Friday, December 21, 2012

Well, that about wraps it up

The main source of my travels: South Kensington Station
In my last week in London, I knew I wouldn't see very many new things, so I wanted to simply revisit my favorite places. I ate at my favorite shops and cafes, shopped along the best streets, walked through my favorite gardens and in the area around my flat. I said goodbye to Buckingham Palace and Big Ben and all of those other monumental aspects of the City of London. I made my peace with the city, and I will miss every part of it. 
A positive outlook: not an "exit" but a "way out"
London thus far has more than exceeded my expectations. I arrived a tourist, eager to do everything and see everything, but I have transformed into a resident. Of course I don’t know all of the best, hottest spots in London just because I’ve been here for four months, but I know all of my own favourites. I’ll miss the little corner cafes, quiet enough to read or just think about whatever is on your mind. I’ll miss the gardens and the parks strewn throughout the bustling city streets, I’ll miss walking through them and gazing at London’s nature. I’ll miss having free or at least relatively cheap, access to museums and galleries easily whenever I want to learn something new when I’m feeling dull. I’ll miss the quirky, dry humour of the general British population that parallels my own in a way I never expected. I’ll miss the quick, easy transportation into Europe, with deals I may never again find. They allowed me to see parts of the world that now mean so much to me, that living in the U.S. has deprived me from. Believe it or not, I will miss the public transportation. It was so well-organized, clean and usually dependable. I don’t know what I’ll do without all of the trendy fashion Londoners tend to sport, as I doubt I’ll be able to pull it off at the country club that is Elon. The secret shops down narrow alleyways will forever possess my desire to be an edgy fashionista, and there is no replacement that could be found in the U.S. 
See: London policemen doing their jobs without guns! We could all learn something here...

The glorious Round Pond in Kensington Gardens
I’ve truly enjoyed my classes, even though I actually found them quite difficult at times, contrary to my study abroad predecessors, who claimed this would be the easiest semester of my life. I really had to work hard and study and think about what I was writing to adhere to British standards, and it forced me to analyze my own thoughts and views to allow me to improve upon them. My internship has also taught me a great deal both culturally and professionally. For instance, I never knew I could drink so much tea and coffee in a day, or that I really don’t understand British English and I need to ask people multiple times to repeat themselves. Obviously this has been a frustrating aspect, feeling as though I can’t comprehend my native language. However, I realized that happened to me even in Elon when I was totally confused by thick Southern accents, so that justified the issue. In all seriousness, my placement in my internship at The Children’s Society has taught me an exponential amount about both British culture and my hopeful career in media. Although my role was based largely on Public Relations and press contacts during these past seven weeks, the fact that I was able to gain knowledge in the communications industry in general was good enough for me.   

The greatest gift of mankind. Boots Pharmacy. 
I have always been a wanderer, making this city the perfect setting for my curiosity and desire to learn. There was never something that I just went and gazed at just for the sake of saying I'd been there and seen whatever it was. I took away something from absolutely every statue I saw, every painting I tried to interpret, every pub I went to and every person I met. Each was unique and inspiring and altered my perception of the world and my placement in it. I am baffled as to how I will be able to go on without each of these at my fingertips for the rest of my life, but I really don't have to. I am leaving London with the knowledge that I really can go out and find things to do on a Monday afternoon when I have nothing else going on. There will always be some poet that needs to be pondered or some road that needs to be walked down. If you seek out knowledge and passion, you will find it.  If you want to teach and invoke that passion, you can achieve it. I can't say I expected London to enrich my life in the way it did, but I also can't say I'm not content with that enrichment. 
The quintessentially-British phone booth at Queen's Gate of Kensington Gardens
The only way I can express my adoration and appreciation for London is entirely through cliches: It changed my life. It made me who I am today. It was the experience of a lifetime. It is irreplaceable. I may never know what my outlook on life might be had I not chosen London out of the many Fall 2012 Study Abroad options. Would I be impacted positively if I had decided on Florence, or Barcelona or Munich? Of course, but it would not be in the same way. I can never say I had any regrets about my time here because if I hadn't had those imminent struggles along the way, it would have been too perfect and I would've assumed something strange was going on. I'm almost all packed up, ready to print my tickets and get on the plane to see the friends and family I've missed so much. Of course the sense of bittersweetness we often apply to these situations holds true, but I'd say it's mostly sweet. Not that I won't miss London, but I'm so happy with all I've done here and I'm content knowing I wouldn't have it any other way. 
So much shopping

Even more shopping...
London really has a way with making its visitors (and natives) fall in love with it, and I am certainly one of them .I have no idea how much more there is for me to see, and I’m sure I could spend my life here never having seen half of the historical, cultural, social and simply entertaining aspects of the city. I have made the best of my life in London, and I say goodbye knowing that I had an experience that was mine to hold onto. London will have a special place in my heart, and I only hope I am lucky enough to return someday. Cheers, London, you are everything to me and I'll miss you every day that I'm away!
My beautiful home of the last four months, 123 Queen's Gate

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Happenings in London

I have so little time left here in London, yet I have so many updates! As usual, I have spent these past few weeks staying busy, seeing as much of the city as possible. Despite my love for The City, I decided to venture outwards into another part of England, perhaps just as well-known as London itself. Courtney and I wanted one last trip before we ended our time here, and after a few failed attempts at attempting to leave the country, we agreed Oxford was the best bet. Oxford is home to so much history and beauty, both of which I had not expected to be so rich within such a small area. On our way, we had to take the train out of the station made famous by a personified stuffed bear, Paddington Railway. Of course, the station isn't much to ponder, but there was a great gift shop featuring that precious bear, and we absolutely had to give one of them a big hug! (That was really cheesy, sorry.)
The best bear
Once we got to Oxford after the short train ride, we walked into Oxford's city centre, walking through narrow alleys and streets along the way. It really is such a majestic, picturesque town with trees and fountains and gorgeous buildings throughout. We had planned a few places we knew we definitely wanted to see, but ended up just stumbling upon new things as we traveled in the tiny city. The Ashmolean Museum was the first venue we found and we didn't really feel the need to go inside, as it was absolutely enormous and would've taken us years to get through.

Ashmolean Musuem

Next we saw the Admissions Office of the University of Oxford, which was ironically incredibly small and empty; not much to look at. After passing a ton of monuments and statues honoring great English figures, we saw the famous Blackwell Music and of course had to make a stop in the ancient Oxford Varsity Shop. We saw several of the colleges that comprise Oxford University, most notably Trinity College and Queen's College. They were gorgeous in every way, and knowing that some of the world's greatest minds studied there made it so special.

The most sophisticated college bookstore

Trinity College

We continued on to see the Old Bodleian Library and Divinity School, where scenes of Harry Potter were filmed. Christ Church was another Harry Potter locale, but its grandeur and stunning beauty overwhelmed its role in the movie industry.
Old Bodleian Library

Divinity School (i.e. Harry Potter's Infirmary)

Christ Church-wow!

Passing through the Covered Market, where various foods and sundries were sold, we ended up at Alice's Shop, located in an area actually mentioned by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland, and the shop was so adorable.
Covered Market, literally covered

Alice's Shop!

Only a few shops down was Cafe Loco, which might sound like some cheesy tourist trap, but it was actually an Alice-themed cafe with Mad Hatter murals and afternoon tea, of which Courtney and I took full advantage.

Carfax Tower

Walking past the majestic Carfax Tower and Oxford Castle made a fantastic end to our day, as we said goodbye to the beautiful, historic Oxford and traveled back to South Kensington for a first-night-of-Hannukkah dinner with challah, lox and cream cheese (Note: neither of us actually celebrate Hanukkah...). A wonderful day in a wonderful place, so glad we made it there.

Oxford Castle

Doesn't this look like The Giving Tree?

You're going the wrong way!

FIE offered a bunch of different deals on tours, shows and other events within London at the beginning of the semester, and while I signed up for several, I forgot I had signed up for a Beatles Walking Tour! Hosted by the enthusiastic Simon Rodway, with whom I toured the Olympic Arenas, the tour included a photo op at Abbey Road, which I learned absolutely must feature road-crossers with solemn looks away from the camera. It was hilarious watching everyone try to dodge angry drivers as they attempted to drive down the road, but it was so worth inspiring the road rage! We continued on to Abbey Studios, where I signed the wall with the "Strawberry Fields Forever" excerpt, "Let me take you down." Even though they paint over the writings on a regular basis, I like to think I made some sort of mark on the infamous street. We passed other monumental areas, such as Paul McCartney's London residence as well as where he met Linda, the building where John Lennon claimed the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, and the venue where the Beatles played their last show before being shut down by the Savile Row police. It was interesting seeing all of these cool locations, but it was even more interesting hearing about them from such an informative guide-I wish I had toured more of London with this man!

My signature!

Yes, I went under Paul's gate with my camera to take this picture

"More popular than Jesus"

The final Beatles rooftop show


With such little daylight to take advantage of upon the start of my internship, I promised myself I would take as much time as possible exploring London while I still could. I took last week to discover so many new places that I wish I had seen before so I could revisit them, though I'm sure I covered most of them. Little Venice was mentioned by Courtney, and I was so shocked I hadn't really heard of it. I expected a New York Little Italy with pizzerias strewn throughout the streets, but it truly was a Little Venice. Boats lined the Canal running through the small town, and gardens were plentiful. It was such a unique sight, seeing a bit of Italy within London, and I enjoyed every minute of my time spent there.


Venice in London

Not real.

I was also able to visit Old Spitalfields Market, which I had been through before, but not to the extent I did on this day. I got to see all of the little trinkets and decorative pieces and clothing and everything that is unique and fun! This was one of MANY markets within London that allows visitors to find things they wouldn't in generic stores, and they provide a great opportunity to see London for what it truly is.

The market!

I had some time left in my day, so I went to the Brunei Gallery at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies, which was showcasing a collection of photographs in a gallery called "Sacred Ink" which basically was a photostory of a variety of tattoos symbolizing not just spirituality, but power and strength as well. I only wish that it were a bit bigger so there was more to see, but it was interesting nonetheless.
University of London SOAS rooftop gardens

The gallery-this is probably illegal.

OH the last thing I absolutely must share is the fact that I finally made it to the Hollywood Costumes exhibit at the V&A. I was at this particular museum early in the semester, and figured I'd venture over to the exhibit at some point in time. Not long ago, I re-realized that it existed and I tried to get tickets, but everything appeared to be booked online. I took matters into my own hands and went to the museum in person to just see if they could please please please let me in, and they did! Actually, whatever I was looking at online was some sort of hoax because there were plenty of tickets remaining. I was overjoyed, as I am a total cinema-junkie and was devastated at the thought that I might not be able to see such famous pieces. I followed the inspirational movie music into the first room, where I was met with dozens of costumes worn by characters in various genres of the most well-known films in history. I was completely dumbfounded. I couldn't believe I was in the presence of articles of clothing worn by my favorite characters in my favorite movies. It was humbling in a way, which was a bit shocking since most wouldn't really be so emotionally impacted by a bunch of costumes that movie stars wore at some point. I didn't say any other words besides "Wow" and "Oh my God" and other intelligible phrases that described my pure shock at what I was viewing. With all of the historical, political, social and cultural venues and monuments that have shaped London, and England in general, I am a bit ashamed to say this was one of the best things I've seen not just in London, but in my LIFE. I guess that just comes with being a product of my generation, totally obsessed with anything revolving around entertainment, and I'm really not too sad to admit it! I laughed, I cried (seriously, I cried pretty much the whole time) and I gaffawed. Some of the highlights of the exhibit were:
  • The Dude's brown robe from The Big Lebowski
  • Tyler Durden's red leather outfits from Fight Club
  • The wardrobe of The Addam's Family
  • Indiana Jones' entire outfit and famous whip
  • Costumes from the various portrayals of Queen Elizabeth
  • Bill "The Butcher" from Gangs of New York
  • Scarlett's red velvet dress from Gone with the Wind
  • Maximus' garments from Gladiator
  • THE DARTH VADER COSTUME-I stared at this for about 15 minutes
  • Several Cleopatra dresses
  • Travis' attire from Taxi Driver
  • The trademark black dress and white pearls ensemble worn by Holly in Breakfast at Tiffany's
  • *THE WHITE DRESS ROSE WORE IN THE TITANIC* I've never produced so many tears
  • Roxie's blue sparkly dress from Chicago
  • The yellow jumpsuit from Kill Bill
  • Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean
  • Austin Powers
  • The Blues Brothers
  • Saturday Night Fever
  • Black Swan
  • Dorothy's famous blue dress from The Wizard of Oz
  • Marilyn Monroe's white dress from Seven Year Itch
Note: These were just my favorites and there were dozens more-I could go on and on!

Seeing all of these new things so close to the end of my time here gave me a sense of urgency, that I hadn't seen everything I wanted to, but I know that no matter how much I saw, I would still say how much more I've missed in a never-ending cycle of discontent! Obviously that's an overstatement, but it is somewhat true: how can I leave a place I have yet to see even a fraction of? That's just something I will have to live with in my last days in London!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A culmination of all of those things you do in London

Harrods Toy Kingdom
Throughout my time in London, I feel I have been working towards visiting every important museum, gallery, landmark and cheesy tourist attraction, and I feel I have been successful. There’s so much to do at every hour of every day, and no matter how much you do, it’s simply impossible to get to everything! I’ve been pretty satisfied with all of the awesome things I’ve done, but these past couple of weeks seemed especially packed with activities.
Last week for my British Culture and Visual Media class, I was treated to an authentic Pakistani meal on the famous Brick Lane. There were several courses, and even though I tried to take just a bite from each dish to save room, I couldn’t help myself and I pretty much rolled out of there. It was so great being able to taste some of the best Middle Eastern food in London, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to have it anywhere else without being entirely disappointed.
Harrods Toy Kingdom: MAGIC
Soon after digesting the enormous meal, it dawned on me that I had not been to Harrods yet! How did I go three months of living in London without going to its most famous department store? I guess it was one of those things I just knew I’d get to eventually, but the attraction of its “Christmas World” and the “Toy Kingdom” that comes this time of year was just what I needed to get there. It was everything I dreamed of and more, a true retail mecca that I will miss in the States.  
Beautiful Harrods lights!

Every day, while travelling to my internship, I come through the King’s Cross St. Pancras Station, and international railway that brings in millions of people every day. It’s known for its status as a major travel hub, but it’s known for another VERY important aspect. For all of you Harry Potter diehards, you can envy every Londoner able to visit King’s Cross’ very own Platform 9 ¾ with an accompanying sign and cart halfway through the wall to simulate the gateway to the Hogwarts Express. I didn’t even mind asking a random passerby to take my picture at the attraction, because I knew it would be worth it.
I didn't get through...

Although I greatly enjoy my internship and I’m learning and doing so many new things, I regret not having much of the day to explore London in the way I hoped in my last few weeks abroad. Not many museums are open by the time I come home, but the ones that are happen to be the most interesting. After work last week, I ran to the Wellcome Collection about 10 minutes away from King’s Cross Station to see what it was all about. I entered the gallery thinking it would be a bunch of paintings and sculptures like every other art exhibit, and it was, but it was the weirdest collection of items I’ve seen. It had one exhibit entirely based on death in art, disturbing as much as it was curious, and another based on Wellcome’s obsession with medicine and the human body. Strange, yes, but unique to London’s culture nonetheless.

View from the Unseen Tour
Another peculiar London attraction was the “Unseen Tour” series, which explore the elements of popular areas that you would not seen unless you were with one of the “Unseen” tour guides. I chose the London Bridge tour, which connected us with a previously-homeless man who had experienced the true elements of the surrounding area. Our tour guide was definitely a character, weathered by his past, but enhanced by his knowledge of London’s unknown areas and his talent for writing and reciting dramatic poetry. He showed us London’s street art in the darkest alleys, the prime spots for those without a home looking for a warm place to sleep, and other hidden parts of this great city. While I loved seeing all of the things I wouldn’t otherwise, I most enjoyed our guide’s stories and poetry. He was open with us about his failures and triumphs, and how London was the setting for much of them, and it brought an entirely new light to the way I view the metropolitan establishment.
The front of the Abbey

The Abbey!
Westminster Abbey: where royal weddings, coronations and respected burials take place. But, it’s also where a million tourists run around like a pack of wild animals. Seriously. I have been wanting to go to the Abbey since I arrived in London, and while I’ve seen it from the outside several times, I’d not yet managed to go inside. The Abbey is absolutely breathtaking from its external architecture to its intricate ceiling murals within its walls. There are hundreds of sculptures and burial shrouds throughout the church, but unfortunately, they are completely disrespected by almost all who enter. Regardless of your religious affiliation (or lack thereof), it is common knowledge to respect sacred buildings. However, the Abbey was full of screaming children, their parents chasing after them and people taking pictures of the artefacts in the Abbey despite the policy of No Photography. Not to say that I am such a stickler about rules, but I was disappointed that people could act that way in such a significant and historical place. Either way, the Abbey was stunning and I am glad that I was able to visit it and try to bring some decency!

Luckily, once I was through with the Abbey, I was right on time for the Changing of the Guards. This is a very tricky event, since it only occurs every other day and people line up hours in advance to catch a glimpse of the ceremony. I didn’t get right up to the gate, but I was still able to see some of the procession and I’m so glad I could finally see it in its entirety rather than in passing like I previously have. My only question: who is actually monitoring the Queen when all of her guards are out and about?

**Update: the Queen’s brigade proceeded down my street this morning and right past my door! Followed by about 100 horses and policemen...I can now leave London satisfied!

Our spread for Afternoon Tea at Sketch

Darjeeling 1st Flush
When most people think of Britishness, they think of the Queen, Big Ben and of course, tea. Thus, we absolutely had to schedule an afternoon tea. Although you’d think you can just walk into any restaurant or cafe for a cup of tea in the middle of the afternoon, you’d be almost completely wrong. A proper English Afternoon Tea must be reserved at a proper establishment with proper attire. Our tea took place at Sketch, a modern, fantasy-inspired restaurant with a very Alice in Wonderland-esque atmosphere. The best part of the themed locale was the toilets, yes, the toilets. They were white, egg-shaped capsules above the bar, and all I can say is that I felt I had jet-packed into the future. The second-best part was the tea itself. With a selection of blacks, greens, whites and florals, I chose a Darjeeling First Flush, which went perfectly with the finger foods it accompanied. These included finger sandwiches: salmon and cream cheese, cucumber, croquet monsieur and egg salad; scones with strawberry and apple jams and clotted cream; pastries: macaroons, tartlets, chocolate-mint éclairs, white chocolate lollipops and puddings. Although everything was miniature, we were all completely stuffed even hours after we’d finished our last cuppa.

Sketch Dining Room

Seriously-these were the toilets

Feeling divine after my visit to Westminster Abbey, I decided to visit WestminsterCathedral, which is the Catholic Church in Victoria (the Abbey is part of the Church of England, for those of you who don’t know). Not only was it massive and beautifully decorated, but the mass was lovely, although quite empty.
Westminster Cathedral, A Stunning Sight

I’ve been trying to get to Camden Market recently, partially because I love new places, mostly because I love markets. I was expecting a slew of food and artisan good vendors, but I was met with what I found reminiscent to one of the T-shirt markets I used to visit in our trips to the Bahamas. There were about two dozen vendors with shirts and sweaters with different prints on them, and although it was not exactly what I thought it might be, I had fun reading all of the clever graphics on the shirts, and even bought one for a lucky member of my family!
Camden Market
I was feeling spontaneous, so I hopped off the Tube on the way home at Covent Garden. I’ve been to this stop about 10 times, as it has a great market and FABULOUS shopping, but I came again because I knew it would be lit up for Christmas. There were lights everywhere, several trees, an enormous reindeer and giant ornaments along the markets. I love that London gets so into the Christmas spirit, and places like Covent Garden inspire me to get into it as well! Within Covent Garden is the Royal Opera House, which sounds really classy and exclusive, but it was shoved into the corner somewhere between H&M and Kurt Geiger, though it was gorgeous on the inside and I hope to see a performance there before I leave.
Apple Market in Covent Garden

A gorgeously decorated Covent Garden tree

I finally did the one thing I said I could not leave London without: the London Eye. I wanted to go on the giant wheel from the start, but I never had the right day to go, life got in the way, etc. FINALLY I bought my ticket, watched the “4-D Experience” where they show you a 3D movie of the London Eye and spray water at you, and hopped in a capsule. I thought I would be jaded by the landmarks I had already seen so many times, just from a low-level view. However, it really was a monumental moment in my time here. Yes, I had seen most of the things I was viewing from the glass car, but seeing them all in perspective really allowed for the culmination of my time here in London. I saw where everything was located in relation to each other, something I would have never noticed had I gone shortly after arriving. It was a great way to kick off my final weeks here, and is a panoramic view I will not soon forget.
A view from the capsule at the top of the Eye

View from the top!

Big Ben and Parliament
Since I was relatively close, I headed over to the Tate Modern to see if it could live up to what everyone was saying about it. In all senses of the word, this was quite a “modern” place, from its outer structure to the minimalist internal makeup. I figured I would wander for a bit and see what I liked, as I’m not a huge fan of contemporary art, but I ended up staying for several hours. I was awestruck by the creativity of the artists included, and I have a whole new appreciation for modern art...for now. 
The Tate Modern: VERY minimalist!

As I've mentioned, London, and perhaps England as a whole, is totally obsessed with Christmas. They love decorations, caroling and general Christmas cheer. The Hyde Park Winter Wonderland is a direct result of this adoration, and epitomizes Christmas Spirit. It is essentially an enormous carnival with ethnic foods, thrill rides, games, gifts and souvenirs, mulled wines and the best of all, a mock-toberfest tent. It was exactly like the magical celebration occurring in Germany, except everyone was British and it was freezing. I loved seeing all of the lights and decorations, and everyone was in great spirits at the Wonderland, making it one of the greatest contributions of London.