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.

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