A friend of mine and I used to be crazy for amusement parks. Every year we’d plan a summer trip around an amusement park, and we’d milk each day for all it was worth. We’d get up early to be with the first group in the gate, we’d attack all of the harshest, most death-defying rides first. We’d stay until the park closed, sweaty, exhausted, feet sore, heads pounding from being shaken and twirled within an inch of our lives. During the day, we’d make fun of the people who were going to “shows” instead of hitting all of the attractions and making themselves feel exactly how we did at the end of a day: sure we’d done all we could and completely sated.
About a decade ago, when middle age had probably arrived but I wasn’t claiming it yet, we went to Disney World and rode some beastly attraction meant to simulate weightlessness in space. I got claustrophobic for the first time in my life—an affliction that has stuck and now requires that I carry relaxi pills when I fly just in case the aisles suddenly seem too full and too close together—and my friend nearly threw up in the barf bags Disney had conveniently provided. The rest of the trip we avoided roller coasters and anything inclined to induce motion sickness. He recovered; I never did. If we went to an amusement park, I’d have heart palpitations and decide that I couldn’t brave a coaster that in my youth would have been a “baby” ride, and the attractions that were more entertainment based seemed like a better bet.
London is striking me in a similar fashion: in my youth, I would have packed each day full to the brim with activities and thrills, but on this trip, at this age, I’m more interested in calm, quality experiences. I don’t need the dips and thrills. The two hours we spend at Westminster Abbey—looking at what is essentially an entombed eight century (or so) history of England in a beautiful gothic jewelbox—feel exactly like the first trip to England in that I am in complete awe of the political intrigue, royal feuds, religious wars, and writers deemed significant enough to land a burial spot in Poets’ Corner. (I’m happy to report that on this trip Thomas Hardy does NOT have a folding chair on his marker as he did in 1988!) But other than that, my very favorite thing that we do on this trip–the thing that seems so much better than the tourist “excitement”–is having dinner with people we haven’t seen for awhile. It’s not quite a “show” but there’s something about the human connection in a foreign place that pleases me and makes me feel like more than just a visitor, crammed on a tour bus trying to soak up buckets of knowledge and experience before being shuffled off to another.
On the first night we take the Tube to Paddington Station and meet Z’s cousin Jaynie by the statue of Paddington Bear. I’ve never met Jaynie. When Z and I were just friends, I was especially disappointed not to be a couple at the time because he traveled to England for Jaynie’s wedding and I wanted to go, believing completely at the time despite all evidence that one day we’d be together and it was silly not to get the experience of a family event then because of something as inconsequential as his not yet realizing our co-mingled destiny. No invitation was forthcoming, and when he got home and reported that her wedding cake was shaped like Africa, I was bitter not to have seen it. (Incidentally, the idea of this cake would later plant a seed that resulted in our own wedding cake with a zebra bride and groom dressed in a tux and bridal veil.)
I’m glad to put that missed Jaynie opportunity behind me and forge new ground. Instantly, she reminds me of Z-ma, and I am at ease. She is friendly, chatty, and inhabits her body in a fashion similar to my mother-in-law. Even better than spending time with a Z-ma stand-in and meeting more of his family, I love watching Z interact with his cousin. They haven’t seen each other in six years, yet the easy way they talk to each other is delightful to witness. She’s taken the train in from Oxford (where she is staying for work) just to meet us for dinner. The evening passes too quickly, and as Z and I take the Tube back to South Kensington after she’s caught her return train to Oxford, I marvel at the world we live in: that I—a Hoosier whose horizons never really extended much beyond the Midwest—am married to a Zimbabwean and we live in Seattle but have spent the night at a little restaurant in London visiting his Malawian cousin who lives in Munich with her English husband. I used to believe it was improbable that that little bear from Darkest Peru had made his way to England’s Paddington Station with nothing but a “Please look after this bear” tag attached to his coat, but maybe not.
The next day, after soaking up Westminster Abbey—where I spend too much time thinking about royal weddings and funerals and not enough time soaking up the communion service that is taking place— we walk up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square, have lunch in a pub, walk down Charing Cross Road so I can gaze upon #84, the site of one of my all-time-favorite memoirs and movies, though sadly it is no longer a bookstore but is in the process of becoming a yogurt shop or something similarly unbookstore-like. Food is a good way to soothe this disappointment, so we go home via a stop in Knightsbridge so Z can see the food hall at Harrods. It is something remarkable to behold. There is an entire room full of nothing but chocolate, and children swarm around the counters like something out of Willy Wonka. There is a produce hall, a room full of teas, a room full of fish, half a room full of the most beautiful and delectable baked goods I’ve ever seen. We make our selections (pastries–delicious, delicious pastries) and head to the hotel.
Because Z lives in America, I rarely get to hear him reminisce with someone else about his life before he came to the States or see that “home” look on his face unless I’m eavesdropping on a phone conversation or we are in Zimbabwe with his family. So I’m glad when our dinner with J, a Z-family friend, and the friend’s partner, is so leisurely that we close down the Italian restaurant near the Kensington High Street. I like hearing them catch up, like hearing them remember the details of stories together, and like the fond way they talk about the other’s family. Because the only other time I’ve spent with J was our wedding weekend when I was not entirely of sound mind, I’m also happy to get to know him a bit better too. Again, I marvel at the tenuous way people are connected to other people—how those connections are a bit like a spider web in both their strength and delicacy, but also in the strange, unpredictable architecture of lives intertwined.
The next day, Z and I head to Covent Garden for no real reason other than Z has never been there and it’s in the guidebook as a place where you must go. It is a sort of multi-building art market/flea market that also has upscale shops and eateries. The original market was there in the 1600s with buildings that have clearly been around a few centuries, though this pedestrianized incarnation has only been in existence since the 1970s. I remember it fondly as the place I bought an antique garnet ring, and despite being in my twenties and thus smart enough to know better, I liked to imagine that it had previously belonged to some lady-in-waiting for Queen Elizabeth I and I really got a bargain.
Though I’m not averse to shopping, this trip has not been about acquiring items, so Z and I do a quick spin around the place. We’re lured into another building when we hear an operatic rendition of “Hallelujah.” When we look into the courtyard below us, there is a man in a bowler hat, making balloon animals that he accosts diners and passers-by with, all while belting out gorgeous music. It seems almost wrong to laugh at his antics while he sings so beautifully, but still, we do as he chases people around the courtyard with a giant comb and puffs their hair with a balloon pump, as if he is some sort of insane, singing hairdresser.
Probably I should admit here that my favorite thing near Covent Garden is the shop dedicated entirely to Moleskine journals. I don’t actually buy any while I’m there because I have at least six unused ones back at home in various colors, but I take pictures and I fondle several of them as I try to justify a seventh.
For lunch, we make a picnic for ourselves at Tesco Express and head to Leicester Square, the center of the theatre district. (We pass St. Martin’s Theatre that has been showing Agatha Christie’s The Mouse Trap for the last 63 years and at the end of every performance the audience is admonished not to share the secret of who the murderer is; I remember wryly that after seeing the play in 1988 I thought perhaps the real reason the secret had never been revealed was that the play is so boring by the time the murderer stands accused, you no longer care who dunnit). It is hot out and Z and I are grateful for the shade by the fountain, where we munch our food—Z is pleased to have finally scored one of his beloved meat pies and I eat fruit, bread, and crisps, which is as well-balanced as I get—and watch little kids splash around. One little guy looks like across between Alan Cumming and Peter Pan as he slices through the water with an inflatable sword as if he’s vanquishing dragons. I prefer this to standing like cattle in line for another must-see attraction. During the afternoon, Z has to do research, so I sit alone on the Strand, nibbling a pretzel and writing in my journal, though the people-watching possibilities makes it hard to focus on the page.
A Tube strike is on the near horizon, so Z and I make plans to bug out of London a day earlier than planned in order to miss it because neither of us can imagine what the city looks like when it isn’t functioning fully. Our plan initially was to stop in Bath on the way to Wales. On the map it appears to be on the way, but a train schedule reveals that if we go this route it will take ten hours instead of four, so we opt instead to investigate Shrewsbury simply because it is at mid-point on the journey west (though I refuse to call it Shrewsbury and instead tell people we’re going to Shropshire because it makes me feel like Maggie Smith in A Room with a View).
On our last day in London, we decide to take in a view suggested by J, plus I want to revisit Regent’s Park and the nearby canals that I remember being fascinated by two decades ago. The only drawback to this plan is the rain, which is bucketing down when we leave the hotel, continues once we get to the park (which means we have the place virtually to ourselves), and doesn’t let up until we are halfway through the park. We have new, matching £6 umbrellas with the London skyline drawn on them, so we don’t mind. The lake we walk around is a bird sanctuary of sorts and the storks remind me of Tony Soprano’s crew, sitting outside Satrielle’s, smoking cigarettes and wise cracking.
On our walk to the canals, we pass a guard with a machine gun standing in a driveway to a fancy house. He doesn’t seem bothered by us, but even so, you don’t really want to ask a dude with a machine gun what it is he’s guarding, so we take note of the sign on the gate, Winfield House, and look it up later, only to discover it’s where the U.S. Ambassador lives and was originally a house owned by the Woolworth heiress, Barbara Hutton. I’d wrongly assumed that ambassadors lived in an apartment–maybe in the attic–of the embassy itself.
Eventually, we find the canals, and they aren’t really the way I remembered them. The canals in my memory were full of colorful boats that maybe Johnny Depp circa Chocolat lived in. The only boats we see are full of tourists and none are brightly colored or playing guitar music. We walk along the canal while I try to figure out if this was indeed the canal I saw twenty years ago or if there was some other better, more Depp-inspired canal. I give up and we make our way to Primrose Hill. It’s a big hill and we are used to Seattle’s hills. We stop periodically to look back at the skyline but mostly to catch our breaths before plodding upward. When we do get to the top, the views are stunning. Because I’m never satisfied, I wish I’d seen the view on that trip a few decades ago before so many skyscrapers went up, though I’m happy that we can make out the outline of St. Paul’s, Parliament, and some other choice sights. It’s a good last tourist adventure.
Our final social engagement is to meet a friend of Hudge’s (FH, for our purposes) who used to work with Z but has recently taken a job at a sort of think tank in London. Instead of taking the Tube, Z and I decide to walk since it is at the next Tube stop from the one we use and discover that it is actually closer to our hotel than the one we’ve been using. The area is buzzing and has, to my mind, more charm than the street we’ve been walking down daily. Suddenly, I feel terribly sad that our time in London is coming to an end when I’ve only just discovered this whole area that needs exploring. FH arrives and we make our way to a pub that is the exact way you want a pub to be: not sleek and sparse and hip, but instead, worn out wing backed chairs around a table with water rings and stools made from barrels and dark wood everywhere. The people having a pint here seem to belong, and because we are meeting FH, it feels a little like we are here legitimately and not as tourists. The conversation is easy and moves from politics on Z’s campus to politics around the world to what neighborhood FH will be moving to and how he misses swimming off the dock at Hudge’s houseboat. Also, because he’s been a tour guide for my travel guru, Rick Steves, FH chastises me gently for not learning to pack light. “It will change your life,” he says.
When we say goodbye and go our separate ways, Z and I bump into a bookstore that looks intriguing. When I look at the name of it, Slightly Foxed, a light dawns. Slightly Foxed is the publication my mother gets regularly and raves about. It primarily covers books the store-owners believe are worthy of being read, most of which are memoir and autobiography. At least a few conversations with Mom a month cover her latest discoveries from Slightly Foxed. In a split second, I imagine the book bag or coffee mug I’ll get her from there as a surprise, but before I can get too far with the fantasy, I notice the closed sign on the door. I’m so disappointed. If only I’d made the discovery earlier in the week. When I get back to the hotel room, I text her with the news and a photo I’ve taken, and like me, she’s terribly disappointed that I’ve missed my chance to go inside.
Though two days before I would have happily paid money to leave London immediately because the muchness of it all overwhelmed me, while we pack our too-full suitcases and make our final arrangements for the morning’s train trip to Shrewsbury, I feel sad. I don’t know when I’ll be back in London. I don’t know why I’ve been so hard on it. I wish I had just a few more hours so I could eek out a little more juice from the place.
What I do instead to make me feel in control of the situation is set my alarm to go off an hour earlier than needed. The next day, while Z showers and finishes packing, I slip out on a solo adventure into a downpour and walk to Slightly Foxed, stand outside under my umbrella until the store opens, and as soon as I hear the lock click, I head in. For fifteen minutes I scan shelves for titles, look at artwork, and snap photos for Mom. Initially, I feel a little miffed that this store owned by two women seems to be in the hands of a young man, but when I ask if I can take photos for my mother, he warmly encourages them and points out various foxes I should photograph. I make a purchase that seems likely to be one Mom already has, but the book feels good in my hands and won’t take up much room in my suitcase. I tuck it into my coat so the deluge won’t dampen it as I make my way back to the hotel and feel slightly more satisfied.
Maybe when you hit your forties some people don’t need roller coasters for thrills anymore. Maybe it’s okay that a good meal with friends, a park with a view, a well-appointed bookstore surprise, and a good traveling companion are what satisfies.