Culture and Languages · History · Travel

Ohhh Vienna: Arrival and Day One

Our immediate impression of Vienna was that it reminded us of Bahrain. Then again, that’s somehow our first impression of nearly every place my sisters’ and I visit, so that’s probably not much to go on! Despite being late evening, we were greeted by hot night air and, of course, large screens displaying photos of Schnitzel above the luggage conveyer belt. I’ve opted to gloss over the fact that people actually clapped when the plane landed because, to be honest, I’m still suspended in shock and disbelief 24 hours on.

We landed in Vienna International Airport, or Flughafen Wien-Schwechat in German, just as the sun was setting, which we watched from the aeroplane window as we descended. As our flight was delayed, and then our luggage was even more delayed, we arrived at our hotel well after dark – and well after dinner time! So, after depositing our bags, we set off to find some food. After walking for about five minutes we came across a busy and buzzing square, where we settled on an Italian restaurant. By the time that we finished eating it was coming up to midnight, and thus we went straight to bed. Sounds seamless doesn’t it? Unfortunately, about half an hour in, my bed literally collapsed! Lifting up the mattress, we found that about three quarters of the slats were missing and I had to relocate to a different bed. Thankfully, the second bed was 100% bed, as opposed to 25% bed, and so I finally was able to sleep.

***

The next morning we quickly got ready, then set out for the Schönbrunn Palace, which is situated just outside of Vienna. Schönbrunn Palace was a summer residence that belonged to successive Hapsburg monarchs. As it is slightly further away than most sights, we had to take a taxi, which, surprise surprise, only held four people. However, after we received our second taxi of the morning, we set straight off and ended up arriving at the palace half an hour earlier than our tickets were booked for. Because we could not go in yet – and because we had not eaten anything and were all hungry – we stopped at one of the palace cafés, where we had apple strudel, naturally. By the time we had finished it had approached eleven; it was time to enter the palace. As we walked up the main path towards the entrance we admired the beautiful exterior, stopping for several photo opportunities. Once we were in, however, it soon became apparent that the interior was the real beauty.

Upon entry we were faced with a grand staircase, enclosed by bright white walls that were dotted with portraits. The ceiling was the main sight though: a maginificent painting, comprising of many rich colours. From the stairs, we walked into the first of many rooms that we were able to explore. This room, as well as many of the others, was decorated with sparkling gold embellishments and each ceiling showcased a massive crystal chandelier. We explored many different types of room, including dressing rooms, dining rooms, the princesses’ day room and many, many sitting rooms, each decorated in different ways. Many walls held portraits of Maria Theresa and her children, whilst others displayed extravagant artworks. When we progressed through into the Grand Tour rooms, we also encountered rooms inspired by Chinese artwork and a room decorated entirely in black. To me, the most beautiful room was a large airy hallway, with multiple windows along both walls, glittering gold embellishments, lights and chandeliers and a massive painting on the ceiling. It was in this room that I was, unsurprisingly, told off for taking photos, after trying my luck too many times!

Whilst we had finished admiring the many rooms of the Schönbrunn Palace, we still had the gardens to explore. First stop though: lunch. Honestly though, our holiday is not revolving around food, which I appreciate is how this is starting to read. Or maybe it is… which is equally okay with me. For lunch I had a goat’s cheese salad (far from ideal for the lactose intolerant, but hey, turns out it’s easier to digest then cow’s cheese – read an article about it here). After lunch, we began to walk through the extensive gardens. There were many trees and fields, as expected of any vast garden, but the main showcase was at the back of the palace. Here, we discovered beautiful landscape gardens, shaped into neat square shapes adorned with multicoloured flowers and fountains. We sat in these gardens for a while, before travelling back to the hotel for a short touchdown to get out of the thirty degree heat.

***

When it was cooler, at around 5pm, we wandered to Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral), which is a pretty, gothic cathedral that was built in the 12th century. We took some photos of its exterior, before heading inside to look around. The interior looked much like all cathedrals do, with some beautiful stained glass and lots of candles. However, as it is a working church, unfortunately most of the cathedral was cordoned off, and thus our visit was short and sweet. Once we left Stephansdom, we headed off in pursuit of some dinner. After walking for ages we finally settled on a restaurant, where I had a meal of salmon and potatoes (aka the only thing on the menu that I could eat). After dinner we returned to our hotel as the sun was starting to set over Vienna once more.

Experiences · History · Miscellaneous

On the Passing of Time (and my Grandma’s 80th birthday)

A simple premise: my Grandma’s 80th birthday. My family sits around watching an old, but recently discovered, video of my sister and me, recorded almost sixteen years ago.

On screen, I am little over three years old; my sister is not yet one. I chatter and sing and my heavy childhood lisp slightly distorts everything that I say. My sister squeaks and screams and grins at the camera, but cannot walk or even crawl. Off screen, my family howls with laughter, my not so baby sister jokes (or actually tells the truth) that I still sing just as badly and my second sister comments that she wasn’t even born at the point of this video.

The video is made of snippets of several different days. By the end of the video, in a clip filmed a few months later than the first scene, my little sister has started to crawl and she seems to be in a mad rush to escape onto the carpet, away from the rug that she has been placed on. My appearences have become more sporadic, as I have since started nursery school. My mum appears in the video at one point – congratulations to her, she looks exactly the same. My dad appears several times and my grandparents comment that he too looks the same. My sister and I certainly do not look the same (and it would be a bit concerning if we did). In fact, we are not even the same from the beginning of the video to the end, as we have grown more and more as the video has progressed.

Bahrain is beautiful. Filmed through a dusty window, we catch a peak of green grass against hazy sky, of the tall date palm standing proudly in the front garden, knowing that it really belongs there, in a way that the expat inhabitants can only dream of belonging. Excluding photographs, this is the first real glimpse that I have received of the country that I grew up in, since I last visited over four years ago. The camera pans around the room and my mum takes it on a little tour of our house. In all honesty, I do not even remember the house that appears in this film, as we moved out of it when I was just five. However, our subsequent two houses in Bahrain were exactly the same in layout, and I clearly remember them. And yet, I am still surprised at how big the house on the television is, and five years ago feels like a lifetime away.

The video ends and we are transported back to reality, to my grandparents’ house that has always provided a constant, for us now and for the children in the video. My grandma talks of the past. She tells us about the holidays that she went on as a young woman, to Paris and Venice and Egypt and beyond. She talks of her arrival in England and her childhood in Africa. She tells us about the exulsion of Asians from Uganda and we are surprised to learn that she herself was there, having been previously led to believe that she was in England at the time.

My grandma tells me about the book that she is reading on the history of India. She comments that I love history because she loves history.

My grandpa mentions his own childhood in India. He notes that only one of his (many) siblings was born in Pakistan, with the rest having lived through partition.

The babies in the video listen eagerly.

My grandma cuts her birthday cake. 80 years old!

Some flowers for my Grandma’s 80th ! 🌹
Arts · History · London

My London Bucket List

At the beginning of this summer holiday – during the long days of Ramadan when time was certainly not flying by – I began to compile a long list of places that I want to go to during the months that I am at home. Despite being from London, most of my childhood experiences of London were through a lens not dissimilar to that of a tourist; on one hand London was home, but on the other it was an exciting place yet to be properly explored, understood and conquered. Since moving back to London, this perception shifted comfortingly towards the former and unfortunately away from the latter. However, London remains to be a city full of attractions, museums and places to explore and this summer I aim to venture into the city that I have become increasingly attached to over the past few years…

Yesterday, Grace and I went to the ‘Old Operating Theatre’, which is one of the many lesser known museums on my list. The very small museum, which is set up in the attic of an 18th century Church, is home to the oldest surviving operating theatre in Europe, dating back to 1822. Having braved the long spiral staircase to the top, Grace and I were ready to explore the museum. The museum consisted of several displays, including cases of old surgical tools and a “Cabinet of Curiosities: Animals in Medicine”. There were also innumerable herbs on display, as this attic was the site of an old apothecary. After exploring the displays in museum, we went up the stairs to view the operating theatre itself. Despite being small, the museum was very interesting, especially as it is not one of the more common museums that one immediately thinks of when they think of London.

After leaving the Old Operating Theatre, we took a short (although not as short as Grace claimed it would be) walk to the Tate Modern. In converse, this gallery is certainly not lesser known, nor new to me, as I have been there many times. However, it was an enjoyable experience nonetheless. Whilst I would perhaps hesitate to describe myself as a modern art aficionado, or actually even a fan, I did like a number of the pieces, in particular the pieces with historical context and the photography series. What’s more, I definitely enjoyed watching Grace’s undisguisable lack of amusement at many of the pieces! A particular mention has to be given to an art installation made entirely of human hair; this is certainly not because it was my favourite but in fact quite the opposite – as a concept it was traumatic enough, let alone as something I have actually had the displeasure of seeing.

The day commenced with an obligatory trip to Pizza Express, which, no matter how much we complain about it, always ends up being the go-to restaurant. Over all, it was lovely to explore a new museum and learn about the history of a place of which I had previously been unaware.

One place ticked off the London summer bucket list!  

Culture and Languages · Film and Television · History

Learning French… And Learning History 

Being mixed race, and having spent the largest part of my childhood living abroad as an expatriate, I have always regarded it as a great shame that English is the only language that I can speak. Yes, I can largely understand my mum’s language when she speaks it with my grandma, but I cannot speak it confidently. So, this summer, one of my aims is to improve my language skills. Having a French GCSE, French seemed to be the most accessible language to start with this summer, although I would like to gradually expand my list of languages over the years.

There are many positive testimonies to using television programmes and films to learn new languages and this is the approach that I am taking. Following a quick Google search, I became aware of a programme called Extra – a sitcom that is designed to teach students either French, German, Spanish or English. However, after watching four episodes of Extra, I concluded that I was not getting much from this show, as the level of French was appropriate to complete beginners, which I am not. And thank goodness I’m not – that would be a bit embarrassing after eight years of French lessons at school!

Deciding to move on from Extra, I noticed a French television show called Un Village Français. The description sounded amazing: a programme set in a Nazi occupied village of Frace, that promised to appeal to those with an interest in History. The French was described as being of an “intermediate” level and so I decided to give it a go.

Would this be the programme that propelled me straight to fluent French speaker standard? 

Possibly not. If there were no subtitles, I probably wouldn’t even be able to identify which words were the characters names.

However… I am not giving up on the belief that my French is improving, as I become increasingly exposed to the language and to the accent. Moreover, I have become almost immediately engrossed in the show itself. I have just finished Season One and cannot wait to begin Season Two. Each season, with the exception of the first two, follows one year of Nazi occupation, beginning with the Nazis’ arrival in the first episode. It addresses the impact of Nazi rule on civilian life in France and seeks to eradicate the common portrayal of “good” characters and “bad” characters, by blurring the lines between the two, as a result of the strain of the war.

By the end of the first episode of Un Village Français, I must admit that I found myself in tears. Whilst my mum has commented that this is more of a reflection on me than the show – and I’m not entirely disagreeing! – something must be said for a programme that has the capacity to create such emotional investment within just forty short minutes. So, whilst I can’t vouch for the show resulting in any improvement in my French, I can certainly say that I have found an incredibly captivating new show to binge watch. C’est fantastique! 🇫🇷

History · University

Revision Vision: The American Civil War

I have just finished reading a journal article titled, rather self explanatorily, ‘The Causes of the American Civil War’ by Marcus Cunliffe, which presented an interesting angle to the critical question – ‘Was slavery the cause of the Civil War?’. In his article, Cunliffe explores the importance of slavery less in directly causing secession; rather in its creation of the concept of ‘The South’. Whilst this is not a new concept, it is one that I, personally, had not given much thought to before, however Cunliffe’s argument is both succinct and persuasive. I’ve also persuaded myself that writing this blog post counts as revision, so we’ll see how that goes…

To summarise, Cunliffe’s main arguments are:

1. The USA had large internal differences

Cunliffe, similarly to most other historians, notes considerable internal differences within the US, during the Antebellum Period. The economies of the North and South had massively diverged – the North had industrialised, whereas the South remained to be a predominantly agrarian plantation economy.  Furthermore, there was notable ‘political confusion’ during this period, and not just between the North and the South. In 1856, there was at least two parties in each of the thirty-one states; in 1860, when there were four major groups, each with their own candidate, the situation was even more complicated. Even within the Republican party, there were a wide variety of different issues, with different states having different priorities. For example, in New Jersey, Republicans were chiefly concerned with the tariff, whereas in California, the primary issue was the Pacific Railway. Thus, Samuel Butler comments: America was too big. In many cases, it was neither slavery nor secession that Confederate supporters – including Robert E. Lee were attached too – it was something smaller and more concrete than ‘Union’, such as their own state.

2. Without slavery, disunion would not have happened

Cunliffe states that “Indeed, the reasons for disunion, if we exclude slavery, are not convincing”. He notes that, as Randall and other revisionists have argued, sectional rivalries and national ‘looseness’ do not necessarily lead to the end of a country’s unity. In fact, the two conflicting economies in the US – the agricultural South and the industrial North – actually needed and complimented each other. Therefore, Emerson concludes that although America’s framework was, indeed, ‘unlikely and local’, it was not inherently sectional. Cunliffe comments that the US expanded westwards at a tremendous rate of 17 miles per year, and crucially notes that the South too was gaining states from this – Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida and Texas. Moreover, he assesses that these states had more in common with each other than they did with either the North or the South. Ironically, he suggests, both Lincoln and Davis were actually both from the ‘West’, as much as they were from the North or the South that they fought for.

3. Slavery caused the South to create its own distinct identity and definition

Cunliffe argues that “Without slavery, ‘the south’ would have been a geographical expression, not the label of a separate nationality”. He states that without slavery, then sectional divides would have been much less acute: “The effect of slavery was to define the South much more sharply than would otherwise have been possible”. Through the repeated allusions to ‘The South’ as a separate nation, many in the slave states began to believe in this abstraction, despite it being significantly less concrete than the abstraction of ‘Union’. Thus, Cunliffe concludes, the North only built its separate identity in relation to the South, which had effectively cordoned itself off. 

4. This allowed for the a ‘minority’ mentality, furthering Southern grievances

Thus, Cunliffe assesses, “Without slavery, since the South would not have felt itself separate, it would not have felt hemmed in and outnumbered”. Certainly there were likely to have been disappointments that the South-eastern states were no longer as powerfully represented in the federal government, or that their economies were not so prosperous, but this would have been regional dissatisfaction. Rather, it was the institute of slavery that allowed for the ‘them and us’ mentality that led to immense anger at The North’s growth and economic successes. This mentality of disunion and the South as an oppressed minority did, indeed, become a self-fulfilling prophecy following the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War.

5. Slavery was an anachronism that likely would have died out naturally

Cunliffe notes that many historians have argued that the war could have been avoided, had northern abolitionists been “less intransigent” and had political leaders shown “greater wisdom”. He relays a common argument that it was not until abolitionists attacked slavery that the South fought to defend it. Furthermore, Randall argues that in 19th Century America, slavery was already a “monstrous anomaly”. It seems that had the 1860 – 1861 been ‘tided over’, slavery would have dissolved by itself and that abolitionists were crucial in provoking the South into the decision that slavery was a “positive good”.