Eye on London

On one wet and miserable evening in London I set out to meet a guy named Anthony who I had been talking to for a little while on one of the gay networking apps. The inescapable truth is that most guys on such apps are only looking for a quick hook up, but on the odd occasion you’ll find someone who is actually interested in having a long and decent conversation. From the chats we’d had I gathered that Anthony was a really sweet guy, a little bit of a nerd – between us we had shared a collection of geeky confessions – and I thought he was pretty cute. He lived nearby in Hackney, so after several nights of long conversations via the app we decided to meet up for drinks at some of the local watering holes. On the night we were set to meet it was bucketing down, but Anthony assured me the bar was still going to be “rammed”. I had a bit of a giggle at the terminology, and when he met me at our arranged meeting point I explained how the word ‘rammed’ had created a more vulgar vision of a gay bar in my mind. I’d struggled through thongs and flip-flops, and singlets and vests, but that was by far one of the strangest Australian/British English word confusions I came across in London.

Rammed, of course, meant full of people, and it seems that wet weather has become a way of life for the people of London that even the iciest downpours can’t keep them at home when a night of drinking beckons. The first place Anthony took me to was Nelsons Head, a smaller pub that was nice and toasty warm inside, and it was, as Anthony had said, rammed. We struggled through the crowds and made our way to the bar to order a few drinks, and ended up having to stand against one of the walls, unable to find a table or even any stools. We put our drinks down on the short bench that lined the walls, and I turned around to soak in the atmosphere. There was a lot of interesting and sometimes slightly erotic art that lined the walls, and high tables full of boisterous men and women who were slugging back pints like water and somehow still managing to not fall off their stools. Overall it was a relatively small venue, but I hadn’t read anything about it on any of the gay maps or guides I had picked up, so it was unlikely I ever would have made it there if I hadn’t met up with Anthony. We stayed there for a while, sipping our drinks and talking more about London, my travelling stories, and our range of geeky shared interests.

After a while we decided to move on to another venue, which was a little further away, but luckily the rain had pulled pack to barely a drizzle so we were fine to walk there. On the way there Anthony stopped to get money out, and he showed me the bizarre language options some ATM’s offer: English or Cockney. I asked him to do Cockney, but he flat out refused. “I have absolutely no idea what it says,” he laughed.
“But isn’t it still English?”
“Well, yes, but… It just isn’t.” Fair enough. I suppose it would have to be fairly different to warrant having its own language option, but it was as baffling as it was hilarious.
We were bound for The Joiners Arms, one of the more popular pubs on the eastern side of London, which I had just missed out on visiting last time I had been out in Shoreditch, although upon arriving at the bar I realised that it was less of a pub and more of a nightclub than I had originally thought. We had to get stamps on our wrists upon entering, although I think we arrived early enough so as not to have to pay, but after we’d ordered our first drinks and sat down at a table, we were informed we would have to stand up while they moved the tables in order to make room for the dance floor. From then on more and more people began arriving at The Joiners Arms, and the music moved from background ambience to the main focus. I love a good dance as much as the next party boy, but I wasn’t so much in the mood that evening, so Anthony and I just spent the rest of the night sitting on one of the sofas along the edge of the room, leaning into each other and having our conversations in brief outbursts of shouting to be heard over the music. Which of course turned into using our mouths for an exchange that was a little less verbal. In the end we called it a night and returned to the cold night to walk home, although Anthony let me stay the night with him so I didn’t have to walk the rest of the way home by myself. We drank tea and watched a few episodes of Family Guy on TV, and I was grateful to have such a cute man to cuddle on such a chilly evening.

***

I’d been telling Anthony about how riding the London Eye was one of the few majorly touristic things that I wanted to do while I was in London, but that I hadn’t wanted to do it by myself. Any attempts at finding other tourists or travellers to join me had failed, but Anthony had said it had been a long time since he had been on the Eye, and wouldn’t mind going again. I’d also mentioned I’d wanted to go at nighttime, something he had never done, so we made plans to meet up and get a bus over to the City of Westminster. We met at a halfway point that was close to a bus stop, and on the bus ride I saw Anthony doing something with his phone. I didn’t mean to pry, but I noticed he was in the middle of writing a status update on Facebook. The incomplete update read: “Thanks everyone for all the birthday love-” and he was staring at the screen, obviously trying to figure out what to say next.
“Um, what the hell?” I couldn’t just sit there and pretend I hadn’t read that. “It’s your birthday! Why didn’t you tell me?” Anthony just smiled and let out a shy chuckle.
“Ah, well, I’d forgotten what day it was when we made these plans. I wasn’t doing anything else anyway.” I looked at him slightly incredulously – the idea that anyone could forget their own birthday was just baffling to me – but then I just smiled.
“Well then, happy birthday! Tonight is just going to have to be extra special, isn’t it?”

We didn’t go straight to the city, but alighted a little further east. Once we got off the bus, I took us down to the water so that I could get a photo with Tower Bridge, arguably the most iconic sight of London along with Big Ben (I had been shocked, though, when Giles had told me that Tower Bridge was not called London Bridge, and that London Bridge was something completely different). From there we crossed the Thames and walked along the southern bank of the river, with Anthony pointing out some of the major sights along the way, such as the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral from across the water, the Tate Modern art gallery, and the Millennium Bridge, which perhaps excited me the most, as I remembered seeing it get destroyed in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It was also just a really pleasant walk, on a night that had considerably nicer weather than the last time I had met up with Anthony.

Posing with Tower Bridge.

Posing with Tower Bridge.

The Shard.

The Shard.

Tower Bridge all lit up.

Tower Bridge all lit up.

London Bridge.

London Bridge.

St Paul's Cathedral and Millennium Bridge.

St Paul’s Cathedral and Millennium Bridge.

We underestimated the walk, and by the time we got to the London Eye it had been almost an hour of walking, and darkness had well and truly set in. The good thing about arriving so late is that there was relatively no line, and so we purchased our tickets and walked right on in. From a distance, the London Eye looks like any regular ferris wheel, but once you’re up close you realise that you ride not in rickety little carriages, but fancy looking, high-tech berths that can comfortably hold about 15 to 20 people, and look like something out of a sci-fi film. There were a few other smaller groups of tourists in our berth with us, but they were spacious enough that you can move around to get a proper view of they city from all angles. In retrospect, I probably would have been able to see a lot more if I had gone during the day, but there was something about views of a city at night that I find a little breathtaking, and being there with Anthony also made it a little romantic. We stood there watching the scene unfold and the Eye took us higher and higher into the sky. Right beside us there was a small temporary theme park, with rides shooting up into the air, and across the Thames the Westminster Abbey and Big Ben glowed in darkness. In the distance we saw some fireworks going off, clusters of red sparks exploding on the horizon.
“Look! They knew it was my birthday!” Anthony joked. We both took some photos, but from the amount of pictures he was taking, you would have been forgiven for thinking that Anthony was the foreign tourist, not myself. But it was cute to see him enjoying himself so much – I’d unintentionally given him quite a memorable birthday.

Inside the London Eye berth.

Inside the London Eye berth.

The rides in the park next to the Eye.

The rides in the park next to the Eye.

Westminster Abbey and Big Ben.

Westminster Abbey and Big Ben.

London lights stretching into the horizon.

London lights stretching into the horizon.

Anthony's birthday fireworks in the distance.

Anthony’s birthday fireworks in the distance.

Millennium Bridge as seen from the London Eye.

Millennium Bridge as seen from the London Eye.

A full rotation of the London Eye takes about 30 minutes, so we had plenty of time to soak it all in. Upon returning to ground level, we stopped for a classy birthday dinner at McDonalds. We got it to go, and sat by the river to eat it as we watched the occasional vessel glide past us on the water. Then, hand in hand, we began the walk back along the river Thames, soaking up the riverside culture. The were lots of restaurants and cafes that overlooked the water, as well as parks with children running around and all kinds of street performers and entertainers. There was a stretch along the river where every single tree had been entwined with fairy lights, so we walked under a canopy of luminescence as we left the sounds of the inner city behind us. Eventually we crossed the Millennium Bridge and caught a bus back to Hackney, where we returned to Anthony’s place for more tea and Family Guy. And cuddles, of course. It turned out to be a really lovely evening, and I hoped that he’d enjoyed his spontaneous birthday celebrations as much as I had.

The Millennium Bridge, just before we walked across it on the way home.

The Millennium Bridge, just before we walked across it on the way home.

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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.

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.

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.