That’s Your Kew, Spring!

I recently decided to devote a day to visiting Kew Gardens, which has long had a home on my To-Visit list but which I always thought of as too far away to be a spur-of-the-moment activity.  This was dumb, as getting anywhere in London is usually 45 minutes, and that’s exactly how long it took me to get to Kew Gardens on the Overground. I really showed myself, huh!

Even though it was mid-February, the weather was stunningly beautiful, sunny, and just cold enough to be invigorating but not enough to be a hindrance to walking around outside.

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My friend Megan joined me, and we began by touring the frighteningly high Treetop Walkway (whose creator had the bad judgment to make the entire thing, stairs and all, out of see-through and occasionally wobbly steel mesh), but the view was mostly of still-dormant trees and bushes. In summer, I am sure it is wonderful and I’ll have to steel myself (ha, ha) to return to the Treetop Walkway again. Note that the picture is from when I was safely back on solid ground.

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Then we headed to the Palm House, which is understandably kept at tropical temperatures. Megan’s glasses were not prepared for the immediate switch:

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The Palm House felt and smelled like tropical adventure, and made me yearn for my time spent travelling in South America and Megan for her time in Africa, both of which had their own sections in the greenhouse.

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Upon leaving the Palm House, we encountered a well-kept garden (shown below), a pond, and a posh old house because… England.

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Then came the main attraction: the special Orchids exhibit in the Princess of Wales Conservatory, which was only running for a month and was designed with the influence of Brazil’s Carnival celebrations. I love orchids, though have never understood how not to kill them when they are in my care, and this exhibit was a marvel of color, variation, and green-thumb skills.

I even bought myself a white and magenta dappled orchid at the gift shop, inspired into thinking I could manage not to kill it. Time will tell, but so far it’s still kicking!

The Urban Fox

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This particular fox has a magnificent identifier: a tail that is 80% hairless. Clearly the result of some accident, but unnerving that you can see the bone of his/her tail. 

When I moved to London, I didn’t know that I’d be trading a daily plethora of subway rats for the rarest sightings of tiny, and frankly pretty adorable, dormice who shiver as the train comes and then skitter away. Nowhere in sight are the NYC native rats (The Rats? Their dominance suggests they deserve proper nouns) that steal whole bagels or dropped slices of pizza while glaring at you and shaking off the haters. Respect to those Rats, but I don’t miss them.

Londoners treat The Urban Fox like New Yorkers treat The Rats, as something they grudgingly respect for their survival abilities but find to be a pest. In all my ex-pat shiny newness, I still get excited and a little bit scared when I see them. Will they bite me? Do something fox-y and crazy? TALK TO ME? (Please talk to me.)

For some reason, I have an overwhelming desire to converse with these foxes. I think this stems from reading (and rereading) Roald Dahl for the majority of my childhood and adolescence, and specifically Fantastic Mr. Fox. They just seem chill, like they’d be down to chat. After all, they are just roaming the streets back and forth with seemingly no purpose. Certainly they know that garbage day is Wednesday, so their big night is Tuesday after midnight, when rubbish bags galore await a good tearing open on the sidewalk. Any other day I spot them, they are not focused in hot pursuit of food or trash, but simply ambling about the neighborhood. The Foxes I’ve seen in my neighborhood are very clever, as foxes are often depicted to be: they know how to wait for traffic to cross the road, and do it every single time. They are territorial, so I see the same 3 foxes who patrol my street – and hear them having insane fights late at night that sound like sorority girls fighting each other with their nails.

Two nights ago, both I and a pedestrian coming the opposite way stopped in order to allow a fox to pass between us on the sidewalk, as he considered whether he wanted to enter that property (photo shown above). He approached, paused, and thought about it while we waited (perhaps cursing the broker who denied his offer, to sell to another?). Then he retreated back to the other side of the street, robbing me of the chance to ask him if he also hated Wes Anderson’s rendition of Fantastic Mr. Fox.

*For more on The Rats, read “Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants” by Robert Sullivan. It’s amazing and horrible and will haunt your dreams, but you’ll know so much more about rats. 

Lumiere London: A Feast of Light

 

The Lumiere light festival was in town for the first time January 14-17, showing off beautifully designed light shows, exhibits, and experiences. The displays were not just pretty lights, as one might imagine considering the festival is named after the famous film-making Lumiere brothers, but also large and complex structures that must have required a lot of technical attention.

Luckily, I didn’t have to think about that aspect of the festival, and my friends and I were awed by the exhibits we saw. On one section of road near Regent Street, ghostly flying forms took flight to strangely calming music, while on a building facade nearby, a film of dappled lights combined to show people’s faces. Standing exhibits in Leicester Square felt like walking into a magical storybook — impossibly tall flowers that glowed from within, color-shifting fairy lights and red-topped, giant blades of grass were dotted all over.

Many people, like me, lost their companions several times when one or the other person stopped to admire a display. The usually hurried and harried people of London took a pause to take in the art, perhaps because it was unusual and diverting from the standard tourist-center attractions. But I stopped and gaped, and ooh-ed and ahh-ed, because the festival of lights played a chord deep inside me, where the happiest memories of childhood adventure and discovery lie.

This was a joyful activity that didn’t require much money, just transportation to and from the displays, and which brought a wintry, sullen London more to life as its inhabitants flocked to the streets to see the lights. It sounds like a scene from a Garcia Marquez novel, but it’s true: there was magic and nostalgia in the lights somehow, and the people felt it. I look forward to welcoming Lumiere London back next year, and will make sure I see all of the exhibits, because the feeling they brought me was really priceless.

 

 

The Year-Long View

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The view from the top of Parliament Hill, on Hampstead Heath, is a favorite of North Londoners, and a personal favorite of mine. Every time I go for a jog on the Heath, I struggle up the steep incline to Parliament Hill just to take in the vista. I do this regardless of the weather, however the photos from those trips tend to come out in grayscale. Whenever I have visitors, I haul them up to the top in ragged breaths and await their praise of the crown jewel of my neighborhood. Usually, I am not disappointed by their exclamations. (The pictures, taken on a phone, don’t do it justice.)

Many people have a place like this near their home, where they love to stop and admire the view even if it is a bit out of their way or a picture wouldn’t come out — because they’re not visiting for the picture, they are simply enjoying the view and the environment.

Here are some of the loveliest snapshots from the last year and a half.

Hello From The Other Siiiide (Of The Ocean)

The challenges, and attendant questions, of moving abroad to another country are many. Where do I live? How does the transportation system work? Can I really eat that? Could you please repeat that, slowly?

Undoubtedly, one of the greater sacrifices is distancing oneself from family and friends (if you liked them enough to live near them before, which I personally did). With modern wonders such as Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook, I can stay “in touch” with all of the people I miss.

One of my closest friends, Emily, and I have an interesting bestfriendship (Yes, this may not be a real word). When we lived in the same city, we often saw each other and when we weren’t hanging out in person, we were in contact via text. We didn’t really talk on the phone — there seemed little need, because we saw each other enough to be properly caught up and our texts essentially served to set up the next time we were going to do so (and also to complain about/gush over things we discovered during the day). I remember calling her one day just to say hi, when we both still lived in NYC, and she said, “Oh my god, what’s wrong?! Are you okay?” After a beat of confusion during which I was clearly alive and uninjured, Emily said, “Well, we never call each other just to chat!”

I had to admit this was true. Emily and I chat in person, where we are both far more engaging than on the phone. I felt momentarily guilty for that, with “calling to chat” being the apparent social-pressure litmus test for how good of a friend you are. So for us to transition to an international bestfriendship where we would necessarily have to talk on the phone has taken some effort. We still don’t Skype very often, preferring to text each other as we always did with questionable outfit pictures (“Can I wear this with this? I feel like no, but I need your opinion!”), minor life updates, random observations, pep talks, and sometimes, just emoticons detailing how much we miss each other and how much pizza we’re going to eat while watching a Pixar film next time we are together.

I am learning that the relationships which can withstand the test of time, distance, and time difference are often those that don’t require constant or even occasional catch-up sessions or check-ins. The solid gold nugget of those friendships is already formed. There is no guilt for living a life outside of the friendship. If I haven’t communicated with Emily for a while, I can still send a stupid GIF without explanation or an email with a link to an event in New York she might like to attend. It’s an illusion of being a short subway journey away, instead of 3,000 miles.

The only downside is that we see each other much less often, of course. When we do get a day or two together, and then must finally say goodbye, we are just two grown-ass women crying in the elevator, thankful for our gold nugget of friendship.

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MEH!

This post was suggested to me by Martin, my landlord and friend, after I texted him offering the mushrooms that came in my veg box (even though they were the ONE thing I said “please don’t ever give me”, le sigh) and describing my attitude towards them as “meh”. Though unconvinced that it was a real word, which I don’t think it is, Martin basically asked me to detail the “meh” things about London. So it is 49% his fault if I come across as too snarky. The other 51% is mine, for being snarky in the first place. Soz not soz. (Americans: this means “sorry”, I don’t know where it comes from, but I adore it and you should too).

Meh #1: I didn’t realize quite how full of angst I was about this, but Jesus Christ on a bike, the bagels, or rather, the dearth of good ones here. What do you do on weekend mornings, then, British people? I sit around and cry for a bagel, and when I’m feeling particularly sorry for myself, I defrost one of the precious Brooklyn bagels an American friend brought me, carrying them in his carry-on luggage like the priceless cargo they are. Of course, nothing beats a fresh, hot everything bagel with scallion cream cheese that doesn’t even need toasting because it has just been handcrafted by a ancient bagelman (it’s a word…in NYC anyway). I have to move on to Meh #2, my drool is getting everywhere.

Meh #2: London is a fabulous city, and I would like to look fabulous in it. Why is there no Rent the Runway or equivalent here? The cost of living here, and therefore looking fabulous here, is far higher and, I argue, the market is far more in need of a designer-wear rental company. Because I can’t afford to even look in the Gold Label section of T.K. Maxx (British T.J. Maxx, possibly his cousin or alter ego), and that’s before I do the mental aerobics of converting GBP to USD. Pro tip: Don’t do the math, it will only make you weep.

Meh #3: People who dutifully pick up their dog’s waste but then throw it, in its non-compostable plastic bag, either into my compost bin or right in front of my door. What did I ever do to you, stranger? I suppose this is a step up from New York, where dogs just crap on the sidewalk and their owners speed-walk away from the scene of the poo, hoping no one calls them out, which is honestly a huge gamble in a city where most people speak their minds to anyone and everyone.

It seems a very English thing to do, appearing to follow the rules dutifully until no one’s watching and then to hell with propriety. Like, I’m going to put my dog’s waste in a bag because this is the proper thing to do, oh yes yes of course, but then — THEN — I shall chuck that bag in front of someone’s home even though a rubbish bin can’t be far off! I hope that guilt keeps them awake at night. This might be my Catholic guilt, but when I make a shared-space misstep like I did the other day, when a older man and I accidentally elbowed each other as we were walking on a narrow sidewalk, he said with deep sincerity, “Sorry!”. I had my headphones on and didn’t hear him until he passed, so lost my window to reply and thus looked like a reticent jerk. That has bothered me for days. What’s that? Therapy? Yes, I’m in it.

That these are my main feelings of distaste — imparted by the dynamic use of “meh”– means I have it very good here in London. But I would never turn down better bagels or rentable high-end clothes that I can pretend belong to me. The people and their poo-chucking, I can do little about. It only takes one non-compostable bag to spoil the bunch, metaphorically speaking, so I endeavor to live another day not being that bag.

A “meh” post script: I know I don’t have Em dashes in this Content Management System, or a pound currency symbol. In case anyone thought I was just… leaving those out.

Turkey Lurkey Loo

Thanksgiving fast approaches, and because I like a challenge, I’m hosting 14 people this year on the Friday. On the actual day, Thursday, I’m going to my friends’ place and being cooked for, which I’m sure will make me grateful enough to then put in my own massive effort in the kitchen the following day.

I recently wrote about my 2014 effort for Refinery29 here but now I’m only a few days away from single-handedly hosting the biggest dinner I’ve ever done. Although it must be said that, thank God, friends are each bringing something so that I am just in charge of turkey, mash, creamed onions, and sides like cranberry sauce and gravy and pumpkin pie. I can handle that? Rather: I can handle that with the help of Malbec!

To prepare, I did buy groceries and ordered American specialty items, but I’m also mentally preparing by listening to the great Adam Sandler ditty  “The Thanksgiving Song”, which any first-time listeners should be warned is not entirely appropriate.

Happy Thanksgiving! Pour one out for the turkeys.