Monday, May 23, 2011

London Calling

Arin asleep, does not look comfortable!
Last week the builders were camping out at the house, to sandblast and then varnish all the wood in the second story of the house, so Koi, the kids and I headed away. They spend the week in London with friends. I hitched a ride over with them and then headed to stay with my friend Philippa (co-worker from Vic Uni, not an AFSer!) and her fiance James for a couple of days, before I flew to Spain to continue the Visa Saga.

The trip over was pretty good, I was dreading car sickness, the baby crying incessantly and 'are we there yet' whinging, but they both fell asleep pretty fast and stayed that way for most of the car journey, apart from one fun moment when Arin woke up and insisted he had to pee immediately (we were on the middle of the highway).

Alice trying to stand up on the moving boat
It only took us a hour or so to reach the ferry terminal in Dunkerque, France. I had a fun run in with English border control there, turns out they weren't very happy about me travelling around Europe while I had a Spanish single-entry visa (duh, Im from NZ, I don't actually need a visa to be in Spain, England, or anywhere else in Europe. So I got a coded entry, next time I go there they're going to pull me aside and ask me further questions, but by then my spanish visa will be fully sorted so it won't be a problem. It was a bit of a shock to the system though after months of lax (ie non-existant) European border controls. I was expecting Koi (who doesn't yet have Belgian citizinship) to be the problem! The border control people can't have been too intelligent though, because when we pulled up they asked us which one was the mother of the two very asian looking kids in the backseat. Hmmm. Pretty sure that would be the very white looking girl, not the asian looking woman driving the car. We had a bit of time to kill there before the ferry at 4pm. I remember taking the ferry from Picton to Wellington, and us having to wait in the car in the sun for ageeees, but there was a big playground and cafe and everything here. The ferry also takes a lot longer, it was only two hours across the channel, you could see both coast lines from the ferry. Arin spent most of that in the playground, with Koi and I taking turns to eat, walk about and look after Alice. She was very cute, trying to stand and walk about on the moving boat, she was weaving all over the show like a drunk person. I noticed on the boat that compared to all the other babies there, she is really pretty! There were some ugly kids headed to England, and I got heaps of smiles walking around with her. 

Cliffs at Dover
I had been pretty blasé about visiting England, but we we neared Dover and I could see the cliffs, just like in the song, visiting the country that has had the most impact on our history, society and culture in NZ finally hit home. We piled back into the car, and headed off to London. Koi was now driving a European car (where they drive on the right) in England (where they drive on the left). It was pretty scary, she isn't the best of drivers anyway, and because the steering wheel was on the outside edge of the road she kept veering inwards, putting me in the passenger seat out over the middle-line. Apart from that, the drive was good, the countryside seemed more similar to parts of NZ than anything else I've seen recently, as there were rolling hills with gorse hedges and sheep-filled paddocks.

Paddington Tube Station
We got to London quite late, and headed to her friends' place, which is actually in Slough, outside of London. They have a two-year old kid, and watching him made me swear I'll quit this nanny thing before Alice turns two and starts throwing similar tantrums. Of course, that would set both Alice and Arin off crying too! The dad dropped me off at the train station muttering about how glad he was to be going back to work tomorrow morning! At the train station I had a nice introduction to London, as a stabbing had just taken place and I had to wait for about an hour before we could go inside, with a drunk man next to me alternatively telling me about how he had once played rugby for Wales and sobbing about how sad it was we lived in a world where stabbings took place. Once it reopened i managed to take the train to Paddington Station, and then the tube to Liverpool St in Hackney, and then a bus to Philippa's. This trip backed up London's reputation for being ridiculously expensive - the train (similar to going from the Hutt Valley into Wellington proper) cost about $20NZD and each trip on the tube costs about $10NZD. $30 gone and I'd only just made it into London, it didn't bode well for my bank balance over the next couple of days!

I love the old vs new everywhere
Philippa had cooked an awesome feed and some kiwi mates were hanging out with them, we sat around chatting and trying out the bunch of belgian food (speculoos!) I'd brought over with me before going to bed. I was only really in London for a couple of days, and I had a huge list of things that I wanted to buy while I had the chance in an english-speaking country, like a pile of second hand books. I also wanted to pick up a whole bunch of cheap clothing to wear while looking after the kids, and Philippa and James recommended Primark to me, so on Monday morning I headed of to hunt for it on Oxford St. I popped out of the tube onto a street filled with massive shops, things like H&M, Zara and River Island that I know from all around Europe, and a few blocks down found Primark. Primark is massive. Possibly the biggest clothing-only shop that I've been in.

Brick Lane
It is also scary, there are people absolutely everywhere and they can be quite aggressive. I saw some amazing displays of poor manners. The clothing there is cheap, like from $2NZD for basic tops to $10NZD for dresses, and the quality is below average but I figure that working with kids who cover me in sand, paint and baby-drool, quantity is better than quality, and I still have my 'normal' clothes for my days off, so I loaded up a big basket. The downside of Primark is the lines, you can wait half an hour to try stuff on and then another half an hour at the check out. I left after a good couple of hours in there with a bunch of stuff, feeling quite faint! You definitely need to eat and drink before going in there! But it was an experience. Apparently there's a Primark in Spain as well, I'm quite glad no one told me that before, because I am terrible at wasting money on cheap crap. I nearly wrote, luckily there isn't a Primark here in Belgium either, but I just googled it and found that there is one, in a city my good friend lives in. Damn you Google!

Portobello Market in Notting Hill
I then headed off to Notting Hill, to wander around a little and check out the Portobello Market. It was actually kind of hard to find once you're out of the tube station, but my good sense of direction prevailed and I ended up there in the end. The market is quite cool, but I liked the actual shops lining the street even better, there was heaps of cool stuff, from stores that had been run there by the same family for 20 years selling ethnic rugs and handicrafts, to chain shops selling modern homewares and accessories like the French Pylones. I wandered around for ages but as I was already broke from Primark, didn't spend money until I stopped in a second-hand bookshop on the way back to the tube.

Beigel goodness
Philippa cooked again on Monday night, a awesome curry. Koi makes thai curry quite often, but I really miss indian curry, so I really enjoyed it, and then the three of us headed out for a drink. They live in Tower Hamlets, an area to the east of the city centre, and right next to Hackney. The area is quite ethnic and really arty, full of stuff done by street artists and famous for having the first council housing and some of the worst slums on London back in the 1800s. The Old Nchol Street slum was apparently the worst, and was demolished in the late 1890s with all of the rubble being pushed into the middle of the new development to make a weird huge roundabout type thing with a big raised garden, its still there today. We headed to a bar just off Brick Lane, a street that has awesome markets on Sundays, heaps of curry places (a huge percentage of the population in the area is from Bangladesh) and all of the shops and galleries associated with art and fashion students, its quite cool. Reminds me of Newtown a bit. We grabbed salt beef Beigels on the way home at one of the two Brick Lane Beigel shops, Beigels are like a Jewish bagel and salt beef is like corned beef, only hotter and with spicy mustard.

Tower of London
On Tuesday I headed off the check out the tourist stuff. I walked through Tower Hamlets and Hackney a bit, and went to the Spitalfields Markets. I was there quite early so many stalls were just opening up, but there was some really cool stuff there, I got some random old maps for next to nothing and found the awesomest huge leather bound book from the 1950s, a translation dictionary for technical terms between English, German and French, stuff like 'charge the batteries', totally useless but so cool that I would have brought it had it not weighed heaps.

London Bridge
I jumped on a bus and back off it next to the Thames, and got my first look at the bridge. I have to say, its actually kinda small and insignificant-looking, but I guess that's true about all famous monuments, and the Thames is really dirty and gross. I climbed to the top of The Monument, a huge column to commemorate the Great Fire of 1666 to get a look around, and had some fish and chips for lunch, but they were tragic and not like I'm used to at all. 

Big Ben
I wandered around the outside of the Tower of London and over the Bridge, but I was too broke to pay the entrance for either, and then I walked down the river to Westminster. It turned out to be a longer walk than I'd expected, and all the way I had this annoying empty coke can in my hand. Despite it being a proper walkway alongside the Thames, I walked for almost a hour without seeing a rubbish bin, but I kept seeing these barges that dredge the Thames for rubbish, with these signs on the side about keeping London clean. The irony was not lost on me, and I was really tempted to biff the can just because the council is too dumb to put rubbish bins in useful places, but my tidy kiwi breeding was too good for that.

the flags outside Buckingham Palace
While London Bridge seemed small, Westminster didn't fail to impress. Big Ben really is pretty cool, and the Palace of Westminster government buildings are awesome. Westminster Abbey was ok, I don't think I had any idea of what to expect there, but I didn't go inside. Then I walked down through St James Park, past the Horse Guards Palace and up the Mall to Buckingham Palace. The actual Palace seems quite small, again, after Versailles any other palace pales by comparison, but even the palaces in Spain are much more impressive. I did really like the flags outside however, they made the place seem nice and tidy.

The beefeaters were a bit of a letdown, there were only four of them and they were well inside the huge fence and outnumbered by regular policemen carrying huge guns. Kinda ruins the effect. Probably due to terrorism or something. 

one of the NZ War memorial crosses

I kept walking, heading into Hyde Park. At Hyde Park Corner they have the NZ War Memorial, a series of huge cross pieces standing up with words and pictures carved into them. I stopped for a while to reflect, I was conscious of having missed the ANZAC day celebrations for the first time in years and was also finding it quite weird to come across such a big reminder of home after five months over here. I think its a beautiful memorial, and outshines the Australian one over in the opposite corner, although its probably not good taste for me to say so!

Part of the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain
Hyde Park itself was kinda average, I love the Parque de Buen Retiro in Madrid and have spent days there, and prefer it to Hyde Park, and I got accosted by a strange man while sitting next to the lake. I did like the Memorial Fountain of Princess Diana. Its not a normal fountain, but kind of like a circular granite-pathed stream, with people invited to put their hands and and feet in the water and play. I like these modern kinds of memorial, like the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Berlin, the kind that is interactive in the sense that you can walk in and around it and do whatever you like, whatever suits you and how you want to acknowledge it, rather than the old fashioned kind that you just visit once a year on anniversaries to leave flower wreathes on.

Buckingham Palace
By this point I'd been walking for ages, so I jumped onto the tube and headed off to meet up with Philippa and James and some mates of theirs, at James' new exhibition. I like his new photos, of buildings around England, and I liked some of the other works there on the architecture in London, like the huge council flat buildings that are now pretty shoddy. Incase me constantly commenting on the architecture in different regions didn't give it away, I am quite interested in the urban landscape and learning how to photograph it. We went back to their place for some drinks, it was weird to be sitting around with a bunch of kiwis talking, having only seen three New Zealander's in the last five months! We finished the night at a gig of one of their friend's bands, he was really good and I had a good time, it felt like a normal night out in NZ! The walk home was quite hilarious, turns out Philippa might have had a little bit too much to drink, and might have reminded everyone of that whole 'stand on a crack and you'll marry a rat' thing.

Phone box outside the NZ Embassy, see the flag
Wednesday was my last day here in London, and I visited the Apple store to by a new laptop, a MacbookPro. After five months of internet cafes and friends computors, keyboards in other languages, using different photo-editing programmes, and storing everything on a million memory sticks, having my own computor that I can have all of my stuff on and use whenever I want to, and to go back to the world of Mac, is amazing. Thanks mum and dad. The Covent Garden store was huge, and had these weird systems, where you talk to a guy in amongst all of the display laptops, and he leans over and puts your order into one of them, and he charges it via some handheld device I didn't look at to closely (Ipad?) and then a guy from the storeroom brings it out and gives it to you. Its a bit surreal, didn't feel serious enough considering you're forking out a couple of thousand. I quickly walked through the market there and up the Strand through Trafalgar Square to Piccadilly Circus, where I sat and had lunch, and past the New Zealand embassy to a New Zealand shop where I picked up some marmite.

Trafalgar Square
And then it was time to dash back to the flat, buy a new suitcase for my Primark clothes and books because my original plan to meet Koi to give her my stuff to take back had fallen through, and head to the airport. I really had no idea how to get there, beyond Philippa's friend telling me to bus to London Bridge Station and get a train out, so I was a little paranoid about the whole thing. Some guy at the station told me where to get off to swap trains and I wrote what I thought he said down, only to get on the train and find out that wasn't a stop! But I jumped out at one of the two places that sounded similar and managed to get it right, and arrived at the airport ok. I had ages to kill before my flight to Madrid, and spent my last few pounds on macdonalds, only to be given only half a burger! The bottom half was missing, and when I went back the girl was really suspicious, looking at me like I'd eaten half of it and then brought it back for more. Weird.

Piccadilly Circus
So on the whole, although I was only there for a couple of days and didn't have much money to spend, I really enjoyed London, more than I thought I would. There is heaps to do there, I really want to go back and do all of the tourist things, explore more neighbourhoods and visit all the museums and aquariums and stuff. It was creepy to be back in an English speaking country, and one that seems similar to home, and one where you can hear NZ accents all around you when you walk on the street or go into a shop. Huge ups to Philippa and James for being awesome hosts!

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