Fulbright Forum 2017 (Or, Welcome to the UK -- It's Been Waiting for You!)

I'm going to be honest: I wasn't looking forward to the Fulbright Forum. I didn't travel 3,459 miles to sit around in a lecture hall full of Americans. Not to mention the fact that the Fulbright Forum was being hosted in Newcastle. Never heard of it before? I hadn't either. It's part of the "Northern Powerhouse" -- a government initiative to bolster the economy in the North (specifically in the cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, and Newcastle). They're in the process of constructing a high-speed railway called the Northern Powerhouse Rail, which will improve transportation across the North of England. Despite the fact that they're only about 60 miles from the Scottish border (and only 120 miles from the cultural beacon of Edinburgh), Newcastle doesn't seem to have much interest in forming alliances with their northern neighbors. (I'm really interested in exploring the relationship between England and Scotland more, especially in a post-Referendum UK.)

Basically, Newcastle upon Tyne looks a whole lot like this:

The cold grey skyline. The industrial red-brick warehouses. The dingy river churning below. If that doesn't match the definition of Dickensonian, I don't know what does. Newcastle doesn't exactly have the makings of a weekend getaway. However, I underestimated both the Fulbright Commission and the City of Newcastle on this one.

First of all, you can meet some of the most brilliant scholars at the Fulbright Forum -- and they're in-residence at universities all across the country. Want to check out Cardiff? (Maybe because you're not entirely convinced that it's a real city as opposed to a gap in the time-space continuum that can only be accessed via Tardis?) There are Fulbright Scholars in Cardiff! And they'd love to show you around! The same goes for any other major UK-based city. They also have all kinds of connections that can help with your research; one Fulbright staff member even offered to introduce me to the National Theatre of Scotland's Board of Directors! It's also good to chat with folks who understand that, on January 20th, you will need to consume enough alcohol to conveniently forget that Donald Trump has become President of the United States. (These folks will happily volunteer to join you.)

Second, Newcastle is an incredible city. Yes, it may look like something off of the cover of Bleak House, but it has an entrepreneurial spirit and a commitment to revitalization that won't quit. It reminds me a lot of my hometown -- Buffalo, New York. We're both living in the shadow of a major metropolitan landmark (New York City/London). We both have industrial manufacturing economies that faltered in the 20th century. We're both trying to reinvent ourselves as cultural hubs. (Admittedly, Newcastle doesn't have anything that's quite as awesome as Shark Girl. But who does really? #sharkgirlforpresident2020)

So, without further ado, my Instagram journey through Newcastle:

On the first day of the Fulbright Forum, we visited the Wylam Brewery. Located in the Palace of the Arts (and overlooking a pond chock-full of swans), Wylam could easily go head-to-head with any hipster Brooklyn brewery. Just look at those chalkboard cartoons. We were given a tour of the brewery and a tasting of four different cask beers. I'm not a beer-drinker, but just try saying "no" when the bartender passes you a glass of #3000 Gyles From Home (Ltd. Edition). It just can't be done.

That evening, we had a private tour of the Monica Bonvicini exhibition (her hand around the room) at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Bonvicini had complete control over how her art was displayed in the gallery and chose to add "set dressing" to make the space look like a construction site. Fitting since most of the art displayed revolved around the idea of construction -- from "What Does Your Wife/Girlfriend Think of Your Rough and Dry Hands?" (a series of questionnaires given to construction workers from around the world, including questions like "Do you find construction materials erotic?") to "Light Me Black" (a giant wall of fluorescent lights that leave the viewer temporarily blinded) to "Chain Leather Swing" (which should have been used in 50 Shades of Grey). I think that my favorite installation was a gigantic wall constructed out of magazine clippings of naked women's bodies. In a year when chants of "build the wall" could be heard around the world (figuratively in Brexit's UK and literally in Trump's America), Bonvicini's wall built on the bodies of exploited women seems especially timely.

Alnwick Gardens! This photo is misleading because the bright colors make it look like I was strolling about in 90-degree South American heat. No, it was officially cold the day that we toured the gardens. (In general, I never understood the term "bone-chilling" until arriving in Newcastle.) The gardens were created by the Duchess of Northumberland who wanted to create a "contemporary pleasure garden" for families. There's a bamboo labyrinth, which contains "a mysterious centre stone, inscribed with a Latin motto." According to our extraordinarily attractive gardener/tour guide, the stone says something to the extent of "You found the center of the labyrinth! Good for you! Now, f*** off." But in Latin. There's even a Poison Garden, which you can tour with security guards assigned to make sure that you don't nab a few sprigs of hemlock. (Seriously though, the Poison Garden, with its black wrought-iron gates and skull-and-crossbones warning signs, was unbelievably hardcore.) I'll definitely be returning in the summer when the gardens are in full-bloom but not as much for the gardens as for . . .

HOGWARTS. Or Alnwick Castle. Depending on who you ask. The castle was closed to the public for renovations; however, some of the Fulbrighters (including myself) snuck underneath the gates in order to take some photos. Because HOGWARTS.

In short, if you have the opportunity to go to a Fulbright Forum and you're thinking "I'd prefer not to" like Bartleby, the Scrivener, definitely book the ticket and go. I'm already looking forward to the one in Edinburgh this June!

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