Travel Musings

34×34 #2, Part 1: Strasbourg, France

Life is annoyingly all or nothing: this past November, after months of languishing and stressing about money, I finally got a job, but this coincided with some nice dating, a 20,000 word deadline, a study guide for a silly porny novel, organizing a Thanksgiving meal for eight, and preparing to go home to the US for the first time in a year for almost three weeks. Not the time to try to cram in some random travel goals.

Or is it exactly the time to cram in some random travel goals?

In my first year of living in England, I only managed to get to other parts of Europe twice – and once was a re-visit to Amsterdam, a lovely city, one of my favorites, but someplace I had already been. Thus my 34×34 goal to see five new European cities/countries. Of course the travel needs of my book plus constant fretting amount money made this seem like a bit of a dreamy stretch. But when my fellow expat/faux-Mancunian friend RE-expatriated herself to Strasbourg, France for a limited time of four weeks, and I found a Ryanair flight for GBP35 – less than a train ticket to visit her in Manchester – I once again reflected on life happening while you’re busy making other plans.

Obviously, I booked the flight.

Strasbourg cathedral

Strasbourg cathedral

Pretty canals

Pretty canals

Two days after Thanksgiving, fridge still groaning with leftovers, I headed to Stansted for the short flight to Strasbourg. What sold me on making the trip was the fact that it was the first weekend of Strasbourg’s Christmas Market. Some quick internet research informed me Strasbourg has one of the best and biggest holiday markets in the world. My Mancunian and I had meandered through the Manchester Christmas Market last year when I visited her for Thanksgiving, and I thoroughly enjoyed my sausage and mulled wine (though not mead. Never again, mead.) I had bought some Christmas presents and a nice fair trade scarf. If Strasbourg was better than Manchester I was in for a real treat.

I was fortunate enough to be there on the first Sunday of the month, so many of the city’s attractions were free – we were able to visit the Musee des Beaux Arts where I saw a Raphael and a El Greco and a Corregio that I liked very much. We were also able to wander around the Cathedral, which is famous for its enormous astronomical clock. Mostly I just noticed the creepy grim reaper figure within it. We climbed about 330 steps to the cathedral platform, where we had amazing views of the entire city, having lucked into some cold but fair weather.

View from the top of the catheral...

View from the top of the catheral…

Astronomical clock

Astronomical clock

Creepy...

Creepy…

The Christmas Market itself was disappointing. I was expecting local handicrafts with a French and German flavor (Strasbourg being in Alsace-Lorraine, an area of France handed back and forth between Germany and France multiple times in the twentieth century), but mostly what we found was junky trinkets made in China. I bought some silly springy Santa hats for my nieces and nephews, also surely made in China, but otherwise left empty-handed.

The Christmas Market

The Christmas Market

Even my goal of eating my way through the market was underwhelming. I was dying for a soft pretzel, a local specialty, but the one I ate was stale. Ditto the beignet chocolat, a sugary stuffed donut that was cold and filled with little more than pudding. We did get some spaetzle and sauerkraut and sausage that was salty and delicious, but overall, the food left my poor edible heart broken.

Before I ate the pretzel I was so excited.

Before I ate the pretzel I was so excited.

I wanted to love my beignet, I just didn't.

I wanted to love my beignet, I just didn’t.

Okay, yum.

Okay, yum.

However, besides just getting to see a dear friend and catching up, a worthwhile use of GBP35 if ever there was one, as well as drinking a ton of good local Alsatian Rieslings, the entire trip was worth it for the fondue.

Oh fondue, sweet nectar of the gods.

My friend and I went to a well recommended place called Cloche au Fromage, jam-packed with locals at lunchtime. We made a small error by ordering two types of fondue – thinking they would come in individual servings that we could share. Instead, we were faced with two VATS of melted bliss-inducing cheese. We got a basic and one with Munster and herbs and – okay, I’m not a food blogger so all I can say is that one tasted stronger and stinkier, but in the good cheese way. Trust me.

I want it in my face.

I want it in my face.

The fondue was pricey but “all you can eat” – I mistakenly thought I could live up to this challenge. Despite the bottomless pit that is my stomach combined with my inappropriate love of cheese, I couldn’t finish even one pot, let alone ask for more. I think these before and after photos can attest to the harrowing yet worthwhile emotional journey of my experience.

Oh the joy, the triumph...

Oh the joy, the triumph…

and pain of defeat.

and pain of defeat.

Anyway, Strasbourg is a beautiful little city, and I wish I could have explored it more, perhaps in summer when it wouldn’t have been so brutally cold. It was nice to try and recall all the French I learned over a decade ago in school. I was really surprised to find I wanted to speak to merchants and vendors, to see if I could communicate. Since the days of taking Latin I have long feared speaking foreign languages, and have shunned them at every opportunity. I think my experience on the Camino last year made me slightly braver, and more willing to try to speak and understand languages. So hurray for that.

One city down, four to go. I have a lot of travel plans this year, so let’s see what I can make happen.

Oh, and I love this girl by the way. Ever and always a good travel buddy.

Oh, and I love this girl by the way. Ever and always a good travel buddy.

Categories: 34x34, Travel Musings | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Adventures with Vouchers: You will be the falcon and I will be…

Birds!

Birds!


I don’t have any great affinity for birds. When the voucher popped up for a Birds of Prey Experience at the English School of Falconry, I basically thought: why not? The English School of Falconry sounds like one of the most English things you can possibly do. Bonus: it was in a town called Biggleswade, and oh wow did I want an excuse to say the word “Biggleswade” as many times as possible. I had visions of Harry Potter and Hogwarts and Hedwig. I want a self-sacrificing owl, you know? Plus, I always loved that tagline from the silly SNL sketch starring a falcon named Donald.
Barn owl

Barn owl


Now that I think about it, I don’t think we even hung out with any falcons.
Eagle

Eagle


My friend from Manchester drove down with her husband and met me at the Biggleswade train station (the town is so small and off the beaten track it is only open in the morning, shut and locked by 3pm). Driving through Biggleswade was sadly unimpressive. Arriving at the GPS-directed address, we drove through a strange world of hangars and muddy fields before arriving at a none-too-well marked lawn parking area and a further muddy walk to the school’s office. My friend’s husband just wanted to observe, having come as chauffeur and photographer for the day, but they made him pay GBP15 for the privilege. He’s a good sport, so he ponied up the cash and we raced to meet our group, having arrived a squinch late.
No, I'm not scared. (Yes, I am.)

No, I’m not scared. (Yes, I am.)


So then we held some birds. They were big and heavy and pretty. They were species of eagles, I believe, but I wasn’t paying that much attention. They were just big and heavy and pretty. Then we went to a little fenced in area where we got to catch some kites (maybe?) and owls, little ones. By catch I mean we held out our gloved arm, and one of the trainers called the birds (each bird has a name, like Trevor) and they came and landed on us, knowing they would get some food for obeying. Some birds were less obedient than others, and at one point I had two little owls on my arm. Which was pretty cool.
Two for the price of one

Two for the price of one


We moved to a bigger field for some hawk catching. At this point I got a close-up look at what they were feeding the bigger birds: torn up pieces of tiny, fluffy chicks, their yellow down smeared with blood. I didn’t want to think about that too much.
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We watched a flying show, in which our tour guide, a cheerful and well-versed young Englishman who seriously looked like he was 12 years old, gave a running commentary on the different types of birds he showed off – egrets and pelicans as well as more owls and eagles. Maybe a falcon.
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We went into a caged in area where we go to hold, bare-handed, little five week old owls. Four of them perched sleepily on a diagonal wooden rod, and it was awfully rude of us to disturb them. But they were very cute, sitting on my friend’s shoulder and nibbling her hair and ear, burrowing into the furry hood of her sweatshirt (as usual in this glorious land, it was late April but cold, cloudy, and windy.)
It tickle-hurts.

It tickle-hurts.


We were then free to wander about looking at the caged birds, most of whom were lazing about for their midday siesta. Birds are tremendously pretty. Who knew?
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I actually had a lot of fun – it was great to see my friends for a couple of hours, and I fought off my terror at allowing birds to fly at my body (I have walked through New York City on more than one occasion and felt an imminent pigeon attack strategizing around me.)
Blue eagles are awesome

Blue eagles are awesome


I got some fun photos, which is, unfortunately the point of the experience. Despite our well-educated guide, who could spit out facts at the rate of four a minute, I didn’t get a sense of why the English School of Falconry exists. Why do they train birds? What purpose do the birds serve? A glance at their website listed “conservation” as one of their goals, but conservation from what? I imagine if I had read the little placards near each bird station I would have a better understanding of which birds are endangered, and how the centre helps breed and repopulate them.

But do they ever free them back into the wild? Could they even survive? These birds are so dependent on humans for treats, why would they even want to leave? I know I wouldn’t. Is that good, or bad? Ecotourism in a paradox. I’m just not sure if I agree with it. Near the beginning of the day, as we waited to hold some of the bigger eagles, we watched a bunch of enormous birds nestling in their feathers. Occasionally one of them would start to flap its wings and launch itself off the perch where it rested. Inevitably, they landed two feet away, their feet tied with rope to that same perch. There was something sad about watching birds try to take flight and failing. It was a terrible living metaphor.
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Still, I had a good day. Does that make me a bad person? I pushed the metaphors out of my mind and just enjoyed the beauty of the birdies. I am uneasy with myself for this unthinking submission to a photo op. The twenty or so cheery English who were part of our group didn’t seem to be overthinking the moment, oohing and aaahing as the birds sailed around us. It’s just hard to know if the centre does more good than harm.

Baby!

Baby!


But how else was I going to pretend I was Harry Potter for a few hours?

What do you think? Is this kind of “interactive” nature experience good or bad for, you know, actual nature?

Scorecard: Vouchers – 1 Me – 1

Categories: London, Travel Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Dutch Dining

My last trip to Amsterdam, ten years ago, had been predicated on the whims of my travel buddy, Tom; it was his trip, I just invited myself to tag along. It was my first time in a non-English speaking country, and I was more than happy to let him take the lead.

But when I went again last October I tried to do a little more planning, have a more in-depth experience.

Well, sort of.

I mean, I guided my friend to the same exact restaurant Tom and I had stumbled upon near the Anne Frank House, the Pancake Bakery. But that’s because I remember that meal vividly a decade later. Though, it turns out I remember it wrong; I had this vision of a giant plate-sized stack of pancakes, slathered in ice cream and chocolate sauce (because I was twenty, and a grown up, so I could eat whatever I dang well pleased for dinner.) But actually, Dutch pancakes are flat, like a crepe, and the size of a small pizza. My possibly maturing taste buds led me to the savory Hungarian pancake, piled with chorizo, salami, tomato, cheese, paprika, onion.

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Then we went to a street fair in Dam square, gorged and waddling, and had tiny profitjes, bite-sized pancakes slathered in whip cream and chocolate sauce. The best of all worlds, pancakes for dinner, pancakes for dessert.

Okay, sure all you see is whipped cream. But there are delicious tiny puffy pancakes under there.

Okay, sure all you see is whipped cream. But there are delicious tiny puffy pancakes under there.

But seriously, I wanted to broaden our horizons and steer clear of endless meals of carb-laden comfort foods. I had bulked up a bit on Dutch history, and learned that the Netherlands had colonized Indonesia in the seventeenth century ergo (direct link, right? We can skip the four hundred years in between) there are a lot of Indonesian restaurants in Amsterdam.

We were up for trying this untested cuisine, so I asked our walking tour guide for suggestions about a good Indonesian restaurant. Terry was an Irishman, married to an Australian, whose kids spoke better Dutch than he did. But after eight years in country, I figured he would have some good local insider tips.

As he mulled my query, he mentioned that he could point us in the direction of the Hard Rock Café.

My friend and I were offended. Obviously our request meant we were trying to get off the beaten path, to eat like the Dutch. We weren’t your typical tourists.

Anyway, we’d eaten at the Hard Rock two nights before.

After that suggestion, we began to worry Terry wasn’t as familiar with life beyond the tourism industry as we had hoped. He couldn’t remember the name of the Indonesian restaurant he’d eaten at recently with his wife, but he knew it was just off the Leidseplein, in the direction of that shiny neon landmark, the Hard Rock, and it was up a set of stairs.

Later that evening, my friend and I wandered the cobbled pedestrian alleys around the Leidseplein, following my hastily scrawled directions from Terry. Our frustration mounted as we crisscrossed streets with nary a glimpse of anything Indonesian. A name would have been really helpful. Thanks, Terry.

We stood at an intersection, peeking to the left, which is what Terry had told us, and then to the right, because Terry clearly had no idea what he was talking about. Back to the left, a green neon sign suddenly stood out in relief against the mass of culinary advertising.

It simply read “Indonesian Restaurant.”

We approached it, and yes indeed, it was upstairs.

We found this pretty funny.

After all that, we decided not to eat there. Upon inspecting their menu, we realized Indonesian cuisine is far spicier than either of us cares for.

We meandered some more until we stumbled upon a restaurant offering traditional Dutch cuisine called De Blauwe Hollander. We each got a “hotchpotch,” a comforting meal of potatoes, veg, and meat, all smushed together and drowned in sauces. My friend ordered a bacon/endive/meatball/mashed concoction that you could well crawl into and hibernate for the winter. And then we had traditional Dutch apple pie for dessert. So much for avoiding carbs.

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I don't know if it's actually traditional. It seemed a little fancy to me.

I don’t know if it’s actually traditional. It seemed a little fancy to me.

Moral of the story: Terry knew exactly what he was talking about even when he didn’t know what he was talking about, and if you’re ever in Amsterdam, I highly recommend you book a walking tour with him. (And the Hard Rock has really good nachos, so lay off.)

Categories: Travel Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How Celine Dion Almost Ruined My Friendship: A Tale of Traveling with Groups

Dear readers, perhaps you remember the days when I railed against the deficiencies of traveling alone. But then I traveled with other humans, and oh dear readers, is not the grass always greener?

Last year a friend from New York and I visited a third friend in South Africa. The third friend, though American, spent months on end in Durban; she is an honorary native, adopting South African slang and their laidback vibe. She rented us a car and mapped out a road trip route, hitting all the honest “can’t misses” of the tourist trek plus the off-the-beaten path “would misses” because we foreigners just wouldn’t know any better.

When you are on vacation and you’re visiting someone who is essentially at home, you have two different concepts of time. A local has errands and work and people to see. NY friend and I wanted to GO and SEE and DO. Our SA friend wanted to deal with her life. Understandably.

Once we got in the car and set sail out of Cape Town, I thought we’d all be on the same page: after all, it was just the three of us then, in a tiny white car. No real-life distractions.

Perhaps we were all on the same page. We were just reading different books (I happened to be immersed in Fifty Shades of Grey). In a tiny, tiny white car.

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After a few days of driving, I was unraveling. I was proud of myself for rising early each morning to take the first shower, allowing my traveling companions precious extra sleep, and ensuring we could leave by our daily target departure time. I was patting myself on the back because I am notoriously slow in the morning. I have been known to stay in hotel beds until my parents have showered and eaten breakfast and are ready to go.

To my friends, I was just using up all the hot water.

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I wanted to surf in Jeffrey’s Bay, a gorgeous beach town with some of the best (shark free) waves in South Africa. My NY friend had gone on some NY escapades with me, and I just assumed we were adventure-compatible kindred spirits. Well, you know what they say about assumptions. She just wasn’t interested, and I knew my SA friend couldn’t care less about surfing. They were all graciousness, but I didn’t feel comfortable putting our timetable several hours behind schedule for such a small fraction of the group consensus, and I didn’t want to go alone: what was the point?

I was stewing. Why had I ever wanted to travel with people? If I’d been alone, I could do whatever I wanted guilt-free. Backseat grumble grumble.

Not-Celine Dion threw me completely over the edge.

For some inexplicable reason, South African radio played ‘80s pop classic “The Power of Love” three times as we moved east across the country. It was not Celine Dion’s version, but my friends declared it was. I don’t know if I listened to the Titanic song on repeat for my entire seventeenth year or if I had to listen to Celine’s greatest hits multiple times with my mother, but I know the Skinny Quebecian’s nasal wail.

This was not Celine Dion.

I had no way to prove it, and who cares? Why was it bothering me so much that they didn’t believe that I was CLEARLY RIGHT? But by the third time we heard it, I looked at my friend across the dinner table as she leaned against the wall, staring into space away from me, and thought, “We’ll get through this. But when we get home, we won’t be friends anymore.”

Melodramatic? Yes. Road trips can lull you into a surreal out of body and time mental space, where you’d rather keep going than get anywhere, where pringles and coke and gas station pies are the only sustenance you need, and blurry pictures out the window become a metaphor for life.

But that only comes after you lose your mind from spending twenty-four hours a day with the same people, breathing the same air and compromising every decision into a collective brainspace. Roadtrips are a rebirth that arise only after the death of expectation.

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I think it was the first wart hog that brought me back to sanity.

We drove into Addo Elephant National Park and I was broody and pouty and generally unpleasant. I wanted aloneness.

But you just don’t expect to see a great big ugly-but-cute, tusked, snouted beastie staring at you placidly as you drive around a corner.

I couldn’t help but smile at this life-size Pumbaa, in need of a good shave and bath. Silly ugly beastie.

I took my camera out. What else could I do? It was time to give in.

It is a testament to my friends that they didn’t abandon me, at least emotionally, when I lost it. I gradually learned to take deep breaths and better share the limited air in that tiny white car. My NY friend had her own meltdown several days later for completely different reasons, because  we’re all individuals with complex and varied needs. I felt so zen by that point that I was willing to sleep on the floor with ants crawling in a superhighway crack a foot and a half from my face. My finally mellowed attitude meant I was able to accommodate and empathize with her feelings of travel stress.

I saw more on this trip than I would have had the courage to strike out and seek alone. Or that I could have possibly known about without a local’s perspective. I have pictures of myself that don’t have my freakishly elongated arm stretched out in the foreground. I have people to share stories with. That’s the best part.

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It would take more than Celine Dion to sunder these bonds of wanderlust friendship (especially because it wasn’t Celine Dion. I looked it up when I got home and the song was originally performed by Jennifer Rush in 1984. I don’t think I rubbed this fact in my friends’ faces. Or maybe I did. Or maybe I am right now…)

I hope these ladies know how grateful I am to them both for an amazing trip. And I hope we can do it again someday.

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Categories: Travel Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Souvenirs

I used to collect shot glasses when I traveled. I think it started with my first Hard Rock Café experience in high school, but it expanded beyond generic restaurant chains. Now I probably have…I’d like to know how many I have. I have over 20 from Hard Rocks alone (I know, don’t judge) so I wouldn’t be surprised if I have 75. All that cheap glass, made in China, has sat wrapped up in a box for a decade. I always meant to display them – I even had two racks – but I was never quite that organized in my decorating.  Now they live in my storage unit. If I ever get around to living in my own place in America again, they will get…I don’t know, sold on eBay? Would anyone want a collection of someone else’s travel memories? I replaced shot glasses with magnets, but they are fun and cheap and easy to display. You can’t totally break your addiction to tacky kitsch I’m sorry to say.

These days I am more discerning about what makes an appropriate souvenir, a true and revealing, unique memento of a place. I try to avoid things that are mass-produced in China (magnets notwithstanding). I tend to buy art books (and postcards, which are not cheap anymore, a euro each at most European museums) of collections I like. But I also try to get something locally made that really evokes a culture. My parents often come back from trips with small prints bought from street artists. Since this fits my art geek persona, I dig it. Some sort of rendering of a locale, created by someone who lives and works there – what could be a better way to remember a place?

They aren’t so easy to come by.

I wanted a hand-carved Buddha in Thailand. I didn’t see them anywhere – I ended up with a gold-plated tacky thing that exactly matched all the Buddha statuary I saw there. I purchased it at a temple gift shop, theoretically blessed by a Buddhist monk. Okay. I wanted to get a wall hanging of some sort in South Africa, but didn’t see any real artists creating anywhere we went. There were some nice prints of the townships that were unique and interesting…but I don’t know, that doesn’t seem the sort of thing a white person should have hanging on her wall. I got this instead:

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The man I bought it from said it was hand-carved, and explained the polishing process. I don’t know if it’s true. On the other hand, my local guide-friend explained Africa doesn’t have any infrastructure for mass-production, even though I saw this pensive guy in a lot of places alongside roads. I think there are popular motifs and these Zimbabwean (wait, what?) men hand-make and sell them. I hope so anyway…

On the other hand, when you look at that, do you think: South Africa? Probably not. I love the colors and smoothness, the minimalist play on Rodin’s “Thinker.” Of course, this means I bought a souvenir that is an imitation of a Western European masterpiece.

Oops. Not doing so well with my local quintessential souvenir, am I?

Still, I find it thought-provoking and beautiful, and when I look at it I think of my two weeks on the bottom of the world. At least it’s not cheesy, like a giraffe (because I didn’t see any giraffes there and it would be all LIES!)

I went to Amsterdam in October and was once again determined to buy art. I love that city, its quaint and lovely architecture. I was hoping to get a local artistic rendering of the city itself.

This is what I ended up with:

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So, yeah.  Doesn’t look much like Amsterdam, huh? I didn’t have time to check out every corner of the city for local art markets, so my options were limited. I stumbled into one small patch of artists’ tents, and none of the artists had painted their hometown. I bought a few postcards from a man who did prints of his Amsterdam etchings, but they were black and white, not really what I wanted.  This artist (Rebecca) did abstract impressionistic landscapes with gloppy paint, like a much latter day Van Gogh. This is her home, and her vision. Why should I dictate what she chooses to paint to suit my touristy needs?

But no one’s going to know I bought that in Amsterdam.

So despite my good intentions, I guess I’m not buying hand-crafted, ideal souvenirs that capture the spirit and identity of a place. Nothing show-offy that immediately tells people where I’ve been. I’ll keep trying. I guess it’s good that I’m conscious of how my purchasing power effects the places I visit. I’m putting my money toward those who create locally. I think.

Should you worry about supporting local artists and artisans? What are your favorite souvenirs? Talk to me, dear reader.

Categories: Travel Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The Wilds of London

The first time I saw a fox in London, I was waiting for a bus on a side street in Islington. It shot past, low to the ground and tail streaming, racing toward the Angel Tube station across the street, as if it were desperate to catch a train. It was running toward a highly congested (even at 9pm on a Tuesday night) area of London’s Zone 1. “Was that a fox?” I said out loud to the woman also waiting at the bus stop, who laughed along with me in strange delight.

I have since discovered urban foxes are a “thing;” Mary Poppins wasn’t a scam. I’ve seen them several times in my own neighborhood, and I love it: “View Halloooooo!” I like to think they appear just for me, a good luck charm, a symbol that things are peculiar and wonderful here in London.

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I haven’t seen a fox in a while. Maybe they’re hibernating for the winter. What I am becoming acquainted with in these early-darkening, ceaselessly gray days are the well-known, much-feared poisonous spiders here in the wild jungles of the London metropolis.

Haven’t heard of them? Oh, right that’s because they don’t exist…well, they only exist for me. They are a bit of a bad luck charm, a symbol of something. I just don’t know what.

Since moving into my flat near Stoke Newington, I have been bitten in my sleep four times, presumably by spiders, though I have never seen one in my bedroom. The first three were spread out over three week intervals. Then I got bitten two nights in a row: once on my arm, once on my face. I am not someone prone to allergies; I have never had a bad reaction to food or animals or insect bites. Yet here I sit with a ballooning left arm and a goitery face.

I have friends in actual exotic places like Australia and South Africa and Japan who aren’t experiencing this kind of wildlife.

Right now my arm is swollen and red from my wrist to my bicep. It’s sore and I’m experiencing waves of intense itching.  The texture of my skin has changed to sandpaper, oddly tacky and firm. It’s like my arm isn’t my arm. When I touch it I can’t believe it’s part of me.

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Last time I went to the hospital, when I was bitten on my right wrist, smack dab in the middle of my cherry blossom tattoo. They gave me antibiotics, but I don’t think they sped up the recovery. I just have to wait this out. I will survive it, it’s not that big a deal in the grand scheme.

But in my current state of my mind, these bites are a perfect metaphor for how I feel about London: like it is rejecting me, attacking me, needling me to give up and leave. What if somehow I’m allergic to London, a city I have longed to live in?

I know this is homesickness talking. I’ve arrived at that point where the adrenalin and novelty of figuring out a new place have worn off, the bleakness of winter has settled in, and I have learned that even more than New York, London is a distant city. It’s not a great big friendly invitation to a “cuppa” tea. It is a jungle, a space overcrowded but hidden. It’s hard to meet people and make connections.

I suppose it’s a byproduct of that polite British aloofness. No one will be rude to you here…they just won’t talk to you at all.  I’ve done an informal study of pub culture compared to American bar culture. English people go to pubs, with their friends, to drink. Heavily. Period. There aren’t men leering at women, trying to chat you up. They are too immersed in their mates and cups.

I almost miss the unwanted attention. It was nice to at least feel visible. The grass is always greener, right?

These, my friends, are first world problems, though who has ever classified a poisonous spider bite that way. I’m trying to look at my life patterns, the time of year, and recognize that I’m just in that wistful slump after the initial romantic has mellowed. I’ve only been here four months. Is it surprising that I don’t feel completely settled, that this isn’t quite “home” yet? I’m at a low point that aligns with the winter solstice. As the days slowly (so slowly) get longer again, so too will my desire to get out and explore come out of dormancy.

As with these treacherous spider bites: I just have to wait this out. I will survive it, it’s not that big a deal in the grand scheme.

I look forward to seeing another fox, though. Those are pretty cool.

Categories: London, Travel Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Maybe I’m an Uptight Prude. Or, In Defense of the Chain Hotel

I arrived in London without a place to live, not even a place to crash for a night. It was one of those minor details that slipped through the cracks as I tried to juggle all the balls of a transatlantic move: oh, right, a bed and a roof. Trivial necessities.

I was hoping one of my future classmates who had been in town for a while would magically give me an address  by the time my flight took off (isn’t this what facebook is for?), so I could just step off the plane and into a flat without a single hassle or worry, but surprisingly, that didn’t work out. With my 30 minutes of free internet at JFK I tried to locate a cheap hotel in an area of London I had actually heard of. My incapacity with decisions in 30 minutes or less (I am no Pizza Hut, folks) means my row got called and I still didn’t know where I was going when I arrived (wherever you go, there you are). But I had noticed a disturbing feature in my speedy browsing of hotels.com, booking.com, and lastminute.com: shared bathrooms.

A not inexpensive hotel in a first world country, in fact a major metropolitan capital city without private bathrooms? What?

An email from my mother when I landed confirmed my fears: in her research on my behalf, she had also found a plethora of shared bathroom hotels. I trudged hesitantly to the tourism counter in Heathrow, dully certain I could get an overpriced hotel for a few days as I sussed out something better. The man at the counter asked my budget, made some calls, and got me a room close to Victoria Station in Zone 1, a convenient tube ride to school, at the tippy top end of my budget. Without a private bathroom.

What choice did I have?  I was not in a position to negotiate, lugging three suitcases and a backpack, with no sleep and no friends in London to take me in.

The Wellington Hotel (I later found out) is a converted college dorm, which makes sense, and it was generally very nice. Except when I wanted to shower. Or pee in the middle of the night. Which required taking my key card, and where can you tuck that into your pajamas? In your shoes of course, because you have to put on shoes to go pee.

I lived in a college dorm and I’ve stayed in (much cheaper) hostels but I have never seen a shower room with less privacy. There were three stalls lined up next to each other. There was no changing area, nowhere to hang a towel except the wall opposite the shower. And that wall was a good two and a half feet away. So in order to utilize the hook, you had to lean naked out of the shower, either facing an-oh-so-conveniently placed mirror, or, an open window.

But this was clearly no place to worry about modesty, because the doors to these shower stalls were made of glass. Clear glass, not the fancy frosted or textured kind.

Admittedly I never saw anyone in that bathroom. It was however a real treat running into people in the hall in my short bathrobe. But maybe I’m just being a prude? What is the deal with my lifelong phobia of gym showers, camping tents, anyplace where I can’t close a door, be alone, and take off my clothes? Intellectually, I know nudity is nothing to be ashamed of. It is really a big deal?

Yes. Yes it is a big deal. At £50 a night, it is a very big deal.

Also a big deal: in my preflight packing hysteria, I had UNpacked my flipflops, assuming I wouldn’t be getting to a beach any time soon, and I could retrieve them when I came home for Christmas.

Always pack flip flops, kids. Always. No matter what else you leave at home.  Travel lesson number one. (That I always regretfully forget.)

It’s impossible to shave your legs in one of these shower stalls without touching the walls, and I don’t know who else is touching these walls, and with what…

Some people hate chain hotels: they hate the cheap and tacky art, the polyester shimmer of the bedspreads, the sameness and anonymity and anywhere-equals-nowhere-ness.

I happen to like them. Hampton Inns, with their giant buffet breakfast, cheap rates, shower walls that you can be (nearly) positive only your ass is occasionally grazing, and the knowledge that you know EXACTLY what you’re going to get, these are all thumbs up in my book.

Chain hotel uniformity (OR, less pejoratively, their consistency) is still foreign (these are not decorating decisions I would ever make) and they mean I’m not home, which is always invigorating. The neutrality of most hotels, I don’t know why, it feels like a familiar jumping off point into the less familiar. I like it.

Always an adventure, right? After several days I switched to another hotel, in a questionable area, way out in zone three, that cost just as much.

But I had my very own bathroom.

 

 

Categories: London, Travel Musings | 1 Comment

I Keep My Eggs in a Drawer Now, But I Still Don’t Quite Belong. And That’s Ok.

I hate the part where I look like a tourist. It’s like I’m doing a waltz – walking five feet in one direction, then back seven in the other, before pirouetting back to an angle slightly off from the first, trying now, finally, to stride forward as authoritatively and nonchalantly as possible.

I want to tell everyone as they pass, scowling at me as I stop dead in front of them: no, no, I live here! I’m not a tourist! I’m just…new. Give me a little bit of time and I’ll put away my laminated Streetwise map, I won’t stare for a full five minutes at an intersection of four roads, desperate for some sort of street sign indicating where I am, I will stop my hesitant pauses in front of untried restaurants.  I’ll turn automatically in the correct direction when I step off the Tube train to get to my connection, rather than becoming a mid-river island, forcing streams of commuters around me as I contemplate which way to go.

Give me another month. Then I’ll know. I’ll be one of you.

But for now, I’m awkward. I’m tentative. I’m foreign, and everything is foreign to me. There’s no grid to follow in London, I’m just a mouse in a maze.

On the other hand, once I lift my eyes out of the map, I keep looking up, up, up.  Tourists are always looking, right and left, forward and backward, absorbing, noticing, wondering at everything. This whole British world is new to me, and I’m seeing things people who tread these streets every day don’t see. The Tube seats are upholstered. They have arm rests. The signs guiding one out of stations lead to the “Way Out” instead of the “exit.” What makes the “American Dry Cleaning Company” American? At the supermarket you can get your “flu jab” – a violently whimsical name, much preferable to a “shot.” Milk is “skimmed” instead of “skim” – and really, doesn’t that make more sense? But keeping my eggs unrefrigerated does freak me out a little – I know my mom will freak out even more. Why do all pubs have an immediately recognizable architectural style? Who decided on that? There are bookie/betting joints on every other street. I guess they like their gambling over here. The Holiday Inn has bellhops in top hats. Why are there so many people drunk between 4-5pm on a weekday?

You can see so much from the upper deck of a big red bus.

London looks oldish and a little worn out, everything is straight-laced and stiff-upper-lippy and yes I’m projecting and romanticizing, but I’m also noticing.

And there is the paradox.

I long for the day I feel comfortable saying, “I live here.” When I can confidently offer directions to those still carrying their laminated maps.

But oh bittersweet because on that day, the world around me will be less shiny, less conspicuous to my overfamiliar eyes. My thoughts will be somewhere else while my feet move over the London pavement, my vision blurred by my inner world, no longer aware of the outer mingling worlds of Edward, Victoria, Gherkin pickle.

And that’s kind of a shame. That’s the price you pay to belong.

As I add streets and neighborhoods and shops to the labyrinth growing in my mind’s eye, London becomes more mine. And at the same time I’m losing it.

It’s like any romance…as I get more comfortable it becomes less sparkly. My heart will palpitate less. I won’t have the giddy butteflies.

I’ll stop shaving my legs every time I go out.

But I will have a sense of stability. Comfort. Belonging.

Home.

It’s a tradeoff. The initial bloom fades. But in its place there’s a sturdy tree, to shelter and feed me. And build a tree house that is a place of my very own.

Categories: London, Travel Musings | 3 Comments

Wanderlust or Wanderlove?

It’s funny how perverse the human mind is. The things I crave the most – long-term love and stability – can only be found by achieving stillness in my life, planting roots and digging in and making myself a part of a real community, be it workplace, friendship network, or basic location.

Yet right now I am desperate to move somewhere new. I am planning and calculating how I can spend a year in another country.

I am an enigma unto myself.

The further irony is that I’m as happy as I’ve ever been in New York. I’ve been having a great time exploring new neighborhoods, for the first time my friendships are starting to solidify over  a diverse spectrum of groups, and I’m even getting a little work. I have the time and the money for the time being to enjoy NYC, and people to enjoy it with.

And I just want to go away.

I have this weird anxiety about travel: that I don’t do enough of it. That the world is far too big for me to see everything I want to see before I die. It makes me panicky. I did a silly Facebook travel challenge survey, and out of 100 places, I’ve only been to 31. If I only saw one of those places a year for the rest of my life, I would have to live to be 100! And frankly, I don’t even think it’s a particularly good list, there are many places NOT on it that I would prioritize.

While I was in Europe, one of my friends moved to New Zealand for a year. Every time he posted pictures of what he was seeing and doing, I went green with envy. Even though I was seeing beautiful things in Italy. And I’ve BEEN to New Zealand.

I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

I don’t know where this traveling addiction came from. My parents like to travel, but mainly in the United States and Europe. They don’t feel the need to see all the far flung corners of the planet. If we got into the nature versus nurture debate, I think this is an inherent nature thing. Then again, my nature is plagued by painful shyness and discomfort doing things alone, which further complicates the paradox of my needs and desires. Even when I’m traveling I never feel like I’m quite getting as much out of the experience as I should be.

I have been home from the ship for three months and I’m completely tweaked that I don’t have another trip in the works. It keeps me up at night. I’ve set an unreasonable goal that I need to be living somewhere else by September, and that is not a lot of time to get organized. And I know I’ll be so disappointed with myself if I can’t make it happen.

It feels necessary, to go. And I don’t understand why, because I really do love NYC. But I’m restless. I grew up in one house until I went to college, yet since graduating I’ve lived in four separate places, plus the six months on the ship.  In so many ways I’m a homebody, but for some reason I’m having trouble with the idea of settling down right now.

I’ve never had trouble with committing to people. I’ve stayed in relationships far longer than was healthy. I try to hold on to my friends with a grip that could suffocate them. But the idea of getting a long-term, full-time job, in a single place, freaks me out. I want to be free to be mobile.

I’m perfectly okay with the idea that I’ll never own a house. I might be okay if I never have a baby. But I do want to meet someone stable and supportive, and jumping around like this makes it hard to have anything more than transient relationships. You need to stay present in people’s lives to actually be a part of them, and checking out every few years means I have a string of friendships strewn across the country. So many people to miss. And no partner to share my passion for travel with.

Anyway, you can only fight your nature so much. So I’ll be trying to move again in September. And I’m going to see if I can take a little trip at the end of May. Maybe one day I’ll feel sated. Maybe I’ll want to have that baby and be grounded in one place to support it while it grows.

But for now… I gotta go.

Categories: Travel Musings | Leave a comment

Fake It Till You Make It: Anglophilia in Manhattan (New York Adventures #6)

It may not be the most original thought, but the beauty of New York City is that you can go anywhere in the world without leaving the five boroughs. Being an unabashed Anglophile, I have been dreaming a lot about London lately. So I decided to pretend I was British for a day.

A friend and I have been talking about going to afternoon tea at the Plaza for a long time, but I discovered a cheaper option at Tea and Sympathy, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Greenwich Village, staffed by a lovely group of Brits. For $35, you get a full pot of your choice of tea (blackcurrant is delicious, sweet and creamy with a little milk), and a multi-tiered tray of more food than one person could possibly eat – and I generally do not have trouble consuming food. Finger sandwiches (Dear British people, why are you so enamored with mayonnaise?), scones, a slice of a strawberry shortcake type concoction, and a cupcake.

You had me at clotted cream.

Setting Mumford and Sons on my iPod and  A Room with a View on my Kindle (English people in Florence! Oh what a glorious combination!), I had a gorgeous hour lost in a European fantasy-haze. My level of sophistication may only rise to that of Stacy in The Babysitters Club, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

yes and yes and yes and yes

I stopped in at the Tea and Sympathy shop next door to see if I could get some of the blackcurrant tea to bring home, and was blinded by the adorable staff of British boys working the counter. I spent an obscene amount of money on tea in order to spend a few minutes flirting with them. Worth it. And now I know where the cute British population of NYC hangs out.

I took a stroll over a few streets to Myers of Keswick, a legitimate British grocery, but couldn’t bring myself to go inside – I didn’t want to look at food after glutting myself on sweetness. But it’s good to know it’s there, in case I ever want a meat pie or something (seriously, Englishmen, what is up with your cuisine? Don’t get me started on beans for breakfast.)

Next I headed uptown to Grand Central Station, to the New York Transit Museum Annex, which is currently featuring an exhibit of posters from the London Underground. Reading about the London Transport Authority’s mission to brighten the Tube with real (and informative) art, I was amazed at the beauty and humor of the poster designs. My Anglophilia knows no bounds and I was tempted to buy the accompanying coffee table book about the exhibit (art + London = ecstasy) but I managed to escape without further damaging my wallet – the exhibit itself is free, and definitely worth the effort to check out.

st. christopher, patron saint of travelers, in london

encouraging passengers not to travel during rush hour

After taking a break to watch the ice skaters in Bryant Park, I continued west along 42nd Street to the subway station, to catch a performance by The Meetles, a Beatles tribute band that performs around the subway as part of Music Under New York, an MTA sponsored program to bring entertainment to commuters. I have walked through Times Square Station ten thousand times, enraged by the gaggle of tourists forming a circle around whatever street performers were clogging the arteries, cursing them for getting in my way and making me just miss my train.

Now I was one of them.

Having spent six months on a ship with a Beatles tribute band straight out of Liverpool, complete with verisimilitude-inducing wigs and costumes, I was curious about what NYC had to offer. The Meetles, unfortunately, look like a random assortment of homeless people. Six members, including two women, rumbled jeans, pot-bellies, and balding heads, they aren’t much to look at. And I can’t say they SOUND particularly like the Beatles. But they are more than competent musicians, and honestly, taking the time to stand and watch the crowd instead of plowing through it in irritation, I have never seen so many people smiling in a subway station. The spectators danced and sang along, and there was just a general good vibe. The music of the Beatles seems to unite people, even awkwardly.

The Meetles

These two did not come together, but they sure are enjoying the show

Bless them, the Meetles perform for five hours in a freezing subway station, but after an hour and a half I was numb and exhausted, so I headed down to take the train back to Queens. On the downtown platform I heard someone playing “Yesterday” on a saw. Seemed like an appropriate end to my British day. I returned home to watch An Idiot Abroad, my current favorite UK import, and laughed at the misadventures of poor Karl Pilkington.

Sometimes I’m embarrassed by m obsession with all things English. Maybe I should focus my energy on a more exotic, foreign culture. But I can’t help it: I love Jane Austen, Eddie Izzard, Muse, Stephen Merchant, Shakespeare, Notting Hill, Mumford and Sons, Davy Jones from The Monkees, The Office, Spike from Buffy, and…the accents. I love it unashamedly. And when I don’t have the means to travel, it’s nice to know I can get a taste of my favorite fetishized culture at home.

Categories: New York City, Travel Musings | 3 Comments

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