Paris Day Three

Panthéon and Jardins de Luxembourg

The most obvious tourist destinations in Paris are, naturally, the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. However, after reading about the Panthéon situated in Paris’ Latin Quarter, I just had to visit. I hope to visit Greece someday and see the real deal, but I was intrigued by this church-turned-secular mausoleum.

Before going inside, I happened to notice another building, the Faculty of Law for the University of Montréal, which is engraved with France’s motto:

The national motto translates to Liberty, equality, fraternity (which means brotherhood).

On to the Panthéon itself. Instead of paying homage to Greek gods, the French Panthéon was built as a church dedicated to St. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris.

The city of Paris was founded by a tribe called the Parisii in the 3rd century BCE. In the late 400s to early 500s BCE, during the reign of the Franks’ king, Clovis the First, it became the Frankish seat of power. King Clovis decided to build an abbey, which was later dedicated to Saint Genevieve, who had helped him defend Paris from an attack from the Huns. More than a thousand years later, King Louis XV of France fell gravely ill and promised Saint Genevieve, that he would refurbish the then-decrepit abbey. He recovered, thankfully, and fulfilled his promise. However, this act had as much a political motive as a religious one: Louis XV had many dissidents who believed he lived a far too extravagant life and did not contribute anything toward the well-being of France. By transforming the abbey into the massive, magnificent structure it is today, the king was trying to send a message that he was fit to rule France and could strengthen it in the same way he revamped the Panthéon.

Inside the Panthéon, there are many frescos lining the walls that tell the tale of St. Genevieve’s life. The ceiling is held up by massive Corinthian columns, which, if you ask me, are a very pretty touch of Greek architecture. Reaching down from the towering dome (which holds itself up by magic and hidden support beams) is a Foucault pendulum. The pendulum is an experiment devised to prove that the Earth rotates; it hangs from a fixed, motionless point in space and swings back and forth. If the Earth did not rotate, the pendulum would swing back and forth at the same angle perpetually; however, it appears to move (which can be proven by setting up small objects at different points on the circumference of the pendulum’s reach, and watching them get knocked over). This proves that the Earth does indeed rotate.

The whole experience was very rewarding, and frescoes were beautiful. After lunch, I saw some natural beauty: the Jardins (Gardens) de Luxembourg, one of the most famous gardens in Paris. They were first created by Marie de Medici, wife of King Louis IV of France, who was born and raised in Florence, Italy. The gardens are meant to resemble the Florentine style.

The gardens also have a small pond on which people can float tiny sailboats (available for rent).

Apparently, green chairs are a hallmark of any Parisian park. The view more than makes up for the slight discomfort of sitting in one. You can’t say you’ve been in Paris until you’ve spent an hour in these chairs reading or simply enjoying the view!

Up next: A trip to the town of Bayeux and the Normandy beaches.

Paris Day Two

Day 2 – Musée de Louvre

In France, breakfast is taken from around 9 to 11, and brunch is common. All of the shops and restaurants open a little later than Americans are used to! Luckily, being early meant the wait for a table at Angelina—Paris’ most well-known tea room—was fairly short.

After that, it was on to the Louvre Museum.

The Louvre’s glass pyramid entrance is just as impressive in real life as it is in photos. Once inside, I found myself on the ground floor/lobby, through which can access any of the three wings—Richelieu, Sully, or Denon. Naturally, I headed straight for the Mona Lisa exhibit; however, many people had the same idea as me. The line began on the ground floor and snaked up a few escalators. The total: a 45-minute wait for the chance to rest my eyes on la Gioconda for a brief while before being ushered out of the room. Here’s a fun fact: the Mona Lisa’s usual exhibits places her on the wall opposite a painting called The Wedding Feast at Cana. The painting depicts Jesus performing the miracle of transmuting water into wine. Ironically, it’s the largest painting in the Louvre, but probably still overshadowed by the Mona Lisa, which is tiny in comparison. For any hopeful Louvre visitors, here’s a hot tip: visit the Mona Lisa in the morning. The wait is even longer in the afternoon, meaning you’ll have even less time to see the painting while in the room. Before trying to take pictures, do take her in with your eyes. I had to go back a second time to see the exhibit because I was too busy taking photos to test out whether her eyes really do follow you (they do).

The obligatory, if grainy, photo of the Mona Lisa.

The name of the woman in the painting isn’t actually Mona Lisa. Her name is Lisa Gherardini, and she was the wife of a minor nobleman named Giocondo who successfully commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to paint her. Hence her Italian name, La Gioconda (the female version of Giocondo, which i), and the French derivative name, La Joconde.

After the Mona Lisa, I focused on some famous statues. Firstly, the Venus de Milo. It’s widely agreed upon that the armless statues represents Aphrodite, as the name literally translates to “Venus [the Roman name for Aphrodite] of Milos [which is an island in the Aegean Sea]”. However, some believe that the statue actually depicts Amphitrite, a Nereid (beautiful sea nymph) and wife of Poseidon, who was apparently worshipped widely on Milos (kinda like how Delos is a sacred island to Artemis and Apollo). Slightly lesser known but also depicting a Greek goddess is the statue Winged Victory at Samothrace, which sounds a lot like a war scene painting. However, Victory is actually the name of the goddess—the statue depicts Nike, the winged Greek goddess of (you guessed it) victory. Why Samothrace? Apparently the statue was found in Caesar’s palace located in the island of Samothrace. What impresses me is that art historians who study this statue can actually tell it’s a statue of Nike, because the statue doesn’t have arms (like I mentioned before) but also has lost its head.

The Winged Victory, according to historians, was carved with the intention of being attached as decoration to a building. The statue was intended to be mounted at a three-quarters angle showing the left side; it apparently was never intended for the viewer to be able to see the right side, as the sculptor carved the right side much more roughly. The left side of the statue, in contrast, is very detailed; all of the folds of the dress and the feathers of the wing are outlined painstakingly, as you can see below.

I was dismayed to learn upon arriving that the Apollo Gallery, which usually holds the crown jewels of King Louis XV, was closed. However, by some stroke of luck, I happened upon them while browsing the Romanian-Byzantine art exhibit. The jewels on his crown, below, look so glossy and perfect it’s hard to believe they are real.

Here are some more pictures of the crown jewels: a few scepters and one more crown.

At this point, I decided I had had enough of European art and decided instead to explore the statues of Mesopotamia. The Cour Khorsabad are a group of statues from Ancient Mesopotamia that depict winged, human-headed bulls. They each have five legs—from the side view, the statue has four legs and is walking; from the front view, the statue is standing still, with its two front legs primly together. The statues guarded the gate to the palace of Sargon of Akkad (not the YouTuber, but the man who lived roughly 4,000 years ago). In around 2334 BCE, Sargon united all of the Sumerian city-states in Mesopotamia for the first time to create the first-ever empire: the Akkadian empire.

And a while after the Akkadian empire fell, another empire came to power: the Babylonian empire. The sixth king of the First Babylonian Dynasty, Hammurabi, is famous for one thing that still endures today: his code of law. The stela (stone slab) on which Hammurabi carved his laws in cuneiform is housed in the Louvre right next to the Cour Khorsabad. At the top of the stela is a carving which shows Hammurabi receiving a scroll (his code of law) from a divine figure or god. The stela was displayed for all the Babylonians to see. Some of his laws are controversial today, such as the concept of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”.

The entirety of the stela. If you squint, you can make out some of the impossibly tiny cuneiform carved onto the stone.

Lastly, I saw some of the more famous paintings in the Louvre, such as Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix. The painting depicts the brutal French Revolution. The tired, dirty rebels look up to and follow a woman, who is an allegory and represents liberty. The painting is huge, and conveys both the bloodiness and glimmering hope of the rebels, and of France in general during that time period.

Another famous painting is called The Raft of the Medusa. From the name, I was expecting a picture of Medusa surrounded by statues of the people she had petrified. However, the painting was apparently inspired by a true-life incident involving a ship called The Medusa. Sadly, the passenger ship sank before reaching its destination, and only 15 of the 150 people onboard survived. The painting, by Théodore Géricault, depicts the scene of the fifteen survivors stranded on a raft in the middle of the ocean, struggling to find their way home.

That was my day at the Louvre. Next up: a relaxing day of sightseeing and reading. Stay tuned!

My Paris Trip

This page promises some photography and food—and my favorite, photography of food. And using some sketchy logic, I figure there’s no better place to find some really pretty (and tasty) food than Paris, France! My family recently traveled there for a week, and this post will detail my travels. Don’t worry, it’s not just about food. Paris also has some great historical sights, and, of course, beautiful architecture!

Day 1 – Arrival

We arrived in Paris around midday, and I was eager to see some of the more famous sights of the city. We walked along the Seine river and saw a glimpse of Notre Dame, which celebrated its 850th birthday in 2013. The church was originally built in the 1163. Its full name is Notre Dame de Paris, which is French for “Our Lady of Paris”. Sadly, it suffered from a fire in April this past year, and from the street I could see some scaffolding over the parts of the building lost to the fire.

To make up for all those calories burnt by walking, I treated myself to some Berthillon sorbet. Berthillon is a famous glacé (literally, “ice”, but meaning “ice cream”) shop famous for its naturally derived flavors (i.e., lavender, chestnut, and myrtle—a far cry from Baskin Robbins). I ordered a scoop of peach sorbet. Yum!

Stay tuned. I’ll post the details about each day in a separate post.

“The Gathering Storm” by Robin Bridges

Rating – 4/5 stars

Overall – a nice, quick read. Genres: historical and paranormal fiction. Although the blurb on the book makes it out to be a dark book, it has its funny moments and a cute romantic subplot. A good read, especially for anyone who’s a Russia history buff.

What’s a samovar? It’s an excellent question—and one I’d never thought to ask before I read The Gathering Storm by Robin Bridges. It is historical fiction, and those of you who know already what a samovar is can guess what exact period of history: imperial Russia.

The protagonist, named Katerina Alexandrovna or Katiya for short, is the daughter of a minor duke. Nevertheless, because of her ancestry, which can be traced back to Nicholas the First and Catherine the Great, she is considered a princess of imperial blood—and she absolutely hates it. She wants to study medicine and become a doctor, not sit around looking pretty while waiting to find a suitable husband. Katiya’s headstrong, thinks for herself, and is absolutely the opposite of what she’s expected to be as a high-born young woman. Seems like your typical feminist literature so far, doesn’t it?

As if being a tomboy doesn’t make her odd enough, she also has a secret: the power to raise the dead.

Suddenly, Duchess Katiya is Necromancer Katiya. After so many years of hiding her secret, she’s found out after trying to save the tsarevich (heir to the tsar, the crown prince, basically) from a love spell—and suddenly caught in tangle of dark secrets and manipulative people who all want her power for their use. St. Petersburg isn’t just the capital city of imperial Russia; it’s the backdrop of an intense power struggle between two different courts of magical creatures: the Light Court and the Dark Court. Each court is ruled by a powerful faerie—the empress (or tsarina) and Grand Duchess Miechen, respectively. Despite being sisters-in-law, each despises and is jealous of the other. Each court attracts a certain kind of magic and a certain kind of creatures. For example, the vampires featured in the book belong to the Dark Court, as does Katiya, since her powers are dark magic. The creatures of both courts want to use Katiya’s abilities to further their own influence. One family goes too far by accidentally reviving a long-forgotten threat to Russia, and only Katiya has the capacity to save her country.

The first thing I’d like to say about this book: the history is legit (and I don’t use that word lightly). My preference for historical fiction is when it has fictional characters but is based on actual events, such as World War 2 or Queen Elizabeth I’s coronation; as a result, the historical setting seemed sidelined to me when I thought it should be the star of the show. But I certainly can’t say that the history aspect adds no value to the plot: the entire premise of the story is based on actual Slavic myths, such as that about the bogatyr, a legendary knight. Basically all of the characters—except for Katiya herself, naturally—were real people, such as Tsar Nicholas II, who appears in the story as the tsarevich. Really high-quality historical fiction is the kind where you have to spend half an hour on Wikipedia to figure out what was true and what was the author’s imagination—because everything feels real.

Disclaimer though: the pace of the story is a little slow. Some of the scenes are just conversations; they don’t feel like scenes with direction. To be fair, things heat up really quickly at the end, and there are some nice action scenes. However, I, for one, don’t mind a little slice-of-life in books, so if you like that type of fiction, you’ll enjoy the story.

And just so you know: a samovar is basically a large kettle used to brew tea. Apparently, the way the tea is brewed makes it pretty strong, so a samovar is very unique to Russian culture.

Dr. Ancient Greece (& Rome)

We get a lot from Ancient Rome and Greece: language, architecture, art, and more. But we also get some of our medical practices and technology from the ancient Romans and Greeks as well, specifically in three areas: emotional health, nerve technology, and animal testing.

Emotional health is really big nowadays. Have you ever been stressed out because of a big test coming up? Furthermore, has anyone told you to stay calm and take a deep breath while you were stressing out for the aforementioned big test? Their advice comes straight from the Romans, who were big on virtue. See, the Romans believed that if you didn’t live a virtuous life, your body would punish you. One sin could lead to bronchitis or an ingrown toenail. This emphasis on a mind/body connection is supported by doctors today. Many agree that emotional balance is important. High-stress situations and intense, unchecked emotions can lead to very real, physical symptoms: stomach ulcers, which are painful, and high blood pressure, which is just as worrying. The bottom line: stay calm! Doctors suggest listening to music, meditating, or doing yoga to maintain an emotional balance. 

Second, let’s talk about nerves. Most people today know what nerves are—they carry signals and information straight to your brain. Back in Roman times, people knew nerves existed. They just hadn’t quite figured out what they could do. Along comes this man named Claudius Galen, a Roman physician—fairly well known, wrote a lot of essays, did a lot of experiments. One day, Galen was experimenting on a pig. He cut it open and wanted to see if the pig would stop breathing if he cut one of its nerves. The pig, thankfully, continued to breathe, but after the experiment, the pig couldn’t squeal. Galen realized that this nerve was responsible for speech, both in animals and humans. Today, we call this nerve the recurrent laryngeal nerve—but since that’s a bit of a mouthful, people call it Galen’s nerve for short. But the reason why this is relevant to our modern lives is because Galen’s breakthrough led to people treating nerves more cautiously. Once Galen realized that this one nerve controlled an important human function, he and others logically came to the conclusion that nerves as a whole were important and shouldn’t be cut. That’s why doctors began to avoid cutting nerves during surgery—because they weren’t just random fibers just hanging out anymore, but actual body parts that needed to be treated carefully. Ever since Galen’s breakthrough, doctors have tried their best to not cut open nerves during surgery. In fact, they’re taking pains to avoid even the most camouflaged ones: scientists are developing technology that uses a polarized beam of light to illuminate nerves that may be hiding in a patient’s lumps of tissue. Imagine waking up the day after a surgery and not being able to talk—scary thought, especially for me, who has an opinion on everything! 

Have you ever picked up a bottle of makeup or shampoo and seen the label “NOT TESTED ON ANIMALS”? These days, there’s been an increasing number of voices affirming that testing products on animals is unethical. In fact, there have been laws put in place to ensure the animal safety. However, while testing products on animals may sound cruel, doctors do use animals for a different kind of research: they use animals in experiments. The practice began in Roman times, when people didn’t have as deep a knowledge of the human body as we do today. The ancient Romans didn’t have today’s fancy technology and X-rays to figure out human anatomy, so their logical solution to the problem, you may think, would be to simply cut open a human and see what was inside. Even today, that may be considered a bit strange, but in Roman times it was absolutely taboo. Cutting open humans was considered wicked, immoral, and a heinous crime—yes, it was actually illegal to study a human body by opening it. Roman physicians reasoned that the best alternative was simply to test on the next best thing: animals closely related to humans, namely apes. And this practice is continued even today: we still perform experiments (although not all of them may involve cutting open the live animal) on species of apes; chimpanzees in particular. We acknowledge today that apes do share a whopping 98% of DNA with human. The phrase “lab rats” may be familiar to you; it’s common knowledge that we also perform a lot of experiments on mice, which share an even more incredible 99% of DNA with us. So maybe the Romans were onto something after all.

Having a surgery today may be nerve-racking, but it’s fairly painless. Besides from not being able to eat for a while before surgery, the patient doesn’t really have much to worry about. Surgeons administer anesthesia to a patient before surgery; sometimes, it may be local anesthesia, which simply numbs the area of operation, but in larger surgeries it’s more likely they will receive general anesthesia. Breathe in some bubble gum-flavored gas, and off you go to Dreamland . . . to wake up from a peaceful sleep only after the operation is over. However, in the ancient Greek and Roman times, general anesthesia didn’t exist. How patients handled surgery I don’t know—maybe they passed out from the pain? Anyway, Greek and Roman doctors did try to help: they gave the patient a combination painkiller and sedative. To make this, they mixed the plant scopolamine (which is a sedative) with the juice of the wild poppy (which you all know from Health class contains opium, the powerful painkiller). This combination made the patient feel drowsy, and they didn’t feel as much pain during surgery. And boom! The first step toward modern anesthetics had been taken.

Another fun fact: flu shots are unpleasant thanks to the Romans. Who likes it when someone sticks a needle in their arm, am I right? Well, if not for the pioneering engineer Ksetibios (you can try to pronounce that, good luck), the syringe would not have been invented. To be totally honest, people don’t really know if Ksetibios’ syringe, invented in Roman Egypt in 280 BCE, was the first ever, but it certainly was the first time use of the syringe was documented. Back then, it was used to extract fluids from the body—namely, pus from boils and pimples. However, today, we use it not only to extract substances (such as blood for a blood test) but also the inject substances (such as that flu shot). However, the idea of vaccination itself didn’t come from the ancient Romans alone—nearly every civilization came up with this idea at some point. The next time you either use a syringe, or someone uses a syringe on you, thank the ancient Romans and Greeks for this handy invention. And let’s be honest here—flu shots may be dreaded, but they’re really not bad.

The Romans! The Greeks! They were two very innovative civilizations, and we owe many of our medical practices to them. Of course, other civilizations contributed as well (for example, plastic surgery comes from ancient India), but in this post I hope I shed some light for you on the how Roman and Greek ideas surround you in something as everyday as listening to music or getting a flu shot. I hope you enjoyed this post and, above all, learned something! Peace out until next time. 

Got Change?

There are so many different currencies in the world, it’s mind-boggling! I just learned that one dollar and forty-two cents in US dollars is one pound in British money. And while we’re on the topic of European currency, I have a Greek myth to tell you. It’s all about money!

You probably know the basic layout of the Underworld: Big, murky island surrounded by the River Styx. Gloom and doom everywhere. Spirits would gather on the shore and wait for Charon the boatman, to ferry them across. Before Hades came along and got everything organized, Charon could charge anything he wanted for a ferry fee. If he liked the looks of you, he would charge you next to nothing, but if he didn’t, he’d charge you mounds and mounds of drachmas (Greek currency). You can see how this is really unfair. When Hades took over, he called Charon in, gave him a good scolding, and convinced (read: bullied) him to charge a standard fee of one drachma. 

Cool story, huh? That’s why the Ancient Greeks always buried their dead with drachmas under their tongues so that they could get safe passage across the River Styx. If your family forgot this necessary carry-on, well, you’d be stuck on that shore forever. Have a nice afterlife. 

“Shoe Dog” by Phil Knight

Rating – 5/5 stars

Overall – rapidly-paced and written in clear language, this book is a memorable and eye-opening story. It is a behind-the-scenes look at how one of today’s most omnipresent companies found success.

Look down at your feet. No, seriously. If you’re wearing sneakers, what brand are they? For me, the go-to brand is Nike. I don’t know why; it could as easily been New Balance or Puma, but maybe my subconscious self was attracted to the trademark swoosh.

Before I picked up Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, I thought that Nike was a staple. Instead of the staple crop in a diet, it was the staple shoe in a lifestyle for me. I thought it would always be around, and always had been, too. This memoir by the cofounder of Nike proved me wrong. And although I usually dislike being wrong, I made an exception for this book. It was simply too engaging to put down, and although that may seem cliche, I actually had to sit down and finish the thing in one sitting. Curse you and your underdog struggles, Phil Knight!

I may or may not have stolen this book from my dad’s library bin. I may have judged it by its cover: it’s colorful, it’s by an entrepreneur who founded a successful company, it’s thick enough to temporarily satiate my eternal quest for a good book. After Pride and Prejudice, this book was a piece of cake, length-wise. By the cofounder of Nike? Now that was a story I wanted to hear about. Although everything has a beginning, it had never occurred to me that my favorite shoe company had a rough beginning and a few hurdles in the journey to becoming a staple shoe and a gold standard for factory conditions.

This book was a heartfelt depiction of Nike’s humble beginnings while also becoming the reflections of a man on his mistakes and decisions. The story begins with a twentysomething Phil out on a morning run, pondering what to do with his life and the degree he has obtained from Stanford. Head back to school? Live out his days as the guy who never left home and mooch off his father’s financial support? Or . . . make something? Something that could make you feel, all the time, the way an athlete feels: to always be at play, not winning, not losing, but playing the game for the joy of it.

From this quest to recreate that exuberant feeling of energy, Nike was born.  Mr. Knight reasoned that he should start small with something that he, a runner, was confident all athletes needed: good-quality shoes.

The memoir spans from 1962 to the present. It shows a before, before Nike, when all Phil Knight had was fifty dollars from his dad and a Crazy Idea. It shows an after, after the worst struggles were over, and Nike was secure as a successful shoe company. But the middle is what takes up most of the book. Year by year, Phil Knight chronicles how his life changed as his company—his third son, he calls it in the book—grew from an idea to a reality. Readers watch Nike’s evolution. The entire book reads like a story—the story of an underdog—and certain struggle-rife and pivotal moments pop out in Nike’s history: Knight visiting Japan for the first time and placing his first order of Tiger shoes at Onitsuka, Ltd. on behalf of Blue Ribbon Sports of Portland, Oregon; as his power is slowly usurped by other United States sellers Onitsuka has underhandedly signed with; as he recruits Jeff Johnson, the aggressive salesman, Bob Woodell, the ultimate right-hand man, and many more to his dedicated team; as he faces a legal battle with Onitsuka, and finds a bank to provide financial support; and more. But this rawly honest book doesn’t shy away from the limelight as Knight himself is known for doing, it openly reveals all the decisions in which Knight toed the boundary between right and wrong for the survival of his company, like underhandedly signing a shoe deal with a Mexican factory and making up a company when placing the first order of Tiger shoes.

This riveting memoir shares heartwarming moments, too: how Knight met his wife while teaching at Portland State University; the fierce dedication of Knight’s former coach and cofounder, Bill Bowerman to creating a better anti-slip sole, inspired by a waffle iron; the pure pride in Knight’s father’s voice as he describes a cameraperson zooming in on the swoosh on an athlete’s sneakers; the almost paternal affection between Knight and Steve Prefontaine, track and field athlete and the ultimate Nike spokesperson; and many more.

Most importantly, this memoir describes the formation of Nike in a way no one other than the creator could. Knight’s tone throughout the book is that of playful humor, exemplified as he describes his fear of a several hundred-page book being only Part 1 of a series and how its title could be abbreviated fittingly as WASP. Knight can poke fun at his team of original employees (and himself) in a way no one else could get away with. How did the swoosh come to be created?: When Knight offered a broke art student a job designing a logo for his shoe company. How was the name Nike chosen?: When the intrepid Jeff Johnson, salesperson extraordinaire, woke up in the middle of the night, the name having come to him in a dream. No biographer could portray Knight as accurately as he portrays himself in this book, and no biographer could describe so well all the painstaking internal deliberation that preceded each decision, such as going public or choosing a brand name. What makes this memoir so special is the insight Knight offers at every turn in this journey.

Knight’s favorite saying is about Oregon: on the Oregon trail, the cowards never started, and the weak died along the way, leaving the people of Oregon, some special breed of human built to persevere and persist. Phil Knight has ridden on a roller coaster whle trying to make Nike everything it is today: some extremely high moments have occurred as well as some severely low points. In this deliciously intriguing, informative memoir, he allows step into the coaster car with him and experience his version of the events. Like the creators of real roller coasters, he doesn’t spare you the adversity because he knows you can handle it; all emotion is laid out in the open for readers to experience with him. From the story behind the swoosh and the reason for orange shoe boxes to the competition with German giants Puma and Adidas and the belief behind the brand, Phil Knight reveals all in the poignant tale of strength and sacrifice,all for the sake of all those people—maybe adults, but children at heart—who don’t want to win so much as long as they get to play the game.

Shoe Dog opened my eyes to the struggles of creating a thriving business and deepened my respect for those who fight to make what they believe in a reality. Nike was always my go-to shoe brand, but this book has given me a more in-depth reason for supporting it. If Phil Knight had been one of those people who never started, or maybe even quit along the way, there wouldn’t be a shoe company so dedicated to creating a lifestyle of play. This memoir was a riveting, eye-opening page-turner that’s a worthy addition to any shelf.

“The Train to Impossible Places: The Cursed Delivery” by P. G. Bell

Rating – 4.5/5 stars

Overall – a lighthearted and quick read. It teaches a fun thing or two about physics along the way, but nothing too heavy to digress from the plot.

This book just may be the best book I’ve read all April. It’s perfect fare for a warm evening in the backyard, and an unorthodox way to learn all of those otherwise slightly mundane physics equations and laws. Indeed, The Train to Impossible Places: The Cursed Delivery by P. G. Bell serves up a five-star meal of fantasy, with a little fact for dessert. What struck me right away was Suzy, our dear physics-loving, spunky, inquisitive protagonist. She has it all: a big brain, a big heart, a love of physics, and a need to help others. Driven and determined, Suzy is everything I would like to think I am. She isn’t arrogant, isn’t shy to speak her mind, and she certainly isn’t afraid of jumping on a train that shouldn’t exist that is en route to places where magic is possible and gravity is optional. She may a little too perfect, but other than the fact that she doesn’t seem to have a crippling fatal flaw of some sort, she seems like an ordinary eleven-year-old girl. She’s relatable. All of the science nerds, all of the unpopular kids, all of the children who feel they don’t quite belong, all of the people (both over and under eighteen) who have taken a risk and reaped rewards because of it, all of them can relate to Suzy. This raises the subconscious question: Who is Suzy? The truthful answer would be, the readers themselves. There are two main kinds of protagonists: those who readers are given so many details that they feel like a living, breathing person with his or her own flaws and quirks; and those who are slightly … vague. P. G. Bell has chosen the latter for this story because Suzy isn’t just one unique person: she’s all of us, in a way, and the author has purposely left many loose ends and unanswered questions about Suzy’s background. That way, Suzy isn’t a parcel that’s been rolled up and tied off, ready to be received by the reader; she’s an open vase which readers can fill with their own passions and details.

However, the other characters featured in this book stand in stark contrast with Suzy: they are fully developed, each given their own interests, habits, and personalities. Each is described in clear detail, and are quite authentic. Many readers’ hearts will be touched by nervous, eager Wilmot and will be shocked to learn of smiling Lord Meridian’s treachery. And because this book is called The Train to Impossible Places, the author takes great care to create an authentic, vividly imagined world complemented by quirky little details such as the residential district of Trollville being located under a bridge in a nod to common fairytales such as “The Three Billy Goats Gruff”. The worlds are as full of vivid details as Kali Wallace’s City of Islands. A train powered by unstable nuclear fusion bananas . . . an inherent love of building and engineering in all trolls . . . powerful telescopes able to see anywhere in the Impossible Places . . . a boy named Frederick trapped in a snow globe … and most importantly, two towers to symbolize knowledge and strength. I especially think this last concept is beautiful because it echoes the thinking of many philosophers from many different cultures: that knowledge and strength should be regarded as the most potent magic of all, which in turn should be used to help weaker, less educated individuals. The Lady Crepuscula of the Obsidian Tower (of Strength) and the Lord Meridian of the Ivory Tower (of Knowledge) are rivals. Both have questionable intentions, those of one more questionable than the those of the other: With the help of Frederick, Suzy learns that Lord Meridian’s research project is actually an excuse to spy on all of the positions of power in the independently governed Impossible Places with plans to usurp the leaders one by one. The only thing standing in Lord Meridian’s takeover is Suzy and Frederick–and, apparently, the Lady Crepuscula, who doesn’t seem friendly but doesn’t want to see the Impossible Places fall to her misfit brother. What really fascinated me was the fact that P. G. Bell didn’t depict Lady Crepuscula as a hero. She may have more of an honor code than her brother, Suzy realizes, but she still is ruthless in achieving her goals. I find this nuanced depiction of flaws and strengths in Lady Crepuscula reminiscent somewhat of John Steinbeck’s writing style, who, as Peter Shaw said, neither made out the Californian valley where he set some of his fiction “a fanciful Eden” nor merely a force of destruction. This interesting use of non-stock characters adds a layer of mystery to the literature. Lastly, I think the author does an excellent job of adding a twist to the story by combining fact and fiction. This novel, while bursting to the brim with magic and spells, also features the physics equations. The heroine uses her brain and knowledge of physics multiple times to get The Impossible Express out of a tight spot or to increase the train’s speed. It’s an intriguing blend of magic and physics, and it almost shouldn’t work, yet it does. If I had to make one suggestion to improve the plot, I would wish that Ursel and Suzy interacted more with each other and more evidently became friends. With an intriguing science twist, this combination of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Land of Stories, and Septimus Heap is a fun romp through a world of oddball characters and magic. A lighthearted, humorous read, The Train to Impossible Places: A Cursed Delivery is warm, satisfying fare for any age, any time of the year.

The Giant of Africa

Hello again, readers! I hope that you all enjoyed and were informed by my post back in January about Kosovo, the birthplace of one of my favorite musicians (Dua Lipa). I’m ready to put on my “Political analyst” hat again, and am excited to shift focus from Europe to Africa. Let’s go from very small (Kosovo) to pretty big—in this post, I’ll be profiling Nigeria, a country near the Sahara and is in the sphere of influence of Ghana, Togo, Benin, Niger, and more. Nigeria is part of MINT—the up-and-coming version of BRICS (an acronym for Britain, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, which are all countries at roughly the same developmental stage in their economies and such). MINT stands for Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey, the next four countries that are promising. In this post, I also hope to explain why many think Nigeria is set to be Africa’s only global superpower by perhaps as early as 2050.

Nigeria, like some other modern-day African countries, was colonized by the British in the 19th century. It finally gained independence in 1960 and is now known for many landmarks. Its predominant source of income is oil. Its foremost trading partners are the US (which buys two-fifths of Nigeria’s crude oil) and the UK. You could say that Nigeria is an oil giant.

It’s also the Giant of Africa, because it has a giant population and an equally large economy. Currently, 20% of Africans are Nigerian, and Nigerians account for 3 whole percent of the world’s 7 billion people. Right now, a little less than 200 million people live in Nigeria, but give it 20 years—Nigeria is projecting to house over 400 million people; if you’re doing the math, that’s double the amount! It’s widely agreed upon that Nigeria is the richest country in Africa, but it’s still ranked as a middle income country. In 2017, it raked in almost 376 billion US dollars in revenue. Holy GDP, that’s large, you’re probably thinking. While it’s definitely one of the better-to-do countries in Africa, the average Nigerian has an annual income of maybe $2,500 US dollars, if we’re rounding up.

This brings us to a problem. A growing economy is great for a country, but a growing population is less so. India is dealing with a major issue now: how to use the world’s fastest growing economy to provide for the world’s fastest growing population (over 1.1 billion people and counting). Soon Nigeria will face the same struggle. More people can generate more revenue, but the flip side is that natural resources will be stretched thinner to provide basic human rights for all. Nigeria’s farmland is already being strained. On top of that, more people means more of everybody’s favorite issue: healthcare! The HIV epidemic is unfortunately alive and well in Nigeria, which has the second-highest number of afflicted people in the world with around 3 million. The country also has a problem with electricity, and faces a number of blackouts that would seem abnormal to people in the US. At Fashion Week in the capital, Lagos, last year, makeup artists had to do their work by the light of their phones’ flashlights after the power went out.

Nigeria’s money is also of late being diverted more to the military, all in an effort to fight afflictions like the Boko Haram. The Boko Haram is a terrorist group active in West Africa in countries such as Niger, Nigeria, and Chad. You’ve probably heard of the Chibok kidnapping, where hundreds of girls in the far northeastern corner of Nigeria were kidnapped and held prisoner in 2014. The Boko Haram were responsible for that. Now, Nigeria aims to wipe out the organization and perhaps others like it. Let’s hope that they are successful, and that the girls still being held captive will be released.

Nigeria’s efforts against corrupt politics are admirable. Its abundant natural resources—cough cough, oil—lead to low taxes, which is good, but maybe also a lack of transparency between the Senate—well, government—and people of Rome—whoops, um, Nigeria. This, as you can guess leads to corruption, which leads to less interest from foreign investors. Luckily, these anti-corruption efforts have led to more interest from many, such as American companies: General Electric (that may help with the power outages), Walmart, and Proctor and Gamble (the company that makes mouthwash and the Crest toothpaste in your bathroom). This leads to a better, more stable economy, which leads to a more stable everything, which is a wonderfully happy cycle.

The country is also definitely the leading one in its sphere of influence (sub-Saharan Africa). It was one of the founding members of the African Union, the counterpart to the more well-known EU in Europe, for starters. That’s a good sign—it means that Nigeria is open-minded and interested in preserving peace. And speaking of peace, it also funds Pax Nigeriana, a military effort that sends peacekeeping missions to other neighboring countries. So far, missions have been sent to Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cote d’Ivoire. Yay peace! And lastly but most importantly, Nigeria is ethnically diverse and culturally rich. It’s home to many indigenous peoples, such as the Igbo, Edo, and Ogoni, and is also admired for its culture. Nigerian literature, for example, includes the famous novel Things Fall Apart (does it ring a bell? Maybe from an AP English class?), which discusses colonialism in Nigeria.

The bottom line is that Nigeria = ↑ people, ↑ economy and investors, and ↑ respect from other African countries, particularly those surrounding it and on the receiving end of the peace missions. And while it has its fair share of issues, like that popular girl at school with as many friends as enemies, the country is promising, intriguing, and has a bright future. (And also . . . popularity isn’t everything, so hang in there, middle schoolers!)

Argan (T)oil

This poem was inspired by a recent trip to Morocco.

“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” —Aesop

Morocco is a country characterized

by mixtures.

It touches

both the sparkling, bubbly Mediterranean Sea,

and the sweeping, powerful Atlantic Ocean.

The people speak

an overwhelming, confusing jumble of

French and Arabic.

Its people fall

into roughly two ethnic groups:

the Berbers, the native people, built on tradition;

the Arabs, who now call

Africa—not the Arabian Peninsula—their home.

H

i

g

h

in the country, there is

none

of this confusion.

The rural village,

Built

into the hillside and surrounded

by lush foliage, is

Berber through and through.

Climbing      

r      

e   

h

g

i

 h

I reach

The pharmacy, surrounded

By carefully nurtured plants, that houses

All the natural, ancient, Berber remedies.

Inside, I find

The ultimate remedy: argan oil, produced only in Morocco.

Argan oil, which can

cure acne,

mend skin,

vitalize hair.

I see

A woman grinding

The seeds of argan fruit, pressing out

The rare and treasured oil.

Her long brown fingers grasp

A wheel that, when turned, presses

The caramel-colored, fingernail-sized seeds beneath it.

I try working

the wheel.

I feel

The solid wood of it.

I sense

The gritty rubbing between the seeds and the wood.

I watch

As nothing is produced—wait!

There it is, something— that drips

Into the pan below.

The raw oil is

a chocolate brown.

My effort only produces

A tiny drop, that slithers

stealthily away.

All those seeds, all that grinding, all that time—and the result is

Barely visible.

How can the Berber woman have such patience?

To work diligently?

To wait?

To see few results?

The woman smiles.

Her face sags

With age, a reminder of how many years

She has performed

This task.

Her eyes twinkle,

As if trying

To tell me a secret.

And then I realize:

Maybe patience is

Not necessary,

But faith:

The promise to oneself that all will end well,

And that all effort

Or deeds

Or good thoughts

Will come to fruition.

Eventually.