A Portuguese Thanksgiving
When I lived in London, I had three flatmates: a guy from England, a guy from Germany, and a girl from Portugal. I was so excited to get to live with people from such diverse backgrounds and cultures. It was a great opportunity and I was all for it. Cut to November of 2010. I’m sitting in my apartment, Google Imaging the word ‘Thanksgiving’.  I’m looking at pictures of turkeys – a mix of dead ones, poised on the dinner table, ready to be devoured, and happy-go-lucky cartoon birds, waving at each other, naïve and innocent. I suddenly became a bit homesick.  America-sick.  The Brits didn’t seem to see the merits of corn muffins and pumpkin pie. They didn’t have a special day devoted to stuffing their faces. This left me forlorn and craving cranberry sauce. I considered making my own holiday meal, but soon remembered I couldn’t cook without causing a small fire. As luck would have it, my Portuguese roommate was half American! She understood my turkey fever and invited me to Lisbon for the holiday. I was happy to find that her family took it very seriously. The dinner was full of cheerful family members and all the Thanksgiving staples. It made me forget that I was thousands of miles away from home. The next few days were reserved for tourism. I had never been to Lisbon before, and was immediately struck by how gorgeous it was. Downtown —  the apartments were full of bright colors, and sweet unexpected touches.   The people looked very relaxed and happy.   We accidentally stumbled upon a rocky abandoned area, in the middle of the city. It was covered in interesting graffiti and had mysterious little steps and narrow paths that led to more random bits of art.                  Afterwards, we made our way to Alfama to visit St. George’s Castle. The steps inside were narrow and steep, but the view from up high was totally worth it.                      Later on that day, we walked the streets in search of gelato. We went to Santini Gelati, Lisbon’s most famous ice cream shop. If you’re ever visiting, you need to go there. So good. Eventually we made our way to a village called Carnide. We ate at an amazing restaurant called Portas Verdes that served steak on a searing hot stone that you cook for yourself. It came with a big salad, a generous plate of french fries, and dips. Amazing. I highly recommend this place as well. I only had two days to explore the city, but still managed to see so many beautiful things. If you’re ever stumped on where to travel, definitely give Lisbon a go. Read More ›

Exploring London Proper
Reina describes her adventures in Central London, UK including key sights such as Piccadilly Circus, East London, and Kensington Gardens. Read More ›

Learning to Love New Malden
The day I first set foot in New Malden, I immediately broke down in tears. This is exactly what I looked like – minus the faucet: Kyle Flood Via Wikipedia Commons As mentioned in the previous entry, I had just spent a glorious day in Kingston, admiring the town, visiting my university, and was pumped to see where I would be living for a year. I had over-sized hopes and expectations. The friendly, helpful bus drivers at the Kingston Fairfield station recommended me taking the #213 bus. So, I did. David Howard via Wikipedia Commons Bad idea. It took just about 40 minutes to arrive. During that time, the sun vanished, the skies darkened, and it started to pour. I got off the bus, hopes dashed, freaked out that it would be taking me so long to commute to school every day. That, plus the weather, plus being directionally-challenged and getting lost twice over, made for a most unpleasant first impression. I couldn’t believe it. When I had checked out pictures of my apartment building online, it looked big and cozy, bright and cheerful. There was definitely a disconnect between my expectations and what was standing right in front of me. I felt duped. And, also, for the record, a little hoodwinked. On top of that, the town itself looked miserable. I know that this was in part due to the rain, but that didn’t offer any comfort. The surrounding area looked industrial and run down. The streets were chock-full of Korean people (this didn’t contribute to my disappointment, but it did contribute to my surprise). This was not the quintessentially British town I had envisioned. I felt a million miles away from Kingston. Later on I would learn that New Malden is famous for being predominately Korean, so that explains that. Also, I came to realize that all of London is now so multicultural that there is no such thing as “quintessentially British” anymore. That’s another one of those antiquated notions I had picked up  from watching one too many movies. Fortunately, I ended up making fast friends with my flatmates, which definitely came in handy in December, when our landlord began massive, invasive construction on our building and created a disaster zone for us to live in for the remaining 9 months.  Oh, but that’s a different story of its own. Living in New Malden ended up broadening my palate as well. I quickly discovered that a predominantly Korean neighborhood meant lots of delicious food. They say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Truer words have never been spoken. A few Bulgogi Bibimbaps later – try saying that 5 times fast – and I was a New Malden convert. Suddenly the town didn’t seem so bad. Ayustety via Wikipedia Commons Restaurants aside, New Malden also had a nice little park with a tennis court, plenty of trees, and open space. High street was just a couple blocks away, full of restaurants, a post office, little shops and a gym. Everything I needed was within short walking distance. Also, after I complained to everybody about the #213, I quickly learned that nobody takes that bus, as the #131 is much faster. Rookie mistake. I have to say that the town was very conveniently located. When traveling to Central London, it took about 10 minutes by bus to reach the Raynes Park train station, and then another 15-20 minutes to Waterloo station. Not too shabby. Stephen Craven via Wikipedia Commons Everyone knows that England is on the rainier side. So I realize now that I shouldn’t have let some bad weather dampen my spirits. And there were plenty of gorgeous days to follow. Here are some of my favorite shots:   The British are known for their sense of humor. Here are two little pieces of evidence I stumbled upon on the streets:                      If that name doesn’t draw you right in, then I just don’t know.   So all in all, while its charms may not have been readily apparent, by September 2011 I felt at home in this funny little town,  and didn’t want to leave. If you happen to visit, here’s the name and address of my favorite Korean restaurant. JIN GO JAE 272 Burlington Road New Malden, Surrey +44 20 8949 2506 ‎ It’s tiny, unassuming, and completely delicious. Enjoy! Read More ›

First Impressions in Kingston upon Thames
By Trailer screenshot via Wikimedia Commons Last September, when I was standing around in Newark airport waiting to board my flight to London, I wondered what it would be like. I had traveled to Europe before, but never to the United Kingdom, and my conception of England mostly came from a mix of different movies. I imagined it would be a combo of Mary Poppins,  Mr. Bean, Love Actually, and Four Weddings and a Funeral. I thought it a give-in that Hugh Grant would appear in my life, that I would befriend a nanny who used words like “spit spot” and that I would fall in love with British men, all of whom would be incredibly self-effacing, bumbling and stumbling over their words, and utterly incapable of taking a compliment. Well. Julien Rath via Wikimedia Commons Suffice it to say that none of these things transpired. Apparently, I am too old to have a nanny, and most of the ones I spotted on the streets looked quite unapproachable anyway. As for Hugh Grant, I spent a year in London and managed not to meet him even once. The most ubiquitous British actor and our paths never crossed! Hard to believe, I know. But, let’s get back to the topic at hand! I was enrolled in an MA Creative Writing course at Kingston University. When they sent me my acceptance letter, it was like Charlie finding the golden ticket.  As soon as the plane touched down, I was dead curious to explore this Kingston I had heard so much about, and see where I would be studying for the next year. I had a basic knowledge of Kingston (Upon Thames), stemming from some very intensive Wikipedia research.  I knew that it was famous for being an old market place, I knew that it was home to the Rose Theater, and that it was right along the river. I googled Kingston riverside and saw boats going by, people relaxing outdoors, and so many swans. It was the latter detail that really sold me. The first things I noticed when I finally arrived in the Kingston town center were the adorable street names: Wheatfield Way, Eden Walk, and Lady Booth Road.  The next thing that drew my attention were the stores. I spotted Hollister, H&M, Uniqlo, and American Apparel. I saw McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. I was definitely not new to the concept of globalization, but it was still disappointing to be immediately hit in the face with reminders of home. The whole point of leaving was to see something brand new. I didn’t have a long time to grumble though, because I started noticing signs for something called Marks and Spencer, Tesco, and Boots. All three names were delightfully unfamiliar to me. On top of that, I was spotting pubs on every corner. They bore old-fashioned names, with traditional décor, and plenty of jolly old Englishmen inside. I was intrigued, but wanted to make my way to the Thames first. The view was more gorgeous than I had anticipated. There were cafes and restaurants all along the riverside, with couples lounging around, smoking cigarettes, eating generous plates of food, sipping on full-to-the-brim glasses of wine. And this was all happening in the afternoon! _Job? What is this “job” you speak of? _The sun was bouncing off the river, casting diamond shapes on the water. I saw a white-bearded man and his wife having lunch in their boat with the curtains half-drawn, and children sitting on the edge of the path, with their feet dangling over the water. And the swans! I had never seen that many in my life. Some were picking at each other, others were vying for the last piece of bread that a little old lady had thrown to them. A couple were upside down with their feet in the air, presumably having a drink. The whole scene was almost too picturesque. I stood there, snapping photos, and waiting for a giant asteroid to strike. It all seemed too perfect. I was overjoyed. I couldn’t believe my luck that I would be studying here for a year. And living here too! Well, not exactly here. I was moving into International Student Housing in New Malden. My landlord had told me that that town was a stone’s throw away from Kingston. I assumed that my flat would be in a location similar to this one. I imagined waking up in the morning to the sounds of happy couples having breakfast, and birds flying by. Well, I was in for a big surprise. But more on that next time! Read More ›