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Monday, March 2, 2015

Travel Link-Up: Lost In Translation

I racked my brain for this month's travel link-up for stories on the theme of "lost in translation" - I really did. I scratched my head, scrolled through emails, recounted dozens of travel experiences ... but no funny/entertaining/bizarre or even mildly amusing anecdotes came to mind.

Well ...

There was the time my mom and I travelled to St. Petersburg and Moscow together (as my college graduation present), having also spent time touring Stockholm and Helsinki, and she continually mispronounced "spasibo" (Russian for "thank you") as "spice bomb". "Spice bomb!" she'd say loudly, beaming as a bowl of soup was placed in front of her at a restaurant. Or, "Spice bomb!" she'd exclaim, upon receiving her ticket for entry into the Winter Palace. Despite repeated attempts to change her pronunciation, I gave up and succumbed to the "spice bomb"-ing that happened nearly every time I was in earshot.

But alas, the mysteries of the "spice bomb" were not enough to carry an entire blog post.

So I decided to think a little "closer to home". I've lived in the UK for over 8 years now, and I'm proud to have kept my American accent (it's something I work on daily). I thought about all the times I've had to put on a fake British accent in order for the automated telephone system at Lloyds Bank to understand me:

Robot voice: "In order to direct your call, please say, in your own words, how we can help you today."

Me (normal American voice): "Using card abroad."

Robot voice: "I'm sorry. I did not understand you. In order to direct your call, please say, in your own words, how we can help you today."

Me (faux British voice): "Using cahhhhddd abrorrrrd."

Robot voice: "Using card abroad. Did I understand that correctly? Please hold, while I transfer you to a member of our team."

Me: (sigh)

And then, it hit me.

I was lying on my stomach on our bed, dangling my legs over the edge and watching an episode of House of Cards (last season, I nearly broke my neck binge-watching back-to-back episodes on my iPad. I seriously almost went to the doctor).

Enter John.

"Wydintchywatchitonthepiksie?" he said, at the door.

"Excuse me?" I asked, my eyes focused on the iPad.

"Wydintchywatchitonthepiksie?" he repeated.

I pressed pause and turned to look at him. "I'm sorry?" I asked again.

"WHY. DON'T. YOU. WATCH. IT. ON. THE. BIG. SCREEN?" he enunciated.

"Oh, thank GOD. Why do you MUMBLE so?" I huffed, and rolled off the bed, heading for our projector in the living room (yes, we've been watching TV and movies on our version of a home cinema ever since, oh, 2009).

Like I said, it hit me. SOMETHING GETS LOST IN TRANSLATION EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Between me and John. It's a combination of his accent (which is pretty much a "standard" English accent - no traces of Geordie, Brummie, or Scouse there) and his tendency to mumble.

(If we ever meet in person, ask me to do an impersonation. It's really good.)

My all-time favorite one is this: back in the day when we lived in Maida Vale and John thought it would be a good idea to "scoot" to Warwick Avenue tube station in the mornings i.e. on a scooter (like, the kind that children use), he decided to invest in one that wasn't, naturally, pink with purple handlebars or one that had Spiderman emblazoned all over it (this was sold on eBay after just under 6 months of ownership).

One morning, when we were lying in bed, and I thought John was reading the news on (as he often does in the morning), he exclaimed, "Mosquitos at Harrods!"

"Mmm ... that's nice, honey," I mumbled, burrowing deeper into the covers. "Is there a breakout or something?" In my semi-dreamlike state, I imagined women in furs screaming and running from a swarm of mosquitos following them from McCartney to McQueen.

"What?" he said, turning towards me. "I said, mosquitos at Harrods!"

"Yes, I know, darling," I said. "There must have been quite a swarm for it to have made headline news."

"MY. SCOOTER. IS. AT. HARRODS," he pronounced. "I. AM. GOING. TO. GO. BUY. IT. TODAY."

"Oh GOD!" I yelled, pulling the pillow over my eyes. "Why did you wake me up to tell me THAT?!"

Or the time he pointed out the window when we were driving along the countryside in Leicestershire.

"Look! A hit-ah-balin!"

"What?" I said.

"A hit-ah-balin!"

"What?" I asked again, still not understanding.

"HIT. AH. BALOOOOONNNN!" he shouted. "You need to get your ears checked."

I squinted out the window at the colorful object disappearing over the horizon.

"OH," I said. "A hot air balloon. UGH, can't you pronounce ANYTHING correctly? And, STOP MUMBLING!"

"I. AM. TRYING." he said, through gritted teeth.

Spice bomb.

This post is part of the travel link-up hosted by fellow bloggers, Rebecca, Emma, Kelly, and Sam. Head over to their blogs to read some hilarious (and, at times, traumatizing) stories and join the link-up yourself!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

24 Hours In Brussels: Travelling With Your Best Friend

Have you ever travelled with your best friend? Udita and I went to Brussels last week and had so much fun. BUT ... it was the first time we'd ever travelled together!

The trip was her idea: she and her husband (who's British!) were coming over for a quick visit to see his family and she texted, "Do you want to go to Brussels?" Slightly random, but okay - why not? So I booked our train tickets, found a dreamy hotel, and carefully scoured blogs for highlights to include in our itinerary.

On my way to meet Udita at St. Pancras to catch the Eurostar, I realized that this was the first time I'd travelled without John or my family ... which made this trip both fun and exciting. Mostly, I was looking forward to creating some new inside jokes with Udita because whenever we're together, for some reason ... hilarity ensues. EVERYTHING IS FUNNY. EVERYTHING. Heart-stopping, side-splitting, doubling-over kind of funny (in fact, she just sent me a list of the top 20 funniest moments from our minibreak yesterday, which included getting hit on by a bunch of Belgian businessmen at the hotel bar. Yep, married and still got it.).

Our moms think that we're friends because: "You're both Asian! And you're both so musical! You have similar upbringings by ASIAN parents. You both love to explore the world! But mostly because you're Asian." And, yes, while it's true that we met as standpartners in the Mount Holyoke orchestra, and ... we're both Asian-American ... the real reason why Udita and I get along so well is because ... of our love of celebrity gossip magazines. And reality television. We'd rather take a time out and flip through pages of the latest of issue of People (which we did a lot in college ... and which we might have done for a couple of hours on this trip - oops) than pretty much do anything else.

But mostly? We always seem to be on the same wavelength. Even over an ocean apart, one of us will text and the other will say, "OMG, I was just WRITING YOU AN EMAIL!" Mostly, we bring out the best in each other.

She's the one I'll call (and I have) at 3:00 a.m. when I'm upset and can't sleep. She'll sit in her car in a parking lot and FaceTime with me for an hour, just because I needed to hear her voice. She's also the one I share my triumphs with; the one who writes emails to me in all caps and exclamation points because she's so excited for me. And I will do the same for her.

Travelling with your best friend adds an entirely different dimension to your trip than say, if you were travelling solo, with your partner, or with your family. You might use that time to discuss things you wouldn't otherwise talk about (like whether or not Kylie Jenner had her lips done) or to experience a place or event that's special to you both (we loved the Musical Instrument Museum in Brussels for this very reason!).

On our final (and only!) night in Brussels, we had an extravagant dinner at Belga Queen (where you can order shots of caviar by the gram to enjoy with your oysters - yes, really). I sat across from Udita, who looked glamorous sipping a glass of wine with her blown-out hair and perfect makeup, and suddenly got misty-eyed.

"Look at us," I said, gesturing to our surroundings. "What do you think would have happened if we tapped the shoulders of college-us and told them that we'd be sitting in this fabulous restaurant, eating this fabulous food, living these fabulous transatlantic lives? We are so lucky."

And then I realized: we were so lucky to take this trip together. I'd always known that, even when I booked the tickets, but it wasn't until I was sitting there across from her, that I really, truly appreciated how fantastic it was to travel with my best friend.

It was a short, but sweet trip that I'll never forget. Until our next reunion in May, Udita! xo

Monday, February 23, 2015

24 Hours In Brussels: The Dominican

Although we were only in Brussels for a short time, I knew that I wanted to stay in a hotel with a bit of character, a touch of luxury, and a very convenient location, close to all the sights (and all the chocolate, of course) - The Dominican ticked all these boxes.

What initially drew me to The Dominican was its history and architecture; formerly a 15th-century Dominican Abbey and previously home to the French painter, Jacques-Louis David, the beautiful, high arches of the original building have been well preserved and seamlessly integrated into the modern design of the hotel's interiors. The lobby (or Grand Lounge, as it's called), with its sleek seating area (equipped with iPads and free Wifi) and jaw-dropping chandelier, makes for a grand entrance.

As for location, we were spoiled by The Dominican, as its central location meant that we could reach most places by foot - easily within 10 minutes or so (great for me because I'm lazy, and also because we had some initial confusion when trying to figure out the tram system!). We scoped out the seafood in Sainte-Catherine, wandered past the beautiful windows of antique dealers into the chocolate shops of the Sablon, and paid a visit to the Musical Instrument Museum on our last day.
And the rooms. Oh my goodness, the rooms.

When we walked in, we were greeted by soft Gregorian chanting emanating from the TV ... which we ended up leaving on during our whole stay! This, when piped into the bathroom as well, felt like a spa experience in itself (speaking of spas, I was dying to try the Finnish sauna and Turkish steam bath in the 5th floor spa, but we ended up vegetating in the room instead ... the rainfall showerhead was enough to feel like a treat after an afternoon of trekking around outside in the cold!).

And you know when it feels like you've been enveloped in the fluffiest of clouds just before you fall asleep? The pillows and duvet in the picture above definitely felt just like that. The courtyard offered a pretty view outside our window, while other rooms in the hotel (there are 150) overlooked La Monnaie, the opera house (so wish we'd had time to catch a concert!).

That evening, we went back to the hotel for a drink after enjoying a fancy, schmancy dinner at Belga Queen (which is less than a minute walk away from the hotel's entrance ... I had no idea it was that close, but Jess had suggested we try it, so we did!) - a live DJ takes residence in The Dominican's bar on Thursday nights and, while the clientele seemed to be mostly people on business (who had a few years on us), I could imagine that it'd be a fun place to hang out with a larger group of friends in the high season.

Waking up with slightly sore heads the next morning (champagne or chocolate overdose - I couldn't tell), we stumbled downstairs to breakfast, which I was really, really looking forward to.

Though it was raining in the courtyard to our left, I could have easily sipped tea and read a book in this gorgeous, tranquil dining room for the remainder of our visit, which really sums up the whole "feeling" of the hotel, if you will - a place that's beautiful and luxurious, but equally a place that I easily felt at home in.

The breakfast was all about fresh juices and fruit, champagne, eggs made to order, cold meats and cheeses (I love this part about European breakfasts - call me crazy, but I love having cold cuts, "schmeary" cheese, and a hunk of bread in the morning!), and of course ... waffles.

Needless to say, I did not skimp on breakfast (and yes, that's French toast in the corner too ... plus scrambled eggs and a sausage - don't judge) and Udita's day was made when she discovered passion fruit in the selection of fruit.

Staff at The Dominican were more than hospitable: printing out my Eurostar ticket for me when I realized that my return ticket was merely a blank page (nice one!), making dinner reservations for us, looking after our various chocolate-filled bags acquired from Pierre Marcolini, and helpfully letting us know when the breakfast buffet would be closing, you know, just in case we wanted seconds (which we obviously did).

Soon, however, it was time to leave, and I only wished we had at least another evening to enjoy at The Dominican. I'd love to return in the spring/summer when the weather's a bit warmer and we can take our drinks outside.

Until next time.

Udita and I were guests of The Dominican, which we both loved. Special thanks to Deborah for arranging our visit. I'd highly recommend this hotel if you're planning a trip to Brussels!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

24 Hours In Brussels: All the Chocolate. (And All the Macarons. And All the Speculoos.)

When researching what to do in Brussels, I (naturally) reached out to my blogger friends, Jess (Jess-on-Thames), Sandy (SMarkstheSpots), and Sunny (MostlySunny) for advice.

A reoccurring theme? Chocolate. Or, as Jess put it in her sweet email to me, "all the chocolate" (italics hers, not mine).

Udita dissolved into fits of giggles as she read the email out loud on the Eurostar: "We have to buy all the chocolate!"

This, I was told, could be discovered in the magical area of The Sablon (although we later discovered that chocolate shops are pretty much everywhere), which is famous for its chocolatiers and confectioners.

Our first stop was Pierre Marcolini, which had been included in virtually every email and tweet I'd received about Brussels. We stepped into the sleek, dark shop and were instantly enamoured by the delicate, bite-sized chocolates made from Venezuelan and Madagascan cocoa beans.

After a freezing cold (but delicious lunch) outside in Sainte-Catherine, we needed something hot to warm our cockles, so when I spied the chocolat chaud stirring in the corner, I ordered two cups for us to enjoy while we browsed the shop ... I think we both made it about halfway through our cups before realizing that one between the two of us would have been plenty - it was exquisitely rich and oh-so-divine!

While ogling the beautiful displays of chocolate, this adorable but quirky keepsake box (to be filled with macarons of your choice) designed by Olympia Le-Tan caught my eye. I decided that it'd make a great souvenir - a reminder of a fun and fantastic trip with my best friend.

I carefully chose my 12 macarons (including some intriguing flavors such as speculoos - a spiced biscuit similar to gingerbread - and bergamot) and turned for half a second to have a look at another display while my box was being wrapped. No sooner had I returned to pay, when I noticed that Udita had somehow managed to surreptitiously hand her card to the shop assistant instead! I protested loudly and we had one of our embarrassing, "WHY? STOP! NO!" arguments and I walked out of Pierre Marcolini feeling extremely spoiled.

I love the box as much as the macarons themselves; I plan to use it as a keepsake/jewellery box (perhaps a place to store our ticket stubs from the trip?).

From there, we made a beeline to Laduree, as I'd seen Jess's photos of the magnificent interiors before, but wanted to see them for myself.

Please tell me I'm not the only one who immediately imagines powdered wigs, fake moles, and strains of harpsichord music when walking into this room? I mean, we didn't even try to pretend to buy anything (okay, I picked up a couple of candles to sniff) - just gawked and took photos. But oh my goodness. This might be the most beautiful room I've ever stood in.

After reluctantly making our way out of Laduree, we headed to Neuhaus (first photo above), where Udita bought some crunchy hazelnut spread (just in case she runs out of her personalized Nutella) and we marvelled at the sheer range of colorful chocolate eggs.

From there, we timidly stepped into Patrick Roger - who had a decidedly artistic (if not, somewhat, acquired) take on chocolate and sweets:

Feeling slightly intimidated by the "Please do not touch" signs, we showed ourselves out after a quick tour, and headed straight into Maison Dandoy for some speculoos biscuits, which I purchased for John.

The shop smelled delicious; I can only imagine how festive it must be around Christmas-time!

By now, our chocolate high had waned, and we collapsed into a taxi with our copious bags filled with macarons, truffles, and speculoos.

Sprawled on the bed back at the hotel, my eyes about to close for an afternoon nap, I suddenly shot up and looked at Udita: "I didn't buy any chocolate!"

She started laughing.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Valentine's Staycation @ Artist Residence, Pimlico

I know it's a little late, but how was your Valentine's weekend? We don't usually celebrate Valentine's Day, but last weekend, John planned a lovely surprise (!) staycation at Artist Residence, in Pimlico. We headed over on the Friday and had a delicious dinner at the hotel's restaurant, 64 Degrees, before heading upstairs to our room to catch the Graham Norton Show (my favorite thing to do on a Friday night, sadly!) and to snuggle in thick, white and fluffy robes.

It was heavenly.

I loved the vintage furnishings in the room: from the trunks that doubled up as nightstands, to that reclaimed "Wash & Brush" door, to the impossibly small but chic mini Smeg fridge that stood in the corner - stocked with soft drinks and coconut water.

In the morning, we woke up to this pretty view of the rooftops across the street ...

... before ambling down the stairs to have breakfast in the restaurant's ultra-cool dining room.

During dinner the night before, we'd joked that that chefs of 64 Degrees and INK were actually brothers who had a fight and retreated to their respective East and West corners of London to open their own restaurants ... the tapas-style dishes at 64 Degrees were quite similar to those on the menu at INK with their textures (chargrilled octopus with daikon cooked in octopus juice and crispy rice, for example) and concepts. Still, we had a lovely time and the perfect window seat to ourselves, facing the street and watching the world go by as we shared portions of pork belly and kimchee chicken wings (yes, really - finger lickin' good).

Breakfast was equally delicious. Though I'd had a hankering for a thick stack of pancakes, our late start and impending lunch plans at Green Man & French Horn in Covent Garden meant that we needed to keep things light ... so naturally, we shared a full English breakfast and a side of sourdough toast with jam and marmalade. Totally light, right?

Unfortunately, they'd run out of beans (and I was tempted to run across the street to bring back a can from the corner shop), but we were plied with extra eggs and I was in lurve with the toast: melted butter in all the right places.

After requesting a late checkout so we could flop back into bed and watch TV, we took a romantic walk through Belgravia and Green Park, where I found my dream street:

... before sharing a bowl of moules mariniere together at Green Man & French Horn and heading over to (and this is where the day gets very "John") for a romantic tour of ... the Houses of Parliament. Followed by a romantic afternoon tea at ... the Houses of Parliament.

But in all seriousness: the tour was really interesting (it also made me want to be an MP, but then I wondered whether or not Americans could be an MP, even if they became British citizens). I'd highly recommend it if you haven't been before. And the tea at the House of Commons Terrace was a sweet (if not slightly formal and serious) way to end the afternoon.

Sometimes, it's so nice to be a tourist in your own backyard. Kudos, John, for planning a super fun but unique, last-minute Valentine's getaway! I loved it.

Monday, February 16, 2015

7 Steps to Growing and Maintaining Your Blog Readership

I've written before about how supportive and inspirational the blogging community can be, but have I mentioned that it can also be a little ... competitive?

I am. So. Not. Into. That.

Sure, I'll have an occasional peek at my post views and try to increase my Facebook following (if only because I like to share funny photos of American bald eagles superimposed onto the American flag), but I'm not into competing for campaigns, amassing over 5k Twitter followers, or being at every single blogger event that's happening in London.

Not really.

I'm kind of lazy. So I'd rather sit in my fleece robe, with my trapezoidal feet shoved into a pair of UGG slippers, slathering peanut butter onto a toasted sesame seed bagel and writing about family heirlooms. Which doesn't get very many page views.

That probably means that my blog isn't very "successful", but my definition of having a successful blog is much more than simply reaching a wide readership ... it's about the quality of engagement and encouraging existing readers to, well, you know, keep on reading (so thanks for coming back!).

In the spirit of competitiveness, there are bloggers who feel like blogging tips are their secrets to keep. Nuh uh. Blogging tips are my secrets to blab. I learned this from my blogging friend and idol, Runawaykiwi, who didn't hestitate to share everything she's learned about pitching, photography, social media, and more. But then again, Rebecca's incredibly generous.

So, in the spirit of sharing (and since I've newly embraced the title of "blogger"), I've compiled my top 7 tips for growing and maintaining your blog readership and shared it with the Bookmachine publishing community. Take a look at what I have to say here.

Because I believe that sharing is caring.

Friday, February 13, 2015

A Special Valentine's Guest Post: The Secret Life of Angloyankophile ... by Mr. Angloyankophile

Do you know the REAL Angloyankophile? There are almost 600 posts here which form a picture - but is it a true, and full one? 

For example, how many ChattyFeet socks does she own? 

There are many lovely pictures among these pages, but what about the out-takes? 

Most importantly, does she ever eat IN? 

From my vantage point as Mr 'ophile, I thought I would fill in a few salient details that have mysteriously not made it onto these pages:

J├Ąger-what? - Meeting Ms 'Yankophile for the first time while at university, I was struck by the tales of her drunken antics at her college, Mount Holyoke. 

Falling asleep outside the club after too much beer on her birthday - impressively British! 

However, over time some further important context has emerged. 'Too much' in fact meant, basically the neck of ONE beer. And the time of said disobedience? As far as I can make out it was about 8pm; with the party having kicked off half an hour before. 

In short, Angloyankophile is the worst (or maybe the best) drinker in the world! A sip is all it takes...

(h)Angry - You all know Angloyankophile as sweetness and light, sugar and spice etc. You think that's all? Just try her if dinner is running 20mins late. Shrift is short, stares are stony and a rage over something trivial is never far away. It's enough to terrify. In fact I'd better put the oven on ...

Intimidating - This one's probably not so surprising, but have you tried spending most of your time with someone who is an accomplished business person, musician, blogger, speech maker, speech writer, and has more friends already in her adopted country than most of us do in their own?! It's pretty intimidating, (could I mean irritating?). Don't worry, for the good of humanity I try to take her down a peg or two when I can ...

Mountainfearing  - At various times I notice Angloyankophile posting photos of the brooding and spectacular Mount Rainier as, variously: 

a) a picture for a blog post on the beauty of her home town;

b) the cover photo on Facebook or Instagram;

c) evidence of her undying love of nature. 

These are falsehoods. 

Angloyankophile is neither at all awestruck by mountains, or interested in walking on, climbing up or sliding down them. Below is a better representation of her 'true spiritual home':

Ear plugs at the ready - One other topic that seems to have been strangely neglected in the blog posts among these pages is Ms 'Yankophile's COLOSSAL SNORING. Seriously; where does it come from?! I don't know, but when she gets into full swing, resistance is futile.

'SLH (small luxury hotel) only please' - Angloyankophile was recently nominated as one of the UK's top travel bloggers - presumably for her fearless, independent voyaging across the globe. 

Call me a pedant but I think something has gotten lost in translation. For Angloyankophile's real outlook on travel, think Hilton instead of hostel, BA rather than backpacking, spa not Spartan. Left to her own devices I think she'd spend most years in the same resort in Thailand (even getting her there took weeks of persuasion!). 

Mr and Mrs Smith would be proud - but come on, the odd cockroach never hurt anyone!

Footsie - Angloyankophile never shows her face on her blog posts to protect her anonymity. I'll tell you one other thing you'll never see: her bare feet. Ballet shoes put paid to that; they are now more trapezoidal than feet-shaped. Sorry. 

Arachnophobia (the phobia, definitely not the film) -  You'd assume that with such a vibrant social life, trendy friends and hobbies (disclaimer: I work in finance, so to me pretty much everything is trendy to me), Angloyankophile would also naturally have a great taste in films. 

I think she would, except for one major issue - she is totally chicken! I'm not talking about horror movies here; I think she had nightmares from Monsters Inc. So it's a Disney diet for us...

Brilliant - And, in addition to all that, she's - well - brilliant. 

Happy Valentine's Day everyone!

- Mr Angloyankophile

Well, there you have it. All my secrets revealed: from trapezoidal feet to my "colossal snoring" (I highly doubt this, by the way, though the foot thing is true). Thank you, sweetie. Happy Valentine's Day :)