Squirrel!!!

Squirrel!

Do you remember the scene from “Up” with the easily distracted dog(s)? You should watch it here before reading the rest of this post.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Good, we’re all on the same page.  In short, I’ve been feeling very “SQUIRREL!” this week.

I’m in the process of rereading, editing and moving old content to a new site, which means I’ve been forced to reread my own material and decide what, if anything, is worth saving/moving/editing. This is a good time to thank you for still following.  It’s all a learning process, amiright?   I have pending outlines for 11 new posts, which I’m pretty excited about, but… they remain just outlines.  I’ve had at least 2 prolonged moments of personal crisis this week in the form of “Why am I doing this?” and it’s only Monday.  I’m mastering the art of search engine optimization, facebook and twitter (not really). If you feel extra supportive today, you can head over to my facebook page a “like” it and/or follow me on twitter @apassportaffair.  If you just feel sorry for me, you can do the same. Thanks!

So, be prepared for seemingly random posts, potential missing content and…I forgot the third thing.  Squirrel.

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Secret Tunnels and Covert Operations

The nice thing about having houseguests is the opportunity to play tourist in one’s own country. We took advantage of the odd day off last week and dragged our most recent visitor to Canterbury and Dover, a part of the country we hadn’t yet explored.

Dover Castle stands sentry over the White Cliffs of Dover, a strategically significant spot since before the Iron Age.  Duke William of Normandy built the first castle at Dover, but it was King Henry II that undertook the building of the Great Tower in 1179.  Henry supposedly built the tower to impress important visitors on their way to Canterbury Cathedral, although it’s position on the hill allowed Henry II to observe, impress or threaten anyone sailing across the Straits of Dover from the mainland, a mere 21 miles away. The darker historians imply King Henry built this castle to assuage his guilt about his role in the murder of Thomas Becket.  

Churchill At Dover Castle © Imperial War Museum

Churchill At Dover Castle © Imperial War Museum

In successive centuries, Dover Castle withstood Civil, Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, expanding and modernizing after each conflict.  Dover Castle didn’t make its lasting mark on history until World War II, when its secret war tunnels buried into the hills beneath Dover Castle became the nerve center for an extraordinary event.

In May 1940, advancing German troops pushed British, French and Belgian soldiers onto the beaches at Dunkirk, France.  Over 400,000 soldiers were trapped on the beach with the sea in front of  them and the advancing German army behind them.  As this horrifying situation slowly unfolded, Admiral Sir Bertram Home Ramsay began planning troop evacuations… code-named Operation Dynamo.  Ramsay estimated 45,000 of the 400,000 trapped troops could be rescued. The unfortunate soldiers left behind faced certain capture or annihilation at the hands of German troops.

At 18:57 26 May 1940, Operation Dynamo commenced.  British military vessels were able to evacuate 7,669 men on the first day of the mission.  Day two, 11,874.  On day 3, the pace of rescue quickened as the “little ships”  joined British destroyers in the rescue effort.  Lifeboats, pleasure craft, tugboats and barges manned by old men and young boys sailed from ports throughout England, Scotland and Wales to help ferry troops from the beach to the rescue ships or back across the sea.  Other soldiers “held the line” against the advancing Germans at great cost, giving their fellow soldiers a chance at escape. By the end of Operation Dynamo on June 4th, 338, 226 men had been rescued.

Entrance to the secret tunnels at Dover Castle

Entrance to the secret tunnels at Dover Castle

The planning for Operation Dynamo took place in the subterranean tunnels dug into the hills at Dover Castle. Now open to the public after an extensive renovation, the tunnels offer a chance to explore the nerve center for Operation Dynamo.

Operations Room

Operations Room

Visitors begin their guided visit by walking down into an underground bunker room, where they must await “orders” before proceeding to a operational brief in an adjacent bunker.  Multimedia presentations, preservation and restoration of the underground tunnel system brings the experience to life.  A fabulous piece of history in a unusual location.

Things to Know

Current rules prohibit photography.  There are a privileged few that have English Heritage permission to photograph the site. You can view their photos of the War Tunnels here.

Dover Castle is an all-day outing.  In addition to the Wartime Tunnels, there are medieval tunnels, the restored Great Tower, the Regimental Museum, the underground hospital, an Anglo-Saxon church and the battlements.  The Castle is a 10 minute drive from the White Cliffs of Dover.

Admission was a bit steep (£44.20 for a family) , so we opted to purchase an English Heritage membership that day.  The cost of one day’s admission was half the cost of a full year membership and allows free admission to over 400 English Heritage properties.

The tours into the Secret Wartime Tunnels are guided to ensure no one gets lost in the winding maze of passageways down below.  The timing of the last tour varies, so check with the visitor’s desk when you purchase your tickets.

You can actually stay at the castle!  Peverell’s Tower offers self-catering accommodation for two.  The Sergeant Major’s House accommodates 6+ .  I’m a little bit sad we didn’t stay there….maybe next time.

Check times, dates and details before you go.

Has it been a year?

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This weekend marked the one year anniversary of our move to the UK.  365 days since we waved goodbye to friends and family and set up house in a tiny flat in London. I find landmark moments in time warrant a complete review of how that time was spent so I created a personal end-of-the-year report card of sorts.

1.Moving was a major undertaking.  I give myself an A in that category only because someone else did the packing and shipping. Anything is better than the 10+ previous US Navy military moves. No one tried to pack a bicycle inside a cherry armoire this time, so I’ll consider it a win. Perspective is everything.

2. Adjusting to my new home country is still a work in progress…I give myself a B to B- strictly because of the rage inducing encounters I had with BT, O2 and NatWest during the first few months of our London life.  I’m working on adjusting to a new level of customer service and am happy to report I pleasantly negotiated a non-hostile refund with Gatwick Express today. Progress.

3. Traveling.  Travel was a prime motivator for accepting an overseas move and we’ve maximized every opportunity.  We get an A- with a side of Needs Improvement. I had a moment in Hong Kong when I woke up in a dark room at 3:00am and had absolutely no idea where I was.  No. Idea.  This disquieting middle-of-the night, jet-lagged moment led to an epiphany…perhaps, just perhaps, we were traveling a bit too much. Mind you, I’ve enjoyed every single minute of every trip, but realize that running from one place to the next with a camera and notebook in hand left me little time to really reflect on where I’ve been.   I’m going to take some time this summer to sift through my 5000 photos (don’t worry, I won’t post them all) and my little notebook stuffed with semi-legible notes.  There are good memories in there to share.

4.  Learning.  It goes beyond learning not to over-shop at the grocery store when you have a 2km walk home and not saying “pants” when you mean trousers.  It’s learning how create a new work life from nothing, how to reach out to others and establish new relationships with complete strangers and trusting that just this once it might be ok to figure everything out as you go along.

5.  Being thankful.  We are incredibly grateful every day for the opportunity to live as expats.  It comes with its own set of worries, true.  We worry about our parents, our kids, sick relatives, not being home to celebrate and/or grieve with people we love. We worry about never finding a community to call home, but in the end, we hope the pros outweigh the cons.  We’ve been blessed with a nice neighborhood, a shorter commute, more time together and fabulous friends in Crossfit Central London and elsewhere. We  have  a non-stop stream of house guests who bring us love, a bit of home and the good kind of peanut butter. We are blessed.

Thanks for following along.

Megan

Abu Dhabi: A Cultural Oasis in the Desert

“Our grandfathers and ancestors have left a wealth of cultural heritage we are proud of.  We shall conserve it and build on it as it is the soul of this land and its future generations.”  Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan

Often seen as the quiet, more conservative neighbor to glitzy Dubai, Abu Dhabi is establishing itself as a 21st century, world-class cultural center. The discovery of oil in the 1960s and Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan‘s vision for a prosperous nation transformed Abu Dhabi from  a sleepy, pearl-diving fishing village with an uncertain future into the wealthy political, economic and cultural metropolis it is today.

Saadiyat Island is the site of Abu Dhabi’s dynamic cultural development project, the  Saayidat Island Cultural District.  Five Pritzker Prize winning architects were selected to build five venues as part of this visionary project sure to attract architectural, cultural and art aficionados from all over the world.

The Zayed National Museum (Foster & Partners) will celebrate and honor the late founder and UAE visionary Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and celebrate the cultural legacy of Abu Dhabi and the UAE.  The National Museum is partnered with the British Museum for this endeavor and is slated to open in 2016.

Jean Nouvel designed the stunning Louvre Abu Dhabi.  The Louvre Abu Dhabi is partnered with the Musee Du Louvre, Musee d’Orsay and Centre Pompidou in France and will utilize a unique curatorial concept demonstrating the connections between civilizations and cultures.  The museum is slated to open in 2015, although visitors can get a taste of what’s to come by visiting Manarat Al Saadiyat’s current preview exhibit.

Proposed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi/ photo skyscapercity.com

Proposed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi/ photo skyscapercity.com

The architect of  Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Frank Gehry, designed GAD to reflect and “recall the region’s ancient wind-towers… in a fitting blend of Arabian tradition and modern, sustainable design (credit).”  The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will house permanent collections, exhibitions and educational programs that support its mission of examining modern art through multinational perspective and understanding. This museum is supported by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and is scheduled to open in 2017.  If you are interested in the thought process behind the design, you can investigate that here.

Saadiyat Island model for future development

Saadiyat Island model for future development

Saadiyat Island Cultural District will also house the Performing Arts Center, designed by Zaha Hadid and a Maritime Museum by Tadao Ando.

Things to Know

As you can see from the dates listed above, the key museums have yet to open.  Do not let that deter you from visiting.  The Manarat Al Saadiyat  in the Cultural District is currently hosting two brilliant exhibits.  “Birth of a Museum” offers a preview of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s initial collection. “The Saadiyat Story”  provides a slick, interactive presentation about the island’s past, present and future.  In all honesty, The Saadiyat Story was my inspiration for this post. The excitement and pride about Abu Dhabi’s past, present and future is contagious.

There is a very nice cafe within the Manarat building, so despite the feeling of being “way out and away” from all things city, you can be well fed and happy.  If that isn’t your cup of tea, you can have exactly that at the newly opened St. Regis just up the road.

The Saadiyat Island master plan is here for anyone interested in the other districts and venues slated for development on the island.

As always, check times and details before you go.

Make Way For Dragons

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If you spend more than 10 minutes in Hong Kong, you realize space is a precious commodity.  The streets are crowded, the roads are crowded, the markets are crowded. Towering apartment blocks line the Hong Kong skyline, housing a majority of city residents in flats considered small by any standard.

Dragon gates, Repulse Bay, Hong Kong

Dragon gates, Repulse Bay, Hong Kong

A cursory glance across the skyline draws attention to gaping holes carved through the center of many buildings. Why would a city allow such a glaring waste of space when very square inch of real estate is precious?  The answer?  Dragons. Dragons and feng shui. Dismissed by Western skeptics as weirdly new-age, the art of feng shui is serious business in Hong Kong.  Feng shui, translated as “wind and water” stems from the ancient art of geomancy, or connecting to the energy of the earth.

Hong Kong skyline.  Can you find the "dragon holes?"

Hong Kong skyline. Can you find the “dragon holes?”

One school of feng shui concentrates on building placement in an environment in relation to the mountains, sea and sky.  Another school examines the influence of shape within the built and natural environment.  Most feng shui practitioners combine approaches when examining the design and placement of buildings/objects to ensure they are created in an auspicious and harmonious way. Hong Kong has naturally good feng shui.  It faces the water and is protected by mountains behind and across from it. Legend holds that dragons live in the mountains and hold positive and powerful energy. This energy blows through Hong Kong daily as the dragons make their way from the mountains to the sea to drink and bathe. As Hong Kong expands, builders and architects create massive structures that potentially  “block” the dragons’ passage from the hills to the sea, creating bad feng shui and blocking the natural air flow through the city.  Thus, architects plan housing and office complexes with “gates” or “windows” allowing dragons to pass through the city unimpeded on  their way to the sea.

Bank of China, I M Pei

Bank of China, I M Pei

Before you dismiss feng shui as superstitious nonsense you should know that engineers, architects, property developers and real estate agents take feng shui courses before completing their training and certification. Prominent architectural and building firms consult feng shui experts at every step of a project when building in Hong Kong.  Fosters + Partners incorporated feng shui principles when planning the iconic HSBC Hong Kong building.  Foster stated “If a building has good feng shui, it’s probably also a good place to be.”  Bank of China architect, I. M. Pei chose to ignore these principles at his peril.  Criticized for its harsh, knife-edged angles and screw shaped top, it supposedly “cut” into the good fortune of nearby neighbors. Coincidently (or not), the nearby Lippo Center tenant went bankrupt and the first governor of Hong Kong refused to live or work in nearby Government House citing the bad feng shui.  Supposedly, the two rods that stand atop Foster’s HSBC building are a classic feng shui technique of deflecting negative energy back to its source.  The rods point in the direction of the Bank of China building.

Things to Know

Disney consulted feng shui experts when designing Hong Kong Disney.  The consultation resulted in shifting the main entrance angle by 12 degrees to ensure maximum prosperity.  Disney also modified the main pathway from the train station to the gate to prevent the “chi” or positive energy from slipping out of the gate and into the sea. You can read more about Disney and feng shui here.

If you’re interested in learning more about feng shui in Hong Kong, you can contact the Hong Kong Tourist Bureau for information on their Feng Shui tour.  Walk Hong Kong also offers a Temple and Feng Shui Walking Tour.

If you prefer a strictly architectural tour of the beautiful Hong Kong skyline, you can contact e-architects or the Hong Kong Tourist Bureau .