Newbury & London

I finished my time in Oxford with one day off for sightseeing, and treated myself to a concert in the Sheldonian Theatre. The student orchestra was playing Beethoven’s 7th symphony, and the second movement is amazing live, especially in an English Grade I listed building where the only way to be invited in is for a graduation ceremony. I was on my way to London to study wine, with a slight detour to Newbury.

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inside the Sheldonian theatre

Newbury is kind of a out-of-the-way place, where few stop, but most have heard of. There’s a surprising little ex-pat community there, and I managed to find one Portugese couchsurfer to host me. I met a wine dealer in Oxford from Majestic cellars in Newbury who was registered in the same wine program; I was going to London to cram years of sommelier knowledge into five days. There would be a two-and-a-half hour exam at the end of the week and I hadn’t started studying, so we planned to share our knowledge and complete a few mock exams.

My Portugese couchsurfer was an excellent partner for drinking wine, and whiskies, and I learned plenty about wine and wine hangovers. Newbury itself was a small, quaint little town on a river, with more second-hand shops than cafes and restaurants combined; you only had to chose if you wanted to support the Red Cross, helicopters for kids, or OXFAM in your shop choice. I noticed more teenage mothers than I’ve noticed anywhere else; most had bad teeth and were slightly overweight, but they all got on very well.

The West London Wine School in Fulham offers WSET Level 1, 2 and 3 courses, and usually the Level 3 is taken over six or twelve weeks of evening courses. They also offer Level 3 in five, eight hour days, if you can commit to forty or sixty hours of pre-course study. They send you a text and work book that would take at least that long to finish – which I only received in time to read the first three chapters – and then a wine specialist speaks at you, reciting textbook knowledge like it was his childhood memories.

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tasting the best of Italy & Chile, and comparing Bordeaux reds

Our teacher was Jimmy, a young, VW van traveler, who had personally been to most of Europe’s best wine regions and vineyards. He knew the soil types and wine makers names of each little French appellation, and made all the students feel as unprepared as we were. The exam included two blind tastings, which I think I passed, but the essay-written part of the exam wasn’t even as difficult as the multiple choice questions. One question gave the name Graciano, and asked if it was a Spanish white, Spanish red, or Portugese red or white wine grape – it wasn’t even like you could deduce from process of linguistic elimination (it’s a Spanish red grape FYI).

I stayed with my Lawyer friend Becky, who worked ridiculous hours but managed to wine test in the evenings with me. We had some Picpoul de Pinet white wine, Bordeaux reds, Rioja rose, and sparkling cava, improving our ability to taste and discuss the effects of wine. After forty hours of tasting dozens of wines and learning the minute details of over a hundred of grape varietals, vineyard management, wine making, tasting and food pairing, I wasn’t ever quite sober enough to analyse my own progress… but I hope I passed.

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The Weird and Tasty in London

I never go to London to go to London – it´s usually on the way from Iceland to somewhere else, or a stopover to switch airports. I´ve been to London a dozen times, and always left the airport if I can, but never really wanted to stay long since London struck me as a grey and overpriced, crowded city. I also hate commuting, and the London underground is the most complicated public transport system in the world, but this was finally going to be the first trip to London for the sake of getting to know London.

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typical London to me

For the first time, I started liking London. I stayed in zone 1 and tried to walk as much as possible, and actually saw blue skies more than once. Oxford street with all its Christmas cheer was undeniably charming, and the handful of parks around still had green grass. The trip was focused on wining and dining, since it will be my WSET Level III exam location in a couple of months, but a string of strange sights and events also made the trip quirky and memorable.

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magic tricks with liquid nitrogen at Dinner by Heston

I don´t have any proof, but out of the window of my Gatwick airport express train, I saw a green parrot flying freely. I wondered where one could post to a Lost and Found forum about their missing exotic bird, or if its possible that it flew here, naturally and by its own will, from somewhere warm and tropical.

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a street scene in downtown St. Helier, a weekend detour we took from London

I had one of those moments where you wish someone had caught it on camera, or suspected there was a hidden camera and it was done on purpose to record your reaction, but it was simply a stroke of bad luck, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was walking along the sidewalk where a small puddle had collected in the curb, and a car drove by close and fast enough to send it spraying over me, head to toe. It was stinky, grey, icecold water, but the shock factor was too much for me to worry about that. The woman just behind me, who got pretty much the same splash, gasped and screamed ´that is SO unfair!´

British people are known to be pretty rude drivers, especially in city center traffic, driving on the wrong side of the road and all. But its not funny anymore when it gets racist, and I heard one truck driver screaming out of his window down to the guy in the Mercedes Benz that had just cut him off ´where´d you get your license? Moscow right? Learn to fucking drive!´The Mercedes guy answered and they started screaming all sorts of profanity at eachother, threatening to get out of their car, but luckily the light turned green and everyone went on their way.

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how did he get there?

The weirdest thing I saw was a car parked on its nose against a house. It had somehow driven, or slid, off the road and lay beside the window of a basement suite. It had taken out the railing, but missed the window and the garbage bins, even though it had fallen down a crack only one meter wide.

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Dinner by Heston Blumenthal

The most impressionable part of the trip was by far the food. Dinner by Heston, a double Michelin star restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, was mind blowing. I ate chicken liver pate that looked like a plum and tasted the best chocolate tart imaginable. Street XO had a fusion of Mexican and Asian bites, with deliciously experimental cocktails, decor, plating, and even server outfits (think tophats and suspenders worn unconventionally).

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Street XO

We drank gluhwein and hot cocoa, made gingerbread men and had to catch up on our advent calendar chocolates. We had a private lunch at our friend´s work kitchen and ate the best African food in Picadilly Square at a place called Ikoyi. I brought even more of an African with me to London while watching the Lion King, but quickly started embracing the cold, crisp feeling of winter and the change of season. Christmas doesn´t feel right in the heat, you know what I mean?

 

In and Out of London

London’s the kind of city you can easily get to, and often get to if you’re a traveler. Its a major hub for flying around Europe or the world with its 5 international airports, but its funny how you forget to ever just go to London. Its a super touristy city, and I’ve done the London Eye and Big Ben and Buckingham stuff, but I never go to London to visit London – Im merely passing through with some time to fill between flights. Ive had proper 5 day layovers, but then I get stuck in the visiting friend mode, seeing Tom in Oxford or Kevin in the city or my cousins in the suburbs. And I’ve picked up a nice collection of London-dwelling friends over the years, some old class mates that now study there, Icelandic friends who work there, or random internationals who I’ve met on the road who also put their time in for grey days in London.

at the google office

at the google office

Ive been through London 5 or 6 times so far this year, most of them with overnight stopovers, and its always a struggle to decide what to do or where to go. The tube is huge, takes forever, and still costs alot with an oyster card, and London city never took my heart like Paris or New York have. But I really enjoyed my last 2 visits in March and April, since I managed to do and see some things I never had before.

Bjorn the scotsman

Bjorn the scotsman

I couchsurfed with my Kiwi friend Bjorn who I met in the Cook islands this Christmas, and he took me into the London google offices where he works. All meals, snacks, coffee, and even beer is free for him and his guests, and he gets to chose from a handful of Ikea inspired living rooms to work or relax in. I could read books and google my heart out a dozen floors above downtown London, with a view of the Gherkin outside the balcony. Then Bjorn introduced me to some Scottish countryside traditions – Ceilidh dancing. He had the kilt and all the trimmings, but I just wore a wig to be festive. I don’t think I’ve ever danced with so many people or in spun in so many circles in any other type of dance, but it was a sweaty, good ol’ time.

London's Natural History Museum

London’s Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum was exhibiting National Geographic’s wildlife photographer of the year, and me and two friends played a game where we had to guess which country each photo was taken. I can’t remember if I wont, but I definitely guessed all the Iceland ones right. Strangely enough there were lots of photos taken in the UK, and I’ve never really thought of London as a gateway to wildlife destinations, but I may have to change my mind. I hear they have one hell of a mounted fox hunt on boxing day in Essex, so I might need to find some shiny boots and chocolate port and plan my next visit to London.

 

London Town

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Most people travel to destinations, and so do I, but I tend to travel more to seasons. I was in search of some summer sun when I went island hopping last month, and then I went to Vancouver in search of some fresh, pink spring days. Now I’m in London for more spring time weather, but I always make the mistake of traveling through London, never to London. Its one of those places thats so big and intimidating its just too hard to manage unless you have a week (or month) or plain out move to. But I’ve been here over 20 times and I never stay longer than a quick hello and goodbye to friends and family that I wish I could see for longer.

This was a special visit to London because I had the chance to catch up with a first-year UBC friend, who used to lived on the same floor as me in Totem Park and then we became roomates on exchange at UQ in Australia. Elyse is from Oakville, where I visited her once, and we hadn’t seen eachother for 6 years. She lives near Chelsea, and I spent our first night reunited going around the chachi neighbourhood listening to stories about the (scripted) reality TV show “Made in Chelsea.” We went to a few bars and wondered why London guys were so shy, but then we got picked up by 3 at the same place and decided to stick with the one who was a promoter at Raffles. Before we entered the famous bar, Elyse reminded me not to make any references to Made in Chelsea, and then our night turned out just perfect. We met a (may or may not be) Swedish prince, and an Indian guy whos name I still cant pronounse or spell. But we we’re all very good friends after a second night out at Raffles complete with bottle service.

Now I’m on my way to summer again, in Brno where its 20`C and all the trees are in full green swing. The days were long in Vancouver and London, but not as warm as there, and then Ill head south through central europe until I reach some flip flop weather before heading back to Iceland, where summer is maybe (if I’m lucky) as warm as a London spring.

Rendezvous in Germany & London

disembarking in DUS

disembarking in DUS

I haven’t left the country since May, which is a really long time by my standards, so I was itching to go somewhere but only had a week off between horse guiding and chasing sheep. Its hard to get very far from Keflavik if you dont have a lot of time or money, but London, Germany and somewhere in Scandinavia is always worth a brief visit. Air Berlin and German Wings are now flying direct from Keflavik to Germany, finally offering some competition to Wow Air or changing it up from always flying Icelandair. I booked to Dusseldorf for some €180, which I happily paid just to avoid going through London, and arrived to an airport full of beer-drinking Germans. It was just before midnight and I was still in Iceland, but I would have never been able to tell the difference when I was boarding or on the plane. The sound of duty-free beer cans snapping open all around me and that incomprehensible German language made me feel like I had already arrived.

sitting beside the Rhine

sitting beside the Rhine

I landed at 6am in Dusseldorf, and saw the sun rise on the runway behind jets taxing to and fro. The sun continued to rise as I made my way to the train station and into Dusseldorf city center. It was much smaller than I expected, so without any time stress, I managed to sit in a sunny, green park and nap off the red-eye flight jetlag. That afternoon I met my beautiful friend Stefan, who walked me through the old center and sheltered me from a pouring, thundering rain storm.

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Ritter Sport chocolate steps

I was going to Cologne to meet one of my best friends from UBC and California days, Mr. Mike Reiter who always inspires me to take pictures. We spent 3 days in Cologne drinking 2cl beers, eating Ritter Sport chocolate, cruising the Rhine (on foot and boat) and finally taking photographs of the Koln Hauptbahnhof and the empty streets on Sunday night.

I tried (and failed) to fly from Cologne to London with Mike as planned. At some point between checking out of the hotel and checking into my flight I lost my passport, or maybe it was stolen, who´s to blame, but didnt realize til my bag had been ripped apart infront of the immigration police who wouldn´t let me board my flight. Eventually the Easyjet flight left without me, and I left the airport lost and lonely at 10pm. Luckily Stefan could shelter me again, and I figured out there was an Icelandic consulate in Koln (!!!!) which was only open 9-12 on Tues – Thurs, so some 12 hours later I had an emergency passport and flew to London (for another €180).

me and mike

me and mike

London was lovely, yet grey and rainy as expected. Me and Mike stayed near Oxford Circus, which was miraculously always less than 4 metro stops on one line from anywhere I needed to go. I met my Guyanese cousins for dinner, an old school mate from Iceland for coffee, and even a guy I met in Egypt 6 years ago who I hadn´t seen since but it was his first day off work in months and we could hang out all day. It was so inspiring to see him again, now speaking fluent English and boasting about how much he loved his life in Europe, and he didn´t look a day older or like any other Londoner who seems to have the life sucked slowly out of them as the days go on.

My last order of business in London was to finally get my Guyanese passport, which seemed hopeless after having not enough passport photos, or the wrong size, or losing a day to the Icelandic consulate. But, after one lost passport in Germany, the weights of Karma balanced everything out and I came home with a new passport from London, and I can finally call myself a Guyanese citizen now 🙂

London: Reverse Culture Shock

My reverse culture shock began as soon as I arrived at Entebbe airport in Uganda. The British Airways flight I was on had more Westerners than I had seen all month, and the duty free shops were full of over-consumptive, unnecessary and overpriced goods. The 9 hour flight to London had a confusing selection of food, drink and entertainment, but having my own seat to sit on was nice, plus a pillow and blanket to put me to sleep.

Getting into Heathrow and maneuvering the underground to Victoria station and onward to Chelmsford was more chaotic. The price I paid to get to my cousins house would have paid for a week of day-long buses, so I started immediately to miss the price of things in East Africa. All the people I passed never made eye contact, and if they did, would look away immediately, never sharing a smile or a “hello how are you.” The Londoners all had somewhere to be, or just valued their time such that walking was like a race. Perhaps that’s in all train stations, but it was impressive to see the business women in heels speed-walking, zooming past myself, a little dazed and lost. I noticed everyone’s heightened sense of fashion – matching shoes and purses, shiny leather work bags, brand name scarves and beautifully painted faces and hair-do’s.

I finally found my way to platform 6, and boarded my train due north-east. I was still covered in a layer of red-dust and my backpack had become permanently dirty, so I met a few strange, side-wards glances but no one asked any questions. My cousin met me at Chelmsford station, after waiting for an hour on the other side of the tracks from where I was also waiting an hour. It was only 11 degrees, grey and rainy, an atypical summer day but somehow a perfect London day. After finally being reunited, we gossiped about family, drank some bubbly and ate butter chicken. For desert we had hookah, and finally crashed at 12:30am.

At 3 am, when I was dead asleep, I started having this dream that someone was breaking into my room. I was sleeping upstairs, in my cousins’ daughter’s room, and remember looking around in the pitch black trying to remember where I was. Africa? No. England? Yes. Hotel? Nope. Safe house in a quiet suburb? Yes. Convinced I was having a nightmare, I blinked several times to make out the two arms wailing around, trying to pull themselves in through the open window. As my heart beat shot up, I realized I was awake, and that this was really happening. 6 weeks in Africa without a single robbery, break-in, rape, nada, and my first and only night in England someone is actually trying to destroy my clean record. At this point, a minute had passed and he was about to make it all the way in, and frozen in freight I decided to cough to announce my conscious presence. He had been mumbling to someone else or himself and fell silent, pulled his arms back out, and disappeared.

I fumbled to the door, to my cousin and her daughter sharing the other room, and whispered “Marisa, there’s someone trying to break in through my window.” She shot up like a lightning bolt, ran into the room, turned the lights on, pulled up the blinds, and stuck her head out the open window. Maybe not the way I would have reacted, but thankfully they were long gone. We called the cops anyway, made a report and had them check the perimeter of the house. At 5 am we finally crawled back to bed, and somehow I still fell asleep, still kind of pretending it was all just a bad dream.