Monday, June 15, 2009

Freeze the Moment With a Flash

I lean against the black chain-link fence of a walkway skirting the banks of the Thames and stare out at the water. The hazy, blue river water laps against the concrete foundation of the walkway some fifteen feet below. It reflects the shining gold sunlight that momentarily breaks through the clouds on an otherwise overcast day. The Tower Bridge stands to my left, with its gold crosses glittering and contrasting with the gray and cool, ice blue of the bridge’s spires and supports. 

Courtesy of Ryan Parkhurst

A presence to my right disrupts my contemplation and, as I turn in that direction, I see my professor’s big, black camera in my face. Caught off guard, I give him a glaring death stare (according to him) and turn back to my musings.


As my travel companions quickly realized, I’m not a huge fan of having my picture taken. Perhaps it’s my reserved personality, 15 years of embarrassing school portraits or my journalistic tendencies to record — and not participate in — the action, but I definitely prefer to be behind the camera.


That might explain why I have very few pictures of myself out of the more than 2,600 photos I took over the span of three weeks in London and Scotland. I certainly had my camera with me for almost every moment of my trip; I just had my eye to the lens.

However, I question my inclination for having my camera practically glued to my hand.


There have been billions of pictures taken of St. Paul’s Cathedral, for instance. Many of these are of a much better quality than what my amateur photography skills were able to produce. In fact, I found a good deal for one — on a postcard costing 20 pence at a souvenir shop on Portobello Road in Notting Hill. Still, I have upwards of 75 pictures of St. Paul’s, and that’s just of the outside.


And yet, none of those photos compare to what can be seen and felt inside of the cathedral, where no photography is allowed. The glowing-faced cherubs and pious saints depicted on the mosaics of the Quire are permanently seared into my brain. The golds, reds, blues and purples meld together forming Biblical scenes. The Dome reaches up so high, as if linking earth with the heavens above, until the paintings are just blurry images beyond my power of sight.


The juxtaposition of the minute and the colossal engulf me. There’s both an uneasiness associated with the feeling that I’m just a miniscule blip on the cosmic radar and a peacefulness thinking that there’s more to the world than my petty concerns. A camera can’t capture those feelings. It can’t capture that smell of incense and candles or those chills from being in a place of sanctity, silence and reverence.


So, perhaps my camera is not so significant.


It might make more sense to snap a few photos and then spend the rest of the time taking in the scene without being separated from it by a box of metal, plastic and glass. My eyes can do much better justice to a sight than a 1-by-1.5-inch viewing screen.


Plus, I can always Google a picture later.


Now that I’m home, everyone I run into asks me the same question: “How was your trip?”


To describe my trip in just a few words seems impossible and inadequate. I spent three weeks in two different countries encountering experiences and sights new — and literally foreign — to me every day. Where could I possibly start? I usually just reply, “It was amazing. I loved it there.”


Silence follows — like you-can-hear-crickets-chirping-in-the-background silence — accompanied by a half-puzzled, half-annoyed look signaling the question, “Michelle, is that really all you’re going to give me?”


“Go online, read my blog and look at my pictures,” I want to demand. “Then, come back with a list of specific questions. I will answer those.”


In a Facebook nation, however, where the longevity of the average American’s attention span lasts only a few seconds, no one is going to view my 21 photo albums comprising 2,672 photos. No one is going to spend hours sifting through my shots of vistas, monuments, castles and landscapes.


They want stories.


They want to hear about what I liked and what I disliked. They want to hear about what inspired me. They want to hear about my adventures.


They want to hear about how I got lost in London at midnight trying to find a nightclub

… how I ate a delicious crepe bigger than my head

… how I got my jeans ripped by a middle-aged Scottish man

… how I unsuccessfully tried to summon Nessie from the depths of Loch Ness

… how I earned the nickname Clumsiness

… how I fed Hamish, the hairy coo.


Yes, they want stories. They want proof that I was there, in the flesh, living life and not just taking touristy photos of Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. They want to know what I was doing when I neglected to pull my camera out of my bag. My pictures won’t mean much to them, because they weren’t there to experience those moments in the first place.


Of course, those pictures mean a lot to me, in that, 20 years from now, I hope they’ll help me remember some of those moments. Yet, those three weeks changed my thoughts, my goals and my life. They want to know why, and my pictures can’t tell that story for me.


Upon returning to London from Edinburgh, I lean, weighed down by my florescent orange camping backpack, against the Plexiglas wall separating the seating from the standing room on the tube. I feel a light poke against my arm, so I look to my left.


A man, about 35 years of age, sits in the seat next to where I’m standing. He wears blue jeans and an eggshell-colored sweater that complements his tan skin tone. He has slick, dark hair pulled back into a ponytail — Antonio Banderas style. A little blond girl — the culprit — with striking blue eyes stands on his lap. Dressed in pink pants and a light pink, floral shirt, the toddler waves and says, “Hi.”


I smile and wave back. She’s precious. Every time the tube car stops, she waves and says goodbye to those getting off, to those staying on and, really, to anyone and everyone. The two get off at the station before mine, and she waves over her father’s shoulder to the remaining passengers as he carries her out in his arms.


This is such a moment in which one’s camera is useless. Firstly, one could justifiably be arrested for pulling out a camera and unwarrantedly shooting photos of this little girl. Secondly, this moment isn’t composed of a building or landmark one can freeze in a frame. It’s a scene — a little intricacy of life — that only can be stored away within the confines of my memory until the next time I’m in need of an endearing anecdote.


That’s what my family and friends are looking for.


Happily, I can give it to them.

Monday, June 8, 2009

I Can Sleep When I'm Dead

My 5-year-old bare feet are planted on the golden-yellow tiles of the kitchen floor. My right hand holds the phone to my ear, and my left hand twirls the spiraling phone cord. My grandmother is on the other end of the line — asking me about my sleeping habits.


When I was a child, I never wanted to sleep. Sometimes I would sneak into the living room at dawn to watch episodes of “Shining Time Station” or “Pappyland” on television. When I would hear my dad getting ready for work, I would rush back to bed to feign sleep or hide under a side table with a floor-length covering in the hallway until he left.


My one condition in choosing a preschool was that it must not have naptime. I hated naps. I struck a deal with my mom before I was in school: I could skip napping if I pretended to sleep until my younger brother actually did fall asleep; then, I could go to my room and pass the time as I pleased.


So my grandmother asks me, “Michelle, why do you never want to sleep?”


I answer that I don’t want to miss anything.


At 5 years old, I didn’t understand the concept of unconsciousness, but I realized life passed by while I slept — and I wanted to witness as much of that life as possible. Basically, I considered myself dead while I slept, which I believed was not conducive to experiencing life.


After a two-week visit to London, I’m tired. All I want is sleep. However, that’s also the last thing I’ll allow myself. Starting off on my Haggis Adventures Tour of Scotland, I promise myself I’ll take advantage of every opportunity the Highlands present me with — even if I have to be sleep deprived.


On night one, I sit perched on a brown leather ottoman, double shot of Smirnoff vodka mixed with cranberry juice in hand, in a dimly lit common room surrounded by a circle of newly met travel companions. They drift in and out, replenishing their drinks and socializing with others in the bar. They occupy other ottomans, a squishy black sofa, navy beanbag chairs and a wooden piano bench with a woven, green seat, all of which line the walls. We’re shooting the bull — telling stories about the first day and our past experiences.


I realize I don’t have much to contribute. I haven’t drunkenly scampered through the forest with my friends in the middle of the night. I haven’t kept watch as my family attempts to dig up pickle jars full of money in the backyard. I haven’t had my body parts almost chopped off by a sword-wielding man in a kilt. So much for not missing anything …


Still, however, I’m sitting in a room with these people with whom I hope I am making a connection. We are a community — if only for a mere five days — and I want to establish a rapport that will allow me to gain the kind of stories I’m convinced I’m lacking. So, as I tiptoe around my dark hostel room, giggling with one of my roommates and trying not to wake the others, I deem the 3 a.m. bedtime entirely worth it.

For night two, a 21st-birthday celebration for another of my roommates begins at midnight. Five others join me in my room, counting down to 12 a.m. after being taken hostage in our water-less hostel by the 11:30 p.m. curfew. A middle-aged Scottish man named Brian crashes the party — and contributes the beer.


He also contributes to the hole in the knee of my jeans, tearing the blue denim fabric three inches above and below the hole instead of across the knee. He tells me to connect the fabric with huge, inch-and-a-half-long safety pins — like ones once used to secure babies’ diapers, I picture — to make it look cool. He also says I should tell people I got the hole falling from rocks giving out beneath my feet while climbing a mountain. Actually, I earned the hole from distractedly tripping off a curb earlier that day.


He offers his torn jeans as an example, with the tear received during the running of the bulls in Barcelona … or drunkenly falling while stumbling back from a Spanish pub in the wee hours of the morning. I’m not sure the running of the bulls is even performed in Barcelona — the most famous version of the event takes place in Pamplona, Spain, at the San Fermin Festival.


I suppose I now have story to tell.


The following night, we continue the birthday celebration at full force. A group of about fifteen of us crowd our chairs around a long wooden table in Saucy Mary’s Bar, which has an all-too-appropriate name. We’re overseen by Drunkenness — a tacky, green stuffed animal whose name is coined from the Nessie fame of Loch Ness. Drunkenness turns out to be a bad influence, as the alcohol flows generously, especially with a £2.50 deal for double-shot mixed drinks.


We decide to give ourselves “-ness” nicknames in the spirit of Drunkenness. I miss this conversation for a bathroom break and return as Clumsiness. Apparently I’m queen of the klutzes — the validity of which I tend to secure daily, as per my torn jeans. Sheep-ness, Neva-neva-ness, Gayness, Love-ness and Hairiness are among our newfound monikers.


A trio plays Celtic music across the room. We have no idea how to dance to Celtic music, so we improvise. We form a group-wide huddle with our arms wrapped around one another for balance and run around in a circle, kicking our feet inward and cheering until we’re overcome with dizziness.


Then, we engage in a game of “Never Have I Ever.” Looking back, I don’t think I understood the goal, since I ended up drinking whenever it was my turn to confess something I had never done — thus, saying I had done it, which isn’t supposed to be the objective. However, everyone cheers for me when I say I have never been drunk before, so I find myself providing entertaining admissions, at least.


At closing time, we depart the pub. Two Aussies and another American join me on the trek to the rooms. We sit in the stairwell, discussing who-knows-what but enjoying the company. Eventually, one Aussie leaves, and I consider how much I need sleep before our 8:45 a.m. departure. Then I think of how I’m sitting in a stairwell in Saucy Mary’s Lodge on the Isle of Skye in Scotland with two interesting travel companions who are more my acquaintances than friends. After the trip, I’ll probably never hear from them again; but the point is that, by some twist of fate, our paths have crossed for five days, and I’d be a fool to give up time with them in lieu of a extra hour of sleep. This is sufficient in eradicating the argument for sleep from my mind, prolonging our stay in the stairwell for a bit longer.


Hostel beds don’t lend themselves to particularly restful nights of sleep, anyway.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

All You Need Is Love ... and Directions

This week, we were supposed to go on a Beatles tour. We ended up missing it, which was very disappointing, considering how much I love the Beatles and that this tour was probably the one I was most excited for. Because we missed the tour, we had the rest of the day off, so Rachel and I decided we really wanted to see Abbey Road and would just show up there ourselves. 

It turns out that the tour wouldn’t have even taken us to Abbey Road, which, in my opinion, entirely defeats the purpose of a Beatles tour and is really the only thing worth checking out.

So, we went to Abbey Road. I got my arm caught in the tube door, which is always fun. (Obviously, I am more than willing to sacrifice my physical well-being to see Abbey Road.) Also, we, of course, took the scenic route (i.e. went in the wrong direction) once we reached the tube stop. However, the hassle was well worth it, because WE GOT TO SEE ABBEY ROAD!!!!!!!

We were typical tourists, who walked back and forth across the zebra stripes and pissed off local drivers, since they have to stop when we cross. We saw Abbey Road Studios — well, at least from the outside. We also wrote messages on the white walls outside of the building.


So, overall, the journey to Abbey Road paid off. If not for all of those mishaps, we never would have gotten the chance to see one of the best sights we’ve seen thus far on the trip.

A Cut Above

Turning onto Sydney Street from Kings Road, passersby wouldn’t even know she’s there. Nevertheless, Corinne, a hair stylist from URBAN RITES Hair and Skin Care, waits in the salon each day to keep her clients looking and feeling their best. The slender woman, with her brunet curls and black summer dress, guarantees her customers’ satisfaction, frequently asking for reactions with every few snips of the scissors or slices of the razor. 

Sitting in the fire-engine-red chairs and waiting to have my hair cut, I witness her styling her current client’s face-framing, chin-length wisps of hair four times. “No, no. Like this,” the woman explains, vaguely gesturing a corkscrew motion with her right index finger. Corinne continues until the placement and degree of each artificial curl gains the woman’s approval. The client’s raven hair cascades down her back and, thanks to Corinne, bounces with each step, just like she wanted.

Located in the Chelsea Courtyard, the salon is difficult to spot. Next to the Chelsea Farmers’ Market, the courtyard houses a flower stand at the top of the steps and, downstairs, a Thai food stand right outside URBAN RITES’ door. The salon has a clean, streamlined — almost industrial — feel to it, with stark off-white walls and sleek silver track lighting. The bottom half of the walls are covered by platinum-colored metal sheets accented by markings similar to tiny, raised tire treads.

The only bright color in the room is red: the three red styling chairs in front of the white sinks and the two red waiting chairs tucked into the corner. The only warmth in the room that compares to the sunny, 70-degree weather outside is the hospitality of the stylists.

Corinne is joined by two other stylists in the front room of the salon, reserved for hair care. They acknowledge each other as they begin their shifts with a hearty greeting and offer the same to any patron who walks in. The two other stylists exchange banter with their clients, talking about their friends, pets and plans. One of them, when asked about London nightlife, replies, “I’m too old for clubbing now,” but then mentions some of the more low-key places she likes to frequent. The other engages her older male client in a conversation about how she’s friends with her ex-boyfriend on Facebook.

Corinne is more reserved — she’s still friendly and personable, but she’d rather talk to me about my trip to London than herself. She asks what I’ve been up to, and I give her my list of the mainstay tourist destinations that I’ve seen — the Globe Theatre, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace and so on. She then suggests that I check out some of the markets, since that is something she enjoys doing in her free time.

All the while, snippets of my hair fall to the gray floor and onto my black hair-cutting cape. Intermixed with the personal ramblings, Corinne offers hair care tips, from shampoos to hair mask treatments to finishing lotion that won’t weigh down my incredibly thick hair. Apparently, my principal hair characteristic is that I have perhaps the heaviest hair she has ever seen.

Originally hailing from Paris, Corinne began her rendezvous with London about a decade ago. After coming to London to spend years learning and gaining experience in hairstyling, she briefly returned home to Paris. She apparently could not resist the charms of this metropolis, however, and arrived back in London for good three years ago. The Parisian accent is still strong in her voice, but it is obvious that London has tweaked it over time.

She says she came to London originally to express herself. She felt Paris was too stuffy and conformist at the time, and she wanted a place where she had the freedom to experiment with her styling skills and to be true to herself. Thus, it was the atmosphere of London that attracted her. You can be anyone you want more so than in other places, she says. It’s that mentality that she says makes her love London most.

Sometimes it’s hard for tourists to keep in mind that London isn’t all about them. There’s Corinne and her fellow stylists, for instance, who work literally out of sight — and typically out of mind — of those at street level. They’re not part of the normal tourist experience. Most tourists don’t come to London for a haircut.

However, people — regular people — choose to come and remain in London for reasons that don’t include Big Ben and the Tower Bridge. They live their lives in the background of the commotion of the streaming lines of tourists who congest walkways and Underground train cars. Yet, they are essential to the London that we experience, even if we rarely realize it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

London is ...

London is ...

London is now. I’m in this confusing, complicated and enchanting city for two weeks. That’s it. Then it’s back home to suburbia indefinitely. London is new to me — an acquaintance. I am merely being introduced to its ways and customs ... its layout ... its opportunities.

I sit in Westminster Abbey on Sunday, attending services within its sacred halls. Stained glass windows line the walls; rich reds, blues, yellows and greens, depict the Biblical characters who inspire both awe and confusion in me, as the early afternoon sun shines brightly through the glass. Markers on the floor show the graves of those who passed before us. They urge us to take advantage ... to be inspired by the hall that surrounds us and in which they ultimately came to rest. Wooden chairs for the congregation contrast with the smooth and shiny mahogany pews reserved for the choir and certain visitors. The last line of pews has a high back wall of blue with golden ornamentation. Shiny and eye-catching.

The pastor presents his sermon — one asking why we can’t all get along — perfect for an audience of diversity. These sheep are different in age, gender, nationality, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation and an infinite number of others.

But they’re all together. In one room. In London.

I sit next to an older woman, perched on her brown, wooden chair with an upright back. It’s not comfortable for me and definitely not for her. During the peace offering, we shake hands. “Peace be with you,” we exchange. Her light, striking blue eyes pierce my own, and her pale, wrinkled skin shows experience and wisdom. After the service, we strike up conversation. She’s from Scotland and is visiting family in London. It’s her first time at Westminster Abbey. We have something in common.

Out of her old-fashioned, black purse she pulls a bundle of paper ... sheets folded together. Cursive letters in blue ink are scrawled across the page. She says she writes everything down — everything that she sees and experiences here. She says I should do the same: write down my thoughts, observations, memories. You’ll want to go back and have them someday, she says.
I know she’s right. I spent the entire service looking around, wondering how I can keep every little detail of what I’m seeing in my brain. I’ll want those thoughts.

Otherwise, I’ll lose them ... because London won’t always be now. It’ll be then. And I won’t be able to go back. So, I’ll just have to do all I can to record and remember, but also live. To strike that balance between experience and living behind the lens of a camera. To have those mementos of my travels ... but to also make sure I make memories worth remembering.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Slit Throat in September

Sept. 8, 1888 is the day upon which Jack the Ripper murdered his second confirmed victim, Annie Chapman, or “Dark Annie.” Witness Elizabeth Long last saw her alive at approximately 5:30 a.m. talking with a man in Whitechapel on Hanbury Street. Chapman needed money for lodging and was trying to procure said capital through prostitution. Around 6 a.m. Chapman’s dead body was found. Her throat had been slit twice, she had been cut from groin to throat, her uterus had been removed, and her intestines had been pulled out of her abdomen and over her left shoulder.

Gruesome? Yes … but also interesting.

Sept. 8, 1988 is the day I was born.

So Jack the Ripper murdered Chapman 100 years to the day before my birthday. What are the chances? Needless to say, I developed somewhat of an interest in hearing about the case and, in particular, Chapman.

Having discovered this information just a few days before departing for London, I was awaiting the Jack the Ripper tour to satisfy this intrigue. We went on the tour tonight (Monday), which was led by a Beefeater from the Tower of London

The tour wasn’t in the dark, so it wasn’t actually creepy or scary. However, the Beefeater, named Simon, was very entertaining, and, like other Beefeaters that I’ve encountered/heard about, a good storyteller.

However, I do wish my thirst for scariness could be met by some attraction while I’m here. OK, I’ll admit the London Bridge Experience guy did a pretty good job of making me jump out of my skin (see blog post “Building Bridges”), but the Jack the Ripper tour and the London Dungeon only produced blips on my fear-reaction radar screen. Perhaps, I’ll just have to watch “Jeepers Creepers” and be content with my laughter.

When in Rome, do as the Romans

Yesterday (Sunday) morning, Jess, Ashley and I went to church at Westminster Abbey. I figured I couldn’t pass up a chance to attend services at such a famous site. Traditionally, it is the site of coronations, weddings and burials of the British royals and other important figures. Charles Dickens, Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare, among many others, are buried there, for instance.

(On a side note: Princess Diana got married at St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is somewhat uncustomary for the royals. However, I definitely see her point. Don’t get me wrong … Westminster Abbey is absolutely beautiful; however, it doesn’t compare to St. Paul’s Cathedral in my book. Really, none of the buildings I’ve seen do.)

It is an Anglican church, I think, but I found the service to be quite like the Catholic ones back home. The “Apostles’ Creed” and the “Our Father” were slightly different, but, overall, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect.

One definite difference was the music. Many of the songs had a round style to them, in which one section would start singing and then the other sections would follow, as opposed to singing every word together.

I also found that people’s dress was a lot different than I expected. I assumed that people would dress up; that’s just what I’ve learned to do in respect for a place of worship. I don’t know if it was the denomination or if it was because it’s a big tourist attraction, but a lot of people did not dress up. There was a girl, maybe 13 years old, in a T-shirt and jeans. Another woman, probably a few years older than me, wore a green frock dress with black leggings and rose-colored Converse high-tops. Two teenage guys wore T-shirts and khaki shorts, with one wearing beat-up sneakers and the other wearing sandals. 

… Not that I know what people really wear to church on regular basis. Religion never really had a particularly stringent presence in my life growing up, and I was never much of a churchgoer. Without getting into too much detail, religion and religious practices have always been complicated issues for me — ones that I’m still trying to figure out.

That is what surprised me about Sunday. I’m not one to be particularly emotional about such things, but, sitting after Communion, I found myself tearing up. I still have no idea why I was so moved: Westminster Abbey is very nice and all, but it’s not an earth-shattering experience. I suppose all the emotion of being in London and seeing and experiencing so many new things finally caught up with me?


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Building Bridges

The London Bridge area of London has a dark side — and they’ll do all they can to let everyone know. Just walking up the stairwell of the Underground station to reach the outdoors, the first sight visible is a billboard for the London Bridge Experience. That billboard leads one to notice an eight-foot-tall, unsavory, horned creature cloaked in black.

Crossing Tooley Street to get a better look, I found myself watching a beheading via guillotine. Distracted by the spectacle, I never noticed the man creep up next to me. WHOOSH! A breath of air whips at the side of my face, making me jump about a foot in the air and two to the right.

The scariest moment I experienced all day degenerated into a sales pitch for the London Bridge Experience by the man in a white dress shirt and black vest … only with a white painted face and fake blood dripping from his right eye and left temple. Advertised as bloody scary, the attraction details 2,000 years of the bridge’s history, since its creation in Roman times.

I contemplated embarking on the tour. However, being as stubborn as I am and not appreciative of the guy’s sales technique, I decided to follow through with my original plan of exploring the London Dudgeon. Located next door to the tube station, the attraction boasts segments featuring the Great Fire of London, Jack the Ripper and Sweeney Todd and brings the spectators in on the action.

Mostly artificial scares, with stomping, screaming and surprise, and cheap thrills from the two fast-moving rides and special effects, the attraction was entertaining but not meant for the real thrill-seeker. If one wants scary, the £21.95 price tag and hour-long line should be sufficient. It was an enjoyable experience; it just was not worth the cost.

Stepping away from the macabre, the area also offers a calm atmosphere, with a variety of shopping, eating and sightseeing options. The section of the city was originally called the Pool of London and stretches from London Bridge to a bit past the Tower Bridge on both sides of the river. The south side of the area, by the London Bridge Underground station, is less bustling and more peaceful than its northern counterpart by the Monument station.

The district, while historical, is also a burgeoning area with buildings styled with modern architecture — glass, stone and steel. Between the London and Tower bridges is the Queen’s Walk, which offers a scenic view of the Thames. Walking east on the walkway, I follow the crowd of lovers, friends, families and random passersby, clad in comfortable clothing and speaking English and French, among other languages. 

Prominently featured is the HMS Belfast, a ship once part of the British Navy. It now is a museum ship and is maintained by the Imperial War Museum. Tourists snap photos of the ship and surrounding dock areas, while others enter the ship itself for a more close-up tour.

In the shadow of the ship is a fountain surrounded by cylindrical seats of smooth and polished tan granite. Children run through the spouting water, while their parents — some disgruntled by their children’s presently soaked condition — look on. A grandmother-granddaughter pair poses for a picture with arms outstretched, so that the water trickles over their fingers. Visitors sit on the seats, hoping the flecks of water spraying in their direction will cool them off. Overheated passersby buy frozen treats from the nearby ice cream truck to distract them from the pounding afternoon sun.

Eventually, I reach Potters Fields Parks, an open, grassy area on the riverside. Two men, sporting close-fitting black uniforms, ride unicycles, raising them at least six feet above their natural heights. They juggle white and neon orange pins and exchange banter with each other.

A few yards over, a stage is set up. A Greek road show, called The World of Athens, attempts to attract tourism to Greece by appealing to the senses — See Athens. Hear Athens. Smell Athens. Touch Athens. A horde of people occupies the surrounding lawns; some take over the lawn chairs, others sit on the walkway ledges and the rest lounge on the grass. A young couple stands to dance, jokingly rocking back and forth.

The juxtaposed themes of the area — the vivacity of the daylight and the sinister underground — make for a relaxed or chilling experience, depending on one’s tastes. It only takes a bit of exploring — literally just walking down Tooley Street — to see all that there is to offer. Descending into the station, I thought I ought to return and explore further; with its modern and historic offerings, just one visit is not enough.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Ashley, Rachel, Jess and I went to Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens today. It was a really nice day and a good chance to trade the hustle and bustle of the city for a nice park setting. We saw the Princess Di Memorial and the Peter Pan statue, but what I thought was coolest were the skaters. 

There were a group of people with really long two-wheeled skates and poles. It was like cross country skiing but on pavement and with wheels. I'll have to do some more research into what this sport is actually called ... no luck as of yet. Check out one of Ashley's photos above. 

Even better than these guys were the skaters. There were a bunch of them who brought these tiny cones, placing them in a line on the side of the walkway. They would proceed to weave in and out of the cones. It was really awesome! Here is another of Ashley's photos below.

The skaters made me think of how much I love watching the X Games and the Dew Tour back home. I can't wait for them to come on TV later this summer: X Games 15 takes place from July 30 through Aug. 2 in Los Angeles. The tricks are just so cool (or sick ... ). 

What was different today was the precision: The guys today were turning on a dime. I'm sure the professionals can do the same, but it was awesome to get the chance to see such an emphasis on technical work right in front of my eyes! It also makes me wonder why there's not more inline skating in these extreme sports competitions. They've got skateboarding, BMX (bicycle motocross), FMX (freestyle motocross) and others, but you don't see much inline skating. 

Friday, May 22, 2009

A sense of space

I am certainly not a city girl. I’ve never really even been to New York City. The only city I have any familiarity with is Philadelphia, although I usually only go there to visit my family and attend sporting events.

If I didn’t have to worry about finding employment or a steady paycheck, I would happily live out in the boondocks of the Pocono Mountains, where the only traffic comes from NASCAR fans on race weekends and the construction on Rt. 80.

When it came to the thought of living in a big city like London, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know if I could sufficiently find my way around (not yet) or if I would be able to keep up with the pace of city life.

I like my space. I detest large crowds, where I’m jostled around, stepped on and shoved with bags — and my first taste of London in Heathrow gave me a bit of that experience. In my high school, with about 3,500 students and four minutes between classes, I learned how to maneuver through crowds, although that also gave me a distaste for them. 

It’s not claustrophobia; however, like any sense, in which one uses a particular function to perceive and react to stimuli, it has physiological effects. The perception of being closely surrounded makes me tense.

Since I arrived in London, I’ve felt somewhat cooped up. I suppose it is a bit of culture shock. Most areas seem cozy — the London Center … the store aisles … the street widths … the toilet paper rolls. Bristol Cars on Holland Road doesn’t even have an outdoor lot. Everything just seems squished together and closed in.

This is not suburbia, where size matters and bigger is always better.

Our trip to St. Paul’s Cathedral provided the absolute juxtaposition for that feeling. Meandering the alleyways up to the cathedral, I noticed the darkness from the height of the buildings and the narrowness of the walkway.

BUT, when you enter St. Paul’s, it opens up! It’s huge. The domed ceiling stretches up until I can no longer make out the details of the paintings. The Quire extends for yards, with its mosaics of Biblical scenes inspiring awe. There’s space. There’s nothing like a church to make you realize there is more to the world than your own little corner of it.

From the Stone Gallery, you can see the expanse of London. London then doesn’t seem small … it’s vast and sprawling. Above the city, you can breathe.

Climbing down those 376 steps to the cathedral floor and out into the street, I was disappointed I couldn’t spend more time inside. However, you must keep up with the pace of a schedule and the city.  While I don’t think I’ll give up my love of open space, St. Paul’s made me realize: Perhaps if there is such wonder in the open space, that wonder can also be found in the small spaces. Now, I’m intent on seeing it — finding my miniature St. Paul’s. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Man on, man on, man on

This past day (Wednesday), Seth and I went a block or two over from the dorms to watch a soccer (or "football") game at the local pitch. I played soccer for 10 years growing up, so I love the sport. I can't even remember how long it has been since I saw a game live, so it was wonderful to get to see it played in a country where the people care so much about it. 

We might be going to see a professional game next week, which would be so amazing! I think it's Ireland versus Nigeria. I have my hopes set on this, so I really want it to work out.

By the way, Jeremy (if you're reading this), I'm working on the England jersey. We talked to a soccer (well, football ... ) player with an England jersey on, and he suggested a sports shop that might have the new jerseys. So, I'll probably check that place out to see if they have it. 

Wise words from my brother

On our second day in London (Tuesday), when we went to the London Center for class and, thus, had access to at least marginally functioning technology for the first time, I sent an e-mail to my brother and parents, explaining my technological woes.

After telling him that the power blew out in our room and that my laptop charger is now fried, my brother replied, "Haha you blew out the power ." After complaining that London technology hates me, he replied, "I am sure London does not hate you, it probably just dislikes you. "

Thank you, Steven. At least that made me laugh.

So, we now have the Internet, as slow as it is. My charger is still fried (thankfully, Jess is lending me her charger at the moment), meaning that I must find an Apple Store to go to, so that I can get a new one. Not cool. However, I am otherwise enjoying this trip very, very much and refuse to let my computer problems ruin my good time.

Buckingham and Beatles

            The soldiers stand in formation. Their guns rest on their shoulders, and they stare ahead stoically. They’ve been waiting — as has the audience — for quite some time. Their predecessors have guarded royal palaces and the sovereign since 1660, according to the official Web site of the British Monarchy. These current guards are just taking their turn. However, it’s time for them to rest for a few hours.

It’s way past 11:30 a.m., when the Changing the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace is supposed to occur. Some of the audience grows finicky, awaiting the action. Queen Elizabeth II, wearing a pink suit and matching hat, leaves the palace in a black car. Apparently, she doesn’t want to wait, either. Or perhaps, rather, they’ve been waiting for her to depart.

A note from a trumpet pierces the air. It wobbles a bit, as the producer rides down the throughway on his black horse with his fellow riders, all dressed in black uniforms with white, gold and red adornments. White hats — with long red tassels that reach the nape of their necks — rest atop their heads. They enter the gates, and, once again, the audience members wait.

However, they can begin to hear thumping from far off. These drumbeats signal the first indication that the delay is nearly through. Soon, they see the marchers. Led by a horseman in a neon-green coat, they are your typical British guards. They wear red coats and tall bearskin caps.

Many of them have chevrons as part of their uniform decoration. These inverted v’s line the entire uniform sleeves of some. Others only have a few, and still others have none. From afar and with the swinging of the soldiers’ arms, the sleeves could be 3-feet-long candy canes flying forward and back with every beat.

The first group carries band instruments. Air blown through their reeds and mouthpieces travels through the open air to listeners’ ears — a soundtrack to the ceremonial pomp. They enter the gate, followed by fellow soldiers, who have golden bugles attached to their garb, and we wait once again.

Eventually the old guards and replacements march back and forth in some ceremonial practice. They face off as if to duel, but, instead, one member of each group meets the other in the center of the gap. After further marching, they shake hands, as do others of the group.

Some instrument-bearing soldiers step forward. They set up in their semi-circle formation and begin playing. The band plays a rendition of the Beatles’ “Michelle.” The trumpets supply the melody, the trombones offer a base line, and the drummers carry the beat.

There are other horsemen riding across the throughway, but all I can hear is the tune, as it seized my attention. In my head, I’m singing, “Michelle, ma belle / Sont des mots qui vont trés bien ensemble / trés bien ensemble.” Just think, I’ve been in London for fewer than three days, and I’m standing outside of Buckingham Palace, while these protectors of the country play the song with which I share my name.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Look left, look right ... but most of all, look for WHITE

My first concrete observation after exiting the plane at Heathrow was that people in London walk very quickly, as if they’re always in a hurry. Our group was passed numerous times on the way out of the airport, and it wasn’t merely because we were all exhausted and lugging our bags. A woman tried to nudge me out of her way, and a little blond girl with a purple and green pastel Tinkerbell suitcase outpaced Seth on the moving sidewalk.

Everyone seems to walk up behind us, impatiently slow down for a few paces and then rush by, as if we’re traveling at a snail’s pace. It’s like they’re all training for a power-walking competition.

After traveling around London for two days — and doing quite a bit of walking — I’ve realized why.

I’ve seen a number of cars nearly strike pedestrians. At the London Center, Bill, Sarah and Ryan told us stories of students and faculty getting hit. I’ve also experienced the fear firsthand, as we’ve sprinted across busy streets with cars speeding at us.

Thus, it seems to me, at least, that London pedestrians are at a disadvantage when it comes to transportation. Perhaps this opinion is a result of my suburban lifestyle and lack of experience in cities, but, frankly, I don’t want to fear for my life every time I want to cross the street.

The one thing working in pedestrians’ favor, however, is the fact that the streets are lined with words and symbols that direct us. While they confuse me in their differences from the American system — why cross the street in the middle of the road? — those striking white lines are what have kept me alive for the last 37 or so hours. Without the large white block letters staring up at me from the ground, telling me I’d better look in a particular direction before stepping into traffic, I’d be in trouble.

“LOOK RIGHT.” “LOOK LEFT.”  Kids learn early on that they must look both ways before crossing the street. However, sometimes — in London, in my case — we all need a little help.

With all of the foot traffic, those white stripes and lines take a beating. All day long, they bear the clomping of shoes, the click-clack of heels — and the stomping of five American college students running from bombarding buses and cars.

Those poor white lines. At one time, they were newly painted, contrasting sharply with the black street beneath. The thick, pasty paint looked like vanilla icing on the surface of a pan of brownies. They help us with every step, and we tread on them until their crisp white turns to gray with wear.

We take advantage of them, using them for their assistance, until they wither away. Then, we paint over them without much thought, but only when they're missing do we come to realize how much we need them. The white lines of London may be most famous for bearing the steps of George, Paul, Ringo and John, but I, for one, have come to appreciate the white lines for an entirely other reason.  

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Goodbyes and frustrations

So, I am about half an hour from leaving for the airport. In the meantime, I decided I would try vlogging. I've been trying to use YouTube to record the video, but it keeps cutting off the video at around 20 seconds. Frankly, after three tries, I've gotten kind of pissed off at it, so I'm going to wait until I get to London to further explore my vlogging options. I can always just use my camera and upload it, but I'm sure there must be an easier way that I'm just not thinking of now.

Thus, I'm going to type what I was planning to say in my vlog. I'm just about packed. Obviously, I still need to pack away my computer and whatnot, but other than that, I'm in pretty good shape. I'm so excited to start this trip!!! I'm just a little nervous, but I suppose that can be expected. It's mostly just about getting through the airport in one piece, so that should be over soon.

This trip is still so surreal for me. I just can't wrap my head around the fact that I'll be in London and Scotland for three weeks. I just want to start the trip already!

(My mother just walked into my room, freaking out because she thought I left without saying goodbye to her. Thanks for the confidence, Mom, because I'm really the kind of person who would jet off to the U.K. for three weeks without saying goodbye.)

Anyway, I think I'm going to go and eat before I leave. Next time I post on here, I'll be in London (hopefully haha)!

Friday, May 15, 2009

250 ml of what?

I just found the most interesting piece of information on the Customs section of Apparently, if you are traveling into the U.K. from countries outside the E.U., you are allowed to bring in 250 ml of toilet water

Mind you, it must travel with you, and you must not intend to sell it

They specify six categories on the Web site, including cigarettes, cigars, liqueurs and wine. Of all of the things they could place mandates on and choose to detail in those six bullet points, they choose toilet water? Really? I really don't see there being that big of a market for toilet water. To each his own, I suppose, but that is one rule I don't think I'm going to have to worry about.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Everyday America

I went to the Phillies' game last night. I was happy to get in a little dose of American tradition before I head across the pond to London. 
I always find athletic events fascinating ... aside from the actual game. At times, I find myself paying more attention to the crowd than to the game itself.
The lady sitting next to us used scissors to punch out the holes on her All-Star Team ballot (Good job, security.). The lady behind us talked on the phone about "American Idol" for the majority of the game. She voted 150 times last week, and apparently she was trying to figure out the designated phone number for a contestant for this week, so that she could vote from the game. There was also almost a fight in the next section.
There was a fan dressed up in a neon pink monkey suit, and another dressed up like a banana. 
I also find it hilarious how interested fans get into guessing the winner of the animated video productions ... which Turkey Hill ice cream container contains the baseball, which bobblehead doll reaches home plate first and which SEPTA subway car crosses the finish line first.
Then, of course, there was the traffic ... which almost killed us a handful of times. I don't think I can adequately express my relief at not having to drive in London.
I did, however, take the train and subway down to the game, which helped alleviate some of the concerns I had about transportation in London. I had never been on a train or subway before, so I was a little nervous about the tube. Honestly, I still am a bit, but less than before. Once I do it once, though, I don't think it will be a problem.
Back to the game ...
The line for Chickie's and Pete's was hours long, so I couldn't get crab fries, which was sad. (I'll just have to go to the actual restaurant when I get back from the trip ... believe me, the trek is worth it.)
Overall, it was a great time. We won the game! Jayson Werth made an awesome play stealing home, and the crowd's howls of "Raul" and "Ruiz" are always fun ... and the Phanatic is pretty much the best mascot ever. It was just the fix of American culture I needed. 
... Now I'm in the mood for some apple pie.  

Thursday, May 7, 2009


Hello, Ryan Parkhurst. Welcome to my blog.

Monday, April 20, 2009

One month

Four weeks from today, I will be in London. Well, presumably ... unless I miss my flight, am detained by customs or the like ... knock on wood. I'm such an optimist; however, I would have plenty of material for my first article. That's a glass-half-full concept.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Introduction to blogging ...

So, I've decided to create a blog ... obviously. Honestly, I've been kind of reluctant to create one for fear of turning into the next Emily Gould. But that won't happen ... I'm not exactly keen on bearing the intimate details of my life for the world to see ... and Facebook is more my style anyway. So, the reason I've created a blog is to document my trip to London and Scotland during the summer of 2009, so that everyone at home can see what I'm doing while I'm away. I'm so excited to go! I'm just in the awkward anticipation phase right now: three weeks of class, one week of finals and one week at home ... then I'll be across the Atlantic!