We’re freshly home from our epic two-week adventure in London and Paris, and I have SO MANY stories to tell you that I don’t even know where to begin. So, let’s start — at the beginning!
Although I’d worked myself into a veritable lather of anxiety by the time our departure day arrived, the overnight flight from Ottawa to Heathrow went reasonably well. We had just enough trouble on departure and arrival to make for funny memories – like the pre-booked taxi that first arrived at 7:30 am instead of 7:30 pm, and the second taxi that arrived on time but did not have enough seatbelts for five people and could not (would not?) accept credit or debit card payments. All’s well that ends with an on-time arrival at the airport, and the credit card issue was merely foreshadowing for what was to come.
I knew that Heathrow was to the west of the city, so I was entirely unprepared to look down and see this picture-perfect view of the heart of London on our approach. You can see the coffee-coloured loop of the Thames River, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye, the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge, the Shard, the commercial towers of the City — spectacular, and such a great introduction to the city. If you’re flying in, consider seats on the right side of the plane for a chance to see this extraordinary view.
We got off to a bit of a shaky start when we could not get in contact with the property manager of the flat we’d rented. How to text or make local calls from a mobile phone was something that I’d assumed would be straightforward, and so was of course the one thing I didn’t research endlessly and also the one thing that caused us the most distress. My instructions were to text the property manager when we cleared customs at the airport, and he’d meet us at the flat. Except he didn’t respond to my texts, and my calls didn’t go through. I emailed the property owner through the rental service, and did not get a reply. We rode the Tube into the city, stopped for sandwiches none of us enjoyed at a local deli, and tramped morosely to the flat feeling increasingly dismayed. We were clustered on the porch, with me trying and failing to connect with the rental service and just about to fully panic that we’d been duped by some sophisticated rental scam when he appeared on the sidewalk in front of us. He’d been wondering why he hadn’t heard from us and thought he’d drop by the flat to see if we’d arrived.
The flat was amazing. AMAZING! We chose Pimlico more or less by chance. We were first going to go with an apartment outside the core areas in Walthamstow, and then we considered dual hotel rooms in a moderately inexpensive place in Bloomsbury. In the end, the flat was perfect for us – cramped to be sure, but we were really only there to sleep – and with just enough hints of luxury to make it feel like home. I can’t imagine ever staying in a hotel with the kids when staying in an actual home is an option. One of the main things we noticed is how not an inch of space goes to waste, like the dual washer-dryer combo machine and the footstool that doubled as an end table and excess toilet paper storage. You know what they didn’t have? Window screens. I never quite got used to the fact that windows were thrown open all day and night (poor London has been sweltering this summer) and bugs never seemed to be an issue. This is the view that greeted me when I opened my eyes each morning – so quirkily perfect!
I’ve been planning this trip for 11 months. There were spreadsheets, annotated maps, and a teetering stack of travel books, to say nothing of websites, blogs and travel forums. On our first day in London, we had our priorities straight. First, we visited St James Park, which was a lovely 20 minute wander from our flat, not to ogle nearby Buckingham Palace, but because it was referenced in one of my favourite books, Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, that I had read aloud to Tristan and Simon last year. We admired the ducks, just as Crowley and Aziraphale had done, and the pelicans, too. St James Park would turn out to be a bit of a nexus for us – each day we wandered somewhere new, the most efficient walk home seemed to take us through St James Park again. Despite the grass being burnt nearly brown from the unrelenting heat this summer, it came to be one of our favourite places.
I had a lot of things mapped out on my annotated maps – star tourist attractions, food and shopping, and key photo locations. One layer of maps was dedicated to locations of the iconic red telephone boxes. I needn’t have made that particular effort, though – they were not hard to find. Lucas kept count, and we passed more than 50 of them in our wanders. This set of four in a row was near Trafalgar Square, and was practically begging for me to take this photo.
Did I mention the red call boxes? (We hadn’t even arrived at the flat to drop off our bags when we took this one. They were overtired and overheated, and still patient enough to do this because I asked them to. Just, um, not patient enough to look like they were actually enjoying it.)
As I said, I’d actually mapped out maybe a dozen spots where the call boxes were located, and yet these ones were a mere block from our flat. This was our last night in London.
So that’s how it starts. Stick around and I’ll tell you more, about Harry Potter and museums and Greenwich and markets and the Tube and parakeets and palaces and manga and fish and chips. There will be photos, and travel tips, and a self-deprecating anecdote or three. And then we’ll talk about Paris, too!