For many years Sam has wanted to visit the famous Christmas Markets in Europe. For many years I’ve wanted to at least set foot in the country where just under half my DNA originated (at least after the walk out of Africa where almost everyone’s originated). Dad’s half I connected with in Bavaria in 2016, but England eluded me for a long time. Predominately because there didn’t seem to be any other reason to go. Not to say there’s nothing to do in the country or that it’s not nice, but it’s pricey and (other than expanding to the outer reaches of the empire) there’s not as much natural wonder to observe as there is at our other goal destinations.
And then COVID happened and the thought of getting on a 12 hour flight, a tiring experience previously, became a life-altering potentially disabling nightmare. And no, going now doesn’t mean that that fear has abated. If anything, it’s worse, as there’s no mask mandate anywhere of any kind. However, that also means there’s no chance of getting stuck somewhere if we contracted the virus. This was a wall that previously prevented international travel because we can’t afford to be quarantined and not able to work in some foreign country. At least now we could do every last thing to protect ourselves and then hope, and if that still doesn’t work we won’t be trapped.
So what does “protect” mean, exactly? Well, nothing any different than how we have protected ourselves at home for the last three years, but this time taking the show on the road. That means masks everywhere other people are, not allowing maids in the hotel room, eating outside, and lots of open windows. We’ve taken shorter flights to empty places, but I did not realize how difficult this would be on long flights to crowded places. In fact, the reason we decided it was okay to go to Europe now was because we’d be mostly outside eating at the Christmas Markets during the “off season” (especially in Paris which should see a lull now with folks focusing on visiting six months later for the summer Olympics).
It turned out the markets (and outdoor spaces in general) were elbow to elbow most of the time. London in particular was, for me, an uncomfortable amount of hustle and bustle on the streets. Nearly everywhere we went it felt like the struggle to get out of an arena after a concert. So the masks went on and stayed on. We’d also timed our boosters to have maximum effectiveness for this trip by getting them about three weeks prior.
“Okay, so did you NOT eat at the markets if they were packed, then?”
Yes and no. We would buy our food and shuffle off to a quiet corner. In London this meant eating Thai take-out in an alleyway one night when we exhausted other options (sometimes markets wouldn’t have any food). My allergies also came into play, since bread is a no-go, eliminating a lot of food options (especially in the baguette and crepe capital of the world) right away.
That was the only memorable crappier eating experience, cramming food in a dark alley in the cold at the end of a long day. Every other time we found more palatable options (I just need 10,000 more puns like that and then I’ll be able to write a best-seller like Dave Grohl!!!).
I should also note that I rearranged my COVID masking strategy for the trip. I consulted with CDC data and others to make sure new masks were rated for effectiveness and manufactured by approved companies (not just random masks off of Amazon that – like everything else on Amazon – are often mislabeled). For Ubers, airports, and planes I wore the more effective duckbill N95s (changing out after a few hours if needed) and for everything else I wore KN95s (because they’re easier to take on and off than N95s). Back in Los Angeles I’d been wearing a cloth covering from my employer until I read how much better KN94s were (and my mother-in-law left a bunch at our house in January). However, what I didn’t know and found out the hard way was how difficult it is to wear KN95s in the cold for long periods. If I had it to do over again I’d wear a “permanent” mask like a Flomask or at least a KN95 with an exhalation valve since the build up of moisture creates a nasal drip and is just generally pretty uncomfortable. Even if I did know that ahead of time it probably wouldn’t have changed my strategy since I had thought we’d NOT be wearing masks outside.
“But you went to Ohio and Wyoming since 2020, did you not mask there?“
No, we did, but neither of those trips were to COLD places or crowded (mostly) spaces. Thus, the masking experience was not pleasant on the plane (it never is) but completely different “in the wild” since we could remove the masks and get outdoor air before moisture could build up or irritate the nasal passages.
“Okay, so the masks were irritating you, then why didn’t you grow a pair and just stop masking already, sounds like it was doing more harm than good…“
Well we traveled on crowded planes and subways for 16 days around people that were coughing and sneezing and miserable with something while wastewater reporting shows a surge in the new variant JN1 and didn’t (as far as we know) get covid so… there’s that.
I wrote a whole giant treatise on our COVID approach that you can find elsewhere on this blog, so I won’t reiterate any of that here. I just wanted to be absolutely clear that no, just because we went on a big trip doesn’t mean we turned into hypocrites and “forgot” about the precautions we ask everyone that travels TO us to agree with.
So what did we end up doing?
We landed at Heathrow on a Saturday afternoon and took the train into London. London’s train network is the best we’ve experienced for one reason. It’s not the layout (average), or the train quality (average), or the people (British politeness would put that at slightly above average), but the way you pay. We already had Visa cards with no foreign transaction fees and Sam discovered that getting about in London only required a tap of the card. No buying of a metro card. No downloading an app. No buying a ticket at a booth or a machine. Just tap the credit card you have when entering and exiting and they do the rest. WHY don’t more cities do this? Conversely, Paris had the worst metro payment system we’ve ever come across, which was shocking considering they are hosting the Olympics soon. I’ll leave the details about that for the Paris post. Since we did so much on this trip I’m going to split it up into three parts chronologically. So this will just be our London experience, then separate blog posts for Brussels and Paris.
When we checked into the hotel it was already past 4pm. We were originally gonna hightail it to Saturday Spitalfields Market which specializes in fashion, but it closes at 5. And we were really tired. This was the first international flight since Thailand in 2019. We were hungry so we decided to check out nearby Covent Gardens and Seven Dials Market. The streets around Covent Gardens were so packed that at several spots you couldn’t move without shoving people out of your way. You had to fight your way through the crowd like an 18 year old trying to get to the front of the stage to see Rage Against the Machine at Woodstock 99. Oh wait, I guess I’m the only one in the room that knows what that’s like…but it’s similar to all the outdoor concerts you’ve seen or been to, human bodies smashed up against each other with no clear direction (or ability) of movement. Keep in mind we hadn’t eaten in a long time and we’d been awake for two days, so it took a bit more gumption to get out of there than normal, and…so is apparently more like Woodstock 99 than I realized ;P
But we did get out eventually and found a walkable street a few blocks away with an outdoor (and empty) picnic table and several restaurants. We decided on Sushi Dog (in Seven Dials) because there wasn’t a line, I could eat everything, and it would be easy to eat as a take-away. I hadn’t expected to eat sushi in England, but there we were, and it wouldn’t be the last time. We often eat poke back at home, btw, for anyone in the Midwest thinking this food is weird. (and we’re looking forward to getting great poke in Hawaii in February!)
Back at the hotel I did the math and we’d been up for 28 hours. Definitely not as bad as the Thailand flights (nothing direct from U.S. for many years now) which require about 48 hours, but still tiring. And the 8 miles of walking didn’t hurt. No wait, they did! (only 9,998 more bad jokes and then I get the same book deal that Dave Grohl got, right?!). The hurt was actually just starting. Both of us had different jetlag adjustment experiences than we used to.
For me that meant a brain shattering migraine at 2am until I took enough Advil to fall back asleep until 10 in the morning. Previously on trips like this all I needed to do was just collapse and then sleep for a long time and I’d be all good. Apparently I’m gonna get headaches (it happened after getting home too, but more about that later) until my body adjusts from now on.
We started our time in London by walking in the direction of the British Museum, finding take-away at Chicken Hub in Holborn on the way. When we got to the British Museum we found a line going around the block, I guess everyone else had the same rainy day Sunday idea. We kept walking down to Regent Street instead, but it wasn’t that amazing in the daytime because most of the Christmas decorations are LED lights. We walked over to Selfridges to do some of the shopping. Sam for purses (although determined to make the final purchase in Paris) and watches for me.
From the shops we walked down to Hyde park to experience their famous Christmas Market, but discovered the tickets were already sold out. So we walked down through the park to Buckingham Palace and later to the river to see Big Ben and Westminster Abbey.
I want to stop here and say I was genuinely surprised how much outdoor seating (although not often used by locals in the winter) there is in London compared to Los Angeles. Especially considering the drastic differences in precipitation and climate. This may be partially due to the zoning restrictions in London. Most (non “fancy dining”) restaurants are in small leased spaces, so there is a necessity to create extra seating outside for more customers and cater to take-away business. Or maybe all these outdoor tables happened during COVID like in Los Angeles, I’m not sure.
After finding Big Ben we made a left turn and walked along the riverbank until we were facing the London Eye. At that point we gave up and walked back to the hotel, covering nearly 11 miles on foot in one day.
We walked a different direction on Monday, up the street to St. Paul’s and I took the first opportunity of the trip to test out my new daylight long-exposure set-up while Sam looked around in the gift shop.
We ate a curry brunch (pretty good!) at K10 in the adjacent Queens Head Passage which, again, had lots of outdoor seating. We then walked down towards the river, taking a nice bathroom break at the fancy Westin lobby, and then walked along the river (which is actually called “queen’s walk”…maybe?).
Our goal was the sky garden, but much like Hyde Park we were refused entry again for not having advanced tickets.
I was trying a more relaxed approach this trip by not buying attraction tickets ahead of time. It didn’t work out half the time. But the other half the time it did and we found advanced timed tickets weren’t really needed for lots of things on a weekday in December.
As the sun was setting we walked along the outside of London Tower up to the bridge. I don’t need to provide hyperlinks to those two things, I hope.
At that point we were hungry again so we took an old fashioned double decker to Trafalgar Square Christmas Market for sausages.
We would have had mulled wine too but they had a strict “you must drink your wine in this tiny rectangular roped off area that’s crowded so you’ll catch a respiratory disease in time to share with your family for Christmas!” rule so…no.
Bellies full we ambled down toward the river again (seeing a theme here) and got gelato at Amorino, which compared to gelato shops in LA and Rome was … not the best. It’s sort of like the McDonalds of Gelato. It wasn’t bad, either, except for the service. I guess we’re spoiled by the proliferation of “hipster” ice cream and gelato shops in LA. Uli’s alone is world class, but then there’s Pazzogelato, Wanderlust, Fatamorgana, and scores of others that offer weird and exciting flavors and attendants that will answer basic questions about ingredients. Amorino is NOT that. At Amorino you scan a QR code to figure out ingredients and flavors (which are mostly just different combinations of vanilla, chocolate, and caramel anyway) and then enter your order at a computer screen and wait for an attendant to fulfill it. That attendant is apparently oblivious to the business they work in and not required to employ anything resembling “service” to customers. Kind of a bizarre experience at a gelato shop, but on the other hand they didn’t turn the payment tablet around and expect a 30% tip for scooping ice cream (like in Los Angeles), so maybe that’s a fair trade?
After finishing gelato we walked across Golden Jubilee Bridge so we could take a Thames riverboat tour.
But, it turns out all the boats close up shop at sunset, even though there’s a big buzzy theatre space with people, galleries, restaurants, and concert halls right there at Festival Pier. So we kept walking and found mulled wine and cider at a pop-up next to the Southbank Skate Space.
Sadly, I realized after consumption that, much like in French sauces, cooking wine will dilute the alcohol potency. Also why (other than Trafalgar square) nobody stopped us from walking around with hot wine and cider anywhere on the whole trip. On a positive note, that dilution also seems to alleviate the sulfites or tannins or whatever it is that usually give both of us a next-day headache from red wine. And hot drinks taste better in the cold.
On Tuesday we tried the British Museum again and got in easily even though it was also raining this day. We plodded around the stolen antiquities (as I get older and wiser I’m starting to find less enjoyment in these kinds of places just like I can no longer enjoy animal prisons called “zoos”) for three hours before taking a bus to Borough Market to meet Sam’s cousin. I’d actually met him before on our first trip to Thailand (2011) together when I broke my toe and we went to their house to bandage it up.
Borough Market is a bustling food market under a large train station by Tower Bridge. We went to what is probably the most famous food stall there, Bomba Paella, even though Sam’s cousin had recommended the mushroom risotto. We were very hungry and at first couldn’t find the risotto so we just went with what was right in front of us and looked good. After paying for our paella the guy at Bomba said “don’t forget to take off your mask before you eat it” and laughed. This was the only direct mention of masking we experienced on the entire trip. From a guy that just took our money. Dude, if you want to make fun of your customers then go work at Dick’s in Myrtle Beach. You have to keep track of more than one menu item there while burping out brain farts, though, so maybe you’re not qualified, I dunno…
The paella was just okay. A little dry. A little bland. It’s hyped up on social media as THE place to eat at Borough and it didn’t live up. It’s fine. Just, if you’ve gone to New Orleans, gone to the Caribbean, and so on it won’t light your world on fire.
On the way to find open outdoor eating tables we found the risotto stand that had eluded us before. The reason being that it’s actually outside the complex facing the alleyway that divides two parts of the market. After eating the underwhelming paella I just wasn’t satisfied and couldn’t leave without trying the risotto. When I got back to the Wild Mushroom Risotto booth the guy said “you have to try it” and insisted a few times, offering a sample, even though I didn’t need to. There was no line and I couldn’t believe they struggled to sell this stuff. The smell alone would put you in a good mood. I was ready to order the first time I laid eyes on it. Mushroom risotto with black truffle oil and melted parmesan, come on! I am wishing now I’d taken a photo of the smokey giant mushroom pans in the dimmer lights of the alleyway to set the scene. But I was too excited and hungry (and the Market was closing in ten minutes too!) to think straight.
Okay, I admit I’m biased here because I’ve been on a mushroom kick the last few years, adding it to my dinner at home, and often ordering mushroom risotto if a restaurant has it. This started long ago because I struggled with dry dishes because of my EoE (unbeknownst to me -although my mother suggested it years earlier- until diagnosis in 2018). Risotto is small, soft, buttery. Effortless for someone like me to eat and although it seems like pasta and is served at Italian restaurants it’s made of rice which has none of the wheat that upsets the EoE. So, yeah, I was already sold on the risotto the minute Sam’s cousin mentioned it. But paella is ALSO rice so I gave that a try.
Best meal in London would turn out to be that Wild Mushroom truffle risotto. If you’re around Tower Bridge before 5, head on over and get that. Sam loves truffle flavor already, so she quipped that she’d try to make it for me when we got home. [insert Caddyshack “well? we’re waiting!” meme here]
I then tested Sam and her cousin’s kindness/patience by making them endure my long exposure photography fixation as we proceeded across the Tower Bridge inch by inch. (After walking along the Christmas Market before it)
You see before the trip I’d bought a manual shutter button extension so I could set up a tripod and just let the dang thing go for five minutes if I wanted. I also have two different ND filters to cut down on the light (more useful during the day for this type of thing). I’d say the results were mixed. Often when I’d do a multiple minutes exposure in places with crowds the people didn’t disappear, they just turned into a big dark cloud. I haven’t decided if this makes for better or worse photos than shorter exposures where folks are clearly visible. You tell me?
Oh, and it was raining too, so the lens kept getting blurred up during the exposures. I tossed most of these.
We returned to covent garden market, assuming correctly that on a Wednesday morning there would be less people than on a Saturday night.
Then we went to Mother Mash to experience classic british bangers and mash. It was good, but not amazing. It seemed like something every German or British immigrant descendant mother makes for her kids in the Midwest. Sausages and gravy with mashed potatoes is not special cuisine for someone raised in Appalachia, but it wasn’t bad.
Full of carbs we were then off to walk the cold pitch of Kensington Park and hit up the restroom at Kensington Palace just before they closed for the day.
Outside of the palace we took the underground to the Shard. We’d actually walked right by the shard observation entrance the night before and there was no line, so I was hopeful. And we made it up, but with a big caveat. I did my research before going and confidently bought the ticket and proceeded through security. then they took my tripod. Not just warned me to put it away like at other places. They confiscated it and gave me a ticket to get it back on the way out.
Funny thing is, tripods, selfie sticks, and drones are very specific devices that are often (but not always) banned in public places and those restrictions are almost always spelled out online. The “security restrictions” section of their website says drones are specifically banned even “within the vicinity of The Shard,” but there is no mention of tripods or selfie-sticks at all. Tripods are something that’s been around since the beginning of photography and selfie-sticks have been a public nuisance for more than a decade. Cheap drones have only become popular recently. They also specifically ban e-scooters, e-bikes, and “hoverboards.”
Here’s the only language on the site that could be construed to include tripods in a stretch: “Firearms, ammunition, bladed articles, explosives or fireworks, hazardous liquids or chemicals or anything else that could cause harm to someone.”
So am I to believe that my tripod “could cause harm to someone?”
So… I was not happy this was revealed AFTER buying a ticket. We went up and discovered that the design of the observation area is quite poor for picture taking anyway. Later I’d look at google reviews of the shard and discover that even during the day folks couldn’t avoid getting indoor lights and other reflections in their photographs. The reason is that the windows have two panes that are separated from each other and at weird angles. Those cool “shard” shapes you see on the top of the building are created by oddly spaced steel support beams that sort of crumple in on each other, creating a very cramped strange space inside that’s wider at your feet than at eye level.
During the holidays this is made even more cramped by the addition Christmas trees right in front of the windows. And then they put tables and chairs in front of all the windows too. As a result, I’m not sure if I could have gotten any good night photos up there even if they had allowed me to take my tripod. But I tried anyway, looking like an embarrassing weirdo crumpled up on the floor with a plumber’s cleavage trying to manipulate by backpack into a tripod proxy and my hat as a glass reflection damper.
This was a losing battle (though because I have a fancy camera with very high ISO I’m able to trick it into getting some okay cropped and heavily edited short-exposures) so we tried going up to the outdoor observation deck only to find that the outdoor bit shakes in the breeze like a leaf and the artificial turf takes on water in the rain, and that crumply design really closes in on you the higher you get, limiting photography vantage points even more than one storey below.
We were splashing through little puddles on the top of a building getting blown over by the wind. A strange experience, but not a good one for photography…or even having a pleasant evening.
After that we just wanted to do something else so we tried to get to piccadilly street. Google maps said to go to London Bridge Station and take the train at “platform 3.” So we followed the signs for “platform 3” and took the train… to another part of town. We quickly realized we were heading in the wrong direction, got off at the next stop, went back around to London Bridge and saw that there are multiple “platform 3s” for different types of transportation and we’d not got to the Underground platforms last time. I’ll take the blame there, since I saw “platform 3” and led us to our temporary doom.
Finally at piccadilly we were hungry again and this is where that one alley-way Thai take out occurred. After which we took photos of the visiting angels on piccadilly and regent street.
This was our last full day in London so it was time to check off any “must do’s.” First on the list was Hobson’s Fish and Chips as we didn’t want to leave the UK without having that famous and ubiquitous British cuisine.
I’d been dreading it a bit because I knew how I’d feel after having the wheat flour in the fish batter. This is where I note that I have two sets of allergies: ones that will land me in the emergency room, and ones that will make me very uncomfortable for a few hours. Wheat is the latter, so I will on occasion splurge on things like fried chicken that I know I’ll regret later. I also know it’s making the scar tissue in my throat worse…so I have minimized, but not completely eliminated, wheat flour from my diet.
However, we were very pleasantly surprised to find that Hobson’s has a rice based batter option. I ordered that and Sam ordered the regular. Honestly we both agreed after the meal that the rice based batter came out better because it was finer textured and didn’t result in the big hard fried lumps you often get with wheat batter. I do realize that crunching on those lumps for some folks is a feature, not a bug. The onion rings were also available in rice batter so of course we ordered those too. The rings were nearly perfect, 100% would order again, but the chips (French fries to you Yanks) were not at all. Worst on the trip. (especially considering we had our best fries of all time in Belgium, but more on that later) I’ll just be kind and say we did not finish our order of chips, but don’t let that stop you from visiting Hobson’s! The coleslaw was a tad underwhelming and dry. But the fish (and the rings) was great, the better or maybe best fried fish we’ve had anywhere. They don’t fry up a weird square frozen fish chunk, they fry up (half) the whole dang fish they bought that morning from Billingsgate, as it should be! However, they’re a bit stingy with the tartar sauce, which I never understand, but there’s nothing to be done about it, just ration out what you’d got. Perhaps they know their customers don’t need tartar to cover up the fish because the fish is actually pretty good? (oh, and this was all at their outdoor seating) So, yes, would recommend. If I’m in London again I’m going here and the truffle mushroom risotto place.
And there’s something I didn’t mention. On the way there we stopped at Forbidden Planet, which Sam rightly thought I’d enjoy, although it was smaller than I anticipated. However, just down the street we accidentally found something I liked much better: Denmark Street. A whole row of old multi-storey shops filled with rare and weird guitars. Stuff I’d never seen in Los Angeles. Not the super expensive $20,000 1960s Les Pauls that Guitar Center in Hollywood has up on the walls in spotlights. We’re talking about sub $1,000 forgotten guitar brands with strange names or peculiar handmade shapes like the Dean Busch Beer guitar or the Batman Custom. If this shop was in LA I would have bought one or two, but thinking about the cost of shipping made these quirky axes not worth it.
Sam wasn’t TOTALLY bored while I was in the guitar shops, because she found…whatever this thing in her Instagram reel below is. And there was also a TK Maxx (yes, I spelled the right…they changed one letter for the British version) on the corner.
After Hobsons we walked in the ever-present London gloom to Big Ben and Westminster again to see it in the so-called daylight (more day, less light).
This was en route to my request: Battersea Park.
Once a power plant that graced the cover of one of the best albums ever made, the station is now a swank mall surrounded by new condos and business offices. The ultimate gentrification project would have gotten more photo attention except that I only got one shot off before a security guard let me know that tripods were not allowed anywhere on the grounds. It was already dark so handheld shooting was going to be a challenge.
We walked around the interior for a bit and then the exterior for a while and found a place with lots of eateries and outdoor seating, but noticed there was a Dishoom on the other side of the complex. My bosses bosses boss at work had personally recommended Dishoom so I was determined to at least look into it, and here was my opportunity. Except when we got there we found tons of outdoor seating that they refused to seat us at. And then they refused to let us order for take-away “because it’s after five” (it was like 5:03). This was some frustrating nonsense so we just got back on the transit to Trafalgar to eat more sausages instead.
Friday we went to the train station early because Sam wanted to visit the Harry Potter spot, which actually has a line and a gift store and everything. Our train was leaving at 1pm and since Brexit you have to go through international security and immigration to travel over the English channel.
Days later those same chunnel EuroStar trains would be cancelled because of rail strikes and then a few days later cancelled yet again because of a water leak in the chunnel. It was a bit eerie reading these articles TWICE with folks stuck in the same terminal we’d been in just days earlier. In retrospect we were lucky to make it to Brussels, which is where we’ll pick this story up in another blog post!