We Brexited Before It Was Popular

The 4th of July is one of my favorite American holidays to celebrate, but especially so in the United Kingdom. When friends wish me a Happy 4th (or even “Happy Independence Day!”) with sincerity, it’s a nice reminder that eventually some animosities can be overcome, if you have 241 years to cool off.

It’s one of about three days a year (the others being Thanksgiving and Christmas) where I try to momentarily forget the state of the world and celebrate the things I am lucky to have. I love both my countries, and that won’t change no matter who leads their governments. My love and patriotism may take on new shades (#resist!), but a country is not only its leaders but also its people. In many ways this year, the US has both made me horribly ashamed, angry, and proud. I can’t shed my American identity, and I don’t want to, even when it might be easier to do so (learning an English accent notwithstanding). There are a great many things about America that are still admirable, and I will celebrate those and all of the wonderful Americans I know and love who make my country a better place.

A key component of this is that I am celebrating here in London with some American friends, as well as many Brits and other nationalities who eagerly look forward to the celebration each summer. This is my third 4th of July party in London, always held on the weekend before or after the actual 4th, and always full of love and good times. Plus, it turns out everyone just wants to go to a party where they have “the red cups from the movies!” Well, my friends, I can provide this for you.

Happy Independence Day! May we all use it to remember that what unites us is far stronger than what divides us.

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Brexit

img_9139Ah, Brexit. Brexit, Brexit, Brexit. That thing no one, including those who voted for or promoted it, ever thought would actually happen.

I talk a little bit about Brexit, and the effect it had on my determination to vote via absentee ballot in the United States’ upcoming (and now very fraught) presidential election, in my latest piece for Refinery29.

As belated as this post is, I think I can see the Brexit blow-up clearer now that I’ve had time to process it. To be perfectly honest, it was like being punched in the face – and then in the brain. People were angry, and they voted to Leave the European Union because that was their only way to engender real change for themselves.

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The problem is, no one had (or has) a plan. Not Prime Minister David Cameron, who resigned immediately after the vote, not Nigel Farage, who campaigned on false promises to give the NHS millions of pounds among other things and then promptly quit once Brexit happened, not anyone in UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party), and not Leave supporter and former Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who also bowed out of the running for a new Prime Minister. If that sentence was painful to read, imagine how it was to live it.

The UK news cycle almost had no idea what to do with itself. Resignations and buck-passing mounted with each passing day, as dire forecasts were made on the future of the UK in a global market, let alone a European one. It all felt, and still feels, very grim. Then Theresa May became the new PM by dint of being the last one standing, and she’s promised to go through with Brexit. Her political history is alarmingly racist, classist, and anti-immigration, but you’d never know it from her most recent speeches, wherein she vows to fight for the common people. Then there’s the unrelated fact that I simply don’t know how I feel about someone who spells Teresa with an unpronounced “h”.

I’m truly not a very political person, because I have yet to see a politician who pursues that career to actually help people, rather than fuel their own megalomania, desire for power and fame, or other psychological issues. (The current US election rigamarole is a fantastic real-life example.) This means my expectations are incredibly low for the usefulness of modern politics, and the systems that do exist are often broken beyond repair.

But Brexit isn’t a very political situation at its core. To me, it is simple: Brexit is about people. People who have been marginalized in the UK and used their vote to show their anger for the system, and people who have been marginalized or persecuted elsewhere and seek to start over in the UK.

The crux of the issue is that although these two camps seem to be dichotomous, they share some similar feelings and desires. But they have been pitted against each other in a wave of racist anti-immigration campaigning and fear mongering. We’re being played against each other, and the only way to win is to push for more understanding, more compassion, more love, more sharing of cultures. We may live in post-Brexit Britain, but we live here together and must make it work.

9/11, Fifteen Years On

Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks on my home city, New York. I woke up to a gloriously sunny day in London, after a dreary and rainy Saturday. It almost seemed like a sign from the universe, a nod of acknowledgement to that Tuesday 15 years ago, which I remember vividly. That this many years have passed is hard to fathom. So much has happened in that space, for humanity in general and for each one of us, and yet many of us feel bound to New York and this tragedy, no matter how time flies.

I marvel at the resilience of New York, of New Yorkers and Americans, and of those affected by the many losses that day and beyond. In September 2001, I had just turned 15 years old. The world seemed complicated, yes, but I felt safe. After 9/11, I asked myself the questions I did not want to ask, excruciating questions about whether humans were good or evil and what made them so, whether either kind could make any impact on the other, and if our many vast differences meant we would always be diametrically opposed to those who did not think like us.

To this day, I have not fully answered these questions for myself. I am desperate to believe in the good of humanity, and yet we are so often presented with the myriad ways people all over the world put their efforts into silencing, hurting, and killing others. The unity that many Americans experienced immediately after the attacks seems like it has disappeared, in the intervening years, into a yawning gap of anger and fear.

In remembering the 9/11 attacks yesterday, I looked at the beauty around me: the bright blue sky and shining sun, the happy groups of people roaming London’s streets, and the natural and manmade places of serenity. This was a potent reminder that even though horrible things happen, life can be and is often stunningly and breathtakingly beautiful. For this anniversary of 9/11, I focused on that – and was grateful for all I have.

 

Taking Stock of Stockholm

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Dusk in Stockholm’s main port.

I know, another winner of a post title. I finally visited Sweden: my fatherland, the origin of my surname, and home to many a blonde, pale person!

Accompanying me on this July visit was Emily, BFF extraordinaire and fellow Swedish-ancestry claimant, all the way from the States. We only had three precious days in which to explore Stockholm before I had to head back to London and she “had to” continue on to Copenhagen and then the fjords of Norway. We hadn’t seen each other in 9 months – a fully-baked baby could’ve gestated in that time! – and were really looking forward to getting some one-on-one catch-up time while also touring a new city.

Upon arrival, Emily was understandably jet-lagged after her trip across a whole ocean; I was completely exhausted for reasons I cannot explain except that flying out of anywhere that is not Heathrow saps one entirely of energy and of desire to interact with people ever again. Gatwick is particularly hard work, and poorly laid out, to say the least. But enough complaining, because I was finally in the same place as one of my dearest friends, in a country I’d dreamed of seeing my whole life, and we were going to rally, so help us, Thor!

Upon landing at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport, everything was seamless. Signage was mercifully in English, or else so festooned with icons that it would’ve been hard to misunderstand. As I snuggled into the clean, quiet, gleaming train car of the Arlanda Express, I closed my eyes in the ambient lighting and smiled as I was lulled to sleep. No one chatted on their cell phone, glared at each other, ate food, or clipped their toenails. This was not one of New York or London’s outer-borough trains.

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I mean, this place…it’s called the Venice of the North for a reason. Also, hat tip for that awesome typography.

Our first half-day consisted of meandering our way down to the old town, Gamla Stan, from our centrally located hotel in ritzy Östermalm (all of Stockholm is expensive and prices were comparable across central neighborhoods, so why not have gorgeous old buildings around you?) to see the scene and have a drink and food. In Gamla Stan and beyond, the buildings are painted serene but upbeat colors, and everything is incredibly clean and well-maintained. It’s like a newer-looking Prague, but that’s not even a fair comparison.

 

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“First we eat, then we do everything else.” Amen to this sign in Gamla Stan.

 

Then dinner at The Flying Elk , which was delish, and then bed because we’re old and had stuff to do the next day. Which brings me to The Vasa Museum!

This is the Vasa, a less-than-seaworthy vessel that was built in Stockholm (ordered by the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus, a fact I had to include because that name is everything) and launched into the harbor in 1628, only to sink after going a whole 1,300 meters out to “sea” aka still in Stockholm. Awkward. They salvaged it, in a complex and multi-step process, 333 years later. It now sits in its own custom-built museum, where curators cross their fingers that the wooden ship won’t immediately deteriorate.

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Jokes aside, even though it sank because it was not properly weighted in its design, the Vasa is still a marvel to behold. The detail is remarkable; a lot of work went into this warship, which is the only surviving example of a 17th-century ship. Because she sank when she was newly built, and lay enveloped in Stockholm’s polluted waters, the bacteria that would normally eat away at wood weren’t able to survive.

The museum goes into even greater detail, of course, about everything from the crew’s diet to the souls lost when the Vasa sank, to the inquest and more recent salvage efforts as well as conservation efforts. The Vasa Museum is a fascinating and niche window into 17th-century life and the world of ships, so a must-do for a visit to Stockholm (I know anyone going knows this, as it’s in every guidebook ever, but in case you needed anecdotal evidence… that’s what I’m here for).

After so much learning, Em and I steered ourselves to Djurgården, a green, leafy, suburban-esque part of the city for some rosé and a hearty but Stockholm-priced (read: extortionate) salad at the cafe at Flickorna.

 

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How do you say “nom noms” in Swedish? Still dreaming of this salad though.

 

Then we did a Royal Canal Tour of the city. Embarrassing admission: I did not know Stockholm was a canal city before I went. I vaguely understood that it was on the water, but I didn’t realise quite how much it relies on its waterways and how integral they are to the lifeblood of the city. Apparently (thanks Wikipedia), Stockholm is approximately 30% waterways and 30% green spaces, which means that the other 40% is stunning buildings, gilded park entrances (see below), and really really ridiculously good-looking people.

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This is the entrance to the regular ol’ public park. Originally it had been the entrance to the royal hunting grounds or something (sorry for forgetting the actual history), but now it’s for everyone. Badass level: 100.

After the gorgeous canal tour, we decamped to the hotel to prepare for dinner and a night out. The sun was still out at 9:30pm and came back up at 3:30am as we were heading home, seriously confusing my Circadian rhythms.

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Evening drinks at Stureplan. It’s about 8:30pm in this photo.

On our final day, we went to the Fotografiska Museet to see photographic exhibits, which is right on the water in a place called Stadsgården. Bryan Adams (yes, the “Cuts Like a Knife”/”Summer of ’69” Bryan Adams) is apparently now a photographer, and a pretty good one at that.

We walked over to Gamla Stan again to wander around and get some food, then ended our trip with a glass of champagne in the Grand Hotel Stockholm overlooking the harbor and dinner at Nybrogatan 38, which was conveniently located right across from our hotel so that when we were so full of food we could’ve rolled home, we could actually…just roll home.

Emily’s flight to Copenhagen was early the next morning, so we said our goodbyes before falling asleep, avoiding our usual goodbye routine of silent crying in an elevator with strangers after we leave each other. En route to the airport on the metro the next morning, I helped an elderly lady bring her luggage on board before the doors closed, and she began talking to me in Swedish at a clip. I didn’t want to interrupt her, but I was desperately trying to find my moment to tell her I didn’t speak a word of Swedish. When I finally did tell her, she smiled and seamlessly switched into near-perfect English and we chatted about New York, London, Stockholm — all cities she loved and in which had spent considerable time. She was going to visit her son in the country, and couldn’t find a cab in time, so was on the metro, or T-bana, and had forgotten how involved it was when one had luggage.

We exited at the same stop, and I helped her get her bag up to the regional train area. We parted ways, and though my trip was at its end, I was greatly cheered by this wonderful interaction with a stranger in a country that my ancestors called home. This was my first foray into Scandinavia, but I’m already anticipating the next one.

 

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Emily in Gamla Stan.

 

 

 

DAM What A City

As you can tell from my entirely unique and creative title, I recently visited Amsterdam, and The Netherlands, for the first time. By “recently”, I mean months ago, and I’m slow to post things in a timely manner. I was meeting up with my name-twin, Meredith, and her two friends, Annette and Allison. After scouting an Airbnb in Jordaan, a lovely and comparatively quiet section of the city, we had all been so caught up in work that we didn’t plan out our short weekend visit. So upon arrival, we did what anyone would do: fuel up on Dutch cheese, bread, grapes, hummus, non-Dutch wine, and other snacks while we sketched a plan. Top to-dos were the Rijksmuseum, bicycling around, seeing and walking the canals, popping into the Red Light District, and the Stedelijk Museum of modern art. We did all of that and more, dodging the always-active bike lanes with the nimble legs of current and former New Yorkers who don’t want to die but also think they can make it across the street in time.

And in case anyone was wondering, the cheese was everything I had hoped it would be. In the airport on my way back, I bought an aged Dutch cheese that cost me an extortionate 23 euros, and I’m not even sorry. It was beyond delicious and worth every penny (as well as the boring but cheap meals at home I endured thereafter to compensate for this brazen purchase).

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The gorgeous Rijksmuseum
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Canal view
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A carved prayer walnut which was unbelievably detailed and got us all wondering about work ethic and sun-less workshops in the Dark Ages.
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Bitterballen, essentially a Dutch croquette. Obviously, I ate them too fast and burned my tongue and whole palate because self-control is not a thing that I do well.
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A rich Dutch lady wore this monstrosity to her wedding. Pros: crowd control, knocking down people you don’t like but had to invite, avoid husband (?), Cons: movement, looks uncomfortable, will never wear again
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Taking in some art

A Jaunt to Gib (and Spain)

For the Easter holiday, I was invited to an old family friend’s home in the south of Spain, in a town where I spent my summers as a child and teenager visiting with my family. The surroundings were therefore familiar, but I did something on this trip I’d never done as an adult – properly explored Gibraltar, the English-held colony on the tip of the Iberian peninsula. Normally, we flew into “Gib” and drove across La Linea, the literal line separating the territory from Spain, or otherwise flew into Malaga, bypassing Gibraltar port entirely.

Gibraltarians have their own culture and unique Spanglish dialect, able and inclined to flit seamlessly between the two. It feels like a little island apart from Spain and yet so ingrained in the local life that I came away thinking of it as entirely separate even from the UK. I certainly didn’t feel I was in London after hiking to the top of the Rock of Gibraltar via the switchbacks of the Mediterranean Steps and looking out over the 360-degree view of Gibraltar’s harbor and beyond to Morocco and the rest of the African continent.

 

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The view from the top of the Rock of Gibraltar.

 

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Billy forges ahead on the trail to the top.
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Gib Harbour.

 

Aside from exploring Gib, we also spent some quality time on the long stretches of beach for which the Costa del Sol is famous.

 

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Walking towards the Rock from Sotogrande.

With a larger group of family friends, I attended Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions in the nearby town of San Roque. Though we’d often referenced them, I hadn’t been to see the Semana Santa festivities since I was small, and hadn’t realized quite how much effort both in advance and on the day of goes into the celebration. Parishioners literally shouldered burdens to commemorate Jesus carrying the cross – in this case, those burdens were elaborately constructed floats that barely fit the tiny, hilly streets of San Roque. Carrying the floats is considered an honor and a penance for one’s own sins. It’s taken very seriously by the participants, who vary in age from about 6-7 years old (who don’t carry anything but candles) to teenagers and middle-aged men and women, separated by gender and arranged by height. Many of those who carried the floats appeared to be in significant pain or discomfort but didn’t utter a word of complaint.

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They took a short break every 20 minutes or so…
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…but then were back to the heavy lifting.
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One of the ornate and heavy floats in the uphill parade.

 

After watching the parade for a while, we settled into some tapas at a nearby restaurant and did some catching up, sharing news and stories over croquettas, tortilla, olives, and Rioja. After snagging some churros from a stand in a nearby park, we called it a night. Those of us that live in London shuffled to Gib airport the next day, feeling reluctant to leave the sunshine and sea air behind. We stood on the airport’s balcony, leaning forward towards The Rock to feel the last rays of sun on our faces before we committed ourselves back to London’s rainy springtime skies. Hasta la proxima, España!

Hello? It’s Adele, In Concert. Twice.

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Everyone has a list, whether in ink on paper or etched in their minds, of the top living artists they want to see live in concert. My own list has been altered only slightly since music mostly went digital, but a notable addition is that one-name wonder, the British songstress Adele.

After waiting years for her new album, I, along with much of the UK and their internet bandwidth, tried to get tickets for her European arena tour. Two hours of refreshing my browser every 20 seconds later, I had the only tickets I could afford — in the nosebleeds of the O2 arena.

As time slowly crawled toward March, I was full of anticipation and excitement, but also a little bit of dread that she might not be as awe-inspiring as I had hoped. After all, she is only human.

My fears were for naught, and I was wrong about Adele being human: her voice is otherworldly live. She was nearly flawless and the concert, which had no opening act and no intermission or significant break, was two hours of bliss. In between most songs, Adele chatted with the crowd, telling us about her pre-concert life (“they don’t let me out anymore, because I can’t party and mess up my voice. The band parties though, I’ve seen ’em!”). She successfully transformed an enormous arena into an intimate concert space.

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The stage was simple, elegant, and the perfect accompaniment to Adele’s voice. Less simple, but awe-inducing in its own right, was a separate, smaller stage in the middle of the arena on which Adele sang several of the last songs of the night, including “Set Fire to the Rain”. During that song, rain poured in a perfect square outline around her, a la The Rain Room  and during others, Adele’s live black-and-white image was projected outwards on all four sides (unfortunately, these were harder to photograph). Hat tip to Tait Towers, who did the set construction and design.

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As if one beautiful concert wasn’t enough, I heard from an old family friend the day of my first concert and he invited me to the next night’s performance, as he had an extra ticket. How could I say no? It’s not a concert that gets old. This is the sort of opportunity so few people (except, I imagine, performers’ families, the uber-wealthy, and celebrities) are offered, and it was fascinating to see how the show changed — and didn’t — from night to night. The set list stayed the same, and Adele’s banter with the crowd touched on the same subjects, but it all felt organic, and was of course altered by the different fans she brought up onstage and whose handmade signs she sought out in the crowd. My favorite part? Adele cheerfully telling her security team to let some enthusiastic teenage fans closer to the stage because “it’s my f***ing concert, now let them in please!”