Reluctant travelers take a transatlantic trip

Clay Kallam

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The Sky GardenMaggi Brown

Sometimes you just have to give it a shot.

We’d been told that London’s Sky Garden was pretty cool, 37 stories up with a panoramic view of the city, a garden and, always a crucial factor, a bar. But when we checked, there were no tickets available.

But after we were rebuffed at the Old Globe, a reconstruction of Shakespeare’s 16th century theater (“No tours today, sorry”), we went across the Millennium Bridge, gazed down at the Thames, and decided to walk to the Tower of London. Along the way was Fenchurch Street, the home of the Sky Garden, so why not? The Globe was supposed to be open, and it was closed – maybe the Sky Garden, which was supposed to be closed, would be open.

First, of course, we had to find it. Though London is cool in many ways, it definitely has a street sign gap. There’s always a bit of confusion – well, maybe “a bit” is fudging a little – as you try to figure out where you are, and since London was never square (in any sense), roads wander off in odd directions and suddenly just stop, facing some blank brick wall built a thousand years ago.

Add to that the constant construction, narrow roads filled with buses, taxis, cyclists, motorbikes, and pedestrians who carve their own path, and getting lost isn’t just possible, it’s preordained.

But a 37-story building does stand out a bit, so we wandered up to a short queue – and sure enough, they were letting people in without tickets, including a pair of Americans in search of a great view and a couple glasses of wine, not necessarily in that order.

And the Sky Garden did not disappoint, with puffy clouds, a blue sky and occasional glimpses of sun hovering the flat land of England, which stretched endlessly in all directions, unencumbered by anything resembling a hill, much less a mountain.

Sometimes you just have to give it a shot, which is how Maggi and I wound up jet-lagged and exhausted in London a few days ago. Neither of us like to travel, both of us love our routines and we are more than happy to just enjoy our life in the Bay Area – which, I have to note, is a place hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world abandon their own homes to come visit each year.

But, as is often the case, it seemed like a good idea at the time, about a year ago when we decided to blow a bunch of money and visit London and Paris. Planning that much in advance gave the whole trip an air of unreality, as if all the hassles and confusion of tourism were so far in the future they didn’t really exist.

Oh yes, tourism is work, from standing on a street corner looking at a map or your phone and trying to determine which direction is the right direction – since clues are hard to come by. But it’s also a refreshing breeze (OK, sometimes a howling wind) that blows away those precious routines and opens the mind to something new.

The British Museum? I loved the Rosetta Stone and the ancient Greek Elgin marbles – Maggi tried to stay awake.

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The Rosetta StoneMaggi Brown

Covent Garden? A tourist trap to rival Fisherman’s Wharf but fun nonetheless. And you know, sometimes you just have to embrace your inner tourist. Dinner at the White Bear, a pub that was built in 1780. No, not 1980, which would make it old in California. Or 1880. Yes, 1780, just four years after the American Revolution began (it wasn’t won yet), and four years after the first European glimpsed San Francisco Bay.

The next day, despite an inner clock that might as well be running backward, it was the National Gallery, Big Ben,

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Big BenMaggi Brown

Westminster Abbey (Maggi was fascinated, I was bored) and “My Fair Lady” in a newish opera house (built 1903).

A word about the British and live plays. Plays are everywhere. The ads in the Underground are almost all about this play or that production, complete with reviews from numerous sources. Even the White Bear, located in the sleepy suburb of Kennington, has a playhouse on the second floor. And no, it wasn’t showing some theatrical warhorse like “Barefoot in the Park” but rather some obscure one-acts by Harold Pinter – and selling enough tickets to open the doors five days a week.

But I’ve already mentioned that London is cool, just like its weather. We had a bit of rain one day, and a mix of clouds and sun the rest of the time. Temperatures top out in the low 70s, which is like a touch of heaven given what we face during California’s endless summer.

Of course, as I type this, my feet hurt and my knees ache. I don’t even want to think about the credit card bill, and the trip has just begun. But so far, so good … it’s been much more fun than frustration, and we’re off to York tomorrow.

Sometimes you just have to give it a shot.

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Clay Kallam is a lifelong East Bay resident who spent several decades in local journalism -- and still writes for Diablo Magazine (among others). Over the years, he has covered just about every aspect of life in the Bay Area, from rock-and-roll to the arts to political coverage to food to sports. On the food front, he does not claim to be a critic, but rather someone who enjoys a good meal, a well-made drink and a nice red wine. As for sports, he has written for national publications (including Sports Illustrated and Slam) and covers girls' basketball across the nation for MaxPreps. He is a high school coach and a serious fan of the local teams -- and savored every minute of the Giants' and Warriors' championships. He graduated from Acalanes, UC Santa Barbara (ancient history) and Cal (philosophy). He lives in Walnut Creek with his wife Maggi, who takes many of the food photos. He appreciates his readers and is always happy to talk about anything he's written. His food experiences can be found at #dishdining on Instagram, and emails can be sent to claykallam@gmail.com.

Walnut Creek, CA
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