Date Archives April 2018

Little Venice in Paddington, London

I no longer recall precisely how the map ended up in our hot little hands: whether it was given to us by the host of our AirBnB, or whether we picked it up ourselves from Paddington station. The important thing is that somehow I ended up holding the map whilst feeling impressionable: “Walk the Paddington Bear paw print trail!” and while I’m not particularly nostalgic about Paddington Bear, there was an area marked Little Venice with swans on the river and I thought “Oh! How charming!” and then I learned that there’s a little boat restaurant on which to have a floating tea and our walk there was a foregone conclusion.

It was charming upon first glance: a few well maintained cozy boats tied up, one trailing a floating dinghy that served as a garden. There were even a few swans out doing their swan thing. But not much further down Paddington’s pawprint path and it feels as though he might be leading you off to your watery garbage grave. Now, I have never been to Venice, but I find it hard to believe that the city that inspired so many quotes about beauty and grandeur consists mainly of houseboats with bags of trash strapped to the roof, and that’s the majority of what you’ll find in “little Venice”. The part of it that isn’t boats heaped with gas cans and glad bags is the canal itself, featuring a layer of floating rubbish thick enough to choke the waterway in its narrower stretches. I didn’t take any photos of the more murdery areas because it seems unnecessarily cruel to photograph someone’s home with the intent of mocking it on the internet;  you don’t spend your days living on a floating garbage barge because you have a lot of other great options. That said, I also don’t think this should be marketed as a thriving waterway with bustling cafes and shops, because that’s not what it is, in the slightest. London, you’re one of the greatest cities in the world–you don’t need to half-assedly crib off of another one for tourist purposes, I promise, just because a poet wrongly nicknamed the area such once upon a time. But if you’re going to do so regardless, might I suggest some waterway maintenance?  No one but Oscar the Grouch wants to take tea in a trash can.

Highgate Cemetery

It took until our uphill walk from the tube station for it to strike me: people in London don’t put bumper stickers on their cars. It feels like a curious absence, as in the States, it seems as though every third car has a sticker proclaiming the size of their family, their belief in Jesus, and their even more fervent belief that their toddler could kick your toddler’s ass in karate. No truck seems complete without one or two giant American flags just in case its owner might otherwise forget in which country they reside, between arduous tasks like walking from a big box store to their parking spot, diagonally across three reserved spaces at the front of the lot. Once I noticed this difference, I kept a weather eye open for any form of bumper-based cling and spied nary a one for the rest of the trip. How was I supposed to know if a stranger was my ideological enemy without these physical labels? Thankfully, to calm my American sensibilities, I was headed to a place where nearly everyone was going to be wearing a label: the cemetery.

Despite writing an impassioned letter in high school to the editor of my hometown newspaper in defense of goths (this was long enough ago that reporters believed that if you wore all black to school, you were an incipient murderer of other, normal children), I’ve never been fully committed to the goth lifestyle. I enjoy the literature and the music, black clothes are my jam, I am inordinately fond of velvet, and I do belong to the members-only goth club in town (even if I never go anymore). But hanging out in cemeteries and dancing in the rain have always felt outside of my wheelhouse, potentially owing to their involvement of both the outdoors and physical activity, especially if that outdoor physical activity involves the dampening of my velvet frock. Just thinking about moist velvet makes my skin crawl. This was a very long-winded way of saying I don’t often visit cemeteries. St. Louis No. 1 in New Orleans was an exception. Highgate would be another. 

Nearly ten years ago, I saw Neil Gaiman on his tour to promote The Graveyard Book. In the ensuing decade, I have forgotten the book nigh-entirely, save for the fact that its setting was inspired by Highgate Cemetery. Luckily, it’s a fast, breezy read compared to the dense twelve hundred page tomes I’ve been reading lately, and thus I was able to reacquaint myself easily enough. This is when I discovered that the book references Highgate Cemetery west, and I’d visited Highgate Cemetery east, the western side being open only to guided tours booked in advance on weekdays. Doh! Nevertheless, “a sludge of fallen leaves, a tangle of ivy…and fallen angels stared up blindly” (231) could just as easily describe the eastern side, at least when you move beyond the very manicured main walkway.

Entrance to the west side

I know that those marks are IHS with the letters overlaid as a religious signifier, but in my heart, it’s a special dollar sign that only the really rich can use.

look I’m not saying I’m just saying

This angel legit looks like she’s trying to decide which toppings she wants on her sandwich

If there’s a dog I will find him

I told you I would find the dog

The wilder Highgate got, the more I liked it, plants exploding in a riot of life in this place of the dead, plunging their roots into the heart of our remains and springing forth as something new. Not gone, just changed; even as time, decay, and plant matter work to obscure and reclaim the stones themselves, removing the identities and labels people clung to in life, so that in death they may finally rest in peace with their neighbors.  

Our route to and from Highgate also took us through Waterlow park, which has several lovely ponds and was donated to the city by Sir Sydney Waterlow as “a garden for the gardenless”. These gardens also featured some benches for the benchless, of which we availed ourselves while watching some waterfowl paddle around. Sitting on a bench to watch ducks, I’m already vacationing as if I were in my twilight years. This must be very compelling content. 

A common coot, I’m not certain at which point in its life cycle it officially becomes an old coot. Hit me up, ornithologists. 

The British Museum

I could have spent the bulk of forever inside the British Museum. My visit was a foregone conclusion–how could I know that one country spent centuries invading, ruling, and claiming other countries’ treasures for its own, amassing many of them in one place, and not see that collection myself? And even still, knowing this, I did not comprehend the scope of the collection. Even now, I cannot fully comprehend it, and here’s why: the permanent collection at the British Museum comprises over 8 million items. EIGHT MILLION. I can easily comprehend something like eight million dollars in the context of what it could do–namely, in the Seattle area, it could buy you roughly 18 condemned houses at 2016 prices. Fewer, if there’s a bidding war (there will be). Closer to ten now, if that house just outside my neighborhood is any indication, because you’d need the million left over to tear down and haul away the abandoned car and bus lawn stockpile. Digression aside, I have a harder time comprehending eight million items, as objects that take up three dimensional space. As things you could set side by side and contemplate one after another after another after another, and the amount of time it would take to do so. If I spent one second looking at each item in a collection of eight million, it would take me 133,333 minutes to look at everything. 2,222 hours. If I went to the British Museum every single day from open until close, looking at one item per second, with no breaks, it would take me over 40 weeks to view eight million items. I could be impregnated the morning before my first day at the museum and walk out with a full term baby on my last. Except then it would presumably take me a little longer because no pregnant woman is going 7.5 hours (10.5 on Fridays!) without a bathroom break. 

Of course not everything is on display all the time, so I wouldn’t have to take a nine-month sabbatical to personally contemplate each and every item in the British Museum, but even still, the size of the collection on display is nigh-incomprehensible. I spent an entire day inside and still had to be choosy about which exhibits I most wanted to see. Which is a problem when you’re the sort of person who wants to see everything

The case of ants-in-my-pants must-see-it-all grew stronger when immediately after we arrived, Jason decided he needed a snack, so instead of some stupendous historical treasure, the first thing I saw in the British Museum was a woman in the self-serve snack line carefully weighing each and every single millionaire bar on the tray with the tongs to ensure she got the largest piece. That’s a thing I saw. 

Impatience aside, once we finally got into the museum itself, it was hard to understand the scope of the place, the expanse of the building. It contains entire temple facades, nearly half the Parthenon, the largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts outside of Egypt, the largest collection of Mesopotamian artifacts outside of Iraq, one of the largest collections of different types of physical currency in the world, and I could continue listing them but my brain is already tired just revisiting some of those places in my head. It would probably take me the better part of nine months to describe all of the astounding, intricate, heartbreaking, thought-provoking things I saw, and I’m already two trips behind on this thing so instead, here are the high points:

Throwing knives

Knife money, do not get confused with throwing knives!

photographed B.H. (because horse)

Here, I learned that even in ancient Egypt, cats were dicks.

As is clearly evident, the ramen noodle hairstyle was popular long before 1998 Justin Timberlake, potentially predating packaged noodles themselves! 

This whole wing of the museum is essentially #housegoals. I’m sure “Library of King George III and given to the British nation by King George IV in the third year of his reign” is a very affordable home furnishing style.

They even make fun of us, their wayward child, on their teacups. Tough love!

You know why I took this photo. You know. If you don’t, look a little more closely.

Do you reckon that baby monitor is particularly valuable?

I was thrilled to see this work by Odilon Redon, as he is one of my favorite artists and I have yet to see very many of his works in person. 

photographed B.H.

All I want for my birthday is this chalice. Maybe a pair so there’s always a clean one ready to go.

Also, I would like a baba yaga pitcher.

I found another Jaime Lannister hand among the collection. 

You also know why I took this photo. Don’t click away before you spot all three! Ding dong, you’re good at this game!

I estimate I was able to see perhaps half of the rooms of the museum before having to hustle out so as not to have my coat confiscated by coat check. Which is probably for the best, as it kept me from actively trying to furnish my home via the exceptional gift shop. I couldn’t help but notice they didn’t sell any replicas of those wind chimes, though.

High Five Tea at Balthazar London

One of the things I really wanted to do whilst we were in London was to have a proper afternoon tea–scones, clotted cream, tiny sandwiches, the works. There are a lot of places eager to cater to tourists looking for this experience, and if I’d wanted, I could have taken tea every single day of my stay and still not visited all the most lauded options. And while I do love tiny crustless sandwiches, I don’t know that I could eat tiny crustless sandwiches for nine days straight and still be excited when the tenth tower arrives at the table, so I elected for one posh appointment: the High Five tea at Balthazar. I’ve since read Balthazar described as an American take on a French brasserie, so it may have been an unusual choice for an English tea, but I stand by it.

Balthazar is located in the Covent Garden district of Westminster. Nearby is a shopping center, a former vegetable market, that is now lined with tall, narrow shops, many spanning two floors. When I visited, there were a number of street performers on the lower floor, their singing expanding to fill the entirety of the hall. Jason kept attempting to purchase food, and I kept preventing him, reminding him that our afternoon tea appointment was like to be more of an entire day’s worth of food than the light snack he was envisioning. We did note some goodies that we’d be interested in returning to purchase should the tea not live up to our expectations (spoiler: we did not return), and instead spent the time before our reservation idly browsing the shops as neither of us were in the market for a luxury watch.

For their 5th anniversary, Balthazar developed their High Five tea: a towering tray stuffed with all of their biggest hits of the past five years, appearing in a haze of dry ice that swirls alluringly around the treats.

The bottom layer is the foundation of the meal: tea sandwiches of crisp cucumber and bright mint with a smear of earthy hummus, egg salad with watercress (I don’t do egg salad, but Jason liked it well enough to eat both), smoked salmon and lemon crème fraîche, and the perpetual British tea classic, coronation chicken, which with its combination of apricots and curry spice manages to be lightly sweet yet richly savory and was my favorite of the lot. Also served on this layer were miniature lobster prawn rolls served on buttery brioche. 

The middle layer is comprised of buttermilk scones (half studded with plump sultanas, half without), served with generous pots of Devonshire clotted cream and house-made strawberry jam. These scones are soft, warm, fragrant vehicles perfect for mounds of cream and jam and utterly unlike the dry, crumbly triangles that serve as scones stateside. Ignore for now the boxes also nestled on that layer, we’ll return to them later.

The top layer is reserved for the crème de la crème: five cakes, one for each year the restaurant has been operating. Proceeding clockwise from the bottom right cake that reads “Balthazar”:

  • Balthazar Icon, a confectionary copy of their awning rendered in Valhrona chocolate on a shortbread base with raspberry jam fusing the layers
  • Union Macaron, a meltingly delicate red and blue cookie sandwich loaded with fresh blueberries and cream
  • Gooseberry o’ Clock, a roulade of choux sponge infused with elderflower and gooseberry compote and ensconced in a shiny, sugary cellophane
  • Queen of Tarts, a sweet strawberry tart topped with a white chocolate disc
  • The Golden Bombe, a creamy, dreamy chocolate and hazelnut pudding topped with crisp sugarwork

 

 

As though all that weren’t enough, we opted for the ultra indulgent version of the tea, which included a rosé champagne cocktail with crystallized rose petals and a 30g tin of imperial caviar, served with yet more crème fraîche and blini. I’d never before tasted caviar, and the briny oceanic burst of the eggs paired gorgeously with the heavy crème, each tempering the other and becoming more than the sum of its parts. I fair say we nearly rolled from the restaurant, stuffed as we were with every good thing, which doesn’t mean we were too carbohydrate-addled to pocket our take-home boxes on the second layer, each containing a crisp, deeply caramelized, divine cannelés bordelais.

They’ve since moved on to a flower-themed tea that looks return trip worthy, even when that return trip involves an international flight. Who is coming with me?

 

Oxford University

No, this isn’t the university, this is a half-timbered building in the city of Oxford.

Like most people, I occasionally spend time thinking about the course of my life–the choices I’ve made that have influenced where I am now, and the choices I’m making now that will no doubt influence my future. Although there are some things I’d do differently, as a whole, I’m happy with the way things have turned out so far. But visiting Oxford awakened within me a deep yearning I never anticipated, and I’m still reeling internally somewhat from the revelation.

I was raised to be a people-pleaser. I wasn’t always successful, and I certainly didn’t always try, but I had a lot of different people in my life to please: family, teachers, counselors, friends, friends’ parents, clergy, neighbors…the list goes on. I transferred authority to anyone who sounded like they knew what they were talking about. These authority figures would then talk about what they wanted or expected, and consciously or unconsciously, I tried to give it to them. Along the way, I absorbed a lot of messages about who I was and what I could expect to achieve. For instance, while it was agreed among these authority figures that I would go to college (“so smart” “such potential”), anything I was interested in going to college for was determined not suitable: veterinary medicine (“not smart enough”), art (“not talented enough” “do you want to be homeless?”), music (“did you not hear me say ‘homeless’?”), and English (“it’s too bad that’s the only thing you’re good at, because as an English major the only thing you could do is be an English teacher and you wouldn’t be good at that”).

As you can see, after I was convinced by the junior high school counselor that veterinary school was not in my future, my interests and skill set largely lay in the arts. However, only the sciences were deemed an acceptable path, so it should come as a surprise to no one that when I was railroaded into school for computer science, I crashed and burned. Hard. I never finished college. I didn’t even come close. I’m sure it didn’t help that I took a gap year between high school and college to be a Rotary exchange student in Taiwan. I learned a lot that year–getting out of small-town Wisconsin certainly shone a light on my overall ignorance–but the most important thing I learned was that so long as I stayed out of people’s way, no one could really make me do anything. It was astonishingly easy, and I tested its limits at nearly every opportunity. I transformed from a people-pleaser to a people-displeaser in record time.  Or, if not that far, at least a you-can’t-prove-I’m-doing-anything-wrong person. Plus, my third host family disappeared and left me alone in the condo for something like an entire month. That sudden complete freedom was intoxicating and I was not ready to relinquish it come fall, particularly to the faceless institution that was my university of choice. My summer working at BlockoLand with up to 6 different mystery bosses checking in on me to make sure I was pronouncing the company name in a way that one could hear an invisible ™ sign implied was a rude enough awakening. Thanks for visiting BLOCKOLAND™, home of BLOCKO™ blocks! Could I have rebounded if I was enrolled in a school I liked, on a path I would have been interested in? 

 

After I burned every dollar I’d saved for college flaming out, I was gun-shy about trying again, this time on credit. After all, I did so poorly last time that it’s readily evident that I’m not smart enough, not talented enough, too lazy. It couldn’t be that I chose my path trying to please those around me rather than myself, that of course I wouldn’t do well pursuing a career in the subjects I’d had less interest and aptitude in for my entire life up until that point. Nope! And now I have an inferiority complex about it, because the norm among my peers is one or more degrees and here I am, a college drop-out (before I could turn college kick-out) with an employment history of a lot of places similar to BLOCKOLAND™, and often I feel like the Entertaining Well Meaning Hill Person of the group. Any group.

Was it really necessary to go through all this to tell you about my trip to Oxford? I think it was, in this instance. Sometimes when I visit a place, I absorb a lot of information about that place. Other places evoke a feeling, and while I listened with half an ear to the tour guide as our group wandered among the university buildings, I felt as though my whole body was thrumming with wonder and regret. I’ll not be so bold as to claim that my grades were such that I stood even a fraction of the tiniest chance of admittance to any one of the colleges at Oxford and I certainly would have had no means of affording tuition, if, say, some sort of plague occurred that primarily struck down those with 4.0+ GPAs in my age bracket. Hell, I was stupid enough to believe that the only job you could get with a degree in English was “English teacher”. Clearly I don’t deserve to study at Oxford. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t struck with a deep, keening desire whilst I was there, and that what I’m left with after my visit is the wispy, wistful ghost of that desire. I don’t have a lot of facts about the university to throw around, and while I enjoy doing research and sharing what I learn, it seems disingenuous for me to do so writing about a place where I was overcome with a feeling, especially given that everything I write here is about my personal experience with a place, and not that place in general. Without going into the backstory, I feel it would have been difficult to convey the breadth of my sadness at never before knowing that a place like this was possible, that if I had known, if I had tried, if I had pursued my goals instead of what would make a committee of other people happy, the entire course of my life might be different. Maybe not. Probably not. At the root of it, I was still far from the cleverest Melissa even in a pool as small as a middling midwest high school, so an elite international university would likely have been out of my grasp no matter how hard I strove. At least that’s what I tell myself. What else can I do?  

Side note to the tour guide: telling us “You may recognize the interior of this  building from Harry Potter, but I don’t know anything about it so don’t ask me which films” is so much harder than finding out the actual answer

After the tour of the colleges/ painful introspection hour, we were given some free time to wander the area at our leisure. Our tour guide suggested a number of pubs and gift shoppes (I maintain that all stores within Oxford can be referred to as an olde English-style “shoppe”, when considering as best as I can ascertain, each one, regardless of specialization, seems to be required to sell tweed jackets, scarves, and bicycles) in which to while away the time, so of course instead of doing any of those, I found myself inside the university’s Museum of the History of Science, plugging coins into their mechanical orrery. As with any of these types of museums, I could have spent far more time inside than was available to me, but I’m glad for the opportunity to take a peek. One partial afternoon adjacent to Oxford University was better than never having set foot there at all. And if it’s forced me to break this cycle of introspection/self-flagellation/blame of others/inaction particularly with regard to education by acknowledging that I can change nothing about the past and wallowing there does nothing but prevent me from moving toward a future, it’s one of the best takeaways I could have. Along with the astrolabe I purchased in the gift shoppe, of course.