Wednesday, October 26, 2011

First Rule: Cardio

Last night, Carly and I headed to the Fairfax County Government Center for an evening with Max Brooks. You might know him as the author of World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide, but I know him as my secret boyfriend.

I might have made up that last part.

First a few words about Max Brooks in general. He was funnier and more engaging than I expected; apparently he's done some acting and wrote for SNL for a few years (one of the Emmy winning years in fact). He did a lot of funny accents, gave some funny examples, and let out his inner nerd with frequent videogame, World of Warcraft, and Lord of the Ring references.

The program began with a 30 minute talk from Mr. Brooks about how to stay alive during a zombie apocalypse, focusing on the things the movies don't show you. He then took questions from the audience and did a book signing. Like a good blogger I took notes so that you, my dear readers, wouldn't miss out anything. Hopefully you'll now at least stand a chance of not being horribly killed when your grandma develops a taste for human flesh.

Mr. Brooks began by answering the number one question he is always asked: why zombies? The answer was a little more in-depth than I expected. Basically, they are monsters that don't obey the rules. Most of the time the hero ventures out to find the monster; he or she has to go to the abandoned castle, or walk a lonely road at midnight, or wander into the creepy swamp. But zombies are one of the only monsters that will come find you. You're sitting down for dinner with your family and whoops here come the zombies. As Mr. Brooks put it, "they will come to your home and they will come for you."

The first thing Mr. Brooks did when he decided to take on the zombie genre was to disabuse himself of the cliches of conventional zombie entertainment. His goal, according to him, isn't merely to entertain but also to save your life. Fiction is based on characters making bad choices--and in our society we blur the line between entertainment and eduction. But Mr. Brooks' goal is apparently to arm you with the knowledge necessary for survival.

So how are you supposed to protect yourself? As with most things, the devil is in the details, and Mr. Brooks pointed out that you don't see the details in the movies or the tv shows. It's not very riveting to see someone in the middle of the latest zombie-blockbuster die of dehydration or dysentery. But that's what you REALLY need to worry about. If you want to survive the coming of World War Z you're going to need:

--Water. And not just water, but a way to purify water when you're on the move.

--Weapons, but not guns. "Guns don't kill people and people don't kill people. Bullets kill people." With a potential for billions of zombies in the world you're going to run out of ammo pretty quickly. After all, "there's 300 million Americans here. I don't know how many Mexicans...and a hell of a lot more Canadians than they want me to believe." Your best bet isn't a gun, it's something less likely to break or run of of ammo and can operate in close range. And don't get fancy, the best weapons started out as tools. Don't think that samurai sword hanging on your wall (or the Sword of Gryffindor you bought online) is going to save your ass. Get yourself to the hardware store and stock up on axes, sledge hammers, etc.

--Transportation. DON'T USE A CAR. Cars need gas. You will run out of gas. Then you'll be zombie chow. Mr. Brooks recommends a bicycle. It's light, it's portable, and you can load stuff up on the back. And until they invent a mode of transport that runs on fear...oh wait, they have. A bike. Just wait and see how fast you'll pedal when the zombies come a-calling.

--Figure out where to run. Avoid heavily populated areas since the more people in a place, the more zombies. Find a place that isolated and go native. I know as Americans it's practically against our religion, but if you're going to survive in these places, you'll need to listen and learn to the indigenous people (you might want to leave your smallpox blankets at home).

--Work together. Another problem for Americans, but really key. Find people with specialized useful skills and make them part of your group. Mr. Books recommends that we start vetting people now to determine if we want them to be part of our group when the apocalypse strikes. His advice is to "lure them in with smiles and Scientology."

After we got through the basics on surviving the zombies, it was time for the Q+A. I didn't write down most of the questions but on the whole most of them were pretty good. I was interested in hearing about the movie, but when I asked my question, "are the details that you said are never in the movies going to be in your movie?" his response was "you mean Brad Pitt's movie? Next question." Someone asked him to go in a bit more detail and he stated that he hadn't read the script, had nothing to do with the movie, and to be honest, he seemed a bit...maybe bitter is too strong a word but very dismissive about it. He did say that Brad Pitt was a really nice guy and when he visited the set he couldn't have been nicer.

Mr. Brooks was also very kind during the signing, taking the time for pictures with anyone who asked and putting personalized messages in almost every book. Oh, and his last piece of advice?

Don't think the movies and television shows you've seen are going to save you.

The big question I'm left with and the one I wish I had asked is whether Max Brooks really believes that a zombie outbreak could happen. He's made quite a living on zombies and he seems to take this stuff really seriously, but I wonder. Does he REALLY think it could happen?

Do you?

Sunday, October 23, 2011


Ah, sunny Florida. Or the Florida that is SUPPOSED to be sunny. Because when we arrived for a few days at the beginning of the month it poured rain. And kept pouring. And kept pouring for a day and a half. Which may not sound like a lot, but when you are only there for four days it does tend to put a damper on things. Literally. Turns out there was a tropical depression directly over us. Figures.

But we refused to let it spoil our fun! We had a group of 8 people (Me, Chris, Kent, Kristin, Kevin, Carly, Wendy, and Luke) and after meeting up at the airport we braved the rain and the Orlando weekend traffic for a mini-break of sea creatures, roller coasters, and magic. Chris and Kent had managed to find us a townhouse in a resort about 30 minutes from all the theme parks, and it worked out to have plenty of room for all of us. But no internet.

Let me repeat, no internet.

What kind of resort these days does not supply internet? One in Davenport, Florida apparently. But that's a total first world problem and we managed to survive. And other than the no internet the place was great. Did I mention the hot tubs and water slide? I mean, who needs internet when you have a water slide?

Ok, so back to the fun stuff. Our first full day in town we decided to hit up SeaWorld. It was still raining, but we figured we would be getting wet anyway at SeaWorld so why not go for it. The bad weather also kept the crowds down. Going into SeaWorld I didn't have expectations; I had never really considered going there or figuring out what there was to see/do in the park, but I ended up being pleasantly surprised. There are two really fun roller coasters for the thrill-seekers (including the Manta which was one of the scariest and fun rides I've ever been on) and lots of shows centering around the marine life at the park. Dolphins, killer whales, sea lions, each one had their own show that was structured differently and a lot of fun. But the best part of the day was when we got to play with the penguins.

If you know Chris, you know he is obsessed with penguins. So the entire reason for the jaunt to SeaWorld was so that we could take a behind-the-scenes tour of the penguin and puffin area and interact with the animals. We started out by learning about how the penguins are cared for and raised, and then moved into an "office" where we could see a puffin. The puffins are more skittish than the penguins and their feathers absorb oils from our skin really easily so unfortunately we weren't allowed to touch the one we met, but he was very cute and actually seemed very cat-like. He had lots of little toys that he enjoyed playing with and chasing and was a sucker for a piece of string. Adorable.

Hello, Mr. Puffin.

Then it was onto the penguins! We got to interact with two of them, a larger King penguin and a smaller breed whose name escapes me. Although the smaller penguin's actual name was Jasper. Adorable! They were both friendly and tolerated us posing with them, petting them, and being overall enchanted with them very well. The little staging area where we met the penguins was right next to the penguin compound so we got an up close and personal view of the hundreds of other penguins that also live at SeaWorld.

Hello, penguins.


As a bonus, the weather cleared up that afternoon and we had sunny skies for the rest of our stay. It was a penguin miracle!

The most surprising thing that we learned about the penguins and puffins is that they are projectile poopers. No lie, they can spray that shit about 3 feet. Since they spend so much time sitting in their nests keeping their eggs warm (since it's freaking cold where they live) they evolved the ability to projectile poop to keep the nest clean. This means you need to be careful not to get behind the penguin or you can get hit. When we met the puffin, we were told to stay behind a drain that had been placed on the floor and that would keep us out of the splash zone. Sure enough, as soon as the puffin was in with us he turned around and let it fly. It was gross but also kind of neat since it was so different. And the puffin was just so cute that anything it did seemed charming. Even pooping.

The rest of our stay we visited the Universal Parks including The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and it was so fun to see it for the first time through everyone else's eyes. Especially since most of us are big old honking Harry Potter dorks. One look at the Hogwarts Express and the castle itself is all it takes to turn us into giggling little kids. But that's the fun of theme parks, right?

Group photo at the Hogwarts Express


Here I am giving my best Azkaban impression. I don't think I really have the crazy down yet...

Kristin and I trying on tiaras at the Bibbity Boppity Boutique in the Downtown Disney shopping area. I think the price tags really add a certain something. As Kevin put it, we were the "frugal princesses."

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Look at this stuff, isn't it neat

All good things must come to an end, and so did our European vacation. This will be the last post covering our adventures which I suppose could be a good or bad thing depending on how much you like reading about other people's travels.

Our final stop on our cruise was Copenhagen, Denmark. I wish I could say that it lived up to some of the other places we visited but the truth is Copenhagen had some stuff working against it. First, it poured rain all day. It's just not as much fun to take a walking tour when you are getting pounded by rain. Second, my ankle was beginning to bother me. I had made it through Tallinn pretty well, but by Copenhagen, I was experiencing some problems walking. The cruise line was unwilling to give us a refund on our booked tour, so I went ahead and toughed it out.

Copenhagen is the capital and largest city of Denmark, and is situated on two islands, Zealand and Amager. Copenhagen became the capital of Denmark in the beginning of the 15th century. During the 17th century, under the reign of Christian IV, it became a significant regional centre.
The city is currently a major regional centre of culture, business, media, and science, and has repeatedly been recognized as one of the cities with the best quality of life. However, living in the city also comes with a high price, literally. If I remember our tour guide correctly, taxes in Denmark hover around the 70% level which means the Danes pay through the nose for their fun. Suck on THAT Tea Partiers.

Our tour started along the sea with stops at some historical statues. The first, celebrating Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid is one of Copenhagen's most iconic images. I'm ashamed to say that the other statues, while lovely, were not able to penetrate the detritus of my brain and allow me to remember their names. However, I can tell you that they were all made as gifts to Denmark after some royal lady was married off. Our tour guide joked that Denmark's number one export was royal daughters, and it's number one import was statutes from them after they got married off.

The Little Mermaid

Random statute and church...sorry guys, that's all I got on this one.

We continued to walk along the coast of the city and saw several motorcades pass including the car that was transporting the Crown Prince. Apparently there was a memorial dedication for Denmark's fallen in the Iraq/Afghanistan war going on that day so the big wigs had turned out. Our tour guide also liked to joke that Denmark had not won a successful military campaign in around 500 years and the last one, against maybe Sweden? came as such a complete shock that people didn't know what to do with themselves. This kind of self-deprecating humor is common to the Danes; in fact, they seemed to kind of have a sad-sack quality. I guess they are the Eeyore of Scandinavia.

After almost getting run over by the Crown Prince, we turned away from the water and headed to the oldest section of Copenhagen's inner city (called the "Middelalderbyen" (The Medieval City). We also walked through the most distinctive district of Copenhagen, the Frederiksstaden developed during the reign of Frederick V. It has Amalienborg Palace at its centre and is dominated by the dome of the Marble Church and several elegant 18th century mansions. The old inner city of Copenhagen includes the small island of Slotsholmen with Christiansborg Palace and Christianshavn. Around the historical city centre lies a band of congenial residential bouroughs (Vesterbro, Inner Nørrebro, Inner Østerbro) dating mainly from late 19th century. They were built outside the old ramparts of the city when the city was finally allowed to expand beyond this barrier.

Our tour wandered through the city, but to be perfectly honest, at this point Copenhagen was blending into a lot of the other cities we had visited. Our tour included the walking portion and then a boat portion, but by the time we arrived at the canal for the boat tour, we had had enough of the rain and decided to just wander through the old party of the city shopping and looking around.

Well, that about does it! The rest of our trip passed (mostly) without incident. Going back into Amsterdam we had REALLY rough seas, the worst I have ever experienced, but we arrived safe and sound. We spent another night in Amsterdam and just sort of wandered around without aim to enjoy the sights one last time. We watched a lot of the National Geographic Channel (one of the only American tv channels) and I read a lot of the latest Wheel of Time book. Our flights back the next day went off without a hitch, although the walking through the airports and inability to elevate my ankle made for an uncomfortable experience. And when we arrived back in DC, there was my Mom waiting with a sign and her camera to welcome us home. And that was really one of the best parts--coming back home to a happy and smiling Mom.

Welcome home! As you can see, Chris and I look happy however Kent couldn't really give a shit since he just wants a cigarette. Good times!

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Ye Olde Medieval Town

In the weeks leading up to my cruise, many people inquired as to where I was going. I would tell them our itinerary, and a common (surprising) response was "ooooh, Tallinn! You are going to love it, it is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe!" This was surprising to me because 1) Tallinn wasn't ever really on my radar before and 2) Estonia? Really?

Well, they were right. Tallinn was an unexpected highlight of our trip, and even the fact that I had sprained my ankle the day before couldn't slow us down. With the help of Chris' ankle brace I managed to tramp my way across the ancient part of Tallinn and across some castle ruins. Yay castles!

Tallinn was another port where we didn't book an excursion through the cruise company. The historical part of Tallinn is pretty small so wandering around by ourselves was pretty easy, and the free map identified all the main touristy locations. The cruise ship also offered a shuttle from the port to downtown area, so we were all set.

Some quick background: the first traces of human settlement found in Tallinn are about 5000 years old. In 1050 the first fortress was built on Tallinn Toompea, the hill and upper part of the town. The city was also an important port for trade between Russia and Scandinavia during the period of Northern Crusades in the beginning of the 13th century when Christianity was forcibly imposed on the local population. Danish rule of Tallinn and Northern Estonia started in 1219. The Danes sold Tallinn along with their other land possessions in northern Estonia in 1346. Medieval Tallinn enjoyed a strategic position at the crossroads of trade between Western and Northern Europe and Russia. The city, with a population of 8,000, was very well fortified with city walls and 66 defence towers.

Tallinn passed to the Swedes in the sixteenth century, and then to imperial Russia in 1710. The 19th century brought industrialization of the city and the port kept its importance. On 24 February 1918, the Independence Manifesto was proclaimed in Tallinn, followed by Imperial German occupation and a war of independence with Russia. On 2 February 1920, the Tartu Peace Treaty was signed with Soviet Russia, wherein Russia acknowledged the independence of the Estonian Republic. Tallinn became the capital of an independent Estonia. After World War II started, Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union (USSR) in 1940, and later occupied by Nazi Germany from 1941 to 44. After the Nazi retreat in 1944, it was again occupied by the USSR. After annexation into the Soviet Union, Tallinn became the capital of the Estonian SSR.

So basically, Tallinn got jerked around for centuries but has cut the strings and become a real boy. Yay!

After getting off the bus in downtown Tallinn, we wandered down a large street lined with market stalls. At the end of the street were the gates of Tallinn, the medieval entrance to the city. Once we passed through the gates, we were in the Toompea, an area that was once a separate town that occupied an easily defensible site overlooking the surrounding districts.

Medieval gates of Tallinn.


Medieval square in Tallinn.

Tallinn street.

I was immediately struck by how beautiful Tallinn is. Cobble streets are flanked by colorful row houses, and you can easily imagine a bustling medieval market in the city center. People wander from cafes to shops, and there are actually a large number of modern dance clubs situated throughout the medieval area. The ruins of a stone church stand on top of the hill overlooking the lower town, contrasting with the more modern Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with its characteristic onion domes. You know how theme parks will sometimes have a "medieval town" or something like that in the entrance shopping area? Well, Tallinn is what the theme parks are trying to recreate. It's the real thing, you guys.

Outside wall of Tallinn castle.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Castle and cathedral. Two for one!

We spent the afternoon walking to the major sites (the castle, the cathedral, the scenic overlook) and ducking into shops. There was lots of amber, wool clothing, nesting dolls, and jewelry. We even ran into our South African friends at the overlook area. But after walking through the town most of the afternoon, my ankle (and feet) needed a break so back to the ship! While we were only in Tallinn a few hours, it made quite an impression. And now we have ANOTHER place to add to the "must return to" list. Maybe we should just do the same cruise again sometime.

View of Tallinn from the scenic overlook.

Sitting on the well, just don't lean back...

I think this was a statute of a chimney sweep. Don't ask me why.

Fun at the castle. Well what else are you going to do when presented with a giant sword and shield.

In sum: Tallinn is beautiful, quaint, charming, and perfect for any medieval-history nuts.