Paris & Amsterdam trip, February 2012
The university was kind enough to give us a break from the never-ending cycle of the book and the journal in February, and young Mr Williams and I decided that it would be best spent in Continental Europe. After a touch of debating where to go, and a touch of difficulty in finding available (and reasonably priced) flights, we settled on the cities of Paris and Amsterdam.
This was my second visit to France, and to its glorious capital, and after mixed feelings of the city on my first visit, I again wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Upon arrival at CDG, quick transport on the REB to Gare du Nord, and a quick transfer to another Métro line through to our hostel in Montmartré, it already felt like a more streamlined journey than my last one to the city - where slow regional trains caused frustration straight off bat. Kiel appeared sold when on arrival at our accommodation, he came face to face with the resident cat.
The city is certainly beautiful, and whilst still packed with tourists, was still manageable to a couple of foreigner-averse individuals (never mind the irony). Despite the efficiency of the Métro, we traversed mainly by foot, taking time not just to see, but to feel, to try and understand the nature of the metropolis, and the seemingly innocuous individuals who not only called it home, but importantly made it hum with activity.
Paris left a favorable impression, although I understand it to be a very different city to live in, as opposed to visit. Unlike London, where the city moves due to its nature as a workplace, Paris felt much more segmented between the business intensive La Défence, and the old style urban of the city arrondissements around the Seine.
Having studied some French history, and some French politics, it was enjoyable to be able to put the places, the buildings, and the urban environment to the stories, to impress on my understanding the variously influencing factors of geography and space, and their centrality to making sense of people and events.
Starting each day with pastries and cafe au lait, walking down to the Métro in the cold morning air, armed with naught but cameras and a sense of adventure, I found it hard to believe that we were anywhere but paradise. The ideal vacation for all people is different, but this is where I wanted to be, walking the streets of a beautiful city, taking it the sights, watching people, practicing my very rudimentary French.
We met some very interesting people at the hostel in which we stayed, and the friendliness of strangers, especially when travelling, never ceases to amaze me. I also fell in love, with french onion soup, and have since been working on perfecting my own recipe.
There were many wonderful moments, and I don’t use that term lightly. It was a beautiful time, from wandering through Musée de Louvre, to strolling through Parc Moncéau, to trying to comprehend the sheer size of the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Élysées. Favourites included the above, along with the Ai Weiwei exhibit at the Jue de Paume, strolling casually along the Seine at sunset, along with the gastronomy on offer, and the cheap (and delightful) Bordeaux we consumed at leisure.
After a little bit of difficulty with the train to Amsterdam, we arrived at Centraal late in the evening, and eventually found our way to our accommodation, and our young friend who was there ready to meet us. Already one could feel that this was a very different city, somewhat more gritty, more alive, more debaucherous. The hostel itself was an interesting little thing, a quirky building, with a view out our window over the Oude Kerk, which graced us with a peeling of bells every quarter hour.
Having three in our party in Amsterdam changed the dynamic slightly, which allowed us to split up and head separate ways a few times to explore different sights in the city. Personally, I would always head to the churches than the science museum, and it was nice to be with friends who you know well enough to be comfortable with going separate ways for a few hours.
We hired bikes, rode through the Vondelpark, ate breakfast of baguettes, and explored the multi-faceted city which Amsterdam is, both rough and extremely pretty, both old and new, both industrial and hedonistic. Whilst at times I didn’t feel quite comfortable amongst all this hedonism (the plethora of ‘dirty’ tourists), it was refreshing to be a in such a libertarian and open city. I wish my home town would take some leaves out of the Dutch’s book.
Overall, it was a delightful trip, a time well spent, truly away from the world, without deadline or expectation. It was lovely to be able to spend it with two people dear to me.
Ai Weiwei exhibit at the Jue de Paume
Who is that cutie? - Alf in Amsterdam
Can lockstep, with same expressions and shoes - Kiel & Alf in Amsterdam
Happy after coffee - Alf & Kiel in Amsterdam
Paris - February 18th - 24th 2012, Amsterdam 25th - 28th 2012
As a number of my friends would attest, I do enjoy a good late night walk. In Melbourne, my dog would frequently make her way to the gate expecting our customary late night walk when I was trying to put her to bed. A friend recently commented that a planned 320km hitchhiking journey to Inverness was akin to one of my “late night strolls”. As such, I doubt it would come as a surprise to anyone, that one of my most wonderful evenings in Edinburgh thus far occurred as part of an evening walk.
I mentioned to a new friend, herself also an exchange student in Edinburgh, that I was planning on going for a walk one evening, and she suggested that we could go together, which turned out to be an exceptional idea.
It may be pertinent at this point to point out to the astute observer that the below map roughly shows the journey we took, with many diversions, walks down wynds and closes, and tramps through parks (which of course, can’t be drawn into Google Maps)!
So off we set, making our way down Cowgate, through Cowgatehead towards Grassmarket, and then up Castle Wynd towards Edinburgh Castle.
An interesting fact that I’ve discovered about Edinburgh is the literal nature of street names, which was pointed out to myself and a group of others, when a history lecturer took us on a walking tour of the city. My flat is located on Cowgate, which was originally the narrow route through which cattle were brought into city, up through the aptly named Cowgatehead which is the widening of Cowgate onto Grassmarket. Grassmarket was of course a grassed market where livestock were sold. These days, it is somewhat less grassy, and is a wide boulevard with quite a selection of pubs, of which I may or may not have sampled a few.
Another thing to learn about Edinburgh is it’s abundance of Closes and Wynds, which lead at regular intervals from one street to another. These are particularly useful on Cowgate which runs along a valley between the parallel High Street (the Royal Mile) and Chamber St. The major roads which connect High and Chamber Streets actually run over the top of Cowgate, in the form of George IV Bridge and South Bridge! One would be correct if they guessed that High Street runs along the ridge of a hill (up high), whilst Chamber St is the home of courts and legal chambers (along with the Scottish National Museum).
From Grassmarket, we walked up a steeply staired Castle Wynd to Edinburgh Castle, or at least as close as the gates leading to the forecourt of the Castle. Temporary stands in place for the Edinburgh Tattoo (finished just before I arrived in Edinburgh) were just being dismantled, and as such, we couldn’t get through to the Castle itself.
This however did not perturb us in the slightest, as we set off down another little Wynd, away from High Street and the Castle, down past the lovely Ramsay Gardens, to the corner of Market Street and The Mound.
From there, after pausing to admire the view of Princes Street Gardens, the Castle and some University buildings, we walked down Market Street, across Waverley Bridge over central Waverley railway station and Princes Street Gardens, and up along Princes Street towards Calton Hill.
All of a sudden, we came to the Old Calton Hill Cemetery. Walking up a series of steep steps, high walled either side by black stone, with the moonlight shining off the Martyrs Monument and gravestones above, was a little bit scary. Those who know me well, would be well aware of my bravery when it comes to scary situations, and as such, loitering around an ancient cemetery in the middle of the night would normally be my thing. Not. We started walking up towards the cemetery, but soon decided it would be best to head back towards the ‘safety’ of Princes Street!
(On a side note, we did go back to the cemetery during the day, a few days later, and some of the photos can be found currently on flickr, and will be uploaded here soon. At some point I do plan on going back at night, armed with a tripod and camera for some long exposure shots!)
Interestingly, having walked through the Old Cemetery, around the Castle, and a number of other building in Edinburgh, it is easy to see here J.K. Rowling found inspiration for the scenery in her Harry Potter books, and the reason why she chose to write them in Edinburgh is evident! The Castle reminds one instantly of Hogwarts, whilst the Cemetery couldn’t help remind me of the graveyard scene at the end of Goblet of Fire (perhaps why I was scared!). Incidentally, Edinburgh was the first UNESCO World City of Literature in 2004, with Melbourne being named the second UNESCO World City of Literature in 2008 (three others having since been named too; Iowa City, Dublin and Reykjavik).
From the cemetery, feeling as brave as ever, we headed up Calton Hill to the monuments at the summit. Calton Hill (pronounced as per Melbourne’s Carlton, but spelt without the ‘r’), has a large, relatively flat summit, upon which stands the Nelson Monument, National Monument, Dugald Stewart Monument and City Observatory. On the slopes below the summit stand the imposing art deco St Andrews House (home of the Scottish Civil Service), and the Old Royal High School, which was originally tipped to become the new home for Scotland’s devolved parliament in 1999. (Instead however, the Scots chose to spend £600 odd million pounds on a new building down near Holyrood Park, which we were to walk past soon)
Walking up Regent’s Road west, we came across many more monuments looking out over the city, before making our way down off the hill via Abbey Mount, towards Holyroodhouse Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh, and past the new Scottish Parliament, before climbing up Canongate heading back towards High Street (the Royal Mile), and home!
At this stage, we had been walking for a number of hours, had made our way up a few quite steep hills, had (inadvertently) befriended a group of intoxicated youths, had been scared once or twice by creepy surroundings, and had of course been amazed by the beauty of our surroundings! Despite being tired by this stage, the chance to revisit the grave of Adam Smith in the much more open and light graveyard around Canongait Kirk church was not to be missed - plus it allowed me to recapture some claim to my previously lost bravery!
Upon walking into the grounds of the 17th century Kirk, it became apparent that there was a service of some sort going on in the church, and upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a performance by the Canongait Symphony Orchestra. We were invited in, just as they were beginning Tchaikovsky’s Fifty Symphony. In the beautiful acoustics of the church, and following a few hours walking, it was quite a pleasure to sit and listen to a well rehearsed orchestra play some beautiful music.
In some ways, nights like that, of exploring, culture, entertainment and enjoyment was what I hoped for in Edinburgh. I love this place already.
I promise this will be my final post on London - it will shortly be time to move onto the beautiful city I now live in! However, as a history major, specialising in historiography (albeit of Eastern Asia, South Eastern Asia and the Pacific), I felt it pertinent to comment one final time on London, and the way in which it constructed and presented its history, that of its nation, that of its former Empire, and indeed that of the world.
A colleague memorably pointed out to me before leaving Melbourne that many items in the premier museums of London rightfully belonged not to the British, but to other states from where the pieces had originated, and had not been returned to these states, even after the fall of the British Empire. The Parthenon Galleries, with picture below, commemorate the benefactors to the construction of the gallery, and the man who took the items from Athens more than they pay credit to the ruins rightful home. (See my photo post on the Parthenon Galleries below)
Upon exploration, particularly in the British Museum, it became apparent very quickly as to why my colleague was disappointed. Walking into the Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian gallery at the British Museum, it was confronting to see so many pieces which could (and perhaps should) rightfully be displayed in Cairo, rather than London.
This particular gallery also gave rise to another curious question. I knew that in going to the British Museum, I ‘had’ to see the Rosetta Stone, a fundamental text in the deciphering of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Whilst sitting in a historiography class here in Edinburgh, it struck me as odd why people felt they simply must see a particular document - in this case, the Rosetta Stone. It furthermore struck me as odd the feeling I had experienced of ‘needing’ to see the Rosetta Stone, instead of seeing the Japanese gallery - an area which holds much greater fascination for me than Ancient Egypt! (Not to worry though, I did spend considerable time in the Japanese, Chinese and Asian galleries!)
This curious feeling of responsibility to see certain artifacts, documents and texts can be traced to other areas too, such as the apparent need to see landmark buildings in London, beautiful well known gardens, important Lichtenstein art in the Tate Modern, impressive Monet scenes in the National Gallery… What exactly was the driving factor behind such motivations to visit and see these? Was I more driven by a sense of curiosity, responsibility, or an actual genuine desire to see them?
Perhaps a combination of all three might be the most appropriate answer. Certainly such items and locations provide us with an idea of legibility; a certain hook with which two people can communicate about a city, especially when they do not live there. A central lesson to emerge from my first foray into a new, truly global city is that what interests me most is often not what features in the tourist guide, beyond the ticket counter or upon the recommendation (or condemnation) of others. An insightful aunt noted recently that she was pleased I was becoming somewhat of a flâneur, someone who idly walks the city, studies its citizens, movements and customs to learn something of them. This is without doubt the way I plan to approach my trip, to learn about a plac, not through its grand sites or attractions, but by the way its people move, the way they speak and act, and the places in which they do it.
We will however now return to the issue of historiography, as there is one more point of interpretation I wish to explore. An unmissable part of the grandiose, impressive imposition which is London is her abundant number of statutes, quite a number commemorating a famous battle, victory, commander or monarch. Bronze and stone, celebrating what are essentially remnants of a faded Empire.
They lend the allure of London being both historic and great. A city of achievement, military might, victory, the capital of an Empire. Standing in Hyde Park Corner, looking at the giant Wellington Arch (see picture below), I was quite disappointed at the sheer scale of such a monument, whereas the Australian and New Zealand War Memorials on either side of it were quite small, and nowhere near as grand in comparison.
I was so disappointed at the time in the minute scale of the Australian and New Zealand memorials, dominated over by an arch and statue to a war victory as it were. ‘Why’, I had to question, ‘did victory of the Empire deserve such a monument, whereas loss and suffering of so many deserve so little’? It was not until later that I realised that there was a sharp distinction between monument and memorial in the city, with very few statues and tributes after 1918. Those that were post-WWI were distinctly memorial, not commemorating, but remembering.
It was this that gave me comfort, to realise that the scale of the monument or memorial did not denote the effect of an act it remembers on the collective memory of the city. Rather, whilst the city certainly did celebrate its monuments, it did so within the memory of the terrible human impact of its losses. Its memorials, in being small, were precisely what was needed.
An interesting lesson in historiography and memory indeed, one perhaps impossible to learn in the seminar room.
My first week in Edinburgh was certainly different to what I had originally envisaged. After finding my way from Edinburgh’s Waverly train station to my flat on Cowgate, and feeling confident about the prospect of settling into a new place, I was immediately plunged into the chaos which is ‘Fresher’s Week’ at the University of Edinburgh.
Fresher’s Week is similar to O-Week in Australia, where new students are introduced to the University, are given the chance to meet people from their faculty, and are encouraged to get involved in the life of the University. Edinburgh’s is slightly different, the main point of difference being that practically all first years live on campus, be it in Halls of Residence, or self-catered flats.
I had elected to go for the self-catered flats option, as in the long run it would turn out to be a reasonably cheap and more importantly, secure place to base myself out in Scotland. I was not quite expecting to be housed in a 300 person accommodation block with largely first years though! The only students other than first years are third year exchange students like myself.
My new home is located on Cowgate, a central street in Edinburgh, running parallel one street away to High Street (otherwise known as the Royal Mile) on one side, and Chambers St (home to the Old College and National Museum of Scotland) on the other. Cowgate is full of pubs, clubs, and a number of hostels, and consequentially has quite a night scene.
For me, Fresher’s Week essentially lasted from Saturday afternoon to the following Sunday evening, and was quite a week. Whilst I didn’t partake in all of the Fresher’s specific events, I did spend a fair bit of time getting to know the other eleven guys in my flat, and got to know a number of other third year exchange students as well.
Without diving into the details, some of the highlights included £1 tequila shots, incredibly cheap drinks, exciting nights out at a collection of bars and nightclubs, and one or two late night, (somewhat) deep and meaningful conversation.
In amongst all this was the opportunity to explore Edinburgh, to take some photos, and to make new friends. Time was even made for calling home, and sending a few emails. Of course, on top of that was the obligatory furnishing of the room and the flat, along with some purchasing of supplies food and beverage wise.
So far, I’ve been somewhat disappointed with the availability of food in Edinburgh, and was in London too. I haven’t found a single local, quality baker, nor a green grocer, nor a butcher. It seems as if everyone here is content to buy all items from supermarkets, but these are not equipped with any of the above, and everything comes prepackaged. Trying to buy carrots the other day, I was surprised to find that the only carrots that particular supermarket stocked were presliced, precut and prepackaged. Not quite for me!
Also on the essential list for Fresher’s Week was the opportunity to join clubs and societies. Whilst clubs and societies exist in Melbourne, they are nowhere near as big or as plentiful as Edinburgh. Perhaps some of this has to do with most of the students not working, and living away from home on Campus, whereas in Melbourne, most live at home or privately, and work in their spare time!
Whilst I collected a number of brochures and signed up to quite a fair few mailing lists, I think I am going to join the following clubs and societies:
I’m also going to join up at the gym. I was thinking about joining a few more, including the sign language club, rowing club and running club, however I don’t think I’ll have time to do all three extra. In fact, I may even drop one of the politics related societies to free up some time in my schedule. I’ve still got to find time to both study, and find a job…
Once Sunday came around, I was certainly a bit overtired, and ready to hit the books come Monday. I think by now I’m settled, orientated, and ready to more fully immerse in the fabric that is Edinburgh, and the culture that is the University here.
So my first post comes from my flat’s Cards Table at my accommodation in Edinburgh. A slightly belated beginning to this blog, but better late than never.
We’ll get to Edinburgh in a later post. To begin from the beginning, London.
The last week before leaving Melbourne was both exciting and sad, but most of all, busy! After a lovely going away party at home, for which so many people from so many parts of my life were in attendance, to an awesome Gentlemen’s Night with the boys, to some very emotional goodbyes, the big day arrived.
After all that, the Sunday of my departure was a frantic day of last minute packing and even more emotional goodbyes in Melbourne, before I proceeded through the departure gates at Tullamarine airport and all of a sudden, after twelve months of preparation, I was on my way to the UK (well, the UK via Malaysia). The immensity of the trip immediately hit me, but after a quick pump up play of my trip’s unofficial theme song (MGMT - Time to Pretend), I was ready to go.
Well, ready to sit in a variety of airport waiting rooms, standing in lines, arguing with customs and border control officials and sitting on planes for the next 29 hours. But after that, I was ready to go!
After arriving at Stansted Airport in London, I made my way down to the train station below the airport, where I found a near empty, clean and comfortable train to take me into London. Turns out it was quick too. Perhaps a bit too quick, as it delivered me to Liverpool St Station at 5.30pm on a Monday night, the height of peak hour.
After a very imtimidating and very confusing time trying to figure out ticketing and the tube (as my original plans were thrown out due to line closures), I arrived in King’s Cross and found the hostel that was to be my home for the next six days. After a bite to eat and a walk around King’s Cross, it was sleepy times.
My first impression of both London and England was how very British it all looked. From the scenery out the train window from Stansted, to the look of the buildings, to the demeanour of the people, it all felt ridiculously, well, British. Parts of it looked like a scene from The Bill, or Misfits, and others felt completely new. One thing for sure was that you wouldn’t confuse it for Melbourne. I love my home city, but this new one was big, intimidating and alienating. Whilst that can be good in ways, it didn’t quite make me ever feel comfortable or anything more than a tourist.
The next five days were spent exploring London, including Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, Thames River, Palace of Westminster, Big Ben, British Museum, National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, Hyde Park, Admiralty House, Horse Guards Parade, Tower of London, Clarence House, Westminster Cathedral, St Paul’s Cathedral, Oxford Street, Marble Arch, National Mall, James Park, Regent Park, Tate Modern, Lords, the Monument, Oxford and Piccadilly Circus’, and a variety of other places along the way.
Despite buying a week long Oyster Card, and understanding the tube, I spent the majority of time walking between sights, and explored various streets, squares and areas. That, combined with my room at the hostel being on the fifth floor, lead to quite tired legs at the end of the day, for which a counter meal at any of the local pubs, combined with a (warm) pint of ale was the perfect medicine.
By the Friday (I left on Saturday morning), I had seen most of the big name items, of which the British Museum, Tower of London, and Hyde and Regent’s Park were my favourites. I was particularly impressed by the Asian exhibits at the British Museum, especially the Japanese gallery and the Chinese Jade exhibit. Ironically, it’s major special exhibit was on modern Australian art and print making, with the likes of Sidney Nolan (who I previously saw exhibited in Melbourne with Jess & Kaye), Fred Williams (also seen in Melbourne), John Brack (again, seen in Melbourne) and others. It was strange to have travelled to the other side of the world and be immediately confronted with views of Mt Martha and the You Yangs!
The gardens were also particularly beautiful (see pictures below from Hyde and Regent’s Park), and with some nice patches of weather on the later days of the week, were perfect for a stroll.
After close to a week in London, and without seeing Edinburgh, I was confident that I had made the right decision to study in Edinburgh rather than studying in London. Many would know I was originally very keen on going to King’s College London to study in their War Department, and to be honest, I was still worried I had made the wrong decision in heading to the University of Edinburgh rather than to King’s. However, after walking around and exploring London, it seemed rather too alienating and imposing a place to call home. Plus, I couldn’t find nice coffee anywhere.
It was strange, as I made my way around London, people kept asking me questions about directions, entry prices, where they could find food, so I’m not quite sure whether I came across as a Londoner, or people just ask anyone they come across (there were certainly others they could have asked - people everywhere)! Perhaps I did come across as a local, but I certainly felt far from someone who would feel comfortable as a local.
Overall, whilst the city was certainly impressive, and quite pretty in parts, I wouldn’t describe it as beautiful. Whilst I had mainly done the touristy things, I found a week enough. I found myself wanting somewhere smaller, more intimate, and with a bit more character. Maybe I’m judging London too harshly, but at the end of the day, I’m glad I didn’t choose to spend a year there.
(Having said that of course, my heart is still set on the London School of Economics for postgrad, which is of course only across the Strand from King’s College…)
Eventually Saturday morning came around, and it was time to depart for Edinburgh. After arriving at King’s Cross Station an hour and a half early, I eventually found my way onto the train to Edinburgh (they don’t announce what platform the trains were leaving from until ten minutes before departure). As London streamed past my window as the train raced towards its first stop at Peterborough, I couldn’t help feel that whilst my time in London was thoroughly enjoyable, my time in Edinburgh would be even better.
I’ll update you all on Edinburgh later, in the meantime, photos will be available here, athttp://www.flickr.com/photos/blowupthemoon/ and I’ll update the photo blog soon too, once I’ve had my rolls of film developed.
This is only the beginning…