Monthly Archives: August 2012

A Literary Pilgrimage

People make pilgrimages to all sorts of places. You only have to read the blurb of “Eat, Pray, Love” to realise that. And I guess, if I think about it, Concord, Massachusetts wasn’t the only place I was making a pilgrimage to. But it was one of the few places that I felt as though the people I was surrounded by were pilgrims too.

Concord, Massachusetts, a quiet town about an hour out of Boston, is not home to just one literary giant.

It’s home to four.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott all called Concord home. And they all lived there about the same time. Clearly, there is something in the water.

The Manse, which Hawthorne and Emerson called home.

I dutifully walked up to the Manse, home to both Hawthorne and Emerson (closed the day I was there, but they kept a nice vegetable garden), and I wandered around Walden Pond as happily surprised by its tranquillity as I’m sure every tourist is. But the altar I was really there to pay my respects to was that of Louisa May Alcott.

Walden Pond, which Thoreau called home.

Most famous for her novel “Little Women,” Alcott lived her whole life in Concord, except for a brief stint as a nurse, and based the stories of the March family on her own family. The character Jo mirrored herself, and her three sisters each have their counterpart in the text. Hence, visiting the house where she lived is very much like walking into the March home. The wallpaper in May’s bedroom is peppered with her sketches, fairies dancing around the windows, and portraits hanging on the walls. Elizabeth, although she died before the Alcott’s lived in that particular house, is honoured by a memorial on her piano. Anna’s wedding dress is laid out on one of the beds, and copies of “Little Women” in over fifty languages adorn a bookshelf in Louisa’s room. And of course, there’s Louisa’s writing desk.

Orchard House, which Alcott called home.

To picture Louisa sitting at that window, penning the words that I would one day read and fall in love with, was one of those intimate moments that’s quite difficult to describe. Part of me is glad I will never meet her, because then my expectations won’t ever be disappointed. I can continue to hold her in my high esteem, and also consider her as a friend who has shared in my journey.

At the Sleepy Hollow cemetery in Concord, there is a section called the Poet’s Corner, where the graves of Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, and Alcott all lay. Many of them are littered with offerings: coins, pencils, flowers, and in Thoreau’s case, oranges. At Alcott’s grave, several people have left notes. Small pieces of paper that will be washed away in one rain shower or the next. They certainly won’t last long enough for the next generation of Alcott fans to see them there. But they were there all the same, inscribed with a few words of tribute, or quotes Louisa herself had uttered. These people, like me, had made the journey, and at Louisa May Alctot’s final resting place, acknowledged in the only way they could the importance of her stories in their lives.

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Welcome to the South

Charleston, South Carolina, is famous for firing the first shots of the Civil War. You can take a boat tour out to Fort Sumter where it all happened, and walk around what’s left of the battlements. For a city which left such a mark on the rest of the country, you’d think it might be a gritty, hard city, full of determined hot heads. But Charleston is about as civilised as cities come. Wide, cobbled streets are peppered with locals dressed in pastel-coloured clothing, and tourists observing the neat buildings from horse and carriages. It’s certainly a city of wealth, and has been for many, many years.

Complete with said horse and carriage.

The plantations surrounding Charleston brought money into the city, and the people who owned the money built enormous mansions overlooking the water. Perhaps the locals dress to match the houses, because many of them are painted pale blue, or pink, or green. It was a great city to play the “which-house-would-I-like-to-live-in?” game. Speaking of, we weren’t exactly living on the cheap. Cecilia had obtained a room for us at the Embassy Suites, a luxury hotel that used to be a barracks. We had breakfast every morning in the now closed-in courtyard where men would used to form up for drill practice. Having been forced to do cadets in high school, breakfast became a rather satisfying meal.

On my last day in Charleston we visited Middleton Place, a former plantation, that although not the largest of Charleston’s plantations, is renowned for its beautiful gardens. High hedges and flower beds wind their way around a reflection pool, and narrow paths curve through the lawns and come to rest on a hill overlooking the butterfly lakes. It was easy to imagine myself living in that house, whiling away my evenings wandering through the gardens, with many a quiet spot to stop and read a book.

The butterfly lakes at Middleton Place.

After the craziness of Vegas, and our jam-packed few days in Orlando, it was nice to be somewhere that moved at a slower pace. I’d like to put it down to appreciation for things that take time that has taught some South Carolinians how to make a decent cup of coffee. We found not one, but two places that I’d quite like to package up and bring back to Melbourne. So thank you to City Lights and Kudu, for satisfying my cappuccino cravings.

Charleston may have a plaque detailing its tumultuous history with pirates, and we spent enough time in the museum for me to understand how rough life could be in that area, but there is a reason why people fake a posh accent when they say “Charleston.”


The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

If you read my previous post, you’ll know exactly how much of a Harry Potter fan I am. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that I was one of those children who was bitterly disappointed that I never received a Hogwarts letter in the mail. And I was more than ecstatic when plans for a Harry Potter theme park were unveiled and it seemed as though I might have a chance to experience a small part of the Hogwarts magic after all.

It’s official title is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and it is one of the many “lands” in Universal Studios. It’s smaller than you would expect, and though you can spend all your time there like true die-hard fans (us) you can easily see the rest of the park as well.

The day we visited, like most days in Orlando, dawned hot, and when we first saw the snow-capped spires of the Hogwarts castle rise over Universal Studios, it could have been laughable. But I wasn’t laughing. And nor was Cecilia. We were gazing in awe, and if Disney World had made us children again, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was making us eleven years old, wishing desperately for that envelope with emerald ink.

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Some people will tell you that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter isn’t that great. It’s mostly old rides revamped with a Harry Potter theme, and the shops are cute but  overly crowded. You have to wait ages in line to get into anything, and did we mention the heat?

But we were not there to complain. We’d come a long way and it was going to take a lot to put us in a bad mood. Everything from the Hogwarts Express at the entrance to the talking portraits in the castle gave us pause, and yet another thrill of excitement. We had butterbeer outside the Three Broomsticks, and we looked at broomsticks in the windows of Hogsmeade. We believed in the magic in Ollivander’s, and we pored over every item for sale in Zonko’s.

The highlight was the ride “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” which is a simulator ride that to get to you have to walk through the corridors of Hogwarts. That in itself was cause for wonder, as we saw the Greenhouses and Dumbledore’s office, and met Harry, Ron, and Hermione. The ride itself is a simulated flight. And there is nothing more thrilling than feeling as if you’re flying over Hogwarts. Not even when we came quite literally face to face with a giant spider was my mood ruined (okay, perhaps a tad).

We worked out how to use the shortcut line, and hence managed to fly over Hogwarts a total of five times. Dipping and weaving through the towers, zooming over the Quidditch Pitch, and hurtling past the Whomping Willow. Had it not been getting late in the day, I think we would have gone a few times more.

It was a day of pretending. We bought plenty of souvenirs, and ate lunch in the Hog’s Head, and watched the Hogwarts choir. But it was only when we were hurrying through the castle for the last time, with no one else around, calling to each other in terrible British accents, that I felt for a moment that it might be real.

And that glimpse of that other world made it all worth while.


Leaky Con 2012

We take a break from your regular scheduled programming to bring you the latest news from Chicago. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause and assure you that, following this, full reports on previous places visited will continue to be aired as usual.

It’s hard to describe what the last weekend was like, even amongst those I shared it with. We used words like “amazing,” “awesome,” and “intense,” but those on their own don’t do justice to the experience we had. Every place on this trip I have been to so far has been incredible, and I’ve loved it all, but all in different ways. The beauty of the Grand Canyon is not comparable to the pretty streets of San Francisco, and, in the same way, the fun I had at Walt Disney World was different from the fun I had this last weekend.

Think about, if you will, something that you’re passionate about. Perhaps it’s your job, or a favourite hobby like quilting, or hiking. Perhaps it’s a particular food, or a sport. Think about what it’s like when you’re indulging in that passion, and the enjoyment you get from it. Think about how excited you can get when you share that with other people, and how they get excited in return. Think about other things that tie into your passion, like documentaries on it, or new products that have been released for it, and how that can give you a thrill too. Think about what it would be like to be gathered in the same place with 4000 other people who shared your passion.

Now imagine that passion is Harry Potter.

That was Leaky Con 2012.

It began on Thursday 9th  August, and the Hilton Hotel in Chicago didn’t know what had hit it. I would love to have had more in-depth conversations with the people staying at the Hilton not attending the conference, because they must have been completely confused by the people filling every corridor dressed in robes and carrying wands, talking about Hogwarts, and Starkid, and the Whomping Willows, and Potter Puppet Pals.

We had four days of panels and workshops, discussions and meet-ups. You could walk into a room to find people seriously debating the similarities between Harry Potter and Star Wars, or the importance of Fawkes the Phoenix in Dumbledore’s life. The presenters may have been academics, or youtube famous, or sixteen-year-olds. The people attending were equally varied, and came from all over the globe.

And I mean all over.

And yes. A lot of them came just for the convention.

I met people from Germany and the Czech Republic, and plenty of attendees from Australia. It was not uncommon to hear a British accent, or to hear people complaining about the flight from New Zealand. Such a mix of people meant that everyone had a different point of view, and I think that was one of the things I loved about the conference.

We had four days of waiting in lines. Lines for signings, lines for special events, lines for food, and concerts, and buying merchandise. We had lines for registration and lines for the leaving feast. The running joke was that it wasn’t Leaky Con at all but “Line Con.”

The funny thing was though, that even though we did do a lot of waiting around, it rarely was a bad experience. To be surrounded by people you had so much in common with meant that you could strike up conversations easily, and pass the time discussing Snape’s morals, or your favourite scene from A Very Potter Musical.  There were loads of people in costumes, and they wandered around, perfectly happy for you to have your picture taken with them, or sign your book if their costume was so frighteningly perfect you felt as if they were that character. And then of course there was the singing.

For those who haven’t delved very far into the Harry Potter fandom it’s hard to explain the music culture surrounding it. There is the musical, called A Very Potter Musical, which now has two sequels (A Very Potter Senior Year was performed for the first and only time on Saturday), and there are people like Hank Green who have written songs which may as well be Harry Potter anthems, like “Accio Deathly Hallows.” And then there are tens upon tens of Wizard Rock bands.

Harry Potter fans rarely do things by halves, so if they know a song, they know all the words by heart, and chances are so do half the people in the line. People brought guitars. That should tell you all you need to know.

Playing Quidditch, Muggle style.

We had four days of catching glimpses of celebrities. Whether they be stars from the movie, like Evanna Lynch (who played Luna Lovegood), who was waiting behind me in the line at Starbucks on Friday morning, or actors from Glee, or the youtube famous Starkid. We went to panels where they discussed what it was like to be part of the Harry Potter phenomenon, and panels where they discussed their latest project. There was even a yoga class run by Evanna Lynch and Devin Lytle (of Starkid fame). There were authors there too, like John Green and Maureen Johnson, and literary agents who discussed how not to get published, all adding to the feeling that this was a very in-crowd.

We had three nights of concerts. Wizard rock bands like Tonks and the Aurors played to a crowd of wildly energetic fans. The Ministry of Magic had their songs sung by the majority of the audience, and by the time Harry and the Potters came on just before midnight on the first night, the entirety of the ballroom was going crazy. The floor was shaking as thousands of people jumped up and down in time to the beat, screaming the lyrics fiercely into the dark.

The Esther Earl Charity Ball.

This was a group of people who shared one love, and knowing that everyone else shared it too meant that they were unafraid to be themselves. Harry Potter is not exactly the most mainstream passion to have, and the nature of society means that it’s not always easy to broadcast your love for it. This was a place where you could broadcast it, and have it reflected back threefold. I’ve never seen a group of people dance as crazily as that for five hours, night after night. I’ve never seen a group of people as easily pleased, as happy to let go, and as welcoming of every other person in the group.

We had shared in Harry’s journey, and we had shared the discovery of that. We’d waited impatiently for each book, and pored over magazine pictures of who was going to be portraying our favourite characters. We might have toured Oxford and taken photos of the Great Hall, or visited Hogsmeade in Florida. We’d made wands out of the sticks in our backyards, and Sorted all our friends and family. This was a story that had reached into our childhood, and stayed with us as we grew.

Perhaps that was what was so wonderful about Leakycon; I felt as though not only could people there understand me, but that I could understand them, and some of their story. Sure, I loved the academic side of it, and I loved the literary side of it, and I loved the partying side of it. But what I loved most about Leakycon was getting to share Harry.

For those four days, Harry Potter became more than a kid’s book, or an idea concocted on a long train ride. It became real, and all of us there were part of the magic. We were magic.


The Most Magical Place on Earth

A good friend of mine convinced me that I couldn’t very well go to Orlando without going to Walt Disney World. I was making the stop purely because of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, like any other normal person. But hell, I thought, Disney might be kind of fun. I’ve been to Disneyland Paris, so I thought I knew what I was in for. I certainly came prepared: I’d photocopied sections from a guidebook that gave instructions on how to avoid queues,  I was wearing my most comfortable shoes, and we had plenty of water. I was lucky enough to have the company of the lovely Cecilia, who, although she tends to bring out my more childlike side, can’t entirely account for the transformation that occurred that morning.

We chose to visit Magic Kingdom, which is the most Disney-fied of the parks, and to get to it, you take a special Disney ferry. Somewhere on that ride across the water, possibly when we saw the spires of the Disney castle rising up in the distance, I became about eight years old, and everything else that day seemed filled with the kind of joy you only experience as a child.

There it is in all its glory.

We were as excited as the kids around us when they opened the park, and we were gazing around as wide-eyed as any child in a stroller when we walked down Main Street. We rode Space Mountain, and the Winnie the Pooh ride, and got just as much enjoyment out of both (and thanks to our guide, I don’t think we waited any longer than 10 minutes for a ride all day). We were singing “It’s a Small World” for pretty much the whole day, and we accosted a stranger so that they could take the obligatory photo of us in front of the Disney castle. But I think the height of our childish enthusiasm was reached when we watched the parade.

And now I’m remembering how hot I was. And how hot they must have been.

I was not brought up on Disney. I didn’t have any Princess dresses, or own any of the films on VHS. I didn’t have a favourite Disney princess until we performed “Beauty and the Beast” in my last year of high school. And yet, there I was, clutching Cecilia’s hand in excitement as each float went past us. We were right in the front and got handshakes from many of the characters walking by. We laughed for ages over Cinderella’s stepsisters greeting people with “Pleased to meet me!” and were practically squealing when Mary Poppins and Bert rode by.

Belle. AKA: My favourite.

I don’t know what it was that gave us such delight in seeing people dressed up as cartoon characters (and it carried through to when we had breakfast with Minnie Mouse). I guess I’ll just have to put it down to the magic of Disney.


Viva Las Vegas

As you can imagine, after spending a week in the middle of the desert without showers or toilets, any place that had both of those within easy access would have been a welcome sight. If it came with air-conditioning, I was pretty much going to be in heaven.

Well, I don’t know that I would call Las Vegas heaven, but it was certainly out of this world (world: n. the earth. out of this world: id. not existing on the earth.) When I flew into Vegas the first time, I thought I may have been dreaming. One moment all you can see is desert, and the next there are these odd buildings rising up out of the sand. Buildings that look like they’ve been airlifted from famous cities. The Eiffel Tower, for example. I spent a lot of time in Vegas trying to convince myself that it was an actual place, that someone had decided, “Hey, you know what would be fun? If we built a hotel based on the city of Venice. Complete with a canal. And gondolas. Everyone’d love that.” And then someone else went: “You know what would be even more fun? If we built New York City. Like, the entire city. And we could put the casino inside it.”

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See?

It certainly didn’t feel like a normal city.

Especially when I checked into my very fancy hotel, and realised that I had a giant bed all to myself, that it would be cold enough in there to sleep with the doona on, that there was not only a shower but a bath, and the toilet flushed. (And yes, I may have flushed the toilet more than necessary just because I could. Don’t judge until you’ve spent a week doing your business crouched behind bushes). My fancy hotel had a volcano out the front. Which erupted on the hour come nightfall.

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There was super dramatic music playing as it did its thing, too.

Vegas is supposed to be the city of sins or something overdramatic, and it would certainly be easy to give into temptation there. Every single hotel is a casino, and you can purchase alcohol from street-vendors. Any other, ah, urges, you may have while you are there would also be pretty easy to fulfil… I don’t know whether people are more likely to be disappointed or impressed, but I did not spend any time partaking of these sinful activities. I spent the whole time wandering through all the hotels, and then walking out onto the street and remembering I wasn’t actually in Paris. Or Rome.

I saw the Phantom of the Opera at the Venetian (the Venice themed hotel, did you guess from the name?) which was performed in a theatre built specifically for the show, and I celebrated the Fourth of July at the rather rocking Fremont Street. But I think the highlight (other than the bed, air-conditioning, shower, and toilet) was having brunch at the Bellagio. The most elegant of all the hotels, the Bellagio aims for extravagance rather than a particular theme. They have a ceiling of glass-blown flowers in the foyer, and a courtyard/garden area that has special designs for each season. It was the beginning of summer when I was there , and hot air balloons floated gently over sunflower-filled garden beds and a carousel. The hotel cafe overlooks this garden, and I had as much fun watching the people dining there as I did eating my french toast.

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I can’t say I was sad to leave, because it wasn’t my kind of place to be, but I am definitely pleased I got to see somewhere I would never have been able to imagine.