Category Archives: London

the little things.

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”

–Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I’ve been known to get things wrong before, especially when it comes to travel bookings. Booking my flight home for Christmas, I purchased it so fast I didn’t realise my return journey to London included an unintentional 12-hour (and not to mention, overnight) layover in Chicago. I’ll be leaving Richmond on a Monday night, arriving in Chicago at 9pm, departing at 9am the next morning and not getting back to London until 10.45pm Tuesday night.

Epic fail. Epic travel fail.

But as it turns out, my flight to the States today also included another unexpected twist. My itinerary with American Airlines was to start off with a quick jaunt north to Manchester, from where I would catch a flight to Chicago and then on to my final stop, Wichita, Kansas. An AA representative had a quick look at my schedule, though, before saying, “Oh, no, that couldn’t be with us. We don’t fly to Manchester.” A brief dart of panic shot through me. I’d been anticipating this–a stopover in Manchester before an international flight just seemed too weird–and I had my Please-Have-Pity-On-Me sob story all ready for use at a moment’s notice: “But you don’t understand, I have to get on this flight. My sister just had surgery…brain surgery…and my brother’s meeting me in Kansas…Kansas!

The script wasn’t needed, after all. “You need to go to Terminal 5, Miss,” the woman explained. “You’re flying to Manchester with British Airways.”

I’m what? I wanted to ask, but I knew better than to question this little stroke of luck. I might as well have been picking up the Ford Taurus rental car I’d hypothetically scheduled and been told a Lexus was waiting for me outside. I’m not well-acquainted with upgrades when it comes to the world of travel, so as I walked down the jet bridge, where there stood freshly-pressed stacks of the Daily Mail, the Independent, and Financial Times–all complimentary, of course–I knew I was in new territory.

That’s also when I realised life is all about the little things. When it comes to flying, I’m more accustomed to the business plans of budget airlines, whereby they strip you down to nothing but a body. Don’t get me wrong, the insanely low base fares are well-worth the inherent demoralisation (recent bookings have involved a $14 flight to Sardinia, Italy, and a $20 flight to Porto, Portugal–thank you, RyanAir), but what these fares don’t include are the $10 administrative fee, the baggage fees, the online check-in fees, the extra transport to London’s less prominent airports, and they certainly don’t include free copies of the UK’s finest publications, nor other more important incidentals involving nourishment. There have even been rumors concerning RyanAir and a potential charge for using the toilet, which seems like they’re just asking for a lawsuit.

But on my unexpectedly lovely ride in luxury this morning, I was amazed at how nice it was to have all those small touches again–the newspapers, the leather seats, and the built-in headrests that seem to welcome you in like an old friend–and then, as if that wasn’t enough, the pilot came on once we were in the air and said, “We are pleased to be serving you a hot baguette with tea or coffee this morning.”

Could it get any better? On one of those 40-minute flights that seems to begin preparing for landing before it’s even taken off? And as I sat there, sipping on hot coffee, a little plastic cup of orange juice, and tucking into a baguette filled with warm tomatoes and bacon, I thought of how nice it was to feel like a human being again, not just a body filling a seat, and how the simplest gestures bring such a smile to your face.

The little things can go a long way, can’t they?

 

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the long way home.

“Paying attention, I learned again, is the foundation of great travel writing – and as a bonus, it deeply and resonantly enriches your everyday life as well.”
–Don George, Gadling

It had been a week to remember. A brisk drop in temperatures preceded Britain’s earliest snowfall in nearly two decades, since November of 1993. But a surprisingly mild weekend set about erasing all sign of the record-setting snow and Sunday’s cloudless blue sky filled my lungs with crisp chill air. It was the perfect sort of day to bridge autumn and winter, I thought as I set out for Tolworth, a little area just south of Surbiton. My editor for Kingston’s student magazine had wanted me to go report on a sports alumni event taking place that afternoon, a series of matches playfully pairing current and ex-students against each other.

Me being me, lacking the standard allotment of common sense and all, didn’t think to check with my editor first to see if the snow, the same snow that incapacitated nearly every other aspect of British life this week, might not have had a similar effect on the sports event. Indeed, as I rushed off the bus and down Tolworth Broadway towards the sports grounds, I was greeted by nothing but lonely, snow-streaked fields.

I kicked the fence bearing a cheery blue sign: ALL SPORT CANCELLED. My typical self would have been, to put it lightly, annoyed, perturbed, even angry, perhaps? But for some reason, as I headed back to the bus stop, I was fine. With my afternoon suddenly as clear as the sky above me, I felt something close to happiness and made a deal with myself: if I walked the hour back to Kingston, I could use the money I would have spent on bus fare on a coffee from the library cafe (yes, I am on that kind of budget right now…).

Once I started walking, I couldn’t have been more pleased with my decision, iPod popped in and set to a dance/house playlist to put a little pep in my step. Gratefully I’d brought my camera along, as I was just in time for the rich sunlight that comes with the Golden Hours (which sadly start in mid-afternoon this time of year). Ordinary rows of shop buildings were gloriously illuminated, shadows dancing blithely on their walls, and I started to shift into travel-writer-mode, i.e. giving attention to the details so easy to overlook: the items in an antique shop’s storefront window, the diversity of restaurants and food markets to choose from, and a road sign for Kingston Town. How cool, I thought, to live in an official “historic market town.”

But what I loved most is what I will always remember of England in the winter: church spires and barren branches. Sunlit and standing tall, the steeples were everywhere, appearing above houses and shops and framed often by spidery branches stripped of their leaves.

There’s something to be said for taking the long way home.

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in other news…

Happy St. Andrew’s Day, Scotland!

Here’s just another reason why I love life in the UK:

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snow day.

“And finally Winter, with its bitin’, whinin’ wind, and all the land will be mantled with snow.”
–Roy Bean

Snow day.

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.

Flashback to January of 2009 and my first snowfall in London.

 

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a week’s worth of thankfulness.

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
— G.K. Chesterton

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.

1. Flatmates

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.

2. Food

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.

3. Events

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.

 

Robert Bodem, “An Invitation,” bronze. £25,000. Yes, you read that right.

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

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double-life.

“This is our decision, to live fast and die young
We’ve got the vision, now let’s have some fun.
Yeah, it’s overwhelming, but what else can we do
Get jobs in offices, and wake up for the morning commute.”
–MGMT, “Time to Pretend”

9.19am.

In a beautiful display of clockwork precision, SouthWest Trains’ fast service to Waterloo pulls up to Surbiton station. The doors open, a few passengers disembark, and I find a seat–preferably in the quiet zone–settling in the for the commute. Eighteen minutes to London. Zero stops. Priceless.

I won’t lie that when people ask me if I’m here working or studying, I love being able to say, “Both, actually.” I love my return to student life–having an excuse to spend hours in the library again, being able to attend workshops and masterclasses, going to lecture, brown-nosing professors, thinking about essay topics and what Diane Ackerman’s use of imagery in The Moon by Whale Light says about her as a narrator.

But, oddly enough, I equally love going to work. I’m in my third week now and all systems are go. It’s been strange picking up exactly where I left off, working with the same bosses and colleagues at another university in London. I’m back in their health and social care department–which couldn’t be further from my own personal interests, but I’ve found that dealing with it for just twenty hours a week is a welcome break from the la-la-land world of creative writers. The first couple of days were weird–but when is your first day at any new job not marked by an awkward sense of, “What am I doing here again?” By my third day, though, staff members had started to realize I’m here, available, and actually not annoyed when they have work for me.

I’ve been hired on a ten-month contract to work especially on a series of government-funded projects. All of the departments within the faculty are in the process of switching their course modules from fifteen credits to twenty credits. This “translation exercise,” as the switch is officially referred to, requires updating all the course documents and paperwork…which is right where I come in. I spend my three days each week tidying up documents, fixing stray bullet points and going crazy over Microsoft Word’s imbecilic automated formatting system. But at the end of the day, this is precisely what I was looking for–a well-paying job with hours more suited to my schedule and with a bit more responsibility to show on the resume than “bartender at a gourmet pizza restaurant-turned-nightclub.” A girl can hope for a little respect, right?

And as I float between the life of a student and that of an office worker, I’ve found what I look forward to most in each day is my commute. Starting at ten every morning means I miss the hectic hour between eight and nine–and more importantly can get a window seat–but there are still enough suits and jackets around to have that corporate feel in the air, me looking on as Paisley Tie #4 makes a call: “Hi Jackie, it’s David. I’ll be in the office by half past. Cheers, love.”

When the train pulls away from the station, I settle into my seat. I read, I write, I think, or sometimes simply watch the the view outside my window. It isn’t the discontinuous journey of riding the Tube, stopping every two minutes and doing everything in your power to ignore the beeping of the doors opening and closing, opening and closing.

Instead, it’s an uninterrupted moment of fluidity, of trees melting into trees as I transition from one world to another. Essentially, it’s a pause–the time we never give ourselves. When do we ever take fifteen minutes away from our desks, from our laptops, from our lives, to just be still? I recently read an article in the New York Times titled “Your Brain on Computers: Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime.” It addresses the fact that in our new age of mega-technology, we never have any downtime away from electronic devices. We fill every spare minute–“micro-moments,” as the article calls them–checking email, checking voicemail, checking in and up and everywhere but out:

“Cellphones, which in the last few years have become full-fledged computers with high-speed Internet connections, let people relieve the tedium of exercising, the grocery store line, stoplights or lulls in the dinner conversation. The technology makes the tiniest windows of time entertaining, and potentially productive. But scientists point to an unanticipated side effect: when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.”

It’s the kind of research I know I’ll be quoting to friends at the pub, defending my decision to not use a smart phone. As a writer, especially, I don’t want to lose those moments where inspiration may strike–but hits the person next to me instead because I’m too busy flicking through my phone to hear that little idea pop into my head.

9.34am. The automated recording of a woman begins to play, telling me we’ll be arriving in Waterloo in two minutes. If I’m reading, I close my book. If I’m writing, I jot down a few final notes and put the cap back on my pen. I rummage in the front right pocket of my messenger bag for my office-issued ID card and slip the royal blue lanyard over my head–a final act to mark my move from student to worker.

Let the office games begin.

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hunting for history.

It’s all about baby steps, right? It may not be big, but here’s an article I recently wrote for Cheers!  a newsletter published by Kingston University specifically for its contingent of North American students.

Hunting for History: the top 5 traditions to see in London…for free!”

In a modern city like London, it’s easy to forget just how much history there is all around us. Between the museums and markets, gardens and green spaces, there’s never any shortage of things to do. But I’ve found that experiencing the traditions that still exist today is what has made my time in England most meaningful and truly different from my North American upbringing. Coming from a country whose written history begins only in the early 1600s, the rich traditions British culture is steeped in is something I try to remember and take advantage of whenever I can. And with so many great traditions to experience for free in London, the only thing that’s left to work out is logistics.

1. Old Bailey Public Galleries

The gilded arms of Lady Justice are extended wide over the dome of Old Bailey, a set of scales in her left hand and a sword in her right. Inside the Central Criminal Courts, the principle of blind justice that she stands for is carried out on a daily basis. Your seat in the Public Galleries will give you a bird’s eye view of the courtroom–the twelve members of the jury, the high-backed, green leather seats, and the UK Royal Coat of Arms hanging above the judge–with the Latin phrase Honi soit qui mal y pense reading, “Shamed be he who thinks ill of it.” The black-robed solicitors wear wigs with curls that look like wood shavings and address the judge as “My Lord” or “Your Honour.” Their proceedings are rooted in the original medieval court founded in 1585, but were more firmly established in 1673, when Old Bailey was constructed after the Great Fire of London. Although it has undergone several transformations and reconstructions since then–with the present building dating from 1907–the court’s commitment to justice has remained the same. The open public galleries are an excellent way to experience a different legal system at work.

How to get there: From Kingston, take a London-bound Southwest train to Waterloo. Then, take either Bus 4 to St. Paul’s or take the Waterloo and City line to Bank, switching to the Central Line to St. Paul’s. Old Bailey is a short walk from the station–follow signs to the Central Criminal Court.

Note: You are not allowed to bring any electronic devices into the Public Galleries–that includes mobile phones, cameras, iPods, etc. Either leave them at home or at Bailey’s Cafe Deli across the street. They charge £2 to hold your items during your visit.

2. Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace

“Say hi to the Queen for me,” rang the words of several of my friends before I left for England. While I might never get close enough to the Queen herself for such a conversation, it is possible to witness the troops that are responsible for protecting her and her home in London. The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace is one of the most well-known traditions you simply can’t miss while living in the UK. When you watch the guards march deliberately and exaggerated, their right arms swinging like the pendulum of a grandfather clock, their bearskin hats standing stiff and their red coats as bright as winter berries, you’ll be witnessing a tradition that’s been in place since 1660. When the royal residence was moved to Buckingham Palace in 1837, the sovereign’s household troops stayed at the old St. James Palace and since then, have continued to march down the Mall to relieve the Old Guard.

How to get there: Take a London-bound SouthWest train to Clapham Junction and then change to Southern rail from Clapham to Victoria. Buckingham Palace is a short walk from Victoria station–just follow the signs!

Note: From Spring to Autumn, the Changing of the Guard takes place everyday at 11:30am, however from Autumn to Spring, it alternates every other day. Consult the schedule on http://www.changing-the-guard.com/ before planning your visit and be sure to turn up early to secure a good spot in the crowds.

Related events: You can also view the Household Cavalry. The Changing of the Queen’s Life Guard at takes place daily at 11am (10am on Sundays) and the Daily Inspection at 4pm.

 3. Evensong at Westminster Abbey

Crossing the threshold of Westminster Abbey is a step into the past, your footsteps echoing on the marble floor as you approach the High Altar. Light is diffused through the rose windows and the organ’s strains fill every corner of the Abbey’s many filigreed arches. When the choir begins, it’s easy to think there’s no sound more beautiful on earth. It’s been this way since 960, when Westminster Abbey was first founded, but the present building wasn’t constructed until 1245. The history of evensong at the Abbey begins with the arrival of Benedictine monks in the tenth century, and the daily worship they began continues today. Attending evensong is not only a free way to view the inside of such a historically significant building, but also a chance to be part of a tradition that stretches back into an earlier millennium.

How to get there: From Waterloo, take the Jubilee line to Westminster. The Abbey is right across the street from the Underground station.

Note: Consult the Daily Services schedule on http://www.westminster-abbey.org/ for service times. Evensong is held at 5:00pm daily during the week and 3.00pm on the weekends.

4. Debates in the Houses of Parliament

Soft afternoon sunlight filters through rows of stained glass windows, reflecting off the exquisitely gilded throne in the House of Lords. Oral Questions have just begun and from your seat in the Public Galleries, you can see that the padded, red leather benches on the floor of the House are filled to capacity. Unlike MPs who meet in the House of Commons, members of the House of Lords are not elected and are unpaid, but the role they play in lawmaking and legislation is still crucial. Parliament began meeting as two distinct houses in 1341, but a number of acts throughout the centuries have revised and refined the role of the House of Lords. Visiting debates in either the House of Commons or the House of Lords is not only a rewarding look at a different system of government, but also a way to view a beautiful, historic building–from the the detailed mosaics in the Central Lobby to the vaulted ceilings and statues of St. Stephen’s Hall.

How to get there: From Waterloo, take the Jubilee line to Westminster. The Houses of Parliament are a short walk from the Underground station.

Note: Only UK residents can reserve tickets to visit the debates. Overseas visitors must arrive early to queue. For more details regarding sitting times and dates, visit http://www.parliament.uk/visiting/attend/debates/.

5. Key Ceremony at the Tower of London

“Halt! Who goes there?” the armed sentryman calls out. You can hear the jingle of the keys as four soldiers approach escorting the yeoman jailer, the light from his lantern dancing against the fortress walls. The jailer confirms that he holds the keys of Queen Elizabeth and they are allowed to pass. This brief exchange is one of London’s oldest traditions–the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London. For nearly 700 years, the ceremony has taken place every night–no matter the weather and even during the worst bombing raids of World War II. The soldiers and jailer walk away from Bloody Tower, their arms swinging and boots stepping, and lock both the outer gate and that of Byward Tower, securing the fortress for yet another night. Our guide for the evening, a yeoman warder named Colin, tells us this is one of the oldest and shortest ceremonies in the world. “It’s pure history, people don’t realise you are a part of history here.” Don’t miss your chance to be a part, too!

How to get there: From Waterloo, take the Northern Line to Embankment, and then change to either the District or Circle line to Tower Hill. The Tower of London is just opposite the station.

Note: The Tower of London website advises requesting tickets up to two months in advance. Visit their website at http://www.hrp.org.uk/toweroflondon/whatson/ceremonyofthekeys.aspx for more details about how to request tickets.

Good luck on your hunt!

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