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.

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.

Winter Wonderland

On some level, it felt almost sacrilegious going to a Christmas/Holiday amusement park and market on Thanksgiving. But we were desperate for something to do while everyone else in our program stuffed their face with turkey.

It started with a couple of my friends asking me if I wanted to do anything on Thursday. No one had the time or desire to cook. Plus, it was only just the four of us and I was already planning on doing a Friendsgiving (a Thanksgiving potluck amongst friends) on Sunday. Ice skating was brought up as an alternative, and I immediately thought of Winder Wonderland in Hyde Park.

My friends and I pose for a picture in front of the wonderland's gates.
My friends and I  in front of the wonderland’s gates.

I’ve been seeing ads for this winter carnival everywhere: In the tube, in TimeOut: London, on buses, in the newspapers, etc. And as a good saturation marketing campaign should work, it kind of sunk into my brain and popped out again an option for a night out. Plus, I had already looked, that week’s tickets were discounted (off-peak is what they called it, the time right before the crowds start to appear). My friends had no objections, so we bought tickets to the ice skating rink online and planned on walking over together.

When the night came upon us, we bundled up and set out for Hyde Park. We could see the lights from Winter Wonderland as we approached, the rides sticking out from the tree like a distant…well wonderland. As we got closer, and the Serpentine came into view, the carnival’s reflection appeared and glittered in the dark water. The excited screams of riders drifted towards us in the breeze. We all took a movement to stop, stare, and smile, before continuing on.

The place was bigger than expected. Through a gateway proudly proclaiming that we were now entering Winter Wonderland was a maze of roads with minimal signs and maps. We got a little lost trying to find the ice skating rink. The lights and sights dazzled us, and we were easily turned around. But eventually we made it, just in time for our 8:00pm time slot.

Winter Wonderland reflecting in the Serpentine.
Winter Wonderland reflecting in the Serpentine.

After picking up our skates and checking in bags, we were out on the ice. It was a relatively small rink and the condition of the ice was terrible, but overall we had a good time. It took me a moment for my muscles to remember how to skate, but I eventually got into the swing of things. I wasn’t as good as some of guys who were quite literally skating rings around other people, showing off to all the girls in the crowd, but I wasn’t as bad as the people who refused to leave the ledge throughout the whole hour.

I did fall three times though. The first two were my fault. But the third, someone ran right into me. It had gotten pretty crowded by that point and this girl just plowed straight into me. We laughed and she apologized profusely as only the English can. Nobody was hurt.

Some of the dazzling lights in the carnival.
Some of the dazzling lights in the carnival.

After our hour was up, we returned our skates, picked up our bags, and then headed out into the market and carnival. We didn’t have much money on us (it was cash only) so we just wondered about: touching all the knick-knacks and ornaments in the market stalls, staying away from the numerous and deviously tempting candy stalls, gaping at all the rides that were lit up in an obnoxious amount of lights (there was even an haunted house), drooling over the smell of the German food wafting out from the food courts, etc.

There were a ridiculous amount of pubs and mulled wine stalls. This wouldn’t have happened in the states. The more time I spend here, the more I’m realizing how Puritan America still is. In the states, drinking is common but not commonplace, whereas here, it’s everywhere. You can even get a pint on the train or in a museum. So when we saw all the alcohol in Winter Wonderland, I all that wasn’t surprised.

We eventually couldn’t resist buying some freshly-made donuts, chowing down on the sugary goodness as we made our way out of the place. It was getting close to closing time. As we headed home through the park, we turned back and the lights were already off. The wonderland was dark and the further we went, the more the rides blended into the tree line. Eventually it looked as if it hadn’t been there at all.

‘Jane Eyre’ on Stage

There’s a lot I don’t particularly like about the BU London Abroad program. I could rant for quite a while about how much the program costs and then how cheap they are when it comes to some things, about how they can’t get their crap together when it comes to housing, about how they don’t provide us with enough information about certain things…See? Once you get me started, it can be hard for me to stop.

But, in general, I don’t hate BU. It’s just easy to complain sometimes. In truth, BU can be pretty helpful if it wants to be. For example, they use their magic group buying powers and tuition fees to offer us a limited number of discount theater tickets in London. That’s how I was able to see Jane Eyre at the National Theatre.

My ticket and the free program accompanying the show.
My ticket and the free program accompanying the show.

I set off early that night, so I took my time getting there. I stopped to admire the National Theatre’s ‘60s, modernist architecture: strong, solid concrete masses, standing proudly under colored lights. Once inside, I watched the people—tourists and students and workers—have a drink or a conversation before the show.

I eventually made it to my seat, and it really struck me then how good my ticket was. Here I was, in the orchestra, in the center of the row, and the stage fully fleshed out in front of me. Not too close, not too far. Goldilocks would’ve been ecstatic. I wasn’t going to complain about BU tonight. Other BU student eventually joined my section, and we chatted until the show started.

Now I’m not a theater critic, just an audience member who knows and loves the source material. If you want a critical opinion from someone who really knows theater, there are plenty of sources for you. All I know is that I was deeply moved and impressed by the performance.

The set was minimal: wooden platforms and metal ladders that converted from one location to another through the use of lighting. The cast was limited: everyone, save the woman playing Jane Eyre, took on several different parts, transforming themselves from role to role with the aid of simple costumes and props. Instead of hindering the imagination, the lack of artifice actually made the story more personal, more real. It was as if the empty spaces on the stage allowed the audience to easily slip in to the narrative and fill it with their own emotions. I came close to tears several times.

The stage and my view of it.
The stage and my view of it.

Overall, it was a wonderful adaptation of Brontë’s novel. All the famous speeches were included; all the famous characters were present. But what makes a good adaptation of a classic, something that stands out from the dozens of other versions, is the new way in which it presents the well-worn story. Besides the aforementioned minimalism, the play also offered the most complex and sympathetic take of Bertha that I’ve ever seen. (If you don’t know who Bertha is, read the book or watch the 2011 movie.) She became more of symbol of femininity and passion than the stilted archetype she usually is. (I will never listen to Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” the same way ever again.)

They did leave some things out, though. Largely, they were little, inconsequential details: the gipsy scene, Miss Temple, etc. The only point in the storyline they mentioned but never brought up again was Jane’s extended family on father’s side. (You know, the uncle that leaves her a bunch of money…) But in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t really matter. As an audience member, you still fell satisfied at the end.

And that’s exactly how I felt as I walked out of the theater and back into the London rain and gleaming lights.

Remember the 5th of November

“Remember, remember the fifth of November…”

The English have been celebrating the capture and burning of Guy Fawkes, a 17th century Catholic traitor, for hundreds of years. Traditionally, it’s celebrated with a large bonfire with an effigy of Guy Fawkes smoldering in the middle. But now, people don’t really pay attention to the gruesome origins of the holiday, and instead just use it as an excuse to blow off fireworks in the middle of the city. It’s officially known as Guy Fawkes Night, but more often than not, they just call it Fireworks Night.

It’s such an iconic English holiday that I knew I had to do something for it. It would be like visiting the US and not doing anything on the 4th of July. So I scoured TimeOut: London for suggestions on the best way to enjoy this quintessentially British celebration, which, of course, would mean going to see fireworks.

photo credit: Wakefield Fireworks 2014 via photopin (license)
photo credit: Wakefield Fireworks 2014 via photopin (license)

My search had to be limited though, because I was going to be in Dublin during the weekend of most of the firework shows. Thankfully, Nov 5th fell on a Thursday this year and I could find things to do before I flew off to Ireland.

So after finding a free show relatively near, I told my friends, and we all made plans to go. I got their first and started to make my way to the park. Along my route, I passed a banner advertising the fireworks show. I only barely glanced at it, at first, but then a phrase caught my eye: “No tickets, no entry.” Tickets? But I thought this was free?

Now you have to keep in mind that my only experience with firework displays are during the 4th of July where people bundle their picnic supplies, make their way to a field outside the city (preferably near a body of water), find a spot amongst the crowds, and hunker down and wait for the oohs and ahhs. That was what I was using as my point of reference.

After reading the banner a second time, I stopped and took out my phone, cursing myself in my head and hoping against hope that I hadn’t been wrong about the show. Well, it turns out that I was right about it being free, but you still needed a ticket to enter. The whole concept of having a ticket for a free event was completely new to me.

Needless to say all the tickets were all gone by the time I was standing there next to the banner, minutes away from the park gates. I cursed again and went to meet my friends at the tube to tell them the bad news. I was really pissed with myself and angry that everyone had depended on me to plan things (like they always do, but that’s another story). How could’ve gotten it all wrong? Now how was I going to see fireworks?

My friends didn’t help. They weren’t as disappointed as me. In fact, they just shrugged it off. And for some reason they really got on my nerves. The group was mismatched and uncoordinated, haphazardly put together. They mindlessly walked around, not really paying attention to anything but their loud conversations as Zoe and I tried to figure out what to do next.

Zoe then came up with the idea of going to Greenwich, climbing to the top of the hill at the park there, and looking down on London as the fireworks shot out from a distance. I was sick of being the one who planned everything, so I agreed only because I didn’t have to think up of an alternative. So, off we went.

We got a little lost on the way there, but we eventually made it to Greenwich. It was 6:45, 15 to 20 minutes before the show started. I had no clue where we were going (I had only been to Greenwich twice, and in the daytime), so a let Zoe navigate using her phone. The others trailed along, not really paying attention to what was going on. I was steadily growing anxious, constantly looking up at the sky to make sure we weren’t missing anything. And my friends’ apathetic attitude and constant questions as to what we were doing, really got on my nerves.

We got lost again, making me only more upset. I could hear the fireworks in the distance now: Large blasts, echoing across the city. Only without sparkling lights to soften those harsh sounds, it sound like a war had started without our notice. I needed to get to that park.

We eventually found the gates, but they were locked. Another thing we should’ve known: parks close in large cities to reduce crime. I once again cursed my suburban logic, and sulked away from the group. I couldn’t stand the brash, caviler manner of my friends. I couldn’t stand the boom of far-off fireworks. I couldn’t stand my mistake.

The very distant view of fireworks from a Greenwich side street.
The very distant view of fireworks from a Greenwich side street.

But then I stopped and looked up. There, in between a few houses and apartment buildings, something glittered and bloomed: a faint bouquet of fireworks. I stood there, transfixed as the lights shimmered and flashed in that little corner of the skyline. I calmed down at that moment. It wasn’t what I was imagining, but I was still seeing fireworks on Fireworks Night.

After the lights had faded, we regrouped and eventually ended up in local pub. Once there, we ate and drank and played board games for four hours. I’ll be the first one to say that the night wasn’t perfect, but at least it ended on a good note.

And as Zoe had said earlier: “We can use not really celebrating Guy Fawkes Night as excuse to come back to England.”

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November…”

European Halloween

It’s fairly obvious that Halloween in the UK is not like Halloween in the US. The October holiday is a multi-million dollar business in the states and is celebrated in our usual loud and brash manner. I will always remember walking around the Fenway area in Boston on the 31st last year, the amount of people, the amount of costumes…simply put, it was fantastic madness.

The UK, on the other hand, isn’t as enthusiastic. First of all, the holiday has Celtic origins and the English didn’t always have the best relationship with the Celtics. Second of all, they already have a fall festival, Guy Fawkes Day, to help them let off steam. And third, they aren’t nearly as commercialistic so the candy companies don’t push the holiday as much. All of it adds up to a Halloween that is considerably lackluster compared to the American counterpart.

As an American, it’s certainly strange to see noticeably less enthusiasm around dressing up, getting scared, and carving pumpkins. Interest is there, and it’s apparently bigger than it was, but still I’s annoyingly small. To make up for that fact, us Americans (i.e. my friends and I) decided we had to do something. Going out was eventually rejected, as everything cost £15 or more. Plus, we didn’t really have costumes (there was no obnoxious marketing to remind us). So alternative options had to be explored.

I was going to hang out and watch movies and bake a cake with a group of friends, but my roommate convinced me to go on a ghost tour with her. I literally bought the last ticket.

“It’s a sign,” my roommate exclaimed.

The tour started at the Tower of London and ended at St. Paul’s Cathedral, taking us on a twisting path through the City. You see, the financial heart of London is contained within one square mile they call the City (of London). I’ve walked the area during the day, and it’s usually bustling with men and women in suits speed walking through this glass, stone, and concrete maze.

Deserted Cock Lane (see below). © Violet Acevedo
Deserted Cock Lane (see below). © Violet Acevedo

But it was Saturday and around 9 o’clock at night when we were there. There were a few people about, some ghouls and witches and tourists on their way to a party of a hotel. But quite often we were on our own, strolling through the streets in our little group, trying to keep up with our tour guide. Our footsteps echoed off the old and modern buildings. Sometimes the streetlights would flicker from red and green and back with only the occasional taxi passing through. An interesting place to be on Halloween.

Because we covered such a large area, we spent more time walking than we did listening to stories about London’s hauntings. I didn’t mind. It was such an unusual way to see the City:

We lingered at the Tower to discover the saga of King Henry III’s polar bear from its life to its afterlife.

We dwelled at the Monument to the Great Fire of London to try and picture the suicidal men and women falling to their deaths from the top of the monument hundreds of years ago.

We stopped at the Royal Exchange just long enough to hear a tale about a Victorian widow supposedly still begging for spare chain.

We paused at the original sight of the Bedlam mental hospital and listened to gory stories of what they used to do to the patients.

We gathered outside Bunhill Cemetery to learn about the writer William Blake and other spirits who wonder near their graves.

Then near the end, we took a moment to mark the home of Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane, the famous Victorian hoax that garnered attention and attracted believers for decades. The ghost in this story was a trick created by a cash-strapped renter to avoid being evicted but he ended up attracting much more attention from the religious Victorians than he bargained for.

Outside St. Bart (see below) © Violet Acevedo
Outside St. Bartholomew the Great church (see below) © Violet Acevedo

In a way, Fanny’s story was a very fitting addition. From a cynical stand point, this tour was very similar to that hoax. In between stops, we talked to our tour guide. He was a college graduate from Essex and readily admitted that during all the years he’s been conducting the tour, he has never seen a ghost. And you can tell he didn’t really believe. He was just going through the motions for the tourists and the pay check. He kept mentioning his boss, and I couldn’t help but get the feeling that this was all a trick to take tourists money. It made it hard to believe in his stories.

I guess it’s appropriate then that creepiest part of the tour wasn’t ghost related. We had huddled together in the courtyard of St. Bartholomew the Great church to listen to stories about its name sake, the Henry VIII’s statue located inside, and the films shot here. Like most themed tours, fun facts about the city were sprinkled within. So even though ghosts were not the subject of conversation, it was standing there, in that dark and dank courtyard as leaves circled around our ankles and silence drifted in from the deserted street, that I felt a chill run up my spine. But it was a brief feeling and it was gone by the time we reached St. Paul’s.

I’m not going to say that I didn’t have fun. Roaming the relatively empty streets of London’s financial heart, listening to fascinating true-tales, talking to our guide about Halloween in Britain, all made the outing worth the £7.50 I spent. It was a fun way to spend Halloween.  I wasn’t expecting to see any ghosts anyway.