Miranda James

Miranda James
Study Abroad, Third Year, English Literature
I'm from Oregon, in the northwestern United States, and go to school at Knox College, a few hours away from Chicago. Currently I'm studying English at Queen Mary University of London. I like origami, reading, and rainy days, and most of my Facebook posts involve food.

The Great London Pillow Fight

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A couple of weeks ago, London (as well as other major cities around the world) saw a spectacular sight as hundreds of strangers gathered to do battle with pillows. I went with several friends to Trafalgar Square, where beneath the gaze of the lions, several British dignitaries, and that cool new horse skeleton they put up, we joined in with the crowd whacking each other mercilessly with pillows. And I really do mean mercilessly – people went hard, and they went for head shots. My friends and I ourselves took a somewhat unsporting approach to the fight by choosing victims who seemed to be alone to gang up on four-to-one. It sounds bad, but since we were all girls on the shorter side, it really was the only practical way to make our mark during the fight.

Our success rate was fairly decent, and we got several people to admit defeat and proclaim us the victors. This especially happened when they realized they were outnumbered, and that we didn’t believe in holding back. On one notable occasion I knocked a pillow out of someone’s hand, and before he could pick it up again I grabbed it for myself. For a while after that I fought with two pillows, usually using one as a shield, and became even more unstoppable.

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Being short did have its disadvantages though. Tall people have a much easier time reaching your head, and some of the boys in the crowd hit hard enough to make a pillow hurt. One of our friends was even worried afterwards she had suffered a concussion (don’t worry, she didn’t). And the tall people weren’t the only hazard, as there were children in the crowd who fought dirty as well, particularly one little boy whose pillow was inexplicably wet, which is really not the kind of thing that is supposed to happen in a pillow fight. Once water is involved, something has gone wrong.

After about an hour we decided that we had done enough damage and made our way to safety. On the way out, we ran into a girl desperately trying to buy a pillow off anyone, as seeing as back in my flat I have about five pillows for one reason or another (I didn’t buy any of them, they just gravitate towards me) I found this to be a great opportunity to make a couple pounds, and of course help the mighty fight to continue. After that, we watched the feathers fly t from a safe seat, and generally felt a sense of pride in the weird things human beings like to do.

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The Price of Freedom

I enjoy free things. This doesn’t make me special, because everyone enjoys free things. Predictably, free events, especially in a city like London, tend to get rather crowded. Last semester (oh so long ago…) I went with a friend to a (free) comedy show called Angel Comedy, and we arrived just soon enough to be the first to be considered to be let in if anyone who had arrived earlier decided to leave. We were a tenacious pair, and wandered around Angel until the second act, when we were let in. Hooray! The comedy was hilarious, and worth the wait. Last Friday I went with a group to Angel Comedy again… and the same thing happened. We were so close to getting in to the first act, but didn’t quite make it. So, we wandered around, poked into Tescos, were reminded that Mother’s Day falls on a different day in the U.K. than in the U.S.A., and then managed to squeeze into the second act. Again, worth it.

For all that I complain living in London is cripplingly expensive (my weekly grocery bill in dollars makes me sad), it’s amazing how easy it is to have fun in London without spending a penny. Yes, it’s a big city, and packed with Londoners and tourists alike taking up space on the tube, in the museums, and everywhere else, but honestly just wandering around the streets and looking at buildings is an adventure. One of my favourite things to do in London is to pick a location, form a vague idea of things to do around there, and then walk around until I find something cool. Anytime I’m near Soho I try to go to St. James park and see the birds again, because there are so many different types, including pelicans. Anytime I go near the city centre on a Saturday I seem to run into some sort of march or demonstration, things I would never see back in my hometown. This city is alive and always changing – just last weekend I spontaneously joined a Climate Change march, and then walked into Trafalgar Square and was shocked to see that the blue cock statue was gone, and had been replaced with a giant horse skeleton with a bow around its leg showing live stock market feed. I had had no idea that the art on the ‘forth plinth,’ as it’s called, was always only temporary.

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Closer to home, I went last Thursday to a poetry slam in the Genesis Theatre down the road from Queen Mary, and heard poetry that artists had been perfecting for over a year, and some that had been written at the bar five minutes ago. Their work seemed evocative of the city in general, rooted in the past but always moving and changing. And yes, the event was also free.

Pembrokeshire, Wales

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Living in London is absolutely amazing, but I’m the kind of person who needs a break from city life once in a while. This Reading Week I took a trip to the Pembrokeshire National Park on the southwest coast of Wales, out of the way of traffic and concrete but well in the vicinity of quite a lot of sheep. I stayed in the village of Trefin, about a five minute walk away from the coastal path that runs right along the edge of the cliffs bordering the ocean. It was gorgeous there, and I had five days of sunny weather, which for the end of February was some kind of miracle. Considering also that while I was hiking I found a twenty pound note in a field, I must have been carrying some sort of good-luck charm the entire time.

Pembrokeshire life was about the exact opposite of life in London. The nearest grocery store was a half hour walk away, I could be outside for hours and not see another human being, the buses came by only every two hours or so, and I actually went to bed every night at about 10 PM, which at university is something of a rarity. I think I saw more sheep than people overall, which was both good and bad. Good, because sheep are adorably fluffy, but bad, because sheep do not like me. I had a somewhat traumatizing experience early on in my trip, when I entered a sheep field in order to take pictures of a neolithic burial site called Carreg Samson. As I was admiring the stone structure, the sheep, as a herd, turned to stare at me, baaing in an unhappy way. Then, about the whole fifty of them started walking slowly in my direction. Then they circled around me.

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I’ve never been afraid of sheep before, but in that moment I seriously worried about whether or not I was going to have to run or fight them off or both. There were a lot of sheep in that field, and all of them looked out to get me. It was creepy. Thankfully, sheep, as it turns out, are cowards, so as soon as I made a move towards any of them they backed off immediately. Still, I didn’t linger longer than I had to.

Besides that incident, the trip was gorgeous and nicely relaxing. I got a lot of reading done for Reading Week, and explored the coast, which was a jigsaw puzzle of interesting rock formations and geological history. I found Didymograptus fossils on a beach, and saw a beautiful purple rock which was once quarried to build St. David’s Cathedral, a massive and gorgeous cathedral in Britain’s smallest city. St. David’s Day was on the first of March, just after I got back, making me feel quite pleased to have visited the place so that I knew what it was all about. And while visiting Trefin was amazing, it is nice to be back in London, the city I’m starting to call home.

Pancake Tuesday and other British Things

Maybe I’m just ignorant, but I’ve never before heard of Pancake Day, another name for Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and Lent begins. I know now that I’ve been missing out, because a day devoted to eating pancakes is about the greatest thing ever. When a friend, appalled at the fact I had never before experienced Pancake Day, invited me over to enjoy the festivities, I learned that the American version of pancakes is quite different than the British version. For those who don’t know, American pancakes are thick, fluffy creations, while here in the UK they seem to be more of what I would call a crepe. They’re delicious either way, especially with the right toppings. We had nuts, coconut, honey, sugar, bananas, blueberries, lemon, and of course Nutella on ours, and they were predictably fantastic.

Besides pancakes, another differently British thing I learned about this week is the theatrical tendencies of the actors. On a tour of the backstage of the National Theatre, our guide told us about several productions past and present that star actors that I know from movies and TV. In the US, it’s something of a rarity for film actors to take the spotlight onstage, but in the UK it seems to be a necessity. It’s gotten to the point that if a British actor has not demonstrated their live performance abilities, and particularly their abilities to recite lines written by Shakespeare, I will doubt whether they are a real British actor, or are somehow just a fake. In all seriousness, though, I love the fact that the theatre is still such an essential media to watch and to be involved in, especially here in London. I am a TV and film fanatic, but there is nothing like a performance onstage, and I am now extremely excited to go and see Treasure Island at the National Theatre, which stars Arthur Darvill, who was a Doctor Who companion and is also in a crime drama called Broadchurch, which one of my flatmates recommended to me and to which I am currently addicted. Seeing him in the flesh will be amazing, if I’m able to look away at all from the incredible scenery and special effects of the stage that we glimpsed while on the tour.

In the midst of learning and experiencing new things, I have also appreciated spending the last week revisiting some of my favourite places around London, particularly the Millennium Bridge at night. It’s things like the way Southwark Bridge is lit up against the water, and the way St. Paul’s looks against a dark sky, that made me fall in love with this city. Like London itself, as I become more familiar with parts of the city, living here becomes a constant mixture of the old and the new, keeping me constantly entranced and excited.

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Savvy city-dweller… or ignorant newbie?

Sometimes I feel like I’m a confident Londoner getting the grasp of the ins and outs of the city, but that’s usually when something happens to remind me of my own ineptitude. Last week, for instance, I was taking a bus to go visit the library when a woman sitting next to me asked if the bus was going to Oxford Circus. I said yes (it was the 25, I was going to Holborn) and we rode on comfortably until the bus stopped at Bank Station (an uncomfortable distance from either Oxford Circus or Holborn) and announced it would go no further. As we exited the woman looked at me with some reproach. I smiled uneasily and walked away as fast as I could.

I learned that day that just because a bus is going in the right direction, does not mean it will go the distance. Instead of getting on another bus, I decided to walk to my destination. I had no idea where it was, but I figured that if I walked the direction the bus had been traveling until I found a map, I would get there eventually. And, eventually (about an hour later), I did. It was a beautiful day, though bitterly cold, and I enjoyed being a little lost and finding some things around the city I might not otherwise have seen. I stumbled onto Fleet Street, for instance, and found some fantastic street art.

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Being able to find my way, and without the aid of an Internet map on top of that, reestablished some of my confidence in my knowledge of where things are in London. So the following Sunday, after going with a friend to the Museum of Childhood (another amazing free London museum), I realized I recognized the area around Bethnal Green Station and thought I could find my way to the Columbia Road flower market, which happens every Sunday and is entirely delightful. I convinced my friend I could get us there and she bravely followed me down numerous twists and turns which I somewhat vaguely recognized. She started to get a little doubtful towards the end, but luckily we spotted a couple carting away a bundle of tulips, and knew we were headed in the right direction. We made it to the market just as they were closing up, and were able to sniff and admire the flowers in the fading sunlight.

That little adventure also offered up truly incredible art spray-painted on the walls of an ally, this time of bees. I’ve decided to never worry again about getting lost in London, as my lengthy detours always turn out to be worth it.

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Edinburgh

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This winter, I decided I needed to test myself against some harsher weather than London offers, and took a trip to Scotland. After a five-day long bus tour in the Scottish highlands, I spent an incredible weekend in Edinburgh, a city that now rivals London in my affections.

On Friday, after my bus tour ended, I went out and bought myself a vegan pie, and then I… slept. That is all I felt up to. But, I made up for it on Saturday, when I got up bright and early to start seeing the city. I went on a walking tour, led by an Australian named David, who told us about the history of the city from its geological formations to its bodysnatchers and finally its role in inspiring the Harry Potter series.

Some of David’s stories that stand out in particular are those of Greyfriars Bobby and the aforementioned bodysnatchers. Greyfriars Bobby is a little dog who was the loyal friend of a member of the night watch in Edinburgh. After the man died, Bobby stayed by his grave until he too died years later, eventually attracting the attention of first the monks who took care of the cemetery, and then the local community. He even got a girlfriend.

The bodysnatchers, or graverobbers, were a phenomenon that arose when the medical community in Scotland started getting wealthy and needed more dead bodies to cut open, leading to considerable sums paid for corpses. People started digging up graves to sell, causing family members to place cages over their loved ones’ bodies for several months until they were too decayed to be valuable.

Edinburgh in general is a beautiful city, built tall and narrow due to old tax laws and sporting a weird mix of Egyptian, Greek, and Victorian architecture. There are plenty of old cathedrals, cobbled streets, and picturesque views, and on top of that, the city has its own castle (not too unusual in Scotland). My favorite part, though, was outside of what would normally be considered the city, on top of Arthur’s Seat, a dormant volcano rising above the city in Holyrood Park. I hiked to the top and managed to see the sunset at the late hour of 4 in the afternoon, which was incredibly gorgeous and made me go a little photo-happy.

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Saturday night, after my day of doing nothing but walking, I took another walk, this time to learn about the dark side of Edinburgh. I was told true stories about the city’s gruesome past, most notably the story of Burke and Hare, who took bodysnatching to the next level by becoming serial killers in order to produce bodies to sell. They mostly preyed on tourists. I also learned about the ‘human lasagna’ of graveyards, which is when bodies get layered as conditions get cramped. And I took a long, dark trip down the steep steps of Jacob’s Ladder, a pathway to either heaven or hell depending on your point of view.

This story ends how it began, with me being exhausted and going to bed at about 9 o’ clock, like the true party animal that I am.

The Birds of London

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The birds of London never cease to interest me, particularly the waterfowl that frequent the city’s numerous parks. By any largish body of water there are always the gloriously irate swans, aggressive geese, several species of duck, the clamorous and equally aggressive seabirds, herons, and a host of other birds it is beyond me to try and identify. Nearby, of course, lurk the ever-present pigeons.

I love visiting the big parks, like Hyde’s Park, Regent’s Park, and some of the other more well-known places, partly just to watch tourists feed the birds. It’s always cute to see a family sprinkling bread crumbs and then being taken aback by a swan ripping a chunk of bread straight from their hand. Sometimes the little kids are amused, sometimes they start crying. Birds are not for everyone, and swans in particular are deceptively big. People also do some weird things, like try to pet the birds. I saw a woman once grab a swan by the beak to show her friend, and privately felt that she had an inadequate respect for her fingers. Luckily, the swan put up with it.

On a more regular basis I walk or jog by the canal next to Queen Mary, and sometimes make it to Victoria Park. All the usual birds are to be found in both places, and one type of bird in particular has caught my eye because of its amazing diving abilities. I watched again and again as these little undistinguished birds dove deep beneath the surface of the water, staying under for what felt like a full minute before reappearing anywhere at all. I made a game of watching them and trying to predict where they would surface. Digging back into my knowledge of birds learned in high school, I thought I recognized these creatures, and after doing a little research I confirmed that they were American Coots. No wonder I thought I had seen them before.

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Larger birds around the city are equally impressive, and I recently discovered that there are pelicans living in St. James’s Park. Apparently there have been pelicans in St. James’s since 1664, originating as a gift from the Russian Ambassador. There are four Eastern White Pelicans there currently, and they get fed every day at 2:30. I made it a priority to be there when the feeding occurred, and circled the lake of St. James’s restlessly until I spotted the birds. I could tell I was getting warmer by the signs saying ‘Do not feed the pelicans.’

The walk was definitely worth it. Seeing pelicans catch fish flying through the air with their unique bills is a real treat, and I was surprised there was not a larger crowd, though a tour group did stop to see the show. Their skills at catching fish were nothing too impressive, but I think they managed to nab at least half of them, and picked the others off the ground. Even if they aren’t the best at coordination, pelicans are still awesome birds, and are definitely a great addition to the waterfowl of London.

A Doctor Who Experience

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I’m sure there are lots of reasons a person might not watch Doctor Who – maybe they don’t like science fiction, or they somehow haven’t heard of it, or they are diametrically opposed to the idea of fun. I really do like this TV show, my misgivings about some of the more recent plots notwithstanding, so a few days ago my friend and I went to Cardiff to experience the Doctor Who Experience and take the studio tour.

For those who don’t know, Doctor Who is a show about a suspiciously British alien who travels in time and space in what looks like an 1960s blue police box. When not set on distant planets, in the distant past, or the distant future, Doctor Who is usually set in London. However, it is mostly filmed in Wales.

Our experience began with the Doctor Who adventure, in which we were spoken to somewhat demeaningly by the current Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi, and managed to fend off various Doctor Who villains like the destruction-obsessed Daleks, the ever-terrifying Weeping Angels, and some weird space tentacled things, and finally managed to save the universe. Go team!

After surviving the adventure, we were released to a museum housing props from the last 50 or so years of Doctor Who, from past TARDIS interiors and exteriors to a whole gallery of costumes. I particularly enjoyed being able to make corny poses with some of my favorite aliens from the show.

The best part of the experience, though, had to be the studio tour. We were let onto the current TARDIS they use for filming, which was extremely surreal. It was like an art piece, so much work has gone into the details of making it look like a machine, a living creature, and a vaguely nineteenth century home all at the same time. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the fact I was standing and taking photos on the set I’ve been watching on TV for the past few months, and will watch for many more to come.

People from all over the world come to the Doctor Who Experience. In our group, there were British fans who come back every few years, my friend and I who are American, and a Mexican family on holiday, who made the day trip and brought their two young children. I have always loved Doctor Who for its ability to bring people together, even if only on the Internet, but seeing so many people, from old classic Doctor Who lovers to little kids just finding their favorite Doctor, was really something special.

Paris, Bern, Munich, and German Hospitality

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Last week I reconciled myself to being yet another clichéd tourist in Europe before going on to visit France, Switzerland, and Germany in five days, toting my camera along with me and reflecting sadly that my many years of Spanish class would do me little good in any of these places. Despite often feeling completely inept at functioning in foreign countries, the trip was amazing. Paris, France and Bern, Switzerland were beautiful cities; the Eiffel Tower at night made me feel star-struck, and looking out over Bern with the Swiss Alps on the horizon made me want to change nationalities immediately.

Germany, however, is the country my friend and I spent the most time in. My friend, Caitlin, has family near Stuttgart. Exactly how they are related to her remained a little mysterious to me, and I think even to Caitlin, during the trip, but they were definitely family, and they were ridiculously nice. Her great-aunt and uncle (I think) agreed to host us for two nights, and made even me, who am definitely not related to any of them, feel like family too. We weren’t sure if it was because they were German, or because they were elderly, or some combination of the two, but their definition of ‘hosting’ meant giving us their bed to sleep in, feeding us to the bursting point, driving us to visit other cities, and finally just giving us whatever they could convince us to take from their home. It was a little overwhelming.

The food, in particular, was an experience. During the first three and a half days of our trip, Caitlin and I actually ate rather little, due to a combination of spending most of our mornings sleeping on trains and then being a little dismayed at how expensive all the restaurants were. I mean, we didn’t starve, but we were forming weird and irregular eating habits. Thursday changed all that. From the moment we got up in the morning to minutes before we went to bed at night, we were fed. Not only were we served three meals a day at their home, but Oma and Opa (grandmother and grandfather, as we called them) took us to visit more of Caitlin’s family, and at each house we visited we were served tea, pretzels, cake, cookies, and even mead. By the end of the day we were praying that there would be no more food, but it was in vain. I couldn’t say no to any of them, partly in order to not offend anyone, but also largely because everything was so tasty. German pretzels, especially, are one of my new favorite things.

Communication was difficult, as the only other language I know is Spanish, but Oma and Opa were great English speakers and kindly helped me out. Living with them, even for such a short time, was truly amazing and humbling, as I never expected to be welcomed into their family so easily or treated with such sincere consideration. It’s strange, but I feel like I have an adopted family now, one I can’t even speak properly to but who made me feel included.

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