Iceland’s South Shore

We added a short stopover in Iceland on our way home from England. It was an opportunity to revisit favorites, see some new things, and, even better, break up the flights. Because, you know, even though I can travel thousands of miles across continents in a single day I can still find a way to complain about it. I suppose I’m inured to the marvel. Overseas travel used to involve a high risk of scurvy, a disease that ravaged the mind and body, but I’m complaining because sitting the whole way from London to Seattle might make my butt ache slightly. 

When I say “short stopover”, I mean it: we had one evening, one morning, and one full day sandwiched in between. On our evening, we went back to Grillmarkaðurinn, because how could we not? I had the most amazing rack of lamb, perfectly pink and luscious, which came with three small ramekins of yogurt, rhubarb sauce, and crushed nuts for self-saucing and experimentation and a side of crispy kale and garlic fried potatoes. I also stuffed myself on crusty bread with Icelandic butter and black lava salt and a side of fresh hot corn with the same accoutrements, and surprise, I again had no room for dessert. Jason’s meal had three kinds of fish, and he said each one raised his bar for how good fish could be. On our morning, we went back to the blue lagoon until we were driven inside by a violent hailstorm. All of those people surging out of the water while shrieking and flailing  looked like a scene from Jaws

On our full day, we went on tour to Iceland’s south shore. We were picked up early from the hotel and shuttled to the large bus terminal from which I could see the beautiful pink sunrise, and, on the hill, the place at which I’d made reservations that evening: The Pearl, where we’d eat in a glass dome under the stars with a 360 degree view. I had some time to contemplate my dinner plans and doze on the bus while we waited for some late arrivals. This late start unfortunately impacted our day as we had to blast past our first two stops, Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss, with assurances that we’d hit them on the way back.

Seljalandsfoss-adjacent

Skógafoss

We made a bathroom break/snack/gift shop only stop at the LAVA centre in Hvolsvöllur, but our first official activity stop was at Sólheimajökull glacier. One of my favorite teachers described his awe upon laying eyes on a glacier for the first time: “It was Tidy Bowl* blue!” This refreshingly unpretentious and product placement laden description had the kind of staying power it took to stick in my memory for decades, much like how Tidy Bowl lasts, flush after flush.  After a short hike from the parking lot, I finally got my first good look at a glacier, and it did indeed glow a gentle electric blue. We were not allowed to walk right up to the glacier but even at a distance it was immense. Less immense every year, however: it recedes the length of an Olympic size swimming pool annually.

I think this is the best photo to help understand scale–look at those tiny people in the lower right, off to hike on the glacier itself.

Our next stop was the farthest from Reykjavík we’d travel on the trip, the village of Vík í Mýrdal. As its southernmost coastal village, Vík enjoys the reputation of the warmest place in Iceland, a balmy one or two degrees warmer than average. Despite this heat wave, Vík’s population of 318 has yet to embrace shorts. To be fair, I can’t say I would have embraced them, either, as I spent the entirety of this visit in the puffy, noisy grip of cheap snowpants and still felt cold. Despite its small population, Vík offers a robust amount of services for travelers, as owing to its location along the ring road, it’s one of very few places in the area to fuel one’s vehicle and purchase food, which makes it a very different kind of “must-stop” on a road trip. Our tour group was given an hour and a half in which to eat, shop, and sightsee at our leisure, if anything done on a ninety minute timer can be said to be done at leisure. Jason and I ate at the Ice Cave restaurant, which is essentially a cafeteria attached to a huge gift shop and a grocery store. I finally got some Icelandic meat soup! It was…soup. Meat, potatoes, vegetables, water. It wasn’t objectionable in any way, but it had two main things going for it that had nothing to do with the flavor: it was extremely hot and therefore warming, and, unlike just about everything else on the menu, it’s ready to go off the line so you don’t have to use precious sightseeing time waiting twenty minutes for your mediocre burger. After Jason finished his mediocre burger, we hit the restroom and hustled down to the black sand beach, giving the gift shop a pass because however huge, it was still stocked with the same stuff we saw at every other single shop in Iceland. What did they even sell before China stitched its first stuffed puffin?

But a black sand beach…I’d never seen one of those before. The sand at Vík, due to its origins as basaltic lava, has the inky depth of rich topsoil, or, learning the lesson from that former teacher and using a metaphor that’ll stick with you, it’s a beach of Oreo cookie crumbs. To be more exacting, the black sand mingled with the pure white snow and ocean foam looked strikingly like the dirt cakes my brother requested for his birthday several years in a row (always served in a flower pot). 

I didn’t learn my lesson from last time about the perils of buying cheap snowpants online and gleefully abandoned this second terrible pair in the hotel. 

At the appointed time, we all loaded back on the bus and the driver hauled us up the hill and back down the other side to Reynisfjara Beach. Reynisfjara Beach is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful in Iceland, with its striking basalt columns and stretch of black sand, but it’s also one of Iceland’s most dangerous, with sneaker waves and an extremely strong undertow, a one-two punch that will knock a person’s legs out from underneath them and then drag them to sea. Although warning signs have been posted and tour guides stress the importance of not turning one’s back to the ocean, people still are caught unawares and several have died. Even when we visited, there were people toying about at the water’s edge, because, I guess, do you even have a life if you don’t take the risk of having it violently ripped away from you by the freezing ocean? 

The basalt columns in the ocean at Reynisfjara Beach are known as Reynisdrangar. Icelandic legend tells of two trolls who decided to drag a ship to shore in the night, but the task took longer than they anticipated (darn that strong undertow!) and they were caught by the sun and subsequently turned to stone. Also basalt, the step pyramid on land is called Hálsanef and it looks like the entrance to the lair of the troll king if only the cleft in the rock went deeper.  Scores of birds wheel about the top of Hálsanef–we were here at the wrong time of year, but I hear it’s very popular with puffins. It’s funny, these two black sand beaches are so close to one another, but one of them feels like an epic scene straight from a movie, and one of them feels exactly like what it is–a stretch of beach behind a parking lot. 

The sands at Reynisfjara Beach were rockier than their brethren at Vík í Mýrdal, with large areas covered in smooth dark grey stones. I don’t know what came over us, but both Jason and I coveted these stones, and even though we never do this, we agreed that we could each pick one to take home. I know, it’s a bad practice: if everyone did this, or even if a lot of people did this it would dramatically change the characteristic of every wild place for the worse. I knew it was wrong as I picked up the stone and closed my hand around it and slipped it into my pocket. But that stone had a grip on me. It was somehow The Perfect Stone, so smooth, so dark, so symmetrical, satisfying to look at and hold. Precious.

 

After our petty thievery, it was time to board the bus and head back to the waterfalls we’d blasted by on our way in. We made it to Skógafoss just as the sun was starting to set–you may recognize Skógafoss from Thor: The Dark World or a handful of other films. When we arrived, we were informed that we wouldn’t have time to go up to the viewing platform unless we were comfortable with the idea of running both up and down the entire set of stairs. Anyone who reads this blog or knows me or could make an educated guess about my general fitness level based on the sheer amount of Lord of the Rings references knows that running isn’t my bag. Me running up and down those entire stairs at full tilt is exactly equally as likely to happen as it is for Chris Hemsworth to have shown up just then, in his Thor costume, solely for the purpose of carrying me to the top.

Sheep!

We inched toward Skógafoss: every inch of terrain near the waterfall’s “splash zone” was coated in slick ice, and the ground itself was covered in irregular large rocks, which were also slick with ice. It was like trying to walk on bubble wrap made of ice, and while my feet tried to slip out from under me a few times, thankfully I kept my balance. Ultimately, I didn’t want to get very close to Skógafoss–the icy mist pelting me from a distance was plenty, I didn’t need to soak my jacket through, sit on a cold bus for a while, and then walk to and from our dinner reservations when we got back to Reykjavík in my still-wet jacket.

Speaking of not wanting to soak my jacket, at our final stop, Seljalandsfoss, visitors can walk behind the waterfall itself, which sounds like a great idea in the summer. When I visited, someone would have needed to credibly convince me that a puppy needed my help to get me back there, so either all puppies in the area were safe and accounted for or no one there realized that was part of my skillset. Either way, I ventured nowhere near the waterfall because I was already cold to my bones. The little heating packets in my pocket felt more like holding the memory of warmth–a pale ghost that just reminded me how cold I was, the LaCroix of heat.

 

We boarded the bus for the last time, and it was then that things took a turn for the worse. A horrible storm kicked up and an accident on the road forced us to a halt. I can no longer recall how long we sat there, but the time for our dinner reservations came and went and we had yet to arrive back in Reykjavík–and we were still lucky, because the snowstorm got bad enough that the roads were closed behind us, and in that instance, we would have had to backtrack to the nearest town and try to get lodgings for the night. Moreover, it was looking increasingly likely that the storm was going to stick around for a while, which kicked off my anxiety about our flight potentially being canceled. 

Then it struck me. In my run-up to my previous visit to Iceland, I did some research into their story culture. In addition to Norse mythology (because Vikings), Icelanders have a strong storytelling tradition about elves. In a 1998 survey, 54.4 percent of Icelanders said they believed in the existence of elves. Plenty of people have mocked them for it, regardless of whether or not that survey accurately reflects the population in 2018, but Icelanders’ belief in elves isn’t nearly as pervasive as the nearly 80% of Americans who believe in the existence of angels and I don’t think that little tidbit makes it into the guidebooks for the land of the free and the home of the brave. Let’s at least be consistent in our treatment of invisible people! The book that I read about the elves, The Little Book of the Hidden People by Alda Sigmundsdóttir stated unequivocally that Icelanders do not believe in elves, and that the stories of the elves (or hidden people) were to help the people of Iceland deal with their extremely difficult circumstances. For example, back in the day when most Icelanders were peasants working the land for someone else, they were not allowed to marry until they had achieved significant financial resources, which wasn’t really a thing because nobody had a track record of paying peasants well–so if a woman were to somehow become pregnant outside of wedlock, well, a hidden person did it. Or, more grimly, if a child was to go missing in the harsh Icelandic weather, parents could console themselves with the idea that a hidden person had led their child off to the land of the hidden people, a prosperous place that would care for them for the rest of their lives, because the alternative was too horrible to consider.

Regardless of my day to day belief in the existence of elves, in my mind at the time I was convinced that our earlier stone thievery royally pissed off an elf since they are known to be touchy about stones and things they view as their property. When we got back to Reykjavík, Jason and I each took our perfect stones out of our pockets, sincerely apologized to the elves, and put them on the ground. And to be certain, this is just an anecdote with no scientific value whatsoever…but within 20 minutes of setting down those stones, the storm that was supposed to last for days completely cleared up. We missed our dinner reservations but made our flight and I got to eat another pepperoni taco sandwich, so all in all, I’d say the elves let me off easy, perhaps taking into account that it was a first-time offense.

 

 

*I’m fully aware how it’s really spelled.

Footsore in London

From our rental flat, we wound our way through Hyde Park, the largest of its Royal Parks, encompassing Kensington Palace and an artificial lake known as The Serpentine, which coils about a grove of trees like an overenthusiastic comma. Coming from Paddington, we entered the park directly adjacent to the Italian Gardens, a gift from Prince Albert, avid gardener, to Queen Victoria which is the sort of thing you can do when you’re a royal and don’t have to be fussed about getting out there once a week to clip the lawn.

And yes, this is a proper British lawn–the swaths of perfectly trimmed grasses that were a mark of British aristocracy and the current obsession of many a suburban American homeowner. I myself reached for a piece of this monarchist’s dream this year, which involved digging up some 800 square feet of cabbage-y weeds with a pickaxe, spreading yards of fresh topsoil, tenderly nurturing grass seed, and plucking out new tiny weeds by hand. I’m currently in the process of watching it all fall apart thanks to an industrious mole who has discovered how much easier it is to dig in the new topsoil and has decided to move in and have an army of industrious mole babies. (I can only assume, it’s hard for me to believe that the utter devastation currently occurring in my front yard is the work of just one mole, no matter how industrious.) 

Studded with lime and maple trees, Hyde Park also acts as a bird sanctuary, providing ample nesting grounds and places to hide from predators. No doubt, it’s spaces like these which allowed their population of feral parakeets to thrive since the mid 19th century. There were certainly a lot of them flitting about the park, a splash of lime against the sky or chattering from a branch. 

We walked the length of The Serpentine and then backtracked a bit to head in the direction of the Science Museum. There’s still so much of Hyde Park I haven’t seen–it’s so large, I didn’t even get a peep at Kensington Palace or Speaker’s Corner, where open-air public speaking, debates, and protests take place. Angela Merkel referred to Speaker’s Corner in 2014 as “the very symbol of free speech”.  I’m glad that this symbol of free speech and respectful debate exists, particularly as a corner of the same park where gentlemen used to duel one another with swords to the death over insults. It feels like progress for humanity. 

At London’s Science Museum, our foremost stop was at the cafeteria as usual, because it’s like we can’t face the prospect of learning without powering up with a 400 calorie dessert bar. But learn I did, about antibiotics and the history of mathematics and Morse code. If I’m honest, though, by this point in the trip I was a husk of myself from the lack of quality sleep and therefore not the most receptive to new ideas despite the amount of sugar firing my neurons and jittering up my blood. Thus, I spent a lot of my time in the Science Museum pretending I was a bitcoin trillionaire making a wish list for my birthday party on the moon.

I want one of these skull pipes.

I also want this silver fountain, which I would use to serve fondue. I would presumably also eat fondue a lot more often. When I got bored with it and/or fondue, I would use it as a cat’s water bowl.

An entire room of the museum was dedicated to an exhibit about the information age–the 200 years of progress to instantaneous communication. Among them was a Morse code machine hooked up to a monitor that taught visitors how to use it, and I immediately dove in and crafted a message for the ages with my dazzling vocabulary:

Next up was the mathematics room, exploring and celebrating 400 years of mathematical achievement. I have historically struggled with math as I moved into the more advanced subjects: I vividly remember my dad griping while he helped me with my homework that he’d hoped at least one of his kids would’ve had his talent with numbers. One of my math teachers looked at me perplexedly during a tutoring session, saying that she’d seen my IQ test scores and that she didn’t understand why I didn’t grasp the concept. Yet another of my math teachers instructed me to put a rubber band around my wrist and snap it whenever I made a mistake–I went home that day with my wrist striped with angry red welts. I used a college math final to test my psychic abilities because at that point, it was the only way I was going to pass as I’d been hopelessly lost since day one. (Verdict: I have no psychic abilities.) But it was one of my high school teachers who, bless his heart, tried so hard to reach me. I had no business in an advanced placement math class but this poor man did everything he could to usher me along anyway. He held tutoring sessions after school. He allowed me to re-take tests and I would still score miserably. At the end of the year, he awarded me with a certificate for “maximum effort”, which, delivered with the wrong tone could feel like a real slap in the face, but I knew he meant it sincerely. I didn’t keep much of anything from high school, but I still have that certificate because I appreciate how hard he tried and that he could see I was trying instead of just failing to achieve. What I’m saying is, Science Museum, I’d be open to donating my certificate to your exhibit to round out your collection.

 math skulls

I would like one of these skull watch fobs, please. And another of vibranium with gold vermeil for when I’m feeling fancy.

And also one of these.

And also one of these but with, like, either better dong or a tasteful thong over the dongs. Right now it looks like he’s wondering where it went.

And then we found ourselves on a bench seated opposite a display of clothing made using recycled materials. I was curious about what materials they were made of but was too tired to heave myself over there, so I did the laziest thing I’ve ever done: zoom in on the sign with my camera, take a photo, and examine the photo from the relative comfort of the bench. It was as I suspected: the bomber jacket is made out of stainless steel, so it’s going to be a 2057 must-have to camouflage ourselves from the murder robots. We spent some time on the bench dinking around on our phones, ostensibly looking for somewhere to eat in the area, but we couldn’t decide on anything so we decided to do a whirlwind one hour tour of the Natural History Museum next door before it closed for the evening.  

A placard identified this as Thomas Henry Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his ardent belief in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Huxley was a self-educated man who believed science should be for everyone–call me Huxley’s Bulldog.

There were fanciful wall carvings of various animals throughout the museum, making it the most ornate museum I’ve ever visited by a long shot.

Rollers are such cool looking birds. My favorite is the lilac breasted roller, which in addition to these striking blue and green feathers, has a hot pink chest and looks like it’s going to the fanciest garden party. Also, its hips don’t lie. I hope to someday see one in the wild so I guess I’m officially a bird person because I don’t think you can have a bird bucket list and not be one.

We made the absolute most of that hour, beelining toward Treasures in the Cadogan Gallery, featuring 22 objects of scientific significance, including original images from Audobon’s Birds of America book, and The Vault, containing glittering gemstones including the ostro stone and a cursed amethyst “stained with the blood and dishonour of everyone who has ever owned it.” Presumably the museum is only entrusted with it so as to avoid the blood curse. I tried to snap a few photos of some gemstones but they all turned out terribly. Perhaps the amethyst’s curse is in effect for beholders of the stone as well, albeit more mildly. 

I can say without a doubt that I absolutely walked past all of the displays in the Natural History Museum, but I can’t really say I saw them all. Or even most of them. It is a stunning museum and deserves more time for contemplation but I found it’s also absolutely worthy in a quick visit, an out of focus haze, fleeting impressions of a celebration of the world as it was and is and our place in it. 

As the museum closed, everyone was ushered out onto the streets. The air had grown sharp since our earlier walk though the park, and I shivered into my coat though inside I’d been roasting. Outside the museum hung scores of glittering strands of lights and, on the lawn, a seasonal ice skating rink. Wafts of heated cinnamon air informed us there was a street vendor peddling roasted spiced nuts nearby. We still hadn’t had a proper meal, so we bought a packet and parked our weary butts on a cement blockade to have a warm snack and watch people wobble and triumph on the ice.

We took the tube back.

The British Library, the Occult, and a Walk to Ye Old Cheshire Cheese

St. Pancras station

The Meeting Place, by Paul Day

I’ve read several critiques of this piece but not one of them bothered to mention the butt-sniffing so I’m not certain they even really looked at it.

Newton by Eduardo Paolozzi

Our day began at the British Library, where we luckily scored walk-up tickets to the new-at-the-time-and-now-gone Harry Potter exhibit. There were no photos allowed in the exhibit itself and my intention at the time was to sketch a little impression of each room for a more in-depth post but as you can see, that didn’t happen. It’s for the best, though–while a cruddy sketch would have helped to show the larger, Harry Potter specific themes of each room (the floating books and interactive cauldrons and talking herbology pots, there were separate rooms for eight different courses taught at Hogwarts), the true treasures were, of course, books and scrolls, and these cannot adequately be captured via cruddy sketch. 

The books were astounding. Even if I didn’t give a single shit about Harry Potter (which is obviously not the case), I would’ve loved this collection– fifteenth century lavish illustrations of plants and their uses, scrolls of alchemical theories, sixteenth century books on mythical creatures… I can only imagine how wonderful it must be to have full access to the books and see what other masterpieces hide inside. This feeling was compounded after we exited the Harry Potter exhibit and made our way to the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, “Treasures of the British Library”, which contained the most beautiful, ornate books I have ever seen. Books bound in fine leather, jeweled books, hand gilded books, one of the four remaining copies of the Magna Carta. Like, a first first edition of the Magna Carta if you know what I mean.

Aside from displays such as these, there’s no wandering about, getting lost in the stacks in the British Library as a tourist–in order to read materials, you must first have a reader pass, answer inquiries about what precisely you wish to read, and then best the head librarian in hand to hand combat. It’s furthermore my understanding that current head librarian, Roland Francis Kester “Roly” Keating, though slight of frame with salt and pepper hair and a kindly face, has gone undefeated in 2018*, soundly kicking the asses of scores of scholars unworthy to stand in the shadow of the sole manuscript copy of the poem Beowulf.

Even if you manage to defeat Roly, there is no browsing of the 25 million book archive, as only books you have a specific need for are delivered from a storeroom to a reading room for your on-site perusal. I’m not complaining, it makes sense to keep the grubby hands of the masses off of your national treasures, speaking as someone who once found a slice of cheese that had been used to mark someone’s place in a library book. But as a browser and a looky-loo, I do have to say that I wouldn’t have minded a peek at a storeroom. I had to satisfy that urge by wandering through both gift shops, and ultimately left with a slim volume on the nature of an aspect of the English language.

From the British Library, we began to walk in the direction of Ye Old Cheshire Cheese to meet one of my friends, who, incidentally, works in the library field. En route, I was pretty taken with this hotel’s mint green scalloped spires. Fun fact: the boxy chain hotel next to a grody strip mall in my town with an Expedia review of “I checked in and I saw a few bugs on the wall so I just killed them and was like whatever” has a higher nightly rate than this lovely one that’s kitty corner across a park from the British Museum, and this sleepy Seattle suburb has nowhere near 8 million items of historical significance. That’s even taking into account that our library is the place of the aforementioned cheese slice incident, but they haven’t even bothered to properly display this relic for future generations to appreciate. 

A shy block and a half from the British Museum lies the Atlantis bookshop, an independent shop stocked to the rafters with books on magic and the occult. Fun fact: every book you buy from an occult bookshop can and should properly be referred to as a “tome”. Just please refrain from sprinkling extra ‘k’s into your spelling of magic, that privilege and responsibility is reserved for 9th level warlocks and renaissance fair vendors. When first we arrived, there was a sign on the door informing us the owner had stepped away to make some tea and that felt like the most British thing that had happened the entire trip. Once she returned, Jason and I both found some really interesting books–my favorite was an ethnobotanical look at the oldest yuletide traditions and how they were transformed into the symbols we use today. Spoiler: the image of Santa Claus is deeply tied to magic mushrooms

Heavily laden with bags of tomes, we continued our walk to Ye Old Cheshire Cheese:

I love a good fancy gate.

This is basically what I want my backyard to look like.

Samuel Johnson by Percy Fitzgerald, 1910

We went inside to see if we could witness any justice being dispensed but alas they’d all sodded off to powder their wigs already. 

You know why I took this photo. You know.

There’s been a pub at this location since 1538. It’s been Ye Old Cheshire Cheese since 1667, rebuilt on site after the great fire of 1666 tore through a huge swath of London. Since then, it’s been a popular haunt of a number of writers, including Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. It does have a funky appeal with its short ceilings and narrow staircases that rather give one the impression that they are sneaking off to do something a bit illicit. Not like, secret underground street fights illicit, more like you’re going to a party that you heard about from a friend’s friend’s friend and they said that they heard from a cousin’s neighbor that there was, like, a mummy there and nobody knows if it’s a real mummy or not but you’re pretty sure you want to look at it.

Jason and I arrived early, winding deep into the cellars to grab a table and wait for my friend and her partner. While we waited, we had a pint, looked at our new witchy bookstomes, and chatted. After they arrived, we had some more pints, and witnessed the baffling concoction that passes as “nachos” at Ye Old Cheshire Cheese (I blacked it out from my memory but I’m pretty sure the salsa was just ketchup or maybe there were pickles in it? The other food was fine.). That night I also learned that it takes me only two pints to slide right into a faux British accent and not even know I’m doing it.  Jason told me that I’d done it later and I was horrified because I’ve heard my fake British accent sober and it’s terrible. They were both absolutely lovely people and were kind enough not to mention or take visible offense to my slight Madonna turn. This is just like in junior high when I sat next to the new girl who’d just moved to the area from Georgia at lunch and fifteen minutes and a Little Debbie later I uttered my first y’all with a twang.

We drank and chatted, and on our way out, we took a double decker bus back to King’s Cross, which is where Jason and I had started the day. This was my only bus ride because while I got the hang of the tube easily enough (there are maps everywhere, what’s not to get?), I feel like I have to have some sense of where I’m going when I’m on a bus lest I get off at an entirely wrong place and get so lost that I have no choice but to settle wherever I wind up. I feel like the biggest country bumpkin in the world to be excited about riding a bus, but they’re so damn iconic y’all. Cheerio!

 

 

 

*This may or may not be true, there’s no way to check it without library access and foolishly I didn’t bone up on my mixed martial arts skills before visiting. 

The Queen’s Walk & London Eye

Millennium Bridge

Hey, look, it’s The Shard!

After our second visit to the Borough Market and stuffed full of perfect sandwich, we elected to take the Queen’s Walk along the Thames toward the London Eye, aiming to arrive at the Eye near golden hour.  Along the way, Jason encountered his pal Paddington, and we hung out and watched a bubble busker for a while, his bubbles marginally obscuring the nearby “no busking” sign.

The London Eye is, of course, ridiculously overpriced (moreso if you elect for the fast pass option, which of course I did as I sensed the sun slipping away over the horizon) and an obvious tourist trap, but remains somehow utterly necessary nonetheless. It’s thirty minutes of sweeping views of London and people being shuttled throughout it: boats chugging along the Thames, trains slithering down the tracks, double decker bus drivers leaning out to yell at someone blocking the lane, all while the light changes and the perspective changes and at one point I made some kids jump up and down in delight in an adjacent bubble because they were waving and I waved back. 

It was after crossing the Westminster bridge and walking up Victoria Street a ways to get a drink that I, thoughtful human being who is definitely not an inconsiderate turdperson, realized I’d completely forgotten that I’d arranged with a friend to meet them at a pub in the outskirts of Covent Garden, and that somehow, with traffic at a standstill and the tube lines packed full of commuters, it was easiest to hoof it there. Upon arrival at The Harp, I discovered that it, like most London pubs I’d encountered, had a total capacity of about twelve people, with, loosely, a thousand people inside. I’m exaggerating but really only a little. In my experience, British pubs make American taverns look positively cavernous. It was at this time that I, turdperson, tried to cancel said meeting through facebook messenger at the last minute because the thought of screaming back and forth while sweating through our coats sounded awful. My friend said no, turdperson, we will just find a more suitable pub, and while it took four tries, we eventually found our way into Bulldog Bar, which sits atop The Clarence. We ordered cheese and bread, drank beer and chatted. He couldn’t believe that I’d not yet had a proper doner kebab, and after we parted I went on a bit of a mission for one and STILL haven’t had one because at the point where I was pretty well done walking for the day lay a questionable Indian takeaway joint, so questionable takeaway it was. But as luck would have it, I’ve already purchased another round of cheap flights back to London so I will have another shot…and let’s be real, this isn’t going to be the last time I’ll be back, either.

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.

 

Stonehenge: The Greatest Henge of All

Nearly all the common knowledge we hold about Stonehenge is wrong. Built by druids? WRONG. Used for human sacrifices? WRONG. Looking at older legends, it was also not built by Merlin out of stones hauled from Africa by giants, nor was it built by the devil to confound humanity. 

NO.

But we remain kind of confounded. Built by a culture with no written records, it’s clear that the site and stones are aligned to the sunset and sunrise of both the summer and winter solstice, though the significance of that is unknown. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the oldest components of Stonehenge are 5,000 years old, though numerous changes to the site have been made between 3100 BC and 1600 BC. The stones are all believed to have been dragged to the site, some from as far as 200 miles away, which makes the Sarsen stones seem positively local, having only been dragged a mere twenty five miles. The stones themselves have been discovered to clang at different frequencies which may mean, like the temples of ancient Greece, Stonehenge was made as a form of musical instrument. Excavations of barrows have revealed that in the Bronze age (which, in Europe, technically covers the entire period of Stonehenge’s construction, so it’s not exactly narrowing things down), it was used as a burial site. The “slaughter stone”, so named for the reddish water that collects in the depressions on its surface that was believed to be the blood of ancient victims seeping out, was not used for human sacrifices–not only is the water color attributed to iron in the stone, but the stone itself used to be standing and as such was a wholly unsuitable surface for your everyday sacrificial needs. 

In the early 20th century, funds were raised to preserve the area and prevent modern construction from encroaching on Stonehenge. These lands are now managed by the National Trust and have reverted back to grasslands gently rolling out from the site in every direction. Up until the late 1970s, people were free to walk through, touch, and even climb upon the stones. The sheer number of visitors (some 600,000+ per year) treading among the stones killed all the grass, which was replaced with orange gravel, and the severe erosion of the land led to the closing off of the direct site to the public.  Visitors now walk on a path surrounding the structure, the sole exception being during the solstices, when they are opened for direct access for the religious use of modern pagans–neo-druids and the like. 

You also can no longer drive directly up to the site–instead, everyone’s car and tour bus unload near the new visitor’s center, and everyone inside then jockeys for place in line for the site’s own shuttle buses up to the monument itself, two and a half miles away. It’s a distance that’s not unwalkable, but would have been challenging given the time constraints laid on us by the tour company, so we waited a little and crammed ourselves on a shuttle. Crammed is the correct word, if someone animated the scene, surely the shuttle would be bulging with various body parts pressed up against and flapping out of the windows. Almost immediately after the drop off site is the area where the path is closest to the monument, and is thus very crowded with people waving selfie sticks around, heedless of whom they strike. But as we walked around the monument, the people thinned out dramatically, making it much easier to take photos, contemplate history, and attempt to commune with ancient peoples.

Burial mound

The heel stone

All too soon, it was time to hop on a shuttle back toward the visitor’s center, where we walked around recreations of neolithic houses and learned where these ancient peoples kept their extra gift shop wares. I didn’t feel compelled to check out the gift shop itself, because I don’t need a plastic replica of stonehenge in a snow globe (and I would venture to guess that no one does, but they were doing a brisk trade anyway). Of our three stops, this was the lunch stop, and we just barely had time to eat a scalding hot pasty and visit the restroom before we had to get on the bus…and wait another twenty minutes for a different group of stragglers to arrive.

After they finally showed up, the tour guide reminded them that they should have been back earlier, and that this lateness was really going to cut into our time at Oxford. The reply? “You didn’t say anything to the late people last time, so you can just stop talking.” I think the entire rest of the bus muffled their collective gasp. I could have cut the tension with an authentic Stonehenge knife™ if only I’d deigned to visit the gift shop. Why, oh, why did I not visit the gift shop? This person did have a point–if you’re going to have rules, they should be enforced fairly. However, it’s really cruddy to see someone else’s bad behavior and use it to justify your own. The guide, to her credit, rose above and thus the start of our trip to Oxford was only a little awkward.