Love London: London During the Blitz

The Blitz was supposed to break the British spirit during World War 2, but instead it strengthened Londoners resolve to fight back against Hitler and the Nazis. This month our Love London tour took us through the historic heart of London as we walked the streets and passed the locations of buildings that were razed during the trail of destruction left by the Luftwaffe as it attacked the City of London for eight months in 1940-1941. While many lives were lost, there were also tales of heroism and a true London spirit when ordinary men and women came together.

Our tour guide, David, captivated us all from the start as we stood outside Moorgate Tube station and looked at all of the new construction around us. When walking through the City of London and you encounter a street with mostly modern buildings, that is not simply an architecture style choice. It means you are standing in spot that was destroyed during the Blitz.

The Battle of Britian

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David Phillips, our captivating tour guide

Our first stop was near the Barbican Centre, the site of the first bomb dropping in August 1940.  When the war began the previous year, the action took place away from London, mostly at sea, disrupting supply lines. etc. Despite nothing on the homefront the wartime rations and regulations were beginning, frustrating many of the British citizens. They considered it to be a “war of nothing”. In April 1940, the action really began as the Germans took over Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands.

The Battle of Britain began later that summer. The question is still debated today as to whether or not the Germans were ever really going to invade Britian. The intent, of course, was to take Great Britian out of the war, but how that was to be done is still unclear. Operation Sea Lion was put in place to attack Britian’s biggest asset, the Royal Navy. The presumption by the Germans was to destroy the navy by air power (Germany’s greatest asset) and weaken the British defenses. Dogfights with the Royal Air Force (RAF) began in July 1940. The Luftwaffe accompanying the bombers to destroy land targest – radar stations, airfields, etc. – didn’t have flexibility to compete with RAF.

Through out this Battle, Hitler ordered London not to be attacked. The target was to attack industrial infrastructure instead. On the night of 25 August 1940, the plan was to attack an oil refinery off the Thames. A few planes went further down and one dropped the first bomb on the Barbican. To this day it’s unknown if this was simply navigation error or a direct order from Goerring himself. In response, Churchill ordered Lancaster bombers to bomb Berlin and a new phase of the war began.

Blitzkrieg: The Blitz Begins

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St Mary Aldermanbury – the site of the church that was destroyed in first bombing. It was a Sir Christopher Wren church and not a single Wren church escaped damage in WW2.

On 7 September 1940, the Blitzkrieg begins and the intensification of bombing commences. Incendiary devices were dropped throughout the East End. This began a pattern for the Blitz – incendiary devices set fires along the Thames to provide a path for the second wave of bombers to drop high explosive devices.

This was not an exact science as searchlights and barrage balloons forced the bombers higher making them less accurate in hitting targets. As a result, a field of fire was created as the first wave of bombers aimed for the London docks. A Luftwaffe pilot reported 54 separate fires within 30 minutes of the first bombs being dropped.

Thus began 57 nights of consecutive bombing in London. Civilians were not particularly targeted, but the first night saw 436 individuals killed and 1600 seriously injured. After the industrial East End, the City of London was the next target as the Germans wanted to stop the financial heart of Britian.

The Second Great Fire of London

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Guildhall – roof was destroyed by the bombing on 29 December

On 29 December 1940, the second great fire to decimate London took place in what is considered the single worst night of the Blitz. Conditions were perfect for the Luftwaffe – a full moon, good visibility, a strong west wind, unusually low tide of Thames, a Sunday night in a commercial area so no one around to put out start of fires – and they sent out a force of 455 planes to drop incendiary bombs in London. A half square mile, from Moorgate to Canon Street and Aldergate to Old Street, was on fire. The one saving grace of that night is the second wave of bombers never made it out of France as the weather turned during the first raid.

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Statue commemorating the men & women who volunteered with the fire brigade during the Blitz

Saving St Paul’s Cathedral

From the beginning of the war, Churchill stated that St. Paul’s was to be saved at all costs. It was constantly under threat and extensive lengths were taken to ensure its survival. A team of 350 volunteers – firefighters, architects and more – were appointed as fire watchers to protect St Paul’s. Each volunteer worked one evening a week. There were two shifts of 40 volunteers each night and they were stationed at three different levels of the building – one to fill buckets of sand and stir the water pumps; another to transport the buckets to the roof; and the last to patrol the rooflines and watch for any fires from the bombings.  On the 29th of December, these volunteers were put to the test when 26 bombs and 300+ incendiary devices landed on St. Paul’s.

Symbols of Resistance

Because of nights like that, St. Paul’s became a symbol of resistance during the war. Much like Churchill himself, it was a symbol of the Blitz spirit that Hitler was never able to break. In reality, it reflected the spirit of the British people themselves  – the do or die, good vs evil, herosim vs barbariansim, keep calm and carry on nature that exemplified the British fortitude during the war.

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The steeple of St. Mary-le-Bow Church, home to the Bow Bells

Towards the end of our tour, we stopped by another symbol of the resistance. This time it was the Bow Bells that played an actual role in helping the resistance on the continent during the war. In 1927, the BBC recorded the Bow Bells as part of the BBC world broadcast service. During the war, they became known as the sound of freedom and a key element of military intelligence. When the BBC World Service played the bells, the resistance knew to listen for coded messages to follow. The day before D-Day began a poem was read with a line to signal the invasion taking place next day and French resistance had their cue to begin acts of sabotage. Today the bells are silent, but they played an important role for many across the continent.

 

#50for50 to Ring in a New Decade

A few years ago, a friend of mine had a wonderful plan to visit 50 new places before her 50th birthday. As my milestone birthday is approaching next year, I was inspired by her idea, but with a different twist. Given all the traveling I do as an expat, I know how hard it is to visit 50 new places in a 12 month window, so I decided to expand on her idea by having new experiences not just locations.

If there is one thing making an international move has taught me, it’s that life is so much richer when you are pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. And true to the nature of why I started this blog, you don’t have to have big, grand events to experience change. Sometimes that simple “unexpected” moment can bring about the same result.

So, for the next year, I’m going out on a limb and saying yes to lots of new stuff. I want to try things I’ve always been interested in. I want to make myself uncomfortable by taking a leap of faith into an activity or place that is not in my normal wheelhouse. I want to take advantage of all the wonderful things that are available to me by living in the world’s greatest city.

I’m going to track it all here, so join me as I ring in a new decade with #50for50!

#50for50

  • Evensong at Westminster Abbey: I’ve always heard about these services, but had never been to one. It’s a great way to see the beautiful cathedrals of Europe without the massive crowds. (1 of 50)IMG_9627
  • Bellydancing at a Lebanese restaurant: This one was completely outside of my comfort zone! I promise you, that is laughter in the photo to the right, not tears. But it was a really good reminder so early into this process that sometimes you can have a lot of fun putting yourself out there. (2 of 50)
  • Knitting class: Chunky yarn arm knitting class has been completed and a lovely blue throw blanket is now in my possession. Maybe not a regular activity, but am wondering if I can apply what I learned to regular knitting. Hmmm… (3 of 50)
  • MacGyvering my way through Thanksgiving: When renting a townhouse that doesn’t have a can opener, you need to get creative cooking Thanksgiving dishes. I channeled my inner MacGyver and chiseled open four cans of green beans for Christian’s favorite Thanksgiving dish. Good to know I can be resourceful when I need to be! (4 of 50)
  • Dinner at an igloo along the Thames: The tables are hard to come by, but we managed to secure a table for 8 to celebrate a friend’s birthday. Pretty, cozy and private for lots of loud American laughter by the Thames. (5 of 50)
  • fullsizeoutput_6bc8New Country – Wales: This was a kicker. Had to turn around and go home after only being in the country for 20 minutes, but we got a picture of the welcome sign, set foot on soil and bought a coffee, so in my book in counts! (6 of 50)
  • Morocco: The trip to Morocco was so special on many levels. The warmth and hospitality just enveloped us and I’m finding the more I stretch myself in visiting new places so different to my own, the more fulfilled I feel. This one ticked many new experience boxes, so here we go –
    • New Country (7 of 50)
    • New Continent (8 of 50)
    • Riding a mule up the Atlas Mountains (9 of 50)
    • Hot Air Balloon ride at sunrise (10 of 50)

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  • Discovering new London neighborhoods and attractions: Leading the Love London tours for AWBS has me exploring London all the time. Recently it seems as if I’m learning new things about places I’ve already been, so it’s nice to get out on my own and discover some of the new neighborhoods that make London such a great city.
    • Bermondsey and Maltby Street Market (11 of 50)
    • IMG_0941Croydon and Bromley (17 of 50)
    • Bushy Park (29 of 50)
    • Kensington Palace (30 of 50)
  • Learned to Make Fresh Croissants: Bread Ahead offers an incredible array of baking and patisserie classes at it’s headquarters in Borough Market. I decided I wanted to learn how to make fresh croissants and, oh yum, it did not disappoint. Not difficult to do, it just requires patience and a bit of time. The key ingredient? French butter and lots of it! (12 of 50)
  • Buying a House in Another Country: We decided we are going to be in the UK for the foreseeable future so it was time to purchase property here. It is definitely a new experience buying property in another country. New process, terminology, procedures, financing – all of it! (13 of 50)
  • Portobello Road Market: For all the years I’ve been to/lived in London, I’d never visited Portobello Road Market. On Saturday, I happened to be in that area of town, so I decided to stop by and check it out. Honest answer? I was definitely underwhelmed. The antique shops might be worth a closer look on a less crowded day, but the market stalls were so touristy. If you are looking for a proper English market I’d highly recommend Greenwich on a Saturday or Spitalfields for a great combination of food and stalls. (14 of 50)
  • The Churchill Arms: This iconic pub is always on every Top 20 list for travellers mostly because of its over-the-top outside decorations that catch the eye of anyone on the street. As we were in the Notting Hill area, we decided to pop in and get some lunch. The pub is also know for its Thai menu – not your usual pub grub – and I will say, it is some of the best Thai food I have ever had. The Massaman curry was outstanding. Well worth the visit if you are in the area. (15 of 50)
  • Global pandemic: COVID-19 is a new experience for us all. Hoping for happier and healthier days ahead for everyone. (16 of 50)
  • Three weeks into pandemic lockdown procedures and “normal” definitely has a new meaning. This is not at all how I was expecting my 50 for 50 challenge to go and I’m sad about it. BUT, I originally wrote this blog about finding unexpected travel moments, so let’s go with unexpected pandemic inspired new experiences for now.
    • Cooking every night of the week. We go out to eat a lot. Much of it to socialize, but sometimes it’s just takeout as a break from the busy day. (18 of 50)
    • Discovering that I actually enjoy cooking when I have the time to do it. Right now, planning the family’s dinner every night is a more fulfilling experience than I was expecting. Yes, there are nights I want a break, but I think deep down making sure my family is fed is an act of love and shows how I can care for them. My love language is “acts of service” so this makes a lot of sense. (19 of 50)
    • Buy a sewing machine. (20 of 50) I’ve always liked the idea of being able to sew, but have never really had the inspiration to sit down and take it up. Guess what? Necessity is the mother of invention. Since face masks are so scarce and desperately needed by the medical professionals, I found a pattern online to make cloth ones for our family. I did the first one by hand, and after nearly 2 hours, decided, even with an abundance of time, this was not a good use of time. Now, I’ve made four masks for the four of us and can add another new experience to my list. (21 of 50)
    • Grocery shopping. It’s a new experience going out to buy groceries. So many of the online delivery services are overwhelmed right now. I felt lucky to get one Ocado delivery a week ago, so we stocked up the best we could and got groceries for my 86 year old MIL. I’ve also visited Costco and it was a very easy experience. The store is huge, so there is plenty of room to space people out and they had everything I needed (minus eggs). I was in and out within an hour. I kept a roll of paper towels and some Dettol in my car so I could spray down the packages before I put them in my car. Once I got home, we created clean/dirty spaces and cleaned everything again. Fruits and veg get washed in soapy water for 20 seconds, just like washing our hands. Once everything is clean and dry, it all gets put away. With two young men in the house who pass the time by working out, keeping food in the house is a challenge. The Costco shop paid off as we still have plenty of food nearly a week later. (22 of 50)
    • Watching all 11 Star Wars movies back-to-back over 11 nights. For those who are curious, chronologically starting with Episode 1 and spin-offs included. (23 of 50)
    • Seven Week Wady Movie Marathon: We each put two movie categories into a hat and drew a new category each week. Every night we each had to pick a movie for everyone to watch. We then ranked all the movies over the course of the seven weeks. Needless to say, I held the number one slot for six of the seven weeks! (28 of 50)
    • Learning to Live in the Moment: It’s now August. We are nearly 6 months into the coronavirus pandemic. The once wishful thoughts of “this will be over soon” have turned into a reality check that we are going to be living with this virus for a much longer period of time. Normal is being redefined every day. I don’t see our lives going back to a “January normal” anytime soon. Some of these changes are undoubtedly for the best. My high school best friends and I were all supposed to be in Montreal this weekend jointly celebrating our 50th birthdays. Instead, we had a Zoom call where we caught up and laughed and reminded ourselves why we are all still friends after 35+ years. My BFF reminded me on that call that there is something special to be found in learning to live in the moment. As a planner, that lesson has been really hard to learn, but lo and behold, nearly six months later, I’m starting to get the swing of it. I miss having things to look forward to, but I’m beginning to appreciate the beauty of not taking anything for granted and getting more comfortable sitting in the moment as it happens. (32 of 50)
  • 99123196_10158406099139382_6567113220169924608_nSeven Sisters Cliffs: As we have had lockdown restrictions eased, we’ve been able to start taking day trips in the car. First visit was to Seven Sisters Cliffs just east of Brighton. A stunning series of white cliffs overlooking the English Channel and deceptively hilly. A beautiful sunny day and a new place to visit made for an excellent mental health day. (24 of 50)
  • Seeing the Summer Solstice at Stonehenge: Despite my love of Outlander, I’ve never been one to get into the mythical nature of the summer and winter solstice. Standing with hundreds of people around a bunch of “magical” stones didn’t quite make it to the top of my to do list. This year, however, was a bit different. Because of the social distancing measures in place, the English Heritage turned the event into a virtual one and I got to see the stones at sunset on the shortest night of the year. With over 90,000 people watching online, it’s safe to say that this was a new experience for many others around the world as well. (25 of 50)IMG_1754
  • West Wittering Beach: Most of the beaches along the southern England coast are made up of pebbles. Really good for a leg workout as you walk along the beach, but not exactly great for sitting in the sun. West Wittering in West Sussex is a lovely sandy beach and on the hottest day of the year we decided to go dip our toes in the water. Unfortunately, thousands of our closest friends also decided that was a good idea and in an age of social distancing, this is what we were stuck in the middle of! (26 of 50)IMG_1813
  • Meditation: My international women’s club held an emotional wellness seminar and the event leader suggested that we all start our day with an empowering morning routine and a powerful mantra to guide our day. I decided that meditating and being still was a good way to honor that request, so I’ve started meditating with the “Insight Timer” app. So far I like the way it centers me each morning and gives me a chance to start the day with a positive internal dialog. (27 of 50)
  • High Clandon Vineyards: English sparkling wine has a growinIMG_2172g reputation and is gaining popularity across Europe. The climate in the south of England is ideally suited to this type of wine and there are small vineyards popping up all over the Surrey countryside. Every year High Clandon Vineyards holds an art exhibition on conjunction with the release of a new vintage of their sparkling wine. I had a friend showing her artwork, so went to check it out. It was a beautiful, relaxing way to spend a summer’s afternoon. The sky was so clear we could see the entire London skyline all the way from Wembley to Canary Wharf. A special treat indeed! (31 of 50)
  • Outdoor Cinema at Hampton Court Palace: While almost any outdoor activity grabs my attention these days (hello, social distancing!), the fact we can go see an outdoor cinema at Hampton Court Palace is beyond cool. Truly one of these experiences where I need to pinch myself because I can’t believe I get to do something like that! (33 of 50)IMG_2236
  • Cambridge: It’s rare we get to sitesee as a family of four due to conflicting schedules, but an opportunity opened up and we drove up to Cambridge for the day. We had a really lovely day wandering through picturesque streets, having lunch at a historic pub and punting on the River Cam. It’s definitely worth taking advantage of these beautiful summer days while we can still be outdoors. (34 of 50)
  • Marlow: While running an errand near by we stopped in this cute market town in Buckinghamshire. If it wasn’t so hot, it would have been a lovely day for a stroll and a pint next to the river. (35 of 50)

Love London: Hyde Park

This year I am leading the London walking tours for my international women’s group, AWBS. In the two years I’ve been a part of the group, this is one of my favorite activities as I’m always learning something new about the different neighborhoods in this amazing city. Luckily I’m being assisted by some world class Blue Badge tour guides who have an unbelievable wealth of knowledge.

Our first tour of the year was through Hyde Park. Actually, it was more Kensington Gardens as the two parks sit side by side, but are typically referred to as Hyde Park. The land originally belonged to the monks of Westminster Abbey, but during his reign, Henry VIII took them over as hunting grounds. In the late 17th century, William and Mary purchased Nottingham House – which later became known as Kensington Palace – as a means to escape the city of London for health reasons. George II’s wife, Queen Caroline, is the one primarily responsible for bringing the park together as we know it today. During the 1700’s the public started to be permitted access to the lands when the monarchy was not in town. It wasn’t until Queen Victoria’s reign in the 1800s when the public had full access to the grounds, as we do today.

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Stop 1: Bear StatueIMG_9247

Hyde Park is known for being a park for children with playgrounds, water features and statues all throughout the park. One of the first stops on our tour was at this drinking fountain of two bears hugging. It’s been stolen several times, and was just return from the most recent escapade two days ago.

Stop 2: Italian GardensIMG_9250

The Italian Gardens are most recently known for the fight scene in Bridget Jones 2 between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant. They do, of course, have a much more historial significance in that they were a gift from Prince Albert to Queen Victoria and were designed after Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight.

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Stop 3: Peter Pan

The author of Peter Pan, JM Barrie, lived near Kensington Gardens and would frequently go for a casual stroll in the afternoon or evening. During these walks he befriended the Llewelyn-Davies family and became a pseudo guardian to the five boys, i.e. the lost boys, after their parents died tragically young. The one son, Michael, is who inspired Peter Pan for Barrie. The statue in the park was created by Sir George Frampton in 1912

 

IMG_9263Stop 4: Speke Monument

The sweet chestnut trees line the pathway in a 19th century addition to the park. The spire to the left is a tribute to Sir Henry Speke, the man credited with finding the source of the Nile, Lake Victoria Nyanza, in 1858. There was much debate on this topic at the time, but was validated by the Royal Geographical Society years later.

Stop 5: Physical Energy StatueIMG_9267

The Physical Energy statue is the work of the British artist George Frederic Watts. The statue represents the human need to find more and learn more, i.e. the “human need for new challenges – of our instinct to always be scanning the horizon, looking towards the future.” The statue was unveiled in 1907 after Watts’ death in 1904.

 

Stop 6: Isis Statue IMG_9273

The Isis statue sits on the banks of the Serpentine and is one of the most recent statues added to Hyde Park in 2009. It was part of a fundraising effort to raise money for children’s education center and is named after Isis the Egyptian goddess of motherhood.

IMG_9277Stop 7:  The Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Garden

The Princess Diana Memorial Fountain opened in 2004. It is a heart shaped water feature that is designed for children to be played in. It has calm and turbulant waters and was designed to represent the well known features of Diana’s life: “The design aims to reflect Diana’s life, water flows from the highest point in two directions as it cascades, swirls and bubbles before meeting in a calm pool at the bottom.”

IMG_9279Stop 8: Rotten Row

As often happens with language over time, Rotten Row is not the original name of this path horse path that traverses the south end of Hyde Park. Originally, it was known as “Route du Roi, which meant ‘King’s Road’ in French” as the path connected Kensington Palace all the way to Whitehall for the King.

Stop 9: The Site of the Great ExhibitionIMG_9280

For any fan of the TV series Victoria, the Great Exhibition of 1851 was a major plot point of the show. Originally designed as a showcase of art in industry, the Great Exhibition turned into a showcase of modern British manufacturing on a scale never seen before. The event was housed in a purpose built glass and steel structure known as Crystal Palace and sat on this site in Hyde Park. One third of the UK population attended the exhibition and the financial success of the event provided the foundation for all the museums that South Kensington is now famous for.

Stop 10: Prince Albert MemorialIMG_9287

Sitting across the street from Royal Albert Hall, the Prince Albert Memorial was designed by George Gilbert Scott to honor the impact that Prince Albert had on British society. Prince Albert died young in 1861 at the age of 42. Queen Victoria famously went into a deep mourning period after his death. The memorial celebrates Victorian achievement and Prince Albert’s passions and interests. It is an impressive structure standing at 176 feet in the air with gilded statues and world reknown freizes decorating the structure.

Stop 11: Kensington Palace

We wrapped up the tour at Kensington Palace. Its recent history is well known for being the modern royal residence of the extended Royal Family. It was the site of all the flowers that were laid upon the gardens after Princess Diana’s death in 1997. The Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, lived here until her death in 2002 and is the current London residence of William and Kate. Harry and Meghan recently departed the building to live full-time at Frogmore Cottage in Windsor.

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Christmas Already?

Christmas already? Well, all the big London department stores have opened their Christmas shops, so clearly I’m not the only one. Plus, starting June 25, my husband usually begins counting down the days making for plenty of Christmas discussion in our household. Finally, no other major city in the world does Christmas better than London, so it’s easy to get excited about the holidays early.

The festive season begins November 1, which for my American friends presents a bit of a quandry because we all know Christmas doesn’t really begin until after Thanksgiving. But given the lack of my favorite holiday in my new homeland, I’ll happily roll with it. London makes it easy, as the city becomes so festive with lights twinkling everywhere – a huge bonus when it’s dark by 4:00pm in December.

If you are planning a trip to London over the holiday season, what should you do? Here are a few of my favorite things:

Christmas Lights

The displays change from year to year, but without a doubt they will be bright and sparkly and you won’t be able to help but get into the Christmas spirit. The entire city lights up, but here is my suggested route for maximizing light viewing over a leisurely evening stroll.

  • From Green Park Tube Station walk down Berkley IMG_0132Street towards Berkley Square. On the western side of the square there is an exclusive member’s only club called Annabel‘s that decks out the front of their building in a massive light display. In 2018, it was an enormous Christmas Tree that took up the entire front of the building and then some.

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  • From there you can cut across to Bruton Street that takes you to New (and Old) Bond Street. The luxury stores spare no expense in decorating for the holidays and it’s a really fun way to window shop.

 

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  • Take a left onto Burlington Gardens and you can make your way past the Burlington Arcade. Lots of lovely boutiques, but more importantly the Christmas lights make the centuries old shopping street sparkle like snow shimmering on the tree branches.

 

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  • Keeping walking straight ahead to Regent Street. This and Oxford Street are at the heart of London’s Christmas light displays. They go up and down the entire street and the glow of the lights shimmers across the shoppers bringing home their shopping for the night.

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  • From Regent Street, take a right onto Beak Street and you start to come across the funky, festive nature of SoHo. Bars and restaurants line the streets throughout this entire part of town, but there is one final stop to make along this walk. On your left you’ll come to Carnaby Street which is always glowing with a fun and unique take on the Christmas theme. In 2018, it honoured the Bohemian Rhapsody movie with a full-on Queen and Freddie Mercury splash.

Kew Gardens

If you haven’t had enough of Christmas lights on the streets of London, then be sure to check out Kew Gardens. Tickets for this sell out EARLY, like it’s hard to find tickets by October 1. There are light and music displays all around the gardens, along with food trucks to get a bite to eat and a bit of hot cider or mulled wine to warm your hands in the cold air. It’s a great family activity and there is enough to keep young kids, teenagers, adults and grandparents entertained all at the same time.

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Theatre Shows

Each year there are performances of The Nutcracker put on by the English National Ballet. It’s a Christmas classic performed by one of the world’s pre-eminant ballet companies. Get tickets if you can.

Also, be sure to check out A Christmas Carol – after all, you are in the birthplace of Charles Dickens! There are different performances every year, so you’ll need to do a search to see who is putting on the show. Even if you have seen it many times before, you never know what you might experience. We caught the Old Vic’s performance a few years ago and it was by far the most uplifting version I had ever seen.

Finally, another not-to-be missed English Christmas tradition is a Pantomime performance. I’ll be honest, we haven’t tried one yet, but they are a tried and true family tradition for most of the British population. These are family-friendly, interactive, slapstick, over-the-top theatrical performances that have been happening for hundreds of years. Many are based on children’s folk tales, so the stories are familiar to everyone in the crowd. A good time will definitely be had by all.

Carols at The Royal Albert Hall

In the final run up to Christmas, Royal Albert Hall puts on a Christmas extravaganza like no other. It’s one giant sing-along Christmas carol experience that would put even Ebenezer Scrooge into the Christmas spirit. Join the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for two hours of pure holiday magic. We did this last year on Christmas Eve and then went to lunch afterwards. It was a wonderful way to celebrate the holiday.

Boxing Day Football Matches

If you have a football/soccer fan in your life, make sure they get to participate in the biggest day of the Premier League season. All 20 teams play on December 26 – Boxing Day – in matches up and down the country. The Premier League season goes into overdrive over the holidays, but the game to be at is a Boxing Day match. Tickets are hard to come by, but check out Viagogo (the UK’s version of StubHub) to see what is available for individual matches. The other alternative is to look at each club’s hospitality packages. You pay a bit more money, but are guaranteed a ticket along with a meal and a few other perks.

One Year On . . .

July 11. One year ago today we landed at Heathrow airport. The mix of emotions we were feeling at the time – fear, excitement, exhaustion (!) – were only a precursor to what we would experience over this past year. Moving to another country changes you in ways you could never anticipate.

It’s not just because things are different. Yes, even in a country where we share a language, the differences can be pronounced in good ways and bad. (For a great list of observations between the US and UK, check out this blog post – it sums it up brilliantly.) Fundamentally, though, those are just hiccups along the way. You get comfortable driving on the opposite side of the road. You expect to pay for parking everywhere you go. You bag your own groceries without even giving it a second thought.

What you don’t expect is how your world begins to shift on its axis. When you get to experience things others only read about, you can be boastful or you can be grateful. When you see family and friends struggle with your departure, you can be hurt or you can approach them with love and empathy for being in the place they are. When you see the turmoil your home country and locals ask “why”, you can be defensive or you can simply say “I don’t know”.

It’s subtle. The changes happen slowly and sometimes unexpectedly. All of a sudden, you realize how comfortable you are in your new expat skin and how joyful this journey makes you. You see your kids get amazing opportunities and you know this journey wasn’t about your job or your career move, but really was about giving them this life experience they never would have had otherwise. You feel the quick and strong embrace of new friendships that are different than others because no one takes their time for granted in the expat world.

We said “yes” to everything this first year and it was fun and exciting, and truthfully more than a bit exhausting. An experienced globe trotting friend told me before we left, the first year is exciting because everything is new; the second year is hard because the novelty wears off; and the third year it begins to feel like home. He was right about the first year and knowing the second year can be hard, I’m going to be mindful in how I approach it.

Even with that said, the gratitude I feel today one year later is immense. I am so glad I took this leap of faith to try something new. My family is fuller, emotionally richer and closer than we have ever been. I am a more complete version of me than I ever thought I could be. For that, I couldn’t be more thankful.

The New Normal

One of the expected pleasures of being an expat is the travel. When you sign up for this gig you anticipate the adventure of exploring new cultures, cities and countries. What I hadn’t really thought about was the fact all of my expat friends would be doing the same. This means everyone is going to a dozen different countries all at the same time.

Back home, planning a vacation to Europe is a big deal. It’s something you do as a special trip – a significant anniversary, a big birthday, a major milestone. When you go, you try to see and do as much as you can because you don’t know when you’ll have the opportunity to come back.

Now as school breaks approach, the conversation begins with a simple “where is everyone off to?” and the answers are as varied as people themselves. In six months, my friends and I have been to Amsterdam, Rome, Croatia, Paris, Malta, Spain, Tenerife, Lanzarote, Greece, Madeira, Scotland, Brussels, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Mallorca, Lisbon, Sicily and many, many more. As my 18 year old back in the US said as we landed in Florence this week, “you make this sound normal”.

You know what, he’s right. This is what becomes the new normal. If you are a traveler, like I am, it feels amazing. Knowing the thrill of exploring some place new is always around the corner and won’t – necessarily – break the bank is an incredible feeling. Knowing others and building friendships with those who get to live this life too? In some ways it feels as though I’ve found my people.

You give up a lot living 3000+ miles away from your friends and family. You aren’t there when tragedy strikes or loved ones fall ill. It’s really hard being so far away when these things happen and you can’t be there in person to offer a hug or a shoulder to cry on. You miss those conversations and laughter with people who know you best. Sometimes the travel feels like a small consolation for all you are missing out on.

In those moments, however, the biggest thing I take away is you have to live life to the fullest every day. You never know when a moment will come that will rob you of your ability to do the things you want, when you want to do them. Right now, I have an amazing opportunity to feed my travel soul. It’s such a strong part of who I am and I’m so thankful for this chance to explore it more. This new normal is exactly where I’m supposed to be.

100 Days of Darkness

Upon our arrival in the UK, our son’s school held a new parent session. It was very helpful and quickly put my mind at ease that a lot of what I’d been feeling during the early weeks of the move were totally normal.

One of the casual comments made during the session was about the “100 Days of Darkness”. I’ve been coming to the UK pretty regularly for 25+ years, but this was new to me. During Christmas visits in the past, I’ve noticed it was pretty much dark by 4:00pm. As a tourist, though, it’s something you just accept as a quirk of the place you are visiting and move on.

The “100 Days of Darkness” was defined as Halloween through Valentine’s Day. Turns out the lead up to Christmas wasn’t too bad. You have Guy Fawkes night in early November with giant bonfire celebrations. For Christmas, London does a spectacular job with thousands of festive lights decorating the streets of the city.

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Now, we are in the middle of January. As with most places in the northern hemisphere, January can be pretty grey and gloomy. Everyone tells me that this is crunch time during these days of darkness.  On one hand, I get it. With the sun hidden behind the clouds for days on end, it can get a bit depressing. When you don’t have a Christmas tree to light up your living room, twilight at 4:00 makes for a really long night.

But, there is also a subtle beauty to these days. The grey skies cast an Instagram-worthy filter across the beautiful landscapes. The structure of the trees without their leaves pop against the neutral sky. Tourists attractions are essentially empty. If you really want to explore a place, now is the time to go.

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There is one final upside. The sunny days literally make everything brighter. You appreciate the brilliance of the sunshine in a whole new way. Squinting at the golden orb in the sky is done with pleasure rather than annoyance. While it may be chilly, the brightness of the day makes you eager to be outside.

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So, overall, I’d say this first “100 Days of Darkness” isn’t as bad as I was expecting. That said, I will be happy to see the return of summer and 16 hours of daylight!

When It’s Not Your Holiday

Sitting here in the U.K. on a wet, grey Monday in January, it’s just another day. Another start to a work week that contains the usual mental preparations for all that needs to be done in the days ahead. Without a day off of school, media news stories or commercial reminders, it’s easy to forget today is the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. In fact, if it weren’t for posts by friends on social media, it would be far too easy to not remember it at all.

This isn’t a commentary about the holiday itself. Dr. King’s life deserves every ounce of honor we can bestow upon him as a freedom fighter for racial and social justice. I’d highly recommend a post I read yesterday that eloquently sums up the struggle many Black Americans are feeling right now. Chelle Wilson’s words reminded me how, more than any point in my life, we desperately need Dr. King’s legacy. We are struggling to find a way towards building a more perfect – and equal – union and we need the great leaders of our past to guide us.

As a new expat, however, I wasn’t prepared for the empty feeling this left behind. It’s a stark reminder of how I’m not in my own country anymore. Most Brits seem to be well versed in American history and current events. I have no doubt the vast majority know who Martin Luther King is and his role in the American civil rights movement. But the reality is, this is not their fight and there is no need here for a holiday to commemorate Dr. King.

It’s also a reminder to choose how you honor your own country and its holidays and traditions when you don’t live there any more. Today, I’m going to take Chelle’s advice and listen to the stories Black Americans want to share about Martin Luther King. I’m also going to learn more about race relations here in the U.K. I want to understand how similar and different we are as two countries that have much in common.

In true British style, I think I’ll get started by making myself a cup of tea and settling in on this rainy afternoon.

Adventure

It’s Tuesday night and as I channel surf, I come across U2 on the BBC. Being the fan I am, of course I have to watch. As I do, I marvel at the power of music to transport you to another moment in time. Hearing “With or Without You” I’m instantly taken back to a beautiful summer evening a mere five months ago in Dublin listening to this song live in front of U2’s hometown crowd. All the emotions I felt in that moment came rushing back to me.

Now maybe it’s because of my love for the band, but I think it’s something more. After all, I’ve seen them in concert many times before. What was different this time around? This concert in Ireland was a Bucket List event. A “pinch me” moment. An “I can’t believe I get to do this” kind of night.

One of the things I’ve learned in my first six months of living abroad is life as an expat is filled with a lot of these kinds of moments. Not just for the big trips or weekends away – because they are certainly fertile ground – but also the daily experiences as you wander the streets discovering something new at every turn. The high I used to get from trips abroad once a year happens all the time right now. It is absolutely addictive.

This brings me to “Adventure”. The last few years I’ve adopted a word for the year. Brave two years ago. Fearless this past year. Ironically, they seem to lead into one another and Adventure seems to fit the same pattern. Sometimes the words require thought, but other times it’s totally obvious. This is one of the obvious times.

Why Adventure? Well, this expat experience is certainly an adventure in and of itself. One of the pieces of advice I heard early on was to say yes to everything. Knowing what I know about how these manifest themselves over the course of a year, I knew “yes” would probably be too big of a word, but I also knew I wanted to say yes to the adventures.

Through this experience, I’ve also had people tell me I’m adventurous, which kinda stopped me in my tracks. It’s not how I’ve traditionally thought of myself, but in my heart I know my true self is an explorer. I want to embrace that even more, so Adventure it is.

As part of this journey, I’ve also made a promise with myself to blog more. I love telling my travel stories, so for 2018 I’m going to write and share more. #52WeeksOfAdventure begins now!

 

T-Minus Two Months

How are we at this point already? Two months from today the Wady family (including Henry) boards a flight from DC to London to begin our new adventure in the UK. I’m kind of shell shocked. The move seemed so far away when we first made the decision back in February. Now it feels like time is racing by. I’m scared to blink because I don’t want the last two months here to disappear.

This is a very surreal stage in the international moving process. When you first make the decision, there is a massive wave of emotions. Apprehension and excitement hit you as you begin to realize the magnitude of the decision you just made. That is quickly counterbalanced by the anticipation and possibilities awaiting you in your new country. Sadness definitely creeps in next as you start telling friends and family about your move. There were many tears shed in those early conversations and it was overwhelming at times. Luckily, though, the people closest to you seem to come to terms with it pretty quickly. While they may be sad for themselves, your true friends are excited for you and the next chapter in your life.

Now, we are at the point where the move is both mundane and overstimulating. There is so. much. paperwork! Immigration forms, legal documents, transportation papers, rental agreements (both here and there), bank account details – you name it we are currently filling it out. It’s a lot to keep track of and there is the constant worry that something is slipping through the cracks. The most frustrating part comes when one document (i.e. my immigration visa) is beginning to hold up two or three other critical steps – and there is NOTHING you can do about it. It’s testing every fiber of my control freak being.

The pressure is not just on me. I have a lot to do on the home front, but my husband is the feet on the ground in the UK and he is just as busy as me. He’s re-learning how to open a bank account in the UK, which is not as simple as it seems. Apparently, the old formalities and pleasantries of banking still exist in England and opening an international account requires an appointment to be made three weeks in advance. We’ll just consider that charming, right?

He’s also dealing with neither of us having a credit history in the UK. If you are lucky enough to not give your credit rating a second thought day in and day out, then having to go back and prove your credit worthiness is an eye opening experience. Add to it the complication that our bills and expenses in the US won’t necessarily be the same in the UK, so it’s not an apples to apples comparison. All of it can be pretty intimidating. Luckily we have a really good relocation agent guiding us step by step. She is worth every penny Cisco is paying her!

I know we are heading into the home stretch of the move. There will be lots of balls in the air for quite a while and we will make it through with flying colors. With so much happening, it’s easy to push aside the emotions of a move like this.

Outside of the initial sadness I described above, most days I’m too busy to really think about how I feel about this move. I know that’s not healthy. I don’t want to think too hard about saying goodbye to my friends who have become our family in North Carolina. I love our house as it’s been a beautiful home to raise our family in. I’m nervous about completely uprooting our lives, when, as a certain 15 year old likes to remind me, we have a pretty good life here.

But then, I think about how comfortable I’ve gotten and how it’s time to shake things up. I think about how it feels when I travel to another country and see and experience things for the first time and feel my soul just sing. I think about the opportunities in front of my kids and the joy I have in knowing their world view will be forever changed because they tried something different. When I think about those and so many other things, I know this will be a great move for our family.

So, we’ll make the most of these next two months . It’s time to embrace the possibility of what comes next.