Yes, it’s true: Americans can’t go a week without a hamburger

My husband and I must have looked like the world’s stupidest tourists but we needed to know what “English American” cuisine was like.

American food gets a bad reputation, I think. (McDonald’s, anyone?) We have numerous indistinguishable chain restaurants, like Chili’s and Applebees, that serve mediocre, filling food at a reasonable price. Still, you can’t go wrong with a juicy hamburger and crispy fries. We were curious to see what the English version of American cuisine was like, so there we were, two American tourists enjoying a meal at an American-themed restaurant in the heart of London’s Covent Garden.

If the restaurant hadn’t looked so nice, we could’ve been back home. The restaurant was like an upscale pub with wood-paneled walls and a mirror behind the bar. In the US, there probably would’ve been all kinds of crap hanging on the walls, like sport jerseys and autographed guitars.

We treated ourselves to the most lurid cocktails on the menu. Mine was fruity; Joe’s was bright blue. This particular meal was in 2012, so I don’t recall what I ordered. I suppose if it was truly a remarkable meal I would remember my dinner, but I finished it all so it couldn’t have been bad.

I suppose this particular restaurant did a good job of emulating American cuisine. What is American cuisine anyway, besides burgers and fries? Meatloaf? Fish sticks? Frozen pizza? Barbecue? The country is so large and diverse, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what “American cuisine” means.

Anyway, after one American meal in England, this tourist was happy to go back to fish ‘n’ chips, kebabs, and pies at the pub. (I stay away from mushy peas, though. Sorry, England.)

Places:

Maxwell’s in Covent Garden: This is where we got our fix. It was busy on whatever random day we ate here, so it can’t be too terrible.

The Blackbird in Earl’s Court: Our hotel was right around the corner, so we ate here a few times during our stay. Really good pies, beer selection, and atmosphere.

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Recently read: ‘London Style Guide’

I’ve had this beautiful book for years and finally made my way through the whole thing, instead of flicking through pages here and there.

If you’re looking for must-sees on the London tourist trail, the London Style Guide is not the book for you. I would not recommend relying solely on this book to plan a trip, especially if you’re planning your first trip to London. Some of the most popular sites, like the Tate Modern and St. Paul’s, are mentioned in passing, but the focus is on one-off shops, small neighborhoods and boutique hotels.

The London Style Guide

But before I dive into the book’s interior, can we focus on the exterior for a minute? This is a simply gorgeous book with a textured cover and thick, creamy pages; it even smells like a musty old tome found on a dusty bookshelf. It’s certainly a book to display in the open.

The Style Guide focuses on smaller neighborhoods in London, mainly outside of the city center (like Hampstead and Shoreditch). These stores, boutiques, pubs, hotels, and restaurants are where the locals go – all wonderful recommendations for a true London experience. Saska Graville, the author, also interviews local shop owners and in-the-know folks for their insight on London must-sees. All of this information is accompanied by drool-worthy, stunning photos.

Apparently there is a new edition of the London Style Guide out now; I haven’t read it, but I’m sure it’s just as wonderful.

Looking back at London and Paris

Six years ago I was 17 and finishing up my senior year of high school. I had good grades, a boyfriend, and I was going to college in the fall. Things were going well, and they were about to get even better, because I was heading off to Europe on a school-organized trip. I don’t think I realized it at the time, but my upcoming voyage to London and Paris was going to change my life.

London, England

It was a 10-day trip: five in London and five in Paris with side trips to Windsor and Versailles. In preparation, I changed dollars into euros and pounds ahead of time. I read through my guidebooks, even though there was going to be a teacher chaperone and a tour guide. I also over-packed my big suitcase with many “just in case” items (rookie mistake).

Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France

Six years ago today, we were in the middle of our trip, and I can’t help but remember how much fun I had. Getting lost in Harrods, passing around a bottle of wine while sitting next to the Seine, standing in awe of some of the world’s most fantastic churches, and soaking in the sights as they drifted by, beautifully lit, during a nighttime river cruise. I didn’t realize it then, but experiencing two of Europe’s cultural and historic capitals was sparking a fire in my heart. Each new experience – understanding a question in French, haggling at Portobello Market, hell, even watching a male street performer with purple spiked hair and nipple tassles at Covent Garden – was just kindling on the fire. In every new situation, I thought, “This would never happen at home,” and it was a good thing.

Windsor Castle, England

That’s not to say the trip was completely perfect. Even though we were in westernized cities I was still out of my comfort zone. I wouldn’t say I was scandalized, but I was really surprised to see a huge magazine ad on the street in Paris featuring a woman’s bare breasts. And on our third day in London, I woke up miserable: cold, tired, and homesick already. I realized that I was really, really far from home. Eventually, I got over my funk and was able to enjoy the rest of my trip.

After coming home, that fire kept simmering under the surface. I became interested in world news. I bought books that were set outside of the United States and discovered travel narratives. I realized there were thousands of travel bloggers out there. In short, I had caught the travel bug.

Notre Dame, Paris, France

I can’t begin to imagine what my life would be like today if I hadn’t gone to London and Paris during high school. Who knows if I would’ve studied abroad in college, or planned my own international trips, or even made it out of the US at all. As an adult, not a day goes by where I don’t think about going to Greece, or Guatemala, or Iceland, or Turkey, or so many other places, and I am so grateful I was able to go to London and Paris six years ago, where it all began.

London, England

Such great heights: Cities from above

I like to look down on cities. London, with its slowly turning Eye, the Thames churning below. Tower Bridge and St. Paul’s show off The City and the wharfs, tiny workers and ships scurrying about.

London, England

London, England

Paris, with the iconic tower piercing the sky, the white and gray buildings stretching out for miles below, their grandeur muddled by distance. Montmartre, too, offers sprawling views from the cathedral steps; it seems a world apart from the rest of the city.

Paris, France

Paris, France

Venice and Bruges. Canals branching off every which way. Both have belltowers jutting up proudly from the main squares. Peals from the large bells clash and jumble through my ears before drifting out over the waterlogged cities. Venice, in my mind, will always feature blazing orange terracotta roofs and liquid turquoise under a sun turned up full blast, while Bruges, its northern cousin, rests cozily under soft gray skies, falling mist kissing steel blue waters and cobblestone streets.

Venice, Italy

Bruges, Belgium

Being above a city, looking down but still grounded, connects me to it on a personal level. I will gladly pay the fee to climb ancient, narrow steps and feel the wind of an entirely new place in my hair while I breathe in the scents, pulse and character of the city lying below.

I hope you enjoyed these pictures! Here are a few more I love.

Gent, Belgium

Gent, Belgium

Oxford, England

Oxford, England

Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh, Scotland

Florence, Italy

Florence, Italy

 

 

 

Lost in London: Our first trip abroad

“So, we’re lost in the middle of London, and you don’t know where we are. Great,” my husband said, growing crankier by the second as we walked out of the Earl’s Court tube station.

We were on our first international trip together. At the time we were still engaged, and I had somehow convinced him that spending spring break in cloudy England would be a great idea.

“We just went out the wrong exit,” I tried to explain. “I know exactly where we are.”

Tower Bridge, London, England

London was the first place I visited outside the US, and it immediately became – and has stayed – my favorite city in the world (not that I have seen so many, but whatever). I was so excited to show Joe, the currently grouchy significant other, everything I loved about the city, and traveling in general. Before this trip, he had never traveled outside North America, or even his own time zone, and I hoped to show him how much traveling meant to me. But right now the jet lag was bearing down hard on him.

Joe grumbled and started following me, our carry-on suitcases jolting over uneven cracks in the sidewalk.

Thankfully, I navigated us back onto the main road, where the correct exit was located, and Joe didn’t have to complain anymore.

Albert Memorial, Kensington Gardens, London, England

In my excitement for the trip I had scoped out the area on Google maps. There’s the adorable red mailbox with so much more character than our oblong navy ones in the US! Boots! In case we need to buy “plasters!” And look, on the corner! That pub is just a couple doors down from where we’re staying, and according to the online reviews they have really good pies! Everything was wonderful again.

Until we got to the door of our hotel, locked, and had to wait for about thirty minutes. Joe, looking more frustrated than before, didn’t trust himself to speak.

London Eye, London, England

The rest of the day passed in waves – fun and exhaustion, irritation and blisters, clouds and rain. In an attempt to help Joe beat his jet lag slump, we walked around the city. Buckingham Palace, the Thames, Monument, St James’ Park. It wasn’t enough, and we headed back for a nap in the afternoon. I woke him up to get dinner around 6 – pies at the pub – and we both nearly fell asleep at the table. It was pitiful.

Fortunately, the rest of the trip was uphill from there. We saw a show, visited museums, drank porters and stouts after rainy days, laughed in the frigid wind blowing off the Thames as people in The City hurried to work, tried a British Chinese buffet, and looked at the city laid out tidily beneath our feet from a cozy bubble on the London Eye.

St Paul's Cathedral, London, England

I hoped that would have been the first of many international trips for us, but since then we’ve only traveled to one other country together, on our honeymoon. I’m trying to convince him to pack a bag and jump on a plane with me again – I’m thinking somewhere cold and cozy this winter – but he’s such a homebody. He really needs to be forced, not nudged, out of his comfort zone.

If I can guilt him into traveling with me again, it’ll be a “guilt trip.” Ha!

New places, new books

I think some of the simple pleasures in life include walking around a book shop until there’s a crick in your neck from reading the spines, cracking open a brand new book and smelling the woody, dusty aroma of a good read. So when I travel, I make a point of heading to local book stores. Even chain book shops in other countries are something new to me, so I like visiting those too.

Book store in Oxford, England

Harry Potter books for sale in England. I love that the cover art differs in each country.

I’m not picky with book stores. I have visited and enjoyed a modern, minimalist store with a small but excellent selection of hand-picked books and a focus on poetry; a small cottage-turned-shop tucked away from the street, oozing Southern charm, with comfortable couches and tables with spindly legs struggling to support the weight of the owner’s favorite hardcover; a neighborhood staple that has been around for decades, where not much has changed because it’s already as close to perfect as you can get; an unassuming used book shop in a strip mall, with creaky, repurposed wood crates as shelves that seem to stretch back for miles. Pretty much anywhere I can buy, borrow or read books, I’m happy.

The books I buy in other countries don’t necessarily have to be about whatever place I happen to be in. Re-reading that book is enough to remind me of my trip. In France I took advantage of my expanding language skills and bought Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in French. The book store I purchased the books from, Furet du Nord, was amazing – eight stories, located right on the Grand Place. I worked my way through the wizarding tale I knew so well while I studied abroad.

Browsing books along the Seine? Yes please.

Browsing books along the Seine? Yes please.

Recently I purchased Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore at The Book Passage in San Francisco. My husband actually picked it out (I think the glow-in-the-dark cover caught his eye) and it was a great read. I finished it the next day on the flight home. A sort of modern-day fantasy adventure set in San Francisco and New York City, it involves a secret society, the “magic” of technology and a dash of mystery.

Which book stores have you visited on your travels? Do you have any fond memories of the books you picked up along the way?