Tuesday, 13 December 2011

the holiday season

halloween

the holiday season is a fun time of year in the UK.  it begins in october with halloweenthere are several good halloween activities in and around the london area to choose from, although many run all year round.  the ghost bus is similar to the london tour buses, except it takes you to some of the “haunted” and spooky sites of londonalso, the ghost bus has a couple of costumed performers to keep you entertained along the way.  personally, i think it’s a fun thing to do as a tourist, but if you’re a london resident, most of the sites will already be familiar to you, so might not be too thrilling.

for halloween, my favorite thing to do is a ghost walk.  there are a number throughout the whole of england.  there are also several jack-the-ripper walks in london.  these walks usually fill up really quickly for halloween, so need to be booked far in advance.  although ghost walks can be cold and cover long distances, for me, it’s better than the bus tour, because you can get right up close to the sites, rather than being enclosed in a bus the entire time.

guy fawkes day and political holidays

remember, remember, the fifth of november

the movie v for vendetta seems to have brought this british holiday to the american consciousness.  also known as ‘bonfire night’, guy fawkes day celebrates nov 5th, 1605, when a plot to blow up parliament was foiled.  every year, the british mark this anniversary by putting on magnificent fireworks displays throughout england, similar to july 4th (a holiday which is not celebrated in england).

a couple of other political celebrations follow guy fawkes day.  there’s the lord mayor’s show in mid-november, which is a historic procession dating back 800yrs.  each year, according to tradition, the mayor must make a journey to the royal courts of justice and pledge his loyalty.  today, this has resulted in an extensive, 3-mile-long parade with floats and pageantry.  it’s a fantastic chance to see a part of british history, and to witness a tradition that’s been taking place every year for nearly a millennium.

the day after the lord mayor’s show is remembrance sundaysimilar to veterans day in america, this is a time when those in the UK honor their world war veterans.  memorial services are held throughout the UK, such as on whitehall in london, which is attended by the royal family and notable politicians.  the weeks leading up to remembrance sunday are marked by the poppy appeal, a widespread charity event where artificial red poppies are bought and worn on clothing, with proceeds going towards the royal british legion, a charity for british war veterans and their families.

- the lord mayor's show:
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thanksgiving

thanksgiving is an american holiday and isn’t celebrated here in the UK, so it’s a bit weird coming over to england and finding this important holiday abruptly missing from the calendar.  most years, you’ll have to work right through thanksgiving with no one else around you acknowledging its existence.  so, if you’re an american ex-pat, be prepared and plan a gathering with other american ex-pats.  also, anticipate getting a lot of questions about what exactly thanksgiving is.  in england, it’s often described as “a second christmas”, since the british usually serve a large turkey roast as a christmas meal.

christmas

this is, without a doubt, the biggest holiday in the UK.  no matter what your religion is (the UK is largely an atheistic country), you will celebrate christmas in a non-religious way.  here in england, they take their christmas decorations very seriously.  so if you’re in london in november and december, you can enjoy giant, spectacular christmas displays everywhere you go.  while i’ve always spent christmas in the states, i’ve heard that being in the UK over the christmas holidays is a bore, since everything’s closed.  so do not come to england on christmas.

- christmas decorations in london and newcastle:
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Sunday, 20 November 2011

the london southbank

the london southbank is a great place to have a lazy stroll during the warm summer months.  this little strip of land gets its name from being on the southern bank of the river thames in central londonalong the southbank, you’ll find the shakespeare globe theatre, the royal festival hall, the national theatre, and the london eye.

london is definitely a great place to be if you’re a fan of theatre.  at the shakespeare globe theatre, you can see shakespeare’s plays in an authentic period setting.  the royal festival hall hosts concerts, while the national theatre is home to dramatic, artsy plays.  this past summer, i often went to the southbank, since i live within easy walking distance.  over the summer, the national theatre usually sets up giant green couches outside of its front doors.  these are fun to lounge around on and to take photos of. =)
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i also had the pleasure of going to the royal festival hall’s weekend food festivals.  the cheese and wine festival, as well as the charcuterie festival, were particularly memorable for me – it’s great to just wander around in the early autumn weather and munch on some free samples. =)  the southbank centre also hosts weekend food markets, every week, behind the royal festival hall.

if you’re still hungry after the food markets, then walk down to the river towards the london eye.  along the way, you’ll pass beneath the hungerford bridge, which is flanked by the beautiful golden jubilee footbridges – the view from the footbridges is spectacular, and it’s a nice place to take photos of the thames and parliament.  but before you start crossing the bridge, why not grab an ice cream?  in the summer and early autumn, london is flooded with classic ice cream trucks; there are usually a couple of them parked along the southbank, between the hungerford bridge and the london eye.  i usually get my ice cream from an old-school cornish ice cream truck, which serves up rich, creamy ice cream made from cornwall’s famous clotted cream.  there are many street performers in this area, so get some ice cream and take some time to soak in the sights and sounds.
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not far from the ice cream trucks is the london eye, an iconic landmark that offers great night views of parliament.  the best time to take a ride up the london eye is during sunset.  if you have a tripod, then definitely bring it with you, since you can get some magnificent night photos of parliament from atop the london eye. =)
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- golden jubilee footbridge, hungerford bridge:
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Saturday, 5 November 2011

anti-americanism

i first came over to england in 2005 when bush was still president and the iraq war was very unpopular.  and so, there was a lot of anti-americanism going around.  there were giant signs and graffiti in the metro stations, saying things like, “nothing good comes out of america!” (really? then why’re you all buying it up, then?  coca cola, starbucks, and all those american movies, etc. don’t keep themselves in business, after all.)  as for bush, it’s amazing how readily people indiscriminately associate every citizen with his/her government.  no, like many other americans, i did not support the bush administration and i did not vote for him, contrary to what terrorists seem to think.

like racism and other forms of discrimination, anti-americanism is based on nothing more than crude stereotypes that are only caricatures of reality.  the worst part is that, unlike racism, anti-americanism is considered to be okay and socially acceptable, even though it is based on the same level of ignorance.

at the end of the day, If You Have Not Lived In The States, Then You Do Not Know America.  and no, going there on holiday for a few days does not count.  america is like a worldwide celebrity that everyone hears about, but whom few people actually know in person.  nevertheless, because of all the gossip, everyone thinks they know everything about this celebrity, when really, all they have are bits of distorted truths.  for example, i heard people say things like, “but america’s so racist, they’ll never elect obama!”

surprisingly, living abroad makes you more patriotic.  in the states, you hear about anti-americanism, and for some reason, you become apologetic, probably because you’re at home, surrounded by other americans, and anti-americanism is just something far away, across the seas.  but when you’re living alone in a foreign country, encountering anti-americanism on a regular basis, you become very defensive, and no less because the discriminatory assumptions are so erroneous.

a lot of anti-americanism appears to result from culture clashes and a seeming inability to appreciate american culture.  you’ll hear people say that america has “no history” and “no culture”, which makes no sense whatsoever.  we might not have a long history that spans thousands of years, and we might be an amalgamation of a wide variety of cultures from around the world, but that in itself is american culture and identity.

americans are also seen as brutish and ignorant, but again, this results largely from cultural differences.  european culture values being an “artist” and an “intellectual”, while american culture values the “ordinary man” and being “real” and “down to earth”.  so, people here in england tend to talk themselves up, pretending to know things they don’t and trying to sound smarter than they are.  in the states, however, if you don’t know something, then you just say so, and even if you are ridiculously intelligent and accomplished, you play it down.  so when the two cultures meet, americans come off as “less intelligent”, when it’s mostly just outward posturing than the reality.  besides, how can americans be stupid when many of the world’s best universities are in america?

here in more socialist europe, you’ll also find an idealistic (and perhaps, na├»ve) contempt of capitalism and the american dream.  yes, we may be a capitalist nation, but we’re not without aid for the homeless, disabled, and unemployed, etc.  moreover, from what i’ve seen, a lack of competition decreases the quality of nearly everything, because, let’s face it, most people are fundamentally self-serving and lazy, disinclined to work harder when an increase in taxes with salary takes away a large chunk of pay and the incentive along with it.

thankfully, anti-americanism has drastically decreased with obama’s election.  hopefully, the future will be brighter – after all, things could only get better from here, i hope…

what do you think about anti-americanism?

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Friday, 21 October 2011

top 10 places to go in the UK outside of london

since tourists almost always flock to london, i thought i'd give some suggestions about the places that i think are great to go outside of london, in case you want to venture beyond.  in no particular order, these places are:

1)  windsor - if you're going to be in london for awhile, then it is very easy to go to windsor for a day.  there is a direct train from london waterloo station straight to windsor, and you can just purchase tickets on the day.
windsor castle has extraordinarily beautiful rooms and a wealth of history, so definitely take a tour of the interior.  other highlights include the crooked tea house, a great place to have afternoon tea, and it's conveniently located just down the road from the castle.  during the summer, you can have a picnic on the long walk, where you could also ride in a horse-drawn carriage.
- the long walk:
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2)  stonehenge, bath, glastonbury - i've grouped these three locations together because you can visit all three pretty much all at once.  it's really easy to book a day-tour to stonehenge, bath, and glastonbury from london.  proscenium tours usually run tours for students, and there are also many other tour buses (like premium tours and anderson tours) that run day trips to these locations from london.  a day-tour is the easiest way to experience these three locations.  the tours usually give you enough time to spend at each location, and you can see all three in only one day!  
stonehenge is about 5,000 yrs old and is only one of many stone circles in england.  bath is famous for its ancient roman baths.  you can bring your swimsuit and relax in the natural thermal spas, like the celts and romans did 2,000 yrs ago.  for jane austen fans, this was the city where she lived, influencing much of her writing.  there is a jane austen center where you can learn more about her life and times.glastonbury hosts medieval recreations in the abbot's kitchen, from costumes to cooking medieval food, which you can then taste.  this is also the place where king arthur and guinevere are said to be buried - their tombs are on the abbey grounds.  historians, however, think the abbey monks may have forged this relic in order to attract pilgrims.
3)  tintagel - cornwall is perhaps the most beautiful region of england, situated at the very western tip, with its small, picturesque coastal towns.  tintagel, on the northern coast of cornwall, is a small, remote village on the sea cliffs, and is great as a weekend getaway from the bustle of the city.  it has beautiful sea views, and is an excellent place for hiking along the ocean and exploring the waterfall and the many caves.  there are also the crumbling castle ruins on the cliffs, which are great to wander around.  in arthurian legend, this was the place where merlin used magic to disguise king uther as the duke of cornwall.  uther then visited the duchess of cornwall, igraine, in her tintagel castle, where king arthur was then conceived. 
4)  saint michael’s mount - this is one of the many tidal islands in the UK, and is located at the very tip of cornwall.  small islands during high tide and connected to the mainland at low tide, tidal islands are often remote locations and sites of medieval religious worship.  saint michael's mount is particularly peaceful and scenic, and makes for a relaxing weekend away.  incidentally, there is a similar tidal island in france with the same name, mont st. michel.
-saint michael’s mount at low tide:
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5)  stratford-upon-avon – this is a beautiful, idyllic town, and is famous as the birthplace of william shakespeare.  here, you can walk through restorations of shakespeare’s childhood home and those of his relatives.  the royal shakespeare company has regular performances in the royal shakespeare theatre, which sits along the river avon.  the theater also offers tours and exhibitions, and the riverside banks are great for strolling.  =)
6)  northumberland – in the northeast corner of england, northumberland is a fantastic region to see medieval castles.  among them, alnwick castle is notable for being the site of the harry potter films.  it is the current home of the duke and duchess of northumberland, and is one of the largest inhabited castles.  it is a great, family-friendly place to visit - with games, harry potter tours, medieval recreations, and opportunities to see falconry.  it is also the site of the stunning alnwick garden, with beautiful terraced fountains, rope bridges, and the ‘bamboo labyrinth’, one of the world’s largest tree houses.  to see a classic, crumbling castle ruin by the sea, head to dunstanburgh castle for dark, moody, but majestic sea views.  northumberland is also home to the lindisfarne priory, situated on the scenic holy island, a tidal island.  there is also vindolanda, an ancient roman fort near hadrian’s wall, a great place to see ancient roman archaeological finds.
- alnwick castle:
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7)  brecon beacons, wales – the brecon beacons national park is a breathtaking mountain range in the south of wales.  the best way to see the beacons is on horseback.there are several riding centres throughout the brecon beacons that offer horse-riding trips, many of which can be found on:  http://www.horseridingbreconbeacons.com/  several centres offer rides that suit all horse-riding abilities, from beginners with no prior riding experience, to those who ride daily.
- brecon beacons:
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8)  antrim coast, northern ireland – this coastline along the northeast corner of northern ireland is an area of outstanding natural beauty.  it is home to the giant’s causeway, a natural wonder consisting of a series of interlocking hexagonal basalt columns reaching into the sea.  the giant’s causeway hotel, which sits right above the causeway, is perfect for a weekend stay among the strange formations of the rocks.  the carrick-a-rede rope bridge nearby is a thin little bridge spanning across the sea cliffs, and is definitely worth a visit to walk across.  =)
9)  glasgow – as the largest city in scotland, glasgow might seem a bit dark and dreary at first glance, but it is the best place to see the famous mackintosh architecture.  charles rennie mackintosh was a scottish art nouveau architect, and much of his architecture can be seen and visited in glasgow.  most notable are the willow tea rooms and the house for an art lover.  his architectural style has a fantastical, alice-in-wonderland feeling.
- music room piano, house for an art lover:
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10)  scottish highlands – the highlands of scotland are magnificent, and there is no point going to scotland without seeing the highlands.  you can easily take a day tour from edinburgh or glasgow.  the days tours will take you through the stunning mountains of the highlands, and most will go all the way up to loch ness, where you can then board a boat cruise for some monster-spotting!  a few of the many highland tours include rabbie’s trail burners, timberbush, highland experience, and scottish tours.
- scottish highlands:
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Sunday, 2 October 2011

northern ireland

so, it's been over a year since i last updated. =P shame on me. it's just, my life has been super hectic!



anyways, as for travelling, i recently made a trip to northern ireland over a weekend, which was really great. i took an overnight sleeper train into scotland, and then a ferry into belfast. this is definitely the long, scenic route, compared to flying, but it's a unique experience, and i would definitely recommend it. the caledonian sleeper train was pretty fun - very hogwarts express, if you're a harry potter fan. the booths are quite small, so it's not the thing to do if you're claustrophobic. if you're in first class, you get your own little complimentary toiletries kit, which is a nice touch. so if you're travelling alone, i would definitely suggest paying the extra £50 for your own first class private booth. you'll also get a complimentary snack for breakfast, and even a full breakfast if you order it.




the train ride through scotland had some beautiful coastal views, and the ferry was amazing. it was basically a small cruise ship, complete with movie theater, spa, cafes, and restaurants. a lot of people also brought their dogs, and some were driving, so had their cars parked below deck. once at belfast port, i had a black taxi cab pick me up directly from the port onto a taxi tour of the city.




the black cab tour is definitely a must-do if you're in belfast, mainly because it's so iconic and gives you great, personal insight into the history of the city - particularly the protestant vs. catholic issues. it's not the most cheery of tours, but it's certainly enlightening and worthwhile. for one person, it's somewhat pricey at £30, but if you're travelling with others, you can split the cost among you.




the following day, i took a day tour of the antrim coast with mccomb's bus tours. this was the highlight of the trip for me. if you're in belfast, the giant's causeway should not be missed, especially if you love coastlines, hiking, and natural wonders. although it rained, the strange hexagonal rock formations of the giant's causeway were fantastic to see and climb around on. you could easily spend a good half-day there, hiking and exploring the shoreline. the bus tour also stopped at the precarious Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, which runs across the rocks. even though it looks like a dangerous, thin, little bridge, no one has ever fallen off. nevertheless, i thought i saw a coast guard boat down below, to help you out in case you do wind up falling into the sea.




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despite having a great time, i actually wouldn't recommend taking a day tour from belfast, mainly because the tour was very rushed. instead, if you want to see the giant's causeway, i would suggest booking a weekend at the giant's causeway hotel, which sits practically right on the causeway. then you can simply take your time exploring the stones and the beautiful, rocky coast.




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