Air Hair Lair

Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
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Trip End Mar 09, 2008


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Thursday, August 23, 2007

OK, so we're a little tardy getting our reflections of London down on paper. Croatia is attempting to wipe out its national debt solely through the sale of internet time (about 6 hours would do it by my calculations), so this is being written while in downtown Sarajevo, Bosnia. Will try harder in future.
 
* * *
 
We had a challenging start to our time in London. We landed just shy of midnight, and our bags duly joined us about 45 minutes later. Flying a discount airline meant we had come in to cosmopolitan Stansted, so it was a solid hour to get us to Liverpool Street Station.
 
Not many cities come off well based on an assessment compiled from a representative sample of train station dwellers at 2a.m. on a Friday night. After then being appropriately castigated by a bus driver for having the gall to present a 10 quid note for a 4 quid purchase - at least that's what I believe he was trying to commuicate, my Sierra Leonian being not what it once was - we arrived to our chosen lodgings looking and feeling a bit secondhand.
 
Throughout this escapade, it was only a bright shining panorama of Tower Bridge to act as a silver lining to a very cloudy arrival and give an inkling of a city of grandeur waiting to be discovered. The silver would shine further over coming days.
 
I have been to London once before for a week, and swore off returning. Figuring 70,000 Australians per year can't all be wrong, I gritted teeth and prepared to give it a second chance. And I am glad we did, even if a third visit is really really low on the priority list.
 
First stop was to head out to Reading for dinner with Tim, my former boss at Microsoft and a major advocate of quitting jobs and doing other things. More than just providing his normal entertaining self, Tim pulled out all the stops with two bottles of Penfolds 389 and a Jamie Oliver style Thai fish curry. It was a night without a break in the conversation and I have no recollection how I managed to wake up bleeding from my ankle. One of those things.
 
Tim's morning tour guide duties saw us taking a walk through the very stately and eminently English village of Henley on Thames. I had a startlingly simple revelation here: England is a lot more than London. Henley is every inch classic English living. This I understand. This I like. London I do not... and up this point my experiences of England had all been of London - and Stonehenge, which is pound for pound the worlds worst tourist attraction. From here on I started to break down my experiences here into "London" and "everywhere else". Everywhere else was performing well.
 
On the following day Tim dropped us back in London: which was hugely appreciated as 2 tickets on the 25 minute trip from Reading to Paddington would relieve you of a very lazy $80. In a karmaic twist to all the people I have given lifts to over the years, my lift into town involved us spending about an hour in the back seat of his (OK, his wife's dammit) Audi TT.
 
While this fine beast does have back seats, it is not recommended that anyone over the age of eight or height of 3'4" attempts to occupy them. I really appreciate how much Claude laughed while I hung onto a concrete pylon in the Wembley carpark while my legs tried to regain function at the end of that journey.
 
Later that day, we joined up with Simon, a friend from uni who has lived the expat lifestyle for about 9 years now. Giving us his own immersion in the Best of British living, he suggested we meet at Richmond for a Pimms.
 
I had no idea Pimms was a real drink, I had only ever heard it used as the quintessential ladyboy drink. But by God its fantastic, and Pimms will be duly fed to visitors on my return. For the uninitiated, think of it as British sangria, served by the jug filled with diced strawberries and cucumber. And they serve it in jugs that let voracious girls get their arms in all the way up to their elbows to retreive the little bits of cucumber stuck to the bottom. Classy.
 
We were in London largely to meet up with my parents, and prior to heading out to Richmond we had stopped by their hotel to leave a message. On coming in first sight of their accommodations, Claudine and I both froze so as to not interrupt what appeared to be the filming of Boyz in Da Hood III. The scene was quintessential American public school gangsta. Yo, wassup homez?
 
Surprisingly, my folks quite enjoyed the whole gangsta rap scene although they did comment quietly that some of their fellow residents manners could use a little polishing. They were thinking of finishing schools while Claudine and I were scanning the newspapers for reports of a breakout from a juvenile detention centre in the Bronx. Which is odd, as the kids - once we got within earshot - turned out to be French.
 
For those interested in cost control while in London, I would turn your attention to the good people at Sainsbury's. A notable phenomenon of British living is the extent to which London supermarkets offer an array of finished meals. Really, really, really good finished meals. The Indian foods I laid seige too were ones I would happily pay for in a restaurant, and averaged about 2 quid each. I keep saying quid, btw, as there is no pounds symbol on this keyboard. About five variants of 'z' though. z s
 
Joining my parents for an exploration of London was a stroke of genius. My mother still knows London well enough to navigate tiny backstreets to find 17th century pubs (hmmm). A real highlight of my London tourism experience was seeing Dr Johnston's house - the place where the first dictionary was painstakingly put together. The reason this works so well is a small sculpture commemorating the feat is not of the said scholar, but of his feline companion. On the plinth is a sentiment all pet lovers can share. It says simply "Hodge. He was a fine cat" and he is captured sitting and no doubt crinkling up all his masters' earnest works.
 
Our time together also took us to the well regarded Tate Modern art gallery. It is a testament to the far sightedness of the British educational system that they are willing to invest so heavily and so long termedly in exercises which are clearly a subtle experiment to see which groups among the populace are willing to speak up and observe that the emperor has no clothes. Without peer and without question, the Tate Modern is a stunning assembly of the worst in art worldwide. To those who think me ignorant, prejudiced or shortsighted I throw down the gauntlet - name a gallery with a worse collection and I shall go there to judge it. To those thinking of naming a barnyard pile of excrement or a kindegarten exhibition, you will find they excel by comparison. I can envision more pleasing use of colour in an abattoir.
 
At the other end of the extreme though is the British Museum. I visted a few years ago and it was deep in seemingly endless construction and upheaval. But Lord Norman Foster's work is now complete, and the building is as good as the collection. This would be one of the huge perks of living in London - a museum collection that you could visit once a month for 2 years and still see different sections every time. 
 
It past journal entries I *may* have inadvertently sledged some of the British Museum's ethical practices. In fairness, I was wrong. For all the jokes made about the questionable provenance of some of their exhibits it should be noted that the Rosetta Stone was only appropriated from Napoleon's troops, not from its archaelogical resting place directly, and no one would begrudge the Old Empire that little piece of reparation. The Elgin Marbles, which the Greek Government keeps making noises about wanting back, were not so much looted as retrieved. To wit, the Turkish accidentally blew up the Parthenon in 1649 having used it as a munitions bunker (yes, I always thought it was a ruin just because it was old - not so). The bits sat around in the rubble a solid couple of hundred years before the British dug them out. Not quite thieves in the night.
 
Our time in London also saw us fall into a service at St Paul's. This was nearly as much fun as all the dental work I had done a few years ago. I feel Dad felt the same - although with a 20 hour flight home ahead of him I understand his reticence in fully sharing this view. Mum loved it, and was suitably filled with the Holy Spirit to castigate my inappropriate cynicism toward the church. Its true, I found it very hard to listen to a lecture about the evils of those who start wars and about the need of the wealthy to give all helping the poor, given that, well, we were sitting in about a billion dollars worth of real estate in downtown London and now, as I write this, I am in a city (Sarajevo) ravaged 10 years ago by nice Christian powers driven by religion. Not sure if the Pope picked up the phone during those few years, but he should have been long and loud in his complaint. Nice digs they have though.
 
London was also a chance to meet up with my cousin Sarah, who joined us from the British Riviera: Bournemouth. Sarah has seen plenty of the world herself and it was nice to meet up with someone who wanted to hear all about it after months we have spent being guarded in our stories given that massive propensity we are acquiring to bore the hell out of people with travel anecdotes that are great if you were there.
 
Sarah ensured I had the maximum English experience through a little lunch at Fortnum & Mason. This little grocer is where the Queen pops in to stock up on Liptons, TV Weeks and Pop-Tarts. And given Sarah didn't wince at the $15 milkshake, I can only assume that its not only the Queen who finds the pricing quite reasonable.
 
Fortnum & Mason does an English rare roast beef sandwich with horseradish accompanied by a chocolate milkshake that should have all the former outposts of empire clamouring to be part of the winning team again. That was a sandwich I still think longingly about to this day. Oh, and it was good to see long lost relatives again too :)
 
For a final piece de resistance of Britishness, Simon had arranged that we went to a typical south Asian curryhouse, of which Londoners are so proud. As well as fine food - and an equally fine offer that relieved us of 6kgs of surplus baggage - this also provided an opportunity for Claudine to learn that some words which are OK in Australia (to the extent of being used on TV to promote the cricket) are a little more taboo in London. Indeed, proclaiming "the food must be great, just look at all the Pakis here" is an excellent learning experience I would encourage all visitors to try.
 
I think you can see that our time in London got better with each passing day. England I can come back to anytime, but the serial rudeness of customer service experiences in the capital is what makes me want to avoid London for a dozen years before my next immersion.

* * *

Our London visit seems like a while ago now (because it was) so this depiction will be a little scratchy.  It probably doesnt help that I am typing at a Bosnian keyboard where all the letters are set up very differently to how they appear on the keyboard. z=y and y=z.  Ahhh the trials and tribulations of travel.
 
Our trip to London saw unexpected bright blue skys and warm days and nights.  However, it didnt begin so rosily. 

We arrived in town at about 1am stepping into the blistering cold night only to find that the tube had stopped running.  This tube which was supposed to pop us out directly across the road from our hostel.  It was OK though, we had the option of taking a night bus.  After being yelled at by security to exit the tube station, the obligatory seventeen people finished asking us whether we could "spare a pound, guv" (who were they kidding, we didnt even have enough pounds for us) and the night bus driver yelled at us "there is no way I can change a 10 quid note" despite it being the smallest denomination to pop out of the ATM, we had arrived. 

The approach to the hostel was a little dubious as it seemed to be a thumping, pumping night club manned by a huge muscle bound bouncer who would also be our 24 hr receptionist.  We checked in and all was going OK (the thumping, pumping was muffled by the furniture and doors).  "So you are in room 9 on level 3.  That is a 10 bed dorm".  Huh?  We had booked a 2 to 4 bed dorm pending availability.
 
Not a fun first night in London.  I particularly liked my morning wake up call from two drunken Irish boys who decided that 5am would be a good time to test out pick up lines even if it meant they had to wake me up first. Hmmmm.
 
We moved to a 4 bed dorm after this.
 
 One of the main reasons we chose to visit London was to meet up with Iains parents (dont crucify me, I know it is a posessive s but I cant find an apostrophe on this keyboard) at the end of their own UK holiday.  Before this, we had planned to avoid dollar destroying London, but our EUR 0.01 (plus $15 taxes) flights to London and then from London to Croatia worked well to encourage us. [As did catching up with them after such a long time  ;) ].
 
The week was a fast moving blur of visits to Henri VIIIs Hampton Court, the laughable Tate Modern, coffee and an ice cream at the oh-so-exclusive Fortnum and Mason, the thorough British Museum for a mandatory Rosetta Stone photograph, Harrods own Krispy Kreme shop in the gourmet foods section (can you believe it), Regents Park, the English book shops around Soho and Covent Garden.  

Particular highlights were a few Classic Pimms by the Thames at Richmond with Simon (kinda sorta similar to Sangria but with huge chunks of cucumber -  this is my kind of drink!!); a delicious home cooked Thai fish curry at Tims place in Reading; not to mention the incredible drive through the farms outside Henley on Thames; our authentic English curry with Simon at the Lahore Kebab House; meeting up with Adrian after such a long time, and finally the excellent (yet speedy) wine with Vanessa at Ealing Broadway in the slim opportunity of hours between her returning from NYC and me catching the 2.30am airport bus to head to Croatia.

We have both been to London before, but this was the first time Ive ever actually played tourist.  It was great to wander the streets with ex-locals (Iains parents) to get an off-the-beaten-track view of the city.

The astounding weather was the cherry on top for London.  We felt incredibly privileged as everybody we met informed us that it had been cold, grey and rainy for the previous 45 days and this was the worst summer they had had for a few years.  It is remarkable how much the weather does affect a visit.  Against a backdrop of perfect blue the city sparkled and the old English buildings dazzled us.  All in all it was a great visit.  Much better than expected.
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