Milan: big cathedrals and learning Italian in 48 hours

After a busy weekend of travel I have returned to the UK — with the sole purpose, of course, of updating the blog. I was in Milan, Italy, visiting my friends Mallory and Haley (who is in Strasbourg, France, for the entire school year but came to Italy for the weekend). I have a whole album of pictures, which I put up on Facebook — you can view them without having Facebook yourself, just click on this here link. If there’s a problem let me know; now, on to the blag.

  • I left London to go to Gatwick Airport at 4 am, which was simply an absurd time of the morning. Getting to Milan required every form of transportation imaginable — a train to Gatwick, a plane to Milan Malpensa Airport, a bus to Centrale train station, a subway to Duomo metro stop, and finally a ten minute walk to my hostel. I flew on easyJet, a budget European airline which I commend for its lack of classes (no PriorityFirstAdvantage PlusUltra Business Gold Class) but which I condemn for its lack of leg room, seats that recline at all, or drinks on board. (In other words, an ideal budget airline!) In total I was in transit for about six and a half hours, even though the actual flight was about an hour and a half. It was worth it, though, to come up from the metro in the heart of downtown Milan, right in front of the Duomo — the world’s third-largest cathedral which took nearly six hundred years to construct.

Notice the presence of blue skies! A nice change of pace

Notice the presence of blue skies! A nice change of pace

  • I met up with Mallory and we got some lunch. Food, of course, is a recurring theme in Italy because it is all so tasty. Among the things I ate: panzerotti (like calzones but lighter dough), spaghetti, red wine (technically not food but cheap and full of tannins, or lacking in tannins? whichever one makes wine taste better), focaccia con proscuitto (which I somehow ordered for myself entirely in Italian using the words “si” and “ciao”), gelato (dark chocolate…), and of course pizza with tuscan sausage. Food was definitely a trip highlight.

Here is a tasty pizza which somehow only cost seven euros

Here is a tasty pizza which somehow only cost seven euros

  • History-wise, the neatest building I saw was the Castle Sforza. On Friday morning, I woke up and walked west past the Duomo towards the castle, a pleasant half-hour stroll in the gorgeous weather. The castle dates into the 1500s, but parts of it have been rebuilt since then — I can’t tell you the exact details because the English translations tended to be… inexact. Interestingly, much of its history was spent being occupied by various foreigners of the Spanish, Austrian, and French persuasion before its inclusion in the (future) Kingdom of Italy in the late 1850s. The castle (and much of the city) was undergoing renovations as the result of “EXPO 2015” which is coming to Milan in two years, requiring new coats of paint across the city (Mallory and I couldn’t get into the the enormous Monumental Cemetery because of construction). Inside the castle are a series of art museums, which I entered after the desk lady consented to let me use legal currency to enter. (I tried to pay with a 20 euro note for a 1.50 ticket, and she said she wouldn’t take it, but thankfully I had a 2 euro coin in my pocket.) Cool stuff including the Michelangelo I posted here over the weekend — he was working on this unfinished sculpture up to the day he died.

Different style of castle, certainly, than the older ones in England

Different style of castle, certainly, than the older ones in England

  • On the last day, Saturday morning, we went inside the Duomo, which is big but not particularly beautiful inside. Lots of memorials to dead cardinals (Catholics, not birds) whose corpses are lying around being generally creepy. There’s a really big organ and lots of painting and sculpture, but the overwhelming impression inside is dark and gloomy. The roof, however, is another story — the architecture is spectacular and the views only slightly less so. It was a good way to spend a morning, the weather peaceful and pleasant at around 45 degrees.

Spires everywhere

Spires everywhere

Haley and I in front of the Duomo.

Haley and I in front of the Duomo.

  • Some assorted observations about Italy. The Euro is stupid — the bills are weird and feel like cheapo Monopoly money, and the coins make no sense at all. There is graffiti everywhere, which prompted the sudden realization that Italians must have invented the word graffiti. I was very proud of myself for this. There were, indeed, lots of fashionable stores (though fewer fashionable people), with the balance being about 20% clothes, 10% bags, 10% shoes, and 60% underwear, which makes perfect sense. In Italy, they drive on the right which felt like the United States, though many of the roads are really old and made out of cobblestones. And on the way out we flew over the Alps, which were quite spectacular and which I hope I’ll get to see again sometime soon. (Delaware is not a particularly mountainous state, with the highest point a mere 447 feet above sea level, so I’m always fascinated by them.)

Now I understand why mountains slow down your armies in Civilization.

Now I understand why mountains slow down your armies in Civilization.

I arrived safely back in the UK around 4 local time here yesterday, and back at my room around 5:30. The evening was spent recuperating, as three long days and nights without much sleep had taken a bit of a toll. I woke up and explored a bit to the west of my residence for the first time, stopping in a pub to enjoy a Sunday roast with all the trimmings (roasted potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, radishes?, and Yorkshire pudding). Back to classes tomorrow!

All the food I am intending on eating today. Plus, Chiswick beer!

All the food I am intending on eating today. Plus, Chiswick beer!

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Snowy weekend

Ahoy there! Good to write to you all again, Internet residents. I wanted to get an update in before tomorrow, when I’m flying to Milan to visit my friend Mallory who is doing a month abroad there. It should be an adventure — my first trip to Italy, where I’m expecting to eat enormous quantities of pasta and feel very much like Brad Pitt in Inglorious Basterds.

But what, you may ask, has been going on in England? I will tell you now.

  • On Friday, my trip to Wales was sadly postponed due to snow. Snow was the recurring theme of the weekend, as it snowed pretty much without ceasing from Friday am through to Sunday evening. Needless to say the English were freaking out over this state of affairs, yet the net accumulation was about an inch in my part of the city. I gather it may have snowed more outside London (certainly Wales would have been impossible) but it was amusing to watch the government and citizenry here react about the same way as one might in North Carolina. The snow did not prevent me from cooking a very tasty dinner with three other guys — two from Princeton and one from Amsterdam — on Friday night. In typical fashion, the four of us both overestimated the food we needed and, nonetheless, ate it all anyway.

You can barely even see it under all that snow.

You can barely even see it under all that snow.

  • Saturday dawned, and the snow was not so bad, so I made my way out to Selhurst (near Croydon in the southern part of the city) to take in another football match. The local team, Crystal Palace FC, took on a team called Bolton Wanderers. They play in the “Championship” which despite the name is one level below the Premier League. Think of it as triple-A baseball except that if you finish in the top three you would get promoted (and the Kansas City Royals would be relegated and might have to spend a year taking on the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs). The stadium, a stark contrast to the Emirates, was ancient — the main stand was constructed in 1923 and my tiny wooden seat certainly felt that way. The ground has been expanded since then, including one end of the field where the seats are constructed on top of a Sainsbury’s grocery store. But it felt very much like a neighborhood team, with a boisterous crowd that largely seemed to be materializing from the surrounding houses. The game was nothing special, a 0-0 draw between two very cold-looking teams, but I had a good time checking it out.

Get your groceries at half time! What a deal.

Get your groceries at half time! What a deal.

  • Saturday evening I listened to Columbia’s basketball team take on Cornell; you can find my column for the Columbia Daily Spectator about the experience here.
  • It continued to snow on Sunday, which was fascinating. Since I already gave you a picture, here’s the lovely English breakfast I had in the morning.

British bacon > British sausages. And no, I didn't each much the rest of the day.

British bacon > British sausages. And no, I didn’t each much the rest of the day.

  • Yesterday I went to Somerset House with my London Architecture class. A very neat building complex, though my enjoyment was hampered by the freezing temperatures! There is a really impressive art gallery, including some impressionists, in one of the buildings, and I’m definitely going to go back to check that out.

The Navy Board once worked here. Truly rapturous stuff.

The Navy Board once worked here. Truly rapturous stuff.

  • Thing that may only interest me and my Dad — the British mint recently introduced a new design for the backs of their coins. Coins are a big deal in the UK, as they come in many strange denominations of up to 2 pounds (L2, L1, 50p, 20p, 10p, 5p, 2p, 1p). I had heard that collecting the latter six coins would be worthwhile, so I did so. Here’s what they make if you put them all together.

Like the world's strangest puzzle.

Like the world’s strangest puzzle.

  •  Yep, it’s the Royal Shield! Hey, I think it’s cool.

That is all for me for the time being, it seems. My weekend is just beginning — today I will be packing (very lightly) and preparing for a repulsively early flight to Milan Malpensa airport tomorrow morning. Miss you all and keep in touch. Arrivederci.

Averting frostbite: Arsenal, a cruise on the Thames, and tea time

Hello again, fans of the blag! It’s been a few days since last update, so I have a lot to cover. But first, let me talk a bit about the football match I attended last night between Arsenal FC and Swansea City.

  • Getting off the tube felt like walking into a street festival, as the road to the stadium was lined with vendors selling both Arsenal products and food for consumption. I’ve never seen anything quite to that extent in the States. I picked up a new hat, Arsenal pin, and a bacon hamburger for around 12 pounds, a better deal than anything I would have found in the stadium. The 58,000 people walking to the stadium all seemed to have similar ideas.

So much swag.

So much swag.

  • It’s been a bit cold in London. Two to four inches of snow are actually predicted to fall on the capital tomorrow, capping a week where the temperature has been locked in at about 30 degrees Fahrenheit (or, as the Brits would say, ‘-2 degrees Celsius’). And I certainly underestimated how cold an outdoor game that kicked off at 7:30 pm would feel. Thinking I would be quite warm with an extra pair of socks and a new Arsenal scarf and hat, I boldly set off to the stadium—but within about 15 minutes of sitting down I began to feel all feeling draining from my feet. There’s a debate about switching the MLS schedule to mirror the Premier League, and I am now convinced this is an awful idea because I can’t imagine anyone going to a soccer game in January in Montreal, Toronto, or Denver.

Me, freezing next to a statue of Arsenal legend Thierry Henry. Did I mention that it was a bit chilly?

Me, freezing next to a statue of Arsenal legend Thierry Henry. Did I mention that it was a bit chilly?

  • The stadium is very modern and very beautiful; even from my seat far away I had a complete view of the action. All of the seats are covered by a roof, which would have been handy if rain was in the forecast. Arsenal were dominant for the entirety of the match, but had a lot of trouble finishing their scoring chances, thus causing a lot of exasperation amongst the crowd. However, with only four minutes separating us from a sure-to-cause-hypothermia period of overtime, Jack Wilshere (an England international) blasted home a game-winner and sent the crowd into a frenzy. (You can see the highlight in this clip.)

Right after the final whistle. We wonned!

Right after the final whistle. We wonned!

  • A few stray observations about the game: they didn’t sing the national anthem before the game started! I was anticipating a rousing “God Save The Queen” but the players basically ran out on the field, took a picture, and got the game started. At halftime, a crew of guys with sticks went out on the field and started patching up divots. Meanwhile, the entire crowd went inside and all tried to buy beer at the same time. This led to, uh, “queues” of extraordinary size. Chants and cheers seemed to bubble up organically from the crowd. They were easy to pick up—the only issue was that the English crowd tends to pronounce “Arsenal” as “Ahhhh-sen-al,” so my hard-R seemed a bit out of place.

In summary, it was a really terrific evening, one I’ll never forget. But that is not the only freezing-cold activity I have been up to!

  • On Monday evening UCL hosted a evening cruise of the Thames for international students. If you’ve ever seen the cruise episode of “The Office”—it was much like that, except with prettier scenery. A nice way to take in a lot of the beautiful buildings but, again, terribly chilly. As we zoomed past the HMS Belfast—the ship on which Peter G. Andrews served during World War II—I had a new appreciation for how difficult shepherding convoys to Mother Russia in 1943 must have been!

no sex was had with mermaids

Got my swim trunks and my flippy floppies.

  • Before the Arsenal game yesterday I spent an hour or so in the National Gallery. While there was certainly some great art in there (and, after taking Art Hum, I actually have a bit of an appreciation for it now), I found it a bit lacking. Not as big as the Met or the Prado in Madrid. However I am looking forward to seeing the National Portrait Gallery at a later point. Afterwards we went for some afternoon tea. Aunt Diane, I made a noble attempt to acquire an eccles cake at this point! However, the tea shop we went to was French (?!?) and so did not have traditional Britishy things. As I was bemoaning this fact at our table, however, a woman not much older than me turned and informed us that she was actually from the town of Eccles! Pleasant conversation ensued. The quest goes on.

Note the disturbing lack of eccles cake.

Note the disturbing lack of eccles cake.

As far as classes, they have been going well. I now know a lot about the history of the English parliament, which thus far mostly revolves around being angry at the King for one reason or another. Helpfully, all of the 17th c. Stuarts had one of three names (James, Charles, Mary), making it very easy to tell them apart. (Sarcasm alert.) My class on London architecture also brought me to the Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich, designed by Christopher Wren. A remarkable complex, again only slightly impeded by the incredible cold.

My plan for tomorrow was to take a day trip to Cardiff in Wales; however, the snow set to hit England will actually take on blizzard conditions in Wales and potentially drop 12 inches (or 30 ‘centimeters’). So I have proactively changed my ticket and will do that in two weeks instead.

Hope all is well back in the States (or wherever you may be, noble reader)! Post a comment on the blag and I will happily respond. I leave you all with this vista from Trafalgar Square yesterday on a beautifully sunny day.

trafalgs

Football, indian food, and mummified heads

I’m going to try to post a new blag every five days or thereabouts, and tonight seems like as good a time as any. I’ve been sidelined a bit by a nasty flu-like bug that struck on Dec. 31 and has slowly devolved to a persistently irritating cough. So tonight it’s a fun evening of cough syrup!

That’s not to say today hasn’t been productive so far. I registered with the NHS practice near UCL. At risk of offending Republicans—a risk I’m usually happy to take—let me say that so far the NHS is the most civilized health system ever. I just had to turn in a short form and show a student ID and, boom, I’m good to go. I can walk in at any time during open clinic hours (about 3 hrs a day) and be seen, or make an appointment for a longer checkup. The receptionist (quite rightly) looked baffled when I asked whether she needed anything else from me (insurance card, proof of address, a bag of my blood). To make things even better, the sun was out!

This prompted a walk over to King’s Cross rail station, which most of you might recognize as being a rather central location in the Harry Potter books. It only took a few minutes of sleuthing to find the entrance into the wizarding world. (FYI, you can click on all of my pictures to embiggen them.)

Seriously you'd think they'd have a guard or something.

Seriously you’d think they’d have a guard or something.

Joking aside, I found this spectacularly cool. Even cooler was when, after a short Tube ride, I exited at a station called simply “Arsenal.” This is the central stop in the north London neighborhood of Highbury, home of Arsenal Football Club—the “soccer” team that I adopted as my own a year and a half ago. Arsenal, established in 1886, have a lot of talent but perennially fall short in basically every competition, making them a natural fit for my Philadelphia/Columbia upbringing. (Also, I mean, how cool of a logo is a big cannon?!)

If you try to beat us at football, we will shoot you with a cannon.

If you try to beat us at football, we will shoot you with a cannon.

At this point in the English football season something called “The FA Cup” is kicking into high gear. The FA Cup is an ancient (first played in 1872) competition in which basically anyone is allowed to compete—all the way from top clubs like Arsenal and Manchester United down to amateur village squads with names like “Brangenham and Thistlecorp United” (note that this is not a real team). Last year’s edition saw 763 teams compete, though most of the lower seeds are weeded out before the Premier League teams start to play.

Anyway, Arsenal drew a Welsh club called Swansea (they are also in the EPL) in their first match, which was played last Sunday. The tournament is single elimination, BUT if you draw with your opponent it forces a “replay” at the road team’s home stadium. The first Arsenal-Swansea match ended in a 2-2 draw, forcing a replay this coming Wednesday at Emirates Stadium (known simply as “the Emirates”). And, due to the short notice, some tickets went on sale to the general public (rather than just members), so I was able to grab a ticket! A full match report will be forthcoming next week. I’m very excited for this experience.

The name "Arsenal" actually comes from the club's beginning as part of the Royal Arsenal. So the omnipresent cannons make sense.

The name “Arsenal” actually comes from the club’s beginning as part of the Royal Arsenal. So the omnipresent cannons make sense.

Yesterday, enjoying the early stages of my long weekend, I also made it over to Westminster Abbey, which is constructed in a slightly different architectural style than Emirates Stadium. It’s one of my favorite buildings in the world, a place where you can accidentally walk over the remains of three of your favorite composers (Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Gustav Holst). There’s also a huge number of dead royals lying around, including the original Queen Elizabeth. What a boss. I can’t even imagine how the place must be for a coronation or royal wedding. Outside, a bit of exploring revealed that that the English have already named a street after me!

I would prefer "Awesome Peter Street" but this is fine also.

I would prefer “Awesome Peter Street” but this is fine also.

Foodwise, it’s been another successful week. A trip to the pub on Wednesday night revealed that, yes, the English do know how to cook a mean hamburger and chips. Tuesday night I had vegetarian curry at an Indian place near campus that was really very good. And I did some cooking last night—chicken tikka masala (from a can) and custard (also from a can)! See these pictures, also noting the strange shape of the Diet Coke bottle in the background.

They really do not have custard in the States. It is tasty.

They really do not have custard in the States. It is tasty.

The glass bowl cost two pounds and I already broke it. Whoops.

The glass bowl cost two pounds and I already broke it. Whoops.

Only two more brief anecdotes before I hang up my keyboard for the night. One is that I ended up in a techno dance “night club” on Wednesday night. I don’t have much to say about this event other than that it was a singularly awful place and yet I’m still glad I went—now I am very confident that such places are really not for me.

The other is that Jeremy Bentham, the utilitarian thinker, is considered the “spiritual” founder of UCL, in that he merely suggested that such a university be built and then left it to other people to actually do the hard work. (Bit of a Ben Franklin type, I think.) Anyway, one of the legacies of this is that Bentham’s body resides in the UCL main building. And when I say resides, well…

One of the creepiest things I've ever seen.

One of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen.

Yes, that’s actually him. Bentham requested that they preserve his skeleton and dress it up in his clothes, sticking his mummified head on top, to create something called an “Auto Icon.” However, something went wrong in the head-mummification process, so they use a wax fake. (You can find a picture of his head, which is kept in the college safe. It is really, really, really dead-looking.) So Bentham is just sitting there, all the time, watching you. It’s whack.

That’s all for now. One piece of “housekeeping” — I think there’s a way to sign up for email updates for anytime I update this thing, so that might be useful for y’all to look into.

London, week one; or, where did the sun go?

Hello, people of the “Inter Net.” I finally have a few moments to update you all, particularly those on the other side of the Atlantic, about my first week here in England. Here’s some of what I’ve observed or been up to:

  • One of the interesting things in any foreign country is the food, and the UK is no different. London is filled with lots of little sandwich shops (which is nice) except that the sandwiches tend to come pre-made in plastic bags (not so nice). There are approximately 14 trillion “Pret A Manger” locations in the city, which is a French phrase that means “Ubiquitous Sandwiches.” I have also sampled some Indian food, which is one of my favorite types of food, and hope to get more over the next few months. I’ve also visited several pubs, largely for the purpose of eating though also for the purpose of relaxing after much walking. (Europeans are very fond of hard cider and there seems to be a nice selection here.) Of course I have also eaten some traditional British food: beef and ale pie, traditional English breakfast, English breakfast tea, a cornish pasty, etc. And there’s a can of custard in my cupboard waiting for the opportune moment to be cooked.

nom nom nom

Here’s Sunday’s breakfast.

  • Eating is not the only thing they do in Britain, though! This country is also very fond of history—as am I—and they sure do have a lot of it. Much of Thursday through Saturday was spent exploring, including a walk from my location near Victoria Station in SW London to UCL’s campus in Bloomsbury (about three miles). Among the sights seen so far: Buckingham Palace (no Queen, though), Trafalgar Square, the West End, Westminster Abbey (from the outside only), Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, the Eye, the Globe Theatre, the Millennium Bridge, and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

not named after ben franklin

I went to Big Ben. Ever heard of it?

  • Transportation has been heavily by foot, but I have also made many journeys on the Tube (a necessity to get up to UCL’s campus). The Tube is great and ought to make NYCers even more ashamed of the MTA—it comes every two minutes, is clean and functional, lacks rats, and seems to be everywhere. The only downside is that it is not 24/7 (I would characterize it as more of an 18/7) which is a bit of a nuisance. I’ve also been on buses and the Southern train service, both of which were excellent.

no bombs here

St. Paul’s Cathedral at dusk (3:45 pm)

  • As for the actual school I’m attending, I’m quite excited. The main difference here seems to be that there’s a lot less class time and a lot more focus on independent reading and writing, which is perfectly fine by me. I get the sense that some of the other Americans are finding the whole thing a bit baffling, though. As well they might—it’s a lot tougher to construct your schedule because of a bevy of restrictions. (The university is more decentralized, so each department has a lot more control over their students and courses.) I’m excited about my classes, where hopefully I’ll be able to learn a lot while relatively unpressured (each class is assessed by two papers, no sit down finals, and we have a luxurious amount of time to write each one—all of my “classes” are actually done on March 22, then we have a month of break before Term 3, which is just preparing for exams or writing papers). I’m taking:
  • Europe in the Early Middle Ages (400-1000), Mon 9-10 lecture and Tues 10-11 seminar
  • International Development and Public Policy, Mon 2-3 lecture and 3-4 seminar
  • London Architecture, which is taught at buildings around the city, Tues 2-4 and
  • History of Parliament, Wed 9-11. So, four-day weekends!

why doesn't it say anything about king's college? well this is ucl not columbia! also I think we hate king's because they hate secularism or something

UCL—feels a lot like Low Library!

  • Finally, I was excited to see my Aunt Joan yesterday, who lives in Sutton just south of the city. She seems to be quite happy and healthy for an 88 year old, and it was good to learn a bit about my family history. She attended UCL during the War and spent much of that time in Wales, a fate I hope to avoid in these travels… Visits to Chiswick in West London, where my grandfather was born, and to Norwich on the Anglian coast, where Stephen and Frances Andrews (my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents) were married in 1745, will come in due time.

Anyway, that’s all for now from me, I think. Time to make dinner, do some reading, and get some sleep (which has been in incredibly short supply). Hopefully the sun comes out tomorrow, though I’m learning not to be optimistic on that count.

Feel free to leave a comment in the comment section below! I promise I will read it. Also my mailing address and e-mails are available under the “About” tab at the top of this web zone.