Albertopolis: why it’s good to marry Queen Victoria

Back in London and back to school — 60% done with my semester all of a sudden — so here’s a short update on the week so far.

  • I got back to London with essentially no major problems in transit — other than that I actually got to Paddington before the first tube of the day actually ran! However, I made a rookie mistake and slept from 9 am to 3 pm on Sunday, throwing all of my various schedules completely out of whack. I have not yet totally recovered! (The jet lag did give me a chance to plow through House of Cards on Netflix, which I recommend if you have it.)

A happy moment from the trip home

A happy moment from the trip home

  • The weather in the first part of the week was excellent, with two (rare) days of nothing but blue skies. Tuesday’s class architecture trip was to “Albertopolis” — the museums and other cultural buildings in South Kensington that were organized by (and built in memory of) Victoria’s husband Prince Albert. In case you were unaware she was extremely in love with him, which is reflected in his absurdly gaudy monument in Hyde Park.

Seems about right for a Prince Consort

Seems about right for a Prince Consort

  • We walked past Royal Albert Hall to the Victoria and Albert Museum, which is a massive and spectacular collection of all sorts of trinkets and items from history. Despite spending an hour there on Wednesday and another half-hour there yesterday (when I confirmed that it was a short half-hour walk away), I’ve barely scratched the surface of how much stuff there is inside.

The impossibly beautiful chandelier in the main entrance of the V & A

The impossibly beautiful chandelier in the main entrance of the V & A

What a nice day it was

What a nice day it was

  • It’s taken a lot of energy to try to get back in the swing of things but I’m making progress. Plans for my trip in March-April are beginning to come together (one month away, somehow!). My friend Haley who you may remember from adventures in Milan is in London for the next five days so I will be exploring a bit with her, I’m sure. Tomorrow we’re going to see a match between Fulham FC and Stoke City FC — if you’re in the States, you can watch live on ESPN2 at 7:30 am! (I’m sure this offer appeals to many of you…)

A fro-yo place in South Kensington — Harry Potter readers will understand the meaning

A fro-yo place in South Kensington — Harry Potter readers will understand the meaning

All for now.

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A sad week and two days in Parliament

Hello, all. This has been quite a difficult week for me and my family. After a sudden recurrence of cancer, my grandmother passed away this morning. She was 79.

I am returning to the United States tomorrow, assuming the non-intervention of this enormous blizzard, to be with my family. Being across the ocean as this sad situation played out over the last week was very difficult, but I’m sure it has been much tougher on my mom and her family. She is at peace now, and we can take some comfort in that.

Amidst this chaos I did do a few Britishy things. Specifically, I visited Parliament on two consecutive days — Tuesday with my London Architecture class and Wednesday with my History of Parliament class. This was actually kind of neat, as we got two different takes on the same material (my history professor helpfully muttering to all of us after each cute story from the tour guide that its contents were “complete nonsense”). On Tuesday they were debating the gay marriage bill in the House of Commons, which we couldn’t see but was still very cool to be near. We were also taken up on the roof which presented some spectacular and rarely-seen views of Big Ben.

Big Ben up close and personal

Big Ben up close and personal

The second tour gave us the chance to enter both the House of Lords (very ornate) and the House of Commons (much less so). Neither room has the capacity to seat the entire house (only about 450 of the 650 MPs could squeeze into the Commons if necessary) and so we actually encountered an MP putting her name on a seat for the Prime Minister’s Questions that would take place later that day. The entrance to the Commons chamber is guarded by a spectacular statue of Churchill — hands on hips, gut sticking out — but sadly no pictures were allowed past Westminster Hall (the oldest part of Parliament, constructed by William II around 1090 and the location of the trial of Charles I, among others).

Another roof shot.

Another roof shot

Wednesday afternoon I visited the British Museum for the first time, partly because I will be writing about it for my London Architecture class. I had forgotten just how much I loved ancient Egypt as a kid (and apparently I still do), spending about an hour in that section and another hour with the ancient Greeks. Cool to see the Elgin Marbles, which were accompanied by helpful leaflets from the museum explaining why there is no way in hell the Brits are giving them back to the Greeks. I also met this fun statue of the Egyptian falcon god Horus, who I am now convinced is my spirit animal.

The Pharaohs were said to be Horus in human form, so if anyone would like to make me King of Egypt I can submit this photograph as evidence

The Pharaohs were said to be Horus in human form, so if anyone would like to make me King of Egypt I can submit this photograph as evidence

Anyway, I think that’s all for now. I just got back from venturing out to see Silver Linings Playbook — the only serious Oscar contender other than Argo that I have yet to see — so perhaps I will report soon on the strangeness of English cinema. Otherwise, a bit of packing and journey planning tonight. Tomorrow I will be flying to Philadelphia on British Airways and will be back in America for a week, which will be very strange in its own right. I am looking forward to being home and seeing my family again.

Cardiff, the Borough Market, and Sutton United

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve already been in England for a month! What better way to celebrate then by leaving it? The highlight of the last week was my day trip to Cardiff, Wales on Friday — but let’s take things in chronological order.

  • On Wednesday afternoon I went to the National Portrait Gallery, which was excellent. Have you ever looked at a history textbook? Well, if there’s a picture of a historic figure from England, the source is almost certainly a painting that hangs in this Gallery. It’s a fascinating collection of five hundred years of changes in government and, perhaps more importantly, fashion. (Ruffs have gone out of style, I think, which is too bad for Queen Elizabeth I.) I also attended a UCL basketball game in the evening, which is the topic of my Columbia Spectator column today.

The Brits are totally on top of this "Super Bowl."

The Brits are totally on top of this “Super Bowl.”

  • Thursday saw a trip to the “Borough Market” on the recommendation of my Aunt Diane. Located south of the Thames, near the London Bridge and the brand-new Shard tower, the market is a collection of all different types of butchers (dead animals hanging everywhere), bakers, jam-makers (elderflower and gooseberry, anyone?), fresh produce, cookies and candy, wine (incl. chocolate wine which was odd), and much more. I had a lamb-burger and mulled cider for lunch, but really just enjoyed the atmosphere — this is clearly a popular spot among Londoners. 

oooooh jam

oooooh jam

  • I rose early on Friday to head to Cardiff, an easy two-hour journey west by train from London’s Paddington Station. It was a beautiful day in Wales, which it must be said looks exactly like England only with marginally more sun. At least, that was my impression of Cardiff. The most jarring difference is that there is a bunch of gibberish written below all of the usual English signs in the town, which I take it is Welsh. Welsh looks like nonsense words and sounds like it also — I didn’t hear anyone speaking it on the street, but some of the videos in museums were bilingual, and Welsh sounded like someone hacking up a lung. 

what is this nonsense

what is this nonsense

  • The primary destinations on the day were three museums. The first was the National Museum of Wales, which featured some Welsh painting (underwhelming) and artifacts (fascinating) — there were also some paintings by Monet which were quite beautiful. I visited “The Cardiff Story,” a small museum tracing the history of Cardiff from a relatively small and worthless city to the capital of Wales. Very modern and interactive. But the best was Cardiff Castle (Castell Caerdydd) where I spent over two hours. Audioguides are a great invention — I slowly paced around the grounds, which include walls reconstructed on the site of old Roman fortifications, a Norman “keep” dating back to the 12th century, and a Victorian manor house constructed by one of the rich owners of the property. There was also a museum of the history of the Welsh soldier, where the Welsh guide deduced I was from “the States” and subsequently proudly pointed to a regimental banner the Welsh stole captured during the War of 1812. 

Steep hill + moat + archers = this would be difficult to capture, I reckon

Steep hill + moat + archers = this would be difficult to capture, I reckon

  • By this point, it was 5:30 and getting dark, and I decided to walk about thirty minutes from the city center to Cardiff Bay. This was a bad idea, as it almost immediately started raining and made me an extremely unhappy camper. I checked out the Senedd (the seat of the Welsh National Assembly), the “Dr. Who” experience (expensive and closed), and the new Millennium Centre concert hall (grand). I walked back to town, rain thankfully completed, and enjoyed a wild boar burger at a British joint called Gourmet Burger Kitchen (like Shake Shack, sort of). I ambled about for a little while longer — lots of people were out and about, as the next day would be the kick-off match of the rugby union “Six Nations” tournament and the streets were filled with pregaming Welsh and Irish. (One bonus point if you can name the other four nations!) I was back in my room in London by 12:30 am, exhausted but glad to have made the effort.

Cultural understanding

Cultural understanding

Facade of the Millennium Centre

Facade of the Millennium Centre

  • The next morning I headed back out to Sutton to get lunch with my Aunt Joan. We were joined by her friend Elizabeth — despite the distinct age gap between me and the rest of the party, it was quite a fun time. We went to a restaurant at Epsom Downs (a racetrack) which I had been to with Joan and my family in 2010. The food remained tasty and I tried a “shandy,” a drink that is about half beer and half carbonated lemonade.

Joan and I

Joan and I

  • Following lunch, I went to watch Sutton United F.C. play some soccer football. Sutton plays in the sixth division of the English league system; they are the approximate equivalent of a low-A or fall league baseball team. The pitch was little more than a muddy field — I was told that they had had several games postponed due to the field quality — with a stand on one side and something resembling a long dugout on the other side. The advantage, of course, is that I could hear literally everything going on on the field, and it was interesting to watch a real neighborhood team in action. I bought a yellow-and-brown scarf in the club shop; in the course of the exchange it was again deduced that I was “not from this country” but this and the minor faux pas of wearing an Arsenal hat while talking to a Tottenham supporter did not diminish their hospitality. And despite the cold I stuck it out until the end, Sutton scoring from a penalty kick (42′) and from a corner (85′?) to outlast Eastleigh (who scored a pointless goal in the 90+5′) – 2 to 1.

Sunset over the main stand

Sunset over the main stand

That’s more or less all for now. I had my first coursework due today and was up late writing it. Only two more days of class this week and then, somehow, I’m halfway done with my courses here?! I don’t have any class next week for reading week so Wednesday commences an eleven-day break. A good time to explore. I’m thinking of all of you back at home.