Sunday, November 13, 2016

London, Baby! Part I

Last week, Box sent me to London for a long-awaited yet short-notice visit to our U.K. office.  I almost got kicked out of the country right from the get go for not understanding the custom agent's accent, but this American girl recovered quickly and made it into London, baby!  

Oftentimes traveling for work can get lonely, but I was fortunate to be able to fit in lots of social visits while there.  I had everything figured out: my work trip would overlap with Lauren's, Letizia was flying in from Paris to spend the weekend with me, and I had reserved a sweet one-bedroom Notting Hill flat on Airbnb.  Maybe I would even run into Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant! 

The apartment was extremely bright and welcoming, with floor to ceiling windows, eclectic art, and the coziest bed imaginable. 

 The living room

The gardens behind the flat

 The bedroom

Out and about the neighborhood was just as lovely.  I spent some time that first afternoon exploring my new digs, especially Portobello street, one block away and famous for its street market.  

 Adore this neighbor's tile work!

Aesthetic flower shop on a wedge of sidewalk

 England's street signs put ours to shame

I'll be needing one of these!

 The antique labyrinths of Portobello Street

Letizia arrived around 8pm that first Friday, and our ecstatic reunion was at a Belgian restaurant called Belgo, a surprisingly large underground spot where waiters in monk's robes serve craft beer and mussels. 

It also happened to be Lauren's birthday, and we had planned to meet at the Savoy Hotel (again, where are Julia and Hugh?) after dinner for fancy drinks at American Bar.  Awaiting their arrival, Letizia and I marveled at the details of the hotel, the clientele in evening gowns and tuxedos, the 1920's band with couples dancing under the indoor gazebo.  It was all so lovely!  Seeing Lauren and Sam was so fun-I love it when my worlds collide and friends who have heard so much about each other finally get to meet.  It was a wonderful place to celebrate Lauren and hear about her trip so far!

As it turned out, Letizia's mom and her husband, Marco, were in London the same weekend for the wedding of one of Marco's sons.  We met up with them Saturday morning for breakfast at a delightful vegetarian place called Farmacy in another part of Notting Hill.  I was amazed at how sprawling some of the neighborhoods in London are.  Notting Hill has at least three small "downtowns" I could find, each with its own shops and restaurants.  

I really enjoyed catching up with Letizia's family, however quickly, as it had been a handful of years since I'd seen them!  What serendipitous timing that we all happened to be in London the same weekend.

Outside the festive Farmacy

Leti and her mom, Stefania

After a pit stop for the most touristy London photo imaginable, we popped into the Victoria & Albert Museum, famous for its art and design collection. 

They were having a special exhibit around art, music, and the concept of revolution, and we got to play a bit with turn tables and mixing boards.

We had to narrow our focus on account of time and patience and chose their ceramic, costume, ironwork, and photography collections.  In fact, we learned that the V&A was the first museum to start showing photography as a collection of art, anywhere.  Incredibly, this museum is free, and we would love to be able to return piece by piece and consume it all over time.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in the Shoreditch neighborhood, having lunch and exploring the old Spitalfields Market (seriously, the names around there).  It was close to closing time, but we enjoyed checking out the artsy offerings, and I especially fell for one lady's vintage fur collection (maybe next time).  

One of the best meals of the trip was that evening at Dishoom.  An Indian restaurant, Dishoom has garnered quite a following, and despite its being an upscale restaurant, has lines of people waiting to get in.  Our host, a young gay man from Manchester in a full-length fur coat, made the evening memorable with his pure goodness and charm.  Also, they brought us sherry while we were waiting out in the cold, so that helped.

The food was seriously incredible-hands down the best Indian I've ever eaten.  We had grilled lamb chops, chicken ruby, daal, garlic naan, and raita, a minty yogurt.  We only wished we had gone with a larger party so we could try more dishes!  Even so, we had to be rolled out of there.

We started Sunday morning by exploring the gardens behind my flat.  There are grassy knolls, tranquil benches, and a variety of different gardens.  I can tell you city life doesn't seem so daunting when you have your own private park just down the stairs!

 In photographs, Leti always looks so composed 
and I always grin like a bufoon.  Here, we face-swapped.

 Bonfire prep (more on that later!)

After the gardens, we went to Portobello Road for breakfast and market browsing.

Enjoying our toasties and tea

Soon after, we strolled through Holland Park in Notting Hill.  The beauty and design of English parks could move me to tears!  Letizia spent much of the time being antagonized by squirrels, and I spent it oogling over babies in snowsuits. 

That afternoon we met up with Lauren for high tea at the Connaught, a five-star hotel not far from Hyde Park. 

The service was impeccable, with waiters filling teacups for us and bringing additional tea sandwiches to choose from.  There was even a harpist!

Prayers of the faithful

Unfortunately, Letizia had to bid us cheerio right after tea to head back to Paris.  Sad to see her go, Lauren and I went shopping at Harrods.  Not that we could afford much of anything!  We meandered (mostly lost) through the various departments, running our hands along luscious furs and picking out our favorite pair of Jimmy Choos, later learning that they even sell pure-bred puppies at the store! 

Next up, we headed back to my apartment complex to join in a Guy Fawkes celebration.  Letizia had noticed a posting about fireworks and a bonfire being hosted in our gardens for residents.  Since that included me this week, Lauren and I headed down and enjoyed incredible fireworks, some of the best and closest we had ever seen! 

The idea of shooting off fireworks in a garden seemed insane to us drought-conscious Californians, but everything was so wet there that it went just fine.  I did read later that the fire department gets called every 50 seconds the weekend of Guy Fawkes, so maybe we just got lucky.  The irony of me being in the U.K. to educate and train Box employees on emergency response and safety yet attending unregulated fireworks and a bonfire was not lost on me.

After about 30 minutes of fireworks, everyone headed over to light the bonfire.  There were lots of children running around with sparklers as men lit fire to the wooden teepee crowned with a Donald Trump effigy (keep in mind this was pre-election).  The fire caught quickly, and soon the crowd surged outwards, abuzz and charged.

Through all of this, Lauren and I just kept wondering, "What the heck is this holiday even about?"  We struck up a conversation with two women standing near us and asked.  One was Irish and had no idea, the other, English, but could barely rationalize it.  What she told us is that Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up parliament a long time ago on November 5, and ever since, the English celebrate Guy Fawkes night.  When we asked her whether they're celebrating the fact that he didn't succeed, or the idea of revolution, she said, "Really I think it's just an excuse to light stuff on fire."  That's exactly what we had figured all along!  I read up on it on Wikipedia, and the point of the celebration is supposed to be that King James I survived the 1605 attempt on his life-although you'd think they wouldn't glamorize the rebel's name over centuries! 

The ladies invited us to the house party they were at (as neither of them lived in that complex), and we accepted.  We enjoyed appetizers from the private chefs that were catering, and chatted with Diane extensively about the housing market in London.  We learned so much from her, such as the fact that access to those gardens probably adds £120,000 to one's property value!

Us with our new friend, Diane

Continuing our locals evening, we went to a pub called The Cow that my host had recommended as a fantastic local spot with above par people watching and unparlled fish stew.  We loved it in there, sitting at a low table in the bar, chatting and watching the world get on around us.  And I'm not sure how to convey just how delicious the stew was!


Soon, the weekend was over and it was time to actually get to work!  I can tell you, work really started to get in the way of my vacation.  More on that up next!

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