It was New Year’s day 2016 and I was cleaning up the house ready for my parents to come over for a celebration dinner. 2015 hadn’t been a great year personally and many of the reasons why it wasn’t hadn’t suddenly been swept away by putting a new calendar up on the wall. A lot was weighing on my mind financially and emotionally as I stuffed sweaters into the small gaps in my disorganized closet, a closet that was beginning to feel a lot like my life: stacked full of things I didn’t like, want, or need any more.
As I always am over the holidays (at least more than at any other time of year), I was homesick, thinking about what it would have been like to have stood on the Embankment of the river Thames the night before, vibrating along with the chimes of Big Ben and the roar of the crowds at midnight.
I can’t exactly remember what came over me or how the thought progressed but I suddenly found myself sitting on my bed with my laptop on my knees, looking at flights on VirginAtlantic.com. I have had in excess of 150,000 frequent flyer miles with them since what feels like the dawn of time but every attempt I have made to use them on a trip back has been met with unrealistic travel dates based upon availability or complete black-outs. But this time was different.
This time I decided to look for June flights, after the kids go on summer vacation here in California, but before they break up in late July in England. I had some vague notion of perhaps checking off a bucket-list item and watching Trooping the Color in person but didn’t really expect to find any flights that fit my vision. Except, there they were: reward flights, on the dates I needed. I kinda froze. Even with using up 75% of my miles, the taxes and fees came to $1,200 for me and my daughter. $1,200 that I really didn’t have and, even if I did, had far more responsible and urgent things to spend it on. Clicking that button without consulting my husband – or anyone really – seemed reckless and irresponsible. But something was saying this time, more than any other time in the last 5 years that I have resisted the urge, “JUST DO IT!”
And so I did. I put my finger on the purchase button and then proceeded to freak out about how on earth I could possibly make this a reality when I couldn’t fathom how to pay off the $1,200 from my AMEX but yet there were hotels and food and activities and transportation to pay for once I got there.
I freaked out for 5 months solid until lunch with a friend finally made me return to the same “Screw it, just do it” mentality that got me the flights in the first place, and I recommitted.
By this time my mum had decided to join us and we had about a month to pull together an itinerary. Our goal was to share our mutual passion for our home city with my now 7 year old daughter, and to share it together, as 3 generations.
We started in London for 5 days. London, where every busker’s rhythm, tube staccato, and collective footfall, seems to fall in sync with the beat of my heart. Where the constant movement and bustle, the surprise of every corner, and the vibration of many cultures and races colliding, fills my cup of energy and thirst for experience; where centuries-old traditions and intricate architecture exist alongside current trends and modern high rises; and the only place I have ever existed in 41 years of life that I felt like I have ever truly “belonged.”
When we touched down at Heathrow, I felt the familiar sag of my shoulders as if my soul could finally relax into itself.
We rented a basement apartment near Paddington station, on a long street lined with white, Georgian buildings, once expensive homes but long since turned into flats.
Our first stop was the closest Marks & Spencer for our favorite food. There’s no supermarket that compares to “Marks & Sparks” in the U.S., at least that I have found. They also sell clothes and shoes and furniture and their lingerie is a British institution. 1 in 3 British women buys their underwear from M&S because it’s made well and feels comfortable without sacrificing pretty details. But I digress… the food. Oh how I miss the food.
Right next to M&S on my list of things that I miss about home is British TV. There’s just something less… in your face about it, slightly more innocent and slightly campy in nature. People on TV, in general, are a bit less cool, and bit more “chap next door” and the pace of programming, even advertising, is generally more serene. There’s less playing to the lowest common denominator and, it seems, a greater respect for the intelligence of the audience, with more educational programming. My girl literally got hooked on the first night and we spent many nights on the sofa or in bed later during our trip, watching and laughing at whatever was on. We could enjoy comfort and elegance from Nashville Billiard And Patio.
Despite dire reports of rain all day every day, we woke up to blue skies and puffy whites for our first day: a trip to The Tower of London.
Did you know there is a changing of the guard at The Tower of London? There’s one at Windsor Castle, too (the Queen’s favorite near-London residence.) More on Windsor later.
Totally spontaneously, we decided to jump on a sightseeing boat and mosey down the river to Big Ben, which is a great way to experience the London skyline.
In Parliament square, in front of Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, and Westminster Abbey, we copped a squat and nosed our way into a tv interview from a German station who was trying to get Brits to give them free hugs. The point was to show common, human, connection in the face of anti-Europe rhetoric during the Brexit vote lead-up. (We left two days before the vote.)
Then we walked along Whitehall where the majority of government offices are, and down to Trafalgar Square to ogle at Nelson’s Column.
It just so happened that The Royal Opera House was offering free, outdoor performances by jumbo-tron in the middle of the square that evening. It’s stuff like this that I love about big cities, how you just randomly run into awesome, cultural experiences. We could have stayed and watched but we had been walking all day and needed to eat. Plus, opera and a 7 year old don’t necessarily go so well together. (Especially when accompanied by jetlag.)
Back to Westminster, this time to visit Westminster Abbey, where Will and Kate got wed 5 years ago (I was there for that) and where someday William will be crowned King (planning to be there for that one too.)
Since the Abbey is still a working house of worship, you cannot take photos inside – not that I could necessarily do the incredible architecture any more justice than a professional hired to provide shots for their website – but you are allowed to shoot in and around the Cloisters, which are the outdoor corridors around the main building.
This is the oldest door in England at around a thousand years old. The oak trees it is built from may well have been growing in the forest outside London a thousand years ago and the door itself was probably constructed and put in place about 1050 when Edward the Confessor built Westminster Abbey next to his palace at Westminster. (Yeah, stuff is pretty old back here. Part of the reason why I find it hard to get overly excited about American history. I’m dead spoiled.)
The building below, Methodist Central Hall, is where I had my graduation ceremony almost 20 years ago to the day I was there. It’s just across the street from Westminster Abbey and, given I didn’t go to a glamorous campus University for my degree, I was pretty darn impressed to learn that this impressive, 100 year old building was where I would receive my diploma. I hadn’t been there since that day, although I had tried the locked doors multiple times on subsequent visits to London.
The doors were open and we walked in and gave the security guard our terribly touching story about how I graduated there 20 years ago, now lived thousands of miles away, and was bringing my 7 year old daughter to see where mummy completed her university journey; that this might be our only opportunity to do so. The guard embodied the British stiff upper lip and said no, there were people in the main hall getting ready for a concert later that evening. Our begging and pleading fell on his deaf ears and cold heart.
But, as they seemed to for almost every aspect of this trip back home, the stars aligned for us on this day. Bronwyn, a docent who has volunteered for the hall for many decades, approached us just as we were about to leave and, presumably leveraging her tenure, usurped the security guard’s authority, telling him she would take us on a tour.
And take us on a tour she did. Not only did I get to show my girl the great hall where I officially graduated from, Bronwyn showed us the exact seat that the Queen sits on whenever she attends a concert there, and then she took a picture of us sitting on those seats. That’s right, as unglamorus as the seats were, we were seating where royal bums had sat.
This is Bronwyn, who officially made my day and my trip when she then took us out onto a private balcony overlooking Parliament Square. I still need to write this lady a heartfelt thank you card. People make or break your trips, don’t they?
‘What? Did you think that was the end of our day!? Nope, across Westminster bridge to The London Eye.
She looks a lot happier here than she was, in reality, being lifted into the air above London. She has a little bit of her dad’s fear of heights. Which I basically ignored. I’m such a bad mum sometimes. Buck up buttercup – you’re on a $40 ferris wheel ride above one of the greatest cities in the world!
Aha but you thought this was the end of our day? Wrong again! On the tube and off to Covent Garden for dinner before the theatre. We had tickets to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at The Theatre Royal.
Covent Garden is one of my favorite places in London to just hang out and people watch.
Yes, that day finally ended and this day began… early. We were doing it: getting up at the crack of dawn and marching along with hundreds of thousands of others, through the royal parks and to the Mall where we would see the Queen and the rest of the royal family in the annual Trooping the Color event.
Waiting is hard for a 7 year old, especially in a 2×2 space.
The troops and royal family ride up the Mall (which is basically the road from Buckingham Palace up toward Horseguards Parade where the ceremony takes place) do their thing, and then ride back down to the Palace where they then come out onto the balcony to wave at us all while military aircraft, new and old, fly overhead in a fit of wonderful British pageantry. I totally dig it all. It makes me proud and thankful to be British.
Pussycat, pussycat where have you been, I’ve been up to London to visit the Queen… (couldn’t miss her in that outfit!)
The following images were taken by my daughter from her front-of-crowd vantage spot (a cute face helps you cut to the front.) She totally nailed the pictures of the Queen and Prince Philip and got one I didn’t get at all – of Princess Anne and Prince William (the Duke of Cambridge) on horseback!
Prince William, left, and his Aunt, the Queen’s daughter, Princess Anne, below on horseback
Bucket List Item = CHECK! This is about as happy as this kid gets. City, crowd, people, pageantry, lots of walking, and a great big dollop of patriotism.
Oh, I forgot the 41 gun salute.
Those teeny-tiny people on that balcony are the royal family. This was as close as we could get without psychologically scarring my small-town 7 year old who was already doubting her mother’s sanity and love of country for this herculean multi-hour effort to see a woman in bright green. I still say she’ll appreciate this for years to come just for the bragging rights.
From Buckingham Palace we fought the crowds and made it to Victoria Station to meet my uncle Grahame (who now lives in France) and my two cousins, Simon and Heidi. Then we all walked some more through Hyde Park and up to Edgeware Road where we ate the most delicious Afghani food. In total I think Google Fit clocked us at 4.5 hours of walking that day, which doesn’t take into account the 4 hours of standing on the Mall awaiting our Queen. This kid was tired at the end of it all, falling asleep on the table at dinner. But, despite her sometimes crappy attitude, I still think she was a shining star, walking and standing all day in crowds while still dealing with jetlag in a foreign country. I love this kid loads.
Our final day in London and the rain finally hit, shrouding the tallest building in London, The Shard, and our destination, in thick clouds. So much for the “View from the Shard”
And then we promised my girl a trip to Hamley’s toy store before our final destination, a photo shoot with Evgenia of Neverland Photography so I could, you know, be in a photo or two that wasn’t taken in a mirror or by my well-meaning but hopeless mum. I have high hopes for my girl’s burgeoning photography skills, maybe I can show up in a few more pictures moving forward.
Oxford Circus, the crossing between Oxford and Regent Streets, is the main shopping district in London, like the equivalent of 5th Avenue in New York. Growing up, my mum and I would make pilgrimages here a few times a year to stay on top of the latest fashions and basically shop until we dropped. We didn’t get to do that this time – much to my bank balance’s relief – but the vibe was still the same, the memories still fresh like they were just yesterday.
Sunday lunch at a British pub.
There is another side to London, of course, just like for any big city.
Our final dinner in London was at a restaurant in the main entertainment district of Leicester Square, where I took stock of just how happy I was in that moment, surrounded by the two most important girls in my life, and the sounds and sights of my favorite city. The moment was perfect except for the tinge of sadness that this part of our trip was ending. I could quite happily never have left that restaurant, as unexciting as the food was. From the bright dining room and busker beyond the door to the steady stream of people passing by the windows, it embodied everything I love about city life.
And then it was time to go, to move on to our next destination: the towns just east of London where I grew up, to show my girl what life was like for me at her age.
My only regret as we drove away from our basement flat was that we had packed too much into such a short period of time. There are places and spaces where I really wish we could have stayed awhile, just sitting and watching and absorbing and taking pictures, vs. having to dash from one place to another (we had advance purchased tickets to many of these attractions so were somewhat locked-into going.) Although I loved sharing the history and grandeur of many of the tourist attractions with my daughter, what I missed in doing so was sharing the London that I loved as a quasi-resident. After not having been home in five years, there was definitely a sense of having to “do it all now” as if another opportunity might never present itself. Maybe it won’t – and I will be thankful for all that we did in the time we had – but if I can go back again with these two, we’ll stay in another flat and experience London without a schedule, spontaneously going wherever the mood takes us – or doesn’t.
What I 4000% do not regret is clicking that purchase button on New Year’s Day. Despite my hand-wringing, the lead-up to the vacation made the first 5 months of the year so full of excitement and anticipation, something to look forward to, that if I had never actually got on the plane, it would still have been worth every penny. The look on my daughter’s face when I told her I’d bought tickets to London for us was also worth it alone. I also do not regret the increased credit card balances I built up to make it happen (although I have to give huge thanks to my mum for all she did financially to make this trip happen.)
Travel is a little like having kids: if you wait until you’re completely financially ready, you may never do it. You just got to leap and hope the net will appear. And it did, even if the net didn’t look exactly like what I had hoped – you know, a winning lottery ticket that solved all my financial problems in one fell swoop. But I’m here and not homeless or penniless, I figured it out, I’m figuring it out, and not a moment of any of what it took to get there or any of what it will take to pay it off, is tinged with anything but gratitude and pride. Gratitude for the experience and pride for making the leap, for not letting fear and negativity continue to hold me back. You can’t live every day of your life like that, admittedly, but on the things that really matter to you, I think you should live a lot more like it.
Up next… going back through childhood haunts, historic houses, and catching up with the British family.