Monday, August 19, 2019

Richmond Is For Lovers

We recently celebrated our anniversary in our beautiful state capital of Richmond, where we got engaged. (For those who are not fellow Virginians, the title of this post is a play on our home state's tourism slogan: "Virginia Is For Lovers"! It's a little strange.) Richmond is such a cool city with a great food scene and plenty of things to do, so I think I'd be happy living there - let alone visiting. Our first stop was the Virginia State Capitol. We stood on the steps right where we got engaged via video game (long story), and then we took a free guided tour inside. The building itself was very cool, with architectural flourishes like these black limestone floor tiles with real fossil imprints in them.

The Capitol tour was filled with interesting Virginia history, from Thomas Jefferson's designs to a beautiful original statue of George Washington. I will admit I was extremely disappointed that slavery was not represented in any of the many exhibits or paintings or statues throughout the Capitol. The slave trade was mentioned briefly in passing at only one point during the tour. When I asked the guide if the Capitol was built by slaves and if the historical operations once it opened were made possible through forced labor, he said yes and talked about it for a minute or two.

At one point, a woman in our tour group asked the guide if any visitors complained about Thomas Jefferson. He answered that they don't but some do object to the many Confederate figures who have paintings or busts or statues in the building (like the one pictured above of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee). She said something about people getting too offended nowadays and a man in the group said something about how everyone back then owned slaves anyway. Just as the slaveowners and Confederate leaders are part of our history, though, so too are enslaved people. The Capitol was working on memorials for prominent Virginia women and a Native American monument, and those efforts are laudable. However, there's no excuse for leaving out something as core to Virginia history, the Capitol, and our government as the dehumanizing institution and practice of slavery.

If you agree, then check out the free Capitol tour when you visit Richmond and add your voice to mine and others requesting that slavery not be ignored or glossed over in tours or exhibits. I hope that, with enough feedback, they can do better (as I understand Monticello did as a result of outside pressure). I also highly recommend swinging by the stunning, two-sided memorial just outside the Capitol building. It's dedicated to the Virginians and others who made the outcome in the famous 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education (the one that desegregated American schools and declared "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal") possible. Isn't it beautiful?

We then took a history break and enjoyed some delicious waffles at Capitol Waffle Shop, which as the name would suggest is just a short walk from the Capitol. You build your own waffle there with whatever savory or sweet toppings you want. I went for a fruity waffle, while M went for a Nutella-marshmallow-caramel combo. Talk about a sugar rush!

Our next stop of the trip was Historic St. John's Church, where Paul Revere gave his famous "Give me liberty or give me death" speech at the Second Virginia Convention in 1775. The tour guide we booked was worth every penny, as he gave us excellent historical context and did a passionate re-enactment of a selection of Paul Revere's literally revolutionary words. (You can read the speech in full here.)

Last, we drove through Hollywood Cemetery, where a number of famous figures have their final resting place. I was disturbed by the large number of fresh Confederate flags placed at the graves of those with ties to the Confederacy. (We have a long way to go, Virginia.) We even saw the monument over the grave of John Tyler, the only U.S. President whose death was not officially recognized in Washington, DC due to his Confederate allegiance. Confederate President Jefferson Davis still held a big memorial service for him, prominent Confederate flag over the coffin included. At least there was a nice view of the James River that didn't include a single Confederate symbol.

After our jam-packed day, we checked into Quirk Hotel, which lived up to its eccentric name. Everything was all very modern, artsy, and just a little bit pink. Best of all, they had Tesla destination chargers for us to use while staying there! (Yes, we bought a Tesla. More on that in a future post.)

So we had a wonderful time in Richmond, and we did all of that in just one day. We highly recommend you visit Richmond if you haven't before, or even if you just haven't been in a while. It'll be worth it. After all, Virginia really is for lovers (and/or history nerds and/or foodies)!

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

We Should Read African Literature

Halfway through our time in Kenya, I joined a book club with other U.S. Embassy Nairobi women. We selected works of African literature to read together - one book per month. I'm ashamed to say I'd never read a book by an African (excluding African-American) author before. If there are readers of this blog who are similarly lacking, I thought I would offer mini-reviews of the works we read in book club. I hope this piques the interest of someone who would like to explore African literature but may not know where to start. Please see the full list below, in the order I read them:

  • A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong'o: This was the first book in our book club series, and I won't lie: it was intense. It focuses on Kenya during the lead-up to independence, following an array of characters through the struggles of Kenya, their village, and their own lives. I found certain parts especially difficult to read as a woman, as I found the book repeatedly reinforced female sexual weakness and objectification with only a few moments of sexual empowerment. The emotions of shame and selfishness are dominant themes throughout the work, with some (but not all) finding redemption (or at least making their ways toward it) in the end. I would recommend reading this book for the historical and cultural knowledge it yields on not-too-distant Kenyan history as well as the intense passion the author successfully evokes by writing so powerfully about the inner torment of the characters in situations that would otherwise appear mundane. I do, however, recommend reading only a little at a time.
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe: After reading this one, I understood why it's hailed as the most widely read book in modern African literature. Achebe beautifully weaves in folk stories, local language, and culture into the plot of the book. Although there are still parts that I struggled as a woman to read (i.e., many passages from the protagonist's perspective on the inferiority of females or anything feminine), the most extreme views were tied to the specific character's own inflexibility and closed-mindedness. No culture is perfect in the book, and what I found most interesting was the delicate tracing of the African characters' issues either with their society, religion, or culture that Europeans were able to exploit for the benefit of Christianity and their empire. It was well-written and profound - a must-read in the genre.
  • Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: This was probably my favorite book of the whole bunch, even though it wasn't quite as popular with my fellow book club members. Adichie is best known for her book Americanah, which I haven't yet read but plan on doing now, and her viral TED Talk (which I also highly recommend) titled "The danger of a single story". Purple Hibiscus is a powerful novel that hits themes of colonialism, religion, and community in the context of a very unhealthy and disturbing family dynamic that - in my view - resonates with the darkness and complexity of humanity across eras and cultures. The imagery of Nigeria is rendered beautifully so that I found myself drawn in (even if I didn't know specifics like how cashew trees smell).
  • West with the Night by Beryl Markham: This book is vastly different from the others in several ways. First, it's a memoir instead of a novel. Second, it's written by a white British settler/colonialist. Even if she did consider Africa home, her perspective is inevitably wildly different from a native, black African's. Her poetically written stories are romantic but prejudiced. They're also thrilling but devoid of gossip, especially coming from a woman whom scandal and drama followed throughout her life. Markham was truly an extraordinary woman, aviator, and writer, but she and her book are clearly a product of their time.
  • Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela: I just have to be honest with this one... it's a "long walk" through this book. At over 900 pages, the nitty-gritty details from preferred childhood games to specifics about the many meetings leading up to the freedom struggle were too much for not only me but the other members of the book club. Despite many devoting multiple months to reading this one, I'm not sure a single one of us fully finished it in time. There are a number of great documentaries about Nelson Mandela and South African history available that are honestly easier for a layperson or outsider to digest.
  • The Return by Hisham Matar: Pretty much everyone in the book club liked this one, a Pulitzer Prize winner by a renowned Libyan author. The book provides snapshots of Libya's history while recounting the author's family's moving firsthand experience with the cruelty of oppression and authoritarianism. The pain of grief and loss is beautifully rendered, and touchstones of African and Arab cultural experiences are somehow made accessible even to the most ignorant reader. I highly recommend this book, but it definitely has a different flavor that might put it in better company with Arab literature than sub-Saharan African works.
  • Unbowed by Wangari Maathai: This autobiography of environmentalist, feminist, and human rights activist legend Wangari Maathai was another one of my favorites, although like Mandela's book it is on the longer side. (I acknowledge that I had more references for the events and sites in Maathai's book in Kenya, so if I'm ever lucky enough to spend a while in South Africa I could try Mandela's book again.) I was inspired by the author's resilience, courage, and hope for Kenya in the face of serious challenges across the board. This is a fantastic read for anyone who cares about women's rights, democratic freedom, the impact of colonialism, and/or the environment.

So I hope I've convinced at least one person to pick up a book by an African author they might not otherwise have considered. I've enjoyed the books above, but most importantly I learned a lot by reading them. Although I regret not exploring African literature earlier in life, it's never too late to broaden our reading material. Let me know in the comments below if you have any other recommendations for African literature. Happy reading!

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

When the Pieces Come Together

I previously wrote a post on the importance of a portable hobby. One of my hobbies that seems to ebb and flow depending on time and place and mood is creating art. Luckily for me, my dear friend J ran a mosaic art studio in Nairobi, which allowed me to refill my fairly depleted creative reserves. I spent about six months working on one project: a coffee tray. It may sound simple to make a mosaic coffee tray, but the process was quite involved: painting the glass, cutting pieces that were correctly sized and shaped, gluing them precisely, leaving enough space for the grout, and all of the steps required in finishing including grouting, painting the tray, and sealing the glass.

When it came to the design, I chose a graphic from Ingress, an augmented reality smart phone game (the one in which M proposed to me almost five years ago but that others may be more familiar with as the predecessor to Pokemon Go). To make it a surprise for him, I used a design from our team/side within the game: the Enlightened. Although the complex image and especially the small glass pieces were a major challenge, it was all worth it to see the final product (and to finish miraculously just before our departure).

There was something soothing about the repetitiveness of working on the mosaic for hours at a time and doing something with my hands after a long workweek of exercising my brain. I enjoyed the company of a number of other women inside and outside the Embassy who joined for the art class, as well. We all encouraged each other in our projects and benefited from the inspiration of each other's projects and creativity. I'm so happy with the final product and feel so lucky to have found this before I had to leave Kenya!

Saturday, August 3, 2019

24 Hours in Paris: The Most Romantic City in the World

On our way home to the United States from Kenya, we got to spend a little over 24 hours in Paris, France - the most romantic city in the world! It was fun to revisit some of my old Paris haunts from when I lived there for an internship over four years ago. It was M's first time in the city, and I was determined to make sure we took full advantage of our short time there. It was also a nice refresher for trying to get around with my high school French. My funniest can't-remember-French moment was probably when a woman at a bakery asked me if a wanted sparkling or still water, but I forgot how to say "still" and didn't hear the exact word she used so I just said "the one that's not sparkling" (or more literally, "the one without gas").

We decided to stay in an airport hotel, which we don't regret for a minute. We had four very heavy suitcases and three very heavy carry-on bags that it was nice to immediately drop off instead of trying to take them into town. We also had the best - and I mean the best - potatoes M or I had ever had in our lives in that overpriced breakfast buffet. They were perfectly roasted with olive oil, thyme, and garlic and had a thin crispy skin perfectly married to a creamy interior. It's one of those foods we'll really remember, and we kept going back for more!

Once we made it into town, we grabbed pastries at top boulangerie (bread bakery) and pâtisserie (pastry bakery) Pain Pain (literally translated to the extremely literal "bread bread"). I ordered their famous roulé pistache-chocolat (chocolate-pistachio roll) and M got a fancy pastry version of a Ferrero Rocher hazelnut chocolate treat. Both were delicious, and I enjoyed the authentic pastry dough I remembered from my time in Paris that has mostly disappointed me elsewhere: perfectly flaky, golden crust with a buttery, layered, soft interior. My mouth is watering just writing about it!

We also checked out Paris's two most famous church buildings: Sacré-Coeur* (translation: "Sacred Heart") and Notre Dame (translation: "Our Lady"). After a vigorous walk to the top of Montmartre ("Mount of the Martyr" named in large part for the decapitation of Paris's first Bishop, Saint Denis, that happened there), we were rewarded with a beautiful view of gleaming, white Sacré-Coeur. Then we headed over to the other side of town to see the even more famous, Gothic Notre Dame. Because Notre Dame is currently undergoing extensive reconstruction after sustaining fire damage earlier this year, we couldn't get very close to the building. It's still my favorite cathedral, anyway.

We then checked out the expat/bookworm hangout of Paris: Shakespeare & Company. When I lived in Paris, it was a bookstore only, but it has since added on a café with a healthy, environmentally conscious selection. The bookstore itself is the real star of the show, though, even for people like us who don't have many physical books. The layout is exactly what one would picture for a well-loved, traditional bookstore, and the spaces for sitting and reading are lovely. (They even have literary events if you're an artsy type.)

We also walked by some gardens and the Institut du Monde Arabe ("Arab World Institute), a beautiful building, but we decided to pass on the current exhibits. If you ever find yourself in Paris with more time than we had, I highly recommend it - I've been multiple times, and they also have a nice café with an Arabic flair. With all that walking we worked up quite an appetite and made our way to the Jewish quarter of the city just so I could order a particular sandwich I remember eating four years ago. Yes, it was that good.

The most well-known shops of the Jewish quarter are the dueling falafel joints - they invite you to try them all and decide which is truly king. Yet given our short timeframe and the fact that M isn't falafel's hugest fan, we settled on the sandwich shop from my memory instead: Miznon. The fast-casual restaurant is Israeli, but I had been taken there by a Palestinian back in the day - it really seemed to bring people together over objectively good food. So I did order the exact same sandwich I had four years ago (lamb-stuffed cabbage roll), and it was exactly as delicious as I remembered! The pita was soft, fresh, and warm; the meat was juicy and well-seasoned; and the vegetables all just worked together perfectly. I highly recommend it! (M's kebab sandwich wasn't bad, either.)

After our meal, we took a City of Lights evening walking tour to help us walk off all the YOLO food we'd eaten throughout the day. I've taken day tours in Paris, but it was different to take a tour as the sun was setting. My favorite informational stop on the tour was the Flamme de la Liberté ("Liberty Flame", an exact replica of the flame on the Statue of Liberty in New York gifted to the United States by France. The flame was given to Paris by the International Herald Tribune (seemed a little random) as a symbol of the friendship between the United States and France in 1987, but it became a monument to Princess Diana when she died in 1997 in a car crash under the bridge where the monument is placed. There were tributes to the "People's Princess" all around the flame.

Once the tour was over, we grabbed a snack (popcorn for me, Nutella crêpe for M) and grabbed a bench in the park to enjoy the view of the Eiffel Tower where we had conveniently ended. The orange-illuminated landmark against the dark-blue sky was stunning, and then became even more so as the clock struck 10p.m. and the whole tower glittered for five minutes. (It does this for five minutes every hour on the hour after dark.) I've been dreaming of sharing that exact moment with M for years, and it was just as wonderful as I'd imagined.

So I do believe Paris's reputation as a city of lights and as a city of love is well-deserved. Even after all these years, it still feels like the most romantic city on Earth!

*I intentionally did not combine the "oe" because in my desktop blog view it comes out as a very misshapen special character: œ.