Day Two

I woke up pretty early, and made myself some tea for breakfast. I got out of the flat close to 9:30, and made the walk through Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens to Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the guards. While the Guards officially start to change at 11:15, in order to get a good view near the gate you have to get there pretty far in advance. I… did not quite arrive that early. (In my defense, the parks are too beautiful to rush through. I really liked soaking in the beauty of everything, so I might have meandered there a little too long.) I could see everyone processing in, and saw snippets the exchanging of the keys over the heads of some people in front of me. While I was walking away in the end, the ceremony ended and the Palace Guards walked down the avenue right in front of me. So that was a very happy accident.

From Buckingham Palace, I stumbled across the ICA (Institute for Contemporary Art). Although it shares the name, it has no relationship to the ICA in Philadelphia, as I thought it might have. Entry was very inexpensive – only £1, but there was only one show up when I went in. Everything else in the house was in the process of being put up or taken down, but I’d have loved to spend more time there. The building was quite beautiful, from what few parts I saw.

After the ICA, I walked around to London’s Chinatown in search of lunch. Chinatowns are always exciting for me to find, especially after this past semester when I did an entire independent study focusing on Asian communities in the US, focusing on Philadelphia’s Chinatown in particular. I ate lunch at Baozi Inn, which was a substantial amount of food. I wasn’t particularly blown away by their bao, but their mapo dofu dish was very spicy and good.

Trafalgar Square was my next stop of the day, to see the National Gallery. I wandered into the museum and liked a lot of what I saw. It’s an incredible collection, and definitely has some real gems. There were some familiar faces there from the pages of my art history textbooks, and I really loved being able to see everything up close and in person. Although it isn’t fine art, I have to admit that some of the favorite things that I saw there were in the lower level, where the museum had highlighted children’s works from local elementary schools. Different arts classrooms shared their student pieces ad talked about what their projects were. It was a really endearing collection, and something that I wish I saw more museums back at home devoting space to.

From Trafalgar Square, I walked over Big Ben and to Westminster Abbey. (Fun fact: Big Ben refers to the clock inside of the tower, not the tower itself.) I didn’t take the tour of the Abbey, although I did sprawl out in the grass for and check out the exterior of the building. Someday, I’d really like to go inside and check out the stained glass rose window. For now, I was pretty contented to just hang out and relax, and not pay the somewhat hefty tour price. I saw the London Eye peeking out near Big Ben, and decided to walk across the Thames to check that out. I think that I’d love to see some of these sights at night, when they get illuminated, as I imagine it would be really striking.

I crossed back over the river and walked to Somerset House in order to check out the Courtauld Museum. The museum was one of many gallery spaces in Somerset House, but it was getting close to closing so it was the only thing that I actually tried to see. It was a private collection that has since been made public – admission is very inexpensive at £6, but with valid student ID I got in for free. Walking in, I was reminded of the Barnes Museum on the Parkway in Philadelphia. The building was very elaborate and ornate. There were a few van Gogh paintings which got most of my attention – he is one of my favorite artists.

One of the docents also struck up a conversation with me while I was there. He was a much older gentleman, and had asked where I was from. Thinking that he had heard my accent, I told him the US. He told me that he thought I “might have been an Oriental”, which is why he asked. (sigh.) Despite this, he was pretty polite, and I’m chalking it up to cultural/generational differences. Oriental is a pretty faux pas thing to say in the US, but not sure if that’s the same here and I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. Other than that, he talked about his vacation to the United States some years before, and asked me if I knew the place in Florida where he had stayed. (I found it endearing that he would give a cross-street somewhere in the US and expect me to know it.) We also talked about the US-Cuba relationship with embargo, although I don’t really remember how that came up.

After the Courtauld, I walked back to Trafalgar Square and took the Underground back to Notting Hill. It was pretty late by the time I got back, and I ate my leftover Chinese food for dinner and then just chilled out at the flat for the night. One thing that I hadn’t really thought of, but the London is very far north in comparison to Philadelphia. I think that it’s probably more in line with Nova Scotia than anything in the US. As a consequence, the days here in the summer stretch on far longer – the sun sets at 9:30pm, and it doesn’t really get dark until after 10. On the flip side of things, it makes the days in the winter so much shorter, but I’m very glad for the extended sunlight while I’m walking and wandering.


Day One

I arrived in London Heathrow airport close to 6am, after a fairly comfortable flight. I was lucky enough to have two young children sitting right in front of me who were incredibly well behaved – the parents were great and kept them very quiet. The in-flight movie selection had some nice recent films, including The Grand Budapest Hotel, which I watched right after takeoff. After we touched down, it was very easy to get through the plane, security, and baggage. (Good decision making: make your baggage distinctive. It saves time at the baggage carousel because you can grab and go, rather than having to inspect every black suitcase that comes around.) It took me a little bit to figure out how to make sense of the Underground, but I did eventually manage to buy an oyster card and get to Notting Hill in one piece.

I’m staying at the flat of a family friend who lived in Notting Hill, although she has since moved back to the United States. Her flatmate is still here, and he let me into the apartment on his way out to work. It’s a beautiful place, and very comfortable set-up. I am so glad to have a chance to stay here, as it puts me a lovely part of London and gives me a lot of flexibility/peace of mind when it comes to leaving my stuff when I am exploring the city.

I got a chance to shower and charge my phone and computer while I was at the flat, and get in touch with Jin, a friend who is staying in London. He is taking classes through a Penn specific program, which is coincidentally also centered in Notting Hill. Although his dorm room is only a mile away from the flat, I left a few hours before we were supposed to meet for lunch so that I would have plenty of time to wander the streets.

I came across Portobello Road when I was wandering. When it’s in full swing on the weekends, Portobello Market is the largest antiques markets in the world. Since I went on a Tuesday, only a few vendors had sidewalk stands set up, and there were very few people walking along the road. Even though it was smaller-scale, it was still a ton of fun to check out.

After Portobello, I really just wandered around for a good hour or two, checking out the different houses and passing by a few churches. The streets in Philadelphia are laid out as a grid, which made trying to navigate here a little bit more complicated. Although I never really had a set location in mind (besides arriving at my friend’s dorm when his classes let out) I kept finding myself doubling back around and arriving one or two streets past where I had thought I was going. A lot of the streets are variants on the same name, with distinctions made between roads, drives, crescents, places, alleys, etc. I am glad to have a map on my phone to be able to figure all of these things out.

After Jin’s class let out, we ate lunch together and then took the metro over to Harrods department store. My parents had recommended that I check it out – and I am glad that they did. I didn’t think that I would be one for a lot of window-shopping (and, trust me, with the prices at Harrods, that’s all I could afford to do) but it was a really strange experience. Each floor felt like a completely different set of stores – from the eateries, to the haute couture, to the children’s toy room, it was fabulous. Best part of the trip there was definitely the Egyptian elevator though – it was in the center of the store, although was not the entrance that we originally came into. We stumbled across it though, and took it back up to the top just to get a view. The shrine to Princess Diana and Dodi at the bottom was impressive, to say the least.

We walked back to Notting Hill after Harrods, going through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Once Jin and I had split up, I walked back to the flat. I found an Asian grocery store on the way back, and picked up a package of instant noodles (the international food of cheap students everywhere) for dinner. I also bought a pack of tapioca pearls, which had very simple instructions for cooking. I am chalking that purchase up as a necessity, because who knows what the bubble tea situation is going to be at Cambridge? And I definitely couldn’t go without it for two months. I spent the rest of the night at the flat, and fell asleep pretty early.