Thursday, February 26, 2009

A question-mark-shaped building and 350 year-old churches

After I walked through huge automatic revolving doors Tuesday, I was immediately surrounded by television sets -- on coffee tables, hung from the ceiling and on the walls. The sleek rounded furniture fit the atmosphere. In the lobby of the BBC Television Studios I waited for my communications class's tour to start.

Despite the lack of celebrity sightings, the BBC offered a visual feast for any journalism student. The building itself forms a question mark, clear from any aerial view of the studio. We peered into two floors of the station's main newsroom, the heart of BBC reporting action. We caught a glimpse of the weather studios. We took a break in the dressing rooms used by stars like Tom Cruise, Elton John, Jennifer Lopez and Prince. And, after walking up lots of steps, we walked into a small room with a long glass window spanning one side. Through it we could see down into the bright colored lights of the set of "Golden Balls," a game show on the BBC. We entered another gallery and saw the taping of a daytime talk show.

Wednesday's tour had a different flair. My architecture class met in front of the St. Paul's underground station and we spent 30 minutes walking around the outside of Sir Christopher Wren's masterpiece. Walking one block away made visible four more Wren churches. We saw two Norman Foster buildings and his talked about "Gherkin" from afar (yes, I'm talking about the pickle shaped building in London's financial district).

After a quick stop home, I boarded the 98 bus and rode down Oxford Street to meet my friends for Ash Wednesday mass at a Catholic church near their flat. Definitely a city mass, the service finished in less than 40 minutes. And, when it came time during the mass to receive communion, forget ushers. Everyone just walked up, first come, first served. We finished the day with a fish dinner back at their place.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A note on Scottish eats

If the 500-year-old stones and rolling hills don't give it away, any menu will quickly alert Edinburgh visitors to their whereabouts. Dishes like Cullen Skink (a creamy haddock soup), Scottish Meat Pie and "Haggis, Neeps and Tatties" (explanation to follow) frequent most pub menus. Full Scottish breakfasts are advertised in cafe windows. Whiskey bars pop up nearly everywhere on the Royal Mile. And, if you take as long as my friends and I did picking out wool scarves to bring home, you might find a piece of shortbread from the shopkeeper helps make the decision.

Read on for the delights (and surprises) of the Scottish cuisine I encountered this weekend in Edinburgh.

We started each morning with a full Scottish breakfast: scrambled or fried eggs, bacon (which resembles ham, more than the crispy bacon I'm used to back in the States), sausage, baked beans, hashed potato wedges, roasted mushrooms (which I could not eat enough of), toast, jam (I recommend the blackcurrant), yoghurt, fresh fruit and juice. And, before setting off for the day, we sat at the table for about another 20 minutes each morning finishing as many pots of tea and coffee as our waitress brought. Heavy on the protein, the meal stayed in my stomach well into the afternoon. Forget lunch.

We did manage a mid-afternoon tea and scone break (at the very same cafe J.K. Rowling frequents). Minor culture shock: in the UK, you do not order a cup of tea, but rather a pot of tea. Don't worry, drinkers can still choose a small pot or large pot. Drinking three small cups of tea versus one large paper cup-full keeps every drop piping hot. My scone proved the perfect complement: soft and sweet.

After full days of walking (both Friday and Saturday), we craved hearty suppers. Enter traditional Scottish pub fare. I sampled the Scottish Meat Pie, a pastry filled with beef, gravy and vegetables, served with a side of potatoes. I cleaned my plate, except for about two potatoes, and wondered how these filling meals became Scottish mainstays.

I found my answer the next morning climbing the hills in Holyrood Park to Arthur's Seat, which over looks Edinburgh. As my friends and I hiked up the steep green hills, runners jogged by. Others walked their dogs. And dozens of bikers zoomed up the road as we walked down back to the Royal Mile. Just-above-freezing temperatures and cloudy skies didn't keep the Scots from tackling the steep hills.

Each time I opened a menu over the weekend, my eyes stopped at "Haggis, Neeps and Tatties," a dish I had never heard of. After several attempts to ask shopkeepers and tour guides what was in the dish, we only found out it was a "traditional Scottish dish" made with some type of goat's organ and meat. Back home, I found recipes Online from the BBC calling for a mixture of meat, oatmeal and spices stuffed in a casing of goat's liver or sheep's stomach. I sampled a small portion of the Scottish specialty on Saturday morning (it was on the breakfast buffet) and will describe it as a rich meat casserole. It boasted a tasty flavor, but I could not stomach more than a few bites of the heavy dish. From my observations in restaurants and cookbooks, I think haggis is made in several different ways (depending on what the cook has in the cupboard).

A final tip about Scottish food: do not forget to try the shortbread. The simple butter cookie hit the spot shopping on the Royal Mile, recovering from our ghost tour and after dinner.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A weekend in Edinburgh: Ghosts, towers and singing Scots

Thursday: All aboard...

With the blow of a single whistle the train rolled forward and five friends and I set off to Edinburgh, Scotland for a long weekend. It was the longest train ride I'd ever taken (four-and-a-half hours), but with coconut cookies, the latest Vanity Fair and a good selection on my iPod, the journey sped by. Well, besides the first 45 minutes the ride flew by. Until the stewardess stamped my ticket and assured my friends and I we were in fact en route to Scotland, I sat a little uneasy. Although the stops are posted on the board in front of the train, just walking onto a train from the platform and finding seats makes it a bit too easy to end up four-and-a-half hours in the completely wrong direction.

Out the taxi window, on the way to our hotel from the train station, our first glimpse of Edinburgh was the glowing towers of Edinburgh Castle set high on a hill in the pitch black sky. We dropped our bags and found a posh Italian restaurant, Gusto, right on Princes Street, the city's divide between New Town and Old Town. The restaurant's sleek black and white interior sat next door to a French brasserie and an upscale burger kitchen. Yet, just a block away, cobblestone streets and 500 year old brick buildings lined the street. After that evening, my friends and I spent most of our time in Old Town. The next day, I asked a local what to see in New Town. He couldn't think of much.

Friday: Castles and haunts...

The next morning, we started in the oldest part of Old Town: Edinburgh Castle. Perched on top of the Royal Mile (the street running straight through the heart of Old Town), the castle offers views of the entire city and lots of history. It was the home of Mary Queen of Scots, where she gave birth to James VI (who would later become James I of England). The massive iron gates, three-foot thick stone walls and dark damp prisons remind visitors castles were primarily fortresses -- a pretty view seen from a far-off hill, but probably not so luxurious to live in. To balance the shackles and swords, we also saw Scotland's 500-year-old crown jewels, kept in an inner part of the caslte.

After the castle, we stumbled upon the Elephant House, which (elephant decor aside) could have been any other coffee house had not J.K. Rowling penned bits of the "Harry Potter" series sitting in one of the back tables overlooking a spooky graveyard and the city's castle. Sadly, I had no ounce of inspiration, but I would recommend the scones and tea (by the pot, of course). After refreshment, we wandered the cemetery (Greyfriars Cemetery, said to be haunted by a medium-size black Skye Terrier) and found the graves of Thomas Riddle and William McGonagall (an Edinburgh poet), whom Potter-addicts may recognize.

Although probably nearing our spooky-quota for the day, my friends and I persevered through an underground ghost walk. Despite a deep conviction that paranormal stories have rational explanations, I would not dare admit it on our underground stroll (apparently skeptics leave these walks with the worst stories to tell). Our guide wore all black -- a head scarf, shawl and a long sweeping dress. She carried a flashlight, which she intermittently flicked off, reminding me of the thin hairs on the back of my neck. We toured five vaults beneath Niddry Lane, used as an isolation ward for low-class black plague victims, housing for Edinburgh's murders, practice rooms for 20th century rock bands and currently as a place of wicken gatherings, as well as creepy ghost walks. I clenched my friend's arm for the entire 50 minutes of the tour.

After dinner, we hit Grassmarket for a drink. The pub we chose brought in a mixed crowd of all ages and plenty of dancing. Along with some U.S. hits, we heard Scottish pop and the traditional, Loch Lomand (at which point the ladies in the adjacent booth helped us out of our seats, making sure we sang along, like everyone else in the pub).

Saturday: A lot of climbing...

As we stepped out of our taxi Saturday morning, the driver pointed to a faint path along a steep green hillside, assuring us it was the way up to Arthur's Seat. The climb was steep, but manageable, until the lush grass became slick cobbled stone and then jagged rock. I stopped at a three-foot rock formation, unsure whether to choose the muddy path along the edge of the mountain or the steep red rocks straight ahead. I grasped onto the grooves into the red rock and used my hands to pull myself up, about another six feet up. At the top sits a white stone monument, as legend has it, the seat of the famous King Arthur. I didn't take too close of a look for fear that loosening my grip of the rock would allow one of the gusts of wind to blow me straight down the rocks. But, the view of the city and countryside was unmatched.

Safely at the bottom, my friends and I agreed we felt like we had been run over by a bus (I blame the wind). But, we pressed on. At the foot of the hill, we ran into the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Scottish palace of the crown of Great Britain. Luckily the Queen was not home, so we could take a peek inside. Although a bit smaller than Windsor or Buckingham, the soft green and pink tea rose dining room was by far my favorite royal decorating I have seen.

Determined not to let sore feet get in the way, we continued on the day's agenda and trekked up to Calton Hill, the site of a monument to Lord Nelson and a monument to the Greeks (the start of a Parthenon replica, but never completed because the city supposedly ran low on funds). Over the rest of the afternoon, we stopped for a needed tea break, some shopping, a boy who juggled flaming batons and knives and a traditional Scottish bagpiper.

After dinner, we polished our literary caps on a literary pub crawl led by an Edinburgh author and book researcher. Although about ready to crawl through the tour, we held our heads high and ordered a drink at the favorite hang-outs of Ian Ranking, one of Scotland's bestselling mystery authors, the classic Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. In between drinks, we saw the hall in Edinburgh University where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, James Barrie and David Hume studied and the home of Scottish poet, Robert Burns. We learned where Barrie came across the name "Wendy" and where the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes comes from. We also figured out why so many thriller ghost stories come from Edinburgh. Once the sun sets, the aging stones, covered in centuries of dirt take on a spooky look.

Sunday: Back home to London...

We dragged ourselves out of bed on Sunday morning in just enough time to devour breakfast and catch our train back to London. With school work to catch up on and tired toes, the four-hour journey felt like stolen time. In the early afternoon sun, we caught a long glimpse of the Firth of Forth, the large bay that empties into the North Sea, rolling green hills and plenty of sheep.

We got back to King's Cross early evening, walked back to our flat and made it home in time for dinner (thank goodness for canned goods).

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The London lunchbox

Goodbye to the days when finding peanut butter and jelly in my lunch box highlighted the noon hour. I stopped by King's Cross Station Monday over my midday break. Tuesday, I swapped lunch for a British Museum visit. And today, I grabbed a quick chicken and avocado sandwich in Trafalgar Square before class.

Nothing compares to seeing Big Ben's gleaming face for the first time. But, there's something fulfilling about seeing it for the 20th time, too (that's a guesstimate -- I'm not keeping track). Now, I run past it, wave hello and continue on my way. Ben's an old friend. I didn't wander aimlessly around the museum Tuesday, spending half my visit choosing a wing to visit. I entered the Great Court and took an immediate right. I needed to see the Enlightenment wing as part of the research for my architecture paper. In a near jog Monday, I sped to King's Cross Station to pick up train tickets for my weekend trip to Scotland. And when I met my flatmate in Trafalgar this afternoon, I knew exactly where to find my favorite sandwich shop. I'm still in awe, but I'm starting to feel at home, too.

After classes on Tuesday, a friend and I wandered through Covent Garden. Although a few of the trendy boutiques yanked us off the street, we went for one shop in particular: Whittard of Chelsea. The English tea shop can be found all over London, but the Covent Garden shop has a large upstairs with exotic flavors and a station to make a personalized tea blend. We both chose a coconut black tea. Drunk extra hot with a spoonful of sugar and a splash of milk sent me straight to the Caribbean.

Wednesday afternoon, my architecture professor took the class to see the Royal Banqueting Hall. Like nearly every building here, the hall is steeped in history. Apparently the rectangular hall, which would be used to greet distinguished guests, was originally meant to be filled with two rows of columns. But, James I turned down the design, saying that columns allowed killers the perfect place to hide. So, the columns were pushed into the wall, becoming pillasters -- an architectual element that resembles a column, but only half protrudes from the wall. After our tour, my class moved across the street to the Guard House and saw the mounted guards, red coats and all. Just a normal afternoon in London!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A college town in the UK and lots of food

The sun shone in my kitchen window as I sipped my cup of coffee Thursday morning. The slightly warmer temperatures had gotten me up from bed and out for a run. I paged through my London guidebook when I got home and decided Chelsea might be a fun bit of London to explore that afternoon. Unfortunately clouds replaced the blue sky by the time my friend and I stepped out of the South Kensington tube stop near Chelsea within the next two hours.

We spent the afternoon popping into one shop after another, admiring one-of-a-kind dresses and living room sets that looked like pieces of art. It just started to sprinkle as we caught the bus home. As we pulled away from the stop, we both agreed the borough left a bit to be desired. Within minutes, we rode past dozens more shops, restaurants and the Saatchi Gallery (a contemporary art museum). Apparently we were at the small end of Chelsea all afternoon and failed to walk down to the center of the borough. We found what we desired (just a little late).

That evening my flatmate convinced me to trek out to a pub on the other side of Camden to hear a singer/songwriter from New York, who she heard perform at a local Syracuse cafe before he signed a record deal here in London. A folk guitar singer played before him and a seven-member band played after. All acts were good. And, despite the rainy snow outside, I loved seeing a local in London in the bustling pub.

I spent Friday in Oxford on a school field-trip. Unlike any college town I have ever seen, Oxford is spotted with towers and halls that have been around for centuries. Although we didn't see it, one of the towers was used to film part of the "Harry Potter" series. We did see the tree that inspired the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, the pub that J. R. R. Tolkien hung with C. S. Lewis and the gargoyles on the academic buildings that supposedly mock distinguished professors at the colleges.

We ate lunch at England's first coffee shop (the cappuccino was delicious). And, we shopped at the Covered Market: a collection of shops and stands selling everything from tea cozies to cashmere to fresh produce. I regret to say we saw three rabbits in the meat market hanging from their feet, completely intact with fur and eyeballs (I immediately jerked my head in the other direction and walked by the stall as fast as I could -- I apologize for not posting a visual). After an enjoyable day out and about, I welcomed the hour-long bus ride home and my cranberry flapjack (not a pancake, but a type of peanut butter and oatmeal bar cookie that I would not leave England without trying).

In an attempt to be proactive about my coursework, I packed my notebook, laptop and a bottle of water on Saturday morning and set out to find the Senate House Library, the University of London's main library. I understand why the building inspired the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's 1984. It took me a good 15 minutes to find the entrance and thanks to construction, I was another five minute inside before I found that the main floor of the library is really three floors up. Dimly lit rooms and gray floors led to the main desk, where I realized I needed a different form to get my library card and use the facility. So, (a bit relieved to be leaving the silent structure) I left the building and found a coffee shop to start my architecture paper in.

My friends and I hit Piccadilly Circus (the Times Square of London) Saturday night for some dancing to celebrate a birthday. We found a club beneath a theater, with live music, pink and green lighting and a big dance floor . By the end of the night, the eclectic mix of Motown and rock'n'roll put blisters on our feet. London knows how to have a good night out.

I expected the Italian mass at St. Peter's Italian Church to be completely in Italian, but I did not expect every church-goer surrounding me to greet me in Italian. At the church not more than a mile away from my flat, I followed along on the English translation at mass Sunday morning, but still felt like I was in the middle of Italy. Nearly every aisle was filled with parishioners young and old spewing off in their best Italian. And I can now confidently say, even on the pulpit, Italians still talk with their hands. I would advise not standing within four feet of the man when he's speaking.

After mass, my friends and I caught a bus to Brick Lane for the Sunday Up Market, where we discovered food from around the world that left us drooling. I tried a chicken burrito that put Chipotle to shame. The cook put four sauces on a heated flour tortilla for a delicious blend of cumin, cilantro and chilies in his unique recipe. I tried a Japanese rice cake, flavored in sesame seeds and soy sauce and wrapped in sea weed. It was delicious! Finally, with a little corner of my stomach waiting to venture to a new part of the world, I found an excursion to the Mediterranean: a blend of rice, lemon and mint wrapped in a grape leaf.

Stomachs full, we wandered to Spitalfields, another outdoor market selling clothes, jewelry, crafts, photography and food. In addition to finding many dresses and earrings to add to my wish list, I found a vendor selling every kind of nut and chocolate covered candy ever conceived. I could not resist bring home a little bag of chocolate coated and cinnamon dusted almonds and chocolate covered coconut. Both tasted like nothing I've ever tried before. Not wanting to think about food for another two weeks, my friends and I found the tube back to our warm and dry flat.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A gleaming Big Ben

After three attempts in the dark room, I found the right time interval to develop my first photo. The Salisbury cottages sat in a neat line, with a sprawling oak tree in the background. My three-hour photo class flew by Monday morning. I developed a roll, learned how to magnify and print photos and downloaded my digital images. Although there is an instant gratification to digital photography, processing film in the dark room allows an unexpected aspect of artistic control. But, I admit, it's nice to have options.

The rest of Monday and Tuesday flew by with lots of bits of mundane London living: laundry, grocery shopping, homework and sloshing through cold rain (apparently this has been one of London's chilliest winters in years). I managed to use our oven, with its Celsius temperature measurements, to cook dinner for myself and two friends Tuesday night. Everything's different in London.

A sunny London morning and a canceled nine o'clock class provided my friend and I the perfect opportunity to take a walk along the Thames and pay a visit to Big Ben. We grabbed a pint of blackberries from a fruit stand on our block and stopped for a cup of tea at a cafe on the embankment. As we continued our stroll, the regal clock tower gleamed in the sunlight -- thus far, a rare sight in London's abundance of clouds.

After wandering through a bookstore and finding a cup of soup for lunch, I made my way over to Westminster Abbey for the day's architecture lecture. For two hours I learned about the building's interesting history and eclectic mix of Gothic style. We saw the tombs of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Geoffrey Chaucher, George Frideric Handel, Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Mary I, Edward the Confessor and several others. If visiting when its cold, I would advise dressing warm -- our professor said the lecture would be mostly indoors. I failed to realize that the inside of a huge stone mammoth hardly counts as "inside."

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Dancing in Covent Garden

A friend and I turned down a small alley in Covent Garden and spotted the pink neon sign we were looking for. It read: Pineapple Dance. We pushed open the glass door, walked up to the receptionist and asked where the one o'clock jazz class was. He pointed to the studio behind the desk (two others lined the hall we had just walked through) and he directed us downstairs to the women's dressing room.

I had no idea what to expect Friday afternoon. But, I will attest that dance is the universal language. In the loudest voice I have heard since arriving in London, my teacher counted out the same stretches, steps and sit-ups I have done in classes in Barrington, Syracuse, Chicago and New York City. In the front of the class stood the regulars -- the ones who knew every repetition -- but beyond that, ages and experience levels jumped all over the page. As soon as we started doing pirouettes and turning triplets, I felt at home.

After class, my friend and I checked out the neighborhood. We wandered through a tea shop where customers could mix their own blends, a toy store, plenty of boutiques and the open-air market. Mesmerized, we stopped to watch two street performers. One could limbo under a pole about a foot off the ground and the other balanced on his hands, with his feet above his head on a set of three blocks he had stacked on top of a footstool. We stopped for a warm cappuccino and enjoyed the chance to get off our feet.

Saturday morning, I attempted a new running route. When I thought I should have been passing Big Ben, I found myself running by Hyde Park (not at all near each other). Again, I need to remember London is not on a grid -- exploring these winding roads can get one into trouble. So, the run was a little longer than planned, but on the upside, I ran by Buckingham Palace.

I joined some friends and a history professor Saturday afternoon for a brisk walk around my neighborhood. Talent is in the streets. If I had lived a few years back, Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolfe would have been my neighbors. We also found one of the first orphanages in the world (where Handel himself used to perform "The Messiah" for the children every year at Christmas).

Later that evening my friends and I went out for Thai food. Unaccustomed to restaurant etiquette in London, we sat chatting at the table for about twenty minutes after we finished dinner before we realized we needed to ask our waitress for our bill (there's no rushing diners out of London restaurants).

I spent a laid back Sunday visiting family -- my second cousin and his family. Being welcomed into a warm house for a delicious dinner with familiar faces was an appreciated break from my hectic London schedule. After a full dinner, fruit, tea, biscuits and lots of catching up, I bode farewell. En route back to my flat, I walked across Abbey Road, made famous by the Beatles '69 album cover. After a full weekend in London, I had plenty of laundry and reading to catch up on before snuggling into bed.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Tower and The Tate

I had class all day Wednesday. In the morning was political science (we walked to the British Museum to check out some ancient Middle Eastern art and technology). And, in the afternoon I had a field visit for my architecture class (the Tower of London). All in a day's work.

The nearly 1000-year-old tower sits in the middle of bustling corporate London, on the bank of the Thames at Tower Bridge and just south of the Gherkin (one of the newest and most talked about additions to the London skyline, thanks to Norman Foster). Used as a fortress, jail, palace and museum, the structure is packed with history.

I saw medieval armor and weaponry and talked to a stone mason in the King's apartment. Although some of the state rooms felt a bit drafty, the crown jewels housed here are pieces of complete opulence. I also liked seeing the gold service set the royalty use at coronation banquets -- especially the Royal Punch Bowl, which was big enough to bathe a small child in. Walking inside the imposing walls of the tower, with iron gates on one side and canons on the other, took me straight back to the Middle Ages. The Beefeaters (officially Yeomen Warders) still guard the castle, giving an occasional tour of the place. I left with way too many pictures and a new-found respect for the modern police force -- apparently they used to keep lions caged beneath the castle to ward off invaders.

Although Thursday's drizzle seemed the perfect day to stay inside with a cup of tea, I ventured out for my morning jog and art at the Tate Modern. My flatmate and I passed Shakespeare's Globe Theatre on our way to the gallery. The Tate's collection included some Matisse, Picasso, Dali, Rivera, Miro and a Monet (curiously situated between a piece by Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko -- although Monet completed the piece nearly 40 years prior, many art historians believe his style inspired the later abstract expressionist movement). The gallery itself looks more like an old factory than exhibition hall. But, it puts the focus on the work on the walls versus the walls themselves.

After the galleries, I walked over the Thames via Millennium Bridge and nearly ran into St. Paul's Cathedral. Unplanned, but definitely appreciated, seeing the grand building fascinated me. Every square inch on the inside of the dome and the vaulted ceilings is filled with some type of ornamentation.

I caught a bus up to the Tower of London (again) for an evening Jack the Ripper walk. The bone-chilling cold set the tone for the creepy tour: a history lesson on one of London's most notorious 19th century murderers. Needless to say, after the two-and-a-half hour walk, I was ready for a hot cup of tea and my warm blankets.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Snow day in London

"We just got an e-mail from school," my flatmate yelled down our hallway as I walked out of the shower. "No classes today on account of the snow." I ditched my towel for my sweats and poured a steaming hot mug of coffee. Apparently four inches of snow is about all that London needs to shut down for the day.

After a long weekend out and about in London, I savored the extra time, catching up on reading, missed episodes of "The Office" and travel plans. My flatmates and I lounged around over breakfast -- it was a second-pot-of-coffee morning. In the afternoon, we met some other friends in Hyde Park to play in the snow, London-style. My flatmate and I walked the two miles to get there because the London transport system shut down for the day -- no buses and very limited tube service. Covered in a blanket of white and hundreds of awe-struck Londoners, the park looked like the inside of a snow globe: stunning.

According to my architecture professor, Monday was the first and only day he ever remembers that the London buses did not run. The BBC reported it was the biggest snow since 1991. And, nearly every store on Oxford Street was closed by four o'clock in the afternoon. Of course to me -- a native Chicagoan and Syracuse survivor -- the snowstorm barely felt like a dusting. But, I learned an important lesson. London does not do snow. They don't use salt. I didn't see one plow in the streets. And, I saw very few shovels. Primarily, they use brooms to remove the snow. But, no complaints here. I welcomed the snow day and temporary London pandemonium.

My flatmates and I finished our day with a movie and chocolate night. Notting Hill lit up the big screen and Kinder Bueno was my chocolate bar of choice. Think creamy chocolate and a bit of biscuit.

And a quick cod update... Baking it in the oven with just a little salt and a lot of pepper resulted in a much tastier dish, especially with a soy stir-fry on the side. Plus, straight from the freezer, it proved the perfect answer to my forget-trying-to-buy-groceries-in-London-in-this-weather dilemma, Monday night.

Monday's mess continued into Tuesday, despite a blue sky and rays of sun. With no salt and very scant attempts to remove the snow from London's sidewalks, the three-block walk to school got treacherous really fast. Other than the streets, every thing was covered in a sheet of ice.

Facing a quiet evening at home on Tuesday, my friends and I decided to explore London's iconic shopping mecca: Harrods. I have never seen so much designer clothing in one space. Walking through the women's department felt like the backstage of a fashion show. The perfume hall proved overwhelming, especially the army of employees in black suits and high heels. By far, I found the food hall most enticing. The tea and chocolate room boasts beautiful tins of coffees, exotic teas and picture-perfect truffles. Employees in suspenders, striped-vests and hats completed the picture. Another room features a deli counter that stretches for miles, filled with salads, quiches, lasagnas and croissant sandwiches. A sushi counter sits opposite the deli counter. Out of either hunger or awe, everything appeared delicious. Not to mention, this was the one hall I felt that I might actually make a purchase. I quickly learned that Harrods is not the place to follow a student's budget. I splurged on a box of lemon-verbena tea.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Castles, curries and flurries

With heavy eyes, I gazed at the English countryside Friday morning after riding a bus about an hour outside of London. Suddenly, through the trees, I caught my first glimpse of a stone tower with turrets and imposing walls: Windsor Castle. My architecture professor refers to it as the "weekend home" of the Queen. The castle stood regal, despite the gray backdrop of clouds and brisk winds.

As I walked into the main entrance hall to the state apartments of the castle, rows of criss-crossed swords and spears lined the walls above my head (one way to get your guest's attention). It's the same entrance dignitaries and foreign heads of state use when visiting. St. George's Hall stretched on and on with a shield for each knight covering the vaulted ceiling. The queen uses the room when she decides to host larger dinner parties -- up to 160 of her closest friends. If I had to choose, I would claim the Crimson Room as my "audience chamber." Overlooking the rolling countryside through tall windows, ornate red and gold furniture decorate the room, making it feel elegant and very ladylike.

After a warm sandwich at a local pub, it was back to London for a night at the theatre. My friends and I saw "Loot," a traditional British farce at an intimate theatre on Kilbourn High Street. Although highly inappropriate, we laughed through all two hours of the performance. Afterward, as part of a benefit for the theater, we enjoyed a curry dinner with the cast and other play-goers. The classic London dish had lots of bite, complementing the undoubtedly British style of comedy for a delightful evening out.

Imagine 35 cyclists in the narrow crooked streets of London. Now, imagine that the cyclists are really 35 Syracuse University students trying to navigate London riding bikes on the "wrong side of the road." I truly thought our Saturday morning bike tour of London was going smoothly until we ran into the Chinese New Year celebrations when we rode into the streets of Chinatown. We turned around and came back through Leicester Square and Covent Garden instead (not necessarily any less chaotic). Numb fingers and ankles aside, it was a great way to see a lot of London. Plus, living to tell the tale made it worthwhile.

Two very warm showers later, my flatmate and I cooked dinner for friends and headed out to see the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House. Although any indoor activity would have been appreciated, the ballet proved exquisite. My favorite was the contemporary piece at the end called " DGV: Danse a grande vitesse." We stopped for gelato in Covent Garden before heading back to the flat. I played it relatively safe with cherry, but pear, pomegranate, tiramisu and green tea nearly got the best of me. Just an excuse to go back...

Sunday proved no reprieve from the cold. One more outdoor tour and sub-freezing temperatures do not mix. My professor led a tour of Albertopolis, a little bit of London right around the corner from Harrods (quite my surprise when I popped up from the tube, looked down the street to recognize the mammoth six-floor shopping mecca). Despite temporarily losing feeling in my fingers again, the tale of Queen Victoria, her husband, Prince Albert and Albert's vision for that little bit of London proved entirely interesting. An added bonus was the picnic my professors packed -- especially the warm coffee. We finished the afternoon with a matinee of Cirque du Soleil at Royal Albert Hall. Gymnasts and contortionists do not even begin to describe the performers. The strength, control and coordination left me wide-eyed more than once.

After a jam-packed weekend, my flatmates and I settled in for a quiet night of homework. But, looking out the window a few hours after dinner presented an interesting scene: at least 1.5 inches of snow covering our little bit of London. Our worst fears confirmed: we brought a snowstorm with us to London!