Friday, July 15, 2016

Get Yo' Geek On

Every once in a while I feel the need to unequivocally declare that I am now, and always have been, a nerd.  That said, I go through phases of different flavors of nerdiness, the way I go through phases where all I want to eat is pho noodles, or Mexican (actually, every damn time I'm home...ask me how many times I ate at Chipotle while I was in Chicago, go on - I dare you).  When I was in middle school, it was Dragonlance.  As a freshman in high school, Star Wars.  Later in high school it was the X-Men.  During my time in Ras Al Khaimah I got hooked on Doctor Who.  There are a few fandoms I haven't gotten sucked into, but they are rare.  Anyways, regardless of my current fandom, being a nerd is sort of my thing, and so when I found out that there was a comic con thing happening in the same convention center as the national art teachers' conference I went to last month, it was only a matter of time before I broke down and bought a pass.
Well?  Have you???
The convention was actually the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo: C2E2, which sounds like a robot from Star Wars and most of the time I have referred to it as "that comic con thing," since that way people actually know what I'm talking about.  Now, a little FYI for all the haters out there who may find themselves feeling salty thinking that I took time off to go to a comic convention...I didn't.  I dutifully walked past all the cosplayers (I'm SO sad I didn't see Captain America and Iron Man in historic civil war garb until the photo showed up on my facebook feed) and the big entrance to the hall with all the booths selling shiny wonderful merch until the last session of my professional development was over, around 20 hours before I flew out of Chicago on the flight I'd booked long before I heard about C2E2.  I'd have to be stupid to miss out on my kickass art teacher workshops, the whole reason I went there.  That means I paid $40 for a pass that I got to use for about 3 hours, but it was worth every penny. 
Lego Rey

A big part of the reason I decided to go was the fact that I've never been to a comic convention.  My certifiable nerdiness notwithstanding, I've just never been in the right place at the right time.  So I decided to carpe the fuck out of my last diem in Chicago and find out what it was all about.  I mean, I had an idea, of course.  Panels and cosplay and all sorts of stuff for sale.  But to see it firsthand?  To experience people walking around in the most unbelievable costumes, with the most beautiful hair and makeup - not because it was their job but just for shits and giggles?  To watch the mania of consumerism unfold in all its geeky glory?  To hear experts in the industry talk about their shit?  In short, to meet with my people?

Totally. Worth. It.

I've got to say that nerds are actually the best.  For being hot as balls and super crowded, "The Floor" (as it is known) was actually a very polite, upbeat place.  People were actually really friendly and basically in a great mood.  I had my backpack on and bumped into more than one person while I was navigating it, and always found my apologies accepted by a smiling face.  If you're reading this back home, this may not seem like a big deal (unless you've been to a Trump rally recently, in which case, my condolences!) but after doing my two years in China I've come to appreciate it a lot.

Then there was the line for churros.  It was ridiculously long, as I figured out by asking the woman who was actually selling them.  I said I'd pass - I was too hungry to wait in the line, and she just handed it over to me to eat while I waited to pay.  Maybe that wasn't being nice - maybe that was good business sense, because by the time I'd made it to the front of the line I was ready for another.  Either way, it was super effective.

One thing that caught my eye while I indulged my impulse shopping (for the bajillionth time that week) was Valiant's superheroine, Faith.  I know it's a thing now, for comic books to have more representation of different races, such as the new Ms. Marvel, who is of Pakistani descent, and I think they've represented characters who are differently-abled.  To be honest, I haven't actually read American comics for a while, so I'm not sure how much they've come to be inclusive of other body types, but I thought it was really cool so see they had a fat woman for a superheroine, in her own limited series.  Like, not cutely chubby...definitively fat.  I only got to read the first issue, so I'm not sure how legit she is - there was one scene where she was defending puppies, which are cute and all (even if they grow up to be dogs) but made me wonder if they'd actually let her be a badass - but the fact that they had her out there with her own cardboard stand-up was definitely a step in the right direction.
For the last two years, my nerd boat has been docked in the harbor known as Anime, so the only panel I actually went to was the Funimation one.  I was actually kind of sad at how little representation anime actually got, both in terms of merchandise and in the convention generally. 
When I messaged the Kawaii Kid about it later, we both agreed that if we combined his knowledge with my mad craftin' skills we'd make a fortune.  But I found at least a few things to spend my cash on.  One of the great things about cosplaying is that it highlights what you may be looking for, so when one of the vendors told me they had the Nendoroid figure of Celty (the character I'm dressed as) I forked out a chunk of change, and then did it again when I found a dakimakura of my favorite male character, Yato.  I bought a bunch of Lego minifigs for Five, who has been amusing us by setting up and photographing tiny adventures with the two she already had - honestly, she only cared about the Batman one I brought her, the others were just bonuses.  The art historian (what little there is) in me loved stumbling across the Ukiyo-Pop booth - BD Judkins takes pop culture icons such as Star Wars and envisions it as Japanese prints from the 1800s - the golden era, one of my favorite art forms!  I ended up buying Deadpool, because OF COURSE I BOUGHT DEADPOOL.  (Hello, ninjas!)  But my favorite find was actually a new game - Superfight.  You remember being a kid and having debates with your friends about who would win in a fight - Batman or Superman?  (If not, sorry, but your childhood sucked).  This game is basically built on that premise.  You draw three character-type cards and three attribute cards, then create your best fighter using one of each.  The difference between some of my other favorite card games (such as Cards Against Humanity or Apples to Apples) is that you play your character openly and argue for why they would beat the other character.  I've only played it a couple of times, but it's awesome, especially when you get the right group of people together (ie, total nerds).
Far be it from me to belabor the point, but lest anyone have any doubt that going to C2E2 while I was in Chicago for the NAEA conference was work related, it did spur me on to organize my school's first (ever, as far as I could tell) anime night.  I have written ad nauseum about how awesome my kids are, and after experiencing C2E2, I wanted to share the excitement with them.  I teach a LOT of nerds (possibly why I like my students so much), and when I had permission and started telling them about it, the response was fantastic.  We watched a movie, ate sushi, did a trivia quiz, and - of course - had cosplayers, most of whom were hardcore and did a LOT of work on their costumes.  I found it kind of hard to believe that nobody had organized something like this before, especially since the two who got me hooked on anime were actually IN the student council the previous year.  Anyway, it was a lot of fun, and the next time I go to a convention it will be anime-centered to get the most out of the experience.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Working/Holiday

Since coming to Mongolia and moving back into a secondary art position, I've been constantly stepping up my game as an art teacher.  I've seen teachers do amazing things with elementary art, but (in spite of teaching elementary students for seven years) it is really not my cup of teach.  In the last four years (sometimes it's hard to believe I have been in Mongolia for four years!), not only have I worked harder IN the classroom, I've participated in professional development outside the classroom - actual, art related PD, by the way, not the typical sort of thing I've attended as part of life in a school that never really applies to me - and, as amazing as it is when you know how little effort I put into my general teacher ed courses at university, I LOVED IT.  So when this school year was in its early months, I asked my principal if I could have time off to go to the national art teacher convention sponsored by my professional association each year, this time in Chicago.

This is not my teaching blog (that's been on hiatus even longer than this one was), so I'm not going to tell you about the conference, other than to say, if you're an art teacher reading this, to try and go, if you ever have the chance.  It was awesome.  This IS, on the other hand, my travel blog, and seeing art is one of my raisons de voyage - it's kind of my thing (along with spirituality, culture, and one or two other things that I won't mention lest I scare off any new readers).  So I watched with interest, as people on the facebook Art Teachers group I subscribe to started posting about different works of art you could see during the conference.

Now, there is a LOT of art in Chicago.  One of the best art museums in the world is right there in the loop - the Art Institute.  Less than a block away is the very famous Cloud Gate (so famous that I didn't even realize it was there and go look at it, which is a shame, because my students keep asking about it...oops).  There are potholes filled in with mosaics and tons of other public art and art galleries and basically, a shit ton of art.  In fact, it's way too much to see if you're going to take your art conference seriously and do any shopping at all (which I for SURE was).  So I narrowed it down to 3 - the Art Institute, the Cultural Center, and the City Gallery.  I'm not going to tell you anything about the Art Institute, which I visited Tuesday after I dropped my stuff at the hostel (which was my first legit hostel stay, and if I trusted that they'd all be that great, I'd never stay in anything else).  It is big and amazing - there was a van Gogh exhibition that I got to see while I was at it - and although looking at its collection online is cheating and not the same thing as standing in front of its works of art in person, you can at least get an idea of what it was like without me attempting to wax poetic about it.  But the other two...they had some unique opportunities.

Wednesday after my preconference workshop for secondary teachers on the national standards and AP (which I'll be teaching next year), I moved to the Chinatown Hotel (actual name, which was weird since it smelled like corned beef and cabbage on St. Pat's), then took the L north of the river to the Water Tower.  I'm sure it is a historic piece of architecture, but I didn't read the plaque outside, because it was 6 by then and it closed at 6:30.  The City Gallery, inside, was hosting an exhibition about Cards Against Humanity, and yes, that was the reason it made my list.

Now, I don't know if you love Cards or not.  When I added my own post about this exhibit to the Art Teachers group, the first comment was that we should, "Boycott that racist, sexist game."  It is true that it is NOT politically correct - unless you can argue that by embracing all stereotypes and being prejudiced against every race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc, you are, in fact, supremely egalitarian.  I believe my Dark Lord and Master once made that argument, so that lends it some legitimacy.  That said, if you took it seriously, it could be incredibly offensive.  Fortunately, most people don't take it seriously.  However, it would be equally easy to dismiss an art exhibit about the game, since, if you've ever played it, you know that it has a very basic black-and-white design.  Surprisingly, though, it was a well-curated show - it had a lot of info about the typefaces and graphic design the makers used, and I took lots of photos to show my students the next time I talk to them about text as an element of art.

What really drew me in was the recent stir over their threat to cut up a Picasso print, Tete de Faune.  This year I've been trying to get my students reading more about art topics, and when I came across the story of their Eight Sensible Gifts, I knew this was one we'd read and discuss when we did printmaking.  Basically, for the past couple of years Cards Against Humanity has done a promotion where 150,000 people buy into it and they are given 8 Hanukkah gifts.  This year, one gift was the Picasso, which the participants had to choose to either donate to the Art Institute of Chicago or cut up into 150,000 equal-sized pieces.  After the votes were in, the decision was to donate it, but before that happens they displayed it as part of the show.
The following night was the big NAEA St. Pat's shindig, welcoming all.  I'd signed up for it, but figured I had enough time to hit the Cultural Center first - my last chance to do so without blowing off part of the workshop, and I wasn't going to do that.  But I did want to see Theo Jansen's Strandbeests, which have fascinated me ever since I first came across them scrolling through my facebook feed.
As he puts it, his creations are "new forms of life," the basic material being basic yellow tubes.  Using the power of the wind, they shamble along the beaches of the Netherlands (where I might have tried to find him, if I hadn't been able to see them in Chicago).  You actually can't understand how cool these things are, so I suggest going over to youtube and watching some of the videos.  Otherwise you won't get a proper idea of how plastic tubes and wind can make something that looks so organic (and possibly a little bit creepy, but you know what?  Who cares!)
The actual mechanisms he uses to make the Strandbeests are fairly simple.  Sails, joints, and wind stomachs are basically what it boils down to, and the exhibition was fantastic, with a few different hands-on displays that you could use to get a feel for the structures.  They also had daily demonstrations of actually walking the Strandbeests, but I was too late for that (so sad).  In fact, the simplicity of the structures makes it possible for other engineer/artists to create their own, something that Jansen encourages - he sells books and kits, and the exhibition included mini-beests by others.
This was actually my first time visiting Chicago since I was a kid.  The two times I went with Mrs. Andrew's Bright Ideas class, we visited the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum, both of which were absolutely incredible and left a lasting mark on my impressionable young mind.  Academically, I knew that Chicago was like that, but on an order of magnitude that you can't really understand unless you've been there for longer than 24 hours.  Besides the awesome conference and the fantastic art, this trip also showed me that I need to spend more time in Chicago.  At some point.  Probably not in the near future, though.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

A Few Well-Considered Reasons to STAY OUTTA THE WOODS

I doubt I would have visited Khuvsgul again if I hadn't won a free trip.  It is, without a doubt, the prettiest place in Mongolia, but I already experienced it, two years ago, in fact.  I've been in Mongolia four years now, and for a city girl, I think I've been an incredibly good sport about the fact that its attractions are almost exclusively in the wilderness, but the fact is that I'm pretty much over it.  When I entered the Harmonic UB photo contest, I was hoping to win first place - not because I wanted the glory, but because it was a trip to the Gobi, which is the only real destination I have left to venture forth to.  Unfortunately - and I know I sound like a baby saying this, but - unfortunately, second place is sort of what I do, so it was a free trip to Khuvsgul for me.  First world problems, I know.

That said, it could have been worse.  The tour company actually put me up in the ger camp that my former student's mother runs, Nature's Door, which is very comfortable, has excellent food, and ecologically sound waste practices (meaning they haul your poop off site for composting so it doesn't pollute the lake, and it doesn't smell very bad because they provide saw dust to dump in when you're finished).  And it is very pretty, don't get me wrong.  But unless I can find time to visit the Gobi, I'm so done with the countryside.  Here's why:

I don't care enough anymore. 

I went to the so-called reindeer festival at the ger camp next door, and it was too much of a bother to sit in the sun, reapplying sunscreen and sweating into my hat to watch the wrestling they'd set up.  Apparently I'd missed whatever reindeer events there were.  I was looking forward to the scheduled Shamanist Fire ceremony, and even came back over at 9 pm to watch it.  But then it turned out that they changed it to 10, and weren't set up until 10:30, at which point they started a BLOODY DANCE PARTY, and I'm not staying up past midnight to watch a bunch of drunk morons dance the macarena OR Gangnam Style.

I could have gone hiking but I don't care enough to deal with the bugs.  In fact, I'm done with bugs in general.  I found three spiders in my bed - THREE!  This has nothing to do with the management of the ger camp...it's just a fact of life in the woods.  There will be bugs. 

I don't care enough to want fresh air in more than small doses.  I don't want to say the "A" word, because I feel like the human body is a delicate thing and susceptible to suggestion, but I sniffled and sneezed and scratched my way through the last three days, and I'm starting to feel that mildly polluted air - or even heavily polluted air - is a small price to pay for not having to scramble for tissues for three days straight.

It's nice to go without the internet, to have time to catch up on my reading (which, in my case means binge-reading two books without stopping for breath) and doing some sketches in my travel journal, and feeling closer to that divine being that I believe is out there somewhere watching over us, but I don't care enough to do it to myself on purpose.  Especially when it means dealing with a girl's special time if I can't access shops or flush toilets.  Nature's Door at least has showers, but the last time I went to Khuvsgul I had the same problem and it is JUST NOT WORTH IT, showers or no. 

As I mentioned yesterday, I wasn't really prepared before I went to Amsterdam, and I spent more than a few minutes on the flight over (mostly because Aeroflot didn't have seatback entertainment, those jackholes) worrying that I couldn't hack it anymore...my badass traveling lifestyle.  I wasn't that excited for Amsterdam, so maybe I was just over the whole traveling thing.  I've had a few existential moments like that over the last couple of years.  Then I got into Amsterdam, and it turned out that, oh yeah, actually, I can.  I'm awesome at this.  I broke my tablet the second night - ha, yeah, that happened - and it wasn't the end of the world, because I don't need to have ALL THE INFORMATIONS! at my fingertips, all the time.  I can get by with a cheap tourist map, my memory of the streets from the previous day, and a couple of notes in my journal.  But that's because Amsterdam is a city, and I am a city girl.  Give me traffic, crowds, pollution and all the wonders of modern technology that go with them - museums!  High speed wifi!  Electric fans!  You can keep the country.

Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll

When I went to Amsterdam I wasn't sure what I was getting myself into.  I chose it as a destination because of the IB training that I've already mentioned a few times, and that was my priority, because I'm planning to leave my current school after this year and want to be as marketable as I can be.  When I chose it, I bought the Lonely Planet guide, and yet, I never actually got around to reading it - it's been a busy spring.  Blondie went there during the Christmas break and hated it - long lines into museums and too many people smoking pot.  Time Lady adored it during spring break, although with it being a busy spring I never got around to discussing its finer points with her.  So I sort of came on this trip a blank slate, and didn't leave with that super excited feeling.  In fact, I was a little apprehensive about being there for two whole weeks.  What if I ran out of things to do!?

Well, fortunately, I am an art teacher, and in a city like Amsterdam that means you will never actually run out of things to do.  The amount of art to see, and art history to experience, is amazing.  Being a seasoned traveler, though, I was aware of the pitfalls of museumitis, and since I had nearly two weeks, I planned my museum-going accordingly, limiting myself to one museum per day, getting up at the buttcrack of dawn to be one of the first to enter and - thus - saving myself from the lines that Blondie mentioned (and being jetlagged meant that this was not actually that extraordinary a feat).  The first stop on my list was a the Rijksmuseum.
I took a Northern Renaissance art history class in university, so the name of the Rijksmuseum was familiar to me (in my professor's rickety, thousand year-old voice), as were many of the artists in the collection.  It's the home of Rembrandt's The Night Watch as well as several Vermeer's.  The thing about standing in front of world-class, super famous art, though, is that it's a little surreal.  And the thing about writing a blog is that the intended audience is not a bunch of art people, and even if it were, I probably couldn't tell you anything about Franz Hals that you don't already know, because I'm not that great a scholar.  What I will be doing, instead, is sharing some art works that made me laugh or got some other sort of reaction out of me.  The detail above is about being inspired by the muse of music.  I found it interesting to see, even in their art works, that the Dutch are much more sexually liberated than some other parts of Europe, because even though there are a lot of pinched nipples in history, how many artists would choose to depict the muse squirting milk over a violin's strings as a way of providing inspiration.  There were other indications of this (such as the "Womb Room"), but let's move on, shall we?

The morning I went to the Rijksmuseum I was able to buy my ticket for the Van Gogh museum at the same time, which saved me from having to stand in line, although I still went ahead and bought the 9 a.m. entry - I figured the fewer people I had to share Vincent with, the happier I would be.  It was interesting to see so many works from throughout his life in one place - to see the transitions he made throughout his career.  I found myself thanking all that is artistic that he moved on from his peasant paintings really quick - I respect his admiration for the home-grown country life and I think he would have appreciated Mongolia for that reason, and who doesn't like a painting of people getting buzzed on absinthe?  However, as I've stated before, I'm kind of a whore for color, so I'm glad he moved on.  His later color schemes were absolutely brilliant.  I also picked up on something I hadn't noticed before - I knew that Van Gogh was inspired by Hiroshige and other ukiyo-e printmakers, but it wasn't until I was looking at some of his sketches that I noticed the similarity of his figure studies to some of the ones that Hokusai did.  So that was fun.  Sorry, there's no photos - I did a few sketches but decided to leave my camera out of it.
Speaking of my obsession with color, this was one of the things I loved the most about the Rembrandshuis Museum as well, which I saw almost as bright and early on day three (it didn't open until 10).  Each room in the house has been carefully curated (with the manifests from when he went bankrupt) so that it looks as it did when he lived there, and it's amazing to really get a feel for where he would have lived and worked.  My favorite thing, though, was seeing the demonstration of how paints were mixed.  Occasionally this comes up when I'm teaching, but I've never really been able to explain it well, because it wasn't something I've ever done or even seen.  They also had a really cool display showing how artist/scientists were working to analyze and recreate his exact colors using the pigments in ceramic glazes, which was really interesting to see.

My last art museum wasn't one that I really intended to visit.  The Stedelijk houses a really great collection of modern art, but my general take on modern art is that it's not worth paying 15 euros to see.  I'm sorry, but although I'm privileged I'm far from rich and I can see contemporary art in my hometown and pretty much any other city I visit, for much less than 15 euros.  However, it was an object lesson in our IB workshop - our instructor felt that it would be a waste to be teaching about the DP art program to a bunch of art teachers and not take them to an art museum, and it's hard to argue with that.  It was kind of fun to be around other art teachers with my new hair, because I'm not the only one with an obsession with color, and I got a lot of compliments.  Our instructor even pointed out that I needed to take a selfie with this piece because of how well it contrasted with my hair. 

In the end, I saw a lot of museums - although not the Anne Frank House, and I feel like this makes me a terrible person, but I'll add it to my list for when I come back to see the tulips and Fabritius - but I feel like I experienced a lot of other aspects of life in the Netherlands as well.  I think I could put together a really awesome, educational trip for my students...if the trust wasn't long gone, because there is no WAY I am taking my 17 year old boys to a city full of pot and hookers when I know they've snuck out.  As it is, I will have to save up for a while before I attempt it again, because I ate way too many meals in Burger King.

Monday, July 4, 2016

A Blue Day in Delft

There comes a point in every trip when you realize you are ready to go home.  I found myself at that point Thursday in Delft.  For starters, it was raining all day, which I will take over sun just about any day (it's cold and wet but precludes me from worrying about an early death from skin cancer).  Then there was the fact that one of the families in the tile painting workshop I did included two "artists" (a mother who seemed to be a teacher and a daughter who was in college), and I swear the mom was overcompensating for something - like, you're on vacation, stop throwing the elements of art around and just paint the bloody tile!  Nobody needs you to prove that you know what you're talking about.  At the end of the workshop I went to find out about having it shipped to the States, and found out it would cost FORTY-FIVE EUROS. 
Let me take a short breather here to mention the fact that pretty much every museum I went to cost bank.  As in, ten to seventeen euros.  The first couple (Rijks and Van Gogh), I barely sneezed at it.  By the time I paid ten (payable only by card) to get into the Oude Kerk, I was using their facilities to take a huge dump as a way of justifying the cost (which amused me but made me realize - knowing as I did that this little revelation would make it into the blog at some point - that I may have been teaching teenage boys too long.  Or living overseas.  Or both).  By the time I got to Delft, the fact that admission to both the Old and New Churches was only four euros seemed like the best deal ever.  Then I got ahold of my senses, and I remembered that I've almost never paid admission to the Nelson or the Joslyn, and I felt a little horrified, but I guess if you come back from vacation with a lot of money you probably traveled wrong.
One of the Prinsenhof's interactive displays



Anywho, I was happy to get on the train to go back to Amsterdam, but I was also happy to get off the train in Delft.  I took two books with me when I moved to Korea the first time, and Girl With a Pearl Earring was one of them.  Vermeer has been one of my favorite artists since I first learned about him in an issue of Reader's Digest sometime in the 90's.  I loved the clarity of the light in his work, something that I've learned to appreciate even more as I've studied and taught art in the decades since.  Even though most of his works show simple daily scenes, there is something breathtakingly beautiful about them.  And Vermeer was from Delft, so Delft was my #1 place I wanted to see outside of Amsterdam.

Basically everything I knew about Delft comes courtesy of that book, which might be problematic for a history nerd like Time Lady, but since I care more about art and storytelling than history, we're good.  The main character's brother works for one of the tile factories, she goes to church, she shops in the markets and mentions skating on the canals.  All those things are still there to experience, but I was glad to come when I did, because 2016 was declared Delft's Year of Vermeer.  When I went to the Rijksmuseum I was disappointed to see that one of their Vermeer's was out on loan - to the Prinsenhof in Delft, as it turns out.  So I was planning to make that my first stop.

Sadly, when I got to the Prinsenhof at 9 that morning, I discovered that they didn't open until 11.  Luckily most points of interest in Delft are a short walk from each other, and the Oude Kerk was literally next door, so I started there instead.  True to my adventurous spirit of showing up and experiencing shit, I had done minimal research before getting there, so it was a pleasant surprise to find out that Vermeer was actually buried in the Oude Kerk.  His mother-in-law, Maria Thins, purchased a burial vault in the church, and when he died in debt at the age of 43, she had him buried in her vault.  Normally I don't get hung up on famous people's graves, but I admit I got a little teary-eyed, and wished I had flowers to leave.

Since the ticket included admission to the Nieuwe Kerk I figured that was the next logical step.  It's located on the central square, with city hall and the market, so I wandered through the stalls along the way, stopping for a fresh stroopwafel, and let me tell you, warm is really the only way to eat them.
I sat and sketched the nave of the church - I'm trying to do more drawing in my travel journal - but didn't really stay long.  The clock was ticking on toward 1:30, which is when I was told to show up to tour the Royal Delft factory before my tile workshop, so I wound through the marketplace and out the adjacent side of the square to visit the Vermeer Center.
I am a little ashamed to admit it, but the Vermeer Center was actually at the bottom of my list.  My third day in Amsterdam I visited the Rembrandt House Museum, and it blew my mind.  It was incredibly well-curated and had demonstrations in etching and paint mixing, not to mention it was in his ACTUAL HOUSE.  The Vermeer Center, on the other hand, is located in his rebuilt guild house, the St. Lucas Guild.  From what I gather, the actual home Vermeer lived in with his family either can't be pinpointed or no longer exists, but the guildhall makes a great second, and presents things in a distinctly different way than the Rembrandt House.  Rather than seeing the domestic side of his life, the museum focuses on a variety of aspects in his work - his use of light, whether or not he used a camera obscura, his guild mates - the name Fabritius tickled at my brain until I realized he'd painted The Goldfinch, and when I figured out it was up the tracks in the Hague, I started kicking myself for not thinking of him sooner.  It was all very interesting, but not quite on the same level as Rembrandt.

By the time I left, the Prinsenhof was finally open.  The exhibit around The Little Street was very informative and interactive - they even had a small Escape Room set up - and I really didn't give a crap.  I wanted to see the painting, so I kind of noticed what I was walking past, but kept walking.  Honestly, I don't consider myself a great scholar, and I'd be surprised if anyone else did, but I know how to appreciate a painting.

When I was in my IB workshop one of the other teachers mentioned that they didn't think the Prinsenhof was that great, and when you think in the context of the Rijksmuseum and - presumably - the Mauritshuis (which houses Girl with a Pearl Earring, as well as the aforementioned Goldfinch), I suppose it doesn't come out on top.  It doesn't have a collection to compete with them.  Where I think it really shines, though, was in the quality of its presentation.  Since I was going to the Royal Delft factory next, I looked at their exhibit on Delftware, which included technology and multimedia presentations, as well as the giant vase pictured above which you were encouraged to decorate with your own designs, although most people just signed their name.  I enjoyed testing my instincts (because I didn't bother reading most of the labels) about the values of different pieces, and designed a vase with one of their tech presentations.  I honestly don't remember anything that engaging in any of the other museums I went to (other than the Rembrandthuis, because it was seriously my favorite thing. 
After a decently long walk through the drizzle, I made it to my final stop, the Royal Delft factory.  I'm sure most people have seen ceramics painted with shades of blue.  I grew up seeing my grandparents' blue willow china when I went to visit them, and ended up inheriting it when the family got together to clean out the house after my grandma's death.  Although the Blue Willow pattern isn't Dutch, iw was traders from the Netherlands who introduced this aesthetic to the West from China, to the point where I think Delftware is more famous than Ming vases.  What I found most interesting on the tour, though, was their architectural ceramics showroom - it was not Delft blue, because porcelain is not strong enough to use for architecture elements (unless I'm mistaken - I'm not a potter by any means, so I may have that wrong, but from what I remember during my ceramics classes, porcelain is much more fragile than most other clays) but I found it had a lot more variety and creativity in it than the Delftware.
After the tour I was able to start the tile workshop.  I'd already seen a painter at work and realized the way they apply the pattern was very similar to the way we did it for the tiles we'd painted in Istanbul.at Les Arts Turcs - charcoal was applied to the porcelain through a stencil and the design was painted directly over it.  Any remaining charcoal burns off in the kiln.  Every piece of Delftware is created with two small brushes - one that has a couple of long hairs sticking forward to paint lines and a short stubby one to fill in areas of tone.  When you're looking at a single tile or a vase, that's okay, but there were other pieces, like a reproduction of The Night Watch, that were much larger.
Try to imagine painting all of those tiles with two small brushes!  The size is similar to the original, but I'm pretty sure Rembrandt painted parts of his masterpiece with bigger brushes.  Royal Delft does reproductions of Vermeer as well, and The Little Street was available for us to paint, but I went for a more traditional windmill scene.  And after I painted the hell out of that windmill, I painted some badass tulips and a little cat.  I would not have made a very good tile painter - you were definitely supposed to paint ONLY what had been designed and not make any little personal touches.  Since I'm not, I slayed with my personal touches.  And because I'd worked so hard and made it so personal, I had to fight not to cry a little when I realized I wasn't going to get to keep it, since there was no way I could pay 45 euros - more than the workshop and the tour combined - to get it sent to my parents' house.  And I guess that's okay - after all, I broke my Turkish tile.  You don't really get to keep anything but your experiences...even friendships don't come with a guarantee...but all the same, if I were doing the whole trip over again, I'd go to Delft on the first day, so that I could remember Fabritius and go back for him and my tile at the end.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Amsterdamned.

One of the things I love the most about the Netherlands is its strong bicycle culture.  I've lived in a country where people ride bikes (ahem, China), but it's more by necessity than choice, and you can tell that although people ride bikes the practice is not revered by the fact that EVERYONE violates the sanctity of the bike lane...pedestrians, motorcycles, and even somewhat cars.

That is not the case in the Netherlands.  Bicycles outnumber cars by about a million to one (rough approximation), people stay the hell out of the bike lane (except tourists and they're hardly people)...hell, there are even special bike traffic lights.  Cycling is respected here.
I planned to rent a bike, like, every day I was in Amsterdam.  That did not happen.  For starters, my first few days my hotel was outside of the fray, and then I was taking an IB workshop, and then...yes, I know the saying about excuses and assholes.  I'm also kind of...how should I say it?...fat.  Apart from teaching my ass off (unfortunately, not literally), I haven't gotten a lot of exercise this year, in spite of starting it well and being put to shame by Engrish, who has been known to run in blizzards with six centimeters of snow caked on her body.  So I spent the first week here walking past bikes and cyclists and rental shops without taking part.
To be honest, it was a little intimidating.  For so many people to ride bikes, and everything work in such an orderly way, there must be a ton of rules, and the more rules there are, the likelier I am to unwittingly break them.  Also, I'm not the most coordinated person, and I was imagining that a 17-bike pile-up would not be a pretty sight.  I did NOT want to be THAT tourist, the one who threw a wrench in the works and made the whole system go to hell.  In the end, my bike envy won over my fear and I went to Green Budget Bikes to see about renting one for Wednesday.

It seems like renting a bike should be pretty straightforward, and in theory it is.  You go in, leave your passport as collateral, and ride off on whichever bike they give you.  The problem was that I'd left my passport in my room.  On the top floor of the Hotel de Westertoren.  There are 37 stairs in the pictured flight alone (up to "reception") and another 35 more total in the next two stairways up to my room.  I was not going back up for my passport.  So I asked if I could leave a driver's license instead.  Yes, was the answer, with a 100 euro deposit.  Okay, I thought, I can live with that.  Better than climbing up all 500 stairs (especially since the steps are narrow so I have to go down in reverse, because I have a reasonable amount of fear when it comes to stairways).  Then I came to the clincher - I wanted a bike with a basket or a little rack on the front, so that I could keep my eye on my backpack and not have to wear it.  The problem was they only had one that wasn't a kid's bike, and it was 3 euro more.

I asked myself over and over in the following hour what was the big deal?  Why didn't I just say, "Sure, I can live with that."  3 bloody euro for an hour of my life?  No problem.  Instead, for some reason I said I'd go look elsewhere.  After all, I'd walked past about two dozen bike rental shops over the last several days.  Surely somewhere else had what I was looking for at a better price!  It's a buyers' market, after all.  Well, I'm an idiot.  Not because I was wrong...because I could not, for the life of me, find even a single other bike shop that morning.  So I stomped and fumed and kicked myself in the ass a little, and ended up back at Green Budget Bikes again, asking (very politely), if it was fine with them, could I still please rent that very lovely bike with the rack on the front?
So finally, around 11 o'clock, I got on my way for real.  At one point early on in the bike rental dance, the lady I was talking to asked if I wanted foot brakes or hand brakes, which were 3 euro more.  I thought foot brakes were fine, and it turned out that the bike I ended up with had foot brakes, so I guess it's good that that's what I'd wanted.  My first ever bike, back in the dim years of my childhood, had been equipped with foot brakes, after all.  In fact, there is a story about the time I missed a day of third grade because I forgot where the brakes on my brand-new Street Machine were...and I went flying off the end of the dirt road to land in the field.  Since then, as it turns out, I have gotten used to hand brakes, and it took me a few tries to figure out why it was hard to stop by dragging my feet.  Huh.  Go figure.  Luckily, I was able to get through the day without a complimentary story about the time I hurt myself because I forgot the brakes were on the pedals, but it was close a couple of times.

Anyways, I pedaled along Singel Canal, then followed the tram tracks over to the museum square.  I knew I wanted to spend a good long time cycling, but there were a couple of things on my agenda that day as well, starting with a visit to the MOCO (modern/contemporary) museum, which had Banksy and Warhol on exhibit.  After that, I biked over near Rembrandt Square (yes, that is a complete sculptural arrangement of all the figures in "The Night Watch"), to check out a burrito shop I'd been eyeing every time I passed it on the tram.  It's called The Salsa Shop, and it's kind of a Chipotle knock-off, but I didn't care for it - the barbacoa was a little too chunky and chewy, and the flavor was too sweet.  I preferred the California Burrito Company just in and up from my hotel.
After lunch I booked it over to Buikdanswinkel, where I had a belly dance lesson that afternoon.  I found Shaheen listed on Oriental Dancer (although she turned out to be listed on Shira, as well - I just like the format on Oriental Dancer a little better because it has photos).  I gave it a good hour, even if I am out of practice - I really liked Shaheen's choreography and she was really encouraging.  And then I got back on the bike...  I can't say that the bike robbed me of my virtue, because you may be assuming too much by thinking I have any in the first place, but it was not pleasant.  I had not ridden too far, but I've been out of the saddle a loooong time.  As in, I'm not sure I've been on a bike since Bagan.  Which is sad because I actually own a bike, but since its tires went mysteriously flat two years ago I haven't actually cared enough to deal with it.  Hopefully that will change since I bought some kickass saddlebags at the VanGogh museum that I'd been lusting after since I first saw a bike whiz past with them.  If not, maybe when I land that dream job in Japan, which also has a definite cycling culture.
Anyways, despite my legs and other parts whining at me, I got back on my bike and rode around some more, partly because cycling around Amsterdam, over the canals and along sun-dappled tree-lined streets was fun, partly because I'd paid for 24 hours and I was going to make my 12 euros count...but mostly because I was quite a ways from the shop.  I ended up on a street that I knew would lead me into Chinatown, and figured it would be interesting to see it again (since it wasn't pissing rain this time), but when I got there, I actually didn't care.  I'd accidentally wandered into the red light district, which was fine on that account - the hookers aren't that provocative and I don't really mind the smell of pot smoke, it's preferable to tobacco (at least when I'm on the street - in my home I'd better not smell any smoke unless the place is on fire).  The problem was all.  The.  Bloody.  Tourists.  Even if they hadn't been idiots, there were just too many of them to fit on the sidewalks, so the streets were clogged with them.  I had to actually get off my bike and walk it around, and that was more annoying and exhausting than anything.  So I ended up taking the bike back.  Because you know what's better than cycling over canals and along sun-dappled streets?  Not wanting to smack people who desperately deserve it.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Tilting at Windmills

Oh yes - the fire hair happened.  :-/
Becky is dicking around, taking two days to finish a single post, so I'm hijacking her blog.  My name is Peppermint.  You may remember me from such epic adventures as when we hiked to the Tiger's Nest in Bhutan, or the time we went to Hakone in Japan, but I haven't actually made the blog since she wrote about Flat Stanley (yes, I thought he was "pretentious," as Becky wrote, and a few other more choice words that she didn't.  She's not the only one with a colorful vocabulary, believe me).  And that kind of pisses me off, because I've been on all the trips.  I even went with her and the shitty brats to Istanbul.  But did she let me take part?  No.  I assume it's because she thinks she's too mature, but with as much time as she spends watching anime, she's only kidding herself.

Anyway, sorry, let me move on and tell you about our day trip to Zaan, the whole reason for my long-overdue guest post.  Yesterday Becky was trying to figure out what to do with herself for the next three days.  I kept telling her she had to get out of the city, because Amsterdam is fun and all, but there's only so much secondhand pot smoke you can breathe before you get high for real (although I wouldn't be surprised if she actually didn't mind the smell.  You should hear her complain about her cigarette-smoking neighbors at home, but has she voiced a word of complaint in Amsterdam???)  She was fixated on Delft and possibly a further trip into Belgium, because she's obsessed with her family history and whatever, but she found out she could do a tile-painting workshop at Royal Delft (the last of the historic factories) if she emailed in advance, and you know she's a sucker for that shit.  So finally - FINALLY - she listened to me when I asked, "Hey, you daft bint, what else is Holland famous for?  Like in that Monet with the tulips?"  It's windmills, in case you're a little slow.  Holland is famous for windmills.  And tulips, but it's the wrong season for that.  After a quick chat with Google we decided we were heading for Zaanse Schans.
Zaanse Schans is this beautiful little tourist trap of a historical village that fucking looks like Rembrandt or Vermeer would have painted if it they had time.  Some genius looked around in the last 100 years and said, "Where have all the windmills gone?" and decided it would be great to preserve Holland's industrial past.  Yep, I said industrial.  All those windmills weren't just there to look pretty (like your mom*) - they actually milled shit, thus, industrial past.  There's a pretty awesome museum that explains the whole history of Dutch milling and production, but Becky just breezed through it.
See, she gets so obsessed with taking pictures and having all the experiences - and breathing the air.  To be fair, the air was gorgeous.  I mean, Amsterdam smelled pretty good, especially after four years living in Ulaanbaatar...bikes instead of cars and the delicate aroma of hashish?  I could get used to that!  But Zaan smelled like motherloving CHOCOLATE.  When we left the station and the scent of the cocoa plant hit us, Becky started feeling nostalgic for the coffee roasty smell of a Kansas City autumn, but I told her to shut her mouth because this was, like, a million times better.  A town that smells like chocolate?   Sign me up for that!**

In the great tradition of historical towns, there are workshop demonstrations you can watch.  By the time they were ready to get started, unfortunately a shload of tour buses had rolled in, primarily populated with Chinese people, so you can imagine how well that went over with Becky, if you've read this blog for any length of time.  She would not be deterred from the clog workshop though, which I have to admit was kind of fun.  Becky got matching clogs for herself and her niece, the Princess (Bunny and Dirt Devil are likewise sorted - at this point she just needs to purchase something for Monkey, so if anyone has any ideas...)

We had a good stroll through the village, checking out the different shops (and by checking out, I mean eating free samples of cheese - it's a good thing Becky's slightly lactose intolerant or she'd be constipated.  Not that I can blame her - the Netherlands do have some deelish cheeses).  There was a weaver's house, which showed us how sailcloth was made, and the dairy, of course, and a chocolate shop, and other houses, which I guess people actually live in.

Finally we headed out along the canal toward the windmills.  We had a freebie for one of the mills, that came with the admission to the museum, so I told Becky I wanted to go to "The Cat."  They all have names, you see - the Spotted Hen, the Four-Leaf Clover - and it should be obvious that we would go there.  Fortunately, the Cat turned out to be a paint mill, so we both won.
She's been in super art teacher mode this whole time, only you haven't heard about it because she's a lazy ass.***  Someday she might tell you about the demo she saw on paint mixing in freaking REMBRANDT'S HOUSE.  But for now, suffice it to say that Rembrandt didn't go to the local Dick Blick and buy his paints nicely packaged in metal tubes, he bought pigments and then mixed his own paints, which were stored in a pig's bladder (a dead pig, that is - it might get a little messy to try and use a live one...)  The Cat was a mill that prepared and ground the raw materials to create those pigments, and it was pretty awesome.  Much more interesting than a wood mill, or a grain mill, or any other kind of mill, really.

We walked past all the others and took a ferry across the water to a less touristy but every bit as pretty street.  All the houses had their backs to the water and were in the Zaan style, so it really had a beautiful feel.  We stopped along the way for lunch, then went back to the station to get the train back to Amsterdam.  It was a nice way to spend the day, but I'm glad we did it on our own instead of getting on one of those stinky tour buses.  The roundtrip fare to Koog-Zaandijk (where you get off the train) was 11.60 euro, in case anyone is interested.  And THAT, Becky, is how you sit down and write a blog.  (mic drop)

Becky's notes (because she can't just let me do this):
*Peppermint doesn't know how to make your mom jokes.  They are supposed to be insulting.  (I do too - telling someone that their mom is only pretty and serves no other purpose IS insulting.)
**Can you imagine?  You'd be hungry all the time!  You'd never lose weight!  (And the irony is, apparently she's never going to lose weight anyways, so what's the problem?)
***Not entirely true - I had an IB workshop for three of the days.  (Whatever.  Remember how many hours you spent in that PCbang across from Monumental Paradise in Kathmandu, trying to catch up your posts from Tibet.  I don't want to hear it.)