Yeah, these photos are over two years old (September ’05) and I just got around to uploading them. I’ve only got 100+ more to go.
These were all taken during my last week in London, when I decided to make one more quick visit to some of the sights in the city.
Buckingham Palace, view from the backyard
As to be expected, the Queen has a ridiculously large backyard
Hanging out in the palace backyard after tea with Lizzie.
A royal swan in Round Pond, Kensington Gardens.
I didn’t want to get to close to the swans as they might recognize me from previous “incidents” and maul me, or something.
Tributes to Princess Diana on the gates of Kensington Palace, her former residence
Last night in the old ‘hood
Here’s a few more recently upped photos of LSE friends – some from my dorm (Bankside represent) and others from my Russian & Post-Soviet Studies (RPSS) program. The theme for this week is drinking, or whatever.
This is a pic of Omar from the Bankside boat party held at the beginning of term. Possibly the greatest neighbor you could ask for, he had excellent taste in music and was a constant source of entertainment during dinnertime when we were forced to endure the culinary disaster that is British dorm food. “What is this? This…this…fishcake?!” Watch out for this dude, though – he’s like a Moroccan version of Andy Fastow. There’s no telling what he learned in those finance classes…
At a bar in Notting Hill, drinking some of that delicious Belgian fruit flavored beer – Me, Mathias, Taline, Erin, Hudson
Moira, myself, and Jessica at the Great British Beer Festival. I totally shoulda been working on my dissertation instead of spending 12 hours here.
Crystal and I enjoying Snakebites at a pub in Holborn after watching the “Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch” video a million times at the LSE library (Dissertation, whatever)
BBQ on Olga’s rooftop. Olga says she isn’t mentioned enough on this blog except for the snowboarding post, so check it dude, I’m giving you props here. Olga had the effin’ sweetest flat ever right on the Thames. That’s the Tate Modern right there in the back…my dorm was right behind the Tate Modern.
Take some Americans, Russians, Germans, French, British, Canadians and an Iranian. Add vodka. Mix thoroughly. Drink. Repeat. This being a party hosted by Olga, the vodka, of course, was the wonderful Russki Standart:
Hudson, Alec, Olga, Mathias
Erin, I have no idea who this guy is, Crystal, Taline, Hudson
Erin, Taline, Crystal, and I at Taline’s rooftop party in Notting Hill during one of those beautiful summer nights in London. Taline, like Olga, also had an amazing flat that was near some of the greatest pubs in the city.
One of a million toasts at Taline’s infamous birthday party (Taline also thinks she is not on this website enough, hopefully this post will rectify that a bit). I swear to God, everytime a group of us RPSS alums meet up, this party will eventually come up.
“That blood was still on the wall five months later!”
“I was just standing there and someone handed me a plate…that was on fire.”
It never gets old…for us, at least.
And with that, I have to go figure out how to do my taxes.
Despite having left London in September 2005, I still have yet to upload all the photos from the year I spent there. Here’s a few from the popular London tourist attraction, Madame Tussauds wax museum, otherwise known as the most famous “tourist trap” in the city. Crystal and I went there one late summer afternoon after spending the day stuck inside the library working on our dissertations.
The staff has a lot of fun arranging the wax figures according to the most recent tabloid headlines. When we visited, Brad Pitt was separated from Jennifer Aniston and moved next to Angelina Jolie. Scandalous, indeed.
Brad Pitt’s wax figure is “pinchable.” Other wax figures, such as Vladimir Putin are not.
OMGWTF Ronald Reagan is back from the dead
Crystal passing along a few military secrets to Putin
A metrosexual, pink shirt-wearing John Wayne
George Clooney, such a romantic guy
“Uh, I dunno, Napoleon. You really think invading Russia is such a good idea?”
“UN, you have a problem with that? You know what you should do? You should sanction me. Sanction me with your army. Oh!! Wait a minute! You don’t have an army! I guess that means you need to STFU!” (obligatory Chappelle’s Show reference)
I met him after Rumsfeld did
Madame Tussauds is more than just wax figures, however. We went into the Chamber of Horrors which was like a haunted house – really scary and made us scream a lot and we ran through it as quickly as possible. The guy dressed up as Hannibal Lecter kept following us, which was totally bizarre. After that we went on the “Spirit of London” ride where you sit in this little black cab and are taken on a ride through 400 years of London’s history. This includes the plague, which is represented by animatronic rats nibbling on dead bodies, and an Austin Powers-ish conclusion starring a psychedelic, rotating Queen Elizabeth.
The last stop on our visit to Madame Tussauds was the planetarium. Yes, a planetarium. It was educational, but after it was over we were like “What does that have to do with celebrity wax figures?”
I know that after reading this, you are all ready to buy a ticket to London so you can see the wax museum for yourself. Well, come Fall 2007, you’ll just have to ride the red/orange/blue lines to Metro Center in order to visit Washington’s very own Madame Tussauds!
The $16 million project, now in design, is slated to include replicas of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence; interactive experiences involving the history of Washington; and a replica of the Oval Office, where visitors can have their picture taken. President Abraham Lincoln is the designated “greeter,” so his likeness is likely to be the first visitors see upon entering.
Replicas of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence? Who needs to see the real things anyways?
Our flight out of Yerevan left a little after 10am. Prior to leaving, we had to pay a “departure fee”, which is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard of. You guys made me buy two visas and yet I still have to PAY to LEAVE your country? Whatev.
The flight to Heathrow absolutely sucked. It was full of wild diaspora kids (on their way back to LA, I’m guessing) who were running up and down the aisles screaming their heads off and knocking down the flight attendants who were serving everyone their drinks. I had to try very hard to restrain myself from sticking my arm out and clotheslining one of the brats. Hey parents, wanna control your kids? Oh, right, you’re too busy fidgeting with your iPod to notice that little Aram and Stepan are terrorizing your fellow passengers and convincing Lindsay that she will never EVER EVER want kids…EVER!
I had purposely spaced out my Yerevan – London and London – Washington flights (8 hour layover) so I could head into the wonderful city of London and have a few pints at a pub I used to frequent. We went to Churchill Arms in Notting Hill, which has the most amazing Thai food for six quid (yeah, the dishes went up a few pence since I lived there, but I’m not complaining). When I was at LSE, we’d eat or drink at Churchill Arms at last once a week, so I have some very fond memories of that pub. Saalim, a friend of mine from LSE, met up with us. Just like the old times, innit? (Thanks for the Strongbow and Pimm’s, dude, looking forward to seeing you in January.)
I rode the Heathrow Express back to the airport in a semi-inebriated, near catatonic state. I couldn’t believe I had to go back to Washington-effin’-DC, that goddamn hellhole swamp. I missed London’s pubs, outdoor markets, black cabs, red double decker buses, efficient train system, and generally polite population.
Maybe…MAYBE I could just stay here…no, that would be pretty goddamn irresponsible, eh? Anyways, my visa’s long since expired.
Upon arrival at Heathrow, I purchased two bottles of Pimm’s from duty-free, because I needed some gin-based liqueur to blunt the trauma of my imminent departure from London. The flight was two hours late leaving Heathrow, due to the fact that it’s, well, Heathrow, and massive screwups seem to be par for the course at that airport.
Nothing memorable happened on the flight to Dulles, which arrived a bit past midnight. Customs was surprisingly easy. There weren’t any ridiculous questions that the agents at LAX like to ask: “How did you get to all these countries?”
“Uh, by airplane.”
Or, “Armenia? Were you participating in jihad against the United States of America?”
“Uh, Armenia is a Christian nation, but no.”
Got home at 1:30am, 21 hours after leaving Armenia. Four former Soviet republics down, eleven to go!
THE END…of the most drawn-out vacation description EVER. Took this trip in July and finished writing about it in December…way to go, Lindsay!
Anyways, this post wouldn’t be complete without a big thanks to Liz and Taline for putting us up (and more importantly, putting up with us). Thanks to Brian and Andrew for their brilliant toastmaster skills at our welcome dinner…and for ensuring that the Russki Standart vodka was constantly flowing.
I’m trying to figure out where to go for my next trip. I was thinking of hitting up London over President’s Day weekend, but might switch that to Berlin because flights are cheap and I’ve never been to Germany. A summer surf trip to Costa Rica might be in the works. Let me know if you want to come along.
Also, I’ll post to this “blog” (I still hate that word) a bit more often, so you guys can stop complaining about how I never update it.
Armenia. Georgia. Azerbaijan. I’ve become used to the odd looks when I tell someone where I’m going – most people haven’t a clue where these countries are located, and to the others I might as well have said Afghanistan, as visions of men with AK-47s pop into their heads. Most people are content to lie on white beaches, sipping mai tais and occasionally taking a dip in the crystal-clear water. Not me. I want border crossings in dilapidated taxis, languages I can barely understand, gold-toothed men hawking shawarma from sidewalk eateries, and babushkas selling the mushrooms they picked at their dacha the day before.
Last year, my mom would always ask, “Why Egypt? Why Croatia? Why not Italy?” (she was finally thrilled when I announced that I would, in fact, be visiting Italy – a “normal” country). It’s not that I don’t want to visit places like Spain, Germany, or Austria, I just feel that these countries won’t be that much different ten years from now. Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, on the other hand, are at a unique period in their respective histories – 70 years of communism followed by bloody civil wars and regional conflicts, and each now pursuing varying stages of economic development. I love “Old Europe” but it can wait for a few years, as I have some other passport stamps I need to collect first.
As mentioned in previous posts, I have two friends – one from GW and the other from LSE – who currently work in Armenia. I promised them that I would visit, and started researching tickets in May. My roommate, Laura, another friend of Liz’s, decided that she, too, would like to see Armenia, and so on the evening of July 4th we found ourselves boarding a British Airways flight that would take us to London and from there, Yerevan. Ah, British Airways, how I love you! The cheery “hullo” when you step onto the plane, free alcohol, tea, Cadbury chocolates…civilization!
I’m usually incredibly lucky when it comes to domestic flights (a whole row to myself, a flight attendant who sneaks me some of the freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies from first class, and so on) but it seems that whenever I fly internationally, the forces of nature conspire against me to ensure that I have a long, uncomfortable flight over the Atlantic. This most recent flight to London was a perfect storm of misery: a screaming baby in the row ahead of me, the knee of the passenger behind me permanently ingrained in my back, and the lady next to me literally spilling over into my seat, thus occupying 15 or so percent of the tiny personal space that British Airways allotted to me.
No matter how hard I try, I can’t sleep on planes (flight insomnia…it has to be a medical condition), so I usually watch movies or listen to some music while everyone else sleeps. I was thoroughly pissed that this lady was occupying a good percentage of my seat, though, and soon after she fell asleep I turned on the bright-as-the-goddamn-sun overhead light. Her eyes immediately fluttered open, nose scrunched up, and she turned to me and sputtered, “Can you turn the light off?” I just grinned, pointed to my book and notepad, and replied, “Well, I’m reading, you see.” She spent the next few hours tossing and turning (yeah, the light really is that bright). If she wanted to sleep that badly, she could have put on her BA-issued eye mask.
We arrived at Heathrow airport around 8am, an hour later than expected. Only a year ago I was living here in London, researching my dissertation topic, looking forward to meeting my family in Dublin, fixing the porn-laden laptops of idiotic LSE students, planning a trip to Prague, and totally unaware that a few days later some idiots would blow up our beloved Underground transportation system. Damn, I miss this city.
After convincing passport control that we were only staying in the country for lunch, we hopped the Heathrow Express to Paddington and took the tube to Notting Hill Gate. We had a pot of tea and scones with jam and clotted cream at Patisserie Valerie, and then wandered down to the Hillgate pub for a morning drink. We arrived at the pub at 10:45am, only to be told that they didn’t open for another 15 minutes, so we walked around Notting Hill and arrived back at the Hillgate promptly at 11am. First customers of the day. Life goal #372 accomplished!
“A pint of Strongbow please.”
I imagined that the bartender must have thought to herself, “Oh, here come the bloody alcoholic Yank backpackers.” But oh, that Strongbow tasted so good.
We got back to Heathrow at 12:45pm for our 2:30 flight, and finally arrived in Yerevan at 12:30am, an hour behind schedule. Passport control was a typical example of Eastern European bureaucracy, with one disinterested guard for every fifty passengers, no semblance of order whatsoever, and a fair amount of pushing and shoving from hyperactive babushkas who spied their family members waving to them behind the plate glass windows beyond the control booths. We finally got out of passport control after 45 or so minutes, collected our luggage, and were met by a driver from the U.S. embassy who would take us to Liz’s apartment.
As we pulled out of the airport, one of the first questions he asked me was, “Do you like Mexican food?”
“Man, I’m from California – I love Mexican food!”
“Good, because I am taking you to Mexican restaurant ‘Cactus.’ Liz is there waiting for you.” We then proceeded to debate the finer points of Mexican cuisine. Tacos, burritos, what are the best?
Driving into Yerevan, one of the first things that struck me about the city was the complete darkness. None of the streetlights were on, and most of the apartment buildings emitted hardly any light. The darkness was occasionally interrupted by the neon glow of the casinos that dotted the road, most of them with names that were ripped-off from their big brothers in Vegas: Bellagio, Caesar’s, etc. I suppose that they are the only ones who can afford the high electricity rates in this part of the world.
We arrived at ‘Cactus’ and met up with Liz, Taline, Crystal (another LSE alum, she had flown in from San Francisco that morning), and their expat friends, who were watching one of the World Cup matches. Can I just tell you how surreal it felt to be standing there, at 2am, in a Mexican restaurant in Yerevan of all places, surrounded by friends from both GW and LSE? It was like a very, very weird dream. After finishing off someone’s Piña Colada, we headed back to Liz’s place, where I showered and finally crashed around 4am.
Next up: We visit some monasteries, our van breaks down, and we are stranded in Northern Armenia
It’s been a year since I actually went on this trip to Cardiff, but I’m finally getting around to uploading the photos. Yeah, yeah, I know…lazy.
The trip to Cardiff was due entirely to Crystal’s insistence that we venture out of London and see a different part of the UK. I, myself, was content to stay in dear old London, but she found a bus company that specialized in day trips, so Crystal, Taline, Mathias and I signed up for the trip to Cardiff. Why Cardiff? I have no idea. All I know is, I found myself standing outside Victoria station at 7am on a Saturday, completely hungover from an excess of Strongbow the night before, and nursing a hot tea. Once everyone arrived, we hopped on an old, decrepit bus that I’m quite sure was used to shuttle Londoners back and forth from the countryside in the 1950s. Cardiff, here we come.
Our tour guide was an Australian. That’s right, a goddamn Australian was leading us to Cardiff, and she had no idea what she was talking about. Couldn’t they have least gotten someone from, oh, I don’t know, WALES? She would try to pronounce some of the Welsh places and names (Wales has its own language) and it was like nails on a chalkboard.
Once we arrived in Cardiff, the bus dropped us off in front of the Welsh Lovespoon gallery, which proudly displayed an American flag….HELL YEAH AMERICA!
We didn’t really know what we were going to see in Cardiff, so we opted to get on the “hop on/hop off” bus:
We sat on the top, even thought it was freezing outside:
We saw some really interesting sights, like these Texaco storage tanks:
Thirty minutes into the tour, we were wondering why nobody was hopping off the bus. Dammit, people, what’s the point of a hop-on/hop-off bus if everyone just rides around on the bus all day? We pledged to show these riders some American and German resolve, and hop-off the bus at the next stop, which happened to be the harbour. Of course, we were the only ones that got off the bus, and, I’m sure, the only ones to ever actually “hop off” the “hop on/hop off” bus tour of Cardiff in its entire operational history.
The harbour was a pretty typical harbour…water, boats, stores, restaurants:
By the time we reached the harbour, it was almost 11am. Time for a pint. We headed to the nearby pub for a breakfast of Strongbow and chips (french fries) with mayo. After breakfast, we decided to hop back onto the bus because there wasn’t much going on at the harbour. The only problem with the hop on/hop off bus is that it only runs every 30 or so minutes, so we had a long wait ahead of us. Damn, so that’s why no one ever hops off the damn bus. When the bus finally picked us up again, we continued our tour of Cardiff’s sights:
Of course, we had to visit the castle in Cardiff. The tour of the castle’s interior was actually pretty interesting…afterwards we climbed to the top of the keep:
Obligatory American pose:
Can I take one home?:
Peacocks roamed freely:
All this riding around on the bus, drinking, and climbing to the top of the keep had made us quite hungry, so we went off in search of the medieval restaurant. Our Australian tour guide, you see, had assured us that there was a medieval themed restaurant at the castle. We were actually quite excited at the prospect of eating at a medieval restaurant, as we envisioned costumed wenches serving us plastic mugs full of Pepsi and giant chicken legs with a side of potatoes a la Medieval Times. Well, our guide was a goddamn liar. There was no medieval restaurant, only a small cafe that sold pre-packaged sandwiches and quiche (QUICHE! What the hell is medieval about quiche?!) I settled for some tea and Welsh tea cakes, which, although certainly tasty, couldn’t take the place of a huge piece of roasted meat. No, I wasn’t bitter at all:
Before hopping back onto the bus for the trip back to London, I bought some mini-Welsh flags so that we could remember our incredible trip to Cardiff. Goodbye, Cardiff!
The rest of the photos from that trip can be found here. I have about 150 more photos from my year in London that I need to upoad…I’m sure I’ll accomplish that within the next decade or so.
I finally uploaded all the pics from Grad week in London. There are two sets…first, photos from the actual graduation ceremony:
Me on stage…after shaking Howard Davies’ hand…or going to shake his hand…I’m not exactly sure
The reception in the Hong Kong Theatre after the the ceremony
A group photo of the Russian and Post-Soviet studies grads who attended the ceremony…and two of our profs
Taline, Crystal, Erin, and I
Me in front of the Royal Courts of Justice
It seems like everyone is blogging about the year gone by, so it’s only fitting that I follow suit and reflect on some of my best memories of 2005.
Since I was a sophomore at GWU, it has been a goal of mine to attend the London School of Economics. This goal was realized in late September 2004, when I left California to begin my MSc in Russian and Post-Soviet Studies in London. I can honestly say that my year at LSE has been one of the greatest I have experienced in my 23 years on this earth. Living in London was amazing, of course, but in particular I loved the multicultural environment of LSE. There are not many universities in the world that can top LSE in the number of foreign students on campus. Indeed, you almost forgot how horrible the food at the Bankside cafeteria was when sitting down at a table and debating politics with a Brit, Moroccan, Indian, Canadian, Jordanian, and fellow American. And having a bar with subsidised alcohol in the basement of your dorm? Well, let’s just say it made doing your laundry a lot more fun. The location of our Bankside dorm was also unbeatable: directly behind the Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the River Thames, a short walk to Borough Market, and some great restaurants and pubs. So, even though the fire alarms at 3am were a constant annoyance, I really enjoyed living at Bankside.
Moving out day at Bankside
The other side of LSE, besides dorm life, was my academic program. Our RPSS group (with the addition of some friends from International Relations) became a really tight-knit bunch, and we enjoyed some great times together, from the pints inbetween classes, to the parties at Taline’s flat in Notting Hill and the BBQs on the roof of Olga’s apartment building overlooking the Thames and St. Paul’s Cathedral. And, of course, how could I fail to mention the numerous evenings spent at Churchill’s Arms, the Hillgate and Hobbit Pub, or the times we stuffed ourselves with scones and tea and laid in the grass at Kensington Gardens?
Some RPSS comrades in Covent Garden
So, to all of my friends who I met at LSE, thanks for a wonderful year…it really wouldn’t have been the same without all of you.
Another goal of mine, once reaching London, was to travel as much as possible without affecting my studies. Living in London, you literally have the world at your fingertips. I wasn’t sure when I would ever have this chance again, so I wanted to take advantage of all the low-cost airfares and accommodations throughout Europe (when else will you get to fly to Rome for $30!?) Luckily, the British academic year provides you with ample time off, including a five week spring break in March/April. Also, my boss at IT Services was really cool about letting me rearrange my work schedule, so I got some traveling in during the summer months. So, I expanded my list of countries I had previously traveled to (UK, Russia, and Mexico) to include France, Hungary, Belgium, Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Montenegro, Egypt, Italy, Ireland, and the Czech Republic. All of the countries were great, but I’ll expand on a few that I felt were particularly amazing:
Hungary: While Prague is a great city, and constantly touted as the darling of Central Europe, I think it is a bit overrated. Personally, if you have to choose between Budapest and Prague, I say go to Budapest! As a Cold War aficionado, I really enjoyed visiting Statue Park (full of old commie statues) and the House of Terror (former HQ of the secret police). In addition, I was lucky enough to experience some authentic Hungarian cooking and hospitality courtesy of Csaba and his mother, Kati.
Sunset on the Danube River
Goofing around in Statue Park
Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, and Montenegro: In April, Taline, Crystal, and I went to Dubrovnik, Croatia, a beautiful city which, only 14 years before, was the scene of massive shelling by Yugoslav artillery that destroyed many buildings withing the historic walled area. We went before the start of tourist season, and pretty much had the place to ourselves. The locals were incredibly friendly, and wanted to hear about how much you enjoyed their city, offer suggestions on the best places to eat, and talk about their relatives that lived “over there” in America.
Within the walled city of Dubrovnik. Excellent cafes and restaurants.
A big part of this trip, though, was the day Crystal and I spent wandering around Bosnia and Montenegro. Having studied the Balkans conflicts, and with a propensity for ignoring travel warnings from the State Department, Crystal and I decided to hop a decrepit bus to Trebinje, the nearest town across the Croatian-Bosnian border. After lying to to a Bosnian border guard, and passing a number of burned out houses, we finally arrived in Trebinje. Once we wandered around Trebinje for a few hours and decided there wasn’t much more to see, we hired a sketchy taxi to take us to Montenegro via a treacherous mountain road. Upon arriving in Montengro, we went down to the beach and climbed around some old fortress ruins with great views of the distant mountains and sat down to have a milkshake. We wanted to get back to Croatia for dinner, so we took a taxi to the border and walked the 100 metres of no man’s land, surrounded by signs warning us of landmines, until finally arriving in Croatia, much to the amusement of the two Croatian border guards who probably didn’t see very many American girls walking across the border. Yes, we befuddled many people that day, from Bosnian bus station attendants and taxi drivers to Montenegrin hairdressers and Croatian border guards. Building cross-cultural relations and promoting America, that’s what Crystal and I do best!
A relaxing moment in Montenegro, with a random dog that kept following us.
If you’re looking for a relaxing and inexpensive vacation by the sea, I highly recommend Croatia. Ever since I arrived back from my vacation there, I have been singing its praises (so much that the Croatian tourist board should hire me). And, surprise, surprise, CNN has reported that Croatia and Montenegro are on its list of “hot spots” for travel in 2006. Obviously, Anderson Cooper has been reading this blog.
Egypt: Well, what to say about Egypt…seeing the Pyramids was absolutely incredible, as was walking through tombs that are thousands of years old. Other highlights: Snorkeling in the Red Sea and trying not to hit cruise ships on the Nile after our boat driver handed over the controls to me. The only downside to Egypt? Constantly being harrassed by sketchy Egyptian men, and the need for a heavy police presence wherever you go.
Look Ma, I’m in Egypt, the country you desperately tried to convince me not to travel to!
The Red Sea
Beware! American tourist attempting to ride camel and take photos simultaneously
Ireland: Finally seeing the country that so many of my ancestors came from, and enjoying a pint of Guinness “from the source” at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. I think the most interesting part of my trip to Ireland was visiting Belfast in Northern Ireland and seeing the divided Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods with their political murals. Growing up, I often saw images of the fighting in Belfast on the news, but it was really hard to comprehend until I finally saw the city for myself.
Guinness for strength!
Loyalist mural in Belfast
So, overall, I must say that 2005 was an amazing year filled with living in the greatest city in the world, visiting some incredibly interesting countries, and meeting new people from all over the world. I don’t know what 2006 will bring, but I hope that the trend will continue somehow.
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