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London Calling

airportThere’s nothing like the nudge of a book a flight or lose your Sky Miles standing to get out the door and across the pond for Christmas. Using miles and buying one ticket, the four of us left Christmas Eve for London. The Virgin Atlantic flight attendants greeted us in red skirt suits, with matching nails and heels, their long blonde hair tucked into big neat buns, each brandishing her own strain of English drawl and cheeky disposition.

Dinner was capped off by a doll-house sized dessert, a 200 calorie 5-bite wonder, cakelove (cakelove.com). The tiny jar, no bigger than a hotel marmalade, contained the most fabulous cake and salted caramel icing. Afterward, I drifted into a delicious sleep waking in a few hours to a British version of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” The only thing missing on our flight were those hot towels you get sometimes, the ones that wipe off the day.

cabCHRISTMAS DAY: Back on the ground, we got a cab and made our way down the dark pre-dawn Christmas streets toward the hotel. Taxis here look like a mini Rolls Royce, taller and with fancy grilles, and inside they’ve got a cushioned bench running the cab’s width and three fold-down seats opposite it for six people and their things.

The hotel was tucked away down a cobblestone motor court, a fairyland of lights and trees. The front reception counter had a wide mouthed jar of candy canes and next to it, a bowl of tangerines, simple old-fashioned Christmas treats straight out of The Little Engine That Could for good little boys and girls. I don’t think that book was referring to jet lagged surly teenagers, but nevertheless, those candy canes caught their eye and their hands went right in.

The reception told us the mini bars were free, and in ours we found two bottled still waters and a KitKat. Originating from York, UK,  KitKats here tasted different, strange with less sugar and more cocoa and fat, but free chocolate, nonetheless. These bars are made by Nestle and those in the U.S. by Hersey, and each has its own distinct recipes and branding. It was a delight to return to our room each day to beds made, towels replaced and the mini bar, once again stocked with two still waters and a KitKat.

piesWe were settling into our double room when I heard a knock on the door, and a jolly bellman appeared carrying mince pies wrapped in cellophane with purple ribbon. His eyes, how they twinkled, his dimples how merry! Wait, wrong story. He wished us a merry Christmas, and then he was off, certainly a spring in his step, but I didn’t wait at the door long enough to look. Exhausted, we hunkered down for a long winter’s nap.

We woke hungry and headed out to find a snack. Red double decker buses snaked around the streets as dusk fell, and we found a pub with a table by the window. Shepherd’s pie came with sweet glazed yellow and orange carrots, and fish goujons, with chips and mushy peas, and a half lemon wrapped in white mesh, an intriguing first for Evan, the lemon and goujons.

phone booth

We left the pub and walked around passing Westminster Abbey, Big Ben (covered in scaffolding), Buckingham Palace, and Parliament, and I was surprised to find each iconic giant so close to the other, a mile walk if that. Red phone booths were everywhere, as if placed on this London set, and thatched rooftops silhouetted the grey sky. In the distance you could see the London Eye, a cobalt blue Ferris wheel at first, and closer up, a slow-moving London observatory.

Back at the hotel, we dressed for Christmas dinner. Black pants from five years ago barely fit, but determined, I zipped them up. I imagined the dining room from Hogwarts, with hurricane lamps over glowing tapers, and berries and garland framing windows. Servers dressed in tails and tall hats carrying trays of Yorkshire pudding and popovers, roasts and chestnut stuffing too, and pouring red wine into pewter goblets.

christmas dinner

Instead, the dining room was low key, light and festive with all kinds of people seated and eating, some wearing gold paper crowns, one of the party favors rolled at each placemat. The multicourse menu was sophisticated, but our picky eaters managed to (somewhat) dig into their Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. After dessert we fell back into our beds, jetlagged as we would be for days.

tablesBOXING DAY: Our room came with two buffet breakfasts so each morning two of us ordered off the menu and two got the buffet, which had everything — eggs and pastries, yogurt and cereals, and sausages and grilled meats. I’m amazed how much food these hotels prepare, and hope the leftovers end up in needy hands or at a food pantry. My omelet was perfect and garnished with a lively nest of watercress, as is most everything here. Small carafes of milk were on each table, and if you preferred half and half in your coffee, you could request double cream, and they’d bring you the heavy whipping kind.

Today was Boxing Day, a day of giving and reflection and celebration. It was noticeably quiet, and we headed out walking through St. James Park, which had a pretty lake with ducks and swans, and apartment buildings along it, and home to the fattest squirrels I’ve ever seen. I wore my new velvet fedora hoping to up my style. At the very least, my ears stayed warm.

fish n chipsWe stopped in a pub and Evan ordered the fish ‘n chips, large fillets this time, and they came with “mushy peas”, which vary in presentation: some are mushy like baby food, others al dente, cut in half and seasoned with mint, and some just regular ‘ole green peas. Back outside, I noticed a refreshing absence of lit wreaths on doors and instead, they were fashioned from pine cones and plaid ribbon or simple greens and a bow. Walking through the park, we saw the London Eye and its reflection on the lake, moving so slowly it looked perfectly still.

lemon slicesTucked into a cozy drive, our hotel was a comfortable place to return. The trees outside were decorated with gold and silver balls and luscious dried orange slices, hanging from simple wires, a nod to war time decorations when many had so little. Inside, the ornate lobby was painted white top to bottom, and overhead, crystal chandeliers with cinnamon drum shades sparkled. A table by the window held two wooden trees with real handmade white and milk chocolate ornaments.

DECEMBER 27: The next day walking toward the Tate Modern museum we noticed a sliver of blue sky, rare for London. I packed umbrellas for this trip, but over the course of the week we never once opened them. Back in Atlanta, we heard it rained every single day, not showers, but epic, monsoon soakers. Oh, the irony!

With Christmas and Boxing Day over, the streets were full of people again crossing the bridge over the river Thames and past a stout bagpipe player, who posed with passersby dropping coins in his case. The river was choppy with boat traffic and along its edges pop up shops sold bric-a-brac.

Outside the Tate’s entry was the “Ice Watch” installation, two dozen Greenland blocks of ice, detached from an ice sheet, a reminder that more ice is melting, sea levels are rising and global warming is no hoax, but sadly, all too real.

The Tate’s exhibits inside sparked interesting conversations, which infused our day with a new energy, a welcome connection for parents and their teenagers.

churchWalking along the Millennium Bridge at night we saw London bridge, which is actually Tower bridge, but everyone confuses the two. In the distance St. Paul’s cathedral loomed large and majestic, its dome lit up at night, and we went inside in time to light candles and sit down for holiday hymns. Leaving, we walked past an enormous tree outside decked with blue lights. Simply beautiful.

DECEMBER 28: We explored Westminster a little more, window shopping while Ben got a haircut, and then stopping at an Italian place for lunch, fried prosciutto and chicken salad, pizza and risotto. By 4pm dusk was falling, and we walked along Victoria Street and then toward Harrods, its blazing lights pulling us in. Harrod’s was spectacular, if not overwhelming, and after an hour or so we left for Hyde Park where we came upon Winter Wonderland, a traveling holiday amusement park. Its happy energy was contagious, and we got in line to ride the München Loopin, a loop to loop coaster. Tempted to stay longer, but most rides had long lines, so we headed out, my three blokes and I, and found ourselves another pub. Boys had really good burgers, and my baked camembert with onion marmalade and toast hit the spot.

tea potDECEMBER 29: We woke Saturday and headed to Portobello Market, Notting Hill’s outdoor version of Atlanta’s Don Scott’s market, throngs of people minus the big furniture, and with loads of silver vendors. Ben saw wonderful potatoes, and we bought a serving, rich with cream, brie, garlic, onions, chives and parsley, and pastéis de nata, too, the to-die-for Portuguese custard tart. We branched off in different directions and I stopped for some mulled wine and walked with it browsing vendors’ booths. I found a pretty teapot for 20 pounds, which I bought from a lady, also mom to an 18-year-old. We chatted about our sons and her ceramics as she carefully wrapped my new teapot.

Next up was the Victoria and Albert Museum’s fashion exhibit, which was interesting albeit brief, and directly across from it the Museum of Natural History, where we peeked into the dinosaur exhibit housed in a grand lofty space. London museums are free and easy and don’t eat up your day, as some can.

We headed to Kensington Park and the Serpentine Gallery and Arcade, an architectural exhibit that changes annually, but unfortunately had been disassembled for the season a few months earlier. We walked through Kensington Park, expansive and home to Diana’s memorial fountain. Loads of songbirds were performing as if just for us, but the fountain was quiet, turned off for the day 20 minutes earlier.

Years ago, I remember waking in the middle of the night with my mom and sister to watch Lady Diana’s wedding on TV. Her life ending so abruptly gave pause to my own and its possibilities ahead. Her sons no longer having their “mum,” I felt particularly grateful to be here with my boys. The park’s large swaths of green space, the birds’ sweet singing and the hint of sun trying to appear combined to make this place full of grace and beauty and hope, a legacy I’d think anyone moving on past this world would want to leave.

Later we took a cab to Shepherd Market, and our friendly driver had a fabulously exaggerated British accent, the only one I heard up close all week. I could have lingered longer here as it was quiet and the dark streets resembled Italian piazzas, but we left to get to a store, Selfridges, that was closing soon and which Ben wanted to see. I stayed on the main level killing time with a glass of wine at the champagne bar, and the boys shopped with Ben.

We reconnected in an hour, our energy sapped in the way only a department store can sap it, overwhelmed by aggressive shoppers with too much money to burn. On our way out, we saw a bizarre sushi bar with a rotating display, like airport luggage carousels, but substitute sushi in plastic domed containers parading out on a catwalk. I never did see someone grab one in motion; maybe they were too entranced by the spectacle to reach one in time.

rum babaDECEMBER 30: It was our final full day and the boys took the buffet breakfast vouchers since Joe and I were saving up for our high tea reservation at noon. What a treat tea was, especially the rum baba with Chantilly cream, and the small perfect scones and homemade jam and clotted cream. Afterward, we all walked by Westminster Abbey, the bagpipe player and across the bridge over the Thames for the afternoon London Eye boat tour, where a lively guide pointed out interesting bridges and buildings.

Next we walked to Trafalgar Square, and saw street performers and ended up at a great pub, The Admiralty, Ale and Pie. It had a good mix of lively people and high ceilings, delicious food and a guitar player, just the pub experience Joe had been looking for, the bee’s knees, you could say. I had rarebit and a mini steak and mushroom pie with thyme and onions – divine! – and a pint too. Kids had burgers and Joe, a pint and a Thai inspired pie, and he nibbled on boys’ food they didn’t finish. We later rode the London Eye. One revolution took 30 minutes, and being inside an enclosed car with 20 people (complete with crying child) made me a little impatient, but the expansive city views were impressive.

barBack at the hotel and in no rush to pack, Joe and I went to the bar for a drink. The Sardinian bartender was fun and chatty, and we talked about all things Italian. I charged his dead iPhone for him so he could share pics of his very much alive and adorable 1.5-year-old son, Valentino. Grateful to get a few bars on his phone, he kept refilling my prosecco. We ordered calamari, amazing, flash fried and with an Asian twist, and the boys came down later for a final fish and chips and Caesar salad. Then it was time to pack and sleep as we had to be up before 6.

NEW YEAR’S EVE: We silenced our alarms through a few snoozes but managed to get up and out, showered and packed. The car was on time waiting for us outside in the dark. We loaded our things in back, climbed in and made our way toward Heathrow, passing the queen’s house, darkened but for two silent lit Christmas trees flanking the entrance.

I will remember this Christmas week as magical and exhausting and new, and will recall the many walks exploring London together, all of us now carrying new memories. I held on to the water bottle from the mini bar and keep it filled by my bedside at night. I’m planning a high tea at my house, too, and will try my hand at Devonshire cream and scones, and maybe even a rum baba. As for those daily KitKats, those I left back in 2018. Cheers!

buckingham