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.

The Transition: Singapore

A lot of people seemed pretty confused when I told them what the first stop was on this round the world tour of mine.
“Singapore? But that’s not an actual destination, right? It’s just a connecting stop over?”
Assuring them that it was indeed my first destination, I was queried as to how long I would be staying in the city of Singapore, on the tiny island country of the same name.
“Five days?” my uncle had exclaimed. “Well, that’s plenty of time for Singapore, I reckon. You wouldn’t want to be staying any longer.”

I suppose these reactions aren’t completed unjustified. Singapore isn’t exactly a hotspot for backpackers and partying 20-something-year-olds: alcohol is expensive, laws regarding drugs are terrifyingly harsh, and even male homosexuality is technically illegal (though those laws are not as strictly enforced). However, my reasons for visiting Singapore were on a slightly more personal note. An old high school friend of mine named Timothy lives there studying musical theatre, and I had timed the beginning of my journey so that I would be able to stop in Singapore and watch him perform in one his final productions before he graduates from his degree. I’d also visited him once before, so as well as already having seen a few of the typical tourist attractions such as Universal Studios and the night safari, I was descending into an environment that I was already semi-familiar with, with knowledge of where I would be going but not exactly what I would be doing…

Singaporean flag on top of the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts, formerly Singapore's first police station.

Singaporean flag on top of the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts, formerly Singapore’s first police station.

***

The first thing I noticed when I hopped off the plane at Changi Airport, other than the overwhelming humidity, was that one of my two travel money cards was missing. The one that I could find refused to work at any of the ATMs that I could find at the airport – because that’s just the kind of luck that travelers have, right? Luckily, my travel SIM card did work, so I got in contact with Tim and hopped into a taxi to head over to his apartment. The taxi accepted card payment and, much to my relief, this time the temperamental card decided to work. After heartfelt greetings and stressful explanations, I called my mother in Sydney to confirm that I had left the second card at home. While still a little annoyed at myself, I felt a wave of relief in knowing that it was safe, and not out racking up an illegitimate bill somewhere else in the world.

For the rest of the evening the two of us caught up and exchanged stories, as reunited friends usually do, so it wasn’t until the next day that I set out into the city as an explorer. After a lazy brunch with Tim’s family, who were also visiting Singapore to see him in his graduation show, Tim had to return to college for rehearsals and then preparation for that evenings performance. But he only had one set of keys to his place (his family were staying in a nearby hotel – I was the designated couch-surfer), and negotiation worked out that he would require them today. So I set out into the muggy afternoon, knowing I wouldn’t be able to return home until after that Friday night performance.

Without a doubt, the first thing you notice in Singapore is the humidity. Sydney was trying its hardest to make me sweat when I was back home, but it really doesn’t even come close to the sheen across my forehead as I wandered down Orchard Road. It eventually gets to the point where you abandon even attempting to look fresh – it’s hot, it’s humid, and no one expects anything less than a giant ball of perspiration. On this particular afternoon, however, the humidity reached breaking point, and a monsoonal thunderstorm was unleashed upon the city. Rain bucketed down as I scampered into a 7-11 to buy a cheap umbrella (although I’d already been dripping wet with sweat), and the skyscrapers and shopping malls turned the streets into huge metallic tunnels that boomed and echoed with every clap of thunder. I ended up passing through a lot of those shopping malls to avoid the rain, but the air conditioning inside was so chilly that I would continually have to drag my damp self back into the natural air so that I didn’t freeze to death.

One of the many small gardens that break up the mass of buildings along Orchard Road.

One of the many small gardens that break up the mass of buildings along Orchard Road.

The number of shopping malls in Singapore is astounding. I saw virtually every label I know, and plenty more that I’d never even heard of. The thought of walking through them with the intention of actually shopping seemed particularly overwhelming, but the prices in Singapore aren’t exactly competitive on an international scale, especially within South East Asia, so I decided to put off any intended purchases and try again in a more favourable economic climate. Something that I did take a particular interest in was the amount of greenery that fills the streets of Singapore. You won’t go a block or two without finding a small park or garden, or a huge tree holding its own among all the modern architecture. Tim mentioned that it might have been some sort of initiative of the city in order to maximize the space in the city without turning it into a stock standard concrete jungle void of any real kind of natural elements. Then there are buildings like the School Of The Arts, Singapore (SOTA), with its extreme proximity to the surrounding trees and surfaces covered in luscious vines and foliage, which are perfect examples of just how seamlessly this city is able to integrate the man-made and natural worlds.

View from below of the School Of The Arts, Singapore.

View from below of the School Of The Arts, Singapore.

Later in the afternoon, after the thunderstorm has passed, I emerged from the malls and headed south on the MRT train system (which, I must add, are insanely efficient that it makes Sydney’s CityRail look like even more of a joke), down to Clark Quay to take one of the boat tours that operated on the river. The leisurely trip took us on a guided historical tour, down to bay with some impressive views of the equally impressive Marina Bay Sands, a relatively new casino, bar/nightclub and hotel. I was happy quietly taking my own photos, but I couldn’t turn down the offer from the friendly and enthusiastic staff to take some photos of myself with the scenery, and so I ended up with my first, of what I’m sure will be many, awkward solo holiday snaps.

"Hold the flower, hold the flower!" the river tour guide shouted eagerly. I'm still not sure what the building is, but the towering Marina Bay Sands is visible behind me.

“Hold the flower, hold the flower!” the river tour guide shouted eagerly. I’m still not sure what the building is, but the towering Marina Bay Sands is visible behind me.

On the river tour, with the Singaporean CBD in the background.

On the river tour, with the Singaporean CBD in the background.

The Merlion, a popular tourist attraction in the bay.

The Merlion, a popular tourist attraction in the bay.

***

After the tour, I strolled around the streets of Clark Quay, but the ritzy upmarket restaurants and bars didn’t feel like the best option for a sweaty, lonely backpacker, so I jumped back on the MRT and looked for a new destination (Did I mention how efficient the MRT is? No, really, maximum waiting time for a train going anywhere is about 6 minutes – you don’t even look at the timetables and plan ahead, you just go!). I had intended to alight at Marina Bay and explore on foot what I had seen from the boat, but following the instructions on some of the signage, I alighted at Bayfront and found myself on the other side of the towering Marina Bay Sands. Instead of being greeted by the water, I found myself in Gardens By The Bay, an area of roughly 100 hectares of reclaimed land that has been transformed into a huge garden, but with a futuristic twist. The area is sprinkled with structures called the Supergrove, which look like huge wire frames in the shape of trees that are slowly being taken over by a climbing garden. By this stage it was dark, and the odd structures were twinkling and shining with bright, multi-coloured lights, though I was unable to ascertain just what they were, exactly – other than the central and tallest Supergrove tree housing a Chinese restaurant on the top floor.

The Supergrove trees in the Gardens By The Bay.

The Supergrove trees in the Gardens By The Bay.

If I’d thought that the design of Orchard Road had been the integration of modern technology with the natural world, then this little number had taken it to whole new level. There were a couple of ticketed exhibits in the Gardens By The Bay, but they were closing by the time I had arrived there, so I just settled for wandering around in the muggy air and soaking in the beautiful, illuminated sights. Without the harsh equatorial sun beating down on you, the climate was actually kind of pleasant, and with the mood-lit surrounding, I realised given the right company, the setting would have been quite romantic – I began to wish I’d had someone there to share it with. From there, the solitude of my day finally caught up with me, and I decided to call it a day and head back to the city and wait for Tim to arrive home.

***

The next day was Saturday, and that evening I would be attending the Tim’s show. He was busy for most of the day with a matinée performance, so I decided to continue the theme of exploring the paradoxical man-made natural environments of Singapore by visiting the Botanic Gardens. I don’t know what I was expecting, but you can colour me impressed. The gardens are huge, but they also feature an extensive collection of plants from all kinds of environments. There were walks through rainforest areas, gardens of cacti and other desert plants, hundreds of varieties of flowers and orchids, scented gardens full of beautiful and invigorating floral fragrances, and even an area dedicated to plants and herbs that have medicinal properties, categorised by their purpose and function. I spent several hours wandering through the gardens, taking pictures and studying the plants, and I found it quite fascinating. I live in the heart of the city back in Sydney, and while the area does have its share of parks and greenery, there’s nothing quite like the Singapore Botanic Gardens. As the afternoon continued, though, the weather cycle of the previous day repeated itself, and I was caught in another torrential downpour. Having seen the best that the gardens had to offer, I called it quits and headed back home – luckily I had the keys to the apartment that day, so I was able to dry off and spruce myself up for the theatre.

Tree from the rainforest walk in the Botanic Gardens.

Tree from the rainforest walk in the Botanic Gardens.

Arid environment/desert plants.

Arid environment/desert plants.

One of the hundreds of varieties of flowers in the Orchid Garden.

One of the hundreds of varieties of flowers in the Orchid Garden.

Some giraffe statues in the Orchid Garden - figured I should have at least a photo or two with myself in it.

Some giraffe statues in the Orchid Garden – figured I should have at least a photo or two with myself in it.

***

The performance was excellent – it was especially a thrill for myself, considering I knew almost all of the starring cast. Gypsy is probably one of my favourite musicals, but this isn’t a musical review so that’s all I’ll really say on that topic. However, the shows after party was the setting of what was probably the biggest culture shock in Singapore. The party was held at a bar down at Marina Bay Sands, a swish little place called South Coast, which is owned by a lesbian couple who are originally from the central coast of New South Wales – small world, huh? After Tim’s brother bought a round of drinks, I approached the bar to take my turn. I ordered a cider for myself, one for Tim to congratulate him on a fantastic final show, and beer for his brother to repay the drink he bought me. When the bartender added up the cost, I was barely able to stifle a small shriek when he told me the total was just shy of $50. That’s in Singapore dollars, but even with the conversion, it was a hefty bill that I wasn’t expecting. It cleaned out all the cash in my wallet, to say the least. Alcohol in general is just more expensive in Singapore (pro tip: DUTY FREE!!!), so when you go out to nicer places it can only be expected that it will be more expensive.

Luckily for me, this was a musical theatre party. There was no shortage of homosexual men, and I worked the room to my advantage and scored a few frozen margaritas free of charge. Drinks turned to cocktails, cocktails turn to shots, and before long I was sitting there at the bar convincing myself that now was not the time to be sick. I kept it together, thankfully, though in retrospect I’m just a lot more grateful I wasn’t footing the bill of whatever had gone down. As the bar closed around us at 4:30, those still standing stumbled through the hotel lobby to the taxi rank. I may have accidentally given Tim a hickey, and shared a few cheeky moments with one of my suitors in the back of a taxi, but it was all harmless fun, and Tim and I eventually stumbled back into his apartment very close to sunrise, and spent most of the rest of the weekend sleeping off our hangovers.

***

The rest of my stay in Singapore was quite relaxed and mellow, spending time with Tim, his family, and his classmates. We visited the bar at the top of Marina Bay Sands, sipping on some expensive cocktails while enjoying the panoramic views of the 57th storey, but that was the only other tourist-type activity I did. On my previous visit I had wandered the streets of Little India, experiencing the dramatic cultural shifts at every turn of a corner. The extent of the multiculturalism in such a small geographical space is actually quite amazing. Though this time around, I spent my remaining time with my friends, now that they had the stresses and pressures of their show behind them.

Tim and I with our cocktails on top of Marina Bay Sands.

Tim and I with our cocktails on top of Marina Bay Sands.

Panoramic view from the 57th level of Marina Bay Sands at night.

Panoramic view from the 57th level of Marina Bay Sands at night.

As I reflect on the five nights I spent in Singapore, I would say that it was a good place to start my journey, because while it was in a completely new country, eight hours away from my hometown, it was still full of places, people, and experiences that still felt quite familiar. It was a good transitioning period, where my life was a strange mix of the schedules of other people and my own freedom from any specific restraints or responsibilities. In a way it didn’t even feel like the real adventure had begun yet – it was just one last pit stop before I threw myself into the real unknown. It took me away from my home, but not quite out of my comfort zone. I watched other people go about their daily routines while I woke up on their couches, and the fact that I was not going to have that kind of regularity for the next nine months was able to slowly sink in, rather than simply being thrust upon me. A couple of times I felt lonely, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t wanted to steal a few kisses in that taxi, but that can only be expected within the first week of leaving your old life behind, and something I’m sure I’ll get used to in time. Now the transition phase is over and I’m truly setting out on my own, and while I’m still a little nervous about the rest of what South East Asia has in store for me, I feel like my time in Singapore was an adequate stepping stone of preparation.

So onwards with the adventure – Bangkok, here I come!