Leaving London

“[London] was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably, but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parks and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatable palaces; a city of hundreds of districts with strange names – Crouch End, Chalk Farm, Earl’s Court, Marble Arch – and oddly distinct identities; a noisy, dirty, cheerful, troubled city, which fed on tourists, needed them as it despised them, in which the average speed of transportation through the city had not increased in three hundred years, following five hundred years of fitful road-widening and unskillful compromises between the needs of traffic, whether horse-drawn or, more recently, motorized, and the needs of pedestrians; a city inhabited by and teeming with people of every colour and manner and kind.”

–Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere

I sit here in my mostly-empty dorm room, once again listening to the sounds of the traffic outside my window. I’m going to be on a plane in a few hours and theses sounds and the grey sky that illuminate my keyboard will be gone, off to live in my memories of London.

God, I can’t put into words what this experience has meant to me. I’ve done things that previously only existed in my dreams. London was always the city of my fantasies; this fantastical place of fiction that I longed to see in reality. I’m lucky, I know that, to get this chance to not only visit but live here.

The stalls of Borough Market in sight of the Shard.
The stalls of Borough Market in sight of the Shard.

Yet there’s so much I didn’t do, didn’t see. London is infinite in its complexities. There’s always something new to explore, to find. I love that about the city. Sometimes it gets tiring and overwhelming, but other times I appreciate the constant excitement of discovery. But it’s hard when your time is limited, and you’ve got other things (like classes) on you plate.

For example, my friends and I went to Borough Market yesterday, the 1,000 year-old, foodie mecca located right outside the City of London and underneath the shadow of the Shard. It had been on Zoe’s London bucket list since the beginning, and we only just now were able to go. It wasn’t the best time really. It was after our finals; we were starving and tired, and Zoe was mopey and nostalgic. The food was fantastic, but we all wished that we had more time to come back and savor the experience.

Will I ever come back? Back to crazy, fantastical London? I don’t know. I had exchanged my British pounds back into American dollars yesterday too–£60 for $90. It felt good, and oddly I started to get excited that I was going back home, back to the familiar.

Currency comparison.
Currency comparison.

But when I was looking at the uniform 20 and 10 dollar bills later that night, the American currency looked weird and wrong. It wasn’t the right shape or the right color. I recognized it, but it still felt strangely foreign. Maybe I was just tired. I do know though, that going back to the land of the “free and the brave” will be hard. I believe they call it “reverse culture shock.”

I’m grateful I had the chance to come here. I’m grateful that London no longer solely lives in my fantasies or in the words of my books (like in Gaiman’s wonderful description of the city). I know I want to come back someday. When? I have no idea. For how long? I have no clue. But someday. Someday.

Natural History Museum

I can’t recall how many times I’ve sat at my desk and stared up the multi-colored, brick façade of the Natural History Museum and listened to the giggles and chattering of school kids and tourist groups. My dorm is located quite literally across the street from the institution.

The view from my window.
The view of the Natural History Museum from my window.

I’ve been putting off going until a “rainy day.” I decided that at the beginning of the semester when sunny days were in abundance and self-guided walking tours were calling my name. Then I got busy and even if it was terrible weather, I had things already filling up my day. But I knew it would’ve been wrong for me not to go to the museum, having lived with its face in my window for over three months. So I made the time.

It felt good finally walking up to the museum. The Victorian building stands tall and regal above Cromwell Road; its terracotta brick work contrasting nicely with the greenery of the garden in front. I followed the tourists into the building and immediately encountered a dinosaur. Lovingly named “Dippy” and waiting to be replaced by a blue whale, the skeleton is the focal point of many a wide-eyed stare and photo op. Above the dinosaur, the ceiling expands in true Victorian grace. Then at the top of the back stairs a statue of Charles Darwin watches over all.

The statue of Charles Darwin watches over everything.
The statue of Charles Darwin watches over everything.

I couldn’t help but smile. Yes, there was modern lighting and the ubiquitous CCTV but if you just ignored those details, it was very easy to imagine women in long skirts and men in cravats walking through this atrium and pointing at the fossils in wonder. I love when I encounter little time capsules like this.

I started with the mammals, strolling past the collection of stuffed animals, their glass eyes having been gazing at visitors for over one hundred years (in some cases two hundred). The exhibits looked like they had been renewed in the ‘90s, using what was at the time state of the art techniques (you could tell by the graphics), and then left to their own devices. But it didn’t matter. They still executed their purpose in engaging and informing visitors. It still astonished kids and interested adults. That’s all you can ask for really.

After the fury beasts, I moved on to more familiar type of animal: the human. Starting from conception to puberty then moving on to the physical processes of the body and mind, it was another well-worn and faded exhibt that still worked in teaching and engaging. One thing that really shocked me, though, was how graphic some of the anatomical drawings were of sexual intercourse and birth. Some of the kids were loudly exclaiming how “gross” it was, but I was instead taken by the fact that in certain parts of America, these children wouldn’t have been able to see these things. As backward as it may seem, sex is a still a sinful thing in some places.

From the dinosaur exhibit.
From the dinosaur exhibit.

After that, I decided to follow the crowd and go back in time to see the dinosaurs. As expected there were plenty of kids there. Some were running about, bored. Some were furiously scribbling away on their school assignments. But most were shouting and/or pointing in excitement. It was heartwarming to see all those smiles. The exhibit truly was fantastic. While some of the graphics obviously hadn’t been updated in about ten years, the depth and array of the collection was something to admire. (There was even life-sized, robotic T-Rex.) Well I guess when one of your founders is the guy that named the dinosaurs, it’s expected that you should have a stellar collection.

The mineral exhibit at the museum.
The mineral exhibit at the museum.

Once I exited the prehistoric fervor, I wandered about. I stopped by the temporary exhibit displaying the treasures of the museum including a first edition of On the Origin of Species and a skeleton of a Dodo bird. Then it was off to the minerals: A large expansive room filled with table-height display cases holding minerals from around the world. The way everything was set up with paper signs and wooden cases, I have no doubt that it looked pretty much the same as it did in the 1960s. I wasn’t patient or interested enough to read all the captions, but I still had fun staring at the crystals and meteorites and other usual rocks.

I could’ve stayed longer but I still had things to do and I was hungry, so after taking one last look at the jewels in the back, I bought a postcard and left that Victorian palace of science.

Revisiting and Discovering London

It was my last weekend in London. My cousin wanted to see me before I left. So he traveled down from Cambridge and I met him at King’s Cross. The place was starting to look familiar. I had traveled through there to go to Edinburgh and Yorkshire. The crowds staring at the departure boards, the tourists lining up outside Platform 9 3/4, the strange incongruent architectural styles—all of it was starting to seem comfortably known.

The neighborhood surrounding it wasn’t, though. It was around lunch time and both my cousin and I were hungry. Since we didn’t want to wonder around until we found a place, I made the executive decision to hop onto the Tube and go to Covent Garden. I’ve never been to Covent Garden either, but at least I had heard of it and knew where that was in relation to other places I’ve been. (That’s the thing with London, there’s always something new to see, to explore. If you have time to do it that is.)

A performer outside Covent Garden Market. Photo taken by my cousin.
A performer outside Covent Garden Market. Photo taken by my cousin.

We stumbled in to Covent Garden Market, which was crawling with Christmas shoppers, and found a pie shop off in the corner underneath the stairs. So we ate our chicken and mushroom pies with potatoes and chatted. We hadn’t seen each other since September, and we weren’t able to meet up at Cardiff, so there was a lot to talk about.

Afterwards, we tried to wander around, but the Christmas crowds were getting to be a bit much so we headed out. Using my A to Z map I had bought when I first came here, I navigated us to the Strand. I showed him a Doctor Who store I had found while walking to the Twinings Shop, and we then headed to Trafalgar square.

Even though he’s been in the country for four or so months, my cousin hasn’t had time to go to London. All the sights were still new to him, but like King’s Cross, the sight of Nelson and his lions were a well-known London fixture to me. (God, I’m going to miss those big, bronze beasts.)

Trafalgar Square lit up for Christmas.
Trafalgar Square lit up for Christmas.

Because neither of us had been and we both felt obligated to go, we entered the National Gallery. We wandered around the Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces, admiring the Titians and Rembrandts, paintings that we’ve only seen in books or on internet memes. We then stayed long enough to see the Turners, Degas, Monets, and Van Goghs before heading out. (I could’ve spent all day there, like I did at the Museé d’Orsay, but I couldn’t do that to my cousin.)

Once back in the open air, we strolled down Whitehall toward Westminster. I had done this walk many times before: when I was first here, when my friend was visiting from Dublin, and more. I had actually been just there for my history class. To round out our last lecture, we visited the war memorials at Hyde Park Corner and along Whitehall, ending, rather poetically, at the Cenotaph.

The Cenotaph solemnly standing in the middle of Whitehall.
The Cenotaph solemnly standing in the middle of Whitehall.

I was so well acquainted with the area that I began to point out buildings and monuments. With a little more practice I could become a tour guide. Still there were things I couldn’t predict. On the opposite side of the road, near the Cenotaph and Downing Street was a Syria protest: Hundreds of people holding signs ordering the government to stop the bombing, as well as a few dozen singing for peace and support for other African countries. My cousin was nervous so we quickly moved on.

We stopped long enough outside Big Ben for my cousin to take a selfie, before we elbowed our way through the crowd coming off Westminster Bridge and headed to the Embankment. As we strolled along the Thames, I once again played the tour guide, pointing out buildings and spouting out facts and memories: Look, there’s St. Paul’s in the distance. It might be a bit pricy but the views from the top are worth it. And over there is the monument that was damaged during the First Blitz during WWI. Across the river is the National Theater. It looks like an unsightly concrete mass in the daytime, but at night it’s beautiful. And so on. I told my cousin that while I would’ve been nice to see him more, at least he was visiting me when I knew enough about London to give him a decent tour of it.

We then crossed the river near Embankment Station to go to the Southbank Christmas market. I had heard about it from several people and wanted to check it out. My cousin had no objection. Much smaller than Winter Wonderland, but much more eclectic and less touristy, the market was packed with Londoners looking for a bit of Christmas cheer. We meandered around the crowds and aisles of stalls for a while but because neither of us were hungry or wanted to spend a lot of money, we didn’t spend long there. Plus, my cousin had to go catch his train soon.

Big Ben from Westminster Bridge. Photo taken by my cousin.
Big Ben from Westminster Bridge. Photo taken by my cousin.

As we battled our way through the hordes of tourists on Westminster Bridge, I told my cousin about London’s plethora of markets: Portobello, Whitechapel, Brick Lane, and more. I explained that there are so many that it’s pretty easy to stumble into them on the weekends. For instance, this one time, I was doing some Christmas shopping when I came across the riot that is Camden Market and got lost amongst the maze of venders.

We eventually made it to Westminster Station and went to King’s Cross from there. The train was boarding by the time we arrived, so we said a quick good-bye and Merry Christmas before departing.

One Last Look at Edinburgh

The wind raged all night, rattling the windows and howling like a movie horror ghost. It was sunny when I woke up, but I knew that the bad weather was coming. My sinus headache and Google told me as much. Because of that, I decided today would be a good day for some museums.

After I checked out of the hostel and stored my luggage, I made the short trip up the hill to Edinburgh Castle. As the howling would suggest, the wind had become violent in the night. It tugged at clothes, pulled at hats, and shook cameras. A “wee breeze” as the tour guide at the castle called it. But I could stand the wind because it meant that the place wasn’t packed, which was a nice change from the other tourist attractions I’ve been to during my time in Europe.

The castle contains a whole complex of buildings built or added on between the medieval era and the Victorian period. Some of those stones have been in place hundreds of years before the New World was even a thought in most Europeans’ heads. It’s humbling sometimes to realize the age of human civilization outside of the American bubble.

I had heard from someone at the hostel that Edinburgh Castle was less like a castle and more like a museum. I soon learned what he meant. The buildings within the castle grounds house active military barracks and offices, the Scottish National War Museum, the Scottish National War Memorial, the Scottish Crown Jewels, and much more. Except for one set of apartments where Mary Queen of Scotts once lived, none of it felt particularly castle-like. But I guess when you consider much of it had been destroyed over the years of fighting and it has been used as many things other than a residence for royalty, such as a jail for POWs in the 1700s and a military base, you can understand why it wouldn’t be very “castle-like.”

After wandering around the glass cases and scene recreations in the museums and grabbing a quick bite to eat, I took one last look at Edinburgh from above and left. I lingered in the nearby Prince’s Gardens until I heard the One ‘O Clock  Gun (the gun they shoot every day at the castle to help ships set their clocks) before moving on to the Scottish National Gallery.

My headache had come back, so I wasn’t in the best of moods. Normally, the quiet grace of an art museum would help. This one didn’t. First of all, I couldn’t find the entrance. Their main one was closed and there weren’t any signs to the other ones. Once I found a way in, I had to wait in line as they thoroughly searched everyone’s bags. When I eventually made it to the main galleries, I encountered an expansive space with crimson walls and carpeted floors and no windows. It was amazing how different it felt from most art museums. The carpets soaked up the sounds of footsteps, the lights glared, and the heating/fan buzzed obnoxiously. I couldn’t calm down. I couldn’t concentrate. There was an impressively compact yet comprehensive collection of art on the walls but I couldn’t appreciate it. The buzzing and lack of any other noise or natural light seemed to devalued everything and distracted me to no end. Save a wonderful exhibit on Sir David Young Cameron, the other floors were no different, if not worse. There was no grandeur, no lightness. It all seemed heavy and cheap and contrived.

As it had started to rain and the wind was still trying to tear things apart, I took refuge for a while in the gallery’s lobby next to the gift shop, gazing at their children book illustrations exhibit. It had been placed off to the side and no one seemed to notice it, but it was the best designed exhibit in the building (of course I can’t talk about the paid exhibit).

My headache had waned even if the weather hadn’t, so I went out and braved the wind and water, making my way around to do some last minute gift shopping. Then, after picking up my luggage, I made my way back through the Christmas market and onto my train to London.

Climbing through Edinburgh

I was lucky. The weather was on my side for once. The skies were sunny the day before, and they continued to be so that day. I had to make the most of it. It was doubtful that I was ever going to see consistent sunshine in the UK again before I left to go back to America.

So I went to Holyrood Park and climbed to the top of Arthur’s Seat. You see Edinburgh sits on what was, millions of years ago, an extremely volcanic area. Thanks to the ice age and the never-ending forces of time, all that’s left is the hill Edinburgh Castle stands on and the peak that is Arthur’s Seat and the surrounding cliffs. The task was a little daunting (the thing is over 200 meters high) and the wind became simply ferocious (nearly hurricane force), but there were well trodden paths and the views were quiet literally breathtaking. My pictures can’t possibly convey the power that these peaks hold. My legs were aching, but I couldn’t stop gasping in wonder and smiling in pleasure. Needless to say, I stayed a while in that park, lingering at the top before coming down to rest next to the medieval ruins of St. Anthony’s Chapel.

Once I made it back to town, I had some thoroughly unimpressive tea at a tea house, saw the Scottish Parliament, and debated about what to do next. It was still sunny out and it seemed such a waste to go into a museum, so I walked over to Regent Gardens and Calton Hill. I saw the relatively unassuming Robert Burns Monument (which is tiny compared to Sir Walter Scott’s behemoth), the Greco-Roman National Monument, the overly decorated Nelson Monument, and the unassuming City Observatory.

After that I made my way into New Town and briefly stopped at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. A small burst of rain moved overhead while I admired both the new and old Scottish faces (including Mary Queen of Scotts and modern female farmers). Once I made my way around the modest-sized museum, I continued my wanderings around New Town.

New Town—as opposed to Old Town, which holds medieval origins—was built in the Georgian period. During this time, which saw both Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, Edinburgh considered itself not only in Northern England but also as the “Athens of the north.” So when they decided to expand the city, it had to be orderly and rational. And it was on the Regency era streets that I walked down until it got dark.

I headed back to the hostel to recharge. I was still pretty tired from the activities of the day, so I simply went out to a pub for some mulled cider and haggis, neeps, and tatties before calling it a night.

Arriving in Edinburgh

The train flew through the English countryside, the vividly green landscape rolling along and occasionally being broken up with brick and stone and glass. The mist and fog slowly crept up the farther north we traveled, hiding the country in a blanket of white and obscurity. But then we reached the North Sea and the weather broke up and the sun peered through the clouds. Those last 40 minutes of the journey were the most picturesque: The sea raging against the cliffs, the fields shifting and moving and then finally Edinburgh slowly emerging in the distance.

I came out of the train station in the middle of the city and into a Christmas carnival and market. It was nearly empty at that time of the day. The lights shone weakly against the sunshine and the same annoying Christmas song echoed down the street. I wandered around for a bit and then went to my hostel to check in.

My room wasn’t ready yet, so I stored my luggage and then wandered around the area. My hostel is located in Old Town, literally right next to Edinburgh Castle. I was tired though, so after strolling down the cobbled streets of the Royal Mile and Grassmarket, I went back to the hostel to chill, have a free cup of tea, and do a bit of people watching.

If you could describe the hostel in one word it would be “funky,” in the cool sense of the word of course. It’s haphazardly decorated in bright colors and mismatched artwork and populated by tourists, hipsters, and backpackers traveling or in between homes. It makes for a very relaxed and eclectic vibe.

After I recuperated, I headed out again. I visited the Elephant Room, the café where J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter novel. I heard that the food wasn’t really good there, so I didn’t stay. Next was the Greyfriars Cemetery, home of Greyfriars Bobby and Tom Riddle (the inspiration for the name, not the real wizard of course). I walked in the mud between the Victorian and Georgian gravestones, listening to the bagpipe players positioned along the Royal Mile for the tourists and the school kids coming out of Heriot’s School (one of the inspirations for Hogwarts).

I wandered around some more after I left the graves. I ended up walking to the University of Edinburgh and through The Meadows park. I got lost trying to get back to the city center, but thanks to Google Maps, I managed to find my way.

I ate dinner at the Christmas market, which was, as expected, now packed. The lights had no competition and could now burn as bright as they pleased. Combine that with the varied amount of Christmas songs now tinkling away on the PA system and the sickly sweet smell of waffle and fudge stalls, the appropriate magical holiday affect was achieved. It actually reminded me a lot of Winter Wonderland in London, only much smaller and always with the Sir Walter Scott Monument towering over everything. Having already been there once before, I made quick work of the place.

I then had a choice about what to do next: I could go to a pub for a drink, try to catch some live music, or see a free Christmas light show. I had already tried to sign up for a witch/ghost tour but there were too few people to run it. So after going back to the hostel to think and relax, I decided to head out and then see what I felt like doing.

I caught the end of the light show, and while the crowd was dispersing, I spotted a woman in a long, black leather coat still selling tickets to a ghost tour (different than the one I had already tried to do). I thought, why the hell not? and joined the tour.

A former actor and native of Edinburgh, the tour guide knew how to tell a good story (so take everything she says with a grain of salt). We started at St. Giles Cathedral where she recounted all the gory details of the witch trails. She then lead us to Greyfriars Cemetery and revealed the truth behind Greyfriars Bobby (the dog’s master was actually buried a mile away…sorry to spoil the Disney magic). She then explained why the graveyard sits on a hill (it’s a former plague pit and hundreds of bodies have built the ground up). And finally she told the tales of the 18th century grave robbers and body snatchers (in particular about Burke and Hare).

She then led us to the locked part of the graveyard (“We’re the only company with the key,” she boasted) after repeatedly warning us about this particularly active poltergeist. That’s why the area is normally locked off, she explained. She took us through the mud and past the dark and looming family tombs. Before entering the area, she had disclosed the history of this section of the cemetery. It apparently once housed over a thousand rebels who had refused to convert to Anglicanism when required to do so by law (they were called the Covenaters). We were now walking where hundreds of them had died.

In a few moments, we had reached the home of the supposed poltergeist: the “Black Mausoleum.” Unlocking the gates, she encouraged us inside. She turned off her light and so we stood in the darkness as she told us about the “experiences” her previous tour groups have had in here. And when she got us all nice and afraid, a masked man jumped out in front of us. Needless to say, we all screamed.

After that we had a laugh and the tour guide lead us back into the lights of the street. Being tired and not really in the mood for a drink, I headed back to the hostel and went to bed.

Art of the Moor

My dad’s friend, whom he had meant before I was even born, lives in Northern England. Having tried and failed to meet up in London, she invited me up to her place for the weekend. She, her husband, and two-year-old live in a small little village outside Leeds. I arrived on Friday evening and spent the night playing with her son and, after he was put to bed, talking with her well until midnight.

The next day, she and her husband were determined to give me a taste of the Yorkshire they knew and loved. They took me to Haworth, the home of the Brontë sisters, to see a Victorian Christmas market. “People dress up in period costumes,” they advertised. “It’s a real piece of local culture.”

To get there, we drove through the moors and several small Yorkshire villages. I stared out the window, transfixed while their boy stared at me before falling asleep. The weather was dreadful yet dreadfully appropriate considering what this area is known for: overwhelming melancholy and passion.

It was dark upon the misty moor. We bumped along the winding roads as oppressive clouds drifted in the sky above us. The wind whipped through the hills, pushing us along as we moved faster and faster through the North English countryside. This is the home of the Baskervilles, of Catherine and Heathcliff: these gloomy fields painted in rusty reds and intense greens, populated by fat sheep and crumbling ruins.

Once in Haworth, we wondered around the twisting streets for a bit, looking in on a couple old-fashioned, local stores. But no matter where we looked, we couldn’t find the market. After warming up in a craft fair held at the community center, we found out that they had cancelled the market due to the weather. They had apparently tried it last week but the wind blew away the stalls. So we briefly stopped at the Brontë Parsonage, taking time to look down at the dismal, damp graveyard, before moving on.

There was a pub that we had passed on the way that they decided would be a nice place to have a late lunch. Situated on a hillside, it looks over the moors, a view, my dad’s friend assured me, was absolutely beautiful in the summer. Even now, though, in the mist and dying light, it was still breathtaking. They were having a kids’ Christmas party inside (complete with coloring, candy, and Santa Claus), something that we weren’t aware of but was still a pleasant surprise. So we talked and relaxed over a pint while their toddler made Christmas cards and ate his fill of chocolate.

It was dark by the time we left (meaning it was around 4 ‘o clock) and they decided that we had enough time to stop by Salts Mill in Bradford. This expansive structure, located next to a raging river, was at the heart of the area’s manufacturing back when North England dominated the Industrial Revolution. Considering, by some accounts, it’s the largest industrial structure in the world and an amazing work of practical architecture, it’s shocking to learn that in the 1980s, the city was planning on tearing it down. The artist David Hockney teamed up with someone else and eventually saved the mill from destruction. They then transformed it into an artistic space for the community, filling it with a bookshop, an art supplies store, and a couple restaurants and then decorating it with Hockney’s original work.

My dad’s friend’s husband used to live in the area so the two knew the place well. We strolled through the floors, and as they kept an eye on their son as the sugar worked its way through his body, I went off on my own, admiring the architecture and the artwork and browsing through the shops. After walking through the gallery of Hockney’s latest digital artwork at the top of the building, we rounded up the toddler and the stroller and went home.

After the two-year-old was put to bed, the evening ended with a bottle of wine, snacks, more conversation, and a mockumentary. They are such wonderful people. I’m grateful that they took me in and I had a chance to meet them.

Transatlantic Thanksgiving

I may have gone to a Christmas carnival on Thanksgiving Day, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to miss out of the Thanksgiving food. Instead of making the whole meal myself, I decided to host a potluck amongst friends, what is commonly known as a “Friendsgiving.” Because of logistical reasons, we had to host it on Sunday instead of the actual day, but as long as there was turkey and stuffing, I didn’t care. It was mostly my floormates and I. I simply put up a sign in the kitchen and just about everyone put their name down.

The tart pans were so shallow that we had to make too pumpkin pies. Such a burden.
The tart pans were so shallow that we had to make two pumpkin pies. Such a burden.

One girl in particular, who volunteered to do the turkey, really got into it. She insisted on making three pies as well, so the night before our RA and I helped her make pumpkin, pecan, and apple pies. We had to fudge a couple of things to make the recipes work. The pecan in particular. The British apparently don’t have (or don’t commonly have) corn syrup or molasses, so we substituted golden syrup and treacle syrup, same consistency and both made out of sugar but slightly different flavor. We were lucky to acquire an imported can of pureed pumpkin, but we couldn’t find pie pans. We ended up settling with casserole dishes and tart pans. Despite our modifications though, they all turned out good in the end.

Then on Sunday, we started cooking the real deal: the turkey. But when I unwrapped the relatively small frozen bird, it was limbless. Not a wing or drumstick in sight. We couldn’t believe it. The girl who insisted on pies also brought along her British boyfriend to help and even he said that wasn’t normal. The thing is, though, the British don’t normally have turkey until Christmas, he said. That’s when they stuff their faces on the appropriate holiday dishes, including a massive turkey. But this was still November. No good Brit would make a turkey now, so the grocery stores don’t normally stock them.

We had no choice but to settle for what we had and continue on with our meal. While my floormate and her boyfriend worked on the turkey, I began making the stuffing. Stuffing: my favorite Thanksgiving dish. My mouth waters every time I think about it. I had bought bread in Belgium and was using it to make this traditionally American dish. (Again, I wonder at the truly international nature of the world.) It was the first time making it myself, so I was a little worried. I needn’t had been. I may have put a little too much broth in, but other than that it was pretty darn good.

While we were waiting for things to cook, we showed the British boyfriend the boring yet obligatory Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special, and then carried on to American Christmas specials, comparing the two country’s annual holiday shows. The only one that seemed to carry over was How the Grinch Stole Christmas. He hadn’t even heard of the 1950s puppet version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Us Americans couldn’t believe it. My floormate then delighted in telling him about the song and movie Grandma Got Ran Over by a Reindeer. We gave him a little concert, and I whipped out my southern accent. He simply looked at us aghast.

The Thanksgiving spread.
The Thanksgiving spread.

Eventually other people started to show up, so we poured some wine and continued talking or preparing last-minute dishes. The food started to pile up. Our RA, who’s from Spain, and the British boyfriend began to gape. My floormate and I just smiled impishly.

In total we had: turkey, stuffing, mash potatoes, biscuits (American), green beans, corn, carrots (2x), broccoli and cauliflower, sweet potato fries, cranberry sauce, apple pie, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, ice cream, and whipped cream. It’s safe to say we stuffed ourselves silly, especially the Brit who was thoroughly impressed with Thanksgiving and couldn’t understand why the British didn’t have it.

All I can say is: Mission accomplished.

Brick Lane Market

My history professor tends to over-sell stuff. He made Belgium seem like a foodie paradise, and while the food was good, the sausage that made me sick was at his recommendation. Even so, I had heard from multiple people besides him of the glories of Brick Lane’s Sunday market. I was determined to go before I left the city.

My professor had given everyone in my class a three page walking tour of the market, explaining the ins and outs of all the goodies and treats contained within and down various side streets. His guide made the place seem like an underground, little known piece of London. Somewhere where real Londoners go and you can still find cheap hidden treasures. You can probably see where this is going…

He didn’t mention that, while Brick Lane is certainly not as touristy as Portobello Road, in some ways it’s certainly getting there, especially if you enter though Spitalfields Market: a modern, refurbished mecca of pricey craft goods, mixed with Chinese knockoffs. Then, actually on Brick Lane proper is the market contained within a glass fronted former car showroom that is comprised of an amazing variety of food stalls (everything from Ethiopian to Mexican to Japanese) and craftier, hipster-y stalls. If you continue walking down the street you’ll encounter simply beautiful street art and countless vintage stores, all full of obnoxiously cool hipsters doing their weekly shopping.

Don’t get me wrong. It was fun walking past those artsy-fartsy stalls and admiring the cool, chic jewelry and handmade clothing. The smells from the food stalls were amazing and I only wish I could eat there every day. I had a blast ogling the vintage (which was mostly from the 80s) and wishing I had more money and room in my suitcase. But I still felt like my professor was describing something that didn’t exist anymore. That this little bit of “real London” was really just some part of an imaginary past.

But then I walked down Sclater street, and things were pretty much exactly as he described:

“On your left it is a bit complicated to explain (you’ll see why when you get there) because folks are selling everything from stolen bicycles and pornographic DVDs…and there’s masses of electrical and hardware stuff…and thereabouts you’ll find household stuff…If by now you’ve managed to resist buying anything and becoming mega obese by munching your way through the food you’ve encountered, go further along Sclater Street, past the stalls selling tools, electrical garbage, fishing rods, and seafood, to Fruit and Vegetable land, actually a BIG stall, selling (at £1 per bowl) MASSES and MASSES of fruit and vegetables…”

It was definitely much poorer there. The stalls were grittier, more haphazardly put together. The things they sold were secondhand, but not in the cool, hip sense. By secondhand here, I mean things that are used and bent and torn. You see people from Brick Lane, the tourists and the hipsters, wandering down here but they stick out amongst the poorer people who are trying to get a deal not because they can but because they simply don’t have much money to their name.

The thing with Shoreditch, the neighborhood in which Brick Lane sits, is that it is a neighborhood in transition. The locals are slowly being priced out and the hipsters are slowly moving in. I’m from Austin, Texas, which is increasingly becoming the hipster capital of the south, so I know what I’m talking about. It’s gentrification pure and simple. But it’s happening gradually, so you got these little pockets of the old Shoreditch, with its dirt and its poverty, right next to hip vintage stores and cafés that sells only organic cups of coffee.

Now that I think about it, in general, my professor was right in describing this place as a piece of the real London. You simply can’t get this same mixture of diversity and tourist anywhere else.

From Churchill to Turner

Another field trip for history. But instead of trekking across the English Channel, we went down below the city streets and back in time. Okay, that may sound a little dramatic, but you’d be amazed at the how many little pockets of history London has under its belt.

We’ve finally moved on from WWI and have leapt forward into WWII. After a quick lecture to start things off,  we headed out to go see the Churchill War Rooms. Churchill and his people moved there after his offices were bombed in 1940. He’d be damned if it was going to leave London, but he thought it’s probably be best to move to somewhere slightly safer. His bunker, though, wasn’t that much better. A direct hit (AKA a bomb hitting within a mile radius) would’ve destroyed the whole place and crushed all the people within. Thankfully, that didn’t happened.

And so we entered, forgoing the complimentary audio guides and walking straight into the other visitors. We tried our best to inconspicuously gather around the glass-fronted rooms, but it’s hard to do that when you have 15 students, all with backpacks. But it is what it is.

One of the communication centers in the Churchill War Rooms.
One of the communication centers in the Churchill War Rooms.

Anyway, our professor lead us around the narrow cinderblock corridors, stopping at each displayed room , pointing and explaining what it was like down here during the war. We saw the plain green tables in the war room, the basic appliances in the kitchen, the sparse accommodation in the bedrooms, the wall-sized maps in the map room, and more, etc. If you closed your eyes, tuned out the tinny murmur of the audio guides and clicks of cell phone cameras, you could imagine the secretaries and generals walking down the corridors with the sound of bombs going off in the city above.

After seeing the “most important seat in the house” (AKA the toilet), we headed into the Churchill museum. Our professor led us through the WWII section of the museum, stopping to talk about the propaganda photos, Churchill’s suits, and the Enigma Machine. He then let us roam free. A few of us stuck with him as he strolled through the exhibits, pointing out the blatant biases and telling us how, if it wasn’t for WWII, Churchill would’ve been considered a failure.

After we exited through the gift shop, we split up. We had surfaced outside St. James Park and I decided that I might as well get a head start on my Christmas shopping. So I walked in the fleeting sunlight through Trafalgar Square and down the Strand. There was one shop I had in mind. Full discloser: I’m a bit of a tea freak. So when I heard that Twinings had a tea shop on the Strand, I couldn’t resist checking it out. Plus, tea was on my holiday shopping list. (What else should you bring back from England but tea?)

At the entrance of the Twinings shop on the Strand.
At the entrance of the Twinings shop on the Strand.

I admired the sights and took my time, but eventually I got to the store. It had a large old fashioned sign sticking out from the side of the building. The word “Twinings” was mosaicked into the floor outside the entry way. Inside was a long, narrow room, lined with dark, wooden shelves filled with tea. I spent a good hour in there, looking around, comparing prices, tasting tea, etc. I probably spent more money than I should’ve, but it was worth it. This wasn’t just any old Twinings shop. It was the first shop and had been in this location longer than America had been a country; such is the long-lasting nature of the English’s love of tea.

After a quick egg salad sandwich (with plenty of mayo, just like the English like it), I decided to walk down to the Tate Britain. It was only 3pm so I had time (even though the sun was already setting), and I’d been meaning to make my way out there anyway. I walked along the Embankment, once again admiring the iconic London sights: the Eye, Big Ben, etc. I passed a monument that was damaged during the first Blitz and another one dedicated to the second. The light was fading fast and I had underestimated how far the Tate was, so it was fairly dark by the time I reached the museum.

Outside the main entrance to the Tate Britain.
Outside the main entrance to the Tate Britain.

I hadn’t realized how tired I was until I stepped into that grand, neo-classic building, so I strategically planned my visit so I would at least see the highlights. I strolled through the Turner gallery, admiring his sweeping, impressionistic brush strokes. It constantly amazes me that he was doing this stuff a hundred years before Monet and Van Gogh. After that, I wandered around the Victorian and Edwardian paintings, gazing at the likes of Millais’ Ophelia and Rossetti’s Proserpine. I’ve always loved the magic of the Pre-Raphaelites…

I would’ve stayed longer but I was exhausted, so I bought my obligatory postcards and took the tube home.