Monday, March 31, 2014

Weekend in Madrid: A Photo Journal

Happy Monday. How was your weekend? We jumped on a flight to Madrid after work on Friday (and almost missed it - Friday afternoon traffic was so bad in central London!) and had the most amazing weekend there - even though the weather wasn't so amazing, which is unusual for the city.

We stayed at the beautiful AC Palacio Del Retiro hotel, which is situated directly across from the stunning Retiro Park. When we arrived, it was about 10:45 p.m. but we were starving! So we asked the hotel restaurant if the kitchen was still open, and I ordered a glass of Rioja, plus some jamon Iberico to get us started.

My parents couldn't get enough of the delicious Iberico ham when they visited Spain a couple of years ago. And because we hadn't technically had dinner yet (we were saving our appetites!), I also ordered the best Spanish tortilla (similar to an egg and potato omelette, if you haven't had one before) ever, plus some very flavorful hake served with grilled Mediterranean vegetables. We stumbled to our beautiful room a little drunk from the wine and cerveza and with our bellies full.

The next morning, I was so excited, I woke up early and sat with the guidebook in the hotel restaurant, eating churros for breakfast. We'd been told to visit the Mercado de San Miguel by several Madrid enthusiasts: it's a gourmet food market located in the city center with lots of fresh seafood, fruits and vegetables, regional beers and wine, plus lots and lots of jamon, of course!

Although it's only about a quarter of the size of London's Borough Market (another foodie's paradise), it still had rows and rows of delicious food to offer, and we already started choosing what we'd like to have for lunch! Since we were too full to buy anything there and then, we went off to visit the Palacio Real de Madrid (Royal Palace of Madrid) before returning to the mercado in the afternoon to take away a mini jamon baguette, vegetable paella, and some olive skewers (shown above) to enjoy back at the hotel.

By then, it had started to rain pretty hard, which was a shame because I can imagine how beautiful Madrid would be in the sun! We thought that it'd be a good idea to spend some time indoors, so we headed to the Palacio Real de Madrid, which is the official residence of the Spanish Royal Family (though it's now only used for official state functions). 

You weren't allowed to take pictures inside, but I can assure you that every room was an opulent display of power and wealth - truly spectacular. My favorite rooms were probably the King's "changing room", which had 3D (yes, 3D!) gilded wall-paper in intricate garden-inspired designs and the "porcelain" room, which John remarked was like "being in a teapot". It totally was! Though it was busy and tour groups were rushing past, I think I stood with my mouth open in the corner, staring up at the ceilings, for minutes on end. It's definitely worth a visit if you're ever in Madrid (especially if it's raining!).

After returning to the hotel for a brief nap (okay, actually, it was a luxurious, 2-hour nap!), we wanted to go to the Museo Nacional del Prado, Spain's most famous art museum. I read on the website that entry is free between 6-8 pm, so we ran outside with our umbrellas and got some food in Plaza Santa Ana before heading to the Prado. In our haste, however, we headed to the wrong museum! We accidentally went into El Museo de arte Thyssen-Bornemisza instead (they're very close to each other). After some confused chat with the information desk, we realized where we were, laughed, and headed back into the rain ... and then we saw the line for the Prado. I wish I'd taken a picture of it, but I was too busy dodging puddles while John ran ahead and tried to secure us a place in line. It was SO LONG. So long! I'd never seen a line that long, except for maybe the Crown Jewels exhibition at The Tower of London, where I waited for 30 minutes.

Luckily, the line moved quickly and we got in around 6:30 (yes, for free!), so we had a good hour and a half to enjoy at the museum, which I loved, by the way. The permanent collection is huge, of course, and they have some of the most famous paintings in the world by Goya, Hieronymus Bosch, Rubens, Titian, and more.

Afterward, we headed back to Plaza Santa Ana for more tapas at Lateral, a funky and modern restaurant that served up the most delicious fruit mojitos, sherry at the famous old-fashioned sherry bar, La Venencia, and some more tapas and dessert at another restaurant that I've unfortunately forgotten the name of now. Needless to say, I felt sick from overeating that night. But it was worth it!

The next morning, we woke up and the weather was still terrible. We couldn't decide whether to go to the Sunday flea market or Madrid's most famous bullring, The Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas. In the end, we settled on the latter, which I was really excited to see.

We took the self-guided audio tour (which was surprisingly good!) and learned all about the history of the building itself, as well as the bullfighting traditions and ceremonies. There would be a bullfight that evening, so locals were already lining up to buy their tickets.

I've never been in a bullring before, but even though the stands were completely empty, that moment we walked into the stadium was exhilarating. I have mixed feelings about the sport itself (since the bulls are killed) but I certainly found the artistic elements of the bullfighter's responsibilities and the ceremony surrounding the activity to be fascinating.

I'd been holding out hope for being able to do a spot of shopping in Madrid (naturally), but most of the shops were closed on a Sunday. Since I had a early flight that day, I really wanted to explore Retiro Park as well, so we did!

Just after this photo was taken (above), the sun peeked through the sky and we had 15-minutes or so of warmth! It was incredible. It showed a hint of what the park would look like in the sun, which was glorious.

It's definitely one of the most beautiful parks I've ever been to, and one that I'll remember forever. "It's the perfect place for a proposal!" I said to John, as we strolled down the tree-lined paths of the Paseo de las Estatuas (Statue Walk) and through the picturesque gardens. "It's a little too late for that," he replied drily. But anyway. It's the perfect place for a proposal.

Near the center of the park is the Palacio de Velazquez, which is now an art gallery with some beautiful exhibitions of Spanish artists. I took a particular shine to this swing and window installation below.

The high ceilings, white walls and floors, and generous amounts of natural light make the space really majestic to walk through. There was a quiet hush in that magnificent main room as well, which felt special. Ooh! That reminds me: one thing I loved about the Prado was that when it got a little too "noisy" with chatter in a room, the museum guards would shush people! Amazing!

Our last stop before I had to run and get my taxi to the airport back at the hotel was the Crystal Palace, allegedly inspired by the Crystal Palace in London.

So beautiful.

Thank you, Madrid, for showing me a wonderful time! Spanish hospitality is always awesome. Muchas gracias.

Friday, March 28, 2014

UK Mother's Day: Why I Love My Mother-in-Law

Since it's Mother's Day in the UK this Sunday, I thought I'd share with you some wonderful stories about my mother-in-law, Alison.

I've heard so many horror stories of overbearing, disapproving, high-maintenance, and downright dreadful mother-in-laws, so I know that I'm incredibly lucky to have Alison as my mine, because she is the sheer opposite of all these things: she is wonderful.

And if you ever met her, you'd think so too.

Aside from swapping handwritten letters, cards, texts, and emails carefully typed out on respective iPads (Alison is so much better at this than I am - she has more patience!), I'm grateful to have such a close relationship with Alison.

During a weekend visit to our flat last year, I begged her to stay for longer on Sunday and managed to convince her to take a (particularly challenging!) Vinyasa flow yoga class with me before having lunch and a quick browse at Primark prior to catching her train back to Leicester. I jumped up and down with excitement when she agreed, and John looked at us like we were crazy.

So to celebrate this UK Mother's Day, I'd like to share with you some of the nicest, loveliest things that Alison has done for me in the past nine years that I've known her:

She's thoughtful and considerate. The first time I ever visited Alison's house, I noticed all the thoughtful little things she did for me, even though we'd only met once before. For instance, she couldn't remember if I was vegetarian or not, so she made a vegetarian lasagne just in case - along with a huge pork roast. She didn't make any assumptions about our sleeping arrangements, so she made up the bed in the spare room for me, along with John's bed in his old bedroom.

She's taken care of me after my operations. Twice. There's nothing worse than being away from your family when you're sick. So when I was first advised that I needed an operation in the UK, I was scared and felt really anxious. Because John was away for work and couldn't come to the hospital with me, Alison took a train down and stayed with me right up to the minute I was wheeled into the operating room. Afterwards, she came into my room and wordlessly sat down in the corner with a book while I recovered from the anesthesia. I don't know how many hours had passed, but she was just there: present. Comforting. She then took care of me at our flat for a week - making sure I took my pain medication at the right times and doing all the shopping, cooking, and cleaning while I rested. Two years later, she did it all again, without any complaint.

She's seen me through some of my most difficult times - and stuck by me. One of my worst moments ever - both physically and emotionally - was when I had a terrible chest infection while I was studying for my Master's degree at the University of York. It had just been a hard year in general: I was broke, John was working in Paris, I hated my course, I had no friends, and I missed my family. As a result, I lost a lot of weight and wasn't eating very well. Alison came up to visit me one evening and we went to a lecture together. I was so sick, I had to leave the lecture mid-way to have a coughing fit - only to realize I had stepped into a stairwell with no exit! When she walked me back to my dorm later and I got into bed, she tucked me in, placed two folded £20 notes on my desk, and quietly slipped out. I didn't find the notes until the next day and my eyes pricked with tears, as I was so touched by her gesture.

She said she'd always be my friend, no matter what. One of the most powerful things that Alison has ever said to me was during that same visit to York. We were chatting over a cup of tea and I mentioned how difficult it was with John in Paris, and the fact that we hadn't been able to see each other very often. And I'll never forget this: she looked me in the eye and said, "No matter what happens with you and John, I'll always be your friend." I still get choked up thinking about it. That meant so much to me.

She asked Sir David Attenborough to send us a handwritten note for our wedding, and he did (!!!). At UK weddings, it's traditional to read aloud cards from guests who couldn't make it to the reception. During our Seattle wedding reception, this duty fell to Alison, who was the only representative of John's family attending. After reading out some lovely sentiments from John's extended family members, she handed me a crisp, cream envelope to open and read aloud to our guests. I stood, open-mouthed, as I realized that the letter was from Sir David Attenborough himself, sending us his best wishes! (There's a funny back story to this: years ago, when we were students at Oxford, I wrote David Attenborough a piece of fan mail, asking him to write us back. And he did! He wrote us the nicest, kindest letter ever. AND THEN JOHN LOST IT. We still have the envelope.)

She treats me no differently to the way she treats her own children. I think that Alison has always been acutely aware of how much I miss my family and how difficult it is for me to be away from my own mother, with whom I have a very close relationship. As a result, she has never treated me any differently than the way she treats John or Tom. And what I've appreciated the most is that she checks in on me periodically, to see how I'm doing - you know, as a person, as an individual, rather than simply as part of a couple.

I'm not sure I could ever be as nice, as kind, as generous, as thoughtful to my future son-in-law or daughter-in-law as Alison has been to me. But I know that I am just so grateful to know her, to have her in my life, and most of all, to call her my friend.

Dear Alison, I honor you, on this Mother's Day. Thank you for being a wonderful mother-in-law to me.

And thank you for being a wonderful friend.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

(Re)Launch Party at Generator London

Last Friday, I was invited to attend the (re)launch party at Generator London, a hostel that's just a stone's throw away from Russell Square, off Tavistock Place. I know - it doesn't look like one, does it?

Designed originally as a police section house, the hostel was transformed in 2013 by Anwar Mekhayech from DesignAgency and ORBIT Architects and completely restyled to house a chic, modern space. Quite frankly, if you didn't know it was a hostel, you'd think it was a boutique hotel.

Even as I approach my early thirties, I have no shame in staying at hostels. Case in point: last summer, I spent the night before our wedding reception holed up at the Oxford YHA youth hostel because I was indignant about the hotel prices in Oxford City Centre (I put my parents up at The Old Parsonage, don't worry). We rented towels (ever-so-slight ick factor there, but I suppose it's no different than using towels at a hotel) and I had to shower in my flip-flops! I was jolted awake at 3:00 a.m. by the sweet, sweet sounds of a drunken domestic argument in the early hours of the morning near the kebab truck after late-night revelers spilled out of the nearby club - all a very far cry from the swish, slick, and very cool new re-design of Generator London.

When we arrived around 7:30, the party wasn't in full swing yet, but drinks were already flowing and the music was amazing. We hung out a the bar, used the obligatory free photo booth, and peeked into the different rooms, which apparently will be host to events, art collaborations, and shows throughout the hostel's opening.

It was clear that everyone there was excited to explore the newly redesigned space, and there are plenty of separate but unique spaces to just hang out in, which is perfect if you're traveling with a group of friends. Equally, there are some terrific little spots to just do your own thing in if you're traveling solo as well. The eating area (pictured above) is especially good, as the design lends itself to many cozy "pockets" so you don't feel like you're just sitting in a huge, impersonal cafeteria. Food that night was provided by F.A.T., who whipped up some spectacular fusion tacos and though I was exhausted from work, I just wanted to stay and enjoy myself!

And although I didn't get to see a room up-close-and-personal, they look pretty damn cool judging from the photos on the Generator website. Of course, in true hostel style, they offer dorm rooms with bunk beds (beds from £12 per person) and private rooms as well (from £24.50 per person). But the bright accents, wood floors, and clean, white beds make the days of bed-bug infested hostel stays and scratchy, of-dubious-provenance blankets (I refused to pull mine up under my chin at the YHA) seem another world away. 

Though Airbnb is slowly taking over the world (more of my friends have opted for an Airbnb stay versus a hotel room when traveling recently, for example), it's clear that this redesign of Generator London signifies a new transformation for hostels - but will others follow its lead? 

Forget staying as a budget backpacker or starving student - I'd be equally happy to hang out here on a Friday night if I was just passing by.

Photos all courtesy of Generator London. For more information on how to book a stay, visit their website here.

Monday, March 24, 2014

My Happy Place: Blenheim Palace

This weekend, we spent a luxurious overnight trip away to Woodstock, near Oxford, as part of my birthday present from Alison last year. I'll use any any excuse to take the Oxford Tube to Oxford because I think it's fun and it also brings back memories of taking it back and forth to London when I was studying abroad at Oxford. After sleeping in and having a really nice cooked breakfast at home, we hopped on at Victoria coach station on Saturday morning and arrived in Woodstock (after changing over to a local bus at Gloucester Green) by mid-afternoon.

I love Woodstock because it's the quintessential, small English town: you can walk the length of it in about 10 minutes and there are a number of pubs and tea rooms scattered throughout, plus a little post office on the main street. Of course, it's terribly touristy because it's also home to one of my favorite places in the world, Blenheim Palace.

As the residence to the dukes of Marlborough, Blenheim Palace is also known for its link to Sir Winston Churchill, as it was his birthplace and ancestral home. My dad is a huge anglophile (in case you wondered where I got it from!) and history buff, so during one of his first visits to the UK, I arranged for us to stay at a very sweet B&B called The Blenheim, which is just situated a few feet away from one of the palace gates! Coincidentally, the room we stayed in was called "Churchill", much to my dad's delight, and it's common for other hotels and pubs in the area to have busts of Churchill and other Churchill-related memorabilia decorating the rooms.

Although the palace itself is stunning (as you can see from the above photo - even against the backdrop of a cloudy day), it's the park and gardens that I'm most fond of. I've visited many country estates throughout England, Wales, and Scotland - but something about Blenheim is just so very special.

Spread over 2,000 acres, the landscaped park and gardens are open to the public (for an entrance fee) to enjoy - that means that you can walk on the grass, get up close to pheasants, swans, and other wildlife (like lamb and deer!), or bring a picnic to enjoy in the summer, overlooking the beautiful lakes.

I also love Blenheim Palace for nostalgic reasons: nine years ago, on my last day as a student at Oxford, John took me there because I'd never been. It was a beautiful, hot summer's day (which is rare in England!) and I remember thinking that it was the most amazing place I'd ever seen. We brought strawberries to eat in the park and spent a while getting lost in Marlborough's Maze, which is a garden maze (for kids, really) surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens and flowers.

I remember being so happy but so sad that day, because I had no idea if I'd ever return to England - or if I'd even see John again. And yet, nine years later, here we are.

And for a totally silly reason, I love the mineral water that's sourced and bottled right on the Blenheim estate. I can't describe it, but it almost has a thick quality to it (in a good way) and the sparkling water just tastes so much better than any other sparkling water that I've ever tried. I insist on buying a bottle every time I'm there (took two home with me this weekend) and I'll never forget the time I gave a bottle to my dad, while he was sketching the palace. After excitedly explaining to him that it was the nicest water he'd ever try, I watched as he took the bottle from me, proceeded to down it in one go, then wordlessly handed the empty bottle to me and continued sketching. Oh, dads.

Anyway, if you ever get the chance, I'd highly recommend a visit to Blenheim Palace - especially on a sunny day. It's just so beautiful and such a joy to simply be there. It's one of my happy places.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Good Pub Grub: The De Beauvoir Arms

As I was enjoying my bavette steak topped with salsa verde and served with a side of dressed rocket salad and potatoes Lyonnaise on Friday, I took a sip of my wine and thought to myself, "How did pub food get so damn good?" When I first came to the UK 8 or 9 years ago, going to the pub meant ordering traditional, British comfort foods like chicken pies and bangers and mash - certainly none of the modern, almost experimental dishes that we get in our local pubs in London today. And while I know that the concept of "gastropubs" has been technically in existence since the early '90s, I swear that the food I've been eating at pubs on a Friday night is just getting better and better, every day.

We're lucky to live near a triangle of pubs on the Islington/Hackney border that surpass even the "gastro" mark and continually whip up mouthwatering dishes with original recipes that rival eating out at some of the nicest restaurants in our surrounding area. For example, the fish served at The Talbot (which impressed even my hard-to-impress parents) is bought fresh from Billingsgate Fish Market that day. John's Angus rib-eye steak on Friday was melt-in-the-mouth tender. The quality of ingredients used in these pubs is of the highest standard and the chefs cooking in the kitchens of these pubs - in my eyes - work with the same level of intensity as those who bark orders behind the doors of some of London's most popular or sought-after restaurants.

I never thought too much about it until my parents came to visit us last summer and we took them to two pubs for dinner on two separate occasions. They both ordered the fish option at The Talbot and something similar at The Hunter S., I think. And on both occasions, they were surprised by the quality of the food and how delicious it was. "Do all pubs serve this kind of food?" I remember my mom asking, as she tried a bite of my quinoa, pomegranate, and feta salad. Well, not all of them do, I remember thinking. But we're very lucky that the ones near us do.

Our local, The De Beauvoir Arms is no exception: walk in on any day of the night and you'll get a varied menu with a pretty wide range of options, inspired by Mediterranean flavors. Aside from the excellent rare bavette steak I had on Friday, another winter warmer that I loved recently was their roasted field mushrooms stuffed with thyme and lemon breadcrumbs on a canellini bean stew. Served piping hot, this was one of the most amazing plates of hearty goodness I've ever had the pleasure of enjoying on a cold not-quite-spring evening. They also do a mean slow roasted pork sandwich too.

Although I love to eat out (not that you couldn't tell ... ahem!), there's something so nice about not having to make an effort on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon: those moments when you're just feeling tired and worn out and want a proper, good meal, but don't want to dress up or go anywhere far. As an American, I never really "got" pub culture, if you know what I mean. But now I do, I think. There's something so simple and lovely about strolling to your local pub that's never more than a 10-minute walk away, plonking yourself down in a seat by the fireplace, ordering a drink at the bar, and having delicious food served to you in a relaxed, non-pretentious, effortless environment. There's also something incredibly nice about paying for your food and drink at the beginning of your meal. It means that you can stay for as long or as little as you'd like without feeling anxious or rushed.

Viva la pub grub.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Street Food Sunday @ The Sunday (Up)Market on Brick Lane

I'm a little embarrassed: my Instagram feed has been filled with food as of late, and it's no secret that I've been eating out a lot ... but spending less time at the gym. But I have good reason to, I swear! There's so much good food happening in London at the moment - you'd be stupid not to spend your weekends as a food tourist in this city.

Today was no exception as we headed to one of my favorite markets in London, the Sunday (Up)Market on Brick Lane - just a short distance from Spitalfields Market. Filled with handmade crafts, clothing, and food, this is the place to go if you want to spend your Sunday just chilling out and soaking up the atmosphere on Brick Lane. When I woke up late this morning, I had a craving for street food served up in foil containers, with a fork stabbed into it - and I knew that the Sunday (Up)Market would have just what I was looking for.

Having tried a sample of the Malaysian pancakes (being prepared in the photo above), John became quickly obsessed and ordered a "traditional" pancake, which consists of peanuts, creamed corn (yes, you read that correctly), and lashings of melted butter. The combination may sound bizarre, but together, the flavors were truly extraordinary and made for a very filling, but delicious dessert.

I went for the apple and cinnamon option, but quickly regretted it after sampling the black glutinous rice and coconut filling, which was even tastier. So greedy.

On Friday, I had a random craving for okonomiyaki, a Japanese savory pancake that contains a variety of different ingredients topped with a special, sweet soy sauce, mayonnaise, and seaweed seasoning - true comfort food. The word okonomi means "what you like" or "what you want", so every pancake can be made differently, according to your wishes. I last enjoyed a delicious okonomiyaki at a Japanese cafe in Hanoi, where they made it with dried shrimp and pork.

Today, I walked past a Japanese food stall preparing fresh okonomiyaki on the grill and couldn't help but do a double-take and pull out my wallet.

This variety contained shredded cabbage, sweet corn, and cheese. While it wasn't quite as wonderful as the one I had in Vietnam, it was still very tasty - especially when served hot on a paper plate. We sat on the curb with all the other (Up)Market shoppers and tried not to get our feet run over as bewildered drivers tried to navigate the congested road surrounding The Old Truman Brewery.

All in all, a delicious, food-filled, fun-filled weekend. Happy days.

Saturday Brunch @ The Good Egg Pop-Up

John and I had the most egg-cellent brunch at The Good Egg pop-up on Saturday, hosted by Cortado. A little bored by our usual brunch options, I signed up to Grub Club on Friday, which alerts you to all the pop-ups happening in your local area. I only needed to see the words, "breakfast burrito", before clicking on the "purchase" button, which, along with reserving my place at the pop-up, also pre-paid for our breakfasts (at £8 each).

It was a gorgeous, sunny day, and knowing that John was still jet-lagged from his week of bi-coastal travel in the US, I intentionally picked a location that was less than a 7-minute walk away from our flat. When we arrived to the restaurant, we were greeted by the super friendly staff and shown to our table. Though our seating was booked for 11 a.m., I avoided eating anything for breakfast so I could save space for their incredible-sounding menu - and I'm so glad I did.

John ordered the "Shakshuka": Cotswold Legbar eggs (with the sunniest, most bright orange yolk you could imagine!) baked in a smoky, spiced tomato and pepper sauce, topped with lemon yoghurt and toasted za'atar sourdough with British rare-breed Merguez sausages. If that sounds complicated, you only need to look at the dish pictured above, which screams perfection. The smoky stew was an absolute delight to dip the toasted sourdough bread into - I even stole John's plate at the end to mop up the remaining sauce!

For me, I chose the "Eggs Rothko", which consisted of challah bread (my favorite) with a hole cut for a runny egg, topped with a slice of honey-mustard ham and their secret recipe cheese sauce, all served with a side salad of dressed rocket and slow roasted tomatoes. It was rich, indulgent, but a total taste sensation.

After sampling each other's dishes and marvelling at how good they tasted, we asked for the bill and were presented with this adorable check, complete with two Haribo eggs, naturally:

At the moment The Good Egg has taken up residencies at Cortado in N1 and The Hangover Club in Hackney Wick. You can book via The Grub Club, or rock up on the day - booking ahead is recommended though.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Best Apps for London City Living

Whenever I catch sight of my friends' phones, I'm instinctively curious about what apps they have on there and what they use on a daily basis. I feel like the apps on smart phones are so personal and tailored to each individual. The apps that people use often reveal a lot about their personalities and give great insight into their daily lives! For example, mine is totally social media-centric. I'm on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook all the time - they're the first things I check in the morning, even before my emails.

But for today, I've collated some of my favorite apps specifically for London (and city) living.

1. Citymapper - I honestly don't know where I'd be without this app. It's fantastic. Basically, it shows you all the options for different methods of transportation to your destination, as well as the time it takes, the cost, and the exact route. It even shows how many calories you'd burn if you walked it! Or, how much a black cab would cost. You can program shortcuts to your home and work so that you can tap "Get me home" from wherever you are, and you'll find the quickest way back. It's better than a trail of breadcrumbs - it's the 21st-century.

2. Tube Exits - I rarely take the tube these days, which is really, really nice, because the tube turns me into a psychotic bitch and I end up either having a panic attack or a verbal altercation with other psychotic bitches. On the rare occasion that I do take the tube however, I like to use the Tube Exits app, which shows you which direction a train is traveling in and most importantly, which car to get on if you want to exit the station quickly. It's useful for non-peak travel times though, since I tend to walk to the end of the platform when it's really busy in an effort to get on a slightly less crowded car. Carriage. Car.

3. Tube Map - Tube Map is also super useful when you want to quickly look up a station or train route. I have the sequence of stations memorized in central, central London (e.g. I have a rough idea of how to get from Holborn to Waterloo), but if I have to get from A to B using the tube and the connections are slightly complicated, I like to be able to picture it and trace the line with my finger. It's just a habit.

4. Hailo - I used to freak out when I was in an unfamiliar area by myself late at night, the tube wasn't running or was severely delayed, no buses were around to take me anywhere close to home, and every black cab that passed me was unavailable or cabs were simply non-existent. Or, second scenario: lots of cabs but I had no cash on me and there were no ATMs to be found. Hailo has totally saved me in these situations, as it allows you to request a black cab from nearly anywhere in London and you can pay by card via the app. Once you've booked your cab, it sends you a photo of your driver along with his/her license plate number, and his/her mobile number as well, so you know you're getting into the right car. It uses GPS to track the cab as it gets closer to you and shows that you've gotten into the car when you're in. The best part? It allows you to tip from the app as well - you can tap on 10%, 15%, 20% or enter a tip of your choice.

5. Minicabster - Like Hailo, but for - you guessed it - minicabs. After a couple of bad experiences while traveling by myself, I tend to avoid taking minicabs. But if it's for a short distance (say, from my brother-in-law's flat in Finsbury Park to back to mine in Islington when it's late at night) and I'm with John, then it's fine. The app is less slick than Hailo's - you have to enter information in a certain way (e.g. post code only - it doesn't seem to recognize street addresses if you start typing them in), which can be frustrating, but it also brings up a selection of minicab services closest to your location, plus their price and what time they can pick you up, which is helpful.

6. Rightmove - We've been looking to buy a property in London for just over a year now, but still haven't found The One. The Rightmove app is great because it allows you to search for properties that are for sale around you - wherever you are. So, if I'm curious about house prices in Rickmansworth, for example (which I once was, when passing through on the train), I just do a quick search and tap on the most recent properties that have been posted by estate agents to see the asking price, photographs of the interior, and even a floor plan. It's frequently updated, so you can see the newest properties and change the criteria to suit what you're looking for.

7. StreetLink - Rough sleeping in London is a common occurrence, and one that really breaks my heart - particularly in the winter months. I have occasionally bought meals for rough sleepers but it's the thought of sleeping outside in bitter conditions that really gets to me. They're often seen in doorways of stores like Northface (ironically) and other nice shops in the West End, since those have the largest area and thus, shelter from the elements. StreetLink lets you alert (not "report", since they're not doing anything wrong) local authorities about rough sleepers, so that they can help connect them to the nearest shelter for food and warmth. At first, I was highly skeptical about this service. Aside from knowing whether it actually worked or not, I was worried about getting rough sleepers into trouble with the police, which is the opposite of what I wanted to happen. But after doing a bit of research online, I felt a bit better about using it.

So those are really my favorite apps for London city living. Like everyone else, I have my lifestyle favorites, like eBay (guilty!), iPlayers for various channels, and a couple of games, as well as the latest edition of Stylist magazine - the free women's lifestyle magazine (and my favorite) that's handed out in London on a weekly basis. They've just come up with a new digital edition, which automatically downloads to my Newsstand each week. It's brilliant.

For restaurants, I typically book directly with the restaurant, though I know a lot of people use restaurant-related apps in the city. I've stopped booking through Toptable for a while now, so I've long since deleted that app. 

You'll also see in the screen grab above that I have a bus checker app to check bus times at bus stops, but it's practically been rendered obsolete now that I use Citymapper, which also shows me bus stops and up-to-the-minute bus arrival times.

What are the apps you can't live without?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Getting Crafty With Pinned It! Made It!

Just when I thought my crafty skills had disappeared under my childhood bed, dusty and abandoned like the boxes of beads and other craft supplies I had pushed under there as well, they were suddenly resurrected when I made this sock monkey.

Then, when blogger/fashionista/entrepreneur-extraordinaire Plum (of Plumdiddlyumcious, amongst other things) mentioned that Pinned It! Made It! were organizing an evening of statement necklace making at The Book Club in Shoreditch, I quickly nabbed two tickets for me and a friend to go along. After all, what could be more appealing than learning how to make a statement necklace (hello, new spring accessory!), as taught by Lotts and Lots, having a drink and meeting new people? (Well, actually, scratch the meeting new people part, because I'm so awkward and antisocial that I tend to make super awkward non-conversation and then quietly slip away these days.)

After a fabulous demonstration, we got to work ourselves: choosing the beads (hardest part - I basically spent the whole evening pining after everyone else's color combinations and cursing my own, unoriginal, Gap-inspired neon creation), cutting wire, and trying to make our necklaces look not homemade.

As we struggled along, I thought about how much I missed making crafts - it was the same feeling I got when I was slowly hand-stitching my sock monkey's crotch closed (well, that came out weirder than I meant it to). There's something about the process that's so relaxing and satisfying. As one of the girls at our table remarked, "It's like using a part of your brain that hardly ever gets used" (though technically, for that, I have my CIMA coursebooks that remain untouched, but ... you know).

So here's my finished product:

I wanted something nice and bright, since I wear so much black, gray, and navy blue (even in the summer, believe it or not). The ribbon is fully adjustable, so you can wear the necklace high or low like a pendant. If you look closely, you'll see how crooked it is and the fact that the beads don't lay completely flat due to my underestimation of how many links I needed to leave empty, but hey - it kind of works.

And when someone complimented me on the necklace today, I was able to say brightly, "Thanks! I made it!"

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

"Eat Your Way Through Brixton" With Fox & Squirrel

Last weekend, I was invited to join Fox & Squirrel on a guided, mouth-watering tour of some of Brixton's culinary hidden gems - and it was amazing.

Fox & Squirrel organize small-group guided tours (or "walks", as they're called) throughout London with a historical, cultural, and creative emphasis. The walks are led by local experts, which give them an authentic yet enthusiastic perspective.

Although I chose to join them on the food walk of Brixton (aptly named, "Eat Your Way Through Brixton"), the tours offered by Fox & Squirrel vary from fashion and street photography walks to architecture and bespoke art walks - perfect for fashion, art, and photography enthusiasts.

Our walk was led by Lindsay Faller, a food journalist and long-time resident of Brixton. Knowledgeable and friendly, Lindsay introduced us to a number of Brixton's terrific street food options in and around Brixton Market while giving us an insight into the process behind the dishes we were sampling. I typically avoid joining tours or walks because can often feel stilted or rehearsed. However, it almost felt as though our small group of 8 were being shown around by a friend, rather than a formal "guide", which made the whole experience all the more enjoyable. We also had the opportunity to meet the owners of several of the restaurants we tried, which was lovely as it meant that we were able to chat with them and ask questions.

It's no secret that Brixton is becoming more gentrified by the minute - trendy, pop-up restaurants are opening left and right and the streets adjacent to Brixton Village and Market Row are beginning to fill with boutiques and design-led bars. What I loved most about the Fox & Squirrel walk was that it introduced me to a number of places with amazing, home-style cooking that I simply would have walked past, having been too intimidated or shy to approach them in the first place. We sampled everything from Ethiopian coffee (made at an Ethiopian coffee ceremony!) to delectable Caribbean dishes and traditional, small-bites from a Colombian cafeteria.  The tour intentionally leaves off popular favorites (Franco Manca, for example), instead focusing on tucked away but equally delicious locations you wouldn't ordinarily stumble upon.

The walk is scheduled to last approximately three and a half hours, but it certainly didn't feel like that when we finished, nearly four hours later. It was as if no time had passed (though our bellies were bursting by the end!) and I couldn't have thought of a more enjoyable way to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon. 

You don't have to be a tourist or someone visiting London for the first time to enjoy a walk with Fox & Squirrel - in fact, I think that almost the opposite is true. Having lived in London for nearly 8 years now, I'm constantly searching out new ways to explore or discover the city. The tour was both an inspiring and eye-opening way to explore a part of London I'm not that familiar with but would love to return to again.

For more information on walks with Fox & Squirrel and how to book, visit their website.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies On This Side Of The Pond

As an American, I take my cookies pretty seriously. John must have known this because when we were first dating in Oxford, he wooed me with a Ben's Cookie (which, in case you've never had one, are so magical, they're sold by weight). Direct line to my heart.

I'll never forget the moment when I first arrived in the UK and ordered a cookie at a coffee shop: it looked so appetizing in the glass cake stand. So soft, gooey, and chocolatey. Imagine my disappointment when I broke it in half to reveal its actual, true crumbly, flour-y, crunchy state. I had been deceived. By a cookie.

So, I tried to make my own. But for some reason, every recipe I followed that promised "soft, chewy, American-style" cookies also proved to be disappointing. In the oven, they looked great, but would deflate into flat, sad saucers with crunchy edges as soon as I removed them.

It wasn't until I stumbled upon this recipe from the Toblerone website that I finally found my cookie making mojo and could hold my head high again. I've made these cookies for friends and for the office, and they've been fail-safe successes both times. I'm posting the original recipe here, but I adapt it a little when I make it, so I'll let you know what those adjustments are at the end. Obviously, you can substitute the Toblerone chocolate for ANY kind of chocolate you'd like (I just used a bar of Cadbury Dairy Milk in my last batch).

TOBLERONE COOKIES (from the Toblerone website)

Makes 12 cookies (NB I make mine slightly smaller, so I get around 15 out of this)

What you'll need:

75g butter or margarine

75g granulated sugar

75g light muscavado sugar

1 egg

175g self-raising flour

100g bar milk Toblerone, roughly chopped


1. Lightly grease 2 baking sheets (I don't bother with the greasing, because I have a fantastic baking sheet from John Lewis that is non-stick). Heat oven to 180 degrees C, 350 degrees F, Gas Mark 4.

2. Cream the butter and sugars together until light and fluffy, then beat in the egg.

3. Fold in the flour and Toblerone pieces. Place large teaspoons of the mixture on the baking sheets, allowing room for them to spread. Bake for 12-15 minutes.

4. Cool on the baking sheets for a couple of minutes before transferring to a wire rack to finish cooling. The cookies can be eaten warm or cold.

So, the changes I've made to the recipe are:

1. Use only half the quantity of light muscavado sugar that the recipe calls for and replace the other half with dark brown sugar. Trust me, it makes a difference.

2. Bake only for 8 minutes (especially if you're making them slightly smaller, like mine are). If you're baking them for 12-15 minutes, or even 10 minutes, they'll be severely overdone. I take mine out as soon as I see the hint of golden brown appearing on the top (I have a fan oven, so this may make a difference).

Enjoy. And if you're American, freak out the Brits by warming two cookies and putting a generous dollop of vanilla ice cream in the middle for an ice-cream sandwich. Consume as if it's a normal, every-day dessert (or if you want to be really daring, a snack) for you.


Friday, March 7, 2014

The Prettiest Thank-You Present


I recently reviewed MyShowcase for the Myfriendslike website and they sent me this gorgeous Sage Lifestyle roll-on perfumed oil today as a thank-you because I mentioned that I loved the range - isn't that so nice? I have been utterly spoiled this week.

These petite, travel-sized roll-on bottles come beautifully packaged in a decorative paper tube, which is what initially caught my eye when I attended the recent MyShowcase pop-up event in Marylebone. The scents are positively alluring, as well as addictive. I've spent the past few months looking for my "signature" scent, but I've been having trouble finding it. I've been trying out several options from Jo Malone and Chanel, but I still haven't yet found "the one". This Sage roll-on just might be it, however.

I love roll-on oils because they last longer than eau de toilettes or parfums and are lovely to dab behind your ears, neck, and wrists. They offer a more subtle version of a scent as well, which lingers on your skin just a bit longer than the spray versions do. Plus, they don't contain any alcohol, which means it's less irritating on your skin.

One of my favorites is Diptyque's Philosykos, which I also own. It's an intoxicating blend of fig and white cedar. I love to wear it in the colder, winter months when I prefer a "warmer" scent as opposed to floral or fruity perfumes.

Thank you, MyShowcase!


Hot on the heels of my sock monkey making (no pun intended, but my mom did also recently refer to my new-found hobby as "monkey business"), I was sent this absolutely HIGH-larious pair of socks from ChattyFeet, a company that makes amazingly cheerful socks (sidenote: my other favorite pair is the Don Cottone). So. Clever. And unlike other character-themed socks, the pattern appears on both the top AND underside of your feet. Guaranteed smiles all around.

To be honest, crazy socks aren't usually my thing. I'm typically in black opaque tights or boring black cotton socks on most days, but I couldn't resist pulling these out this morning when I looked out my window and saw the gray skies. Aside from the fact that it's Friday (yay!), I needed some instantaneous cheering up. Plus, crazy socks are making a comeback - just look at Swedish company, Happy Socks (a favorite of John's), plus the latest crazy color combinations at ASOS and Topshop.

This pair may be called "Brad Feet", but they also bear an uncanny resemblance to another handsome, blonde fellow ... AKA my husband. SO. I've decided (since I barely see him these days) that the next time John's away on monkey business, I'll just pop these socks on, sit in front of the TV, and have a little convo with them. Test driving this on Sunday.

Brad Feet were sent to me by ChattySocks to review on Angloyankophile. You can buy your own Chatty pair either via the ChattyFeet website or Not On The High Street

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Sin City Meets Handel: Rodelinda @ English National Opera

Photograph © Clive Barda 2014

Despite being a less-than-10-minute walk away from my office, I had never been to the London Coliseum, home to the English National Opera (or "ENO", as it is better known in classical music circles). I've always been a little embarrassed by this, so I was thrilled when Alice said she had an extra ticket (purchased under ENO's Access All Arias scheme, which is fantastic, btw) for Tuesday evening's performance of Handel's Rodelinda (second embarrassing revelation of the evening: I never even knew that Handel wrote operas. Oh, dear).

In short, Rodelinda tells the story of Rodelinda, who is mourning the supposed death of her husband (the King) Bertarido, after he was driven out of his kingdom by the evil Grimoaldo. But in reality, Bertarido is alive and well (I'm not spoiling anything for you here, don't worry) and returns in disguise to seek revenge. Grimoaldo keeps Rodelinda and her son in a prison cell, unless she agrees to marry him, thus allowing him to become King. So far, so dramatic.

Having been warned in advance by Alice that ENO's often modern staging could be, at times, a little distracting, I was surprised by how well Richard Jones' production worked. Yes, at times the acting was a bit over the top and the comedic elements perhaps could have been perceived as making a mockery of Handel's original, tragic score, but you know what? It was also very enjoyable. I'm sure there are other productions out there that have remained true to Handel's original "vision", but I also attend operas, plays, ballets, and other theatrical performances to experience the myriad of interpretations by artistic directors rather than one, true-to-form version of events. Yes, at times, it was anything but credible, but it was wonderful to be transported into another world entirely and one that was full of unexpected surprises - even if some of those surprises raised eyebrows.

The set itself was inventive, quirky, and relevant.  Described as a "neon-lit, Lynchian dive" by this rather scathing (though interesting) review in The Spectator, one of my favorite scenes was played out in, yes, a fantastically neon-lit bar. The majority of the production reminded me very much of Sin City, with its bleak, crime-noir setting, interjected by short bursts of black and white cinematic interludes.

Though Welsh soprano Rebecca Evans was magnificent in her role of fiercely loyal Rodelinda, the standout star of the evening was definitely countertenor Iestyn Davies, whose Bertarido had the audience in stunned silence as soon as he opened his mouth for his first entrance. His voice was of the purest quality and his singing, effortless - as if it had simply been plucked from the air. It was really incredible to hear, as I've never experienced anything quite like it. I began to look forward to his solos in anticipation, and the duet between Bertarido and Rodelinda in the third act was just perfection. Grimoaldo, performed by John Mark Ainsley, seemed often overpowered by the orchestra - especially in the first act. The ends of phrases seemed to disappear and one had to strain to understand his words. Despite this, the acting and overall performance of the entire cast was marvelous.

Every time I watch an opera, but especially this one, I am amazed at how much coordination is involved to ensure everything runs smoothly. The orchestra must stay perfectly together, even in the trickiest parts for ensemble - otherwise the singers are thrown off. The singers must act, sing perfectly, and breathe at the appropriate places, otherwise the whole ensemble is thrown off. At the end of the day, the conductor is the glue that holds it all together: the cues, the careful watching, the allowance for the smallest nuances, all had me at the edge of my seat. When you think about it, it's really extraordinary.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Rose Gold Kick

I've been on a rose gold jewelry kick lately, ever since John bought me this rose gold Kate Spade watch for my birthday last year. I know it's good to mix metals and clash a bit, but I just find that rose gold works particularly well with my skin tone.

I'm also guilty of buying lots and lots of fun but cheap costume jewelry from places like Forever 21 or Banana Republic, which - after just three or four wears - turns my fingers and ears green and/or gives me a rash on my neck. Attractive, no? So now that I'm more like Forever 31, I've resolved to buy less cheap jewelry and invest in some quality pieces for every day wear, which have the added benefit of not giving me a skin condition.

First, after navigating through some trying and triumphant times in February, I rewarded myself with a trip to the Monica Vinader showroom on South Molton Lane, where I purchased their beautiful Ava bracelet in rose gold vermeil and personalized it with my initials (shown above, left). I have particularly small wrists, so I love how this bracelet comes on a sturdy, but adjustable cord - and the fact that it's so unexpectedly delicate in person. 

Also, can I just say? They are so nice in there. So helpful, patient, and friendly - which is extremely rare to find in London. Recently, I've been especially disappointed by the far from satisfactory customer service in Links of London, considering the fact that I've spent a small fortune in their stores over the years. As an American, positive customer service makes a huge difference to me and while I'd happily purchase from Monica Vinader again, I doubt I'll shop at Links of London in the future.

More recently, the rose gold vermeil floral paisely bracelet (shown above, right) from Chavin Jewellery caught my eye when I saw it on the wrist of SheerLuxe founder, Georgie Coleridge Cole, on Instagram. Luckily, Luxe Ltd was running a short promotion on a select number of bracelets and necklaces, so I think I ended up getting this bracelet for less than half price.

Chavin is based in London and Lima, Peru. The company is actively involved with the charity SOS Children and prides itself on its ethical standards of practice, which you can read more about here. Again, I loved the delicate nature of the design and thought it would be a lovely addition to stack with my other bracelets. The three adjustable sizes was another plus: my wrists are so small, most chain bracelets slip down to my hand, rather than staying where I want them to. Despite being on a chain, this bracelet has a size setting that's just right for me.

Have I tempted you to expand your rose gold collection?


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Gifts for Babies: The Best Baby Journal

You know the TV series, "One Born Every Minute"? Anyway, I just thinking the other day how our friendship circle is currently resembling "One Born Every Month", since nearly all of our friends are due this spring within a month of one another. And of course, our darling niece, Dorothy Rose, was just born earlier this year.

This means a couple of things: a) people have started to ask me intrusive questions about my own family planning and b) I've become Petit Bateau's most popular customer ever. I've also stocked up on gender-neutral congratulatory-baby-birth cards just so I'm prepared.

But one gift I think is really special for a new baby or expectant parents-to-be is a baby journal. I still look at mine when I go home (Sesame Street themed - my brother's is this gorgeous one from the Metropolitan Museum of Art) - it contains a lock of my hair from my first haircut, as well as my hand and foot prints. My mom kept the sweetest diary of my gurgles and movements those first few months after I was born and it's a lovely keepsake to have.

I recently bought this baby journal for my niece, as well as Ruth and Peter's baby, Jack. I love everything about it - from the wonderful, whimsical illustrations by Yasmeen Lomail, to the actual content of the book, which covers baby-related topics with a humorous twist (perfect for those more cynical, sleep-deprived moments).

Although it's not for everyone (some prefer a more traditional format), I think it's such a great alternative to those gooey, gushy, pastel-themed baby journals you find everywhere else. When I first saw this book, I thought, "Finally! A baby journal that my friends would like!" It's just really, really cleverly done. And unique.

The only drawback is that it's softcover, which I don't think is very durable or long-lasting - but if you keep it away from explosive diaper changes and burping sessions, it should be okay.

Happy baby gift shopping.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Art of Living Abroad

I would never consider myself to be an "expert" on living abroad. But when HiFX asked me to contribute to their campaign (which consists of a collection of tips from ex-pats around the world), I realized that the 7+ years I've spent living in a country that isn't my own has earned me some entitlement to wax poetic on the subject. So ...

Be a tourist. Even if you've lived in your adopted country for a while.

You know what? I've been on the London Eye three times. Most recently, last year. I seek out the highest points and parks in London (Centrepoint, Primrose Hill, Hampstead Heath, Heron Tower, and The Shard, to name a few) and scramble up each one, oohing and ahhing like I've never seen the city from above before. And every time I exit Westminster station, I almost always stop to take a photo of Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. I HAVE NO SHAME. Because, why not? They're beautiful. They still take my breath away. When I walk across Waterloo Bridge? I stop, like a tourist, and just stand in the middle, facing Southbank, overlooking the Thames. Then I turn the other direction and look East towards Tower Bridge. And I take one (or four) photos. I don't care. It's my favorite view of London. I'm allowed. What I'm trying to say is, it's okay to still be enthralled by the place you live in. Who cares if it's not cool? I'll tell you what's not cool ... the people who think they're too cool to stop and smell the roses. They're definitely not cool.

Explore the city on your own.

When I was living in shared housing (i.e. not with John), I wandered around a lot on my own. I had a handful of friends that I enjoyed making plans with, but one of my favorite memories was getting on the DLR from Shadwell, where I lived at the time, all the way to Cutty Sark station for Greenwich Market. I'd spend an afternoon there, wandering the market stalls and taking in the smells of the delicious food bubbling away. I'd buy a brownie and save it for later, sipping a coffee as I strolled through the grounds of the Naval Academy. I liked the solitude. I felt like the experience was mine and mine alone to interpret - and it was in this way, in little chunks of different places, that I began to get to know London a little better.

Go on "friend dates". 

Yeah, they're awkward and 9 times out of 10, you'll walk out of the restaurant/pub/bar/coffee shop both knowing that you'll never see each other again, but they're worth a gamble. How else are you going to meet new people if you don't go out on a limb? Say you start chatting to someone at a friend's party and realize you have a lot of common interests - it's worth swapping email addresses or taking up an offer to explore a museum or hear some live music together. Sure, I've been to one or two friend dates that turned out to be disastrous (we had nothing in common and I found the other person to be utterly annoying, though I'm sure they felt the same) but a few were amazing. For example, I met my dear friends Ruth and Peter (who have since moved back to the US - boo!) during a group friend date and it was a match made in friendship heaven. I'm pretty sure Ruth and I would have traded friendship bracelets by now, if we were in the third grade. She's still totally my pen pal.

Stay away from negative people - at least, in the beginning.

I definitely have complaints about living in the UK. My friends always ask me what I bring home in my suitcase after a visit to the US. Embarrassed, I think about it for a second: "Um ... well, you know ... razors. And kitchen sponges. And dental floss. Scotch tape. Red Vines. Marshmallow Peeps. Scissors. Sticky notes. Sharpie markers." Confused, they respond defensively: "Oh, what? Our dental floss isn't good enough for you?" And meekly, I have to say, "Sorry, no, it isn't." It's always little things, but I feel like Americans are just so darn good at inventing things to make your life just that much easier. Or, those products aren't available here.

But too much complaining leads to a huge negativity suck. And that is so not good. If you're going to live in a new country, you have to try to accept that things work differently there. It may be frustrating, you may cry into your pillow (as I type this, the black skinny jeans I want to wear tomorrow are hanging up to dry because I only had time to do my laundry today and our flat, like most UK homes, doesn't have a tumble dryer and I just know - I just know that there'll be some major panicked blow-drying around the crotch area tomorrow morning if I want to wear them to work).

I had a lovely American friend who lived here a few years ago (she's since moved back to the States) whom I loved meeting up with. But it didn't take long before I started rationing our meet-ups because she was one HUGE complainer. The worst things always seemed to happen to her. A sales assistant was rude to her. She complained to the manager. He was rude to her. She fell on the Tube. No one helped her up, etc. etc. Everything was better back in the States. Everything was terrible here. After a while, I just got really tired of it. I sympathized with her but I also believe that you can find the worst in everything - if you go looking for it. And she definitely looked for it.

So I just stopped hanging out with her.

Find an activity that "grounds" you - and stick to it.

It's totally natural to feel off-balance/off-kilter/unbalanced/untethered when you first move to a new place, let alone a new country. I'm settled enough now that I have routines and habits that make me feel at home and at ease in London. But in the beginning, I settled in and was like, "Okay, now what?" Something was missing, and I felt lost. So I joined a gym. I started practising Vinyasa flow yoga twice a week. I also joined an orchestra, The Royal Orchestral Society, which performs three times per year and rehearses once a week after work.

These were activities I brought with me from the US - activities that felt familiar, yet different enough (since I was doing them in a completely different environment, not to mention that the Brits have an entirely different musical vocabulary - e.g. I still don't know what a "crotchet" is. Is that a quarter note or an eighth note? I just nod when the conductor says it during rehearsal and then continue to play it incorrectly) that they helped me feel grounded.

And that's when I started to feel at home.


Making a Sock Monkey Will Make Your Life A Living Hell

Last weekend, John and I went over to Joe and Jodi's to watch Six Nations rugby with a few friends. Rob brought over his three kids (ages 3, 5, and 7), and luckily enough, John and I went prepared with craft kits to keep them entertained while the grown-ups watched the game. Brilliant idea, right? Wrong. Naively, I hadn't realized that the kits required not just adult supervision, but total adult involvement - as they always do. Which meant that far from being sprawled out on the sofa, Jodi, Kirsty, and I were left to demystify instructions on how to make bouncy balls, a felt owl key chain, and a sock monkey.

I felt totally responsible for this unfortunate assumption that the kits would be mildly age appropriate (they were, but just needed a lot of hands-on help!) so I helped the oldest with sock monkey construction. First of all, HAVE YOU EVER MADE ONE OF THESE THINGS? THEY ARE NOT SIMPLE. THERE IS NOTHING EASY OR SIMPLE ABOUT MAKING A SOCK MONKEY. IT IS ONE OF THE MOST INVOLVED CRAFT PROJECTS I HAVE EVER UNDERTAKEN.

Meanwhile, I had a bored 7-year-old on my hands who, thank goodness, patiently waited as I frantically and sloppily hand-stitched arms, ears, legs, and a tail for her to stuff with poly-fill fiber. Long after the game had ended and the 5-year-old had burst into tears because she wanted to get home, I was still sewing like a madwoman/child laborer because the 7-year-old begged me to sew the mouth on before she left. Finally finished, and with a contact nearly dangling out my eye, I hunted down the girl (who was now playing a game of hide-and-seek behind the couch) and handed her the far from satisfactory sock monkey, which she grabbed immediately from my hands with delight. It looked awful, but passable. The stitches were totally exposed in the seams and some over-zealous stuffing had caused some of the poly-fill to bulge out of the sides.

As a child, I was always a crafty kid. My mom bought every craft kit under the sun to keep me entertained through long summers and winter breaks. When my friends came over, we made sequined headbands and friendship bracelets. We played with iron-on transfers on t-shirts (with my mom's help, of course) and made lanyards out of beads and that weird plastic-y material I can't even describe. As I grew older, my craft kits got stored under the bed but I was still heavily involved with art - painting with acrylics and watercolors all throughout high school and winning a few contests here and there.

As an adult? I hadn't touched a craft kit until that afternoon. But the whole time I was on the train back to London, I couldn't help but think, 'Could I make a better sock monkey than the one I helped produce that afternoon?' I'm a pretty competitive person - and a perfectionist. The combination of these two things meant one thing: I had to make a sock monkey. A good one.

So I decided to make one for my baby niece (when she's a bit older, of course!). And let me just preface this by saying that there are not nearly as many craft stores in the UK (read: one) as there are in the US. In the States, we tend to craft like it's our main source of leisurely activity. I can count 3 craft stores within a 2 mile radius of my Washington home already.

But this didn't stop me. First, I went to the Hobbycraft website and bought a bunch of stuff: poly-fill, buttons (for eyes), felt (for the face), and thread in every color. Next, I went to the Gap and chose some socks (3 for £10) in fun colors. Then I went to YouTube and found this video, which has the clearest instructions and the best tips ever. And after a few days of spreading out the work, I ended up with the sock monkey in the photo above. It's not bad, but it's not exactly professional either: a closer look and you'll see exposed thread in the seams, uneven stuffing, and the fact that the stripes don't match up on the arms.

But as time-consuming as it was (I also think I broke my back, ankles, and eyes in the process, as I was bent over in the worst light and most awkward positions imaginable), it was also a really fun project to make. And I have to admit, I was kind of proud of the finished product.

Even my parents seemed impressed. I showed it to my dad yesterday on FaceTime and we had a conversation that went like this:

"Dad, want to see the sock monkey I made?"

"Wow, that's neat! Hey, if you have time, make me one too."

"Yeah! I want to! What color do you want?" I held up two pairs of socks to the camera.

"Oh, definitely the darker one. That way, it won't get dirty."

"What? Where are you planning to take this sock monkey, Dad?"

"Oh, well, I don't know! To work, to the grocery store ... everywhere!"

So there's Dad's monkey on the right, in progress, and Dorothy Rose's on the left. I think that they could be good friends, don't you?
© angloyankophile

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