London, Part VI (The End)

I’ve been putting off wrapping this thing up because every time I start writing this last part, I don’t have my journal, where I kept a list of everything I did. Also, it’s hard to write about something that happened months ago at this point. Maybe next time I go on a trip, I’ll write about it right after I get back? We’ll see.

I started my second-to-last day, a Monday, by visiting Westminster Abbey, which I’d visited when I was 12. I barely remember specifics of that visit, other than being impressed by the tombs of Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I, both of whom I was very interested in at that time. I figured it wouldn’t be a bad place to revisit, so I took the Tube there and stopped to take some selfies in front of Big Ben and the London Eye before getting on a rather intimidating line.

I waited in line for probably twenty minutes and listened to other people’s conversations. Once inside, I took my time walking around, reading the memorials to people who lived, for the most part, centuries ago. The overall experience was not as exciting as I’d remembered it being when I was younger. This time, I felt annoyed at being jostled by other tourists, all of whom had their ears glued to the handheld audio tours they hand out at the entrance. Out of guilt and some sense of obligation, probably because I’d paid an entrance fee, I made sure I saw every bit of Westminster Abbey that I could see, except for the gift shop and cafe, which I think are kind of tasteless things to have in a church, even if that church is a tourist attraction.

on my walk to the british museum

on my walk to the british museum

From Westminster Abbey, I walked to the British Museum, which was not exactly nearby. My route took me to the edge of St. James’s Park and behind 10 Downing Street. I thought briefly about going to see Buckingham Palace but I felt like that was something I only needed to do once in my lifetime. I ended up in Trafalgar Square, which was an interesting coincidence. A scene in the book I’d been reading the night before took place there. While I was figuring out which direction to walk in from Trafalgar Square, I realized I was hungry, so I stopped into the 800th Pret a Manger I’d seen that day and bought a cheddar and pickle sandwich. I ate it on my walk to the museum. I knew I looked gross, but it’s not like I was going to run into anyone familiar.

***

the british museum's display for germany: memories of a nation

the british museum’s display for germany: memories of a nation

At the British Museum, it took me a really long time to figure out how to access the exhibit I wanted to see – Germany: memories of a nation – and that made me grumpy. But once I got it all sorted, I had a really great time. The exhibit told the history of Germany through art and artifacts in a really manageable yet thorough manner. It wasn’t super crowded. And I felt pretty at home with the mostly elderly crowd, especially once my fatigue and sciatica kicked in. At one point, I sat on a bench for a while next to two older men and listened to them talk about Hitler.

I wandered around the permanent collections for a very long time. By that point in my trip, I was museum-ed out. I can barely remember what else I saw. I know that I walked through some rooms with stuff from Roman Britain. I saw the Sutton Hoo hoard, which was a must for me while I was there. And I remember at least a room – or two – full of clocks. I also twice visited the bathrooms, which were podlike and an awful shade of orange, clearly someone’s idea of what the future would look like decades ago.

When I left the museum, it was raining. I bought a a shitty umbrella at a shop full of touristy knickknacks and walked to the closest Tube station. I got in a car with a bunch of uniformed schoolgirls chaperoned by their teachers. They were probably around twelve-years-old, all chatty and earnest and still trying to get attention and approval from one teacher in particular, who was clearly exhausted. The girl across from me was eating a bag of prawn cocktail-flavored potato chips, which intrigued me, though I never remembered to buy a bag before I left the UK.

***

afternoon in notting hill

afternoon in notting hill

I had no idea what I was doing in Notting Hill. At least it had stopped raining. I followed Google Maps, walking along beautiful residential streets, until I found Portobello Road. I remembered someone had told me to go to Portobello Road Market. I thought it was like…fine? I don’t know. I bought some silly souvenirs for my roommates and myself from one of the stalls. I walked into a few random, cutesy looking shops and ended up spending a stupid amount of time at a Cath Kidston without buying anything.

It was almost sundown and I’d thought I might try to walk by Kensington Palace, so I started heading toward Kensington. I promptly got lost. It got dark and for a while, I was the only person walking along a street lined with really, really nice furniture stores. I ended up hopping on a train at the first station I saw, which was High Street Kensington station, which I later realized is like four blocks from Kensington Palace.

That evening, Katie and I went to see a Jane Austen-themed improv group called Austentatious. (At a pub in Islington called The Old Queens Head.) They describe their performance as “an entirely improvised comedy play in the style of the wondrous & witty Jane Austen, based on nothing more than a title from the audience.” That is exactly what it was like! (It was really good.)

***

remembrance day poppies at the tower of london

The next day – my last full day in London – I did a bunch of stuff. At this point, I’m bored writing about this trip, so I’ll give you a quick rundown of how I spent my remaining time.

at the tower of london

at the tower of london

I went to the Tower of London. However, I forgot that it was Remembrance Day, so I had to watch an official Remembrance Day ceremony taking place on a big screen while standing in a crowd of thousands before I could get my ticket for the tour. Then I did the tour and it was great.

I walked along the Thames to St. Paul’s Cathedral. And then didn’t go inside. Just like, walked around it.

at liberty of london

at liberty of london

I spent my afternoon shopping. I went to Selfridge’s Food Hall for lunch and picked up a few little gift-y things for people back home. Then I walked around Liberty of London literally for hours. It was really maybe one of the most fun things I’ve ever done by myself. And then I checked out Sister Ray Records, which was close by.

I took the Tube to Whitechapel, where I was meeting Katie and Chris for dinner. I was super early, so I stopped into a little crepe shop for a coffee. I did some writing and charged my phone until it was time to go to Tayyab’s. Dinner there was definitely an experience for me. I hadn’t eaten Indian food since probably 2009 and have a really hard time handling anything spicy, so I was kind of nervous for our meal in general. (Note: I was the one who’d suggested we get Indian food in the first place, as I had put it on my London to-do list.) I think I maybe had a mild allergic reaction to something, but I liked most of what I ate!

I said goodbye to Katie that night. And in the morning, I said goodbye to Chris.

And then I was off to Iceland!

P.S. I’ll write about the two days I spent alone in Iceland soon, I think.

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London, Part V (A Sunny Sunday)

I woke up hungover. I showered, got dressed, took some Advil I had brought with me in a plastic sandwich bag, and went down to the kitchen, where Katie was getting breakfast started. Instantly, I felt terrible. I should have been cooking them breakfast! But then, I thought, how could I possibly do that when I don’t know where anything is or how anything works? And I love doing stuff like this when I have guests. Just stop it, I told myself, and enjoy the damn breakfast.

And so I enjoyed the damn breakfast. It was very good.

***

We decided to walk along the Regent’s Canal on our way to the Columbia Road Flower Market. When compared to the day before, the day was spectacular, sunny and almost warm. I think it was the only day I wore shoes without socks. I spent our walk both partly delighted at the sight of narrowboats in the water and small cafes tucked along the path, and partly afraid that I would be knocked into the canal by one of the bikers zooming by us at top speed.

We exited once we’d tired of the traffic and single-file walking. I think it was then that we passed by the The Geffrye Museum of the Home, which Katie and I decided we had to go to on our way back. We proceeded to walk around in what felt like a lot of little loops through identical residential blocks until we got to Columbia Road.

Once there, we stopped in Vintage Heaven, which had a cute little cafe in the back called Cake Hole. Chris got a coffee and Katie bought a delightful needlepoint pillow that matched their couch at home and I wished that I could buy something but I didn’t have room in my suitcase and everything that caught my eye looked fragile. Also, every time I tried to look at something I got knocked into by another shopper, which didn’t exactly put me in a purchasing mood.

literally the only photo i took at the columbia road flower market

literally the only photo i took at the columbia road flower market

Outside, we headed toward the Flower Market, which was so crowded that I could barely look at any flowers. I had it in my head that I would take my time looking at beautiful flowers and take a lot of pictures that I would examine later in the day in order to choose a few to post on Instagram that would get like, a million likes. Instead, I was pulled quickly through the throngs of people almost against my will, while forced to endure the shrill sounds of flower sellers trying shouting bargain prices from their stalls. I was, of course, reminded of “Who Will Buy?” from Oliver!, in which Oliver Twist finds himself in the middle of a busy market after recovering from a fever and ends up getting stolen by Nancy and Bill Sikes. When we found ourselves at the end of street, I was relieved, but also felt I should go back and really fight my way through the crowd. I’d only taken one shitty photo.

***

my favorite model london living room, from the 1930s

my favorite model london living room, from the 1930s

The Geffrye Museum of the Home is housed in former Hoxton almshouses. Inside, you can walk through recreations of typical London living rooms from the 17th century to (nearly) the present day. If this sounds boring to you, you should stop reading right now. I was kind of obsessed with how weird this museum was, like walking through a train in which each car existed in a different period of time. Each living room from before the 1900s was accompanied by tons of information on household duties and activities, as well as the types of furniture and tools that Londoners would have used at the time. There was plenty for me to nerd out on, though by the time we got to the 20th century, I was exhausted. I spent our last 15 minutes watching a father try to hold the attention of his three young daughters, all of whom must have been under the age of six and were more concerned with playing with their museum-issued headsets than looking at the actual exhibits.

***

After the museum, we ate at a tapas place in Hackney. I can’t remember the name of it. I don’t even remember what we ate, really, except that there was a lot of food and it was all Spanish and maybe there were croquettes involved and some kind of goat cheese thing. I think I was suffering from extreme fatigue. (Actually, I know I was. Looking back on this day now, it all seems foggy and like someone else was doing everything I’ve described.)

As we were leaving, I saw a man wearing a crisp pink Oxford shirt and a matching pink cableknit sweater thrown over his shoulders sitting at a table on the sidewalk with his little white dog. While we waited for our Uber, I watched a toddler try to play with the dog, who was very calm and poised, just like his owner.

***

We were too tired to do anything that night, so we stayed in and watched He Got Game and about half of the MTV Europe Music Awards hosted by Nicki Minaj and ate Halloween candy out of a plastic pumpkin.

London, Part IV (Actually, A Shit Day in Oxford)

Katie and I woke up and met Chris at Paddington Station, where we were catching a train to go to Oxford. I’d wanted to do at least one day trip while I was in London and decided on Oxford because it’s featured prominently in some of my favorite fictional series: the His Dark Materials trilogy and the television shows Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis. I made absolutely zero decisions about what I wanted to do there before we got on the train, which I’m sure was annoying to my travel companions. I just had in my head that we’d get there and walk around and look at the colleges and eat lunch in a pub and have a lovely day.

The shit started when we got on the train, which was four cars and far too small to accommodate all of the boarding passengers. Luckily, we all got seats, though Katie and Chris ended up sitting on the other end of the car from me. I squeezed into a seat next to a woman, or possibly a man. I don’t remember anything about my seat partner except that they were sitting in the seat next to me. I tried reading Speedboat, but was distracted by the family standing in the aisle next to me. There was a middle aged mom and dad and a son in his late teens, accompanied by his girlfriend. The son was extremely attractive. (Extremely.) His girlfriend looked like an anime version of Baby Spice. There was nothing particularly interesting about them, but I kept imagining different reasons for their trip. By the time they got off the train in Reading, I decided they were visiting a charming but curmudgeonly grandfather for lunch.

It started drizzling outside just before we pulled into Oxford. When we stepped onto the train platform, it was pouring. Inside the station, I bought a map of the city in a tourist information kiosk. I never looked at it again.

at the ashmolean

at the ashmolean

We decided to go to the Ashmolean Museum because it wasn’t that far of a walk and it also was an indoor activity. I was pretty miserable by the time we got there, worried that my friends were annoyed that I had dragged them to be bored at a museum on a rainy day. This feeling intensified as we spent a long while walking around the collections of ancient artifacts, which everyone knows are the most boring collections in any museum. Eventually, I ended up by myself. I found some things I liked: the Anglo-Saxon stuff, the musical instruments, most of the paintings, the tapestries, the ceramics. When I was finished, I met Chris and Katie outside, where it had stopped raining.

We found a pub called The White Horse for lunch. It was cozy and dark and wooden and everything was a little slanted. Our waiter, the jolliest waiter I ever did meet, gave us a sheet with the pub’s history on it. (It dated back to the 16th century! Queen Elizabeth I might have visited it one time!) I ended up using it as my place mat and got malt vinegar all over it. Our waiter looked more than a little disappointed when he noticed this later, as he was pointing out that we should keep it for a souvenir.

After lunch, full of sticky toffee pudding and apple crumble, we walked through not terribly heavy rain to Magdalen College, which is supposed to be the most beautiful Oxford college. Since it was already late in the day, the guard at the college let us in to walk around the grounds for free. The building we were allowed to walk around was beautiful in a very medieval way. It also did not seem like a place for college students, but what do I know? My alma mater was founded in 1851.

magdalen college

magdalen college

We walked around the grounds for a little bit, just as the sun was setting and the rain was letting up a bit. I attempted to walk by the canal, but it was muddy and I was wearing brand new shoes, so I decided that was a terrible idea and stopped.

When we left the college grounds, it started pouring. Katie and Chris had been walking around without umbrellas all day. I had one, but it didn’t even help at this point because it was raining so hard. It was getting dark. We decided to call it a day and head back to the station, where we just made the train.

I finished Speedboat on the train ride back to London, which was very hot and uncomfortable, at least until I was able to get a seat.

We had dinner in Islington, at a place that I thought was literally called “The Pizza Pub” until Katie and Christ explained that that was just what they called their neighborhood pub – actual name: The Hanbury Arms – because, for some reason, it had an extensive menu of basically just pizza. This would be my third pizza-centric meal in London.

street fox

street fox

The pub was fairly empty. I confused the young bartender wearing an oversized tiedye t-shirt when I tried to pay for my order with an American credit card. I explained to him that he had to swipe my card on the side of his credit card machine, but he tried to feed it into the part that reads chips like six times before he asked one of his coworkers for help. After eating our pizza and a game of cards, Chris went home, leaving me and Katie to have “Girls’ Night.” We drank as many glasses of wine as we could before we got kicked out of the bar at 11 PM. We hadn’t noticed that we were the only ones still there and that my bartender friend was closing up for the night.

On our way home, we saw a fox in the street. This was very exciting for me because I think foxes are super cute and also I had never seen one in the wild before, let alone just trotting around an urban area.

Before going to sleep, we had a nightcap: an entire bottle of prosecco.

 

London Travel Diary, Day Three

I woke up feeling groggy but pushed myself to get dressed and ready so that I could get to Spitalfields Market in time to meet Ruth, a family friend from New York who had recently moved to London with her family. On my way, I grabbed a coffee at a small cafe called Appestat. I would have liked to sit and read if I’d had time, but I didn’t so I took my coffee to go and dripped it all over the front of my jacket during my Tube ride.

It took me approximately one hundred years to find Spitalfields Market. Once there, I had enough time to walk through the stalls and look for gifts for friends back home. I had to meet Ruth and Christine, another friend who was visiting London that week, at noon in front of a statue of a white goat, where our Street Art Walking Tour would begin. I got another coffee at a chain coffee place while I was waiting. The woman behind the counter seemed unable to understand me, giggled after I ordered, and I ended up with an Americano the size of a large movie theater soda.

street art, somewhere near brick lane

street art, somewhere near brick lane

I found the tour group assembling in front of the statue and checked in under Ruth’s name. Neither Ruth nor Christine was there by the time we were supposed to leave. Josh, our tour guide, looked at me and said, “Ruth, are you able to get in touch with your friends?” and I stared at him blankly before realizing that he thought my name was Ruth. I told him that I hadn’t been able to yet, but we left without them anyway. I spent the next ten minutes frantically turning my data on and off to see if they had responded to an email they had sent earlier.

Ruth, Christine, and three other friends from our hometown who had literally just arrived in London met up with the group outside of Christ Church. We all caught up as we walked around East London, looking at street art that Josh pointed out. An artist himself, he showed us a few pieces that he had done. Overall, the tour was informative and I walked away feeling like I’d learned a lot about the history of East London, so I’d recommend an Alternative London tour to anyone who’s looking to do something slightly off the beaten path.

The day was cold and windy, so we went to lunch at a nearby restaurant in Shoreditch called Pizza East. I was still jittery from all of my coffee, but drank a few glasses of wine, which evened me out. I hadn’t seen most of our group in a very long time, so it was really nice to hang out and hear stories about everyone’s lives.

(Please note that this was the second meal during which I, a New York native, ate pizza in London. The pizza was thin crust and delicious but it wasn’t better than other fancy restaurant pizza I’ve had recently. That is my brief review.)

selfie session in front of tower bridge

selfie session in front of tower bridge

We took the bus to the Tower of London, where we were going to look at the poppies and I planned to take a tour. We worked our way through the throngs of people to see the display, which was really beautiful, but the experience itself was overwhelming. I said goodbye to everyone and went to buy a ticket to get inside the Tower, only to discover that they had just stopped admitting people for the day. I had about two hours to kill until I was to meet Chris and Katie for dinner, so I decided to walk to the Tate Modern.

Before I left, everyone I talked to who had ever been to London was like, “You have to go to the Tate Modern.” And I was like, “Yeah, I’ve been there before.” Also, it’s annoying to be told the same thing over and over again, even though everyone had good intentions. The last time I was at the Tate, I was twelve, with my parents and our friends Gary and Pat. It had just opened a few months before our trip. All I remember about it was a video installation featuring a naked dude. We weren’t there for long.

at the tate modern

I walked across the Tower Bridge to the south bank of the Thames and made my way west to the Tate as the sun was setting. This time, I had just enough time to see the permanent collection. I walked through the building quickly and distractedly, worrying about how I was going to get to my next destination. I felt lonely.

I met Chris and Katie at Shoreditch House for dinner. Shoreditch House is literally in the same building as Pizza East. I did not realize this until I got there.

After dinner, we went to see Mr. Turner at the Barbican. I wish I could see every movie at the Barbican. It felt fancy, yet accessible, mostly in the sense that the service at the concessions counter – which had candy in glass jars and an espresso machine – was as terrible as it would be at a normal movie theater. (I ordered Katie a tea, we waited for it, they didn’t give it to us, and when we asked for it, they told us we had never ordered it.) Anyway, Mr. Turner was fantastic and I’m going to go see it again this week.

London Travel Diary, Day 1

Thoughts and experiences from my first day traveling to/in London in November 2014. 

jetlagged/maybe still asleep after my first flight, but drinking coffee anyway

jetlagged/maybe still asleep after my first flight, but drinking coffee anyway

Somehow, I survived my first flight – from New York to Iceland – and then my second flight – from Iceland to London – and found the Heathrow Express, which would take me from Heathrow to Paddington Station, where I would have to find and board an Underground train that would get me to Islington, where I would have to find my friends’ house. The only things I’d consumed since leaving New York were two Nyquil caplets, seltzer and two cups of coffee. My phone was about to die. I charged it on the train using an adaptor I’d purchased at the airport for some amount of Icelandic money I hadn’t bothered converting to US dollars because, I thought, fuck it I’m on vacation.

***

I have all of these people on my Gchat list – most of whom I don’t speak to on a regular basis or, actually, ever – whose “status” is always their location. Not the location in which they live, of course, but places they’re traveling. There’s never an explanation. Just, simply, “Buenos Aires.” Or on occasion, something like “Lima -> Vancouver -> NYC.” I have mixed feelings about this practice because, on the one hand, I think it’s pretty pretentious. But, on the other hand, if I had the opportunity to travel a lot, I’d probably be an asshole about it too.

***

Walking from the Angel tube station to Chris and Katie’s house was one of the most terrifying short journeys of my life. There were two reasons for this. The first was that I was using precious international data to Google map my walk. The second was that I was completely unable to cross any street without imagining myself getting hit by a car because I had looked the wrong way.

Once I found the house, which was not as difficult as I’d imagined it would be, I let myself in with a key that Katie had hidden for me in an exhaust pipe. I had about four hours to kill until Katie got home – Chris was on a trip and returning the next day – so I took my time getting settled, which took a lot less time than I’d anticipated. After I’d showered and dressed, I turned on the TV. I watched an episode of Gilmore Girls, feeling a little guilty that it was two seasons ahead of where I’d left off in my Netflix binge and also that I was watching Gilmore Girls on vacation. The only thing that forced me off the couch was the fact that the internet at the house wasn’t working.

***

I felt very at home at CoffeeWorks Project. The name was dumb, but it reminded me of the coffee shop I’d recently had to stop frequenting at home. It had a limited menu of espresso drinks and tea. There was also a selection of whimsically flavored baked goods for sale. The space was modern and airy and the furniture was mismatched and rustic. It really did feel like it could have been in Brooklyn, which was both comforting and disappointing.

casually took two photos of this little tableau before getting embarrassed for myself and picking up my book again

casually took two photos of this little tableau before getting embarrassed for myself and picking up my book again

I found the only unoccupied corner, where I drank an Americano and ate a raspberry muffin filled with lemon curd as I used the internet for all sorts of things on my phone. I checked Instagram, where I was still getting likes on the selfie I took in the airport in Iceland. I used Viber to text my mom and Vincent, to let them know I had gotten to London safely. I deleted about 65 shopping emails and read and responded to the only two real emails I’d received. Then I wrote an email to my dad, who was celebrating his birthday.

It was getting dark outside, which was a relief because that meant Katie would be getting back from work soon. I’d killed more time getting to the coffee shop than I’d even meant to, as I realized I’d left my debit and credit cards at the house when I got to the bank to take out cash and had to go back. I read some of my book – Renata Adler’s Speedboat – until I realized I felt kind of sick, probably from the lemon curd in the muffin. I took a different route back to Chris and Katie’s, down an alley-like street where vendors were breaking down their market stalls.

***

When Katie got home, I felt insane. I was happy to see her, of course, but I also was so jetlagged that I had no idea if the words that I thought I was speaking were actually coming out of my mouth. She asked me if I wanted to go out to dinner or just rest and order in. It was Guy Fawkes Night – or Bonfire Night, or whatever they call it – and we could already hear quite a lot of fireworks going off.

“Let’s go out,” I said. “I’ll just fall asleep if we sit here.”

Katie took me to a pub called The Scolt Head which, despite its blunt-seeming name, was warm and had a lovely little garden that I would have liked to sit in if it had been warm out. We caught up over a bottle of wine and I ate chicken and bacon pie, which I thought about not ordering until I remembered that I was on vacation. After dinner, we walked back to the house, unable to hear each other very well over the explosions. We stayed up a little later talking, but Katie had to go to work in the morning and I hadn’t actually slept in like two days, so we said goodnight. I slept for 11 hours, which I felt very proud of in the morning.