Last London weekend

What a blessed way to end my time here in London – the sun is out, the food is good, the city is alive! I’ve been having mini-panic attacks lately knowing that I can count the number of days left here on my two hands. I can’t even express how excited I am to go back home but at the same time, leaving a place that has been your “home” for 5 months isn’t without sadness (or tears).

Thursday night, I performed with the King’s Chix for the final time at Imperial College in South Kensington. Loads of groups were also there at the student bar and it was a really casual event. Before I talk about the actual gig, I’d just like to point out that South Kensington is posh. Goodness, no wonder Imperial has ridiculously high residence fees. There were only six of us singing that day and some of us learned the new song (Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow) at 4PM. Cheers for uni students  cramming even for a live performance! It wasn’t our best but hey, it was fun and that’s all that matters. I was really impressed by the Yale Whiffenpoofs though. Apparently they’re the oldest collegiate a cappella group in the world and the students take a year off to tour/sing, so I couldn’t really feel bad about not being as great as they are.

Friday was a little leaving party with all the American study abroad students. I tried ginger beer and Desperados for the first time and my life has been forever changed. I never knew drinks could taste so delicious and refreshing and sweet and everything good put in a cute bottle. We stayed out a bit late at the good ole Dover Castle and Blue Eyed Maid, but I still managed to force Viv and Vlad to wake up at 9 the next day for a day of last-minute tourist plans! We picked up scrumptious breakfasts from Borough Market. I finally got to try out the toasted cheese sandwich from Kappacasein and see how their famous raclette is is made. When I could smell the cheese even before I found the stand, I knew all this waiting was worth it. Just look at all that cheese grilled to perfection with onions!

We headed towards Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the guards but it was rather underwhelming (too long). There were a lot of people even though this happens everyday at both the Royal Guards and Buckingham Palace. We got to see the stage set-up for this week’s Jubilee concert, which I’m really sad to miss out on! Apparently England still really loves their royalty who are not Kate Middleton because the entire city has been decked out in preparation for the event (flags, special Jubilee biscuits, tea, etc.)

It was such a beautiful day so we rested for some time at Hyde Park just chatting. A lot of people were hanging around basking in the sun with their bikinis. I guess Hyde Park is similar to Central park but the greenery is much more artificially planted. You get to see many different types of flowers and trees that are planted in specific patterns. Across from our spot, I saw a group of kids enjoying the summer climbing this giant tree! I couldn’t help but reminisce on the times I went to Central Park back in high school climbing trees similar in shape.

Next, I finally got to go to the Victoria and Albert museum and Natural History museum! I probably mentioned this before, but I’m not a museum fan unless it’s a science museum. I was super excited 🙂 The building itself looked similar to AMNH in New York actually. They were having a cool “Animals Inside-Out” exhibit (sort of like the Bodies Exhibit) but it was pricey to go in.

I’m pretty biased when it comes to comparing the London and NY natural history museums since I worked in the NY one for a year. London had some cool exhibits (a simulated earthquake, a mechanical dinosaur that looks surprisingly real, an elevator leading up to a giant planet) but the NY marine exhibit is unparalleled!

An ice cream and two sore feet later, we decided to go to an India restaurant nearby where I ordered Chicken Korma (a coconut curry)! It was quite delicious but the portions were small, as usual. We headed back to GDS for some Pimm’s, TV, and home-made pasta.

There are still so many things I would have liked to see in London during my time here, but I’m pretty happy about how well I know the city now. I’m constantly looking for things to buy to bring back home (chocolate, tea, biscuits) so I guess I’m mentally preparing for my departure. I couldn’t ask for more than a great last weekend with perfect weather.

S

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Milano

On Friday, I met up with our Milan hosts, Samuel and Giovanni, at their apartment near Hyde Park. They were coincidentally leaving Milan for London on the same day as us for a wedding and wanted to hang out here as well. Mads and I somehow ended up spending 7 hours at their apartment! It’s amazing what wine, good food, chocolate, and silly games can do to an evening (albeit some awkward encounters…)

Let’s talk about Milan: We got off our train, encouraged by the great time at Bologna with Elio, and were greeted by an enthusiastic Samuel and Stefano. Neither could speak English very well, but they were so warm and welcoming. In the car, one of the first things Stefano asked was, “Do you guys eat sandwiches?” We said yes and he literally did the equivalent of jumping up and down in the passenger seat. It’s amazing how sandwiches have the power to bring the world together.

Samuel’s house was completely different from Elio’s apartment, which looked like it belonged to a college student. His house was spotless and tastefully decorated (zen gardens, fish tank, wall paintings, fully-equipped kitchen, real beds, dozens of hygiene products in the bathroom). Samuel also treated us to a home cooked meal of risotto with saffron, mozzarella&meat, wine, and sorbet with passion fruit. He lives alone, but not really because his friends come over almost every night. It was such a blast meeting all these loud and happy Italian men in their late 20’s still hanging out like they were uni students. Host success round 2.

That night, our hosts were also ready to hit the town. This was a Monday night, mind you, and my hosts were grown men with real jobs. Boy do these Italians enjoy life! They took us to an area with a lot of bars and restaurants near the river. We walked towards this church with real Roman columns, where so many Italians were just hanging out with drinks and friends. To be fair, there was a massive free concert going on that night but I was still entertained watching everyone relax on a warm Monday night.

Milan is a much more happening city for things to do. I can still remember the moment I emerged from the metro at Duomo. The grand white mass standing in the sunlight took my breath away. I’m not usually impressed by architecture (Notre Dame was just okay) but this cathedral did it. While snapping obligatory tourist photos in front of Duomo, a strange man comes up to me, grabs my hand, and shoves some corn kernels into them. I was taken by so much surprise that I didn’t even realize what was happening until I suddenly saw a giant flock of grey pigeons thunderously head towards my face and hands. I screamed (I don’t like pigeons) while these birds pecked away at the corn. Somewhere very deep inside me underneath the fear and disgust, I felt elated to have such an “Italian” encounter with these infamous birds.

Speaking of Italian experiences, I had my first aperitivo time in Milan! For those who don’t know, Italians take great pleasure in eating. When their day ends, they relax from a hard days work at aperitivo, a pre-meal drink usually accompanied with small snacks. It’s their version of an upgraded Happy Hour, now typically including a complementary buffet spread of finger sandwiches, pizza, cheese, bruschetta, rice, etc. When I first go to Italy, it was so frustrating that no restaurants were open during a typical American dinner time (5-7PM) because everyone was out drinking! When I tried aperitivo, I knew why these Italians could hold off an actual meal until 8 or so. My experience was much more humble because we were about to go out with Samuel’s friends for a real dinner, but I’ve walked through bars serving food fit for a meal!

One of my favorite purchases in Europe is from this Milan trip. A street artist named Abraham draws portraits with a pencil, brush, and charcoal for 20 euros. At first, I thought the price was a bit hefty. But as I watched him draw a woman, I knew this artist was special. He had an eye for detail and his technique was impeccable. The mixture of textures from the brush and pencil made the drawing so much more alive. I made the decision to come back the next day and get my portrait done. As vain as it sounds, I knew that my parents would love to hang somewhere. Abraham must have liked me (I guess I did take the time to find him again) because he spent over an hour on my portrait instead of the half hour he normally does. I was nervous about how it would turn out but when I saw the finished product for the first time, I knew this was money well spent.

Italy wasn’t great for my thighs thanks to the multiple gelato cones and carb-heavy meals. I couldn’t care less because I’m alive, grateful for the kind strangers in this world, and filled with great memories.

This is my last Europe trip for now. I’m so grateful that I was able to end my travels with a bang! God has been so good, blessing me with opportunities to enjoy His world.

Love,

S

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To the land of tortellini and mortadella

Scene: Beer in one hand, margherita pizza in the other, and passing around a sandwich at an outdoor square dance party on a Friday night. Broken glass bottles, happy Italians, electronic music. This sums up my first night in Bologna and one of my best memories during one of my favorite gastronomic trips.

Let’s start from the beginning. My trip to Italy (Bologna & Milan) didn’t start off on the right foot. Our 7AM Friday flight meant getting to the airport at 3AM from London Victoria because the train station was annoyingly closed. To make things exponentially worse, I was ridiculously unwell from drinking with Daniel and his high school friends since 5PM that evening and gloriously full from a delicious lamb shank/truffle ice-cream formal dinner at Oxford. I was ready to make the concrete sidewalk my bed but I had a flight to catch.

After much tea and needed hydration at the airport, I slept for an hour or so on our Ryanair flight and woke up feeling surprisingly fresh. I keep telling myself, this is only when I’m young. Let me tell you, a hungover bus ride and flight is one of the worst possible feelings in the world. As soon as I stepped off the plane at 10AM Friday, the 90 degree Italian weather beamed upon my pasty London skin and I repeatedly shouted “Oh my gosh” with a huge grin on my face. Things were looking up! I immediately stripped down to a tank dress, strapped on my backpack, and we headed to Bologna.

For this trip, we decided to CouchSurf. My Facebok status before I left was “Someone please make sure I’m alive next week.” If only I knew how amazing my hosts would be, I wouldn’t have wasted all that worry on whether I would be kidnapped. Elio, an Italian language student, graciously took us in when our set host strangely left town. After walking around and shopping the entire day in Bologna with heavy backpacks on, I was so relieved to just have a place to sleep that I didn’t even care who Elio was. He’s a bearded uni student with a great Italian accent. In Elio’s spare room was a comfy sofa bed and he said, “You guys can sleep in here as long as you don’t mind the smell.” He opened a wooden closet to reveal his own homegrown sandwiches. I laughed knowing this stranger was all right.

Back to the outdoor festivities in Bologna – Elio and his roommate Valentino were ready to hit the town since it was a Friday night. We were pretty exhausted by then (especially me, running on 3 hours of sleep, a hangover, and having already gone out Thursday in Oxford) but we respectfully accepted their invitation. That was the best decision ever. We hung out with Elio’s Italian friends, saw how relaxed Italians behaved, and how alive the city was at night. It was trashy like Leicester Square on a Saturday night yet somehow charming.

There wasn’t much to see in Bologna (it’s not a tourist destination) but I thoroughly enjoyed our daily doses of gelato, espresso, and people. The next evening, Elio took us to one of his favorite Italian restaurants. It was a carb-heavy, no-regrets type of meal. I ate focaccia bread, mozzarella, cured meat, wine, and tagliatelle al ragu, a dish native to Bologna.

After two days, it was time for Milan!

To be continued…

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Et tu, Brute?

As my senior friends back at Amherst deal with the horror of the inevitably approaching graduation day, I’m constantly reminded that my time in London is also coming to a close. Where did the four months fly by? With the warmer weather and my homesickness fading, I feel like I’ve just begun to get settled. I feel a sudden urge to spend every remaining day of this month soaking in as much of London as possible (while also attempting to revise for my four finals).

Thankfully, I got to do another London-must recently. Yesterday, my friends and I spontaneously got tickets to see Julius Caesar at the Shakespeare Globe Theatre. This month, the theatre is doing an amazing production festival called “Globe to Globe” that features 37 Shakespeare plays in 37 languages. Each company is world-renowned and celebrates Shakespeare in their own renditions and twists.

I saw Julius Caesar in Italian by the Termini Company (the first Italian company to play at the Globe). No, I don’t speak a word of Italian. I didn’t have to because the passion of the Italian language, dream-like quality of the modernized play, and amazing acting was well worth the 2.5 hours spent leaning against the wooden stage in the theatre’s Standing Yard. Just look at that standing ovation! The sparse stage, humble wooden floor, open air theatre, and packed crowd made me feel transported to another era – one in which art and theatre were available without the pedestal of elitism.

The most interesting aspect of this interpretation was that there was no Julius Caesar. The protagonist role was filled by a brilliant actor (sporting a very Italian mustache) playing Marcus Brutus, a character who falls prey to the envious manipulations of Cassius and Cascus. The play was tragic in that every character is murdered or commits suicide by the end (the characters died with red chalk to symbolize death), but there was quite a bit a humor as well! One scene involved a “duel” between Mark Antony/Caesar’s son and Cassius/Cascus that ended up being a slapping match.  I can’t wait for Macbeth in Polish next week! It’s a shame I missed Midsummer Night’s Dream in Korean…

Edit:

The three witches in Macbeth were drag queens. I saw a lot of package and bums.

la belle vie

I made a blog because photographs are so much to me; they capture what I won’t remember (and I don’t remember a lot of things). I find happiness in food and makeup, but my all-time guilty pleasure is buying journals. Whenever I walk inside a book or craft store, I’m always pulled towards those leather-bound books filled with crisp cream pages just waiting to be used and worn from adventurous travel. It’s almost a life goal/bucket-list item of mine to own a journal that is messily written in, colored, abused, decorated, cherished. Funny thing is, these journals I occasionally splurge on are usually never written in. Sometimes it’s because I can’t bear to ruin its perfectly blank white pages. Most of the time, it’s just because it’s tiring to actually write in them. My thoughts race so much faster than my pen! I seem to never have the time to sit down and slowly record my life on paper. So, I come to this lovely online blog where every entry is typed with the luxury of a backspace and speed of my 21st century typing skills. Best of all, my photos get to have their own accompanying stories. This is the story of my favorite trip in Europe so far…

Last week, I got back from Paris. Beautiful, dreamy, wonderful Paris. The city I long held as the capitol of romance and art. The city of lights, whites, and stripes. My time to visit it had finally come!

There no words to describe the physical beauty of the city itself. Devoid of the skyscrapers that characterize New York, Paris is built by cream-colored architecture and extravagant decor. I am not lying when I say that every single street is beautiful to walk along, almost as if there is a French law that states “Building, you must be beautiful!” I stayed in an apartment that I and a group of six other girls rented out for the week. It was near the St. Paul metro, which is apparently a neighborhood infamous for gays and falafel aka hipster. The nice thing about living in an apartment instead of a hostel was access to a kitchen and TV. I was able to eat my own breakfast of champions (aka baguettes spread with confiture de lait, muesli croquant, brie) while watching some  show I couldn’t understand. Looking out from our apartment, the view was so “French” I loved waking up to the sight of this:

That corner restaurant on the right side of the street serves the best falafel wrap I have ever put in my mouth. It was savory with a delicious white sauce and toasted to panini-perfection in a convenient wrap that comforted me on a rainy arrival day:

In the span of 5 days and 4 nights, I managed to cram almost all the tourist activities into my time in Paris – Musee d’Orsay, Tour Eiffel, Musee Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, Jardin du Luxembourg, Champs Elysees, Catacombs… I usually get bored by visiting “famous and historic” sties but I was more than happy to trot around the streets just taking the city in sight by sight.

One of the best parts was making new friends from Lausanne, Switzerland through Alexa and being reunited with Sophia and Claudia. I know some people say that traveling alone is just as worthwhile as any, but I think exploring a new city with old friends is so much more fun. Sophia’s family also rented out an apartment near us and her neighborhood was full of fancy bars and restaurants. She cooked us a delicious lamb dinner one night in her Parisian pent loft apartment and showed me what Parisian chain smoking looks like.

From all of my Paris wanderings, the most breathtaking moment was when I was standing in front of Arc de Triomphe on Champs Elysees watching Tour Eiffel sparkle. I know. I felt like I was in a dream. All that was missing was more time.

Overall, Paris is really a dream city I couldn’t get enough of. I’m sure I’ll be back again someday in the future. As this chapter in my travels has come to a close, I only have these photos and an empty box of delicious muesli cereal left from the trip, but the place sure as hell didn’t disappoint.

Here’s to a city of love from a girl with love,

S

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Everybody wants to be a chick…Tweet!

Last night, I had a dream that my a cappella group was performing in a very Glee setting. We were rehearsing and people started to file into the auditorium until it was jam packed. In our snazzy matching black dresses,we spontaneously busted out with some awesome Beyonce and TLC songs. We had so much fun and the crowd loved it. I stayed in bed a little bit longer just to hold onto that dream.

The King’s Chix (soon to be King’s Chicks, because Chix is just terrible) has been one of the best parts of my experience abroad. They’re a group of really great girls who just love to sing and perform; they welcomely took me and Oona into their group even though we’re just two Americans who came from nowhere. Trust me – if you meet people who love to sing, they are fun people. Wednesday rehearsals were pretty much just hang-out sessions with intervals of singing, nothing too serious. Gossip, food, YouTube videos – all the good stuff! As an added bonus, our set-list has such catchy songs (even mash-ups) like No Scrubs, Parachute, Lady Marmalade, and Someone Like you.

I love singing, but I’m not a singer. Yes, I can sing in tune. Yes, I can harmonize. Yes, I can read and play music. But I am in no way a talented singer that should go audition for American Idol. I auditioned to join the King’s Chix hoping to find a group that just likes to have fun, and my wish was granted! Everyone is so incredibly talented (Case in point: When I heard their rendition of Someone Like you, I teared up) but they also don’t take themselves too seriously. When they gave me a solo for Stand By Me (mashed up with Beautiful Girls!), I was kind of nervous but I knew that I was surrounded by great girls who enjoyed performing together and that was all that mattered. I can be pretty shy sometimes but, thankfully, my stage fright magically disappears when the spotlight is on me. I was so glad I was able to keep my cool during my solo at a lesbian wedding back in March while I was being recorded and watched! A wedding is a happy event to begin with, but when we sang Lucky after the ceremony as a little surprise for the guests, you could feel the mood elevate.

The best memory I have with the King’s Chix is our spontaneous perfomance in the middle of Pizza Express. Our waiter was hilarious and friendly so when we told him that we sang after our meal, he begged us for an impromptu performance. Of course, we had to sing Stand By Me and Lady Marmalade. I don’t know what happened but I forgot the lyrics to the chorus of Stand By Me, but it was still such an unforgettable night! That adrenaline rush and showing off what we’ve worked so hard to  rehearse…Unforgettable! I have one last Imperial gig with them in May. When it’s over, I won’t cry, No I won’t shed a tear! Okay, maybe a little.

Music and love,

S

Into the Wild

Have you ever had those days when things just aren’t going the way you would like them to? When you can’t seem to find a solution or escape from whatever is bothering you? Last week was like that for me, and I desperately needed to just get away from myself and my thoughts. Fortunately, my trip to Snowdonia, Wales was finally here. My phone plan also happened to conveniently expire so I was disconnected from texting and data. Hello, fate!

Two movies and a (pretty grueling) 6-hour bus ride later, we reached our destination at the Legacy Hotel. The last leg of the bus ride actually felt like we were up in the clouds! We were driving up a narrow, curved road up a mountain and fog made it impossible to see anything around us. I couldn’t wait to get off though because my bottom was starting to get numb.

First impression: Wales has more sheep than people. Sheep marked with colored paint spotted the landscape everywhere! I think someone said something about Wales being the country with the most sheep per capita. It’s pretty cool that shepherds still exist today, although I’m sure the job isn’t exactly what I picture in my head (a young male with a staff lounging in a field reading a book, or something along those lines). After a warm dinner and winning some pub quiz, I was dead exhausted. But of course, if you stick two girls in the same room, we’ll stay up talking forever, which is exactly what my friend and I did. It was like a flashback to the days of sleepovers, when you talked about everything and shared whatever was going on in your life.

The next day, I went canoeing and, despite the many warnings, managed to drop my camera into the lake right when I was getting off the boat. Boo hoo. When I saw my camera slowly sink to the bottom, I just stared at it and sighed. In retrospect, it’s actually pretty funny how I just froze and then went, “Oh well.” I swear, I’m so zen lately that nothing phases me anymore. I went mountain biking in the afternoon which was the Best. Experience. Ever. The long uphill biking wasn’t easy at all (I was panting by the end and my quads were on fire) but the view was so absolutely breathtaking. The instructor was a well-toned and good-lookin’ lad who didn’t mind staying behind with us sluggish girls. The view, the people I met, and the downhill ride was worth all the effort. Zoom zoom!

The next morning hike was much more relaxing than the day before but just as breathtaking. We came across a small waterfall and this gorgeous, old stone castle. I actually felt like I was Aragorn when I saw the view of the mountains up ahead (Wales is very New Zealand looking). A camera fails to capture what I actually saw, so I’ll have to revisit these places in my dreams.

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S