There was a glaring omission in my previous entry – we actually visited Westminster Abbey and went inside. The place is huge, both in prime real estate area and height. Strewn throughout are memorial stones and tombs dating back to the 1200s. So many of the early English royalty are actually buried there, including a couple of “firsts” (King Whatsisface I, etc). After spending an hour or so inside, you pop out again into bustling London. My first comment to Dad was that you kind of forget about the rest of the world while you’re inside. Remarkably peaceful, if a little bewildering.
Here’s something I found amusing. On the first night we were blowing up our air matresses in the lounge room and discovered the pump nozzle fitting was cracked. Rather than pumping the air into the bed, it was just escaping around the nozzle. My first reaction was “Got some gaff?”, which I asked aloud directly to my Auntie, fully expecting the typical “Erm, gaff?” response. But she just said “Yep! In the cupboard.” and I doubled over laughing. [For the uninitiated, gaffer tape is commonly used in construction and audio/production, where it’ll stick to anything and fix anything.]
Finally, something truly random. While we were at the cafe yesterday I happened to discover a small fragment of tooth loosely embedded in my gum where my bottom left wisdom tooth has surfaced. This small fragment irked me no end, and I fiddled with it indecorously until finally dislodging it and extracting it. It was no larger than a sesame seed, and oddly enough, had the look of a miniscule tooth, with a crown and a root. If this is a fluke, it was an ironically well shaped fluke!
Since Mum didn’t care too much for the cold open-top Big Bus company ride around the sights in London, I took advantage of the second day of her ticket to join Dad in a hoon around the east side. Victoria and Regent, Trafalgar and the Thames. Fortunately I managed to hit the shutter on my camera at just the right moment when passing the [clock tower commonly known as, and containing the huge bell called the] Big Ben, and despite the postcardish look of the shot I’m glad to have been there and captured it myself. Tower Bridge (yep, the one with towers on it) was an enjoyable sight too, as was the London Tower. I got a decent couple of pics of most of the sights to see.
Our tour guides on the buses were absolutely hilarious. The first was just funny and laconic, but the second was a one-eyed sold-out born-and-bred London monarchist. He was loud and abrasive and indignant, heaping scorn on dispassionate tourists when passing quintessential London landmarks and attempting to incite some emotional display. Quite informative, he was, and listening throughout enabled me to have a better understanding of the sights and sounds around the place. I now feel satisfied that I have been a tourist in London.
To be in London and not visit Harrods would surely be a cardinal sin. Furthermore, my idea of what Harrods would be was totally incorrect. I had assumed it was a boutique niche store serving only the most exorbitant of tastes. Nope. It’s huge. You pay a premium to buy anything with the Harrods brand on it, apparently up to 20% over normal prices. Fortunately I was wearing my good jeans (yeah, I know), because visitors have been known to be turned away if their dress was deemed inappropriate. As it was I was asked to carry my backpack in my hand. Didn’t buy anything but had an average quality coffee at Illy on the top floor for £3 (about AUD$7.50).
The younglings who live here at our accommodation – my cousins, aged five and nine – manage to rise every morning at an unearthly hour. I have not slept past 6am in my time here so far, and the prospects of this actually occurring but once during my time here are bleak. Add to this the unfortunate reality of totally destroying my body’s perception of regular sleep cycles and you have a red-eyed zombie each day at about 4pm. They eat at about 6pm and retire at about 7pm, whereas the rest of us don’t eat until 8pm. This is odd. My mind gets it but my exhaustion says otherwise. It is remarkably frustrating for this choleric that I can’t function half as well after mid afternoon than before midday.
Perhaps we are becoming accustomed to the cold. It seems less piercing and it’s too much of a hassle to remove jacket and scarf at every indoor location. The heating here is as prevalent and effective as Australian cooling, allowing us to wear only one layer inside.
Today we managed a couple of hours of solitude while the rest of the crew were at a school breakup do. Tim and I were totally overtired and we were laughing at both our languid attempts at normal motor skills and the hilarity of a hopping international calling card. To celebrate Tim’s success with his SACE/TER we visited the local delimart called the Co-op and a chip shop for typically British hot chips.
Thereafter we visited Wimbledon, which is a thriving mall centre not far from the tennis mecca. First time to try a Quiznos sub, and while it wasn’t insubstantial, I didn’t find it worth the 4 quid I paid. Tim got an eminently British Big Mac meal for not much more.
There’s a cafe at the Plaza in Wimbledon called Costa Coffee. The coffee was, surprisingly, outstanding. Not only in quality but also in quantity too – we got medium drinks which would have easily been 600mL. My additional macchiato was delicious and I was only sorry that I quaffed it so quickly. I may have mentioned that coffee is everywhere, with no shortage of independent and other franchises in addition to the green-branded mermaid.
I like Wimbledon. It’s much less frantic than Oxford Street and the focus seemed to be more authentically social than the need to be seen in the right place wearing the appropriate ensemble of brand apparel.
We decided, Tim and I, to take an exploratory jaunt around the high shopping district in the middle of London on our first real day “in town”. We took the train – actually, three trains, from just down the road from where we’re staying in Mitcham, Surrey. We travelled via Victoria station, stopping so Tim could get some fries from Maccas and we could get our first espresso-based coffees in two days. That was overdue.
From Victoria station we cruised via underground right into Oxford Circus. This is smack in the middle of the biggest shopping street I have ever seen. It’s no mall – there are mad black taxis and madder red buses screaming past you everywhere. The jumble of one-way streets makes for interesting pedestrianism (look out for it, it’ll be in next year’s Macquarie) but what really takes a deal more concentration is navigating through the thronging mass of people. It was ridiculous, even on a Monday morning at about noon, in 5 degree weather!
Every big brand and almost big brand has a presence on Oxford street. The stores themselves are huge status symbols, establishing a weight of marketing-driven necessity to fund their exorbitant outgoings in maintaining operation.
For lunch we found a little hole in the wall selling kebabs. For the Melbourners, this is no yiros. This is real deal, Turkish kebab. Oh yeah.
We continued on what fast became a tour of the [go to] jail corner of the Monopoly board. We visited Oxford Street, Bond Street, Regent Street and just saw Picadilly across the road. For $320, Bond Street is a steal. It’s interesting to note how the demographics change in these areas. One moment you’re in middle-west Oxford street with middle-upper class Brits and a handful of tourists, and then you’re further east on Charing Cross in the middle of Chinatown and tech central.
There are a few extra photos in the gallery. It’s late now, so I’ll add captions where needed sometime later.
Flying about 14,000km takes a long time. You get past the first leg of a round-the-world trip and you say, “That’s easy. Are we there yet?” And of course, you’re not. And you wait to get on the next leg. And you wait. And they change the departure gate on you. And you wait some more.
You get on the plane, and you wait yet more. Finally, you’re in the air. And you watch as your ever helpful in-seat HUD tells you you have 12 hours estimated until destination…
Knowing full well that I don’t generally volunteer to sit up and sleep, I preempted my potential insomnia in Adelaide and got myself some antihistamine thing which makes you sleepy. This means that I slept on my London leg for about five or six hours. This is a Good Thing. I awoke with a nasty dry throat – a combination, no doubt, of an antihistamine side effect and constant air conditioning in our flying tube – but soothed this similarly preempted condition with a water bottle I readied earlier.
iPod nano played again, and I read all the way through an issue of Future Music magazine (which, ironically enough, had been printed in the UK and imported to Adelaide, where I had bought it). Breakfast was fried rice and chicken, and was a good sight better than the “omelette” Singapore Airlines tried to get me to believe was not actually overpreserved tofu on my Germany trip. Six hours on a plane takes an aeon to while away, but we arrived eventually after a wonderful night overflight of western Europe.
If Malaysia was slightly humid and slightly warm, London is utterly freezing cold. Seriously. We got off the plane and it was -3 degrees Celcius on the ground. Yeah, that’s why I carried my jacket on me the whole way.
Arriving at 5am has its downsides. I had indeed slept earlier, so the “day” had already half elapsed in my mind. Customs and baggage collection were easy and our relatives were punctual (and not half bleary) in picking us up, rather than enjoying their Sunday morning sleep in. And once at our new home away from home, we had a whole day in front of us, including second breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and coffee. Having had a decent amount of sleep, I fared better than some of the others in our family, who crash landed into their pillows only to awake at 3am the next day.
Other first impressions? Well, it’s cold. And the houses are… compact. Cosy? Small! We’ve got ten people in a very small space. At least the place is well heated, because it’s cold here. All the buildings and infrastructure seem older too.
Did I mention the cold?
[ADL 12:04 AM becomes KL 9:34 PM, Dec 17, 2005.]
So this is it – the long anticipated and much awaited Grand Overseas Family Holiday. We’ve had our first flight leg, and, all things considered, it was of a pretty high standard. I’m sitting outside our transit departure gate, and we’ve got about two hours before we leave for the next segment.
The Malaysia Airlines people have got the ADL-KL trip sorted, with heaps of entertainment on the somewhat grainy LCD screen embedded in the chair in front, along with plenty of nibbles and a good airline meal (apparently, not a contradiction in terms). For the price of an overseas airline ticket, and the according discomfort of economy (no-)class, the standard and quantity of food was excellent.
Flying was uneventful. There were a couple of bumpy moments which caused the more excitable among our company onboard to exclaim, but mostly it was smooth sailing. I enjoyed plenty of engaging things to keep myself occupied, from the marathon-length “The Aviator” to the joys of 1000 songs in my pocket.
And now we have arrived at the airport. It’s smaller than I would have thought, with a couple of multinational fast food chains taking pride of place and a glut of top brand fashion outlets strewn throughout. The star-style layout means that the central area can be very samey, with the spokes of the star leading to gates.
The first experience of currency conversion this trip too – AUD$10 gave us RM27.50 to spend. Tim’s fries from Burger King were RM3.60, including tomato ketchup (way different to our beloved tomato sauce) and chilli sauce. My Starbucks frappucino was RM13.00, with cream. Note that Starbucks, despite common opinion, does not rank highly in my esteem of good coffee. In my own very humble opinion, it’s just the taste of fast food coffee to which most Americans are accustomed, made worldwide by successful business planning. I took a few photos but there’s not much more to see around here with real photographic merit.
I’m reminded of the place between worlds in The Magician’s Nephew, C.S. Lewis’ followup commencement of the Narnia series. We’re here, just waiting to be on our way elsewhere. This seems more widely applicable than just travel to me, despite the late hour… Speaking of which, already I have experienced some profound thoughts on the way. I’m sure this is just the first glimpse, but the world is yet huge and amid the magnitude of numbers I seem to pale and dwindle into insignificance.
It’s easy to magnify elements of the travel beyond their deserved proportion. I trust that I’ll find London a thousand times more interesting than the plane trip, but this bit is a stack of fun nonetheless!