When I first ventured abroad on a study abroad programme to a place in Ireland called Maynooth, I was enchanted by the spirit of adventure. I booked a flight that would arrive two days earlier than my semester abroad programme started so as to spend a couple of days experiencing all that Dublin, this capital city in foreign soil on which my feet had never tread, could offer. So I booked myself into Avalon House, a swanky hostel as far as hostels go, according to the Dublin Rough Guide in 1999, and probably still is today, I haven’t been back there in about 15 years. I do know from their website, they still seem to do a healthy business.
And it was a nice place. Sure, you still share rooms, but it was cosy and clean and had more in the way of amenities than my now better traveled self knows that some hostels have, which is not much, having stayed in hostels in other parts of Ireland and Spain since then. But the majority of you know what hostels are like. You’ve got to be careful in selecting them. This is where you rest your head for the night. This is where you go to seek respite from the hard day of globetrotting, of become more worldly wherever you are.
Which is all to say that I was ill prepared for a hostel as sleek, stylish and cool as the Generator Hostel here in London. I was fortunate enough to attend their relaunch party on Thursday evening and you can see that it was quite the happening atmosphere. If this is what hostels are like nowadays, I might have to revisit this mode of accommodation.
The night was buzzing with an atmosphere of bacchanalia and revelry. Bright young things lithely lounged in a comfy and welcoming atmosphere smoothly designed with an eye for detail. If Generator can make you feel this welcome on a launch night, think what they can do if you stay at their hostel.
Infused with a heavy rhythm provided by NTS Radio and Eglo records, the party was a sensory circus, complete with free photo booth, dance floor and chill out area.
So, if you find yourself in this fine capital and need a base from which to explore, Generator is a great bet. Rooms are reasonable and stylish. Service is friendly and accommodating. And hey, does a party like this not suggest something of the spirit of their hospitality?
Generator has eight hostels throughout Europe including Copenhagen and Venice. I didn’t ask about loyalty cards, but this is definitely a brand that inspires return custom.
Book rooms now at Generator London. Enjoy!
Catching Fire, the second instalment in The Hunger Games franchise comes out on DVD and blu ray here in the UK today and I can’t seem to help admitting to what amounts to a cardinal sin in the world of English teachers: I like the film better than the book. I know. I’m breaking my own rules and perhaps incensing the old guard of bookworms everywhere, which is why I feel compelled to justify myself.
But first, allow me to say, I’m a big fan of The Hunger Games books. The series had been popular with my students for years. In fact, I only read it on the suggestion of one of my favourite students who insisted that I borrow her copy of the book (Don’t fool yourselves. Teachers have favourites. Anyone who says they don’t is lying). It took me a while to fold myself into the texture and rhythm of the book’s prose, but once I did, I was hooked.
I have to admit, it’s partly because I harbour a secret and perhaps flawed belief that Katniss Everdeen is a Pennsylvanian. Don’t disabuse me of my illusions. Pennsylvania has one of the largest anthracite coal regions in the world. It’s perfectly plausible that a dystopian authoritarian state would reopen those unsafe mines if they considered the workforce disposable. Yes, certainly part of what propelled me forward in my reading of the books was my emotional investment in a heroine with whom I shared a stately, if distant and adopted heritage.
However much I try to get away from it though, there is an undercurrent of doubt. Not just about the fact that Katniss may in fact really be a (gasp) Virginian, but also about the overall quality of Collins’ writing. Yes, the story was brilliant, but a feeling kept niggling away at me that I was reading a very well written story by one of my high school students who wanted desperately to impress with all the right vocabulary and all the subtlety of a rhinoceros with a word processor.
Here’s why, in three simple points:
1. Teeny bopper romance. Squeal. Hashtag. #Squeal. #Lesigh.
I know that Suzanne Collins obviously has her target audience: teenagers. But most teenagers — and I know this from working with them for over a decade — don’t want to be talked down to and can tell when it’s happening before you even start talking. Or writing. So while I’m hooked by the wonderfully dark, if slightly implausible, Shirley Jackson-esque, dystopian aspects of Panem, I also find Katniss’ “teenage moments” for a story that deals with such grownup things as death and sacrifice, an oppressive dominant force as the state, to be jarring at best, queasy at worst.
We get dragged through over two hundred pages of visceral savagery… between children! And then, narratologically, to what do we return? To Katniss’ torn inner conflict as to which way her heart is drawn. We’re back in Twilight territory, which is really quite disappointing because I thought we’d somehow got past vampires and here was a love triangle sucking the lifeblood out of the story. Are you on Team Gale or Team Peeta?
Instead of the philosophical distance we might expect from an adult Katniss looking back on the most traumatic period of her life, we get an immature consideration, the pubescent cliches drip out of the page like so many insecurities dribbling from the mentally squalid adolescent’s mind. “He stops to gather wild flowers for me. When he presents them, I work hard to look pleased. Because he can’t know (they) only remind me of… Gale.”
Pass. The. Bucket.
And the last page, dripping thick with angst, “already, the boy with the bread is slipping away from me.”
And yet, the film weaves none of this well worn and trampled upon rug of teenage plots before us. The film is a fine, thoroughly adult balance of found footage, and eerily slick, funhouse future, twisted and gleefully glutted on an excess of ecstatic neo-Roman Empire type violence.
2. Good Grief. Talk about unreliable narrators, Charlie Brown. Katniss, honey, get. over yourself.
I mean, one minute, she’s the poor girl from the wrong district with no illusions about her own worth in the universe and a jaded outlook on her situation. The next minute, she’s swaggering through the pages like the Beyoncé of district tributes. After she and her co-tribute, Peeta, and the other sacrificial lambs from the other districts are paraded around for the masses in the capital, she proudly exclaims, “every head is turned our way,” “I can’t suppress my excitement,” and finally, “we’ve outshone them all.” I can hardly tell whether she’s getting ready to kill or on X Factor and while I’m sure that’s part of Collins’ point, the triumphant tone is really hard to take.
At least give us some sense of peril. Some sense of danger, as Jennifer Lawrence gives us with such intensity in her portrayal of Katniss. I know she’s everywhere and everyone loves her, but, since I don’t compliment film and tv actors as a rule, so therefore it must mean something, so I will say, part of what is so very gripping about the film is the way the performances, Lawrence’s in particular, drag you into the center of the emotional maelstrom at the heart of the protagonist’s struggle, much more effectively in fact, than the book.
3. Subtlety has left the building. Repeat. Subtlety has left the building.
Every once in a while, when I was an eager eyed youth in the suburbs of New Jersey and then the rural backwaters of Penn’s Woods, there was at least one among us who would ask the teacher, if we were required to maintain a perfect standard of English in all our writing and composition at all times, why were we reading writers like Mark Twain, who used grammatically incorrect colloquialisms, F Scott Fitzgerald, who experimented with sentence fragments at times and a conversational tone of a confidant with Nick Carraway, William Fauklner, whose sentences seemed to spiral on interminably into the clouds of narrative (talk about run-ons). How come we had to meet a standard of English that these ‘great writers’ didn’t seem to exemplify themselves?
The teacher’s reply was no more inventive, lamentably, than the explanation that I’ve often given to my own students. “Well, if you sat Mr Dickens or Ms O’Connor down here right now and asked them to write me a grammatically correct sentence, do you think for a minute they wouldn’t know how to do it? Of course they would.” Yup. That was usually about it. I don’t know. If you said something with an authoritative enough tone and you’re standing behind a desk, sometimes the effect is mysteriously subdued. It’s a pity most of the time, they didn’t say, “James Joyce knows the rules. He’s intentionally said screw the rules. Let’s see how much fun we can have with language and revolutionise storytelling in the process.”
I’m not convinced that Suzanne Collins knows the rules, even if you had her in front of you and you could ask her. Let’s take a simile for instance. In Catching Fire, when her sister reminds her of Rue, the young girl from district 11 that she befriended, she mentally exclaims, “Bam! It’s like someone actually hits me in the chest. No one has of course, but the pain is so real I take a step back.” Oh Suzanne. We know no one’s really hit Katniss. That’s the beauty of figurative language. You can subtly drop things onto a page that will powerfully haunt the reader. But oh no, you have to go out of your way to make us feel like idiots and drain any real power from each and every sentence. All I can be thankful for is that she didn’t say, “It’s like someone literally hits me in the chest.” There’s nearly nothing worse than confusing the figurative for the literal.
And a when a powerful simile or metaphor wouldn’t be out of place, you choose the blandness of superlative description. As the train pulls into district 11 on the victors’ tour, Katniss can smell “an excellent meal being prepared.” Excellent? Excellent? Not savoury, or beautifully seasoned, or tantalising, not mouthwatering in a mildly pavlovian way? That’s like saying a meal that’s just above very good, but a little unmemorable, or at least I’m not going to start with a distinct memory associated with a flavour first, that might tell the reader something real and concrete and give them an actual sense of scene. In President Snow’s mansion, on the buffet tables, “everything you can think of, and things you never dreamed of, lie in wait.” Isn’t that profound? Everything I can think of? I can think of a lot, but what I want to see is what the texture of this world, what the fabric of this moment is all about, but retreating into vagaries like “everything you can think of” just sounds a bit like, “Oh, just use your imagination. I don’t know quite what to tell you.”
Given that I sped right through the books at a breakneck pace, stopping for only for meals and occasionally to answer students’ questions, it can’t have been all bad. The story is genuinely compelling, which is what held me, but it amazes me that we can bring ourselves to overlook these niggling doubts in favour of a good yarn. The power of narrative.
Whereas, in the films — so far anyway — I find none of these faults. A thoroughly enthralling and at the same time, thought-provoking piece of visual narrative.
By all means, read the book, engage with the text. Get to know what the movie misses, but bear in mind, for a taut, well told story, for once, hard as it is to say, the film is significantly better. Order, watch, enjoy. May the odds be ever in your favor.
And on an entirely different note…
It’s St Paddy’s day, gentle folk. One way to celebrate traditionally is to attend a Ceili, a traditional Irish session of music and dancing, which is just what we did on Friday night, to benefit truly magnificent organisation called Street Child World Cup. Check out the video of what it’s all about here and see what more you can do to help drive the serpent scourge of poverty and malnutrition from countries taking part. Quite a catchy song too! Enjoy.
Starting a new life abroad can be daunting, especially when your destination country is a whirlwind of activity like India. Here, Expat Explorer, brought to you by HSBC Expat gives you the lowdown on what to expect when moving to the Indian subcontinent.
India promises to heighten all your senses, from visiting the enchanting Taj Mahal, created by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the body of his deceased wife, Mumtaz Mahal, and now revered as one of the most magical buildings in the world, to surfing off the sun-drenched beaches of Goa.
It’s a country steeped in history, desperate to be explored by an open eye, and, if you accept the way of life in this multi-faceted society, you’ll not be held back in becoming a true resident.
Hindi is the official language, but English is also a subsidiary official language and used proficiently in urbanised zones in businesses, hospitals and schools to name a few examples. Once you are settled in, the challenges sometimes faced when communicating with taxi drivers or retail assistants will be easily overcome and whet your appetite for adventure on the open road through India’s wildly diverse landscape.
India covers a huge surface area. Its population is the same as that of the whole of Europe—it’s gigantic. As you would expect there is a vast range of climates, and yes, different areas can often differ in weather, but it doesn’t range from the deep freeze to the blinding hot. Some areas in the north experience an alpine climate, but most experience a sub-tropical climate. As you head south, a tropical climate can be expected. Do expect the monsoon season everywhere between June and September. It gets pretty wet, but do not dismay as life does not slow down—the wet weather barely makes a dent in the chaotic way of life in the cities.
Expats living in India often prefer to take a taxi. They are relatively cheap and available everywhere within urban areas. Public transport can be less than reliable and is often overcrowded. The roads are chaotic but this is to be expected as cities in India constitute some of the most densely populated places in the world. Taxi fares are often haggled over. Do not be afraid to ask a friend how much you should pay to get from A to B and then negotiate with the driver. Taxi meters are typically ignored.
When moving to India, prepare yourself for a kaleidoscope of culture, religion and language. You will be faced with a magical array of people, colour and food—very few countries around the globe can offer the full spectrum of character which India provides.
And on a completely different note…
It’s St. Patrick’s Day on Monday. I celebrated yesterday evening by attending a Ceilidh, a traditional Irish or Scottish knees up, here in Hackney. It was a rockin’ Celtic shindig to benefit an awesome organisation called Street Child World Cup, who I strongly suggest you check out and donate to on their website.
But, London’s Irish population being as big as ever, here is a list of what’s going on in the metrop this weekend to celebrate the patron saint of The Emerald Isle. Enjoy!
Travel and Fashion Writer Evelyn Franklin gives us the low down this week on one of the world’s busiest airports, and how to navigate its complex organised chaos
It can be an oasis in the desert or your worst nightmare but, at some point, you will likely encounter Heathrow Airport. It is the world’s busiest international airport serving more than 90 airlines and over 70 million passengers annually. It is also a major gateway to Europe, the United Kingdom, and of course, London. But depending which terminal you are funneled through, your experience could range from bearable to utterly tedious or even just plain ridiculous. For any that have used it, it should come as no surprise why it’s often rated one of the world’s most hated airports.
With horribly long walks to boarding gates and lengthy lines at security and border control, passengers might just find themselves taking a longer time to navigate their way out of Heathrow than it would take to fly to Spain. The airport suffers from a chronic inability to cope with the masses of travelers. The city of London is served by four other major airports including Stansted, Gatwick, Luton, and London City. But if you find yourself on a flight bound for Heathrow from one of the more than 180 destinations in 90 countries that is directly connected to the airport, we’ve got a few tips for you to help suppress any notions of air rage.
Understanding Heathrow: Know Your Terminals
Heathrow Airport is practically a city unto itself with four different terminals and a fifth on the way scheduled to open this June. Because of its vast size, security requirements, and that development has failed to keep pace with growth, the airport has earned a reputation for being overcrowded, inefficient, and full of delays. The airport operates at 99 percent capacity on a daily basis with a take-off or landing every forty-five seconds. The airlines at Heathrow seem to enjoy playing a constant game of “musical terminals” as they continuously shift operations from one terminal to another. As a passenger, you are advised to check the Heathrow website for the latest terminal updates and information. The long-term plan is to dedicate a specific terminal to each of the airline alliances in order to minimize the number of connecting passengers that will need to change terminals. The airport has uniformed volunteers in pink attire to assist travelers navigating the airport.
Top Travel Tips for Heathrow Airport
- Family-Friendly Travel: If you are travelling with children, Heathrow offers special security lanes with staff that are specially trained to work with less experienced flyers and able to accommodate families with strollers as indicated by the rainbow symbol above the detectors.
- Power Naps: If your connecting flight is delayed or you have a long layover and need a couple of hours of sleep, Heathrow offers a couple of options for travelers that need a few hours of shut-eye. Single bedrooms can be rented at the No. 1 Traveller and Yotel for a modest amount.
- Central London in a Rush: If you need to reach the city center in a hurry, the Heathrow Express train can get you to Paddington Station in just fifteen minutes for about £25. It’s an express train with no stops along the way.
- Save Cash on the Tube: It will take nearly an hour to reach central London on the Underground but it is one of the best deals in town at just £6 off-peak to anywhere in London that is served on the network. The biggest battle will be the lack of space for luggage.
- Stay Charged: All travelers like to keep their mobile phones and laptops fully charged for the journey ahead but few airports were built with that in mind. If you find yourself in a part of Heathrow that lacks power sockets, search for any sockets hidden in the floor that are typically used by cleaning staff. Alternatively, you could also bring along an adapter that converts one socket into two so that you can share outlets with other passengers.
- Beat the Security Lines: Unlike in the United States, you don’t need to present a boarding pass while passing through the metal detectors. You also don’t need to remove your laptop but be prepared to place all loose items in a tray and don’t travel with liquids.
- Eat Before You Go: Depending which terminal you are in, Heathrow offers a wide range of dining options. However, they also come at a price. You would be much better to pick up a sandwich for a pound or two at a convenience store to eat on the way.
Getting Through Passport Control
The long lines to cross the UK Border can often give passengers additional time to finish those last few chapters on their Kindle that they couldn’t finish on the flight. Frequent flyers to London know that this is to be expected as immigration officers grill passengers with five to ten questions about their intentions in the UK. If you want this process to go smoothly and quickly, there are a few things that you should know:
- Always carry proof of a return flight out of the country as you may be asked to produce one by the officer. If you do not have one ready, you may need to go through the tedious process of getting your airline to do it for you which will mean proceeding through security and into the long passport line for a second time.
- Know where you are staying as it must be written onto your entry form and the border officers may ask you where you plan to reside while in the United Kingdom. That means you should not head to London without a hotel booking. Memorize the name and the street of the hotel or carry a copy of your hotel reservation with you.
- Be able to converse in English because if you are unable to competently answer the questions posed by the immigration officer, you could be automatically diverted to another line for additional questioning and potential rejection.
Flying Out of Heathrow
If you are headed to the airport to board your return flight out of Heathrow or if you are one of the lucky folks that managed to grab a hot last minute deal on a cheap flight from London, you should be prepared to navigate Heathrow if you want your journey to get off to a seamless start. As Heathrow is an incredibly large airport, it is important to know your terminal before you depart and to allow sufficient time to check-in, get through security, and travel to your boarding gate. The recommended check-in time is typically at least three hours prior to departure. However, some passengers have reported waiting in line for up to 1.5 hours just to receive boarding cards. If you would like to save time, try to check-in online and print your own boarding card if your airline offers this service. You will also want to ensure that you are wearing comfortable walking shoes for the lengthy journey ahead.
If you are a foreign tourist and planning to take advantage of the VAT Refund, you will need to present your goods purchased and the necessary forms to UK Customs prior to checking in your luggage. You should consider whether it is worth it prior to jumping in line as some queues can take over an hour. Once you have cleared check-in and security, you can proceed to the departure lounge. It is here that you will find the majority of shops and dining outlets. You can purchase items here to bring on the aircraft with you. Take note that there are few if any shops near the boarding gates so you will want to ensure that you complete your shopping before leaving the departure lounge to avoid a lengthy walk back and forth. Some gates can take as much as forty minutes to reach and boarding commonly starts forty-five minutes prior to departure so you will need to allow yourself plenty of time otherwise you risk being left behind. Be prepared for one last line to check your boarding card before being permitted entry into the boarding lounge.
Additional Gateways to London
Heathrow’s central location makes it a convenient airport for many travelers. But if you have the opportunity to use one of London’s alternate airports, it may be a worthwhile choice that can save you a lot of time, hassle, and even money depending where you are headed in the United Kingdom. Gatwick and Stansted Airport are not nearly as busy as Heathrow and are home to less expensive charter flights. In addition, you will enjoy less congestion, shorter walks, and faster security lines. While the number of connections to London aren’t as abundant, there is always a direct link by train to the city.