The scene: I've just finished my undergraduate degree. I've had a ball at the end of degree art show where I exhibited some prints, dolled up, and drank cheap wine. Two days later, I'm on the way to the airport. We're running late and my parents are tense. Kate Bush's Babooshka is playing on the taxi radio and I really want to sing along but I know no one else would find it funny. When we finally arrive at the Sydney terminal, my Nana has been waiting for us for at least half an hour because she's practical and always arrives early to things. We're always late, so between us, she's waited extra long. But we're the ones flying out so she's just been people-watching.
We order drinks from a bartender who can't recognise a brandy bottle, and then it's time to hit the air. Just as a flight attendant is scanning the tickets of the people in front of us, we hear about a cricketer who was killed when a ball hit him in the head.
We left around 5.30 Australian time on November 27th, arrived England time 5.00 November 28.
During travel-limbo time I sampled about five or six movies. Bridesmaids and Tammy made me realise how amazing Melissa McCarthy is, and I didn't want a flight attendant to offer me tea while I was watching The Fault in Our Stars because I was mustering all my strength not to cry.
Evie was waiting for us at Heathrow terminal, and I ran through the gates so that I could be the first one to hug her. She was wearing a pink coat she'd told us about on Skype, when she and her friends were going to go winter coat shopping on their payday. It was weird Skyping her when it was so hot in Australia and she was wearing Winter clothes, and also weird finally being in the same timezone. Evie gave us each a "London Welcome Kit" in little plastic backpacks with red double decker busses on them (the buses even had her route number- 10- on them!) and an assortment of tasty things, an Oyster card for travel, and cute trinkets. When we first saw the tube trains at the station, I remember thinking how cute they looked with their rounded edges, like giant tic tacs. (They were cuter then, when we weren't struggling through commuter crowds.)
When we reached Kensington, we had to maneuver all our baggage on to the steep escalator steps. I wasn't quick enough to place my wheelie bag properly on the step below me, so it ended up with two wheels dangling off the side and messing with my centre of gravity. Mum was below me and asked whether I was ok just as I lost my balance and fell on to her. She fell on to the stranger behind her etc etc but somewhere along the line some upright people were nice enough to catch us and help us all upright. What an introduction to Kensington. We freshened up at Evie's apartment, which we were finally seeing in the flesh. It hardly fit the four of us and our bags, but we took turns showering in the building's communal bathroom, while the rest of us drank tea. Showering was wonderful after so many hours on the plane, and I saw the most hilarious passive aggressive note above the shared toilet.
Some people are being very disrespectful... leaving their soil [underlined for emphasis] in the seat.... It is not very nice for other people [and then added in larger font, seemingly as an afterthought] THINK OF HYGIENE AND EBOLA!!!
When I unpacked my beige down jacket it was smeared with something black, like I'd brushed a mascara wand over it. I opened it up and found that my bottle of India ink had exploded in the non-pressurised hold of the airoplane and leaked through my pencilcase. Later when we got to our apartment, I washed all my stationary with the disposable brush I'd been given on the plane, and turned the shower-stall half-grey with the flecks of ink in the process.
Our first meal in England was the ubiquitous pannini at a Costa's coffee shop, where Evie encouraged us to buy gingerbread lattes because they had gold dusting on top. She said that English coffee is piss-weak), and that the only way to combat how awful it is to disguise it with syrups and whipped cream. Australian coffeeshops (even Starbucks) don't really go in for themed beverages, so it was cool to get a festive drink here in England. And festive it was, with a swirl of whipped cream snow, gold flakes, and a tiny snowman biscuit planted in the cream.
One of the things I noticed as we walked down High Street was that toddlers in strollers reminded me of extreme snowboarders. Maybe the brisk air had them all awake and alert, but every kid I saw seemed to be leaning forward out of their stroller in excitement, angling their torsos like they were surfing. This observation goes no where, but when I was jetlagged and caffeinated, it was hilarious
Evie took us through Kensington Palace Gardens and on that day, I made a vow to myself. Throughout my trip, I would pat EVERY DOG I SAW (and there were loads of dogs at that park.)
Mostly, my proximity to dogs wasn't so close. I'd see them in the distance and stare at them with deep intention. Sometimes one would walk by me and I'd put out my hand to pat it, and it would walk by unphased, incidentally brushing it's coat underneath my hand. I also saw my first squirrels. At first I thought they were cute and had expressive tails, then I saw how quickly they darted around and was paralysed with the real fear that one would run up my leg before I could notice. But apparently they turned out not to have a taste for human flesh, so I was ok.
Evie was keen to show us a statue she often walked past of Abraham Lincoln.
"Abraham Lincoln? That's weird. Why would there be a statue of Abraham Lincoln in London?" We looked at the ornate gold quasi-religious decorations around the statue. We were right by the Royal Albert Hall, and it was a statue of Prince Albert. She'd been walking past that statue for seven months and thought it was Abraham Lincoln. We never let her forget it, but funnily enough there's a statue elsewhere in the city which is really Abraham Lincoln. For the rest of the afternoon we sat up top on a bus that toured round the city, and I learnt my fact for the day: The term "daylight robbery" dates back to a time when people were taxed for the amount of windows they had, so people boarded up their windows and in turn were deprived of natural light.
sisters! reunited in weirdness!
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 30
The four of us visited Portabello road, and was completely overwhelmed by the sheer size of it.w
I realised I was walking around trying to find a souvenir that was "authentic", and captured some special meaningful essence of the market, amongst all the "samey" stalls. Then I had the epiphany that my experience of the market carried the baggage of all the Portabello Road mythology. I had a romanticised idea of the market, so that when I dismissed all the vendors selling cheap mass produced goods I was dismissing the reality of the experience. I know it seems tacky to have an revelation that is based around consumer goods, but I think it's transferable. It's really easy to get caught up in an idealised version of something, and when the reality turns out to be different from that idea, there's a temptation to keep looking for that "ideal". The reality might even turn out to be better, it just requires that we actually look at what's in front of us. Mindfulness preachiness over, back to our regularly scheduled travel updates.
That night Evie took us to Winter Wonderland, a Christmas market and amusement park in Hyde Park. Oh God. It was like the Christmas apocalypse. Police directed the crowd into a bottleneck holding area, where we’d be let through in stages. It was like a Christmas moshpit, but not fun at all. It was shopping centre crowds on Boxing Day. I held on to Evie as we were let through, and we made our way out of the stream of people to stand off to one side, waiting for mum and dad to come through. Had they gone through? Were they still in the queue? Had they been trampled underfoot by enthusiastic Christmas-fanatics? When we found them, our only objective was getting out. We could see the quaint wooden roofs of the stalls, but the crowds were so thick that that's all we could see. Finally we arrived out the other side of the park where the neon stopped and it was finally dark. We saw some swans on the pond and walked home.
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 31
The next day was November 31, a Sunday, when we cruised along the Thames using the complimentary ticket that came with our tourist bus trip. My facts for the day included that London has 32 boroughs, and Tower Bridge is classified as a boat. I also learned that Blackfriars bridge is decorated on one side with sea birds and the other with freshwater birds, because it was supposed to mark the point at which freshwater turned to seawater. I saw all the usual suspects from the water- the London Eye, the Shard, the monument to the fire of London. We floated past traitor's gate at the Tower of London, and saw Tower bridge parting to let a boat through.
fam bam, on a boat
the good ship S.S Tower Bridge
sometimes you just don't want the V.I.P treatment
Afterwards we headed towards Spitalfields to check out the markets where I saw circuitboard earrings, hardwood watched with pressed flowers in the face. I almost bought a tophat, and I saw a visual pun t shirt with an eyeball, an anatomical heart, and the London skyline. "Geddit?" the vendor asked me, "It's I Love London!"
New from Doc Martens- it's "The Littlest Skinhead!" range
In Brick Lane we had the most amazing curries from Aladdin's Indian restaurant. We'd been gawking at the endless stretch of eateries along the narrow road when a runner from their restaurant ran across the street and convinced us to eat there. As well as offering us free drinks, he showed us the framed photo in the front window that proclaimed that Prince Charles had eaten there. And if it's good enough for royalty, it's good enough to go down my throat. Brick Lane seemed to be its own extension of the markets. There were vintage stores aplenty, as well as outdoor stalls which sold only one item, like heavy suede coats. On a bridge there was a drink truck which sold slushees and blared out music like it was its own street party
MONDAY, DECEMBER 1
On the days Evie had off, she'd shower at her apartment and walk over to us to have breakfast, but on this day she had to work, so my parents and I had no particular time we had to wake up. Partially thanks to jetlag, and partially to the heavy block-out curtains in our apartment we didn’t leave the house until at least midday. Considering it gets dark at 4.30 during an English Winter, it meant we'd lost half of the day we were using to visit the Victoria and Albert Mueseum. That day we ran into the odd custom of mandatory donations. Most museums throughout London and Paris are nominally free, but foyers will have large perspex boxes that ask for a specific donation amount, or you might be prompted to "please donate a pound to use the cloak room." (Those I didn't mind. Later when we were in Paris and I had to pay to use a public bathroom, that irked me.)
I only saw the first floor of one wing, but I wanted to see everything at the museum. I thought I glimpsed Dita Von Teese's electric purple Vivienne Westwood wedding dress on a balcony. I saw giant religious "comics", which were painting which depicted stories in a single frame. We walked past Tipoo's Tiger, which only gets its crank turned every once in a blue moon to make sure his roaring mechanism still works. I saw the Ardabil carpet, so many beautiful textiles, and an art deco fire grate named Scandal. It had been commissioned by a couple who wanted to memorialise her ex-lover. Other sources said the man was lover to both the woman and her husband I spent so much time sketching it that I missed out on the rest of the museum.
We had to eat our packed lunch outside in the courtyard. My mum is looking so happy because she's out of the cold
Ooof! That brocade <3
"Scandal" (1930) by Charles Sargeant Jagger
In the evening we met up with Evie for Winter Wonderland attempt #2. It was still obnoxiously crowded, but we had the right idea going on a week-day. We took dad around from stall to stall, trying to pick out a birthday gift for him. Eventually he agreed to a polar fleece hood to keep him warm throughout the trip, but it took a while. His indecisiveness is genetic!
Evie and I took a hawt wooden troll date to the festival.
Winter WonderlandTUESDAY, DECEMBER 2
We celebrated Dad's birthday by going to everybody's favourite place of torture, the Tower of London. We arrived just in time to get a tour with a Yeoman Warder who had great puns when they didn't turn out to be sexist and dated. My favourite story was the escape of William Maxwell, Lord Nithsdale, who had been imprisoned during the Jacobite risings. Lady Nithsdale would visit his tower with her ladies maids in tow, until one night she brought an extra set of gowns and smuggled her husband out of the tower disguised as a ladies maid! They lived happily ever after, and I found out through a google search that Maxwell had actually been pardoned the day he escaped, perhaps the guards recognised him but played along?
I saw the crown jewels, a silver salt pillar the size of a jug, and so many jewels, but what really captivated me were the ravens. They're such clever birds! One drank the collected water from a bubbler, and another tourist turned the water on so she could get a cute photo op. It just ended up lunging at her sleeve, which is raven for fuckoff! Classic ravens.
I call it "Raven with Landmark"
"Did you just take a selfie with that Raven?"
"...yes. Yes I did."
Precious baby let me love you and be my Familiar!
We went to Jamie's Italian for dinner, where dad got a memento napkin with Jamie's Italian emblazoned on it. I remember some kind of stroganoff, a damn good cherry pie, and a drink mixed especially for me when I said I wanted the bitterest cocktail known to man. It was pretty fresh.
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 4
In the early hours of the morning we were lightly dozing off our jetlag when we heard a few sharp knocks at the door of our apartment. They didn't stop when we ignored them, so mum got up in the dark and talked through the locked door at. The man on the other side was asking to talk to someone, and mum told him that whoever he was looking for wasn't at our address, He kept talking, presumably to confuse us into opening the door so that he could harvest our tasty tasty organs. Mum tried to rouse dad into helping her but he was so tired that he just mumbled for her to tell him to go away, like the man was a naughty puppy. This went on for long enough that dad woke up properly and put on his burliest Alpha Male voice to say There is no Dana, only Zoul. Whatever he said, the guy eventually pissed off.
Our second rising that morning was at 11, and we didn’t leave the house for a very long time, because Dad (read: me) was attempting to download Europe maps he’d paid for on his GPS. Of course every phone has GPS these days, but on the principle of getting the use out of an object whose sole purpose was to get people from A to B, we (I) spent at least an hour (on that day alone) trying to get the maps to download. They didn’t. With what was left of the day, we decided to visit the Jeffrye Museum in Shoreditch, a collection of English interiors from 1600 to the present day. I spent a lot of time ogling teapots and mantelpiece clocks and wishing that I lived in an Arts and Crafts decorated living room. I also made mental notes, now that I knew how create an authentic Georgian interior in The Sims.
Chairs through the ages at the Jeffrye Museum
One of many gorgeous interiors at the Jeffrye Museum
The next day, Thursday December 4, was another Evie-working day, so my parents and I went to the British Museum. I think I recall Facebook messaging my friend Michael back in Australia asking “How do you view the National Gallery?” Again I was met with my dilemma of whether I see less, and see it thoroughly, or see more, and register less of it. Another experience I found with galleries in Europe was that when I didn’t have time to look at an artefact, I’d just shoot a picture on my phone with the intention of looking at it more thoroughly later, and I found that creepy. The idea of hardly registering some gorgeous cultural artefact. Snap the picture, and look at it later as an afterthought. I guess it stems from my desire to experience as much as I can while I’m there.
My favorite moments were when I recognised paintings I’d learned about as a wee young thing. I was stoked to stand in front of Hans Holbein the Elder’s The Ambassadors, with the distorted, stretched skull in the foreground. It’s a beautiful optical illusion, where you need to stand to the right of the painting when, at a certain angle, the skull is perfectly proportioned. So many times I’d held my Children’s Book of Art at an angle to try and see the skull properly, but to see it in the flesh was amazing. Other highlights were the Romanticist rooms with JMW Turner, some Monets, and Odilon Redon
The Ambassadors, by Hans Holbeim the Elder, 1533
The Ambassadors, from a different perspective
Parentals and the Oslo Christmas Tree
It was dark when we stepped outside the building (which being London in Winter, meant it was probably 4 PM), and a crowd had gathered in Trafalgar Square for the lighting of the Oslo Christmas Tree. It’s a gift which Sweden gives England every year as thanks for their protection during WWII. There were carolers and musicians and the area radiating from the tree was thick with people, it was so busy!
The majority of Friday (December 5) was a huge kerfuffle because Dad’s bank card had frozen. He called a British helpline for his Australian card, using his British SIM card. When he finally got to talk to someone, he’d been on hold for so long that it used up all his phone credit, and he had to call back on my mum’s mobile to ask the hotline to call him back. While that was getting resolved, mum was trying to get in contact with the hotel we’d booked for our stopover in Arles, as they hadn’t confirmed our booking. Somewhere along the way, she found out that that hotel couldn’t take us, as they had some problem with their wiring, or a floor flooded or something else they’d neglected to inform us. Eventually our hotel said they could get a neighboring hotel to put us up, and in the meantime, Dad's credit card issue was resolved
What with us being in holiday mode, we hadn’t woken up early, or anticipated that we’d spend several hours in our room trying to resolve mishaps, so by the time we ventured our into the world, it was mid-afternoon. We’d decided to visit the Natural History Museum, which greeted us with a stegosaurus skeleton at the entrance, and behind it an escalator which led up through the middle of a giant cutaway globe to the next floor. Despite the lure of the journey to the centre of the earth, I spent a goodly amount of time in the front foyer looking at all the specimens there. Some glowed, some were fossilised, but what really captivated me was the moon. Behind one of the glass display cases was a chunk of moon rock as big as my hand. It’s no secret that I am obsessed with the moon. I think it all started with this 8 bit style flash game I found one day called “I Wish I Were the Moon”. The Romanticist in me loves the experience of pining for something so large an out of reach and humbling. It's about the closest I've gotten to a religious experience.
Walking with dinosaurs
Journey to the Centre of the Earth!
A fossil from some kind of stingray, but I didn't photograph the info tag!
My moon! (It looks like a piece of coconut)
Essentially I am the firefly from The Frog Princess, pining over a star
We pressed on through the “natural disasters” exhibit, which was a lot like the one at Questacon in Canberra, with simulated earthquakes and the like. If I’d known how much of the museum there was to explore, I mightn’t have lingered so long in the one place, but I had fun looking at Pele’s hair and videos of lava flows. Mum was exhausted after that so while she headed back to the apartment, dad and I sated our gem-lust in the mineral exhibition. There were trays and trays of gems! Uncut, polished, faceted, cabochon. It was so pretty!
Remember when Aladdin and Abu explore the Cave of Wonders, and Abu starts drooling over the gems? That was what this felt like. (I did not become a jewel thief though.)
A cute pic of me at the Natural History Museum
When we were done there, we explored the older, part of the museum, which was a series of large sandstone rooms with high ceilings and the skeletons of large animals overhead. There were many glass cases of exotic birds (the Victorian mentality was apparently something like “That looks cool, lets put a bullet through it and stick it on a shelf!”) I was disappointed that the creepy crawly room had no real creepy crawlies, just nu-tech “create a spider” machines that didn’t work, and a lot of giant plastic bugs. But if there is anywhere in London I'd recommend visiting, it's the Natural History Museum
An ammonite, and my hand (for scale)
I'M IN A GLASS CASE OF EMOTION! (and hummingbirds)
This cute told me she was a Silvery Cheeked Hornbill.
Saturday, December 6 was our last day in London, when we were due to leave for Nimes, our stopover on the way to Arles in the South of France. Cue the wheeling of trolley bags down the endless corridor of Kings Cross St Pancras. A cool thing I found throughout major train stations in Europe was that they had pianos for the public to play, and someone at St Pancras station was playing “Let it Go” on endless rotation because it drew crowds and cheers.
There was a lot of waiting around until our train was boarding, once we had our boarding passes, we started the process of strapping on our 20 kg backpacks, and wheeling our trolleys towards the turnstiles, finally moving.
He's smiling because he doesn't know what's about to happen
The arrows went red. Our tickets didn’t work. We were directed to the Euro star office where we were informed that we’d accidentally booked for the next day, when there might not be any trains because of a strike that was going on in Brussels. At that time, we were all panicking, wondering whether we’d have to stay in London another night with no booked accommodation. I think my dad actually suggested that my sister put us up in her bedsit apartment which had just enough room to swing a cat, and my mum, the only French-speaker, was talking to someone at the desk and asking if there was anything they could do for us. We waited, we discussed amongst each other the cost it would be to buy new tickets. We were transferred to one of the English-speaking staff, a dishy looking dude with salt-and-pepper hair and a signet ring. He looked at his computer and frowned a lot, and I thought we were done for. We couldn’t get the money back for the tickets we’d bought, but he could get us cheaper tickets for the current train which would be leaving soon. We’d have to wait in the holding ‘til the last minute and was no guarantee, but if people didn’t claim their seats, we’d have to be ready to run onto the platform and on to the train.
Mmm family holiday stress.
Did we make our train? Did we sleep in the train station? Tune in for the next installment of my ridiculously long-winded anecdotes!