To Salisbury! Via a few Henges.

Days six, seven and eight of the bike tour were our first several days of consecutive riding. We got in some good training, a few sights, a range of breakfast experiences, and encountered our first English rains.

We rode out of Oxford and made our way across the Vale of White Horse. This region is named for the figure of a white horse that was dug and carved into a chalky hillside in the region sometime between 3200 and 600 BC. It is still visible!

We set up camp on the very edge of North Wessex Downs – another Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. After hanging our formerly-trapped clothing out to finish drying, we headed down the hill we had just rode up in search of dinner.

The walk to dinner turned out to be a stunning meander through a forest on the other side of which sat a glorious sunset over farmland. We encountered some horses taking in their evening meal.

It was here, considering the timelessness of this place, that Drew commented that perhaps we might better empathize with those who resist change. As urban planners, we are typically preoccupied with the advantages of progress and frustrated (infuriated, offended) by the problematic stance of those who want to keep things ‘just as they are’. But here in this magnificent field, at the edge of a beautiful and quiet farming town, the fear of disruption is easier to understand, and a desire to conserve a particular way of life, easier to respect.

I countered that this context is profoundly different than that of cities, which are by nature dynamic and evolving places with an imperative to accommodate the much more diverse needs of a much more diverse population. But does that take these kinds of places, and their communities, ‘off the hook’? What role do, or might, rural communities have in accommodating the people, jobs, and society that better reflect our globalized world? And how does this differ from suburban communities (where much of these tensions are most acute)? We have since been considering more deeply what it means to insist on an agenda of progress and change.

The next morning we packed up camp and, unable to locate any nearby establishments open for business, enjoyed a gourmet breakfast from our very own mobile pantry!

Babybel-on-Bread. MMM.

Thus thoroughly sustained, we rode a few miles under increasingly graying skies. A woman stopped us on the road just near the church below, to tell us about said church and a nearby cafe where we ‘MUST go for a cuppa’. We visited the church on her instruction, and then proceeded to the cafe, grateful for her guidance. When we walked in, she was there, having her own tea and scone. Small town.

As we enjoyed some tea and surprisingly well-executed bagels with lox and cream cheese, the rain began. We emerged from the cafe in our highest fashion, ready to take it on.

We spent the rest of the day unsuccessfully dodging rain showers across the North Wessex Downs AONB. Though it was chilly and damp, the rain also afforded some spectacular lushness in the more densely-wooded parts of the ride.

In the mid-afternoon we detoured to Avebury on the recommendation of Diane (of Diane and Joe Chatfield). Avebury is basically a smaller version of the world-famous Stonehenge, with far fewer tourists. You can also go up to the stones and touch them, which I made sure we did repeatedly.

Avebury and a cup of tea to warm up.

Maybe 15 miles down the road, increasingly cold and pushing through some killer hills, we were thrilled to finally arrive at the Woodbury Inn – the campsite and pub that would be providing us food and shelter for the evening. The rains relented and we set up camp in a lovely spot right at the bend of the River Avon. Soon, a welcome committee stopped by to ensure all was in order.

All was mostly in order, but more so when we had a hot shower, and then went inside the Woodbury Inn to discover it was curry night. We feasted on palak paneer, malai kofta, tikka masala, pappadum, naan…. And then we slept. Really well.

We began the third day of our journey to Salisbury at the Red Lion Inn. I had heard about this Michelin-starred restaurant near our campsite, and they offered a full English breakfast by reservation only. We couldn’t resist this admittedly silly indulgence, and it didn’t fail to deliver. We dined on freshly squeezed juices and coffee, homemade toast and locally made jams and marmalades, and of course, the almost-overwhelming platter that is the Full English: eggs, sausage, baked beans, sautéed mushrooms, roasted tomato, bacon, and usually some kind of deep-fried bread (because why not).

It was a gastronomically satisfying 24 hours, and certainly made up for our babybel-on-bread breakfast from the day prior.

Heading off a food coma, we did some stretches on the lawn of the Red Lion Inn and hopped back on our bikes towards the day’s highlights: Woodhenge and Stonehenge! The former is a lesser-known site about 2 miles from Stonehenge. Like Avebury, it is far less touristed, but no less mystifying than either. The site is basically a field with a series of timbered postholes in concentric circles, dating back to around 2000 BC. It also has a evidence of child sacrifice on site, so of the three sites in question, this won the award for ‘most disturbing’.

Here I am at Avebury, still feeling the effects of breakfast:

Soon thereafter, we made it to Stonehenge!

Fortunately, there was a bike path that allowed us to get quite close without paying a fee, and kept us away from the most intense throngs of tourists. It was an odd sight: hundreds of people standing on a path, looking at some rocks and relentlessly snapping selfies. And yet, there we were, ogling this strange piece of ancient history ourselves, and capturing the majesty in our own inverted camera lens.

After about 15 minutes of contemplating this structure, making many, many references to Ylvis’s important artistic contribution to the subject at hand, and eating an apple, we pedaled on. An interesting series of non-roads led us southward through farmland and forests, until we reached the edge of Salisbury. We stopped in at a grocery store for a bottle of wine for our future host, and at about 6pm, pulled up to the Wellington, met Ian, and got acquainted with our home for the next two nights!

A Wrinkle in Oxford

We spent three nights in Oxford, house-sitting for adorable twin cats, visiting the famed University and its town, and getting our laundry stuck in a washing machine.

The first part – the cat sitting – was fun! If it hasn’t become abundantly clear, we love cats, so having their company for a few days was lovely. Sweep and Pepper were curious, playful, and constantly hungry. They loved hanging out with our panniers. Less so with us (unless we were feeding them).

The second part, exploring Oxford, was very interesting. The University itself is an imposing and beautiful collection of very old buildings. We stood in the courtyard of Balliol College, which is the longest continuously running institution of education in the western hemisphere. Though it was officially founded in the 13th century, instruction dates back to early in the 11th century! It’s kind of amazing to think the same institution existed through the Crusades, the Renaissance, the ‘discovery’ of the New World, multiple revolutions and world wars…

After Balliol, we visited the Oxford University Press bookstore, which had a mind-boggling collection, laid out in an aesthetically pleasing rainbow of spine colors. We also paid a few pounds to climb up to Oxford’s church tower, which provided great views over the town and campus’s building stock, including the famous Radcliffe Camera library:

As we explored, I was both quite surprised (it’s 2019) and unsurprised (it’s Oxford) to find that the campus seems to be still very much, in many ways, an old boys’ club. Visible veneration of this homogeneity can be found in things like the enormous framed portraits of dead white guys crowding their dining hall walls. There is one dining hall which has – in a very out of the way corner and smaller than the rest of the paintings – a portrait of the University’s first female Vice Chancellor, who assumed her post in 2016. There she sat, in a sea of men, literally taking up as little space as possible. You kind of had to laugh.

Case in point. This also happens to be the room in which they filmed the Great Hall scenes in the first Harry Potter film, hence the other visitors taking photos. Don’t ask me about the Magritte Bowler Hat guy on the left. He was just as baffling to us in real life as he is in this photo.

We did find a small but good exhibit on the White Rose resistance – in which students in early 1940s Germany wrote and disseminated leaflets calling on Germans to resist Nazism. The students were eventually caught and killed, but their story is a powerful one of courage and resistance. Though this didn’t happen at Oxford, there is an effort by some Oxford faculty to ensure their story is remembered and more broadly known.

We also took the rare non-selfie photo before enjoying a vocal performance at the local chapel, so I am sharing that here. We were as cold and happy as we looked!

And finally, about our laundry. When we arrived in Oxford it was a Saturday, and all our clothes were dirty. We eagerly put the majority of them into a load of laundry, let it run, and 3 hours later, went to retrieve them for drying. The door of the washer refused to open. We tried everything: jiggling the handle; pulling as hard as we could; sliding a butter knife through the lock area; slipping dental floss between the door and machine and yanking. Many Google searches were made, many YouTube videos were consulted, but to no avail.

Three inches of glass stood between us and the majority of our earthly possessions. And it was a Saturday afternoon; the next day was a Sunday, followed by a bank holiday, which are taken very seriously by most professionals in England, including but not limited to washing machine repairmen that might have come to our rescue.

We were able to schedule an appointment for Tuesday morning (a lifetime away) and in the meantime, got quite creative with the remaining clothing items we had, cycling them through rinses in the bathroom sink. By the time a gruff repairman appeared with his toolbox at 10am on Tuesday, we could have kissed him! He spent about 30 minutes removing the entire washer from under the kitchen counter, extracted our somewhat fragrant and quite wrinkled clothing, replaced the washer’s broken door hinge, reinstalled the washing machine and went on his way. Only a few hours before we ourselves had to get going to our next destination, we gave our clothing as much sunshine disinfectant as we could (dryers aren’t really a thing in the U.K.) and packed them away with new gratitude for their tangible existence. Next stop: Salisbury!

Traversing the Cotswolds

After digesting our first Full English breakfast experience and saying goodbye to Tanmoy, we packed up and rode out of Bath around mid-day. The famed Cotswolds awaited! In addition to being a popular destination for cycle tourists, the Cotswolds is one of England’s AONB’s, or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (yes, this is actually what they call them). An AONB is not necessarily managed wild land (as with U.S. National Parks), and, in the case of the Cotswolds, quite the opposite. Ascending out of the Avon River Valley, we were welcomed by the scent of green onions and soil, a bucolic landscape of stretching farmland, tiny roads, and well preserved old towns that evoked the life of centuries gone by. A few photos from our first stop:

We shared a ploughman’s lunch (an iteration of my favorite type of meal: varied decadent snacks served on a board) in front of a small hotel and watched the street life pass us by. In this case, in about 30 minutes, this consisted exclusively of one Japanese family taking photos in front of the house across the street, and nothing else. It was a really small town.

We finished our lunch and kept riding, pausing at some beautiful viewpoints:

and onward to our first overnight destination: The Holford Arms. This is a pub in the central Cotswolds which allows camping on its premises. We pulled up around 6:30pm and were greeted warmly by the pub’s bartender, who told us we could pitch up anywhere in the yard. We found a good spot for our tent and set up camp quickly, eager to head back inside for some dinner.

The tent, pitched for the first time in England! The Holford Arms is just out of view to the left. Our cycling clothes are just in view, on the top 🙂

As the sun began to set, the interior of the pub became a cozy haven, with a crackling fireplace, each wooden table set with a single lit candle, and early 2000s alternative music playing softly out of two small speakers that sat on either end of the bar. The bartender was chatting with the only other customer in the pub, and a cheerful teenager who turned out to be our waiter encouraged us to sit anywhere. We selected a couple of pints to drink from the bar, lowered ourselves gingerly into seats near the fireplace (it was a long day on the bike), and ordered with gusto.

A word on pub culture: I have found it to be a great representation of the ‘third space’ concept. Unlike much of the American bar scene, English pubs are typically very comfortable and welcoming businesses – a come-as-you-are space for all ages, where you’re just as likely to be drinking a pint as ordering a cup of tea. There are often board games, children, dogs and at least one local barfly. Pubs also always serve a menu of comfort food, which to our delight and surprise, and contrary to reputation, is almost always good, and sometimes exceptional!

Some breweries and dive bars in the U.S. manage this whatever-goes vibe (as do some pre-third wave cafes) but by and large, drinking establishments in the U.S. tend to be disproportionately places for young people (typically of the same class, race, and sexual orientation) to see and be seen, and there aren’t enough places where people can be without agenda or aggressively prescribed social convention. So, yay for pubs!

After a delicious meal at the Holford Arms, and a rousing game of Backgammon (which we taught ourselves and are only about 50% sure we played correctly) we strolled the lengthy 30 yards back to our tent, and slept very soundly.

Sunset views from in front of the Holford Arms. Goodnight, Cotswolds!

We awoke the next morning to our longest planned ride yet ahead of us. It began delightfully, under sunny skies, on a freshly paved country lane with freshly cut grass.

We stopped at a pub called the Bell at Sapperton for lunch, where I ate an incredible beet-based veggie burger, and then we indulged in our first Victoria Sponge. A word on the Victoria Sponge: it was, is, so good. I blame half my caloric intake on this bike tour to date on the Great British Bake Off, for introducing me to all the cakes and desserts that we are now too informed not to eat when we encounter them each for the first (and often second and third) time. Damn you, Mary Berry.

About 20 miles later, in the late afternoon, we arrived in the charming small town of Bourton-on-the-Water where we’d be spending the night. Our campsite for this evening was on a carp farm just on the edge of town. We set up our tent on the edge of a pond in which carp would occasionally jump out of the water, startling nearby birds with their returning splash.

Campgrounds, as we have quickly discovered, are fancy in England. Sometimes they come with a pub! But even when they’re just a lame fish farm with lame abundant flora and fauna, they always include hot showers, clean toilets, and sometimes even wifi. Coming from the U.S., where we associate camping with being off the grid and a little bit smelly, this has been something of a strange adjustment. But these amenities make it possible for us to camp for several nights in a row, and the post-ride-hot-shower is both crucial, and not so hard to get used to! 

The next morning, we decided to give our quadriceps the morning off and explored Bourton-on-the-Water on foot. We visited a model version of the town, where everything in the town was replicated in miniature (yes, even the model version was replicated and represented in miniature-miniature). Us urbanists felt like we were in some kind of three dimensional map, and along with a lot of five year olds, pointed excitedly as we recognized buildings and intersections we had, only minutes prior, passed in full size. I particularly loved the way they cultivated real plants to grow in miniature, accurately representing the town’s foliage at a ninth of the size.

Model village! Drew for scale.

With another house-sitting commitment ahead of us, and having covered the town’s highlights fairly quickly, we returned to our carp farm campsite, packed up and headed onward, to Oxford!

A Brief Dip Into Bath

After we left the Chatfields’, we rode south on a series of idyllic country lanes back toward Bristol and Bath beyond that. Despite some navigational hiccups (the app we’re using has an uncanny* awareness of unofficial routes such as bridlepaths, but doesn’t always know which are navigable by bike), we made it onto the spectacular Bristol and Bath Railway Path, which afforded us smooth, easy riding all the way into Bath.

Our host in Bath was my friend Tanmoy, whom I’d actually only met in person a few times before. Tanmoy founded a choir that I joined in San Francisco last fall, and at the same time as I was joining, he was leaving for a post-doctorate position in the astronomy department at the University of Bath. Although our paths only seldom crossed, he was kind enough to invite us to stay on his pull-out couch, and we took him up on this offer for two great days.

Bath is a remarkable small city in Somerset with a population just under 100,000 and a housing stock notably dominated by Georgian architecture (the city was particularly fashionable in the first half of the 18th century). This means that we had the chance to take in grand, unified facades along Great Pulteney Street, ornate mansions on the Royal Crescent, and the then-innovative round layout of the Circus. (Not the kind with elephants – both this planning concept and the popular entertainment take their name from the Latin for “circle.”)

Just like the Circus, Bath itself has a directly explainable name dating back to ancient Rome: the Roman Baths founded on the site around 60 CE. Sara and I ponied up the steep entry fee and were very glad we did: the site is a striking palimpsest of Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and 18th to 20th century British interpretations and embellishments of the faithful thermal springs (the only hot springs in Great Britain!).

The Roman Baths, with Bath Abbey in the background.
Reflections in the Bath.
Bird Bath?

It’s always valuable to have a local guide, and Tanmoy did very right by us in that regard. The evening we arrived, we joined him and some university friends at Pint of Science, a fun pub night/science lecture series. Over the next day and a half we also had the chance to get some essential British experiences under our belt: afternoon tea right near the Bath Abbey, superb fish and chips, and the first of what was to be many full English breakfasts (see below). Thanks, Tanmoy, for your great hospitality!

* It’s not quite fair or accurate to say that the app’s knowledge of informal paths is “uncanny.” What is happening behind the scenes is that the app in question uses data from OpenStreetMap to calculate routes. Anyone can contribute to OSM, which is why it often outperforms Google Maps for hiking and other outdoorsy directions, but there’s no centralized body to enforce that contributors fill in all the important fields such as suitability for cycling. If this sounds interesting, consider getting involved!

The Beginning of the Bike Tour

On the morning of May 20, we bid a bittersweet farewell to Crouch End and rode across town to Paddington Station. From there we took a train out of London to Bristol and from Bristol we rode to Thornbury. From Thornbury we went to Bath, and so began our bike tour. The end.

Just kidding! In reality, our first day on the bikes (names forthcoming) was a far more texture-filled tale of highs and lows, triumphs and defeats.

We hadn’t slept much the night before, and wobbled with our newly and quite heavily loaded steeds through London traffic to catch our train. When we boarded, we (perhaps naively) didn’t anticipate having to unload all our gear in order to store our bikes for the two hour ride. This resulted in an awkward game of passenger tetris while we moved bikes and panniers and people around in a sometimes fruitless dance to get everything situated. Some twenty minutes later, sweaty but finally in our seats, we hungrily devoured our last sausage rolls from Dunn’s (which Diana, in her infinite generosity and angelic-ness, had picked up for us that morning) and watched the city turn to countryside as we hurtled west.

We pulled in to Bristol around mid-day, and reloaded our bikes on the station platform. We rode a short distance into the town center and paid a visit to a several-hundred-year-old covered market with stalls selling a range of tempting snacks. After a meal of Singaporean rice, aubergine and chicken (when in England, right?) we made our way over to a river-side cidery, where we sampled a range of the local speciality. I confirmed my vague recollection that I think most alcoholic ciders taste like rotting wood, but Drew enjoyed them and we took the chance to read up on Bristol’s fascinating and progressive history in the afternoon sun.

St. Nicholas Market, which has been in continuous operation for 276 years!
Sampling cider by the River Avon (not pictured). It turns out Avon means River, so there are lots of Rivers Avon in England. But this was our first, and so very exciting.

After a bit more exploring in the town center, we headed towards Thornbury, our destination for the evening. Thornbury is a community about 15 miles to the north of Bristol, and the home of Diane and Joe Chatfield and their four kids Katherine, Rebekah, Caleb and Jacob (and temporarily, their two houseguests Cristina and Kylie). My ever-thoughtful aunt Marj reached out while we were in London and, knowing we’d be touring a bit in England, offered to connect us with her nephew Joe and family. They are originally from Hunstville, Alabama, but have lived in Thornbury for the past several years (on account of Joe’s job with an American company working on a contract with the British government). Always eager to connect with new ‘family,’ we leapt at the offer and planned our first day cycling accordingly.

By design, and as with other legs of our travels so far, we did very little detailed planning for this bike tour. Our general approach has been “do a little essential homework, keep our eyes peeled and ears pricked for local direction, and see where the wind takes us.” This is all the more feasible in the time of LTE, and we have leveraged a few technology tools to enable and enhance our more wandering style.

For example, we downloaded OsmAnd, an app which provides maps and customizable route-planning specifically for cyclists. It allows you to elect certain route preferences such as ‘avoid hills’ or ‘prefer byways’ so that you can chart a course that reflects your priorities among directness, ease, rurality, etc. Equally useful, you can turn on the app’s version of Siri, and a lovely lady guides you through your ride as you make the required turns.

For the first part of our first real ride – out of Bristol – this lovely lady was very, very busy. There were a bevy of tunnels, roundabouts, construction sites and urban parks we had to navigate through, not to mention the whole riding on the left side of the road thing. When we finally emerged from the core of the city, the lady led us on to the main north-south A road*, with drivers whizzing by. (*England has a hierarchy of roads, with M roads being full-blown freeways, A roads serving as major arterials, B roads being minor arterials, and roads without a prefix generally being minor residential roads or country lanes.) We pedaled on, wary of our less-than-stellar start, but still happy to be on two wheels and reveling in the novelty of this new adventure.

Soon thereafter came The First Headwind. And not longer after that, The First Hill. Upon approach, this Hill loomed threatening, appeared endless, and I’m pretty sure it was frowning at me. Six weeks of eating tacos in Mexico definitely kept my jaw muscles in top condition, but as I began pedaling up this thing, my other muscles quickly protested in shock and horror. I could hardly believe how much my bicycle’s loaded weight was pulling me back down the hill, and how much the cruel winds out of the north were pushing. I could hear the gods of cycling and hill-making having a roaring laugh and high-fiving over my misfortune.

Somewhere around 17 million hours later, I summited the frowning giant, gasping but relieved to discover my heart was still mostly functional. I guzzled half a bottle of water, ignored Drew’s amused but empathetic facial expression, and we pushed onward.

We soon turned left off the A road and suddenly, found ourselves on a quiet country lane with hedgerows and expansive farmland stretching out on either side of us. The sounds of cars receded and were replaced by chirping birds and the almost-silent whir of our bike tires. After a few moments taking in this decidedly new scene, Drew turned around and we were both smiling from ear to ear; this was what we came for.

Drew ahead on the first rural country road we encountered on the tour. So happy!

We pulled up to the Chatfields’ door just before dinner time. Inside, Katherine was chopping vegetables and preparing a stir fry. Diane warmly welcomed us, gave us a tour of their beautiful home (The Orchard, it is called), and poured us two most-welcome cold drinks. Joe got home from work not long after, and after reminding ourselves how we were related, we all spent a lovely summery evening eating, drinking and chatting on their porch and in their hot tub (a godsend on this particular day of muscular heroism).

We slept like we’ve never slept before, and awoke on day two of the tour to another sunny morning. We shared coffee and scones in the kitchen, and before we knew it, our bikes were reloaded and we were pulling away from The Orchard, full of gratitude, breakfast, and anticipation for the day ahead. We will always be thankful for our hosts and their hospitality as we began this two-wheeled adventure. Next stop, Bath!

Diane, her four kids, and her four houseguests! (Joe had left for work before we thought to take a group photo.)

How to Buy Two Used Touring Bikes in London, in Ten Easy Steps

Editor’s note: one of our main objectives in London was to outfit ourselves for a bike tour across Europe, a major component of our honeymoon.

Step 1: Take inspiration from your parents. During their own honeymoon 36 years ago, Howard and Wendy chanced upon two perfectly-sized used touring bikes sitting in a shop in London. This happy accident led to them embarking on a cycle tour across Europe! By all accounts, my parents’ bike acquisition process couldn’t have been easier. They saw the bikes, decided on the spot to go touring, and rolled out of the shop with pretty much everything they needed. Figure that your own bike acquisition process won’t be quite so simple, but couldn’t take more than a day or so. (This will turn out to be not at all accurate.)

Step 2: Consider changed circumstances. The world and the bike industry have both changed substantially since the Reagan years. For one thing, a good touring bike is harder to find than it used to be. It’s not necessarily that bike touring has become less popular, it’s just that road bikes have veered off in a race-oriented direction that has made it rarer to encounter a versatile bike with sensible geometry, gearing, and load carrying capacity. I blame Lance Armstrong for this.

Step 3: Do a little advance recon. Write a Reddit post asking how one should best go about buying touring bikes in London. Get told, variously, that all secondhand bikes in London are guaranteed to have been stolen, that all secondhand bikes are inherently unreliable and unsafe to tour on, and that cheap hybrid bikes from Decathlon (think Dick’s Sporting Goods) are totally fine to tour on. Receive these responses with skepticism that later turns out to be justified. (To be fair, some used bikes are stolen bikes and some used bikes are in bad shape – but a savvy buyer can generally tell and avoid both. And we’ve seen a lot of people touring on cheap bike-shaped objects from Decathlon, so if riding a heavy aluminum frame with junky components works for them, good for them. I never said I wasn’t a bike snob.)

Step 4: Visit the online markets. Go to London Craigslist only to find that Londoners don’t really use Craigslist. Find a website called Gumtree with more listings but terrible search functionality. Of the hundreds of used bikes for sale, find only a few even worth following up on. Get a little worried about the feasibility of this whole process.

Step 5: Increase your budget. You were hoping not to spend more than about $500 per bike, but in the face of limited used options, ponder the “nuclear option” of buying two new bikes instead. Figure if you sell them later, you can recoup much of the added cost anyway. Visit a range of shops from the uninspired chain Evans Cycles (whose shop-brand Pinnacle bikes actually look pretty great) to the charming Brixton Cycles (which sells high-quality Surly and Ridgeback bikes at alarmingly high prices).

Step 6: Think laterally. Ask bike-shop employees how Londoners buy used bikes. Find out that eBay is actually the dominant marketplace and that it’s totally expected that prospective buyers can meet with sellers to test-ride bikes. Find several listings that look genuinely promising. Contact sellers and schedule test-ride trips in parts of London you’d never otherwise have reason to visit.

Step 7: Create a fail-safe option. Although you have some good leads, this whole process has taken much longer than you expected. (Of course, you’ve also been doing plenty of sightseeing, too.) It’s now Thursday and you need to leave town by Monday. Order two brand-new bikes from Evans that will be built up in time to ride on Monday and just hope that you can pull out some kind of miracle over the weekend so you don’t have to spend more than $1000 per bike. You can always cancel the order or return the bikes if one or both proves unnecessary.

Step 8: Get lucky once. After days of dysfunctional communication with the seller, take the Overground to east London on Friday morning and meet a guy with a 2012 Dawes Ultra Galaxy. (You’re already familiar with the Dawes Galaxy as it’s probably the most famous British touring bike, but the new models are no good. Why would you ever sell a touring bike with an aluminum frame, when durability is the name of the touring game? This used bike is different, though – a top-of-the-line Reynolds steel frame and a 3×10-speed Tiagra drivetrain. It would have cost $2300 when it was new.) It’s not in perfect shape: the bar tape is a mess and the rear brake squeals incessantly. But it’s got great bones and it fits you great. Buy it on the spot for £570 cash (about $720).

Step 9: Get even luckier. It’s now Saturday (two days before departure) and you have one last eBay visit scheduled, to Uxbridge in far far west London. You certainly never thought you’d be traveling this far from the city center. But when you get there, you find a nearly-new Spa Wayfarer, with disc brakes and 3×9 shifters, that fits Sara perfectly, superbly maintained and perfectly set up to ride with fenders, rack, and all, being offered by a gentleman named Chris who, like you, is a huge bike geek. Buy the bike, unhesitatingly, for £499, but also accept Chris’s wife Mary’s invitation to join them for a cup of tea. Hear about their own travels and cycling adventures and feel an immediate sense of kinship. Listen with growing interest to their recommendation of cycling in Dorset, on England’s southern coast, and make a mental note that they have a second home in the port town of Weymouth.

Step 10: Tidy up loose ends. Leave Chris and Mary’s home with warm farewells and well-wishes (you can’t remember the last time you hugged someone who just sold you a bike) and start biking eastward along quaint canal paths, until you realize you’ve been riding for an hour and you still have like 20 miles left to ride. Get back on the Underground instead. Get caught in a sudden rainstorm while riding from the Underground back to Crouch End. Isn’t this fun already?! Call Evans Cycles and cancel your $2100 order; they’re mercifully understanding about this. The afternoon before you depart for your tour, hastily purchase another pannier and some water bottles. Miraculously, discover that all your stuff fits in your motley assemblage of panniers, baskets, bags, and straps.

And you’re off! Easy peasy.

The View From Crouch End

After our stay by the Wanstead Flats, we dragged our increasingly non-functional suitcase and our thankfully still structural backpacks onto the London Overground and headed to Crouch End, where my family’s old friend Diana Sternfeld lives.

The Levitt-Sternfeld connection is an ancient and noble one: my father’s parents happened to be seated adjacent to Diana’s parents in a restaurant in Paris in the 1970s, and my grandmother, ever one to say something if she saw something, overheard the Sternfelds debating what to order and jumped in with her enthusiastic recommendations. The two couples became friendly, and my father later went backpacking with Diana and her siblings. (Diana is my parents’ age and her children are my age, for context.) Now that Sara and I have gotten to know Diana’s daughter Sally, the Levitt-Sternfeld friendship is in its third generation.

Crouch End is a kinda-hip, kinda-artsy, laid-back neighborhood in north London, just far enough from the Underground as to not be facing enormous real estate demand, but just close enough to the swing of things as to be viable for people who work in the City of London and other central areas. Almost as soon as we arrived there, Diana led us out for a vigorous walk around the neighborhood, which began with a stop in at an open-studios/art walk weekend event (free sparkling wine; we thought to ourselves, OK, this is not bad) and continued along a converted rail line that is now a walking/biking trail that runs into nearby Finsbury Park.

Crouch End has (at least one) superb pub, the Harringay Arms, and a beloved bakery, Dunn’s, that produces sensational sausage rolls, among much else. Very livable. Also very livable is Diana’s house itself, which spirals upwards around a central staircase and rolls down into a great garden in the back. (Sitting in the sunny conservatory one morning while I was out, Sara saw a fox stride through the garden!) Diana lives there with her daughter Sally and Sally’s friend Lauren. Now that her other daughter Emma lives elsewhere, there are enough vacant rooms that the home has become known as the “North London Hostel,” and true to form, Diana didn’t hesitate to welcome us in for more than a week.

The beautiful dining room conservatory of the North London Hostel (Diana’s house).

Here are some things we did in London (beyond the usual tourist destinations of Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, etc.) while staying with Diana:

A view of St Paul’s Cathedral from a nearby balcony.
  • Got utterly bewildered by the range of legendary artifacts on display at the British Museum, though probably the most memorable was the Rosetta Stone, yes, the actual Rosetta Stone itself;
  • If anything, were even more blown away by the Treasures of the British Library, which included autograph sheet music from Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Mahler; the First Folio of Shakespeare; a first-edition King James Bible (and of course a Gutenberg Bible); and the Magna Carta, yes, one of four extant copies of the actual Magna Carta itself;
  • Dipped our toes into the not-quite-frigid world of cask ales. The British reputation for drinking “warm beer” is uncharitable at best, and it is actually great to get some relief from the chock-full-of-hops, 9-percent-ABV-or-higher California beer scene. Most UK beers are 4 or 5 percent alcohol, and this, combined with the helpful fact that you can order half-pints of whatever you want, enables a fellow to drink a few tasty beers without getting completely smashed;
  • Continued to delight in the experience of having actual conversations and engaging in wordplay in our native language. We can get by just fine in Spanish but it’s just not the same;
  • Attended the dedication of a new monument honoring the conscientious objectors of Haringey borough, at which Academy Award winning British actor and Diana’s childhood friend (!!) Jim Broadbent read excerpts from an objector’s impassioned letters. This was the part where we had a beer with Jim Broadbent;
Steven (a friend of Diana’s), the inimitable Diana Sternfeld, the famed Jim Broadbent, The Husband Drew Levitt, and the Wife Sara Draper-Zivetz.
  • Watched the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest, which is a major cultural phenomenon in Europe and a misunderstood oddity in the US. Unfortunately, despite having a quite appealing song, the United Kingdom finished dead last this year. This is probably because they are in the process of leaving the European Union so there is understandably some resentment;
  • Apropos Brexit, learned about the so-called “metropolitan elite” (of which Diana and family are self-described members) and reflected on the fractured politics gripping Britain today. By any measure Sara and I are surely members of the American “coastal elite,” and we were already familiar with and sympathetic to the arguments against Britain leaving the EU, but it was fascinating to hear them in greater detail and in situ. We would later on in our travels hear the other side of the argument, and emerge with a more thoughtful perspective than before;
  • Listened raptly to Diana’s ecstatic accounts of commuting on her beloved 91 bus, then actually took the 91 ourselves down toward Trafalgar Square. It was admittedly pretty great, as bus rides go;
Not the classic red of London’s iconic bus fleet, but definitely a double decker, en route to Trafalgar Square!
  • Searched intently and ultimately successfully for two touring bikes. More on that later; and
  • With Diana, drove over to Hampstead Heath the afternoon before we left London, for another spirited walk across the downs (in addition to being whip-smart, kind, and generous, Diana is quite the walker), a gaze down from Parliament Hill to the historic core of London, and an amble through Kenwood House, where we had opportunity to consider that “English Heritage” is No Joke. I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as American Heritage, but, again, the Magna Carta is more than 800 years old now. Beat that, USA.
Within the Heath there are three fresh water swimming ponds. These have been in operation and used by Londoners in the summer for several hundreds years!
On the path leading to the Kenwood House.

Most of all, what we did in London while staying with Diana was take in the truly astonishing urban empire that is London: its profound diversity and cosmopolitanism; its harmonious cacophony of languages, accents, cuisines; old and new, domestic and imported, familiar and alien; all cheek to jowl in a way we really hadn’t experienced thus far. Mexico City was astounding but not nearly so encompassing of this sheer breadth of cultural differences. New York is in the same league, but London may still have the upper hand. It was a wonder to behold.

London Calling

Though it was more than twenty-four hours long, there was a lot to like about our travel to London. A very early departure gave us a chance to say goodbye to Mexico City at dawn, a time of day that offered a decidedly placid alternative view to the city’s usual hubbub. The airport process was a breeze, and we relished the final simple exchanges we’d have in Spanish (for a while) with the baggage handlers and airline crew.

A few hours after our first take off, we landed at Chicago O’Hare, bracing for the shock of returning to the U.S., albeit very briefly, after more than three months away. We didn’t route ourselves through the Midwest intentionally, but it turned out to be a blessing: the Chicagoan ground staff gave us nothing short of a friendly midwestern welcome ‘home’ as we transited between terminals to catch our onward flight, and we didn’t really have a thing to complain about (try as we may have to find one!).

Next stop, Toronto!

Though our itinerary between MEX and LGW was impressively inefficient, this second stop en route was more than worth it. First of all, the approach to YYZ is great: the Toronto skyline appears suddenly across the very flat southern Canada landscape, and we watched small planes land and take off from Billy Bishop Airport, which is right in the middle of the city (and one of our shared favorites from a previous trip to this city). A love for all things airplane/airport aside, the real treat was this:

Our dear friends Yasir and Sonali came to meet us in transit! They too are veterans of UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, Yasir having studied planning with us, and Sonali earning her degree in urban design. Yasir is now earning his PhD in planning at York University, and carrying on with institution-based activism – work which was partly how we become friends at Cal. Sonali is doing what sounds like super interesting master plan and public realm work at a design firm downtown. They are the proud new parents of an adorable dog who we did not meet, bur look forward to getting to know someday soon. For all you readers who know and love Yasir and Sonali, we are pleased to report they are well, and doing a bang up job fighting the man north of the border (where, much to our dismay, it appears there is very much a man to fight, and work to be done. Is nowhere sacred?!).

After too brief a visit we said goodbye to our friends and proceeded through our final security check point, boarding our final plane across the pond! Twenty-two hours in, we landed in London’s Gatwick airport with plane hair and sticky eyelids, but still thoroughly excited to be in the land of double-decker buses and nationalized healthcare.

Our first trip through the city – via two commuter trains and a tube ride – was mostly a blur, but one that gave us a few tantalizing tastes of exploration to come.

We finally emerged at our destination station just as a little English drizzle was beginning to fall, and as the wheel of our overstuffed roller bag gave way. Each taking a handle of the bag, we lugged its heavy contents the half mile to our destination, and arrived with our sights set on a shower and a snooze.

Our first home in London was a small apartment in Forest Gate, a lovely row-house neighborhood northeast of the city. We were there to house sit Mephy the cat and T-Rex the gecko. As part of our scheme to save money in our travels, we registered with TrustedHouseSitters.com – a website that lets people request and provide house- and pet-sitting services (apart from an annual membership fee for sitters, no money is exchanged). We’re grateful to Aneta and Daniel for taking a chance on us as newcomers to the site, and really enjoyed our three days with these quirky animals! The neighborhood was also a peaceful introduction to London, with beautiful walks in the Wanstead Flats just across the street, and a few terrific pubs around.

In addition to caring for the animals and adjusting to a new time zone, our broader agenda for London was pretty clear: drink a bunch of tea and sample a bunch of ales, ride the aforementioned double decker bus, scope out the site of the John Snow pump, and buy some bikes! All that and more, coming soon to a blog post near you.

Gracias al Pueblo Mexicano

“Thanks to the Mexican people.”

49 nights we’ve spent here; 48 life-changing days, from our bleary-eyed post-midnight arrival in Roma Sur to our current bleary-eyed state as we await our flight to London.

I never put much stock in the idea that people from some countries are friendlier or kinder than people from other countries. While I maintain it’s admirable to expect the best from everyone we meet, our time in Mexico has given me cause to think that maybe, yes, some peoples are in fact more wonderful than others.

To the hundreds of folks who embraced two foolish foreigners, who put up with our halting (yet ever improving) Spanish and who shared with us, with genuine enthusiasm, the best of their crafts and communities: thank you.

To the many dozens of cooks, chefs, and culinary geniuses who blasted wide open the doors of our culinary perceptions with foods that were both rarefied and humble, but always, in the words of John Thorne, good beyond belief: thank you.

To the middle-aged woman with whom we struck up a conversation at a brewery in Mexico City, who immediately gave us her phone number to call in case we ever needed anything: thank you, and I’m very sorry we accidentally left behind that piece of paper at the mezcal bar we went to next.

To that bald eagle, the very symbol of American Freedom™, that we saw wheeling through the clear blue sky above the windswept plains of Jalisco: hey! Hands off our national imagery!

To the twenty-two million citizens and denizens of Mexico City, who every day in their coming and goings distill an utterly intoxicating elixir of everything it is that makes cities great, a brew that electrified both of us to our very core: thank you.

To Rita, whom we met in a corner store where we were trying to buy ice and limes, and who, when it turned out the store had neither, invited us to her home and gave us much more than we needed of both: thanks to you and to many others for kindnesses large and small, which we can only hope to pay forward in your generous spirit, in the fullness of time.

Taken on a morning run in the Narvarte neighborhood of Mexico City.

“I love myself.
I love my family.
I love my community.
I love my borough of Benito Juárez.
I love my Mexico City.
I love my Mexico.”

And we do. To the Mexican people: thank you. We can’t wait to return.

Last Stop: Puebla!

We drove south to Puebla from Teotihuacán, arriving in the afternoon of Cinco de Mayo. I found a great deal on a hotel which was appropriately named Hotel Cinco de Mayo. And as we navigated there, our map informed us that Hotel Cinco de Mayo could be found on Avenida Héroes de Cinco de Mayo. We felt very on brand.

As it turns out, Cinco de Mayo is a date of some significance in Puebla; the holiday commemorates a small but important Mexican military victory in 1862 over the French at the Battle of Puebla.

Wait, the French? Oui oui. In 1861, France invaded Mexico as part of a dispute over debts owed. Though the victory in Puebla a year later was a decisive set-back for the French, and is celebrated today for the patriotic morale boost it provided to the Mexican military and people at the time, the French actually went on to successfully capture Mexico City and rule the country.

But for like, a minute. Three years later, Napoleon the III got overwhelmed by a bunch of other dumpster-fires he had led France into, and withdrew from Mexico. He left Maximilian the I – the French Emperor in Mexico – to fend for himself, which didn’t go well. The Mexicans executed him in Querétaro, and got on with their lives as a sovereign nation. Sorry, Max.

So, for those who thought otherwise, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day (that is September 16). It is also not really celebrated in the rest of the country, as it was ultimately a localized battle. We’re still fuzzy on how it became such an important holiday north of the border, but to be clear, even in Puebla it is not the tequila and taco fest of U.S. tradition. In fact, from our view, the holiday was a pretty tame affair. The city hosted a parade down Avenida Héroes de Cinco de Mayo that we sadly arrived too late for, and a free public reenactment (in dance/pageant form) of the battle and its significance which we were lucky enough to catch in the evening. The main square, with its beautiful cathedral, also felt decidedly festive, though this could have just been because it was a weekend.

We spent the evening sharing some mole poblano, which Puebla is known for, and wandering the Centro Histórico, which has an eclectic mix of architectural styles and beautiful facade tiling.

The next morning, we awoke with our minds on our imminent departure from Mexico. We spread the contents of our entire mobile life across our hotel room, separating things into piles: 1. Things we intended to use but rarely did (for removal), 2. Things we sometimes use but maybe don’t need (for consideration of removal) and 3. things we are living in constantly.

Behind the scenes. You can see why we needed to conduct a ‘stuff audit’. And yes, those are panniers and bike helmets. A foreshadowing of things to come.

Now well into our fourth month of traveling, we’ve learned that when the number of items you own and depend on is limited, and you carry it all yourself, you really either use the hell out of something, or you just. don’t. need it.

And so we filled a bag of items to be shipped back to the United States, watched some soccer on TV, and whiled away an afternoon in this anonymous hotel room, too preoccupied with the coming journey to see much more of Puebla. We left many sites unseen and snacks untasted, and will have to return!

The next day we’d return to Mexico City and return the Prizefighter, spend one last night enjoying the city’s splendor, and the following morning, before dawn, we’d be off to a new country and a new continent!