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 ├ęclairs, 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. 

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