Sunday, November 23, 2008

These Brits are Crazy...

And now, the post you’ve all been waiting for: LONDON! The home of posh accents, guards in funny hats, and most importantly mint Aero bars. Seriously, those things are like crack. See, the original Aero was lovely enough – it’s just a chocolate bar, but the inside has bubbles in it, so it’s wonderfully light and if you’re patient enough to let it melt on your tongue it feels awesome. So then the brilliant chocolate scientists at Nestlé had the brilliant idea of putting minty deliciousness inside, and the mint Aero was born and quickly took up residence in a special place in my heart. And my hips. But I digress.

So I took the Eurostar to London, which was fun, although since it was dark I didn’t realize we were under the English Channel until we were already halfway through, and then it was just weird to think of the tons and tons of water above us. As soon as we came out my phone started buzzing, and I thought oh no, someone’s trying to call me and I’ll have to ignore it because it probably costs about 8 € a minute to talk on my French phone in England, but lo and behold, it was a text message from my French cell phone company telling me how much everything costs in England! So, while slightly creepy that they knew where I was, it was nice to know how much I was actually spending to communicate with people. It wasn’t too expensive, either, which came in very handy for coordinating with people. London is a big city, bigger than I really realized, and sometimes even a street corner is not an exact enough place to meet someone.

My lovely friend Jenna met me at St. Pancras and we walked to her room, which is in a kind of a dorm called Goodenough College. Apparently some nice man named Goodenough gave lots of money to have these buildings erected so students from any university in London would have somewhere to live. There are common rooms, a cafeteria, and even a pub, so it’s quite a nice place. Also it kind of looks like Hogwarts:
That’s the central courtyard, where there is a plaque honoring the time Her Majesty the Queen came to Goodenough. I found little inscriptions everywhere, actually, each one for a different year, each one commemorating Her Highness. Oh, the English and their Queen.

I arrived quite late at night, so we just chatted and then went to bed. The next morning, Thursday, I didn’t get my butt out of bed for a loooooong time, because the siren song of free Internet called and I was weak. So finally, after checking all my webcomics and reading all my blogs (ironically, the fact that I don’t have Internet at home in France makes me more likely to write blog posts, but less able to publish them) I decided to walk down to the main shopping area near Jenna. I took advantage of the fact that there are American-style pharmacies in England (France still hasn’t caught on) to buy mascara and cold medicine and candy bars and Ribena (mmmm blackcurrant juice), all in one handy store. Seriously, France, join the club and start some real pharmacies, instead of those tiny little places where everything is behind the counter and costs the earth. Then I found a little place to get a jacket potato (baked potato, for those across the pond) where the cashier thought I was German, for some reason. Maybe because I still had euros in my wallet, or because I’m pretty sure my brain was still in French mode so I bet my English wasn’t the greatest. Anyway, then I wandered along Oxford Street, window-shopping, and found this store called Uniqlo.

Uniqlo is a Japanese brand with nicely made basic clothing, including a bunch of cashmere. I’ve been looking for an elegant single-breasted black wool jacket, with no belt or pleats or extraneous details, for quite some time, and it’s been almost impossible to find. So when I saw my dream jacket on a mannequin, I thought, Well, it’s pretty, but it’s probably going to end up being either synthetic or prohibitively expensive. So I looked at the tag, which said 79.99£. The pound is no longer quite double the dollar, but it’s close, so I figured about $150. So I looked at the label: 90% wool, 10% cashmere. I tried it on. It fit perfectly, looked amazing, and was so soft… But $150! screamed the sensible part of my brain. Warm and fuzzy! screamed the reptile brain. So I put it back on the rack and decided I would consult with Jenna before spending half of my monthly food budget on a coat. By that time I was tired and hungry and cold, and it was raining (you’d think I would have vacationed somewhere where the weather’s actually better than Normandy, but no, I had to pick the one place that’s just as famous for rain) so I decided to go back home. Not having a transportation card yet, I thought I’d just walk, because it didn’t look like a long way on the map… Forty minutes later, when I finally got back to Jenna’s dorm, about all I could do was sit there and watch House episodes online. When Jenna got back, we had a nice relaxing dinner in the dining hall and I got to meet some of her friends, who are awesome. Then we went back to her room for tea and stayed up far too late chatting, because we’re girls and that’s what we do.

On Friday, my fellow language assistant Emilia, who was also visiting a friend in London, found a free tour of Old London, so we went to that while our respective hosts went to class. The tour was great, and given by a very handsome young Londoner named Alex, so we thoroughly enjoyed it. We saw a lot of places that would have been really neat to go into, like the Tower of London…
St Paul’s Cathedral…
the London Eye…
But our friendly guide informed us of the prices of all those places and we promptly decided that we could do without them. I think that since most of the museums in London are free, the other tourist attractions decided that they could charge exorbitant prices so as to ensure that tourists spend the same amount of money they would in a different city.

We walked along the banks of the Thames (I seem to have a habit of spending time in cities with rivers running through them – I like it) and this beautiful bridge came into view:
“London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down…” I started to sing, only to be told by a smiling Alex that the bridge before our eyes was in fact Tower Bridge, not London Bridge. Oops. This is London Bridge:
Not much to write home about, huh? London Bridge has the more interesting past, though – I’ve forgotten some of the stories, but I do remember the one about why Brits (and all sensible people, as Alex reminded the Americans) drive on the left. So, many many years ago, when London Bridge had houses and shops and such built on it, there was very little room left for traffic, so they had to decide on some rules of the road. If, as you were riding your horse across the bridge, you met someone you didn’t like very much and fancied a bit of a duel, it made much more sense to draw the sword hanging at your left side to fight the man coming at you on the right. So the powers that be proclaimed the left side of the road to be the correct one, and so it persists to this day, albeit with fewer swords and bloodshed and such.

We then headed towards the one bit of London that still looks like it did way back in the Middle Ages – the reason the rest of the city doesn’t is that London has burned to the ground numerous times (you’d think that after the first they’d have learned to not build everything from wood…). On the way, we passed this street:
Which of course made me hungry for spotted dick and plum pudding and suchlike things. Anyway, here’s the medieval bit:
Cute little winding streets yay! It’s easy to forget how very old London is, because most of the buildings are new, so it’s nice to see some evidence that it was actually there many years ago. It’s not like Paris, where nothing much has changed for centuries and you can easily imagine yourself back in time.

Then we went back towards the Thames to see the Millennium Bridge, which wasn’t actually finished until some years after the millennium, and cost some astronomical sum to build. Then, on the opening day, as hundreds of people walked across it, it started to bounce and wiggle about and generally misbehave, because the engineer had forgotten to account for people subconsciously walking in step and so setting up sympathetic vibrations (right, engineering buddies?). So they had to pour more money into it to stabilize it. Even Alex agreed that this was typically British. The bridge is quite nice, though, and it doesn’t wiggle anymore – believe me, I tried.
Then we saw the Royal Courts, which didn’t have any funny stories attached to them, but they were pretty:
Then the tour was done, and since we’d been walking in the cold for the last three hours, Emilia and I decided to ask Alex where we could get a good pasty (as in a meat pie, not anything related to strippers). He recommended a place near Covent Garden, so we set off. Along the way, Emilia spotted a classic red London phone booth across the street, so we stopped to be touristy and take photos. I took about 5, and they all had cars or taxis or buses in them, so I gave up, but when I got home and looked at my photos on a bigger screen, I realized that one of them had come out, in a way:
See it? So you’ve got two of your London stereotypes in one – convenient, no? Anyway, we continued on to the Cornish Pasty Shop, where I ordered a steak and Guinness pasty and a pint of cider. It was delicious. Partway through, I remembered to take a picture:
See how much of the cider (it was called Scrumpy Jack’s, which just about made my day) is still there? A pint is a lot, and I was extremely giggly and happy when we got up to leave. I may or may not have actually skipped through Covent Garden…

We both had to get back to meet our hosts, so we walked back to the Thames and walked along it to the nearest Tube stop (I had bought a week pass, which made me very happy – the Tube is quite nice and there is actually a recorded voice that says “Mind the gap”!), occasionally pausing to take pictures:
Again with the Queen… Seriously, these Brits are crazy.

When I got back to Jenna’s room, I very quickly helped her pick out clothes for a party she was going to (only people from her program were invited, so I had to stay home) and she rushed off. After watching more House episodes, I headed out to try to find dinner and found a fish and chips stand. Mmmm fried deliciousness. The man had given me all sorts of condiments, so I did a taste-test of all of them: vinegar, tartar sauce, ketchup and mayo. The vinegar was the best, although I’m turning European enough that I like mayo on French fries now. After recovering from the grease, I got dressed up and headed out to meet Jenna and her friends. We ended up heading back to the apartment of one of the members of her program, which was really lovely. I had a great time meeting all of her friends, and we didn’t get back home until about 3 am.

We managed to rouse ourselves the next morning for brunch, where we organized a trip to the National Portrait Gallery. I wasn’t expecting to like it that much, because I don’t generally like portraits, but there are really detailed explanations of who most of the people are, so it was quite interesting to read about them. Especially the royal families, who were so inbred it’s a wonder more of them weren’t imbeciles. I also spotted this lovely bewigged man:
who happens to be Robert Boyle. Any chemistry nerds out there? Yes, this is the Boyle of Boyle’s Law, which states (as far as I can remember) that the more you squish a gas, the less space it takes up. Logical, yes, but if you lived in the 1600’s you got to state a lot of obvious things and stick your name on them.

There was a temporary exhibition as well – I forget the name of the artist, but it was to benefit an AIDS charity. It was a wall of nude black and white photos of athletes, and it was beautiful. Just the elegance and grace of the human form, without any distracting elements or tackiness or anything. I especially remember a female swimmer (I think) with long black hair perfectly arranged against her pale back.

After that, Jenna had to go practice (the life of a violin performance student is tough) so I went and geeked out in the Egyptian section of the British Museum for a little bit. And when I say geeked out, I mean that I almost completely ignored all statues without writing on them, going straight for any hieroglyphs and trying (mostly in vain) to remember my hieroglyph alphabet. I did remember ankh dja s, which is the abbreviation for “life, prosperity, health”, and a few letters here and there, but mostly I was just comparing the different styles of hieroglyphs. Then it was time to go home and make dinner – we’d bought lettuce, cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, and bread, and Jenna has a basil plant in her room, so we made tomato, basil and mozzarella salad and it was delicious. Of course, we had to take pictures, or “food porn” as Jenna calls them:
So pretty! And so yummy!

It was raining again, and we didn’t feel like doing anything special, so we went to the TV room with some other Americans to watch Back to the Future, which Jenna hadn’t seen (cue chorus of “What? Impossible!”, which is why I didn’t tell anyone that I hadn’t really seen it properly either… When you’re as pop-culturally challenged as I am, you learn early on just to keep your mouth shut in situations like that.) Anyway, it was nice to get some American culture for a change.

On Sunday morning, homesick for my regular French market (that’s going to be the thing I miss most about France – I can’t even go a week without it) I did some research and found the Camden Lock Market. Jenna and I set off to meet Emilia at the market. On the way, we passed the playground near her dorm, where sheep apparently just roam around. One was close to the bars, grazing, so we said good morning to it.
When we got to the market, we realized it was more for clothing and accessories than fruits and veg, but that didn’t matter. There were all sorts of stalls selling ethnic food, all of which were priced at 4£ a serving, making the decision much harder. I ended up getting lamb curry, which was absolutely delicious. Thus fortified, we plunged back into the confusion of stalls and shops built into the stone walls. Jenna found a beautiful vaguely-ethnic-looking top that we convinced her to get because it looked great on her, and then she had to go back and practice. Emilia and I continued to wander and found a stall selling Marimekko-esque handbags (not at all the quality of Marimekko, but the patterns were bright and lively and awesome) and I gave in, telling myself I needed a medium-sized bag:
Impractical, perhaps, but oh so purty. Emilia bought one as well – hers had cherries on it.

Continuing our wanderings, we came across a stall selling doughnuts of every variety imaginable. After taking close to 10 minutes to decide, I got a custard-filled, chocolate-and-nuts-topped one, and Emilia got a caramely one, I think. Here we are pigging out:

They were so good. Gooiness is next to happiness, I think.

We continued to explore the market, finding new things we coveted at every turn, then having to reason with ourselves (“No Lisa, you don’t actually need those legwarmers… or that scarf… or that shirt… and what makes you think you can fit it into your luggage anyway?”) so as to not walk out of the market with double what we came in with. Finally, we came across another stall with handbags, this time more elegant, and met our match. I got this one, which matches my turquoise scarf perfectly:
And Emilia got a really cute little one made of little bamboo slats, perfect for holding one’s cell, lip balm, and credit cards on an evening out.

Finally, we extricated ourselves, stopped at Sainsbury’s on the way back to the Tube to buy candy bars, and headed home for dinner. We had a date with a certain man of mystery that night, a man whose taste in women is as impeccable as his dress sense, who never loses his cool… Yes, James Bond. Emilia, her friend Sarah, Jenna and I all had tickets to see the new movie at Leicester Square, which was exciting because it was London and the movie had just come out and because, after all, Daniel Craig is an extremely attractive man. So here we are in front of the marquée:
The atmosphere in the movie theater was great – everyone was excited, they clapped when the curtain went up, all of that. The movie itself… I don't want to burst anyone’s bubble, but I would wait for it to come out on video. Also, make sure to watch Casino Royale (that was the last one, right?) before this one, because if you’ve forgotten what happened in Casino Royale you’ll be a bit lost in Quantum of Solace. The whole movie felt like one big long action scene, even more so than in most James Bonds (and I like Bond movies in general). There wasn’t enough plot to tie it all together, and even the love scene (yes, there was only one) was rushed and almost cursory. But it was fun to see it in London, in any case.

All right, this has been obscenely long, for which I apologize. The rest of London next week sometime, and after that tales of history teachers, mispronunciations, and getting hit on (always with the getting hit on, I know, but this is France. That's how life works here).


  1. I loved London! I'm so jealous you got a week off of classes....we only get a few long weekends, Christmas and a break in April for Semana Santa (holy week). Come visit me in Spain!

  2. Holy crap, what an epic post. By the way, Uniqlo rocks my socks. They recently did a stunt in New York ( -- you can probably find video of it somewhere) that kind of woke me up to how much they've expanded outside of Japan. I'm wearing Uniqlo pajama pants RIGHT NOW, and my 1,200 yen (12 dollar!) fleece is just ridiculously awesome. Yes, Uniqlo. Simple clothes, excellent fabric, great price. That's all I have to say.

  3. so, multiple comments for your very long post:
    (1) I also thought that the first bridge was London Bridge, and I think I'll keep it that way in my mind, because it's way more fun.
    (2) I love the idea of people galloping towards each other to fight on the street and I admit I got a great picture of you galloping (not on a horse) down the street brandishing a sword
    (3) The picture of the phone booth is fantastic. I literally laughed out loud
    (4)Vinegar is totally the way to go with fish and chips, and mayo is delicious on European-style french fries
    (5)I believe that Boyle's law has something to do with pressure increasing as you compress a gas. And I can totally picture that guy spending all of his time figuring that out.
    (6 and last) I think it's very interesting that you managed to meet two A/Eme/ilia's (confusing, but you're smart) and become friends with both of us in your lifetime.