Wednesday, April 29, 2015

So Nice, I Tried It Twice: Jar Kitchen, Covent Garden

I'm used to seeing restaurants like Jar Kitchen in Dalston and lesser-known-streets of North London - not a stone's throw away from my office in Covent Garden. No, Covent Garden is reserved for chains, popular pop-ups, and Michelin-starred celebrity haunts - not small, unassuming, new restaurants serving delicious, beautifully done, British cuisine at a reasonable price. When I think of the Covent Garden food scene, I think of conformity (yes, even those new restaurants that seem to be every Instagrammer's dream these days), but I think Jar Kitchen stands out from the crowd.

The funny thing is, I've watched this restaurant be built from the ground up; from when the original business was torn down (I can't remember what occupied it before, despite walking down Drury Lane nearly every day, it was that miss-able) to when they painted the interiors a dark grey and hammered in the wood countertops.

Being the skeptic I was, I walked past the new establishment without giving it a second glance, until my friend Erin suggested that we meet there for dinner.

It's a small restaurant: the upstairs section probably seats five or six tables at a push, and I think there might be seating downstairs as well. At the same time, it's cozy and intimate - a great place to catch up and chat about all the things you've missed since you've last seen each other.

Service is friendly but not overbearingly so ... and the big plus for me? There's a pre-theatre menu of 2 courses for £15 or 3 courses for £18. In Central London, and at restaurants of this caliber, that's almost unheard of, so we took advantage of this (since we were eating early!) and ordered two courses, plus a couple of sides as well (their triple-cooked fries are oh-my-goodness delicious: perfectly crunchy).

If you haven't guessed already, the big theme here is ... jars. Of every shape and size. The restaurant has manged to repurpose jars into cups, candle holders, lights, vases ... so if you have a jar phobia, maybe best to avoid.

But if you love good food, well then, step right up. Erin and I both ordered the Walter Rose pork belly, served atop a bed of peas, lentils, turnips, scratching and a hazelnut crumble. The pork belly was tender and succulent, and the peas and lentils were delicious. The pork scratchings and hazelnut crumble gave the dish a good crunch; a bit of excitement on an otherwise often overdone (no pun intended!) menu option.

Speaking of the menu, it's small, but excellently curated. It's a restaurant that clearly knows what it does well, and sticks to it - I admire that.

When it came to choosing our desserts, I immediately went for the chocolate ganache with banana ice cream (I think I just saw "banana ice cream" and my eyes turned to hearts, just like the emoji) and Erin let me try some of her warm cinnamon and sugar dusted donuts, which were divine.

A few days later, John and I were on our way to the Royal Opera House (see previous post!) and, upon trying to decide where to have a quick dinner, dropped into Jar Kitchen for the second (me) and first (John) time.

I'm so unoriginal, I went for the pork belly again (which was even better the second time around), but finished with the cinnamon donuts instead. John really enjoyed his first course of chicken liver parfait, fig and onion jam and toasted raisin bread, but saved most of his praise for his main of mixed grain salad with roasted heirloom carrots, JK yoghurt, molasses, orange and herbs (which I'll admit I dipped my fork into too).

As the seasons change, I look forward to seeing what Jar Kitchen comes up with next on their inventive, unique menu. And if you're in the neighborhood, I suggest you give it a try.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Prettiest View From Above: The Royal Opera House

Confession: the Royal Opera House used to be my shortcut to the gym in Covent Garden. It was the shortest route between my office and my 6 pm yoga class ... and I loved seeing the anxious faces of opera- and ballet-goers lining up for returned tickets and the buzz before an evening's performance. It felt sacrilegious, sure, but I figured I wasn't doing any harm by walking through the revolving doors, straight through the lobby into another set of revolving doors.

Last time I was at the ROH, my friend Jodi had somehow magically wangled 4th row (FOURTH ROW - as in, you can see the dancers' expressions) tickets to Sleeping Beauty for my birthday. And the time before that, I enjoyed Verdi from a private box, as my friends had a spare ticket - which had been given to them as a wedding present.

This time, we were there to see the ballet La Fille Mal Gardée, which John had chosen, as Alison had given vouchers to him for his birthday earlier in the year. But before we took our seats, we had just enough time to sip a glass of champagne and enjoy the spectacular view from the observation deck above. Isn't it beautiful? Those windows - especially when sunlight's streaming in - are just stunning.

And the view outside is just as incredible:

I love how you can just about make out the upper half of the London Eye across the rooftops, and see the Union Jack flags flying proud and high (p.s. the restaurant you see there is Brasserie Blanc, which is a great little place to meet friends from out-of-town for dinner!).

By the time we left the performance (which was fantastic, by the way - a fun, light-hearted, and entertaining ballet with wonderful costume and set design, plus pretty, classical choreography), the streets had emptied and there was a slight chill in the air. But for that quick moment we had stepped outside to admire the scene below, I remembered what makes this city so unique and beautiful.

Have you been to the Royal Opera House for a performance, or for dinner or afternoon tea? What did you think? It's one of my favorite places in London. I'd love to go back for afternoon tea when my friends arrive next week.

Monday, April 27, 2015

ZipCar: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

We had a car, once: it was a bright yellow Skoda that earned the nickname, "The Yellow Peril" from our downstairs neighbors in Maida Vale. Despite its luminescent glow, I have fond memories of taking it to the Asda in Park Royal, where I'd stock up on American foodstuffs and fill the trunk with PopTarts, and trips to Westfield White City for Forever 21 shopping sprees - after all, its color certainly helped us remember where we'd parked.

But we didn't drive it very much; the amount of money we spent on parking and insurance probably outweighed the benefits of having a car in London (we only used it to get out of the city, really) and one fateful day, it broke down on the side of the road at the entrance to a freeway. You've never racked up more cool credentials until you've stood by a bright yellow Skoda on an on-ramp with the hood up, while people stop to stare and gawk.

So we returned the car to its generous owner (who had allowed us to use it, free of charge) and got on just fine by bus, train, plane, and of course - on foot.

Until this weekend, when we needed to go to Winchester for a family reunion, and National Rail showed a train and a rail replacement bus service from Basingstoke. Not cool. John had been going on and on about getting a ZipCar subscription for a while now, and I knew that our friends Ruth and Peter has used it a lot when they lived in London, so he suggested that we try it out on Saturday.

I let John deal with all the administrative details (which was a little lazy of me, especially since he would be driving), but I think the way it works is that you pay an annual fee, and then you can rent the car for a few hours per day (or for the whole day).

One thing I love about ZipCar is that the cars are located practically everywhere. In our case, it was parked on a quiet little street about 30 seconds from our front door (great for me, since I was wearing heels - ha!). It takes the frustration out of waiting in long lines at a rental car shop (with the surliest customer service assistants you've ever met, believe me), showing them a bazillion forms of ID, signing forms, and rushing back to return the keys before having to find your own way back home again. Bleurgh. No thanks.

Also: you can unlock the car from your phone. Spooky, but utterly amazing. Fuel is paid for up to a certain capped limit, and a fuel card's provided in the glove compartment, so it was quick and easy when we needed to fill up before returning the car.

All was well, until we parked our car in Winchester and needed to grab something from the backseat after lunch ... suddenly, the alarm went off.


No matter what we did, we couldn't turn it off - which was hugely embarrassing in a parking lot full of people and passerbys (the parking ticket inspector was super nice, though, and showed actual concern and sympathy for us!). We called the helpline and they were able to disable the alarm remotely, but when we returned to our car a few hours later ... the same thing happened. And again, after that - this time, in a residential neighborhood. If you've used a ZipCar, has this happened to you before??? We couldn't figure it out - it left us flummoxed and annoyed.

But! When we weren't flummoxed and annoyed, we were totally impressed with the flexibility of the ZipCar system. We were having a great time at The River Cottage Canteen in Winchester with John's family - so much so, that when John's aunt asked if we'd like to go back to her house for a while, John was able to extend the length of our car rental with a simple swipe on his phone so we could stay for longer.

And when we got back at night after dropping John's mom off at St. Pancras so she could catch her train back to Leicester, we were back home watching Game of Thrones with cold drinks in hand in no time, since the car just needed to be parked one street away.

So slick. (Except for the faulty alarm system, which thankfully didn't cause us any problems when we dropped the car off.)

I think we'll definitely use ZipCar again, provided that we don't have another alarm-related fiasco. We'll probably think about buying a car when we move to a more permanent residence than our current flat situation, but for now, ZipCar would be totally convenient for short trips both in and out of London.

Have you used ZipCar before? What did you think?

p.s. this isn't a sponsored post - I honestly just thought it would be helpful to share our experience, in case you're thinking of buying/using/renting a car in London!

UPDATE: So, last night, John came home and told me that he'd received a call from ZipCar saying that they'd charged him £400 for 1,600 miles (keep in mind that we drove to Winchester!) and a £125 late fee (we returned the car nearly an hour early)! They obviously realized that this was their mistake and rectified it quickly over the phone, but - ouch! Can you imagine if you were charged (as in, the money came out of your account) £525 by mistake? Despite this gaffe, we still thought it was a good service overall, since I think our experience was completely out of the norm (friends of ours have used the service without any issues, ever), but ... just a little crazy.

Friday, April 24, 2015

National Stationery Week Spotlight: Chroma Stationery

It's National Stationery Week in the UK (yes, this is a thing!) and I am the biggest hoarder of stationery ever.

My obsession started when I was five. My dad took me to the little stationery shop below my grandma's apartment in Happy Valley, Hong Kong, which was every little girl's dream because they stocked every single Hello Kitty product imaginable. With the pocket money my dad gave me, I'd buy sticker books, journals, pens (SO many pens!), erasers, pencil sharpeners, pencil cases (SO many pencil cases!), and basically whatever I could get my hands on. 

In junior high, I'd buy stationery from Borders and by high school, I was into Papyrus. College was all about creamy, white monogrammed card stock (so East Coast, so preppy!) and as an adult, I love anything quirky, pretty, or just a little bit fabulous (see here for examples - I'm especially a fan of Rifle Paper Co.).

But after arriving in the UK, my love for stationery waned: I couldn't find any indie shops I liked (although Paperchase stocks some fantastic indie designers and artists) and "proper" stationery (think Smythson) was totally out of my price range. So I stock up whenever I go back to the States.

But then I heard about Chroma Stationery and their notebooks were a game changer. Specializing in personalized notebooks made with good quality materials, Chroma is all about color and the personal connection we have to stationery. After all, its founder, Gabi, named all the notebooks after her friends and family!

It was so difficult to select from their beautiful colors and bindings, but I chose the unlined, spiral bound "Daniel" notebook with silver embossing to jot down all my blog post ideas and thoughts.

And it's gorgeous - a refreshing step away from my usual array of black, boring Moleskines.

If you're a stationery fanatic like me and want to support an indie stationery designer, then Chroma is a great place to start.

What about you? Do you love writing letters as much as I do? Do you carry a notebook around with you? What are your favorite stationery brands?

The gorgeous Daniel notebook was generously provided to me by Chroma, a company that I love. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Angloyankophile. Stop by their online shop to see more pretty choices!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Expat Talk: Gratitude

After a glorious week of sunshine, cherry blossoms, and blue sky, London is ... well, grey again. Temperatures are dropping and, in some parts of the UK, snow is even being predicted!

I've lived in London for over 8 years. In that time, I've slowly allowed myself to forget the charm and novelty of the city I once fell in love with. After bidding Sri Lanka a tearful goodbye a few weeks ago, I felt crushed about returning to England - the very place I once dreamed of living in. The place I worked so hard to build a life for myself in. The place I'd taped a postcard of next to my bed, so that it'd be the last thing I'd see before I closed my eyes at night.

And then: I was so angry with myself.

This life I have in London? These buildings, the traffic, the red telephone booths, the accent, the Thames, the afternoon teas? The coveted job in publishing? This used to be my fairytale. When did that change? My thoughts horrified me.

Gratitude is something I struggle with on a daily basis. I have so, so much. And yet I find myself wanting so much more. A new camera, a new watch, a new holiday in some exotic location abroad ... there's always something on my wishlist. And I want to stop wanting.

Have you seen that hashtag, #lifegoals? People use it liberally: from describing the perfect dip-dye to capturing an Instagram-worthy desk. I hate it. Especially now, when so many friends of mine are struggling with some serious life issues - some health-related, others not.

Wishlists and life goals are fine; forgetting to be grateful for what you have is not. Health, family, job security, shelter ... those are the important things in life. Most of which are completely beyond our control. When it's grey, when it rains, when I've had a bad day - I lose perspective.

In those moments, I want to shake myself.

What about you? Do you make gratitude lists to help keep yourself in check? If you live abroad, do you often lose sight of why you moved in the first place? It can be easy to forget.

p.s. the sun came out again, just as I finished writing this!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Angloyankophile Awarded "Highly Commended" at the UK Blog Awards 2015!

I'm thrilled to announce that Angloyankophile has been awarded Highly Commended in the Individual Travel Category at the UK Blog Awards 2015! Although I didn't sweep up the grand prize (which went to Family Affairs and Other Matters, and deservedly so!), I'm so grateful for this recognition!

Thank you so much for voting for me in the preliminary round, and for sticking by me: your support means the world to me.

xo Jaime

p.s. I now have a shiny new badge on the right ... :)

Monday, April 20, 2015

A Weekend in Colo(u)r

Hey. How was your weekend? I had a colo(u)rful one, and would love to share some photos, if you'd like to see!

You know those languid, lazy Saturday mornings, where you sleep until you think you can't sleep anymore, and then you stretch out underneath your thick covers and revel in the sunlight streaming through your windows? I had one of those mornings. Until I remembered that I was late to meet Robin for lunch, so I hopped out of bed, threw on some hole-y jeans, grabbed my mom's bright red vintage Dooney & Bourke, and painted on a slick of red lipstick before heading up to Jones & Sons in Dalston.

After we had our fill of pancakes and I overdosed on bacon (Robin's veggie, so she passed hers on to me ... I kind of don't want to see, taste or smell bacon for a few months) and we chatted all things expat and friendship and writing (she's the best at that), I met John in Dalston before heading up toward Walthamstow to explore a park.

I spotted the Hackney Peace Carnival Mural while waiting for the bus and couldn't help snapping a pic ...

It's crazy how a piece of art can make you start imagining sounds ... does the same thing happen to you when you look at this? It sounds so loud and joyous to me, even though I can't hear anything!

On our way to Walthamstow, we saw a sketchy amusement park (you know, the kind that's just set up on the side of the road somewhere and the people running it are a bit scary looking?) and, for some reason, I just had to stop by.

So we got off the bus, paid the £1 entrance fee, bought some tokens, and ran to the elephant ride. I know. I'm an adult, I promise.

We didn't know that you had to press the pedal by your feet in order to raise the elephant, so we were going around in circles at ground level until one of the children's parents shouted at us through cupped hands, "PRESS THE PEDAL! PRESS THE PEDAL!" "WHAT?" I mouthed back at him. Then the ticket collector got involved. "What are you DOING?" he shouted at us, hands clutching his head (a bit dramatic, right?). "PRESS THE PEDAL!" My bad. I've not been on an elephant ride lately.

Then we moved on to my personal favorite, The Ghost Train:

As a kid, those rides always seemed to last forever (while I clutched my dad's arm in sheer terror), but as an adult, it's all over in about 5 seconds and you wonder where your £3 went. Sigh.

After buying ice cream and cotton candy (I know, we went all the way), we ended up in the bumper cars (or "Dodgems", as they're called here, apparently - another instance where John was like, "Let's try the Dodgems!" And I was like, "What?" Him: "Dodgems!" Me: "What?" Repeat x 25 times), which I did not enjoy and remembered why I didn't like them when I was aged 5, either.

I disliked it so much, I removed all the color from this photo:

So, there.

Here's to colo(u)rful weekends, spontaneous moments, blue skies and sunshine. I hope you have a great week!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Why I Chose to Attend a Women's College

On March 3, 2015, Sweet Briar College - a women's liberal arts college in Sweet Briar, Virginia - announced that it would be closing at the end of the summer, due to financial difficulties. Among the outraged alumnae who set out to "Save Sweet Briar" was popular blogger, Fashion Fois Gras, who wrote this post about her experience in attending Sweet Briar as an undergraduate.

Which was not unlike mine. 

You see, like Emily, I'd never intended to select an all-women's college based in rural, Western Massachusetts (a campus, might I add, which has been ranked as one of Princeton Review's "Most Beautiful College Campuses" for more years than I can remember). 

Later, when I worked in the Admissions office as a tour guide and Admissions Fellow at Mount Holyoke, I was asked by students and parents alike: "How did you choose Mount Holyoke?"And I'd smile, because I hadn't chosen Mount Holyoke - it had chosen me.

First, what you've got to understand is that the whole college admissions process is completely different in the US, compared to the UK. It's extremely competitive, extremely expensive, and the selection, as the alumni interviewer who conducted my interview for Harvard put it, can be "total crapshoot". If you don't have perfect grades, at least five extra curricular activities, volunteer on a weekly basis, and aren't involved in a leadership role (preferably student government), then you can count yourself out of the running to most competitive colleges and universities.

In addition to this, a much bigger emphasis is placed on where you went to college in the US, versus the UK. It can rule you out of certain jobs and it's an association that you have for life. In short, it's kind of a big deal. Even now, as a 30-something adult, I'm asked when I go back to the States, "Oh, where did you go to college?"

Needless to say, I didn't get into Harvard. But when it came time to apply to colleges (you're encouraged to apply to 5 - college applications cost between $85-95 a pop in my time, so if you were particularly privileged, you could apply to more), I picked with very little knowledge of what I really wanted out of my college experience. I had no idea. I came from a tiny little town in the Puget Sound. I'd never heard of the Seven Sisters, let alone the small, private liberal arts colleges on the East Coast like Williams or Vassar or Amherst (which also would have been perfect for me). 

I didn't know.

So, I did what my peers did: I applied to the University of Washington (undergraduate enrollment of c. 30,000 students), University of Southern California (c. 20,000 students), Harvard, and Stanford (or Yale, I can't remember, but I didn't get in). I'd just received my acceptances to UW and USC when I dug out a college brochure to read along with my breakfast one morning before school. I'd originally tossed the flyer (as a high school junior, you were sent tons) because it was from an all-women's college, which had zero appeal to me. Boring. Insular. One-sided. Snobby. Unnecessary. These were all the thoughts that ran through my head when I first saw it.

But today was different. I stopped chewing. I read about the small class sizes (enrollment is c. 2,000 versus 30,000 at UW), the interdiscplinary majors, the equal strengths in sciences and the arts; I read about the Ivy League professors, the clubs, the study abroad programs, and the beautiful campus. I read about its music department. After feeling adrift and anonymous during campus visits to UW (where I sat in lecture halls that seated hundreds and hundreds of students who all looked the same), I felt like Mount Holyoke "got" me. It understood my uniqueness and catered to that.

I applied. And shortly after, I was invited to visit the Mount Holyoke campus - all the way on the other side of the country. A six-hour plane ride. I returned with a Mount Holyoke sweatshirt and my eyes shining with ... something. I didn't know what it was, but I knew that it was where I belonged.

When the acceptance came, I screamed. And when I saw my merit scholarship amount, I wept. I was going to Mount Holyoke. Up until then, my dreams had always been vague and fuzzy. But now I knew: my dream was to go to Mount Holyoke (cue Dirty Dancing references here!). And it came true (thanks to my parents!).

Recently, an article by Diane Halpern appeared in the New York Times, adding to the discussion topic: "Are Same-Sex Colleges Still Relevant?" Aside from the many points in her article that infuriated me, Halpern wrote, "By many measures, today's women are flourishing in higher education and do not need a protected environment to develop their intellectual potential." Condescending tone aside, Mount Holyoke was not a "protected environment" for me and my peers to "develop our intellectual potential". The school that Halpern writes of may be the Mount Holyoke of 1837, but today, it is so much more than that. It is a place where we were constantly and repeatedly pushed outside our comfort zones - socially and academically - where we, if anything, were reminded of our privilege and of our place in this world, where we reclaimed (yes, I used that word) our voices, in a world where we are almost always talked over. That's not protection, it's called practice. Practice for life outside those gates.

Fashion Fois Gras said that attending a women's college taught her about bravery. And I would agree.
Sometimes, I sit in meetings at work where I'm the youngest, most junior, female member in the room. As I did in undergraduate seminars, I like to sit back and listen. But when I have something to say, I might be nervous about saying it, sure, but I'll say it, and I'll make my point clear. If I don't feel as though I'm being heard, I'll say it again. 

That's what Mount Holyoke taught me. Speak until you are heard. Use your intelligence. Be skeptical. Be inquisitive. Work hard. You can do better.

Those lessons aren't protective; they're necessary.

Yesterday, I met a young alum for lunch. She was also from the Puget Sound, had graduated in 2013 and moved to London after studying abroad in Bologna, Italy during her junior year. Her emails to me were polite, inquisitive, and charming. We chatted and shared our respective Mount Holyoke experiences, and though we had just met, I could tell that she was bright, adventurous, multi-talented - typical of Mount Holyoke.

This week, I received an extraordinary box of gifts from a friend (and fellow Mount Holyoke alum), Anna. "You've been ELFED!" the card on the blue and white box read, and reminders of MHC tumbled out: a t-shirt, magnet, lanyard, and sticker ... all emblazoned with the logo I'm proud to wear (and people in London probably think is some random made-up university from Primark!). Elfing is a tradition for first-years at Mount Holyoke - their "elves" (sophomores) drop small presents outside their door in the mornings (some not-so-nice elves prank their elfees by saran-wrapping their doors, but we won't go there) and at the end of the week, you meet your "elf". It's an induction of sorts, but more of a get-to-know-you tradition. 

Anna wasn't my elf, but she still insists on elfing me every year. Even if that means making cards and sending things to me in London all the way from Boston - when she's 8 months pregnant!

"Ugh, you Mount Holyoke people are soooooo weird!" John said, when I showed him my beautiful gift. "What is with you guys? Why do you keep doing this kind of stuff?"

I laughed. "You just don't get it," I said.

"No, I don't!" he replied, while simultaneously admiring my new t-shirt."Looks good on you, though."

And that's fine. Some people just don't get it. But for those who do, it's an amazing, wonderful thing.

p.s. And if you're still not tired of reading, and want to know more about my experience at Mount Holyoke College, read my Baccalaureate speech from our Commencement weekend here.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Spring Is Here.

Folks, in a desperate attempt to make use of that quickly-fading tan from Sri Lanka, I'm sporting bare legs today, and that can only mean one thing: spring is fuh-inally here.

This also means:

Cherry blossoms. Everywhere. Specifically, on Instagram and Twitter, but the pink petals dusted my commute into work today like wedding confetti. It was wonderful.

Wild cherry ice cream from my favorite London ice cream establishment, Udderlicious, on Islington's Upper Street - which I ate outside the store while John went to look at headphones in Bose. I tried to look as content as possible and make "MmmmMMmmMM!" sounds of approval so that more people would go in and follow suit (I love supporting that family-run business!). They did.

Eating lunch outside on a work day. A small luxury in itself and a good excuse to get out of the office.

Enjoying pizza Fridays at Sweet Thursday - outdoors. I tell ya: a carafe of house red and a wood-fired oven baked pizza is the best way to celebrate #TGIF. The best.

How's your spring shaping up? Have you got your sunnies on, or is your thermostat still turned up? Let me know.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Sri Lanka: Baby Sea Turtles (Enough Said.)

It's Monday. And I know how you all feel about Mondays. So, to cheer you up, here are some pictures of newborn and baby sea turtles we held during a whirlwind visit to the Kosgoda Sea Turtle Hatchery and Conservation Project in Sri Lanka.

To protect turtle eggs from poachers and other predators on Sri Lankan beaches, the hatchery purchases eggs from fishermen at a higher rate than what they'd receive from selling them on at markets for consumption. The eggs are then brought back to the hatchery, where they incubate in the sand until they're ready to hatch and ... voila. Newborns are then released back into the sea as soon as possible (at night-time!), but the hatchery is also home to some sea turtles that haven't been so lucky in life: those that are maimed (e.g. amputees from fishing net accidents), blind, or have some other disfiguration which would prevent them from surviving in the ocean, are cared for at the hatchery for the rest of their lives.

The one I'm holding in my hand above was born that morning. I was told that she liked the heat of palms, so she kind of just stretched out sweetly on my hand and didn't move too much, except to squirm a bit here and there, her flipper curling slightly over the curve of my palm. Love.

I was so sad to put her back in her tank! I couldn't stop looking at the photos I'd taken when we climbed back into the car. I wanted to play with them for forever.

John's was a bit feistier - attempting to paddle his way across his palm. I'm not sure that I've seen anything cuter than this.

Sri Lanka is home to five species of sea turtles: the Green turtle (most common), the Loggerhead turtle (rare), the Hawksbill turtle (named for its narrow, bird-like beak, and very rare), the Olive Ridley turtle (endangered), and the Leatherback turtle (which is considered to be critically endangered). Aside from the eggs, which are bought and sold on the black market, turtles are often killed for their beautiful shells to make jewellery, hair slides, and combs (tortoiseshell, anyone? Yep, that's where they come from, sadly).

We saw some of these unimaginably gorgeous shells when we visited some of the older babies in their tanks, which were just about to be released back into the ocean.

Aren't their patterns beautiful? It's incomprehensible to me how anyone could kill such a sweet and gentle creature for consumption or vanity.

This sweet girl that John and I held was 17-months old, but already quite heavy! We were told to gently support her neck with our fingers, and she timidly, languidly, stretched her head out from under her shell to explore while we held her in amazement.

I'll leave you with my favorite shot - a newborn that was bewildered (and probably alarmed, poor thing!) to be taken out of the water, flippers flailing.

So, happy Monday.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Sri Lanka: Discovering Paradise at The River House, Balapitiya

Let's get something straight: I'm not a "nature" kind of gal. Never was, never will be.

The sight of a spider at home still makes me call out, "Daaaaaaddddd!", I've never been camping (not even "glamping"), and I once wore a Tommy Hilfiger trench and Steve Madden rain boots (which were obviously for fashion purposes only, which only became apparent when halfway down a hill) for a hike in the Peak District. That went well. Not.

So, I was kind of dreading our stay at The River House in Balapitiya. Set in acres of lush Sri Lankan jungle, I got a little worried about things like, oh, I don't know, lizards, snakes, monkeys, crocodiles, strange-unidentified-moving-objects, monster spiders, and, you know, jungle-y things.

Which was all really silly, because when it came time to leave? I cried. I actually wept. On this balcony:

This was our view every morning when we woke up, though the birds were up way earlier than we were. And although the most exotic bird I've seen since I've been back in London has been a red-breasted robin (that was the singular most exciting thing that happened to me this week), it was at The River House where I saw a kingfisher flash its brilliant colors beside me before setting off for shade; where we watched, poolside, as langur monkeys (and baby langurs) leaped from tree-to-tree; where we saw hundreds of flying foxes (fruit bats) soar over the treetops - their Batman-like silhouette unmistakeable against the still-blue sky; and where we saw the fat, slow-moving shape of a water monitor snake navigate its way along the brush bordering the Madu River.

It was kind of where I fell in love with, well, nature.

(Okay, it was also where I was bitten 7 times by one mosquito on both legs within 2 minutes of standing still, and where John looked at me and said, in a not-so-steady voice: "Don't. Move." and proceeded to brush off - yes - a gigantic spider off my shoulder.)

We took dips in the private plunge pool in our suite, when the heat became unbearable and the water in the resort pool felt like a boiling kettle, rather than a warm bath (not that I'm complaining!). I picked up the bell on the table you see there, just to inspect it and to hear its tinkling sound, only to hear a knock at the door seconds later and a friendly face say, "Madam? You called?" when I opened the door. Deeply embarrassed, I vowed to never touch the bell again (even though that's what it's there for) - the thought of summoning someone at whim horrified me!

My goodness, this pool. Just add monkeys. 

I became so comfortable at The River House, that I snored satisfactorily through the night, even as lizards and chipmunks ran amok on the roof, making strange, scampering noises, and John (who's usually the stoic one) lay awake, seeing things in the shadows.

Early one morning, we set off on a boat tour (just the two of us!) of the river for which the hotel is named.

We sped past an abandoned temple, floating on a tiny island in the middle of the river. "Oh!" I said, pointing to the temple. "Can people swim to that?" I asked our guide, who immediately looked terrified. "No, madam, no swim," he said making a sweeping gesture with his hands. "Crocodiles in the water!"

Gulp. Really hoped we wouldn't go overboard, then.

Turns out we didn't have to swim our way through croc-infested waters to get to a temple, though. Our guides took us to a beautiful Buddhist temple where hundreds of people would gather later to give offerings, as it our excursion coincided with Full Moon Night. A monk tied a piece of string around our wrists and blessed it; our guide explained that we would have the blessing's protection as long as the string remained on our wrists. For some reason, I was moved by this; suddenly, our journey to Sri Lanka felt meaningful. Important.

Continuing on, we did finally meet a crocodile: in the form of this female baby crocodile, which I refused to hold, but John seemed quite comfortable with. "She's quite placid!" he kept repeating, as he held her out to me. I gently poked at a thigh, and, upon realizing that she was much squishier than I'd expected her to be - freaked out. I have no idea why that bothered me, but it just did. 

See those fish, below? They also serve the purpose of providing fish pedicures (or "massages", as they were named by the guides). You sit on the edge, roll up your pant legs, and let the fish work their magic on your calluses and corns. YEAH, NO THANKS. I let John take the hit on that one too. He was squeamish at first, then decided that it was "slightly addictive". Not convinced.

The River House's sister resort, Shinagawa Beach, is a mere tuk-tuk ride away (provided by the hotel) and was a great place to spend some time on the beach (not to mention its equally gorgeous pool).

We dozed off in the sun and read in the shade. I nearly lost my Michael Kors sunglasses when a wave knocked me over, but some kind Sri Lankan soul saved them for me (I also wonder if he was the same "Nahil" who left his number - no joke - in my sun lounger).

It's strange: when I look back at these photographs while writing this post, they look unreal. The palm tree trunks look fake, and the sand/sea/clouds background looks like it could be a flat, 2D painting used for, say, a movie set. The sun looks a little too bright. A little too artificial. It's hard to remember that it was real. And you don't, until you feel the heat on your skin. That sticky, suffocating, humid heat, with an occasional breeze from the ocean.

On our final night at The River House, John and I watched the sun set from our suite, and I cried. I cried because I had such a good time, because I hadn't expected to have such a good time, and because it was all coming to an end - I basically acted like a child being pulled away from the party too early.

One of the lovely butlers suggested bringing our dinner to enjoy on our balcony, instead of eating downstairs in the outdoor seating area, and when he dimmed the lights outside, we saw a beautiful frangipani blossoms artfully arranged around the table, with a candle as the centerpiece. My heart swelled.

We ate while listening to the crickets and bullfrogs speak to each other, as fireflies blinked their way across our line of vision. And after we finished, we watched one more DVD from the sumptuous, beautiful bed, fell asleep, and woke up the morning to pack our things.

Although I loved the beaches of Thalpe and the colonial charm of Galle, it was The River House that stole my heart and made me fall in love with Sri Lanka. There was so much to discover: to do, to see, to taste. I felt like Alice falling quicker and quicker through that rabbit hole ... transported to a strange land where everything felt new.

Where I felt new.

And that's why, I think, we travel: to feel new again.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Sri Lanka: Colonialism, Minimalism, and Massages in Galle Fort (#sorrynotsorry)

From the chatter on Twitter, a trip to Sri Lanka isn't complete without a stop in Galle - the fourth largest city after Colombo, Kandy, and Jaffna. But the most fascinating aspect about the city is its history as the main port on the island, which had first been colonized by the Portuguese in the 16th-century, then by the Dutch in the 18th-century and - of course, last but not least - the British in 1796. This is important to remember as you stroll through the charming, narrow streets of Galle Fort today, as the architecture here is a fascinating example of the Portuguese style and remnants of British colonial rule still remain, as evidenced by this red post box we spotted outside one of the many souvenir shops targeting tourists.

When we arrived to the Fort after our beach stay in Thalpe, temperatures were soaring. Thankful for the sun, but desperately wanting the relief of air conditioning, we hurried into the reception of The Fort Printers, an 18th-century mansion restored into a boutique hotel - one of many which lined the streets of the fortress. Van-loads of school children in starched white uniforms were being led by teachers along the fortress walls on school excursions - some shyly smiling, and others, boldly waving. It was a very sweet scene.

I was immediately taken by the modern and minimalist aesthetic of The Fort Printers - I'd been looking forward to our stay for quite some time.

We stayed in the Church Suite, a spacious room housed in the main quarters, just off one of the streets. First of all, I fell in love with our key, of all things.

And then the room, with its dreamy four poster bed and mosquito net (which I was beginning to find quite romantic by this point!).

And, rather surprisingly, the bathroom, which I decided I wanted for my own house someday. The polished concrete and open space worked well with the high, vaulted ceilings. The skylight at the pitch of the roof lent a bright, airy feel.

After checking into our room, we braved the torrential downpour outside (which only lasted about 20 minutes or so!) to duck into some souvenir shops, where I bought vintage postcards and knick-knacks for friends, before taking a short walk along the fortress walls for views of the sea.

The next day, we stopped into the Dutch Reformed Church within the fort's walls and I obsessively read every tombstone/plaque in English that explained how the first settlers perished (drowning at sea, "the fever", etc.). I tried to imagine moving to a far-flung tropical destination with a view to conquer it, while having no immunity to new and (at that time) incurable diseases - and couldn't.

After slipping some rupees into the small donation box at the church, we wandered next door to the library, with its distinctly colonial features. A man was slowly turning the pages of a newspaper at the table, but it was otherwise empty. The smell of dusty tomes and the sight of the shelves reminded me of my college library, and I felt as though I was intruding - even though we were not. The library appeared to be suspended in time; a very surreal experience.

So here's where things got a little bit lame ... it was so hot and we were so tired ... we decided to opt for ayurvedic massages at the luxurious Amangalla resort next door instead of making the 3-hour long trek around the fort walls on foot.

Please don't judge me.

We'd been to Amangalla for a drink the previous evening and loved its colonial interiors - the fans whirring above our heads and beautiful views onto the verandah, which made you feel like you were in an episode of the Channel 4 series, Indian Summers

So much so, that we asked for the spa menu and booked head massages for the next day, which we thought would help us dust off any remaining London-related cobwebs and fully relax into holiday mode.

It worked.

A few minutes before our treatment, we dipped into this private hydrotherapy pool and I shrieked while ducking myself into the ice cold plunge pool before heading for a quick stop in the sauna and donning my robe.

John and I are secret spa junkies. I can't think of a hotel we've ever booked in the UK that didn't have a full spa - it's the ultimate way of relaxing and unwinding. My dream came true a couple of years ago when we booked a stay at this spa resort in Da Nang, Vietnam - where the pool villa price included two spa treatments per day. Per day, folks. Imagine if the most difficult decision you had to make that day was whether you should get a manicure or another Thai massage? I know, it's a struggle.

But I digress.

Those massages at Amangalla? The best I've ever had. The best John has ever had (and he's not even a fan of massages! I know! What's wrong with him?! When I'm feeling generous - which is not often - I'll be all, "Would you like a shoulder massage?" And he'll be like, "[long pause] Could do. Okay, yeah, sure." !?!??!). We emerged feeling completely blissed out (I couldn't actually open my eyes and ended up stumbling around for my clothes afterwards), with all the knots worked out in my back and shoulders ... and ready for lunch, which we took on that gorgeous verandah.

Just the light bites we needed before we headed off to our next stop in Balapitiya.

So, our antics in Galle might have ruffled some culture vultures' feathers, but in the end?

It was so worth it.


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Sri Lanka: Thalpe and Unawatuna Beach

One of the most frequently asked questions we heard as tourists in Sri Lanka (and one that Lonely Planet advised us to answer in good humour and politely!) was, "Where are you from?" or, more pointedly and simply: "Which country?" When we replied, "England. UK. London." our response was met with either approval ("Your country helped us so much during the tsumani!"), a knowing nod, with some reference to cricket ("England cricket - not very good right now!") or the most amusing of all, "I have always wanted to see snow." We'd tilt our heads back and laugh at this last one, but it was said with such wistfulness, with such sincerity, that it had to be true.

For us, it was the opposite: we'd been pounding the streets of London, doing the 9-5 (or in John's case, 6:30 to crazy-o-clock), putting in the hours until this, our reward. We were glad to perspire while standing still in the sun. We slathered sunscreen on our pale arms and legs, willing to get an enviable tan that our colleagues would be jealous of. Our heads were always up, up, up: looking at these palm trees, staring at the ocean - mesmerized by the pattern of waves that never, ever, repeated themselves. Some were so high, they'd knock me in the neck, leaving me spluttering and swearing, salt water in my eye.

We started our journey in Thalpe, shunning the pretty but overpopulated beaches of Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa for the quieter (though perhaps less swim-able beach) tranquility of Apa Villa - a collection of 7 beach-front suites set in grounds dotted with frangipani trees and swaying palm trees.

When we arrived and stepped through the beautiful reception area below, there was no check-in process, no papers to sign, no passports to photocopy. We were simply welcomed with a handshake and a smile and shown to our Cardamom Suite, which faced the resort's beautiful infinity pool and encouraged to "enjoy our stay".

I woke one morning and stumbled onto the polished concrete verandah, shielding my eyes against the already-bright sun. John was already ensconced in one of the many colorful hammocks tied to the palm trees, reading Hilary Mantel and looking the most relaxed I've seen him in months.

The guidebooks warned us about swimming in Sri Lanka's pristine but often rough waters - and it's true, you have to be selective about where you swim. Some of the beaches are rocky once you wade in and this is true of the beach directly in front of Apa Villa. But venture a few minutes down the beach to your left and the sand extends for quite a ways in ... it's shallow enough to comfortably bob along and there's no alarming current to pull you in.

Having only been back on British soil for less than 12 hours, I already long for the delicious breakfasts we enjoyed in Sri Lanka, which almost always included a fresh mixed fruit juice (usually papaya - my favorite!) and a fresh platter of fruit, followed by a Western option of eggs. I always opted for the Sri Lanka omelette of tomatoes, green chillis and finely diced onions or the Sri Lankan meal of "hoppers" (a thin, pancake of sorts) served with chilli sambol, dhal and milk or fish curry.

Life hack: Sri Lankans add a squeeze of lime to their fresh papaya. A total game changer.

We ate directly outside our suite on the verandah, against the backdrop of the infinity pool, and fell in love with this buffalo milk curd, served with treacle, which tasted like a lighter, even creamier version of Greek yogurt - carving out slices with our spoons and adding treacle when necessary. Afterwards, we'd change into swimwear and spend the rest of the day alternating between the pool, the beach, the hotel loungers and falling asleep on the seating area/daybed outside our room.

The next day, we ventured to Unawatuna Beach, where John got absolutely burnt ... I didn't show too much sympathy at the time, but then felt very sorry for him a few days later when he was clearly still in pain and I jokingly dubbed his feet "underdone pork chops - white on the outside and pink in the middle" (I'm the WORST) and made him promise to see a doctor when he got home.

With waves that are far more manageable and easier to swim in, the beach is dotted with guesthouses and sun worshippers - all vying for a spot on the sand.

There were times, in both Thalpe and Unawatuna, that I felt like I had been magically dropped into a screensaver. So, that's why I laughed when the Sri Lankans told me they'd always wanted to see snow. I couldn't imagine anything more far removed from the cold London I had left when I looked up to see this:

If a coconut fell and hit me on the head, I still would have thought I'd been dreaming.
© angloyankophile

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