Tuesday, October 28, 2008

It's snowing.

Monday, October 27, 2008

X: Bicycle Race (The Amsterdam entry)

Everything you've ever heard about Amsterdam is true.

The sex, the drugs... it's all there. And to illustrate this fact, I'm going to give a few detailed definitions about the place using anecdotes from my trip this weekend. But hopefully, instead of simply justifying what you may or may not already know about Amsterdam, it'll just create a clearer picture of what is perhaps the "coolest" city in the world. And by "cool," I mean it in a very specific context of course - because truth is subjective, no matter how much or what kind of reason it takes to arrive to a truthful conclusion.

Having said that, I'll start with the famous and wind my way down to the not-so-obvious aspects of the city.

The Red Light District:
Running parallel to the Damrak (the main street of Amsterdam) is a small stretch of canal in which you will find a bustling, and very much active, center for legalized prostitution. It is aptly named after the literal red lights that accentuate the figures of dozens of women standing in the windows like live mannequins... who smile, wave, gaze and pose for potential clients walking down the street. You're not allowed to take pictures directly into the windows, unless of course you want to pay an exorbitant amount of euros. But it's okay for photo-ops on the adjacent bridge.

For those of us who haven't grown up in a place like this, it's easy to conceptualize prostitution as something very dirty and desperate. And when my friends and I set out on our quest to visit the district, we approached it with a mixed sense of fear and embarrassment... because based on what we've heard, we half-expected to see women naked and spread-eagled, possibly masturbating or performing lewd acts in the windows for all to see.

But when we finally found it, we were simultaneously amazed and nonplussed, because what we experienced on that street was sort of the opposite of what we were expecting. The women, some in costumes and others in lacy undergarments, for the most part just stood there not really doing anything obscene. And the people walking by were much more subdued than you'd think. They were seemingly unfazed by the whole situation. To most, it was like walking past a guy in a Ronald McDonald outfit.

We learned from our tour-guide that these prostitutes are screened for STDs regularly and are also unionized, making it a completely respectable and accepted career path. And a common service provided by these women is a "suck and fuck for 50 euros." Yet, a girl can make up to 1,500 euros in one session... makes you wonder what they do to make up for the difference in price.

Coffee Shops:
All over Amsterdam are the famous coffee shops, but one should be careful not to confuse them with cafes. Cafes serve coffee and tea. And so do coffee shops... but they also serve marijuana. The most famous and touristy of these coffee shops is called the Grasshopper. And although our tour-guide Erol recommended that we visit his favorite one, named The Bush Doctor, we opted to visit the Grasshopper anyway.

Upon entering the building, which was bursting-at-the-seams full of people, our delicate senses of smell were overwhelmed by the herbal, slightly sweet aroma of Dutch cannabis. People were smoking weed all over the place and we were extremely curious about the process of purchasing some. What do you say exactly? Was there some secret codeword that we needed to know? How do you order it... just ask for a joint or a brownie?

So when we walked up to the counter, we were all a little nervous. And perhaps because of the confused/scared looks on our faces, the man at the counter did all the work for us. "Do you want to see a menu?" he asked. We all replied simultaneously with a timid "yeah?" in the form of a question... connoting our sense of "is this okay?"

The man then pointed at a big red button on the wall that had a sign saying "do not push" right underneath it. Yet he said, "push the red button." After several seconds of hesitation where we wondered what would happen if we pushed it (like if the police would come speeding in to arrest and deport us all), we acted against our better judgment and pushed the damn button. Suddenly a glass case, which we didn't notice before, was lit up from behind, exposing a menu of various types of weed... 3 joints of white widow for 18 euros, 1.36 grams of purple haze for 20 euros, etc... take your pick. We had no idea what to do. So we stared at the menu for a while... then let the button go... the light went out... and my friends decided to go for a brownie for 7.50 euros instead. What happened after that? I will leave it to your imaginations.

The next day (Saturday), we had our official guided tour of the city (because the first night was left to us to find our own adventures). And so we noticed even more how pervasive marijuana is in the city... because as you walked down random streets, you'd catch a whiff of it coming out of restaurants, stores, whatever.

Then during our free hours, we came across The Doors Coffee Shop (which I assume was off the beaten path because there were only a few people inside). We walked in only to find an absolute gem of a place where people sat in comfy couches with their joints, listening to the best of The Doors musical concoctions. We went in for the coffee... and for the pictures of Jim Morrison all over the walls... and we found a great couch near the window with great lighting.

The guy making my latte had a joint in his mouth as he took my order. All the while, "people are strange... when you're a stranger..." was blasting through the speakers. It was beautiful.

Cheese, Clogs and Windmills:
As part of our guided tour, we went to a cheese and clog factory where we were able to sample Holland's famous dairy products and see a demonstration of how wooden shoes are made. Our "hostess" was adorable in her traditional Dutch garb, lace hat and all... and we got to be the most touristy of all tourists for about an hour and a half.

I left the place with a block of garlic/onion cheese... "cheese for lovers only," as described by our hostess. You can only eat the cheese with your lover, she said, because only your lover would be tolerant enough to smell your breath after eating it. How cute. But that wasn't why I bought it... after sampling everything in the house - that one was by far the most amazing cheese I've EVER tried in my life... no joke. I haven't cut into my block since I've gotten back but I have a feeling that once Kim comes down from Edinburgh this weekend, we're gonna' have to have some of it.

Unfortunately I didn't bring back any clogs... because let's be realistic, what the hell would I need wooden shoes for? Still, it was fun to see some authentic ones in real life.

On the way to central Amsterdam after leaving the cheese/clog factory, we stopped by a windmill to take some pictures. More touristy stuff... but they really do have them! There are a lot. And they're quite pretty.

Amsterdam has lots and lots and lots of bicycles. I can't say I've ever been to another city where the sound of bicycle bells are more prevalent than car horns. In fact, bicycles are such a huge part of the culture that THEY have the right of way before cars or pedestrians. During a few instances where we were crossing the street or walking through a footpath, we were nearly trampled by cyclists... who only warn you with a bell just a fraction of a second before their front tire comes ramming into your bum.

It was amazing to see the hundreds of bikes lined up against every bridge and in front of stores on the sidewalks. And usually, they're not even chained or locked up.

It boggles my mind, among the hundreds, maybe even thousands of bicycles everywhere, how you can find yours after you've left it somewhere. But I figure that these people must have some ingrained homing device... and even if someone were to steal it, you'd probably be able to find it in another part of town.

Amsterdam, the city
It's an amazing place and my only regret is that I couldn't stay for just a little longer. Before getting there, I assumed it would be somewhat seedy and dirty because of all the stories that I've heard in the past. But if the trip had any type of real impact on me, it's that I was suddenly made aware of all the ways we are conditioned by our cultures. To us, drugs are bad. To us, prostitution is bad. But suddenly you are exposed to these things where they are a very real and accepted piece of the culture. (Let me add that marijuana is not actually legal in Amsterdam, but it's "tolerated").

Really, it was a bit of a reality check. Because while others may feel offended by some of these things, I found it to be beautiful. Not so much in the aesthetic sense... but more a sense of open-mindedness and liberation. I witnessed a 50-something suburban Australian ex-pat eat a weed muffin with her husband and 24-year-old son without even flinching. And then they went to a sex show (live porn) later that evening, as if they were visiting the eiffel tower or something.

You really can't understand something until you've seen it for yourself - and Amsterdam is definitely proof of that. Despite the more taboo things, it's also full of charming canals and buildings that are so old that they're practically falling over.

And it's a place full of history and art... from the Van Gogh museum to the actual home of Anne Frank. Everyone is so friendly, full of smiles, and relaxed - a very apparent difference from most people in London. All these things in one little city... definitely makes it "cool" in its own context.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

IX: Phenomena

Phenomenon (n.): An occurrence, circumstance, or fact that is perceptible by the senses.

Phenomenology (n.): A philosophy or method of inquiry based on the premise that reality consists of objects and events as they are perceived or understood in human consciousness and not of anything independent of human consciousness.

The more I get to know this city, the more fascinated I am by the endless possibilities of cultural research. Nerdy? Yes. But duhh, I'm here for school and the hunt for potential dissertation topics is always at the forefront of my daily routine. For a subject as broad as visual culture, it's really difficult to filter through the infinite jumble of symbols that constantly affect us at all levels - even down to the subconscious and doxic. In case you didn't know, "doxa" is the official word to describe the stuff you know without knowing you know it. But really, that's just me showing off my newly acquired vocabulary.

So basically, as long as I'm awake, I'm always trying to consciously develop a heightened sense of observation for all things that can be considered cultural phenomena - because you'll never know when that light bulb will go off.

Ever wonder what makes something attention-grabbing? What is it about anything that makes it interesting to the human individual? And what exactly happens to us physiologically or psychologically when we show "interest"? Why do we like the things we like? Are we shaped by our culture or does our culture shape us?

Okay, I really don't mean to get all academic on you because I know conversations like these are only interesting to some people. So instead, I'll take a more personal route.

I like signs.

Here's one that I saw while walking through the pedestrian subway en route to the London Science Museum:

I saw this one in a sketchy part of Soho that was filled with a distinct combination of restaurants, sex shoppes and strip clubs:

(Ironic, isn't it James?)

And this one, I saw inside of a cafe called "Bite Me" in Westminster, where a few friends and I had lunch between classes yesterday:

Each one of these signs serves a specific and different purpose. The first one was part of an advertisement. The second was a typical London street sign. And the third was a decorative painting. Regardless of what they were for, I liked them all... for one reason or another. But obviously, me liking them says very specific things about who I am. And the fact that they exist says something very specific about Western culture. Do you see where I'm going with this?

Don't worry. I'm not about to get into a theoretical analysis of signs... I'm saving that for my research papers. Take this as more of a "kill two birds with one stone" entry- an update of what I've been up to AND a crude form of data collection.

Okay so moving on...

Yesterday, during my Theoretical and Critical Perspectives class, I noticed that we had a new classmate. HE (who increases the man count to a whopping TWO) has long hair and a scruffy beard, dresses like an artist, wears white converse, is a photographer by trade and is an international student from Serbia. He was cute... and by the looks of him, you'd never guess he was Serbian. Ahhh, stereotypes...

At one point during class, we were split into groups of 3-4 students, where we had to come up with and agree to a single definition of "art." Turns out, different people have different definitions, and so this little task wasn't as easy as it sounds. Long story short, the Serbian and I were in the same group and ended up getting into a heated debate about what art is. The only reason it got heated in the first place was because he flat-out said "no, you're wrong" after I gave my opinion. Pompous... I know!

Our other two group mates weren't contributing to the conversation at all and they spent the 15-or so minutes smiling and nodding. Come to think of it, maybe our little argument made them uncomfortable. It took forever, but we eventually came to an agreement on our definition, but I think I may have given up a point just to stop the arguing.

Anyway, after initially getting on my nerves because of his pretentious narrow-mindedness, the Serbian decides to drop a bomb on me (no pun intended) during our "tea break." I was outside, cigarette in mouth, searching for a lighter inside my purse... when out of nowhere, he comes up and lights it for me. (The oldest trick in the book.) Then he proceeds to say, "thanks for the debate... you're interesting... do you want to have coffee with me after class? Or maybe dinner later?"

WOAH... didn't see that one coming. (Un)fortunately, I already had lunch plans with a couple of my other classmates. AND, I still had an afternoon class to go to. I'm still not sure if that was good or bad. (Note to self: way to a girl's (or my) heart??... insult her intelligence and then, without letting TOO much time pass by, call her "interesting.")

Why is this story pertinent? Well there's a lot of cultural phenomena hard at work here: my initial judgment of attractiveness based on fashion and style, his use of the cigarette as a social tool, the connotation of having dinner and my entire reaction to how he got my attention. In terms of whether or not I'd consider dating him... I can't tell yet.

Well... I know that last bit was missing some visuals, but it would've probably been slightly awkward if I had taken out my camera in mid-argument to get pictures of him for my blog.

But I DO have some more pictures from today's adventures.

My friend Allison and I went to Waterloo to check out an art exhibit at BFI (British Film Institute) Gallery. On the way, we saw this:

London loves reading. There are independent bookstores everywhere. And book-fairs on the street are common.

We also discovered a section right off Jubilee Gardens designated for skaters and graffiti art. Talk about fostering culture and creativity:

And then, by far one of the coolest bits of high-culture I've experienced in my life... "The All-Seeing Eye (hardcore techno version)" by artist Pierre Bismuth and filmmaker Michel Gondry:

This film installation is an art-sequel to the movie Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. It places you in the movie by setting up an experience where you feel what it's like to have pieces of your memory taken away little by little. You sit in this dark room, where a projector moves across the walls - and each time it make a rotation, a part of the picture is gone or different. All the while, the accompanying soundtrack is made up of clips from the movie where they talk about "getting rid of items that remind you of her." It was a really amazing piece of work.

So that's it for now. I guess I'll leave you with one last piece of interactive cultural phenomena, spurred by the relatively new field of "net art". It's jello-time! Have fun!

p.s. I'm going to Holland and Belgium for the weekend. Let the fun continue...

Friday, October 17, 2008

VIII: Hard to Explain

I missed the last bus, I'll take the next train.
I try but you see, it's hard to explain.
I say the right things, but act the wrong way.
I like it right here, but I cannot stay.
I watch the TV, forget what I'm told.
Well, I am too young and they are too old.
The joke is on you, this place is a zoo.
You're right it's true...

I went to the doctor today. Don't worry, it's nothing serious. Last weekend, I went in to the Tollgate Lodge Primary Care Center to register for NHS (National Health Service) and after the nurse spent about 20 minutes interviewing me about my medical history, she told me to make another appointment for a proper asthma examination.

Like every other asthma-related doctor's appointment I've ever had (and I've been going to these since I was about 13), I had to go through the whole routine... "take a deep breath and blow as hard as you can into this peak flow meter so we can measure your lung strength and air capacity." Over the years, I've seen this meter evolve from an archaic piece of medical equipment into a 'highly-sophisticated' digitized version.

So it was safe to say that I expected the nurse to open her drawer and pull one of these babies out. After all, this is London, not some third world country. But instead, she came back to me with a laughably pitiful model - the kind that comes with a disposable cardboard mouthpiece (which looks like a mini-toilet-paper roll) and where you have to manually reset it by pushing the pointer down with your fingertip. It looked like something you'd find in a children's toy medical kit. Remember those? We all had them, the black Fisher-Price doctor's bag that includes a stethoscope with big red plastic tips on the earpieces. All that was missing from this thing was its lack of McDonald's colors.

She also had a giant ziploc bag full of different sized TP rolls... which she subsequently slipped her ungloved, maybe even unwashed, hand into to grab one for me. BTW... if you haven't put two and two together, this is the part that I have to put my mouth on. Thank God I didn't ask her for a flu shot.

So what if I'm spoiled and used to the luxuries of sanitized medical paraphernalia? I guess this is just an example of "the price we pay" for having nationalized health care. And in case you're wondering... here's the prognosis: I still have a mild case of asthma.

Anyway, that's my little anecdote for the day... though I'm not quite sure why I've required myself to have one. Oh who cares. I promise this won't go on too long because the only thing I really wanted to do with this post is to list some of my favorite British idiosyncracies. In other words, I'm copying Kim. Perhaps this is my chance to lay down all the little things about London life that I can't necessarily explain in my usual colorful way. So here goes (in no particular order of importance):

1.) When grocery shopping, you have to bag them all yourself. Sad, but true.
2.) Fries are chips, chips are crisps, cookies are biscuits, cream cheese is soft cheese (or simply Philadelphia), jello is jelly. Also, "Lay's" brand crisps are "Walker's" here - except the graphics on the bag are exactly the same... down to the typography.
3.) They have tea time, not coffee breaks.
4.) Cigarettes are fags (though most people already know that).
5.) Products that exist in the US are given a different brand identity. Example: I finally found Vitamin Water, but the usual citrus-flavored "Energy" that I like is called "Spark" here.
6.) Soda is significantly flatter and blander here than it is in the US.
7.) When ordering fish and chips at a restaurant, it commonly comes with peas.
8.) There is a borderline irrational, national obsession with chips... they even come with breakfast.
9.) "All right?" is code for "Hello" or "How are you?"
10.) Even girls call girls "love."
11.) "yeah?" follows nearly every question in casual conversation. Example: "See you tonight, yeh?"
12.) People here drink lots and lots of alcoholic cider and Foster's beer.
13.) Every true Londoner owns at least one pair of boots, one peacoat and an umbrella. Sorry Chuck, I have to trade you in on rainy days for these:

14.) Londoners make fun of everyone else. Southerners are trouble, midlanders are hicks, northerners are just plain insulting, and if you're from Newcastle you might as well kill yourself for being a "jordie."
15.) Having a pint (of beer) is just part of the culture... at any times of the day, during lunch hours or after dinner. It doesn't even matter.
16.) British network television includes health programming that shows anatomically-correct body parts without censorship. Boobs, bush, penis, what have you. I actually just saw a show where they were teaching a bunch of 12-year-olds how to use a condom.
17.) If you're a tourist, you're probably into "west end" attractions. If you're a local, you'd rather do "east end" things.
18.) When walking down the street or riding the bus, expect to hear at least 5 different languages being spoken on any given journey.
19.) Please jaywalk. Or else you'll annoy somebody.
20.) Bic lighters are hard to find. Having one makes you slightly cooler than the guy using matches or a cricket.

Okay, that's probably enough for now. I have to get ready because I'm meeting some friends at the "Drunken Monkey" dim sum bar in Shoreditch (EAST END) for dinner and drinks.

Love and bollocks! (I totally stole that from James.)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

VII: Magical Mystery Tour

"When a man buys a ticket for a magical mystery tour, he knows what to expect. We guarantee him the trip of a lifetime... and that's just what he gets. The INCREDIBLE MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR."


It was 9:47 a.m. on Sunday morning and I was on the 243 bus heading south to Waterloo. I was already two minutes late. And as if he was reading my mind, Will, who was meeting me at the train station, sent a text message that came buzzing through my mobile.

"I am near platform 17." he wrote.
"Ok... I'll see you soon. On the bus right now... almost there, I think," I replied.

As I anticipated my arrival at Waterloo Station, I gazed out the window and noticed some of London's famous landmarks. I took out my moleskin notebook; in the section that I had previously hand-labeled "places of interest," I wrote down "St. Paul's Cathedral." And somehow that reminded me of another place I wanted to see, so I also wrote "Bunhill Fields Burial Grounds" in Islington- the final resting place of poet William Blake, along with hundreds of nameless others who had died during the plague.

I carefully closed my book, placed it back inside my purse, and then continued to take in the surrounding scenery from the top deck of the bus. It was a beautiful day. Traces of a bright blue sky peered through the narrow patches of mild London fog, which was beginning to dissipate in the crisp autumn air.

Moments later, I heard a lady's voice announce the words "Waterloo Station." I pressed the "stop" button next to my seat, gathered my belongings and made my way down the stairs to exit the bus. The mechanical doors made a squeaky whoosh noise as they opened, and as soon as I stepped onto the pavement just outside the station I took an exhilarating deep breath. I turned the corner and was approaching the stone steps of the station, when my mobile phone began to ring...


"Hey! Are you almost here?" Will asked.
"I'm right outside. I'm walking in now," I said.
"Oh okay. There's a long line so we're getting in the queue to buy tickets. It's right across from platform 17," he said.
"Cool. I'll be right there."

The concourse at Waterloo Station was quieter than usual. The absence of weekday commuters left the platforms free for day-trippers, leisure travelers and some who may have been returning to the city after a weekend at home with family or friends.

Across from platform 17 was a row of ticket machines, with short queues of people forming behind each one. I walked past the row and found my friends, Will and Allison, standing in a much longer line of people who were all waiting for a manned ticket window. I hopped over a few ropes and joined my friends in line. By 10:02 a.m., we had reached a ticket window and purchased three discounted round-trip fares to Salisbury for just under £54.

With 13 minutes left before our train was scheduled to leave, we stopped at a nearby coffee stand to get some drinks. I had a latte. Will had a mocha. Allison had a chai.

Drinks in one hand and our tickets in the other, we made our way to our train- already waiting at the platform for its passengers. We entered the second carriage and inched through the aisle, which was constricted by other guests looking for their ideal seats. We agreed on a set of four cushioned chairs- arranged as two on either side, facing each other and separated by a mid-sized table.

The journey from Waterloo to Salisbury was an hour and thirty-eight minutes. By the time we had arrived, we had passed through seven different English cities and witnessed the picturesque landscapes of the southern-most midlands. As soon as we stepped off the train, we were struck by the change in ambiance. We were definitely not in London anymore...

Scene 3

Having spent the last month living along the loud and crowded streets of London, the three of us were surprised by the calming quiet of this quaint little town. We walked no more than a mile from the Salisbury train station into the city centre. And as we passed by the cute little shops and mom-and-pop eateries, all closed for their day of rest, we all felt a sense of tranquility and appreciation for the nice departure from our busy school-week schedules.

We had just over an hour before we were supposed to catch our 1:10 tour coach at the Salisbury bus station. So we roamed the main street and found a nice pub to have some lunch. Quite different from the average pub in London, this one was full of locals- people who probably raised their families and lived in Salisbury for years. It was very easy to feel like an outsider.

After our meals, we walked to the bus station and saw the coach immediately. It looked just like any other bus, except it was painted black and decorated by subtle earth tones... with the big letters on the side that spelled out the name of our next destination...

Scene 4

"Oooh I see it!" I exclaimed from inside the bus.

I pointed to a spot straight ahead as the coach climbed the road. Both Will and Allison wriggled in their seats to get a clearer view. And as the image of Stonehenge began to materialize before our eyes, the three of us welled up with excitement to see one of the most famous landmarks in the world.

No matter how many times I had seen Stonehenge in photographs and films, it wasn't until I actually saw it in real life that I felt the magic of its existence. As soon as we stepped off the bus, we turned in the crudely-designed parking lot to get a better look at the site. "Cool," we thought. "It's really Stonehenge!" And yet... there was something very awkward about it...

"Really?" asked Allison, with a tone of disappointment, as she clapped me on the arm.
"Aw, that sucks," I said.
"Yeah, my friends told me it might be anti-climactic," Will added.

Contrary to what we expected, the site was completely roped off. Instead of feeling the widely-believed aura of magical mystery associated with Stonehenge, we suppressed the urge to laugh... for there was no mysterious hill or tall, waving blades of grass. It was instead situated on a well-manicured lawn full of grazing sheep, and directly adjacent to an active highway. Oh, the grandeur!

With our digital audio tour guides pressed up against our ears, we followed the rope circling the site and learned about how the experts didn't seem to know ANYTHING about Stonehenge... besides how the giant rocks came from far, far away and that it might have something to do with seasons and solstice. There was also some speculation that the stumpy hills surrounding the site were once used for mass burials.

"And while we're not exactly sure about what it was used for, we do know what it WASN'T used for," the voice in my ear piece said."It is widely rumoured that the Druids used this site for mysterious ceremonies and sacrifices, but that is simply untrue."

Ooooh. Aaaaah.

Still, despite our obviously slight disappointment in the environment, we were still happy to be there. Because after it all, it's STONEHENGE. And even if we were unable to learn much new information about it, at least we were in the perfect place for a photo op.

For the rest of the day, we took full advantage of the spectacular weather and rural scenery. After leaving Stonehenge, we spent a few more lazy Sunday hours meandering through the charming streets of Salisbury...

We gaped at an original copy of Britain's magna carta... stored at the great Salisbury Cathedral.

And we finished our day-trip with a nice cup of rosehip and cranberry tea... English style.

All-in-all, the three of us had a great time. And if I could do it again, I definitely would... because even if Stonehenge wasn't as magically mysterious as I had hoped, it gave me but another memorable story to bring back home with me.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

VI: Off the Hook

According to a recent HSBC Bank advertising campaign: "How the world sees you depends on how you see the world."

This simple sentence basically sums up my entire purpose for being here. And quite appropriately, this concept (not just HSBC's but also in various other formats) is what my classmates and I spent nearly 6 hours trying to decipher today - during our second official school-day as postgraduate students in Visual Culture.

This is what my schedule looks like from this week to the end of December:

Tuesday 10-1 : Visual Culture - Theoretical and Critical Perspectives
Tuesday 2-5 : The Human Image

Thursday 10-1: Creative and Digital Technology Within the Arts and Contemporary Culture
Thursday 2-5 : Visual Culture - Production, Display and Discourse

As you can probably guess, the last few days have been very tiring for me. We've hit the ground running in terms of delving into social theory and I've already begun to feel that familiar academia-related brain-drain. You know, the one most commonly caused by extended hours of critical thinking and serious caffeine deficiency.

I know my schedule looks fairly simple, but what you don't see in the official hours is all the extra stuff that's required... like the massively long readings full of social science jargon, the hunt for visually striking images to bring to class for discussion, the off-site gallery visits accompanied by lots of note-taking and my favorite part: the seemingly-simple-but-stupidly-complicated act of checking out books from the university library.

I don't know if every university collection in England is like this, and excuse me for being so politically INcorrect, but the library system at my campus is totally retarded. Or maybe my head is just too exhausted to function properly today. No... I take it back... I blame the library.

I took up about half of my lunch hour today searching for one book:

Normally, this wouldn't be so hard to find in a library. But when I walked through those double wooden doors, I was absolutely baffled by the inconspicuous absence of a cataloging system. I circled the room several times and walked down a few of the aisles to make sure I wasn't missing something... but nope! No catalog! And yet, there were students sitting at the tables with their books, completely absorbed in whatever subject it was they were researching.

I probably could've gone up to one of those students to ask them how to find my book, but my pride just wouldn't let me do it for risk of sounding stupid.

So instead, I wandered the aisles a while longer hoping that my psychic powers would kick in and magically help me find the book. Needless to say, I failed miserably. I was just about to give up and go to my 2 p.m. class when suddenly... I had to pee. So I walked out of the library and into the hallway looking for a restroom (by the way, they simply call it "toilet" here and asking for a "restroom" will just cause you to get some confused looks). But instead of a restroom I saw a sign that said "1st floor - Library Counter" with an arrow pointing DOWN.

Yeah, somehow in this strangely backwards logic, I was on the ground floor and the first floor was below me... and if you go down one more floor past that, you'd be in the basement (which I found out later was another extension of the library). But above the ground floor, is the "upper ground floor" and then above that is the second floor. Are you confused yet?

With less than 10 minutes left to get to class, I decided to risk being a little late and stepped into the "lift"... which then took me down to the 1st floor. And aha... there it was, the manned library counter with a computer cataloging system right next to it. How annoying. Let me also mention that none of these library "rooms" are connected. You have to go through a maze of hallways and lifts and/or staircases to get to each room.

This means you have to go down a floor to use the catalog, then depending on where your book is, you maybe have to go back up or down another floor to get to the section. But if you're like any normal person who might need to look-up some additional material in the catalog, you'd have to go back up and/or down to the first floor again. It's like being stuck in an Escher drawing.

And to make matters worse, the library isn't organized by author. So I found out that works by Pierre Bourdieu are scattered all over the place... which then infuriated me and made me LEAVE the library without my book. I'll have to just set aside a few hours on Monday to navigate my way through the ridiculousness that is the Regent Street Campus library. Or maybe I'll just go to Border's.

Anyway, besides class and the library debacle, I actually had quite a culture-filled week.

[I have to insert a note here... I began writing this blog on Thursday night and had to save it and close it because it was late and I was too sleepy to continue. It's presently about 2 a.m. on Friday night/Saturday morning now, which may explain some potentially confusing references about days of the week. Okay, moving forward...]

For my dose of leisurely "high" culture: a visit to the Tate Britain. My "colleague" (what my professors think us master's students should call each other) and I decided to visit the contemporary art gallery at the Tate Britain on Wednesday afternoon. We had spent the morning going to a gallery in Harrow for an assignment and figured we'd complete the rest of the day doing something fun for ourselves.

The exhibit was full of your typical contemporary art... collages, photo montages, strange installations - things like coats hanging on imaginary copy machines and pieces of cloth sewed together to form something that is WAY beyond my personal understanding. But out of all this stuff, one particular work stuck out to me.

Martin Creed Work No. 850

See those guys running through the gallery? THAT is Martin Creed's art piece. When one of these guys first ran past me in the gallery, I was pretty confused. But when I actually read the description on the wall, it made so much sense... and I just loved it. Here's part of the description:

Work No. 850 extends Martin Creed's career-long investigation into physical experience and everyday life. In lifting an ordinary activity out of its usual context and dropping it into the long gallery halls that form the centre of Tate Britain's Millbank Building, it upsets any preconceived ideas of how to move appropriately through an art space. At the same time, it asks us to reassess a mundane activity as if it were an important event.

Take what you will from it, but I thought it was brilliant. I love that the piece did exactly what it was meant to do... As the runners sprinted through the building at 30-second intervals, the visitors in the gallery who hadn't read the description yet all stared in confusion. We all did the same thing... we looked around to see if anyone else was reacting to it, as if it WERE an important event. But because it was such a mundane activity, there was this urge to sort of ignore it as well, as if it was just some people going for their afternoon run in the park. I don't know much about art, but I thought it was cool and wanted to share.

As for my bit of "low" culture this week: a small concert at Koko in Camden Town with some friends.

This is Allison (from Texas) and Marius (from Oslo, Norway):

Marius, who I think is studying undergraduate communications at the Harrow Campus, is also "editor-in-chief" of an independent Norwegian online gaming magazine. Sounds glamorous, doesn't it? But really, the guy just likes video games... and so he used his self-imposed title to get special admission into the "X-Box 360 MyGig" show at Koko. Basically, because the show was sponsored by X-Box, his online magazine was completely relevant to the show and he was able to score VIP access into Koko for Wednesday night (including free drinks for all of us). SNEAKY.

The guy at the door with "the list" was probably a little surprised that this guy who wrote to him about being an "editor-in-chief" turned out to be this 19-year-old CSS groupie who looked nothing like a professional, and more like an indie kid who carries around his Norwegian passport to prove he's old enough to drink. I thought it was pretty funny and clever. It makes me want to try and claim my status as an "American Freelance Journalist" to get special access to shows as well. Maybe it will work for Oasis at the Roundhouse... we'll see.

Anyway, Koko is pretty famous around here, similar to The Whiskey or The Troubadour in Hollywood. The inside reminds me a little bit of the Wiltern because it's decorated more like a theater than a concert venue. But then you have the bars and the floor space usually used for general admission shows. Because the three of us had VIP access, we had this perfect spot on the balcony, which was furnished with big black leather couches and some nice tables to set down our pints of beer. Also... a great view of the giant disco ball, accented by the funky red lighting:

The show was really high-energy and even though I'd never heard of any of the bands, it was just nice to hear some live music again.

The Mules

Florence and the Machine (my personal favorite of the night)

and CSS (the headliner)

Generally speaking, I think the music atmosphere is awesome out here. It seems like people really get into their bands and the whole "show" experience is like being in Hollywood again. I've been to some shows in other places... like Santa Barbara and even New York, but there's definitely an obvious difference in the kinds of crowds that attend these shows. It bothers me when people purchase hard-to-get tickets and end up spending the whole concert talking to their friends instead of enjoying the music. Then, because you're standing right next to them, it gets in the way of your enjoyment because they won't shut up.

So yeah, my frame of reference might still be a little small - but so far, the music scene here seems to be pretty fun and I can't wait to go see more bands. I'm especially excited to see some of the smaller bands that I've never heard of before, because it's always nice to be pleasantly surprised.

Normally, I try to match my song choices with the theme of my entry. But in this case, nothing really comes to mind in terms of "culture" in general... ah, the story of my life. I could think harder.. but it's late again and I'm thoroughly tired. So in closing, I'll leave you with a little something by CSS. Think post-modern Brazilian 80's and this is what you get:

Friday, October 3, 2008

V: Not the Same

As a born-and-raised suburbanite from California, I've recently discovered that relocating to a major metropolitan city in another country, by myself nonetheless, is probably the most "hands-on" lesson in social and practical survival I could ever get in my life. I'm just under three weeks into my move and already I've jumped head-first into an entire slew of both culturally and socially awkward, and borderline uncomfortable, scenarios. But hey, wasn't that (academic and personal growth) the point?

I've been thinking about this entry every day for the past week- slowly trying to formulate a cohesive personal essay about everything that's been happening - without letting it turn into some "travel guide" type of story. Because on the surface, I just keep going to new places and meeting new people. I could easily tell you all about them... how great they are, how Londonesque and unique everything is, but I think it's about time that I actually put some serious thought into things.

I was heading eastbound on the 254 bus earlier when, during a routine stop at Finsbury Park station, all the lights in the bus shut down and the engine came to a defeating halt. From my seat on the second level of the double-decker, I heard the stressful pleading of the bus driver, who was yelling at a woman about how she entered through the back door. Apparently, the woman had neither ticket nor Oyster Card to make her journey valid and she was trying to sneak on for a ride.

Immediately, I heard the woman's screeching voice in her British accent, "Don't speak to me in that tone, young man. Stop shouting at me! Don't shout at me!" After about 5 minutes of arguing, because other passengers of the bus started booing and yelling in unison at this woman, she finally decided to step out... and we were on our way. For some weird reason, this little incident struck me and so I spent the rest of the bus journey (roughly 10 minutes) thinking about WHY.

Ethically speaking, I couldn't really tell who was in the wrong here. Yeah, for obvious reasons she shouldn't have sneaked on. But at the same time, how do we know that she's not in a tight financial spot or that she simply left her wallet at home? Maybe she was having one of those days where everything was just going wrong. Maybe the bus driver should have just let the 2 "quid" go and given this woman a break. After all, it's JUST a bus ride.

And then it came to me. In some off-the-wall kind of way, I actually empathized with her. But not because of the bus driver's yelling. It was because the majority of the other passengers exploded in uproar and very loudly ostracized this woman for one little social slip-up. Public transportation here, like so many other things in a major city, acts like a well-oiled machine. And when one little cog falls out of place, it's as if the entire thing comes crashing down.

I'm sure this kind of thing happens all the time in big cities, whether it be San Francisco, New York, Paris or Tokyo. But maybe because it's finally starting to hit me that I, for the first time in my life, have completely broken out of my comfort zone and actually MOVED to London, I'm starting to get an idea of what it's like to be on my own with no convenient safety net. Don't get me wrong, I know I can count on family in the event of an emergency. But, (while recent events that I don't need to go into detail about now will attest to this) it's just NOT that EASY. Largely, I'm left alone here to fend for myself.

For example, up until this point in my life, I've always had someone within arm's reach to run to when I've had a bad day or need a hug. And right now, the distance and time difference just doesn't permit that.

If that bus scenario had happened back home, and if I was in my car waiting for this bus to move out of the way, I would've been just as irritated as those passengers. But my reaction to it now proves one thing: my perception on life and myself has already started to change.

And along with that comes another sort of epiphany... here comes the wrap-around to that "lesson in social and practical survival" I mentioned earlier. Whether I want to or not, I have to change too, in order to keep in balance with the change in my perception.

This idea has already manifested itself plenty of times since I've arrived here. In order to adapt the way I want to, I've been forced to do so many things that are just totally awkward and uncharacteristic of me...

Like meeting up for dinner with someone who's virtually a stranger, basically because we have a mutual friend. Normally, when you meet a friend of a friend, the mutual friend is around to introduce you. But in this case, I had to suck up my people-anxiety, make the phone call and then actually show up at the tube station on time with the hopes of recognizing her amongst the crowd... equipped only with a description of "I have long black hair, I tend to wear mostly black and white, and I have a severe fringe." If all else fails, we'll talk about what we have in common: our mutual friend.

Fortunately, this little meeting of ours turned out to be a complete success, at least in my opinion. There was no awkwardness at all... and since then, we've eaten fish cakes together, gone on an interesting hunt for a fee-free ATM, almost attempted to con a junk/antique shop owner into selling us a tiny French compass for £10 instead of £20, window-shopped during the Sunday-only market of Columbia Street, and secured some tickets to see Gogol Bordello in December.

We also took this picture (for our mutual friend):

Speaking of dinners... Even though I live in a house full of people, we still all keep to ourselves most of the time, unless we run into each other in the kitchens or there's actually some sort of organized social night. So having said that, I've had to practice either cooking for one or, if my refrigerator isn't stocked with anything good, go out to eat alone.

And going out by myself happens fairly often, because without a car, it's an incredible pain to do any substantive grocery shopping. Here's the common scenario: I have plenty of rice in the cupboard but I've run out of everything else... and if I'm in Central London... it'll take me 40 minutes to get home... then I have to buy groceries... then cook them... and THEN eat. But wait, Carnaby Street is just right here with plenty of little restaurants. Hmmm...

Eating lunch by yourself is never really a big deal; I did it all the time back home. But there's something kind of lonely about eating dinner alone in a restaurant full of people. THAT is something I never really did, and whenever I would go out with friends or family for dinner, I'd always feel a little bad for that guy sitting in the corner by himself. So now, it's me... sitting at the little table with my book, because somehow this makes me feel less awkward, even though there are groups of people laughing with each other all around me. Awww.

But this whole "eating dinner by myself" complex, I've come to realize, is really just me being overly self-conscious. Of course it would be nice to have some company, but really it's not much different from being at home, alone in the kitchen in front of the TV. So maybe it's not that bad after all, or maybe I'm just trying to justify it. I'm still not really sure. All I know is that back home, I would've taken the food to go before choosing to sit alone for dinner. But here, without a car, that's just not practical.

So I suppose it's really the little, but all the while necessary, things that are beginning to take their toll on me. I keep toying with the idea of getting a part-time job because it really is SUPER EXPENSIVE to live out here. But will that interfere with school? Will that turn me into a lame work-horse with no free time to explore the city? Or will it actually BE the experience I want to have here? And will the extra cash really be worth it? I just don't know.

Then, there's the fact that I now live with a bunch of strangers as well. My whole life, I've been used to living with family, with exception to the year or two I spent living with my best friend. But somehow, I've managed to adapt to this quite easily - and that surprises me because deep inside, I always thought I was such a coward and incapable of jumping into something like this.

Now, a few of us (Chris from the midlands, Anika from Germany, Simon from Yorkshire and I) have got a bit of close-knit rapport going. This leads us to nights like this where we play Texas Hold'Em in my room with cereal, peanuts and matches (because our silly landlord "Mak'd" Chris' poker chips and they are nowhere to be found).

I happened to win this hand with the high flush:

Then, there's adjusting to post-graduate British Academia. I finally had some important things to do this last week in terms of beginning my course. I went to the Regent Street campus on Thursday for my official enrollment and induction session. It was so formal AND informal at the same time, that I found myself thinking about whether this really was school and not just a bunch of like-minded individuals talking about things we like about culture.

It all seems a little too good to be true... and it makes me feel slightly uncomfortable, but extremely excited nonetheless. There are only about 10 people on my course, all girls and one guy. How lucky for him. But this doesn't say too much about the course itself, because the faculty is all made up of men and one woman.

Anyway, we basically all sat in a room together while the faculty talked about their courses... and then they said, "okay, so go ahead and pick your modules." Aside from the 3 mandatory classes, I had to choose 4 optional courses from a list of only six. In the end, I signed up for "The Human Image" and "Creative and Digital Technology" this semester. And for next semester, an internship option and the one I'm REALLY looking forward to... "Capitalism and Culture," where we get to talk about commodity fetishism and consumerism in society due to visual culture. Phew, that's a mouthful... I apologize.

The point is, this feels more like a fun personal research project than it does a master's program. But maybe that's what it's supposed to feel like?? It just seems like everything I've been experiencing in the last week has all been very counter-intuitive. It's an exciting and scary mess of events.

Well, in closing (I know this has been the longest entry ever), my conclusion is this: I know some of you will understand me when I say this... and for others, I really don't mean to annoy or alarm you. BUT, I know that when I come back home from this place, I'm not going to be exactly the same. And while that prospect might be a bit unnerving, it's the reality of the situation. So the most I can hope for is that I come back a better and wiser person than I was before, and that I can continue to share everything I have... with all of you.