Transforming London

Travel days are usually an ordeal for our family, but the trip from Lille to London was smooth as silk. This may have been partly because we’d done the mirror-trip when arriving here, six weeks ago, so even X had a fresh memory of what to expect. We also helped ourselves out by taking the early part of the day very easy — a bit of cleaning, some packing, but basically we chilled till 4pm, when we called an Uber to Lille Europe, the point of departure for the Eurostar train.

Security and customs in international train stations are virtually identical to airports, yet somehow everyone is more relaxed about it all. In France, camouflaged military police are a constant presence, but I once spotted a guard (male) lower his machine gun to exchange French “petit bises” (cheek kisses) with a friend (also male).

On the train, we dined on pre-purchased baguette sandwiches, and X and I played Legend of Zelda on his DS until the train pulled into St. Pancras station. This was the moment when it all could have gone wrong: bedtime loomed; the airbnb host’s emailed directions featured nonexistent streets; and the Saturday night Tube stations were awash with football yobs and hen parties. But we all kept our wits and rode the Northern line to Old Street, meeting our airbnb host pretty much where he’d described, give or take a letter.

London pulses. In a city so big, so filthy and crowded and haphazardly designed, it must be easy for inhabitants to get jammed into ruts and eddies. But in all of my visits, I’ve felt adventurously swept up, dumped in unknown boroughs but presented with a thousand sights and opportunities and — if the neighbourhood does not appeal — shiny red double-decker buses boasting enticing alternative destinations. Once we’d settled into our flat, I made up an excuse to go out again, just to breathe British air for a few more minutes.

Speaking of the air, it seems to be better for S’s lungs, despite the smog. Since we arrived in Lille, S has struggled with her asthma and allergies; new flora could be a factor, but now we’re wondering if our apartment there has mildew, or residual dander from some previous occupant’s pet. Or maybe it’s just because everyone in the whole goddamn country smokes nonstop.

Whatever the miraculous ingredient in London’s air, it also helped to reverse X’s emerging cough. The day after our travel, we awoke hale and eager to explore. Unfortunately, it was Sunday, and even the outdoor adventure parks I’d picked out for X’s pleasure were padlocked. We hopped on various buses till we found a park willing to accept us: Coram’s Fields, boasting no fewer than three playgrounds, plus some chickens and a goat in pens.

Alas, X had recently become fixated on a Pachinko-style tablet game, and all he wanted to do was design his own Pachinko levels in a notebook. This bit us on our collective butt during our visit to the British Museum, where S and I figured we could spell each other off so at least one of us could enjoy the avalanche of culture. But now X wanted to play, to move around and play superheroes or dragons or whatever — fun, unless your kid is flailing his arms within inches of the Rosetta Stone. Not for the first time, I found myself wishing that X were older, or were a differently dispositioned child, or that, at the very least, I could read his moods better, and offer up experiences accordingly.

On the way home, we stumbled on paydirt: cutting through Bloomsbury Garden Park, we found a small playground with lots of balance beams, seesaws, and colourful climbables. X turned the site into a video game in his mind, and S joined him, putting her tricky hips at risk repeatedly. I sipped my British Museum cappuccino and drew deep, British breaths.

Our second full day included another massive dose of culture, in the form of London’s Science Museum. X was interested in the “Pattern Pod,” with plenty of things to touch and handle. I snuck away to take notes in the “Clockmakers’ Gallery,” as part of my creative mission next month involves designing a time machine. But the major science lesson involved “Bodies in Motion” — specifically, about 1 million families, complete with strollers, trying to navigate a five-story building packed with overstimulating lights and sounds.

X handled it all pretty well (we witnessed more than one total meltdown from other kids his age), but all three of us were burnt out by noon. So of course we committed ourselves to a long walk, through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, with another playground as our destination. I had hoped we’d get as far as the Diana Memorial Playground, which is shaped like a giant sailing ship for some reason; instead, we settled on Bucknell Playground, which was pretty workaday but at least had some pretty fountains nearby.

I keep apologizing to S — for failing to note the Sunday hours of an attraction, or for dragging us on a walk that turns out to be longer than anticipated — but what I’m really doing is apologizing to London, for not being able to adequately grapple with its majesty and grandeur. With a five-year-old in tow, there will always only be so much we can see or do in a day. After we’ve settled down for the night, I sneak out of the airbnb, to have a pint at one of the many local pubs with delightful British names (The Red Lion, the George & Vulture, the Reliance, the Macbeth). And I silently toast the City, and wish it could slow down enough — or I could run fast enough to catch up — so it could join me for a drink.

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