Wednesday 25 September 2013

Overseen: Storm in a (Non-tea) Cup

On our last day of hiking, we wound up at a perfect wooden chalet of a restaurant at Riffelalp, serving various kinds of melted cheese, wine, kuchen.

I got very excited when I saw a series of wooden rondels overhead bearing menu suggestions.  This one is for the Sturmtasse - the stormcup.  Rather than containing a storm-in-a-cup, I'm guessing the ingredients (milk, chocolate, cream, rum) are designed to counteract the effects of bad weather.

And yes I did order it but, very sadly, owing to some miscommunication, my Sturmtasse arrived without rum.  More of a Drizzle-tasse, really.

Monday 23 September 2013

Quarterly (or should that be quadrennial?) Review

Lost in a slew of deadlines and the depths of a stinky cold, I didn't mark an important anniversary on Thursday.  Beloved readers, my blog just turned four.  Four!  In blog years that's - what? - at least twenty.

Way back in the way back, I had the idea that I was going to do a quarterly review: a three-monthly survey of my travels and where my head was at.  I was inspired by Elizabeth Eastlake, a lady traveller and the first woman to write regularly for the Quarterly Review.  You will perhaps not be surprised to hear that there was exactly one HTLT quarterly review, back in November 2009.  But in the spirit of enterprise, I've decided that writing one review after four years is almost the same as writing four reviews in one year.

Here are some statistics.  Since starting Hints to Lady Travellers, I have:

- Travelled to 24 countries
- Lived in five cities
- Discovered many, many female travel writers, and written about 15 of them on this blog (which is really not enough.  Must.  Do.  Better.)
- Gained three nephews (to add to the original Adorable one)
- Written a book
- Completed five exhibition projects - including this one (look ma, I made a museum!)
- Gathered recipes for gin fizzes, Anzac biscuits, Bernie's Italian mama's vegetable soup, Mr Tulk's polenta/mushroom/poached egg combo - and many, many others
- Learned how to snap my fingers (old dog, new tricks)
- Seen constellations of fireflies
- Created a Life List, and ticked off several items, including becoming a runner (!) and visiting some of Ireland's offshore islands
- Became somewhat obsessed with swallows (see picture, above)
- Made new friends
- Offered some hints

I set off on my travels in 2009 with the goal of opening myself to new experiences and, as a result, becoming more open (I thought of it like a kind of slow-motion, long-term yoga pose).  I know that I have become more open, though in the last few months, since my travels have mostly been limited to a Dublin-London commute, I occasionally lose sight of that.  But the joy and the reason for keeping this blog going is - everytime I read through it I feel a surge of happiness that I have done and seen so many things, and this inevitably inspires me to make plans for more.

Thank you for sharing my journey.

A Lady Traveller xxx

Thursday 12 September 2013

Freya Stark: Part the First

Why did it take me so long to read anything by Freya Stark?  After all, she was published by John Murray, and it was the John Murray Archive that was responsible for my starting this blog.  (I worked on the exhibition at the National Library of Scotland.)  Anyone lucky enough  to visit 50 Albemarle St where John Murray was based for many years would see portraits, sketches and photographs of some of their famous travel writers - including Miss Stark.

Copyright unknown 
Anyway, I'm just glad I finally got round to it (her?).  Freya Stark's prose reads almost like poetry; her insights about the people she meets and lives with in Arabia are profound.  She has an eye for detail and a wonderful gift for describing her surroundings evocatively.

I don't propose to write at length about Freya Stark today, given I've just read one book by her (A Winter in Arabia - about some months she spent living in the Hadhramaut, an isolated part of what is now Yemen), am about to start the second (Baghdad Sketches) and want to supplement my meagre knowledge by reading the recent biography.

But here are some thoughts of hers that have stuck in mind: is, I believe, a fallacy to think of travellers' qualities as physical.  If I had to write a decalogue for journeys, eight out of the ten virtues should be moral, and I should put first of all a temper as serene at the end as at the beginning of the day.

Then would come the capacity to accept values and to judge by standards other than our own.  The rapid judgement of character; and a love of nature which must include human nature also.  The power to dissociate oneself from one's own bodily sensations.  A knowledge of the local history and language.  A leisurely and uncensorious mind.  A tolerable constitution and the capacity to eat and sleep at any moment.  And lastly, and especially here, [in Arabia? in the Hadhramaut?] a ready quickness in repartee.

Excellent hints - not just to lady travellers, but to all travellers, everywhere.

Wednesday 11 September 2013

Overseen: La Scala

Overseen in - no, not Milan.  This is the other La Scala, the one in Milford, Co. Donegal.  I took this photograph of a treasured institution on a glorious day in July, 2013.

We used to go to the pictures here when I was a little girl.  (Well, we went at least twice - highlights of my youth).  Sadly, the cinema is now closed, but the sign lives on in all its glory.

Tuesday 10 September 2013

When Are Churches Not Like Museums?

A few weeks ago, there was an opinion piece in the New York Times about the rise of participation in art museums.  Titled 'High Culture Goes Hands-On' the piece complained that art museums were trying too hard to flog the 'hands-on' and needed to concentrate on being places that support passive experiences - no participation required.

You don't have to look hard to find people sighing that art galleries need to go back to being more restrained: places for passive contemplation, quiet voices (or as I once read in a wonderfully awful visitors guide to a museum, 'indoor voices').  You don't have to look hard to find references to art museums as secular churches; shrine-like.

Shortly after I read the NYT piece, I attended evening prayer at a cathedral in Dublin.  Like many historic churches, this one helps defray the costs of its upkeep by charging an admission fee for tourists.  Outside of the summer, tourist visits aren't allowed while services are taking place, but for whatever reason, during the summer (when there's no choral evensong and attendance is smaller) the two take place at the same time.

So there I was, prayerbook in hand, hoping for a contemplative experience - and around me, people took photos: of the beautiful architecture, the famous encaustic tiles, the statues and memorials and - me.  Being the reluctant subject of the photography made me think again of the New York Times piece.  Wouldn't it be better if people weren't so preoccupied with a hands-on experience?  Wasn't the urge to record everything part of this mania for activity?  Where were the hushed voices?  Dammit, where was my contemplative experience?

But the thing is - that's nonsense.  Anyone who suggests that art museums and galleries (it's usually these, not so much history or other museums) should be more shrine-like, more like churches, is missing the point.  Churches are all about participation: though prayer may be a quieter activity, it's not passive.  In the same way, my yoga teacher explains that meditation is active - it's just a kind of active passivity, or maybe a passive activity.  And also - churches, temples and other sacred spaces are often full of noise and motion.  Singing, for example, is one of the oldest, most instinctive group activities.

The truth is, contemplation and participation are not poles, either ends of a spectrum.  There's a continuum of participation and, I would argue, contemplation is just one place on that continuum.  My experience in the church, though a bit irritating, reminded me that rather than saying a place should promote one kind of engagement exclusively, we need to remember that people interact with things in different ways.  And that's okay.

To be practical, some kinds of participation don't obviously coexist that well with others.  The act of prayer is somewhat disturbed by people wandering around with flashing cameras or taking iPad videos of the service.  But it seems to me that the cathedral's usual practice makes sense: when services are happening, don't permit - what should I call it? - tourist activity.  But do - do, do, do - invite people (believers, non-believers, believers of another faith or creed) to come in and be part of the service: level and type of participation at own discretion.

When places of worship do this, I think they offer a valuable lesson to art galleries and museums.  Different kinds of participation are possible, valuable - even essential.  Some of them are difficult to programme at the same time, so set aside times when the space is devoted to specific activities.  But, when you do, make sure that you extend the invitation to all your visitors - not just the target audience.  They may or may not not love it, but at least it will help to remind them that the institution is about trying to meet the needs of many different audiences.

One final thing though - in fact, I'd say this qualifies as a hint: whatever about taking photos of a shrine, church, temple, mosque, synagogue or other place of worship, it is almost never appropriate to take pictures of people actually engaged in worship.