From Tower Bridge to Baker Street

After their first day and a half in London, my parents & brother were fully adjusted to GMT and ready to see more of the city.

We took the tube to St. Paul’s to have a look at the beautiful cathedral, which was very special for my mom in particular as her grandfather (my great-grandfather) used to ride his bike there and eat lunch on the steps during his early life in London.

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We even took a quick peek inside, although it was Sunday so no photographs were allowed.  The interior is absolutely breathtaking and well worth a visit.  I’d love to go back and climb the tower sometime!

From there, we walked across Millennium Bridge, which was packed with moseying tourists and bustling locals going about their business.

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We ended up doing almost the same exact walk through Southwark that Amity and I did during our first week in London (Mom & Dad, you should go back and read that post again, and see how much more you recognize now!).  We passed the Globe theatre and The Anchor pub, which I knew my parents would love, as well as The Clink Prison Museum (still have to get back there) and some cool street art.

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My brother took this great photo of the London skyline from the Golden Hinde II, an old-fashioned ship that’s permanently moored and now serves as a museum and tourist attraction.

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We walked even farther that day, since we weren’t rained out as Amity and I had been, and emerged onto the big open plaza outside City Hall, which is a crazy looking building.  It’s right next to a sunken amphitheatre called The Scoop, so we decided to nickname City Hall “The Plop” since it looks like… well, someone scooped out part of the ground and plopped it down.

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I looked it up, and apparently we’re far from the only ones to have given this building a nickname based on it’s, er, unique appearance.  Although I don’t think that anyone else has come up with The Plop, our own sassy mayor, Boris Johnson, has dubbed it The Glass Gonad.  Classic BJ.

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Aaanyway, if you look past The Plop, this spot gives you a fantastic view of my beloved Tower Bridge.  It was a perfect backdrop for the only full family photo we took the entire trip (oops).

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Since Tower Bridge is basically the light to my bug (#TheBachelorWedding), its magnetic pull caught hold of me and before we knew it we were standing nearly underneath it.  I love seeing it against a clear sky like this, since it makes the bright blue accents on the bridge look much less random and almost as though they match their surroundings!

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I’ve been fawning over Tower Bridge since day one, but it took four months to actually climb it.  The high blue walkways that connect the two bridge towers are lined with photos of some of the other spectacular and famous bridges in the world, and the windows offer a great view over the Thames.

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If you catch it from the right angle, the water actually looks blue instead of brown!  A miracle!

So after all this time pining for Tower Bridge, how did it live up?  Well, as David Hockney said, “Always live in the ugliest house on the street – then you don’t have to look at it.”  Tower Bridge proves this in reverse.  I think it’s one of the loveliest things in London, and it turns out you can’t see it very well when you’re inside.  I’m quite glad to have visited, but I’d much rather look at it.

We left Tower Bridge, skirted the Tower of London, and took the tube to Baker Street station to meet Amity for our next excursion.  I really liked this station.  It was very London-y.

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We had a quick pub dinner, Paul and I popped into the London Beatles Store, and then the five of us were ready to explore The Sherlock Holmes Museum!

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I have been itching to get to 221B Baker Street ever since moving to London.  I’m a huge fan of the original Sherlock Holmes stories and have been borderline-obsessive about the three current interpretations since their inceptions.

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Who says you can have too much of a good thing?  Not me.

Not to snub the great Sherlocks of history past, either.  Honorable mention OBVIOUSLY to Michael Caine in Without a Clue, Basil Rathbone, Mitchell & Webb, and naturally The Great Mouse Detective.  (Also, can we discuss how “Basil Rathbone” and “Benedict Cumberbatch” are actually even more perfect detective names than “Sherlock Holmes”?  Another time?  Okay.)

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So, obviously Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character (my head’s not entirely in the clouds, people), but this museum is at the actual address that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle chose for Holmes & Watson’s flat.  Fun fact: BBC’s Sherlock doesn’t film Baker Street scenes here, but actually uses North Gower Street in central London, where Charles Darwin once lived!

The old townhouse is sort of an odd mix of period- and story-accurate décor, as though the crime-solving duo actually lived there, and Sherlock Holmes memorabilia.  For example, Sherlock’s desk is filled with old books, exotic artifacts, and bits & pieces of science experiments waiting to happen…

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…but I don’t think the world’s only consulting detective would fill his rooms with statues and framed photos of himself.  Actually, on second thought, he does have a bit of an ego thing going on…

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They also had a little sitting room with classic Sherlock props.  Paul and I were alllll about that.  I know, I know, communal hats, gross.  Too bad I can’t resist a good deerstalker.

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Overall, as a big time SH fan, I’d say that Baker Street was absolutely worth a visit, but probably not a return.  In the end, it was a pretty cramped and crowded townhouse that you had to remember was never actually inhabited by Sherlock Holmes, as he does not exist (despite what all the people hashtagging “Sherlock Lives” on sticky notes in his bedroom clearly believe).  Still, it was cool even to stand on the sidewalk at the actual 221B Baker Street!

And I mean, as far as fictional detectives go, he does take the cake.

Mannings in London

To say that the month of December was jam-packed would be an understatement.  Nine hours after I returned to London from Germany, my parents and younger brother arrived for a week-long visit!  As I hadn’t seen them in four months and none of them had ever been to London before, I was really excited to show them around.

We took their maiden tube journey from Heathrow and got them all settled in to their hotel near Earl’s Court.  They lucked out with a pretty perfect London view!  It was raining that morning, but the sun came out later on and we definitely enjoyed more fair than foul weather during their visit.

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Our first order of business was getting these worn & weary travelers some sustenance.  We had lunch at The Waterside (the greater London population has still not discovered the newly-renovated Imperial Wharf plaza so we had the place to ourselves!), but when one of our party – no names mentioned – fell asleep at the table, I realized it would take a more active approach to keep the jetlag at bay.

Not wanting to overtax my visitors too much, I promised a few hours of leisurely sightseeing before they could relax for the evening, so we hopped on the tube once more.

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We got off at Westminster and made our way up the steps so that my family could take in their first view of Big Ben.  I feel like it was just yesterday – and at the same time, so long ago now – that I saw it for the first time, and I remember just how awed I felt.  Not every famous building lives up to the hype, but Ben does.  I made my mom walk across Westminster Bridge with me without looking, so that she could turn around and get the full view at the end.  I loved watching each of their faces as they took it all in.

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The sun was just beginning to slip behind Parliament and splash its colors across the sky (it wasn’t quite as dark as this photo makes it look, though).  We walked just a short way along the embankment to check out the London Eye from below before heading back the way we’d come.

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I will never tire of that view, because it never looks the same.

We made a quick pass past Westminster Abbey but didn’t linger for long, since by that point it really was getting dark and the energy in our group was dwindling quickly.

Instead, we caught a red double-decker at New Scotland Yard and my family got their second taste of true London transport.  Mom & Dad tried out the “driving the bus” seats on the upper level:

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Paul and I dropped our parents off at their hotel and returned to my flat, where he didn’t last much longer.  I think they all got a solid ten or eleven hours of sleep that night.  Well deserved, for certain.

The next day was all about showing my family some of my most frequent haunts in London town.  We took the tube back into Westminster and did our own little walking tour of the LSE campus.  It was fun to give them a visual of where I am every day – all the places I work and study and eat that I’ve described over Skype or FaceTime but couldn’t truly show them.

While we were wandering around my school, we were sadly neglecting another priority of the trip, which my dad was quick to remind us of.  Let me give you a clue.  His suggested itinerary of their visit went like this: “porridge, pub, pub, pub – repeat daily.”  We checked the time and realized that it was, indeed, beer thirty (as it always is when you want a pint), so we crossed Fleet Street to check out The George, one of approximately eight million London pubs with that name, but the only one I’d been in before.  It’s sandwiched so tightly between its neighbors that it looks like the waterboy stuck between two linebackers on the football bench (American football, that is).

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It’s a great place, all rough and hearty and wooden.  All the times I’ve been in there previously, it’s been packed at midday with retired guys swapping stories and guffawing and always, always suggesting that I need a little whisky in my coffee when I pass.  It’s just a perfect pub (case in point: someone has written “This way to the Ministry of Magic” on the wall above one of the toilets in the restroom).

We grabbed a table and spent an hour or so catching up and refueling for the afternoon.  My dad and I just needed Abby to complete our porter-lovin’ trio!

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Eventually we carried on down the Strand, popping into Somerset House briefly as well as a few other shops and cafés along the way.  We made it to Trafalgar Square as the light started to wane and joined the mingling crowds in front of the National Portrait Gallery.

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It was then that we realized we were starving, so we set off in search of food.  We walked up through the West End and ended up in a part of Covent Garden that I’d never wandered through before called Seven Dials.

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It was there that we found the absolute perfect spot for dinner – a restaurant called Kopapa, which is run by a New Zealand-born chef and specializes in Kiwi drinks & cuisine!  It had been three and half years since I’d tasted the sweet sweet nectar of Monteith’s crushed cider, and it welcomed me home with open arms.

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Little broseph got in on the fun, too!

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We all tried something different for dinner and gave our meals rave reviews.  I can’t wait to go back to Kopapa again sometime!

Following our stupendous dinner, we made our way through Covent Garden market, stopped to watch a busker ride his unicycle (among other things) for a while, and nabbed a box of Ben’s cookies (a London staple) to take home with us before we called it a night.

More fun-filled family adventures to come!

Frohe Weihnachten aus Deutschland!

Merry Christmas from Germany!

Christmas 2013 was an untraditional one, to say the least.  Even though I’ve now been away from home for Easter five times, this was the first time in my life that I wasn’t with my family for Christmas.  It was sad to be apart from them, but the Stark family were such wonderful hosts that I couldn’t feel gloomy for long.

As I mentioned before, Christmas Eve is the day of holiday festivities in Germany, so Christmas Day is usually relaxing and relatively uneventful.

In typical form, Katharina had yet another fun surprise up her sleeve, so off we went to visit the beautiful Burg Hohenzollern, just a short drive from her parents’ home.  This is castle #3 of the trip, if you’re keeping track.  Katharina kept saying, “Now, I don’t want you to think that Germany is nothing but castles!” but then off we’d trot to another castle the next day.

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Katharina described this as a true fairy tale castle.  Like the iconic castle in Disneyland, Burg Hohenzollern was created in the style of the famous Neuschwanstein Castle, meant to represent the ideal of a medieval castle.

Like so many others, Burg Hohenzollern has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times over the years.  The original castle was built in the eleventh century, but the current structure is the third incarnation to stand on this spot.  (Is incarnation the right word?  I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who.  Wait, not possible.)

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Timo met us in the parking lot and we decided to skip the shuttle bus in favor of walking up the steep woodsy path to the castle.  The huffing and puffing was worth it for the views!

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We entered through the gates and spent a little time poking around on our own.  The castle is all spires and battlements and ivy-covered walls and is truly exactly what you think a castle should be.

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There’s a walkway that follows the wall almost the entire way around the castle and which looks onto some amazing panoramas of the German countryside.  These are the kind of sights that make me really feel like I’m in a different country!  There’s something magical about looking on to a landscape that you’ve never ever seen before.

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It started to mist a little bit, so we moved on to the interior parts of the castle and spied this secret little courtyard complete with spiral staircase and miniature Christmas tree.  It was the second time that month I felt like I was at Hogwarts at Christmas!

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We took a guided tour of the interior of the castle, but no photos were allowed (that’s where I learned the phrase “Bitte nicht fotografieren,” actually).  The castle is so well preserved, including the original hardwood floors, that we all had to wear gigantic felt slippers over our shoes that made us look like clowns and shuffle along like penguins.

After our tour, the rain had picked up a bit, so we didn’t dawdle before skipping back down the mountain to the car.

We all spent a relaxed evening at Katharina’s house, enjoying dinner together and looking up places in the US and New Zealand in Katharina’s dad’s atlas.  After some more Christmas cookies and proper German beer, Timo, Katharina, her brother, Johannes, and I broke out the poker chips for a few good old fashioned rounds of cards.

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Timo taught us all how to play Texas Hold’em and before we knew it, we’d whiled away nearly four hours at the kitchen table.  And guess who was the big winner?

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Katharina brought it home!  I’m not destined to be a poker champ.  I’m too much of a risk-taker (or I’m just bad).

That night, Katharina, her mom, and I stayed up late chatting in the living room – about New Zealand, Germany, England, their cultural differences, recipes, and everything in between.  It was a lot of fun to get to know another culture and spend some time with such a wonderful German family.

The next morning, we made sure to snap a self-timer “family” photo before Katharina and I left for Stuttgart so I could catch my flight back to London.

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I loved getting to learn more German during the trip, and I was especially touched when Katharina’s dad, who was not very comfortable with English and mostly relied on Katharina to translate for him during my visit, hugged me and said perfectly, “Goodbye, Julie, see you again!”  Saying goodbye to Katharina reminded me of how sad it was to do so in New Zealand, but we’re already planning on her visiting London sometime during the coming year, so hopefully our next reunion isn’t too far away!

My flight to London connected through Brussels, so it was a bit of a mindbender to switch so rapidly from using my tiny bit of broken German in the Stuttgart airport, to the French that I haven’t used in a few years in Belgium, and back to good ol’ English once I arrived in London.  It actually felt a bit odd to understand everybody I came across (and vice versa) back in England.

Even though it was a bit nerve-racking at first, I think it was a really valuable experience to visit a country where I didn’t speak the language.  English speakers especially tend to have it pretty easy in world travel, so I think it’s important to remember that we’re not the center of the world and that sometimes we’d do well to make an effort in learning the language and customs of other cultures.

Here’s to more of that in 2014!

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