated!).  I did read all the information sheets though, which provided a lot of background on the Carlyles.  My favourite things were all the quotes placed around the house; mostly snarky comments on other writers (none of which I can find online for some reason, but trust me, Orwell didn’t call Thomas the “master of belittlement” for nothing).  Jane held her own with the insults, and also believed firmly in the importance of healthy bowels (“most of life’s problems can be traced to the bowels”); she sounds like a woman after my own heart.

The rooms are well-preserved, full of charming furniture that I definitely covet for myself, including a decoupage screen Jane made.  I did find the pattern on the carpet rather dizzying however, and nearly tripped when walking up the stairs.  In addition to the parlour, you can go in Jane’s bedroom, a sort of living room/library (where Thomas died, wooo, spooky), and Thomas’s attic study. The attic was set up more like a museum, with some glass display cases, but everywhere else was arranged true to the period.


You can also go into the garden (which is the only place where you can take pictures), where Thomas hung out and smoked his pipe.  I have the feeling that sort of thing would be frowned upon today, which is a bit of a shame as one of the best memories I have from the house I used to live in is hanging out in the garden during a party and smoking a pipe (of tobacco, don’t get excited) with my flatmates.  Very convivial, and that sort of thing.  The garden wasn’t terribly exciting, but the house was really enjoyable.

I know I’ve had some harsh words for the National Trust in the past (I believe I referred to most of their properties as “mediocre”), but the Carlyle’s House might help to bring me around.  It had a lovely atmosphere, and all the information provided made it actually interesting, though I have to think it was helped along mainly by the Carlyle’s wit.  I know I certainly want to do more research about the couple after visiting, which I think is what you want from a museum; to be inspired to learn more. Oh, and that croissant from Poilane was pretty damn tasty too, in case you were wondering. 4/5 for both.