Monday, December 19, 2011

Coming Full Circle, the Isaac Newton Institute

Since the existence of this blog is thanks to Tom's research time at the Newton Institute, it seems only fair to give a perspective (mine, not his) about this institution.  First, it is not associated with one of Cambridge's 31 colleges but stands as an international visitor research institute.

Isaac Newton Institute, 20 Clarkson Road, Cambridge
It is part of the Centre for Mathematical Sciences each of whose buildings remind me of the landing craft on the moon.

One of buildings of the Cambridge University Centre for Mathematical Sciences

Inside the Institute, every opportunity is given for the free flow of ideas.  Chalk boards are EVERYWHERE--in offices, hallways, the elevator, and even the bathrooms.  Just a note for those interested in mathematical superstars. It was in the Institute's lecture room where Andrew Wiles gave his talk proving Fermat's Last Theorem (the proof, unfortunately, contained a small gap and was only completed a year after the talk).

Interior of Institute


So we've packed our bags, cleaned the apartment and begun our journey home.  It's been an enriching experience as all travel is but it will also be good to be home.

Kings College, Cambridge

                                                                QED--Farewell, Cambridge!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas, English style

Some street lights in Cambridge

While we won't be here for the big day, we have experienced some of England's Christmas customs.  The city of Cambridge put up its outside lights early in October but didn't turn them on until the end of November.  There's a Christmas tree next to the Guildhall which is modestly decorated with lights.  Given that nightfall comes early, the street lights are on at 3 P.M.

Probably the most glitter and festive decorations are in the Grand Arcade, Cambridge's downtown shopping center.  The John Lewis  department  store had its decorations and lights up by the end of October.

Decoration in the Grand Arcade

Alas, there are no clever window displays with moving mechanical features like we saw in large German stores or which used to decorate our own department stores.  There are also no Christmas markets in Cambridge with fancy ornaments or Gluhwein to entice shoppers.  Other cities in England are bringing in German style Christmas markets and skating rinks because of their popularity.

Singing carols and special foods are a big part of the English Christmas and I've been able to experience both.  Before the Christmas lunch on Dec. 16, St. Paul's Church  had a carol service which a number of us volunteers attended.  While the lyrics of the carols were familiar, sometimes the music was different.  The Christmas lunch featured turkey which has become the traditional Christmas Day lunch, lots of steamed vegetables, and my favorite: Christmas pudding with brandied butter.  The pudding is actually a very moist cake filled with dried fruits, steamed and SOAKED in brandy.  It was a knock-out!

 Serving the Christmas Pudding
Another delicious dessert this time of year is mince pies.  They are small, like tartlets, and served with heavenly (and probably dangerous) double cream.  I think I'd like to try making some at home.

One of the Christmas customs is to "snap" a Christmas cracker.  When the cracker is pulled apart, out fall a paper crown, a silly toy, and a joke or pun.  Kind of like a combination of Cracker Jacks and Fortune cookies.

There are other customs and activities we'll miss: the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College on Christmas Eve, the Queen's speech to the nation on Christmas Day, and Pantomimes or "Pantos" which are family plays featuring outlandish characters and plots.  Just more reasons for return visits.

Monday, December 12, 2011


Coming to Cambridge, I had hoped to volunteer in some kind of garden setting or school.  The first week I was here I went to the local council, had an interview, and found out about local volunteer opportunities ranging from hospitals to shopping center "buddies."  My first few phone calls did not produce success: many positions, especially those dealing with children or in hospitals, require a background check that might take 5-6 weeks to complete. I was told it wasn't worth the organization's time to to invest in interviews and record  checking when I wasn't going to be here very long.  I phoned and emailed a local church that had asked for help with lunches and when I didn't hear anything back, I assumed volunteering was not going to happen.

In late September I received a call from John at St. Paul's Anglican Church Center where I had applied earlier.   John told me he had called several times but had never received an answer (no answering machine here either!) but thought he would try one last time.  So began my time at St. Paul's.  The church is located about a 45-50 minute walk away.  Bus service from the apartment is irregular so walking is the best option--and I've gotten faster as the weeks have passed.  On Thursdays lunch is served to people with slight mental or physical disabilities--my work with Horticulture Therapy and the clients at OSU served me well in this capacity.  On Fridays, the group is retired people from the nearby area who come with their friends for a good meal.  It's hard to know sometimes who is a volunteer on Thursdays and who is a "client" since many pitch in to help set up or clean up after the meal.  Both groups have been very welcoming and I've had the opportunity to participate in many ways from preparing food to serving it to traveling with the Thursday group.  Most of all, it has been enjoyable to get to know different residents of Cambridge.

The Thursday group takes day trips now and then and I've been with the group on two of them.  We prepare a lunch at the church which is passed out as soon as we board the train (just like car trips at home).  Sightseeing with the group is a little different than I would do on my own--it's more like a forced march through the sights and then a long stop at the gift shop--but I've had a chance to see places I haven't been to on my own.

The Tower of London, the number #1 tourist destination in the city.  It is actually a series of buildings that was the main castle in the city.

The White Tower: the"keep" or donjon, the strongest part of the whole Tower. Sir Walter Raleigh was kept here several times (in luxurious apartments) when Queen Elizabeth I was displeased with him.

Last week we traveled to Norwich, about an hour's train ride to the east to see the Norwich Cathedral and several other places in this "most medieval of cities."  The architecture of the church is "Norman" or Romanesque.  The roof is embellished with "bosses" which function architecturally (joining the ribs together) and artistically since they tell Biblical stories. 

My only regret is that our time at the Cathedral was way too short.  We heard someone practicing Christmas music on the organ and it would have been lovely to have heard a whole performance.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Last Things: London

Our last but by no means exhaustive visit to London took us to more of the city's famous landmarks.  We have often walked past the British Library since it is close to Kings Cross, the train station we come into from Cambridge, and vowed that we would stop in to see it sometime. Our "sometimes" were running out so we made it destination #1 for this trip.

The multi-storied British Library with St. Pancras Hotel in the background.  The library building was dedicated in 1998.

Statue of Newton by Eduardo Paolozzi in the library's courtyard.  This same statue, although a miniature version, is on display at Cambridge's Isaac Newton Institute.

The British Library is something of a museum itself; it displays iconic documents and manuscripts in a
special gallery.  We saw illuminated sacred texts including the Lindisfarne Gospels, manuscripts from a number of English authors, original lyrics from the Beatles, and a whole room dedicated to the Magna Carta whose various clauses have been repealed and reconfirmed many times.  Today only three clauses are still in effect, most notably the one dealing with due process.  There was also a display of original writings, images, and modern interpretations about the imprisonment of Mary, Queen of Scots.  It's not clear that supporters of Mary would have agreed with the interpretations...

After lunch in the library's beautiful restaurant, we took the underground and headed to Hyde Park, London's version of Central Park.  The tube was packed--little did we know that Hyde Park was hosting  a "Winter Wonderland" and families and tourists from all over were flocking to it.  Our first glimpse of the park was a statue dedicated to the first Duke of Wellington, who along with Prussian forces, defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.

The pigeons love him too.

We know a triumphal arch when we see one!  This one was dedicated to Wellington and is now managed by the National Trust organization.  There is another arch at the other end of the park, Marble Arch, which is based on the design of Rome's Arch of Constantine.

Apsley House, home of the Duke of Wellington.  Its address is (was)
#1 London

Statue of Achilles dedicated to Wellington
Our last stop of the day was the British Museum, home of artifacts from all over the ancient world and beyond.  Its most famous holding is the Rosetta Stone, key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.  It had been found by the French in 1799 but handed over to the victorious British during the Napoleonic Wars.  Since 2003 Egypt has been demanding its return.

Leaving the Egyptian exhibits behind (and tons of tourists crowding around the famous stone), we headed upstairs to visit displays on the ancient Romans. They are beginning to seem like old acquaintances since we've been encountering them ever since we've been here.  This time we were able to attach some faces to famous names.

Hadrian, builder of walls;

Marcus Aurelius, philosopher emperor;

and finally,

 Septimius Severus, conquerer of Mesopotamia, fighter in Scotland, and


lover of too much pasta! 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Last Things: Evensong

With our days in Cambridge and the U.K. numbered, we decided it was time to see and do all the activities still on our "to do" list.  Classes  were ending for the term here at Cambridge and hence our chances to experience Evensong at Kings College Chapel were running out. We planned to attend the event on Tuesday evening November 29; what we didn't plan on was the soaking rain made even more miserable by my lack of an umbrella.  We turned around and went home instead.  Good thing there were a few more days'  observances to choose from.

Wednesday was a dry day with no threat of rain and we decided to try again to attend the service.  I carried my umbrella, though, just to be on the safe side. We queued up with others at the appointed time and waited for the doors of the chapel to be opened.

Kings College Chapel on the left

Ceiling of Kings' College Chapel seen during the day

Right on cue, we were ushered in and given booklets to follow the service.  The choir processed in, the young boys being more precise in their right or left turns to the choir stalls than the young men, followed by the celebrants.   There must have been about 7 or 8 in the celebrants' group; one was a woman; she was allowed to carry a candle.  I knew we would hear some prayers and some singing and thought that the whole service would last about 30-40 minutes.  As the sung parts became more familiar and the service lengthened, it slowly dawned on us that this was not Evensong, but the Anglican Mass.  In ways it was like being transported back to pre-Vatican II days (or back to the future????) since the music and words of the hymns especially the Credo were exactly those we had sung years ago.  

So we still haven't experienced Evensong but we did hear a choir at Kings College.  That will have to suffice.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Rome Day 6: Nov.25

Borghese Gallery
Our last full day of touring was as busy as all the others had been.  We took cabs to the Borghese Gallery in the northern part of the city.  Visitors are strictly limited to a two hour visit.  While we waited to enter, we learned about Cardinal Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V and collector of these art works, and how easy it is for the powerful to acquire what they want (what else is new?).  Once inside we focused on paintings by Caravaggio (his painting of Mary, Jesus, and Ann was thought to be blasphemous when it was first shown) and sculptures by Bernini who had a flair for the flamboyant even during the strict era of the Counter Reformation.  We saw his works of Aeneas fleeing Troy, the Rape of Proserpine, and Apollo and Daphne.  Not knowing all the ancient myths and legends, we would have been lost without the insights of our guide. Grazie! Once again the only pictures that were allowed were ones outside the gallery.

The only part of the Borghese gardens we could see

The Pines of Rome--source of those expensive pine nuts

From the Borghese Gallery we walked to the Church of the Santissima Trinita del Monti, better known as the church in front of the Spanish Steps.  This area is great for people watching which is what we did.  At the base of the steps is a fountain called the Sinking Boat which was built by one of the Berninis and is powered by an aqueduct.

The obelisk in front of the church is a fake--misspelled hieroglyphics

Spanish Steps

A good place to munch an apple

 Over time, Rome decreased in size from about 1,000,000 to 20,000 inhabitants.

Sinking Boat

Back when the barbarians were attacking Rome, they destroyed the aqueducts, thus cutting off Rome's supply of fresh water.  Romans were forced to use the polluted river as their source of 
water and many died from disease.

During our free afternoon we had a delicious and inexpensive lunch of pasta followed by some strawberry gelato.   We needed energy to climb the steps of the Victor Emmanuel Monument at the Piazza Venezia!  We had been seeing this white memorial all week long from many vantage points and decided we needed to visit it and see its reputed great views of the city.

The Victor Emmanuel Memorial boasts the largest equestrian  statue in the world.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Tom and Victor Emmanuel who fought for the unification of Italy

Looking south: views of the Colosseum, another domed church, and the Forum

We celebrated the conclusion of our Rome tour with a last group dinner.  Once again the food was fantastic especially the many antipasto offerings: prosciutto, olives, mozzarella, zucchini, and my favorite—fresh anchovies.  After the antipasto and many bottles of wine, came saltimbocca and then tiramisu, coffee, and limoncello for the final course. What a feast!  Good thing we had one last evening stroll.  And, yes, we did add our names to the wall of satisfied patrons.

Similar to our evening walk to the Pantheon, the approach to the Trevi Fountain was almost magical.  As we walked down narrow streets we could hear the fountain but couldn’t see it until we turned the last corner.  Like all the other tourists there (it was packed!) we made a wish, took aim and and tossed a coin over our left shoulder into the fountain. 

Trevi  Fountain

Arrivederci Roma!!!!!!!!!!!


Our group at Ostia Antica with our guide Ben on the right.

After a week of our own Roman Holiday visiting various monuments, churches, and ruins with riches intact or looted, we are left with burning questions:

Is there any marble left on this earth to be excavated???

Why are all the toilet seats in Rome missing???

Rome: Day 5 Nov. 24

Our Italian Thanksgiving Day dawned bright and sunny as we headed off for a day trip via bus to the coastal area.  And like any tourists, we couldn’t resist a good photo op as we left the city.

This was the Imperial Palace we had seen when we toured the Palatine Hill, only from a different view.  In front of the palace is the Circus Maximus, site of Ben Hur’s (and many others’) chariot races.

Our first destination was the ancient port town, Ostia Antica.  Ostia dates from the fourth century B.C. and once it was taken over by Rome, served as a naval base and then a commercial port.  At its peak, it was home to about 60,000 people.  After Rome fell and the river changed its course, mud and silt buried the town.  Even though there are impressive ruins to see, much is still underground and won’t be uncovered (The reason: theft!  It is impossible to patrol this open-air museum and very easy to steal valuable mementoes.  Churches face the same problem; art theft is common given the churches’ easy access and limited supervision).  We were encouraged to imagine the various buildings covered in multi-colored marble and decorated with frescoes.

Ostia Antica ruins under Pines of Rome

One of the businesses in town was the Thermopolium; the ancient version of a tavern or snack bar.  Frescoes, still visible, advertised food, drink, and music.  One could order drinks at the restored bar (on left).

Looking down on the main street from the Grand Temple

 Along the main street Decumano Massimo, stood the town center (the Forum) with the Grand Temple or Capitolium and the Temple of Roma and Augustus facing each other.  All that remains of the Augustus Temple is the stump of a column.  The position of the Augustus Temple indicates that the emperor is equal in power to the gods.

Steam vents

Community baths: where all classes of people socialized as well as sudsed.  The reinforced arch in the wall added strength to the structure.  The clay tiles are the steam vents.

The theater where public entertainment took place.  Women and men sat in separate locations: women at the top.  Bad actors were pelted with pieces of marble.

Masks that decorated the back of the stage

Square of the Guilds; mosaics advertised services available from each business.

Christian basilica dating from the second half of the 4th century A.D.

House with fresco. It is thought that buildings were originally five stories high.

End of glorious visit to Ostia Antica!

Since we were so close to the sea, we stopped for another photo op and an opportunity to dip our toes in the Mediterranean (actually Tyrrenhian) Sea.  This was one of the few public docks near Rome.  Most beach space is private and rents are high; a day at the beach is an expensive outing.

Our last stop of the day was a visit to the San Callisto Catacombs.  No burials were allowed inside the city walls. Instead, Christians were buried outside along the Appian Way, the ancient Roman road that leads to Brindisi, a distance of about 400 miles on the east coast of Italy.  As always, the original paving stones, like those in Ostia Antica (and Cambridge!) were jarring to walk on.

Catacombs were used for Christian burials.  Pagans were cremated but Christians preferred to bury the body in anticipation of resurrection.  Wealthy Christian landowners donated land for burial where tombs, more like shelf space, were dug many layers into the volcanic ground.  Early popes and martyrs were also buried here but with the approach of the barbarians, their bones and relics were removed to churches in the city.  There was no threat from authorities when bodies were buried and it is not true that Christians hid here in the catacombs.  What was not allowed was to have Christian services anywhere including the catacombs.  Frescoes of Christian symbols like the anchor (substitute for the cross), dove (soul), and fish abound. 

We were not allowed to take pictures inside the catacombs but only of the outside area which was quite peaceful even though it was not far from the city.

Our Thanksgiving day ended with a restaurant meal of ravioli we shared with another couple from California and then a stroll along the Via XX Settembre not far from our hotel.