European Vacation: London, United Kingdom, 18.06.15
...continued from European Vacation: Dublin, Ireland, 17.06.15
The night before I moved to Michigan State University in the late summer of 1998, I went out on the boat of a guy I worked with. He was older than I was, of age, and into classic rock. I never was, but he was going to grill steaks and provide the Bacardi and Coke so I was cool to get down to some old tunes. We got drunk as the sun set. He shared his philosophies on life and his regret about never going to college to the soundtrack of The Beatles’ Abbey Road. It was the first time I ever heard that album, perfectly timed for that moment. When we docked, he took the CD out of the boat’s stereo and handed it to me as a going-away present. I still own that copy today. Walking across Abbey Road was a non-negotiable during our stop in London.
When we landed, albeit admittedly initially a little intimidated of The Underground, we purchased our passes, tucked our nerves away and hopped on board. In order to save a couple hours, we mapped out the first part of our day without checking in at our hotel first. In hindsight, maybe it wasn’t the smartest idea. We definitely saved probably two to three hours, but we paid for it in sore arms and tired legs because we carried our luggage with us. Everywhere. Over and over again, up and down the stairs, we ended up owning The Underground, but only after getting repeatedly schooled in its efficiency that isn’t made for two foreigners with suitcases.
Kensington Palace was on Katherine’s list, and I’m glad it was. Based on the side of the city where we arrived, our shortcut there was through an extremely secure and heavily guarded street of international embassies. We only knew this because I introduced ourselves to the guards strapped with automatic rifles at the public walkway entrance. Unfortunately, photos were prohibited, but holy smokes - these mansions… Straight outta James Bond.
The royal Palace was majestic, its golden accented gate regal and vast grounds, Kensington Gardens and surrounding park beautifully manicured. We didn’t go any further in than the lobby and gift shop (and bathrooms). We took a quick pause on the lawn to eat my sandwich leftover from our flight and rest before we committed to the rest of the surprisingly huge Hyde Park. Its footprint felt like it could easily compete with Central Park. Aside from the obligation to see the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, which turned out to be somewhat of an awkward disappointment in that it appeared to be enjoyed as a wading lazy river water park for kids in diapers, the true standout was The Albert Memorial. Its shining gold cross perched at the top peeked out at us through the trees during our stroll. It glowed in the sun and we had to see where it led. The closer we approached the faster we seemed to pull our rolling suitcases behind us. We were enchanted by its ornate beauty. We rested a bit more, taking some time to sit on its steps and just let it be present behind us.
Then, onto Abbey Road. I was nervous to see it, almost intimidated. I didn’t know what to expect. As we walked around the corner arriving at its intersection its iconic white lines hypnotized me. I just stopped and stared at it, trying to calm my heart rate. It was just a road. The intro to “Come Together” started shuffling in my head and Katherine looked at me and smiled when I started humming it under my breath. It was time to cross the road.
Then I snapped out of it and realized, “Holy shit. This is a really busy intersection.” That small width of concrete, its famous white lines barely visible from Maps, was living and breathing with visitors from all over the world. Some of us knew its influence and respected the right of passage. Cars cross from three directions at conflicting staggered times. What realistically takes less than ten seconds to accomplish took about an hour and a half at multiple attempts to accomplish without other people or cars in the way. Of course, anyone with the slightest bit of knowledge or integrity had to walk it in the same direction as the album cover and did so after waiting patiently in a self-governed queue. And then there was three girls, late teens/early twenties, who had no idea what they were doing. They interrupted everyone’s experience by randomly running back and forth dodging cars, screaming. After watching everyone else’s patience visibly tire, I defended the road. Enough to scare them away, I yelled, “Ladies, you have no idea what you’re doing or about the meaning behind what you’re crossing. Go listen to the Beatles, but you’re done here.” For the first time since we arrived, their cackling was no more. They shut up and left, and I got thank you smiles and nods from everyone else.
I just ticked another bucket list item complete. Time for a beer. My sweet, very patient, tired and hungry wife continued to follow me down and up stairs as we criss-crossed on and off multiple routes of The Underground so I could visit BrewDog in the vibrantly funky Camden neighborhood. From the last station to the bar, still dragging our suitcases behind us, any of the thousands of locals buzzing on the sidewalks could easily tell we were obviously not from around there. We walked past a few side streets littered with rough, unforgiving-looking locals. I didn’t say anything to Katherine, but I made sure I had my eyes on her the whole time, that she had one hand on her purse and that she was on me close as we walked. I felt curious, almost determined eyes hone in on us and our luggage a couple times. I’m not saying it was a bad area as I was a complete stranger, I’m just saying I would’ve felt more at ease without a neon sign above my head that flashed “Target… Target… Target.” As a matter of fact, if I ever make it back to London, I’m definitely returning to Camden for more than two hours because it felt hyper-local and heavily influenced by art and music with an atmosphere I could immerse myself in for a true taste of alternative flavor.
I kept Katherine waiting long enough. I was in need of a respite, too. We covered a lot of ground and Underground today, and with luggage in tow it added up. BrewDog isn’t a huge space so it wasn’t surprising that every seat in the house was taken. Fortunately, two guests appeared to be close to being at the end of their stay. When they saw me drag in both suitcases, they gave me a look that said “You probably need these seats more than we do” and gave up their seats. We shared a thick burger, signature tater tots piled with every topping they offered and two BrewDog beers, Jack Hammer and Vagabond Pale. As we rested, reflecting on the day’s accomplishments seemed to reenergize us. Although I could’ve stayed and closed the place, especially because BrewDog was prepping for a tap takeover by Firestone Walker, we had plans for a date tonight and I had to get my lady to our hotel. We had to get to dinner.
[Note: Antonia has since left to enjoy the perks of being a full-time mommy to twins. Miss her.] As my luck would have it, I got to cross off another thing on my bucket list: eat at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant. Better yet, today was National Beef Wellington Day. It’s one of his signature dishes, I’ve never had it, and it’s also on my foodie bucket list. So, what’s Katherine, my incredibly accommodating sweet wife do? Agree to enjoy it with me. The Savoy’s promo was for two people, so we indulged.
The British pound isn’t real money, right? We didn’t go crazy, but started with two different red wines - something spicy from Spain and a Chianti from Italy (as a prelude). Then, I somehow convinced Katherine to try escargot. Each of the six snails tasted slightly different - some more buttery, other more earthy with dirt grit. But, my daring wife ate her three with bold confidence. The Beef Wellington was complemented with rich scalloped potatoes and creamy wilted greens, truly plenty when one takes her time with the filet in front of her. It wasn’t the best “steak” I’ve ever had. However, it tasted exactly the way I thought it would, even if the closest I’ve ever gotten to it has been watching Hell’s Kitchen. I ate it slow, deliberately and enjoyed every doughy, mushroomy and creamy layer. It’s a meal I’ll remember forever.
The service was immaculate, as one would expect when you walk into the restaurant. It was regal, fancy and way too rich for my blood. But, we were treated like a king and his queen for the short two hours we were there. Our server was the kindest man. He gifted us with two petite dessert plates for our anniversary. And, between bites, he engaged in conversation we initiated, sharing stories about his home in India and what his life has been like since pursuing a better one in London. Our whole dining experience was elegantly perfect.
With rich, full bellies we walked off dinner through the streets of London. It was dark by now, the city romantically illuminated by classic lampposts and architectural uplighting on beautiful stone, brick and concrete buildings with more history than unfortunately we had time to explore. They guided us to the opposing bright and busy Piccadilly Circus. Similarly to wishing we had more time to explore Camden, we couldn’t stay in London’s version of Times Square for too long. Due to my scheduling oversight and a clumsy error the morning we left Dublin, we had to salvage some rest tonight for an early and another wonderfully busy day tomorrow. And, appropriately, we capped our night with one more ride on The Underground - back to our hotel.
Stay tuned for European Vacation: London, United Kingdom, 19.06.15