Mystery Weekend: Atlanta

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This past weekend I had a “mystery weekend” on my calendar courtesy of Randi, which I figured was probably a trip to somewhere either (a) objectively interesting to visit, or (b) in a new state. On Friday night it turned out we were on our way to Atlanta, which ticks both boxes! What follows is our busy 48 hours in Georgia’s capital. Ignore all the grey skies and raincoats… in comparison to Chicago, it was basically tropical.

Welcome to Atlanta!

Welcome to Atlanta!

Visual metaphor for the rain

Visual metaphor for the rain

So, a couple of things about Atlanta. As its Wikipedia entry notes, the city was burned to the ground during the Civil War, before regrowing to prominence as a well-connected railway hub rather than a classic southern seaport city such as Charleston. Walking around, therefore, it doesn’t feel so different to a typical Midwestern city, aside from the large number of construction signs which begin with the word “pardon”. (“Pardon our progress!”) That said, it was pleasantly and surprisingly walkable, and the city has invested in some dedicated walking/biking routes as well as a rapid transit system. And to Georgia’s credit, Atlanta is the state capital rather than a town in the middle of nowhere as often seems to happen. I suspect, however, that the politics inside the golden-domed Capitol building is quite at odds with the city around it. There are still four large plaques by the entrance, erected by the “Daughters of the Confederacy” in 1920, retelling the capture of the city by the “enemy” Union forces. Travelling in the age of Trump can make you twitchy about such things.

Wouldn't win any prizes in a Historical Argument & Practice essay, but still

Wouldn’t win any prizes in a Historical Argument & Practice essay, but still

Because fact into doubt won't go

Because fact into doubt won’t go

This was particularly true on the tour of CNN’s global headquarters, which is one of the major tourist attractions in the city. In ordinary times, I wouldn’t exactly be a CNN ‘fan’, but this is 2018 and the world is a strange place, so we went on the tour. At first everything was lighthearted and jovial, our guide cracking a joke at the BBC’s expense in the same way the guide on the BBC Broadcasting House tour will throw shade at CNN. But then a solitary guy in a leather jacket starts asking repeated questions about political bias before launching into an intense monologue about news “propaganda”, while the poor tour guide puts on a neutral listening face and murmurs “fair enough” and I wonder if we’re all about to die. I’m not sure if this guy was expecting to stumble across the top-secret Fake News studio on a public tour, but it was a good microcosm of the era we’re living through.

My "always pleased to see a railway" face

My “always pleased to see a railway” face

Later I got cocky (and then wet)

Later I got cocky (and then wet)

Oh, Jimmy...

Oh, Jimmy…

Atlanta is also home to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, so I was excited to expand my celebrated art series of stupid poses with presidents. Disappointingly, though perhaps in keeping with the humble legacy of the Carter administration, the best I could find was this photo on the wall. (Later I found an actual statue outside the State Capitol, which made up for it.) The most striking thing I learned about Carter was that his Oval Office furniture arrangement was all out of whack, with back-to-back sofas and a desk in the middle of the room. Clearly things were never going to go well with that layout.

The most significant figure from Atlanta, of course, was Martin Luther King. The National Park Service maintain a historic site including a museum, his birth home and the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church where he preached. If you visit you can sit and listen to a recording of one of his sermons, and I like to think it wasn’t a coincidence that they were playing the one where King warns against cynical advertising of cars a week after the very same speech was literally used to sell cars during the Super Bowl.

An actual statue!

An actual statue!

Ebenezer Baptist Church

Ebenezer Baptist Church

A puffin!

A puffin!

We had planned to see the World of Coca Cola, but there is a limit to how ‘ironically’ you can do such things, so we opted instead to see the cool fish, amazing dolphins and cute puffins at the famous Georgia Aquarium. And while I realise this is an awkward-as-hell transition, it does remind me of the excellent seafood place we ate at on Saturday night too… 😳

Other food highlights this weekend included the obligatory fried chicken with biscuits and gravy [sic] and Mary Mac’s, a giant ‘tea room’ with a home-cooked vibe. I wish we could have stayed longer, because I’m not done with their side plates!

Fish, searching desperately for the plastic they are used to

Fish, searching desperately for the plastic they are used to

Choose your own adventure

Choose your own adventure

Atlanta, you were an awesome surprise.

Here are just a few of the things I lost when my laptop was stolen from our apartment:

  • Audio recordings of my dad making up stories for me when I was a child, which I originally captured on audio cassette with my very own portable recorder
  • Silly videos from the very last day of secondary school
  • All of those history essays I wrote in university
  • About 28 years of photos
  • My first ever conversation with Randi

I didn’t lose any of these things for very long, of course, because my next step was to download everything exactly as it was from a CrashPlan backup. A week later, I’m typing this on a swanky, self-indulgent new laptop purchase with my digital life all restored. So I can get on with feeling nerdishly excited over this slim new computer which recognises my face, or shame-faced that we hadn’t got around to buying renters insurance yet, or philosophical that the forensics officer from the Chicago police who came round “mostly handles homicides” so our Friday night drama was just some light relief by comparison, or confused that whoever broke into our apartment decided not to take my laptop’s power cord or the actual cash sitting on the coffee table. That’s all fine, I can cope with all of these feelings very easily.

But – public service announcement – backups are good. Would recommend. Now all I have to worry about is the @ sign in the wrong place on the keyboard 😉

If you've recently picked up this laptop from a Chicago pawn shop, I have a power cord to sell you

If you’ve recently picked up this laptop from a Chicago pawn shop, I have a power cord to sell you

Aside from being victims of minor crime we’ve had a relaxed few weeks, venturing outside for select activities such as a lovely catch-up night with Chloe and Aaron at Kingston Mines. Oh, and my first “proper” Super Bowl party on Sunday. I thought I’d already ticked this one off back in 2015 but apparently that didn’t count because (a) there was no chili cheese dip (b) we all fell asleep. Anyway, this time around I can rest easy thanks to our amazing hosts Ashley and Erik, who I last saw during our phone-banking on the Clinton campaign. (Remember that? Seems like a good idea now, doesn’t it?) The food was amazing – I’m still a little full of queso – the crowd was pleasantly moderate on the “caring about sport” spectrum, and the underdogs won by doing lots of running and less stopping than usual. Huzzah.

Recipe for Vegetable Frittatas (Serves 4)

  1. Go to Catherine and AJ’s.
  2. Eat some of their already-baked biscuits (in the American sense) as an appetiser.
  3. Have everyone put a slightly different combination of vegetables into their own skillet on the hob. Consider including bacon as a power vegetable.
  4. Add eggs and cheese. Think you’ve added enough cheese? You haven’t. Add more cheese.
  5. Bake!
  6. Spread the word about Catherine and AJ’s as a ‘social media influencer’.
Frittatas

Frittatas

I think I write the same thing every January, but here it is again: January is a time to stay indoors and plan trips for the rest of the year. We have been pretty successful at planning our big summer trip… but unfortunately this is still seven months away, so I’ll need to improvise some more blog content between now and then.

So let’s see… we played Codenames with Toggolyn and friends, in which it was demonstrated again that Codenames is a stressful, stressful game which lures couples into massively overthinking each other. Much easier to play with someone you’ve never met before. We had dinner with Randi’s cousin, Arielle, and successfully lured her to Chicago. (Well, it wasn’t really us. It was a job. But we didn’t put her off.) I got to see Saujanya after way too long, albeit with the good excuse that she lives in Australia now, and through her I also got to see Katie & Mike again: a couple I know largely through Goodreads, but are great. We also dogsat Willow again, played more Citadels, had brunch with Michaela and Andy, and celebrated Julie’s birthday by watching a live US Senate feed as the government shut down*. Oh, America.

Randi the Wizard

Randi the Wizard

*Blogging behind the scenes trivia: this statement is actually a half-truth. Really, we celebrated Julie’s birthday on one evening, and then the next evening Joe and Julie also happened to come over with doughnuts – we are neighbours, after all – and we watched the Senate vote. But this was extraneous detail, so I simply merged the two nights together and retold them as if they had been a single event. Do you feel deceived? Just wait till you find out that Randi isn’t actually a wizard…

Winner of the Christmas Cracker Car Race

Winner of the Christmas Cracker Car Race

Happy new year! I am back in Chicago – in cold, cold Chicago – after my first Christmas back at home in four years. Usually I sorta skip past Christmas itself on this blog, but to mark the occasion I have some actual Christmas photos for once. While in London we also saw Oslo, a play about the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO which began as a secret, unofficial backchannel. I learnt a lot about the process, although of course it is somewhat marred by the fact that there is very obviously no peace at the end of it. In a more upbeat spirit, I hadn’t seen Chicken Run since it came out, and it is amazing. Not enough to put me off chicken pies (I had many pies in the UK) but I did start playing the soundtrack on a loop.

Christmas Dinner

Christmas Dinner

Not pictured: all of the games! From racing the cars inside the Christmas crackers – crackers have really upped their game since my day – to the brutality of Scrabble and, of course, the tradition of charades and my Christmas Quiz. (I don’t think I did too badly as there were no physical injuries.) We also played Codenames, Room 25, Citadels, Coloretto and that one when you have to work out the name stuck to your forehead. Oh, and we watched Doctor Who together! Although it was all a bit ponderous this year, and left me more impatient than ever for a fresh start with a new Doctor and her new adventures.

Christmas was wonderful, basically. Special thanks to Carolyn for hosting us, and to my mum for inadvertently doing some of my present wrapping for me.

Pre-Christmas Dinner

Pre-Christmas Dinner

There is some dispute over who has the best stockings

There is some dispute over who has the best stockings

On the traditional Hampstead Heath Boxing Day walk

On the traditional Hampstead Heath Boxing Day walk

Observing Network Rail's horse herding team

Observing Network Rail’s horse herding team

After Christmas, Randi and I decided to spend a couple of days in the Peak District before New Year. Our journey there was the most British affair ever, as our train slowed to a halt due to ‘horses on the track ahead’. Network Rail had apparently sent a team to herd them away, but as we inched closer it became apparent that the train was going to perform the herding duties itself. On the one hand, it sorta beggars belief that we have literally had railways for longer than any other country and still cannot figure out a way to build a horse-proof fence. On the other hand, we were in no rush and it gave us an impromptu couple of hours to wander around Sheffield. I’d never seen Sheffield before, and it was nice!

Not as nice as the Peak District, though, which was beautiful and perfect for hiking. We did the famous ridge walk to Mam Tor, which offered great views and also an opportunity to experience some sustained and aggressive hailing for the first time. The next day it snowed, and we did some more gentle walking around Hope and the surrounding villages. It is difficult to successfully ‘stick to the track’ on a public footpath through a field which is completely covered in snow, however. Not even if you have a map.

England's green and pleasant land (below a certain elevation)

England’s green and pleasant land (below a certain elevation)

Attack of the hail

Attack of the hail

On the ridge walk to Mam Tor

On the ridge walk to Mam Tor

I can read maps no problem

I can read maps no problem

Sheep!

Sheep!

Drying by the fire

Drying by the fire

I’m never able to see everyone I want to see in my visits home, but I did pretty well in the final few days. Randi and I had lunch at Portobello Market with Sanna, and then lots of pasanda and London Underground gossip with Simon on Brick Lane. And on New Year’s Eve, Josh and Anna hosted us and Robert for a quiet night in together. We were much less energetic than we used to be – no midnight pillow fights, just wobbly selfies – but it was exactly what I needed and a perfect way to ring in the new year.

Happy new year!

Happy new year!

Given that temperatures in Chicago are reaching -20°C, I do somewhat regret accidentally leaving my coat, hat and gloves behind in London. But on the other hand, it was great motivation to rush to REI and stock up on the most warming winter clothing imaginable. So hit me with your worst, Chicago. I’m ready.

From Vienna we took a holiday-within-a-holiday and spent a night in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, as Randi’s parents had enjoyed their visit earlier this year and it looked easy enough to get to. I didn’t really appreciate how easy it would be… the train from Vienna leaves every hour, takes an hour, and costs a mere €10.10 each way. Tickets can be purchased at any time from a mobile app, and of course there are no security queues or passport checks at any point. It does not surprise me to learn that commuting from Bratislava to Vienna is quite common. (I know that this is the normal train experience across Europe. It’s just so great.)

The train!

The train!

The centre of town was pedestrianised and lovely

The centre of town was pedestrianised and lovely

You can’t visit any city (except Toledo, Ohio) without taking a walking tour, so we wrapped up warm for a chilly three-hour history of the Communist era with our guide and two guys from Singapore. (“What is the weather like in Singapore?” “It’s always nice.” “What about in winter?” “There is no winter.”) Despite the cold it was a really interesting walk, including the views of Austria and Hungary from Bratislava Castle. It does seem that every postwar government was prone to inappropriate road-building schemes, whatever their ideology. At least Bratislava got a UFO-shaped restaurant perched on top of a bridge in return, although the authorities had to put up blinds on one side to block out the views of capitalist Austria during the Cold War.

Be wary of the trams sneaking up on you

Be wary of the trams sneaking up on you

The castle!

The castle!

At night we enjoyed the spectacular Christmas market in the centre of town, which was even better (and less crowded) than Vienna’s. The most common food was lokša (known via Catherine as lefse) of which I particularly enjoyed the blue cheese and chocolate options. Meanwhile, Randi was thrilled to discover that the ‘meat and cabbage soup’ meal handed down through her family existed here as kapustnica.

I highly recommend a visit to Bratislava!

Christmas market in Bratislava

Christmas market in Bratislava

Market food

Market food

With this cheerful fellow

With this cheerful fellow