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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Celebrate Good Friends

Day 73 -86

I arrived safely in the United Kingdom. It was a long flight but I was able to sleep most of the way. It’s one of the gifts I have been blessed with, I can sleep anywhere! I have been to London several times so it wasn’t anything new for me. I was hoping to be able to sort my bus ticket before arriving but for some reason, I wasn’t able to pay online. When I contacted my credit card company, I was told that due to the increase of fraudulent activity in the UK, you need to call in to request that your card be activated. Since I ran out of time, I didn’t have a choice but to get my ticket upon arrival; which worked out to my benefit because I was able to find a ticket to get a ticket for much less than I had originally found.

The only trade-off was that I needed to go into the city and then board a bus from there; which was fine by me because after I returned from visiting Steph, I would be spending my final days in London anyway. So, I found my way on the tube to Victoria Coach Station. I’ve done this route before, most recently as 2006, so it was all vaguely familiar for me except this time I had so much more to carry! I was still carrying the tent, 2 bottles of champagne, books for the kids and my two backpacks…

Managed to find my way and arrived safely in Leicester at 12:40PM. Steph lives about 45 minutes away; in a smaller town called Breedon on the Hill and was trying to time my arrival to come get me. There were no loading zones so I had no idea where Steph would be coming from. Somehow, she spotted me and waved to me from across the street. It was soooo nice to see her after all these years! The last time I had seen Steph was in 2006 when I came to surprise visit her for what was supposed to be a weekend trip (4 days + 2 days traveling) over Thanksgiving. That was before all the little kids came; it would be almost exactly a year later that her daughter Maya would be born. Now, there were two!  And coincidentally, I was coming just in time to celebrate little James' 1st birthday!
It goes without saying that I was coming to visit at a time when Steph's lifestyle was completely different from what I remembered. So long were the days that we could just do whatever we wanted, stay out late, wake up midday, talk till we ran out of things to say…(although this never happens with us!) Steph, along with her husband Dan, were now responsible parents! Their actions were constantly observed by the highly impressionable little ones and with all the child rearing on top of other household responsibilities, there was little time for relaxation at the end of the day; with barely any energy left to go around. So, while there, I tried my best to make myself useful by cleaning, doing the laundry and washing dishes. On one of my final nights there, I even attempted to make dinner: katsu kare, Japanese pork cutlet and Japanese curry and fried eggplant. Turned out okay and I even attempted to top the meal with haupia since I was so successful in Cape Town! Unfortunately, I used a different recipe this time and so it was definitely not my best masterpiece. I also should have asked if they all liked coconut because we ate only about 4 pieces and the rest (16+) were wasted…

All I wanted was to be able to spend time with Steph and the family, relax and hopefully catch up on some writing (though that proved futile). Steph was able to borrow a bicycle for me so we had plans to go and ride around the area. Breedon on the Hill, where they live, is a small village with large plots of land, a small cozy feel adorned with old buildings dating back to a time even before my own country was established. There was some talk about taking a quick and cheap flight (there are many budget airlines that service Europe where you can fly for $10 sometimes!) to visit other friends in Europe or to take a drive up with the family to Scotland but ultimately, I just didn’t have enough time! She also planned a little get together with her two other girlfriends for a night out. So we did have some things on the agenda. It was great to be able to meet her new friends in the area at the local pub which actually had pretty good food!  After our night out, we worked on the finishing touches of James' homemade birthday cake.

The birthday boy!
I think Maya enjoyed James' birthday cake breakfast the most!
The following morning, I woke up at 7AM (maybe the only day that I woke up early during my time there) to sing to littles James! We needed to do it by 7:30AM, before Dan went to work; it was a new tradition that Steph wanted to start with her kids: birthday cake for breakfast! It's definitely an original idea but sweets at 7:30AM were a bit too much for me.  Needless to say, I was filled with energy for the rest of the day!

The timing of my visit couldn’t have been any better because Steph wasn’t back at work yet so we spent every day doing something. She also then hooked me up with one of her friends so that I could help watch her two young children (2.8 years and 1 year). You know how I love kids! So it was a great opportunity to keep myself busy and help them out. In an effort to show her appreciation, her friend thanked me with a small monetary gift which was nice! Especially since the British Pound is 1.56 x more than $1.

The weather wasn’t the greatest and we were only fortunate to have nice weather on the first day. So, it was too bad that we didn’t take advantage of that and ride our bicycles! All the other days were cold and wet so in the end, I never got to go biking! But, we got to spend our time in other ways which was truly precious. Most importantly, Steph knowing full well what my favorite foods are, made sure that we made a stop to a local restaurant that was known for its meat pies...

I was very grateful to have Steph and Dan open up their home to me and allow me to stay as long as I did. They were incredibly generous with me, making sure that I never went hungry. Seriously! I had unlimited access to cookies, ice cream, high quality rice! All my efforts in trying to lose weight were lost here and I think I may have worked backwards and added about 5 pounds! Needless to say, besides all the food, it was great to be able to stay with them and have an opportunity to see the kids grow up. Literally! I was there when James’ two bottom teeth were coming out and I was also there when Maya would be rewarded 1 M&M for going to the potty and 3 M&Ms for poo poo on the potty. Priceless.

On the one full weekend that I was there, we also took a road trip down to Oxford which is where Dan is from. Here we celebrated their nieces 9th birthday! Almost every trip that I have made out to England, I have been able to stop here at Dan’s mom’s house so it was a nice homecoming for me too. We had a full house with Dan’s cousin and her two little children also spending the night. We got to open presents and it was really sweet that Dan’s, Lona, also bought gifts for the cousins so they all had new toys to play with. Before leaving Oxford that weekend we had lunch at an Asian fast food restaurant. I tried to use my Chinese with the workers there; I think they laughed at me.

Siena-Rose's 9th Birthday Party

On one of my final days, I decided to go with Steph down to her workplace. It was a new job so there was a lot to do with setting up the classroom and getting everything ready before the students came. We made a beautiful colorful board (too bad we didn’t get a photo) and I got to put labels on trays, hard work! Helping to set up the classroom with mini desks and chairs, brought me back to my own elementary school days; such good times!

The two and a half weeks came and went and before I knew it, I was leaving them. It was short and sweet. I would have wanted to stay around longer but Steph was going back to work and I didn’t want to overstay my welcome; I don’t believe there exists any home that is both quiet and non-eventful if there are kids around and I didn’t want to get in the way of their already busy lives! I cannot begin to express my gratitude in being allowed to spend so much time with them, with the kids and being treated like a queen! Best of all, it was a nice, relaxing time to be able to spread my things out, have my own space and not have to move soon after arriving. Although I didn’t see too much of the area, it was precious time well spent! Thank you Steph, Dan, Maya and James for welcoming me into your home!

Day 86 - 90

Moving on from Leicester, I went back to London and with a little less baggage (toys, champagne, tent unloaded), I managed to find my way to my friend Maggie’s house. The unanticipated challenge was that half the lines were closed! Okay I’m exaggerating but the main Victoria line which would have made my travel to her house a little easier was closed for the weekend. Instead, I had to ride in the opposite direction to the Picadilly line and then from there, it was a straight line to Maggie’s place. Maggie was great in giving directions and even though it was the first time for me to venture out to this neck of the woods, I was able to find her house easily.

Maggie was so generous with letting me stay even though I don’t know her too well. Truth is, I only met her the year before at our friend Yvonne’s wedding in Calgary. Maggie also lived and worked in Japan for a year, but came the year after I had left. The year following my departure, Yvonne and Maggie got to know each other and eventually became really close when Yvonne made London her new home after leaving Japan.

Meeting up with Chris, another former JET who I had heard so much about but never met until this trip...
Coincidentally, Maggie had just welcomed a new flat mate that very day so both Nama and I were just getting in and learning about where everything was in the apartment. Maggie cooked all of us dinner for the first night which was quite lovely! A Thai eggplant curry…yum. We enjoyed our dinner together and Nama also brought out hummus and pita bread for us, a bit taste of home to share.

My time in London was very relaxed and I tried to take it easy and make an honest attempt to write but you know how that goes…although it wasn’t the first time for me to be in London, there were actually a few must-sees that I had not yet done. One, was to ride the iconic red double decker bus (which makes London so famous), around the city. It’s a hop-on, hop-off service that allows you to get on and off at your leisure while there are tour guides that give you the history of the sites as you pass. There were actually 3 different routes, 1 route which included a live guide and the two others where they provided you with earphones to listen to the tour in your language of preference. For £22.50 (10% discount online), it included unlimited rides for a 24 hour period as well as free boat ride down the River Thames as well as 1 free walking tour. After you do the currency exchange, it comes out to about $35 which is not very cheap! But, I must say that it was very much worth it! I got to go past many sites that I had not seen before, including Number 10 Downing Street (Prime Minister’s Residence which we would read about in our political science courses in college)! I didn’t realize how centrally located it was but I could never find it during my previous visits! Needless to say, I took advantage of the one free walking tour. I missed the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace earlier that day but managed to get on the 3:30PM Jack the Ripper tour. I have always heard about Jack the Ripper but didn’t really ever see the movies or really know much about the case. Our guide was great and told us about the gruesome killings of the serial killer and even brought us to about two actual murder sites. The eerie part of the whole experience was that we were there a few days off from the anniversary date of the first killing! On the trip, I also made friends with a South African (he noticed my jacket) and he had a great sense of humor which made the rest of the tour fun! I probably won’t do the tour again, just because of the price, but I highly recommended doing it if you’re heading to London for the first time! **Tip: If you book online, you can save a few pounds!.


The weekend also turned out to be a three day weekend with a bank holiday on Monday. It also happened to be the weekend of the Notting Hill Carnival so we went out to check out the festival on Monday. It was incredibly insane! Originally started as a celebration organized by the West Indian community who resided in Notting Hill, it is now a full blown carnival. And by full blown, I mean, full blown! I thought I should expect something like Mardi Gras which is pretty crazy but it actually made New Orleans look really pathetic. The carnival which stretches over many streets, has parades and bands performing on almost every corner. Maggie told me that they saw about 400,000 people on Sunday alone! WOW! It was crazy! There were times that there were so many people trying to get through that I was worried that I’d be caught in a stampede. Luckily I escaped safely! It was a fun time, mainly because Nama and I hung out with Maggie and her friends. One of her friend’s sisters actually lives within the area that is cordoned off to hold this annual block party. It was nice to be able to meet there, have a few drinks then battle the crowds. And three hours later, when we were tired, we found our way back to her flat to rest our feet.

Notting Hill Carnival Parade

That night, I was supposed to meet up with Chris, a friend that I met through my other good friend Brandon. I forgot that Chris was living in London but realized this when I saw him on facebook a few days before! Chris’ mom is actually from Hawaii and he hopes to move out there in the near future! Anyway, I really wanted to hang out with him but I was starting to feel really weak and ill…I started to think that maybe I got malaria?? I actually started to feel a bit weak back at Steph’s place but it was just too hectic and complicated with the clinics in the UK to organize an affordable doctor’s visit so in the end, I just didn’t go. I felt that if I didn’t rest, I may not be able to travel or I may actually have malaria! So I rested that night and we made plans to try and meet up on the following night which was my last night in London.

The following day, I had wanted to check out Buckingham Palace since they had a special exhibition that was going on until September 1. I actually labored over this for a while…I couldn’t remember if I had been to the Buckingham Palace or not. I remember trying to go on a previous visit and realizing that the palace only had a certain time of the year that it was open. I also had a faded memory of being in their souvenir shop. It wasn’t cheap to go to the palace so at first I wasn’t going then decided that I hadn’t been yet so that I should and this was the conversation that I had in my head over the weekend. In the end, I felt too ill to go even though I had decided that I should. So, for most of Tuesday, I laid around which actually helped tremendously. I decided that I was fatigued and tired from all the traveling (though I spent 2.5 weeks doing nothing in Breedon!). But rest was all I needed. At around 5:00PM, I made sure I got up to meet Chris and my other friend Andy who I also worked with in Japan. I was glad that Andy joined us, even though he didn’t know Chris; he also brought his American girlfriend, Erin, along who I was meeting for the first time. We ended up eating at a great gastropub, Great Queen Street Bar and Restaurant near Holborn Tube Station. It was a bit pricey, £30 ($45) per person but the food was excellent! Good recommendation Chris! We had a good night, meeting new friends over great food!
Last dinner in London with Chris, Erin and Andy

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