Thursday, 15 May 2008

Ending Albany

Now that it's been five months, it's time to pass on some observations of Albany. New York's capital isn't what you might initially expect, but the sights fit it well.

This city has a stark contrast between ideal and reality. Sit across the Hudson River at night, and the Empire State Plaza is lit up in marbleous splendor. Stand at one end of the plaza and look down to see the ornate Capitol framed by four jutting agency buildings and the imposing height of the Corning Tower. Look at pictures, and the splendor of the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception or the Old D&H Railroad building stand out along with the green hills and tulips of Washington Park.

Then try to walk the streets or drive the roads. The disaster of the South Mall Arterial or the collisions of Washington Avenue, Western Avenue and Central Avenue will leave your head spinning while possibly crumpling your car the first time you drive here. Illogical urban planning has smeared the Capital Region with confusing roundabouts, bizarrely curving roads and a raised highway that blights the banks of the Hudson.

Those mystifying roads need repaved, too. Potholes and cracks look more like unattended sinkholes or giant canyons. Parking spots are so rare that they might as well be paved in gold to accentuate their value.

Different neighborhoods in Albany continue the contrasts. Like any city there are rich and poor areas, many of which are within a few blocks of each other. There is no rhyme or reason to their layouts. Above the mash of urban blight and renewal the concrete steeple of the corning tower stretches toward heaven.

That's the message of Albany: the importance of detail. So much of this city comes from great concepts. But for every terrific idea that has been realized in a building or business, there are streets and areas that blemish them.

The old saying goes "The Devil is in the details." And that's Albany. Every great idea and well-executed aspect is handicapped by technical demons in the fine print.

Sunday, 13 April 2008


The URL says "ricks2007travels" but let's not be picky about the year. I've visited another city, and if you're reading this, you must want to read about it. So enough chit-chat about continuing this blog whenever necessary, its time to talk about Boston.

Friday Deb had a job interview in Boston, which was rather convenient since I've been wanting to go there since coming to Albany. New York's capital is only about two and a half hours away from the capital city in Massachusetts, which I figure might be about as close to Boston as I'll ever live. A quick plan and Friday morning off work later, we were in the car on the Massachusetts turnpike heading for a "T" stop where the train would take us into the city. Along the way I got to make fun of the pilgrim hat that is the symbol for the Massachusetts Turnpike and make note of the wonderfully named town of "Wilbraham."

We got in around 12:30 and poked our heads up from the Subway stop onto Boston Common. It was an overcast day, but fortunately only a few rain drops fell. After looking around the common for a few minutes, we made our way through the financial district to find the building where Deb's interview was scheduled for 3:00. After locating that without much trouble, we just wandered around the East side of the city and Fan Pier, which used to be a big railroad/shipping junction. Then Deb had her interview, which lasted until 5:00 PM, during which time I walked around the financial district and read a book. Following that, we were both too tired to do much more exploring.

The next day started out with much better weather. It was sunny and clear, and we walked around the Boston Common and Public Garden for awhile. No swan boats were out yet, but we did see a statue in the Public Garden modeled after Make Way for Ducklings. After lunch at the bar the television show "Cheers" was set in, we walked the Freedom Trail, which is about three miles of historical landmarks. It includes things like the Massachusetts State House, the Church where the famous lanterns were hung, and the Bunker Hill memorial. Despite the fact that it was sunny and near 70 degrees when we arrived in the morning, a squall blew up and it was teeming rain by the time we finished at 5:00.

I'm not sure where the days went. We didn't get to go to the aquarium or any museums. There were plenty of things on the Freedom Trail we did see, but the time just flew by. We didn't even go down to walk past Fenway Park where the Red Sox were playing the Yankees.

I'll leave you with my impression of Boston. For being such a heralded city that tries to compete with New York City, the two places couldn't be farther apart. When we were there, Boston was fairly quiet for a city of its size. I was surprised at how light he traffic was, which is not to say it was anything approaching desirable. I was also surprised at how walkable Boston was.

And just like that it was time to head back to Albany. Thinking back, we didn't get to do much, but that's okay. We'll just have to go back sometime.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Curtain Call

Tomorrow I'll board a big metal pill with wings set to take me back across the Atlantic and away from the convoluted mass of buildings, roads and parks known as London. After spending three months here, I think its important to look back and take stock of what I gained here.

Its hard to believe the time has passed so quickly. But that's one of the easiest things to notice about London: your everyday shuffle becomes a bustling hurry to cross the street before the little green walking man turns red, it becomes a sprint to catch the tube train that is ready to pull out of the station, it becomes a rapid zigzag down a busy street just to walk home.

It takes a lot of energy to live here. Go to school, head home, and you're tired and ready to lie down for awhile. Its nice to spend some time reading a free London Lite or London Paper before summoning up the energy to cook dinner.

So managing energy and time are pretty important skills to develop here. It might sound like an opening speech at orientation by a college dean, but you need to know how to budget when it takes 40 minutes to get to school or 10 minutes to wait in line at the grocery store.

Yet those are skills I could have learned in any busy U.S. city. New York city would have been just as busy, and a lot less expensive. So I have to ask what I've gained specifically from being here in Britain.

The first answer is obvious. Being on another continent and seeing buildings older than European settlement in America gives you a great sense of human civilization. You can read all the history you want in a book, but until you've been at the site where Romans built a wall it just isn't the same. The understanding might be there, but it isn't as real. It gives a better sense of the human struggle -- where we've been and where we're going.

Other answers are obvious too. I've learned to fend for myself in a city, I've learned to find housing, I've managed my money in an environment so fiscally stressful you need to pinch blood from a penny. But I fully expected to become more self-sufficient in coming here.

I've visited lots of illustrious places and formatted memories that will last a long time. But memories only amount to seasoning, like the marinade on a piece of pork, unless you can draw some lesson from them. Then they might act as some sort of substance.

I won't pretend to have sorted all of my experiences into some lesson right now. To do so would be impossible, and to try would be foolish. But I do think there are two important points I've learned while in Europe.

The first is external. I understand how the world works and interacts far better now. It goes back to understanding history and from where the human race comes. Yet it goes further than that. I can better understand the way different countries and people interact. More importantly, I now understand that I'll never fully understand the way different countries and people interact.

The second is internal. I have a theory that if you uproot your life and place yourself in a new environment, you see your own personality, skills and essence in a way you never can in familiar surroundings. When you're at home or somewhere comfortable, its so easy to blend into a routine or the factors around you and lose sight of what makes your person and what are outside factors that influence it. Moving into an alien environment leaves one thing: you, perfect for introspection.

That theory has been reinforced by my time here. So what have I learned about myself?

For starters, I'm a lot more competent with a map than I would have guessed. As for something with a little more meaning ... well ... that might take some sorting.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007


You can hit all the major tourist destinations in Paris in one day. Major, meaning The Louvre (housing the Mona Lisa), Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower. You can hit them all, but you really shouldn’t.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have much choice. When your schedule dictates little more than eleven hours in Paris, you have to make the most out of it. Fortunately, I was armed with my trustee translator/girlfriend Deb, who has been to Paris and actually knew her way around the city relatively well.

The day started at 4:00 in the morning. That’s right, while folks at home were bedding down at 11 at night, I was rising and showering in preparation for the first tube train of the day to carry me to the newly remodeled St. Pancras International train station.

The early hours aside, it great to have an international train station on an Island. It is even better when that station is a remodeled one that opened less than a month ago. The place is gorgeous. Its waiting area has leather seats and wood floors while glass doors keep the cold air of the boarding area out. The trains sit at a level above the rest of the station, and you go up tilted moving walkways to get to them. Its really nice for suitcases.

The high speed trains leaving St. Pancras aren’t quite as new. Eurostar has been around for awhile, and its seats look like they were build tin the 1980’s. Still, the rail is new, and it can carry a train moving up to 186 miles per hour. I doubt we made that speed because it was raining on our trip, but we went from London to Paris by train in just two hours and 15 minutes.

I missed most of the journey though. That 4 a.m. waking time put me to sleep on the train, and I fell asleep just outside London and woke up outside of Paris. I missed going through the chunnel!

An itinerary of our day in Paris looks like a weekend trip. We started by going to Sacré Cœur, Sacred Heart Basilica, which sits up on a hill and overlooks Paris with a great view. It is also some pretty nice architecture itself. We saw Place de Vendôme, a large green pillar that disrupts traffic in an expensive shopping district. The Opera House was around there, too. We also saw The Louvre and the Mona Lisa, Notre Dame and, of course, the Eiffel Tower.

Because we walked to all of those places, I got to see plenty of Paris. The city seems to have been purposefully built to not allow you to walk on one street for more than one block, since there are very few roads that stretch that far. Sidewalks are also a luxury that gets little space. But it definitely has its own flavor. My personal impression is that Paris as a whole doesn’t want to leave the glory days of the 1920s, and its plethora of neon signs and style of artwork. And that suits the city just fine.

Because we were walking, we stumbled upon Mary Magdalene Church, which looks like a Roman temple from the outside. It is definitely a Catholic church inside, though. It might be my favorite church I’ve visited this trip because of the fascinating architectural dichotomy.

I’ll skip to the big three things we did to spare you more tales of tiny city streets and tourists taking pictures. The first of those things is the Louvre and the Mona Lisa.

The Louvre is enormous. It’s an old palace turned into an art museum, and walking through it takes awhile. Eventually, though we found the Mona Lisa, which had the obligatory gaggle of tourists surrounding it. Personally, I was surprised by how big it was. Everyone always talks about how they are surprised at how small it is, and this had be geared up to see a painting the size of a postage stamp. It isn’t. It’s significantly larger than most television screens.

After taking in a few other pieces of art at the Louvre, we sadly had to leave and head over to Notre Dame. We got to snap pictures inside, which is a nice departure from England, where I am used to a bunch of figures in red cloaks running after you anytime you even think about a camera. All of Paris was very accepting of pictures, which was wonderful. The real nice thing about Notre Dame is the back, though. Flying buttresses surround the curved end of the church, making for a very nice effect.

From there we headed over to the Eiffel Tower. By this time it was very dark, rainy, and cold. Sadly it had rained on and off all day, and my socks were soaked. We were very wet and shivering by the time we reached the tower.

We took elevators to the top, where it was even colder and extremely windy. The great view was worth, it though. I’m glad we did the tower last, because I could pick out the different places we visited during the day.

After coming back down from the tower, we had to hurry to Gare du Nord (the train station) to catch our train. This necessitated taking the Metro, which was not an easy task. The station just next to the Eiffel Tower was closed, so we had to walk a good way to find another station that was open. Once there, Deb allowed her linguistic skills to take over and found out the best way to go from the attendant. I have to hand it to her: afterward she was disappointed because her grammar was wrong. Considering they had a lengthy discussion, I think she did rather well.

She also did a good job navigating the city. Normally, she has the sense of direction of a depolarized compass and I won’t let her near a map. But I could tell she wanted to be the one to navigate Paris, since she’d been there before, and let her take the lead. I don’t know whether she knew the city, but she certainly exceeded expectations.

I managed to stay awake the entire way back, although I was exhausted. The chunnel didn’t seem like much since It was already dark outside. We were riding along in the dark, then were riding along in the dark tunnel, then were riding along in the dark again.

If you’re exhausted from reading this, and you should be, imagine how tired I was after living it. It’s a shame we didn’t have two or three days to do it all.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Last Weekend in London

This was my last weekend in London. My last chance to dodge weekend Tube works. My last chance to be crushed by the gaggle of Oxford Street shoppers on Saturday afternoon. My last chance to watch The X Factor on Saturday evening.

Needless to say, some of these "lasts" are more heartbreaking than others. What it really turned out to be was a weekend of catching up on things I've meant to do for three months but never got around to doing.

Friday Deb and I headed over to the Christmas village in Hyde Park. There was a big ferris wheel and, an ice skating rink, kid's rides, a Christmas-themed haunted house, and numerous little holiday shops. When riding the wheel, we could see the London Eye and Big Ben, meaning we were looking wheel-to-wheel.

Saturday I headed over to Paddington Station to see the place where the famous bear was supposedly dropped off. Then, the afternoon slipped away into two museums: The Science Museum, which I'd never before visited, and the Natural History Museum, which was just worth stopping by to see some things that had been overlooked last time. I won't bore you with too many specific exhibits, but I saw a partially built model of the world's oldest design for a computer (adding machine). It's enormous, and its being built for an American Museum in the Science Museum here in London.

Today Deb and I checked out the changing of the guard at Buckingham palace. Pre-ceremony rain almost washed out our chances of seeing anything, but it stopped and we got to crane our necks over a crowd to see two guards march out and take the place of two other guards after witnessing a group of guards march in. They weren't even wearing red because their winter coats were gray. It was a little lackluster in comparison to the changing of the guard in Stockholm.

On the way home we walked by speaker's corner for the last time. The Christian speaker was explaining why Muslims are wrong to riot over the naming of a teddy bear. Across from him, the Muslim speaker was explaining why the Christian speaker was wrong. I'll certainly miss walking through the park on Sunday afternoons.

Sorry I kept this short and choppy, but tomorrow we take the Eurostar to Paris for the first and last time. The train leaves at 6:30 AM, so I need time for sleep.

Thursday, 6 December 2007


If you're tired of reading about weekends, lean a little closer, because this is a quick update about a Monday. Two hours on a Monday, actually, when my International Communications class went to Reuters.

Yes, the news agency Reuters. The one that supplies half the pictures you see on every TV news and the text stories you read on Yahoo! (And only on Yahoo! since practically every other print company uses AP.) They have a building here in London, and one of their larger newsrooms is in it.

The building is at the currently chic Canary Wharf, which means there is no easy way to get there from Faraday House. I settled for taking the Central Line (Tube) to the DLR (Docklands Light Railway). It was my first time taking the DLR, which runs mostly above ground and cuts through some less-than-photogenic sections of East London before it stops at a shopping mall in Canary Wharf.

Apparently the mall is quite upscale. I didn't notice, though, because I spent too much time wondering how to get out of it. It was as if the designers didn't want you to stop shopping!

Eventually I found my way out to the large "courtyard" of the wharf, where a large slab of prettied-up concrete is surrounded by the lightly lapping waters of the Thames, several buildings, and a very new Tube stop -- which was unfortunately the Jubilee line and thus all but worthless for travel from Faraday House.

Figuring out which building is the Reuters building isn't hard. It's the one with a scrolling electronic news ticker ala New York City. Getting inside the building, though, is almost as hard as getting out of the mall where the DLR stops.

But I managed, after peering in the window of several restaurants on the basement floor before walking up concrete steps and entering the first floor. Darn those buildings built on hills! Once inside, the lobby is quite impressive. A nice large screen flashes news and is augmented by all sorts of wood paneling and chrome. Each member of our class got some fancy plastic credit-card style name tags which looked like they would be nice souvenirs. Sadly, we didn't end up getting to keep them.

The tour of the newsroom was pretty standard. I won't bore you with the details. They aren't nearly as interesting as the details of getting to Canary Wharf or actually getting in to the building.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

It's beginning to look a lot like its time to go home

With only two weeks left in London, its time to start doing all of the activities that have been overlooked so far. All of the museums have to be seen, the sights have to be visited and the foods have to be tried.

Thursday, November 29

Museums are a good start, since they are free. After I finished class on Thursday the British Museum beckoned. Now, the British Museum is unique in that it doesn’t contain any British artifacts, or even many European artifacts. Instead, it is a collection of treasures the United Kingdom picked up during its imperial days. You can see everything from Roman temples to Persian pottery to Egyptian mummies.

The highlight is the Rosetta Stone, though. The famous piece of carved slab that allowed researchers to decode ancient Egyptian sits in the middle of the Egypt exhibit, surrounded by glass and fawning tourists. It’s surprisingly big.

Friday, November 30

Another day, another free entry, this time to the National Gallery. I don’t pretend to know a lot about art, but Deb fancies impressionism, so we spent a good two or three hours strolling through the winding halls of the National gallery. There were some works by Picasso and other famous painters, and some of the art stretched back to the 1250s.

We started with the recent impressionists, though, and essentially went back in time. The farther back we went, the more repetitive the subjects of the paintings got. By the time we hit 1250, the only art they had was from churches. I know artists didn’t paint much else in those days, but if I saw more shepherds offering gifts to baby Jesus I was going to scream.

The National Gallery is in Trafalgar Square, and we hopped across the street to St. Martin in the Fields’ “Café in the Crypt” where we had afternoon tea. We hadn’t had a proper afternoon tea, and this one was a bargain by London Standards. Some hotels charge up to £16 for high tea, but ours cost a paltry £5 each. Each tea plate wasn’t skimpy by any standards, including two cups of tea, a piece of multilayer chocolate cake, a piece of cherry sponge cake, a scone, jam and clotted cream (thick whipped cream). It was delicious, not to mention very filling.

On the way home we ducked into Hamleys to take in the five story toy store during the Christmas season. It was everything you could expect, with parents running around looking for lost children and clerks demonstrating toys wherever you looked. I think I could live in Hamleys.

Saturday, December 1

I’ve lived on Edgware road, which is heavily populated by Lebanese, for three months now, and until Saturday I had not tried any Lebanese food. Obviously, there was a lot of choice in restaurants when I finally decided it was time.

Three of us went to Maroush, a sit-down resteraunt about two doors down from the entrance to our flat. They were pretty cheap, for a sit down restaurant, and had an expansive menu with clear English subtitles.

The food was splendid; I had falafel along with rice with lamb. Now, I’ve eaten falafel in the dining hall at Syracuse, and it was not a pleasant experience. Apparently fresh ingredients and a chef who knows what he’s doing make a world of difference.

After a very filling meal, it was time to waddle down to Oxford Street. To promote Christmas shopping, the city had kindly closed Regent and Oxford streets to traffic. I just wanted to go in order to walk on the streets that are typically populated by large buses and aggressive taxis, but it was also useful in that Deb and I stopped in some of the stores that we pass every day walking to and from school but have still never visited.

I won’t detail every stop, but Selfridge’s was definitely the most interesting. Never mind the “wonder room,” containing watches and wine worth thousands of pounds. No, the best part of the store was the foodhall. We found out, three months too late, that they stock a good deal of American food, if you’re willing to pay for it. JIFF peanut butter? £2.50. Oreos? £4.00. Aunt Jemima pancake syrup? £6.50.

The fact that it was probably the most expensive bottle of Aunt Jemima I’ll every see, it was fun to see those American brands again. Maybe I’ll go back before flying home in order to brush up on US food.

Street entertainers littered the road, providing us with lots of fun while walking. Dancing Santas, a balloon comic, Dora the Explorer and Paddington Bear were all there. They had plenty of an audience, because I’ve never seen a street with that many people walking down it. It was elbow to elbow the entire way across.

We also stopped in at the flagship Apple store on Regent street because it started raining on our parade. I checked my e-mail on an iPhone and examined the new iPod Nano and iPod Touch. I hadn’t realized that the iPod Touch has WiFi, but now I can see that it would be quite handy.

On the way home, it was “snowing” outside of Debenham’s. The snow was actually little bubbles, but it was, nonetheless, a nice Christmasy touch.