It was 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving—considered the busiest travel day of the year—and we were snailing down the 405 at 5 miles an hour on our way to LAX. I didn’t think we were going to make our flight to London.
For those who know me, I am the quintessential Type-A person: I like to be prepared, organized, and always on time. My husband couldn’t get off work earlier and bad planning left us on a packed freeway, with me staring outside the window, too frustrated to talk and too stressed to form actual words—a first for me as I am known by friends as loquacious Kimberly. I wondered if our $4,000 tickets would finally be worthless or if we would have to once again pay re-booking fees (we had originally bought these tickets for Greece; complete story here https://kimberlykrobeson.wordpress.com/2013/09/04/life-happens/). Husband Hugo was jolly; he’s my yin and I’m his yang. When he’s up, I tend to be down and vice versa. It works. So he made jokes and I quietly seethed. Upon arriving to the car park, we ran to the shuttle, then ran into the airport, moved through the security lines (running was not an option) and . . . we made it! With half hour to spare.
Once we were airborne, the super-tan British flight attendant said: “Now that we have left Los An-gel-eeeeeze [love the way the Brits pronounce my city of angels] can I offer you a drink?” With a glass of Shiraz and The Great Gatsby on my monitor, I took a deep breath, a sip, and smiled. Yipeeee. We were going to London!
After a short ten-hour flight, we arrived to Costa Coffee, scones, and nippy weather. With some help, we successfully took the tube (love saying that word) to our hotelito. Because both Hugo and I had been so busy leading up to this excursion, we had made zero plans and had zero literature about what to do or where to go (except for several helpful friends’ Facebook recommendations that I did print out). It would be four days of exploring without a plan—another first for me.
I usually book rooms through Tripadvisor, and the week before had found a little place in Kensington because someone had said “If you are flying into Heathrow, Kensington is convenient.” I think Brits know about U.S. Thanksgiving because everything for that weekend seemed double-priced. Reviews on Tripadvisor about Kensington Suite Hotel said: “the room is too small,” “the bed too lumpy,” “the breakfast too simple”; but they all said “location, location, location!” So I booked it because I knew we would be out all day and just needed a clean room and a place to crash at night.
The first afternoon, after checking in, we hopped on the tube (“mind the gap!”) and got off at Oxford Circus. A shopper’s paradise. The hoi polloi were swarming the streets, shopping and spending. I saw a J. Crew, an Apple store, and an Abercrombie & Fitch —globalization alive and well. Hugo and I went into a shop with souvenirs and perused the local gifts looking for a snow globe (for our collection). Though my husband is certainly a manly man, he seems to get as much joy out of our snow-globe search as I do. “No, amore, I don’t like that one” he said. I usually let him choose as his taste for snow globes is quite exceptional. I was also looking for Dr. Who stuff for my nieces, neighbor, and school secretary who are all über fans of the show. There is a shop dedicated to Dr. Who but every time we Googled it, we were always half-hour away. When I got back and presented the secretary with a red phone booth sharpener, but told her I was hoping to find a blue Dr. Who one, she told me that I could just go to the local mall as Hot Topic has “a ton of Dr. Who stuff.” It’s the thought that counts, right? My neighbors got a magnet, and Tess and Drew, you’ll just have to wait to see what Thea got you . . .
The weather was chilly, but I dressed well. Layers upon layers, topped with my cute (albeit young) new chullo and bottomed with my Cole Haan (Nike Air technology) boots, I was warm and comfy, no snapping Achilles tendons on this trip! (http://kimberlykrobeson.com/SNAP__Goes_the_Achilles.html) From Oxford Circus we walked to Picadilly Circus, the city alight with holiday decorations, looking simply spectacular. From there, we traversed the city, reaching Big Ben at midnight, where we took our first photo. A sharp left, and we continued along the River Thames, then up again, reaching Trafalgar Square a bit hungry and tired.
One of my favorite food thingies in London was the 7-Eleven-type shop called Tesco Express that sold yummy sandwiches and itty-bitty desserts—no super-sizing here! I got prawn mayonnaise on whole wheat with a bite-size panna cotta. We got our food and at about 1.a.m., gobbled down our Thanksgiving dinner under the English stars at the foot of a huge lion sculpture.
Realizing that the Underground was closed for the night, we chatted with a few police officers, who kindly helped us find a bus back to Kensington. After more walking, going in the wrong direction, then the right direction, we made it back to our too-small room with the too-lumpy bed at 2 a.m. In a scalding shower with amazing pressure, I was full of energy. I love being on holiday. After almost a year of being the primary caregiver of our three dogs (hubby has been working insanely long days), and zero time away from them, I felt free. “Free! Free!” Just like Louise Mallard said in my favorite short story: “The Story of an Hour.” But before hitting the pillow, my mind was on my kiddos, so I logged onto gmail to get an update from our new dogsitter and all was well. A bit of rain in LA; Achilles, Oia, and Opa said they missed mommy (ok, and daddy, too) but they were happy and in good hands. I slept like a bebita.
The next few days flew by. We did the hop-on hop-off bus, and here are a few tips if interested. We went with Golden Tours instead of Big Bus or The Original Tour. The positive and negatives: Golden Tours was not as busy, so we always got great seats, top front, but the bus stations were fewer and farther apart, and the buses only came every twenty or so minutes with a long stop at Victoria. While waiting impatiently for Golden Tours and watching another very crowded Big Bus go by, I got a bit cold and antsy. Another Big Bus, another The Original Tour. One morning we waited for forty minutes and the Golden bus (actually blue) never came although were told there was “one more pick-up before 11:30 a.m. at this stop.” So if you go off season, decide: a crowed, regularly-scheduled bus or an empty, less-convenient one. As far as prices, Golden Tours had a buy one-day for two-day off-season pass (£20); I think the same as the other companies. Knowing what I know now, I think maybe BB or OT would have been preferable.
The first day we got off at the London Eye, and in a pod that fit about twenty people (only ten in our compartment since it was low season) we moved around a large ferris wheel at a turtle’s pace. It was neither scary nor cheap (£20 for a half-hour loop) but well worth it as the views of London were spectacular. A red-headed British lady with her two kids moved around the pod a lot as she talked loudly: “Darlings, where do you want to go next?” They both looked incredibly bored. “But, Darlings, I didn’t know we would get on so quickly. I thought the lines would be longer.” Her family’s annual pass hung around her neck. “Darlings, shall we go to a museum?” The little boy pushed the little girl into the glass, ignoring his mother. I stood there thinking: I know there are tons of joys in having children, all kinds of wonderful surprises as they grow (I’ve gotten a taste through my amazing nieces), but at that moment, I was thankful that I only have one other person in this world to keep entertained. I was also amazed at this mother’s patience and demeanor; women like her teach me so much. Whenever my kids (no, not my dogs, real kids: i.e. my students) get rambunctious, I channel mothers like her and a kinder, more compassionate teacher emerges.
My husband and I are lucky in the sense that we like to do the same things. We both love to walk, shop, stop for a coffee, then walk some more. We are not necessarily museum people; I need to have studied a painting or sculpture before I see it; otherwise, honestly, I just don’t get it. I loved seeing Picasso’s Guernica, Michelangelo’s David, Botticelli’s La Primavera and Magritte’s The Son of Man all because a crazy (but adorable) Humanities professor had talked passionately about them, showed slides, and described David’s perfect derriere while licking his lips. Since I didn’t have time to research what pieces are in London, and Hugo is not a big fan of old art, we skipped museums on this trip. We did pop into The Tate Museum (since all museums are free) but every floor we landed on had an extra fee (between £12-35) for special exhibits.
I did manage to do a bit of shopping even though we were on a budget. A pair of shoes—of course. All my shoe purchases since my little foot accident are reasonable shoes, comfort comes second to sexy. Hugo got a Starbucks mug to add to his collection, but we never made it to Harrods. We did manage to see almost everything else I had heard about as we walked endlessly: from the London Eye, we jumped on the bus to the Tower of London, did a quick visit to see the crown jewels, and then walked across the Tower Bridge (some mistakenly calling it the London Bridge), another bus to the Globe Theatre. Strolling along the water we found a holiday fair, and I tried some mulled wine for the second time (still didn’t really like it), and then all the way back to Parliament and to Trafalgar Square.
Seeing the outside of Buckingham Palace made me realize again how I don’t quite understand royalty, but, admittedly, do love the romantic story of Kate and William. From Westminster Abbey to St. Paul’s Cathedral to the Parliament to the many bridges, I fell a little in love with the buildings and architecture of this city. I loved the tube, the double-decker buses, (the ale!), the feeling of history. I did find it expensive and a bit cold for my Mediterranean self, but I would still move there tomorrow if the opportunity arose—at least for a few years then I think I would need the sun again.
The final evening, my husband and I met up with a Greek cousin, Michalis, who is studying his master’s in London. We sat in Pommeler’s drinking wine and ale and talking about Breaking Bad. Hugo and I have only just started watching it as we had heard almost everyone talking about it. My husband is hooked; I’m not (yet), but as we sat with this twenty-eight-year-old young man, it was a common thread. Of course, we talked about our families, his studies, and the city, but it’s funny how a TV show is what crosses the continents in a very visceral manner. It was a fun night of reminiscing and laughing, but we had a flight to catch the next morning, so as the clock struck midnight, it was time to move on.
That is, to another pub. It was cold and after another long walk back towards “home,” we entered the first pub we saw after a long stretch of closed shops and restaurants. It was hot and crowded inside, but I was enjoying my last deep, rich Guinness when I noticed there were a lot of men around. I mean, a lot of men. A young Argentinean boy sidled up beside us and was trying to ignore the grey-haired man who was flirting with him. I smiled at the boy, curious as to what was in his Harrods’ shopping bag; Hugo was on his phone Googling the name of the place we were at. The “City of Quebec,” indeed, was a gay bar. Fun and friendly people, but it was time to do one more stop before we went back to our room: find some food. We found a place in Notting Hill that was still open, so after enjoying a large pizza, we took our final stroll back to our hotel.
It was a short adventure, but enough time to get a sense of the city. My only regrets were that we didn’t do a Beefeater tour at The Tower of London, I didn’t see the food court at Harrod’s, or go to some of the pubs or clubs a friend suggested. But it was a fabulous four-day vacation.
Upon return, I heard the flight attendant say, “Welcome to Los An-gel–eeeeze.” It was good to be back. We have lived in The City of Angels now for less than a year, yet when I opened the door of our little blue house and saw three slobbery bulldogs waiting to greet us, I have never felt more at home. I may have heard London calling, but I think I would like to stay put for a few more years. Then, who knows?