The Last Blog

 

Hello, dear readers.  My time in Cambridge is coming to an end.  This Sunday afternoon I am taking a plane from London Heathrow to Minneapolis to Kansas City, back home.  It is a 12:30 flight for which I must travel via taxi to the Cambridge bus station with a large suitcase, a duffel bag, my horn, and a backpack in tow to catch a 7:05 coach.  It will be a long day–my flight arrives in Kansas City somewhere around 6:45, which will have been 18 hours since I got up on what is sure to be a short night’s rest.  Hopefully I can sleep on the plane to mitigate the tiredness.

All in all, I’ve lived in Europe for about 8 months.  I can’t believe it’s almost over.  I’m currently at the same feeling most of us experienced near the end of high school classes; wonder mixed with confusion at how such a large part of our lives was coming to an end.  In many ways, the year abroad defines the William Jewell Oxbridge student.  It is the main reason why the Oxbridge Honors Program is popular and attracts good students; for all the hubbub of “teaching in a combination of British and American styles”, without the year at Oxford or Cambridge, all it is is a pretentious honors program (there tends to be that quality anyways, just between you and me–but that’s a topic for another time).  From the second semester of my freshman year (I was a late starter to the program), I knew that this big, scary, and yet fantastic experience was looming.  Sophomore year came.  Second semester came.  Still, the year abroad was in the distance.  Summer came.  Then, the Jewell schoolyear began and I was forced into full-on study abroad preparation mode.  It was finally here!  I couldn’t believe it!  I was going overseas to study in ENGLAND!

Now, it’s done.  Or, almost done–I have a very important orchestra concert tomorrow night as a finale to the year.  And now it’s time for reflection.  I’ll do so in a quasi-interview style, just because.

Reflection time.

Q.  Matt, how do you feel about England now that you’ve lived there?

A.  England, as a country, is fantastic.  Though everybody in the States loves an English accent, one gets used to it within a few weeks, and it even has caused a backlash in me (I’ve lately found quite a bit of enjoyment of Creed, and the only explanation I have for that is because my subconscious longs for American accents).  But I have immensely enjoyed England.  London is a fantastic city, and at this point, probably my favorite city in the whole world.  The culture has its differences from American culture–it is generally more reserved and less self-centric than American culture.  However, I have found the two to be pretty compatible.  The food, though, is not as good, and the weather is dreary and not fun.

Q.  Is Cambridge a good place to be?

A.  Oh yes.  Cambridge is very endearing.  When talking about Cambridge, one usually ends up at Oxford as a comparison.  While I quite like the city of Oxford, I don’t think it has the magic of Cambridge.  The University music scene is vibrant, concerts by the best ensembles are sure to be great, and the best conductors seem to visit Cambridge rather than Oxford (Sir Mark Elder as the prime example).  The city center cultivates a small-town feel, and one routinely runs into familiar people.  It has all the amenities a university student would need whilst still maintaining a historic vibe as one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the entire world.  I feel very humbled to be a part of the centuries old tradition.

Q.  How have you grown as a person?

A.  I generally don’t like to announce to people, “I’m a changed man!” because that sounds unnecessarily dramatic and, to me at least, quite obvious.  Think about it; one never experiences a given 8 months and is not changed by the events that occurred within.  But, yes, I have grown as a person.  I am still me, and not fundamentally different or altered, but I’m a wiser, more experienced me.  In late September, I had never been on a plane without my parents.  Three (soon to be four) trans-Atlantic flights and three inter-European flights later, I am now quite familiar with air travel.  In addition, I’ve been on all sorts of trains–from crotchety local trains to standard mid-range ones to fancy high speed trains–and am familar with train travel.  Heck, I even had to figure out the London tube system by myself, and have since been on the Vienna, Rome, Naples, and Paris metros.  I’ve taken buses within Cambridge and long-distance coaches to and from Heathrow and Stansted airports and taxis, both legit and not, in two countries.  It’s safe to say that I’m comfortable with all types of public transport now.  This is in stark contrast with my arrival, in which I was scared to catch a coach by myself to Cambridge.

I’ve matured in other ways, too; I’ve learned to eat on a small budget, how to schedule schoolwork around due dates and rehearsals with no input from anybody at all, and generally fine-tuned my time management skills.  Most importantly, though, is the transformation that has gone on musically.  Entering into Cambridge, I had lost my edge, my confidence, my ‘mojo’ for my horn playing.  I tried out for the university musical society ensembles (the top undergrad ensembles in Cambridge) and won the principal spots of both the Wind Orchestra and the best large undergrad orchestra in Cambridge, the Symphony Orchestra.  I had played my way into a position in which I was forced to rise to the challenge or wither away.  Through the trials and playing opportunities over this past year, I have regained my confidence.  This is huge, as horn playing is a huge part of my life.

Q.  Last one–do you have an English accent?

A.  No.  Do not ask me this in person either.  And I didn’t study in London either–Cambridge.  The University of Cambridge in Cambridge, UK.

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Being as this is my last blog post while in Europe, I thought I’d thank a few people here.  These people deserve my thanks for one reason or another.  My apologies if I’ve left someone really important out.  Here goes, in no particular order.  Thank you:

Will–for being a great choir-buddy.  Singing is always more fun when there’s an American to make fun of, huh?

Hannah–for helping me along in the beginning times and during Philadelphia (that was a loooong time ago, huh?) and for attending multiple concerts of mine.

Kasia–for being a great pizza buddy and for good, old fashioned, American companionship.

Everyone in the 2nd floor corridor–for being helpful and kind to me (and for Switchfoot tickets! Go Jessie!)

Every horn player I performed with–for helping me to realize that horn players do, in fact, exist, and for making great music with me.  Specifically, my CUMS I orchestra friends:

Tom–for being a fantastic and hospitable friend to someone who needed it.

Sam–for being a great bumper and fun standmate.

Geoff–word.

Katie–for being kind to me and being constantly cheerful.

I’ve experienced some of my best memories here with you four.  Extra points to Sam and Katie for hanging out with me on my birthday.  It would not be the same without you.

I fear this is becoming too sentimental, so here is a picture of a chair.

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And now the moment you’ve been waiting on.  The verdict.  Will I miss Cambridge, or am I ready to go back?

The short answer is, yes, I will miss Cambridge and, yes, I am ready to go back.  That’s a boring answer I’m sure, but it’s also accurate.  I have had not a whole lot to do these past few weeks while everyone else has been busy, so I’ve had a bit more time to warm up to the idea of going home where friends are more accessible and I have a Wii and Xbox with a backlog of games to play (MASS EFFECT 3 YEAH!!!).

Within the previous sentence, though, lies the key reason why I’m ready to go back (no, not ME3).  It’s the word, “home.”  Though Cambridge, England, and even Europe have been great to me, I’ve come to this conclusion:  they’re not home.  Home is where I can drive, on the right side of the road, across town to get some Chik-Fil-A or good Mexican food.  Home is where I can watch baseball, on live tv, at a reasonable hour of the day.  Home is where my parents, friends from the past two decades of my life, and my lovely girlfriend live.  Home is where my cats sleep, eat, sleep, eat, sleep, and sleep.  The United States is my home.  Kansas City is my home.  No matter how beautiful Cambridge may look, no matter how exciting London is, no matter how awesome the food in Italy is, none of those places are my home.  Will I live in England again?  Maybe; I really do like it, and I haven’t ruled it out.

But for now, I’m ready to go home.

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A Choir Tour

Every three years, the Concert Choir of William Jewell College goes on a choir tour of England and Scotland.  This tour tradition has endured for a good 30 or 40 years.  Lucky classes get two trips in their college stay–once as a freshman and once as a senior–but most classes only get one chance to go.  Knowing of this tradition, I was looking forward to going.  And then I learned what year it would be: 2012, the same year in which I would be in England already.  Would I even be able to go on the trip, I wondered?

Thankfully, there has been a tradition of Oxbridge majors joining the choir for the tour.  Things worked out for me such that I was able to go on the entire tour with the Concert Choir, even the couple days in London at the end.  The reasons for this I may explain in a forthcoming blog post, or not.  (Suspense!)

In my months in England, I had been to three cities:  Cambridge, Oxford, and London.  I was looking forward to going to other cities in England in addition to going to Scotland, which was something I would not have accomplished otherwise.  Mostly, though, I was looking forward to spending two solid weeks with my lovely girlfriend Natalie, whom I had not seen since mid-January.

On the morning of Tuesday the 15th of May, I gathered my things and went down to Heathrow via train and tube.  I waited for an hour or so, but was rewarded by meeting Natalie.  The reunion was cute, I’m not going to lie.  What was not cute was that Delta Airlines had ‘misplaced’ the luggage for almost everyone on the trip.  This was not good for a number of reasons; in addition to the obvious ones (no changes of clothing), almost everybody’s robes were in the checked luggage.  I had all my stuff with me, as I had not needed to board a plane or check in any luggage.  I took pleasure in that fact.

We proceeded to get on the coach and had our first of many sack lunches consisting of PB&J, crisps, water, and various other things.  We set off for Grantham, the location of the fantastic Harlaxton Manor.  Harlaxton is an interesting place; it used to be a mansion belonging to a man named Gregory Gregory (no, I am not making this up).  Now, it is a satellite institution of the University of Evansville in the States, and various other partner colleges contribute, including Jewell.  Essentially, it is a self-contained study abroad program, and functions as its own doorm/classrooms.  Visiting professors from the partner colleges teach a number of subjects throughout the year.  It is a beautiful building, which you can see about halfway through THIS photo album.  It is in the dorms at Harlaxton that we spent most of our nights.

Our first concert was the next evening at a church in Grantham.  Everywhere we went, the venues had copies of our poster, which had all the dates and a pretty picture of the choir performing at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral in Kansas City.

Spiffy.

As you can see from the schedule, it was a busy two weeks.  Nine concerts in nine days, with only one off day.  The concerts were in varying length, though; not all of them were hour-long events.

There were many memorable moments on tour, and a blog post covering the entire tour would be quite long and take me a very long time to write.  So, I’m going to go over some highlights.

  • Performance in Lady Chapel, Ely Cathedral

In my trip throughout Europe, I saw a thoroughly ridiculous amount of stunning churches.  As such, I was acclimated to the gigantic, European-style church.  Ely was our first stop at a big cathedral church, and it was the first huge church many of my choirmates had seen.  We did not perform in the cathedral itself, but rather in a connected chapel.  The Lady Chapel, built in 1321, is a somewhat famous place for choral geeks, as it is where much choral music is recorded.  Why, you ask?  Because of it’s acoustic.  Generally, a good venue will have a perceivable amount of reverberation or the “ringy” quality of a sound.  The more it reverbs, the more luscious the sound gets.  There becomes a point, though, in which luscious, beauteous quality gives way to mush.  The Lady Chapel goes that far and then takes one tiny step back.  I’ve never sung in a venue like that before.  It sounded…divine, Especially when we sung our men’s piece, “Salvation is Created,” composed by Pavel Tchesnokov.  It was one of those transcendent musical experiences which happens once in a blue moon.  Here’s a recording of the gorgeous piece written for its original mixed voicing:

  • RIP iPod

We went to Cambridge after we sung in Ely.  This was fantastic luck, as I had a performance with the Homerton choir that evening, so I just stayed in Cambridge and joined the choir the next morning in Lincoln.  Unfortunately, I left my iPod on the train.  After a week of calling various lost and found numbers, I conceded it lost.  Oh well.

  • Scotland

I’ve always loved Scottish accents.  I think they’re the coolest.  So, I was stoked to go to Scotland.  We performed in Edinburgh, but we were given a good amount of free time to explore the city before and after.  I can confidently place Edinburgh near the top of my favorite cities along with London and Vienna.  I liked how it was arranged, I liked the general feel, and the buildings and landmarks were plentiful and interesting.  Good job, Scotland!

Also, there were bagpipes everywhere, which made me happy.  There were also kilt stores all over the place as well.  Within two minutes, I saw a mime talking on his cell phone and a man wearing a leather kilt.  Scotland–stay awesome.  Pictures can be found in my album linked above.

  • Coventry Cathedral

In 1940, Nazi Germany aimed to destroy Britain’s morale and prepare it for invasion via the air raids known to Londoners as ‘The Blitz’.  After bombing military targets, they proceeded to bomb cities all over England, concentrating on the capital.  As what is one of the most uplifting stories of WWII, Britain, standing alone, repelled the Germans, who ceased their air raids in the fall–but not before damage was done.

In Coventry, the cathedral was hit by multiple bombs and destroyed.  All that remained was a shell: the outer wall and the tower.  The city of Coventry decided to build a new cathedral next to the ruins of the old one.  This new cathedral was supposed to represent forgiveness, retribution, and strength of will.  Its scope is on that of the grand cathedrals of Europe but in a modern style, and as such is a fascinating and unique building.  Benjamin Britten’s famous War Requiem was premiered there, along with many other pieces since.  We sang a short concert for a smallish audience, but the experience of singing in that building, especially considering what it represents, was one of the most memorable moments in that trip.

  • London with Natalie

At the end of the tour, we got two days to do things in London.  I spent my time with Natalie.  It was like a giant two-day date in one of the world’s largest cities.  We had lots of fun.  We went to such London staples as St. Paul’s Cathedral, the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, Millennium Bridge, and Chipotle.  Yes, Chipotle!  Don’t give me that look.  We walked by Trafalgar Square, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey.  We went to King’s Cross to see Platform 9 3/4.  We saw the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London.  To cap it all off, we went and saw a West End show, the musical Les Miserables.  It was awesome.

On Sunday, May 27, the choir left on a coach to go to Heathrow and back home.  I took a train to Cambridge to finish my journey in England.  And what a journey it has been.

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Sousa in England?

As an American horn player who has played with wind bands for years, I am very familiar with John Phillip Sousa.  You are at least somewhat familiar with his works too.  Like this:

That piece is called ‘Stars and Striped Forever’, and is the official march of the United States.  Sousa wrote marches and, well, that’s kind of all he did.  He wanted to be an operatic composer, but he wasn’t really good at it and is most known for his marches.  I have easily performed Stars and Stripes a dozen times in my life, and I have played literally every single one of his other important marches at least once.  This sort of thing happens when you play in a lot of bands.  Sousa’s marches are usually somewhat patriotic in character and refer to a specific American thing, like ‘The Washington Post’ and ‘Gallant Seventh’ (dedicated to an army division). 

Why am I telling you about one of the most overtly patriotic American composers ever?  Well, ha.  Our final Cambridge University Wind Orchestra concert was a joint one with the Concert Orchestra, and the theme was American music.  The Concert Orchestra played ‘Rodeo’ by Aaron Copland.  We played a dance suite from Bernstein’s West Side Story and, you guessed it, Sousa marches.  Three of them:  Stars and Stripes, Liberty Bell, and The Gladiator.  It wasn’t really fun for me to play them.  Horn players HATE Sousa because horn parts are horiffically boring and tedious in every single one of his marches.  So I didn’t enjoy playing it on that level.  But performing these pieces with a British ensemble with a Welsh student conductor who had never conducted Sousa before was a hoot.  Performing Stars and Stripes forever in a country with which we fought to win our independence was a profoundly weird and amusing experience.  I thought about wearing an American flag something during the concert but, obviously, none of the stores here carried such clothing.  So I will express my patriotism here.

Image

This occurred between my vacation and the choir tour.  It is, by far, the most memorable thing that happened.  I had school stuff, I practiced, I watched youtube clips of random things, you know.  I followed a lot of Royals baseball.  You see, the dificulty of blogging about a study abroad experience is that things just become normal and don’t seem worth writing about.  So, I apologize if you, dear reader, wanted more everyday things.  I hope, though, that you have enjoyed what I have written.  Thanks.

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The Second Half

I am currently sitting on a bench, outside, at Homerton College in Cambridge.  It is a wonderful 70ish or so degrees with a slight breeze.  It has been so for most of the past week. It’s about time that this has happened.  What I’m about to write includes none of this lovely weather.

I also just got back from choir tour with the William Jewell Concert Choir.  It was a blast.  Once I finish this post about the second half of my vacation with my dad, I’ll write a post about the choir tour, and then I’ll do a couple posts on reflection, because as of today, I will be back in the United States of America in three weeks.

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When I last wrote, I talked of Paris, the so-called most romantic city in the world.  I deem it not quite so, but it is a very nice place indeed.  Dad and I went to the train station in order to catch our train to Interlaken, Switzerland.  It was a three-part trip; one train to Zurich, one to Bern, and then one to Interlaken.  Dad was particularly excited, because he had chosen this location in Switzerland based on glowing recommendations from friends.  Iterlaken is a small, cozy town set between two lakes at the foot of some massive mountains with more than a couple 14-ers (mountains over 14,000 feet high).  The scenery was going to be fantastic, we both agreed.

The train ride itself was fine, the majority spent on a high-speed train from France.  There we met two kind men who happened to both be from Switzerland.  One was a physicist by education, and of course Dad was excited about that.  We had a nice chat, as they both spoke fluent English.  For those of you who don’t know, Switzerland is a country in which there is no official or singularly-dominant language.  As such, there is a trifecta of languages which are used: German, French, and English.  These gentlemen spoke all three, and most Swiss we met were fluent in at least two.  That’s impressive.

So, Switzerland.  Yeah! Awesome! Mountains, lakes, and chocolate!  Well…not quite.  You see, when we arrived in Switzerland, the weather was foggy, cloudy, cold, and drizzly.  We could see some mountains, but they disappeared a thousand feet up in the gray.  It was infuriating.  We knew the beauty was there, but we couldn’t see it.  Combined with the horrifically overpriced amenities in Interlaken (tourist towns will do that), and our stay was essentially a bust.  We did go see some waterfalls in a series of caves, which was cool.  But other than that, we sort of lamented and rested.  There was one other cool thing about Switzerland: the paper money.  The currency of Switzerland is the Swiss Franc, and the banknotes are ridiculously awesome and colorful.  I had saved a British banknote, a $1 bill, and a Euro banknote.  When in Switzerland, I had four currencies in my wallet.  I was Jason Bourne.  Well, not really.  Pictures are HERE, by the way (126-end).

From there, we gladly left dreary, cold Switzerland to go to dreary, cold Munich, Germany.  Dreary, dreary everywhere.  As someone with interest in World War II, I was looking forward to seeing a legitimate piece of the war.  I had suggested going to Normandy in France, but it didn’t happen due to time constraints.  However, we were able to do something in Germany.  The concentration camp Dachau is in the town of Dachau, which is a a suburb of Munich.  For the first time in my entire vacation, we went along with a tour group, mostly due to luck–we stumbled into the guy in the visitor information place and decided to tag along.  He was a well-informed German university student whose major was political science.  His English was impeccable, and he led a good tour.  You can find pictures of Dachau in the album, mostly taken by my dad, as I felt uncomfortable snapping pictures while experiencing a place in which so many suffered and died.  Was it fun?  Not exactly, but it was fascinating, and worthy of a visit if you, dear reader, are ever in Munich.

The next day, after exploring the city center, Dad and I took a sidetrip to Salzburg via train.  Salzburg is well-known as the setting of The Sound of Music.  Most importantly, though, it is the birthplace and hometown of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  If you don’t know who that is…well, your life must be a lonely and depressing place.  Mozart, child prodigy and adult genius, represented the pinnacle of the Classical Era of music, which lasted roughly from 1750-1830.  Mozart is possibly my favorite composer, and the only reason why he doesn’t have a complete grip on the spot is because everyone loves Mozart.

In Salzburg, we visited three places.  Mozart’s birthplace, Mozart’s family home, and Hohensalzburg Fortress, a magnificent castle on the hill.  Somewhat ironically, Mozart never really liked Salzburg, and his true years of flourish came in his decade in Vienna.  However, he lived and worked there, and his musician father never left.  It was quite a treat to visit a place where one of the best musicians of all time lived and was born.  The fortress was cool as well; it was gigantic and offered a great view of the surrounding areas.  Thankfully, that day was only somewhat cloudy, granting us a view of the magnificent surroundings, which in turn made us sadder about Interlaken.

The next day we flew home from Munich, and by home I mean England.  Strange how I say that by reflex.  Anyway, we did a few more things in London after we got to our hotel.  Dad and I visited Abbey Road.  For those of you who don’t know what Abbey Road is, go look up ‘The Beatles’ on iTunes; you can thank me later.  Still rainy, we visited Buckingham Palace and walked around London a bit.

The next day, we went to Thorpe Park.  Thorpe Park is an amusement park of similar stature to Worlds of Fun and Six Flags St. Louis.  Being both roller coaster enthusiasts, a park just outside of London was a no-brainer.  We went, hoping for good weather, and did not get it.  We didn’t get just rain though.  Oh no, it rained, then it poured, then it became sunny for half an hour.  Then it hailed.  We were on a ride when that happened, and it was painful.  Then it became sunny again.  By the end of the day, we were both soaked and I had a major headache, but it was still fun.

The next day, I said goodbye to my dad, who flew back to Kansas City.  I then went back up to Cambridge, staying at a couple of friend’s dorms before being allowed back into mine.  I had been living out of my duffel bag and backpack from March 20 to April 21, an entire month’s time.  In that time period, I visited the capitol cities of France, Italy, and Austria.  I visited plenty of other great cities in Venice, Pisa, Munich, and Salzburg.  I ate lots and lots of pizza, and visited more major European sights in a month than most Westerners visit in a lifetime.  Despite the tiring nature of the trip, it was one of the best times in my life.  I strongly recommend a study-abroad program for those of you who still have the chance to apply for one.  It is a cultural experience like none other, and you will treasure it for the rest of your life.  I am immensely thankful.  I appreciate you taking the time to read my posts.  Until next time.

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Le Paris

On Wednesday April 11, my dad and I set off for Paris, France.  As opposed to, you know, Paris, MIssouri or whatever.  Our method of arrival was the Eurostar high speed train.  We went to St. Pancras station in the morning with our bags, ready to get on the train.  Unlike literally every other international high speed train I’ve been on, we had to go through security.  Because, you know, the UK is special and can’t deal with international trains like everyone else.

When we got on the train, we set off quickly through the gray, awful English weather.  Dad had received an email telling us that there might be a delay of up to 15 minutes.  Sure enough, we stopped right in front of the Channel Tunnel, aka the Chunnel.  We waited for 15 minutes.  Then we waited for another 45 minutes.  Then we went through.  So, the train ride took 3 hours 15 minutes instead of 2 hours 15 minutes.  I was very unhappy about that and was planning to send them an angry email after we got to Paris until the captain got on the intercomm and told us we were all eligible for a free ticket on the Eurostar.  I plan on cashing in on that before I leave for the U.S.

We arrived in Gare du Nord train station where, lo and behold, there were no customs or security.  Because France actually understands the meaning of an international train trip.  Ahem.  Anyway, after a short ticket snafu, Dad and I got on the Paris RER (one of the two metros) and headed down to our hotel, which happened to be a short walk away from Notre Dame. 

The cathedral Notre Dame was, obviously, our first visit.  Going in the cathedral was free, thankfully.  I have not seen the Disney movie ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ so I was forced to experience it just like we had experienced all the other churches on the trip.  I’m not sure what I was expecting–other than the usual big, sprawling architecture, a splash of ridiculous artwork/sculpture, etc.  But what I got was a fantastic building.  Construction began in 1163 and it was completed in 1345.  It is an imposing stone gothic structure.  In a future post, I’ll do a top 10 ranking of the churches that I’ve seen on the trip (with pictures), so I’ll save some of my description for that.  Suffice it to say that Notre Dame is near the top.  You can see pictures of the interior, exterior, and it’s stunning stained glass with the rest of the Paris pictures here.

After our visit, we took a walk across the Seine river towards the Louvre.  Along the way, we saw some nice old buildings, a splendorous hotel, and a bridge whose metal fence was literally full of padlocks marked with the proclamations of lovers the world over.  Then we arrived at the Louvre.

Simply put, the Louvre is the most important collection of Western art on the planet.  It is huge, sprawling out through tens of thousands of square feet of floor space.  It used to be a fortress, actually, but its current purpose fits the French better (passive aggressive jab at the French military).  Dad and I had high expectations and, boy, did it deliver.  I actually got in for free, as European university students get in for free, and I happen to be a European university student (go Cambridge go!).  We saw much art and paintings from all over the world.  If you know anything about the Louvre, you probably know that it has the Mona Lisa.  It does indeed, and we saw it.  I’ve heard reports from people that the Mona Lisa is rather underwhelming, as it is not very large and the only thing in a massive glass case.  To be honest, I wasn’t underwhelmed.  I wasn’t overwhelmed though; I guess you could say I was just whelmed.  Mona Lisa’s expression is fascinating in its ambiguity, and seeing it in person was a little unreal.  The Louvre had a number of other good paintings too, including Delacroix’s famous painting Liberty Leading the People, which I had no idea was there.

After a good night’s sleep, the next day was Eiffel Tower day for us.  Dad and I took the RER down to the Tower, and then promptly waited in line 2 and a half hours to get in because only one of the lifts was running.  However, it was definitely worth it.  The Tower itself is absolutely gigantic; people generally don’t realize this when they think about it; it’s almost 1000 feet tall, and it was finished in 1889 in time for the World’s Fair.  And, to be perfectly honest with you, it is painted in a quite ugly shade of brown, but somehow it still works.  First, we took the lift up to the second floor, 115 meters in the air (about 360 feet).  Then, we took a separate lift to the third floor, 273 meters in the air (820ish feet).  The views we received were absolutely stunning.  It is a must-do for anyone who goes to Paris if you have the time. 

Afterwards, we had a quick bite to eat and went out to the Arch de Triumph, center of what has to be the worst roundabout ever (or one of the worst; 12 streets convene upon it).  It was honestly a bit of a letdown; it’s just an arch, and you have to pay to go through the subway to the middle if you want to see it up close or go to the top.  However, we continued our RER journey to La Defense, the Paris business district.  La Defense is a really cool place; snazzy-designed skyscrapers rise around a large main plaza.  At the soul of La Defense stands Le Grande Arche, a hollow cube building; it makes a brief appearance in The Bourne Identity.  Very very cool. There was also a giant thumb structure in La Defense, which was very confusing, but hey, if you want to build a 20 foot thumb then go do it.

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Dad’s Arrival and London

On Easter Sunday, the father cometh.  As in, my dad.  He had never been overseas in his life, though he did go on a Caribbean cruise once and has been to both Canada and Mexico.  Europe was pretty high on his list of destinations to travel to in his life.  Thankfully for him, his son (that’s me!) was studying abroad at the University of Cambridge this year.  Smartly, he used that as an excuse to visit Europe.

Dad arrived in London on Sunday the 8th.  I had traveled to the hotel that Jeremy and I had previously stayed weeks earlier because of its close proximity to Heathrow.  Having never experienced an overseas, overnight flight, I threw Dad into the fire immediately.  Not the literal fire, but the figurative fire of tourism.

The first day we spent in London.  We went to the Natural History Museum, seeing a bunch of cool things and many precious gemstones.  After a bite to eat, we went to Westminster Abbey for their 3:00 Easter Evensong service.  Before we did so, I Tebowed outside.  Just because.  Pictures here.  The Evensong service was very nice and the choir was predictably excellent.

Afterwards, Dad and I walked around the area, taking pictures of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.  We walked up north to Trafalgar Square and saw Admiral Nelson’s Column.  To finish off that day’s travel in London, we visited the London Eye, the giant Ferris wheel and one of London’s modern landmarks.  We picked up a few souvenirs and then headed back towards the hotel.  Dinner was fish and chips at a pub/restaurant up the street.  It was a good day.

Day two in London included more sights.  First up was the British Museum, wherein the Rosetta Stone resides alongside a staggering collection of historical artifacts from around the world.  A definite must-see for any London traveler.  Then we went on an extended tour of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which included the main floor, the crypt, and a long walk up to the top levels.  It’s a big church; its dome is 278 feet high, the nave measures 128 feet wide, and the whole thing is 518 feet long (Despite this, it somehow doesn’t even come close to St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, whose dome is 452 feet high and is 730 feet long, the length of almost two and a half football fields).  Afterwards, we walked across the Millennium Bridge, taking a tube ride to The City and took a walk among the skyscrapers. We went back to our hotel shortly following that.

The next day, Dad and I took our stuff to a different hotel (Hotel California, amusingly) situated right next to King’s Cross and St. Pancras stations.  We visited the Platform 9 3/4 monument by King’s Cross and scouted St. Pancras, where we were leaving from the following morning.  Dad and I used that day to visit Cambridge.  I showed him around my stomping grounds.  We visited and toured Homerton and then we got on a bus to go into town.  It was Dad’s first double-decker bus ride. 

In Cambridge city center, we walked among the market and the surrounding areas soaking in the atmosphere.  I took Dad on a tour of King’s College, including the chapel, which has lost none of its splendor from my experiences of other, larger churches.  We also went around St. John’s College and Trinity College for a bit.  Being a good tour guide, I showed him the Mathematical Bridge and told the ‘rumor’ of its deconstruction and reconstruction.  Supposedly, the bridge was designed by Isaac Newton himself without any bolts or screws.  In the middle of the night some years later, drunk college students took the bridge down.  Afterwards, no one in the University could rebuild it the way it was, and they had to use bolts and such.  This is untrue, as the bridge was not built when Newton was alive, but it makes for a good story.

That evening, we went back to our hotel and prepared for the next day of travel.  Thanks for reading.

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Sicily

Hello, readers!

I know that I haven’t posted on here for a while, but please forgive me.  Blogging takes up quite a bit of time and energy, and, to be honest, I ran out of energy to do so on the last few weeks of my trip.  Then I got back to England, which is pretty much business as usual, so it’s harder for me to find things to write about.

However!  My workload is pretty low for the rest of the week, and I’m going to use that time to blog once every day.  We’ll start with Sicily.

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When I last blogged, I talked about the wonderful town of Amalfi, in addition to the not so wonderful town of Naples.  From there, Travis and I took the train down to the toe of Italy in preparation to go to the island of Sicily.  Just for reference, here’s a map of Italy for you:

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To recap:  Jeremy and I had visited Venice and then Rome.  Travis and I had visited Pisa and the Naples/Salerno area.  See Messina on the map?  Travis and I traveled to Reggio Calabria, just across the gap on the tiptoe of Italy, on April 2.

We took a pretty long train down there, which allowed my time to type and blog.  It also allowed me to read my books Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, which I heartily recommend to sci-fi lovers.  For much of the journey, the train traveled along the coast, with the lovely Mediterranean sea on our right.  Now, I’ve seen big collections of water before, though I haven’t lived near the coast.  Lake Erie simulates an ocean, and the Atlantic Ocean which I saw from Virginia Beach is as ocean-y as they come (duh).  But the Mediterranean sea…that’s something else.  It is the bluest water of any kind that I’ve ever seen in my life.  Dark, deep blues dwell out from the coast, shifting to a lighter, royal blue towards land.  As the sea becomes shallower, the royal blue switches to a, powder blue and a shimmering aqua before the waves break on the sands and rock in white foam.  The constant and softly undulating flow of the water is accompanied by the sounds of the ocean and the incoming waves, framed by the sunny baby blue sky whose monotony is broken up by lazy white clouds. 

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Beautiful.  The rest of the album can be viewed here.

The town of Reggio Calabria is not a large one, but it served as a nice place to stay, soak in the culture and food, and relax.  Indeed, we were not very touristy on this last section of the journey.  Some might think, “Hey, you’re wasting your money lounging around! Go do stuff!” These are the sort of people who miss all the details.  Don’t let it become you–enjoy your time in a place, even if it means seeing less things.

There were two particularly great things about Reggio Calabria.  First: outdoor escalator ramps.  Yeah, I said it:

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Not my picture, by the way.

As you can see, the city is built on a hill, and the escalator serves as a great way to go upwards.  Especially when you’re really full.  Which is the second thing about Reggio that I loved.

Travis and I ate a lot of food in the evening.  One of my favorite restaurants was in Reggio Calabria: Fratelli La Bufala.  It was a pizza place, and it was also heaven.  Travis’s pizza was in the shape of a bull head, and I had a pizza calzone with cheese made by angelic cows and absolutely decadent salami.  We were very full, and it was awesome.

From there, we went on a boat-train (yes, a boat-train) across the strait to Sicily on our way to Catania.  The boat train consisted of us getting on a train, which then went into a boat, which then went onto tracks again.  Cool…ish.  Anyway, we got to Catania, found our bed and breakfast, and proceeded to be very lazy.  At this point, I had gotten a cold.  After avoiding one for so long, I suppose it was inevitable that I got one during vacation.  Thankfully, it lasted only a few days, and never got really bad.  Travis and I did our usual eating good pizza in the evening, gelato in the day.  We saw the remains of a Greek ampitheater and the cathedral, and then we walked around the city.  The next day was warmer and we went to the black sand beach, where we stayed for a few hours.  We sat on the rocks and contemplated life, as the Mediterranean waves crashed against the rocks (and on ourselves on occasion, sometimes on purpose).  It was relaxing and fun. 

That afternoon, we took a train from Catania to Palermo.  We both hoped to travel near the coasts for a while, but that did not happen, as we quickly went inland.  However, the train ride, as also described  on Travis’s blog post, was stunningly beautiful.  It was as if we were transported to an imaginary place–landscapes like that don’t exist in real life, or so I had thought.  The hills stretched as far as the eye could see and were a pure color of green that just doesn’t seem to exist in nature.

In Palermo, we stayed at a hostel run by an extremely nice guy by the name of Giuseppe.  Giuseppe even offered his scooter for us to use (which we declined, as driving in Italy is dangerous for your health).  In Palermo, our only main touristy thing other than walk around was go to the Palermo Catacombs.  Again, Travis describes it in some detail.  I took a few pictures, which you can see via my first link.  It was both fascinating and creepy to the bone.  No pun intended.

Travis and I left Italy on the morning of April 7 via the Ryanair flight from Palermo to London Stansted, thus ending part two of my vacation.  I had been in Italy since March 23, and I did not really want to leave.  My final verdict on Italy:  beautiful landscape, delicious food, fascinating sights, and an experience of a lifetime.  I plan to go back.  Who wouldn’t?

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