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Archive for May, 2010

and other tales of my time in Liverpool upon my return from the city that gave the world– and maybe just American popular culture– the Beatles. Trips to the Beatles Museum and other such John Lennon-related stories to follow. Did you know that the Liverpool airport is named after John Lennon? The man hasn’t even been dead 30 years, and he has already earned the title of an aeronautical transportation hub. Clearly, he is a legend.

In the meantime, I leave you with the most moving and still Beatles-themed site of the day: the Eleanor Rigby statue, oddly enough located across from Liverpool’s gay club scene. Poor Eleanor, she can’t even get rest in her final resting place.

"All the lonely people."

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Once upon a time, in a not so distant magical meadow, owned and operated by the enigmatic Masons, a pretty little princess– we’ll call her Laura– set forth on all important mission: Turning 21. With the assistance of her sidekick Anna– who serves as the baker in this little diddy– they organized a barbecue and bonfire in the midst of one of the world’s unknown wonders: Port Meadow. Stretching for miles in every direction, the glorious verdant landscape served as the most serene setting for a night that would involve fireworks– literally and metaphorically.

Inviting her loyal cohorts from far and wide (and by this, I mean within Oxford proper), Laura arranged for a night of vegetarian sausages and Israeli marshmallows, that latter of which appeared in a variety of pastels and pinks. She then enlisted the assistance of one of her loyal servants– Joho– a boy scout for nearly 17 years. He would be charged with the task of making and maintaining the night’s conflagration. Anna, the ever skeptical baker, however, did not trust Joho to complete the task at hand in a timely and efficient manner, and hence assisted him in this fiery endeavor.

Never send a man do to a woman's job.

Once the fire was aflame, Anna delivered the fairy cake– painstakingly frosted for hours the morning before– to Little Miss Royalty. She had designed it specifically with a fairy, as they are known to be wish-granting mythical creatures. And well, on one’s 21st birthday, one deserves to have her wishes come to fruition. Not unsurprisingly, the princess’s eyes exuded a happiness unlike anything this narrator has ever witnessed before.

Princess and pie.

After consuming the raspberry and sponge delight, the partygoers paused to experience the ambiance. As the sun began to set, the breathtaking beauty of the meadow became apparent to one and all– particularly the pretty little princess, who despite her lack of prince, was quite content to be in the moment and gnaw on her vegetable kebabs.

In the company of her devoted subjects, nothing could possibly go awry.

Receiving a kiss from the princess herself.

Note: Princesses always wear pink.

Except for the possible smoke inhalation problems that result from unattended bonfires. Fortunately, it was less a medical problem and more of an odd visual image.

Smokey sensation.

The smoke, however, did invite some unwanted attention from the law. Two officers of the court– one in uniform, the other in civilian garb– approached the festivities and demanded to know the age of the individuals present. Much to their chagrin, all invitees were of the age where alcohol consumption was legally acceptable. There would be no fireworks or handcuffs for this particular officer and his questionably attired crony. Furthermore, after realizing that they had interrupted the princess herself, they apologized profusely and returned to their horse and buggy, parked just feet away from the celebration. The reception continued, and some individuals even began to display signs of enchantment with each other:

Turning a prince into a frog.

Yes, the baker got around.

Eventually, though, as all good fairy tales must, this one came to an end. Presents, kisses, and calories were exchanged between the princess and her fellow revelers. And a final promise was made– to make this meadow, which clearly possessed supernatural powers– the location of future celebratory events, including the one in which this narrator departs from the meadow and the City of Dreaming Spires permanently.

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Last night reminded me why I struggle with the issue of making aliyah, or moving to Israel permanently. Knowing that my son, at age 18, would have to join the army– and potentially combatively engage the enemy on enemy lines– is beyond my emotional will power. War, as depicted in the Israeli film Lebanon (2009), which Anna, Laura, and I viewed at my favorite artsy-fartsy picture house in Oxford, scars each and every individual with whom it comes in contact. The gruesome visual detail of it became truly apparent in this film, in which the spectator is only allowed to see what the soldiers in the tank see. As an audience member, we never see life as it is outside the tank; rather just life as it appears through the peep-hole of a battered Israeli military vehicle. The pain in the face of a mother who has lost both her husband and five year old daughter in the matter of a minute; the fear of a commanding major, who knows he is hopelessly lost and may die in the hands of the Syrians– an enemy he never intended to engage; and the sadness of a Syrian war prisoner, who is well-aware of his unfortunate fate in the hands of blood-hungry, international law-violating phalangists (Christian Arabs) all become so brutally evident and honest through the confines of a small glass lens, which envelops the cinematic screen.

Samuel Maoz, the director of the film, based his script on his own experiences in the Lebanon War (1982). Rather than criticizing the Israeli or Lebanese government, he chose to focus on the issue of war itself– and not just the inevitable physical danger it poses, but the lifetime’s worth of emotional-scarring, which can never fully heal. The four soldiers in the tank– some more battered than others– each experience extreme emotional turmoil when they are forced to pull the trigger. They are a reminder of the fact that human beings are not naturally born killers– and military training cannot undo that reality. Taking a person’s life is a godly-like action. And when humans play the role of the One Above, they soon realize their physical limitations as men.

Maoz is careful to linger on the moments of complete fear, chaos, and depression. The long takes force the viewer to directly engage the cinematic reality he has so carefully delineated. Anna and I, consequently, clutched each other’s hands for the entire course of the 90-minute film. For Anna, this film represented a future reality she would inevitably engage, as she plans her move to Israel in December. For me, it was a reminder of a past history that still remains an unfortunate, and arguably future mode of Israeli existence. And as much as the two of us try to play the stereotypical Israeli Sabra— incapable of any physical or emotional harm– at our core, we are an American and a Brit, unaccustomed to the realities of living in a state of existential threats.

The thing is– I don’t want to transform into a Sabra either. I don’t want to become so de-sensitized to the painful reality created by the Arab-Israeli Conflict. This issue is particularly important to me now, as I struggle to begin the research process for my senior thesis on failed HIV/AIDS public policies in Africa. It is easy to get lost– in an academic sense– in the numbers. Millions dead, millions infected, when written in empirical form in an UNAIDS report, just doesn’t mean as much to me as a film in which the dead bodies linger in the cinematic frame for minutes on end. It is why I look forward to returning to my Cinema and Media Studies major in the fall– to try to capture the emotionally-removed reality of pain in documentary form. My sixth grade English teacher once said to me, “Yaffa, you’re going to go places– wondrous, life-enriching places. But never forget the reality other people are facing, and never stop fighting to change their realities.” In these final weeks of my study abroad experience, I think I am finally beginning to understand what she meant nine years ago. She wanted me to hold onto my humanity, just as Maoz does.

This might explain why the final and only image of the film seen from outside the tank is a shot of the tank in a field of sunflowers on a beautiful sunny Lebanese morning:

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This weekend commences OPERATION THE L WORD. And by L Word, I do not mean some reference to a lesbian soap opera on HBO. Instead, I am referring to my whirlwind tour of cities that begin with the letter “L.” (Aren’t I creative with titles?) Yes, over the next three weeks, I will be making my way through Liverpool, Lisbon, and one final hoorah in London. Shockingly, the following weekend will mark my return to New York. Insert: jaw-dropping expression here.

Aside from the fact that I am in complete denial of the reality that come July I will not be able to take weekend holidays in Paris and gorge on hip-altering macaroons, I am pretty much in my happy place. My Philosophy of Law tutor remarked this morning, “Yaffa, this was an excellent essay. You write wonderfully, with such depth, and in less than a month your comprehension of deep philosophical concepts has grown tremendously.” Of course, she followed that compliment with the assignment of Joseph Raz, possibly the most convoluted modern legal positivist ever. All I could think is, “Why do you build me up buttercup… just to let me down and mess me around?” Yes, in moments of utter confusion, I take solace in Motown. Now you can too:

But mind-numbing juridical thought aside, this weekend I embark on a new mission– playing the girlfriend of a gay boy in the presence of his father, the vicar of a fairly large parish in Liverpool. With my “wealth” of relationship experience, I am sure I will do an excellent job of balancing laughter at my significant other’s jokes, while remaining calm, cool, and collected during the parental interrogation.

The unfortunate– and slightly tempestuous– part of the situation is that said boy who prefers boy, but is pretending to prefer breasts, is bringing his three housemates along for the three hour ride. And apparently his housemates are both beautiful and wealthy. I must resist the urge to indulge my inner estrogen, and play the role of a docile little American girlfriend. Otherwise, I will have another Parisian-host-mother-who-thinks-I-am-a-whore-because-I-show-my-damn-sexy-ankles situation. Only, in this case, it will be a vicar, which means I will likely face the wrath of a fire and brimstone sermon.

In preparation for this journey, I asked my SO what to purchase his parents. His response: “Nothing exotic.” When I referenced Belgian chocolate from the Oxford Covered Market, he remarked, “They are very British. They like British things.” Without a second stereotypical thought, I mentioned tea from an adorable shop in town. Again, he said, “Um, nothing too exotic. They won’t drink it.” Therefore, today, Adria accompanied me to purchase Earl Grey and English Breakfast from said tea shop– instead of Darjeeling or anything else reminiscent of Indian or Chinese splendor. To cite my 11th Grade history teacher, “Keep it simple, stupid.” And for the first time since I was 16, I listened.

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While I am very hesitant about basking in the glory of sunny days in England (see volcano entry for clarification), I decided to take a chance on Mother Nature once more this weekend. Though, this time, instead of venturing into the unknown Spanish wilderness, I chose to enjoy local, Oxford-based activities.

The first such activity was a viewing of Lysistrata, one of the few surviving plays of Aristophanes, in the Master’s gardens behind St. Peter’s College. It was performed by Cross Keys Productions, the St. Peter’s Drama Club that was only recently revived, but given last night’s performance, certain to continue into the coming years. And it was accompanied by a glorious picnic, consisting of old-school juice boxes, “fresh” Sainsbury’s bread, unlimited hummus, and grape leaves– the last item chosen specifically because of the Greek nature of the play.

Picnic in the gardens, pre-Peloponnesian War.

The jist of the play, though, is that a group of Athenian and Spartan women, tired of years of warring between their two cities, decide to bring an end to the Peloponnesian War. Their method: withhold all sexual privileges from their husbands, until their male spouses agree to peace negotiations. That’s my kind of crude, feminist humor. And I was particularly bright-eyed when the wives’ plan succeeded. It was proof once more that one should never mess with a woman in an apron.

Bold. Determined. Apparently Female.

After indulging my inner girl power sentiments and searching for vintage aprons on etsy.com, Adina and I decided to embrace our childhood innocence and venture off to see a second performance– that of our housemate Ellie’s “I Was A Rat.” A British children’s story, it tells the tale of a rat-turned-boy and all the misadventures he experiences. Heart-warming, giggle-worthy, and down right Hallmark sentimental, it was a gem of an adaptation. It made me wish I was six again– back when my biggest stressor was weather to wear the pink floral dress with pink stockings or black tights. Yes, even back then I was had proclivities for anything black. Only then, it was contained.

Anyhow, impressed by Oxford students’ theatrical talent, Adina and I have made a vow to see one final performance before the year is through: the History Boys, a play centered around the drama of applying to Oxbridge. It will premiere the last week we are in Oxford, and should serve as a nice cornerstone to the English experience. Having seen the play in New York, I imagine after a year of Oxford tutorials and other such academic forays, the meaning of Alan Bennett’s words will resonate a little bit better with me than they did the first time.

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Do you ever get the feeling that if you were a contestant on “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader,” you would appear, in fact, to be less intelligent than the average 10 year old? Well, said feeling was had by yours truly in Parc del Laberint d’Horta, a wondrous park next to the University of Barcelona, which features a beautiful green-hedged maze. On the particular day that Chloe and I frequented said maze, we encountered a school group of approximately 15 small children running freely through the verdant labyrinth, while chanting the official Barcelona anthem (note: the previous night, Barcelona won the Spanish futbol championships. hence, patriotism was high).

Let your mind wander.

Somewhere in there were 15 chicos and chicas.

Believing that the only appropriate thing to do was to join the musical madness, Chloe and I embarked on a glorious exploration of the maze. We bumped into a curly-haired girl with an eye patch, and a part of me was inspired. Despite her obvious visual impediment, she was on top of her game– winding her way through the maze, catching her male prey, and raising her voice in jubilation to the high heavens. Yes, the half blind girl could navigate her way through the maze without a moment of hesitation. And Chloe and I not so much. We got terribly lost, and ultimately exited the same way we entered. If we had been contestants on AYSTAFG, we would not  have passed 1st grade geography.

Pig-tailed. Determined. And Apparently Quite Lost.

The labyrinth, in all its springtime glory, was an ominous sign as well. If we couldn’t handle a contained maze, how were we going to navigate the volcanic ash hell that  had consumed the skies above? Well, for starters, we headed to Starbucks (for a second time that day), during which period I received a call from my mother stating that my flight had been cancelled. And if I truly loved baguettes and macaroons, I would get on Chloe’s flight to Paris that night. Yes, my mother fully supported a third and final trip to the City of Romance– even at the expense of me writing a thorough analysis of how to improve failed HIV/AIDS public policies in Gaborone and Francistown, two major cities in Botswana.

Unfortunately, EasyJet had other ideas. There were no flights to Paris that day, and none to London for another two days. I was stranded in Tapas City. And Chloe, well, she was on her way home to a big fat salmon quiche.

Frustrated that Iceland had once again interrupted my Spanish adventure, I took comfort in multiple Greek yogurts. It reminded me that as bad as my situation was, it could be worse. I could be Athens with my economy shot to hell in a hand basket and no sign of relief in the near future.

I could also be one of the Hertford boys– drunk, disillusioned, and in desperate need for some woman. Unlike the boys with whom I spent my pre-departure dinner with, I was sober, completely cynical, and ready to castrate any airline executive that got in the way of me and Londontown. My sobriety, coupled with my desire to leave the hostel that hosted far too many Canadians with propensities for sangrias and porn, allowed me to utilize the limited internet I had– thus rebooking a flight on British Airways and securing a night in a swanky Barcelona hotel for less than 70 euros. (We won’t go into the whole charging me twice for one night funny business that said swanky hotel tried to pull, though.)

And of course, after I booked my British Airways flight, I was notified that the airline was planning a strike– conveniently starting the following day. Oh, Moses, have mercy. Which he did, because the High Court ruled the strike illegal, and thus after a few too many heart palpitations, my flight was restored to its former, though slightly delayed glory.

With the conclusion of that little narrative, I leave you with a photo that captures all my feelings towards Barcelona, travel, and the moment of flight departure on the 18th of May.

Man in white meets his match: woman in black.

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a life-size baboon made out of white chocolate. Sound like some creepy childhood Christmas movie? Well, in Barcelona, cinema took the form of reality. While in the City of Counts, Chloe and I ventured to Museu de la Xocolata, where tickets take the form of rich, dark chocolate bars. And the exhibits– animals, historical figures, even French comic strips– come to life in the form of carefully crafted chocolate displays. Aside from our obvious craving for the caloric goody at the end of exhibition, Chloe and I also took great pleasure in the aromatic joy of chocolate caliente pequena— or mini-hot chocolate, on par, if not better than that offered by The Chocolate Soup in Edinburgh.

Going for the white chocolate motherload...

Gaudi's infamous Iguana in chocolate form.

Paying homage to a French cartoon.

In fact, the Museu de la Xocolata almost made up for the hostel experience. While the hostel itself was lovely and centrally situated– just a block from Gaudi’s La Padrera and two blocks from a Starbucks managed by the rather handsome, and yet unkempt Esteban– the other hostel dwellers were rather questionable characters. Chloe and I were paired up with two Canadians, who for some inexplicable reason referred to each other only as “Pepe.” We wondered if this was some twisted way of playing the role of actual Spaniards, invoking words common to the local language. And when they told us about their upcoming explorations in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Prague, we wondered if the mutual nickname would change from city to city. However, such a transition would require a certain degree of brain power, which they seemed to lack, as will be evident in the following paragraphs.

Well, both Pepes were in their mid-30s, which already placed them in a curious light. The perplexity of the situation–30 year olds spending their days in hostels, rather than hotels– only grew when they said they were on a party tour of Europe. As in sleep till 5 PM everyday, and only awake to drink, vomit, and hook up with random under age girls.

When I recommended cultural activities in Barcelona and Amsterdam, to balance some of the proposed drunken charades, Pepe I (from Newfoundland) stated rather directly, “Um, we won’t be going to any museums on this trip. It’s not Pepe II’s thing. This is strictly business– in the alcoholic sense.” Pepe I certainly lived up to his promise. The first night he did not return to the hostel until 8.30 in the morning. Apparently he had gotten so wasted the night before, he couldn’t find his way back to the hostel. Instead, he spent three hours pacing on Avienda Diagonal, the street of the hostel, unable to locate the number 436. Periodic puking was involved. And seriously, the man was 34. Shouldn’t he have gotten all of this frat boy activity out of his system by now?

These Canadians soon became, to us anyway, the “teenagers”– 30s in numbers, but 17 in brain capacity. They were followed by another group of Canadians– actually our age– but the “babies” of the group, as they behaved more like 13 year old boys. The highlight of their day: seeing women’s breasts on topless beaches in Barcelona. Classy, eh? While Chloe and I were basking in the glory of Gaudi architecture (featured below), these Martians were pleasing their little boys below (and yes, that is an inappropriate euphemism, which I co-opted from the film Coyote Ugly). However, this experience did serve as a reminder that when selecting a romantic partner, I must look for an older gentleman caller, as the ones my age are decades behind– mentally, emotionally and otherwise.

Though, honestly, after an extended stay in Barcelona, the only person I really want to marry is Gaudi himself. As a visionary– with obvious eccentricities– he designed some of the most legendary buildings in all of Spain. And he was not above money, which makes him a more realistic and accessible character– instead of the mythical artist of  legendary moral proportions sometimes suggested. However, there is an obvious problem with my adoration for the man: he is dead. But if dead Chicagoans can vote for Kennedy, anything is possible.

Gaudi had me at Casa Battlo:

Casa Battlo from the Front.

Casa Battlo from the Back. Insert Astonishment Here.

Of course, he continued to woo me with:

La Padrera: the Office Building

La Sagrada Familia: the Unfinished Church (100+ years later)

Now, though, I must prepare for Shavuot, the Jewish holiday dedicated to the consumption of cheesecake. When I return, I will finish with my tales of the Spanish city, as well as my ordeal attempting to depart from it and how the lessons of the aforementioned crew date helped me through it all.

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