Sunday, April 10, 2011


I've been so busy with weird-ass meta stuff (purpose statements, tumblr posts, twitter shit, self-promotional gar-bage) and fiction that I'm frankly intimidated by trying to wrangle actual experiences into some kind of a narrative.

I should also note that BECAUSE of all the meta crap, this post has taken me an unholy long time to write and generate images for (mainly maps! helpful maps.) (So, forgive the delay, if you please.)

But, you know, there's posterity and memories and such, so.

For the two people who DIDN'T read a previous blog entry, or any Facebook statuses, or look at photos on Facebook or Tumblr (because I have been blathering on about it online for WEEKS!), I was invited to the Royal College of Art in London for an interview after applying for the Innovation Design Engineering program in January. My flight from Omaha went Saturday, March 12, and landed in London on Sunday, March 13. My interview was on Tuesday, March 15; my flight back to Omaha was on Wednesday, March 16. I was only moderately terrified, and frankly as much worried about getting my pocket picked while walking about London as I was about making a good impression on the interviewers.

The flight out went reasonably well, even given a scritchy pilot who insisted on several extra safety checks before we ever got off the ground in Omaha. (Internal monologue: never flying continental/united again. . . never flying continental/united againall lies, as I will fly whoever gives me cheap tickets.) O'Hare is O'Hare is O'Hare, which is to say, big and calf-achey and panicky if you have to sprint across it, which I did not, through some miracle of plane traffic control.

I was on an old plane as I winged my way across the Atlantic, as evidenced by the movie selection: There were four. And no games. (I am obviously spoiled.) The plane food had nothing on Delta or British Airways, but both the flight there and back had really excellent salad dressing, oddly enough. I was droopy but sadly unsleeping, even though it was pitch-dark outside my tiny round window, even though my flight left late in the afternoon, even though my chosen reading material was to bone up on my research papers in case my interviewers should happen to ask about them (which they did not! curse their eyes!) Bless the Nook; with the screen turned down to the lowest brightness the battery lasted easily through the eight-hour flight.

The flight arrived in London just a touch late, at 7:30 AM. Apparently early morning is the time to get to Heathrow; both of the other flights I've been on that have gone through there ended with all the passengers having to go down a wheeled staircase, pile in a bus, and be hauled slowly -- ever so slowly! -- back to the terminal. But no, we wheeled in there most authoritatively up to one of the long, long zig-zagging back-and-forth skybridges.

Customs went by in a blur of trying to sneak glances at my fellow waiting passengers' passports. The (white, oddly enough) girl in front of me had a passport issued by the Republic Namibia. Sadly there were hoards of yammering bleach-blonde Americans stuffed into line behind me -- saggy sweatpants, probably Uggs, and painfully loud voices. Customs man asked me questions -- what was my purpose in the UK? How long would I be there? What graduate school, exactly, was I interviewing at? -- simple enough, but probably the first time I've actually been asked questions at customs, so accompanied by a mild flurry of panic.


A mile-long walk through the airport led me to the Underground airport station, covered in posters for a movie called something like A Whole Nuva Hood, with an offensive racial caricature to match. Good to know that the Brits have asinine taste in movies too. Above the ticket machines, which were probably installed in the 1980s, hung light-up signs to indicate whether each machine was taking bills, coins, and/or credit cards. The machines were going out of order one at a time when I arrived, so I got to wait in a line of confused people to purchase my £5 ticket for the twenty-thirty-minute ride into central London. It was fourteen stops, I guess. I spent the ride in a haze, trying not to fall asleep in an awkward position on top of my suitcase. The neighborhoods scrolling across the window from me were passionately Londonish: grimy, aggressively respectable, squat houses, built in stone and brick, housing developments from the Victorian or Edwardian eras or the 1940s, all sprouting a huge host of chimney pots. I have never seen so many chimney pots, spreading away in all directions! Across from me two girls sat, chatting about silly things, and I tried not to make it too painfully obvious that I was peacefully eavesdropping on their probably very ordinary accents. Unfortunately I was tired-staring at whatever happened to be in my line of site, so avoiding the creepster aura was probably a futile attempt. I have no memory of what they were saying, but the rhythms were very soothing.

Two days before the trip, I had laid out all my outfits, lined up across the kitchen floor. I was under the impression that it would rain, so I had two skirt-shirt-and-tights ensembles to avoid the puddle-wicking effect of jeans. I took my dad's silver Swiss Army carry-on, primarily because it has a variety of fascinating pockets and looks more like something a competent and confident interviewee would be pulling along that the somewhat battered 8-year-old black rolly suitcase I usually use. Ahem. In any case, that and my green canvas H&M bag (which my mom had kindly sewn an extra pocket into for extra security before departure) were dragging, as was my ass, by the time I got to the hostel, a mere five blocks or so from the Underground station. I checked in with minimal difficulty but found that I could not actually CHECK IN, to sleep, until 2 PM. It was 8:30 AM at this point.


I took my snappy little silver carry-on downstairs to the luggage room, where it was one of three or so suitcases, and paid two chunky pound coins (seriously! they're like a quarter-inch thick. More substantial than the Euro, the dollar coin, and the 100 yen coin all put together. The pound is a Self-Possessed Coin.) into the pay locker to keep my Nook and iPod safe.

After calling to reassure my mom (at about 2:30 am Iowa time, erk) that I was still alive, I set out, to wend my way through the intensely respectable neighborhood of my hostel.

I have included a map as an aid to reader comprehension (with pictures added from Google Maps of things that I forgot to take pictures of, oops, but still thought were interesting. Click for larger.)

Thus, we can see the route of the Sharon as she trekked from her hostel (the faint blue line.) I had my priorities straight: I wanted to be absolutely certain that I could find the Royal College of Art, in order to avoid a panicked dash on the morning of the interview. I had printed out maps from Google, cut them down to size, and slotted them into the back of my Moleskin. I found this system to be awfully convenient and nowhere near as obvious or awkward as a guidebook (much though I love my Lonely Planet guides, I don't particularly enjoy whipping them out and flipping through a hundred pages to find one relevant map.) I felt bizarrely competent as I was only really lost once or twice during the whole visit. In any case, I knew that morning that if I could get to the southern edge of Hyde Park, I shouldn't have any difficulty finding the school.

The houses around my hostel could have been in the Back Bay, if the Back Bay was even more upright and proper and similar and expensive-looking. Lexuses and BMWs and probably Renaults and Peugeouts lined both sides of the street, and there were magnolias and dogwoods already blooming. I turned on Gloucester Street going north. I passed St. Stephen's church (shown in the map above), mainly notable for a sign saying something to the effect of, "If you are Anglican, this is your parish church." I had thoughts of Mary Beth and church hopping.

I stopped in a bakery-style shop with samosas and various other (presumably northern?) Indian foods being sold a la cart. The samosas -- which came in veggie, chicken, and lamb -- were 80 pence apiece and the first relatively inexpensive thing I saw. And -- I have a certain odd anxiety about eating in restaurants in foreign countries? Even if I speak the language, and am just going to have a pastry and milk or something? Part of it is worrying about spending money on something that might not be very tasty; part of it is sitting by myself at a table; part of it fearing that the waiter/host/owner will throw me out yelling, "WE DON'T SERVE FAT SLOPPY AMERICANS IN T-SHIRTS HERE, THANK YOU VERY MUCH."

So I bought two chicken samosas. At the next convenience store, about a half-block away, I bought a 500 mL diet Coke. I sat on a bench at a bus stop and ate. The samosas were highly spiced and, it quickly became apparent, a mistake. I only ate the (rather soggy) wrapper of the second one and burped -- turmeric? curry? something -- for the rest of the day. Hyde Park was another ten minutes from there. I resisted the urge to take a photo of the Alfred Memorial (shown on my map) because I had no idea what it was and it seemed silly to take pictures of every shiny thing I came across. After the fashion of many an American tourist, I was deeply amused by the British children I overheard -- if you are British, forgive me. If you are American, imagine a three-year-old saying, "You're a rotten banana," with an English accent, and giggle with me. Bah-nah-nah!

I found the RCA. You can also a little snapshot of that on my map. Suffice to say, it's homely: The central building is about seven stories tall, could be Brutalist (or just sloppy), concrete and glass, some reddish off-black color. Kind of like buildings 12 and 13 at MIT. I hope it was a postwar replacement for something that burnt down, because it was kind of a shock, coming between an elegant Victorian or maybe Edwardian hotel and the Royal Albert Music Hall. I guess I attended a pretty homely (eclectic, at least) school for four years (the view onto Killian aside) and came out of it the better person, so that's not such a helpful judgment to make.

I turned down the next street to head toward the Victoria and Albert Museum, which has collections of art, furniture, textiles, architectural detailing -- basically any creative thing ever. It had been recommended to me by a friend of my mom's, a well-traveled and most knowledgeable museum curator. The building that housed said museum was monumental and visibly scarred by 1940s bombing, little round chunks of stone missing in sprays across the sides. I found the side entrance (mostly blocked by construction fencing; I think they were replacing the street pavement.) I checked my phone. 9:30.

(Photo taken from the side entrance of the V&A Museum. You can see the missing chunks.) I spent the next thirty minutes sitting in a daze on a bench by the main entrance on Cromwell, staring across the street at a little bunch of the iconic red telephone booths. A lady sat down next to me to drink a coffee and eat a pastry. I felt guilty about my samosas.

At about 9:50 I realized that all the other touristy folk were waiting at the top of the regal entrance staircase, so I staggered to my feet and joined the herd. The herd largely consisted of young women in black-rimmed glasses, messy buns, tights, short slouchy boots, and floral printed or denim creased cotton tunics. The thought "maturing hipster larva" floated across my mind.

(Shown: Majestic entrance.) They let us in. All the state-run museums in London are free, though they have multiple signs posted begging for donations, but the special exhibitions cost extra. Standing in a line seemed like the thing to do, so I shuffled over to the round desk in the center of the three-story entrance hall and paid my eight pounds. I had no idea who Yohji Yamamoto was, but an exhibit on the "life and work of [a] celebrated and enigmatic fashion designer" sounded pretty good to me.

I can't say I found his work super attractive, per se, but it was presented beautifully in the style books and movies around the edges of the exhibit. It was one of those unearthly white box rooms, double-height, with dark steel scaffolding-style screen separating out an aisle for video screens on one side of the room, and faceless mannequins scattered in groups throughout wearing the original pieces. Yamamoto had (has?) a thing for unorthodox presentation -- a men's show of suits entirely modeled by women, a men's show entirely featuring skirt-like legwear (kilts, sarongs, and the like), a show modeled by alternating Gypsy bands while the other bands played, a show modeled by a British rock group dancing across the runway. The clothes themselves were . . . textural. I wish I'd been able to take pictures, but there were docents floating around everywhere, and it was too damn early to be yelled at to put away my camera. In any case, there was a lot done folding and pleating, knit materials, felt, and interesting joinery.

I was pretty impressed with the rest of the museum. It was organized in unusual but sensible ways -- for instance, all the Chinese arts, from prehistoric to modern, were in the same room, instead of grouping them expressly by date. Some of it was organized by material (ironworks, glass) and some by theme (architectural detailing or a reconstructed room from a 17th-century house.)

Two pictures from the Chinese exhibit room -- a lacquered wood statue, made about 1750, of a Boddhisattva -- in the Buddhist tradition, a person who has attained Enlightenment, but turned back out of compassion for his or her fellow human beings -- and three modern tea bowls by Xing Langkun with GORGEOUS glazes, from the 1990s. I was sketching totally at random, based not on what I thought was cool, but where I had to stop when I became convinced I was too exhausted to move any more.

From the terrifying glass room -- terrifying because it was larger than my HOUSE and filled with case after case after case of tightly packed glass objects with tiiiiny labels. I didn't get many pictures (my camera was just about dead), but I did walk up to the balcony, because the railing was made of cool wavy glass.

A room full of . . . plaster casts of famous monuments? Included the Trajan columns (from Rome) and the front of Santiago de Compostela (something I meant to go see in northern Spain.)

From the ironworks room -- this was a window grate designed by Hector Guimard for the Castle Henriette, which no longer exists but is featured in the movie What's New Pussycat? (which I fully intend to watch solely for the scenery.) He also designed the iron decorations on the Paris Metro. You can look at more pictures of his work (he was also an architect) here (in French, but just click on the links) and here (sort of an aggregator.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art also has a piece of his work, a textile work.

This was from the room of medieval and Renaissance architectural detailing (as separate from the "architecture" rooms, which were vaguely interesting but. . . kind of conceptual and simplistic and not that interesting.) It's a a four-story oaken staircase, taken from a house in Morlaix, France, built between 1522-1530. There are still some staircases like this extant there -- it was sort of an architectural fashion -- so I must visit at some point. It would have been open to a Great Hall and opposite one of those giant fireplaces that you could roast a whole cow in, which to me seems like it must have made a fantastic space. It was also conveniently across from a bench with a very high back and a corner, where I propped myself up for 15 minutes so as not to fall over asleep. (Also, don't make fun of the scale figure I added in Photshop. :P) Around the corner from this was an entire carved wooden row house facade from a 17th century London residence, one of the few of that era to have survived the big fires in 1666.

I also saw the BED OF WARE, which is notable because it appears in scene from Twelfth Night that I actually acted in --

Sir Toby.
. . . and as many lies as will lie in thy sheet of
paper, although the sheet were big enough for the
BED OF WARE in England, set 'em down: go, about it.

(We were encouraging Sir Andrew to write a challenge and other poor life decisions.)

At 1:00 or so I felt like I was slowly being ground into the terrazo paving by the forces of gravity and exhaustion. I judged that I could either fall asleep in a corner or stumble my way back to the hostel and beg that they let me check into my room a little early.

I got back to the hostel. I found my way to my 10-bunk room and laid down.

That evening I woke up at 5:30 PM. Everything in London closes at 5:00 (bitches) so I wasn't going to hit any more museums that night. I was starting to feel a little adventure-y but still kind of nervous, so I left my camera and credit cards in my locker and walked out. It was pleasantly cold. I walked on Cromwell, which had all those sorts of stores that one sees -- Burberry, United Color of Benetton, Zara, H&M (yes!) -- and few that one sees in London only -- Harrods. I turned around when I hit Hyde Park Corner.

That night was the first night of evil snoring lady. She woke me up around 1 AM and kept me awake until 3 or so with great, shuddering, honking snores. I wasn't sure who the culprit was, but it sounded like it was emanating from the white-haired lady in the kitty-corner bunk. I thought murderous thoughts before I finally dug out my iPod and listened to Bach until I fell asleep again.


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