Europe Adventures Part 1: London!

**I started writing this post back in March but clearly I was derailed, mostly due to the COVID pandemic stress. Kevin and I are healthy and doing well and I am finally back on track and working through my backlog of blog posts and life updates!**

In February, Kevin and I traveled internationally for the first time ever! It was a really awesome experience. We had a lot of fun and we also learned a lot about how we like to plan our travel and what we will do differently for our next international trip.

This was our first time on a long flight. I think Kevin has been on flights up to 6 hours before. The longest flight I had been on before this was like 3 hours. We left in the evening and had an 8.5 hour direct flight to London. Because Kevin is so tall, we paid a little extra for the Comfort+ seating which gives you quite a bit of extra leg room. We were in a row of 2 by the window, so we had no neighbors which was nice — however, we did not upgrade to the extremely bougie lay-completely-flat-and-sleep-comfortably seats.

The flight wasn’t too bad. We had a meal about 90 minutes in and then pretty much tried to sleep the entire rest of the flight. We had several free (alcoholic) beverages, hoping that would help us fall asleep. Kevin watched a few movies, and eventually I wandered back to an empty row and slept there for a few hours (the flight wasn’t full). Flying in the large plane made a huge difference for me as I usually get motion sickness when I fly, and the full-size bathroom was an added bonus.

Day 1 – The Arrival

We landed at like 11:00am London time. Kevin was keeping tabs on what time it was back home but my internal clock had reset to the time displayed on my phone. We had written down which train we needed to take in order to get to our Airbnb — we just had to find it. We ended up in what we thought was the right place — we confirmed with an airport employee who was standing there helping people — and we already had Oyster cards (you add money to them and can use them on London’s pubic transit system) from when my family had visited London. All we had to do was put money on them.

At first, we thought our cards weren’t working because we were out of the country — we kept getting a “card declined” error. But then they said that all of the machines were having issues, so they told us we’d have to use the cash machine to get cash. Fine. No problem. The cash machine only had an option to withdraw Euros, so that’s what we did. Then we’re putting the Euros into the machine and the same guy who told us to use the cash machine is like, “No, this machine only accepts pounds.”

At this point, my frustration bubbled over and I told Kevin I was leaving. I meant leaving this particular area and this super unhelpful airport employee, but Kevin asked if I was getting on a plane back home. We ended up just deciding to try to use the Oyster cards for this train ride, since they had some money on them — just potentially not enough. We walk over to the entrance and another employee asks us where we’re going.

And we find out that we were actually not even in the right place! Even though we had asked the other clearly very unhelpful employee and he’d said we were. It’s worth noting that literally everyone we met in London was so helpful and kind, except for that one airport employee who was — unfortunately — our first experience.

We get to the right place. The machines work. We load up our Oyster cards. We get on the train. We figure out what stop we need to get off at. We shake off our airport frustrations. We ride the train for 40 minutes to our stop — South Kensington.

We realize that London looks so much like Oregon. It’s very green, it’s raining, it’s kind of gloomy. We think this is sort of hysterical. We’ve flown 8.5 hours and somehow it looks exactly like the area we grew up in. Except of course, the really old buildings and the people driving on the opposite side of the road.

We get off at our stop. The train station is chaotic. We have to go up several escalators and flights of stairs. People are running up and down the escalators so you have to stay on the right side. We make our way out of the station and it’s raining. We have our directions saved, but we can’t find any street signs (we later realized that they’re on the buildings themselves). It’s raining and it’s busy — lunchtime — and people are smoking. However, Kevin’s entire trip was made worth it at this point, because we saw a man walking who got a piece of string stuck around his shoe and he tried to shake it off and yelled, bloody hell!

Finally, after about five minutes of wandering around looking for street signs, I pull Kevin into a Starbucks and order us coffee so we can sit for a minute and use the Wifi. We update the family that we made it safely, and we load our map to the Airbnb. We drink our coffees and wait for the rain to stop. Kevin’s backpack rips — not completely — but just enough that he can’t sling it over his shoulder anymore.

Our Airbnb is a 30 minute walk. We didn’t bring an umbrella, but the rain has turned into a drizzle. We can’t check into our place until 3:00pm so we set out in search of a nearby pub. It’s so fun to walk through the streets of London and look at the beautiful buildings. The drivers are a bit stressful to watch, and the roads are so narrow. Kevin is losing his mind over his ripped backpack, so I take one of his bags.

First meal in London!

When we get to the pub, we order burgers and I ask Kevin what kind of beer he’s going to order. He looks at me like I’m insane and says something about it being 6:30am. I say, no babe it’s 1:30pm. He tells me how he’s so jet lagged and tired and his body is breaking down. I ask the Airbnb if we can check in early. They respond immediately and say yes. We finish our burgers and walk over.

The Airbnb is one private room and bathroom inside a flat. It’s a very small room, with a very small bed — double beds are standards here — but Kevin doesn’t care. He immediately strips off all his clothes and gets in bed. I could rally and go sightseeing but not by myself, so I get in bed too. We take a reasonable nap — from about 2:00pm-6:00pm — and wake up just in time for dinner!

Our Airbnb hosts have left us a list of nearby restaurants and pubs. We decide to go to the Duke of Cambridge. It’s only about a five minute walk from our place, the food is superb, and the people are very welcoming. We thought we’d stand out like tourists for sure, but our server actually asks Kevin if he knows him from somewhere, which cracks us up. Kevin orders a Guinness and it is absolute perfection, everything he’s ever wanted.

We end up still going to bed by 10pm and I feel like I am back on a regular schedule — not jet-lagged — but Kevin continues to have issues with his sleep schedule for several days.

Day 2 – Sightseeing

Before we jump into day two, a little more information on our first night in London. Double beds are the standard — and we recently upgraded to a California King — so the first night was a little bit of a rough adjustment (but much nicer than trying to sleep on a plane). It was also hot, with no A/C (because it’s winter) so we opened the window in the middle of the night and luckily it wasn’t too noisy outside (apart from some strange night birds).

I woke up in the middle of the night to pee — not unusual — but forgot about the wonky setup in our bathroom. It’s essentially a very tiny closet with a toilet and small shower, and the toilet/shower are on a raised platform. It kind of feels like you’re sitting on a throne while peeing. I remembered to step up onto the platform to use the toilet, but when I was done I forgot that I’d be stepping down about eight inches. In the middle of the night, in the dark, I essentially fell off of the toilet platform and caught myself/slammed my shoulder into the doorframe, and landed awkwardly on my right ankle.

Breakfast at Flour to the People!

Of course, Kevin stayed completely asleep for this and heard nothing.

We awoke fairly early to get started with our day. The plan was to hit up as many of the tourist destinations as possible. We googled nearby breakfast places and ended up walking a short distance to Flour to the People. It was a very cute restaurant with delicious food, but very tiny. A lot of the restaurants/coffee shops we passed were very small with limited seating. But the people were wonderful. We didn’t even feel like tourists!

We walked back to the South Kensington station and started our whirlwind of a day from there. We had a lot of places to cover, so we decided to go to the farthest place and circle back from there. King’s Cross was our first stop — and the Harry Potter store, of course, which was filled to the brim with people and screaming children and we bought nothing (although Kevin really wanted an authentic HP trunk, seeing as our luggage seemed to be slowly crumbling around us).

Next up was the British Library, which was massive but admittedly very cool. They have a lot of old books, manuscripts, paintings, etc. on display. And not all of it is that old. We saw some original scribbles of Beatles lyrics, as well as Shakespeare and other fascinating historical artifacts. No photos allowed.

Next, I think, was the British Museum. It’s really all a blur. We did so much walking and train hopping. It was a great way to get really proficient with the London Underground system in about eight hours. The British Museum was also a lot to take in. Even more massive than the library. We walked through almost the entire museum until everything started to blur together and our brains hurt. Although apparently we did not see the Rosetta Stone, which is there and is apparently very cool — and I kept thinking people were talking about the other Rosetta Stone (the whole language learning program — obviously named after this actual stone) so I kind of missed that whole connection. But there was a whole room full of clocks which I thought was really cool. And lots of statues with missing dicks — we were left to speculate whether they were just excessively touched over time or if someone had purposefully removed them. In comparison, all of the breasts seemed largely intact.

We stopped for a quick bite to eat after the British Museum and I discovered my love for baguette sandwiches. Next was Trafalgar Square, which Kevin thought was really cool and I did not quite see what the hype was about. We briefly walked into the National Portrait Gallery but left after walking through room after room of White Jesus paintings. I did see some really beautiful landscape paintings on our way out, so I went to have a look and by the time Kevin noticed I was gone, he’d already gone out the exit and they wouldn’t let him back in.

Kevin is not happy.

At this point, our feet were starting to hurt and we were getting burnt out by all of this museum education. We had a few more places to see. Big Ben — which apparently was Kevin’s most anticipated sightseeing venture in all of London — was under construction, so that was a bit of a bummer. Westminster Abbey was also closed by the time we got there — it closed early, at like 3:00pm, and they were also doing some construction there. We will have to go back and see the abbey and the Churchill War Rooms.

Our last stop was back near South Kensington — the Natural History Museum (Kevin was enthralled by the dinosaur exhibit and that’s all we did) and the Victoria & Albert Museum (which looked to us like a whole lot of the same stuff we had just seen at the British Museum, so we didn’t stay long). At this point, our feet were aching (and I realized my ankle was actually pretty sore from falling out of the bathroom) and we still had to walk all the way back home.

Walking through the streets of London was probably my favorite part of the whole trip — minus the fact that everyone outside is smoking. The buildings are all really old and really beautiful. It’s so fun to just walk through the neighborhoods. That, to me, was more fun than any of the museums. But Kevin and I are a rare breed of tourist — we tend to dislike the popular places that draw large crowds, and a lot of the trips we take are outdoor-focused so we’re used to wide open spaces. Being in a big city with a lot of people was different, but overall we really enjoyed London.

We had a slightly awkward dinner experience that night. In retrospect we should have just gone back to the Duke of Cambridge pub, but we wanted to branch out. We went to another pub, which I don’t remember the name of, and the food wasn’t great so I wouldn’t recommend it anyway. The pub we’d been in the night before had open seating, so we walked into this one and didn’t see a sign that said “please wait to be seated” and it seemed fairly casual so we assumed it was another seat yourself scenario.

When a waitress finally approached us with a weird look on her face, we realized we’d made a mistake. We apologized profusely and said we could wait or sit somewhere else, but she insisted it was fine and brought us menus and we went about our dinner. Everything seemed completely normal until she took our dinner plates after the meal, and then never returned. She continued to serve the table next to us, never asked us for dessert, and after waiting to try and catch her attention for an hour, and the table next to us (who had been seated after us, already ate their dinner and left) Kevin finally had to physically go up to her and tell her we were ready for our bill. The whole thing was incredibly strange. Kevin thinks she was salty that we sat ourselves. I think that she was just rude. But it was the weirdest thing we have ever experienced at a restaurant because in America, if your server hates you and wants you gone, they’re going to try and get you out of there as soon as possible. And in general, they try to get you out of there as soon as possible so they can get new tables. I will say that the general slow dining experience in Europe was very refreshing. No one rushing you out the door, instead letting you take your time with your meal.

Day 3 – The Journey to Exeter

To avoid another restaurant mishap, we went back to Flour to the People the next morning. We had really enjoyed their breakfast and wanted to try some different menu items. They were happy to see us back and we squeezed into a shared table at the busy, tiny restaurant. After breakfast, we took a bus to the London Victoria Coach Station, where it took forever for us to find a bathroom for Kevin — who was in dire need after trying espresso for the first time — and we also bought a new luggage bag, discarding the two bags that had ripped on the first day.

We had to wait a few hours for our bus to Exeter, which is where my aunt lives. I read a book while Kevin listened to a little British girl talk to her mom and he kept interrupting my reading to tell me how adorable her accent was and how we have to send our children to boarding school in London so they will have British accents.

Our bus ride to Exeter was a long one — almost 4 hours — and we were in the middle of some sort of storm. It was very windy, rocking the bus from side to side — and rainy, so it was harder to look out at the scenery, which was okay because it still looked just like Oregon to us, with a few castles sprinkled in here and there. Thankfully, the bus was equipped with a bathroom because I think I had to pee at least twice. I thought peeing on planes was unnerving but it’s even more strange to pee on a moving bus in the middle of a wind/rain storm.

After an incredibly long four hours, we made it to the bus stop at Exeter. My aunt was waiting for us outside and we hurried off the bus to greet her. Unfortunately, in the excitement of hurrying to get off the bus, Kevin and I had a miscommunication where he asked if I had all the bags, and I replied yes, thinking he had the blue backpack over his shoulder (he was wearing a blue raincoat). We didn’t realize until we were sitting down at a restaurant ordering dinner that we’d left the blue backpack on the bus.

It would have been a much more manageable, less stressful situation had our passports not (unfortunately) been inside the blue backpack. Other than that, the backpack had a bunch of my clothes in it and nothing else we really needed. I spiraled into an anxiety attack while my aunt called the bus company to try and figure out how we could get the bag back. Eventually, we found out where the bag would most likely end up, we felt assured that it would be locked up safely, and we knew we could not get it until Monday. After a few gin and tonics, I was able to power through my panic attack and move on.

I would highly recommend not losing your passports in a foreign country though, even if you are not prone to high levels of anxiety.

Day 4 – A Tour of Exeter

On Sunday, Kevin and I went out and explored the town with my aunt Cassie and cousin Amir. We absolutely loved the town. It reminded us a bit of the beach towns in Oregon. We enjoyed walking through the narrow alleyways and cobblestone streets, and despite seeming like a very small town, Exeter had a large city square with a mall that was bustling with activity even on a Sunday.

We spent the day walking around town and hanging out at home. My aunt cooked us a wonderful roast for dinner, and of course we had some more gin and tonics to top off the evening. We also spent about two hours looking at real estate online, specifically castles that we could buy for Kevin and I, my aunt and Amir, and my parents and brothers to all share.

Day 5 – Reunited with the Blue Backpack

On Monday, Kevin and I set off on a journey to find our blue backpack, which really did end up feeling like a journey to Hogwarts and back. We rode buses and trains the entire day. We started off the day with a tour of an Abbey out in the country. We missed our first bus initially because we did not have Apple Pay set up to buy bus tickets and we needed a wifi signal. Thankfully, we connected to the wifi of a local grocery store from the bus stop and were able to get it set up. In retrospect, we realized we were idiots and could have just used the “tap” credit card feature to buy the bus tickets instead. The Abbey was really beautiful and very secluded, but there wasn’t a ton to do there so we quickly hopped on another bus after our tour and left in search of the blue backpack.

We still weren’t sure where the backpack was but the bus company was going to either call my aunt and tell us where we could pick it up, or they were going to arrange to have it delivered to her house. The most likely place it would be was Plymouth, in a bus depot at the end of the line. We decided to bank on it being there and took the train all the way to Plymouth. It turns out the bag was not in Plymouth but they arranged to bring it there from wherever it had ended up, so we ended up arriving there only about 30 minutes before the bag did.

Reunited with the blue backpack!

Ironically, as the bus driver was bringing the backpack over to us, he spilled about half of a can of coke on it. But we did not complain because our passports (and my clothes and toothbrush) were back in our hands safe and sound. The train ride home from Plymouth was also very beautiful and we got to see the English Channel. It was actually a very enjoyable day, despite it revolving around getting our bag back, because we got to take trains all over the countryside from Exeter to Plymouth and back.

Thankfully, we had our passports again because the very next day we were scheduled to say goodbye to my aunt and Amir and head to our next destination: Paris!

To be continued…

Published by Sami Hertel

Oregon native, current Utah resident, blogging about my adventures on lifeafteroregon.com!

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