Date of trip: April 8, 2017 - April 15, 2017
It took seven years to return to London. In truth, I (Ali) am having a hard time articulating what our experience was like without over exaggerating but also paying tribute to a dearly beloved place. It was exactly what I had remembered, and at other times was completely new. I can say it was worth every mile, and we walked 60 of them. I blistered my feet on the first day, dropping off our bags in Clerkenwell and rushing madly to the crossing of Drummond and North Gower Street. Wearing new, uncomfortable shoes might have made it worse, but really, who knows these things.
The London we experienced was full of corner pubs, men in suits, ornate bridges, kings and queens, pasty pies and Italian coffee. It’s made of the little drawings found in story books, like the queen’s guards in their fuzzy black hats, red double-decker buses and phone booths, pigeons and rain clouds. It taunts with its window bakeries, complete with chocolate muffins, pain au chocolat or raisins, flapjacks, toasties and croissants. Patrons from near and far pass by briskly, with their singsong foreign languages trailing behind them and garbed in fashion sneakers, emerald green and leopard trench coats, and fashions that have come back around. The people look nothing alike, of course, except the english men, who look like english men–full heads of brown hair, blue eyes, maybe even a red beard. It’s a place of rumbling underground “Tube” stations, brick chimneys, tiny corner sinks in tiny corner bathrooms, wrought iron fences, dragons, sidewalk garbage, police on horseback, crooked cobblestone pavement, curry houses, museums, street markets, expensive cars, and Sunday pot roast. It’s a quirky, endless, exhausting place.
A week after we had returned home, one of my previous London roommates asked us, “How was it?” And it would have been easy to say “It was good…great…awesome!” Because yes, while that was true, returning to London was just really fulfilling. Like closure. Like that moment when you find your lost heirloom or when you get to say goodbye to someone you thought had already left. I was heartbroken the first time I left London, but this time we left with 60 miles on our shoes, hundreds of pictures on our cameras, and so much closure to have and to hold.
- Day 1: Homecoming – Regent’s Park
- Day 2: Brighton
- Day 3: Shoreditch & Brick Lane
- Day 4: SoHo (The West End) & Westminster
- Day 5: Clerkenwell & City of London
- Day 6: South Kensington and Hyde Park
- Day 7: Portobello Road and Little Venice
- Day 8: Bid Adieu
When we landed, we had been in limbo for a good part of a day. Our flight had been delayed, and sleep, of course, was hard to come by on the airplane. The landing totally did me in, worse than ever before. On a scale of 1 to 10 (where 10 is puking on the screen or the person next to you) I was at an 8 as the plane descended and landed. I couldn’t move my head or my mouth to indicate I needed a doggy bag. I breathed slowly. Avoided eye contact. And eventually moved very slowly to collect our things. Swallowing the nausea wasn’t working. It came in waves as we deboarded the plane and walked the long way to baggage claim.
A moment of realization crept in. We were back. I started tearing up, like a five year old who just made it to Disneyland, or maybe dropped their popsicle. This sickness needed to be done–I needed to feel all the feels! We sat on the train out of the airport (Heathrow Express) across from an old English couple, dozing off in their seats as the train wobbled along and the sun warmed their faces. I didn’t remember this part–Mary and I must have taken a slower train in. We got off just 15 minutes later at Paddington station, bought our Oyster cards, and switched to the tube towards Farringdon station. When we arrived, we walked the five or so blocks to our Airbnb, got situated (put on new kicks because Ali’s too cool for comfort) and power walked north west towards the most delicious, fried chicken sandwich and french fries.
Chris guided us, as he typically does, and continued telling me to hurry along and put the camera down. We needed to eat badly, clearly he more than me. When we neared Euston street, I recognized the pub where my flatmates and I got a drink the first night we arrived, and the place where Molly Patton unabashedly celebrated her 21st birthday. I recognized the fire station from the night we walked the birthday girl home, and the train station Mary and I took to get to Oxford.
I knew the corner of Drummond street and right where to find the holy grail of greasy fast food, Simply Chicken–it’s tiny, four table dining room and service counter with golden fried chicken in the heating case. The chicken was singing to us and our mouths watering when we realized….we needed cash. We hurriedly took our hungry tummies to Cost Cutters for cash, a general store (not to be confused with a hair salon) where one can buy turkish delights, Foster’s Australian beer, Strongbow cider, oaties cookies, Cadbury chocolates and knock-off Doritos chips (circa 2010). We returned to Simply Chicken and ordered two chicken sandwiches and fries. My rosy retrospection may have gotten the better of me, but I could have sworn that chicken sandwich and styrofoam box were bigger. Still, that little chicken sandwich tasted just as delicious as the memory of it.
We licked our fingers and finished. And then I stood on the corner staring at the North Gower apartment. The brickwork looked different than I remembered and the stoop more plain. Someone had painted a mural on the corner of the building. Beyond that, it was all the same to me. I had dreamed and hoped for this day, yearning for the homecoming for seven years! Except that unlike my anticipation and my dreaming, I wasn’t emotional. Had I waited too long to return? Standing there smiling stupidly at the brick building, I was content. The men drinking brown beers at the table near by paused their conversation, perhaps wondering what I was doing. Unwilling to leave the area, we sat for a drink across the street at Crown and Anchor, a place I’d actually never been to. We sat inside near the open windows and I sat in a daze, looking at North Gower and waiting for tears or something. The streets were lined with Indian restaurants. I had been crazy to have never noticed them before.
When we finished our whiskeys, I insisted on retracing my footsteps from North Gower to Regent’s college. From the loud bustle of Marylebone past the posh homes overlooking her majesty’s park, we entered the park just as I had done everyday before. The sun was sinking low and hovering above the treetops, casting a golden glow across the green. Regents is a beautifully manicured park with water fountains, rows of brightly colored tulips, and pink, blossoming trees. Families and friends sat on blankets, drinking wine and eating baguette sandwiches. It was more beautiful than I remembered.
Our trek took us past wide open spaces where I once tried throwing a frisbee, and across the bridge that spans a calm, dark river spotted with swans and huge grey ducks. We passed Regents College. I felt minimal feelings about the school as I stood across from it, but enough, I suppose, to want a quality picture of its facade and the expensive cars parked in front. Oh, Regents, if nothing else, you taught me that foreign languages can be alienating and beautiful, that privilege is a double-edged sword, and prawn sandwiches are just not for me.
We found an open bench along the path, relieving our feet and letting the last sun rays of the day warm us. The weight of the day grew heavy the longer we sat, and sister Taylor hadn’t yet caught up with her errands and would be unavailable until the next morning. We both agreed to walk to Baker Street station and rest for the night, for we had big plans with one sister and one local the next day. Before sleeping, we made an Indian dinner (thanks to pre-made curry mixes from Tesco) with the sweetest strawberries from Spain.
That night Chris was up for two hours, unable to find sleep. I awoke with the sound of him closing the bedroom window, drowning out the sounds of the pub below. In the morning, we both found it difficult to get up. But today was the day! We were to span the countryside with sister Taylor–who was at the tail end of her study abroad adventures in London, and her favorite local, Joss–to the seaside city of Brighton.
We met Taylor and Joss at the Farringdon tube station, grabbed a quick toastie from Pret a Manger, and waited for the train. At the platform we caught up. Taylor and Joss had met in Amsterdam, continued seeing each other back in London, and were now daydreaming of visiting America together. Joss asked sincere questions about home, how much space we had, and what school was like. We got busy learning about each other and eventually noticed the train was not coming. For technical reasons, it ended up rerouting us and the many other commuters to Victoria Station where we squeezed through the masses and barely found a spot on the train out of town. It was a beautiful Sunday after all–surely that was why. We stood like sardines on the train the whole way into Brighton, continuing our lessons on England and Minnesota, learning about Joss, and watching the countryside roll by.
A grandfather and his grandchildren sat nearby teasing each other in another language, Spanish I think. The young boy’s auntie tapped his shoulder when he wasn’t looking. He turned around, narrowed his eyes at her and then me, asking me in English, “Was it my auntie?!” I lied and told him I didn’t see! They giggled and I continued eavesdropping until we arrived.
We unloaded to another busy platform, waddled slowly through the crowds and out of the shaded station into the sun. What a relief. We walked up and down the hilly city, through the lawns of the Royal pavilion, and to the waterside. It was then we understood the crowds. Beyond being a beautiful Sunday morning, there was a marathon of runners stretching along the boardwalk as far east and west as we could see. Rows of people stood at the edges of the race. The only way to the pier was up and over the runners on a makeshift bridge. We found a window seat at a restaurant (Pitcher and Piano) overlooking the race and the water, and enjoyed whiskeys and lunch.
Eventually we joined the sea of others crossing the race and wandered the pebble beach of Brighton. The pier, similar to Navy Pier in Chicago, was busy, loud, and colorful. We found ice cream (and cake for Taylor) soon after and decided to kiss Brighton goodbye, running down platform 4 until the train cars were empty enough to sit. In honest, we likely visited Brighton on the busiest day of the year. As we rode back, runners around us talked of their placement in the race (which 20k people participated in) and their BBQ plans for when they got home. Joss and Taylor were ready to rest for the upcoming week and we hugged goodbye.
Chris and I chased the sun around London and Tower bridge before running out of light and returning to Clerkenwell. That evening we covered in jackets and strolled along Exmouth market road in search of a place to dine. We passed a stone church, tall and slim, packed between two other buildings. Beyond the wrought iron fence and dark lawn, a sliver of light came through a door left ajar. Swing music played from within and we could see dancers sweeping across the floor and standing along the sides of the room. Walking under strung lights and past curbside diners, we found PANZO, a small pizzeria. It was thee most delicious pizza and we would have returned had we more time. For dessert we grappled over a tiny, tasty tiramisu. Tired but excited for the next day, we returned to the flat to plan our next day’s footsteps, full on pizza and exhilarated for having a full week ahead of us.
Our sleep was catching up to us, and we left late that morning around 11:00am, and took the Tube to Liverpool station to wander the Shoreditch neighborhood. We got bagels at Beigel Bake and stopped for coffee at another shop. We wandered, snapping photos of the street art and quirky store fronts. A homeless man in sandals approached us with his hands in the air, saying, “Please don’t be frightened of me.” He was selling used magazines and lighters. Chris gave him the only change we had and thanked him for the lighter.
We worked up an appetite and sought out BOXPARK, a food and retail mall made of shipping containers, similar to Avanti in Denver, Colorado. We ate a pulled pork sandwich and vegan stir fry amongst hipsters and suits. From there we walked through the old Truman Brewery area, now home to restaurants, creative retailers, and to Spitalfields Market. I bought a small blue notebook titled “Alternative Facts” that I could write down our travels to date. After exploring the market we found a coffee shop to take a load off and journal. We swapped cameras, judged each other’s photos, and talked about aperture and shutter speed. After a yogurt and tea, we felt rested and ready for more.
We walked another mile or so and tried out a “rooftop bar” (only to find a shady stairway that led to a small rooftop with ripped, turf grass, dilapidated and stained patio furniture, and a mange cat). Chris said, “It literally looks like a scene from Taken.” We recovered, though, and caught a drink at Queen of Hoxton instead. We were some of the only patrons, eager for a drink at the time of opening. We ordered shots of whiskey (I think they were out of ginger ale) and watched a tense game of ping pong in the middle of the room. Under his breath, Chris cheered, “Ohhhh, nice shot.”
After becoming a bit cross eyed from the whiskey, we made our way back to Brick Lane. I met a donut and ate it, and then we got more drinks at a place Chris had made a point to return to–a two-for-one happy hour is not something to take for granted he says. We sat on maroon leather couches and sipped Old Fashions. I watched Chris retrieve a bagel from across the street, “Britain’s First and Best Beigel Shop.” This bagel had saltier cream cheese–I preferred the morning bagel from the neighboring shop Beigel Bake. The whiskey weighed us down, comfortable in our respective couches. The bartender joked with another from behind the bar, “Funny how so many sips of wine can get you so pissed!”
Though we wavered in our decision to find a new spot, our tummies rumbled and I gave Chris the green light to find an Indian restaurant. We went by internet ratings to find a place on the way home. We suggest, however, not doing that, or dining at a place called Inito Urban Indian–especially if you’re looking for authentic Indian food. Whatever. We’ve forgiven ourselves. Don’t judge us. We tubed back home and found a bar stool at Berber & Q Shawarma Bar. We needed to order food to stay, so we begrudgingly ordered desserts. It was the most delicious way to end the day.
This was our first day to be “real tourists.” This meant heading to the British Museum, listening to a street performer in Trafalgar Square, and walking across the Thames on any given bridge. We walked west to the museum, passing men and women with briefcases and morning coffees, busy corner stores, men in hard hats with ladders, even 12 year old girls in their ballerina garb–all reminders that we were in a fast beating city that slowed for no one.
Even Chris, the fastest walker WE ALL know struggled to keep up. He continually looked back at me in amazement as he was passed up, “I’m going my fastest!” At the museum, we stood in line for barely two minutes, going through security before entering. I had come here for an art class once, but Chris had never been. As anyone who has visited would say, it’s worth standing inside and just looking up. I found myself some postcards for my collection, we bopped around some of the exhibits, and continued on our way.
We walked through SoHo to Chinatown. It was early still and many storefronts had closed signs hanging in their windows. There was a place I wanted to eat based on someone else’s blog, but I didn’t remember the name of the place. Chris’s patience grew thin as we walked back and forth under the red lanterns and past delivery drivers with their crates of food. I scanned the menus for “cream cheese wontons” for the Sir, but wasn’t having much luck.
Eventually we found a tiny place that for some reason we chose. It had golden chickens and ducks spinning in the window. We walked through the front door to a tiny dining room with about ten tables. Each table was taken by Asian patrons with big bowls of noodles in front of them. They looked at us and continued to eat. There wasn’t an open seat and I started to nod towards the woman standing in the back as I slowly tried retreating. The woman caught my eye, held out two fingers and waited for my response. The man next to her opened a door and pointed up the stairs as the woman said, “Up!” We squeezed through the tiny room, as a patron smiled at me mid-bite, and we made our way up the narrow stairs.
At the second level, a man sat eating on his own. We were brought to the third level and seated at a table for two. We were the first to arrive, and boy did we feel like it. I tried stretching my comfort and ordered a wonton vermicelli soup, Chris a sweet and sour chicken dish, and wontons for us both. Slowly the dining room started filling up; a young Asian family with children, an old British couple, and another couple who spoke another language. Our food arrived quickly. Chris eagerly took a bite of his wonton, looking at it curiously for it’s odd flat shape. A bite in and I heard, “Ugh oh,” as he pushed the wontons my way. I looked inside the wonton to find shrimp. No cream cheese for you. I agreed to eat them. I then took a bite of my dumpling from my noodle soup, but the dumpling was tough. So, as one does when he or she can’t bite delicately into something tough, I popped the entire thing in my mouth. It was a big ball of shrimp. I choked down the dumpling and washed it down with broth and noodles. I could feel the couple in the corner watching me and looking at our food, as people do when they’re needing guidance on what to order. I tried delicately taking my dumplings out, cutting with a fork and putting back into my bowl.
At this point, the couple watching me had left and the waiter boy was in the corner of the room. I tried using my chopsticks to handle the dumpling when it jumped off my plate, into my lap, and rolled to the middle of the floor. A trail of broth lead from me to the dumpling. Fuck! I looked at the waiter, anticipating he would turn around any moment. I looked back at my dumpling, lunged for it, and swiped it off the ground right as he turned our way. I’m not sure who witnessed what. Or what he thought he saw. But beware of jumping dumplings in Chinatown.
Our feet took us through Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square. In my four months of living there, I had never seen Trafalgar so full of patrons. I wanted to return to the National Portrait Gallery and feel as though I was back with my sketch notepad, but we never did find our way into the spaces from my memory. Instead, like the tourists around us, we found our way to Big Ben and an old favorite, Westminster Abbey, where I had once attended Easter mass. We found rest and a moment away from it all with an Italian coffee, cookie, and brownie from a tiny cafe next to the Thames.
We then ventured across the river in search of a war museum. After a couple miles in, our feet were throbbing. We wondered why a popular museum would be found to far into a residential neighborhood. Fact: there are five Imperial War Museums. The Churchill War Rooms is one of them and is actually right next to Big Ben. Please take note. We had walked so far that we took the Tube back to where we needed to be. At that point, the line was too long to enter. We took the Tube back to Clerkenwell, grabbed a really yummy bite to eat at Caravan on Exmouth Market, and headed back to the Thames for night photos.
Taylor and Joss met us there. Chris found a prime spot, set up his tripod alongside the other photographers and made friends with one nearby. Joss was gracious enough to find me a nearby restroom and buy Taylor a cookie all at once (classy). As the sun continued to lower in the sky, Chris and I snapped photos from the bridge and along the banks. The four of us continued on, finding new spots as the city lights came out. We walked under the London Eye and crossed the bridge near the Whitehall Gardens. Chris and I hugged Taylor and Joss goodnight, and we stood in the middle of Piccadilly Circus with the tripod and camera, trying to create photos with neon smears and starburst lights. How were we still awake? Taylor had pointed out the Health iPhone app naturally counts your mileage for you and is already a part of the iPhone. We had walked an average of about 9 miles per day thus far. We rode the Tube back to Farringdon, tired and quickly becoming tranced as we sat watching the Tube snake left and right with the turns of the underground.
Day five was when the walking caught up to us. We were heavy. I was slow getting up, so Chris left on his own for a morning coffee. For breakfast, Chris picked a small Parisian cafe ignored by others. A smiley barista served us. Chris was nervous about his “french breakfast” meal but he ate it all. We sat, silent almost, taking a moment to ourselves. The neighborhood was quiet that morning. We walked through the neighborhood, admiring the blossoming trees and quaint English stoops. We stumbled upon St. John’s Square, a centerpiece in Clerkenwell. We passed a corner building and I slowed my pace to peer inside. In the window sill sat book after book, the same copy, standing on its edges facing the street. It read A Fellow Traveller: A Sketchbook Journey Inspired by World Heritage Cities and Sites. “Chris….” He looked at the book and back at me. We were already buying it.
We entered the building, a gallery to be correct. Hung on the walls were sketches with watercolor of places in London and around the world–busy streets and marketplaces, high rise views and city centers. Where the edges of the sketch met the matting, swirly handwriting framed the edges of the artwork, down the sides and bottom of the piece, stopping perfectly where the artist had started. We stood close to the pieces, squinting and turning our heads sideways to read as the words turned around the sides of the piece. One read, “When it all gets a bit too much, it is incredibly therapeutic to simply walk down the Essex Road, down St Johns street, through Smithfield market, past St Paul’s and carry on right over the wonderfully not so wibbly-wobbly bridge and in front of the ‘graffitied’ Tate Modern; turn around and look back on it all. Even better as the tide was out I could go through the gate in the railing and sit on the steps down to the shore.”
A tall woman greeted us with a warm smile and folded hands behind her back. She introduced herself as Karen. Karen’s sketches and paintings were featured in two books. One from her travels around London, and another, the one from the window, with 40 of the 100 paintings she created during her five month long trek across the world–Europe, the Middle East, India, and Asia. She shared with us her third and newest sketchbook, giggling as she pointed out one in which she was “pitifully perched” under an umbrella for hours as she sketched the scene.
Karen expressed gratitude for her 5 month trek, adding that she returned home right before September 11th, 2001. She was curious about what Chris and I did for a living, asking us if we were also artists. What was it like in the states with our current state of affairs, she wondered. When our conversation hit a lull, we excitedly told Karen we wanted to buy both of her books. Her eyes widened, and she thanked us, asking if she could sign each of our books. As she rang us up, she explained she almost hadn’t secured the gallery for that day, for this was a community gallery for many artists to utilize, called Craft Central. Karen jotted notes to us each, smiling as she handed us our books. Another patron had entered the gallery and hovered near her table. Fearful she would lose his interest, or business at worst, we expressed to Karen our fortune of crossing paths and thanked her for her work. We walked away with a feeling that went beyond happenstance.
From there we walked a path similar to the one described in the artwork, south east past Smithfield market and St. Bartholomew’s Hospital (which opened in 1123) towards St Paul’s Cathedral. The cathedral is one of those places, at least for us, that never loses it’s magic. We snapped photo after photo, rested on the lawns surrounded by tulips and people on their lunch break, and eventually walked backwards across the Millennium Bridge continuing to stare in awe.
We ate a biscuit with jam and butter and sipped on some coffee at the Tate Modern before riding a confused and chaotic elevator to the very top lookout. We stood in the wind looking out over the Thames, scanning the city that stretches forever and ever. Again, the weight of the past four days hit us hard. We dragged our feet to Clerkenwell, slow like slugs. We stopped at the food stalls on Exmouth Market. Chris dined on a white pasta dish, and I ate a Nigerian meal of groundnut soup, jollof rice, and plantains. We cradled our paper bowls and sat on a bench as we ate. We were ready for a nap, and nap we did.
That evening we ordered local beers, a toastie, and chips and curry at Coin Laundry, a hip restaurant up the street. From our table, we could see the sky turn a brilliant pink. Chris hung his head in disappointment, since I had voted to relax and dine in lieu of setting up a tripod at the river. We contemplated jointing a rowdy cocktail contest in the basement bar, but opted to wander the neighborhood and find a quiet corner to settle in. We found on old victorian pub with red velvet curtains in the windows. Scottish tartan of blue, red, and green carpeted the ground. Short wooden stools with red cushions planked round tables with intricate wrought iron bases. The bar and bar back were made of dark wood. Black and white photos hung on the walls. A TV hung in the corner of the bar playing BBC with Sean Spicer yakking on about how he should have never brought up Hitler and chemical warfare.
A group of construction workers, both young and old, jested each other as they stood around the bar. An older gentleman with slicked back hair and maybe a ponytail swayed in the corner of the room. The place was bloody hot, but Chris was happy as a clam to know a Guinness and two shots of Jameson were only £7 (about $9). It was nice to feel like a local. We walked home in the dark, watching slivers of life in each passing window (not creepy). That night Chris snuck away for some night photos while I rested and connected with my “mum and bruva” on Facebook.
In the morning we ate sweet and savory pancakes at GAIL’S bakery and took the Tube to South Kensington to see some dinosaurs. On our way, a family of four rode near us. The littlest one had a blond bob with brown eyes the size of her head. She clutched her father’s large hand in her own, holding it against her cheek as she stood thigh high, swaying with the underground’s twists and turns. She held a raggedy Snoopy dog close to her chest and a faded flower backpack hung off her tiny shoulders. When her parents split to take a seat, she whimpered, “I want dad,” and crossed the car to sit on her father’s lap. I tried to hide my obsession with the entire situation.
We got off at South Kensington, with the rest of the tourists and families. The line for the Natural History Museum was long but full of babies and toddlers. The museum itself felt like Hogwarts at times, with grand stone archways and corridors. We saw a giant sloth, 10-12 ft tall that lived ten thousand years ago, dying out “most likely when humans started roaming South America.” We saw a simulated Tyrannosaurus Rex, the mighty “Tyrant lizard king,” but also got to see a fossil of a T Rex jaw found in Wyoming in the early 1900’s. Cases upon cases of fossils lined the walls of the dinosaur exhibit.
We got to see one of the most complete dinosaur skeletons in the world, with just four missing bones—the stegosaurus. My favorite was the brachiosaurus–storybooks just don’t do justice for the magnitude and size of that guy. And then my heart got broken when I was told the great hall of the museum, the prime reason I demanded going, was closed for renovations–and presumably to replace the dinosaur bones with whales bones! JEZUM CROW WHO DOES THAT?
When we were up to our necks in crowds of tourists, we escaped to Hyde Park. The silence and serenity surrounded us and we had a moment, acknowledging how good it felt to get off the pavement. The old trees, wide and tall, shaded the pavement. I fell behind Chris, taking pictures of the rose bushes and tree blossoms. We found the Kensington Palace and sat on the lawns eating a leftover treat from GAIL’S bakery. I believe we found a beer at Pride of Paddington after that, and some snoozes back at the flat before dinner. That evening it was near impossible finding a suitable bar with space, at least in the Clerkenwell neighborhood. Crowds of people stood shoulder to shoulder on the sidewalks and into the streets. Joss and Taylor met up with us at a place with ping pong tables, though the tables were booked for the evening. Taylor jammed some British coins into a foosball table and we matched up.
We followed Joss around town, searching for another place to watch the boys play pong, something we had gotten hooked on from day one of the trip. Joss led us to a basement restaurant and bar with pizza and tables of ping pong games. Balls bounced all around the players, rolling to our feet as we arrived. A worker walked around with a scooper and basket, fetching the white balls. Chris said he found his dream job. Much like the previous place, many of the tables were booked for the evening. Joss apologized in my ear, saying he knew I wasn’t a fan of crowds. We ended up leaving for a quieter place to dine and found a BBQ joint. Taylor sipped on a malt and the rest of us whiskeys. “What does your home look like? Are you close with your family?” Joss wondered. “But what does it taste like?” he asked, perplexed by ranch dressing. We returned to jaunting around, going on about our love for Netflix’ Peaky Blinders, making fun of Joss for how the Brits say “leisurely”, and being careful not to step on or over the triple ground drains, for they bring bad luck.
Before parting ways, Joss stopped at a corner store for a baguette and bacon, if I recall correctly, and I bought some Cadbury chocolate for nostalgic reasons. The four of us hugged goodbye. “Lovely to see you. Get home safely,” Joss said. Hoping to see each other the next day, we waved goodbye and watched them disappear into the underground. Chris and I “lesh-urley” walked back home under the streetlights, happy to have the sidewalks to ourselves, and pointing out the things we had missed before.
Chris sipped on a morning coffee and I ate a warm toastie, filled with ham, cheese, and English mustard as we rode the tube to Notting Hill. That morning we found ourselves staring at an early morning Portobello Market. We tried our best to take pictures of every corner. From the jelly shoes to old print maps to a Green Bay Packer’s shirt, it’s a treasure cove to behold. I bought a couple scarves of Scottish wool, and Chris an antique toy car for nephew Henrik, purchased from the “most smiley, happiest toy salesman of all time in the history of the whole world,” according to Chris.
Chris and I also picked out some antique postcards from a white bearded gentleman, eager to explain the significance of the black and white photos. In his brilliant accent, he picked each one up and looked at us from behind round glasses. He explained, “This one is Russell Square…Marble arch…a very early version…with return to Holland.” A short message framed the image, apparently abiding by old regulations, with just the address on the other side. “It’s very early…ah yes, 1904.” He delicately took the next card with an image of Piccadilly Circus. “There’s a lovely little restaurant here,” he said, pointing to the middle of the picture, “since the 19th century. The rest of it is a ski shop now.”
On the last card he explained, “This is Bazalgette embankment…with paddle steamers. Before it was built, the Thames was much wider and slower. It takes a lot of steam to navigate…Have you seen Shakespeare in Love?” And like fools we replied with much of nothing, unsure of what response would be worse; admitting we hadn’t seen the Shakespeare film, or lying to an elderly British man. It was all the same to him, as he jumped back into explaining how the movie characters rode across the Thames in much smaller boats, something the river would not allow for now. We bid adieu and returned to the street.
And then there was food. Falafel, Singapore noodles, Chinese rice, Mexican burritos, Polish sausage, German dumplings, and of course, grilled cheese sandwiches–we had a difficult time choosing. We sat on a slim door stoop behind the tents, eating our Chinese meat and rice and Mediterranean quesadillas. We stopped at one point to watch a group of singing parishioners slowly trail through the crowded market. They stopped in the clearing of a square and continued singing, resting their large cross on the ground and banging on the drums. Chris and I were interested in capturing photos of the musicians and the families singing. The universe had other plans.
A young woman approached me asking me point blank where I was from. Seeing in her face she knew I was American, I said, “Minnesota.” She smiled with her eyes and said, “I’m from North Carolina.” She went on to ask me if I was Christian and if I had a relationship with God. She said God was with us in that moment. She shared her history with me, including the lowest moments in her life and how she came to be there in London. She had studied abroad the same year I had, and had returned in 2012 to live in a cooperative of Christian artists. She stood closer to me so I could hear her as she pointed out at the men and women in the crowd. “He’s a tattoo artist…that’s a photographer, singer, graphic artist, and actor.” I longed to move closer to the artists and take photos, but she started singing with the crowd. She had a lovely voice.
An older African woman in a long, thin trench coat approached us. She stood close to me and introduced herself as Mary. Mary held a stack of notecards, or rather, printed prayer cards to hand to the crowd. She told me she found God in a church in Canada, adding that God can be found anywhere at anytime. She referred to the cards in her hand and listed the steps of acceptance. Her words were difficult to understand, but I nodded, smiled, and tried my hardest to actively listen and stay in the moment. It was becoming a challenge, for I had lost Chris in the crowd and at least 15 minutes had passed by at this point. Mary’s voice returned to me and she asked if we could pray together. I was startled, unsure of why I would deny her. I said “sure,” and then stopped myself to clarify, “What prayer?” The young woman next to me clarified, “The one accepting God.” I told Mary I was not ready at the moment, but would keep a card. She said again before she walked away, “It’s never too late.”
The crowd had started to part and I saw Chris speaking with a tall, round man across the square. I bet he’s one of them, I thought. The young woman smiled, asking if she could say a prayer for me before we parted. I remember looking at her and meaning it when I said, “Of course.” She took my hand in hers and closed her eyes as she melodically prayed, stringing together the most beautiful words, tailored to me. She asked that I allow for guidance by God and reiterated my worthiness in God’s eyes. I don’t remember the rest, because I was peeing my pants in disbelief this was happening. When she was done, I hugged and thanked her, trying not to cry. “What’s your name again?” She smirked, saying she hadn’t yet told me. “I’m Debra.” I asked her for the name of her parish and her Facebook page. I regrettably forgot her last name and wasn’t ever able to find her on social media. I found Chris, still speaking with the man. Federico was from South America, another artist from the cooperative. He congratulated us on our engagement and prayed for us, wishing us a good life on the path towards finding God and happiness. We walked away, slightly in shock, and still curious about where those donuts were that we spotted earlier in the day.
From there, we took the Tube to a neighborhood of terraced town houses and mansions with river canals known as “Little Venice.” We stood on an overpass and watched a long riverboat steered by two young men pass underneath. “I like your boat,” I admitted after I awkwardly snapped photos of them. We then found an alley sandwiched between two tall mansions and lined with trees that led to a nursery and garden café. We sat at a round wrought iron table for two, under a terrace and surrounded by greenery. Like in a fucking movie. Chris ordered us hot green tea and a lemon tart from the inside area, also from a movie. I pleaded for permission to wander and take photos of the flowers and greenhouse. I was in heaven. I pushed the limits and returned to the table 30 minutes later asking for forgiveness. I was forgiven, and left alone with my tea as Chris then took his turn.
We strolled along the dark wooden fences of Regent’s Park, and then along the shaded river canal below the park’s open spaces. Chris found us a place to drink whiskey called the Edinburgh Castle Pub in Camden. We then followed through with a weekly promise to dine at one of the Indian restaurants on Drummond street around the corner from my old flat. We sat in the window of the restaurant, the first to arrive (always), and dined on spicy appetizers and mango lassies while we watched the movement of the street. Across the street was a salon called Lookin Good, where we watched with dropped jaws a woman with the largest wig and boobs stand in the empty salon behind a salon chair and wave her afro back and forth as she looked at herself in the mirror. A laptop sat in front of her on the counter, which she once in a while bent over to touch. She continued turning her head from side and side, watching in the mirror as her wig moved. I won’t go on–I’ve since found her on social media, which wasn’t hard and I don’t apologize (Sandra’s posted it all over the salon website).
Beyond Sandra’s show, the Indian food was very sweet and we wondered why. We had yearned for Indian food for months leading up to this trip. We had dined on decent grocery store mixes the first night, struck out at the urban joint, and now were wondering if it was us to blame. We were grateful, surely, but vowed to fill our void at Darbar (Indian Grill) when we returned home. That night we walked home one last time, passing the mighty St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel as it lit up the sky. Fun fact: the hotel was set as the backdrop to scenes from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and, of course, the Spice Girls Wannabe video. NBD.
On our last morning, we packed up and cleaned as we typically do. We grabbed a quick breakfast from a popular coffee joint. I saved myself for one last ham and cheese toastie while Chris gobbled granola and yogurt. Chris had to top off his Oyster card one last time to get to Paddington station. We sat on the empty Heathrow train for 10 minutes or so and were to the airport in less than 30 minutes. We met a turtle who confiscated my camera bag and went through my bag painfully slow, taking it out and scanning it with a black wand. Fortunately, time was on our side and our flight left on time.
We watched movies on the way home. Finding Dory made me cry, and La La Land was worth it. Even with the medicine, my ears rung and the nausea crept in. When we finally landed and made our way from the light rail into the Uber, a light rain fell on our shoulders, welcoming us home and reminding us we were lucky to have spent an entire week in London without rain. A week after we returned, the trees bloomed and spring arrived. As I write this now, months later, Chris and I are still feeling the nostalgic about our time spent along the Thames, of Chris walking ahead of me and speaking gibberish in an English accent, and the feeling of the underground rumbling beneath us.
A special shout out and thank you to sister Taylor for having us, and to Joss, the local and classy ambassador for the city of London. We were sad leaving Joss without a proper goodbye. But as good fortune has it, Joss has since visited us in Minnesota. London, it seems, will never be a thing of the past. We look forward to next time.
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