Goodbye London

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My year is up and the blog is over, so if you have any more questions, please direct them to the King’s Office – they’d love to talk to you! I hope you enjoyed it. Bye, y’all!

London Homesick Blues

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London is an incredible place, and I feel lucky to live here. The beautiful buildings, the culture, the accents are all incredible. But when you’re an international student, bouts of homesickness go with the territory. And for me, homesickness hit hard around American Independence Day.

My family is big on tradition, and the 4th of July is a great example. Our whole extended family gets together at my grandparents’ farm and watches the small-town parade, eats brisket, and sets off fireworks. Obviously, London didn’t have any of these things. So I had to make do.

My firework-less skyline.

I think the most important thing when you’re homesick is not to wallow in it. Instead, you have to get out there and embrace the life you’re actually living instead. So after calling to wish my family a happy Independence Day, I met up with my American friends (and my British and Welsh friends, entertainingly enough – you should here a Welshman imitate a Texan drawl), and headed off in search of an American experience.

We found an American bar overflowing with expats in various versions of Old Glory. The bar was blasting American hits (with no apparent logic, might I add; ‘Ice, Ice Baby’ was played alongside country hits and ‘Hey Ya’) while their TVs showed American films (Pulp Fiction, etc) with closed captioning. If you’re going to be here over Independence Day, though, I’m warning you now: book ahead. We didn’t, and therefore wound up eating at a very British pub. However, even here I found a taste of home, with a burger, chips that were nearly thin enough to be considered fries, and Tennessee Whiskey. We then found a club doing an American tribute night, and went back to my friend’s kitchen to play with sparklers (warning: never use pyrotechnics after drinking, and always pick a flame retardant area for sparklers).

So despite my worries, it wound up being a pretty traditional 4th of July. I was surrounded by people I cared about, ate American food, enjoyed American pop culture, and even got my “fireworks.” It was a 4th of July to remember, and memories are what this is all about.

 

ps – I highly recommend attending Canada Day (1 July) celebrations in Trafalgar Square. They go all out, with free outdoor concerts, maple leaf hats, poutine, and loads of people in red. We had an incredible time.

A Whole New World

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One of the coolest things about London is that it wasn’t really planned. That makes it incredibly frustrating to navigate, of course, since streets never go in predictable lines, let alone by number (for someone whose old town was so dedicated to numbering that it included 38 1/2 Street, this was an adjustment). But it also means that there are plenty of hidden little oases throughout the city, tucked away in isolation amidst the jostle of the city centre. It means you end up with tiny little communities like Little Italy, which had its own Boat Festival last month, where canals lined with beautiful flowers meander through the area. Or areas like mine, which are full of sleek new buildings in the middle of industrial brick (and occasional unexplained bouts of Johnny Cash, audible throughout the neighborhood at random intervals).

And you get areas that have their own completely distinct atmosphere. My favorite of these (so far, anyway) is Seven Dials. Right next to Covent Garden, it’s less crowded, more spread out, and beautiful. It’s full of boutiques in bold colors selling cute, unique things. They’re sprawled out along multiple winding paths that meet at the pillar of sundials, surrounded by a ring where pedestrians, cyclists, and cars mingle freely.

Seven Dials. Which actually only has 6 dials, but whatever.

It’s also home to one of London’s most famous sites: Neal’s Yard. Its brightness and hippie feel made me think of Austin (this was reinforced by the Home Slice pizzeria present in both), but it has a unique feel all its own. When I went, a small movie or television show was being filmed, people were enjoying after-work drinks, tourists were taking photos (as was I, obviously), and somehow, it all fit in harmony. If you come to London, you should definitely visit. It’s well worth getting lost for (in fact, that’s half the fun).

Neal’s Yard. It’s just a little courtyard, but once you’ve found it, you don’t need the sign to know where you are: it’s unmistakeable.

I just love the colors!

I have no idea what they were filming, but it involved apples. A lot of apples.

A sign in Neal’s Yard, accompanied by a board of magnetic words to arrange however you want.

Tired of London, Tired of Life

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It’s finally summer, which means that London’s tourists have gone from frequently encountered to inescapable. And it is truly amazing how quickly you adopt the native London mindset of irritated resignation after the millionth person holding a map stops dead in the middle of a crowded sidewalk, always right in front of you. So I figure, if you can’t beat ‘em…

London is such a big city that it’s easy to end up spending all your time in the 2 square miles between your flat and school (or work, or whatever. You get my point). This is the only excuse I can really offer for having lived here since September and having seen little more than the South Bank and the Strand. I “did the tourist thing” with my mom years ago, and since a lot of London’s biggest attractions are expensive, I’ve held off, waiting for people to visit, since I’ll inevitably end up hitting the tourist attractions with them – I went to the Tower of London the last time friends came to visit. But somehow I also ended up not bothering to go to any of those areas. Which is a real shame, because now it’s nearly June and there are still so many parts of London that I haven’t even begun to explore. My summer project (besides my dissertation and job hunting, of course, and hopefully a summer job – fingers crossed!) is to get to know the city.

The Houses of Parliament, the bell tower with Big Ben, and, of course, the ubiquitous tourist.

I started off with the obvious: I walked through Westminster, taking in the view of the bell tower with Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, the Victoria Tower Gardens, and the whole area, then crossing the Thames to admire it from the other side. I also went to Chelsea with a friend of mine on a hunt for American food in Partridge’s (words cannot describe my joy at welcoming Hershey’s chocolate syrup back into my life), followed by a quick trip to the Saatchi Gallery to see the Festival des Mètiers, where the Hermès craftspeople work right in front of you. Then it was over to Angel with a friend of mine. The last time I was there, I saw this:

This guy actually reminded me of home. For those of you who don’t know, Austin’s city motto is “Keep Austin Weird,” and we display our hippies and weirdos with pride. So finding this guy in London was a treat.

Sorry for the picture quality; he was moving and I need a better camera, as well as photography lessons. But surely you can tell that’s a man dressed as a zebra centaur?

So seeing Angel in the daylight was a bit of a change. Unfortunately, it rained all day (and it was freezing – London summer is VERY different from Texas summer), so I don’t have any pictures for y’all. You’ll just have to go see it for yourselves.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

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As a literature student, I just couldn’t resist such a famous reference. After all, this week included the best and worst parts of being a student.

It began with the worst, as essay deadlines bore down. Most of the undergraduate students don’t have their exams for another couple of weeks, but as a postgraduate, your essay deadlines are determined by your department, and, in some cases, your professor. This means that most of my friends still have one essay to work on, whereas my essays are already in (woo-hoo!). It also meant that the first half of the week was rough, as I left various events early to continue research and essay drafts, and lived almost exclusively on pizza. It was not a pretty sight. There was a lot of red pen and pajamas.

Now that I’m done with essays, though, I’m getting to enjoy all the perks of being a student. For one thing, I’ve gotten to watch my hard work pay off in essay marks. For another, I’ve been free to enjoy the amazing weather we’ve been having – and so have my student friends! Spring has finally sprung here in London, so yesterday included a picnic in Hyde Park. It looked like half of the city was out, which was lovely. It’s the first time I’ve seen roller bladers around here, but there are an impressive number! There are also adorable dogs, affectionate couples, excited children, relaxed sunbathers, and, of course, students. I have every intention of researching my dissertation exclusively in parks if they continue to look like this:

Don’t you just want to run through it spinning, singing ‘the hills are alive…with the sound of music!’ Or is that just me?

Especially now that the sun doesn’t set until after 8. Have I mentioned lately how much I love this city? Because I do. And now I’m off to enjoy it some more.

 

ps – I’m happy to do posts on almost anything that interests you about London/being a postgraduate student, so please, let me know what you’d like to read about!

Ciao, Roma!

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There’s no end of things to do in London – Samuel Johnson wasn’t far off in saying, “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” – but sometimes, it’s nice to get a break. Which is yet another wonderful thing about London: you’re close to 4 large airports. So when an old friend invited me to Italy for a long weekend, I had no trouble saying yes. After all, one of the nice things about postgraduate studies is that they’re focused on independent learning, so you don’t have many classes during the week. As long as I read on the plane, and worked ahead, I was free to enjoy a mini-break.

My friend had never been to Rome before, so we did all the touristy things, like visiting the Vatican (but not until after the new Pope had given his first speech, because the crowds were insane):

From this spot, the pillars behind the camera create an optical illusion.

and the Spanish Steps:

There seem to be a lot more steps when you’re in search of a toilet. They are beautiful, though!

To me, though, possibly the most exciting part was the food:

They called these “antipasta,” or “appetizers.” I called them “happiness on a platter.”

As much fun as it can be to play the tourist, though, there’s nothing like being shown around by a local. My friend’s friend drove us all around the city, taking us to her favorite views and pubs, and inviting us to a family dinner. You haven’t lived until you’ve had homemade pizza made by a loving Italian. No matter where you’re going, I recommend meeting up with locals if you can. It just gives you a whole new perspective on the place.

Having said that, there’s a reason tourist destinations are so popular. Which is why we spent our last day on a train to Pisa, to visit the Leaning Tower. I’ve probably seen hundreds of pictures of it over my lifetime, but nothing prepared me for just how extreme the tilt of the Tower was. I enjoyed every second of it – including, of course, the gelato, which was the best I’ve ever had.

I spent the short (and cheap) flight back thinking about how grateful I was that London is so conveniently located for travel. Just one of the many advantages of the place I’m now lucky enough to call home.

 

 

 

Can you spot the landmarks? I had to leave out the London Eye so you wouldn't be staring at a photo of a stranger's head, but you can just make out St. Paul's. If you really, really try. Sorry, y'all, my iPod has to double as my camera. But the view's famous, so if you're really, really desperate, Google it.

Spring Fever

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Sorry it’s been so long since my last post. One of the consequences of choosing to do your Master’s degree at a world-class institution like King’s is that the majority of Reading Week is spent, well, reading. Specifically, trying to work through this stack of books:

I wasn’t successful.

Which is basically how I’ve spent my last few weeks. But today, it “warmed up,” and the sun came out, and it was way too beautiful outside for me to focus on my reading. So I did something I’ve been wanting to do since I first came to London: I went out to Primrose Hill to enjoy the view.

Well, actually, first I stopped by North Gower Street to see whether they were filming the new series of Sherlock there today, because what’s life without the occasional unhealthy obsession? (For those of you equally obsessed: Yes! It’s March, and they’ve started filming series 3!) But no such luck; the only sign I was even in the right neighborhood was Speedy’s. So I moved on to Primrose Hill.

The hill is famous for its view of London, and with good reason. Blake even waxed poetic about it (which he did about just about everything, but still), and his words are engraved on the ledge around the viewing circle: “I have conversed with the spiritual sun. I saw him on Primrose Hill.” And I could see his point, with the sun gleaming off the London skyline. For those of you who haven’t made the trek out there yet, or haven’t been to London, this is what you’re missing:

Can you spot the landmarks? I had to leave out the London Eye so you wouldn’t be staring at a photo of a stranger’s head, but you can just make out St. Paul’s. If you really, really try. Sorry, y’all, my iPod has to double as my camera. But the view’s famous, so if you’re desperate, Google it.

It was gorgeous, which I had been told to expect. What no one warned me about was the beauty of the views in other directions, like these:

If it weren’t for the 2 buildings peeking out, you’d never know this was in London!

All the picnic-ing couples made me jealous that I hadn’t brought food. Or a boyfriend.

Or the beauty of the walk there. I couldn’t believe this stately home

Gorgeous, right?

      was right next to this

Yeah, that’s a HOUSEBOAT in the very back. How cool is that?

But that’s what I love about London. It’s full of all different kinds of beauty, coexisting. The Electric Ballroom just a few minutes from the Gap. An Indian food restaurant next door to a pan-African restaurant, complete with outdoor giraffe (I am so sorry I didn’t get y’all a picture of this. Next time). And just a few streets away, the English Folk Dance and Song Society. You never know what you’ll find if you just take a couple more steps.

 

 

ps – Since this post was so late, the next one will be fairly soon! As always, feel free to request a topic, and ask about/comment on anything in this one.

Let it Snow

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Normally, I believe in living in the moment. I like to focus on the present, and reserve the reminiscing for reunions with old friends. But this blog entry, my very first one, is an exception to that rule, because I’m still a little obsessed with the snow that doesn’t seem likely to reappear any time soon.

Ask any Londoner about snow, and they will most likely roll their eyes, warning you that most Londoners can’t drive in the snow, that the tube lines become unpredictable, that it melts very quickly, and it’s generally a nuisance. I’ve found all of this to be true, except the last bit. Because what they don’t mention is how beautiful London is when it snows. The whole city somehow seems softer and quieter when the rooftops are all powdery white. Coming from Texas, I consider snow a rare treat, and therefore ran outside in insufficiently warm clothes to catch snowflakes on my tongue. I got a few weird looks, yes, but I also caught a group of businessmen across the street holding out their hands to catch the flakes.

And I definitely wasn’t the only one to make the long, cold journey out to Hampstead Heath to enjoy the weather. I was just the only one not to have appropriate footwear. (As I said, I’m from Texas; I don’t own snow boots. Sadly, I didn’t own rain boots [or ‘wellies’] at the time, either. I quickly learned my lesson, and now own a pair.) Which meant that after I went down the hill to snap this photo of the ducks on the partially frozen lake,

I fell over multiple times attempting to go back up the hill, and eventually had to crawl up on my hands and knees. It wasn’t my most dignified moment, but it was worth it. Families went sledding down the hills, dogs looked overjoyed as they bounded into heaps of snow, and a few people even built snowmen. Which prompted me to build my own, unimpressive snowman a few days later at Hyde Park. There’s no photo, since I didn’t finish until it was dark, but if you ever get the chance to try it for yourself, I recommend it. There is nothing more fun than a snowball fight with strangers, followed by a walk through a snow-covered Hyde Park. I swear I felt like I was in a BBC classic the whole time, although that’s probably just the Nineteenth Century Studies major in me. Still, London in the snow is undeniably gorgeous. See?

Everything in the city suddenly looked peaceful and pretty.

Doesn’t it just look like a Jane Austen novel (if she set things in London)?

A hilltop park bench at Hampstead Heath.

And here ends my obsession with the snow, I promise. Next time, I’ll tell you about the man in the Angel tube station dressed as a zebra centaur, or my attempts to find Tex-Mex in London, or the studying that dominates most of my life, or as-yet-unforeseen adventures. If you’d rather hear about something else, just leave me a recommendation in the comments, and I’ll do my best.