Tag Archive | tour

New Blog Title

I’m still kind of bouncing around the thought in my head of starting a new blog devoted to afternoon tea, scones, treats, and fun facts about afternoon tea, scones, and treats. It sounds like a fun little side project particularly since I’ve stopped doing my book review blog (just not enough traffic to really make the time writing reviews worth it). But the hardest part is coming up with a name. I have some ideas…

The Crumpet Strumpet
The Clotted Creamery
Tea and Crumpets
The Cream Tea Dream

Any thoughts? Any more ideas?

Everything Is Better in Mini, Part One (Brussels, Part 3)

The last day of traveling is always the saddest. And the most anxiety provoking as well! You want to spend as much of the day as possible cramming in the remaining sites and attractions that you missed out on all the rest of the days, but that clock is ever ticking down towards your arrival at the exit location. There is always that looming two hours before your flight or 45 minutes before your train deadline tainting even the shiniest of Atomium protons. Such a shame, but alas one of my favorite parts about a vacation is the coming home and reminiscing over the amazingness that was the past weekend. Being back in my own bed and room is admittedly probably the biggest reason for that, but let’s pretend for a bit that the blogging to all of you about my travels is why I am so anxious to get home (though I do absolutely love blogging!).

I was still recovering from my Friday night lack of sleep, and coupled with being knackered from the easily 25 miles of walking already recorded by our internal pedometers, we allowed ourselves a slightly more leisurely morning to roll out of bed and pack up our things. But because we made such a late start out of the door, we forwent a sit down breakfast for a grab and go continental spread back at EXK(carrot I). Of course, a sit down breakfast probably would have taken the same amount of time, since as soon as I saw that the pain au chocolat were nearly out of the oven, I insisted that we wait for them to be fresh instead of settling for delicious but already cooled cream or butter croissants. If I’ve learned one thing in my few trips into Paris, it’s that there is no breakfast more worth experiencing on a slightly chilly and overcast morning than a pain au chocolat straight from the oven. Ooey, gooey, and oh-so-buttery, not to mention filled with nearly melted chocolate, the pastries were as well worth the extra 8 minutes and vastly improved our Tube ride to the Atomium.

The Atomium was right next to BruParc (the Brussels version of Knotts Berry Farm perhaps?) in the outskirts of the city. As the name implies, the Atomium is a gigantic model of an atom–I think it’s supposed to be iron, but Dan and I had some debates about that factoid–entailing nine twenty-feet-diameter aluminum looking spheres connected with more silvery tubes that house the staircases and escalators connecting the balls. I think the balls are supposed to be the protons of the atom?

The Atomium

Anyways, it is a pretty noticeable structure, as we realized when Dan asked where the Atomium was in relation to the stop we had just passed through, only to have the atom model zip past us barely a half second later. A comedy writer couldn’t have planned that timing better.

On a whim, I decided that we should splurge a little for our last day and tack on a trip to Mini-Europe in addition to the Atomium. I had read that the Atomium will take no more than an hour unless you want to/can afford to eat at the panoramic restaurant, and we had multiple hours before we even needed to consider being at the train station. So Mini-Europe seemed like a novel idea.

Mini-Europe…obviously

It could have easily gone one of two ways: lame, reminiscent of Legoland where all the models are hokey and there is nothing entertaining for anyone over the age of six, or it could have been just a cool diversion probably still not worth the money but at least we could say we went. I never considered that it would become one of the highlights of my trip.

Mini-Europe is a project that spans across the entirety of Europe (obviously). As you walk through the winding paths, you pass 1:25 scale models of some of Europe’s most iconic and treasured buildings. Broken up by countries who are full members of the European Union, the models cover everywhere from the famous Eiffel Tower to the lesser known saunas of Finland.

Standing next to Lithuania, significant only because I’m a quarter Lithuanian

Each country region began with a sign with some basic statistics and a button which when pressed proudly played the country’s national anthem. There was a group of school children who ran around pushing all the buttons solely because they could, which was a little distracting for those of us trying to appreciate the cultural experience. Also it was particularly difficult for me as I was trying to memorize all the national anthems prior to the Olympics! Not really, but it was a funny joke to tell Dan. The chosen locations really tried to evoke the individuality of the country and involved some wonderful cultural elements, like the cheese fair in Brussels or the knocking down of the Berlin Wall in Germany. At the entrance we were given a booklet of information about each model, essentially describing what we were seeing and why it was significant to the history or identity of the country as well as some fun facts about the creation of these insanely detailed and intricate models.

Brussels’ Grand Place

If you hadn’t known that you were looking at a scale model, and you saw a close up picture, you would have no idea that I was taller than the Arc du Triomphe.

Arc du Triomphe

We became so absorbed in the “All Hail the EU” experience that we realized we would run out of time for the Atomium if we didn’t pick up the pace and stop lingering over each model for 10 minutes apiece. I can’t wait to peruse the booklet more; it definitely rebit my travel bug before I had even left this new country!

After the incredible Mini-Europe, the Atomium was kind of anticlimactic. It did afford some stunningly expansive views of city snaking out below us (on a clear day it is said that one can see all the way to Antwerp) but the haze did put a tad bit of a damper on what we were seeing. Then it started raining and the damper became a bit more literal. Inside the other “protons” were exhibits explaining Expo 58, less commonly known as the World Fair of 1958, which was the whole reason for the building of the Atomium in the first place, and then something about water but we skipped that one because it didn’t seem very interesting. I think we made the right decision on that.

The Atomium

An exact reverse journey on the metro later and we were heading back to the Grand Place in search of a light lunch and waffles. We refused to leave the country only having experienced one waffle when we must have had about 200 pieces of chocolate. It just would have been a little too unbalanced and unfair to the waffle makers having been such loyal patrons of the chocolatiers. But real food first sounded like a good option, so we found ourselves in Little Greece (the restaurants really seem to clump in the same block here) for pitas yet again. Then we made the decision to seek out a waffle van instead of the touristy windows surrounding Mannekin Pis, so we headed to the PLace du Grand Sablon yet again searching for the waffle van that had been parked out there for the last two days.

Where’s the falafel in this falafel?!

Of course waffle vans seem to be like Starbucks: everywhere until you are looking for one and then they all disappear into thin air. The waffle van was gone! And we had made such a special trip for him! Dan consoled himself with buying macarons (totally got him addicted to these amazing french cookies 🙂 ) and I just pouted. Guess we would have to settle for Grand Place waffles after all, especially since we were rapidly running out of time before we needed to be on our way. We finally found a place that didn’t seem to be as mass produced as the rest –meaning we could actually see them ironing the waffle batter not just reheating previously made and frozen waffles–and found a random curb to sit at since we discovered that walking and attempting to eat these sugar crusted waffles was impossible with the mini knorks that were really just glorified three pronged toothpicks. Chocolate and banana for Dan, white chocolate strawberry for me (I decided to resist the Speculoos addiction) and a whole lot of messy smiles and giggles. And a subsequent sugar high, but we needed the energy for the trek back to our hotel and then through Little Morocco to Gare du Midi.

Sadly this marked the end not only of the incredible trip to Brussels, but also my time in the UK and now my stories all revolve around the sunny skies of California, where I already think I may be getting a sunburn as my skin has totally adjusted to the wintery haze of England.

Oh and recheck back on this post later tonight for a list of all the chocolates we tasted on the trip! I don’t have my notebook with me as I’m writing this so I’ll update it later.

[UPDATE]

As promised, the list of chocolates consumed on this whirlwind weekend!

  1. Earl Grey dark chocolate
  2. Raspberry ganache dark chocolate
  3. Caramel with toffee bits
  4. Peanut praline
  5. Dark chocolate grapefruit
  6. Grand milk chocolate
  7. Chocolate dipped Speculoos cookies
  8. Dark chocolate hazelnut praline
  9. Four spice
  10. Praline nougat
  11. Raspberry nougat
  12. Lime and dark chocolate
  13. Dark chocolate with dark chocolate ganache
  14. Lemon and Basil (my favorite)
  15. Lemon Peppermint
  16. Dill and dark chocolate
  17. Chili and chocolate (I skipped this one)
  18. Cardamom

 

Beggars at the Chocolate Feast (Brussels, Part 2)

I don’t know if I have ever gotten as good of a night’s sleep as I did that first night in Brussels. What I do know is that it was desperately needed, considering the amount of walking around we did the day before and the amount that would be done today. While by far a  more leisurely day than the one before, we still had a lot we wanted to see, meaning a quick breakfast at this cafeteria/cafe thing called EXK(carrot I) was all we had time for, though it was absolutely perfect to get us through the hunt for Jannekin Pis.

Yeah like I said, the people of Brussels are obsessed with statues of peeing children; Jannekin Pis was the feminists’ response to Mannekin Pis, a statue of a squatting little girl hidden down a side street in the Ilot area we walked around last night.

Female Peeing Child Fountain

This area looked so different in the light of day. In fact, if it weren’t for the street names I don’t think I would have even realized we were in the same part of town. The awnings had been pulled back and the bright signs stored inside the restaurants. The maitre d’s were replaced by kitchen boys spraying down the cobblestones with hoses. Not at all the touristy hub of Brussels nightlife that we remembered.

We headed back towards the Place du Grand Sablon for a peruse of the antique market. We had seen the end of the market yesterday, as everyone had been clearing up their stalls, and there seemed to be some interesting things necessitating a trip back when all the sellers were open. A totally worthwhile and fascinating decision as well.

Place du Grand Sablon

As it was an antique market, with some items older than our entire country, most things were out of our price range so no souvenirs were picked up (other than yet another stop at some chocolate shops, but do those really count as souvenirs since they barely lasted a day?

Blackcurrant Cakey Yumminess

), but it was still interesting to look around at what finds people had made. Being from the United States made for some bizarre feeling comparisons: we found a coin that was minted back when our country was still made up of 13 colonies. Even some of the older, more novelty items like an ancient iron were being sold for next to nothing, and here we were completely floored by their age and the amount of history that each iron must have been privy to! But I guess that’s what happens when your country isn’t even 300 years old yet, anything historical is a novelty (ironically). I did buy one thing at the market, though. Instead of a cheap and touristy souvenir from the countries I visit that I am never actually going to use/wear, I instead buy a ring from the first city I visit in the country. So I found my ring for the country of Belgium at this antique market, which felt very fitting and special.

From there we wandered to the Palais du Justice, the Belgian Supreme Court. We couldn’t actually enter the building, partially because it is a working court and also because it was a Sunday and the courts are closed on Sundays, but we could sit there and marvel at the sheer size of the palace. Every building around it was easily dwarfed both in size and in grandeur. On the side of the building was an accordion player and an elevator. Yeah the two are completely unrelated to each other, apart from in proximity. And no, the elevator was not for the Palais du Justice, but to get to Lower Town.

View from the elevator to Lower Town

Seriously. There was an elevator to get from the Upper Town directly to the Lower Town…talk about a unique method of getting around a city? As there were no stairs, we settled for a ride down with about 10 other people crammed into this box. I hate elevators. Especially crowded ones.

Once down and safely out of the claustrophobic torture box, we sat down at a cafe to soak up some sun (for me) and drink some tea (for Dan). We also took advantage of the cafe’s WiFi network to take the opportunity for Dan to Skype home. Did you know that this was on Father’s Day? I’m assuming you all did, and that you all were extra nice to your dads. Well, I believe you should always be nice to your parents and that we shouldn’t need a day to remind us of that, but that rant is irrelevant to our Brussels trip so I’ll shelve it. Dan’s dad was away so we spoke to his mom, politely informing her that instead of Oxford–the place she expected our call from–we were actually in Brussels. That was quite the shock for her! It would be for anyone to find out that their child was in a completely different country and time zone than you were expecting I’m sure! I had told my parents, but I’m only 21 so they are generally more in the loop regarding my whereabouts than Dan’s need to be.

In a departure and contrast to the antique market, we next went to our first ever flea market. I felt like I was in an open air version of The Hob from The Hunger Games. Neither of us have ever been to a flea market so we had fun making a list of the random things we found among the mostly junk.

List of Random Things We Found Among the Mostly Junk

  • A mallet
  • TV remotes
  • 2 1/2 Lira coin
  • 10 key calculators
  • blade with a squirrel sheath
  • refrigerators
  • chandeliers
  • spray painted copper shoe mounted on a block of wood
  • South African masks
  • Wedding dress (just one)
  • neon yellow Top Flite golf ball
  • mini spinning wheel

And that was just a sampling of the treasure trove! I have no idea how all these people accumulated such…stuff. And why would you want to have all this lying around? I’d just get grossed out and feel too crowded. I believe we can safely say that a flea market seller is not in my future career goals.

Looking for a Mockingjay pin

We next partook in yet another typical Belgian fare: falafel and frites (aka fries). Well, okay, falafel may not be typical Belgian but that’s the only thing I would eat at the Pitta and Frites stand outside of Notre Dame de la Chapelle we stopped at for lunch. I had no idea that frites (again, aka fries) were so popular or quintessentially Belgian, but they are, and they are usually served with mayonnaise which thank goodness Dan also has an aversion too otherwise I’d have been utterly nauseated while we ate lunch. He opted for Brazil Sauce, whatever that was, and it was pretty good. He couldn’t figure out what flavor was so different from the fries one gets in the States, until I tried one and figured it out instantly. It tasted of potatoes! What a novel concept!

After frites, it only seemed fitting to learn more about the true point of going to Belgium, chocolate (duh). There is actually a small and quaint Chocolate and Cocoa Museum down a side street of the Grand Place. It was no more than a retrofitted out residence of three floors about the harvesting and roasting of cocoa beans all the way to processing and packaging of both chocolate bars and drinking chocolate.

Chocolate and Cocoa Museum

There were two really interesting highlights: a demonstration about how they make proper Belgian pralines and the free chocolate covered Speculoos cookies. Did I mention I’m obsessed with those cookies? Dan said my eyes lit up like a Christmas tree. The museum was actually really interesting, if small, and as Dan has been to Belize and seen the whole harvesting process first hand, he confirmed it’s accuracy. I’m big on accuracy. Fun chocolate factoid: There are actually regulations on what can be labeled as each type of chocolate (white, milk, or dark) and these include what percentage of the chocolate is made with cocoa butter. Nowadays, most chocolate is made with up to 30% of the cocoa butter replaced with some form of vegetable fat. In order for it to be labeled as Belgian chocolate, however, it is required to be 100% cocoa butter, no substitutions. This is supposedly why Belgian chocolate is so much better tasting!

Grand Place

We made a pit stop back at the hotel after stopping in a Godiva chocolate shop, just for laughs because it would have been silly to buy Godiva chocolate in Belgium when you can buy it in the States, for a power nap before heading back out to the Ixelles neighborhood for dinner. While we had already found Little Morocco down by Gare du Midi, here we stumbled across Little Thailand. There were two streets where every single front was a carbon copy Thai restaurant, much like the seafood restaurants of Ilot yesterday. Looks like we were limited to Thai food or Thai food, so we went with Thai food at Fanny Thai. We felt super European eating a long, drawn out dinner at 8:30 pm. Of course even after we finished eating the sun was still out, the sky not even beginning to turn darker. It would have been such a shame to waste the sunlight, especially having seen none for the last two weeks in England. Therefore it was the perfect night for a nighttime stroll through a garden.

The chosen garden was La Botanique, though the main gates were all closed so we had to sneak through a bar/concert location to enter the garden. By this point it was getting darker, and the garden had some well manicured hedgings interspersed with overgrown corridors of trees and bushes, making it feel like a labyrinth straight out of Alice in Wonderland. It was beautiful. And there was this adorable cat that was literally begging Dan and me to pet him. I obliged; for some cruel reason Dan didn’t. And I’m the one who is allergic to cats!

We had to sneak back through the bar area to get out of the gardens and to walk back to our hotel. Maybe it was because it was a Sunday night, the night of the penitent, but there was only one unfortunate lady of the night as opposed to the dozen we saw last night, so I felt safer even with the knowledge that our hotel had to put a chain and padlock on the door each night.

Muscles in Brussels (Brussels, Part 1)

First off, yes I am home in the US safe and sound, though already “homesick” for Oxford. I had no idea how attached I was to the place until I stepped off the plane and was immediately having trouble breathing from the thick blanket of exhaust fumes characteristic of Los Angeles. Of course, my parents picked me up at the airport with my handsome puppy, easily making up for any sadness I would have felt from re-entering the world of Southern California. Can you blame me? You’ve probably all seen a billion pictures of my boy so everyone should understand. And thankfully, he remembers me, something I was actually really worried about having been out of his world for 7 long months.

But you all really want to hear about the trip to Brussels, don’t you? I can’t blame you; it was a pretty great trip and was so jam-packed that I had to write down everything in my little moleskin notebook so that I could remember it to blog about now. I’m kind of impressed that I made it through the weekend to be honest. The night before we were leaving I ended up not sleeping at all, choosing instead to join some of the other visiting students in a massive goodbye hangout. And then I had to “wake up” at 4:45 am to meet Dan at the bus stop into London anyway (can you wake up if you don’t fall asleep?), so sleeping somehow just didn’t happen. It’s a good thing that Dan was around to keep me awake when I was fading.

One of the biggest reasons we chose to go to Brussels was because of the direct Eurostar train to Gare-Midi. Dan and I feel like old pros at getting to the Eurostar at St Pancras by this point, and everything went as smooth as could be imagined between getting on the bus to London and arriving in Brussels. Did you know that it takes less time to get to Brussels than it does to get to Paris? Why haven’t I gone to Brussels before?!

The area around the train station in Brussels is not the most savory of locations. It is in the poorer part of the town, and on every block was about 10-15 run down Moroccan restaurants. We actually nicknamed the area Little Morocco, so I guess I don’t need to go to Marrakech?

Little Morocco

Well that’s not true. I’m totally going to Marrakech one day! I don’t think that Little Morocco in Brussels is really the best model for what Morocco would be like. At least I hope not, as Little Morocco felt really dangerous, definitely a place where I clutched my Coach bag a little bit tighter to my side and was grateful that my jacket’s hood covered the Oxford embroidery. We found our way to our hotel on the other end of Anspach from the train station (that walk felt like it took forever!), dropped off our bags, and headed out into the city.

Brussels is the home of the European Union so we made a visit to the EU Quarter the first stop on our three day exploration. Dan had been to Brussels for all of three hours a few years back, but somehow his sense of direction was still impeccable, and he led us around the edge of the city up to the EU without hesitation. We did get a little sidetracked by a statue of a mussel (moules in French, a Belgium specialty) and the subsequent opportunities for pictures of our muscles with a mussel.

Mussel Girl

I love how Dan is so willing to do random stuff that potentially makes complete fools out of us. Makes vacations more fun!

Muscle Man

We were also distracted by some big orange wooden canopy thingy…and yeah that’s about the most accurate way to describe it. I have no idea why it was there, who made it, or what the purpose was, but Dan went a little giddy over the engineering aspects of it. I’d be a little concerned if he didn’t marvel at it considering his DPhil is in Civil Engineering. Otherwise he might want to be considering a career change!

Reddish Orangish Wooden Thingy

The EU buildings themselves were really nothing to write home about: giant testaments to steel and glass and rather nondescript. A cool thing though was to learn from Dan and the guidebook about why certain buildings were designed the way they were, such as how they used glass slats over the windows to make the building’s heating more energy efficient. That kind of info was pretty cool, but also pretty short, and we spent no more than ten minutes in the area before heading out to the Natural Science Museum.

Dinosaurs! Shiny rocks! Animal skeletons! I was really excited and eager to find the museum, so naturally we ended up lost in Parc Leopold, unable to find the entrance to the place. It was a really nice park and we saw the craziest looking ducks I’ve ever seen in my life, but I really wanted to see the Iguanodon exhibit at the museum! If only we could find the entrance! Signage in Brussels doesn’t really seem to be the most user-friendly, but we did finally find the doors and after a quick spot of lunch and a thorough examination of the mineral exhibit on the bottom floor (some incredible pyrites and calcites!), skipped up to the dinosaur room and closer to the ultimate moment of my stupidity.

I was never obsessed with dinosaurs growing up; in our house that was Kevin’s area of expertise so I’m not really the most well-knowledged person about the creatures that walked this earth before we did. I know about the geology and the extinction theories, as well as some of the archaeology techniques, but relatively little about the dinosaurs themselves. But an exhibit of 600 perfectly intact iguanodon fossils was a guaranteed fun for the whole family situation. So there Dan and I were, marveling at these huge dinosaur bones, a whole herd of them preserved behind glass, when I looked down at the placard and read: Iguanodon somethingorother. Confused for about half a minute, something dawned on me and I turned to Dan in shock: “Wait, these are the iguanodons? Uh iguanodons aren’t a type of iguana are they?”

Iguanodon!

Yeah, this is a true story. I was really picturing iguanas every time something said iguanodon.

Dan must have laughed for a solid ten minutes, and I can’t really blame him. I can sometimes be really intelligent, but more often than not I am dumb as wood and quite the ditz. I don’t think I ever recovered from that moment of stupidity once further into the museum, so I decided to embrace it and completely unleash the inner child and start mimicking dinosaurs, playing with the hands-on exhibits, measuring my height compared to a brachyosaurus’s leg, etc. Dan joined in the fun as well. We went down a level to another iguanodon exhibit that talked about how they found the iguanodons and preserved them on the trip from their site to the museum. That room was quite creepy, dead silent, and full of the reminders that there were 600 of these gigantic creatures found in a single location, layered on top of one another in a mine.

Standing over an iguanadon skeleton

So bizarre! And also a great source of evidence for the asteroid theory of mass extinction in my opinion. We also saw an intact skeleton of a blue whale, the largest animal ever found. And it definitely deserved that distinction; the thing was HUGE!

We then meandered our way, drifting off along numerous side streets and through the Parc de Bruxelles (there are a lot of Parc de’s here), to the Place de Palais. This area, part of the Upper Town, could not be any more different from the comparative slums of the quarter around Gare-Midi. The buildings were all palatial, white, Roman inspired mansions surrounding an open cobblestone square. From gaps in between the intricately designed buildings you could see expansive views of the rest of Brussels emanating into the distance. Lower Town, the outlying suburbs, the grassy fields beyond…in Upper Town you were really on top of the city. We did have a purpose in going to the Place de Palais other than gawking at the architecture that was so different from any of the other cities I’ve been to: the Museum of Musical Instruments. Dan plays the cello so it was only natural that we make a stop into this small museum of the various types of instruments and variations on them. Otherwise it would have been like me refusing tickets to a ballet, just unacceptable. We only had an hour to explore the four floors as the museum was near closing, so we did a pretty cursory tour. Which ended up being perfectly fine. The cool thing about the museum is that they give you headphones and some of the instruments have boxes with jacks next to them where you plug in your headphones and can listen to the music that features the surrounding instruments. That part was pretty awesome and rather a brilliant idea in my opinion. Unfortunately the captions and explanations were not in English at all, so I was stuck looking at the cool and sometimes bizarre instruments while listening to their sounds, and nothing else. We made it through easily in an hour and headed back out into the Place de Palais.

Musee des Instruments Musicales

Our next destination was the Place de Grand Sablon, with detours into the Eglise St. Jacques sur Coudenburg and Notre Dame du Grand Sablon churches to compare the more austere Protestant decor with the opulence of the Catholic/Anglican churches you see in Paris and England. Once we made it to the Grand Sablon, however, the real fun began, with the commencement of our chocolate quest! What would Belgium be without a chocolate quest, after all? Grand Sablon was the perfect place too since it seemed like every shop lining the street was a chocolate shop or patisserie with window displays just beckoning you in to drop a fortune on their confectionary. Dan and I made an agreement to exercise self control, for the sake of our waistlines as well as our wallets.

Chocolate or macarons? Can’t decide! Everything is too yummy!

We would alternate who paid for the chocolates, and were limited to four truffles from any one shop, each picking two. Then of course we would share all four, because that’s what dance partners are for. This way we could try a larger variety of chocolates with really cool flavors. I’ll post a list of them later so that you can all drool in jealousy 😉 Each chocolate place tried to offer a unique spin on things, whether in products or atmosphere. Wittamer was decked out in candy cane bright colors; Patrick Roger had two chocolate hippo sculptures. The Belgians take their national industry very  seriously!

As do I apparently

Continuing our wanderings led us to Easy Tempo for a pizza dinner. The pizza was delicious, but oddly gigantic. I mean, yeah it was an extremely thin crust, but it was easily double the size the pizzas at Fire and Stone! As soon as we ordered a pizza each (we didn’t know the size and that we could have easily shared one), they traded our normal knives for steak knives, eliciting strange looks from the two of us. But we definitely needed those knives! The pizzas were so hard to cut (and you must cut a pizza in order to eat it like a European) that I actually had a projectile piece, which we agreed to ignore its flinging off our table when the waitress walked by. And then as we were leaving we got stuck in this absolutely torrential rainstorm. Buckets were literally dropping from the sky (ok yeah that’s really figuratively, but still) and we cowered under random awning and doorways as we made our way towards the Grande Place in search of waffles–what? It’s Belgium people!

I swear it must have been 6 inches in an hour.

I can’t even begin to explain how magical the Guildhouses that enclose the Grand Place were in the sun after the rain. The sculptures and gothic-esque architecture are so intricate and detailed that they don’t even seem possible. I mean how could someone actually design and build these?!

Grand Place

Tonight the Grand Place was the busiest we would see it for the whole vacation. Tourists and groups were everywhere, all eating waffles and carrying bags from Godiva and Leonidas. They were also heading in the same direction, which it turns out was down the side street to Brussels’ most famous and stupidest statue: Mannekin Pis. With all seriousness, it is a teeny statue of a toddler boy peeing. And tourists and any shop catering to tourists are obsessed with it. Chocolate sculptures of the kid, t-shirts, magnets, golf balls, corkscrews…you name it, they made it and stamped it with the peeing baby.

Mannekin Pis, pointless?

We only saw it because it’s like the Belgian Mona Lisa, but I even preferred the Mona Lisa. The only upside was that it brought us closer to waffles (Speculoos for me

Newest Addiction: Speculoos!

and Strawberry, Cream, and Chocolate for Partner), which were as delicious as promised by every tour book I ever looked at.

It was heading towards 10:00 pm and the sun didn’t seem anywhere near close to setting so we continued to walk around the Grand Place, just in the interest of exploring. We walked down this street called Ilot (I think) that was wall to wall seafood restaurants all serving the same food and all with “maitre d’s” attempting to usher unsuspecting passersby into their restaurant that is identical to the one next to it. We came across a small theater that shows a marionette puppet show; unfortunately we were an hour late and they had no more shows for the weekend. Such a shame. From there, the search for a loo sent us back to our hotel and an instant pass out on my part. This is what happens when you don’t sleep the night before a vacation!

Spontaneous London Reviews from A Day Trip

I couldn’t stomach the thought of sitting around Oxford doing nothing but wait for an email that I no longer think is going to come for the third day in a row, so I decided to leave. Originally I was hoping to go to Lanhydrock in Cornwall despite the 4 hour train rides it would have taken to get there, but the price was a bit, shall we say, prohibitive? In fact it seemed like every place I thought I might travel to was crazy expensive. Now I am definitely not one to scrimp on travel expenses (remember me traipsing off to Zurich with no warning?) but if I’m going to spend the money to go to Cornwall or York, I should probably do it as a weekend trip and make it really worth my while. Which is how, at 2 am, I came to the decision to go into London for the day.

Yet it would not just be any old day in London, not one spent wandering the streets and museum aisles with headphones from either my iPad or an audio guide. No if I was going to do London alone, I was going to boldly go where this Jenna has gone before: to the theatre!!!

Apparently I picked the perfect day as well. It was indeed the third day in a row of gorgeous sun (could I perhaps get some color to my skin?!) and, since it was a Wednesday, many of the popular shows were doing their matinees, meaning that I could see not one but TWO productions all in the same day! Talk about indulging my theatre junkie 😉 As soon as I hopped off the X90 bus I headed over to a tkts booth in the theatre district of Leicester Square, crossing my fingers that I could score a seat to both of my planned shows. I know that all the guidebooks and Dan tell you to go to the “only official discount theatre ticket” place in the middle of the square, but the line was really long and after my experience of missing out on War Horse tickets by literally three minutes, I wasn’t really in the mood to take any chances, so I went to one of the imitation discount booths down a side street. Official or not, I did score some amazing seats for what I consider cheap for the theatre. Next time maybe I’ll get into London a bit earlier and use the official one to compare deals, but I wasn’t going to compromise on this sunshine day that had the makings of being one to remember.

Sunshine!

And which shows did I score those coveted tickets to, you ask? None other than Les Miserables and Chicago! Success!

Yes, I’ve seen Les Mis before, but I’m also the girl who saw Wicked six times and Billy Elliot twice, not to mention the number of times I saw each Harry Potter movie in cinemas, so obviously I don’t care about repeating. In fact Les Mis was even more incredible the second time, but I’ll get to that later.

The matinee doors weren’t even going to open until 2 pm, and it was only 10:30, so I decided to wander the surrounding neighborhoods of London, taking advantage of the weather while it lasts (it’s already cloudy outside as I’m writing this, though that could just be the morning haze). I found myself first in Chinatown and then in SoHo, without nearly getting hit by a car once, so I guess everyone else decided that walking and fresh air was the better option than sitting in a potentially stifling cab. At least Londoners appreciate the sun when they get it! Back home we almost get sick of the heat, granted ours is about fifty degrees hotter than yesterday, and eventually start seeking cover in shopping malls and restaurants. But once again I digress into talking about the weather, an apparently way too easy of a distracting topic. So I’ll move onto cupcakes.

No, I’m serious. Among the stores I came across on my traversing the sidewalks of SoHo was the London version of LA’s Sprinkles or Manhattan’s Magnolia Bakery: Hummingbird Bakery. Surprisingly they don’t make hummingbird flavor cupcakes, but I guess that is more of a Southern American thing. I’ve heard of Hummingbird mostly through that addicting website known as FoodGawker, and since I obviously make a lot of cupcakes myself, I decided to go ahead and try one of theirs. I was hoping that they would sell their cupcake mini’s in store like my favorite New York cupcakery Baked by Melissa (you have to go if you are in New York!), the perfect way to try multiple flavors and give a truly accurate review, but alas those are apparently only available online and I was forced to get a full sized in one flavor. Of course I had to go for red velvet, that ultimate benchmark for the quality of a bakery!

Mmmmmmm…red velvet

I’m no where near creative enough to write cupcake reviews like Dan (see comments section of this post for the latest one), but I can give you my highly detailed notes on the cupcake experience in case anyone makes their way to Hummingbird Bakery anytime soon. The first thing I noticed about the cupcake was that it was well proportioned, a frosting to cake ratio of 1:2, and a wonderfully moderate size, not the super-sized monstrosities guaranteed to give you diabetes in one bite that so often come out of US bakeries. The cake itself was a rich, red color with a pleasant medium chocolate flavor that complemented the frosting without either overpowering the other. A little too dense in my opinion–I prefer a fluffier cupcake, because all things are better when they are fluffy–yet still moist. I wonder how it would be later in the day once it is no longer as freshly baked as this one seemed to be. Now the true mark of proper red velvet cake in any form is the frosting. Hummingbird Bakery went the correct route with a cream cheese frosting and not that buttercream disgustingness that people use instead (it’s not red velvet without cream cheese frosting people!) and it was a good, fluffy (told you) frosting, though with too much icing sugar added in for my taste as I’m not a fan of overly sweet frostings. Overall: a solid effort that I would definitely try again if I ever find myself in SoHo with a cupcake craving, but the dense cupcake and slightly too sugary and subsequently grainy frosting led me to toss the last third of the cake part into the bin and head for a corner cafe to down a bitter coffee.

While enjoying that blissfully bitter cup of caffeine, I whipped out my sketchbook and just started drawing. I just recently started to get into drawing, encouraged heartily by my mom, and I knew that by nature of being alone in London I would have tons of free time, so I somehow managed to pack my sketching pencils and book into my already so full that half the time it wouldn’t close purse. I felt so artsy at first, sitting in the middle of Leicester Square, drinking barely sweetened coffee, waiting for a West End production, sketching the cafe patio across the way, until I became so absorbed in the drawing that I lost all that pretension and forgot everything except which direction a line had to go so that I could achieve the right depth of field. I ended up taking up that corner table for over an hour while I finished my sketch, so I left a more generous tip than one cup of coffee called for to compensate. Thanks random cafe for the extremely pleasant diversion 🙂

Leicester Square decking out for the Jubilee

With still more than an hour to kill before doors to Les Mis opened, I took to the streets of Piccadilly and Regents Street, leisurely strolling past the storefronts and stopping into a Boots to buy a pack of tissues (not going to make that mistake again!). Londoners really came out in droves at lunchtime, so it was fortunate for me that I had enough time to spare so that I didn’t have to rush through a crowd; I just let the swarms slip by me and took side streets whenever I could. After a giddy find of a brand new Whole Foods (they have my peanut butter but not Luna bars, almost success?) more crowded than the streets outside and a quick spot of lunch, I headed into the Queens Theatre and back in time to the French underworld of the 1800s.

Whole Foods! Feels like a slice of home

I don’t think I need to gush on and on about how incredible Les Mis was, though it completely would deserve another helping of exuberant adjectives. I was surprised that for a matinee it was basically the same cast as the evening show I saw back in March with my mom, with the exception of a different Cosette and Marius (funnily enough, the Marius I saw last time was in the chorus this time looking exceedingly bored). I’ve always associated matinees with the understudies or second string of performers, but I guess the West End is fortunately different. And I don’t know if it is the music or the beautiful singing or just the emotions of the story, but I seemed to tear up for almost the entire performance regardless of what was going on at the time. Has that ever happened to you? When you just become so overwhelmed by the beauty of something that you feel unworthy to experience it and just start crying? No? Okay so maybe I’m the odd girl out, but it is definitely how I felt for the majority of Les Mis. Thank goodness for foresight in buying tissues and not wearing mascara (oh no! Did I just admit to that?).

All too soon the final curtain fell, eliciting the fastest and most exuberant standing ovation I have ever seen from a London audience. The cast even came out for an additional bow because the audience wouldn’t stop clapping, myself included. But all great things come to an end, and I was shuffled out of the theatre against my will. I would have stayed and foregone Chicago for the evening performance of Les Mis, but I thought I would be making a better use of my time to see a new production as well. But Les Mis, I’ll be back!

I found myself once again on the streets of Piccadilly with two and a half hours to spare before curtain up at a theatre four blocks away. The great thing about May in England is that the sun doesn’t set until 9 pm-ish, affording me ample daylight to retake up my wanderings armed with a book of London architecture. I find architecture really interesting, probably because of its very close links with history, but I know very little about it and have picked up a few books with the intention of learning more. That is how my London architecture book ended up squeezed into my too small purse alongside my sketchbook. The poor purse’s zipper. London really is a highly navigable city by even just walking, provided you have a decent map, which I did, and therefore walking from Piccadilly Circus down to Westminster Abbey and back up through Trafalgar’s Square via Whitehall to Leicester Square is an entirely feasible plan of action. And a great, educational way to pass 90 minutes in the fresh air. Only made sense to do so, taking my time to read about every building I could find, discovering the Scotland Yard building for my brother, and really looking at the buildings to understand the elements that the book discussed. Random things like the way Portcullis House was designed in 2001 to evoke a symmetry with the Scotland Yard building despite one being made of brick and stone and the other glass and steel. I never would have even thought of something like that, though once it was pointed out to me I can completely appreciate the architect’s intent.

Scotland Yard

Portcullis House evoking Scotland Yard, can you see it?

On my walk, standing outside the Admiralty Building reading about the architect’s decision to forego the use of columns unlike his contemporaries, a random Londoner stopped by me and commented on how I picked the best possible day to be a tourist in London. I thought that it was a random statement, until I soon found out that such a conversation was really just his opening line to ask me for a shandy. With no idea what a shandy was, but knowing that in any situation going somewhere with a stranger is not the smartest decision, I politely declined with a “no, thank you”. Normally that would be the end of the conversation, but this businessman then proceeded to engage me in a cultural comparison of the polite way to refuse an invitation. He commented that it must be an American custom to simple say “No” to such a question while a Brit would say “Sorry”. I replied that in fact I was being very polite by saying “No, thank you” rather than just a flat out refusal. I then thanked him for the compliment of his attention and turned back to my book. And apparently a shandy is a very delicious drink of a blend of alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages. Sorry, but that doesn’t change my mind. And there was his sorry, just for him! Weird interaction.

I promise you that you are reaching the end of my saga; only three more things to go: a city, a surprise, and a fox.

I love the movie of Chicago, even if I’m not the biggest fan of Renee Zellweger, so I made the mistake of going into the stage show with high hopes of a similar sultry and well choreographed package. Lesson shatteringly relearned: No expectations are good expectations. I truly almost walked out and asked for a refund, before realizing that the theatre wouldn’t give me one since I hadn’t bought my tickets directly from them. First problem, the accents. Now I know that a Chicago accent is difficult for an American, much less a British actor, but if you aren’t going to do a proper Chicago accent at least do a Standard American English one, not a Southern accent and not a valley girl. And make it consistent, none of this switching in and out of poorly performed dialects. Second problem, the choreography and stage design. Apart from the utterly boring minimalist stage that could be the way the musical was originally intended, Chicago is based on the Vaudeville and Cabaret movements, so yes the movement should be subtle and sexy, but you can still be subtle and sexy and actually move across a stage at all much less without prancing. For example, remember Queen Latifa in “When You’re Good to Mama”? Yeah, copy her, walk around, actually swing your curves a little, don’t just stand there and occasionally raise your hand to shoulder level. And Velma Kelly? You are not a giraffe though you may be taller and skinnier than one, so don’t dance like it. Third problem, Roxie Hart. The best way I can describe her was a cross between Kristen Chenoweth in Wicked and Yzma, the villianess from the Disney pic The Emperor’s New Groove. I think that gives the most accurate depiction. Fourth and in my opinion biggest problem, where was all that jazz? Where was the sensuality and the ooze? Yes I said ooze not booze, if you are a dancer you’ll understand what I mean. It felt so little kiddish and perky. The story is about murder, manipulation, and illicit activities, not PopRocks and cartoons. To sum it all up in a quote from Derek Wills from SMASH! “Where’s the sex?!”

Which leads me to the one redeeming quality of the night, the surprise…

I had no idea who was playing any of the roles and was running a bit behind when I was approaching the theatre so I completely ignored the posters of the actors, or else I would have been more keen to sit through the show, based on who was playing Billy Flynn. But I didn’t have any prior knowledge and London theaters don’t hand out playbills so as I sat through the overly rushed performance refusing to clap at the end of any number, I had no idea what was in store for “All I Care About Is Love.” And by what I mean whom and by whom I mean RAZA JAFFERY!!!!!

Raza Jaffery and me 🙂

Yes, Dev from SMASH! was playing Billy Flynn!!!!!!!!!!!! He was by far the best (and most attractive, wink wink) actor in the show and made me believe that he has been underused in SMASH since he can actually sing and dance really well. He also kept up his accent through the entire musical thank goodness His being there was the only reason that I am glad I picked this show, and the picture with him afterwards by the stage door was definitely worth it.

And that brings me to the end of my spontaneous day in London, and to the fox. As I walked towards Victoria Coach Station desperately trying to hail a taxi, a fox ran in front of me on the Pall Mall. Like an actual fox. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a real fox before, and I certainly haven’t seen any wildlife besides those blasted pigeons in London. But there it was…a small fox. Random much? 🙂

Off to Hogwarts…no, really!!!

I WENT TO HOGWARTS!!!!! I stood in the Great Hall, the Gryffindor Common Room, Dumbledore’s office, the Burrow, and so many other places that just remembering them all makes me giddy. And the best part is, that this wasn’t in some extremely vivid Harry Potter dream (unlike my Hunger Games dreams, which trust me are just scary), this was real life!

As blatantly obvious from the title of my blog, I am a huge Harry Potter fan, and as such there was no way that I was going to miss the chance to visit the Warner Brother Studios Backlot in Leavesden and see all the sets, props, and costumes from my favorite book series’s film adaptations. What kind of self-respecting Potter addict would I be if I did that? Certainly not one worthy of having the name of my blog invoking the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. So I immediately snatched up two tickets for the May 2nd tour of the studios, intending on taking my travel buddy/partner extraordinaire.

Harry Potter Studio Tour!!

Only one small problem, Dan hasn’t finished the book series yet OR seen any of the movies.

Oops.

Unfortunately Dan is not a speed reader like I am and he doesn’t have any of the books with him, so I couldn’t pester him into finishing the series before we went on the tour, and I refuse to let him see the movies before he reads the books. What? I’m a purist! But I couldn’t exactly bring him along on a tour of the studios without him having the prior knowledge to appreciate it. So the solution was to watch the first movie only (we were planning on more, but our schedules got in the way) so he had at least seen the magical world before and I could feel more at peace for bringing him along.

Totally. Worth. It.

We set out at 7 am, giving ourselves three hours to reach the Studios for our tour, but I had underestimated London rush hour traffic and we ended up over 20 minutes late to our scheduled entrance time. But it ended up not being a problem as the employees were really understanding. I think it must happen all the time and the tickets are more of, guidelines, than actual rules. We queued along with other swarms of Potter fans, ending up right next to Harry’s Cupboard under the Stairs, and his glasses!

The Great Hall!!!!!

At first I felt a little silly for being so excited over seeing movie sets and props, but that self-consciousness fell away as I was struck with the awe-inspiring Great Hall set, surrounded by other people from all over the world who had been touched by JK Rowling’s incredible world as much as I had. Talk about instant camaraderie and International Magical Cooperations!

Yet another situation where words cannot do the experience justice, and there was so much packed into two sound stages that I wouldn’t even been able to describe everything we saw. Every corner you turned there were more sets, more props, more costumes, more people, more excitement than a kid in Honeydukes. And these were all originals, used in the films, not replicas like in the amusement park in Florida. We got to see how they made some of the coolest effects like flying broomsticks and the basilisk, and even see some effects that you wouldn’t think were effects at all like the crooked hallway of The Leaky Cauldron and how they made it not only crooked but also appear three times it’s actual length!

The Leaky Cauldron: This was actually only 20 feet long!

We saw the centerpiece from the Yule Ball, the Potions classroom (including self-stirring cauldrons and Harry’s Advanced Potion Making textbook), the Hogwarts Gates and thestrals, the Horcruxes, Malfoy Manor, the Griffin staircase that lead’s up to Dumbledore’s Office…see what I mean by there was something everywhere we looked? Things were even hanging from the ceiling, like the Great Hall’s ceiling model and the Hogwart’s clock. And I could keep listing for probably hours: the doors to Gringotts vaults, the Triwizard Cup and clues, the Goblet of Fire, the Hogwarts portraits, the sculptures from the Ministry of Magic, Umbridge’s office from the Ministry–outfitted with over 206 kitten plates–broomsticks, wands, Diagon Alley, everything!

Death Eater costumes at Malfoy Manor

And that was just inside.

Outside our first stop was to get a cup of butter beer, which ended up being something akin to butterscotch soda topped with cream to mimic foam. There are four stages to butter beer drinking. 1. Buying Butter Beer “OMG I am actually going to drink butter beer! This is so cool!” 2. First Sip of Butter Beer “Hey this actually isn’t that bad. And so cool!” 3. Second Sip of Butter Beer “Ok this is a little on the sweet side. But still, so cool!” 4. Third Sip of Butter Beer “I can literally feel cavities forming. Anyone want the rest of my butter beer?”  Still, it’s a novelty you must try when you can. And take a picture of the “foam mustache” you get from the cream!

Butter Beer Foam Mustaches

The rest of the backlot was pretty sparse, but that didn’t stop us from getting pictures in the flying car, the Knight Bus, knocking on the door of Privet Drive, and in front of the Potter’s Cottage. And the giant chess pieces from the first film were outside too, which made it totally worth having forced Dan into watching the first movie a few weekends ago, not that it really took much forcing. Throughout the tour, I made sure that I was always one location ahead of Dan so that I could prevent him from seeing some things that would give away story lines beyond book 5. And then of course I made Dan be in some of my 287 photos taken and promised him that he would appreciate the gesture later.

He’ll thank me one day! The Goblet of Fire

There was one more room of special effects and a magical surprise that, much like I refuse to ruin the storyline of a book, I don’t want to spoil for anyone who goes to the tour so I won’t reveal it here. Just know that I was not the only one getting teary eyed!

And what would a visit to Hogwarts be without an exit through the gift shop and the purchasing of a few treats from “Honeydukes”? 😉

A New Face; The Other Place

Wow it’s been quite a while since my last blog! Did you miss me? I hope not too much. I’d hate to think that I was letting anyone down with my sudden decrease in blog post prolificness. Is prolificness a word? Can we make it one? Awesome 😉

If I can remember correctly to the long, long time ago of my last real blog update about going to the Cotswolds, a lot has happened since then. I wouldn’t consider any of it all too exciting (hence the lack of immediate blog updates), but it has been quite the busy two weeks. After the Cotswolds, I took a trip into London to see the newly opened Kensington Palace, and to be honest and a little scathing, I wish it had remained closed. I really cannot stand when exhibits are hokey and geared for the uneducated tourist, preferring instead the historical artifacts and rooms redecorated as how they would have been in history smattered with important historical events and uses of the rooms. For a good example: Stirling Castle in Scotland, Windsor Castle in London, and Hampton Court Palace down the Thames. Excellently designed and informative, they stand out as my favorite royal homes. Kensington does not.

The King's Staircase, Kensington Palace

The exhibit on Queen Victoria’s rooms was the exception here, following more of the motif I quickly just ranted about, but the rest of the palace was filled with “whispers” in the windows and irrelevant decorations. Couple that with a cafe lacking enough indoor seating to protect from the cold and a million older ladies swarming about swooning over anything to do with the late Princess Diana, and I was getting cranky quickly. So the logical thing to do next was go back home, and I gladly obliged my logical brain.

A different trip I made into London was wholly different, though the weather remained not ideal, replacing the cold with the rain (believe it or not I prefer rain to cold!). This time I wandered through Regents Park and the Queen’s Garden, which was an absolutely stunning oasis, even in the wet, with a collection of the most vibrant tulips I have ever seen. I really didn’t know that tulips came in colors such as these!  Despite the rain, I couldn’t bring myself to seek the shelter of the trees like my fellow garden walkers, choosing instead to stand in the rain admiring flowerbeds. Simple things, right? And this is why they invented umbrellas. I kept walking through the park until I reached the London Zoo and saw a giraffe literally right on the edge of the sidewalk, but then detoured towards Primrose Hill Park and caught a taxi to the British Library.

Giraffe!

I was intending on admiring the letters sent between Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I, but they were gone! Only greatly devastated, I kept forcing myself not to cry and remember that the British Library houses umpteen written works and that they can’t all be on display all the time (okay so maybe I wasn’t actually crying, but I have a flair for writing the dramatic). After my book indulgence and tearing myself away from the library’s book store, I walked to St. Paul’s Cathedral and actually did the audio tour. Which oddly enough, in a testament to the evolution of technology, was given on an iPod Touch. Totally cool! Considering the number of times I’ve been to London and walked passed St. Paul’s, I’m surprised that I have never been inside for more than a quick run-through. And my goodness, what a tragedy, as I have been missing out on one of the most incredible architectural experiences one could imagine. So ornate and intricate, built by Sir Christopher Wren, and with an audio guide that extensively discusses the mosaics and other artwork, St. Paul’s became one of those places that I regretted only having two hours to spend inside before it closed for evening worship. Oh and its cafe in the crypt had a pretty decent cream tea though completely clueless and easily confused employees.

I’m pretty sure that apart from one further day trip, which I’ll get to later, that has been the extent of my travels over the last two weeks. The weather hasn’t really been cooperating enough to justify traipsing around the country. Trying to see new places is not as enjoyable in the gray and rain, especially when it switches every few minutes. There was a particularly bizarre day here where it was cold in the morning, had intermittent showers through to the afternoon, then a wonderful and warm hour of sunshine causing me to instantly shed my winter coat and sit outside at a cafe for tea, then cloud cover struck again and it began hailing for ten minutes, then some more sun, and another bout of intense hail before settling down back into the monochrome gray. I’m sorry, but is it really so difficult as to be consistent?! If it’s going to rain, fine, rain, but don’t tease me with these beautiful moments of sunshine and heat. I believe we call that cruelty.

Needless to say the weather has prevented me from going out too much, relegating me instead to lots of dance rehearsals and other inside activities. Dan, that wonderful dance partner of mine, and I now have FOUR new routines in preparation for the Varsity team tryouts this Saturday: a new quickstep where we run around half of the floor, skip the other half, and charleston/woodpecker/pendulum/penguin our way in the center; a waltz that utilizes my ballet training in some beautiful poses and a move that has me running around in circles for about 10 seconds (no joke), a jive so fast and goofy that I earned the nicknames of both a dying duck and a chicken trying to lay an ostrich egg, and a glorious cha cha with a Phantom of the Opera spin and backstory. All hard work to say the least, but also super exciting to be doing Intermediate routines having only a few months ago been Beginners. Bring it on Cambridge! But even if we don’t get the opportunity to dance for Oxford, it’s been two weeks full of quality time with Dan, so completely worth it.

Partners who bake together, stay together

And who is this new face I know you are all dying to hear about? Well in an odd twist of fate, it would be me. Because I actually got a waitressing job! Meaning that in the restaurant hereafter known as R (why the secrecy? 1. because I don’t want anyone visiting me haha 2. This isn’t going to turn into a WaiterRantEsque blog, so you won’t be hearing about customers or coworkers in detail) I am officially the New Girl from LA. I’m not positive if I actually have the job yet, right now I’m just considered a trainee and have only had two shifts, but I had so much fun during my first shifts so I really hope they hire me part time. And soon too, though not tomorrow morning since I have a fun surprise planned.

Which brings me to Sunday, my day trip that has been leaving you in suspense for 1180 words. Where did she go? I know you are all asking. I can’t handle the not knowing! Don’t worry, I’m putting you out of your misery: I went to Cambridge, not-so-fondly known as The Other Place to us Oxfordians. Of course to Cambridgers we are known as The Other Place, so it’s all fair game. It took me a solid four hours of traveling to get there and then another 3 hours back, so I really only had about 5 1/2 hours to spend in the town itself. Which was honestly plenty. Cambridge is no where near the size of Oxford, feeling more like one giant university campus as opposed to a bustling city centre hiding an ancient university down its back alleys. I had a mental running commentary not only about its differences from Oxford, but also its similarities to USC (what can I say? Once a Bruin, always a Bruin), and like USC to UCLA, Cambridge fell short to Oxford. Maybe I was immediately prejudiced by the fact that it was raining the whole first half of the day there, so I couldn’t really see anything on the bus tour I took and when I was walking around my line of vision was obscured by my now broken umbrella, but I just couldn’t see myself living in Cambridge full time like I do in Oxford. There seems to be more to do here outside of simply study, whereas I couldn’t really see that in Cambridge. We are also more of a centralized location to the rest of the country, making it an ideal starting point to traveling; to travel from Cambridge you need to first go into London, a natural barrier to a travel-addict such as myself.

Trinity College, Cambridge

Now once the sun came out at around 3:30 pm, the town took on a whole new facade, full of richly decorated brick buildings and cobblestone streets. The advantage to bus tour tickets is that they are good for 24 hours, so I hopped back on the nearest stop and retook half of the tour so that I could actually see what the recording was talking about. The town does have some beautiful buildings and interesting history. And I have no problem in admitting that their Trinity College is without a doubt the most beautiful college I have seen in my entire life, including those I visited in the States. No, I am not prejudiced because it was founded by Henry VIII and is one of the most prestigious Cambridge colleges, it is truly a magnificent campus, with a wide quadrangle and chapel housing many Tudor references. Famous alums? Isaac Newton, Tennyson, Edward VII, A.A. Milne (author of Winnie-the-Pooh) and Francis Bacon. If I were to go to Cambridge–which I won’t–I would be applying there for sure.

Beyond that, my time has mostly been spent working on my papers and research (yes Trinity term has officially begun and thus so has a workload) and exchanging baked goods with my partner. He made me carrot cake and double chocolate cookies, and I returned the favor with Earl Grey Banana Bread and Red Velvet Cheesecake Brownies. Hopefully I can get through a few more new baking recipes before I have to go home in seven weeks.

But what also happens in seven weeks? I get to see my baby!!!

Last stop…

…London! Were you waiting for it? I told you to wait for it, so we now know your inability to follow directions if you didn’t. *Sarcasm Sign*

But it began with a day in London just us girls. Kevin and Dad went to Stonehenge, Old Sarum, and Bath so we had the whole day to ourselves. Mom and I checked into The Rubens at the Palace, a hotel full of memories for us as it was the same hotel we stayed at when we came three years ago. They kindly pretended to remember us, but we know that they don’t (except our favorite doorman Nathan who actually DID remember us!). It’s cute though. The first thing we did was take a tube to Piccadilly Circus to snag two of the last seats to that night’s performance of Les Miserables. They were in the Upper Dress Circle, aka the nosebleed seats, but they were tickets and that is all that mattered. I’m willing to suffer through a lot for the theatre.

Our first real activity of the day was going to the Victoria & Albert Museum in the Burrough of Kensington. I loved the museum, and it’s something I had wanted to do in London for a while and just hadn’t gotten the chance. It was full of decorative arts exhibits, so things like clothes, furniture, jewelry, plate ware, and my personal favorite, snuff boxes.

A snuff box, makes more sense why I like them now doesn't it?

Basically a ton of sparkly things which everyone knows I am attracted to like a fish. We lingered over the items from the Tudor era obviously, and while the ball dresses exhibit wasn’t open yet, there was a wonderful exhibit on theatre production that put us in the mood for Les Mis.

We spent a long time in the V&A and then went to the famous department store, Harrods, which nearly ruined my beautiful day. It was gaudy and crowded, hot and smelly, and not just because of the perfume counters. Everything was a disgusting shrine to excess and overindulgence. We barely walked in before we got lost and asked an employee for a map just to find an escape from the place. It was one of the lower points of the entire trip and I have no idea why anyone would want to step foot in there. And then once we ahd escaped, we couldn’t find a nearby place for tea so we went back to our own beautiful and calm–as well as tea providing–hotel for scones and Early Grey. Definitely an improvement, bringing me back to the happiness of spending time with Mom, going to the V&A, and basking in the beautiful sunlight.

Tea Time

We went back to Piccadilly around 6 pm to grab dinner before the play. Because we were on the border of SoHo, most everywhere was clubs or cocktail bars and we ate at Le Pain Quotedienne. Our waiter was awesome. He was funny, liked Harry Potter and Disney, and even watches Downton Abbey. Unfortunately we didn’t get his name and will never see him again because he really was a sweetie. But Les Mis was calling and the theatre waits for no diner.

Les Mis was even better than I could have hoped for. The singing, the staging, the singing (yes, it deserves multiple mentions). I can see why everyone becomes addicted. I pretty much sobbed the entire last third of the musical, which was problematic as I had forgotten tissues. I was stunned, speechless, and streaming tears for a while after curtain.

At Les Mis

But all good things must come to an end; all too soon we were joined at The Rubens by the menfolk and nighttime gave way to morning of our first day in London as the four of us.

Kevin really wasn’t feeling well on this new morning so he elected to forgo going to Windsor Castle with us in exchange for an extra four hours of sleep. It was Dad’s first experience with the Tube, so we were lucky that it wasn’t as crowded as it generally is so Dad wouldn’t get separated from us. We got a much later start than Mom and I are used to or wanted to, so by the time we made it to Windsor we ended up waiting in quite a long line than we would’ve if we had arrived earlier.

Windsor Castle, the Queen was in residence

And St. George’s Chapel was closed for Sunday services so no Hency VIII grave for us (thankfully Mom and I saw it last time). All we ended up being able to do was Queen Mary’s Dollhouse, the State Apartments, and the outside areas. We did all of that three years ago on our Tudor Tour, but that time we had arrived so late in the day that we had had to rush everything. This time we were able to take our time, but with the chapel closed there wasn’t much else to do. We listened to the entire audio guide of the apartments and grounds, ate lunch, and walked back to the rail station. Dad loved the castle and went on and on about how cool it was. Our first train back was cancelled so we waited around for another 20 minutes for the next one. Once at Waterloo Station, there was a lot of security ushering us out of the station; apparently there was a fire report at one of the cafes.

We ate here last time we were at Windsor

Our initial plan was to do another cream tea and then catch a Hop-on-Hop-Off tour so Dad and Kevin could see more of London without needing to walk around for four days. As the train was later than we had anticipated, in fact the whole day was later than we had anticipated, Mom and I chose to graciously give up our precious tea in favor of catching one of the last tours. It turned out that the last live guide bus was leaving from Green Park at 5 and we were at one of last stops (Victoria) so we could get on the last tour IF we made it to Green Park in 20 minutes. We ended up making it with literally a minute to spare. Then while everyone went upstairs, I had to deal with a broken credit card machine preventing me from paying for the tickets. When it was finally worked out I went upstairs and snagged a spot at the very front of the bus, prime picture taking location. The rest of the family was in the back of the bus, abandoning me to be surrounded by Mafia men (no joke).

Rare photo of Dad and me at the Windsor Governor's House

Back at the hotel, Kevin and I sent Mom and Dad off to have dinner together while Kevin was stood up by a friend who was also visiting in London and I slept. Then Dad swapped places with me and slept while the three of us went downstairs for dinner and pudding 🙂 A lot of funny moments came out of that pudding.

For our last full day together (sadness) we went to the Tower of London, one of my favorite places to visit. I’ve been there twice already, so the immediate reaction would be an eye roll because there is a theoretically finite amount of things to do and see at the Tower. I mean I can basically spew off most of the same information about the history of the Tower that someone would get from the audio guide, so it isn’t like I can learn a whole lot more by continuing to visit.

Tower of London

But Dad had yet to go there and there was a huge draw for Mom and me as well. Thinking that it opened at 9:30, we took the tube, arriving at 9:15. Turns out that the Tower wasn’t open until 10 am. I was huddling on a bench in the sun because it hadn’t warmed up enough yet and Kevin and I practiced our British accents on each other to the embarrassment of our parents. I think we are getting pretty good at them to be honest. The gates opened at 10, but the first guided tour wasn’t until 10:30 (which once again further threw off our time game plan) so we beat the crowds to the jewel house and awed at the sparkliness of the Crown Jewels. Again, bored boys, starry eyed girls. That took all of 15 minutes and we made our way back to the entrance of the fortress to meet up with the tour guide.

The tour, as it was the first of the day, was incredibly crowded, probably consisting of 75 people. Thankfully the tour guide could project, because his jokes were hilarious and his history engaging (learned some new things! See? Totally worth revisiting). But as great as our guide was, he paled in comparison to the whole purpose of taking the tour: access to the chapel. Specifically, entrance to the site of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howards’ graves (always a Tudor reason behind my thoughts). Yes, I actually got to see the graves of those two tragic women, and was completely overwhelmed, as I often become when faced with the reality of history. Completely satisfied with my time at the Tower, I waited on a warm bench (are you sensing a theme yet?) while the rest of the family breezed through some of the other Tower exhibits, and then we all left and headed for the Tate Modern.

Here is where Kevin received his reward for being an awesome brother on this trip: we all went to a modern art gallery with him despite Mom and me hating modern art and Dad’s back not really able to handle standing around galleries. But the guy earned it, so we all kindly sucked it up and allowed him as much time as he wanted to explore the exhibits. Which honestly only took about an hour as the gallery is really only one floor, so we soon moved on to the National Gallery, a place I was much more interested in. The National Gallery has over 150 hours of audio commentary, meaning that renting one for the second time was worth it. I made sure not to listen to the same paintings as before, choosing instead an entirely different genre of works, and I also made sure that I wasn’t wandering on an empty stomach! Greatly increased my enjoyment and focusing ability. This time I was the last one done, but there was a cafe downstairs so everyone had agreed to just meet there and no one got lost. Then we walked back to the hotel, where Mom and I were greeted by the wonderful Nathan holding out an envelope for us containing our incredible seats for Billy Elliot.

Obviously Mom and I have no qualms about seeing productions more than once, note our 6 time experience with Wicked, but we had attempted to get last minute tickets to the eternally sold out War Horse. Unfortunately, those did not pan out so we consoled ourselves with the brilliant Billy. Definitely one of the best productions in London, and highly recommended by, well, me. Also, tidbit for those in LA, it’s coming to the Pantages! So buy a ticket, you won’t be sorry, I promise.

Unfortunately this left us with only one more morning to share before they had to leave me in the UK for their lives back in California. We chose to spend this melancholy morning in a melancholy place, a church. Specifically Westminster Abbey, fittingly surrounding ourselves with illustrious but dead people. I took my time even more than usual here, because last time Mom and I were both able to find the resting places of some important but relatively obscure Tudor people (Anne of Cleves and Anne Bolyen’s niece Katherine Knoylls), so I was hoping that I would stumbled across more of these people if I was just patient and didn’t zip through the Abbey like Dad did. I was rewarded as well, finding Anne Boleyn’s nephew and Elizabeth I’s counselor Henry Carey. Even cooler, I bumped into a friend from UCLA! Completely random, unintentional, and kind of surreal. We started at each other for a solid minute of confusion before realizing neither of us was hallucinating and yes, we were both real people standing in Westminster Abbey. Her friend just got accepted to Oxford so she came over to visit on her spring break. But how amazing that we both were in Westminster at the same time and able actually could catch up for a bit? So bizarre how small of a world it can be!

Nathan!

Following the conclusion of Westminster, we took a massively scenic route up towards Trafalgar’s Square before heading back to the hotel for our farewells. As all taxis seem to be in the UK, my family’s ride to the airport was 15 minutes early, so the goodbyes were a little more sudden than I was expecting. I am so grateful that they came to visit and that I had the chance to spend two weeks with my dad and brother and three with my mom.

Now for a week of school work and dance and rest before I set off on another trip to Paris with my friends!

No, Dad, Nessy Does Not Live in that Loch!

I keep wanting to say “Oh today we did x”, but as I am relaying our travels about a week after they actually occurred, beginning a post with that introduction doesn’t really work. If I was going to start with “Today I did …” I would be obliged to talk about my making it to Summertown from my apartment in 23 minutes (those of you in Oxford will understand exactly how incredible of a feat that was), my shoe shopping, my wonderful lunch with Partner, and my walking through University Parks with aforementioned Partner discussing baseball (Magic Johnson bought the Dodgers! There is hope in the world after all!) enjoying THE MOST BEAUTIFUL DAY IN ENGLAND!!! Sorry, sunlight makes me a little giddy. But alas, I am not writing about this rejuvenating spring day, I am writing about a different, though nearly as beautiful day back in Scotland last week.

On this day, we took a ten hour bus tour up to the Highlands. Honestly, it was such a relief to not have had to plan out an entire day. Instead Mom and I got to be led around and could sit back and just enjoy ourselves. Our driver, that silent Scottish man behind the wheel, was named Gus and our actual guide was Mav. One syllable names, easy enough to remember, enabled maximum mental checking out capabilities. Mav was hilarious, as well as extremely well-versed in history so I was actually able to learn a lot about the Scottish history that I didn’t know. He also made plenty of digs at the English and Scottish alike, so we were often laughing. I became a little nauseous a few times from motion sickness; the roads were much windier than even the Ring of Kerry in Ireland.

Dunkeld Cathedral

Our first stop was a one street town called Dunkeld. There was a small path through a swatch of woods that let out in front of this cathedral, tiny compared to all of the other ones I’ve seen, which was built beginning in the 1200s and is now half ruins. The weather was one of the most beautiful days I’ve ever experienced in my time here (though definitely surpassed by today’s). And the banks of the river were so calm and warm that I wanted nothing more than to lay on the grass and rest, warmed by the sun, surrounded by the Highland mountain views.

Looks fake doesn't it?

Of course the peace was shattered by a fighter plane roaring overhead. What a way to kill a moment of tranquility. The rest of the town was straight out of a postcard. The buildings all date from the Georgian era because in 1689 a battle between the Catholic Jacobites and the Protestants destroyed most of the town.

Stop number two was a bit more north, a village called Pitlochry. On the way there we kept seeing these caws that were so shaggy I would sooner call them wooly mammoths rather than Highland Cows. Pitlochry became one of those towns buoyed by tourism, and its hydroelectric dam and salmon ladder. We walked down there after grabbing lunch (Mom and I finally got our pasties and yes, they tasted like the ones my grandfather would make when my mom was a little girl), and while the dam was just another dam, the walk there was just as picturesque as the rest of the town.

It is seriously so difficult to pick out which photos to post, they are all so beautiful!

Most of Scotland is subject to preservation laws, meaning that people who buy a property must maintain the place’s original architecture and exterior design. Therefore the villages maintain their quaint facades. Yet another reason why I love the UK! They want to preserve their history and look. We also started talking to two other people on the tour, two girls named Natalie and Cat.

Typical shot of my family

Back on the bus we headed to Aberfeldy for yet another distillery tour (so boring as they all are!), but we stopped a few times along the road so we could get pictures of Loch Tummel. I have so many pictures of gorgeous lochs, but all too soon for my taste, we arrived in Aberfeldy for the Dewar Distillery tour, just as dull as I expected and triggering hours of commentary about whisky from the boys. I am never going to a distillery again. We left too late for me and my sanity, but I regained it as the rest of our stops all revolved around nature.

Loch Tay

The first of these final stops was along Lock Tay, which is an endpoint of the River Tay, the largest in terms of water volume flowing through it river in Britain. The real stop during this final leg was the Falls of Dochart. When Mav said “falls” I pictured a short hike to a Hawai’i type waterfall in the Highland crags, but the Falls of Dochart are more accurately described as rapids flowing under a bridge and over some rocks. Not what I was anticipating but just as beautiful albeit in a different way. Unfortunately that marked the end of our tour and we headed back in to Edinburgh just in time for dinner.

A bridge over mildly annoyed water

We ate at the conveniently located Pizza Express. The two girls from earlier, Natalie and Cat, joined us and I swear that Cat was the perfect girl for Kevin. Devastatingly we didn’t exchange Facebook information so I’m pretty sure we just missed out on the love of my brother’s life. A tragedy if there ever was one.

 

The Menfolk vs. The Womenfolk

Travel days are usually uneventful. We were flying from Shannon, Ireland to Edinburgh, Scotland so we had to sneak out of the B&B at 6 am as it was a 2 hour drive to the airport. Days spent in airports and on airplanes are hardly eventful. Of course given that the plane was a turboprop plane that wobbled as we were taking off, we were thanking our lucky stars for uneventful! Mom and I were both sad that we didn’t get Edinburgh stamped on our passports. That would have been really cool as I have a minor addiction to getting stamps on my passport.

In Edinburgh we stayed in an apartment. Having an apartment to ourselves, complete with a kitchen and the washer-dryer combination machine from hell, a living room, and a wonderful towel warmer was a welcome change, apart from it being smack dab in the middle of Edinburgh’s strip club district. Not exactly the best place for me to wander alone at night, as I found out when I went for a walk and came face to face with…well, this isn’t exactly a topic of conversation for polite society I suppose.

We threw a load of laundry in the washer/dryer thing and then caught one of the Hop-on-Hop-off tours. Unfortunately, as it is technically still the winter off-season, there were no live guides, only a super lame audio commentary. Such a shame because the live guides make all the difference. And that will henceforth be my first item of travel advice to anyone: if doing a bus tour WAIT FOR A LIVE GUIDE. It just isn’t worth it otherwise. Regardless the tours are a solid way to orient yourself to a city, and this one was fun for Mom and me as it cued up a lot of memories from our trip back in 2009. I was surprised at just what randomness we remember, like “here is where the pidgin almost pooped on my head” type stuff.

William McGonagall

We took the tour all the way around once and then up one or two more stops to the statue of Greyfriar’s Bobby, the dog so devoted to his owner that after his death the dog sat on his grave in the Greyfriar Church cemetery. The people of Edinburgh took care of Bobby and he is also buried in the churchyard.

Thomas Riddell

But the real draw of the cemetery was it’s Harry Potter connections (of course, right?). JK Rowling took some of the names of her characters from graves in the cemetery. I found two on this visit: a William McGonagall and a Scrymgeour.

Mary Turner Scrymgeour

Two days later I also found Thomas Riddell. After that, we walked over George IV Bridge and stumbled across The Elephant House, the cafe where Rowling wrote the first book on a bunch of napkins. I basically needed out, for good reason! This was the birthplace of Harry Potter!!!

The Elephant House

From there we just walked to Princes Street to buy the souvenirs for everyone at home. I don’t know how I did it, but I remembered my way there from three years ago. I think I have a near eidetic memory when it comes to maps and cities. Then we ate dinner at Bella Italia. Back at our apartment, Dad tried to make tea in the kettle they provided us, but never having used one like it and without me there to explain it, he just put it on the lit fire stove. Instantly the whole apartment smelled of melting rubber. I ran into the kitchen and yanked the kettle off the fire. Dad didn’t realize that it was an electric kettle!!!! Now you have to hold it in a really awkward direction and push on it in order to get it to heat up on its stand (no more kettles in the UK for Dad).

We started the next day at Edinburgh Castle. Mom and I both did the audio guide last time we were here, so nothing was particularly noteworthy or new; everything was just a repeat of what we had heard three years ago.

Edinburgh Castle

Unfortunately, one of the coolest exhibits in the castle was closed, the prisoners of war exhibit. As such, what should have taken about four hours only took two and a half including lunch in the castle cafe. I tried a sample of whatever whisky liquor was on sample, mostly for nostalgia’s sake as I hate whisky. On our last trip here, I tried whisky for the first time and was instantly sent running for water. This time I handled it a lot better, but I didn’t like it anymore than last time! The boys on the other hand are motivated to become whisky enthusiasts which meant that they boys wanted to go into every whisky shop down the Royal Mile. At least we also went into St. Giles’ Cathedral, something I really wanted to see.

I was also able to convince the boys to hold off going into every shop, instead to wait for the one recommended by the Rick Steve’s Guidebook. What made me even happier that day was that the Palace of Holyroodhouse was open! No garden parties in March! We sent the menfolk off on what we thought would be a whisky hunt but ended up being a hike up the crags while we girls got to tour the palace in peace and without being rushed by two bored men anxious to get to another whisky shop.

Palace of Hollyroodhouse

The palace tour is broken up into two parts: the current royal apartments and the historical apartments of Mary, Queen of Scots. Both were really interesting, though I am obviously partial to the historic aspect of it all rather than the celebrity-like obsession with the royal family.

We finally got to go inside!

But the palace is a stunning piece of architecture and decor; understandably you can’t take pictures inside so I will have to cherish the memory of finding a portrait of Mary Boleyn, as well as Henry VIII, Mary I, Edward VI, Elizabeth I, and everyone associated with Mary, Queen of Scots in one of her rooms. In fact it was the one in which her Italian secretary and friend David Rizzio was murdered by her second husband, Lord Darnley. I love history!

As the boys had not gone to that whisky shop, Mom and I accompanied them to Cadenhead Whisky Shop where they were like kids in an alcoholic candy store.

Cadenhead Whisky Shop, aka the store that reeks of cigarettes, cigars, and booze

Mom and I left them this time, and ended up walking past this dress shop and found my dress for the Keble Ball. It’s stunning and I can’t wait to wear it!

We all reconvened at the apartments and the guys picked out a Chinese place for dinner, but Mom and I were so exhausted that we chose to sleep and later grabbed dinner at Sainsbury down the street (I spy with my innocent eyes strippers standing around outside). After the boys returned from an apparently terrible meal, we all curled up to watch the first Harry Potter movie. Inner nerd very happy 🙂