Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Travel (page 1 of 82)

“entitled men who… sneer at those who have to endure the consequences of their actions”

Fintan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain sounds like a good read. And this bit about the British elite, from the New York Review of Books review, is a nice little jab:

[P]atrician fecklessness is one of the most enduring modes of British upper-class charisma, a way to signify superiority over the rule-governed, bean-counting strivers of the bourgeoisie. O’Toole correctly identifies it as a type of camp, allowing mistakes to be laughed off and ignorance to be presented as a virtue, evidence that one is not “touched” by the matter at hand. The English public’s fatal attraction to this posture has been responsible for many otherwise inexplicable political careers. Boris Johnson’s improbable upward trajectory is, for example, entirely due to his pitch-perfect performance in the stock role of the rakish comedy toff, a figure whose avarice and incompetence is indulged because it is somehow enjoyable to watch him getting away with things….

It is Britain’s misfortune to have been ruled by such people, entitled men who don’t feel they need to master a brief and sneer at those who have to endure the consequences of their actions.

Cat cafe and Namsan Park

After the Gongpyeong Historic Site Museum, I walked to Myeongdong. I needed lunch, and wanted to keep up my track record of only eating things cooked on a grill or wok by guys in parkas, and eaten standing. I was headed to Namsan Park, and it’s a short but uphill walk to the entrance to the park.

So to fortify myself, I had some bulgogi from one of the street vendors. I believe it was made using both a grill and a wok, so my criteria were satisfied.

B

I also stopped for coffee at the Myeongdong Cat Cafe.

C

Fortunately there’s a funicular that takes you up to the cable cars. From there, it’s a few minutes to the top of Namsan Mountain.

H

It was a very clear day, so while it was cold, the view was spectacular. I didn’t go up the N Seoul Tower; I’ll save that for a time when I’m here with my wife.

T

You really get a sense of how vast the city is from up there. More than 10 million people live in Seoul, about a quarter of nation’s population.

V

I spent a while there, then took the cable car back down after sunset (the temperature was dropping quickly).

X

After one more bite of street food, it was back to the hotel, as I have a busy Monday promoting Rest, and Tuesday I’m doing my own interviews for the four-day week book. So if any more tourism happens it’ll be pretty much accidental.

The amazing Gongpyeong Historic Sites Museum

Under

About a mile from the Gyeongbokgung Palace, in the basement of a skyscraper, is one of the most remarkable museums I’ve ever visited: the Gongpyeong Historic Sites Museum. Gyeongbokgung and the National Museum get the attention, but if you want to see something really amazing, come here.

U

A few years ago, when work was starting on a new skyscraper, construction crews unearthed building foundations and materials from a 17th-century neighborhood. Archaeologists were able to use this to reconstruct a picture of daily life in this area, and incredibly, the building developers built a museum over the dig.

L

They built a glass floor over some of the dig, installed catwalks over some other sections, and cleared a path through the site elsewhere; so you have the experience of first walking over the site, then descending into it.

J

This being Korea, there are also giant screens everywhere, and a VR reconstruction of a building that you can explore (it’s not bad at all).

I’ve seen this kind of museum once before, over a Viking site in Turku, Finland, and each time I’m impressed by the idea of locating a museum right over a dig.

It’s rarely the case that the layout and architecture of a museum is just as interesting as the materials within it (and often museum designers strive to keep the space in the background of the visitor’s attention), but in this case, there’s no way not to admire the design. But for me at least, that didn’t detract from the historical material.

m

And the museum is HUGE. When you first go into it you don’t get a sense of just how big it’s going to be, but it’s just massive.

Finally, it was surprisingly quiet there, and there were no huge crowds. Which was a nice change from, well, everywhere else in Seoul!

Gyeongbokgung Palace

Sunday morning I hopped on the metro and headed over to Gyeongbokgung Palace, the biggest of the several Joeson era palaces in Seoul.

Gyeongbokgung Palace

It’s a super-popular location for foreign visitors, and for local Koreans, and for good reason: it’s a terrifically well-maintained site despite having been burned to the ground a rebuilt a couple times (the plaques always note when the Japanese were involved in the destruction).

Palace

If memory serves, the architectural style is Classical Chinese, and comes from a period when the Korean elites were essentially trying to reconstruct a purer version of Chinese architecture and art than what they found at the time in China.

Taking pictures

However, it’s also where my dad says he went ice skating as a kid, so there’s that too.

From there, I walked down Gwanghwamun, stopping in a surprisingly cool underground museum devoted to the lives of King Sejong (who was like a cross between James I and Tony Stark, and is credited with the development of Hangul, a ton of scientific instruments, and a raft of modernization initiatives) and Admiral Yi (of the turtle ships).

Thought of the day

Not a bad sentiment (spotted on a bicycle in Copenhagen):

Scenes from Copenhagen.

I’m in the middle of processing the interviews from my trip, and more generally trying to organize all the stuff I gathered, and getting pictures (like this one) together is part of that.

Greetings from Óbidos, Portugal; and reflections on travel and rest

Courtyard of the Pousada da Vila, Óbidos.

I’m in the courtyard of the Pousada da Vila in Óbidos, Portugal.  I’ve been in here at the invitation of FOLIO, an annual literary festival, where I’ve been talking about REST. I also gave a talk at the local technology park, which was an interesting experience— very different kinds of audiences and locations.

Copies of REST sighted in Óbidos.

This is just the beginning of my travels, though. I’m visiting Portugal, Scotland, Denmark, and England (in that order), giving three big talks, doing interviews or field visits at fourteen different places, and staying in eight— count them EIGHT— different hotels. But if I can get as much material gathered as I think I will during this trip, it’ll be worth it, and it’ll mean I can write the next book— or more important, FINISH the next book.

The trip will end with me speaking at the SOMNEX sleep show at the Old Truman Brewery in London on Sep 12-14. If you’re in town and interested in sleep, register here and use the promo code SPK40 at check-out— you’ll get 40% off the regular price.

These kinds of long trips make me think about how to apply deliberate rest to travel, and curious to know what ways others have found to make travel less stressful and harried. I find I can do some of my best thinking on planes, in the evenings after a long day and a walk, and that travel can stir up both useful old memories and generate new ideas.

Scenes from Óbidos.

(This bookstore, for example, reminds me a lot of the open-air book stalls that my dad used to drag me to in Rio in the evenings.)

There are people who have creative breakthroughs while away from home— the English scientist James Lovelock developed his Gaia hypothesis while on a series of visits to Caltech— or who use travel to acquire experiences that they draw upon in their work for years to come— this is why artists still do versions of the Grand Tour of Europe, and why cooks and fashion designers work in other countries.

For me, I’ve found that just as in my daily life, good prep work is essential for having a less stressful, more restful, trip.

I’ve recently gotten into the habit of using Google Calendar to record all my logistical stuff— confirmation numbers, directions about how to get from the airport to the hotel, notes about which bus to take to get to the next appointment, etc. (When I’m traveling on my own, I’m a terrible skinflint. Partly because I hate spending money, but also because I concluded a few years ago that I was essentially spending money to maintain ignorance: a taxi fare is the price of not having to know anything about the bus or subway system. But with Google Maps and apps like Citymapper, I can get direction for public transport most places I go. Likewise, I don’t eat out at restaurants all the time: I take more satisfaction from finding and navigating the local supermarket.)

Having all these directions, numbers, etc. in one place that’s easily accessible reduces the stress of getting around, and makes it a lot easier to retrieve information when I’m on the go.

In sfo, ready to go

Likewise, I’m super-careful about what I pack (though somehow I still managed to forget a couple small iPad accessories on this trip!). I don’t exactly aim to pack really light— for a weeks-long trip where you’re doing serious work and giving talks, that’s just not possible— but I do try to think through just what I need.

That also includes thinking about the things that’ll make me comfortable in multiple different hotels, of uncertain quality and with unknown amenities. For example, I discovered a couple years ago that taking a pair of sweatpants or shorts and a sweatshirt that I would just wear in the hotel improved my quality of life on the road immeasurably: being able to change from my regular clothes into them, declare that I’m done for the day, and spend a comfortable evening, is well worth the extra weight and space in the bag.

On the other hand, I’ve figured out how to travel without a laptop, which makes my bag several pounds lighter. (Thank you, iPad!)

All of this creates more space for rest, by reducing stress and the need to improvise or manage stuff on the road. Once I’m traveling, the key things I’ve discovered are: walk a lot for yourself, and don’t try to do TOO much.

Scenes around Óbidos.

I love taking walks after work (and being an oversized male, I can do that pretty much with impunity in the places I go): they’re great opportunities for both seeing the sights, and for doing some mind-wandering after work. I generally don’t have detailed routes and things I try to see on these walks (though I dislike getting lost), and more generally I don’t pack too much into my days: even in a new place I try to resist the urge to See It All Now, and try to remember that just spending time in a place is often just as rewarding as seeing the three most renowned altarpieces (or whatever) in the city.

Scenes around Óbidos.

I also try to build in some time to stop and gather my impressions. Though since it’s never a burden to stop at a cafe and write, this really isn’t a problem for me to schedule!

This afternoon I leave Portugal and fly to Glasgow, Scotland, where it’s currently about 50 degrees and raining. Any thoughts of Europe being some monolithic cultural and geographical entity go out the window when you go from the edge of the Mediterranean to the border of the North Sea.

Russell Square and the creative benefit of a little stability

I’m just back from a couple weeks in England, and while I spent some time in Cambridge (where my wife is a dean in a summer program) and Southampton (where I was doing some work in the Mountbatten papers), I was mainly in London, and staying in Russell Square.

Russell Square

I realized on this trip that I almost always stay in Russell Square, ever since I first visited London as a graduate student in 1989. I was doing my dissertation research, and discovered Goodenough College, a place near Russell Square that hosts international students and visiting scholars. (One of the features of academic life in London is that there are halls or “colleges”– essentially single buildings or groups of buildings– that aren’t connected exclusively to one institution, and so can have people who are studying at SOAS, LSE, etc. It’s like if there were a dorm in New York City that had students who were attending Columbia, NYU, Cooper Union, and CUNY.)

Goodenough College

Back then, it was attractive because it was cheap, though to be honest I barely remember the accommodations; I would get into the Royal Astronomical Society archive at opening time, stay until it closed, then stagger out mentally exhausted.

Royal Astronomical Society

But the habit of staying in Russell Square stuck me with me. It’s on the Piccadilly Line, so if you come in from Heathrow you just get on the Tube and ride it to the Russell Square station; if you need to get to Cambridge, it’s a short ride (or longer walk) to King’s Cross; and of course it’s the home of the British Museum, the Bloomsbury group, and the University of London and its various colleges.

British Museum

The last time I was here, my wife and I stayed in the Hotel Russell, a wonderful Victorian hotel; it’s since become The Prestige and charges 21st-century prices, so we opted for one of the many little places on Bedford Street (all of which are in converted townhouses, and almost all of which seem to be owned by the same company). My last couple nights, I tried something new, and through a service called University Rooms, found College Hall, a dorm that rents rooms to tourists during the summer. It turned out to be a great deal: yes, it’s a dorm so it’s a bit spartan in terms of accommodation, but it’s also literally up the block from the British Museum.

University of London

Staying in the one neighborhood has also proved to be a good strategy because it’s allowed me to get to know the area pretty well, and to know where to go for the cheap lunches, where the supermarket is, etc.. All too often you need up spending enormous amounts of money eating out because it feels like too much trouble to come up with alternatives; I’m very happy to eat and sleep more modestly if it means being able to stay in a place another day, or spend my money on other things (like tickets to the London Hamilton, which my wife and I went to).

Hamilton

There’s a very interesting study of the impact of living abroad on the creativity of fashion houses directors, and it concluded that living abroad can boost long-term creativity, so long as you can spend more of your time studying the local arts, honing your craft, etc., rather than learning the language and navigating the bureaucracy.

I think a similar principle can be applied to trips like these. Simply being in London is stimulating, lets me meet all kinds of cool people, and gets my creative juices flowing; I don’t need to additional cognitive work of figuring out where to get dinner, or trying to get to all the places that the guidebook says are the hottest new restaurants. (Living in the Bay Area helps a lot: if I want world-class [insert name of cuisine here], I can probably bike to it.) Simplifying the logistics of travel makes it easier for me to spend time on the things that will be more valuable.

Caffe Nero

Dogs and cats in Europe

While I was in Copenhagen week before last, I came across a cat while heading to a friend’s house for lunch:

Cat

Then a couple days later, I ran into this cat at the book stalls in Amsterdam:

Open air book stalls

I also crossed paths with a couple dogs.

Open air book stalls

I always like seeing animals when I travel, if only because they remind me of my own pets back home.

Amsterdam city center

This is not bike parking this is art

Spotted at Papirøen:

This is not bike parking this is art

Art can be confusing, I suppose.

Back in Copenhagen

During my travels in Europe week before last, I spent a couple days in Copenhagen, which is one of my favorite cities.

Copenhagen

I’ve not been back there in a few years, so it was good it see it again. It’s a wonderfully civilized city, and I love its blend of history and modernity (Danish design being one of the high points of the 20th century in my opinion).

Copenhagen

And of course, as am American who likes to cycle, I find the bike culture wonderful and irresistible. This was rush hour on Wednesday afternoon:

Rush hour

Indeed, bikes are kind of a constant photographic subject when you’re there.

Copenhagen

This time I was staying at a hotel called Wakeup Copenhagen, on the Borgergarde, and just as important, across the street from the now world-famous burger joint, Gasoline Grill.

Gasoline Grill

They really are fabulous burgers.

Gasoline Grill

After giving a talk at a conference on the future of work, I had a free day, and spent it wandering around the city, and met up with a friend and went over to Papirøen (Paper Island).

Copenhagen

Papirøen is a former newsprint warehouse turned street food venue. It’s in the same general part of the city as Noma, and is a big part of the burgeoning Copenhagen gourmet food scene (a very odd sentence to write, but there it is.)

Paper Island street food

I went with the ostrich burger, not because I have any particular hostility towards ostriches or because eating ostrich was on my bucket list; but how many times does one have the opportunity?

The best ostrich burger in Copenhagen

It was a very cool scene, and very nice to get reacquainted with the city. I hope it’s not another ten years before I’m back there again!

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