I’m back from London. It was a lovely week, filled with old friends, the usual London sights, and plenty of pints of Strongbow. It was actually a rather surreal experience because I felt like I had never really left the city, and that the past three months in an overglorified resort town of yesteryear was just a temporary exile. But, unfortunately, I no longer live there, and have to refer to everything in the past: “my old tube stop”, “where I used to live”, etc. But, might as well get on with this post, the point of it being to describe what I actually did while over there.
Our flight from LAX to Heathrow was fine, except for the hour of nonstop turbulence. Now, sometimes I think that brief periods of turbulence can be quite fun, like a rollercoaster, but when you are sitting through an hour of it, you begin to wonder how safe you really are flying in an aluminum tube 30,000 feet over the North Atlantic with no land in sight. I found myself desperately trying to remember the aerospace education classes I had slept through as a cadet in Civil Air Patrol: “Uhhh…turbulence…is…uh, pockets…of…air? Just a…minor…annoyance…to pilots.” Damn, no wonder I never made it past Airman First Class. Eventually, however, the captain came over the PA system and said “I assure you, ladies and gentlemen, that while this may not be fun, you are perfectly safe.” Thanks, Captain.
We arrived in Heathrow around 2pm, after descending through dark, thick clouds of smoke that smelled of petroleum (a huge fuel depot had blown up north of London, you see). We had our passports stamped and collected our luggage, but when we got to the station for the Heathrow Express (a fast train from the airport to Central London) my dad discovered that his carry-on bag was missing, so I spent a good hour searching around Heathrow, from the Heathrow Express ticket counter, past security back to the luggage carousels, and back to passport control. The bag was gone, never to return, but those workers at Heathrow sure are a nice bunch of people. When I got back to the station, there was a train waiting at the platform so I screamed “Train! Let’s go!” and we grabbed our luggage. My parents made it onto the train, but just then, as my body was half into the train car, the doors closed. I had tried to use the skills I had acquired while on the DC metro in order to force the doors open, but the British like their trains to run on time, and nothing I could do would let me get onto that train. I was publicly reprimanded by two Heathrow Express staff members, one over the loudspeaker and one in a long, purple coat, for my attempts to interfere with the train’s departure. So, Kim and I waved goodbye to my parents, who were off to Paddington station, and oh, did I mention that they didn’t have their train tickets because they were sitting in my coat pocket? As you can see, this first hour of our trip was just lovely!
The main purpose of this trip to London was, of course, my graduation ceremony, held on Wednesday, December 14th. The ceremony was at 11am, but I had to arrive at LSE earlier in order to pick up my gown, which was being distributed in the basement of the Old Building (that LSE, they sure do know how to name those buildings!). Now, the only other college graduation I’ve gone through is GWU, so I will thus compare everything to GWU. First off, at GWU, a few days before the ceremony we would wander over to the Herff-Jones representative to pick up our cap and gown, which were bright and shiny and wrapped in plastic. At LSE, though, we had to rent our graduation robes. I suppose you could buy them if you wanted, but personally I could think of better things to spend $700 on. So, an hour before your ceremony, you are issued your robe and cap in the Old Building, and then wait patiently in line for the next available old and adorable British man to dress you. They are all dressed in fine suits and speak with that impeccable upper class British accent, you see, because our robe providers, Ede and Ravenscroft Ltd., are the official robemakers to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and thus must act the role even if they are only helping idiotic foreigners such as myself properly wear my gown (er, robe?). Now, my gown was nowhere near as regal as the Queen’s, as it wasn’t decked out in jewels or animal fur or whatever, but it was still a spiffy outfit. It was confusing, too, because as I was being dressed by the aforesaid old British man, I managed to stick my arms through the wrong openings in the arm (it’s confusing to explain, but come on, it was morning and I didn’t have any caffeine yet). Looking at my arms poking out through the wrong openings, my dresser remarked “Come on dear, you’re about to receive your master’s degree, get your arms right.” (Hey now, I bet you aren’t snarky with the Queen when you are robing her, are ya?!) “Sorry, sir,” I replied sheepishly “but in the U.S. we wear cheap polyester gowns.” I think he was satisfied with that explanation.
The actual graduation ceremony was held in the Peacock Theatre on the LSE campus. It involved a few speeches, walking across the stage while your name was being read, and shaking Howard Davies’ (LSE Director) hand. It was pretty much like a typical graduation, but seemed a bit more “authentic” because everyone was speaking with British accents and Howard Davies was sitting on a throne. Weird, I know. After the ceremony we had a reception in the Hong Kong theatre, where waiters served us mimosas and set out plates of mini sandwiches and mince pies, those great British delicacies. I’ve never had a mince pie before, and after my first one, I’ve determined that I wasn’t missing out on anything because YUCK!
Since graduation was only a few hours, the rest of my time in London was spent wandering around the various tourist sights and drinking and dining at the places I came to know quite well over the past year. Since Kim had never been to London before, I made sure that she saw the important stuff like Parliament and Big Ben, the London Eye, Tate Modern, Trafalgar Square, Camden Town, Bankside area, Covent Garden, Picadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Imperial War Museum, etc. And, of course, we stopped by Harrod’s, a place that can make even Krispy Kreme donuts seem “posh.” I rarely ever buy anything when I go to Harrod’s, but it’s still fun to wander around the food halls, leaving behind a trail of drool, and then admire the gold-plated mobile phones in the “room of luxury.” We also met up with Mark at the London Tower, so he could admire how all his UK tax dollars are protecting the Queen’s crown jewels (Hi Mark! Great to finally meet up with you!). I’ve been to the Tower of London a few times, but I’ve never taken the Beefeater tour until now…totally worth it!
Another big part of the trip to London was the food. We don’t have much ethnic food here in the desert (or if we do, it’s ridiculously expensive), so it was great to visit the restaurants we used to frequent: Monsoon (Indian) on Brick Lane, Lebanese in Kensington, Tas Pide (Turkish) in Bankside, Lowlander Pub (Belgian) in Covent Garden, etc. We also stopped by one of our favorite pubs in Notting Hill, Churchill Arms, which serves excellent Thai food for under 6 quid a dish. Afterwards, we went to the Hillgate pub and then the Windsor Castle pub (Hobbit pub), which was serving an excellent winter Pimm’s drink. Later that week, the Bankside crew gathered at our local pub, the Anchor, which was now apparently the scene of a techno dance party. It was very odd, because usually the Anchor is pretty chill, but whatever, it is still a great pub – you just have to take your pint upstairs, where it is a bit quieter and you can hear your friends talk. (Omar, glad you could pull yourself away from your i-banking job to have a pint with us).
No trip to London would be complete without afternoon tea, of course, so a bunch of us RPSS grads met up at the Orangery in Kensington Gardens. If you’re ever looking for a place to have tea, cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches, and scones with jam and clotted cream, you have to try the Orangery. It’s really cheap (about 10 quid) compared to the Ritz, and in a very nice location. Whenever someone would come visit me in London, I’d always take them to the Orangery so they could experience this wonderful British tradition which I have never really seen British people partake in.
On Saturday I took my parents to the Borough Market so they could finally see what I had been raving about for the past year. And since it was hard to decide between the falafel and hamburger, I just had them both, and picked up a “world famous” brownie for later.
During our last afternoon in London, Kim and I went souvenir shopping. Since I’m no longer a resident of London, I’m allowed to enter the cheesy souvenir shops and buy ridiculous stuff like flip flops with the Tube map printed on them. We also did some last minute shopping at Heathrow Airport, and, at 9am, had a bottle of Scrumpy Jack’s and pint of Stella before catching our plane back to the hell that is Los Angeles. I don’t care how good the weather in LA is, flying back there from London is just goddamned depressing.
Thus concludes our trip to London, and also my year at LSE. I miss that city so much, and not a day goes by that I don’t think of all the great times I had and all the wonderful people I met while living there. I also have an immense sense of pride when it comes to London – is that odd, to take pride in a city that you only lived in for a year, and one that is located in a country of which you aren’t even a citizen? Possibly. I have visited a lot of different cities during my travels, and none of those cities – not Moscow, Paris, Rome, nor Prague, could possibly top London…it is simply the greatest city that I have ever had the pleasure of visiting, and I am eternally grateful for the year that I lived there. I hope that sometime in the future I will be able to move back there, but until then, this trip served as an excellent way to say goodbye to the city that I had fallen in love with over this past year.
“You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” – Samuel Johnson