Thursday, April 9, 2009

The fam comes to London

I walked up the escalator in Heathrow's terminal three and on the bench ahead sat my Mom, my Dad, my brother and little London! We found the Underground's ticket office, bought everyone oyster cards (the "golden tickets" to London's tube) and headed back to the center of the city to start their week of spring break.

With too full a schedule to let jet lag interfere, as soon as they dropped their bags, it was straight to Portobello Market in Notting Hill -- my favorite outdoor market full of antiques, jewelry, books and food. We found the "Travel Bookshop" from the 1999 Hollywood classic (a favorite in our household), Notting Hill. We also found the "house with the blue door," which had been painted black (an attempt by the homeowners to go incognito from swarming fans). Then back to Portobello Road for some shopping and a drink at (what we coined) the "purple pub" to reconvene and show off our loot. Back in central London, we walked the River Thames to catch a glance at Big Ben, a traditional pub dinner and a late-night ride on the London Eye (London's trademark ferris wheel).

After years of Dad taking me on his favorite runs, on Sunday, I finally got to take my Dad on one of my favorite runs: down Southampton Row to the River Thames, along the Embankment to Big Ben, past Downing Street and the Guards House, through Trafalgar Square, past Charring Cross Station and the Savoy and back home to Bloomsbury. I think he liked it...

Later, the whole family caught the Italian mass down the street from my flat and headed over to the east side of town. I wanted to take everyone to my other top London market, the Sunday UpMarket on Brick Lane. After surveying the pots of simmering curries, thai noodles, falafels, crepes and baked goods, everyone chose their favorite. This time I tried the Japanese pancake -- a flat cake of cheese, cabbage, veggies and a soy sauce drizzled on top with a soy rice cake on the side. The rest of the fam chose an eclectic mix from crepes to pot stickers to cous cous. As I sat down to eat with my Mom and sisters, my Dad and brother were sitting down a couple tables away with a Brit to learn the rules of a board game that resembled a cross between checkers and marbles.

Later that evening, we made our way back to Covent Garden for dinner and a last drink at the Princess Louise (a treasure of a pub just around the corner from my flat) before having to bid my older sister farewell. Her flight took her back to D.C. the following morning.

The first few days of the week were a blur of class by day and London with the fam by night. I made a quick wardrobe change Monday after class and met the fam for a fish and chip dinner at "Fryer's Delight," not much to look at, but still the best fish and chips I've had in London. Then, off to Leicester Square to see "Les Mis," a treat for anyone who loves music or theatre. The voices, set, story and overall effect were unforgettable. In the intimate Queen's Theatre, the show blew me away. We finished the night with gelato sundaes from one of our favorite Italian restaurants in Soho with my roommate and her Mom.

Wednesday afternoon, the family decided to take a romantic train journey out of London to the English countryside to see Salisbury, Stonehenge and Bath. Forget "romantic train journey, think "National Lamphoons comedy of errors." My family learned long ago, "phone first" on vacation. We forgot the lesson. First we rushed out of a crowded tube to catch our train from Paddington Station. But, my stomach fell to my toes as I looked at the departure board, which was not displaying our train. Our train left from Waterloo Station -- I had written down the wrong one. So, back on the rush-hour tube trains across town. We jumped on a 5:20 p.m. train out of London just before it pulled away. But, smack in the height of rush hour, there was not a seat to be found on the train. It was not exactly the image of cross-country train travel I had painted for my family, but an adventure nonetheless.

We found seats after the train cleared out after the first couple of stops and pulled into Salisbury about an hour and a half later. We found a delicious dinner at a classic Salisbury pub, "The Haunch of Venison" and settled into our cozy hotel, "The Red Lion."

We nearly got blown away at Stonehenge the next day and spent the better part of two hours exploring Salisbury Cathedral. Then back on the train (this time a bit more relaxed) to Bath.

We spent Thursday evening and Friday exploring the charms of Bath. We saw the namesake Roman Baths in the morning. Steam still rises from the water that still fills the ruins of the baths the Romans used hundreds of years ago. At the end of the tour, visitors can taste the "bath water," which is supposed to be rich in minerals. At the height of the baths, Romans were advised to drink five liters of the "curing" water before breakfast each day for their health. One sip of the warm, iron-tasting water was plenty for me.

That afternoon, we had traditional tea with a family friend and a walk through the picturesque hillside neighborhoods of Bath -- lovely. And, first thing Saturday morning we caught our train back to London.

We toured the grounds of Wimbledon on Saturday afternoon and the accompanying museum. Then we shared a splendid last dinner in London together with family friends at their home in South London. The homemade English trifle dessert was a big hit -- layers of berries, custard, ladyfingers and cream. The evening flew by as food, drink and conversation flowed easily.

And in the early hours on Sunday morning, after lots of hugs and kisses I waved the family down the street and off to the airport. I turned around and walked back up the many steps to my flat with lots of happy memories from my family's and my sister's weeks in London, thrilled to have been able to share all the treasures I've found here.

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