Thursday, January 29, 2009

And there were pictures

Click. Supposedly my film was safely inside the canister. But, that didn't stop me from crossing my fingers as my lab partner and I flipped on the lights in the dark room. I hoped like crazy that I had not botched up the process. Monday was the moment of truth in my introductory photo class -- developing day. Getting my film from the film case to the developing spool in total darkness scared me a bit. But, I followed directions: 10 milliliters of developer, 10 milliliters of water and just the right amount of shaking. An hour and a half later, I was hanging negatives in the dryer. I'm not promising masterpieces, but I have pictures. I have a contact sheet (what photographers call a page of thumbnail photos), and we print the full photos next week.

A little over two weeks in London and my little flat in my little bit of London finally started to feel like home this week. I stocked my fridge on Monday between classes, hit the streets for my morning jog before class on Tuesday (past the BBC studios, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and Trafalgar Square...not too shabby), successfully rode a double-decker bus to and from my friend's flat across town and celebrated another week of classes over a drink at a pub just around the corner on Wednesday night. I am in love with London.

Classes hardly feel like school. Interesting discussion and an entirely new culture wait in each classroom. The history alone is mind-boggling. Every class, no matter the subject, offers a British history lesson. After a three-hour morning class Wednesday, my friend and I grabbed a quick sandwich for lunch and headed to our architecture the British Museum. I now know where my street's name comes from, why the British Museum does not sit at Buckingham Palace and why there are so many crooked streets in London. The three hours I spend in my political science course, "Islam and the West," feel more like one hour.

I plan to devote my Thursdays in London to getting out and exploring the city. With some random stint of luck, none of my classes meet this day of the week. Today was a day of high culture in London. I met a friend in Trafalgar Square -- a grand, yet relaxing square where anyone and everyone (from juggler to reggae musician to the after-work crowd) enjoyed the late afternoon sun. We toured the National Portrait Gallery, offering us a chance to brush up on the story of the British throne. The portraits hang in chronological order, starting with the Tudor line of monarchs. After a couple of hours we wandered upstairs to the gallery's restaurant, which boasts a crystal clear view of Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Parliament, the London Eye and the Thames in the setting sun. Our pricey cups of coffee were well worth the view.

We grabbed a quick dinner in Leicester Square, bustling with people and an impressive selection of Italian restaurants. We chose a noodle restaurant. Tummies happy, we crossed the Thames to Royal Festival Hall to see Tchaikovsky's fifth symphony. The music was as stunning as the sights. During the interval (not intermission), I soaked in the sites -- the lobbies do not have walls, but enormous glass window that look out over the river onto the twinkling lights of London. The city's icons, Big Ben and Westminster, glow in the darkness.

I took a double-decker back home with my flatmates. In for the night, a steaming cup of chamomile warmed the chill from today's brisk temperatures.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Some interesting stones

A two-hour drive out of London on Friday morning landed me in the middle of rolling hills and lots of sheep. Just southwest of London, my school tour came to Stonehenge. I don't think I have ever felt so much wind as when I walked the path around the site. But, the piece of history I was seeing, surrounded by lush green countryside and a deep blue sky, well made up for the chill.

After way too many pictures, our group headed by bus to Salisbury, about 15 minutes away. Half-frozen, half-wind-blown, my friends and I ducked into one of the first cafes we passed for some warm sustenance. I tried the "Full English Breakfast," which turned out less than desirable. But, the piping hot mug of coffee served with it made up for the bland eggs and cold toast.

With a full stomach and feeling in my fingers, I became enchanted by the quaint town of Salisbury whose history dates back 1000 years. Plenty of shops, pubs and cafes filled the center of town. And, a few blocks away, any of the houses could have been straight from a postcard.

But, most impressive stands the Salisbury Cathedral, built in the 1200s. The spire on the mammoth stone structure stretches tall enough into the sky to be seen from miles away. The interior boasts grand arches, medieval tombs and tons of history. Before leaving, I saw one of the four original copies of the Magna Carta and the oldest clock in England. But, keeping with the times, the cathedral boasts a 20th-century font and stage lighting, which workers were adjusting for a program later that day.

I welcomed the warm two-hour bus trip home -- a chance for a quick nap before enjoying a spaghetti dinner with my flatmates and drinks with friends who live across town.

I am happy to report that another attempt to jog the streets of London proved much more successful. My flatmate and I donned baseball caps and windbreakers to face the 40-degree temps this past Saturday morning. We left our flat and ran along the Thames to pass Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and Whitehall -- incredible. Up close, Big Ben's striking gold and black detail gleamed in the morning sun. No doubt about it; this is London. We ran back through Trafalgar Square, passing the Savoy and many a pub we would like to find again.

Saturday afternoon, my friends and I decided we could not spend one more night in London without sampling the iconic fish and chips. So, we hit New Oxford Street for some late afternoon shopping followed by the fishy fare. We found a local pub and the dinner lived up to its status.

Rain did not stop us from catching the tube down to the East End markets on Sunday morning. We explored Columbia Market: a winding street stuffed with every type of flower. We went on to Brick Lane, known through London for the Brick Lane Bakery's beigels (yes, that's how they spell "bagel"). The bagel with cream cheese was delicious; so good, I had no time to snap a picture before making it disappear. After the snack, we wandered through the rest of the market. What used to be a predominantly Jewish neighborhood is now Bangladeshi and boasts the best curry in London. And the spread does not stop there. We found Thai, Moroccan, Spanish and Japanese dishes The aromas in that market are intoxicating.

We ended at Petticoat Lane Market. This is the stop for vintage clothes, scarves, purses, shoes, and much more. My flatmates and I kept our digging through this market brief. The rain was seeping through our gloves and our cozy warm flat was calling. Despite all the touring, I am finally starting to feel settled into my little bit of London.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Cod, twisted streets and meeting Barack Obama

In a fourth-floor classroom downtown London with three cameras on my lap, I listened to my professor, Ian, explain the basics of photography. After explaining when to use a fast shutter speed and when to adjust the aperture, Ian helpfully added that our favorite photos might come from breaking all the rules. Then he set us loose to capture the very best of London on film. My first class in London proved fascinating and horrifying, all in the same three hours.

Lunch was a bit more comforting. Mauro greeted two friends and I by name as we entered his cafe to order sandwiches. We stumbled upon the shop last week and quickly fell in love with its strong Italian coffee and amiable staff. Mauro brought croissants with Nutella to our table for us to try before we could even sit down.

After another three-hour class (about the British media's coverage of Obama's first 100 days in office), my flatmates and I decided it was time to stock the pantry -- no more peanut-butter-and-cracker dinners. Frozen chicken was nowhere to be found in the grocery store, so I opted for frozen cod fillets. I added one more goal to my list for the semester: learn how to cook fish. I'll keep you posted.

Despite mapping my route the night before, my Tuesday morning run did not go as planned. After finishing my loop around Russell Square (the first quarter mile of the journey), Montague Place was nowhere to be found. I ended up on the University of London campus. A few lucky turns later, I found my way back to familiar territory. So, I turned down South Hampton Row and ran to the end and back. I passed the BBC studios and the Waldorf Hotel. All in all, I decided my first attempt to hit the streets of London in jogging shoes proved a successful mishap.

Tuesday marked a monumental day in America with the inauguration of President Barack Obama, and I was happy to find a bit of the pomp and celebration right here in London. In between classes, I paid my respects to the new President by posing with him at Madame Tussaud's, London's world-famous wax museum. Americans entered free with a U.S. passport. Later, I watched the BBC live broadcast of Obama's inauguration with more than 100 of my fellow students. With all the clapping and cheering, I could have been standing on the Mall in D.C. (ok, maybe not -- but there was a lot of energy in that room for being thousands of miles from Lincoln's Bible).

I knew the British liked Obama, but I was very curious to see just how much. One of my professors, a native Londoner, said it was "about time" America headed in a new direction. And, I heard an employee at the wax museum discussing Obama with another group of American students waiting ahead of me for tickets. He thanked them for helping get Obama elected. They really like Obama.

After a quick dinner at home, my flatmate and I decided to end the day by satisfying our sweet teeth. We pulled on our boots and walked down the street to the Tesco Express. We stood in front of the rows of chocolate bars for a full ten minutes befor choosing the most enticing. I learned that Cadbury chocolate eggs are always in season here. I chose the milk chocolate and hazelnut bar: scrumptious.

Our class book list directed my flatmate and I to Blackwells, a bookstore on Charring Cross Road to pick up our final required reading text. So, we dedicated all of Wednesday afternoon to finding the shop -- a good move, considering we found at least a dozen other bookstores in the neighborhood that we felt compelled to stop in. From a towering university bookstore, to a cramped second-hand bookstore, this little part of London will enchant any bookie, young or old.

Finally, a quick update on the cod. Baked in the oven with onions, peppers, ground black pepper and a touch of salt pleased my stomach. But next time, I think I'll ditch the foil and use a baking dish. Sooner or later, I'll get the hang of it.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Oh, London!

Big Ben, the British Museum, Camden Market, mushroom pies and lots of tea highlighted my first few days living in London. I arrived Tuesday, jet-lagged, but ready for my semester abroad. My first adventure was catching the Piccadilly Tube Line to my new flat...a little more difficult with more than 90 pounds of luggage. I then dragged it all the way up to my fourth floor flat to meet my four flatmates. We have two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, living room, and a non-working fireplace in every room. Home sweet home!

One of the first adventures was finding phones (a.k.a. mobiles) to communicate for the next three and a half months. After we each had a functioning number, we looked to the next essential: food. The flatmates and I found a grocery store similar to our American counterpart, but completely different. We found one brand of peanut butter, "pots" of yogurt and liters of milk (forget gallons).

My flatmates and I decided to peruse a classic British marker on Friday night: The British Museum. We cooked an early dinner in the flat (luckily our kitchen works just the same as ours back home). Then we walked two blocks around the corner to The British Museum. It's regal white walls cover a full city block--an exterior suitable for the treasures inside. I literally shivered as I entered the Great Court (the main entrance hall of the museum). The darkness outside contrasted the white marble walls and floors and the clear glass ceiling. I was in awe. We saw the Elgin Marbles, remnants of the ancient Greek Parthenon, the Rosetta Stone and a glimpse of hundreds of ancient Egyptian artifacts I cannot wait to go back and explore. We relished our London adventures over a drink at a pub just around the corner from our flat.

I woke up to sun on Saturday, the first blue sky I have seen since landing on British ground. My flatmates and I enjoyed this rarity by walking up South Hampton Row to Camden Market, about a 25 minute journey by foot. The bustling market proved far too extensive to tackle in one afternoon. No matter if you are looking for a hot pink tutu, a vintage evening gown or a new neon-spiked hairstyle, I am convinced anything could be found in one of the Camden market stalls or in one of the vintage shops that line the street. We managed to grab a few necessities for our flat including a coffee pot, kitchen towels and hangers.

If the accents, the winding little streets and the red double-decker buses didn't convince me I was in London, Sunday morning's coach tour of the city sealed the deal. The coaches rolled by Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, both houses of Parliament, Downing Street, the BBC studios and the Tower Bridge. I was ecstatic. And, it proved a perfect day for my first views of these London landmarks; the sun was shining once again.

The coaches unloaded just across the River Thames from Greenwich. I walked the tunnel under the river to reach the historic town. I saw King Charles' Court, the Painted Hall and the Queen's Chapel, each boasting the architecture of Christopher Wren. I also toured the Queen's House, which was an inspiration for the design of the White House in Washington, D.C., according to our lovable tour guide, Calvin.

Plenty of shops, cafes and pubs lined the streets of Greenwich, but my friends and I were most tempted by an outdoor food vendor selling piping hot pies. I tried the mushroom and chicken pie with peas, mashed potatoes and gravy. The meal proved to be the perfect answer to the afternoon chill that was settling into Greenwich. After warming up, we walked through Greenwich park and up to the Royal Observatory. I straddled the Prime Meridian. Two hemispheres at once -- it was a big day.

I start classes tomorrow. I have a two hour break for lunch and I'm planning to visit a local cafe down the street from school, which my friends and I wandered into the other day and fell in love with. We had an enjoyable chat with the owner, who makes a mean cappuccino, which I cannot wait to try again. I have never been so excited for classes to start!

So far, London has proved a delightful adventure! The locals are extremely friendly. The tea is delicious. And, the sites cannot be beat. Cheers to a great semester!