December 18, 2004

It's time to say goodbye…

If I had to sum up my week long trip in Austria & Czech Republic in one word, it would definitely be "WOW!" What a way it was to end off my school term in England. I'll try not to be too long-winded ;p

On Sunday morning, we took a taxi to Coventry Airport (the airport is so small that check in, security, waiting lounge, and departure gates are all in ONE room) to catch our 6:15am flight to Salzburg. Neither Rachel or I could speak any German so we basically relied on my Lonely Planet German phrasebook for the next few days. Luckily, loads of people could speak decent English in Austria. Right after the airport shuttle dropped us off near the main train station, we ran to the nearest bakery to grab some pastries. After spending 10 weeks in the UK, we were looking forward to some decent food. We dropped off our bags at Yoho International Youth Hostel Salzburg and headed out to the city centre. Salzburg is SMALL. I wouldn't recommend spending more than 2 days there because the sights and attractions are quite limited – unless of course you are a Mozart (or Sound of Music) fan… then you can spend a lifetime there because this city really knows how to milk it for all its worth. There are cardboard cutouts of Mozart EVERYWHERE advertising the famous Mozartkugeln chocolate balls with Mozart's face imprinted on every one of them. There's also a Sound of Music bus tour but we weren't big enough fans to spend 35 euros on it. We decided to pay nothing and walk to Schloß Mirabell gardens (where the Do-Re-Mi number is shot) to get a few decent pictures. The gardens were beautiful and very well maintained but unfortunately, quite a few parts were gated off. We couldn't run through the tunnel like the Von Trapp kids but then again we weren't exactly heartbroken either.

We left the gardens and went straight to the Christkindl Markets. There were booths everywhere (think of Night Market but way classier —> no Afrodog panties or fake Gucci bags) selling everything from glühwein (mulled wine = hot wine with spiced flavor) to Christmas ornaments and giant pretzels. The food was amazing… I had a bosna (hot dog with this yellow spice sprinkled all over it), roasted chestnuts, hot chocolate, kinderpunsch (the guy laughed at me because only kids drink this stuff), and chocolate dipped pretzels all within a 2 hour span. I think I gained about 3 lbs right there. We visited some of the touristy sites like Salzburger Dom and St. Peter's Cemetary. We walked back to the hostel and met up with a girl who had just finished her exchange term in Spain. She knew a couple of good restaurants in the area but they were all closed on Sunday so we walked back to the city centre and looked for a decent restaurant. There was one that specialized in Austrian, Indian AND Italian food. We all thought it was a tourist trap (unless the chef was an Indian who was born in Italy but moved to Austria, there was NO way this restaurant would have good food) so we kept walking and stumbled on a place recommended by a helpful Salzburg brochure. Zwettler's Stiftkeller was an amazing little place. A little pricey but oh so good. I had a garlic soup and roast pork with authentic dumplings. My body weight was increasing by the minute but I didn't care. What a pleasant reward after enduring the subpar food in England.

The next morning, we woke up early to catch the 8:10am train to Vienna. We arrived there early so we hung around Anker Bakery until my UBC friends picked us up. I wasn't too pleased when I had to pay €0.50 to go to the toilet at the train station! Julia and Jen found us and we walked back to their residence. It was so nice to see familiar faces from Vancouver! They both had classes that day and Abby & Belinda wouldn't get back from Spain until later that night so we dropped our stuff off and explored the city on our own. We bought a Sisi combo ticket which included admission to the Hofburg (Kaiserappartements, Sisi Museum, Silberkammer), the Kaiserliches Hofmobiliendepot (Imperial Furniture Collection), and the famous Schonbrunn Palace. We decided to pace our cultural intakings so we only visited the Hofburg on Monday. It was the residence of the Habsburg dynasty for over 600 years. Next, we visited the awesome gothic St. Stephan's Cathedral which lies right in the middle of the city. We joined the catacombs tour which was a fantastic experience. The internal organs of the Habsburg family is actually buried here in bronze containers and the bones of over 15,000 Viennese have been stacked on top of one another for the last 300 years in these catacombs. After, we took the elevator up the north tower and got an awesome view of the entire city. There wasn't too much shopping available (nowhere near the quality and variety of Dublin and London) so we found a small Italian cafe and snacked on the popular apfelstrudel. I also introduced the glorious taste of Illy coffee to Rachel. She was definitely impressed! We returned to my friends' rez and chilled there for a bit until Abby and Belinda got back from their trip. Poor Julia and Jen had to study for one of their upcoming exams. We hit up a local pub – Kriterium (literally a 10 second walk from their place) for dinner and had a somewhat early night.

The next day, all the girls still had classes so we went off on our own and took the metro to the Schonbrunn Palace. I can't even begin to imagine what it would be like to visit this place during high season because there were tour groups EVERYWHERE. All you could see were various coloured umbrellas in the air as tour guides rambled on in a million different languages. We then took the metro back to the Ring (where most of the city centre is located) and visited the Kunsthistorisches Museum which consists of 8 collections and contains impressive treasures from Ancient Egypt, Classical Antiquity, Middle Ages, Renaissance, and the Baroque Era. This building is absolutely gorgeous both on the exterior and interior level. All I can say is the Viennese really know how to design and build monumental buildings. Highlights included the Peter Paul Rubens exhibition and the Viennese silver collection. We ventured to our final stop of the day to the Museum Judenplatz. Outside the museum was a memorial erected to the Austrian Holocaust victims. We went back to the girls' dorms and waited until everyone was ready to go out for a meal. They brought us to a chain restaurant pub called Centimeter – they sell food at a specific price per centimeter. There are supposedly 6 of them all around the city but they were all completely packed due to the national holiday on December 8 (Immaculate Conception). Luckily, we were able to snag a table but we had to squish 8 people around a table designed for 4. We ordered the famous scheibtruhe or "wheelbarrow" which is exactly that. There is a smorgasbord of local Austrian fare all served in a garden wheelbarrow! No idea what the food really was but it was good nevertheless! We ate till we were stuffed and by the time we were done, it was past midnight. We had a 6:34am train to catch the very next morning to Prague so I decided to pull an all-nighter and just stay up chatting with the UBC girls. Rachel managed to get in a couple of hours of sleep before we had to leave Vienna.

Before we hopped on the train, Julia had warned us not to sit in the compartments alone because of safety issues so we were determined to find an open area. However, we walked onto the wrong side of the train because we kept walking past an endless number of compartments so we determined that maybe this train only consisted of these isolated compartments. We found an empty one and closed the blinds so that no one would come in. We were rudely awakened about 10 minutes later when the ticket officers were making their rounds. The guy could speak minimal English but we quickly realized that we were sitting in the wrong area so we got our bags and finally found some seats in the open area. For the next five hours, we snoozed until we arrived in Prague.

Once we arrived at the train station, we were approached by various locals trying to rent out their accomodations. We obviously stuck out like a sore thumb (me being Chinese and Rachel not looking European at all). They spoke perfect English but the same couldn't be said for the rest of the locals who worked in the station. They couldn't speak any English whatsoever and often ignored us. It took us a while to exchange some money and figure out what tram to take but we managed to arrive at our hostel – Sir Toby's in one piece. The day was still young so we checked in and took the tram to Pražský hrad (Prague Castle). We should have taken the other tram because we had to walk up about 500 steps to get to the castle. The ticket included admission to various buildings within the grounds. I wasn't too impressed with most of the buildings but St. Vitus's Cathedral was something else. It was one of the most impressive cathedrals I have seen to date. Since the castle is located on a hill, we could easily see the entire city and view was absolutely magnificent. We also got to see the changing of the guard which is nothing like the one at Buckingham Palace. It's more simple, a lot shorter in length, and WAY cuter guys :)

For dinner, we tried to go to a place recommended by Lonely Planet but unfortunately their meal deal was only available during lunch so we walked around and found a tiny cafe that served Czech food. We both got a goulash and a bottle of coke for just under 3 quid! I was already falling in love with this city! The shops were closing so took a tram back to the hostel and decided to take advantage of the ridiculously low prices for food and enjoy some dessert and coffee at La Baterie Cafe which was a couple blocks away from the hostel. The place looked really posh (similar to the lounges in Vancouver) and the prices were reasonable. Since we were no longer in the tourist area of Prague it was not surprising when we found out that our waitress couldn't speak ANY English. We had no idea what kind of desserts were available so we basically just pointed to random items and hoped for the best. Our favourite dessert was the medovnik (honey cake) which looks really unappetizing but has an amazing taste.

In the morning, we paid 80 Kc for an all you can eat breakfast in the hostel. They had everything including fruit, yogurt, ham, cheese, buns, toast, cereal, juice, hot drinks, and even NUTELLA! We went crazy (or at least I did) on the food and ate as much as I could. We met this Welsh guy who has been teaching in Japan for the last 5 years. He was absolutely hilarious. We chatted for a bit until we realized the time so we head off for St. Nicholas Church. We were originally planning to walk across Charles Bridge into Old Town and explore for a bit until our tour at 14:00 of the Jewish Quarter but there was a small change in plans because we spent over 1.5 hours ON the bridge just walking from stall to stall admiring (and buying) the crafts, jewelry, etchings, paintings etc. We finally made our way to the Old Town and waited by the Astronomical Clock (note: don't bother waiting for the clock to put on its little show every hour because it's quite anticlimatic) for the tour to begin. The guide took us around the six synagogues within the Jewish Quarter and talked about what life was like for the Jews in this area. It was quite informative but not too captivating. For dinner, we went to Cafe Louvre which has been open for over a century. It has a great atmosphere and the food was unbelievable. I had a french onion soup, pork medallions with traditional Czech dumplings, ice cream (9 Kc = $0.50 CAD per scoop!) and a drink for under $15CAD INCLUDING tips. Now that is a deal.

The next morning, we decided that we couldn't pass up on the breakfast deal so ate like crazy again. We took the metro to the Florenc bus station and attempted to find the bus which would take us to Terezin, a Nazi transit camp in WWII. It felt like we were part of The Amazing Race because the bus was about to leave in the next 5 minutes and we had no idea where we were. Fortunately, we finally found the information centre and the lady told us in broken English the correct bus number. We didn't want to wait another 30 minutes for the next bus so we ran to the bus bay area and I quickly spotted the Terzin bus. We made it with 30 seconds to spare. The bus ride only cost us $3 CAD and transported us 50km northwest of Prague into the desolate town of Terezin. This town was absolutely dead. There were only a handful of other tourists walking around during the entire day. During WWII, Terezin held about 60,000 people in a space originally meant for 5000. Over 35,000 Jews imprisoned here died from disease, starvation or suicide. It was definitely a surreal experience as we walked past the mass graves of innocent victims. The Ghetto Museum preserved loads of children's drawings depicting the brutality of the Nazis. The most vivid experience for me was walking through the Small Fortress which became the Prague Gestapo's prison in 1940. It was heartwrenching to see the cells where the prisoners were kept. I could only begin to imagine what life was like during those treacherous years.

We took a bus to Litoměřice which is 5km from Terezin and walked around the town until it was time to catch the bus back to Prague. We dropped our bags and went to Rustika for dinner. The food was ok but it wasn't as good as other meals we had before. We bumped into our Welsh friend who invited us out for drinks in Wenceslas Square. He had met some locals and they were going to show him around so we tagged along. The first couple of places were completed packed (probably because it was Friday night) but we managed to find a small table so we sat down. We didn't anticipate that they would be having 5 beers so we didn't get back to the hostel until the wee hours of the morning. Don't worry, I only had 1 beer (not a big beer fan) and it only cost me 20 Kc = $1CAD.

Prague is one of my favourite cities. Do yourself a favour and go there before it gets too touristy and the prices become inflated. The city is gorgeous and the food is tasty and cheap. What more could you want?

The last three months has been quite the experience. For any of you who are thinking of going on exchange, don't hesitate and just go for it. This is something I'll remember for a long time. The best part? The friends I have met from all over the world. Now when I return to Europe and beyond, I'll actually have places to crash at. :)

Final Total: £2,514.45

December 03, 2004

10 Days till Vancouver…

I'm officially one term away from graduation! I completed my last exam (I only had 2 anyways) this morning and now I can just enjoy the final week and a half I have left in Europe. I know that none of you have even started writing exams… life sucks eh? ;p
Good luck to all of you and study hard…

I've got a couple of days before I leave on a jet plane to Salzburg. We'll be spending a day there and then taking the train to Vienna to meet up with my fellow UBC Commies who are studying at Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien (please don't ask me how to pronounce that!). After a few more days, we're taking yet another train to Prague and then flying back to London Stansted on the 11th. I can't wait to be all touristy again! I just hope I won't freeze my butt off… the weather is supposed to be quite harsh at this time of the year.

Total: £1,304.12

That's right. I haven't spent a single pence since I last updated, albeit that was only 2 days ago. Now, I'm going to make this a lot more interesting… post what you think my final total expenditures will be and the person who gets closest to it without going over will win a prize! I promise that the prize won't be lame (ex. an official Universty of Warwick serviette – NEVER say "napkins" because the locals will think that you're asking for a certain feminine product). Remember that the current total does not include the plane ticket to Salzburg or the return flight from Prague to London. Also, the above does not include my accomodations fee for the term (£760). Happy guessing!

December 01, 2004

Handel's Messiah

I just came back from a fabulous performance of Handel's Messiah at the Warwick Arts Centre. One of my friends is a member of the University of Warwick Chamber Choir so I went for moral support. Tickets ranged from £8.00 – £29.50 but I scored a standby ticket (only available to uni students) for only £6! The best part? I got a seat in the fifth row so the opera soloists were practically spitting on me! I had never heard Handel's Messiah before in its entirety but I was very impressed with the music. The London Mozart Players made up the orchestra and they were accompanied by 4 soloists and the Chamber Choir. It was a fantastic experience and it was very cool to see the performance after I had just seen a copy of the masterpiece in Dublin.
2 more days left before the term ends!

Total: £1,304.12

November 30, 2004

London again?

After spending over 17 hours in the Learning Grid on Saturday and Sunday working on assignments and essays it was only fair to reward myself with a trip to none other than London. Ok, I definitely wasn't willing to reward myself that much by spending another 30 quid on a return train ticket but I bought a 8 day flexi rail pass before arriving in England and I had one day left on it so I thought it would be appropriate to use it on a day trip to the capital. Yes, it's my fourth time there in 70 days but as the old saying goes, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." This city still continues to impress me. Of course every city has its bad charcteristics and London is no exception. Rush hour human traffic is atrocious (there's no such thing as "personal space" in the Tube) and the cost of living is astronomical but there's just something about this place… can't really describe it.

Anyways, I got up early on Monday morning to take the train to London Euston. First stop: British Museum. This place is fantastic. There's way too much to explore and see so I just focused on the Egyptian galleries. Highlights included the Rosetta Stone, the Nereid Monument and the Reading Room.
I also paid £3 to see Mummy: The Inside Story which is basically a 3-D film revealing the secrets of a real mummy. Through CT scans, scientists were able to find out everything about this 3000 year old body from the cause of death to the facial structure.

After fulfilling the educational portion of my day, I walked to Covent Gardens to grab a quick bite at Food for Thought which is a tiny vegetarian restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet. I bought a Mexican hot pot chili and a slice of their famous brown bread for a little over £4 which hardly constitutes a deal but I was very impressed with the food. It was probably one of the better meals I've had since arriving in England (how sad is that?). Anyways, I shopped around and then took the Tube to Oxford Circus, home of the famous shopping district. All the Christmas decorations (The Incredibles theme!) were up on Oxford St. and it was such an awesome atmosphere although it was getting a little too crowded for my liking.

Since I missed church on Sunday, I had planned on visiting Soul Survivor Watford which is a 20 minute train ride from central London. This is the home church of THE Tim Hughes. I quickly found out that he is currently on a Soul Survivor USA tour so I bailed on that idea. I instead stayed in London and visited Westminster Cathedral to join their 17:30 Solemn Mass. Westminster Abbey (which everyone knows about) is Anglican but Westminster Cathedral is Roman Catholic. I thought it would be cool to check out a Catholic Mass since I got to experience an Anglican service already in Dublin. The service was quite short (the guy's sermon was only 4 minutes long! * hint hint PJ *) and ritualistic… lots of standing up and sitting down and kneeling down. They swung that ball of incense around the ENTIRE service. It was very interesting but definitely not my cup of tea. After service, I took the next train back to Coventry and made it just in time for my last 10.25 cell group meeting. I can't believe it's the last week of uni here for me but it's been a fun ride and I'm going to savor the last few school days I have left (along with the 2 exams I have to write on Thursday and Friday!).

Total: £1299.84

November 23, 2004

Guinness + More Guinness + ∞ Pubs = Dublin

I just came back from a 4 day trip to the capital of Ireland. It is definitely a trip I'll never forget! Australian Amy, American Rachel and myself had planned to meet Canadian Jasmine in Dublin on Thursday night (since Jasmine was flying from Manchester). We took a 15 minute train ride to Birmingham International Airport where we were scheduled to fly to Dublin via Ryanair at 19:00. While we were waiting in the airport lounge, we noticed that quite a few flights were being delayed. We breathed a sigh of relief when we were told to enter through Gate A to board our plane. We walked through the gate but something just didn't seem right. We realized soon enough that we were re-routed to the arrivals section (where you claim your baggage after the flight). A Ryanair representative told us that our flight had been CANCELLED! Apparently, it was snowing quite hard outside and the plane could not land in Birmingham and was instead sent to London Luton. As you know, since Ryanair is a no-frills discount airline sevice, they do not provide any compensation whatsoever for cancelled flights. All you get is a refund on that leg of the journey. No accomodations, no upgrades, no anything! We basically had 2 options: (1) try to get on a Ryanair flight the next morning (2) try to book another flight to Dublin with another operator. Option 1 was not feasible because there were no seats left on the Birmingham – Dublin flight the next morning and we would have to either bus to Manchester, Bristol or London Stansted (Ryanair would not reimburse these transporation costs either!) to fly out the next morning. Also, there was no guarantee that seats could be secured on those flights. We all still wanted to go to Dublin so cancelling the entire trip was not an option and we didn't want to leave Jasmine stranded on her own in Ireland. Option 2 was looking quite bleak since there were no more flights heading to Dublin that night.

As the girls were queuing to determine which morning flights still had seats remaining, I was eavesdropping on a conversation and found out that there was an Aer Arann (an Irish low-cost operator) flight at 20:00 from Birmingham – Galoway. Yes, I too had no idea where the heck Galoway was located. I soon found out that this city is on the other side of the island (Dublin = east coast, Galoway = west coast). We all just wanted to get to Dublin in the shortest amount of time possible so we booked the flights (at £60 a pop). Our journey from Birmingham – Dublin – Birmingham only cost £37 return and Ryanair would only refund the outward leg to Dublin so our trip just got $100 more expensive. Some Irish locals told us that we could try to catch the 02:15 train from Galoway to Dublin. We went back to the lounge and this time we were really able to board the plane. The plane was extremely small (2 X 2 seating) and the journey was a bit rough but we did get there in one piece.

There were a couple of guys who were also on the same flight and they managed to have a mini-coach ready to pick us up at the Galoway Airport. I can't even officially call this place an "airport" because it was basically a 2 room warehouse. You walk off the plane, enter the building, pick up your bags from the 10m long conveyor belt, and walk out the building. They actually feed your checked-in luggage through this hole from outside and it only takes 5 seconds before the luggage rolls off the belt. This place was so hick that we didn't even have to pass customs! By the time we got into the coach, it was already midnight and we were exhausted. The journey took 3.5 hours mainly because the "highway" had a 40 mile speed limit and we were constantly passing by small towns and villages. The coach driver was nice enough to drive us directly to the hostel. We paid our €32.50 each for the ride and finally checked in.

Jasmine was in my room so I told her the whole story (at 03:30 in the morning!), took a quick shower, and finally got to bed at 04:30. We got up at 08:00 because we had to walk to the Shelbourne Hotel to join the Wild Wicklow Tour. For €25, we got a short city tour, a coastal drive past DunLaoghaire Harbour, Dalkey and Killiney (home to the rich and famous like Bono, Enya, Lisa Stansfield, Elvis Costello), a tour of the 6th century monastic settlement in Glendalough, and a scenic drive through Sally Gap (where most of Braveheart was filmed). It was a lovely tour and we got to see some unbelievable scenery. Check out the pictures to see what I mean!

Just before it was time to go for lunch, our guide opened a whole bottle of Irish whiskey and filled our communion size cups to the rim (we had asked for 1/2 a cup but he just filled it up anyway) and made a toast. I'd never had whiskey before but it instantly warmed up my entire body. This stuff is magical! We stopped at a local pub for lunch and we all ordered traditional Irish stew (which was fantastic!). I also ordered a pint of Guinness with a hint of blackcurrant juice (to make it less bitter). I should have ordered 1/2 a pint because my face got completely red (I'm so weak when it comes to alcohol) but don't worry, I wasn't drunk (at least I don't think so!).

We got back into Dublin at around 17:00 and decided to do some shopping before the shops closed for the day. We headed to Caroll's, a one-stop shop for all kinds of Irish souvenirs. We also discovered this wonderful clothing store, Penney's, which had fantastic prices. The quality for the price was amazing. I picked up scarves for €4, pajama set for €5, and a dress shirt for €7! We were so thrilled to score such awesome deals. We went to a local pub for dinner (restaurants are SO expensive in Dublin… early bird menus range from €15–30 per person!) and headed back to the hostel to get some decent rest.

The next morning, we picked up some maps from the Dublin Tourist Information Centre and visited most of the attractions including Trinity College (where the Book of Kells is located), Dublinia (a fun & informative medieval re-creation of Dublin's history), Christ Church Cathedral (Dublin's oldest buildling) & Dublin Castle (today it is the venue for presidential inaugurations).

We stopped for lunch at a small cafe which served traditional full Irish breakfast. I split a jumbo one with Amy. It consisted of toast, grilled tomato, egg, ham, sausages, hashbrowns, and white & black pudding. Black pudding basically looks like a charcoal in the shape of a mini-muffin. It is made of pig's blood, suet, bread, barley, and oatmeal. You cook down the blood with the filler until it is thick enough to congeal when cooled. White pudding is less black because it consists of the same ingredients minus the blood. It's a weaker version of black pudding. Needless to say, Amy was quite grossed out so she opted to forgo her portion of the pudding and I got to eat all of it. As an individual with a Chinese background, black pudding scores a 1 on the gross scale. When you grow up eating everything from chicken's feet to pig intestines to turtle jelly, black pudding is a walk in the park. Now, I must say, it wasn't particularly good… quite tasteless in fact. But it definitely wasn't "gross". Jasmine had some of it too and the other girls just kept cringing :)

Just before heading to the musical pub crawl, we went to McDonald's (an interesting note: Australians pronounce it as "MACDonald's" instead of "Mic-Donald's") for a quick bite. The fast food chain is definitely less expensive than England but is still quite pricey. Our happy meals cost €3.50. At 19:30, we met upstairs at Oliver St. John Gogarty's to join the Traditional Musical Pub Crawl. For €8, two Irish musicians equipped with a fiddle and a guitar, brought us to a couple traditional pubs and in the process, explained the history of Irish music through tunes and songs. It was a fantastic experience and the musicians were hilarious. We visited the Ha'penny Bridge Inn (named after the Ha'penny Bridge – it was called that because it used to cost 1/2 penny to cross the bridge) and the Isoldes Tower. I think we were the only ones who didn't have a single drink during the "pub crawl". Everyone else was downing Guinness like it was the end of the world.

At the end of the tour, the two guys suggested a few places to hit up to experience some good Irish music so we went to DeVitt's which was a couple blocks from our hostel. We had a drink and chatted for a bit while listening to some locals strut their stuff. We headed back to the hostel and decided to sleep in for once.

We woke up and decided to attend a Sunday morning service at St. Patrick's Cathedral. The eucharist service started at 11:15 and ended at 12:30. It was definitely a surreal experience. Having the opportunity to recite the Lord's Prayer in such an amazing building was so awesome. The choir was so beautiful and totally enriched the atmosphere of the service. After the service, we were invited for tea and coffee in the back of the cathedral. We even got to tour the cathedral without paying the admission fee! Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels was buried here and Handel's Messiah was peformed first in this cathedral.

After church, we headed back to Grafton St. (equivalent to London's Oxford Street) for some more shopping. All the Christmas decorations along the pedestrian only street added to the festive mood. We stopped by Penney's again to pick up some more goodies. We were having such a blast just walking around and soaking in the atmosphere. They even set up a stage across the street for an Irish gospel choir to sing some tunes. We killed some more time before heading to Arlington Hotel to enjoy some dinner and traditional Irish set dancing (think Riverdance!). The dinner was quite pricey but it was really fun just listening to a group of old Irish men with mandolins, guitars and an accordian singing Irish songs. The dance performance was awesome and lasted for a good 1/2 hr. After the evening ended, we went back to the hostel to pick up our bags and took a taxi to the Dublin Airport.

Our flight wasn't until 06:30 but we couldn't justify paying for another night at the hostel especially if we would only get a couple of hours of sleep anyways. We weren't the only ones with that idea as the airport was filled with people sprawling over chairs and trying to get some sleep before the early morning flight. We managed to find a quiet place and settled down to sleep but we were woken up a couple of drunk 60 year old women (yes they were THAT old!) who were yelling and cursing at everyone and everything. I was really impressed with the number of ways they could implement the F-word into their conversation. They woke up the ENTIRE airport and it didn't help that some Russian guys were encouraging their drunken behaviour. We tried to get back to sleep but we were kicked out of the area by airport security because the cleaners had to vacuum the floors. We went upstairs and found an empty table and managed to keep ourselves entertained for another 2 hours before we could check-in. Jasmine and I tried to name all 50 states and Rachel tried to name the 10 provinces. That was more than enough to keep up busy at 03:00 in the morning!

Despite the unexpected mishaps on the way to Dublin, we had a brilliant weekend exploring the city. The Irish are amazing people and their accents are so cool! You know that there's something special about this city when a national emergency is called if there is a brewery strike. :)

Total: £1,148.55

November 16, 2004

Toad in the Hole!

I had an interesting breakfast the other day. A friend had recommended that I try a "Toad in the Hole" = two thick pork sausages in tasty, crisp Yorkshire pudding. I bought the frozen version and popped it into the oven for a good 1/2 hr. The result wasn't too different from my Bangers 'N Mash experience. Check out the pictures to see what I mean. After I finished my "meal", there was more than a tablespoon of oil left behind. With about 20g of fat per serving, I'll be leaving the toads behind.

On another note, my precious Samsonite travel hairdryer decided to blow up on me so I either had to buy a new one or visit my favourite website: eBay. I chose the latter and scored a £0.99 brand new Boots travel hairdyer + £2.00 shipping. I am so impressed with Royal Mail! I won the auction on Saturday night, paid for it on Sunday, and got the item in my hands by Tuesday morning. How fantastic is that?

I'm off to Dublin in 2 days! Bring on the Guinness!

Total: £842.92

November 14, 2004

Cambridge & Sunday Carvery

After attending church this morning, I met up with Amy (from Australia) for lunch at Xanana's. No this wasn't just any lunch. This was a traditional Sunday carvery with a choice of two succulent meats (turkey or beef) with all the fixings including yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes & assorted veggies topped with unlimited gravy and other condiments all for the low, low price of £5.95. Ok, the price wasn't exactly low but it was decent food. Sunday carveries are huge in the UK. My flatmate grew up eating roast dinners EVERY weekend. I don't think I ever eat this sort of food unless it's Thanksgiving or Christmas.

On Saturday, I visited Cambridge. Every year, the International Office organizes day trips during term time to various parts of the country. I had always wanted to go to Cambridge so that I could compare it with Oxford but the train ride from Coventry takes more than 3 hours with multiple station changes. I realized that the north-south routes within England are very efficient but the same can't be said for the east-west routes. Our coach ride from the uni to the Cambridge city centre only took 1 hr 45 min.

Once we arrived, Niklas (from Germany) and I went directly to the Tourist Information Centre to book our walking tour tickets. You miss out on so much if you attempt to explore a city without a tour guide. Most of the other students were roaming around aimlessly and opted to see the city on their own. The 2 hour walking tour is well worth the £8 ticket price because it includes admission into King's College Chapel (£3 for students). Our guide was this cute old lady who had been doing this for over 30 years. You can totally tell that she loves her job. She knew the history of every single building and told us loads of amazing stories. She was so awesome she even extended our tour for another 1/2 hr so she could show us more stuff!

We made our first stop at The Eagle, the oldest pub in the city dating back to the 1600s. It is still a popular student hangout today. What's so cool about this place? This is the same pub where Francis Crick announced to everyone that he had found the "secret of life." Both Crick & Watson spent much of their time at this pub and now there is a plaque commemorating their double helix discovery. Ironically, right across from the pub, is the oldest building in the city… St Bene't's Church. If only there was a pub across from RCAC :)
Another interesting note is that there is one window on the second floor of the pub which is ALWAYS kept open regardless of whether it's raining or even snowing. Why? Apparently, one night several centuries ago, there was a horrific fire that burned down most of the pub. A little girl was burned alive because she could not get the window open and escape. The window is kept open to this day so that one day she may return.

Afterwards, we walked to the various colleges including King's College, Trinity College (there have been 33 Nobel Prize winners from this college alone!), & St. John's College. Every college is self-sustained. They all have living accomodations, a library, a dining hall and a bar. What more do you need? :)

We also saw the "Backs" of Cambridge. This is where you can take a punt along the river and get breathtaking views of 6 colleges. A punt is a flatbottomed boat without the keel. It is similar to the gondolas along Venice's canals but wider and uglier. You propel the punt with a 16 foot long pole which is also used to steer the punt. There is also a paddle included if necessary. You can rent punts by the hour or you can get chauffered around. Many people who go punting for the first time end up in the water because the pole gets stuck very easily and unless you let go, you will fall into the water.

After the tour, we stopped for a quick lunch and got a closer look at some of the colleges. I must admit, after a while, all the colleges look alike. We also visited Fitzwilliam Museum which houses a smorgabord of ancient relics including Greek & Roman art, Chinese ceramics, Egyptian artifacts, and also a few galleries of paintings covering all the eras. It was not too impressive. After visiting the major museums in London, it's difficult to be impressed with anything else.

It was freezing the entire day. It hardly rains in Cambridge but it is SO cold. Good thing I brought my scarf and mittens with me.

There was a graduation ceremony held for some students so we got to see them in their convocation gowns and fancy suits. They would walk through the streets of Cambridge and many became an instant tourist attraction. Many tourists (including myself) jumped at the chance to take pictures.

So which university city do I like more? I would have to say Cambridge. The colleges are more spread out (in Oxford, they are very close to each other). It's definitely more scenic and just has a more prestigious feel to it.

Total: £833.99

November 11, 2004

Tourism Coventry & Free Food

I just came back from a civic reception with the Lord Mayor of Coventry at St. Mary's Guildhall. Why on earth would I go to something like that? It was completely free! Well, it wasn't the only reason but I can't say "no" to free food. The International Office organized this event for all the international students. Interestingly enough, out of the 100 people who managed to get tickets, 90% were Asian. Chinese people can't resist anything that's free. A couple coaches took us to the city centre where we met the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress in the guildhall. The Lord Mayor had all this bling around his neck which was quite amusing. How come Malcolm Brodie doesn't wear that? I think it would triple his coolness factor.

St. Mary's Guildhall is one of the finest medieval buildings in the UK dating back to 1342. Kings & queens have dined there and even William Shakespeare visited the place a few times. Queen Mary of Scots was held prisoner here for a few days.

The Lord Mayor did a welcome speech and then the directory of city development did a presentation on how great the city of Coventry is. Apparently, Coventry is a touristy town because over 5 million people visit the place each other. Too bad he forgot to highlight the fact that Coventry has the highest crime rate per capita in the WORLD. ;p

After all the talks, there was a buffet which wasn't too bad. The best part? Open bar! All drinks were completely free. It was hilarious to see all the bright red faced Asians holding bottles of Smirnoff Ice. I know, I know… I've got the "it looks like I'm completely wasted" gene as well so I only had an apple cider with 4% alcohol content. All in all, it was a good evening spent meeting some new faces and pigging out on free food.

Total: £808.93

November 08, 2004

London, Part III: Afternoon Tea, West End Show, & Camden Market!

I just came back from an amazing weekend in London! Yes, I know it's my 3rd time there in 5 weeks but this place is just so appealing. You can easily spend a week here (but you'll have to mortgage your house) and still not be able to see everything. Also, Guy Fawkes Day is the only "holiday" I get to celebrate in the UK (they don't have Remembrance Day or Thanksgiving) so I HAD to go to London.

I left on Friday morning after my Investment Management lecture (I had to skip Corporate Strategy… you gotta make sacrifices, right?). For some odd reason, the train ride only took 70 minutes (usually it takes 1 hr 45min) so I got there early and checked into the hostel: Globetrotter Inn. For any of you planning a trip to London, this is THE place to stay. For £17–19 a night, it's a steal! This place just opened in October and it's SO clean. Friendly staff, clean bathrooms (probably cleaner than the ones in your own house!), comfortable beds… it's hostel heaven! There's even free continental breakfast every morning included with your stay. The amenities are impressive: internet access, lounge area with pool tables, 24 hour access to industrial size kitchen, a mini grocery store on the premises and even a cinema room with loads of bean bag chairs & a wide selection of DVDs you can borrow from reception. Check out the pictures so you can see for yourself.

I dropped off my bags and decided to go to the Natural History Museum for a bit before going to Kensington Palace to meet my UBC friends (studying at Lancaster University) for afternoon tea. The museum was great and there's loads to see but I only got to spend an hour there. There was supposed to be a Poo - A Natural History of the Unmentionable exhibit but when I asked one of the staff, she said that it was being displayed in another museum at the moment. It was quite an embarassing conversation.
"Uhm… can you tell me where I can find the poo exhibit?"
I had to ask 2 people that because the first didn't know where it was located ;p

At about 3pm, I went to Kensington Palace to meet up with Jasmine and Lisa. They had arrived on Thursday because their bus ride to London takes SEVEN hours. Their uni is way up north not too far off from Scotland. Afternoon tea @ The Orangery was one of the cheaper offerings in London. For £8.95, you get a choice of tea (only about 5 different choices) or coffee, 4 cream cheese & cucumber sandwiches, 1 raisin scone with clotted cream & strawbery jam, and a slice of "Orangery" sponge cake. These were all served on ceramic dishes rather than bone china. The service was somewhat slow and I wasn't too impressed with the food but then again, it's 4x cheaper than The Ritz so I guess I can't really complain. The room was very beautiful (all in white). That was probably the best part about the experience. Afternoon tea @ The Empress Hotel in Victoria doesn't seem so expensive after all. I highly recommend going to The Secret Garden Tea Company in Kerrisdale if you're into that sort of stuff. You get more selection of food & pastries and a choice from over 30 different teas.

It was too late to visit the inside of Kensington Palace so we made our way to Southwark Park to see free fireworks. The fireworks were nowhere near the quality of HSBC's Celebration of Light but it was still fun. We met up with Lisa's friend, Rob, who had driven up to London from Bristol to join in on the festivities. We also met Rob's friends, Sam & Gerald, from London. We decided to go for dinner so the locals brought us to Belgo's, a hip seafood joint close to Leicester Square but there was a 1/2 hr wait (this was at 11pm!) so we went to an Italian place instead. The set meal consisting of a starter & main dish cost £8.90 which wasn't too expensive ($20 CAD) but the food wasn't too good. The soup was watered down and my lamb cutlet was subpar. It's true when people say that you can pay good money in London and still get crap food. It was getting really late so we headed back to the hostel and got to bed at 2am.

We got up for breakfast at 8:30am and set off for Westminster Abbey. There are over 3,300 people buried IN the church. Some notable names include: Geoffrey Chaucer, Rudyard Kipling, Sir Isaac Newton, George Frederic Handel, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning & many of the kings and queens of England. Next, we went to Knightsbridge to visit Harrod's. I had already been there before so I went on my own to Harvey Nichols (a very upscale department store) and shopped along the main street. As I was heading back to Harrod's, I noticed snow falling from the sky! It was actually soap foam being pumped out from the roof of Harrod's! They hardly get any snow in London so the Brits have to get really creative.

We met up with more of Rob's friends and ate Malaysian food in Leicester Square. The food was actually authentic! They had everything from meh goreng to roti to laksa! For 6 quid, I got a huge bowl of lo meen which was quite tasty. It was a very good deal according to London standards. Some people ordered cold HK style milk tea but it was pretty gross.

After lunch, we went straight to Phoenix Theatre to catch the Blood Brothers at 16:00. It's not a very well known show in North America but it has been running for 17 years already! We got our half price tickets from and the seats weren't too bad. The music was catchy and the acting was awesome especially by the lead actress! We didn't know that the show would last for nearly 3 hours so we had to rush to Ravenscourt Park to see the fireworks. Our pre-paid tickets cost £3.50 but there were loads of people more than willing to fork over £5 for entrance. When we got there, the bonfire was already lit but it was quite the sight. The fire was MASSIVE. We found out later that some people could see the bonfire from the roof of the hostel (the park is one tube station away from the hostel)! The fireworks were a major disappointment because it was drizzling the entire night so the clouds were blocking most of the fireworks.

We met up with Rob's friends again for dinner and they had suggested a tasty place at Earl's Court but it was full of people so we decided on Italian food again. This time, the food was way better. Lisa, Jasmine & I shared a pasta and pizza and it only cost us £4.50 a person. We tubed back to the hostel and had planned on watching a movie in the cinema room but we finally met our other roommates (they had come in really late the night before and we had left in the morning before they woke up). They were Americans working (social work) in the UK through BUNAC. They were staying at the hostel until they could move into their flat in London. They intend to stay in the UK for 1 year but their visas expire in 6 months. Canadians who work through this program can stay in the UK for 2 years with no problems. I guess the anti-American sentiment is quite prevalent in the UK!

The next morning, the girls had to make their way to Victoria Station to catch the 11am bus back to Lancaster and Rob had to drive back to Bristol so we said our goodbyes and headed our separate ways. I had the option of taking any train back to Coventry so I decided to make use of the full day in London. I went to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. The admission was free but I wanted to see the special Raphael exhibition so I paid £4 for the entrance fee. It was so cool to see the works of major artists like Michaelangelo, van Eyck, Vermeer, Botticelli, da Vinci and Monet. The highlight was definitely Van Gogh's Sunflowers.

I decided to check out one of the famous markets in London so I went to Camden Town. I had hoped to go there for an hour and then go to Steph Zee's old church to join their worship service. That didn't happen because I spent more than 3 hours roaming around the market! There was SO much to see (and buy)! It was incredibly crowded but that was all part of the fun. It was nothing like Richmond Night Market. There were the few stalls which sold fake LV bags and cell phone accessories (operated by none other than Chinese people) but there was so much more. There were magic mushrooms EVERYWHERE. They even had a shop called "Amsterdam in London". I wasn't sure if bargaining was allowed so I scoped out the whole place before strategically making my purchases. The prices varied by quite a bit even for the exact same product. For example, I bought a set of 6 panoramic pictures of London for £3.50 but there was a stall just 5 minutes away selling 4 of the same pictures for £5. I bought quite a lot but they were all extremely good deals!

Afterwards, I visited Tate Modern, the largest modern art gallery in the world. I only spent 45 minutes there but it was free so I can always go back on my next trip to London (whenever that might be ;p). All the major artists were represented including Monet, Picasso, Dali, Pollock & Warhol. They had all kinds of crazy art like a canvas covered with blue paint and nothing else. There was an interesting piece called "Double Captain Sh!t and the Legend of the Black Stars". The artist, Chris Ofili had actually won the Turner Prize (and became £20,000 richer) for his art. This is the same guy who caused an uproar when he unveiled " The Holy Virgin Mary " which is the artist's rendition of the mother of Jesus but covered with elephant dung. You too can be a proud owner of his "smelly" works for a low asking price of $45,000. This gallery is a MUST see for anyone who is even remotely interested in contemporary art.

One of Rob's friends had mentioned Hillsong London so I walked from Tate Modern to the Mermaid Theatre to join their 17:30 service. I was shocked when I arrived because there was over two hundred people QUEUING to get in! This is the first church I've ever seen that require people to queue. You can't even get a seat if you're 5 minutes late! The theatre seats about 500 people but Hillsong offers SIX services on Sunday (and another one on Saturday)! I heard that every service is packed and they often have to turn people away. A couple of the girls I sat next to said that they often come 1/2 hr before the start of the service so they can actually get a decent seat! The atmosphere was absolutely incredible. They had a full worship band with 25+ people in their worship choir and another 5 main singers in the front. Many of the songs I had never heard before but they were quite catchy so it was easy to join in. Their weekly announcements are in VIDEO format which was very cool (similar to those entertainment updates on CityTV in Vancouver) The congregation consists of over 3000 people which is impressive considering they had a hundred or so just a couple years back. It was quite the experience and this is something I will remember for a long time!

Total: £797.51

NOTE: London IS expensive! I managed to spend close to $500CAD in 3 days but it was well worth it :)

Some of the pictures have been uploaded. A few more are on the way. If you want to see a small video clip of what worship is like at Hillsong London, shoot me a message and I'll send it to ya!

October 31, 2004

Manchester: Crazy for Football

I woke up today for church and realized when I got to the bus stop that I was an hour early! Even after the International Office had emailed me AND my mom had reminded me to change my clock, I still forgot! Boo... I can't believe I forgot about that precious extra hour of sleep!

On Saturday, I went to Manchester to meet up with Edwin (UBCer studying @ Lancaster ) and his corridormate, Adam. I have no idea why they call their roommates "corridormates" and not "flatmates". Maybe it's because they are from the north. Anyways, I was supposed to meet them at Trafford Centre. I was going by train and they were driving down. It just so happened that they closed a section of the main street so I couldn't take the bus. Luckily, there were a couple of guys who were also going to Trafford Centre so we shared a taxi and headed there. The guy even offered to pay for my fare! (Brits are, in fact, very nice people!) Trafford Centre is a HUGE shopping centre (100,000 sq. metres of retail space, 150 acres & 10,000 parking spaces). It has the largest food court in all of Europe! The food court has a ceiling very similar to Caeser's Palace in Vegas. We ate some lunch and split off to do some shopping. I found a cute pink jacket for only £18 (original price: £45)!

Afterwards, Adam took us on a tour around Manchester. We saw the Old Trafford stadium and the City of Manchester Stadium. We couldn't park and check it out because England was playing Australia that day in a rugby match. There was this odd looking durian-like sculpture outside of the City of Manchester Stadium. It is supposed to depict the "explosive burst of speed at the firing of a sprinter's starting pistol." After its completion, it will become Britain's tallest piece of public art. How much did it cost taxpayers? £1.4 million! If you ask me, it's a waste of money. But then again, who am I to judge? (Especially when my home province decided to spend $450 million on "fast cat" ferries). Anyways, it's amazing that this city can support 2 Premier League football clubs. The City of Manchester Stadium seats 45,000 and Old Trafford seats 65,000 people. Adam has been a season ticket holder for the last 8 years (he supports Man. City rather than United) and he told us about next weekend's game between the two teams. Man. City hasn't won at Old Trafford for the last 20 years but he will be there with another 3,000 Man City fans trying to outchant the other 62,000 Man Utd fans. I hope he doesn't get mauled!

We decided to catch an early dinner on The Curry Mile. It is Manchester's equivalent to The Strip but instead of hotels, there are curry houses. Adam took us to his favourite restaurant and it was a brilliant choice! We shared some kebabs (no idea what kind but it was delicious) for starters and each got a curry dish. We were so full after the meal so we decided to walk it off and walk to the City Centre. Manchester is known for its vibrant night life but the streets were quite dead (maybe because it was only 6:30pm!). The University of Manchester is located right in the downtown area so we passed by loads of students. The streets were very poorly lit and the city has a reputation for being quite dodgy (UK's equivalent to "sketchy") at night. I'm so glad I decided to go to Warwick instead of Manchester for exchange! After the walking tour, the boys walked me to Piccadilly Station so I could catch my train. Unless you're a die-hard football fan, there's not much to see in Manchester. It's only worth a visit if you plan to make a short stopover for a couple of hours.

BTW, I added some pics to the galleries so check it out!

Total: £570.20

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