Market Madness

To reward myself for my meticulous pre- and post- birthday bender presentation planning, today was adventure #3 with Flatt 66 around Central London. Layered in coats and Christmas spirit, we headed to South Bank to see the Christmas markets!

ImageFuture market-goers, my tip to you- not only is the Glühwein a.k.a. mulled wine sold at these markets incredibly delicious (especially served with Amaretto), but they are also a great way to battle the chilly weather! After grabbing a couple cups of our own, we adventured our way through the pine-and-holly decorated Christmas huts lining the South Bank stretch. We navigated slowly through the crowds past miles of more mulled wine, bratwursts, cheeses, candies, carousels, jewelry, books, hats, scarves, elf photographers, hot roasted chestnuts, fake snow- if your inner Christmas innocence can dream it, South Banks Christmas market has it!

ImageImageAfter I’d stocked up some incredibly priced and one-of-a-kind Christmas gifts, we’d had our fill of Christmas spirit (and spirits). Next destination – the Borough Market!

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The Borough Market is chock-full of local farmers, butchers, cheese-makers, spirits venders, bakers, artisans, jam-makers, etc. etc. etc. selling their high quality goods at generally reasonable prices (I scored a 340g jar of the best raspberry jam I have ever tasted for £4) and local yogi’s and hipsters scouring the market for what I can only assume will be that weeks’ addition at their posh Sunday-night family roast.

We headed over to the Kappacasein stall and grabbed a bite of one of Borough Market‘s most esteemed dishes, the Raclette. Seemingly not far off from your standard ‘Jacket Potatoes’, the ingredients consist of simply some hot potatoes, a bit of salt, and cheese- but the magic lies in the the latter. Watching the process of how the Raclette is made is an essential part of the experience:

ImageThe cheese topped on the Raclette is called ‘Oglesheild’, and is one of Kappacasein‘s own cheeses that are brought in from an organic farm in Kent, where they produce their own dairy products. Half a wheel of Oglesheild is place in a vice under an open flame and basically grilled this way until about an inch from the top is melted. Meanwhile, the lovely peeps working behind the counter are chopping up steamed potatoes on a plate. Potatoes chopped and cheese melted, they take a gigantuous spatula (I’m sure there’s a technical term but for the sake of story-telling) and scrape the melted cheese off the wheel and onto your papas:

ImageUnfortunately it evaded me to take a picture of the magical result of all of this before devouring the thing, but I can tell you from experience that it was just as delicious to consume the second time as it was the first!

After meandering through the market for a bit longer, we headed back to Uxbridge, Christmas goodies and full bellies in tow.

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Birthday Abroad – The London Edition

After a few tear-jerkin’ Skype sessions with my loved ones back home, the birthday that had slowly crept up on me wasn’t necessarily something I was looking forward to. I was homesick, bordering on broke, in the middle of the term and had a pile of unfinished papers and presentations demanding my attention (as did the many friends I had hoped to celebrate with.) It wasn’t lookin’ good.

That said, this ended up being one of the best birthdays to date (running neck-and-neck for #1 with my 23rd, which was spent accidentally chipping my best friend’s tooth with our 3rd? 4th? 5th? bottle of wine under the Eiffel Tower at midnight.) And here’s why:

Five reasons celebrating your birthday abroad is quite possibly the best ever:

1. Hearing “Happy Birthday” in several different languages:

The night the clock struck 12 on the eve of my birth over 2 1/2 decades ago, my flatmates surprised me not only with cake, decorations, and warm wishes for a happy birthday, but with a heart-warming gift and a card I will forever keep that was signed by each of them in their languages. Super kind words in Greek, Arabic, Malaysian, and Kazak were translated to me ’round the table, one by one. The next night, around the same table, several classmates, flatmates, choir mates, and just general mates showed up to eat food, drink and be merry as they each sang happy birthday in their home languages- German, Spanish, Punjab, Bulgarian, Italian, Finnish, Arabic, Greek, and more. It was quite the cross-cultural celebration!

2. Getting cards, gifts, pictures, videos, and keepsakes that last a lifetime:

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While the multilingual birthday wishes and the super touching gifts I received this birthday were overwhelmingly kind and definitely will to be kept for years to come, the greatest gift of all- get ready for this Grade A Mature Cheddar Cheese- were the memories made. There are few things that compare to celebrating your life surrounding by people you might never have met had you not taken a leap of faith into unknown territory, for these are the people who will remain integral pieces of some of the dearest memories you will ever make. These are the people who, in the absence of your own, truly become your family abroad. Celebrating life just doesn’t get much sweeter than sharing it with loved ones this unique (until you add that friggen strawberry cake- it was DELICIOUS.)

3. Celebrating with friends you couldn’t celebrate with otherwise:

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ImageFor those of you fortunate enough to already have friends abroad, there’s no greater excuse for a reunion than a birthday! Two of my dearest friends this side of the pond- Ivet and Teri- flew in from the Czech Republic for the occasion. These lovely ladies (Ivet above, Teri below) were my flatmates and closest friends during my time abroad and Dublin, and it’s been since I left Dublin three years ago that I last saw them. Needless to say there were a few bender-brought-on tears shed over reuniting, and it was glorious.

4. Traveling to make the day after the most fun hangover imaginable:

ImageThough I have to admit this morning was the least gnarly of my exhaustive set, it was during the midst of my birthday bash and was an incredible way to start my day in Central London with the girls post-aging! We parted ways as I headed off with the LUIP ambassador group for a 75 minute tour of Parliament. Unfortunately, rules state you can’t photodocument the majestic confines of Parliament, but I can attest to the fact that the incredibly detailed gothic interiors and both House of Lords and House of Parliament are worth touring. The history behind the building, including its many monarchs and the damage affecting it through the Great Fire and World War II, gives great insight to both British Politics and culture. Definitely a stop worth making, regardless of whether or not politics is your thang!

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The rest of the day was spent with my lovely Czech guests touring the London Tower Bridge (for those of you who know me, you will commend me for surviving the 42 meter elevator ride to the top- no tears, no screams, no bruises!) Another interesting tour, though less inundated with history it did give some background to the creation of the bridge and some information about nearby historical landmarks. Above all, it was an incredible view from the top:

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I’d even say worth the 42 meter heart attack.

5. Ending your birthday weekend by introducing your multicultural flatmates to the American concept of “Brunch”:

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Our version of “My Drunk Kitchen: Brunch?”

Inspired by My Drunk Kitchen’s infamous Brunch episode, George the Greek and I decided a nice way to wrap up this 5-day birthday bash would be to taste a bit of champagne and attempt our own version. Two bags of flour and four hours later, we’d successfully created our own personal winter wonderland in the kitchen and practiced our fancy football footwork, but somehow hadn’t managed to successfully cook any pancakes. But in the end, with the help of our fabulous flatmates, the pancakes were made and a delicious Brunch was had. Even if it was dark outside by the time we’d finished eating…

So by the end of it all, despite the inevitable onset of birthday-induced homesickness, it was a memorable long weekend. And hey, the upside is that thanks to modern technology you can always Skype with all of your beloved friends and family back home to catch them up on your mayhem. My suggestion would be that pre-Brunch cocktail hour is a good time for this.

Walkin’ in a Windsor Wonderland

ImageFast forwarding to this past weekend- Saturday, Flat 66 took a family field trip to Windsor Castle!

While the days and nights alike in a university flat (especially Flat 66) seem to be one continuous stream of laughter, conversation, and stuffing oneself beyond belief, the days you’re able to leave campus (and in this case, London as whole) can be of the most rewarding.

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Windsor Castle, nestled in the beautiful county of Berkshire, is one Europe’s longest occupied palaces. It was built after the Norman invasion sometime in the 11th century and has housed the reigning monarchs since. Even now, it houses Queen Elizabeth II and the Royal Family on weekends and holidays, particularly during the summer months.

The tour around the inside of the castle guided us through several parts of the castle, including my personal favorites- the State Dining room and the Knight’s Hall. The wing housing the Knight’s Hall was relatively new as that portion of the castle had burnt down in a fire in 1992. I’m not typically one to note architectural details during tours unless I’m suffering insomnia and in dire need of my beauty sleep, but some of the medieval techniques they used to rebuild the wing were extremely impressive and creative (though I’ll spare those details for those interested in touring the castle- Lord knows the Royal Family needs the royalties from future tourists. Coughsarcasmcough.)

Though you’re not able to take pictures inside of the castle, it’s easy to make the best of the castle’s incredibly expansive exterior with a photo shoot around the many courtyards:

ImageAfter you’ve ducked into a local pub and sufficiently stuffed yourself full of England’s best (in our case, a pint of Doombar and several rounds of Fish ‘n Chips) there’s no better way to burn of the kcals than through a good ol’ fashioned walk. And so we spent the next few hours taking “The Long Walk” – a 5km stretch through Windsor Great Park, an area that stretches for 4,800 acres.

ImageOnly, be sure not to forget that once you’ve defeated the 5km stretch…

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…that there’s still a Long Walk back:

ImageAfter an exhausting (albeit beautiful) and unanticipated 10km not-so-leisurely walk, we made it back to Windsor just in time to enjoy the lighting ceremony, some sweets, and a conveniently short trip back to Uxbridge (only about half an hour by train + bus!)

Flat 66’s Nightmare before Christmas!

ImageHappy [two weeks after] Halloween!

In the spirit of both the rising dead and playing catch-up, today’s super belated post will be about Flatt 66’s epic flatmate-dinner-date and pumpkin carving celebration!

Sometime at the end of October (funny how grad school makes you forget the dates that aren’t a lecture or deadline) the majority of Flatt 66 residents and I had an international potluck of sorts. Starting around 5pm, the kitchen became overwhelmed with an intoxicating blend of laughter and international culinary fumes:

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Mariyam making a Kazak treat – samsas!

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George… trying to make tortillas with the dough I ruined!

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Aliya also making delicious samsas

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Wael making something I can only describe as heavenly

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Me, shamelessly eating Aliya and Maryiam’s samsas

Around 8pm, with more dishes of food than the 10 hungry stomachs sitting before it could ever possibly pack in, we gathered for the feast. During the meal, Aliya pulled out what has since become my favorite dinner games. The concept was simple- one person grabs a question from the question pile, chooses a victim, and said person chooses and answer from the answer pile. But as the game carried forward, combinations like “Do you like to flirt?” – “Only on Mondays” and “Do you like me?” – “I am so shy!” elicited several rounds of laughter between heavenly munches. (Those are some of the less questionable combinations- but not to worry, the rest were caught on film!)

After thoroughly embarrassing ourselves and getting to know each other in a fashion I think few of us expected, it was time for pumpkin carving. As I was the only person who had ever carved a pumpkin before, I tried to kick it off as a kind of instructional, how-to activity, but once everyone grabbed a knife and started hacking away their creativity pretty much took over and the students wildly surpassed the master!

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A little healthy competition may or may not have emerged in the process, so I withhold any official statements about whose pumpkin was the best. But after Wael got crafty with the birthday candles and after a couple of disputes involving foil, tape, and the kitchen’s uncompromising light sensor, we had the lights turned out and out pumpkins shining in the window for all of the complex to see! If any event thus far has rivaled the Thanksgiving International Potluck of 2010 (www.zocksandme.tumblr.com), this would most definitely be it.

‘Til next time!

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Who the %$&# builds a Stonehenge?!

A few weeks after our adventure to Brighton, a condensed version of the original crew set sail on another adventure out of the London boundaries. This time, we went to see Stonehenge!

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As Ylvis, the elite intellectual philosopher of our time, might ask- what’s the meaning of Stonehenge?

Well, Ylvis, Wikipedia and the 30 minute audio tour provided at Stonehenge have yet to cure your unfortunate insomnia because we still don’t know. Archaeologists who have carbon-dated the blue stones from which Stonehenge was made (called so because they turn “blue” when wet) say that Stonehenge has been around for about 5000 years, and was erected sometime around 3500 B.C. Because of it’s structure and evidence of several burials on its premise, it’s supposed that it might have been a site for ancestral worship or an astronomical calendar (rather than a giant granite birthday cake Ylvis has suggested.) From what I understand, though, this is still heavily debated and there aren’t any written records or really enough evidence to prove one theory more viable than the other. What was even more interesting to find was that the stones weighed up to 45 tons, and like it’s function, there are only supposed theories on how they were transported and erected.

After witnessing one of the earth’s oldest historical structures, we hit the bus and went to Bath. Since we didn’t make it to Bath until mid-afternoon (and didn’t finish out pub bites until much later than that) the line outside of the Roman Baths were too long to risk wasting our time away in. So, with little to no knowledge of the town that surrounded us, we head off to see the sites:

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(Horacio’s cousin, the stoic and elegant Vero!)

The town was beautiful- it was built in 60-70 A.D., and is one of the few cities in England that retains architecture from the Roman Empire. Needless to say, our aimless wandering was far from a waste. Despite it raining cats and dogs we were able to cover a lot of ground throughout the city. The Abbey was one of my personal favorites, with intricate (sometimes haunting) touches in it’s architecture that takes the common eye some time to grasp, like the falling angels crawling up the ladder on either side of the doorway:

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 The inside of the Abbey was just as extraordinary and detailed.

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It took me a good 30 minutes of aimlessly wandering around the interior, gazing at the magnificent ceiling above me and the imagery in the stained glass around me, before I realized that the engraved stones below me were announcing the dead bodies they contained. It took me a good 30 seconds upon discovering this to hightail it into the gift shop and out of the Abbey.

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The rest of the trip was spent exploring the parks and buildings around us. To perk us up for the 3-hour bus ride home, we stopped in a cafe for some coffee and chocolate. Horacio found some beautiful images of the English landscape to peruse through and we debated our next destination outside of London.

ImageKeep tuned for more blogs – the next to come will feature some actual London-y substance!

Brunellies in Brighton

The first day trip that I took out of London was to Brighton, and was an international trip organized by Brunel. Brighton is famous with the Lonely Planet crowd as the nearest beach-y liberal-y town to London, equipped with an arcade-packed pier and a bumping night life (though we didn’t stick around long enough to enjoy the latter.)

The great thing about taking trips organized by your university is you’ve already got something in common with the trip-goers around you. If you’re an extrovert like me and like to socialize more than the average Jo, it’s a good environment for doing so while reducing the number of suspicious looks you get in response. By the end of the 2-hour bus ride from Brunel’s campus to Brighton, a few of us had established quite the entertaining international clique.

We started the day exploring the flashy pier of Brighton:

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..which took us all of 45 minutes. In my opinion, the best things that Brighton has to offer are its festivals (we were there for their Japanese Festival) and the Royal Pavilion, which we toured next.

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The Royal Pavilion was King George IV’s extravagant bachelor pad, in which he wasted away Brighton’s economy on flashy, culturally appropriated “oriental” interior decorations (as the tour guides called them called them.) Adorned with walls lined in gold, the dining hall itself had a 12-foot dragon protruding out of a palm leaf centerpiece from which the ridiculously pristine crystal chandelier (almost as massive as the dragon) dangled. The tour through his palace was magnificent and full of history, all the way up to his death bed (fully intact) which was equipped with levers to bring the bed up and down so his servants could roll King George IV out of bed- whose frame was at that point (much like his bed) built for comfort and not for speed.

After touring the playboy mansion of the 1783, we spent about an hour deciding where to sit and eat fish n’ chips for lunch since the rest of Brighton seemed to have to same idea and locations in mind. After grabbing a bite we went to the Japanese Festival, where we gawked at the incredibly detailed costumes around us and cut in front of crying children to get our faces painted:

MenDidi(To my left is the beautiful Dimitrya from Bulgaria, my sunshine and my sanity here in London!)

Okay, I may have embellished the cutting-in-front-of-kids part a tad, but we did inspire a few wavering ones with our awesome cherry blossoms to paint theirs too! When we were finished walking about the 10 or 15 tents of the festival and listening to some rather interesting karaoke competitions, we took off to walk about the town and see what Brighton was really about.

FerrisHora(The stomach and gymnastic skills belong to Horacio from Mexico, my music jammin’ and spanish-speakin’ homeboy!)

 
All in all, it was a trip most definitely worth taking. As much as the town has to offer in terms of it’s historical landmarks and entertainment, it must be said that the day was definitely made by the company I kept. I’m not exaggerating when I say my cheek muscles were sore next day from all the smiling. Ah, the perks of being a traveling (however broke) grad student in the UK!

There’s been a lot of talk about heading back with an overnight bag and a hostel reservation to dip into the night-life, so there may be more Brighton blogs to come. Thanks for reading y’all!

Lets start at the very beginning – a very good place to start!

I’ve been talking about starting up this blog for some time, but was waiting on a few things. Now that I’ve been appropriately trained in important blogosphere-isms and am an expert on social media (NOT), I’m going attempt to retroactively catch you all up on the ups and downs of being a postgraduate student on the western end of the most international city in the world- LONDON!

It’s hard to recall now what arriving Uxbridge was like 6 weeks ago, but I think for any student considering to study abroad, the arrival can be both a super exciting and super tumultuous part of the process and so is worth mentioning.

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It took 24 hours, 3 (late) flights, 2 Tylenol PM and 1 disastrous airport transfer to get from California to London. Despite my excitement towards embarking on a year abroad, by the time I showed up at Brunel my mood pretty much matched the weather- cloudy with a chance of downpour. I was jet-lagged, drained from my misogynistic neighbor’s 3-hour lecture about why women like to feel stupid (fear not future traveling gals- he was American), and slightly homesick at the prospect of being gone for a year. This set the stage well for my arrival to accommodations, during which the woman handing my keys to me said, “You’re from California?! It’s so sunny and nice there, why would leave that to come to the UK?!”

All jokes aside, after a deep breath and an unintentional 16-hour nap, the week that followed proved worth the transition. I hopped on the International Reception’s bandwagon the next morning and toured the quaint town of Uxbridge. A few shopping tours and lengthy registration lines later, I’d found an international network of friendships that quelled any and all doubts I’d had initially. I was fortunate to have met quite the crew that week; the friends I made those first few days ended up being a loyal network of support who have been constant partners in crime in the 6 weeks we’ve been here. Despite being scattered across the different postgraduate programs at Brunel, we’re pretty good about checking in with each other, making travel plans (Brighton! Stonehenge! Bath!), keeping posted on big events, and above all, serving as loyal drinking mates.

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Besides creating a beautifully diverse and supportive group of fun-lovin’ amigos, I quickly found that Brunel offers (in addition to some pretty competitive postgraduate programs) a plethora of extracurricular activities and societies to get involved in. The “Fresher’s Fayre”, which took place my second week here, was a bombardment of swimming, dancing, martial arts, rugby, football, American football, scuba diving, sky diving, skiing, music, art, film, political, activist, traveling, baking, language, international groups (the list goes on and on) ready to lure the oncoming slew of “Freshers” (or Freshmen). Albeit overwhelming at moments, the beauty of so much choice here makes it easy to cater your activities to your personality- I stuck with the Feminist Reading Group and Gospel Choir to fill my otherwise lonely Mondays (more on these in upcoming blogs!)

Inductions for my postgraduate programs slash sole purpose of existence for the next year- Masters in Cross-Cultural Psychology- came next. During these inductions, us fresh-blooded postgrads were given opportunity to get to know the course professors, mingle with our future course-mates, attend workshops, get acquainted with the resources the university has to offer, and listen to some inspiring and motivational speakers who took away the proverbial silver spoon upon which our undergraduate degrees were served and instead dished out hardcore Nietzsche quotes to kick our asses into gear.

In hindsight, those first few weeks really were a crucial combination of settling in, getting adjusted, overcoming some minor culture shock and ensuring access to the resources I will need from the university throughout the year. For any student thinking about or preparing to study abroad, it’s important to note that the ups and downs that come with said adjustments are all part of the process; and once the scale starts to balance out, the real fun begins!

Over the next few blogs I’m going to try to catch y’all up what I’ve been up to since my get lag wore off- Brighton, Stonehenge & Bath, 2013 Feminism Conference, Halloween in our flat… So keep your eyes peeled!