Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The London Vacation - Part 3

It probably says something about your blogging frequency if you take more time to blog about a vacation than you actually spent vacationing! Anyway, here goes the third and final instalment of our London holiday (Part 1 and Part 2, for those interested in the earlier instalments in the series).

Day Eleven: Bringing in Year Three in London

This was the first birthday when Ayaan actually understood the concept of a birthday and absorbed the fact that he was now tuh-lee (still can’t say his Rs) years old.

We spent most of the morning at the Hamleys at Regent Street. We started off by telling Ayaan that he could pick the toys he wanted as his birthday presents. Bad idea! The kid went berserk and filled three of those big store bags with a whole bunch of stuff, some of it downright silly. So towards the end, Jai took him off for a walk and we filtered the toys down based on whether they were worth the cost, age appropriateness and stuff that we wouldn’t find back in India. And then we split the toys between us, my mother and my brother for who would gift Ayaan what and went ahead and paid for them. And then ran like hell out of the store before Ayaan could realise the extent to which we had decimated his toy selection. Thankfully, there was no tantrum and he really enjoyed his few hours at the shop. I think he would have happily spent hours more there but there were the minor matters of our rumbling stomachs and sagging spirits after two hours of following his majesty around with bags laden with his choices. Here’s a picture of the brother and the husband taking a break on the strategically placed giant toy elephant, that kind of says it all...

We had lunch at an average-ish tapas place on Regent Street. And then I decided to stay back in Oxford Street and shop for a bit while the rest of them headed home for a nap. The shopping was pretty disappointing in the end because I never ended up buying anything (unless you count the pack of diapers I picked up for Ayaan from Boots because I surely do not). There was nothing that I REALLY liked and while there some nice enough things here and there, they were so over-priced and not at all now-here’s-something-I’d-never-get-back home that I just browsed till it was time to go home. Only to realise that there was a looooong line waiting to get into the Oxford Street tube station. So decided to ditch the going home plan and meet the folks directly at the venue for the birthday party.

The birthday party itself was a small affair. We don’t know too many people in London so it was just us, my cousin and her husband, three friends and one two-year old kid. On 30in2005’s excellent recommendation, we booked a table at this restaurant called Giraffe. It was perfect because a totally kiddy place would not have worked since there were way more adults than kids and this place serves normal, adult food and has a reasonably non-kiddish ambience. Plus there was alcohol so we all tanked up on our beers and margaritas. At the same time, there were also some really nice kiddy touches – they have a special kids menu, they did up our table with loads of balloons since we had told them it was a birthday celebration and they have a big basket of children’s books to amuse the little ones.

My mother sponsored a Mickey Mouse cake that cost as much as I am likely to spend on a decade worth of birthday cakes in India. It started off being a Noddy cake, but when we took Ayaan to the shop he insisted that he wanted the seriously ugly Teletubbies cake instead. The person most upset by this was the brother who then spent the better part of a week trying to get Ayaan to reverse his decision. Finally Ayaan decided that the pressure was too much and so when my brother asked him for the millionth time whether he wanted the Noddy cake or the Teletubbies cake, he firmly decided that it was to be neither and then refused to budge from his new decision of the Mickey Mouse cake. So the Mickey Mouse cake it was!

Overall, I think a good time was had by all. The kids largely ignored each other but were mostly well-entertained and tantrum-free thanks to the giraffe-shaped stirrers, the books from the basket and the sound-and-lights top that Ayaan was gifted by one of our friends.

Day Twelve: Tower of London

We continued our adventures with the London Walks and headed towards the Tower of London. I think this was the most disappointing of the walks probably because we were visiting an organised tourist site rather the more unstructured agenda of the other walks and so the value add was minimal. I think the Tower can be done just as well without the walking guides because almost everything is accompanied with detailed signs. And I found myself looking wistfully at the walks being led by the Beefeaters – they just looked like they were more authentic and they also included tours inside some of the buildings, while our guide just showed us everything from outside and then left us to explore the inside rooms for ourselves…

But it was an interesting morning overall with the high point being getting a dekho at the famous Kohinoor diamond, which was actually one of the smallest diamonds on display. We also saw the rest of the crown jewels, the arms and ammunition section (more Jai’s scene than mine so I rested my tired feet while he peered at all the stuff on display) and the prisoner’s tower where they still have graffiti on the wall from the prisoners.

After a late but very hearty lunch of noodles at Wagamama, I went back to haunting Oxford Street. This time around I had some more success though and managed to pick up a lovely white sequinned top from Monsoon, some red ballerinas from Clarks (and no, this myth is so not true!)...

Day Twelve: Keeping a Date with Time

We headed off down the Thames to Greenwhich, which again we did with the London Walks people. It was really good because the guide gave us a lot of background and history and we got to see a beautiful chapel as well as the Queen’s House as a part of the walk. He also timed the walk so that we were able to set out watches to the dropping of the ball on the observatory which happens only once a day at the precise hour of 1 p.m.

After the walk ended, we had a quick lunch and then waked up the hill to the observatory where we proceeded to do the touristy thing and snap pictures of ourselves on the Greenwhich Meantime line. Now the cool thing is to usually stand in front of it (but there was a long queue for that) and with one foot planted on either side of it (but with my obsession with punctuality, that didn’t seem right either), so I went with this…

Please notice the new red shoes, which by the way are a tad too tight and were the worst thing I could have worn for a day of walking but they went so well with my red top!

After a brief visit to the Maritime Museum, we headed over to Covent Garden where we sat on the pavement and watched a street performance. Then I left Jai there to watch Lion King (he finally changed his mind about not wanting to watch any musicals) and headed over to meet my brother to watch The Phantom of the Opera. I had wanted to watch this one way back when I was sixteen and in London for the summer but the show was totally sold out for months. But I did get hold of the music and even have it on my iPod so this was definitely one musical that I HAD to see. And it totally lived up to my expectations – the music was mind-blowing and the sets were nothing short of magnificent! Of the four musicals that I saw, this one was clearly the one that I loved the most!

We met up with Jai after the play and began the hunt for a place to eat dinner. And by sheer chance, we managed to stumble upon a really good and authentic Chinese restaurant. Now I had heard how the Chinese food in India was nothing like Chinese food so I was quite keen to try the real stuff. And to further polish my chopstick-using skills. It was pretty yummy and the big difference was the level of oil and spice compared to what we eat here but other than no big surprises.

Day Thirteen: Some more shopping

Given a pretty hectic schedule in the past few days, I decided to take it a little easy in the morning. So while the mother and Jai took Ayaan off to Hyde Park, I lounged around, watched some TV, cleared up the mess and packed one of our two big bags so that everything would not be left to the last minute. Finally left home only around lunch time and headed to the neighbourhood ELC to pick up toys for an assortment of Ayaan’s cousins and friends. Then I headed over to Marks & Spencer where I happily browsed for a couple of hours, stocked up my annual supply of lingerie, bought gifts for the maids and some clothes for Ayaan. I went home for a bit but only to bully my husband and brother back to Oxford Street with me. First, we went to buy a pair of sneakers for Jai (he has giant feet and we struggle to get good shoes for him in India) and then to the Apple shop to choose an iPod Touch as a gift for my brother. He kept cribbing about how it was too expensive and how he wanted to think about it so we left without buying it.

After catching a pint of beer at a typical British pub nearby, we headed off to meet my mother and Ayaan for dinner. In the spirit of continued experimentation with cuisines, we decided to eat at an Eritrean restaurant called Mosob, recommended to us by our cousin. It was one of my most interesting meals in London. To start with, I didn’t even know of the existence of a country called Eritrea and secondly, the experience was so different from anything I expected. They believe in 'communal eating' and so everyone eats out of the same plate. The plate itself is much like a big thali, lined with a typical Eritrean bread called Injera (closest thing to it that I have ever eaten would be a dosa). They then serve the main dishes on top of the Injera and you eat it much like you would eat a chapatti – with your hands. Very, very delicious and a lot like Indian food in terms of the general flavours and spice levels but different enough to keep it very interesting. The spice bothered Ayaan though and this was the first and only meal in London that he gave us trouble with... guess you can’t win them all.

Day Fourteen: The end of a holiday

I decided that the brother needed to be gifted the iPod Touch whether he liked it or not so after packing some more, I headed to Regent Street to buy it. Only to find that my credit card was maxed out (!) and the debit card was getting declined as well. I called up Jai who then did an online transfer of funds to the debit card account and ten minutes later, voila! It worked! Another reason to love the internet!

The rest of the gang had meanwhile gone off to get in a last look at Ayaan’s favourite haunt in London – Hyde Park, of course – and to do his favourite thing – feeding the ducks. And my brother clicked this picture there which I think is my favourite picture from the trip…

We all reconvened at Harrods for some window shopping because that is the only kind of shopping the likes of us can afford to do there (we saw watches priced in excess of £100,000!). I have been there before but I am always awestruck at the sheer opulence of the place. It is much too over-the-top to suit my tastes but an interesting experience nonetheless. The coolest part of the experience were the Egyptian style escalators and the section that sells archaeological items like fossils and a mammoth’s tusk up for sale (prohibitively priced of course).

We came home, packed all the final stuff, squeezed all the bags shut and left for the airport. The journey started pretty inauspiciously since just when we reached the airport, Ayaan proceeded to throw up – splattering not just himself but also my T-shirt and shoes. I had a change of clothes for him but none for myself so despite a determined scrub in the loo, I spent the rest of the journey smelling faintly of vomit. (Note to self: carry extra clothes for self in accessible hand luggage when travelling with the brat).

The journey itself was much better than the Mumbai – London one. After the meal service, I was able to get Ayaan to drift off to sleep. And though he woke up a couple of times because he wasn’t entirely comfortable, he was easily persuaded to fall asleep again. I also dozed in fits and spurts till it was almost breakfast time.

And with that, this long-winded account of our first international holiday with the brat comes to an end. We came back to a couple of days of chaos since the nanny took a couple of extra days of leave due to a death in her family. But somehow managed to get the house settled, the groceries bought and the suitcases unpacked. Ayaan showed signs of jetlag for a week (sleeping only by eleven and getting up at nine) but he slowly adjusted and was back to his old routine just in time for school. Life goes on…

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The London Vacation - Part 2

{Part 1 here}

With my high need for completion and closure, I have been stressing about the fact that I hadn’t written my sequel to my first post about our London trip. Finally got some time and energy to pour into the same, so here goes...

Day Six: Meeting the London Mommy Bloggers

After some seriously packed days and with the weather continuing to remain lousy, I decided to take it easy in the morning. In any case, Jai’s plan was to visit the Imperial War Museum which I could not have been more disinterested in if I tried. So I lounged around till noon (or as much lounging as one can do with a hyperactive toddler under the same roof) and then left to meet DesiGirl and Silent One for lunch at Nando’s.

Here’s what I find cool about this whole blogging thingy (other than the opportunity to write and rant, of course) – that I can meet up with people from halfway across the world who I have never met before and pick up with them as if we were continuing a conversation we had had a few days earlier. It was fun, effortless and before we knew it, it was time to go back our separate ways. The food was great too – was nice to get my spicy fix after the bland food of the past few days.

In the evening, my mom and I left the men in charge of the house and kid and took ourselves off to see The Lion King. The story was known so no surprises there but the set, the costumes and the music were out of this world. My favourite bit was their rendition of The Circle of Life right at the start, which was a visual treat with such lovely and unusual renditions of the animal costumes. This video doesn’t do it justice at all but watch out for the elephant emerging from the audience.

Day Seven: Another Garden and Another Blogger Meet-up

We spent most of the day at Kew Gardens with a friend of ours. Though it thankfully did not rain, it was grey and miserable through the day so it wasn’t as much fun as it could have been. Also, given the weather and Ayaan’s tendency to get cranky without a nap, we spent only till lunch time there so I don’t think we did complete justice to the place. But what we did see was beautiful. It was huge and green and had the Thames flowing peacefully by at one end. And the collection of plant life on display through the park and the greenhouses was mind-boggling to say the least. And the tropical greenhouse, which we visited right towards the end, was absolute heaven because of the lovely, tropical temperature. We ended with lunch at the garden cafĂ© and Ayaan continued to surprise me with his openness to new food – he had a bit of pumpkin soup and then polished off an entire kid’s serving of sausages and mashed potatoes – all stuff that he has never eaten before.

In the evening, I met up with the blogger I formerly knew only as 30in2005. And is she the person to know in London or what! We met at Borough Market (which is London’s oldest food market) and I got a full, guided tour with running commentary. We then had a drink and something to munch at a lovely tapas bar called Brindisa. Spanish food, especially tapas, is my new love. An entire meal made up of yummy appetisers – what’s not to love! This is the first time I met up with a blogger who was not a mommyblogger. And even my slight worries were immediately laid to rest and we chatted away nineteen to a dozen, even lingering at the tube station while multiple trains zoomed by. It gives me heart that I can still have an adult conversation with minimal references to my child! And getting back to her being the blogger to know in London, thanks to her I avoided the supposedly disappointing London Aquarium and was able to throw a fun birthday party for Ayaan at a place recommended by her.

Day Eight: A Lazy Day and a Happening Night

The lazy mood resurfaced on Saturday, helped along again by fairly miserable weather. We finally stepped out only for lunch and decided to experiment with Lebanese food at Maroush. The food was nice enough but the shawarma platter that I ordered for myself was really too large for just one person. We ordered some minced meat and rice concoction for Ayaan and he gobbled it up without a murmur. Seriously, by this time, I was feeling pretty silly about worrying about his diet on the trip! What is with kids and their need to prove you wrong…

In the evening, the brother made good on his promise to show me a night out on the town. Since the husband runs a mile in the opposite direction when told of such plans (gets in the way of his 10 p.m. bedtime you see), we roped in my cousin and her husband and the four of us set off to have ourselves a rocking time. We went to this exclusive, members-only club called Maddox. After waiting in line for a bit, we were shown to our table, which was basically a small round table with a semi-circular leather sofa. For the hefty entrance charge that you pay, you basically get a magnum bottle of vodka and a host of mixers. I got introduced to a new combination – vodka and Red Bull! And you know what they say about Red Bull giving you wings, well let me just say that they know what they are talking about. That combination kept me going till five in the morning and I was up the next day for breakfast and a trip to the zoo with the son! Anyway, coming back to Maddox, it was a super-cool place and the music was pretty good. I was wondering it would be all that house and trance nonsense which I really cannot bring myself to dance to but they mixed it up really well and we were dancing away right to the end. I felt totally over-dressed in my skinny jeans and slinky top though since mostly the women were in sexy dresses. Overall, the crowd was very nouveau riche and the way to flash your wealth there is to order Dom Perignon champagne, which is brought you with full fanfare (sparklers and special music) so that anyone in the place would have to be blind and deaf to not notice the RICH GUY OVER THERE WHO JUST ORDERED THE EXPENSIVE CHAMPAGNE!!! ;-)

Day Nine: A Fun Day for Ayaan

I woke up bright and early at eight and thought I was up to facing the day, so after a brunch at a nearby deli, Jai went off to the British Museum and my mother and I took Ayaan off to the Battersea Park Children’s Zoo (which we realised was actually just walking distance from the brother’s place). It is a really cute, little zoo with a very small collection of animals – nothing more exciting than a lemur or a meerkat – but much more suited to young children. And they really make an effort to make the zoo kid-friendly. The animal enclosures are very cutely designed. Like the mouse enclosure actually had this awesome mouse cage that was designed like what Jerry (of Tom & Jerry fame) might live in with a tiny bed, dining table and bookshelf. And all the fences had glass squares cut into them so that the little kids could see what the animals were up to without having to be lifted up. And the harmless critters like donkeys and rabbits were kept in enclosures with fencing that allowed kids to reach in and pet them. Very well done, I thought...

By lunch time though, the huge amount of alcohol in my system finally started to make its presence felt and I started feeling sleepy and nauseous. So once we gave Ayaan his lunch, we headed off home and I collapsed into a nap right next to him for the next three hours.

In the evening, we headed off to meet my ex-boss who lives near Swiss Cottage. He has a 5-year old son so Ayaan was fully occupied. In fact, most of the time, he was in the kids’ room downstairs while we sat upstairs and chatted. But I think his over-the-top friendliness finally got to the raised-in-London 5-year old in need of some space. He came up to the living room with Ayaan in hot pursuit and then kept edging away from Ayaan on the sofa, who thought it was a great game and kept inching closer much like a lecherous man on a park bench! It would have funny had it not been embarrassing! Anyway, the boy finally came to the conclusion that the only way out was to take himself off to bed, which he promptly did...

Day Ten: Another Fun Day for Ayaan (Aren’t these titles getting more creative by the minute?!)

We finally made it to Legoland. We were supposed to go the previous week on Wednesday but thankfully I happened to log into the site in the morning to find that it is shut on Tuesdays and Wednesdays! Anyway, our relatives who were out of town nicely lent us their chauffeur-driven car to drive out to Windsor where the park is. But what with the mandatory car seat, only three other adults could fit in the car. So we sent off Ayaan in the car with his Patti and Mamu while Jai and I slummed it and went by train. We reached almost an hour after them so they had gone in and got started on the rides.

The park itself is pretty cool though it is in no way comparable to the Disney parks both in terms of size and the rides themselves. But it is well suited for a kid of Ayaan’s age who has never been to an amusement park before. Many of the rides had a 1m minimum height rule and thankfully Ayaan just made the cut. He had a complete ball, to say the least – his favourites being the water rides except the last one called Vikings’ Splash which he found a little scary.

The Lego City that they have built in one corner of the park was pretty awesome too as they have used Lego bricks recreated loads of monuments (like Buckingham Palace) and bits of London, replete with moving models of trains, boats and the like so Ayaan was kept entertained too.

On the way back, I left the others to come back by the car and took the train into London, since I was going to see a musical by myself. This time, I saw Mamma Mia. Such fun it was! It’s a musical based on Abba’s music. The storyline was light-hearted and firmly in the chickflick genre of things (not that I was complaining) but what really lifted it was the way they kept breaking into one of the Abba songs at the relevant points in the story. It was all I could do to contain myself from belting out the songs along with the cast!

Phew! This post sure is getting long and there are still another five days to go. Plus it's past midnight and my energy levels are running low. So I am thinking I will finish what I started in the next post. Hopefully, the stress of an incomplete trilogy will not kill me in the meantime...