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.

Paris

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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Oxford

bigger in oxfordComing off the train in Oxford you’re a bit bummed by the commercialization. A Gap, three coffee chains and a drug store greet you. However, at your feet an aged cobble stone road caves inward, clearly aged from the past few centuries. Any degree of rain would create a river in this moat-like road.

Closer to the college campus, many references to the 21st century begin to give way to a world of curving alleyways and old English street lamps. Along with the architecture, it was also the sense of ease that struck me most. You think of, say, Harvard, as beautiful but teeming with urgency and vibrant angst to get something done. Here, the whole place seems to have taken a deep breath and given into the old-world feel.

Visiting Balliol College grounds
A lawn of grass creates a haven for picnickers, focus groups and the causal reader. A wheat-hued stone fence barely holds in flowers and shrubbery. You can see stripping where the mower had carefully trimmed the impossibly perfect green space.

Only in retrospect did I comprehend the campus’ perfection. Though home to thousands of rebellious college kids, everything looked immaculate. We took a nice nap in the sunshine. Must be a really difficult life here I mused as I started dreaming up ways to get into their graduate school…

The Graduate
I think I forgot to mention this slight detail, of which might explain the pristine state of things, but we just so happened to visited Oxford on graduation weekend and in our wanderings through Balliol, we fell upon one particularly memorable sight. A student, clearly a graduating senior, fell into the quad from an obscure stairwell up ahead. His back covered was drenched in ketchup and confetti. With disheveled hair and soggy robs, he looked and smelt like he’d endured a hosing of beer. It was one of those moments where he knew and we knew this was a “didn’t happen” kind of scene. My friends and I glanced at each other with knowing looks—we had just witness a bit more than was promised of our two pound tour.

Highlights
Enjoy English Breakfast at The Grand Café, one of the oldest coffee houses in England (1650). For delightful home goods, perfumes and coffee table books The Pod is definitely worth a visit and for soft fabrics and simple styles try Toast. Objects of Use had a nice collection of kitchen basics, and for a sweet pick-me-up, stop by Hardy’s, where they have an entire wall devoted to liquorish. Most important, walk through Balliol and Church of Christ Oxford campuses.

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2 weeks away

2 weeks awayThe count down begins. I leave for Heathrow Airport in 12 days to begin my 8-week adventure through London. I’m hoping to take in everything. And maybe, once back in Austin, my many photos and notes will weave into some kind of story, but I guess for now I’ll just have to wait and see where the summer takes me.

Cheers to the beginnings of a great adventure.

Photo from Pinterest.