“It is not the walls that make the city, but the people who live within them. The walls of London may be battered, but the spirit of the Londoner stands resolute and undismayed.” –George VI
London. I have saved the best for last.
How to describe London. Hmm. London reminds me of a beloved grandfather– old and a little rough around the edges at times– but with a class and venerability that cannot be matched. Even the beggars on the street corner sounded dapper and intelligent. One reached out and asked me, “Pahhdon me mum . . . would you have any spahhh change upon you?” I kept walking, as I would here, trying to avoid being groped. He said, “Well I nevah! Oh my!” haha. Somehow, even getting yelled at even sounds classy when someone does it with a British accent.
Ever since I was a kid I have loved the Sherlock Holmes books, so I found myself trekking across London, using the Underground, to find Baker Street. Even though Holmes was a fictional character created by Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle during slow days at his practice to pass the time, many people still think that Holmes was a real person and visit 221B Baker street expecting to see where he lived. Well lucky you– the nice London people have created this place, just for Holmes fans like myself. 🙂
A word about the London underground, or “the tube,” as they called it. Oh my gosh. Just, oh my gosh. I felt like someone took every Algebra test I ever failed, crossed it with tax season, and multiplied it by figuring out the square root of pi. Basically, SOOOO INTIMIDATING AND CONFUSING!!!! I watched multiple “how to” videos about how to navigate this complex little beast before I went, and when I arrived I purchased an Oyster card proudly (well, ok– not so proudly. I couldn’t figure out how to do it and someone in the group had to help me) to use. I went through the turnstile, scanned my pretty blue Oyster card (no idea why they call them that), and saw the slot light up with glorious green saying “Go ahead. You did it right!” I was so proud of myself, smugly carrying that blue oyster card like all the Londoners . . . that is, until I came to a labyrinth of passages– some going down, some going right, some going left, and some going goodness knows where. I had no idea what to do next, so I followed the crowd and went down.
And yes I know these are photos of the Sherlock Holmes museum and I’m talking about the London Underground but heck . . . there’s not much to say other than “This is the museum,” so be a good listener and just look at the pretty Holmes pictures and listen to my story anyway. 😀
When I descended the escalator into the bowels of the Underground, I expected that somehow I would see a sign that showed me where to go next. Perhaps, “stupid Americans, this way.” No such luck. The passage parted again, and it started to get very hot. I began to wonder if saying this was “hellishly difficult” was an unfortunate choice of words. Outside it had been cold enough to see my breath. Here, I was sweating in my coat, but I was afraid to take it off because there was so much bustling and commotion that I was afraid I was going to get run over.
I thought this tie was super cute. Why don’t women wear ties???? Ok sorry I asked. I have no desire to wear a necktie. But IF I did, I would wear this tie.
So anyway, the Underground. It is getting hotter and hotter, and the farther down I go, the hotter it gets, until it feels like summer, and I am desperately wishing for some air. I finally get . . . somewhere. I have no idea where I am. I am standing on a subway platform which is crowded with well dressed businessmen and women. I gaze around and see a map that looks something like . . .
Actually let me grab a photo that shows exactly what it looked like. This is not my picture, but this was the map.
And I stared at it thinking, “How very colorful. What in the WORLD does it mean?” I eventually realized that you have to know what stop is closest to your destination. AKA, “Sherlock Holmes Museum” will not be on the map, but if I know I want “Baker Street” station, that’s where I go. Of course, as I was a Tube newbie, I knew nothing about any of this.
So I stared at the map. And stared. I reached out and traced the lines, mystically, as if that would somehow clear away the enchantment and reveal the path I was supposed to take. Trains came and went, and people got on. Others got off. It was very hot and I wondered why I was wearing my coat when it was about 90 degrees.
So I just thought, “Let’s get on one and see where it goes.” Why not. The next train that came, I boarded, trying to pretend I knew what I was doing. It lurched off into the blackness, and I stood there, trying to look confident, speeding toward what I hoped was Baker Street (it wasn’t).
But it worked out, because I found . . . actually I can’t remember what station it was, but when I got out I walked to Portobello Road and found the Portobello Road market. It was a LONG walk (like, 40 minutes or something), but being the clueless tourist that I was, I didn’t realize this until I was almost there, and then it was too late to turn back. BUT I’m glad I went. As a kid I watched the old Disney movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and they visit the Portobello road market. And it was fantastic!
Oh my goodness the CHINA. If you know anything about me, you know I am a vintage dishware fanatic, especially teacups and teapots. I looked wistfully at all of it, at such incredible prices, and thought to myself, “How would I ever get you home in my bookbag, my pretties?” Sigh. It was worth walking there just for that.
I stopped and bought lunch from a vendor– he assured me that it was delicious, and it was! I got a little mini quiche (but once again, the British love of peas got me– there were peas hidden inside) and a slab of some sort of spicy, delicious cake with raisins and cream cheese icing. I have no idea what it was, but it was delicious. It certainly made the walk back to the Underground more fun, with snacks. 😉
At this point I figured it was foolish to try anymore “hey let’s see where THIS one goes!” experiments, and since the map was as inscrutable as ever, I swallowed hard and asked for help. Now first let me say that in larger cities where I live, if you asked for help, most times people would not be very friendly about it. They *might* help grumpily as they walk away in their own direction. Maybe. Maybe they might ignore you. Maybe they might curse you out. So I was kind of afraid to ask.
I saw a businessman standing there, looking down the dark tunnel for his train. I gulped back fear and said, “Excuse me, but I’m trying to get to London Bridge. And I’ve tried to read the map but it doesn’t make any sense. Does this go to London Bridge?” I was mentally wincing, waiting for his scathing reply, but to my surprise, he grinned and said, “Yes you see that map theahhh?” I nodded. “Well heahh is the bridge, sayyeee? So you want this loyyn, then that troyyn. You see?” I was frozen. I didn’t understand one bit, but I didn’t want to ask again. He grinned again. “Train’s coming love. You come with me. I’m going that way. Come on then.”
So I followed this strange (but kind) man onto the train, and while the tube lurched off into the darkness he showed me the maps inside the train (which were much simpler and showed only the portion of the map where this particular train went). “You on holiday then?” he asked. I explained that yes, I had always wanted to visit here, and I saved 3 years to come on my dream trip to England.
“Three yeahhhs? Well I hope we haven’t disappointed you!” The other passengers, who were quietly listening, smiled at me. I smiled back. In that 90 degree, airless train, body to body with people crammed in like sardines, I smiled back. And I felt part of it– part of London. Part of the beautiful spirit of the place. It was a wonderful feeling.
My helpful guide’s stop was coming up. “Two more stops love and then you get off, yes?” he said as he grabbed his briefcase and jumped off. “Lovely to meet you. Ta ta!” I was left feeling a warmth that had nothing to do with the heat of the train. I was humbled. Grateful. Just so happy that I was getting to experience this place.
I’ll tell you why I needed to go to London Bridge in a moment. But see, after that nice guy showed me how the maps worked, they became a little more understandable to me. SOOOO I took myself to Westminster station and got out to see Big Ben. Sadly poor Ben was all bandaged up, and I was standing beneath him for quite a while looking for him before I looked up and was startled to see his face peeking out of the scaffolding. (Poor Ben). I rode the London Eye (holy COW is that thing high!), and basically felt on top of the world– both literally and figuratively.
Um, yes. I should warn you not to look down. The Eye is kind of like a gigantic Ferris Wheel that is constantly going. So when it’s your turn (after snaking through the queue) you have to kind of run into your car as it moves past, along with 25 other people. You somehow all manage to get jammed inside, the attendant locks you in, and you’re up up and away.
The view from up there is absolutely incredible. You can see everything (which is the point). This view of the Houses of Parliament, combined with those oh-so-British double decker red buses, is one that I will save in my mind forever. I saw Buckingham Palace from up there too, and the “rooftops of London– Coo what a sight!” You ride one complete rotation for your ticket, but The Eye goes slowly enough that one rotation gives you plenty of time to see everything. So WHY, might you ask, did I need to get to London Bridge? I’m so glad you asked.
Ok, ok . . . you didn’t ask. But I want to tell you, so let’s pretend you asked. 😉
I have had a date with London Bridge for years, I think.
Wayyyyy back when I started this blog, I ran a little feature for a while called “Meet the Neighbors.” It was just a way for both me and my readers to become acquainted with other food bloggers. I met a lot of interesting people along the way, and I got to try a lot of fun, new recipes that I probably never would have known about otherwise. I loved it.
One of the ladies that I “met” through this feature was Jacqui Bellefontaine, who is the author of several cookbooks and the creator of the blog Recipes Made Easy, based out of her London home. I loved Jacqui’s style from the beginning– even though she is an accomplished cook, her style is very helpful and approachable, so that someone of any skill level can learn how to make her recipes. She is quick to offer advice and help as well, if you are struggling with a particular cooking skill. She has that rare ability to help anyone learn, without making him or her feel foolish about not knowing all the answers.
When I told Jacqui (after several years of writing back and forth) that I was finally getting to visit England, she said, “Well you must come visit!” I do believe that meeting this phenomenal lady was the thing I was looking forward to the most, on the entire trip.
She told me, “You can meet me below the Shard. I can walk there from my house, and it’s so large you can’t miss it.” She was right. The Shard is a gigantic, sculptured skyscraper in downtown London, directly at . . . you guessed it . . . the London Bridge Underground stop. So after the kind stranger helped me find London Bridge stop, I exited, headed up the escalator back to (thankfully) crisp, cold air again, and stared up. And up . . . and up.
The picture can’t possibly show how tall and impressive this building was. I was practically bending horizontally, backward, to get this picture. And right there, beneath the Shard, is where Jacqui found me.
Have you ever had the experience to talk with someone, at times for years, and get to know and become friends with that person . . . and then have the chance to finally meet in person, at last? It is the most bizarre experience– kind of like “reunions for the first time.” You know this person so well, yet you don’t know her at all in person yet. It is the most bizarre mixture of nervous anxiety and comfortable familiarity. And those feelings hit you, all at the same time.
Luckily for me, Jacqui was just as lovely in real life as she has always been through her notes and emails. But there is just no substitute for an in person hug and smile. Is it possible to love someone immediately? I think so. Because I did. We walked a few blocks to a coffee shop that she knew about, while she pointed out some of the sights. I was as comfortable in her presence as if I’d known her for years. And in a way, I suppose I have.
The coffee shop was gorgeous– it was airy and open, with a gigantic, rustic farm table in the center of the room, which everyone shared. I had a gorgeous cappuccino and a powdered sugar dusted croissant that was to die for. I was afraid to finish my coffee, since in some of my travels it was hard to find a bathroom. Silly me. Jacqui found me a restroom right after. Make a note that I owe myself another half cup of coffee if I ever visit this place again.
Next Jacqui took me to the Borough Street Market. Oh. My. Goodness. Imagine a foodie’s paradise, crossed with every ingredient you can imagine, and multiply that times being with a famous food blogger and cookbook author who is personally showing you around her favorite foodie spots and booths. What do you get, my friends? A PERFECT DAY. That’s what you get. PERFECT.
The first place we visited was a cheese shop. The moment you entered you could detect whiffs of the mouth-watering varieties. The clerk gave us some cheese to try, and she said that her husband would complain when she came home because she always smelled like cheese. Funny. I would have thought that would make him get down and propose to her all over again. 😉
There were all kinds of street vendors creating food, right there in the street. I took a picture of this man for one reason, and one reason only . . . because I was imagining how horrible it would be to be on dish duty the night that enormous pan came up for rotation. NO thank you!
The smells were incredible, though, and as long as they don’t recruit me to wash the dishes, I’m quite happy to smell and taste my way through. 😉
Sigh. Oh I’m sorry did you say something? I was gazing off with little hearts coming out of my eyes, looking at all those gorgeous breads . . .
Next Jacqui said, “Now it’s time to show you one of my favorite vendors– it’s like the candy shop for cooks.” And my goodness was she right. This booth had literally every kind of spice, seasoning, and edible garnish that I had ever heard of. The containers were neatly stacked and labeled. I could have spent hours here.
My eye went immediately to the Blue Cornflower petals– their color was so vibrant. You can see them there to the right of the post, third down on the left. I bought these to remember my beautiful morning with Jacqui, and when I got home I made Blue Cornflower French Macarons with them.
Next we walked to London Bridge. Surprisingly, that is “Tower Bridge” behind me, even though a lot of tourists confuse it for London Bridge. Jacqui explained, as we stood on a smaller, much less impressive bridge looking across the river at Tower Bridge, that someone had once purchased “London Bridge” when it fell into complete disrepair and had to be replaced (London Bridge was, apparently, truly falling down). The American that purchased the bridge THOUGHT he was buying tower bridge, and was disappointed when he found out that the small, unassuming bridge he had actually purchased was London Bridge. I guess there are no refunds where bridges are concerned.
“So where is London Bridge?” I asked. She smiled and pointed down. “We are standing on it.” I was surprised. London Bridge, I’m sorry but you are the plain country cousin to Tower Bridge, and if not for the song I’m afraid no one would have ever heard of you.
Speaking of Tower Bridge . . . WOW.
Walking up to this imposing edifice, I felt like I could almost hear the trumpets announcing the coronation, or perhaps my beheading. Nah. Let’s go with coronation.
The entire thing lifts up to let ships through if you catch it at the right time. I can’t even imagine how cool that would be to see.
Now, I want you to look carefully at those tracks going across WAYYYYY over my head. See the little clear parts? Yes. Those dastardly things are going to be important in a minute. I just want you to see how crazy high they are.
You can walk on those things, over the highway. And yes, I did see my life flash before my eyes. You think, “Eh it won’t be so bad. I know it’s going to hold.” But something about stepping onto what appears to be glass, overtop of all that traffic . . . goodness it freaked the living daylights out of me. Even standing here on the edge I almost died. Can you hear that noise? It’s my heart pounding.
Jacqui was so brave. She just resolutely walked across, right to the center. I tried to put mind over matter, but my throat felt dry as dust. I said, “how do I know that’s not going to break when I walk across it?” The guide said, “It’s never happened yet.” Yes but there’s a first time for everything, I thought to myself.
They actually give stickers of valor for going all the way across. The man held one of those bright pink stickers out tantalizingly. “Go across and you can have one, love,” he said. The crowd started telling me I could do it. All this support– how could I not try??? It was absolutely horrendous, soul stopping, and terrifying, but I did it, and Jacqui and I got a picture to prove it. I think my legs are still shaking.
We walked along the Thames River, and I picked up a small, gray stone. It is on my dresser and will always be. It’s like a little bit of England that I can run my fingers over every day I’m homesick for it. We passed through a movie set, too, where they had just finished filming– it’s so neat because the streets are still cobbled, and the “spice district” still looks the way it did back in the days of the docks, when spices were being unloaded on what is now “Cardamom Avenue,” “Cinnamon Way,” etc. Jacqui told me that even years after the docks closed you could smell spices here. So neat. The film crew had covered all the more modern shops with burlap sacking, and the street looked like something out of the 1700s. We asked what movie it was, and the director said, “Don’t watch it. It’s not very good.”
We went back to Jacqui’s house– a gorgeous, immaculate home with one of the most tricked out, well organized, beautiful kitchens I have ever seen. I knew she was a kindred spirit when I asked for chocolate chips and she pulled out 10 different kinds. I said, “Now HERE is a lady who knows what’s what.” She was so gracious and allowed me to try out her kitchen and bake something. I did a basic chocolate chip cookie, but I’m ashamed to say because everything was so different– tools, ingredients, even temperature conversions– that I didn’t do a very good job. Oh goodness NOT my finest hour. And Jacqui, I promise if you ever visit me I will bake for you properly. I seem to recall blanketing her kitchen in flour when I didn’t know how to run her mixer, and of course just making a general fool of myself all the way around. But she was too classy to say anything, and so, by her kindness, I got to finally do “Cookies for England” IN England.
Oh. And the TEA. Goodness. Look at this beautiful tea she made just for me. I mean, I kept looking around for the Queen to show up, because it was so beautiful and fancy, but no– she made all of this for me. There were beautiful little quiches, caramelized onion tarts (DIVINE), little sausage rolls, the most amazing little lemon pound cakes kissed with sugar, scones that were TO DIE FOR (I think the best scones I had in the entire UK. But that’s what happens when you’re lucky enough to have a famous food blogger for a friend), little dessert cakes filled with icing and jam . . . I mean, I truly did feel like a queen. She used her silver tea set just for me. I know she must have baked for days, and I felt like I should fall down at her feet and worship. That’s how good it was.
But you know, as amazing as our tour was, and as DIVINE as the food was, my favorite part of the visit was Jacqui, herself. I looked at this beautiful, talented lady– working away in her kitchen– piping icing and sharing her heart and home with me, and I swallowed a lump in my throat. How many people, especially people as talented and important as she is– would take the entire day, just to show a stranger around and make sure she felt at home and enjoyed her trip? How many people would bake for days, just to ensure she had the most beautiful tea spread known to man? How many people would pack up a box of leftovers and send them with said stranger, to make sure she had a snack later?
Funny how time passes. I remember all those sleepless nights in the beginning, trying to get my baby to sleep, dreaming of England and hoping this child would get easier to raise– easier to understand. I remember saving and saving, and then one day somehow having enough. I remember flying across the ocean, through the Northern Lights, thousands of miles from home– back to the place where my ancestors came from– having no idea that one day their great, great, great . . . however many greats . . . granddaughter would return.
I remembered the many beautiful places I’d seen– the breathtaking views and incredible, amazing foods I got to try. I remembered being overwhelmed with everything being so strange and new– and the amazing kindness of strangers who offered freely to help me, all along the way. I thought about life– about how kindness is the same, no matter what language or in what dialect you speak– because it is the language of the heart. Everyone can understand it.
I cried only twice on my trip. I cried the first time when I saw Loch Ness— deep in the heart of the emerald Highlands of Scotland. And I cried the second time when I left my dear, beautiful friend at the Underground station.
We had just left Jacqui’s house, and we walked together to the station. The day was cool, and the leaves were falling slowly when the wind rustled them. I was so overcome with gratefulness to this woman– who took her entire day to give to a stranger and make sure that I had the very best vacation. I thought of her baking for days– of showing me around and answering millions of questions with patience and grace. I thought of her kindness and goodness. I thought of how easy it was to be happy and at ease in her presence– of the soft, comforting way that she made me feel so welcome.
She walked me to the Underground and gave me a hug and kiss on the cheek. “There now. You jump on here and jump off at Camden Town. You’re a pro at this now!” I took one last, hard look at her face, trying to memorize it for my memory. I smiled. You know when someone is so sweet that they almost seem to exude good energy? Jacqui Bellefontaine is like that. “Thank you so much for everything,” I said. “You were the best part of my trip.” And I meant it.
I turned away, my oyster card in hand. I turned back one last time, and she waved. I smiled and went through the turnstile. And I felt the tears.
“This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea.”
— William Shakespeare
England, beautiful England. Thank you for everything.
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