Sign Language

Or: When someone has too much fun at their job
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British churches come with status updates, apparently… (Stoke Newington)

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or: a heated argument between Brits (Camden)

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Real Queens queue on the left side of the pole. (Windsor Castle)

 

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Brexit first, America second. (Camden)

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Pass you shall. (Shoreditch)

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Drastic way to ask people to drive slowly. (Tower Hamlets)

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When one is on one’s way to drop the kids off at the pool…(Kensington Palace)

 

A day out in Windsor

Or: Who wants to queue forever?

“There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.”

– G. K. CHESTERTON

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Windsor Castle as seen from the train.

In order to escape the Easter weekend’s madness, I decided to cross another tourist sight off of my To-Do-List and spent a day in Windsor, the home of Queen Elizabeth II. Located approximately half an hour train ride outside of London, Windsor is a small town with probably more tourists than residents. Nonetheless, rumour has it that visiting Her Majesty’s home is something you shouldn’t miss when you’re in London – or should you?

The train for Oxford leaves Paddington Station at around half past ten in the morning at a speed that would put every ICE in Germany to shame and I’m not nearly awake enough for that kind of experience, but who’s the British railway service to care about sleepy tourists? Adding to the blurred green-brown-soup beyond the train windows, the train is packed with foreigners. The only indicator that we’ll all be changing trains at Slough together is the occasional “Windsor” that filters through the incomprehensible mix of languages that echo through the train compartment.

Indeed, we arrive at the monorail train station of Windsor exactly 26 minutes later and it’s nothing like what I’ve expected. In Germany, I grew up in a small village with barely more than 5,000 residents and even our train station is busier than Windsor’s. Though maybe not as posh. There’s an old steam locomotive on display, a signpost pointing towards a castle that is hidden behind little cafés and pubs. In all fairness, the first impression is that Windsor is surprisingly down to earth for the home of the British Queen.

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Leaving the train station and a handful of designer stores behind, I stumble up a cobblestone street and need a moment to process that I’m already standing in front of Windsor Castle. Didn’t I just come out of a train station? It’s probably handy for the Queen to live in close proximity to public transport – but it’s not like she uses it, does she? The town layout is nothing what I expected and it throws me off a bit, but before I get to adjust to this strange environment, people start to line up alongside the street. It’s 11.30 a.m. – time for the changing of the guards, apparently. It’s not nearly as spectacular as their colleague’s performance in London, but it satisfies the curious tourists and their need to block everyone’s view with their selfie-sticks.

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A part of the queue (which was twice as long as seen on this picture)

After roughly five minutes, the guards have walked past us and I’m patiently waiting for the crowds to scatter into all kind of directions so that I can finally find the queue for the tickets. Only they stay right there where they are, lining the streets as if waiting for a parade and I’m starting to sense that queuing might be the same as the changing of the guards: very different from London. After a short chat with one of the castle’s staff members, I have been informed that yes, this is in fact the queue for the tickets. Approximate waiting time: little more than an hour. Well, it can’t be helped, I’ll have to endure it. On the upside, it’s neither raining nor is it particularly cold, so the waiting could be far worse. I don’t know if I really queued for an hour, though it felt much longer, to be honest.

Eventually, after having succeeded in Britain’s national sport number one, I am finally standing inside Windsor Castle. Prince Philip greets me through the headphones of my audio guide and I can’t help but admire the beauty that surrounds me. The fantastic thing about British castles is that they seem so simple and plain on the outside, but once you set a foot inside the great halls, the splendour will render you utterly speechless. And Windsor Castle is – much like Edinburgh Castle – no exception to that rule.

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If you’re not much of a history fan and have little to no knowledge of the British kings and queens, the audio guided tour through the castle might be a bit overwhelming and too much at once. Since I have studied this culture for two years now, there was hardly anything that was news to me, but those who are familiar with the Tudor dynasty, the Wars of the Roses, and Henry VIII won’t be disappointed.

The entire interior architecture is based on this time period, playing with the Lancaster and York symbols and referring to the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the roundtable on many occasions. No matter how long you look at the wallpaper, paintings, furniture, and ceilings, you’ll always find something of a deeper historical meaning. And this very architecture, the way of interlacing a country’s history to the very last detail with the present, made me fall in love with Britain in the first place. You can see that this castle wasn’t built to blind you with wealth. It was built with the purpose of displaying centuries of history to a foreign visitor, almost as if it demands every visitor to understand where this nation comes from.

I would have loved to take photos, but sadly it’s strictly forbidden. Also, I won’t bore you with historical facts because you have to stand in the very room where Edward III was born in 1312 in order to marvel at the many, many faces this old hoar castle has seen. If you consider to visit Windsor Castle, I recommend an early train in order to avoid long queues (especially if you’re visiting with children). Since I visited on the Easter weekend, there were special events just for kids where they got to dress up like Elizabeth I or Henry VIII – I’ve listened to the host for a couple of minutes and it was really entertaining and the costumes were amazing!

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Windsor itself is rather unspectacular but after leaving the castle, I was quite thankful for the quiet little streets and the relaxing atmosphere. In terms of budget, Windsor is slightly more expensive than London due the Royal neighbours. While there are cheap restaurants, I don’t recommend dining near the castle – you pay more for the view rather than the food and staring at a wall gets boring after five minutes.

Some of you might know that Windsor is not only famous for being the home of Queen Lizzy but also of one of Britain’s most exclusive colleges: Eton. No less than 19 Prime Ministers were educated there and if you’re in town for a royal visit, you might as well walk the short distance to Eton College. Although it is not always open to the public, the exterior alone suggests how posh the students must be who are privileged enough to study here. It’s strange when you think about it – this college was founded by Henry VI in 1440 as a charity project for poor choir boys. Today, parents pay £12,354 per school term, registration, acceptance, and extra fees excluded.

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Eton College

My visit to Windsor ends in the most un-royal way possible: with a hamburger and a milkshake. Long live the Queen!

Running up that Hill

Or: The Virgin Money London Marathon

“If you are losing your faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”

– KATHRINE SWITZER

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No, this is not what rush hour in London looks like, though there are some striking similarities. Today, another beautiful sunny Sunday and St George’s Day, too, was the day of the Virgin Money London Marathon. A total of 40,382 runners filled the city’s streets to take part in the 37th event on British soil – a record-breaking high. There were actually a few record broken today, including women’s-only world record time (Mary Keitany), fastest Viking to win a marathon (Paul Richards), fastest male elf, and fastest crustacean. In my opinion, there should have been an award for creativity, too, but I was only one of 800,000 spectators cheering them on, so I’m probably easy to impress.

The race, separated into elite men’s and mass races, began at 10 a.m. and was officially started by the Duke and the Duchess of Cambridge, as well as Prince Harry. The 26 miles (42.195 kilometres) long route started in Greenwich, South East London and ended on the Mall near Buckingham Palace where the competitors were greeted with music, a very entertaining commentator, and the cheering of the crowd. I must say that I have never attended a sports event with an atmosphere comparable to this.

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Daniel Wanjiru, winner of the men’s elite race, on his way to the finish.

I arrived just in time to witness the winners of the marathon enter the home stretch. But to be honest, I wasn’t that much interested in the Olympic winners and elite runners that made it look like these kind of races are part of their morning routines. Of course, it’s a fantastic accomplishment to win a marathon or to finish a 26-miles-run in only 2.5 hours and I congratulate them on their achievements, but they are professionals, right? They do this often enough for it to become part of their realities.

Part of the race were also some celebrities, media personas, and journalists who supported charities and ran for a good cause. I will edit this post again when I know the exact amount of money that has been raised, but right now there are no confirmed numbers.

Money aside, there were far more important moments to remember: To me, the most emotional one of the race was when David Wyeth collapsed only a few feet away from where I was watching. I’ll never forget the look on his deadly pale face, those eyes staring straight ahead towards the finishing line while his legs gave out from exhaustion. It was heartbreaking to witness how someone who has fought so much breaks down only 200 metres from the finish. Everybody around me kept cheering him on, encouraging him to get up again and walk the last few metres, but he simply couldn’t keep himself upright anymore. Paramedics were already on their way towards him when another runner, Matthew Rees, stopped and bent down. He must have said something because his lips were moving, but the crowd was too noisy to hear anything. It took only a few attempts and Matthew Rees dragged one of David Wyeth’s arms over his shoulder and carried him down the Mall. The crowd, of course, rewarded his selfless sportsmanship with a massive cheer until they both made it through the finish.

Not only did Matthew Rees stop to help another runner, he risked his own best time for a complete stranger. So Katherine Switzer is right after all: going out and watching a marathon does restore one’s faith in human nature. And it was worth the pain and the tears: The medals were awarded to the tired competitors by no one other than William, Kate, and Harry. I reckon it can’t have been comfortable to shake hands with someone who looks glamorous enough to step on the red carpet at any second when you’ve just finished a 26 miles run, flushed and sweaty. However, the runners managed to outshine any royalty with ease and I’m sure none of them cared about their appearance right then and there.

So here is a last salute to anyone who has and hasn’t crossed the finishing line today, no matter if it took you two hours or six – I could have never done what you did and I hope you’ve had all your favourite food for dinner. You absolutely deserve it for you didn’t run up a hill today, you climbed an entire mountain!

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How I started apologising to my cup of tea

Or: British politeness at its very worst

“Sorry, excuse me, please, sorry” is one of the most common phrases I have heard on the London underground, followed by an answering “So sorry, Sir/Madame, excuse me”. At first, I didn’t think much of it since the British are known for their politeness. I didn’t even mind when I started to mirror their constant stream of excuses. Only when I muttered an apology to my cup of Earl Grey after putting it on the table with more force than intended I began to seriously worry. It is one thing to say sorry to a person, but addressing an inanimate object takes apologising to an entire new level.

But when did I become so British that I completely forgot about my German ignorance?

Ever since I caught myself saying sorry to all kind of things, I started observing the British and what I now call their “sorry culture”. If I ever attempted to count the times an average British citizen apologises on one day alone, I bet it would be far more than one hundred times. To someone who comes from a society with a very direct way of saying things, it took me quite some time getting used to the British way of phrasing a polite request, never mind a sincere apology. The way of saying sorry is not only defining when it comes to the culture, but also the mentality of the two countries.

We Germans hardly ever apologise, at least not in our everyday lives. We communicate a lot through looks and facial expressions or acknowledging nods. There’s no need to voice your regrets when bumping into someone while exiting the train when you can communicate the feeling with shoving your way through the crowd. In Germany, people don’t care. It’s rush hour, the train is crowded, you have to get out, so you make your way through. It’s physics, isn’t it? Newton proved that there can only be one body in one place at a time. So we believe Newton and we just assume that our fellow train travellers understand and would do the same were the roles reversed.

In Britain, there’s one simple rule: never assume anything, not even laws of nature defined by an English physicist. Or if you do, then assume the worst case scenario and try your very best to prevent it. If you’re British and find yourself on a train at the peak of rush hour, it’ll likely be your worst nightmare. Bumping into the person in front of you is completely out of question because then they’ll think you did it on purpose and will report you to the police which will result in you ending up with imprisonment for assault. Following that logic, shifting back and risk bumping into the person behind you in order to prevent collision with person nr. 1 is not going to happen either. And don’t step onto the feet of the pregnant woman sitting to your right, because that will guarantee you the loathing stares of all passengers on the carriage – just like doing the same unforgivable thing to the old lady to your left. Vanishing into thin air or disappearing altogether are your only options, really – or at least pretend to look like you’re trying to disappear.

In all fairness, that was (only slightly) exaggerated and it was written with nothing but fondness for this charmingly awkward way of thinking. But the British will probably never understand what kind of minefields we Non-Brits are walking when entering a conversation with one of you. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time vehemently declining things I really wanted out of sheer terror that I might be too presumptuous by accepting them on the spot with nothing but an honest ‘thank you’. I reckon that the rule of thumb of accepting a cookie only after the fifth time it’s been offered to you does apply. Therefore, being overly careful has turned into something akin to a mantra for me, settling so deep in my subconsciousness that I even started apologising to tea cups. After all, I don’t want to be a walking stereotype for German rudeness and being too direct.

For instance, on my way home I witnessed a scene on the underground so British it might as well have been straight out of a film. A man offered an elderly lady his seat. The passenger sitting next to her realised that she was accompanied by her husband and daughter, therefore, he stood up as well and offered the seat to the lady’s husband who politely declined. Instead, he motioned for the man to sit down again, but instead of doing so, the man went to offer his seat to the couple’s daughter who also refused to sit down. They argued for half of the time it took the train to travel from Oxford Circus to Warren Street until, eventually, the daughter took the man’s seat. In Germany, we don’t have these kind of problems because people don’t offer seats to others in the first place. In that conversation alone, it must habe been half a dozen excuses.

But what if you’re really sorry?

That question keeps haunting me because if you keep apologising simply for existing, then how is a ‘Sorry’ still of the same value it represents according to the Oxford dictionary? The definition says that ‘Sorry’ is a word referring to “feeling sadness, sympathy, or disappointment, especially because something unpleasant has happened or been done.” So maybe, there’s an urgent need in Britain to look that definition up once in a while and to remember that “Sorry” is not the equivalent of a conversation starter, another word to fill the awkward silence or a way to make other people realise that it’s actually them who should be the ones apologising.

For once, maybe the British can actually learn something from us Germans: Sometimes, a gesture says so much more than words, though maybe not an elbow to the ribs in an overcrowded underground carriage.

 

The Music of Bond

A review of the concert at the Royal Albert Hall

As the headline is already giving away, I went to the Royal Albert Hall yesterday and attended a concert of the London Symphony Orchestra performing The Music of Bond. Yes, Mr. James Bond, of course.

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The Royal Albert Hall (view from Albert Memorial, Kensington Gardens)

But before I go into detail about the concert itself, let’s take a quick look at the location. The Royal Albert Hall is located near Kensington Gardens, where William and Kate occasionally reside at Kensington Palace, and opposite the beautiful Albert Memorial. Most of you will probably know that since its construction in the 19th century, the Royal Albert Hall has always been one of the most beautiful and popular concert venues in Europe. In the UK it is still considered to be an honour for a musician to be allowed to play a concert there.

Behind the hall, you’ll find the Royal Academy of Music hiding from view. Until today, the elite university remains one of the most famous and high ranked institutions for musical studies in the world. Sir Elton John and Annie Lennox are only two examples of the many talents who have graduated here.

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The Royal Academy of Music

We arrived at around 6 p.m – far too early for a concert starting at 7.30 p.m., but you never know with public transport in London. And the way from the underground to the venue is rather long for London standards, so it was rather good that we were so early.

At 7.15 p.m., the stewards were ordered to open the doors to the interior venue and we made our way to out seats at the Rausing Circle. The view, I must say, was rather spectacular:

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Pictures can’t do justice to the fantastic atmosphere and the unique location. When the orchestra members took their seats, the lights faded to black, and the first few notes of the James Bond theme song echoed through the hall – it was such a breathtaking moment that I have trouble describing it. The only comparison coming to my mind was the 2015 theatre performance of Hamlet at the Barbican here in London. When the lights went out, the curtain rose, and your eyes set on the first scene, you just hold your breath in anticipation and excitement. And last night was a similar outstanding experience.

Needless to say, the orchestra’s performance was incredible. There was little to no difference between the movie soundtrack and the live experience. I particularly enjoyed the short explanation of the anatomy of a Bond song by the conductor. He described the “perfect Bond theme song” as a landscape painting with different layers. You start with the background, celli and violoncelli, and then continue to add more and more layers until you end with the foreground, the melody.

Fun fact: Did you know that the guitarist, who played the famous Bond motive in the first ever film, earned a salary of £6?

The host of the evening was Bond girl Fiona Fullerton, who starred in A View to a Kill (1985) alongside Roger Moore. She narrated the musical journey through decades of James Bond music and told funny anecdotes from the set when she was shooting A View to a Kill. She and the orchestra were joined by two amazing vocalists, Simon Bowman and Alison Jiear, who were so amazing that I had goosebumps – several times. Among other songs, they performed Skyfall and Writing’s on the Wall and there truly are no words to describe their incredible voices. Especially Mr. Bowman’s interpretation of Writing’s on the Wall had me on the edge of my seat even though I don’t like the original song. Somehow, he managed to take our breath away and Mrs. Jiear’s version of Skyfall was so true to the original that if one closed one’s eyes, one was easily fooled into thinking that it was Adele and not someone else singing the song.

I wouldn’t call myself a Bond fan and I have never watched a 007-film other than those starring Daniel Craig in the title role. That might be shocking to some, but it just doesn’t appeal to me. The music, however, is truly a masterpiece and after last night’s concert, I think that especially the older songs don’t receive the recognition they undoubtedly deserve. This night has opened my eyes to a music genre of its own, and it managed to change my view on James Bond in some ways – I’d highly recommend this concert to anyone, no matter if they are just a casual viewer or a die-hard Bond fan. The combination of a wonderful venue, fantastic vocalists, and interesting trivia turn this evening into a perfect night out.

On a summer day in Little Venice…

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By now, I’m not sure if it’s still spring of if we’ve already managed to somehow slither straight into summer. It was so hot today that I had to go and buy a summer dress because I didn’t pack for anything above 15 degrees. Whoever started that cliché with rainy London must have visited in October or November because the weather in spring is truly stellar! So far, only two days have been rainy while the other nineteen have been either cloudy or sunny like today. And if it continues to be this nice, I might run out of boroughs to visit.

Today, I’ve finally managed to make my way to the Regent’s Canal in Paddington, one of those parts of town I always wanted to see but somehow never did. On that note, I’d like to propose a toast to my navigation app which thought it was funny to send me on a three miles detour. Really, wandering through strange streets at what felt like 25°C without any refreshing breeze is not something I enjoyed with my dark blue skinny jeans and a rucksack on my back. When I found out that all I would have had to do was walk around the building after exiting Paddington Station instead of walking for forty-five minutes… well, I was quite done with technology for the day.

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When I eventually did reach Warwick’s Crescent, the street leading towards Little Venice, my phone was the last thing on my mind. Upon leaving the busy street and entering the canal path, it felt like stepping into a different world that was completely detached from reality. The noise of the cars rushing past faded into the background until the singing of birds was all I could hear and if someone had told me that this wasn’t London anymore, I might have believed them for it felt so very different.

As I was walking alongside the waterside, I couldn’t help but envy those who are lucky enough to live there. Up to then, I never understood why someone would prefer living on a boat to owning a more permanent home, but now I find myself reconsidering. Out here, it is much more quiet than anywhere in the city and it’s strangely intimate compared to the anynoymity of a world metropolis. Of course, there’s the matter with privacy – or the lack thereof – in a populous neighbourhood, but if you can suffer through rush hour everyday, acclimatization shouldn’t be too difficult.

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So there I was, strolling past the boats with my camera around my neck and sunglasses on my nose, feeling like an intruder in this happy, blissful world of its own. Couples were placing chairs on deck of their boats, getting ready to absorb some of this early summer sun and I wondered how they manage this life of never settling down. Or do they? Recently, I’ve read in an article that over the past five years, houseboat ownership has increased 60%, especially among young people like me. Apparently, it’s their way of trying to get a foot in the door of the housing market, but if you have to move on every two weeks, don’t you long for some kind of stability in your life?

In the end, it might not be as different as one thinks. After all, this is London, and the shops aren’t that far, the city centre is just a few tube stations away, and if one forgets why they moved on a boat in the first place, a quick glance into one or two real estate offices will erase all doubts if this was truly the right decision.

If I found myself in their position, mabye I’d adjust just as fast as they seem to have done. Maybe it’s an adoptable lifestyle with more merits than someone who’s only ever lived in a permanent home can imagine. And come to think about it – watching the sun set behind the trees on deck, birds singing a lullaby in the background, the quiet mumbling of the water as it ripples against the bow of the boat – yes, I can definitely see it now.

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A walk through: Notting Hill

“I live in Notting Hill. You live in Beverly Hills. Everyone in the world knows who you are, my mother has trouble remembering my name.”

– William in Notting Hill (1999)

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Despite the heavy rain and occasional thunderstorms promised by Friday’s weather forecast, last Saturday turned out to be a beautiful and sunny spring day in London. And since my legs are still miraculously attached to my hips (despite the sore muscles), it’s time to head out and enjoy the fantastic weather in one of my favourite places in town: Notting Hill.

Undoubtedly, Notting Hill has always been one of the liveliest and most exuberant boroughs in London, but since the release of the film Notting Hill in 1999, it has become hopelessly overcrowded. Nonetheless, if you have never walked down Portobello Road on a busy Saturday morning, you have certainly missed out on something.

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After exiting the tube station at Ladbroke Grove, we head down the street carrying the same name. Eventually, we turn to our right into Westbourne Park Road until we reach the infamous Portobello Road. On Saturdays, many merchants and salesmen have vintage jewellery, accessories, and delicacies on display. But while admiring the broad range of possible souvenirs, make sure to keep an eye on your bag or rucksack since this is, like all crowded places in London, a popular spot with pickpockets. And all street art fans should look out for an artwork protected behind glass by the infamous Banksy.

We continue our walk down Portobello Road. Glancing into the shop windows to your right and left reveals a whole new world of fashion, food, and accessories. I still refuse to believe that there are actual occasions where these kind of shoe designs would be an appropriate choice, but then again, this is London and I’ve already walked past a woman in her pajamas and a bathrobe, carrying grocery bags at two o’clock in the afternoon.

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An old photograph from 2015 when the streets weren’t as crowded as they are now.

The Portobello Garden Arcade lies now behind us and I encourage you to take a closer look at the houses alongside the street. Just like Camden, Notting Hill is also famous for its many street art paintings and, of course, the colourful houses. Following the Empire Windrush in 1948, many Caribbean immigrants settled down in Notting Hill and integrated their vibrant colours and culture into the grey and dusty city life of post-war London. To this day, the residents of this borough are still celebrating the Notting Hill Carnival every year at the end of August. Sadly, I’ve never experienced it myself, but if you’ve got the chance to go and see it – please do so, it is highly recommended by Londoners!

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Famous sight: The colourful houses of Notting Hill

 By now, we have reached a rather innocent looking white façade and only the switched off neon lights – marking the building as the “Electric cinema” – imply that there might be a whole different world hidden behind the insignificant windows. And what a different world it is for this is not just a cinema. On the inside, there are red velvet arm chairs instead of uncomfortable cinema seats and small lanterns illuminate the theatre in an atmosphere that beams you right into the 1960s Hollywood glamour. If you’re not keen on booking tickets right this instant, maybe this trailer might convince you to do otherwise?

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Anyway, today is far too beautiful a day for it to be spent in a cinema, so we walk even further down (or rather up) Portobello Road an arrive at Alice’s. This little antiques shop has seen clients such as Taylor Swift and it’s (sadly) no longer and insider among London lovers. In this little shop, you’ll find old telephones, magnifying glasses, globes, etc.

Until 2015, there was a great bakery, Gail’s bakery, located here on Portobello Road which was selling the best scones I’ve ever eaten. Therefore, I was very disappointed to find another bakery in its place when I visited Notting Hill last Saturday. If you’re just as hungry as I am by now, I recommend waiting for lunch until you’re back in the city centre. Since its cometlike rise to London’s hippest borough, life in Notting Hill has become rather expensive and even a small cup of ice cream is at 4.40. IMG_2304

Before you leave trendy Notting Hill and enter the borough of posh Kensington, there’s one thing you shouldn’t miss: the blue door. Those who have seen Notting Hill, the film I mentioned at the start of our little tour, will probably wonder if William’s house with the blue door exists. Yes, it does. It’s carefully hidden in between little shops and all kind of trashy goods, so well that I’ve walked past it three times until I eventually realised that it’s indeed the same door as in the film.

And now here we stand, at the end of Portobello Road in the very heart of Notting Hill on a wonderful sunny afternoon in spring. And we didn’t run into any movie star and didn’t dump our drinks on their shirt. Tough luck, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

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