Monday, August 22, 2011

Social Butterflies

Last week was a very social week for us -- especially for me -- which means we are making some great strides in feeling more at home here.  The trend continued on Friday evening, when we attended the monthly AWC cocktail party at one of the members' swanky Kensington flats.  Josh didn't get home from work as early as he had hoped to, so we showed up ridiculously late, but we still had a chance to chat with some people we had met before and meet a few new faces.

Saturday we headed back to Kensington to do a London Walks tour of the neighborhood.  Since the High Street Kensington tube station where the walk began was closed due to weekend track maintenance, we took the Tube to nearby Gloucester Road and had a quick lunch at Byron Proper Hamburgers before walking up to the High Street Kensington station.  We discovered when we first arrived here that British hamburgers are a bit different from American ones.  The texture and flavor of the meat is different -- more like meat loaf -- and they tend to serve them with mayo and sweet onion relish, which are two of my least favorite condiments.  Although I love cheeseburgers, I stopped eating them entirely until I heard through the AWC that Byron's served American-style burgers.  Fortunately, there isn't one in Wimbledon, but it's a nice treat when we come across one when we're looking for a quick meal.
Gloucester Road Station (no longer a rail station)
Waiting for our burger at Byron
Just as we finished lunch, it started to rain.  This was a bit annoying as it was clear and sunny when we left the house, but fortunately we had checked the forecast and brought umbrellas with us.  (I carry mine with me about 80% of the time.)  We soldiered on and met up with the walk leader, Angela, along with about a dozen other intrepid, poncho-clad walkers.  Angela commended all of us for finding our way to the station and then set off as if she were training for the Olympic race walk.  Some of the members of our group were not as young as they once were, and had a bit of trouble keeping up with her, but eventually we'd all find her.
Angela tells us about Kensington Palace
The walk took us through some lovely historic areas and tony residential blocks, including the famous Hyde Park Gate, which has a historical marker on nearly every house on the street.
Address of the rich and famous

Enid Bagnold (wrote National Velvet)
Winston Churchill
Other famous residents included Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, and Nigella Lawson.  Later on the tour, we also passed the former residence of T.S. Eliot.
T.S. Eliot
Angela told us that Mr. Eliot's wife was considerably younger than him, and still lives in this building.  I'm afraid I didn't get many photos during the tour as it was raining pretty hard during most of it and it's difficult to hold an umbrella and a camera at the same time.  The tour was scheduled to end at a large roof garden owned by Richard Branson (what isn't?), but sadly it was closed for a private event, so we'll have to try to find it next time we're in the area -- and when the weather is better.

Of course, as soon as our tour ended, the rain stopped and the sun came out, so we walked back through Kensington Gardens towards the palace.
Round Pond, after the rain
The Orangery
At Angela's suggestion, we went to the Orangery -- the former palace greenhouse -- for afternoon tea.  It was nice to sit and dry off after traipsing about in the rain for 2 hours, and they had some very tasty teas and cakes.   Then we continued walking through Kensington Gardens to Hyde Park along the Serpentine.  Now that the weather had cleared, there were lots of people out in the park and paddling in the water.
The Serpentine, Hyde Park
We eventually popped out on the eastern edge of the park, near this ornate gate.
Hyde Park Gate
We needed to end up at Charing Cross station, so my iPhone app suggested we take the #9 bus.  The next one that came was a historic Routemaster bus, which is quite different from the standard double-decker city buses in use today. 
Historic double-decker bus
So different, in fact, that we weren't sure how to pay our fare, since we entered from the back and the driver was in a separate, enclosed compartment in the front.  There was an official-looking guy standing at the rear of the bus, so we showed him our Oyster cards, but he just told us to take a seat.  Maybe these historic buses are free -- or they haven't worked out how to collect fares from the passengers yet.  We got off at Trafalgar Square -- the end of the line -- and walked across the square to Charing Cross station.
What's red, found in London, and is practically obsolete?
At Charing Cross, we met up with a couple named Katie & Ben.  They just moved to London from Washington, DC three weeks ago, and since Katie is a friend of Josh's college roommate, John, he put them in touch with us.  (It's amazing how many people I've meet in the past few months that moved here from DC!) We had a pretty good dinner at a Mexican restaurant right next to the station that one of the AWC members had mentioned at lunch on Thursday, and got to know one another a little better.  It was strange being in the role of the experienced expat giving advice to newcomers, considering we've only been here for 4 1/2 months ourselves, but I think we've been through the most challenging part of moving here, so we were able to answer a lot of their questions.

After dinner we walked around the area for a while, dodging groups of tourists, costume-clad hen parties, and drunken pub crawlers, until we found a cafe near Leicester Square to stop for dessert.  Along the way, we came across this odd statue of Oscar Wilde with a quote inscribed at the bottom.
Oscar Wilde: "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."
We had a nice time chatting with Katie and Ben, but as the crowds grew increasingly inebriated, we decided we should probably call it a night.  After several comical attempts to get the cafe to give us the correct bill, we walked them back to Charing Cross so they could hop on the Tube, and then crossed over the Thames to Waterloo to catch a train back to Wimbledon.   I suspect we were the only sober people on the train, but we managed to make it home without witnessing anyone puking or peeing in the street -- which is rare on a Saturday night.

Even though they are mostly Americans, it's nice to have met so many new people in London over the past few weeks.  The idea of living here seems a lot less intimidating when you no longer feel like you are completely on your own.

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