Tuesday, August 19, 2014

"And he is NOT in Barcelona!"

Well, friends, turns out bright, sunny, warm Brussels was an illusory, ephemeral place, soon replaced by a cooler, more temperamental city that vacillates between blue skies and torrential downpour, generally without the courtesy of advance notice. Nonetheless, my time here has still been enjoyably spent: I have measured many chimpanzee bones, made some new friends, done some lovely touristy things, and even escaped one weekend to more temperate climes!

Yep - after finishing at the Natural Science museum in Brussels (museum 1/2 on the list for Belgium), I took a long weekend to visit my friend Julia in Barcelona! Devoted readers may recall that Julia made a prior appearance in my travel adventures when she and I collected data together in Birchington-on-Sea last fall in England. After learning that we would again be on the same continent this summer, we naturally planned a reunion. (Huzzah for cheap travel within the EU!). Julia is in the very final stages of wrapping up her dissertation, but she spared a weekend to show me around her hometown, Barcelona. We had a lovely time all around, with picnics in the park, a visit to the famous Sagrada Familia designed by Gaudi, tasty montaditos and gin and tonics, aaaand a trip to the beach!

Fountain, Parc de la Ciutadella.
This is a MUCH better pic than the one where we have Leffe beer bottle labels stuck to our foreheads at 3am...

I don't remember what building this is, I just really liked the iguana sculpture out front. 

Some people are just the type of friend that when you go "Hey, turn around and hug the cow!" they turn around and hug the cow. Julia is that type of friend. 

Barcelona Cathedral, Gothic Quarter.

Remnants of Roman wall and aqueduct, Gothic Quarter.

Lovely Mediterranean palm trees. Lovely Mediterranean weather. Le sigh.
The beach at Montgat, just 20 minutes or so north of Barcelona. I have other photos where the sky and water look amazingly blue, but I liked the random vintage lighting on this one.

I decided the one extremely touristy thing I had to do while in Barcelona was visit La Sagrada Familia, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. My shots of the exterior of La Sagrada Familia are unfortunately not very impressive because it was a very gray, cloudy day. The interior is every bit as impressive as the exterior of the church, however, all soft lines and unexpected angles. Not a huge fan of 90 degree angles, Gaudi. The effect is pretty spectacular - it honestly doesn't look like any other church in the world.

I know, I know! So washed out. I'm sorry.
La Sagrada Familia, Nativity facade.
Interior, La Sagrada Familia.

Ceiling and stained glass, La Sagrada Familia.

The west side of the exterior, with its Passion facade, is in a much different style than Gaudi's original designs. Kind of looks like a Neil Gaiman graphic novel to me.
All in all, I had a most excellent weekend with my Julia and was most sad to bid her farewell at the end of it.

But back to Brussels! What have I been doing in this capital of the European Union, you may ask? Well, in the interests of actually getting this long overdue post out there, I will leave the majority of my Belgian adventures til next time. I can say, however, that I ended up having an evening out one night with my friend and colleague Habiba and her boyfriend when we randomly ended up overlapping at the Natural History Museum for a week. (Yes, the anthropological community really is that small.) Habiba and I had classes together at NYU back in the day when she did her Masters; she since went on to complete her PhD at GW, and we don't see much of each other except at conferences, so it was great to catch up.

Catching up with Habiba over Belgian beers near Mannekin Pis.
Since finishing up at the Natural Science Museum, I have been working at museum #2 for this trip: the Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, which is actually closed for several years for renovations but luckily still open to researchers. They have the largest collection of bonobo skeletons anywhere, in addition to sizable collections of two subspecies of common chimpanzee. All in all, it's a great place to obtain a comparative sample of Pan, especially because the majority of the specimens are complete and in good shape. I was sad to leave the fun staff at the IRNSB (and walkable daily commute), but am happy to be working with the better research collection out at Tervuren.

This is why I love the IRNSB staff!!

I'll end with some pictures of lovely nature from when I took advantage of a sunny weekend afternoon to visit the Bois de la Cambre, a huge urban park in the southern part of town that merges with the Sonian Forest (Foret de Soignes). In really nice weather, people apparently loll about sunbathing on picnic blankets around the lake; in relatively nice weather, they still loll about, just with an extra layer or two of clothing. It's an interesting mix of tranquility and activity - many of the paths are quiet and empty, while the central area of the park around the lake is filled with street hockey players on rollerblades, kids on bicycles, parents pushing strollers, people playing music and drinking at the cafes, etc. I had some pistachio gelato and just enjoyed a stroll.

Bois de Cambre

Bois de Cambre, central lake
Bonne soiree, mes amis!

p.s. - if you don't know the movie to which the title of this post refers, stop whatever you're doing (what? you're done reading this blog anyway and clearly need something else to do), do yourself a favor, and watch Zorro the Gay Blade. Campy 70s hilarity with George Hamilton playing the twin sons of Zorro...one a roguish Latin lothario, and the other...well, let's just say he goes by the name of "Bunny Wigglesworth"... You'll thank me later for expanding your cinematic repertoire. ;)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Mon dieu, those Belgians can fry a tasty frite!

Friends, I have returned!

That's right, the Wandering Osteologist is once again a-wandering. For many moons this blog lay dormant, as I stilled my roaming feet and holed up in NYC for the spring semester to teach osteology and start sifting through the piles of data I collected throughout my previous travels.

But now I have taken to the open road again, this time to deplete the remainder of my dissertation grant funds. I will be spending the next five weeks studying chimpanzee skeletons in Belgium, and then it's home to begin the truly difficult part of this whole endeavor: writing the thesis. (Cue ominous music.)

I am currently sitting in my airbnb rental in the Brussels neighborhood of Etterbeek, drinking tea on the deck as the sun goes down. When I began this post the other night, I was listening to the intermingled sounds of thunder and the fireworks for the Belgian National Day - my hostess informed me it is traditional for it to be rainy on the National Day (she's German). I arrived in Belgium Sunday afternoon after a true red-eye from Newark to Amsterdam filled with multiple toddlers who took it in shifts to scream for approximately 80% of the flight (it didn't annoy me that much because I can't sleep on planes anyway, but it made for some extremely disgruntled fellow passengers). Kudos to Delta on the extensive in-flight movie selection, though. I then had a "Cityhopper" from Amsterdam to Brussels, where the flight time is - no joke - 25 minutes. (My commute into the city from Brooklyn takes longer than that.) To squeeze in the beverage service, the two flight attendants literally hop up the minute the plane levels out and start winging sealed cups of water and caramel biscuits at people. They then immediately whiz back down the aisle to pick up trash, completing this task about two seconds before the pilot comes on asking them to prepare the cabin for arrival. I was still wiping off biscuit crumbs as we landed.

Belgium, as a land where both French and Dutch are recognized languages, amazingly offers me my first opportunity EVER to put my high school French classes to use in another land. (I thought I could have gotten some use out of it domestically in New Orleans, but even there I ended up getting directions in Spanish from a gardener while lost in City Park). Of course, what this means is that I can understand a good amount of the French being spoken to me, but my first instinct is to respond in Spanish, or, even worse, in French-accented Spanish. (What the what?)

Every sign has to be posted in both French and Dutch. Seriously. Every. Sign.
But I of course quickly  figured out the most important thing: ordering a beer. And the second most: ordering frites. And holy crap, do the Belgians know how to (double) fry a frite! You may have thought you've had tasty french fries in the past...LIES! All lies! There really is an art to it, and the Belgians have mastered it! Between the wafels and the frites and the chocolate and the beer, I don't know how the Belgians aren't all bigger than Americans. (Oh wait. I do know. It's called moderation and walking.)

Belgians are crazy for comic book art. This swashbuckler was the view I had as I enjoyed my first Belgian beer (well, in Belgium anyway) at a little street cafe. 
The weather has apparently been unseasonably sunny and warm in Brussels, but my first couple of days here were more typical for summer - low 70s and overcast. The weather has perked back up, though, and is set to hover around 80 with plenty of sunshine for at least the rest of this week. Really lovely. Except for the fact that the frugal Europeans disdain air conditioning in their museums. Today in the collections the thermometer read 29 degrees Celsius. In real temperature, that's 84.2 degrees, folks. Inside. Note to self: you can leave your sweater at home tomorrow when heading off to work...

I now feel that I have eased myself into Brussels - because of the National Day, the museum was closed and I had an extra day to adjust to the time difference and learn my way around the city a bit. So I spent Monday doing one of my favorite things in a new city: wandering. This turned out to be a great idea because I saw a lot of fun things going on for the holiday. At one point I stumbled across a small crowd of people waiting around a couple of military vehicles and a small military band, and so I decided to wait with them. Lo and behold, about twenty minutes later, the Belgian king shows up! (I didn't really know that at the time, but figured it might be, and the google confirmed it).  I had randomly found the pre-assembly point for all the bigwigs for the National Day Parade.

Military band, patiently waiting. They played one tune when the president showed up (the national anthem??), which lasted about forty seconds, and then they dispersed.

Not the best photo, but the dude in the pink sash is King Philippe. Yep, less than 24 hours after my arrival in Belgium I was standing about 20 feet away from the Belgian king. I know. I'm impressed too.
My wanderings also took me to the Parc du Cinquentenaire, ostensibly built to celebrate the first 50 years of Belgian independence but not really completed until another 50 years after that. There are several museums in the park that I plan on visiting later, including an art museum and one exhibiting vintage automobiles.

Triumphal arch in the Parc du Cinquantenaire. Just out of a view on the left is a wafel truck. Needless to say, I bought a wafel after taking this picture. And it was delicious. There's a reason Belgian waffles are famous.
Turns out the route I had earmarked for my day of walking was also the one preferred by the entire city for their parade route, so after mingling with the crowds for a bit I consulted my handy Eyewitness Travel map and veered off the main roads. After walking down Rue de la Loi, I skirted the Parc de Bruxelles and found a nice little outdoor cafe to enjoy a framboise (raspberry-flavored beer. Is there anything the Belgians can't do?). Since I had already made it to the division between the Upper and Lower towns, I decided to follow the advice of my guidebooks and see Brussels' premier site: The Grand Place. The central square of the city, the Grand Place is a large open square flanked by the old guildhalls and the town hall. If you've ever seen a picture of the square, it was likely covered in a design made up of millions of flower petals for something they do in August called the flower carpet - which I will get to see before I leave!

Town Hall, Grand Place

Maison du Roi and guildhalls, Grand Place

My walk back across town included more Belgian National Day festivities, such as kids crawling into army tanks and helping soldiers sweep for pretend mines in large sandboxes. In the Place Royale, a huge rock climbing wall was set up - after climbing to the top you could zip line down. After a full day of roaming, I eventually returned home for a late dinner and to prep for my first day of data collection at the museum.

Rock climbing wall and zipline in Place Royale. Along with army tanks. Every tank and humvee the Belgian army owns must have been out on the streets that day.

Now, I realize it might make my posts a little disjointed, but I feel bad leaving out my adventures in Japan so I'm going to tuck a little bit of them in here and there. I had plenty of touristy excursions that I will get around to sharing, but I thought I'd start by describing adjusting to living in Japan. I should point out that I visited Kyoto several years ago for a conference, which was my first time traveling anywhere in Asia. It was also the first time I'd had culture shock in a really long time. Not in a bad way, just in a everything-is-completely-unlike-everything-I'm-used-to kind of way. I therefore thought I'd be much more prepared this time around, and for the most part I was, but this time I had to get used to actually living in Japan rather than just coasting through as a tourist. Meaning, I had to figure out how to buy groceries and do laundry and order sushi from people who spoke zero English.

My time in Japan was mostly spent in the town of Tsukuba, a small suburb about an hour north of Tokyo. The National Museum of Nature and Science has a large research branch out there alongside the Botanical Gardens, and this relatively new facility stores the thousands of human skeletal remains curated by the museum. Luckily for me, the Tsukuba branch of the NMNS has excellent guest researcher accommodations at incredibly reasonable prices. I essentially had a large studio apartment, complete with washer-dryer!

Let me walk you through my first hour in the Tsukuba guest house. It was a confusing hour, my friends, as I hope the following set of pictures will convey. First, let's discuss how long it took me to find the light switches for the main part of the room. TEN MINUTES, guys. I'm not even kidding. They are present in the picture below, but here's a hint: it's the not the remote-looking thing on the wall (that was for the heating. And that only took five minutes to figure out. Needless to say, it was a long hour.).

Give up?


The bed! The light switches were on the bed! Or, should I say, they were on the awesomest 80s technology bed ever. That's right, friends: light switches, digi alarm clock, and sweet built-in radio with knob dials. Sadly, only the light switches worked. I guess some things were only meant for the 80s.

Feeling more confident now that I could control the electricity, I continued settling into my room but was soon confronted with another kerfuzzling moment upon inspection of the bathroom. 

Take a good look here, folks, and you will notice a shower head that by no way, shape, or form would spill into the tub and its drain (unless you were holding it, of course). Again, I probably stood and just stared confusedly at this set-up for a good many minutes. I did have the idea that the whole room was supposed to be a shower, but with no visible drain outside the tub that didn't seem very likely. So, like any good researcher, I took to the internet, where the google informed me that I was indeed in possession of a Japanese shower room (further inspection did reveal a hidden drain in the floor) - the idea being thus: you first either stand (or sit on a little bathing stool) and wash yourself OUTSIDE of the short, deep tub, and THEN you get into the nice clean tub water for a soak (because who would want to soak in a tub of dirty bath water? Not the Japanese, that's for sure.). Traditionally, a whole family would share the same bath water because technically the water isn't really getting dirty between people. But I'm not sure how I feel about that one. Again, despite having been to Japan before, I had never come across one of these because they're not really much of a priority in cheap youth hostels. The cleanliness idea is the same at the sentos (=bathhouses) you can go to in Japan, though, as I do recall having to sit on a little stool and wash myself before getting into the thermal pools when Siobhan and I went to a sento in the mountains outside of Kyoto. But I digress. The last truly confusing thing about my room was my Japanese washing machine:

I had to watch two YouTube videos just to figure out how to use this puppy. Thank you, interwebs.
And just because it fits in with my adventures of being a stranger in a strange land (or, at least in this case, a strange room), I will leave you with this:

Yup. A tasty chocolate chip sweet bread thing that was inexplicably green on the inside. I don't know why either. But it was delicious. Which is why, as strange as I often found Japan, it was wonderful too.

A bientot, mes amis!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

From the Top of Africa to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Greetings from the Land of the Rising Sun!

Per usu, I am not up-to-date with regaling you with my travel adventures! Even though I am currently sitting in my room in the Kahaku Guest House in Tsukuba outside Tokyo, I last left you in Johannesburg, South Africa. In between, of course, was the Christmas holiday with its flights to New York and Ohio for me. So, we've got some ground to cover today!

So let's backtrack to sunny, warm South Africa. Probably seems a little hard to envision given the whole polar vortex sitch, but use your imagination. My next big adventure following my previous post was a Hop on Hop off red bus tour that I took to get out and see some different parts of Johannesburg. I started the tour in downtown Jo'burg, and my first hop off came at the Carlton Centre. With 50 floors, it is the tallest building in Africa (for comparison, it's about half the height of the Empire State Building), with a large shopping center spread out over the first few levels. A couple of dollars will buy you a ticket up the elevator to the top floor - referred to as the "Top of Africa" - where on a clear day you are treated to great views of the city and beyond.

View #1 from the Top of Africa

View #2 from the Top of Africa. The plaza to the left is Gandhi Square and has a statue of Gandhi (commemorating his days as a young lawyer and social activist in the city).

View #3 from the Top of Africa, with I believe the Sentech Tower in the distance.

View #4 from the Top of Africa, looking south.
You can somewhat see it in these photos, and I saw it up close as the tour drove by them later, but the city is surrounded by huge piles of dirt and rock that are in fact old mine dumps. Gold extraction techniques have improved in the last few decades, and so some mining companies have actually started revisiting these old mine dumps in lieu of tunneling even deeper underground.

Old mining dump on the outskirts of Johannesburg
The old "diamond" building, downtown Jozi

Ferris wheel, Gold Reef City Theme Park
The tour bus had a quick stopover here, at Gold Reef City Casino, before continuing on.

I hopped off next at the Apartheid Museum, which rather unflinchingly documents the background, origins, experience, and ultimate fall of the apartheid system in South Africa. Upon purchasing your ticket, you are randomly assigned a race (white or colored) and then must enter through the relevant door. I found the museum to be very interesting, but it is definitely very dense - they present a ton of information. It's broken down into different sections, though, so that if you want to read more about a particular topic you can. There are also lots of short video clips and other multi-media displays that make the museum very engaging. Visiting South Africa definitely made me realize just how little I ever really knew about apartheid. Beyond displacing whole communities of black people (and other non-"whites") and relegating them to slums on the fringes of the city (and then forbidding them to enter the city without a work pass), it was a system of institutionalized brutality toward non-whites in which people were imprisoned and often murdered for minor infractions. For example, one day on a drive through the city Andrew pointed out one of the old governmental buildings downtown that used to hold political prisoners and other detainees, which was known as the suicide building because so many people "committed suicide" by being thrown off its roof. With the forgiveness policy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, they are still learning the locations of anonymous burials of people killed during apartheid and bringing in forensic specialists to hold seminars on how to excavate and recover remains. It's a really ugly history all around, but at least the ending is rather hopeful. Mandela and his peaceful message really did win the day - the country could have easily devolved into chaos without him. Of course there is still plenty of poverty and residual social and governmental ills, but to see the revitalization slowly taking place in parts of downtown Jo'burg is heartening.

Entrance to the Apartheid Museum
After the Apartheid Museum I hopped back on the bus to see more of the city. There were a couple of other areas I was interested in checking out, but as the day was getting on, I decided to press on to the last stop I wanted to make  - the Origins Centre at Wits University. Considering all of the important human fossils that have been found in South Africa, many of which are stored at Wits, I must confess myself surprised that the Origins Centre focuses a lot more on the rock art and history of the San people and less on human evolution. I mean, there are some nice progressions of stone tool industries and a few fossil displays, but it's definitely not the main focus of the exhibits.

Why is there a dinosaur sculpture outside a museum dedicated to rock art? I have no idea, but I decided to hug it.

This was actually a little placard at the Apartheid Museum, but I thought it fit with the Origins Centre too.  :)
The last place on the bus tour was Constitution Hill, which is the location of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. The site used to house the Old Fort Prison, which held political prisoners awaiting trial. After the end of apartheid, the prison was demolished and the bricks were used to build the new courthouse.

Flame of Democracy, Constitution Hill

Constitution Hill

After my long day out and about touring the city, I came home to join my hosts for a traditional Sunday braai (bbq), complete with ostrich sausage, grilled chicken, mealies (corn), and potatoes, all cooked over hot coals. Delicious.

Andrew manning the braai while Alison looks on.
The next big event occurred the following Friday morning, when we all woke up to the news that Nelson Mandela had passed away. Given the time difference, most people in the States knew about it before we did in South Africa. That evening I went along with Andrew to visit Mandela's house, where visitors and journalists were lined up. There was a crowd of people doing some singing and dancing (culturally it's more of a celebration of the life lived than a mourning for the loss), but on the whole it was fairly low key, with visitors leaving flowers and messages along the wall to the estate.

Crowd leaving flowers and messages outside Mandela's home

After visiting Mandela's home, I joined Andrew, Alison, and Adam for the traditional Friday night pizza at Rosebank, and Saturday morning I woke up early again to do another 5K Parkrun with Andrew - this time at Delta Park. A lot of people brought their dogs to this one, which was fun, except for the first kilometer I kept feeling like I was going to trip over one because a bunch of them were leashlessly darting in and around the runners. After picking up Adam from his capoeira class, we had brunch, and then I wandered a bit around the Melville Christmas Market (really just a few street stalls on 5th). Later on in the afternoon, my hosts and I relaxed at one of the local pubs with some drinking and dining. They were pleased to introduce me to a Don Pedro - a milkshake of cream, ice cream, and whiskey - and I was pleased to make the acquaintance. It's a very tasty, Argentinian-derived cocktail that at some point became a popular dessert in South Africa.

Sunday started off with brunch with Alison and Adam (while Andrew got in a round of golf), and then I met up with Jason to head downtown to Arts on Main and the Main Street Market. It's an area of the city that was formerly fairly dangerous and run-down, and a few years back some developers stepped in, bought up a bunch of property, and helped turn it into a thriving arts scene with some great restaurants. On the weekend there's a large indoor food market with lots of different types of cuisine, craft beer, fresh-roasted coffees, etc. We decided to go for one of the Indian places, and I had a delicious roti accompanied by an IPA from Smack Republic. We sat out on the fire-escape type balcony and people-watched below as we ate. Afterwards we picked up some churros, browsed along some of the arty wares for sale, and looked at a few of the galleries.

Jason introduces me to bunny chow (curry in a hollowed-out loaf of bread), a dish popularized by the SA Indian community. It was good, but my roti was spicy and excellent.
Jason having an interactive moment with art in one of the (weirder) galleries.

"Before I die I want to ___________" chalkboard street art.

My last week in South Africa began with Andrew making his (as I was informed) ode-inducing pasta sauce. So, naturally, I waited to see if I would be inspired to write an ode, and lo and behold, I was:

There once was a man from Jozi
Whose favorite pace was a mosey
His sauce was quite nice
I enjoyed the spice
But really, t'was a pity 'bout the rosem'ry

Okay, it was more of a limerick than an ode, but "Maggi's Famous Pasta Sauce" was delicious.

The following day, another researcher and I had planned to take the day of from data collection and go to FNB Soccer Stadium for the Mandela memorial. Well, by Monday night the news was saying that there was already a crowd lined up outside the stadium waiting for the gates to open in the morning, and so I didn't think we'd have any chance of getting in. Then, I woke up to a message that my colleague was feeling under the weather and wouldn't be able to come with me. It was cold and rainy out, and I figured it just wasn't in the cards and so I went into work. I started listening to the local radio broadcasts, however, and they were actively encouraging people to come out to the stadium because there was still plenty of room - the weather was definitely keeping people away. After a little dithering, I decided that this was a moment in history I just couldn't miss and so I struck out for the stadium on my own, even though I lacked an umbrella and only had a vague idea of how to get there. I was soon soaked from the chilly drizzle, but I met some other people on their way to the stadium, and we managed to catch a bus - the entire Rea Vaya bus system was basically running routes directly to FNB. We made it to the stadium a short while before the actual ceremony got under way.

It was definitely a surreal thing to experience - the crowd definitely had zero compunctions in booing anyone of whom they didn't approve (their own president included) - but despite the crappy weather there was still a very lively atmosphere. Getting home from this event was a miserable experience (soaked to the bone, a public transportation very efficient at getting people TO the stadium but not nearly so good at getting thousands of people OUT, etc), but I am really glad I went and was a part of it.

FNB Stadium crowd, Mandela Memorial

I heard the stadium looked empty on tv, but the upper levels were packed.

Hard to tell, but that's Obama on the screen

On Thursday Jason and I went to 44 Stanley for lunch - it's a little area not too far from Wits with several fun restaurants and shops; and then in the evening I went with Alison, Andrew, and Adam to Lucky Bean in Melville, where I had a lovely springbok meat pie for dinner. And then it was Friday, my last day in Jozi! In the morning I finished up at Wits, packed up all of my equipment, and then headed off to the airport via a kindly lift from Andrew and Adam. The day was so lovely and warm and sunny, I nearly wanted to cry at the thought of returning to freezing cold London and New York.

Skeleton mural outside the door to the Dart Collection, Wits
I know, I know - you'd think I had the Bone Crusher brew, but I was actually drinking the Alliance ale!
English, Afrikaans, Zulu

THIS is the gorgeous weather I was saying goodbye to.
But, I hopped on the flight, knowing that at the other end would be a great weekend in London with my friends Jason and Luca, and then home to see Jeff and my family for the holidays!! So, after another looong flight back to England (~11 hours), I ended up in London Saturday morning and headed to Jason's flat. Luca had come in from Germany the night before, so it was great to see them both. We rented a car for the weekend, and after having some tasty pub food for lunch drove out to see Jason's office and lab space at Imperial College. Jason had joked a few months back that he needed an African mask or something for his office to add a little anthropological flavor to the biology department he was in, so to thank him for all of his hospitality during my traveling, I picked one up for him in a craft market in South Africa. After a profound discussion regarding which empty wall the mask should eventually grace, we walked around the campus grounds. There are chickens. I don't get it either.

The only time I see the sunrise is when I catch it from the other side. Train platform, London.
Imperial College, Silwood Park campus.
The Imperial College chickens (and geese).

In the evening we went to an insanely busy, insanely put-together Christmas market in London. Seriously,  how many Christmas markets have you been to with a ghost train ride? It was bizarre. But, the night is notable because it produced an opportunity for us to have roasted chestnuts! Which just seemed like a very Christmas-y thing to try.

Luca and I devise an ingenious method to share the warmth of the space heater back at Jason's flat.
Jason enjoys the warmth of the space heater and the cozy glow of the iPad yule log in the fireplace.
 On Sunday we took a day trip out to Leeds Castle, which I had been wanting to do since I learned its description was "the loveliest castle in the world" (seriously, it says that on the website). It was about an hour drive outside of the city into Kent, so while Luca napped in the backseat I helped Jason navigate. You can find our adventures at the castle outlined in the photos below!

Jason and Luca sharing a moment

First view of the loveliest castle in the world.

Gate and bridge
Lion head door knocker

The castle was full of lovely decorations for Christmas.

Even Henry VIII got a festive garland.

There were decorated Christmas trees in almost every room of the castle, but this giant peacock one was one of the most impressive.
Luca tried to devour the gingerbread castle in the restaurant. The food was really good there - they had a tasty carving station AND fresh scones.

After lunch we headed out to the hedge maze on the castle grounds. Finding our way through the maze took waaaay longer than any of us want to admit...

But we made it!

2/3rds of the Unusually Strong Cohort. And Luca.
So, once you've reached the center of the hedge maze, the way out is through this bizarre underground grotto.

Fake bony passage through the grotto.

Wall mask, grotto.

And then walking back to the castle you get this view! It is certainly a very lovely castle, but whether it deserves to be known as the LOVELIEST I can't say. Maybe seeing it in the spring induces sufficient awe.

Luca and I hug it out on the bridge, with the lights from the Christmas market visible in the background.

No, Luca! The sign specifically says no climbing that way!
Evening starts to fall over the castle.

We stopped in to look at the Christmas market on the castle grounds and bought some cheese!

Last view of the castle.

Sign at the castle gift shop. Oh, those British peafowl!
Monday morning Luca headed back to Germany, Jason went off to do some Christmas shopping, and I went into the city and visited the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is literally right next door to the Natural History Museum, but I never made it in during the month I worked there. The V&A houses a massive collection of art and design; one of my favorite exhibits was the fashion gallery, which had European clothing styles on display from the last few hundred years. There was also a great current exhibit on theatre and performance, with everything from miniature set-design models for stage plays to costumes to marionettes. In the evening, Jason and I met up with Alejandra for dinner (she had come to London to work on her dissertation for several weeks) at a French bistro. My last few days in London definitely saw quite the NYU reunions!

Marionettes, V&A

Crazy light sculpture, entrance hall of the V&A

Christmas time at Harrods

Tuesday I once more packed up all of my worldly goods (now noticeably increased after four months of acquiring travel treasures...), and after a final pub lunch with Jason, headed off to Heathrow and said my final goodbyes to England.

And that lands me back in NYC, a week before Christmas! And, as this post has spiraled out of control, as so many of mine do, I will hold off on my adventures in Tokyo until next time.

The Christmas tree in front of the Washington Square Arch, NYC
Thanks for all of the encouragement to keep writing - this has been a great record for me, but it's nice to hear that other people enjoy it.


(Yes! They call me that here! It's great.)

A little Japan preview: Bridge in front of the Imperial Palace, Tokyo