To celebrate one month of living in Dublin, I went to London for the weekend
When I was really young, like 3 or 4, my parents went to London for a long weekend. It was a work thing for my dad but my mom went along for the experience and when they came back they brought me a small double decker bus filled with chocolate and a Paddington bear. This was my introduction to English culture. As I went through social studies classes in elementary school and then history classes in high school, I learned more and more about the Brits, how they supposedly wronged us, the war we won for our independence, the basics, you know. Then I started reading Harry Potter, fell in love with Doctor Who, got absorbed in Sherlock, etc. As an adult (or at least as much of an adult as I pretend to be), London has been pretty high up on my list of places to go. And this past weekend, I went.
One of my friends from college – my best photo friend, my partner in crime, the Ethel to my Lucy – lives in London for grad school. Now that I live in Dublin, the round trip flight is roughly $60 and only takes about an hour each way, so I went for the visit we’ve been planning since the day we graduated together.
Mandi and I hadn’t seen each other since graduation, 875 days before I landed in London. We’ve had our ups and downs and been through things most long distance friendships wouldn’t survive. We talked about these things a little bit during our weekend together and mutually agreed that having been each other’s support systems throughout the photography program in college is what strengthened our friendship enough to get through everything else. Friends for life, no matter what. Can’t get rid of each other if we tried.
But anyway, now that you know a bit about the emotional context of this trip, let me get to the play by play. I had to wake up at 5:00 on Friday morning to make it to the airport in time for my flight, so I was out walking past the canal at around 6:00, hoping I wouldn’t run into any junkies or angry swans. I didn’t. Both the junkies and the swans were sleeping in the grass. I made it to the airport on time, because I am a responsible human being (lol).
This incredible weekend was full of excitement from the very first moment. I was on the plane, about to land in Stansted airport; we were descending, close enough to the ground that I could see people’s faces, when the plane suddenly changed direction and shot straight back up into the sky. I’ve flown a lot and never experienced anything like that before. My first thought was that there was some sort of terrorist situation at the airport and we couldn’t land there. With all of the recent attacks in London, it wasn’t really that outlandish of a theory. One of the flight attendants came over the speaker, saying the pilot “decided not to land,” as if on a whim he thought it would be better to just keep on flying. Eventually the pilot announced that the runway was full so we weren’t able to land and had to wait until there was room for us. That was how I learned that Stansted, the third busiest airport in London, only has one runway.
We finally landed and I got off the plane and expected to go through customs but there was no one there so I just walked right into the UK without getting my passport checked (or stamped – definitely still bitter about that). Mandi and I quickly found each other and it honestly felt like no time had passed at all. It was so good to be together again. I was starving so we headed off in search of food and, after an hour long train ride into the city, wound up at the Cereal Killer café. I got a bowl of cereal with a Twinkie in it and my life is forever changed.
Then we went to drop off my bag at Mandi’s flat and headed out for a full day of super touristy shit. We went to go see Big Ben and the London Eye. (I took a #barebackandbeyond photo in front of Big Ben and earned tons of respect from a professional photographer who witnessed it. He was very careful not to look at me as I put my shirt back on. I made a comment about him judging me and he responded “no, I think it’s incredible. I would never have the balls.”)
When Mandi and I first started planning this trip, we agreed that we wanted to see a show on West End. Being a native New Yorker (kind of), I’ve been to a ton of Broadway shows and everyone says “West End is the Broadway of London” so I had to compare. We decided to go see Matilda and our plan was to wake up super early on Saturday to try to get day tickets for £5. Plans exist to be changed though, and we decided we didn’t want to have to shape our Saturday around the show and got £25 tickets for the show that night instead. It was a 7:30 show. I had been awake since 5 and Mandi hadn’t been sleeping well so by the time the show started, we were already pretty tired. We got slushies and popcorn from vendors in the actual theater (everything in italics is a huge deal because it would never happen on Broadway) to try and elevate our energy levels. At intermission we were fading again and got ice cream from the same vendors. (Seriously though, for a country that is typically much more posh and proper than America, West End was nowhere near as formal and pretentious as Broadway.) The show itself was an experience too. I’m not sure if it was just because we were so tired, but the musical felt like a fever dream. Matilda was one of my favourite movies growing up and I remember loving the book when I read it in elementary school. The play was pretty different and in very strange ways. If you’ve seen it, either on Broadway or West End, I’d love to discuss, but I will refrain from giving too many details here.
Once the show was finally over, we made our back to Mandi’s flat in a somewhat drunken state despite not having actually had anything alcoholic to drink. We slept in the next morning and got a pretty late start on our day, our first stop being afternoon tea at Bea’s on Bloomsbury.
While there we were discussing how afternoon tea at the Ritz is supposed to be an experience you have to have before you die. I texted my mom and told her that we were going to be doing that when we travel together this summer. She responded that she did it when she was in London with my dad 20 years ago and has no desire to ever do it again, but that she agreed it was a must-have experience and said she would pay for Mandi and I to have it. Basically my mother is a saint and I want everyone in the world to know it.
Our next stop was a Gregory Crewdson exhibit. He was one of our favourite photographers that we geeked out over all throughout college. We watched his documentary at least three times, if not more, and pretty much idolised his work. (I tried to type idolised with a ‘z’ but this is a UK keyboard and it automatically changed it for me and I’m just going to leave that there...gotta conform, ya know?) We were so excited for the exhibit and ended up spending way more time there than we had planned to. It was pretty much a dream come true and we felt all of our photography-student superiority coming back to us. Being pretentious is like riding a bike. We hmm’d and haa’d and noted the graininess of his photos and how “if Gregory can do it, so can we” and that he’s really more of a director than a photographer and is that cheating? and should we not respect him as much as we do? and so on.
Next up was a dinner with some of my friends that I met in India. Two of them live right outside of London and I always knew that when I eventually made it over to visit Mandi, I would definitely be seeing them as well. As soon as I bought my flights I had gotten in touch with them and told them the dates I was coming so they could make sure they were available to meet up. Shortly before I left for London, I messaged one of the other people from our India group who lives in Zurich to see where he was these days. He told me he was moving to London that weekend. It was fate.
The four of us (plus Mandi) reunited and it was amazing. We were at the Holi festival in India together, which was such a wild experience and pretty much bonds people for life. We all met there and were only actually together for maybe 72 hours, but these are people I will always have some sort of connection with. (Anytime people ask me if it’s hard to maintain friendships because I travel so much, I use my Holi experience as an example of how travel actually leads to the greatest friendships.)
Sunday was a big food day. And a bigger walking day. We had another late-ish start, leaving Mandi’s place around 11:30. We were planning to go to Churchill Arms for lunch. We decided to walk there, thinking it would be about 45 minutes. Ended up taking twice that but our strange detour gave me the opportunity to stroll through Hyde Park and put eyes on Kensington Palace. It also allowed Mandi and I to just chat and catch up without feeling like we had to really experience wherever we were and that is always priceless. Churchill Arms used to be a pub but is now a really great Thai restaurant. Inside it still feels like a pub and has lots of stereotypical English doodads all around, but the food is all Thai and kind of amazing. After living in Thailand, I’m now very particular about my Thai food, often disappointed by restaurants I used to love, but Churchill Arms did not disappoint.
Next we meandered off to Peggy Porschen, an instagram famous cake shop. It’s tiny and pink and adorably decorated and they serve incredibly overpriced, colourful cakes so it's pretty self-explanatory why it would be instagram famous. There is pretty much always a wait for a table and people willingly stand outside, passive aggressively staring at the seated people, hoping they’ll leave soon. There is also a much, much longer wait to get the “perfect” picture in the doorway. I’ll admit, I was one of those people. But I was also laughing at everyone else just like me. It was seriously a mad house and these girls (because I don’t think I saw a single guy posing in the doorway) are pretty aggressive and relentless about getting the shot they envision. We watched one woman retake her photo over and over and over, constantly checking to see what it looked like and deciding it wasn’t good enough. She asked at least 5 people to take her picture, probably more, never happy with the results. I actually ended up finding her in the location tags on instagram and I don’t really understand the thought process behind the pictures she wound up choosing, but I digress. My “artsy” photo took me about two minutes to get right and can be seen on my instagram but here is a different picture of me looking bewildered in the doorway:
Also, here is some advice for anyone who might be planning to go to Peggy Porschen: go take your picture. It really is a cute spot. But don’t buy the cake unless you run a foodstagram. It’s not great and very over priced. If you really feel the need to sit there, the teas are actually pretty nice. If good cake is more important to you than photos of pink cake next to pink teapots on an off-white table in front of a pink building (because that’s what every single picture of the food there looks like), I suggest going to a different bakery where you’ll probably spend less money and won’t feel like you’re on exhibit to the hordes of people waiting for your table.
From there we went to see Tower Bridge, a London must. I was reminded that Tower Bridge and London Bridge are not the same, something I knew in the back of my mind, but still find interesting. Tower Bridge is probably one of the most famous bridges in the world and definitely the most commonly mistaken. Then we headed back to Mandi’s flat and were asleep by 9:30. It was much-needed, well-deserved, and wonderful.
Monday morning we woke up early and headed to the infamous Abbey Road crosswalk, where I had really wanted to try to take a #barebackandbeyond picture, but it was way too busy and I’m pretty sure there was a school nearby and it just wasn’t plausible, so instead I skipped across gleefully and we went on our way.
Remember earlier when I lauded the sainthood of my mother? Well it all came into play Monday afternoon when we actually had the opportunity to go to afternoon tea at the Ritz. And it was so wonderfully ritzy. (See what I did there?)
But actually, I understand why people say it is something you should experience before you die. Yes, its £54 per person for the basic tea, which is outrageous, but it’s actually not as horrible as it sounds when you find out EVERYTHING is unlimited: the finger sandwiches, scones, pastries, tea, everything.
The sandwich platter included six different types of sandwiches, all unusually different from the one before it and all delicious (except for the smoked salmon – both Mandi and I hate smoked salmon so I’m sure it actually was delicious but we couldn’t eat it. We tried though!) The scones were no doubt the best I’ve ever had. The pastries were all so different and so interesting. I wish I had four stomachs and could’ve eaten 12 more of each pastry.
I got a tea called Dragon Pearls and it was lovely. I don’t really know if there is a way to fully describe this experience. The hall was beautiful. The tables were beautiful. Even the bathroom was beautiful. If you have this opportunity, you better fucking take it. It’s one of those things you will never do again, but damn, it is perfect while it’s happening.
When our afternoon tea adventure finally ended, despite us trying to make it last forever, we had to rush back to Mandi’s flat to get my bag because I had to catch my flight back to Dublin. It was set to take off at 6:30, which meant I probably needed to arrive at the airport by 5:00. I ended up not even getting on the train to the airport, which would take an hour, until 5:00. Now it probably makes a lot more sense why I said “lol” in reference to my responsibility earlier.
I finally arrived at the airport at 6:00 – when the gate was scheduled to close. But when I was leaving from Dublin the plane didn’t board until the time we were supposed to take off, so I hoped I would get lucky like that again. I got in the security line, which was unbelievably long, and I figured it would take about two hours to get through it. I had pretty much come to terms with missing my flight, but decided to try to make it anyway, against all odds. I finally got through security and checked the departures screen. My flight was leaving from gate 43 and at final call. I headed in the direction of the gates but had to go through what was essentially a shopping mall to reach them. After what felt like miles of stores, I finally reached a sign that said “Gates 40-59” with an arrow. Beneath it was another sign reading “10 minute walk to gate” and so I started sprinting. I checked each sign I passed and the first three all read “final call” next to gate 43. But the fourth screen said “gate closed” so I ran even faster. This “running” was really more like “shuffling” because I had my big pack on my back and a smaller bag slung across my front and I was in three heavy layers and I was sweating uncontrollably and visibly.
I finally arrived at gate 43 where the big screen also read “gate closed” BUT there were still ten people in line, slowly making their way to the desk to scan their tickets and board the plane. I got in line, wondering if somewhere along the way I had passed out from all the sprinting and sweating and this was actually a dream. But alas, I somehow made it onto the plane and eventually back to my home in Dublin at a somewhat reasonable hour.
My weekend in London was so full and so amazing. We really did an unreasonable amount of things all crammed into four days, but never got burnt out or sick of each other, which I feel like would happen with most other people. Nothing went as planned but everything worked out how it was meant to. And I am so glad I was able to experience this wonderful weekend with a forever friend.