WILTY, a floating home and an afternoon in Nottingham

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With every new series of Would I Lie To You? which aired while I was living in Chicago I got ever more concerned that the show would be cancelled before I’d get a chance to go and see it being recorded in person. So when I saw an e-mail from SRO Audiences during one of our overnight train rides in Asia that the ballot for Series 13 (!) was opening I entered straight away and was lucky enough to get tickets for the opening episodes two nights in a row. Since tickets are free this also doubled as a very inexpensive birthday present for Randi. 😇

The show is recorded at Pinewood Studios out in the middle of nowhere, which means a trip all the way to the Uxbridge end of the Metropolitan line and then a 10-minute Uber costing ten times as much for the final bit. Sadly, once you cross out of the Greater London boundary the buses dwindle to near-nothingness and the quickest route is unwalkable due to a missing pavement. (There was a New York MTA bus lying around the studio lot but this is presumably just a prop.) But we had the time and luck to land seats in the very front row on the first night so we got to be right up close to Richard Osman and Jennifer Saunders on David Mitchell’s team, with Joe Sugg and Steph McGovern sitting across on the other side with Lee Mack. (Publishing guest names seems unobjectionable given what already exists on Reddit.)

Being so close to the performers actually made us both feel a little nervous, and in some ways I enjoyed the second night more (with Claudia Winkleman, Guz Khan, Greg Davies and Lucy Worsley) from a safer position nearer the back. From this perspective it also felt more like laughing at a (very extended) TV episode rather than being right in the thick of it, but both nights were incredibly fun and I’m delighted I can now cross live Would I Lie To You? off my bucket list. (Although I don’t actually have a bucket list since it’s much easier to fill it in retrospectively.)

House boats and horse shows
House boats and horse shows
Randi climbs a tree in the garden
Randi climbs a tree in the garden

The night afterwards we stayed near the village of Datchet on my aunt Sally’s incredible floating home. I say ‘floating home’ because although this has previously been described to me as a ‘houseboat’ that term made me picture a cramped space on a canal rather than beautiful and relaxed living on the Thames. We also had a good walk through Windsor – bringing back fond memories of GCSE Humanities coursework – which accidentally ticked off a few British tourism boxes for Randi including Windsor Castle (at least from the outside) and some unanticipated Morris dancing.

Like Diamond Geezer I had never actually been to the Ye Olde Swiss Cottage pub by Swiss Cottage tube station (and encircled by an awful roundabout which Westminster council keep trying to protect) so it was a good spot for us to catch-up in person and swap notes on various nerdy topics. At a much bougier lunch the next week in Exmouth Market I caught up with Cat and Matt during one of Cat’s flying visits to the UK since – hilariously – Cat and I have basically swapped places and she is now living in Madison, Wisconsin. At least it sounds as if my advice about Culver’s (i.e. to eat there enthusiastically and often) has been heeded.

An afternoon in Nottingham
An afternoon in Nottingham

I’ve been lucky enough to have had job interviews over the past few weeks at a really interesting range of places – from bigger companies to tiny start-ups – including one which required an afternoon visit to Nottingham. Unfortunately the Castle was surrounded by scaffolding when I was there, but I did establish that the city centre is chock-a-block with trams to an impressive degree. Meanwhile, Randi has now fully locked-down a job which (a) is awesome, (b) was another reason to celebrate at her birthday dinner with my mum and (c) brings us a step closer to actually moving to one of the neighbourhoods we have been scouting. Further parts of South London met with great approval yesterday, East London less so. (But hey, I did make my first TfL Rail journey – a brand which was meant to have been and gone before I ever got back to London.)

Saturday night was a low-key (but enjoyable) Eurovision at Josh and Anna’s, albeit with a bafflingly unmemorable song from the Netherlands winning. I didn’t have a clear stand-out favourite but I did cast a vote for the bouncy Czech Republic boys because I was giddy with the power of being enfranchised again. I also understand those who protested and thought this opinion piece the next day was worth reading on what it says that the Palestinian flag alone elicits such an hostile reaction in Tel Aviv. Having made another opportunistic use of Josh and Anna’s spare bedroom in Kingsbury, we then migrated to Andrew and Bonnie’s on Sunday for a grand post-10K brunch (other people ran the 10K but I helped to eat the brunch) and undemocratic card games.

Finally – and I know this blog has been a bit all over the place – I wanted to pay my respects to Sanna’s dad, Rod, whose funeral was on Friday. I would never claim to have known him well. Parents of school friends are often fleeting figures, but I did meet him quite a few times over the years when Sanna and I were at school together and he was the kind of person you knew immediately was kind, loving and wise. After a long time I was very fortunate to see him again, the Christmas before last, as we all sat around their kitchen table and chatted in the warm family glow. I know he is missed.

One of the things I was most excited to start once we got back to London was the London LOOP, a 242km walking trail around the very edge of the city which is divided into 24 numbered sections. TfL provide a detailed walking guide for each one on their website and last Sunday we kicked off our long journey with Section 15 (Hatch End to Elstree). Then today we made an ambitiously early start for a Bank Holiday Monday to go back up to Elstree and pick up Section 16 to Cockfosters. Both of these sections were at the extreme end in terms of section length (16/17km) so after several hours of walking we were tired and eager for lunch, but it’s a really nice routine to get into and when we finally complete it all I’m not ashamed to admit that I will be printing off the certificate as a prize for myself. Check back in a year or so!

Excited to find a sign
Excited to find a sign
The owner is thrilled to have you here
The owner is thrilled to have you here

I’m not going to do exhaustive reviews of each walk – there are plenty of better blogs for that. But the first section really brought home to me some things which are pretty distinctive about this country… or at least very different to the US. At one point we tramped through a field which bordered the M1, for example, and it was so tiddly compared to any freeway which cuts through Chicago. You also wouldn’t find any public footpath there which cut through a private golf course, or passive aggressive signs which reluctantly acknowledge your legal right of way.

And, as ever, I’m filled with mixed emotions about the Green Belt. I’m proud that, as a Londoner, you can get on a train and be out in the countryside in half an hour. It’s no doubt a good thing that the city wasn’t allowed to sprawl forever into low-density suburbs. At the same time, I’m just really sad that Elstree South tube station will never exist, and the Northern line will never join up properly as it should have done. Still, so far on the walks we’ve been treated to a good mixture of fields, woods and playgrounds as well as quiet residential streets and outrageous mansions, and I suppose that concreting over many of these would have been the price for a more satisfying Tube map in the end.

Bucolic fields (Pano credit: Randi)
Bucolic fields (Pano credit: Randi)
Randi starts looking for a pet
Randi starts looking for a pet

Other than starting the LOOP – and, of course, lots and lots of phone calls with recruiters and job interviews – I’ve caught up with my uncle Andrew over a hearty lunch at Arthur’s Café (great place) and had a very meandering and enjoyable tea with Sally. My mum also bought tickets for us (along with Tash, Katie and Cormac) to see Small Island at the National Theatre. I read the book a few years ago and my memory of the plot was a bit hazy, which in some ways is the most enjoyable state of mind for watching an adaption because you have some references but also surprises. I really enjoyed the production, as well as the theatre itself.

Finally, Randi and I spent a morning traipsing around Clapham and Balham and admiring these new areas of London where we might be interested in living. Despite my hardwired aversion to South London it’s also true that I’m looking for somewhere new which we can both explore together, and I can confirm that both of these places seemed pretty… liveable. As attractive as open fields are, though, I can safely say that we won’t be going so far out to actually live on the LOOP 😉

This blog is fifteen years’ old today! Which means, since I am almost-but-not-quite 30, that I have now been blogging for over half of my entire life. (I’m not sure if that’s a cause for celebration or just slightly frightening.) It also means that my blog has now entered a new phase of child development with “a deeper capacity for caring and sharing” and “more concern about future school and work plans”. So in the spirit of caring and sharing, here are a few Easter highlights since arriving back in London last week.

Melissa and Randi hit the beach
Melissa and Randi hit the beach

We were very lucky to be able to time our return to just catch Randi’s school friend Melissa while she was still visiting the UK. She wanted to visit Brighton and so we caught the train down for a day trip on Easter Friday, Randi and I both armed with shiny new Railcards which – given the amount of travelling around the UK we’re planning to do – are going to pay off very quickly. We took in all the kitsch of the pier before Randi led us in the direction of Brighton’s “best fish and chips” where she got more fish than she was bargaining for. Later we relaxed in the gardens of the Royal Pavilion. I’ve been to Brighton a couple of times before but didn’t remember how nice these gardens were, helped by the amazing sunshine and enlivened by the bloke wandering up and down trying to sell bird whistles with a practical demonstration.

A good start to British food
A good start to British food

That night we arrived back at my family home for one of the least convincing Passover Seder nights ever put on by any group of people. I’m still not entirely clear why this happened and Randi was deeply sceptical at the challah bread and salted caramel brownies, but whatever it was it was a lot of fun. One of my favourite absurdities was when I successfully found the afikoman and discovered that it came with a box of Easter eggs.

Moments after discovering the afikoman / Easter eggs
Moments after discovering the afikoman / Easter eggs

We also took Melissa to Hampstead Heath (lovely as always) and Camden Market (surely a bad location for climate change protests since the crowd was already so heaving it was hardly noticeable) before she left for Paris, and on Sunday night we moved on to visit Joshua in his new flat in the far-away lands of Kingsbury. I can already tell that moving back to London with Randi is going to inspire me to discover whole new areas of London and I was amazed to discover that a quaint country village – complete with quiet, windy roads – has been nestling a couple of stops up the Jubilee line this whole time. We admired Josh’s huge garden, gobbled up dinner, shared some wine and then fell asleep in his spare bedroom.

Rishal!
Rishal!

While Josh and I have always stayed in touch, I haven’t seen Rishal since… well, maybe 2011 (when he last showed up in this blog) and certainly not since I moved to Chicago. So it was incredibly wonderful to hang out in Willesden’s Beer & Burger (they didn’t have this in my day) and catch up over many years of life developments. Afterwards I walked back to his parents’ house with the hopes of seeing them again, and was rewarded not only with their company but also a large bag of assorted McVitie’s products… just like the old days, when his dad worked for them and would always have boxes of biscuits lying around.

Finally, Randi and I spent a night admiring Tash’s enviable new flat in Shepherd’s Bush over falafel and wine. We’re not actively looking for a permanent home yet, but anywhere we go is being closely assessed for its parks, buses and takeaways…

It’s my last night in London before the first flight on our great adventure tomorrow morning, and I really should pack. Instead, I want to sit and blog about the last two weeks at home, because they have been quite wonderful.

Cat and the STP
Cat and the STP

Starting with family, I had a delicious cottage pie cooked for me at Katie’s new flat in West Ham before contributing my Polaroid picture to the fridge and then being beaten very badly at Dominion by Katie and her flatmate Kim. Ouch. On Sunday night, I was back with Tash so that we could all watch Doctor Who together (and a good episode it was too!).

I also scoffed egg sandwiches and chocolate cake at my Grandma’s, lunched with my great uncle Leonard and had dinners with aunts and uncles – making up for my absence at Christmas, hopefully. My mum also got us tickets to see White Teeth at the Tricycle, which was one of my favourite novels when I read it many years ago and was extremely enjoyable on stage, with songs, even if they did rudely relocate some of the Willesden locations to Kilburn.

(“Hey, Dom, wasn’t the Tricycle Theatre recently rebranded to the Kiln Theatre for no particularly good reason?”
“Sure, but I’m still not calling it that.”)

With Paul, Abbi and Tash
With Paul, Abbi and Tash

It goes without saying that I invited myself over to spend the night at Cat and Matt’s – largely to watch more unboxing videos, though not before we had a delicious sticky toffee pudding at a fancy pub nearby.

The next night, I caught the train to Chelmsford to stay overnight with Tash at Abbi, Paul and Jack’s house. Jack – who I last saw on the day he was born – is now two and intensely adorable, although not very keen on wearing clothes. He was very excited to show me all of his toys, and Paul was a little less excited for us to watch the sticky sticky stick stick song from Hey Duggee. Sorry Paul.

It was wonderful to be reunited, and we all found Paul’s curry so delicious that we completely forgot that naan bread was gently burning to a crisp in the oven the whole time. I also had to admit that the centre of Chelmsford was all festively lit and nicely pedestrianised, although later we did realise that we faced a long rail replacement bus back to the mothership of London the next morning. Some things never change.

Chelmsford Cathedral
Chelmsford Cathedral
Just look at those halloumi fries
Just look at those halloumi fries

The other people I managed to see this time around were Simon (who joined me for an excellent brunch at the Bad Egg diner with a server who was either American or else doing a very good impression), Melissa (not enough time for everything we could discuss, but we tried our best!) and Matt, Caroline and Charles for what I continue to describe as a ‘Themes & Sources’ evening even though it’s been a decade since we actually had that class together. 

Themes & Sources
Themes & Sources
Oliver and Abi's wedding day!
Oliver and Abi’s wedding day!

But the absolutely best part of this trip was Oliver and Abi’s wedding on Saturday night. Just typing that sentence makes me smile, because I have known the two of them since our first year of university together and I distinctly remember my very strong encouragement to ask each other out when it was so obvious that that’s what should happen. So it was so awesome to see them so happy on their wedding day, hang out with mutual friends until the early hours of Sunday morning and then stay overnight to spend more time together. Thank you and congratulations! 

Also – a special shout out to Jason Budd, who I haven’t seen since QPCS days but was an early friend of the blog!

Staying up till 2am
Staying up till 2am
A sunny Sunday morning afterwards at breakfast
A sunny Sunday morning afterwards at breakfast

Finally, I went for a Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea with Catherine and AJ this afternoon, who happened to be in town this week and wanted to sample the fancier end of the afternoon tea market. They were not on board with the scotch eggs, but I was happy to help out.

Just a regular tea time
Just a regular tea time

OK, enough procrastinating – it really is time to pack five months of clothes into a backpack now. Wish me luck! 

When I moved to Chicago in 2014, I rode the Blue Line with Robert from O’Hare airport to the Damen stop, where I got out and waited for Nolan to ride up on his bike and take me to my new home. So I thought it would be appropriate to begin my final Chicago post with this coupley photoshoot picture at Damen which Randi arranged as a birthday present for me this year. And on a related note, I also wanted to give a genuine and heartfelt thanks to the CTA for being awesome over the past four years. Recently I read this New York Times article on Chicago’s public transport renaissance and it made me very proud.

Our Blue Line photoshoot
Our Blue Line photoshoot
Goodbyes with Toggolyn and Jubert
Goodbyes with Toggolyn and Jubert

As you might expect, our last week in the city has been very busy with a combination of saying goodbye to people, encouraging those same people to subscribe to this blog for regular updates (hi!) and packing. We shared a tapas dinner with Randi’s bosses and replacement at Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!, ordered in from Irazu with Jason and Carrie, and then ordered in even more Irazu the very next night at Robert and Julie’s with Todd and Carolyn. (What can I say… Irazu is pretty good.)

We also saw Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald on Saturday with Arielle, although I have to say I thought it was a hot mess. Was it enjoyable to watch? Sure. Did I feel like I had failed to revise for a Harry Potter mythology course and was now doing badly in the exam? Also yes. To be honest, I respectfully request that JK Rowling prioritise writing more Cormoran Strike books. 🙂

Amusingly, my last out-of-Chicago trip with Randi while living here turned out to be to the village of Norridge, a weird little enclave which is surrounded on all sides by the city of Chicago. We went there as part of the paperwork for Randi’s UK visa, which is now (after a last-minute trip to the post office this morning) in the laps of the Home Office gods. If all goes according to plan, we will move to the UK together in mid-2019 after we’ve finished our travelling adventures. Fingers crossed.

Technically, this was our last out-of-town trip from Chicago
Technically, this was our last out-of-town trip from Chicago

Yesterday we had a very potato-centric day making lefse and latkes with First Couple™ Catherine and AJ, before our last Doctor Who Sunday night with Joe, Julie and Amanda. Joe and Julie have put so much effort into making our apartment building a friendly place, where people actually know each other and hang out, which is something I wasn’t sure actually happened in real life but has been really wonderful to experience. And living with Amanda has been so incredibly awesome. A few weeks ago, we started leaving spoof passive-aggressive post-it notes for each other on the fridge because we realised that’s the kind of stuff that never happened in this flat and we wanted to give it a shot. Thank you for being so great.

Lefse making with Catherine and AJ
Lefse making with Catherine and AJ

OK. This post has been gestating for weeks but I’m now sitting at the gate at O’Hare, bags checked and ready to go home, so time is up. Randi has already left for California, and we will reunite in two weeks’ time in Peru.

In the meantime: thank you for having me, Chicago!

Boxes
Boxes