Friday, 19 December 2008

Yeah, it's overwhelming, but what else can we do?

Ice-skating at the Tower of London with Rayna and Greg

How to wrap up an amazing six months living in London? At first, I thought I could sum up the whole experience by waxing philosophical: How my time here never felt like the pseduo-vacation of studying abroad, but more like I was creating a life, putting down roots—making friends, building a home, settling in. And how cosmically unfair it feels to have those roots torn up just as they were getting established.

But that's too abstract. So I thought I could write about all the things, big and small, about living in London that put a smile on my face: the Saturday mornings spent with the Guardian and a cup of tea; one pint with Greg quickly turning into many at the Market Porter or the Royal Inn; the unrivaled people watching available in the Sunday-morning markets of the East End, from Brick Lane down to Spitalfields; waking up 20 minutes early just so I can have an espresso on the way to work; cooking with Phoebe in our tiny kitchen with the view out the window of Kingsland Mosque's minaret lit up green for Eid; walking across London Bridge five days a week; sitting in the front seat on the upper deck of a red London bus.

But that misses the point. Maybe, I thought, I should write how my time here wouldn't have been any fun at all if I hadn't, quite unexpectedly, made some great friends. What's the point of a full English breakfast, or hiking around Hampstead Heath, if you don't have a Phoebe or a Greg to share it with?

But that, I thought, is too sappy. So here's all I'll say: I'm going to miss London. A lot.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Where my thoughts escaping

Wow, it's been a while since I updated. My excuse is that my whole family came to visit me for Thanksgiving, which was very busy and great. I'm so thankful they made the trip—Thanksgiving without them would've been hard to bear.
We did all the usual tourist stuff, plus my Mom and I cooked Thanksgiving dinner (pheasant!), we went to a Thanksgiving Day service in St. Paul's Cathedral, popped in for a pint at all my favorite pubs, had champagne cocktails at the top of Tower 42, and took a weekend trip out to Bath.

The countdown's begun for the end of my time here, less than two weeks now. Weirdness. Much navel-gazing and musings on that topic to come.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008


What Would Tim Do? That's what I wonder when I see the bums begging for money on the streets of London. Tim is an old friend and soon-to-be police officer. While discussing his work on the streets of Columbus, Ohio, some months ago, we asked him what, if we relented and dug out some change, a bum was likely to buy with the money he begged us for. Tim's answer was unequivocal: drugs.

If the bum really WAS hungry, Tim said, there were numerable shelters and churches throughout the city. Of course, about the only bum I ever ran into back home was the singing bum of High Street, so until I came to London I had few first-person interactions with bums.

Now, I try to channel Tim when I'm asked for "10p for the bus" or whatever. With the bums I see regularly pitched up in the same places—outside the Costcutter on Hackney Road, often instigating scuffles with other bums; camped out on the sidewalk at Borough High Street and Southwark Street on weekday mornings; with a suspiciously nice backpack across Bishopsgate from Liverpool Street Station—it's not difficult.

At other times, I actually consider donating to the cause:
—On Curtain Road, I was asked point-blank if I'd "like to contribute to the doner kebab fund." Admiring his honesty, I briefly considered, but then declined.
—On Fenchurch Street, I was given an elaborate song and dance about how he wasn't going to waste my time, he was very sorry, he was just trying to get something to eat... My jaded London heart could only think: "If you're going to ask for money, for Christ's sake get ON with it," and I shook my head no.
—On Shoreditch High Street at St Leonard's Church, as the usual schpeal was beginning, he showed me his arm and I must've literally recoiled. There was fresh blood and gnarly gashes up and down it. He just needed a few quid to, as the British phrase it, "go to hospital." I actually reached into my pocket to help but, finding no change there, politely declined and moved on.

Only once have I relented. Walking down Old Street toward the tube early one morning, I was stopped by a distraught man brandishing a South African passport and frantically explaining how he needed to get to Heathrow. For some reason, his tale moved by cold heart. I reached into my pocket and handed him a
£2 coin. Only later did I wonder how he had been able to purchase a plane ticket back to South Africa but couldn't afford a tube ride. I wonder what Tim would have done?

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Pomp and circumstance

I'll admit it: I'm a sucker for a parade. So despite the intermittent rain and forgetting to bring an umbrella, I still made my way down to the City for the Lord Mayor's Show.

The Lord Mayor isn't the political leader of all of London (that's the mayor of Greater London, Boris) but historically of the City of London that roughly equates to the boundaries of the ancient Roman city. Today this "Square Mile" is also synonymous with financial services and business interests, so the Lord Mayor acts primarily as their advocate in a largely ceremonial role.

A new Lord Mayor is elected each year, and to celebrate his appointment a massive procession winds from the Guildhall through the City to the Royal Courts of Justice—where the Lord Mayor swears allegiance the Queen—before returning to the Guildhall just before fireworks are launched over the River Thames.

In addition to the usual parade fare of scouts, charities, old cars and the requisite cheerleaders, there were also trade guilds, ward clubs, livery companies (dressed in a wide range of outfits reminiscent of academic robes or period costumes), military regiments, effigies of Gog and Magog, what seemed like every marching band (sporting about every kind of hat imaginable) in the South East—including one band on horseback—and many more, with the Lord Mayor himself bringing up the rear. The length of the procession was about twice as long as the route itself.

Even with the rain and lack of candy (although I was given a sausage on a stick), it was a great afternoon. Next time, though, I'll bring an umbrella.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Remember remember the Fifth of November

I don't know how the rest of that little ditty goes, but it's the rhyme traditionally sung on this day. I haven't heard any Englishmen say it, but they certainly haven't left out the best part of this British holiday: fireworks.

In 1605, Guy Fawkes and other conspirators plotted to smuggle gunpowder under the Houses of Parliament and blow them up in an act of proto-terrorism. They were caught and executed, but continue to live on through the annual celebration on 5 November, called Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night (seems a little like calling 11 September "Osama bin Laden Day" or "Shock-and-Awe Night" to me).

The important thing, as in every holiday that incorporates them, is the fireworks. For almost three weeks now, I've heard occasional pops, booms and crackles in my neighborhood at night. The most confusing was about a week ago when, looking out my kitchen window, I saw two children chasing each other around the street, shooting fireworks out what looked like long paper-towel rolls at each other—most of them veering off towards apartment buildings or parked cars, setting off wailing car alarms.

Sunday I was able to watch Tower Hamlets' amazing fireworks display in Victoria Park from my bedroom window, and now I can hear—and sometimes see—people setting off fireworks all around in what feels like a lower-level version of Valencia's Las Fallas, which i attended in 2006.

But I'm a little distracted by yesterday's events back across the pond. "Remember remember the Fourth of November..." as one newspaper here put it.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Veg Box Scheme 101

It's simple, really. I give £6 a week to Growing Communities at the cafe in Hackney City Farm, they give me a bag of fresh, in-season, local vegetables, and I complete my slide into grandmotherhood.

Although there are numerous hippie, Athens-esque justifications for the veg box scheme, I joined for one reason only: I like to eat. It can be a hassle to try to constantly try to keep fresh vegetables in the house, but the veg box scheme takes the hassle out of it for me. The flipside of that, of course, is that I don't get to chose the vegetables that are included. But I like that, too. Instead of deciding what I want to eat each week and picking out the necessary veggies, it goes the other way: when I open up the bag, I start to brainstorm possibilities for the week ahead. It's also led me to try numerous new vegetables that I never would have been brave enough to try otherwise, including Romanesco broccoli, celeriac, leeks, and kale.

Since I began receiving my weekly veg box about a month ago, it has contributed, in whole or part, to coq au vin, chili, pumpkin bread, black beans and rice, salads, pasta sauce, and soups of the potato, leek, carrot and broccoli varieties. It's also on deck to help me out with some apple coffee cake and a revival of coq-au-vin week.

For too long now, I've been more talk than action in the "I-like-to-cook" department. Now, in large part thanks to the veg box scheme, I hardly eat out or buy prepared food anymore. In other areas, too — but especially where food preparation is concerned — I really like the person that I'm becoming. It's nice to know that I like to cook not only in the abstract, but in the daily reality of it, too.

Now, if I could just brew my own beer and wine, I'd never have to leave the house!

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Well Daniel says it's the best place that he's ever seen

They say smell is the scent most closely tied to memory. It certainly felt that way when I arrived in Bilbao, Spain, lat week. I'd taken a long weekend for a holiday to my old stomping grounds in Spain and, I'm not sure how to describe it, the air just instantly felt, somehow, Spanish. (Sometimes on hot, windy days in Athens, the air felt the same for just an instant when rounding to corner of Union Street at Bromley dining hall.)

And it was exactly what I needed. My Spanish wasn't nearly as rusty as I'd feared, my days were blissfully unplanned, and I had plenty of me-time to do some soul-searching as my internship nears its end. I got to get some of the things I'd been craving—like sidra and pintxos—and was pleasantly reminded of things I'd forgotten about—like vino con gaseosa and fresh-squeezed orange juice. I spent most of my time in the always-amazing San Sebastián and went to Pamplona one afternoon to hang out with my friend Yolanda, who I haven't seen since my days at the Universidad Pública de Navarra way back when.

My days generally started with this:
An hour or two of newspaper-reading and people-watching at the cafe later, I'd perhaps go for a paseo on the beach:
Followed by a massive Spanish-style lunch during the siesta and then an evening hike up one of the mountains to the east of San Sebastián, like San Pedro:
I didn't want to leave! But alas, London was calling, so I packed up the Spanish-language books and hunk of Roncal cheese that I bought and flew back for the usual grind. When I left Spain in 2006, I had no idea if I'd ever return. I don't know this time, either, but it's good to know that Spain is still there, waiting for me. Hasta luego.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

It's just the way we feel

I'm easily fascinated. The pigeons that land outside my window, the London bus system, flight: all these things and many more I find incomprehensible and delightful. When experiencing these things, I usually have a moment where I'm filled with delight -- this is wonderful! -- and confusion -- how did I end up here? My latest fascinating moment? Last Sunday, watching the sun break through the clouds as I stood on the hilltop overlooking Oxford with a dozen women old enough to be my grandmother.

It all started on Hampstead Heath a week before. I was traipsing about there with Greg, his wife, and her mother's friend Liz, a fellow South African expatriate. While we all enjoyed the sunny skies from Parliament Hill and some pub-hopping, Liz told me about the Ramblers' Association and invited me to join her on one of their hikes.

So there I was, early Sunday morning, shaking hands with a dozen grandmothers sporting titanium walking sticks and hiking boots. We went over and up nine miles worth of hills around the city while I heard about Margret's twin grandchildren, a Scottish woman explained the logistics of cross-country skiing in Norway, and I learned how to make a delicious borscht.

After a tour of the city's colleges, we sipped tea in the crypt of a church in the city center. Sitting there, exhausted from the hike, I couldn't believe that I had ended up there, of all places, with this random assortment of people. I love the unexpectedly delightful and fascinating. I can't wait to see what happens next week.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Home sweet home

Nearly two months after I moved in, you can finally check out my new flat.

I've traded in the Nigerian hair salons, Turkish kebab shops, Western Union offices, and the occasional bum of my old neighborhood, South Hackney, for the wholesale shoe stores, Vietnamese noodle shops, mosque minarets, and the occasional strip club of my new neighborhood, Haggerston. I love it so far: great flatmates, closer to work, and right around the corner from 1) Haggerston Park—which I can see from my window—and its Hackney City Farm, 2) Regent's Canal, which is great for a run all the way to Victoria Park, and 3) the Sunday-morning Columbia Road Flower Market, just south of Hackney Road.

If you had been here the other night, you would have witnessed a delicious pumpkin bread and my first-ever coq au vin:
That's oregano, fennel, and two basil plants in the window box. Any other herb and spice suggestions for the other window box?
Notice the regular door and the iron-bar door. Each morning, I have a moment of panic when, after going out the regular door and closing it behind me, I fear that I've left my keys inside and trapped myself between the regular door and the iron door:
The view into the neighboring courtyard and into Haggerston Park from my bedroom window:

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Some London of my favorite experiences, organized by the five senses

Heard: The sounds of post-iftar prayers wafting from the back room while I waited for my doner at a kebab shop on Hackney Road.

Saw: Fireworks after a free Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performance in Shoreditch Park.

Smelled: Flowers of every kind jammed along Columbia Road for the Sunday-morning flower market. Walk down to the market from my flat and stroll slowly through the packed stalls and shouting vendors, think about buying a small basil plant to put on the windowsill, sip my £1.70 latte, maybe get a 90p filled bagel down on Brick Lane. Sublime.

Tasted: Everything in Borough Market: fresh fruit, samples of cheese, chorizo, baguette sandwiches full of all the Thanksgiving fixings, beer, hot cider, two-for-one wine specials, wild mushrooms, yuppie pies, and possibly the best fish and chips I've had in London.

Felt: The wind whipping across my face when I walk over London Bridge on the way to the office in the morning. On the left I can see the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, the HMS Belfast, and City Hall; in front of me I can see Southwark Cathedral and buildings being torn down to make way for The Shard; on my right I can see Tate Modern and St. Paul's Cathedral. Awesome.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Somewhere in my youth or childhood

There was one thing I wasn't anticipating doing in London. I was only going to be here six months, I figured, and besides, cultivating these things takes time. Plus, who wants to have to say goodbye?

What was that one thing? Making friends.

How wrong I was. Here I am halfway through my time in London and I can honestly say I have two genuine, honest-to-goodness friends here. We hang out, joke around, and have had those uber-sappy "I'm-glad-we're-friends" moments.

The first is Greg, a coworker at the office. At first we would just chat in the office, commenting on the hyperactive children playing in the schoolyard outside my office window or musing on the eccentricities of the English (he's Greek-South African). Now we hang out outside of work too, popping into the pub after work to debrief from a long day or going for a stroll through Hyde or Regent's Park on the weekend with his wife.

The second is Phoebe, my flatmate. We both like to cook and drink wine. (We share a philosophy of Julia Child's: "I enjoy cooking with wine; sometimes I even put it in the food I'm cooking.") Last Saturday, she invited me out to her mother's house in rural East Sussex. It was so low-key and relaxing, just what I needed after spending so much time in London. (You don't realize all the noise and lights around you in the city until you're out in the silence of the countryside with about a bajillion stars overhead.) We hiked up Firle Beacon, sipped pear cider at a country pub, and took part in one of my favorite pastimes: porch sitting. Her mother stuffed me with obscene amounts of delicious food -- we're talking brie quiche and the like -- and then insisted I eat more. (I obliged.)
I guess, originally, I didn't really want to make any real friends while in London. When you care about people a lot, it's excruciating to have to say goodbye to them. I just did it with graduation in June and then leaving Ohio. I wasn't keen to do it again. But that's the price we pay for loving people, I guess: having to feel the hurt of leaving them. The only alternative is to never have them in our lives. C'est la vie.

I'm certainly not looking forward to saying goodbye in three months' time. So I'll just raise my glass high and appreciate my time left with my new friends. That's the only thing any of us can really do, I suppose.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

"You know I always wanted to pretend that I was an architect."

With freakishly beautiful weather lingering into the weekend, I had to take advantage. And what better way than Open House London, the annual weekend in which over 650 buildings, normally closed to the public, swing open their doors to allow the public to gawk to their hearts' content. And to top it off—free!

I started with Christ Church Spitalfields and Shoreditch Town Hall, which I see from my bus and I've always been curious to have a peek at. Then it was down to Aldgate, where I got to see St George's German Lutheran Church, which I'd discovered whilst walking to work last week.
What I intended as a quick stop turned into an hourlong chat — and tea — with a talkative gentleman and two old ladies who told me everything I ever wanted to know about German immigrants in the East End, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and how little the three of them cared for Gordon Brown. They have concerts there about once a month, so I think I'll swing by again for the sounds of organ music and German hymns.

Later, I met up with my new flatmate, Phoebe, who's an architect. Which means: priority pass! No more queues for me! We headed off to Shoreditch Prototype House, a model of eco-living a short walk from our flat. If eco-living means these sorts of views from the bedroom window, count me in:
After taking a quick coffee break on the steps of St Pauls Cathedral — and showing off my priority badge — we were back on the architecture trail.
We jumped more queues at the former Daily Express building on Fleet Street, gawked at the lecture halls at Queen Mary College in Whitechapel, and popped into St Matthias and Container City in the Docklands. And no need for guidebooks with an architect in tow to explain everything.

We finished the day at—where else?—the Royal Inn on the Park. Sitting on the patio, sipping a London Pride, and patting myself on the back for a weekend well spent.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

These boots were made for walkin'

Recent uncharacteristic sunny weather and a need to save a few pence have led to a most delightful change of my daily routine: walking to work. Factoring in the time in takes to wait for the bus means that it doesn't take me that much longer to walk from my new flat—a total of 45 minutes to an hour, depending on how leisurely I'm walking. Despite the smorgasbord of other things to do in London, this remains my favorite activity: walking around. (Pubs aren't far behind.) When I'm on the bus, I'm usually burying my nose in a book or wondering where the bum who's always camped out by Liverpool Street Station managed to get such a nice backpack. When I walk, whether I take the more direct route down Bishopsgate and over London Bridge or the more roundabout way through Bethnal Green and over Tower Bridge, it not only gives my nosy, curious self much more time to take it all in, but it allows me to discover things I might not otherwise have found. Some highlights:

-A swarm of Haredi preschool-age kids on some sort of field trip waiting for the bus, on King William Street
-The London offices of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, on Dawson Street
-Oodles of Einesigns visible before shops open in the morning, along Hackney Road and in Bethnal Green
-St. George's German Lutheran Church, in Whitechapel

I don't know what it is about walking, but I sure like it. Maybe it's because of my many good memories that involve walking: strolling with my parents along the path around the pond behind their house; completing the Camino de Santiago with Nick; exploring New York with Adam; shoveling Wendy's french fries into my mouth while stumbling back from Court Street with Laura; hiking along mountain ridges with my relatives in West Virginia.

Walking certainly beats the bus any day—unless, of course, it's raining.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

What's more English than the pub?

It's been a little hectic around my parts lately. I just moved into a new flat in Haggerston (more on that in a later post), and I've been busy hosting my cousin Amanda who was visiting for the past week. We had a blast! Of course, I had to take her to my favorite places in London, like my favorite local pub, the Royal Inn on the Park:
And the Columbia Road Flower Market on Sunday morning, which is just a short walk from my new flat:
She made me feel like I was on vacation too, complete with a night of Spamalot, the stage adaption of the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and conveyor-belt sushi:
She even took me out for high tea:
All and all, it was a great week. I couldn't have asked for a more considerate, pleasant and fun house guest. What better way to end it than at the place where I spend the most time in London after work and home, The George:

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Questions I've been asked more than once

"Are you from California?"
"Do you think Obama will win?"
"I hear that British TV shows are popular in America. Have you seen [TV show I've never heard of]?"
"Excuse me, I'm trying to [outlandish story] and I just need 50p for the bus."
"Don't you love New York? It's so cheap!"
"I love your accent! Are you from California?"
"Ohio? [blank stare]"
"If I give you some money, will you buy me a pack of fags in the off-licence?"
"Where's Ohio? Is it near California?"

Yes. Yes, it is.

Thursday, 28 August 2008


Q: Why are there two types of tea cups in the cupboard?
A: If you like, can sip your tea from an American-style mug. Don't have a big American mouth? Then try one our thin, English-style tea cups for cheery sipping.

Q: Can I demonstrate, through tea, my rugged American spirit and general bad-assery?
A: Try drinking your tea straight with no sugar.

Q: When I make tea, should I ask the other people in the office if they'd fancy a cup?
A: Yes! If it's good, you'll have achieved some non-obnoxious ass-kissage. If it's bad, we'll never ask you to make our tea again. Win-win.

Q: You don't mind if I just leave this tea bag in here, do you?

Monday, 18 August 2008

4,328 miles to Wall Drug

Although debate still rages about what Stonehenge is in the abstract sense (ancient observatory? alien landing strip? acupuncture point for Mother Earth?), less than four seconds after arriving there last weekend it was painfully obvious what Stonehenge is in the literal sense: a pile of rocks in the middle of nowhere:

My obligatory tourist shot at the world's oldest tourist trap finished, I spent the next hour freezing my butt off while wearing a sweater in the middle of August and trying to think of an adjective other than "wind-swept" to describe the Wiltshire countryside.

My free trip wasn't a total bust, though. After Stonehenge, our surly bus driver took us to nearby Salisbury. London is not a very stroll-friendly sort of place, but Salisbury certainly is. Nice cathedral, nice shops, nice footpath along the River Avon. It was, in a word, nice. I could certainly spend another cold and windy afternoon there, sipping an espresso while watching the crowds pass by the cafe windows and aimlessly flipping through Salisbury Life.

What I found decidedly not nice about Salisbury was the charity street canvassers who were markedly more aggressive than any I've encountered on Borough High Street or Tottenham Court Road in London. Charity street canvassers generally stand two or three abreast in the sidewalk to ask for "a minute of your time" to give their sales pitch, creating a perverse shark-and-minnows game for unwitting pedestrians.

Being an awkward, gullible, and absent-minded pedestrian, I'm a particularly attractive target for street canvassers. There are many justifications for and against giving money to street canvassers, but I generally frown upon such direct, obtrusive soliciting. Luckily, the same awkward absent-mindedness that attracts canvassers to me like flies on shite also allows me to feign ignorance and/or deaf-muteness.

Ah, once again, it's nice to be back in London, where the street canvassers are easily ignored and urban sprawl heats the air several degrees warmer than the surrounding countryside.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

A note on commuting

Ah, good old 48. I feel like such a Londoner riding the bus from Mare Street down through Shoreditch and Bishopsgate and over London Bridge to work each morning. I sit on the top of the double-decker bus, people watch, and marvel as the drivers of the 48 are able to dodge and weave all the oblivious pedestrians and random construction barriers in their path.

The drivers of the 26, it seems, are not so adept.

On my way to catch the 48, I can shave a few minutes off my walk if I hop on the 26. (It's not worth it to wait for the 26, but if I'm at a bus stop when one rolls up I hop on.) So there I was, blissfully distracted by This American Life on my iPod as we barreled down Well Street. Properly distracted, I didn't noticed that we had veered perilously close to a dumpster at a construction site until the woman next to me grabbed onto my arm with one of those Panic Squeezes. I looked over, and everyone on the port side of the bus had leaped back, shattered glass everywhere. The bus had hit the dumpster taking a turn too sharp and knocked out two huge panes of glass in the bus. Thankfully, no one was injured. And, like a true Londoner, my first thought was, "Shit, now I'm going to have to wait for the next bus!"

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Six lessons learned whilst daytripping to Canterbury and Whitstable

1. Don't be (too) lazy. Yes, putting off sending in your railcard application meant that you paid more than you needed to. But at least you managed to drag yourself out of bed in time to catch the tranquil, uncrowded 8 a.m. train. The Kentish countryside's scenery in the early morning is hard to beat.

2. Communication is key. If someone is being a pain in your backside, take a little advice from King Henry II: Don't make an off-hand remark over the water cooler that you wish someone would "rid you" of the person. Next thing you know, they'll hack him apart and thousands of pilgrims will pay him tribute. Talk about annoying.

3. Embrace what you love. Yes, the guidebook says to hit all the museums and to take a bus to Whitstable. But if all you really want to do is write postcards while sipping espresso in a dive cafe, and hike the hilariously named Crab & Winkle Way, and people watch, then DO IT. When traveling alone, you've got to do it for yourself. And after you pet some horses, eat a sandwich from the top of the hill overlooking Canterbury and the surrounding valley, stumble upon a wild blackberry patch, and spend a good twenty minutes whistling your high school's alma mater deep in the woods of Kent, you'll be glad you listened to yourself.

4. Take proper precautions. When urinating in the out of doors, make sure to find a discreet, out-of-the way location. Off the path in the Blean Woods is a good choice. Between a boarding school and a rugby pitch is not.

5. Do your homework. If the whole point of going to Whitstable is to eat some fresh oysters, you should make sure you know what to do with them when you get them. Otherwise, you'll be handed a bewildering array of oysters, utensils, and sauces, with nary an idea of what you're supposed to do with them:
6. Appreciate home. After a hectic day in the hustle and bustle of the country, it sure feels nice to return home to humdrum London. And what a great feeling to have yet another place that feels like "home."

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

There's only one way to solve this: cage match

You've got to hand it to bureaucracy. Who else makes you call them to set up an appointment to have the right to pay more taxes, tells you the rules have changed, but wait actually no they haven't and we unilaterally decided to change your appointment time without telling you and now it's for tomorrow morning that's not going to be a problem is it? And you sit there and take it.

So I found myself in an alley behind a sprawling mosque in Whitechapel, loaded with reading material, queued up and waiting for a National Insurance official to call my name. I was shuffled from one waiting area to another, and when I was finally seated for my interview, my internal whining monologue was barreling ahead at full force.

But my interviewer was a trainee, and he was, frankly, awful at his job. He was as easily confused and flustered as a 12-year-old boy at a sorority party. His supervisor, who was walking him through everything, kept making fun of him and giving me apologetic glances while his trainee's brow was furrowed and the steam was coming out of his ears.

"Is 'high street' one word?"
"What? Are you sure you can handle this?"

Nothing like someone else's utter haplessness to set you at ease.

Oh, and unilaterally deciding to take a half day at work for my appointment made it easier to handle, too. That's not going to be a problem, is it?

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

My crib

It doesn't really feel like mine: more like I'm just living in somebody else's room for a while, which I guess is literally what I'm doing. I do like watching all the foot traffic in and out of Tesco that I can see out of my window.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

With sadness so real that it populates the city and leaves you homeless again

I should have seen it coming. It was inevitable: homesickness.

Not having gas at my flat for a few days — and thus, no hot showers or hot food — set it off. I sunk into that listless, yearning despair, one that London's rain complemented so well.

How had I forgotten that this would come? I'd moved away to college, I'd studied abroad before. It was different this time, though. Before, when leaving, I was coming back to a known: Carroll, Athens. And back then, that was all I really knew. How could something I'd known so long be any good? Turns out, pretty damn good.

I started to have the same thought I had during an emotional series of flights from Columbus to London last month: Who in their right mind, with friends and family like mine, would leave them all behind?

It's a fine question. I'm sure part of the answer lies in elementary-school Eric, the proto-nerd, pouring over atlases in his free time. Or sitting in class, bored to tears, and staring out the window, dreaming.

Maybe, I thought, I haven't left really left anyone behind. Look at all these e-mails, text messages, Skype calls. Maybe they're right here whenever I think about them.

No worries: the gas has been turned back on. It was never really off, the mechanisms were just a little messed up. It was there the whole time, we'd just forgotten how to connect with it.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

"It's not a party until someone spills a beer on you"

Fourth of July booze cruise. On the Thames.

Translation? Brilliant.

Abby, a Louisiana native and my co-intern at work, talked me into BUNAC's Fourth of July "booze cruise," which was attended by something like 300 drunk Americans and American wannabes.

We all need a little peer pressure sometimes.

At work that day, one of my co-workers asked what it was we were celebrating independence from. "Well," I said. "You." Then we left work two hours early for the cruise. (Whoops.) My only regret is that we forgot to buy some tea to toss overboard.

And just when you thought a booze cruise couldn't get any better, I won a free day trip from the group International Friends in the raffle drawing! So now I need to figure out where to go. I was thinking the Stonhenge, Salisbury and Avery day trip. Thoughts, anyone?

Monday, 30 June 2008

An engineer would say the glass is 50% too big, or hostel living as told in Pros and Cons

Pro: Conveniently located near the shopping of Tottenham Court Road, the nightlife of Soho, and the late-night kebab stands on Oxford Street
Con: Jammed in among the shoving crowds of Tottenham Court Road, the overpriced clubs of Soho, and the obnoxious drunk crowds on Oxford Street

Pro: It's like being back in the dorms!
Con: It's like being back in the dorms!

Pro: Cheap
Con: Smells like feet

And the Cons have it. It's time to trade the jungle of the hostel for the urban jungle of the East End.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Wee Britain

It is the Queen's Guards who stand guard at the monarch's residences, including Buckingham Palace and, caddy-corner across The Mall, at St. James Palace. At St. James, you can walk up to them (at Buckingham, they're behind a high fence), so that's where tourists mill about to take awkward and suggestive pictures with the guards, who are supposed to stay at attention and not react.

Except, they don't. I was surprised at how young the guards looked. They seemed as if they were barely out of middle school — and they did a pretty poor job of standing at attention. I thought of the Changing of the Guard ceremony I'd seen years earlier, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in Washington, and how crisp and orderly those guards were in comparison.

Of course, there wasn't a war on then.

With so many soldiers, both British and American, in Iraq and Afghanistan, there probably aren't too many left over for fluff positions like those. In Washington today, maybe the soldiers guarding their unknown comrade are just as nervous and awkward as their colleagues at St. James.

Thursday, 26 June 2008


I had a minor Midwesterner's identity crisis today. Scurrying about in London Bridge tube stop on my way home from work, a woman ahead of me sneezed one of those dramatic, body-spasming sneezes. My instinct was to say, "Bless you!" But would the woman think I was some kind of weirdo-creep? Would the rushing Londoners around me instantly know that I was no more than a slack-jawed American bumpkin? What was I to do?

Before I could properly think it through, however, three other people shouted out "Bless you!" at the same time. Perhaps Londoners are friendly than I'd anticipated — or maybe Sneezy just happened to sneeze while surrounded by bumpkins-cum-urbanites.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

To have a good evening...

...pick a freakishly sunny London day, walk across London Bridge, pop into Sainsbury's and pick up 'a ploughman's' ready-made sandwich, take your summer fiction issue of The New Yorker to the quiet garden tucked in behind Southwark Cathedral, listen to evening bells ring up in the tower, read, eat, enjoy.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Early each day to the steps of Saint Paul's

Spent some time like a true tourist over the weekend, walked around the West End, Westminster, and the South Bank, taking in all the sites and making my feet sore.

But on Monday it was time to behave like a proper Londoner. Donned my suitcase-creased pants, put some MGMT on my iPod, and took the tube down to Southwark for my first day on the job. The office is small, about half a dozen people, and everyone's very helpful and friendly. I think the job is going to be challenging but it has lots of potential to be very rewarding professionally. My coworkers took me out for some beers after work at the neighborhood pub, The George, where (I was mistakenly told that) the the pilgrims in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales imbibed before heading south. (I for one can't think of a better way to start a pilgrimage.)

I'm living at a short-term hostel right now, so all the people here are on the same 6-month work visa that I am. Life here is eerily reminiscent of a dorm: the ubiquitous stench of body odor, the incestuous drama, the late nights. The variables are the manager, Bill, a socially awkward Deadhead, and Doris, the Maltese cleaning lady. She reminds me of that homeless woman who "feeds the birds" in Mary Poppins. I think Bill and Doris deserve their own post. I'm here for about 5 more days before I move into a flat in the East End.

So, have you been to London before? I'm on the prowl for free (or at least freakishly cheap) stuff that's worth my time, so if you have any recommendations shoot them my way.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Q: How long does it take me to sleep off jet lag?

A: 15 hours.

It seems as if I'm in Spain again, not London. I hear as much Spain-accented Spanish as UK-accented English, man purses are everywhere, and the city smells like Madrid.

The people in my hostel are fun and friendly, but being the new guy means there is no place to store my stuff and I'll be living out of my suitcases for the next week and a half. I'm all stocked up on food now, so today is all about the other errands: fixing my phone, buying an alarm clock, figuring out which bus/tube pass I need to buy. Busy busy busy.

Tomorrow, I'm going to try and be a tourist.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Forces of Will

I made it.

I was reminded again at how much I loathe goodbyes and how much I love airports. First impressions? Everyone, to my continued fascination, has a British accent. It takes a huge force of will not to giggle.

Four hours after my plane landed I found myself in a free taxi ride to take a trash bag of mail over to the program office (I don't know what's going on anymore) that came with complimentary running commentary. "Everything's going fucking green anymore, mate," our cabbie insisted. As in environmental. "The green stink," on the other hand, apparently referred to a particular strain of marijuana he'd sampled — and enjoyed — in California.

I've got 6 hours of airplane stink I need to wash off and I'm hungry. More later.