My 25 Euro Cornetto

I just missed my train and am drowning my sorrow in a giant cappuccino at the station café. Is there anything more depressing than a train station waiting room at 7:00am? Maybe the Reg bookstacks during finals week.

My original plan for this morning was to stopover in Florence for 2 hours before my train to Naples. I had already day tripped there last week but I did not get a chance to see the Galleria d’Accademia, which houses Michelangelo’s David. But this dummy here just had to stop to get the pisctacchio cornetto she spied in the bakery window, didn’t she? So now I get to spend two extra hours in Bologna Central Station – 25 Euro poorer and kicking myself over and over again for making such a rookie mistake. I am angrily chewing. The brioche should taste perfectly sweet and doughy, but all I taste is salt.

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Sometimes these were filled with strong rum cream. Venice was pretty great because of that.

I should rewind and first say, Buongiorno! Back in November, I spotted a $350 round-trip ticket from Cairo to Rome for January and I went for it. The great thing about working at AUC is that we get the American, Coptic, and Islamic holidays off, allowing me to take a 15-day (!!) vacation this month. What’s not so great is the little spending money I have saved up from my job. But through proofreading and babysitting gigs, I’ve managed to scrape enough together to travel quite comfortably for two weeks.

After five months of living in a Muslim country, I kicked off in Rome with a huge fanfare of prosciutto. Melon-wrapped prosciutto, prosciutto Panini, prosciutto and mozzarella sampler plate, cheap supermarket prosciutto on a 1Euro baguette – alas, I am now officially done with prosciutto.

From Rome, I went on to Florence and then Venice, which together constitutes the holy Trinity of any Italian trip. Though each city has a distinct individual history, they all are located in Northern Italy and you just feel the reliance on tourism in the restaurants, stores, and sights. Well of course there are natives (even native Venetians though they only number 66,000), but I couldn’t easily shake off the “Disneyland” vibe from any of those cities. If you will allow me a few myopic generalizations, Rome is for the famous monuments, Florence is for Renaissance art, and Venice is for honeymooners.

Thus, I’m dedicating an entire post just for Bologna because:

  • I think it’s under appreciated.
  • I had to hunt for the Bolognese tourist attractions amongst a sea of local spots, whereas the exact opposite was true for the Trinity.
  • There are already thousands of travel articles written about Rome, Florence, Venice.

I’ll definitely get that Bologna post up soon. Recently, a lot of my friends are planning trips to Europe and have asked me for backpacking advice. As I wrote my lengthy replies, I realized that I actually am qualified to share practical tips and design itineraries for 20-something kids who want an exciting yet affordable travel experience. A lot of travel sites with lengthy forums and discussions seem to be dominated by an older demographic and those with families. It’s probably because us youngins’ tend to wing it, which I’ve come to believe is always not the best way to travel.

But for now, I will say ciao to the North as I make my way South to the sun-drenched region of Campania. I’m planning on hitting Naples, Pompeii, and the Amalfi coast. It’s also going to be my first time Couchsurfing! Please pray that no pistaccio baked good will cause me to miss another train. Grazie.

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The coat of arms for Rome, Florence, Venice, and Bologna. Sorry Rome, but why are you so basic?

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In Memory of Disposable Kodaks

At the start of my romp around Europe in March of this year, I decided to pick up two disposable cameras in London. I was drawn to the challenge of capturing two weeks of adventure in less than 60 images. I really do believe in soaking up and being solidly present in the places I visit. I see too many people constantly glued to their cameras or phones, that they forget to see the world right in front of them with their own eyes, and not through artificial lens. Photography is amazing, but not all of an atmosphere or mood can be picked up in pixels.

When I walked back to my apartment from the Kodak store with my fresh batch of photos, I was actually smiling ear to ear. Something about the combination of anticipation and nostalgia in looking at pictures taken five months ago. It’s a new age (now, old age) time capsule, a blast from the past reminding you of how far you’ve come, and the fascinating places still left to be discovered. Aside from this fluffy stuff, here’s what I learned about taking pictures with disposable cameras:

Pros

  • They are lightweight.
  • You feel hip.
  • Instant vintage filter!
  • Everyone looks great because HD quality is not always a good thing.
  • It’s like Christmas morning when you pick up your developed photos.

Cons

  • Photo quality is hit or miss, especially for indoor shots. I only bothered scanning around 40% of all the photos.
  • You get called a try-hard hipster.
  • It’s expensive to develop. CVS was charging something like $18 a roll.

Overall, I definitely plan on using disposable cameras again when I travel. They’re a lot of fun and the resulting photos make beautiful souvenirs. I now have envelope stuffers for the letters I’m writing to my friends abroad who were kind enough to host me and show me around. The photos are also cheery decoration for freshly minted, post-grad millennial apartments.

I already sealed the pictures I took of my friends and myself into envelopes to be mailed, but I still have plenty from just around town. Now without any further ado, and in no particular order, I present my 2015 European Backpack Trip in twenty-one images! Click on them for closeups and occasional captions. Can you guess where each was taken?

Takasaki: The Iowan-Bellybutton of Japan

It was 1:00am. Technically a Thursday morning. My backpack straps were securely fastened into the marked indents on my shoulders. Under the alien-blue lighting of the train station convenience store, I browsed Pocky snacks of every flavor imaginable. Each box was only around $1. I knew then and there that I was in a good place. An out of breath, slightly shrill voice yelled my name from behind. I whipped my head around to see a tiny girl in blue-speckled glasses too big for her slim face, huffing at the glass entrance. Embracing in the middle of the potato chip aisle was the most comforting feeling I’ve had in months.

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The view from Takasaki City Hall.

Greetings from Takasaki, Japan! My saintly host and friend, Angela, who’s doing two years of the JET programme here, describes it as “the Iowa of Japan.” I’ve never been to Iowa, but despite the boring and slow connotations associated with Iowa, I think that “idyllic” is the best word to describe Takasaki, in the summer at least. Angela lives right by the river – a slow moving body of water cupped by twisting green banks with tall, shooting grass. There are always people riding their bikes along the raised sienna paths. Chatty bands of school girls off to cram class, uniformed office workers singing bar songs as they pedal home… it’s a view straight out of an anime.

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The first day, Angela let me be her shadow. We followed her JET friends to the mall to set up their phone bills and bank accounts. Later, Angela’s boxy white Honda was delivered to her apartment. Her apartment is very Japanese. In my crude American mind, I want to describe everything in Japan as shaped like a bento box. But it’s true! Even the tatami mats in her room are fitted together like Jenga blocks. I’m very happy to be helping her move into her new home and new life. I’ve seen many glimpses of friends’ post-grad lives over snapchat or skype, but it’s a real treat to live it with them in person. Finished the night with an absolutely stellar bowl of Hokkaido miso ramen and girly chats.

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Gyoza chilling in the back.

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The writer masters her craft in the early morning.

On Friday, we drove up one of the mountains surrounding the eastern edge of Takasaki. This area of Japan is famous for its decadent onsen (hot springs) and I desperately wanted a good soak. I forgot how much I love driving, especially in the countryside. At ikaho onsen (which doubles as a traditional Japanese inn), Angela and I were lucky enough to have the entire women’s onsen room to ourselves. The spring water looked a dark, murky jade and the entire experience felt like sitting naked in a cup of steaming green tea.

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After onsen, skin-a-glowin.’

That evening, I had katsudon at a family restaurant recommended by Angela’s former host mom, Yoko, who says it’s the best katsudon she’s ever had. Yoko has been all over Japan but has never found katsudon comparable to Kiyosumi’s. Washed down with a bottle of Kirin Beer, the egg-battered pork cutlet definitely hit the spot. If you’re into reading fiction books that explore the healing comfort of great food, I suggest Kitchen by Banana Yakamoto. Katsudon makes an extra special appearance.

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I drove an hour for this and it was 100% worth.

Saturday (this) morning, I finally finally finally had the opportunity to do a morning run somewhere that didn’t damage my lungs (I had started to develop a Beijing cough). Japanese people are quite active. May it be jogging, cycling, golfing, soccer practice – there were a fair amount of people up and about outside at 6:30am. Rising early rewards you with a luxuriously long, lazy morning during which Angela and I completed our first vlog. It’s basically fourteen minutes of us eating pudding and chatting nonsense. View at your own peril.

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Early morning traffic buzz even on a Saturday.

Now, I’m on the Joetsu Shinkansen (bullet train) en-route to Tokyo. Takasaki gave me slowness after almost two months of China mayhem, but I’m pumped to take in Tokyo’s neon lights and crowds. Harajuku, Shibuya, Shimokitazawa and more in 24 hours? I’m definitely down.

Hopping Through Central Europe: Berlin, Dresden, Prague, and Vienna

Memories really do fade quickly. Or maybe just the ones that weren’t that important to remember. I visited Berlin, Dresden, Prague, and Vienna over three months ago, but I must’ve been having way too much fun this last quarter of college to have bothered to document those experiences. By now, all that’s left is how my expectations for each city differed from the actual thing. That disconnect may actually be 68% of the joy of traveling.

Berlin, Germany

Expectation: Artsy, modern, great for history buffs, unfriendly to tourists, intimidating

IMG_2965Reality: Maybe I’m just used to “intimidating cities” because I’m a Chicago-girl, but I found Berlin to be the most American-like city that I visited in Europe. The architecture was glassy and sharp. The graffiti was edgy and reminded me of Pilsen street art. The food was so refreshingly affordable after a week in London and Paris (and had actual flavor!)

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Currywurst and fries!

The most impressive thing about Berlin was hands-down, the way the city marks its history. Topography of Terror and the Holocaust Memorial were both extremely well designed, informative, and grappled with the politics of national memory. IMG_2967

Dresden, Germany

Expectation: Free four hour stop over on the train from Germany to Czech Republic. Therefore no expectations.

Reality: The bombing of Dresden would have been considered a crime against humanity had the Allies lost the war. The city left the charred markings untouched on the buildings in memory of that event. I found out that the Dresden Academy of Art is a pretty big deal. The city is a weird juxtaposition of High Renaissance complexes and gleaming new shopping centers.
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Prague, Czech Republic

Expectation: My good friend’s girlfriend lives near Prague Castle. They filmed the Bachelorette here and it looked absolutely stunning. Milan Kundera’s city/country.

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Still from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, featuring the Prague Spring.

Reality: Prague and Paris are now tied in my heart. Though I could never taint my experience of Prague by aspiring to work there. No, Prague is a city in which to slow down, marvel, and share with a loved one. I’ve only ever had one other intense emotional reaction to a city before, and that was in 2013 when I walked along the Seine for the first time in Paris. This time, I took a midnight stroll from my hostel near Prague Castle, over the Charles Bridge, and into Old Town Square. That moment when the city widened before my eyes as I crossed the river, spotlit towers and an expansive sky framed by the Bridge’s stoic stone statues – I think I teared up.

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A courtyard in Prague Castle. Romanesque to Renaissance to Empire style- a living architecture textbook.

The cafes are also magnificent. The Czech tradition of fostering the world’s most beloved writers still prospers – and I bet those cafes have something to do with it. Czech food also is the best tasting in all of Europe in my opinion! It’s rich and tender and flavorful and filled with spices. Ahhh I fell in love with the roast ducks and potato dumplings and the nutella-filled spa wafers.

Cafe Louvre, where Einstein and Kafka were patrons.

Cafe Louvre, where Einstein and Kafka were patrons.

Many people’s number one complaint about Prague is that it’s too touristy, but my reaction was the complete opposite. Yes, the tourists swarm to the city, but the city’s hallmark cafes, streetcars, parks – they are all also well used by the locals. Perhaps it’s just a little hard to imagine how such a storybook place can still exist and function in the modern world. I did benefit greatly from having a local friend show me around. Any city is infinitely more well appreciated when the experience is shared with a great friend and/or someone who can show you the “real” parts of the place.

Colorful.

Colorful.

Fun Facts: 

  • Beer is cheaper than water at $0.68/liter (and it’s good Czech beer).
  • Cannabis paraphernalia is abundant
  • Strip-club industry is on the rise.
  • Europe’s premier bachelor party destination for the reasons cited above
  • Surprisingly large population of Vietnamese immigrants

Vienna, Austria

Expectation: Cultural capital for the performing arts, intellectual hot bed (at least historically), home of the largest collection of Egon Schiele’s works.

Reality: Kind of racist, stuffy, and elitist. The Egon Schiele Museum was bomb though. My favorite part of Vienna was the museum’s exhibition at the time that explored Schiele’s romantic relationship with his muse, Wally. It was the most personal depiction of an artist and his works that I’ve ever seen, and thus also my favorite. Read more about their relationship here.

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I know I sound kind of salty about Vienna but, I still had a grand old time because I was staying with my good friend. One of those friends with whom you can carry four hour long conversations and feel energized at the end instead of drained. Oh, despite the snootiness, Vienna really does have the best coffee in Europe. That melange…IMG_3134

All in all, Central Europe shouldn’t be skipped over! In fact, it should be a prime destination. It’s so affordable, so well preserved, and really quite different from Western Europe. I was kinda broke so I took the buses a lot, but if you get a chance, take the trains! You will be treated to a view of twisting rivers snaking through forested valleys and dotted with colorful homes. Leisurely train rides through Europe must have been modeled on the ones going through Central Europe. That dining car and its frothy cappucinos are just quintessential European Backpacking Perfection.

Brasil (Or Unexpected Encounters with my Inner Latino Fire)

Disclaimer: This was written in Brazil but it’s been gathering metaphorical dust on my desktop for a while. Please excuse the belated posting.

I can still taste the Atlantic salt on my lips. Digging my toes into Ipanema’s blindingly white sand is certainly a contrast to sitting in the Santos Dumant airport food court, sandwiched between the stiff fabric of Samsonites and the red plastic trays holding McDonalds. It’s ok, the grains of sand still lodged in various crevices of my body is enough of a memory for now.

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Today marks the end of my first venture into Brazil – home of the bikini, beautiful women (and men), Havianas, and more bright colors than I’ve ever experienced. The trip was made under the pretense of a university-funded business trek, but I’ve never been about all work and no play. In total, I spent four days in Sao Paulo and three in Rio de Janeiro. One week was definitely not enough. The feeling is akin to when you’ve just polished off two scoops of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream. You’re pretty satisfied but if you had more money, you’d definitely scarf down two more scoops with equal enthusiasm.

On Thursday evening of my last finals week ever, I ditched Chicago’s grey sleet for the lush greenery of Sao Paulo. Friends who’ve been have had varying opinions. Some lauded it’s cultural offerings, some waved at its sterile business vibe. All agreed that it is a true beast of a city.

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The sprawl is enormous but Sao Paulo’s buildings aren’t super tall.

Honestly, Sao Paulo exceeded my expectations. My first two days, I stayed at Café Hostel in the Vila Madalena area which I’d describe as the Wicker Park of Sao Paulo. Vila Madalena is nestled amongst several steep hills and features some of the best street art I’ve ever seen. Tons of art galleries, quaint bars, concept coffee shops, and boutique bookstores complete the Wicker Park-y feel.

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The view from the hostel’s balcony.

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A hipster neighborhood staple – that café that takes coffee as seriously as vineyards take wine.

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@coffeelab

At the end of the main Avenue Harmonia (think Wicker’s Milwaukee Ave.) was a beautiful cemetery, similar to many across Brazil with above ground family crypts and winding paths lined with trees.

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Despite its reputation for being a concrete jungle, Sao Paulo has little pockets of lush greenery as a reminder that nature can’t be completely conquered.

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@ibirapuerapark

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@trianonpark

One late night after a full day of visiting companies, a few of us decided to hit up Skye Lounge for a panoramic view of the city. There are a handful of spaces and moments wherever I travel that make me think, “How can a place like this possibly exist in the world?” Well, this was the place for Sao Paulo.

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You have no idea how difficult it was to capture the city lights with an iPhone camera.

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Seafood. Always seafood.

Rio’s just a short 45min flight from Sao Paulo. The coxinhas and papaya smoothies taste the same but Rio definitely moves more sensually – probably following the beats of live Samba more than the ticks of the stock market. And for sure, the curves of Rio’s women definitely mirror the curves of the landscape 😉

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I must have eaten three a day. Cheesey bread balls!

We stayed in Centro, near the famous Lapa district that is the historically bohemian hotspot of Rio (sensing a theme here…). Colonial style houses line the streets surrounding the aqueduct that the Portugeuse built in the 18th century to bring water from the mountains. I have never in my life been even remotely described as having a spicy, Latina fire, thus I didn’t expect to enjoy so much the liveliness of Rio’s late night eateries and Samba bars. There’s must be something in the air…

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….or something in this drink.

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Caipirinha is Brazil’s national cocktail, made from cachaca (a sugar cane based hard liquor). You basically mash lime and sugar together, then pour cachaca and some ice cubes over it.

I grew up brainwashed to believe that sun equates to wrinkles, but even this sunscreen addict couldn’t resist Rio’s beaches. The waves, oh the waves. For all its beauty, clarity, warmth – the Atlantic tosses you around a bit. “Respect the ocean,” my Brazilian friend’s mother had advised us. Ipanema definitely earned mine.

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I’m blessed to have experienced a taste of that Brazilian friendliness. I fell in love with the canga that the bed and breakfast lent us. A beautiful abstract representation of Rio’s beachfront and sun rendered in bright green, yellow, white, and blue. A bunch of vendors sold cangas along Ipanema but I couldn’t find any pattern that came close to it. Back at the B&B, I offered to buy the canga from the owner. But all she said was, “It’s your last day in Rio, consider it a gift from Magareida.”

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I believe that you have to visit the highest point of any city you travel to.

From the beach to the airport, from Rio to Sao Paulo, from finals week in the Reg to spring break in Brazil – life is peppered with these movements between extremes. That displacement is the addictive quality of wanderlust. My traveler’s high doesn’t come from any specific cultural atmosphere as much as it comes from the constant change itself. Constantly lost, constantly discovering, constantly being reminded of just how massive and different the world is from my little, individual perspective. Obrigada Brasil, por tudo.

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An American Girl in Paris: Part 3

I’ve officially now been to Paris more times than I’ve visited New York City. Then again, I’ve never been particularly drawn to the aesthetic of the Big Apple. Religiously watching Sex and the City is enough for me (snaps for you if you get the title reference). It’s one of those charming, life’s blessings to have experienced Paris in three separate seasons. I think I can do without trying Paris in the winter though – I hear the sun goes down at 4:00pm and after fall quarter, God knows that seasonal affective disorder is real. Anyway, being in Paris again felt so incredibly familiar. Each time, Paris is still a mecca for artists, it’s still incredibly stylish, its selection of perfectly baked carbohydrates is still fantastic – this city just perfectly fills the Eiffel Tower shaped hole in my heart.

Despite all that time clocked in Paris, this visit was marked by several firsts and I left with many things still on my checklist for the future. A mere five hours after arriving in Paris, I dragged my lazy-ass and my lovely host, Amy, up to Sacre-Coeur in Montmartre. Better late than never, right?

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But I’m also such a creature of habit. We went for my third time to Bouillon Chartier for lunch. It’s just such a rustic, typically French interior design with wall-to-wall mirrors and wrought-metal bulb lighting. Not to mention the free wifi.

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I took my last requirement for my Visual Arts minor last quarter on contemporary art and that made me all the more excited to check out Palais de Tokio. It went above and beyond my expectations. It also helped to share the experience with a cute art design school French boy. I know a lot of people are perplexed by contemporary art. Or more like, “What the hell is this crap?” But Palais du Tokio would impress even the most skeptical. From Jackass video installations to large-scale mechanical instruments powered by magnets to a freakishly realistic female robot, there is something for everyone. Outside of the actual exhibition space (which is huge), there’s also a café, restaurant, movie theater, and dance club. Everything is open late into the night. And is there a better time to experience art than in the creative vortex of after-sunset?

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Kenji Kawakami, the artist responsible for the famous series of “ingenious” inventions that went viral a few years ago, had his exhibition at Palais!

I finally found it, by the way. The best croissant in Paris resides at the Café St. Regis on Ile St. Louis. Dense and fluffy and warm – if this was the last croissant I ever eat, I’d contently state, “It’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.”

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Other than that, most of my time was spent visiting the museums for my B.A. thesis research and shopping for warmer clothes as I completely underestimated Europe in early April. Being from Chicago kind of does that to you – you think nowhere is as freezing as Chicago but actually you don’t have a monopoly on annoyingly cold temperatures in spring.

I always fit in a dinner and walk through Paris at night. It’s not called the City of Lights for nothing.

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Today also marks the one-week checkpoint of my trip. I don’t know how those people who go backpacking for months do it. I have already developed a persistent tickle in my throat and a dull feeling in my feet. It’s the middle of Easter Break for most of Europe. That means more tourists but also more young people traveling which then means more random friends to make on long train rides. Oh, I forgot to say where I am at the moment. I’m sitting on the TGV from Strasbourg to Mannheim, having successfully completed part one of my two transfers en route to Berlin. First time in Germany! I will have to remember to not jaywalk.

London, England: Second Time’s the Charm

My first time in London in 2013 did not leave a fantastic impression on me. I didn’t hate it, but I wasn’t supercalifragilisticexpialadocious-ly excited about it either. Of course, first impressions can be extremely deceiving and that’s why I try to give everything (everyone) a second chance. I’m glad I did because London did not disappoint. There are some cities with a world famous aesthetic. Like Kate Moss muttering “Get the London look” through her tooth gap, or the Spice Girls, or Kate Middleton, or Burberry with a pair of Hunters. But London actually fulfills all those expectations. So much plaid, so many trench coats, buckets of rain, and a lot of dry, sarcastic British humor when I asked for directions.

Me: Excuse me sir, do you know which tube stop is Camden?
Ticket Counter Guy: Yes.
[long, awkward pause]
Me: So… would you mind telling me…?

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There’s just so many famous landmarks in London. Haymarket is but one.

I stayed just one night at the Astor Hyde Park Hostel in Kensington (can’t seem to shake UChicago no matter where I go). A bit far from city center but it’s a charming part of London with beautiful royal gardens and several museums (which are all free). For less than two days, I packed in a lot of sights. I must have walked or stood an average of six hours each day, but with so much to see and do, time flew. Part of my B.A. thesis talks about the British Museum so of course, I paid them a visit.

A very stereotypical London street view from a very stereotypical English drawing room at the hostel.

A very stereotypical London street view from a very stereotypical English drawing room at the hostel.

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This could belong in the Reg somewhere.

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Possibly my favorite exhibit at the British Museum. It’s a piece on life and death (isn’t everything?), and part of it displays the average amount of pills a person takes during his or her lifetime.

When I was in middle school and high school, I had a phase when I was obsessed with Elizabeth I and the eight wives of Henry the VIII – way before HBO came out with the scantily clad and irresistibly good-looking cast of the The Tudors. So I got a little too sentimental crossing the Tower Bridge and walking past the Tower of London. Just realizing that that hole in the center was the spot upon which they used to spike a traitor’s head as warning, or that this was the exact sight Elizabeth saw when she was sentenced to the Tower on suspicion of plotting against Mary. I feel like twelve-year-old-Wendy would’ve tweaked out over this way more, but twenty-two-year-old-Wendy still got a liminal moment out of it.

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Speaking of twenty-two-year-old-Wendy and responsibilities, I also visited the London School of Economics. LSE is a prospective graduate school of mine with a great international affairs program and an even greater dual-degree program with Science-Po. It’s nice knowing that I’m getting more excited about the London half of that program, if I were to attend. I bought a tote-bag and a pocket version of Ovid’s The Fall of Icarus from the LSE bookstore. Fun fact – books are super cheap in Britain because there’s no tax on it. Similar to how there are government subsidies on wine and bread in France, what a country chooses to subsidize or tax can say a lot about where its priorities lie.

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I read my book in the student lounge. I love this book.

London has the posh, classic look, but one can’t leave out the punky, gritty teenage-urchin-child parts. And that’s what Camden Town basically is – tattoo parlors, red plaid, leather with studs, and piercings. And Converse. Converse everywhere.

Vintage cameras basically scream hipster.

Vintage cameras basically scream hipster.

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Though I’ve always thought of England as a little removed from the rest of Europe (it is an island after all), parts of London definitely fit the European mold. Little winding cobblestone streets lined with pubs and specialty bookstores, historic churches in every neighborhood, extremely well-dressed men – definitely quintessential Europe. I guess the fact that I could understand the language threw me off.

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London, you’ve been amazing. However, you’re still just a really great one-night-stand in comparison to my soulmate, my delectable muse, mon amour – Paris. She’s just a 1.5 hour ferry ride and 5 hours drive away. Be still my quivering heart…