Of Blossoms & Boats: Van Gogh at the Hermitage.

Refreshed from our wine-and-cheese induced sleep, Abby and i awoke in Amsterdam ready to brave the cold and wanting to explore. After a delicious breakfast at the hotel (have i mentioned the cappuccino machine?) we took a gander about the southern canal/De Pijp neighborhood, drinking in the quaint little bridges and houses stacked against each other.

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Some ten minutes away was our destination: The Hermitage Museum. Since the Van Gogh Museum is presently undergoing renovations, the bulk of their collection is temporarily housed here. I’d been waiting to see this exhibit really since my 12th-grade AP Art History class, when i’d first really studied Vincent.

It was sublime. Is there really any other word for visiting with Van Gogh’s work?

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Unfortunately, photography was strictly forbidden, so i have no photos to share of the actual exhibit. In some ways, i find restrictions like this liberating because it means i’m truly present with the art instead of constantly fiddling with the shutter speed on my Olympus.

Some of my favorite things we saw, though, were not the most famous members of the collection (like Wheat Field with Crows, though that was transcendent). There was a whole section devoted to Van Gogh’s study of Japanese prints, and his painted recreations of some of the prints in his own collection. To see how these pieces really shaped Van Gogh’s perspective as an artist in his formative years was really cool – especially the harsh angles and vibrant colors.

But lest we forget, the more famous works were also amazing to see. I hadn’t known that Almond Blossoms was painted for Vincent’s newborn nephew. Somehow, this idea that the blossoms were meant to celebrate new life made this work all the more endearing.

And the greens! Oh, the greens! I’ve always been enchanted by Bedroom at Arles­ and its quirky, incandescent spirit (my Art History teacher said once he always felt like the chairs were about to start dancing around the room). But it is even more lively in person – the dark patches outlining the bed and making up the floor are such rich tones of emerald that they illuminate the whole work. I was utterly intoxicated by the greens – the fishing boats at Saint-Marie series had me entranced.

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Bedroom in Arles, 1888.

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Almond Blossoms, 1890.

Fishing Boats at Sea, 1888. (I bought this one on a postcard!)

Fishing Boats at Sea, 1888. (I bought this one on a postcard!)

Some two hours later, we exited the gift shop (postcards in hand, of course) and made our way to Kerkestraat for the (aforewrittenabout) bike tour! Our afternoon was thus consumed by exquisite art and wheeling about town – what more could you want from a long weekend in Amsterdam, really?

That was really the bulk of our first day; the cold was too potent to spend too much time out with the sun going down. We returned to our new favorite bar/café, Onder de Ooivaar, for yet another round of wine and cheese. The next day promised a tour of the Anne Frank House, eating our way through the Albert Cuyp Market, and GIANT YELLOW wooden shoes!

current jam: ‘tout doucement’ feist.

best thing: ravioli.

of note: photos of van gogh’s paintings from here. 

The Scotland Bucket List!

Edinburgh may be the primary site of my Study Abroad explorations, but it certainly won’t be the only place! In a mere 10 days, my flatmate Abby and i will be off to Amsterdam for a long weekend of Van Gogh paintings and canal rides. Amsterdam’s been on my top 10 list for a long while (the Van Gogh thing, again) and to think i’ll be jetsetting off so soon is kind of unfathomable.

But the country i’m presently living in also has its own unbridled landscapes and mysteries to explore. To help focus my travels while in Scotland outside of Edinburgh, i’ve crafted a bucket list of the top 6 things i want to explore and see!

1. See the cathedral ruins at St. Andrews. (Completed 19 January 2013)

2. Venture to the Isle of Skye. (Completed 26 April 2013)

3. Tour a whiskey distillery. (Completed 25 April 2013)

4. Visit Loch Lomond with the song of the same name stuck in my head.

5. See Glen Coe. And more highlands, but mostly Glen Coe. (Completed: 25 April 2013)

6. Go to smaller Scottish town/city (like Perth) and take a quiet day outside the city.

Naturally, there are lots of other sites i’d dream of seeing – Loch Ness, for example. But in the interest of making this a list of things that are most likely to happen, i’ve confined it to these six things. Here’s to making them happen!

Friends who know Scotland: anything else that should be on this list? What’s your favorite place/thing to do in this country?

current jam: ‘where the boat leaves from’ zac brown band.

best thing: chinese new year at the flat!

Learning Curve.

Life in Edinburgh is, at last, normalizing.

My morning routine of brewing a cup of Earl Grey in enough time for it to cool into a drinkable liquid is coming to feel more and more like my favorite sweatshirt. The tear in the cuff is where i last left it. It may take a minute or two to warm me up in the chilly Scottish morning, but when the warmth arrives it feels known.

But with the routine comes the knowledge that this routine is different than any other i’ve known.

Being far from home is no stranger to me; i go to school some 900 miles from Carolina comfort. I lived in Uganda for some three months. Sleep-away summer camp was an expectancy from the age of eleven. I have been blessed with opportunities to grow and explore far from the nest. Homesickness, then, is not a new phenomenon to me – and i must say, this has been the easiest adjustment to being away i’ve ever had. My living situation is supreme, i’m making real friends, and i am madly in love with Edinburgh. Even the weather (most days).

Yet no matter how prepped and rehearsed my dealing-with-homesickness treatment may be, 4000 miles is a vast distance. Sometimes, it feels like nothing at all – like at any moment, i could hop on a bike and be back in time for Hannah’s Second Helping Fried Chicken. But some days, when the rain seeps into the crevices between bones and the winter feels unyielding, it just sucks. No matter how beautiful the city, how enchanting the experience. Yesterday was one of those days.

At my pre-departure orientation whilst still at Mount Holyoke, the global learning folks shared with us this graphic:

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While, obviously, adjustment is different for each, i found then and find now there to be a lot of truth in this curve. My adjustment to Uganda was easily filled with this many troughs and crests (tropical illnesses are no bueno for the needle-phobe, being in South Sudan for independence day ranks in top ten life experiences). So far, my time in Edinburgh has been tremendously a mountaintop – and it is continuing to be. Every day i find something new to revel in. Coffee with new friends. A piggy-bank shaped like the red letterboxes lining the city streets. Mastering my own guacamole recipe.

I have to make the conscious choice, then, to seek out the growth. And the thing about growing things is this: pruning is required. Sometimes, to reach the sunshine and boundless sky, i have to clear out the weeds. I’m learning all over again how to feel the growing pains and channel them into something beautiful. So i don my rain boots, plug in my headphones, and take a walk. Remind myself, even on rain-slicked cobblestones, why i fell in love with this city to begin with. Why i call traveling my first passion. I choose to take pride in my knowledge of the winding streets. Take delight in the wonder of how small and big this world is all at once. Revel in making a routine, and come to my new home to a steaming cup of Earl Grey.

And then my roots are a little deeper, my arms stretched a little wider, and the rain makes all things grow.

current jam: ‘live & die’ the avett brothers.

best thing: padfoot.

Living in its Own History.

At orientation today, a series of photographs by former international students flashed across the introductory powerpoint. Each was accompanied by a quote about the photo – and all were something along the lines of “this encapsulates Edinburgh to me because…” One student, whose name i failed to jot down, commented that Edinburgh was a city “living in its own history.”

I find this to be tremendously true. Yesterday, in hot pursuit of an apple store (a pursuit that proved fruitless in the end), i made a gander down the main drags of town. Foregoing any desire to blend in (yet) i snapped photos every meter of the way.

There are all the quaint, tourist-y trappings of a Great Britain town; red phone booths, sprawling gothic churches and kirks, and plenty of weather that my orientation packet refers to as mingin‘ (meaning nasty, drab, and otherwise umbrella-and-overcoat-worthy).

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The Royal Mile!

The Royal Mile!

St. Giles Kirk, former pulpit of John Knox.

St. Giles Kirk, former pulpit of John Knox.

But my stroll along the Royal Mile also meant i encountered some distinctly Scottish fare: a bagpiper with a cap out for change, stores advertising haggis, and more tartan stalls than i could count. My meander took me down to Princes Street, where i eventually located a SIM card for my mobile and, naturally, a plethora of postcards. (I have to continually remind myself not to purchase souvenirs just yet, since i’ve got another five months to stock up on post cards and the like.)

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A view of Princes Street from the Royal Mile.

A view of Princes Street from the Royal Mile.

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I made sure to pass New College, where i’ll be taking my courses (starting tomorrow! Eep!). Making my way up to Queen Street, i continued to stumble across more of what i think the student was referencing in her photograph. The city, though draped in the enchantment of dark bricks and antiquity, is very much alive and growing. The letterbox (below) was just around the corner from a TGI Fridays – and from the restaurant, there was a stunning view of Edinburgh castle. Talk about juxtapositions!

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(New College is the double-spired building on the far left! And by New College, i mean Hogwarts...)

(New College is the double-spired building on the far left! And by New College, i mean Hogwarts…)

I wandered into St. John’s Episcopal church at the end of Princes Street, coming across nothing other than the Edinburgh Peace & Justice Centre. Naturally, i sat down for a chat with a lovely fellow and signed up for their newsletter and potential volunteering opportunities. (I’m sure most of you, dear readers, are utterly unsurprised by this!).

The rain was starting to snake down under my scarf, and it was due time i head back to my flat. With a few groceries freshly purchases tucked into my rucksack, i headed to my new home amidst a sunset Edinburgh. The sight was stunning – everything seems to really glow a bronze hue in the rare but beautiful sunshine here.

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It was really a magical day. I was glad to explore on my own for a while, too, as it helped clear my head and restore a sense of independence – all while figuring out what the streets i’d committed to memory from my maps looked like in actuality. And this actuality is a living history – and one i grow more and more ecstatic to be a petite part of every day.

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current jam: ‘grown ocean’ fleet foxes

best thing: facetime and a functioning mobile phone.

Terry the Angel, Or: A Movie-Like Entrance to Edinburgh.

I oft think dramatic scenes in films are really just overdone, unrealistic portrayals of real-life events that are, in fact, quite boring. My departure from the states, however, was a drastic proving-lizzie-wrong moment.

J, my significant other, and i arrived at the airport some two hours prior to my expected departure time. As RDU’s standard fare for security and ticket-counter time tends to be a mere 20 minutes on my usual Southwest flights, i anticipated only an additional twenty minutes or so to check two bags and print a boarding pass.

I was mistaken.

The American Airlines counter was amok with passengers-to-be dragging enormous baggage and wearing tremendously confused expressions. When we could not find a line that stated anything of clarity, J and i joined them in their befuddlement. Finally, after mis-printing two boarding passes at the self-check-in, i was loosely directed to the queue for “kiosk errors.” In this line we waited for over an hour.

Over an hour. There were barely eight people ahead of us, and yet there we waited. We remained calm – exceptionally calm for normally anxiety-ridden-overly-early-me – and tried to pass the time by savoring our last few hours together in the states. I kept fiddling with my luggage tags and checking the time and generally trying to distract myself from the two monstrously fretful things ahead of me: the fact that i might miss my flight, and more importantly, the impending goodbye that loomed in the corner of my every thought.

At last, a frantic first-class counter lady checked me in. “Now you don’t have to run to your flight, but you do absolutely have to go straight there after security!” she warned. It was 5:30. My flight left at 6:00.

With a flurry of rolling bags and hand-holding that hardly lasted long enough, we said goodbye. It was excruciating.

I sobbed my way through security. At 5:45, shoes re-zipped and passport in my clutch, i searched the signs for gate C 23. It was at the far end of the airport. As if in a film, i began sprinting through the throng of people. My black carry-on bag has been in my family for some fifteen years – and it’s starting to show. The right wheel clacks when it rolls – you can hear me coming from down the hall. Every airport i was in, people craned their necks to hear what that horrible thwacking every two seconds was.

However, the clacking came in my favor as it easily made a parted Red Sea for me as i dashed past parents wheeling babies in strollers and businesswomen with briefcases.

At 5:49, i arrived at my gate – weeping, wheezing, and wheeling what i now called Gimpy the Suitcase that Could. If i hadn’t been so overwhelmed by stress and sadness the whole situation would have been outrageously comical – my face ruddy, my lungs in revolt, and barely two minutes to spare.

I asked the gentleman ahead of me in line if this was the right queue for the London flight. He replied yes and, catching sight of my face, exclaimed in a lovely London accent, “Wow, you really ran here! … And had to say goodbye to someone too.” I nodded, clutching a stitch in my side and trying to wipe my nose in one very un-synchronized motion. “Call them when you land,” he said kindly, turning back.

To my surprise, he faced me once more with a tissue in his hand.”Here,” he profferred, smiling gently. I spluttered a thanks, catching sight of his face properly for the first time. For a second, i though he was Chiwetel Ejiofer – the actor from Kinky Boots and Love Actually and a million other things. The resemblance was so striking to me i almost asked if that’s who he was. Had i been in a state where i could breathe, i might have.

I learned later he’s named Terry. I learned this when he came back to check on me once the plane was in the air.

“Are you feeling better?” Terry asked me.

“I am, much better. Thank you for being so kind to me,” i replied. He asked who had made me cry so much before leaving and, before i could explain much more than J and how long we’d been together, he remarked, “Teary eyed again?” I couldn’t help it. And yet he was so sweet, telling me five months was going to fly by and that i should try and get some sleep before landing. We talked about what i was going to study, exchanged names, the usual small talk.

“I’m just – i’m letting myself be sad for 24 hours and then i’ll focus on the adventure of it all.” I was spluttering again, in spite of my every effort not to.

“It is an awfully big adventure.” He grinned again, joking about me needing some wine and crossing myself with each glass (i’d told him about the religion major). I chortled, and Terry went back to his seat.

The rest of my flight was spent in a far better state because of his compassion. I slept an hour or so, drank down plenty of water, and studied the map of the city some more.

I never saw him again. Terry, the angel in human form, whose five minutes spent in my life made it all the warmer.

Heathrow was fine – customs went smoothly, and i found my gate with relative ease. There was an all-too-brief conversation with J from a payphone in Terminal A to let him know i was safe and on time and trying to be brave.

And then, before i knew it, i was in Edinburgh. Having not slept, really, in 24 hours by then, it was a woozy greeting. I’d had a magical moment when we flew over London – snapping a few pictures of the twinkling lights spread wide like a net beneath us – but i’d had a nap then.

wee hours of the morning over the outskirts of london.

wee hours of the morning over the outskirts of london.

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somewhere in the south of england, on my second flight.

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As it turns out, the movie-like drama was not done with me yet. I’d been afraid, when traveling to Uganda two summers ago, that i’d lose my checked luggage. I had so many connections and was so worried about flying alone that it had been a constant source of stress. Not for this trip. Of course, i’d tucked extra underwear and t-shirts into my carry-ons (just in case), but this was always more symbolic than out of real worry.

I was wrong.

Half of my checked luggage came, but the bag with my sweaters and socks and books was still in London, to be sent later. In a delirious state, i gave my Edinburgh address and US phone number. Unbeknownst to me, i only gave my building address - not my flat number. Also unbeknownst to me was that my US Phone number would not work here (i’d assumed the charges would be astronomical until i got a new SIM card, but plausible nonetheless).

For this reason, the rest of my bags did not arrive until today – when i finally called from a university phone. It wasn’t really that horrible – Uganda did, after all, teach me how to be more flexible (the bags required no flexibility there, in the end – but there were plenty of other opportunities for growth!).

And, when the wooziness wore off courtesy of a chai latte, i realized: i am in freaking Edinburgh, Scotland. Birthplace of Harry Potter, home to me now, filled with kirks and a castle and kilts. 

(one of my first photos of the city - be sure to check back tomorrow for more!)

(one of my first photos of the city – be sure to check back tomorrow for more!)

Which is where i am now. Making friends, learning the streets. Gearing up to decorate my walls and select a choice outfit for orientation tomorrow. Grateful i studied so many maps and grateful i bought chocolate this afternoon while exploring some of the city in pursuit of a new SIM card (which i found!). Grateful for Terry the Airplane Angel, grateful for the privilege of being able to travel, grateful for the challenges and cheers ahead of me. Grateful for all the reasons why i’m sad to be apart from loved ones in the states. Grateful for the opportunity to fall so in love with this city i’ll be sad to leave it.

When i gave my (real) surname to the courier of my bags, he exclaimed “Well it doesn’t get more Scottish than that! You’re home at last, lass!”

Not yet, i thought. But soon, i will be home here. Soon and very soon.

current jam: ‘english house’ fleet foxes.

best thing: terry the airplane angel.

in the air again.

The uniformity of American airports can be such a comfort.

I’ve said it once, and i shall say it more: airports are easily some of my favorite places in this world. There’s something terribly exciting about a place of transit, a realm meant for those embarking on a journey. Sure, its plagued with suited up professionals dreading the next conference room, and true, often my times in airports are meant as transit only to the simplest, most mundane of places.

But still. I know i was born to travel when i am at such ease in a place like this.

Despite not having been in the Bradley airport for some time (March, i think?) navigating its (albeit it only one) terminal is reeking of one of the best parts of the trip home: the anticipation. As i awoke at 6 am this morning, grumbling how i’d hardly slept five hours (thank you, Merlin schoolwork) and fumbling around the dark trying to pack the toothbrush and find the glasses, it occurred to me that, while i may detest waking at such hours, i also kind of love it. Waking when most of the world (or at least, the campus) is still to bed to take a trip is kind of a magical time. The in-between place, the time of preparing for the journey and praying all goes well and holding out for a window seat – it’s something i’m getting better and better at. Living with your home spread across the world forces you to do this, i suppose.

This trip isn’t terribly exotic, or going to be rank with whirlwind adventures, or abrim in reality shattering epiphanies (well, i suppose one  should never say never). Should all go well, it shall be full of steaming cups of tea, my cats, sleep, reading, terrible television, my cats, hibernation, writing, and my cats. A retreat from the whir, time to be a zombie and not leave my bed for anything in the world but another cup of tea or to clean out the litter box. Did i mention the cats?

But the “mundane” can be so welcome. Most welcome in a semester like this, wherein i’ve done nothing but write papers and wrangle with endless readings and want nothing more than sleep. The mundane can be even more worthy of my travel-anticipation than the thrilling, in some capacities.

Most of all, though, waiting for me on the other side of this trip are my cats, a time-transcending cowboy, and the simple marvel of home.

Happy travels, friends.

current jam: ‘you’re the voice’ john farnham

best thing in my life right now: tweed jackets and scottish accents.

words written for nanowrimo: 27,828

agua (30 dpc day 4)

day 4: a picture of your shower

In yesterday’s post I talked about the many ways in which we, the three divas of  Koitdo, reuse, repurpose, recycle, and otherwise throw out our trash. In the  same vein today I want to share another, “eco,” way we reuse perhaps the most  valuable resource on our planet: water.

In my life in the states, I contend, it was incredibly easy to forget how  accessible the water is. Free water spews from fountains in every public place,  water is free in restaurants, one can enjoy a luxurious hot shower; there’s  abundant water for doing the dishes, cooking, brushing your teeth, cleaning  the floors… I could go on. With clean and hygienic water available everywhere I  go whilst in the US it is all to understandably easy to forget what a precious  commodity- and unbelievable treasure- it is.

When you can not drink the tap water, live in a semi-arid climate, and subsist at the mercy of finicky town water, you learn pretty quickly what a gift it is. As I mentioned yesterday, we filter and boil all of the water we drink from the tap (stay tuned for a future post). But for everything else (showers, brushing teeth, laundry, cleaning…) we use tap water- and reuse it, and reuse it.

This is done with grey water. As you can see from this picture, we are lucky enough to have a real shower head and a real shower stall!  Already a luxury round these parts. But let me tell you, the luxury ends with the shower head.

The water with which we must scrub the persistant desert dirt off our bodies with is unbelievably, should-be-illegally, freezing cold. Not a little chilly, not mildly-uncomfortable-but-lukewarm, but right-out-of-a-melting-glacier biting cold. My showers consist primarily of chattering teeth (no, literally, I wish I was exaggerating) and scrubbing as fast as possible so as to leap into the towel with Godspeed.

A friend once told me a cold shower is good for your health, reinvigorating, and rejuvenating especially during times of high stress.

To hell with that. I feel alive after every shower because, well, my knees are knocking so bad I can hardly stand up and frequently find myself grabbing for my inhaler as the breath has been frozen in my lungs. I am invigorated enough to get dressed so quickly I put to shame every Broadway quick-changing fiend. It’s like I crawled out of a Jack London tale, desperate for a wolf’s carcass to curl up inside of, soaking in what little warmth is left in the Yukon tundra.

The best showers are when I wait too long to bathe, and the solar power as gone kaput for the evening. Then I’m enacting this entire charade of reaching blindly for a towel to quell the shivers by candlelight. That’s especially fun.

Regardless of our excruciating goose bump-age and frigid cleanliness, we are still determined to maximize our use of the water. If you look at the floor of the shower, you’ll notice a blue circular bin. We use this to collect grey water: the sudsy run off water collected post-washing (we also collect the same thing in our sink after washing hands and brushing teeth). This water we then use for our toilet to flush stuff down, as the running water in the toilet has stopped working long ago. It is an excellent method, in my opinion, because there really is no need for clean water to be used in flushing down your…bodily wastes.

Karamoja is also a semi-arid place to be and, as aforementioned, Kotido itself is a very poor area. How could we not, then, reuse such an important and prized resource?

current jam: “down to the river to pray” allison krauss

best thing in my life right now: my new skirt! we’ve befriended an excellent tailor in town. prepare to be ousted, 7 dresses from ghana…

fantas consumed: 6

last film watched: