Freedom Day in London | EUROPE TRIP

April 25, 2014

Day 4- London

It was our last day in England and we were allowed a free pass to explore the city as we wished, to spend endless hours in parks or watch three musicals in a row it we wanted, whatever tickled our fancy.

While attending musicals would have been great for me but disastrous for Mom,  I came up with a brilliant plan but it all had to seem spontaneous and relaxed because a  ‘free’ day isn’t about meeting schedules and time to the second. It’s about letting it happen.

Our first stop was Abbey Road, the Mecca for any Beatle fan.  After passing by the little Beatles themed shop at St. John’s Wood station, it was only a short walk away and before we knew it there was Abbey Road Studio, a gated white house to the left. The studio is closed to the public and just as well. I might have fainted if I set one foot inside.

Like ourselves, fans settle for leaving their appreciation for the Beatles on the walls of the gates. Some doodle John, Paul, George and Ringo’s faces while others write down a few verses of their favorite songs. Prepared with a permanent marker in my purse, I wrote down thanks. Thanks for the words, for the inspiration, for the funny and sad stories. Thank you for being my teachers and my friends. Thank you for the music.

We could have left it at that, but my aunt thought my late father, her brother, should stay as close to Abbey Road as possible. And now he always will be.

If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have known what music is capable of. Life would have been immensely grey without knowing ‘Norweigan Wood’ ‘I get by with a little help from my Friends’ and our song ‘In my Life’. Without him, so much would have gone by unnoticed. Yet, if someone were to ask me which is one the greatest gift my father gave me, I would say the Beatles and all the memories that are played to their melody.  So thank you, Dad. Thank you. Always.

We couldn’t leave without attempting to recreate the iconic picture, all of us walking coolly to the right. But after getting the direction wrong, Mom taking my place as Lennon and also stopping in the middle to smile at the camera, I was disappointed at my ‘crew’ and we called it quits.

Soon it was lunchtime and we headed to Covent Garden to check out the activity. With quaint shops, gastropubs and street performances in every corner, Covent Garden is one of those districts that no matter how many times you’ve been there, there is always something new to enjoy and explore. I always find it so familiar when I recognize shops and places I have seen since my first visit to London 8 years ago. I always remember a pub called The White Lion where I had my first pint at the age of 16. I remember with every detail the taste of the chewy cookies from the tiniest shop called Ben’s Cookies, wedged into a little corner in the Covent Garden Market. In that same building I never forget to look down to the first level where you always see a gigantic pan used to cook  an enormous paella. Even though it’s irrelevant to Covent Garden’s vibrant energy, I always search for these things, like little treasures I left behind and I want to make sure they are still where I left them.

Once again, I was in luck. The square was invaded by tons of tent booths selling all kinds of food, refreshing drinks and pastries. Even if you weren’t hungry, it was just as fun to walk by slowly and notice all the delicacies they were selling- freshly squeezed lemonade, tubs of olives stuffed with peppers or cheese, soaking in brine and olive oil and thick slices of cheesecake and poppy seed muffins drizzled with lemon glaze. The sizzling sound of grilled meat being tossed with peppers and onion meant to be stuffed into a soft roll made my mouth water. After walking by all the tents, we were starvin marvin.

Mark and I opted for that grilled meat sandwich and savored it as we strolled by Jubilee Market. They were selling every type of trinket like journals bound in aged leather, glass clocks, vintage necklaces and band T-shirts. I found a black Abbey Road tee for nine pounds. It was fate. I couldn’t leave it. But my people performed a small intervention before I walked away with three new journals and five bracelets and ten tops. I have an avid love for useless things.

Afterwards we went to experience London Eye, a must for every first timer. I had been on it two years before and I was immediately filled with regret I hadn’t done this on my very first visit to London. It was an experience that for some reason brought out my inner child. Maybe it’s because it resembles the biggest ferris wheel ride you will ever be on, but it had helped me appreciate the city more. I wanted Mom to have that as well.

The queue for London Eye was long but we were told not to worry. It moves quite fast. Before we had time to worry about how long it would take, we were given 3D glasses and taken to a room to watch a short film about the construction and meaning of London Eye. The observation wheel, which looks like a huge white bicycle wheel with 32 capsules, was added to the city to welcome the millennium and eventually became a symbol of London like the Eiffel Tower for Paris. Frankly, there is no better way to observe the city than this.

We were lucky it was one of those rare sunny days in London because as we ascended slowly in the glass and steel capsule, we were able to see every bit of the city. The forty minute ride seems slow, giving us enough time to stop all the buildings illustrated in the guide we got beforehand. As it keeps moving, the panoramic view broadens and if you are lucky, you might get to see up to 40 kilometres in all directions, as far as Windsor Castle. Even though it was a bright day, I wasn’t able to spot it.
By the time our ride was over, it was almost time for dinner and I had this amazing idea to get my family to try proper Indian Cuisine. But that is a whole other story. Really. Click here to know all about it.

LAZY SATURDAY | British Virgin Islands

April 19, 2014

It’s Holy Week and in Puerto Rico you either spend it watching religious movies at home or going to the beach. Two years ago, I decided to break the rules and get some sun… all the way to the British Islands.

I had the time of my life and every year around Holy Week, I remember sandy white beaches, Bushwhackers and relaxing in Tortola. 

Here are some pictures of those good ol’ days. I hope you enjoy!

Getting to Know London | EUROPE TRIP

April 16, 2014

Day 3- London

At seven o’ clock in the morning, still disoriented and tired, I faced one of the hardest choices one makes in their first days in England. Do I have my bagel with coffee, what I’m used to, or tea, what should I be drinking? It is no easy decision. I could have a 40 minute conversation arguing both sides. But there was no time for that and as much as I had become fond of tea, by force and overabundance, I stuck to coffee for the extra boost of energy this long day would require. Pardon, Britain.

Outside of the hotel, the group was guided to the tube, only a block away. There were still many unfamiliar faces and everyone was slowly integrating. But while we all still didn’t know each other’s names, the language made sure no one would get lost. It’s hard to find an additional Puerto Rican in England at this time that wasn’t part of our group.

We were scheduled for a bus tour through London but we had no idea what that entailed. And to my eternal disappointment, it was not a double-decker bus.

We drove around the city with our cameras in hand ready for any landmark while feeling weird about being on the wrong side of the road. Every turn seemed like a car crash waiting to happen.

Everyone took pictures as our tour guide pointed out all the big names- Westminster Abbey, Tower Bridge, London Eye and Parliament. With every landmark, he would add a bit of historic information that kept it colorful.

As much as I understand the practicality of a tour bus and how it’s a helpful introduction for the tourist, there is always something odd about it. Here we are, newcomers to this place, eager and curious, yet we are forced to admire it from inside a capsule of metal and glass. Look, but don’t go near it. Admire it, but only for a second and then forever with a photograph. You could go through every street of a city and never set foot in it.

However, I understood it was what we signed up for and if you want to see 11 cities in 30 days, you better pick up the pace.

Our first stop was back at St. Paul’s Cathedral, my favorite. I’m not sure why I love it more than Westminster. I think it’s because Westminster Abbey reminds me of royalty, of blue blood weddings and funerals, and St. Paul’s will always remind me of Mary Poppins and ‘Feed the Birds’…tuppence a bag.

 Yet we didn’t stay for long, to my disappointment, because it was almost 11:30 and it was time to head over to Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guards.

I’ve seen it at least four times in the past 6 years, yet it never fails to impress me. It’s fascinating; the magnificent palace behind them, their discipline and coordination has become a performance for all tourists.
Changing the Guard is simply the process that involves the new guard exchanging duty with the old guard at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. The handover is accompanied by the Guard’s band and they play traditional military marches.

Observers and first timers gather around Queen Victoria’s statue that faces the palace while the rest line up along the main road where the new shift will march in. Everyone is looking for the perfect spot to photograph the Queen’s guards in their flawless formation with bright red coats and the iconic bearskins. Their discipline and grasp for tradition made me feel like I was suddenly in another time, a few centuries ago, as the marched to the beat of a drum and the melody of trumpets.
It goes by faster than you’d think, so it is always smart to arrive 15 to 30 minutes early.

Once it was over, we made our way back to the bus for the second part of the tour, which included passing by Hyde Park, historic buildings and a quick peek of Covent Garden.

We finished the day once again by the South Bank, this time with a closer and ample view of Tower Bridge, decorated with the five Olympic rings that signalled the games would soon start.
Dinner was scheduled at Wagamama and you could have anything you wanted, as long as it was a heaped bowl of noodles with chicken and a ginger sauce.

A rumour soon spread that we weren’t really eating chicken thighs but iguana meat. When the rumour made its way to my table, I paused a mouthful of noodles and mysterious meat still intact in my mouth. I really couldn’t back down now. That would be too much of a scene. Instead, I braved it and chewed slowly and carefully, waiting for the foreign meat to hit my taste buds. And in the end, it was actually pretty good.

After dinner, everyone was saying it was really a joke and no iguanas had been injured in order to prepare our meal. But even now, years later, I always tell people I had iguana for the very first time in London. And it tasted just like chicken.