“And So We Came to Rome”

On the train to Rome, I reread some Acts – surprise, surprise – about Paul’s journey to Rome. Keeping Christian history and the book of Romans that we’d been studying at church in mind added another dimension to our short two days in Rome. Truth be told, we needed the extra excitement of researching “Paul places,” as we were already missing Florence!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHowever, while we learned more about places like the church where Paul was said to be martyred (unfortunately not able to visit it), we were woefully unprepared for the Forum and Palatine Hill, where we probably should have known what more of the buildings and ruins were. We looked up some and just appreciated others as much as we could. The second day, we visited the Colosseum, which we were a bit more knowledgeable about and which had some signs up.

As we hit the major tourist sites, we started realizing that we enjoyed the less crowded, sometimes less known spots better than the bustle of places like Trevi Fountain or the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, where people were packed in and hurried out. (And where a number decided the “no pictures” sign just didn’t apply to them, despite being told off by the guards.)


There were parts of the Vatican we did enjoy. While in Raphael’s Rooms (admittedly still crowded), I liked this painting – “St. Peter Delivered from Prison” better than the famous/infamous “School of Athens” in another of the rooms. Even better, right before the Sistine Chapel was a whole modern art collection, including Matisse, Chagall, Dali, and others! They also had a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. that mirrored a painting of the crucifixion on the opposite wall. Another area we enjoyed was the Pinacoteca, which was off the main Sistine Chapel path.





We also enjoyed crossing over the Tiber (right) and exploring the Trastavere area, which had smaller streets, shops, and restaurants and felt a little cozier. On our way back, we wandered through what our map labeled the Jewish ghetto, got really good gelato there, and adventurously took the bus back to our hostel. (We made it!)






And of course, we enjoyed the glimpse of the one Paul place we did get to visit: the Mamertine Prison near the Forum, supposedly where Paul and Peter were held at one point.







Following our brief stay in Rome, we took the train to Montevarchi (closer to Florence), where our B&B host Paola picked us up and took us to her village, Cocoini, population 17! We stayed in a renovated barn and enjoyed having dinner with the family and other guests from Germany, exploring Montevarchi for a few hours, and just relaxing. Our last morning, we enjoyed this sunrise, then headed back to Florence via train and bus to the airport. All in all, we enjoyed our week in Italy, but I was happy to return to London for a week before going back to Cali.

For more pictures (and more crowded tourist areas), see my Facebook album for Rome and Montevarchi.

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Posted by on December 29, 2012 in Culture, Landmarks


“Florence Is a Gift”

After celebrating the Paralympics and finishing up my dissertation, it was time to do some major end-of-the-year-abroad travel. And since reading Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev and hearing Jacob Kahn tell Asher, “Florence is a gift,” I’ve wanted to visit Florence. Captivated by the phrase, I planned my big travel splurge for a week in Italy. My friend Lynnette came over from the States and joined me. After several hours over coffee in Foxcroft and Ginger, we had a plan.


After flying from London, our itinerary started in Florence with an apartment we rented for a few days from a gracious lady named Maristella. She shared about the influence of the Renaissance on the city’s humanistic culture (and told us where to go shopping at the local market). The apartment was definitely my favorite hub in Italy – we had our own space, complete with kitchen! We bought homemade ravioli, spices, and mushrooms at the nearby Mercato Centrale and made a delicious dinner one of the nights we were there. Even my inept burning of the pasta couldn’t ruin it.





Florence is home to an overwhelming amount of famous (and less famous, but no less striking) art. Among my must-see pieces was Michelangelo’s Florentine Pieta that fascinated Asher in the novel. Now shown in its own alcove in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo near the cathedral, the Pieta was crafted for Michelangelo’s own tomb and autobiographically represents the artist himself in the figure of Nicodemus. To me, Nicodemus was the most intriguing part of the sculpture, raising the question of how the individual relates to the Christ.




Another stop on our tour of the city was Santa Croce, a church packed full of frescoes, sculptures, and architectural work. We walked by several memorials and tombs for famous Florentines (or just people Florence liked), from Michelangelo and Galileo to Fermi and Marconi. What amazed me here was the sheer number of “great works of art” in a functional space of worship. There are so many tourists around that it could just as easily be a museum, but there’s a context for the art here that adds a level of purpose not always present in the same way as in other contexts.





Our trip wasn’t all contemplation and artistic observation. We made sure there was plenty of food involved. After seeing the David (he’s big) at the Accademia gallery, we headed down the street to try Carabe’s famous gelato and granite (slush-thing). Lynnette approved.





We also made time to visit the Uffizi (more art!), the Ponte Vecchio bridge (left, covered in expensive jewelry shops), and the Oltrarno area south of the river. We felt pretty comfortable navigating the relatively small city center, especially with our handy pocket maps.




Our last night in Florence, we climbed up to Piazzale Michelangelo for a view over the city at sunset and later. When the lights came on, the Duomo (right) really popped out. We’d climbed up to the top of the dome the day before, a considerably more daunting task than the five minute steep hike up the back of the Piazzale.


For additional pictures and a more chronological commentary on the trip, I’ve made yet another Facebook album. We were sad to leave Florence to move on to Rome at the end of a very few days, but I’m happy that I’ve finally been. And yes, Florence is a gift.


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Posted by on November 13, 2012 in Culture, Landmarks


An Even More Belated Paralympics Update

AMO is no longer abroad, but she does have a lot of catching up to do on this blog! My last month and a half in London was a bit of a whirlwind, but for the faithful few and for the sake of finishing the story, I figured it was worth returning to it even back home.

Last time I updated, I was just about to participate in the Paralympics Opening Ceremony as a part of the “Whirlers” group in the “Navigation” section. The experience was amazing – both meaningful and fun! Pictures (along with commentary) are on my Facebook. This one was taken down on the stadium floor after the ceremony was over. (You can also watch a video my friend Wilbur made of his experience as a Whirler…it gives some more perspective on what we all did!)




The ceremony itself was, as the official pre-ceremony statement went, more “thoughtful” than the Olympic one. Titled and themed “Enlightenment,” the ceremony was full of literary and scientific references and supported human rights and self-definition.



As an artistic statement, I was happy to see the humanities and the sciences integrated. (And as a bit of a nerd, I was perhaps overly delighted with the Higgs boson and the Large Hadron Collider represented in the ceremony.) At a celebrity level, our group shared excited murmurs when we realized early on that Stephen Hawking was going to be involved, and we nearly shrieked as Ian McKellen walked by a few feet away from us during a rehearsal. At a deeper level, I was also glad to be a part of what was a massive effort to raise awareness and value of the Paralympics, which are often seen (if seen at all) as the Olympics’ lesser brother.

At the same time, I found myself thinking about a message I’d heard at a church talk before the Olympics: while it’s not wrong to admire feats of sport and spirit (particularly when those stories also include overcoming disability, injury, or trauma), we shouldn’t forget the Giver of athletic talent or strength of will, whether or not an athlete acknowledges it himself or herself. I continue to find the stories of these Olympic and Paralympic athletes incredibly inspiring, but I was also reminded that the over-idolization of the human spirit can become a “suppression of the truth,” as Romans 1 records, if it eclipses the right worship of God.

In my ceremony participation, then, I felt convicted both to remember God’s supremacy and to resist the temptation to dismiss anything that praised human achievement. Instead, I wanted to conscientiously support the ceremony’s message through an attitude of thankfulness that God has blessed people with creative spirits, brilliant minds, and strong bodies. I don’t know that that attitude necessarily expressed itself directly in any way, but it was the one I found the most peace in.


I also had fun meeting people of all ages and walks of life. Here I am with two of my closest friends in the show, Christiana and Khilen. We danced next to each other as dancer numbers 238, 239, and 240!





There were even some perks post-show. My ceremony credential got me into the Olympic Park, so I was able to share my two Park day passes with friends. I got to see wheelchair basketball and wheelchair tennis, along with some athletics on one of the big screens out in the Park. (More pictures here.)





I also got a free trip up the Orbit, a giant red metal sculpture next to the stadium.





After spending a few hours (and a few more pounds…we won’t talk about how much money I spent) in the Olympic Park Superstore with a 50% discount, I was able to go up with a group of other Paralympic volunteers after usual visiting hours. It’s a good thing they had elevators.





Here’s one view from the top – the lighted buildings are the Canary Wharf area. At the right angle, you could also see into the stadium, and as I came down the stairs, they started the victory ceremony for an event won by an American. I couldn’t see or hear who it was, but I have to say that standing on the Orbit hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner” was a fitting end to my Olympic and Paralympic experience.



But wait! There’s more! The day after the Paralympics closed, London held a parade for Great Britain’s Olympians and Paralympians. The public could watch from points along the route, but several of us performers and other volunteers were offered the opportunity to watch the final stretch just before Buckingham Palace. So I turned Team GB for a day. Or at least Team Louis Smith.




Which was appropriate.

(For the record, I have a Louis Smith shirt because there will never be a day in the U.S. when I can buy an Adidas shirt with a Team USA male gymnast on it. Louis Smith was all over the place on ads.)



All in all, being in the Opening Ceremony (and the accompanying benefits) made my London 2012 experience even more unique. Beyond that, I got to remember how fun it is to learn a routine and perform, and as a girl who grew up dreaming of being in the Olympics, this is probably the closest I’m ever going to get.


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Posted by on October 15, 2012 in Landmarks, Local Area


(Belated) Olympics Update

On the eve of the Paralympics, I figured it’s finally time to share about the Olympic events I attended. Better late than never, right?


Things started off even before the Games opened. As most of you know (and I think as I can safely say now), I’m dancing in the Paralympic Opening Ceremony as part of the mass volunteer cast. That’s all I can say. One of the perks of participation, however, was that we were each given a ticket to attend a dress rehearsal of the Olympic Opening Ceremony the Wednesday before show day.



The now-classic Mr. Bean moment, the Queen and Bond, and of course the cauldron lighting were all kept secret even during the dress rehearsal, but the atmosphere of the rest definitely made it a different experience from watching it on TV a couple days later. Most notably, this Industrial Revolution segment was incredible in person, with the drums’ reverberations and the “forging of the rings” creating a really inspirational moment despite the rather non-romantic “let’s tear down pastoral England and build factories” theme.



That Thursday, my friend Nat and I took a quick trip down to Oxford Street to see the torch (and only the torch) run past. Suffering the disadvantage of late, short people, we can’t tell you who was holding the torch, but we can at least say we saw it.




Finally, that Friday, a rather large group from our hall watched the real deal Ceremony on TV in the common room. The biggest laughs? Mr. Bean, the Queen and Bond, and the Queen ignoring Team GB’s march-in to pick at her nails. The biggest cheer? Team Kazakhstan – the unique experience of watching in a group of international students.



Saturday, I went to my first event – men’s gymnastics prelims, including Japan and the U.S. I was very excited, not only to see Olympic gymnastics, but also because my brother went up the Junior Olympic ranks with some of our guys. I have no personal connection with them, but it’s nice to root for someone you’ve at least seen at meets. I also met Sam Mikulak’s mom beforehand – my family definitely remembers seeing a much-younger Sam being called up to the award stand for winning everything.


As it turns out, it’s a good thing I saw their prelims…the one time they ended up on top of the standings. Sadly, the team didn’t do as well in finals (although host Team GB did amazingly to get the bronze at home), so I ended up seeing the best of the team when I went. I’m thinking I might need another gymnastics-related blog post, so I’ll end my commentary there for now.



Sunday, I met up with my visiting friends, Juliana and John, walking through east London with Juliana and ending up in the Olympic Park to see basketball. This is the Stratford Gate to the Park and apocalypse clouds in the background. Yes, we got rained on spectacularly on our walk. Welcome to London. Go world.



We actually got to see two games – U.S. v. France and Spain v. China. The first was rather one-sided, although it was fun to watch all the NBA players in person, not only from the U.S. (Kobe, LeBron, etc.) but also the ones from France that I had forgotten (Ronny Turiaf, Tony Parker). Spain v. China was a bit more exciting and also included the Gasol brothers, Ibaka, and Yi Jianlian. Pau and Yi carried their respective countries’ flags in the Opening, another bit of trivia.



We had fun watching the games; participating in the “Mexican wave,” as it’s called here; eating ice cream from the waffle-less waffle bar; getting Cadbury chocolates; and seeing Michelle Obama cheering on the team.





Later in the week, I went with Nat for my last event, judo in the ExCeL. Neither of us knew much about judo, but we picked up the bare basics pretty quickly.





We got to see men’s -100kg and women’s -78kg to the quarterfinals, including the amazing run of Team GB’s Gemma Gibbons, who went on to take the silver behind Kayla Harrison of the U.S. Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of either of them, but here’s the Team GB guy on the nearer mat.



One of the most entertaining parts was observing the fans. We were in the middle of a Brazil section, thanks to CoSport’s allocating us Brazil’s tickets, but it was fun to be in a section waving flags and cheering. Although I must say, the Netherlands (dressed in bright orange), Team GB (of course), and Georgia (drums and chants) were probably all more boisterous.



While I had no more tickets to actual venues, I had no intention of stopping the fun. BBC’s online streaming allowed my hall friends and me to watch multiple sports on our multiple laptops in our rooms, and I visited both the Hyde Park and Victoria Park London Live sites, where they had giant screens up. Here’s Sam being announced for vault finals on the Hyde Park screen where I watched with my friend Jess.


For more pictures of the Olympic weeks (including a museum visit, having fun with cousins, and more Olympic stuff), see my Facebook. Some final Olympic moments for which I have no pictures:

– Even though we watched it on a little laptop screen, Mo Farah’s racing was quite exciting. And the BBC commentators were going absolutely crazy while we watched his second gold in the 5,000m.

– David Boudia is my new favorite non-gymnastics U.S. Olympian. The 10m platform final was ridiculous, and he totally nailed it! He and Tom Daley were both really cute when they realized they’d won medals. Poor Qiu Bo looked understandably reserved compared to them.

– We watched the Closing Ceremony on a laptop in our multi-laptop hallway, which provided the convenient function of “mute and switch to YouTube on another computer” when things like George Michael being on too long happened. If you haven’t seen the YouTube video (and even if you have), this is what we switched to. Back to the Ceremony itself, I think Spice Girls provided the most nostalgia of the evening for us. One Direction probably provided the most hilarity/horror.

– In general, BBC commentary and coverage was so much better than my years of watching NBC. Part of it was probably because I kept laughing at commentators saying things like, “That’ll do, lad, that’ll do!” and, “That was MASSIVE.”

And so it’s time for the Paralympics – I will have lots to say after the Opening!

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Posted by on August 25, 2012 in Culture, Landmarks, Local Area


Non-Olympic July Madness

Deviating from my usual chronological approach, I’ve decided to catch up today on non-Olympic activities in time to blog more fully about my Olympic adventures over the next week. But more to come on that later.


A week ago, my friend Alex and I went out to dinner at Hawksmoor, a really nice steakhouse, courtesy of my Auntie Hazel’s generosity. We ended up sitting downstairs in their bar, but we actually liked the atmosphere down there better. And it meant we could order off the bar menu, which included an amazing French dip sandwich. (Obviously, I was very excited about it.) Alex had a kimchi burger that was nearly as nice as my sandwich, and then we got dessert (chocolate and salted caramel tart), as if all the meat and sides weren’t enough. Thanks Auntie!




I’ve also made an exciting discovery in my neighborhood. Remember the plaque marking T.S. Eliot’s former workplace near Russell Square? Well, on a walk up to the local Tube station, I found this one! Eliot used to live at Crawford Mansions. From one Eliot site to another….



And finally, I spent yesterday evening with some friends, attending a somewhat-sad, faux-flash mob singing event to welcome the Olympics on the Southbank, and walking along the Thames and past London landmarks (St. Paul’s and the Gherkin shown; we also went by Parliament and Buckingham Palace).



We then made our way over to the Royal Albert Hall (ceiling with acoustic-enhancing bubbles at left) for the BBC Proms (short for Promenade Concerts). We heard a Beethoven piece, followed by Pierre Boulez’s Le marteau sans maitre (“The Hammer without a Master”), which is supposedly a really influential post-war piece that sets a 1930s Surrealist poem to “music.” Just to give you an idea of the sound, the nine movements involved a xylophone, viola, guitar, flute, and some other percussion, as well as a vocalist. My friends were not terribly impressed, but I enjoyed the Surrealist connection.

Olympic updates coming soon! Everybody enjoy the Opening Ceremony!



Paris on Bastille Day

My friend Natsuko and I had decided earlier in the year that we would take a day trip to Paris. We exchanged workable dates, figured out when the best day was, and ended up booking our tour for July 14th.

Which is Bastille Day, a national holiday, and a fact forgotten by both of us. Oops.

After waking up ridiculously early, we got to St. Pancras at 5:30am to take the Eurostar trip through the Chunnel. Arriving in Paris, we met up with our group and got on a red tour bus, which was supposed to take us around several sights, including the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Notre Dame. While we were told that some roads were closed for a Bastille Day parade, it seemed like the bus was still making its way across the city, so we sat back, took random pictures, and tried to follow our impromptu route down side streets.


After an hour, we did make it to the Eiffel Tower (one of our many pictures at left). We then sat in traffic in front of it for about 20 minutes, after which the driver pulled a U-turn and went back the other way. That should have been our first clue that something wasn’t quite right. But we figured that the driver was just trying to find a way out of the crowded, closed-off-street mess, and we kept sitting back and marveling at the bewildering lack of lane markings, the resistance of drivers to police directions, and the sheer mass of vehicles attempting improbable maneuvers.

After another hour, we saw the Eiffel Tower again.

And again. And again.



When our driver finally took us by the Tower for the fifth time in three hours, we tried to get off the bus. I say “tried” because the driver’s, “I’ll let you off just around the corner” was really, “Actually, let’s go past the Eiffel Tower again.” By the time we got off that bus, right next to the Tower, we didn’t really want to look at it anymore. But we did take a final picture. A little embarrassed that it took us three hours to realize our bus was basically driving in various circles, we are claiming that the early morning and lack of caffeine inhibited our common sense.




After escaping the bus tour, we immediately took the Metro over to Notre Dame to get lunch at a cafe recommended by another of our friends from hall. The coffee (Nat) and Coke (me), along with our crepe and croque monsieur (the latter pictured) did wonders for our opinion of Paris. And our common sense.






Revived, we went back to take a few pictures of Notre Dame. Here we are in front, photo courtesy of some friendly fellow tourists and Natsuko’s camera and sepia theme.

After Notre Dame, we walked across and along the Seine, buying some souvenirs from street vendors and shops. (I got a Babar print, a fun reminder of the books/shows of childhood!)




Our afternoon ended with a couple hours at the Louvre, which was free and understandably crowded for the holiday. Among the pieces we saw were the Mona Lisa, the Venus, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, a sphinx, and Hammurabi’s Code.



Heading back toward Gare du Nord to catch our evening train home, Nat and I grabbed a dinner of omelette and French onion soup, followed by pastries from a nearby bakery. (My eclair was delicious.) After our 2+ hour Eurostar journey back to London and a short 15 minute Tube ride back to Edgware Road, we were very glad to see our beds.

So, in conclusion, I can say I’ve been in Paris on Bastille Day. And that I’ve spent three hours driving in circles around the Eiffel Tower. Coincidentally, both were unintentional and due to some severe lack of awareness. Fun times.

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Posted by on July 24, 2012 in Culture, Landmarks


Dad Comes to Visit

My dad came to visit London at the beginning of July, both to see me and, as a tennis fan, to get to Wimbledon. With only a few days to sightsee, we got down to business.


After meeting Dad at Paddington, we had lunch at a local pub so he could have some authentic fish and chips. Following check-in at the hotel, we headed over to the Tower of London, mostly because it was something I hadn’t done yet and had been saving to do with a visitor. We were able to see the Crown Jewels and a few of the other exhibits, and then I let him go back to the hotel to sleep.



The second day, I taught him how to sort out the million and one tickets that automated ticket machines here print out, and we caught a train up to Oxford. Though I’d visited Oxford in December, we did a few new things, including walking up to the top of the Sheldonian Theatre (picture at right taken from the cupola and showing the Radcliffe Camera over the Bodleian Library). I also showed him Christ Church and Magdalen Colleges, which I enjoyed on my last trip, and we ate some bangers and mash at the Bird and Baby, pub of choice of the Inklings.


Speaking of the Inklings, we also took a tour of the Kilns, former house of C.S. Lewis, his brother Warnie, the Moores, and others. The Kilns are now a working study center for visiting scholars and researchers, as well as being a tourist destination for avid Lewis fans. We heard lots of great anecdotes about the Kilns family, including the lovely story that Jack’s wife Joy used a shotgun to frighten loitering youth away from the property. Also amusing – when Mrs. Moore lived in the room next to Jack’s, they locked the door between them and somehow lost the key. When Mrs. Moore passed away, Jack used her room as his study but continued walking through the house, out the front door, and around to the side of the house where he’d climb an external staircase to his bedroom. It wasn’t until Joy moved in that they finally got a locksmith to open the door and save Jack the trouble. Finally, a last amusing fact was that our tour guide (PhD student at Oriole College, Oxford) happened to be from Cerritos and had taught at Biola for awhile. Dad started the “Do you know anyone from…?” game.

The next day, we got up ridiculously early to queue for Wimbledon grounds tickets for the men’s semifinal day. Given that Brit Andy Murray was playing later in the afternoon, we had no idea how crowded and hard it would be to get a spot on the Hill. Luckily/unluckily, it was raining in the morning and the crowds seemed thinner, so we had no problems and actually could have slept in a bit more. The announcer was hilarious and would continually give us updates on the weather that started with, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have an update on the weather. As you can see, it’s still raining….” Thankfully, the rain gave way to sun in the afternoon.


Federer also obliged by playing well and beating Djokovic. The Hill was delighted, as it was largely pro-Federer, the drunk couple in front of us excepted. And of course, it was even louder for the Murray-Tsonga match, the only two parts of which I remember are that it was not as pretty as the Fed/Djoker match and that it included a rather painful and awkward hit-by-ball moment for Tsonga.




Food update: after a Wimbledon lunch of chicken sandwich and mushroom pizza, as well as the obligatory strawberries and cream, I introduced my Dad to Nando’s, a peri-peri chicken chain that I would really like to see in California.





Our last full day was spent in London, starting with my old Bloomsbury haunts – Russell Square, SOAS, Tottenham Court Road, and the British Museum, where I gave Dad an “Ariel’s favorite objects that she can remember” tour, which included a room of clocks, the Rosetta Stone, the Assyrian obelisk depicting Jehu, mummies, African metalwork and pottery, the Japan rooms, and of course the Olympic medals.

After a quick glance at my old hall and the School of Pharmacy where my church meets, we Tubed over to Abbey Road, where we did NOT take pictures of us crossing. Instead, we sat on a bench and leisurely ate Pret a Manger sandwiches while amusedly watching others attempt the feat. FYI, Abbey Road is still a fully functioning road, so you can understand that the buses and cars are none too patient with the hordes of fumbling photographers on the road.

At that point, we split up for a few hours so I could go to a rehearsal for my super-not-so-top-secret-summer-project, and my dad continued on to the Freud Museum (that’s right…the Freud Museum…where the gift shop sold Freudian slippers…), St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Tate Modern museum, where they had an Edvard Munch (think “The Scream”) exhibit. We met back up in the evening to see Henry V at Shakespeare’s Globe, followed by late-night dim sum at Ping Pong. (My new favorite is the scallop and mushroom dumpling.)

We concluded our night walking over Westminster Bridge at midnight, seeing Parliament lit up and hearing Big Ben chime. This rather ideal London setting was quickly followed by “the bus ride from hell” back to the hotel. While I got to show Dad other London landmarks like Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus from the bus window, we also had a mini-hydroplaning experience, swerved around several cars, and hit what we hope was a tree branch before arriving at our stop. A fitting end to a wild rollercoaster trip.

For more pictures, see my Facebook!

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Posted by on July 22, 2012 in Culture, Landmarks, Local Area