Category Archives: England and U.K.

Changing plane, train, ballet tickets due to Covid (or presumably due to another illness or issue): what I learned

I am very glad I opted (uncharacteristically) to pay $100 extra per ticket for our flights to London so we’d get “changeable” tickets. When my husband tested positive for Covid this week (He’s ok. Bad cold symptoms and initial high fever) it was five days before our flight to London. I discovered it was surprisingly easy to rebook our tickets, pushing our trip back a week (in case I get Covid. So far so good.). We even got $90 per ticket in travel credits. (Never would have guessed the cost would drop.)

London friends I can’t wait to see!

Meanwhile, rebooking our train travel was NOT easy. I couldn’t just change the dates of travel. I had to buy new tickets, which was very easy. Then I could apply for a refund, which was ridiculously difficult. No surprise that it was easy to spend more money but not to get money back. Shame on you, Great Western Railway! This was compounded by the announced rail strike days…with no service on 3 days of our trip. Grrrr.

On another cancellation front, after failing to find someone to give my Joffrey ballet tickets, hours before the performance, I looked closer at the fine print on the Joffrey website and learned that I could exchange them for a credit to use for a performance later in the season. I called the box office and voila! Now I can go to a performance through April 2023 (the current season).

Who we don’t want to see in London

Back to the airline situation: Our “ main cabin” tickets, I learned allow us to change them —- specifically to rebook the same trip and do it several times, if need be, without charge, beyond paying more (or less, as it happened) due to the new flight possibly costing more than the original one. Good to know and handy in case I develop Covid.

Google tells me: “The main difference between main cabin and basic economy is cost. For cheaper airfare and more money in your pocket, you trade flexibility for flight changes and/or cancellations, seat selection options and the ability to earn miles at a high rate. Love them or hate them, basic economy fares are here to stay.Apr 22, 2022”

I asked the American Airlines agent what would have happened if we had the cheaper “basic economy” ticket and she said we would not have been able to change/rebook the ticket. Or that’s what I understood her to say. Surely, I said, if someone is sick, especially with Covid, you don’t want them flying and would help them stay off the plane. She then said something to the effect that they could rebook once. (Not sure about the other particulars ex: change fee? Paying the possible difference in fares? Etc.)

Last January, when I decided not to go to a gathering in Atlanta, due to a Covid spike, Delta gave me travel credits with my basic economy tix (or some such), which I am using for thanksgiving flights to NY. But that was cancellation not rebooking flights.

The fine print on the American website specifies the policy for a variety of what I loosely called “changes” and the varying options, depending on the ticket type/cost. Another variable: the airline you choose. For an American Airlines basic economy ticket for example: if you cancel a trip, you can’t exchange the ticket or get a refund. But if you need to rebook the trip, you can sort of. The process/options are more “restrictive” than higher priced tickets. (The fine print doesn’t mention the possible option of getting travel credits if you cancel.)

Moral of story: ASK what is available and politely but firmly stick up for yourself. Play the pity card if need be. Or appeal to the airline to be reasonable, although this doesn’t always work.

I still have not forgiven American for screwing up my daughter’s (expensive, albeit “basic economy”) flights to a family wedding in New Mexico in early June. They cancelled her flights (for non-mechanical, non-weather reasons! It was due to their staff shortage) and then gave her awful options for other flights. She came close to missing the wedding. And the changes added even more stress to the trip. I was particularly incensed that they would not give her an available seat that was a decent alternative because it was a much higher fare seat. She’d have to pay considerably more.

American has improved its customer service, although I don’t doubt my latest experience had to do partly with having a higher fare ticket. I braced myself for a long wait on the phone for an agent (several hours in the recent past with an airline) but got a call back in a matter of minutes and the agent was efficient and accommodating (again, perhaps in part because I had a pricier, more flexible ticket but still…)

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Bonnard show at Tate Modern, Zizzi Italian, Oliveira Brazilian vegan food, Cote for brunch — London

I met another friend of 39 years, Jemima, who came all the way from her home in the northern town of Ludlow to meet up, for the first time in about four years. What a treat! She suggested an exhibit of work by Pierre Bonnard at the Tate Modern, one of my favorite London “it” spots. The exhibit itself turned out to be stunning (Go! Go!)

South Bank was packed with people, many speaking languages other than English, strolling along the Thames on a sunny day with a brisk wind. Such a buzzy place. London seems so vibrant, healthier than ever and yet Brexit looms, creating an odd sense of doom.

We had a good lunch at Zizzi, a chain Italian restaurant with surprisingly good food that, even more surprisingly, arrived at our table very quickly and still tasted good. (We shared pizza and a salad.) We also had a really nice view of the Thames and all the hubbub along the South Bank.

on Saturday night, Francine, Russ and I had highly unusual vegan and veggie Brazilian food at Oliveira in East Sheen. We are now back on Shalstone road where Russ is engrossed in a chess channel on YouTube that he swears by (Power Play Chess, should you be so inclined.)

On my last day in London, Francine, Russ and I had a nice brunch (English breakfast for Francine and I) at Cote restaurant in the pretty Richmond village of Barnes and then were blown by an intense wind along the Thames path, back to Mortlake.

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Return to old London stomping grounds — Parliament, Covent Garden, south Bank, embankment

Francine and I met 39 years ago when we were both working for Labour MPs in The House of Commons. Today we returned for a program marking International Women’s Day, featuring 25 people – most black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) women speaking in an elegant Commons meeting room on topics ranging from youth violence to sexual slavery to  increasing minotity women participation in science, business and artificial intelligence. It didn’t escape my notice that all this these attractive, smart and successful South Asian women were sitting in a room decorated with huge old oil paintings of white men. The times are a changing and, as one speaker noted, the art needs to also.

We drank tea and ate finger sandwiches, scones and macaroons afterwards at a reception in the House of Lords, overlooking the balcony and Thames on a rainy afternoon. Francine managed to get us back over to the House of Commons, through back hallways and we sweet-talked the nice guards into letting us join some other tourists inside the H of Commons chamber, which looked even smaller and more compact than I remembered. We walked through the glorious 12th century Westminster Hall, bits of it under repair. (Big Ben is completely shrouded in scaffolding.)

Continuing on our sentimental journey, we walked up Whitehall, past Downing Street and other imposing government buildings to Trafalgar Square and then Covent Garden, where I bought a rain hat (like my friend Una’s, which I borrowed in Dover) from Barbour (quintessential British) and tried on some shoes at one of three Allbirds stores in the world. Then we walked in the dark and drizzle through the crowds and past the shops in Covent Garden to embankment (Gordon’s wine bar, an old favorite, had an overflow crowd) and over the bridge to South Bank and the train from Waterloo back to Mortlake where we had Indian takeaway with Russ. Ahhh London….

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Petersham Nurseries, Thames Path, The Cricketers Pub — Richmond/Kew in London

0D50E19A-CFB1-4EE3-8FCB-EDDA56003AF0.jpegWe learned the hard way that you can’t pay cash to ride a bus, nor if you are American are you likely to be able to pay with your credit or debit card. (It’s missing some sort of chip that British cards have…and I don’t mean “the chip” of “chip and pin” which American credit cards now have.) We also learned that I can’t simply use my Oyster card twice on a bus to get a ride for myself and a friend (unlike in, say, NYC, where you can swipe your metro transit card twice or however many times needed to get your entire party through the turnstiles.)

So how did Merida get on the bus, especially given the unusually unpleasant nature of the bus driver? Another passenger, one of several older women trying to help us, used her bank card to pay Merida’s fare. Then there was a lively debate by no less than five kind older passengers on what Merida needed do in order to buy a return fare. (They suggested she get off the bus, before our destination, at the Richmond train station so she could pick up some variety of fare card.)

6519469C-7513-45C6-A4F1-6B84B70B3A33.jpegWe did finally make it to the sweet rustic cafe at Petersham Nurseries, where we learned (the hard way) that it doesn’t serve a proper English breakfast, as hoped, but we did have a nice flat white coffee and another scone with clotted cream and strawberry jam, surrounded by glorious flowers (hydrangea, camellia, daffodils) in bloom.

Onto the toe path along the Thames, since the sun was unexpectedly shining fiercely (although the strong wind should have been a warning of worse weather to come). We walked past Richmond pubs on the river and lovely Richmond Green, with stately red brick homes and blossoms on the trees. Unfortunately we learned the hard way (do you detect a theme?) that Google maps is not always accurate (especially when an entrance to a little country passage or lane is unexpectedly closed) and the walk back to Kew was longer than expected. The sun shrank, the sky darkened and the wind kicked up but fortunately it didn’t start raining (yet) and Marion, at age almost 82, was a trooper! We walked 17,070 steps/6.4 miles and climbed 18 floors, according to Marion’s know-it-all phone. We deserved our Prosecco and Eton Mess, see below!

Emerging from the Thames Path onto Kew Green, we stumbled into the nearest pub, The Cricketers, which turned out to be a winner. We had big glasses of hard cider, my pate and bread sufficed and we all enjoyed an “Eton Mess,” whipped cream with strawberries, bits of meringue and shortbread.

We are now happily gathered around a fire in the living room of our Kew Airbnb, Prosecco in hand, enjoying each other’s company on our last night together…this trip.

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Hampton Court/Kew — London

Marion, Merida and I are bunking in a lovely Airbnb on Sandycombe Road in Kew, a pretty village in the London Borough of Richmond. Our friend Pam, who lives nearby, picked us up in her sweet little Fiat 500 and drove us around Richmond, where we stopped for coffee at the pleasant Richmond Hill Bakery, up the street from a glorious view from on high of Richmond Park (and near Mick Jagger’s house, we were told.)

We Ubered over to Hampton Court, which hasn’t changed much since I last visited with my kids about 14 years ago, except for the experience itself, which combined high-tech (a handy audio tour headset) and low-tech (a staged play in William III’s living quarters featuring the same characters portrayed in the movie “The Favourite,” part of which was filmed there.)4E49B1BC-94B7-4527-9A41-2F2C16416BB6.jpegWe got lost a time or two but it was a treat to be able to wander around on our own. We also had a good quick lunch in a cafe in an old room (baked potato with cheese, greens) and toured some nice gift shops, beyond the spectacularly ornate royal rooms and the great old kitchen rooms. 533C9AE4-E685-448B-A2E8-C5557DC67427.jpegMerida and I also wore borrowed long velvet capes, a nice option (that kept us warm) on a rainy day and made me feel a bit like a Hogwarts student. Undeterred by rain, we wandered around the formal gardens past bizarrely trimmed trees that looked  like hedges on stilts.

6DFB0B30-7913-4A01-B393-E0EE48E7F380.jpegMore memories of London visits with my kids when they were little cropped up when M, M and I  had cream tea at the famous old Kew tea house, Maids of Honour. Fourteen years ago, D and I ended up here with the kids after an attempted walk to Kew Gardens from Francine and Russ’s house in Mortlake ended abruptly, due to a downpour. Thank God for the Maids of Honour, which 14 years ago we stumbled into soaking wet. This time we were also wet but not as wet. The scones were as light and the clotted cream as rich as I remembered.

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The amazing White Cliffs of Dover

 

98F6DF98-F34E-44C9-B68E-5FDE75225E24.jpegThe skies cleared, exactly when we needed them to — for a glorious four mile walk atop the White Cliffs Of Dover. As recommended by our Airbnb host, we took a cab from Deal to the Cliffs National  Trust visitors center, perched on the cliffs overlooking the bustling port of Dover, a poignant reminder these days of the looming disaster known as Brexit. If Britain does leave the E.U., Dover — the busiest British Port with the E.U. — will likely be a mess, with long queues of trucks, in particular, no longer able to drive through without a passport control stop.

9352BB03-FCD4-4C13-984E-F8BD2129C2AE.jpegWe had some coffee and shopped for upmarket souvenirs, then set off on the dirt and often muddy or soupy path across the grassy fields atop the dramatic white cliffs. We could see Dover Castle (worth a visit I’m told) to the southwest and, vaguely, the French coast, 21 miles across the sea to the east. Some flowers were in bloom, a sight for sore eyes, after unseasonably warm weather here last week.

7E591D52-640F-46BC-8D54-64E6DB888868.jpegOur walk ended in the bay of the tiny village of St. Margaret’s at Cliff, where we had an excellent lunch (scampi and chips, Kentish sausage and mash, lemon curd creme brulee) at a cozy Pub called The Coastguard  on-the-bay. After lunch, we walked on the beach of blue, white and tan stones bordered by a towering white cliff with a few homes perched on the top. And then we walked up a steep winding road to the cliff -top village green where we boarded a bus full of uniformed school kids for the ride back to Deal.

E1E1BF56-1044-4DDF-9361-390B3D5BCA9A.jpegBy late afternoon, the sky was a dramatic darkening shelf, highlighted by a setting  sun above the long row of terraced houses lining the coast for miles. You could see why Turner painted in nearby Margate, now home to a museum named after him. We shared a well-earned pot of tea at the trendy restaurant at the end of the pier.

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A Rainy Relaxing Day in Deal

67905D8E-FF14-418C-AC46-02D2897A8816A rainy day in Deal and we were all happy to lounge around in this lovely house, reading the Sunday papers and drinking tea and catching up. I’ve also learned about some uniquely English television shows that no doubt will end up being copied in the U.S. My favorite is Goggle Box, a reality show about people watching television. I had to laugh. So English. But somehow the people sitting on their couch talking about what they are watching on the Telly are amusing. Although not sure I would be a regular viewer. Also learning to appreciate Steve Coogan’s satirical news show “This time with Alan Partridge.”

5BA2E232-5F8D-481D-B12E-C774DCDEBE64

Sea view from my room

We did venture out to Sunday lunch at Frog & Scot, run by a Frenchman and Scottish woman, serving food from both countries. My food struck me as English – a nicely cooked chicken breast with mashed potatoes, a thin buttery cream sauce and greens.

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Saturday market, shops on High Street, walks to the pier and two castles — a day in Deal

As promised, this is a charming seaside village with narrow lanes leading to the sea, lined with beautifully tended cottages and terraced homes in pale blue and creamy white, made of old wood and narrow red brick. I can’t get enough of it. The town has enough sophistication to be well above average but also an unaffected, unassuming air. After waking up to my bedroom view of the pale green and blue sea, we walked down the lane a few blocks to the Saturday market, a small one-block gathering of bakers, fruit venders, cheese mongers and bric brac stalls,  often with vintage  goodies from nearby France including heavy linen smocks, berets and tablecloths. We bought some buns from a Swedish woman, some local tangy Kentish blue cheese and smoked cheddar, fruit and veg.

Along High Street we popped into several small boutiques with carefully chosen and often pricey goods including silk kimonos, boiled wool slippers, lovely little cards and French country bread.

In the afternoon, the sun made a welcome appearance and lit up the coastline, the brown, tan and blue pebbles on the beach leading to the sea, the Beach Road lined with terraced houses. We walked along the seafront and down the long plain pier where we could spot white cliffs to the south (although not quite Dover, I was told). There’s a contemporary bistro at the end of the pier that looked promising.

50E4B413-991A-4312-B187-F34D96F21E31.jpegWe walked for 1.5 miles past Deal Castle to Walmer Castle (both built by Henry the 8th in the 16th Century) which looked more like a country home with cannons and a moat. It’s early season so not too many tourists. We passed families with kids braving the beach, older folks with their dogs, even a few jet skiers but it was mostly quiet and peaceful.

Una, our generous host, who discovered this village and whose friends own the house where we are staying, arrived from London, a sight for sore eyes. Russ and I cooked dinner — my pasta puttanesca, Russ’s salad — and we enjoyed a lovely meal.We walked back down to the High Street to hear some live music in a tiny wine shop/bar, Le Pinardier,  a guy playing Irish, Scott and bluegrass banjo and guitar songs, a woman playing the fiddle, to about 15 people in the cozy place run by a young handsome Frenchman. A near perfect day and night. Only wish Dirck could be here but glad to hear he arrived safely in Beijing.

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Great Diary Project, Betjeman Pub at St. Pancreas Station and Granary Square – Hello (again) London

A very full day in London, first visiting the remarkable Great Diary Project at the Bishopsgate Institute, a quiet refuge in the bustling City of London that is home to a remarkable collection of diaries and scrapbooks donated by generations of ordinary scribblers dating back centuries. I spent some time talking to the director in whispered voice as she sat at a desk surrounded by presumably new dairy intakes in an austere old reading room and then looked through a few old diaries, one kept by a woman from 1957 through the 1990’s that began with the memorable words “Mother died today.” That grabbed me and kept me reading.

Onto the gorgeously revived St. Pancreas and Kings Cross stations, in a once grotty but now rapidly gentrifying North London chunk of Camden. Francine and I had a pricey shared Ploughmans at Betjeman Pub in St. Pancreas, named after the famous writer John B. who helped save St. Pancreas from demolition. I walked around nearby Granary Square, bordered by massive old dark brick industrial buildings that have been spiffed up and converted into an art college (with hipsters playing ping pong in an entry way with stories-high ceilings), fancy shops, an amazing looking Waitrose, of course, clever site specific sculpture and on the day I visited, a craft and food market. It seems like every time I visit London, I find another new dynamic neighborhood– and this at a time when Britons are heavy-hearted and deeply worried as the deadline for Brexit fast approaches.

Granary Square

I am now in a charming late 18th/early 19th century “terrace house” overlooking the sea on Beach Road in the charming small Kent town of Deal. Our friend Una kindly rented the place from friends but arrives tomorrow. Francine, Russ and I took the train from St. Pancreas, an easy, albeit pricey, 1.5 hour train ride. (Cheaper for Francine and Russ who now get incredible discounts on public transport because they are both 60.)

I should add that my day flight on American from Chicago to Heathrow was surprisingly pleasant. Only thing bad was the food. The flight was pretty empty. I wasn’t the only one who had a three seat row to myself. We arrived 1/2 hour early at Heathrow and at 10: 15 pm there was a very short line at passport control. I carried on my suitcase so I got out even earlier into the awaiting arms of my dear pals Francine and Russ who whisked me off to their lovely house in Mortlake. Ahhh England.

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Hanging out at Gatwick – London (sort of)

Playing post-vacation catch up:

It’s tempting to jump on a train and visit my beloved London during this 7 hour layover but a number of things are holding me back, including my arm, which doesn’t hurt but slows me down. “Been through the war?” the immigration woman said to me with uncharacteristic humor.

Fact is, I’d have only 3 hours max before I need to head back to the airport for check in. And protests are expected in London because Trump is visiting. (I just avoided him in Helsinki, where he and Putin are summitting in a few days.)

I wasn’t planning to go through immigration here but my Norwegian Air representative recommended this, even if I don’t go out of the airport because apparently it offers more comfortable options for waiting around than departures. Good to know for future reference.

I slept a bit last night but was up by 3:30 a.m. to watch my cell alarm go off at 4. My Airbnb host Annamari was sleeping on the living room couch (I had her room) but got up to give me a hug goodbye. It was kind of an odd Airbnb arrangement but she was sweet and the price was good ($70 a night). The 11 minute walk to the bus was easy and because it was almost full daylight I didn’t feel spooked dragging my suitcase through neighborhood streets at night. Oddly, I had to pay with cash (5.50 euros) which is the opposite of other Scandinavian countries that have become almost cashless.

Kallio Airbnb

As I pulled my suitcase through the outskirts of Kallio, several young people were out and about, at a karaoke bar and the McDonald’s. The airport bus was packed at 4:30 am but Helsinki airport was very quiet at 5:15 am. My first flight was easy and not too uncomfortable. I think I slept. Next one could be a bear.

Airbnb room

But hey, just found some reclining lounge chairs here, looking down through the glass at people checking in for flood flights. Feels almost like a day at the beach except there is no sun or sea or beach and a baby is wailing nearby. And three security guards just passed by with a sniffing dog.

P.S. As it turned out, my flight to  Chicago was delayed two hours because the pilot was missing. not a promising sign.  He did eventually show and we flew on without incident. Forgot what a pit Gatwick is. Chicago Midway looked bright and shiny by comparison the next day.

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