Note: No Book Review Monday today, folks. Just finishing up a good novel, which I’ll write about soon. In the meantime, let’s talk about Cambridge, the cutest little English town there ever was.
This past weekend, Al and I took the train from London to Cambridge. Way back in 2005-2006, while I was galavanting around Brazil and overdoing it on mangos, Al was in Cambridge doing a graduate program in economic development. Different strokes for different folks, right? Anyway, I had wanted to see Cambridge, my husband’s old stomping grounds, for a long time, and so I was delighted to spend a beautiful summer weekend there with him.
We stayed at the slightly saggy Lensfield Hotel, in a room that was so tiny the door hit the bed when we opened it. The extreme tininess of the room wasn’t a problem, though, because we didn’t really spend much time there; we were too busy walking the utterly charming streets of Cambridge. First stop was Al’s old college, Pembroke, which is known for its beautiful gardens.
We also checked out King’s College, St. John’s, Caius, Queen’s, and Clare. One of my favorites was St. John’s, because we got to sit outside the chapel and listen to the St. John’s choir practice. Turns out the St. John’s choir dates back to the 17th century and is now “one of the finest collegiate choirs in the world.” Here’s a little video about the choir, if you want to hear a bit of the music. I can personally attest to the utter beauty of the choral music; I was so transfixed by it, I actually bought one of the choir’s CDs for five GBP. What can I say, I’m a sucker for boys’ choirs.
We spent most of the day walking around and gawping at how cute and old everything is in Cambridge. Then, that evening, we went on a mini pub crawl, stopping first at the Granta Pub, where we looked out over the river and watched a couple of dudes in their underwear punt boats in the rain. Then we moved on to the unfortunately named The Bathhouse, where Al used to bartend. And then… we went home. I guess now that we’re thirty, a two-pub pub-crawl is sufficient for our appetites.
The next day, we went for a run to go visit the cottage where Al used to live. Then, as is mandatory in Cambridge, we went punting on the river. Well, technically, Al did the punting, while I allowed myself to be punted. It was a pretty chaotic scene out on the river, but we managed to stay afloat, thanks to Al’s excellent punting skills.
After that, we walked along some beautiful, peaceful back garden paths until it was time to catch our train back to London. Overall, it was a perfect, pretty, relaxing weekend in Cambridge. I’m so glad I got to see it in all its idyllic glory.
On Tuesday, after escaping from the sweltering heat of the Kensington Central Library, I decided, since I had a couple hours to kill before meeting up with Al and nothing better to do, to go check out the scene outside of St. Mary’s Hospital, where the Duchess of Cambridge was giving birth to the Royal Baby. Let’s be clear: I found the media coverage of this particular event bordering on the absurd. All of the media’s breathless speculation about the birth, while providing zero new information, was ridiculous, and, as I heard someone put it today, the media acted “as if Kate were the first woman to give birth, ever, in the world.” Nonetheless, I found all of the hubbub kind of intriguing, and, again, I don’t have a job, so why not join the crowds of weirdos standing outside of the hospital?
I took the Tube to Paddington and walked to St. Mary’s from there. Since it’s a working hospital, they didn’t shut down access to it, but police officers – or, should I say, bobbies – were working to keep the entrances to the hospital clear, since, you know, it’s ahospital.
The press had gotten there in the wee hours of the morning to stake out the “good” spots (i.e., those directly facing the Lindo Wing, where Kate was giving birth), but the rest of the place was pretty much fair game for average Janes like me to wander around and take in the scene. And the scene was pretty weird. I got there at around 5:30 PM, so a full twelve hours or so after Kate herself had gotten there, but there were people who had been camped out near the Lindo Wing all day and all night, waiting for – what, exactly? It was actually unclear what we were all waiting for. I think the hive mind had decided that we were all standing outside the hospital in case an announcement of the birth was made, but some of the more misguided/simpleminded people in the crowd seemed to think that Kate and Wills themselves would make an appearance, mere hours after the birth of their child. Needless to say, that did not happen. Nor did a whole lot else. There were a few false alarms, including when another thin, brown-haired lady exited the Lindo Wing. Everyone gasped and then sighed in disappointment, and I felt pretty bad for that lady, since she had probably just had a baby herself and didn’t deserve all the glares of disappointment she got upon emerging from the hospital and not being Duchess Kate.
Anyway, I saw a lot of Royal fanatics milling around, many of whom were draped in Union Jacks and other crazy getups. Some people had gone to great lengths to get on TV, or so it seemed. For example: there was a girl who had baked and decorated a cake, presumably for Kate and Will, although no one had eaten it, and by the time I got there, it was sad and melted and she was walking around holding it rather forlornly. There were a lot of foreigners in the crowd, too, probably because tourists, like me, don’t have anything better to do than stand still in the heat and watch the front of a building. I stayed in the scrum for a little over an hour, and then decided to throw in the towel. As I left, I caught sight of Natalie Morales, of Today Show fame, and she is so pretty, you guys. Then, with my Natalie Morales sighting accomplished, I left the premises, feeling satisfied.
And that, my friends, was my experience with The Royal Birth. Hear ye, hear ye.
In case you missed it, here are the Royal Parents unveiling the Royal Baby. Pretty adorable! And here’s an article about why it’s cool that Kate didn’t try to hide her postpartum body in a sack (a la Princess Diana in 1982). Go Kate!
Guys, it is hot in London. I told my parents this the other day and they scoffed at me when I reported the temperature (high 80s Fahrenheit), and then I reminded them that, unlike in cushy America, air conditioning DOES NOT EXIST here. Which means there’s no escaping the heat. Plus, Al and I finally put our (sweating, North American) finger on another thing that makes London feel so hot: there’s NO WIND. Honestly, this is the opposite of the windy city. It’s eerily windless. A rare breeze feels like a tiny breath of heaven on my sweating brow. And today is the hottest day of the summer so far: 90 degrees Fahrenheit. (Which, according to my iPhone, is 32 degrees Celcius, for those of you who aren’t familiar with our antiquated American system for keeping track of the temperature).
This also happens to be the day that the much anticipated Royal Baby is being born, although no one in my immediate vicinity seems too fussed about the current state of Duchess Kate’s labor. Hard to tell, though, since everyone is being all quiet and British. I am currently sitting in the sweltering Kensington Central Library, by the way. I came here with the idea that, since the place has free wifi, perhaps I’d be able to work here tomorrow when writing my weekly post for Previously.TV, but, turns out, I can’t access TV shows on the public network here, so I guess I walked here with my laptop in the blistering heat for nothing. But, since I’m here, I guess I’ll make a comment about the biggest noticeable difference between a public library in London and a public library in DC: this one doesn’t smell like pee. Unlike in the US, this library does not appear to be a place for vagrants, drunks, and weirdos to hang out, and the air, while hot, is remarkably urine-scent-free. This is a lot like the difference I’ve noticed between London buses and big city American buses: people behave pretty appropriately on the buses here. I haven’t seen one person clip their nails on the bus, or spit on the floor of the bus, or loudly talk to themselves on the bus. It’s incredible. I know London must have its fair share of weirdos and scary drunks and people who think it’s appropriate to bring smelly bags of seafood onto public transportation, but I haven’t seen them yet (fingers crossed).
Back to this whole Royal Baby thing: I’m sort of hoping that when the RB is born, everyone in the library will spontaneously break into song (perhaps “Rule Brittania?”). It’ll be a little uncomfortable, sure, but I expect a minimum level of pomp, if not circumstance, from ordinary British citizens at a time like this. Spontaneous song (and/or dance) seems appropriate. Or maybe the government will shoot off canons? Fireworks? RAF flyover? They have to do something besides post a notice on the gates of Buckingham Palace — I mean, talk about anticlimactic. The thing I’m not sure about, though, is whether anyone, except for the media, old ladies, and Americans, actually cares about this birth. I mean, sure, it’s interesting, in that Britain is choosing to continue this weird, quaint system of titles and tiaras and bloodlines and castles and stuff, and we’re getting to see that happen in real time, but really, it’s just a baby. This baby has no idea how famous it is, or what its title means, or that its parents’ every moves are followed obsessively by media, or that people are pinning all sorts of weird, creepy hopes and dreams onto its tiny, bald head. I get the sense most Britons are aware of this, and yet the media is freaking the eff out and swarming the hospital where the RB is being born and speculating wildly about names and Kate’s labor and so on. I suppose it’s too much to ask for the media to just play it cool around this whole royal birth thing, huh?
Well, I’ve written a bunch of words about not a whole lot, partly to kill time to see if the RB would be born as I was typing, but no dice. Back to sweating quietly among other quietly sweating people.
It’s been almost a full week since I’ve arrived in London and I’ve been trying to pack each of my days to bursting. So far, so good, except that it’s really hot here (who knew that could happen?) and there’s no AC, thus no respite from the heat. Walking around sweating and getting a mild sunburn is all fine and dandy if you can dip into deliciously cool restaurants, bars, or even public transportation once in a while, but AC is not a given here, anywhere. To wit: for the first time in my life last night, I was hot in a movie theater. It was like topsy-turvy world! Movie theaters are supposed to be frozen tundras so cold that your extremities lose feeling, Britain. Get with the program. Sheesh.
Before I tell you about my adventures this week, here is a short list of things I’ve learned and/or noticed over the last few days walking around London: 1) always carry your own water, unless you want to fork over the equivalent of your hypothetical child’s first year of college for a bottle of it; 2) don’t shop at Whole Foods — just don’t even go in — the prices are too traumatic; 3) don’t shop at the cute Italian coffee place around the corner, unless you are prepared to pay the equivalent of US $20 for one sandwich’s worth of Parma ham; 4) walk if possible; bus if you can’t walk; Tube if you can’t bus; 5) wear sunscreen (this advice applies outside of London, as well, FYI); 6) Italians are annoying in every context outside of Italy (sorry, Italians — real talk); 7) Brazilians and Americans are everywhere you look (or listen), and they/we are loud. But not as loud as Italians. Again, sorry, Italians. I love your food, your wine, and your country. But going forward, you guys have got to master spatial awareness and volume control.
So, where have I gone this week? Oh, lots of places. On Wednesday I walked around Covent Gardens and also spent a few hours at the British Museum, where I saw mummies, Assyrian stuff, Iranian stuff, Greek stuff, European stuff, a cool walrus tusk chess set, and the Rosetta Stone (overrated). On Thursday, I made my way to the Tate Modern art museum. Camille, one of Al’s lovely cousins who we’re staying with, was kind enough to give me her Tate member card, so I got to see all of the private exhibitions, featuring art by Ellen Gallagher, Ibrahim El Salahi, Saloua Raouda Choucair, and Meschac Gaba. Kind of interesting that two out of the four exhibitions were African artists. My favorite exhibition was Ellen Gallagher AxME. Gallagher is an American artist who does a lot of really cool, whimsical collages with photos from old African-American lifestyle magazines, over which she superimposes bright yellow wigs and googly eyes and other things. Sounds kinda crazy, and it kinda is. The permanent collections at the Tate were very good, as well, but less fun to walk around in, since they were all flooded by shrieking schoolchildren. When one is trying to enjoy art by looking contemplatively (or at least quietly) at it, one does not really appreciate the sounds of other human beings shouting next to one’s ear. Or maybe that’s just me?
Actually, I noticed some interesting behaviors while I was strolling through the Ellen Gallagher exhibit, from which I am prepared to draw broad cultural conclusions, because anthropologists always make sweeping statements based on tiny bits of anecdotal evidence, right? So, after observing both British and American patrons at the museum, I noticed that British people are more likely to give each other pedantic notes on pieces of art in a stage whisper (e.g., “You see how the googly eyes are an ironic statement about the underlying dehumanization of the dominant corporatist culture of the era?”), while Americans are more likely to ask their whining three year old toddler what her opinion is of the art (“Do you see that, Madison? It’s a jellyfish. Can you say jellyfish? What do you like about this painting, Madison? Madison, please sit in your stroller correctly.”). Both behaviors are highly annoying, although to be honest, I found the show-offy whispering easier to stomach. To give more detail, there was a pregnant woman (American) pushing her squirming three year-old in a stroller through the private exhibit. This woman insisted on asking, in a loud voice, for said three year-old’s informed opinion about each and every piece of art. As a fellow American, I wondered if I could perform some sort of international citizen’s arrest on behalf of my countrymen, but instead, I just made a silent note to self never to be That Person who assumes that everyone else in the modern art gallery is as charmed as I am by my toddler’s awareness of shapes and colors. Also, that poor kid, right? What three year-old wants to be dragged to a non-interactive art museum? There are probably a million other places that lady could have brought that child that day, none of which involved rooms full of surrealist art. Just saying.
Anyway, I got through most of the Tate Modern but I still need to go back to the Tate Britain, which I will do perhaps next week. I haven’t decided what adventures I am going to get up to today, but the world is my oyster. There is so much to see and do in this city, I could do five different things every day and not exhaust the possibilities. Glorious!
Your long-awaited Book Review Monday is finally here, and is coming to you from Le Pain Quotidien in Notting Hill, London, where I am sitting with a really expensive iced coffee, a sparkling water, and the remains of a really good (but again, really expensive) salmon salad. London, turns out, is expensive. But lovely! I am so happy to be here. Anyway, last night I finally finished a book that I’ve been slowly making my way through for lo these many (read: two) weeks, The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova.
The Historian had been sitting on my bookshelf for a long time, and I can’t remember where I got it or why I bought it, but I think maybe my mom had recommended it to me? In any case, I had been avoiding it, because it was a ginormous paperback about vampires, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. But finally, a few weeks ago, I picked it up and began to read and was pleasantly surprised. The Historian is not your Twilight-style, sexy vampire story. It’s actually about Dracula — the original vampire — and the havoc he wreaks on the lives of several historians over several generations. The story is told from two perspectives: the principal narrator, a woman who is never named, tells a story that happened when she was a teenager in the 1970s, during which time she discovers the writings of her father, which relate a story that happened to him twenty-some years earlier, in the 1950s. The book switches back and forth between the two narratives, but mostly follows the earlier story of the narrator’s father, Paul, and his companion, Helen, as they try to chase down the body of Vlad Tepes (aka Dracula) so they can put a stake through his heart and stop him from continuing his nefarious deeds (mostly, turning people into vampires). Turns out, Dracula is still alive (sort of) and well, going about his business and building an army of the undead (many of whom happen to be historians or librarians who study Dracula and learn too much). The problem is, no one knows where his tomb is, so Paul and Helen must figure it out by traveling through Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, visiting monasteries and libraries, conferring with academics, and doing some good old fashioned grave robbing (or, at least, grave disturbing). It doesn’t spoil anything to tell you that the book ends with a showdown between the historians and Dracula himself.
This book was mostly an enjoyable read, but definitely dragged occasionally. One gets the sense that Kostova herself is a historian, or at least some sort of academic, because she finds it hard to resist packing the narrative with historical, factual detail, often at the expense of pacing. There were actually points during the book that I had to skim entire pages of dry historical background on various Dracula lore, and found myself wishing that Kostova had written a slimmer, quicker paced book. All of this was made more disappointing by what felt, to me, like a quite anticlimactic ending to the book (despite the aforementioned Dracula showdown). I also felt that the characters were not entirely relatable/well-developed, and two of the secondary characters, both elderly gentlemen, were essentially interchangeable with each other. The characters lacked some essential spice that would have made them stand out in the reader’s memory, or cause the reader to root for them.
However, the writing is very good, and I enjoyed the detail-rich descriptions of cities like Sofia, Istanbul, Budapest, and Bucharest. Kostova also has a particular gift for describing meals. I love it when a book tells you what the characters are eating, particularly when the characters are in exotic settings. My stomach especially rumbled when Paul and Helen sat down to burek in Istanbul. I love burekso much.
I’d recommend The Historian for anyone looking for a fresh take on an ancient vampire legend and people with an interest in history and/or who enjoy historians and academics as protagonists. It’s a long, slow read, though, so don’t expect to charge through it in a day, and it can be quite dry. If you’re looking for an addictive page-turner, this is not the book for you.
I can’t believe I am leaving South Africa tomorrow. I got here at the end of October 2012, which is somewhere between yesterday and a long time ago, and tomorrow I’m departing for London. Weird. I thought, after spending over seven months on the ground in South Africa, it would be fitting to write a piece about what I liked about my experience here, what I didn’t like, and what I learned. So — here goes nothin’.
It’s no secret that I wasn’t a huge fan of Joburg. From the beginning, I wasn’t psyched to move to this particular city (even though I was excited about the adventure Al and I were embarking upon together), but I was determined to keep an open mind about this place and give it a chance. I think it’s fair to say, at this juncture, that I did give Joburg a chance. I was prepared to let it win me over. It just — didn’t. I don’t want this to devolve into a long list of things that I hate about Joburg, because no one needs to read that, but suffice it to say that this city and I were not meant to get along.
For one thing, you need a car to do anything here. Al and I shared a car, our trusty 2008 Toyota Yaris, but he took it most days for work, since he had to go to clients’ offices and meetings and such, whereas I worked from home. Fair enough. But that ended up meaning that on days I didn’t have the car, I was functionally housebound. You can’t walk anywhere here (no sidewalks, dangerous, etc.), and there’s no viable public transportation. So I spent a lot of time by myself. Inside. And until a few months ago, that was okay. I embraced my inner introvert, I got to know the afternoon TLC schedule (Say Yes to the Dress, Rich Bride Poor Bride, Jon & Kate Plus 8), I cooked dishes that required obscene amounts of prep time (including this one, which I highly recommend if you have an afternoon to spend grinding spices), I knit (oh, did I knit), I wrote (duh), I got hooked on several TV shows on Netflix (Being Human UK: life changing), and things were pretty good, overall.
Then, a few months ago, I hit a wall. I just got sick of not having much of a life outside of my house. Part of this frustration was compounded by the fact that Al and I had not invested heavily in our social network here. We made wonderful friends, of course, but most of them worked crazy hours during the week and traveled on the weekends, which meant that during the weekdays and early evenings, I was pretty much left high and dry if I needed social contact with other human beings. The thing is, I’m not someone who needs a ton of time with other people to be happy. But I do need options. I’d like to have the option of setting up drinks with someone, for instance, or the option to just leave the house and go do something by myself. When I lived in Sao Paulo by myself and my friends were traveling or otherwise not around, I used to take myself to the movies, and I could walk to the theater. But here in Joburg, I couldn’t do that. And after a while, I got pretty sick of it.
Now, the flip-side of all of this, of course, is that while we were here, we invested heavily in travel, and I am very glad we did. In nine short months (more or less), we traveled to Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, Mozambique, and Namibia, as well as pretty extensively within South Africa (Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Kruger, the Drakensberg Mountains, Durban, and more). Plus we squeezed in a trip to Italy, and I went to North America twice (first by myself to San Francisco, and then with Al to Ottawa, DC, and Mexico City). So, not too shabby, if you ask me. I am so, so grateful for the experience of living here and being able to travel so widely in Southern Africa and within South Africa, in particular. Joburg, while not awesome itself (in my opinion), is a great jumping off point for seeing all sorts of amazing stuff in this region.
I’m also grateful to have had the opportunity to live in a country — and a part of the world — that I knew pretty much nothing about before I came here. To be honest, I still kinda don’t get it. South Africa is confusing and complex and confounding, but I’ve enjoyed being here and trying to figure out what’s going on around me day to day (that is, when I step foot outside of the house). It’s a country that has a lot of problems (inequality, corruption, wastefulness, racial issues), but it’s also a place with incredible potential and some of the most stunning natural beauty (flora and fauna) that I’ve ever laid eyes on. It’s a special place.
I probably won’t miss the experience of living in Joburg, per se, but there are definitely some things I will miss about being here. A short list would include the low cost of living (and especially the cheap, high-quality steaks, nom), the incredible (and cheap) wine, my adorable local knitting store, and the great weather.
So, all in all, these last nine months have been a rewarding adventure. Even for all of my complaints about Joburg, I wouldn’t ever take back the time we spent here, because it afforded us such incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to explore this region. And I will always remember my kitchen table in Joburg fondly, because this is where I launched my fledgling writing career. Me and this table, we have history now.
And now, off to London, our next adventure. Onwards and upwards. Seacrest out.
No Book Review Monday today; I’m in the middle of two very long books and hope to be done with at least one of them by next week. Until then, please enjoy some pretty pictures of Cape Town, Constantia, and Stellenbosch. Also, check out last week’s double-header Book Review Monday if you’re jonesing for some book talk.
I spent this past weekend in Cape Town with my friend Ali. The visit was packed with food, wine, and beautiful scenery and I tried to soak up as much as I could. This might well be the last time I ever step foot in Cape Town, since Al and I are moving to London for three months starting very soon (I know!).
On Friday night, after a lovely day of wine-tasting in Constantia (a beautiful suburb full of wineries just outside Cape Town), Ali and I met two of her friends, Victoria and Tim, for a winter tasting menu at La Colombe, one of the most well-regarded restaurants in the area. I had been looking forward to eating there for a while and it didn’t disappoint. We all opted for the five-course dinner with wine pairings, and it was pretty spectacular.
The next day, the four of us, plus Ryan, another friend of Ali’s, embarked on a wine-tasting adventure in Stellenbosch, and it was glorious. We tasted wine at DeMorgenzon, and then had lunch (and wine) at the fabulous Restaurant Jordan, and then went on to do one more wine tasting at the stunning Delaire Graff. (Photos in reverse chronological order.)
At the end of the day, Ali and I were too tired and full of wine to do much more than order in some pizza and watch TV, which felt like a fitting end to an indulgent day. The next day, we went for breakfast at The Gardener’s Cottage in Cape Town and then I hopped on a plane back to Joburg.
Sigh. I’m going to miss Cape Town. There’s nowhere else quite like it, is there? At least I can console myself with Joburg’s many delights, which include…my TV. And my knitting bag. Ah, well.
Stay tuned for updates on our next international relocation, coming soon.
Exciting news: the first short story I’ve written since high school has just been published. Earlier this year, I entered Narrative Magazine’s Winter 2013 Story Contest and won Second Prize, which was a great and gratifying surprise. Now, my story, Seven Waves for Good Luck, is up on Narrative’s website, for those who care to read it. I think you have to sign up for a Narrative account to read the story, but it’s free and easy, and they don’t send annoying emails (they’re a non-profit literary magazine). I hope you enjoy!
In the last eight months, I’ve finished two manuscripts of novels. Maybe that sounds braggy, but I don’t mean it to, since neither manuscript is published, so I might as well have spent the last eight months eating bonbons and napping on the couch. (Not to be defeatist about it, or anything.)
Anyway, I’ve noticed an interesting contrast between the process of writing my first novel and the process of writing my second. You know how they say that when a woman has her second child, the baby just pops right out? The second novel is kind of like that, too. Way easier. The first one was this long labor process of creating, writing, editing, and nitpicking — and I had no idea what I was doing the entire time. With the second one, though, I felt like an old pro, from start to finish. I cranked that thing out in a few months, edited it in a few days, and I guess I should probably be thinking about a third manuscript now. Yikes.
The biggest difference between my first novel and my second, though, is how I feel about the two. I have more confidence in my second novel. I want to tell people about it. I feel proud of it. None of this is to say that my first novel is bad, but just that novel writing has a fairly steep learning curve, and your later products are most likely going to be stronger than your earlier efforts. You learn the tricks of the trade. You develop your voice. You think more critically about plot and pacing and dialogue and all of the elements that make a novel readable (and, hopefully, saleable).
I hope that my confidence in this second piece of writing pays off and that agents and editors feel the same way, when it comes time to send it off. For now, I’m taking a few days off from novel writing while my trusted readers peruse my manuscript — but expect to hear more about it in the coming weeks and months.