Date Archives June 2019

The British Museum part deux

We had but a scant half day in London before we had to catch the Eurostar to Paris, and we elected to spend it at the British Museum, mostly browsing the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and Southeast Asia. The last time I visited, security did a very cursory glance into my purse. This time, the guard very nearly unpacked the whole of my backpack; if you haven’t had the joy of having a stranger paw through your clean and dirty underwear on a table in front of spectators, just know that it’s a really special experience.

This is a Native American saddle pad design from the mid to late 1800s; with it, their horses had much greater endurance, able to travel twenty miles more per day owing to the relief of direct contact on the spine from bareback riding, while still allowing for close contact between leg and flank. Cree, Ojibwa, Plains Peoples.

Mosaic mask of Tezcatlopoca: Human skull mask inset with turquoise, iron pyrite, white conch, and thorny oyster. Aztec, believed to have been worn for ritualistic purposes. Extremely dilated from the optometrist.

Double-headed serpent turquoise mosaic: turquoise, hematite, and shells inlaid into cedar.         Aztec, 15-16th century.

My face whenever I hear something juicy; jade, Tang dynasty AD 600-1000

This jade horse sculpture was HUGE compared to most of the other jade in the exhibit. An absolute unit.

Number three is a silver bong, pissing off parents in China since the 1800s when they find one in their kids’ sock drawer.

Jade, marble, and ormulu (an alloy of metals, gold-colored, often gilded) base for a hookah pipe, London, 1700.

My mind boggles when I think about how many uppercuts this guy could do all at once.

The mother of pearl inlay is just stunning. This platter is alive with iridescence.

Ceramic pillow, China, Jin dynasty (AD 265–420). The inscription reads “The wind rustles flowers under a snow white moon.” There are many of these uncomfortable looking pillows in existence, some plainer and some far more elaborate, but no one really knows for certain their purpose. Because they were a woman’s possession, it’s believed they were a reminder to women of their matrimonial duties. “It’s hard and uncomfortable–like your life! Now start rustling your flowers.”

Ravi Shankar’s sitar. Gourds, teak, bone.

Ladies and gentlemen: the world’s most fabulous crocodile.

Tsam-Tanz boots, Tibetan. 

Conch shell trumpet, used in Tibet and China in Buddhist temples to call monks to prayer. 1700-1899. I know in my soul that this one in particular summons an oceanic dragon when it’s sounded but they keep it behind glass because the dragon makes a mess.

Ritual dagger or kīla, 1800s, used in Nepal for religious and magical purposes. They derive their power from their connection to the deity represented on the handle.  Not traditionally used for stabbing, but there is no classier way to be stabbed than with this baby.

If this is your ladle, your soup had better be damn good.

So many pieces in this wing referenced human dominance over animals, most often with their foot planted on its back or head. I liked this reversal of fortunes.

All too soon, it was time to make our way to St. Pancras. Years of mostly traveling in US airports have conditioned me to expect security lines to be long and painful, but this one was breezy and involved no tumbling of my underwear into public view so it was a vast step up from the morning. The train ride itself was uneventful but my chill kind of evaporated in Gare du Nord where I officially became the sole sort-of French speaker between the two of us and did not feel all that confident about it, despite the Duolingo owl stalking me day and night to practice for a year and a half. No doubt part of my insecurity lay with the fact that I’d never spoken French with another person, only into a microphone at my computer, and I suspected that in my efforts to pronounce words properly, I sounded more like someone putting on a bad French accent than a regular everyday French speaker.

The train systems in Paris and further into France are complicated enough that I wanted to handle as much as I could in advance, figuring out exactly what trains we needed to take, where to board, and booking tickets in advance if I could.  It’s not a trip planning method that leaves a ton of room for spontaneity but when it comes to transportation, I’d rather have a plan than feel like a free spirit.  I’d booked our first night at the Hotel Eiffel Seine, not due to its visibility of the Eiffel Tower* OR the Seine but due to its proximity to the RER-C train which we’d be taking to Versailles early the following morning. I knew what trains to take and where to transfer to get from Gare du Nord to Champ de Mars – Tour Eiffel…on paper. Gare du Nord in person was sensory overload, huge and loud with so many trains and a sea of fast, purposefully moving people and an unforgiving subway ticketing system that only vaguely indicates what you’re buying and if you make a mistake, you need to start the purchase process completely over which isn’t frustrating at all. After I finally figured out the machine I was at was broken, I waited in line for another one, had to start and restart my purchase three times but finally had subway tickets. Finding the correct train was another struggle but once that was figured out…boom, there’s the Eiffel Tower.

We made our way to the hotel and the moment came: I was going to have to speak French. As I opened my mouth, I realized I didn’t know the words for “reservation” or “check in” and it was just like when I got into my first car accident: I was blinded by the morning sun in the direction that I needed to turn, I couldn’t see if a car was coming, there was pressure behind me from other cars in the neighborhood and so I decided to just go for it, pulling out in front of a white van perfectly camouflaged by the sun, totalling both vehicles. “I’ll never drive again,” I cried on the phone to my father. “You’re driving again TODAY.” he replied.  So here I am, in the lobby of this hotel, I know I’ve got to say something, but I don’t know the right words, and pressure real or imagined made me decide to just go for it, so I opened my mouth and a car crash in French with my name came out. The receptionist replied immediately in English. I felt simultaneously better about my chances of surviving the week and disappointed in the Duolingo owl for preparing me to inform someone that a bear has pants but not this. Still, I wasn’t going to let this stop me from continuing to attempt to conduct business in French; I didn’t want to assume everyone speaks English and I also felt as though it would be rude to not at least try to communicate in the language of the land. And also because I didn’t spend a year and a half mangling a language into a microphone to get shy about mangling it now.

Our room was oriented to get a peep at the Seine but somehow we still ended up with a view of the Eiffel Tower(s).

After we checked in, we dumped our bags and walked to get a closer view of the Eiffel before it began its hourly disco party. I don’t know if we could have gotten closer to the tower than we did, but not far up the block from us were soldiers carrying what appeared to be automatic rifles and my reaction was to find some pressing business in the opposite direction. I know that they are a continuing presence on the streets of France ever since the the January 2015 Île-de-France attacks but generally I don’t see a person with a huge gun and think “Hurrah! My personal safety level has increased!” No, I’m more invested in the idea of not having to try to explain myself in French to someone with a huge gun who wants to know why I’m trespassing after visiting hours. 

BURGER PIZZA

We spent the drizzly evening walking around, taking in the sights and trying to figure out where we wanted to eat. Neither one of us was really in the mood for a full restaurant meal so we went to Poilâne where I conducted a transaction for bread in French pretty easily (hurrah!) and they gave us each a small, buttery cookie. Afterward, we walked to Franprix and bought some cheese and fruit and other goodies and had a hotel room picnic.

 

 

 

*It is my understanding that the Eiffel Tower is visible from any part of Paris which is why any movie or TV show that cuts to Paris always has the Eiffel Tower in the shot. Look at how many times it appeared in this post alone!

Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland

Jason and I flew to London on yet another screaming deal from IcelandAir. The plan was to arrive hungry, ready to hit the Borough Market, but on our flight, Jason broke down and ordered the admittedly delicious-looking pizza and hummus as a snack. And while I know that jokes about the quality of airline food had their time in 1991, what the flight attendant delivered to his seat in the name of each of those foods is, if not a violation of the Geneva Convention, at the very least, a crime against humanity’s tastebuds. The hummus was dry and crumbly and I refuse to call to that odd, sweaty cheese tart “pizza”. The pizza in the photograph and the congealed food item that arrived look like they were made on different planets. It’s like it was made by someone who had only ever read about pizza in an illustrationless book but was intrigued by the concept.

Jason still ate some of it, though. And later, when we were waiting in line at Heathrow customs to see one of the two customs agents who had bothered to show up for work that day, and I was getting hungrier and hungrier…did you think I was going to say I wished I had eaten some, too? Hell no! I thought back on that hockey puck of crust and coagulated dairy patty and added IcelandAir to the list of entities who have deeply betrayed me.

We were spending the night at The Morton Hotel in Bloomsbury, just across Russell Square from The British Museum. The Russell Square tube station exit involves cramming oneself onto an elevator with a lot of other people and a staircase with a stern sign at its base. “This staircase has 175 steps (equivalent to 15 floors) Do not use except in an emergency”. Well, my emergency that day was that I didn’t want to ride in an elevator with an entire tube carriage’s worth of people, and I started heaving myself up the stairs. I made it, but paid for it with the deep, racking cough of the consummate non-runner and someone who definitely hasn’t climbed fifteen continuous flights of stairs in a good long while. That cough continued through check-in at the hotel, and I can only assume that they thought I was bringing a new plague to their doorstep but were polite enough to wait to talk about it until I was out of earshot.

As this was a backpacking trip, I was glad of the opportunity to stop at the hotel and strip out all unnecessary items from my bag to lighten the load. In addition to my camera, I’d managed to fit everything I needed to keep myself clean and presentable-ish for a week in my travel backpack with a little room to spare, but even travel sized everything and the bare minimum of clothes and paper took on what felt like a mighty mass when carried on my shoulders, especially when said carriage involves fifteen flights of stairs for some reason. But I didn’t need spare underwear or the noise-canceling headphones I’m too spoiled to travel without for the rest of the day’s activities: the aforementioned sandwich-eating and Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park.

My sandwich at Roast Hog was perfect (again), greasy, crunchy, chewy and absolutely restorative. Here’s the photo from last time, I was too busy eating to take another.

Afterward we rode the tube to the vicinity of Hyde Park and its spectacular Winter Wonderland, host to 2.5 million visitors annually, and based on the number of prominent warning signs throughout the grounds, a fair portion of those visitors are in good standing with the Pickpockets’ Guild.

We were there primarily to meet some friends at the ice bar but since we were going to be there, I prebooked tickets for us at the Magical Ice Kingdom presents: The Secret Forest.  We were supposed to arrive 10 minutes prior to our appointed time, which was rapidly approaching, so after we got through the security line, we hustled back through nearly the entirety of the grounds so as not to be late and forfeit our sole opportunity to experience to this hotly-anticipated attraction. Their website really emphasized the importance of prebooking tickets, and particularly when I’m planning an international trip, I take website recommendations very seriously. Very seriously. So I created an account, I bought those tickets, and when I say “we hustled back” I mean that I walked so fast that I could’ve set a small fire between my thighs and Jason had no choice but to keep up.  And when I arrived, ashen-faced and distraught and two minutes late, hoping they’d still admit us, I realized the Winter Wonderland website may have oversold the public’s keen desire to view ice sculptures. And while purchasing tickets in advance may indeed be necessary during the high periods, on a Monday at 4pm, not so much. In wintry terms, the crowd was more “scattered snowflakes” than “snowpocalypse”. However, that may just be the genius of a perfectly timed ticketing system working precisely as it should. 

One enters The Secret Forest through a door underneath a sign clearly marked “Secret Forest” so…the secret’s out. The snow and ice sculptures contained therein were in turns realistic and whimsical, and they had some fun photo opportunities, including the ability to photograph yourself as half ice-faun or half ice-centaur and on a throne of ice surrounded by icy battle unicorns. The ice throne was obviously my favorite, and it’s the kind of thing where I’d be tempted to show up with a costume if not for being 4700 miles from home and constrained by what I could fit in a backpack. Speaking of the backpack, I learned that one does not slide particularly well down an ice slide while wearing one. It was day one, and my resentment against this backpack was already growing.

After hanging out in a refrigerated warehouse for a while, then scooting down a ramp of ice like a dog across carpet in front of some British teenagers offering suggestions about my technique, I was more than ready to be somewhere warm with a similarly warm beverage. We settled on the Arctic Lodge Bar, an open rectangle with a bar, a series of benches, and roaring woodfires. My wish for a warm place to drink a warm drink was granted; I thought the condition of “breathable air that doesn’t leave you with the start of a fine smoke ring” was implied, but alas. The smoke would have driven me out eventually but the only seats in the house were directly across from a couple engaged in some vigorous displays of public affection and the layout of the seats were such that there was nowhere to look to as to avoid knowing the finger points of a stranger’s kissing technique, so that got me out first because I am evidently a prudish American. 

Also because there was plenty of stuff I wanted to see before we went to the ice bar, and I am referring in particular to the giant man looming over the Bavarian village that I had noted from a distance. I spent some time watching this enormous puppet do its thing, and finally concluded that it was the dirty, independently-moving fingers that were the creepiest, and not the the little shudder of flesh under its chin when it spoke, but it was a close thing. 

This was Jason’s third hot chocolate or thereabouts and the glee is starting to kick in.

Jason and I were both drawn to Dr. Archibald, Master of Time, and his vaguely threatening steampunk owl looming over the midway. It was a combination physical and virtual reality ride, and either one of us would independently admit to this day that we would have rather kept the admittance token as a souvenir. The ride itself is fine (it’s not my favorite thing to put VR headsets over my glasses, and I like having a ride attendant jam one over them far less) but that token is spectacular and handing it back after a few steps felt wrong. 

We met our friends Sean and Colleen outside the ice bar, where we were issued parkas and (damp) gloves. This “sub zero” ice bar sounds on the edge of perilous until I remember that -10°C is equivalent to 14°F, or vastly warmer than most winter mornings I spent waiting for the school bus in a hooded sweatshirt in Wisconsin. The gimmick of the ice bar is fun for a bit but after you’ve sat on an ice chair and drink from your awkwardly thick ice cup, you’ve fairly well plumbed its depths. I did have a wonderful time catching up with them both and hearing about their adventures over the past few months, like hiking Hadrian’s Wall–the kind of action-adventure travel that probably doesn’t begin with someone hacking their lungs out after climbing fifteen flights of stairs.

Chicago: Surgery and Stamen, Puerperal and Purpurea

It was our last day in Chicago as a triad, and we started it at the International Museum of Surgical Science. I haven’t often considered the great debt I owe to history’s physicians, and I take the relative ease with which many formerly deadly ailments can be healed for granted. Which, when I really think about it, is wild. It was just 100 years ago that a broken femur meant an 80% mortality rate. An 80% chance of dying from a broken bone! The Thomas splint, introduced in 1916 by Hugh Owen Thomas, the father of orthopedic surgery in Britain, reduced the mortality rate from 80% to 20%.

About 200 years ago, doctors started to believe in germs, but there were holdouts into the mid-late 1800s who staunchly refused to accept or understand their role in transmitting disease from patient to patient.  Before the germ theory of disease was accepted (the idea that microorganisms invade the bodies of humans and animals and it is their growth and reproduction that cause disease), doctors would go from patient to patient or from an autopsy to a birthing without washing their hands or changing their clothes despite their being “most thoroughly imbued with effluvia“. Disease was thought to be caused by an “imbalance of humours” or by walking through bad air.

Anesthesia was developed around the same time, with the first successful anesthetized procedure occurring in 1846, and while many doctors were excited about its surgical possibilities, there were, again, some holdouts who considered its use wrong and even immoral. “I think anesthesia is of the devil and I cannot give my sanction to any Satanic influence which deprives a man of the capacity to recognize law! I wish there was no such thing as anesthesia! I do not think men should be prevented from passing through what God intended them to endure!” remarked William Henry Atkinson, physician and first president of the American Dental Association, which makes me wonder what I’m intended to endure when I purchase a toothbrush or paste endorsed by the ADA. 

Still, even doctors who embraced anesthesia for its ability to allow more invasive procedures often found that their successes ended in the death of the patient, and this is the direct result of antiseptic measures not yet being in place due to the idea of germs being rather newfangled. Thanks to the work of individuals like Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister (who promoted the sterilization of operating rooms and equipment in the 1870s), the risk of contracting an infection after surgery has been dramatically reduced. And so, on the few occasions I’ve been under the knife, I haven’t had to gnaw on a belt, conscious, while a doctor rooted around in my insides who may or may not have washed his hands beforehand. Modern surgical science has given us all that.

The Hall of Immortals, sculptures by Louis Linck and Edouard Chassaing

The Right Honorable Sir Joseph Lister, surgeon, pioneer of antiseptic surgery, and for whom both Listerine and Listeria are named.

Marie Curie, physicist and chemist, who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity.

Louis Pasteur, biologist, microbiologist, chemist, discoverer of the principles of vaccination, microbial fermentation, and pasteurization.

The books at the International Museum of Surgical Science are soft packed in tissue paper as a means of preservation. 

With all the natural sunlight spilling into the room, I would not be surprised if the top of the desk is discolored around and thus ironically damaged by the sign they placed to protect it.

Antique glasses case made of shagreen, a rough-textured leather that is traditionally from a shark, ray, or horse and dyed a pale green.

Medical device or chill piece of fashion? 

Things that came out of people. And maybe animals? For sure people.

A fascinating series of illustrations demonstrating pioneering techniques for nasal reconstruction by using adjacent flaps of skin. Making your armpit the first thing you have to sniff with your new nose is the medical profession’s way of keeping you humble about your new nose.

It’s going the extra mile in your medical illustration to not only finely render your subject but add a whole rhino in the background. 

All that talk and video of invasive surgery gave me the kind of renewed zeal for life that it takes to eat a slice of deep dish pizza at Giordano’s or any place that deals it Chicago style. I used to be defensive about whether Chicago style was “real” pizza or not (it is!) , but I will now begrudgingly admit that it is not the style that springs to mind when the word “pizza” is uttered within earshot. Chicago style is pizza but it’s pizza that’s being extra by basically being a pizza stacked on top of a pizza.  A pizza casserole,  stuffed with more mozzarella than I’m comfortable contemplating when I’m not eating it. When I’m eating it, I’m more than fine with the amount of cheese in there. 

We drove past this place on our way to the Chicago Botanic Garden and I just…why would you name your outlet for luxe furniture The Dump? What on earth do you think is appealing about that name? Would you name a fancy ice cream shop The Squirts?

It was sweltering when we visited the Chicago Botanic Garden, hot and humid. The kind of heat where you don’t know if you’re sweating or the moisture in the air is condensing into droplets and rivulets on your skin or large amounts of both. The two pounds of mozzarella rolling around in my stomach probably didn’t help matters. It was so steamy that my glasses started to fog up even as my eyelashes spritzed the lenses with sweat for what amounted to a constant blurry filth filter on the world.

We sweatily unfolded the map and determined that the one place on the entire 385 acres we definitely didn’t want to visit was  “Spider Island” so of course we found ourselves on Spider Island almost immediately. It’s the same kind of magnetism that draws a cat over to fawn on a visitor who isn’t particularly fond of cats. The spider hivemind on Spider Island sensed that Dianne and Dee were both vehemently uncomfortable with their kind and by the powers granted to them by Newton’s Third Law they thus reoriented the earth so that they might love us, placing our feet on the bridge even though we were trying to get to the sensory garden.  At least once they had lured us near, the spiders deigned to reveal themselves. Repelled by our sweatiness, they preferred to just peer at us from above. And behind. And below. And just next to the nape of your neck.

Echinacea purpurea

Sphex pensylvanicus, the great black wasp. The gothest of the wasps.

Dahlia

I love a willow draping dramatically over anything.

I feel like I will never have truly lived if I don’t see a martial arts movie where someone uses this kind of banana as a flail.

Gardenia

There were plenty of other visitors, but most had gathered on the lawn for the music event, so we mostly had the grounds to ourselves. And the spiders, of course.