Friday, May 31, 2013

#2 Stop on the London Book Lover's Tour: King's Cross and WB Studios

"It's the same every year, packed with muggles of course."

Mrs. Weasley doesn't exaggerate when she makes that comment about King's Cross Station in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (or Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, as they call it here in the UK) by J.K. Rowling.  It's packed, especially around the entrance to Platform 9 3/4, where muggles wait in a long line for a chance at running through the barrier.  (Not really, as they have people working there, probably to prevent just that).  If you're a Harry Potter fan, it's definitely worth a visit.  You'll be given a Hogwarts scarf of your choice, then you're able to pose for a photo with your cart, owl cage included!

But if you want even more Harry Potter fun, definitely check out the WB Harry Potter Studio Tour.  It is all sorts of magical.

You begin by watching a short film about how the books came to be movies.  Afterwards, the screen rises, revealing the door to the Great Hall.  You enter…

And yes, you're standing on the gigantic set of the Great Hall.

Set of the Great Hall.
Me, on the set of the Great Hall.
Afterwards, you move into a large studio, where you'll find the smaller sets:  the Gryffindor Boys' Dormitory, Dumbledore's Office, the Potions Classroom, the Burrow's Kitchen, and the Ministry of Magic, among others.
After the Great Hall, the Potions Classroom was probably my favorite set.  It's much larger than this one photo shows.
They had wigs for everyone, but
I liked this Malfoy display the
best :)
I could't resist taking
a "selfie" in the Mirror
of Erised.
You'll also get to see some really cool props:  the Malfoys' wigs, the door to the Chamber of Secrets, the Triwizard Cup, some broomsticks, and my personal favorite, the Mirror of Erised.  There's so much that it takes a good two hours just to get through this part.

Then it's off to a large courtyard, where you can take a break with a glass of butterbeer.  This was my favorite part, not because of the butterbeer (though that is delicious), but because here is where you get to see (and even climb on, in a few cases) some of the best set pieces:  the Weasley's flying Ford Anglia, the Knight Bus, 4 Privet Drive, Hagrid's motorbike, the Hogwarts bridge, the Potters' cottage, Tom Riddle's gravestone, and the giant chess pieces.

Josh and I ride Hagrid's motorbike, with the Knight Bus (and the Hogwarts bridge) behind us.
4 Privet Drive!
After that, you move into the creature room, where you'll encounter a wall of goblin masks, Fawkes the phoenix, Dobby, Buckbeak, and Aragog, among others.  Afterwards, you'll get to take a stroll along the set of Diagon Alley.  Finally, you end with the huge Hogwarts model, which they used for aerial shots of the castle.

The set of Diagon Alley, complete with Ollivander's, Flourish & Blotts, and Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, among many others.
This Hogwarts model is HUGE.
If you're a big Harry Potter fan like me, you'll probably get teary-eyed.

We did a pretty thorough exploration of London, seeing all the major tourist sites and more, but the WB Harry Potter Studio Tour was by far my favorite!  If you're in the area, definitely check it out!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

#1 Stop on the London Book Lover's Tour: 221b Baker Street

"My friend here wants to take diggings, and as you were complaining that you could get no one to go halves with you, I thought that I had better bring you together."

Sherlock Holmes seemed delighted at the idea of sharing his rooms with me.  "I have my eye on a suite in Baker Street," he said, "which would suit us down to the ground.  You don't mind the smell of strong tobacco, I hope?"

"I always smoke 'ship's myself," I answered.
George, of the Scotland Yard!

Thus begins one of the best friendships (dare I say bromance?) in literary history:  that of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, sleuth and sidekick of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novels and short stories.  Sure enough, 221b Baker Street is a real place, now fashioned into the Sherlock Holmes Museum.

It's impossible to miss.  Being small, only about fifteen people are allowed at once, which means there's always a huge line out the door.  (My friend and I waited for an hour and a half…).  Keeping watch are workers dressed in Scotland Yard garb :)

Upon entering, you'll go up to the first floor and find yourself in what is fashioned to look like Holmes's and Watson's living room.  Yes, you can sit in the chairs in front of the fireplace, and if you're so inclined, try on their hats.  Next door is Holmes's bedroom.
I'm in Watson's chair and Josh is in Holmes's in the living room of 221b Baker Street.

Wax figures of Watson and Holmes.

The next floor features "artifacts."  What's interesting about this museum is that it passes off Holmes and Watson as real people, their stories as true histories.  For example, a glass case will house a ring and the card will say, "The ring Holmes discovered in A Study in Scarlet," or something like that (I don't remember exactly what the objects were).  That was very strange to me, but whatever.  I like to believe :)

Though the top floor is probably the most bizarre.  There you'll find several wax figures that depict the classic scenes.  Kind of cool, but also kind of scary.

Naturally, you can conclude the tour by stopping in the gift shop next door, where you can find magnifying glasses, pipes, hats, and all sorts of Sherlock Holmes memorabilia.

London: A Book Lover's Paradise

That's me in front of Parliament!
Well, Study Abroad 2013 is officially over.  The semester has finished and I've fled Sevilla's sunshine to the clouds of London, where I'm staying with family for two weeks.

Honestly, I didn't expect a lot from London.  I anticipated it would be just like New York, or Madrid, or Barcelona, or any other big city I've visited:  dirty, crowded, generic.

I was wrong.
My first glance at Big Ben!

Apart from the weather, London is gorgeous.  The old-fashioned houses, the palaces and fortresses, the shops, the parks, everything.  But what makes it especially fun is that no matter where you turn, you recognize something iconic:  Big Ben, the Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey, etcetera.

But what I love most about London is it's literary history.  Whether the home of a renowned writer or the setting of a classic, London has featured prominently in the book world.

Yes, that would be Buckingham Palace.

Over the next few days, I'm going to give a little virtual tour of London for Book Lovers.  So stop by!  If you know of anything interesting, tell me in the comments:  I have until Sunday to thoroughly explore :)

Thursday, May 16, 2013

What is Magical Realism?

When I tell people I came to Spain to study literature (among other reasons, but that's the academic reason), they look at me funny, as though my freckles have turned purple.  Not many English majors venture to Spain; most American students go to the U.K. to study literature, which makes a lot of sense.  But the U.K. is a little chilly for my tastes, so here I am.  Plus, I really like Spanish and Latin American literature, probably even more than I like Brit Lit.

Márquez, considered the master of
magical realism.
For decades, Latin American literature has been linked with magical realism, though technically, the genre hails from France.  But as my professor told us, "Americans do it better."

Gabriel García Márquez.  'Nuff said.

But what is magical realism?  For some reason, it's a genre that we have a lot of trouble defining.  Often I'll look at a book that's described as magical realism, but really it's urban fantasy (or even just fantasy). Recently my professor gave us a good definition, which I figured I'd share:

Magical realism is exactly what the name suggests:  magical events happen in the normal world, but what separates it from genres like urban fantasy is that the events are told as though they're completely ordinary.  There is no sense of awe.  No wonder.  The characters show little to no reaction, and if they do, it's something like, "Hmm, that's interesting," and then they continue on with their lives.  They don't dwell on it, and neither does the narrator.  Magic is almost an aside:  "By the way, he was levitating.  No biggie."

In One Hundred Years of Solitude, for example, a character starts to levitate.  Why?  Because he drank hot chocolate.  It's passed off as totally normal.  Nothing special.  Happens all the time.

So say a character discovers that her next door neighbor is a witch.  If she freaks out (because who ever heard of witches actually existing?) then most likely that's urban fantasy.  If it's mentioned in passing, such as, "As Natasha walked to school, she waved to her next door neighbor, Mrs. Andrews, who happened to be a witch," then most likely it's magical realism.

Set-Up & Pay-Off: The Shroud of Turin

Note:  So it was pointed out to me that this blog post is being discussed over here.  On that note, I'd just like to say that my intention is not to provide scientific information or discredit the Shroud in any way.  I'm certainly not qualified for that and I don't pretend to be.  Rather, the point of this post is to use the exhibit, which indeed has a room in which it claims the Shroud is resistant to temperature, water, etc., as an example of problematical set-up/pay-off.

The exhibit itself is hardly a scientific journal article.  There are no signs with information, no pamphlets…Nothing except an audio guide with a very clear goal:  to tell a story.  It's not the story itself I wish to focus on; it's the telling of the story, which left me and others very disappointed.

A few weeks ago my roommate told me that the Shroud of Turin was currently in Sevilla, which is a big deal, since it usually lives in Italy.  My response:  "What's in the world is the Shroud of Turin?"

"It's supposedly the shroud in which Jesus was wrapped when they took him off the cross," she explained.  "It has his image on it."

A negative photograph of the Shroud of Turin.
Interesting, indeed.  As a sometimes-wannabe-pseudo archaeologist, I like old stuff, and if this really was the shroud in which Jesus was wrapped, then that's pretty old.  Besides, I like to make checkmarks on my "List of Cool Things I've Seen in Museums" (which so far includes St. Peter's bones and Abraham Lincoln's hat, among others), so I decided to make a visit to the exhibit titled La Sábana Santa, which translates to "The Holy Shroud."

I wasn't really expecting much--just a piece of cloth--but it turned out to be a pretty neat exhibit, one that told a story.  It began with the discovery of the shroud in Medieval France, then proceeded to discuss the nineteenth-century photograph that revealed it to be a giant negative of a man who looks suspiciously like Jesus Christ.

Could it really be Jesus?  And the even bigger question, how is the image on the cloth when there's no signs of paint, ink, embroidery, or anything else of an artistic nature?  (Plus, the question that resounded in my wannabe archaeologist's mind:  How could a piece fabric survive 2000 years?  Fabric is one of the most degradable materials, which is why archaeologists rarely ever find it, and when they do, they only find tiny threads.)

These are the questions the exhibit tried to answer.  Slowly.  Each room offered a little bit more information, more clues:
  • Carbon dating -- Do the dates match Crucifixion?
  • Pollen samples -- Scientists are able to analyze pollen in the threads, which indicates where the fabric has been.  Indeed, the shroud had bits of pollen from plants that only grow in and around Jerusalem.
  • Forensic studies -- What do the blood stains and the positioning of the limbs indicate?

Each room added a little bit more; the entire time, the suspense built and built.  Soon enough, I was ready to scream into my audio guide, "Just tell me if it's real!"

Then, the rising action right before the climax:  the tests.

  • The shroud is impervious to water.
  • The shroud is impervious to temperatures, both hot and cold.
  • The shroud is impervious to light.  The image hasn't faded.
After thousands of years, the shroud has not deteriorated at all, something absolutely unheard of in the archaeological world.  Which makes one wonder if it really is a miracle…

By this point I'm bouncing on the balls of my feet with anticipation, wishing the audio guide would go faster (there were no cards next to the displays, so unfortunately I couldn't just read my way through).  I needed to know.  Then, finally, it told me to proceed into the next room.

The climax.  Now, after about an hour, it was finally time to actually see the shroud of Turin and find out what scientists have concluded:  is it really the shroud?

There it is.  Hanging on a wall behind glass.  I walk toward it, holding my breath, and--

"What you're seeing is a reproduction of the shroud of Turin.  The original is only taken out every twenty five years so that it doesn't deteriorate."

Wait…What?  Rewind, I need to hear that again.  Reproduction?  So that it doesn't deteriorate?

This is what I saw behind class.  Yup…It really is just a strip of fabric.
Sorry, but the exhibit was just asking for the string of blasphemies that escaped my mouth.

Nobody said anything about a reproduction.  A reproduction?  Of a strip of fabric?

That's hardly the worst of it.  The whole time the museum strung me along:  despite my doubts in the beginning, as I went along, I became pretty convinced.  The science seemed thorough, the evidence pretty solid…

Then the penultimate room.  The one with the tests:  impervious to water, impervious to temperature, impervious to light, impervious to time…

Then the last room:  "The original is only taken out every twenty five years so that it doesn't deteriorate."

Wait, but you just said…?  I thought…?  What happened to being impervious to everything?  Even time?

One sentence, and the museum lost me.  Nope.  
If this were a book, I'd have thrown it across the room.  Yup, this exhibit is a great example of what books shouldn't do.

When you pick up a book, you're putting your faith in the author.  You're trusting him with valuable hours of your life:  his book had better satisfy.

I'm not saying it should be predictable.  It should, however, have good set-up and pay-off:  they should match each other.

What do I mean by set-up?  Pay-off?

Set-up is information you need in order for the pay-off, another action, to be believable.  For example:

Joanne has to stop a bomb from detonating.  Fortunately, she has the instruction manual.  Unfortunately, it's written in Greek.

The set-up would be that Joanne knows Greek:  earlier in the book, we witnessed a scene in which she speaks Greek to her neighbor, who happens to be from Athens.  The pay-off would be that she can easily read the instruction manual and stop the bomb.  That's a good set-up/pay-off situation.  A bad one would be:  By the way, Joanne knows Greek.  We learn that she can speak it at the same time she needs it.  That's not very believable.

The Shroud of Turin exhibit had excellent set-up.  With every room, it gave just a tad bit more information, continuing to pique my interest as it tugged me along.  A little here, a little there, so that by the end, I wouldn't have been able to "put the book down."  I couldn't wait for the big reveal.

So set-up, great.  Pay-off, not so much.

Just like you can't have a good pay-off without a good set-up, if the pay-off isn't good, then the set-up is meaningless.  It's excess information, completely unimportant.  Which is how I felt after the exhibit: that the set-up was a waste of my time.

Moral of the story:  set-up/pay-off problems can go both ways.

Have you ever been really disappointed in something because of set-up/pay-off problems?  Movie, book, museum?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Virtual Tour: Barrio Santa Cruz

Since I just moved to a magical land known as Barrio Santa Cruz, I decided to do a blog post that documents my ever-exciting walk to the metro every morning.  It's like a virtual tour!

I wake up, often to flamenco singing or accordion music wafting up from the street.  As I open the shudders, I'm greeted with this view:  a stereotypical Spanish street.  Narrow, winding, with houses painted in shades of red, white, and gold.

I leave my house, which is the pink one to the left.  As you can see, it's across from a bar and a variety of shops.

This shop is my favorite.  I pass it every day, often several times a day.  Even though the shop's fragrance covers the whole street, each time I walk by I have to stop and smell the loose-leaf teas and spices, especially the piña colada tea.

I continue toward the metro, making my way through streets like this one.

Soon I emerge from the neighborhood (Santa Cruz) through this entrance.  Yes, it's bordered by the outer walls of the Álcazar, which is indeed a giant castle.

This is the main entrance into the Álcazar.  Every day, I have to make sure not to get run over by these black and yellow carriages, which are all over the city, but especially prevalent in this area.

As I leave the neighborhood, the Álcazar is to my left.  To my right?  The Cathedral, which is the third largest in the world.

I continue forward, leaving the castle behind me and passing by the Archivo de Indias, or the Archive of the Indies (that's the big square building on the left).  This is where records and all official business regarding the Americas were kept.  It currently houses an impressive collection of pictures/statues of Hernán Cortés

I arrive on Avenida de la Constitución.  To the left is a corner of the Cathedral (it's REALLY big) and to the right the Archivo de Indias.

 I walk down Avenida de la Constitución, which is always bustling with tourists, street performers, and locals just trying to get to Plaza Nueva or Calle Tetuan.

Finally I arrive in Puerta de Jerez, where I can hop on the metro, grab a coffee, or go relax by the river.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Why I Lost

So I lost the A - Z Challenge.  What's worse, I lost it with two letters left:  Y and Z, which were going to be "Youth Culture" and "Zzzzs:  An Ode to the Siesta."  Alas, I failed--but for good reason!

A week ago, my roommate and I moved from an apartment near Nervion (a modern but ugly district best known for its shopping mall) to a house in Barrio Santa Cruz, which is, well…magical.

How to describe it?  The house is four stories, but it's small:  the bottom floor is nothing but the front door, and after that, each story only has two rooms:  2) tiny kitchen and living room/dining room, 3) bathroom and our bedroom, 4) bathroom and other housemate's bedroom.

But the location?  Goodness gracious, where to begin?

Santa Cruz is the oldest neighborhood in the city, so as you might expect, it looks like a medieval Spanish neighborhood:  white walls trimmed with gold, narrow winding streets, fountains and small plazas bordered by the outer walls of a castle.

What's that?  A castle?

The entrance to the castle I now pass every single day :)
Oh, yes.  Santa Cruz neighbors the Cathedral an the Álcazar, the gigantic castle known for its Moorish architecture and extensive gardens.  Every day on my way to the metro, I pass by this beautiful castle.  So casual, right?  (Nope.  Every time I walk by, I freak out a little bit).

What's more?  There's a musician who has taken to playing his accordion below our window.  Then there's the flamenco singer who likes to stroll around the block.  Down the street, there's an old-fashioned spice and tea shop, which makes the whole neighborhood smell like, well…spices and teas.  Honestly, I feel like I'm living in Epcot.

Anyway, moving is a difficult, time-consuming process, which is why I failed.  But that's all right:  it was completely worth it.  Lots more space, a fantastic location, and a third housemate who happens to be one of our good friends.

No WiFi though (at least, not yet).  Surprisingly, I don't mind all that much.  It adds to the medieval feel of the neighborhood.

More pictures to follow!