I’ll save you my lame reason of being too busy at uni to blog, though it has been truthfully the reason and I am very sorry about it.
Nevertheless, I come back with much excitement to share with you my latest ‘school project’. No, I’m not becoming a chef. If anything, weird eating habits have taken me further from the kitchen…but I digress.
6 weeks ago, I along with 4 other students started a course in Online Journalism at the University of Westminster, without the slightest idea about web building. And yet, here we are launching our very own website!
And, what else was to be the common thread between a Spaniard, a Japanese, an Indian, a Vietnamese and a Chinese ? Why, London, of course! and being the ‘hungry’, pocket-torn student journalists that we are, FOOD!
So we came up with the idea of embarking on journeys to explore London through food, affordably- everything from the latest happenings in the culinary scene, to quirky food concepts, and the gastronomic culture of the city that we’re all taking on as students for the first year.
Big Ben’s hands struck 11, its chimes cutting through the dead silent air of Westminster. It’s not uncommon to see thousands of people surrounding this London landmark, but very much so to witness the entire square fall silent in unison for 2 minutes.
This morning, I stood amidst the sea of people, near to the foot of Big Ben, unaware of the fact that just 300 meters away, the Queen herself, was leading the procession of people, laying down a wreath to commemorate Remembrance Day 2012.
Remembrance or Armistice Day (Nov 11th) has been celebrated across many parts of the world since the end of the First World War and in the UK, serves as a day to commemorate servicemen and women killed in war since 1914.
The invasion of the poppies
It all started in mid-October, when I began to notice little red flowers, like the one above, popping up everywhere across London. They came in different forms and sizes: most of time, in paper, and clipped on people’s vests; other times, plastered on the last car of the tube, on a flag in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and virtually on every single major public figure and reporter in the news.
These flowers, I would come to learn, are known as Remembrance Poppies. Americans first used the symbol in 1920 to commemorate their fallen soldiers during World War I.
While I have never heard of or seen the poppies used in the States, by sheer observance here in London, the flowers are significantly more popular in the UK (and according to Google, also Canada).
Poppy Appeal – Poppy Fascism?
The poppies owe their popularity perhaps to the Royal British Legion, who sell the paper flowers each year in a campaign to support those who have served the British Armed Forces and their families – known as the Poppy Appeal.
In 2011, a popular news presenter by the name of Jon Snow coined the term “poppy fascism” – sparking a debate about how the poppy appeal had become a social judgment call. News presenters like Mr. Snow, particularly on BBC, are all encouraged to wear poppies running up to the Remembrance Day, and people raised speculations of how the presence or lack of a poppy measured a politician’s or a person’s level of patriotism.
Poppies were also encouraged in workplaces – to which Snow and other critics say represents almost an enforcement of a feeling that should be voluntary, hence the term “poppy fascism”.
Poppy State of Mind
And yet, the thing about critics like this, in my opinion, is that once they’re thrown into the air, they become this unnecessarily cynical angle to a tradition that is supposedly very simple and not to mention, for a good cause.
I experienced a good hour of squeezing my way through the hundreds and perhaps, beyond my vision, thousands of people in London, who headed out to Westminster, on a Sunday morning, proudly sporting their poppies, and red-toned accessories,their expressions sombre, and their eyes gazing distantly during the 2 minutes of silence.
For me, there’s no better proof of how much the Remembrance Day means to people here and how it has brought them together.
It was so crowded and most of those around were taller than me, so no good pictures of the parade of uniform servicemen and women, and of course, nowhere near to the Queen, but you can read and watch more HERE.
4 years ago, at this exact time, I remember being in Massachusetts, huddling around a basement TV with half of the campus dorm, clutching our knees in anticipation, as the blues and reds began to spread across the CNN digital map. Never had I imagine, that by the next election, I’d be in London and that interestingly enough, that the spirit of the election would be no less evident in the British media.
The US Election Night special on BBC just began 2 minutes ago, with a panel of mostly British political experts analyzing the every inch of the polls, British correspondents reporting in from all of the swing states, as well as Washington DC and Chicago. It’s overwhelming.
The US elections, to my surprise, have dominated the headlines, and running order of most popular TV, online and radio programs here on the other side of the Atlantic. Everything from BBC to the free Metro handouts, Obama and Romney’s faces have been plastered to the very front, angles taken to cover the elections as many as the stars in the American flag.
A love/hate relationship?
For a country and a people who are stereotypically known as being cynical of Americans, constantly accusing their Anglophone counterparts of butchering their prized British English language, the UK, or at least, its media is particularly interested in its former colony’s Presidential elections.
I mean, to be honest, you’d be lucky to see a trace of the Tories or Liberal Dems of the UK in the States’ television. I came home to see my flatmate tuning into the BBC Special: US Election Day, on a live two-way with Washington DC.
She turned to me:
– “I really hope Obama wins”
–“Why would the UK be so interested in a presidential election an ocean away?”
–“It’s the US, the British may act like they hate Americans, but they couldn’t be more curious”
Meanwhile, Jeremy Paxman on NewsNight (more or less the British equivalent to Larry King on Late Night) stressed that this election is “crucial” and that whoever would be the next leader could affect the “entire West” .
So while it may overall still seem that Brits have a hypocritical eye on the Americans (another whole post on my debate against that), the other eye is a highly keen and curious one.
My sense is that, it’s the US, one of the most influential countries in the world, economically the most powerful. Entertainment wise, Hollywood dominates the world. Considering its past relationship with the US, as much as the UK would like to stay aloof, it is still very much eager to be updated with the American lot.
Blue-draped morning too blue?
4 years ago, as the last swing state turned blue, I thought I was going to go deaf from the screams and screech that a women’s college of 2,100 would render you. I remember looking out the window, to see a girl on a tree, another topless, and a conga line of blue-faced people chanting OBAMA.
Will it be a blue-draped morning again? I won’t get into too much about my political preference for the US , but let’s just say, having been 4 years in Massachusetts, on one of the most liberal campuses of the US, I know not one soul who is voting for Romney. My facebook feed is as blue as a blue jay gets.
Much of the media that I’ve tuned into in the UK have tried to cover both sides, but there is an overall slightly sharper edge on Obama, with more discussion into how the President has or has not lived up to his voters 4 years ago, even celebrity sound bites supporting him. Whether this is because Obama is an incumbent more known to the public or there is a preference towards him can be tossed into the air.
Nevertheless, for me, this election has become less the cause and more the campaign, proven the most expensive amid the US facing still an economic downturn, jobless graduates, the poor still worst off. As hip as Jay Z and Bruce Springsteen gracing the campaign trail, as wonderful for many as a blue-draped morning may be, this whole election has become a collective of expensive stunts and grandiose words uncertain of holding truth, and more importantly, action.
What is it that pops into your mind at the mention of : “London” ?
It might be the iconic Big Ben, the Buckingham Palace, the Tower Bridge, the abundant museums, the Thames river, the immobile Queen’s guards, or the many red double-deckers that dot the streets.Quite shamefully, I have yet to truly discover any of these and after 6 weeks of being here, today was the first time, I actually caught a glimpse of Big Ben.
This past weekend, nevertheless, I finally embarked on a touristic attempt : taking a tour. This wasn’t your conventional double decker sight-seeing tour, but an aptly and appealingly named package called “The Alternative London Walking Tour“ . A 2- hour walk on a pay-what-you-like basis, this tour won’t bring you through the regal city centre , but instead, will weave you through the lesser-seen backstreets of London’s East End.
Here boasts one of the most vibrant and diverse street art scenes in the world
It serves as an urban canvas for famous artists like Banksy and Ben Eine. The tour guide (pictured above), a graffiti artist himself, leads our group of 15 through street branches and alleyways off of Brick Lane – the prominent vein of East End.
You might think of street art as the hiphop culture-inspired type of modern graffiti. In Vietnam, I know that many consider it vandalism and the farthest thing from being art. But London’s East End, opening its wall (legally) to the imagination of many, offers so much more than just graffiti and perhaps, even redefines the concept of graffiti altogether. Its walls are plastered with everything from detailed fine-art masterpieces to massive stick figures, using every artistic influences you could possibly think of: spray-paint cubism, stencil art, …mere scribbles! It is an urban gallery and for me personally, as visually engaging and even at times more exciting than a stroll through an actual museum.
Our artist tour guide noted something very fascinating to me, and that is, East End is an open gallery, in every sense of the word. It’s open to interpretation, it’s open to the simplest to the wildest of ideas, and it’s even open to modification. Once you set your art onto the streets, it’s for the world to ponder on, love, hate and even change.
This neighborhood, the guide shares, owns its bustling and multi-faceted nature to a history dotted with different waves of immigration.The French Huguenots first came in 1650, commencing a lively textile and crafts industry in the area. 200 years later, the industry would be inherited shortly by the Irish and then prominently by Ashkenazi Jews. The end of the World War II era saw the British government opening up its immigration policy as a revival tactic, through which Brick Lane became home to generations of Bangladeshis until now.
Fun fact: Brick Lane is curry capital of the UK, with a total of 52 curry shops on a single street.
The Brick Lane Jamme Masjid mosque on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane is perhaps the most concrete proof of the area’s diverse history, being the only building in the world that has, in its history, been a protestant church, a Wesleyan chapel, a Methodist chapel, a synagogue and now a mosque.
A multi-cultural centre of communities developing and struggling through their settlements in the UK, the streets here in East End, by the 80s amd 90s, had become a space of expression, where generations of people addressed their feelings, discontent or the social challenges they face in society – with the most obvious being issues of racism and discrimination. From being an outlet of social stress, it now has been branded as an artistic venue – where street artists from all over the world, inspired by their urban environments, come to play.
It was an overall visual treat and a tour that, more or less, revealed the backside of London’s portrait – a side less common to the world, you could say. On a side note, it did take place on one of the coldest days I have experienced in London of yet and we had to give up 2/3 of the way after walking in the painstakingly rainy and humid cold for over an hour. I’ll save more on the tour in our next attempt in the spring and also the amazing vintage markets and gastronomical variety in the area for another post. For now, I leave you with some snapshots of East End’s colorful street art. Enjoy!
***This post contains some notions and photos that may be offensive and downright gross to some. Please be advised!
I mean, really, if you wanted to, you could literally “eat your heart out”.
A cake exhibition of the same name in London this weekend enticed me by the word “cake” alone, but that was well before I knew that along with the “heart”, i could add to the delectable batch, anything from fingers, brains, feces, and oh of course, the occasional STD warts.
Grossed out? Continue to read, you should not – because this is the farthest thing done to the notion of “cakes” from what you could ever possibly fathom: A bakery showcase inspired by human diseases! The above picture is only the beginning, and yes, it’s all EDIBLE. If you can stomach this, then let’s get anatomical *_*!!!
This is definitely where you should be if one lazy Saturday morning, you suddenly have the appetite for some prostate cancer truffles or just fancy a sip of urine sample and quick breakfast with blood marmalade drizzled on toast. The gruesome showcase, in its second year here in London, is the fruit of Miss Cakehead (aka Emma Thomas) – a PR manager known across UK for her provocative food creations.
To top it off, the showcase unraveled in the Pathology Museum of St.Bart’s Hospital – possibly the last place on earth to work up an appetite, considering the endless jars of actual, donated body parts around you. Aptly situated for the theme, you could say, but definitely not the candy my eyes were hoping for.
Once you can get past the squeamish effects of the 2nd or 3rd cupcake adorned with moles, chlamydia, and genital warts, you truly start to appreciate the craftsmanship behind some of these creations – sugar spinning body parts and the most grotesque of diseases into an artform. Beyond the shock of it all, it’s an event aimed to provoke and educate. I would sum the message up as : “You are what you eat“. If eating some chocolate cigarette butts and a blackened lung doesn’t get you to think twice about your next drag, then well, I guess…you have a pretty tough stomach 😀
And perhaps the most curious bit of all, did I try any? Because I think to myself everyday, “yummm, syphilis cupcakes!!“, lol. Well, I don’t really have a sweet tooth and I do have a knack for eating with my eyes, so I wasn’t exactly free of all reservations. I did, however, give in to curiosity in the end. All creations were being sold with funds going to charity supporting the treatment and research into the portrayed diseases. You had an anatomical chocolate cake selling at £350 but considering our modest student pockets, we opted for the £3 “fecal samples” and the £2 “kidney” macaron.
Let me just say: sh*t has never tasted so good *_*!
Here are a couple of snaps from the exhibition, I would advise you to not press your nose against this one.
*NOTE: I just found out that an exhibition of the same concept took place in London in early October, but with meat and it was to promote Resident Evil – it was called the Human Flesh Meat Market , Sweeney Todd much? so you can decide if it’s too gruesome before checking it out here! Enjoy!
A spin of my earlier blogs on this site and you will have learned a bit or so about the nature of my blogging habits – frequently sporadic (total irony, that pairing of words) and full of rants. With each new adventure, each turning around life’s little corners, I promised myself that I would record it to justice, somehow stretch the excitement and memories of those experiences well beyond the boundaries of my own mind. And of course, life got in the way or more so my laziness, and vulnerability to useless distractions.
Would London be any different? It does certainly promise higher prospects considering I’m being monitored by my course on personal blog updates. And yes, I haven’t blogged for 9 days, I promise I’ll make up for it. But beyond the mandatory nature of it all, I simply hope to live up to my desire of capturing this one year, as often as possible. That said, being in a journalism course renders you more aware of what you’re writing and you can’t help but think that everything you’re professing, click-clacking away on the keyboard is being more scrutinized. And so, the already procrastination-ridden me, adding the increased self-consciousness levels do not make it exactly as easy and carefree to “Publish Post” as it had been before. It’s all part of the learning process and a challenge that I gladly welcome and accept.
I also blame it all on the weather – the “bloody” capricious state of the British weather- yes it’s the scapegoat for my laziness ^^ and my helpless need to mutter “I’m exhausted” every 20′ either in my head or out loud . But honestly, make up your mind already, will ya? You were practically radiating sunshine, warmth and glory just now, and a breeze and two minutes later, you turn into this little monster, spewing out cold gushes of wind and depressing rain, casting this eery, shadow of gloominess on us all.
You could tell that at least on one occasion, I’ve sprinted out in a t-shirt and jeans, fully ready to embrace a sun-filled day, only to come home at the end of the day, trembling, with enough water in my shoes to house 2 goldfish.No news in that, another rant about British weather, I know. Only 50 people had convinced me before I even left Vietnam that I should expect all of this and yet, there I was, still naive enough to reckon against the engrained spirit of the British weather.
It’s exciting nevertheless, this struggle to prepare for 4 seasons each and every morning, as I stick my hand out the window, trying to more and less predict the unpredictable. I’ve so far overdressed the past two days and found myself akin to being smothered out of breath in a bear suit sitting on the tube with my down feather, puffy jacket. The umbrella has become a regular resident of my bag, as has the scarf. All of my shoes have failed on me, in my amazing ability to step into every puddle I past by *_*. So, my next quest will be purchasing a good pair of wellingtons or wellies – rain boots, if you will. And yes, a total face-palmer this one, but I will actually follow up on weather forecasts *Duh!*
4th week running! No part-time job yet , have yet to but will get to writing about car boot and Cambridge visit. Gotta get through with the initial big assignments first this week. Wish me luck!
A smokey whiff of cajun weaves its way through the crowd of people in front and, instinctively and quite unconsciously, despite your view being blocked, you follow it. Soon enough, you hear the hiss – a hiss that only fresh meat sizzling on a grill could make, and you start to take your first gulp, images of the most delectable, honey-hued cajun chicken like a mirage in your mind. Your pace quickens , your appetite heightens, your eyes widen as there before you, stands a man, never mind who he is, your attention races to his hand, as he offers you a free try of that which has enticed at least 3 of your 5 senses for the past 5 minutes. A tiny yet succulent and rewarding cube of cajun roasted chicken to start you off in what is possibly the gastronomical heaven of London’s Borough Market!
Considered London’s best of food markets, Borough is within walking distance of London Bridge station, tucked nicely next to the Southwark Cathedral, bordering the Thames River. The market spans over a number of sections, walking through which would take you under these brick-laid railway arches. A few steps from the market and you would be on the river bank, within minutes from Tate Modern, looking over to the panoramic view of London that includes the Millenium Bridge and St.Paul’s Museum.
You could possibly tell, I fell in love with this market at first sight, sound and taste! Yet, the initial, satisfying welcome would do little to prepare me for the journey deeper inside, as colors and aromas begin to tingle every sense, to the point that my knees start shaking in confusion and excitement of not knowing where to head first. There are over 100 different stalls here, offering everything from a range of UK’s most loved delicacies like freshly baked, golden brown pork pies, Lancashire hotpot or cottage pies to landmark dishes from across Europe and the globe, Turkish delights, Thai green curry, Portuguese custards, Spanish paella, or French raclettes, just to name a few. For the shallow-pocket students, one stroll around the market and your tummy will have been initially satisfied with the range of samples the shops hand out…try not to make the 2nd or 3rd stroll without reaching for your wallet though, as you may get “it’s the ‘eat- and- never- buy’ pack of poor students again”-stares from the stallholders (spoken shamefully… from experience *_*)
The readily-prepared delights of the market might seem easily the best part of it, yet you’ve only scraped the tip of this culinary iceberg. What makes this market stand out is the fact that most of the stallholders are themselves, the people who produce, grow and rear the products they’re selling. Borough, in essence, is the perfect cross between your favorite weekend farmers’ market and an exciting food festival. Freshness and craft are key and shine through as you walk through the lush green of the vegetable area, the aromatic crisp-brown of the bread section or as you sample 20 different types of freshly made jams.And my favorite, the cheese section! – everything from intense bits of roquefort, to wheels of artisan cheese, the diameter of …well yes, a car’s wheel, actually.
The butchers’ corner might be a bit startling for those accustomed to seeing meat only in its fillet supermarket-packaged form, with full pig’s heads, dead hares and fowls hanging about. Freshness, alright :D. I remember just standing in mesmerization of a stallholder meticulously carving for jamon serrano from a pig’s full limb perched upon a steel-constructed hostler, as I came to appreciate the care and craft these producers put into their food. Here is a space where food becomes more than just a commodity, food becomes art, food becomes beautiful and food becomes celebrated.
Digging a bit further, and I’ve come to find that the roots of this market dates back to 1014, when being right off a river source, the London Bridge became a hub of produce trading. A market was found around the 13th century, and after Parliament cleared it out in the late 18th century, producers and growers in the surrounding Southwark area revived it into what it is today – the only fully independent market of London. It’s a true community effort in the making – with stallholders still contributing today to local food-related events and any of the surplus from the market going to the food bank of the London Borough of Southwark. A market, you could say, but beyond that is culture, history and the coming together of an entire community – absolutely fascinating and for everyone out there, foodie at heart or not, a destination not to be missed when visiting London!