Category Archives: adventure

The Twelfth Floor Heterotopia

Arlanda Airport

The other day I was in a government building and asked a guard where I could find the bathroom. ‘On the twelfth floor,’ she grunted. Then she disappeared, turning on her rubber heel, keys clanking. Right, to the twelfth floor.

The twelfth floor signalled my entrance into a heterotopia of first world bureaucracy. Michel Foucault, the 20th century French intellectual, describes a heterotopia as an enacted utopia that expresses a vision of a societal ideal. A secular higher power directs meaning within these spaces. The power may be cultural or political or social as long as it illustrates the operation of a group. Some may enter the area while others are prohibited. These spaces reveal how we structure our world and respond to taboos. They possess both intellectual and practical functions. As I examined the limbo-esque twelfth floor, I better understood my community.

In addition to public rest rooms — so-called public, I had to show an appointment confirmation and passport to pass security and access them — the twelfth floor boasted a café (aptly named Café on Twelve) and empty locked rooms. I saw a man on his phone and a woman waiting for the elevator. The emptiness evoked the distance the building put between its functions and visitors. Although the visitors had been chosen to enter, they were shielded from the bureaucracy’s inner workings. Shades of pale and mossy green covered the walls like an alien’s living room. After seeing this sinister hue, the tenth floor’s plastic pink felt like the cheery. Whereas the public amenities floor intimidated me with closed doors and strange colours, the tenth floor distracted me with a bright, false cheer. Openness and restriction characterise government bureaucracy.

Foucault argues that access to space and spatial relations dictate modern life. The sites we visit define us. Frequenting a museum or being admitted to a hospital gives us a distinct social identity through which to perpetuate culture as reflected in a given area. Government buildings accomplish a similar function. Entering one of these guarded edifices associates the individual with a specific ideology, defines them according to the law and asserts their role as an ordinary citizen. The government building is a heterotopia in that it mirrors society and social relations while existing separately from the daily orbit of most citizens.

Myriad citizenship identities were being formed and performed during my visit. There were the deviants; arguing with the guards over phones and restrictions. Others acted as enforcers, upholding social norms. Some played the atemporal: they were waiting when you arrived and waiting when you left, casting them in a separate orbit from the standard 30-minute appointment. Our purposes impacted our roles. Some sought citizenship, others green cards renewals and others foreign visas. Although the heterotopia echoed the country in which we lived, our respective sections of the mirror corresponded with our social identity.

Despite our unique roles, we were all social others — individuals seeking to alter our citizenship status — in this heterotopia of deviation. A heterotopia of deviation collects individuals whose actions, and consequently identities, digress from the social norm. Foucault argues that the heterotopia of deviation has largely replaced the heterotopia of crisis (at least in modern cultures), which dominated in centuries when knowledge directed relations between groups and individuals. A heterotopia of crisis collected individuals in a critical mental, physical or emotional period. Foucault cites boarding schools, old-style honeymoons and military service as heterotopias of crisis that separated people in compromised states from routine life. Rather than cast out people in difficult periods, we rebuke people who exhibit a strange identity.

Time impacted the social and governmental interpretation of my national identity. Defining my identity as ‘deviant’ as opposed to ‘in crisis’ was a product of the 21st century’s loosened borders. Whereas immigrants to the US during the early 20th century were processed en masse on an island, modern migrants are processed in varying degrees of public view. Migration is no longer solely the product of a crisis — of money, of religion, of food, of family — that brings migrants to a new space. While contemporary migrants may be undergoing crises, the motivations are varied. I was a deviant: I was deviating from the path my country had set for me and, accordingly, entered into spaces that delicately pushed me away from others. They pushed me toward the desolate twelfth floor.

Crossing the threshold of the heterotopia ushered me into alternate temporal realms. My time within the building was sectioned: there was my appointment time; the queues, waiting for my number to be called; and my brief appointment. Time’s regimentation within the heterotopia foreshadowed the new demarcations I’d experience upon leaving: there would be the time to send my application; the window of time during which I could enter the country; the days when I’d be permitted to pick up a residence permit; the years for which I’d be allowed to stay within the country; the hours I’d be permitted to work; the day on which I’d be required to leave. My new experience of time within the heterotopia anticipated how I’d experience shared cultural time upon leaving.

But even as this heterotopia acted upon us visitors, it also acted with us. This was how I arrived at the twelfth floor. Although the building could have been closed in a fortress of hidden governmental rules, society’s insistence on viewing itself as a democracy required it to be at least partially open. So I had the terrace café and a toilet amidst an alien-green hallway of closed doors. My heterotopia of bureaucracy asserted that my society was open, even as it partitioned my time, directed my identity and determined my movement.

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A Trip to the Museum

Louvre Pyramid

You’re in a room, surrounded by pots. The walls are off-white grey, the floor a cool putty tile. These pots, or amphorae as they’re described, are old, but their meticulous preservation belies their years. You should look as good at 5,000 years old. Or is it 1,000? You amble over to the nearest display case and count five — no, wait! seven — specimens studiously exhibited. In between the matching jars sit various attractive artefacts whose utility remains obscure to the modern eye. A quick glance at a nearby placard — the same silvery-putty as the display’s base and the floor — reveals that the amphora in the upper left hand corner dates back to 420 B.C. from the Greek colony of Lucania in Southern Italy. And that small, colourful who-knows-what? It’s a carved gem from 350 B.C. Welcome to the museum, home to history, hidden wonder and society’s shifting cultural priorities.

We visit museums to absorb our material past, thereby engaging in a dialogue with humanity’s values. Stroll through the galleries at the Met, British Museum, Hermitage or Rijksmuseum and you see society’s prized possessions: we saved this, this matters to us. These ostensibly immortal relics allow us to believe that we, too, could live forever. Every pot and painting possesses a creator who, like us, once ate, drank and slept and continues to speaks their descendents. Once categorised in a display case, the trajectory toward eternity seems simple; exist, make something, die, exist through object. Yet, as the museum-goer circles in search of the galleries they want to see realises, the linear path from artefact to immortality is a tortuous maze.

Despite the museum’s unique ability to curate a vision of humanity across temporal, spatial and cultural boundaries, they’re battling to stay relevant in a spectacle-obsessed world. New York’s Museum of Modern Art highlights stunt installations to draw drama-ready crowds. The Met creates blockbuster costume exhibits to fashion an Instagram-friendly museum experience. As Jerry Saltz argued in his article on the new Whitney building for New York , modern museums must make sure their galleries and exhibitions are hospitable to social media-minded visitors in order to gain the free publicity necessary to ensure their financial viability. From advance ticketing to comically long queues, the modern museum boasts the crowds of a pre-Christmas shopping trip. On one hand, this could illustrate a broadened appreciation for connecting with history and culture. On the other hand, the hype may hide a superficial interest.

Art Museum, Berge

If we visit museums, in part, to increase our social capital and fulfil our duties as good citizens, then we can say that the museum’s space is as important — if not more so — than the works on display in crafting our artistic experience. As the recent debate on the introduction of a Guggenheim in Helsinki reveals, a museum has the potential to change the mental geography of a city’s inhabitant, rendering them variously more open and closed to money, politics, and power in addition to aesthetics. The same tension exists within the galleries, which dictates the flow of people through the space. Walk through the central rooms — well funded with prime real estate and culturally pertinent artefacts — and you battle for floor space. Stroll around the periphery and you commune privately with the lesser-known artists, whom the local economy and political and cultural beat has forgotten. This struggle between excitement and emptiness suffuses today’s discourse on museums; it’s the struggle between maintaining integrity and winning public attention.

Some museums may effortlessly woo crowds with their compelling and popular artefacts, but most — as Helsinki’s Guggenheim debate displays — must rely on something else to generate interest. There’s the thrill of corroborating Munch’s The Scream against the pervasive imitations. There’s the awe at seeing Michelangelo’s David in its towering, marble glory. But most museums can’t boast grand cultural touchstones and no museum packs every room full of stunning, recognizable works. In the absence of in-built awe, the museum attendee must unite their personal interests, the museum’s collection and what history has to present through whatever means are at their disposal.

Take a spectacular Bucchero drinking-cup on view at the British Museum. To a modern mind, this Etruscan bowl-like mug looks relatively ordinary, apart from its large handles and odd etchings scrawled on the smooth black surface. Nothing about the mug immediately belies its 2,600 years nor suggests the importance of its written engraving for Etruscan scholarship (the Etruscans are notoriously mysterious in part because they left behind no written record apart from what’s found on artefacts). Stop, read and contemplate: there are cultural marvels hidden in the mug’s form. The online description says the etching reads, ‘mi repesunas aviles’ or ‘I belong to Avile Repesuna’. Although it might be useful to know that Avile was a common name for the Etruscans and that Repesuna was a family name, these facts seem secondary to the object’s underlying truth: 2,600 years ago this cup was an important object for someone as alive as you and I are right now. It belonged to someone who felt it important enough to write out the name of their father/master/husband/other relation on their drinking cup. More than a purely aesthetic representation of past cultures, the British Museum’s Etruscan Bucchero drinking cup incites us to reflect on our humanity and our relationship with posterity.

Marithuis, The Hauge

Yet our sparse knowledge of the works on display prevents us from engaging in personal reflection in museum galleries. In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton argues that the ability to ask questions about our surroundings enables us to bridge spatial, temporal and physical barriers. Unfortunately, short token descriptions of amazing objects detract from the visitor’s ability to ask questions and relate a foreign object’s historical context to their contemporary web of meaning. A black handled chalice might inspire perfunctory awe, but understanding how the Etruscan’s favourite mug developed into your extra-large Cath Kidston-flower bedecked drinking vessel requires complex consideration. Perhaps increasingly entertainment packed exhibitions and emphasis on social media prevent the individual from seeing the wondrous division between their current existence and the human history of the objects on display.

The tension between knowledge, interest and relevance characterises the pressures on today’s museums, which must find new ways to engage those accustomed to spectacle while celebrating the artefacts on display. Whether we’re asked to take selfies or analyse thought-provoking exhibitions, today’s museums ask the visitor to for a new sort of participation in forming their art experience. Given this interaction between individual, space and object, the museum teaches us not only about humanity’s history, but also about our current social climate. It is the museum’s ability to display a spectrum of history that demands they participate in current viewing trends. As art’s social role shifts, the museum must react to the shifting viewpoints of its patrons.

How to Snowshoe for Beginners

Snowshoes

 

Go snowshoeing! All you need is a pair of shoes and the ability to walk!! This appeal reverberates throughout snowshoe literature, but — in my experience — a successful expedition requires more. You’ll need warm clothes and, if you’re the whinging sort, waterproof pants. You’ll want insulated gloves, a backpack, some water and trail mix, not to mention a pack of disposable hand warmers. Although snowshoeing may have once been a question of strapping on flotation-friendly shoes and walking across deep drifts, modern sensibilities have complicated the sport, evidencing a shift in how contemporary society moves.

Neither heroic age explorers nor intrepid mountaineers sparked my snowshoeing mania. Nancy Drew launched my desire to crunch over the white stuff. I was twelve, playing White Wolf of Icicle Creek. I sent the game gratuitously crunch-crunching over simulated snow in my artificial shoes. Even though snowshoeing starred in my winter reveries for years before I strapped actual metal frames onto my real-life boots, those dreams opened me to the sport’s unique pace and beauty.

As ice skating began as a way to converse energy in frigid Northern Europe, snowshoeing sprung out of necessity. Snowshoes helped those living in cold regions reduce the effort needed to cross areas blanketed in snow. Unfortunately, since early snowshoes were composed of wood, clues to the shoes’ origins have dissolved along with the snow they traversed. We may be momentarily sated by British archaeologist, Jacqui Wood’s assertion that Ötzi, a remarkably preserved corpse found near Bolzano in Northern Italy, died wearing his snowshoes. In the absence of a distinct origin, the modern snowshoe-r may freely transpose their understanding of the sport onto its history.

Despite the uncertain provenance, researchers have charted the snowshoe’s development in relation to the terrain in which the shoes were found. Given the distinct appearances of snowshoes in North America and Europe, nomadic Central Asian tribes are thought to have invented the shoe, taking their gear with them as they dispersed. Thus, the unique snowshoes in Northern Europe, Canada and Eastern United States arose from a common ancestor. The variations we see were subsequent adaptations to suit each terrain’s unique challenges. In the North Eastern United States, Native Americans favoured Bear Paw shoes. These shoes were wide and circular, perfect for manoeuvring in densely wooded areas. Maine Native Americans preferred a longer style, aptly called the Maine snowshoe, that allowed the user to move quickly across large expanses. Within each region, various shoes would be interchanged throughout the season, depending on the specific snow conditions. Although the snowshoe’s origins are up for debate, the relationship between the snowshoe’s local use and environment marked, and continues to mark, the shoe’s development.

Trees on the trail

Modern snowshoes seem the natural progression in snowshoe’s evolution, responding to today’s multi-purpose manner of sport as previous models responded to topographic particularities. Gone are the regionally specific, artfully woven foot beds. Today we enjoy zippy aluminium frames with waterproof neoprene foot beds and tough steel crampons. A standard pair of snowshoes can transition from backcountry terrain to rolling hills, reflecting the varied approach the modern sportsperson craves. We aren’t static in our practice; we move between regions, shifting landscapes and lengthening our hikes. Although certain subcultures cry the superiority of the traditional snowshoe, these old models are better at generating romantic fantasy than navigating trails. The contemporary snowshoe’s ability to shift between various terrains and purposes reflects spontaneous modern movement as the North Eastern Bear Paw or Maine-style shoe once mirrored local culture.

None of this was on my mind as I set out on that first nerve-fuelled snowshoe hike. After driving the six-hours from Brooklyn’s cement-grey to the Adirondacks’ snow dusted peaks, my legs itched to escape into the enticingly unblemished powder. But what was once routine for the region’s Iroquois population was, for me, an endeavour.[1] Shivering in the mountain chill, I hurried into my sweater, zipped up my vest, yanked on my socks and laced up my boots. With ceremonial pomp, I threw my backpack over my down-coated shoulders. Now came the rite of the first snowshoe fastening. Although these preparations might seem hopelessly modern — as distant from the Iroquois’ daily snowshoe jaunt as my subway commute — the process helped my speedy twenty-first century mind relate to the simple pastime.

If elaborate skis exemplify complicated contemporary winter sports, snowshoes are the no-frills throwback. Forget the instructor strapping on your skis, your own trembling hands can put on snowshoes. And forget skis punishing your curiosity as you stand up; snowshoes won’t slide in separate directions like wooden sticks will. I stood up, took a tentative first step, and felt the tight grip I had against the snow. One step became two and five the snowshoe’s steel crampons continued to support me. The shoe’s back remained loose like a flip-flop.[2] When I reached a slightly slick surface, the metal grips protected me from plummeting down. No matter your hiking style, there’s a snowshoe to support you. There are light shoes for running; mid-sized shoes for hiking on groomed trails; and large shoes for venturing into the backcountry. But I didn’t worry about the best shoe. I just fastened my rental shoes, handed to me without mention of a size, and began to stomp atop the snow.

Forget wobbling around on ice skates for years, snowshoeing is an instant gratification sport. But even instant gratification necessitates a revised outlook. For the flat hike, snowshoeing requires adapting your gait for a wider-than-normal base and adjusting your expectation from a brisk walk to a contented clomp. You walk and you wander and, if you arrive at a hill — steep or shallow — you pause momentarily taken aback by the incline. Look down at your feet and appreciate the ample base grounding you. Approach the incline at a slight angle then walk. Aha! The metal grabs earth and you enjoy a solidity no normal shoe could possess. Adjust your posture, maybe move forward a bit to prevent yourself from tumbling back. Poles might be helpful, but they aren’t necessary. Because, with a little focus, you’ll realise you’ve conquered your mini summit and are ambling to the pleasant rhythm of snowshoes thwacking against icy trails.

Like anything that excites people, snowshoe literature presents manifold techniques and competitions for zealous athletes. Magazines articles describe the fervid sub cultures that only snowshoe using traditional wooden shoes, the kind that decorate every serious lodge’s fireplace. Blogs profile the athletes petitioning to earn Olympic recognition for the sport. But you can abandon your competitive streak at the lodge, along with the ornamental snowshoeing gear. Meandering through the pristine terrain means wandering away from the present. Spotless trails offer a glimpse into what snow would look like if cars and foot traffic didn’t blacken it immediately. Routine concerns dissolve; just navigate from point A to point B without becoming a galumphing wet mess. Only now, if you do slip into soppy misery, there’s a warm room and a cup of hot cocoa waiting for you.

Light through trees

Whereas the production of superlative snowshoes was once an art, the modern preoccupation seems to concern techniques for a first-class expedition. This discussion displaced the location of art in snowshoeing. Before the industrialisation of snowshoe production, snowshoe making was a prized craft and way to interact with spiritual forces, in addition to being an essential survival skill. Although some traditional snowshoe craftspeople still exist, large companies manufacture the majority of footwear traversing the trails. We can personalise our hike by selecting from among a rainbow of colours and different frames. This consumerism bears no resemblance to art. But a peaceful walk through the wood does. When the discussion of gait and proper shoe disappear, we’re left with the same terrain the snowshoe-ers of yesteryear crossed. We may experience the journey differently — following packed trails bears little resemblance to marking freshly fallen powder — but the basic elements remain. As Native Americans remained mobile through harsh winters, so can our identities shift on a snowshoe expedition.

The trail’s peaceful atmosphere and clean landscape immediately enveloped me, but it was the calming rhythm of walking through snow that seduced me. Is this how Native Americans felt as they traipsed to their destination? What was it like when populations required snowshoes? These thoughts danced into my mind, then fluttered out as I admired a small, snow cloaked tree or listened to the sound of water running under a frozen over lake. Sometimes a song would pop into my head, disappearing when I arrived at the more absorbing rhythm of water flowing under a frozen stream. The sun filtered down through the trees, illuminating the snow with a gentle glimmer. A frigid winter breeze occasionally whipped through, but the consistent movement promptly warmed you. I imagine Native Americans felt similarly.

Snowshoeing shouldn’t be considered a niche sport: it is everywhere. It allows you to encounter the past and engage with your present. It can be a serious, Olympic-minded endeavour or a fun afternoon activity. It helped shape continents and cultures. Snowshoeing is modern and antiquated, and all the more exciting because it exists within this tension.

[1] It should be noted that neither the Iroquois nor the Algonquin, the Native American tries settled in New York, settled in the region. Instead, the used the mountains for warfare.

[2] This is not true of all snowshoes. Some strap to the rear of your foot as well, reducing the snow spray with each step, making it less likely you’ll need gaiters to keep snow out of your boots.

Max Burger, Sweden and Midsummer Dining

Dinner at Max Burger

If the rules are suspended when travelling, they disappear when travelling during a foreign holiday. Although I knew the Swedes celebrated Midsummer primarily at their country homes, I didn’t anticipate their exodus from Stockholm. Without any residents, every store — from the Coop supermarket on Odenplan to the H&M on Drottninggatan — closes for the holiday. The remaining residents and visitors queue up at Skansen to celebrate in a simulated rural environment.

My mother and I didn’t join the others at Skansen and we didn’t join them at the only open restaurant on Birger Jarlsgatan. We slummed at Max Burger, Sweden’s answer fast food of choice since 1968, and, for 138 SEK (about $20), shared two sparkling waters in soda cans; a grilled chicken burger of dubious origin; a fish burger crusted in rice krispies; french fries that resembled potato stix; and a side salad with a single cherry tomato. Included in the price was also a table bolted to the floor, a solid plastic booth and a window with a scenic view over a grey, empty Stockholm. It wasn’t what either of us had in mind for midsummer dinner, but came to symbolise travel’s topsy-turvy nature for us.

Fast food in the 21st century exists on society’s fringes. Although McDonalds has traversed the globe, enter into any restaurant — as McDonald’s prefers to call them — and you enter an ‘other’ space. The rules as they exist outside the sliding door are suspended. From the smell and the music to the furniture and the lingo everything within the fast food outpost is a carefully crafted mirror of reality. If you glance quickly, Max Burger’s plastic chairs could pass for an IKEA-cheap take on Scandinavian style. They’re white with clean lines and none of McDonald’s misguided modern clown colours. If you ignore the pervasive fried aroma, the large windows could indicate a nicer-than-average dining experience. At a distance, Max Burger resembles a 60’s space age fantasy. The white is too shiny; the blue is metallic; and the orange similar to a rocket from a child’s drawing. The tall, slight domed ‘A’ in the logo looks like a rocket, suggesting that a meal at Max Burger will propel you into another universe. Order your meal at the computerised express counter and you transform into a denizen of the Max Burger galaxy. Order you meal at the counter and you enter the traditional fast food realm, complete with photos of your meal and a dizzying number of options.

Södermalm

Eating midsummer dinner at Max Burger was an alternate reality. For a few moments you imagine that you don’t have a ticket to Oslo the next morning. Like the other diners, you’re a Swede, enjoying a nostalgic meal on a special day. Max Burger’s insistence on their Swedish heritage ensures the generic details retain a thrilling exoticism. This isn’t just a fast food burger; it’s a Swedish fast food burger. It’s the burger advertisements declare ‘astonishingly utsökt’ — that is to say it’s Sweden’s tastiest burger. Max Burger’s all-Swedish radio station rattles off songs you’ve never heard of outside of Eurovision. The people around you aren’t chomping down on ridiculed fast food because they chose to, they’re enjoying an ironic meal made acceptable by Max Burger’s image as an alternative: it’s the Swedish answer to McDonalds and the response to the Swedish problem of midsummer dinner.

The numerous jokes my mother and I have made about Max Burger aren’t comments about the food, but about the ridiculous, uncomfortable and ‘other’ situations you encounter when travelling and travel’s ability to excuse judgement lapses. At home you have the knowledge and ability to pick a fast food alternative, when travelling it’s an acceptable first choice. After all, without a childhood spent at Max Burger, it’s unlikely you’ll believe you’re eating Sweden’s tastiest burger. Travel allows you to bypass these questions. Max Burger remains an exotic mistake and an opportunity to indulge in a tantalising what if: if you were born Swedish, Max Burger might be your midsummer tradition the way Chinese food is the American Jew’s supposed Christmas ritual.

DSC03119

Flickr via lin Judy

Whether or not you encounter fish patties coated in rice krispies when travelling, being in a new space allows the ‘other’ to pass from overlooked to thrilling. Bolted down tables and plastic space age chairs are no longer strange reminders that you are in a time-free area where a kid’s play den coexists with 60’s nostalgia. Meanings as you know them cease to exist. Bad meals become cherished memories; mistakes become delightful adventures and a wasted day provides entertainment for weeks to come.

My Open Day Experience at Slow Food University

Universita' di scienze gastronomiche entrance

If you told me while touring Connecticut College that four years later I would be going on an open day at Slow Foods Uni, I wouldn’t have believed you.  I would probably have laughed in your face and said, with a mix of sarcasm and disappointment, that I would be standing on that quad thinking about my math homework.  Even if you told me earlier this year that I would be going on an Open Day at Slow Food university, I wouldn’t have believed you. Because who goes to Slow Food university?

Rich-looking Northern Italian kids and their parents, that’s who.  A handful of Germans, a pair of Austrians and a Swiss girl with her mother, that’s who.  An aging Canadian professor, a Lithuanian line cook and a final year English student who’s writing a “dissertation” on Slow Foods, that’s who.

Universita' di scienze gastronomiche

A visit to l’Università di scienze gastronomiche is the only reason to visit Pollenzo.  To get there — if you can really call Pollenzo a ‘there’ — you take the bus from the Bra train station, itself is a bit out of the way at the end of a regionale line leaving from Turin. The bus leaves once every hour and a half.  Luckily, the bus costs only 2.20 EUR and you buy your ticket on board, not the tabacchi as you’d expect. The bus ride is pleasant as far as these things go, especially if you get one of a nice bus. Even on an old bus, the scenery makes up for the rickety seats.

As you’ll soon discover, there’s a reason why the university is in nowhere Piedmont.  The university — UNISG, one word, as they call it — aims not to give students a culinary education, but a gastronomic one.  That means they need to understand the entire food cycle.  You may think: perfect!  The middle of nowhere must have a farm, perfect for them to understand the lifecycle of tomatoes and eggplants.  You’d be wrong, as we would be about most things Slow Food before examining them. No, the university is located in Pollenzo because the little town’s was a crossroads for trade in the Roman era.  Goods came in from Genova before getting processed in Torino and being sent throughout the country.  Pollenzo: gorgeous scenery and a historical epicentre.

Pollenzo

I wasn’t expecting to like UNISG, but it was nicer than I anticipated.  The classrooms were bright and modern, there was an admirable amount of technology and the library had a copy of Fool magazine.  Yet, it’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s a private Italian university that paradoxically receives funding from Grana Padano, Parmiggiano Reggiano and Barilla (I’m still scratching my head over that one).  The university aims to educate students in gastronomy with a multidisciplinary academic approach, yet doesn’t have research.  Most students said they thought there would be more hands on learning.  They take five domestic and international trips a year and, despite their assurances, the videos of these scholastic adventures looked more like fun than hard work. UNISG is as much a paradox as Slow Foods is itself.

Carlo Petrini, Slow Foods’ founder, spoke at the end.  The speech synthesized the themes and ideas that make Slow Foods so compelling as a movement and UNISG such a strange idea.  They don’t make sense.  Is Slow Food concerned with how we eat or what we eat?  Does it exist in a cultural context or outside of one?  Is it trying to create its own?  The same can be said for UNISG.  Is the university trying to create its own education?  Why should anyone choose their academics over, say, a research university?  I don’t know and I got the feeling the university doesn’t know either.

Going to an open day at UNISG was the strangest thing I’ve ever done.  There’s no reason for an American girl who does not want to live in Italy to go.  Yet I did.  I went because of my own interests and academics.  I went because I was curious.  I left even more curious.

My Experience Working at the British Library

British library in the distance
Two weeks ago now I packed up my bags and hopped on a train to London to research at the British Library.  Despite searching for advice on how to approach the formidable place, I didn’t much know what to expect.  Some articles talked about the hierarchy of reading rooms — The Guardian think rare books is the place to be — while others mentioned the awkward photo taken for your reader’s card.  Few answered my questions: which reading room should I have my books sent to?  What documents do I really need to show?  How early do I have to get there?  Is it really that busy?  What do I do for lunch?  Where do I put my things?  Will I find a seat?

It’s up to me to answer those questions for you.

In January my independent study supervisor suggested I head to the British Library to research as Bristol’s library is woefully understocked regarding food culture.  I looked online and discovered that in order to use the reading rooms, you need to register for a reading pass.  I quickly pre-registered online, which involved filling out a quick questionnaire.  They gave me my reader number, which I then used to create an online account.  This allowed me to search for and request books in advance of my visit.  All the books you request get sent to your basket and from there you can figure out how long it will take to get them sent to a reading room.  You can choose to send them to any reading room and select the date you want them to arrive.  It’s simple, though takes a few tries.

How to decide which reading room?  Unless you’re researching a topic for which there is a specific reading room, there are few guidelines for choosing which study space to send your books to.  I chose what appears to be the typical choice: humanities 1 (or hum 1).  It’s one of the larger reading rooms, with plenty of seats and a hint of natural life.  The room is on the first story of the building.  When you enter, you walk up two flights of stairs and walk to the back of the floor on the left.  There are big glass doors marked humanities one.  I enjoyed my choice and found that there was plenty of seating for me every time I went (which was, at one point, in the middle of a Friday afternoon).  It may be one of the “less serious” rooms, but that was fine with me.

What documents do you really need to show? After registering online, bring the reader’s number you were given, the list of books you need with shelf marks (do this even if you’ve already requested them), proof of address (I brought a four month old check, which was fine), proof of signature (I used a passport) and any supporting documents (I brought my student card).  When you go to the Reader’s registration room, on the far right side of the Upper Ground floor, you’ll need to demonstrate these documents before you can complete your registration.

What time do I need to get there to make sure I’ll get a seat?  I read a few posts and articles that advised making sure to get to the library early because it gets busy.  I didn’t exactly find this to be the case.  When I arrived on Friday at 2:30 pm, I found a seat nearly straight away.  There were several other empty seats in the reading room.  On Saturday morning, I decided to arrive as soon as they opened.  I needn’t have worried.  The reading room was a ghost town for the first hour I was there.  Ditto on Monday morning.  Get there within the first hour or so after opening and you should have plenty of choice as to where to sit.

Note: When you enter the reading room, before getting your books from the desk, you need to find a seat (you’ll need to give them your seat number to collect your books).  It might be inconvenient to not find space, but you don’t have to worry about awkwardly walking around holding books.  There’s a cafe outside where people sit, so you can always wait around in hopes that someone will leave the reading room.

What do I do for lunch?  The library has a “restaurant” (it’s really just a hot bar and salad bar) and a cafe at which you can purchase food.  Feel free to pack something in your bag (you’ll be putting it in a locker) to eat as well.  I saw some people run outside to the Pret across the street for a meal.  People left their belongings at their desk when taking breaks (be sure to take your reader’s card with you!).  I tried both the restaurant and the cafe and, though slightly more expensive, preferred the restaurant.

Where do I put my things?  There are coin operated lockers on the lower ground floor for you to use.  On the day I left, I brought my weekend bag with me and shoved it in there along with my tote bag.  They have clear plastic bags for you to put your computer, pencils, phone, earphones, reader’s card and anything else you might need to take into the reading rooms.  You’ll have to open up your computer when you leave, so bringing your laptop case into the reading room can prove to be a needless hassle.  Nevertheless, I brought mine with me every time.  I never had any trouble getting a locker, though they are free for everyone to use so can be hard to come by at the weekend.  In that case, there’s a cloak check you can use.  If you don’t have pound coins, they have change machines so you can get some.

What if I don’t finish with my books at the end of the day?  You can hold back a couple books for up to three days.  They’ll be waiting for you at the issue desk when you return.

All in all, I loved my experience at the British Library and can’t wait to go back!

Did I forget anything?  Any other questions you have about using the reading rooms at the British Library?  Ask me!

What’s it like to be an American student in England?

Cortado and work

I’m not an expert.  Yet, after nearly 3 years living in England, I do feel qualified to give some advice to other international students about starting their new journey abroad.  My university thinks so.  So does HotCourses Abroad, a website that collects testimonials and blogs from international students.  Last December, I sat down to chat with them about what it’s like to be an American student in England.  Click here to see my responses.

If you’re still looking for more advice about adjusting to life in the UK, you can find my regular blog here.

And, while I’m at not being an expert at anything, just a thought about this final term at university.  I oscillate between feeling elated that I’m nearly finished and nearly done with the all-consuming stress of essays and exams.  Then, ever so often, I remember that when I finish there will be no one there eager to drill the subjunctive into my brain or encourage me to read more critical articles on Dante.

Right now I’m so very much immersed in my little university world that it feels hard to see beyond it.  Thinking about further study — which will happen, just not straight away — I can never figure out what sounds right.  I love writing, but a degree in journalism sounds limiting.  I love Italian, but further study in Italian usually requires the knowledge of another language and I gleefully left Spanish behind in high school.  I don’t see any university yet offering a degree in food culture.

It’s an exciting time.  I’m not be an expert in living abroad, but these four years have taught me more than I expected.  The lessons extended beyond the classroom, but plenty took place there as well.

And, on that note, I’m going to go read some Dante.

What are you not an expert on?