Tuesday, 26 May 2009

New York City (Saturday, 23/5)

Saturday was a day I decided to do about half of the major time-consuming activities on my list. As a matter of fact, that was a good decision; the weather held up and I got everything done I wanted to, but time slipped by and the last item, whilst unchanging, had its environment rather changed to something that I'm told was even better.

So, I set off in the morning to walk through Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On the way to the art gallery, I had to stop to allow a marathon to go past... a marathon that included about 20 Metropolitan Police Officers. In at least partial uniform. Running around Central Park, for some cause or other (it was exceedingly hard to tell what cause, I must say!). If that wasn't bad enough, one of them had their belt on... with truncheon and handcuffs. If 3,000-odd miles isn't off their beat, I'm not sure what is, though it's undeniable that Gotham is indeed a metropolis.

So, I headed off to the Metropolitan Museum. This ended up being where I spent the bulk of the day (I intended to spend half a day, and that just did not happen really... for reasons that will become clear.) Going in, I had one clear idea in mind: Spend a while looking at the Greek vases, then look at everything else. Well, I spent about 2 hours looking at a sample of their Greek vase collection, what was on the ground floor - going into detailed and extensive notes, that I won't bore you with, on about 12 of the items on display, with many pictures (121 of Greek vases and details. That's 12 vases) to illustrate the notes. I then went upstairs... and saw the study rooms. Room upon room of classical artifacts... most of which were Greek vases. This time they didn't have any information attached, so I didn't take notes on those - nor did I take all that many pictures. At this point hunger struck and I headed out for lunch, picking up a pretzel from one of the many sellers inhabiting the space in front of the neoclassical Met building (very reminiscent of the BM, really!).

Back inside, I re-entered the classical exhibits with a view rather wider than just the vases; they had some fantastic sculpture, and the main room exhibiting the statuery was nicely classical - a roofed-over imitation of a Roman atrium, accurate in almost every detail. The main thing that exhibition convinced me of was that I need to learn as much about classical statues as I know about Greek vases - because I had less knowledge, the marble was a lot less interesting than the terracotta. Knowledge is power, and also enjoyment, apparently.

From there I found my way through the very confusing museum to the Armoury section, because I decided that that was one of the few sections of the museum I really wanted to see - that and the section above it, the musical instruments. The Met's a bit of a maze to navigate, but I got there eventually (through a really ugly area on late medieval decorations... not a period I like, I must admit); once I arrived in the armoury, there was some beautiful work on display, including some armour in false-classical styles and weaponry that looked more like artfully decorated clubs than guns. Their display of Eastern styles of armour was very well done, and thoroughly impressed me.

Then I headed upstairs to their musical instruments display. That spanned all the inhabited continents of the world minus Australasia, with a range of instruments from grand pianos and organs to lutes and pipes. There were some incredibly beautiful instruments, and the range of styles over the generations and the variety of forms for one kind of instrument producing one set of notes was astounding; some makers of instruments have been very creative and inventive, albeit possibly a tad insane about their designs; three-necked lutes, bodyless violins (tuned the same as a normal violin in range), clarinets in unusual form (such as that pictured with this paragraph)... all sorts of odds and sods were on display.

After that, I had to go back down to get out - and rather than go through the medieval ugliness again, I went through the Egyptian section, and was floored by the main exhibition space, which holds a reconstruction of the Temple of Dendur. A large sandstone thing, it takes up most of the wing of the museum to display, and was surrounded by various accoutrements like statues of the gods and goddesses, and a full-blown moat in the middle of the museum - shallow, but flowing water all the same. A very impressive sight with the great glass wall letting in the full sunlight across the whole scene.

From the museum, I walked up another 20 blocks and went to visit the Cathedral of St John the Divine. Uncompleted since its first conception in the early 20th century, it's apparently the biggest gothic-style cathedral in the world regardless, and is absolutely stunningly beautiful; large and airy, the stained glass windows cast no single colour over the church, giving it the feel of being a very open space. Furthering this was the height of the building; it was very atmospherically light, had a lot of space, except in the crossing of the four arms - which was of a different, and darker, stone (also used for the North and South arms of the Church) which gave it a rather more oppressive atmosphere, alleviated somewhat by the focusing of the light from the stained glass of the East end of the church on the central altar and cross. Altogether a most beautiful church, though not the most beautiful that I saw in the city.

So, after this I took the subway back to my hotel to put my feet up briefly (40 blocks plus a museum is a lot of walking!) before heading out for pizza. Apparently New York pizza is something special; having sampled it, I have to say I agree - and Ray's is quoted as the best place to get such pizza. Well, a slice from Ray's is a meal itself, and pretty cheap, whilst also being absolutely delicious; great food - and helpfully, in a direct line from my hostel to the Empire State Building, the destination of the evening.

So, I wanted to get up there for dusk. I got there an hour or so before sundown. I got to the 86th floor... about an hour or so after. Apparently, it's an even better sight at night than during the day (so experts have told me) which means that entirely unintentionally I gave myself a far better viewing of the NYC skyline; to which all I can say is lucky me. Actually, it's absolutely true - that is a stunning skyline, absolutely amazing at night. Even a fear of heights (blaring at me as I stood all that distance above the ground) didn't stop me enjoying being up there, and seeing the Chrysler (for instance) from above - an odd experience, to say the least. I walked the circuit of the outside twice and looked out over the river and bay, and the city itself, and it's really something else - such a varying height of skyline, and such a divided city (by the rivers, that is). Really rather odd. I leave you with just one image from the top of the skyscraper, taken by a girl whose picture I had taken for her just moments before; the darkness does a decent job, I hope, of hiding my absolute terror.

New York City (Friday, 22/5)

So, on Friday I went to New York City for a four-day weekend (taking Friday off school, and Monday was Memorial Day, meaning I didn't have to take that off school as it's a Federal holiday. It also influenced what I did and what happened Monday, as we shall see).

A 3-and-a-half hour busride is all it takes to get from the District to the City, and that's what I did; I hopped off the bus and onto the subway, to check in to my hostel accommodation (I slept most of the busride, unintentionally...) which was almost literally on Central Park. The West Side YMCA's pretty comfortable, and secure; so, dumping my bags, I headed into the park itself - the "greatest urban park in the world", according to the signs. So I took a long wander up and down Central Park before parking myself on a rock to sit and read for an hour or so til sundown, and watch the life passing by. A couple of highlights of Central Park, then... Let's start with the turtles. Yes, turtles, cohabiting a lake with rowing boats and rowers. Interesting thought, no? Well it's a pretty interesting sight too, to be honest; especially when the large one - size of my torso, or so - tried to eat a bright yellow baseball bat extended towards it, coming fully out of its shell in order to try and do so.

Wandering around Central Park there were also other moments where I just had to stop and look. Bearing in mind this was the hot afternoon sun, I was very impressed by the dancers; there's a stage in Central Park which live performances happen on, and evidently I just missed one - but the sound equipment was still set up and an album was being played; all sorts of people just came out and danced - some in formal dress, presumably on their way back from the office, and others in what seemed to be running kit; a crowd gathered to watch and a space cleared between songs, but each time a new song came on the space filled organically, everyone dancing again, from the goths to the bankers. Amazing sight, a real mix of the sort that America prides itself on.

Finally, my last Central Park highlight of the day was the playground down at the south end of the park. Its the sort of playpark that every kid wishes they had, and backs straight onto a large set of rocks in the park (and yes, does have as rule one: "No adults unless accompanied by a child"); there's a nice entrance/exit onto the large rock (this being the rock I was sitting and reading on, overlooking the playground); there were fountains with button-activated modes, with the buttons easily used by kids; swings; roundabouts; huge climbing frames and similar things; reasonably-sized constructions usable as playhouses; all sorts of awesome things to play with. Really cool, and it was not surprising that the playground was packed even coming up to dusk, which is when I quit the park (buying a pizza-pretzel for dinner on the way out) for my bed.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Falling In Lake Superior And Other Anecdotes (Other Anecdotes Not Included)

Disclaimer 1: I'm safe, unharmed, and nothing and no one was damaged, destroyed, or even badly injured except for the occasional twinge in the wrists and hands.

Disclaimer 2: There are more anecdotes coming, and I'm intending to get blogs up over the weekend - there's just quite a lot to write about and a lot of pictures to whittle down to decide which I use.

So, onto the story...

In Minnesota (yes, this will be explained at the weekend - ed.) there is a big lake. It's called Lake Superior, and borders at least 2 US states plus Canada. It's the largest great lake, and the beaches are frozen - as is twice as much lake as beach. And I do mean frozen; it's ice - and on the lake, the ice moves up and down, whilst on the beach it stays still.

So, our party is walking the beach carefully; I'm scouting safe places to go, being the lightest (...yeah, the logic escapes me too) and I'm walking the sand-ice, testing as I go - with my leg, the only thing I can test with. So, I see a peak of frozen sand rising from the ice which seems to be a thin layer over sand; I walk toward it, testing as I go - clearly, the other side is the lake. Suddenly, just before I get there, I'm not standing on sand any more; I'm more up to my chest in water at sub-zero temperatures. I shoot, near vertically, out, and stand on something...

And again, the ground vanishes under me, and again, I'm up to my chest in sub-zero temperatures. Again, I shoot out. This time I am on frozen sand... With ice-covered water, of unknown width, between myself and the rest of the beach. Except for where I went through the ice, of course. At which point off comes the leather duster (undamaged), out of my pocket comes the wallet, the mobile phone (undamaged), the digital camera (undamaged), and the inhaler (I didn't want to lose that. Getting hypothermia and losing one's inhaler in one day sounded like a recipe for disaster).

And then I jump... and reach sand. We traipse up the beach and I strip to underwear and a borrowed fleece (any charges of indecency that might be raised against me at this point are rather mooted by suspicious activities in the car next to ours in the lot...), and other than scrapes (numerous), bruises (large), and pervading cold (temporary), everything is fine again. Huzzah, and lesson learned: Not everything that looks like one can walk on it can be walked on.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

On Interstate Travelling, Meeting Friends, and Celtic Woman

Ok, very little interesting happened between my last posting and Friday 13th. Whilst I could have posted on Friday, I decided that the next 4 days were going to be exciting enough to roll all five into one.

And then, of course, 4 days turned even busier than I'd expected (and also even more fun); thus, this post will round up 9 days of intense enjoyment. The first would be Saturday the 14th; on this day, I went into town to meet up with a friend I've known for over a year now but never met; for the purposes of this entry, she'll be called by the pseudonym she uses for her internet writings: Anne Walsh.

She was taking a weekend vacation in DC, and arrived into Union Station by train; on meeting up, we exchanged hugs, greetings, and a little happy squealing before going off in search of her family at the Natural History Museum (on a Saturday. There is no worse day to look for a family, in the Natural History Museum, than on a Saturday, except a rainy Saturday. It was rainy). A little wandering in the gem and geological galleries demonstrated that they're not only all dataheads with a brilliance for trivia, but they're also universally geeks in the best sense of the word; thus, a lovely hour or two was passed in talk and looking at exhibits and similar, highly enjoyable, escapades, followed by a trip back to the hotel, dinner, and a bit of planning for Sunday.

Since Anne and her family are Catholic, Sunday morning was a semi-write-off: They went to Mass at 9, which lasted til 10, after which I joined them for a look around the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. That's (apparently) the largest Catholic church in the US, and the counterpart to the National Cathedral (and in the North-East, whilst the Cathedral is in the North-West of the District). A beautiful, almost Byzantine church in it's architecture, I took a wander around after arriving at about 9:30 and looked all around the outside; the architect definitely took their cues from the churches of the East, and the inside reflects the same overarching principles of design with mosaicwork in gold adorning various sections of the church, incorporating wonderful effects. I'm certainly going to need to visit again, especially since my camera battery unexpectedly died on me, and because we were rushed in the main body of the Church because of a second Mass; some post-Easter Saturday I'm going to head over there with a fully charged camera and, if I can find it, some sort of Pevsner equivalent for DC. That'll be a fun day, with a nice picture-filled blogpost; for now, let this one image of the Shrine's south door (Church directions; it was at about 45 degrees to true) suffice.

We followed that up by a trip to the Air And Space Museum; again, I'd been already to the museum and so was simply directing people to the highlights - I mostly hung with Anne, who was by this point flagging after getting too little sleep the previous night, whilst her parents, her two brothers, and her sister (they're a Catholic family) all went around the museum; I did, however, make sure all gathered in one place to listen to the Galaxy Song (see Week 2), having been assured by Anne that her parents were the source of her Python-appreciation.

Pittsburgh

Monday was spent mostly in a car, travelling to Pittsburgh; that was a fun journey, with crazy singing (every single member of Anne's family is a good singer. I am not. I did not sing.) with an added bit of wandering the Strip in Pittsburgh (hereafter Pitt), which is a lovely little area with some very nice shops on it; very much an Italian neighbourhood, and the effects of this on the town's architecture was made even more clear on the morrow.

That would be because Tuesday was spent wandering central Pitt, looking... at architecture. This meant three or four churches, and the library (a part of the Carnegie legacy to the town, next to the Natural History Museum; directions to this involve turning left at the diplodocus, which amused me rather a lot. We took a brief stop in the library and wandered somewhat musingly amongst the bookshelves; Anne had to renew her books, so she did, whilst I just browsed. After that came the real work though; we wandered first to the university chapel, which was a tiny building built in a beautiful Gothic style, overshadowed by the tall tower of the Cathedral of Learning (the major building in the University of Pittsburgh, self-conciously titled that by the architect who wanted to symbolise religion being replaced by education). The interior of the tiny little church felt far larger than it was in part due to being rather tall; a very high church, the east end had wonderful blue stained-glass windows casting a blue light over the whole interior. The whole thing was really rather wonderful, in a transcendent way; the blue light over the whole chapel giving it a lovely beauty beyond the simple one given it by the intricacies of the stonework.

From there, we headed to St Paul's Catholic Cathedral. Again, this was in the Gothic style, but rather lower and longer; inside, it was far lighter and simpler, with a more low-church feel but enough high-church atmosphere to remain clearly Catholic. Unlike the Chapel, the stained glass didn't make a semi-dark interior but rather a light one; and nor did it create one, unified effect across the whole building, rather allowing light in and helping to create an airy atmosphere, of freedom. Anne described it as being the sort of church that one feels like one can fly in, and we had a nice discussion of the classifications (not by any means official ones) of churches, deciding on four simple categories.

The fourth category is the one her local church falls into, St Maurice; out of the city somewhat, it's a very modern thing, but without any real theme, or style - an odd church, to say the least, that didn't have any real atmosphere, whereas the other churches had a feeling of the divine about them. A very odd place of worship on a number of levels, with conceptual art taking the place of more traditional work; I personally, and I believe Anne concurred, thought it was more artistic, and less conceptual (in the sense that the concept wasn't clear, whilst the art was rather big). The rest of Tuesday was spent in idle talk, and preparation for a Wednesday flight to Rhode Island, as well as discussing outfits for the concert on Saturday.

Rhode Island

Wednesday was spent on an airplane mostly, travelling from Pittsburgh to Rhode Island. Having missed our original flight, we had to get new tickets, which was fun, and fly via Newark in New Jersey rather than via Cleveland; such things happen, and were in this case sorted rapidly, which meant we could happily continue on our journey to meet Brit in Providence. As such, the rest of the day was spent happily relaxing and moving in ways that airplanes do not allow, and greeting various people such as Brit's mother, sister-in-law, and nephew, who at 18 months is unbelievably sweet.

Thursday, we wandered Providence hunting down some flats for Brit and Anne to move into. Anne's decided she's got what she can from where she is in life, and wants to move on, whilst Brit's at the age of flying the coop a little; so, moving in together in Providence is the plan at the moment. The fun of flathunting is, it seems, increased when you do it in pairs, and trios work especially well, if you bring a friend along for moral support - I got to learn all about the right questions to ask when looking over somewhere you want to live, about reasonable prices, and about the sort of thing that increases the costs beyond the simple rental price (things like heating bills et cetera). That passed an enjoyable day, and Friday rolled around; it, like most of Saturday, was spent relaxing, although Friday also involved picking a Californian up from the train station - Josh, who was visiting MIT (which is in Boston, an hour's train journey from Providence). Once our four-person group was thus assembled, the final item on our itinerary could be achieved...

Celtic Woman

Some groups are one-hit phenomena, and some are intended to be a one-hit phenomena and then just... outgrow themselves. Celtic Woman, from the potted history I heard, started off as a one-performance group at The Helix in Dublin; that was 3 years ago, and there's been 4 CDs and DVDs released since then, each attached to a different tour or set of performances. I'd not heard of them til December of last year, when I was given a ticket to their performance in Boston on Saturday 21st March by Anne; in fact, this was on the understanding we'd all meet up and go to the performance, since she already knew I was going to be in America. So, we all got dressed up (I helped Anne and Brit both choose their outfits and augment them, and both looking stunning, as did Josh, although with his blazer he was more than slightly reminiscent of a cricketer) and got our train to Boston.

The theatre itself was stunning; a rococo (I think) interior richly decorated with lots of twiddles and images of all sorts, I wanted to get a picture but photography within the theatre was strictly prohibited, sadly. The pictures recalled classical scenes beautifully rendered in a Renaissance style, whilst the amount of gilt and leaf spread around would probably drop the price of gold somewhat significantly were it ever to hit the market. Absolutely beautiful all the same, though.

However, all that vanished when Celtic Woman took the stage. The girls have incredibly powerful voices, with immense flexibility and skill; they took on all sorts of pieces, from popular music such as Cyndi Lauper's True Colours to Sting's Fields of Gold, and Billy Joel's Goodnight My Angel to Van Morrison's Have I Told You Lately. They also performed some traditional pieces like Last Rose of Summer (and an instrumental based strongly on it with the fiddle, on which more later, taking the vocal line) and originals with strong traditional styling like At The Ceili; their Irish accents set the music off beautifully, and their choreography was wonderful.

The 4 singers sang beautifully individually, and when singing together the close harmony was gorgeous; the simple power of the four voices singing together was breathtaking, and what they did to songs I thought I couldn't stand - Danny Boy, for instance - was awe-inspiring; a tune I've heard in malice far too much made beautiful by the singing and style, as well as the voices. The sadness in their slower songs was clear, and the joy in songs like the wonderfully done At The Ceili was uplifting; perhaps their best song was Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears, about the experience on Ellis Isle of immigrants going to America to escape the potato famine. It spoke to pain and joy in equal parts, hope and sorrow; they carried the piece wonderfully.

The most amazing member of the group, however, is also the oldest; named Máiréad Nesbitt, she looks at least a decade younger than her 33 years of age, and has all the innocent energy of one a decade younger still. Costumed in a simple white shift for the first act of the concert, she bounded around the stage on four-inch heels, flirting unashamedly with everyone who shared it with her and with the audience, never losing concentration on her main activity... playing the fiddle with consumate skill and ease, making it look effortless and creating wonderful sounds. Her history demonstrates just how much of a fiddler she is - for instance, she played in Feet of Flames in 1998, with all her energy on display there about as much as it was on Saturday in Boston 11 years on, her command of stage, fellow performers, and audience alike clearly on show, and her passion and sense of fun absolutely intact from their earliest performances. She was absolutely wonderful and totally on form, although one must admit to incredible surprise about some aspects of her performance... for instance, she was leaping about stage whilst wearing four inch heels and never fell; further, she was fiddling incredibly hard and fast but nary a string snapped nor did her bow ever fray or even falter. Astounding stuff, that; absolutely astonishing, it really was. That concert was beautiful, moving, and wonderful, and now, 48-odd hours later, I'm still coming down from the high.

Since then, most of the time has been spent travelling, recovering from travelling, or dealing with the fallout of travelling (I cleaned the room to have somewhere to move and put stuff and sort things out... and did my washing... and... wrote this). But, before I finish off, I'd like to talk about...

People

First, Anne. That's not her real name, it's pseudonymous, the pseudonym she chose. She's an absolutely lovely young woman, with a wonderful voice, beautiful for singing in; a Python-fan and general slight-geek, her Catholicism leads to some disagreements on some things with her, but her noncombatative personality make them... if not less, at least not a problem between us, which is always nice, because she has a personality even more beautiful than she herself is. She's kind, and has the ability to just look absolutely innocent and say the most uninnocent of things without letting on that she realises, and only looking into her eyes gives away the laughter she's internalising. Engaging and charming... everyone needs a friend like Anne.

Brit's different, in some ways. She's less false-innocent and more up-front about things; she's very bouncy, in a way Anne isn't (which isn't to say Anne's not bouncy, since she is, but... it's different). Brit's more outgoing and, I guess, charismatic than Anne, who can be very withdrawn but once she's stopped being such is incredibly charming. Brit's also a tad more simple to predict, emotionally; she tends towards happiness, to generalise horribly, and whilst mornings are somewhat of an exception to this rule, she takes things in her stride. Except when she doesn't, which is when she gets annoyed... which isn't so fun.

Finally, Josh, the Californian. He's slightly enigmatic; none of the inhibitions your average 18 year old has, let alone the average 18 year old supergenius, he's willing to make a fool of himself in public, in order to cheer up or amuse those he counts as friends. He's willing to call a spade a spade and talk clearly about things he thinks someone needs to know, but on occasion can be slightly oblivious to more oblique strangenesses and subtle teasings. Something of a counterpart to Anne's small stature, he's tall and his personality can just fill a room, and enjoy himself unmitigatedly when the situation allows for it, without embarassment or palaver.

So good people all.

Now, to finish off, I leave you with links to a couple of Celtic Woman videos to peruse at your pleasure.





Friday, 6 March 2009

Arabesque

School's still been going fine, although the weather's gone crazy lately: Monday we had off due to 4" of snow (Sunday to Monday it snowed, Tuesday it was sunny - blindingly so - and freezing at 14*F), but today it's about 68*F (about 16*C, by a very rough conversion). Over the course of 5 days (which the kids couldn't go outside during, of course - snow on the ground, and ice... they'd slip, fall, and sue) the temperature increased drastically. Really amazing... Spring's here at last!

Saturday, I went into central DC to visit the strangely pseudo-neoclassical Kennedy Centre (a huge block with a portico supported by golden, modern columns surrounds the very blocky building); they're holding an exhibition-and-lecture series called Arabesque, on (obviously) the culture of the Arab world. The exhibits aren't very good (even the collection of bridal dresses which, as fabric, could be stunning was rather bland and boring) with the exception of a single utterly unphotographable one: A kaleidoscope made of projected images down a huge mirrored triangular tunnel, which one could walk down. Attempts to photograph it fell, I must say, rather flat, which was unsurprising.

However the really interesting part of the whole event for me is the literary series, talks by Arab writers on a variety of subjects, all of them free. I got tickets for 8 or 9 of these (all but two - one of which simply didn't interest me, one which clashed with another non-ticketed event in the series, about Shakespeare and the Arab World); the first two were yesterday, so I took the day off school, and took the Metro into DC.

The talks were pretty interesting - one on Women Writing Men, Men Writing Women (it didn't really focus though, and seemed to just be a more general "Why we write" thing) and one on Migration, Exile, and the Search for Identity which stayed pretty much on focus and was interesting for the political Arabism (the problems of Sudan are purely British, and that international law is being broken is perfectly acceptable because they're not Sudanese laws, for instance) as well as the widely varying perspectives of the panelists on the actual questions (also, hearing a British accent was nice... the panel leader was a British immigrant who'd come over specifically for this series). However, the most engaging part of the day was watching the first panel - they spoke in English and Arabic, and when they spoke English they were very flat and withdrawn, as well as hesitant and bland; speaking Arabic their hands moved a lot, they spoke faster and more engagingly, they were more open, and they were more passionate and humourful about everything. Speaking in their native language just let them cut loose, I guess.

So, there's another few talks over the weekend, which I'll be going to - I'll report back on those Sunday night if I don't get back too late.


In other news, by the by, I got an offer from St Andrews - AAB - so we'll see what happens with my last exam... be hopeful for me! Next blog Sunday or Monday.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

A Book

I just got an Amazon package about 10 minutes ago, from the post holder outside the house (US postal services operate late, and we tend to get mail here between 4 and 7 in the evening).

In it, was a book - on Ancient Rome and Modern America. It looks really interesting so, whomsoever had a hand in sending me that - dad, I know you did - thank you (I didn't look at the price, but I did want to know who to thank, so I checked the bill for that).

Monday, 23 February 2009

School, Plans, and the Neighbourhood

It's been a while since my last post, and that's because I've not been doing much beyond school - it's a lot harder work here than it was back in the UK, in part because the work is more physical (smaller children, and more manhandling is allowed, but also needed - these kids are wilful!) and in part because there's a whole different set of rules and responsibilities; I'm doing more actual teaching here, because of a different classroom set up (whether that's personal to Francesca or cultural I've yet to find out). In a surfeit of irony, I've been teaching the children about colour (I know...) using mainly the primary colours, to make my and their lives easier; so talking about the fact that objects are coloured (it's not just a hat, it's a red hat) and that one type of thing can be multiple colours (this is a red hat, this is a blue hat; they're both hats). Some of the kids get it, some don't, one doesn't even pay attention but, given that they're functioning at approximately the level of an 18-month-old that's unsurprising.

Last Wednesday was our community trip, and that was very enjoyable. We went to a museum with an exhibition of pictures from the history of a community back to the turn of the last century, and the kids all behaved pretty well; better, I'll admit, than I expected, although the worst two weren't in that day (the 18-month-old being one of those two, of course). That meant I got to look at the exhibition as well as just look after the kids, which was nice since this was the sort of small exhibition I'd never even have heard of otherwise, let alone visited.

The week before that, though, I had to take the Wednesday off. Combining being in a new country with being around a whole bunch of kids exposed me to a lot of interesting pathogens, and a whole bunch of runny nosed kids probably tells you what that meant for me... if it doesn't, a seriously painful face, which got worse every time it's angle changed even slightly to the point where I couldn't function just about sums it up. One lunchtim trip to the chemist later, I was half-knocked out by the drugs I bought, and managed to get through to the end of Tuesday; Wednesday, however, was a bust, although with a nasal spray and two sets of anti-allergens (I checked, there was no problem with taking both) I was back in Thursday.

My one leisure-time outing the last few weeks was a walk. There's a very wild (if thin) forest behind the row of houses that I'm currently staying in, with a creek down the middle; despite being a matter of metres from the houses on each side, because they're raised (or the creek has fallen... I'm not quite sure) you can't see them from the path and the silence on a Sunday, broken only by the running of the brook, was really peaceful. I'd gone out for the purpose of going shopping, which required me to cross the creek, and just wandered down it, kinda distracted; it was one of those occasions on which I was glad I'd forgotten my iPod, as listening to the burbling brook and the complete silence otherwise was really peaceful. I think that, as spring and summer roll around, it's a walk I'll be doing often...

Plans

As far as future plans go, I've got a few. First, from March 16th through to the 22nd I'll be out of town - Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania then Providence, Rhode Island, returning to Pittsburgh before returning to DC and back to work (possibly) on the 23rd (depends on the bus schedule and the ease of travelling from airport to Greyhound station). I'm meeting some friends at various points during that trip, as well as going to a concert in Boston on the 21st.
I've also got plans to go to Illinois and Minnesota - the former, April 1st through the 3rd, in Chicago, travelling then up to Minneapolis/St Paul (or the Twin Cities) through to the 13th, before returning to DC for work on the 14th.
How much contact I'll be in during either of those trips is an interesting question, but we'll see; as it were, forewarned is forearmed, and you can't claim not to have forewarning now.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Work & Leisure

Work

We (that is, Francesca and I) arrive at school at around 7:00 each day, half an hour or so before we're required to be there and an hour before the kids arrive, and our day starts with a mug of coffee (a coffee machine in the classroom makes it, some mornings, a social hub; there is no real staffroom). The classroom is small - maybe 4 meters a side - and much of it is occupied with furniture; the children all have chairs, there're two tables, and 4 children have individual desks, plus Francesca's desk, permanently covered in a rather thick layer of... well... stuff. Everyone's really friendly and helpful, when I've made mistakes, and they're very accomodating.

I'm working in Francesca's class - the children are approximately 5 through 7, kindergarten to first graders, and a mixture of unclassified SEN. Kids here aren't classified (officially) until 8, and none of these children are as severely affected as the ones I was working with in Manchester - they have more self-awareness, and more knowledge of what's appropriate and right (though one of them has the developement of an 18-month-old or less, excluding being potty-trained). There're 9 of them, split 6/3 female/male, and the plurality are Down's Syndrome children (observational diagnosis) and 2 are autistic (and exhibit some of the more obvious characteristics thereof).

All in all it's a lot of fun, and somewhat different from the UK (I keep saying "Put that in the bin" and getting blank looks, because of course the term here is trash); the most noticable difference is the commonality of actually physically moving the children - it's worth bearing in mind that in some states (Georgia, for instance) corporal punishment is still legal - and similar matters. I'm looking forward to working here for a while to come.

Leisure

Wednesday was a half-day, meaning school let out at about 11:30; I took advantage of the foreshortened day to go and visit the National Cathedral, which is on Mt Vernon (to avoid zoning restrictions). 91 years in construction from 1909, it's a massive gothic edifice in a very light stone providing pretty nearly the only external contrast with an English gothic cathedral, and the interior did little to alter the parallel; massive columns with fan-vaulting, Norman arches, and stained glass windows, all of which were in a more modern style than some cathedrals but in a style similar to that used, for instance, in those whose windows were Blitzed out. There's a memorial window to Apollo 11, as well as various luminaries, and I was told that there's a gargoyle with the head of Darth Vader - an example of the old and the new meeting, I guess. A very enjoyable afternoon.

On the Saturday, I went into central DC to meet Courtney again, and to visit the National Aquarium. Unfortunately, my camera died early in the day and as such the picture here is hers; mine has a penchant for pink, thinking that everything looks better in that colour (I, personally, disagree strongly). Anyway, the DC site is apparently far smaller than that in Baltimore, and is under the Department of Commerce; an interesting range of marine life was on display, including some beautiful tropical frogs, some wonderful sharks, and most enchanting of all, a turtle which seemed to love giving Courtney good shots of it; swimming past the glass, the amphibian kept nigh-literaly posing for the camera. It was a fun hour or so of diversion in there, and then we simply walked and talked for a while; another good day out. Hurray!

Monday, 2 February 2009

School: The Return

Not much to say, really. The fellow staff are nice and helpful, and Francesca is the soul of wonderful kind friendliness, as well as being brilliant with the kids, who're all mischievous little angels. I'm working with kindergarteners and first-graders at the moment, ie her class; the system works a little differently, since the class is part of a mainstream school and the kids do some things with non-SEN members of their peer group, and is also different because until age 8 the kids aren't officially diagnosed, though some diagnoses can be worked up pretty easily based on pure observation (Down's and autism for instance). The children are all learning basic things like counting, proper behaviours, and appropriate communications methods, though one or two are also being toilet trained. I loved my day today and can't wait to go back to the 9 kids (we've got 4 staff including me) tomorrow.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Superbowl

Wow.

All I can say is wow.

That was a really, really nailbiting, awesome, wonderful and fun game to watch; it kinda demonstrates the addicting and powerful nature of American football and where it beats UK football in intensity and the straight-up scary nature of the game. Unbelievably cool.

Plus, Springsteen as the half-time entertainment was pretty cool; he's a good live performer, so I think I'll head down in March to see him live...

Wow. Possibly a more cogent post on this tomorrow, along with one on school.

Week 2

An active week, I'm going to go through activity by activity, and they won't all get equal time.

Politics

The first thing to mention was a visit to the Supreme Court. It's a majestic and magnificent building, though they wouldn't let me in to most of it - I picked a non-arguing day, apparently (which since I got up early in an attempt to hear an oral argument was annoying, but life, I guess), so they wouldn't let me into the court chambers themselves until quite late in the day. However, the ground floor housed an interesting exhibit on some of the early Justices of the Supreme Court, which both allowed me to learn more political and legal history of the US as well as remind me of some of the major decisions of the Court. For those who don't know, the Court is the final Constitutional arbiter, and some things (segregation for instance [Brown v Board of Education]) have been made illegal not by law but by court decision (the aforementioned case ruled separate but equal wasn't equal and therefore violated the Constitution; in the 19th century on the other hand the Dred Scott ruling upheld slavery). I finished with a coffee in the cafe, and just after leaving I overheard a conversation which annoyed me... not for any political reason, but because it turns out that had I waited a half-hour, I'd have been able to meet Associate Justice Samuel Alito... ah well.

Instead, I headed for Congress. It's got a very impressive underground visitors' centre which is mostly empty and serves as little more than an atrium for tours of the main building itself and for security checks for those who want to go to the House or Senate chambers. I took a tour of the building, which took us into neither current chamber, but into the old House chamber - and demonstrated really rather well why an echo-chamber was a bad structure for a debate-chamber; whisperings and mutterings carry far too well across the floor, and white noice ends up obscuring what's being said. Two guided tours in that room was enough to produce the effect, and the original composition was about ten times greater (plus it must have been packed). However, there is a lot of good artwork scattered around Congress, stained glass, murals, paintings, and statuary amongst it. We weren't allowed to wander alone in any of the areas the tour covered, so we were escorted back to the atrium, and I headed into the unfortunately uninformative museum (or rather, to me uninformative) which did have some nice exhibits, in the forms of some of the Federalist Papers and letters from the Founding Fathers (that is, the original copies).

After wandering for a while looking at these exhibits, I exercised my right as a foreign citizen to not go through a member of Congress (DC has a non-voting Representative, for those who wonder, though apparently Obama wants to amend the Constitution and turn the District into the 51st state) in order to access the chamber of the House of Representatives (the Senate was shut). The room's quite nice, very modern, and has none of the echo-chamber properties. The Representatives weren't sitting, and we weren't allowed cameras, so all there is to say is that it was somewhat sparsely decorated and the desks are all very nice wooden constructions and the de facto motto of the United States (e pluribus unum) is written in stained glass under the eagle on the ceiling, whilst the wall above the Speaker has the de jure motto "In God We Trust" written on it. All very nice, and a thoroughly odd setting for the political mudslinging that seems to go on there.

Art

Ok, not all that much to say here. I went to the National Portrait Gallery-cum-Gallery of American Art (different halves of the same building) but quickly found myself underwhelmed; the only really decently interesting things were the photographic exhibition of various photoportraits with text by the photographers on their styles and manners, and the other was the gallery of portraits of American ex-Presidents, since the texts by each portrait were rather interesting (all put the Presidents in the best light possible, yes, even going so far as to call GWB "bipartisan").

I've also headed to the National Building Museum. I didn't find it terribly good; whilst you could touch things, it wasn't very informative as a museum, and the displays were very badly organised and curated. The majority of the museum was closed, and it seemed to avoid actually having any of the interesting bits of the US architectural landscape on display. On the other hand there was some decent stuff done on the developement of DC as a city and the Mall as the Federal/cultural area it is today; again, badly illustrated again sadly.

Museums

First, the Air and Space Museum. A decent museum with some interesting exhibits on US (and Russian) space prgrammes, the race for flight, the early days of air-flight with models of the early aircraft internationally as well as within the US. A very informative mueum without having issues of too few exhibits or poor visual display, probably thanks to the wealth of potential exhibits any museum like this has. It even kept a few moonrocks, one which could be touched. Possibly my personal highlights, however, were the display on Mars, with the obvious soundtrack played loud enough to be heard without taking away from anything else and without making conversation impossible; the other was the use of Monty Python in a display on the universe and how it's looked at (I was wearing my Dark Side of the Moon t-shirt and they had a prism. I was amused), in which they had the Galaxy Song by Eric Idle playing. All very nice, and well done; it amused and worked for young people without dumbing down so much as to annoy older individuals (I count myself as older here without hesitation).

This is all in stark contrast to the American History Museum further down the Mall, which is packed with tourists and children, and does descend to the lowest common denominator whilst alienating those above that level. Whilst some of the galleries are much-lauded, half-hour lines to said galleries put one off strongly and impressively; whilst I did go, I didn't stay long and spent more time shocked than anything else. However, to give it it's due there was a decent exhibition on American science (albeit slightly out of date) which had a nice section on the DARPA Grand Challenge, a robo-road-vehicle race, and on the potential future of automated road vehicles requiring no human control.

The Natural History Museum goes back to form, with a general level of exc
ellence (despite all the Greek vases having been put away for some nonspecific reason) and a variety of well-displayed, well-labelled and interesting exhibits. There were a variety of galleries given over to fossils from all ages of the world, as well as devoted oceanic galleries. The developement of man's charted through the BC-era with some interesting exhibits as well as some videos (relics of the '80s but still decently informative), and the mammal galeries were interesting and well-displayed. The most famous exhibit, the Hope Diamond, is not terribly good, but I did enjot seeing some of the other bits and bobs. However, the most interesting exhibits were the Darwin-year piece, a display of Orchids incorporating quotes from Darwin and other botanists with a lot of interesting information on the evolution of the orchid and it's various forms, which was both beautiful and smelled delightful, of course, with a horde of flowers around the room; the other was the butterfly enclosure, which had so many butterflies in, they were landing all over, right next to me, almost on my coat. Really wierd, being in that environment; just totally out of this world, I think - although walking out into the snow and seeing the Smithsonian Institute on the other side of the mall, across the snow-covered expanse (the photo's in the centre at the bottom).

Finally, just a few lines, because it's a museum I can't really write about. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum is powerful, honest, and manages to include all, whilst also noting that the Jews were hardest hit, which is a good achievement. Incredibly moving, and I had to keep stopping as I went round it in order to not cry openly.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Art & Architecture 1 (Days 4 through 7)

This won't be by any means the last post on visiting art, or for that matter architecture, but they're the main things I saw. Wednesday was spent relaxing, making sure my extremities warmed up, making sure all my body parts worked, and that sort of thing; as well, of course, as writing a blog posting on the inauguration of President Obama.

However, Thursday I was back out and about, planning on taking a long walk. Before that, I stopped off at the place I stood opposite whilst watching the inaugural parade - the Archives of the USA. The building is nothing less, to my mind, than a temple to the Three Charters (always, always capitalised); that is, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights (they have the originals of each, as well as a 1297 Magna Carta, on display). It's been said that the religion of America is the law, and the architecture of the building would suggest that such was indeed the case; the building is in the neoclassical style, and the queues really do remind one of a pilgrimage. The architecture of the place is wholly reminiscent of nothing less than the ark of a Synagogue, crossed with a pre-Vatican II Roman-Catholic Church with rood screen, emphasising the importance and secular-holiness of the documents within, faded and nigh-unreadable in their intricate 18th century handwritten font.

After that little pseudo-religious experience, I wandered down to the World War Two memorial. Although America didn't join 'til late, we all know they like to think they won the war so the memorial reflects that, in many ways. On one side is a representation of the Pacific, and the other the Atlantic ("from sea to shining sea"); around the edge, 56 pillars, each inscribed with the name of a territory or state (plus DC, which is an oddity) each also bearing a laurel and bound together with a bronze representation of a rope. It's actually quite solemn, though by no means the most effective DC war memorial (we'll get to that one later on); a rather impressive sight, too, and apparently better at night.

I headed on from there to the tidal basin; it's just by the Mall, a 100-odd acre inlet of the Potomac, it's got some of the big monuments (and reasons to suggest that the United States has indeed got the Constitution as the religion). It's a pretty walk around the edge of that, even when the cherry trees are blossom-free; the ice and areas where it had melted were, I must say, definitely an attraction, and the pigeons or seagulls, whichever they were, seemed to find it a novelty to see some water and be able to actually drink it again. Wandering round, there are some amazing sights - the one here is just the Washington Monument, reflected in the ice and water of the basin, with the dappled surface just looking really beautiful.

So, the first memorial I got to was the Jefferson; Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, 3rd President of the United States, and the man who oversaw the Loiusiana Purchase, one of the best writers of his day (personally, I rank Tom Paine before him, but that's a preference not anything approaching a really decent argument). The first thought I had on seeing the Jefferson Memorial was that it was America's answer to the Pantheon in Rome; circular, it's got a central figure, that is, Jefferson, looking into the basin, out towards the Washington Monument. It's a really big memorial, commanding the area and only not visible from the Mall because of the trees rather than the falling ground - it's artificially raised on steps. Very impressive stuff, and I got a few very dramatic pictures of the man and the monument, of which I'll post just one.

Continuing to go round the basin, I came to a little memorial so small it wasn't even marked in my guidebook map; a memorial to George Mason, a small garden with a bench and a bronze, slightly larger than life, of the man, sitting there, comfortably. Apparently, Mason was one of the people who inspired the language in the Declaration; he seems to have been a very influential figure on the revolutionaries and on early America, and his memorial reminded me of nothing other than that to Alan Turing in Manchester, in it's style and pose.

The next memorial one comes across wandering around the basin is that to FDR; this is a very different kind of memorial, both from the others, and from the sort he wanted. It's large, but low - long, rather than tall, as it were, and much more modern; huge blocks of hewn dark stone, quotations (those are a theme in all the personal memorials, though; it's just more spread out and more pithy quotations for FDR). With the ice where water is meant to be, it's a really beautiful sight; I actually think it's better like that than it will be in spring, with water flowing over the stones rather the white ice against the dark stones, the sparkling crystals. There's also a statue of Eleanor, with the UN's logo beside her, a fitting tribute to the woman who caused the writing of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The most interesting part, to me, of the monument was five pillars, with five plaques on the wall; the pillars showed the problems of the Depression, the plaques the effects and programmes of the FDR presidency. For welfare state buffs, those five pillars were nothing to do with the Five Giants - I did, indeed, ask. However, the various bronzes - people affected by the Depression, FDR himself in his self-designed chair, FDR and his dog, and a few others - are all really well cast, and although a few bits have been worn shiny by repeated touches by the public, they were generally very well-preserved.

Continuing round, I hit the Mall again, and looked in vain for a so-far still non-extant memorial marked in my guidebook to Martin Luther King Jr; expected to be unveiled at the end of 2008, is it any surprise that in a town where one face of the Capitol itself has been undergoing renovations for virtually the whole Bush Presidency a single monument hasn't been completed? Whilst looking for it, I did come across the rather modest DC War Memorial - a tiny, tiny circular thing, doric pillars supporting a domed roof that starts barely above human height, a marked contrast to the WW2 memorial.

Next stop was the Korean War Veteran's Memorial; a mirror-wall beside a garden, in which various bronzes of soldiers charge toward a US flag in full kit, it's quite impressive, and into the wall various unpolished sections have been cut showing things like women back home, veterans returning, and all sorts of scenes; it's the sort of memorial that works in summer or winter, because it doesn't rely on the environment for effect, creating an environment of it's own. It also listed all the countries that took part in the combat (on the UN side), and had a (military) casualty list for each country as well. A rather good thing to have in central DC, I thought; something for politicians to look upon and remember.

The Lincoln Memorial is rather more akin to the Jefferson than the FDR, I have to say. Taking it's cue from classical culture, it rises above the landscape before a pool reflecting the Washington Monument, steps leading up to it in a straight and simple line, columns marking its front limit and Lincoln sitting enclosed by three walls, looking rather like a 19th-century Zeus. On one wall is his second Inaugural Address and on the other the Emancipation Proclamation, each crucial speeches in his Presidencies and rather important to the US as a whole; they are written in full, and very clearly - every visitor could, if they wished, take the time to read them, if they looked away from Lincoln and his commanding view of the Mall for long enough. There is also a small, if oft-visited, bronze plaque on the steps up to the memorial, commemorating the "I Have A Dream" speech, placed where MLK stood to deliver it.

Moving back up the Mall, I came to a memorial everyone knows; the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. I think little needs to be said of this one, even by way of description; a black and reflective wall of marble, it has every casualty and MIA soldier of the Vietnam conflict recorded, in chronological order, on it. That's probably the most poignant memorial in the whole of DC, to be honest.

That rounded up a rather tiring day, but even so I walked back to the Metro via the back of the White House (I only managed to see it in the far distance, because they were not letting people even remotely near it at the time - terrorist fears, apparently) and via the J. Edgar Hoover Building, a very, very ugly building that is home to the headquarters of the FBI in Washington.

Friday, I was of course back out; a rather more simple plan this time, though it didn't turn out as simple as I'd intended - I headed to the National Gallery of Art (East Building) to see an exhibition on Pompeii which turned out to be excellent and spread out over a large part of the building, with some very good exhibits and a total ban on photography. I then went through the rest of the museum, and saw some interesting pieces of art - one very strange numbers based piece included - and a lot of mobiles in various styles, on loan from a few places for form an exhibit. None of the art really grabbed me (all very modern, and mostly in styles I dislike - a few pieces I really enjoyed, though), so I left and decided to head up behind the Capitol.

Well, after that long walk I did get a nice reward; the Supreme Court (which I'm going to be heading to early Monday morning, to try and hear an oral argument). Whilst I didn't enter the building, I did get a good look at one more temple to the law that exists in DC; the iconography was a mingling of fascist and classical, which given how strongly the fascist iconography drew on the classical world is unsurprising. However, the figures flanking the stairs up to the entrance are, in their style, very harshly made, and surprisingly modern, to my mind... whilst also avoiding the typical scale-bearing justice image. The implication I got is that in the US, justice is a lot more harsh than the UK; that they have the death penalty bears that out, I guess.

Today, I went back into DC and back into the National Gallery of Art, West Building this time. The place is beautifully laid out and easy to get lost in, with some fantastic sculptures and a lot of excellent European items - some Rembrandt, a da Vinci, lots of Monet, et cetera, et cetera. Some very, very famous images which I had no idea I was going to see were there, including some excellent impressionist work, some Van Gogh... really there was something from every artistic period, from the Byzantine-influenced Gothic onwards. I was most taken by the sculpture as is the norm for me, and spent a lot of time in the extensive sculpture galleries, looking at bronzes, clay figures, and all sorts of pieces in all sorts of styles, from mock-classical to 16th-century reinterpretations of the spinario figure through to subjects like the Thinker, and charicature busts of the 19th century French Parliament. My personal favourite, however, not for any artistic reason, has to be a statue called "The Age of Bronze" by Rodin... made of plaster. I don't think I need explain why I enjoy it so much.

After that I wandered back behind the Capitol (yes, lots of walking over the same ground) and looked inside the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress. The British Library has been called a gulag for it's architectural style, and whether you agree with that, it can't be argued the building it beautiful. Looking into the Jefferson building, I almost cried at it's beauty, grace, and actual intelligence - names covered the place, and quotations, and beautiful art, and wonderful architectural styles. The reading room had figures around the walls who represented the genres (eg Homer and Shakespeare for poetry, Plato and Bacon for Philosophy) that were represented, and one could work out by the figures what each genre was; a very canny and intelligently built reading room that puts even that in the British Museum to shame, I looked down at it from a high gallery but intend to go back and get access to the books themselves and do a bit of reading.

All that's ignoring the atrium, which was just breathtaking. There's the idea of a temple to learning, and then there's the reality; this was the reality. I have to say that the 90 minutes I spent in the building were probably the best spent 90 minutes, excluding the inaugural parade, I spent all week; the beauty of the place was, is, stunningly breathtaking and the fine plasterwork and paintings around the place, the allegories, the mosaics, the allusions classical and modern, were wonderful. Of special note was a mosaic showing Minerva, in which every detail meant something, which adorned the wall on the way up to the viewing gallery over the reading room, and the placement of a personification of Erotica amongst the genres of literature alongside Poetry and Romance. All in all, I think that place will be getting a few more visits, just to sit and stare.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

"President Obama": Few phrases sound so good

Getting up at 6 o'clock in the morning is not something I do for fun, nor is catching a bus at quarter to seven in the literally-freezing cold. The Metro was impressive; I got on at Takoma, and the thing was empty... or rather, it was when it pulled in. When it left, it was packed and no one else cold get on; the only reason I could move was because the people sitting down weren't letting others stand where they wanted their legroom. All good practice, really...

I got to the queue to see the parade at about 8, with my book. At this stage it wasn't that big, just a few tens of thousands of people; that spilled across blocks in three directions, because the fourth - down 7th, between E & D - was blocked off; only 5-10 thousand went down each time they opened the blockade, and then they had to get through security checks set up by the Secret Service (the police kept emphasising the phrase "Not our fault! Blame the guys in black suits!") which comprised of possession-searches without x-rays and 4 metal detectors.

Yes. 4.

Oh, and they tried to drive buses through this crowd - buses full of the navy security. Of course, there were closed streets they could have sent the guys down, and they weren't providing assistance to anyone at the security check points, but hey! They needed somewhere to send them, and through a huge crowd was perfect right? Very much wrong, actually... (those of you who read Mike Tomasky's blog on the Guardian website will note that it seems he was in the same queue as me)

So, I got there at about 8, and got to the checks just as Obama was sworn in, and heard on the huuuuuge loud speakers his speech which, contrary to what many have said, I thought was quite inspiring (the huge cheers it got, like the simple news of his being sworn in, might have helped....) whilst also being sensibly programmatic rather than high-flying and theoretical. So, then we waited, and waited, and waited, opposite the Archives of the USA (that's important, that location) for a parade that seemed never to come. Eventually, we were told why, not by any authoritative voice but by people hearing it on personal radios, or being told it over the phone, or being texted it: Teddy Kennedy had suffered a grand mal seizure. No surprise, that, honestly; it was freezing - or rather, below freezing (-6.67 degrees, apparently; not too bad for a brief period, but standing in it for 11-12 hours was not pleasant remotely. Next time, I buy longjohns first!) and Teddy has a brain tumor as well as just being old (oldest man in the Senate at the moment, I think).

So, then the parade. The huge ceremonial Presidential escort (rank upon rank of police and secret service, including the secret service vehicle contingent - 2 black SUVs) followed by the press corps, followed by more black SUVs and the car affectionately known to many in the crowd as "the Beast". It stopped in the place it traditionally does - outside the Archives (opposite me!) and I caught a brief glimpse of the President of the United States of America in the flesh before the (mostly black - unsurprisingly) crowd pressed forward, forcing me back from the barrier and totally blocking my sight. However, the guy was impressive, I'll give him that; looked a tad cold though. Then came Joe Biden, and (not Mrs) Dr Jill Biden. The reaction wasn't quite as huge, so I got some shots off of those two. Joe looked genuinely awed and happy, and Dr Jill cut a powerful figure in her own right - though the red coat, surrounded by black suits of secret service goons, might have helped a lot with that one.

Okay, now that the major figures of the parade have been covered, I'll save you float-by-float commentary on the rest of the parade; beyond the highlights, here's a brief summary. Lots of pretty good high school and university marching bands, many being chosen to highlight the progress of black Americans and historic things for black Americans (eg the first school built for black Americans). Many military units, all ready to parade in front of Obama and renew their oaths of loyalty (question: How many will have deserted, and over what; fighting on the orders of a Democratic president, or a black one?). Some very amusing floats, too, and something turned up from every state - with the marching bands especially, and their dancers, freezing (one costume was essentially a swimming costume with added frills; those girls must have been icy to the touch).

So, some highlights... the US troops in essentially redcoat uniform have to take one of the prizes for most wierd sight to see, given the history of redocats in the US and their well-known popularity amongst their contemporary Americans. A highly amusing sight, that was, though somewhat impressive too to see them all marching perfectly in step; units must have been trained and drilled specifically for the parade.

Lots of colours guards in the parade - each branch of the military had one, each ROTC and JROTC had one, and some of the school marching bands managed to drum up a colour guard of their own. The number of US flags was incredible.

The Peace Corps showing up gave me cause for thought - would Bush, in either inauguration, have invited them to parade? Internationalist pacifist agenda... doesn't sound like Mr Two-Wars Bush very much, and the fact that the peace corps support Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is noteworthy. Their section of the parade was one of the most beautiful, too - those flags of all nations (literally, I believe) were really a lovely image, and very bright too.

The various Native American sections of the parade were good, with both men and women in native dress; I've got some shots off of those but none of them are terribly good, especially the later ones as it got very dark by the end; the sun went down two-thirds or so of the way through the parade, and at that point decent photoraphy by the light of the street lamps alone was impossible. The lit Capitol was nice, though.

That the combined unions marched was one of two very political parts of the parade; each union was represented by one or two people holding a sign, and I think that's a positive sign that Obama is committed to strengthening those insanely weak trade unions that exist over here in the US.

The other overtly political parade section was the inclusion of the first openly LGBT organisation ever to appear in an inaugural parade, the Lesbian & Gay Marching Band. An excellent display, all told, and a positive sign for the Obama administration's position on LGBT issues.

There were some very amusing parts of the parade to - no photos, because it was too dark, but the Lawn Rangers (pronounced somewhere between Lone and Lawn by the announcer) all had decorated lawnmowers and were costumed wonderfully, and with their rakes did manage to do some flag dancing. That sort of thing isn't what one expects of a highly dignified event like this, but... it looked good, honestly.

And two more floats to talk about: The Illinois float, and the Delaware float. The former is above - the little green furry guy is a sports mascot, apparently called South Paw; the other guy is, of course, Lincoln (one of 4 on display this parade). A pretty good float, the Delaware one beat it by a long way, with it's simplicity and power: The preamble to the Constitution ("We the people...") although the tractor pulling it seemed a little out of place.

Now, after the parade had passed, I hopped onto the metro (well, I walked to find an open station, far too many were closed) and went back to Silver Spring where I'm staying. Cold, tired, and near collapse, bed beckoned irresistibly, so this blog post is coming a day late.

All in all, though, it was a wonderful event and the atmosphere was absolutely incredible; I'd do it all over again - though next time, could they change back to March inaugurations please?

Monday, 19 January 2009

DC Central: Days 2 and 3

Day 2:

No pictures, and nothing terribly interesting. Beyond an annoying awakening at about 4am, a good day; brief tour of Silver Spring, courtesy of Francesca, and a trip to the shops buying a mobile phone (email me for a number!) and some toiletries I managed to completely forget. Other than that relaxing tiredly was on the agenda.

Day3, however...

Today is both Martin Luther King Jr Day and Inauguration Day Eve. The whole Mall (the central swathe of DC, the thing you see in films where they have a shot of the Capitol and the Washington Monument, it extends all the way down to the Lincoln Memorial) is being got ready for tomorrow; miles of fencing to keep the 3million+ expected attendants in place, and a set of huge screens to show the inauguration to those 3million people on. I'm not planning to be one of them, since I'd personally rather head for Pennsylvania Ave and watch the parade down towards the White House after the swearing in. So, that's what I'll do.

Anyway, I got off at the Smithsonian metro station - near the Washington Monument, a "my phallic object is bigger than your phallic object" of a thing (seriously.... look at it!) It's pretty impressive in it's scale, and on the background of a skyline like today's I have to say it manages to look decent.

So, I wandered up to the Capitol (that is, the Senate and Representatives) down the Mall, looking at the architecture on each side; that is, a mixture of classical and (very, very wierdly) gothic architecture; the gothic of some of the Smithsonian buildings just stands, no, leaps out of the side and makes itself known, thus I guess fulfilling it's purpose pretty well - "Hey, look at me! Come inside! Have fun in here! Go on, you know you want to!" So, that was pretty cool and the architecture's definitely good.

And the Capitol itself is just incredibly awe-inspiring; that is, I guess it's purpose again; it's a pretty good building which, of course, many of us know from films. It's a very, very big building with a nice dome, and a pool outside it. Well, normally it has a pool; today it had more of an ice-rink for birds before it, rather than anything else. That was quite wierd, I hadn't thought it was actually too terribly cold just recently, but it must have been significantly below freezing for that to have happened. The birds managed to get themselves a little ice-hole, somehow, though; that was quite pretty, with all the birds crowded around it.

Wandering up from there I headed to Union Station. Of course, that's a misnomer, and anyone who's been there can tell you why; it's seems to be far less of a train station (and metro station) and far, far more of a shopping centre, with some pretty classy shops there, and some amazing architecture there which was cool. However, it does still make me think it was wiiiierd as a station; so many shops, y'know?

And it was here I'd agreed to meet Courtney. Now, I won't stick the photo of us two together in here because I've not asked her if she's okay with that, so... it'd be kinda inappropriate, y'know? However, we met, and talked, and walked, and talked, and walked. She's a French Studies student at AU in DC, so we talked about that a bit and about politics and just stuff; walking and talking down to halfway down the Mall. There, we got confused and thought that the concert being shown on the screens (with Springsteen playing and all) was not yesterday's but one for MLK day today; we hurried down to the Lincoln Memorial, only to see we were wrong. Didn't matter much, because Lincoln's memorial is pretty beautiful; based on a Romano-Greek temple, Lincoln takes the place of Zeus, and it's all modelled in a very similar style, except the man himself of course.

At this point we turned and wandered back up the Mall in the direction of Union Station, and saw that the decently-populated Mall of earlier had turned into a veritable sea of people. Now, given that tomorrow's the inauguration day, rather than today, and given how many are expected to turn out (me among them - not on the Mall, though, so yeah) it's pretty impressive; Obama's really tapped into something in the US, and it's something really positive and uniting.

All told a brilliant day, if a tad bit tiring, and tomorrow should be truly, absolutely epic. Now, just to leave you on a funny note... Martin Lolcat King Jr;

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Arrival

Let's see...

Step one of arriving consisted of flying from Manchester to Charles-de-Gaulle airport in Paris. Of course, said step one would have been much easier had CdG not had fog, delaying my plane by an hour (the layover between my flights was itself an hour; that's significant). TO be fair, first class is luxurious, and the breakfast was decent, if a tad... well, continentally-sized. Excellent coffee, though.

On arrival I was told I had 17 minutes to change terminal and get through security to my flight. I hit security all of 2 minutes after they stopped fast-tracking people for my flight through, leading to a 6-hour wait in the executive lounge - or, the lap of luxurious comfort and comfortable luxury. Plus, I had a new book - mum slipped Dreams of My Father into my hand luggage before I left, and I started reading it. Obama's a decent writer.

I slept a little on the second plane, but only about an hour; sitting next to a Goan diplomat (when I say diplomat, I mean full-blown diplomatic passport, security fast-tracking, et cetera) who helped me when it came to filling in my customs declaration form that was only stocked in French by a French airline. Surprise, surprise.

On arrival, the immigration process for those with visas is a tad arduous but decently fast - they got through what I estimate at 100 people, using about 8 counters, in about half an hour, which is to my mind pretty impressive, given the extent of security they're putting in place temporarily for the inauguration.

Since when I've met Francesca and Saul (who are both brilliant - we're getting on really well, and long may that continue!) and seen their house (which has a porch at the front and signs in the garden and just looks so typically American in so many ways). After waking up for all of a blurry minute early this morning, I woke at 7:30 - a decent sleep, I did go to bed at around 11 local time, so it seems the whole jetlag thing might just about be being avoided.

So, I'm in DC, and this big grin just won't quit my face. Off, damned grin, off I say! Ay, while my poor face ne'er stop smiling?

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Welcome

For now, all I do is say hello and welcome to all readers of this journal; hopefully, it'll fill up somewhat over the next 26 weeks, preferably with rather more than 26 entries, though we shall see.

It'll also have pictures of some of the things I get up to (not so much the inauguration though, since cameras are a banned item) and some interesting links, perhaps, to click on (here, the inauguration will probably come to the fore).

So, all in all, be welcome one, be welcome all, and join me in a nice 6 months in the US.