Friday, August 1, 2014

Date Night @ London Ghost Bus Tours

The first time I watched the horror film, The Ring, at my friend's apartment, I made her accompany me to the bathroom (and basically any room for the rest of my stay) and we had to sleep with the lights on for the rest of the night. I still haven't been able to watch The Shining all the way through, and I regularly plan zombie-apocalypse escape routes in my head (FYI, I'd be totally screwed in my current ground-floor flat. Not enough time. Last year's top-floor abode would have been ideal). So when London's Ghost Bus Tour invited me to hop aboard their spooky ride around London's most haunted sites, my first question was, "May I bring a friend?"

Of course, I took my trusty, unflappable-by-ghosts-and-or-zombies sidekick AKA my husband, who cites 28 Weeks Later as "one of the best movies, like, ever - especially the opening scene" and made it into a sort of date night, since his uncompromising work schedule has made it difficult for us to see each other lately (boo. Not scary, "BOO!" but ... yeah).

A bit like being thrown into an episode of Jonathan Creek, the London Ghost Bus Tour serves its purpose as a good, light-hearted and entertaining tour of London, with a twist.

The tour departs from Northumberland Avenue - just a stone's throw away from Trafalgar Square - on a black, refurbished original Routemaster bus, also known as the "Necrobus". I had to run for the bus from Covent Garden because I overstayed my welcome with a glass of red wine (oops). When I got there, I immediately spotted a shadowy, ghostly figure occupying a seat on the lower deck of the bus before realizing it was John. My bad.

Onboard, we were serenaded with creepy music throughout (reminscent of haunted fairground rides - my favorite, which is ironic I know, given my fear of all things scary) and a coffin-like interior, complete with velvet shades, flickering lamps, and dark red upholstery. So far, so macabre.

The bus trundled its way around popular monuments and sites of historical significance, whilst the "conductor" gave all the gory details of murders, hauntings, executions and the like. A few comedic moments featuring an unexpected guest provided full-on (not to mention long-lasting) belly chuckles from the crowd of Americans behind me (oh, we're an enthusiastic bunch, aren't we?). And I'm not sure what was more entertaining - the comedic interludes, or the expressions of passers-by outside (especially as the bus did a slow drive-by of pub-goers enjoying the warm summer's evening).

I won't spoil any surprises, but there are a few laughs and scary surprises aboard the London Ghost Bus Tour - nothing that made me clutch at John in terror, but certainly some that created a slightly hair-raising atmosphere. For historical enthusiasts, some little-known facts are also revealed, which make the tour useful for future pub quizzes as well. 

If you're a first-time visitor to London or want to combine some sight-seeing with spooky stories (and rest your tired feet), then the London Ghost Bus Tour is for you - winter would be a terrific time to take the tour, as the evenings get dark around 4 pm and you'll (literally and figuratively) feel the chill up your spine as the bus winds its way around the darker corners of central London. Tours depart promptly at 7:30 pm and 9:00 pm and last for approximately an hour and a half.

I was generously hosted as a guest by London Ghost Bus Tours. For more information on tickets and times, visit the London Ghost Bus Tour website.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Top London-centric Twitter Accounts and Newsletters to Follow

I love the diversity of Angloyankophile readers: some of you are friends of mine from college who read my blog from the US (thank you!), some of you are strangers (but friends in this capacity!) who read my blog from the US and the UK, others are expats living in far-flung countries, and one of you is a family member (hi Mom!).

However, I also know that some of you who follow this blog are either 1) thinking of moving to London 2) new to London or 3) moving to London imminently. So, I thought it would be helpful if I did a round-up of my favorite Twitter and email newsletters to follow as a Londoner. These are accounts I've found to be extremely helpful, fun and/or interesting during my time here in London - and I think you might like them too! I wish someone had clued me up when I first moved here, but I discovered these on my own and thought that I should, you know, spread the love.

So here goes: - this is the first Twitter account and newsletter you should subscribe to if and when you move to London. They handpick a selection of interesting and unique events (not stuff you'll find splashed across tube ads or newspapers) every day and send it to you in one, concise email. The emails are always a pleasure to read and even if you don't intend to attend any of them, they'll still make you go, "Huh! That's going on? How cool!" Whenever I find myself at a loose end, I consult Londonist for cool things to do - they do a special weekend edition too and the majority of events are either free or very affordable!

@londonisyours - this is a Twitter account that is curated every week by a different Londoner who gives his/her perspective on living in the city. I had the opportunity to be a guest curator last year and loved it. It was so much fun sharing my London and you meet some terrific Tweeters through interesting conversations.

@SkintLondon - similar to Londonist (but with an emphasis on free or very cheap events, hence the name), SkintLondon tweets free events and giveaways happening in London on a live, right-here-right-now basis. For example, they've tweeted about the free "tea dance" (whatever that is) that's happening in Spitalfields today at 12:30 pm. Random, yes, but possibly fun, no? It's a terrific way to stay connected to what's happening in London - especially if you're on a tight budget.

@londoneating - for someone who loves food as much as I do, London Eating is a vital account to follow on Twitter. I learn of most new restaurant openings (not just trendy, East London ones) via London Eating and the reviews (not to mention the food p**n images) in my Twitter feed always make my mouth water. - and while we're on the foodie path, Grub Club is one of my favorite food-related newsletters to subscribe to. It's essentially a directory of pop-up restaurants that are currently open in London and you can book and pay directly from the website. You might be dining at a Michelin-starred chef's home one night or enjoying a low-key brunch in a disused building the next day - I love the originality of it all.

@ESgoingout - this is the Evening Standard's (a free, weekday evening newspaper handed out to London commuters on their way home) arts, food, and culture Twitter account, which gives great suggestions of where to ... well, go out. From fine dining recommendations to ballet reviews, this is another wonderful account to add to your list of Twitter favorites.

@Townfish_London - once you become a seasoned Londoner, you can trade London recommendations by following this Twitter account, where London-centric questions for suggestions are retweeted and answered by helpful, like-minded Tweeters. A word of warning: some of the questions can be really random and others frustratingly vague, but it's always a good feeling to help out and/or share your favorite spots in London with those in need of a good recommendation.

Emerald Street - this is a daily newsletter from the team behind Stylist Magazine - London's (and other UK cities too, I think?) free, women's lifestyle magazine which is distributed on a weekly basis. The copy is witty, vibrant, and fun to read. Designed to give women a much-welcomed, mid-morning break from work (it's sent around 11:00 a.m. every week day morning), the content varies from a round-up of the best seasonal sale picks to book reviews and new restaurants/cafes to try. While it isn't solely London-based, it fits into the London lifestyle really well.

These are my personal favorites, but have I missed any? Let me know in the comments below!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Do You Listen to Music to Cope With Your Commute?

Everyday after work - before I even open the office door to leave - I make sure my earbuds are in and my song is selected so I can press "play" as soon as the door swings open and I step foot onto the busy London pavement.

Abnormal? Dangerous, even? Perhaps, but listening to music is the primary way I cope with stressful city living. I couldn't imagine getting from point A to point B without a song to accompany my stride.

Once, I left my headphones at home and was so anxious about the possibility of having to take the tube from Oxford Circus tube station (arguably one of the busiest tube stations in London during rush hour) to a dinner, that I actually had a panic attack and ended up walking/taking the bus to my destination - tacking on an extra 40 minutes to the commute.

Big city living is anxiety provoking: living in London is often like running on a hamster wheel non-stop. If you do stop, the wheel will just take you with it, much like these poor guys (I make it sound so appealing, don't I?).

"I don't think I like London very much," confessed Debbie, a friend of my parents who was visiting England for the first time. "I mean, I loved York, I loved the Cotswolds, but London is just ... so busy. Plus, people walk at you from all different directions! I find it very stressful."

As someone who suffered from anxiety attacks throughout childhood (I was even checked for stomach ulcers around the age of 8 or 9), it's no surprise that I agreed with her sentiment. The difference is, I like living in such a big city - I just find ways to cope with the stress.

"I don't know how you do it," my friend Alice said as we walked home together one evening (this is after I ran breathlessly up to her from behind and tapped her on the shoulder saying, "OMG. I'm so glad I found you. I left my headphones at home." before realizing how incredibly rude that sounded - haha!). "It would freak me out not to hear all the road noises or the birds chirping in the morning."

And I totally get where she's coming from. If I lived in the countryside - like, from John's village in Leicestershire, for example - I'd never wear my earphones. I'd luxuriate in the clip-clop of horses hooves on the country roads or the gentle purr of a tractor making its way to a field. Heck, I might even learn to distinguish one bird call from another.

But the fact is that I live in a frantic, frenetic, pulsing, intense city - not the calm, slow-paced confines of the countryside. Music makes it all okay: the people too busy checking their phone to walk straight at me, the group of builders cat-calling me from across the road, the loud argument that's taking place on the corner between a man and his partner, the skin-crawling sound of a motorcycle engine being revved only a few feet away, the constant, angry honking of car horns on High Holborn, the aggressive dogs barking at the end of scary-looking chains held by scary-looking owners ... all of this disappears when I've got my music in.

I walk more confidently. A lot calmer. I'm able to react to situations with reason and sense (up to a certain extent - ha!) rather than anxiety and emotion.

Of course, I recognize the dangers of walking around with my headphones in. I try not to listen to my music at too high of a volume (though the point is sort of to drown out my surroundings) and I won't cross the street without waiting for the little green man to appear and looking both ways.

But I simply wouldn't know how to cope without my premium Spotify account or my trusty in-ear Sennheisers.


p.s. I covet this pair of BB x Frends headphones from Bauble Bar.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Plane Etiquette 101

Mm hmm. Oh yeah. I'm going there. You can't say you're surprised, are you? After all, I fly internationally at least three to four times per year. You knew this was coming.

On Sunday, I found myself in an empty row of an Air Canada plane, ready for takeoff. This had never happened to me before. At least, not on an international flight. I anxiously craned my neck into the aisle, hoping against hope that someone wouldn't come bumbling on at the very last minute and say those tragic words, "Um, I'm in there" while jabbing his/her finger towards the window (or middle) seat. In these situations, I usually stare straight ahead at the seat in front of me, silently willing the person approaching my row to not stop at my seat, until the inevitable occurs and I have no choice but to unbuckle my seatbelt and let them in with a tight smile but passive-aggressive sigh.

On this occasion however, the captain announced, "Flight attendants prepare for takeoff" and I was safely ensconced in my own little row. Score. I looked around guiltily at the other full rows (though mine was not the only semi-empty one) but simply thought it was karma to make up for the sadness I had experienced earlier in the morning after bidding my family farewell and the fact that I'd have to endure a whole week of living in an empty flat while John was away for business.

I started gleefully plotting my sleeping style in my head. Yes, since it was an overnight flight, I had hit the total jackpot: sleeping while lying down (obviously this is only an issue that people who travel in economy grapple with). Should I raise the armrests once the seatbelt sign had been turned off and immediately go for the fetal position? Or should I prop myself up at the window seat and stretch my legs out on the empty seats while enjoying a film with my meal? The options were truly endless.

20 minutes into the flight, I was happily reading my Kindle when a blond head of curls poked around from the seat in front of me. "Excuse me," she started, and a kind of dread rose in my chest. 'Don't do it,' a voice warned in my head. 'Whatever she asks, don't do it. It is bound to backfire on you just like it's backfired every single time you've done something nice for someone on a flight. Remember the time you offered to switch seats with someone so he could flirt with a girl because you observed a budding romance occuring? And you were left with a man who snored so loudly, that the people five rows in front of you turned around to stare as you helplessly shrugged your shoulders and mouthed apologetically but insistently, 'It's not me'? Or the time you switched seats with someone and ended up sitting across the aisle from a man who basically turned to cough directly in your face every few seconds and you ended up contracting tonsilitis two days later and had to pay $140 for a doctor's visit because you no longer had health insurance coverage in the US but your throat was so swollen you could barely swallow? REMEMBER THOSE TIMES?'

"Yes?" I replied brightly.

"Um, my TV screen isn't working so I was wondering if we could all trade seats? Like, all three of us [at this point, she pointed to her two girlfriends on either side of her who all looked like they were going on a gap year abroad to Thailand in their harem pants and barefoot Birkenstocks look] would move back and you'd just move forward to this row?"

I pondered this for a second. I would still have an entire row to myself. That was all that mattered. What harm could it do?

"Sure," I replied after a few seconds, as I stood up to let them through.

"Thank you so much!" she chirped gratefully, as she and her friends slid into the row.

I settled into my new place and opened my Kindle again when I saw a flash of bare flesh appear at my left elbow. Seconds later, two other pairs of wiggling toes appeared in between the middle and window seats to my left.

You have got. TO. BE. KIDDING. ME. Was this really happening? Did I just ... am I being punished for my good deed? Oh yes, yes I was.

"This is great!" I heard a girl squeal behind me. Yes, it's so much fun when you can stick your grimy (yes, there was visible grime) feet into the seats in front of you for the girl who just did you a favor to enjoy.

So, any sane person would have just turned around and said politely, "Um, excuse me, would you mind removing your feet from the armrests? Thanks." But I thought this might be a little bitchy, especially since (and I left this out the first time around) I had previously denied her request to move because I thought she had meant I was simply trading a single seat in front of me before I realized what she had actually meant and tapped her on the shoulder again to agree (but this had seemed too long to explain above, so I'm SORRY IF THIS IS CONFUSING).

Instead, I sat and stewed angrily for the next hour or so until ... the food cart came along. Ah yes, the food cart: here to save the day. There was no way they could physically eat AND keep their feet up, could they? I tested this for myself by putting down a tray and attempting to yoga-extend my left leg over the tray and mimic eating (no I didn't really, but for the purposes of this post, it's much more entertaining to imagine me doing so - I actually just envisioned the whole thing in my head). No, while physically possible, it certainly wasn't comfortable.

So as soon as the food was served, BAM! Those armrests went up, baby. But you know, I felt BAD for putting them up. WHY DID I FEEL BAD? WHY DID I FEEL BAD FOR NOT LETTING THEM PUT THEIR BARE FEET NEXT TO MY ARMS AND POSSIBLY MY FACE?

After the meal service, the lights dimmed and I got to work arranging myself across the three seats for a long nap. It was worth it in the end because I was able to sleep for four hours during the 8.5 hour flight, but I still felt guilty and annoyance for feeling guilty.

Planes, eh? Always a struggle. Seriously, though. Never do anything nice for anyone on the plane becuase it'll backfire in your face. Sometimes, literally.

p.s. having said that, I once traded seats with a woman's husband on a flight from Madrid so that they could sit next to each other and ended up being upgraded from business to first. That was a real win. But 1 out of 10 is still a risky business, IMO.

Vancouver International Airport: Botanic Garden or Airport? You Decide.

The prettification of international airports over recent years has astounded me. For example, the new(ish) revamp of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (AKA SeaTac) sees vintage planes suspended from the baggage claim hall, oversized stained glass artwork, and floor to ceiling windows which let in much-needed light to the previously dark and cavernous terminal buildings.

And while it isn't the first time I've flown to Seattle via Vancouver (Air Canada flights are almost always cheaper than British Airways direct, non-stop fares, though it means a short layover and 30 minute connecting flight in Vancouver), I've never been happier to see the sight that greeted me there (above) when I stopped over in the airport last weekend.

Still tear-stained and a little sniffly from saying goodbye to my family at SeaTac security, the tranquil (and all very real! No artificial leaves used here) garden scene that greeted me after passing through security YVR cheered me up a little (that and I spied Hermes and a Longchamp concession not too far away, which helped distract me as well).

I managed to take a snap of this incredible aquarium, which I hadn't seen before:

I seriously could have spent hours gazing at the mesmerizing display of fish and sea anemone. I'm a nervous/anxious solo traveller anyway, so I deeply appreciated these extra features near the gates which helped take my mind off of things for a bit.

It's nothing compared to Koh Samui airport, however, which is akin to a luxury beach resort (minus the beach). The "gates" are housed in little huts positioned around the runway and you can literally put your feet up in a comfy straw chair whilst sipping complimentary fresh juices and helping yourself to cake, fruit, and an assortment of Thai snacks. Ding, ding, ding - winner! Hanging baskets of flowers dip from the ceilings of these huts and you're just encouraged to chill out, relax, and zone out. The nice lady at security even offered me aloe vera for my extremely burnt nose from one of the bottles a passenger had left behind. I was actually a little sad to board my plane after that magical experience!

What's your favorite airport?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

I Dream of American Sandwiches

I'm experiencing the worst jet lag ever after this flight back to London. I think it's a combination of the hot and humid weather, the fact that John's been travelling for work all week (I don't sleep well when he's away and start at every sound I hear), and the general lack of adjustment to GMT but my eyes pop wide open at around 12:30 a.m. and stay that way until, oh, 3:00 a.m. or so.

Lately when insomnia strikes, I've just been lying awake and thinking about all the foods and beverages I wanted to eat or drink in the States but forgot (or ran out of time) to have, namely: chicken tenders dipped in honey mustard sauce, mac 'n yease (vegan mac 'n cheese) from one of my favorite Tacoma eateries, Quickie II, tacos from the local taco truck, sandwiches from another Tacoma favorite, MSM Deli ('MSM' stands for Magical Sandwich Makers - I kid you not), a Jamba Juice smoothie, a so-thick-your-cheeks-hurt-from-slurping-it blueberry milkshake from our downtown burger joint, an onion ring tower from Red Robin ... the list goes on and on.

These foods aren't particularly healthy or even that tasty, but they're certainly far more indulgent (in terms of calories, at least) than what I normally consume in London. I did, however, have a delicious chicken and avocado sandwich on marble rye bread served with a cold, crunchy pickle on the side and a super refreshing raspberry iced tea from A Spoonful of Sugar (yes, there's a prevailing Mary Poppins theme throughout) in Milton.

I miss American sandwiches so very much. I miss having the choice of bread (aside from "white or wholegrain"), more than one slice of meat, and that ubiquitous crunchy pickle on the side. And Lays. Barbecued Lays. I don't think I've had Lays potato chips since field day at my elementary school. My brother ordered them to go with his chicken salad sandwich (which I also greedily eyed) and I commandeered the packet immediately (he let me - he's so nice).

I hear there's an American sandwich shop in East Sheen called Pickle and Rye (see? Two of my favorite American sandwich ingredients) and I am determined to make the trek over there to try them out. If I eat another limp sandwich with funny tasting bread and mayonaise from Pret-a-Manger, I might just ... I don't know. I'm being over dramatic. Forgive me. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

I Left My Heart In the Pacific Northwest

Ugh, you guys. To say that I have the post-holiday (or post-vacation, for all you Americans out there) blues is an understatement. I flew back to London from Seattle via Vancouver yesterday feeling sadder than sad. I was (and still am) down in the freaking dumps. I feel like the little boy who's crying outside my flat window right now because he was dragged from the park by his mom and dad when he was just having some fun.

Last night, I went to bed at 9:30 and woke up thinking that I had slept for hours on end and that it was at least 5:30 a.m. I was so sure of this, that when I gleefully picked up my phone to check, I actually sat right up in bed in shock/horror that the glowing screen read a smug 12:30 a.m. right back at me. Curses, jet lag! Curses!

To begin with, I sat on this deck with my family every night, chatting about nonsense and watching dragonflies dive bomb my brother's head until the sky turned purple and slowly slid into darkness:

I basked in the hot, dry heat of a Puget Sound summer and watched my dad barbecue chicken wings on that very same deck as the sky broke open and relieved us of the heat by pouring down a fragrant, summer rain. I sprawled out in the director's chair above, listening to the wind chimes at our front door and wondering why that familiar sound never followed me to England.

Everything seemed old and new all at once. When it grew dark outside, my brother and I retreated indoors to watch back-to-back episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, a low-budget children's program which aired on Nickelodeon in the 90s that my brother routinely watched every Saturday while my parents made Chinese hot pot. We'd watch until the commercials, run out to stuff a piece of Chinese broccoli or a fishball in our mouths and jump back onto their bed, huddling in a blanket together like a big and small rock. This time, I still hid my face behind the blanket like I did when we were 5 and 10.

I touched everything: my old coloring pencils, secret diaries, and photo albums. I re-read my high school yearbook.

I watched the beautiful, majestic Mount Rainier appear and disappear as we ascended and descended the hills of Small Town, USA. My small town.

I left strands of hair scattered in the downstairs bathroom sink and my bobby pins everywhere. I didn't bother to clean up.

We played a game after dinner: my brother would ask my dad, "What were you doing in ..." and he'd insert a year. I found out fascinating things about my dad's childhood and recorded snippets of them on my iPhone so I could listen to them later.

I sat on that deck and closed my eyes, imagining the airplane seat I'd occupy six days later - smelling it, sensing it, grieving the loss of that moment in my mind already. I just looked at FlightAware online - that flight-tracking website - and burst into tears at the words, "Origin: London Heathrow, Destination: Seattle-Tacoma Intl, Duration: On The Way!"

What I wouldn't give to be on my way, right now.

I miss you too much.