Tag Archives: travel

First-time sojourn across the pond

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Thirty-five years ago, I joined a group of fellow Valparaiso University students at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, where we would board a TWA flight to London. We were to be the 27th group of VU students to spend a semester at the University’s overseas study centre in Cambridge, England, and the long flight was the first big step of our journey.

We landed in London the next morning and boarded a coach for Cambridge. Later that evening, bleary-eyed but hungry, we would gather for the first of many group dinners, this one featuring American-style pizza at a place called Sweeney Todd’s.

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I was embarking on the most formative educational experience of my life. The semester would create enduring memories, new perspectives, and lifelong friendships. The seeds it planted permeate my life today, ranging from the way I live, to my choice of vocation, to how I spend my typical day.

As I have written here before, despite my penchant for nostalgia, there aren’t many times of my life that I’d actually like to relive. But if I could enter a time machine to relive this one, I’d jump in right away and fasten my seatbelt.

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Among study abroad offerings, a semester in England spent largely in the company of fellow American students ranks with the gentlest invitations to get beyond one’s comfort zone. Nevertheless, for a young man born and raised in northwest Indiana and not particularly adventurous by nature, those five months away were life changing and world expanding.

Our academic fare was pretty basic, a cluster of survey-type courses in British history, British drama, European geography, and art appreciation designed largely to introduce us to our new surroundings. Group trips, extended weekends, spring break, and the weeks following the end of the semester allowed for travel and exploration. I did a spring break trip through Scotland and Ireland, as well as a brisk three-week, post-semester jaunt through Western Europe (France, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany), traveling alternately with fellow VU students and on my own.

However, I was not a frequent weekend sojourner; I enjoyed the old university city of Cambridge and tended to stay there. When I did travel, London was by far my favorite destination. I felt very much in my element in those two places.

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I loved going to movies, plays, bookstores, and lectures in Cambridge. I joined the Cambridge Union Society, a famous debating and cultural activities club run by ambitious University undergraduates, some of whom already had set their sights on election to Parliament! The day I joined, I attended a formal debate on British economic policy. Among the speakers was economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who would become one of my intellectual heroes.

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During visits to London, museums and plays were my main focus. Our theatre course required that we write a series of play reviews. It is only fitting, given my parochial outlook, that my first review was of a West End production of “Oklahoma!,” the classic American musical.

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Given the personal significance of this experience, one might guess that I had planned to participate in a study abroad program from the time I first stepped on campus. Not so! I signed up mainly because good friends with whom I worked on the campus newspaper were going, and I wanted a change of scenery.

During my interview for admission to the Cambridge semester program, I managed to sling some mildly articulate fertilizer about expanding my intellectual horizons, but truthfully I had no idea what I was talking about. This thin level of cultural depth, matched by a healthy dose of post-adolescent callowness, followed me overseas, where I made most of my plans at the last minute and often tagged along with others who were more informed about what to see and do….

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…As in tagged along, went along, or sometimes practically dragged along! On group tours to places like Warwick Castle, York, and Stonehenge, I went because they were on the schedule. During spring break stops in Edinburgh, Loch Lomond, Loch Ness, and other parts of Scotland, I went because five of us rented a car and drove north. (My own choices led to questionable decisions, such as heading over to Belfast, Northern Ireland, during a tumultuous and violent time there.)

I was hardly more intentional during my post-semester trip to the European continent. I explored the Left Bank of Paris, hiked in the Swiss Alps, and went on “The Sound of Music” guided bus tour in Salzburg mostly because that’s what my friends wanted to do. (I did take a memorable solo trip to Berlin, with the Wall still intact.)

But it all stuck and left deep impressions. I will give my young self credit for understanding this as the semester went on. I knew that I was very, very fortunate to be having that experience.

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Of course, I realize that in waxing nostalgic about my semester abroad, I am something of a cliché. The world is full of American collegians who hopped on a plane bound for Europe and returned with a boatload of breathless stories about visits to “amazing,” “incredible,” and “fascinating” sites that, umm, countless millions of others have seen as well.

But I can’t help it. That semester had a fundamental impact on me, and I cannot imagine what my life would be like had the opportunity passed me by. I know that others in our cohort feel the same way, though perhaps with a bit less intensity.

Which leads me to a final, very important point: I had no idea that I would stay in touch with so many people from this group, yet lifetime friendships emerged from our semester together. In fact, every five years we gather for a group reunion, which typically includes sharing many of the same old stories, accompanied by lots of laughter. We’re now planning our next reunion for this summer.

And so, I plead guilty to being among those who look back at such times with great fondness and gratitude. Amazing, incredible, and fascinating, indeed.

Welcomed year-end perspectives from across the pond

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Visits to England over the years have given me a great appreciation for two venerable news periodicals published there, The Economist and The Guardian. A venerable staple in England, The Economist, has become very popular in the U.S. The Guardian, a long-time British daily newspaper, now offers a weekly edition perfect for those of us in other nations.

Of the two, The Economist is the better known. Published since 1843, it favors free-market economics and globalization, while staking moderate and occasionally liberal positions on social issues. All articles and editorials are unsigned, and great care is taken to produce each issue with a consistently understated, analytical, and often witty tone of voice. For liberals like me, it offers a thoughtfully reasoned, contrasting point of view.

The Economist‘s holiday double issue has long been an annual treat. Loaded with features on lively, quirkier, more offbeat topics than its normal fare — see the pieces under “Christmas Specials” from this year’s holiday issue — it’s an enjoyable way to spend a more contemplative turning of the calendar.

The Guardian has made a big American visibility push in recent years, especially online, with increasing coverage of major news events in the U.S. With its generally liberal social, political, and economic perspectives and a punchier style of writing, its weekly edition — global in scope and drawing from the Observer, Washington Post, and Le Monde — is emerging as an informative, left-leaning counterpart to The Economist.

The Guardian Weekly‘s year-end issue isn’t quite as elaborate as The Economist‘s, but it, too, is an informative assessment of the year behind us and in front of us.

Both periodicals are somewhat pricey as print subscriptions, so some may prefer to check them out online. For news junkies like me, they offer interesting, informed, and global alternatives to so much of the celebrity-driven drivel of typical American “news” coverage and the noisy, sound-bite yammering of our cable news stations.

Hawaii calls: My first bout of nostalgia

Given my frequent bouts of nostalgia, I thought I’d delve way back into my boyhood to trace how this has been a natural state of affairs for me. Indeed, while we often associate nostalgia with memories of people, events, and experiences of long ago, I recall having these feelings as early as my grade school years.

In fact, my original bouts of nostalgia were grounded in family trips to see relatives in Hawaii, when my brother Jeff and I were very young. These visits occurred every few years, and they created lasting memories. When one of the local Chicago area TV stations would run episodes of “Hawaii Calls,” a syndicated travel program that included many of the touristy Hawaiian songs we learned during our visits, I would find myself holding back tears over memories of our own travels to the Aloha State — memories that may have been only a year old!

By the time I entered my teen years, and proceeding into my college days, nostalgia was a natural, common state for me. During those years I also discovered my penchant for historical nostalgia, that is, feeling a very emotional connection to defined stretches of the past that preceded my arrival. America’s “Roaring Twenties” constituted the first such period to capture my fascination. No doubt that my enjoyment of history is fueled by this energetic tie.

As I alluded to above, like many, I associate memories with music. My nostalgic episodes, real and historic, typically have strong musical connections. It’s appropriate that I would link in this post a couple of classics from Don Ho, one of the iconic performers of popular Hawaiian songs. Both were favorites during our visits to Hawaii many years ago.

Imagining the Ye Olde English coffee houses

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In 1750, the first coffee house in England opened in Oxford, and it wouldn’t take long for the concept to take hold across the country. According to Aytoun Ellis’s The Penny Universities: A History of the Coffee-Houses (1956), by the end of that century, London was home to over 2,000 coffee houses, located throughout the city!

Ellis used the term “penny university” because a penny would gain entrance to a place of strong brew, the newspapers and periodicals of the day, and lively discussions about politics, literature, and commerce. Not surprisingly, when it came to ambience, location mattered a lot. Coffee houses located near universities filled with intellectual exchange. By contrast, much business would be conducted at coffee houses located in commercial districts. And still others would be host to gambling and other less refined activities.

Though I’d enjoy a quick time machine visit to a few of these old coffee houses, I doubt that I’d long to spend much time in them. I imagine that many were pretty loud and boisterous places, whereas my ideal of a coffee-consuming establishment is a café quiet enough to read or do a little work. Some brew to help awaken the mind and a place to sit down and read (or think) big thoughts . . . I like that.

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Big Apple ghosts

Flatiron Building, 23rd Street, Manhattan (photo: DY)

Flatiron Building, 23rd Street, Manhattan (photo: DY)

Of all the places I have lived for long stretches of time — Northwest Indiana, New York City, and Boston — the Big Apple has made the deepest, lasting personal impression. I lived, went to law school, and worked in New York for 12 years, and the place simply imprinted itself on me.

Following a Thanksgiving visit to New York, I traveled to the city again for an annual workshop sponsored by Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, a global network of scholars, practitioners, writers, activists, and students dedicated to advancing human dignity and reducing the experience of humiliation. It was an enjoyable and intense couple of days, spent in the company of a remarkable group of people.

The visit gave me a chance to spend a couple of extra days in New York. As usual, I got together with my awesome cousins (cousin Al, his wife Judy, and their youngest son Aaron), this time for a couple of super duper meals. But I also took some time to walk around the city.

For me, walks in Manhattan are a weird mix of the present and the past. I enjoy visiting New York for its own sake; it remains one of the most stupendous (and expensive) places on Earth. But I also see ghosts of the past everywhere: Ghosts from my years living there, ghosts from past visits, ghosts of a New York that I never experienced personally. So many Manhattan sites bring back an assortment of random, vivid memories.

One of my long-time friends, also a New York ex-pat, commented on Facebook that I’ll always be a 1980s New Yorker. She was spot-on with her observation. Although I was a pretty clueless young man back then, there’s something about that decade, lived in that city, that forever will be a big part of me.

But here’s a twist. I don’t yearn to move back there. I love my visits to New York, and if someone benevolently dropped a big pile of money into my lap, I’d consider returning. Nevertheless, I’d be ambivalent about moving back to a place that I so strongly associate, however positively, with my past. Does that sound odd?

For me, Boston has been more of an acquired taste, quite unlike New York, which I fell for immediately. But Boston also has been where I’ve done my most important work and met some wonderful people. Will I stay here forever? Who knows!? For now my present is much more grounded in Boston, and thus it is home.

Besides, despite my penchant for soggy nostalgia, I know that we often make the past look better by adjusting the rear-view mirror. It sometimes makes for a softer but less-than-accurate view….

Nostalgia for a New York experienced and occasionally imagined

Awaiting the okay to board, South Station, Boston (Photo: DY)

Awaiting the okay to board, South Station, Boston (Photo: DY)

My annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage to New York included a traditional feast with family and friends and a lot of walking around to absorb the sights and sounds of the city. And while my trusty smartphone is not exactly state of the art, it continued to take decent pictures, a few of which I’m happy to share here.

Probably the best Broadway or West End show I've ever seen (Photo: DY)

As good as it gets (Photo: DY)

Besides our Thanksgiving dinner, my favorite part of this visit was going with my cousin Judy, a true connoisseur of the New York theatre, to a performance of “The King and I” at Lincoln Center. Starring Kelli O’Hara (Anna) and Hoon Lee (King of Siam), this revival of a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic was simply breathtaking in every way. As the lead of this superb cast, O’Hara was other-worldly good, with flawlessly beautiful vocals and acting chops that brought a deep emotional intelligence to this show.

Returning to old haunts is usually part of any New York visit for me, and the Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger at Broadway & Astor Place in Greenwich Village is a standard bearer. I’ve been going to this diner since my law school days at NYU, and almost every order includes a bowl of their awesome split pea soup.

Delicious split pea soup from the Cozy Soup 'n' Burger, Manhattan (Photo: DY)

Delicious split pea soup from the Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger, Manhattan (Photo: DY)

You may be wondering, where are the people in these photos? As I explained in a post last year, although this particular Thanksgiving gathering has been a part of our lives for well over a decade, for some reason no one has ever started taking pictures! Phone cameras abound within our group, and at least some of us are of Japanese heritage! The statistical odds against this shutter shutdown must be off the charts.

Back in the day, I worked for the NY Attorney General's Office, in this downtown Manhattan building (Photo: DY)

Back in the day, I worked for the NY Attorney General’s Office, in this downtown Manhattan building (Photo: DY)

My hotel was in lower Manhattan, so I did quite a bit of walking around there. Above is 120 Broadway, home to the New York Attorney General’s Office, where I spent three years as an Assistant Attorney General in the Labor Bureau before I started teaching. Robert Abrams was the AG then, and he set a high standard for the office. Many of my former colleagues have gone on to distinguished leadership positions in public service, the non-profit sector, and private practice.

Someday I am going to enjoy a steak at this place (Photo: DY)

Someday I will enjoy a steak with all the trimmings at this place (Photo: DY)

Above is a place that exists for me in a kind of historical, imagined New York: Delmonico’s steak house in the Wall Street business district, a legendary dining establishment going back to the early 1800s. I’ve read about Delmonico’s in non-fiction books and novels about New York, and I’ve heard that they make an exceptional steak. But I’ve never eaten there! Someday it will happen. Medium-well for me, please, with a side order of hash browns.

A great find at the wondrous Strand Bookstore (Photo: DY)

A great find at the wondrous Strand Bookstore (Photo: DY)

When I lived in New York, a hefty share of my modest paychecks went to the Strand Bookstore. In recent years, the mighty Strand has undergone some interior remodeling to give the place a slightly more upscale feel, but it retains much of the dusty used bookstore feel that made it such a fun book hunting ground years ago. There I made my one Black Friday purchase for myself, a Folio Society edition of T.E. Lawrence’s (Lawrence of Arabia) Seven Pillars of Wisdom. With its slipcase and in excellent condition, I got it at a fraction of its original price.

A truly gourmet taco from La Palapa, East Village, Manhattan (Photo: DY)

A truly gourmet taco from La Palapa, East Village, Manhattan (Photo: DY)

My gustatory intake also included a couple of truly excellent tacos at La Palapa, a superb (and affordable!) Mexican restaurant on St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan’s East Village. Cousin Judy happens to be a manager at La Palapa, but I’d be raving about it even if I didn’t have family working there.

And speaking of the East Village, this new history of historic St. Mark's Place (Photo: DY)

And speaking of the East Village, this new history of historic St. Mark’s Place (Photo: DY)

My cousin Al gave me this new history of St. Mark’s Place. St. Mark’s is a culturally famous street, with a history rich in noted writers, musicians, artists and other historically significant folks. Today it has not escaped the sky high cost of Manhattan living, but it’s still a great site of urban Americana. And paging through the book, I imagine incarnations of a New York that I’ve never personally experienced. Such is the pull of this little island.

The hazards of study abroad

Belfast, Northern Ireland, April 1981 (photo: DY)

Belfast, Northern Ireland, April 1981 (photo: DY)

The terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday tragically reminded us that when students go abroad, they are not provided with a protective bubble. Among the fatally wounded was Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old American design student from California State-Long Beach. She was killed in the drive-by gunfire at the La Belle Equipe bistro. News reports tell us that she was an outstanding student, and that the opportunity to study in Paris was a dream come true.

Here in America, we think of study abroad as a wondrous opportunity to explore and learn in a different country. These sentiments are usually spot on. But someone can be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and another may be in harm’s way due to youthful daring or indiscretion.

Nohemi Gonzalez was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was killed while enjoying a Friday evening with friends over food and drink. She did nothing to provoke what happened to her.

Today Boston.com reported that a young man from Sharon, Massachusetts, Ezra Schwartz, “was one of five people killed in a pair of attacks in Tel Aviv and the West Bank Thursday.” A 2015 high school graduate, he was spending a gap year in Israel. Boston.com further reports:

Police said that a Palestinian man drove by a line of cars sitting in traffic and fired multiple bullets before “intentionally” crashing into a group of people.

. . . Schwartz was on his way back from handing out food to soldiers when he was shot, according to a statement from Camp Yavneh, where Schwartz was a former camper and counselor.

Then there’s the story of Amanda Knox, who was spending an academic year in Italy when she was implicated in the murder of a flatmate, Meredith Kercher. Knox was convicted at trial and spent several years in prison. She ultimately secured an acquittal from the Italian Supreme Court in a case that was riddled with biased proceedings against her and a lack of reliable evidence connecting her to the killing.

My own story of youthful daring stupidity

As for the possibility of a study abroad student taking dumb chances, I can supply a personal story.

During my 1981 semester abroad in England, I spent several days of my spring break in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It was a tumultuous time to be there, for the violence associated with “The Troubles” had escalated mightily. Irish political prisoners were staging well-publicized hunger strikes, and an Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader, Bobby Sands, was among them. (He would die in prison that May.)

I had become interested in the conflict over Northern Ireland, so I figured, what better way to learn more about it than to visit Belfast? After all, I had been an editor of my college newspaper, and so why not be a sort of junior foreign correspondent? Amid bullets flying about or an explosion going off, I would be an observer, not a casualty, right?

I took the photo above as I was walking back to the Belfast youth hostel. Ahead of me was the British army vehicle in the picture. I saw a rush of activity, with soldiers moving quickly, rifles in hand. By the time I reached the vehicle, they were leaning against it, with their weapons pointed across the street. When I asked one of them what was going on, he said tersely, “just keep walking.” I did, briskly. I never learned if anything more significant happened after my hasty exit.

I also would accept an offer from a BBC reporter to take me on a short drive through dicier parts of Belfast where he had conducted some recent interviews with IRA leaders. It was a fascinating impromptu tour, and I would’ve never trekked into those areas of town on my own. But thank goodness he was legit, for this brilliant “foreign correspondent” never thought to ask him for identification.

It all makes for a good story after the fact, but in reality I had taken foolish risks for the sake of feeling adventurous. Such is youthful ignorance.

And so…

What does this mean for a young student pondering whether to see a bit of the world? In light of recent events, I wouldn’t blame students or their parents for reconsidering a decision to study abroad. But someone who passes on such an experience for safety reasons could easily find herself waiting, say, near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I’m afraid that contemporary life today has this random quality to it.

Appropriate caution and prudence, not absolute isolation and avoidance, should be the governing principles when it comes to study abroad or any other decision that involves stepping outside of our homes. Beyond that, our control over larger events is somewhat limited.

Diaries & journals as time travel devices

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As both a history buff and a wannabe time traveler, I find that historically significant journals and diaries can be a wonderful way of jumping into the past. In the hands of gifted chroniclers, they offer intimate, we-are-there views of momentous times, blending reportage, observation, context, and some instant reflection and analysis.

Two of my favorites are William L. Shirer’s Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-41 (1941) and John Kenneth Galbraith’s Ambassador’s Journal: A Personal Account of the Kennedy Years (1969). Here are some snapshot page views from both books:

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William Shirer was both a print journalist and a radio reporter in Berlin during the tumultuous 1930s and the early years of the Second World War. In the photo above, we see Shirer writing about the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, regarded as the official launch of the war. He quickly and accurately dismisses attempts by Hitler and his High Command to spin the invasion as a defensive “counter-attack” in response to supposed Polish aggression.

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And here’s one of his 1940 entries, writing about the British evacuation of Dunkirk following the fall of France. Note, at the bottom of the page, his observations about how the German people are now regarding the material deprivations they experienced as Germany prepared for war.

Shirer would go on to write one of the most popular books ever about the war, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

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John Kenneth Galbraith was an accomplished Harvard economist, liberal political figure, and author of a bestselling (and still relevant) book, The Affluent Society, when he became an advisor to the Kennedy campaign. Galbraith’s journal mixes insider stories about the Kennedy Administration, his experiences as Kennedy’s ambassador to India, and texts of letters that he wrote to the President.

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Some of the most interesting parts of the journal recount the period immediately following Kennedy’s election in 1960. In the passage above, Galbraith shares news of his pending diplomatic assignment and his conversation with the President-elect about potential cabinet appointees.

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And here’s an entry with news that First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy will be making a short, informal trip to India, along with some humorous details about how Galbraith has been instructed to keep the visit confidential for now.

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When it comes to journals and diaries from historically significant times, I much prefer the prose of observers such as Shirer and Galbraith over tawdry tell-all tales designed to sell books and attract talk show invitations. Shirer was a reporter, while Galbraith was a participant, but both journals share levels of restraint, sans the kind of voyeuristic detail we might expect in similar efforts today.

They are also fascinating to read, drawing us into different times and places. In the absence of time travel machines, books like these are pretty good substitutes.

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Related posts

Time travel: Some favorite destinations (2013) — If I could go back in time, here’s my list!

A bookstore visit triggers memories of meeting an intellectual hero (2014) — My meeting with John Kenneth Galbraith, weeks before he passed away.

When the World’s Fair came to Chicago in 1893

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Although Christopher Columbus isn’t on my list of favorite historical figures — click here and here for reasons — the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that bore his name was a sight to behold. The “Columbian Exposition,” named to recognize the 400th anniversary of his arrival in the Americas, attracted a global audience to the brawny, growing metropolis of Chicago.

The 1893 Fair was a celebration of the world, its past, present, and future. This awesome little picture book, a gift from my long-time friends the Driscoll Family, presents a collection of photographs that capture some of that fascination. I’m delighted to share a sampling:

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The Palace of Fine Arts was a chief showpiece building of the Fair. It is now Chicago’s famous Museum of Science and Industry.

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This panoramic shot of the Fair helps to explain why it was called “The White City.”

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While striving for an Old World look, the Fair celebrated scientific invention and manufacturing capacity.

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Disney’s Epcot Center doesn’t hold a candle to the small scale re-creation of other nations at the 1893 Fair.

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The Fair offered looks at exotic parts of the world. Check out the expressions of these ladies.

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You could do some simulated exploring as well…maybe this inspired a future Indiana Jones?!

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Refreshment stands dotted the Fair. I’m sure they were especially welcomed during hot Chicago summer days.

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Guys who were bored with all of the cultural exhibits and displays could line up for this distraction. (This photo contains one of the longest lines of any exhibit in the book!)

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America’s emerging role in international affairs and growing military strength were exemplified by the U.S.S. Illinois, a full-scale mock-up of a modern battleship that presaged even larger warships to appear at the turn of the century.

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For more foreshadowing of events to come in the next century, the Krupp company, a major German gunmaker, had its own building.

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But we shouldn’t finish our photo tour with ominous signs for the future. Rather, let us close with a reminder of the Fair’s beauty, via this wonderful night shot.

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Could we ever have another World’s Fair? Probably not. The last genuine Fair was in 1964, in New York City. Subsequent efforts to stage such expositions haven’t generated the same levels of interest and attendance. In an age where the Internet, television, and international travel combine to shrink the globe, it’s hard to foresee anything like the 1893 Fair occurring anytime soon.

But that shouldn’t stop us from imagining the sense of fascination and wonder that drew visitors to the Chicago World’s Fair experienced back then. The Old World was making way for the New one, and these photographs make it clear that the Fair captured that moment in time.

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If you want to learn more about the Chicago World’s Fair, check out its Wikipedia entry. Here’s a snippet:

The layout of the Chicago Columbian Exposition was, in large part, designed by Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted. It was the prototype of what Burnham and his colleagues thought a city should be. It was designed to follow Beaux Arts principles of design, namely French neoclassical architecture principles based on symmetry, balance, and splendor. Many prominent architects designed its 14 “great buildings”. Artists and musicians were featured in exhibits and many also made depictions and works of art inspired of the exposition.

The exposition covered more than 600 acres (2.4 km2), featuring nearly 200 new (but purposely temporary) buildings of predominantly neoclassical architecture, canals and lagoons, and people and cultures from 46 countries. . . . More than 27 million people attended the exposition during its six-month run. Its scale and grandeur far exceeded the other world’s fairs, and it became a symbol of the emerging American Exceptionalism, much in the same way that the Great Exhibition became a symbol of the Victorian era United Kingdom.

Dedication ceremonies for the fair were held on October 21, 1892, but the fairgrounds were not actually opened to the public until May 1, 1893. The fair continued until October 30, 1893. In addition to recognizing the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the New World by Europeans, the fair also served to show the world that Chicago had risen from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire, which had destroyed much of the city in 1871.

Also, the Chicago Historical Society has an excellent online feature about the Fair.

Finally, Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003), interweaves the story of the Fair with the gruesome tale of serial killer H.H. Holmes, whose private torture chamber was located a close west of the city’s fairgrounds. It’s a riveting book.

New England autumn, that Halloween feeling, and scary stories

Boston Common, October 2015 (Photo: DY)

Boston Common, October 2015 (Photo: DY)

Friday was a raw, wet, overcast October day here in Boston. For me, it meant that fall has truly arrived in New England. As my wholly repetitive earlier posts about fall attest (here and here), this is my favorite and most nostalgic season.

The change of seasons from summer to fall is rooted in the equinox, an astronomical term. As explained by Wikipedia:

An equinox is an astronomical event in which the plane of Earth’s equator passes the center of the Sun. . . . The Astronomical Almanac defines it, on the other hand, as the instants when the Sun’s apparent longitude is 0° or 180°. . . . The two definitions are almost, but not exactly equivalent. Equinoxes occur twice a year, around 21 March and 23 September.

The month will culminate with Halloween, that most candy-coated of holidays. It will include a viewing of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, a childhood favorite that still manages to get me in the Halloween spirit.

A childhood favorite:

A childhood favorite: It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (Picture: abc.com)

But Halloween is about much more than empty calories and chocolate fixes. Its origins are grounded in religion and death. Again, from Wikipedia:

Halloween . . . is a yearly celebration observed in a number of countries on 31 October, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. It initiates the three-day religious observance of Allhallowtide, . . . the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers. . . . Within Allhallowtide, the traditional focus of All Hallows’ Eve revolves around the theme of using “humor and ridicule to confront the power of death.” . . .

According to many scholars, All Hallows’ Eve is a Christianized feast initially influenced by Celtic harvest festivals, . . . with possible pagan roots, particularly the Gaelic Samhain. . . . Other scholars maintain that it originated independently of Samhain and has solely Christian roots.

Perhaps it was inevitable that ghosts, goblins, and haunted houses would eventually enter the picture!

I’m in the right part of the country for religion and the supernatural to mix. It’s a combination that goes waaay back. Rosalyn Schanzer opens Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem (2011), a short, lively, fact-filled narrative of the Salem, Massachusetts witch hunts of the 17th century, with a description of the Puritan mindset of the day:

Yet with all their fine intentions, the voyagers had brought along a stowaway from their former home — a terrifying, ancient idea fated to wreak havoc in their new land. For the Puritans believed in the existence of two entirely different worlds.

The first of these was the Natural World of human beings and everything else we can see or touch or feel. But rooted deep within the Puritans’ souls like some strange invasive weed lurked their belief in a second world, an Invisible World swarming with shadowy apparitions and unearthly phantoms in the air.

Neat little book about the Salem witch hunts

Good little introduction to the story of the Salem witch hunts

It shouldn’t surprise us that this New England milieu has produced legendary writers of scary stories such as Stephen King and H.P Lovecraft.

After polling friends on Facebook and elsewhere for their Stephen King recommendations, I bought a small bagful of his books (Pet Sematary, It, and Needful Things), all with Maine settings. This one is first up on my reading list:

His scariest?

His scariest?

In his new introduction to Pet Sematary, King calls it his scariest book, so much so that he believed it would never be published.

In other words, it’s a great choice for an October reading.

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