East London in a Cup

Originally posted on January 12, 2012


Before I left home, I pried my Oyster Card (for the tube) from my study abroad scrapbook. Despite the bits of dried glue and construction paper it was good as new when I headed to top up just off my train in London. Resurrecting the card from a dusty three-year hibernation felt like some kind of homecoming—an injection of delight back in London. Strangers defined my last five days of travel anchored in East London. Via my stay with Deepa and Trenton and my coffee-journo connection with Derek, I met East London. And apart from them, I was very alone. I researched most nights and set out with some ever-changing scribbled itinerary early every morning: to cafes, neighborhoods, markets, and side streets. So come with me. Smell the simmering curries on Brick Lane at 10 a.m., hop busses to Hackney, seek out kitschy markets, and ask baristas where to head next…

Cup | Americano at Exmouth Coffee, Yirgacheffe at 46b espresso hut, Kenya at Prufrock, Americano atWorkshop Coffee, Vietnamese iced from Ca Phe Vn at Broadway Market, Cortado at Prufrock pop-up (Shoreditch High St.), et al.

Ridiculous lineup, I know. If I met East London through strangers, I really got to know her by cup. There’s no coffee culture like the one taking over this city. Pop-ups are just as common as the mainstays, and each cafe has genuine personality and experimental coffee endeavors in the works. I met Derek at his office in Shoreditch and we crawled to some of his neighborhood favorites—from a Prufrock outpost to Protein—and all washed down with Budvar (original Budweiser) at his next-door pub. He left me with a list (and a map) of some other must-see shops. 46b was the farthest out but a sure favorite, finally found on the verge of tears after aimless wandering and wrong turns. And I finally did hit a wall at Workshop in Clerkenwell. I’d robotically ordered espresso, found a table, and realized two minutes too late that I couldn’t possibly drink another drop.

 

Plate | Lily Vanilli Bakery, Columbia Road Flower Market

The entire morning was delicious. Deepa pointed me toward the Columbia Road Flower Market on Sunday morning, and it was a true Sabbath. The city was quiet, quiet, quiet my whole way there, and all of a sudden I turn the corner onto Columbia Road. A colorful tunnel of flower vendors, families brunching, and shops with open doors painted a beautiful scene. After touring through some shops, I walked down an alley courtyard into Lily Vanilli and branched from my usual sweet tooth going for a savory, cheesy hot-from-the-oven sourdough toast (affectionately called “Stuff on Toast!”). I sat in a cobblestone roundabout to watch a haggard group of guys, The Badlands Orchestra, play familiar songs like “Wagon Wheel.” and journaled and sketched and hummed and licked my fingers. Again, bliss.

 

Table | Trenton + Deepa’s living room table

One night over biscuits and green tea, another over take-out Indian food, conversation with my two hosts was irresistible. I’ve never met anyone like Deepa or Trenton, and I don’t think I ever will. Their Whitechapel flat was odd and endearing, lots of clean white with artwork hung just a few inches too high and walls of books (some their own). Their passion for social justice and local community oozed and they were quick to give in to cultural curiosities and ask questions about me. We were all dancing between questioning and listening and getting to the heart of what we really believed. I’m indebted to them.

 

Sight | Hampstead Heath

The only time I left East London was for Hampstead Heath, a park on the outskirts of town with wooden paths, women-only swimming holes, and shirtless kiddies flying kites on the hill tops. I had torn a vague map from a free travel book at National Geographic, so I had a guide. Hampstead Heath was a dream, and I needed to process two weeks mostly spent alone in these places. So I just walked and watched and finally laid down in a knoll of tall grass, put on Ascend the Hill hymns, and balled my eyes out. It was worship, the really messy, lonely, raw kind.

Oxford in a Cup

Originally posted on November 12, 2012


The City of Little Bronze Plaques. Not the catchiest nickname, but it’s fitting. In Oxford, you should actually read all these momentous markers. Hundreds of history’s smartest men have walked these cobblestone mouse-maze streets at some point. You’re in a city that spurned a man on to change his world. You’re in a city of conversions. And chances are the bench you’re resting on in a college courtyard was graced by the buttocks of a legend. An impactful quote you’ve heard a million times may have first been spoken there, friend to friend. And even amongst all of the academia, there’s peace and simplicity to be found here too. W.B. Yeats said, “I wonder anybody does anything at Oxford but dream and remember, the place is so beautiful. One almost expects the people to sing instead of speaking. It is all… like an opera.”

Cup | Americano at The Missing Bean

Courtney, my lovely host, knows the way to my heart is coffee. She took me to The Missing Bean on Turl Street, really the only indie cafe in Oxford. It was packed out so we grabbed ours to go and headed to the gardens of Exeter College overlooking the Bodleian Library, the university’s primary (and most exclusive) library. The caffeine came at that perfect moment when you just need to take everything in without moving a limb. The complexity of this multi-college town hit me, and I felt like a very small fish in a super-human pond here… in the best way. Jericho is an area of town that seemed to have a good cafe selection. Try the Albion Beatnik Cafe, or if the name’s changed, look for one that has a wall of old books. It was closed when we passed by but seemed like a gem.

 

Plate | Tofu chili and salads at Vaults & Garden Cafe

The only notes I kept during my time in Oxford were about Vaults & Garden. It was by far one of the best meals and atmospheres of my trip. An old meeting room of the University Church, the “vaults” now buzz with a diverse crowd of tourists, professors, and families around an old-school lunch line and family-style tables. The menu is one where you just kind of drool as you read, every dish sounding as to-die-for as the last. I wisely chose the Vegetarian Tofu Chili with butternut squash, a bean salad (broccoli, fava beans, and peas), and a mint and greens salad with beet shreds. My finished plate looked like a work of art… I like to think it was.  We sat out in the “gardens,” which really are a graveyard, and ate upon the 19th-century grave of Maria, William, and Sarah Hayes. Rest in peace.
*Also, I love that a note on their website boasts “genuine and unpretentious hospitality.”

 

Table | The Inklings’ table at The Eagle and Child, Lewis Close

My main intention for time spent in Oxford rested on a pilgrimage to C.S. Lewis’s stomping grounds– Magdalene College (pronounced “mawd-lin”), his home, church, and favorites around town. Appropriately, my first night’s dinner was at The Eagle and Child. Ironically, there was a carnival raging right outside, so it wasn’t quite as Lewis would’ve seen it as he made his way there Thursday mornings to meet Tolkien and the rest of The Inklings. Somehow the table under the little bronze plaque (see what I mean) about Lewis and The Inklings was open for us, and we settled in their corner. The next day, I made it out to Headington to visit his home and parish church. It was eerily quiet around the quaint house at the end of Lewis Close, just as Lewis liked it. I peaked into the library window over his desk where his pipe still lay as I stood in the garden he looked out on as he wrote letters and books that would change my life.

 

Sight | Binsey and bliss

There’s town, then there’s the country. Heading away from city center, just past the train station and over a few bridges, there’s Binsey Lane. Take a right and behold. Courtney and I went on a walk toward the tiny “town” of Binsey, which is comprised of cows, a few crumbly, chic cottages, and The Perch. The Perch was another of Lewis’s favorites. There’s something a bit magical about it with its thatched roof and whimsical garden/yard with giant trees and footpaths. I went on a run to Binsey the next afternoon, ran down the stream, and over to Port Meadow on the edge of Jericho. I kept thinking “Bliss! Bliss! Bliss!” as I ran through the wide-open field with well-trod walking paths and a hot air balloon over head.

 

In Surprised by Joy, Lewis’s autobiography, he writes about the first time he arrived in Oxford with no plans for accommodation and no directional bearings. He headed out of the city instead of toward it, but writes about his first view of the Oxford he came to love. He wrote, “Only when it became obvious that there was very little town left ahead of me, that I was in fact getting to open country, did I turn round and look. There behind me, far away, never more beautiful since, was the fabled cluster of spires and towers.”

Dublin in a Cup

Originally posted on October 29, 2012


As I took the train south from Coleraine to Dublin, I could sense the change from the North Coast. Off the train, my first breath affirmed that it’s harder to breathe in Dublin. That painfully pure sea air was long gone, and it was time to brace myself for 36 hours alone in the capital. The city has its shining moments, but it ain’t pretty– tainted by the ghost town of Smithfield where I stayed to the menacing Guinness brewery that loomed like some Industrial Era factory oozing century-fermented stout. But it’s all part of the joy of traveling, right? Even the places that lack the warm and fuzzy are worth exploring.

Cup | Bolivia filter coffee at 3FE

No run of Dublin’s coffee scene will pass up 3FE, or Third Floor Espresso. There is a care for coffee here that’s rare in most shops. Trust me, you can trust these guys. The company went from an espresso machine in owner Colin Harmon’s third floor apartment to two brick-and-mortar locations in Dublin. I retreated to the 3FE in the Twisted Pepper lobby (Abbey Street) where I was somewhat taken aback by the experience the baristas created. I asked them to choose my coffee which they delivered in a pitcher on a wooden board and proudly poured at my table. The first line of the journal entry I wrote there reads, “I don’t feel so crazy when I’m in a cafe.”

 

Plate | Salad bar + bread from Avoca Foodhall

Five-story Avoca is such a guilty pleasure. For a traveler, you can drop in to the shop, the fifth-floor cafe, or the more-casual basement foodhall in between jaunts across the city. I went through for lunch after being in earlier browsing kitchen wares and paper goodies and ended up going back a third time to grab a free loaf of bread as they closed. Like I said, guilty. For lunch I made up a salad box of broccoli, beef, sugar snaps, and balsamic baby onions, and covered it in sesame seeds for the crunch. I took it up to this tucked away deck on the fourth floor of Avoca, took off my boots, and admired the rooftops.

 

Table | Roasted Brown (@RoastedBrown) at filmbase and music at The Cobblestone

Because I didn’t have any friends in Dublin, I didn’t share a table with any. Usually I can make a friend, but I was to tired and time seemed to short to even do that. I did however find two spots where community clearly happened. Roasted Brown is a new cafe and breath of fresh air in the cluttered Temple Bar area. It’s just up the staircase of filmbase, a non-profit go-to for local filmmakers. That kind of communal center cries out for a spot like Roasted Brown, a gathering place. They serve the same beans 3FE offers, acclaimed Has Bean Coffee, and even have house-made meaty stews. For another communal experience, check out traditional Trad music at The Cobblestone in Smithfield every night. (Thanks Caroline!) There will be more musicians than bar patrons.

 

Sight | River Liffey bridges and city parks

Dublin definitely has a Dutch vibe with the way it’s divided by the River Liffey. Now, the people aren’t quite as beautiful and the language isn’t near as intriguing, but I found the river to be a key part of Dublin’s overall appeal in the same way Dutch towns are canal-centric. Other sights were the urban parks in Dublin. St. Stephen’s Green is right in the city center and can’t be missed, especially as a picnic spot or a book break during a day of robotic walking. And Phoenix Park is a bit farther outside the center but shows off more locals and more wide-open space to stretch your legs.

Northern Ireland in a Cup

Originally posted on October 23, 2012


I saw the North Coast through the eyes of someone who adores it. That’s a special thing. It’s rare to experience somewhere alongside a friend who calls it home and boasts in deep appreciation of it. And we call Southerners hospitable? Try again. Head to the Antrim Coast of Northern Ireland. Head home.

Cup | Murphy’s Stout at “the rugby”: Ulster vs. Glasgow
Lauren and I hurried off the ferry, into her parents’ car, and straight to Pharoh’s, the family’s favorite chip shop in Belfast. We ate our fish ‘n’ chips by grease-soaked handfuls while power-walking to the stadium and shuffled into a standing spot as we joined the Ulster fan’s hallelujah chorus, “Stand uppppp for the Ulstermen.” (aka: SUFTUM, listen to this.) Lauren and I drank half pints of Murphy’s Stout as we rallied. Within my first hours in Northern Ireland I was eating fish ‘n’ chips, watching “the rugby” (as her dad called it), singing the anthem, and drinking an Irish stout. Needless to say, I was in good hands.

 

Plate | Chicken Fillet Kebab at The Wine Bar
Oh boy, this was the best meal of my trip. But I have to admit, I was just a few sips of Sauvignon Blanc away from not remembering it. Luckily, the food was that good. And so was the company. Lauren, Zara, and I met two of Lauren’s friends at The Wine Bar in nearby coastal Portrush. We waited two hours to be seated in a modern, red-lit dining room with order-at-the-counter service. We absolutely feasted. My chicken fillet (apparently pronounced fill-IT, not fill-AY) kebab came out on a hanging skewer dressed in my favorite Indian spices and dangling over a sampler platter of veg house salads. Cheesecake piled high with fresh berries for dessert, and I ate the entire thing. (I’m still a little bit confused about how I managed to do that. The idea of “sharing” somehow didn’t occur to any of us.)

 

Table | Gathering at The Rock, Portstewart Baptist Church
On our way to the Giant’s Causeway, Lauren took me to her church’s cafe that serves scones, buns, tea, and coffee on a donation-only basis every Saturday morning. The building beside Portstewart Baptist, Lauren’s church, used to be a pub, and it has seen quite the metamorphosis. Lauren, her Dad, and I sat down to be met by her mom, aunt, and “Nana” as we ate homemade scones. (Apple cinnamon for me.) Warmth oozed out of this place, and I caught a glimpse of why Lauren never quite feels at home in Scotland. Because she’s walked into this on Saturday mornings, and now I have too. This was true communion– scones and coffee, the elements.

 

Sight | Giant’s Causeway & White Park Bay
It was surreal to jump into a car and drive up the coastline to the Giant’s Causeway. I just forget that life still goes on around travel destinations, communities neighbor the Great Wall and some couples might go for a morning walk to the Grand Canyon.  In this case, Lauren lives on the Antrim Coast and drives friends past castles en route to the Causeway– a volcanic playground that’s on thousands of bucket lists and travel top tens. We walked across the hexagonal columns and up the cliff steps to a windy view of the rock-studded blue water. Later, we “paddled” (walking barefoot and ankle-deep) along White Park Bay, a beach that I could imagine Aslan walking down; it was quite Narnian. We walked up the hills on our right to wipe our sandy feet on that iconic green, green Irish grass. I laid down in a small sinkhole in the grass; it was a natural cradle.

Glasgow in a Cup

Originally posted on October 12, 2012


Over the past three years since I studied in Glasgow, Scotland, I’ve seen the whole gamut of reactions to the name. Folks tend to laugh or apologize or mistake it for Edinburgh. Did I miss something? Were we talking about the same Glasgow that swept me up, changed me, and sent me home with wilder eyes and an ache to get back? Maybe I’d romanticized her or been blinded by all the newness and independence.  This time around it only took a sunrise cab ride and about three minutes back in the West End to know that Glasgow deserves every bit of my longing. I’ll take her, in all her Scottish brogue and blue collar splendor. Here are some full circles and sights that I’m holding on to ’til next time.

 

Cup | Apple-mint tea at Tchai-Ovna

Now this was a place I had idealized since I left Glasgow but only because I never went. And I never went because I could never find it. I heard legends of tea walls and a garden and floor seating from friends and local musicians, but it was down Otago Lane which I could never pinpoint. I was determined this time; the hookah circle and the prayer flags tangled in trees told me I’d found the right place. I wrote postcards while I enjoyed a personal pot of apple-mint tea at a table outside. I was torn between that, sleepy Chai, or “Faerie’s Blood” (chamomile, berries, mint, kiwi). Tchai-Ovna is that dirty, crunchy soul-warming spot that you can’t help but be drawn to. It oozes inspiration, a travel writer’s candy, so you can bet it will appear in freelance projects to come.

Plate | Sultana scones at Kember & Jones and Artisan Roast

Where did our American scone recipe go awry? And our pastry presentation?! These dense, not-too-sweet biscuits dappled with raisins were halved, warmed, and always served with thick cuts of cold butter and red berry or rhubarb jams. Kember & Jones on Byers Road was one of the most beautiful spaces I’ve been in with a wall of cookbooks and curated kitchen goodies. I was there early and opted for a seat at the end of the central family-style table so I could watch the morning bustle and bread delivery. On the other hand, Artisan Roast was a bit more edgy but boasted an attractive barista, a whimsical vibe, and the all-too-rare pour-over option! (I went Tanzanian.)

Table | Reunions: Flat time and meals at Sonny & Vito’s and Bar Gandolfi

And this is what it’s all about–the main reason for my trip back to Glasgow was to reunite with old friends. I stayed with Lauren, my closest friend during my semester, and she epitomized hospitality. I had a cup of earl grey in my hand as soon as I arrived, my own room for the week, and she’d planned a day trip to Edinburgh (below). I was also able to meet Amy, a Florida/Washington State transplant, for dinner at a spot we’d wined and dined before– Gandolfi. And my last morning in Glasgow, I met ex-hallmate Gabby for breakfast and an arm-in-arm walk through Kelvingrove Park. She’s a magnetizing person, someone you can’t get enough of, and we were reminded of our rare friendship.

Sight | Kelvingrove Park & Park Circus

I was quite a sight running at 7 a.m. in shorts, hiking shoes, and a down vest, but I couldn’t resist! Jogging is one of my favorite ways to sightsee, and especially as the town’s waking up. There’s few things more authentic than the groggy gusto of a place– a city’s morning breath, if you will. I criss-crossed Kelvingrove Park a few times and was determined to find the base of a hilltop spire that ended up being a corner of a modern set of flats in Park Circus. If I ever move to Glasgow, I decided that Park Circus, a neighborhood overlooking the uni and park, will be home.