Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The story so far, Part II

What is a trip without a few bumps on the way? Reaching Logan airport with enough time on hand, we checked in at the Virgin counter. We got three boarding passes but there was something wrong with the fourth ticket - our son’s. Somewhere along the reservation pathway, the last name was spelled wrong on his booking. A simple slip to fix, you would think. Well, it took four employees, two phone calls and 30 restless minutes to sort it out. Then, except for a flight delay of 30 minutes, the rest of the evening was smooth sailing. The airline food and staff were extremely courteous and we had a good nap before it was time to descend into Heathrow airport. As we were gliding into town, a very wide Thames came into view. Then the London eye came out of nowhere and next to it, the Big Ben.In between the turns that the pilot was making because five other flights were lined up to land around the same time, I could see the greater London area laid out under me; a lot of green broken by twisting and turning roads and magnificent buildings- old and new. It took all of my self control to not scream in glee.

En route to the hotel, the jet lag hit all of us, except the ever-energetic 8 year old girl. We could not sit straight through the 45 minute drive to our hotel in Central London. One of the few times I forced myself to stay awake, we were driving on a leafy cobble-stone street lined on one side by a lush green park and on the other by a serious looking brick wall with fencing and security cameras on top. While we were trying to figure out what lay beyond the fence, we came upon a mass of people looking towards an imposing building. In between the sea of humans, I saw a row of red shirts and black hats and it hit me- this was the Changing of the Guard which meant we were outside the Buckingham palace!!! What an incredible sight. Though the traffic and tourists were all around, it was an amazing first look at the iconic building that is on the top of every tourist’s list. 

Driving up to the Threadneedles Hotel it was a kick to see familiar names like State Bank of India and Punjab National Bank, next to Lloyds, RBS and HSBC. This area is known as Bank for a very obvious reason. We managed to marvel at the hand-painted Victorian stained glass dome of the hotel lobby before tumbling into the room for a much needed nap.

Rested, refreshed and feeling human again, we set out for dinner in one of the typical London taxis to...

 ...Dishoom, an Indian restaurant in the Shoreditch area.

This popular and highly rated eatery is not just a nod to the Iranian cafes of a bygone Bombay but hugs the essence of nostalgia while comforting you. From the instructions written in Hindi, to stained mirrors lining the wall next to dark wood paneling, the entire place has a down to earth charm that feels like sitting down on your friend’s sofa for a lazy afternoon chai and snack. Settle into one of the booths with a Rexine sofa, pour some water from a wobbly steel jug into a steel glass and imagine what the food might taste like. Whatever you can imagine, it tastes way, way better. The menu is a listing of popular snacks like bhel, samosas, chillies cheese toast along with tried and true favorites like lamb raan, biryani and black daal. The flavor of the dishes is unabashedly Indian, the freshness of the ingredients and the skill of the chefs shines through.

This is the food you wish you made in your home and is served with a smile by a friendly and efficient staff. Dishoom deserves all the accolades it is getting and much, much  more.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

London calling

The story so far, Part I

April 2016 was the two year anniversary for my husband at his work. As the challenge of learning and working in a new environment was wearing off, I sensed he was getting restless for the next thing. When we moved to the greater Boston area, we had decided that we would try to stay put till the kids went off to college. So he did the next best thing. He pursued an opportunity to work with the same company, in a different city, which turned out to be London, England! When we discussed this, another move albeit a temporary one, it took me two days to go from "Are you sure we should do this now? The kids are just settling in. It is going to be hard to come back to 8th grade for our son." to "Oh man, I cannot wait!"  

Our 8 year old daughter mirrored her brother's shocked reaction but changed it to a a hesitant "I want to go, but I will miss my friends. That is why I want to stay". However, my son was inconsolable. Given our history of moving every two years, he refused to believe that this was a short term assignment, a one year 'sabbatical'. We explained, cajoled, consoled threatened and ignored him for the next  48 hours. In the middle of the morning on the third day, my sweet 11 year old, texted me from his school bus, "I am ok to go to London, Mom".  And that was it. All four of us were going to be spending a whole year - July 2016 to July 2017 - in London! The possibilities, as they say, were endless.

Weeks of paperwork and trans-Atlantic calls followed. After the much-awaited assignemnt letter detailing the 'ex-pat package' was received, the priority was to enroll the children in a school. An exhaustive Google search revealed that admissions to local state schools (equivalent to public schools in the US that our kids were used to) in UK are done the fall of the previous year. I searched for schools in highly rated Local Authorities around central London as we were hoping for a city life experience for this year. I learnt about over-subscribing, wait lists, free schools and discussions on forums about families moving into cities like Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea and paying exorbitant rents only to find out that their kids were bussed to schools in other areas. We did not want to take this chance and it was now clear that the kids will not be schooled in the local British system. We followed the path most expats take and decided to look through the International schools. The adage 'Seek and ye shall find' was probably coined with a divine conotation, but it is truest in the context of the modern day wonder of Internet. A few week's worth of searching and re-searching followed by telephonic conversations with always helpful directors and deans of admissions, followed by two days of intense personal meetings at the short listed schools and our children were enrolled in the school we liked, ACS in Cobham.
Now the kids were really excited. It was June and school work was getting wrapped up here and they were busy planning end of the year activities and parties. I had to answer questions like "Will I be able to learn badminton from a real teacher there?"(as opposed to mom)," Can I join the cricket team?", "Do they teach Shakespeare?",  "Will we have a big house?", "Can I take the bus?",  "Can I take the train by myself?",  "Will they have horse riding lessons? In the school?"
I was starting to wonder if they would be ready to come back after just one year.

This was going to be the year of travel and adventure for us. We had to remind ourselves that we had not won the lottery or struck gold and our travel plans would have to fit similar limitations in budget and time off  from work any other year. But the idea of being at the doorstep of an entire continent just brought out the Christoper Columbus in us and soon we had a must-visit list of countries. Using the school's holiday calendar and the work days off, we soon had weeks and weekends marked in a cheery pink with the intended destinations. Visa appointments for a UK work permit and a quick house hunting trip followed. Family was notified and the tickets were booked.  July 24 2016 was picked as the start date of our year of adventure. 

The day arrived hot and bright. The suitcases were packed and whatever did not fit in them had already been shipped. We were ready....London, here we come.