2015 has undoubtedly become the year of travel.
Between weeks in Alaska and Phoenix, an anniversary in New Orleans, and 10 weddings in between, we’ve had the fortune of spreading our wings and taking on all sorts of new and favored destinations all throughout the United States.
But of all of the journeys we have embarked upon, none can compare to the wonderment of our most recent travels to London and Belgium.
Why London and Belgium, you ask?
Because these are the places that hold so much of our identities as human beings. I studied abroad in London in 2006, and Jason spent a year on Rotary Exchange in Belgium in 2004 and 2005. From those places we gained not only life-long friends and a wheelhouse of enduring habits, but also a sense of self. So while this trip may sound exotic and exciting, in many respects, it was about coming home: to relish in the things we missed and show one another the backdrops of our favorite anecdotes and experiences.
Instead of lumping the entire holiday into one unfathomable post, we are splitting them instead into destination, mostly because Belgium covers more surface area while London covers more weight.
London was both our beginning and our end, so it is there where we will begin.
Our travels began on Thanksgiving morning in the Denver International Airport, where we chowed down on onion rings at the only bar in the terminal showing the Thanksgiving Day parade. In Chicago, we took advantage of our United Club Lounge passes to enjoy the complimentary snacks and festive mini pumpkin pies.
Despite our best efforts, we slept for what was maybe only an hour on the flight to London, so we were appropriately wrecked when we landed in Heathrow at 5:00am on Friday. It wouldn’t deter us though—we had officially arrived and would soon hit the ground running!
There was a mild yet acute sense of nostalgia as we purchased our Oyster Cards and boarded the Piccadilly Line train. One W7 bus transfer later, we were in Crouch End on the opposite side of town, where Taghrid and Paul—freshly showered in preparation for their workdays—greeted us with warmth and welcome.
Taghrid [often abbreviated to “Tags” or “T”] is one of those soul mate friends who I still can’t believe loves me. I still remember the first time I ever saw her at the New Student orientation at Goldsmiths University. She was dressed in layers of mismatched yet perfectly put together clothes and rocked ears lobes filled with silver earrings and long, curled auburn hair punctuated by purple and white blond dreads. I remember her because she was by far the coolest person I had ever seen from a distance. All of the popular girls in middle school and all of the sorority girls in college had nothing on the unique and altogether badassness of this person. I distinctly remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow, that girl is way too cool for me.’
Little did I know that I would end up living across the hall from her the remainder of the year and that she would become one of my closest, life-long friends in existence. Our reunions are cherished and sacred, and this one had taken two years too long to come to fruition.
Taken at our last London reunion six years ago
And just like that, we picked up right where we left off in Denver two years ago and began nestling ourselves into her cozy home in London. We finally met her boyfriend Paul, who I felt like I already knew after five years of pictures and girl gossip, and we immediately found a friend in their newest family addition, Lila, who is the most vocal yet most soft-spoken cat we’ve ever met. She immediately claimed Jason as her favorite.
Taghrid and Paul’s flat is an adorable place. Musical instruments adorn ever nook and cranny, tea is always at the ready, and items and scents from all over the world decorate the surfaces. Taghrid is an actor and theater producer, and Paul is a music producer who has converted one of their bedrooms into his private music studio. Name a stringed instrument, and it’s most likely in there. Needless to say, these are our people.
After the urgent unloading gifts of food and requested U.S. goods and some much needed tea and catching up, we let them start their workdays while we took a quick power nap on the couch and floor. [We were so tired, we would have slept on any surface at that point.]
Our first London destination was the most pertinent: New Cross. When most travelers think of London, it’s doubtful that they have ever heard of New Cross. But this neighborhood was priority #1 on our Memory Lane Tour because this is where I lived during my time abroad.
Located in southeast London, this is what I often refer to as real London. It’s changed quite significantly since my time there nine years ago: there’s a TK Maxx around the corner [which would have come in handy back then], the Hobgoblin has transformed into a posh pub, and a lot of the drug-deals-turned-knife-stabbings atmosphere had been rubbed a bit cleaner by the hip college kids and intermingling “suburban” crowd. But all in all, very little had changed.
I pointed out my old E6 flat, peeked into my old classrooms in Deptford Hall, showed him the music section of the library where I used to whittle away all of my nerdy hours, and shared every memory that I could remember as we navigated the alleys, whether it was Casino Royale themed dance at the Student Union or random photo shoots down the alleys on Halloween.
I could write entire essays about my time in this place and the many people that changed me along the way, but it was enough for Jason simply to see it. To imagine me walking through the corridors and drinking my first pint in the pub nearby. [There aren’t any photos from this escapade due to the rain and due to the fact that I had already documented the important parts en masse back in 2006.]
We even took a trip to the local Sainsbury’s grocery store. It sounds silly, but it was one of the top places Jason wanted to go due to one of my often-recurring London tales. The story goes: I went to withdraw money only to find my account depleted at a mere $7 USD (around £5). Any deposit would take almost four days to clear, so I was going to have to make that £5 work for me as long as possible. So I went to Sainsbury’s with Taghrid and John and purchased a box of croissants and a bag of rice for less than £5 to hopefully get me through the next several days. It did, and I survived.
Jason really wanted to purchase the croissants just to commemorate the story but instead opted for several packs of Caramel Digestives, one of my other go-to’s during my time and a frequent air mail gift from Taghrid every Christmas.
Campus memory tour completed, it was time to introduce Jason to the best Indian food on the planet. I was a little nervous, only because there was a huge possibility that I had romanticized everything in my head [memories are funny that way], but as soon as we sat down at Nouvelle Spice and ordered the Tikka Masala, we were immediately transported back in time. It was a little taste of the past, unchanged and undeniably perfect. Admittedly, now that my palette is a bit more honed, I was able to recognize the excess sweetness in the sauce—the extra coconut milk and butter that makes it so memorable and so unlike everything else I’ve ever tasted. Jason was an instant believer.
Next, it was off to Greenwich… if only I could remember how to get there. Thank goodness for all of the well-marked bus maps! We climbed the hill to the Observatory so Jason could stand on either side of the Prime Meridian, then went looking for the Greenwich Market. It was a pleasant surprise to see it all decked out for the holidays and some of my favorite vendors still selling their wares. I have grand memories of Taghrid leading the way here for the first time and us, purchasing matching scarves in the Arabian stall on the corner.
Between the rain and hike, we had basically pushed our endurance level at this point. I’m pretty sure I had the soundest sleep of the previous 36 hours on the tube ride back to Crouch End.
The remainder of the late afternoon was spent drinking tea, accidentally dozing off to our books, snuggling with Lila, and listening through the walls to Paul’s lullaby-themed recording session.
As soon as Taghrid came home from work, we poured the wine and departed for Harringay Arms, a local pub where we could enjoy some solid English beers and one another’s company. Dinner for the evening was to be Turkish food—something we don’t have access to and have never tried. Unfortunately, the delivery service, Deliveroo [more like Deliverboo…], decided to be incompetent that evening, causing an hour delay and countless flustering calls. And even though the food was lukewarm and our hangriness was beginning to show, we ended up shoveling the mounds of kebab, mulger wheat, and pide. We will be the first to admit that we completely forgot to take a picture because it ended up in our stomachs faster than we could process.
Food and friendship tanks full, we went to bed much later and much more satisfied than we could have ever predicted.
It’s probably no surprise, then, that our Saturday began later as well. We took our time waking up and making Aeropress coffee with Paul and didn’t get out the door until about 11:00am. They had a full day of Arabic translations and music editing ahead of them, so we were grateful for the morning together.
Today’s agenda: my favorite walk in the city.
My days in London were often spent walking. My class schedule gave me the afternoons free, so I would often depart for a random tube station in the afternoon and walk around the surrounding neighborhoods until I got lost or found another tube station to get me home for dinner. Following each excursion I would return to my flat and mark out the route I had ended up taking. After four months of this, I swear I had walked the majority of Zone 1.
Of all of the walks I took, there was only one walk that I did repeatedly, and that was the South Bank. It’s what I would define as my “happy place”. I return to it every time I visit and proclaimed it as essential on our Memory Lane Tour.
Our first stop was Borough Market, arrived to by way of walking across the London Bridge. Our entire itinerary was built around being in London on Saturday for Borough Market. I’ve talked this place up to Jason so much in the last seven years, and it was time for him to experience it for himself. I had a few hesitations though, most significantly of which is that Jason hates crowds. I can’t remember him enjoying any market setting, let alone the full capacity crowds that were bound to plague Borough on a Saturday.
But my worries were quickly thwarted. He loved it just as much—if not more—than I could have ever hoped.
We spent the better part of the day meandering through and tasting samples from the infinite amount of stands, where you can get anything from German to Middle Eastern food and even unprepared products in the form of vegetables, meats, cheese, and breads. Our mulled wine was perfectly spiced, our raclette was out of this world, our wild boar sausage was tastier than anything we’ve found in the states, and our Turkish Delight was in a league of its own. I have yet to find any that good anywhere else.
Sufficiently happy, we departed for the remainder of the walk down London’s South Bank, where every corner seemed to hold another surprise.
We had hoped to go inside the Tate Modern and cross the Millenium Bridge to St. Paul’s Cathedral, but we were instantly distracted by the adorable Christmas Market in front of the museum. We tried roasted chestnuts for the first time in our lives and even indulged in a Nutella crepe [Jason thought there was too much Nutella… I thought there wasn’t enough].
We decided to keep on walking the Bank, and I’m so glad we did. We passed the BFI with its book market and festive Christmas stalls, as well as the Wharf, a place introduced to me by my dear friend Bekah, and the amazing skateboard park where I once spent hours just watching the skaters do their tricks. The London Eye is where we concluded and where we deemed this walk—unhindered by cars and stoplights and saturated with all of the same energy it held for me almost a decade ago—a success. Some things truly don’t [and shouldn’t] change.
We then set out for Covent Garden, my favorite Christmas spot in town. It’s such an idyllic place, glistening in giant mistletoe installations hanging from the ceiling and filled with the sounds of classical opera being performed in the corners. On top of the festive atmosphere, it also offers some of the best coffee in town at Monmouth, a Seven Dials establishment and widely heralded locals’ spot.
Finally, we bolted for hoity toity Knightsbridge to grab some of our favorite tea from Harrods. Jason admittedly had no idea what Covent Garden or Harrods were before we went, so I had to apologize profusely after the fact for taking him to all of the overcrowded shopping centers of the city on the first Saturday of the holiday season. But it was worth it just to see the legendary window displays and secure our “across the pond” necessities.
There were many places I longed to take Jason where we simply did not have the time to go. Notting Hill and Portobello Market, a hole-in-the-wall Greek place in Marylebone, the V&A, and walking across the Millennium Bridge to St. Paul’s Cathedral after a visit to the Tate Modern all top the list. But this was not a trip of regrets and it certainly wasn’t a trip of to-do’s. It was about people and a sense of place, so it was more than appropriate that we spent what remaining time we had in London with friends, old and new.
We caught up with Taghrid and Paul for fish and chips and accompanied them to the Barbican for their concert, which opted out of in favor of a nap in the Martini Bar and a pint and sticky toffee pudding at the Jugged Hare pub nearby. A post-concert pint later, and we were down for the count.
Our final morning was one of celebration. It was Nancy’s birthday, so we traveled to Marylebone for a festive birthday brunch at Carousel, a place known for its monthly chef rotation. The brunch that day was a fundraiser for UNICEF in response to their call to action for Syrian refugees. The food was, therefore, Syrian in theme, with plenty of tomatoes, olives, nuts, bread, cheese, and roasted tomato paste, as well as some of the most delicious Turkish coffee I can ever remember having. It was a fourth generation recipe that had us seriously thinking about experimenting at home with it. The main course of the feast was a poached egg dish served with lamb kafka, a spiced tomato sauce, and sour cream. Between that and Paul’s ricotta and honey pancakes, we were in Syrian food heaven.
After brunch, we walked through Baker Street toward Oxford Circus, laughing about Carol and Jason’s hair twinning and Paul’s resemblance to Michael Fassbender. As Nancy and Carol departed and Taghrid left for her script reading, Jason, Paul, and I returned back to the flat to gather our things, say a final farewell, and bolt to King’s Cross Station for our train onward.
It’s hard to believe that we were back in that exact same place just six days later for our final evening in Europe. Instead of trying to fit in last-minute sightseeing [although I did force Jason to make an appearance at Platform 9 and 3/4], we spent it having dinner in Crouch End with Taghrid and Paul at Blue Legume, exchanging gifts of food and refusing to believe that it was time to say our farewells.
And so it was, that our journey began and concluded in the same stairwell, hugging and loving and placing as much significance on our final moments as our sleep deprived minds would allow. But there was little to be sad about, for we knew—just as we knew in Belgium—that this was a trip that we would recreate again and again in the years to come.