|View of Big Ben from Nelsons Column & National Gallery
V is hesitant. “What is it?” I ask.
“Well. . . I’m supposed to be out of town for work. For three weeks,” he calculates. I gasp.
“But not three weeks straight,” he rushes to reassure. “Just a few days each week, for three weeks.” He takes a deep breath. Watches me weigh the news. Waits for the verdict.
My Elle Woods pep-talk reels through my head. I’m more than capable of taking care of the kids by myself. I’ve been doing the full-time Mom gig for quite some time now. I have loads of work to do, friends to call on, places to go. I’ll still cook, clean, go to work, bathe the kids, run errands, take them to museums, pre-school, the farm, etc. I’ll feed the dogs – maybe even take all 5 of us for a walk to the park. As I remind V when I’m angry, I don’t need V here to make things okay. But. In reality. Everything is just better when he is.
I remember our wedding day. I had dreamed of an outdoor ceremony on the steps of a gorgeous plantation home outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As the hour grew nearer – the rain and the tears flowed. We had planned to take photos together before the ceremony (to expedite our arrival to the party, naturally). He was dressed in his tux, ready for photos, and arrived at the bridal suite. A soft knock. In between sobs, I opened the door, and he stood there – shyly smiling at me. We embraced, I put my weepy head on his shoulder, and as my mom recalls, “You just calmed down as soon as you saw him. He just made everything better.”
Three weeks. Alright. I can do this. “Good news is,” V starts. (Ah – he’s learning. Bad news then give me the carrot to keep me motivated and happy.) “The good news is that I’m going to London. So I thought it would be nice if we all went up the weekend before.” (Hum. Nice carrot.)
“Sounds good to me! Let’s do it!” I gleam. Three weeks of stress are pushed to the back of my mind.
I had bought Baby Girl a London ABC book last spring when I had visited. It’s the type that says “C is for Crown Jewels, P is for Piccadilly Circus.” It’s cute. It’s educational. And we’ve been reading it for a year. We’ve watched Disney’s Peter Pan movie and gleam as Wendy and her brothers fly around Big Ben. I knew she’d get a kick out of going to a place where everyone “spoke English” – her first excited observation after landing at DFW last fall.
|The kids and I by the River Thames
We book our flights, reserve the apartment using Air B&B, and start planning our visit. I knew it was going to be lovely, with one small logistical caveat. Considering the infrastructure of the city and our plans to see it via undergrounds without lifts, buses, and taxis – the big double stroller just isn't feasible. Baby Girl would walk while Little Man rode in the single stroller, but inevitably she’d get tired, and we’d have to switch. Little Man, though – doesn't walk. He either runs (usually in the opposite direction) or doesn't move. He throws himself on the ground. He refuses to hold your hand. He begs to be carried, then struggles to get down if you do. I see Dutch children half his age walking through shopping streets calmly. All. The. Time. And I just can’t help but glare. We used to carry him on our backs, but between my subsequent chiropractor visits and the promise of having a wriggly, uncooperative child on your back, as opposed to the ground, we just gave up on that idea, too. Nevertheless, I knew, for the duration of the trip – we’d be OK. Everything is better with V there. With a 2-to-2 ratio of kids to parents, even a tired walking one or a screaming wriggle one – we’d survive. I was nervous, though. Seeing as V was going for work, I’d be flying back to the Netherlands by myself with the two kids. Getting to the airport would be okay, the flight would probably be fine, but it was the train journey from AMS to our home that worried me. I’d have at least one suitcase to roll, a stroller to push, a purse and a diaper bag to carry – and two kids. No hands or arms would be left for Baby Girl. As we pack the London ABC book into our carryon for our flight the next morning, I smile at my nearly 4-year old. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do it all – the promise of a great weekend is too strong to say no.
After a whirl-wind morning, we arrive in London Heathrow and both kids fall asleep at baggage claim. Baby Girl in the stroller, and Little Man in my arms. I eye V. “Well – what do we do now?” he asks. “We wait.” I smile – and settle myself as comfortably as I can on the bench and watch a carrousel rotate for half an hour. Little Man is the first to wake, and we throw him on top of the luggage cart to wheel him through immigration. Lunch and a train ride follows. Our first stop on the Heathrow Express – Paddington Station. The little girl in me giggles at the thought. “Just like the book – Paddington Bear!” V stares at me, uncomprehending. “Okay – we’re buying a copy while we’re here. You’re clearly missing out.” I reassure.
|B is for Big Ben
We discover London is in the middle of a tube strike the day we arrive. Rain is falling, traffic is at a gridlock, and we’re in an expensive taxi on our way to a home south of Cricklewood Station. We arrive at an adorable house with a lovely hostess – but I’m a little turned-off/freaked out by the fact that we’re sharing a bathroom with the hostess and her husband. (Thanks for the fine print AirB&B? Or perhaps V just missed the detail – either way, I think we’ll be sticking to our tried-and-true FlipKey in the future.) The tube strike has motivated us to learn the bus system; however, as we head south on the double-decker red bus, the traffic forces us to cut our journey short. We see “H is for Hyde Park” from the corner and head down Oxford Street - gawking at the size of the glittering stores, and the fact that they’re open at 7:00 p.m. (Ah, Netherlands – what have you done to us?) We find the nearest Wagamama – our out-of-town favorite – and recharge. We feast on spicy noodles and edamame and the yummy goodness turns the evening around. Riding the wave of positive energy, we exit the restaurant happy – ignorant of the puddles and drizzle – and head straight to the Disney Store.
The next morning, the sun is shining – the tube strike is over, and we take the Underground to the Westminster Station. Baby Girl and Little Man take turns reading the ABC book on the tube. When we pop out of the underground, I recognize the building in front of us. “But where is. . .” I trail off. Then I look up. “Oh! There it is!” I exclaim to Baby Girl. “Look! There’s Big Ben, right above us!” and she screams with excitement. “Mama! Mama! There’s Big Ben!” (and yes, I know Big Ben is technically the bell insidethe tower, etc. but let’s just go with the ABC book and 3-year-old excitement for a bit). We snap photos
|T is for Tower Bridge
The rest of the weekend we spend visiting friends visiting friends and shopping at Marks and Spencer. The shop attendant is unable to provide me the pair of shoes I’d like in my size. “Oh my, I’m so terribly sorry. So sorry. Perhaps we can order them and ship them to you. Again, I’m very terribly sorry.” I am awe-filled at the apparition of the polite British stereotype before my eyes. I am surprised that I have become accustomed to Dutch-grunt-of-service-stereotype. “It’s fine! It’s fine! No need to apologize! I live out of town – it won’t be necessary, thank you for trying!” I panic to soothe her nerves in response. I want to pat her shoulder. Tell her to chin up. I haven’t felt such compassion for a stranger in years.
Sunday. Departure day. We awake. Take turns with the hostess and husband for shower time. We pack. Eat breakfast in their kitchen. We retrace our steps: taxi, Paddington Station, Heathrow Airport. I sit across from V sipping a cup of Costa coffee. The kids are relatively calm, but I make anxious glances at the security line. “You’ll be fine, right?” He reflects my nervousness. “I’ll miss you all.” I nod. I’m sad. The time approaches. “Baby Girl, will you hold on the stroller while I push Little Man?” I ask. “Yes, Mama.” She says and grabs hold.
We weave through the ropes. I hand the security agent our boarding passes. V watches everything. “Look! Look! There’s my Daddy!” Baby Girl commands the agent’s attention. The aging large woman smiles and all four of us wave to V.
We approach the gate – Baby Girl shuffling alongside the stroller clutching her stuffed rabbit. Boarding passes. Down the ramp please. Leave the pram at the curve in the jet bridge. I unload Little Man. They run the length of the ramp while I fold the stroller and juggle purse, diaper bag, and boarding passes. They walk themselves down the aisle. We find our seats. They climb up. “This is how you do it!” Baby Girl instructs her brother how to buckle an airplane seat belt. I thank her and assist him.
Little Man will need more time before he understands “all electronic devices must be stowed” rule ten minutes before landing. (Cue massive melt-down when LeapPad was turned off) but other than that – the kids were quiet and entertained themselves for the length of the flight. Landed. Parked. I wait until all other passengers are past our seats before I attempt to move. “Do you need help?” a woman passenger asks, “I know what it’s like to travel with two kids by myself,” she says in way of an explanation. “No, no – I’m fine.” I say. Go girl-power. We waddle down the aisle, passing empty chairs as we go. “Do you need help?” the KLM stewardess asks. “No, no – I’m fine.” I repeat. I round the corner and meet a blast of cold air and a metal staircase cascading to the tarmac. “Oh! That’s a surprise!” I had expected the comfort of a jet bridge – silly me. With Little Man on my hip, bags dangling from my shoulders, I grasp Baby Girl’s hand and we tromp down the stairs. A shuttle waits – curiosity outweighing impatience as it eyes its last passengers. The collapsed stroller lays at the bottom of the stairs. A dutiful baggage attendant stands guarding my lonely buggy. Cement stretches. Planes roar. My eyes dart from shuttle to stroller to children. Quick decision is required - I need help. “Hi – would you mind holding her hand?” The bored baggage attendant snaps to attention, eager for this temporary promotion. “Of course, ma’am.” And with a seamless grace, I balance Little Man, bags, scoop to the ground, and open the stroller with one hand. We roll behind Baggage Man and Baby Girl towards the staring shuttle bus. He cradles her hand as she accomplishes the final step and we follow. “She’s very good,” the man says and I breathe. Nod a thank you.
Immigration, baggage claim, customs – Baby Girl holds the stroller as I roll our suitcase, push the stroller, and carry bags. Little Man falls asleep. Elevator down to train platform. Up, onto the train – Baby Girl, stroller, bags and me – three swift movements. Sit on the train. Watch the Dutch landscape pass by the windows. Read Paddington Bear twice before arriving at Leiden Centraal Station. Doors whisk open – Baby Girl (stay here sweetie!), stroller, bags. Stares from towering Dutch people waiting to board. Down the elevator, out of the train station. Crosswalk. Sidewalk. Cross walk. Sidewalk. Our street. Relief. I look down at the tiny girl who has traveled countries with me - Planes, shuttles, trains, sidewalks – in the span of an hour. I’m overwhelmed with our success. “Honey, I’m so proud of you!” I say to her – tears in my eyes. “I’m proud of you too, Mama” she says – and one spills over.
|E is for London Eye