May Morning

Oxford is home to many traditions, and one of them is May Morning.

This is how you do it: get up at about 4am, try to put on your clothes the right way round and walk into the city centre. Don’t jump off Magdalen Bridge.
 

Stand in front of Magdalen Tower and admire the people who come from last night’s party and look more awake than you will feel for the whole day. Wait for crowds to assemble properly.

Wait patiently until 6am. Listen to Magdalen College Choir intoning the Hymnus Eucharisticus and madrigals, and the chiming of the tower bells. Applaud.Magdalen tower

Follow the crowds on the High Street up to Radcliffe Camera. Leave a minute or two to ponder any signs you come across.

Divert your attention to May Morning get-ups ranging from leafy headgear to walking trees.

Upon arrival or along the way, take in any occurrences of Samba, pipers and Scottish dancers, rock music, English folk music or Morris dancing.

Finally, try to find a pub that’s only 105% full so you can have breakfast. Failing that, try and make your way home. Can’t guarantee that’s possible, though.

sign2

Wrocław – Animals

Wrocław, which we visited in mid-November, turned out to be full of creatures of all kinds, not only tourists. The beasts appeared in many forms, a selection of which follows here.

There’s plenty of beer to be had, and there are allegedly some bears roaming the forests. I can confirm many a gull flying around.

Wrocław is also home to a magnificent zoo. There they have real rhinos.

After WWII, Wrocław lay in ruins, but it has been rebuilt wonderfully. Buildings in the centre are marked with plaques in Polish, English, and sometimes German which inform about the building’s history and also the people who lived and/or worked there. Animalic decoration abounds.

The place is steeped in history and features lots of statues. And it came as a lovely surprise to find a memorial to all the slaughtered & eaten animals.animal-memorial

The only other place I’ve seen something vaguely similar is London – the memorial to the animals which died in wars.

Wrocław also used to have the third-biggest Jewish community in Germany before WWII. So, there are two Jewish cemeteries in town. We visited the older one, and found many birds, a stone butterfly and an agile cat.

Exploring the East: Spišské Podhradie

The tiny town of Spišské Podhradie is home to some awesome attractions and also a UNESCO Worlcathedral-in-spissky-podhradied Heritage site. First of all, there is Spišská Kapitula, or Spiš Chapter House. It is really like a town within a town.

I did a tour of the cathedral. The different styles of altars were all fascinating, tacky at times, beautifully crafted and not allowed to be photographed.

From the hill with the Chapter House on one has several hiking options and some lovely views. One such view is of the other main attraction of the village, Spiš Castle.

spissky-hrad-from-afar

To get to the village, you can take one of the many busses going there. I arrived early in the morning to beat the crowds, which turned out to be a rather good idea. In fact, when I got there, it was still foggy, the dew hanging in the cobwebs and I was the only one hiking up to the castle.

Once I had reached the top, the weather played along nicely and the fog lifted. The castle is one of the largest in Europe.spissky-hrad

I was there just after they had opened, and it filled up quite quickly. Yes, the place is huge, but there’s a small museum inside which soon became overcrowded. Actors in period costumes put on plays, and craftspeople sold lovely looking merchandise. I was quite fond of pottery items, but for fear of breaking them while walking around I didn’t buy any. Rather, I managed to escape the throngs and enjoyed the quieter parts of the castle.view-of-high-tatras-from-spissky-hrad

The castle is divided in a lower and an upper part. Architecturally, the upper one is probably the more exciting. Twarningshere is just more to see and explore. One has to beware of dangerous animals though.

The lower part is basically an open space surrounded by an enormous wall. It’s open grassland, and signs point out that there can be a number of birds and other animals. I only saw the spermophiles, but plenty of them. All in all, I spent about three hours on the castle grounds, and two or so in the Chapter House. Podhradie is only about 20km from Levoca, so it makes for a nice day trip from there.spermophil-1

Resistance is the secret to happiness

WorldBookProject is going strong with some really good reads in the second half of November. I also enjoyed reading quite a bit in German – and I suspect the number of German translations I’ll read might actually rise, since it seems that translation into German occurs more than into English.

80 Dominican Republic: Julia Alvarez – Die Zeit der Schmetterlinge

I’ve lost count of how often I’ve already written ‘I had no idea …’, and Dominican history is part of this sad chorus. Luckily, ‘In the time of butterflies‘ has rectified that a bit. Beautifully written, the part I loved most was how the perspective was shifted from one of four sisters to the next. The story itself made your blood freeze at times, but it showed the resistance against dictatorship, censorship and discrimination is not futile. Vivas las mariposas!

81 Greece: Amanda Michalopoulou – Why I killed my best friend

Greek history after WWII – no idea … and in the case of this book I actually believe my understanding of the story might have gained from some help by the author (by using footnotes?) because of all the political parties and shenanigans between them. Having said that, the main story about a possessive and destructive friendship, or dependence, or emotional shackling, kept me hooked until the very last page. The title of the post is a quote from the book.

82 Mali: Modibo Sounkalo Keita – Bogenschütze

Superficially a crime novel, this book had plenty to it. The avenging archer who gave the story its title, corruption, issues with polygamy, environmental disaster – the story had it all. While on the whole I enjoyed most aspects of this novel, I have to say that the way it dealt with women was sometimes patronizing and in one or two scenes actually insulting.

83 Senegal: Mariama Bâ – Ein so langer Brief

‘So long a letter’ was honest, depressing, powerful stuff about how to live a meaningful and fulfilled life despite all the madness and evil that life (=other people) throws at you. This tiny book is a shining beacon in the pits so many women are still forced to exist in.

 

Giving a talk

At some point last August, I was kindly asked by a friend and former student of mine, Milo, to consider giving a talk at an upcoming conference called Dell3i. It was supposed to be something akin to a TED-talk; and after a week or so of weighing pros and cons I decided to say yes.

I want to use this post to do two things: firstly, thank all the people involved who helped me preparing my talk, and secondly give some sources for some of the ideas I mentioned. The reason for the latter is that I drew on a lot of things I have heard and read or experienced over the years, but some people were particularly influential. And I should probably add that this is not a Dell-sponsored post.

So, thank you (in no particular order):

  • Daniel, Monika and Milo for the rehearsals
  • Astrid for a wonderful walk through Oxford
  • Mark for being a (mostly) willing victim
  • Rhiannon, Emily, Pavol, Eva, Barbora, David, Lucia and Alica for listening
  • my colleagues and students for encouraging me
  • Marcel for the book voucher (it’s been put to very good use)

If you’ve been following this blog for longer, you’ll know that I’m doing volunteer work for the citizen science platform Zooniverse. The two photos in the talk, about Galaxy Zoo and Penguin Watch, are copyright of those respective projects.

As mentioned in the talk, Yuval Harari‘s ideas from his book ‘Sapiens’ are fascinating. I took part in his MOOC a few years ago, and I hope he’ll do a similar project again in the future.

Other people whose blogs or books I’ve recently read or who I’ve heard speaking and who had some bearing on this talk were Richard Dawkins, Tayie Selasi, Ann Morgan and Tom Hart. Any factual errors are my own 🙂 .

Now, what was it like? As a teacher, I’m used to being in front of people (I’ve taught classes of 50+ students, tricky to ‘un-front’ that), but having an audience of 100+ and on top of that the cameras was a wee bit otherworldly. And exhilarating, I’ve got to admit. If you want to watch it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ys93TAyNfHY&feature=youtu.be

Austria, Sudan & Tibet – Suffering

70 Austria: Ingeborg Bachmann – Malina

What a weird book this was, yet also weirdly gripping. If you’re the kind of reader who likes books without an obvious story, this one is perfect for you. Cryptic descriptions of places, people and events left me rather flummoxed. But then, I enjoyed reading a book in German, and the snippets of Hungarian were translated by my colleague Laura.

71 Sudan: Tayeb Salih – Seasons of Migration to the North

A modern Arabic classic, and still off and on the banned-books list in some places. I found the interactions between the characters dramatic, and was intrigued how this mirrored the relationship between colonial power and colony. On top of that, it was shocking to read about the fate of the young widow. It is disturbing to think the author had some real-life model there, but unfortunately highly likely (looking at the news).

72 Tibet: Palden Gyatso – Fire under the Snow: Testimony of a Tibetan Prisoner

Another harrowing look into the human abyss. I had just finished reading this book when I went to a lecture about secular ethics by the 14th Dalai Lama. It was in stark contrast to how my students in China used to see him and Tibetans in general (also Uighurs) as monsters. Gyatso’s testimony, which he also told the UN, is written in an almost clinical style, e.g. when he talks about being tortured. Yet the reader can feel how his heart bled because of so much suffering of people, but also of the land.

March III: The Ghost Bride

Yesterday, I surprised myself by finishing yet another book which brings the count to country no 23:

  • Malaysia: Yangsze Choo – The Ghost Bride.
the bride

A real bride in the palace of Eggenhof, Graz, Austria.

It was a reread, and since I quite often read books at least a second time if they were any good this is a good sign for this work. I had even completely forgotten how it ended!

the hens

and some rather curious peahens

Chinese culture is something I’ve been interested in for a long time, but I’d never heard of the custom of having a ghost marriage before. Apparently, this is still practised. While I don’t believe in an afterlife, I liked the way the book took me on a journey to the afterworld with its demons, dragons and ghosts. What I didn’t fancy that much was the way the female lead behaved towards the man she wanted to marry. On top of that, keeping track of all the concubines and family relationships was just impossible (but nothing compared to the Dream of the Red Chamber).

All in all: culturally exciting, but a mildy convoluted plot with a for me unsatisfying ending.