Hello London, Mark’s Old Friend(s)

Mark has always had a love affair with London. He studied abroad there in college, went back a few times to visit friends, attended a wedding, and went for a work trip last year. While planning, I had to implore him to spend less than a week in London. I visited when I was young on a family trip and it was fine, but I wanted to spend more time in parts of Europe that I haven’t seen yet. We settled on six days, one of the longer stints of our journey. London was going to be one of the more intense visits because we had people to see and things to do and not very much time to do it. While traveling together has been absolutely amazing, I was also excited to have a familiar English conversation with another human besides Mark.

First and foremost, a big thank you to our friend Maxim, a British camp friend (BCF) who saved the day and let us stay with him in London. Thank you Maxim! We stayed in the quiet neighborhood of Edgware, at the far end of the Northern Line. While the Tube ride seemed a little long at first, we grew accustomed to it by the time we left and really fell in love with our mini neighborhood. Our flight arrived without issue (no climate protesters this time) and we skipped out on evening pub hopping and opted for a nice Italian dinner in Edgware instead. Apparently Mark looks Italian too because the nice waitress spoke Italian to him twice. She looked positively mortified when he responded with, “Um … I’ll have the eggplant parm … please?”

Our first day, Maxim joined us as we headed out to Borough Market to meet our American friends. Blake and Andrea, Paul, and Jeff (SF friends) have been planning this trip to London ever since we told them we were traveling the world. I would say it’s our handsome looks and sharp wit that lured them along, but in reality it was the Arsenal match (more on that later). As we would do many times over on this trip, we met at a local pub. Words cannot express how thrilling it is to see old friends and be welcomed back with open arms. A few beers later and we were off on what would end up being a Free London Tour by Maxim. Sunshine, alcohol, and good friends will convince you to do anything, including walking for miles along the Thames.

You did not misread that last sentence, we were blessed with sunshine in London! Just like San Francisco, everyone we met told us “we were in for a treat,” “this weather is amazing,” “it’s so nice out you have no idea,” so perfect timing us! We saw a lot on this walking tour so here are some highlights:

  • Maxim’s high school (fun fact: he went to high school with Harry Potter a.k.a. Daniel Radcliffe!)
  • Shakespeare’s Globe Theater (you can see a play for only £5 if you don’t mind standing)
  • Blackfriar’s Pub
  • The Tate Modern
  • The National Theater
  • The Eye (presented to you by Coca-Cola)
  • Buildings with funny names (the Walkie Talkie, the Shard, the Gherkin)
  • Big Ben, Parliament and Westminster Abbey (complete with climate change protesters, Extinction Rebellion)
  • Leicester Square
  • Chinatown

Whew that was a lot, and yes, that was one afternoon. A much deserved dinner was at another pub, Anchors and Hope, near the Waterloo Station. The food was delicious and the ambiance was quite upscale for a place that advertises as a “pub.” The bottom of the menu read, “please be aware that all game dishes may contain shot,” so there you go.

Sunday was the day for worship and worship we did, at the House of Emeritas. When Mark moved to San Francisco, the first thing he did was find the local Arsenal bar. There, he met the SF kids and we’ve all been friends ever since. For the American audience, Arsenal is an English soccer team based in London (Emirates is the name of their stadium). The match wasn’t until the afternoon so Mark and I spent the morning visiting another BCF. Harry, his beautiful wife Roya, and their adorable 11-month old dictator baby boy live across from a stunning park in an area known as Primrose Hill, nestled between Chalk Farm and Camden Town (everything sounds so British and I absolutely love it). Picture any Hugh Grant rom-com where he strolls in a park with his lover-to-be and that’s the park we walked through. We saw the skyline view atop Primrose Hill and walked around Regency Park as well, both absolutely stunning. Harry is the reason Mark and I were able to attend the Arsenal game so another big round of applause for Harry and his dad (thanks Vic)!

We then met up with our visiting SF friends ahead of the match at an Arsenal pub nearby the stadium, Twelve Pins. The sun was shining, ManU was losing 4-0 to Everton at Goodison Park, all was right in the world as we enjoyed a couple of drinks looking forward to the match. An hour before kickoff we set off for the Emirates. We had our Fever Pitch moment walking amongst a sea of red and white through the North London neighborhood. 15 minutes before kickoff we gathered outside a growing circle of fans (all younger than us) chanting and singing songs. We left our SF friends to join Harry in our seats. The pitch looked beautiful, and Mark was feeling good being a perfect 2 wins and 0 losses in-person here.

Victory Through Harmony, Arsenal’s motto.

Fast forward two hours later, and Arsenal lost the match 2-3. Playing host to mid-table Crystal Palace, they absolutely wasted a gifted opportunity to solidify a Top Four position. Poor decision making, some unhelpful calls from the referee, and the painfully unfortunate reality that Shkodran Mustafi plays for Arsenal despite being absolutely incapable of defending, led to a less than stellar match. We left slightly dejected, but the team’s limp effort wasn’t going to ruin this day for anyone. The club is literally responsibly for bringing all of us together, so there’s much to be thankful for.

Sunday night was a special dinner because we got to eat with [almost] everybody, Brits and Americans alike. If you ever find yourself in Hampstead, eat at Paradise Indian on S End Rd, it’s really good. The owner was impeccably polite, greatly enjoyed his American patrons and even treated us to drinks. He even passed around a “mystery” drink for us to try and yes, mom and dad, we all drank the kool-aid. I of course, tasted nothing but it ended up being a salted caramel tequila! It was great to see two sets of friends from two sides of the Atlantic have a genuinely good time together. After dinner we headed to King’s Cross to visit a bar “perfect for one drink” (thanks Adam!). The Booking Office is an absolutely stunning bar that is partially in the station. Inside is a mix of a gothic-train-station aesthetic mixed with an Ivy-League-library-at-night vibe. The most exciting part was geeking over Harry Potter while drinking fancy cocktails. If you spend any time in London, you won’t get very far before you see/hear/read a reference to the fantastic wizard series. If you want to fit in, go to the Pottermore website and see what house you’re in, you might be surprised. Since the bar was partially attached to the King’s Cross station, we made a visit to Platform 9 3/4! They remove the cart at night so it wasn’t a complete installation, but it was still cool too see.

Our SF friends left Monday and our British friends had jobs (what’s that?) so we were on our own. I love Tudor England, death, murder, dungeons and history so obviously we went to the Tower of London! Upon arrival we witnessed cannons being shot over the Thames. They lasted longer than expected and were quite loud so I asked the woman selling tickets if she had to suffer through this every day. Nope, just today for the Queen’s birthday. Happy birthday Queen Elizabeth! We sadly had to decline the invitation to her birthday party because we were scheduled to attend a tour of the Tower by the world-famous yeoman guard.

The Tower of London, A UNESCO World Heritage Site

The tour is included in the ticket and meets about every 30 minutes so it was a grab bag in terms of who would be our guide. We won the lottery because our guide was spectacular! He was hilarious, intelligent, informative, and passionate. Yeomans, also known as Beefeaters, are retired from the armed services and must meet a list of requirements in order to qualify for the position. We learned about The Princes in the Tower (scary bedtime story), daring prisoner escapes, famous executions and last words, and medieval architecture.

Our Yeoman was honestly hysterical. And not a big fan of the French.

That night we had dinner with Mark’s cousins, a trio of fascinating women. When Mark was about to leave for London the first time for his semester abroad, his dad said to him, “You know you have cousins in London? You should get in touch,” to which he replied, “I’ve definitely never heard about this until now.” Fast forward 12 years later, and Mark has gotten together with his British family just about every time he’s visited. We were tired from everything London had thrown at us, but dinner was really nice. The conversation was flowing and before anyone knew it, it was time to call it a night as some people had work the next day (not us!). Mark’s parents are headed to London next month for a few days before we link up with them in Greece. They’ll be seeing each other for the first time in over 40 years!

Mark’s cousins Marion, Melinda and Laura

While we wanted to visit all of the art museums, we just didn’t have the time, so we picked the Tate Modern. You have to pay for the special exhibitions but most of the museum is completely free! It’s a beautiful museum, provides viewers with a lot of context, and we saw some great installations. My favorite was a piece by an Argentinian artist, Judi Werthein. She created a shoe, gave some away to immigrants crossing the U.S./Mexico border, and sold some in the U.S. for $200+ dollars (profits were donated to a local Tijuana charity). The shoes have elements from the Mexican flag, a pocket to hide money, a map of the border region, a compass, and a mini flashlight. The installation featured the shoes, hate mail from people against the project, and news footage of the launch of the shoes. It was compelling, thought provoking, and just plain cool.

Our last day was another long day, starting with an early breakfast with our friend Adam. We met Adam near his office at Camden Market, right above a magical eatery called Cereal Killer Cafe. Inside was a wonderful trip back into our childhood complete with our favorite cereals, tv shows, and memorabilia. I was skeptical at first but the cereal and pop tarts were actually really good. Mark and I played a classic wrestling arcade game before we headed off to the our second stop before the play, the James Bond museum! The Bond in Motion curation is the largest official collection of original James Bond vehicles. At one time a temporary exhibit due to close in March of 2015, it was so successful that it stayed open indefinitely. They do a great job of showing film clips and behind-the-scenes footage on the walls behind the vehicles themselves. We also found ourselves mesmerized by a documentary about the highs and lows of making the earlier films (must add Everything or Nothing to our Hulu watchlist once we get home).

Finally, the time rolled around for us to head towards the Palace Theater for The Cursed Child, a.k.a. the Harry Potter play! I read the screenplay when it first came out and greatly disliked it, but was blown away by the play. I won’t go into a lot of details because #keepthesecrets, but the production was impeccable and the acting was excellent. Even if you aren’t a Harry Potter fan, I highly recommend seeing this play when it travels. Between shows (there are two), just around the corner we visited the House of MinaLima, a graphic design studio responsible for all of the art in the Harry Potter/Fantastic Beast film series. Besides working on the Potter series, the duo also produce designs and illustrations for the entertainment and publishing industries. Their gallery has beautiful prints and I had to restrain myself from spending the rest of my meager earnings on shipping some prints home.

London was amazing. Absolutely amazing. From pub crawls, to late night busking shows, to experiencing the arts, London was an incredible time. My parents have always instilled in me to surround myself with good people. The whole time in London I was constantly smiling, evident of the fact that I was with good people. Everyone we met up with has a good heart, a good head on their shoulders, they are kind, and are great friends. I take back what I said three months ago, I would love to spend more than a week in London. Guaranteed, I’m coming back.

Mark’s reaction having read Isabel’s blog post:

3 thoughts on “Hello London, Mark’s Old Friend(s)

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