Swedish Meatballs, Venetian Spritzes, and Solo Female Travel

10 days, 6 cities, 4 countries, and 145 miles of walking later, I’m back in London.

It was an incredible whirlwind of travel days— from Denmark to Sweden to Belgium to Italy— so much so that when I’d tell people in hostels about my travels they’d make fun of me for never staying in any place for too long. Each day worked quite similarly, though I was displaced and in a new city almost every 48 hours; wake up before the sun rose, get coffee, put some gangster rap on my headphones, and get right down to it.

 In Copenhagen I wanted to see (1) the Nyhavn Canal and (2) The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, as well as what I was told was the *second* most disappointing tourist attraction in all of Europe: (3) The Little Mermaid Statue.

In Sweden, I went straight for (1) The Meatballs. (Yes, Swedish Meatballs are an institution and deserve to be in capital letters).

img_2567

In Brussels I wanted to see the (1) The Grand Place, (2) The Musée Magritte Museum (department of redundancy department?), and what I was told was the *first and foremost*  disappointing tourist attraction in all of Europe: (3) The Mannekin Pis. I also, naturally, came for the (4) waffles and (5) chocolate at the legendary Mokafé.

In Florence I managed to check off (1) The Duomo, (2) Michelangelo’s David, (3) The Uffizi Gallery, (4) Piazza Michelangelo, and (5) (possibly the most important of them all) my first ever cannoli.

In Venice it was all about (1) Carnevale and (2) gelato. My personal favorite, however, was (3) the view from the tower of San Giorgio Maggiore. That was (4) euros well spent to get to the top.

While I had originally planned this journey to be a solo-trip, I was overjoyed to find out that I would have friends along the way in Copenhagen and Florence. In Copenhagen, we explored every frigid corner of the city and tried donuts galore…

While in Florence I enjoyed the sunset wine-drinking and photoshoot at the astoundingly beautiful Piazza Michelangelo, among the hundreds of other instances where I got to soak in the Italian wine, food, and culture.

However, there were a few days where traveling by myself was a necessity. I have no problem with this— I’ve traveled solo before, and to be honest, these trips have been some of the happiest times of my life. I believe that everyone should take a trip by themselves at some point. I always like to reflect on the notion that, “When you’re traveling with someone else, you share each discovery, but when you are alone, you have to carry each experience with you like a secret, something you have to write on your heart, because there’s no other way to preserve it” (Shauna Niequist). I love the solitude in a strange place, I love the mystery of city streets, and I love trying to figure them out by myself as well as with the people I meet along the way. But no matter how freeing the experience, I found out recently that there are limitations to women traveling by themselves.

I’ve been listening to all the preventative babbles for years— “wear a fake wedding ring!” “never smile in public!” “always travel with a man!”— but had determined it to be something that would never concern me unless I went looking for trouble. I was street-savvy.I never strayed from public places or populated squares. I knew what I was doing. Yet among all the confetti and the music and smiling papier mâché masks of Carnevale was the first time I truly felt like an outsider, an easy target.

Several times an hour I was approached by tourists and local men alike; “Sweetie, are you alone? Where’s your husband? Let me show you around…” and every time managed to escape with an on-the-spot plan; “Je ne parle pas Anglais,” “No English, sorry,” “My friend is waiting for me…” I’d always push away and into the celebrating throngs. Although with one or two persistent followers (one, in fact, who briefly tried to pull me into his car on the street), I managed to befriend a few members of the Italian Carabinieri to send the message across. ‘Safety’ had to be perpetually activated at the back of my mind, and it was exhausting.

I haven’t let this negative female travel culture color my experience of any of the cities that I’ve been to— after all, London or New York City isn’t very different in this respect. As Shirley MacLaine once mused, “The more I travelled the more I realized that fear makes strangers of people who should be friends;” and I truly don’t want this to become the case as I continue to travel. It’s important to find a balance between being social and being safe, and every city is different. While I was aware of this before, I’m even more so now. It’s something I’ve learned on my solo journey, which is arguably the whole point of traveling to begin with; in other words, “I learned courage and I learned it myself” (Ann Stirk).

I guess the point of this post is just to vent my frustration that it is a shame this stigma for solo female travelers still exists. As long as women are confident, prepared, and aware of their surroundings, being alone should simply not be an issue (at least in most of Europe’s tourist destinations). Men travel alone. Women travel alone. It shouldn’t make a difference, but society tells us that it does. And that’s only something that will bother you if you let it.

I’ll just leave you with this to help you navigate the choppy waters…

5998127-i-am-not-afraid-of-storms-louisa-may-alcott.jpg

Seeking Shelter in Edinburgh

Sipping coffee at The Elephant House (where J.K. Rowling penned the first book of the “Harry Potter” series), I realize that I haven’t written in a while. Not like anything I post on this blog could possibly compare to anything J.K. Rowling has composed, whether it was the scribbles on a tea-stained napkin in this very café, or the print in the 450 million pages of literary history’s most relentlessly page-turned books. My stories won’t be anywhere near as marvelous or magical as the characters’ at Hogwarts, but traveling my way through Europe seems to be the only way for a mere muggle like myself to even come close. So here we go. “Day Tripping,” Volume III: “Maddie Day and the Scotsman’s Scone.”

(… That probably went over your head, but to clarify, I just tried to rhyme with “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and failed miserably).

Anyway.

01D559EC-336D-4B12-8CB3-E53A222578E8.jpgHeld up to all the things I’ve seen and done in the U.K. so far, Edinburgh simply cannot compare. “This is a city of shifting light, of changing skies, of sudden vistas… a city so beautiful it breaks the heart again and again,” wrote Alexander McCall, a crime and drama author who, like Ms. Rowling, steeped his stories in the Scottish countryside. And it’s true; after ambling across the cobblestoned streets of the Royal Mile and stumbling up the muddied crags of Arthur’s Seat for the view, I can think of no other city that has a beauty or a beating heart like Edinburgh.

So here I’ll try to conjure some of Scotland for you, because whether you know it or not this country has had a huge impact on your life— starting with literature, and ending with legend.

The Elephant House
is an understated and unglamorous place. It’s perched on the far end of the George IV Bridge amidst crumbling local pizzerias and patisseries, little more than a red accented storefront that’s all too easy to miss (unless you know what you’re looking for). The place hasn’t let fame go to its head, yet tourists’ faces float like ghosts in the misty windows, trying to steal a glance of one of the rickety wooden tables at which Ms. Rowling might have penned her own wizarding world back in the 1990s.

16409046_1216866241741939_1407277389_o.jpg

This relationship between author and café does little to fight against the stereotypical behavior of writers, but for Rowling coming to The Elephant House had a very practical end; paying for a coffee and writing in the café was far cheaper than having to heat her apartment in the merciless Edinburgh winters. And as a woman looking to make the most of what little means she had, Ms. Rowling harnessed the inspiration that her city gave her in a way that few others ever could, and made unprecedented literary history. In many ways, The Elephant House is a symbol of the “rock bottom” that drove Ms. Rowling to write, just as the Harry Potter series has become an icon of coming-of-age in the darkest of times.

Edinburgh itself has had such a journey as well, rising from the earth despite endless plague and power struggles. And one can see that just beyond the tinkling bell of the front door of The Elephant House, the hot cuppas brewed at the counter; it is at the backside of the café where not only the sorcery of the Potters, but also the supernatural of Scotland’s history took root.

16388455_1216866285075268_465299899_o.jpgResting immediately under the back windows of The Elephant House is the muddied soil of The Greyfriars Kirkyard. It is here where over half a million bodies have been buried since the early 17th century, ranging from Edinburgh’s wealthiest, memorialized lords to a horde of nameless plague victims and paupers. It is said that so many people have been buried in The Kirkyard that the ground has been raised to form a quite literal “mountain” of the dead; the earth is so potently packed with bodies that over 2% of the soil on which visitors walk is estimated to be particles of human remains. (Needless to say, I thoroughly bleached both my shoes and my brain of this fact after returning from the cemetery).

This Kirkyard also houses gravestone with names that may ring familiar to the modern reader: Hermione Granger, Ronald Weasley, a “Professor” McGonagall— and even that of Voldemort himself (or rather, a Mr. Thomas Riddell). Just beyond the ominous wall of The Kirkyard also lies what is thought to be the template for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, George Heriot’s School. In the early days of the cemetery, people would argue that the high walls were not meant to keep the children from escaping school walls, but rather to hide from Edinburgh citizens the magic that was taking place within (i.e. “a strange sport involving the riding of broomsticks and the throwing of balls through hoops”).

16409069_1216866588408571_226373759_o.jpg

What this graveyard is most known for, however, isn’t the innocent magic of a certain book series— it is Sir George Mackenzie’s Poltergeist. While the average person may not recognize the ghost by this name, you might recall some of its others. The gruesome poltergeist is the original subject of virtually any modern horror, inspiring most notably Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” and Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”

For over two hundred years the ghost has been one of, if not the most recorded subject of paranormal activity in the world, but the haunting began with a renewed fervor in 1998 when a homeless man decided to take shelter from the rain in Sir George Mackenzie’s tomb. After breaking the heavily fortified lock on the door the homeless man allegedly opened one of the coffins resting in the tomb, and ended up plummeting through the hollow floor and landing in mass plague grave, where still-decomposing bodies had been disposed of and covered up in a hurry centuries before. The homeless man escaped, terrified, into the night— and it seemed that some spirit was able to follow him out. In the weeks subsequent the grave’s desecration, people started getting hurt. From over 500 cases of scratching, burning, and bruising to even several accounts of strangling, the Council of Edinburgh and The Kirkyard alike determined that nobody’s safety could be guaranteed near the tomb, and sealed it off completely to outsiders.

That doesn’t stop people from trying to enter the tomb. Despite the locks and chains that bind the gates closed or the terrifying tales that scare away tourists, the desperate homeless of Edinburgh have no other choice of where to take shelter. In an interview with the Edinburgh Evening News, a Kirkyard tour guide comments on how the shut off “Street of Death” that houses the poltergeist also houses the poor; “They still come in,” he admits. “Hard to imagine but they’ve nowhere else to go.” When people have been driven to such ends, I believe it’s much more scary than a ghost story.

Bear with me, here.

Especially now, considering the political climate of the world, I’ve had my mind on the idea of shelter. I took temporary refuge with friends (and lots and lots of alcohol) on the night of the U.S. Presidential Election. I sought out like-minded Americans and Brits in the slew of London’s “Trumpageddon,” end-of-the-world-themed parties the evening of Trump’s inauguration. As a woman I found asylum among those who marched around the world, from London Washington D.C. But after the President’s recent execution of the order to ban immigrants, I realized that shelter for many in the coming years will be impossible to find.

“No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark / you only run for the border / when you see the whole city running as well,” writes a Kenyan-born Somali poet in “Common Dreams.” And just the thought of these people— these people detained in airports, these people who have the legal right to be in the U.S., these people who sacrificed everything they had to escape the mouths of sharks— makes me feel even overseas how the fabric of the American nation is splitting at the seams. At this very moment in time (though it doesn’t even remotely compare to those suffering from the Immigrant Ban) I myself am a migrant. I have a visa to study abroad in the United Kingdom, much like many of my peers at Cornell have visas to study from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen. But while I have a choice, they do not; while I enjoy strolling along the haunted paths of Edinburgh, they might be sprinting from unthinkable terrors at home; while I was born into a nation that accepted me, they grew up trying to bridge a seemingly endless cultural divide. In Trump’s America, after all, it is “me” and “you,” “us” and “them,” and nothing more.

Screen Shot 2017-01-31 at 2.43.57 PM.png

But I think of all of those who took shelter in countries that weren’t theirs. I think of the homeless who found refuge in the most dire and darkest places. I think of the authors who write to change the world in little cafes in little cities. Because in the words of such an author, “We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need within ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”

So please, for the next few weeks and the next four years, let’s imagine.

albus-dumbledore-dark-draco-malfoy-dumbledore-Favim.com-2802607.jpg

 

Pants and Peace Signs

There isn’t much culture shock coming to England. It’s nothing new, but I’ll just start with that. Seeing “Starbucks” and “Pret A Mangers” in between silhouettes of The Millennium Eye and Big Ben contributes quite a bit to feeling like home in the midst of all the museums and royal splendor. But that’s not to say that there are still social quirks in London that don’t exist anywhere else in the world. Londoners are characters; calm but cosmopolitan; proud but accepting— yet that only scratches the surface of the city people.

29187-yfrrgu-1.jpg

** that would be me in the “pretentious, suburban, intellectual” section.

In London alone the accents and backgrounds and appearances differ wildly by the street, making it impossible to blend in (like, say, a study abroad student may try and fail to do). Much like me I feel like every Londoner has something new to learn each day from the people around them. So here’s a jiffy-quick guide to the pengest tips I’ve learned about surviving at an English Uni thus far:

  1. If “trousers” are pants, then what are “pants”? … Underwear. If you say, “It’s raining outside and my pants are soaked,” you and the locals may not be on quite the same page.
  2. “Jacket Potatoes” are regrettably not potatoes clad in a suit and tie, but merely (delicious) baked potatoes.
  3. The “Subway” is just a fast food chain— you have to use the “Tube” to get anywhere. The world is your Oyster as long as you have an Oyster Card.
  4. Pints. All food and drink are by the metric system of measurement, so I may as well be measuring out my cider in test tubes (which after quite a few milliliters can get pretty challenging).
  5. The Backwards peace sign. Evidently in the U.K. it’s not a nice thing to do… and evidently I do it a lot.

BeFunky Collage.jpg

This comparison of curses, if you will, leads to a greater comparison of cultures. Slang may differ country to country, but there are many words that don’t even exist in the English language (in both the U.K and the U.S.). I’ve compiled a list of my favorites here:

  1. Voorpret: (Dutch)(n.) the pre-fun, the enjoyment felt before a party or event takes place. Example: a student in London for six months and trying to contain irrational excitement at the adventures with every new city block.
  2. Dépaysment: (French)(n.) the disorientation felt by being in a foreign country or culture, the sense of being a fish out of water. Example: crossing the pond to what lies beyond.
  3. Fernweh: (German)(n.) the desire to go where one has never been before. Example: I’ve already booked my plane tickets to continental Europe.
  4. Kuidaore: (Japanese)(v.) to eat yourself into bankruptcy. Example: crawling through English pubs every evening, splurging at markets over weekends, and finishing each day with a hearty serving of local gelato might lead me to bankruptcy sooner than I’d like.
  5. Meraki: (Greek)(v.) to do something with soul, creativity, or love; when you leave a piece of yourself in your work or a place that you’ve been. Example: this blog documenting the little things that London has already left with me, and that I hope I can eventually leave on London.

As a student of words— how we learn, write, and connect using them— I feel that it’s important to find the perfect terms to describe our experiences. But as someone who’s still new to London those words are only just forming. After all, in this post all I’ve done is steal phrases that are common to others in a smattering of tongues that aren’t even my own. But thankfully, and with much “voorpret,” I have another 19 weeks to put London in my own language.

Somewhere in London

London first caught my eye from halfway around the world. Wandering across the Venice Beach boardwalk and sweating underneath a pair of ten dollar CVS sunglasses, I stopped in front of a newly slicked-on layer of graffiti; “We must be somewhere in London,” it said. “We must be loving our lives in the rain.” As the sun streaked down and my skin continued to burn, I could think of little else better than being an entire ocean and a river away. But now that London is so close– just over a week away– I’m trying to envision my own life in the rain for the next five months.

screen-shot-2016-12-23-at-10-02-21-pm

The plane tickets have been purchased, the bags are (almost) packed. The temporary goodbyes are being said, and I’m already trying to make them last. But as small as the world has become in recent decades, London and LA aren’t as far apart as they may seem on a map. Four thousand miles is a distance that can easily be traversed by WiFi and Skype, by social media and even these very blog posts– but that has made me realize how important true face-to-face time is with a person, how vital it is to live in the present time and place. In the words of the same artist who painted my wanderlust for London; “There are no shortcuts. So stop thinking you should already be there.” And it’s true; social media is just a shortcut to another life. I’ll watch my friends’ adventures, and they’ll watch mine. But that doesn’t have to hold us back from truly experiencing the world unless we let it.

screen-shot-2016-12-23-at-10-03-10-pm

Life is best lived offline, and I’ve decided to make that part of my goal for study abroad. Even though I’m not ready to relinquish my relationships back home and at Cornell, I’m looking forward to adopting a new lifestyle and not wondering what I would be doing otherwise. I won’t be in “La La Land,” or engrossed in news feeds. I’ll be immersed in London and its literature from Shakespeare’s Globe to Sherlock Holmes’ 221B Baker Street, and I hope I’m too in love with my surroundings to worry about anything else. While I’m undoubtedly a little nervous for this upcoming semester, I’m thrilled that I won’t have to imagine London anymore– I’ll actually be there. I’ll be “day-tripping” instead of “day-dreaming.” I’ll be loving my life in the rain.

I’m basically just a “colossal wreck,” tbh

Ozymandias
By Percey Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”