London Landing and Ill-Equipped Tube Stations
When the plane was coming in to land, the skies were clear over London, and out of my little oval window the first landmarks I saw were the London Eye, London Bridge and the Gherkin. Sir chats-a-lot was still yammering on about Mrs Thatcher and her visionary social policies by my side but I tuned him out to focus on the murky Thames. My doubts about moving here had just about slid away down the aeroplane wing and then the pilot's voice came over: "It is 0 degrees in London this morning." My doubts scurried back up the wing, crashed through the window and buried themselves in the pocket of my flimsy Australian coat. No amount of coaxing or offers of banoffee pie could get them out.
I mentioned earlier the $200 excess baggage fee for my luggage. So it was to be a pretty uneven fight: 1 x small, ignorant Australian girl with scant upper-body strength (but a fabulous hairdo) versus 2 x pregnant-with-octuplets bags, 1 x peak-hour on the tube, 100 x apathetic Londoners and 2 x tube stations that were ill-equipped for the 1 x small, ignorant Australian girl with scant upper-body strength (but a fabulous hairdo). The first thing that confronted me at Covent Garden station, after miraculously hauling both bags out onto the platform, was about three flights of winding stairs. Fantastic. Luckily it seemed to help being a small, ignorant, increasingly helpless-looking Australian girl with scant upper-body strength (and a dishevelled hairdo) because at both Covent Garden and Warren St stations, two lovely English gentlemen helped me out. And everyone says the British don't care...
Then Peter came to rescue me, and it was on to:
The Flat that Hygiene Forgot
I have to be careful what I write here, because Peter has been absolutely wonderful with showing me around and answering the unprecedented onslought of stupid questions I keep asking every time there's a pause in one of his favourite housing-rennovation TV shows, BUT "the flat" - although central - has about the same levels of hygiene and cleanliness as a back-alley behind one of Sydney's recently named-and-shamed salmonella-housing Sushi bars. Mum would clutch her heart and faint in horror. Then she'd regroup, dust off the three-week old particles of egg and chicken tandoori pieces that attached themselves to her skin, and pronounce the task insurmountable. (So much for being careful about what I write. Sorry Pete! Of course I'm exaggerating.) It's within walking distance of Soho, Oxford St, Trafalgar Square, the British Museum and Buckingham Palace (among other things) but unless I get a job tending the Queen's gardens I am probably moving on quite soon.
Beginning the Tally of Famous Sights
Between setting up a bank account, looking for work, applying for numbers and cards, getting spectacularly lost and learning to say 'trousers' instead of 'pants', I've managed to visit a few places, or at least pass them while I'm walking. Soho is fabulous, obviously - packed with funky cafes, winding cobblestone laneways, knick-knack shops and an endless parade of people trying to outdo each other with avant-garde fashion. One of the tasks I had set myself was to find the best coffee in London, and according to my Lonely Planet Guide, Monmouth Coffee Company in Soho was the place to go. It may take a little more investigation, but so far it is definitely the best I've had. The smell of the place alone made it worth the effort of finding it*. The only downside is that they only offer full-fat milk. No skim, and definitely no soy. So for the lactose-intolerant amongst us ('I have no patience for lactose, and frankly I won't stand for it'), it is probably only good for the occasional stop in. Unless you drink your coffee black, of course.
Me and Monmouth Coffee
* On that note, a word about London intersections: I am used to an 'intersection' being an orderly sort of place, where two (or at the most, two or three) streets meet in a well-constructed fashion. Here, and in Soho especially, an 'intersection' actually refers to about seven streets that collide in one hodge-podge of roundabouts, strange offshoots, cement islands and cyclists who care little for traffic signals or befuddled pedestrians. Right near Monmouth Coffee Company, for example, I counted seven cobblestone laneways that all met up in one place. There was a roundabout in the middle where a rather large collection of people were sitting to admire the skill of the taxi drivers who managed to navigate their way through. At least the cars drive on the same side of the road, so I haven't been run over (yet).
(The place where seven lanes meet is actually a known London oddity called 'Seven Dials'. Here I am).
Peter and I also went to the British Museum (where I could have spent an entire day, really, but Peter was pretty sleepy) where I took in mummies and bowls and textiles and masks and rings and coins and hats and severed bronze arms and golden statues and swords and costumes and all sorts of intricate things from Asia, Africa, Egypt and the world that made me feel captivated and overwhelmed all wrapped up in a poncho of ignorance.
The National Gallery, off of Trafalgar Square (which, incidentally, is not signposted in red like on the Monopoly board, and does not have nearly the amount of pigeons I'd been led to expect) was similarly overwhelming. Monet, Pissarro, Van Gogh (the chair! the sunflowers! the wheatfield!), Cezanne, Degas, Picasso. Two paintings that I'd never seen before but made me come closer were one from the Studio of El Greco called 'The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane' (painted in the 1590s, but it looks pretty ahead of its time, style-wise. Bold colours and angular, modernist drapery) and 'A Girl at a Window' by Louis-Leopold Boilly (1799 or thereabouts). Google images!
I've also spied Big Ben from the top of a red double-decker bus, been to Leicester square, Regents Park and Westminster Abbey (some day in the future I will be able to tell my children (children?) that I turned down a job at the Abbey).
Another note about London streets: apart from tallying landmarks, I've also been counting the errant apostrophes that were obviously released out of a giant sack somewhere around Chinatown and have since found homes on the majority of London's street signage. At the moment the tally stands at 6 absconding apostrophes every 2.6 metres. There are pizza's, taxi's, musician's, apple's, scarf's, cafe's, and all-day breakfast's. I wonder what an all-day breakfast might own...
Biting Loneliness and the Grandiose Advertising Ploys of ISH
To say I was a bit lonely in my first week here is kind of like saying Vince Noir is 'a bit' androgynous, or that Billy Connolly is 'a bit' funny or that Craig Nicholls was 'a bit' drunk when he played the mystery set at Splendour 2006. After Pete left (long story, but he bought a flat in East London and left me his room for a month), the loneliness really began to bite. It nibbled at my fingertips at first but then it worked up an appetite that saw it target my vital organs. As part of my membership with BUNAC (the non-for-profit company I joined to help me find work, etc.) I had free access to the International Student House (ISH): a hostel just around the corner from where I'm staying. The brochure painted a glorious picture of its offerings: a gym with regular yoga classes, a thriving bar with pool tables, a restaurant, warm and cosy common room, free lectures and trivia nights. I was lured there by the prospect of reams of fellow travellers. Instead, everything and everywhere was empty. I walk into the some-would-say-ambitiously-titled Internet Cafe, and the shutters are bolted on what I assume to be the International Bistro with a range of mouth-watering dishes and a positive array of vegetarian options (try the lentil curry!), and there's one Asian guy tapping away on his laptop.
It was getting desperate, so I posted a despondent note on the London Couchsurfing page (for those of you who don't know, 'Couchsurfers' are an international community of travellers and potential friends who offer up their couches for free to fellow cash-strapped travellers. We also meet for coffee, have parties, etc. http://www.couchsurfing.com/). Next day I log on and am rescued! Who would have thought a blonde 24 year old girl with a penchant for Proust and body-shots would get such a response? (Just kidding, Dad. I hate Proust...) So anyway, my first rescuer was Kyle: a Brisbane Boy (who just happens to have a blog of his own: www.cyclingnomads.org/kyle). We organised to meet at Trafalgar Square and when I found him, I unleashed about 48 hours of pent-up conversation on him in about 10 minutes. Luckily he talks just as much as I do, so I didn't scare him with my conversational Niagara Falls. We had a sandwich in the Gardens along Victoria Embankment (by the way, I'm living on sandwiches. So much for the Heathrow Injection, Jaxon! If anything I've lost weight), then took a walk over the Golden Jubilee Bridge, along the South Bank Queen's Walk (overlooking the Thames) and then back over Blackfriars Bridge. We thought we'd take in a comedy night at Leicester Square because I had a two-for-one voucher from my TimeOut mag, but we got a bit lost and ended up seeing 'Be Kind, Rewind' at Odeon instead. We managed to sneak in a dinner of... more sandwiches!
Okay, I'm about to run out of time in this little internet cafe on Oxford St (the lady behind the desk looks like Fran from Strictly Ballroom pre-stunning-makeover), so the whimsical and enrapturing tales of my job-hunting will have to wait for another time. I'll let you know, however, that those little doubts that were squatting in my coat pockets are beginning to find jobs and make something of themselves, hence vacating the premises. There's only a couple of stubborn ones left now. They eat all my food and refuse to do the dishes.