Leaving on a Jet Plane

I have to be awake in six hours. I’ve taken down all of my cards and notes from my bulletin board, made a half hearted attempt at vacuuming the carpet, threw away my pink hair dye, and donated my shoes. Tomorrow morning I’ll wake up, fold up my sheets and pillows, and put them in the donation bin, hoping they find their way to a shelter since they’re still useable. My yoga mat, unable to find a new home, is sitting unceremoniously in a garbage bag in the kitchen.

I found a book someone had given me as a going away gift last September while I was cleaning: a fold out map book of London, divided into 8 areas, with lists of famous places and restaurants or pubs. I sat down and flipped through the book, pleasantly surprised to find I had visited, at least once, all of the areas listed in the book. I really had seen a lot of the city. I certainly favored and frequented certain areas of the city more than others, but, this was a nice feeling to have, as I know a lot of people who study abroad and stay central to where they live and go to school, not bothering to explore other places.

Not only do I feel as if I’ve seen as much of the city as I could, I have explored enough to develop favorite places. I mentioned off-handedly to a friend that I even have a favorite Tube station – Holborn, since it’s close to The Strand, home of the Old Theatre for the London School of Economics, where I got to see Critical Thinking Greats like Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak speak, and, recently, home to spray-painted feet outlines on the escalator steps. (My least favorite Tube station is probably Charing Cross, which not only has a really long hallway to traverse with a slight grade so you’re actually walking uphill the whole time, but also has 8 different exits, making it rather confusing to navigate even after you’ve left the train.) My favorite coffee shop is a toss up between a semi-chain Yumchaa and Amanzi Tea in Marylebone – dozens of unique tea options, delicious eats, and a comfortable place to work. My favorite place to score a hearty lunch is the Mac Factory booth at the Camden Market where you can get a full size mac and cheese and a bottle of water for 5 pounds. But you’ll have to throw some elbows, especially on the weekends. It’s a hundred percent worth it, though. My favorite local dinner place is a Chinese / Dim Sum / Sushi place called Bento Ramen that we went to on a whim over New Years’ Eve, and haven’t stopped going to since. My favorite non-tourist adventure would have to be the Dennis Sever House, a sort of Victorian-age living Eye-Spy, set in a three story house in East London – it’s five pounds for students on Mondays, at lunchtime.

Tonight, we went to my favorite Indian restaurant. It was a treat, and I’m glad I got to spend my last night with friends, good food, and (despite the confusion it caused the waiter) a delicious iced chai latte. I’m excited to bring my family back here, hopefully next year, and re-explore my favorite places – and hopefully explore some new ones – with them. I’ll miss other, slightly less tangible things about London, like how comfortable I have become with the public transportation system. I’ll miss sitting on the top deck of the bus, and catching the right branch of the Northern line train on the first try. But right now, I think I am ready to go home. I’m ready to see my family, to use an outlet without an adaptor, and to take a bath. I’ve spent a year shopping and cooking largely for myself, and I’m excited to cook for a big group of people again, and for “I have no food in the house” to mean “There’s at the very least pasta, cereal, and veggies” instead of “I have paprika, ketchup, and one egg.”

I am sure I will feel differently next week, when it will be the first September in 20 years where I will not be starting school, but right now I am happy to be finished. I came here to get my master’s degree in bio-archaeology and forensic anthropology, and I accomplished that. I passed my classes, and I handed in my dissertation. I learned how to clean bones, how to properly age and sex a skeleton, and how to diagnose syphilis (although I clearly have not learned how to spell syphilis on the first try). I learned, or perhaps, re-learned, that I am not a single discipline kind of person: I was unable to write a single paper without falling into cultural anthropological frameworks, and at times, when writing my dissertation, found myself writing pages of literary analysis. My forensics paper, a straight-forward analysis of the mis-application of traditional aging, ancestry, and sexing methods on Hispanic skeletal remains, turned into a cultural critique of how the United States views foreigners. My dental term paper involved a thorough discussion of the politics of the label “adolescence” and asylum seekers when it comes to aging children by their third molar. My conclusion for my term paper on facial reconstruction used critical race theory to explain the continued  ineffectiveness of the practice. In my defense (if one is needed), I believe it was my classes that reinforced this thought process, that even science, at its core, is affected by culture – maybe in ways we cannot always see. My forensics classes in particular, highlighted the utter subjectivity of the practices we were learning. To me, exploring the reason for that subjectivity often led to intersections of culture, race, gender, and power. While I do not think I will pursue a higher degree, or even a career, in the specific things I was taught (such as siding and identifying teeth, sexing skeletons, diagnosing paleo-diseases) my time at UCL has shown me what I want to learn more about, which is, (at least the best way I can describe it) the intersection of medicine, the physical body, and culture. I believe that any experience that helps you figure out what you love is never a waste. I also believe the skills I’ve learned here will benefit me, and while I may not be forced under a time limit to identify the foramen rotundum of the sphenoid bone any more, they were useful to learn.

While I have, largely, (despite the many phone calls of frustration) enjoyed my education at UCL, I have grown to see that experience as just one of many I got to have while living in London. I was lucky enough to be able to travel, both near and far, with friends, and alone. I am excited to see what experiences will come next, lucky that I know I’ll always have the support of those around me.

It’s been a good year, London. Thanks for making me feel at home.

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A Statue, a Cathedral, and a Subway

I was having dinner with a good friend of mine last night and we were talking about spaces and the differences between America and Britain. We have ‘small town America,’ (STA) these places where everyone knows everyone’s business, there’s one street that goes through the town, drive by it and you might miss the whole thing.  I’ve never lived in STA, I was raised in the middle – I didn’t grow up in a big city, but I didn’t live far enough away to be in the middle of a cornfield. No one knew anyone’s business; I barely knew the families who lived on my block. We had tree lined streets, but I could run to 7/11 when we ran out of milk. When I moved away to college we lived in a weird deserted offshoot of STA – the valley was more like an interconnected chain of College islands, the one highway that ran between them I imagined as one of those two-lane causeways down in the Keys. The town populations in the valley ballooned during the school year and dwindled to barely nothing in the summer – we brought all the gossip with us and took it away when we left. We had very few ways off the island, and a walk to the grocery store was a three mile uphill endeavor down a major road. I asked her what the equivalent to STA was here, as the city of London’s boundaries tend to grow farther and farther out with every century. If you head West, the suburbs are quaint and cute and full of flowers and brick lined streets, if you head East, industrial-turned-artist’s-commune lofts pop up, full of street art and flat roof tops.

The rest of the United Kingdom is different. For a country that has a century’s worth of history on the U.S., a lot of it has fallen by the wayside, propped up with consumerism. The big cities retain a lot of their history, it’s easy to find, and usually keeps to itself. In Edinburgh there are some big ticket shops but the main thoroughfare is mostly tartan wool shops, giant churches, bag pipe repair places, and whiskey shops (and a scotty terrier shaped shortbread cookie store) – all thoroughly Scottish. There’s no shortage of unique places to eat, and the landmarks, like Greyfrier’s Bobby, a graveyard, and the two main castles, weren’t overrun with signs for buy one get two free deals at the supermarket. If you walked to the edge of city there’s King Arthur’s Seat, giant stretches of green hills where you can walk up for hours and not pass anybody. But the smaller cities in England are overrun with a sad sense of capital: the big city mouse has found its way to the small town and brought all of its stuff with it.

Today I am in Coventry. I’m not an anglophile by any means, I skipped out on European history in favor of Russian history, but even I know a little bit about Lady Godiva, the cathedral, and Coventry’s role in the second world war as a decoy town. I was excited to take a little train trip and see some old english houses. The train station is a good walk from the city centre and across a four lane highway. Once you amble across the highway the “city centre” comes into view and it looks just like the outdoor mall by my house. I careened down another street in an effort to find, well, something more interesting than a bank and wound up wandering through the housing units for Coventry University (“campus founded in 1992,” according to Google Maps). Every once in a while I catch a glimpse of an old building – the Alms house for the Old Women of coventry (built in 1509, restored in the last century after it was bombed out), but they are few and far between. I found the cathedral (in ruins) – as if someone had carved out the guts and left the outside of a really ornate pumpkin. There were people inside eating their lunches, on a work break. Some tourist was taking pictures. There was a sign that had a line drawing of what the cathedral used to look like. The Lady Godiva statue (on Trip Adviser’s list of “30 things to do and see in Coventry!”) is smack in the middle of a bank (Nationwide), a Starbucks (where I am charging my phone and drinking a hot chocolate because it’s 50 degrees), a Mexican restaurant called Las Iguanas, and a Primark. Lady Godiva’s News, “tobacconists, newsagents, confectionery” sits next to the Nationwide, borrowing the name of the statue to advertise convenience in black and white script font. In googling what to do and see in Coventry I came across the Music Museum but it’s closed on Tuesdays. And Wednesdays. And Mondays. I want to walk down to the canal basin and may try and poke my head into Mary’s Guildhall (according to TripAdviser reviews, it has a ‘real atmosphere’ when the place is empty).

I’m not sure what I’m looking for, or what I think is missing, but I felt similarly when I visited Canterbury. Another small city that I know enough about to recognize, although I’ve only read two and a half Canterbury tales. I have a friend who attends the University that took up residence there (each train station proudly claims a different English institute of higher education) and was excited to visit. We wandered through the city centre, also a giant outdoor mall (Debenhams department store, Primark, Starbucks, Clarkes’ shoe store, with the added addition of an American Pancake House which we visited for breakfast). I chose not to pay the exorbitant fee to enter the cathedral, and with that we had officially run out of things to see in Canterbury. We wandered along the river and passed a statue of an old man, and my friend waved her hand in his general direction saying “I think he was important, maybe” – I took a few steps closer to read the nameplate: Geoffrey Chaucer. Arguably (by me) the founder of the city, and my friend didn’t seem to know or care.

I don’t actually mind that I took a two hour train ride to sit in a Starbucks and drink hot chocolate. One of my favorite activities to do when I am home is to get in the car and drive until I find some small alcove of a main street and wander around. But the towns where I live aren’t old, they don’t have thousands of years worth of history or literature or art. We don’t have alms houses or statues of famous authors. I’m not angry, I am glad I took this day trip – just a bit critical? Where are all the things this country is known for disappear to? Can’t they stand on their own? Maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to judge, I’m sure Subway, Burger King, and Starbucks keep this small city afloat, but I much prefer the harbor towns in northern Michigan, the ridiculously well advertised Wall Drug in one of the Dakotas (“Wall Drug: 70 miles ahead” … “Turn around! You missed us, we’re 30 miles back the other way!”), the cool vintage shops in Knoxville, Tennessee, or the Book Mill in Montague, Massachusetts.

Small Feats: More than halfway done

I’m a firm believer in checking in with where you are, especially if you’re halfway through a project. When I worked with the Speaking, Arguing, and Writing program at Mount Holyoke those were my most frequent appointments; someone just visiting to check that they were headed in the right direction for a paper.

I’m a little past the halfway mark: seven months gone; five left. So I thought it would be good to check in with myself and my own projects.

A project I set for myself when I arrived here was to become comfortable with public transportation. I never had a problem with it when I lived in South Hadley – I took the bus all the time. But that was largely because the bus only went to places: Amherst and Northampton. It was impossible to get lost and there was only one line. I grew up taking the Elevated train (The El) in Chicago, and I am quite comfortable with certain lines – but since I didn’t live in the city proper I never got comfortable exploring the only lines that went West or South. I mostly stayed where I knew: the Loop, or the North side. I never took buses. I had this weird aversion to them – mostly because I had an aversion to standing in public by myself waiting. In my mind if I kept moving nobody could snatch me – not that anyone would ever try and snatch me, or hurt me, or take my money. Also – we had a car. By the time I was old enough to want to go places I would just drive, or walk, or if it was nice during the summer I would occasionally bike.

I took the tube to get to my flat (and the overground) to get me around my first step into London. The next day my friend and I took the buses to buy some essentials like cookware and a laundry bin. I learned which route I lived on, what buses went past my flat, and where they went. I learned how to get to school, both walking (a 35 minute one way endeavor that I’ve only done once) and by bus and tube. I was surprised at how quickly I adjusted to moving with public transportation in the city. I take the bus every day to get to school, or to my favorite coffee shop, I take the tube to get to my friend’s neighborhood, or to one of an outdoor market.

I take public transport largely now because I pay for a monthly pass, but also because I find it a very efficient way to get around. I have seldom wished for a car -although there were a few frigid days where I considered taking a taxi home – and I am happy that my ability to read street maps has improved greatly. All in all, I think conquering London transport is something that I can cross off my list. Some people have larger goals when they move to a new city – but this was my first city, so I decided to set a small, achievable goal.

I am capable of setting small and achievable goals – it’s the only way I know how to get tasks done: when I was in college, if I had a 300 page book to read I would divide it up into 25 page increments a day. I would hold myself accountable to those pages, and if I skipped a day, I would double the amount of reading the next. I’m the only person in my class who finished Middlemarch on time. For all of that, I am fairly crap at holding myself accountable to anything related to exercise. When I fenced it was mandatory that we showed up to practice at least three times a week. Ask anyone, I bitched and groaned the entire way to practice, during stretches, and I hated drills. I liked tournaments a lot more because it was a new environment. Similar with my P.E. requirement: I took five credits of beginning yoga (over 8 semesters) and every Tuesday at 7:55am I would still begrudge the instructor. I hated being beholden to someone else’s schedule, and I hated working out in a public space.

I decided I would find a way to change that when I moved to London. I wasn’t going to pay for a gym membership because I knew even the paid incentive wasn’t enough to force me to go. So about a month ago, when the end of winter was retreating and classes had stopped, I started searching for yoga programs I could do at home – because while I hated the classes we took at school, I did find the practice relaxing. I found a 30 day yoga challenge and went out and bought a yoga mat. For once, I was holding myself accountable for me. No one was going to dock my graduation credit if I didn’t show up to the mat in the morning. No one was going to chide me if I didn’t stretch.

I just finished Day 25 and I feel better about myself. When I go to sleep at night I get excited that the first thing I’ll be doing in the morning is going to my yoga mat. I know I personally have a tendency to get distracted while working – I’ll browse the internet, I’ll check my phone, and half-heartedly by reading a book all at the same time. So I made a promise to myself, that I have almost completely kept, that while I was on the mat for however long the practice happened to be that morning – 12 minutes, 20 minutes, 35 minutes – I would give it my entire attention span and I wouldn’t check my phone or any other devices. I would also try my hardest.

I did my best for the past 25 days to pay attention to the videos, but also to pay attention to my body. I have a terrible habit of giving something all or nothing – I’ll either do no push ups or go for broke trying. It’s one of the reasons I hurt myself fencing. I had no concept of giving my body a break, or listening to it when I pushed too hard. This month I made the choice to respect my own body. If I couldn’t do the stretch or do the third set, I would take a break. Now, twenty-five days later, instead of simply doing a plank, I’ll do a push-up, having slowly built up the strength and endurance in my arms and shoulders. And today, briefly, I touched my toes for the first time. I grinned like an idiot because that is something I never thought I would be able to accomplish. Small goals are important, checking in on your progress is important – I think it helps you set your course for how to continue.

While I only have five more days left in this yoga challenge – I’ve certainly gotten my money’s worth out of that mat – I hope to continue with yoga. These are my small tasks for myself. Even if it’s just fifteen minutes, I will be present and think about nothing but working on myself. I will continue working on my flexibility and strength.

Other noteworthy things that have happened in the interim:

-I took a solo day trip to Wales and enjoyed the small city of Cardiff immensely.

-I passed my forensics class with flying colors.

-I worked hard to complete two papers, one presentation, and the core of my dissertation work this month – I feel ready to begin third term.

-I booked a trip to Ireland in May, and a trip to Paris in June. Hopefully I will be visiting Amsterdam in early June.

While I may not have long term goals pertaining to jobs, a career, or my life, I can continue to set small goals while I am here. In the words of the unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: You can do anything for ten seconds.

The Root Problem with Considering Myself a STEM Woman

One of the reasons I wanted a Master’s of science as opposed to a Master’s of arts largely had to do with the weight and trustworthiness that hold up those two words – especially as a woman. There have been many attempts, throughout my generation, to narrow the gap between men and women in STEM – Science, Tech., Engineering, and Math. While natural curiosity frequently fuels children’s interest in science – as a general term – popular media and inherent biases often push out young girls’ desire to pursue science by the time they enter schooling age. When they enter college, that desire shrinks to a minuscule level, often due to external social pressures, and that’s where we wind up with the abysmal (and often-cited) statistic that 18% of STEM workers are women. While my degree may use the word, I have always struggled with considering myself a STEM woman.

I loved being outdoors as a kid. I really liked Lincoln Logs. What that has to do with science and technology, I don’t really know, but I could make a case for the Lincoln Logs and engineering. I transferred most of my “scientific” curiosity to baking and cooking, and despite learning that it was the “practical application for chemistry” I was never able to get the exact science of baking the perfect cookie down. Just ask my parents about the first time I ever made a boxed-brownie recipe. When I entered school, I never felt strong in math, preferring rather to read and write, evidenced, I guess, by the fact that I never made it into the advanced math group. At some point I internalized the idea that not doing well in math, not liking chemistry, placed me strongly in the anti-STEM camp.

When I was in high school and college I worked on honing my analytical writing skills, further deviating, in my mind, from the STEM group. I worked as a peer writing mentor, and I minored in English literature, specializing in particularly dense Victorian novels. But, at the same time, I found myself gravitating toward science oriented classes: I voluntarily took a neuroscience class, and I really enjoyed biology. When I took my second anthropology class, medical anthropology – the study and research of health and disease in humans – I finally had someone explain to me why I felt so conflicted about what “camp” of knowledge in which to pitch my tent.

“Anthropology,” she said, “is the most scientific of the humanities. And the most humanistic of all of the sciences.” She did not invent this quotation. I have no idea who did, but I clearly remember going back to my room and writing that quotation on a piece of paper and pinning it to my door. As an anthropologist, I got to be both. 

As I advanced up the college ladder, I continued to take various anthropology classes, which included everything from the particularly science oriented evolution courses and osteology, to the more heavy handed theoretical courses. When it came time to consider higher-higher education, I felt absolutely compelled to push away from my bachelor’s of arts, and try and pigeon-hole myself into a science degree. I told myself this was because I wanted to be a forensic anthropologist, and a forensic anthropologist was a scientist. Full stop. I told myself that no one would take me seriously as a professional if I did not hold a master’s of science. 

What I did not realize was that this thinking was ridiculously reductionist. I have always struggled with finding a “proper” place in academic work, because academia wants you to be one thing. As an anthropologist, you are asked to pick a region. You then become an -ist: are you an Africanist? Americanist? All of your anthropological work should come from, focus on, and inform your region. This is how they choose professorships – they don’t want to bring two professors in who both focus on the same area of the world. When I was in college we had a linguist, an East-Asian anthropologist, at one point two different Americanists who focused on different regions of South America, and a Middle East anthropologist. In order to graduate I was even required to take a region specific class: I took two, one on the Middle East after 9/11, and one on the Atlantic world after 1500. But even this practice is reductionist, and, more importantly, contradictory to what every anthropology class has ever told me: globalization has created a world without real borders, no one is “without contact” and we should be studying the connections between groups, instead of the factors that isolate them. So, why is it still the general practice to narrow yourself down to one region?

It’s because the whole point of higher-higher education is to narrow: you want to learn a lot about one particular thing, so you can become knowledgeable about it. In theory, knowledgable enough to teach other fledgling students. Or, knowledgeable enough to produce groundbreaking research. This is all fine and good, and this is why I chose to pursue a degree in forensic anthropology – because I could see myself with a handful of narrowed positions. While I will always love sociocultural anthropology, if you asked me right now to say what region I want to study, I couldn’t tell you. Some days it’s Brazil, some days it’s England, and other days it’s the United States. On Wednesdays, it’s Australia. Similarly, I have a hard time narrowing down my socio-cultural interests into one area of study, this is largely because most “issues” people study are attached to approximately 99 other issues. So I am always in awe when anthropologists are able to put together well-researched but tightly wound projects.

So, in an effort to reconcile what I felt was a reductionist attitude toward knowledge, and the understanding that more learning meant gaining specificity, I decided to take the path that would teach me specific, scientific skills that I knew how to apply, rather than the path of fieldwork and archival research. My first term here reaffirmed my belief that I was in a scientifically minded program: most of my cohort had studied biology, although some had studied archaeology, and our coursework revolved around anatomy and biomechanics theory.

And yet; I still didn’t feel like a STEM student.

When I worked out the topic for my dissertation -a biomedical history of obstetrics in Victorian England- I began to understand why I couldn’t quite firmly place myself in the STEM box, even though I was clearly studying a scientific pursuit. The crux of my work will focus on archives: I am collecting records of maternity wards in English hospitals, and I will investigate the death rates of mothers and children, and see if the rates correspond to changes in the evolution of obstetric tools (if you want to skip a meal, Google obstetric cranioclast). My question is scientifically minded, but it is also anthropological in nature: when childbirth was absorbed into the medical community- due to confounding factors such as the invention of anesthesia and antisepsis, the refinement of obstetric tools, and the invention of “operation specific” tables on which to explore women’s bodies – did family rates drop? Did it get worse before it got better?

This idea of the widening STEM box has become apparent, oddly, the deeper I move into my degree. This term I am taking a forensic anthropology course and a dental anatomy course. I am also taking a paleo-epidemiology methods course, but that’s not worth mentioning: it’s boring for anyone not involved. This entire term is devoted to methods and theory: what are the methods we use to determine information about a person, and what are the methods behind those theories: do they work, and why?

They are framed as being quite scientific:

Tooth eruption happens at very particular ages: your first molars erupt when you’re 6, your second molars erupt at 12, your third molars erupt when you’re 18. Similarly, epiphyseal fusion of long bones happens at predictable intervals: your humeral head begins to fuse at 15, your clavicle stops fusing when you’re 32. The fourth sternal rib end degenerates at very predictable, and exact, age intervals. (Why the fourth rib? The first two ribs ribs, and to an extent the third, are physically different from the other ribs. They’re flatter and broader. After performing the age estimations with all of the ribs, scientists conferred the fourth rib is frequently more accurate.)

But, as you get more into the methods and practical application behind aging and sexing techniques, the “science-ness” becomes so obtuse, it’s almost absurd. When attempting to estimate age from the pubic symphysis or the auricular surface, there are eight stages from which to choose – although different people created the methods. These stages can correspond to age brackets, although it’s best to report the stages. The first stage brackets between ages 18 – 24. That’s pretty specific, pretty scientifically accurate. The last stage age brackets between 30 and 80 (roughly). In my opinion, at this point, it’s more useful to say “Well, they’re between 0 and 100. The answer is somewhere in there.” While it’s comically absurd to see that written down – how can the age range be so wide, how can that type of information ever be useful in a forensic context? The answer is that it isn’t – but what’s more important, is that sometimes that’s all you can say. And when it doubt: widen your range, don’t guess.

I think that’s the most important idea behind STEM: that’s all you can say, given all the information present.

I often felt I never belonged to the STEM camp because I struggled with mathematical proofs, which you could take to the -nth degree. Similarly with Chemistry, I always knew there was a precise answer, it just always escaped me. As I get older, and I talk to my friends and colleagues that I consider real STEM women, chemists, engineers, mathematicians, I hear over and over again that “we can only report what we see” and “we do what we can given the information present.” “Real” science isn’t always about accurately narrow windows of specificity, but rather presenting your answers with confidence (especially when your answer is I am not sure) and with proper evidence.

And for the record: it’s fairly impossible for me to tell if you’ve played tennis, what your ethnicity is, or whether or not you were bitten by a dog when you were five. Scientists haven’t even decided if it’s possible to tell if a woman was pregnant from her pelvic bones. I can, however, differentiate a pig tooth from a human tooth. That has to count for something.

Have a Little Critical Thinking with your Theatre

Showing off your bottom in public, while admittedly fun, doesn’t tend to free people from the shackles of whatever economic system binds them.”                      – Humphrey, C.  (2001) The Politics of Carnival: Festive Misrule in Medieval England. 

Last night, I saw the Book of Mormon, which was very exciting for a few reasons, not least of which being that I had been wanting to see this show since it came out almost 4 years ago. Egregiously high prices and the fact that it just showed up in Chicago very recently had prohibited me from seeing it until now. The London show has a lottery – a lot of New York productions do this, it’s how I got into see Peter and the Starcatchers a couple years ago. Mormon‘s lottery system is pretty spot on in that you don’t have to wait long to figure out if you’ve won, or wait until ten minutes before a 7:30 showing down in West London to see if you can enter. Two and a half hours before the show (5:00) they open the lottery. You put your name in and at 5:30 (we spent our half hour wandering through M&M world. Not only did they not sell pretzel M&Ms, but it was very close to hell on Earth) they gather the two-hundred some odd people around the side door entrance and with, admittedly great fanfare, pull the names out of what they called the “Golden Drum of Wonder”. Not only did we win – we were the second lottery pulled!

Fast forward a weird, unstructured hour and a half later, we get our seats. We were in the stalls, which is the first maybe 30 rows on the floor. We shuffled in and found out that we were in the front row in the dead center. Now, I will admit, that I was a bit nervous in the way that you never want to sit in the first seven rows of a movie theatre. This is because a movie theatre’s stage is tilted and raised – not so with this stage. All worries that I had, about losing depth perception, my ear-drums being blown out as we were immediately in front of the pit (I almost reached out and patted the conductor’s head), or about losing the scenery were completely run aground when they lifted the curtain. We were close enough to see all of the expressions but I was able to take in the whole scenery without having to crane my neck.

I won’t give too much away, but the basic premise of the show is this: A group of Mormon boys have just finished their “Mormon training camp” and are ready to go out on their mission – a two year stint, wherein they aim to bring as many people into the Church as possible, and, spread the word of Jesus Christ and Moroni (“The Great American Prophet…” as the show calls him). The main character, Elder Price, really wants to go to Orlando, Florida to complete his mission, but he is instead sent to a village in northern Uganda with a bumbling fellow missionary, Elder Cunningham.

They arrive in Uganda and promptly have all of their baggage stolen by armed men. When they tell their guide, he replies “Oh yes, you must be very careful.” The show does a lot of spoofing on the Lion King as a set up for the audience, to include them in – or rather gently remind them they are not exempted from – ignorance about Africa. During their introduction to Uganda the villagers tell the missionaries, “we have a saying for when things get tough” – the Elders ask, “does it help?” They quip back “No, but it helps to have a saying” poking fun at the Western appropriation of Eastern mantras. The Elders – and the audience – soon realize that they are not – and will not be for the duration of the show – in Lion King’s Africa. The villagers begin to chant their saying which translates to “Fuck you, God.”

The hilarity is evident when the Elders realize what they have been unwittingly saying – “Oh!” Elder Cunningham shouts “I swore against the Heavenly Father. I said it thirteen times!” On a more serious level, at this moment in the show, we are asked, as an audience member (who, given the capitalist and classist nature of what theatre arts have become is largely white, and absolutely wealthy) to hold (possibly) conflicting ideas about Uganda in our heads: the people in this community are stricken with diseases that are less prevalent in the West (such as AIDS), they take different approaches to curing those diseases (without access to antiretrovirals, because, as one of the villagers so astutely points out “you guys [missionaries] come once every year, you preach to us, and then you leave us and nothing has changed“), but they are not ignorant. They are even more observant than their missionary counterparts and they know how their system works.

We see this absolute understanding, and unwillingness to bend to it, of the system they are trapped in, at many moments during the show. First, they understand that their lives are entrenched in poverty, disease, and sadness. When the villagers sing verse after verse about their daily challenges (“I have AIDS, my daughter has been circumcised”), they then ask the Elders to sing about their struggles (“My plane was delayed, the bus was late, our luggage was stolen”) puts into relief the lack of understanding the missionaries have of the situation of the people with whom they will be living for the next two years.

Later, when the villagers are confronted with the main villain- the armed General of the next village who clearly has been terrorizing the entire countryside – largely because the Mormon leaders have made a big fuss about entering into the community, we see that the villagers know how the system of terror works. The main villager tells his daughter to “hide behind the door, turn the lights off, and don’t let anyone know you are here”, as the General has commanded the circumcision of the entire female population of the village by the end of the week. While they certainly don’t want to go through with the painful medical procedure – which often leaves women sterile, numb, in pain, or dead from infection – they struggle with a way to get out of the system. Lying low appears to be the best approach, but the entrance of the missionaries has thrown the entire balanced ecosystem of that village into chaos.

A lesson of most missionary churches is that they rarely deal with the consequences of their intrusion into a society – and this almost happens at one point during the show. Having been told by the head of the mission units in Uganda that their unit will be immediately shut down and they are to pack their bags and go home, Elders Price and Cunningham are horrorstruck when they realize that would mean leaving the villagers to defend themselves against a threat they introduced into the community (incidentally, this functions as a brilliant metaphor for diseases and colonialism). Instead of abandoning the villagers the missionaries choose to stay, without the consent of the Church, and “fight off” the armed General with what may be the funniest threat in history: “if you don’t leave, Jesus Christ will come down and turn you into a lesbian.

A brilliant undertone of the entire musical is a running joke that, if you pardon this incredibly crude language, highlights the issue with missionary workers’ ignorance and failure to truly help. When addressing their various plights, a villager walks up to the Elders and says “I have maggots in my scrotum.” Completely baffled, Elder Price simply says “Ew, go see a doctor” and the man replies “I am the doctor” – a joke, at which the audience laughs, that reveals many countries cannot lift themselves out of illness and poverty if they have no medical help. What’s brilliant about this joke is that in the reprise at the end of the first act, as well as the reprise that closes the show, the last line sung is by the doctor, reiterating his medical problem. This musical undercurrent perpetually highlights the main issue with programs like the Mormon Church: preaching about your God doesn’t help cure disease, help end poverty, or get rid of dictating generals – they need doctors, medical supplies, and it would be the most helpful if you could teach them how to help themselves. My personal preference is for relief workers to work with the community to figure out what they need, before dumping mounds of medical supplies, or money, at their doorstep.

Above all else, the best part of this show is that it takes no prisoners. At many points, villagers stare at the Elders, preaching about their inserted third section the Bible and just ask, point blank “What the fuck is that? That doesn’t make any sense” – proving, as if we needed any proof, that the people the Mormons were asked to convert already have strong heads on their shoulders and are pretty aware of the world. The show both succeeds in lifting up the veil of supposed ignorance and “backwardness” that missionaries very much believe is entrenched in societies like the village of northern Uganda, as well as knocks the logic and “feel good” attitude of the missionary Church down a peg. Even if you don’t know the Book of Mormon, the show indoctrinates you into its bizarre history and unravels almost all of the logical fallacies within its text – from the brilliant homonym mistake of the “golden plates” (which the villagers take to mean dinnerware), to the lines “I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob/
I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well / And I believe that the Garden of Eden/ Was in Jackson County, Missouri.”

The show also takes the time to present the immense self-doubt missionaries – and let’s face it, any group of people, and that definitely includes anthropologists, who are sent to varying level of remote places to learn up on the people who live there – feel when they are in the field. Doubt and abject loneliness are real problems that fieldworkers face, when they are away from their family, the comforts of their institution (be that institution academia or the Church), among people that do not have to welcome them in or treat them with kindness (but very often do). The missionaries ask themselves at frequent intervals why they are even there, if God has perhaps screwed up His plan, and whether or not God exists at all. What they do with the answers to those questions occasionally lead them down the wrong path, but in the end they succeed in gaining what all people who study other people hope to gain: critical sense of self-awareness, and an appreciation for how much they don’t know.

Aside from its function as a – much needed – critique of missionary culture, the show was – as most episodes of South Park / The Simpsons / Futurama are, one step to the left of crude, incredibly witty, mildly formulaic, and surprisingly self-aware. Most amusing, to me, was the fact that the two main Elders, Price and Cunningham, were clearly played by Americans, and a large portion of the supporting / swing case was played by English actors, who did their hardest to hide their accents.

Two other highlights:

1. There was a tap-dancing number. This amuses me greatly because everyone who studies musical theatre is required to take tap – anyone studies dance, period, is frequently required to take tap – and my understanding of it is that it is kind of the gross anatomy of dance school. Everyone has to do it, no one really remembers anything from it, and they feel they will very rarely use it in their day to day lives as performers.

2. It always amazes me how big the movements of theatre actors are – and how much muscle control and endurance they have. The show runs two and a half long, and at one point during the penultimate number, two swing members of the cast sit on the floor, their backs straight, and lifting their arms together to clap slowly in rhythm for a good two minutes. It’s a quiet intensity of movement – sort of like really well trained yogis. It contrasts well with the giant leaps and jumps – which look to be completely organic, but are in reality tightly choreographed. I have a huge amount of respect for theatre performers.

10/10: would definitely see again, if anyone’s in London and wants to try and swing lottery tickets.

If You Give An Anthropologist a Ritual [She Will Dissect It]

Gender studies and anthropologists Scholars throw the word “performativity” around a lot. I shrunk away from it for a long time, believing it to be a disgustingly pretentious word. It still is a disgustingly pretentious word that few people should use in every day conversation, but it has its place. Effectively it means what it says: the subject performs, the subject’s situation doesn’t merely exist, nor does it spring fully formed into existence. It has to create itself (some would argue it is created). If you think about it for a moment, it makes perfect sense: we do it with everything – our personalities, our habits, our sense of fashion, our choice of breakfast cereal. We actively go out in the world, of course impressed upon by all sorts of unconscious systems such as advertising, family experiences, past exposures, institutional –isms, and we build up ourselves by the choices we make. If asked if Frosted Flakes has always been your preferred cereal, you’ll say No, you just ate it a lot as a kid, and it became a habit, comforting, familiar. You were not born loving Frosted Flakes.

I think it is that switch, when something begins to feel inane to us (“loving moose and patterned socks has always been a part of who I am”) that we forget that we are still continually (and in perpetuity) making it a part of us. It requires maintenance –  and most of the time that maintenance is done behind a curtain. Privilege – of any sort – is the ability to choose, or even to passively forget, that maintenance is done at all.

And if you think that this does not apply within a hard science context – imagine your nervous system, which controls your breathing, your heartbeat, and my favorite, your proprioception. Do you wake up telling your lungs to suck in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide? Do you tell your venous system and arterial system to pump blood? Do you have to look down to tell your legs where the floor is in order to get out of bed and stand up? If any of those systems broke down and the curtain fell away, and you had to open yourself up and examine all the work that went into maintaining you, you probably wouldn’t have enough energy left over to lift a finger. (Having momentarily, and unexpectedly, lost my proprioceptive awareness [your ability to locate your limbs in space without having to physically look at them], it is absolutely draining to all of the sudden become hyperaware of your own body.) Even though you don’t have to tell your body to do any of those things – it doesn’t mean your body doesn’t have to tell itself to work, it doesn’t mean it isn’t performing every day. Literally and metaphorically.

What’s neat about the theme of performativity is that it works in many different contexts. It is frequently used to discuss the idea of gendered privilege, gender as created – but you have just seen how easily this metaphor can function on the plane of the body from a scientific point of view. I would like to borrow it again and manipulate it to talk about culture and ritual. The more I hear about far away examples of peoples, places, and objects, the more I gravitate toward the quotidian – of dissecting the exotic in the everyday, or rather, the overly familiar. What, about my life, that I consider so ingrained, inane, and instilled, is actually a patterned ritual, maintained by familial systems?

This was the first Christmas I’ve spent away from my family. Of course it was wonderful, it was more than I ever could have hoped for – a very good friend of mine and her family opened up their hearts and their home to me, and made me feel welcomed, loved, and comfortable – something I will never take for granted, and am very grateful to have had. What it showed me, as far away experiences and places often do, is the performativity and ritualization of my own family’s holiday tradition. It revealed the maintenance that my family worked hard to conceal over the years, which they disguised as something that just existed in the world. But of course it doesn’t just exist – nothing simply exists.

My family is big: not Depression era nine kids and a one room school house big, but definitely big by today’s standards. We are six unaccompanied, and when holidays descend, we are frequently around 11 to 13. While the location has changed over the years, the ritual of holiday work has invariably involved the same components.

We would descend on my grandparents’ house – which used to be in Michigan (RIP Pleasant Lake House, almost ten years out and I’m still bitter), and is now in Florida (as my brother would say: not Florida Florida, but florida Florida. We’re smack in the center, equidistant – that is to say, not anywhere near – either coast). There would be a tree, and while most of the ornaments would already be up, my grandparents would always save a few for us to put on the tree. I’m not sure if this was orchestrated, or just occurred so frequently because we were clumsy – but an ornament would always break in this process.  Over the next few days gifts would accumulate under the tree, and on Christmas Eve the kids would be rushed off to bed, and Grown Up Family Members would scramble and wrap all the other gifts. At some point, my mom (and for the past few years, the task fell to me) would prepare the casseroles – always the same, one vegetable egg, and one blueberry cream cheese, and put them in the fridge to get to know each other. In the morning our tree’s contents will have doubled in size, stockings would be hung over the mantle (or as is now the case, the breakfast bar counter). We would all assume our place, and my brothers would hand out stockings first, and begin organizing gifts into piles in front of everyone’s seats. The casseroles would be placed in the oven and bake as Part I of Bearman holiday extravaganza started.

We open stockings first, from eldest to youngest, one at a time. Whoever has the most presents in their stocking (hint: it’s always my grandmother) wins. What they win was never really made clear, nor did it ever really matter, but win they did. A break is called and plates of casserole are divvied up. We eat, place the stockings elsewhere, and settle back in for Part II, wherein the larger gifts are unwrapped – this time, youngest to eldest. Inevitably gifts that have been mislabeled are rearranged, and occasionally a gift has been waylaid by the postal service, but more often than not, everything goes smoothly. We spend the rest of the day (by this time it’s usually about 2:00 in the afternoon) reading new books, playing with new toys, and cleaning up the deluge of wrapping paper.

The grown ups in my family have always worked incredibly hard to maintain the curtain. They refuse to show us the hard work. What others would call holiday magic, I prefer to call performance, for it is a more accurate description. We, the children, perform the small parts that have always just presented themselves as “tradition”, (lining up everything in piles, unwrapping gifts in a certain order), but are in actuality the small cogs that support the larger system, or the larger performances – that is the larger maintenance – of traveling, late-night wrapping, casserole preparing, stocking stuffing. All of this together works to create the experience of holiday. For it is certainly created, as all creations are – with love, and the occasional sadness and frustration. Returning every year to a fixed point, to a familiar ritual, begins to feel inane – it begins to feel like it has always been this way, but it’s important to realize, as things are changing, that it won’t always be this way – and so we must work harder every year – if not to recognize and uphold the maintenance (because that would certainly spoil the underlying belief in the system itself) – to appreciate the work that goes into making the ritual. We, I, am starting to realize that our holidays have never simply been anything, and that every year, they are actively recreated.

As my family gets older we are each in our own way forgetting, and coming into realizing, the work that goes into creating this performance, this ritual, this familiar comfort. As five hour car rides turned into twenty-two hour car rides, and gifts turn from magical Athena-ed objects, into thoughtful subjects in their own right – purchased with earned money, given thoughtful consideration. While certainly some of the magic was lost when we inevitably peeked around the curtain – at some point the mechanics of the ritual have to be divulged, otherwise they cannot be passed on – the construction of the gift has been one I have been happy to witness.

I was around eight when I realized Santa’s handwriting looked a lot like my mother’s. My uncle and mother still maintain the ruse of Santa in different forms – we have Japantown Santa from San Francisco, and Michigan Santa, because writing “Love, Mom” hundreds of times is exhausting, and a bit less fun. I was, maybe, in my teens when I started purchasing my own gifts for my family, and have – in the past couple of years – with a limited budget – worked to present thoughtful gifts to my family. What I love more, is to witness this shift, this unveiling of the mechanics of the gift giving process, in my younger brothers. While they were always happy to receive gifts (and still are), they now get as much, if not more, joy (and by the same turn, equal frustration) in giving a gift they have worked hard to pick out. This presents its challenges and joys – my brothers work hard to think outside the box and prefer to abandon all thought of using wish-lists, and instead attempt to really consider the person as a whole. This oftentimes brings me great joy  – this year we teamed up and bought my Dad a subscription to a Salami of the Month Club (Yes, we’re Jewish. Yes, we eat pig) – my youngest brother purchased a fountain pen for my mother. My other brother was over the moon when he found a digital-flip clock for my Mom.

Just as often, this brings me great sadness. I watch my brothers struggle in earnest to search for gifts for my grandparents, who, as the old adage runs true – are beginning to value experiences over things, as they grow older. My mother used to phrase it a bit differently: whatever the gift, they would much rather just see you happy. I copped out with this one this year, and sent them photos of my trip to Stonehenge, and an ornament from my recent trip to Vienna – but it saddens me to see my family work so hard, trying to think of a gift that my grandparents will truly enjoy, and come up empty – which then turns to frustration at themselves, and at the circumstance.

While I have, over the years, become privy to almost all aspects of the work that goes into creating our holiday, it has taken a year away from it to see the landscape that the work creates. Which is a bit odd, given that it is the first time I literally cannot be present to see the landscape – although snapchat and iphones have made that a little less true. We are never really disconnected from anything, are we? I love that landscape, even the frustrated bits (where I shout, scream, sulk, feel overcrowded, am greedy), that I vow every year to try and remedy within myself – I love watching my grandparents wait up for us to get in at midnight, driving to the airport to pick up my uncle and assigning bed schedules (who gets to sleep at the other house with a bit of elbow room tonight?), I love attempting to delineate a clear mark between my grandmother’s birthday (the 23rd) and Christmas proper. I love the wind-down after Christmas as we slide gracefully into the New Year with champagne. Then we pack our bags and saddle up the car top carrier (perhaps we’re more like modern day Joads than I originally thought). Sometime in July, when we have forgotten to send out my grandfather’s birthday card on time (again), I’m pretty sure that’s when the thoughts – all behind the scenes of course – start to go into preparing the holiday for next year.

I thoroughly enjoyed my Christmas this year – it was what I wanted, what I needed, and more than I hoped for – and while I am sad that I couldn’t be with my family, I am fortunate to have family everywhere, who help create new holidays. It was wonderful to peek into someone else’s family’s rituals, which of course are made up of their own histories and are constantly renewed each year, just as with my family’s traditions.

(I got to tick off Vegemite from my To-British list. The verdict: not terrible, but I don’t need to eat it again. I wouldn’t be much of an anthropologist if I didn’t partake in the local foodstuffs, now would I?)

Praha & Wein (Forays into Continental Europe)

I’m currently sitting in [what I would consider] a supremely hipster coffeeshop in Shoreditch – an East London haunt on Brick Lane, formerly the home to pre-World War II Londoners who couldn’t afford the rent in Central London proper (although Shoreditch itself is within Zone 1). Shoreditch was bombed during the war and was built up soon after, and artists moved in, seduced by the low rent. It was, at some point in the near past, “run down,” street art fills the brick facades at a rate unseen in Central London. Soon, if it hasn’t happened already, 25 year old bankers and stock brokers will hop the short distance from East Central London proper over to Shoreditch, and flush out the artists even further East – it’s already happening: they’re spreading to Hackney. It struck me to consider gentrification as I sit in this well curated shop – the mismatched stools, vinyl just so effortlessly distressed, overpriced sandwiches which I have guiltily just consumed. (This sandwich though, I’m not sure I’ve ever waxed poetic about food, but the tart fruit and warm honey and good hearty bread is a nice kick to my system after a week of Eastern European fare.) To my American brain, gentrification means pushing out the lower income sector [often people of color] to make room for the hipster artists. They swallow up businesses by (unintentionally?) racketing the rent. See: Chicago, New York. In London, it’s the artists, the hipsters, the young kids, who are pushed out of their homes, their businesses, their communities. Will this place (quaintly called Full Stop) still be here when, not if, [more] money falls into Shoreditch? Or is it just a cycle, Shoreditch’s population running through its course: artists, money makers, artists again. Either way, the neon pink and green raccoon with lightening bolt eyes and yellow glasses that’s staring at me from across the road, painted on a garage door, is comforting. So is my mint tea.

I was planning to spend the day in bed, curled up in my sheets, surveying the mountain of hastily shed traveling clothes. A pile of sweaters, shirts, pants worn for days, well-loved wool socks, piling up next to my desk. My upturned travel bag spilling out my hat and gloves, bobby pins. My camera case rested on my desk, which itself was covered with notebooks, headphones, keys, various tickets to museums and palaces. I had planned to ignore all of that, hide away from it and sleep. But instead, I picked myself up and washed my face, and the second I started buzzing around my room I wanted out. I shoved the mountain of laundry into my basket, placed my travel bag neatly in the closet, put away the keys, the headphones, the camera, the chargers. I cleaned up my tiny sink area while I brushed my teeth and put on makeup. By the time I pulled on my boots I was ready to go out and explore again.

My mundane trip to the post office, to the grocery store, to the coffee shop, feels a bit underwhelming after my week of travel. But at the same time, it’s nice to start my new routine: we have a break from classes for a month to write papers, research dissertation topics, stretch our legs. I suppose most of my days will be spent like this – heading out somewhere, laptop in hand, scribing emails to research librarians. Or just taking a trip to East London to see something new.

I spent the last week doing something new: I visited Europe for the first time. Technically, I believe, I presently reside in Europe. The United Kingdom is part of the E.U. but it does not keep the Euro currency, nor does it have an open border policy with the continent. I had to pass through border security for a second time when I re-entered London last night, even though I was only flying from Vienna. Regardless, I visited continental Europe for the first time this past week and it was an enjoyable experience.

I went with two friends, both of whom I met during the first week here. We planned this trip a month or so ago, wanting to take advantage of our proximity and break from classes to explore cities none of us had visited. We flew out last Friday evening, I was coming from my final practical exam, from Heathrow. I learned, when the guard quaintly smiled at me, that nowhere else except in the United States, do you remove your shoes to walk through security. I also realized, that while I travel often, it has been quite some time since I’ve had to properly pack for a real trip. I had to Google the weight limit for travel size shampoo because I had never really needed to know the answer. When I flew between home and school, I would use whatever toiletries were available at the other end. When we trek to Florida, we go by car, and there’s no limit for traveling with liquids or food when you pack a car.

Our flight was delayed by some amount of time and I probably spent too much money on snacks at the airport, but eventually we took off to Prague. The flight was only two hours, and I was so tired from my exam that I passed out right after eating what they had labeled as a chicken sandwich, but it looked weirdly like a mash up of what you do with leftover Thanksgiving food, and I woke up with seven minutes till landing. The Czech border security was a breeze: he looked at my passport, at me, my visa, and stamped me on my way. Our first order of business was to find an ATM – we needed money for the hostel and for the bus. Prague is the capital of the Czech Republic (formerly Czechoslovakia), its time as an Eastern bloc country still readily apparent in its currency. It isn’t part of the Eurozone: it uses the Czech Crona – or the crown. It’s roughly 1 pound sterling (or 1.7 United States dollars) for every 42 crowns. Seeing that the lowest value I could withdraw was “3,000” was more than a bit jarring. While we weren’t exactly flush, as a normal street vendor food was 100 to 300 crowns, we made out very well for ourselves. Far, far better than we would fair in Vienna. Of note: the crown currency does not use cents, so all of their coins, from the 1 to the 50, are effectively whole units of currency. The lowest bill I saw was in the form of 100 crowns.

I was unable to take out any money from the ATM because I had withdrawn too many Euros at Heathrow. We wound up having to take a cab from the airport to the hostel for a few reasons. First, as very few people make a true habit of flying into the Czech Republic airport in Prague, it isn’t very big, and it isn’t open very late. With only 2,000 crown bills among us, we couldn’t exactly buy a 32 crown bus ticket -especially since the singular non coin-operated machine was broken. We asked around in an effort to make change, and decided to take a cab. Better, since they could take us right to hostel. It was late, our bags were heavy. The cab was a way to make change – it seemed like the best move.

We arrived at our hostel at 1:00 in the morning. We could pay when we wanted so the fact that I had no crowns on me didn’t mean anything. We were given keys and shown our room. The hostel had free wifi and breakfast in the mornings. It was a funky space – art was everywhere, the walls were painted in big, loud colors. It made the very tall, wide space feel more welcoming. We were on the third floor, above a collection of people from the D.R.C., who we never saw. Our floor had two dorms, each with three bunkbeds, lockers, outlets. There was a common kitchen area, a weird open bathroom layout, and a secret second shower (it wasn’t secret, but it was hidden behind the kitchen, away from the bathroom section so I doubt anyone went looking for it).

We had a couple from Australia stay with us the first night, and some German girls the second two nights. The first day we got up and had breakfast (lots of toast, jam, butter, normal fare) and headed out into the shockingly warm day. I was expecting Prague to be cold, or at the very least, the same weather as London. I was never ‘hot’ per say – because I’m never hot even in the middle of summer – but I was comfortable enough to walk around all day. We headed out into the center of town, a quick jaunt down the street. We booked a walking tour at 2:00, so we wanted to stay away from Old Town before then – our attempts to visit the national Museum failed, as it was closed for two years for repairs. We headed out into the first of many Christmas markets and explored around, grabbing lunch a while before our tour. We visited the astronomical clock, Old Town, the Jewish quarter, the New Town, and ended up somewhere around the Old Town square again. It was a long tour, with lots of stopping – by the end we were grateful for the warm restaurant and bulky Eastern European food. We all had traditional Czech food, which is frankly not very different from traditional Polish, Russian, or German food. Lots of pickled food, many potatoes, tons of meat. Hearty, warm, filling.

Something that I had prepared myself for initially, but was surprised by all the same was the disappearance of the luxury of water (and free public bathrooms). In the States, we may not do many things right, but we have amazing tap water. You can go anywhere and drink out of the tap, and no one will charge you for it. In London, tap water is fine to drink, and often available at restaurants. In Europe, it isn’t: they don’t have potable tap water, instead they sell bottled water. The main issue with the bottled water is it is heavily mineralized (even the “light mineral” version). The more mineral in the water, the less hydrating it is – translating to wanting to suck down more of it. Which is an issue when they charge by the bottle. Suffice it to say, we were careful with our water purchases.

We decided to have one day where we would go out. We didn’t want to go to a club because we weren’t dressed for it, but we wanted to experience some form of nightlife. I steeled myself the best I could: the name of the game was drinking, and I would do my hardest to keep up with my Eastern European roots. Plus – with 42 crowns to every pound, it was criminally cheap to drink cocktails – a luxury none of us can afford in London. To no one’s surprise, this went rather poorly.

I didn’t sleep: between the rocking of the bunk bed, and my headache, I just sort of laid there wanting to slowly drift away to sea. I am thankful, grateful, for the kindness of strangers. I may have looked like a cliched American, but the German bunkmate, who had never even introduced herself, padded out of the room (I would too, I thought) and came back with a small glass of water. “Here” she said, handing it to me. Hands down, that was the kindest and most comforting gesture anyone has ever done for me.

The rest of the day was touch and go: getting out into the cool air helped immensely, and I wouldn’t have traded the miraculous view of the city for anything. We had an enjoyable lunch, walked across the Charles Bridge, stumbled upon these fiercely creepy bronze-tinted baby statues while looking for the Lennon Wall (sad to report, we couldn’t find it), took pictures of the basilica, the palace. We visited the torture museum, a comically poorly translated collection of medieval killing devices. Then we wandered back into the Old Town for dinner, munching on Chinese food. The staff swindled us, but feigned a language barrier: we paid triple the price for a bottle of water, and could do nothing but pay the bill. I was thankful, again, for the low exchange rate of the crown: I could afford to be cheated out of my money in Prague.

That night we decided to find the bus station: it would be good to get our bearings for the next morning. The map said it was a ten minute walk. I am grateful that we went on this expedition, as our first attempt to find the bus station was a spectacular failure. We walked far more than ten minutes in search for this elusive building. We asked a rent-a-car place, we asked two separate store owners. After an hour, we gave up and went back to the hostel to settle our debts and turn in our keys. The next morning, with renewed vigor, we wrote out painstakingly detailed directions and managed to find the bus station with an hour to spare. Even better: the ticket to Vienna was only 7 USD. Well under-budget.

We bought some food with our soon to be useless Czech crowns (I’ve still got a few floating around in my wallet) and waited for our bus. I’m not sure what I was expecting, countrywide wise, maybe some mountain ranges, some rolling hills, some pristine mountain villages – I don’t know. It was foggier than San Francisco in the mornings in July, and the sun set soon after we left Brno (that’s not a typo, that’s the second largest city in the Czech Republic, which, when it was released from the Soviet bloc, was apparently unable to buy any more vowels). So there was nothing to see on our five hour bus ride to Vienna. We took the bus to the airport, and took an 8 euro shuttle to Westbanhoff, and walked a short jaunt over to the hostel.

Something I would soon find out about Vienna: it’s an incredibly expensive city to visit, and it does not believe in outlets. Clearly, the building our hostel was converted from, was never meant to be a hostel. Our room had six beds, and one outlet – by the door. There was a second outlet in the bathroom, in theory used for the hairdryer on the wall. A word about the bathroom. I was the first person to shower. I looked around and fiddled with the doors before hopping inside. It’s a European shower, which basically means the shower head doesn’t stick on the hook. I turned on the shower and it started to spray a bit so I shut off the valve and unhooked the head from the wall and held it facing the floor. A safe bet, I imagined. I took, what I believed at the time, was a very harmless shower. Soaped up, shampooed my hair, and didn’t spend too long humming any tunes. I shut off the water and opened the door to the shower and audibly gasped: there was water on the floor. My gaze traveled up: on the wall. I looked around: beetle sized water droplets had condensed on the ceiling and were beginning to drip. Now, you have to understand, that a few months ago, I had – through no fault of my own – completely flooded my apartment’s bathroom, so badly, that I broke the electrical in the flat below us. It wasn’t my fault, the drain hadn’t been cleaned in ages, and no one blamed me for it, but I was incredibly panicked nevertheless.

I asked for my towel from my bag, and in what would shortly prove to be the wrong order, began to sop up the floor, the wall, the door with my towel. It was only after I had cleaned up the tile that I realized was still a soaking mess. I quickly toweled myself off, yanking around my sore piercing in the process – not thinking, I yelped a bit in pain (a confusing point that would only be addressed days later). I looked up at the ceiling and stepped into the shower, leaning against the sink and stretched up, whacking the ceiling with the towel, attempting to dissipate the water droplets. Good enough. My friend entered the bathroom after me, “Molly!” Oh no, that’s it, I thought, I’m done for, no one will want to travel with me again, and I’ll have to pay for whatever damage I’ve surely caused, “Look at the mirror, it’s so wet” I almost laughed. She should have seen the place before.

A few jokes were indeed made at my expense. The next day, my friend showered, hurrying out afterwards with the biggest apologetic look in her eyes. “I’m so sorry” she said, “that was most miserable shower experience of my life,” water had gotten everywhere. It wasn’t my fault: I was not the only person to get water on the ceiling. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more validated in my entire life.

In Vienna, we wandered around Christmas markets, went to the art museum, and got some street food. I made sure to order a large cheese covered pretzel and some hot chocolate out of a souvenir boot mug, because it felt appropriately touristy. Additionally: it was much colder in Vienna than in Prague. I resolved very hard not to complain about the cold, only allowing myself a few shivers and complaints after my friends bemoaned the weather. In the evening we went out for a hilariously expensive meal. It was 60-ish euros between the three of us, and they nickel and dimed us for everything. It was the first time I had ever paid for condiments, an experience I would not like to repeat.

I may be getting my days mixed up but we saw, in no particular order: the Summer palace of the Royal family, the Sisi museum, and, the highlight of the trip, the Spanish riding school. The Spanish riding school is named so because the original Lippizaner horse – the white stallions – were Spanish. When the Spanish ruler (… I’m going to call him Armand, but that’s incorrect) had to take over Austria’s empire, he brought his horses with him and bred them into the Lippizaner stallion, in Lipizzan (a town). When the Austro-Hungarian empire broke down, Lipizzan fell outside the border of Austria, and so the family was allowed to take 20 horses to Pilber, within the borders of Austria, to breed more Lipizzaner horses, allowing them to maintain the original sire line. At the Spanish riding school in Vienna, there is the winter training facility, stables, which used to be a palace, and are consequently beatifically grand. The horses are turned out for a half hour to warm up, and a half hour to cool down, and when they are training in the summer riding facility, they are turned out into their own individual pastures. For six non-consecutive weeks of the year, the horses are absolved from training. They are seldom ridden, if only to maintain muscle mass, and are simply allowed to be horses for just a little while. This keeps them healthy, strong, and willing to continue the hard training they undertake the rest of the year. A Spanish rider has a full time job: they start training as young as 14 and the cut off acceptance year is 26. They begin doing apprentice and stable work for a few years, and are then taken on as riders, their tuition paid for, and all of their dues paid off. They work 40 hours a week, and ride well into their 60s. The horses themselves are trained from the time they are four years old – they are born varying shades of gray and black, and often lighten to white / lighter gray by the time they are four and retire in their late twenties. It takes about 8 years for a horse to be trained into riding shape, and by that time, they are most certainly entirely white. Tradition has it, that, a black stallion must be part of the breed – it is not looked at as a curse, rather it is a blessing: legend has it that the school will only continue so long as there’s a black stallion at the stables.

We also visited the central cemetery, with over 330,000 graves, all very eclectic and grand in nature. Always a pleasant treat to see how other countries and cities bury their dead. Then we hit up some more Chinese food, and I was pleasantly surprised to make it to the airport with exactly just enough euros for the shuttle. We had a lot of time to kill in the Viennese airport, another building completely devoid of outlets and practical food choices. The flight was uneventful, the hour tube ride home, equally uneventful. I was happy to crawl into my bed around 1:00am on Thursday night/Friday morning.

I feel quite accomplished: I’ve never traveled like that before, without my family, and I would like to think I did very well. I’m exhausted, but I want to do it again. I hope I’ll be fortunate enough to do so in the future.

Here are a few photographs from my trip (I took about 400 total).

Central Cemetery

Central Cemetery

Ceiling of Spanish Riding School

Ceiling of Spanish Riding School

One weird grave.

One weird grave.

Yum, food.

Yum, food.

The astronomical clock

Prague’s Astro-Clock

Cool signs

Cool signs

Hebrew clock in the Jewish quarter. It runs counter clockwise.

Hebrew clock in the Jewish quarter. It runs counter clockwise.

Creepy Baby Statue

Creepy Baby Statue

The creepiest part of the baby statue

The creepiest part of the baby statue

An example of the poor translations from the torture museum

An example of the poor translations from the torture museum

From the Viennese art museum

From the Viennese art museum

Learning the ins and outs of shooting photographs through glass.

Learning the ins and outs of shooting photographs through glass.

Travel friends (Maggie)

Travel friends (Maggie)

Travel friends (Meredith)

Travel friends (Meredith)

Me; Vienna.

Me; Vienna.