Monday, June 20, 2011

Our European trip part 5 - London

After an interrogative time (unbelievable but typical) at the Tel Aviv airport, we were relieved to get to London late Thursday evening. We checked into a darling bed and breakfast inn called the Cartref House just in time for the Royal Wedding of William and Catherine the next morning! After a good night’s sleep, we enjoyed a fresh cooked proper English breakfast (fluffy scrambled eggs, ham, toast and jam, grilled tomato and pineapple) by our host Allison (British pronounciation: “Allie-son”).


On the steps of our B & B


We had originally planned to avoid the wedding site and the crowds like the plague, but in the morning, as we ventured out, we couldn’t resist the fanfare and excitement in the air. We soon found ourselves amongst the masses hoping to get a glimpse of the Royal Couple. We actually made our way quite close to Westminster Abbey, but our view was obstructed and we could only hear the cheers that must have been the bride and groom’s arrival.




This was our view of the Abbey. We weren't really all that far away!


Later in the day, we got a more close up view.


Britain was so festively decorated for the occasion.


As our B & B host Allison said, "Britain loves their dysfunctional Royal Family!"

We departed the scene after the ceremony got underway, and after a fabulous lunch at Pret a Manger (a chain that puts Starbucks to shame, more on that later), we arrived at the Tower of London for a tour. It was interesting and we got to see the crown jewels – amazing! One of the crowns (“the crown of the Queen Mother”) has a 105 karat diamond! And some are over 600 years old. Naturally, they don’t let you take any pictures, and you must ride on a moving sidewalk thing as you view the crowns (as if you would try to break into one of the glass cabinets and take one with all the security hanging around - nevertheless, they still prefer to keep you moving). Anyways, we then rode a Catalina-type boat down the river Thames, which was really nice and picturesque. We walked around quite a bit, enjoying London, seeing Buckingham Palace, London Bridge, Big Ben and more. We also took a few cab rides and they were awesome! All the cabs there are the same; they are specially made cars for cab service. They are very nice, seat 5, and are practically materialize out of nowhere when you need one. And the cab drivers are so gentlemanly; it is a good and coveted job to be a cabbie in London, so you don’t see scary drivers like New York!


Ahh... Pret a Manger... please come to America.



Enjoying a cab ride!



Buckingham Palace. Crowds were hoping to see Will & Kate escape to their honeymoon, but a security guard we talked to laughed and said that they were "long gone."

Later that afternoon, we went for tea at Fortnum and Mason, a delightful and fancy store with a tea room on the 4th floor. It was really over the top… we sat at couches and overstuffed chairs and we each had our own personal tea pot. We filled up big-time on scones, tea sandwiches, and other amazing little desserts. Then, after tea we headed over to see the show Love Never Dies, the new sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, a fave show of ours. Love Never Dies was sensational! If you are a Phantom fan, I don’t want to ruin it for you (the show is most likely heading to NYC next and maybe someday to LA), so suffice it to say you will be surprised by the way that Andrew Lloyd Weber wrote the play to fit in perfectly between the time that the Opera Populaire burns and when the Phantom is visiting Christine’s grave at the end. In my opinion, no music can top Phantom, but the music in this show was surprising good and was quite harmonious with Phantom as well. We really enjoyed it and of course, a visit to the stage door is always a must with young ladies in tow. They happily received autographs and photos with the stars of the show.



One floor seemed to be all candy, displayed exquisitely.


Our tea delicacies. Yum!

The next day, we headed out for a double-decker bus ride around the city. What fun! It was a “hop-on, hop-off” type tour, so we rode most of the day, hopping off to see sights along the way. The tour guides were funny and informative and we really enjoyed it. A tour bus is actually a great way to see a new city in a small amount of time. At one stop we had lunch at Wagamama, a place a friend recommended to us. Weird name, but great food – all noodle based dishes and super gourmet. We loved it.


Wagamama lunch.



Can you guess where this is? It's actually McDonald's. They are quite nice in London, and I noticed that the female workers wear dresses for uniforms.


My kinda place - in the train station there were many shops and eateries.


Riding the tour bus.


London's street performers are commissioned by the city. This lady (right side- in gray dress) was singing opera and had her baby in a stroller next to her.

That night, after some authentic fish and chips for dinner, we headed to yet another show… the day before we had passed the theater where Wicked was showing and the girls gave Rich puppy dog eyes… so we decided to get some tickets for our last night, Saturday. We got cheap, nosebleed seats, but it was still fun to go and experience the show there in London. The girls were so excited!


Tickets!! Yay... thanks Daddy!


Dressed up London style for the show. We all bought hats for London, but Stephanie was the only one who could find hers that day...


Love this shot of Emma.

After our whirlwind trip, it was now time to hop a plane back to America. We flew on an 11 hour non-stop flight back early Sunday morning. The Tubbs picked us up at LAX and took us over to In-n-Out… it somehow felt good to be on American soil.

Now that I’ve taken hours of your valuable time to read through these Europe blog posts… I’ll wrap it up with some of my observations and what we learned about international travel. Feel free to leave now, if you've had enough!

First of all, I’d like to say that it was awesome to see a paper toilet seat cover upon returning home to LAX. You’d be glad just to see toilet paper in Europe and be able to go to the bathroom free of charge. We had to pay a few coins on occasion in France to use the bathroom, but in Florence, we actually paid $1.50 USD per person to use a restroom! Someone joked that your beverages are cheaper going in than out! Ha! At some bathrooms in Israel (particularly in the Old City), the girls and I took one look, and decided that we really didn’t have to go that bad after all! And some were just a hole in the ground; uh, we passed on those ones, too. So, American bathrooms were a welcome sight.

Secondly, you realize how many rules Americans have when you travel abroad. For example, in Paris, they have a bike rental system that enables you to rent a bike right on the street – you just slide your credit card and the bike is yours for the day for one euro. This would never work in California because you have to wear a helmet- it’s the law. Don’t get me wrong - I’m not against wearing helmets, but does it have to be a law? I think it should be up to each person whether or not they want to get brain damage if they fall while riding a bike. You can also park your car pretty much any way you want in Europe, within guidelines of course. Sometimes cars would be parked nose to nose (parallel parked) and a Smart Car would be parked perpendicular to them in between. It was totally acceptable as they were within proper boundaries, but you know in California your car would be towed lickety split if you dare try anything like that. And it would be like $350 to get your car back, as well.

Starbucks – You really can no longer enjoy Starbucks after going to Europe and London. In London, they have a local chain called Pret a Manger (“ready to eat”). Imagine the concept of Starbucks, except pretend that the coffee is actually good and hot, and imagine there are amazing pastries and ready to take out food from a refrigerated area. I’m not talking about Starbucks’ meager offerings of made 8 hours ago, mayo-laden chicken salad sandwiches or soggy granola on yogurt, but REAL food. Twenty or so different sandwiches on lovely breads, fresh fruit cups with things like pomegranite seeds inside, amazing homemade granola bars - these are all made fresh on the premises of Pret a Manger. What a concept! Oh, and I could eat their breakfast porridge and a croissant every day of my life. So good. I grabbed one last croissant and a couple of their granola bars before we departed London, just for good measure. We could do so much better in America – I wonder why we don’t.

Tip - Benadryl is a great friend to international travelers. I first discovered that Benadryl made me drowsy when I took some on a trip to Washington to combat new allergies from unfamiliar trees. I could barely drive after I took some. A friend told me that Benadryl is a very helpful friend when your system gets whacked out from time zone changes or when you need to get some sleep and you’re not tired. First of all, I took it on the way from L.A. to London – I waited until we had about 4 hours left in the flight and popped two. I slept about 3 ½ of those hours and had the sun not come up I might have snoozed a little more. Since Benadryl is only good for 4 hours, you don’t wake up drugged and groggy. I also found it helpful to take a couple Benadryl if I woke up in the middle of the night – that happened to me for the first 3 nights of our trip as my body thought I was in California, not Paris. Very helpful tip.

Your mantra should be: Pack light! Pack light! Pack light! The Harasicks have a hard time with this. Most of our airlines allowed you one 50 lb. bag for free (we only ran into trouble once - from Paris to Pisa - and got smacked with some unpleasant fees as their standards for weight were lower). If you even think you might want to bring home any souvenirs, be under 45 lb. on your luggage at the get-go. We initially all came in around 48-49 lb. which meant all souvenirs had to go in carry ons or risk being too heavy at check in. So, yes, I carried 4 hunks of my cheese in my carry on from Florence on. I’m not kidding. Next time, I will definitely allow for a little leeway in my suitcase.

Cell phones. This took us awhile to figure out. It seemed so complicated at first but was actually extremely simple. If you have an iPhone, all you need to do is turn off your cellular data and roaming, and disable your 3G. You are then left with just a phone. International minutes are about $1.25, so you use your phone only if you need it. We did not text. No need to add special plans or anything. And you just wait until you get on wifi to use your internet. That way, you come home to no surprises on your bill. Using your data in a foreign country can be very dangerous so we didn’t mess with it. We communicated to people back home via email or facebook.

Money. One of the smartest things we did was to get a special Capital One credit card for the trip. Capital One is the only credit card company I could find that offered no “foreign transaction fees.” All other credit cards charge 3-5% on every purchase you make. That can really add up. We also bought some foreign money (euros and pounds) before we left (your bank can order it, but we went to an exchange place downtown). We knew we could get some sheckels in Israel by writing a check at a money changer place that Drew used, so we waited. We used our credit card for most everything, and got cash out of ATM’s when we needed it. I think we only got cash a few times. With the exception of our little incident in Israel (scary restaurant), we never used U.S. dollars at all.

Safety. We were repeatedly warned about safety, and have friends who have been pickpocketed in Europe. We realized that you need to travel in such a way that you alleviate the worry of getting robbed, so you can enjoy yourself. So, for one, none of us used our pockets for anything valuable, i.e money or phones, because we rode frequently on the subways, and walked everywhere. Rich carried a small messenger bag that included all our passports, a couple phones, and money. It was a nice security type one with special two-step zippers that he found at Sport Chalet. No one could walk up and unzip it and take anything. Each of us had a small amount of money (5 euro) on our person in case of emergency (like getting separated and needing to make a phone call or get transportation). Stephanie and I carried no purses, though Emma carried a purse-like camera bag (bless her heart).

How did we plan this trip? I have to say, it took a LOT of time and research. We talked to many people who had gone to the same places, getting their opinions and recommendations. We also perused quite a bit and poured over travel books. Booking our 7 plane flights was especially stressful as I didn’t want to make any mistakes. The foreign sites can be tricky to navigate. We also got as many advance tickets as we could, i.e. train tickets, Eiffel Tower time, Bike tour, London bus, shows, tea time, as well as our airport transfers. This ensured that we had the time slot for things we wanted to do, yet didn’t make us feel like we were on a strict schedule. We made copies of all our tickets, as well as all our passports, and kept them in a separate bag. Also, before we left, Rich typed out our daily itinerary, inserting anything we had at a certain time, just so we had a framework for each day. We brought our travel books along as well, just in case we wanted to browse through for reference, and Rich actually carried one around most of the time. We liked the Rick Steves series as well as the Unoffical guide to ______ (insert place). Rich was amazing at leading us around everywhere. He had the trip planned well enough to be able to do all we wanted to, yet left it flexible enough to let the day dictate what we did. He always led us to the best places to get gelato, too! Thank you, hon, we all appreciate your leadership - our trip wouldn't have been as successful without all you did for us.

Food. Last but not least, you didn’t think I’d end this post without talking a little bit about the food, did you? I have to say, some of my favorite things were just the simple cappuccino and croissant or antipasti bars at certain places. We had good croissants in every country (even Israel) that far exceeded my favorite bakery (Berolina) here at home. In Italy, we did have pasta, and to be honest, it was good but not great. It’s served al dente there and it’s a bit more chewy. And I’ve actually had better risotto at Off Vine (one of my fave L.A. spots). We did have some righteous pizza in Rome though! And the gelato was AMAZING if you hit a good place (others could be so-so). Drew warned us that we might not like the food in Israel, but we loved it! We mostly had schwerma and falafel, which was great. I was really into their tahine sauce- so good! Thankfully you can get good middle eastern food here in the states (we like Zankou). London was great as well. We didn’t have much “English” food per se, but we hit a great place that was recommended to us called Wagamama, which was an upscale noodle restaurant. It was awesome. And, as I mentioned earlier, we frequented Pret a Manger and also had some good fish and chips at a pub. All in all, we all came home actually having lost a few pounds, as we walked so much, climbed to the top of a lot of towers and such, and even biked. We were always moving.

This truly was the trip of a lifetime for our family. Rich and I had never traveled abroad in our lives, and this was a great time to do it with our kids, before they head off to lives of their own in a few short years. We were also extremely blessed to be able to take Stephanie with us. She somehow tolerates us all quite well (!), and it truly wouldn’t have been the same without our sweet "extra" daughter along. My heart is filled with gratitude as I think about the sweet time God allowed us all to have as a family, seeing such amazing places.

I would like to conclude by thanking my sweet Emma for all the amazing photos. All the photos you see on my blog were taken by her. She served our family greatly by lugging her 92 lb. camera around (okay, slight exaggeration, but it is heavy). What you see here is just a smidgeon of the 4000+ images she took of our wonderful adventure. The many photos provide us with fond memories to last a lifetime. Thank you so much, Emms!!

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1 comment:

Mrs. Dan said...

I loved reading all of your posts, Karen! It looks like a wonderful trip.

I thought the same thing about Pret-a-Manger when I got back from London. I was reading an article a few years ago that said it would never work in the States because Americans want to personalize everything so much. This makes it hard for things to be pre-made and ready to grab. Oh, and that the British use way more mayo than we do. I don't know if all this is true, but FWIW... ;)