This week we met the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Ed Miliband, at a low-key event at the University of Chicago.
With all of the political turmoil in the US and elsewhere, it’s easy to forget about Britain’s relatively boring experience since the 2015 general election, when Miliband’s Labour Party won a small but durable majority over the Conservatives. Ed was fortunate, of course, in that his opposition was immediately distracted by a protracted and bitter fight over who would succeed David Cameron as leader. After the mutual back-stabbing of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, and the embarrassing revelations of Theresa May’s past convictions for trespassing over wheat fields, it was perhaps inevitable that Jacob Rees-Mogg would end up as the new Tory leader. Popular with the membership base, and with the shadowy campaigning group Inertia, he has never been fully accepted by his parliamentary colleagues and has failed to win over the country as a whole.
Meanwhile, Ed’s popularity has waxed and waned with the normal political tides. How much money does the NHS need? How much tax should Google pay? What kind of sandwiches should the newly-renationalised railway serve? (“Anything but bacon”, joked Ed.) In times of trouble, he likes to remind audiences that, had he not beaten David Cameron in 2015, the whole of politics could have been subsumed by fights about leaving the European Union for decades and decades. But it doesn’t win him much credit, since – like Obama’s handling of the financial crisis – most people can’t visualise a disaster which didn’t happen.
It was nice, and oddly relaxing, to see him in person. He’s not a charismatic icon, but a reassuring presence, and that is much appreciated right now.
Aside from this, and in addition to brunch with Jason and Carrie where I discovered that “eggs in a hole” is a thing, we saw two films last weekend. The Lobster was recommended to me years ago, and is the sort of film which some people call “absurdist” and others call “weird”. I think I genuinely enjoyed the first half, after which it dragged a bit. We also saw The Other Side of Everything at the Davis Theatre, which was fantastic. The film is a documentary by Mila Turajlić, a filmmaker whose mother (and star of the film) is Srbijanka Turajlić, a democratic activist who campaigned against the Milošević regime in Serbia in the 1990s. The whole thing is filmed from inside their apartment in Belgrade, which was partitioned by the Communists after the Second World War and, when the film begins, still has someone living in one of their old rooms as a protected tenant. Srbijanka is such a thoughtful and inspiring figure, so it was a happy surprise to see her standing up in person at the post-film Q&A with her daughter. I wished I had brushed up a little on the history of Yugoslavia before seeing the film, but even if you don’t remember anything this is highly recommended.
My own experience of long-distance Amtrak trains is that they attract two main groups of people: the elderly and the British. So it was not altogether surprising that Grace and Charlotte arrived from San Francisco after a scheduled 51-hour journey by rail, nor was it very shocking that it actually took quite a bit longer than 51 hours to get here, throwing off our Saturday night plans. But we made up for it later with dinners at Kuma’s and Little Goat Diner (two Chicago staples!), a little light Scientology brainwashing and some “welcome to the Midwest!” tea served in a QPCS mug. Still flying the flag, Queens Park.
Last week we also went back to Geja’s for Catherine’s birthday, where (like last year) we (a) dipped a lot of food in cheese fondue, (b) moved on to cooking more food in bubbling oil, before (c) returning to the fondue dipping routine with melted chocolate. I wanted to break out these steps because last year I apparently claimed to have regretted overeating in the initial cheese phase. This didn’t sound like something I would say, so – for the record, and for next year – I want to fully endorse all of the cheese. Randi and I also popped up to Evanston on Saturday for brunch with Rudy and Melissa, before getting back to Chicago for “game night” with Chloe and Aaron. Sometimes it seems that we forget to actually play games on a large portion of these nights. But we did witness how they have successfully trained their cat to respond to the Peanut Butter Jelly Time song as a signal for food.
Finally, on Sunday it was Easter and/or Passover! I was very happy that Randi’s proper Cadbury Easter Egg arrived in time, and equally happy to help eat it. We also ate a large variety of eggs in various forms over brunch with Joe and Julie, before watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This was not the style of film I had expected from the description, but I very much appreciated the dark humour to accompany the plot, and I now feel marginally more informed if people have belated conversations with me about the Oscars.
It feels like my last post was forever ago, especially since I’ve been living out of a backpack for the past two weeks in various Californian locations. More on that shortly. But first I want to note the fun Chicago meetups which happened before I left, especially dinner and drinks with Ellen and Emilie, having Marte and Alex over to play board games (even though we didn’t actually get round to playing any board games, but we did learn how competitive Marte would have been) and McKenna and Rusty’s ‘leaving’ party. I mean, they really are moving to Berlin, one assumes. They just haven’t actually left yet.
So, California! This was a three-part escapade which I have illustrated with this hastily labelled map:
1. Palo Alto
As you will know if you’ve been following along, this was for work. For our purposes, the most important thing is that I had my regular catch-up with Nolan, this time over fried chicken and waffles and beer. Also, the guy in the build-your-own-burger place learnt my name, which is a little worrying. I don’t come to California for the salads.
2. San Francisco
That relationship-building with Nolan in step #1 was critical, because for the weekend I borrowed his apartment in San Francisco while he was away. Kudos to his roommates for (a) being great and welcoming, (b) encouraging me to steal their baked goods, (c) not calling the police when they thought I was slowly breaking into the apartment, and (d) having an electric kettle.
While in SF (which, I must say, was a joy to walk around) I was lucky enough to hang out with not one but two cousin families. On Saturday night I had dinner downtown with Jamie, Paul and Lori before Jamie and I saw Weightless, a rock opera retelling of Procne and Philomela’s story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Not being cultured enough to have read Ovid (sorry) I was not sure what to expect, but it was really, really good. We especially enjoyed the narration from an unidentified Greek god, and the music was engrossing enough that I was tempted to buy the CD afterwards despite not actually having any way to listen to a CD anymore. (Thankfully, there were other options.) It’s the kind of production which obviously takes years of work to put together, and if this ends up touring more widely, I recommend seeing it.
The night afterwards I hung out with Jonah, Staci, Julien and Desmond in their local Oakland kid-friendly sort-of-pub, which was really lovely and a great opportunity to plant the seeds of future travel in the minds of the next generation.
Dear Lori, Julien and Desmond: one day, the odds are that you’ll want travel to distant cities and countries. We’ll be ready and waiting with the free sofas to sleep on. Lots of love, your older cousins.
Finally, a grateful shout-out to the Mechanics’ Institute Library & Chess Room of San Francisco. For a mere $15, you provided a quiet place in the city to sit and read, and you were well worth it. I feel so old.
3. Yorba Linda
Finally, Randi joined me at her parents’ house in Yorba Linda for her mum’s 60th birthday and surprise party. My role in the surprise was minor and slightly embarrassing (I had to hide in the toilet so that we wouldn’t leave the house too early) but I was happy to play my part. Happy birthday!
We also escaped a bobcat. That’s two wild animals which haven’t killed us so far.
Last night, a miracle occurred in Dallas airport. Randi and I were having dinner before our flight home. It was Katie’s annual Chicken Caesar Salad Day, so I was providing the chicken and Randi was bringing the Caesar salad. I got up to find the loo, and ran into our server who pointed me down the airport corridor, “about 25 metres that way”. I thanked him and went on my way, and it took me a few steps to realise… metres? He said metres?
I asked him about it later, and he explained that he studies engineering and “thinks in metres” before suppressing a thinly-disguised shudder at the “other measurements”. This is encouraging. This is the spark of the future. If the metric system can infiltrate Texas, it’s only a matter of time before the US goes the whole 8.23 metres and converts.
We were in Dallas and the surrounding metroplex (the actual term) for Randi’s grandmother’s birthday and a mini family reunion. I already knew most people (although hello to the person who only knew me from this blog!) and it was especially fun to see the youngest cousins again. We stayed with Randi’s immediate family in Grapevine, a town with a cheerful and extensive main street which includes an impressively stocked ‘British Emporium’ for some reason, but we did briefly venture into Dallas proper to visit Dealey Plaza and the Sixth Floor Museum. This is the infamous ‘Texas School Book Depository’ from which JFK was shot, a tragedy which presumably could have been averted by arming school books with machine guns. (Back in Grapevine we passed a guy wearing an NRA baseball cap, and in my superhero fantasy I was able to confront him rather than tutting behind his back and donating to Everytown to make myself feel better. Take that, anonymous man!)
Earlier this month, it was Pancake Day! Unlike Chicken Caesar Salad Day I am no less than 100% committed to Pancake Day, as this video surely makes clear:
This level of coordination might explain why I slipped and fell on the ice in Chicago last week, gifting my thigh a giant ‘nebula purple’ bruise (©Katie Self) and giving me a great excuse to lie back on the sofa and watch the Winter Olympics. It has never really occurred to me to watch the Winter Olympics before, but at Randi’s urging I gave it a try, and aside from the ice dancing it was pretty great. This was also a good moment to see Icarus, an incredible documentary which we were lucky enough to watch in a cinema, by a filmmaker who stumbled into an amazing relationship with the lab director at the centre of the Russian doping scandal. I was dimly aware of the doping story, and had obviously noticed the Russian athletes competing under the ‘Olympic Athletes from Russia’ banner, but understanding the events which led to this moment was eye-opening. Highly recommended.
And when you’ve done that, you have to watch the three-part BBC series on IKEA, Flatpack Empire. It’s totally compelling, and it’s the type of cosy BBC2 programme I need more of in my life.
Also in the last fortnight: a traditional Valentine’s Day at La Scarola, a dipping of our toes into watching The Crown (I could be wrong and sometimes the origin of phrases can surprise you, but it felt very wrong to hear about Churchill on the “campaign trail”) and a winning game of the co-operative Pandemic with Toggolyn. Although it was touch and go in the end. If there’s a real global pandemic I don’t think we are the people to call.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Atlanta, you were an awesome surprise.