london // day 3

I hop on the upper deck of a 94 bus, which allows for a pleasant view of the north edge of Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park (the equivalent of taking a fifth-avenue M1, M2, M3 or M4 bus along Central Park in NYC). I stop at the bustling Oxford Circus for a stroll through SoHo. It’s honestly not the most pleasant place to be, and I’m slightly disappointed. The main street, Regent Street, is super packed with tourists and though the architecture is pretty beautiful, it’s hard to actually enjoy it. In an attempt to sooth my growing claustrophobia, I turn onto Great Marlborough Street, and again onto Carnaby Street. The latter is much quieter, and hosts a handful of smaller, more independent shops. And if you’re there around lunchtime, I recommend you try one of the eateries in Kingly Court, a charming food court at the end of Carnaby.

Because I don’t have a single cubic millimeter of space left in my bags, I completely avoid clothing stores. Anyway, it doesn’t make sense to go to GAP or H&M while in London when I can easily find the same brands back home. Instead, I enter more unique shops like the memorabilia-filled RetroCards and psychedelic cake store Choccywoccydoodah.

I reluctantly fall back onto Regent Street and head south to Waterloo Square. By a stroke of luck I discover the Institute of Contemporary Art, and by another stroke of luck it happens to be free on Tuesdays. I particularly enjoy a photography exhibit by Viviane Sassen, ‘Pikin Slee’, which my pamphlet accurately describes as ‘an investigation of the sculptural qualities of the ordinary’. The ICA’s bookshop has a wonderful selection, not only of art books but also of feminist, queer and contemporary philosophy works.

I also take a quick look around the Mall Galleries next door to the ICA. Though most of the pieces in there didn’t appeal to me (boring landscapes and such), there were a few standouts. Exhibits seem to change quite frequently so it’s worth giving the galleries a chance if you’re nearby (plus, entry is free).

On my way to the National Portrait Gallery I pass through the famous (and tourist-filled) Trafalgar Square. Just as the one in Edinburgh, the National Portrait Gallery in London displays a splendid collection of artworks. Each room has been carefully arranged and decorated with beautiful wallpapers or dark paint colors. Even if you’re not a fan of the more classic pieces, it’s nearly impossible not to appreciate the way in which the hundreds of ornate, thick gold frames contrast with the paint behind them. The gallery currently has a temporary exhibit by Snowdon, a photographer. Snowdon: A Life in View includes beautiful portraits of celebrities such as David Bowie and Maggie Smith.

I don’t have time to go to the National Gallery next door, as I have scheduled a lunch date with my good friend Eugenia. I thus head back to SoHo and meet her at Bone Daddies, a hip ramen restaurant. Eugenia orders the Mushroom Ramen, while I get the Ramen Salad. My dish is a delicious noodle salad garnished with asparagus, sweet roasted corn and a generous portion of moist chicken. Yum.

Eugenia and I have a lovely lunch, catching up on as much as we can. She has actually made it all the way to SoHo from her internship just to see me, and I completely understand when she has to rush to get back to work. Before we split ways, Eugenia kindly invites me over for dinner on Thursday, an offer that I cannot decline. It’s been so long since I’ve seen her and her family!

Once again on my own, I pass through London’s tiny Chinatown. There, I get a pastry from Golden Gate Cake Shop, one of those cute hole in the wall bakeries I often go to back in Manhattan.

Next stop: the National Gallery. I won’t go into details about this equally beautiful museum, but I will mention one piece that you cannot miss: Marc Quinn’s Self. The latter is a sculpture of the artist’s head made of...his own blood. I’d heard of it before - in art class, I believe - but what really gets me is that Quinn makes another of these sculptures every five years. Some people think it’s plain gross - I agree that it’s gross, but it’s also greatly innovative.

And the crazy museum spree continues. It appears this trip is full of unexpected discoveries, as I stumble upon the Korean Cultural Centre, which just happens to have a fashion exhibit. Style Sharing displays the creations of ‘Korean designers inspired by British life’. Highlights include playful collar shirtdresses by Hyunsoo Heather Park and retro-colored, collage-like pullovers by JMoon. Very inspiring.

I then visit Somerset House, where I get to participate in an interactive exhibit called Census. First, I pick up a card at the entrance of the exhibit. The latter allows me to enter my responses into four different machines in the room, each focusing on a different theme (Social, Healthcare, Community and Trust, if I remember correctly). It’s basically like taking a manual Buzzfeed quiz, except there’s no end ‘diagnosis’. Instead, the card gives you access to the results of the census, allowing you to compare your results to others who have taken it. It’d be really neat to have one of these spaces at McGill.

Adjacent to Somerset House stands the Courtauld Gallery, which has many famous impressionist works on display. Though I am not a fan of impressionism (at all), the space itself is a pleasure to walk through, and it’s hard not to be a little starstruck upon standing face to face with masterpieces such as Van Gogh’s original Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. Free for students!

I notice Covent Garden isn’t too far and decide to pay it a visit. I had expected an actual garden, so I am quite confused when I arrive in front of a place that is clearly not a garden. The main attraction at Covent Garden is the Apple Market, an indoor market hosting stores, restaurants and artisan stalls. Again, it’s pretty touristy but there are a few shops worth checking out. I’m thinking of the nostalgic Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop, where one can find delicate pop-up books, old-fashioned puppets and dreamy doll houses. Another great find is Joy, which may look small from the outside, but actually hides a lower floor full of colorful clothes (Olympe would love them) and quirky home accessories.

On my way back to the 94 bus stop, I enter Hamleys, the local equivalent of FAO Schwartz. Just like FAO, Hamleys is crowded, overpriced and lacking its past charm. What bothers me the most is the fact that the first floor is ostensibly geared toward girls - with its stock of Barbies, dolls and ‘LEGOs for girls’ (WTF is up with those anyway?) - and the second floor is clearly targeting boys. Does no one else find this problematic? How does such a popular store get away with this? Once I temper my feminist rage, I am able to marvel at Hamleys’ collection of Sylvanian Families (also known as Calico Critters in the States). I nearly purchase a red British telephone booth for my future kids, but upon remembering how full my bags are, decide against it.