The sensation of being in London is a sensation that is altogether too familiar. It's not the fleeting clarity of deja vu - no, nothing that exciting. It's a domestic sort of feeling this southern girl has developed for big, lived-in cities thanks to her New Yorker husband. The violent lurch of a subterranean train, the sudden waft of urine or trash, a bird waddling drunkenly down a brick-lined alley. For me, these little moments too easily fade into the wrap-around background of city life, leaving me to wait for a celluloid savior, that unexpected moment that knocks me out of my stupor.
When we arrived at Heathrow after a surprisingly pleasant (and practically free thanks to credit card points) daytime flight from Newark, we were floored by the line at border control. The line looped around forever. We were forced to wade through an undulating sea of Turks and Canadians for two hours, looking in turns longingly and angrily at the U.K. citizens in their bloody expedited kiosks. It did not comfort us that in two weeks we would be those assholes waltzing back into the U.S. nbd. (Hot tip from a friend who lives in London: you can pay for expedited entry if you fly into Gatwick for just 10£.)
When we arrived at our Airbnb, it was weird and wonderful. We were greeted by the owner who runs a motorcycle repair shop downstairs. He was cheerfully glum, just the sort of Londoner I envisioned, with a magnificent red mustache and neat, well-tailored work trousers. He walked us through a graveyard of tires and past a decrepit screen door behind which I recognized several oily steel bowls and the long-handled spoons used to protect its user from the breath of the wok. The smell of rancid oil filled the air as I dodged random pools of god knows what. Up some steps, and then some more, to a bright and modern flat split between 4 floors, each separated by a narrow sets of stairs that were more like glorified ladders. On the tippy top was a small rooftop patio with a view of hundreds of dusty little chimneys and the glowing London Eye. It was awesome.
We spent our first day there seeing the usual sites - visiting Westminster Abbey, seeing the Churchill War Museums, strolling through lush manicured parks, peeking at Buckhingham Palace, and popping into the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. Though the Churchill War rooms were incredible, this was not a favorite day for me. To give you an idea of where my priorities lie, the highlight was actually dinner at Nopi, owned by chef Yotam Ottolenghi. We decided to forgo our reservation and sat at the bar (because people who sit at the bar for dinner are the best kind of people). I love vegetables in almost every form (looking at you turnips, get your shit together), and Nopi did not disappoint - roasted aubergine, pistachio, mushrooms, preserved lemon, cardamom, ginger - so many flavors I love working together.
On our second day, we booked a Beatles walking tour with London Walks as a special treat for Britton. In addition to seeing an enormous variety of locations significant to Beatles history, it was also a good way for us to gain some spacial understanding of popular London neighborhoods that benefited us the rest of the trip. In retrospect, I would have scheduled a tour like this for our very first day. Britton is particularly proud of his zebra crosswalk photo (the one on the cover of Abbey Road) just outside Abbey Road Studios. With just a slight nod at me to start snapping away, he leaped out into the busy street, managed to get into the crosswalk all alone, strike a pose, and quickly exit without getting honked at or mowed over by a black cab. From personal experience, I can tell you Britton's "strike a pose" skills are extraordinary, but that day, he was at the top of his game. Michael Jordan in Game 6 of the '98 NBA Finals kind of game.
On our final day in London, we got up early to be one the first in line for the Tower of London. Our first stop was the crown jewels (notoriously long lines in the afternoon) followed by a meander through the white tower and the first couple stops of the beefeater tour. Being a perpetual tourist myself, it was fascinating to learn about the history of the Tower as a tourist destination and how tourism shaped the way certain items were displayed. In many instances, museum "curators" just made shit up to please the masses. For instance, the Line of Kings was one historically inaccurate exhibit of life-size painted wooden horses and royal suites of armor first displayed in the late 17th century. In the seventeenth-freaking-century, y'all! People have been gawking at this stuff for 350 years! They were just rolling around in heavy petticoats and thinking "Behold at how fusty this stuffeth is - thanketh god f'r advancements in philosophy, technology, and medicine so we has't not to kicketh the bucket liketh these po'r slobss". AND here I am with my bra digging into my shoulder thinking THE EXACT SAME THING. More or less.
As we headed to the sunlit Paddington Station on our way to Bath, we stopped by the Churchill Arms for lunch with one of Britton's Dad's long time friends. She is a beautiful woman with bright eyes and an easy, unself-conscious manner with an appreciation for good ambience and the color black. We heaped steaming piles of jasmine rice and thai curry on our plates and admired the serpentine mass of flowering vines and ferns covering the ceiling of their dining room. We chatted about family and life in the city. I drank a beer that tasted like honey. The longer we sat in that incredible place, the longer I felt myself succumbing to that wonderful sensation of being exactly where you're supposed to be. I imagined myself spending the rest of my life in that room, in that chair, with green tendrils slowly wrapping about me like a gown or funeral shroud. The sun spinning across the horizon yet the world below unchanging in every aspect. Then the moment was gone as quickly as it came, as faulted as memory.
Since the post breezed over quite a few of the places we toured in London, I've included the map below with all the spots we visited during our first week in the United Kingdom. Cheers.
In 2018, I took a vow of no shopping. Join me as I find ways to have fun that don't involve my shopping cart.