Friday, February 27, 2015


It's felt like a wink and a blink since my last post, but it's been two weeks (!) and it's almost time for finals (!!) and I'm nearing the end of my time in London (!!!!!!!!!!)

(Very much exclaiming.)

I just got back from Brighton, which was a charmingly and surprisingly nostalgic experience (surprising because I'd never been there before). The town was a bit sad in the way that places are when they're waiting for crowds and sun and heat; when we arrived, Brighton Pier was glossy with rain and seawater, and the seagulls had taken over the abandoned cafes and shops lining the vacant boardwalk.

I'm not quite sure what I had thought we'd see-- sand and inner tubes, I expect-- but the shores in Brighton were surprisingly spartan for a beach town; no sand, just pebbles and pebbles and shells and more pebbles, sloping towards the water in speckled greys and browns. I suppose it was a rainy weekday at the end of February, but the seaside was almost entirely empty: just seagulls darting in and out of the water, high tide nipping at my toes, and the arcing lights of the Brighton Wheel above the town.

Further inland, down the more residential areas of Brighton, are townhouses in every shade of pastel you could imagine: periwinkle lavenders, blush pinks, sunny yellows, eggshell whites, seafoam greens, dusty blues.

Some of them were snugly packed into such neat rows that they reminded me a bit of the Neapolitan ice cream blocks that you used to be able to find in ice cream parlors across the Midwest during the summers. I remember this place near the lake, in Milwaukee, where they'd scoop straight off the blocks: dark, smooth chocolate (so brown it was almost purple) first, just a bit melty at the edges. Then the next layer, cream-yellow, fragrant with the speckles of vanilla bean, bright against the chocolate; and last, frosty chunks of fruit in strawberry ice cream too pink to be natural. Especially in the rain, the houses looked a bit like they were melting into each other; browns into yellows into pinks, and back again.

Our group took a break from the rain in the halls of the Royal Pavilion, which had the highest concentration of chandeliers I have ever seen. Our tour guide was also telling us that the dome of the Pavilion is often called "the Spanish Onion," or alternatively, "the Turnip".

(I kind of like the idea of the building being a giant turnip.)

A few of us took a break in a tucked away tearoom on the second floor, with giant ceramic pots of tea and a fog-lit view of the windy drizzle outside.

After tea, I wandered my way to this winding cobblestone street full of antique shops and Oxfam bookstores and tiny, snug cafes with names like "Milk, No Sugar" or "The Flying Coffee Bean."

After a romp through the street, and partially because the entrance was an intriguingly rundown turnstile (but mostly because I was beginning to turn into a rain-drenched prune) I slipped into a store called "Snooper's Paradise."

Incidentally, that name makes me think of pirates. I'm not really sure why.

The store was deceptively enormous; it was like a tent in Harry Potter, where the outside looks normal-sized and then you walk in and rooms just kind of pop up out of nowhere-- and these rooms were filled with the most random, disorganized, spectacular flurry of things. There was one cabinet filled with old skeleton keys, next to a cabinet of ceramic cats (some of them were quite terrifying), and piles and piles of records  scattered haphazardly between half-repaired bikes and pots of hand-carved wooden canes. And books! So many books!

But as cluttered and wonderful as the main floor was, my favourite part was attic; you had to clamber through chess sets and stacks of old playing cards to get to a crooked, creaky, crotchety staircase that wound up and up through fluttering papers hung in gilded swaths from the ceiling.

The attic was a long room filled with velvets and silks and lace and feathers, with warm light streaming from the tiny strings of lightbulbs stretching across the ceiling.

They had these beautiful upcycled sketchbooks made out of old book bindings, bowls of old pocket-watches and lockets, and an entire wall of old wedding dresses.

The place was a magpie's dream; everywhere you looked there was something sparkly or gilt or glimmering or mirrored.

I did end up tearing myself away from a rack of Dublin-knit sweaters to meet friends for dinner, and then the rest of the night was essay-writing and approximately a zillion and one pots of tea. But if you're ever in Brighton, North Laine had an abundance of really lovely antique stores, in a concentration that I haven't even found in London yet. And Snooper's Paradise, while sadly not a pirate abode, is still absolutely worth the visit.

I'm back in London now, and the sun's come out and it's starting to smell like spring and growing things. It's making me a bit giddy. Spring! Ah! Anyways. Theatre reviews and last assignments still exist... so, there's that.

last few crumbs of this week:
- For some reason, I have yet to find a favourite bookstore in London. I encountered some amazing ones in Stratford and Oxford, and Edinburgh was also particularly bookish. I don't know! Maybe that'll be my mission this week.
- Cafes in the city used to be called "penny universities" because so many writers and activists went there to discuss current events, academia, books, film, and all that jazz. People would come in and buy a penny coffee just to be able to stay and listen.
- There is a town called Broccoli somewhere on the National Rail line to Sussex. I will find this town. It will happen.

all my love (and all the broccoli),

Friday, February 13, 2015

sketches, pt. ii

Excerpted from— William Wordsworth: The Prelude

“That comes with night; the deep solemnity
Of nature's intermediate hours of rest,
hen the great tide of human life stands still;
The business of the day to come, unborn,
Of that gone by, locked up, as in the grave;
The blended calmness of the heavens and earth,
Moonlight and stars, and empty streets, and sounds
Unfrequent as in deserts; at late hours
Of winter evenings, when unwholesome rains
Are falling hard, with people yet astir,
The feeble salutation from the voice
Of some unhappy woman, now and then
Heard as we pass, when no one looks about,
Nothing is listened to.”

nothing is listened to (or, On Testing Wordsworth’s Claims)

Twilight in London comes with ink-stained secrecy, a ghost town filled with will-o’-the-wisp stars. Ghosts wander freely, whispers floating along the empty streets and embankments and gutters and gardens; they go unheard. The Thames laps at the riverbanks with quiet insistence, the clouds hang heavy and foreboding, and London’s January is desert and deserted. Wordsworth reminds us that in the stillness of winter’s evening fog, nothing is listened to.
But tonight we cannot sleep, so we sit at the windows and between the twelve strokes of midnight we wade into the great tides and late hours and listen at the nothing shores.
The sounds are familiar at first: the low rumble of the Underground as it closes for the night. The onomatopoetic doors of omnibuses. The sharp rattle of rain against windowpanes, the squeal of tires against asphalt, the whistling wind winding its way between buildings. We hear darkness blur across the city as the skyscrapers dim and Shaftesbury’s stage lights shut and last calls spill from pubs along Kingsway. Nightlights turn on, bedroom doors close, and the ends of bedtime stories twine through the hearts of children. Matchstick girls and lost boys line the streets and we linger on their whispers for the briefest of moments before we move on in guilty haste. The bells— ever present— ring in accusatory harmony. We listen on; the night grows darker and the city settles into rest.
The next sounds come in a rush— a riotous tumble spinning into the velvet-dark with a particular peculiar kind of romance. They are the forgotten sounds: clicking hooves on cobblestones, the hiss of oil in streetlamps, the grassy hush of street sweepers. Hairpins scratch lovelorn poetry onto windowsills, artists mutter to their muses, and the shadow of old fires crackle in the silent streets. Weathered bricks groan with remembered plagues and death knells, the bells tolling mournfully as we listen on. Empty theatres fill with bawdy laughter, shouts, pennies rattling, and the crack of fists against jaws. Prayers creak their way through churches and chapels. In a confessional, we linger to listen to the hushed cadence of past voices repeating “Our Father, who art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name” until it thunders to the rafters. It grows late enough to be early, and we listen for the last nothings of night.
London slips into morning with a languid grey yawn, as the sun peeks over the horizon and the streets come alive in a sudden flurry. The skies are blue today. Underneath our listening window, a bustle of uniformed children and suit-clad men and women fill the floors of an omnibus. The city is awake, and in the light of morning, the whispered nothings of the winter night fade behind us. The sunshine— so rare in London— gilds the streets, covering the shadows we’d listened to under moonlight and stars. The great tide of human life once more bustles through the streets and the unwholesome rains have turned to fading fogs. Further across London, mist hangs in delicate sheets over the Thames— champagne-gold and shadow-thin, torn by dawn’s brazen sunlight. Already, as if the mist carries waters from the Lethe, we are beginning to forget the secrets that London told us in the late winter hours.
Nothing is listened to.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Edinburgh, pt. i

Today is the last day of our five day midterm break, and it feels simultaneously like the weekend was too short yet conversely, like it's been forever since I've written a paper.

I spent the break tinkering through the streets of Edinburgh with friends, drifting in and out of farmer's markets and old churches and teeny eateries with names like "Blue Bear" and "Elephant Cafe" and "The Kilted Pig" (The Scotsmen seem to love naming their restaurants after animals).

Quite a lot of our wanders were spent museum hopping: the National Museum, the National Gallery of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Portraiture, and the Museum of Childhood. The last one was a funny squidgy building with five rooms full of old toys, books, miniatures; there was one gallery entirely full of unblinking, impeccably dressed porcelain dolls, and it felt like something out of a bad horror movie. Or a very good one, I suppose, as I shrieked and ran out of the room, missing the bulk of that exhibit.

Edinburgh gave us four days of brazen, glorious sunlight, and I'm not sure that there is anything in the world quite like Scotland in its gladrags. Despite the bustle of the Royal Mile and the hubbub of touristy areas, there were pockets of the city that seemed to exist in a sylvan plane of their own: everywhere you looked you could find bits of tumbling greenery in parks, courtyards, fields with mossy ruins.


We took a stroll on the Water of Leith one morning, with the remnants of sunrise fog fading just as we set out. The sun turned the tree branches to gilded lace, and the riverbanks were covered with lush carpets of ferns and snowdrops. We walked through Dean's Village for a bit, ending up in Stockbridge, at the farmer's market.

The market was right along the water, a flurry of yellow and white tents with heavily spiced air drifting in billows from various food tents: everything from steak and kidney pies to seafood paella.

There was a mud-caked, sunflower-yellow truck selling fragrant, steaming mugs of coffee; there's something distinctly comforting about wrapping your fingers around a cup of something warm and winding through a maze of bumblebee tents.

The fish being sold in the bottom right corner of this picture was "Monkfish Loins" (sign covered by that inconveniently placed pole).
I'm not actually sure what part of the fish that is.
I didn't ask.

Further into the city centre, we ducked into the Elephant Cafe for a bit of a reprieve from the wind-- and also to investigate all the Harry Potter paraphernalia that graced the walls of the establishment where J.K. Rowling had spent so many years writing.

Surprisingly, there was only a slim wall dedicated to newspaper clippings; and quite a lot of them weren't about J.K. Rowling, but were about various other authorial regulars that they'd had over the years. Mostly, the cafe was full of elephants: china elephant figurines (cabinets of 'em), elephant-print chair cushions, elephantine postcards, and so on and so forth. It was all kinds of adorable.

Down the street a ways from the Elephant Cafe, we took a turn onto Victoria, which was cobblestoned and knobbly and old-fashioned in the most picturesque, charming way.

The street was full of old bookshops and stores packed to the brim with mismatched antiques/random collections of old trinkets. I found a plaster dinosaur skeleton in one of them and named him Oswald, but alas, he wouldn't fit in my suitcase.

Until next time, Oswald.

all my love,