The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

So Delightfully Creepy...

Well, as you have probably noticed, I went to Dublin two weeks ago and still haven't posted about it. I've been lazy and busy and what have you. So I decided that I'll just have to skip it and move on, because I don't have the energy to write about two trips right now and if I don't I'll be perpetually behind. So if you want to know what I did in Dublin, look at the pictures. The only thing I will say that you probably *can't* get from the pictures is that the cold in Dublin was somehow more.... cunning than the cold in London. It didn't seem like it was actually that much colder, but for whatever reason the cold in Dublin just gets under your skin, right down to the bone, and stays there. I didn't get warm the entire time.

Another experience of note from Dublin: I met Oscar Wilde. That's right; my long lost lover through letters and I finally met face to face. Or... face to ankle... or something. It's in the pictures, if you don't believe me. ::sigh::

Moving right along to Scotland.

Edinburgh was absolutely wonderful. It was delightfully, fantastically, irresistibly CREEPY. Oh, I loved it. I want to move there and write. The atmosphere is rich, and spectral, foreboding, and in all other ways entirely agreeable. We visited Edinburgh Castle, and got some great views of the city and beyond. We walked down the royal mile and climbed up twisty narrow "closes," which is what they called the alleyways that led up through the different levels of the old town. Again, you can see all this in the photos, but being there was so intense... I felt the haunted atmosphere engulf me in such a delightful way. Needless to say, I have aspirations of moving there someday, for a period, to write. I think the mood there would be exceedingly conducive to me maintaining a melancholy and slightly superstitious state.

And then we went to the Highlands. Oh, glorious Highlands. I was thrilled to be out in the countryside after having spent almost all of my time so far in Europe in cities, and the Highlands are quite the magnificent piece of countryside. When I first saw them they reminded me of scenes from Lord of the Rings, and Hannah made the same comparison when I posted the first picture of me in front of a majestic view. We took a day trip out with a tour company, and shared a mini-bus (large van) with just 5 other people. It was quite pleasant, and our guide was knowledgeable and funny. He told us all the history around everything, and little tidbits of inside knowledge here and there, and he even took the girls and I up to a lake while the other tourists were taking a tour of the whiskey distillery. So I got to see a loch after all.

He told us all sorts of intriguing stories, including one about a particularly secluded and shadowy-looking mountain from which there have come tales of vampire attacks as late as the 1970s and 80s. I must admit I was quite thrilled and pleased to hear that bit of news, and more than a little interested in taking an expedition there. A haunted mountain would be another good place to write a book.

It was an absolutely perfect day, and, as you can see in the pictures, the sky just opened up. I felt so incredibly free on those hills, with the wind blowing and the endless sky reaching out in all directions. It was good for my soul. After frolicking on the hills a bit we went to an ancient cathedral, the church at Dunkeld, part of which was reconstructed and is still in use, and part of which was left as ruins. You can see both in the pics. I liked the ruins better; the grass and trees growing amongst the worn gray stone arches. Then we went to a forest of enormously tall trees and saw a wide waterfall. I felt so very at home there, I wished we could have spent more time. But soon enough it was back to Edinburgh. Not that I'm going to complain about Edinburgh.

One last note about the trip: I bought a poet shirt. One of those off-white, loose, flowing types with the leather cord laced at the top. Only all they had were men's, and so even though I got the smallest they had, it's enormous on me. I thought about giving it to some lucky boy when I get back, but I'll just wait and see if I grow attached to it or not. I slept in it once in Edinburgh, and I might wear it in public if I can find a way to cinch it properly. Rest assured, if it makes a debut, I will post a picture.

And now, scurry off to the Flickr site to see what I couldn't describe. Words cannot do the Highlands justice.

Monday, February 12, 2007

In Which I Travel Through Snow to Meet a Baroness and Several Lords

Before I begin on the subject promised by the title, I just wanted to let you all know that I went to Dublin this weekend and have much to say about that, but as I went to the House of Lords on Thursday and that experience is long enough for its own post, I shall write about it first and the Dublin experience will come later. I have pictures of Dublin up on Flickr, which you can view by clicking on the animated picture grid on the left, a little ways down the page. And now, Parliament.

On Thursday, in the midst of a most delightful snow that had London in a rather amusing uproar, I went with my International Relations professor and a group of about 9 other students to the House of Lords. For those of you who don’t know, the House of Lords is the upper chamber of the British Parliament, the lower being the House of Commons. Therefore, the House of Lords is comparable to the U.S. Senate. My professor, Yossi Mekelberg, had been invited to speak to a House of Lords sub-committee which deals with foreign affairs. Specifically, the sub-committee is currently gathering information on what the EU’s foreign policy ought to be. He was called to be a “witness,” as they state it, on the subject of the Middle East Peace Process. Basically, they posed to him several questions and he gave them advice. Joining my prof in presenting evidence was Mr. Ahmad Khalidi, with whom my professor has worked in the past and likes a great deal. Mr. Khalidi was once an advisor to Yasir Arafat (but as my prof said, don’t hold that against him—good advice isn’t always taken) and is now a Senior Associate Member at St Antony's College of Oxford University. It was fairly obvious that the committee had invited both of them in the interest of getting two “balanced” viewpoints on the subject, since my prof is originally from Israel and has done work there, and Mr. Khalidi is Palestinian. I found it somewhat annoying that as usual, in matters concerning Israel & Palestine, everyone feels as though they absolutely must have representation from both “sides,” as though just because my prof is originally Israeli (both men, by the way, now consider themselves citizens of Britain) he will be intrinsically biased; but then, perhaps this is just me showing my ever-idealist card. Realistically, I suppose it makes sense to have equal representation on the issue at every turn, because bias does occur and of course, I always stand by my philosophy that there is no such thing as too much information (at least in the realm of public discourse and academia). But I digress.

I went to the House of Lords. Again, for those who may not know, the House of Lords is a chamber of Parliament, which means I went to the Houses of Parliament, which is that great behemoth of neo-gothic architecture most famous for its little clock. You might know it as Big Ben. As a further point of reference, this is the building that V blows up in V for Vendetta. Now that we’ve established that and you all have a picture in your mind, let me just say that I don’t think I could adequately describe the interior of the building (what tiny portion I saw) if I had all the time in the world and an endless supply of bionic hands that would be changed out at regular intervals. It was pretty much as elaborate, extravagant, stately, traditional, grand, and awe-inspiring as you would imagine. Enormous long chambers. Corridors lined with life-sized statues of former leaders and notable Brits. Marble. Stone. Stained-glass. Elaborately carved wood. We walked into the building through the entrance nearest the House of Lords chamber and traveled through a labyrinth of hallways and stairs until we came to a long corridor of carved wood paneling and thick carpet. We sat on benches outside the sub-committee room where my prof and his colleague were to speak, and while we waited there chimed a bell in a wooden box above our heads, signifying something or other. It was an actual wooden box, about a foot square, with the front carved out in a complicated lattice design so as to allow the sound through, and I could hear the mechanism working inside it the whole time, and then the sound of the bells chiming. It seemed like something that belonged in the 19th century, or perhaps the charmingly anachronistic world of Harry Potter. In short, it was something you’d expect to find in the House of Lords of your imagination. Thus far, London has not failed to fulfill my every expectation.

I shall have to run through the next bit more quickly than I would like or else you’ll be here all day. Either that or you’ll very soon get bored and go off to do something else, and that would be sad. Therefore, I will attempt to be brief, knowing I am doomed to fail.

We were in a relatively small room, about the size of a large classroom, with the Lords (of which there were about 10) and the clerks of the committee sitting in a semi-circle facing Yossi and Mr. Khalidi, with me and the other students sitting behind the witnesses. My prof and Mr. Khalidi gave excellent and informed testimony about the state of things and the realistic ways in which the situation can be improved or worsened. They both came with first-hand experience, as did many of the committee members. Of course, I expected the witnesses to be intelligent, well-informed, realistic, and sensible, because they are academics with real-world experience, and I trust that. The ones who amazed me were the Lords themselves. Perhaps it is my own youthful disillusionment with my government, or the fact that my President can barely form a coherent sentence, but I was shocked and delighted to hear the members of the committee listen carefully to the testimony, consider it, criticize it, make relevant challenges to it, and otherwise intelligently engage with the witnesses. They did not sit back passively and accept everything that was told to them, deferring to the authority of the specialist, but neither did they dismiss theories or suggestions that countered their own views or assumptions. They engaged with the information, filtered through it, and refined the points of the witnesses through criticism while still being extremely receptive to the views offered and appeared to honestly consider them. They were ever-respectful to the witnesses and expressed often their gratitude for taking the trouble to come to testify, and on short notice. They responded to the testimony intelligently, incorporating their own knowledge into follow-up questions and challenges. I realize I keep repeating the idea that they “engaged with the testimony intelligently” but honestly I’m still amazed. It was basically a real-life manifestation of my ideal governmental proceedings. Never in a million years would I have imagined that things were actually done this way. I don’t know if they’re done this way in the States, or even in the House of Commons (probably not), but seeing the House of Lords work in this way has restored my faith, at least somewhat, in what government can be. It really is possible to have representatives who earnestly search for the best solutions and attempt to put them into action.

My favorite member of the committee was Baroness Symons, and no, not just because she is a woman. Baroness Symons has first-hand experience working in Palestine, particularly I think on the ground dealing with infrastructure, like schools and hospitals. Throughout the session, Mr. Khalidi kept repeating his idea that Arabs see the EU as an organization that talks but doesn’t act, and passively sits back and writes checks in support but doesn’t really do much in terms of influencing events. Americans, he said, are the ones who Arabs see as the truly active entity, while the EU is viewed as relatively impotent. In light of this, he called for the EU to both get fully in the game, so to speak, and begin to take action, or else stop meddling entirely. He repeated this over and over, saying that the EU should be fully committed to aiding progress in the region or else it should simply not participate at all. He went so far as to suggest that the EU should stop sending funds to Palestine if it isn’t going to be truly committed. At this the Baroness got quite shirty. She criticized his point head-on, and was quite emphatic about the needs of the schools, hospitals, and other programs that help the average citizen, many of which, I presumed, would suffer if the EU withdrew funding. His point was one that I have heard many, many times from just about everyone around me on every possibly aspect of the subject of philanthropy, activism, or otherwise any other action that attempts to make the world better, whether it is giving change to a homeless person or voting for a third-party candidate. The argument is basically this: our efforts do not make a real difference, or, at least not a very big one, and so they are pointless. There is no point in giving money to charity because the small amount I can give barely helps anyone at all. There is no point in being an activist because no one else cares. There is no point in voting for a third-party candidate because it is impossible for them to win. Mr. Khalidi’s argument was the same: because of misuse of funds (corruption) the monies that the EU sends often do not reach their full potential, and because of the continuing conflict, the problems will never be solved simply by writing checks; therefore the monies are pointless and the EU should stop sending them. I like to call this argument the Lazy Cynic. This argument is, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the attitude disgusts me rather violently. Obviously it did Baroness Symons as well, and though she was quite polite about it, she pointed out to Mr. Khalidi that she didn’t believe the cessation of financial support for poor and endangered people was part of the solution. I really wanted to cry “You go girl!” but as I was a student visiting a House of Lords committee room, I did not. I did, however, speak briefly with her afterwards and told her that I was in agreement with her and very much appreciated her contradicting Mr. Khalidi.

The session lasted about an hour and a half, and the Lords stated that they all felt they had learned quite a lot from the testimony and gained perspectives on the issues that they hadn’t previously considered. This made my heart happy. We were sent out of the room briefly, and then called back in and asked if we had any questions for the Lords. One student asked what would be done with the information gathered, and they responded that it would be compiled into a report and then presented to the House of Lords, and then to the EU, where it will hopefully influence Middle East foreign policy. Curious about the member’s personal interests after hearing the Baroness’ points, I asked if they chose to be on this committee or if they were placed there. It was a combination of both, but most of the members had a lot of previous experience (of course, they serve in the government for life) if not in the Middle East then at least in foreign affairs. They were extremely welcoming to us as students and quite accessible and open to questions. Once we left a few of the Lords shook hands with us in the corridor and asked us about ourselves, where we were from, etc, and I spoke briefly with the Baroness about the Lazy Cynic theory. All in all I could not have imagined a better experience, and it has almost made me want to go into politics, until I remembered that, since I was not of noble birth, I would have to do all the campaigning and pandering to the public and raising money and voting party line and all that rubbish. So I reconsidered. But perhaps I could work with an NGO, such as Amnesty or Oxfam, compiling human rights reports, testifying to the UN, and etc. My Human Rights professor is a lawyer with an NGO, and works to help represent those people whose human rights have been violated. Perhaps I should go to law school. Harvard is looking to boost their female enrollment… ::rubs hands together in an unsettlingly conniving manner::

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Walking Alone, or, Natalie Meets the Dread Pirate Roberts

The thought of writing a banal (in style, not content; I'm in London for God's sake) account of events made me weary, squirmy, and prone to avoidance and procrastination, so I'm not doing that. Sorry. Bland accounts of what I saw and did are reserved for postcards. Perhaps you'll get one.

Instead, I shall attempt to give you a more metaphysical account; aka literary and highly symbolic, aka a vague mass of half-truths. I'm not sorry if this is confusing. I'm striving to be a writer here, and good writers cannot (usually) be apologists. It weakens the work.


This weekend I walked alone. I walked alone through pre-history, through the ancient world, through the ever-changing "modern" span of human thought, conventional wisdom, culture, and Truth. I walked where many a great shoe has trod, wearing down the soles of my soft brown boots a little further as the pressure of the cobblestone's history took its toll on new rubber. Bloomsbury enveloped me entirely, and I glimpsed the ghost of Virginia Woolf, running around in a watchful, paranoid manner, her pockets heavy with stones.

I walked with other ghosts in the Old City, retracing their footsteps and hearing their tales. I walked in shadows of dark alleyways, catching the secrets of old buildings, hidden in plain sight. Three devils perched on gables; a skull and crossbones looming over a doorway; two thieving mice with a piece of cheese; all recessed into the architecture, hiding until a knowing soul directs your eye. A Blitz-bombed church, left for nature to reclaim, transformed by vines and blooms into a more fitting tribute to the glory of God.

Covent Garden, with its charming cobblestone alleys, was also full of ghosts, but these, though unseen, felt not dead, but very alive. Cheery, bubbling creatures, they had no tinge of melancholy or gloom. The ghosts of Covent Garden are concealed by unassuming corners, beyond which you can hear the rustle of skirts, envision a tattered hat, a smudged smile--flowers for sale. Dandies in top hats and tails strut to and from the theatre, posh and proper young ladies glance snobbishly through shop windows. I spied Antony and Cleopatra in their ill-fated affair.

I left to refresh myself, then caught a train that took me underground. I emerged in a different part of the city, and met an Arab who was chilled, far from his home. We sat in a Hobbit's pub and waited for his friends to call. We walked to the entrance to the Circus of Dreams we were about to enter, and I met his companions. One was a small, intense, sensitive English Hoodlum. The other was the Dread Pirate Roberts, though I did not immediately recognize him. It slowly dawned on me whose company I was in, and I realized that perhaps that was how the Arab had got to England. He said the Pirate was one of his best friends, and the Pirate, in any case, was Australian. Even I, with my rudimentary knowledge of geography, know that that Arabia lies between Australia and England, and must be passed through as a port-of-call. Perhaps the Arab had joined the Pirate's crew, or bartered passage. They were thick as thieves; that much was obvious. The Hoodlum provided them with stardust for their eyes before we entered the Circus. I preferred to see clearly; I was new here, and didn't want to miss anything.

We entered the Circus and I paid for my ticket, and was inspected. I passed. Inside, many creatures, of different forms and colors, danced wildly under flashing lights. I was trying to keep myself from being too drawn in by the Pirate, but it was difficult, especially considering the reputation that preceded him. Did he really leave no survivors? He was cruelly handsome, but perhaps that was the extent of the torture he inflicted. Unbearably good-looking. The Arab and the Pirate danced in the way one would expect them to, given their appearance and carriage, but the Hoodlum was far more feminine, more sensual than I would have imagined. His honesty impressed me. I gyrated my hips, in the old fashioned, borrowing techniques from the Arab's homeland. It was soon exhausting.

We ascended from the center ring to the outer rings, elevated above the dancing creatures, mingling with the quieter, more mysterious ones. There was a flapper from the 20s, in her black sheath dress and wavy bobbed hair with a silk headband and pearls. We sat on some steps and talked a while. The Pirate and I had much in common. We loved the same bands, and both enjoyed literature and philosophy. The Arab recited the first verse of the Koran, in a singing Arabic, to us. I sang my national anthem, and the Pirate liked it so much that he captured my voice in a small black square of metal he kept in his pocket. He captured my image with it, too, and I wondered what would become of me, now that I was trapped in a small black square of metal, bouncing against his hip. It didn't sound all that bad. I wondered how many voices and faces, from across the world, he had captured with that box. I had visions of Caribbean Queens with shells around their necks, Bedouin Beauties with squares of silk drawn over their faces, Japanese Geishas in bright floral kimonos and faces painted white.

The circus was exciting, but tiring, and the cloud of smoke that had at first seemed mystical was beginning to stifle me, the pulsing music was painfully pressing in my ears. I said my farewells to the Arab, the Pirate, and the Hoodlum, among invitations for later meetings, and then, suddenly, arose from the Circus of Dreams, back to the hard pavement. Not all reality had returned, however, for strange night-creatures from other circuses, other dreamlands, had escaped out onto the sidewalk as well, and were jostling for places on large red carriages. I asked several creatures to help me choose a carriage, and in the end, one directed me with some certainty and I found the rest of the way on my own. I walked alone, again, pounding pavement firmly into submission with my strong boots, my black armor flapping behind me, holding my head high, discouraging any who would impede my progress. I found my carriage, but had to run for it. Again, my boots served me well.

I climbed to the top of the carriage and it swayed and lurched beneath me like a beast, like a red dragon, growling in complaint of its heavy load. It dropped me near my home, and I easily made the last of my journey on foot, traveling familiar paths to my door. I thought of the Arab, and the Pirate, and the Hoodlum, and the creatures, and the ghosts, but that night I dreamed of fire, and magic, and thrilling, ecstatic fencing battles. I walk alone, through this City, and even when my companions are near me I feel like the City and I are in a world all our own.