I used to go to the Oxfam store near Holborn at least once a week to browse the well-stocked bookshelves. Perhaps given its proximity to LSE and Kings College, there were quite a lot of literary classics and heady academic tomes tucked among the trashy romance novels here. Every time I entered, I could hardly resist buying a book or two, despite knowing how foolish it was to buy books that I definitely wasn’t going to bring back home. But the books were a steal at £2-5, so I figured it was worth it even if I gave the books away later.
I ended up with a tall stack of used books on the windowsill. I’d curl up by the window with a cup of tea and crack one open; or I’d haul it on one of my weekend trips to read on planes and trains. There was something exciting to me about opening the well-worn binding and reading the pages someone had read before. While engrossed in a John le Carré novel, I wondered whether the previous reader had been as gripped by the claustrophobia of Cold War espionage. It may seem silly, but I was honestly thankful to the book donors for granting me access to a fictional world by passing the book on. Which also made it easier for me to give the books away when I was done.
I must be all the more nostalgic right now because I’m heading back to Europe on Wednesday. I’m currently pre-loading my Kindle with reading for the flight, but I’m finding it hard to reconcile my old-soul love of literature as a shared experience with this new digital form…. especially given the price tag. I have to pay $9.99 for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold? To get it downloaded onto my Kindle via something Amazon calls… Whispernet??
The name, I’m not such a fan of. It underscores the problem I have with the Kindle to begin with, which is that the digital reading experience feels… wispy. Ethereal. The words disintegrate every time you turn the page, as if they were never there. It’s odd; unnerving, almost.
Ah, well. Welcome to the 21st Century! This is how we do. Convenience trumps all: I have five e-books locked and loaded on this slim slice of a device, and I don’t need to worry about dumping cargo on the return trip.
Paris, Italy, Spain–here I come! This blog will be quiet for a while, but you can bet there will be updates when I’m back.
Toesocks to prevent blisters. Shoes with soles that actually provide buffer from those cobblestone ridges. How to be kind to your feet without looking like a dorky American tourist in high-top sneakers and mid-calf socks. Satisfy the oft-incompatible criteria of sensibility and fashion sense.
Advice from tour guides in Europe–for whom walking well is essentially their livelihood–tells you all this and more in The New York Times‘ article, “Shoes the Pros Use.”
Basically, this is the best thing about to happen to my summer travel wardrobe. No longer do I have to sacrifice style for comfort! Well, not that I ever did when traveling. I definitely was that dorky, unapologetic American tourist squeaking around town in my sneakers.
To start, let me explain that a primary reason I enjoy blogging is because I am a maven, according to The Tipping Point‘s classification. Which is not to say that I’m an expert in any particular field, but more that I dash about like an eager little squirrel looking for the choicest bits of information on what to see, or where to get tomorrow’s meal. And I love to share those acorns with anyone who’s interested.
But I’ve been a furtive, selfish squirrel when it comes to the London Review Cake Shop, my absolute favorite cafe in London. I didn’t even take proper photos of it because I fully intended to not share this information.
Why? you may ask.
Because it is small. And so special. And the masses should not come to crowd its five tables or drain its supply of fluffy baked goods and delightful teas.
Because I spent so many afternoons there with a pot of tea to help me conquer a stack of reading, or to make catching up with a friend the more cozy.
Because they never rush you out, no matter how long you’ve been there or how long others may wait.
Because it’s attached to a bookshop!
Because it was my special place, with an intangible ambience that made it mineto many, yet entirely mine.
Because it is London’s best kept secret–and now you, too, are bound to secrecy!
Almost every British person I met in London told me they wanted to move to New York. But why?
As I always say, it’s a love-hate relationship when it comes to NYC. There are things to love, and things to hate, and not much in between. So when I actually have to live here, the balance fluctuates from day to day, but for visitors it’s just love-love-love.
Come to think of it, that may partly explain why I loved London so much–because I always approached it as a visitor, somewhat. Even though I was there for a year, I always knew my time there would be finite. So I woke up each day thinking I ought to make the most of it.
But I digress.
If you were counting, London totally killed NYC while I was abroad, racking up lots of awesomeness points: tea and scones, accessibility to the rest of Europe, free museums, pretty buildings, lots of parks, ginormous roses, the literary legacy. But coming back to NYC I’m reminded of a lot of reasons why NYC > London, too.
NYC+1: KOREAN FOOD. This, friends. THIS is what I’m talking about. A spread like that should count for 300 points at least.
Remember when I went to that Korean BBQ place in London where we had to pay for kimchi separately, and even pay for the lettuce to wrap our BBQ in? So wrong. Because this is how we do in America. Bro, Mom and I went to Geum Gang San in Flushing, where all of the above banchan dishes were served free of charge, with refills to our hearts’ content.
I got the deonjang + LA galbi special. Mmmmm how I have missed you so!
I can’t tell you how stuffed I was after this meal. No really. I refuse to describe it. Just thinking about it is making me feel fat right now.
NYC+2: Subways with air conditioning! Thank goodness too, cuz that heat wave was no joke.
NYC+3: Weekend brunch.
You know, I think from now on when people ask me what’s good about American food, I will simply say: BRUNCH.
I went with M to Nook in Hell’s Kitchen, where we split sweet (French toast) and savory (eggs benedict with smoked salmon)–a happy marriage!
NYC+4: There’s always something new to discover, no matter how long you’ve been around.
Walking into Grand Central station, P stopped me at a point where I’d stood hundreds of times–the busy entrance at Vanderbilt and E 42nd. She pointed up, and there it was: a breathtakingly, quintessentially New York cityscape that I’d never noticed before!
Granted, there was good sushi in London too. But NYC sushi wins. Sorry, London.
I’m forgetting the name of the restaurant we went to, and for some reason the word that comes to mind is “tamagachi,” which is clearly wrong. I remember the restaurant was pretty hard to find, as it was sort of tucked away behind Drom, a dive bar in the Lower East Side. With these clues I could definitely Google it pretty quickly. And I will. But for now, tamagachi is taking me back to middle school and I kinda like it.
NYC+6: Can’t beat the quirky.
K and I walked the full length of the High Line, which is one of my favorite places in NYC. It’s an old railroad track converted into a public space, an oasis amid a busy city. But the best part of the High Line is that the neighborhood it’s located in has a lot of character, and the neighbors inject an extra energy and quirky flair.
In one eye-level window, a life-size cardboard cutout with a hairy chest waves at passersby. On one rooftop, a “zoo” (when K mentioned this, I expected real animals!)
NYC+7: Levain Bakery. This needs no explanation. Just eat it.
Is “Thus Spake Zarastrutha” playing in your head right now? Because it should be. Humor me:
Eataly with D&K–pasta perfectly al dente. Prosperity Dumpling–all of the above for $3!
Celeste in NYC, previously my fave Italian spot in NYC. Eataly was better, though.
Coffee and a bagel. Can’t beat NYC for making this combo just right.
Just look at those skies.
It truly is a beautiful city–when you’re looking up.
Look down and you’ll see the rats burrowing in trash cans… I saw a man sit on a dead cockroach on the subway because he didn’t look down first. Also there was a guy smoking a joint and saying really vulgar stuff on the subway. And another dude playing with a torch lighter. And…
In sum, if you want to love NYC, don’t live there.
Okay, okay. A friend of mine pointed out that only three of these reasons are not food-related. So two more:
Friends. Hardly needs to be said, as I’m not exactly going to go eat alone, am I? Oh shoot there I go with the food again.
Accessibility. In one day, I’d meet a friend from brunch on the Upper West Side, walk cross-town through Central Park, run errands near Union Square, get dinner on the Lower East Side, and come back up to Hell’s Kitchen for drinks. Pick up dumplings from Chinatown and chow down in Koreatown (oops, is that a faux pas?). And especially since the subway runs all night–party on!
I’m starting to do that thing where I’m falling so far behind on updates, it’s getting overwhelming. Or maybe it’s because I don’t feel quite ready to wrap up an incredible year abroad.
During the year that I was in London, I accrued a fairly long and random bucket list of places to see and things to do. Before I knew it, I only had two weeks left! And by then, it was time to graduate, and pack up, and close bank accounts, and do a final trip around Switzerland…. so I didn’t get to cross everything off the list. All the more reason to go back at the first opportunity!
LONDON BUCKET LIST
Imperial War Museum St. Christopher Street Tate Modern National Gallery
Sir John Soane Museum British Museum
Camden Lock & Camden Market
Columbia Road Flower Market
Hampstead & Hampstead Heath Greenwich & Royal Observatory
White Cliffs of Dover
Oxford and/or Cambridge
The Imperial War Museum
The Imperial War Museum was completely overwhelming, from the moment you walk in to the weight that lingers on your mind long after you leave. There is just so much stuff housed here–and it’s all so heavy. Weapons, uniforms, propaganda posters, ration cards, civilian artefacts. The Holocaust exhibit was especially harrowing, and I ran out of time before I could see the genocide exhibit. Truth be told though, it probably would have been too much to handle in one day.
To my surprise, I really enjoyed my visit to the Tate Modern. I’ve passed by it so many times, and even been inside the building several times, without visiting the free exhibits. You see, my experience of modern art has been less than positive because a lot of the time I don’t understand it, and it’s often curated without enough explanation. I attribute it to a certain snobbery–you’re either in the know, or you’re out. And so especially when it costs $20 for a visit to the MoMA in NYC, you don’t want to pay up just to feel small.
But the Tate was great; there’s a permanent free exhibit, and it’s very obviously curated for the general public, perhaps especially students. The lengthy descriptions of each piece that explain the work, the artist, the context in which he/she worked… all very helpful. In short, the Tate made modern art feel accessible for the first time, and I really appreciated the experience.
I guess this is an uplifting way to remind people to count their blessings? Or maybe slightly judgmental, depending on how you read it.
And after consuming a little art, it was also of course necessary to consume tea and scones at the Tate Cafe!
St. Christopher’s Place
St. Christopher’s Place is a teeny tiny little alleyway that I often passed by while taking the bus down Oxford St. From the main street, you can barely even see what you’ll find after you wedge through the narrow entrance between the buildings. I was always so curious!
It’s a revived area, through a recent redevelopment project, to bring boutique shopping and dining to a once-dead street practically hidden from view.
Now it bustles and brims with color and activity. Well done.
The British Museum
Check out that cloudy haze behind the building. ALL OF JULY WAS LIKE THIS IN LONDON. Ugh.
I love London’s free national museums. It does mean that the museums are incredibly crowded, but making art and history accessible to the public is a tradition that I really admire. I won’t get all political about you know how all the artifacts in this museum came to be here…
The Rosetta Stone. On the right, pieces of an enormous marble statue with a disproportionately powerful fist. Cuz that’s how pharaohs roll.
Cuneiform! And Assyrian carvings depicting a royal lion hunt. They’re so dynamic, the arrows look like they’re really in flight.
Olympic gold! Oo la laa..
Touristy Things with Mom
These weren’t on the bucket list, but I went back to these places with Mom while she was visiting in London:
St. James’ Park
Tower of London / Tower Bridge
We also went to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square–twice! The place is so massive, and so many masters all in a row. I love Impressionism especially, so I spent a good long while with Monet, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, Manet… and on to Van Gogh, Toulouse-Latrec…. dreamy. I should have stopped by here at least once a week… or, truly, at least once a month. Regret!!! Someday, I’ll be back.
Public art in Trafalgar Square (and everywhere)
If I’d had more time, I would have done a photo series on the fun public art that popped up all around London in preparation for the Olympics. Especially popular were the souped up phone booth creations in wacky shapes, colors and forms. Here in Trafalgar Square is one that looks like Big Ben, and one that looks like the hideous Olympic mascot.
The London Eye
I’ve seen it many times, but only ridden it once! Hello, London.
A splash of color tucked deep in a hidden alleyway. Love this place.
Well well, lots of goings-on in Greenwich. A graduation was taking place at the Old Royal Naval College, so we just barely got a glimpse of the Painted Hall (above left). But the saddest part of this trip was that, because they were building the gymnastics stadiums out here, we couldn’t go to the Royal Observatory! Major fail. I totally wanted to go and straddle the Prime Meridian Line!
From an exhibit on British trade at the Maritime Museum. This interactive display had textiles and patterns from Britain (left) and Asia (right). A little placard asks which you prefer. To which all I have to say is, thank goodness for trade with Asia! Or the British would just be wearing the dullest clothing ever.
Horatio Nelson everywhere. Above left, at the Maritime Museum, the carefully preserved uniform he was wearing when he died. Above right, his statue in front of the Trafalgar Tavern.
Well, so the fancy part at the Royal Observatory is closed, but we still got to see the Prime Meridian. Though the irony of how GB decided to dictate world time but doesn’t itself adhere to it kind of cracks me up. Imagine living in that house on the corner? Every time you cross the line, you’d have to switch time zones. Whack!
A fine way to say bon voyage to England, and set off on my journey back home.
Goodbye, London! I’ll be back before you know it–still got more than half my bucket list to attend to!
Crazy as it sounds, I moved back to the U.S. the day before the Olympic opening ceremonies.
Avoid the crushing crowds
No AC on the London Underground + crowds of tourists in summer = sauna
Endless Olympic coverage makes me feel like I’m still there
Staying longer means spending more money–speaking of which, I need a job.
My mom came to London and helped me move back–no way I could have done it alone!
I do have to say, the one thing about America I missed more than anything else is clean water. After just one day and one shower here, I already feel so much fresher than I ever did in Europe. European water is kind of grimy on the whole.
I MISS LONDON INCREDIBLY. I’m not ready to be back yet.
I’M MISSING THE OLYMPICS. I wonder if I’ll ever again be living in a host city in an Olympic year?
A hilarious conversation I had with my brother tonight, when the British national anthem played during the ceremony:
Bro: What! This is so anti-American! Why did they change the words to our song? Me: It was originally the British anthem–we took it and changed their words. Bro: You mean this is what they play when the British win gold medals? Me: Yeah! Bro: Well, I wouldn’t know. Brits don’t win gold medals.
I ran the British 10K this weekend! It was my first-ever race, as well as the first time I’ve actually run 10K at all. Had I trained harder, I might have run faster, but I accomplished my goal of running the whole way, no matter how slow, and I’m proud of myself for that. I’m especially proud that after being passed by gazillions of people for the first 6-7km, my slow-and-steady pace started overtaking people in the last two kilometres. Once I saw the finish line, I broke into a crazy sprint that came from I don’t know where, and I blazed past people who had spent most of their energy in the earlier part of the race.
All told, I was slooooow, but I finished well. And I’m already excited to do better next time!
The Blog Challenge
I signed up for the British 10K with four friends, and we ran for a charity, the MS Trust. We’re still working towards our collective fundraising goal of £500 to support research and care for multiple sclerosis.
As you know if you’re a regular reader of this blog, I’m pretty private about personal info. But in this case I’m willing to sacrifice some privacy to support a worthy cause! If I can raise £80 (approx $125) through this blog, perhaps I’ll even post my race photo, no matter how crazy I look in it ;)
Details: I’ve set up a PayPal account under convergentjourney at gmail dot com. For any donation I receive through PayPal, I’ll convert it into pounds on the market exchange rate for that day and donate it directly. You’ll see the donation go through as “Anonymous” on my fundraising page, and if you’d like I can add your name in the notes. You can also donate directly through the fundraising page, though I think (depending on where you are in the world) you might get slapped with international transaction charges.
Below, more details about the race weekend!
A Nike-fied Weekend
On Saturday, S won a ticket +1 to the NTC Live Festival, which was basically a rewards day for all the women who’ve powered through Nike Training Club sessions. There were workout and yoga sessions, massage, physiotherapy, manicures and lots more. Since S and I would both be running the British 10K (also sponsored by Nike) the next day, we took it easy on the training sessions and just focused on treating ourselves to the good stuff.
Nike really spared no expense. For one, NTC workout sessions are free–you just have to sign up on the Facebook page for info. The workouts are incredibly intense, and the massage and physiotherapist teams they hired for the day were amazing. I’ve had a fair number of physiotherapy treatments and massages because I have had neck and shoulder problems for a long time, and I can tell you that these guys were seriously amazing. It was an oasis of relaxation and pampering.
Free t-shirts, free massage, free goodie bags. I still can’t wear Nike shoes because they run too narrow for me, but I certainly have become a walking billboard with all the Nike gear I’ve got now.
For NTC Live, Nike rented out a gorgeous building situated right on the Thames, opposite the recently-opened Shard.
Also nearby was the Monument by Christopher Wren, which commemorates the Great Fire of London in 1666. Although back in the late 1600s the monument was probably a beacon you could see from miles around, it’s now eclipsed by the taller buildings of the City surrounding–you’d barely notice it!
The British 10K was also dominated by Nike marketing. They gave out nifty dri-fit T-shirts–resulting in amazing promo material, an army of Nike-fied runners.
Still, I absolutely loved it.
The day was cold and rainy (is it ever anything else in London??), but it was thrilling to be running with 25,000 other people through the beautiful streets of London. The race took us along all the central London sights–Piccadilly, Trafalgar Square, St. Paul’s, the Embankment, Westminster Bridge, Big Ben.
What an exhilarating weekend! I can see why running is such an addictive hobby for so many people. The endorphins kicking in, the medal around your neck, the camaraderie with your running mates. Hugs and high fives all around!
Feels like it’s been a while since my last update, but maybe it’s because I’ve been doing so many small things everyday that on their own didn’t seem worth a full entry. So here’s a recap in aggregate!
BY THE WAY, I finished grad school two weeks ago. I don’t think I gave that fact enough fanfare. I’M DONE WITH GRAD SCHOOL!!!! Ever since I turned in my final essay, I’ve been searching for jobs part of the time, and also keeping to a regimen of at least one fun thing a day. I have the time, the leisure and a finite timeline; I also have no excuses. For my remaining weeks in London, I am a tourist in my own town!
And what I’m realizing is that London is really the world at your fingertips. Especially now that the London Festival has begun, the numerous events in this city are just incredible; you really could just keep yourself occupied absolutely every day and still not experience everything!
I haven’t done much shopping in London, and truth is I haven’t even set foot in any of London’s chi-chi department stores for fear of wanting it all. So I made a date with A(p) to check out Harrods in celebration of having turned in my dissertation, and oh my. It was so indulgent, designer-centric, posh and ridiculous that after enjoying it for about 20 minutes my American sensibilities revolted against the opulence.
But then again, there was a sale. So I bought some shoes, which I love and am stuck with because I found out after the fact that Harrods only exchanges sale items for store credit. Everything else in that store is so overpriced that I’d rather keep the shoes than get ripped off trying to buy the next-cheapest item available. (Sequined tank top for £80, anyone?)
For dinner, we walked to the nearby gastropub Pantechnicon Public House, where I came with G two months ago when she was visiting. And I have been thinking about this delicious burger ever since. The best burger I’ve had in London, for £13.50. Not cheap, but you know what? After eating really awful food for eight months, I think I deserve a splurge.
SONG AND DANCE
What? They do this every year?! Last Saturday, the casts of all the West End shows performed musical numbers free in Trafalgar Square. I went with A(r) to catch numbers from Singin’ in the Rain (still one of my favorite stage musicals ever), Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, Billy Elliot, Wicked. Awesome, awesome stuff. Can’t believe this is FREE. Love this city.
LONDON, YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL
I loved the line drawings in Charing Cross station.
Browsing a bookstore in South Kensington the next day, I found a book by David Gentleman, who did these drawings, called London, You’re Beautiful: An Artist’s Year. Gorgeous, evocative watercolors tracing the seasons and cityscapes. It’s £17, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to buy it before leaving this city. A preview:
ENGLISH DRINKS, SOUTH AFRICAN FOOD
That evening, I had my first-ever taste of Pimms. And it was gooood. I’m won over.
It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen a spread this beautiful, or even had a home-cooked meal. A(r), who is from South Africa, made bobotie, a curried meat dish. Thanks A(r) for having me over for such a cozy, homey evening!
Monday, the Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge, sang the Evensong service at Westminster Abbey. I’d gone a few weeks ago when the Abbey choir sang, the traditional boys’ and men’s choir. But I have to say, the men’s and women’s choir was just truly ethereal and heavenly, perhaps because the women’s voices are fuller than the boys’, so the harmonies layer in the most beautiful balance. At one point, a sustained refrain of amens truly brought tears to my eyes.
I attended Evensong with yet another A-named friend, A(b). Haha.
*Tip: If you want to go, try to arrive before 4.30 at the latest, as the seats fill up quickly. Just tell the people at the front gate that you want to attend Evensong; otherwise, so I hear, they won’t let you in!
THE BEAUTY IN THE ORDINARY
Such a pleasant, simple landscape–it could be any hillside in England. But it’s actually a getaway in the middle of the major global city of London. I love Hyde Park, and I remind myself every time I walk through it how lucky I am to be living so near such a beautiful green space.
I also went to see the Ballgowns exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Alright, I’ll confess up-front that I’m a little spoiled; the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Met in New York last year was more immersive and impressive. But this was good too :)
The dress pictured above was definitely one of my favorites in the collection. Afterwards I also explored the newly-reopened fashion wing of the museum. Worth it (esp since the permanent fashion exhibit is free!), though perhaps not the most amazing thing you’ll see in London if you’ve got a time constraint, I’d say.
SOUTH BANK FOOD AND CULTURE
Ever since I tried this in March with J, I have been craaaving the Kappacasein grilled cheese sandwich. And this time, I also found another glass of Pimms :)
Afterwards, we walked along Bankside to the Southbank Centre, where the Festival of the Worldis currently taking place. Part of that is the Poetry Parnassus, which has loads of free poetry events! You can literally just walk right into the Royal Festival Hall and attend poetry readings and workshops.
A(p) and I caught the end of a “Poetry Karaoke” event, where someone reads an English poem translated into a foreign language, and members of the audience try to guess the poet/poem. Say what?! I am not nearly knowledgeable enough to do that, but some of the audience members were seriously on top of it.
The next in the lineup was a translation contest, in which an American and a Brit each did a translation of a Spanish-language poem, and we did a line-by-line comparison of their two translations. This was a fascinating exercise in parsing out the differences owing not just to personal choice, but cultural and linguistic understandings. Like how mediana alcurnia translated by an American becomes “middling ancestry,” while to a Brit it becomes “average nobility.” Come on, classism!
(To be fair, the British translator explained her choice in a very eloquent way that certainly demonstrated a much deeper understanding of the poem’s meaning than I gleaned at first. But it’s still remarkable how that happens.)
HOMEMADE SUSHI (THE ONLY GOOD KIND YOU’LL FIND IN LONDON)
Last week, we discovered that A(r)’s flatmate P has pre-bought most of the ingredients necessary to make sushi. And I haven’t had a single piece of good sushi since I moved to London. So we decided to make our own!
Since I’m Korean, we opted for Korean-style sushi, or kimbap, which doesn’t involve individual pieces of sashimi/sushi. We just cut up some veggies (carrots, cucumber, avocado), got some fish (smoked salmon, imitation crab meat) and rolled away!
I love roll-your-own-sushi nights because they’re interactive, fun and the end product is delicious.
The result of all that hard work? A sushi feast! Definitely the best I’ve had in London ;)
And that’s two weeks of fabulous done-with-grad-school freedom!
I meant to write a post on this quite a while ago, because immediately upon arriving in London I was struck by how many places offer student discounts of 5-10%. Stationery supply stores, electronic stores, restaurants, tourist attractions, public transportation, shoe and clothing stores.
A lot of places don’t necessarily advertise it, but if you ask and flash your student ID, you can save yourself a few quid. I started asking everywhere I went, since it seemed like at least 1/3 of establishments offered student discounts.
Now that it’s sale season and I’m done with exams (possibly forever) I went shopping and was once again amazed. Topshop, a leading brand in the UK, offers a 10% student discount. A coffee shop that I’d frequented all year offers a student discount (drat! can I get that money back?).
There’s also a student rail card that I’m not eligible for (I’m too old!), but when a friend and I planned a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, with her railcard she was able to get a ticket for £5.95!!
Not much more to say on this topic except that I LOVE IT. If you’re studying abroad in the UK, be sure to max out your student status and get those discounts!