Thursday, 19 December 2013

stinge-ing out in paris and london. part two

No surprises here...
Welcome to London, where professionals are worked so hard they start hallucinating and mentally break down, a cup of coffee costs 3 pounds ($5) and if you are idling along the footpath, well, stop idling or get out of the freaking way! The sun has long ago abandoned ship but the curious thing is that people continue to flock here from all (far sunnier) corners of the globe, to live the London life. But if you are not a professional working 12 hour days, you can expect a long commute because the cost of living is far too prohibitive for any of the more free-spirited bohemians (read waitresses) to survive in the city. Unless, you know, you aren't too keen on food.
St Paul's Cathedral, of Mary Poppins fame.

London is...grey. It is a big, grey machine. People are busy busy busy. There is money to be made and money to be spent. And if money isn't your thing you won't last in the city. But there are pockets of humanity in amongst all the suited people. And the flag of socialism is flying high above the art galleries and museums, which are completely free for all (unfortunately the privatisation of rail companies means the same can't be said for public transport, which is rather horrendously expensive). Housed in elegantly imposing old buildings there are wonders from every place and age, from dinosaurs, to the Rosetta Stone- the key that unlocked the heiroglyphs, to more modern treasures from Dali and Picasso. And since night begins to fall at about 3.30 and it is kind of cold in London right now, they are the perfect places to while away afternoons.
I spy with my enormous eye...

We met up with some Australian friends who happened to be in London at the same time as us and we took them to Shoreditch, a deeply hipster enclave north east of the river. We had explored the area previously and I found it very agreeable because with the pretension of hipsters comes good coffee, vintage shops and graff. So much graff. Graff on every corner, on every wall, door, window...An interesting place to wander and much more accepting of idlers than the business centre of the city. As our little Aussie gang made its way around we found a sign leading to some sort of farm, so we followed the trail and ended up at a brilliant little city vegie farm, complete with donkeys and ponies. And an awesome spinning see-saw.

Home of the hipsters, Shoreditch.

So there are places to escape the capitalist machine. Another such was an amazing little food market that Will and I were delighted to find one afternoon. We ate curry and a gourmet hotdog with pickles and a brownie and tried butter beer- it's a real thing and it tastes like warm butterscotch mixed with weak beer- and enjoyed my seasonal tipple of choice, mulled wine. And this was all sourced and produced locally and cost about the same as one large pizza from Pizza Hut (which, I am ashamed to say, we were unable to avoid patronising in order to satisfy our friend's hunger pangs and which is still disgusting but has now turned fancy- gone are the days of the all-you-can-eat dessert buffet...).

Tower Bridge and the king of Westminster.

During our first couple of days in the city Will indulged my consumerist alter-ego and we swanned from store to store pretending we had the space/money/inclination to buy all of the shinies we discovered. (I did buy boots...I am a girl after all). We also visited a bookshop on Marylebone High Street called Daunt's books, which is in a wonderful Edwardian building of 3 levels with green balconies and a stained glass window, that specializes in travel books and maps. Nothing remarkable, except that until the 1980's it belonged to Will's family. His great-great grandfather opened it as a book store specializing in travel but unfortunately the family had to sell it...and I have to say, they must be absolutely kicking themselves now- it was pumping (as much as a bookshop can be pumping) when we went in.
Another vestige of old London

So we've indulged our stomachs, our brains and our urge to buy- time to hit up the theatre. The first theatre I ever saw in London, several years ago, was 'Guys and Dolls' and 'We Will Rock You', the Queen musical. The first that Will and I saw together was rather more subdued and thought-provoking. We were in a pub listening to some terrible performers at an open-mic night and we decided to go across the road and check out a play we had seen advertised. It turned out to be two men, talking. More specifically, 2 homeless men and their conversations. It was enthralling, considering it was just a couple of guys on a tiny stage above a pub.
Also impressive was this here deer, made out of vacuum cleaners (and dad, as you can just see, from John Lewis).
 When we met our friends, we decided we all needed to have a night out, London style (but not too late because we all had trains to catch and, you know, we needed our 8 hours), so we wandered through the bright lights of Leicester Square until we found a show we agreed upon (and still had tickets available). It was called "Strangers on a Train" about, incredibly, 2 strangers who meet on a train. What followed was the psychological torment of one man by another, spiralling ever further out of control. The story was good but the sets were incredible and the theatre itself- gilt, gold, velvet and chandeliers- was very memorable. As was the man sitting in front of us who, after listening to Will and Tristan have a rambling conversation about melting chocolate dogs dipped in honey and how it would make a good show, turned around and swelled their egos immensely by saying he would watch their show.

I didn't really like London before this trip. In fact I told everyone it was a bad city and I never wanted to go there again and neither should they. I was certainly not qualified to make this judgement, having only spent, cumulatively, about two weeks there. But the things that stood out in my mind were the ridiculous cost of everything, the bad weather, the greyness of the city and the terrible hurry that everybody always seemed to be in. This recent visit has changed my opinion somewhat. I still don't want to live in London and it still isn't a city that has you conjuring up romantic fantasies of a new life (a la Barcelona or Paris), but as its charms were slowly revealed I found I was beginning to like London. I'm not sure exactly what changed my mind; it may have been the red fox that we saw strutting through a city park in the middle of the day (much to the delight and amazement of all us tourists), it may have been the way it is just as easy to spontaneously go to the theatre as it is to the movies or the joy of surprising myself- and Will- with my ice-skating abilities at the Tower of London. It may have been the discovery that with the changing of the guards comes the closure of several roads, an army of policemen and a marching band and that they do this everyday (every second day in winter) and it is essentially just a shift change.

No fox here but there were these guys too.

So it won me over. I still think it is far more stressful, expensive and commercially driven than necessary, but I'm no longer a hater. (Will, who was expecting some kind of "soggy, grey, expensive compost toilet" of a city, liked it almost immediately and thought I was nuts for my harsh earlier judgements). Well done London.

P.s. Will wanted to feed a goose. With his face. 

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