Returning to London. Taking the red-eye to Europe always puts me into a dreamlike state. It’s always the same: the giddy strangeness of the day before departure when I know that instead of getting ready for bed I will be boarding an airplane. There’s the flight itself with dinner served at 11 p.m. followed by a strange nether time when the cabin lights are dimmed and I have my eyes half closed, watching Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire twirling on the screen that is inches from my face. Then suddenly the plane touches down and we’ve crossed an entire ocean – how is that possible? The boys haven’t slept enough and are pawing at me, hyper in their exhaustion and excitement. There’s the glamor of a foreign airport with its funny signs and duty-free shops and the bustle of changing money, finding food, getting subway passes.
A side note: Do you know that Marks and Spencer actually has a supermarket in the arrivals area at Terminal 5 at Heathrow? It’s called Simply Food. I went in expecting to find some prepared food and snacks, and did, but if I wanted to I could have picked up a dozen eggs, a gallon of milk, and a loaf of bread. Oh, and my favorite necessity: Individual shrink-wrapped glasses of wine.
We arrived just in time to plunge into the city with the crowds of people who were simply going about their daily business of work and school. Nothing unusual for them, but it all seemed new to our sore eyes. We had four suitcases and four backpacks and were so tired, but not too tired to read The Phantom Tollbooth. After I read aloud a bit I realized that my eyes were burning and told the boys I had to stop. Tommy pulled out one of his invisible ink activity books and the young man sitting next to him – was he from India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh? I was not certain, but marveled at the parka he wore on a warm and muggy morning – looked intently over Tommy’s shoulder as he played tic-tac-toe.
The day could have been a total throwaway. The Tube ride to the apartment was long and included a change of trains at Euston where I was terrified that the combination of fatigue and crowds would cause us to lose one of our bags, or worse, one of our children. Once we arrived I discovered that I hadn’t read the rental contract carefully enough and actually didn’t have enough cash to pay in full as I was supposed to do (I was kindly given leave to bring the rest of the money later). We were all a bit greasy and sweaty as one always seems to be after long hours in transit. It would have been easy enough to draw baths and then curtains and simply collapse into the welcoming embrace of our basement apartment.
But Matt and I are nothing if not resolute. After an all-too-brief rest, we piled the boys out the door and in the general direction of the bus stop. We were headed for one of our favorite haunts from our previous stay in London when Tommy was a toddler: The Belle Epoque, a small French bakery in Stoke Newington, a neighborhood reachable only by bus or taxi where we spent the month of October in 2003. We knew that this wasn’t the day for lots of sightseeing but we were determined to check out some of our previous haunts. Hunger and a desire for cappuccinos propelled us.
At first the boys were enchanted with our errand because we got to ride on a double-decker bus. Only when one bus ride stretched into a total of three with the entire trip lasting well over an hour did they start to complain (I was a bit rusty on reading the bus maps and was also trying to avoid any kind of extended walking).
It was all worth it when we arrived at our destination, which hadn’t changed at all. I remembered so well that chilly October day when we stumbled on this little refuge in Newington Green seeking comfort after our flight and harrowing taxi ride into the city wherein a crazed commuter deliberately rammed our taxi thinking we had cut him off. Then, as now, we were immediately embraced by the rich smell of bread, chocolate, and coffee. Now as before case was full of exquisite tarts and marzipan fruit, the shelves stocked with Lu cookies, Bonne Maman preserves, and Perroquet lump sugar. Back then Tommy would stack and restack those boxes of sugar while Matt and I drank our coffee and ate almond croissants.
This day I ordered a piece of spinach and goat cheese quiche and was offered salad with it, an offer I gladly accepted. We sat in the back garden and Matt gave each of the boys a huge lump of sugar and let Tommy have the normally forbidden caffeinated treat of a Coke. When my quiche came, I was delighted to discover not the simple green salad I had been expecting, but gleaming beets, plump chickpeas, and an unctuous helping of egg salad.
Pastries were purchased, coffee was drunk, and a general feeling of well-being that I remembered so well from that day nearly seven years ago descended on us all. The food is excellent and affordable at the Belle Epoque, but the reason I wanted to go back was also for the feeling that I was being cared for. There is nothing like starting off an adventure with a little nourishment, even if you have to go a little out of your way to find it.
After lunch we hopped on yet another bus (the grand total for our first day would end up being six) and rode up to another favorite hangout from our earlier stay, Clissold Park. We were surprised to find most of the park, including the ancient manor house and small zoo, under construction. (In the coming days we were to discover that much of London is in a similar state in preparation for the 2012 Olympics – I can definitely see how the former government has been charged with being on a spree.) The playground where Tommy and I spent many hours is yet untouched, although it too will be getting a grand upgrade. But for now it was just as I remembered it, full of children and sand and pigeons and slightly seedy equipment. The boys were now wild-eyed with fatigue and screamed and ran as only children who are operating on a few hours sleep seem able.
We let them run until we could barely stay upright ourselves and all managed to hold it together and stay awake through the two long bus rides home – down into Islington and then back north and west again toward our apartment, which somehow already seemed familiar. The boys poked and slapped at each other like puppies and I asked them in less and less patient tones to behave and not to touch each other and Matt reminded us all that we were tired.
We sat in the first row on the upper level of every bus, our feet stretched out toward the large window watching the lampposts and window boxes go by in the late afternoon sunlight. I admired the riot of hydrangeas, geraniums, and petunias bright against shiny black trim and longed for the pint of beer I knew I wouldn’t get.
We descended to the sidewalk finally and while Matt and the boys headed for our temporary home, I took a quick trip to the grocery store. I returned to find two freshly bathed boys snug in their bed and the door to the small yard in back open to the warm evening air. I opened the bottle of wine I had purchased, toasted our safe journey with my husband, and then I settled down to my dinner:
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