Back in the halcyon days of my late youth, I used to do a lot of travelling; sometimes for work, sometimes for play, sometimes even a bit of both. In recent years, due to covid, parental responsibilities, and my work realising that international collaboration can be done over Teams, I have sadly not been spending nearly as much time travelling as I would like. This changed last month when I got to go and visit one of my BFFs in London for 5 whole glorious child-free days.
Until this trip, I hadn't seen him in over 4 years, and I hadn't been on a plane in over 6 years. To put that in perspective, in 2014 alone I took more than 20 flights. The whole thing was very new and familiar and exciting.
My children, who are both still in the stage of thinking that mummy is the most amazing person in the world, did not take the news of my impending departure well. There were a lot of tears, sobbing, and begging me not to go (and that was just my partner). So, to cheer them up, I asked them what present they would like me to get for them. Stupidly, I forgot that my 3- and 5-year-old have no experience of holiday souvenirs, so I expected a tangible touristy response like, "a snow globe", "a fridge magnet", "a keyring" or "a t-shirt that says 'My mummy went to London and all she bought me was this lousy t-shirt.'" But no, they asked for "a bunny" and "a monkey", and then started crying again.
Anyone who has ever travelled with me will know that buying gifts for family and friends has always been an integral part of the trip. I would usually get something for my parents, a couple of select friends, and if I was feeling super generous or it was a work trip then I would get locally sourced sweeties for my workmates. Anyone who has ever travelled with me will also tell you that finding gifts took up a disproportionate amount of time.
I can't begin to count the hours I've spent roaming the streets of foreign cities, scouring artisan markets, and perusing tacky souvenir shops, all in the name of securing the perfect gifts. It became somewhat of an obsession, as if the quality of my gifts was a direct reflection of the quality of my love for the recipient. I would browse through countless trinkets, comparing their uniqueness, imagining the smiles on the faces of my loved ones, and carefully selecting items that I hoped would bring them joy and not just end up at the back of a shelf gathering dust and resentment.
Fast forward to my London trip. Seeing my friend after so much time was wonderful, and I was determined that I would not waste our time trying to find gifts, so I set a rule: one gift per child, and some sort of sweeties for my partner. I also had to buy a pair of shoes suitable for going out to a posh London bar since all I owned were ratty old trainers that should have been thrown out before covid. So, we decided to nip past some shops in Central London on the way to doing something more exciting.
Now, the shoe shopping expedition is a whole subplot that could take up a post of its own. For the sake of continuity, we went to approximately 30 fancy shoe shops and I couldn't find anything I liked, so 5 hours later I ended up buying a pair of bland pumps from Primark for less than a fiver. Fortunately, one of the things that I love about my friend is that he possesses infinite patience.
Amidst the shoe shopping, we ventured into every tourist tat gift shop that crossed our path. As you may be aware, there are many, many tourist tat gift shops in Central London. It was crucial to me that my gifts had a distinct "London" essence. I did not want to just get a toy that I could have bought anywhere, despite the fact that this would not matter even slightly to my little darlings. They can't even spell London yet.
Amazingly, we stumbled upon a perfect monkey in one of the very first tourist shops we came to. He was irresistibly cute and soft, with gangly arms and Velcro hands so that you could hang him from necks or furniture. Most importantly, he had on a jumper that said "London". The bar had been set.
And so, the bunny quest continued. Unfortunately, bunnies are apparently not synonymous with 'London' (neither are monkeys for that matter!) I cursed my darling child, why could I not have a daughter who loved Corgis or Bulldogs or bears, all of which had shelves upon shelves of fluffy options, each one more patriotic than the last.
I even tried Hamleys, that emporium of quintessential London childhood dreams. They had bunnies aplenty, and many toys blazoned with "London", but never at the same time. It became a serious consideration to buy a bunny and another toy to sacrifice after stealing its jumper.
So, the first day ended with no bunny, and desperation was starting to set in. After we got back to his apartment, I resorted to Googling "London bunny". Lo and behold, a perfect white bunny with a pink London t-shirt appeared in the search results…pink is my daughter's favourite colour, double win! Better yet, the website claimed it was in stock in the Build-A-Bear section of Hamleys and available to reserve. I ignored the fact that this was clearly bullcrap since I had been in Hamleys a few hours earlier and went through the reservation process, but when I got to the checkout the website decided that it was not available to reserve after all.
Undeterred, I embarked on day two of the bunny quest. This time I was accompanied by another dear friend, who I hadn't seen in a decade. As soon as we met, I announced that bunny shopping was our top priority, but then could go to a park and do something fun. Since we were near Southbank, we went to the Build-A-Bear store that happens to be there. Not a perfect bunny in sight. This did not phase me, it just meant we had to go back to Hamleys. Again.
So off we went to Hamleys. My friend had now been sucked into bunny frenzy and was just as determined as I was (or maybe she just wanted to get it over and done with so we could do something more fun). We found the Build-A-Bear section…no pink London t-shirts to be found. I mustered up the strength to approach a shop assistant with defeated desperation in my voice. She told me no; they were incredibly popular and had all sold out. But, she added, I should try the Southbank shop. I managed to suppress the urge to throttle her stupid friendly smiley face.
That's when it caught my eye - a lovely brown bunny with a jumper. A red jumper. A red jumper that said 'London' on it. Had I seen it the day before, I would have rejoiced and bought it immediately, but now I knew of the existence of the perfect pink-jumpered bunny. Thankfully, my friend managed to talk me down from my bunny-induced rage and convinced me to buy the perfectly adequate brown bunny so that we could actually go to the park and feed squirrels.
Having run out of shopping time and inspiration, my partner ended up getting sweeties from the airport, which he devoured entirely on his own but he did say they were really nice. I returned empty-handed for everyone else and am still burdened with lingering guilt.
Upon my return home, my children were overjoyed to see me and ecstatic to meet their new furry companions. My son immediately hung his monkey around his neck and proclaimed him to be the best monkey ever (and that kid loves monkeys). My daughter had no idea that bunnies with pink London jumpers existed, so will never share in my bitter disappointment of not getting it. However, she pretty much immediately became concerned that the bunny was too hot and took its jumper off.