Last but not least, London

My husband and I concluded our UK trip in London, which defied all expectation with sunshine for three days straight! Given this was the last leg of our trip, we lacked the energy to explore many interiors of buildings, but we were both okay with that (this was his first time and my second time in the city).

View of the Thames with the London Eye on the distant right and Houses of Parliament on the left.

We stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast in the neighbourhood of Pimlico, just south of Westminster. It was a perfect spot to enjoy a walk along the River Thames towards the Houses of Parliament or catch the tube or bus to other parts of central London.

Don’t you love these colourful doors?

I like doing walking tours of a city. London is too big to cover in one tour, so we focused on one close to our neighbourhood—Old Westminster by Gaslight offered by London Walks. It was great!

Houses of Parliament. The Jewel Tower is on the right (more commonly referred to as Big Ben). It was under scaffolding so we couldn’t see much of it.

I learned that the two bridges nearby are contrastingly painted green and red to mimic the colours of the two Houses of Parliament (Commons and Lords, respectively).

Westminster Bridge (green)
Lambeth Bridge (red)

We walked down a picturesque street featured in the recent Mary Poppins Returns movie (with Emily Blunt) and stood near doors of political intrigue, hobnobbing, and alliances.

As befits its name, gaslight was a big theme of the tour. I forget how many gas lamps there are still in London but this neighbourhood around Parliament has a large concentration of them that are still manually lit.

Another neighbourhood we enjoyed walking around was Bloomsbury. After getting our feet wet in the overwhelmingly massive British Museum, my husband found a bookstore that occupied him for a couple hours and I found a rubber stamp store—Blade Rubber! Turns out they’re the only rubber stamp store in central London. I told the clerks these stores are going by the wayside in Vancouver too, so it was serendipitous to stumble upon one. I naturally bought some rubber stamps to take home for my card-making.

We enjoyed peering at treasures of the written word in The British Library—the first folio of Shakespeare (Henry VI), early editions of the Bible, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Brontë sisters’ tiny cursive to save paper and money, the Magna Carta, The Beatles’ lyrics scribbled on a napkin, and so much more. We were really hoping to catch the Lindisfarne Gospels after our visit to Durham Cathedral but unfortunately, they weren’t on display when we were there.

As art lovers, we did tour the National Gallery one morning and then enjoyed a free lunchtime concert (pianist and violinist) at the adjacent church St. Martin-in-the-Fields, well-known for helping homeless and vulnerable people. This Anglican Church serves a delicious and reasonably priced hot lunch in their crypt!

St. Martin-in-the-Fields is in the thick of the action in Trafalgar Square.
Interior of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Note the unusual cross in the window.
Christ Child sculpture by Michael Chapman at the entrance to the church. From this view, you can see the neoclassical architecture of the National Gallery.

Moving from sacred to secular, my husband and I had watched Paddington before taking this trip and fell in love with this orphaned bear. So we made a pit stop to the tube station whom the bear is named after.

Other transit hubs with notable sculptures include King’s Cross Station where there’s always a line-up to don a scarf and pretend you are off to Hogwarts. We didn’t bother waiting in line although my photograph fools you into thinking you can just go right up to it. You can’t. And they take it away after hours.

Connected to King’s Cross Station is the striking St Pancras railway station with a hotel on one side, seen in the image below.

Here are two famous churches we saw from the outside. On our last night, we decided to keep it simple though and enjoyed a low-key picnic dinner in St James’s Park.

St Paul’s Cathedral
Westminster Abbey

What better way to end our vacation? Green grass, blue skies, and a patch of our own to watch Londoners go by.

Thanks for following with me as I’ve toured you through our trip! If you’ve been to any of these places in England and Scotland, let me know what your impressions were and favourite things you did.

Going Underground

This was an exciting week, getting to see this piece I began a year ago find its home on the pages of Maisonneuve magazine.

The teaser for it:

As she rides the SkyTrain, Charlene [ . . .] longs for the sounds of the Underground.

To go with this text, here are some images of the Underground I took in the London Transport Museum a few years ago:

The London Transport Museum is located in Covent Garden and is actually a pretty cool museum. It takes you through the history of London’s transport system, from horse and buggy to steam cars and the present-day tube and double-decker buses, with life-sized models of all the various machines.

My Literature and Place class took a field trip here because understanding the history and importance of the tube to London was essential for some of the stories we read, such as Charles Higson’s “The Red Line.” I recommend it if you’re in the mood for a sad read where so many bad things could have been avoided if people thought differently. The way the Underground was marketed highly played into an essay I wrote about it, hence the many photos I took of the ad posters.

Harry Beck’s iconic Tube map makes for some creative interpretations. On the left is a version made from ‘tubes’ of paint. Clever, eh? There’s also a Lego and flower version featured on this blog. The possibilities are endless. I’d put up this map in my apartment.

And because I reviewed The Great Gatsby a few weeks ago and liked it, I’ll leave you with a Gatsby-inspired tube station makeover, courtesy of @LovelysVintage:

If only all tube stations looked this good all of the time!

What I Missed While Running Around Trying Not to Miss Things

“I literally ran in and out of the British Museum.”

These were the words of a friend over lunchtime at Herstmonceux Castle.

Mondays were the days all the students rehashed their weekend excursions to London. With such a short study abroad program of only 6 weeks and many of us never having crossed the Atlantic before, our weekends were packed with sightseeing adventures in the country’s capital. And weekend trips to London here and there were definitely not enough to see everything this fabulous city has to offer.

British Museum in London (Photo from Wikipedia)

Hence my friend’s comment, which I laughed at because it sounds silly to run in and out of a museum that one could easily spend a full day in, and yet totally understandable because sometimes it’s easier to step in and step out of a place just to say you’ve been there.

Turns out in her haste, she had missed the Rosetta Stone – the crucial text in deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and the most visited object in the British Museum. I guess it’s easy to miss what you don’t know is there.

The Rosetta Stone behind glass

“I’ll need to go back now,” she concluded.

I chuckle at this story but I have my own Rosetta Stone that I need to go back for in the British Museum. Except it’s not the Rosetta Stone – it’s something much less easy to miss and therefore that much more embarrassing – the Reading Room.

I even snapped a photo of the outside!

The Reading Room in the Great Court. Kind of invites you in with that stairway . . . (Photo from Wikipedia)

This gigantic dome room sits in the middle of the Great Court, a two-acre public square. Inspired by the domed Pantheon in Rome, The Reading Room is built of cast iron, concrete and glass, and the roof is surprisingly made of papier mâché. Until 2000, it wasn’t even open to all museum visitors. People who wanted to read here had to apply in writing and receive a special ticket by the Librarian to access it. Such people included Karl Marx, Lenin, Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle, Virginia Woolf, and Oscar Wilde. How I would have loved to step into the space that Oscar Wilde sat in, studied, maybe even penned The Picture of Dorian Gray, one of my all-time favourite books.

Here’s the beauty I missed:

Panoramic view inside of The Reading Room (Photo from Wikipedia)

Sadly, I didn’t know at the time what this room was or else I wouldn’t have walked by it in my rush to see other things. Have any of you had a similar experience with a famous sight you accidentally missed out on?

I’ll leave you with some images I did manage to see:

The Egypt Collection

A larger-than-life Pharaoh bust

Aphrodite caught unawares


Replica of Parthenon in Greek collection


Elgin Marbles, East Pediment of Parthenon

The British Museum Reading Room by Louis MacNiece

Under the hive-like dome the stooping haunted readers
Go up and down the alleys, tap the cells of knowledge —
Honey and wax, the accumulation of years —
Some on commission, some for the love of learning,
Some because they have nothing better to do
Or because they hope these walls of books will deaden
The drumming of the demon in their ears.

Cranks, hacks, poverty-stricken scholars,
In pince-nez, period hats or romantic beards
And cherishing their hobby or their doom
Some are too much alive and some are asleep
Hanging like bats in a world of inverted values,
Folded up in themselves in a world which is safe and silent:
This is the British Museum Reading Room.

Out on the steps in the sun the pigeons are courting,
Puffing their ruffs and sweeping their tails or taking
A sun-bath at their ease
And under the totem poles — the ancient terror —
Between the enormous fluted Ionic columns
There seeps from heavily jowled or hawk-like foreign faces
The guttural sorrow of the refugees.

The Object I Photograph the Most

While flipping through a scrapbook I made after a trip to the UK in 2009, my friend commented, “You take a lot of pictures of bridges.”

She said it casually but her comment stayed with me. It’s like someone drawing your attention to a phrase you always say that you weren’t aware of before, and now that you are, you’re almost paranoid to use it in any subsequent speech.

I looked through my scrapbook again. She was right. Bridges were everywhere.

The drawbridge of Herstmonceux Castle I studied at that magical summer

London’s iconic Tower Bridge

My favourite pedestrian bridge – Millennium Bridge in London

Another shot of this bridge with St. Paul’s in the background

If you love bridges, go to Newcastle – it’s a feast of bridges for your eyes!

Another Newcastle bridge – how cool is this design?

somewhere along the Royal Mile in Edinburgh

Why do I love bridges so much? I love their silhouette against the night sky, their shape on a city skyline. I love what they represent, their liminality – neither here nor there. In between. Connecting places, connecting people. Crossing what was previously uncrossable.

I love how I feel when I walk and drive over them – a little bit nervous, like the good kind of nerves you get before you’re about to go on a roller coaster and you know it’lll be fun and you’ll love it, but you’re not there yet so you’re still nervous. Caught in a middle space. I love how the very act of crossing a bridge changes you, how walking across time and space makes you different somehow when you reach the other side.

new Port Mann Bridge when completed

Apparently, I’m not the only one who loves bridges. On Global news a month or two ago, Mike McCardell did his human interest feature like he always does at the end of the news hour (my favourite part), where he interviewed a young couple in Surrey who spent their summer evenings watching the new Port Mann Bridge get built from the deck of their home. In fact, I think the man said he built the deck just so he and his wife could have front-row seating to view the graceful white cables of this bridge stretch out over the Fraser River, supporting what will be a 10-lane bridge, 65 m wide – the widest in the world.

The couple said watching the bridge after they came home from work was how they liked to unwind. When asked why, they said it was peaceful. No irritating construction sounds from their idyllic spot in the distance. And the view changed each night before their eyes, like their own home theatre – the landscape their screen. Movies aren’t the only things that move you.

If this couple felt moved just by looking at the bridge, imagine what you feel when you drive over it. A little bit like reaching for heaven.

View looking up from Port Mann Bridge. Photograph by Lisa King

Great Expectations

The title drew me to Dickens’ novel. I suppose that Charles Dickens should have been enough incentive to pick up this book, but in any case, I was intrigued by the notion of expectations, great expectations . . .

  • whose expectations?
  • expectations for what?
  • did they come true?

expectation: The action of waiting; the action or state of waiting for or awaiting (something) – Oxford English Dictionary

This is the way I understood “expectation” upon opening this book. Pip, the young orphaned narrator, is waiting for something. He’s waiting to be something. A pretty yet heartless girl he falls in love with at an early age calls him “common,” and this word propels him to pursue the life-long task of “making [him]self uncommon.” He wants to get on in life and be somebody.

Luckily, he gets the opportunity to do this due to the “great expectations” of a generous benefactor. And this is when I clued in that Dickens was using “expectations” in a completely different way in the 19th century.

And the communication I have got to make is, that he has great expectations . . .He [is] to be immediately removed from his present sphere of life and from this place, and be brought up as a gentleman – in a word, as a young fellow of great expectations.”

expectations: Prospects of inheritance or of profiting by testament – Oxford English Dictionary

Pip learns of his expectations

So there went my expectations for what I thought the title was referring to. Yet I like the mixture of both these definitions and how they correspond to Pip’s journey in this coming-of-age story (also known as a bildungsroman). With the status and money of a gentleman comes certain social and moral expectations. This story is very much a story of how Pip wants to but doesn’t quite live up to these expectations. These expectations get shattered, in both senses of the word.

Pip leaves his “common” life on the wild Kent marshes for a taste of the “uncommon” life of a gentleman in the big bad city of London.

“Is it a very wicked place?” I asked.
“You may get cheated, robbed and murdered in London. But there are plenty of people anywhere, who’ll do that for you.”
“If there is bad blood between you and them,” said I, to soften it a little.
“Oh! I don’t know about bad blood,” returned Mr. Wemmick; “there’s not much bad blood about. They’ll do it, if there’s anything to be got by it.”
“That makes it worse.”   

Pip sitting with the beautiful Estella and Miss Havisham

“You think so?” returned Wemmick. “Much about the same, I should say.”

Despite my own shattered expectations for the title, I loved this novel. I love books that surprise me in whatever way – like teaching me new definitions for words I take for granted. One critique of Dickens if I may be so bold: he should have stuck with his gut instinct on the ending. Give me a sad but truer ending any day over a more hopeful yet less convincing one.

An Olympic poem in honour of the athletes

Shakespeare said

all the world’s a stage

and the world’s watching London


I’m watching it

on a television screen

and little snippets I can

sneak in here and there

on my computer

when I’m supposed to be working

I’m not the only one, right?


For two weeks

every four years

the world is watching,



getting inspired


we can’t get enough

of excellence

of seeing one of ours get

awarded with a medal

and hearing that song —

our song

fill the stadium

more goosebumps than I ever got from standing in the cold


then the athletes

come and go

and we say,

“see you in four years”

as if four years

happens as fast

as pressing power on the remote


athletes, you’re on,

but what about all that time

in-between when you’re not on?

toiling away in obscurity,

like this warning sign from Cambridge’s website

to deter all but the most dedicated graduate students,

You will spend long hours in the library working on a topic which on a black day might seem to be of interest to no one else in the world. You should bear in mind that you will probably be poor, and that you will almost certainly have to spend a great deal of time reading material which you find unappetizing in order to master your chosen field.

So British, eh?

no sugar-coating, no beating around the bush

You could substitute gym for library,

training for reading,

and say the same thing

for athletes and their 6 am practices,


and persistence in

repeating the same strokes, lifts, throws, routines,

to be as best as they can be


when the world finally opens its eyes

and all that toiling in darkness

comes into light

and we celebrate with you

because you’re glowing


but what about those times when you do better in the dark?

when you race the fastest

without the pressure of

a million eyes


on and off

aren’t just settings on TV

we take it for granted

you’ll always be around

doing what you love

because that’s what you do, right?

you’re a runner, cyclist, swimmer

you’ll always be one


but sometimes this really is


and we probably won’t appreciate

everything you did

until we don’t see you in Rio

because there’s nothing more present

than absence


you’re off the stage

the curtain closes

and our watching turns to remembering.


to all the athletes who toil away in obscurity

to those who shine in the spotlight and those who shine when it’s off

and to those whose last act is London – Clara Hughes, Brent Hayden, Simon Whitfield,

this one’s for you — 

thank you.

by Charlene Kwiatkowski

Clara Hughes. “I really hope that maybe people will remember the way that I did what I did. Not what I did, but the way in which I did it.”

Brent Hayden. “I think tonight was just about digging down deep, right into my soul . . . There are so many times when you dream about something and a million out of a million-and-one times, it won’t come true.”

“Yeah, it was hard. It was hard to see my daughter upset, my wife upset, and I was pretty upset. Ah, that’s life. That means it means something, doesn’t it?”