Wednesday, 22 March 2017

November 2016 in Brief

November was a month of much exploration, and by the first of December I had been officially awarded with a gold medal that read "King Neeshar: Explorar-Bo". 
It all began in Bethnal Green, where we were once again house sitting for Wanda. Knowing we wouldn't be staying there much longer, I took the opportunity to delve into the nearby Victoria Park, where many colourful things were photographed (including pagodas and trees). I also strolled along Regent's Canal to Mile End, Stepney Green and Whitechapel, furthering my love for East London. 

Speaking of Whitechapel, I attended an event for World Vegan Day (1 November) where I queued for over an hour in order to score free pizza! The pizza was quite nice, but what I liked better was the free mulled cider and brownies that the pub was giving out because they felt bad for how cold everyone in the line was. If you're of the mindset that "time is money", then waiting for such a long time wouldn't be worth it, but I had all the time in the world so free food was the only thing on my mind that day.

With all that free time I had, I made sure to spend many hours playing Stardew Valley, listening to Wanda snore, and cooking up delicious lunches and dinners. One of my favourite meals to cook was inspired by a macrobiotic dish I had when Yannick and I were last in Athens, comprising of sweet potato, cabbage, brown rice, marinated tofu and greens. Gotta balance that yin and yang, yo!

London seems to be perpetually crowded, and yet I braved the tumult to pursue a fun wintertime hobby of mine: spotting all the different Christmas lights around the city. The ones on Oxford Street looked like large balls of gold and silver yarn, which I particularly enjoyed, and the angels on Regent Street were quite spectacular. 

For three out of November's four weeks, my dad came to visit from New Zealand! As such, we needed a proper base for our party of explorers, so we rented out an AirBNB in the basement of a large haunted mansion in the south-eastern suburb of Anerley. (Note: It only appeared haunted; we were not once visited by disgruntled spirits.)

For a couple of days, Fabienne also visited us, and as such we had a 'belated birthday party crossed with an early Christmas' type of celebratory dinner. It was wonderful. Prosecco was had. I made delicious Greek stuffed peppers, which was Fabienne's favourite of the night. The others also convinced me to make an apple cake, which I had been hemming and hawing over for several days, and it turned out to be a roaring success (with cinnamon icing and almond decorations no less).

Just a half hour's walk or a short bus ride away from Anerley, we found Crystal Palace. Indulging there one night, we ate at a Vietnamese restaurant called Urban Orient. I was adventurous and tried some fake meat: mock duck! The texture was very convincing, and the sauce delicious. We intended to return there for another dinner later, but that never came to pass. I will remember you, mock duck!

Stepping aside from culinary explorations, on several occasions we took a stroll through Crystal Palace Park. The name comes from the fact that after the Great Exhibition of 1851, the eponymous glass and cast-iron structure was moved from its place in Hyde Park and plonked here. Sadly, the palace burned down in 1936, but you can still see the grand staircase that led to its entrance, and its sturdy concrete foundations. Some elements from the palace had been saved, including a few oddly conceived dinosaur sculptures which now loiter around a pond at the southern end of the park.

Moving on to more parks, dad, Fabienne and I visited Regent's Park where we traversed the rose garden and the Japanese garden. 

From there we passed some iconic telephone boxes (this pose was me telling dad to take a suitably touristic photo) on the way to Primrose Hill, which is yet another park.

This one offers a good view of London's skyline, though our attention was commandeered by two men with metal detectors. 

We watched them with curiosity for a time, and on our way down the hill dad asked if they had found anything. "Just a few pound coins today" one of the treasure hunters said. I wonder if they detect metal full-time.

Need a rest after so much park ranging, we skipped below ground to the Attendant: a circa-1890 Victorian public toilet that has in recent years been turned into a niche café. The wall tiles are original, as well as the cisterns and gleaming white urinals. I'll admit it's rather a strange idea for a café setting, as even though nobody has done a poo or wee here for over fifty years (the toilet was closed down in the 1960's) it still feels a bit unhygienic to eat or drink next to a urinal. 

In order for dad to get a good feel for London, we would often catch the train into the heart of the city and take in the sights for a few hours. On one such day, we crossed over London Bridge to see the Monument to the Great Fire of London and the Tower of London. While in the area, we quickly popped into Saint Dunstan in the East: a church with a glorious ivy-covered courtyard. It was such a lovely patch of greenery in the midst of tall glass office blocks.

On another day, we set out to see a veritable feast of attractions. On the menu was Big Ben (part of the Palace of Westminster, aka Parliament), Westminster Abbey, 10 Downing Street, the Horse Guards Parade, Trafalgar Square, and through St James's Park to Buckingham Palace.

Dad saw a sign for the Queen's Gallery, which we followed and ended up in the gift shop. Everything was ridiculously overpriced (doesn't the royal family have enough money as it is?!) but it was terribly fun to see little Corgi plushies and tea towels reading "God Save the Queen" among extensive Christmas decorations. Seriously, check out the online store here for a giggle. You can buy pyjamas in the fashion of the Royal Guardsmen (minus the meter-tall fluffy hat). 

One of the last excursions we undertook during dad's visit was a trip to Greenwich. I figured that Greenwich would be a good starting point for a riverboat tour (which dad had expressed his intent for), and we could experience a few historical sites at the same time. Dad, a fan of boats and all things maritime, entered the Cutty Sark and learned many interesting facts about the long-serving tea clipper. From there we checked out Greenwich Market and then a nautical-themed store alleging to be "The First Shop in the World" without offering further explanation. It was here I discovered that my winter coat looked just like the seafarers' coats for sale, and dad purchased a very fitting cap reading "CAPTAIN". After a wander around the National Maritime Museum, we trekked through Greenwich Park up to the Royal Observatory, where we could observe the Meridian Line (of Greenwich Mean Time fame) through a barred gate. You had to pay an entrance fee to actually be able to get near it, so we left and watched a squirrel bury a special treat in the ground to find later. While waiting for our tour boat to depart, we took advantage of the toilets in the Old Royal Naval College, and had a look at some historical documents as well.

We rode on the top of the boat, which was bitterly cold, but well worth it for the stunning views and fresh air. The narrator of our journey was both informative and hilarious, and I would highly recommend City Cruises for anyone wanting to learn more about London while cruising down the Thames, all for an affordable fee. I'm usually not one for guided tours, but it really was much more interesting than simply catching one of the commuter ferries and only a few pounds pricier. 

And if you thought that we had already done plenty of exploring in November, that wasn't the half of it! We also took weekend trips to Berlin and Paris.
It was sad to say goodbye to dad on the day he left, but it was such a great experience to have him visit for three whole weeks and show him around London, which was a place I could call home with contentment (though we had been there a while, and the travel bug was nibbling at our feet). 

Monday, 20 March 2017

Paris weekend trip, day two: Depressions of an Allemande Vin Vendor

Paris, France (Paris, France)
27 November 2016
When one is in Paris for the first time, one must see the Eiffel Tower. 'Tis an unspoken rule, with terrible consequences if not abided.
Therefore, on a crisp Sunday morning we set our alarms alarmingly early and watched the sun rise from between the tower's sturdy limbs. We were first in line! I stamped and jogged in place for nearly an hour while we waited for the attraction to open, and after a quick security check we got to stand in another line in order to buy tickets for the elevator. Once we ascended, we appreciated the stunning panoramic views (dad more so - I found a heater and latched onto it for a while). Dad was suitably impressed, so all the standing around in the cold and queueing was well worth it.

Before leaving the tower, I warmed myself with a paper cup full of le thé dans le cafe and had a brief wander around the souvenir stalls to bring circulation back to my toes.

Continuing our sightseeing, we popped out of the metro by the Arc de Triomphe to take some pictures and dad rather bravely stood in the middle of the road in order to acquire the most symmetrical snaps.

Then on we went to the Notre Dame. We did consider going inside, but the line was extremely long. Clearly this would also have been an appropriate sight to wake up early for and be first in line. I showed dad the attractive garden at the back of the cathedral, which was covered in colourful leaves. He chilled there while I went for lunch at a nearby eatery.

On the way, I passed by some beautiful and autumnal streets. The cobblestones and Parisien. 

Hank Vegan Burger offered a €14 meal deal which included a burger, fries, a drink and a dessert. Such a bargain! The food was amazing, and if I had spent more time in Paris, I would become a regular at Hank.
After a quick wee in a shopping mall along the way, I rejoined dad who had eaten a hot dog for lunch.

Seeing that our hotel was only a half hour walk away, according to Google Maps, we decided to walk back. En route, we admired the grandiose Pantheon and the neighbouring church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont. As dad still hadn't seen many European churches, we entered the church to have a brief look around, and dad gave a few coins to a hobo on the steps.

Strolling onwards, we found ourselves next to the Institut Curie, a very prominent scientific research centre (as well as some downright cool graffiti).

After such an eventful day, we rested for a time at our hotel. That evening, I went for a walk to nearby Chinatown, where I saw that even the sign for McDo was in Chinese! Several men in dark coats were hovering around selling bootleg vegetables on makeshift crate-tables.

From there, I took the metro to north Paris where I patronised Toutofu, a Chinese restaurant where they make their own tofu. They make their own tofu! I ordered the ravioli-type tofu and mushroom parcels, with a pot of chrysanthemum tea on the side. The place was super low-key and quite frankly a delight. Around the area, entrepreneurs were selling roasted chestnuts and grilled corn from improvised cookers they had made from trolleys.

Still feeling like a bit of a wander, I took a metro to the centre and after a while found myself at the Christmas market by Champs Elysée. It was there that I bought mulled wine from a terribly depressed German woman who was manning a stall that professed "vin chaud", "glühwein" and ten other words that clearly meant "mulled wine" in more niche languages. At some Christmas markets, I've been to, you're supposed to return the cups to the vendors once you've finished with them so they can be washed and reused, but the depressed stallholder seemed bewildered and somehow even sadder when I attempted to pass it back to her so I suppose that was the wrong thing to do. Instead, I rinsed it out and gave it to dad as a memento.

The next morning we boarded the Eurostar once again (this time laden with kilos of chocolate and cider) and returned to the land of Eng.

Today's post was almost called: Sunrise Chills for the Preeminent Tower Clamberers

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Paris weekend trip, day one: Cacao Smuggling (Drug Mule for a Chocolate Baron)

Paris, France (Paris, France)
26 November 2016
Thanks to the Eurostar, Paris is just a short trip from London, and you don't even have to suffer seasickness anymore.
With a very early start to the day, we made our way to King's Cross and from there, mainland Europe!

The journey was painless, and soon enough we had arrived at the hotel and dropped off our bags. Wanting a little pick-me-up, we took a seat at a café that was right around the corner, where I had some tea and dad enjoyed an omelette while people-watching and getting acquainted with the French ambience that surrounded us.
The area in which we were staying was Les Gobelins in the 13th arrondissement (south Paris). We were just down the road from the large Place d'Italie, which was very handy for its metro stop, and were also close to a couple of supermarkets and a strange shopfront which seemed to either sell or simply be a museum devoted to secondhand camera lenses.

Our first day in the capital was devoted solely to visiting the Louvre, as dad was itching to go and I had never been before.

The building was huge, and where was no way we would be able to see everything in an afternoon. We briefly perused the exquisite sculpture garden before carrying on.

Our Louvre expedition mainly revolved around French paintings, and some of them were enormous! Vast scenes of varying dramatic episodes were played out over wall after wall. Dad suggested catching a glimpse of the Mona Lisa, so before leaving the museum we trotted over to the Italian painting section and with some slight crowd shuffling we were able to feast our eyes upon her perfect eyebrow-less visage (sarcasm; I mean, it was a very good painting but all too overhyped in my opinion).

After such a tiring day, dad rested in the hotel room and I went out for a relaxing evening stroll.

For dinner I visited Crêpe de la Joie, which provide many vegan options. Every menu item sounded delicious, but I opted for the spiced apple and almond crêpe with a delightful Kir Breton on the side (cider with crème de cassis - blackcurrant liqueur). 

Knowing that supermarkets would be closed the next day (Sundays are such a pain in Europe!), I made sure to find a large supermarket to stock up on bottles of cheap French cider and Cote d'Or chocolate for Yannick. He had instructed me to buy "as much as I could carry", so I felt rather ridiculous at the checkout. I was hoping that the lady behind the till would make some comment, or smile, or give me any reason to explain myself, but she beeped through every bar of chocolate and bottle of cider without so much as a second glance or flicker of emotion. On my way back to the hotel, I ended up walking down a street that Yannick and I had explored the last time we were in Paris. It brought back great memories, and I loved seeing all the bright Christmas lights and families out for a spot of nighttime window shopping or heading back home after dinner. I nipped into a vegan bakery I had heard about, but was too full to buy anything really exciting, leaving instead with just a cookie. I nibbled away at it, and both dad and I slept very well that night.

Today's post was almost called: Enter the Realm of the Gobelins

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Berlin weekend trip, day two: AmpelKitsch und Footal Glitch

Berlin, Germany (Berlin, Deutschland)
20 November 2016
We were determined to make good use of our single full day in Berlin, and set out early for the sights.
Our first stop of the day was the Reichstag, a stately building used to house the German Parliament until WWII. Only restored after the German reunification, it is nonetheless grand and very patriotically flying dozens of flags.

Across the street, the large Großer Tiergarten was full of life: children climbing on a lion statue, tourists bumbling about, and entrepreneurs selling bretzels from their bicycle-stalls.

Following the crowd just down the road, we found ourselves gazing up at the Brandenburg Gate. Built in 1791 on the site of an old city gate, it is a symbol of peace and is one of the most recognisable monuments in Berlin. Towering over us all, it was suitably impressive and neoclassical. It was around this time that I realised my poor choice of footwear and worried that my toes would become frostbitten and fall off once I removed said shoes. Clearly, the combination of chilly German mornings, my inherited condition of bad circulation and canvas sneakers was less than ideal. Luckily, dad came to the rescue and told me to alternately stamp my feet and scrunch my toes, and that helped blood return to my distraught extremities.

Another sight very nearby was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe: a vast jumble of stone blocks in various heights that are intended to disorient visitors in a symbolic gesture.
At a nearby tourist stall a fluffy hat caught my eye, and as I had thus far been improperly prepared for winter, I went ahead and bought it! I immediately felt better as my ears were hugged by the warm material, and I felt able to continue the frigid ramble.

From there we took a stroll down the road and admired the German architecture. A personal favourite  of mine was this attractive overbridge linking two buildings across the street from one another.

The French Church was up next on our outing, and it stood out bright and shining against the frail, wintery trees that surrounded it. The church construction began in 1701 in order to accommodate the large Huguenot population in Berlin, and was modelled off a razed Huguenot church in France.

Funnily enough, an almost identical church lurked at the other side of the square: the German Church. This was where German-speaking worshipers congregated, rather than in its French-speaking twin across the Gendarmenmarkt.

For lunch we visited Das Meisterstück, where I was able to chow down on some excellent tofu sausages with mushroom ragu. The restaurant was decked out in cuckoo clocks and quirky layers of wallpaper, with a large flaming oven/barbeque tended by a bearded man in an apron.

While on our route to Museum Island, we found ourselves outside Humboldt University, where in 1933 over twenty thousand books were burned by the Third Reich. A plaque in front of the university quotes Heinrich Heine: "This was but a prelude; where they burn books, they ultimately burn people".

Also along the way, we popped our heads into a memorial building, where we saw a strange scene involving wreaths and a cheerless sculpture. 

Ahhhhh, the Berliner Dom. How beautiful, with its turquoise domes and stately statues. Surrounded on all sides by the river, it stands on Museum Island alongside some other respectable buildings (such as museums, hence the name). As dad had never been inside a European church before, we simply had to enter. The fee was reasonable (€7); it was practically cheap if you compared it to the ridiculous £25 that Saint Paul's in London tries to charge you!

Inside turned out to be even more majestic than the exterior. After gazing around and up in awe for some time (and I told a lady off for using the flash on her camera - a definite no-no indicated with many signs), we decided to undertake the courageous feat of scaling the many steps up to the dom. It took a fair amount of time and a small amount of resting, but eventually we made it, and boy was it worth it!

At the tippy-top, where we were able to walk around the dome, we snapped many photos and panoramas of the cityscape. Though still only afternoon, the sky was beginning to light up in sunset colours, which were the icing on top of the cathedral. You can also see a lovely angle of my brand new hat, which was keeping my head terribly warm and cosy.

The Ampelmann apparently did not just resonate with one foreigner (aka me) but many, and has amassed quite a fanbase around the world. As such, it is only fitting that souvenir shops full of Ampelmann products are readily available for the eager public. Ampelmann snowglobes, teatowels, drinking glasses and wrapping paper only scratch the surface of this kitsch wunderland.
Next on the itinerary was the Hackesche Höfe: a series of interconnecting courtyards within a shopping complex. Unfortunately it wasn't quite as interesting as it sounds (and nothing compared to the excellent courtyards of Lyon), and we had no need for food or designer clothing, so we moved on. Briefly scoping out the Alexanderplatz, we found that the central hub was almost completely covered with Christmas market stalls. Alas, most of them were not functional, and we trotted off back to our hotel to take a much needed break.

That evening, Yannick and I went for a stroll around the Schöneberg area, where we dined at the Israeli Restaurant Feinberg's. Crispy falafel, tahini, and tabbouleh! Also, why not throw in a little fermented cabbage á la Allemagne? It wasn't quite sauerkraut, but was very similar, and went very well with the dish. We had intended to walk a bit further into Schöneberg after dinner to see the Rathaus, but we were much too full and staggered back to our beds. The Rathaus is where JFK famously spoke the words "Ich bin ein Berliner". Three days after his assassination, the square on which the Schöneberg Rathaus sits was renamed John-F.-Kennedy-Platz.

We awoke dreadfully early the next morning in order to catch our flight back to London, and this time there were no beer guzzlers on the train.

Today's post was almost called: Spawn of the Ampelmann (the Danke Meme of Berlin)