Looking Back

Going to London I was excited to say the least. I read all the guidebooks, scrolled through many many pictures, read their news, and I even bought a British Vogue for the plane.

The day I was set to leave, I felt confident I’d fit right in. I speak English. I love tea. How different can this place really be? Upon arrival, I immediately felt shocked by the accents and unique sense of place. Continuing into the first few weeks, I experienced the London I’d imagined the city to be. I took pictures of the old statues, beautiful parks, fancy buildings, royal guards, excreta. But by week three I felt restless. While I had photographs of the iconic London, the romantic, perfected city I’d always dreamed of, I didn’t have much in the way of authenticity. The images seemed somewhat empty and expected.

What I wanted was to find the “real London” or in other words the hidden secrets of the city. The only problem was at that point, I had no idea where to begin.

I looked in museums, places of heritage, famous monuments. I looked in new places, design centers, avant guarde coffee shops…I looked in crowds. Then quiet parks. Even through store windows and inside grocery stores.

Then one day I had a horrible idea. I should take a picture inside the Tube. As I raised my camera to my face, I felt uncomfortable before I even looked through the viewfinder. I quickly pointed the lenses to the right, blinked and looked down at the screen. What I saw was a teenager scowling back at my rude attempt to take a picture in such a private place.

Of course the Tube is actually one of the most public places in the city, but in this teen’s eyes it was private because it showed the raw, unedited version of London life.

I hated to be “that person,” but at the same time, I love the intense backlash within his eyes. It seemed to prove that I’d finally discovered where cameras weren’t allowed, a place that wasn’t suppose to be documented, analyzed or exposed.

Maybe I’m putting too much emphasis on this one moment, but it made me think about what it means to find the “real side of any city.” There will always be the cultural myths about a place. Like wise, there will always be the universal patterns of transportation and daily grind. The one thing that connects these two absolutes is local pride.

The teenager seemed protective of his city. That seemed to be a common trend among other locals as well. Despite all the commuting, crowds, and crazy weather, you got the sense that Londoners loved living in a city that everyone else can only dream about being a part of. It was also the pride of knowing you can live the ideal version of London, but handle the “true” version too.

I definitely don’t think I’ll ever pinpoint the definition of “real” London, but the following entries offer an attempt.

Why It’s Impossible to Leave

When you decide to go somewhere for 8-weeks, you naturally assume you’ll have plenty of time to see everything. You try to avoid the tourist traps and travel the city like a local. You sit in the parks, duck in and out of cafes and seek out the more obscure shops and galleries. Ok, well maybe that’s just me, but on the last Wednesday of my trip an alarming thought came to my attention: I haven’t visited Big Ben, the House of Parliament, or St. James’ Palace, and I have only seen Buckingham Palace by accident the night Remi and I got lost and mistaken the backside for some really nice royal embassy (embarrassing, I know). So, just as was the case with the National Gallery, I boarded the Tube in the peak of rush hour, heading southwest toward Charing Crossing station.

Cue the music from the Parent Trap where Lindsey Lohan rides past London’s monuments, head out the window, beaming at her new surroundings. I’d been in the city for nearly two months, yet the sights were getting to me like I’d never been here before. I snapped picture after picture, and no doubt irritated the commuters returning from work.

Walking along Whitehall Avenue toward Big Ben, a crowd accumulated near a constable guarding a seemingly uninteresting side street. Finally my eyesight registered the street sign: 10 Downing Street, ahh, the Prime Minister’s home and office. I still found the sight rather funny. Being late afternoon, the buildings had begun to create huge patches of shadow across the sidewalk, while intense rays of late afternoon light peaked through narrow avenues and occasional circle drives. As the sun drenched the side of Big Ben, (or rather Elizabeth Tower, for those wanting to be precise) I marveled at the structure’s absurdly intricate façade. When was Big Ben was built, was it a form of gothic architecture, and what on earth went on inside this massive complex? I had suddenly become so fascinated by this cliché structure.

Behind Big Ben was a simple and unnamed patch of green space where a wooly dog ran after a tennis ball and a handful of folks sat under the trees. Parks always reminded me that London was a real place. Closer to the Thames, I came across yet another green space; though this one was well labeled as Whitehouse Gardens and kept under the careful care of Westminster Parks. Landscaped with the most unusual plants, the garden sat behind the Royal Horseguards Hotel, and contrary to most London parks, hosted a very particular crowd. I got the feeling the area was unofficially private. Walking along the backside of the park, I passed through the quiet avenue of the hotel’s entrance. Doormen in top hats held the door for couples strolling out in evening wear. I enjoyed feeling like I’d step back in time for a few minutes.

On the last leg of my walk, I meandered along the waterfront, passing by a floating restaurant. The crowd sprawled across the deck of the ship, clearly enjoying themselves. How fun? I wished I could stay another 8 weeks.

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South Bank

You can just tell this area has a rich history. I visited probably half a dozen times, and each time the area was buzzing with café chitchat, street performances, and those just strolling along the waterfront. From the famous London Eye and beautiful Country Hall to the small details like pop-up coffee shops and neon installations, the South Bank exudes an energetic, modern and color-infused gathering place.

At nighttime, walking the Waterloo Bridge, you wonder why Paris and not London is considered the most romantic city. Everyone on the South Bank seems to be in a blissfully good mood. Another amazement is the happy communion of all walks of life. You have the high society couples waltzing in for an opera show next to hundreds of tourists lined up for miles to take a ride on the London Eye. Then of course there are the crowds of young Londoners, taking it all in over a late night dinner with wine and close friends.

Curious to understand how this area became “the living room of London” (as South Bank’s website proclaims), I set out to do a bit of background research.

In a nutshell, this waterfront area went from drab to fab following the end of WW2, when it was declared that both the nation and South Bank station needed a bit of rejuvenation. In response to this proclamation, the Festival of Britain was born. This famous celebration showed off Britain’s recent achievements in science, technology and art. Royal Festival Hall, built in honor of the new festival, instantly became an iconic haven for the performing arts. As time went on, the area saw accelerated expansion, and even today plans for growth are currently underway.

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London As a Design Capital
lodnon design guide bannerAt the South Bank Center gift shop, I faced a difficult decision: which book should I attempt to fit into my already overflowing suitcase? I finally decided on London Design Guide, an ultimate list of London’s top design shops all organized by neighborhoods.

Though the area is know for a myriad of artistic pursuits, I was especially interested in the South Bank’s influence on the city’s leadership as a design capital. Commenting on the subject, New York Times author Julie Lasky boldly proclaims: “Apologies to Milan and Tokyo. Regrets to Stockholm and Paris. Forgive me, Eindhoven, Berlin, Barcelona and, most particularly, New York. But London is the design capital of the world.” Reading this prompted me to investigate how London holds up to such a flattering assertion. I discovered that neither the South Bank, nor any other region of London is the primary powerhouse of London’s design. Instead a strong influence can be found in all neighborhoods of the city. Bearing that in mind, I decided to take a new approach to my investigation: uncover the people and events that make London live up to the quote above. In the aftermath of my findings I’ve made a short list of those who I found to be London’s best designers, and a quick overview of the famous Design Festival held every September.

London’s Top Tier Designers
Sir Terence Conran
5 Things to Know about Conran
1. He was featured at the 2012 Design Museum exhibit Terence Conran – The Way We Live Now and that same year was awarded The Prince of Wales Medal for Arts Philanthropy
2. I guess he deserves the above exhibition considering he also help found the London’s Design Museum, which opened at its current location in 1989
3. He also initiated Habitat, a chain of home furnishing stores designed in the 60s and 70s.
4. Ten years later, he established Conran Holdings, a global network of designers who all stand behind the philosophy that “intelligent design improves people’s quality of life.”
5. Finally, he has written 30+ books. Some of his best include:
Design: Intelligence Made Visible
The House Book
Essential House Book
Easy Living
(post to be continued)

The National Gallery

Turner National GalleryTrafalgar Square is an outdoor frenzy of people, fountains, and performers. Behind the flowing fountains and constant commotion sits the regal, quiet and prestigious National Gallery. At peak hours the museum hosts a crowd, but there is still a surprising degree of respectful silence within the gallery space. Unfortunately, my time inside was brief, yet also wonderful.

During my last weeks abroad, a research paper hung over my head. On one particularly studious Thursday afternoon, I finally closed my laptop with the urgent realization: When else can I visit the National Gallery? With only days left, this may be my only chance. Who cares about editing this paper—it’s a sin not to see some of the great masters. So as though I was running late for an important meeting, I packed up my notes and bounded down the stairwell to the front door.

Like reflective mirrors, the gallery seemed to expand infinitely. I couldn’t believe so much talent could be housed in one place. I loved how one could be walking along, reading off the names of obscurity, and then suddenly the next painting would be a Rembrandt, Caravaggio, or Ruben. I wonder if curators purposefully make gallery-going like a scavenger hunt. While I could have easily stayed the entire day, I had given myself only an hour before closing time. At 5:55pm I departed with a bittersweet longing to stay and a bit of jealousy toward Londoners: they have so many forms of inspiration at nearly every place in the city.

Photo from the Turner Collection at the National Gallery

Notting Hill

Neighborhoods Near Holland ParkBeautiful Neighborhoods
Journey west, past the bustling mobs on Portobello Road, and you’ll discover that Notting Hill remains a quaint, secret hideaway. Winding rows of town homes show off their bright glossy doors. From the choice of knockers, and paint finishes to flower beds and door mats, each home exudes a great deal of charm and personality. And the best part of walking through this area during the hot days of summer is the open windows. Sometimes you can catch a glimpse of the worlds inside. One favorite view: a petite breakfast nook complete with white Vitra chairs and a vase of sunflowers. The whole space overlooked some beautiful park (which I presume must have been the green space tucked behind Holland Walk).

Holland Park
If you’re willing to wind up a discreetly labeled hill, canopied by trees, and unmarked as the formal entrance to arguably one of the best parks in London, then you’re in for a treat. Trekking up Holland Walk looks a bit like walking to some kind of world in Alice and Wonderland. It’s dark and woodsy yet lit by kelly green lamp posts. Though the turn says nothing, take a left, the only left you’ll find, and you’ll fall into ‘The Royal Borough of Chelsea and Kensington’ also know as Holland Park. It’s full of surprises like a zen garden, horse pasture, restaurant (Belvedere), playground, running trail and lawn full of picnickers. And in one Saturday morning I witnessed two weddings parties.

A Brief History
Notting Hill follows a classic tale of rags to riches. While Chelsea and Kensington have always been highly regarded, Notting Hill was west London’s slum until the early 80s. Originally, brick makers, pig farmers and immigrants were the primary residents. Thus, since Notting Hill’s earliest development the neighborhood was known for its offbeat and artistic nature. The famously colorful exteriors and the chaotic Portobello Market, continue to reflect the region’s quirky personality. That said, the new ‘Notting Hill Set’ prove a major shift in the neighborhood’s reputation. Today, homeowners include Richard Branson, Robbie Williams, Elle Macpherson, Victoria and David Beckham, Elton John and the prime minister, David Cameron.

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Even with a lack of expectation, Paris was everything contrary to what I’d imagined.

Arriving in Paris
We made it through customs, survived the train ride, even got our carnets beforehand, but the inevitable struck. We arrived at our horrifying hotel; it was really a hostel at best. The shady man at the desk played dumb upon hearing our American accents. After an interesting power game, he refused to give us the keys to our room until our other friend arrived. Defeated and frustrated, we left with all our luggage in tow.

I was eager to explore, especially given our 48-hour window, so, much to the chagrin of Remi, I suggested we jump right into adventure and hike up the Sacre Coeur. The view was amazing but almost sad because the city just kept sprawling over the French countryside. I wondered if any locals were sitting on the grass steps, or if I was merely surround by tourists.

Arriving at the top, you’re shocked by the visual clash of beauty and capitalism. Steps from the entrance, peddlers sold everything from wind-up birds to wooden trains to plastic Eiffel Towers. This beautiful cathedral sat as the backdrop to hollering promotions, “five euros…five euros”.

Oh the Splendor of Walking the Champs-Élysees
My pervious reservations melted as I exited the metro at Notre Dame. The sheer scale of the architecture made me feel completely shrunken. And with such wide streets, I began to wonder how many Hollywood chase scenes had been produced at the heart of such history. A brutal racing scene set against a perfectly preserved city—it seemed like something a filmmaker might do.

As we made away over the Seine my awe continued to amplify. I just kept putting my hand to my mouth as my jaw literally dropped. I wondered if local residences still stood on bridges and thought wow I’m really in Paris. One of my favorite scenes was a snapshot of the entrance to the carnival set up for Bastille Day. Talk about a clash of time periods: The commercialization of cotton candy, Ferris wheels and neon plopped right next to the Louvre was comically contrasting. When we actually arrived at the Champs-Élysees, I found myself trying to adopt a certain air of class. You wanted to walk just so and tap into this unreal life. Remi fit right in with her macaroon and Parisian accent, but I’m sure I still stood out as the American, whirling around in circles with my arms outstretched like I was waiting for the sky to rain Skittles and tell me this all wasn’t quite real.

Varsailles Palace
Ginormous. That is the only way to describe this estate and the maze of gardens that just keep going. I’m sure within the labyrinth of shrubs hide-and-go-seek could last for days.

The Food
Near the fountains we enjoyed a delicious lunch at a place fittingly titled, La Petite Venise. My plate consisted of melon and prosciutto drizzled with a sweet vinaigrette and a slice of lemon. With only a few ingredients, the overall flavor was surprisingly complex and original.

On our way out, we stopped by the gift shop, so Remi could grab a few mementos. While waiting, I leafed through the heaping pile of cookbooks and found a surprising amount of desserts combining lemon and chocolate. What an odd combination? There was everything from macaroons with chocolate ganache to lemon chocolate tarts to lemon and white chocolate soufflés. As much as I love London, Paris will always have the upper hand when it comes cooking.

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