Day 25: an honest British experience
Worth a mention:
- Wind turbines are put out to sea, visible from the Øresund bridge to Copenhagen
- Grocery shopping that night at ASDA, bananas are £1.15 kg / AUD $1.74
About eight people are treated for heat exhaustion at Wimbledon today, the hottest day in London for the year to date. It only reached 33°C
With a hug goodbye to Shilan, Kim and I leave their apartment – an apartment decked out with all the awesome IKEA trimmings, of course – and head for Lund station. As the door to their apartment closed at not far past 8:15am, I did not expect it would take me eight hours to then see Matt’s round, moon-like face that afternoon.
Hearing many stories and having seen so much about London on TV, many preconceived perceptions populated my mind colourfully and had me in eager anticipation as I boarded my plane to Gatwick. The first of these occurred almost on cue. Did I mention I was flying easyJet? Seated, seatbelted and having flicked through the in-flight mag, the Captain came over the cabin announcing that there is a technical malfunction, one that ‘won’t prevent us from flying to Gatwick’, and that he was waiting for an engineer to come and sign the papers to allow us to fly. “The engineer should be here in the next 10-to-15 minutes.” He repeated this announcement at regular intervals over the coming hour and a half, in a tone I’d imagine used by BBC Radio announcers in the 1930s.
And so it began, eight hours door-to-door: a fast train to Copenhagen, a flight to Gatwick, England, then three trains – the express to Victoria station, the Circle line to Paddington then the Hammersmith and City line to Hammersmith – a bus and finally a walk to Matt’s new home of barely two weeks. My iPhone battery died, and coincided with the bus driver telling me I was nowhere near the address Matt had given. Walking to find a power outlet, and short of taking the same bus back to Hammersmith, I luckily spotted a sign with a map of the estate and found the narrow path that was Wanborough Drive with its strip of town houses, one of which was number 10. ‘Estate’ is probably the wrong word given the part of Wandsworth I was in – geographically it was more Putney than Wandsworth but Wandsworth is far more prestigious and, according to the Evening Standard paper, is one of the most desired suburbs outside of the immediate city for Londoners to live. A choice substitution, Matthew.
It seems we’ve both been busy since we last saw each other, but my time spent eating, tanning and boozing is far from the administration of establishing a new life in a new city as Matt was only just realising.
Editor’s note (and a small confession): my travel time wasn’t helped by the fact that my flight was delayed an hour, or that I spent two hours making the journey from Victoria station to Hammersmith – incorrectly navigating the Tube and not realising certain lines shared a station for a journey that would have otherwise taken less than 20 minutes.
Day 26: another honest British experience
Worth a mention:
- It feels everything here is spelt out for you – or it is a nanny state? Flight stewards alert us not to brace until they say “brace, brace”, the Tube announcers repeatedly state “mind the gap”, and there are “wait” signs on pedestrian crossings
- Fuzzy from (the now cancelled) Video Hits was in the O2 store
- Today we visit the EDF Energy London Eye
It’s a very wet one, to start. I would soon come to accept that much of each day would be spent on Matt’s personal admin; get a bank account and a mobile phone contract. To be fair, it was a lot harder than I ever thought it possible. Today, we tried the Orange store in Broadway Shopping Centre. They won’t offer Matt a phone contract as he has no credit rating in the UK. He’d only just opened an account with Lloyds Bank and even that was a struggle as he had no documents with proof of his UK address. Failing on the phone front locally, we took the Jubilee line to the very end to visit Matt’s friend Fran in Stanmore. Matt and Fran had studied Russian together in Saint Petersburg. As well as this being the last time Matt would get to see Fran before she moved away, he’d asked Fran to act as collateral against his name for a mobile plan in Stanmore. This also failed.
Returning to London, we alight at Oxford Circus and I get my first local taste of Top Man. I was asked if I was a staff member, taking it as a compliment that I looked on-trend until I realised my tee was the same deep orange as the Top Man staff. While Matt was in O2 for this, his third, attempt at a mobile plan negotiation, I wandered up Oxford Street, noticing familiar brands like GNC and some not so familiar like Marks & Spencer.
The only day it rains while I’m in London is also the day I’d pre-booked for us to go on the London Eye, with a side of sightseeing along the way. We navigated our way along Oxford Street, trusting Matt’s instincts but realising Matt had no idea how to get to the Eye other than what compass bearing to follow.
Wandering through the streets of London, narrow and wide and mostly aimlessly, we passed Shaftesbury Theatre where I saw a billboard for Derren Brown’s current show: Svengali. Having first encountered his style of performance during second year Uni, blown away by his subconscious branding influence over two UK ad agency creatives, I was dead keen to see him live. Torn though, we’d either forgo our Eye time for some dirt-cheap seats the Box Office just had sold back to them for resale. We could always come back, so decided to pass and move on.
The London Eye is an engineering marvel and yet it was somewhat underwhelming being in its presence; was this really it? Do away with the green screen photo of us riding the Eye, the tacky 4D video ‘experience’ of flying over London and the obligatory forced walk through the gift shop and leave me with the time on the Eye itself. Further, I guess it’s hard to believe I’m actually here, one of the most talked about attractions outside of London in London. We made sure we stood right on the extremity of our glass pod to get the best views looking back across the Thames to the city, moving anti-clockwise for half an hour and peaking with us some 135m up in the air.
Day 27: queen, church and automatons
Worth a mention:
- Today we visit Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abby, Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column with official countdown clock to the London 2012 Olympic Games, and the Tower of London
- I stopped to asked how to get to 10 Downing Street; it was on the other side of that gate
- Phillipa Brear introduced me to Derren Brown on a YouTube clip in 2007, tonight I see him live
Clearly I learnt nothing from my previous US adventure – cramming a west-to-east-coast road trip into just 22 days; My Europe trip was no different.
Today we finally get to visit the quintessential landmarks of Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abby and the Tower of London, returning back past Trafalgar Square. Although like most other days, Matt had another morning errand to run; a return visit to O2 in what would be his finally successful attempt at signing a mobile phone contract. Again, Matt was ridiculously lucky with an opportunistic sales attendant agreeing to Matt’s blue-eyed charm and offering him a dubious ‘business contract’. Maybe another honest London experience.
Matt’s daily duties have been as big a part of my London time as seeing the sights of the city. Matt, stubbornly confident and confidently stubborn, reassured me daily that it wouldn’t take long. Three telcos, a bank and an angry letter to Customs later, when I eventually left Matt, his personal admin was in a better position to when I arrived.
We walked from Oxford Street through New Bond Street and a number of others until we found Green Park and headed towards Buckingham Palace. There was clearly a Royal event on, as everyone walking with us towards the Palace were far better dressed than us; men complete with top hats, three-piece suits and some with tails, women all of an equivalent standard and many with hats, and those who arrived by car all had a large, bright orange ticket displayed on their dash. I was in four-season old Saba jeans and a tee I’d picked up in Sweden – thoroughly underdressed (in my opinion, only). Unlike in Copenhagen where you can stand just metres from the guards, London commands distance and protocol more so and their guards have you keep your distance. I expected to be able to walk around the front of the Palace more freely than we could and was embarrassingly-naïvely unaware that it was enclosed by a gate that prevented us from being more than 10 metres away, impeding the postcard-perfect photos I expected to take. That all being said, it’s again another of those sights that is so iconic that I felt a sense of achievement having seen it.
Meandering past Piccadilly Circus we reached the Tower of London. Neither of us knew what the Tower of London looked like, so when we arrived what we thought was the Tower of London was actually the arse end of Parliament House. Unperturbed, we stopped and sat in the College Garden and enjoyed watching the steady traffic of local journalists and foreign correspondents marking their territory like dogs for that iconic live cross with Big Ben over their shoulder. It was strangely enjoyable watching news reported live and broadcast from our vista upon on a park bench.
Half an hour passed before we thought we should move on. Or maybe that’s when we looked at the time and knew we had somewhere to be.
That night we returned to the Shaftesbury Theatre to see Derren Brown’s Svengali; part theatre, part magic, it was a unique West End choice but something I was very excited to have stumbled upon the chance to see live. In his own words, Derren says:
“I am often dishonest in my techniques, but always honest about my dishonesty. As I say in each show, ‘I mix magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship’. I happily admit cheating, as it’s all part of the game.”
The show centres on a mechanised toy doll, or an automaton, with the ability to independently read thoughts from audience members and translate these via a baton that it moves along an alphabet board. The offering of unclaimed and returned seats was not as good as our selection the night before, so we opted for the £16 standing-only tickets. This side-on view meant we could happily people watch before the how and at interval. We even spied comedian Mark Wattson in the audience. If you’re interested, the reason why I’m so enthralled by Derren Brown is because of one video.
On our Tube ride home, with those boarding was one couple, the woman politely declining the offer of a vacant seat. Her partner then, quite coarsely, said, “No, sit down.” Turning to the rest of the carriage, he said, “That’s how you gotta talk to ’em.” That’s how, indeed.
Day 28: the family jewels
Worth a mention:
- Today we actually visit the Tower of London
Having failed previously, we learn exactly where the Tower of London is and, given it’s my last full day in the UK, promise to make a day of it. The Tower of London is set parallel to the River Thames in central London and was used as a prison as recently as the Second World War. Just as we arrived we joined onto a tour lead by one of the Tower’s Yeoman Warders; full of knowledge and, in true British style, full of humour. The Tower is home to the Crown Jewels, available on public display and drawing the most attention of all exhibits at the Tower. Surprisingly, the Jewels are uninsured with the justification being if they were stolen they could never be replaced anyway. My favourite area was the torture chamber, where you could see medieval torture tools the Scavenger’s Daughter, the Rack and the Manacles.
We ate lunch at home, a late lunch by now, and washed down our sandwiches with a can of Fosters which, I’m not ashamed to say, is a nice drop. I was pleasantly surprised by its nectar-like colour and flavour, but didn’t appreciate the ocker language used on the can to, understandably, cash in on the supposed Australianness of the beer which no-one in Australia drinks.
Late that afternoon, we take the Tube to Hyde Park for what is one of the most memorable music concerts I’ve ever been to. Hyde Park for a music festival; this is huge. We’re there to see Arcade Fire, or at least that’s how I got Matt excited and on-board, but their support act was Mumford & Sons – one of my favourite groups with a modern folk feel about them.
The concert had the electric ambiance of an Aussie music festival; open air, long summer days, and a sense that it could only truly be appreciated with a beer in one hand and the other pumping a fist in the air with the waving crowd. While other groups were gigging on stage, ones neither Matt nor I recognised, we opted instead to get another ale into us from a pub across the Park. Again, we downed another Fosters. At the Park we met up with Matt’s friend from Russia, Ivo, who I’d met earlier that month in Saint Petersburg, and his friends Matt and Lizzy.
Today, over 70,000 people crammed into just one shoulder of the huge park; it reminded me of the Big Day Out back home but with everyone facing just the one stage the whole time.
The set list is as follows, and the rest of the night is lost in mouthfuls of beer, jumping but thinking we’re dancing, and screaming songs in time with the artists.
- Owen Pallett – 16:00 – 16:30
- The Vaccines – 16:40 – 17:10
- Beirut – 17:30 – 18:30
- Mumford & Sons – 19:00 – 20:10
- Arcade Fire – 20:45 – 22:15
- Curfew – 22:30
Day 29: that European look
Not worth a mention:
- The beginning of the end, I begin my return to Sydney today
Desperate to catch a glimpse of Harrods, I decided to take myself for a casual spot of shopping in the few hours I had spare before I had to return to Sydney. Having witnessed Matt navigate the public transport with me the last few days, I confidently took the 72 bus to Hammersmith, then a train on the Piccadilly line eastbound to Convent Gardens. I started my shopping in Seven Dials, but in my eagerness to make the most of the little time I had I arrived about 30 minutes before any of the shops had opened. Doing the only sensible thing, I sat in the closest coffee shop waiting for my favourite destination to welcome me: Urban Outfitters. Three tees, a jumper and a pair of jeans later, I then stumbled into Allsaints Spitalfields (a brand new to me) and bought a long cardigan, two tops and another a tee. Finally, I used the Tube to get to Harrods, getting off at Knightsbridge and wandering along Brompton Road, which also had many large retailers. This was shopping of grand proportions, appearing like a five-star hotel on the outside and then filled five levels high with high-end concession stores and designer brands on the inside.
Repacking my luggage to accommodate my recent purchases, my €40 worth of Swedish chocolate and everything else I’d accumulated over the last 28 days, I decided to donate some of my wares to Matt (I hope you’re still using those shoes) and let the overflow fill just one paper shopping bag from my morning jaunder. With packed bags, I left Matt’s place in Wandsworth, him showing a rare moment of emotion at my departure as we hugged it out, then I started my journey back to Sydney. Leaving 10 Wanborough Drive just after midday, I took a bus, a train, two flights with a brief Incheon layover, a walk through Customs, a short drive and a wander up to my front door and was back in my apartment in Randwick not long after 7am Sunday morning. The curtain had lowered on Act I of my first European adventure.
All in all, I honestly found London gratefully underwhelming and yet I’m left intrigued that I want to see it more and more, to live and work and understand it. Perhaps it’s part ‘grass is always greener’, part ‘the same but different’, and while it isn’t as stunningly different as much of the rest of my European journey, upon leaving I’m conflictingly wanting more.