Why you should always look up…


From my windows, I can see a few of London’s rooftops, and a mint green dome that reminds me of St Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, where I grew up. Both domes have that funny quality of seeming to be visible from anywhere as long as you’re far away enough. Real geography could prove me wrong, but I have these memories of being able to pick St Joseph’s out of the rest of the downtown core from all the way in Laval, the next city over. Similarly, no matter where I am in my flat, there is that oxidized copper top, made all the more beautiful by London’s sunsets and cloud formations.

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It embarrasses me to say that I couldn’t figure out exactly what I was gazing at. It looked like the church should be either by Archway station, or a bit further up in Highgate Village – but I had walked around both too many times to count and had never come across anything that could be it. That is, until this past weekend, when I was taking a route I frequently take, from Waterlow Park in Highgate down the hill back to Holloway Road. There’s an awkward intersection with the Karl Marx Tea Rooms on one corner and a church on the other, and I thought it’d be quicker if I crossed the street earlier than usual. For some reason I glanced upwards, and was startled to see it THE DOME front of me – how had I passed it by every other time before! In a nice symmetrical twist, the church is also named St Joseph’s…making me feel like I’ll always have a regal green dome following me around no matter where I live. I know you’re always supposed to look up in London, and I thought I had been doing a good job of it, but this goes to show that there’s always something more to see…


A Day at the Queen’s Terminal


When I announced why I would be taking the following day off, my colleagues’ faces greeted me with a mixture of consternation, incredulity and severe judgy-ness. There was a lot of ‘You’re going to do what at Heathrow? So…you’re not actually flying anywhere? So…they’re not actually paying you anything?’

I forgave them because I wasn’t entirely sure myself how I had been convinced to reserve an entire day’s holiday for the purpose of taking part in a trial of Heathrow’s soon-to-be-unveiled Terminal 2. I did know it had something to do with the infectious enthusiasm of my aviation-loving significant other…and I had heard that there’d be free lunch, which probably tipped the scales a bit.

Thus it was that on the Wednesday of a 3-day tube strike we shlepped our way to Terminal 2 – the Queen’s Terminal – to simulate the departure and arrival segments of a fictional journey.


The first thing I noticed was that we were very clearly not the only airport nerds around. A line of volunteers stretched out the back of the registration tent (I later read that more than 14,000 have taken part in all the trials leading up to next week’s soft opening!)




IMG_1900 The mood was festive (hilariously, given that no one was actually on their way to sunny foreign lands), and we were all given our ‘passenger scripts’. I became Tom Robinson, an American traveling to Cleveland (gender specifics didn’t seem to be a thing, leaving you free to REALLY use your imagination). I was a bit disappointed I wasn’t assigned the canoe as baggage that kept being mentioned in our introductory presentation, but the business class designation made that easy to get over.

We grabbed our normal-sized luggage and made our way to business class check-in – where chaos ensued!! Several passengers very clearly missed the cut off time for bag drop (pity the guy with the canoe at that point) and it seemed like a real possibility that Tom Robinson wouldn’t make it to Cleveland. From what I could see, this had more to do with the organization of the trial than the actual airline crew checking people in, but good practice nonetheless, right?!


The newly unveiled ‘Slipstream’ sculpture – modeled on a plane’s vapour trail

Not sure where they got all the luggage from...

Not sure where they got all the luggage from…

Now, I knew all of this was fake, but this didn’t stop Mike from rushing us through the waiting area where our free bagged lunches were ready to be leisurely enjoyed. Instead of sitting down and eating while NOT MOVING like civilized folk, I was forced to grab my lunch without breaking stride and rush to security. Mike had obviously become one with his alter-traveling-ego and refused to listen to reason (ie me pointing out that we didn’t have an actual flight to catch).

From what I was allowed to see of the waiting/shopping area...it was very nice

From what I was allowed to see of the waiting/shopping area…it was very nice

After a couple of hitches at security (again, this was more the system not being able to check volunteers’ badges as opposed to the actual security set up or anything) we ran (yes, ran – right by the free KitKat bars) to our departure gate. In real life, we probably wouldn’t have made it, but as it was A TRIAL (*cough cough*) the plane was still ‘boarding’, whew.



Finally, I thought to myself, sandwich time! But it wasn’t to be, because as soon as we passed through the above gate, it was time to switch into passenger arrival gear. My hunger was soon forgotten as I was given the BEST alter-ego: Flavius Keller from the United Kingdom, arriving from Stockholm. I imagined myself with long flowing blonde locks (ok, I Imagined myself as Legolas), and had a very pleasant re-entry experience (customs was a breeze!)


After our safe arrival, we were asked to give feedback on one of the many ipads propped up by the exit (we should’ve done this at some point during the departures simulation but again, we had to run). All in all I was very impressed – everything was clearly sign-posted, I saw multiple washrooms and the terminal was sleek and shiny with a good flow of direction.

We were sent on our way with a thank you gift, and I was finally able to tuck into my sandwich on the coach back to Victoria. Terminal 2 opens with its soft launch this week, and will be periodically adding more airlines over the next few months. I think with all the preparation (and thousands of crazy volunteers like us!) they’re looking at a smooth unveiling – but only time will tell!


Totally geeking out at the new Terminal 2

Spring in London


Springtime in London is a confused and wonderful beast.

Time in the spring is funny in that it doesn’t move according the normal laws of chronology. Outerwear goes from wintercoat, to spring coat, to nothing, to wintercoat again in a single week. Come to think of it, in a single day! We can blame the divisive nature of London sunlight for this. Streets can encompass two seasons at once – choose left sidewalk for vitamin d and right sidewalk for shivers!

This speaks to the London rule of layers (always have them). Maybe there exists a way to remain a consistent temperature throughout your entire commute but if there is, I haven’t found it. As it stands, I’ve resigned myself to chilliness when I leave the house, a growing level of discomfort as I descend into the Underground, and full-on overheating as I stand crammed into a Victoria line tube carriage.

Spring in London wreaks havoc on fashion – sunglasses and parka combination here, sandals and scarves duo there. And that hay fever! You can’t tell if you’re being plagued by a sore throat or if that’s just the pollen from the plane trees doing a number on your sinuses.

But then there’s that funny, dream-like time quality again. Time stretches – weekends feel longer and more full, Soho swells with after-work merrymakers. Memories blend and weave into each other, as one weekend is spent drinking prosecco on a picnic blanket in St James’s park and the next bundled up and testing out the resilience of your 11th umbrella of the year.

In a way, it makes the year last longer, because every time you encounter a sunny weekend or lunch break you feel happy anew at spring showing its magic. You feel like it HAS to be July already, because spring has already happened, but then you realize there are still months to go (in London, I’ll take every day I can get!)

Also, annoyingly and hilariously, spring almost always sets you up for disappointment. If March is this glorious, you think, wait til August! …then August ends up feeling pretty much the same; a wonderful weekend here, rainy stretch there. But this just means that you end up making the most of the weather when it chooses to play nice. And make sure you have your 12th-15th umbrellas on hand.

Watching the Winter Olympics From Afar

23419_872172577282_3779904_nOne night during my first year living in London, I gathered with a group of fellow international students in the kitchen of our graduate residence, huddled around a flickering television set that looked like it was straight out of the 1980s.

It was the eve of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, and though it was past midnight, and the BBC feed fuzzy, I was determined to watch the Opening Ceremonies in their entirety. I felt it was the least I could do, to make up for being out of the country the first time in my living memory the Olympic Games were being held in Canada.

As the 82 countries – and the hours – progressed, our audience dwindled to a few. An American friend, scoffing at my visible Canadian pride, was warning of the dangers of the division he felt the Olympic Games inspired.  ‘Nationalism,’ he huffed, ‘the root of all the world’s problems.’

In London, I had spent a few months feeling like I had found my home away from home. But when the Games rolled around, for the first time I felt homesick and, in a way, guilty, for being abroad when all the world’s eyes were fixed on the slopes of Vancouver. Sharing in the joy of the Olympics – observing the almost superhuman athletic feats, the emotional highs and lows – wouldn’t be quite the same, cheering from a distance in the UK. I only had one red item of clothing in my wardrobe! What was I thinking coming over here without a flag? What were the odds of getting my hands on a pair of those adorable red mittens…

Thus when my friend was going off about nationalism, I wondered. Was the sole byproduct of patriotism quick hits of smugness when your country’s star was on the upswing, alternating with pangs of homesickness? Did all this only serve to prevent you from being fully present in your current surroundings?

The revelation that came to me over the next two weeks – one that has been enforced by another Olympic Games and various July 1st celebrations in Trafalgar Square – is that cheering for your country, kilometres away from friends and family, can be one of the best ways to integrate yourself into your new home while simultaneously remembering where you’re from.

Being away for the Olympics makes the second largest landmass in the world smaller. When skier Alexandre Bilodeau became the first Canadian to win a gold medal on home soil, I proclaimed to any Brit who would listen that were practically neighbours (I have cousins in Rosemère and we visit them every year). I’ve never been to Vancouver, but I was bending ears for the duration of the Games, extolling its beauty and relaxed pace of life.

Watching from afar also means bringing fellow travellers together. It’s quite a sight to behold, a horde of Canadians taking over a Fleet Street pub, relieved to have found the one place with a license to stay open past midnight to broadcast the hockey games. The crowd was peppered with Vancouver Canucks jerseys, Calgary Flames caps and Montreal Canadiens t-shirts – combined with a lot of flannel and quite a few toques. Canadians more resourceful than I had obtained red mittens (I’ll admit I may have co-opted a few pairs for the festivities).

imageOn top of the sporting highlights, I remember bumping into old acquaintances from the University of Toronto I had lost touch with, while strangers in matching UBC sweatshirts discovered mutual friends and reminisced about old campus haunts. All sharing stories about what brought us there in the first place: the broadening of education, a new career move, an inexorable yearning for adventure.

For Canadians in London, the Winter Games remind us where we hail from and let us shed some of that national politeness to unabashedly trumpet the skills and perseverance of our athletes. We get to trade stories with our adopted hosts – the history of The Hockey Sweater for an explanation of what countries actually make up TeamGB. We are proud to be considered gracious yet fierce, with an innate ability to harness winter and churn out gold.

So while I never needed a comparative experience to yell my heart out with friends and family back home, I now know what it means to be outside of my native element, surrounded by people who are proudly Canadian not just by virtue of logistics but also by choice.

After Sidney Crosby’s winning goal in the men’s hockey final, I wasn’t able to witness the CN Tower lit up in a stream of gold, except via Facebook feeds and Twitter streams. But as my compatriots and I ran out towards St Paul’s Cathedral with our flags draped around our shoulders and stopped traffic, the few British motorists left on the street rolled down their windows and tooted their horns. Not sure if they knew what we were on about, but it sure felt like home.

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Four years later, I’m still in London, but I’m better prepared for Sochi 2014 viewing. Reconnaissance has been done on pub opening hours, and I have quite a few flags lying about my flat. I have my own pair of red mittens, acquired over the Christmas holidays – but I won’t feel too bad if they get passed on to someone experiencing her first year away and just a little unsure of what it means to be a Canadian abroad.

The Urban Family

Summer in St James' Park

Summer in St James’ Park

Today’s Daily Prompt is: what have you learned from the people who are close to you?

In London, I’ve learned that friends can be family.

A brilliant support system when you’re living across an ocean from home is good for, among many other things: helping you move for the third time in one year, experimental dinner parties, commiserating over visa travails, sharing Uber credit to afford the London cab system, pooling Canadian wear for major sports events or Canada Day, hugs when a grandparent passes away, shared travels and adventures, acting as relationship coaches, keeping each others’ heads up in the millennial world of career uncertainty, and bringing back imported stick deodorant when you’re on your last bar.

Missing my real family, but glad I’ve been lucky enough to create a wonderful stand-in one in their absence.

Witchcraft and Wizardry


The year I did a summer exchange at the University of Oxford, there were quite a few suitcases weighed down on the way over by the final installment in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Plowing through the Deathly Hallows on a bench outside Christ Church College – which houses the inspiration for the Great Hall in the movies – made the reading of the last book all the more emotive. A few years later, I was working a short walk from Trafalgar Square while a shrieking and exuberant crowd celebrated the premiere of the final Harry Potter film. I think that’s when it hit me, that as much as the series is a global phenomenon, it will at its heart always be a very British treasure. What a gift to give the world, everything from J.K. Rowling’s initial literary creation to the behemoth film ventures.


And, if that’s all not enough (which it isn’t, to any Harry fan worth their every flavored beans), there is THE WARNER BROS STUDIO in…Leavesden. Fear not, it is more accessible to those in London than it would initially appear (though judging by how fast tickets for this weekend filled up, I don’t think Warner Bros should be too worried about visitors being daunted).


Whereas the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando is more of a theme park (at least, I gather it is – my entire family made the trip without me, so I wouldn’t know on a firsthand basis!! Ahem ahem), the Warner Bros Studio is where a majority of the scenes in the movies were filmed. A suggestion – if you’re like my friends and I and enjoy pointing and yelling at recognizable sets/items/costumes (AND WHO DOESN’T), watch some (or all) of the movies first to make the whole tour even more incredible.

It really is a magical experience (for groups in their 20s to parents with kids dressed up as witches and wizards alike). The sheer size of the endeavor that was the creating of the films is awe-inspiring. The tour opens with a recorded spiel by Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, highlighting the work of countless actors, producers, directors, make up artists, costume designer, special effects teams, graphics wizards, etc etc…but the exhibits truly speak for themselves.


The tour opens in Hogwarts’ Great Hall, where everything looks straight out of the movies except for the ceiling, which was digitally enchanted with rain, sunshine and snow. You then leave the dining hall for a feast of another kind – sets, props, costumes, and trinkets are everywhere, and you understand why they recommend 3 hours for the visit.


The Gryffindor Common Room…shabby and wonderful

The Burrow, home of the Weasley family - note the knife and scrubber working by magic!

The Burrow, home of the Weasley family – note the knife and scrubber working by magic!


Advanced potion making

Don’t want to spoil the magic with too many photos, but it’s all there: Dumbledore’s office, Hagrid’s hut, the House of Black family tapestry, Dolores Umbridge’s terrible pink lair…not to mention Horcruxes, animal familiars and the wand of practically every character. There’s a brief outdoor bit with the flying Ford Anglia, a model of the bridge to Hogwarts and the Knight Bus (THIS IS WHERE YOU GET THE BUTTERBEER!!! Looking up homemade recipes immediately).

There’s also a section where you can get your picture taken on a flying broomstick, complete with a green screen sky background and a wind machine, but the only photos allowed are the professional ones you’d have to pay for. We opted to skip it, but it would definitely make a fabulous adornment for the fridge for anyone interested!


Diagon Alley

Home of the Dursley family

Home of the Dursley family

There are rumors that there may be plans in the works for theme-park style additions, with rides and such. It’s totally worth the visit now though; you really won’t be able to leave without marvelling anew at the success and gloriousness of the entire franchise. More than that, you’ll have an even greater appreciation of the love and detail that went into bringing Harry and Co to the big screen…and want to read and/or watch all the books and movies again and again.


Wands at Ollivanders


A note on travel:
Book your tickets (£30) early! A month or two in advance to be safe – I checked a couple of weeks before our slot and the entire weekend was sold out. There is a cloakroom but I was actually told they weren’t accepting coats because ‘it is VERY cold outside’ (it was 11 degrees) and there is a brief stop outdoors.

To get there, you take a train from Euston Station to Watford Junction (we booked as a group of 3 and got return tickets for £6.75. Then I lost my return ticket and had to pay an additional £10. DON’T DO THAT!) Shuttle buses (£2 return) go from Watford Junction to the studio and back.

Remembrance, Now and Then


I’m always acutely aware of the history that surrounds my North London street, but never more so than a couple of weeks ago, when I walked into my lobby to find a bunch of old sepia-tone photographs of my building in the early 1900’s on display. A sucker for historical compare and contrast collages, I took a similar picture of my building today – amazing how the physical structure stays the same, but the people, fashion and modes of transportation are from two entirely different worlds.

History has also been on my mind this Remembrance Sunday, having spent all week reading about commemoration events on across the country, but also about how Britain plans to mark the centenary of World War I next year. I’ve fallen silent every Nov 11th since I can remember (yes – this happens in Canada too. I’ve never encountered the ‘do Canadians all live in igloos?!’ question, but I have been met with incredulity on several occasions when explaining that yes, we have Remembrance Day too. I digress…) But one thing that’s striking in London is how many physical reminders of the war remain – no town unscathed, no resident untouched. It sometimes seems you can hardly turn a corner without a bit of war history, and this is literally the case on my street.


The above pictures, taken across the street from me, show how the residents of the borough of Islington chose to commemorate the fallen. On the site of what used to be part of a hospital (and is now residential flats), they erected the Islington War Memorial, and inscribed the names of their 1,307 neighbors who made the supreme sacrifice. A new ward was built for the hospital, as an additional – and practical, as is the British way – tribute to the dead.

DSC_0050The new Casualty Department lasted until 1992, when it was closed along with the rest of the hospital (excellent history here). But a beautiful facade remains, in what otherwise might be an unremarkable neighborhood park:


Royal Northern Gardens, which replaced the Royal Northern HospitalDSC_0049Memorial wall built with masonry and stones from the hospitalDSC_0044Mosaic put together by local school kids, depicting different aspects of medical life

And so we remember – that they fought so that we could play.

Eerie in the Cemetery


Weekly photo challenge: capture something eerie.

Highgate Cemetery, pictured above, is eerie only inasmuch as urban legends and horror lore tell us it should be. This cemetery in North London features in more than its share of vampire movies, but in reality, it barely sends a shiver down the spine. Rather, tranquility abounds – once you get past the fact that you’re among graves and ghosts, it makes for a beautiful setting for a stroll.

It’s been on my list, so I decided to visit a couple of weekends ago, in the spirit of Halloween. It was an absolutely gorgeous day, crisp and sunny after a recent downpour, with the smell of wet leaves hanging in the air. The cemetery is a quick walk downhill from Highgate Village – the perfect way to work off the effects of the lavender cake at High Tea of Highgate.


You have two options, depending on how much you want to spend/learn. If you’re looking for a more mindless, cheaper meander on your own, go for the East Cemetery – it’s £4 for entry and a map (this is where you can find Karl Marx’s grave, a main attraction for many visitors). The West Cemetery is a whopping £12 but includes a one-hour guided tour, as well as free entry into the East Cemetery.

(Skint) Cold War geek that I am, I opted for the East Cemetery, though I have heard the guided tour is very good. I set out on the hunt for Marx, genuinely afraid I might miss him in the sea of headstones. Turns out I had nothing to worry about – the communist section is very in-your-face!


The rest of the cemetery is as atmospheric as any of London’s grand parks (and, let’s be honest, way more peaceful. No teenagers on school trips here! St James’s, I’m looking at you). It’s a great place to re-charge and catch a quiet moment alone with your thoughts. Though of course, depending on your opinion re: unearthly spirits, you may not be truly alone…


Tea in the Village


…that’s Highgate Village – definitely still a part of London, but brimming with so much small-town charm you’d be forgiven for forgetting where you are.

After Yumchaa, my second favorite place for tea, dessert and some quality reading material is High Tea of Highgate, a whimsical sipping nook on Highgate High Street (possibly the most redundantly-named of all high streets). Always cozy and usually busy, High Tea of Highgate has a neighborhood, vintagey feel. The menu consists of a variety of loose leaf tea and delightful treats – my favorite combination to date is the almond tea with the lavender and rosemary cake.

(Cake so good I got halfway through before remembering to take a picture)

(Cake so good I got halfway through before remembering to take a picture)

There’s an outdoor sitting area which is lovely for when the weather plays ball, and the ladies behind the counter are always super helpful. There are also adorable (though pricey) items for sale, like teapots, tartan blankets and ballet flats. The only bittersweet aspect of High Tea of Highgate is that the current owner is having to give up the teashop in favor of motherhood, but hopefully the next owner will pour as much love into it as she has!


Weekly Photo Challenge: Horizon



This week’s photo challenge is about capturing the horizon – where the earth meets the sky. This view (from the rooftop of my building) is one of my very favorites, because it encapsulates two quintessential images of the city: blocks of Victorian conversions, where North Londoners eat, sleep and play in close quarters, and the London City skyline, where global commerce thrives and international deals are made or broken.

The Shard, the Gherkin and the new Walkie-Talkie building seem a stone’s throw away, so it’s funny to think that a couple hundred years ago my neighborhood would have been considered the countryside – a fresh air haven away from the industrial hustle and bustle of London. It would hardly be described as that today; as a matter of fact, students nearby recently tested the air quality of their schoolyard and found that pollution levels were twice those allowed by the European Union (!!) This has prompted a couple of Air Quality Summits, so we’ll see what comes out of them. Nevertheless, up on the roof it’s hard to feel too stifled, as you gaze at the skyline and beyond.