Saturday, December 27, 2008

XVIII: Christmas is all around

Christmas just isn't the same without family. And until this point in my life, I've always been so used to the epic family parties and goofy traditions (like the annual talent show), that it was always easy to take it for granted.

But this year, being in London away from so many people that I love, I found myself thinking about family quite a lot - giving presents at midnight, karaoke with the cousins, eating lots of filipino food... even the little idiosyncrasies like how certain family members would always fall asleep on the couch or stay glued to the television. These things were never a big deal before - but now the memories have become so endearing, particularly because my participation in this year's family party was reduced to an online Skype appearance. Which reminds me... I should really thank my uncle for including my digital face in the Christmas pictures.

I think a huge part of the seasonal cheer over the last few weeks just seemed to be absent around me, despite all the Christmas decorations and holiday greetings everywhere. I've had a consistent stream of coursework to do and nothing really familiar or worthwhile to distract me. (Reality TV is not my idea of a worthwhile distraction... more like an act of desperation). So again, like Thanksgiving, I was really missing people. And if it weren't for Kim coming down to London for the week, I probably would've been in quite the rut.

It helps that there are two of us here going through the same thing. And so we made sure to make it as special as we could... even though we both sort of agreed that it didn't exactly feel like Christmas.

Anyway, we didn't do too much over the last week. We barely even left the house. But at least we went out to see the Christmas Market in Hyde Park.

And discovered a 2-story Tesco near Earl's Court where we bought most of the ingredients for our Christmas feast.

Then for Christmas Eve/Day... we cooked... and ate... and ate some more... and cooked some more... and watched a TON of movies in between.

Christmas Eve

Christmas Day

This morning's breakfast:

There was actually much more food involved than what is pictured here... but I didn't do a very good job of being photographer this week.

Besides realizing that "Father of the Bride 2" was on TV today, the highlight of our week was probably when we exchanged gifts and discovered that we had gotten each other (at least) the first book of the Twilight series. Could we be any more nerdy? (BTW- this picture was taken after a very long day of cooking and eating).

All in all it's been an interesting ride. If nothing else, Kim and I discovered how extra-fabulous we are when we're in the kitchen together, or when we decide to make music videos of us lip syncing Christmas songs to send to everyone as a holiday greeting.

We've received a lot of life-changing news from people in the last few days, the best of which (in my opinion) involving Becky's Christmas Day engagement. And now that it's nearing the end of the year, I'm beginning to look back at 2008 with a sense of awe, for so much that has happened to us and the people we care about in the last 12 months. It's been intense... and the holidays have really reminded me to be grateful for all the amazing things that have taken place this year.

I think I might be ready to welcome 2009 with open arms... but I'll save my thoughts on this for another blog entry in a couple weeks.

I know this will be my last entry of the year.. because as I type Shawn and James are en-route to London to meet me and Kim. Tomorrow night, we'll all be heading to Edinburgh to bring in the New Year.

With that said, I'll end on one last thing:

I love you...

See you in 2009.

Monday, December 22, 2008

XVII: Start Wearing Purple

I'm so glad I didn't break my nose this week. But I definitely bruised it.

I went to a Gogol Bordello show with Helen at the Roundhouse in Camden on Thursday night, and I now know EXACTLY what it feels like to be repeatedly elbowed in the ribs and slammed against a metal barricade while the feet of crowd surfers fly dangerously within inches of kicking me in the head. It was amazing... and exhausting. Long live gypsy punk!

The best part was at the very end... when Eugene (the lead singer) walked onto the floor and asked Helen if she wanted to join him backstage. I couldn't believe rockstars actually did that. As I wasn't directly invited, and given that she's probably the band's biggest fan next to the band members themselves, I didn't want to be the third wheel anyway, so I left it to her to go entertain him. I went home... battered and bruised, but super excited and happy for her. (And no, apparently nothing too dirty happened between them... just a couple snogs and the exchanging of personal e-mail addresses.) Cool, huh?

Oh Eugene, you Ukranian cad!

There's been a lot of punk rock in my life lately. Besides seeing Gogol, I also went to a small punk show on Monday night at the Underworld - an old, dingy venue right in the middle of Camden Town. The place reminded me of a much cooler Cobalt Cafe, but not quite as hip as The Whisky. Actually, it might come pretty close to Paladino's, except underground - literally (a basement bar). Some of the bands were better than others... JB Conspiracy was ska punk and just awesome - they've toured with Rancid, so yeah. But American band Guttermouth, who I had never heard of before that (shows what I know about punk) was a little too intense for my taste.

Either way, I had a good time. It was for a first date... with a Brit... who is pretty awesome. He is a 27-year-old college graduate who likes cupcakes and Thai food, owns his own flat in South London, is friends with Reel Big Fish and knows a bunch of people who can potentially hook us up with free concert tickets. He's a proper dark-haired gentleman, who wears Converse and hoodies. I'm kind of surprised he exists. But that's all I can really say about him for now.

On Tuesday night, CT was in town. He stopped by London on his way home to Simi for the holidays so we went out for a semi-touristy night on the town (I only say "semi" because he's been here before on multiple occassions). I met up with him around dinner time at The Generator Hostel, an accomodation arrangement which was by my recommendation of course.

And in case some of you are wondering - the Generator is exactly the same... except now you have to ring the doorbell or slide a keycard to get in. The bar and Turbine are as tacky as ever, made even more visually explosive by the metallic Christmas decorations. And yes brothers, they still have the meet & greet. It was very, very, VERY nostalgic - especially when I walked past Valencia's on the corner and Pizza Paradise across the street.

For dinner, we went to the Founders Arms... then we went hunting in Putney for a quirky pub that CT thought he'd been to when he was in London years ago. It turned out to be a different pub with the same name - The Jolly Gardener's. But he said it was actually better than the one he went to. Consequently, it's going on my list of "places o' fun," and if it weren't so far away I'd probably become a regular - especially because of the comfy chairs, super friendly bar staff and the oodles of board games available for anybody to use. They also have quiz night! It was good fun!

Besides all this stuff, I haven't really done too much else except impose house-arrest upon myself so I can finish my essays. As of tonight, I've finished my theory essay, 3/5 of my human image essay, none of my production and discourse essay, and half of my digital tech essay. It's not easy attempting to write more than 12,000 words in a week and a half. But hopefully I'll be done by Boxing Day (the 26th) and I can rest easy for the rest of my holiday. There goes Christmas...

It's a good thing Kim arrived in London today so I can take frequent breaks and have someone to be merry with this week. AND, I know she'll understand when I go into "serious study mode."

This way, I can actually take productive friend-bonding breaks instead of "stop and watch British reality TV" breaks... which by the way, is officially my favorite way to spend weekend afternoons. I've got the schedule for the best ones memorized:

2:30 - Dickinson's Real Deal (Channel 1)
Oddly enough, this is an antique show. I never cared about antiques until I started watching this show. Basically, random people come on here, try to sell their stuff to dealers, but if they don't like the offers, they take their stuff to auction. It just amazes me what people will spend their money on. On the last episode, this guy sold an old talc container with a picture of The Beatles printed on the front for 60 quid. 60 QUID! FOR AN EMPTY CAN!

12:30 - 101 Challenges
The hilarious Scottish brothers Lee and Leslie Vine take us on a journey across Asia where they try and complete a total of 101 kooky challenges submitted by viewers. Last episode, they participated in a Chinese Acrobatic circus, studied kung-fu wall climbing, and arranged a 101-person conga line down the Great Wall of China. They even stopped over in the Philippines to try some balut. It doesn't get better than that.

12:20 - Unsigned Act
It's like American Idol or The X Factor - except with bands.

1:25 - Relentless
By far the best reality TV show of all time. Participants of this show are put through miserable/embarrassing/highly awkward situations for a chance to win 3,000 pounds of cash. For 48 hours, they are followed by hidden cameras - forced to do crazy stunts in order to receive and answer quiz questions that could help them win the money. But it's not that simple... dun dun duuuun. The guy who was on today had to sing the lyrics of "I touch myself" in a crowded rugby stadium. He also had a question stamped onto his ass without him knowing it... and was forced to drop trou in front of complete strangers to get it answered.
Wow, I'm really not doing this any justice. Just look it up online and watch it for yourself. It's fantastic.

I can't believe I've spent so many words talking about reality TV. I'm so lame.

Friday, December 12, 2008

XVI: Viva la Vida

It's been a while since my last blog entry. In the last two weeks, I've done the following:

- spent way too much money with my American friends at Chili's in Canary Wharf, spurred on by a bout of homesickness, after which we all decided it was worth it if only for the skillet queso and molten chocolate cake.
- tried my hand at making arroz caldo for the first time (which was easy and delicious btw).
- finished 3 presentations, including one home-made wikipedia and one home-made video that my professor has since called "impressive" and "ingenious." I am a bad ass, I know.
- gotten drunk after class with friends and aformentioned professor. (He is gay, fabulous and has a striking resemblance to Hugh Jackman!)
- had an average of 4 cups of tea per day to keep me going...
- developed an addiction to Nero white mochas
- learned how to properly fingerpick "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" on guitar... this is what I did whenever my brain started to hurt.
- kept craving cheeseburgers, which I have since learned to eat with salsa - it's the most fantastic thing ever.
- applied for an internship at the Institute of Contemporary Arts London (I haven't heard back from them yet)
- hung out with Aleem - I know, crazy, right? I didn't even know he was coming until the morning he arrived.
- went to Edinburgh to visit Kim
- saw Coldplay in concert
- almost got stranded in Glasgow (of which I know I will go into excruciating detail later in this entry)

As you can see, I've been busy. Which explains why it's taken me so damn long to update my blog. Oops. But at least I'm doing it now... and I have some photographic proof to back up some of my adventures.

I got an e-mail from Ashley on Saturday morning telling me that Aleem was on his way to London. My first reaction was, "is this a joke?" Not in a bad way, but more like "why the hell didn't he tell me beforehand?" So I called his hotel and left a message for him to call me. It was kind of exciting, It was like the movies - calling the front desk of the Hilton Metropole to leave a mysterious message for a friend who I feel like I haven't seen in ages.

At 5:30ish, I received a call on my mobile from a number I don't recognize. I picked it up and heard in the most familiar voice, "hey Dar!" It gave me goosebumps to know that such an important piece of my California-ness was actually in the same city and time zone as me. He was still going to have dinner with his parents and I had to finish my video presentation.

So we didn't meet up until 9:30 or 10ish, when I came knocking on his hotelroom door on the 11th floor. When he opened it, I started to hear Nico's "These Days" playing in my head - it was like the past and the present were mushed together all of a sudden. It was great.

Given that we only had one night to hang out, I gave him a choice. "Dessert and coffee in a touristy spot" or "Alcoholic beverages with a fantastic view, but off the beaten path." He chose the latter, and I took him to the Founder's Arms near Blackfriars, where we drank Pimm's and lemonade, and caught up as much as we could.

But because the tube stops running just after midnight, we had to head back a bit earlier than we wanted to. We parted ways around 12:30, but only after an emergency stop at Oxford Circus to find a toilet (because SOMEONE - not me - didn't anticipate the lack of potty rooms in the tube stations). Hahaha, sorry Aleem. Welcome to London!

The next day, I flew up to Edinburgh. I must've been absolutely insane to take a vacation during finals weeks, but I couldn't resist. Kim bribed me with Coldplay tickets - how could I say no?

I found out that airport security here is ridiculously strict. They stopped me at random and searched my bag... and used some weird device to scan my phone, camera and iPod for explosives. WTF?

The good news is, I'm not a terrorist. And I found this awesome juice stand inside Stansted Airport that reminded me of home:

No, there's no lovejuice in California... at least none that's made out of real fruit. (I hope some of you will remember this inside joke.)

I arrived in Edinburgh at 3:30 - where Kim came to greet me by way of Lothian bus transfer. It turns out that she really DOES live in a fantastic city.

They have a really big castle.

They have some spooktastically old cemeteries. (That big headstone belongs to William BONAR, born in 1773).

And the ugliest "traditional meets modern" Parliament building in the whole wide world. I hear that this is quite the scandal among the locals.

We spent most of the time just walking around the city. I think we may have easily walked about 10 miles over the course of 4 days... In the frigid cold, this is not a pleasant task. Two pairs of socks, legwarmers and leather boots and I STILL couldn't feel my toes. (James and Shawn - consider this a cautionary warning and I recommend that you bring all the thermals you own.)

But look! In a few weeks... we'll be walking down this street with torches in our hands (hopefully in a state of mulled wine inebriation) getting ready to burn down the city... I mean... an effigy... of some sort...

On Tuesday night, Kim and I (along with three of her other friends) took a train to Glasgow to see the Coldplay show. They were as awesome as expected. Though I suspect that Chris Martin was on some type of happy high during the concert.

Maybe it was the profuse sweating, the random proclamations of "that guy on the guitar is my best friend," the frequent tendencies to hug his bandmates, or the moments of forgetfulness where he depended on the audience to finish the lyrics for him and the subsequent giggles, that gave him away. Or how he would fall to the floor in ecstasy during rock-out songs like "Viva la Vida". Or how his eyes would bug out of his head every time he would play an epic piano song. Can you picture it? "Open up your eeeeeeeeyes...." Then again, he didn't name the last album X&Y for nothing. It was way too obvious for anyone not to notice. But the audience just ate it up.

Here comes the fun part... The last train back to Edinburgh was scheduled to leave from Glasgow Central Station at 11:28 p.m. By the time the concert ended and we finally made it outside the venue, it was 11:09 p.m. But that's only because we waited inside for two of Kim's friends who had seats far away from us. Turns out, they decided to leave early to ensure they'd make the train. We didn't get this text message... because Vodaphone service sucks.

Probably around 11:12 (I can't remember for sure because of our sudden panic), we got word that they had already gone and we found ourselves running in the crowd through an obnoxiously long tunnel headed for the overground station... where a local train would take us to the central station two stops away. Miraculously, we made it to Central Station with about 5 minutes to spare. We were home free... so we thought.

We were just coming up the escalator towards the platforms, when suddenly, Kim's phone regains service again and we find out that the other two are at Queens Street station - because the stupid transportation people decided to move the departure point to there. We had no idea where Queens Street was.

So again, we were running... We stopped to ask some cops where the station was, and they pointed us in some confusing direction... (right here, then left, then right, then left at the borders, or something like that...) Running... running uphill... text message that we have just a couple minutes left... panicking... running... can't breath... shit, where the fuck's the station?

We got to where the cop told us to go, but we couldn't find the station. So we stopped again and asked some girl if she knew where it was. She ever-so-slowly tried to give us two different routes, and at the same time, we inched further and further away from her as if it would make any difference. Then we went up the hill, through an alley and there it was - Queens Street Station. Hallelujah. By this point, my asthma had kicked in from the cold and all the running...

We finally made it inside, tried to go through the turnstile, but the man standing there told us we were on the wrong side. So we were running again... It was all a haze, but somehow we were able to jump onto the train, right before the doors quickly shut behind us. I couldn't breathe. Hooray for inhalers.

But we actually made it. I guess to compensate for moving the departure point to Queens Street, they added a couple minutes to the schedule. Who knows what kind of shenanigans we would've gotten ourselves into had we missed it. And to think... I thought that kind of thing only happened in movies. But at least I'll always remember my first trip to Glasgow.

Viva la Vida!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

MOW: Jeremy Messersmith

I've decided to add a new feature to my blog. Inspired by the many music friend-requests I get on Myspace on a regular basis, I thought it would be interesting, and quite fun to start doing a "Music of the Week" review-type thingy here. Plus, it'll help me practice my critiquing skills.

I haven't imposed any rules on this yet, except for that all the bands/singers/songwriters that I'll talk about will be bands that I've never heard of prior to the add requests I get, or if I just come across an act via word of mouth or whatever. The point is, it'll always be about my first-ish impressions... And I'll probably never talk about a band that I don't like, at least in some minute sort of way.

So, to start this off...

Music of the Week: Jeremy Messersmith
From: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Label: Princess Records
Genre: Indie

Compared to other requests I've gotten in the past, this was definitely an easy add to make. As soon as "Franklin Avenue" started playing through my computer speakers, I was immediately drawn in by Jeremy's voice, which contained a very calming quality, reminiscent of a cross between Elliott Smith and Sean Lennon. Craftwise, the song was exactly the kind I tend to fall for: steady acoustic strumming, lyrics that only rhyme sometimes, snare-heavy drumming, and the perfect addition of a tambourine.

So because that was the first song to come on, which I think was a fantastic placement decision by the artist, I was interested enough to listen to the rest of the songs on his page. And then, I was impressed enough to check emusic to see if I could download the new album legally. And I could... so here are my track-by-track responses (in real time as I listen...

Album: The Silver City
Release date: Sept. 9, 2008

1. The Silver City 0:38
Clearly, this is just an album introduction. It's a sound track of someone at the "Franklin Avenue Station." Maybe he's in a train station? He's either about to go somewhere or just about to leave. Ooooh... what happens next?

2. Welcome to Suburbia 3:03
Very cute, welcoming song. I guess this answers my questions to the first track. He sings sweetly... and this kind of reminds me of home.
"Lay down your burden/rest your weary eyes/no room for sorrow/leave all your weariness behind."
Okay, this is a little cheesy now, and I don't think the horns section toward the end of the song was really necessary. Definitely not the most powerful track on the album, but yeah, it's cute, to say the least.

3. Dead End Job 3:57
I'm starting to sense a theme here. Instrumentally and with the harmonized "da das", the beginning sounds like a Shins song. Sounds like he's going home to a girl... and maybe blaming her for having to work a dead end job? But he doesn't sound too sad about it.
The diary lyrics aren't bad, although he comes nowhere near to Ben Gibbard. Ahhh... the horns work well in this song, I think. Ooh, there's drama unfolding lyrically, quintessential boy loves girl, but girl loves another boy. This song is indielicious.

4. Franklin Avenue 3:25
Yeah, I still really like this song the second time around. My initial thoughts of Elliott Smith and Sean Lennon still hold, and it's got some very nice string segments. So far, this song is a little faster than the last two - but I enjoy the pace. I also have a thing for location-specific songs... emotions and places... so great. Good placement within the album.

5. The Commuter 3:22
Gotta love the acoustic guitar and piano combination. There's just enough piano to add to the song without overpowering it. Oooh... again, another Shins-influence is coming out here, with that echo guitar-effect.
"Spend my evenings lying on this couch/counting all the cracks in this old house." I love that.. the lyrics are giving me a great mental picture, and offer a nice metaphor for a broken heart. Groovy-sad.

6. Miracles 3:42
This is different. There's something electronic going on here... simplistic sounding synthesizer effect. I read on his myspace page that he's got a casio. This must be it...
"Do you believe in miracles? Because this is all we get... breathing you out/breathing you in." The words are a little too cliche for my taste. And instrumentally, it kind of reminds me of a song you'd hear in the background of a cruising video game, like Wave Race or Snowboard Kids. But without thinking about it too much, I can definitely like this song. Surficially nice..

7. Love You To Pieces 3:55
Slow, crunching guitar intro makes me think this is gonna' be the heartbreak ballad of the album. Let's see if I'm right...
Oooh, nice use of the word "capture." He's reminiscing about better times... the quintessential stuff that sad songs are made of. I'm enjoying the melody so far, I like it when men sing in vibrato (if it's done right). "I wanna' love you 'til you burst..." that's heavy. Slightly creepy, but I like it.

8. Breaking Down 3:49
Back to the acoustic guitar, with the typical indie-folk strumming style.
This song has a really sweet, intimate story. It's always the imperfect things that make for good metaphors about love... a car that keeps breaking down in this case. It's got a country-ish mood to it, but not in a bad way. Folky fun... This is making me think of Iron & Wine, but not as heavy.

9. Skyway 2:11
There's something very nostalgic about this song. Maybe it's the short violin segments over the acoustic guitar, or the lyrics about meeting "under the skyway." Ahh, nice piano solo. Cute again... a little too much rhyming, and maybe the melody gets a little predictable, but the song is short enough that it's not annoying.

10. Virginia 3:28
Yay, here comes the casio again. The melody is kind of like a Belle & Sebastian song, but again, I really enjoy location-specific songs.
"But for now I spend my mornings making clouds in my coffee cup/wishing that I was there to wake you up." That's so cute, I could puke. This song should be on the Elizabethtown soundtrack. There's a very good indie instrumental breakdown... I like the simplicity of this song a lot. It's probably going to move up into regular rotation in my iPod. Definitely one of the better ones on the album...

11. Light Rail 3:22
I love it already.. how could you go wrong with the right "woh-oh." Ooooh... fantastic bass line. This is a perfect song to end the album on. It's upbeat, with a driving bass line, lots of snare and a ringy guitar sound. I'm thinking of "Obla-di-Obla-da," but not as cartoony. I take it back, maybe this is the song that's gonna' make regular rotation.
Oh yeah, there's the piano that I love.... Oh man, listen to this song.
Aha! And it ends at the Franklin Avenue station... fantastic closing...

Okay, it's over. So to keep the integrity of this review, I'm not going to go back and read it before I save it. Besides, I'm not really expecting anyone to read it. This was a cutesy-fun album and I'm glad I used some of my emusic downloads to get it. All-in-all, a good semi-purchase.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

XV: Fascination

I've been feeling very A.D.D. lately. With everything that's been going on - trying to get coursework done, trying to find internships for next semester, planning for the holidays, maintaining a social life, finding time to read and play guitar for pleasure AND attempting to document it all (for my sake as well as whoever is interested) - has left me confused and flustered most of the time. And I'm betting that when I'm done writing this entry, it'll be quite a jumbled mess of information... just take it as an implicit reflection of the current state of my life.

Anyway, I was riding home on the Picadilly line last night (I barely caught the last train home just after midnight) and I was fascinated by this strange man sitting across from me who was counting through a giant wad of cash. What the hell was he possibly thinking? He was just sitting there, flipping through who knows how much money, with a stupid smirk on his face, looking up way too often to wink at me. Gross! What did he think, that his money would impress me and I would jump up from my seat to smother him with kisses? If anything, it just disgusted me and made me ponder all the CRAZY people I see day-in and day-out in this nutty city.

When you don't have a car and are forced to use public transportation, you become witness to all the nutters in the world... people like the cash cow, or the ones who constantly mutter incoherent words to themselves, or the ones who stare at you incessantly as if you couldn't see them, or the mothers who curse at or smack their little children right in front of everyone.

Or people like this one who do full-blown interpretive dance routines right on the platform :

Oh wait, just kidding, that's my friend Ashley... she's only crazy some of the time.

My favorite of all these are the Italian men (no offense James... they just always happen to be Italian) who always travel in groups of 3 or more and will sit right next to me or directly in front of me and say things like "che bella" with a really perverted look in their eyes. Then they'll lick their lips and talk to me in Italian, laugh with their friends after I take out my iPod to drown out their comments, then talk louder to interrupt my music and continue to stare and smile and talk at me until they reach their stop. Lucky for me, I live a bit further away from most people and never have to worry about any of them following me home.

I don't get it. Some people just have no tact... and the ones with mental problems, why are they allowed to leave their homes? I know they're not homeless because they're always dressed relatively nice, carry cell phones, and obviously have the money to ride the tube. You'd find a homeless person sitting in front of the stations begging for money before you'd see them anywhere past the turnstiles.

The worst part is, they always look and seem like normal people until the train starts moving and then it's like a full moon just rose. At least in Simi, we already know who the crazies are (Frankenstein, the hot water guy on his bike, that freak with Teret's who assaulted Becky, the parrot man and let's not forget EVIE) and we can just avoid them when we see them.

But here, no, they're much more sneaky. Maybe I'm just an asshole, but I won't pretend that I'm the most accepting or accommodating person in the world, because obviously I'm not... whatever, the truth's gotta' come out some time. Thank God I've got friends here who feel my pain... and we can talk about it to each other to maintain normalcy.

Speaking of friends (I guess I can change the subject now that I've got that rant out of my system)... Many of my friends here are American, and so we were all in the same lonely sort of mood this week with Thanksgiving and all. Most of us had class all day on Thursday, so we planned to celebrate it on Saturday. (Hence me having to catch the last train home last night.)

Given that we're in a country that doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving, it was a real interesting challenge to find all the necessary ingredients to make a proper Thanksgiving dinner - but I'm happy to report that our feast was still a success, even without the canned cranberry sauce and mashed potato flakes.

Our German friend Fabian even joined in and offered some homemade German cookies... (notice Chris' homemade Pumpkin Pie and yeah, store-bought chocolate cheesecake, but delicious anyway):

You know how you can buy those boxes of stuffing mix from the store and just add in whatever ingredients? Well, they don't have that here. So I had to make the stuffing from scratch. And I'm so proud, because I totally did it and it turned out super yum. (And sorry friends for not being able to host Stuffgiving this year... I promise it'll be even more fantastic in 2009 because now I'm a stuffing pro AS WELL as the turkey queen. (Wow, that sounded really conceited... sorry).

All I need is some white bread, apples, a lot of sage and a little bit of love... oh! and I might have to import this incredible Waitrose sausage:

Hooray for having leftovers to eat for dinner tonight. I love Thanksgiving.

Which then leads me into another train of thought... it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. The high street markets are in full-swing here - lights, inflated snowmen, happy Brits who have upgraded their demeanor to only "semi-grumpy" instead of 110% grumpy. But of course, this makes me a little sad because I won't get to see family (especially Francis). It's really weird, after being so used to spending holidays with my ginormous and wonderful family, to having to get through it alone.

But luckily, Kim is flying down from Edinburgh and we're finally (literally, not metaphorically) going to cut the Dutch cheese and make our very own 2-person feast. I think everyone in my house is going home for Christmas... and all the rest of my friends are going home as well. I told them to send my love to the states and to bring me back some hot cheetos.

Then on the 28th of December, Shawn and James are flying in for New Year's - and we'll be celebrating Hogmanay in Scotland, going on a Beatles pilgrimage to Liverpool on New Year's Day, paying homage to Oasis in Manchester and then back to London, where I can attempt to show them around town for a week or two.

And to equip us for all the wonderful friendtime goodness, I've started working on a new mapping project. I just learned that you can build your own personalized maps on google and share them with whoever you want. So, I've started compiling some of my favorite London spots so anybody anywhere can see where I like to go: My Lovely London

View Larger Map

Isn't it cool?? Besides all the other places I've been documenting on this blog, you can now follow me around London from the convenience of your own home. Now you don't only have to rely on my photographs of places like:

Millenium Bridge:

The inside of Tate Modern:

But you can also be geographically correct while doing it. Ah technology, how I love and fear thee.

Okay, so I hope it wasn't too difficult to follow this lame-ish, tangent-filled, random train-of-thought, digital excuse for a thing I like to call my blog. And if you've made it this far I congratulate you and offer you a musical reward...

I've been a little obsessed with this Danish pop band called Alphabeat (they are HUGE here), so I've embedded a video. They're very indie-pop and by the looks of this video, maybe too influenced by the 80's, random cinematic dance-sequences and nerd-rock, but man oh man, do I love them. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do...

Monday, November 24, 2008

Queen of the Universe

I'm really distracted. I have a ton of work to do. I have to plan a trip. But I can't wrap my head around anything except for my guitar today. So instead of doing anything realistically productive, I decided to take a narcissistic departure from my studies and feed my own ego:

I've also just been granted the power by my landlord to kick out anybody in the house who annoys me... especially the guys.
"You americken girl... are very good girl. If anbody give you trubble, you tell me and I giv them 2 week notice and they hev to leave!"
This has consequently caused Chris and Simon to call me "my queen" and I can now order them to get me tea whenever I please. Though I won't do that because I like them... ahhh, my loyal subjects.

I am the queen of the universe.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

XIV: Only in Dreams

Everytime I experience a new piece of art that I enjoy, I can't help but get the feeling that I've been missing out on this secret world of creativity for the last 27 years. This past week has been full of incredible artistic experiences... I have to keep figuratively pinching myself, just to make sure I won't wake up from what feels like a continuous lucid dream of epic proportions.

This is me declaring that I am officially in love with art. I am also in love with dreaming. So when I met Luke Jerram at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) today, it was almost impossible to NOT fall in love with him too.

This artist, who also happened to propose to his (now) wife with the first-ever phonographic engagement ring, is the best thing to happen to sleeping and dreaming since the invention of the goose-down pillow. Some artists use oil on canvas; others use pencil on paper, light on film, or spray paint on cardboard boxes.

But Luke Jerram doesn't. He creates mental pictures on the spaces of our dreams. This is the Dream Director (I borrowed this photo from his website):

Participants of this art installation are invited to sleep over, inside the gallery, while an electronic eye mask monitors periods of rapid eye movement. When the computer senses that a person is in REM sleep, various sounds (like rushing water or chirping birds) plays through speakers in the sleep pod, consequently manipulating the dreams of the person sleeping. And apparently, it works!

Unfortunately, I didn't get to try it myself because the waiting list for this installation is super long... but I did get to review some of the data collected after last night's session. Everyone who's tried it has had remarkable dreaming results and really, I just find the whole concept for the work incredible. Think about it, you can see a piece of artwork while you're sleeping... that's just too cool. As for the artist's goal in his works: screw traditional paintings, it's all about exploring alternative realms of "perceptual locations." Brilliant.

Speaking of non-traditional artistic spaces, I also got to visit 2 installations by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer (that artist I was really excited about a couple entries ago...)

On Monday afternoon, I saw his "Frequency and Volume" installation at the Barbican Curve gallery. He utilizes flood lights to cast shadows against the wall as you walk past. Then, depending on the size, shape and movement of your shadow, a computer uses its measurement to tune-into various radio stations. As you move around, the volume of the radio also changes.

The second one, "Under Scan" took place in Trafalgar Square... again utilizing flood lights and shadows. In this installation, a video image of another person pops up within your shadow and starts waving to you or doing other weird things. If you walk away from it, your "shadow person" goes to sleep. But if you continue to pay attention to it, it will continue to interact with you.

I've had so much fun with Lozano-Hemmer's works that I'm actually doing a theoretical & critical presentation on him for one of my classes. This whole "new media" thing is just amazing when you look at it in an artistic context. I wish you all could see this stuff... but both installations will have moved on by the time some of you come out to visit.

As for other things I've done this week:

I saw the Annie Leibovitz exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery... which was obviously great. I got to see the original prints for the photos she did of Queen Elizabeth and a whole bunch of her celebrity portraits for Vanity Fair, including this one:

This past weekend, I went to Brighton to see another exhibit... but my friends and I decided to make a day out of it since it IS England's favorite beach town. Oddly enough, it reminded me a lot of San Francisco and Santa Monica put together - lots of hilly neighborhoods squashed into just a few square miles, complete with pier and carnival rides.

Last, but certainly not least, I saw Death Cab For Cutie at the Carling Academy Brixton. As expected, it was a perfect show... especially when they ended with a 4-song encore of my would-be requests: What Sarah Said, Title and Registration, The Sound of Settling, and Transatlantacism. Brilliant again.

So as you can see, it's been a pretty busy week for me. It's weird because all these things I'm doing are relevant to my education... it just so happens that I'm thoroughly enjoying it all. Basically, I'm getting a master's degree for experiencing a whole bunch of fun stuff. I think I really lucked out in choosing this major... who knows, I might even come out of this wanting to become a curator. I just hope it isn't all a dream...

Friday, November 14, 2008

XIII: Life in Technicolor

How am I not myself?

Imagine a world where you can look any way you want to. You can change everything... from the shape of your fingers to the space between your eyes - all without spending thousands of dollars on plastic surgery. You can fly, you can teleport, you can visit any place in the world - and you can even create a piece of space on your own. You can never get physically hurt, you can meet as many people in a day as you wish, or not interact with anybody at all. And the best part about it? When you get sick of life itself, you can just turn it all off... without having to actually commit suicide.

Meet Daphne. She is me. I am her. But because of her, I got to visit Venice Beach earlier without ever having to leave my bedroom in London... and I even took a picture:

No, I haven't suddenly become a gamer. This isn't The Sims, though it might look like it. Daphne is me in my second life. Unfortunately, Daphne is still homeless and rather lonely, but I hope to find her a home and some friends quite soon. Right now, she's probably going to spend the night on a beachmat in Venice.

Okay... I swear I'm not crazy. Let me explain.

Second Life is a network-based virtual world that anybody can become a member of. Some people will call it a game, but in the academic world, that's becoming highly debatable. In my opinion, it's a very sophisticated networking site that, because of how it is structured, can easily replace the "real" lives of the people who use it.

It goes WAY beyond The Sims, in that it has its own working economy (with a fluctuating exchange rate), allows for the purchase (with real money) of land and other property (including brand-name goods). It has museums, theme parks, churches and LAWS. It's like real life... except it's not. Or is it?

Either way, I think my discovery of Second Life (which was made possible by one of my professors), has sparked a serious consideration for it as a dissertation topic. Here are a few of my observations of it thus far:

1. Everyone in Second Life is YOUNG. But I doubt that the real people at their computers are ALL 20-somethings... which then raises an interesting question about the value our culture places on youth.

2. People on Second Life start REAL relationships. Take this couple, for example, who according to BBC, got married after meeting on Second life (but not until after the man was divorced by his REAL wife for cheating on her in the cyber world).

These two are obviously not what you would consider "beauties," which is another interesting element in itself.

3. You can't just walk around naked and NOT get in trouble. But you do have the free will to do so... which is not something you'd find in a regular game. Daphne walked into this clothing store earlier and found this sign (she would have gotten banned for disobeying it):

4. Real companies like NIKE have extended their product line to sell goods in Second Life. These particular shoes were being sold at the SL Nike Store for $299 Linden dollars (no, you do not get a REAL pair sent to you AND yes, you do have to exchange your real money for Linden dollars):

Daphne's broke so she didn't get to purchase a pair. In fact, she hasn't purchased anything, particularly because I REFUSE to waste my real money buying pixels for my doppelganger to wear in her world.

Okay, so that's just a few observations...

When I first joined this thing, I was greeted in the welcome plaza by a girl dressed like a fairy named "Talatha." She was nice enough to give me some clothes - instead of the lame default ones that came with my avatar when I chose her. Talatha then showed me around a few places and told me to visit some of her favorite spots - like Prim Hearts theme park. I also went to a Buddhist temple where I had to "wash my hands" and "take off my shoes" before going inside.

It reminds me of how, in real life, Helen has taken me to some of her favorite spots in London... but in the virtual world, this is just insane.

So this is what I'm proposing: it's not a nerd-fest project because personally, I think Second Life is freakishly scary and that it has the potential of being REALLY detrimental to society.

However, I respect that it's created a place for people to come together in a new way. I've even heard of a professor at Columbia University holding his "media studies" classes in Second Life.

I think it's an incredible indicator of culture within the context of new media, especially in the increasing phenomenon of globalization. And it would be extremely interesting to look at it in terms of how we represent ourselves online - to go as far as comparing it with facebook and myspace. Those of us who have made the decision to participate in online networking are forced to develop a new kind of identity... But what EXACTLY is Second Life doing? Maybe re-defining the meaning of life in technicolor?

What do you guys think?

EDIT 10:19 p.m. 11/26/08

I just had to add this clip. (Thanks for finding it, Ari!)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Another Way To Die

I don't think further description is necessary...

Sunday, November 9, 2008

XII: This Fire

This fire, is outta' control! We're gonna' burn this city, burn this city!!!

While I was home sick this past week, I was a little bummed to miss out on the first round of celebration for the UK's Bonfire Night. For those of you who have seen the movie V for Vendetta, this British holiday might ring a bell... but if you've never heard of it, here's a bit of a history lesson:

In 1605, under the rule of King James I, a group of 13 English Catholics (who felt they were being persecuted) conspired to overthrow the monarchy and blow up London's Houses of Parliament in an act of murderous terrorism. So, the extremist Catholics got a hold of 36 barrels of gunpowder and stored them in a cellar within the Parliament building... waiting to blow it all up.

However, a few of the terrorists had attacks of conscience and one of them, according to legend, sent a letter to a friend urging him to stay away from Parliament during the early morning hours of Nov. 5. Supposedly, the letter was intercepted by the king, and when his authorities raided the building, they found GUY FAWKES (one of the terrorists) in the cellar with all the gunpowder. He was caught, tortured and executed. On Nov. 5, 1605, the Brits lit bonfires across the country to celebrate the safety of their king.

Since then, the UK has been commemorating Nov. 5th with parades, fireworks displays and declarations of patriotism & love for their monarch.

I know... why should I care about any of this? Well to be honest, I just wanted to see fireworks, because I heard it was quite the spectacle... and plus, what's the point of living in another country if you completely ignore their traditions? I've already adopted boots, skinny jeans and excessive consumption of tea - why stop now?

But like I said, I was home sick on Nov. 5th so I resorted to sitting at my window to listen and catch a glimpse of some of the fireworks, which were being illegally lit by people around the neighborhood. It was very anti-climactic. Aw.

LUCKILY, the following day, I received an invitation from one of my friends to attend the "Lord Mayor's Fireworks Spectacular" on Saturday night. I guess this was the better thing to see anyway, because it was a display on the River Thames near Westminster.

By the time Saturday rolled around, I had pretty much gotten over being sick - so a group of us got together to see the show. Hooray!

As you can probably tell from the picture, it really didn't look like much of a show - but that's only because we ended up standing on the wrong bridge. The fireworks started at 5 p.m. (an indication of how ridiculously early it gets dark here now that it's winter time) and we had a rather hilarious adventure trying to find exactly where we were supposed to be.

First, we got off at the wrong tube station. Then, there was some miscommunication with one of our other friends - and we had to meet her somewhere else... about 15 minutes walk from our original meeting place. Then we had to take a bus to somewhere else, all the while searching for a crowd that would show us the way. But all of this to no avail, because we still didn't make it to where we were supposed to be. In the end, we were standing at some random bridge, unable to hear anything, and limited to watching fireworks from behind a bunch of buildings. Oh well. At least we tried.

By the time we made it to the right bridge, the show was completely over... so we finished off the night with some coffee, then sushi (yeay!), and because it was still ridiculously early, we went to Leicester Square to see the new Bond movie. But it was sold out. Again...

Did I mention that this is probably how I ended up losing my cell phone and camera in the first place (more on this in my last entry)? Each time I tried to see the Bond movie it was sold out, so in the course of 2 weekends, I've now seen Burn After Reading, Eagle Eye, and How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. Oh well again.

The good news is, I'm feeling much better since writing my last entry. I've gotten my new phone, I'm no longer sick, and obviously, I've replaced my camera as well.

I was quite happy to see the exact same Panasonic Lumix on sale at Jessops in Islington... except I got it in black this time - in memory of the original silver one. Cheesy, I know. But I'm happy about it, so there.

And to celebrate my "rebirth," if you will, I spent all day Friday catching up with some gallery visits.

First, I went to see Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's solo exhibit at the Haunch of Venison Gallery in Soho. The artist loves interactivity... and the "finale" to this exhibit was this thing called "The Pulse Tank." It uses your pulse to create ripples in the water... and then the whole thing is illuminated so it creates light patterns on the ceiling and on the floor. It was really weird to activate something simply by touching it, but really cool at the same time. Expect to hear more from me on this artist - because I like him a lot and he's doing this giant-scale installation in Trafalgar Square in a couple weeks. I'm really excited for it...

Then, on my way to the tube station, I found this random cafe hidden down some stairs in a semi-quiet alley:

Victory Cafe! How fitting for my newly acquired sense of victory.. for bouncing back so nicely from those few days of hell earlier this week. I stepped in for a cup of tea, and was pleasantly surprised by the service (I'm convinced that most Londoners don't like being nice). The place is also connected to this large, underground antique mini-mall. It was like walking into a time capsule.

After my tea, I went to the Andy Warhol exhibit at The Hayward. (I know what you're thinking Roxy- and let me assure you, I only hoped to give the guy a second chance by seeing his work in a gallery setting.)

But besides the success of representing the scope of the work he did, the exhibition really just ended up being EXACTLY the way I expected - a high-ticket, over-exaggerated, kitsch and chaotic spectacle that was full of a whole lot of nothing.

All-in-all, it was too much to handle... down to the pink and yellow cow wallpaper, the Edie Sedgwick movies where she's not doing ANYTHING interesting, the sound "pods" playing old audio of Warhol and Capote bickering about something you can't really make out, and the "silver clouds" that were really nothing more than mylar balloons bouncing around in a small room.

Meh. I've made my decision that Andy Warhol is just one of those artists that I love to hate. But if anything, I'm still glad I saw it - if for nothing more than confirming the opinion of how much of a douche he was.

So that's it... life is good again. It's getting much colder, windier and rainier outside but at least, (thanks to all the time I spent at home this week) I now have a goofy poster of Shia LaBeouf on my wall (thanks Becky), I have calendars on my wall keeping me on track for finishing my 14,000 words worth of essays before Christmas break and most importantly - I'm not letting a few shitty circumstances keep me down. I guess I'm back to being the optimist. Take that, London! (p.s. I love you still... oh how I burn for you)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

XI: No Sunlight

Some people eat ice cream when they're in need of comfort food. Others eat mac 'n cheese, or chicken soup, or chocolate... or a bunch of other common delicacies when they've had a bad day.

But I eat Sinigang. Because I love Filipino food and because it makes me feel better. And God knows, after the last few days... I definitely need it. So as I type, I'm sitting at the kitchen table waiting for the ingredients to boil through - just a few more minutes until I add the Tamarind Mix that my mom sent me last week... the sour powder that makes Sinigang, well, Sinigang.

And on the television (because I unfortunately insist on saturating myself with media at all times of the day) is the news, reporting the latest information on the U.S. presidential election. The polls say Obama is slightly ahead. In just a few hours we'll know who the 44th president of the United States will be... CRAZY.

I stole this from Josh:

I've been waiting for this day since I arrived in London... and by that I mean the day(s) when everything seems to go wrong and causes me to finally hit a serious emotional low. It's just a coincidence that it's the same day as the election. So before the world as we know it changes for good, I figure it's also my last chance to be completely selfish and whine about the series of unfortunate events that I've had to deal with in the last 48 or so hours. (Though I can't promise that I'll stop being selfish about my blogs... because obviously, that would completely defeat the purpose of keeping one.)

Anyway, before I continue let me mention that there will be no pictures taken by me in this post... because... I'll get to that.

Kim came to visit from Edinburgh this weekend (she was my absolute saving grace 'cuz I probably would've had a debilitating freak-out Sunday night if I was left alone). She arrived Friday morning at 6:45 a.m., where I met her at Victoria Coach Station. It was the ROFL-fest weekend that we had been waiting for all month and it started out great. After getting back to my house, catching up a little bit and having some breakfast, we hit the town.

We began by hitting up Primark (the provider of the cheapest of European clothing and fabric-based household items like towels and bathrobes), where we both reached an important fashion milestone - the adoption of skinny jeans. Because here, you just don't wear boots unless you're wearing a skirt or skinny jeans. I vowed once never to wear skinny jeans because I thought they were ugly. I lived in California then. But after purchasing a couple pairs for £8 each on Friday, I was forever changed. Never say never... ever.

After a couple hours at Primark, and when our lack of sleep began to catch up with us, we went home for a few hours to relax. Then we went out later that evening and met up with a couple of my London friends for a mini-Halloween celebration: dinner at Cantaloupe and drinks at Corbet Place on Brick Lane.

On Saturday it rained... and rained... and rained... A LOT. We made use of this day by going to The British Museum, stopping at Platform 9 and 3/4 at King's Cross Station, and then to the movies to see Burn After Reading. Somewhere along the way, in my rainy-day fluster, I lost my umbrella. I got rained on, but at least we had Mexican food for dinner. Yum.

Sunday was a much nicer day - no rain. So we did the tourist thing and went to the Tower of London - which was amazingly cool. I only wish I had pictures...

This is where things start to get lame. We met up with London friends again for dinner and another movie - Eagle Eye. Oh, Shia, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. But on the way home in the tube, I check in my pockets and realize that I've lost my cell phone... the BRAND NEW one that I just got on Thursday with a contract that gives me unlimited international calling and free skype. Ouch. I had just used it in the movie theater, soooo, I figured that it probably fell out of my pocket or my purse while watching the movie. I figured I could just go back the next morning to reclaim it.

So, in case you're not keeping track... I've so far lost my umbrella and my cell phone. (Did I also ever mention that some jerk in Worcestershire got a hold of my debit card number a few weeks ago and charged more than $400 to my account? But that's another story.)

Then, at home, I was sitting at my computer when I made a semi-joking comment to Kim. "I better upload my pictures from (The Tower of London) before I lose my camera too." And when I checked my purse for my camera... my beautiful Panasonic Lumix that made me so happy because it took the BEST pictures a point-and-shoot could ever take... it was nowhere to be found. Seriously? It made no sense. Because I've been super super super super careful with my things. And like my cell phone, I had just used it that day.

Luckily... Kim was there to keep me calm - and so sweetly said she'd accompany me the next day (Monday) to retrace our steps and find my stuff. Unfortunately, after hours of retracing our steps Monday, making a bunch of phone calls and pleading to the theater people... I still came back empty handed. The good news is, I'm getting a replacement phone sent to me tomorrow (even though it's costing me a little bit.) The pictures and camera however, gone forever.

So yeah, to recount, I've lost an umbrella, a new cell phone and a digital camera all in the course of 48 hours. And to make matters worse, after Kim went back to Edinbugh last night, my body decided to partially shut down and contract a slight fever and cold... probably because I got rained on.

It's all very sad business indeed. Which leads me to today. I've lost a whole bunch of beloved material things and while those can be replaced - I'm still very sad about losing photographs that were never uploaded. It also just made me mad at myself because apparently, I wasn't careful enough. I can't stand situations that could have been avoided... especially since I've been extra careful about my belongings since I've moved here. (Not having a car really makes you more aware of your habits...)

Besides that, it made me feel defeated for the first time while being here. I know that sounds shallow, but I can't help how I feel. It sort of started a chain reaction... losing things + having to say goodbye to Kim + getting sick + REALLY REALLY missing Fran because I couldn't be with him for Halloween + missing the rest of my family + missing friends back home = a very melancholy me. I started to crack. So I stayed home from school today.

It's been a rough day. I could use a hug, and a cigarette, and a funny conversation with my brothers on the porch. It's been a little difficult to exhale today.

Good thing for Sinigang.

Monday, November 3, 2008

I will not get angry.

Things that drive me crazy:
-spending long hours on the phone due to delays in financial aid processing
-being a victim of credit-card fraud in another country
-losing my umbrella on a super rainy day
-losing my 3-day new cell phone w/unlimited international calling
-losing my camera

I will not get angry. I will not get angry. I will not get angry. I will not get angry. I will not get angry. I will not get angry. I will not get angry. I will not get angry. I will not get angry. I will not get angry. I will not get angry. I will not get angry. I will not get angry. I will not get angry. I will not get angry. I will not get angry. I will not get angry. I will not get angry. I will not get angry. I WILL NOT GET ANGRY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Easier said than done,

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

It's snowing.

Monday, October 27, 2008

X: Bicycle Race (The Amsterdam entry)

Everything you've ever heard about Amsterdam is true.

The sex, the drugs... it's all there. And to illustrate this fact, I'm going to give a few detailed definitions about the place using anecdotes from my trip this weekend. But hopefully, instead of simply justifying what you may or may not already know about Amsterdam, it'll just create a clearer picture of what is perhaps the "coolest" city in the world. And by "cool," I mean it in a very specific context of course - because truth is subjective, no matter how much or what kind of reason it takes to arrive to a truthful conclusion.

Having said that, I'll start with the famous and wind my way down to the not-so-obvious aspects of the city.

The Red Light District:
Running parallel to the Damrak (the main street of Amsterdam) is a small stretch of canal in which you will find a bustling, and very much active, center for legalized prostitution. It is aptly named after the literal red lights that accentuate the figures of dozens of women standing in the windows like live mannequins... who smile, wave, gaze and pose for potential clients walking down the street. You're not allowed to take pictures directly into the windows, unless of course you want to pay an exorbitant amount of euros. But it's okay for photo-ops on the adjacent bridge.

For those of us who haven't grown up in a place like this, it's easy to conceptualize prostitution as something very dirty and desperate. And when my friends and I set out on our quest to visit the district, we approached it with a mixed sense of fear and embarrassment... because based on what we've heard, we half-expected to see women naked and spread-eagled, possibly masturbating or performing lewd acts in the windows for all to see.

But when we finally found it, we were simultaneously amazed and nonplussed, because what we experienced on that street was sort of the opposite of what we were expecting. The women, some in costumes and others in lacy undergarments, for the most part just stood there not really doing anything obscene. And the people walking by were much more subdued than you'd think. They were seemingly unfazed by the whole situation. To most, it was like walking past a guy in a Ronald McDonald outfit.

We learned from our tour-guide that these prostitutes are screened for STDs regularly and are also unionized, making it a completely respectable and accepted career path. And a common service provided by these women is a "suck and fuck for 50 euros." Yet, a girl can make up to 1,500 euros in one session... makes you wonder what they do to make up for the difference in price.

Coffee Shops:
All over Amsterdam are the famous coffee shops, but one should be careful not to confuse them with cafes. Cafes serve coffee and tea. And so do coffee shops... but they also serve marijuana. The most famous and touristy of these coffee shops is called the Grasshopper. And although our tour-guide Erol recommended that we visit his favorite one, named The Bush Doctor, we opted to visit the Grasshopper anyway.

Upon entering the building, which was bursting-at-the-seams full of people, our delicate senses of smell were overwhelmed by the herbal, slightly sweet aroma of Dutch cannabis. People were smoking weed all over the place and we were extremely curious about the process of purchasing some. What do you say exactly? Was there some secret codeword that we needed to know? How do you order it... just ask for a joint or a brownie?

So when we walked up to the counter, we were all a little nervous. And perhaps because of the confused/scared looks on our faces, the man at the counter did all the work for us. "Do you want to see a menu?" he asked. We all replied simultaneously with a timid "yeah?" in the form of a question... connoting our sense of "is this okay?"

The man then pointed at a big red button on the wall that had a sign saying "do not push" right underneath it. Yet he said, "push the red button." After several seconds of hesitation where we wondered what would happen if we pushed it (like if the police would come speeding in to arrest and deport us all), we acted against our better judgment and pushed the damn button. Suddenly a glass case, which we didn't notice before, was lit up from behind, exposing a menu of various types of weed... 3 joints of white widow for 18 euros, 1.36 grams of purple haze for 20 euros, etc... take your pick. We had no idea what to do. So we stared at the menu for a while... then let the button go... the light went out... and my friends decided to go for a brownie for 7.50 euros instead. What happened after that? I will leave it to your imaginations.

The next day (Saturday), we had our official guided tour of the city (because the first night was left to us to find our own adventures). And so we noticed even more how pervasive marijuana is in the city... because as you walked down random streets, you'd catch a whiff of it coming out of restaurants, stores, whatever.

Then during our free hours, we came across The Doors Coffee Shop (which I assume was off the beaten path because there were only a few people inside). We walked in only to find an absolute gem of a place where people sat in comfy couches with their joints, listening to the best of The Doors musical concoctions. We went in for the coffee... and for the pictures of Jim Morrison all over the walls... and we found a great couch near the window with great lighting.

The guy making my latte had a joint in his mouth as he took my order. All the while, "people are strange... when you're a stranger..." was blasting through the speakers. It was beautiful.

Cheese, Clogs and Windmills:
As part of our guided tour, we went to a cheese and clog factory where we were able to sample Holland's famous dairy products and see a demonstration of how wooden shoes are made. Our "hostess" was adorable in her traditional Dutch garb, lace hat and all... and we got to be the most touristy of all tourists for about an hour and a half.

I left the place with a block of garlic/onion cheese... "cheese for lovers only," as described by our hostess. You can only eat the cheese with your lover, she said, because only your lover would be tolerant enough to smell your breath after eating it. How cute. But that wasn't why I bought it... after sampling everything in the house - that one was by far the most amazing cheese I've EVER tried in my life... no joke. I haven't cut into my block since I've gotten back but I have a feeling that once Kim comes down from Edinburgh this weekend, we're gonna' have to have some of it.

Unfortunately I didn't bring back any clogs... because let's be realistic, what the hell would I need wooden shoes for? Still, it was fun to see some authentic ones in real life.

On the way to central Amsterdam after leaving the cheese/clog factory, we stopped by a windmill to take some pictures. More touristy stuff... but they really do have them! There are a lot. And they're quite pretty.

Amsterdam has lots and lots and lots of bicycles. I can't say I've ever been to another city where the sound of bicycle bells are more prevalent than car horns. In fact, bicycles are such a huge part of the culture that THEY have the right of way before cars or pedestrians. During a few instances where we were crossing the street or walking through a footpath, we were nearly trampled by cyclists... who only warn you with a bell just a fraction of a second before their front tire comes ramming into your bum.

It was amazing to see the hundreds of bikes lined up against every bridge and in front of stores on the sidewalks. And usually, they're not even chained or locked up.

It boggles my mind, among the hundreds, maybe even thousands of bicycles everywhere, how you can find yours after you've left it somewhere. But I figure that these people must have some ingrained homing device... and even if someone were to steal it, you'd probably be able to find it in another part of town.

Amsterdam, the city
It's an amazing place and my only regret is that I couldn't stay for just a little longer. Before getting there, I assumed it would be somewhat seedy and dirty because of all the stories that I've heard in the past. But if the trip had any type of real impact on me, it's that I was suddenly made aware of all the ways we are conditioned by our cultures. To us, drugs are bad. To us, prostitution is bad. But suddenly you are exposed to these things where they are a very real and accepted piece of the culture. (Let me add that marijuana is not actually legal in Amsterdam, but it's "tolerated").

Really, it was a bit of a reality check. Because while others may feel offended by some of these things, I found it to be beautiful. Not so much in the aesthetic sense... but more a sense of open-mindedness and liberation. I witnessed a 50-something suburban Australian ex-pat eat a weed muffin with her husband and 24-year-old son without even flinching. And then they went to a sex show (live porn) later that evening, as if they were visiting the eiffel tower or something.

You really can't understand something until you've seen it for yourself - and Amsterdam is definitely proof of that. Despite the more taboo things, it's also full of charming canals and buildings that are so old that they're practically falling over.

And it's a place full of history and art... from the Van Gogh museum to the actual home of Anne Frank. Everyone is so friendly, full of smiles, and relaxed - a very apparent difference from most people in London. All these things in one little city... definitely makes it "cool" in its own context.