london in five days (I)
As a birthday present for all of us (well, namely Raspberry, Lucas and I), we took a trip to London this past Sunday for five days. Out of the four of us, I’m the only one who has been before, in 1984, 1994, and 2004. Yes, in keeping with the pattern, it would’ve been great if I could’ve made it last year but for some reason, we just didn’t (the fact that we had a cat with hyperthyroidism who had to be fed a couple of times a day had a lot to do with it). In any case, we went and had a a tremendous time.
However, the trip got off to a bad start, as one of the wheels of our brand new suitcase popped right off barely a hundred metres from home. Raspberry, Ares and I had gone ahead of Lucas and as we made it down the hill, Raspberry turned around and announced that Lucas was carrying rather than pulling the suitcase. Of course, that’s not what I wanted to hear and when he finally caught up with us, he confirmed the worst and had to lug the suitcase the rest of the way to Lime Street station. Once on the train, because the luggage space was full, the cursed suitcase occupied the fourth seat at our table, sealing Lucas into his window seat. There was a guy sitting in that fourth available seat when we first boarded the train, but he quickly moved when he noticed we had a lot of baggage (I’m talking about Raspberry and Ares here).
The train trip, which ordinarily takes just over two hours, was slated to take almost three hours on this cloudy Sunday morning. I’m not sure why, as it didn’t make more stops than it usually does, but at some points, it certainly didn’t travel as fast as the Virgin trains normally go. We saw a lot of countryside and kept wondering when we’d see the city limits. Arriving at London Euston twenty minutes later than we should have, we were all excited and antsy to get off and get our vacation started.
Our train was at 8:15am, and because we left home without breakfast, we had it on the train instead. We brought a ton of food with us, not just for the train ride, but also for the next few days. It felt like Ares and Raspberry spent a good portion of the train trip eating the many components of their breakfast (strawberries, blueberries, cherries, bananas, apples, hard-boiled eggs, yogurt). Hello, eating-for-boredom.
Women from three generations sat across the aisle from us. At one point, the youngest (who looked to be college-aged) fell asleep across two seats and Lucas offered her mother our spare seat (Raspberry, in the way that she does, had migrated to another seat to draw a picture of the balloon in the shape of a number five, that we’d seen floating as the train passed). As she sat next to me, she read her issue of Cosmopolitan and checked her phone. They seemed nice and wished us a good trip as everyone was getting off the train.
I usually like taking pictures of the scenes the train passes, but this particular trip felt hectic, despite it being over three hours long, and I didn’t get as many pictures as I’d have liked. We passed a Kodak factory, and I wondered if it was still in operation. Much of my time was spent ensuring the kids were fed, reading to Ares and wandering with him into the food shop, which was in the same carriage as our seats. I’ve only been on a Virgin train once, and that wasn’t a very long trip, so I wasn’t familiar with the train at all. I was amazed by the selection of items in the shop. Not only did they have food, but also magazines, pens and [I was amused by this one] old-fashioned travel sweets.
We had to establish our bearings once we arrived at Euston. Given that the suitcase could no longer be pulled, we had to alter our plans slightly, so first up was trying to see if we could find a locker to stash it while we did a bit of sightseeing. We reasoned that the museums, like the ones in Liverpool, would have lockers for use. Lucas checked out the nearby British Library, but bag checks were happening and there were no lockers. He went to the Wellcome Collection, where we were going to go later, but they only had a manned cloakroom. I told him to check the left luggage spot in the station but at £6, it was too pricey.
In the meantime, I waited at Euston with our bags and a sleeping Ares, watching the big screen flash the same headlines about the Tunisian shooter over and over again. I watched the above bored kid in the stroller toss and turn while her parents tried to figure out their map.
It became evident that Lucas would have to carry the suitcase around, much to his chagrin. We headed out to the House of Illustration, as planned, taking a bit of a circuitous route there. Unfortunately, it began to rain along the way. Raspberry took off her coat and put her sunhat on, declaring that the hat would protect her head from getting wet.
I’d been terribly excited about visiting the House of Illustration, but was disappointed by its size. I didn’t think the art in the free gallery was anything to write home about, but Raspberry and Ares seemed excited about the large cartoonish eyes drawn onto the images. I’d liked to have taken my time looking in the gift shop, but Lucas was tired and frustrated from carrying the suitcase and wanted to move on.
The rain dampened our plans to have lunch outside, by the canal and fountains, so instead, we found a covered space right behind the gallery to wait out the now-pouring rain. We set up shop on one of the ping pong tables, having our leftover pizza for lunch and watching other families play table tennis, the kids zooming around the space on scooters. Ares had a field day chasing around a ping pong ball (the kid loves balls). On the other side, a steady stream of students came and went from a UCL degree show on jewellry design. I was slightly tempted to check out the exhibition, but ultimately decided that I wasn’t that interested to do so.
Lucas attempted to temporarily fix the wheel on the suitcase, Macgyver-style, with a found zip-tie which Raspberry had gone in search of, a length of plastic wrap and tab from a pop can. It was a good idea in theory, but unfortunately, didn’t hold up. Exasperated and defeated, we decided to head over to get our Oyster cards, since the rain had finally lightened up.
It took ages for us to get an Oyster card. I was under the impression that we could get a visitor card, but the only option offered by the machine was the regular one with a £5 deposit. While Lucas stayed in one spot by the entrance to King’s Cross tube station, I ran all over the place like a chicken with its head cut off, in search of some information and this elusive Oyster card (“You don’t know anything about this visitor Oyster card?” “Go to the tube station downstairs? But I was just there!”) Finally and serendipitously, we chanced upon the visitor information centre I’d been desperately looking for in the first place, and I got us two Oyster cards. The very helpful pink-shirted person at the desk told me that the visitor cards can only be purchased outside of London. Well, then! Relieved and with our Oyster cards in hand, we were able to move on to our next destination — the Wellcome Collection down the street. The walk there was longer than I’d expected (maps can be so deceptive) and I understood why it took Lucas so long when I was waiting for him at Euston earlier in the day.
The Wellcome Collection has some amazing exhibits and they’re all so beautifully designed (yay for negative space!). I wish we could’ve spent more time than we did there. I’d texted our AirBnB host to see if we could check in a half-hour later than scheduled, but she said she had somewhere to be, so this, in combination with running everywhere looking for the Oyster cards, gave us quite a limited time at the Wellcome Collection. But I think we enjoyed what we did see, as all of us tend to enjoy medicine. Well, except maybe for Ares, who was mostly itching to stretch his legs and run everywhere, making it tough for me to focus on looking at the exhibits. Lucas was able to take Ares off to wander about and Raspberry and I looked at some of the objects. She was intrigued by the medical curiosities on display and wanted to read the labels to everything, but I had to tell her we didn’t have the time to do so. I did promise that we’d return another time and we could take our time with the galleries.
We briefly went into the Institute of Sexology section, but I think we were all tired and didn’t get much, if anything, out of it. At another time and place, I think I’d have enjoyed it, but not this time. Raspberry watched a video and hid in a box (whose function I’m not sure of) and would probably have wanted to do more, if we didn’t have to go. Our final minutes at the Wellcome Collection were spent in the gift shop, where we marvelled over cool toys and Ares hugged an enormous Giant Microbe (it was sore throat).
We rode the tube from Euston to Whitechapel and I was immensely grateful for the air-conditioned train (a far cry from the stuffy, cramped, low-ceiling-ed trains I recall from my trip there in 2004).
The directions our AirBnB host, E, gave us said it’d take about seven to ten minutes to walk from the tube station to the apartment, but seeing as the neighbourhood was unfamiliar and Lucas was hauling along the suitcase, it took us longer (or so it felt, anyway). She wasn’t there when we arrived, making me think that she’d taken off because we were ten minutes late. I called her and we rang the buzzer, but to no avail. She did show up not long after, riding on a bike. She had pink glasses, was in a long skirt and had a cool hipster-esque backpack (the kind that is insanely expensive but coveted by everyone).
She led us to the top floor, up five fights of stairs (I felt so bad for Lucas), to the apartment where she showed us the room we were to be staying in. The apartment was bare bones, with only the absolute necessities. She explained that there was a couple staying upstairs, as well as a Korean girl. It was then when it dawned on me that the whole apartment was filled with AirBnB guests. Despite being late for wherever she had to be, E, spent a bit of time in the apartment cleaning up. She brought us huge fluffy towels, two of which had to be dried in the window. We brought our own towels, as I didn’t know if there’d be any, but ended up using the fluffy ones.
We spent about an hour or so just unwinding in the room. Lucas crashed on the bed while Raspberry went out to play on the balcony, picking up dried grass and weeds out of the cracks. I had this idea to take a picture every day of the view from the window, but only managed to do so the first day. So much for that.
We had no desire to cook, so we headed out onto Whitechapel Road in search of some take-out. There were loads of Indian and Middle-Eastern restaurants and a couple of cool-looking independent places, one of which had burgers, but ultimately, we settled on Chinese, as Raspberry wanted fish-and-chips and we found a cheap place that did both. While we waited for our food in the very spartan surroundings, Raspberry and Ares were fidgety and kept getting on each other’s nerves. Ares likes his personal space and pushes Raspberry if she gets too close. In turn, Raspberry often gets all up in his grill, which makes him crazy. There were a couple of customers ahead of us so the wait was a little long. I was so glad when we got our food and got out of there.
The next stop was to Tesco, so we could pick up some supplies for our breakfasts and lunches the next couple of days — milk, eggs, granola and bread. It was incredibly busy, as lots of people were likely picking up food to break their fast for Ramadan (we realized, from the neighbourhood and signs on restaurant windows that there’s a large Muslim population in the area). I was tasked with getting the eggs and couldn’t locate them without help from the staff. It turns out they were in a small section, right on the top shelf. Eye-level for someone six feet tall, but not me.
We brought our dinner back to the apartment, where the other couple staying there was just finishing their dinner in the kitchen. They were musicians from Slovenia — he was a composer and she was in the cast of Mamma Mia. They seemed very nice, although I only really met the girl very briefly the first day and when they was leaving for the day a couple of days later. Most of the time, I saw and talked to the guy. We also met a girl who was in London on a work placement. We only made small talk with her, as it was late.
Raspberry had about half of her fish and chips and Lucas and I shared some very breaded lemon chicken and half the mushroom chow mein (saving the rest for another day). We offered Ares avocado and rice but he didn’t seem at all interested. Perhaps it was because the rice was hard.
Raspberry wanted to go out on the balcony again after her shower but decided to read instead after Lucas and I said that she should at least try to stay clean (she wanted to dig up more dirt and dried plants). I don’t think we’d ever been so glad for bed. Well, for Lucas and I anyway. Both Ares and Raspberry seemed reluctant to go to sleep and it took much persuasion to convince her that she really ought to go to bed. Despite being tired, it took me a while to fall asleep, but I finally did after checking my email. At 11-ish, it was probably the earliest I’d been in bed in ages, but I definitely needed my sleep.