Archive for December, 2009

Saying Goodbye to 2009.

It’s 930A, I’m up and feeling much better than I have been the last few days. Sniffles are gone and congestion has nearly disappeared! Thank God for lots of water, soup and Bendadryl to help me sleep about 18 hours yesterday. I’ve been holed up for a few days but I woke up this morning to the realization that today marks the last day of 2009. Crazy, really. Where has this year gone?! Despite the fact that time has flown by, a lot has happened this year for me; lots of big changes that have had a big impact on my life. Time for me to reminisce a bit and welcome in 2010!

Dad & I took our first international trip together in February. We visited England to look at possible grad schools… that was only 10 months ago? Wow. I’m already through 3 months of grad school!

I don’t know if I secretly thought/hoped that my grandparents would live forever, but my grandpa passed away in March and it was the first time I had to say goodbye to someone with whom I was extremely close. It was also the first family death I had to deal with in my adult life, and it marked the first eulogy I ever delivered. Even though I know he’s not alive anymore, I often still feel like he’s here, which makes living life much easier.

Got my acceptance to LSE in April (I applied quite late)! I actually recall the moment of my acceptance with 100% clarity. I think it’s like the JFK assassination moment that everyone from that generation talks about — you know exactly what you were doing and exactly where you were. I was so elated when I got the letter, definitely changed the course of my life. Here I am now, half way through taught courses with amazing new friends and loads of fun travel stories. I can’t imagine having been anywhere else!

Ahhh… graduation from undergrad was a very bitter-sweet moment for me. It was great to be able to say goodbye to my undergrad and know that I had the opportunity to pursue my Masters in London in the fall, but it was sad graduating and not having my grandpa there for the first time. Nevertheless, definitely a milestone!

A surprise birthday weekend for Tiff & our first family vacation in forever! We planned a surprise getaway to Carmel for Tiffany’s 19th Birthday this year, complete with handmade surprises and super-cute B&B. It was the first family vacation we’d been on in years (since Disneyland days) and it was the first time we got to bring nana along! So fun!

Saying goodbye to work after four years! It was quite difficult quitting a reliable job with a steady income to welcome a life of joblessness and full-time Masters work. I’m glad now that I had the wherewithal to actually leave, but it was a bit sad… four years of bonding and relationships and saying goodbye to the full-time job that allowed me to pay my way through undergrad.

One of the biggest things that happened this year? Moving to London! I really didn’t think I had it in me to leave my family, friends, relationships and the normalcy of California life  to move to a foreign country for (at least) a year. I’m happy to announce that I did manage to say my tearful goodbyes and settle in to London life. Quite happily, I might add. I already feel so much more fulfilled & so much more educated!

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I didn’t even realize that I had experienced so many life-altering changes this year. How can a year go by so fast and still contain so many memories? I must admit, this blog has definitely come in handy! I had created it with the intention of keeping up with friends and family from afar, but I have found that it has become the best online journal imaginable. Now that I know there are people reading about my daily adventures and trips, I feel somewhat accountable to upload pictures and thoughts on a regular basis. Now, a year later, it’s fun going back and remembering the things that I would have otherwise forgotten!

Thank you to everyone who made my 2009 amazing.
Let’s get ready to take on 2010!

Now, I’m off to make breakfast and face the last day of 2009. Possibly hitting up Trafalgar Square tonight to ring in the New Year!

Love my fish.

Boo on Reality. It’s Finally Setting In…

December is coming to a close which means January is right around the corner! Before January 11th rolls around and Lent Term begins, I have a dissertation proposal to write and a summative essay to conclude. Ideally, both will be done well (let’s all cross our fingers for distinction). On top of that, real life has begun to hit me: although last term was challenging, this term is going to be a real feat. Not only do we have to concern ourselves with normal coursework, but most of our graded coursework is due at the end of this term/beginning of Summer Term, plus we have to get a substantial start on our dissertations, plus there’s the whole job/internship situation if we actually want to put our education to use (I like to think that most of us do).

Knowing that we’ll be 100% done in 9 short months is a little daunting. Most people are leaving before then — off to law school, other professional programs or back to their homelands to send in their dissertations. Theoretically, we can all go back home in July and submit our dissertations via courier. For some of the direly homesick, this is a great option. I, on the other hand, have been wanting to drag out my European excursions for as long as humanly possible! I’m loving London life (aside from the occasional mild bout of homesickness) and have thoroughly enjoyed my ability to travel and meet some amazing people along the way. Thinking of all of this coming to an end is saddening (and an impetus to pursue a PhD). So, this term is going to be a full one: normal coursework, a trip to Cumberland Lodge with my program, a summative ‘project planning’ submission, a dissertation to begin, careers to investigate, jobs for which to apply, summative essays to submit and preparation for exams in May/June. On the bright side, I also get to look forward to some special visitors this term! My cousins are coming at the end of January for a visit, Chris is hitting up Londontown in February, and my dad and sister are coming during my break for a two-week, three to four-country mini tour (England, France, the Netherlands & maybe Scotland)! Hopefully seeing all of their bright, smiling faces will help in getting through the term and alleviating a bit of my homesickness (and hold me over until I return back to the US).

Also, I must wish my friend, Pooja, congratulations on getting her first acceptance to law school! She’s the perfect example of a girl who has her stuff together: finishing her Masters and off to start law school all before the tender age of 22 — talk about motivation! On that note, I’m off to look for jobs/PhD programs to feel like less of a delinquent.

Here’s to Lent Term and to facing reality!

On an amazingly bright note, Lent Term marks the welcoming of one Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid, and I am going to be 1st in line to see her! I’ve decided to make a concerted effort to take advantage of the university’s speakers and public lectures. We get some amazing visitors at our school (Presidents, Prime Ministers, Queens, Scholars, etc.) and now is the time to get to see them in person!

Soliciting Home Remedies!

Somewhat ironically, I have begun experiencing the symptoms of a cold on the horizon. For the record, it’s ironic because I was just having a conversation with a group of kids here about how I never get sick (clearly jinxing myself). While so many people have come down with cold after flu this year (credit to the change in location, perhaps), I have managed to stay relatively healthy — not a flu bug or a cough in sight. For the last two days, however, I have felt the ominous tingle in my throat and have been experiencing that sinus pressure that makes you want to empty your head out. You know the one?

So, I guess I effectively jinxed myself. I am getting sick, as much as I hate to admit it. I woke up this morning with a sore throat, stuffed nose and an achy body. On top of that, I slept until 1130! That’s seriously unheard of, so I’m going to accredit it to the fact that my body is trying to recuperate. I’m all about home remedies right now. I’m not really familiar with the NHS here and I don’t very much want to see a doctor that I don’t know (Dr. Kazadi, if you’re reading this, I miss you!) In lieu of doctors visits, I’m going to try some at-home healing: loads of H20, perhaps some Emergen-C packets and some tomato soup!

Here’s the problem: being that I don’t get sick very often (I’m probably jinxing myself again…), I’m not really familiar with all of the tried-and-true home remedies. Herbs? Teas? Homemade concoctions? Whiskey?

Anyone have a secret for banishing sore throat and sniffles?
Please leave me a comment & share your remedies!

Lots of love from your sickly traveler,

Regaining My Spirit…

…Today has marked the first day of valiant attempts at regaining my spirit. After nearly two weeks of not being able to hit the gym (a week in Malta + time in Scotland + holidays do well to sabotage my gym-going), I finally got in an hour of cardio followed by an hour and a half yoga class. It was invigorating, indeed, if not a bit ambitious. I can already feel the soreness plaguing my legs; it’s truly amazing how tight one’s hamstrings can get in two short weeks without proper exercise. I have effectively stretched them out but not without a bit of pain. I’m happy to say I’m back on track with my gym and eating habits just in time for the New Year!

After that super fun-filled gym session, Wen and I hit up Sherlock Holmes at the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square to further revive my spirit. I think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have been proud to see Guy Ritchie’s work on this film. Good movie, substantial plot and a hot cast — Robert Downey, Jr. + Jude Law + Rachel McAdams = a lot of gorgeousness on the screen at any given time. Now I’m back at home, marinating in bed with a much-needed cup of coffee in my hand to ward off evil spirits (aka caffeine headaches) watching Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. I just ran across this list ranking Disney movies from 48th up to 1st place and I was a bit surprised by the outcome… How can 101 Dalmatians or Pinocchio outrank the likes of Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast or the Lion King? Perhaps it’s a generational thing… in any case, I’m re-watching Sleeping Beauty (haven’t watched it in a good 15 years) to see what puts this film ahead of 38 other films in the ranking. I find that in re-watching some of these movies as an adult, I pick up on some adult humor/innuendos that I hadn’t noticed as a kid. (Note: Re-watch Disney’s Hercules… it’s much funnier as an adult!)

On the agenda for tomorrow — gymming (complete with Pilates sesh!) followed by a visit to Zara… there are loads of amazing sales this time of year and I plan to enjoy a few of them while I can! Also, on a different note, I have been revisiting the idea of veganism. I had attempted to go from vegetarian to vegan once upon a time but had a difficult time when I realized how difficult the process truly is (eggs and dairy are in everything). With a bit of a stronger spirit, I have been investigating the move once more… it’s definitely a possibility for 2010! Anyone interested in veganism, check out this great blog: FatFree Vegan Kitchen… great recipes! Mmm!

Lots of love,

Boxing Day & Mince Pies? Welcome to the UK.

I have to tell you, aside from my family & friends, gingerbread is one of the things that I miss the most about the holidays at home. The smell of gingerbread cookies and gingerbread houses incites the sense of Christmastime for me. I always bake my own cookies at home, with extra spice, just the way that I like them.

Mmmm…. Icing is as bit overrated for me, but I do usually decorate them when I’m giving them out as gifts. Sadly, I hit up my local Marks & Spencer in Covent Garden on Christmas Eve to find some goodies to make gingerbread: a box of mix, molasses, anything that could potentially be made into a wonderful boy-shaped biscuit of ginger. The sad truth hit me very quickly: Brits don’t like their gingerbread like Americans do. In lieu of gingerbread, the store was teeming with mince pies. Now, call me an idiot (or an ignorant American, perhaps), but I thought mincemeat (which is used in mince pies) was actually meat. That doesn’t seem illogical, does it? I assumed that mincemeat was something that was used in a savory pie; lamb, perhaps. I was hugely surprised, however, to discover that mince pies, and the mincemeat inside, are 100% vegetarian! They’re not meat at all! In fact, it’s a mix of sultanas (golden raisins), raisins, sugar  and some other sweet and spicy goodies. After this mind-boggling discovery, I decided to change my tradition for this year and prepare homemade mince pies instead of gingerbread cookies! Calling them ‘homemade’ might be a bit of a stretch considering I bought canned mincemeat and boxed mini tartlets to act as the pie crust… for the sake of argument, we’ll call them ‘semi-homemade’ (taking a page out of Sandra Lee’s cookbook, I guess).

Mince pie-making, along with a healthy dose of Christmas music, definitely helped to get me in the spirit of the holidays. I also had a two-hour Skype session with my family! Thank goodness for the amazingness of Skype; it felt like I was actually there — I got to talk with them during breakfast and be there to watch them open gifts.

After that interesting version of Christmas, today marks Boxing Day in the UK. We simply call it ‘the day after Christmas’ in the US, but here it’s an officially recognized holiday complete with Black Friday-style sales and movie premiers! In honor of Boxing Day, I’m going to try to hit up Sherlock Holmes at the Odeon in Leicester Square! Seeing as how it was filmed in London, it seems fitting that I would spend a British holiday watching a British movie about a British character. All in a day’s fun.

In other news, I have officially re-started the “getting Shannon’s groove back” phase. Daily gym sessions, sunless tanning and healthy eating are on the menu for this beautification process. I have actually booked group workout sessions at the gym (pilates, yoga, boxing, etc.) to add to my normal workout sessions to ensure that I get to the gym as planned. I guess we can call it the pre-New Year’s Resolution!

Hope everyone’s holiday was great and full of gingerbready goodness!

Lots of love on Boxing Day,

Ghosts of Christmas Past.

Being that this is my first Christmas on my own, I couldn’t help but sift through old pictures from Christmases past. To my family & friends out in California (and abroad): I love you all and hope that you all have an amazing Christmas! Wishing I could be with you all on my most favorite holiday of the year, but I’m sending love and positive thoughts your way.

Check out some of these pictures from the last few Christmases:

Prepping Christmas dinner with Nana, 2006

Mimi’s 1st Christmas with us — one of our Christmas gifts to Nana.
The reindeer ears didn’t stay on for very long, but it was a cute idea! 2006.

Chris & I at Tara and Greg’s on Christmas Eve, 2007.
Lots of wine & seven fishes. Mmmm.

With Nanu & Nana, 2007, when the whole family was still together <3.

Only two years ago, but Alyssa was so tiny!

Mac & I, Christmas 2008 at the McDonald house!

Mom & Dad, Christmas 2008.

I always have such amazing memories from Christmas and although I don’t get to be with my family, I did get a special surprise  in the form of an early morning Skype session with the fam and with Chris — definitely a good way to start off Christmas day! I’m having some folks over for Christmas breakfast/brunch and coffee before we go out and explore the quiet streets of London (something that can only happen once a year!)

Here’s a song/video that always puts me a good Christmas mood; definitely a classic!

To everyone reading:

Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays!

To my grandpa, who’s no longer with us — wish you could be here, but you’ll always be here in spirit. Inhobbok hafna.

Edinburgh: In Hindsight

I’m delayed in the airport by an hour… somehow I’m not surprised. After a couple of flight cancellations and snow ravaging all UK airports, an hour delay seems like the least of my problems.

With my short jaunt in Edinburgh, hotel stays in the Old and New Towns, loads of sightseeing and a day trip to the Highlands, I crammed a lot into five short days and there are some things I would have done differently, had I known before-hand. Don’t get me wrong – everything was amazing and Edinburgh really is a fantastic city, but cities this beautiful come with loads of tourist traps! Here are a few tid bits I’ve gained from my recent excursion:

Getting to Edinburgh

Ohhh… Lord. After so many flight cancellations and delays, I would now opt for taking the train from London! Obviously your plan of attack for getting to Edinburgh is going to vary based on your current location, but be aware that there are a number of ways to get to the city.

1. Fly. Something I’m not fond of anymore, but it’s quick if you’re going from London (1 hour, 20 minutes). With EasyJet, BMI and other discount airlines, you can get some seriously good deals, too!

2. Take the Train! Virgin Trains, East Coast… they’ll all get you there, and most for under £40 – £50 if you book in advance! Sometimes they have some really great deals! Expect it to take 4-1/2 to 6 hours depending on the number of stops, but you’ll get to take in some of the English countryside and some trains (East Coast) even have wi-fi!

3. Jump on the Coach. With National Express, you can get funfares for as low as £12 – £15 if you book at the right time… they’re definitely good for the budget traveler, but be ready to spend a loooonnng time on board. 7 – 10 hours is a good estimate depending on the weather.

New Town vs. Old Town

My first temporary home, the Royal British Hotel, was in the New Town on Princes Street directly across from Waverly Station. Looking down the road, the street was very reminiscent of Oxford Street in London: loads of shopping mixed with a bit of culture (Royal Scottish Academy, National Gallery, etc.). A few minutes walk into the New Town, you hit St. Andrew’s Square where you can catch a bus to Rosslyn Chapel and visit the likes of Louis Vuitton and Harvey Nichols. Definitely a modern shopper’s paradise! [The picture below is of me on Princes Street in front of the Christmas markets.]

My second stop was Jury’s Inn in the  Old Town of Edinburgh, right off of the Royal Mile. Like I had mentioned right after my jaunt over, there is a palpable difference between the Old and New Towns. Instead of Harvey Nichols and H&M, you’ll run into St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh Castle and loads of kilt makers and Celtic jewelry stores. The roads are less perfectly paved and have more of the cobblestone and narrow alleys that you would expect of the old world.

[This shot was taken from the St. Giles area, looking down the Royal Mile in Old Town.]

Although it’s a matter of preference, I found the Old Town a lot more charming. Keep in mind, the invisible line that separates New from Old in Edinburgh is the rail station, essentially. If you cross through Waverly Station or cross over North Bridge, you can move easily from one area to another. If you’re on Princes Street or the Royal Mile, you’re pretty central!

Hotel Recommendations

Our two-day, unplanned stay at the Royal British Hotel was actually a pleasant surprise. Due to its proximity to the rail station, I wasn’t expecting much, but was quite surprised by the size and comfort of the rooms, the free wi-fi (never to be underestimated!) and cute café downstairs (Princes Street Café) where you can get a morning coffee plus a morning treat for £1.75. The prices were more than reasonable considering the last-second booking and the holiday season. You’re looking at between £51 – £65 per night and a comfortable size for two people.

Jury's Inn Room

The Jury’s Inn in the Old Town is also great, but for different reasons. My room was huge and my view was incredible. With three massive windows peering out into the snow-capped city, I really felt like I ended up with someone’s suite! The bathroom was also huge, with a full-sized bathtub for actually taking a bath (something I haven’t done in months)! It’s proximity to Old Town (the Royal Mile is in the hotel’s backyard) make it a prime location, plus it’s around one-third of a mile from the train station! The downside? Wi-fi is far from free. I had to rely on the web on my iPhone and the free wi-fi from the pub down the way [The Mitre] for most of my online needs. I would recommend this place for its comfort and spaciousness, but be aware of the internet situation – that was almost disappointing enough to nullify my love for this place. I got a great deal when I booked with Expedia (£200 for R/T tickets + 3 nights at this hotel), but a room here normally goes for £99+ a night.

Also, if you’re super budgeting, there are loads of hostels along the Royal Mile that would be worth checking out… do a bit of homework though, sometimes the £10 per night saved isn’t worth sharing a bathroom with 8 strangers!

Tourist Attractions

There are loads of attractions nearby: Edinburgh Castle, Camera Obscura and world of illusions, Haunted Tours, Rosslyn Chapel, Christmas Markets, Lyceum Theatre, Highlands tours, the National Gallery… the list goes on and on. So, if you’re here for a few days, what was worth the money? Well, that’s a matter of preference of course, but let me give you the down low on where I spent my money and where I would take it back, if possible. Keep in mind, in the winter the days are incredibly short with the sun disappearing entirely by 4P or 430P. With only a few hours of sunlight, you probably want to make the most out of every minute!

Freebies to Note:

There were a few freebies that I wasn’t aware of before heading to Edinburgh. I wish I would have known about them before my adventures, but they’re worth noting:

  1. A free tour of Edinburgh on foot! Although I didn’t partake in the tour, it leaves from the Starbucks in Old Town and it’s about 2 hours of sightseeing around Edinburgh. It’s definitely something that would be worth checking out early on in your excursion; good way to get acquainted with the area before undertaking your own adventures.
  2. National Galleries of Scotland. If this is anything like the National Gallery in London, it’s worth checking out. Plus, it’s free so even if it’s not exactly what you’re expecting, your only loss is a few minutes of time.
  3. Free ghost tour from Deacon Brodie’s Pub. Edinburgh is widely considered to be one of the most haunted cities in the world, so why not check out a ghost tour? There are tours like this that you can pay for (£5 – £10 depending on the company and length of tour), but there’s also this freebie! I probably would have checked it out if I were with someone… I didn’t want to scare myself silly while traveling alone. :)

Edinburgh Castle

£11 for entry with discounts for children & seniors but no discounts for students! If I had to go back and do it again, I probably would have saved the £11 and spent it elsewhere. You can walk up to the Castle and take some amazing pictures from the ticketing area without having to pay the entry fee. The views from the top are seriously gorgeous and worth the trek, but the money to get into the castle is only worth it if you’re with someone who loves the history that you’ll find within the castle. If I were with my dad, I would have been 100% more satisfied with the entirety of the situation. The pictures of the façade are what you want anyway, so only go in if you’re wanting to check out old chapels, museums, etc. See the amazing picture above? No entry fee required & it’s my favorite one of the bunch!

Camera Obscura

[If I were tall & had crazy cankles?]

If you have kids, this is a super fun little place! You’re looking at £8.50 for adults, £6.75 for students and seniors, £5.75 for kiddos (5 – 15) and under 5’s go in free! The building is comprised of five floors of illusions (holograms, crazy mirrors, optical illusions, etc.) with the top floor containing the ‘camera obscura’ where you can get a visual tour of Edinburgh in 15 minutes! It’s actually really cool and the views from top floor are superb! Some of the best pictures that I got of the city were from the rooftop. Check these out:

I mean seriously? How great are these pictures? I have a lot more where that came from — the views are really unsurpassed. I had more fun in this building & ended up with cooler pictures than I did at the Castle!

Highlands Tour

As your recall from my recent post, I undertook the longest day tour available in all of Britain a few days ago! From Edinburgh, we traveled all the way up to Loch Ness and Inverness, the capital of the Highlands. The tour was £34 (£36 for non-students) and comprised 400+ miles and 13 hours of tour time. The tour showed me a completely different side of Scotland, plus I got to do a Loch Ness cruise! How many people get to say that? I would say that the tour was definitely worth the money considering how much was covered and the quality of the tour guide. My only recommendation though would be taking Timberbush up on their 2 or 3-day Highlands tour, instead! I thought we covered a little too much in one short day — for a bit more money you can have a much more full experience.

Lyceum Theatre

I must say, just a few days ago I was so proud of myself for snagging my Peter Pan tickets for £11 with my student ID card! It seems like a great deal at the time considering adult tickets normally go for £22. Sadly, the play was not only a waste of £11, it was also a waste of three good hours that I could have spent elsewhere, taking in the sights. I don’t know if I had particularly high expectations or if the show was just a bit of a let down, but there are definitely better ways to spend your money. Some locally made Scotch, perhaps (Dalwhinnie)?

Christmas Markets

Who doesn’t love to feel like a kid during Christmastime? Ice skating, a German market, loads of fun Christmas goodies, a ferris wheel and mulled wine… Mmm… The whole area can be accessed from Princes Street (at The Mound) and it’s 100% free to meander! Bring some cash for mulled wine and Christmas treats, though!

Rosslyn Chapel

Ahhh… Rosslyn Chapel. Who has read the DaVinci Code and not wanted to visit this place? I had planned on visiting (you can easily access it by hopping on Bus 15/15A from St. Andrew’s Square in the New Town), but decided to save that for my next journey to Scotland. With my dad and Chris visiting within the next few months, Edinburgh Round II will definitely be in order and I would like to see something new! You’re looking at £7.50 for adult entry, £6 for students and seniors and free for under 16s! Not sure if it’s worth the money, but pictures of the outside at least are worth the £1 – 2 bus fee!

Hope some of that helps someone out there somewhere who’s interested in hitting up magnificent Edinburgh. It’s truly an amazing city…

Lots of love & Merry Christmas Eve!