A Long Weekend in London

Dropping Jane at Regent's University London.With our daughter heading to school in London, my wife and I decided we should be there to drop her off at school, just like we have since she started preschool 17 years ago. The only problem? My wife is a preschool teacher and taking too much time away from her classroom at the beginning of the school year is not a recipe for a successful year. But, is a long weekend enough? Yes!

Our weekend started at 2.00am on Friday morning with final preparations before our shuttle driver arrived at 4.00am for the two-plus hour drive to JFK. In planning this trip, we went back and forth with a morning flight versus the typical overnight flight. We opted for the morning flight even though it would make it a long travel day, we’d have some sleep in a bed in London, ready to start the day exploring the city. We landed just before midnight, cleared immigration, and hopped the train into central London. Our ten-minute cab ride from Victoria Station to our hotel turned out to be a history lesson from our driver, Jim. A history lesson on US Presidents! We checked into our hotel, the Thistle Hotel Trafalgar Square, very quickly, as there are no queues, sorry, lines, in the wee hours of the morning.

After a full continental breakfast at the hotel, we were out the door. The top priority was a new SIM card for my daughter’s phone. With some helpful advice from one of her friends who studied in London last year, we purchased the card from Three. We chose Three over Vodafone, because the data plan on Three works throughout Me and Eliz at Big BenEurope, while Vodafone’s only works in the UK. Since my daughter is planning to travel during her time at school, it just made more sense. Within minutes, she was up and running with her new data plan and we were off to Covent Garden. The area was bustling this Saturday morning with shoppers, street performers, and folks enjoying a hot cuppa at the various cafes. One of the street performers that we watched was a man in a space-age suit that appeared to be floating above the ground. He seemed to enjoy poking fun at people who didn’t stop to watch him rather than interacting with those that did. Our next stop was one on my list, Ladurée. The luxury bakery was founded in 19th century Paris and now has scores of shops around the world. They are famous for their macarons. After enjoying a couple of these little treats, we were off for more school necessities. None of which had to do with learning or schoolwork, but was all about beauty and fashion.

Now that all of the important stuff was out of the way, we were free to see the sights. We started at one of my favorite places in London: Trafalgar Square. Since the last time I was here, another monument has been added. It is Really Good. Seriously, that is what it is called. It looks like an 18 foot tall Facebook “Like” button. And I do like it. There is always plenty of things going on in the square, from pavement artists drawing in chalk on the north side, to various musicians playing instruments and singing, to little ones chasing the pigeons, it is a great place to people watch and enjoy the day. We wandered down to the Thames and crossed it to get to the London Eye, and then back across to Big Ben, Parliament, and Westminster Abby. We continued on our walk to the Victoria Memorial and Buckingham Palace. Then, it was back down The Mall to the National Gallery. After a short rest at our hotel, our day concluded with dinner at a popular Soho restaurant. We covered over nine miles on foot and were able to soak up the atmosphere of the city.

Sunday was the day my wife was waiting for, a trip to the Tower of London. She loves the monarchy and the history. It was amazing to walk through the castle grounds just as monarchs and traitors had centuries before, climb the narrow spiral stairs with the stone so worn they haven’t been level for generations, or stand on tall castle walls just as soldiers had in the past. We only spent a couple of hours there, but easily could have spent the day. After a light lunch, it was time to take our daughter to school. We spent a couple of hours touring the campus in Regent’s Park and exploring the area along Marylebone Road past Madame Tussauds to Baker Street. We said our goodbyes and headed back down to Leicester Square for dinner.

Monday was our last day in London, but our flight wasn’t scheduled until 5.05pm, giving us plenty of time in the morning to make a few stops we had put off or to revisit a certain luxury bakery for some treats to bring home with us. All in all, we spent 65 hours on the ground in London and we were busy for most of them. Would we have liked to have another few days, of course, but isn’t that usually the case? I would love to go to the British Museum and Tate Modern, but we’ll do that when we visit our daughter later in the term.

Me at the Victoria MemorialHere are a few recommendations to consider. The morning flight over did make for a long travel day, but we were fresh when we woke up the first morning in London, not groggy from only getting off and on sleep on an overnight flight. There is the added expense of an additional night at the hotel, but we truly believe it is worth it. The later flight home was also nice, too. We flew Norwegian, by the way. Another tip: If you have a disability, ask about discounted admission fees. My daughter made fun of my wife, because she had to pay full admission to Tower of London while she got a student discount and I got a disability discount. When we arrived to pick up our tickets we had purchased online, the customer service rep said she was confused as to why we purchased three tickets. She explained that I was able to bring an aide to assist me (and given the unevenness of the floors and steps, I did need that help.) She then refunded the purchase price of my wife’s ticket, giving her the last laugh on our daughter. I also received a discounted fare for the train to the airport. Lastly, our hotel was outstanding. The Thistle Hotel Trafalgar Square is in a great location and within close walking distance to Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, Covent Garden, West End theatres, and, obviously, Trafalgar Square. It also had the greatest shower ever.




I Joined the NFB!

Me and my friend Warren.I joined NFB (National Federation of the Blind) this past weekend. My friend Warren invited me to the Keystone Chapter of the NFB last month, but it snowed that day, so I didn’t feel comfortable going. It’s not  that I hate snow, it is just the walk to the train station after the meeting that concerned me. I’ve never really gone out and about in the snow using my cane. For this month’s meeting, the weather cooperated.

In the days and weeks before the meeting, Warren and I talked and texted about it. He also told me about his time at the Colorado Center for the Blind. What an amazing place that sounds like. It seems he really learned how to manage every aspect of his life with very limited vision.

Back to the reason for this post, joining the NFB. Most people I know, including many friends and family, know that I can’t see, but they don’t realize how it affects almost every aspect of my life. They don’t get that moving something from its regular place on one shelf in the fridge to another shelf makes it almost impossible for me to find. Everyone at the NFB understands that and lives that. Just like when I had some training at CBVI in Chester, it is nice to be around people who have similar interests and issues and to learn from each other.

There is also that feeling of being independent. Since Eliz had plans, I felt confident enough to walk from 15th and Walnut to Suburban Station, find my way to the ticket counter and buy a ticket, then go to the right platform and get on the right train, then walk home from the Swarthmore station — about a mile. I did it all with very little trouble. I was surprised. My biggest issue was finding the ticket counter at Suburban Station. Once I had my ticket, the clerk walked me to the steps to the platform and I was good to go. Several passengers also offered assistance once the train arrived and warned me about the gap between the train and the platform.

While it doesn’t seem like that big a deal to most people, it was to me. To share stories and tips with people who are similar is very gratifying. To make it back home on my own seems almost miraculous.