Living in London
Our first stay in the city was in the North End. Our ward for the week was an obese black cat named Princess Diana. I had responded to the ad titled “Loveliest Cat in the World” and met Charlie who supplied us with his artistic semi-detached home in exchange for making sure Diana was fed properly and in line with her new vet-enforced diet.
Our first outing was probably in line with the itinerary of all new-arrivals to the city. Big Ben. Buckingham Palace. Westminster Abbey. London was living up to its reputation for being one of the most expensive cities in the world. The best way to measure this in any city is the cost of a pint. The cheapest city therefore is Prague, where a liter of lip-smacking lager is 50 krona, comparable to two U.S. dollars. London? Try five to six pounds, or eight to nine dollars.
I didn’t get the best reviews from other travelers on London. Words like “overpopulation” and “smelly tube” had created a vision of a bleak subterranean world. I was happy to have my vision amended within my first few days exploring the bustling Trafalgar Square and heading down cheerful theater streets like Shaftesbury Avenue.
It was when Charlie returned and Corey and I resorted to a cheap Airbnb in London’s East End that I fell of my tourist’s pedestal and into an area reminiscent of a BBC crime drama. But I was keen to explore our flea bitten neighborhood, and gave this as an excuse to Corey so we could go to the local pub where two pints didn’t cost the whole day’s budget. Not like in Canary Wharf, where we’d gone expecting an urban waterfront and instead found financial offices and skyscrapers — as well as the after-work crowd partying in franchise bars.
We stuck out among the Callahan’s Pub regulars. A handful of boys who looked no older than seventeen played pool in the corner, and the bar was lined with older men who ordered shots along with their ales. I went up after our first round to order another along with a basket of fries. The matronly woman behind the counter shouted at her husband, “Kitchen still open, Roger?”
Roger came out from the back and agreed to make one last batch of chips. “Only 'cuz your so pretty, love.”
After a few days in the East End we headed for another house sit in a young couple’s newly purchased flat. This was again on the North side of the city, but still miles away from anywhere else we’d been. It was hard to wrap my mind around how huge the city actually was. How fifty minutes on the tube was a standard commute. I thought of the Thames like glue, or a filling, sticking large halves into a whole.
We were greeted by a new cat, Sushi, and her owners — for the first time in a while finding ourselves in the company of people near our own age. Though the couple was due to fly out to Greece the next day, they still split several bottles of wine with us. If I’ve found any stereotypes to be true on this trip, it’s that Brits can drink Americans under the table.
Now, a confession. Finding ourselves in the comfort of a home for the next foreseeable period of time (10 days) combined with a hefty amount of work that had been piling up, Corey and I hardly left the house for the next three days.
I was able to finish up several freelance projects, and I can tell you that we did some nice things like read and play chess as well, but we mainly watched an unhealthy amount of Netflix. I can tell you one thing: Great British Bake Off is at it’s greatest when you can watch it in Britain (and find Victoria Sponge at the Tesco).
We enjoyed our hideout but also got back in the rhythm of some sightseeing. When the weekend came, we spend the better part of a day seeking out halloumi fries at the Camden Market. We searched for the meaning of modern art at the Tate Museum, and I still can’t say I know the answer, but sitting in a room full of Rothko's is indeed mesmerizing.
Our grand finale of our stay was going to the Warner Bros. studio tour and seeing all the Harry Potter sets and props. The tour begins by playing a video where the screen then pulls up like a curtain and reveals entrance to Hogwarts and the Great Hall set. The best way to describe it is an out of body experience where I remembered reading the sorting hat scene for the first time and going to see the first movie with my Dad when I was nine.
Corey’s interest was less obsessive than mine, but he still was in awe at walking onto the set of Diagon Alley and seeing a model of Hogwarts that spanned a room the size of a movie theater.
With our next house sit already planned in Brighton for a total of seven days, I’m hit with the odd experience of having our trip planned in total. Although I should feel a burden lifted, I feel more unprepared than ever to return to normal life.
But I suppose "normal" is relative.