A rebellious day trip to Oxford.

In the name of getting inspiration for our thesis, or so we claimed.

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“You are running short of time.”

“I’ve got a plan.”

“Serla, let me repeat this once again, you are running short of time.”

I was two-and-a-half weeks away from my thesis deadline, and I was slightly behind in my progress. Sitting in my supervisor’s office, I was surprisingly calm for someone who only had 2,000 out of the 12,000-word requirement that I was supposed to churn out to graduate with my Master’s degree.

As for my supervisor, he was freaking out.

The good man, bless him, was so convinced that I would become the first student he supervise to fail the Master’s thesis. Yet, no matter what he said to jolt me awake, he simply couldn’t invoke that sense of urgency that he so hoped to see in me.

“Why don’t you tell me what your plan is for the coming week then?” he said.

“Well, I’ll be working at my part-time job three full days next week and…” I stopped as I watched his eyes widen in horror. “And I assure you I’ll have 6,000 words ready the next time I see you,” I blurted out quickly.

What I had wanted to say was that apart from my three days of work, I had also planned a trip to Oxford on that coming Saturday. But I was pretty sure if I had told him that, he might have disowned me as his student right on the spot, so I decided that it was best if he was kept in the dark about it.

I don’t dispute that travelling while you have a MAJOR deadline looming is irresponsible, but it was necessary. Because you see, my dear readers, thesis writing can be such a chore. After several weeks of sitting in front of the computer, words simply couldn’t flow anymore, and wouldn’t it be even more irresponsible had I done nothing to get rid of the writer’s block?

That was why my friend C and I decided to spice things up a little. What started out as a mission to try out all the different libraries in London turned into something slightly more ambitious. We decided that sticking to one city was not enough and we needed to try out libraries outside London as well.

We picked Oxford for several reasons. First, because even we were realistic and we knew that going all the way to Edinburgh wasn’t an option. Second, my friend C had not been to Oxford previously and I couldn’t let her leave the country without seeing the place. And third, because Oxford is full of intelligent people, we were hoping some of their brain cells might rub off on us – we clearly needed all the help we could get.

Plus, come to think of it, it wasn’t as if we would be spending so much more time getting to a library in Oxford. The journey from Paddington took just over an hour. On a bad day in London, your commute could take as long.

Or so we thought.

When we got off the train, we realised immediately things wouldn’t be as simple as we had predicted.

oxford1First of all, we did not know what the University’s main library was called. Whenever I googled “Libraries in Oxford University” several options popped up, and I couldn’t possibly visit every single one to see which one was meant for us?

Luckily, we figured out pretty quickly that it was the Bodleian Library. However, a second problem immediately occurred to us – we did not actually know whether students from other universities were allowed to use the facility. We had just assumed it was open to all students from other universities.

Once again, we got lucky. After cajoling the librarian, we were allowed to make a one-day pass to use the facility.

These unexpected logistical problems had certainly set us back by an hour or so. By the time we were done getting ourselves admitted to Oxford University for a day, it was time for lunch.

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The Singapore Night Festival 2017.

I just gave myself a new project.

Tentatively it’s being called Project I-should-stop-sulking-just-because-I’m-not-in-London. Sometimes I also refer to it as Project Self-reminder-that-Singapore-is-actually-an-awesome-place. (If anyone can come up with a better name, I welcome any suggestions).

Perhaps I also secretly/not-so-secretly want to lure some people into visiting me from the other side of the world. Hence, I have decided that I will blog more about my life in Singapore and what this tiny island has to offer.

(Also, I have a spare bedroom at my flat at the moment, and the public transportation here is a quarter of the price in Denmark, the UK and the US. AND, we have some awesome food in this side of the world. Practically a dream for travellers on a budget. Just saying.)

Ahem, but I digress.

When I returned to Singapore after my two-year stint all over the place, I was swept by a weird sensation of being back at a place that is both familiar and strange. I felt disoriented – small things that I had taken for granted would simply work did not. My transportation card that had never failed me for the past seven years didn’t work because it had expired. My mobile phone data did not work properly. I forgot that thunderstorms are permanently imminent and did not have my umbrella with me on my first night – I got caught in the rain as I was stepping out of my flat for dinner. I behaved like an awkward tourist while trying to order some food. And I got some stares when I ate by myself – I forgot how much of a taboo it is here to be seen having a meal on your own in public.

But as time goes on, I’m slowly tracing my old steps and a sense of familiarity starts to take over. After all, I still live in the same flat, and I am working in the same business district as I was before I left. It is taking a while but at least I can feel some progress in fitting back in.

The first time I felt that I found some of my footing was when I went to the Singapore Night Festival with these two friends who have not changed a single bit since I first knew them a few years ago.

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The Singapore Night Festival dates back a decade to the time when I was studying for my Bachelor’s in SMU. Being a student at a university with a campus smacked right at the city centre meant that we were at the heart of the festival that lit up the whole Bras Basah area. Visiting the festival also brought back memories from my Singapore university days which had ended, ahem, seven years ago.

The festival’s flagship display has always been the light show at the facade of the National Museum. This year’s performance boasted a fascinating 3D effect that certainly felt a notch above the previous editions’.

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In defence of Birmingham.

The weekend I got dragged to appear live on the television.

“You are going to Birmingham this weekend? I’m sorry.” – Informant #1

“There is not much to do there and it’s not the nicest place.” – Informant #2

“Birmingham is certainly not the prettiest city. Haha, even without knowing which area you were talking about I would say yes, it’s likely to be dodgy.” – Informant #3

No one I spoke to had anything good to say about Birmingham.

Having been at the receiving end of such comments from three people who didn’t know each other, I was understandably not thrilled about visiting Birmingham.

The city was in the spotlight a couple of months ago after the horrid attack at Westminster in London. The police raided a flat at Hagley Road in Birmingham and arrested three men there who were allegedly related to the atrocity. When I looked up the address, it was just a few blocks away from the Airbnb that I had stayed in a couple of weeks prior.

So what brought me to Birmingham you asked?

The All England, the oldest badminton tournament in the world (or the Wimbledon of badminton for those of you who have made a grave mistake in your choice of racquet sports), was held there in March. As a testament of how little the city has to offer, apparently the badminton tournament no one outside the badminton world had really heard of constitutes what would be “the busiest week in Birmingham” in the whole year. Hotel and accommodation prices skyrocketed as tourists flocked to the city from all over the world to witness the battle for one of the most prestigious badminton tournaments.

Had I not been a student, I would have jumped at the opportunity. But having almost no income at the time, I just had to be prudent with my spending; taking a train ride up north and staying at an overpriced Airbnb (I’ll come to this later) seemed to be rather… imprudent.

After a thorough deliberation, I still went anyway. Because badminton.

But I clearly wasn’t as excited as someone who had once travelled all the way to Copenhagen from Singapore to watch her favourite badminton shuttler retire should have been.

I booked a 7AM train on a Saturday morning – that alone had made me slightly grumpy. Add to the fact that my Airbnb host was giving me a lot of problems, asking for 20 quids extra for that one night I was staying because it being the busiest weekend of the year meant that he could have easily found someone who would be willing to pay much more than 30 quid a night for a room in a dodgy location – I started to question my sanity for deciding to go in the first place.

But after my week-long rant to my flatmate and anyone else who would listen, Birmingham, bless the city, was really pulling all stops to prove me wrong.

First, they impressed me right away with their breakfast. Or rather, how cheap their amazing breakfast was.

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This plateful of goodness for 3.55 quid.

Although to be fair, before the food even arrived I already knew that the trip was worth it when I was greeted by this awesome friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen in 3 years.

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TEH TAREKKKKK!!!!

And if there is anything that I should know about myself by now, badminton tournaments excite me to no end. Just being in the stadium, surrounded by like-minded dorks who actually care about the sport, is exhilarating in its own right. Let alone the adrenaline rush of trying to interview the athletes after their matches, running up and down the steps of the stadium to reach the press room in time – the motion was all too familiar and reminded me so much about all those years reporting at the Singapore Open.

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Sunset at the Big C, Berkeley.

A favourite spot in Berkeley that I only got to visit once.

Sometimes, I think it is up to us to make the days count.

When I first arrived in Berkeley, I had too much time at hand. I practically had no friends. I only had classes for a few hours each day, 3 days a week. There were not many assignments and no academic paper to read. My ‘commute’ involved a mere 10-minute walk to my (very lovely) house.

This was not something I was used to. I started feeling uneasy, not knowing what to do with all this luxury. I could use it to acquire some new skills, but the irony of life is, the more time you have, the fewer the things you will get done.

So one day I decided I needed to get my lazy ass out of the house. Instead of lying around on the couch, I put on my sporty outfit, my colourful crocs and decided to go for a little hike to the Big C.

The Big C, I had read, was a giant concrete block of the letter ‘C’ built on the Berkeley Hills. It offered a stunning view over the UC Berkeley campus, where I was studying at the time. Definitely a perfect incentive for a rookie hiker. I decided to go during sunset because I wanted to witness the transition from the golden soft lighting of the sun to the dark expanse being studded by the city lights.

The starting point was from the North Gate Hall, Berkeley’s journalism school.

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From then on, I just needed to follow some paths that led me to the top of the hill. For example, these stairs that greeted me right in the beginning of the journey.

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The Sutton Hoo Collection at the British Museum

How these Suffolk treasures and my museum company taught me how to appreciate the history of human civilisation, and museums in general.

I am rubbish at museums.

I don’t know why I always end up going to them. During my first month or so in London, I even had a museum-and-cake buddy – we made a pact to visit a new museum every weekend and have a cake afterwards. I secretly only looked forward to the cake, but I didn’t know my friend too well back then to admit that most museums bored me to no end.

(I suspected he realised that pretty soon, and our museum-and-cake meetups transformed into anything-but-museum meetups after a few weeks. Which suited me very well and we became much better friends after that.)

I think it boils down to the fact that I don’t understand much of art and history. Later on, I realised that having the right company – one who appreciated the artefacts way more than I did and were willing to explain the history patiently to me, would make all the difference to these museum visits.

I have been to the British Museum several times, but I remember enjoying my last visit the most. During the first few visits, I mostly just admired the structure of the building and the immensity of the place.

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If you look really closely, you can see the cakes at the bottom right hand corner.

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The first (and hopefully not last) English summer.

Some change in the weather, and a little more.

Summer was in its full force the past few weeks in London. The temperature went up to a whopping 31C, and the East Asian roots in me would soon take out my purple and flowery anti-UV umbrella out of fear of getting tanned (and wrinkles).

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Guess whose umbrella is that.

I took advantage of the rare glorious weather to do a lot of walks all over. I explored the streets of the City of London, from St Paul’s churchyard to little alleys filled with bars and cafes often overflowing with lawyers and bankers in their work dresses and suits, beer in hand. I also ventured further into my neighbourhood, up to my favourite Primrose Hill and then went as far as the Parliament Hill at Hampstead Heath (finally).

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The Muffin Man & Co., Primrose Hill Market.

The world is a terrible place at the moment, and most of the time I feel helpless about it.

When there is nothing that I can do about a situation, I normally turn to my good old trustworthy friend – food. During my thesis writing period where I felt mostly helpless about not panicking as much as other people thought I should, I consumed some scary amount of chocolate that could make anyone rethink their friendship with me for fear of contracting diabetes by proximity.

But now that I have no more excuse to lead a sugar-clad lifestyle, I stopped doing irrational eating and started consuming healthy stuff again. As I’m writing this, a tray of grilled courgettes are in the making in the oven, drizzled with some conservative amount of olive oil and salt plus a generous dash of black pepper and cayenne pepper.

I know, I almost can’t recognise my own reflection in the oven glass sometimes.

(Nevermind that I gobbled down a big cup of frozen yoghurt after lunch earlier today because that is COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT to this story.)

Ahem.

So what I’m trying to say is, because I can’t consume irresponsible food for the time being to pacify myself about the world crumbling down, I try to do the next best thing, i.e. recalling some of the delicious food that I had and writing about them. The first guilty pleasure that comes to mind is the pork belly muffin from the Muffin Man & Co. at the Primrose Hill Market.

During my second visit to the market, I vowed not to have breakfast before visiting so I could taste one or two of the stalls piled with delicious looking delicacy.

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