Category Archives: Travel

My American Writing Voice

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And what else I learned about the creative process from 28 Plays Later

‘The funny thing is… your plays have a very American tone to them. They sound very American. You can tell the characters are American and it just feels very American.’

So says my Irish wife about the plays I have written as part of the month long writing challenge we are taking part in known as ’29 Plays Later.’ Organised by my very clever friend, writer, director and choreographer, Sebastian Rex, ’29 Plays Later’ (so named because of the leap year this year) tasks us with writing a play a day throughout the month based on a prompt we’re sent the night before. Hell, you say? A pressure cooker for the mind, you scream? Yes, both, but you know what Churchill said about hell and actually, it’s felt fabulous to put that kind of mental pressure on myself every day consistently because it’s taught me an enormous amount about the creative process.

Like that I have a naturally American voice when I’m writing.

And maybe all our cultural voices come through when we put pen to paper or finger to keyboard and start to doodle our way into telling our stories. But I find this especially fascinating since my accent has become a new model hybrid, running on the energy of both American and Irish influence. As a consequence, no one outside of Ireland ever guesses that I am American right off the bat. I have not made an effort to lose my accent, but I have even on occasion fooled Irish people, one who thought I was a ‘stupid git who’d spent the summer in the states’ and was trying to pick up the accent. That I write with an American accent, or an American voice, that gritty, crackly quality of the amber waves of grain, despite setting one of my plays in space, one in a London classroom, and one in a Glasgow pub reassures me.

Do our accents change naturally? Do we naturally adapt our rhythms and inflections? I don’t know. They say that in the first six months of life you learn all the the sounds you need to speak your native language and that there will always be a learning curve, even if you move to another country at that age because a certain amount of muscle memory establishes itself. Does the same thing happen with narrative? Do we learn the rhythms of our own cultural narratives from the places we’re born? It stands to reason. If so, I’m proud to be telling American stories.

Two more things: 

If you write it, it will come. 

Writing a play a day is bloody difficult with a full time job, but one of the rules The Missus has abided by  that I was too scared to try until tonight was just to sit down and write and see what comes. There’s a wonderful, charmingly impromptu message to be taken from this: the brain loves to play and given a field to run around in, it will start to dig up that field and build its own creations. And the great thing about it is, the more you think about ideas every day, the more they come to you. Fantastically pretentious, non?

Not everything that you write, in fact, very little of what you write, will be literature, and that’s okay. 

I’ve written a lot this month. And just writing that sentence makes me feel more creatively accomplished than I have in years. The takeaway? To keep accomplishing that wonderful feeling of accomplishment, to paraphrase Dory, just keep writing. Some ideas are worth returning to while others are best left in that digital recycling bin in the sky, but the more momentum I’ve built, the better I’ve felt about the stories, or writing that comes close to being a story. Or something like a story if it had a plot and characters. You get the idea.

Now you go. WRITE!

Oh and speaking of plays, go see Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at The National Theatre. It’s simply amazing! My review of it will be appearing in The American very shortly.

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Berlin Vs. Munich: Battle of die Deutsch Städten

Berlin Munich

Photo Credit Paula Hughes 2014

No no. This is not (as my soccer obsessed seven year old thought) me suddenly doing in-depth coverage of the Bundesliga. Thankfully, there is so much more to these two German metropolises than the combined sum of their sporting talent, rich though it is.

Having taken two excursions into the Teutonic mainland in the last year, what I was struck by was not so much how wonderfully German each city was, but how incredibly and significantly different each urban experience was. It’s a bit like comparing Dallas to Austin or Jacksonville to New York, or Bath to London. On the one hand, you have the seat of Germanness in very affluent, very laid back, warmly welcoming city of lederhosen, weissbier, and bratwurst (seemingly best combined). On the other, you have a very chic, cool, urban experience, full of high fashion, coffee culture, a rich history and international influences.

Both have their strengths, but just how do the two stack up?

Language (as in do they speak yours?)

Hofbrauhaus

And that was when The American Londoner lost his last shred of credibility. Photo Credit Paula Hughes 2014

Southern Germans, Bavarians, the good people of Munich, are genuinely friendly. They smile at you when you try to speak in a broken, fundamentally flawed version of their language. Aren’t you cute? they think, holding back the wince as they hear their precious verbs and common nouns chopped to pieces. God bless you, American-who-lives-in-London-but-has-an-inexplicably-faint-Irish-accent, you’re trying.

With a flourish of pride, I got to the point where I could order coffee, pastry and beer, though not usually in the same breath.

And they’ll smile and they’ll give you directions slowly. In English. Sometimes they’ll even let you practise your German and patiently wait and answer you back in their native tongue, as through they are speaking to a small, slow child. They seem to smile naturally in their traditional volky attire, the hills alive with the sound of Dieter and Anke.

Berlin, on the other hand, is, as they say here in fashionable London, sh*t cool. Too cool for school and certainly too cool for small talk and open and extravagant gestures of friendliness. You’ll find hipsters and slackers. You’ll find Chelsea boots and skinny jeans, and certainly where we stayed at a friend’s place in Neukölln, the Hackney/Brooklyn/West Philly/(insert your local pretentious neighbourhood here) of Berlin, flat whites and street markets full of artisanal wiener schnitzel and hemp jumpers tempered with the cries of mountain goats, but you’ll get no random acts of welcome here.

Berlin Coffee

Breakfast Berlin Style Photo Credit Paula Hughes 2014

You could try speaking the language, but you won’t get very far.

‘Zwie flat white, bitte.’ Armed with ingratiating smile.

‘Sure. You want sugar in your coffee?’ is the usual response. But the eyes speak volumes. They say, in a benevolently condescending way, look pal, you are in what used to be known as the American quarter. I speak better English than you will ever speak German. Let’s save us both some time here, eh?

‘No thanks,’ I reply. Subtext: fair enough.

Which is fine. Berliners are not unfriendly, nor are they, contrary to some opinions, aggressive. They just don’t seem to feel the need to bow and scrape with open arms or mince their words when you’re in their way. Come visit us or not. We’re Berlin. We’re not going to try to sell ourselves to you. Have a coffee in the street or don’t. Don’t stand in my way while you’re doing it.

We’ve been ravaged by history and you’re coming in with your American dollar and British pound and taking pictures of it all. What do you want, a medal?

Food

Munich Beer Garden

In Munich, they tell you where to go. Photo Credit Paula Hughes 2014

Yes, Southern Germans can commonly be found walking around the market square, chowing down on a gherkin in one hand, easing its path down the digestive tract with a tankard of hefewiezen in the other.

You’d be silly to visit Munich and not sit down in the city’s oldest Beer Hall, Hofbräuhaus, and order a pretzel and a sausage smothered with sauerkraut and mustard. Or to cycle through the Chinesischer Turm biergarten and have… you guessed it, beer and sausage. For vegetarians like myself, the beer was nice. The food can get slightly repetitive.

Sausage Saurkraut

Good German Fare Photo Credit Paula Hughes 2014

Though in fairness to Munich, they had one of the best vegetarian restaurants at which I have ever had the pleasure of eating, Prinz Myshkin. The Thali plate was gastronomic euphoria. But like many things in Munich, it’s fancy, beautiful and expensive.

Bavarian food is traditional, honest and most importantly, German.

Hofbrauhaus

Munich’s Oldest Beer Hall Photo Credit Paula Hughes 2014

I very much expected the same of Berlin.

I was very much wrong.

You’d be hard pushed to find traditional Juh-man food in this city. The first night, we ate at a vegetarian burrito bar. The first morning, we scouted out all the comforts of home: flat whites, pastries, cappuccinos served by expat Kiwis and Aussies.

We did scout out a traditional beer garden in Berlin institution Schleusenkrug (because when in Germany…), which was lovely, but even they didn’t serve Bratwurst. They served something called weiner wurst, boiled Viennese sausage with an ethereal pallor that I’d never seen in cooked meat before. To my mild surprise, my son gobbled it up, after telling the man behind the order window that he was ‘1/8 German!’ (he’s fallen into the American habit of fractioning off his identity into different older European cultures).

Schluesenkrug Berlin

When in Germany… Photo Credit Paula Hughes 2014

We hunted down the Berliner favo(u)rite, Curry wurst, but once we found the legendary Fleischerei Imbiss and the Mrs and the boy plated up, it didn’t look much different to me from a meal I was partial to as a child: hot dog, cut up, with ketchup. Apparently, the good people of the German capital add curry powder.

This is a city full of punked out pizza (Alsatian tarte flambee), Vietnamese Banh Mi, and any number of cool vegetarian and vegan places and international influences. Look for food adventures instead of traditional German fare.

Awesome Places To Go

Deutsches Museum

The Deutsches Museum Photo Credit Paula Hughes 2014

The forecast for both our German vacations was quite gloomy. Strangely, we were luckier with weather in Berlin than Munich, which may, coupled with the fact that we accidently coincided with a Catholic feast day (man, those Southern Germans really are devout) on the day we had intended to rent a car and drive out to Neuschwanstein Castle, yet taint my consummately professional, analytical opinion.

To give Munich its due, it’s a walkable (or bikeable, as is the favo(u)red mode of transport in the city), beautiful and inspiring city. We climbed to the top of Peterskirche, to gaze out from dizzying heights over the many spires and gothic delights in the local environs. We cycled through the Englischer Garten, secluded from the city streets, larger than central park and home to two beer gardens, many playgrounds, a Parthenon-like structure, a pagoda, and several different locations for river surfing. On the last day we even had a gander at the excellent ode to scientific discovery, The Deutsches Museum, with a fine kinderreich (Kid’s Kingdom), in the basement that kept my son happy for the last day of our stay. Historical, stunning, and laid back, Munich is a marvelous city.

River Surfing Munich

River Surfing in The English Garden Photo Credit Paula Hughes 2014

But there was simply something about Berlin. It wasn’t as clean, but it was edgier. Where else in the world is there an airport that’s been turned into a public park? Tempelhof Airport, where we spent a bemused half a day, ceased operating as an airport in 2008 and reopened as a public park two years later. On first approach spooky, especially on the windy day that we trekked out, there is some strange sense of joy about walking around on abandoned runways, seeing people picnic, play soccer, cycle or walk their dogs on wide open spaces where once great metal machines revved up off the ground and groaned back down as well.

Tempelhof Airport

How cool is that? A park… that was an airport. Photo Credit Paula Hughes 2014

I avoided the more overtly Jewish elements of Berlin tourism. Any German city is steeped in a deep and perpetual process of soul searching over The Holocaust. The one ‘cargo’ train at the end of one of the sheds in the Technikmuseum was enough for me. What fascinated me more was the incredibly rich history surrounding the Berlin Wall, the fall of which seemed in many ways to be the pinnacle historical event of my childhood, playing out in breaking real time on all our television monitors as I sat glued at the tender age of 11.

The Berlin Wall

The Iron Curtain Photo Credit Paula Hughes 2014

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend traipsing from Brandenburg Tor to Checkpoint Charlie on a cold day with a seven year old, but the boy did enjoy watching trains in futuristic Potzdamer Platz Station and we enjoyed the rest.

Verdict?

That depends on you, doesn’t it?

Do you want beer, pretzels and lederhosen, red-faced Germans pulling you pints of tasty Bavarian brew? Or do you want to see the graffiti that marked a thousand heartbreaks during the communist era and then sip away the contemplative sorrows of history in Becketts Kopf?

More importantly, with two cities this cool in one country, why haven’t you booked your ticket yet? Don’t expect me to tell you where to go! Get a move on, man and make up your own mind. Go, become more cultured, experience the continent, experience the world as it is in all its glory.

Off you pop!

Let me know what you think.

Genießen! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Expats and Explorers! Stay in Style!

Gen X London

Generator X London, Super Chic hostels. Photo by Paula Hughes

When I first ventured abroad on a study abroad programme to a place in Ireland called Maynooth, I was enchanted by the spirit of adventure. I booked a flight that would arrive two days earlier than my semester abroad programme started so as to spend a couple of days experiencing all that Dublin, this capital city in foreign soil on which my feet had never tread, could offer. So I booked myself into Avalon House, a swanky hostel as far as hostels go, according to the Dublin Rough Guide in 1999, and probably still is today, I haven’t been back there in about 15 years. I do know from their website, they still seem to do a healthy business.

And it was a nice place. Sure, you still share rooms, but it was cosy and clean and had more in the way of amenities than my now better traveled self knows that some hostels have, which is not much, having stayed in hostels in other parts of Ireland and Spain since then. But the majority of you know what hostels are like. You’ve got to be careful in selecting them. This is where you rest your head for the night. This is where you go to seek respite from the hard day of globetrotting, of become more worldly wherever you are.

Which is all to say that I was ill prepared for a hostel as sleek, stylish and cool as the Generator Hostel here in London. I was fortunate enough to attend their relaunch party on Thursday evening and you can see that it was quite the happening atmosphere. If this is what hostels are like nowadays, I might have to revisit this mode of accommodation.

generator hostels London

Special cocktail created by Frank.

Generator Launch London

It’s plainly labelled.

The night was buzzing with an atmosphere of bacchanalia and revelry. Bright young things lithely lounged in a comfy and welcoming atmosphere smoothly designed with an eye for detail. If Generator can make you feel this welcome on a launch night, think what they can do if you stay at their hostel.

Generator Launch Party

You will never find a more sumptuous hive of bloggers and villainy.

Generator London launch party

The Gin and Fizz was excellent as well, Dahling.

Generator London Launch

This is London after all.

Infused with a heavy rhythm provided by NTS Radio and Eglo records, the party was a sensory circus, complete with free photo booth, dance floor and chill out area.

generator launch london

We are… here, which is where it’s at.

Generator London Launch

Oh, I’m such a poseur.

So, if you find yourself in this fine capital and need a base from which to explore, Generator is a great bet. Rooms are reasonable and stylish. Service is friendly and accommodating. And hey, does a party like this not suggest something of the spirit of their hospitality?

Generator has eight hostels throughout Europe including Copenhagen and Venice. I didn’t ask about loyalty cards, but this is definitely a brand that inspires return custom.

Book rooms now at Generator London. Enjoy!

So you want to move abroad … to India!

Taj Mahal

Taken from fr.april-international.com

Starting a new life abroad can be daunting, especially when your destination country is a whirlwind of activity like India. Here, Expat Explorer, brought to you by HSBC Expat gives you the lowdown on what to expect when moving to the Indian subcontinent.

Why India?

India promises to heighten all your senses, from visiting the enchanting Taj Mahal, created by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the body of his deceased wife, Mumtaz Mahal, and now revered as one of the most magical buildings in the world, to surfing off the sun-drenched beaches of Goa.

It’s a country steeped in history, desperate to be explored by an open eye, and, if you accept the way of life in this multi-faceted society, you’ll not be held back in becoming a true resident.

Language

Hindi phrasebook

Taken from expatliv.blogspot.com

Hindi is the official language, but English is also a subsidiary official language and used proficiently in urbanised zones in businesses, hospitals and schools to name a few examples. Once you are settled in, the challenges sometimes faced when communicating with taxi drivers or retail assistants will be easily overcome and whet your appetite for adventure on the open road through India’s wildly diverse landscape.

Weather

India covers a huge surface area. Its population is the same as that of the whole of Europe—it’s gigantic. As you would expect there is a vast range of climates, and yes, different areas can often differ in weather, but it doesn’t range from the deep freeze to the blinding hot. Some areas in the north experience an alpine climate, but most experience a sub-tropical climate. As you head south, a tropical climate can be expected. Do expect the monsoon season everywhere between June and September. It gets pretty wet, but do not dismay as life does not slow down—the wet weather barely makes a dent in the chaotic way of life in the cities.

Transport

taxi India

Taken from blogs.wsj.com

Expats living in India often prefer to take a taxi. They are relatively cheap and available everywhere within urban areas. Public transport can be less than reliable and is often overcrowded. The roads are chaotic but this is to be expected as cities in India constitute some of the most densely populated places in the world. Taxi fares are often haggled over. Do not be afraid to ask a friend how much you should pay to get from A to B and then negotiate with the driver. Taxi meters are typically ignored.

When moving to India, prepare yourself for a kaleidoscope of culture, religion and language. You will be faced with a magical array of people, colour and food—very few countries around the globe can offer the full spectrum of character which India provides.

And on a completely different note…

Irish St Patrick's Day London

Taken from visitlondon.com

It’s St. Patrick’s Day on Monday. I celebrated yesterday evening by attending a Ceilidh, a traditional Irish or Scottish knees up, here in Hackney. It was a rockin’ Celtic shindig to benefit an awesome organisation called Street Child World Cup, who I strongly suggest you check out and donate to on their website.

But, London’s Irish population being as big as ever, here is a list of what’s going on in the metrop this weekend to celebrate the patron saint of The Emerald Isle. Enjoy!

What to Know About Heathrow: A Survival Guide

Heathrow Airport

Taken from heathrowterminal5.com

Travel and Fashion Writer Evelyn Franklin gives us the low down this week on one of the world’s busiest airports, and how to navigate its complex organised chaos 

It can be an oasis in the desert or your worst nightmare but, at some point, you will likely encounter Heathrow Airport. It is the world’s busiest international airport serving more than 90 airlines and over 70 million passengers annually. It is also a major gateway to Europe, the United Kingdom, and of course, London. But depending which terminal you are funneled through, your experience could range from bearable to utterly tedious or even just plain ridiculous. For any that have used it, it should come as no surprise why it’s often rated one of the world’s most hated airports.

With horribly long walks to boarding gates and lengthy lines at security and border control, passengers might just find themselves taking a longer time to navigate their way out of Heathrow than it would take to fly to Spain.  The airport suffers from a chronic inability to cope with the masses of travelers. The city of London is served by four other major airports including Stansted, Gatwick, Luton, and London City. But if you find yourself on a flight bound for Heathrow from one of the more than 180 destinations in 90 countries that is directly connected to the airport, we’ve got a few tips for you to help suppress any notions of air rage.

Understanding Heathrow: Know Your Terminals

Heathrow Travel

Must. Get. To. Connecting. Flight. (taken from telegraph.co.uk)

Heathrow Airport is practically a city unto itself with four different terminals and a fifth on the way scheduled to open this June. Because of its vast size, security requirements, and that development has failed to keep pace with growth, the airport has earned a reputation for being overcrowded, inefficient, and full of delays. The airport operates at 99 percent capacity on a daily basis with a take-off or landing every forty-five seconds. The airlines at Heathrow seem to enjoy playing a constant game of “musical terminals” as they continuously shift operations from one terminal to another. As a passenger, you are advised to check the Heathrow website for the latest terminal updates and information. The long-term plan is to dedicate a specific terminal to each of the airline alliances in order to minimize the number of connecting passengers that will need to change terminals. The airport has uniformed volunteers in pink attire to assist travelers navigating the airport.

Top Travel Tips for Heathrow Airport

  • Family-Friendly Travel: If you are travelling with children, Heathrow offers special security lanes with staff that are specially trained to work with less experienced flyers and able to accommodate families with strollers as indicated by the rainbow symbol above the detectors.
  • Power Naps: If your connecting flight is delayed or you have a long layover and need a couple of hours of sleep, Heathrow offers a couple of options for travelers that need a few hours of shut-eye. Single bedrooms can be rented at the No. 1 Traveller and Yotel for a modest amount.
  • Central London in a Rush: If you need to reach the city center in a hurry, the Heathrow Express train can get you to Paddington Station in just fifteen minutes for about £25. It’s an express train with no stops along the way.
  • Save Cash on the Tube: It will take nearly an hour to reach central London on the Underground but it is one of the best deals in town at just £6 off-peak to anywhere in London that is served on the network. The biggest battle will be the lack of space for luggage.
  • Stay Charged: All travelers like to keep their mobile phones and laptops fully charged for the journey ahead but few airports were built with that in mind. If you find yourself in a part of Heathrow that lacks power sockets, search for any sockets hidden in the floor that are typically used by cleaning staff. Alternatively, you could also bring along an adapter that converts one socket into two so that you can share outlets with other passengers.
  • Beat the Security Lines: Unlike in the United States, you don’t need to present a boarding pass while passing through the metal detectors. You also don’t need to remove your laptop but be prepared to place all loose items in a tray and don’t travel with liquids.
  • Eat Before You Go: Depending which terminal you are in, Heathrow offers a wide range of dining options. However, they also come at a price. You would be much better to pick up a sandwich for a pound or two at a convenience store to eat on the way.

Getting Through Passport Control

Passport Control

Bring a good book and plenty of patience (taken from the guardian.com).

The long lines to cross the UK Border can often give passengers additional time to finish those last few chapters on their Kindle that they couldn’t finish on the flight. Frequent flyers to London know that this is to be expected as immigration officers grill passengers with five to ten questions about their intentions in the UK.  If you want this process to go smoothly and quickly, there are a few things that you should know:

  • Always carry proof of a return flight out of the country as you may be asked to produce one by the officer. If you do not have one ready, you may need to go through the tedious process of getting your airline to do it for you which will mean proceeding through security and into the long passport line for a second time.
  • Know where you are staying as it must be written onto your entry form and the border officers may ask you where you plan to reside while in the United Kingdom. That means you should not head to London without a hotel booking. Memorize the name and the street of the hotel or carry a copy of your hotel reservation with you.
  • Be able to converse in English because if you are unable to competently answer the questions posed by the immigration officer, you could be automatically diverted to another line for additional questioning and potential rejection.

Flying Out of Heathrow

plane heathrow

Taken from your.heathrow.com

If you are headed to the airport to board your return flight out of Heathrow or if you are one of the lucky folks that managed to grab a hot last minute deal on a cheap flight from London, you should be prepared to navigate Heathrow if you want your journey to get off to a seamless start. As Heathrow is an incredibly large airport, it is important to know your terminal before you depart and to allow sufficient time to check-in, get through security, and travel to your boarding gate. The recommended check-in time is typically at least three hours prior to departure. However, some passengers have reported waiting in line for up to 1.5 hours just to receive boarding cards. If you would like to save time, try to check-in online and print your own boarding card if your airline offers this service. You will also want to ensure that you are wearing comfortable walking shoes for the lengthy journey ahead.

If you are a foreign tourist and planning to take advantage of the VAT Refund, you will need to present your goods purchased and the necessary forms to UK Customs prior to checking in your luggage. You should consider whether it is worth it prior to jumping in line as some queues can take over an hour. Once you have cleared check-in and security, you can proceed to the departure lounge. It is here that you will find the majority of shops and dining outlets. You can purchase items here to bring on the aircraft with you. Take note that there are few if any shops near the boarding gates so you will want to ensure that you complete your shopping before leaving the departure lounge to avoid a lengthy walk back and forth. Some gates can take as much as forty minutes to reach and boarding commonly starts forty-five minutes prior to departure so you will need to allow yourself plenty of time otherwise you risk being left behind. Be prepared for one last line to check your boarding card before being permitted entry into the boarding lounge.

Additional Gateways to London

Heathrow’s central location makes it a convenient airport for many travelers. But if you have the opportunity to use one of London’s alternate airports, it may be a worthwhile choice that can save you a lot of time, hassle, and even money depending where you are headed in the United Kingdom. Gatwick and Stansted Airport are not nearly as busy as Heathrow and are home to less expensive charter flights. In addition, you will enjoy less congestion, shorter walks, and faster security lines. While the number of connections to London aren’t as abundant, there is always a direct link by train to the city.

Food > Everyfing Else: Eating My Way Through Brixton

Kaff Bar Brixton

Sizzling Hot Creole Sharing Platter at The Kaff Bar in Brixton

Alas, I was a marked man from the start.

“Now, you’re the vegetarian, aren’t you?” says our gracious and knowledgeable host, Penelope, as our tour of Foodie Brixton begins.

I look around, hoping she’s pointing to someone else and I can chime in with, “Oh, that’s me too, I’m veggie too!” in about 30 seconds.

Nope. It’s me she’s pointing at. I’m the only one.

“Yes… I’m vegetarian,” I concede.

“Do you eat fish?” says our other equally gracious and knowledgeable host, Lindsay, hopefully.

“Eh… no.” Sorry. The short tour, then?

“Perfect!” they both say, smiling congenially, assuring me, “there are plenty of veggie options!” while I wonder if the other tour participants are looking askance at me and wondering how such a creature can exist amidst a London so enthralled in the hipness of toe-to-tail chic.

Thankfully, and perhaps surprisingly, from this, somewhat inauspicious beginning, grew a culinarily magnificent experience walking and tasting south of the river on a splendidly soaking Saturday afternoon hosted by the superlative walking tours company, Fox And Squirrel Walks.

Elsa Ethiopian Coffee Brixton

An Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony hosted by Elsa

Founded by London enthusiast Penelope Sacorafou, Fox and Squirrel have been providing quirky, bespoke tours around the metropolis for three years now, garnering the acclaim of ‘best guided walks’ from The Guardian. High praise indeed. And deserving. Slight blips concerning herbivorous lifestyles aside, the walk is an awesome experience, one that left me feeling both full, amazed, well-informed, and a little politically engaged with the local goings on concerning this historic part of the capital, due in no small part to the fact that Fox and Squirrel have worked really hard to establish excellent rapport with the locals and newbie restauranteurs and other business owners of Brixton Market.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

Frankincense, olfactorily enchanting…

Locals like Elsa and her husband Mo, who own The Shawl cafe and hold Ethiopian coffee ceremonies just across the way on Brixton Station Road. I felt like a bit of a cheat having taken part in this East African ritual before at Asmara of Coldharbour Lane, but felt refreshed with all the history surrounding it. The ginger in the coffee was a surprisingly beautiful flavour, warming the cockles amidst the cold, slate grey of the dullish morning on which the excursion took place.

Ethiopian coffee

Mmmm. Ethiopian coffee. Beats yer average tax-dodging chain any day of the week…

A sharing platter atop a bed of spongy injera bread followed the coffee. If you had asked me ten years ago if I would have guessed that the cuisine of Ethiopia could be mind-blowingly delicious, I would have scoffed heartily, but the beauty of being an expatriate is discovery and thanks to some delightful experiences on both sides of the pond, I now know the error of my ways. The joyfully tactile experience of tearing a swather of injera and scooping some moreishly berbere seasoned lamb, lentil or spinach, was bliss.

Ethiopian Food Brixton

Oh, injera.

A quick swill of some vino verde and down Pope Row to family owned Brixton institution Las Americas Cafeterias, where we were afforded the opportunity to sample the uniquely Colombian Lechona, a whole hog (no literally, and yes, I did enjoy just writing that), crisped and stuffed with vegetables, beans and meat and slow-cooked.

Lechona Colombia

Lechona con salsa

Lechona Colombia Brixton

More Lechona, with cracking crackling. Crisp, delish, perfection, a carnivorous paradise…

Impressive still were the time-consuming lengths to which Penelope and Food Journalist guide Lindsay Faller went to cater to my tastes, requesting an order of arepa, the cheesy, cornmealish Colombian cousin to the tortilla and tailor made to hold the cafe’s dynamite salsa. Latin American comfort food at its best.

Arepas Colombia Food Brixton

Arepas, tasty y vegetariano.

Imbibing was the next order of business from local newcomers to London’s handcrafted brew scene, The Brixton Brewery, where we were given an intriguing crash course in the brewing process before tasting libations that would give any of Hackney’s half-dozen microbreweries a serious run for their money. NB: Brixton Brewery names its beers for the local area and the design for their brand is taken from the African influence on Brixton. Ah how I wished to linger and continue, lotus-eater like to lazily sample more of the Effra Ale.

Brixton Brewery

One of the tiniest microbreweries in London, under the arches in Brixton

Brixton Brewery

Makes be hoppy. Electric Pale Ale, named so for the avenue of the same name.

On to the market proper and Brian Danclair’s Fish Wings and Tings, and a colourful palate of Trinidadian flavours in a lively corner of Brixton. One critic has called Paul’s exquisitely flavoured codfish fritters, ‘like a high five from Jesus,’ and his rotis were equally flavoured to perfection, one goat and one pumpkin, perfect parcels of glee-inducing yum.

Codfish Fritters

‘A high five from Jesus’ I Be-LIEVE!

Fish wings and tings

The surprisingly perfect accompaniment to Fish Wings and Tings food

Brixton Market

The warmth of the market hall on a cold wet day

Pumpkin Roti

Perfect Parcel of Pumpkin Roti

Goat Roti

And the goat roti, omnivorous feasting.

And for dessert? Gelato that injects new vim and vigour into the trendified flavour of salted caramel at Lab G.

Lab G Brixton Market

Pure Creamy euphoria… Lab G

Hustle and Bustle

Hustle and Bustle

Brixton Market

Fusion of Cultures

Brixton Market

Fruits and veg of the market

I can’t say enough good things about the Fox and Squirrel foodie tour. I’ve had enough fun and  built up enough of an appetite reliving it while writing this blog post. My fear is that I’ve said too much, but, as they say, the joy is in the eating. I will say though that it is a far more unique walking tour, its guides more frank in their opinions, wittier in their banter, and far more inclined to specially cater to the whims and requirements of a particular group  than your average London walking tour, making eating your way through Brixton with them well worth the time and the cover price. Easily the best walking tour of London I’ve been on, even if I’m pretty sure there was some shredded pork in that last quesadilla (I’m also quite sure the tenderness will delight the majority of readers).

Hot Ginger Beer from The Kaff Bar

Hot Ginger Beer from The Kaff Bar

London Ate My Pocketbook

Travel and Fashion Writer Evelyn Franklin takes a look at how to make the most out of this fantastic city without it taking the most out of your bank account

Expensive London

Image taken from london.tab.co.uk Photo by Alex Macnaughton / Rex Features

There are few experiences to rival the first few minutes spent in a city you’ve spent a lifetime reading about and watching on TV. In London, your first experience is likely to be one of sensory assault, especially if you arrive at one of the stations: the chaos of the crowds, the damp, musty, smell, the overwhelming grandeur of the architecture, the incomprehensible and garbled announcements. Take a moment, breathe it in, find your way to a coffee stand to protect yourself from the chaos with a shot of caffeine, and feel the next assault: the one on your pocketbook. London is likely rivalled only by New York in terms of sheer budget strain, with even other Brits grimacing at the cost of the basics here. Still, there are ways for visitors to the city to find their way around, even on a shoestring budget. Here are my recommendations.

Mark Noad Tube Map

A more ‘realistic’ take on the tube done by artist Mark Noad in 2011, from travelandleisure.com

1. Walk

The Tube map is not an accurate representation of the actual layout of the lines and stations, and there are plenty of places where various Underground stations are actually closer on foot than they are by train. Cut down on your travelling expenses by seeing more of the city above ground. Earn your pub meal by stacking up the miles, be kind to your pocket, and see more of the sights, all in one go.

2. Choose Your Accommodation Wisely

There are a few standard accommodation options, and most of them aren’t good ones. If you’re on a budget, chances are you’re looking for a hostel: don’t. You may get lucky, but in my experience, London hostels are still horrifically expensive, and many are seedy to boot. You may end up paying an exorbitant rate to be stuck in a damp, dark room with 20 strangers, twelve of whom snore like drains and three (yes, three) of whom are having sex. Unless you’d like to have bed bugs for the rest of your life, choose a hostel very, very carefully, or steer clear. The standard alternative – a large chain hotel, even a cheap one – is not likely to be much better overall: it’ll probably be cleaner, but will also probably break the bank significantly more. So what are your options? One good avenue to explore is to look for timeshare that’s going begging – this can be a better deal and greater comfort than a cramped hostel or dinky hotel. Another good bet is to look for self-catering accommodation, especially if you’re travelling in a group: if it’s just you, it may not work out cheaper, but if you can cram four people into a one-bedroom apartment with a sofa bed, you can split the costs of grocery shopping and save cash by eating at home. And finally, if you’re really broke, look into couch-surfing, which is a sure-fire way to meet excellent people (and a few wonderful weirdos), and end up with your own friendly traveller in future months.

South Bank Book Market

South Bank Book Market, one of my faves (image from visitlondon.com)

3. Head Away From The Crowds

Let’s face it: the best bits of any foreign city are not the ones that people flock to in droves. Save your precious London cash by avoiding the most garish of tourist attractions. A wander around Southbank is definitely worth your time, and you can admire Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament at your leisure, without having to elbow-wrestle with fourteen hundred other tourists to catch a glimpse of something interesting. If historical London really floats your boat, pick a few sites that you absolutely must check out, but don’t blindly go along with what every travel blog ever tells you that you “have to see”; read the reviews, do your research, and narrow it down. Chances are high that you’ll have more enchanting memories from an afternoon’s wander round Covent Garden or a spectacular evening in a pub than you will of the overpriced stampede at the Tower of London. Even those ten minutes you spent with your cheek flattened against the train window when you caught the Piccadilly line at half past five in the evening were probably more fun (and cheaper).

London Souvenir Stall

Yup. London Tat.

4. Don’t Fall Prey to the Souvenir Junk.

What do you think you’re going to do with that “Mind the Gap” t-shirt? It’s not original, or clever. Neither is your miniature London bus. It’s understandable to want to accumulate some mementos to take home with you, but try to make them unique or useful at the very least. Buy a fantastic piece of art at a little market, or a warm scarf that will remind you of London for years to come. If you must buy a standard souvenir, keep it small and cheap, like a fridge magnet or shot glass. That way you won’t weigh down your luggage with unnecessary junk, and when you get home and realise you don’t need it after all, it won’t be difficult to find a place to keep it. Plus, you’ll have saved yourself all the expense of loading yourself up with themed coasters and umbrellas.

Londoners: This is How We Move

At some point in your London life, if you are here for any medium to long term period of time, you will have it: the property conversation. It won’t happen at first of course. You’ll have too many cool things to do and see, but eventually, you will start to peruse realtors’ estate agents’ windows with something approaching avarice in your eyes. You will find yourself in the pub on Friday night with your friends saying things like, “I mean, we can’t rent forever. That’s no good, is it?” and “On average? £300k for a 2 bed! That’s exactly why we’re looking in that area!”

It doesn’t happen everywhere. There are plenty of places in the world — in fact in the rest of Europe — where people are quite happy to rent an apartment all their lives, but there is an Anglo-Irish obsession with owning a space and declaring it their own. If I speak in disparaging tones, they are also self-deprecating ones. I feel like my beloved and I are always thinking about where we can get more space, whether we can keep our place and buy another, how we can work the variables. With this in mind, I give you this intriguing study from our friends at reallymoving.com, based on 34,000 Londoners who used the site between January 2012 and August 2013. It’s pretty fascinating and a little bit surprising, especially for Londoners with an almost instinctual eye on the property market. Love to hear your thoughts on it. Enjoy and Happy Monday!

\reallymoving.com London Moving Trends Infographic

Reflections on Sandy II: Fables of The Reconstruction

Sandy Castle

Photo by Samm Bury

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, Sandy Castle, a living monument to the indomitability of spirit of my runtish home state of New Jersey.

I’m a little late with posting this, given that we marked Hurricane Sandy’s one year anniversary a couple weeks ago. I posted then about the devastation that I bore witness to when I visited my cousin over the summer. The tone, overall, was somber and reverential, which was right and appropriate.

But there are and have been some amazing efforts made by Jerseyans to rebuild a vibrant area. Sandy Castle is one that I have seen developing since Spring, when Ed Jarrett, Guiness record holding sand sculptor got in touch with his friend, Jersey resident Alan Fumo, and decided to try to break his own record for the world’s tallest sandcastle, all proceeds going to Hometown Heroes, a group providing aid to those who suffered and continue to suffer in the recovery from the storm.

The local communities around the area of Point Pleasant really got behind the effort. And with a symbol so iconically evocative of childhood memories of the Jersey shore, sitting sandy toed and smiling by ends of the waves, building great edifices with turrets and spires and great big windows to the imagination, who couldn’t get behind the Sandy Castle project?

Jarrett pooled his “labor” from local district schools, with whole crews of children sweating it out in the sun (with regular air-conditioned breaks of course), dedicated to raising up the world’s tallest sand castle. Two of those laboring volunteers were second cousins of mine, Ian and Sean, who we had the privilege of having as our guides to Sandy Castle when we visited in August.

IMG_20131117_223520

Sandy Castle: The Prototype

We saw Sandy Castle on our annual summer pilgrimage to the homeland, recollections of which often feature on this blog. After my cousin took us on a drive through the barrier island route, on which I bore witness to the destruction wrought by the terrible force that was Sandy, it restored my faith to take an old times’ sake walk on the boardwalk and to see this tribute to community spirit in a very much reconstructed and revived Point Pleasant Beach.

I know, I have often waxed lyrical about a misty eyed childhood spent loitering in places like Lucky Leo’s arcade wildly chucking skeeballs towards a target in hopes of winning tickets that would lead to brightly colored tat; or traversing the circuit of the old Waterworks theme park, down waterslides, floating endlessly in inner tubes on the lazy river, back up a slippery ladder I would pull my prepubescent self and back down the waterslides to start the whole perpetual cycle of waterlogged joy. But that’s because there are parts of Jersey that do hold that magic, that aura, are the seat of many a nostalgic treasure.

So it was gladdening to take my own son, with his older cousins, to this seat of nostalgia and to share with him, like the passing of a generational torch, the glories of the boardwalk. Not sure at first how he would react, being six, up past his bedtime, and not often on even mild roller coaster, we set him loose with his tickets to ride, his older cousins, and fun and merriment all around. Alighting from an airplane themed ride that swung him round at a gentle pace and allowed him to control the plane’s ascent or descent by a few feet either way with a throttle, he looked around at us, dumbfounded and inscrutable. Was he about to cry? Was he confused, nauseous, angry? None of the above as it turned out when the corners of his mouth surged upwards in a grin, his eyes widened and he crowed, “That. Was. Awe-some!”

Sean and Frey Point Pleasant

Bright lights, big boardwalk

My son had been baptised unto the boardwalk. The torch was passed.

On to Sandy Castle and a friendly greeting from Ed Jarrett, but the grand tour from my cousin’s husband and sons who toiled away helping Jarrett to build Sandy Castle. The first attempt to break his own record, which appears second in this post, was still up when we were visiting, complete with a list of items including flags, fish, gargoyles and other assorted castle ornamentations to sought out by visitors. Ed Jarrett’s first attempt crumbled slightly below the record mark after an unfortunate visit from some vehicles combing the beach and a special visit from Mr Obama who was keenly interested in Mr. Jarrett’s work. Like the shore itself though, Sandy Castle rebuilt, rising phoenix-like from the ashes to stand tall.

Sandy Gargoyle

Sandy Gargoyle

Sandy Castle at Night

Sandy Castle by the light of the moon

Sandy Castle explored, other traditions were to be kept. We taught my son the fine art of skeeball, pastime of kings. I learned, finally, that the joy is in the playing of the game, not in the prizes, which are always cheap and tatty unless you are a world champion skeeballer (I’m pretty close I’m sure. I need practice). Alas, he is too young yet for that lesson and there is joy in acquiring tokens for tickets for prizes.

Frey Skeeball

The Glorious Game

And so the witching hour came and so concluded our time in this idyllic cradle of neon for another year. My heart was lifted though, with the notion that the shore would survive, thrive, and create new memories for us for years to come, and that Sandy Castle stood as testament to it.

Sandy Castle

Standing against the wind. Photo by Samm Bury

What You Need To Know About London Before Packing Your Belongings!

The Glitz and The Glamour Oh My. Image taken from gatewaylondon.co.uk

The Glitz and The Glamour Oh My. Image taken from gatewaylondon.co.uk

Quite excited today for The American Londoner’s first guest post (I know. Hitting the big time!). This one comes from Chris Jerome at Refresh Accommodation, a superlative short term let service based here in London. Short term lets are just the sort of thing you will find handy if you are at all interested in leading a wilfully nomadic lifestyle or staying for longer than a vacation in order to get a real taste for somewhere. Enjoy! 

Having lived in London for the past eight years, I have come to understand the many pleasures and pitfalls of this truly amazing city. There are things which will surprise you, some which you learn to love, and others you never really come to understand at all.

Whether it’s the indecipherable vocabulary of East End cockney taxi drivers, hidden gems of pubs and cafes or extortionate prices of hotels and B&Bs, London really is a place you need to pack and prepare for.

Transport

The Routemaster, iconic London. Taken from guardian.co.uk.

The Routemaster, iconic London. Taken from guardian.co.uk.

What better place to start than with the peculiarities of London transport? Getting around London is relatively easy, with a wealth of black cabs and colourful cockney drivers. Whether you are looking for a tailor in Brick Lane or a curry house in Mayfair, they will find it, using their encyclopaedic ‘knowledge’ of the streets.

Some will ask probing questions like “Is that on the corner of Liverpool Street or the one next to Greenwich park mate?”, to which the answer is usually “I’m not entirely sure”; others will merely nod and begin on their way. To really enjoy this rich experience, make sure you pack your wit, as the ride will often provide an opportunity for banter.

The London Underground provides an amazing and extensive network of locations and stops, complete with a rainbow coloured map and ‘soft’ seating. The ‘Oyster’ card system allows you to get around without having to carry one of those questionable orange tickets, while being significantly cheaper for multiple trips. However, it can be a good idea to carry a map; I would often fall asleep and miss my stop, ending up somewhere like Barking; quite maddening.

However, unlike the cab drivers, I find it amazing that you can sit on a crowded tube and not engage in any form of conversation whatsoever; while Londoners are known for being socialites, they are uncannily shy in the company of fellow travellers, so make sure you pack a book to read; a venture across the Central Line from West Ruislip to Epping can take a while.

The Great Outdoors

Picnic London

Image from fluidlondon.co.uk.

While England is hardly admired for its sunshine, the months of spring, summer and autumn show the countryside in all its glory. London is blessed with a wonderful selection of parks and gardens, which I feel are best enjoyed in the autumn, when the tree leaves start to brown and fall to the floor. Take a leisurely walk around Hyde Park or Richmond Park, just be sure to pack your thermals, the winter soon starts to bite.

Accommodation

London at night

Stay in the middle of it all. Photo from trekearth.com.

If you are going to London for a short break, beware of hotel prices, which can be really expensive. Double guestrooms in areas like Paddington or Notting Hill can cost up to £250 a night, with the contents of the mini-bar usually costing the same. However, if you want to feel more at home, serviced accommodation can be a much more cost-effective alternative, with providers like Refresh Accommodation giving you access to an entire apartment, allowing you to stock up and drink from your own fridge!

 Where to Imbibe

The French House

Still one of my favo(u)rite watering holes in the capital. Samuel Beckett drank here. From sohopubs.com.

On the subject of drinking, London is by far one of the best drinking locations in the world. With so many cosy pubs and trendy cocktail bars, you will never go thirsty; just be prepared to spend £4 on a pint of lager and drink ales at room temperature. For the classier customer, ‘gastro’ pubs provide a wealth of fancy food and wines at somewhat inflated prices.

Above all, my advice is this: pack your common sense – enjoying your time in the capital shouldn’t mean paying through the roof; there are plenty of opportunities to find a bargain, you just have to look hard enough!

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