My arrival in London heralded a number of changes. Tuk-tuks and tramadol were swapped for the tube and pints of warm larger; bottled water and roadside pad thai traded for solid English fare and drinking the shower water. The Asian humidity gave way to crisp English wind and I braved it alone, the solidarity of good friends exchanged for the independence of flying solo.
Heathrow was quieter than I expected and customs was thankfully uneventful. I lugged my pack down to the tube, following in the footsteps of a million antipodeans before me. I had directions to my cousin’s house: take the Piccadily Underground to South Kensington, get a bus from the road to Clapham Junction (345 or 49), head up the hill past the KFC and the big ASDA supermarket then take the first left.
Piece of cake, right?
On the tube I lose my ticket. A forgiving employee lets me out; his brief chastisement is far preferable to the cost of another ride. Once I find the right stop the bus is straightforward and it isn’t long before I am hesitantly knocking on the door of a bricked Lavender Hill flat.
I am greeted with a welcoming hug and the familiar kiwi twang, my cousin more than happy to shoot the shit over a cup of tea and some Marmite toast.
“Nice to see you cuz”
“Cheers man, you too – good to be here!”
It doesn’t matter if you aren’t the first to do it, or the most intrepid – arrivals are always satisfying when you have had to think the journey through. The elation is a strange feeling: pride at having navigated the unknown mixed with the relief of being somewhere you can let your guard down. Perhaps this is just some genetic anxiety showing through – but even the most relaxed soul must feel some trepidation when arriving in a strange place late at night.
The next morning I decided to get straight into it and set off for a wander. My walk took me from the suburbs of the Junction, through Battersea Park and up to Buckingham Palace. After a quick snack in Trafalgar Square I continued on, heading down Pall Mall and Piccadilly towards Kings Road, tracing the corners of the Monopoly board and all its familiar names.
I didn’t really mean to walk so far; I was just enjoying the freedom of being alone and without deadlines or dependents. No one event stands out; indeed, it was more an exercise in orientation than anything else. It seems strange to point out but the age of London is tangible: rows of townhouses in Victorian huddles, grey well-worn pavement and heavy iron fences.
They illustrate a history that extends far beyond a New Zealand time scale – with my curiosity surely a product of a New World upbringing. A life of shared cultural references ensure that many names and images are familiar, but the experience itself was new and I took it all in happily despite the cold and my protesting feet.
One of the highlights of my time in London was getting to know my distant Godmother, of whom both my parents had spoken so highly. Despite the regular birthday packages I had never spoken with her – an embarrassment I can only try to blame on the huge geographical distances that separate us.
But all my parents had said was true, and both my godmother and her husband were incredibly welcoming and hospitable. I was fortunate enough to get in touch with her just in time to go to the much acclaimed (and booked out) Da Vinci exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. My new moustache was sufficiently pre-pubescent to trick the staff scrutinising my Godmother’s family pass and, underage espionage complete, we went to see what the man had to offer.
The exhibition was fantastic with Da Vinci’s mastery emphasized by a varied collection of sketches, cartoons and paintings. His true skill seems to be an exquisite clarity in capturing human beauty – a fact that emerges when his work is compared with that of his contemporaries. It could be my general ignorance about art but I particularly enjoyed the larger unfinished sketches: they seem to capture an aspect of the process that emphasises his eye, and are more fragile and transient than the final painted works.
The following evening I moved to my Godmother’s house in Tooting Bec where I was the grateful recipient of a bed and all the motherly love your true parents could hope for when selecting a candidate for this anachronistic title. It isn’t often that the oft-promised sanctity of a “home away from home” is realised and I was lucky to have such a relaxed base in the big city. It was nice to have some home-cooked meals too; one evening we ate quail, complete with home-made bread sauce and the traditional crisps – solid English fare.
The days I spent exploring blend into a montage of tube changes, museum atriums and bustling streets. There is an energy in London, created and sustained by the thousands of people who hurry to and fro, caught up in the ambition and momentum of the grinding metropolis. But I was merely a transient visitor and after ten days my time was up.
Daydreaming at the bus station meant a few anxious minutes as I scurried to the bus, somehow oblivious to all boarding calls that had preceded the final one.
No allocated seating makes locating a seat an exercise in instant judgment. I choose poorly; the guy next to me is thick set and has a chronic case of pushy-knee-itis. It is stupidly hot. As we roll past London Tower I decide to see how far my seat will recline. The large (and I’m being nice here, she was fat) African woman behind me has other plans and I begrudgingly comply with her request to remain in the upright position.
I plug in my ipod and resign myself to another night of broken half-sleep, the oscillating temperature and inevitable stops ensuring that this will be another stellar chapter in the book of shit bus rides.
Across the Channel, a snow-clad Utrecht awaits.