London: The Conference Part

Some things about academic conferences never change, including:

The age old conference problem: the struggle and irritation that comes with trying to choose which sessions to attend when several that run at the same time look equally interesting/valuable.

The eternal temptation: the discounted books at the publisher displays, many of which are fairly new publications.

The not-totally professorial one-liners: “Showing the contents of your flash-drive {on the big lecture hall screen} is like showing your underwear”, “sexy pictures of text pages”, “The Aeneid is equivalent to flatulence”, and “he’s either a bad poet or the Stephen Hawking of meter”.

Most importantly, the one thing that doesn’t change is coming home with all kinds of new ideas to research-write about-work into current projects, things to look up, and teaching possibilities. I had never thought of using gender and queer theory to analyze manuscript layouts before, had never heard or seen the term ‘mise en page’ before, and never thought of marginal manuscript illustrations as “click-bait” (image of women with mirror = selfie, monkey riding goat = Youtube hits, cats = cats, etc.). I also got some useful information about a manuscript I’m working on and some good ideas about how the written manuscripts might relate to some early printed editions. And as usual, I also have a long list of books that might be useful to try to find which may or may not be useful.

Some things are unique to a given conference and venue, like the lecture hall right on top of a Tube line, so you could hear the periodic rumble-rush of trains throughout the panel. I can only imagine having to teach in that hall. Others have to do with the nature of the conference itself. Only at a focused gathering like the New Chaucer Society might the following be funny: you are out for a walking tour of Chaucer’s London with a group of experts, mostly PhDs, and run into a basic question like “who was St Botolf”? That’s relevant because there was a parish church in London, St Botolf’s Without Aldgate, that Chaucer may have attended. This church still exists, although not exactly in the same form as the original. None of the dozen or so medieval specialists knew the answer (including the walk leaders, eminent historian and literary scholar though they were), so Professor Google was consulted by one of the younger scholars present (me). It turns out St Botolf was a 7th century English abbot and saint (not martyr) who watches over travelers and some elements of farming. His feat day differs depending on whether you’re English or Scottish (it’s in June either way- 17th or 25th).

There will always be technology problems. We were on a campus that used PCs and it seems like most of the scholars were used to Macs. I personally am a PC person, so it didn’t bother me as much, but I was a little surprised at the degree of struggle some people were having. The more standard problem was when one scholar had to give her paper via Skype, and there were issues getting that set up, and once she was up onscreen, someone from the next room came over to see if we could turn the volume down.

Technology also factored into the conference in ways that are becoming the norm. I allowed myself to get a little distracted at one panel watching the graduate student in front of me Tweet the whole panel. The closing keynote also included a few references to contemporary digital culture, including a Youtube video “Chaucerian Pubbe Joke” (I looked it up; it’s funny for about a minute then gets irritating) and the original LOL Cat “I can haz cheeseburger?”. The talk itself was actually a textual analysis of Chaucer’s use of “the speaking face” trope, particularly in Troilus and Criseyde and Book of the Duchess. On a side note, I found it interesting that people who were taking notes during this final lecture were almost exclusively younger, probably students.

Lastly, there is the blessing/curse of GoogleMaps. We were in a part of London not included on a lot of published maps, so I (and a lot of others) needed a way to figure out getting around. It makes sense on the level that QMUL is not in a touristy part of the city’s East End. Even in more tourist parts of the city, I ended up relying on my phone which can be really frustrating when it doesn’t want to work. I spent a good half hour around Tower Bridge panicking over my phone telling me it had no GPS signal while trying to find a specific pub meeting point. Because of a lot of construction on one end of the bridge and some not well posted signs, I had gotten lost, and the area was not mapped in the level of detail I needed on the map I had with me. After 2 restarts and almost running out of battery, I eventually did get the app working and find the place I needed. The route was not very straightforward, but I got where I needed to be just about on time.

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London: The Tourist Part

This month will be a 2-parter. Today will be tourist; next time will be professional. The situation that merits both of these possibilities at the same time is an international conference, in particular the Biennial Congress of the New Chaucer Society 2016 in London, England.

I have been to London before, but it’s always fun to come back and see old favorites and find new ones. I am glad that I kept good notes from last time, otherwise I never would have figured out that my favorite bubble tea place (Up-T) in Chinatown was gone, and in its place was fried chicken fast food type place. The other bubble tea place (a small chain) I know of at least still had my favorite (rose-milk) so it evens out. Thank you, Bubbleology.

I also had to go back to Brixton, even though I prefer the markets at Camden, because Brixton has 2 things Camden doesn’t: Ms Cupcake and market kitties. There’s a lot of grocery vendors, butchers, and fishmongers in the Brixton market, and last time and now there’s a few friendly resident presumably stray kitties hanging out. Ms Cupcake is a vegan cake shop (apparently the first vegan bakery in London) and while I’m not fully vegan myself, I do like that kind of baking. Plus, who doesn’t like a cupcake? I was a little disappointed that the day I went, they didn’t have my favorite flavor (Jaffa cake) but that just means I had to find a new favorite (strawberries and creme). I was a little disappointed in the Bounty-inspired cupcake though; there was as much frosting as cake, and the chocolate cake was a little dry.

If you have a smart phone, I would strongly recommend getting a UK SIM card so you can use your phone; it’s particularly handy for data. At least on my plan, it’s cheaper than using international rates with the original (US) SIM. Google to find addresses and Google maps to get to them are great tools to have. The only down side is that it’s a little more expensive now than it was almost 3 years ago. Then again, the pound was much stronger last time I was here, so maybe the additional 5 is not all that much more. Either way, 1 month’s worth of data, text, and phone is worth it, although this time I won’t be using anywhere close to all of it, and the calling capacity is only local (beyond can be added but of course that’s extra).

Last time I was here, I was staying for 5 weeks, so I decided it would be worth it to rent a small studio. This time, I’m only staying 11 days. The conference location is a university which opens up the dorms during the summer, but the few days I’m in town before that, I’m at a hostel. It’s been a while since I’ve done that. Thankfully, the one I’m at seems to be a good one (clean, reasonably quiet, people who know the etiquette). There’s always a few things without which a hostel stay is not complete, including walking in on or being walked in on by a roommate of the opposite sex, waking up in a room with more people than when you went to sleep, bad techno pop playing in the lounge, a room about the size of my office that’s supposed to fit up to 5 people and their belongings).

Since I was here for a while last time, and I planned on visiting some old favorites, I decided to see how well I remembered how to get around. The route I traveled the most was walking from the British Library back to where I was staying. I was able to use the same path this trip because the hostel I’m at this time is on the way to the flat I had last time. It’s about a 4 mile hike, but since I don’t have a gym here, the exercise is necessary. Also, on my first full day in town, exercise is also a known help with jet lag. I recommend it. It’s nice too to be able to to check out the local shops and scenery. I only got lost/turned around once, and even then I was able to figure my way back pretty quickly. I also remembered enough to be able to give directions off the top of my head to Harrods. I was kind of proud of myself for that. Then I got to the grocery store I’d been heading to, only to find it overrun with what I’m guessing was a school trip. The students were loading up on soda, chips, cookies, and candy. Not that I was much better, being there to stock up on trifle mixes.

In addition to at least seeing Big Ben, Tower Bridge, and the British Museum, the other thing one must do when in London is visit the Globe Theatre and see a play. Even if you’re not a literature person, everyone should see live Shakespeare at least once, and why not do it in the original style? Especially since Macbeth is on right now. I have to admit I’ve never considered that play as a horror story but that’s how it was presented. On one hand, it was genius because so much of that play is psychological (lots of soliloquies) and the horror-suspense genre works very well in presenting that in a non-boring way. On the other, the way it was done obscured the best parts, i.e. the wyrd sisters. On the plus side again was that during one of the comic interludes with the porters, they worked in a Trump knock-knock joke.

The other cool thing about the Globe is that it’s near some some neat places to explore, including an open air market. After the show, there’s a branch of one of my favorite UK chains nearby for dinner. I double checked the Wagamama website to remind myself exactly where the place was in relation to the theatre, and it looks like they’ve changed some of my favorite menu items. I was a little nervous about that, and rightly so. It wasn’t that the food was bad, but it was not what I remembered, and I really liked what I remembered. The Boroughs Market though was just as I remembered it with all sorts of tempting yummies (it’s mostly food vendors), and a great place to go for lunch before the show. In the other direction, towards the Tate Art Museum, there were 2 young men with typewriters set up as “Poet for hire”, “Poetry, short stories, suicide notes, whatever you want, while you wait”, “Pay whatever you g*dd**n please”.

The British Library has got to be one of my favorite places, and main reasons to visit London. It’s certainly the main reason I flew in almost a week before the conference started. I’ve never been there in the summer though, and this is their busiest season, since most of the researchers are out of school. I don’t remember where I got the idea, but I was worried about getting a seat, as the manuscript reading room is not terribly large (at least compared to some of the other reading rooms). I knew enough to call up the manuscripts I needed in advance, so at least that wasn’t a problem. The first time I was here, during non-peak research season, there was a line to get into the building about a half hour before they opened, and when they did open, everyone ran to the lockers, and then booked it to wherever in the library they were planning to work. I was expecting the same, only ten times worse/busier.

I got there almost 2 hours before the library opened just to see how bad it might be, but at this point they hadn’t even opened the gates into the courtyard. So I went back to a favorite coffee shop nearby to relax a little. When I checked back about an hour before the library opened, the courtyard was now open, but practically empty. The line didn’t really start forming until 20 minutes or so before the building opened. The one part of all of this that I was right about was the length of the line right before opening. It was at least twice as long as I remember it getting. Thankfully, I was near the front. There wasn’t quite the mad rush to the lockers and then onwards that I remembered either. It all worked out in the end. After the conference, instead of going to Canterbury, I went back to the library to go back to 2 of the manuscripts. The biggest difference this time was that I recognized half of the full reading room as conference attendees.

Transitioning to the conference venue went fine although hauling a suitcase through the Tube system is always an adventure. The venue itself (Queen Mary University) was easy to find, and the dorm housing is pretty nice. There’s a good sized desk, and private bathrooms. This was a really nice surprise, coming from the hostel setting. Even though it’s tiny, as in I had to stand in the shower to brush my teeth over the sink, the privacy and convenience is nice. I met my across the hall neighbor when I got in (also here for the conference) and then I realized that I could hear her having a phone conversation while we were in our respective rooms. I’d forgotten how little sound insulation there is in college dorms.

I spent most of Sunday before the conference opens (1pm) exploring the area a bit more. I found 2 promising coffee shops. The closer one has pretty good coffee. I got to The Coffee Room maybe 30 minutes after they opened, and they weren’t too busy. By an hour after opening, it was (busy that is). People watching in places like this is always fun. Two men came in for coffee, one American and one Scandinavian (I think; I couldn’t quite place his accent). They proceeded to have a mock argument in front of the Italian barista on the correct or at least permissible ways to pronounce “croissant”. It was entertaining.

Coffee Shop 2 is Mouse Tail. While not as ideal for hanging out in (due to the general set up), the coffee might actually be a little better than Coffee Room. The problem is that Mouse Tail is about a 15 minute walk vs 5.  Not really a problem, unless you’re in a hurry.

The day after the conference officially ended (Friday) it was back to the BL for some final research and shopping my way back. I returned to the Twinnings shop to buy the teas I was looking at the first time, and some tourist shopping (for myself and friends-family). Once again, I got to the library early, so this time, I spent some time in King’s Cross station where they have an actual Platform 9 3/4 along with a Harry Potter shop. I may have made a small purchase for myself. Somehow on the way back, I convinced myself that it was 2 hours later than it actually was (my watch strap broke the second day of the conference, so I was relying on my phone which never figured out I was in a different time zone), so I was rushing for a while.

Getting back to the airport went well enough even if the first station I was in didn’t specify which trains went to which terminal at Heathrow (it matters), and I had to do an extra switch which wasn’t hard, just a little annoying. The flight itself was all on time, but my entertainment screen was the only one on the full flight that didn’t work, so no movies for me. I had a book that turned out to be pretty good, but since the entertainment panel on this aircraft also controlled the light above you, that was a bit of a struggle too. I made it through customs etc and got to my shuttle home on time, but there was an ugly crash on the freeway, so what should have been just over an hour trip was 3 hours. But I made it back, and I’m pretty sure everything in the suitcase survived.