Saturday, September 20, 2008

II: Songbird

Perhaps the best investment I've made so far for this trip has been my moleskin city notebook. It contains a tube map of central London, some individual street maps, several blank pages for notes, and some tabbed sections for things like "places," "bars," "adventures," and "encounters." Then, it has this little pocket in the back for random mementos and things... where I like to keep my 56p. stamps for sending postcards to Francis. To top it off, all this valuable information is hard bound in a hand-sized book (well worth the $12 I spent at amazon) that fits conveniently in my new, black, over-the-shoulder purse from H&M.

In less than a week, I've already made loads of notes and used the tube map to find my way around. But the newest addition to my book, which I'm very proud of, is evidence of a fulfilled dream, as small as it may be to anybody else- a ticket of admission into Westminster Abbey.

For those of you who have been unfortunate enough to hear me complain for the last two years about how I wasn't able to go inside the last time I was here, let me assure you that you won't hear me whine about it anymore. Because I finally got to go in yesterday (Friday). And as an avid fan of The DaVinci Code, I was about as excited as a fat kid with a giant cake when I finally got to gaze at the tomb of Sir Isaac Newton. Go ahead, say it... "NERD ALERT!"

I know... why the hell would anyone pay admission to get inside of a church? Well, it's because it's so damn cool inside AND they don't actually charge you if you're coming for worship. But because this was such an important thing to me, I opted to take the honest tourist route in order to keep the experience sacred (in an un-religious sort of way, that is). Unfortunately, I wasn't allowed to take pictures inside, even with the flash off, but OH MAN it was cool. Basically, it's jam packed with stone effigies, latin inscriptions and remains of dead people buried within the walls and marble casings, and underneath the stone floors... a TAPS enthusiasts' dream! I was practically drooling when I saw the tombs and memorials of people like Elizabeth I, King Henry VII, Geoffrey Chaucer, T.S. Elliott and Jane Austen... not to mention those of two of my favorite Charles': Darwin and Dickens.

Being a tourist is so much fun. I think it's a sense of something that we all lack when it comes to exploring our own cities. When you're a tourist you approach everything with a sense of childlike "magic"... but when you live somewhere, it's easy to forget, or not notice that magic.

So since I haven't really had much purpose in the last few days besides trying to settle in, I've tried to mix in my errands with a bit of sightseeing. I had to go the city of Westminster to find my school yesterday and I figured that while I was in the area, I'd check out some of the famous spots...

The London Eye, overlooking the River Thames

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament

As for some the fruits of my errands: a couple sets of clothes hangers, a power converter for my portable hard-drive (Yay! IT WORKS!), a cheapy hair-dryer, the aformentioned black purse, and a new cell (a.k.a. mobile) phone with a British phone number. Oh yeah, I also bought an issue of Q magazine to read in the tube (James, you'll recognize this):

Notice a bit of a trend here??

Anyway... on with my story. As you can see by the time on Big Ben, it was about 2 p.m. by the time I was finished looking at stuff in Westminster, so I pulled out my handy-dandy London tourbook to go find somewhere interesting to have lunch. And at random, I opened up to page 135... and I was struck with absolute glee when my eyes met this particular entry of a Vietnamese place in Chelsea - quite out of the way but definitely worth the trek even if only for the name.

After about 40 minutes of trying to find this place via bus, tube (in which a crazy old British man next to me was muttering something about his friend Sgt. Swallow, the airman, and his rich granddaughter), bus again and walking, it turns out it really WAS worth the commute. Besides it's hilariously homonymous name, it's also got the coolest courtyard ambiance, a really friendly staff (oddly from Thailand), and some really delicious beef pho. My mouth waters with delight just writing about it.

I sat at the "noodle bar" and ordered my meal with a can of diet coke. The guy serving me looked like he was around my age, and he was quick to start a conversation with me that began with "so where are you from?" I answered him, and on it went... Somehow we got to talking about how he was actually Thai, and how I thought Thailand had the most amazing cuisine I had ever had, and why I was in London, and why Thai people are here making Vietnamese food. He said that their location didn't permit for the "pungent" smells of Thai cooking. Clearly, I said, the restaurant's neighbors just didn't understand or appreciate the amazing yum that is Thai. He laughed and agreed.

When I was finished with my meal, I lingered a little bit to keep chatting, and after a few more minutes I asked to pay my bill. It should've been £8 (which is pretty cheap here), but then he said with a dashing smile, "for you, £7." Perhaps he was flirting with me a little bit, or maybe he empathized with being in a big city all alone with little money, or maybe he's a marketing genius. Because I immediately replied with the highest-pitch "awwww thank you, what's your name? I'm definitely gonna' come back here soon... probably sometime next week!" As he was handing me my change from the £10 note I gave him, he said his name was "Buon, like Bond double O seven, except no D." I shook his hand, told him my name, we exchanged smiles and I was on my way... with the full intention of coming back next week to try the dim sum.

I walked through Chelsea a bit to explore the scenery, and finally around 5ish, I decided to head for home. Along my now-familiar route to get back to Stamford Hill, I had a moment of existential happiness when I came walking upon the Manor House tube station escalator at just the right speed and angle.

If that isn't a visual metaphor, I don't what is. Then I realized that this kind of thing is EXACTLY what I came here to study-- visual cues and the way they affect us culturally. A surge of excitement for even better days that have yet to come came pulsing through my heart.

What an awesome city.

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