London, Always Calling

London holds a special place in my heart. I did my semester abroad there in college, and that experience, along with the three years I lived in Manhattan after I graduated, convinced me that living in a city was not only possible but wonderful—even if it took me a few years more to realize that my perfect city was the one I grew up just a few miles away from.

When I was a student in London, my main activity was theater (or theatre, as one feels compelled to spell it across the pond). Whereas much of my cohort spent their months in the UK enjoying the novelty of clubbing, buying legal drinks as a 19-year-old and trying to hook up with boys with cute accents, I, usually accompanied by some likeminded theater-nerd pals, saw every West End and Off-West End show I could get my eyes on. Avant-garde Shakespeare, lavish musicals, little art-house shows—I was there for all of it (including multiple viewings of a splashy, dance-filled revival of Oklahoma, starring a then-unknown and extremely dreamy Hugh Jackman as Curly). It was all very wholesome (and, as I learned the hard way, very expensive) and it honed my love of theater to a sharp point, forever pinning it to those formative months in the Big Smoke.

I was back in London with Dan eight years ago for one nearly perfect day at the tail end of another trip. Since both of us had spent time there previously, we didn’t feel the need to do anything in particular, and so we wandered around on an unusually beautiful day being lazy tourists, rambling through parks and eating pub food and taking silly pictures of each other at the Sherlock Holmes Museum. Honestly, the only thing it was missing was a trip to the West End.

London wasn’t originally on the itinerary for this trip, but then I was texting with my sister about a weekend getaway she was taking with her daughter to New York to see a couple of Broadway shows in the spring, and it immediately hit me: I wanted to take my daughter to see a show. We’d just started dipping our toes into plays when Covid hit, and now, two years later, I was beyond eager to re-introduce Fiona to the absolute magic of live theater. And we were going to be in Scotland anyway, which is only a quick train trip from London. And we had hotel points that would make staying there a not-ridiculous proposition. And then I started looking into what would be playing on the West End when we’d be there and well, you guys: Frozen the Musical.

And that’s how I ended up sitting poolside In Bali, hunched over my phone, agonizing over seating charts and cursing a theater booking site. I admit that taking my five-year-old to a West End show was maybe ridiculous—and very likely more about me than her—but I was so excited to give her a real West End experience, and (bonus!) introduce her London. And, let’s be honest, I was excited to do all of that for me, too.

The show itself was just the right mix of silly kid humor, Disney magic and big-stage spectacle. I loved watching it and I loved watching Fiona watch it. She leaned all the way forward in her seat pretty much the whole time (here’s why Frozen is the perfect starter show—no one can complain about a wiggly kid sitting in front of them) and kept shushing Dan and me when we (and, you know, everyone else in the theater) clapped after songs so she wouldn’t miss anything. She was blown away by Elsa’s end-of-Act-1 onstage costume transformation and confused about why everyone clapped for Hans during his curtain call (“But he’s a bad guy!”). She couldn’t fathom how anyone could perform onstage without being embarrassed and wondered how the actors playing young Anna and young Elsa were allowed to be in the show since she knows kids aren’t allowed to have jobs.

In short, she was captivated, and I was tickled. It turns out I was hungry for live performances, even something so totally goofy and commercial. I hope against hope that the world is starting to become a place where I—and my burgeoning theater lover of a kid—can see them more often again (and again).  

The other thing calling us to London this time around were our friends, Grant and Ellen, the English pals we met nearly 10 years ago on a trip to Japan. They were on their honeymoon (which makes this September both their wedding anniversary and our friendiversary) and we hit it off at a guest house we were all staying at in Kyoto, drinking whisky together into the wee hours at a tiny bar called the Funky Soda where no one else spoke a word of English. Needless to say, we’ve been friends ever since. We live-text every episode of the Great British Baking Show and always try to hang out when we’re on each other’s continent. But they hadn’t seen Fi since she was a baby, and we’d never met their three-year-old, Violet.

When we made noises about coming to London, they offered to take the train from Swindon to play with us for part of our stay. Ellen humored my desire to make Fi’s first visit to the city as London-y as possible and booked us a princess-themed high tea complete with crustless sandwiches and just so, so many cakes and treats. We also took in an exhibit of Japanese art at The Queen’s Gallery in a nod to the origins of our friendship. The girls were… well, a little less into it than we were.

But there were games to play in the park and stilton-and-steak pies to eat at the pub. There were iconic sights and drizzly weather and fabulous people watching. There were Anna and Elsa, Grant and Ellen and Fiona and Violet playing together for the first time. And then there was me, there with my family, just being so, so happy to be back in London. I can’t wait until it calls again.

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