Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Enjoy Children Behaving Badly? London's Natural History Museum is the Place for You!

I'm not one of those people who finds normal kid behavior annoying generally.  When I realized, based on the queue, that there would be a high number of kids inside, I expected a few meltdowns and overly tired children getting upset in various ways.  What I didn't expect, especially given how proper England generally seems, was children who would shove their way past other children and adults to push all the buttons on a display, then run to the next one, shove someone else and do it again.  Worse, this wasn't just one set of children.  Even more terrible, their parents just watched like it was no big deal.  I didn't have the same experience at the British Museum, so maybe parents perceive this place as somewhere you can let your kids run free and do whatever they want?  Considering all the fossils and historic items here, I find that rather shocking.  When I say that, on the whole, this was the worst behaved group of children I've ever seen, that is coming from someone who goes to OMSI, the zoo, has been to the Boston Museum of Science, the Imaginarium in San Francisco, etc.  I'm no stranger to checking out places for learning, which also happen to be populated by lots of little people.

In short, by the end of my day here, I was very appreciative of how well-behaved French children seem to be on the whole and ready to return "home" to France.  My day started off with a proper English breakfast though!  It was quite lovely to see bacon and eggs for a morning meal!  I also received a coffee that is MASSIVE compared to France . . . unfortunately, it wasn't as good as French coffee!

I suppose the queue full of families (and extending down the block) perhaps should have been a warning, but again, I don't generally find the normal behavior of children particularly annoying - I actually like kids typically.  In fact, there was an adorable 2-3 year old in front of me who just could NOT understand why she couldn't go inside to see the dinosaurs . . . which is completely understandable at that age - what is this queue business anyway?!?
I was suitably distracted while waiting in the queue by the incredible building the museum is housed in.  I'm sure we do this in the US too, but I really love the use of old buildings to house museums!  I have no idea what this place used to be, but it's really gorgeous - love the pinkish and bluish tint to the stones!
Although I don't know what it used to be, having seen so many of them, the design screams "church" or "abbey" frankly . . . I haven't been sufficiently motivated to look it up!  The interior was equally amazing and I just stood around checking it out for a bit, then took a photo, which just happens to include the giant dinosaur skeleton as well.  I did learn something fascinating about dinosaurs - their bones show signs of not only healed breaks, but cancerous growths (!) and arthritis.
I headed off down the wing away from the dinosaurs, figuring (correctly) that the crowd when thin out when the little ones tire later in the day.  On my way to check out all the good human fossils, earthquake fun (also a terribly overcrowded area) and other earth science, I came across this guy and was surprised to learn HE LIVED WHEN HUMANS DID.  Yeah, imagine that lumbering towards you!  Sadly, we turned out to be more dangerous than he was and they were extinct shortly after the arrival of man to their native area.
Forgive the blurry picture on this one, but by the time I made to this room, it was sort of an endurance test to just see what I could and get out of there before I started disciplining other people's kids!  I did find it intriguing that, of all the gemstones, rubies, emeralds and sapphires have long been prized through various cultures.  And proof that even after visiting many of these, I can still learn new things - I was unaware before that rubies and sapphires come from the same mineral, corundum.  They're just different colors of it!
Nothing like wandering through a museum and seeing a warning about radioactivity - I thought it was for fun until I read the sign that there was ACTUAL radioactive material in there.  It has a lead-lined case for your safety, but it still creeped me out a bit - I mean, this stuff is just hanging out in a museum!?!
That pretty much wraps up my trip to England!  I thought it would be great to be surrounded by English-speaking people again, but I've grown so accustomed to the French accent that I found British people difficult to understand.  All-in-all it was a largely enjoyable trip, but I was happy to get back to my cottage in Civray!

Monday, April 25, 2016

The British Museum Deserves its Place on "Top Museums to See Before You Die!"

The idea for going to England came from a listing of "top museums to see before you die" that I came across and I realized that I'd missed some major (and free) museums on my prior trips to Europe.  If you also decide to visit England, Scotland or Ireland during a trip to Continental Europe, there are a few key things to keep in mind:
  • England, Ireland and Scotland are not part of the Schengen area and you have to pass through customs and immigration in order to enter
  • England, North Ireland and Scotland use Great British Pounds for currency, so you will need to exchange currency (South Ireland uses Euros)
  • There is a time zone difference!  I forgot about this at first and with my phone not connecting, had to manually adjust it because I kept thinking it was an hour later than it was!
The exterior of the British Museum is quite lovely . . . and packed with people; however, the inside is so big that you rarely feel crowded.  I would recommend visiting the mummy room and Rosetta Stone as early or late as possible since the crowds are thinner then.
The African art section was relatively small and definitely not crowded, which gave me plenty of time to check out these amazing Benin City tiles from the 16th Century.
Heading upstairs, I found a significant section of Indian artifacts, which makes sense given it was a British colony for quite some time . . . which was something I became very uncomfortably aware of after a signficant number of signs in all different parts of the museum roughly read, "and after Britain invaded their country, some British dude packed this stuff back to London and eventually the museum ended up with it."  Despite the unsettling thought that the British Museum perhaps HAS such an impressive collection because it was virtually stolen from where it belongs, here were two of my favorite Indian pieces.  The first is Harihara or Vishnu and Shiva combined from ~1000 AD and the second is Shiva and his consort, Parvati from the 12-13th century AD.
After wandering through more of the Asian exhibits, I was in the Egyptian area and came across the very crowded mummy room . . . so I quickly snapped a shot and moved along.
I was able to get one more of the mummy of lady Henutmehyt, which had a really decorative exterior.
While many people crowded around the mummy area, that left the Ancient Arabia areas nearly empty and I saw this incredible example of cuneiform from the 2,350 BC Sumarians..  It really is interesting to see one of the earliest written human languages preserved.
The other area that was virtually empty was the Islamic Art area, which was not really all Islamic, but rather from largely Islamic countries.  The tiling was really lovely and colorful, plus there was an interesting story posted about how the Franks defeated the Muslim armies in AD 732 in Poitiers!  Who knew this little city in France had such a colorful history?  Diane de Poitiers, beating the Muslim armies . . . a lot of history for such a small place!  This is an Islamic frieze from Iran in the 13th-14th century.  Note that there is an Arabic inscription along the bottom.
While there weren't a lot of American items, there was a nicely laid out American Indian section that covered the different regions and really highlighted the differences in lifestyle between regions.  The Mexican, Central and South American area also had a good layout by group (Maya, Aztecs, etc).  This skull is from the Aztecs.
While not a great picture, this is the ACTUAL Rosetta stone that provided 3 languages, including Greek and Hieroglyphs, which led to finally being able to read hieroglyphs!
There were so many other fascinating things to see - ancient winged guardians from Nimrud (Northern Iraq 883-859 BC):
A Lycian tomb from Xanthos (now Turkey). 390-380 BC (note the person, which shows how big this thing really is):
While one of the rooms didn't seem to have a significant number of items in it, the fact that it held the remnants of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (the only one remaining is the Pyramids of Giza) - in this case, the remnants were from the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos (350 BC).  One other thing that was implied by some of the signs is that, if British dudes hadn't packed some of this stuff off, it would have been lost forever as many similar structures or items were destroyed or damaged beyond recognition.
While the pyramids weren't built until 2,500 BC, it seems we were already offing each other over shrinking resources in 11,000 BC, when the first evidence of warfare is found in human remains.
Kind of ironic that I was looking at mummified remains and, as I was heading into slightly more modern stuff, I wondered how far in the future it would be before people were looking through the remains of our current civilization . . . fortunately, it seems the British Museum has the answer for me!  They have a small room already populated with things from the 1950s, including differentiating between customized dishes and "mass produced" ones.  I can only imagine museum displays in the future and what they'll say about us!

Before making it to more modern times though, I came across this chess set in the European area and I just love it!  They were found in Lewis, Scotland, but thought to be Scandinavian in origin from 1150-1200 AD.  The carvings are just so ornate!

It was getting close to closing time and I'd actually made it through the entire museum nearly, so I hurried upstairs to the Japan section, the last area I hadn't seen.  They had a really impressive display of this Samurai warrior, who turned out to have items from 1500-1800 BC, which made it slightly less cool than if they were unique sets by time period.  I also really liked the brightly colored elephant, which is an animal that wouldn't have been seen by the Japanese at the time; however, they were commissioned to make these as collectibles for wealthy Europeans.
I stayed in the area near Hyde Park and Kensington Palace, so I was able to take some lovely photos of the area and the palace:
As I was walking through the park toward the movie theater, I came across a restaurant advertising as open all day for eating (this likely does NOT mean 24 hours, but rather that they do not close for certain hours - one thing that is hard to adapt to is that lunch is often 12-14 or earlier and then places will close down until 18 or sometimes as late as 19:30 before opening again for dinner.  If you miss the lunch hours, you may find it quite difficult to find anywhere open to eat!  Having seen this accommodating note, I headed in only to find I was eating at a French restaurant!  Well, can't go wrong with Salad de Chèvre Chaud!  While I was a little disappointed to be eating at a French restaurant during my one weekend outside of France, it turned out to be the only decent meal I had.  Both the pork and the hamburger I had later were badly overcooked and the French-style baguette sandwich (but with chips aka "crisps") was just ok compared to those in France.  Hopefully I don't find food in the US too terrible when I return home after being spoiled with French food for so long!  I will certainly miss all the variations of chèvre and salad de chèvre chaud though!

Friday, April 22, 2016

Parking in France is its own Level of Hell . . . And off for a Weekend in England!

Trying to park in France is an exercise in frustration when it comes to parking garages.  Assuming you can squeeze into a space, you still have the challenge of getting out of the car!
Yeah . . .

So, after the excitement of parking, I was on my way to London!  I highly recommend one of these bulky, but incredible adapters if you travel much - it will adapt several of the most common plug types into the others.   It is NOT a converter, but my cell and laptop chargers are set to work on either 110 or 220V (as are most of them), so I just need to switch to the correct plug type.  I did pick up an actual converter for this trip since smaller appliances, like my toothbrush charger, usually are not designed to convert power from 220V to 110V; however, that one only has a plug for European outlets, so it would be no good to me in England.

I recall mentioning that I was on a particularly bad train once, so here's what a normal 2nd class space looks like - I say normal because this is by far the most common French train I've seen in my various journeys.  They're actually quite comfortable for the most part.

TIP: Even though the bathrooms are small and not the cleanest places ever, use them while you can.  French public restrooms are few and far between, plus many of them cost money.  It is 0.70 Euro to use the train station restrooms in Paris and they're rarely much cleaner!

Upon arriving in Paris, I took the Metro from Montparnasse to Gare du Nord (be careful with this - there are several train stations in Paris and virtually all of the trains I've taken in my various trips ran out of four of them: Nord, Est, Montparnasse and Austerlitz).  Gare du Nord is where the Eurostar runs from, along with several other Northbound International trains.

I don't know why I forget that London requires clearing customs & immigration, so this was my first experience dealing with the questions that arise when you've been in a country for over a month.  The French didn't care when stamping me to leave, but the Brits sure cared!  "Why are you going to England?" "Where are you going after?" "France? Do you live in France then?" "No? Then what have you been doing there for so long?" "When will you be leaving France?" "What airline are you taking?" "What airport are you flying into?"  It briefly occurred to me that I might get stuck in this tiny area between 2 border control zones, but after looking closely at my stamps 3 times, he let me through.  By the way, here they all are - it's fun how different they are!

Top 2 left page: Japan 2013; Bottom 2 left: Guatemala 2013; Right side right page: Guatemala 2015; Left side right pg: Dominican Republic 2014.  As you can see, it is pretty random how the countries stamp pages - some side-by-side, some top and bottom
Left page: the relatively boring stamps of the European Union - bottom was entering France 2015 (which they stamped OVER Canada's because it was so light the guy didn't notice it) and top was exiting Vienna to Egypt.  Right page: make sure you have a full page for Egypt (2015) - apparently, they don't want to squeeze your Visa onto half a page.  The upper right stamp was entry, bottom stamp was exit.
Left page top: More European Union - entering Zurich from Egypt, then leaving Paris (2015); Left page bottom: EU to enter and leave France (to England) in 2016; Right page: England (2016)

As I waited to board the Eurostar, I noticed a giant taxi queue - of course!  On Friday evenings, children return from school and men from working in other cities!  It is not uncommon in France that your children may stay away at school all week or that the family will continue to live in one city while the husband works hours away, living in a tiny place all week, and comes home only on weekends.  I know that people do this on the East Coast of the US as well, but it just seems so odd to me to live separately like that!  It is certainly isn't the norm in the Portland area.

While you can generally arrive 20 minutes or less before your trains within France (in fact, the platform usually isn't listed earlier than that), you must check-in for Eurostar at least 30 minutes in advance.  This is to ensure you clear both French and UK immigration, then UK customs (French customs on the reverse trip). They do have a nice waiting lounge with food & drink available though!  Once on Eurostar, I admit it was nice to have announcements made in English rather than picking up about every fifth word in French and hoping I at least understood the gist of what was being said.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

4,500 BC? That Puts Things in Perspective . . .

It's really difficult to see another place back-to-back with Oradur-sur-Glane, so that may be why the places we saw in Ruffec the same day simply weren't that impressive.  Another big church with a similar exterior to the one in Civray, but without the lovely interior painting - some nice stained glass though.
If you're thinking that you've seen this church before . . . well, I can't really disagree with the sentiment.

The lavoir was somewhat interesting to see - a historical place where people went down to the river for washing.  Too bad that people had defaced it with graffiti!  I strategically shot these to exclude it, but it's truly unfortunate that people have so little regard for sites from history that cannot be replaced.

The next day I had planned to go to Futuroscope, but having ran out of time to see the Musée des Tumulus on Saturday, I decided I was more interested in doing that.  I had thought it was in/near Poitiers, but it is actually near Bougon, which is about 30 minutes west of Poitiers . . . so my GPS wasn't taking me on some wild goose chase as I first thought when I crossed over N10 instead of getting *on* N10.

Musée des Tumulus de Bougon

Having clearly not looked into this well enough, I initially thought I was going to see stone age homes, but learned they were actually burial chambers.  The site is a Neolithic necropolis dating from ~4,500 BC to 2,500 BC that was discovered in 1840.  For being found so long ago, it was remarkably well-preserved!  The tumuli of Bougon is the oldest Western European megalithic necropolis.

The attached museum includes a free English-translation head set for all of the signs, plus English translations of the videos that are shown AND the extra dialogue that French visitors can also get on a head set.  I cruised through the various displays of tools pretty quickly - while I listened to most of the options, there were a few that were self-explanatory, even with French signs, and I skipped those.  They had a very comprehensive display of ancient tools, which were displayed by type and perceived usage.

There were also full-size replications of a structure from three sites that have been found other places in the world, which you could enter and explore.  This seemed like a great feature for kids!  It was interesting even as an adult to walk inside while the headset explained what you were seeing.  Even better, the place was nearly empty (although, that's unfortunate from the perspective of the place perhaps not being well-known/well-visited).

The tour then continues outside.  There are a couple displays where they've shown how they currently believe the tumulus would have been built, given the tools available at the time, and a large replica of the type of house structures they believe were used based on findings.  Then, you arrive at the main attraction - Tumulus!  First, there is a very nicely preserved tumulu that makes for great photos . . . and you can go inside!

Feeling just slightly creeped out about being inside an ancient tomb right now . . . 

It was interesting because each tumulu was slightly different with some much smaller (and more damaged) tumulus up next.  The first one is still largely buried and inaccessible to the interior.

 This one was more damaged, but gives a nice view of the interior structure:
This next photo is one end of the largest tumulu on the site - there is another mound similar to it at the other end.  The middle chamber also had a few burials.  You could enter these as well; however, going inside one creepy tomb was enough for me!  The sheer size of this thing was impressive though - especially given how primitive the tools available at the time were, for them to move the massive stone blocks they used as the supports and the solid stone sheets used as the roofs would have taken immense effort.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

In France an Extra Month and Oradour-sur Glane: The Most Moving Place I've Seen

There were two additional projects identified during my time here that are outside of the scope of what can be done in the original time frame . . . so I'm here until June 10 now.  From a professional perspective, I'd like to leave feeling the work was done properly and the plant is positioned well for a hand-off.  On a personal level, I miss my friends and family at this point!  It's easy to stay busy with work and exploring for a month, but after that, it gets a little harder to be away from everyone . . . there's only so much you can do with phone calls and Facebook!

Last weekend, a co-worker and I decided to check out a recommendation from the owners of my cottage, Oradour-sur-Glane.  Normally, I look into things a little more, but they said it was the site of a preserved village that had been destroyed by the Germans in World War II.  For some reason, I envisioned this being a few buildings with an area to stop and look at them . . . from a distance.  This seemed like an hour long visit?  At most.  The day started with a visit to our favorite bakery, that sadly will be closed for the next two weeks as they will be on vacation!  I will say that there must be something different with French food as I eat a main dish or sandwich on French bread and often a starter or dessert daily and I weigh slightly less than I did when I got here . . . look, it's diet food guys!


When we arrived, we learned there was a town by that name still (which is what my GPS took me to), but fortunately it only took driving around one block to spot the signs directing us to the correct location with a museum adjacent to the site.  When we looked around the museum, there was only one small side we couldn't see, so I was still picturing a handful of buildings hidden away over there.  Access to the site is free, but we paid for the full museum experience.  If you know a lot about WWII, you can probably skip it, but it was interesting to read about the build-up from a French perspective - the parts of France that could be perceived as not having really opposed Hitler, the various people who fought for (and in some cases, died for) the French Resistance.  I don't know if the museum was necessarily worth 9 Euro, but I don't mind supporting the site being available and tended to!

While I can't say I "enjoyed" Oradour-sur-Glane, it was the most moving place I've been in all of my trips to Europe.  Unlike what I expected, it is literally an entire village that has been preserved as it was after the Nazis killed virtually everyone and tried to burn the place down.  The first building I saw grabbed my attention.

They ask that you're quiet here and you can understand why.  It's just incredible to think that this entire village was erased, with the exception of about 6 people who escaped and a few who managed to hide.
We finally came upon the church where the women and children had been rounded up.  They were taken here after they were all separated and told the town was being searched for weapons, so they had no reason to suspect what was about to happen.  In the massacre shortly after, not even babies were spared.

I don't think there is any way to avoid being emotionally overwhelmed by what you see here.  It has a particularly strong impact when you see this town that looks like virtually every other town in this area . . . and it has just been wiped out.  This is one price of war - a village destroyed because people in the area were resisting the Nazis and "needed to be taught a lesson" (although the exact reasons this was done aren't known, this is essentially the reason that was given at the time).
You're allowed a great deal of freedom to wander the site without damaging anything or being at risk, so you really see the signs of a life interrupted.  The house that used to be two stories, with fireplaces to prove it, that is now an empty shell.
A large fireplace, with lovely tiling, that still had a large pot on over the fire.
The town also had a cemetary where many were later buried from that day and are memorialized by family or others who survived them.  One memorial for 8 family members was particularly heartbreaking - from a 72 year old man to a 4 year old little girl.
The special exhibit (included in the combined ticket we bought) was photos of the victims that had been collected and were displayed in a video that stated their age when it occured.  There were also very nicely done books with additional photos showing their life before this occurred.  While I don't normally buy things from souvenir shops, I did purchase a book from here that is an hour-by-hour account from one of the men who escaped the massacre.
I highly recommend a visit to Oradour-sur-Glane, although be prepared for the emotional impact.  It really will bring home the horrible brutality of war.  While this was a particularly appalling act by the Nazis, I don't doubt that there are other instances in other wars, but this one has been preserved as a reminder to us all.

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" - George Santayana