London Birthday Trip
In the Spring I went to visit my sick Grandmother in New York to say goodbye to her. It was a very special visit and I was thankful to have spent that time with her before she passed. I also spent time with my Aunt and Uncle that lived near my Grandma. They had just seen the Broadway show “Kinky Boots”. I had never heard of it but as they talked about it I became very interested in seeing it for myself. My Uncle said he even cried during it. That sold me on it! If it could move my burley mountain man Uncle to tears it HAD to be fabulous!
Shortly after I got back home I googled to check the closest city to me that Kinky Boots was showing. LONDON! Ah cool! Surely I could swing London! But as life goes, I got busy in the day to day stuff and kind of put the idea on hold for a bit. Then the UK announced they were leaving the EU and the value of the Pound dropped some. Which is the OPTIMAL time to travel to a place! When their currency is low. So I search tickets and found airfare for 50euro! Rountrip to London for 50Euro! With the perfect dates and times to travel there. A quick search found me a centrally located, highly rated hostel (ie-walking distance to theater and all the yummy places to eat along the way) with a private room for 42euro. Soho London hotels are usually really freaking spendy so 2 nights for 84euro is actually a steal. Booked!
I had a wonderful time in London. Usually travel for me involves a race of some sort, so to virtually have no real agenda was pretty liberating. And I’ll admit I LOVE traveling solo. Like hardcore LOVE it! It means I can wander freely, browse as I please, eat/drink where I want, sleep when I want, and just overall let my own interests and curiosities guide the experience. That is all super RARE in a family of six. So when I get the opportunity I embrace it fully!
As I was wandering freely I somehow ended up in a toy store. A crazy busy, noisy, 7 floor toy store. Completely kidless in London. And there I am in a toy store of all places. I swear there were magnetic powers at play that pulled me into Hamley’s. Maybe part of me has learned to function and thrive on noise, chaos, and the sounds of children laughing, crying, expressing joy, melting down, pleading, negotiating, exploring…and I just needed a little does of all that! I walked every floor and took some video and pictures to show my kids. Once I had my fill, I promptly headed to a super quiet tea room, lol.
A lot of things I did and saw in London made me think of my oldest son, JJ. When I returned home I showed him the pictures from my trip. I told him I wanted to take him there some day to enjoy the city together. He seemed excited about the idea. His 10th birthday was just around the corner. A full decade of life to celebrate! 10 years of mothering to celebrate! Turning 10 is definitely a milestone birthday and I started thinking what better way to celebrate than a special mom son weekend trip! Of course I wanted him to decide how he spent his birthday so I gave him the option of a friend’s party or a “just the two of us” weekend trip to London. He picked London. My heart soared!
As the oldest of three younger siblings, he is often the one compromising. Seems his ideas, interests, desires, and so forth are usually trumped by the needs and demands of younger ones. And he often assumes the role of “helper” during family outings; pushing a stroller, holding his brother’s hand, carrying stuff for me, entertaining his brothers as needed, opening doors, tying his brother’s shoes, sharing his snack, etc. He shoulders all of it with supreme patience, responsibility, and flexibility. But I wanted our trip to London to be all about him for a change. I told him whatever he saw that interested him we could stop and spend time enjoying together. He could pick where we ate, what we saw, what we did, and how we spent our time there. He could 100% call the shots!
I also wanted to use the trip to expose JJ to the world of adventure and travel; perhaps plant a little wanderlust seed in him. I wanted to show him how to travel on a budget. How to navigate public transportation. How to maximize a limited amount of time in a weekend city trip. How to pack lightly. Basically I wanted to show him some of the little travel tricks and tips I’ve collected along the way.
I gave him some ideas of things we could do while we there and the 3 that caught his interest were:
He also really wanted to visit a bookstore. He’d been wanting a book about Scotland for quite some time but I was having a hard time finding one for him in Dutch. He knew that we would likely be able to find one there (in English) so we added “visit bookstore” to our agenda.
Four agenda items was the perfect amount for a weekend trip as it would still allow time for spontaneity and to explore whatever sites caught our eye as we wandered the city. I also wanted to surprise JJ by getting his haircut at a real old fashion barbershop. The one and only time he’s been to a hairdresser was when he was about two years old. It was a terrible experience and ever since then we’ve just always clipped our boys’ hair ourselves. But I thought it might be sort of an induction to manhood to go to a barbershop. I booked our airfare and a hostel. Leading up to the trip I checked weather frequently. We were prepared for rain on Saturday and clear skies on Sunday.
Friday November 11
After a metro ride, a train ride, a plane ride, tube ride and lots of walking in between, we arrived at our destination. The buzz of the city was immediately infectious and even though it was pretty late, we got a huge surge of energy walking to our hostel. We checked in, dropped our bags, and walked the streets for a bit. Then we realized we were pretty hungry. Or maybe just all the smells of the yummy street food drew us in! Our hostel had a little Indian restaurant attached to it and we decided to get some munchies there. It was a bit of a hole in the wall so I went in kind of skeptical, but a quick scan of the place told me it was a popular joint. It wasn’t busy at that moment, but I could tell that it had been very busy earlier that night. And the food I did see on the few tables that were occupied looked really fresh and yummy (sometimes Indian food can just be a pile of grease and then the next day your tummy pays dearly). While we sat and chowed down on some seriously delicious food (we did several small plates) we looked at a map of the city and kind of planned our route for the next day. Forecast still called for rain so we decided to do mostly indoor things and to save riding the London eye for Sunday. With full bellies and a plan of action for the next day, sleepiness finally set in. We walked upstairs, crawled into bed, and passed out.
Saturday November 12
We scoped out the free breakfast at our hostel but it was a seriously weak spread so we opted to find a coffee house instead and thus began our London Coffee House Tour.
After breakfast we headed to the barbershop. JJ was a little nervous at first but the barber was super friendly and made JJ feel comfortable rather quickly. We had a little bit of time before the book store opened so we went to the café next door for a quick cup of coffee for me and hot chocolate for JJ. And of course we took some pictures of his handsome new haircut.
Next up was the bookstore. Walking through the bookstore was heavenly! All those beautiful books just begging to be read. I could have spent hours upon hours looking at all those books. We walked every floor of the store just for fun but then made our way to the children’s department. We were on a mission to find a book about Scotland. One of the workers there helped us find the PERFECT book. Score! Then we spent about an hour looking for another book to purchase. We wanted a good story book we could enjoy together. Preferably something with an element of fantasy. We settled on two books; The Wolf Brother and The Snow Spider.
It was very wet and chilly out but the bookstore was so cozy and warm that we decided to sit at the café for a while. Right when we entered JJ spotted a wooden chest set and asked if I wanted to play. Of course I did! We enjoyed two games of chest with our drinks. A soy cappuccino for me and a berry tea for JJ. He also had scone with jam and cream. How very English of him to enjoy a late morning cream tea! We had discovered scones with jam and clotted cream during our summer UK road trip and he was very excited to have an authentic one again. We sat for a while longer. We read from his Scotland book together. Then he read some on his own while I read from my own book. It was all very peaceful and relaxing.
Next up was the toy shop. JJ had some birthday money with him to spend and was excited to have a 7 floor toy shop to spend it at. The toy store was INSANE! It was crazy crowded but because it was just the two of us and I followed his lead, we navigated the crowds just fine. JJ kept saying “there are so many choices!”. We walked every floor and even though his brothers were at home with daddy, they were still close to JJ’s heart. He kept pointing out things he thought his brothers would like. So sweet! After a lot (A LOT) of contemplation he bought a magic flying disk thingy, a Lord of the Rings necklace, and a Harry Potter wand. He reminded me SO MUCH of myself in the decision making process; really needing to take his time and review all his options a couple times. Sometimes that feels like indecisiveness, but most of the time it feels like deliberation. I was also very curious to see what he would pick because at 10 he is playing with toys less and less. Even Legos are becoming a bit lukewarm for him. My firstborn is growing up!
On the very top floor of the toy shop was a sweet shop. JJ got a milk shake and I got a veggie wrap. Once I saw food I realized I.was.starving! I hadn’t eat much at all yet because I had filled my belly with coffee instead of food. Whoops. The veggie wrap was more like a light snack but it did the trick.
It was warmer now but still a bit rainy out. We bought an umbrella from a little touristy shop so we could enjoy walking around the city without getting too soggy. It was actually super fun walking around the city in the rain huddled under the umbrella together. Looking out across the city it was funny to see all the umbrellas floating through the space. It did make fitting through the crowds a little trickier as we were all a bit wider than usual, but it felt like a true London city experience to walk around in the rain like that.
This was my fourth trip to London and I’ve gotten to know areas of the city pretty well. We were near one of my favorite restaurants and I asked JJ if he wanted to stop in and get a drink there. He agreed and asked if he could play with his new toys there. I knew there was a nice cozy little corner that we could lounge at where he could easily explore his new toys. I crossed my fingers it would be available and saw that it was right when we walked in. We immediately snagged it. JJ tucked right into his magic flying disk while I ordered yet another coffee. He was still full from his milkshake. I sat and watched him practice his magic for a while. He just captured my heart in that moment. Seeing him approach learning something new with determination and fascination. It made me wish I had more time like this to just simply observe and enjoy the beautiful and compassionate soul that he is. I was so grateful for this time together. After some practice he put on a mini magic show for me. I took some video and sent it to daddy to show his brothers (per his request). Then he explored his Harry Potter wand and Lord of the Rings necklace while I browsed some of the restaurants cookbooks and even dozed off for a bit. They had a chest set as well and so we played another game of chest. We had been there about an hour and half before getting hungry. We made a plate of food (self serve, pay by the weight kind of set up) and munched on a variety of yumminess.
We had been there over two hours when JJ said he was ready to go. We talked about some ideas of what to do next since we had already hit our agenda items for the day. The barber had given us some great ideas, including visiting the British Museum. It was free and indoors. Sounded perfect!
When we arrived at the Museum it looked like there was a LONG line to get in. Bummer! But it tuned out it was just a security bag check and moved very quickly. We were inside in a matter of minutes. JJ saw that they had an Egyptian mummy display and was all over that! It was soooo nice to tour a museum with just him. We could read the displays together and discuss them. We travel frequently as a family and while we try our best to enjoy museums, monuments, tourist attractions, etc it often entails me chasing the little ones around or we are stuck in the “little kid/toddler friendly” areas. Sometimes we just completely skip them all together because of cost (entry for 6 can add up fast!) or it not being age appropriate for younger ones. So to be able to really absorb the museum displays was such a exceptional treat for us both. Plus without 3 younger ones in tow, we could move much faster and squeeze in so much more! We walked the entire museum. Every.single.gallery. A majority of it we just walked right through without stopping to read and look with the exception of the Ancient Egyptian and Europe galleries. Those both captivated JJ and we spent a great deal of time looking at and reading about the exhibits.
By now I could tell JJ was getting tired. I asked if he wanted to head back to the hostel and relax a bit before dinner. We had already walked a ton that day and relaxing a bit sounded nice. The rain had let up and it was warmer outside now. It was a beautiful evening to walk through the city.
At the hostel JJ practiced more magic while I browsed social media. There happened to be a firework show for Remembrance Day and we had the BEST view from our hostel window. We turned off the lights and watched the fireworks in silence. We weren’t at the hostel too long before we started to feel hungry again. I knew JJ was tired from the amount of walking we already did that day so I suggested a pizza place right next door to our hostel. It was superity duperity crowded when we got there and initially the host told us it would be a 30 to 40 minute wait. But then a second host appeared and magically it turned into a 2 minute wait. I teased JJ that he had used his magic powers to get us a table.
Dinner was so much fun! JJ was in a silly mood. We colored, drew, and played little games together while we waited for our food. We only ordered a small cheese pizza to share and made it disappear fast! It was good but I knew we’d be hungry again in a bit as it wasn’t quite enough to substantiate a meal. I suggested a short walk to a nearby area where I knew there were plenty of street food options. We could get something for take away and eat it later at the hostel. We ended up getting a vegetarian sushi platter. Sushi is one of JJ’s favorites!
Back at the hostel we cozied up with our sushi and new books. I read to JJ for over an hour before we both started to drift off.
Sunday November 13
We woke up early and checked out of the hostel. This meant we had to carry our packs with us all day, which is in part why we had packed so light. After grabbing coffee and hot chocolate, our first agenda item for the day was breakfast at the Killer Cereal Café. We planned to take a double decker red city bus there! JJ was super excited about that. We had explored the city by foot the previous day but since today’s destinations were more spread out we were opting for public transportation. Our bus stop was on the Waterloo Bridge so we walked across it to check out the London Eye from afar. It looked massive even from that distance. It made me a little nervous since the plan was to ride it in a few short hours! We tried to get on the first bus but for some reason my contactless payment wasn’t working. We had to walk down to the nearest train station and purchase a day pass. Which was no big deal really but took some extra time and it was obvious the city was going to be extra crowded that day for Remembrance Day. Plus it was a GORGEOUS fall day. Blue skies and sunshine! Which meant riding the London Eye would ensure brilliant views overlooking the city, but along with that there was likely to be a long line. We had planned to get there a bit before it opened but the missed bus and extra time it took to get the day passed ate up a lot of time. But JJ was in a giddy, happy, and silly mood which was completely infectious.
Killer Cereal Café is such a fun spot to bring a kid! They offer 120 cereals, 40 varieties of milk, and 20 different toppings. They also do milkshakes and poptarts, but we were there for the classic cereal bowls! JJ picked two for us to share; Reese’s Puff topped with Oreos and Fruity Pebbles topped with dehydrated marshmallows. They had a variety of dairy free milk option but we just went with organic soy milk. The café is located on Brick Street and on Sundays there’s a market set up. We sat at the window so we could watch people as they strolled through the market.
We took the bus back over to the Waterloo Bridge area and headed over to the London Eye. It had just opened up and already the line was quite long. I was a bit nervous about time since we had to catch the underground by 12:00 to make our flight. I decided to pay a bit more for the fast pass tickets because otherwise we likely wouldn’t be able to ride it. The line was just too long and we didn’t have enough time. And who knew when we would have the chance in life to ride it again? With the fast pass we only had to wait about 5 minutes before boarding. I immediately decided it was well worth the extra 12pounds.
As we got closer and closer to the top, I started to panic a bit. I had to move away from the window and sit in the middle on a bench and take a few deep breaths. I was trying not to indicate to JJ that I felt nervous, but holy moly we were so high in the sky! The views were incredible! Once I relaxed into the space a bit, I could enjoy it more. And enjoy watching JJ enjoy it. My hope is he will always remember riding the London Eye together on his 10th birthday!
When we were back on ground the plan was to grab some food and head to the airport. There were different events happening around the city for Remembrance Day and some of the public transportation routes were diverted. I didn’t know how much this would impact us and wanted to make sure we arrived at the airport in plenty of time. JJ wanted more sushi. I love that boy’s love of sushi! We grabbed some for take away and headed to the airport.
Everything went super smooth traveling back home. We had to take an extra train transfer in Rotterdam because the direct line wasn’t running. By the time we got off the bus in our village and started walking home it was getting close to 10pm. It was cold out and although it’s not a very far walk, it seemed like miles away in the moment. And I was feeling pretty sleepy. JJ chit chatted the whole walk home. When we were almost to our house I said “thanks for talking JJ. It made the walk go quickly”. And he replied “I guess it’s true what they say. Time flies when you’re having fun. I had fun with you this weekend mom.” And with that my heart swelled up with mad love for him! For motherhood. For life. Happy 10th Birthday my sweet son. XO