Istanbul in the New Year

So, 4 years on, and I’ve decided to re-start this blog.  Perhaps because I am once again living abroad; perhaps because the title, ‘ramblings of an itinerant’ once again seems apt (and I shall leave it to your judgement whether ‘ramblings’ refers to travels, words, or both!); perhaps just in a vain attempt to actually fulfil a New Year’s Resolution for once!

Istanbul is a fascinating city to live in; you come to expect the unexpected.  There is always something different around another corner; no one day is ever quite the same.  Walking home today, and my usual grey concrete commute between the construction site on one side and the double-laned, double-layered flyover on the other was brightened up by a whole host of colourful classic cars parked along the road – complete with the usual mix of inhabitants, from the virtually empty ones through to the ones packed with the kitchen sink and the giant teddy bear tied on the roof (no joke!).

Certainly Brits, and I assume some other nationalities as well, tend to have a view of Turkey as perpetually sunny and warm.  Not true, so let me disabuse you of that notion right now.  I’ve seen more snow in the last 3 weeks in Turkey than I have in the last 3 years in the UK.  And the public transport network copes much better with it here as well…  But the weather can still change just as much as in the UK – ice, snow and -10 at the start of the week, and now sunny and warm enough to walk around without a coat by the end of the week.  Long may it last, although I suspect we may not be done with the snow for the year just yet…

There are hidden treasures in unexpected places inside as well.  Yesterday I went to the Panoramic 1453 museum, and to Chora Church (alternatively known as the Kariye museum).  The Panoramic museum takes you along a fairly standard one-way system around the museum, with some rather random and slightly-irrelevant pictures on the walls (apparently they had some meaning and purpose, but despite the helpful English text below, I couldn’t really see the connection between the picture and the text on many occasions!), until you come to a black-walled spiral staircase up.  Progress up it, and it opens out into a huge dome, entirely painted with an amazing mural of the battle for Constantinople and the moment the Ottomans broke through the walls, which completely encircles you.  Look out at the mural and not behind you to the staircase, and the lifelike, detailed painting ensures it takes very little imagination at all to picture oneself actually there; to want to duck out of the way of the Greek fire cannonballs; to want to dodge to one side to avoid the oncoming cavalry.  The museum is worth visiting for this mural alone – which is perhaps a good thing, as the text and prints adorning the rest of the museum are not that impressive.  For an exercise in historiography and the extent to which the perspective of the author influences it though, they are fascinating – snippets included “The Christian people that were sick and tired of the tyranny of their autocratic rulers preferred the Ottoman dominance” and “Unlike many other wor[l]d conqueror, he [Mehmet the Conqueror] was capable and wilful for planning and constructing a great civilisation.  Conquest did not mean seizing the city, it also meant revival.  Upon the conquest, the magnificent lustre of Rome, once disappeared, was rejuvenated in radiance.”  Neither of these quite correlates with the Western view of the fall of Constantinople as one of the greatest tragedies of medieval Europe; nor is the talk of revival and the preference of the Christians for Ottoman rulers quite what I would have expected them to think given the number of churches that were turned into mosques over the course of the next century.

One of those churches is the Chora Church, although in Chora, the treasures inside it survived in much better condition than in many similar churches.  Chora contains some of the best preserved mosaics in Turkey, and they are truly stunning,  Stupidly, I’d left my camera behind, so the photos here are all taken with a rather sub-standard phone camera, but I shall definitely go back!  The mosaics tell the story of much of the Bible, including the infancy narratives of Christ and many of the gospel stories of his miracles, but also Catholic traditions around Mary, and are beautifully executed and presented, covering the ceilings and much of the walls of the church.  Those without mosaics are covered in equally impressive frescos, and the whole effect is a stunning little gem, and well worth the detour out of the usual tourist hotspot of Sultanahmet.

My lovely commute...

My lovely commute…

In Chora Church

In Chora Church

Frescos in Chora Church

Frescos in Chora Church

The Resurrection fresco - also known as 'the Harrowing of Hell' - Jesus pulls Adam and Eve from their graves while trampling Satan and the gates of hell underfoot

The Resurrection fresco – also known as ‘the Harrowing of Hell’ – Jesus pulls Adam and Eve from their graves while trampling Satan and the gates of hell underfoot

Mosaics in Chora Church

Mosaics in Chora Church

Mosaics in Chora Church

Mosaics in Chora Church

Mosaics in Chora Church

Mosaics in Chora Church

Mural of the fall of Constantinople

Mural of the fall of Constantinople

Mural of the fall of Constantinople

Mural of the fall of Constantinople

Mural of the fall of Constantinople

Mural of the fall of Constantinople

Mural of the fall of Constantinople

Mural of the fall of Constantinople

Mural of the fall of Constantinople

Mural of the fall of Constantinople

Snow in Istanbul...

Snow in Istanbul…



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San Francisco

One of the (many) lovely things about travelling is that every so often, you get unexpected bonuses.  I came back to California to stay with my Nepali family in the Bay area, but without even remotely planning it – I didn’t find out until I was already here – I managed to land myself in the Bay area over the weekend in which the Golden Gate Bridge celebrated its 75th anniversary.  Consequently, there were a lot of related events going on in San Francisco, culminating in a glorious firework display over and off the bridge itself that Shilu, Alok and I went to.

I’ve been to San Francisco before, although it wasn’t until my third attempt that I finally managed to see the Golden Gate Bridge – it has a rather unfortunate tendency to be shrouded in fog.  I’ve now been to the bridge a total of 5 times I think, and seen it on 3 occasions – once I got it fog free, I’ve been lucky ever since, and that was definitely appreciated as far as the fireworks went!  They were spectacular – huge displays from the far side of the bridge, off the two towers of the bridge, and then it opened and closed with curtains of golden and then coloured rain streaming off the length of the bridge and forming a river that flowed into the water below.  Quite the most impressive location in which I’ve seen a firework display!  It was also a real festival atmosphere – you had to claim a spot and then stake it out to get a good view – thankfully we found one, stood on some tussocks to one side of the path!  But with literally thousands and thousands of people around, claiming your spot was very necessary.  I was also very thankful that I have become such an expert at planning and negotiating public transport – every bus we took was packed tighter than sardines in a tin, but at least we got on one every time, which was more than most people managed.  When 50,000 people try and get on a bus that takes maybe 60-70 at most, the odds aren’t that great!

I did make it to a number of new places in San Francisco as well as the sights that I have seen before.  The view from the Twin Peaks at night was awesome, right out across San Francisco and then the Bay itself to the towns on the other side, all lit up from the city lights and looking picturesque.  Unfortunately, it was also blowing a howling gale (San Francisco is windy at the best of times, and when you are stood on top of the highest point in the city, which is devoid of both tall vegetation or buildings, that does not qualify as the best of times) and pretty chilly (again, San Francisco is renowned more for its fog than its tropical climate – it is perfectly normal for the temperature in San Francisco to be 30-40F degrees lower than those of the surrounding towns only 5-10 miles away), so I was shivering far too hard to succeed in taking any non-blurry photographs!

I had much better luck at the Palace of Fine Arts, which is a beautiful spot.  Originally built to house the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915 which displayed over 5000 pieces of artwork, the architect had a brainwave and realised that in California, to be an architectural wonder, a building simply had to compliment the vegetation which will grow so easily and verdantly in the area.  The end result was the Palace of Fine Arts, a ‘building’ that was intended to resemble a Roman ruin and which perfectly sets off and is highlighted by all the landscaping that went alongside it.  It is a world away from the busy townhouses of San Francisco’s hilly urban districts, even though it sits right next to them, and has an almost ethereal feeling, especially when viewed, as we did, in the twilight.  It is also extremely photogenic, as shown in its prominence in a number of movies – I happened to recognise it from ‘The Bachelor’, but it has been used as the backdrop for a multitude of scenes in other movies as well.

Alongside the views, scenery and festivals I also saw a more cultural (and historical!) side to San Francisco and the Bay area.  We tried to visit the Mission San Francisco de Assisi in the Mission District, but were too late to enter inside.  We did still get a chance to admire the mission building – the oldest building in San Francisco – from the outside, along with its newer basilica next door, but getting inside another mission had to wait until we were back in Fremont, in the south of the Bay area, where Shilu and I went to see the Mission San Jose.

Ultimately, the chain of missions that stretches up the Californian coast was intended as a tool of Spanish colonisation – for the government, they had a political purpose in staking a claim to the land and so helping stave off perceived Russian and British threats; for the Franciscan monks, they provided bases from which to evangelise and ‘civilise’ the Indians; and in the 18th Century, religion and politics was inextricably linked in the Spanish mindset.  Given that poor European sanitation practices and unsustainable uses of the land destroyed the Indian culture that had happily coexisted with nature for centuries before that, not to mention the havoc that European diseases wreaked on the Indian population, the claim that they brought ‘civilisation’ is hard to agree with.  Indian resistance to Spanish conquest and unrest at the missions is well-documented.  On the other hand, many Indians were also curious to learn from these new men, to understand their new technologies and strange habits, appreciative of the new consumerables that trading with the Spanish brought them, and as the large numbers of inhabitants shows (nearly 2000 were living at Mission San Jose by 1830, just over 30 years after its beginning in 1797), many did choose to become a part of mission life.  In part, that was forced by the devastation of their traditional villages which left them little choice, but equally, as the informative little museum at Mission San Jose makes clear, many did genuinely choose to believe in the religion the missionaries introduced to them, and came to make a new way of life in the mission.

At Mission San Jose, one important influence in this choice was music, which perhaps explains why the Spanish-Indian relations at Mission San Jose were more cordial than and harmonious than at many of the missions.  An intrinsic part of both Spanish and Indian cultures, and it was the Spanish music as much as the trading opportunities and simple curiosity that drew the Ohlone Indians to the mission.  For the Franciscans, the Indians love of music and dancing, something one priest described as ‘visible prayers’, was something that they could easily incorporate into religious services which already had significant worship elements, and this overlap led to the Ohlone musicians becoming very well-known and respected.  It was also indicative of the cultural importance of the missions: beyond being religious centres, they were also cultural, social and political ones.  Mission San Jose included barracks and a guard house, farms, ranches, workshops, craft studios, several mills, a soap factory and a tannery, and became one of the most successful and prosperous missions in California.  Named in honour of Saint Joseph, it predates the town of the same name (hence its location in Fremont rather than San Jose) and was the 14th of the 21 missions the Spanish set up.

Going round the mission in Fremont was fascinating both for the insight into life there that the museum gives, but also because many of the artifacts they displayed from the time were ones that Shilu recognised from Nepal.  Half a world and 200 years apart, and yet the similarities were remarkable.  She has commented before that things, movements, beliefs, etc that I describe as coming from history, she thinks of as in the present – but it is one thing to discuss it, and another to see it.  Where have I ever used a pestle and mortar outside of a chemistry lab?  I haven’t.  When have I either done or seen ploughing harnesses being put around the neck of a horse?  Outside of the movies, I haven’t.  And yet the vestments, statues, the organ, even gravestones in the cemetery – they were all normal to me, whereas to Shilu, who couldn’t remember if she had ever been inside a church before, they were totally foreign.

The mission in San Francisco I found out much less about, but I still got a decent experience of the area around it – known as Mission District – by walking around.  It retains a distinctly Latino flavour, and the early Spanish influence is evident throughout, from the tail end of the Mexican carnival which I caught through to the craft stalls that line the pavement and the street art that adorns many of the walls and buildings.  The area is renowned for its murals, in fact, and in particular one little street called Balmy Alley, which has 6ft high – or more – murals the entire length of the alley, on both sides.

Balmy Alley is fascinating both for the variety of the paintings it displays and for the messages they portray.  The art includes art deco, landscape, religious, portrait, new age, and numerous other styles; the messages are deep and profound, the paintings demonstrating an awareness of social injustice and making a protest that should not be ignored.  One painting was the artist’s tribute to his mother who had died of AIDS and a cry to do something about the disease.  Another told the story of a woman from El Salvador who had fled the fighting there, yet found life in California just as difficult because of the distance from home, family, country, and especially the young son she had left behind.  Even as we walked down it, another group of people were busy painting a new mural depicting the social effects of the financial crisis as ordinary people lost their homes.

My personal favourite was one which showed a group of people each with one fist raised in a demand for justice, even as two larger figures stood at either side of the painting, one with a hand upraised and open from which a chain had just fallen, and the other with the chain still clasped in his hand as he tore it away.  The chain was broken in the centre by a bunch of peace lilies, and a third shadowy figure stood beside the one who still held the chain, her head in hands in sorrow at the cost that the war had imposed on the people.  The backdrop of the scene was a mountain range and beautiful scenery, and the clothing was also recognisable to Shilu, Alok and I: the people in the painting were Nepalese, the demand for justice is still being cried out, and the broken chains represent the peace that has come with the end of the civil war in 2006, but a peace that is still fragile, that could still fall apart, as the remaining presence of the chain in the painting suggests.  The crying woman represents the sorrow that is throughout the countryside after the death of over 13,000 people since 1996.  A country blessed with a beautiful landscape and beautiful people; but a country torn apart by the sufferings of war.

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Flights of Fancy

“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of: wheeled and soared and swung.
High in the sunlit silence hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious burning blue,
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace,
Where never lark or even eagle flew.
And while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.”

John Gillespie Magee Jr’s poem ‘High Flight’ is inscribed on the back of the memorial to the astronauts of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger in Arlington, but I think it probably aptly describes how many of the personalities whose stories are told in the Air and Space Museum must have felt.  Barely 60 years separated man first flying from the landing on the moon; less than a lifetime, and yet a change out of all proportion.  To alter a particularly relevant quote, it was one small blink for man, yet one giant reach for mankind, and seeing the planes and space equipment on show at the museum brings it home.

For much of history, man has been interested in the idea of flight – simply looking at Greek myths such as that of Icarus, who flew so close to the sun that the beeswax holding the feathers on his wings together melted, causing him to fall, is enough to illustrate that.  But except for Leonardo Da Vinci, whose work was largely lost until very recently, few serious attempts to get man in the air were made until the 1800s.  Not until Sir George Cayley put together systems for lift, propulsion and control did anyone apply scientific methods to the conception of flight, and following this, various experiments – with varying degrees of success – were made with man-carrying gliders in the latter 1800s.

Onto the scene in the late 1890s came two brothers whose names are now familiar throughout the world: Wilbur and Orville Wright.  Wilbur was the steady, conscientious elder brother; Orville the optimistic, enthusiastic and curious younger brother.  Originally the brothers worked together in a printshop, although this wound down as the 1890s progressed; they also ran a bicycle repair and manufacturing shop, and this proved an invaluable base for their work on aeroplanes.  Not only were the principles of balance and aerodynamics very similar, but the bicycle was also a controllable but inherently unstable machine, and this knowledge gave the brothers the confidence to continue when others had seen the swiftness and unpredictability of air currents and given up.

The brothers followed Cayley’s lead in identifying the three main areas that needed to be successful for a machine to fly, and then focused on control and balance first as they figured this was the most intractable problem.  For three consecutive years, from 1900-1902, they spent each autumn down at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina experimenting with a glider; in 1902, they finally succeeded in producing a glider that was not only controllable but also generated sufficient lift.  In the process, they once again followed Cayley’s lead in taking a scientific approach and recording all their experiments and the data they generated; they also unintentionally invented the wind tunnel, developing the best wing design for lift on a contraption Orville built from old hacksaw blades and bicycle spokes.  This piece of home-grown ingenuity has ended up becoming a key part of aeronautical engineering ever since.

The 1902 glider broke all records for the Wright brothers, becoming by far the most sophisticated flying machine anyone had yet built, and they filed a patent application for it at the end of the year.  It also gave them significant practice in the air. Less than 6 weeks into 1903, they had an engine for it thanks to Charlie Taylor, a mechanic the Wrights had hired to help in their bicycle shop, and who produced what all the engineering firms had said was impossible: an engine powerful enough to propel the aircraft, but light enough to not outweigh the lift generated by the wings.  Despite this, however, the Wrights made it to Kitty Hawk later than usual in 1903: it was 17th December before they made their famous flight.  By the end of the day, they had succeeded in demonstrating that controlled, sustained, powered flight was possible – what a Christmas present!

By 1905, the Wrights routinely flew for several minutes at a time and could change direction at will.  Flight progressed fast after that: by 1909, Louis Blériot had flown across the English Channel; the military had picked up on the importance of the aircraft in plenty of time for WWI; in 1818, the US Post started flying the mail.  The belief in the viability of air travel is perhaps shown most convincingly by this, as despite a number of hiccups, the service actually continued.  The printers made an error with the first air mail stamps, printing the ‘Jenny’ (the aeroplane used to carry the mail) upside-down on the stamp; the first scheduled mail service then returned without the mail, after one pilot got lost then damaged his plane when he landed to ask for directions; and when post office pilots staged a walkout, the entire service would have collapsed without the army pilots volunteering to take over flying the routes for what turned out to be the next year.

The records continued to fall.  In 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic; Amelia Earhart repeated his feat in 1932, becoming the first woman and only the second person to accomplish it; in 1930, Amy Johnson became the first woman to fly solo from the UK to Australia.  The first round-the-world flight was accomplished by two pairs of pilots from the US Army Air Service in 1924; Wiley Post then became the first to do it solo in 1933. 1933 also saw the first flight over Mt Everest, which cleared the summit by the large margin of only 30 metres; and in 1926 and 1929, Richard Bryd became the first person to fly over the north and south poles respectively.

The records obscure the fact that flying in the early days was an extremely risky business.  Ten pilots before Amelia Earhart had died trying to repeat Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic solo flight.  In 1937, Earhart herself would become a victim when she disappeared without trace while flying between New Guinea and Howland Island in the Pacific while trying to circumnavigate the globe.  The pilots who first flew the US Army Air Service planes around the world were so restricted for weight that they flew without either parachutes or life preservers (interestingly, they did take the stuffed monkeys that a hotel manager in LA had presented them with before they left, promising to pay each pilot $50 if he returned his monkey mascot safely.  You do have to wonder about their priorities…).  It is hard to imagine now, though, when we sit on our air-conditioned, waitered, cushioned, cattle class shuttles back and forth and moan about the lack of leg room, just what these early pilots went through.  Few runways existed, so the planes usually landed on water – often within the harbour, and consequently on an obstacle course littered with small ships.  The Chicago, one of the two army planes that flew around the world, suffered a failed fuel pump while flying across the Atlantic: faced with the choice of ditching in iceberg infested waters or hand pumping the gasoline, Leslie Arnold chose the latter – for an exhausting three hours.  The same flight saw low cloud forcing the pilots to fly so close to the water that dodging icebergs became an operational necessity.  The Titanic failed to avoid the icebergs when sailing at 25mph.  The Chicago was doing 90mph.

On a slightly lighter note, the pilots also had to put up with being refused service at restaurants in Indochina: the waiter refused to accept either lack of luggage space or naval protocol (which allowed the pilots to borrow only their naval colleagues trousers and shirts, not their jackets) as an excuse for turning up to dine in improper attire, and consequently refused to serve them.  Other attitudes were less amusing: the woman pilots were known as ‘Ladybirds’, ‘Angels’, or ‘Sweethearts of the Air’, and their cross-country race as the ‘Powder Puff Derby’; but as Amelia Earhart commented, they were still trying to get themselves simply called ‘pilots’.  Bessie Coleman, the first African-American to get her pilots license in 1921, had to do so in France (after first learning French) as no-one would train an African-American in the US.

With the advent of WWII, aeronautical engineering made several more advances, and with the V1s and V2s Germany became the first country to invent a pilotless missile – the forerunner to the ballistic missiles of today.  They also developed rocket propulsion, which set the scene for the crossing of the next boundary: outer space and space exploration.  Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space in April 1961; the Americans had followed less than a month later as part of Project Mercury, which aimed to assess how well men coped in space and how easily they could be recovered upon return.  Project Gemini in 1965-6 followed, which focused on spacecraft rendezvous and the possibility of prolonged space stays; and Apollo followed Gemini in 1969-72 with the aim of putting man on the moon.  The first Apollo mission in 1967 was a disaster, hence the delay in the programme, when a ground test saw fire spread through a command module killing three astronauts.  In 1968, Apollo first orbited the moon, and in July 1969, the ‘Eagle’ finally ‘landed’, in Armstrong’s famous words, as he and Buzz Aldrin spent two hours walking around with what must be the most unusual backdrop ever.  In 66 years, man had gone from being unable to leave solid ground to walking on the moon. Truly indeed, man had ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’, ‘topped the windswept heights’, and ‘trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space’.

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Memorials, monuments, museums and messages

DC is actually surprising small for a nation’s capital, especially given the size of other American cities.  One of the random things that struck me was also how short it was – barely a building there rises over 6 storeys, and Washington’s obelisk memorial sticks out (quite literally like a sore thumb) from every direction.  Coming from Manhattan, where it would have been dwarfed into total insignificance by the multitude of skyscrapers, this made a pleasant change!  DC is also pretty walkable – all the main sights, which are almost entirely either monuments, memorials or museums, lie on the National Mall, which, contrary to what might be a reasonable assumption, is not a shopping centre but a triangle of supposedly green space stretching between the Capitol Building, the White House, and Lincoln’s memorial.  I say supposedly, because while I was there most of it was under construction and consequently looked exactly like a building site – how grass can be under construction I’m not entirely sure, but apparently it can…

I spent one day in the museums, in particular the Air and Space Museum, but I’ll leave the details of those for another post – this one will be quite long enough as it is!  But wonderfully, DCs multitude of museums are almost entirely free of admission charges, which is great after the extortionate prices much of the rest of the country charges (admittedly I may be biased as I come from a country where museums are free, but still…).  The Capitol Building is a huge edifice of white stone that I’m sure will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a news broadcast – mind you, edifices of white stone seem to be quite in vogue on the National Mall, and indeed in DC in general.  The White House says it in the name; Jefferson has a huge white megalith in the style of a Roman temple, only outdone by Lincoln’s equally extravagant one; Washingon’s obelisk is the same monotone.  The WWII memorial is a bit more decorative and artistic, but still cut from the same cloth, and even Martin Luther King has a giant white statue, although the surrounding semicircle of quotes by him is silver writing on a dark grey background.  Maybe it is un-PC to say it, but I find it somewhat ironic that the most iconic figure in the black civil rights movement has a memorial made entirely out of white stone.

Quite the most interesting memorial artistically (in my opinion anyway!) is FDR’s, which covers 7.5 acres and is built from brown stone.  Not only are several of his quotes inscribed on it as well, but other statues and engravings illustrate the quotes as you walk through his years as President, from the Depression and the New Deal to WWII and ending with his dream – even if he never saw its fulfilment – of the United Nations.

I also spent a day not technically in DC, but just over the state border in Virginia.  Given that Arlington Cemetery is walking distance from the National Mall, however, and given its importance as a national site of remembrance for a country in which DC is the only truly national city (all the others have state allegiance as well, something the history of Arlington makes particularly clear), it still feels part of DC.

Originally, Arlington was an estate, and one owned by someone who was no less than the stepson of George Washington himself, and raised as the nation’s first presidential son.  He built the house of Arlington on the estate in part as a memorial to the only father he had ever known, and it then passed to his only surviving child, Mary, and her husband Robert E. Lee.  But for the advent of the Civil War in April 1861 and Lee’s subsequent decision, Arlington would probably still be a house and estate.

Arlington occupies a key strategic position high up on a hill overlooking Washington DC and less than 2 miles from the White House, but geographically and politically a part of Virginia rather than DC.  When the Civil War broke out, Virginia was one of the first states to secede from the Union, and Lee, as a Colonel in the US Army, was asked by the President to take command of the 75,000 strong army Lincoln was raising to crush the rebellion.  Given the family heritage and influence on Lee, he might have been expected to accept, but instead he declared in a letter resigning from the army after 32 years of service that despite all his ‘devotion to the Union’ and ‘feelings of loyalty and duty as an American citizen’, he could ‘not raise his hand against his relatives, his children, his home’.  Despite Lee’s enduring dislike of secession and belief in the Union, and his amenability to the ending of slavery, he went on to become the most successful general the Confederate troops had, one described by a Union colonel as “head and shoulders above any other in audacity”, and his acquisition of leadership of the Confederate troops in 1862 not only hauled them back from the brink of defeat, but prolonged the Civil War by another 3 years.  Ultimately, even Lee couldn’t change the outcome, but I still found it an interesting story.

When Lee resigned his commission, his family had to leave their Arlington home and seek refuge deeper in Virginia with friends and family.  Union soldiers realised the strategic value of the land and occupied it, using the estate as a refuge for freed slaves – Freedmen’s Village became a village which helped freed slaves make the transition from slavery to citizenship.  In turn, these slaves were moved on, and by 1865 the village had as well, following the decision in the previous year to start burying troops in the grounds of the estate as burial space became both increasingly scarce and increasingly necessary.

Today, over 300,000 soldiers are buried in the cemetery, as well as sailors, airmen, politicians and victims of other national incidents.  After the reinterring of the 229 victims of the USS Maine, and the placing of the USS Maine’s mast by their plot in 1915, the cemetery began to take on an increasing symbolic importance in the national consciousness, and today it is the focus of all Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day (Remembrance Day) celebrations.  The cemetery is remarkably broad in its focus: while the vast majority of the gravestones are military personnel, almost all of whom are men, the cemetery contains memorials honouring the sacrifices of many, many others.  The monument which unfailingly captures your attention as you approach Arlington, and the biggest of all bar the main amphitheatre, is dedicated to the contributions of all the servicewomen who have fought from WWI onwards; others commemorate nurses; black servicemen; military chaplains; Americans who fought in the Canadian armed forces during WWI & II as they volunteered before America entered the wars; astronauts who have died in space shuttle accidents; those who died at Pearl Harbour; the victims of the Lockerbie bombing; the Pentagon victims on 9/11; journalists who have died while reporting on conflicts, etc.  All bear inscriptions telling the story of those they commemorate or those who lie buried within, and it presents a very personal dimension to it.

As ever, there is a tomb dedicated to the Unknown Soldier, which contains the bodies of an unknown American soldier from WWI, WWII and the Korean War.  Something very moving is also displayed in the visitors centre at the entrance to the cemetery: it is a quilt, but a quilt put together to honour the fallen.  There are 50 square patches in it, all containing a military shirt with the photo of a young boy’s head emerging from the neck of the shirt.  The 50 squares each have the name of one of the 50 states written above them, and underneath each is the name of the boy in the photograph.  Each boy came from that state, grew up to join the military, and ended up dying in service in the years since 9/11. Along both sides of the squares are snippets of comments about the personalities of each of the boys/men, and the crosses that divide the squares carry a hidden message in their colours: ‘a destiny for valor’.  Each corner carries a different religious symbol, and along the top border of the quilt is printed the simple words, ‘Without a witness, they will all disappear’.  The idea is that these 50 faces represent others, all the others, who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that we ought to remember and honour their sacrifice – for without these, they too will become unknown bodies and names ‘known only to God’ as those in the tomb of the unknown soldier are, and the same tragedies will be repeated again and again and again.

Six different Presidents also lie buried here, including JFK, who has the distinction of having the most visited grave in the cemetery.  An interesting story about his funeral is presented in the visitor centre: I can’t imagine most people’s first reaction upon hearing the news of their President’s assassination would be to go and get a haircut, but it is what Keith Clark did – because he was the US Army Band Sergeant at Arlington, and realised that if JFK was interred there then he would be called upon to play ‘Taps’.  His preparedness came in handy: he was indeed called upon, and ended up unintentionally playing one of the most appropriate missed notes in history.  The cold temperature not going down very well with his bugle, he cracked the note that accompanied ‘sun’ (“Day is done, gone the sun, from the lake, from the hills, from the sky. All is well, safely rest, God is nigh” are the words to Taps for anyone who is unfamiliar with it), but so apt was it, coming in the guise of a musical stifled sob, that many thought it was deliberate.  In the following weeks, many other buglers at Arlington missed the same note.

Wandering around, Arlington is a very odd mix of cemetery, memorial, museum, and park, and it adds to the very interesting insight DC’s memorials present into the American mentality.  FDR, Martin Luther King, JFK – all their memorials have quotes inscribed around the walls, and all point to social, worldwide justice.  As Martin Luther King stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”  That is one of the quotes on his memorial.  FDR’s and JFK’s have similar themes, but there are others that sit more uncomfortably, and point beyond the idea of social justice to a belief that America has been charged with a sense of destiny to bring that social justice to the world.  One of the quotes inscribed on the WWII memorial is by General George Marshall: “We are determined that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle our flag will be recognised throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other”.

At the time and in the place he was writing, perhaps it is appropriate.  Certainly at the end of WWII, the stars and stripes was recognised as a symbol of freedom, and American soldiers were warmly welcomed as liberators into many countries of occupied Europe.  It is also certainly true that it represents overwhelming force – the US military budget is not only the biggest in the world, but greater than that of the next 17 countries combined.  At the end of WWII, it would be hard to dispute that having the symbol of freedom and liberty as the greatest force was a good thing.  But today, that ‘determination’ combined with the ‘overwhelming force’ leaves a niggling doubt in my mind, and I suspect I am not alone.  The subconscious message I received from DC’s memorials and Arlington cemetery was that of a country which not only rightly honours the bravery and devotion of citizens who have given their lives in the course of their duties, but which is almost defiantly proud of their sacrifice and of their country’s military history and presence; of a country so determined that their sacrifice shall not be in vain that it sticks rigidly to the same path, and so is boldly insistent that the military way is the best way of solving problems; and of a country that believes it has a God-given calling to bring the values it upholds to everywhere else in the world.

In many ways, that is laudable, and I sympathise with the intentions behind what America is trying to do.  I also take the point that someone once made to me: that everyone who wants to bring the US down a peg or two, and gets irritated at America thinking it can rule the world and impose its will everywhere, has not given much thought to what would happen if America was pulled down a peg or two and a vacuum left for another country to fulfil.  In all likelihood that vacuum would be filled by one with a much worse human rights record and without the proud legacy of freedom and liberty that America has.  But at the same time, trying to impose those values on other countries and other places all too often does not work – humans are contrary beings, and have a tendency to dislike and reject things that are forced on them regardless of how beneficial those things may be.  Democracy is not something that can be forcibly imposed; if it doesn’t grow and develop of its own accord, then it will not survive the withdrawal of the imposer, because it is only as strong as the roots it can put down in a society, only as strong as those in that society want it to be.  One only has to look at the problems the US has had in Afghanistan and Iraq to see the truth in that, not to mention the disastrous attempts at peacekeeping in Somalia in 1993, or various other examples.  I am sure that the intentions and the motives behind the sentiments I can see expressed in the memorials of the National Mall and Arlington cemetery are meant well.  As the webpage for the Lost Heroes Art Quilt states, their intention is explicitly to ‘honor the memories’ of the fallen and it asks those who visit the site to leave politics at the door.  But some of the memorials in DC and in Arlington present a slightly different view – a view that almost glorifies the sacrifices these men and women have made over the years; a view that is totally convinced of the rightness of its actions and determined that everyone else should see that too; and I cannot quite rid the niggling doubt that the manner in which those are expressed in the world will bring America only increased resentment abroad and increased white marker stones at Arlington.

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The Day the World Stood Still

I was in the school dining hall, having just picked up two pieces of bread to make toast at tea-time, when this girl I barely knew came running up and asked whether I’d heard the news.  Initially I was more taken aback that she – with all the superiority that being in the year above me conveyed upon her – was wanting to talk to me than what the news was, but with hindsight I think she simply needed to tell someone, anyone, and I happened to be the first person she saw and remotely recognised.

Sometimes, there are some moments that you always remember, that stand out clearly in your mind, and I suspect for everyone who saw the Twin Towers come down, that will always be one of those times.  It was a day that changed the world, an event that defined a generation – it will always be the single most important news item that my generation remembers from their growing up.  Perhaps the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War would be another, but at 3 years old, I was just too young to remember that.  But the Twin Towers I do remember – I remember how I found out; I remember classes being cancelled so we could watch TV; I remember the common room, which normally had maybe 20 people in it at any one time and too much noise for anyone to hear themselves think, being silent as the grave (if you will pardon the rather inappropriate expression) even with about 150 people crammed into it; I remember it was the day my brother started secondary school.  But mainly I remember watching what was happening on the screen and being unable to believe the horror of what I was seeing, even as I knew that everything had changed.

Over ten years later, and I went to the 9/11 memorial in New York, at the site where the Twin Towers stood. I didn’t really know what to expect, and I don’t really know how to describe it now.  Although the memorial is open, parts of the site are still under construction – the new 1 World Trade Center building will be the tallest building in the US at 1776ft when it is completed – and consequently a lot of the approach is shrouded by flapping plastic, scaffolding and carpentry boards.  What can be seen is the empty space above the section of the lot that is now the memorial, a space that stands out given its location in the midst of skyscraper heaven, and a space that is incredibly poignant given the reason for its existence.

The memorial itself is formed of green space surrounding 2 big, square holes.  These sit on precisely the same locations as the North and South Towers, and are the exact same size. 30ft deep, the water cascades over the sides to the base of the square, where it runs to another, smaller hole in the centre and drops again.  Around the sides of the holes the edges, perhaps a metre high by a metre wide, are inscribed with names.  Name after name after name.  The names of all 2,977 who died on September 11th, and those who died in the earlier attack on the World Trace Center in 1993.  Dust from the construction site coats the memorial each day, and each evening it is cleaned away, but even in that time, it is long enough for finger writing to appear in it: ‘God Bless’, ‘Never Forget’, ‘Remember’, and many others.

The names are arranged in a seemingly random order, but it reflects the relationships of those who died – each name is next to others it knew, be they family, friends or colleagues.  There are sections for those who died in each tower; for those on each flight; for those in the Pentagon; for those among the emergency services who responded to the call for aid only to become casualties themselves.  And what stands out most from the endless ring of names is the extent to which the attack was one not on capitalism; not on a morally degenerate west; not on America, or Christians, or any one group in particular; but simply on humanity itself.  The world stood together, came together, after 9/11 in a way that has rarely happened before or since, and the names also reflect that: both men and women, from over 90 countries, died that day; the eldest victim was 85 years old, the youngest name on the memorial simply follows that of its mother as ‘her unborn child’.

Walking around, it is nearly impossible not to be touched by the tragedy, especially when it is one that you remember happening, one that gripped the entire world in its thrall as we tried to take in the reality of such an unbelievably horrific event.  Every name on that memorial is a person: a parent, a sibling, a child, a friend, a colleague.  In the preview centre, they had a documentary clip showing on repeat which featured some of those involved speaking about how it had touched them.  One businessman who had worked in the offices on the 101st floor explained trying to rebuild when 658 of his 860 colleagues had been wiped out on the same day.  Another man who had lost his brother spoke of how he remembered him every time he tucked his children into bed, because Michael was missing out on that with his kids.

It leaves one wondering ‘Why?’, but that is a dangerous question to ask.  That day changed the world; it blew apart the rules on which people operated and changed the game plan. I can remember wondering, on the 12th September, what was the point in wasting time completing my homework if the world was about to end.  Perhaps a little melodramatic, with hindsight, but I doubt I was alone in wondering that and it perhaps epitomises the feeling that until the dust had settled, all bets were off – no-one knew what was going to happen, and not in the sense in which we never do, but in the sense that we couldn’t predict either.  It was a great, big, unknown.  And yet the upshot at the end of it is a world that is infinitely more suspicious and distrusting; a world where too often, it is now guilty until proven innocent.  For many, the upshot is worse still – those in Afghanistan and Iraq have been through hell as a direct result of the Twin Towers coming down.  But even for those who committed such a crime, what good did it do?  It gained them notoriety, but it did not improve the conditions of their lives or the lives of those they purported to care about.  Proving they had the capability to make such a strike gained al Qaeda infamy and credence with other radical groups, but what has that gained them?  The terrorists have not succeeded in carrying their ideals of jihad across the globe, and instead are fighting for their lives in caves on remote hillsides – and sometimes losing the battle, as Osama found out last year. 9/11 ensured no great gain either for large sections of humanity or for individuals.  Maybe the very fact of their survival is an achievement – but one that would not be necessary if they hadn’t precipitated the ‘War on Terror’ in the first place.  Maybe they feel they are proving a point by still being a menace to America and the West – maybe they even are proving it – but they are no closer to bringing down the West than they ever were.  The financial crisis has done a much better job of that, and that was entirely due to elements within the West itself – was it Arthur Toynbee who made the comment about civilisations dying by suicide not murder?  But I digress.  The point, I suppose, that I am trying to make, is to ask for all those who died, all those who have to live with their loss, and even all 19 who had been brainwashed into doing something so appalling – what did they die for?  It seems to me that the answer is ‘nothing’.

On one hand, that leaves me with a raging sense of anger and futility. I would love to take all those who believe in terrorism and bang their heads together for as long as it takes to knock some common sense into them.  But on the other hand, I learnt the hard way in the past that the one question we should not ask is ‘Why?’.  We may be able to pinpoint trigger causes as to why something like this occurs – perhaps a sense of resentment the bombers carried; perhaps anger at the poverty they grew up in; perhaps the teachings of those who brainwashed them.  Pinpointing such causes definitely has a use, as understanding that much enables change to prevent such causes having such a reaction again.  But ultimately, the biggest tragedies are simply too big to understand, and asking ‘Why?’ will gain us no answers and bring us no rest.  Instead all we can do is make the most of whatever life deals up; deal with the situations and consequences as best we can and leave the big question of why life took the turn it did up to someone else.  To paraphrase a quote from Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, ‘Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do and die’. Beforehand, yes, ask why, query what you are being asked to do – but once it has happened, we cannot change the past, and asking why it happened, why it was allowed to happen, will not help.  It will simply generate a huge sense of frustration and prevent us moving on – prevent those who still have a life from being able to live it.

In any darkness there is a glimmer of hope, however, and even at the World Trade Center this remains true.  2,165 people died from the towers alone, but as over 35,000 worked there, that still leaves a lot who survived.  20 survivors were even pulled alive from the wreckage – a miracle in itself.  Among all the green space at the memorial, one tree stands apart.  All the others are swamp white oaks: this one is a Callery pear tree.  All of the others were part of the landscaping project: this one was not.  Planted on the site in the 1970s, this tree survived the carnage of 9/11.  Reduced to an 8ft stump, it nevertheless survived and is now 30ft tall.  Uprooted in 2010 by severe storms, it survived those as well, and continues to flourish just metres from the site of unbelievable devastation.  Now, as the commemorative leaflet at the memorial states, the tree “embodies the story of survival and resilience that is so important to the history of 9/11”.

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The Melting Pot of Humanity

New York’s Lower East Side is now a relatively classy, upscale area in which apartments change hands for around $1-2 million. 150 years ago, however, the picture was very different. In some ways it looked similar – the tenement housing still looks much the same from the outside – but the occupants were very different. Known at one point as Kleindeutschland (Little Germany) and forming the city with the third-largest German population anywhere, the Lower East Side has always been a magnet for immigrants, and its cramped and crowded dwellings became most immigrants next stop after Ellis Island. With the increasing inflow of Jews from Eastern Europe, Irish, Irish, Italians, and a number of others, the area soon became a melting pot of different nationalities. The local school registered the nationality of students based on their father’s country of origin: in 1933, of around 900 students, only 168 were classed as American (8 of those were black).

It still is, although now Mexicans, South-East Asians, Chinese and those from the Caribbean are more prominent on the school registrar than Russians and Europeans, and those who live there tend to be much better off than the original inhabitants. In 1900, 8-10 people would share a 325ft2 apartment; now, individuals enter their upmarket condos in the Forward Building, for example, by passing through an entrance arch decorated with the faces of prominent socialists. You wonder how many of those who live there realise the irony of that!

The Forward Building originally housed the Jewish Daily Forward, one of many Yiddish language newspapers in the area. In Russia, writing in Yiddish was prohibited; once in the free land of America, there were no such restrictions and publications flourished as the Jewish community in the area grew. It helped the immigrants adapt to life in America and had a national readership, but it still considered the Lower East Side community as its own. The newspaper’s socialist leanings were evident in the attitude it took towards its fellow men who lived in the area – seeing the filthy, run-down and often dangerous conditions in which the immigrants lived, the newspaper called for change repeatedly, and acted as a vehicle through which the immigrants could voice their frustrations and despair. Its headline the day after the tragic sweatshop fire in 1911, in which 146 workers died and which saw the greatest number of deaths in the workplace in America until 9/11, particularly epitomised that, as it mourned the loss of ‘our own’.

The major industry for the immigrants was the sweatshops. As the industrial revolution changed the textile industry and brought about people buying, rather than making their own, clothes, so sweatshops took off. Initially people worked in their dwellings: the apartments were only 3 rooms per family anyway, and one of those would then be dedicated to the machines which enabled them to scrape a living. Often other workers would also join a family at their machines, increasing the crush and gradually evolving into sweatshops as we think of them today. It’s hard to imagine quite how horrible the conditions would be now – unless you take a trip to the backstreets of South Asian cities, and then it is still a reality – but Morris Rosenfeld, a Jewish poet in the Lower East Side, summed it up quite well in this poem:
“Oh, here in the shop the machines roar so wildly,
That oft, unaware that I am, or have been,
I sink and am lost in the terrible tumult;
And void is my soul… I am but a machine.
I work and I work and I work, never ceasing;
Create and create things from morning till e’en;
For what?–and for whom–Oh, I know not! Oh, ask not!
Who ever has heard of a conscious machine?

No, here is no feeling, no thought and no reason;
This life-crushing labor has ever supprest
The noblest and finest, the truest and richest,
The deepest, the highest and humanly best.
The seconds, the minutes, they pass out forever,
They vanish, swift fleeting like straws in a gale.
I drive the wheel madly as tho’ to o’ertake them,–
Give chase without wisdom, or wit, or avail.”
(From ‘In the Factory’, full poem available here)

The advent of department stores brought the possibility of being a shop assistant rather than a sweatshop worker, but the hours were as long and the work simply painful in a different way – then it would be your feet that were so sore they needed icing at the end of the day, rather than your back that ached. Other than that, options for work were limited unless you entered the seedier underworld of the red-light district that used to exist on Allen Street. Crammed in between two rows of tenements (one of which has now been knocked down to widen the street – it brings it home to you how cramped the buildings were when you can stand in a street and realise it used to be two streets as there was another row of tenements running up the centre!) and hidden from above by the overhead railway, which made the area dark, noisy, and dirty from the falling soot, it was the perfect place for criminal activity and illicit prostitution.

Eventually, the community itself revolted against the red-light district, and the final nail in the coffin came when the tenements were pulled down in the 1920s and the railway in the 1930s. The whole community was being tarred with the same brush, however, and sick of being labelled as morally degenerate and fuelling the anti-immigrant prejudice, the communities themselves turned against it. Many of the religious groups in the area also became better at social reform rather than simply railing against it from the pulpit – or whatever the Jewish/Buddhist/etc equivalents are! The Eldridge Street Synagogue is also very interesting – it looks less like a synagogue than any other I’ve ever seen, but the circumstances explain that. The first purpose-built synagogue in America, it was designed by two Protestant architects who had little real idea what a synagogue should look like. Consequently, the building looks very much like an old church or mini-cathedral, but with a lot of old testament motifs incorporated into it – the windows are etched with the star of David; the circular centrepiece window is designed with 12 roundels to reflect the tribes of Israel; and 5 beneath it represent the Pentateuch, the first five books that Moses supposedly wrote.

On a lighter note, the Jewish background to the area is also visible in the number of Jewish delis and amount of Jewish food that is around. We went to one of the most famous, Katz’s, and sampled some of it: to Meredith, who grew up with Jewish food being, if not an everyday occurrence, certainly not unusual, it was good but nothing particularly unusual. To me, it was quite an experience – I had to keep asking her what everything was, as I didn’t have a clue! But the upshot was that I have discovered latkes (potato pancakes) are delicious, as are knishes (kind of a square potato dish), but that I am not a fan of Matzo ball soup (a savoury soup with dumplings in). Incidentally, Katz’s was also the setting for That Scene from When Harry Met Sally – but unfortunately as I couldn’t remember what Sally ordered I couldn’t have what she had!

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The City that Never Sleeps

Well, we did sleep (a bit, anyway) but I certainly managed to pack a fair bit into 3 days in New York.  I met up with an American friend from New Zealand, and together we ticked off the tourist sites one by one: the Statue of Liberty, the Staten Island ferry, the Empire State Building, Times Square, Broadway, Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park….

Central Park is lovely.  Seen from the top of the Empire State building, it looks much smaller, but when walking through it, it takes a good hour or two to walk from one end to the other and it is easy to pretend the city is far away.  Trees, lakes, bicycle paths, sports pitches, skating rinks, tennis courts – all of it speaks of a world far away from the hectic pace of high-rise Manhattan that surrounds it.  Although there are other parks in various places in the city, it is Central Park that really has the space to provide a very necessary oasis of tranquillity.

However, few people in their right minds visit New York for tranquillity – and any who do are certainly quickly reacquainted with reality!  Manhattan is a mad, crazy place, where the average height of buildings must be about 40-50 storeys at least and life is as full as the land is.  The traffic is every bit as crazy as London, and the sidewalks are crammed with people – some ambling along staring upwards, others hurrying to their next business meeting, others trying to walk and eat at the same time as they grab lunch on the run, yet others getting in and out of taxis, on and off the metro, dragging suitcases, running for buses or walking into everyone else as they try to move along and read a map at the same time.

The swarm of people stays with you just about everywhere you go in Manhattan.  They line the sides of the ferry 6 deep in places; the same crush swarms its way around the narrow parapet of the Empire State Building; and Times Square and Broadway are so packed full that the only way to generate a bit of breathing space would be to clamber on top of a taxi roof in the road.  (I wouldn’t recommend the latter, however, as I’m fairly sure it would be illegal, and as there is a NYPD station – complete with the obligatory brightly lit sign – in Times Square, I’m fairly sure they’d spot you).

Despite the people, however, the Empire State Building provides brilliant views out across not only New York but the surrounding states once you can get close enough to the edge to see them.  On a clear day, you can see up to 100 miles in all directions – east to the Atlantic, north up the Hudson River, west to New Jersey and south across downtown Manhattan and beyond.  The views are absolutely incredible, but then that is par for the course where the Empire State Building is concerned – there is little that isn’t incredible about it.  Once the tallest building in the world and currently (although soon to be eclipsed) still the tallest building in Manhattan, its height is as incredible as its views.  Then there was the sheer scale of its construction – the 102 floors in the 1,250ft high building went up in less than a year, and with nearly 3,500 workers employed on its construction through the peak of the summer in 1930, it is perhaps slightly less surprising that the building grew at the incredible rate of a storey a day.  In all manner of ways, the Empire State Building rewrote the record book for construction.

Arguably the only icon of New York that can rival the Empire State Building in the fame stakes is the 305ft high Statue of Liberty.  Her hand held aloft in a gesture of welcome, clasping a torch that symbolically lights a path to freedom from oppression and servitude, and wearing a seven-spiked crown representing the seven seas and continents of the world, the Statue of Liberty was a gift of friendship from France in 1886 and represents the best of American ideals.  She was also the first thing that hundreds of boatloads of immigrants saw when they arrived in New York at the end of the 19th Century: their boats would dock for immigration processing at Ellis Island, right next door to Liberty Island.  Nowadays, there are plenty of tour boats that will take you up close to America’s most famous lady, and onto Liberty Island itself – for the right price.  However, Meridith and I chose – fittingly enough for penniless students – to ride the Staten Island ferry instead: it doesn’t allow you to land at the base of the Statue of Liberty, but it does get you plenty close enough for several photos, especially as after a point the statue becomes harder to photograph the closer you get, and it is free.

For the first time in my life, I also ate at a Hard Rock Café while in New York.  As intrinsically American a restaurant as it is possible to find, it is also conveniently located right on Times Square, and it is worth eating there just to get inside the place.  Every wall is not so much decorated as festooned with memorabilia from the last 50 years of rock n’ roll history – we ate under a display about Madonna, next to Lenny Kravitz’ guitar and across from a shirt belonging to one of the members of Queen.  Apparently this memorabilia tradition started due to Eric Clapton – the original ethic of the Hard Rock Cafés was equality and down to earth-ness, and so when Eric proclaimed that he liked the restaurant so much and ate there so often that he would like a plaque proclaiming it was his table, he was informed that the Hard Rock Café didn’t do plaques, but they would hang his guitar on the wall above the table if he liked.  It has now moved on slightly from one guitar – it is hard to tell what colour the walls are, there is now so much stuff on them!

The staff also take your photo on the way in, posing as rock stars, and the service is excellent, as is the food, which comes in typically American-sized portions – Meridith and I had starters and then shared a dessert, and the starters were certainly big enough to be a normal meal!  The menu also provided me with a huge amount of hilarity – in the interests of proving the good credentials of our food, it informed us that all their steaks were “nothing less than center-cut USDA choice, corn fed and aged for 21 days…”.  I barely even noticed it until Meridith spotted it, and then, in the middle of this incredible restaurant, on Times Square, prior to a Broadway musical, in probably the swankiest circumstances either of us had eaten in for a while, she started launching off about how they proclaimed this as if it was a good thing, but actually cows should eat grass, and being corn-fed was really bad for them, and that it made them ill and then did I know what happened then, well then they give the cows all sorts of antibiotics which we then end up eating, and did I know that cows were the biggest consumers of antibiotics in the United States….  I managed to keep a straight face for a while, but ended up laughing my head off – I’m quite sure she’s right (she not me, after all, is the environmental scientist), but the whole situation was just so ridiculous it was comical, and she did see the funny side of it too once I started laughing!

We followed up the Hard Rock Café with the quintessential New York experience, that of a Broadway musical – and in this case, Sister Act.  It was a really good performance, and they didn’t make the mistake that they did with Dirty Dancing when I saw it in London– Dirty Dancing was simply the movie on the stage, whereas Sister Act was different enough that it made it interesting, and they carried off the songs well too.  Not quite as well, however, as Mamma Mia which I also saw.  Although some of the acting in that felt a bit old – they rushed through some of the script that should have had laughs – the singing and dancing were simply out of this world.  Perhaps the lines felt jaded because they are so well-known from the movie that people now expect it, and the actors know this so don’t pause for laughter, but they did feel rather wooden on occasion.  As the bulk of the production is songs, however, this didn’t matter much, and the songs were done absolutely brilliantly – and again, weren’t identical to the movie, although of course there was a high degree of similarity.  I’d go and see it again just for them.  But as I am no longer in New York, and as I spent far too much money on musicals as it was, that won’t happen just yet despite our ability to pick up half-price tickets!  Meridith and I also saw Anything Goes, which was just fantastic – the songs were still incredible, the dance routines amazing, including one crazy tap dance number that had Meridith in seventh heaven, and the acting was brilliant as well – over the top, but it was meant to be over the top.  Anything Goes isn’t simply a musical, but a musical, dance show and pantomime all rolled into one.  Broadway in general, in fact, has a sense of humour – the prelude to Anything Goes asked us ‘to ensure cell phones – which hadn’t been invented in 1934 – were switched off’; Sister Act informed us that ‘any use of cameras was a sin’ rather than saying that photography was prohibited; and Mamma Mia added the caveat warning ‘those of a nervous disposition that high boots and white spandex make frequent appearances’!

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