When I was waiting for my Belgian visa to be approved in the summer of 2014, I had to leave the Schengen Area – 26 continental European countries excluding Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Cyprus – so I put myself in London. (Americans can only spend three consecutive months in an EU member country without a visa.) I have some friends there and love its vibe. Its patchwork of 32 boroughs surrounding the City of London, the historic financial district of one square mile, gives the sprawling metropolis of 607 square miles a neighborhood feel.
That June, I rented a tiny extra “room” (more like a walk-in closet) of an acquaintance in the developing northwest neighborhood of Clapton. Its selling points were being near the River Lea, which has kilometers of running trails, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (nod to the current summer Olympics) and the Lea Rowing Club, where you can learn the sport. While I did not, I did meet a woman at the club who recruited me for a dragon boat race, an ancient Chinese tradition for the summer solstice, and got me cheap, last-minute theater tickets throughout London. (She helped theaters fill unsold seats.)
Among many cultural events, London is arguably best known for theater. There are loads of venues open year-round and, in the summer, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. The quality is world class, and I was fortunate to see about 20 shows that summer for an average of only $15 each thanks to my contact! Meeting her made living uncomfortably in dodgy Clapton worthwhile … for a while. But it required organization since my commute to central London was an hour. I would pack a bag for the whole day, working from an office in Liverpool and going to the theater or elsewhere afterwards, returning to Clapton only to sleep.
While my flat mate was on holiday in early July, my Belgian friend, Nele, came over to visit. We went to Taste of London, an annual food fest featuring many of the city’s restaurants and British gastronomy products, and Wimbledon tennis tournament. We got tickets by arriving early at the entrance and cueing for several hours, a long-standing democratic tradition of Wimbledon. We watched several matches, eating signature strawberries and cream in between. Around 4 pm, Nele left to catch her train and I bought a “recycled” ticket for about $20 to center court to watch Novak Djokovic beat his opponent!
After sweltering in the small, unairconditioned flat for two months in Clapton, which is only connected to London via a train, not Tube (metro), line, I took the plunge and rented a one-bedroom flat in Notting Hill in central London (zone 1) for a month. It was well worth the most expensive rent ($4,000!) I’ve ever paid in my life. It was nothing special as a garden apartment in mediocre condition, but the location was top in the southwest near Kensington Palace and Hyde Park.
Notting Hill features the bohemian Portobello Road Market, which sells clothing, accessories and antiques for reasonable prices. It also has the cool Electric Cinema, where you can watch movies in luxury reclining seats with armchair food service, and Kensington Gardens, a paradise for runners and high tea lovers. The Orangery in the gardens has one of the city’s best high teas (think scones, clotted cream, jam and mini sandwiches) in the midst of greenery.
Every weekend, I ventured around and out of Notting Hill to see sights like the Tower of London and to walk other cool neighborhoods like Mayfair and Primrose Hill. Mayfair is filled with elegant Georgian townhouses, exclusive hotels and gourmet restaurants. Primrose Hill features a park with panoramic views of the city, pastel-colored Regency Era townhouses and Victorian townhouses.
Entertaining tours of the tower are led by Beefeaters, formally known as (big breath) Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London and Members of the Sovereign’s Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary. They are the ceremonial guardians of the British crown jewels and formerly prisoners in the tower. They have guided tours there since the Victorian era and live on the premises. (Beefeater gin is named after them.)
On a neighborhood walk of Hampstead Heath, I stumbled upon the Kenwood House, an English Heritage property that’s a hidden gem. It has beautiful architecture, extensive manicured gardens and an impressive art collection, including a Rembrandt painting.
In early August, I toured around an American friend, Monty, and his daughter, Ava. I took them to Buckingham Palace, the queen’s residence; Westminster government area with Big Ben clock tower; The Shard which looks like its name and has stunning views of the River Thames; foodie Borough Market, fashionable Spitalfield’s Market and gritty Camden Market. We rode the London Eye high-tech Ferris wheel, ate at an interactive table at Inamo restaurant, escaped from a clueQuest room and saw two shows in the Theatre District. It was a fantastic introduction to life outside of the United States for then 14-year-old Ava, who was abroad for the first time.
“Mind the Gap,” Monty joked every time we got on the Tube in mockery of the recorded voice that warns people to watch their step between the platform and train. (He even bought a sweatshirt to “mind” it permanently.)
Shortly after Monty and Ava left, I met a French man in London. Knowing I was a foodie, he took me on our first date to Archipelago restaurant, which serves up exotic meats and insects. I tasted zebra, kangaroo and python carpaccio but drew the line at the “Love Bug” salad with maggots and mealy worms. (He ate the latter, so I joked “don’t even think of kissing me!”) This is just one example of many unusual things you can find in London.
The end of August features the Notting Hill Carnival, the largest street event in Europe, which is second only to Rio de Janeiro’s carnival in size. (Interestingly, this Brazilian- and Caribbean-inspired parade and party was born out of racial tension that inspired community action.) Dancing to steel drums was the perfect send-off – followed by tunes on the community piano in Kings-Cross St. Pancras train station – before I returned to Brussels on Sept. 1.
It was a summer of exploration and unexpected adventures in a city that has since been one of my favorites in the world. I visit it often and know it so well that I can give guided tours. If I don’t know something, I simply say: “Mind the gap!”