“We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.”
- John Hope Franklin

Thursday, February 2, 2012


View from La Seine
After having been back at home in the US for just over a month, I am slowly but surely readjusting to life as I knew it before going abroad.

I jumped right back into work just 2 days after getting home, so it was nice to be able to revive my bank account for a month or so before heading back to school. As I work in a grocery store, I deal with lots of people every day, and at the beginning I couldn't help but notice a few things during my shifts. First off, all the people I saw seemed so much larger than Parisians! I decided this was due to one of two reasons:

1. America is mildly obsessed with the whole "work-out" culture, thus people (and especially a lot more guys) work out more in the US and consequently have more muscle tone and are less gangly in comparison with the lean, skinny-jeaned variety you find in Paris.

2. People here are, generally speaking, just fat.

This isn't an attack on Americans or the American lifestyle, but after living in a culture where you spend so much more time each day walking (to the nearest metro station, through the metro, climbing up & down stairs, walking down the streets, strolling through parks/museums/shops, etc.) because driving through Paris is surely not the most practical or time-saving way to get around, eating small meals which are very spaced out throughout the day, and generally leading a much more active lifestyle, it's easy to see why the French are all as small as they are. I know I definitely adapted to this lifestyle while in Paris, and upon arriving home I sometimes (still!) feel like I am going to go stir crazy just sitting around and reading all my books for homework, sitting at my computer writing papers, sitting in my car while stuck in crazy Providence rush-hour traffic...frankly, I have grown to dislike the American sedentary way of life. Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot I can do to change it, especially when my schoolwork keeps me glued to my desk chair for hours on end, but whenever I have time during the week or on the weekends I crave getting up and moving around - whether it's to the gym, taking a stroll around the mall, or doing obligatory things like grocery shopping.

One of Paris' many cheese shops...how I miss them!
I noticed one other strange thing during my endless shifts at the grocery store: Americans eat so much food, and it's all extremely processed. I distinctly remember feeling really disgusted during my first few shifts back, while I spent hours on end ringing up giant packs of frozen Hot Pockets, "value-size" boxes of Pop Tarts (because who doesn't love a pound of sugar to start your day?), and bottles upon bottles of sugary soda. I learned to eat more simply while in Paris - an English muffin with some fresh fruit jam and a kiwi was a fulfilling and delicious breakfast, and now even just the thought of Pop Tarts seems kind of icky. That being said, I find that lots of food here is really just too sweet for me now. For example, I never realized that the apple compote (the French equivalent of applesauce) I ate daily was unsweetened until I got home and was craving a familiar taste, only to eat a giant spoonful of applesauce and decide that I no longer liked it because it was too sweet - I, for one, would have never envisioned myself buying naturally sweetened, "No Sugar Added" foods, but I've decided now that I just prefer them. It's amazing how living away from the US for only 4 months changed my taste for food, and I wonder if it will stay like this now or gradually revert back to my pre-Paris preferences.

I miss French chocolate mousse!
A few more things that I noticed (although this is by no means an exhaustive list, as I'm still realizing things on a daily basis):

-We didn't have a clothes dryer in our apartment in Paris, so I had to hang my laundry out to dry every week instead of just popping it in a machine. Whenever the dryers at school would be full or broken, I used to see this as a major inconvenience that I'd have to use a drying rack and spend 4 hours drying my clothes instead of 40 minutes. Now, it's really not a big deal!

-Having my own car back is great. It's nice to be able to get in and go shopping for clothes, groceries, etc. at my own convenience and not have to waste time waiting for the metro or feel claustrophobic during rush hour when there's barely enough room to breathe inside.

Gorgeous weekly flower markets in Paris
-Little things like having a printer in my room once again make my life a lot easier - no more 45 minute metro rides each way to the Sweet Briar building to print off a 2 page document!

-I really appreciate the convenience of unlimited text messages on a phone with a full keyboard! Although I was able to use Facebook and Skype to keep in touch with my friends and family while I was gone, I always felt a little out of the loop when I'd see something that made me think of someone back at home and not be able to snap a quick picture of it or send a stupid message just because I could. While I had a phone and could send texts at 19 cents a pop while in Paris, I really used it sparingly and now appreciate being connected with all of my friends again - including those I made in Paris and can now freely text from home!

Say "bonjour" to my little friend...
And last but not least, even though I still get homesick for Paris and miss it every day, it's great to be back in the company of my family and friends at home. It's funny because my concept of the word "home" has changed since going abroad; although I really like Providence, I never consider going back to college as going "home" and hate when people back in MA give me something and tell me to take it "home" with me when I go back to Providence. In Paris, however, even though I only spent 4 months there as opposed to 4 years at PC, I really felt at home and would often say I was "heading home" to my host family instead of saying something like "back to the apartment." Paris has definitely captured a big piece of my heart, and as they say, "Home is where the heart is."

I know I'll definitely go back to Paris in the future and can safely say that spending a semester abroad was the best thing that I've ever done. I was so lucky to be given the opportunity to study and travel in a foreign land, and would advise anyone and everyone who can make a choice about working studying abroad into their education to jump on the next available flight!!

Happy travels! And always remember: la vie est ailleurs....


Friday, December 23, 2011

Last Week In Paris

Eric, Reid, Craig, Kasey & I at the Christmas Market on the Champs-Elysees
My last week in Paris was very busy! I had exams, oral exposés (presentations), and final papers due all week, but of course that didn't stop me from finding time to have a little fun!

A delicious religieuse from Thevenin
Since I spent so much time going back and forth to school, I passed one of my favorite bakeries every time I came up out of the metro, so I just had to stop and pick up a religieuse (French for 'nun'). It's a big creme puff dipped in chocolate, topped with a slice of dark chocolate and a chocolate macaron on top - at 3,50 euro a pop (almost $5!), it was definitely a treat! And oh so délicieuse

Ad in the metro - so excited to have a ticket for the sold-out show!
One of my favorite French-language singers happened to have a concert in Paris at Le Bataclan, one of the city's famous theaters, and my roommate Eric & I had bought our tickets way back in September, so we were very excited to finally get to go! Béatrice Martin, stage name Coeur de Pirate (Heart of a Pirate), is from Quebec and relatively unknown in the US (except to my nerdy francophone friends and I!) but very popular in France - this concert was actually sold-out! She sings a mixture of pop-folk music and plays the piano like a pro! The concert was amazing and since the venue was very small, we were able to stand 6 feet from the stage during the whole concert - what a treat!
Coeur de Pirate!
Picking up some last-minute souvenirs/Christmas presents for my friends & family back at home, I did lots of walking around the city and got to appreciate it all decorated for Christmas. I went to the St-Michel district quite often to get lunch that week and as it is super-touristy (a.k.a. somewhere I usually try to avoid during midday), it was a good spot to do some shopping and sight-seeing as I passed by Notre-Dame on my way there. 
Notre-Dame all decked out for Christmas by day...
...and by night!
Of course, to get in the festive spirit (since it doesn't really feel like Christmas as no one celebrates Thanksgiving in France, and that's usually the official start of the holiday season...) my friends and I made our way over to the marché de Noel (Christmas market) on the Champs-Elysees to shop, snack, and have some more hot wine while we still had the chance!

Eric, Kasey & Craig strolling through the Christmas Market
This area of the city is really lit up for Christmas, and it's very pretty to walk through at night to see all the twinkling displays! 

So many Christmas lights!
I managed to find myself a unique souvenir of Paris as well during one of my study breaks that week - a new tattoo! I got a fleur-de-lys, the emblem of France, on the inside of my left ankle. I can't help but smile and think of my amazing time spent in France every time I look at it!  

My permanent souvenir!
I made one last trip to the Musée d'Orsay, where my Impressionist art history class met throughout the semester, to take my own time to browse around outside of our structured class visits. The museum used to be a train station but quickly became outdated as trains got longer and were to big to be accommodated here.  Certain original parts of the station remain, like its big clock below which looks out across the Seine and onto the Tuileries and Louvre - what a view! 
Musée d'Orsay's famous clock window
Looking out over Musee d'Orsay's main gallery
Also on my Paris Bucket List of things to accomplish before leaving was a trip to the Catacombs. Following rampant outbreaks of disease in the city, due to poorly-manged and overfilled cemeteries in the center of the city, the tunnels of the city's underground quarry (its stone was used to build many of Paris' famous buildings) were converted into an ossuary which contains the remains of about 6 million people. Cemeteries were systematically emptied during the night and the bones were transported by priests who ceremoniously arranged them far below ground where they were no longer posing a health risk to the public. 

Carvings in the walls deep inside the Catacombs
You walk for a long time through old tunnels containing various sculptures like the one above, which was carved in the 1790's, before arriving at the official start to the bone depository:
"Stop! This is the Empire of Death"
The bones are arranged in intricate patterns, and although it is a little creepy, it's really amazing to imagine how long it all must have taken to put together. The ceilings in there are low, water drips from the ceiling in some spots, and it's totally silent save for visitors' crackling steps through the gravel paths.

"Bones from the Cimetière des Innocents (cemetery), placed here July 2nd, 1809"
One of the many cylinders made of bones!
On a happier, less-morbid note, my host family put up their Christmas tree! It was much smaller than the standard American tree, but serves the same purpose and was just as nicely decorated as the one at my home!
Our baby "sapin de Noel" (Christmas tree) 
My host parents cooked me a big "going away" feast during the week as well! We shared many laughs and memories as we spent hours enjoying our fondue dinner and a couple bottles of wine. When we finally noticed that it was 1:15 am, we decided it was probably time to go to bed! The next night, Eric & I prepared an American-style dinner for our family - yum!

My host parents, Béatrix & Quentin

Of course, we had to go out one last time to say 'adieu' to one of our favorite bars in the Bastille neighborhood - Bastille Pub. Their happy hour went until 1am, so needless to say we could nearly be called regulars!

Last night out at Bastille Pub!
Before we all left the states to come to France, we listened to a speaker from our program at a last-minute meeting who was telling us all about how we'd make some of our best friends on this trip. Considering we'd only be together for 4 months, I didn't actually believe that I'd make some closer friends abroad than I had throughout my 4 years in Providence. But I have to say he was totally right. We all chose the Sweet Briar program because we're passionate about the French language and all things French, all come from competitive schools and because we wanted the challenging but rewarding full-immersion experience, and consequently a bunch of us suddenly had lots in common. While it was really hard to say good-bye, I'm confident that it was more of an a bientôt (see you soon) than an au revoir (good-bye). Most of my close friends live along the east coast, and we're already planning to see each other over the summer! 

Maddy, Nicole, Lauren & Kaitlin at Bastille Pub
And a quick word about the debacle that was my departure....

After waking up very early, sharing one last breakfast with my host family and a misty adieu, Eric (who is staying with our host family for the whole school year) helped me bring all of my bags to the airport. Upon arriving there, we said good-bye and my friend Reid and I began our struggles with all of our luggage. And a security workers strike. 

Our departure from Paris couldn't have ended with more of a cliché, as the French are stereotypically known by Americans as those who faire la grève (go on strike) every time they want better working conditions (which we've grown to learn is quite frequently). The French equivalent of the TSA workers decided not to work that day, and consequently there was a back-up in the security screening lines - only 6000 people total were in line, we were assured by a worker. Needless to say, our double-decker plane had to wait an additional 2 hours until all of its 550 passengers made it onboard before taking off, which led to me making my connecting flight from D.C. to Hartford with literally 1 minute to spare. Thankfully, I made the plane and got home on time. Unfortunately, after greeting my family, I came to the realization that none of my bags had made it onto the flight. Oh well! At least I was home. And my suitcases got delivered to my house sometime during the night and were waiting for me to unpack them all the next morning. All in all, it was a very hectic trip home, but thankfully those were the only travel issues I had the whole time I was gone - guess I needed to go out with a bang!

I'm still getting used to living back in Westfield - experiencing a bit of reverse culture shock, I'd say. I feel like I'm living in a country of gigantic things: cars, houses, people, you name it! And I think it's funny that my taste has changed, because I am finding everything I eat here to be far too sweet or salty for me! Guess all that healthy living in France really rubbed off on me. It will be interesting to see if my little Parisian appetite grows over the holidays, or if I regain my love for sugary Christmas cookies...only time will tell!

I'll post a final update after another week or so with my reflections on the experience as a whole, once I figure out what they actually are! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!!!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Schloß, Glühwein & Bikes - Karlsruhe, Germany

Nadine and I in Heidelberg!
For my last weekend trip of the semsester (my last voyage before going back home - it's crazy to think that 4 months have flown by so quickly!), I took a train from Paris for 3 hours to Karlsruhe, Germany to visit my good friend Nadine. She studied abroad at Westfield High when I was a junior and we became great friends over the course of the year, so I figured I'd swing by to catch up and to see what Germany has to offer. As I speak no German - aside from the incredibly handy phrases "Hello, my name is Rachael" (Hallo, ich heiß Rachael) and "It's windy outside" (Es ist windig) that I learned in 6th grade - it was great to be with Nadine who could translate for me and offer great insider tips about everything!

Nadine and I at my Junior Year Semi-Formal (2007)
While probably not one of Germany's more well-known cities, Karlsruhe has lots to offer. It is located in southwestern Germany right along the banks of the Rhine. The city is part of the state of Baden, renowned for its famous spas at Baden-Baden, and was badly damaged during World War II but has since been rebuilt. Meaning "Carl's Repose," the city was named after Kaiser Karl Willhelm III and built in 1715. The Kaiser (German king) had wanted to find a spot to build a hunting lodge, and thus picked this location on the edge of the Black Forest. 
Schloß Karlsruhe
Over the years, the hunting lodge turned into the Schloß (castle) that acted as a royal residence and is today a museum. For anyone familiar with French history, King Louis XIV had already turned his hunting lodge at Versailles into the giant palace we all know today and served as inspiration for the Kaiser's constructions. Interestingly enough, the centrally-planned city of Karlsruhe served as one of the inspirations (alongside Paris) for the construction of Washington, D.C.

Map of how Karlsruhe was originally constructed in the 18th century
I met many of Nadine's friends over the course of the weekend, and to my surprise they were all super friendly and very eager to chat in English with me! This was a much welcomed change, as French students are very reserved and don't go out of their way to talk to foreigners. We got together almost every night and I had a really fun time with them all!

My new German friends!
On Friday, we went to one of Nadine's classes. It was a lecture on some sort of engineering given over the course of an hour and a half - and I'd have to say that math is the only universal langauge, because the equations and diagrams drawn on the board were about the only things I was able to follow! After class, we biked downtown int Karlsruhe to check out the city's castle. Everyone here rides bikes, which is a nice change from Paris' crowded, stuffy metro, except that it was freezing cold outside and rained all weekend - definitely put my coordination abilities to the test!!

Nadine and I at the castle
The castle's museum and tower are free on Fridays, so we spent some time inside looking at all sorts of cool objects from Karlsruhe that have been found over the years. I couldn't decipher any of the exhibit signs, but it was cool to look at everything and provided a nice break from the rain and wind outside!

View from the top of the castle's tower, with the Black Forest in the background
We climbed 300 steps to the top of the castle's tower - what a view! The city radiates from the front entrance to the palace, and the backyard opens out onto a big lawn and lots of woods. From this side, you really get the sense of the whole hunting lodge aspect of the castle's history.
The castle grounds
Saturday morning, we went back downtown to see the Weihnachtsmarket (Christmas Market). It was really neat - so much more festive than the ones here in Paris! In Karlsruhe, all of the stands were decorated with pine branches and lights and it really smelled/felt like Christmas. They sell lots of hand-made things here - candles, ornaments, decorations - and so much food!

Karlsruhe's Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market)
Of course I had to taste test the glühwein (hot wine) in order to make an expert comparison with its French counterpart, vin chaud. I'd have to say the German version is stronger, but the French one has tastier spices added to it - both are delicious though!

And we can't forget about bratwurst! This was a cheap, tasty lunch - I couldn't get over how everything here was 1/3 of the price it would cost in Paris! Definitely a nice change of pace after spending last weekend in London where we payed through our nose for everything!

We then went to watch Nadine's basketball team play their last game of the season - they won! - and the coach let me sit on the team's bench to watch. All the players would run by and give me a high-five every time they were subbed out, and they thought it was cool that they had an "international" audience.

The city of Heidelberg lining the Neckar River
Sunday morning, we woke up early and took the infamous autobahn to the city of Heidelberg to tour its castle and see the Christmas markets there. The highway has no speed limit, and so it is a bit frightening to see how fast the cars whizz by to pass you. We were going about 90 mph, but Nadine told me that some people drive as fast as 200 kilometers/hour (about 125 mph!!). It was a little crazy, but a cool thing to experience nonetheless.
Ruins of Heidelberg Castle overlook the moat
We happened to arrive 2 minutes before a guided tour in English was going to start, so we tagged along and learned a lot about the castle during our hour-long tour. Much like the Louvre in Paris (which used to be a royal palace), Heidelberg castle was added on to each time a new king came to power. Consequently, there is quite the mix of architectural styles present.

View from the Castle's inner courtyard
The castle has one tower, the "Thick Tower," which measures 7 meters (21 feet) thick, making it impossible to blow up. In addition, one of the fortress' exterior walls is 31 meters (93 feet!) thick and was surrounded by a 50 meter (150 feet) deep and 50 meter wide moat- let's just say it was one well-protected castle. It was funny to see the little pieces of the wall and tower which were missing, evidence of failed attempts by invaders to lay siege to the castle.
The other half of the Castle, from the courtyard
Deutschland! Ja!
In the basement of the castle sits the world's largest wine barrel (Großes Fass). The barrel is 18 feet tall, holds 220,000 liters of wine (about 58,100 gallons!) and was directly connected to a large pump upstairs in the kitchen. Wine makers in Heidelberg were required to give 10% of their wine to the King every year (essentially taxes paid in wine), and so all of the "donations" (both red & white) would be collectively dumped into this one barrel. In the 18th century, the water in the river that flowed through the town was not safe to drink, as raw sewage was dumped into it by the townsfolk, so the royalty "resigned themselves" to drinking wine instead... to that, I say "Prost!" (pronounced 'proost,' meaning 'Bottoms up!')

Heidelberg Tun
We quickly headed to Heidelberg's Weihnachtsmarkt to get some food and attempt to dodge the raindrops for a bit. I ate some delicious spaetzle (German egg noodles mixed with onions and cheese) and we looked around a couple of shops in between downpours.  

A giant Weihnachtspyramide
I thought this was pretty funny - in both Karlsruhe and Heidelberg there were huge versions of the traditional Weihnachtspyramide, the German Christmas Pyramid that spins with the aid of heat from candles below the fan blades. My grandma has one in her house and I remember being completely fascinated with it when I was little, so you can imagine my surprise when I saw one big enough to hold a restaurant!

Over the Neckar River
Our umbrellas nearly flew away as we ran across the bridge to get a better view of the castle overlooking the town. Unfortunately, the clouds and fog had moved back in, so we didn't get very many good pictures, but in the one above you can see the castle above part of the town. 

Overall, I had an amazing weekend! It was great to see Nadine again, and even better that we were able to pick up right where we left off the last time we saw each other 5 years ago! Despite the weather, I loved exploring Germany and it was cool to see it from the eyes of a local and her friends! Definitely a great "last hoorah" trip before I head home in less than 2 weeks.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Beefeaters, Harry Potter and Prince William: A Weekend in London

Tower Bridge spanning the Thames
This past weekend, I hopped a plane to London to spend some time in a primarily English-speaking country, which I haven't done since August! Even though I love speaking French, it was a breath of fresh air to have every sign, pamphlet, museum exhibit and tour in English and made for a relaxing trip - although some might argue that British English and American English are two completely different beasts, and I'd have to agree. 

After having a bit of a snafu upon arrival - we missed our bus from Luton airport to downtown London due to a couple miscommunications, subsequently missed the last train on the Tube (since it closes at midnight - so early!), wandered aimlessly in the wrong direction and finally caved in and payed for a cab - we finally got to our hostel, Astor Quest. By this point, it was pushing 2am, and Eric and I were completely exhausted. I almost had a melt down when the receptionist told me they were out of towels for the weekend, which I had banked on renting, so I resigned myself to having to use my t-shirt as a towel and went to bed.

The entrance to the Tower of London complex
Thankfully, the next morning we were all in a better mood, able to laugh at having to use a t-shirt as a towel, and headed off to tour the Tower of London. I really had no idea what to expect, as I had envisioned this place as being a tower like Big Ben inside of which the Crown Jewels are stored - wrong! It was actually a really big complex made up of a bunch of different buildings which look nothing like what I had expected, and had more of a castle-like feel about it.

Model of the complex, with the Thames River to one side of the fort, and a 50 foot deep moat surrounding the other sides
We happened to arrive just as a guided tour was about to start, so we decided to start off our visit listening to Jimmy the Beefeater (a yeoman in the Royal Guard) give us a bit of a history refresher on England and this complex in particular.
Jimmy, our Beefeater Tour Guide
Why are they called Beefeaters, you ask? The real answer: no one knows! But we learned that there is a bit of a legend which may have some validity to it. The Royal Guards that we call Beefeaters were stereotypically quite rotund during the Middle Ages, whereas many of the royal subjects were thin and starving. When the yeomen (Beefeaters) would appear in public, they would be ridiculed by the peasants for being fat. People perceived them as being the King's favorites, whom he would feed fatty cuts of beef, as it was a pricey meat and seen as a privilege as only the rich could afford it. Peasants would supposedly taunt the yeomen by calling them "beef-eaters," and thus the modern-day term was born....maybe!

In front of William the Conqueror's White Tower, the complex's central building
Built by William the Conqueror from 1066-1067, the Norman king who had invaded and succeeded in conquering England during the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the Tower of London is the most-visited historical monument in all of Great Britain. It has a bad reputation for being the place where royal prisoners were locked up, tortured, and then dragged by their hair to nearby Tower Hill to be executed, it was a really neat place to wander around with a lot to see.  

Suits of Armor from the Wardrobe Room
The complex is home to many buildings, among which are the White Tower, the armory, the Jewel Tower, and the menagerie. 8 ravens live at the Tower - 6 are free to roam around, and 2 live in cages (they alternate daily), and are kept there at the expense of the Monarchy due to another legend; it is said that if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, the White Tower will fall and a great disaster will befall England. The birds are actually so well-kept that one has even lived to be 44 years old!

The Tower's ravens - caw!!
Besides being superstitious, the Brits are often said to have horribly bland food (especially in comparison with the delicious French cuisine I've become so accustomed to!) but I quickly put that stereotype to rest when I had one of my favorite meals - fish & chips!! Anyone who has ever been to the beach with me knows that I will eat fish & chips for every available meal if given the option, and so I continued the tradition and had it twice over the weekend. Paired with mushy peas (chickpeas in a sort of pea soup - actually really tasty!) and a half-liter of blackberry cider, I thoroughly enjoyed my delicious meal! 

We wanted to check out St. Paul's Cathedral, as it is supposed to be just as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside, but much to our dismay it cost 15.50 pounds to go inside! Since 1 pound = $1.67, that was way more than we were willing to pay to walk around a church, so we settled for admiring it from the street instead. That's one big problem I had with London, everything's SO expensive!

St. Paul's Cathedral
Fleet Street happened to be right around the corner, so we went to take a peek. I was hoping to see Johnny Depp roaming around the neighborhood where the movie Sweeney Todd took place, as he played the infamous "Demon Barber of Fleet Street," but much to my dismay he was nowhere to be found...

Where's Sweeney Todd??
 We did manage to find some of London's famous telephone booths, however...

Typical Tourist
And we managed to see a beautiful sunset over the Thames on our way to see Big Ben & Parliament.


Another thing that looked like it would be cool to do was the London Eye. It's a giant Ferris wheel that affords visitors amazing views of the city as it takes a half-hour to make one revolution, but for 20 pounds (over $31!!) we decided to take a walk for free to see some of the sights from the ground instead.

The London Eye
And our walk was just as satisfying! We got to see a bunch of cool places by night (and by night, I mean 4pm...the sun goes down so early here!), such as:

Big Ben
Westminster Abbey
Buckingham Palace - the flag was up = the Queen was home!
Piccadilly Circus
A few words about Piccadilly Circus: it's a complete zoo! Known as the Times Square of London, minus the sky-scrapers, we found ourselves elbow-to-elbow being shoved through the crowd while trying to find a place to eat dinner. Although there was a lot of cool stuff to see, it was a rather hostile, unfriendly atmosphere as many Brits were drunk, cursing and bumbling about the square starting at around 5pm!

All complaints aside, there were some pretty Christmas decorations all around this neighborhood!
After enjoying a hearty dinner of spicy Indian food - London's known for having amazing Indian food, as India was once a British colony - we headed off to a cafe for a rather low-key evening, in order to avoid the craziness going on in the streets and every single pub in the area. There, a slightly-tipsy British university student named James sat down next to us and we spent the next hour or so chatting with him. It was interesting to learn a bit about the British perception of American & Americans, and we had a good time discovering new British English phrases like "bang-tidy" (apparently meaning 'awesome').

James, Nicole and I
Some of our other friends from our program in Paris happened to be in London the same weekend, so we met up with them at the cafe. We even managed to walk into another girl from Sweet Briar on the street - what a small world!
Katie, Eric & Maddy
The next day, we headed off to the British Museum. It's basically like the Louvre without all the paintings, and has vast collections of artifacts from around the world, as the British had colonies on nearly every corner of the globe and thus lots of access to other cultures.

Inside the museum, very cool mix of old & new architectural elements
Cleopatra's mummy
The Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta stone is a tablet on which the same text, an Egyptian decree from 197 BC, is carved in 3 different languages: Greek, Egyptian Hieroglyphs, and Demotic Egyptian. Discovered by Napoleon's troop in 1799 near the town of Rosetta, Egypt, and is the key to understanding and decoding Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The Parthenon, on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece (2007)
I would have to say that the collections of artifacts and paintings that I saw in various museums in London constituted a big highlight of my trip. Take, for example, the room full of marble sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens. As the Parthenon was built around 500 BC, certain finely-carved, decorative elements of its exterior understandably began to fall into disrepair. Thankfully, in 1811, English Lord Elgin removed these marble elements (today referred to as the Elgin Marbles) and put them on display in the British Museum to preserve them and show them off to the world. 

Room of the Elgin Marbles
Walking into the room housing the Elgin Marbles, my jaw dropped. I couldn't believe how many had actually survived all these years, and that they were still in pretty decent condition. When you stand before the Parthenon, yes, it is absolutely amazing, but I can only imagine how it must have looked with all its decorative elements still attached.
Sculptures from the Pediment of the Parthenon in Athens
I was particularly drawn to the pedimental sculptures displayed at the far end of the exhibit. The pediment is the triangular part that sits above the columns of a building and helps to support the roof. Nearly all of the sculptures from one of the pediments survive, and they are arranged in the form they were meant to be seen in, and a dramatic, sweeping flourish of billowing fabrics drape the figures. I had studied these sculptures in one of my art history classes, and it was incredible to see them in person - amazing how all of my experiences come full circle. It's times like this that I feel 1.) how lucky I am to have had all the opportunities to travel and see the world that I have had thus far, and 2.) like all of my hard work at school really pays off, because I have to say I got goosebumps just walking into this room. Very, very impressive.

Close-up of a fighting centaur, from the Elgin Marbles
And now, on an equally serious literary note, let's talk about Harry Potter. 

Millennium Bridge
Harry Potter fans might recognize the above bridge from the "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" movie as the place where Voldemort's Death Eaters swarmed down into London and scared all the Muggles during their attack. Check out this video clip for a refresher.... 

Seeing this bridge from the movie prompted Eric & I to begin our quest to seek out Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross Station, the place where Hogwarts students disappear through a magic wall in order to board the Hogwarts Express.

We went to King's Cross St. Pancras station, found Platform 9a & 9b, but no Platform 9 3/4....

Clearly very disappointed
We had to exit the Tube station and enter the train station to search for the platform, and after being disappointed we tried to get back out and decided we were locked in....oops. Thankfully, I explained our plight to the nice guard who was by the door (who proceeded to tell us we needed to look no further, for he was actually the Harry Potter...) and he kindly directed us outside the station to the REAL Platform 9 3/4. Stupid us for thinking it would logically be somewhere between platforms 9 and 10!

Found it!
Thankfully Eric snapped this picture of me right before my luggage cart and I disappeared through the wall, but I decided to forgo the Hogwarts Express this time in order to finish seeing all that London has to offer. At least now we know where it is for next time!

Next stop: lunch at Camden Market! Camden is a borough located north of the city and it's full of food, clothing, jewelry and all sorts of other oddities. You even get to have lunch while sitting on seats made out of old scooters! I picked up some nifty earrings and a scarf for myself, not to mention a delicious lunch of Thai food.

We got to see Camden Lock in action while we ate, as a tourist boat was passing through.

View of Camden Lock
At this point, Eric and I split up - he really likes modern art and thus headed over to check out the Tate Modern Art Museum, and as I'm a fan of more traditional works, I took the Tube over to the National Gallery. Talk about things coming full-circle again - the first room I happened to walk into contained impressionist paintings that I had literally studied only days before in my Impressionism class! Seeing paintings in person like this really helps to solidify certain aspects of them in your mind much better than when you study it projected on a screen in the classroom, and I am very fortunate to have literally stumbled across such a collection of paintings! 

Degas' "Miss La La at the Circus"
Monet's "Bathers at La Grenouillère"
An extension of my delight with the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, more of his masterpieces were hung in the post-impressionist gallery here!

Van Gogh's "Cypresses"
Van Gogh's famous "Sunflowers" 
The National Gallery and Trafalgar Square
I thoroughly enjoyed this museum, as in almost every room there were masterpieces that I had studied in at least one of my art history classes. As geeky as it sounds, I was like a kid in a candy shop! The simple things like taking an hour or two to wander through an art museum free of charge which will really leave a lasting impression on me, and which made my weekend in London that much better.

"Venus of the Rags"
Eric was still at the Tate Modern when I was done at the National Gallery, so I headed over there to check it out as well. Not a huge fan of modern art, I wanted to go anyways because the museum still contained works by artists that I had studied, and it was neat to see those as well.
Passing by Shakespeare's Globe Theater at night, on the banks of the Thames
We spent out last morning in London going on a stroll through Hyde Park, which was right next to where we stayed. We lucked out in having gorgeous, albeit windy, weather in a city known for its dark, drizzly climate.  
All sorts of birds on the park's main pond - almost like Otis?
Kensington Palace Gardens
Kensington Palace, the former home of Princess Diana and the current residence of William and Kate, as well as other members of the Royal Family. It is rather unimpressive from the outside, and most of its grounds were closed for construction.

Kensington Palace
As we were headed out of the park, we spied a helicopter flying really low and circling the Palace and jokingly remarked that it was probably somebody famous. Low and behold, it slowly descended onto the lawn just next to the palace, and upon hearing it shut off, we joined the other throngs of Brits in running over to the fence to see what was going on.
Yes, it is indeed the Royal Helicopter! 
Hmm, someone's getting out...he's tall, skinny and has horrible hair...could it possibly be Prince William??
Sure is!
We managed to watch as Prince William himself got out of the chopper (on the left in the above picture - click for a larger version) and walked around in a circle for a few minutes talking on his cell phone. A few minutes later, a fancy black car drove from the Palace to the helicopter and dropped off a bunch of men in suits. Everyone got back in the chopper and we watched as it took off once again. What a cool thing to randomly see!!
Bye Will, say hi to Kate for me!!
All in all, I had a great weekend in London. We got to see lots of historic monuments, a bunch of amazing museums, ate delicious food and had awesome weather. And boy, did I drop a lot of pounds - too bad they weren't the kind that make my waist smaller!!