Israel Vacation Day 1: London, UK

Evan and I had an amazing and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Israel for about 2 weeks to visit two incredibly dear friends who live in Jerusalem. I\’ve been wanting to write about it for a while now as it\’s been a couple of weeks, but I finally find myself with some time to sit and reflect on the experience.  My goal is to detail each day of our vacation both for your enjoyment (hopefully) and also to document it in some way to keep the memories preserved in some way against the haziness caused by time. With that I shall commence.

These Seats Are Made For Leprechauns: The Flight to London

Our story begins at the ABIA airport. British Airways had just (within the past 2 weeks) started a non-stop flight from Austin to London on their new \”dreamliner\” aircraft. I was excited both for our upcoming journey, but also to experience the new direct flight to Europe. So, passports in hand, we, and a myriad of other what I assume to be British SXSW goers boarded the plane.

I think \”Dreamliner\” is a bit of an overstatement. More like Mediocre Musing.

Unfortunately, the flight wasn\’t as luxurious as I was hoping. I was in the middle middle middle of the plane (middle row, middle seat, middle of the row). I was the ultimate median, if you will, surrounded by all sides. The personal televisions were awesome (you could even play games with a controller built it), but the legroom was non-existent, even for me, and I\’m only 5\’3\”! I don\’t need much room at all to feel comfortable, and even I was cramped and uncomfortable. I can\’t even imagine how Evan felt right next to me, or like the other 95% of passengers with much longer legs. It was also weirdly hot and there were no little fan things on the ceiling like there normally are. If it weren\’t for the convenience of non-stop, the free wine and the decent food (curry chicken….yum), I probably wouldn\’t want to fly this flight ever again. Maybe first class is better. I tried my best to sleep as much as possible (after watching the latest Hunger Games movie). We left Austin around 8:00 pm and I knew that with the time difference it would be 10:00 am in London by the time we landed (but feel like 4 in the morning) and we had a full day planned in London. We had a 22 hour layover, so I didn\’t want to waste it in a foreign country. Besides, Evan had never been to Europe, so I thought it was the perfect excuse to see some London sites.

Google Directions vs. The Bus Driver: Navigating through London

We took a picture of two double decker buses while ON a double decker bus.

We arrived in London mostly energized. We had gotten a decent amount of sleep on the plane and we were excited to get started. First order of business, to get some cash from an ATM. We find the nearest one and proceed to….have our card get rejected. I panicked slightly. I called the bank before we left. I know there is money in my account. Let\’s try another machine. Different machine, same story. I felt the blood-drain out of my face. Without access to money meant we would have to rely solely on the credit card and while London probably wouldn\’t pose a problem, I wasn\’t sure that Israel would be able to accept card enough. Thankfully, we decided that maybe it was the denomination we were trying to withdraw. We lowered the amount and voila, the pounds came out effortlessly. We didn\’t exactly take the currency conversion into account and there is a daily withdrawal limit from ATMs. Awesome. Now, to get the hotel. I had printed out all the directions beforehand so we would be prepared to find our way, but when we asked the bus driver if he stopped where the hotel was (like it said on my map). He said no. Well crap. He told us to take the \”hotel hopper\” shuttle, which was 12 pounds…a lot more than the free bus that google assured me stopped right in front of the Heathrow Hotel. After a while debating about it and going back in forth, we decided to go with our original directions. We also, for the first time ever, had free data abroad with our new cell phone plan, so worst case scenario was we would have to navigate ourselves back to the hotel. As the bus pulled up to the hotel (or across the street from it), we were happy to have chosen correctly and saved our money. The one snag is that our flight was late and it took way longer to get our money and to the hotel that I was hoping. We had to cross something off the itinerary. Sorry, TARDIS from Dr. Who and a bite of one of England\’s most famous Indian dishes (Chicken Tikka Masala). Perhaps, if we ever come back to London we will get a photo op of a Blue Police Box, but not today. Though lunch was effectively canceled, we were right on schedule for one of two things Evan insisted we do while in London. Get some afternoon tea.

Restaurant Etiquette in Europe: Afternoon Tea at Patisserie Valerie

Tea without cream is so uncivilized.

Originally when Evan said he wanted afternoon tea, I hit Yelp to find the best and most authentic English Afternoon Tea experience. When I told him the price of one of these teas, he told me to \”scale it down a bit\”. He just wanted tea (any tea really) at some point in the afternoon. So, I found a little place called Patisserie Valerie in Picadilly Circus close to where we wanted to do some sightseeing. The ratings looked good and the price was right, plus they had a mini-afternoon tea meal with scones and jam complete with a pot of Earl Grey cream tea. It was perfect. Originally, we hadn\’t planned on eating lunch there, but because we had gotten in so late in the day we were starving. After taking the tube into London from Heathrow (where our hotel was), we stepped out onto the bustling street to get to our destination, a little cafe that was cozy and comfortable, a perfect place to eat and regroup from the harried experience of traveling. We sat in the middle of the cafe and waited what seemed forever for someone to come over to us. I decided to order everything all at once. I got a mushroom croissant with a salad and a chocolate covered waffle for dessert. I\’m not sure if it was because I was so hungry, but that mushroom croissant was flaky, warm and delicious. The waffle was just ok, but a nice dessert to satiate my sweet tooth. We shared that because I was getting full from my sandwich. British food doesn\’t exactly have the best reputation, but I was happy I chose a good place, despite it not having a true \”Afternoon Tea\”. Evan ordered his tea and some open sandwich. Then the waitress left us alone, pretty much forever. I explained to Evan that in Europe you often have to like specifically ask for service, unlike America, because they focus on being unobtrusive. After a quick look online about how to get the check and how much to tip, we finally got the attention of our waitress and paid. We were off to Buckingham Palace.

Right Place, Right Time: Buckingham Palace and That Other Building

The Beefeater guard guarding….some important building.
 Like synchronized swimming only while walking @ Buckingham Palace

Last time I was in London, I went with the girl scouts when I was 16. We got to actually go see the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace, inside the gates, a privilege not many can say they\’ve had. I knew that I wouldn\’t be repeating that experience again, but I wanted to at least see the outside again and let Evan experience it. After we left the cafe, we headed down to Green Park on foot to soak up the greenery and relish in the spring air. I remember very distinctly all the people lounging in the English parks from last time I was here, even at 3:00 pm on a Wednesday afternoon. Do these people not have to work? How lucky they seemed with their slow moving lifestyle and laissez-faire approach to the day. I\’m sure you can see this in big parks in America (like Central Park in New York), but even though Picadilly Circle was so busy and urban, not 10 feet away was this perfectly serene space of green grass, trees and daffodils. It was energizing, which was good because of the toll the time-difference was having on us. As we approached Buckingham palace, we came across this other building that also had the famous English guards AKA beefeaters (as I remembered from my last foyer in the area). There were several tourists around watching, taking pictures and even videoing this random building that I knew was not the palace. It must be important because they were doing a changing of the guards at the time we happened to be passing by. That\’s exciting. Evan got to see the guards go through the very ritualized changing of the guards between shifts at this unknown, but obviously important building. We watched for a bit and then made our way to the Buckingham palace. Lo and behold, this must have been the perfect time to change shifts because no sooner had we walked away from the changing of the guards from the other building, we stumbled upon the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace itself. Granted, this was probably a minor changing of shifts (not quite like the display they have in the morning like I saw last time I was in London) but it was definitely cool to see the guards switch places and do what they do so synchronized and perfectly timed.

It is Normally Open Late on Wednesdays: Westminster Abbey

About as close as we could get @ Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey isn\’t far from Buckingham Palace and because it\’s open late on Wednesdays according to Google (the day we happen to be there), it would be perfect to spend some time and see almost every famous Westerner\’s burial location. I was looking forward to seeing it again because I felt that last time I was here my 16 year old self didn\’t really appreciate the magnitude of what the Abbey is. However, as we approached the abbey, I sensed something was off. It was roped off and they clearly weren\’t letting people in. I was a bit indignant. I looked this up specifically. It was supposed to be open till 6pm on Wednesdays, not 3pm. What is this madness!?Apparently, there was a private service (or event?) happening either that day or the next morning causing the abbey to close early on this particular Wednesday. Oh well, we tried. \”At least we saw the outside and saved some money\” I apologized to Evan profusely, not like he minded. He\’s laid back like that.

Now What Do You Want To Do: The Jubilee Walkway

Evan held Big Ben along the way to the Jubilee Walkway.

Because Westminster Abbey was a bust, we needed a way to fill the time. We were still not hungry enough for dinner yet and our other planned activities were for later in the evening. I frantically tried to figure out what to do with our time. We crossed the Thames towards the London Eye (the really ginormous ferris wheel) and onto the Jubilee Walkway. Last time I was here, I was struck by the street performers that looked like mannequins until they came to life magically. At least if we were stuck wandering around a part of the city, it was a part of the city that was entertaining in and of itself. I started rattling off what we might spend our time doing. We can go on the London Eye. We can go into any one of the museums around there (including a torture / dungeony museum about London\’s gory past). There\’s the London Eye. There\’s an aquarium. Are you sure you don\’t want to go on the London Eye? I think I overwhelmed Evan with the choices. He was losing his steam and chose to sit instead and watch an Asian street performer sing 90\’s American pop music. I guess sometimes we don\’t have to do anything to soak it all in. After a while we decided to take the River Bus to our next destination further down the Thames. I think it\’s awesome that they have commuter boats as part of their public transportation system. Being on a boat always seems special, like a cruise, even if it is just ferry with few bells and whistles. There is just something fun about it. Plus, we like singing the Lonely Island song \”I\’m on a Boat\”.

Fish So Good Even Karen Will Eat It: Dinner at The Founder\’s Pub

\”Fish and Chips so good even Karen will eat it.\” Sounds like a Geico commercial @ Founder\’s Pub

Only a couple of stops went by before we got off the boat. The boat was probably unnecessary to get to our destination, but it was too fun to pass up. We were starting to get a bit hungry for dinner (plus eating at the appropriate times makes time change issues easier to handle), but thinking we were going to be at Westminster Abbey for a couple of hours, the original dinner location I had picked was nowhere close to where we now were. Time to improvise. Evan\’s second request (tea being the first) was to eat fish and chips. I hate seafood myself, but I can understand the appeal. It is probably the most famous dish in all of England. Right on the river bank was a Pub, The Founder\’s Pub, to be precise. It looked like a really great pub environment, sure to have traditional fish and chips. It was also very happening, with tons of people eating, drinking and generally being merry. It was the perfect representation of what I would think of if someone said English pub. We walked inside the crowded restaurant and was surprised when they sat us in the \”restaurant\” section right away. This is clearly where people come to drink, not necessarily have dinner. I scanned over the menu. Yes, they had fish and chips for Evan and I, still somewhat full from my lunch earlier, order a simple \”spicy\” carrot soup with baguette. I put spicy in quotations because being from Texas, spicy to me is a little different that spicy to Londoners. It was good, but not really spicy per say. Evan was not disappointed. The fish was so good even I had to admit it when he forced me to try a bite. He was proud of me. I was impressed with the flavor. Well done, pub. Well done.

Nose, Nose, Nose, Nose, Who Gave Thee This Jolly Red Nose?: The Knight of the Burning Pestle at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre at the Shakespeare\’s Globe Theatre

Combating materialism @ The Globe Theatre

The one thing we had definitely planned for (and pre-bought tickets to) was to see a show at the Globe Theatre. Being a theatre lover for as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to go to the Globe Theatre, but last time I was here, it didn\’t work out. This was definitely something I wanted to do. I found out they had a show called The Knight of the Burning Pestle. It was an evening performance and though I wasn\’t sure how tired we would be, I booked the tickets anyways long before we boarded the plane. We would make it work, I was convinced. Technically, this isn\’t in the Globe Theatre properly. I guess, it was in a side theatre that was recently built called the Sam Wanamaker Theatre that performs Shakespeare-esque plays. If you can\’t see a Shakespeare play in the Globe Theatre, you can at least go see a Shakespeare-like play in a theatre in the same complex as the Globe. What\’s interesting about this venue is that it is completely lit by candlelight (except for the exit signs and some aisle lighting…safety first people). It was odd at first, looking around at the entire wooden structure with these huge candle chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. \”I hope there\’s not a fire\”, I thought to myself. Before the show some of the theatre\’s employees had to beckon the chandeliers down and light each of the candles so that we could, you know see the show. When they were done, they would make a \”whoop\” noise and usher it back up to the ceiling with a simple raising of their hands. It was soon obvious that these \”candlelighters\” were actors giving a bit of a preview of the shows hilarity as a variety of mishaps began happening with the chandeliers, some not coming when called. Some coming down part of the way and then being pulled back up right when the candlelighter started lighting and even one that came down so far the candlelighter was soon lying on the floor trapped by the rogue chandelier. The candlelighters weren\’t even that adept at their job, one \”catching himself on fire\” and having to do the famous stop, drop and roll in the middle of the festivities. Finally, the candles were lit and the show would begin.

I knew it was a comedy, but I didn\’t really know what it was about. We were in the balcony, looking down on the actors right below us in this round theatre. They weren\’t the best seats, but the theatre was small and intimate, so it didn\’t seem at all far or removed. Almost as soon as the show started, a couple started heckling the actor on stage and started to become a general nuisance, making ridiculous demands on how the show should be performed. Upon further inspection of the trouble-making couple, it became obvious that their 17th century clothing indicated that this was part of the show. A play within a play. Like a Play-ception. I tried my best to follow the plot, both the plot of the original play and the plot of the play that was messing around with the original play. Unfortunately, by this time the time-change was catching up to me and I was getting closer and closer to falling asleep. One act goes by, two acts, three, four, how many acts are in this play, five, six? I don\’t know how many acts there were. It was at least 3 hours. It was funny, especially a section where one character chased another all around the theatre fighting, climbing in and out of windows and such. I am also fairly certain the \”burning pestle\” was a metaphor for something phallic. The actors were awesome and I really enjoyed it, even if the language was too above me to get most of the jokes. At the end of the play, the father marries off his daughter not to the overly vain duke, but to his lowly apprentice (who had earlier faked his own death and haunted him into feeling guilty about firing him for having a love affair with the daughter). The wife of a drunken and highly musical man who may have been the father of the apprentice (singing a very catchy ditty about how alcohol makes his nose red) reconciles with his family at the end, and the annoying couple who had thrust their own son on the unsuspecting play to join the cast as The Knight of the Burning Pestle himself were satisfied that their son finally got a theatrical debut and a very successful death scene at the end. That probably makes no sense, but by this point I was pretty incoherent and ready to take the tube back to the Renaissance Heathrow Hotel and sleep before the inevitably early flight the next morning.

Late night stroll across the Millennium Bridge after the Play with St. Paul\’s Cathedral in the Background.

Next Up: Arriving In Israel



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