london in five days (II)

Our first full day in London started early. Like, “Why are you up?! It’s not even 7am!” kinda early. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I’d forgotten to draw the curtains in the room, which got the morning sun. I learnt that lesson quickly. For two kids who didn’t get their requisite amount of sleep, they sure were perky. Lucas and I were probably much less so. But no matter, because we were in frigging London!!!!!!!!!!

Lucas and I finished the muesli we’d brought, mixed with the granola we’d gotten the day before. Raspberry decided she only wanted the granola because clusters are where it’s at. Ares thrived on strawberries, because he’s a fruit fiend. Breakfasts for him have been complicated lately, as he doesn’t seem interested in what we have to offer, especially when there’s berries available. He took a couple of bites of our cereal, but mostly wanted the berries. We didn’t know it yet, but feeding him on this trip would prove to be a bit of a challenge.

We headed out, walking a different route to the station than we did the very first day. There were all these vendors selling produce and clothes and bags along Whitechapel Road, making it quite the bustling street. I really wanted to take pictures of some of the stalls, but felt self-conscious about it, so save for an end-of-the-day shot of the trucks packing up that I took on my film camera, this was the only shot I have of a stall.

We took the tube to Victoria station. Raspberry was excited to tap the Oyster card, but in her jumpy excitement, she’d only graze it past the card reader, rendering her actions useless. It took her a few days to get it.

Ares had his own seat on the train. In between bites of rice cake, he briefly made friends with a girl behind him. She had headphones on and was looking at her phone.

Lucas is/was on the hunt for a Union Jack to sew on to his bag. If there’s one thing London has, it’s kitschy touristy shops hawking every possible object with a Union Jack on it.

Maybe because they were up so early, both kids were hungry, so we stopped at a park where they devoured hard-boiled eggs. Raspberry and I looked at these small houses covered in shells that turned out to be fake. I suggested that someone might live in there. She looked at me like I was just plain ridiculous. Fair enough.

Ares wanted to run around, but the grass and paths were wet (I don’t recall it raining though) and the bottoms of his soft-soled shoes got a little damp. There were tons of construction workers in the park, most of them eating or smoking. A guy with a North American accent, pushing a stroller with two girls, spotted a construction worker’s meal, thought it looked really good, and inquired where he’d gotten it.

Ares didn’t like being in a deck chair.

Sated, we were then off to Buckingham Palace.

We hadn’t intended to watch the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. It just happened that we were there at the time. Raspberry was terribly excited by all the pomp and pageantry and the fact that she’d seen a real palace. Alongside some other kids, she was able to climb up and perch herself atop a little poky bits on the fence (I’m sure there’s a formal name for them but I just don’t know it). I’ve seen the changing of the guard before, so I wasn’t too bothered by the fact that there was a crowd in front of me and I was too short to see anything. To be honest, I was more interested in seeing and photographing the tourists (surprise, surprise). I wanted Ares to see the horses though, and because we were so far away, that proved to be rather difficult.

We got to catch snippets of the ceremony. Unaware of how long the whole process actually was, we wandered over to a grassy patch across the street so the kids could run around and we could wait for the crowd to clear for a bit. Raspberry, happy in her grassy element, delighted in finding sticks and poking at dirt. Every so often, a group of guards or a marching band would head down the street and everyone would rush to see. Next to us, a guy running a tour animatedly and dramatically explained and re-enacted the whole changing of the guard to a semi-circle of interested listeners. He talked about how the process starts at St James’ Palace, which I didn’t know.

I’d thought the whole changing of the guard was over (how silly I was to think it would be speedy affair), so I ran off on my own for a couple of minutes to grab a couple of pictures of tourists. When I returned though, Lucas was annoyed with me for leaving, as there were guards marching past and there was no way he could lift Raspberry up to see and still keep an eye on Ares. Bah.

When we were relatively sure there wasn’t any more to come, we headed over to see Big Ben. Naturally, there were tourists galore. It was like a dream for me.

For some reason, there was a giant dog right by Big Ben. I hardly ever take posed pictures, but for the sake of my canine-loving baby, I just had to. Meanwhile, Raspberry couldn’t get enough of the beagle’s fuzziness.

Ares is super tired by this point. He fell asleep minutes later.
(P/S: He’s wearing the London t-shirt that I wore when I was little; baby Raspberry has worn the shirt too. Ares screams “AHHHH!” whenever he sees this shirt, because the bearskin hat on the royal guard makes it look like a lion and that’s his sound for a lion roaring)

It’s 10 Downing Street! There were lots of media personnel scattered in the vicinity. And from what Lucas overheard, you’re not allowed to take pictures of the police officers wielding their rifles. Not that I was planning on it, but good to know.

We passed the Horse Guard and Raspberry was excited to be this close to a horse. I lamented over the fact that Ares was napping, as he’d freak out over seeing a horse close-up. Naturally, Raspberry wanted a picture with the horse. And as it turns out, the horse was a bit of a show-horse, stamping its feet and marching on the spot (if horses do that sort of thing?). Lucas and I noticed one of the horses had different coloured legs. A block away, after we’d left, I thought I should’ve taken a picture of it and waffled about going back to do so, but decided against it. Me and my indecision.

The initial plan was to have lunch at Trafalgar Square. On the way there, I noticed we were passing The Mall and I could get a shot of the Victoria Memorial that I’d wanted to get earlier but couldn’t. Lucas and Raspberry didn’t want to come along, so they rested their weary feet while I booted it down the street to get my picture. Of course, I should’ve known that my lens wasn’t long enough anyway, but among the greenery lining The Mall, I did spy a park, a much better place to have lunch than on concrete.

Raspberry really wanted to go to a playground for lunch, but it was on the other side of the park. We managed to convince her that grass and trees trumped a playground. While Lucas got Raspberry set up with her jam sandwich lunch, I popped across the street to the Institute of Contemporary Arts, only to realize that it was Monday and hence, closed. D’oh!

Beside us on the grass sat a group of uniformed teenaged girls on a school trip. One of the girls was on crutches and splintered off to sit on a bench, with a couple of her friends joining her. Ares awoke and stretched his legs running about on the grass. He took bites of my egg salad and cucumber sandwich and as usual, went buckwild for the passing dogs strolling in the park. I haven’t had egg salad in years and usually, I’m ambivalent about them, but Lucas had made some really good, albeit wet, sandwiches for lunch. We usually toast our bread at home and I’d forgotten how wonderfully soft bread can be. Raspberry wanted to hide out in the tiny hollow of a tree but I think she was too big. On our way out of the park, she dashed through the mist from a sprinkler to cool herself off.

Because he’d missed the horses before, we decided to go back to the nearby Horse Guard so Ares could gawk at the horses. Needless to say, he freaked out (in a good way).

Raspberry and I were [ahem] fortunate enough to catch a horse emptying its bladder. She thought it was the most awesome thing ever and if you ask her, it was easily the highlight of our trip, hands down. I should expect it, but I was surprised by how much a horse can pee. I was amused that the guard atop the horse raised herself in the stirrups, a tiny smile playing on her lips, as the animal relieved itself.

We went toward Trafalgar Square and popped into Canada House, where the Canadian High Commission is located. The actual building itself is off-limits to the public, but there was an exhibition of Ian Wallace’s work in the gallery within, which we could visit (not before having our bags x-rayed and passing through a metal detector, of course). The African-British security guy was really nice and easygoing, even though I was stressing about my film and film camera. The small gallery offered a nice, cooling respite from the heat of the day. While we were browsing the images, someone with a French accent working there said we could take tours of the building, but we’d have to pre-register first so they could screen us. He said the security guy could give us more information. It’d have been interesting to tour the high commission, but they only do tours on a Friday, and our last day there was a Thursday.

As one might expect on a hot late June day, Trafalgar Square was busy — tourists and street performers everywhere. The street performers were creepy witches and Yodas and Grim Reapers hovering in the air. They kept beckoning Raspberry over, but she didn’t seem to notice and I ignored them.

We ducked into the National Gallery to use the bathroom and give the gift shop a cursory browse. Raspberry browsed the shop in great detail while I nursed Ares. She found a stuffed Jellycat lion in the shop and desperately wanted to get it. Except that it was £17. I do not pay that kind of money for toys, especially for toys that I know will only get played with for a very short period of time and I told her this, even after she said she’d pay us back. She was upset about it for about twenty minutes after, but has since forgotten about it.

Because it was so busy, there weren’t any pigeons. I was thoroughly disappointed. For years, I’ve been telling Raspberry how when I was three years old, I went to Trafalgar Square, chased the pigeons there and had a grand ol’ time. She’s been saying for years how she’s going to go to Trafalgar Square, chase the pigeons and have a grand ol’ time. But there were none! I was crushed. Instead, we heaved the kids up onto the plinth, so they could hang out with the enormous lions (lions are another of Ares’ favourites). The first time, they were by the lion’s butt, which wasn’t any good, as they couldn’t inch their way over to front of the lion without falling off and breaking their necks. Take two, with much more success.

Raspberry wanted to put some of her own money on the Canadian flag. I pointed out the Singaporean flag and Raspberry said I could put some money on it too, but I told her that the Canadian one would be just fine (I’ve been in Canada longer than I’d been in Singapore, and identify more as such).

They enjoyed sticking their hands in the fountain, which had surprisingly un-disgusting water.

We went up Charing Cross Road, in search of T.K. Maxx. The night before, Lucas and I had done a little research on new suitcases, because there was no way he was going to carry the busted one everywhere on the last day. I still shake my head at the fact that the damn suitcase barely lasted five minutes. Sigh.

While Lucas and I compared various suitcases, Ares and Raspberry did some suitcase testing themselves. Ares especially enjoyed pushing them around. When I finally got the chance to take a picture of him, he decided he was done with the suitcases. Instead, he moved on to trying on sunglasses and he found a green purse he especially liked. I had a hard time trying to get him to give it up. For the record, we selected a purple suitcase that looked sturdier than the broken one.

Suitcase in hand (or really, rolling behind us), we made our way to Piccadilly Circus, passing Chinatown on the way. I suggested to Lucas that perhaps we could check it out at some point, but he didn’t seem too interested.

The funny thing is that when we got to Piccadilly Circus, I was baffled as it didn’t look anything like how I remembered it (granted, it’s been eleven years since I’d last seen it). I saw the statue, but where were the iconic flashing digital billboards?! I wanted to show Lucas and Raspberry, neither of whom seemed too impressed by the junction. As I gave up and we walked toward Whole Foods, I realized that we were under the billboards the whole time. Oops!

Not that we frequented Whole Foods very much back home, but both Lucas and I missed the place. Or maybe we just miss having access to a grocery store with natural and organic foods. Lucas had a hankering for something sweet but couldn’t decide on what, so I picked out a tub of peach and apricot yogurt for all of us to share. We also got a box of laundry detergent, as we’ve been looking into it to complement our use of soap nuts, especially with particularly gritty loads.

We sat outside, under some umbrellas, taking a load off and enjoying our yogurt (we sure know how to live the life, can you tell?). My friend, Wendy, whom we were supposed to meet later, called and we made plans as to where to meet exactly. Lucas had really wanted to go to the Scandinavian Kitchen when we first arrived, but we had to forego our plans because of the incident with the suitcase. Instead, we decided to go this time around and meet Wendy there.

We walked up Regent Street and dear god, it was like sardines in a can. Amidst weaving in and out of people, I did take a moment to marvel at all the fancy-ish shops though. On my last trip to London, I’d have been all over the shopping thing, but this time, I barely batted an eyelid. We passed Carnaby Street and I did slightly wish we could go check it out though. Maybe next time.

The Scandinavian Kitchen was much smaller than I’d expected. I suppose I thought it’d be a huge suburban-type store. You’d think that after living in the UK for two-and-a-half years, I should know that everything here is smaller than in North America. Clearly, this has not been drummed into my head enough. But it was a really gorgeous place with beautiful decor. I really wanted to get one of the cups with the people on it, but I can’t bring myself to spend £28 on two cups. Lucas picked up two bags of chocolate mints, one of his favourite Finnish candies, which we haven’t seen the likes of in at least ten years, since his grandmother sent us some while we were living in Edmonton. It was pricier than we’d have liked, but we reasoned that you can’t get them anywhere close to us. He asked me what I wanted to drink, but I was so hot and thirsty that I just asked for a glass of tap water, thinking I’d decide later (which I never did). He got a bottle of Innocent orange juice for Raspberry (who loves the bottle so much that she’s saved it) and a Fentimans for Wendy.

The girl working the counter seemed really nice and was so very accommodating, especially when I had one kid bugging them and the other wrecking havoc (I’ll leave it to you to guess which kid did what). A frazzled Lucas had his hands full while I sat at a table, guzzling down water (which I only do when I’m horribly parched, like during this British heatwave, for instance), and shooting the breeze with Wendy, whom I hadn’t seen in twenty years. It was so nice to catch up with her, as our recent correspondence has only been through Facebook. She gave me a copy of Sally Mann’s new book as a thank you for sending her a copy of her documentary. I gave Wendy my extra copy of Stephen Shore’s The Nature of Photographs, which I’d picked up at a library sale, forgetting that I’d actually brought my own copy. I figured she’d appreciate it.

Because Ares was getting tired, he was starting to get destructive and we needed to get outside so Raspberry and him could run around for a bit. Thanks to the wonders of a smartphone (obviously not mine) and Google Maps, Wendy was able to locate a nearby park.

Lucas had to take Raspberry to the bathroom at John Lewis, and Ares tumbled into a ditch and liked it so much he stayed there.

Wendy has a Seagull TLR! This inspires me to try out the TLR I have, except I don’t remember if I shipped it.

Raspberry bought a bag of pick-and-mix candy with her own money. One of the candies she picked out was a gummy mushroom, which she offered to everyone. I thought it was awesome.

Because it was getting late and the kids were getting tired, we thought we should head back. We walked with Wendy to the Oxford Circus tube station and hopped the train back to Whitechapel. While on the platform, I realized that if we waited another fifteen minutes, we’d have been out of peak hour and could’ve collectively saved ourselves £1.20 on our ride. Ah well. The train ride to Liverpool Street, where we had to change trains, was hot and stuffy and we were all jammed into the train like sardines. This is what we get for riding the train at peak times.

Dinner was to be simple, with pasta and sauce, mushrooms, zucchini and canned corn, so we stopped at Sainsbury’s to get it. Lucas wasn’t sure if they’d still be open, but it turns out they close at 11pm.

As luck would have it, we were locked out when we returned to the apartment. The door could open slightly, but something at the top was preventing it from opening fully. We thought that maybe someone had put a chain on and we spent a good amount of time yelling into the open kitchen window and banging on the door, to no avail. I frantically called and texted E repeatedly but she wasn’t answering. At least Ares had fallen asleep by this time, otherwise he’d have been restless. As the minutes ticked by, Lucas suggested I take Raspberry to the playground across the street so she wouldn’t be bored. While Raspberry played, I stood there absently-mindedly, keeping Lucas in my sight line, just in case we could miraculously get back in.

Raspberry has always been a bit fearful when it comes to physical feats. She got nervous about climbing a short ladder and she got really freaked out about crossing a chain bridge, screaming that she couldn’t do it. I had to coax her backward and tell her all about the power of positive thinking (I’m not sure if she was really listening though). Interestingly, after I turned away, my mind stuck on the fact that we were locked out, she attempted the chain bridge on her own and got really good at it, so much so that she did it gleefully over and over again. Meanwhile, a Mandarin-speaking woman in chunky high heels and a tiny cardigan over a really short dress struck up some small talk with me. Her baby, who was about Ares’ age, was on a fuzzy leash tied around his chest. She had a daughter slightly older than Raspberry who stood on the swings while I pushed Raspberry, who wasn’t inclined to pump her legs.

All in all, we were locked out for an excruciating an-hour-and-a-half. As it happens, the door is weird and if you turn it upward, it locks a separate lock on the top. When we first arrived, E had warned us never to lock the front door as we were leaving, as it locks whoever’s inside in. She didn’t warn us about the handle. She did call us back eventually, saying she was a half hour away. Thereafter, Lucas tried yet again, pushing really hard on the door to free the top lock and ending our one-and-a-half-hours of torment. Raspberry thought that being locked out was the best thing ever, as she got to play on the chain bridge. Clearly, she has a different perception of the situation than Lucas and I do.

Ares woke up as I was trying to put him down in bed and we sat down to a very late, flavourless pasta dinner (Lucas had accidentally bought tomato passata instead of tomato sauce). I wasn’t even hungry anymore by that time.

Despite it being really late, Raspberry, probably still high from the day and her chain-bridge adventure, asked to stay up but was met with a resounding “no” from two exhausted parents. And so ended our first day in London.

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