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.

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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.

For Your Entertainment (Or Mine, Really)

Last night, I wrote a post about being anxious. I mentioned in that post that I just had a whole week off – well, mostly – and I want to assure you that I did things other than “nothing” and feeling anxious. Obviously, I watched a lot of the Olympics. I don’t really have anything to say about them because everyone watched them (unless you were boycotting, which I am too basic to do) and probably had the same exact thoughts that I did. (Actually, serious question: Was everyone else very into the freestyle skiing events?)

I feel like I watched a lot of comedy stuff on TV/Netflix/the internet while I was off, which I guess “goes” with my whole doing nothing aesthetic during that time. My favorite out of all of those things was probably Broad City. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Broad City is a new show on Comedy Central starring and created by Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. It’s based on the popular web series of the same name. I’m sure I would have watched this eventually but I have to give major thanks to my roommate Kim for making me watch the first episode – and then every other episode that’s aired – on Saturday. I found that I related to this more than another series that I recently wrote about, also about 20 somethings living in New York.

I also watched the whole first season of Kroll Show – also on Comedy Central – on Sunday morning. I’d only watched a few clips – well, I’d only watched the PubLIZity bits, actually, because Jenny Slate is in those – when the show came out last year and never bothered to watch entire episodes. I saw Nick Kroll a few months ago – at a show hosted by Queen Jenny Slate, no less – and I enjoyed him way more than I thought I would. I remembered that at some point last week when I was reading about the second season of the show and was compelled to watch the first season, I liked a lot of it. But as with any show that features so many sketches and characters, I don’t like everything. My favorite thing is probably “Oh, Hello” with Kroll and John Mulaney.

This brings me to John Mulaney’s standup special, New In Town, which I can’t believe I never saw until last week. (It’s like…two years old?) I watched it two and a half times in a week. So, I dunno, I guess I’m riding the Mulaney train pretty hard right now. Better late than never.

As for the other stuff I got into, I’ll be brief. I am now a fan of the television show Hannibal, which is not something I thought would happen. I read the graphic novel Berlin: City of Smoke by Jason Lutes, which I liked, just not as much as its predecessor Berlin: City of Stones. And I started playing Dots on my iPhone pretty much constantly, which I suppose is the biggest reason that I didn’t get any writing done at all. I was too busy connecting dots with my fingertip on my telephone.

Something About London

Today I am taking a break from writing about Paris to write a tiny little bit about another city – London, which I have visited exactly one time, when I was twelve. Even at that age, I was an Anglophile. On the plane ride over, when I wasn’t watching Stuart Little or slapping away my mom, who sunk her nails into my arm every time we hit turbulence, I was happily reading Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII and literally freaking out inside my little brain because I was finally, finally going to London.

text from my dad: "view from restaurant where we are having lunch - looking down on leadenhall market"

text from my dad: “view from restaurant where we are having lunch – looking down on leadenhall market”

My parents lived in London for about a year after they got married and moved back to New York about two months before I was born. My dad still traveled to London a good deal when I was a kid. I don’t want to say a lot because I don’t want to make it sound like my dad wasn’t around when I was growing up, but in my memory it feels like he was there a lot, probably because his trips sometimes lasted for weeks. I remember when I was very young, about four or five, my dad brought me back a Siberian tiger stuffed animal from London. I loved it so much, because I loved stuffed animals and my dad gave it to me and I got to say that it was from London, which was very exciting. I bring this up because that was also probably one of the last times that I wasn’t absolutely terrified every time my dad flew to London for business. Before I flew overseas myself, I cried every time I knew my dad was leaving because I was convinced his plane would crash. My dad would console me by telling me that flying was safer than driving, which was also terrifying because then I would think about how I got in a car every day. Anyway.  By the time I was twelve, I had gotten over this fear of flying – but only sort of because I totally sat with rosary beads on my lap for the entire flight to London – and I was super excited to be seeing a city that had loomed so large in my imagination for my whole life.

The week was a dream come true. My parents and I stayed in a fancy hotel. My mom and I saw the sights during the day and I was in awe of every landmark. Every afternoon, we rested and had tea and scones in our hotel room. Then, at night, we would go out to dinner with my dad and friends. We took a ride on the brand new London Eye. We saw Mamma Mia before it came to Broadway. I remember a lot of middle aged women dancing in the aisles. I caught this renewed ABBA fever pretty hard. My parents bought me the soundtrack and I listened to it on my Walkman before I went to bed. We also saw The King and I with Elaine Paige, who was probably too old to be playing Anna, but she was still really, really awesome. My dad’s wallet got stolen on our last day, though the thief curiously took the cash and dumped it in a garbage can in a tube station and he got it back. By the end of the trip, I was sad to go home. Now, I am sad that I haven’t been back.

text from my dad: "they call this new building in the background "the shard", as in "shard of glass".

text from my dad: “they call this new building in the background “the shard”, as in “shard of glass”.

I was thinking about all of this for two reasons. First, I read Sarah Lyall’s piece in the New York Times last week, “Lessons From Living in London”. The city is much different from the London I visited in 2000 and worlds away from the London my parents experienced in the 1980s. I had always wanted to live there myself, though as an American with zero marketable skills, that will probably remain a difficult, if not impossible, thing to cross off my list.

Secondly, my dad just returned from a business trip to London. He doesn’t go as often any more. As a kid, his trips were mysterious to me. I didn’t know any more about what he did there than what he told me over the phone. But these days, thanks to technology, my siblings and I get updates via group text, my dad narrating his cab rides and lunches, sending photos of things he thinks are cool or has noticed have changed since the last time he visited. I know it’s kind of lame to be like “WHOA, technology!” but…this wasn’t a thing that could have happened a few years ago. (I mean, it could have, I guess, but my dad didn’t have an iPhone until this year and we all know how terrible Blackberrys were for this kind of thing.)

text from my dad: "say hello to the queen! that's buckingham palace in back of the queen victoria monument. wonder if anyone every called her tori? taken out window of cab on way to airport. be home soon!"

text from my dad: “say hello to the queen! that’s buckingham palace in back of the queen victoria monument. wonder if anyone every called her tori? taken out window of cab on way to airport. be home soon!”

I’d like to visit London very soon as good friends of mine just moved there for a definite, but substantial, amount of time. I’m trying to save up some money for this since, well, airfare and London, in general, are expensive. However, I think it will be worth it. I’m looking forward to reminiscing some more about my first trip, of course. But I’m also excited to have an altogether different experience, as an adult, seeing this city that has changed so much in the last thirteen years from another perspective.

On Edge at the Cliffs of Moher

cliffsofmoherplaque

“I can’t wait for you to see the Cliffs of Moher!” my mother shouted at me over the phone. I was at work, a Google document of Irish landmarks I had made open before me on my computer screen.

I had been charged months earlier with the near-Sisyphean task of “planning” our family of eight’s seven-day tour of Ireland in June of 2011. In my initial research phase, I had asked each member of my family to send me a list of things that they would like to see and do while we traveled through the land of our ancestors. The responses I got ranged from “Are there any nude beaches in Ireland? if so we should hit those up” to “If anybody think they seen the leprechaun say YEAH!” to “I was interested in seeing the Giant’s Causeway, but that’s in Northern Ireland. Then I wanted to see Belfast, but that’s also in Northern Ireland.”

The only person who provided any actual input was my mother. She gave me a few of the obvious suggestions: Blarney Castle, the Ring of Kerry, etc. But during the course of our conversations, it became clear that what she really wanted us to see was the Cliffs of Moher. She had been there once before, when she visited Ireland with her mother and her brother. It was one of the most beautiful places she had ever seen. But she made me promise her that I would do one thing when we went there. It was possible, she said, to fall off the Cliffs and I had to promise not to let anyone go over the edge. As the oldest child of six, I’ve been tasked with many responsibilities when it came to my younger siblings. This, however, was the first time one of my parents had asked me to literally make sure that none of my siblings fell off of a cliff.

I carefully planned out the first half of our trip, from Dublin to Cork. The second half, in which we’d drive through County Kerry and up the western coast, was less mapped out, but I had penciled in the Cliffs of Moher for the last day of the trip since it was closest to Galway, where we’d spend our last night. My father and my five siblings became acquainted with this rough itinerary on our first morning in Dublin over a gloomy Irish breakfast in our equally gloomy hotel. (Our accommodations were not my responsibility, but that of a travel agent, and were, for the most part, the sole reason our family will never use a travel agent again.) When it came up that we would visit the Cliffs of Moher during the latter half of the trip, my brother Aidan, who was 11 at the time, asked what they were.

“They’re really big cliffs,” I said. “They were in one of the Harry Potter movies.”

“Which Harry Potter?” he asked. And then, “How big?”

I said I didn’t know and left it at that, mostly because my smartphone was tucked away in my suitcase upstairs. My mom tried to explain their immenseness and their beauty, but Aidan wasn’t buying it. All he wanted to know was exactly how big they were. This was the genesis of a game that I like to call “Bigger or Smaller Than the Cliffs of Moher”.

Our trusty VW Transporter

Our trusty VW Transporter

From that point forward – well, really, after we left Dublin – Aidan asked if  any landmark we encountered – natural or manmade, it didn’t matter – was bigger or smaller than the Cliffs of Moher. Aidan is the youngest, so anything he repeats automatically becomes annoying, until it becomes a point of ridicule, until it becomes a source of glee for the older five of us. As we drove around the Irish countryside in our nine-passenger Volkswagen van and played this little game, we ended up discussing the Cliffs of Moher as much or more than anything else we visited. Who cared about the history of Blarney Castle? All we wanted to talk about was if it was bigger or smaller than the Cliffs of Moher! Sure, the cliffs all around the Dingle Peninsula were beautiful, but wasn’t it hilarious when, as we were taking a family photo with some wild Western Irish scenery in the background, Aidan exclaimed, “It’s like the Cliffs of Moher!” (He said this almost every time we saw any cliff and immediately cracked up at himself.)

Mom and Me at Blarney Castle

Mom and Me at Blarney Castle

And while our anticipation built, our mother’s worry was reaching drastically new heights. (I knew it was bad when we climbed all the way to the top of Blarney Castle and my mother spent the entire, wearisome climb up warning us all to let the guards hold on to us when leaned back to kiss the Blarney Stone, as if they regularly let people refuse their protection and tumble to their deaths. She refused to kiss the Blarney Stone herself.) To my siblings, the only thing more hilarious than Aidan’s fixations is my mother’s anxiety. Every time the Cliffs of Moher came up, she plead with us not to go near the edge when we got there.

“If one of you falls off, it won’t be because I didn’t warn you!” she would cry among the riotous laughter that rang through our van as it hurtled down country roads barely wide enough for a Fiat to pass through without suffering a few scratch marks.

As our final day approached, she pulled me aside more than once to remind me of the promise I’d made. I assured her that nobody would fall off the Cliffs. However, by this point I wasn’t so sure. If she was this worried, then shouldn’t I be worried as well? And if someone went near the edge and started to fall, what was I going to do? Four out of five of my younger siblings were bigger than me.

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All of Us

When we finally arrived at the Cliffs of Moher, my mother was practically convulsing. That morning, her entreaties for my siblings to stay away from the edge had been met with promises to the contrary. In fact, my brothers were still baiting her. As we were taking a series of family photos with the Cliffs in the background, my brothers intermittently stated that they were going to go up to the edge. By this point, we knew it was possible to do so by climbing over the dinky fences that run around most of the accessible parts of the Cliffs. And I’m sure her fears were not allayed by the plaque dedicated to those who had lost their lives on the Cliffs. Eventually, she had had enough of everyone and walked far away from the edge to a point of safety. The rest of us – the six kids and my dad – were free to roam.

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I explored the Cliffs on my own – well, along with hundreds of other people – taking photos and watching my family members from afar. I discovered that the Cliffs of Moher are neither bigger nor smaller than themselves and that they are exactly like the Cliffs of Moher. And that my mother was right, they are breathtakingly beautiful.

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Johnny and Dad

At one point, two of my brothers and my dad called to me. They were going to climb over the fence and wanted me to take a picture of them near the edge. I looked around nervously for my mother, but didn’t see her. I took a bunch of pictures and when they were satisfied, they hopped back over the fence, no worse for the wear.

Johnny and Dayton, On the Edge

Johnny and Dayton, On the Edge

Once we were back at home in New York, my mother saw those pictures. I don’t remember her being angry that my brothers had gone near the edge. I think she was happy that we’d all made it out of Ireland alive. I was too.* And now, with almost two years between us and that trip, we’ve forgotten all of the things that put us on edge – the anxiety and fear and mental and physical exhaustion that can creep up on you no matter where you’re traveling – and remember everything rather fondly. Mention the Cliffs of Moher to any one of us now, including my mother, and you’ll be sure to get a smile.

*Not only was I happy that no one had been blown off of a cliff, but also I was thrilled that we hadn’t perished when our van went airborne on a winding country road and scraped the side of an old stone wall. How my father got the courage to drive us around in that thing – on the wrong side of the road – I will never know.

Bonus Photo: Aidan Staring Pensively From the Top of the Cliffs of Moher

Bonus Photo: Aidan Staring Pensively From the Top of the Cliffs of Moher