Serendipity and Serenades at the Eiffel Tower.

So when i wasn’t prowling about the Eiffel Tower looking for a hot dog, i was busy being rather bedazzled by the tower itself. There’s magic in Paris, i swear; perhaps the secret entrance to Beauxbatons lies beneath the Seine.

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Seeing the Eiffel Tower at all is striking and poetic and full of Aristocat-themed-music-making. Seeing the Eiffel Tower at night is unlike anything else; the gold against the purple night, the way it lights up and sparkles for ten minutes every hour, the glow it casts on the whole of the jardins surrounding it make me understand why so many artists and writers came to Paris and never left. It’s the music itself.

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Sparkling on the hour!

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Though initially disappointed to learn that the cables for the lift to the tippy-top were too frozen to function, the mid-atmospheric snow in the air at the second level made us quite content to look out at Sacre Coeur and L’Arc de Triomphe from our frozen perch. It was stunning; the whole of Paris reflected back at us like the lights on the tower itself. Even the Seine glowed. If you’re going to Paris, do everything you can to scale the Eiffel Tower at night. It may be knee-knocking, teeth-chattering freezing, but the view is transcendent.

Windswept!

Windswept!

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Making the climb back down!

Making the climb back down!

The Tower’s magic, though, was not bound in cables and floor and vistas for us, though. In some cosmic convergence, one of my very best friends from Mount Holyoke, Saran, was traveling through Paris at the same time as us. Neither one of us had functioning phones, so through spotty glimpses of wifi we’d managed to communicate online that we would meet at the Eiffel Tower sometime that night.

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My fingers were going numb, refreshing my inbox at the base of the Tower. J and i had scouted the lines, walked the perimeter, tried every cranny we could see to find Saran. Worry we were relying too much on chance in a city too big, i began to fret we wouldn’t find her at all.

Until someone shrieked my name from the other side of the tower.

There was a running and a leaping and a hugging and an OH MY G-D, PARIS-ing. I was so delighted to see her, and a mutual friend from Paris, all basking underneath the sparkling gold beams of the most famous French landmark. We walked, arm-in-arm, to a restaurant a few blocks up and had warm reminiscing and fast catching-up over French cuisine. Entrenched in a language and culture and place not my own, i was home in the hearts of people i love.

Blurry and beautiful because of what this means to me!

Blurry but beautiful because of what this means to me!

Just when you start to disbelieve in the magic that weaves Paris together, the rug is pulled out from under you all over again. I suppose that’s falling in love: being awash in passion, falling into a place of comfortable constancy, and, just when you start to get too comfortable or edgy from boredom, something happens to make you commit and believe all over again. 

Paris certainly lives up to its reputation in that way!

current jam: ‘little bird song’ ed sheeran.

best thing: these INCREDIBLE signs advocating for marriage equality at the supreme court yesterday.

inquiry: would anyone be interested in purchasing a (non-watermarked) print of the eiffel tower (or anything, really)?

Top 5 Things to Do in Amsterdam.

I’ve written about all of the things below in greater detail, but if you’re planning a trip to Amsterdam in the near future, these are the condensed top 5 things i would recommend doing! (See all my writing on Amsterdam here.)

1. Albert Cuyp Market. If you want to see a local side of town, this – the oldest street market in the Netherlands – is it. The market is exploding in stalls of things to try – everything from frites stands (mmm!) to lingerie shops. We took a full morning to peruse the selection and mostly ate our way through, devouring a powder-sugar-covered waffle at Wally’s Wafels and gorging ourselves on local olives. The prices are unparalleled for such gourmet food! (The market runs Monday – Saturday, 9 am – 5 pm).

top 5 - market

2. A Bike Tour. Really, i’m sure any company will do you just fine; Mike’s Bikes was great for the youthful, edgy side of Amsterdam (if a little heavy on the information about weed and prostitution for people not looking for that sort of entertainment) but if you want to get the lay of the land hop on a bike and go. It is the local way of getting around, after all!

shop cats make for the best bikes!

shop cats make for the best bikes!

3. The Van Gogh Museum. While the actual Van Gogh museum was undergoing renovations whilst we were in Amsterdam, the Hermitage Museum displayed the bulk of the collection in a special exhibit. Regardless of their housing, Van Gogh’s paintings come alive off the walls and force you to pay attention to their kinetic, vibrant energy. Though this is on the pricier end of Amsterdam museums, it is worth every cent!

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4. Dam Square. Though this is certainly the touristy center, there are so many great little shops to peak in (and wonderful people-watching!).  As a connoisseur of cheesy souvenirs, i loved shopping in Dam Square Souvenirs which is full of beautiful – if pricey – wooden shoes and other lovely Holland-themed merchandise. The best part, though, is the enormous yellow wooden shoe outside. Free mega-tourist-photo-op!

top 5 - souvenirs

5. Eat. Anything, really, but especially the bread, cheese, sausage, and frites! The Albert Cuyp Market is definitely the place to eat your way through, but don’t let your gastronomical exploits end there. Our favorite restaurant was van Kerkwijk, in Amsterdam Centruum. The menu is recited by the wait staff, who are warm and friendly folk, and it’s a selection abrim in quirky combinations (like steak slathered in strawberry sauce and goat cheese – shockingly good!). Another great place was right next to our hotel, the Café Onder de Ooievaar – the cheese and sausage plate made for a sumptuous late-night snack!

top 5 - eat

Bon voyage!

Highly Honorable Mentions:

The Anne Frank House (it was a wee bit crowded for this claustrophobic, but still very powerful – book tickets online & try to go first thing in the morning, rather than in the afternoon!)

if you like my condensed travel reviews, you’d probably like my tripadvisor profile!

current jam: ‘shake it out’ florence + the machine.

best thing: magna carterrrrr!

 

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. 

Aimless in Amsterdam: An Arrival Gone Astray (And Other Alliterations)

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It was nearing 11 pm, the Amsterdam air was bitingly frigid, and we were hopelessly lost.

Having taken the advice of a tourist information man upon our arrival in the city, Abby and i had elected to take the Metro instead of the tram. We’d arrived, some five blocks away from our hotel, at a station i could only assume is pronounced “Wheee-sper Plain!”

We should have taken the tram.

I’d carefully traced my fingers around the contours of the map before we left. Studied the route from the main train station to our hotel. Yet somehow, in the darkness, all the streets didn’t seem to line up with our disoriented departure from the metro station. A lot of asking people on their bikes for directions ensued. The streets of Amsterdam are all well-lit, because everyone rides bikes until, you know, the wee hours of the morning. But lamps do little for the cold.

So while we were grateful for the lamps, our toes were going numb and our patience was wearing thin.

Resigned, we hailed a cab. Four euros and two blocks later, we were deposited at the elusive Hotel Prinsenhof.

Oh.

As frustrating as it was that we’d been so close and yet so lost, i definitely do not regret those four euros being spent on the security of being dropped off precisely where we needed to be!

A note tacked to the door of the small bed-and-breakfast style hotel told us to ask the bartender at the café adjacent to the hotel for our keys. From over the bar counter, he produced an envelope enclosing both our keys and vouchers for complimentary wine from the bar (score!). Eager to defrost from the sub-freezing temperatures, we made our way up the three most narrow flights of stairs i’d ever beheld before beholding our room.

A re-creation of Rembrant's "Night Watch" in the hotel's dining room!

A re-creation of Rembrant’s “Night Watch” in the hotel’s dining room!

For all the strife of finding the place, the Hotel Prinsenhof was worth all the wait. Our room overlooked the canal, the reflections of lamps and house-lights glittering in the water between docked boats. We’d learn the next day that the breakfast served was delicious and simple, made all the better by the cappuccino machine (accessible all day!).

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But for the night, there was a much-needed drink to be had and food to be found. The café, Onder de Ooivaar, turned out to have the most incredible cheese-and-sausage platter i have ever had. After what had been such a stressful night getting into the city, my first real bite of Holland was this incredible Gouda.

And just like that, i was in love with Amsterdam. The infamous “they” say the way to a girl’s heart is through her stomach (or whatever). I say it’s through cheese. Or wine. Or, you know, both in a picturesque European city glistening with stars in bike-lane lined canals.

The next day was going to be a packed one – a bike tour, the Van Gogh exhibit at the hermitage, and more eating (naturally) – but after our second glass of Spanish red and second platter of cheese, we were ready for much-needed sleep.

We awoke the next day to sounds of dinging bike bells and shopkeepers opening their tulip stalls, ready to see the splendor in a new, and warmer, light.

current jam: ‘same love’ macklemore + ryan lewis.

best thing: bagels and cream cheese.

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.

Radi-Aid: Hope for Us All.

To the chagrin of most members of my immediate family, i unapologetically break out the Christmas CD collection within 24 hours of downing turkey and potatoes on Thanksgiving. We’ve amassed quite the motley crew of musicians over the years – everything from a  “Christmas Classics” CD with a faded cartoon of Frosty the Snowman on the case to my most beloved alternative holiday music mixes that heavily feature music from the Jingle Spells Wizard Rock collection.

For the past two years, i’ve hosted an Alternative Christmas Music Radio Special on WMHC. It’s a treasured tradition and, though i don’t have a regular show anymore, i’m contemplating reinvigorating the radio voice one last time before the move to Scotland. I just can’t pass up the opportunity to play Steve Martin & Paul Simon’s brilliant Silver Bells on live radio.

But at the same time last year when i announced said radio special on this blog, i also had an axe to grind with Band Aid. The song “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” is potentially one of the most patronizing, condescending, otherizing, and frankly global-north-congratulating bad aid works of art out there. I get that when it was first recorded the intention to feed starving people was a good one (i tend to think wanting to help people is a universally good intention). But good intentions are not enough. As i said last year and say again, the song constructs a trope of AFRICA (as an entire continent) as impoverished, starving, miserable, and in desperate need of American/Global North/Western saviors. Needless to say, this song does not make its way onto any of my alternative Christmas music mixes.

However.

Band-Aid has met its match in the brilliant and satirical campaign entitled Radi-Aid: Africa for Norway. On November 16th, SAIH (The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund)* released this video to launch a campaign for all Africans to donate their radiators to save freezing Norwegians:

 

While the campaign’s actual aims are not, in fact, to collect and ship radiators the actual tenants of what SAIH are doing here are fabulous. According to the blog Africa is a Country, the campaign’s actual aims are as follows:

1. Fundraising should not be based on exploiting stereotypes.
2. We want better information about what is going on in the world, in schools, in TV and media.
3. Media: Show respect.
4. Aid must be based on real needs, not “good” intentions.

Additionally, Caitlin L. Chandler, a writer for AIAC, interviewed Anja Bakken Riise and Erik Schreiner Evans, the Vice-President and President of SAIH respectively.

From the interview, poking around their website, and cackling at the video on repeat, i have gleaned a real sense of hope. This satire doesn’t debase the idea of people wanting to help. Rather, i think it effectively uses humor to highlight the ridiculous narrative that so much of Christmas-season (and really, year-round) charity efforts spout. The video is calling for more accurate information and a nuanced understanding of global affairs. As Erik Schreiner Evans says in the interview,

“We also want to mess with the stereotypes people have. The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, it’s that they’re incomplete. Norway is, in fact, a relatively cold country. But I think most Norwegians would be rather frustrated if that was the only thing Norway was known for. I think a lot of people would agree that the same goes for most African countries.”

The video, without writing people’s good intentions off, invites us all to re-examine what stereotypes we hold. The video illuminates the need for people with purchasing power looking to use monetary or material donations as a force for change to critically examine where the money/goods they’re donating are going. “We” have to ask who the “we” are. In our donations, are “we” implying an other? Is there a dichotomy of “us” who are wealthy and “them” who are poor? How do we define such statuses of economic or mental or spiritual poverty and wealth? What tropes about the world do we hold as truth?

I, for one, am ecstatic about this campaign. I think it’s clever and using a universal human characteristic – laughter – to ask us all to question and dig deeper within our own assumptions.

And isn’t it the season for good cheer?

best thing: three miles at the gym.

* in cooperation with Operation Day’s Work and funded by The Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) and The Norwegian Children and Youth Council (LNU) with music by Wathiq Hoosain, lyrics by Bretton Woods, and video by Ikind Productions.

Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing (London, Day 6)

We all knew this day would come, and all too quickly it has. Father and i are all but packed up, cramped in out bunked-bed hostel room awaiting a non-peak hour on the Tube to catch it to Heathrow. From thence, we’re bound for New England.

Alas.

But! All good things must come to an end (to quote Shakespeare…again) and i am assured of this: London has not seen the last of me. Nor had the UK; in fact, dearest reader, plans are in motion for a considerably longer-term commitment to this island. But i’m not spilling until those plans are solidified!

However, to leave London in this state of contentment is a blessing unto itself. For last night i saw what is easily one of the most superb pieces of theatre i have ever seen: The Tempest. I confess prior to seeing the show, i’d neither read nor seen any version of the Shakespearean script. Partly, over the last few months, on purpose; i wanted my first time encountering Prospero to be one where he was speaking, living, breathing on stage. I wanted to be enraptured in the play and not anticipate any forthcoming plot developments.

I knew that The Tempest is considered to be two key things: Shakespeare’s last work done completely on his own (some dispute and say Henry VIII, but i’m on Team Tempest for this one) and one of his (weird!) experimental pieces. Unlike most Shakespearean shows, the context of this play literally occurs over four hours and is neither tragedy nor comedy, but something suspended in between. Bearing this in mind, i entered into the Royal Haymarket not really knowing what to expect – except Ralph Fiennes to have one bushy beard (and a nose).

It was brilliant. It was beautiful. The set was astonishing, the lighting ingenious, and – sufficed to say – the acting was amazing. Prospero’s final monologue is oft interpreted as Shakespeare’s own, autobiographical, farewell to the theatre. As the character is meant to be played by a man in his late forties/early fifties, it seems likely that The Bard himself would have played the role when performed at the Blackfriars playhouse or the Globe Theatre. In this knowledge, the farewell becomes all the more poignant and sad and gorgeous. Fiennes delivered it magnificently.

And, you know, he was perfectly lovely to speak with after the show!

(Okay, i’ve got a plane to catch. Never letting the dust settle for long!)

current jam: ‘set fire to the rain’ adele

best thing in my life right now: voldemort signed my playbill!

The Tower (London, Day 4)

Today has been considerably slower-paced than all our adventures hitherto – a necessity, to be certain. For while you can sleep when you’re dead, sometimes it is vital for the living to keep buggering along.

This morning we went to a Communion service held in Westminster Abbey. The abbey was, as ever, breathtaking, but the service was, unfortunately, rather cut-and-dry. Maybe i’m too much of a liberal-arts-feminist-yuppie with too many Gandhi quotes and Buddhist prayers around my room, but i was kind of disappointed at the unwelcoming-ness of the service. Alas, maybe we just caught them on a bad day (or the priest was a little weary of the touristy type (probably all-too-ture)). At any rate, we were in Westminster with barely more than twenty other people, which was in and of itself a transcendent experience – most especially when compared to the bustle and crushing crowds of yesterday.

We drudged through a sprinkling of rain after the service, only to come across this GEM of a protest tent:

Seriously, and you though i’d exasperated all my Whovian references already. There wouldn’t be so many real-life prompts for such encounters were i in America! Reasons why the UK is superior in the realm of science fiction, #1.

Anyways, after another hurried breakfast of coffee and pain au chocolat (we do need to get on that cuppa tea, thing, don’t we?) we headed down to the pier to catch a riverboat. The ship, meant to arrive at 9:45, did not appear until nearly 11 – much to our chagrin. Still, determined to make the most of the day, we clambered aboard for a short while before stopping off at the Tower of London.

It was my father’s desire to go to the Tower, and while i as a history nerd was more than happy to come along (he had obligingly been to both the Doctor Who Experience and King’s Cross, both of which held little personal interest for him) there is something deeply disturbing about the Tower. It was the center for torture, imprisonment, and private execution for nearly 600 years – and that’s not a future you easily shake. And yet it now stands as a major tourist attraction, a place of keen interest. I get it – the Tower was crucial politically to England for so long (and still is, really), but should we truly glorify a place where Anne Boelyn was murdered? And thousands imprisoned?

While on the tour, our Yeoman guide spoke of how Rudolph Hess, a second-in-command under Adolf Hitler, was one of the more famous prisoners held in the Tower of London in the twentieth century. This particular Yeoman had personally stood guard over Hess for nearly three years, and added his own, rather verbose, two cents to the theory that Hess died, after a lifetime in prison, an unchanged and unrelenting Nazi. And while i make no parallel or claim to the horrors enacted by the Nazi regime to that of the British monarchy, i thought it intriguing that this man could slander the Nazis with such venom, while joking about “The Bloody Tower” and making cracks about children witnessing the public executions held on the Tower Green. They’re incomparable, i know, but both are bloody and controversial histories. Yet one is now more of a museum, an homage to conquest and control, and the other the epitome of disgrace, horror, and ultimate form of insult.

This discomfort i had during the tour persisted as we clambered The White Tower, where all manor of armaments and suits of armour once posessed by kings are housed. Is it really something to marvel at? Or are they on display merely to historically instruct? Yet, is “mere education” ever an unslanted, unbiased event – can we look at a battle outfit behind glass, professionally lit and surrounded by throngs of people plugged into their audio tours, and not in some way perceive these to be objects meant to be revered?

Whatever the reason we decide to value such antiquated artifacts, the Tower was by no means a disgrace or waste of time. London is not a perfect place – nowhere is. We’re steeped in the burdens handed down by our ancestors, ourselves imparting equal woes to future generations (whether we like to confess it or not). In much the same way, Westminster Abbey still serves as an arm of the head of the church, a highly politicized figure and person of immense material power: The Queen. She may no longer be the head of government, but her face on every third postcard, coin, and stamp seems to scream she still matters to the country, and matters quite a bit. Yet should a body of faith ever be so intwined with material power? I would contend no, yet the history of the Church is one steeped in such entanglements, self-justified imperial causes allowed by the body of the people governed because of concepts like ‘divine right.’

Nevertheless, we left the Tower with heads fill of thoughts – and our stomachs dictating most of them. After a lunch of sandwiches, we ascended to the top of The Tower Bridge to behold yet another marvelous view of a now sunshine-y city spread beneath us. It’s strange, but i think the fact that so many of the ways in which i’ve literally been looking upon the city i’ve dreamed of since i was six are direct parallels to how it existed in my mind until now. Always from above, in my dreams; flying like Peter Pan or on a broomstick like Harry Potter. Calling and drawing me in, yet somehow unattainable and leaving me estanged in a city where my anonymity became my downfall. I’ve seen London now form bus tops, in the London Eye, at the peak of the Tower Bridge. Looking down, looking far and wide and wanting so much to be here, but knowing the time for now is brief. Thirty minutes ’round the eye, miss. Only a few at the top.

But those minutes at the crest of the wheel, from the front row of the red double-decker, they’re to be treasured all the more deeply because of their fleeting essence. Because time is wibbly-wobbly and nothing ever lasts or happens the way we think and hope it might.

And that is just fine by me.

current jam: ‘babylon’ mountain man

best thing in my life right now: all that is around me.