Category Archives: London

See Sister Love Rioja Tapas Fantasticas!

So Saturday was a pretty great day. I spent the day sampling Spanish food and wine from Rioja at the Rioja Tapas Fantasticas festival near Tower Bridge. As the name promised, it was fantastic.

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The festival, now in its seventh year, takes place at Potters Fields, a green area at the southern end of Tower Bridge. Potters Fields is a great little public space with lovely views of Tower Bridge and the Thames. There is often some fun activity happening there in the summer, particularly on the weekends. During the Olympics, they set up big screens for public viewing. They do the same every year for Wimbledon. I watched Andy Murray’s victory there last year in the blazing sun with a bunch of happy Brits. A couple weeks ago on Sunday evening, Louise and I spotted a random dance party complete with DJ as we walked home from church. Naturally we joined it and boogied until they stopped playing. I am still unclear on what it was exactly.

All that is to say, Potters Fields is a fun spot and Rioja Tapas Fantasticas is a particularly great use of the space. Louise has gone for a few years now. I was very sad to miss it last year, so I made sure to sign up for the fun when it rolled around this time. While Lou had booked a wine tasting in the afternoon for a bunch of friends, we saw no reason to limit ourselves and decided to head up earlier in the day to take advantage of all there was to see.

We started at 12:45 with a tapas and wine demonstration presented by Jose Pizarro and Susy Atkins. Jose owns two restaurants on Bermondsey Street (aka our neighborhood): Jose and Pizarro (get it??). Susy is a wine expert who writes a regular column for the Sunday Telegraph magazine, among other things.

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They bantered and chatted away while Jose cooked up some yummy food and Susy told us about the wine we were sampling: Decenio Blanco and Faustino Rivero Rosado. Jose talked us through preparing scallops with cauliflower puree and delicious chorizo croquetas. Both were amazing. I nearly bought the cookbook on the spot.

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We had such a lovely time at the tapas demonstration that we immediately decided to return for the Ibérico ham carving masterclass 30 minutes later. In that class, presented by Chuse Valero from Bar Tozino (another local spot), we learned ALL about Ibérico ham. Chuse told us all sorts of interesting things and by the end of the class basically had us convinced that we need to invest in a whole ham and carving stand for our at-home snacking pleasure.

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I took notes and Louise made fun of me, but I don’t care. We learned that Ibérico ham comes exclusively from specially bred black Iberian pigs; it is aged for a minimum of 3 years; the flavor and desirability depends on whether the pig is acorn-fed (this is the top-of-the-top) or grain/acorn-fed or grain-fed; and that within a single ham, there are 12-15 different textures and flavors.

We also learned all about the two different styles of knives you need; how to make the first cut; how to cut around the tricky bone/tendon sections; and what to do with the bones once you’ve managed to strip them of all that tasty meat.

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Oh and we got to eat two plates of the ham and had two more glasses of wine: Navajas Crianza and Berberana Carta de Oro Tempranillo. The crianza was really good – interesting and different. The color was quite yellow and the flavor was robust/oaky. And of course, the ham was amazing.

After that class, we had some time to kill before our wine tasting class. As other friends started to arrive, we milled about a little bit, sampled some of the food on offer around the fair, and then headed to the wine tasting tent for a session with Olly Smith, a wine expert/columnist/TV personality and all around delight.

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He talked us through five different wines from Rioja, including one from Vivanca, a vineyard that features a glass elevator which takes you underground! Per Olly, it is a “Gotta go!” if you visit Rioja. He also told us which wines smell most like a puppy (South African, earthy).

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All-in-all, a really lovely day. The sun even decided to come out in the afternoon – how nice!

Sarah, Mitch and Lou - representing half of our jolly group.

Sarah, Mitch and Lou – representing half of our jolly group.

I don’t think it’s overstating things to say I am eternally indebted to Louise for bringing such a fabulous, happy event into my life. I’m DEFINITELY going back next year.

See Sister Drink 100 Martinis

Okay, so I didn’t actually drink 100 martinis. If I had, you would have just cause to use this blog post as part of a necessary intervention. But last Wednesday I did go to a special evening that featured 100 different martini recipes: the Sipsmith 100 Martini Bar. Don’t worry, I only tried two.

Hosted by Sipsmith Gin in the private upstairs Apartment at Kettner’s (a London restaurant/bar, established in 1867), the evening was all about showcasing Sipsmith Gin and the classic gin martini. So yes, it was definitely a promotional event for Sipsmith*, but it was also a fun evening out!

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It was a little weird that I went along to this at all, actually, as I am really not into martinis or mixed drinks in general. I’m much more a beer or wine kinda gal – liquors just not really my thing, save for a G&T or margarita here and there. But Louise and a couple of friends were going, so I said why not? It was billed as something of an event, so I was intrigued.

So what made it more than just a bar with an extensive martini list? The experience, obvs!

First, the environment was retro and cool. The dark paneled walls; mismatched, crowded seating; leafy ferns; dim candlelight; and bright, semi-circular, Art Deco-style bar gave the whole place a private library meets speakeasy kind of feel.

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This picture really does NOT do it justice.

While the ambience was very early 20th century, the ordering process was very early 21st century. We were handed an iPad, from which we placed our orders. We could choose via an “I’m Feeling Lucky” option, which would randomly bring up three martinis that we could choose between, or via a short questionnaire that asked us personality-type questions and then would spit out three suggestions based on our answers. You could always start over if you weren’t happy with the choices. Once we had made our choice, we made it official by entering our names.

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I went with the quiz option. The questions were of the really leading variety, like the kind you get in teen magazine quizzes. You know the kind I mean…the ones where the answers clearly point to specific “types” like the popular girl, the sporty girl, the smart girl? So if you answer “What’s your favorite thing to do on your own?” with “Read a book”, and “What do you look for in a guy?” with “Intelligence”, you’ll end up with a result that tells you to join the debate team or to go for quiet, aloof guy – he’s misunderstood! he has hidden depths! you’ll have intellectually stimulating conversations! – or something equally pigeon-holed.

Aaaaaaanyways, my leading questions led me to choose a martini called the Millionaire. What does that say about me? I’m a gold digger? Guilty.

Once everyone had chosen, the iPad was collected and we waited patiently for our drinks. Patience was required as it took quite awhile for them to arrive. But when they did arrive, that’s when the real fun began! See, they didn’t come to our table already made. No, no, no. The drink makers (bartenders? mixologists? cocktail dudes?) wheeled a little trolley over to our table with all the necessary ingredients and made our drinks right in front of us! While teaching us things (education!) like the history of the drink and the different types of gin/vermouth/whathaveyou that they were using.

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My drink didn’t actually come from the trolley above (but note the ice in the glasses to keep them chilled!), as mine was neither shaken nor stirred as one might expect. Rather, all the alcohol for mine was poured straight into the glass. I listened closely and memorized the recipe for the Millionaire, which was not hard as it boils down to three ingredients::

40ml gin
40ml vermouth
champagne floater

Here you can see the dude finishing it off with the floater:

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And that’s it, people. No garnish; no fancy cocktail-making flair; no nothing. Just alcohol. And it’s purposefully layered so that as you drink it the flavor changes. I was skeptical about this whole layering thing. Surely it would all just mix together once it was in the glass, right? Wrong! As I sipped and progressed through the glass, the flavor definitely changed. Very interesting.

I also learned during the making of mine that vermouth is a fortified wine, so – much like any wine – it will go off after awhile. Obviously, this doesn’t happen as quickly as regular wine, but it shouldn’t be kept in your liquor cabinet for forever. Apparently, it will last for about a month without any ill effects, and then it will start to slowly go off. So there’s a tip for ya.

Everyone else’s martini had more visual interest than mine. They were all fun colors and had some sort of garnish. I didn’t really listen to any of their recipes, though, so I can’t tell you much about them. I do know that Lou’s was called the Suffragette (which just makes me want to break into song), but that’s about all I know.

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We sat and sipped and chatted and had a grand old time. As we all liked our first choices pretty well, we decided to go for a second round. Mistake. Our second choices were just NOT as good.

I went for the Princeton, partially because “Hey! My dad went to Princeton!”, but also because it sounded good. It had port, and I was intrigued by how the sweetness of port would taste with gin. The answer is: really not great. And SUPER SUPER SUPER strong. It was literally just gin and port with a little twist of orange peel that basically did nothing. It tasted like paint thinner. I couldn’t finish it.

Generally, we were all dissatisfied with our second choices. Oh well. The first ones were good, and overall, it still made for an out-of-the-ordinary (in a good way) Wednesday night.

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This is the Princeton. Steer clear.

 

*And this is definitely just a post about my experience, not an affiliate post.

See Sister Shop at COS

Fact 1: London is an expensive city.

Fact 2: Clothes in London are reeeaally expensive.

I knew before I moved here that London living would be pricey. And after nearly 5 years living here, I’ve almost gotten used to the steep clothing prices. At the very least, my perceptions have been skewed. I’ll look at a dress with a £75 price tag and think, “Wow, that’s a good deal!” Usually I snap out of this delusion pretty promptly and realize actually, that’s not a great deal. As a result I do a lot of shopping at Gap, which is more reasonably priced and often has sales.

But doing all my shopping at Gap is a little monotonous. Not to mention, I don’t really want to shop at an American store while living in London. Even though I’m not a tourist at all at this point, there is a part of my brain that tells me I shouldn’t be buying things in London that I can get at “home”.

Enter COS.

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COS is my favorite store these days. It’s affiliated with H&M in some way (sister brand? same owners? I’m not clear on the relationship) and specializes in simple, sleek, better-quality-than-H&M pieces. Their collections are largely made up of solid colors. The patterns they do have tend to be geometric and monochromatic. The designs are simple and clean-lined, with an interesting structural detail here and there. It’s not the type of place you’d go to find a fancy party dress, but it’s great for everyday work/casual wear.

The stores have an architectural and minimalist design to compliment the clothes.

Best of all? The prices are (relatively) reasonable and the quality is good!

As I shared in our Favorite Things Post, my favorite item of clothing is a dress, and COS has a multitude of comfortable and versatile dresses. Over the past year, I’ve returned again and again to browse the shop and try on tons of dresses (I sometimes branch out into other items, but there are more than enough dresses to keep me busy). My COS dress total currently stands at 5, and it has required some restraint not to make it more.

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I tend to go for their looser fitting, drape-y dresses. They are super comfortable and very wearable.

That black one on the right is basically just a tent, but I love the way it hangs and moves, which you can kind of see in this picture:

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And the green/blue one is another favorite. I bought it last year as my “Easter” dress and it ended up serving as my “holiday” dress for the rest of the year. The loose fit makes it perfect for those over-eating occasions. Thanksgiving? Check. Christmas? Check.

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I regularly wear all of these dresses to work, but they’re equally suited to the weekends. AND! They work in both warm and cold weather – add some tights and an undershirt when it’s cold; lose the extras when it’s warm.

My most recent acquisition is the white and gray one in the middle up there.

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It hasn’t been warm enough in London yet for me to wear it with sandals like the model here, but I’ve been rocking it with black tights, ankle boots and a black jacket. So yep, works for cold or warm weather and for work or casual. Perfect!

Anyways, the point is: I love COS. And the good news for you Americans is they’re expanding! They are opening (or may have already opened?) a location in NY this spring; and I hear they’ve already got another one planned for the West Coast. For those of you who don’t live in NY or LA, once they’re up and running, you’ll be able to shop online. Woohoo!

See Sister Sample Stax

Remember my post on the Duffin and it’s creator Bea? Of Bea’s of Bloomsbury? And remember how sad I was that the diner location that operated near my flat had closed?

Well, good news, folks.

Turns out, there is a MORE than acceptable reason for that diner location to close: Bea is working on opening it in a permanent location, under the name Stax. There she will serve not only delicious pancakes, french toast, and The Best Bacon in London, but also burgers and other American fare.

Last Monday night, I was privileged to go to a preview night for that diner, where Bea and her team served up some sample burgers and other yummy items. The evening was hosted by Young & Foodish, as a part of the Burger Monday series, which is exactly what it sounds like…burgers served on a Monday by various chefs/restaurants. There’s also Pizza Tuesday, Spag Wednesday, Wich Thursday, Fry Friday and Coffee Saturday.

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My ticket for this particular Burger Monday featuring Bea’s delicious food came courtesy of Louise, who didn’t feel that her organizational role in the Best Birthday Surprise Ever was enough of a birthday present. She treated me and another friend, Sarah, to Bea’s Burgers as a belated gift.

Wonderfully, the burger was not the only amazing treat on the menu that night. Our meal started with Bea’s version of an AWESOME BLOSSOM. American readers will know all about this fried delicacy, but it has yet to transfer across the ocean, so I had the joy of witnessing three people (friend Gareth was also with us) indulge in this amazing taste experience for the first time.

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And of course, I had the pleasure of enjoying it myself. Bea’s version was different from the typical Outback Steakhouse or Chili’s version (as you can see from the image above). The onion was smaller, but we were served one between two, so the smaller size still meant we each got more than enough. The fried bits were thicker and crispier and spiked with something slightly spicy, all of which made it even better than the mass-produced versions at chain restaurants. And the spicy mayo dipping sauce was deeeelicious.

Then came the burger. They were large and glorious looking. The grilled onions and tomatoes were thick cut, the beef was substantial and perfectly crumbly, the cheese was all American. Overall verdict: yummy.

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After we were totally stuffed with burgers and awesome blossoms, we were presented with dessert. And what else would Bea serve than her signature creation? Yep, that’s right, it was a duffin. This duffin came as part of an ice cream sundae, though – drenched in caramel and hot fudge sauces, topped with ice cream, whipped cream and a maraschino cherry.

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It was incredible. Even on an already overstuffed stomach, I just couldn’t get enough of it. So so so good.

After the meal, Bea gave a little spiel about her vision for the diner and for American food in London. I was sitting pretty much directly across from where she was standing. Besides very obviously taking pictures of her while she spoke, I kept making little squealy, gaspy noises of delight.

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I’m quite sure she thought I was completely insane. I was totally fan-girling and geeking out over her, since she’s basically living my dream and I want to be her and everything she bakes/cooks/does is amazing.

As a special bonus that night, since it was the day before Pancake Tuesday, we were each given a little Stax Pancake Mix before we left. When Bea came around to our table to drop off our mixes, I got the distinct impression that she couldn’t put them down and get away from our table fast enough. I think she knew that if she stopped to chat, I would never have let her go and probably ended up hugging her inappropriately or trying to hold her hand or something. I can’t say that I blame her.

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The next day, I took a special detour to one of the bigger grocery stores on my way home so I could get the buttermilk necessary to make the pancakes that night. It was a pleasure to enjoy some delicious American-style pancakes with real maple syrup for dinner. Just extending the tastiness of the night before, and increasing my love for Bea.

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Seriously, Stax can’t open soon enough. Please let it be somewhere near my flat again.

I promise I won’t geek out too much when I visit, Bea. Maybe.

See Sister Rave on a Wednesday Morning

This morning, I went dancing. And by dancing, I mean shake-your-body-make-shapes-work-up-a-sweat-all-to-a-persistent-beat dancing. And yes, I did it before going to work.

So how did this come about? How does one find oneself dancing their face off with a bunch of completely sober, SUPER happy strangers on a weekday morning?

It all comes down to my flatmate, Louise. A week ago, she posted this to my Facebook page:

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That took me to the Morning Glory London website, which states: “Morning Glory…is an immersive morning dance experience for those who dare to challenge morning culture and start their day in stlye!” It’s basically an early morning rave, where you can shimmy and shake before heading to work. It is definitely not an after-party; they want you to come sober and they want you to be excited about starting your day. If you think that all sounds a little hippy-dippy, well you’re not really wrong.

This video gives you a taste of what it’s like:



At first, I just laughed it off. Louise is a constant source of these random activities. Yes, they are usually very very fun, but I am not a morning person, so the idea of waking up at 6:00am on a workday didn’t really appeal to me. But the more I thought about it, and the more I watched that video, the more I thought it just seemed too good to miss. After all, I love dancing! I decided I was in and spent the rest of the week talking it up to anyone who would listen.

So that’s how this morning at 6.30, Louise, Sarah (friend/neighbor) and I found ourselves in a taxi heading to the backstreets of Bethnal Green, where the hipsters roam free.

We thought we might be the only ones to arrive so early, but oh no! There was already a line down the street at 6:45, with people shuffling forward to show their tickets or pay at the door. There was a news crew interviewing people on their way in; staff offering to help you jump the queue if you had to get to work early; a special “Guest List” line; and clowns offering hugs for those who were feeling stressed.

Morning Glory London - Entrance Clowns

We made our way to the ticket counter, got our hands stamped as you do at a club – be it early morning or late night – and headed upstairs.

We were greeted by an overpowering smell of incense and an already thumping techno beat. The vast majority of the large room was open space for getting down. And there were already a good number of folks shaking their booties to the the music.

Morning Glory London - Dancing Oval Space London

While dancing was definitely the main focus of the morning, there were several other points of interest around the room. Not least of which was the massage corner:

London Morning Rave - Free Massages

Two lessons learned for next time: 1) if you want a massage, get there super early and get your name on the waiting list; 2) think about whether you really want a massage if it means lying on those pillows where dozens of super sweaty bodies have lain before you.

We joined the crowd and started to groove. As the morning wore on, things became more and more surreal. It was an experience almost beyond description, but let me try to paint you a picture…

There was a smoothie bar and a coffee cart; there were people doing yoga in one corner and a woman working on a painting of the rave as it happened in another; we were led in an aerobics routine from the stage; there were people wearing Christmas onesies and others dressed as unicorns; there was more spandex than one would ever expect to see in a single lifetime; there were young children and pregnant women; people wore wigs and glitter paint and floral headdresses; there was a Tokyo news crew and a German DJ; an old Asian man did a kind of superspeed Tai Chi routine on the stage at one point; we sang along to “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?” and “These Boots Were Made for Walking”; a man in pajamas shouted positive-speak-feel-the-love platitudes from time to time, asking us to cheer if we were happy to be alive and encouraging us to hug the person next to us.

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Dancing was my main pre-occupation, but I couldn’t help but indulge in some extremely fascinating people-watching. In fact, observing the many types of people, their various get-ups and their dance moves may have been the best part.

While the majority of the crowd were undoubtedly students or hipsters who worked in book stores/record shops/coffee shops/food trucks or owned their own independent business of some sort (and therefore could easily party the morning away and still get to work “on time”), there were plenty of people who were clearly from the corporate world. In fact, my favorite people were those who had come in their work wear and therefore looked completely and totally out of place and borderline uncomfortable. And there were people of all ages as well. There were the aforementioned children (which…let’s just say I am not totally sure how I felt about that) and the old Asian man, but there were also a bunch of people who probably fell in the 40-55 age bracket.

The crowd just kept growing the longer we were there. By the time we left, the place was packed and showed no signs of slowing down.

Morning Rave London Dancing

It was a crazy morning, and totally, completely, 100% fun. Louise is already booking tickets for the next one, and I’ll be right there with her.

London people, who wants to join us!? It’s a really good time, I promise!

See Sister Party 1920’s Style

Last Saturday night, I went to The Candlelight Club. It’s a speakeasy-style 1920’s pop-up dance party at a secret London location. And it was insanely cool.

I went as part of a hen party (translation for the Americans: a girly celebration prior to marriage that falls somewhere between a bridal shower and a bachelorette party). My friends Beck and Brendan are getting married in March (and I am very very excited for them). For Beck’s hen party, her bridesmaids organized a super fun day involving afternoon tea, 1920’s-style headband making, and dancing the night away at The Candlelight Club.

Because I’m the worst at taking pictures, I didn’t take any at the afternoon tea/headband making. For the record, the tea was delicious and the arts-and-crafts aspect was quite fun. But the really really really cool part of the day was definitely the club. We ducked through a small door cut into a large, industrial-ish warehouse door, threaded through a courtyard and then entered a dance hall that was absolutely buzzing.

Because I really am the worst with pictures, I definitely did not take the one above (it’s from the club’s website), but that’s totally what it looked like when we were there. Except, I think it was more crowded. The place is completely lit by candles (save for the spotlights on the band), and the crowd was made up of people who were taking the theme seriously. Really, other than the projector playing a 1920’s-set film (The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (because it was Valentine’s weekend, get it?)) and the music speakers, it was like stepping back in time.

The place is only open for a couple nights every 3 or 4 weeks, and each time they put a slightly different spin on the whole speakeasy idea. This time for Valentine’s Day it was Bloody Valentine (see above re: Massacre). They had a special cocktails menu that fit with the theme (the “Bloody Valentine” was delicious).

I agonized over my outfit before leaving the house and decided to go for a loose-fitting black dress that I belted across the hips for the drop-waisted look. My other choice was a sparkly off-white dress that I wore as a bridesmaid in the past, and I definitely made the wrong choice. Even though the cut of the sparkly one isn’t really 1920’s, glitz and glamour were the name of the game at this place, so the sparkle would have been more appropriate. There were sooooo many gorgeously beaded dresses and feather boas and fedoras and beads and glittery headbands. I can’t describe how amazing everyone looked! Fortunately, the headband I made that day and some long necklaces helped to make me not entirely out of place.

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Unfortunately, they didn’t stop me from making that face.

But don’t worry, Beck (the bride) was dressed perfectly in her black-and-white flapper dress.

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In addition to all the ladies in gorgeous beads and feathers, there were some dudes who were taking it equally seriously. Including this guy, who I am pretty sure came alone:

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(I was too delighted by his commitment to the theme to get really upset by the fact that as the night wore on, it actually became kind of creepy that he was there alone, roving the room, checking out the pretty girls.)

I really wish I had a better camera than my phone, because then I might have gotten some better shots of the place in the dim lighting. Instead, I’ll just give you a montage photo that totally doesn’t capture the charm of the place:

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The band was really fun and played lots of jazzy classic tunes. Delightfully, they closed the night with “I Wanna Be Like You” from The Jungle Book. Not totally period appropriate, perhaps, but the style was spot-on. And there were several couples who could totally tear it up on the dance floor. Including one who I took a long, dimly-lit video of, which I now cannot figure out how to upload to this blog. Trust me, though, they were sooooooooo good.

Basically, I’m dying to go back. I will purchase an amazing dress, a feather boa, numerous long strands of faux-pearls, and one of those skinny cigarette holders. I’ll find myself a happy-to-play-along fella to escort me and fling me around the dance floor. And it will be awesome.

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Good times.

See Sister Visit the Churchill War Rooms

Ummm, did you hear that Bethany visited me for my birthday? Okay, okay, I know – enough about my birthday! But seriously, it was awesome.

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One of the great things about her visit (other than the obvious amazingness of the surprise) was that she’s already been to London, which means that she’s already visited all the really big tourist spots: The Tower, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s, Changing of the Guard, etc. So on this visit, we got to do some of the second tier things – those places that aren’t an absolute priority on a first visit, but are definitely worth checking out.

One of those spots was a place Bethany wanted to go the last time she was here, but we just didn’t have the time: The Churchill War Rooms.

That brown hut-like door on the right is the entrance. The museum is underground in the actual secret bunker used by Churchill and his cabinet during World War II.

Located on the edge of St. James’s Park, beneath one of the many buildings off Whitehall, the War Rooms are surprisingly close to both Parliament and Downing Street. It’s a testament to the absolute secrecy surrounding the place that it’s location was never revealed and therefore, it was never a direct target during the Blitz.

The War Rooms have been restored to their appearance during the war. The museum leads you through the halls with peeks into the bedrooms used by government ministers and their private secretaries; the Cabinet meeting rooms where Churchill argued with his team over strategy; the communications rooms (including a special Transatlantic Telephone Room for super secret conversations between Churchill and Roosevelt!); and Churchill’s private kitchen – to name just a few of the highlights.

In addition to the War Rooms, there’s a museum dedicated to Churchill’s life in the middle of it all. It was very interesting, though strangely laid out (it kind of led you backwards in time, starting with the War and his life afterwards, then taking you through his birth, childhood, and life before WWII).

Sadly, I took absolutely no pictures at this super cool place – even though the woman who checked our bags told us specifically that pictures were allowed! And I can’t find any great pics online, so you’ll have to visit the website to get a better idea of what this place is like.

The coolest room, I thought, was the Map Room.

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Source – you’re gonna want to follow this link; it’s a bonkers story.

Unlike some of the other rooms, this one remains exactly as it was left in 1945 (plus some creepy mannequins, of course). This was the informational center of the bunker, with a row of constantly active telephones and maps lining every wall (with thousands of tiny pinpricks from all the pins tracing the advancement of the Allies position). Apparently, the lights were never switched off in this room for the duration of the war.

On the way out through the gift shop, we perused the wartime posters and advertisements and found this gem:

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All in all, a pretty cool place that I would highly recommend to residents or visitors. Bonus: the audio guide is included in your ticket price. I loooooooove an audio guide. Thanks to Bethany for coming to London and forcing me to finally check it out!

Have you been to the War Rooms? Do you know of any other fascinating “second tier” tourist spots that deserve more recognition?

See Sister Get Surprised

And now we interrupt our regularly scheduled programming blogging for an important announcement. Susanna is turning 30 tomorrow!!!!!
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I’ll write more on the subject on her birthday tomorrow but first I wanted to share her most amazing surprise gift. Bethany, our oldest sister, surprised her for her birthday by coming to London to visit. Isn’t she amazing?! It is quite the awesome gift and I am so jealous of the time they are spending together.
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But the best part of all, was that I didn’t ruin the surprise before she went. I was totally paranoid that I would accidentally spill the beans at Christmastime. Or in an email. Or on Skype. My pregnancy brain is so foggy this time around I was just sure I was gonna do it and Zuni would have to fake surprise.

But you can’t fake this:
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The sheer delight is awesome! Happy Happy day-early Birthday to you Susanna! LOVE YOU

See Sister Learn a Bit of Historical Trivia

Scene: a hot summer’s day in London. Susanna sits on the upper level of a London bus, gently sweating through her dress. She is traveling from work to her church in the City. As the bus moves along Fleet Street at a glacial pace, Susanna reads. Her book of choice: Oliver Twist.

Now that you have the setting, allow me to share with you how I came to learn a super cool random historical fact last summer. I was reading Oliver Twist in an effort to support my local library, which sadly has a very limited selection. Twist was one of the few books they had that was actually on my “to read” list.

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The copy I had was one of those Penguin Classics editions where nearly every other sentence has a note referring you to the back of the book. I find those notes really irritating. Often they explain something rather obvious to the reader; or alternatively, they explain something that has absolutely no bearing on the story and so is totally useless. I usually ignore the notes and avoid flipping to the back of the book (That’s the other thing! The notes are all WAY in the back of the book, so you have to waste time flipping around trying to find the reference in the appendix in order to learn something that is actually totally superfluous to the story! Ugh!).

But as I was riding along on that summer’s day, I read something that did actually prompt me to flip to the back of the book. After [spoiler alert (although really, is that necessary? This book is approaching 200 years old, not to mention the classic musical adaptation that practically everyone has seen)] Oliver has been re-captured by Fagin and Co. whilst on an errand for Mr. Brownlow, he is kept locked away in a secret location, without hope of being discovered:

“…as the window of Oliver’s observatory was nailed down, and dimmed with the rain and smoke of years, it was as much as he could do to make out the forms of the different objects beyond, without making any attempt to be seen or heard, – which he had as much chance of being as if he had been inside the ball of St. Paul’s Cathedral.”

I flipped to the back of the book to read this note and figure out what Dickens meant by “ball of St. Paul’s.” Well! Boy, am I glad I did!

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Turns out, back in the day you could go up inside the ball at the base of the cross on the top of the dome. Yes, that ball that’s so small in the picture above that you can hardly make it out! You used to be able to walk around inside there. And apparently, there was enough room for like 10 people! Whaaaaaaaaaaat!?

ball and cross

If you visit St. Paul’s today, you can still climb up to the top of the dome. You can walk around the Whispering Gallery inside the dome and then continue to two outside galleries (the Stone Gallery and the Golden Gallery), the higher of which you can just see in the image above – that little fenced bit at the bottom of the pic. It’s actually one of my favorite views in London and it’s super cool to climb up and up (if you don’t mind heights). Still, as I sat on a bus approaching St. Paul’s that day, I was incredulous. You could keep going!? Multiple people can actually fit in that ball up there!? No way!

st paul's 2

It was a surreal moment. I was reading a book written 175 years earlier, referencing a building still standing in front of me. I mean look how close I was!

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I’m the blue bus, St. Paul’s is St. Paul’s, and that line is my line of sight.

As my modern-day bus inched towards the Cathedral, I craned my neck to get a good look at the top of the dome. The closer I got, the more the scale came into focus. I could see the tiny people outside on the Golden Gallery. When I looked at them in relation to the ball, it didn’t seem so impossible that a handful of them could fit inside it. Still, mind blowing.

In the weeks that followed, I shared this fact with anyone who would listen. It was my favorite topic of conversation for pretty much the rest of the summer. And it’s probably one of my favorite facts about London now.

If anyone knows how I can get up there…seriously, let me know.

See Sister Sing Carols

My church in London, St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, puts on a great carol service. Come December, there are anywhere from two to five carol services a week. I look forward to them every year. I think my friends who stay in London for the majority of December find the services can become a bit repetitive (especially if you’re one of the musicians who plays at nearly every one); but I don’t stay in London for most of December. In fact, I usually only get to catch one carol service before I head home for Christmas.

Now, of course, I would rather go home early than stick around for a carol service or two – even if they are lovely. After all, we do sing carols in the States. But there is something special about the carol services at St. Helen’s. Here are the top five reasons why…

1. The building is transformed. The lights are dimmed and the place is totally kitted out – Christmas trees, wreaths, garlands, candles, flowers. The two pictures below don’t do it justice.

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2. Each service is totally rammed. There are often more than 800 people at the Sunday 6pm carol service. They squeeze more chairs into an already crowded church; the spacing between the rows means leg room is virtually non-existent. You have to get there early if you want a seat; otherwise you’re likely to be left standing in the back. But when you’re singing carols with a crowd that large, the sound is amazing and the feeling is absolutely wonderful.

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3. The music is incredible. I suspect any church in a major city like London will find themselves with numerous talented musicians on hand. In fact, the music at St. Helen’s is always outstanding, but they really pull out the big guns at Christmas: choirs in the balcony, full use of the organ, horns, beautiful solos, drums, etc etc. It is often breathtaking.

Okay, so this is just the organ. But it would've been awkward to take pics during the actual singing.

Okay, so this is just a picture of the organ. But it would’ve been awkward to take pics during the actual singing.

4. The teaching tells the truth and good news of Christmas: that God sent his son into this world to suffer and die so that sinners like me could have a relationship with him. Like the music, the teaching at St. Helen’s is always excellent, but it’s particularly great to hear the truth during a holiday season that is so often about anything but.

5. Mince pies! Mulled wine! Stollen! All are circulated after the service. If you weren’t already feeling Christmas-y, these treats are sure to fill you with a festive spirit. And they help with the stomach-expansion-training that I find is useful in the lead up to the big day.

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Yesterday was the first and (sadly) only carol service that I’ll be able to get to this year. It was a delight to have a final Christmas-y Sunday with my London church family this year before heading back home for even more seasonal joys with family!

What about you? Do you go to a special carol service in the lead up to Christmas? What’s your favorite part?