Thursday, July 31, 2008

Doing that Cartesian rag

There is nothing like too much time in front of a computer just dealing with email to induce severe mind-body dissociation. The L.A. Times had a great story on just that today, but guess how I heard about it -- a daily email alert from them that leads to way much time reading their stories.

Fortunately I have discovered an antidote. I get up and walk around! I particularly like to walk by the scene shown in this photo, which is less than 100 yards from my building. Nothing like a little non-virtual beauty to restore the soul. 

Friday, July 25, 2008


Today we took a ferry to Birka Island in Lake Mälar, about an hour and 45 minutes by boat from Stockholm. It leaves from right next to the city hall, which you can see it the first photo. Very striking place, the city hall -- we had our opening reception for the IAMCR conference there Monday night.

In the next photo are a bunch of people getting off our ferry, the Victoria, at Birka. It was a beautiful day to be out on the water. There is a simply amazing quality to summer light in Scandinavia, more on that later.

The reason for going to Birka, aside from taking a beautiful ferry ride through a fjord in Sweden -- something I would be dying to do anyway -- is that it is one of the sites that has produced the most information about how a Viking settlement actually lived. There was a trading village there from the 800s to 1000, which left hundreds of graves behind, which were largely untouched, with all their grave goods.

Most of the original things found have been moved to the National Museum of Antiquities in Stockholm, but they have created a nice museum to explain the site with maps, replicas of what the village might have looked like, and replicas of a lot of the best stuff. I was intrigued with a map of the Viking world, shown here with our museum guide, Elin.

We also took a tour of the grave sights, the village site, and a fort that stood on a hill over- looking the village -- both enclosed by a city wall and stockade.  Here is our other guide, Ulrike, on the hill beside the fort, overlooking the fjord and a meadow (now) where the village stood. The meadow was excavated in the 1990s and they found a lot of interesting things there, too. It is amazing what archeologists can do with ancient garbage dumps.

We walked back to the ferry area to have lunch and do some shopping in the museum store. (Always a danger in Scandinavia when your wife teaches Viking history and literature -- we ate lightly to compensate.) Right across from the store was a stand of birch trees that made me think again of how much I like the quality of light coming through the trees in Scandinavia summer.

Here is a view of the hill that the fort stands on. The spot is marked by a cross, a monument to a Christian missionary who helped convert the village back in the 1000s. The shot is from the ferry we took back to Stockholm. Fabulous day despite a wee bit of sunburn.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Gamla Stan

I took off from my conference in Stockholm early this afternoon so Sandy and I could go play a bit. First stop was Gamla Stan, the old city. Walking in from the subway stop, we found this corner, which was on Sandy's list of things to look at. When the building was built in the 1400s, someone put in a piece of a genuine Viking runestone as part of the foundation. It is a busy corner, so someone in the 1600s planted an old cannon barrel in front of the wall as a sort of bumper to protect the building against the bigger wagons that were starting to use the street.

Then we headed for the palace area of the old city to see the armor museum, which had an interesting sounding special exhibition on war booty that Sweden had "won" or taken from several countries over the centuries, particularly Denmark, Poland and Czechoslovakia. There is a controversy between those countries and Sweden over whether some of it, at least, ought to be returned. 

Here is Sandy at the entrance to the museum, with a huge carved representation of the Swedish arms. 

After the museum and palace, we went into the main cathedral nearby, which you can see below. 

After that, we walked to the end of the island that the old city is on and caught a ferry across the harbor to another island, which has the zoo, an amusement park, and a folk museum or living history village, full of historical houses, farm buildings, churches, etc. right next to the zoo. In fact, it was really fun to wander between the folk village, 
where we paused to watch some Swedish folk dancers, and then the zoo, which has only animals from Sweden, like moose, which they call elk -- you can see one in the next photo -- and reindeer. The most exciting was a couple of wolverines, which I had never seen live before, unless you count comic-book based movies ;), but they moved around too fast to get a good picture of them.

Monday, July 21, 2008


We flew from Lisbon into Stockholm yesterday. I am here for the meeting of the Inter- national Association of Media and Communication Research, a wonderfully global group of scholars from all over. Sandy is here to stock up on things for her Astrid Lindgren course and generally catch up on Swedish culture. 

Before I had to show up to register for my conference, we decided to walk around a bit downtown, walking from the Central Station almost to the edge of Gamla Stan, the old city, which you can see here. 

Then today, after my main meetings were over, Sandy and I met to go to an evening reception of my conference at the city hall, which is quite a grand structure from 1923. Here is a picture of Sandy on the walkway above the main hall.

Strikingly, but a bit oddly, they built in another grand reception room, the Gold Room, made with 18 million small gold mosaic tiles. 

In a sort of neo-Byzantine style it has all sorts of odd and interesting motifs, all sorts of figurative themes as people, along with a number of historical figures. It includes an extremely odd figure which one of the speakers had actually mentioned today at the conference, a veiled woman with an incongruously bared breast, presumably Turkish, since she sits beside a man in a fez. Granted that a lot of the other figures, historic and otherwise are naked, but it seems a very weird representation of someone presumed to be Islamic. A very odd Orientalist inclusion.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

To the furthest west point in Europe

This afternoon, a friend from Lisbon, Cristina Ponte, took us on a drive out to Cabo da Roca, the furthest west point in continental Europe. A breathtaking view on a peak high above the ocean, as you can see from this photo of Cristina and Sandy at the point.

She also took us a bit north of that to see her home town, Sintra, which is so unbelievably cute, that it is on UNESCO's list of world heritage sites. It was 
where kings and other rich folks build their summer palaces to have a cooler place to hang out. It works. While Lisbon was in the 90s, Sintra was in the 70s today, with a bit of fog even.

Here is photo of Sandy pointing to a street named after Lord Byron, who found the place Byronically evocative enough to hang out there.
We also walked up to the Castelo dos Mouros, a fortress built by the Moors during their 450 years in Portugal, but abandoned in the 1100s after they lost the siege of Lisbon. It is a quite interesting place, made even more evocative by being nestled into a dense and lush forest of very tall sycamores on one

And it extends way up onto a rocky crag as you can see from the last photo. Some of its walls look a bit like the pictures you see of the great wall of China snaking over vast mountainous panoramas.

The arcades project

I am just enough of a cultural theory geek that I really could not resist this one. Sandy and I came down to Lisbon from Porto by train this morning and decided, for some forgotten reason, to walk from the train station through a very sunny and hot dock neighborhood to the main plaza and from there back to our hotel. 

About half way back, by the main plaza (Praça do Comércio), we saw this invitingly shady arcade with a delightful-looking cafe, Martinho da Arcada (little Martin of the arcade), which a guide book tells me is the oldest cafe in Lisbon. So we gratefully plopped down for a drink.

Apologies to Walter Benjamin, whose epic arcades project was really about the early modern shopping arcades of Paris as a way of talking about the whole modernity project -- although if this is indeed the oldest cafe in Lisbon, under a still wonderfully shady and attractive arcade on a square old enough that the Inquisition used to burn people there, then it seems like early modernity had more staying power than the Inquisition, at least, thank heavens.

Friday, July 18, 2008

And more Art Nouveau at one of the world's most amazing bookstores

The promotional magazines about cities you find in hotels are usually pretty useless, dedicated to really pointless but expensive consumption. Today in Porto, however, Sandy found a real gem in one: the Livraria Irmãos Lello, a family-run bookstore in the old city that has been in the same location since 1904. Here is the façade, which is pretty impressive as a neo-gothic confection.

It got even better inside. Here is Sandy in the front of the store, with an absolutely amazing staircase rising behind her.

Here is another view of the staircase, from above.

We loved the place. It made us think of all the Straubies back home who are big Art Deco fans, Julia, Kristy and Chris. It has a great collection of art, literature and travel books, too.


The Portuguese are famous for making tile, mostly blue, often in pictures representing various scenes. They tend to be of religious figures, famous battles, but one restaurant in Lisbon preferred an exterior dedicated to cows, as you see here. Tile work goes way back to colonial times, but is still a live art, we saw a studio creating new ones in Lisbon.

Here is a much more conventional use, showing religious scenes on the side of a church in Porto. We wandered in an caught a lovely impromptu baroque organ music concert, which I hated to leave.

Here is another pretty frequent employment for tiles in Portugal, the celebration of big events in Portuguese history, in this case, the very beginning of Western colonialism in Africa -- O Infante Dom Henrique, known in English as Prince Henry the Navigator, conquering the Moors in Ceuta, to gain a foothold in Africa for a budding Portuguese empire. You can see this one in the main train station in downtown Porto, which has a very large lobby full of historic and folkloric tile murals.

World's Largest and Most Misplaced Doily

This bridge over the Rio Douro in Porto, Portugal is one of my favorite sights in the world. So imagine my surprise when someone seems to have placed the world's largest lace doily on the middle of it. Probably an expensive municipal art project.

Personally, I prefer the art of the kids diving into the river in the summer heat. Looks like a lot of fun. We ate dinner here on the river bank tonight and enjoyed the view despite the vast doily.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The São Jorge Castle in Lisbon

Along with Jeremiah, one of my grad students from UT, Sandy and I went to the Castelo São Jorge (St. George Castle), which figures prominently on the Lisbon skyline and equally prominent in its history, when Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal, took it by siege from the Moors in 1147.

It is interesting how widely revered St. George was across medieval Europe, not just England. Here is a replica of a stone carving of him in Portugal from 1398. And as most Brazilians know, he made it across the Atlantic, just in time to get syncretized with the African god Ogum in candomblé in Brazil.

We took a somewhat circuitous route to the castle. We walked to the base of its hill, then took a streetcar, which wound all over the place, including close to the castle, but the driver refused to tell anybody where to get off for the castle. So a bunch of tourists ended up at the end of the line, several miles away, by a nice park and cathedral (lots of those all over Lisbon).

So finally we took a cab back to the castle, where you can see us, at last in this photo.

The castle has a great view out over the Lisbon skyline. They are supposed to have commanding views, by definition, I suppose. Here is a view of the River Tejo, with what looks like a 16th or 17th century cannon in front. We walked all over the castle and then decided to park ourselves in a battlement cafe near this cannon to watch the view more at ease, since Sandy has a nasty bone bruise on her leg from a fall in York a couple of weeks ago that bugs her after a lot of walking.

The Art Deco Tour of Lisbon

One of the things that makes Lisbon interesting is the remarkable number of Art Deco buildings it has, particularly along Avenida Liberdade, the main boulevard of the city. That is also a nice shady place to walk for much of its length.

The Art Deco façades also combine in a lot of other things. This first one is a building with a corner relief that celebrates cinema and arts. It has been taken over by a Hard Rock Cafe. So all the nice socialist realism, in the Portuguese fascist version, in figures of dance, music, etc. want you to now join Planet Hollywood. Sitting duck for some snarky comments about global hybridity, but too easy.

Here is another example of a cinema arts palace, that has been repurposed. This one is now a sleek apartment hotel with a pool on the roof. Little kids in bathing suits kept appearing at one edge.

The last one is a train station that is still a train station, but its doors are really interesting. They combine what seems like a classic Art Deco rounded door with a much earlier rounded, decorated arch that mimics a 16th century church door, with the kind of carving that you might have seen on one of Lisbon's cathedrals or monasteries.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

On the trail of the Pastel de Belem in Lisbon

We got into Lisbon this morning, stood in line a lot to get into the country and then get a cab. But never let lack of sleep get you down! I went off to a lunch meeting with Rui Cadima and Joao Grillo at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, then met up with Jeremiah Spence, pictured at right, who is working with me on his doctorate at UT, met up with another Nova professor, Cristina Ponte (second from left) and Lidia, who had been my student at UT last spring, and went off to a bar by the river, at the spot shown here, to have a meeting, to plan a research project. (Honest, we really did -- got a great outline done.)

Here is Sandy, enjoying the breeze and kibitzing in on the research planning.

Then we finally got down to more serious business, ate at a Brazilian steakhouse called Picanha, which served exactly that (the best beef cut in the known world). Then we walked across the street to where the mothership awaited, the Pastelaria de Belem, named after the neighborhood, not the original Bethlehem, but the home of one of the world's best pastries, the pastel de Belem. There is a huge cafe right alongside the factory where they make them. It looks very modest in the next photo, but that is part of its charm. Pastry perfection does not have to advertise or use really hideous clown mascots or anything like that.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

London calling

The last part of our three week journey around the British isles was London. It called to us.

Here are Sandy and Chris in the classic tourist view along the Thames. A bit wider here than it was at Oxford.

We strolled along the Thames several times day and night. All three of us are art fans and fans of Salvador Dali in particular, so it was fun to run across this massive elephant of Dali's along the Thames.

After walking up the Thames quite a bit we got to the neighborhood of the Globe Theatre where we had tickets to see King Lear. I had always wanted to see Shakespeare at the Globe, so it was quite a thrill. Here are Sandy and I in the third floor balcony. It was an excellent production, too.

The next day we went to the Tower of London, which I had somehow or other never been through before. The Yeoman Warders really are pretty amazing as guides go. (And we had seen a lot of museums and guides at that point.) Here is ours who had a fine sense of humor and drama, and crowd control that I can only envy when I teach 450 freshmen next fall.

More London later. Now bed is calling.

Dancing fool

You just have to love the Web for its ability to throw up really random, but delightful things. Below is a video of Matt Harding, from Australia, doing a goofy sort of chicken dance in all sorts of locations around the world. You can see some of them here, including Austin, by the statue/shrine to Stevie Ray Vaughn, which sort of vouches for his taste in music if not dance moves.

Part of the fun of the video is the sheer joy the guy seems to get out of it, as well as the way people, particularly kids, get into it with him. Part of the fun is thinking about those places he dances where you might have been to yourself.

If you want the old school treatment, here is a link to a New York Times story about him. I guess I am still a bit old school myself, since that is how I heard about him. But then I kind of like a nice blend of old and new.

To quote the Times:
"The music (by Gary Schyman, a friend of Mr. Harding’s, and set to a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, sung in Bengali by Palbasha Siddique, a 17-year-old native of Bangladesh now living in Minneapolis) is both catchy and haunting. The backgrounds are often quite beautiful. And there is something sweetly touching and uplifting about the spectacle of all these different nationalities, people of almost every age and color, dancing along with an uninhibited doofus."

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Oxford town

We spent a day in Oxford between York and London, about ten days ago (I am still catching up on blogging about that trip.)

It was great fun, starting with a nice restaurant on the side of the Thames where we had lunch and watched people who had rented punts trying to make them work.

We walked all around town, looking in on a couple of the more famous traditional colleges. Here is Christchurch College.

And here is a courtyard at Magdalen College, where C.S. Lewis was on the faculty. Sandy and I are both long time fans of many of his books, particularly the Narnia series (despite the less than stellar movies). Sandy in particular attributes much of her childhood sense of morality to ideas from the Narnia books. I only encountered them as an adult, but I still like them.

Here is the River Cherwell seen from Addison's walk, in back of Magdalen College, where J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson reputedly convinced C.S. Lewis to become a Christian at 3 a.m. on September 20, 1931.

Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy was very magical for both Sandy and me as teenagers. I was wowed by the breadth of the saga, the heroism and goodness of the main characters. Very inspiring stuff. I can't really say that either Tolkien or Lewis directly affected my own evolving sense of morality or my decision as a late teenager to really embrace the Mormon Christianity I had grown up with. But it has been fascinating to learn about how these men thought it through for themselves and talked about it.

On that same theme, here is the pub where Lewis, Tolkien, Charles Williams and Hugo Dyson used to meet: The Eagle and Child, sometimes known as the Bird and the Baby.

And here is a picture of Sandy and Chris inside the pub.