Monday, December 8, 2014

London

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London holds a special charm for us.  It was the first place outside the US that we traveled together, and almost certainly where David finally fell in love with travel.  We spent just two days there on our first visit in 2003; we were traveling with David’s mother, and drove on through England and Wales, and finally Ireland (as an aside, this is also when we discovered how much more fun travel could be with other people).  We returned for 5 days in 2006, celebrating our 5th wedding anniversary.  This was our third visit.  Generally, we are much more interested in traveling to new places than revisiting old ones, but London keeps drawing us back.  It’s the only foreign destination we’ve been to more than twice.

There isn’t one clear reason why; it’s a mixture of many things.  It’s incredibly convenient to navigate, using the Underground; the people are a comfortable combination of polite without being presumptuously familiar; there are great museums for every interest, and almost all of them are free; it’s an old city, but modern and youthful at the same time; there’s always something new to see, as well as something from our last list that we didn’t have time to cross off.  That’s really just a start on reasons why.

Downsides?  Just two, for our tastes: it is expensive (but not more expensive than other big, western cities), and it is a painful time zone to travel to from the US, in terms of resetting your sleep cycle.  Fortunately, we did not face that issue this time, and we could fully enjoy our first day without struggling to stay awake.

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One of our first destinations was also a triple repeat for us: the Victoria and Albert museum, which like London, is a mix of old and new, and always has something different to surprise us.  Part of that is simply size.  The museum covers 12.5 acres of interior space, and has 4.5 million objects in their permanent collection.  It is a museum of decorative arts and design, so while it has sculpture and art, it also has jewelry, locking mechanisms for doors and chests, furniture, costumes, etc.  On this visit, we spent a fair amount of our time looking at their exhibit on theatre costumes and set design, which was fascinating.  We also found an interesting section that described the techniques that painters used to achieve different colors and textures in oil paintings, with the tools used, and swatches of canvas showing the various effects, followed by an actual period painting that used the technique in question.

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After spending the morning at the V&A, we walked a few blocks to a creperie that we had stumbled upon after our first visit to the V&A in 2003.  In 2003 it was a hole in the wall that only sold crepes and only took cash. We almost didn’t recognize it this time, as it had expanded into two additional storefronts, and the street in front had been converted into a pedestrian street filled with new boutique shops.  We were just thrilled that the restaurant was still there, and that their crepes were just as good as we remembered.  The original space had been a creamery in the 1800s, and still retains the beautiful, original tiled walls. 

After crepes and gelato, we took the tube to Westminster Abbey, where we planned to attend evensong.  We were confused about the time, however, and arrived while the church was still open for tours.  We decided to take the tour, and then stay for evensong, which worked out very well for us.  As the time for evensong approached, we asked one of the docents if we could stay for evensong, or if we needed to leave, and re-enter; she kindly took us through a gate, and seated us with three other patient folks in the nave.  We sat appreciating the gradually quieting church, as the remaining tourists trickled out.  Before the gathering line for evensong was admitted, we were escorted to the choir seats, which face each other across the nave, near the transept, and sat in a small section of seats that the choir would not be occupying.  We felt quite privileged to have such a unique view; if we’d shown up outside at the right time, we’d have taken seats in the chairs set up in the nave nearer to the entrance, along with the rest of the small crowd.  It was a very pretty service, though with some archaic pomp; two officials stood up and preceded each of the clergy to and from the pulpit, one carrying a long brass stave, and the other an ornate scepter.  They would nod at their escort at each terminus of their walk, return to their seats, and nod at each other before sitting.

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We explored the area nearby, quickly finding Big Ben and the Parliament.  It was overcast, but very comfortable to us—as with Scotland, it was unseasonably warm for the locals.  As we were leaving, David managed to capture two of the most unlike bikes in the world in the street; a fully fared recumbent passing a covered pedi-cab.  It could have been a Richard Scarry illustration.

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We kept encountering echoes of our world travel experiences in London; above we found the London branch of one of the gelaterias we’d enjoyed in Buenos Aires, Freddo.  Later, we ran across several references to King Christian IX of Denmark, and a photograph of Egypt’s Philae Temple.

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The next morning we saw Aston Martin’s centenary in Kensington Gardens.  We also spent a few hours at the National Portrait Gallery, taking our time, and sitting when our feet ached.  Then we walked towards Covent Gardens, keeping an eye out for a tea room, which we found, and enjoyed immensely. 

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At Covent Garden Market, we split up; Lana has always enjoyed window shopping here, and David has always been fascinated by the ironwork architecture, so he wandered around taking pictures, while Lana wandered from shop to shop.

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Outside the market, we found the Bristol Mod Scooter Club showing off their scooters.

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We found a bench in Victoria Embankment Park for a short rest.  It was a great spot for people watching.  Nearby, there were a number of ping pong tables set up--they were quite popular.

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While crossing the Thames on the Golden Jubilee Bridge, David noticed a skateboard graveyard on one of the bridge’s piers.  A nearby skate park ensures a steady supply of failing boards.  The piers are the original supports for the Hungerford bridge, which supports several different rail lines. The Jubilee footbridge is cantilevered off the old bridge piers (apparently the construction of new piers was deemed to risky to the Underground’s Bakerloo line, just under the Thames, due to the amount of unexploded WWII ordinance in the river mud).

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It’s a striking bridge, and it’s an interesting contrast to the much older, heavy truss construction of the rail bridges in the center.

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On the other side of the Thames, we wandered along the Jubilee Gardens, stopping to watch children playing with some large soap bubbles, which were very pretty in the afternoon sun.

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We'd already accomplished what we'd planned for the day, so the afternoon was wide open, and we were very happy to amble along in whatever direction caught our eye.  Although the London Eye was at the southern end of the park, we weren't that interested (the $30 tickets didn't encourage us either) in riding it.  For views of London, we're more inclined to choose Primrose Hill.  But we weren't averse to taking a self-portrait with it, Big Ben, and Parliament behind us.

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We mentioned the warm weather in Scotland--it was even warmer in London, in the 90s.  We didn’t think it was hot enough to warrant pulling the passenger alarm on the Underground.  It was not Thailand hot, after all (perspective!).  However, the normal high temperature in July is 74, and 20 degrees warmer is bound to take some people  by surprise.  Still, we couldn’t help being amused by the warning signs.
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On our final day, we didn't take a lot of pictures.  We'd noticed a decline in the number of pictures as we got more tired of travel.  We were certainly still enjoying ourselves, but we didn't feel as inspired to take photos as we had even a few weeks earlier.  David was also a bit under the weather in the morning, and we took it easy.  We walked around St. Paul's Cathedral, and across the Millennium bridge.  We also browsed Fortnum and Mason (and bought some tea there, which we'd enjoyed the last time we were here).

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We saw an interesting toy store, and investigated.  It turned out to be a 7 story toy store; Hamley’s is the world's oldest toy store, founded in 1760.  It didn't take us long to find the floor devoted to Lego bricks, including life size models of the Royal Family, complete with a Lego corgie.
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David was amused that the giant recreation of a mini-figure included the divots in the legs where the figure could be attached to another brick in a seated position.

Lana had a celebrity sighting while we were in the toy store. She saw Martin Freeman, a/k/a Bilbo Baggins of The Hobbit (another trip reference, since we’d watched The Hobbit while in New Zealand), and Dr. Watson to Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes.  He was, like any other father, in serious talks with his young son over the purchase of a Lego set. It both endeared him to us and reminded us that no matter how famous people get, some still negotiate with their children.

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We found dinner in a Russian neighborhood (just behind the Russian Federation Embassy), and admired the Orthodox cathedral nearby.  We wandered along Portobello Road past interesting shops.  In one shop window, we saw one last reference to our year; a hand-cranked sewing machine that reminded us of the woman who had hemmed our fabric purchase in Morondava, Madagascar. 

We were enjoying the dwindling hours of our last night on our trip.  We tried not to think about it too much.  It was a perfect day; great food, warm weather, a twilight walk through the scent of honeysuckle on our way back to the hotel.  We’d spent 10 months not knowing where we’d sleep the next week, or sometimes the next night, but right then the future seemed more mysterious than ever.

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On our final morning in London, we went for a run in Hyde Park.  It wasn’t our fastest run, but it was still good.  It had rained overnight, and was a bit muggy and overcast.  David snapped some pictures of a heron and a family of swans near the end of the run.  Our flight out was just after noon, so we didn’t try to do anything (although everyone else in London was gathering to celebrate the birth of Prince George), aside from showers and breakfast before heading to the airport.

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We can't say we were happy to be flying "home," despite how tired we were of traveling, and how much we missed our families and our little dog. Our great adventure was ending. Seventeen months later, remembering our time in London is bittersweet.  Lana was weepy from somewhere over Iceland until somewhere over Kansas. We spent most of the flight talking about our favorite memories, our favorite places, all the wonderful people we met.  The flight seemed very short, and our memories very full. 

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When we finally made it to Denver, we experienced a first for us--we had to clear Customs and Immigration in Denver.  And, strangely enough, the answers on our immigration forms (or just the amount of time we’d been gone) set off some red flags, and we were sent to a special area for an interview. Fortunately for us, the ICE officers in Denver are particularly nice, and we spent some time talking about our trip and our plans for the future with them.

And that was it. David's mom picked us up at baggage claim, and drove us to Lana's parents' house for a reunion with family, as well as our dog Ruby (who took a few minutes to work up to full meltdown recognition). We've talked elsewhere about how it felt to come home, but that first day it was a very long exhale. Exhale to be home, exhale to be in one place, comfortable and loved.

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