Keep calm and carry on - keeping an Eye on London

Feet firmly rooted to the ground, my pink sneakers were certainly not going to budge, take a leap of faith and foolishly risk life and limb by clambering into the claustrophobic plastic/glass enclosed bubble that appeared to be precariously hanging from the bicycle-wheel-like spokes of UK’s famous “London Eye”.  Towering an impressive 443 feet above the South Thames River Bank, and weighing a colossal 1800 tons, this massive Ferris wheel is known as the Merlin Entertainments London Eye or simply as the Millennium Wheel.  Officially inaugurated on Dec 31st, 1999 to commemorate the millennium, the London Eye was not fully operational or made open to the public until March 2000.  Attracting around 2 million visitors each year, the Eye offers a “bird’s eye view” of Big Ben, Canary Wharf and London Tower Bridge, just to name a few of the landmarks which dot the London skyline, hence, most likely, it’s appropriately unique  name.

Dangling, spinning and orbiting round and round, the 32 egg-shaped capsules are roomy enough to hold a maximum of 25 people, all of whom had dished out around £20 for the opportunity of soaring like a bird in a glass, plastic and steel tube like structure.  Apparently neither deathly afraid of heights nor harbouring any fears of entrapment, these thrill-seeking adventurists (tourists, actually), queue for hours to be willingly suspended a jaw-dropping 138 metres above the ground in a rotating capsule.  Have they completely lost their marbles?  The mere thought of the remote possibility of plunging to an untimely demise, should, God forbid, a technical glitch or a tempestuous gust of wind snap a cable and thus disengage the dangling capsules from their spokes, is the determining factor which solidified my resolve to never step foot into said capsule.  Unable to extrapolate the image of my pink-sneakered self un-elegantly splattered on the cold dank pavement below, I cringed in horror and disbelief when the Kid abruptly announced that she’s going to “go for the gold” and capture that National Geographic moment in time and snap digital memories from her vantage point at the top of the Wheel.  Yikes!! 

Unable to convince her petrified ol’ Auntie to accompany her on the 30 minute “ride of a lifetime”, my fear-less niece couldn’t race fast enough to the queue and clamber into the confining glass dome and soar to dizzying heights of freedom and possibility.  I, on the other hand, was cocooned in my current state of self-preservation, hoping beyond hope that this wouldn’t be her “last ride of a lifetime”, one that could possibly culminate in a visually unpleasant image of blood, guts, glass and steel, mashed and smashed body parts strewn about the concrete below. Like, seriously??  Do I ALWAYS have to be so “over the top” dramatic??

Needing to “keep calm and carry on”, I therefore bravely embraced this well-known British phrase - thus, making it my mantra of the day - and proceeded to calm my splintered nerves by indulging in one or two pints of Guinness, as I languished the afternoon away in one of the outdoor pubs that lined the Thames – eagerly anticipating the return of the pink-sneakered Kid, babbling excitedly about her sky-high adventures of the day.

Come spin around the banks of the river Thames with the Kid and I, as we eye the London Eye and orbit round and round the skyline of merry old London.
Next week – where do my pink-sneakered footprints end up??  Stay tuned!!

Not invited to tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace

Suitcases filled to the brim, expertly packed and crammed full of knick-knacks, trinkets, memorabilia and 75% off designer ware, shopping “till we dropped” had been successfully knocked off of our agenda.  The Kid and I were therefore free to devote the remainder of our London stay to fully immersing ourselves in British culture and customs.  At the top of our list was a scheduled visit to the stomping grounds of her Majesty herself, where we planned to traipse around her palatial residence at Buckingham Palace in the hope of perhaps being fortunate enough to be invited to afternoon tea and crumpets.  After all, Canada does have close ties with Britain, being a Commonwealth nation and all, so surely the Queen would have no problem playing hostess to two awe-struck Brit obsessed Canadians.

The Kid was anxious to compare the grandeur of the Queen’s London estate to her beloved French heroine, Marie-Antoinette’s regal headquarters in Versailles, and ascertain which royal’s palatial abode outshone and outranked the other.  Having become madly obsessed with the splendour and opulence of Le Petit Trianon, my niece was constantly plotting and planning how to set up camp and re-locate to this fabulous French address.

Strolling along spacious tree-lined Birdcage Walk, blue and red Union Jack flags flapping ceremoniously in the wind, the crowds grew larger and denser with each step, as we headed towards Buckingham Gate.  The sheer magnificence of the Queen’s London Palace was made apparent to us the closer we tread, the 108 metre long structure regally situated upon 40 acres of royal grounds.  Boasting an impressive 775 rooms, 78 bathrooms, 92 offices and 52 bedrooms (not including the 188 staff bedrooms), her Majesty’s residence also houses a swimming pool, an art gallery and a post office!  And that’s just on the inside! The immense grounds include a lake, a tennis court and a private helicopter landing area, should any member of the royal family desire to be whisked by chopper to yet another “oh so mundane” social engagement.  The palace is open to visitors only during the months of August and part of September, when the Queen is away on her annual holiday.

With Prince William married off to Kate Middleton, that left eligible bachelor Prince Harry on the market, offering a glimmer of hope to my 16 year old starry-eyed niece, who envisioned herself one day betrothed to the dashing royal, thus securing her long for coveted royal address.  Continually plotting, planning and day-dreaming of far away adventures in even further away lands, the Kid was incessant that one day her prince will come, and magically transport her to her fantasy world of castles, ladies in waiting and horse-drawn carriages.

Staring wistfully at the balcony where newly married Kate and William shared a romantic kiss, the Kid was rooted to her spot, refusing to move from her perch as she peered through the ornate wrought iron gates that enveloped Buckingham Palace.

Short of having to forcibly pry my niece away from the gate, as frankly, she was beginning to become a bit of an eye-sore to the hundreds of other gawking tourists, a slightly annoying teenager who kept calling out Prince Harry’s name over and over again ad nauseam - I instead meandered away and spent a peaceful afternoon strolling along the perimeter of the palace.

Needless to say, I strongly suspect that Buckingham Palace stole the heart of the starry-eyed impressionable Kid that London day.

Come traipse around the outside of Buckingham Palace with the Kid and I, as we battle the crowds for a birds-eye view of the inhabitants inside, in the hopes of perhaps scoring an invite for afternoon tea or catching the eye of a certain eligible prince…

Next week – Where in London do my pink-sneakered footprints end up next? Stay tuned!!

The incredulous chair-snatching caper on Carnaby Street

You know that you’re traipsing around the globe with a junior shopaholic version of yourself, when the Kid looks you squarely in the eye, and declares that sightseeing for the day has been officially scrapped, as the next 24 hours will be devoted entirely towards the acquisition of 50% off  priced European bargains – or, as much as can possibly be carted across the pond without raising the suspicions of Canadian Customs agents for grossly exceeding one’s permitted yearly allotment of declared goods – all without getting thrown in the slammer for importing what appears to be an excessive amount of Kate Middleton inspired designer frocks and handbags. Like, seriously? 

 What happened to my former French Revolutionary affection ado and “Marie-Antoinette wanna-be” obsessed niece?  You know – the one who had to be forcibly removed from the Palace of Versailles because she tried to set up camp in one of the opulent and majestically ornate state rooms?  You know – the one who literally dragged her dear ol’ Auntie to all 250+ museums and exhibitions within every last square inch of the parameter of Paris?  You know – the one who had our complete London itinerary mapped out on an Excel spreadsheet, with not a minute to spare, lest we should, “God forbid”, deviate from the meticulously detailed schedule and wander off the beaten path?

Meandering along artsy and funky Carnaby Street would therefore be quite the nostalgic journey indeed, as we jumped back in time to a groovy, happy, hippy 1960’s swinging London, where miniskirts, Twiggy, Mary Quant and the Rolling Stones dominated the social scene.  The Kid’s dad was of British descent and she had grown up hearing endless tales of cool music bands and even cooler London folk just hanging out on this three block long narrow street, a stone’s throw from Regent and Oxford.  Anxious to experience the feel and ambiance of her daddy’s youthful stomping grounds, my niece was determined to walk in his footsteps and re-create treasured moments in time and immerse herself in a fragment of her roots and heritage.


Hence my 7:00am wake-up call commanding me to wake up, get dressed and skedaddle as quickly as my pink-sneakered feet were able to, as the Kid was on a mission to shop till she dropped and then some.  Out the door by 8:00am, we had quite a hike ahead of us, as the journey would involve numerous stops along the way, the allure of “final clearance markdown” bargains too enticing to pass on by.

It therefore came as no surprise that we ended up within the vicinity of Carnaby Street around lunchtime, tuckered out and famished, anxious to put our feet up and partake of some serious people-watching whilst languishing in a quaint outdoor café.  Spotting what appeared to be a cool British pub that was already crammed full of patrons indulging in Guinness, cigarettes and laid-back “attitude”, the Kid and I gleefully raced towards “Shakespeare’s Head” in search of vacant seating.  What happened next is akin to a scene out of a comedy film, as just as I was reaching for an adjacent chair, it was instantaneously snatched from under me by a scrawny chain smoking wisp of a granny, who seemingly appeared out of nowhere, stealthily scooting away and depositing her new-found chair on the other side of the patio.  Like, hello? What just happened here? One minute, I was about to sit down on a chair and the next minute it is literally grabbed from under my pink-sneakered bottom, leaving me both speechless and seconds away from un-elegantly planting my hinny on the cool, dank pavement. 

Surprised, shocked and stupefied at the sheer audacity of someone so brazen as to shamelessly steal a chair from literally under one’s feet, the Kid and I didn’t have the gumption to chase after “Grandma chair snatcher”, mercilessly bowl her down and reclaim our pub chair - even though we had every right to do so, and would have been victoriously cheered on by a small army of equally aghast pub patrons, who had also been witness to this unbelievably gutsy chaise snatch episode.

Seat-less, chair-less and lunch-less, the Kid and I had no choice but to now search for another pub.  Refusing to allow this bold act of nervy impudence dampen our spirits, we laughed it off, chalking it up as a once in a lifetime (let’s hope!!) experience that added an unexpected element of incredulity to our globe-trotting escapades, a memory that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

And so it was that we stumbled upon a little bit of Parisian culture a few doors away from the English pub that we did not get to eat in, instead discovering the gastronomic delights of  “C’est Ici Brasserie”, where we were privileged to sample some of the best frites and burgers in London.

Some things are just meant to be and so perhaps on one of my future visits to Carnaby Street, I’ll be older, wiser and on the lookout for a sneaky grey-haired chain-smoking wisp of a granny,  lurking around the corner of the pub, waiting for her next unsuspecting prey.

Come traipse around Carnaby Street and discover avant-garde cool music, French bistros, and the Doc Martens store – all the while trying to outsmart the sneaky chaise snatchers, who are waiting in the wings, anxious to pull that rug (or, as in my case, chair) out from under your pink-sneakered feet.

Next week – Where do my pink sneakers take me? Buckingham Palace?  The Tower of London?  The London Eye?  Paddle-boat racing in Hyde Park? 

Stay tuned for more adventures with the Kid and Auntie Nora as we tour the fabulous city of London.

Endless buses and the journey back to London - the saga continues

Hell bent on acquiring a berry burgundy hued pair of Doc Martens, adamant that they must be acquired solely in London, or more specifically, within the vicinity of former 1960’s swinging Carnaby Street; the Kid was on a shopping mission like no other.  A mere 5 minutes after greeting her “dear ol’ tuckered out” middle-aged Auntie, who, incidentally, had endured countless roadblocks in her attempts to traverse all forms of over-ground transport en route to picking up her 16 year old Highness at the airport, was now obliged to escort “la Princesse” to her preferred shopping destination.  Now, as anyone knows, Miss Pink Sneakers can shop till she drops and then some, but the thought of having to race from the tarmac to the shops was asking for a bit much, especially since the journey from the airport would be no walk in the park, requiring stamina, patience and fortitude, having to forfeit valuable shopping hours, as we navigated through the congested rush-hour traffic via countless buses and coaches.  The Kid had no clue as to what was in store, as her long-anticipated Limo ride was just a delusional teen-aged fantasy gone wrong, most likely brought on by watching one too many episodes of “The Real Housewives of Somewhere Rich and Glamorous”.

Snivelling and whining whilst crammed into the back of the passenger coach, my niece pouted and sobbed, loudly declaring this to be her “worst holiday ever!”  Trapped amongst the other budget conscious back-packing globe-trotters, the Kid lamented her chauffer-less status, appalled at the indignity of not hobnobbing with the “crème de la crème” of jet-setting royalty.  I, on the other hand, was pleased as punch at having now saved bucket-loads of money by choosing to travel with National Coach Express for an economical £6 per person.

With the bus having deposited us at Victoria Coach Station, smack dab in the middle of London, believing the worst to be behind her, the Kid was unprepared to now have to schlep her luggage on yet another pedestrian coach (like, seriously?) - Bus #73 to Marble Arch, a mere hop, skip and a jump away from my London digs – in reality, more like a 15 minute sprint along Bayswater Road, if you race along at a really fast clip. 

Having now devoted an entire day sequestered on all forms of public transit, I was now more or less an unofficial expert on “How to get to Heathrow in 8 hours or less”, offering valuable tidbits of Info to a small minority of claustrophobic Tube avoiding transit passengers – while also providing a much-needed valuable public service.  Something to most definitely think about if ever contemplating quitting my day job and re-locating to the other side of the world across the pond.

With dinner time fast approaching, and the shops open until at least 8:00pm, the kind-hearted Auntie in me suggested that the Kid and I stroll along Oxford Street to get a bite to eat and amble along London’s hustling and bustling chaotic pedestrian thorough-fare.  Home to over 300 shops - from budget low-end Primark - to high-end designer ware department store emporium, Selfridges - this shopping mecca is the “go to” destination for locals and foreigners alike.  Approximately one and a half miles long, this insanely congested street offers a little bit of something for everyone.   Whether scrounging for tacky trinkets and souvenirs or merely indulging in people-watching, Oxford Street is not to be missed, encompassing the feel and essence of the British capital.

Not hearing a peep or sound from my niece since her mortifying yet humbling bus journey from the airport, I was secretly relieved to hear the Kid utter an exuberant squeal upon spotting trendy “Topshop”, a British based retailer offering designer inspired fashion at bargain basement prices.  Abandoning me at the curb, Miss Fashionista darted across the street and disappeared into the shop, emerging about an hour later.  Loaded down with carrier bags, the Kid was in her glory, screeching in delight as she proceeded to race towards chic, cheap and cheerful Primark, where she was not seen again until Security politely escorted her out upon the shop’s closing hours.  Declaring this to be her “best holiday ever!” the Kid was all smiles, her traumatizing bus journey long forgotten.  Go figure??

Pink Sneaker Helpful Tidbits of Info on navigating London streets via public transit

With London being quite the expensive city, one doesn’t have to break the bank to travel around the city via taxi cab or chauffeur driven Limo, with public transit so accessible and affordable. Except, of course, if you’re a claustrophobic like me, who will avoid the underground Tube at all costs, scooting around town is a slightly more challenging task, but an entirely do-able one, nonetheless.

One can save truckloads of money by opting to hop on a National Express coach to Heathrow from Victoria Coach Station for an economical price of £6.  The bus ride is an approximate 40 minutes or so, depending upon traffic.  Give yourself plenty of time and elect to take an earlier bus, thus avoiding the headache of a possible traffic jam.  Buses leave every half hour.

If you’re brave enough, I understand that commuting via the Underground is also a speedy and efficient way in which to get around London - but don’t quote me on that, as my pink-sneakered feet instead chose to walk, and thus avoided going anywhere near the Tube.

If in London for a couple of days, I suggest purchasing an Oyster Card, a plastic Smart Card that you top up on a “pay as you go” basis. Valid on all forms of public transit, this electronic pass is a cheap and economical method of paying for your fare.  I actually never got one because I chose to walk absolutely everywhere.

If in a pinch, hop in one of London’s well-known Black Cabs, which are surprisingly affordable, - one cabby told me that all of the cab drivers are required to pass a rigorous test in which they have to memorize more than 25,000 central London streets, a learning process that takes several years to complete.

Come hang out in London and traverse all forms of transit as we strive to navigate the city cheaply and economically – while also indulging in a bit of people-watching and shopping on bustling Oxford Street. 

Next week – Off to Carnaby Street in search of burgundy Doc Martens – the adventure continues!!