London, the Birthplace of Quirk

A photo story of my four days in London, as part of a three leg two week European adventure!

 

Transcontinental, transatlantic, international flight. Chicago to London. First time abroad. Traveling solo.

As Nick drives through each toll check point on our drive from St. Joe to Chicago, I count coins from his jar. Four quarters and five dimes. I sort through the big change first as we hit the first toll. I begin to think about the different currency I will be holding within the next two weeks. Ten dimes and two quarters. I hand him the coins and announce what I have counted out. Fifteen dimes. We pass through the last toll point and I return the jar to the center console.

Money says a lot about a culture: who their leaders are, what scripts are uniting them, the strength of their economy. In my wallet I hold about £130 and enjoy the color and size change from bill to bill. Queen Elizabeth portrays strength and regality as she appears on each bill I shuffle through. Visiting London first on my tour of Europe's big three cities, I am looking forward to learning about the different ways that people govern, and even how they drive on the opposite side of the street. I want to understand the different lifestyles and what it means to be a member of each city.

The fear of the unknown can be paralyzing. But on this trip, it is what makes me want to dive head first into a different way of life. Live like a Londoner for four days. Then just as quickly, dive into two more cultures in the span of two weeks. Traveling with no expectations and no fear (yet) is freeing. Feeling this calm, insures me that I know myself so well and tells me that I am on the right path.


Day 1

I arrive in London around 11 am on Saturday. A long hot line working my way through customs at London Heathrow. Once I pass through, I am on my way to the tube. With Oyster card in hand, I jump on the train headed into the city. There is a young couple across from me, chatting casually to one another. I wonder if they can tell I am eavesdropping, but I am transfixed with their accents and how endearing they are together.

I transfer once and get on another train, hoping I am headed North, not South. In one stop, I see we are headed the right way and within two more, we have arrived at my stop. I am headed to a hostel for a night, as I have arrived one day earlier than the rest my tour group.

First look at London above ground, and I am enchanted. Not because it is beautiful, but because it is raw and gritty and everyone is probably cooler than you. Arriving at my hostel (which is also very cool), I meet some of the people that work there and love that they are from all over the world. I am rooming with 5 other girls and meet 3 of them as I get ready to head out for the day.

Walking to Queensway station, I chat with a friendly fellow leaving the hostel who is in town to have lunch with his grandmother. He thinks I look lost, and well it is my first day! On the tube I sit across from three girls my age, and they have to know I am staring at them because they are all dressed in what I am learning to be London style, and they are day drinking cans of hard cider on the train. Again, listening to them socialize with their accent is bliss as I take mental notes to try to replicate their style.

First stop is the Borough Market, which I basically ran into right off the tube. It is busy, as it is Saturday afternoon, but the crowd isn't off-putting. With camera around my neck, I begin to observe the people and find that even the kids are more fashionable than I. A diverse market, I have some espresso, bag up a meringue decorated in macaroons, and walk around some more. Finding some pulled pork for lunch and an iced tea, I am content and enjoyed the diversity of food at the market.

Nearby is the Tate Modern and I walk along the River Thames, pass by Shakespeare's Globe, and see Tower Bridge and Millennium Bridge. It is a sunny beautiful day - rare for London - and I enjoy exploring. I see a man playing a tuba with fire shooting out the top; London is eccentric. I enter the Tate and am excited to be at a major museum. There are many floors that overwhelm, but I cruise through the free areas of the museum. I am inspired by a whole section showing feminist art and seeing a video piece that is very similar to a piece I did in school. Well curated, and well enjoyed I leave the museum to head back to my hostel to change for my evening ahead.

Back at the hostel I meet the other two girls in my room and get cleaned up and changed quickly as I have tickets to see Romeo & Juliet at the Garrick Theatre (featuring Richard Madden, AKA Robb Stark from GoT). Arriving at the theatre, I am excited for the show ahead. I'll admit, I am not a huge Shakespeare fan or anything, but I thought it would be a fitting show to see in London. I have pretty crappy seats, but I can see all of the stage. Two young Londoners sit next to me and I enjoy their critique of the show during intermission (they seem to be big fans of the theatre). The show was modernized - Romeo and friends wore suits and sunglasses - and I enjoyed the play between the modern wardrobe and the Shakespearean tongue. I felt it fitting for London, as I see the city as a clash of old and new: regality opposed to underground and alternative lifestyles.

I will admit, that after traveling all day, I had fallen asleep during a few segments of the show! Afterwards I headed back to the hostel for some sleep, but enjoyed a whole lot of people watching in Soho on a Saturday night. Londoners are wild... Good first day.

 

Food at the Borough Market

 

Art at The Tate Modern


Day 2

Waking up in London, in a hostel, not knowing anyone in the city. Crazy! I think about my day ahead, which includes meeting my tour group, and I am stoked. I go to breakfast in the basement with my roommate and we exchange travel stories and share a little about our lives. I enjoy the community and the atmosphere at this hostel.

I head out with my two bags, and take the tube to the hotel I will be staying in for the remainder of my time in London. I meet my tour director, Marco in the lobby and he gives me a map of the city and of the tube (but come on, I'm already an expert tube traveler). I have a few hours before I have to meet back up with them, and so I head off to see more of the city.

Close to my hotel is the Brick Lane Market (Cheers to Adriane Little for recommending to visit on Sunday Morning)! I take a bus and walk a little until I arrive in the heart of it! Wow, do I go left or right down Brick Lane? Street vendors line the streets surrounding and with storefronts behind them, will I have enough time? Book stores, clothing shops, tie shops, tattoo shops, hair salons, vintage shops for men, vintage shops for women, vintage shops for everyone. The coolest clothes and shoes and accessories, vintage and local designers, that I have ever seen in my life (and I've been to NYC). I am in pure heaven. I walk through food vendors and wonder how anyone can make up their mind on what to eat here. I turn down an alley and see three different street artists working in broad daylight. And they are amazing, no words can describe it - but luckily I took lots of photographs. The street art in London, alone is worth the trip across the pond!

No joke this alley smelled like urine the worst I have ever smelled.

I walk into a store with an orange face with black sqwiggleys on white decorating the sides. It is a small shop, locally owned and supports local artists. And there is a store cat... Heaven! I see shirts, pillow cases, notebooks, stickers, prints, socks, and so much more. I wish I knew these artists and had the ability to support all of them today. I talk with the shop owner and she tells me a little about the pieces I am interested in. I buy a print (Princess Diana with pancakes and eggs for a face... trust me it's funny), stickers that are little characters made out of color-blocking, and a post card of a cat with wings for my parents.

Walking further down the street, there are clothing vendors selling really cute clothes for £15! I bought a yellow sweatshirt with a giant block "F" on the front, the brand is French Connection. I stop at a jewelry vendor with all the trinkets you can think of. I started at a peacock necklace for a long while and debated whether is was worth the £25 - which is like $37. I decided against it, but boy that would have been fun to use in a photo shoot! In the same general area, people are selling vintage junk (basically), bikes, coats, anything you can think of. I stop into a really unique vintage shop for men - selling things like suits and ties - where I got a vintage wool college scarf for Nick. The variety and the randomness is so engaging. I cant contain my happiness!

The level of pure bliss is so high that I forget almost all the research I did on this area before I came here. But luckily, I ran into one of the top restaurants on my list to eat at - The Cereal Killer Cafe! I walk in to a 90s playground and you can get poptarts, any type of cereal, or even cereal sundaes and coffee drinks! I got a combination of some fruity cereals with marshmallows and strawberry milk. Heaven!

The level of quirk is mind blowing and inspiring. 

Later I see a girl with a rainbow bagel with salmon and cream cheese coming out of a bakery. I figure I need some lunch, as cereal is not enough, and I wait in the queue for my rainbow beigal (yes, that is how they spell it). I go back to a bookstore I visited earlier and bought some pins, another post card and some stamps. I don't want to leave this place, but I have to meet my group at 5pm. I begin to head back, and without service I feel lost for a good 10 minutes. Magically, luckily, I managed to get wifi for a brief moment in order to type the hotel into Google Maps and jump on a bus. 

I get my luggage from the storage area in the hotel, run to my room, struggle to find my room. Ahh I am going to be late! Finally get to the door after running back to the front desk to ask for help. I swing the door open with heavy breath and one of my two roommates yells "There she is!" I can tell this is going to be a good group already, as the three of us meet up with three other girls on the lifts down to the lobby. We sit waiting for everyone and I learn that most of the girls are my same age, as I figured I would be a little older than most people. Phew!

There are 26 of us total from all around the States. We head out on a walking tour of the city - we swing by Big Ben, the London Eye, Piccadilly Circus, Covent Garden, and end up upstairs at a restaurant for food and drinks. I sit at a table with some of the people I will become closest with on the tour. We talk about our colleges and jobs and if we should take a day trip to Florence when we get to Italy or not. We were team Florence! I ended the night with Ann, a friend from my group, at a convenience store near our hotel looking at all the foods they have that we don't have in the states. End of day two and I've already made some great friends!

 
 

Brick Lane Market and Street Art

 

Snapchats from Day 1 & 2


Day 3

The best part about going with a tour group (besides making new friends from across the States) is that we take a charter bus with a local tour guide in each city. Morning of day three was chilly and I layered as I did not bring warm enough clothes for this trip! We got on a bus at the hotel with a woman who reminded me of a toned down Elizabeth Hurley (from Austin Powers). Again, listening to that English accent is delightful and she is funny and knowledgeable. We tour the financial district and learn about the famous buildings in London. She takes us down by Shakespeare's Globe and we learn about the bridges of London. 

Some inspiration at the National Portrait Gallery.

Some inspiration at the National Portrait Gallery.

Afterwards, Ann and I decide to do some museum hopping until dinner where I have plans to meet up with Rachel, a friend of mine from high school, who has been living in London for about two years. We tour the National Gallery and the National Portrait Galley. Museums are overwhelming, but we see some Monet's and even some street performers in Trafalgar's Square.

Dinner is at a Pizza place in Covent Garden that Rachel picks out. We spilt the Mumbai Pizza which is pretty good and we chat about her time in London and our collective traveling - she just got back from vacationing in Croatia. To see someone that I haven't seen since high school graduation in London, of all places, is really telling of our generation and kind of incredible - thank you social media! I soak up all she has to say about her experiences thus far, and am grateful for all the help she gave me in planning my trip!

Funny restroom sign at one of the bars.

Funny restroom sign at one of the bars.

After dinner we meet up with the rest of our crew for a London Pub Crawl! Even though it is Monday night, we have fun out at some of London's more touristy bars. We get a free shot at each of the five pubs, most of which are crap with exception to the Sambuca, which I enjoyed throughly. Not many locals are out, but we are a big group and it is nice to have the time to get to know everyone in a laid back setting. At the third bar we even spent some time on the dance floor! After we have had enough bar hopping, a group of us girls decide to head for some Chinese food and then take a cab back to the hotel. The food was a good cap to the night and even more delicious and authentic than it is in the states.


Day 4

So while the rest of my group went on a bus tour to Oxford University, which was an optional excursion, I set out to Camden Town to do some more shopping at the markets there. Like Brick Lane, the shops are eclectic and unique, but they are more permanent than the pop up shops that I visited Sunday morning. Another cold gray day in London, I arrive off the tube and find that raw gritty London that I loved so much two days prior.

Street style is very observable and I enjoy the openness and expression that lives here. I see forms of the 90s - scrunchies, converse, tights, jean jackets - it's all very fluid. London is this melting pot of culture where its widely accepted and embraced. And again, vintage is king. I stop into my first vintage shop, Rokit which I had read about online. I am so tempted to take a pin from their bowl on the register, but I don't because I am not buying anything. Cut-off vintage shorts are really big. Tye-dye. Fannie Packs. I wish I still had all the tye-dye shirts my parents had bought me each year at the Ann Arbor Art Fair in the 90s, because I'd fit right in in this neighborhood!

I travel further North and find Camden Lock, a market where vendors sell clothes, vintage furniture, music, and pretty much anything you can think of. It is located on Regent's Canal and is a large building and surrounding area where I weave in and around shop stalls wandering for hours. Most shops seem to sell low-end goods, which I am kind of disappointed by, but the overall vibe and people watching keeps me wandering. I stop for lunch in a food court of sorts, where many food vendors sell out of little huts. I buy some Indian food for lunch and eat quickly for I have lots more exploring to do!

I come across a great little vintage shop and browse through blouses and jackets and jewelry. I try on a few things and I settle on a jean jacket and even bargain with the shop clerk for a better price. I don't think I had a jean jacket when I was younger, and I am happy to have bought one in London! 

Getting later in the day, I start heading back out of the shops. When I come across another shop I had read about: Cyberdog. It's hard to miss as it pumps house music from open to close. In the front there are dancers, one male and one female, performing on platforms on opposite corners of the room. I head down the esclator into the black lit store filled with futuristic clothing and accessories for men, women, and even kids! I have never seen anything like it. My only visual connection (besides what I imaging a rave on drugs being like) is to Disney Channel's movie, Zenon Girl of the 21st Century! But, let's say the PG-13+ version of that movie! Light up shoes, neon clothes, things made of latex! Ok, maybe the Rated R version for some items in this store! Again, there is no way I will ever be this cool. I wanted to even just try on some of their clothes, but realistically I wouldn't be buying anything here. 

On my out I see some really psychedelic, trippy eye glasses and again think real hard about spending £20 (about $30) on something I have no real world application for. But I carry on with the knowledge that you can buy from their website.

Heading back to the tube station, I stop for some photos of pastel homes and street art, and a coffee and brownie at an organic cafe on the canal. I am heading back to the hotel to meet up with Ann, who journeyed to Oxford with our group, to go for Curry on Brick Lane.

We settle on a restaurant, even though there are four or five curry restaurants right in a row. A man from each shop stands on the street and tries to entice passerby's to come for dinner at their restaurant. Our waiter takes our drink orders and puts our napkins on our laps. We order Chutneys for an appetizer and a bowl of chicken curry each. The four Chutneys we receive are each delicious, some sweet, some savory. When the curry comes, with rice and naan bread, I am in heaven. This authentic meal leaves me full and satisfied with my time in London. To be honest, it was the best meal that I had on the whole trip.

After dinner we spend some time wandering the surrounding streets before calling it a night, thinking about our time in London and musing about the adventures that await us in Paris.

A grey day at Camden Lock.

A grey day at Camden Lock.

Ann enjoying our Chutney spread at Cinnamon.

Ann enjoying our Chutney spread at Cinnamon.

Curry at Cinnamon on Brick Lane - UH MAZ ING!!!

Curry at Cinnamon on Brick Lane - UH MAZ ING!!!

 

Camden Markets / Camden Town and Surrounding Street Art

 

Snapchats from day 3 & 4


Overall Thoughts

I knew that I would love London. I had a feeling, and that feeling was right. It was different than what I had imagined, but that's what is so stimulating about travel.

Ever since I was in New York last fall, I have been fascinated by underground rail systems (nerd alert!), and London's Tube system did not fail to excite me. I love navigating between destinations and the names of each station. People watching is usually pretty good and it is just a fun way to travel. And London's Tube is very clean and safe compared to others I have explored. I also enjoyed learning a new currency. London's pound is expensive for Americans due to the exchange rate, but I really enjoyed paying with £1 and £2 coins. Somehow it seemed easier, even though my wallet was heavier. 

When I first got to London, I wanted to compare it to NYC; because not only do people say they are similar, but it was the only other big city I had been to recently. I love New York, but it is not London. There are parts that are similar and it is probably the most similar European city to The Big Apple, but Londoners are crazy, gritty, and raw. There is this interesting play between the royal, formal, business parts of London and the alternative, underground, eclectic neighborhoods and people. But hey, even the Queen is a true Londoner: have you seen her "green screen" outfit that she stepped out in lately? She's an internet meme sensation! 

Overall I had an amazing experience in London, and I would love to go back some day and dive even deeper into their cultural melting pot!

 

Random, Scenic London