Tag Archives: Europe

Europe 2015 Diary Entry VIII – London, England

One year later, I’m finally finding the time to document my memories of our trip. I’m calling them diary entries, because they’re mostly thought dumps to recall as many details as possible – mostly for memory sake. I’m already forgetting little details about our trip, which is sad as it was really a once in a lifetime experience that I want to remember for the rest of my life. So these posts will be long and full of pictures. Consider yourself warned. 🙂

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For years, I was hellbent on living in London. I obsessed and dreamt about this for 8+ years, and I thought my life wouldn’t be complete unless I fulfilled this dream. Over the years, it started to feel more like a thing I would say, than a thing I was actually going to do. So much time had passed that I started to question whether this was something I still wanted. I was convinced that I wouldn’t know unless I tried. Luckily, Mike supported me in taking on this adventure together. Mike and I have each visited London several times in our lives, but this was our first trip to the city together. We went to London with the intention of getting a feel for the city and deciding if we really wanted to try to living there, together. I wasn’t a single person trying to make it in London on my own, it had to be a move that made sense for us both.

I was pretty convinced that we were going to live in London, though. Mike was hesitant, but I thought my only job would be to convince him. I got in touch with recruiters, I asked my friend who had moved there a few years prior a million questions, and Mike and I tried to live as “normally” as we could (run in the mornings, do work at local cafes, hang out with friends, and sample food all over the city for good measure). By the end of the week, we had a pretty good feel for what we loved and didn’t love about London.

I’ll start with the good.

Things I loved about London (not necessarily in order of importance):

Diversity

It’s comforting for me to sit in a subway and hear dozens of different languages. It’s pretty awesome to have access to virtually every cuisine in the world. That’s what I’ve grown up with in Toronto, and as I’ve travelled more, I’ve found it to be very difficult to find that same level of diversity elsewhere. London is great for this. Relative to other cities I’ve been to in Europe, I don’t feel like I stick out as much. My only “complaint” is that the Chinatown in London is pretty lame. 😉

Opportunity

London is one of the biggest cities in the world. It’s not a surprise, then, that they also have a plethora of jobs available to those with visas. I had thought for a few years, that it was nearly impossible to get a job and a visa, but I think as long as you go there without too many expectations of trying to get a job in the same field you’re experienced in, it’s not too bad. In fact, I spoke with a few people while over there and they didn’t seem too concerned about finding me decent sounding jobs that were in my field.

Dogs in pubs, public drinking on the streets

Perhaps not a major point, but I really loved this!!! Not that we have a dog, but if we did, we’d want to take it everywhere with us and you can actually do this in London! Sometimes I’d have to watch myself in pubs because I’d almost trip over dogs resting by their owners. In Canada, you typically have to leave them outside (so they can stare at you with sad eyes) or on the other side of the patio if you’re dining outside.

I personally don’t drink that much, but I also liked seeing the after work crowd casually hanging outside pubs, catching up with friends… and not having to worry about getting fined. In Canada, there are some pretty strict rules against drinking “in public” (outside a licensed area), so usually people have to hide it with paper bags. It always seemed like a silly rule to me. Adults can be responsible.

Cheap food prices, so much variety and Marks & Spencer (the best store ever)

I felt that food was much cheaper in grocery stores and in restaurants, especially compared to Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Switzerland. We basically felt like kings after travelling through those other countries and paying their prices. Fresh juice was something I relied on a lot in London (and Bristol!). While it’s pretty common in Toronto and Vancouver, it’s not a “thing” at all in other countries we visited in Europe. We never had trouble finding juice bars, especially as we were often feeling under the weather in London. Ironically, we never felt sick in Switzerland despite the fact that they didn’t have juice bars, either…

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Our “coffice” for a few days at Ben’s Canteen in Fulham. Great food, coffee, and work spaces.

Oh, and Marks & Spencer is pretty much one of my favourite stores, ever. Part grocery store, part everything else? Their biscuits are amazing.

Unlike our time in Switzerland, we ate all meals out except for breakfast. We were planning to go back to Granichen after London for a while and knew that we wouldn’t be eating out at all once we got there, so we took advantage of exploring the coffee and food scene in London. It was delicious. 🙂 Here are some of the places we went to, and liked:

Brixton

Fulham

  • Ben’s Canteen (Battersea)- great space to do work at, good food/coffee
  • Chairs & Coffee – smaller, but we still did work here. AMAZING sourdough toast with avocado/chili/lime. They also did great eggs and giant portobello mushroom slices. SO GOOD.
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I could eat this every day.
  • Local Hero – okay space. coffee was pretty good (not as good as C&C).
  • Pizza Express (Fulham) – we knew this was chain, but, despite the cheesy name, the pizza was pretty good.

Shoreditch 

  • Merchant’s Tavern – great food. But rich, and filling. We went here after our half-marathon (so with appetites) and still walked out too full for dessert!
  • Strongroom Bar & Kitchen – fun spot for drinks. We did order fajitas off the menue, because it was the night before our half-marathon and wanted something very bland and plain. I wouldn’t recommend the food here, but would definitely go there for drinks.
  • Ace Hotel – Bulldog edition – loved this place. Great atmosphere, so much seating to sit and do work at.

Random movie nights and restaurant street hagglers

One night, Mike and I were wandering around Shoreditch, waiting for our friend Heather to finish work and join us for dinner. The place we chose announced just as she arrived to meet us that they were turning off the lights, pulling out the projector and playing a movie with dinner. It was so cosy and cute. I just loved how random it was. This city is definitely great for keeping you entertained.

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Come for dinner and drinks, stay for a movie (and they’ll even hand out free popcorn!).

Perhaps not something I necessarily “loved” about London, but it was certainly entertaining. We have people standing outside restaurants on certain streets in Toronto as well, but they just don’t have the same personality or entertainment value as they do in London.

Things I didn’t love about London:

Travelling between neighbourhoods

While it may be relatively easy to travel outside of London, travelling WITHIN London is another story. We originally wanted to find accommodation near my friend’s flat in East London, but instead found an adorable room in a small house in Fulham. Mike thought I’d like Fulham, and he was right! It’s a very cute neighbourhood and it was a different part of London I hadn’t seen before. Unfortunately, it was a hassle to travel away from. Our friend lived not too far away distance wise, but getting to her was surprisingly difficult and time-consuming.

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We stayed in Fulham (bottom dot) and our friend lived in East London (top dot). Distance wise, she was 8.6mi (~14km) from us. Not too far, but it took over an hour to get to her travelling with the subway.

The air quality

This was major for me. I knew right away that the air was harder to breath as soon as we walked off the plane. Maybe it was more noticeable because I had a direct comparison to Switzerland? My skin reacted and broke out within the first few days, I felt wheezy, and whenever I blew my nose, I saw black gunk on the tissue (sorry, TMI). I couldn’t imagine living like this every day…

The chaos

I left Toronto because I was burnt out and overworked. I wanted to slow down and have more work/life balance. I felt like London would have been even more fast-paced than Toronto and that worried me. My 20 year old self would have been excited and up for the challenge. My 30 year old self wanted to take a nap. If I was going to live and work in London, I wanted to have the time to enjoy it and travel around Europe in my spare time. Maybe it’s still possible to have that, but it was definitely something I was concerned about.

The (social) lifestyle

My friend Heather is one of the most social people I know. Simply put: she’s amazing. She’s one of those people who can connect with just about everyone she meets – and it’s not in a fake or insincere way. She’s held me every time I’ve cried in front of her, patiently listened to me, and opened up about her struggles AND triumphs in the many years that we’ve been friends. She’s one of my people.

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My beautiful friend, Heather. I still haven’t forgiven her for moving across the world. Then again, I moved, too…

Because she’s so wonderful, however, she also has a LOT of friends and a VERY active social calendar. London is perfect for her. I’m not so sure that lifestyle would have been perfect for Mike and me. I went out a lot in my 20s. I don’t regret it. I had to get it out of my system, I had a lot of fun, and some of my best memories and most important friendships were formed during those years. But, I wasn’t sure if London was necessarily the place to be if I wanted to slow down my lifestyle.

Housing

And they say housing in Toronto and Vancouver is expensive. At least I’ve always been able to afford living on my own on a single person’s salary. I’m pretty sure Mike and I would have had to make a lot of lifestyle changes, especially in the housing area if we had tried to rent a flat in London. My friend shares a house with 5 other working professionals. And most houses (that I’ve seen) have converted every single room that’s not a bathroom or kitchen into a bedroom. I don’t need a lot of space, but I do love having my own space and one that includes a living area to lounge and relax in.

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I was surprised at how nice the kitchen in our Airbnb was. But the house itself felt isolated and lonely with every room having been converted into bedrooms which meant there were a lot of closed doors and no common area.

So why didn’t we stay?

In terms of culture and the job market, this city has got to be one of the best in the world. And you can’t beat its proximity and accessibility to the rest of Europe (and the world).

Some days I regret not making better use of the work holiday visa that I painstakingly applied for. I feel like I wasted a really great opportunity to live/work in London once I finally had it in front of me. But, I was also travelling with someone who couldn’t actually stay in London with me unless I worked for a company that sponsored him, and what I wanted in my 20s (fast paced lifestyle, climbing the corporate ladder) is not necessarily what I want in my 30s. It was tough to finally admit that and move on from London, but I do believe it was the right choice. Doesn’t mean I don’t love that city though, and will always look for an opportunity to visit.

alison

 

Istanbul, Turkey – The sightseeing

When my good friend Dawn invited Mike and me to join her in Istanbul for a few days in April, my first reaction was no. I hadn’t done any research on the city and it had never really been on my radar. But the timing was perfect and there was no reason not to go. We managed to find a decently priced flight + hotel package and booked it before we could change our minds. It turned out to be one of our highlights of our European adventure.

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Blue Mosque

loved our little taste of Istanbul. We took it easy since I was still recovering from my marathon and Mike had to work during the day. Dawn and I spent our days wandering around the city at a leisurely pace and it was glorious. I felt like we were there for the perfect amount of time (5 days, 6 nights). Although Istanbul is technically part of Europe, it is nothing like any  other European city we visited on our trip.

IMG_3801The heavily touristed areas (admittedly, where we spent the majority of our time) were very well maintained and a fascinating mix of modern and old. Several times a day you hear a call to prayer that comes from various speakers throughout the city and I found it fascinating to see this happening on such a wide scale. After a few days, it just seemed normal to me.

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A house we found not far from the waterfront.

As I mentioned before, all of the restaurants in the heavily touristed areas are really well modern and well maintained. The bathrooms were cleaner than the bathrooms in England! If you walked a little beyond the tourist areas, you could see hints of how old the city really was. This is one of my favourite aspects of any European city. Canada is so young in comparison that everything is “new” in comparison.

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This building was just outside the tourist strip we stayed in.

I think Spring is definitely the time to visit Istanbul. Everywhere we looked, we saw bursts of colour from all the tulips and flowers they had planted everywhere. It felt like I was walking into a colour movie after watching black and white films for months in Europe. Think Dorothy in Wizard of Oz when she first steps into the Land of Oz.

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Beautiful tulips everywhere. My sister and mother would have loved this!

It was also warm and sunny, but not too hot which made visiting mosques a pleasant experience since you have to cover up a little more than you would and walk around barefoot (the carpets kind of smelled like feet, but it makes sense since you have to take your shoes off). I can imagine it would get really uncomfortable navigating high traffic areas like the Grand Bazar and Spice Markets in the middle of the summer. Even in April, those areas were constantly packed with people and it was almost impossible to walk freely without getting caught behind large crowds. Don’t even think about planning a run around this area unless it’s well before the shop keepers start opening up…

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Every walkway was filled with different colours.

Things to See/Do

  • Blue Mosque – One of my favourite places to visit. As soon as I walked in, I felt a buzz of energy. It really felt like the building was alive. The stained glass windows and the wide open space for praying was really neat to see. Very different from the churches I grew up going to that are filled with pews.
  • Hagia Sophia – If you don’t like crowds, visit the Hagia Sophia museum on a Thursday night a couple of hours before it closes. We discovered this by accident, but every other time we walked by, the line was ridiculously long. We opted not to get any guided tours so we made our round of this place fairly quickly. While it was very grand and beautiful as well, I didn’t get the same jolt of energy that I did when we went into the Blue Mosque.
  • Basilica Cistern – These Roman aqueducts were so cool! I felt like I was walking through an Indiana Jones movie or something. There was a neat little story about two columns that had Medusa heads at the bottom. It was well worth the visit.
  • Beyazit Mosque – I loved this Mosque. It was a little smaller than the Blue Mosque but just as impactful and gorgeous on the inside. The stained glass windows were amazing, and there was also a lady there who was available to answer any questions we had about the Mosque and her religion. I learned more there than I did at any other mosque we visited. 
  • Spice Market / Grand Bazar – While these were definitely worth visiting, I’d have to say you only need to visit each of these markets once unless you’re mad about shopping. We are not, so it was great to walk through, but eventually felt repetitive and the crowds were overwhelming. 
  • Boat cruise (but don’t go on cable car) – Dawn was kind enough to organize a cruise for us to go on where we could view the Asian and European side of Istanbul. It also included a bus ride up to the top of the Golden Horn where you get a few views of the city and then take a cable car down. The cruise was fantastic and I consider it a must for anyone who visits Istanbul. The cable car portion of the trip, I could have done without. The traffic in Istanbul is a nightmare and the drive up to the top and back to our hotel probably added an extra 2 hours to the tour. The actual cable car is a 3 minute ride… not worth it to me.
  • Hamam Bath House – Ha! I waffled back and forth a lot about whether I wanted to experience this. But, I went for it and all I can say is that it was a crazy experience. You can read more about the process here, and I’m certain by the way we were treated and the price we paid that it was a traditional bath house rather than a touristy one.
  • Whirling DervishesI don’t think I appreciated this show as much as I could have if I had read up on the ceremony before we went. Initially, I wouldn’t have recommended this, but I’ve had a change of heart since it is a big part of their culture and just because I don’t understand something, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t significant and a worthwhile thing to experience.
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Istanbul at night is just as stunning.

I would go back again in a heartbeat. The food was fantastic and the running was pretty decent (in certain sections) which I’ll expand on in a different post because this one has gone on long enough!

alison

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