Salem, Massachusetts: An Off-Syllabus Field Trip

It’s been over a month since my trip to New England, and I’m finally writing my last post about it. I’ve already written about visiting the Boston Public Library and the great bookstores I was able to check out in Maine, but those of you who read my review of The Witches may remember that one of the sites I was most excited about was Salem. Schiff’s harrowing account of the Puritan community that became gripped in witchcraft paranoia was so fascinating, and I was excited to finally see the city I had read so much about.

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The modern town of Salem was different than I had pictured. In a lot of places, it was much like a smaller version of Boston: a compact, brick-lined city with shadows of its historical roots appearing in the artwork and some of older buildings. It was dense, winding, and actually really quaint. I had researched a good place to eat beforehand (a must if you’re a vegetarian like me) and had learned that Salem is really veggie-friendly. We had lunch at a place called The Lobster Shanty, which had the perfect mix of seafood and burgers for the omnivores in my party, plus some vegan sandwiches, soups, and a delicious mac & cheese (which I really enjoyed). This part of Salem was filled with cute shops and galleries; even though it was a smaller city, it felt cosmopolitan and lively.

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The view from The Lobster Shanty (none of the things on the sign were true, to my delight).

 

Of course, I wasn’t just here to visit a nice city. I wanted to surround myself in history, have a tactile connection to the people and places I had read about. To be fair, I wasn’t visiting Salem at the right time for that. I’ve heard that the time to really enjoy the witchcraft history is, of course, in October. But I still wanted to see whatever monuments and museums I could.

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I’ll start with my only “skip.” I searched online to find a good museum that would give an overview of the trials for people I was traveling with who hadn’t read Schiff’s book. The Salem Witch Museum appeared on a lot of travel lists and is located near the visitor’s center and other sites, which is why I thought it would be a good pick. But I suppose I imagined it to be a more traditional museum, with some artifacts (or recreations), plaques of information, and maybe a little video. Instead, the bulk of the museum experience takes place in a large room with dioramas that light up as a pre-recorded narrator takes you through the story, interrupted occasionally by ominous music. It was…a little cheesey. (Anyone remember the Stars Hollow Museum from Gilmore Girls?). It wasn’t that bad, it just wasn’t what I was expecting. The narration did provide a decent overview of the events of the trials, even if it wasn’t filled with the detail and nuance that Schiff’s book provides. It’s a perfectly fine touristy spot, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to someone who already knows the history, and I would definitely say that if you visit it, don’t go with the expectations of a more traditional museum.

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The thing that I would definitely recommend is the The Salem Witch Trials Memorial. It’s simple and modest (and as such, was a bit hard to find), but that’s part of what made it so moving. It’s just a courtyard surrounded by a stone wall, and interspersed within the wall are larger stones that jut out, upon which the names of the victims are carved. It was quiet and tucked-away, but that seemed like the right kind of memorial for this history. It didn’t turn the victims of the trials into a spectacle–the trials themselves were spectacle enough. Instead, it offered a place of quiet reflection. It was strange and sad to see the names of the people I had read about, to walk around and spend a moment remembering their lives. It was a sobering but meaningful experience.

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The first victim of the trials. Some lovely person had left a flower for her.

There were plenty of other witch-themed attractions, but our day was winding down. Some of the attractions seemed to lean more towards the cheesey. I could see that kind of thing being fun at Halloween, but I wasn’t really in the mood for it on this trip. While there weren’t quite as many historical landmarks to visit as I expected, it was still a good experience to see what the city looked like: an interesting blend of tourist attractions, somber memorials, and trendy arts districts. It was hard to imagine it being the same Puritan community that had once been so consumed by fear, but Salem’s history has certainly given it a unique and memorable personality.

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Boston Public Library: An Off-Syllabus Field Trip

On my recent trip to New England, I had a day to spend in Boston. The list of potential bookish sites to visit was completely overwhelming (and unfeasible in the amount of time that I had), but one thing that was high on my list was the Boston Public Library. Every article I had read noted it as a must-see, and I was certainly drawn to the oldest municipal library in the United States. I only had about ten minutes to check it out (heh, unintentional library puns), but it was definitely worth the stop, even if it was a quick visit.

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The entire city of Boston is packed with history, and it was wonderful to see the way that the library fit right alongside the churches and courtrooms of our nascent days as a nation. The outside certainly reminded me of a monument or a museum, but the bustle of people also gave me the sense that this was still an active and vibrant hub for Boston, still fulfilling its dedication to the advancement of learning. Though some people seem to think that technology is obviating the library, I know that our libraries are as vital now as they have ever been, and are doing the important work of making sure that information is available to everyone. (Of course, being a resident of Columbus has made me especially passionate about libraries–I’m very lucky to live in a city that has such a wonderful resource). That’s why I was so excited to see this library, a testament to both how crucial libraries have been in our history and how essential they continue to be in modern communities.

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As soon as you walk into the Boston Public Library, you get a sense of this importance. The lobby of this library is like a palace (which is, in my opinion, completely appropriate). This part of the library was definitely the most grand, and it immediately inspired a sense of reverence, as much as the historic churches and monuments that are so abundant in Boston. (Trying to take a picture that captured the whole sense was completely impossible!)

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As you venture deeper into the library, the mood transitions from the more grandiose monument to a place of scholarship and work. The large reading room was probably my favorite spot; it made me completely nostalgic for my college days. I could just imagine sitting in here working on my thesis. (Leave it to me to be daydreaming about studying on vacation!)

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As you move even deeper, the mood and decor of the library completely transitions into a sleek modern hub of information and resources. It was so inviting and comfortable, but I had one section in particular that I wanted to see: the children and teen sections. Of all the bookish jobs I’ve gotten to do, I’ve felt the most passionate about working with students to inspire a love of reading and access to language and literacy, and I was curious what these sections would look like in this library. I was not disappointed. The children’s section was bright and colorful, and the teen section was funky and cool without trying too hard to be. It seemed like a place that would be completely inviting. The library had clearly put a lot of time and energy into making sure these spaces were encouraging, and I was glad (but not surprised) to see that they were a priority.

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I wished I had had all day to browse the stacks, explore the labyrinthine rooms, and find a cozy spot to devour a new book. Even still, I’m glad I got to take a quick look around this wonderful library.

Bookish Maine: An Off-Syllabus Field Trip

I’m so sorry I have been absent for the last couple of weeks! Last week I was traveling with my family, and I’ve also just moved into a new place, so it’s been a bit of a hectic August. The trip was wonderful, though. Readers who saw my review of The Witches will know that I was lucky enough to visit New England, a part of the country I’ve never really seen before. It was a bit of a whirlwind trip, and I’ll have at least a couple more posts about it in the future, but the bulk of the trip was spent in the southern region of Maine (and a pretty good portion of that was spent by the beach–as you can imagine, I got quite a bit of reading done, and I can’t wait to share my thoughts on those books with you).

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I’m perhaps not the most subtle when picking out beach reads.

One of my favorite things to do while traveling is to check out local bookstores, and luckily for me, there were two great options close by. One of them was a bookstore/coffee shop/bar combo I had remembered reading about in an article on Book Riot. I had remembered that the article included a place in Maine, but I figured it would probably be too far away to realistically justify the trip. Turns out, ELEMENTS: Books Coffee Beer was about a fifteen minute drive from where we were staying, making the trip a necessity.

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The name of this place alone was the first thing that attracted me–what more could you want? When I visited it was earlier in the day, with the vibe leaning more coffee shop than bar, and I immediately felt comfortable. ELEMENTS is exactly the kind of place I loved to frequent in college (it reminded me a bit of Columbus’s own Kafe Kerouac, where I spent a lot of time studying as an Ohio State student). It had an array of tables, a cozy sofa in the back, and most importantly, book shelves all around the walls. The books were organized by genre, with square-shaped chalkboard signs designating the different categories in tall capital letters that resembled an element on the Periodic Table (i.e., you might see “Fi” for Fiction, “Hu” for Humor, etc.). The bright colors, exposed brick, and plethora of windows made the inside warm and inviting, the kind of place where you could spend hours reading and writing as you refill a coffee mug; many of the patrons seemed to be doing just that. Being surrounded by books only made the place feel even more studious, and I wished I had brought my writing to work on.

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The selection of books was also surprisingly expansive–maybe not as wide as a traditional bookstore, but certainly enough for the place to earn its hybrid bookstore/coffee shop/bar title. It seemed to stock mostly used books, but everything was in good shape and sold at a pretty good bargain. My best find came from the sales cart in the back. The books there were a little more worn, but the titles themselves were often surprising. I scored a copy of The Lover by Marguerite Duras for a quarter! While I perused the book selection, I didn’t sample as much of the food and drink as I should have. In a bizarre, perhaps vacation-induced divergence from the norm, I was not in the mood for coffee when I visited, but the mug of chamomile tea I sipped while looking through the stacks was perfect. The staff was also kind and conversational. The woman who rang me up for my books told me that if I was interested in bookstores, I definitely had the check out the ones in nearby Portland–a piece of advice I’m glad I heeded.

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I had just a blip of time to spend in Portland, but a quick Google search told me that if I only had time for one bookstore, the independent bookstore Longfellow Books was probably it. It’s in the hub of downtown Portland, making it an easy walk from a lot of the tourist attractions along the harbor. Longfellow Books was physically a bit smaller than I was expecting, but the size didn’t keep them from having a great selection, and they used their space well; the amount of books was dense but well organized, and it was easy to wend through the shelves and tables. The table displays and staff picks were interesting and well put-together, and the children’s section was impressively large, taking up what seemed to be about a third of the store. My quick Google search also told me that I had just missed a reading by Terry Tempest Williams (why did I have to be in Ohio the week before?), but in the midst of my disappointment, I remembered that a recent author visit probably meant that there were leftover signed books to be found. The friendly staff was able to locate the titles I was looking for right away, and sure enough, I went home with a signed copy of  Finding Beauty in a Broken World. As excited as I was about this, it was probably not the most memorable element of the bookstore experience at Longfellow. That award went to the resident bookstore cat, who was adorable, cuddly, and up for adoption.

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Whenever I travel, I always like to daydream about living in the place I’m visiting. What would it be like to be in this landscape all the time? Where would I go to get a cup of coffee? That’s why I like visiting local bookstores so much–the experience is a big part of what would make a place feel like home to me. After sampling a tiny slice of the bookstore culture in Maine, I think it’s pretty safe to say I can keep daydreaming about living there.

Diagon Alley at Universal Studios: An Off-Syllabus Field Trip

This summer, I was lucky enough to go to Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, where I was finally able to check out The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley. It was AMAZING. The Wizarding World (both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, located in the adjacent Islands of Adventure park) is completely immersive and more detailed than you can imagine, making it really feel like you’re a part of the experience that, if you’re a reader of my generation, you probably grew up reading and loving.

IMG_0814There are many, MANY sources out there that can tell you all about Diagon Alley in detail (although I must say, the more you can keep a surprise, the better!), so I’ll just go over some of my highlights. The main attractions of Diagon Alley are, as you can probably imagine, all of the little shops that Universal has meticulously re-created from the stories. Unfortunately, while a façade exists for Flourish & Blotts (Diagon Alley’s bookstore, for those that don’t remember), you can’t actually go inside. 😦 However, those of us humanities-inclined, studious types can still get our nerd on in Sribbulus Writing Implements, a little shop attached to Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment. At first I thought it might just be another façade, but upon walking in, I was surrounded by journals, parchment, stationary, and even quills and bottles of ink. Needless to say, this was my favorite spot in Diagon Alley.

IMG_0821My other favorite experience is one that I imagine is a little unexpected for most theme-park goers. On the hour in Diagon Alley, a group of actors puts on a show based on one of two stories from Beedle the Bard, the Potter-universe equivalent of, say, Aesop or the Brothers Grimm. While both the stories were pretty enjoyable, the best one was The Tale of the Three Brothers (fans of the book will remember this as the original story that sets up the mythos for the “deathly hallows”). My absolute favorite part of the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was the animated sequence that told this story. I don’t want to give too much away, but the show in Diagon Alley captures that art style so beautifully, making for a really spectacular visual experience. (If you’re curious and don’t mind spoiling the surprise, you can watch the entire show here).

Now, onto food. The restaurant in Diagon Alley is, of course, the Leaky Cauldron. Unfortunately, the lunch and dinner menu doesn’t have many veggie options, so we didn’t plan a meal here. However, I heard from a WONDERFUL Universal employee that they served hot butterbeer (in most of the Wizarding World locations, you can only get butterbeer cold or frozen). My mom and I went inside to check it out during breakfast, and I noticed that there were many more vegetarian options then (something I’ll have to do next time, I guess!). But y’all. Hot butterbeer is the way to go. While the cold version is more like soda, the hot version is like butterscotch hot chocolate. It might sound bad in the Florida heat, but if you get it early enough and drink lots of water after (as you should be doing anyway), it’s totally fine.

I was also really excited about Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour, but I have to say, this was my only miss. I was intrigued by an Earl Grey and Lavender flavor I had heard about, but it was really more vanilla-y than anything else. It was fine, it just didn’t compete with Jeni’s Wildberry Lavender ice cream (an unfair standard that I unfortunately hold all other ice cream to). If I go back, I will definitely try the Butterbeer flavored ice cream.

IMG_3630Those were my highlights from Diagon Alley. If you’ve been, leave a comment about your favorite experiences, and if you’ve never been, tell me about what you would be most excited to see!