It’s been over 18 years since I left London in search of something different, and emigrated to the West Coast of the U.S.. I use the word emigrated, because in retrospect, that is what I did (i.e. settled in another country) but at the time, I intended nothing more than a ‘living abroad’ two-year experiment.
Initially attracted by the lure of a different lifestyle—one that included more time outdoors, snow, mountains, sunshine and beach—essentially all that California has to offer, I stayed for different reasons. The quality of life is insanely high, fueled—of course—by the wealth that Silicon Valley has to offer. The food is out of this world and has only gotten better over the past two decades. The weather (outside of San Francisco) is unbeatable especially if you take a year-round view. And the staggering natural beauty is world-class.
But my indisputable anchor has been the phenomenal outcome of an ill-advised, short-lived marriage: in other words, Monkey. Now a well-traveled teen, with more passport stamps than most American adults, he identifies as a U.S. national, and I am raising him as best I can, to be a good citizen of the world. As I write, he has just sampled his first bag of Walkers’ prawn cracker crisps. This is an education money can’t buy. Okay, well maybe it cost 60p, but it’s practically priceless.
No question, the Bay Area is a seductive place to live. Eighteen years later I still get a thrill flying into SFO, looking down at the city, the coastline and the Golden Gate Bridge and remembering that I get to call all this home.
Lately though, coming back to the U.K., and London in particular, has pulled on my emotions, more than it ever has and I find myself wondering what it might be like to live there again, although I just as quickly dismiss the idea.
Yet, there is something incredibly charming about the security man at Heathrow calling you “darling” at least three times in a 20 second conversation. Something deeply inviting about the sense of community and interaction you find at the local pub, even if it’s only a Monday night. Something so reassuring about gazing on scenes you’ve know your whole life – even if it’s just a quiet street scene at night from the window of your aunt’s flat in Hammersmith, or the sign outside the building.
Not to mention the opportunity to connect with family and dear friends you only see once a year at best. And, many things have changed for the better.
The food, which started to turn a giant corner in the 90s, is now a reason to visit London. With world-renown chefs like Ottolenghi, Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and even the dreaded Gordon Ramsay, changing the game – eating out is a pleasure these days. The memory of too-long-boiled cabbage, overcooked meat and stodgy puddings is now distant and hazy.
Yet on a rational level, I realize I have effectively exiled myself. I barely speak the language for one thing. I ask for directions to the restroom, talk about trash cans and put my luggage in the trunk. I confuse the first floor with the second floor, want my salad dressing on the side and expect to give precise directions to the bartender on how to mix my gin and tonic without being ignored completely.
Then there’s my career. I’m not sure I would even know how to operate in the UK’s marketing scene anymore. Addicted to technology, the fast-paced crazy world of innovation and change, I fear I would miss Silicon Valley’s energy and as a result, drive those around me crazy (which let’s face it, I do under the best of circumstances).
Monkey said it best. For us to move back to the U.K. even for a two year ‘living abroad’ experiment, there are a couple of things that have to happen. One—God-forbid—Trump gets elected. Two, Brexit needs to NOT happen.
Perhaps I will have to save moving back to England for my retirement, or persuade Monkey to go to college there, but for now, I will make the most of every opportunity I get to visit. Forgive the long pre-amble, what I wanted to share was how to make the most of a very short time in London. We had 16 hours there before continuing on to Spain’s Basque Country.
1. Get aboard a Virgin Atlantic Dreamliner to London
If you live in the U.S. you probably know how Virgin America radically changed air travel with its trademark purple lighting, comfortable economy seats, better food and good in-flight entertainment. Now Virgin Atlantic has raised the bar with its Dreamliner fleet. This is how air travel was meant to be. We were lucky enough to enjoy a half-empty flight, get entire rows to ourselves and sleep most of the way. The plane is super quiet; high tech and just flat-out amazing. Take the 9.10pm flight from San Francisco to arrive refreshed having slept in your own timezone, and ready to enjoy what’s left of the day in London.
2. Get thee to an Ottolenghi outpost
If you’re any kind of kitchen enthusiast, there’s no way you’d have missed Ottolenghi’s deeply inspiring cookbooks: Jerusalem, Plenty, and Plenty More, to name but a few. I preyed on my aunt’s kind nature and had her zip us over to his Notting Hill café and deli to pick up some nibbles for dinner. I’ll let the pictures tell the story. $40 later and we were all set. I even managed to get my hands on dried barberries which are called for in one of my favorite recipes. (I’m still clueless about what they are, but they look rather like small cranberries).
3. Grab a drink down the local
While the English weather may not be dependable, there’s nothing like a beer garden in the summer. While you’re at it, be sure to sample something local: in our case Fuller’s Oliver Island beer and artisanal Sipsmith gin from Hammersmith. We went to the The Queen’s Head on Brook Green. It was Monday night quiz night and people were taking things very seriously and genuinely enjoying themselves.
If you’re there for longer, grab a copy of TimeOut London (yes they still print a hard copy), or check out Timeout.com – it won’t steer you wrong.