We were helpless.
A blow to my ribs shunting me away from Karen, breaking our bond with ease. I looked back over my shoulder and there she was, drifting and falling behind with concerning speed.
How could we have possibly thought this was a good idea?
As I twisted, calculating velocity, momentum and force; I fleetingly wondered whether those doling out sage advice such as “Don’t fight the riptide, go with the flow…”, had ever immersed themselves in water more than shin deep.
So close, and yet a lifetime away. Anxiety on both our faces as the gulf widened, each of us thrusting back against the inexorable flow between us. Arms straining to their fullest extent. Fingers reaching. Refusing to give in to this uninvited futility, scary in its strength.
An inch here, a foot there. Necessity breeding a swift and primal understanding of the forces at play and how they might be harnessed. A shrug of the shoulders, a twist of the hip, feeling the flow and using it to our advantage, however small.
Fingers first, then clasped palms. Finally, an arm around each other’s waist and competing emotions of relief and exaltation coursing through our veins. We stepped out and away from the torrent, free at last and safe in our own perfect harbour.
Turning to each other with wide eyes, no words were needed. We were both thinking exactly the same thing,
“So that’s Waterloo Station at peak hour?!”
So deep you could drown, and it hasn’t held back in the attempt.
We’ve fought side by side with our British brothers and sisters on the battlefields of the world. We share the same deprecating sense of humour. We speak the same language (except those northerners…they’re an odd breed that mob!). We even share the same monarch.
Our travel has been extensive over the years, experiencing strange foods, bizarre customs and foreign cultures, as far removed from the Australian ‘way of life’ as is possible. Some even claim the antipodean experience to be exotic, yet London is by far the strangest urban beast we’ve encountered.
We expected a familiar embrace, to feel as though we’d just slipped on our favourite pair of pyjamas.
As with anything in life we should have known to assume nothing; hope for the best and plan for the worst!
Those first minutes and hours on arrival are defining moments, weaving the canvas on which all subsequent experiences are projected. I sit to be a Monet? A Rembrandt? Van Gogh?
Or would ours be more akin to the finger painting of an enthusiastic five year old?
A long drive through early morning peak hour traffic provided the perfect opportunity to prop our eyelids with metaphorical matchsticks and absorb our strange new world – exploring London from behind cold glass.
On one hand, the relentless and yet strangely rhythmic hold, and release, as we inched our way into central London, bumper to bumper, luring us toward unwanted but much needed sleep.
On the other, the golden light of the autumn sun piercing naked branches of poplar, oak and beech, telling tales of summer past and surrender to winter’s grasp.
Sweet chestnuts the most stoic of them all and yet still shivering; shrugging their leafy shoulders in a futile attempt to escape the cool embrace. Involuntary shivers loosening the last leaves of the season, for them to fall like yellow stars and dance, across the bitumen and beyond.
Lifting our eyes, the commercial and industrial aspects of the city seemed no different and as drab as that back home, yet in the residential we saw our first real indication of how very different England is to Australia.
Sandstone and steel. Chimney pots and terraces. Row upon row of white-washed two story villas, laid out with military precision and a consistency that suggested all had fallen off the same factory line! So little variation in colour, shape or size for miles. And yet amid all this repetition, in true Andy Orton style out of nowhere would loom an enormous stone building and its acres of accompanying gardens, more reminiscent of a castle than someone’s home!
Yet all this was tangible, seen, real.
It was what lay beneath that really made an impact.
The dank Heathrow aerobridge with fond memories of WWII and in desperate need of some TLC. Not to mention the low ceilings, claustrophobically clinical interior, and power tripping immigration officials. And then hedgerows, lining fields tended by generations. The dark mounds of decaying mulch. The dense intensity of human existence that stretched unbroken for miles.
The sense of time and antiquity was palpable, and we couldn’t help but question our own foundations. What would two upstarts from an ex-convict colony really know of culture? Of architecture? Of western history? Heaven help us…of food?!
As we alighted from our taxi in the alleyways of Shoreditch, two suitcases and a couple of backpacks our only possessions for the forseeable future, these were the questions that circled our minds like crazed English magpies.
And golly gosh, hey what, by jingo we were going to get some answers!
On street etiquette in London
In typical fashion and putting the ‘foot’ into Fork and Foot, minutes after check in and a strong cup of coffee later we were walking the streets of London.
Our mission? To stay awake!
Assumptions are dangerous little critters. They’ll ambush when you least expect it. Literally, in our case.
Travel enough and you start to notice certain human habits that transcend location and language. It may not be immediately obvious but street etiquette does generally follow one particular rule; if you drive on the left, you walk on left, and vice versa.
Not so in London. London’s sidewalks are a minefield, waiting to trip up the unsuspecting or overly confident tourist.
Of course, we began the day on the left-hand side. Being Australians it should be happy days, right?
It was only a matter of minutes and we were already lining up random dance partners for a spot of impromptu square dancing!
Now impromptu isn’t necessarily unenjoyable, but as surprising as it may sound for one of us that spent four years living in the home of Australian country music, given enough time even square dancing can become tedious.
What was the deal with these people? Not only were they walking on the wrong side of the footpath but they refused to make eye contact as well? It’s just not British!
So we tried the right-hand side. A mild improvement but ultimately the same result. What gives?
It was only on our descent into the bowels of the Tube that some sense of British order became apparent. You definitely need to stand on the right when taking an escalator anywhere. Fail to comply with this most basic requirement and risk the fate of our convict forebears! But it still begged the question…why the right hand side?
Emerging once more into the wan light of day, we gave up all hope of extracting any particular structure from what should have been a simple exercise, and simply walked wherever the hell we wanted.
We were happy, they were happy, and most importantly, no dancing required!
You’re listening to The Streets
In a city like Saigon or Tokyo the culture shock is immediate. Unintelligible language, unrecognizable signage, neon lights…
London is a creeper. But in a good way!
The squawk of a seagull just that little bit shriller. The difference in tone as an ambulance screams past. The funky accents. Even something as inconsequential as the quicker cadence of the pedestrian crossing.
Nothing momentous; mundane even. Simple little things that told us this wasn’t Kansas.
In many ways walking the streets of London is like the western version of South Korea’s Mt Namsan, known by many as ‘the museum without walls’. Yet where Mt Namsan embraces nature, religion and philosophy, London presents a visage of history, pop culture, fashion and current affairs.
Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley and The Leaky Cauldron. Walking the length of Oxford Street or taking a train from Liverpool Street Station, reminiscing on Christmas holidays and childhood tantrums over the rules of Monopoly (written and unwritten). Big Ben, London Bridge and so many other monuments ingrained in our Commonwealth heritage.
And then there was ‘The Tube’, a microcosm of English society. As already alluded; prince and pauper nose to armpit, manic and at times even frightening for the uninitiated, yet also channeling the very best of Dr. Who in bringing order, regimen and control over both space and time (except when there’s a station closure, as we found out the hard way!).
“We may no longer control the seas, but by Jove we’ll bring some order to the Northern Line!!”
Share house living
Strange things run through our minds as we try, like most, to put a particular location in a ‘box’.
A 25km round trip by foot to Greenwich Park via Canary Wharf and returning via London Bridge probably wasn’t the best idea for Day 2 (more than a month later and Andrew’s knee still hasn’t fully recovered…dry your eyes mate!).
If you’re contemplating an exploration of more than just Big Ben, The Eye and other central attractions, we suggest you first familiarise yourself with the rail system and buy yourself an Oyster card.
- We love walking, but London’s size defeated us
- It’s cheaper than paying for single trips
- It’s simple and convenient
- You’ll spend more time enjoying your destination!
For more info, drop by The London Toolkit. Their explanation makes more sense than the official website!
However, what this walk did provide was a sharp knife through the proverbial Victorian Cream Cake that is London.
Spitalfields; quirky and Bohemian with a dash of hipster. Nothing out of the ordinary there and in many ways a mirror to our own experience back home. Yet as we slowly left the familiarity of tourist central in our wake, we began to understand something you don’t read in the guide books or experience through an organized tour.
Walking through Stepney and Limehouse presented shop frontages more reminiscent of south east Asia than western Europe, with hardly an anglo-saxon face to be seen.
And then Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs (a good thing it wasn’t the Isle of Cats…imagine the havoc that would ensue). A glass and steel monument to capitalism, merino suit clad sheep hustling and bustling up and down its wind tunnels, purposefully chasing dollars, euro and yen like cage-bound hamsters.
To the nautical and astronomical heritage of Greenwich, cobbled lanes and brass fittings ahoy! Centuries of tradition reflected through its architecture and verdant parklands.
Returning via Deptford and Rotherhithe (ever heard of them?) to our surprise we encountered Polish grocers, Romanian accents and a subtle shift in dress sense hinting at eastern European roots.
And then, finally, the long walk across the Tower Bridge, over the Thames and past the Tower of London and Bank of England. Grand, monumental stonework, with history seeping through their every pore, instilling a sense of awe and submission in the first-time observer, just as it would have to the peasants of yore.
That strange thing that ran through our minds as we walked London’s eclectic streets?
London is the share house of the future, but the tenants haven’t yet worked out how to live together!
There’s grandpa Alfred, kicking back in his rocking chair, rug across the knees and toes warmed by the coals of a waning fire. Reminiscing over good times and hard won victories, yet still a little bitter at what could have been.
Young Harry, crashes through the front door and jumps off his Boris, pelting helter-skelter upstairs without even a sideways glance at the old man.
Harry’s mother, Anne, is next door in the dining room. Alfred keeps complaining that she never pays him enough attention. He’s probably right, but only because Anne is too busy digging up dead relatives in the cellar, playing dressups and turning them into a commercial ‘pay per view’ affair.
And then there’s Samira and her family in the house next door. Harry’s great mates with the youngest of their children, Raj; both happy to run amok together through the local streets. Friends for life no doubt. What they can’t understand is why Alfred keeps telling Samira to bring him a cup of tea any time she’s within ear shot. Or why Anne sweeps down the front porch most thoroughly after a visit from the neighbours, warning Harry to, “Watch out for that Raj! Mark my words, he’s trouble!”. Anne does love Samira’s rogan josh though…
The river is rising and all they can think of is skin colour and religion?
Bring on the rains…
Exploring London – A reflection
London IS the strangest of beasts.
A sprawling, ancient and surprisingly beautiful petri dish of humanity.
Yet at the same time suffering the ever-present burden of time, of class structures, poverty and royalty, of obligation and false expectation.
It was only 7 days yet it felt like a life time. Maybe we needed longer? Perhaps the city was simply steeling itself for the impending winter? Familiarity can breed contempt, and while there may be an element of Anglo-Aussie truth in this, it wasn’t everything.
More likely we’re small town kids at heart, happiest when we’re close to nature and away from the crowds. The hours we spent wandering the stone paths and green grass of Greenwich Park were a joy, as was the briny scent of the Thames at low tide, tickling our nostrils as we strolled its promenade. The silence of Postman’s Park, a thumbnail oasis in the heart of the city a welcome relief and a chance for solitude, if only for a minute.
This may read as though it was a week of disappointment but the truth is we don’t regret our time in London for an instant.
Tasting the world, step by step, we’ve learnt a lot about ourselves. And as we’ll reveal, the culinary aspects of London were the best possible education for two self-professed foodies, with the markets, the competing cultures and their modern twists on traditional flavours exciting us no end.
There is so much more to come over the coming weeks and months, so join with us as we continue to explore London, Scotland, Cyprus and beyond!