Hello London!

Last month I spent a week in London. It was work that took me there but this trip blended work and leisure in a brilliant way. My introduction to London was in school, the first time I started to visualize the city was while reading the Harry Potter series. JK Rowling painted London as this charming, mystical place that harboured many a secrets hidden away under its bustling city life.

For the first two days, I stayed at Knightsbridge because it was closer to where all my work commitments were. And then the most magical part of the trip began……when Anagha arrived from Chicago. :). There are no words that could describe my happiness of seeing her.  Many months ago when I received the invite for this event in London, this seemingly chimerical idea of us meeting in London began to take shape over a WhatsApp conversation. Once both our visas came through, the excitement of meeting Anagha in  London far overtook all the excitement of the actual work I was going there for (which itself was quite interesting).

This trip, unlike any other trip of mine, was not about the place at all. It was about people – topping that list was Anagha of course, also over the week I met all my of friends from UK working in teacher development and the last day after Anagha left, I spent with a person that I very unabashedly adore, admire and love so very much! So this trip was all about people – not the sights, not the activities, not shopping, not food – just people, is what made this week so magical and memorable.

Within half an hour of arriving at my hotel, I was on my way to meet a friend who runs a teacher development organization that operates in Sub-Saharan Africa and a few other regions in Asia. I enjoyed a long coffee with him and his colleague talking about their experiences of training teachers across different contexts. Swapping notes about how very different yet similar education looks across countries is always a fascinating conversation. And later for dinner I met another friend along with his colleague who works to connect highly qualified university students in UK to low-income schools across London. Without internet on your phone, it can be quite a task to figure out the way to get to some place. I found the place thankfully but I reached over 20 minutes late for dinner.

Though my hotel was right behind the very famous Harrods, I was somehow not ever intrigued enough to walk in. A section of Harrods was under construction. The sign on the front facade read ‘We are sorry for our appearance. We will up and about in a week!’  Height of English politeness – a building was apologizing to me for its appearance! :)

day-1_harrods

The next morning Anagha arrived in London.  She reached the hotel, got ready in under 30 minutes, grabbed some breakfast that I had thankfully pre-ordered and we were on our way to visit one of London’s most successfully run academy schools. I love visiting schools in different countries. It is always an intriguing experience to see how cultural, political and social influences shape education across contexts. This visit was arranged for by another lovely friend of mine who leads the teacher training for this chain of schools. We visited classrooms, sat in on lessons, interacted with the school leader and met a few teachers. Visiting the kindergarten classroom was the highlight for me. It is always a therapeutic, happiness inducing experience to be with kindergarten kids. In fact, if I were to ever go back to teaching, I would love to teach a kindergarten class.

day-2_school1

After spending half the day in school, Anagha and I came back to the hotel and napped for a bit. Around evening, she left to spend time with an old college friend while I headed out to a work event. With that event, most of my work commitments were done and the next morning, we started our exploration of London.

When Anagha put this on the Google spreadsheet, I was a little unsure but having done it, I would say it is a must-have experience in London. I’m talking about a half day biking tour of London that we both thoroughly enjoyed. From the hotel at Knightsbridge, we took a long, long walk (wasn’t long enough I’d say) through the beautiful Hyde Park early that morning to reach the Queensway Tube station which was the starting point for the biking tour. It was a group of eight people. After we met, we picked out the bikes and helmets and off we went. It was a beautiful ride that started out in Hyde Park, went through the royal gardens surrounding Kensington Palace and eventually took us to the Houses of the Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and Trafalgar Square. Our guide was a very well-read man with an excellent sense of humor.

day-3_cycling

He was pretty excited to have two girls from India on his group for the first time so he took us a landmark which was of historical importance to India – the Robert Clive memorial.  Clive isn’t remembered very lovingly in India for obvious reasons. At this point, I asked Joe (our guide) how most Britishers feel about the colonial oppression of India. He said that given the Empire’s overwhelming legacy of colonization, most Britishers take it in and live with it as a part of their history but also they don’t feel that it is their personal guilt to bear. [On a side note, if you haven’t watched this, please do. Shashi Tharoor speaking at the Oxford Union on the subject of Britain owing India reparations.]

The weather was beautiful throughout the ride. After the ride, we did something that became sort of an everyday routine after that. Anagha typed on Yelp – “Indian restaurants nearby”. :) This took us to Punjab – apparently one of UK’s first Indian restaurants. After a well-deserved, hearty meal, we set off to see St. Paul’s Cathedral.

day-3_punjab

Later that night, we moved into a hostel in Soho. We were told repeatedly by people that Soho is where you experience the vibrant nightlife of London. While planning Anagha asked me, “Do we need to book a room at all that night? We’d be out for most part, right?” To which I replied, “We are 30 now. We WILL need to sleep. :)” But turns out, she was right. As unbelievable as it was to me, we got back to our hostel at 4 AM in the morning. It was such a fun night – both my friends from Day 1 joined in to lead this night of pub hopping and Anagha’s very sweet friend from college also joined in – so together all of five us had quite an amazing time. Everyone left at about 2 AM I after which Anagha and I sat down to talk, really talk for the first time since she got here. There’s really no replacement in life for a good friend – you can busy yourself in work, get engaged in a thousand other ways, take up hobbies but few things in life come close to the peace and joy that a conversation with a close friend brings.

day-3_soho

The next morning at about 9 AM, we packed our bags and stuffed them into the baggage room at our hostel and set off for a BIG awesome English breakfast. The place that Anagha had found on TripAdvisor was unfortunately not doable because it was super crowded. We settled on another cute looking café and had a lovely, big breakfast. My head was spinning just by looking at the mind boggling variety of delectable desserts, freshly baked croissants and donuts.

day-4_bfast

day-4_happiness

After breakfast, we took a tube to Greenwich. This is birthplace of – Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). But we didn’t really have time to stop at the Royal Observatory because we were focused on following google maps to reach the start point of our kayak tour.

Yes! We spent four hours kayaking up the Thames from Greenwich upto the London Bridge and back. It was surreal. Absolutely fascinating experience! Any one in London I mentioned this to was surprised to hear about it, maybe because it was such an off beat thing to do. [Again, the credit wholly goes to Anagha for her superb planning!]

day-4_kayak

On our way back, our enthusiastic guide, an Irishman settled in London, dropped us off at a very historic pub – The Mayflower at Rotherhithe Village.  Mayflower was the name of the ship carried the Pilgrims from Plymouth to America (or the New World) in 1620. From this pub, you can spot the original 1620 mooring point of the ship. An elderly gentleman by the name Simon, who was with us on the kayaking trip accompanied us to the pub. He retired about two years ago and has dedicated his golden years to discovering the city he was born and raised in. He knew so much about London and his excitement was palpable when he was talking the significance of this historic spot where we were sitting and sipping our ciders.

day-4_mayflower

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After a lovely conversation, we walked back together to the train station where we said goodbye. Then we headed over to Leicester Square where we walked about, had some coffee and bought tickets to a show.

Next day, we spent doing the touristy stuff – we saw Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace, went to the park near London Eye after which we headed over to Covent Garden for souvenir shopping. We ended the day watching Thriller Live! – a musical celebrating Michael Jackson. Did I enjoy it? Hmm… the technical aspects, yes. I mean it was brilliant to watch a show at scale like this – the extravagant sets, the inventive props, the vibrant band, beautiful costumes, lighting effects – all of it,  was just awe-inspiring. But I really don’t know much about Michael Jackson or his songs, so I wasn’t enjoying it as much as most of the people there. In an ideal world, I would have sprung for ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ or ‘Matilda’ or or wait, of course,  ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ (It was right there!) – but all of them were insanely expensive. So just for the experience of it, we went with Thriller.

day-5_buckingham

Anagha left early morning, the next day. As I was walking back at 6 AM from the station, I thought of the first conversation I had with her. It was the first year of college, we were all in the mechanical lab or workshop (or whatever it was called). Someone, I think it was Sampi, said something about Anagha being from Chikhli and I just looked up and said;

“Chic-lee, what a cute name!”

She looked up from end of the table and said;

“Great! Why don’t your name your first child that!– Chikhli”

I was stunned to say the least. That was my introduction to Anagha.:) She has no memory of this conversation but in my head it’s clear as day.  A month or so passed and the college cultural fest came up, I saw the notice for the inter-departmental debate competition and somehow the only person in the class of 75 students, I  sought out as my debate partner was her. To this day, I don’t know why I thought of asking her but I’m glad I did. And somehow she went with it. For the next 3 years after that we were a team. The final year of college was special because we beat all other departments and won. :) Twelve years later, here we are.  With some people, there are so many memories that you don’t know know where to begin narrating, which incidents to start with, which trips to reminisce over, the iconic lines that must be mentioned, the highs, the lows, the indescribable moments that can never really be explained but the people involved know exactly what you’re talking about. Sometimes words really can’t do justice, can they? Words can be very limiting in trying to bring out the essence of relationships that have so much history. Maybe I don’t need to define or describe, maybe I only need to feel immensely grateful for having people like this in my life.

The day Anagha left was my last day in London. I had a quick work meeting at 11 AM at London Bridge. With Anagha gone, I had to start paying attention to the underground routes and navigating around the roads.  Oh by the way, my first wish when I thought of London was obviously to see the Harry Potter World. We somehow couldn’t fit it into our itinerary and also Anagha isn’t as much of a fan as I am. I was sad but there was no way to make it happen. Anagha, very sweetly, was determined to make sure that I at least got to Platform Nine and Three-Quarters. So after Buckingham Palace, we went to the beautiful King’s Cross station and got to see the magical Platform Nine and Three-Quarters. Of course, the serpentine line to get a picture there was not so magical at all. Anagha offered to stand in the line while I checked out the souvenir store but this would have taken at least half an hour and we had evening show tickets at Leicester Square so we had a hard choice to make.

day-4_platform-nine-and-a-three

day-4_kings-cross-station

And as much as I loved King’s Cross Station, I wasn’t as taken by Platform Nine and Three-Quarters. While reading the HP series, I had fallen so deeply in love with the world of Hogwarts that I was almost certain there was a seat on Hogwarts express with my name on it. And so I had imagined the entry way into Hogwarts Express to be a little more private than this. There were just too many people there at the station and I wasn’t feeling it. Alright, you can call me crazy now but I couldn’t really imagine myself getting on to Hogwarts Express once I got past this  little wall. Maybe we should have gone late at night or something.

Anyway coming back to my last day – after I got back from the meeting, I spent the day with one of my most favorite people on this planet. We took a long, long walk along the river from Putney to Hammersmith Bridge and then ate at a beautiful French restaurant by the river. It was the first time I heard someone order for a pigeon dish. A part of me felt very sad for the little pigeon. Usually I’m a chilled out vegetarian :) – I’m okay with chicken and the other regular animal stuff that shows up on Indian menus but the thought of a tiny baby pigeon bring cooked in sauce, did shake me up a little. I felt bad as I  gulped my cauliflower soup and eggplant salad with rocket leaves. After that lovely lunch, we said good bye to our friends and went over to Oxford Street for a little shopping. :) I wish I had a little more time here. A lot more time, actually.

My last dinner in London was at a lovely Middle Eastern restaurant in Warren Street with another friend of mine who’s one of the warmest people I know. He’s currently working on his book and it was fascinating to hear about his work and his struggles in the process of writing. His book will be out in 2018 in four countries. :) and he’s doing this will a full-time job. It’s amazing how some people just choose to live more, do more and be more – each passing day.

day-7_warren-street

That was my last night in London. Next morning, painfully early morning, I set off for the train station. It was about 5 AM in the morning as lugged my suitcase up the flight of stairs. I was sitting there waiting for the train to come when I saw a somewhat elderly couple (possibly in their early 60s) come up and sit on the bench next to me. They were deep in conversation, laughing and smiling. I thought to myself, how can anyone be so cheerful at such an ungodly hour! Look at me – anytime that I don’t get the full 8 hour stretch of sleep – I am grumpy. Period. I looked at them again and it suddenly came to me – they must be dating or in love or something like that. Because not only did they look happy, they also seemed to be full of topics to chatter about early in the morning and the lady’s soft peals of laughter rang through the silent, empty station. As she laughed, he stood there smiling at her.

Finally, a train came and we all got on. I asked the gentleman for directions to Heathrow and he said I could just follow them since they were going to the airport too. I started talking to them and discovered that they were going to the airport to pick up their youngest daughter and grandson who were coming in from South Africa. I was amazed. They had been married for 32 years now. She said that he had asked her for a coffee about 35 years ago and their conversations haven’t stopped since. :)

The final stop arrived and I said my goodbyes to them and to London. :)


                                                      

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