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The Best Things About Living Abroad

LifeHannah Drake1 Comment

As an expat, people on both sides of the Atlantic ask me what I love most about living abroad. How ironic that I’m finally getting around to posting this when I’m back in the States, right?

THE EASE OF TRAVEL WITHIN EUROPE

This is by far the best. Before I moved, people were always saying they were jealous that I would probably be on a plane every weekend to another beautiful European city. That’s not exactly true, but earlier this year, we did drive to Paris for a somewhat last minute weekend trip with some friends. That was pretty cool. Our flights to Italy for our honeymoon were cheaper for both of us than it would be for one ticket from Denver to New York! We’ve gotten cheap flights to Dublin and Berlin. (Before he met me, Luke even got £1 tickets to Ireland once! Plus a few fees after the fact, but still!) Next year, after having four major holidays this year, we’re probably going to be doing smaller trips throughout the country and the continent over long weekends. It just blows my mind that that’s even a possibility! The only downside is the carry on luggage requirements are a bit more restrictive. But it’s worth it!

THE FREE HEALTH CARE AT THE POINT OF DELIVERY

Wait, maybe this is the best. In the grand scheme of things, anyway. I’ve been to my doctor a couple of times since moving here, I took Luke to A&E (accidents and emergency), and had some cardiology appointments at the hospital as well. In all of that, we’ve paid exactly £0! No co-pays, no deductibles, no nothing. I did have to pay an NHS surcharge (£600) when I got my visa last year. And we both have money taken out of our pay checks for the NHS, but that’s money we don’t ever see or really think about. It’s worth it when you need an ECG and a CT scan at A&E or when you need a bunch of heart tests spread out over multiple appointments. Both of us are fine, by the way, I’m just getting my usual heart check ups. It definitely makes me wonder why healthcare is such a fight in the States and why it’s not universally accepted as a right.

THE PROXIMITY TO RICH HISTORY

I love this one, but it’s also a bit annoying. At least when we see a building and Luke points at it and says, “This building is older than your country.” He does this all the time! No matter where you go in Europe, you’re surrounded by incredibly rich history. AP European History was my absolute favourite class in high school, so it’s amazing to be able to see those places and stand where those people stood. I’ve seen so much already, but still not enough! We’ve seen Hadrian’s Wall in England, the lasagna that is the history of Rome, historical landmarks in cities like Berlin, London, Dublin, and Glasgow. We’ve been in beautiful estates across the country, wandered through museums, and explored castles. It’s unreal! Don’t get me wrong, the States has so much history of it’s own, but when you’re looking at a wall that was built in 122, it’s hard to get excited about some colonial houses in New England.

THE STANDARDS OF THE FOOD INDUSTRY

I remember when I first moved a friend told me that you can eat better in the UK than in the States almost without trying. There are products here (like Betty Crocker’s cake mixes) that are completely different here because in the States there are so many additives that are illegal here. Our grocery store used to carry Kraft macaroni & cheese in the “American section” and the front of the box would always have a big blue sticker on it. One day we decided to pull it off to see what it was covering, and it turns out there’s “nutritional information” on the front of the box saying that there’s something like 50 calories per serving, with a tiny little asterisk that it’s for uncooked pasta. That’s so ridiculous that it’s okay to mislead consumers like that! Sure, our produce and our milk doesn’t last quite as long, but it’s worth it knowing they aren’t pumped full of preservatives and other crap.

THE EXPERIENCE OF OTHER CULTURES

There’s culture everywhere, of course, but living in the second biggest city in the UK has broadened my horizons unlike any other place. Coming from a place where people mostly look like me and often have similar backgrounds as me, it’s so eye opening to see or meet or hear or talk to people from different countries, who speak different languages, who have different religious beliefs, who cook different foods at home. I’ve always believed that travelling is the best way to see that we’re all humans first and living somewhere so different from where I grew up gives me that experience all the time. I eat (and cook!) foods I never would have thought to try back in my small town in Colorado. (Anyone from my hometown is probably laughing at me calling it a small town, but it’s certainly no 1.5 million in population!) I get to hear people speak other languages—and even the same language in all kinds of accents. I’ve been able to do acts of kindness for women who look differently, dress differently, and worship differently than me. It’s been humbling and wonderful and educational. I’m so grateful for all the experiences I’ve been able to have living in Birmingham and travelling throughout the UK and Europe.

6 Things to Do in London at Christmastime

TravelHannah Drake2 Comments

There’s just something so magical about London at Christmastime. All year, there are so many shops and restaurants that have gorgeous seasonal displays. But Christmas is another level in London. There are twinkling lights, oversized baubles, pastel gingerbread houses, and beautiful window displays. Of course London is one of the most diverse and culturally rich cities in the world. There is so much to do, so much to see, so much to eat no matter when you visit, but it truly outdoes itself in the weeks leading up to Christmas. You’re bound to find something beautiful and magical on every corner. It’s absolutely my favourite time of year to visit the city!

GO ICE SKATING

Two of the biggest—and most picturesque—ice skating rinks are at the Natural History Museum and Somerset House. You’ll see photos of skaters circling the Christmas tree in front of the beautiful buildings on any Londoner’s Instagram, but if you plan ahead, you can be one of those skaters!

The rink at the Natural History Museum is open for three months, from the end of October to the end of January, though it’s closed on Christmas Day. Times vary, but the website lists its operating hours as 10:00 to 21:00. Tickets are available from £12.65 for adults, from £8.80 for children, and from £39.60 for families. Museum members save 10% when tickets are booked onsite. You have to book 50-minute tickets in advance and certain days or times might be more expensive. The rink also offers upgrades, special packages, and fun events throughout the skating season.

The nearest tube station to the Natural History Museum is South Kensington on the District, Piccadilly and Circle lines.

The rink at Somerset House is sponsored by Fortnum & Mason and is open from mid-November to mid-January. The rink is also closed Christmas Day. Times vary, but it’s usually open from 11:15 to 22:15 and the full schedule is listed on their website. Tickets are available from £11.00 for adults and £8.50 for children, but a one-time booking fee of £2.95 applies online. Fortnum & Mason has set up a rink-side lounge with seasonal treats like champagne and fondue or mulled wine and mince pies.

The nearest tube station to Somerset House is Temple on the Circle and District lines, Covent Garden on the Piccadilly line, or Charing Cross on the Bakerloo and Northern lines.

No matter which rink you choose, you can definitely have yourself a merry time skating and enjoying everything the rinks have to offer.

SHOP ON (AND OFF) REGENT STREET

Regent Street is one of the most famous streets in London and lined with little shops and cafes. No matter the season, you’ll find it bustling with shoppers, but it’s something entirely different at Christmastime. The streets are lit up with twinkling Christmas lights, the windows are adorned with giant wreaths, and the shops have gorgeous window displays.

Just off the busy road is the quieter Old Bond Street, which is always worth strolling down, even if it’s just to gaze in the windows and see the decorations. Both years we’ve visited London at Christmastime, there have been peacock feathers above the street and gorgeous displays on the facades of some of the most luxurious shops in town. Last year, Cartier was covered in a giant red bow and it made all my big city dreams come true!

Down the cross street from Tiffany & Co. is Burlington Arcade, which is absolutely worth walking down. There are so many little shops and they all seem to be in competition with each other for who has the best Christmas decorations. The arcade itself is lit up by twinkling trees and the light bounces off the giant red baubles hanging from the ceiling. It’s certainly a wonderful walk and it goes on forever! There are other lovely arcades off Regent Street as well, but in my opinion, none as lovely as Burlington.

The nearest tube station to Regent Street is Green Park on the Jubilee, Piccadilly and Victoria lines, Piccadilly Circus on the Piccadilly and Bakerloo lines, or Oxford Circus on the Central, Bakerloo and Victoria lines.

SEE THE HOLIDAY INSTALLATIONS AT COVENT GARDEN

Seriously, nowhere does holiday installations like Covent Garden! They’re always oversized and over-the-top and I love them! On one end, you’ll find a towering Christmas tree with sparkling red and white lights. On the other end, you’ll find a gigantic prancing reindeer in a gigantic sleigh full of gigantic presents. This year, they also had a cool old car piled high with presents. And of course the three arcades in the centre are not to be missed. I love the giant mistletoe that lights up and the huge silver baubles. It’s definitely crowded, but there seems to be a photographers’ understanding that you keep a bit of a distance from everything to people can get photos without you in them. They’re usually quite good about taking turns and not taking an insane amount of time.

Covent Garden is like an outdoor shopping area, so there are also plenty of places to shop, which means there are plenty of beautiful shopfronts around the square and surrounding streets. Some of the best at Christmastime are Balthazar and Clos Maggiore.

The nearest tube station to Covent Garden is Covent Garden on the Piccadilly line.

WARM UP WITH TEA AND CAKE

When in London, you must stop for tea somewhere. There are a lot of fantastic places to have tea in London, including Sketch (an Instagrammer’s heaven) and Biscuiteer’s (home of the most beautiful biscuits), but in December, Peggy Porschen Cakes and Claridige’s are sights to behold.

Peggy Porschen Cakes is located in Belgravia, one of my favourite neighbourhoods. It might just be the most photographed facade in London, but there’s a reason. They never skimp on the seasonal decor and you can always count on them for stunning photo ops and the perfect flatlay on their little pink tables. But in all seriousness, come for the decor and stay for the lattes and cakes. They have beautifully decorated cakes and cookies available inside their tiny little corner shop and the baristas are talented with the on point seasonal latte art. Make sure to plan plenty of time for your stop here because the later it gets in the day, the longer the wait for a table is and they don’t accept reservations. (This is why I wholeheartedly recommend cake for breakfast!) The majority of their tables are outside too, so bundle up!

The nearest tube station to Peggy Porchen Cakes is Sloane Square on the Circle and District lines or Victoria on the Victoria, Circle, or District lines.

Claridge’s is one of the most luxurious hotels in the city and offers lots of holiday cheer in December and boasts a magnificent afternoon tea. In the hotel lobby, you’ll find a carefully designed Christmas tree that changes every year depending on the designer behind the tree. In recent years, they’ve had an upside down tree, a mirrored tree, and even a full on forest one year. It’s truly something! Their Festive Afternoon Tea is on the pricier end (and even more so on the weekends), but they certainly make it worth it.

The nearest tube station to Claridge’s is Bond Street on the Central and Jubilee lines or Oxford Circus on the Central, Bakerloo and Victoria lines.

STOCK UP ON HOLIDAY GOODIES

Petersham Nurseries is just off Covent Garden and always worth a wander, no matter the calendar, but especially at Christmas. Pop in to pick up some holiday decorations, Christmas baubles, or even just general home goods. Wander to the back for the plant nursery and even next door to the deli!

The nearest tube station to Petersham Nurseries is Covent Garden on the Piccadilly line.

Fortnum & Mason is an experience. It’s located on Regent Street and is famous for its tea and hampers. Here, you can stock up on luxury grocery items, peruse their home goods floors, and even do some personal shopping in their men’s and women’s departments. Everything is located around a stunning spiral staircase between the first two floors, but the opening goes all the way to the top and they make sure you know it!

The nearest tube station to Fortnum & Mason is Piccadilly Circus on the Piccadilly and Bakerloo lines, Leicester Square on the Northern and Piccadilly lines, or Green Park on the Jubilee, Piccadilly and Victoria lines.

Lavender Green Flowers is located in Chelsea and a great place to stop around Christmastime, especially if you’re looking for some DIY materials for a wreath or other home decor. You can stock up on everything you might need: cinnamon sticks, dried citrus, pine cones, greenery, and more. Just imagine how good it smells!

The nearest tube station to Lavender Green Flowers is South Kensington on the District, Piccadilly and Circle lines.

WANDER THE MOST FESTIVE NEIGHBOURHOODS

Normally, I’m all about Notting Hill when I’m in London. There’s just something about those soft pastel houses lined up behind the street market. But I’ve actually never been at Christmastime. I’m sure they do it up good, but I’m always drawn to other neighbourhoods this time of year.

Belgravia is where you’ll find the picturesque Peggy Porschen Cakes, but make sure to plan some time to wander around the streets as well. The shops and offices and cafes and even houses have great kerbside appeal all year, but especially at Christmas.

Chelsea is great to see some really fantastic displays outside shops and restaurants. Whether it’s springtime an there are lush floral displays or Christmastime and larger than life Christmas decor, Chelsea never disappoints.

Soho is the neighbourhood I’ve spent the least amount of time in, of these, but they have some great Christmas decor as well. Just don’t make the same mistake we did and not go into Liberty!

Mayfair is one of my favourite neighbourhoods all year, but it’s even better at Christmas. It’s also home to Annabel’s and nobody does installations like Annabel’s.

Check out my London in Bloom post to see London all decked out for spring.

PIN FOR LATER!

Christmas at Blenheim Palace

TravelHannah DrakeComment

Over the summer, Luke and I visited Blenheim Palace twice. First with my sister Sam, then again in August. The first time we visited, we converted our day tickets into annual passes, which was good because we barely got to see anything the first time we were there. Because we’re on the annual pass list, I got an email for their Christmas events and I immediately knew I wanted to go back for it. We still had to buy tickets for the events, but they were cheaper with our annual pass.

So last Saturday, on the 1st of the month, Luke and I got in the car and headed down to Oxfordshire, blasting Christmas songs on the way and trying to prefect our White Christmas duet. I also learned I really need to work on the lyrics for Wonderful Christmastime. It was hilariously fun and neither of us even minded it put us a bit behind on our podcasts. We bought tickets for both Cinderella - A Fairytale Experience inside the palace and the Illuminated Lights Trail on the palace grounds.

THE PALACE

The sun was already setting when we got there ahead of our 15:40 entrance time for the palace and we didn’t have much time to spare, so we bee-lined for the palace entrance. There was a long line on the steps as the staff was scanning tickets and making sure people were in the right order for their entrance times.

At 15:40, we were let into a small room they built just off the door before we were let into the entryway of the palace. The man just inside the door, was dressed like one of the staff members from Cinderella and told us to pay attention to the mice throughout the palace. Immediately, we were taken straight into a fairytale.

THE CHRISTMAS MARKET

In the courtyard outside of the palace, they had an extensive Christmas market set up with local vendors in each booth. I’ve only been to three Christmas Markets so far (in Birmingham, at Blenheim Palace, and in Nottingham), but this one was by far the best one. Okay, maybe it was because every other booth seemed to be a local distillery with dozens of samples. We walked around sampling gin, sausages, cheeses, chutneys, and more. They had local artists and people were selling their woodworking pieces, knitting, ornaments, beauty products, and just about everything else you can think of.

Back toward the entrance, they had some rides and food and drink stands. We got our first German sausage of the season and later went back for luxury hot chocolates and fresh donuts.

THE GROUNDS

On the grounds, they had set up the Illuminated Lights Trail that was absolutely magical. Each section was set to different music, everything from classic Christmas songs to The Nutcracker to the Harry Potter score. The lights twinkled and danced and lit up the night. Everything was so gorgeous and mesmerising. Halfway through the trail, they had more food trucks and some fire pits. Toward the end, we passed through the North Pole where Santa was putting on a show for some kids. The big finale was the light displays against the palace set to everybody’s favourite Christmas tunes.