Sunday, May 27, 2012

Off to the races! (26/5/2012)

After breakfast on Saturday, the 26th, the choir split into four groups for guided tours of York.  My group (mostly the basses and baritones of choir), learned a lot from our tour guide Roger.  Here are a few memorable facts, if you’re into that sort of thing:
1. “York” is derived from “Jorvik,” the Viking name for the city (there were other names before that as well.)  2.  “Minster” simply means “Ministry,” a place where anyone gathers for worship. 3. The Roman Empire dwelled in York from 30 AD or so until about 400.  Later, Anglo-Saxons came (from Saxony), followed by the Normans from Normandy (the Normans were the “Norsemen,” that is Vikings.)  4.  People have sung a daily morning service in York Minster for over a thousand years (by singing there, the Nordic Choir would continue that tradition!) 5.  It took 250 years to finish York Minster.  6.  Guy Fawkes, baptised in St. Michael de Belfrey Cathedral, became a devout Catholic and moved to Spain in the 1600s where he subscribed to the Spanish notion of reclaiming all of Europe for Catholicism and learned to explode things.  Then he returned to England to attempt to blow up Parliament in 1636 (I think?) because he wanted the Church to have more power than Parliament. (You may be familiar with “the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot” from the movie V for Vendetta.)
Among many other places during the tour, we walked along the old Roman wall.  It’s pretty cool to experience history like that.
    At 11:00 that morning, we sang in York Minster cathedral (which, as I said in my last post, is the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe.)  The sound was breathtaking.  With the exception of one song, we sounded as good as we ever have.  The sensational chills I felt as each cutoff rang throughout the cathedral was probably once in a lifetime, and I’ll probably never forget it.
    After our performance and a tour with Roger around the inside of the cathedral, it was time for lunch.  I ended up with Andrew Gonzalez, and we decided to go out for Indian food (there are many Indian restaurants in York.)  We found a good one called Mumbai Lounge (I think that’s what it was called), where we feasted on Mango Lassi (a sweet yogurt and mango drink) and lamb with spices and vegetables.  After great food and conversation, we flipped through the York City Guide and discovered that it was one of only three or four days in May that there were horse races at the racecourse.  Within a half hour, we found ourselves walking along a large stadium towards the ticket booth.  I was feeling a bit sick by how much money the experience might cost when a man approached us and offered his two tickets to the races for free!  As he walked away, we discovered that they included “Owner and Trainer passes,” which would admit us to the best seats in the stadium!  We laughed at our incredible luck as we made our way to the special Owner and Trainer entrance.
    Of course (and not to surprise), the snobby gate attendants asked us “Where did you boys get those passes?”  We explained honestly, and they finally decided to take away our prime seat passes but let us into the stadium.  They said that “they wanted to avoid any conflict” that would result from giving us the fancy seats, which I interpreted to mean that “even with legally-obtained free passes, American college riffraff with untidy hair are not fit for the elite class, especially if one of them is not wearing a tie.” (Ties were indeed required for certain sections of the racecourse, and I had not worn one for the day, as we impromptu decided to go.)  Despite our frustration with social hierarchy, we were ecstatic to enter the races for free!
    The racecourse was like something out of a bizarre dream.  It was a modern evolution of the races we see in movies-- there was a gigantic stadium and electronic screens intermixed with the classic white fences and tents around the green course.  Everyone was dressed up-- while a few could be seen in casual clothes, almost all men were wearing fancy gray or pinstripe suits with fashionable ties, belts, sunglasses, and shoes; and the women with fancy dresses, flower pins in their hair, fancy shoes, and sometimes sunhats.  Everyone seemed to have a plastic cup of beer or a cigarette.  The social scene brought out many of the things I dislike about Europe, namely the social class divisions, and the carelessness with garbage.  It irritated me that people so wealthy and concerned with appearance seem to tolerate and embrace dirty bathrooms, assorted trash including paper towels and beer cups covering the ground, and cigarette smoke tainting the air.
    More than anything, a day at the races is a social experience.  Each race lasts for no more than two minutes, with one every half hour or hour.  In between, all the time is reserved for socializing and, of course, betting.  If one wasn’t too busy chatting, drinking, or smoking, he/she would go to the tent where each horse is paraded around a ring before the race, allowing people to see how physically ready for the race it appears.  Based on that, and on speculations published by different newspapers and a variety of statistics, people are able to make bets on which horses will win.  Then they go to little booths scattered in front of the stadium, where they can place a bet.  Gonzo and I picked our favorite horses, and each offered two pounds to a booth.  They took our pounds and gave us receipts listing the bet we made, the amount we bet, and the amount we would receive if we should win.  I bet 2 pounds on an Irish horse called Catfish, and would have won 26 pounds based on the probability of the horse winning as calculated by the booth.  Unfortunately, Catfish came in second to Pay Freeze.
    Gonzo and I stayed for three or four races, and then walked back to the city center.  It was a beautiful sunny afternoon through town and into the Yorkshire City Museum Gardens, which are covered in Roman ruins.  On our way back to the hotel, we passed St. Olave’s Church, one of the oldest churches in York (named after the Patron Saint of Norway).
    After dinner at the hotel, I planned to journal a bit and upload some pictures to Facebook before going out with friends for Andrea Keuper’s birthday.  I decided after I fell asleep for forty-five minutes after dinner, however, that I wasn’t in the mood.  I sat around in the hotel lobby as one album of my pictures took three hours to upload, but this gave me the chance to socialize with a bunch of friends in the Choir, including Dr. Hightower, Teresa Procter, Sam Jones, Shane Wilson, and Katie Moan. 

Travel tip #1: Don’t waste time with a crummy wi-fi connection.  Upload photos later.
Travel tip #2: Time for conversation with someone you don’t know well should be regular priority.

York, England (25/5/2012)

On Friday morning (the 25th,) the choir drove to York, which has been my favorite city so far. Its city center (within the still-standing Roman walls) is densely-built, with narrow cobblestone streets and beautifully-preserved buildings, cathedrals, and the like.  One street, called the Shambles, is a real-life Diagon Alley--a narrow street lined with medieval buildings, with the upper floors of the buildings jutting out over the street and sagging inward.  The Shambles was once where the butchers of York sold their meats (“Shambles” comes from “Fleshambles,” which were countertops in the shop windows of butcheries.)  The character of the city, a blend of well-preserved ancient architecture and modern stores, restaurants, and pubs, was charming. The main door of our hotel, the Hilton, framed a view an ancient Roman fortress sitting on a hill.
    We got there around lunchtime, and I found myself at Betty’s Tea Shop with Vanessa Libbey, Sophia Huang, Brittney Leemon, and Jake Watson. (In Chester, a Hannah the waitress had recommended it to me when I told her I was going to York.) We got classic afternoon tea and food (I got Darjeeling from the Himalayas and a rarebit cheese sandwich.)  After a great meal and conversation, the rest of the group went shopping and I left to explore.  I walked a few blocks and found York Minster, which is the largest gothic cathedral in northern Europe and the magnificent icon of the city. As I wandered I discovered a square where an acrobat was balancing on a plank of wood sitting on a rolling cylinder with a ring of fire between his feet while he juggled flaming torches.  Afterwards, I chatted with an English couple celebrating their 23rd wedding anniversary. 
    In mid-afternoon, the choir rehearsed at the Church of St. Michael De Belfrey (nextdoor to York Minster) for our evening concert.  We left the doors open in the back, and passersby wandered in to listen as we rehearsed. We returned to the hotel for dinner, dressed in our robes, and paraded back to the church, where we waited in the square outside before our concert.
    It was during this waiting period that a group of British high school rascals approached the choir.  One fat rambunctious 17-year-old, drunk as could be, began singing “Wonderwall” by Oasis at the top of his lungs, and was joined by his friends, Dylan Carlson of our choir, and several other choir members.  We thought the rowdy kid would leave after a verse and a chorus, but he stayed long enough to sing the whole song (maybe twice?) with unintentional key changes every few words.  As the buffoon was dragged away by his friends, he pulled down his pants and began hopping like a rabbit.  Just when we thought he was gone, the boy came running back into the square, completely naked, his chubby body bouncing around as he trotted towards us in what seemed to be slow motion.  The choir roared with laughter as the idiot was tackled by his friends and dragged away.  Dr. Hightower (whose expression during the incident was of course priceless) did his best to fix our focus in the last few minutes before the concert.
    Our performance was one of my favorites.  As they were during the rehearsal, the doors stood open, inviting people to wander inside as we sang.  The choir faced west to the back of the church, where the sun shined through a giant window as it set, making lyrics like “The sunset and the dark’ning blue” “Come we now to the hour of setting sun” all the more meaningful.  A few pieces in particular had never sounded better, especially Ola Gjeilo’s “Sanctus,” we shook the earth during the final Hosannah passage.  It was inspiring.  Many locals stayed to thank us after the concert and promised to come listen to our recital at York Mister the following morning (more on that later!)
    As if the day wasn’t exciting enough already, then we went out on the town!  I friends and I headed to the Evil Eye Lounge, an edgy bar that is apparently Johnny Depp’s favorite in York.  It was decorated in vibrant colors and cool upholstery, and the menu was a quirky selection of interesting mixed drinks and shots.  I watched with awe as one bartender masterfully filled glasses with ice water to cool, mixed the ingredients in another cup, threw things in the air and shook them, and poured the final mix through a strainer and filled the cold glass to the brim.  I ordered a funky drink called a Pear Cardamom Sidecar.
After the Evil Eye, Kelsey Brown and I departed for the hotel and stopped to grab a late-night snack: Döner Kebab, which is kind of like gyros, but Turkish. (It was a junk food we had both seen frequently in Vienna in January 2011, and so we enjoyed experiencing it again.)  It was a great end to my favorite day on tour so far.

Travel to Wales and England

27/5/2012, 8:38.   We have just departed on our 4-hour bus ride from York to London, and so I’ll take the opportunity to catch up on some journaling-- several days worth, I hope.

    On our last morning in Dublin (and Ireland), we woke up for a 5:45 breakfast.  Although it was an ungodly hour, the completely risen sun made it seem like it was 9:00 in the morning, making me much perkier than I otherwise would have been.  We loaded the buses and drove to the port, where we boarded a giant ferry.  It was not what I imagined: it was a mammoth ship eleven floors tall (only the top three were accessible to passengers), with an open-air deck above the eleventh floor.  The ninth through twelfth floors were “rather posh,” as they say in the U.K.  Molly, Kelsey, and I strolled the red carpeted floors and found two cinemas, a game room, a few restaurants, several comfortably-furnished seating areas, a gift shop, and a complex of cabins with beds.  The choir divided into its typical cliques for the four-hour ferry ride.  I read a bit of my book for the Peace Scholar program, Jan Egland’s A Billion Lives, and took a nap on a couch.
    We spent much of the afternoon in transit as well.  As has been my job at every Nordic Choir event this year including this tour, I lugged around the 20-pound bag of nine thick velvet robes.  Naturally, the curious looking cargo was questioned by the ferry port security, and after telling them what it was I made the mistake of suggesting it was big enough to hold a person, to which one officer replied, “Don’t implicate yourself.”  We boarded the buses and departed for Chester.  On the way, we drove a delightful windy road through a beautiful region called Snowdonia, a national forest preserve with thick trees, rolling hills, little towns with narrow streets, and sheep dotting the countryside between low medieval stone fences.
    Our hotel in Chester, the Doubletree, was one of the nicest in which I’ve ever stayed.  (Ya dig my grammar!?)  Though the beautiful stone buildings, large green lawns, fountains, and the complimentary cookie at the door were nice, it was the sauna and pool area that made the hotel spectacular.  It was a ritzy complex of four or five different themed saunas, a low-lit pool, a giant hot tub with a second open-air room, and fancy showers.  Needless to say, probably half of the choir suited up for the opportunity. 
    Though I spent an hour or so in the pool area after dinner, I wanted to explore the city center, since it was our only night in Chester.  Though most people were still at the spa, I found Christina Dudley and Allie Schnier waiting for a taxi in the hotel lobby.  I joined them, and we rode to a pub called the White Lion.  I made conversation with the cab driver (a South African) and the locals in the pub, and doing so set the tone for a great night on the town.  After great beer and conversation with the bar tenders (and some blurry pictures taken by a drunken old man), we took a walk around the city.  On one street, we encountered a young drunken busker, who stroked and complimented my hair and offered me his guitar.  I took the instrument and accompanied his drunken singing for five minutes or so.  Allegedly, the coins in his hat would be going to charity...
    The ladies wanted to visit a second pub, so we set off again.  I stopped a group of passersby to ask for directions, and they invited to follow them to a nice pub.  They seemed trustworthy, and I learned on the way that a probation officer and a cop were in our party.  Shortly after we reached the pub (which was a nice place mostly occupied by thirty-some year olds), the 11:00pm bell rang to signify the bar closing.  I made conversation with a cute waitress named Hannah (I was delighted by her accent and choice vernacular including “rubbish”) who suggested a pub a few hundred yards away.  Christina, Allie, and I went, and I made conversation with a nice old man named Craig.  We returned to our hotel at midnight after an evening well-spent.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Day 2 in Dublin, Ireland

Our second day in Dublin started with breakfast and a tour of the city by bus.  Although I had gotten my bearings of many places the night before, I took pleasure in taking it all in again.  Dublin has a great urban atmosphere: its streets are densely packed with tall, narrow buildings, allowing it to fit loads of awesome in small spaces.  Like any western European city, it is a glitzy tapestry of old medieval architecture mixed with globalization-- even the best-preserved historic areas are newly decorated with well-known American chain stores and hole-in-the-wall cafes serving middle-eastern cuisine, for example.  Oh, and we saw the massive Guinness brewery, where water drawn from the nearby river is mixed with a few special ingredients in giant white cylindrical towers. 
    The bus tour left us at Trinity College, where we saw the Book of Kells, an ancient Gaelic translation of the four Christian gospels.  It is considered the best work of Gaelic art and literature: each page is illustrated with beautifully-scribed Gaelic text and pictures.  Pretty neat!  But the next thing we saw was even better: the Long Library, an extraordinary two-story room filled with ancient books.  It is something of a dream or a high-budget Hollywood movie (and actually, the Jedi Temple Archives in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones is based on this very library.)  Among many books on display was Martin Luther’s German translation of the Old Testament, completed in 1524, I think.  It was awesome.
    After the concert, we traveled to Dun O’Laoghaire (pronounced O’Leary.  What’s wrong with you people!?) and visited the Maritime Museum of Ireland.  Except for a giant lighthouse light spinning on a giant rotating device, it was laughably boring.  The proceeds from the concert we’d be giving that evening were going towards the restoration of this recently-reopened museum: I only hope that they use the money to make it more exciting.  After pictures on the ocean shore and a nice group dinner, we gave a choir concert to a small audience down the road in Monkstown. 

Day 1 in Dublin, Ireland

I’m sorry that I haven’t written yet!  My plan to journal consistently is off to a poor start.  So, let me try to catch up... (It should be easier to do on a computer, fortunately.)

Long story short, tour has been fun so far.I’m enjoying every chance to practice my skills as a traveler and I’m exploring whenever I get a chance.  And, of course, we’ve been singing.  Some concerts have been underwhelming, while others have been inspiring.

Let’s back up to Dublin, Ireland...

22/5/2012:
We arrived in the Dublin airport after an unfortunately long plane ride and very little sleep.  After what seemed like hours, we left the airport and reached our tour buses-- two ritzy vehicles complete with leather seats, charming drivers, and four four-person tables in the back where we could play cards and socialize.  We first drove to a place called Glendalough (pronounced “Glen-duh-lock.”  WHY can’t they spell it how it sounds?)  A natural reserve, Glendalough was a center of Christianity in its early years, and grew from an isolated monastic setting into an important center of culture, religion, and trade in Ireland.  It is a set of verdant rolling hills decorated with lush trees,

(I must stop to mention that my roommate Logan just made a very interesting but unrecognizable comment in his sleep.  Some gibberish language. Bahaha.)

So, verdant rolling hills decorated with lush trees, roaming sheep and gravestones, with a set of ancient buildings (mostly ruins) nestled in the middle.  One building was a well-preserved but tiny stone church.  There was another ruined church up on a hill and a hundred-foot stone tower nearby.  For a pre-Middle Ages community, I thought these were really amazing architectural feats. We had a thirty-minute tour from a young man with shaggy facial hair and a gentle sense of humor.  Taking a walk outside was a much-needed physical relief after ten hours on a plane, the resulting jetlag and lack of sleep, and a nauseating two-hour drive to Glendalough on an incredibly windy, narrow road. 
    Later that afternoon (it felt like dinnertime) we arrived at our Hotel in downtown Dublin called the Wynn, which was a block off of the main drag (McConnell Street?  I can’t remember.)  As everyone trudged up the stairs or waited impatiently for the elevator with their clunky fifty-pound suitcases, I was pleased to jaunt up a few flights of stairs with my one beautiful 15-pound green Kelty backpack.  (Did I mention it’s awesome?)  After settling in, I eagerly went exploring the city streets with a ragtag band of fellow choristers.  We made our way west from our hotel down a busy shopping street, and then turned south towards the river that divides Dublin into northern and southern halves.  With our collective nose in a giant tourist map, our group (David Duba, Sam Jones, Marissa Satern, Kelsi Holmes, and Lili Petsch-Horvath) clumsily made our way across the river to the Temple Bar district of town, named for its most famous bar.  I snapped a few pictures inside the trendy pub while Marissa bought a half-pint of fresh and foamy Guinness from the tap, which she shared with all of us (she didn’t like it much.)  Some of them headed back towards the hotel, but Lili and Kirk Hansen (who ran into us along the way) and I scooted over to Trinity College to see the campus.  We took a few pictures in their beautiful courtyard.  The college campus reminded me of the Hapsburg Palace in Vienna-- very symmetrical and orderly, with cobblestone walkways and well-groomed plants.
    After dinner, many choir members headed to the Temple Bar for a cultural experience-- that is, a pint of Guinness and some live music at a classic Dublin pub.  After claiming a cozy nook along in the maze of rooms within Temple Bar, I purchased my pint of delicious Irish brew.  When I returned to the table, my friend Paul Atkins was there chatting with the wispy red-headed fellow at the next table.  (Before purchasing I had asked this man near my table how much the pint of Guinness would cost me, but he confusedly explained to me what I already knew-- that all the other beers on the menu were shit compared to Guinness, and that I could get no less than a full pint!)  As it turned out, the man was the conductor of the Dublin Philharmonic Orchestra.  Although we thought he was pulling our legs at first, Paul and I were convinced when the man gave us his card and began singing the Firebird Suite when we brought it up in conversation.  (The next morning, Paul told me that he had even found his page on Wikipedia.)  As he smoked, the conductor complained that unlike every European orchestra he had worked with, American orchestras didn’t have beer in the pre-concert dressing rooms, only orange juice.  In his mind, America is “rather puritanical” in terms of substance use, although “they make the best porn.”
    As I was delighted to discover by meeting the conductor (and as I have learned many times before), it never hurts to ask questions or strike up a conversation.  Although it can feel awkward or risky to talk with a stranger, it has only yielded positive results in my experience, whether those be great conversations, a recommendation, or street directions.  It’s always fun, and it improves your social skills and intercultural awareness!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Introduction and Itinerary

Welcome!

My watch says it's 21:58 in Dublin, or 4:00pm back home in the Upper Midwest.  I cannot for the life of me figure out how to change the date of my watch from the 21st to the 22nd, and I hope that won't cause a mistake later on in my travels.

Yesterday, I stepped onto a plane to Europe and became a sort of vagabond.  For your convenience, I looked up the Merriam-Webster Online Definition to this excellent word (in its adjective form)-- it means "moving from place to place without a fixed home."  And, to my ambivalence, this definition describes me more than ever before in my lifetime.  I left my house in Vernon Hills, IL on Monday afternoon, it was for the very last time-- while I'm gone, my brother will graduate from VHHS (Congratulations, Phil, I'm so proud!) and my mother will move away.  From now on, whenever I visit Vernon Hills, it will be only as a visitor, and to a large extent the same will be true whenever I visit each of my parents.

I guess as I've been re-evaluating where my most permanent home is, I'd say it's Decorah, Iowa, where  I go to college.  But for the next six months, I'll hardly be there either.  (See!  Vagabond!)  Here's where I'll be instead, generally:

May 21st- June 1st: Choir tour in Ireland and England with the Luther College Nordic Choir
 June 1st-June 18th: I fly solo from London (the end of the choir tour) to Budapest, Hungary.  From there, I'll travel solo by train, visiting major cities, staying in hostels, making friends and seeing friends along the way, and having a great adventure!  I've long dreamed of seeing the world, and pushing myself to explore, so it was impossible to pass up a perfect opportunity!)  I'll arrive in Norway on June 18th.
June 18th-August 3rd: I've been selected for the annual summer "Peace Scholar" program in Norway!  As part of the Nobel Peace Prize Forum (an annual peace conference hosted by five Norwegian liberal arts colleges in the Upper Midwest), I have the honor of representing Luther College at an all-expenses-paid seven-week academic program in Lillehammer and Oslo, where the nine other scholars and I will study peace and conflict, democracy, human rights, and Norway's relation to each of them.  I am absolutely thrilled!
I'll be back in the states briefly to obtain my Indian visa, see family, et cetera, and then...
August 27th-December 9th: I'll be studying abroad in Jaipur, India, learning about sustainable development.  I chose this field of study because I want to pursue a career of relieving poverty.  I hope to learn how to empower so-called "developing countries" and communities to provide for themselves, and give them the basic tools and skills they will need to sustain their people and well-being in the long-run.  Everyone on Earth deserves the basic necessities for survival, and they ought to have them without depending on foreign humanitarian aid. 

In case I haven't made it clear, I'm incredibly excited, and I feel so fortunate.  It overwhelms me to realize how completely serendipitous it is that the dates of the choir tour and the Norway program made it possible for me to plan such an epic adventure.  Furthermore, I'm endlessly grateful for the generosity of benefactors who finance the Peace Scholar program and study-abroad scholarships, as well as the help of family members, and my ability to earn and save money through college work study.  This is all too good to be true!

Anyway, thanks for sharing this with me.  I was hoping to write about my first day in Dublin, but I need to get some sleep.  One final word: if you have an idea of how to change the date on my watch, let me know! :p