Part 7: Prague and London

First thing in the morning was my speech to the Loyola Law Class. I have been giving a 40-60 minute lecture on local history for Loyola’s comparative Law class for the past five years. This year’s top was the London Underground. Usually, we have the lectures in the famous Middle Temple Hall, part of the Middle Temple Inn, a true treasure in London. (The Great Hall was where one of the first performances of Twelfth Night took place. Also, planks from Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind were made into tables there). THis year, the Hall was under construction so we had the proceedings elsewhere.

A few things about the London Underground. Most of the lines (save the newest ones after the 1930s) were independent companies with some big rivalries. Apparently, none of them made much money. Other profit lines like suburban homes or Underground Maps apparently made more money than the lines themselves.

There’s an interesting Chicago connection. Charles Yerkes, Philadelphian born “quintessential Victorian conman,” was in Chicago before his flight to London. He played a role in the development of the El. However, he tried to get a monopoly on busing contracts through extortion and blackmail, which earned him the ire of lots of people. There’s a story that famously corrupt aldermen Bathhouse John and HInky Dink Kenna were approached the mayor to stop this deal. Bathhouse John’s response was “I was talkin’ awhile back with Senator Billy Mason and he told me, ‘Keep clear of the big stuff, John. It’s dangerous.  You and Mike stick to the small stuff; there’s little risk and in the long run pays a damn sight more.” Mr. Mayor, we’re with you.” (Thanks to my husband for this one). So yeah, too corrupt a deal for them! He was run out of town (I believe an effigy was burned in front of city hall) and he eventually made his way to London. While corrupt and conning as always, he had a hand in financing many Underground lines, introducing US money into the British system.

The story goes that the first escalator was installed in 1911 at Earl Court’s station. People were super anxious but then a one legged man named Bumper Harris started going up and down the escalator. He and his descendents claimed that he was not paid to do it!

In the financing of the Bakerloo line, James Whitaker Wright was convicted of fraud in 1904 for 7 years of penal servitude. He allegedly handed his solicitor his watch and said “I won’t need this where I am going.” Then he died after biting into a hidden cyanide capsule.

The famous map of the underground was designed by Harry Beck, like an electrical circuit, in 1931. Initially it was rejected for being too revolutionary but was adopted in 1933 after the immense popularity of it.

Frank Pick was the Managing Director of London Underground and then the first Chief Executive of London Transport in the 1930s. He’s the man responsible for commissioning the look and feel the Tube. The logos, the branding as a whole, the posters advertising the city, was under his watch.

Below are some photos of various art seen in the stations of the Underground.

And while I could spend a lot more time on it, I’ll leave you with one last thing. During WWII, famously tube stations were used as bomb shelters. Apparently, individual stations had clubs for theater productions, dressmaking, darts and one even had a newspaper called “De profundis,” which is Latin for “from the depths.”

After my speech and the others for the morning, my husband and I decided to check out the exhibition on 20th century maps at the British Library nearby. What an amazing exhibition. The maps were segmented by use: survey use, war use, peacetime use, commerce and more. One of the most memorable ones was a map for children to fill in the borders at the conclusion of WWI, back when they thought the war would last weeks. So cavalier with politics! They even had Harry Beck’s map of the underground, which was a nice closing the loop for the day!

And as an added bonus, there was a pop-up shop dedicated their line of murder mysteries. It had a nice 1920s vibe going with a gramophone and decorations.

That evening, we went to see a lovely musical called Half A Sixpence that takes place at the turn of the last century. The musical is basically about a young boy who goes to the city to learn a trade and inherits a lot of money and has to learn how to handle this new world. It’s funny and sweet (kinda sorta passes the Bechdel test). Also, it had 30 people on stage playing banjo at one point, which made me immensely happy. The dancing was rather superb too.

That’s all for now!

Top Books of 2016

Every year, I like to come up with a list of the top books I’ve read for the year. Every year, it’s a mix of fiction and nonfiction, recently published books and older works, and comics. I don’t try to limit it to ten books because I may have read many more amazing works. Below I’ll note the best books I’ve read this year. I’m going to exclude anything by JK Rowling since she’s the best.

  1. The Magician King, Lev Grossman
    1. This is last book of the Magicians trilogy. Imagine Hogwarts but with sex, drugs, and teenage angst. I really enjoyed reading the series but the last book was my favorite. Magical worlds, bravery, did I mention teenage angst?
  2. The Underground Abductor, Nathan Hale
    1. This is YA graphic novel is one of many in the Hazardous Tales series. Each book is a story in US history (occasionally European history) that you may not know. It’s clever, informative, and worth checking out. The Underground Abductor is the story of Harriet Tubman. I had learned about her in school but somehow didn’t learn her entire history. Well worth checking out.
  3. The Word Exchange, Alena Graedon
    1. This work was astonishing. Imagine a world where print media is the past (hmm) and smartphone like technology reigns supreme. Editor Doug Johnson is publishing the last edition of the English Dictionary but he goes missing. His daughter Anana has only the word ALICE to uncover the truth. And there’s a word plague.
  4. H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald
    1. This memoir is about Helen MacDonald’s attempt to train a goshawk while dealing with her father’s sudden death. It’s a very heartfelt book about death, our relationship to animals. I saw her speak earlier this year. She’s got an amazing dry wit. I can’t wait to read what she has next.
  5. Unicorn V. Goblins, Dana Simpson
    1. I know I’ve talked about Dana Simpson before. This work is another published comics of Phoebe and Her Unicorn. It’s like a Calvin and Hobbes of today.
  6. Nimona, Noelle Stevenson
    1. The title character decides to become the sidekick of super villain Lord Ballister Blackheart. But good and evil aren’t quite what they seem. Nor is Nimona.
  7. The Unseen City, Nathanael Johnson
    1. This nonfiction book explores the life in the urban world in a clever way. It starts with his baby daughter being fascinated by the world around her. Each chapter looks at a different organism: pigeons, snails, and much more. See amazing things in our own backyard.
  8. Two Years, Eight months and 28 Days, Salman Rushdie
    1. This work is a modern telling of 1001 Arabian nights with a large touch of the apocalypse. It’s got good and evil Djinns, new wondrous and terrifying worlds.
  9. Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered, Dianne Hales
    1. This nonfiction work is about Dianne Hales’ working to uncover as much as possible about the woman behind the famous painting. You learn about the status and role of women in Leonardo’s time plus a bit about the famous artist himself.
  10. Bitch Planet, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro
    1. It’s scary how this relevant this series is now. Imagine a dystopia where misogyny wins the day. If you are a noncompliant woman, you are sent to a prison floating in space. Very on point series.
  11. Umbrella Academy Volumes 1 and 2, Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá
    1. Holy cow. These graphic novels blew me away. 43 superpowered children are suddenly born to women who weren’t pregnant. Sir Reginald Hargreaves adopts 7 of the surviving children and turns them into a crime fighting superhero team. But it doesn’t go well at all and they all disband.
  12. A Darker Shade of Magic/The Gathering of Shadows, V.E. Schwab
    1. This trilogy (book 3 is coming out in February) centers on Kell, a special magician who can travel between three Londons. Each London has a different relationship with magic. His London “Red London” is full of magic. Grey London has long since forgotten magic. White London is losing magic violently. But there are rumors of fourth London: Black London where magic went untamed and ruined everything.
  13. Ragseed, Margaret Atwood
    1. This is a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This time, it centers around a theater director unceremoniously kicked out of his own festival who ends up teaching Shakespeare at a correctional facility.
  14. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Volumes 1-4, Ryan North and Erica Henderson
    1. What a delight! I never thought I’d go for the superhero comics but here we are. Ryan North is one of the writers. Squirrel Girls is hilarious and heartfelt. Pure joy in reading these comics.
  15. March Volume 1, John Lewis
    1. This first in a graphic novel trilogy looks at the history of civil rights in America. It’s thoughtful, informative, and compelling. The critics are likening it to Persepolis. Well worth checking out.

Philadelphia and Brooklyn: Part 3

On our last day in Philadelphia, we made the attempt to fit in as many museums and sites as we can. We did pretty well.

Our first stop of the day was Independence Hall. We got up early so we could get free tickets when the booth opened for the day. I snagged the tickets. Curiously,they said to go through security an hour before our ticket time. Apparently, the security lines can get backed up. Fortunately, this was not the case. We had to wander around the secured area for Independence Hall until our tour time. There are some buildings there that don’t require a ticket. We wandered into a building that had original printed copies of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Also, they had the silver inkstand used to sign the documents. So it was a neat sidetour.

The gem really was the tour of Independence Hall. We got to see the Assembly Room. It’s the room where it happened. No seriously. It’s a decent sized room for about 30 people. There’s even the famous chair of the rising/setting sun that Benjamin Franklin quipped about: “I have often looked at that behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now I… know that it is a rising…sun.” Hope it is still so.

We also got a tour upstairs to see the Long Gallery with some amazing British era maps and some historic rooms. But really, the Assembly Room was the bee’s knees. After the tour, we took a brief tour of the Congress Building, where the House and Senate first met. Again, it was pretty neat to be in such historic places. As an added boon, I saw the reproduction of the painting of Marie Antoinette by Vigee de la Brun!

We briefly checked out an exhibit about Thomas Jefferson and Native Americans. He apparently had attempted to preserve some tribes’ languages, which is actually a point in his favor for once. (Yeah, not on the Jefferson train much). We also saw the first Supreme Court as well.

Then I stumbled upon a map that told us that we could visit Edgar Allan Poe’s house. Naturally, we had to go see it. We learned quickly that getting there was a bit more challenging since it involved going under the highway. They really don’t make it easy to get through it. Anyway, we managed to get to the house and it was magnificent. It’s not very big but well worth the trip. We got there just in time since they close for lunch. We had a whirlwind tour of the house, wandering in rooms. They aren’t furnished but it was neat to see the various places that Poe had lived part of his life. We also checked out the creepy basement. The best thing was a little furnished room off to the side where there were books and even CDs. We put on a recitation of the Raven and listened to the entire thing sitting in this Victorian style room. So neat!

After a spot of lunch, we checked out the Constitution Center nearby. I was quite glad to see the room of bronze statues of the signing of the Constitution. I got my picture with Hamilton. It was silly good fun. But then we were herded into a film about freedom, liberty and whatnot. Propaganda at it’s finest. Thankfully the rest of the museum was not so over the top. The exhibits talked about the Trail of Tears, the KKK, and other not so great things in our history. Sadly, it appears these events are not in our history as much as we’d like to believe. We did play a presidential trivia game where I somehow won against my US history wiz husband. Very strange. It was an interesting museum but I wouldn’t feel the need to go back. We did take a brief turnaround the Presidential exhibition that walked through the process of running for president. I did appreciate seeing some of the wondrous Convention knickknacks and buttons. We even got to sit at a recreation of the Oval Office and look very presidential (or not!).

Our final site was the famous Mutter museum. I had read about it in a book called Severed. Yes, it’s a book about severed heads. Highly recommend it! The Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia collects body parts and reproductions of body parts. It’s very old timey in look with wooden cases and exhibits. But you’ll need a strong stomach. I loved the wall of skulls where you can even adopt one (Great fundraising pitch! No seriously.)

They also have two shrunken heads of display; one is the real deal by the tribe that actually undertook the practice; the other was a copy by another tribe but it was still human. One of the weird things I learned in grad school is how to tell a real human shrunken head from a copy made from a monkey or another animal. Check the ear structure. Apparently, it’s hard to fake a human ear. There’s your important piece of knowledge! Grotesque but fascinating. They had a series of skeletons where you could listen to audio about how scientists learn to read skeletons, which was very cool. There were lots of organs, real or plaster casts, in jars. There were various bones or things found in people’s bodies. It got to be a little overwhelming. But these places are real treasures because so much is learned. Seriously, it’s not an easy museum to go to so have some caution. I got a little tired of seeing diseased body parts. But it’s worth checking out if you are into the human body.

That’s all for now!

China and Cambodia: Part 12

Our first full day in Phnom Penh. What a city. It’s bustling with people; motorbike outnumber cars on the road. It’s growing quickly. I know that when I return, it’ll be completely different with the fast pace of development. I’m glad I got to see the city now.

Our first stop for the day was quite serious. We decided to start our visit with the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, about 15 minutes from the center of town. I had studied the Khmer Rouge in graduate school and had wanted to bear witness to the past. So we hired a tuktuk driver who drove us to the site. Through twisty roads and past little stores, many selling gasoline from bottles, we made our way to Choeung Ek.

13765668_10100890121336530_3778632479927105901_oFor the next three paragraphs, I’m going to talk about some very upsetting things. If you wish to skip, I’ll bold the section where you can start reading again.

We paid the fee and received a headset that would led us on the tour of the fields. As you walk in, the first thing you see is the Memorial Wat, filled with skulls and femurs of people who were killed and buried there. But it’s the last stop on the tour. The audio guide explained the stages; how people entered the facility, where they were killed and their bodies burned with chemicals to remove them quicker, and then the various burial pits. The process of death. There’s also a small museum that you can wander through to read some of the history. But the thing that struck me the most was the case filled with tools of death. Farming tools. Day to day tools turned into implements of death. I had forgotten that the regime had used these tools to kill because bullets were expensive.The kroma scarves, traditional Cambodian scarves, used to bind people’s hands, blindfold them. There was a tree that the audio guide pointed out was where babies and small children would have their heads bashed against it. The everyday turned grotesque. The banality of evil. As soon over and over again in other genocides and massacres.

The audio guides were really effective at telling the story. One of the most inspired parts was how they had people (or actors) tell the stories of events they experienced or partook in. I’m also a big proponent of giving voice to people to tell their own stories. It made it even more alive and more brutal.

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The final stop was the Memorial Wat. It has skulls and femurs of folks that were uncovered in the pits surrounding the area. They had little colored dot stickers on the skulls that let you know how they suspected the person died. You can buy flowers right outside to leave as an offering.

Our next stop was the Russian market. We thought it might be good to do something frivolous after the seriousness and sadness of Choeung Ek. We were told that we had to go to the Russian Market. We got back on our tuktuk and drove there. It’s a covered market, that was a bit like an oven that day. It was more than a tourist market; there were sections for food, auto supplies, clothing. We wandered and shopped, a contrast to the hefty history we had just been to. It was a great place to find intricately made shadow puppets.

But it was hot. We ended up leaving a lot sooner because of the heat. As we got outside of the market, we decided we needed an air conditioning break. The only place we could easily find: a KFC. Yes, a KFC. I’ve never been to one before. (I can’t eat fried chicken). But it was the answer to our prayers. I got an ice cream with jelly and my friend got a soda. We sat there for an hour, enjoying the sitting and the air. It was what we needed at the time. Oy!

After we were sufficiently refreshed, we headed off to the National palace. What an incredible palace. The architecture is astonishing. The area is a giant garden with buildings all over. Reminded me a little of Topkapi with the various courtyards. The throne room building is amazing; you can’t go in but you can look into it through the windows. As we were looking into the throne room, the rains came. We waited it out underneath the roof for about five minutes. When it seemed to clear, we left the safe confines of the roof.

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As we wandered next to a substantial tree, the rains came back. So we hid underneath it, which was not the best move since it wasn’t exactly a dry location. After about five minutes, a guard nearby waved us over to an off limits building with a overhanging roof. We ran over through the pouring rain. We took a seat on the steps and watched the world around us. During the storm, we noticed tiny frogs jumping around the courtyard. It was kinda magical. Like the time in the Japanese forest, where we were stuck in the rain with the sounds of taiko drums in the distance. Moments you’ll never forget.

After the rains stopped and held off, we wandered some more. In another courtyard, it was lined with these beautiful murals of scenes from the Ramayana. Very cool. We sat a little bit and fed the stray cats in the area. We also toured the silver pagoda filled with treasures. The floor is lined with silver tiles. There’s a beautiful Baccarat Buddha with over 2000 diamonds in the center of the room. We also found a statue to Napoleon III that was nearby.

silver-buddha-pagoda

Our final stop for the day was the Mekong river front. We wanted to get some dinner and check out the Foreign Correspondents Club. We found a place that had rooftop dining. I had a coconut, which was delicious as always. Again, the food was amazing. Fresh and delicious. We watched the sun go down on the river. In contrast to other city rivers or waterways, it was relatively quiet. But in less than five years, it will be filled with boats and the banks of the river will have giant hotels and business skyscrapers.

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We ended the evening at the Foreign Correspondents Club. What a trip. Here was where journalists gathered after a long day reporting. We got seats at the balcony so we could watch the world before us as we sipped our various drinks. There are old pictures and plaques on the walls talking about the not so distant times. What a place!

That’s all for now!

China and Cambodia: Part 10

The following day we took a day trip to Kulen Mountain. Our driver had mentioned it the night he picked us up from the airport. So we decided it might be a really neat thing to try. But we had a bit of a time frame to do it. We had to get to the mountain before noon.

We started off early to try to squeeze in a ride on the hot balloon near Angkor Wat. I really wanted to ride a hot balloon and see Angkor Wat from the air. However, both times we tried to go, it was not operational. Boo urns. We were the only people there so I suspect they didn’t want to do it with so few customers.

We headed off to Kulen mountain. It was a lovely drive through the outskirts of Siem Reap. We saw dragon fruit farms, houses of all shapes and sizes on stilts, spirit houses outside all of them and more. After a half hour drive, we were at Kulen Mountain. Our driver told us that the reason we had to get there by noon was that there was only one road up the mountain. So traffic could only go up in the morning and go down in the afternoon! It was a bumpy route to the top of the mountain since the road wasn’t paved but there are amazing views.

Our first stop was the sandstone Reclining Buddha. We found ourselves in a little town around the temple with the Reclining Buddha. We wandered up this incredible staircase with nagas flanking the balustrade. The Buddha at the top of a giant sandstone structure. It was carved into the rock with a structure built around it. To access it, you had to ascend a flight of stairs to find the Buddha taking up the entire room. It was astonishingly beautiful. There were little Buddha statues flanking the larger Buddha. Very impressive that someone was able to carve it up here!

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After we descended the stairs, we got a tasty drink, the name I don’t recall. It had these chartreuse colored fat noodles, rice flour?, that was in a coconut drink. Very refreshing.

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Our next stop was the RIver of 1000 Lingas. For those of you who are unaware a linga is an abstract representation of a phallus while a yoani is a representation of a vagina in Hinduism. This river had lingas carved into the river bed with a few yoanis around. This was an astonishing thing to see. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of something like before. It was really neat to see it.

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Our final stop was a swimming hole with a waterfall. It was the real reason for the trip. It wasn’t something I would normally think of doing but since my friend was keen to try it, I was open to trying something very new. And boy, it was worth it. We parked the car and walked downhill through a village, catering to folks who go to the waterfall. We weren’t alone by the smallest stretch of the imagination.

When we got to the base of the waterfall, it was astonishing. Beautiful scenic area. There was the waterfall before us, roaring and sending off a light spray. We changed in a tiny corrugated tin hut without a light source and put our belongings into a cabinet. To get to the water, you had to climb over some large rocks to get in (no easy beaches here like at Lake Michigan). Once in the water, it was the right amount of cool. There were tiny fish in the water that would nibble if you didn’t move enough or wiggled your fingers in the water. It was a strange feeling to get nibbled on. It didn’t hurt at all but it was a weird feeling. I eventually crawled onto a rock and took it all in. I felt like this was a thing I’d read about in travel books or see photos but never do myself. I felt relaxed.

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After we got our swimming and relaxing time in, we decided to head home. We tried to stop at a dragonfruit farm on the way back but the farmers said they had already sold all the good dragonfruit. Oh well.

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Where dragonfruit come from. The ones on this succulent look sad.

When we got back to the hotel, I decided to use our free massage from the hotel. It was one of many perks. We had also gotten lunch and snacks made up in boxes for our journey to the mountain. We made the mistake of doing both at once since it was so much food! The massage was great save one small detail. It wasn’t until the end of the massage that I realized that I had gotten a pretty good sunburn on my back! Whoops!

Afterwards, we decided to head to the circus in Siem Reap. It’s a socially conscious circus that has themes in its shows. They train young impoverished kids to give them skills and a way to learn a living. We took a tuktuk to their space, which was a tent. THis was my first time on a tuktuk. Now, the carriages are hooked to motorcycle or scooters. It was a novel experience. Soon it would be normal to travel that way in Cambodia. THere’s something special about a tented circus even to  this day. The title of the show was “Influence.” It was a wonderful show. I saw some of the best tumbling I’ve ever seen. They had live music too, which is always a bonus. All the materials and costumes were made from everyday items: brooms, rice bags, and more. It was magical using these everyday things in such creative ways.

After the show, we headed back to Pub Street to find some more food. I saw a vendor selling fried crickets that I wanted to try. I then made a mistake. I wanted a chaser to have after the crickets just in case. Instead, we found a place and had a full delicious meal. After dinner, I had lost my appetite to try the crickets. Very disappointing! Next time I’ll have to try it again. Also, no durian vendors that night. Boo urns.
All in all, a great day despite my cowardice about fried crickets!

That’s all for now!

Presenting: Three Artists; Three Projects; One Chicago

 

It’s been a busy few weeks. I haven’t been posting quite as regularly due to some projects that I’ve been working on. I was accepted into Vocalo’s Six Week Storytelling Workshop in January and have spent the last 7 weeks producing an 8 minute piece.  The class was sponsored by Chicago Community Trust and the theme of the class was philanthropy but it was about giving back to the community.It’s based on interviews from the oral history project that I’ve talked about previously. I focused on three women, Nora Moore Lloyd, Carron Little, and Meida Teresa McNeal, who are all artists in Chicago who work with community in different ways. I conducted a second interview with them all to get the right tape (and right quality of tape).

I learned a great deal about getting good tape, voicing, editing a piece, and so much more. I’m very fortunate to have been part of this workshop.

So now, I am sharing with you all my piece: https://soundcloud.com/vocalo/three-artists-three-projects-one-chicago-by-elisa-shoenberger

I hope you all enjoy!