Monday, December 30, 2013

The Top 10 Best Things About Celebrating Christmas in the UK

This past Christmas was significant as it was the first Christmas I've ever celebrated in the UK, away from my family. At first, I was really bummed about not being home for Christmas, but I soon got over that when I realized that Christmas in England is actually, well, pretty awesome. I kind of never wanted it to be over. 

Here's my Top 10 list of the things that make Christmas so special in the UK:

1. A country walk after Christmas dinner


There's nothing better than retiring to the couch after stuffing your face at the Christmas dinner table ... well, except getting into the fresh, crisp country air with a long walk after dinner to help aid digestion. Not to mention, it's pretty darn beautiful out there. In this case, we didn't make it out until Boxing Day, but still, putting on a pair of Hunter wellies and taking in the beautiful Leicestershire country scenes made me almost forget that I live in a big, overcrowded, manic city.

2. Christmas crackers


I LOVE the tradition of pulling open Christmas crackers and putting on that flimsy colored paper crown inside! Crackers range from cheap (with plastic toys and corny jokes to be read aloud at the table) to downright luxurious (at Liberty and Fortnum & Mason, a box of their beautifully decorated crackers with luxury gifts inside retail for over £200 for ten!). They're festive and fun and there's nothing like trying to pop a plastic "jumping" frog into your brother-in-law's glass of dessert wine, as I tried to do shortly after the photo above was taken.

3. Christmas treats


I can't say that I love mince pies or Christmas cake (I'm not a fan of fruit cake or preserved fruit in general), but I'll definitely have a mince pie or two with a glass of mulled wine around Christmas time in the UK. In the US, we tend to have a lot more creative, spangly types of Christmas treats (have a look at the recipes on Pinterest and you'll know what I mean) with the stores dominated by colorfully iced sugar cookies with sprinkles on top, but I like how the British get back to the basics with festive treats that have heritage (as the mince pies and Christmas pudding do). But more "modern" confections also appeal to me. In the photo above, my friend Natalie made a delicious rocky road and decorated it with "snow", deer, and trees. Isn't it amazing? We enjoyed it while watching The Holiday, one of my favorite cheesy Christmas movies.

4. Two words: BRANDY BUTTER

I've never had brandy butter until this year (probably because I've never celebrated Christmas in the UK), but it is a REVELATION. A huge dollop of that with a generous helping of cream on top of my Christmas pudding, and I could eat that stuff forever. It also seems like the kind of thing that would only exist in Harry Potter books (I know I'm thinking of butter beer here), which is probably also why I love it, aside from the fact that it's sweet, alcoholic, and totally indulgent.

5. The Queen's Christmas speech


Watching the Queen's speech on Christmas Day was a first for me. It probably doesn't mean too much to people who have grown up with hearing the Queen's address every year, but I was (as the Anglophile I am), naturally, enraptured. She spoke of reflection and of Prince George, and as always, looked impeccable in a cheery, soft yellow dress suit and pearls. Long live the Queen.

6. The lights on Oxford Street and Regent Street


Brits are always stunned by the sheer magnitude and length that Americans will go to in order to decorate their houses for Christmas. I remember driving through specific streets with my parents when I was small, just to see the Christmas lights. There was a favorite house of mine in Sumner that featured an elaborate reindeer display and also went to town on their Halloween decorations as well. But in the absence of these OTT, competitive displays in UK homes (and sure, I've seen some impressive ones here, but trust me - they're nothing compared to American lights), I love taking the bus down Oxford Street and Regent Street during this time of year. The lights and the displays are positively magical and fill me with happiness.

7. Drinking mulled wine by a roaring fire in a pub

I like my mulled wine very, very sweet, with lots of spice. And there's nothing lovelier than enjoying it by a fire in a country (or London) pub. The best mulled wine I've had to date was from The Turf in Oxford (where, allegedly, Bill Clinton famously "did not inhale"). For a quick fix, you can buy packets of mulled wine spices or make it from scratch yourself. 

8. Popular (British) Christmas songs

Christmas playlists are a must for me starting around mid-November. I hadn't realized how many British Christmas songs there were that we've never heard in the US (or at least, are much less popular) until I came here, like Slade's "Merry Christmas Everybody":


Or a personal favorite of mine, "Merry Christmas Everyone" (not to be confused with "Merry Christmas Everybody"!):


9. Setting your Christmas pudding alight

Unfortunately I don't have a photo of this (they're all too dark), but what's more fun than turning off all the lights, drizzling your dessert with a spoonful of brandy, and setting it on fire? Not much, I don't think. I may not be the biggest fan of Christmas pudding, but I sure love the excitement of seeing it being lit. That, and brandy butter.

10. The post-Christmas sales


London is as much of a shopping haven as the US is - you just need to know where to look! Every year, I lust after these beautiful ornaments from Fortnum & Mason (otherwise known as my spiritual home). And every year, I pass on them, because they retail for between £14-25 each!!! That's a little on the pricey side for me. But this year, I made a journey there after Boxing Day hoping to find a few treasures for my mom, who collects Christmas ornaments. Sure enough, I lucked out as some of these were reduced down to £3.50! Boxes of Christmas crackers were reduced from £50 to £12.50. I also spied some gorgeous Rifle Paper Co. cards as well for about £4. 

So there you have it. Clearly, Christmas in the UK is fun. And now I'm off to my second Christmas in the States, so I don't have to be too depressed about the holiday season being over. 

Merry Christmas, everyone. 
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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Christmas Shopping in Paris


When I told my mom that I was going to Paris last weekend, she replied, "It sounds so luxurious - pre-Christmas shopping in Paris!" And I hadn't thought about it too much (of course, I'd thought about shopping, just not specifically about what it'd be like to shop in Paris right before Christmas), so I wasn't quite prepared for the spectacle that is Paris department stores at Christmas time. Simply ah-maz-ing.

The tree above is from Galeries Lafayette, one of the three major (luxury) department stores in Paris. The displays in these stores really put Selfridges and certainly Nordstrom to shame. I've never seen anything quite like it. Classy, elegant, yet completely over-the-top, the artistry found in these visual merchandising masterpieces was utterly impressive. Outside, the lines to simply look at the interactive window displays (which were really, really delightful, I must admit) snaked around the corners. My French co-worker, who, like many others in my office, is a native Parisienne, admitted to me in an email that she makes a "pilgrimage" each year to see the Christmas windows. Aside from its impressive collection of designer goods (for example, the store has two separate Longchamp concessions on different floors), the domed, stained glass ceiling of Galeries Lafayette (which you can see a part of in the photo above) is its main attraction. It's for this reason that the store has become more of a tourist attraction than a shopping destination.

We then made our way to Printemps, and I will refrain from re-telling our traumatic story of how one security guard managed to ruin our visit and possibly our day (except to say that you should never take the stairs as an alternative to the overcrowded escalators, unless you would like to be physically assaulted and verbally threatened by the guards), where I took in the gorgeous display at Prada, which included two mock elevators that "opened" to reveal rotating mannequins and their luxuriously distinctive leather bags.


And of course, the Chanel perfume counter looked appealing, as it does in every city, but particularly so in Paris (though this photo is from Galeries Lafayette, rather than Printemps):


After we had our fill of jostling elbows and I grew tired of cooing over YSL heels and Celine handbags, we wandered over to the Marais for smaller boutiques (with similarly jaw-dropping prices). And would you believe it? I left Paris empty handed, save for a small box of macarons from Pierre Herme and a beautiful silk scarf for my mom.

There's always next time.

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Best Steak Frites in Paris, Bistrot Vivienne


My dad sends me a hand-drawn birthday card every year. This year, he had slipped (most likely unbeknownst to my mom) five crisp £20 notes between the card and a handwritten note that read, "Dear Jaime, Go get yourself a nice birthday dinner ... Dad. p.s. You may invite John too if you like :)". Literally, that's what he wrote. With a smiley face at the end. So I replied to him (without cc'ing my mom, in case he got in trouble for sending CASH in the mail, which you should NEVER do, not to mention how incredibly difficult it is to obtain British bank notes in our small town) and told him that I'd turned his pounds into Euros and that I'd buy us (me and John) a nice dinner when we got to Paris.

And so I did. Or rather, my dad did.


While on the train to Paris, I developed a sudden craving for steak frites, i.e. steak and skinny fries, usually served with Bearnaise sauce. I also very specifically wanted a carafe (not a bottle, not a glass, but a carafe) of house red wine. I also wanted a little bowl of green salad on the side with a simple vinaigrette and oil dressing.

And you know what? My wishes came true: on every count. In searching for a restaurant to eat near my friend Philip's recommendation, we stumbled upon the Galerie Vivienne - a beautiful arcade glittering with Christmas lights and lined with wine shops and restaurants. In it, was Bistrot Vivienne: a buzzing, wonderfully decorated restaurant with friendly staff and steak on the menu. Sold.

We ordered everything I had wanted and our perfectly cooked steaks (rare for John, medium for me) arrived not too long after, along with my precious carafe of red wine and the delicious bread which only the French can do so very well. I think my eyes rolled into the back of my head when I took my first bite. We mopped up the juices on our plates with the bread and smothered our steak with the delicious Bearnaise sauce. The fries were a little on the soggy side, but that didn't matter to me at all, as the main event was so delicious and I was having such a good time. It seemed like the perfect end to a very hectic and tumultuous few weeks for both of us (but mostly John) at work.

As the English lady at the table next to ours paid her bill, I overheard her tell the waiter that she loved the restaurant and made a point to visit it every time she came to Paris. I made a mental note to do the same, but to take my dad as well.

At the end of the meal, I was suitably drunk and deliriously happy with the meal I'd just consumed. I paid the bill, thanked my dad, and stumbled into the night on John's arm, grateful for experiences like the one I'd just had.

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123 Sébastopol


Have you ever jumped on a bed, flopped around, then wanted to cry, all because it was just so dang comfortable? That's how I felt about the bed in our room at 123 Sébastopol in Paris. Not only was it comfortable, but it was also pretty. When I think of Paris, I think of accordians and mimes, of croissants and cups of thick chocolat chaud. I also think of balconies that open onto the street below and, strangely, of beautiful, grey, oversized headboards exactly like the one pictured above. I was in seventh heaven (and I had John to thank, since he booked the hotel).

Conveniently located in the 2nd arrondissement (just a stone's throw away from the Pompidou Centre and a short walk from everything else), 123 Sébastopol is a quirky, cinema-themed boutique hotel with each floor dedicated to a French celebrity. We were on the second, or Elsa Zylberstein, floor - and because of this, our room had a small ballet barre (in homage to Elsa's classical dance training) and girly touches, like the low-hanging chandeliers and a wicker dress maker's form in the corner. The bathroom, though compact, was lovely: the sink and mirror resembled a trunk and a dressing room mirror, while the glass-enclosed shower made me want to linger there just a tad longer than usual.

The pièce de résistance (sorry, I can't help it, and yes, this is the absolute limit of my French language skills) however, was the hotel lobby's incredible snack bar and complimentary room mini-bar, which was consistently refreshed with soft drinks ranging from Coke Zero to Orangina. 


In case you weren't already full from breakfast (which consisted of cooked options such as scrambled eggs, sausages, bacon, and delicious potatoes, as well as patisserie and fresh fruit), the "snack bar" included a beautiful array of macarons, pain au raisin, brownies, melt-in-the-middle chocolate muffins, chips (crisps to you Brits!), crackers, and other snacks, along with a full range of hot and cold drinks. I mean, seriously. After a hard day of shopping - I mean, sightseeing - the snack bar is definitely a sight for sore eyes.

And of course, in following the cinematic theme, the hotel has its own cinema downstairs, where they have timed screenings of movies throughout the day as well as any movie you'd like to watch that's in their library on request. And there's popcorn. Sadly, we didn't take advantage of this because we were too busy drinking carafes of red wine and eating steak frites long into the night, but we did watch several new movies from the comfort of our bed (with my request being Kung Fu Panda 2 - I cried five times - and John's being Senna - you know, the documentary about the F1 driver who was tragically killed during a race. I also cried during this). 

No rock has been left unturned in the hotel's quest to stay true to their movie-fanatic identity: the check-in desk has been designed to look like a box office and you enter via entrances with plush red curtains bearing the Palm d'Or emblem. One almost expects applause and paparazzi when walking through the door and, literally, onto the red carpet. And as cheesy as it sounds, the staff treat you like a celebrity - the total antithesis of Tripadvisor horror stories of upturned noses or arrogance. Here, they smile and greet you with sincerity, always happy to help and to make you feel welcome. 

Needless to say, I didn't want to leave. A dream-like experience and one that I would highly recommend.
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City Break: Paris


Last week, John was in Paris for work, so I took a half day off on Friday, hopped on the Eurostar, and joined him in the evening. It's hard to believe that the city is so easily accessible: the train journey lasted for a little over two hours, and passport control is all done at St. Pancras, so you arrive at Gare du Nord feeling totally relaxed and stress-free.

I must admit, Paris has never been my favorite city. During my last two visits, I found most of the people I encountered to be intolerably rude and the Metro to be stinking of urine (sorry, just my personal experience). This time, (aside from one rather unpleasant run-in with a security guard at Printemps) we met lovely people, had delicious food, stayed in a beautiful hotel, were very, very lucky with the weather (see above!), and - best of all - had the opportunity to see the city all dressed up for Christmas. It was, as they say, très romantique. And oh, the Metro didn't smell. Not one bit. And people were very polite.

So, yeah. Paris, je t'aime.

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Friday, December 6, 2013

Angloyankophile: Interview With ZoneOne Radio


Hello, lovely readers! Last week, I was interviewed about my experiences of living abroad in London as an American by ZoneOne Radio as a part of their #EmailFromLondon series. You can hear it in its entirety here (I'm around the 24:40 mark!). As part of the interview, they asked me to choose one song that reminded me of home ... what do you think I picked? (Hint: it was definitely the "alternative" selection compared to what other expats chose as theirs)
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Tonkotsu Ramen @ Taro, Brewer Street


I know what you're thinking. I know it looks like I eat out a lot but ... okay, I eat out a lot. At least, I've been eating out more than usual lately. I don't really drink, so whenever I catch up with friends after work, it's usually for a meal, rather than for a glass of wine (though I do love an occasional glass of wine - my body, however, doesn't). This week, my dinner schedule looked like this:

Monday - chicken burger meal from Chicken Cottage, complete with fries and a Coke. Don't judge. It only happened once.

Tuesday - dinner at Hakkasan. It was my birthday. Come on.

Wednesday - Spam, fried egg, and rice at home (a Cantonese last-resort/quick-fix meal).

Thursday - Tonkotsu ramen at Taro on Brewer Street (pictured above).

Friday - I plan to subsist solely on mince pies, mulled wine, and gingerbread cookies at my friend's Christmas party. I'm not sure how successful I'll be.

Oh, and I think I might have had a slice of cake every day for the past 7 days. Leafy greens? Out the window. Fiber? Do digestive biscuits count as a source of fiber?

Guilty confession time aside, I had the most delicious ramen with Carin at Taro on Brewer Street last night. Although I'd only been to Tonkotsu East a couple of weeks before, I couldn't turn down an invitation for ramen - particularly as it's just turned so darn cold outside. A large bowlful of steaming, tonkotsu broth seemed far more appealing than anything else at the time.

At Tonkotsu East, your menu choices are slightly limited, since their focus is on two types of ramen (and for good reason - those homemade noodles are exquisite). But here, the choices were endless and everything appealed: beef teriyaki don, chicken yakisoba, tonkotsu ramen, curry udon, sushi, sashimi, bento boxes ... I could see myself getting carried away, very quickly.

After quite a bit of indecision, we finally settled on ordering vegetable gyoza to begin with, which, while arriving with a greasier and thicker wrapper than those heavenly pillows of goodness at Tonkotsu East, were nevertheless very tasty. Our ramen (I opted for the tonkotsu pork and Carin had the chicken) arrived quickly and I couldn't wait to try the milky, rich broth made from pork bone topped with a sliced hard boiled egg, picked ginger, beansprouts, seaweed and spring onion. I especially love the large, wooden spoons you're given to help you scoop up generous servings of the broth and ramen. I was in love with the broth at first taste: rich, with a real depth of flavor, the broth was a perfect accompaniment to the ramen and toppings, which didn't need any further seasoning. The ramen itself was so-so: thin, wiry noodles that differed widely from the slightly thicker, chewy and made-on-the-premises version found at Tonkotsu East, but of an acceptable quality that went well with the rest of the bowl.

The restaurant was soon full of theater-goers and tourists around 7 pm, although surprisingly, quite a lot of people came in just to order takeout. I didn't expect that, for some reason. But I could definitely see the appeal of getting a bento box or chicken donburi to take home, especially if it was on the way home.

Bottom line is, I'll definitely be back to Taro to try all the other items on their menu - it's a friendly, cozy, environment with authentic Japanese food (and lots of options!), which is a rare gem to find in the tourist traps of Soho, London. Thanks for the suggestion and lovely dinner conversation, Carin!
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Thursday, December 5, 2013

Birthday Dinner @ Hakkasan Mayfair


Ok, Alan Yau. I get it. I take back all my former hesitations about selecting Hakkasan as my birthday dinner choice. You win. The food is utterly incredible. The atmosphere is ... meh ... but the food. Oh, the food. Can one even refer to it as food? I think it's deserving of a term that denotes a higher form of praise.

Just last week, as I was walking past Les Trois Garcons on my way back from the launch party for Hair: Fashion and Fantasy, I looked inside and thought, maybe I should come here instead for dinner on my birthday, instead of Hakkasan Mayfair. Who needs pretentious Chinese food when you could have pretentious French food instead? I know, good logic, right?

But I'm so glad I stuck to my guns, because dinner last night was simply exquisite. I've been to other Yau establishments: Cha Cha Moon (once a favorite haunt of ours because it offered dishes at 50% off for months and months after it opened), Yauatcha (a former favorite of mine until I realized that eating cheek to jowl with your neighbor was not a stellar dining experience), and Wagamama (no ... just ... no). But Hakkasan had been on my "must try" list since I moved to London over 7 years ago. It's so famous for its Michelin-starred Chinese cuisine, that even my parents (who are really sniffy about Chinese fine dining) are aware of the restaurant and speak of it in reverent, hushed tones as it is repeatedly name-dropped in their HK celebrity mags.

I accidentally booked the Mayfair location rather than the flagship on Hanway Place, but no matter - it felt somewhat apt to stroll past the beautiful windows of Stella McCartney, Isabel Marant, Miu Miu, and Tory Burch last night on my way to the restaurant.

We were seated downstairs in the black and blue-themed, dark (very dark - so dark that the servers rushing around behind your table were rendered virtually invisible), and modern dining room with a single, bright light shared between us - resembling an interrogation unit. So far, not so good. The glass of Bordeaux I ordered arrived perfunctorily but without announcement as to what it was, and there was much confusion over the fact that John wanted tea as his beverage of choice (you know, what Chinese people typically drink with their food?) but had to order from the dessert menu, etc. But hey. It was my birthday. And I was not going to pick up on these little details (well, except to make a mental note of them and record them here).

We ordered the dim sum platter to start, consisting of two pieces each of har gau (prawn dumpling), scallop shu mai, prawn Chinese chive dumpling, and duck dumpling. As soon as I took my first bite of the har gau, I understood why the restaurant deserved its Michelin star. The quality and attention to detail in crafting each individual dumpling was apparent: this was no reheated-from-frozen job from the typical London Chinatown restaurant fare (which, yes, I hate to break it to you Chinatown dim-sum addicts out there, but ever noticed how pink the pork is when you bite into your shu mai? It's because it came out of a freezer). No, these were fresh, quality ingredients through and through.

For the main event, we ordered the scallop and prawns stuffed with long beans (the long bean was tied in a perfect knot and cooked to the perfect consistency, encased in a prawn and scallop ball, of sorts, in a rich, almost lobster bisque-y sauce), pork belly wrapped gai lan (mouth-watering spicy deliciousness), and the Mongolian-style lamb chops, which were my favorite, of all the dishes. The lamb was perfectly tender and the marinade that was used absolutely blew my mind, as in, I couldn't comprehend how it could be so tasty. I was that impressed.

Of course, I had to order dessert to share (banana and chocolate souffle, served with a mini chocolate and nut dipped ice cream bar), which was beautifully presented (complete with a lovely birthday message written in white chocolate!) and tasted divine.

So, yes. I get it. I get why Hakkasan commands the level of eye-widening admiration and accolades as it does. The level of service may be so-so and the atmosphere might not have been quite up my alley, but the food - oh my god, the food - is absolutely worth it. Every penny. Or pence.  

Square Meal
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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Very Angloyankophile Birthday


So, yesterday was a "milestone" birthday for me (I'll let you guess which one) and I spent most of my day wafting around in a dream-like state, accepting cards, cakes, flowers, gifts, and invitations to "birthday breakfast" or "birthday lunch" like someone who thought they were getting punk'd. Seriously though, I've never felt more spoiled, happy, guilty, elated, undeserving than I did yesterday!

I'm not ashamed to say that I loved a lot of "girly" gifts that I received yesterday, including (but not limited to) this beautiful Gramercy rose gold watch from Kate Spade (a gift from John, pictured above) that I'd been eying for a few weeks in the Covent Garden store. The preppy, unapologetically pretty American brand has finally made its way across the pond and, while it was once a brand that was too private prep-school for me, I'm slowly beginning to appreciate the pop of bright colors in their accessories and the cheerful patterns adorning their beautifully made ready-to-wear (I just stay away from iPhone covers and makeup bags with cheesy sayings). I've been looking for a chunky, rose gold watch for a while, but found the ubiquitous selection from Michael Kors too, well, chunky, and those from Marc Jacobs too unappealing due to the branding. I liked this watch because it was sleek and understated, but still shiny and fun to wear.

Then, I arrived to work, and my boss presented me with this beautifully packaged cologne from Jo Malone:


I had mentioned to her in passing that I was on the lookout for a new fragrance and that I liked the new Peony and Blush Suede scent from Jo Malone (my mom's favorite perfume brand, and something that I've treated her to quite a few times in the past!). I'd been contemplating buying it for myself for weeks, while gazing longingly into the shop window every time I walked past but making a mental note to hold off until I got to Heathrow's duty free branch later this month. Needless to say, I was utterly shocked (in a good way!) when it appeared on my desk yesterday, not to mention incredibly touched as well. What a thoughtful and extravagant gift!

I was on cloud nine by the time I closed my eyes for bed last night - I've been so lucky to spend my birthday with family and friends every year and to have family and friends make the day so very special for me.


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Friday, November 29, 2013

One Necklace, Two Ways: How to Style a (Cheap) Statement Necklace


So, disclaimer: this isn't, by any means, a fashion blog. It's a blog about my life in London and how this intersects with my various interests ... and I wouldn't even say that "fashion" is one of my interests. BUT ... shopping is! And I can't help but share the terrific bargain I recently scored at Primark, of all places. I know, I know, it's evil and the lines to pay and try stuff on could induce cardiac arrest, but it's only a hop, skip, and a jump away from my office, so I admit to speed-walking over there when I need to let off some lunchtime (spending) steam. 

Luckily, I didn't feel too guilty about this purchase, because it only set me back by £8. Yes, it's a piece of statement jewelery that's even affordable on a publishing salary. I loved this graphic, 60s-inspired, pop-art flower necklace so much that I wore it twice in a row. See? Major fashion faux pas, further proof that I'm no fashionista. 

But here it is. On Monday, I wore it with a bright, persimmon-colored sweater from Gap, with a denim shirt (also by Gap) and a black Zara blazer. The red really made the necklace pop, and, if anything, it provided for a good talking point at work. On Tuesday, I paired it with a simple black sweater dress with lace collar from Asos, going for the monochrome look, which was a lot more refined, but still playful. Et voila.

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving! 10 Things I'm Thankful For This Year


I FaceTimed with my mom and grandma in Hong Kong when I was at work the other day (it was 1 a.m. in Hong Kong and towards the end of my work day, so I thought I'd take advantage of the rare opportunity to speak to my 94 (?)-year-old grandma face-to-face). And as we were chatting and I was showing her my new (faux) fur hat, which looks uncannily similar to her (real) fur hat, I thought how extraordinary it was that the internet had connected three generations of women in one brief moment; the ability to transcend time zones and close physical distance makes me ever hopeful for a future where I'll spend less time missing my friends and loved ones who are far away and spending more time with them instead - regardless of where we live. 

As I approach my 30th birthday, I have a lot to be thankful for. I've been reading peoples' lists on Facebook and they've really struck a chord with me, so here are my top ten:

1. Our wedding celebrations this summer - there was one point in Seattle (I think it was the day before or day after our dinner reception at Hotel Andra) when I was surrounded by my family and friends, and I looked at my mom and said, without any hesitation or reservations, "Mom, I'm so happy right now." And I meant it. I felt the same way when we were in Oxford, showing my mom and dad where John and I had met, where I had studied for six months. I loved the way that John and I got married (i.e. with just the two of us, over one weekend in Wales), but I loved celebrating with my best friends even more.

2. My life in London - I was having a look at my Instagram photos the other day and marvelling at all the amazing restaurants, events, and productions I've been able to experience in the past year (and years!) that I've lived in London. It's certainly not the norm for many people, I know, and sometimes I catch myself thinking that it is the norm. But then I realize I live my life here nearly to excess - and I really feel like I'm living life to the fullest. I'm very lucky.

3. My friends, both near and far - a few weeks ago, I was feeling sad. I called Udita on a Sunday afternoon and she talked to me for half an hour while parked in a Best Buy parking lot in Houston, listening to me cry, vent, and just blabber on. She didn't rush me. She just listened and was there. On Monday, Alice ran up the stairs to my desk at work and excitedly told me that her dinner plans had been cancelled and how would I like it if she came over and we ordered take-out and watched bad TV until late? I loved it. Then that evening, Lauren and Bindy invited me over for dinner later that week for a home-cooked meal (which I sadly couldn't attend), but it just warmed my heart that they were thinking of me. My friends are THE BEST.

4. FaceTime - it's truly amazing. I was able to "enjoy" tapas with John at his hotel in Madrid on Tuesday when he was there for work, then hang up with him and immediately "step into" my grandma's apartment in Hong Kong to talk to my parents, who had just landed and were experiencing a combination of excitement and jet-lag - I loved seeing my dad propped up in bed reading a Mario Puzo novel! I don't know why - it's just what stuck with me. I slept really well that night knowing that my loved ones were safe and well. And when my parents are at home, it's great to "talk" to my dad over the dinner table - even if he's eating breakfast and I'm making dinner. I can almost smell the ham he's frying up or the cinnamon sugar he always knows to add to my toast. 

5. Our (rented) flat - I remember bursting into tears on a random street in Islington this summer when I was walking home from the pub with John. I was so fed up of moving every time our landlords decided to sell the property. We've moved FOUR times in the four years that we've lived together! We put an offer in on what looked like our dream house in London this summer, but were outbid by over £120,000. It seems impossible to get on the property ladder at the moment but I feel too old to be renting still (plus, ironically, mortgage repayments are cheaper than paying rent every month). My parents left the day before we moved into the place we're currently living in and I remember being an emotional mess at seeing them go and having to leave an apartment that I really, really liked for once. But as I stepped through the door of our flat the other day, I thought how lucky I was to be living in a really nice apartment, on a really nice street, in a really nice part of London - and that I should be grateful for this. Especially as I had passed some rough sleepers in a doorway just hours ago. Reality check.

6. My job - at a book launch last night, someone asked me if I'd always wanted to "be in publishing". And I laughed, because my introduction to publishing was totally by chance. I was really lucky as I didn't have to do any unpaid internships or gain an MA in Publishing in order to move into a management position quite quickly. So whenever I get down on myself on how "little" I have achieved with my life compared to other alumnae of my college, for example, I think of the 17-year-old girl in her bedroom in Small Town, USA. I imagine walking through my door now, and saying, "Hi, I'm you from the future. I just wanted to let you know that in 13 years, you'll be living in London, working for a famous book publishing company, with an amazing husband (you eloped, don't worry - nothing traditional) and friends. You'll eat in really nice restaurants, travel the world, carry a designer handbag and have a nice wardrobe sourced primarily from eBay." And I wouldn't have believed it. Except for maybe the eBay part, because I'm always after a bargain.

7. My travels - I can't believe I was on a cockroach-infested train, hurtling through rice fields during sunrise in Vietnam nine months ago. Nor can I believe I went snorkelling in Thailand, watched the sun set at a winery in Santorini, ate German apple cake in Berlin, or saw the ballet in Budapest, after sitting in a spa for a day. When I was little, I didn't dream of my wedding - I dreamed of travelling the world. And my dreams have absolutely come true. I am so fortunate to be able to travel as much and as far as I do. I realize that it's a rare position to be in.

8. My family - a few friends my age have lost a parent recently - either suddenly or to long-standing illnesses - and it has been devastating to hear. I try and communicate with my parents as much as possible, even if I can't be there in person, mostly because I miss their company but also because I thank my lucky stars they're still (touch wood) okay. You know that saying, "Live every day as if it could be your last?" I try and think that about my loved ones ... every day is special with them. I wish more than anything in the world I could have my grandparents back.   

9. My (infrequent) yoga practice - I don't know where I'd be without my yoga practice, which has, admittedly, waned as I've become busier. I don't practice as often as I should or used to, but every time I attend a class - whether it's Lauren's or a flow class taught at Yoga on the Lane in Dalston - I'm so very grateful for the benefits yoga gives to me both on and off the mat. I think I've learned to live a little calmer and with more clarity, intention, and patience than I ever have before. While that probably has a little to do with maturity, I think practicing yoga has helped immensely as well.

10. My partner-in-crime - John. Who's always so supportive and gentle and kind and funny and understanding and all good things a best friend should be. Thank you.

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Sunday, November 24, 2013

James Blackshaw Acoustic Set @ Tate Britain


Last night, I had the fantastic opportunity to watch James Blackshaw perform an acoustic set at Tate Britain's House-Warming Party yesterday and - it was incredible. If you haven't heard James' music before, I highly recommend that you do: he's a twelve-string guitarist, pianist, and composer from Hastings with an impressive discography and tour schedule to boot. I also happen to know his dad and his dad's wife quite well (she was my first boss at Penguin!), which is lucky since they saved me a spot on the floor in the very crowded room last night, so I had a terrific front row seat.

I've been wanting to see James perform since purchasing his album, Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death, last year. Not only was I finally able to do so, but I was also in possibly the most amazing venue ever: the Tate, lit up in bright lights, with paintings you only see in books displayed on walls, is probably the coolest place you could have a late-night show (or a series of shows, in the case of last evening).

I was super late getting across to Pimlico from St. Paul's (where I'd just met John for a quick dinner at Yo! Sushi)  and ended up jumping out of a cab and racing into the back entrance of the Tate like a madwoman with my (faux) fur hat over my eyes, getting all sweaty and lost in the labyrinth of the museum. I think I must have elbowed and trampled at least 20 people when I arrived. Oops. When I stepped into the room, it was nearly full, and die-hard fans had already staked their claim on floorspace: sitting, sprawling, and reclining on bags. It was like a festival-meets-art-gallery atmosphere, which made for a terrific one. Curious passer-bys who had been unable to get in before the doors closed stood at the roped-off side entrances, enthralled by James' performance. I sneaked a glance at Joe once or twice during the performance and saw he had his "proud-dad" face on. Aww.

I love James' music because it's instantly evocative, though I can't place my finger on exactly what or why. Not to mention, his self-taught (!) fingerpicking skills are incredible to watch live. After his set, and after the line of super-fans had died down, I had the opportunity to meet James and tell him what a fan I was (in my usual, awkward, star-struck manner).

Before we left, I took some quick snaps of the museum in late-night party mode:


The place was buzzing. Our evening was only slightly spoiled by two a**holes who randomly scampered up to the front row after James' first piece, then proceeded to talk loudly (yes, loudly) and animatedly into a cell phone. When a fellow concert-goer shushed the guy (it was a guy-girl couple), he shot her a glare and ignored her. I could tell that Joe, who was sitting next to me, was getting antsy. So was I. I couldn't imagine a ruder, more obnoxious thing to do during someone's performance - especially if you've placed yourself squarely in front mid-way into the show (who does that anyway?). Finally, Joe told them to quiet down and the guy turned around in rage, telling us to mind our own business. Of course, I (with my fiery temper) told him to STFU and after a few more words were exchanged, he and his lank-haired girlfriend decided to literally scoot their butts towards the nearest exit and leave. Pathetic.

In happier news, I found the magnificent staircase that had just been remodelled (and was part of the purpose of having a "house-warming" party in the first place:


Isn't it beautiful? Imagine what it looks like during the day with the sun (or grey clouds) streaming in. I could have stared up forever, except for the fact that I was blocking the staircase and refusing all the cool people access to the cloakroom. My bad.

Here's one of my favorite songs from James' latest album:

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Flesh and Buns: Worth The Hype?

Still on a high from my amazing ramen conquest at Tonkotsu East, I headed to another much-hyped Japanese restaurant, Flesh and Buns, in Covent Garden. A product of ramen kings Bone Daddies, Flesh and Buns is famed for its mouth-watering meaty dishes as much as it's known for its cheeky name.

I arrived for my booking at 7 to have a catch-up meal with Leah, an MHC alum who had recently moved back to London. It was lively at that point in the evening - a few large tables were celebrating birthdays, and parties of two were seated in the center of the restaurant at a long, communal table, so it ended up being kind of a shouty conversation, rather than a quiet kind of chat. We were shown to a shared booth (this is important to know if you don't like eating with strangers at your elbow - it's a very common occurrence at canteen-style Asian restaurants) where we were advised to order 3-4 small dishes to share, and a main of flesh and buns to split as well. The homemade buns are sold separately to the meat dishes at 2 for £2.50 (and it was recommended to order 2 buns per person), with the mains priced at £13 upwards, with the lamb chops and sirloin steak coming in as the priciest at £19.50.

After catching up on Leah's celebrity spots in her new neighborhood of Belsize Park, we settled down to order some edamame beans, softshell crab roll (£9), and chicken skewers (I can't remember the name!) to start, followed by crispy duck for our main event. When the crab roll and skewers arrived, I was immediately struck by how small the portion size was. The crab roll allowed for 2.5 pieces each and one chicken skewer per person. I wasn't too impressed with the chicken either, which, while tasty, didn't amount to more than small pieces of chicken flame-grilled and dipped in teriyaki sauce. Nevertheless, I decided to hold out for the crispy duck leg flesh and buns, served with sour plum soy with beetroot pickle and cucumber and lettuce. When it came to the table, I again couldn't help but drop my mouth open in bewilderment. Here was one, single duck leg with some plum sauce and beetroot pickle, for £13.50. It just seemed a bit much to me. We polished that off quickly, and were satisfactorily full. Our bill came to £40 (including service, excluding drinks - we had water), which really surprised me for the quality and quantity of food we were served.

Still, my mind flashed back to the extravagant brunch John and I had just a month ago at Duck & Waffle, where the flavors were truly extraordinary and worth every penny. The meal I had that evening at Flesh and Buns was most definitely very ordinary and unfortunately missed the mark on both quantity and quality. I don't think I'll be going back any time soon, though it does look like a fun (if not expensive) place to stumble into after a late night with a large group of friends.


Square Meal
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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Oh, You're Lonely? Go Make Some Friends.



I was reading some of the comments on a Humans of New York photo today (self-inflicted pain, I know) and one in particular made me really, really angry. The subject of the photo had just moved to NYC from China, and Brandon asked him what his lowest point was. Now, I'm paraphrasing, but he answered that he didn't have just one low moment, but rather a collection of them - a combination of missing his parents, being lonely, and smoking cigarettes by himself in his apartment. And one of these comments was like, "Stop smoking by yourself. Go MAKE some friends." As if making friends is that easy. As if making friends even if English is your first language is that easy. "Seriously?" I thought. This girl can go take a walk off the shortest pier she can find.

People who make comments like that have no idea how hard it is to create your own identity in a new place. Because isn't that what "making friends" essentially is? Collecting and creating and forming and sustaining and maintaining those relationships that are borne out of moments of desperation and loneliness and wanting to share your joy or pain with others? And reciprocating that?

Making friends as an expat is painful. It's cringe-worthy, awkward, often a waste of time, and really, really hard work. It took me three solid years to build the friendship circleI now have in London and I am so thankful to have these friends. My friends.

So I want to share with you my story.

The first thing John wanted me to do when I arrived in London, was to move in with him. I know. It's usually the other way around, right? Anyway, it was also what I wanted to do more than anything in the world. But I declined. And I resisted for three years after that. Not because I'm against co-habitating before marriage, but because I could see myself becoming quickly dependent on him if we lived together. I was already becoming unreasonably resentful if he went out instead of spending time with me, just one-on-one, but, at the same time, being resentful if I felt the only social interaction I could have was if I tagged along to his pub outings with his friends and his friends' girlfriends. It wasn't fair for either of us.

It was important for me to make my own friends. So I lived in rented apartments for a few years, attending flat interviews and searching for places to live on Gumtree, Moveflat, and Spareroom. When I moved to Shadwell in East London, John and his buddies decided to move to the opposite end of town from where they were in Whitechapel, to Maida Vale. I was devastated. But I was determined to make my own way (with John's support and encouragement) for a bit longer.

I joined a gym near my office. I started attending the yoga and other classes there regularly and ended up becoming friends with the teacher, Lauren, and her partner, Bindy, who I count as two of my best friends today. I went often enough so that I'd be able to see a familiar face in the locker room and say "hi".

At my father-in-law's persuading, I joined an orchestra - The Royal Orchestral Society - and, after a couple of concerts, I gained a position on first stand, second violins. The first few rehearsals, as predicted, were so painfully awkward. Everyone knew each other and I kind of stood in the corner during the tea break and nibbled on a biscuit by myself. By the third and fourth rehearsals, however, I started running into people on the tube on my way there, and we'd get to talking and then ... well, I started to make friends.

I loved being finally able to say to John, "I can't meet you for dinner tonight - I'm going out with so-and-so." It made me so happy. And he was happy for me too. 

This all took about a year and a half. The other times? I found myself watching TV in my room, alone, sometimes until 1 or 2 in the mornings during the weekends, if I wasn't staying over at John's. I went on friend dates with friends of friends of friends: sometimes they were successful and worked out, other times, we sort of had a mutual understanding when we departed that we'd probably never see each other again. And that was okay.

And before I moved to London? There was the social disaster that consisted of my first three months at York. This is what made me want to tell the commenter on HONY's Facebook page to shove it.

In high school and college, I was Miss Social. I was like, in every club you could imagine, in leadership positions. I knew most people on campus (it was small), and most people knew me. I once stood on a chair in a crowded dining hall on Udita's birthday and asked everyone to stop eating their dinner and sing "Happy Birthday" to her. Which they did. I was positive, enthusiastic, always up for trying something new, and really, really excited about meeting new people.

And then I arrived at York. It was bleak. There were goose droppings everywhere, a telling sign of things to come.

There were about 10 or so fellow graduate students on my graduate course. None of them made eye contact when I walked into the first meeting of the semester. I introduced myself and they barely looked up. At the end, they shuffled out in silence and went their separate ways. The afternoon before the graduate students' social, I brightly suggested that we all meet up beforehand for a drink or dinner, then head over together. People looked uncomfortable, exchanged glances, and quickly made their excuses about being busy, but, you know, "We'll see you there."

When a few weeks had passed and I had not made a single friend, not even in my residence hall, I decided to be even more proactive and run for my college's Graduate Student Association President position. I won, because I was the only one who ran. I met a girl named Cheryl, who was super nice, and I started hanging out with her a few weeks after we started working on GSA events together. But this was one person, and I couldn't hang out with her all the time, so at night, I'd watch re-runs of Family Guy via illegal internet links and eat pasta from a plastic picnic set that John's mom had given to me before I moved. Then I'd cry. Literally, into my pasta. I lost a lot of weight that winter because I was more preoccupied with crying into, than eating, my food!

I wondered why I wasn't making any friends. I was nice to everyone. I smiled, I tried to engage people in conversation, tried to invite them to cool events in town or on campus, but all I received were polite rebuffs. I was sad. I spent my extra time working as a temp secretary for Siemens nearby and as a data-entry assistant at the Health Economic Consortium on campus. I had friendly chats with the workers there, but still didn't make any friends.

This started to change a few further months down the line, when everyone got to know everyone else a little better. Bottom line is, as an American, I'm used to making friends quickly. It's not unusual to learn a lot of information about someone in a short space of time, and therefore feel close and connected with that person relatively quickly. In the UK, it's a different set of rules. People, as you might have heard, are a lot more reserved. And there are often limits to how quickly they want to get to know you - and for you to know them.

So, don't tell me to "go make some friends". You go make some friends. Some real friends. Tell me how that goes. And let me know how long it takes you. Because it took me a long time. I tried really hard. But I have some of the best friends I've ever had now. And I'm so grateful for that.

Photo source
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Ramen Delight @ Tonkotsu East, Haggerston

Ramen is a booming, popular enterprise in London. Aside from eating air, hipsters also apparently like to eat ramen. And so, those seeking their noodle fix and also hoping to be-in-the-know when it comes to food trends, wait in line for longer periods of time than they'd wait for the newest iPhone for a bowl of the slurp-worthy, steamy stuff at places like Shoryu Ramen on Regent Street and Bone Daddies in Soho.

Now, I haven't been to either - mostly because I'm lazy and impatient and if I need to be in the West End other than for work, there had better be a damn good reason (like seeing Book of Mormon next week) and I definitely should NOT be waiting in any kind of line, whatsoever, in order to be fed. So I was super excited when Plum of Plumdiddlyumcious tweeted that Tonkotsu on Dean Street had opened a branch of its popular restaurant in the heart of hipster-ville, Shoreditch - which also happens to be very close to where I live. And because Eric and I had a long-held ramen date for last night, I decided that we should both head East to Tonkotsu East, rather than West.

Finding the restaurant itself proved to be a challenge: you know when your mom tells you not to walk down dark, strange alleys alone at night? I had to do just that. Tonkotsu East is so new, it's not named on Google maps yet, so I found the address via a few online reviews instead. Housed in a railway arch (as other of-the-moment restaurants in that area are, namely, Beagle London and Trip Kitchen & Bar - also very new), it's a little tricky to find in the dark. Getting off the bus at Haggerston, I gingerly click-clacked my way across cobblestones down Acton Mews, past Trip, and squinted ahead, where the bright lights of ramen shone.

Prior to my visit, I had expected to wait in line (given how new restaurants' reputations spread like wildfire in that part of London), but to my surprise, it was completely empty at 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night (though not for long, the host assured me). I'm sure that, a couple of months - no, weeks - from now, you'll have to reserve a table in advance to even contemplate getting a seat.

We were hungry and feeling a little gluttonous, so we started with salted edamame beans (served hot and steaming), the crab korokke (perfectly crispy on the outside, oozing with flavor on the inside), and of course, the pork gyoza, which I couldn't resist ordering (my weakness). For me, the gyoza was the winner of the three. I'll go as far as to say that it was absolutely perfect - the best I've had in London. They're handmade and the wrapper is very thin and doesn't taste of oil at all, which is impossible to find at other London Japanese restaurants (usually, you'll find that the outside is thick and doughy and often charred, tasting of burnt oil). The pork filling was juicy, steamy, and delicious.

Tonkotsu East is BYOB, so aside from bringing your own beer or wine, you can also order one of their mocktails (all priced at £3.50) and add your own kick of vodka, gin, or other suggestions they include on the drinks menu. I can't remember the name of the one we ordered, except that it was sweet, citrus-y, and very, very good. 

Then our ramen arrived.


It was kind of magical.

Eric and I had both ordered the tsekemen ramen, or dipping noodles, which are served cold with a variety of toppings (we chose pork) and dipped into the steaming, flavorful broth before being consumed. It truly exceeded my expectations. I loved that the ramen was homemade, which you could really taste. Homemade ramen, like homemade and hand-pulled pasta or biang biang noodles, has a certain consistency and texture that tastes unlike any other factory-produced ramen. At £11 per bowl, it might seem pricey, but to be honest? I thought nothing of the cost, considering how delicious and fresh the ingredients were. And like any other well-practiced Asian, I heaped chilli oil onto my spoon in my left hand, and dipped twice with chopsticks in my right hand - once into the broth and then into the chilli oil - before depositing the noodly-goodness into my mouth. Mmm ... yum.

In short, I'm ecstatic that there is such an amazing ramen restaurant on my doorstep. I'm going to be a repeat visitor before the secret's completely out of the bag and it's impossible to get in to (the restaurant was 3/4 full by the time we left at 8:15 p.m.).

A word of advice? Wear a splash-proof shirt. Because you'll be slurping appreciatively, that's for sure.
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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Columbia Road Flower Market



Columbia Road Flower Market is one of my favorite markets in London - especially at this time of the year. It feels so festive and full of bright, vibrant colors.

I'm lucky to live at the intersection between Dalston and Islington, so I'm still close to Columbia Road and Broadway Market (another favorite). I texted Hannah this morning and we met up near Hoxton to walk over to the market, which was already very crowded by the time we got there: 11:30 a.m. If you're ever in the mood to browse, I'd suggest you get there about half an hour or an hour after it opens at 8 (I know that's early for a Sunday!). Otherwise, you'll be stuck in a very slow and frustrating conveyor belt of tourists and other hipsters trying to take photos and awkwardly clutch oversized bouquets (or in one instance, a potted fern, which nearly took my eye out).

Beautiful flowers always put me in a good mood - especially if said flowers are being offered at a fraction of the price of what you'd find in a typical London florist's.

Although I get easily overwhelmed and indecisive when I'm at the market, I immediately chose this gorgeous autumnal selection for a mere £5, which the stall holder had nicknamed the "festive" bouquet:


Isn't it lovely? And it was only £5! If I bought this at the flower stall outside Holborn station, everything would be wilting and it'd probably set me back about £35. I'm not even kidding. I'm a huge fan of cabbage roses (someone recently told me she hated them, and I looked at her like she was crazy - roses that look like cabbages? What's not to love?) and the orange, yellow, and red colors in the rest of the bouquet immediately made me think of cinnamon sticks and mulled wine. Mmm ...

We had just enough time to browse some of the boutiques on either side of the road, and I got sucked into buying this whimsical scarf from L'Orangerie, a store that's filled to the brim with vintage and new jewellery, scarves, hats, and other accessories:


I'm currently rotating between two scarves at the moment: a super warm and soft navy oversized one from Zara (that also doubles as a blanket at work when I get really cold) and a monochrome patterned voile scarf from & Other Stories that I bought over the summer with Sophia that I just can't get enough of. So when I spotted this hot-air balloon motif with bright orange and baby blue details, I knew it had to be mine - even when the price rang up to be £4 more than originally quoted to me by the shop assistant. Le sigh.

On my way back to my flat, I stopped in at 52A Coffee Shop for a soy chai latte and a piece of their orange bread. The spices filled my nose and I smiled all the way home, on cloud nine ... that is, until I narrowly avoided stepping in a huge, smeary pile of dog doo doo. Oh well, there's always something to bring me down to earth ...

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The "British" Colloquialism I Won't Say ...


... is "cheers".

Not "cheers", as in clinking glasses together, but "cheers" as in a substitute for "thanks". It just sounds so awkward coming from an American's mouth. So cringe and inauthentic. Like hearing a Brit say "awesome".

I'm sure Brits would disagree and wouldn't think twice if I uttered "cheers" at the bar when handed a drink, but it honestly makes me shudder.

When I lived up north in York while studying for my MA, people would say "ta" as a substitute for "thanks". I sometimes hear it in London too. I especially love the phrase "ta very much". But as endearing and sweet as I think it is, I would never even think of using it.

And you know what? Brits rarely say "you're welcome". When you say "thank you," they'll either say "thank you" back (repeat x 4) or "that's alright" or "[my] pleasure" or "not at all". It's almost like they can't accept your thanks* (*of course, if you're in London, you'll probably only get thanked for your business 50% of the time in shops and cafes, since this city tends to cultivate some of the worst in customer service).
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That Thing Brits Do Which I Find Disgusting ... But Now I Do It Too

The first time I ever saw John squeezing ketchup next to his Pizza Express thin-crust pizza that we baked at home, I was horrified. "What are you doing?" I screeched. He paused, mid-dip. "Dipping my pizza into ketchup?" he responded, with a confused expression on his face. "That's disgusting," I said emphatically, biting into my own slice sans the sweet, tomatoey condiment. "Oh, that's a bit rich, coming from an American," John said with his mouth full. "You're known for some of most disgusting combinations on earth! Peanut butter and jelly. Ewww!" Sigh. Poor, ignorant soul.

Then, the other day, when John was still at work, I baked a frozen pizza for myself as I chatted to my Dad on FaceTime. After taking it out of the oven, I absentmindedly reached for the ketchup and squeezed a generous helping onto my plate. "What - what is that? What are you doing?" my Dad said in a horrified voice, through the internet. I froze. "Putting ketchup on my pizza," I said nonchalantly. "YIIUUUUUCKK! Yuck, yuck, YUCK!" my Dad exclaimed, scrunching down the corners of his mouth and sticking out his tongue, as if he'd just eaten something extremely bad tasting. "It only works with thin-crust pizza! They do it here all the time," I hastily explained. He didn't look convinced. But my Dad is such an Anglophile, he shrugged after a while and said, "Okay."

Like I said, I don't do it all the time with pizza, but if I'm baking a thin-crust pizza? I most certainly will. It adds a bit of tangy sweetness that the pizza otherwise doesn't have. I can't really explain it. You can't knock it 'til you've tried it. Honestly.

Baked beans and pizza, however ... now, that's disgusting.
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Monday, November 11, 2013

Spa Treats Galore, Courtesy Of Stylist Magazine


Stylist Magazine is one of my favorite magazines to read in the UK. It's current, aspirational, witty,  intelligent, and - perhaps the best part - it's free. Yup, it's handed out every Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning to thousands of commuters in London, among other major UK cities. Sometimes, I make a detour in my usual Wednesday morning route just so I can grab a copy. I'm always disappointed when I arrive too late and they run out.

I love their trend lists and editorials, not to mention their interviews and beauty reviews - basically, I love it all. So I was thrilled when I was invited to be a part of the Stylist Inner Circle, an online community devoted to helping Stylist further develop their brand and magazine.

In return for participating in discussions, members are entered into a prize draw for vouchers and, more recently, luxury packs consisting of products that the Stylist team have been sent to review. Before our meet-up last week, I was selected as one of the lucky winners of a luxury pack and took home these amazing goodies. I was a little taken aback and embarrassed! Sometimes, I feel bad when I win a prize, like I should dole them out to other people! I won a Kindle from Trinity Hospice for helping to raise the most money for an event a few years ago and instinctively felt that I should give it back (I didn't).

Anyway, my "luxury pack" had some fancy products: Rodial body scrub, Nails Inc and Mavala nail polishes, L'Oreal Revita-lift serum (which really works!), a Korres travel set (one of my favorite brands), a gorgeous candle that I can't bring myself to use, and some other luxurious moisturizers and body oil.

I also received the nicest lipstick I've ever owned, by Armani:


I'm used to buying Rimmel (in fact, I had just purchased one that evening using my Boots Advantage Card Points - yeah!) and at most, Bobbi Brown or Mac (which I hem and haw over for months before finally buying ... at Duty Free when I'm flying international), but this one really took the cake. IT HAS A MAGNETIC LID. I spent about 20 minutes simply flicking the lid up and down in the living room when I got home, as excited as a child on Christmas Day. John watched as I did this, amused and concerned all at once. "Don't get too used to the luxury," he admonished. Oh, boo hoo to you too, Mr. Grinch.



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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Dentistry in the US vs UK

So, I went for my regular check-up at my NHS dentist this morning and thought about a question I get a lot when I'm back home in the US. And it's pretty downright rude: "Why do the British have such awful teeth?"

While I don't think this is really generally the case, it's true that Brits don't place as much emphasis on orthodontics and dental hygiene as Americans typically do - it seems to me that the attitude is more of a "repair when needed" basis rather than "obsessive check-ups and braces for everyone when you reach 14" (not to mention, the floss is TERRIBLE here. I stock up on Johnson & Johnson's Mint Waxed every time I'm back in the States). We were first introduced to oral hygiene in elementary school (aside from whatever was taught at home and at the dentist's office), when a dentist would come in to our 1st grade classroom and hand out toothbrushes and travel-sized toothpaste while using illustrations to explain the differences between tartar, plaque, cavities, and educate us on keeping our teeth healthy.

Private dental care in the UK is outrageously expensive though -  probably just about as much as it costs in the US without dental insurance. Recently, an American posted in the American Expats In London group on Facebook (I like to sit back and observe rather than join in - it's fascinating) about looking for a dentist and immediately, a flurry of recommendations poured in: all private doctors' offices (with one on Harley Street, the group of private doctors catering to celebrities and the affluent). A root canal could set you back £800-900 (I know, because I researched this for my own root canal last year) and just an initial consultation could cost an eye-watering £160 (I know, because I thought about switching to private dental care recently).

In contrast, NHS check-ups currently cost £18 per visit and my root canal last year (despite having to return several times) cost a total of £45. So it's considerably more affordable.

But sitting in the dentist's chair this morning, I just had to laugh: a US dentist's visit is SO different to a UK NHS dentist's visit. I remember being completely shocked and taken aback during my first visit, before I adjusted and accepted that that was just the way it was, and if I wanted more, then I could always shell out a couple hundred pounds and get the full "US experience".

In the States, I'm greeted by a dental hygienist (the dentist doesn't even make an appearance at this point in the appointment) who sits me down, makes small talk, and assesses my teeth and gums in silence before finally tutting, "How often do you floss? How often do you brush? I'm seeing a looooooottt of plaque back here. What mouthwash do you use? This is looking reeeealllly bad." Then she'll proceed to vigorously poke and prod at my gumline with a pointy metal tool until it bleeds and triumphantly announce, "See, you're not taking care of your gums or your teeth. You have signs of gingivitis." I want to say, no, my gums are bleeding BECAUSE YOU ARE VIOLENTLY POKING AT THEM WITH A POINTY METAL TOOL. I want her to trade places with me so that I can have a go at poking at her gums with a pointy metal tool.

Anyway, after that, she'll polish each tooth with the same rigorous energy as she devoted to poking, often drawing blood, and tutting along the way, while another hygienist enters the room to do the suction. Meanwhile, the guilt and shame rising up inside me for not having taken better care of my teeth makes me want to bury myself in the chair and never emerge. I FEEL LIKE A BAD PERSON. Then I'm given some pink fluoride in a plastic cup and commanded to swish for 2 minutes (a timer is put on for this exercise, and when it beeps, I stand over the sink and spew as hard as I can because the stuff is gross and stings like hell). "Don't rinse, DON'T RINSE," she barks.

When she's all finished with her various forms of torture, then the dentist announces her arrival, cheerfully snapping on some latex gloves and saying something like, "So! I heard you're not doing very well with the brushing! Let's take a look!" After a lot of murmuring and consultation of the x-rays, she'll turn and say, with quite a bit of affected grimness, "Looks like ya have a couple cavities kiddo" (they all call me kiddo - even when I was in college, they called me kiddo). "We're gonna have to take care of that today." So I'm given novocaine injections, drilled into, filled up, and sent home with a pamphlet about gingivitis.

"We'll bill you, sweetie," the receptionist says as I pass her desk on my way out. The invoice arrives one week later to the tune of $250 something.

Meanwhile, in London ...

I arrive to my NHS dental surgery (which is also affiliated with a prestigious London university) and am called to the dentist's chair by a young (most-likely a dentistry student) dental assistant/hygienist. She points me to the chair, where I am immediately greeted by my dentist, who is reading my case history. "Any problems since your last visit?" she asks brightly before beginning to examine my teeth. "Nope," I say, and settle back in the chair. The only similarity between US and UK dentist's offices is that they always give you those hilariously large safety glasses to shield your face from the spray of water (or possibly worse) when they clean your teeth.

She examines my teeth one-by-one, dictating notes on each tooth (as they do in the US) to the hygienist. Now, the hygienist doesn't really do any cleaning - at any stage. I guess she's more of an assistant than a hygienist. She only holds the suction and hands tools over to the dentist that the dentist requires (this is usually wrong, and then the dentist has to calmly explain why it is wrong and where to find the right one).

Then the cleaning commences - or what is known as the "scale and polish". She cleans any tartar or plaque off by ultrasonic cleaning and then "polishes" the teeth afterward, which basically involves scrubbing some gritty paste over all my teeth and then asking me to sit up, rinse with the plastic cup of pink liquid on the side and to spit in the little sink attached to the chair. Interesting. It's the shortest version of "cleaning" I've ever received at the dentist's.

She then has a look at my x-rays and checks for any cavities or changes that require repair. Amalgam fillings  (silver-colored) are covered by the NHS, but composite (tooth-colored) cost extra. Depending on her schedule, she can complete a filling in the same appointment, but I often have to reschedule for this.

If it's only a check-up that day, I sign an NHS form and hand over my debit card to the receptionist, who charges me £18 and tells me to take care.

No guilt here, but I guess the only worry I have is whether she's been thorough enough, which is why I considered switching to private dental care. I often wonder, are my teeth really okay? Or is there another root canal waiting to happen? My root canal last year was a nightmare, and nearly every appointment ended in tears - either because I had an infection which needed to be treated by antibiotics and the rest of the procedure couldn't be continued or because it just never seemed to be resolved until my fifth (!!!) and final visit. I would have seen an endodontist at that point, but the thought of paying £800 (plus another £160 for the initial consultation) hurt more than my tooth. Today, that troublesome tooth doesn't bother me any more and I continue to go to my 6-monthly check-ups with my NHS dentist.

So, yeah. That's how the two experiences compare for me. One thing's for sure: teeth are expensive and a headache to deal with. Literally.
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Monday, November 4, 2013

Choose Your Own Adventure @ Burger & Lobster

So, I'd been wanting to try Burger & Lobster since it opened last year. I was attracted to its simple premise of serving only three items on its menu: lobster (steamed or grilled), lobster roll, or a juicy burger, all for £20 each and served with a side salad and fries. You can also order individual lobsters by weight, which are displayed on a chalkboard above the bar - these are accompanied by never-ending fries and salads, apparently. How Olive Garden of them.

Anyway, I occasionally have a serious hankering for lobster, being torn away from the Pacific Northwest and all that, where a measly 4 ounce lobster tail can set you back $48 (as this past summer proved at Salty's restaurant). I love lobster, hands down. One of my favorite, decadent dishes is lobster noodles, served with a light, creamy sauce, which is available in a select number of restaurants in Hong Kong. My grandfather found out I secretly loved this dish (but would never order it because it was far too expensive) and would order it every time I was at the table.

But I digress. My Burger & Lobster dream came true when John suggested we go there with Iain on Saturday night for dinner. "We'll never get in," I said dismissively when the idea was raised. "Well, I called and was told that as long as we arrived before 7, it should be okay," John replied. This was a restaurant that takes reservations months in advance - because that's how popular it is. And yes, I witnessed people running in order to get in first, beating other prospective diners to the line. Um, intense, much?

But we didn't have to wait that long: John was on his way from work (yes, on a Saturday, AGAIN - we'll discuss that later) and because Iain and I had arrived earlier, we couldn't be seated until John had arrived, so our names were taken and we were directed towards the bar, where Iain bought me a delicious honey and ginger sparkling libation and a rooibos iced tea for himself. John arrived soon after, just before 7, and we snared one of the last tables in the house. Soon after, eager and hopeful couples and parties of four or six would arrive, scanning the restaurant quickly as they approached the hostesses as if to assess the wait. By now, the restaurant was completely full and buzzing: it was 7:10. The bar was also filled to the brim of people waiting to be seated.

I'd been rehearsing for months what I would order, and my mind would not be changed: lobster roll it was for me. John went for the grilled lobster with garlic and lemon butter, while Iain opted for the burger instead (served with optional bacon and cheese at no extra charge).

Evidence below:





My lobster roll was exquisite to say the least. The filling was very lightly tossed in mayonaise and marinated, I believe, and served cold with a sprinkling of chives on the top. The brioche was warm, lightly toasted and very buttery. The skinny fries were a perfect accompaniment and I even liked the salad. For a second, I forgot that I was in a trendy, City restaurant and imagined that I was at an American bar and grill instead.

John's lobster, on the other hand, was a whole other ball game: it was delectable. And good thing he doesn't mind sharing! I savored every morsel of buttery goodness he forked my way. 

Iain's burger, piled high, also looked delicious, but understandably not as impressive as the lobster selections. Rookie mistake.

After we patted our full bellies, we were offered the option of ice cream or cheesecake to finish, but we decided to skip dessert and go for a drink elsewhere instead ... although we ended up at Ping Pong ordering dim sum desserts. Oops.


Square Meal
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