Wednesday, 13 June 2018

I had the honour of being awarded a place on the Conservation Summer School run by Historic Environment Scotland at the Engine Shed in Stirling which literally means I will spend a week surrounded by beautiful historic buildings. A dream come true.

Here’s how it went:

Day 1

7:30 - an early start of the day. Quick breakfast and commute to the Engine Shed from Stirling University. Registration and awkward socialising.  

In total we had 5 talks on conservation related subjects ranging from philosophical questions such as 'Why do we conserve?' to more practical topics on building fabric and surveying. Each speaker was a pleasure to listen to as they represented their fields with a good mix of enthusiasm and information. By far my favourite talks were on building fabric – dissecting the elements of a 18c Scottish vernacular house, and surveying – examining the thermal images of the dilapidated Bannockburn House and investigating what went wrong and why. The last talk was supplemented by a field trip to the house which helped illustrate some of the points made but also put in perspective the magnitude and complexity of the conservation process of an actual building.

The house was fascinating to visit not only because of its curious state of disrepair that showed bared structures, fire damage, and years of remodelling , but also because of the original attention to detail and lavish design approach. More yet, it stood as a proud symbol of community spirit as it had been acquired several years prior by the local community who were pouring their soul and labour in preserving the house and educating visitors of its significance. Well worth a trip to Stirling.

The day's programme finished with a guided tour around Stirling which highlighted a number of wonderful edifices beyond the castle one would neglect if simply passing by. I remember being completely unimpressed with Stirling when I visited several years ago for St Andrew’s day and today I feel like I owe Stirling an apology. It may not be busting at the seams with heritage sites but it definitely offered prime examples of layers of Scottish architecture.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

On selfishness and the shared experience

Beltane has never been more popular with more than 7 thousand reported to be witnessing the triumph of Summer over Winter yet the accessibility of the performances remains more or less unchanged with the growing audience barely regarded.

The procession starts at the highest point on Calton Hill – the unfinished Parthenon, and moves around the hill with several stops for dancing, fire spinning and plot development. Spectators are given leaflets with a map of the route and performance spots so that they can plan accordingly what they want to see. To say that the audience doesn’t get to see everything is an understatement. The sheer number of people requires one to be strategic of their positioning and even then one might not see much. People gather around the 11 main points straight from the opening of the doors in expectation of the procession which won’t even reach them in the next hours while others run along with the convoy in vain hope they will get a glimpse of the action. There are no seats, no seating platforms, no screens. The stages are closed off with barriers or ropes and what might seem like a good location at first may prove utterly useless once the torch bearers take position. And despite the moaning and some grumpy sulking, people know what it is and they embrace it. Those who’ve been before come prepared and those who haven’t-learn. And it’s been fine. Until this year.

Once it came to one of the main events – Green Man's death and rebirth and his embrace with May Queen, those running with the procession clumped like a swarm of hungry insects on a ripe fruit. Those of us who decided to give up on the other stages and took position around the scene well before the advance of the queen were squeezed tightly onto the barriers. And then something weird happened – those newly arrived at the back started shouting “Sit down! Those at the front - sit down! You are being selfish! The others can’t see! Sit down!” Some sat, some didn’t. I didn’t.

The spectacle started, people still shouted. A general uneasiness spread around, those couple of hundred on my left gave up and sat, those couple of hundred on my right remained uncertain and standing. I felt torn between unprecedented Beltane solidarity and the practicality of sitting on the cold wet ground after I had stood in one place for an hour in favour of someone who just came in. So I chose myself, and my knees and waist and bum over the entertainment of a stranger. The passions were running so high that at the end of the scene people came and pointed fingers at me accusing me of selfishness.

And there I was, angry, sad, and cold, with my mood ruined because I didn’t know if I really was selfish or if I was made to feel bad because someone else was selfish. Today, while I was picking photos for the post, I listened to podcasts by On Being and in particular, an interview with Maria Popova, the creator of Brain Pickings. And thus my self-torment led me to musing on cynicism, David Hume, and the philosophy of selfishness.  

I spent the afternoon reading about Adam Smith’s “impartial spectator” whose imaginary approve we seek. Russ Roberts words the influence of the spectator on our lives beautifully:

The impartial spectator reminds us that we are not the center of the universe. Remembering that we are no more important than anyone else helps us play nicely with others. The impartial spectator is the voice inside our head that reminds us that pure self-interest is grotesque and that thinking of others is honorable and noble — the voice that reminds us that if we harm others in order to benefit ourselves, we will be resented, disliked, and unloved by anyone who is looking on impartially.

I read about Popova’s take on modern cynicism where we do good only to feel good, acting selflessly in a selfish act. I also looked the other way, at Ayn Rand where selfishness is more than ok – it’s the way to progress. And after writing and deleting and writing again on the feeling of being lost in the duality of helping out as a selfish or selfless act I realised that last night’s events have only partially to do with selfishness. It was rather a case of saying “No” to a demand disguised as request for solidarity.

Saying “No” in a moment of shared spectatorship can be perceived as an act of (rational) egotism particularly in times when equality hasn’t been more celebrated. We paid the same entry fee – "we should all be able to see" is a nice incentive, yet, practically on a hill with 7.000 odd spectators and no arrangements, it is hardly achievable. Had there been a culture of sitting, sure, tell the standing ones off. Trying to make people feel bad for not wanting to kneel in the mud when you’d just benefit – that’s bullying.

I might have to refer to my “impartial spectator”, learn from the experience and grow as a better person. Yet, learning to say “No” is equally as important in self-betterment and it shouldn't feel dreaded. "No" is never welcome but if we don't learn to say it and hear it, the ocean of cynicism will become only that much deeper.  

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this year's Beltane photos. And sorry I don't have any from the union between the reborn Green Man and the May Queen - I couldn't see. 

Monday, 29 February 2016

A word of caution - driving in Madeira is not for the inexperienced bravehearts. Roads shoot down and creep up at more than 15 degrees. Pedestrian crossings appear at the feet or at the very top of the climb, just behind the corner of a 360° turn, at the exit of the Rapida... And the patience of the local cab drivers wears off in the split second the lights turn green. The 10 minutes it took me to move the car to the hotel's parking turned into the most hair-raising driving experience in my life.&

But the quickened heart rate did not settle at the locking of the car. There was Teleférico do Funchal - a cable car that starts its journey at the sea front and reaches the top of the mountain. They call it "a journey between heaven and earth", a beautifully fitting name. While the sun bathed the shore, the upper part of Funchal was wrapped in a shawl of clouds the colour of cigar smoke in a cinematographic gents club.

If you are affraid of hights this experience isn't for you. If you are sort of affraid of hights then definitely go for it. The car moves gently uphill above the red terracotta tiles of delapidated houses and small mansions. Breathtaking vistas surround the sky cabin from every angle and if the first leg is not enough for you you can get a second cable car to the botanical gardens.

We chose the other option - a tour around the Tropical gardens right at the exit of the lift. This place must be gorgeous later in the year when the flowers have bloomed and dressed the garden in splatters of colour. Now it felt more like a jungle-humid and lucious green. It ran up and down the hill wih various installations along the paths: quaint bridges and ponds with Koi fish, African sculptures, minerals exhibition, a tile mosaic with the history of Portugal. The gem of the garden was the Monte Palace and its own garden with crane sculptures and waterfalls. Sadly the building was closed but even without a tour inside we spent good 3 hours pacing around.

Before the sun set we had a couple of hours to explore the old town, its windy streets and fish restaurants. Murals covered every single door  in one quarter of town, Fado signs called tourists to visit the local venues but generally the town felt emptly. Most buildings had their shutters closed and on a close inspection the buildings downtown did not have their lights on. Yet upon passing by the church in the centre swarms of well dressed people came from the inside. Maybe that's just what Sunday rest looks like...

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Olá Madeira!

Sunsets in Madeira don't linger at the end of February. By the time we got our car keys and got to the car the steep mountains had a hem of pale caramel. The airport is situated only 20km from Funchal but by the time we had the city in view the night had spread its pitch black cape. But what a magestic cape it was! Coming down on the Rapida (the highway) the city lights shone like countless jewels spread on black velvet. As the houses are perched all over the edges and the Rapida is half suspended half running through the mountains, I had a sensetion akin to diving in a swirl of engulfing darkness and light.

A quick walk around evening Funchal presented a calm very tropical looking town. Small quircky streets, cobled sidewalks, exotic trees, light ocean breeze. We sat for dinner in a small restaurant with tables all over the narrow street. If there weren't enough seating places the polite staff would take out a sheet of plywood or somethig equally DIY and rest it on two supporting legs. Our "table" turned out to be two car tyres and a glass on top which only added to the homey feel about the place. It wasn't long before a young man with incredible talent took on a Fado song. When they served me bacalhau with a glass of wine it was official-I was in Portugal.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

I like it when I ask for a drink and they offer me hot chocolate with rum. Amsterdam and I might work after all.

Our day started slowly. We weren't decided on whether we wanted to see Rembrandt or van Gogh. I was more interested to see Starry Night but the Rijksmuseum won over. We got our tickets online and rushed to see the exhibition for our 2 pm appointment. Thankfully breakfast was super easy as on a Monday noon the city was bustling with bakeries and organic cafes. Munching on a delicious pastrami sandwich we navigated the narrow streets between swarms of bikers and before long the domes of the Rijksmuseum peeked ahead. The lady at the entrance had two things to tell us:

-put your bottles in a bag
-you are at the wrong museum

It appears we somehow managed to get tickets for the van Gogh museum instead. Although the two museums are close by, we were lucky they weren't too strict on keeping the attendance times (unlike the church where Leonardo's Last Supper is exhibited). 

I am overall quite happy with our visit there. It's the first gallery that doesn't lose my interest halfway through. I liked the abundance of explanations on van Gogh's style and history; I learnt a decent bit of information and I felt a decent bit of emotions. My only disappointment-Starry Night is not housed in this museum and not even on this continent...

We left the museum at closing times and the drizzle and wind outsite cut short our plans for night walks. The old school bakery I had read about had closed by the time we got there so we headed to Cafe Luxembourg for drinks. Upon entrance I was surprised to find a large table split in half by newspapers draped on a pole in the middle. People would come in, grab a paper, order a drink, and leave just as unobtrusively. The waiter made my evening offering me hot chocolate with rum (I imagine the scandal if i order that in the UK), and their food was not bad at all. 

The drizzle had turned into proper rain so after a quick roam in search of the Red Light District that was rather desolate (maybe it was early? Or maybe that's just what Mondays are like...) our layover holiday in Amsterdam was over.


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