My 45th birthday was a couple of months ago, so I’ve had some time to really think about this.
Be born. Done, easy, check.
(OK, this one is going to take a while.) Find a life partner as fabulous as XFE. Took me about, ummmm, 34 years and a couple of failed attempts.
Agree to let this fabulous, XFE-like life partner plan your birthday trip every single year.
Show up and go along.
Drink champagne (thoughtfully purchased by said life partner) in a plunge pool at your private beachside villa in Sri Lanka while watching the sea turtles ride the waves (*stuff that actually happened).
So we went to Sri Lanka in March. And the Maldives. Yes. The Maldives. Yeah. It was awesome. It’s the MALDIVES. Of course it was awesome.
But first, Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a very interesting place. It wasn’t really on my radar. I knew that it was close to India (geographically) and I’ve never really had much desire to go to India, so yeah. Sri Lanka wasn’t on my bucket list.
I also knew—vaguely—that there had been a recent civil war there and I knew that one of the warring factions were known as the Tamil Tigers. But that’s it. I mean, it’s not like this stuff is covered on the news very much. If I hadn’t read an article about that “Paper Planes” song back in the day, I wouldn’t have even known the name Tamil Tigers, let alone details about the civil war.
So, I did what any good history nerd would do. I read a book–“Elephant Complex” by John Gimlette. A very good book which I can’t recommend highly enough, even if you aren’t planning to go to Sri Lanka. It’s just good, good stories.
Here’s the deal (in a very simplistic nutshell): The Tamil Tigers were (are?) a group of separatists who wanted to (still do?) carve out part of Sri Lanka as a separate, independent state–a homeland for ethnic Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, to protect them from discrimination in the hands of the ethnic Sinhalese majority, which is mainly Buddhist. The war started in 1983 and (technically) ended in 2009. It was, as modern, ethnic wars go, horrible. A conservative estimate is that around 100,000 people died.
Make no mistake, the Tamil Tigers were/are basically terrorists. They used suicide bombers and targeted internationals for maximum impact/headlines. But the discrimination and hate perpetuated upon the Tamils that brought them to that state was also really, really bad. And, of course, we have the British to blame (Kidding. Sort of. The seeds of the war were tied to colonialism and favoritism of one caste over the other.) As usual, nobody’s a saint and there are no winners when it comes to civil war.
So that’s some recent, not-so-cheerful history for you. Bet you didn’t see that coming from the headline, amiright? Tomorrow, I’ll talk a bit more about the country’s current conditions, why you should go, and how we decided to go there.
I uttered what I think might go down in history as the most bougie phrase ever known to mankind last week.
“Weeeeell, last time we were in Africa, we stayed at…..”
I said it not once, but TWICE while catching up with friends, both of whom probably immediately regretted asking me what big exciting trip we had coming up.
My manpanion/life-partner XFE and I have become known as “those people” in our own individual circles—the couple who are always planning their next big trip. Finagling airline partnerships and air miles to upgrade to first class and work in the longest possible layovers on a multi-stop ticket, cashing in hotel points and free resort nights to stay in ridiculously luxurious rooms, relentlessly researching destinations and options and meticulously planning where we’re going to spend our time and money.
Our next big trip is a bit different. It’s XFE’s 40th birthday and there was only really one place he wanted to spend it, regardless of airline miles (we were able to use plenty of those), hotel points (nope, none of those being used this trip) or cost (yikes)—on safari in Africa.
This is not our first time in Africa. We actually went to South Africa for my birthday in March 2014, which is why I was able to say something as bougie as, “Well, the last time we were in Africa, we stayed at….”
Of course, with our next trip to Africa only three weeks away, I’ve been thinking a lot about that last trip.
South Africa was never really on my travel bucket list. As I’ve said before, I’m pretty risk adverse, and well, Africa seemed a bit risky, a bit unstable.
Sure, I’m a huge animal lover and intellectually, at least, I’d like to see animals in the wild, but again, being risk adverse, I always worry something bad might happen. I have a huge amount of respect for animals in the wild and would not want to do anything that might set them off. And who the hell knows what might set them off? I have a lunatic house cat who meows at walls, corners and sometimes electrical sockets. No idea why.
Plus, a lot of those animals in the wild look pretty dang skinny. I’ve been poor. I know what hunger feels like and when you’re hungry, you might just be willing to eat anything, including some stupid tourist distracted by their camera.
But it turns out, there was a whole lot I didn’t know about South Africa (shocker, I know).
Like, how much I would love beautiful, bustling, exciting Cape Town.
I also had no idea Cape Town had such a crazy good food scene. Like, really, really good.
I didn’t know I’d be allowed to pet a cheetah (check that one off the life list).
I didn’t know about Sabi Sands, a 65,000 hectare private reserve bordering Kruger National Park. It’s very unique in that it’s privately owned by individual land owners/families.
I didn’t know South Africa had places like the 5-star Savanna Lodge, where we stayed back in 2014.
I suspected–but didn’t know–that Africa had so many wonderful people like the staff at Savanna Lodge. We were treated like treasured family members (including a little post-game drive champagne party on the morning of my birthday).
Or like our ranger Patrick and his nice gun-toting tracker friends who pointed out all the cool, dangerous animals and would protect you from said animals if necessary.
The biggest revelation was the animals themselves, who aren’t really interested in eating stupid tourists at all when there are plenty of other, more tasty, less noisy food options available.
And actually would just really appreciate it if humans would leave them to their whole Circle of Life business.
In fact, they’d probably also appreciate it if humans would stop killing them into extinction.
So, we’re going back to South Africa. Sadly, we’re skipping Cape Town and Stellenbosch. And we weren’t able to book Savanna Lodge, despite planning this trip a year out (there is, understandably, quite the demand for their nine luxurious tent-suites).
We’re really excited to be staying five nights at Leopard Hills, another 5-star lodge in Sabi Sands.
Then we’re going on to another six nights of safari, this time in Tanzania, including stays in a glass-fronted tent suite at Lemala Kuria Hills and a bushtop tent at Serengeti Bushtops. We’ll finish up with four nights at the Manta Resort on Pemba Island, including a night in their underwater room. Yes, I said underwater room. The room is underwater.
It’s really an once-in-a-lifetime trip. But, for the second time.
Some of my very fondest memories of my time in England were of having tea. It was everywhere.
The minute you walked into a home or any communal space in a workplace, the first question is usually, “shall I put the kettle on?” The British seem thoroughly convinced that a cup of tea can make absolutely everything better and I’m not convinced that they aren’t correct.
Telling a friend about a fight with your boyfriend? She’ll likely respond with a sympathetic cluck and ask you if you’d like a cuppa. Commiserating with a work colleague over some looming deadline? Out comes the PG Tips. It’s just what the British do.
So I didn’t think it was such a big deal to have tea in London on an otherwise cold and dreary day. In fact, it seemed like the perfect thing to do on a cold and dreary London day. Except in the eyes of my manpanion-for-life.
Oh, he went along with my afternoon tea plans at Sketch, but there were a lot of questions, puzzling looks, joke-making, judging, maybe even a few eye rolls. He seemed utterly perplexed by the whole thing.
To be fair, Sketch does skew a bit quirky and in a very feminine way. There’s a hopscotch board drawn onto the floor, as if you’re going to merrily skip your way through the restaurant.
The tea room or “gallery” is full on womb pink, for crying out loud.
The artwork is loopy and looks like something a school girl would draw on the cover and back of her Lisa Frank notebooks.
Even the bathrooms are all white and rounded edges and slightly womblike.
The cleaning crew were wearing pinafores and frilly maid caps!
So yeah, not a very masculine space, to be sure.
And I understand that while I may love some Coronation chicken salad, crustless finger sandwiches are hardly a manly meal. XFE would have had to eat about 50 of those things to feel satiated. I completely understand.
However, I don’t think that’s the point of tea.
The point of tea is to sit back and let a cushy, overstuffed chair (or, even better, pink velveteen settee) enfold you in its familiar embrace. Tea is meant to allow you to take a little time out from whatever drama or stresses may be unfolding—and these days, there’s quite a bit of it. Tea is meant to be a quiet time of reflection, a time to put the world on pause and find a bit of barely caffeinated comfort in the bottom of a pretty piece of porcelain. Maybe even having a nice little biscuit and or a small sandwich with bland fillings just to give you something to thoughtfully chew while you ponder what to say next or how to respond to what you’ve just heard or gather your thoughts on what to do with the rest of the day, the week, your life.
Or, if you’re XFE, tea can provide a perfect excuse to tease your girlfriend. And do some not-so-secret people watching.
It’s ok. Tea can mean different things to different people. The main thing having tea provides is a sense of community. We’re doing this together. We’re taking a time out and reconnecting. I think XFE would agree with that sentiment as well.
(AKA: The great British treat of extended pinkies and wasted afternoons.)
(Editor’s note: This post was written by XFE. Check back on Monday for the MUCH shorter “Hers” version of our tea at Sketch.)
This post is most likely a bad idea and will get me in trouble.
But somewhere during a very lovely afternoon spent with Sheryll in London in March, we hatched the idea to do a “His-and-Hers” take on the same British tea experience.
This tea outing was something that Sheryll wanted to do and I truly went in to it indifferent, having no real prior knowledge of what to expect.
Let me just say on the outset that I had a really lovely afternoon. While I am not sure she felt that was true at the time (due to my non-stop joking) and I know she will not believe me now after she reads the rest of this post (due to my continuing non-stop joking).
But in all seriousness it was a great experience doing something new with the person I love. The post has merely been crafted to engage readers through the more entertaining aspects of the experience and not comment on the truly lovely time I had with Sheryll.
I’ve got an impressive assortment of bug bites on my legs (and, probably zika), a bruise from ramming right into a concrete stool at the swim-up bar, and a right ear that’s still ringing after a scuba dive.
I have survived another beach resort vacation.
(Actually, we got back from Costa Rica a week ago and luckily, all of those vacation-related injuries have subsided. Especially the ringing right ear, which went on for several days and had me all sorts of freaked out.)
We spent six glorious days at the Westin Golf Resort & Spa, (also known as the Westin Playa Conchal), Starwood’s first Costa Rica all-inclusive property. It’s on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, up north in an area known as Guanacaste. We flew into the Liberia airport, which is about an hour’s drive from the resort.
This was actually our third time at this particular property. We first went in 2012 (when I also sustained a few vacation-related injuries) and in 2014, where I don’t remember if I sustained any injuries, so that probably means I absolutely did.
Our first trip, in 2012, we stayed at one of the regular rooms/bungalows (“Deluxe Junior Suite”), which was located on the far northern end of the property (near the beach access).
It was fine, but when we went back in 2014, we upgraded to the adults-only section known as the Royal Beach Club, which was fabulous! It has its own designated check-in area/lounge, adults-only pool and restaurant with no kids, other than the numerous, painfully young honeymooners we met over the six days.
(I will say, the rest of the property is very family-friendly and I highly recommend this place for families).
The rooms at the RBC, as us hipsters call it, were pretty nice in 2014 (I think we stayed in a “Royal Beach Suite,” from what I can remember. We had a balcony with a Jacuzzi tub on it, which seemed a bit odd in a hot, humid, jungle/beach setting.
I’d show you photos except ALL of my previous Costa Rica photos were part of the Great Laptop Meltdown of 2014 and I, quite literally, have no Costa Rica photos…..not from 2012 and not from 2014. It’s all very odd. (And yes, I am currently backing up my photo folders onto an external hard drive as we speak. Thanks for the reminder, Costa Rica)
But, right after our 2014 visit, the property owners closed down both RBC towers and completely renovated the rooms. And they did an amazing job, incorporating lots of really nice (presumably local?) wood, updating the floors and furniture, and replacing the Jacuzzis with cool, modern bathtubs (I still think it’s weird to have an outdoor bathtub on your patio, but XFE used it and was happy).
A lot of the staff at the Westin Playa Conchal and at the Royal Beach Club specifically, remembered us from our previous visits and treated us like total VIPs. We felt really well taken care of.
We chose to return to this property because it’s just an easy fly-and-flop option for us. We know exactly what to expect. We don’t have to make a whole bunch of plans and reservations, which suited us fine since we’re belly-deep in planning our next big trip….to South Africa/Tanzania/Zanzibar.
We did go scuba diving again one morning, mostly as a refresher since we plan to dive in Zanzibar. We went with Pacific Coast Diving, which we used in 2014. Still a good outfit that’s responsive over email, is located close to the hotel, and picks you up and drops you off in a nice, air-conditioned van. Anyone who’s done a bit of scuba diving knows how rare an air-conditioned dive van is! The diving, however, was a bit meh, and the snorkelers said similar.
And there was the whole ear-ringing thing, which I could have done without. I noticed it after our second dive and it got a bit louder over the course of the evening. By the next morning, it had lowered to a semi-tolerable, steady, annoying pitch that could be drowned out in areas with ambient noise in the background (talking, music, dishes clattering). But at night, when things were quiet? Really, really distracting and disturbing. That lasted about a week or so.
We spent most of our time by the RBC pool, reading books, drinking frosty drinks (like the popular Dirty Monkey – a sort of banana/coffee/chocolate/rum smoothie) and avoiding direct sunlight so I wouldn’t spontaneously combust (ie: burn to a crisp).
We did, however, go to the beautiful Playa Conchal beach early one morning so I could try jet skiing for the first time. I’ve got to say: I’m not really a fan. I guess I just don’t feel the need for speed. Any activity where the instructions start with, “It’s much easier/better if you go faster,” isn’t likely to win me over. I prefer life in the slow-to-medium lane. Adventure-man and James Bond-look-a-like XFE, however, took off like a madman and was killing it all over the ocean waves. He’s clearly not afraid of the throttle (seriously, my hands and arms were so sore from squeezing so tightly in the slow, mid-throttle position).
Does this girl look like a speed demon?
either way you look.
So that’s it. A brief recap of our brief visit to the Westin Playa Conchal. Now the compulsive obsessing about South Africa/Tanzania/Zanzibar can truly begin (and has).
Editor’s note: We’ve been doing something a little different on ThePoeLog this past month. You could say it was in honor of the Euro Cup. Or the Copa Cup. Or the Poe Cup (not a real thing. YET.) But today is the last of our “Football Friday” posts. The first one can be found here, the second one here, and the third here. We hope you’ve enjoyed the series and have become lifelong Tottenham fans.
Three days later, our next football experience came in the form of the biggest game on our agenda, the North London Derby between the Tottenham Hotspurs and Arsenal at White Hart Lane.
It is at this point that we should probably digress from football briefly, to tell Sheryll we love her. I am not sure why this year for her birthday trip she decided to let me take her to London, and then let me convince her to spend three days pregaming in pubs and standing outside watching football, but she did, and it was bloody awesome.
Granted, I did trade a few hours at afternoon tea (more to come on that) and museums, but she definitely deferred to my football obsession during this trip and it was appreciated.
So on Saturday March 5th, the eve of Sheryll’s birthday we got up early for tea, a quick review of the papers before boarding the Tube for White Hart Lane for our second time that week.
Now that we were old pros, we had a plan. Dress warmly, take the bus from the Tube station to the stadium, and save room to eat grilled meats at the pub. In fact, I think we arrived at White Hart Lane almost a full three hours before kickoff, more than enough time to visit the team store for a new track jacket before settling in at the Pub No. 8 Tottenham for beer, food and revelry with the growing crowd.
As game time approached, the pub was packed and filled with chants, toasts and an excitement not regularly experienced.
A short walk across the street, and we entered White Hart Land and headed towards our designated section. Our seats were located on the lower level sideline, just off of midfield and we were in the second to the last row and sharing an aisle with one of the more boisterous fan sections.
As the game got set to kick off, the anticipation was unbelievable. The cheers were loud and the crowd was riding high. The game started and the crowd was not disappointed as Tottenham kicked off aggressively, really attacking the ball and generating a couple of early scoring chances.
We were on our feet the whole time, living each pass, tackle and shot as if we were on the field. Unfortunately, the joy was shattered late in the half when Arsenal scored the opening goal six minutes before half time. The goal was like a fatal blow to the crowd, which quickly shrank at the shock of now trailing. The half time whistle blew with Tottenham trailing 1-0.
As the second half started, Tottenham again was aggressive, and the crowd, although not as loud as earlier, was back in the game and supporting their team. Ten minutes into the half, Arsenal player Francis Coquelin, was given his second yellow card and a red card for a tackle on Harry Kane. With the red card meaning he had to leave the game and could not be replaced, Tottenham had a man advantage and the crowd saw a way out from trailing 1-0.
Sure enough, five minutes later, Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld scored the equalizer during a Tottenham corner kick. The crowd responded and belief in a win was restored as White Hart Lane went nuts, except for the wankers in the away section of the stadium.
Not to be outdone, a mere two minutes later, Harry Kane scored again for Tottenham and in a truly indescribable scene, 33,000 fans erupted! This was not a home run or grand slam kind of cheer. This was a true explosion. High fives, hugs, scarves, fist pumps, shouts all erupting in a celebration that even as I write this, gives me chills. It truly was magical.
Remember how 2 or 3 blog posts ago I mentioned Sheryll might have even felt true joy during all this soccer? This was that moment. I didn’t have a mirror on me, but if the smile and pure jubilation on Sheryll’s face was any reflection of mine, we were happy, very happy, and swept up in an experience like none other.
Tottenham continued to press and had a couple of more chances to score, but were unsuccessful and then in a brief lapse 11 minutes before the final whistle, Arsenal somehow scored again. It wasn’t brilliant; it was just a shot that somehow found its way into the back of the net. Quite honestly the goal out of nowhere crushed the crowd. The rest of the game saw a few more chances for both sides, before ending in a 2-2 draw. Normally, a tie would be fine, but giving up the lead while our team was up a man clearly felt like defeat.
Sheryll and I, along with those around us made our way towards the exit and ultimately towards the Tube. Along the way we stopped into a known supporters pub to see if we could watch some of the other games scheduled that afternoon, but after waiting forever to get a drink and the building scent of BO from the growing crowd in the packed pub, we moved on waving goodbye to North London and jumping on the Tube towards home.
In all, it was a day of truly tremendous highs and some lows, a true rollercoaster of emotion and fun that ended our live football experiences in London.
The following morning we awoke to a beautiful London day. We did a little packing, went downstairs for tea and the morning papers, and to relive the excitement and disappointment. Then, finally, as we got cleaned up to head to Sunday Roast at noon, I remembered the main reason behind our three days of football and wished Sheryll a Happy Birthday. Oops.
Writing and reflecting on our experience now, even a couple of months later, I still can feel and hear the sounds of our time as London football hooligans. I loved it all, and can’t wait to do it again. Until then, we have started flying the Tottenham flag over the front porch at home, and I am back to watching games on the couch with Pinot.
Editor’s note: We’re doing something a little different on ThePoeLog and declaring Friday’s “Football Friday.” Guest editor and soccer expert XFE has kindly written up a series of posts on the soccer games we went to in London. The first one can be found here and the second one here. You can read more about the chaotic atmosphere around this particular match–West Ham v. Tottenham– here and here and here.
After three days of food, gin tours, museums and more starchy British food, it was time for game two.
This time we would be really showing our metal as we traveled with the Tottenham away fans to see Tottenham play at East London rivals West Ham United.
As a result of all this, local leaders had taken precautions to board up player statues for protection from the oncoming visiting fans and police presence was expected to be high.
We left the hotel wearing our recently purchased foot warmers layered between two pairs of socks and our scarves tucked into our coats to hide our Tottenham allegiance for the Tube right to East London.
Tube delays prevented us from arriving in time for a pint at a neutral pub and instead we arrived to a packed station where the platform was covered with fans all trying to get up a single staircase. With game time just around the corner, we patiently tried to work our way through a very dense crowd heading for the Tube station exit. Finally, we emerged up the stairs and exited the station into dimly lit streets, rain spitting down, police on horseback and the incessant barking of police dogs. It was clear that we were in for a different London football experience.
As we moved away from the Tube station and headed for the stadium with other fans, both home and away, the police presence continued as streets were lined with fans and others for the game scheduled to kick off in minutes. Hurrying along, Poe paw in hand, I recalled my earlier glance at Google maps and where the visitors are supposed to enter the stadium and broke left to cut down a street that I believed would take us to the away fans entrance.
As we turned the corner we were greeted by mounted police, and were asked to show our tickets to police. The police confirmed that this was indeed the right entry point for away fans as others (home fans) were turned away.
We continued down the street to another police checkpoint where again our tickets were checked before allowing us to move another few blocks forward. As our tickets were being checked, an away fan approached hollering about someone having been hit up the street and around the corner. As the horse mounted police turned and galloped down the street to investigate, we were ushered through to a pedestrian walkway that led towards the stadium. Two twists and turns later, we emerged in front of a tour bus storage facility at the dead end of a street running alongside the stadium, and to the away fans entrance.
We were within sight of the stadium, and despite another column of police and barking dogs, we entered the stadium just as the last of the bubbles floated across the field and the game kicked off.
For those not aware, West Ham United has an affinity for bubbles and before each game, bubble machines blow bubbles across the pitch and into the stands. I am sure there is a proper historical reason for the bubbles. Probably not intimidation, but who knows.
Inside the stadium we found our seats in the last row of the lower away fans section tucked in the northwest corner of the stadium. Typically, away fans are segregated from home fans to help avoid issues, and one of the best ways to do that is to put them in a corner. Conveniently, this also means some less-than-desirable viewing options for the away fans. So it was on that brisk, March Wednesday evening in the East London, as Poe and I found ourselves surrounded by 1,998 of our hard-core, Tottenham-loving peers.
We cheered, we sang, we complained about referees and we moved to keep warm. We watched those closer to the action hurl insults to West Ham fans seated in the adjacent stand and we loved every minute of it. Well, at least I did. I am pretty sure that if Sheryll were pressed, this would be one of those things she did because she loves me or as pay back because I finally let her have a second cat after her 10 years of trying.
Either way, I think she had some fun along the way, and we did it together. We tackled a Premier League away game sitting in the away section—a true test of bravery and fan loyalty.
In the end, the game was tough and not super memorable. It rained most of the time and after an early West Ham score, it was tough going for Tottenham to try and find a way to get level or win. In the end the game ended 1-0. A valiant effort, but it was not to be our evening.
Game over, we now knew we needed to safely navigate our path back to the Tube station and head for home. As the game ended, we tried to make a break for the exits to beat the rush only to be stopped mid-dash. In fact, it was not just us, but the entire section of Tottenham fans were not going anywhere.
We did not know it at the time, but apparently the plan was for the West Ham fans to be released and disperse into East London before the Tottenham fans would be allowed to depart. So we waited, standing in the stands as the rest of the stadium slowly emptied.
Finally, as lawnmowers started on the pitch and ushers began collecting trash, we were allowed to funnel out of the stadium to a proper British drizzle. Here, in front of the same dead-end tour bus company, we ran into full-on riot police, accompanied by what had to be 15 barking police dogs and mounted units.
Yet again, the Tottenham fans were delayed further. For what, I’m not sure, but here we were in a large mass, pressing to move forward we were stuck, and waiting for something to set us free to find our way to the Tube and a warm train home.
After what seemed like an hour, we were released, only to find that 2,000 fans, mostly men, now had to file through a pedestrian walkway about 10 feet wide. So as the mass of fans pushed, shoved and shuffled, we all slowly worked forward through the same twists and turns we had navigated on our way to the game.
We emerged onto residential streets only to find the police directing the Tottenham fans down a single road, different from the one we had used for our arrival. With more space available, we walked towards the Tube only to be directed back to yet another small, narrow pedestrian walkway where the pushing shoving and jostling again became the standard for moving forward.
Once we made it through the last pedestrian walkway, the street opened up and we approached the main road between the Tube and the stadium. Here the center of the street had been divided by steel control fences, police, police vans, horses and the now all-too-familiar barking of police dogs. Reaching the main street we turned right for the Tube station where the temporary barricades were now holding back straggling West Ham fans to allow the away fans to directly funnel into the station and waiting trains.
Throughout our journey from Upton Park to the Tube station, the crowd, rowdy and defeated, attempted to show team spirit with chants and songs, but the reality was it had been a long evening with a disappointing result. So most of the cheers disintegrated into insults and jeers about West Ham United, their fans, and in particular, the socio-economic background of the local neighborhood we were routed through. Not anyone’s finest moment but a clear sort of indication of how soccer fans and a “pack” mentality can take a relatively calm evening, and escalate it quickly.
We did not witness any real issues, and I am sure the cold evening and delayed exit, dampened the crowds ambitions, but it was clear that this mass of fans could have easily erupted to cause trouble and damage a player statue or two. Where Sheryll and my level of participation in such activities would have rated will have to wait for now.
In the end a quick Tube ride cross town and a stop for a kabob and chips got us back to the hotel to warm up and live to fight another day.
Check back next week to read about our final English Premier soccer match, and by far the biggest game on our agenda–the North London Darby against Arsenal.
Once upon a time….o.k, 1981…there was a young girl who lived way out in the dusty fields of West Texas who became infatuated with princesses and castles and royalty.
One day when she was nine years old, the little girl got up very, very early to watch a beautiful blonde maiden in a humongous poofy white dress marry a not-so-fine prince in a gorgeous spectacle in a faraway place called England.
Everybody on the television was lining the streets, cheering and wearing jaunty party hats and waving Union Jack flags as very refined-looking people in brightly colored jackets and matching hats and red military uniforms made their way towards a giant, Gothic church in horse-drawn carriages. There were trumpets. And commemorative tea mugs and towels. And a big fancy photo op, complete with a kiss on a palace balcony.
It was nothing short of magical and about as far away from the reality of everyday life in a dusty West Texas trailer park as you could get.
And that was the day that I fell in love with England. Actually, obsessed is probably a more accurate word.
I become obsessed. Completely, singularly focused on all things British with the ultimate goal being to one day live there. And lo and behold, thanks to a student work visa, I did get to go live in London for six months in 1997.
And it was freaking awesome. Everything I dreamed it would be. Believe it or not, England totally lived up to all the unrealistic expectations I had created. I embraced it whole-heartedly. I bought a bike and on my days off, I would take it on the train out to small country towns in Essex and Kent and Surrey and would ride around just gawking at the adorable small towns and the patchwork quilt fields. I joined my friends Jill and Gil on their drive through the Lake District to Edinburgh, then rode the train back to London. I went to museums, stately homes, churches, West End matinees for musicals. I sat for hours in pubs, just listening to the accents all around me. I went to Glastonbury and got stuck in the ridiculous mud. I made amazing friends, I made bad decisions, I made so, so, so many memories.
I loved it all.
So when my personal travel planner XFE asked if I wanted to go to London for my birthday, oh, and sorry it’s not as exotic or as exciting as Australia or Japan or any of the other places he’s taken me for my birthday the last several years, I jumped at it. It’s not every day that you get a chance to travel back in time and see a place again with completely different eyes.
And this visit to London was equally, if not more, awesome than my first stay. Because this time, I had a co-conspirator to share it all with. I got to introduce XFE to all my old friends and favorite places. We went to see a show and we didn’t have to line up for the cheap seats. We visited new places and sat in pubs–and also, really, really nice restaurants–for hours on end listening to the accents around us. And I got to make a ton of new memories with my beloved, ever-patient schmoops, who had to hear me wax nostalgic and tell the same damn stories over and over again, all of which started with, “When I lived here 19 years ago….”
Not pictured: my schmoopies, XFE, who prefers not to be on the blog. And no, that’s not him sleeping at the theater on the bottom right. That’s a grumpy old man who scolded me for having my coat sleeve hanging over his seat arm.
Even if I have (technically) outgrown princesses and fairytales, and I no longer fantasize about living in England, I still pinch myself every day that I have my own super-fine prince–with a very nice mini-castle here in Northern Virginia–who has created this wonderful fairytale life for both of us to share and enjoy.
Editor’s note: We’re doing something a little different on ThePoeLog and declaring the next couple of Friday’s “Football Friday.” Guest editor and soccer expert XFE has kindly written up a series of posts on the soccer games we went to in London.
That’s right our recent trip to London was fabulous, filled with tea, tea sandwiches and most importantly football (soccer). Lots and lots of football. Poe survived. She liked some of it, hated some of it, was a little scared at times, and I am pretty sure she experienced pure joy as well.
In a recent post I shared how we would not be enjoying the game, but this is all about what we did do.
As we’ve mentioned before, we are avid Tottenham Hotspurs fans and follow them religiously. So our focus this trip was on seeing our team in action, and fortunate for us, they were scheduled to play two games the week we were in London for Poe’s birthday trip.
After we decided to take a pass on the prohibitively expensive VIP experience, we set about working with our hotel concierge to get tickets to the two Tottenham games that would be played while we were in town.
Despite being two months before our trip (usually, tickets are only released to the public much closer to match day), the concierge worked with a London-based ticket broker and we were presented with options and prices. We quickly confirmed our desired tickets and arranged payment. In the end, we had two tickets in the away fans section for the Tuesday game at West Ham United and two tickets for the Saturday North London Derby (pronounced Darby) against Arsenal at White Hart Lane.
So tickets reserved, we went about the rest of our lives feeling confident that we had tickets and that our trip was coming together nicely.
One thing to note about soccer leagues and individual team schedules: they are fluid during the season, meaning they can and do change. A game time of 4 pm may change to 2 pm or 7 pm as the television networks adjust their own schedules to show the “most popular” game in the best window of time for viewers.
Also, because English Premier League soccer teams are playing in multiple competitions simultaneously, a game may be cancelled and rescheduled for a future date because the team is in another competition or the scheduled opponent is in another competition. These risks exist and are real, so a little caution is always warranted when buying or reserving game tickets too far in advance.
For this particular trip, one of our original two games was similarly impacted. The West Ham game was moved by a day from a Tuesday to a Wednesday to accommodate another game (Swansea) that needed to be played on the preceding Sunday. That meant that Tottenham would now be playing on a Sunday, a Wednesday and a Saturday—all within the same week.
When we first became aware of this schedule change, we were bummed out because we were traveling on that Sunday and would just miss the opportunity to try to see three games in one week.
But about a week before our trip, I noticed that tickets were available on Stubhub for the new Sunday game against Swansea, and that they were reasonably priced (relative to the other matches we were attending).
After a little airline and hotel searching, I found that we could make some adjustments and change our travel day from Sunday to Saturday. So after convincing Poe, I bought the soccer tickets, changed our flights and added a hotel night. We were now going to get to see Tottenham play three times during our visit.
Check back next week to read all about our first big English Premier League soccer match, including how we fought jetlag, tried to stay warm on a blustery London day, and how our full bladders led to the best fish and chips of the trip.
I’d love to tell you that this was an informative blog post full of tips on how to see and do London on a budget. Something along the lines of “have a practically-free-yet-utterly-fabulous time in London on less than $50 a day.”
But that would be a really short list because (1) London is ridiculously expensive and (2) not to sound bougie or whatever, but $50 a day is really not a lot of money.
Heck, I’m not even sure I exist on less than $50 a day here at home because (1) the greater D.C. area is ridiculously expensive and (2) if I do, for some reason, sally forth from my nice, comfortable home office, the cumulative expense of hours not worked (ah, self-employment) and money pissed away during an Old Town gallivant that probably includes stops at Anthropology, Bluemercury, Gap Outlet and a red velvet cupcake from Bittersweet certainly tallies up to way over $50.
It’s not that I don’t know how to do London on a budget. I lived in London for six months back in 1997. I was a poor college student/waitress and I rented a small, freezing one-room bedsit in Islington with a plug-in electric radiator that would put a scald on whichever side of your body happened to be closest to it, but did nothing to heat up the rest of the room. Also: No TV. No radio. No computer.
As you can imagine, I did not spend much time in my bedsit/prison-I-actually-paid-money-for. Instead, I spent a lot of time getting to know London, and since I didn’t have parents footing the bill and I was living on my meager waitressing salary, I spent a whole lot of time doing free/cheap stuff, ie: going to museums and churches, browsing in stores, seeing cheap West End shows during the day, nursing a single cider for hours on end and reading a book at a pub.
But thankfully, those poverty-ridden days are long behind me, and while I’m certainly not rich, our last trip to London confirmed two things for me: (1) I am, in fact, bougie, and (2) London is a lot more fun when you have a little bit of money.
So, here’s a roundup of some not-so-free things we did in London.
Black Cab Tour – This was my manpanion, XFE’s first time in London. Thankfully, all he really wanted to do was go to every possible soccer match (see below) so we didn’t have to do too much touristy stuff. Still, I felt it was my duty to give him at least a rudimentary amount of exposure to the glories of the British Empire. So, I arranged a private tour in a black cab. We did the Classic Grand Tour, a 3.5 hour whirlwind through about 1,000 years of history.
We got driver David Cannell and I’m pretty sure we were the easiest, most low-key clients he’s ever had. We hardly even stopped for photos (neither one of us are really big into selfies). I happily chatted with David about British history (I got especially excited hearing all about Tyburn Tree, because who doesn’t love a good public execution?) and XFE watched the scenery whizz by. (Cost: £175 GBP or around $250 US. I will say the cab could have held up to 5 people, which is quite affordable.)
Gin Tour—XFE’s other major interest is gin and—as one would expect in a place where the consumption of gin was causing so much strife and ruin it had to be banned—there were a lot of gin-based activities to choose from. But the Gin Journey’s Shake, Rattle and Stir tour worked best with our schedule. We started at a small, very dark underground, totally hipster bar called the Whistling Shop in Shoreditch where we were introduced to our very cool guide, Cocktail Kate.
After getting a brief history on the star of the evening—gin—and quaffing some Sipsmiths, we set off in a mini-bus for stops at five more gin parlors/distilleries/bars (dipping in and out of the City, Shoreditch and Hoxton, mostly) over the course of 4.5 hours, enjoying specially selected premium gins and fine gin cocktails made just for us. The tour was mostly made up of Londoners (with a couple of non-English speaking Italians in the mix) and was a really fun way to spend an evening. I can’t recommend it enough. (Cost: £60 GBP per person or around $85 US)
Tea at Sketch—I know I said I didn’t drag XFE to a bunch of touristy stuff, but that’s not entirely true. I did have one London bucket list item I insisted on crossing off the list.
Despite having lived in London for six months and downing copious amounts of the stuff, I’d never actually been to a proper English tea*. Like in a fancy tea room with mini-sandwiches and cakes. I decided to skip the traditional, stuffy hotel high teas (sorry, Dorchester) and go for something more modern and fun: Sketch.
This restaurant/tea room/coffee shop/lounge nestled in an 18th-century townhouse right on the border of Mayfair and Soho is kooky as hell. The vibe is very Alice in Wonderland with oversized doors, coat check closets hidden behind swing out bookshelves, toilets hidden in egg-pods and quirky staff uniforms (the waitresses in the tea rooms were wearing these sort of World War 1 nurse’s pinafores, for lack of a better description).
The tea room decor was a suffocating plush ballerina-pink cocoon that made me think: this is what it must be like to live inside a jewelry box. And it was packed to the gills with (mostly) female tourists, even on a weekday in March. XFE was pretty much the only guy in the place, unless you count the guy wearing a dramatic silk scarf, lip gloss and some heeled boots in the corner banquette (his tea companion was a gorgeous, exotic girl with a wrap shirt that kept gaping.)
The tea itself was pretty meh—we manned it up by splurging for the Champagne Afternoon Tea. Sandwiches included coronation chicken salad, egg salad, a posh grilled cheese, the usual suspects; sweets included assorted cakes, some lemony pudding thing and that most overhyped of all cookies, the macaron, of course. The people watching though: that’s worth the admission price. (Cost: £57 per person or $81 US)
*(I had, however, had a Devon cream tea with clotted cream and scones, and honestly, I liked that way better.)
Soccer matches—If I end up living in the poor house or becoming an indentured servant (or worse, working as a barista at Starbucks….again), it is because I gave all my money to the English Premier League in 2016. Specifically, the Tottenham Hotspurs.
We went to three games while we were there, one against Swansea at Tottenham’s grounds, White Hart Lane. The second against West Ham at their playing grounds, and the third against Arsenal back at White Hart Lane.
Buying tickets to overseas soccer games is usually a bit of a difficult enterprise involving months of research, repeatedly checking the team websites, Ticketmaster, StubHub and any other online resource you can think of. It usually requires the assistance of a hotel concierge, who can’t really provide any confirmations on successful acquisition of tickets until much, much closer to the match day, when the teams finally, reluctantly release tickets to the general public. It is not at all uncommon for us to get on an overseas flight without knowing for sure if we have tickets to a game or where our seats will be.
London and the EPL, however, are even more insular and stingy with their tickets, so the whole process requires the combined efforts of a hotel concierge, online ticket brokers, bicycle delivery personel, plus copious amounts of cash (in all three cases) and subterfuge (in at least one instance). It’s almost, ALMOST enough to make you think that splashing out $1,113 for (guaranteed) VIP tickets to a game is reasonable and sane. Almost.
These hoops and hurdles prove to be particularly true when you are dealing with major London rivalries like Tottenham and Arsenal, and most especially when it’s close to the end of the season and those two teams specifically are in a hot-and-heavy, three-way race for the top spot in the League. I’m not allowed to divulge any more information into how exactly we got our tickets, particularly to that last game, but I will say it probably would have been easier (and cheaper) to get “Hamilton” tickets (flights included). (Cost for three EPL games: I don’t want to talk about it)