Happy St. Andrew’s Day, Scotland!
Here’s just another reason why I love life in the UK:
Can you think of two words with a more magical connotation? Growing up near the beach, I can remember waking up and holding my breath for a quick moment right before pulling back the blinds every time snow had been forecast. It was hardly ever there, but in the few times it was, when the world outside lay beneath a blanket of snow, there was barely enough time to throw on clothes. Because snow was so rare, we never had the right kind of gear. We’d pull on parachute-like track pants over our jeans, three pairs of socks with our trainers, and mismatched hats and coats. Waterproof was a foreign idea.
This awe and wonder continued through my first year of college, where I’d wander the campus with my camera and love how often it snowed in the mountains. The world was transformed, back gardens off the Lawn without a footprint to mar their powdered landscape. But in winter of my second year, the white stuff and I had a bit of a falling out. Suddenly, living miles off campus put me out of walking distance to class or work in inclement weather. A weak battery in my car meant countless mornings it wouldn’t start and ice to battle against while scraping sheets of it off my windshield. Snow became something to endure, not enjoy.
But here in London, without the stress of not being able to get where I need to be, I’ve found myself falling back in love with snow, rediscovering that childhood wonder, in fact even hoping for it. The past couple of weeks the temperature has dropped so bitterly (okay, okay, to freezing level), it seemed almost like it’d be unnatural for a few flurries not to result from it. They’ve been calling for snow since early last week and finally, last night, it came.
I woke up today and let out a little scream at the sight of big white flakes tumbling from the sky. I pulled on boots, hat and jacket and rushed out the door with my camera, if only for a few seconds to get a picture or two. The ground was scarcely covered, but brittle autumn leaves had crystallised beautifully overnight. Even though I spent the morning reading on the couch, instead of outdoors building a snow fort or sledding, it was such a lovely change of pace seeing a white blur in the window out of the corner of my eye.
And while the dusting on the ground today may not have been enough to make a snow angel in, not even enough to make the smallest of snowballs out of, it was just enough to make me smile.
The last Thursday in November is inevitably the one day of the year where my homesickness soars to unprecedented levels. Yes, being away for Christmas is hard, but there’s something about Thanksgiving that makes it even harder. After hearing other Americans the past couple of weeks explain to Brits what it exactly it is that makes the holiday so wonderful to them, I’ve realized I’m not alone in my sentiments: it’s like Christmas, but better. All the food and family and fun, with none of the pressure of gifts and certainly nowhere near the massive commercialization. And so I’ve come to expect that pang, a little twinge of sadness, every time I Skype home on Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s just that my entire extended family seems to have that afterglow of gluttony on their faces and all I’ve had is spaghetti, but I always miss home a little more this time of the year.
When we were younger, my mother–much to the chagrin of everyone’s grumbling stomachs–would hand out five kernels of corn to each of us and before we dared touch the turkey, dip a finger into creamy mashed potatoes, or, God forbid, sample Grandma’s green jello salad, we had to go around and say five things we were thankful for. I hate lists and will have nothing to do with them in my normal blog routine–we can all figure out the “Top 10 Most Amazing” whatever’s wherever on our own, right? But, in the spirit of the season and given that it’s been an exceptionally good week in London, I thought I might dig up the old tradition…with or without the kernels to help me count.
I spent the summer at home practically stalking sites like Gumtree (a British version of Craig’s List) and Kingston’s own accommodation site. I bought Skype credit to call landlords and agents and did my best to convince them I would wire over a deposit to secure a room for September. Ha! Like that worked well. But now that it’s been two months since moving into my current flat in London, I can, with that blessed gift of hindsight, see why none of my desperate attempts this summer panned out. Although both Welsh Nick and Zambian-English Keith are lovely, it’s an Essex girl named Claire who has made me know for sure I was meant for this flat. Whether it’s catching up on the latest episode of Gossip Girl, nipping over to our local pub for a quick drink, or sharing travel stories and plans for new trips, my new friendship with Claire is one of those connections that makes each day a little brighter.
Keeping in with the theme of one our favorite shows–“Come Dine With Me,” in which a group of four or five random people take turns cooking and entertaining each other–Claire has been fixing up some exquisitely tasty dinners for us the past few Friday nights. Two weeks ago it was a Moroccan-themed dish of lamb and red peppers, stuffed with chili, couscous, and halloumi cheese. Last week it was a Thai green curry with chicken and veges. “Where will we go next week?” Claire asked as we sat down to eat.
I first met Dr. Chris Barlow, a fine art historian, two years ago through my flatmates at the time, Kim and Emily. Although they’ve seen moved back to the States, they sent me an email from Chris about a month ago, an invitation for the opening night of a contemporary art exhibition here in London. I was intrigued, and invited my Slovenian friend Tanja along to take advantage of her art expertise. The exhibit, held in La Galleria along the Royal Opera Parade, was called “Parallax,” which, I’ve since found out, means, “the apparent displacement of an object as seen from two different points that are not on a line with the object” (thanks, Princeton.) The paintings and pieces displayed couldn’t have been any more different from each other, but apparently that was the idea. “The theme is that there is no theme,” Chris explained to us. “How very postmodern of you,” was my response. “We need a new art history,” Tonja said to Chris as they discussed it further. I simply rolled my eyes, loving every minute of it.
4. Travel bloggers
It’s true. Ever since TBEX in Copenhagen, I can’t get enough of them. Even as we parted ways after our whirlwind Danish adventure, I was excited to find out that many of the people I met at the conference are based here in London. I’ve since gotten together with some of them at a house party hosted by the esteemed Travelling Editor, otherwise known as Dylan. Last week I had a chance to attend a lunch the Dubai Tourism Board was giving especially for travel bloggers and last night, Matt and Deborah of Travel With a Mate hosted a monthly London Travel Bloggers meetup at the Founders Arm in Blackfriars, where I got to catch up with my friend Justin and hear about the next 48-Hour Adventure he’s got up his sleeve. Conversations with Justin, Dylan and their friends were some of the most stimulating and thought-provoking I’ve had in a while, from freedom for Tibet to genocide in Africa and figuring out just how to make our love for travel and the world work. Who knew Copenhagen would open up so many doors in London?
5. The view
With a wall of windows overlooking the Thames, last night’s pub couldn’t have been located any better. As enjoyable as the conversations were around our table, I felt myself distracted half the time by the dome of St. Paul’s literally just across the river. It’s amazing how easy it is to get caught up in yourself here, in the craziness of commuting and the busy-ness of life. But pressing pause for a few seconds just to take in the view around me is enough to know I couldn’t imagine being anywhere but here…
It was a week of meeting heroes. The writers whose work you read and feel like yes, they get it–that they’ve just explained the world in a way that couldn’t make more sense or resonate any deeper with your own sensibilities.
Two weekends ago I was in Copenhagen for the Travel Bloggers Exchange’s first conference in Europe, taking a two-day workshop with travel writer Andrew Evans. I’ve loved following along his journeys since early this year when I found out about his Bus2Antarctica trip: 42 buses, 10 weeks, and 3,500 tweets of Twittering his way from DC to Argentina to Antarctica. Sitting in his class was surreal–seeing the person you’ve watched in videos posted from the road suddenly right there in front of you, talking about what makes a good story and walking alongside us to Copenhagen’s main rail station to get ideas for a piece. Weird.
And then, last weekend, I had the chance to visit the seaside village of Southwold where the Ways With Words literature festival was taking place. As I said in an earlier post, there was one name on the event’s docket that drew me there: Alain de Botton. And apparently an event hall packed with grey-haired retirees had been drawn there, too. I felt like a little kid that had been dropped off to hang out with Grandma and her friends all day.
When Alain came on stage, it was that same strange moment of seeing someone in the flesh who has before existed only on paper and in videos. His session was focused on his latest book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, and he talked–among many, many other things–about the minutae of office life, the search for meaning in the modern world, and the idea of the sabbath as a check to megalomania, that we as humans are tempted to think that we run the world, but that–perhaps surprisingly–the world doesn’t fall apart if we stop working. Of course there’s always something more that we can do, but we have to acknowledge our limitations. The world is bigger than we are.
And he was incredibly funny about it all, slipping in witty jokes and asides that the audience loved. I think I missed at least five punchlines because of their laughter, predicating his jokes. One of my favorite lines was:
“To announce to the world that you’re in the wrong job is almost as painful as coming out. You gather your loved ones around to tell them, everyone’s looking rather nervous, and your sister runs upstairs weeping.”
As usual, I had pen and paper out during Alain’s talk and even dared so much as to take a photo during the question-and-answer at the end. And–as always–I was amazed at how powerful the presence of a notebook is. From my tour of New Zealand’s Parliament building to the Colonial Cottage Museum in Wellington to a visit to White Island volcano, taking notes is about the surest way of attracting attention. “Are you writing for school?” I was often asked in New Zealand. But here in Southwold, the question was, “Are you a journalist?” At least three people stopped me after the session. “Are you a reporter?” one woman asked. I assured her I was not and she said, rather disappointedly, “Oh, I thought I might see the photo in the Standard tomorrow.”
One day, right?
On my way out of the festival, I weaved through the crowds gathered in the anteroom where all of the speakers’ books had been set out. Alain stood behind his book table and just as I passed by, there wasn’t anyone speaking with him. “What the heck?” I thought and, shocking even myself, strode right up to him, thanking him for his talk. He was incredibly humble, asking me questions about where I’m from and what I do. When I told him I study in London, he asked, “Were you in the neighborhood today then?”
“Well, not really,” I said, intimating that I’d come just to hear him.
“Wow, I’m honored.”
Well, what can I say…you’re Alain de Botton?
Catching the bus for Southwold, I am distinctly aware of being the youngest on board. By about four decades at least. Every other white-haired passenger wears oversized polarfleece zip-ups produced by brands like “Arctic Storm.” I’m sporting a black leather jacket. But that doesn’t mean I’m not loving this trek to an out-of-the-way seaside town of no more than 1,500.
At an intersection, signs point the way to places like Spexhall (2.5km), Bungay (8km), and Beckley (9km) and it’s nice to not have any idea of where I’m going. Each little place we pass through, places like Blyford and Wenhaston Village, is lined with cottages with names that hang next to their doors on painted signs; names like Honeysuckle, Driftwood, Fern, Daisy, and then, questionably, Post Office Cottage. A row of terraced houses is painted in such a way that it resembles the inside of a carton of neapolitan ice cream. This is an altogether lovely corner of the country, I think to myself.
By the time we arrive in Southwold, my nostalgia is moving with full force and I make straight for the beach. Two months in the capital have left me itching for salt in the air and gulls squawking above. Maybe it was a week my family once spent at the beach over Thanksgiving when I was seven years old, but there’s something about being near an ocean in the winter that always gets me. Walking along the shore, it isn’t so much about the warmth of the sun and the swimming anymore, but a fundamental state of being, the openness and a briny chill in the air.
I quickly grow obsessed with the beach huts that line Southwold’s promenade. They’re nothing more than your standard backyard shed with a little porch tacked on the front, except they seem imbued with all of the character and personality Americans normally give their beach homes. Each hut has a name and is painted in distinct and vivid colors–bold primaries, funky teals and fuschias, and quiet pastels. Apparently they date as far back to the early twentieth century, when British conservatism and modesty was at a high. Changing in public was strictly forbidden, so city councils began providing the huts as changing rooms. Many are outfitted with small stoves, so that no one will have to sacrifice afternoon tea for a day at the beach.
There’s an old man working on the door of a hut named Nollers Nock. I walk up to him and ask frankly, “Is this yours?” When he realizes there’s someone standing there, I have more questions. How do these work, I ask him, do you sleep here or just hang out during the day? Do people own or rent them, are they passed on from generation to generation?
“Oh, yes, this one’s been in the family since the 1960s I’d say.”
“And is that how it normally works?”
Before he can answer, a woman’s voice from inside the cabin calls out, “Not as much as they used to be.”
“Sorry, voice from the deep,” she says again, poking her head out of the door, holding a curtain rod in her hands onto which she is in the process of sliding gauzy material.
I leave them to finish their improvements in peace and soon pass a family, little Tom and Rachel all bundled up. Tom has a small red spade which apparently Rachel wants back, despite the larger blue alternative her mother holds out to her. As usual, Tom sets off waddling down the sand like a goose with a limp, Dad and Rachel running after him.
“Don’t snatch it from him, please, Rachel,” her father exhorts. “Remember what we talked about yesterday? He just needs a bit of time to warm up before he hands it over.”
Rachel isn’t so understanding.
I make a final loop down the beach and then, full of sea air, pop into the Boardwalk Café for a coffee and a place to eat my lunch. From my seat at a long counter facing the ocean, I can see the lighthouse and the very top of St. Edmund’s church. There’s an old man wearing a naval cap sitting at the end of the bar from me. He reaches into his fleece and pulls out a pair of binoculars that hang on a string around his neck. He stares out through them towards the horizon for such a period of time that I start to wonder if maybe I’m missing something.
But then I look again at the rows of brightly colored beach huts, at the fisherman gathered under large umbrellas at the end of the pier, and at the muted sunshine glinting through the clouds onto the surface of the sea, and I know that no, I’m not missing anything.
I’ve recently taken to comparing travel within the UK to Internet dating.
It’s one thing to spend a few hours getting your itinerary together–buying regional train tickets, noting their times and working out local bus schedules–and yet it’s another thing altogether seeing how it works out in reality. In a similar vein, seeing someone online is a nice thought. You can learn a couple of things about them and view their (undoubtedly enhanced) photos but the real test (not that I would know…) comes when you meet them in person. Will they measure up? Will they follow through with everything they promised? You can only hope for the best, right?
And so I set out for the seaside town of Southwold this morning fearing for my life.
Well, perhaps not life–no need for the melodrama, I suppose–but at least my sanity. The last time I attempted a “day trip” in the UK a few weeks ago, things didn’t end so smoothly. It turns out London Midlands rail service isn’t quite as punctual or efficient as her online profile leads you to believe. As the train delays began stealing precious hours from my life, I began cursing their inane scheduling shortfalls. Leave it to be said there was no shortage of weeping and gnashing of teeth before that night was through.
Nearly a month ago, though, I came across a tiny blurb in Lonely Planet magazine mentioning the Ways With Words literature festival being held this weekend in Southwold, England. Although I might’ve happily gone along no matter how illustrious a line-up they had on, one particular speaker arrested my attention: Alain de Botton. With his books often said to cover “the philosophy of everyday life,” he’s a phenomenal writer and thinker, but–and maybe this is obvious–it was his book, The Art of Travel, that had me hook, line and whatever.
But after my trip home from Liverpool spiralled into a disastrous, nearly seven-hour mess of a journey, I started thinking this week: is Alain de Botton really worth all this fuss? Is visiting an obscure village on the east coast of England actually worth the risk of losing more hours of my life to the incessant failure that is UK transport? Last night, my flatmate Claire had a good laugh predicting things wouldn’t end well for this trip. “You know you are so not going to make it there! Buses hate you!” she said, tearing up with laughter, all the while fueling the fires of my inner panic.
In the end, I ran the risk anyway–but not without great trepidation. A 5am wake-up call got me out of bed and fumbling around for several layers of warm clothing–something about visiting a coastal village on the edge of the North Sea in November sounded slightly more threatening than a trip to the beach for, say, spring break in Miami.
My journey from Surbiton to Liverpool Street Station was remarkably unremarkable–both train and bus proved capable of holding to a schedule. My train from Liverpool to a town called Halesworth 100 miles away also not only left on time, but arrived exactly on target as well…I hardly knew what to think. The last test, however, was the local bus, No. 520 from Halesworth to Southwold. I waited outside the Halesworth train station with my fingers crossed so hard they hurt. And sure enough, at 10.09am on the very dot, a big yellow bus flashing “Southwold” in red letters miraculously appeared around the corner.
Just like it said it would.
I could have wept with joy. I’d come prepared. I’d brought my laptop, plenty of writing to work on, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and a full roll pack of milk chocolate digestives, just in case things got truly desperate. But for once, over-preparation was totally unnecessary.
We’d been blaming David for everything. As one of the only people in our group actually from Copenhagen, it was David who took the lead as we set out trying to find a place to eat Saturday night after the TBEX (Travel Bloggers Exchange) Europe Conference came to end. As an employee of Momondo, the conference’s chief sponsor, he shouldered full responsibility for our empty stomachs. We headed south to Vesterport, past the city’s red light district, and the harder it became to find somewhere, the more we blamed him. If a pub was too big or too small, if it was too empty or too full, David was our scapegoat–and he playfully took it personally. “I give up!” he shouted in faux exasperation. “You are all too critical!”
After a brief dinner of goulash and bread (Hungarian soup that’s way better than it sounds), we ended up at a bar in the city’s meatpacking district called Jolene’s, its name pulsing onto the dark sidewalks in bright pink neon letters. The place was dead–no one but a lone bartender and the DJ setting up his decks across from the bar. We soon filled a back room, where mismatched couches and chairs sat in front of a wall papered with safari animals–elephants, zebras, giraffes, the like. Twinkling fairy lights had been strung around exposed silver ductwork on the ceiling, a needlepoint crossstitch hung on the wall and candles glowed on a table. It had the kind of funky ambiance you always hope for in a place.
After we settled in with our drinks, David pulled out his iPhone and announced, “Momondo is going to do its first narrative tweet!” We’d all been in a workshop that afternoon called “Storytelling 101” given by Andrew Evans, a well-known travel writer whose most recent tour de force was a voyage to Antarctica via a 10,000-mile bus journey from DC to Argentina. Although the trek would have been remarkable in its own right, Andrew used it as an opportunity to practice, as he calls it, “real-time storytelling”–utilizing social media tools like Twitter to report directly from the road: tweets, blog posts, photos and even videos like this one of a rare black penguin.
But it isn’t just reporting…in many ways, it’s still writing. In the workshop, Andrew encouraged us to be creative with our posts, sharing how he’s even taken to crafting his tweets into haikus–working within, rather than against, the confines of Twitter’s 140-character limit. Here’s a couple he posted just yesterday:
“In Copenhagen/ November dawn comes too late/ The day ends too soon.”
“Danes inside Denmark/ Sport tight black leggings, high-tops/ & star trek Haircuts.”
As someone who’s always eschewed Twitter, finding it something that merely duplicates the Facebook status updates we’re already posting everyday, I left the workshop somewhat inspired…and actually itching to get my hands on an iPhone. I liked the fact that tweets can be more than just “I’m in London and loving it!”–that we can actually utilize it as a tool to engage creatively with wherever we are–be it at home or on the road. As Andrew said, “The jury’s still out on Twitter.” It’s up to us to use it as we see fit.
And so it was in a bar called Jolene’s on a Saturday night in Copenhagen that a group of aspiring travel writers/bloggers tried their hand at the same, all from the suggestion of David. He handed me his phone and I, along with a London-based Aussie named Justin and a Berlin-based American named Cheney, whipped up a haiku of our own. Here’s what we came up with:
It was a proud moment for all of us, but we didn’t give it a lot more thought until Maren, cofounder of TBEX and GoGalavanting, and Dylan the “Travelling Editor” suddenly walked into the bar. “How’d you find us?” we asked, amazed that out of all the bars in Copenhagen, they’d come to Jolene’s. But it wasn’t so random, after all. “The haiku tweet, of course…it was like a treasure hunt!” We could’ve tweeted something as uninspiring as, “TBEXers–meet us at Jolene’s!” Instead, we took a few extra minutes, soaked in the atmosphere around us, and wrote something both creative–actually still informative.
And to think it had been David’s idea…for once, we weren’t blaming him for this.