I write to you from my new room, located on the top floor of 20 Lensfield Road. Its an attic room with sloping ceilings and small windows which are lined with golden yellow curtains. When I look to the left of my desk, I can see the bell tower of a beautiful English church and the tops of a line of leafy green trees.

I don’t know if I have told all of you this, but I am studying for an MPhil in anthropology at Cambridge. Its been a bit difficult to get into the groove of it because I’ve had a nasty cold. But, overall, I love it so far. At this university, students are assigned to a residential college, and a department of study. My residential college is called Downing, and all week long I’ve been having orientation events with the other new grad students here. The college is filled people in science disciplines, (neurologists, biologists, chemists, physicians, engineers) or people between science disciplines (bio-chemists, chemical engineers, ect). I’m glad I spent this last summer listening to the backlogs of radio lab, as I can know make vague comments about these subject areas at cocktail socials. (“You evolutionary neuro-biologists are really on the cutting edge these days.”)  Everyone seems to have such a specific area of interest which they are so passionate about, be it “protein trafficking within mitochondria” or “fruit fly reproduction in sub-tropical regions.”  I’m one of a handful of social science people, and I have met two people in the humanities.

My house is filled with other grad students, and it’s just on the outskirts of Downing. My housemates are from Greece, Canada, Spain, Italy, UK, China and Ireland. That’s the other thing—I have yet to meet any other Americans at Downing, though I know there must be loads of them in this city, somewhere.

All was amazing until I woke up with a high fever on Monday. I called the nurse, who asked me to take my temperature, which broke the “this might be swine flu” threshold. After that I was put into full lock-down– I was not allowed to leave my room, even to go to the kitchen, for three full days. My neighbor brought me water and all my meals. Someone came around and put a sign on the bathroom in my house that read “UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES CAN ANYONE BUT SARAH BURGESS USE THIS BATHROOM.”  Thank goodness for the second season of Mad Men, which got me through the quarantine.

So yes, unfortunately, part of my welcome to the UK was a brigade of viral friends. Also part of my welcome to the UK: free healthcare!! All I had to do was call a hotline and describe my symptoms, and I was given a number to get a FREE prescription for anti-virals from a local pharmacy! I’m almost over it now, and thinking I’ll spent the day trying to catch up on what I have missed.  I’ve just started classes– I’ll update on that soon.

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I think I’ll remember this summer as the one where I was constantly  in and out of a knarly cold, and up and down from New York. I’ve actually come to like New York. I used to feel lost and overwhelmed every time I went, but now it’s growing on me.  I like walking down the avenues and randomly running into people I haven’t seen in five years. I like that there is a seemingly endless supply of quirky coffee places and fragrant flower shops. I like the way the subway weaves under the city like a maze. When I come back home and get on the one in DC, it feels like the kiddy ride at an amusement park.

I do like New York now– most of the time, at least. But sometimes truly unpleasant things happen there. Like, for instance, last Monday. My friend and I were walking down a little street that is nestled between Chinatown and the Lower East Side. We were strolling along, and the conversation was going in as many different directions as the avenues. We were swapping stories about our favorite bookstores, when from across the street we spotted what appeared to be a charming one. Its dark wooden sign read USED AND ANTIQUE BOOKS in red block letters. The window of the front was completely covered with tall and narrow stand-up book shelves that displayed some copies of aged classics. Each book got its own shelf, and proudly faced the street with its cover. There was a lovely, well-loved copy of To Kill a Mocking Bird. I eyed a particularly sinister edition of The Scarlet Letter with a red and black cover. I love the old Washington stand-bys of Politics and Prose and Kramer Books, but I took a second to relish what promised to be an undiscovered, exciting independent bookshop. This would never happen to me in DC!

For a moment my heart sank when the door was locked. But then we noticed—this place even had a buzzer! How charming. For a moment I imagined who would come to the door. Would it be some elderly woman with a blue shawl, who had inherited this shop from her mother, who had inherited it from her father before that? Perhaps the owner would be some handsome professorly-type gentleman with a tweed coat, a loose tie and a shaggy brown haircut that fell around his ears. Of course he would have a doorbell; he doesn’t like too many customers. He needs some quiet, after all, just a few quiet moments to work on his own book.

Then the door swung open. To my dismay, what tumbled out of it was not a charming professorly type, or a grandmother who would serve me tea while I browsed her collection. It was, unfortunately, a textbook variety hipster.  She wore plaid. She wore tights under her shorts. She had brown, shaggy hair that fell around her shoulders, but her bangs cut across her forehead like the blade of a butcher knife. A grandmother could have worn her large, thick, round glasses, but somehow I doubted they were actually prescription.  

She quickly inhaled to speak: “um, guys, this isn’t actually a bookstore.”

I think I must have given her a quizzical look. “What?”

“And it’s not, um, open right now.”

“Oh. Well, when is it open?”

“At eleven. But you need a reservation to get in.”

My friend and I stared at her. Her eyes were cold, empty, yet piercing. For a moment, I was hypnotized by her aura of distinct aloofness. We were fools. How could we be naive enough to believe that a places with a facade that read BOOKS on the outside and displayed books in the window actually sold books?

Then we turned around, walked a few steps, burst out laughing, and didn’t stop doing so for a block and a half.  My friend likes to poke fun at me for “gazing”  because of my minor in anthropology. “Go gaze at that girl” he told me. “And don’t feel guilty about it for a second.”

Where did hipsters come from? Why are they here? Who do they think they are? I wonder what that place is like at eleven, though somehow I think that if I called to make a reservation, I probably wouldn’t get in. Perhaps we do need a team of ethnographers to descend into their dens and come back with some answers.  Urban Outfitters carries a number of hipster how-to guides that teach people who to spot a hipster, classify one, or be one yourself. But has there been any scholarly work on this topic? Seriously. What cultural forces collided to produce this young woman and her phony front of great books?

I’m back in DC for a little while, until leaving for the UK in October. I’ve been in DC for about 21 summers in a row, and every summer I make some sort of attempt to find something or somewhere new. This year, I’ve found some new culinary delights, and fallen back on some old stand-bys. Here is a short list of my old and new summer favorites:

1. Siggi’s Skyr (Icelandic Yogurt) 

Okay, this isn’t exactly a DC thing, but it is somewhat local (made on the East coast) and available at several spots around the city. Yogurt is my favorite food– but I don’t like most of the stuffy that you find out the store (its usually loaded with corn syrup). However, this is the best yogurt I have ever had in my life. I enjoy eating plain greek yogurt in generous servings over cereal, granola, and oatmeal. Before finding Siggi’s my favorite kind was thick plain greek yogurt, with a touch of honey and fresh fruit. However, this yogurt blows most greek yogurt out of the park.

Really, Siggi’s Skyr is the food of the Gods. It is thick, creamy and lops on the spoon like a piece of a fluffy cloud. Eating this yogurt is like falling in love.  And it comes in quirky, subtle flavors like Orange and Ginger. And its fat-free, and double the protein of the regular stuff. It doesn’t have any sugar in it, but it is sweetened with agave, which gives you a light, pleasant, sweet energy high. How can something so lovely and decadent be good for you? Sadly, its a bit too expensive to eat every day. Check it out: (http://skyr.com/)

2. Teaism Salty Oat Cookie 

This isn’t a new discovery, but it is an old standby I come back to again and again. Unlike the skyr, this probably isn’t healthy. I am not usually one to reach for the oat cookie over the chocolate chip.  However, I would reach for the salty oat on any day. 

The salty oat has a crisp outer layer ring and a chewy center. Cinnamon and nutmeg radiate through the whole disk. It is packed with decadent, plump raisins. It has a subtle, buttery sweetness, and it is topped with a layer of sea salt that makes it all more flavorful.  I usually try to get a pack when I’m heading out of town. This is a bit heavy for the summer, but is lovely with cold milk on one of those rainy Washington days. 

3. The Melon-Mint Smoothie at Tryst

Another favorite item that contains yogurt. At its best, the MMS is made with sweet green melons. The fresh mint pops out and cools the tongue and clears the sinuses.  The creamy yogurt runs through the whole thing and provides enough sustenance to make it home in the heat. Yum.

A few weeks ago, I jetted out ofDubai and landed in Heathrow for a two-day layover. I’m ever so lucky to have a charming sister with a charming place in a charming neighborhood there. After a long flight in an airbus packed full of recently laid-off Brits, I took the train into the city, dropped off a bag of stuff at Katharine’s office, and began a short, intermediary adventure. After Katharine finished her work, we enjoyed Vietnamese dishes for dinner, while I dished about my time in the broken bubble shattered capitalist dream that is Dubai.

I was only gone for a few weeks, but I had desperately missed the ability to spend long periods of time outside, and the ability to get from one place to another without paying someone else. In Dubai’s ex-pat neighborhoods, there are virtually no sidewalks, and if there are, they are probably under construction. People take taxis everywhere, shuttling back and forth between the air-conditioned bubbles of home, shopping malls and office buildings. In the slightly more walk-able areas, it’s possible to go a few blocks before running into a giant highway that cuts across your path. Plus, after two blocks outside, especially in the middle of the day, your skin starts to feel like it’s melting (and indeed, my cheap sunglasses did melt onto my face at one point).

After dinner, Katharine made some thoughtful suggestions for my extra day in the city. Should I check out the Tate? The Indian art exhibit at the British Museum? Go shopping in Soho? I planned to do a number of these things in my head, but when I set off the next morning, the only thing that I wanted to do was walk, walk, walk. Through residential neighbors, along crescent avenues, into alleys with tucked away cafes. And so walk I did. I walked from the campus of LSE, to St. Paul’s, where I witnessed an impromptu ballet:

Surprise Ballet!

Across Millennium Bridge: 

Lovely Bridge

 

Down the river:

River Shot, with Shade

I stopped for various cups of tea along the way. I know these may seem like boring tourist photos, but  I am not exaggerating it was truly one of the most wonderful days of my life. The sun beat down on my face, but in a pleasant, non-destructive way that my SPF 15 could certainly handle. Light reflected off the water, and I only had to go inside to use to loo. And finally, at the end of the workday, I met my sister for a drink.

Whenever I’m in an airport, I do things that I don’t usually do in the outside world. Eat candy bars, spend $5.95 on a small pack of spicy dried peas, watch cycles of CNN, read crappy fashion magazines that run the same five articles over and over and over. Alright, I do these things in non-airport settings, but not without at least a twinge of guilt. At JFK or LAX or SFO, however, these actions all feel fine, good and normal. I think its something to do with being in transit, and not really on the grounds of any city, state or country. As long as I’m not really anywhere, my actions don’t count, right?  I think a lot of people must experience this sentiment, as there are always plenty of overpriced, mediocre stores in airports, which probably wouldn’t do so well outside the terminals.

 

 Dubai, to an extent, feels like an airport—a very hot, large airport. Right now I’m sitting on a balcony, overlooking a parking lot where each individual car has its own little hanger, or canvas covering that protects it from the oppressive rays of sun. On the right there is a long stretch of highway that seems relatively empty, at least for its size. The roads here are clearer and less congested these days, as more and more people are leaving this city. As cars speed down it I can almost imagine them taking off at the edge of the hazy horizon.

 

 I studied a few phrases of Arabic before coming here, but I’ve only had a few opportunities to use them. Like I said in my last post, 85% of people here are from other countries, and on any given day, I meet people from five different continents. The taxi driver is Pakistani, the grocer is Filipina, the saleswoman at the upscale shoe shop is Lithuanian. I’ve had conversations with people from Nepal, India, Australia, Cameroon, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, South Africa, Poland, Latvia, China, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Russia and Afghanistan and only had one or two interactions with actual Emeratis. I have the perpetual airport feeling, like I’m not really anywhere. Here, drinking bottled water, taking long, expensive taxi rides and consuming copious amounts of candy seem totally fine. And, once again, I observe an overabundance of overpriced boutiques. I have to constantly remind myself that I am in the Middle East, in a country that does have a specific culture and history.

 

Most people come here to work for two or three years, and then leave to go back home. Its as if people that I meet are here on some very long, long layovers. It wouldn’t be right to push this comparison too hard, and compare the laziness and emptiness of airport waiting to the real, challenging, hard work that people perform here. And, I’m sure that if I stayed here longer, I would get a better picture of Emerati life and culture, meet some of the people who live here and learn about their aspirations, hopes and plans. But, in these past weeks, it has been difficult to find someone who calls Dubai home, who has settled here for good and plans to grow old in this city. 

So, I’m actually not going on the Amtrak Adventure, but instead I’m spending the first couple of weeks of the summer in Dubai. I’ve only been here for a few days, so I don’t quite feel comfortable making sweeping generalizations about this city. But, here are some of my first impressions.

 From my window, at a distance, I can see a point where a few highways and major roads intersect. It looks like a giant, tangled pile of linguini. I’m staying with a couple other Americans, and thus far, driving has been the most stressful and adventurous activity. The first question I think of when I want to go somewhere or do something is, “what will it take to drive there, and is it worth it?” I thought LA roads were complicated, but Dubai makes that city seem like a toy car ride.

 Its not the speed of the other cars on the road. In fact, there are very strict speeding laws here, and our car actually beeps if we go over the limit. Driving from point A to point B is like speed-reading one of the Choose Your Own Adventure books with a gun to your head. The highways here are 4, 8, 16 lanes wide. Every few moments the road splits, offers an array of exits, forces us to make a U-turn, goes under something we didn’t know existed. Once we take an exit and its wrong, we may have to go 20 minutes out of our way to undo our mistake.  We might have to drive North for a while when point B is actually due South, we might have to go under something just so we can go over it again in the opposite direction. We’ve learned to plan with the assumption that we will generally get an hour’s worth of lost in one direction or the other.  Thank goodness I’m here with four other people. It takes one person to drive, one person to look at the big map, one person to look at the small map, and one person to figure out our orientation by looking out the window. Though it probably doesn’t help the drive that those three people tend to have strong and varying opinions, and that in whatever role I’m in, I tend to get distracted by the surrounding flashy buildings. Hopefully this activity will get easier as the days go by.

Warning: may contain spoilers. Stop reading if you haven’t seen it and plan on it. 

 So, I just got back from seeing Up with my father at the Mazza Gallerie movie theatre. Let me say the things everyone else has already said: it’s pretty magical, it’s quirky, and it’s clever. The animation is stunning. At times, Up moved me to tears (which not that hard to do these days, but still).

In case you haven’t heard about it, Up is Pixar’s latest animated feature length film. The movie begins with a scene of young, adorable Carl Fredrickson, who sits in an old-style movie theatre in the 1930s. Carl is watching a news feature about his favorite explorer, Charles Muntz, who is famous for making voyages to “Paradise Falls” which is “a land lost in time” in South America. 

Later, Carl meets Ellie, a young, feisty girl who loves adventure as much as he does. The two vow to go to Paradise Falls someday, and eventually they fall in love. We get a five-minute montage of the couple’s life, which includes everything but that trip: a wedding, a miscarriage, a house renovation, many picnics and much handholding. In the last part of the montage, Ellie passes away, Carl mourns and becomes the neighborhood grumpy old man. When corporate developers force him from his home, Carl attaches helium balloons to it, and flies through the skies to Paradise Falls. I’ll stop summarizing here, in case you want to see it, or in case you already have. 

So, even though I loved watching Up, I had some questions. What ideas is it putting into my head, and the heads of children around the world? In some ways, it’s the same story we’ve been telling for years and years. Male protagonist is dissatisfied with his life, ventures into wilderness, finds himself, and gloriously returns (Odyssey, Jack and the Bean Stalk, ect). However, this time, the male protagonist is not a strapping young man who is grappling with his sexuality (as those protagonists usually are) but a man of ripe old age.

That’s the one big positive thing that I think this film does: perhaps it combats ageism. There are a few cane jokes and moments that poke fun at the lives of the elderly. But on the whole, I thought this movie made elderly folks seem pretty cool. It made me remember that my grandmother’s generation has rich stories and experiences which I should take time to respect, listen to, learn from. Unlike many old people in movies, Carl is not merely sitting back and growing angry at the changing world around him. Nor is he a senile and dependent patient who needs to be addressed in baby talk. Then again, these were just my impressions, and maybe elderly people would disagree with me.

So,  this movie did some positive work in that area, but then there is the whole South American colonialism/exploration part. I do think the folks at Pixar are trying to make a critique of colonialism. When he finally makes it to Paradise Falls, Carl runs into his old hero again, Charles Muntz. Muntz has turned into an out-of-touch, crazy hermit who performs blatantly evil acts to gain approval and glory from the greater world. We never see Muntz killing or enslaving other humans, but there is a moment where he taps on his collection of empty pith helmets, implying that he has taken lives to get where he is today. While Muntz started out as a romantic figure, we learn that his kind of “exploration” and has a darker, sinister side. 

Yet—there are still  problematic elements here. It is disturbing that other than Muntz and Carl, Paradise Falls is completely empty of people. Rather, it does seem to be a magical land which is “there for the taking.” Paradise falls is empty of “natives” and its a place white people can go find themselves, have an adventure, and then leave. Pixar tries to get around this by making Carl’s sidekick a young Asian American boy, but that doesn’t really over-ride the overarching message. While Muntz is critiqued for dominating the land and the animals around him, there is no real acknowledgement of the horror and injustices that Western “explorers” created for the people they encountered, robbed and raped. Although there is the empty pith-helmet moment, that doesn’t really cut it. Those helmets belonged to other visitors, not people who actually lived there. 

The whole idea of world “exploration” in the Global South is problematic, and I don’t think there is a way to get around that. In the end of the movie, its okay, still celebrated, to venture into far away lands, as long as you are doing it for personal growth and not public glory. In this day and age, I think its complicated and possibly dangerous to put that idea into kids’ heads. I know, I know, this is a commercial Pixar film, and I don’t expect them to teach children about the countless horrors of South American imperialism. But something about that message made me uncomfortable. If I was a parent who showed my kid that film, I’d be thinking, “someday I’ll have to explain that this is all pretty complicated.” I wouldn’t want my kids playing explorer games, and pretending to venture off into some fantastic “undiscovered” country.

In short, although Up is a kid’s movie, its also pretty complex. I’m still wrapping my head around it, trying to figure out how it simultaneously reinforces and challenges notions of race, imperialism and (don’t get me started) gender. Generally, I give props to the people at Pixar, but c’mon, folks, can’t we have a female protagonist sometime soon, instead of these backdrop female characters? Ellie is talkative, and full of sass and spunk, but she ultimately is absent in the journey that really defines Carl’s character. Their marriage keeps them tied down to suburbia (a topic recently explored in Little Children and Revolutionary Road).  I’d love to see an interesting, acting woman drive the frames of their glossy animation.

There is much to unpack here. I’d love you to leave comments, if you have them.