Brits Gone Bonkers: Notting Hill Carnival

During my time in London I’d made some new friends, like Guy and Yitav, or John and Richard, and I’d caught up with people who I had met previous one my journey, such as Tim and Giles. One afternoon I even took the tube out to Euston Train Station to catch up with Laura, who I had befriended in my hostel in Phnom Penh in Cambodia. She didn’t live in London, but she was passing through on the way to a friends birthday somewhere further north, so I’d gone over to have a coffee and a gossip while she waited for her connecting train. It had been months since we’d seen each other, so we filled each other in on all our travels since we’d parted ways back in Cambodia. I’d met of a lot of other travellers during my time in South-East Asia, but Laura was really the only one who I had actually gotten along with extremely well, and with whom I’d actively stayed in touch. It was a completely different environment from the last time we’d been together, but it was so lovely to see another familiar face after so long on the road, even if I had met that face while on the road in the first place!

Travelling buddies reunited! Laura and I catching up at Euston Station.

Travelling buddies reunited! Laura and I catching up at Euston Station.

But I was also set to meet up with another friend from back home in Australia. My friend Ellie was moving to Scotland for six months to study abroad, but before that she had also been travelling through Europe. London was one of the last stops before she ended up in Glasgow to settle down, and as fate would have it we were both in town at the same time. So we headed into Soho one evening for dinner and ciders, catching up and sharing stories and talking about all our friends back home, and what had been going on back there since we’d both been away. As much fun as meeting new people can be, there’s nothing quite like the ease that comes with sitting down with an old friend and talking about anything, everything, or nothing at all. Ellie also had some other friends who were travelling through London at the moment too, so after our pub meals and a couple more ciders we headed out into the night to meet them.

A cheeky Ellie with her pint of cider.

A cheeky Ellie with her pint of cider.

To cut a long story short, Ellie’s Canadian friend dragged us back and forth across the city for the entire night, always seeming to have a rough plan but never knowing exactly where we were going. We waited in line for some club for close to an hour before being informed it was full, or they weren’t letting anyone else in, or whatever, I’m not even sure. Her friend then tried to drag us into some dirty, hole-in-the-wall nightclub with a £10 entry fee. I’m not a fan of cover charges at the the best of times, and I certainly wasn’t going to pay one for a straight club that looked like it might cave in on me the moment I stepped in. It was still relatively early, but we’d actually managed to end up in East London, so I figured I would call it quits and just head home and save myself for tomorrow, when we had plans to go to the Notting Hill Carnival. There’d been a lot of talk about the carnival, which was supposed to be an event that stretches over the course of three days, so I wanted to make sure I was prepared for whatever was going to be happening. Ellie seemed pretty exhausted too, so we threw in the towel and made a McDonalds pit stop before calling it a night.

***

The next day was the Notting Hill Carnival, something I had heard people talking about over the last few days but hadn’t ever previously heard anything about. I hopped on the tube and headed west, where I would meeting Ellie and another friend of hers, a fellow Australian named Sophie who was living in London. When I surfaced from the tube, I found the streets absolutely packed with people. A quick trip to a corner store found the mobs clearing out the stocks of beer and cider on the shelves, so I figured there was going to be some serious shenanigans going on in the street. I bought myself some cans of beer and headed back into the street to find Sophie and Ellie and the swarms of people.  When we finally found each other, it was really just a matter of following the crowds and roaming the streets. If there was any kind of method to the madness, it did not make itself apparent to me.

Hordes of people roamed the streets, drinking and gallivanting around the place for the Notting Hill Carnival.

Hordes of people roamed the streets, drinking and gallivanting around the place for the Notting Hill Carnival.

Flags and decorations lined the streets of the entire surrounding area.

Flags and decorations lined the streets of the entire surrounding area.

The sun shined on us as we explored the food stalls of the carnival.

The sun shined on us as we explored the food stalls of the carnival.

Ellie and I following the crowds through carnival.

Ellie and I following the crowds through carnival.

There were food stalls all about the place, with all kinds of mouth-watering smells filling the air. Later I would learn that most of the Notting Hill Carnival is led by the West Indian community of London, so the Caribbean vibe made itself known among all the food and the drinking and partying. We also stumbled across what appeared to the be the beginning of a parade, with floats and dancers and music all marching down the street, with the crowds being parted and controlled by police. I’m still not sure whether or not drinking on the streets is actually legal or not in London, but at least for this event I think most of the police had all but given up trying to enforce the ban if it was illegal. We walked alongside the parade sipping on our beers and ciders and no one bothered to trouble us, despite finding ourselves in very close proximity with the police.

The beginning of the Notting Hill Carnival parade.

The beginning of the Notting Hill Carnival parade.

Floats in the parade.

Floats in the parade.

A float resembling the British police officers.

A float resembling the British police officers.

Despite the police presence though, you couldn’t help but get the feeling the carnival was somewhat out of control. It almost felt like the borough had been overrun and turned into an affluent shanty town. The streets were covered in rubbish to the point where little mounds had become acceptable dumping grounds, and you had to watch where you were walking so that you didn’t trip land face first in a mini rubbish tip. Many of the shops in the surrounding area had boarded up their windows and seemingly bunkered down and wait for the whole thing to blow over. It seems staying open for business would not have been worth the risk of the out of control herds of people flooding into their shops, and the wooden planks over all their windows showed that some weary people might still bear some unsavoury memories of the London riots of 2011. I will admit, there were times when I felt a little uneasy, but for the most part all the probable and possible damage was just the dirty streets left in the wake of the mostly heavily inebriated crowds. There were even brave citizens of the area who had opened up their homes to the party-goers so that they may use their toilets for a fee. There was so many people flooding the streets though, and such a lack of public toilets to cope with those kinds of masses, that I’m sure it would have been a profitable endeavour no matter how many revellers passed through their door, inevitably breaking or destroying something along the way. Ellie and Sophie had to stop to visit one of these private bathrooms turned public restrooms, and judging by the time I was waiting for them outside, business was definitely booming inside.

The streets literally resembled a tip at some places.

The streets literally resembled a tip at some places.

The barricades over some of the shops in the area.

The barricades over some of the shops in the area.

The carnival takes over absolutely everything.

The carnival takes over absolutely everything.

Equality.

Equality.

Houses opened up their toilets to the public, for a fee.

Houses opened up their toilets to the public, for a fee.

Street art.

Street art.

There were some terrifying moments, however, when the push and shove of the crowds became not such a friendly experience. Streets occasionally turned into mosh pits, with people getting packed in from all sides to the point where you could barely breath properly, let alone move. Ellie, Sophie and I all clung to each others hands like our lives depended on it, for fear of being separated in what was starting to become a swarming, seething mass of people. There were even some men getting particularly violent, and at times I definitely felt extremely unsafe. It was a strange juxtaposition, given that on the other side of the street, there were floats full of joyful dancers and Jamaican and Latin music being pumped over the crowd. Despite the terror, you just had to laugh and hold on for dear life. We wandered all over the place, ducking down smaller side streets every now and then to avoid those huge, crushing mobs of people, and we danced along the sidewalks to the completely uninhibited culture that had exploded throughout Notting Hill.

Floats with revellers and partiers pumped music all afternoon.

Floats with revellers and partiers pumped music all afternoon.

The streets were dangerously crowded at some points of the carnival.

The streets were dangerously crowded at some points of the carnival.

In the end we were tipsy, sweaty, exhausted and possibly even a little bit traumatised, but it had been such a crazy experience that I ultimately have to say was a lot of fun. Again, as I had after events like Songkran in Bangkok and the various pride celebrations I’d been in throughout Europe, I found myself reflecting on festival and carnival events back in Australia. I’d come to the conclusion that Australian organisations seem to really love their red tap and restrictions, because I honestly couldn’t see anything like the Notting Hill Carnival ever happening in my hometown without twice the regulations and thrice the police presence. I’ve reason to believe that the English even rival Australians in their boisterousness when it comes to drinking, yet they still manage to participate in a large scale party spanning several suburbs with minimal regulations without anybody dying – at least, that I am aware of. Granted, I did fear for my life for a few seconds, so perhaps the Brits aren’t quite as sensible as the Parisians or Berliners when it comes to crowd antics, but they managed to avoid sparking any major riots. I bid farewell to Sophie and Ellie, making plans to meet up with Ellie very soon, and crawled back home via the Underground, satisfied with another weekend of crazy antics.

Advertisements

Doll décor, dancing, and sleeping on the bus: My first night out in Soho

Come the following weekend, I had done my dabbling in the close-to-home gay scene of East London and was ready to hit the city. Soho was apparently the main place to be when it came to gay London, in general gay culture as well as all the nightlife. By day, I strolled up and down the streets, popping into clothing boutiques, book stores and sex shops, and stopping at a bunch of different eating spots that had either been pointed out to me by Giles on my first few days in London, or I had noticed during my solo exploring. I had also scoped out a bunch of the bars in the area, and had heard mixed reviews about a variety of places, so really the only thing left to do was to head in there one evening and try it all out for myself. At this point in my trip I had gotten in touch with Tim, who I had met and befriended during my trip across the Trans-Siberan Railway. We had actually been in several European cities at the same time over the last few months, but through the blur of parties and day to day travels we’d never managed to catch up again. Tim had finally settled down in London, where he planned to live and work for two years, and given that I was also here for a short (yet extended in my case) period, we’d arranged to catch up for drinks on one Friday afternoon. “Anywhere but Vauxhall – it’s a seedy, drug-filled crack den,” Tim had said when we were discussing where to go. Okay then. Good to know, I suppose. I told him I was yet to go out in Soho, so that soon became the obvious decision, and in the end he had another friend who was going to tag along as well. “We’re starting early because we’re probably not going to have a late night,” Tim had said of him and his friend. Famous last words if ever I heard them…

***

I headed into Soho and made my way to the bar where Tim had suggested we meet, a relatively small bar called The Yard, which was built with a focus around a main courtyard and beer garden area (not dissimilar to the Beresford Hotel, for any readers familiar with Sydney). I would return to this venue during the next few weeks with Yativ and Guy, to have a few Sunday afternoon drinks when the bar was relatively quiet. However, on a Friday afternoon the place was packed wall to wall, and personal space became something of a sweet, distant memory. I shuffled my way through the crowds to the bar, bought myself a cider, and then made my way upstairs to the balcony that overlooked the courtyard, where Tim was waiting for me with his friend Dean. There was a brief introduction, and then Tim and I reminisced about our time on the Trans-Siberian and caught each other up on all our travels around Europe since we had last parted ways in St Petersburg. Tim told me all about the trials and tribulations of finding a place to live in London, and how he was settling into his new job. When we were properly caught up, we decided to move on from the now ridiculously crowded bar so that Dean and Tim could show me some of the other iconic Soho watering holes.

The next stop was around the corner at a pub called Rupert Street, whose namesake was the street that it was located on. It was a little more relaxed there, and considerably more spacious than The Yard, so we all sat down and had a few more rounds of cider as we chatted and gossiped away about all sorts of things, but nothing really in particular. I was quite surprised to find that I recognised one of the bar staff – and even more surprised to find that he recognised me. He was a guy named Kyle who I had met back in Sydney, and despite having a large handful of mutual friends back in Australia I could probably count on one hand the number of substantial conversations we’d had. I knew he had moved to London quite a while ago, but I’d really had no idea what he’d been up to and had not been expecting to see him there, but I guess randomly bumping into anyone familiar is really the last thing you expect when you’re on the other side of the world. Of course, it had been quite a while since any of those previously mentioned conversations had taken place, so we just exchanged a few small-talk pleasantries before I headed back to Tim and Dean with the round of drinks I had just bought. It really is a small world after all.

***

“Where else can we take him?” Tim said to Dean as we were getting ready to leave Rupert Street. “Something a little more exciting than the local pub.”
“How about The Friendly Society?” Dean suggested, and they both seemed to think that was a very good idea because we downed the dregs of our beverages and high tailed it out of there. We rounded a corner and walked down a short street before coming to the beginning of Old Compton Street, which I suppose is comparable to Sydney’s Oxford Street (but definitely not London’s Oxford Street) in that it seemed to be the main hub of nocturnal gay activity in Soho. The surrounding streets were littered with clubs and pubs, but it all kind of culminated and spread out from this main street. The Friendly Society was located at the very end of the street though, and I only caught a glimpse of it before I was descending down a stairway with Tim and Dean and into the bar below. I have to admit, the décor alone made this place one of my favourite pubs in London.
“Look at the ceiling,” Dean said to me as we entered. I looked up to find that the roof was decorated with perhaps the most bizarre ornaments I have ever seen in a nightclub – or anywhere really, for that matter. It was covered in dolls. Barbie dolls, those little colourful haired trolls, and a bunch of other strange plastic figurines. I guess there was nothing inherently weird about them – it was just the fact that they were decorating the walls that made them so peculiar.

The ceiling of The Friendly Society was one of the most memorable sights of the evening.

The ceiling of The Friendly Society was one of the most memorable sights of the evening.

We had more drinks at The Friendly Society, where we started alternating bourbon and Coke’s into our rounds of cider, and maybe even a couple of cheeky shots. We talked, laughed, drank and danced in the tiny little disco bar, and we must have been there for a lot longer than we realised because suddenly it was 11pm and the bar was closing and we were all struggling to scull our drinks as we were being ushered up the stairs and back out onto Old Compton Street. I did love Old Compton Street because, unlike the pink mile back at home, it’s a street that is relatively light on traffic. In fact there is almost always more people on the road than there are cars, and most of the taxis and minicabs have to patiently nudge their way through the hordes of drunken pedestrians. The street itself is quite physically small and narrow, so it makes it the perfect kind of place for nightlife like this, and I have to seriously wonder how more drunk people haven’t died trying to cross the four lanes of traffic on Oxford Street in Sydney on a Saturday night.

Yet people have died in other ways on Old Compton Street. “The next place we’re going to is called The Admiral Duncan,” Dean said to me as we set out onto the street – clearly Tim’s words of having an early night were long forgotten. “But, I should say this before we get too close,” he said as he peered up the road, as though he was gauging how many seconds he had before we arrived at the pubs doors. “This place was bombed back in 1999 by Neo-Nazi’s.”
“Oh my God!” I exclaimed, being quite excitable in my inebriation. “Was anyone hurt? Did anyone die?” Dean gave me a quick but solemn nod that answered my question, but also indicated that I really shouldn’t say anything more about it here in public. We had just reached the doors of the pub, so we proceeded on into the warm, crowded room. We got another round of drinks before finding some space at the back of the bar, and when the jukebox started playing some fun pop tunes, we climbed up onto the low elevated platform that served as the venues stage and began to dance amongst ourselves. However, the resident drag queens did not like that at all, and we were probably up there for less than a minute before who were scolded and shooed off the stage. We just laughed at the old queens and scampered off to finish our drinks before moving on from the the bar that may have been rich with history, but was a little lacking in the way of fun energy that evening.

***

Tim had intended on taking me to G-A-Y, but by the time we arrived it was getting close to midnight. “It’s late enough already, we could probably just go to G-A-Y Late, right?” He said to Dean. G-A-Y was just down the road from the Admiral Duncan, and outside there were several guys handing out flyers for another club called G-A-Y Late. Later, it would all be explained to me that G-A-Y had become something of a gay bar franchise in London – and even in some other parts of England – with three separate and distinct venues. G-A-Y was a regular gay bar that was open until midnight, G-A-Y Late was a nightclub that was open until the early hours of the morning, and G-A-Y Heaven was yet another bar several blocks away. G-A-Y Late was just around a couple of corners though, and so it was there that I followed Tim and Dean with my free entry flyer that I had picked up from one of the cute guys standing around the original G-A-Y.

The flashing beacon of debauchery that is G-A-Y Late

The flashing beacon of debauchery that is G-A-Y Late.

G-A-Y Late was everything you would expect from the nightclub that was the place were everyone migrated to after all the surrounding bars closed had for the evening. It was a long and wide space with a big bar, plenty of podiums and floor space, the interesting aromatic mix of booze, sweat and other bodily fluids, and a general sheen that you just knew couldn’t be sanitary. Regardless, it was a lot of fun. The drinks were cheap and strong, and the music was trashy pop that you could really dance to all night long. Classic hits by the Spice Girls were probably over represented, and I don’t think you’ll ever hear a single complaint about it. Tim, Dean and I all got busy dancing, but by this late point in the evening we were incredibly wasted. Truth be told, I don’t even remember saying goodbye to the two of them, but then it is entirely possible that that never even happened. One moment they were there, the next I was dancing on my own. But I was fine with that, and I kept dancing until I felt like I was sweating cider and I could hardly keep my eyes open, let alone stand up. I couldn’t even tell you what time it was when I stumbled out of G-A-Y Late by myself, but considering it closes at 3am I can safely say it was before the sun came up.

After a pit stop at McDonalds, I made my way to the buses and luckily didn’t have to wait too long before one came along that would take me close to home – I had studied the routes very carefully and committed those numbers to memory so that I wouldn’t have to worry about it too much when I was under the influence. It was a good thing that the buses were a 24 hour service, otherwise the penny-saving backpacker in me would probably have attempted to walk all the way back to Hackney in the now crisp nighttime air rather than catch a taxi. Though getting on the bus was just the easy part – it was getting off the at the right stop that was to be somewhat of a challenge. I had studied the map and everything, so I knew where I was supposed to alight. The problem was that I was just so damn tired. I could feel myself nodding off, almost dropping my McDonalds drink a couple of times. And then I actually did fall asleep. It can’t have been for long, but it was enough to have spilt Coke all over my shoes, and of course it had been enough for me to completely miss my stop. I was jostled awake by the bus coming to a halt, and I looked down at the GPS map on my phone in horror, realising I was already at the stop after the one where I was supposed to alight. I jumped up and sprinted down the steps of the double decker bus just in time to tap my Oyster card and jump off, and on that hit of adrenaline I ran almost the whole way back to the previous bus stop. From there it was still another 10 minute walk home, and I was drunk, cold and severely out of breath. Despite all that, I had had such a fun evening with Tim and Dean out in Soho that I was almost sad that it was all over, although when I eventually got home I slept like a baby.

East London is a Vampire

I’d seen the museums of London, and I’d taken day trips to old historic towns, but there was only so much I could see of a city before, like a moth to the flame, I was drawn out of my comfy apartment to venture into the gay nightlife. For me, the most notable thing about the scene in London was that there really wasn’t just one scene. Back in Sydney the gay bars are mostly concentrated around Oxford St, with a smattering of more alternative venues in Newtown and the Inner West. Going out, both at home and in many of the other cities I’d been to, was simply a matter of asking “Where is the gay district?” and heading there. I would soon learn that London, given the vastness of the city, had several gay districts, and the question became one of ‘which’ rather than ‘where’. I’d spoken to a few people and picked up some maps around Soho in order to navigate my way through the sprawling districts – other than the central hub of Soho, there were clusters of gay bars in Vauxhall, Clapham, Camden and Shoreditch. Vauxhall was the next biggest scene after Soho, and the rest were smaller pockets of gay venues around London, which I can only assume came into existence and developed due to the sheer size of London, and that people didn’t want to travel all the way into Soho every time they went out for a drink. While I was quite keen to eventually check out the nightlife in Soho, I’d been told that some of the nightlife around Shoreditch, a district in the Borough of Hackney, was a younger crowd and more alternative, and something that I would probably enjoy. It was conveniently close to where I was staying in Hackney, and so one Thursday evening I set out to a nightclub called East Bloc.

***

It was my first night out by myself in London, and if was definitely a matter of trial and error. I had talked to a few people about the nightclub culture around London, and it wasn’t too different from what I was used to back home. Normally we have a lot of drinks beforehand, either at someones house or at a bar where the drinks are moderately priced. So I honestly can’t tell you what possessed me to catch a bus to Old Street Station and rock up to the nightclub by myself at about 11 o’clock. The bouncers kept a straight face as they checked my ID and waved me on through (it was free entry at East Bloc that night), but they surely would have been laughing on the inside. I made my way down the entrance steps into the club to find… nothing. Well, not nothing, but definitely no one. Apart from a couple of staff behind the bar, the place was literally empty. I did a quick loop of the place to see if there was something I was missing, but nope, it was just a tiny venue of which I was the first patron of the evening. There were £2.50 house spirit and £2 shots all night, and for a moment I contemplated just staying there and having a drink and waiting, or getting wasted on cheap shots until everyone else finally arrived. But I had no idea how long it would be before the club became full, and I had come out by myself with the goal of meeting some new people and socialising, so in the end I took my leave from the club to find the other gay-friendly East London watering holes.

It was then that I discovered something else rather different about London nightlife. Venues very distinctly fall into the categories of ‘bars’ and ‘clubs’, and almost without exception, the bars close at midnight. Clubs stay open a lot longer, and are the places where everyone usually heads to after they’ve been kicked out of the bars at closing time. This explained why East Bloc had resembled a ghost town when I had arrived just after 11 o’clock, only half an hour after the venue had actually opened. What’s worse is that I had known all this previously, and yet had still made a beeline for the club. So now I found myself heading back up Old Street towards Hackney Road, where there were two gay pubs that I had seen on my map: George and Dragon, and The Joiners Arms. Unfortunately, by the time I reached either of the pubs, it was closer to midnight than it was to eleven, and there was a steady stream of people who were being escorted out of the pubs and moved along down the street. No one was going inside the bars, and it was with grim resignation that I realised I had completely messed up the planning of my Shoreditch trip – I had arrived just too early for the nightclub, but far too late to do any drinking in the bars. As I result, I stood there, stone cold sober on a damp, chilly London street, with no real idea of what to do next.

That was when I remembered yet another cultural difference in London, but this time it was one that worked in my favour. In Australia, all our alcohol is sold from dedicated liquor stores, or bottle shops as we call them. In London you can easily pick up a few cans of beer from a corner store or a supermarket, so that was exactly what I did. Alcohol sales cease at midnight, so I ran to the closest convenience store and bought myself two pints of Heineken in cans. It wasn’t exactly classy, but hell, I was a backpacker. I had worn my tired, dirty outfits in the nightclubs of Paris, so I definitely wasn’t above sitting in a gutter in East London and downing a litre of beer before heading back to the nightclub I had originally been at and praying that a few more people had arrived since I had last been there.

And thankfully, there was. It wasn’t exactly packed, but there was definitely a sizeable crowd milling around the bar section, although the dance floor remained rather sparse. I people watched for a little bit, scanning the room. A pair of British guys began chatting to me,  and started asking a bunch of questions when they realised I was a foreigner, but they were quite drunk already – they had been at George and Dragon earlier – and their wavering attention led them elsewhere. I also got a free drink from one of the bartenders. After I ordered my drink, he went off to go and make it, but when he returned and I tried to pay, he just shook his head and waved away my change. I was slightly confused – I hadn’t even been flirting or talking to him, and I thought that there had potentially been a mix up between the staff. But I just couldn’t find anyone to take my money, so in the end I just accepted the stroke of fortune, tossed a few coins in the tip jar and continued on my way. I chatted here and there, talking to some people, avoiding others, and after enough £2 shots I finally hit the dance floor. The event, called Boy Trouble, described the music as “non-stop double-drop pop, Italo, house and anything else that tickles your pickle”, which was an ultimately unhelpful description but it turned out to be a pretty fun soundtrack for the evening. There were some new songs, some classics, some that I didn’t recognise and some to which I had secret choreography planned in the back of my head. Throughout the night I had been making eyes with a guy, and we ended up bumping hips and lips on the dance floor. We encountered some difficulties when we tried to speak to each other, partially because of the loud music, but partially because of our accents. It turns out his name was Yitav, and he was not English as I would have assumed, but on holidays in London visiting from Israel. I can only assume my Australian accent was just as shocking for him when he first heard it. He was there was a friend though, and I started to feel bad, like we might be making a bit of a third wheel out of him, so I got him to come and dance with us, and we played wingman until he finally ended up hooking up with a man of his own. We stayed for a little bit longer, but eventually Yitav and I slipped out of the club and into a minicab.

***

I spent the night at the apartment that Yitav and his friend Guy were renting through AirBnB, a trendy little two bedroom near Chancery Lane. In the morning we awoke to discover that Guy had brought his own lover home, a guy named Tristan who was originally from New York but now lived in Berlin, though he was spending some time abroad (from being abroad?) in London. After awkward introductions between trips to the bathroom, the four of us headed out into a gloomy London day to have a late breakfast. Guy and Yitav told me more about where they lived in Tel Aviv and about life in Israel, and we asked Tristan about living in Berlin.
“Do you go to that club… that… Berg… Berg-” Guy began to ask.
“Berghain? No, I’m not a tourist!” Tristan said it in an almost playful way, though his tone made me believe he wasn’t really joking. I bit my tongue and just laughed along. I had loved my time in Berghain. Whatever, I played the tourist card. You can’t avoid it forever.

It was a really fun morning though. Guy and Yitav were travelling through London and Amsterdam, a tour that they had planned so as to see a couple of gigs of their favourite DJs. They were in holiday mode too, so we were all pretty chilled out, and Tristan had this sassy, camp energy about him that was almost infectious, and you couldn’t help but laugh and smile when you were in his company. I headed back home after our late breakfast, but I ended up catching up with Yitav, Guy and Tristan again during some of my final days in London, having a few cocktails on a Sunday night which turned into drinking all night in their apartment. Yitav told me I was welcome to come visit him in Tel Aviv if I ever made it to Israel in my travels, and while my route for this world trip would ultimately be taking me in the wrong direction, I’m not one to cross off a travel destination before I’ve been there, so I guess Israel is a new addition to the wish list. I would never have expected that to happen after a night out in Shoreditch, but there you go. The vast array of people that I met and befriended on my travels only continued to amaze me, and I look forward to the day in the future where I will eventually get to meet them all again.

Dead and Unburied: Museums in London

After a couple of nights and days spent with locals, and keeping the touristic activities to a minimum, I thought it best to start seeing at least some of the real touristic attractions London had to offer. I was going to be around for a couple of weeks, so I definitely had the time, and London really did have a lot to offer in the way of sights and attractions. It had been a while since I had been to any museums – I’d almost been avoiding them ever since my visit to the Vatican – but from what I had gathered there were definitely a few in London that were definitely worth taking a look. Many of them were also free, which was almost always a big deciding factor as to whether I would bother visiting something that I was only half sure I might really enjoy. But growing up I had always been a massive dinosaur nerd, so there was no way that I could pass up the opportunity to see the Natural History Museum and its collection of fossilised skeletons. What I had failed to anticipate, however, was that such attractions are also really popular among children, and what I had failed to learn before I arrived at the museum was that it was currently school holidays. Yes, the line to get into the museum that morning was probably twice as long as the diplodocus skeleton that I knew was waiting for me inside the main hall of the Natural History Museum, just out of sight. It snaked around the various courtyards and around the edge of the outside park like a fat snake that had eaten a bunch of screaming, squirming and misbehaving children. And there I was, stuck in the middle of it.

Outside the Natural History Museum.

Outside the Natural History Museum.

Thankfully I had my book to keep me entertained, because the wait was easily over an hour, possibly getting very close to two. I stopped looking at my watch after a while because it was simply too frustrating. Even my training as a sociologist and my love for participant observation and people watching failed to ease the painful wait – there’s only so many dumb things children say or do, or family arguments you can eavesdrop in before it all just becomes a monotonous blur. Several times I considered bailing and coming back when the line was shorter, but then I had no idea if the line would ever be shorter, and I’d come this far already that I was determined to hang in there. It felt like a bit of a surreal dream when I finally reached the front of the line, but when I did there was a quick security search before I was ushered in through the front doors and into the main hall of the museum.

Where I was greeted by another line. I nearly screamed, until I realised it was just a line to get into one of the attraction rooms. Of course, it was the main dinosaur room, but I decided I would come back to tackle that one later – I’d had quite enough of lining up for the time being. So I wandered through the halls of the museum, looking at exhibits and learning about all sorts of natural phenomena. I surprised myself with realising how much I actually already knew about a lot of stuff… then was probably less surprised when I remember that a lot of the stuff in the museum was aimed for children. There were halls and halls of taxidermy animals – or authentic looking replicas, I’m not 100% sure – which were also interesting to look through, as well as a bunch of fossilised of creatures which I guess weren’t cool enough, or born in the wrong era or whatever, to be included into the real dinosaur exhibit. Though considering there was no line to see these ones, I wasn’t complaining.

An ichthyosaur skeleton in the Natural History Museum.

An ichthyosaur skeleton in the Natural History Museum.

A wall-mounted plesiosaur skeleton.

A wall-mounted plesiosaur skeleton.

The museum has extensive collections of birds, reptiles and insects, as well as scores of invertebrates, but it was the rooms dedicated to the mammals that definitely had the most to offer. They had models of species great and small from all over the continents of the world, as well as the worlds oceans. Suspended from the ceiling was basically every type of whale or marine mammal under the sun, hanging motionless in the cavernous walls of the museum.

The mammal room is packed full of life size replicas of modern mammals.

The mammal room is packed full of life size replicas of modern mammals.

Narwhale!

Narwhale!

The biggest of the mammals are the whales, the biggest of which is the blue whale. However, it was virtually impossible for me to capture the whole model in a single photograph.

The biggest of the mammals are the whales, the biggest of which is the blue whale. However, it was virtually impossible for me to capture the whole model in a single photograph.

But after I’d exhausted just about every other possibility, it was time to head to the dinosaurs. The line to get into the exhibit room was shorter than it had been earlier in the morning, but there was still a line. The room itself was littered with information and interactive activities and games, which I took way too much pride in beating all the little children at, but there was still a long line that passed over the whole exhibit on a suspended bridge. It seems you couldn’t get down to the rest of the exhibit until you’d lined up to see a special surprise of some sort. The line was long but it shuffled along at a moderate pace. As I waited, I passed by a vast collection of fossilised skeletons, and I stopped to take photos of my favourite ones and the best ones, reliving my nerdy childhood and my love for Jurassic Park.

Stegosaurus.

Stegosaurus.

Triceratops.

Triceratops.

Skulls of a triceratops and an allosaurus.

Skulls of a triceratops and an allosaurus.

A fearsome allosaurus skull.

A fearsome allosaurus skull.

Finally I was at the front of the line, and I got to see what we had all been waiting for. Around the corner in a dimly lit room, we discovered a tyrannosaurus rex. Not a fossilised, inanimate skeleton, but a fully fleshed and very active dinosaur. Well, it wasn’t flesh, but it was a very lifelike robotic model, sniffing and stomping and moving about, opening its jaws to let out screams. It was pretty cool, but I found myself thinking that overall it was rather gimmicky. As I child I probably would have loved it, and I suppose it is there to either frighten or impress the younger children, but I realised that I’d been more interested in looking at the actual fossilised bones of real dinosaurs. It was also at that point that I realised I had never stopped being a dinosaur nerd.

The tyrannosaurus rex moving, life-like replica that we waited for so long to see.

The tyrannosaurus rex moving, lifelike replica that we waited for so long to see.

After that I was beginning to feel a little bit of museum fatigue, so I headed outside to leave. To my horror, there was absolutely no line and there were people walking in and out freely. I made a point to remember that for my next museum visit, mornings probably weren’t the best time to visit, and from the Natural History Museum I strolled through the overcast streets of London all the way to Hyde Park, where I wandered through the paths and over to the nearby Wellington Arch for a photograph.

The Serpentine, the major lake of the park, stretching out across Hyde Park.

The Serpentine, the major lake of the park, stretching out across Hyde Park.

The Wellington Arch, the victory arch proclaiming defeat over Napoleon, was finished in 1827.

The Wellington Arch, the victory arch proclaiming defeat over Napoleon, was finished in 1827.

***

Following the idea that mornings weren’t the best time to visit museums if you wanted to avoid lines, I decided to make my way to the British Museum, another free museum that had a range of artefacts from all over the world, most notably the Rosetta Stone. I wandered throughout the museum, twisting and turning through the confusing maze of a floor plan, with no real direction or intense burning desire to see anything. It was an overcast afternoon that was threatening to rain, so it was really the perfect time to be inside in a museum. However, I suppose the reason that a lot of people choose to visit museums in the morning is that by the afternoon, many of us lack the concentration or patience to wander around looking at ancient relics for too long a period of time. I’m not exempt from this, and I probably spent a significantly shorter amount of time in the British Museum (although morning or afternoon – rain, hail or shine – I’m never one for spending hours upon hours at these kinds of places anyway). Still, I did enjoy my time there looking at the relics, from the beautiful to the interesting to the rather macabre.

Inside the main entrance chamber of the British Museum.

Inside the main entrance chamber of the British Museum.

Statue of Caesar that was being featured in the main hall of the British Museum.

Statue of Caesar that was being featured in the main hall of the British Museum.

Sea shell tea set.

Sea shell tea set.

An old clock adorned with sphinxes and a golden eagle.

An old clock adorned with sphinxes and a golden eagle.

Mummified cats inside the British Museum.

Mummified cats inside the British Museum.

A perfectly preserved pair of skeletons on display in the museum.

A perfectly preserved pair of skeletons on display in the museum.

The British Museum was the final stop of my day of museums. There’s only so much of that stuff I can take in a day, and considering all these places also involved a significant amount of travel between each one, I’d grown rather exhausted. I’d known that there was a lot to see and do in London, but it turns out that that was jut because London happened to be such a big place. I often misjudged what I thought to be walking distances and found myself on significantly hefty treks across the city. I’d get the hang of it eventually, but for now for the museums I was over and out.

What A Punt: Cambridge on a hangover

Before Giles had set off on his own holiday, he sent out a couple of text messages to some of friends, briefly telling them who I was, what I was doing in London and why I was staying in his house, and giving them my phone number so that they could get in touch with me and hopefully hang out and show me around. John was the first of the friends to get in touch with me, and we arranged to meet up for brunch one morning at Hackney Village, the small main street of the borough that was lined with a whole bunch of shops and cafes, and was also conveniently located around the corner from where Giles lived. John was incredibly friendly, and we instantly got on well as we talked about everything from travelling the world, to the finer details of life in London – and the extensive geography of the city that I was still trying to wrap my head around – as well as stories of my most recent travels and how I had come to meet Giles in Berlin. John himself had done quite a bit of travelling, though it took a little while before I noticed the hint of South African accent in his voice. “England is home now,” he assured me, but he’d also visited some interesting places that were definitely on my travel wish list, as well as having a few crazy stories his life in Africa.

Towards the end of our brunch, John’s phone rang. “Oh, I’m really sorry, I just have to quickly take this.” He answered the phone and spoke for a few minutes before hanging up. “So, I promise there’s a good reason I had to take that call,” John told me. “That was my friend Richard. We’ve got some plans for a late boozy lunch with some other friends of Giles’, so I just confirming a few last things with Richard. But also, you’re more than welcome to join us. We’re going to Richard’s place, which is just down near my place.” John lived south of the River Thames, in Greenwich. “We can go back to Giles’ if you need to grab anything, and then I’ll drive us down there.” I had made no other plans for the day, and a lazy wine lunch sounded like the perfect way to end a Sunday afternoon, so after we finished up with brunch we were off and away to Greenwich. After a quick supply stop at Sainsbury’s, John and I arrived at Richard’s flat. Two more of their friends, a couple named Adam and Dan, arrived shortly afterwards, and I soon found myself in a similar group dynamic that I had when I was Joris and Thijs’ friends in Amsterdam – getting an inside view of the life of the locals – except there wasn’t a mix of languages being thrown around, so I could keep up with all of the conversation. They were all lovely guys, and Richard and John were moving back and forth between the kitchen getting the food ready. ‘Lunch’ was eventually served somewhere between five and six o’clock, but we’d all been drinking so much wine I don’t think that anyone was all that bothered.

“We’ll have to make another trip to Spain soon, John,” Richard said as he opened another bottle of red. “I’ve nearly cleaned out the cellar,” he said with a chuckle. They proceeded to tell me about how they make semi-regular pilgrimages to France and Spain, stocking up the boot of John’s car with as much wine as they could physically (and legally) carry back to England, because it was actually better value for money in the long run. I could definitely believe that, and I was insanely jealous. The fact that they could so easily drive to another country like that just absolutely blew my mind. If you drove that distance in pretty much any direction in Australia, chances are you’d probably just end up in the middle of nowhere. Granted, there could quite possibly be a vineyard in that middle of nowhere in Australia, but you didn’t exactly need to stamp your passport to get there.

It was such a fun night. A wine lunch became a wine dinner, followed by a wine dessert which eventually just turned into wine with more wine – and a few shots of some sort of spirit, if memory serves me correct (although there’s a high possibility that it doesn’t). The next day, Richard would count the bottles and inform us that we consumed 10 bottles between four people – Adam wasn’t a fan of wine and so had been drinking beer. We played music, we danced, we sat on the balcony watching dusk settle over London, and we drank a lot much wine. Despite having been to a handful of pride parties over the last few months, it was quite easily the most I had drank in a very long time. I had absolutely no recollection of the end of the night, which usually never happens to me, but I can only assume I continued to have as much fun as I was having before my memory began to fail on me.

***

Waking up in a strange place is always terrifying. Waking up in a strange place in a foreign country is even worse. I awoke with a start and sat up, looking around and thinking hard for a good minute or two before I realised where I was – I had passed out on Richard’s couch. I guessed that I’d been in no state to catch the tube home the night before, and absolutely nobody had been in any fit state to drive me home. The result was this, and I was greeted by a Richard who looked just as confused and hungover as me.
“What… I… what?” Fully formed sentences were a struggle for everyone at that point, and the sight of all those wine bottles in the kitchen was simultaneously horrifying and impressive.
“I’m definitely ‘working from home’ today,” Richard said sarcastically, holding his head in his hands. We’d later find out both John and Dan had both made the exact same call, for obviously the exact same reason.

I was expecting I’d just have to find my way to the Underground station and catch the tube home, but Richard began asking me what I’d seen so far in London. When I said that I hadn’t really seen much so far, I think he got a little patriotic. “I feel like I should be showing you around or something. I’ve got a car – is there anywhere you want to go?” We Googled the top 20 attractions to see around Britain, and after ruling out ones that weren’t that interesting or too far away, Richard agreed to drive me to see Cambridge. The town of university fame was only about an hour drive away, and by late morning Richard was feeling sober enough to drive, so off we went.

The River Cam.

The River Cam.

The Cam winds through Cambridge in between the various colleges.

The Cam winds through Cambridge in between the various colleges.

The main calling card for Cambridge is the university and colleges, so the small surrounding town is heavily focused on the student population and student life. “Where would you go out? I’d go crazy living here,” I said, only half joking.
“I think they just throw a lot of their own crazy parties”, Richard said. “Either that or they’re all too busy studying.” Cambridge was, I’d been led to believe, a pretty prestigious school.
But if you’re not a student living and studying there, there are really only two things to do or see in Cambridge – the colleges and the punts on the river. The terminology of ‘punt’ confused me at first – the word has a range of meanings depending on the culture you’re in – but I soon learnt that it was the name given to the kind of boats that travelled up and down the River Cam, the main waterway that ran through Cambridge. Richard and I followed the signs until we found the docks where the boats were waiting for us. For an extra fee you could hire someone to steer your punt for you, but despite the hangover I was feeling particularly hands on that day, and decided that we should have a go at directing the boat ourselves. Despite the potential for that to go very, very wrong, Richard agreed to it.

Such maturity.

Such maturity.

Our punts name was Bronze.

Our punts name was Bronze.

It was a shaky start, and steering the punt isn’t exactly light work. You have to stand on the flat platform on the rear end of the boat and use the long wooden pole to push against the bottom of the river to propel yourself in the right direction. Then, as the boat is gliding through the water, you have to direct the boat by moving the pole to cause resistance in the water. It might sound fairly simple – the physics behind it certainly isn’t rocket science – but after a few minutes it does become a bit of a workout, especially if you’re hungover. And it can also be a bit of a challenge to get the boat to go in exactly the right direction, or to judge how much power you need to put behind each push. Despite that, we weren’t the worst ones on the river that day. We had a couple of run-ins with a few tourist families who really shouldn’t have been driving themselves, although Richard did almost lose the pole when we went to go underneath a bridge without sinking the pole down into the water – the pole is a few metres long, and it crashed into the bottom of the bridge when we tried to go under. But other than that it was mostly fine, though the one really handy thing about the hired punt drivers is that they also served as tour guides, telling their passengers lots of random and interesting facts about the history of Cambridge. Richard and I were guilty of tailing some of the boats around us in an attempt to overhear some of the stories being told.

Captain Dick.

Captain Dick.

Being a passenger on the punt (right before Richard nearly lost our pole at that bridge).

Being a passenger on the punt (right before Richard nearly lost our pole at that bridge).

Myself having a go at steering the punt.

Myself having a go at steering the punt.

After punting we went to visit one of the colleges. There wasn’t much point going to all of them, since we figured there couldn’t be that much difference between them – at least in the areas visitors were granted access to – but we asked one of the guys down by the punting dock which one he would recommend, and he told us to go see Trinity College. Back home, I’d often heard my own university, the University of Sydney, being described as an ‘Oxbridge’ model – a combination of Oxford and Cambridge, two of the older, more prestigious universities in England. Walking through Trinity College did remind me a lot of the Quadrangle back home in Sydney, except this place somehow felt much more authentic. We wandered through the courtyard, paid a visit to the chapel, and admired the detailed architecture. Despite the trip down the river on the punt being fun, it was somewhat of a workout (when you weren’t being a passenger, that is,) so this was probably a more suitable hungover afternoon activity.

The front view of Kings College.

The front view of Kings College, another of the colleges we passed by on our stroll through Cambridge.

The college from inside the courtyard.

Trinity College from inside the courtyard.

Inside the college chapel.

Inside the college chapel.

Hungover strolls though the Kings College courtyard.

Hungover strolls though the Trinity College courtyard.

As it got later in the afternoon, we realised we’d seen most of the highlights Cambridge had to offer. We’d taken a punt down the river, we’d walked through the prestigious colleges, and wandered down the classical old English style streets. I was starting to get tired, so we decided to call it a day. Richard drove us back to London, and I definitely fell asleep for at least half of the trip. Richard dropped me home at Giles’ place, and we said goodbye knowing that we would most likely see each other again during my time in London. It had been a fun and slightly crazy 24 hours with John and Richard and their friends, but now it was time to curl up on the couch with fish and chips, British TV and definitely no wine, and wait until I finally felt human again.

Bridget Jones and British Boroughs

On my first day in London I spent a bit of time with Giles as he showed me around central London, pointing out all the different bars in Soho and all the shops and eateries I should try, and helping me familiarise myself with some of the major landmarks, stations, and even the lingo – I was only given one chance to mispronounce to awkwardly Leicester Square. Giles said most people mispronounce it – it’s pronounced ‘Lester’, as thought the ‘ic’ isn’t even there – and I momentarily wondered what the hell went wrong with the English language for that to have ever happened. After being all over Europe, England was the last place I had expected to have problems pronouncing words or place names.

That evening, Giles and I went to see a performance of ‘The Sound of Music’ at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Giles was a big lover of musicals and theatre, and he had gotten complimentary tickets from a friend of his who worked there. I’m not exactly sure how he pulled it off – they were very good tickets, centred and very close to the front, on a sold out night. The show was fantastic and the cast were amazing – however, there was another learning curve that I would experience that evening, in a theatre that was very much exposed to the elements. Despite it being a relatively warm and sunny day in London, as soon as the sun went down it got cold. Or at least, cold for an Australian. I hadn’t really anticipated that when I’d set out from Hackney during the middle of the day, but right now I was seriously regretting my choice of shirt and shorts. I had to borrow Giles’ big warm coat to drape over myself for most of the second half of the performance. Granted, he didn’t even need it – I guess being a local he was acclimatised to the conditions. It was something I made sure to take note of during my time in London, though – despite it still being their summer, it was the tail end of the season, and it wasn’t going to feel anything like the summer I was used to back home.

After the show we had a quick drink in Soho, but Giles had to get home to pack. Yes, Giles had to pack – he was off to America for two weeks. When I had figured out when I was going to be travelling to London, I’d dropped Giles a line to ask him if he’d be free to catch up at all while I was there.
“When exactly are you going to be in London?” he asked me. I told him when I was flying in, and approximately how long I thought I might want to stay – in my true fashion, I hadn’t really planned that far ahead.
“Oh that’s a shame, I’m only going to be there for one day before I’m going to America,” he’d said. But what he’d said next seemed almost too good to be true. “Have you found a place to stay in London yet?” Of course, I hadn’t.
“No, not yet…” I replied, thinking he might have a couple of hostel recommendations.
“Do you want to housesit my apartment and stay in my room while I’m away?” He didn’t ask for any rent – just that I minded and looked after the place for him. His housemate would be going away for at least a week during that period too, and I guess he may have felt better knowing there was someone around the place and keeping it safe. And of course, I was facing the opportunity of two rent-free weeks in London – one of the most expensive cities in the world, apparently. I didn’t have to consider it for more than a second before accepting Giles’ extremely generous offer. I guess I had proved myself to be trustworthy enough on the few occasions we had met, and I was yet again blown away by the kindness that people who I barely knew would show towards a weary world traveller.

***

And so Giles set off for his American holiday and left me to my own devices when it came to discovering London. I briefly met his housemate, a Canadian guy called Blake, but he was only around for a day or two as well before he set off on a trip to Serbia. We was only supposed to be gone for a week, but in all my time in London he never actually returned home  – I guess Serbia must have been pretty amazing – and I literally had the place to myself the entire time I was there, save a few days at the beginning and end. As someone who had been sleeping in hostels, spare rooms, and sharing both beds and apartments with some of my hosts, it was actually a pretty incredible situation. For the first time since perhaps Helsinki, and I had an entire apartment to myself. As excited as I was to actually get out and see the city, there was something about that circumstance that I just had indulge in. On a Sunday evening, I was flicking through the internet on my iPad to see if there were any parties or anything cool that I could make a trip into town to visit. Then I turned on the TV – basically just for the hell of it because, hey, I had a TV for the first time in months! – and saw that Bridget Jones’ Diary I was about to start. I considered it for a second: I was going to be in London for quite some time, and who knows when I may have the luxury of having a place to myself again? So the only trip I made that evening was around the corner to the fish and chip shop – a great British tradition – and returned home to sprawl out on the couch to watch one of my favourite British rom coms. In the end it did actually feel like I was experiencing a bit of British culture, with all from the comforts of my British living room. I regret nothing.

It was the first time that I would curl up in front of the TV in London – it’s arguably one of the most local things you could do – but wouldn’t be the last. However, there were other nights when I didn’t feel like trekking it on the tube all the way to the city, but I didn’t feel like just staying at home either. Giles had told me he would put me in touch with some of this friends so that I wasn’t so alone to begin with, and I had gotten in touch with some of them to arrange meetings. However, on this particular evening I turned to one of the numerous gay social smartphone applications. While these apps are mostly used to arrange a far less innocent type of rendezvous, as a traveller they’re actually quite useful in their originally marketed purpose which is to “meet other guys”, which is how I found myself walking through the neighbouring district of Bethnal Green to a nearby pub to meet Dean. His background was a mix of French and Greek, and had been living in London for about a year for his work. We met in a traditional looking English pub, but the inside was a different story. It was full of teenagers getting absolutely wasted, spilling their drinks all over the antique, rustic furniture they were lounging on while some house music blared from somewhere on the floors above. It wasn’t really the thing either of us were in the mood for, so we downed our drinks relatively quickly – though assuring I didn’t spill a drop – and hastily took our leave.

I hadn’t really been looking for a wild night out anyway, so Dean and I took to the streets and just talked. The good thing was that at this stage of my trip, I was never short of any weird stories or crazy adventures to share, so I always had something to talk about. We talked about a lot of things, but nothing in particular, and Dean asked me about London and what things I had seen.
“Ahh, I don’t know, I haven’t done much yet,” I said to him, scanning through a mental checklist of things I wanted to see and finding it almost completely blank. “I’m just making the most of my unique living situation and enjoying a place to myself.”
“Fair enough,” Dean chuckled. “Well, there’s this place I can show you that had a really nice view. It’s a bar in the City.”

I was about to getting a rough schooling in the local geography of London. It turns out that the City of London is just one specific and rather small section of the wider region of London (although City of London is actually part of the Greater London borough – I know, it’s confusing), which is made up of a collection of other boroughs and cities, such as the Hackney, Tower Hamlets, and the City of Westminster – which is the relatively larger borough home to Buckingham Palace, Downing Street, and Soho. The City of London was a little more than a square mile where much of the financial district of London is located. The more Dean tried to explain, the more confused I became, and it took actually getting home and looking at a detailed map – and even a little bit of Googling place names – before I even began to slightly understand it. I’m not going to go much more into it – mostly because I don’t think I would be entirely correct – but we ended up walking a fair way to get to a place called SUSHISAMBA. It’s not a Japanese restaurant, and it isn’t a Brazilian nightclub – perhaps it’s a fusion of the two different cuisines, but all I know is that it was super fancy and pretty expensive. I didn’t think I was going to get in – it was smart casual dress code, and I was wearing the only warm jacket I currently owned which was an unremarkable looking black hoodie. But I wasn’t stopped when we tried to enter, and so Dean and went up the elevator to get to the bar on the 38th floor.

The view from the bar at SUSHISAMBA.

The view from the bar at SUSHISAMBA.

The elevator was glass, and gave you a somehow nauseating view of the wider city as it shot upwards with impressive speeds. Once inside, I had a glass of wine and Dean had a beer – I didn’t dare order anything more in such a pricey establishment.
“I wouldn’t come here for the drinks,” Dean said, “But for the view… it’s pretty amazing.”
And it was. Certain parts of the bar were restricted and reserved, so I couldn’t get as close to the windows as I would have liked, but from the bar you could see in all directions, and even though it was dark, you could still get an impressive sense of how immense the city was. Or should I say, City of London? Greater London? It was all a bit too confusing for me, but I told myself I’d have a couple of weeks to get used to it (note at time of writing: that obviously never happened).

On the way home, Dean pointed out to me several dragon statues. “Those dragons mark the boundary of the City of London,” he said to me. The City of London’s Coat of Arms features two dragons supporting the City’s Crest, and there are two original dragon statues which were made in 1849 that stand roughly 6 feet tall. There was also a collection of smaller, half-size replicas, and they are all located at the main entrances into the City. We passed one of the replicas near Aldgate High Street on our way home, and Dean continued to tell me more of the history of the City, although by this point in the night it was so late I was only half listening.

One of the dragons that guard the entrances to the City of London.

One of the dragons that guard the entrances to the City of London.

We walked as far as we could until we had to go our separate ways. It was a strange evening – Dean seemed like a perfectly nice guy, but we didn’t get along that famously or anything, and there was no real connection. I never ended up seeing him again, yet I still remember the evening we spent together pretty clearly, and the minor history and geography lessons he attempted to teach me. I’d done a bit of crazy partying while I was in Amsterdam, so I guess taking the time out for myself and taking cute midnight strolls in the city was just the kind of change of pace I’d needed.

London Calling

So on my last afternoon I set off to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam and boarded my plane to London… well, not exactly London. See, I overlooked one important detail that anyone flying into London should really pay a little more attention to, and that was which airport I was actually flying into. Many people, even Londoners themselves, might tell you that the city has 5 airports, when in actual fact it has 6. “Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, Stansted and City,” they would say. If you reminded them about Southend airport, they would probably scoff and say “Southend? That’s not even in London!” I think it is, technically, but for all intents and purposes, I basically flew into a small village on the far outskirts of the furthest reaches of suburban London. When I finally looked at the map, I understood why Giles was so shocked when I told him I was flying into Southend. I had booked the cheapest flight, and I suppose I got what I had paid for.

Regardless, my flight from Amsterdam to Southend was actually quite an easy and pleasant experience. The flight lasted all of 45 minutes, and when we landed we were ushered out of the plane and down onto the tarmac, where we were directed over to the arrivals hall. Inside there were two queues: EU passports and non-EU passports. I think I was one of about ten non-EU citizens on my flight, so I breezed through immigration in about two minutes. I’d been told by many people that airport security in London would give me the grilling of a lifetime, but the customs woman barely batted an eyelid as I walked past after collecting my checked baggage. In less than 20 minutes I had landed, cleared the airport and was waiting for a train at the Southend train station, located conveniently next door to the airport. Sure, I would be on the train for over an hour before I got anywhere even remotely close to central London, but I’d much rather spend that time on a train reading my book than standing around in airport halls and queues and being interrogated by British officials at Heathrow airport.

When my train pulled into Liverpool Street station, I met Giles where he was waiting for me at the end of the platform. The first thing we did was go to one of the ticket machines to get me an Oyster Card. Now, the public transport enthusiast in me just needs to stop and hyperventilate for a minute here – the London Underground was, if reports could be believed, something of a Holy Grail of efficient commuting. The Underground metro system – known as ‘the tube’ – stretched all over and out to the furthest reaches of the sprawling and never-ending metropolis that was London, and there were an almost infinite amount of bus routes and services too. The Oyster Card was an electronic ticket that you used to tap in and out of any station, as well as being able to pay for any bus trip with just a single tap of the card on any of the electronic touch pads. No messing about at ticket machines or stations (unless you were putting more money on your card) or missing your train because there are long lines. It wouldn’t even matter if you did though because the trains come so frequently. While it often did take a long time to get to most places, that was usually only because London itself is actually just such a huge city, and the fact that the public transport could get you there in that time was actually quite remarkable. If you ever hear a Londoner complaining about the tube, slap them square in the face, because they honestly don’t know how good they have it. I absolutely dreaded the day I would have to return to Sydney’s public transport.

But that evening we were going to catch a bus to Giles’ house in Hackney. Mile End was the closest tube station, but it was still about a 15 to 20 minute walk from where he lived, and considering I had all my luggage he thought it would be easier to get a bus that took a bit longer, but also took us much closer. At first I was quite surprised at how long it took to get there, given that where Giles lived in East London was considered reasonably close to the centre. It was the beginning of my learning curve in discovering just how enormous the city actually is. It felt a bit like home, though – from the city to the suburbs, there were so many things that made London seem weirdly familiar. Maybe it was the fact I was back in an English speaking country, or possibly because I’d just seen enough parts of England in British films or TV. Maybe Australia is just a lot like Britain in its planning and design – we technically are, as they like to put it over there, “one of the colonies”. But despite that familiarity, it definitely still gave me that exciting feeling of being in another country, filling me to the brim with anticipation. I would be staying in London for longer a period of time than I had stayed anywhere since Bangkok, and I was extremely excited to ground myself for a little while and explore what the city has to offer.