Friday, August 14, 2009

Exploring the Unreal City UPDATE:


It's about a year now since I returned from Europe. A lot has changed and a lot more as stayed the same. On the off chance anyone takes a look here I thought I would update you as to what I am spending my time on now, but posting a link to my new, more ambitious blog:

Twenty-Something Travel

Twenty-Something Travel will track my progress as I plan a around the world adventure. It will also aim to give first time travelers the resources and information they need to plan their own adventure.

So please come check me out! And tell your friends!


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The River of Time

Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.
-TS Eliot, "The Wasteland"

The Thames (sounds like Tems) is the heart and soul of London. When the Romans first arrived in England in 43 AD they built a small settlement by the mighty river, which they called Londinium. Over the centuries the strategic river trade position of Londinium lead to more settlers, more traders and more buildings. Rulers of the land recognized the importance of the location; William the Conquer er built a larger fortification on it's banks (which would later become the Tower of London). The city expanded like rapidly growing organism; absorbing nearby townships as it grew to become the great, living city that exists today.

The Thames is still a major trading river, but it is also a major lifeline- it weaves through the concrete and steel, connecting the modern city with it's roots. A cruise down the Thames is like a trip through time; you can see the Tower of London, the reconstructed Globe Theater, St. Paul's and the gothic houses of Parliament interspersed with the Millennial Wheel, the Tate Modern, and a variety of glass and steel apartment buildings.

In honor of my Dad choosing to spend his birthday in London, I arranged for us to go on a guided river side pub walk. The guide, a loud spunky woman with truly British teeth, told us that the Thames is unusual in that it is a tidal river. In every 24 hour cycle the water level rises and falls a full 19 feet- twice! This is a dramatic difference that I've unwittingly noticed many times. At high tide the river is close and immediate, it presses along the embankment like a fat man in a bath tub. At low tide it is a thin and shallow ribbon, the water recedes to reveal hidden staircases leading down to wide rocky beaches. I've never given it much thought other than that it looks pretty gross at low tide, but our tour guide told us that beachcombers can easily find bits of broken pottery and other treasures on the banks- instead of washing away, pieces of treasure are simply lifted up and redeposited by the constant rise and fall of the river.

After her spiel the group bounced joyfully to the next pub...while I bounced joyfully down to the beach. I've always had secret dreams of being an archaeologist; Indiana Jones in a kicky skirt if you will. The beach wasn't quite the Temple of Doom but it was a fascinating corner of the city I never even knew existed! Far from the gray sloppy muck I envisioned, the stretch was a sea of whites, browns and greens peppered with a rainbow of red and yellow volcanic looking rocks. Within minutes of combing the pebbles I found a half a dozen shards of porcelain with a dainty blue ink design. There was treasure everywhere! a ghostly green bottleneck with a glass cork still attached. A brown clay fragment of a much larger pot, with a thick dotted design at the neck. Was any of it more than a couple years old? I have no idea. But I like to imagine that the porcelain was from a dainty Victorian tea set and the bottle came from some long ago dusty apothecary. The clay's Roman, and it's been jostling under the tides since the dawn of London, just quietly waiting for me to arrive.

This week has been bittersweet as it is my last one here in London. I love it here and I can hardly bare the thought of leaving, but a whole new set of adventures await me back in the least I hope!

Friday, May 09, 2008

Actual Shows I Have Watched on British TV Since I Arrived

TrueLife: Half Man, Half Tree

World's Youngest Faith Healers

Britain's Youngest Grandmothers

Britain's Most Embarrasing Bodies (A 5 part series!)

Gotta love it.

This will be my last post in the UK for a little while, I'm heading off on some travels around the continent. I will try to update when I can, but I'm not sure what the internet situation will be!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008


To the person who somehow found my blog by searching for "cave woman love fantasy novel,"

Sorry about the disappointment...

Land of 1000 Castles

Imagine the most impossibly green rolling hills of farmland patchworked with vibrant yellow mustard fields and dotted with fluffy white sheep. It's springtime so little baby lambs gambol through the grass, under a blue canopy of sky. Now add in a crumbling castle or abbey and that's pretty much the standard view I could see in any direction while driving through Wales last weekend.

My lovely Dad and Stepmother finally made it over to London to visit me and to drive around the English countryside. When my Dad suggested that we all go away for a weekend I immediately suggested Wales. I've had a cursory jaunt through Scotland, dabbled with the Emerald Isle and have explored much of Southern England, so I was eager to see yet another undiscovered corner of the British Isles. Wales seemed a particularly enigmatic place; patched onto the corner of England, a part of the United Kingdom for 100's of years yet stubbornly maintaining a completely different cultural identity and language. Plus the country has over 600 castles- and oh how I get a kick out of castles.

It was quite a shock to me to learn that the A40, the road which my living room looks out onto, can actually be followed all the way to Wales. If I felt like going for a particularly ambitious walk I could walk straight to the coast with only an ugly highway as my map! That's not really that fun though so we eschewed the main thoroughfares for a serious of windy little roads which took us through vast fields and villages that more then define the word "quaint". As we drew near the border the BBC transformed into a collection of guttural growls known commonly as Welsh. It is a language like none other. A couple phrases to learn:
thank you = diolch
street= ystryd
beer= cwrw
Yes, those are the correct spellings- I have no idea how one would pronounce any of those or what happened to all the vowels. Luckily, everyone in Wales can speak English, but they work very hard to maintain their national language.

Our first stop was Tintern Abbey, or what is left of it. Built in the 1130's for the Order of Cistercians (or White Monks as they were known because of their white robes), the abbey was of particular interest to me because it was probably there that a monk known as Geoffrey of Monmouth penned the earliest recorded reference to King Arthur in his Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). After Henry the VIII kicked the crap out of the monasteries Tintern sat in neglected ruin for hundreds of years. But rarely will you see prettier ruins. The massive arches springing incongruously out of the beautiful welsh landscape inspired paintings by JM Turner and a poem by William Wordsworth who wrote;

Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,

That on a wild secluded scene impress

Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect

The landscape with the quiet of the sky.

Pressing deeper into the Wye valley we headed towards our resting place for the night, a charming town known as Hay-on-Wye. As dusk approached however, traffic came to a standstill on the two land country road we had been traveling. Lulled by the peaceful scenery and warm weather we abandoned our car to see what the hold up was. About 200 yards ahead of us was an antique tractor resting gently on it's side while a two truck tried to puzzle how to pick it up. A farmer who had walked straight off the pages of a story book stood dejectedly to the side. A strange country sight for us city slickers.

Hay-on-Wye was so charming, and so amazing that it may actually be where I go when I die (if I'm good that is, if I'm bad I'll be sent to Florida). It was in fact so awesome it warrants it's own post, so look for that later.

My Dad somehow managed to drag me away from Hay by noon the next day, and after a drive through the misty and mysterious Brecons Beacons National Park, we turned the car towards Cardiff, Wales' capital. Like everything else in Wales Cardiff is a charming city. It has more public park land per person then any other city on the planet- although the day was gray and rainy and we took little advantage of this fact. In face we spent most of our afternoon gawking at Cardiff Castle.

I've seen quite a few castles in my time but Cardiff is the most castle-y castle I've encountered. It is the perfect Disney castle, with imposing gray stone, turrets, and an over the top colorful clock tower. Inside the battlements is the ruins of a thousand year old keep, with a moat and a large Welsh flag beating proudly in the wind. All of this is sitting literally in the center of a modern city.

The castle was functional and certainly imposing back in the day, but more recently (as in the past 200 years) served as a summer home for an impossibly rich Scottish family. We toured the inner chambers, which had been decked out in a dizzying wealthy and ornate style that would make the Sheiks of Dubai feel plain. In a stark contrast we also climbed to the top of the dilapidated keep- a truly dizzying trek, for a spectacular and terrifying view of downtown. After everything else I'd seen that weekend, the flashy new football dome seemed anachronistic. Cardiff may be a modern city but the rest of Wales seems magnificently lost in time.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

City of the Living; City of the Dead

"London, after all, is a city of tombs. But London nevertheless is
a city in the full tide and race of human life."

These two sentences, from a Virginia Woolf essay entitled "Abbeys and Cathedrals" sum up the eternal dichotomy of life and death embodied not just by London, but by all big historic cities. The hustle of city life is anchored in the memory of all those who no longer bustle through the city. Every big city as at least one good cemetary, London has many fantastic ones.

A city of memorials to be sure; I've always enjoyed visiting London's many graveyards. Some people find my fascination odd or macabre, but I've never found anything spooky about tehse places. They are peaceful yes, beautiful most of the time, and if you take the time to poke around they are always full of fascinating stories. Like the churchyard near my house which has a tombstone for a man who died drowning-- and another tombstone next to it for the anonymous man who died trying to save him. Or the dozens of heartbreakingly small tombstones for babies, sometimes half a dozen in one family plot. These small monuments are sometimes all that is left to record the lives, marriages, deeds and deaths of these long ago people. So don't they deserve to be respected, admired and remembered? Even if it just by some unknowning curious girl with a big imagination?

My favorite London cemetery is the inside of Westminster Abbey, which I've written about before. For sheer star power you can't beat it- anyone who is anyone has their bones resting there. Elizabeth I is buried there, and Mary Queen of Scotts, Alford Tennyson, Robert Brown, Chaucer. Even more celebrities are simply memorialized with monuments. It's quite a sight to see: the pomp and circumstance, the overwhelming awe at how one small nation could produce so many recognizable historical figures. The grandness of English history is emphasized by the soaring Gothic architecture or the church.

Equally appealing, but often overlooked, are the smaller, secret graveyards which dot London. Waundering through a great green square you might not even realize at first that you've stumbled upon an old burial ground at all; many of the tombstones have been moved or cleared away to make room for dogs playing catch and youths on bicycles. An example would be St. Andrew's Gardens, the small park behind my old dorm in Bloomsbury. Gray and green tombstones line the borders of the park, more of an accent than a main focus.

London is bursting with people; try and take to come out of Leicester Square tube station around rush hour on a Friday and you will not believe that many people could exist. Festivals, races, movie premieres, demonstrations, London is a complex moving organism that never stops. It is exhilarating but it is also exhausting. I think that is what makes these old, half forgotten places so appealing. Time stops, or at least slows down- for once you can actually hear yourself think. Woolf really says it best:

"The only peaceful places in the whole city are perhaps those old graveyards
which have become gardens and playgrounds...Here one might drowse away the first
days of spring or the last days of autumn without feeling too keenly the stir of
youth or the sadness of old age. For here the dead sleep in peace, proving
nothing, testifying nothing, claiming nothing save that we shall enjoy the peace
that their old bones provide for us."

I am hard pressed to think of another author more in tune with the rhythms and songs of London than Virginia Woolf. Although her modernistic novels may not be my favorite and although I make fun of her whenever I get the chance, after reading her essays in The London Scene I have a new found respect for her. She was a native Londoner, and her love of the city really shines through in her writing in a way I can only hope my love shows in mine.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Democracy in Action

Being a good American girl, (and being as fed up with Bush as everyone else), I have been following the elections in America very closely. By now I, like I'm guessing everyone back home, am sick to death of it. Luckily I have the ability to turn off the coverage whenever I feel like it- I can't even imagine how smothering it must be back home.

Actually, I can, because right now London is caught up in a similar electoral maelstrom. The race for Mayor of London ends May 1 thankfully; at this point it may be even more omnipresent than the election in the US. If that is even possible. Everyday the news shows the two lead contenders; slimy incumbent Ken Livingstone, and foppish Tory challenger Boris Johnson running around London shaking hands, making unimaginably empty promises and hurling attacks. Like so many elections it has boiled down to a battle of personalities at this point; and it's every bit as exhausting as listening to Obama and Hillary go at it. And I don't even have a vote!

There's an interesting little piece in Slate magazine today by Anne Applebaum comparing the London mayoral race and the Democratic Primary. Check it out, it's a quick read and it proves that politics are a dismal science pretty much everywhere:

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Shining Bright

After a winter that seemed so stretch on and on and on, spring has finally arrived in the United Kingdom. The past two days we've finally had some well earned sunshine and warmth; it is amazing how just a slight difference in weather can make the entire city come alive. Yesterday I sat out in Regents Park in bare feet with a book and watched about half of London do the same: little kids running through thesoft grass, couples getting amorous among the swollen tulips and solitary thinkers like myself, just soaking up the sun.

This evening Jason and I had a stroll through Hyde park. There pictures aren't from today, they are from the only other nice sunny day that has occured since I moved here, it gives you a good idea of what things are looking like this week:

Monday, April 21, 2008

Mmm British Food (Yes really!)

Okay, England is not exactly known for it's fabulous cuisine, I will admit. English food is generally heavy, meaty and covered in either grease or gravy. It has strange and goofy names like bangers and mash, shepherd's pie and toad in the hole (don't ask). However there are some bright spots, but first
Things not to eat in London:
  • Hamburgers- The English are not satisfied with their meat until it has had all flavor and juice thoroughly cooked out of it. I'll cut them a little slack, because of mad cow disease, but it's still a pitiful situation. I've been fantasizing about hamburgers for about a month now; thick and juicy, the way God intended.
  • Mexican Food- And I promise I've tried. Peas in a quesadilla? Carrots in a burrito? Just no. No no no. With the exception of one fabulous restaurant in Covent Garden the only way to get halfway decent Mexican is to cook it yourself (or in my completly inept case beg Andy to make fajitas for me).
Those two areas aside, cuisine in England isn't completly bleak. Here are a few things any visitor to London should experience:
  • The Full English Breakfast- Perfect if you are hungover, or just very, very, very hungry. The full plate usually consists of: Rashers (English Bacon which is AMAZING), sausage, two eggs, fried toast (yes, fried), tomatoes, mushrooms and baked beans (yes, baked beans). Sometimes it also includes, chips (fries), black pudding (blood pudding) or bubble and squeak (simply indescribable). Yes, all on one plate. Yes England is second only to the United States in obesity.
  • The Cream Tea- The perfect afternoon snack after a long day of sightseeing: a pot of tea accompanied by a fluffy scone. First you cover each half of the scone in delicious clotted cream (regular cream will NOT do), then add jam on top. Sure it might give you a heart attack- but a delicious one!
  • Curry- Don't even try to argue that this is not British food. The Curry house is an important staple of the local cuisine. Guaranteed to be the best Indian food you can get outside of India.

  • Junkfood- From chocolate digestives (Bill Bryson calls them a "British masterpiece"), to flapjacks, to the wide variety of strange and alluring crisp flavors (bacon? lamb and mint? prawn cocktail?). And the candy bars! my favorites are Crunchie Bars, the Cadbury chocolate bars with the creme egg filling and Malteasers, which are kind of like Whoppers but more delicious.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Subterranean City

The warehouse where I spend my working hours has a lovely view of a solid brick wall, supporting some raised train tracks. All day long I hear Southwest trains whistle by on their way to Wimbledon. Underneath the tracks there is a small door embedded in the wall; probably meant as a maintenance shed of some sort. Over time I've come to realize that its primary function is as makeshift winter lodgings for a portly homeless man. Who knows how long he's been living there, certainly since before I started working here. Most days he can't be seen, or only glimpsed at through a crack in the thick door. On nice days he is easy to spot; sitting in a lawn chair, soaking up the sun. One morning he had a pair of jeans and a t-shirt hanging on the fence, drying in the windy air. He's pretty bold for a squatter actually.

I kept thinking of this wall dweller whilst I read Neverwhere , a bizarre fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman. I'm not sure how to describe this novel; it's a fairytale for adults I suppose- utterly unlike any other novel I've read (this is the same guy who wrote the novel for the recent movie Stardust- which I am told featured Robert de Niro as some sort of gay pirate). In Neverwhere a fairly average Londoner named Richard Mayhew accidentally falls into the world of London Below- a kind of parallel city which exists underneath everyday London. The plot involves a vengeful angel named Islington, sexy she-vampires and two psychopathic hired assassins who travel through time. It's pretty out there, but what makes the novel work is it stays rooted in the framework and mythology of London- for example Gaiman imagines an actual royal court at Earls Court Tube Station, Knightsbridge is home to a terrifying Night Bridge and Oxford Circus...well you get the idea.

What struck me most about the book is its focus on the hidden and forgotten London. His London Below manages to exist alongside regular London, completely unnoticed. A city that has existed for thousands of years must be weeping with secrets; forgotten landmarks, hidden tunnels, places that have long since been buried over by the detritus of progress. So I did a little research. Paris has it's underground catacombs, London has an entire network of abandoned tube stations. The first underground train in London left the platform in 1863- that is 145 years ago! Since then a number of stations, tunnels and platforms have been built and later shut down. Shut down--but not destroyed. There are about two dozen stations which sit ghostly and unused below the earth. This includes the now defunct British Museum Station. You can see pictures of a lot of these stations at I warn you though, it's pretty eery.

It gets even stranger though. Deep Level Shelters built far underneath even the deepest tube lines. They were built by the government during World War Two as bomb shelters and never inhabitated- they are now used mainly for storage (what is so important- or so useless, that you need to store it hundreds of feet underground? Government secrets? Old Spice Girls albums?). Apparently there is society, Subterranea Britannica dedicated to exploring these underground spaces.

I've been here for five months, and I feel like I know London pretty well. But when I walk down the street, I really have no idea what's behind the next building, or buried deep beneath the streets. London has more secrets then even a lifetime here could reveal.