Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Are you trying to seduce me, Lady Liberty?

Where London took its time to warm up to me, New York seems to have pulled out all the stops.

Leaving Heathrow was easy enough, though one incident at customs left me with a bad impression. I was lining up to go through border control for one final check of my passport before leaving the country, when I let an elderly Indian lady through, who was in a wheelchair (who may or may not have been rather deaf). At this point the customs agent in front of my line yelled out to his mate across the room “Oi, she could do with a shave!”. To which they then exchanged an across-the-room high five, and took my passport out of my hand, while I stood there in shock. He looked at my passport photo, then at me, and asked if I was alright, but in that way that suggests you had better be alright unless you wanted a full cavity search. Deciding that this was not a battle I should fight if I wanted to make my flight, I nodded for yes and retrieved my passport. Not my finest moment, but nor was it Britain’s.

The flight was decent enough. I flew Virgin Atlantic, and was thrilled to see that the two seats next to me were empty, and I was looking forward to a very pleasant flight when all of a sudden a rather large sweaty man appeared, and took his seat next to me. Still, he turned out to be a very nice guy, and was very happy to discuss the fineries of investment banking in New York, at some length. I spent part of the time listening politely, part of it trying to learn something, and part of it hoping that maybe he knew somebody who could get me a job there.

Our flight arrived on time, and I was a little nervous at clearing customs – I was mentally prepared to avoid all joking and humour with the guards whose sole job is to make life difficult for anybody that highlights the difficulty of smuggling ostrich eggs. Turned out to be all rather uneventful though, as I was just waived through with only one question (‘You came from London?”) to slow me down.

I was being met at the airport by my good friend Rohan (from university), and was waiting in the arrivals lounge when a man from the information desk approached me and asked if I would like two free tickets to the Yankees game that night.

I said yes.

Rohan arrived soon after that, and after finding out about the night’s sudden entertainment plans, we marched straight onto the train into town. With the game due to start at 7.30, we were running a little late but hoped to still see a good chunk of regardless. Then it started to rain. Really rain. Hard. We doubted whether the game would start, but we decided we’d go to the game anyway. We arrived at the stadium at 8.30, to discover that not only had it stopped raining, but that the brief downpour had delayed start until just before 9pm, meaning that we got to our seats just before the first pitch was thrown.

Nobody does live sports like the Americans. Lights blazing, bright colours, and spectacularly massive television screens promised that we would be in for a very slick evening. The game opened with the National Anthem (complete with karaoke for those of us who don’t know all the words), and then we were into it. It was really a lot of fun to watch, though I did get confused a couple of times and cheered for the wrong team (not the best idea at Yankee Stadium!).

The game ended around midnight, with the Yankees beating the Kansas City Royals 8-2 at the bottom of the ninth.

So far it appears that New York is a very different place to be, and if last night is anything to go by, I think I’m going to like it here.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Farewell, London

I knew this would happen.

Okay, here I am. My last day in London. The sky is blue, the birds are singing, and I don't really want to leave. I'm very excited about flying to New York tomorrow, sure. But my last week here has been as close to a normal week as I've had in a while, and I quite enjoyed it.

My week in Paris was officially my last week off work - from now on I have to earn money if I want any chance of enjoying the rest of my trip. So I've spent this week 'back at the office' (read: 'working remotely'), which involved a few meetings here in London and some work on my laptop.
Basically my holiday is now over, and now I'm just working my way around the world. I'll admit to it being quite a shock getting back behind a computer screen for hours at a time, but it didn't take me too long to get back into it and now I'm being a productive member of society, only in another country.

The other thing is that I've started making friends here (this in my last week). I've been hanging out a bit with my friend (Morgan, who's house I'm staying at), and his flatmate Chris.
Through them I'm now starting to meet a few new people - and also see more of the things that make London so much fun to be in. I still haven't done the London Eye, or St Paul's Cathedral (though I have stood outside them both); but I have explored a fair chunk of the greater London area now, and I think I'm starting to get a feel for what it would be like to live here.

But now I've packed my bag (still only the one bag, I'm doing pretty well!), and I'm ready to set sail for the land of the long white crowd. I had to cull some items from my backpack today; mainly to fit my new suit and shoes into (look at me being fancy with a second pair of shoes!), but also mainly because I had to remove two shirts just to fit my nice bottle of scotch into my bag, while making sure that there remained ample clothing to buffer the bottle from breaking in transit. I suspect that arriving at JFK airport smelling like Christian Slater might hold me up in customs somewhat!

I'm being met at the airport my my good buddy Rohan - one of my mates from uni who is now doing his PhD at NYU. From there he'll take me back to my other friend's house where I'll stay for a couple of days while I get the hang of the city and look for a part time/temporary job in the Big Apple. I've found a couple of possibles that have interested me so far, but a lot of the ones I'm interested in require at least a Master's degree AND five year's post Master's experience. I don't have either of those.

I'll have to see what happens; I'm sure something will come up. In the end I don't mind what it is I do while I'm there, but if at all possible I would like it to be something interesting, or worthwhile, or career-developing.

So here ends my London adventure; or at least for this part of my trip. I leave having enjoyed my time here quite a bit, and would like to return some time in the future.

So long, London. We part, but we part as friends.

I give you 8.5/10

I'm just a boy, standing in front of a suburb...

Sometimes what you're looking for is right under your nose. Other times, it's in Spanish.

Yesterday I visited Notting Hill for lunch. We found this great little Spanish place which I'm not supposed to mention because it's a great secret. There were a few people there when we arrived; many locals enjoying the requisite 'yellow food' (eggs, sausages, chips, and toast). Not that I can't see why; from the looks of the cafe it seems just like any other: open store front, quiet unassuming kitchen, giant frying pan full of paella, black rice, and other exotic delights - why wouldn't you want a sausage?

I soon discovered however that this cafe produced excellent Spanish cuisine, if you could have guessed. I ordered the special, which turned out to be the biggest pork knuckle I had ever seen, and my friend ordered a hot chocolate. As soon as the hot chocolate came out I knew we were in for a treat. This thing was so thick that her teaspoon stood upright, producing a wave of excitement around the table, and inducing an empathy-diabetic coma. Then my pork knuckle arrived. Somebody once said 'Never eat anything bigger than your head'. I never was any good at doing what I was told. It was delicious, if not a little salty, and afterwards it was all I could do to stand up after the meal and pay for lunch.

After lunch we headed over to the Portabello Market at Notting Hill - basically a great street market with everything from expensive antiques (I saw an 800STG magnifying glass!) to churros.

If I had to pick, I'd say that Notting Hill is my favourite suburb so far in London. It's a very pretty part of town, with pretty buildings (a different pretty to the rest of London), pretty streets, and pretty people. I wouldn't recommend the market if you value your personal space (wallets get taken routinely there), but if you're a little careful and look a little 'P-eyed', then you'll usually get a little more room to move than most. I will admit to looking around for Hugh Grant, or that other British guy that was in the film, but all I could see were stall owners, gypsies, and rich folk looking to buy a periscope or luxury shoe horn.

In summary: Notting Hill (the suburb) good. Notting Hill (the movie) not actually real.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

About London

I'm beginning to think that I've been doing this wrong.

I came to London expecting, well I'm not sure what I was expecting. I was hoping though that I would come here and quickly develop a significant social network or two, meet new people and make some great friends here, all the while spending time in one of the world's great capitals. I thought I could do this by just being here, and that by hanging out with all the people that I already know here it would all just fall into place.

This hasn't happened.

Aside from the difficulties that the English have with accepting new friends into their lives (which I still believe to be true), I think that I have handicapped myself by coming here as a tourist, rather than on a working holiday. I believe that if I were in a repetitive social situation (office, behind a bar, in an improv group), then maybe things would be different.

I think it's important now to state here that I am having a great time here, but I'm having a great time here as a tourist; seeing the sights and visiting friends. I think my frustration is due to my hoping that my London visit would be more than just as a tourist; perhaps a potential immigrant that the city would try and seduce into staying, rather than a guest that the city is polite to and shows a good time, but nothing more.

I don't think I can honestly say that I know what it would be like to live in London though. I'm starting to think that the best way to really experience a city like London is to actually live in it. People who visit the city probably don't fall in love with the place and move here, while most of the people who come on a working holiday tend to stick around for at least a few years.

London really does appear to be a city which you need to live in to enjoy. You can spend a week here and have a great time, or you can spend a couple of years here and love it.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Pros and Cons of London Town

With a little under four days left in London, I have decided to compile a pro/cons list of London, or in Layman's terms: "yay, London" and "boo, London".

Things I like about London:

You can get anything you want here. Sure, it sounds a little materialistic, and maybe it is.
Though I do appreciate being able to buy things I'm not able to get easily back home (wild game and certain other types of food - truffles, for instance).

There is a lot to do. Much like the food and other consumables, London is a swarm of activity and a treasure trove of things to occupy your time. I have enjoyed exploring the city and its attractions, though there is still so much that I haven't done yet: St Paul's Cathedral, the Tower Bridge, the London Eye, the Queen... but I don't think you can ever have ever really done everything in London - it's that big.

The West End, Covent Garden, Picadilly Circus, and Notting Hill. This category pretty much speaks for itself. All good places, all good times. Notting Hill is my favourite suburb.

The Borough Market. My favourite place in London. Without a doubt.

Acorn House (Restaurant). England's first (only?) eco-friendly restaurant. I went there for dinner, it was delicious!

The Tube (when it works). A great way to get around, especially as London is ginourmous.

It's just a cool city. There's a lot to do here, and it's mostly fun. I continue to have a blast here, despite now having to resume working for a living.

Things I like less about London:

The Tube (when it doesn't work). Every weekend the Jubilee line is closed for planned engineering work. I live on the Jubilee line. This has been the cause of some consternation and some considerable creativity in making my way across town.

It's expensive. Not London's fault, really. Difficult when you're spending NZ dollars though.

The number of people. It's because I'm a kiwi; I'm not used to having millions of people inside my personal bubble. Not a major complaint, but still hard to get used to.

The food. In general, the food here is fair to middling. It's true that you can find great food in many places, but these places are often either hard to find, a secret, or are prohibitively expensive. There are some gems, and I've found a couple. But in general, it's a little average.

On balance, still really like London. But since that I've spent the most time here out of anywhere so far, I have the chance to explore it better than anywhere else on my trip.

I can see why people love it here, but I think that it's kind of like a romance - you love somebody despite their flaws; they're never completely perfect.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

London (a poem)

O, London!
You are so big
and manly
The tube carries me where I need to go
The tube breaks
a little boy waits
Your history is vast
and expensive
There is so much to do and I,
I have so little time but
99p Beer
5 pound Beer
Too many Australians

Maps don't help me.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Of men and muffins

Every now and then a complete stranger can make your day.

Having under a week left in London, I decided that I would make the most of it and go to see a show. I had initially planned to see more than just a couple of shows while I was here, but have only managed the two so far. So tonight I made my way into Picadilly Circus, found a half-price ticket booth, and looked at what was on offer.

I have plans to see Wicked in New York so that was out, otherwise it was fair game. I was initially drawn to La Cage aux Folles (the Birdcage) with John Barrowman, but then I noticed a flyer for a play called 'The Woman in Black" - a horror-noir that has been running in London for 20 years. I figured that it would be cool to see something a little darker and so I got my ticket, and headed to the theatre.

I was a little early, so I walked to the corner to people-watch, and eat my sandwich when I looked up at and saw a street sign "Drury Lane". During my time here in London, I have seen several famous streets or areas - Puddle Lane, Bond Street, Picadilly Circus, Mayfair, and all other kinds of Monopoly famous. But this was my first nursery rhyme street.

I was pondering this when a man walked past me, with a nod and polite eye contact. What happened next seemed to happen all on its own, and without a word of a lie happened exactly like this:

Me: "excuse me, do you know The Muffin Man?"

Stranger: (confused) "The Muffin Man?"
Whoa, this is actually happening.

Me: "The Muffin Man"

Stranger: "Do I know The Muffin Man"
He's playing with me - but he looks so confused!

Me: "...who lives on Drury Lane!"

Beat. He looked at me and shook his head. Then he turned away and did one of the most spectacular double takes I had ever seen. Smiling, all he could do was say "no way" and walk off, realising only now what had just happened. Me, I just turned around and, feeling particularly pleased with myself, headed into the theatre for what turned out to be a particularly wonderful show.

It was a very surreal, but particularly awesome experience. One that I may never get to do again.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

One final trick up her sleeve

Oh Paris, how could I ever have doubted you?

I started the morning like any other - I got up, cursed my room mates for somehow flooding the bathroom (seriously guys, don't they have shower curtains in the country that you're from?), then headed down to breakfast where I would try and discretely break the 'one croissant rule' by hiding behind the less discrete Americans, one of whom I had shared the bottle of wine with the night before. I told her of my plan to reclaim some of the lost magic of Paris by revisiting Montmartre and Sacre Cour, and she asked if she could come along. So come along she did.

This is my favourite area of Paris, and I was worried that visiting it again might cause some of its charm to fade, but I wasn't disappointed in the least. We started by visiting Sacre Cour and taking in the view from the dome. Still amazing, as it was a beautiful day and all of Paris was in view.
Afterwards we went for a walk through Montmarte where we saw many a sketch artist and beret-toting waiter panhandling for our custom. I decided then that I would like somebody to sketch me, but that I would do so after lunch; so we left to find somewhere to eat.

We found a nice little secluded restaurant down the bottom of an alleyway where we had the place to ourselves. I got myself into a little trouble with my French (it's possible I may have insulted the waitress' pets), but for the most part it was a very fine lunch. We stayed there for a couple of hours discussing everything from French food to theories about season 6 of Lost, and then went to pay.

Only to my visa didn't work.

So I had to use the rest of my cash, knowing full well that this meant I would not be able to get a sketch done. I didn't let that discourage me though, as my last day in Paris had also been my best day in Paris. So with the romance reignited for this wonderful city, I boarded my train back to London.

While my affair with Paris may be over, I still appreciate everything she and I went through together, and I'm very glad that we left our relationship on an extremely good note. I may go back there one day, and while I'm seeing other cities, she will always have a special place in my heart.

Paris: a fickle mistress

Paris is kind of like a girl I dated once.

My first two days in Paris were a blast. I saw many of the main attractions and spent a lot of time walking the city, becoming enamored with the city of lights, love, and fine cuisine. I loved Paris and the people in it, and couldn't wait to see more of her.

Once we'd gotten past the initial courtship phase of pretty lights, buildings, and fashion models everywhere (seriously, the French are gorgeous - and they dress accordingly!), I went about trying to find out about the REAL Paris - who is she, what does she like to do in her spare time, and what are some of the things she might be hiding?

I decided that a good way to explore the city now would be to jump on a metro and get off at a random stop. The first trip took me to the Opera district, which I promptly started exploring with gusto. What would I see? Who would I meet? What are all those riot police doing?

I had stumbled into the middle of a protest, and there were riot police everywhere; some with batons, some with hands on pepper spray. There were five or six protesters protesting the poor pay of their jobs, and the riot police were there I guess in case the guy with the drum got out of hand. Apart from my initial concern, there didn't seem to be much risk of a full scale riot, so I picked a direction and started walking.

One of the first things I noticed was that all the buildings were very pretty. But so are the buildings everywhere else. It was this that suddenly got me a little bit down. Paris was lovely, sure, and had some wonderful features, but could it be that she really is just like any other European Capital - full of expensive stores and lovely building facades? Don't get me wrong; I don't know what I was expecting, but it suddenly hit me that after a while all of these buildings and major cities are starting to look the same. With that depressing thought in mind, I figured I should try and find a bar.

I stumbled across a bar I had read about in the Lonely Planet: Harry's New York Bar; apparently the oldest cocktail bar in Europe. I walked in, and was greeted by a surly bartender who promptly said "what would you like to drink; this is a bar after all." This caught me off guard a little, so I replied with "a cocktail please, you are the oldest cocktail bar in Europe".

I don't think this won me any friends.

Flustered, all I could think of was to order a Manhattan (it is Harry's New York Bar, after all), and I also noticed a sign suggesting that I try their 'delicious' hot dogs. So I ordered one of those as well.

18 Euros. I made sure to drink that Manhattan very slowly. I sat there for an hour or so slowly sipping on my drink, trying to make small talk with the bartender, though whenever I said anything he just looked as though he had swallowed a bee and went back to his Sudoku.

And so I left Harry's New York Bar, annoyed that I had paid so much for so little, and even more so put out by the general surliness of the bartender. This, on top of the general feeling that Paris was not as exciting as I had hoped it to be, left me a little depressed for the rest of the day. So I bought a bottle of wine, headed back to my hostel, and hung out with some foreign folk before going to bed, to find that my lovely room mates (whose names and ethnicities shall remain anonymous) had flooded the bathroom again (but had somehow managed to keep all of their 'Hello Kitty' memorabilia dry).

It seemed that the honeymoon period was over.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Wouldn't it be Louvrely!

After my massive walkathon, I decided that I would take it easy and spend the day visiting museums and maybe even go back to Notre Dame cathedral. I took the metro line straight to the museum around 10am, and arrived to see a massive queue of people lined up to get into the museum through the pyramid - somewhere a sign said "waiting time approx 40 minutes", and knew that this was only the line to get in to the building, so you could then line up again to buy tickets to the actual museum.

I had other plans.

I had been told about a side entrance that very few people seem to know about, where you can just walk on in and avoid the pyramid queue altogether. I was told to look for 'the small arch with horses on it, and the gate's on the right'. This was great, only I couldn't see any small arches at all. Twenty minutes I wandered the grounds of the Louvre, looking for a small arch, when it dawned on me that perhaps I shouldn't be looking for a small arch attached to the Louvre, but a giant archway that had been right next to me the whole time. Feeling like a moron I found the side entrance with relative ease and navigated the labyrinth that is the entry to the museum - straight to the ticket queue.

After 30 minutes I got my ticket (as well as one to the Musee D'Orsay) and marched away to try and find the entrance, succeeding first in finding a row of ticket machines standing nearby without anybody queuing up to use them. Dumb.

Still knackered from my massive hike the day before, I made a beeline straight for the Mona Lisa, mainly by following the crowds and tour groups of Japanese Tourists, but also mainly by following the giant signs of "Mona Lisa this way!". I only got lost twice. Then I saw it - the Mona Lisa. From about 10 feet away.

It was rather difficult to see too much of the painting, as it was behind a thick pane of bullet proof glass, and there was also a barrier stopping people from getting too close. Also there were about 150 other tourists in there at a time, all holding their cameras up (of course using their flashes) which made a good look almost impossible as the flashes kept reflecting off the glass.

But I consoled myself with the fact that if I really wanted to see it could always get a perfectly good look at my room mate's coffee cup, which has a reprint of the Mona Lisa, anytime I wanted. So I left the room feeling like I had achieved nothing more than ticking a box, and did the same with the Venus Di Milo and Virgin on the Rocks.

After the Louvre (I stayed about two hours), I headed to the Musee D'Orsay, housed inside an old train station. This was by far the best museum I had been to, and for my money beat the Louvre - it had a nicer atmosphere, fewer people, and many more exhibitions from people who's name I recognised (Degas, Van Gogh, Rodin, Monet, and Manet).

Despite it being the better museum, I had still decided that I had seen enough antiquity for one day and hoofed it over to Notre Dame to catch a little gothic culture. It was pretty cool on the inside, but I have to admit to being ever so slightly disappointed. It's not that I was expecting to see a hunchback or anything like that, but I had been expecting to be blown away by the gothic architecture and such, and while it was definitely nice, it wasn't so different to many of the other cathedrals I had visited across Europe - certainly not different enough to make it remarkable, and if I were to be honest I preferred Sacre Cour.

Having now ticked many of the essential boxes of Paris, I headed back to my hostel to plan the next couple of days' activities, detouring via a fancy restaurant and enjoying a delicious meal.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

of Tours and Towers

I think this has been my biggest walking day yet.

My hostel, it seems, is made of paper. The walls are super thin, and you can hear absolutely everything that’s going on for at least several rooms and floors. Given that it’s a hostel, on a busy street, I didn’t sleep to well. Also one of the guys in my room was a chronic snorer. So I woke up having had very little sleep, and determined to buy a set of earplugs.

After enjoying the free breakfast and a couple of cups of tea and coffee, I started the day planning to go to the Louvre, but soon found out that it was closed on Tuesdays. I’m just grateful I discovered this at breakfast instead of at the museum! So I went with Plan B – see what pops up. So I took the metro to the infamous Latin Quarter, with plans to check out Notre Dame and take it from there. On the train, I had a glance at some of the pamphlets I had picked up at the hostel that morning, and noticed that a free walking tour of Paris left at 11am from around Notre Dame – encouraged by this, I decided that I look at the cathedral and take a few photos (with the aim of returning for a proper tour once I knew where to meet the tour group) and make my way to the meeting point for the tour.

It still surprises me how lost I can get in a city, even when I have a perfectly good map. Aware of my tendency, I took to carrying three different maps with me, and still it took me 90 minutes to find this place. I only made it with minutes to spare before the tour departed, but I made it.

The tour guide was an Australian lass (living in Paris) called Chris, who appeared to know a lot about the city. We started at Font Saint Michel (a fountain featuring Saint Michel/Saint Michael casting Lucifer into hell), and made our way across town.

In the space of four hours we covered the Louvre, the Obelisk, the Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysees and the Arch de Triomphe. We didn’t necessarily visit all of these places (i.e. the Eiffel Tower and the Arch), but we could see them from where we got the tour, so it was fairly useful.

I have seen these free tours offered everywhere I’ve been in Europe so far – it’s with a group called New Europe. But it wasn’t until I got to Paris that I decided I would take one. They’re free, as you don’t have to pay for being walked around the city. After the tour is over you are welcome to tip them, usually on the basis of what you think the tour was worth. I gave her six euros, but I would like to have given her more. It was certainly better value than some of the other tours I have been on, and four hours of time wandering the streets with somebody stopping you from getting lost is certainly a useful way to spend a day!

I had a bit of an eclectic bunch on my tour; a couple of Aussies, some kiwis (from Auckland though, so basically Aussies), an Indian, and European (other). For the most part they were okay to tour with – it’s pretty easy to deal with strangers but after four hours of walking together it seemed almost a pity to leave the group completely behind afterwards, as I felt we had bonded. I felt the urge to pee more strongly than the urge to bond however, and so I abandoned my new lifelong pals to take advantage of the facilities at the nearest free museum.

Feeling much better, I decided that today would be a good day to punish myself a little, and headed towards the Eiffel Tower, with the intention to climb it.

This I did.

It’s around 13e to take the elevator up to the 2nd stage, and then to the top, or 4e50 to climb the stairs to the 2nd stage and another 5e to take the elevator up. I had discovered a while ago that counting the stairs doesn’t help when climbing high buildings, as you just end up getting frustrated. Much to my dismay I noticed that the ever helpful French had labeled every tenth stair up the tower, and so I very quickly tried to distract myself by looking out at the view. I used to have a rather horrid fear of heights. That fear still exists, but is limited to the more practical fears; I won’t climb a stupidly high ladder without proper support, and I don’t think I’d jump out of an airplane. Looking out at Paris below me though, I had to check myself to make sure I could still do it. It wasn’t long until I got to the 2nd stage however, and then from there I just had to take the elevator to the top. The view from the top was awesome.

This is the view from the bottom:

After the Tower, I felt that great rush with comes from having done something a little scary (I know, shut up), but also very cool. So I headed to the Arch de Triumph to climb another monument. On my way, I stopped at McDonald’s for a little Pulp Fiction moment:

After getting only briefly lost, I found my way to Avenue Victor Hugo, which I knew led to the Arch. I knew I was approaching it when I heard the sound of horns and angry drivers. It’s a magnificent building, and is a monument to all the great French victories up until WWI. As I approached, I noticed some kind of military service happening, and noticed a NZ Army Officer amongst the rabble; I quickly picked him out as the person I have to meet with when I’m next in London. Crazy.

Entry to the Arch costs 9e, but I had made it this far and decided that I had to go a little further (having had only a banana and a couple of squares of chocolate for lunch), paid the fee and entered the Arch. I got up there well before sunset, and decided that it would be a good idea to stick around and watch the sun set over Paris. This is about when my battery started to die in my camera (I really need to get a spare!), but I think I managed to get a couple of good shots in while trying to make the most of the available battery life:

After my excursion to the great monument (I stayed around two hours), I strolled up the Champs Elysees, and treated myself to a new jacket from one of the stores there. I justified it as a) I was cold, b) it’s my birthday coming up, c) it was on special, and d) I could just put it on my visa and forget about it.

I then found a metro stop and made my way back to my hostel, only getting lost a little bit. I need a better map.

Gay or straight, it's still Paris!

I booked my accommodation for Paris a week ago, but I didn’t book my train.

Because I had a free return trip to Paris as a result of my disastrous first visit, I decided it would be alright to leave it until the last minute to get tickets…

So I got up this morning, nice and early, and called the Eurostar office. I was on hold for 20 minutes before a recorded voice told me that it was outside opening hours, and that they would open again around 8am. Hmm. 8am I rang and spoke to a very lovely woman for around 20 minutes, before she decided that she wasn’t the person I had to talk to (though she ‘appreciated the chat’(!) ), and so she very kindly transferred me to ‘customer care’, where I waited on hold for another 30 minutes before a recorded message very politely advised me that there was a currently a fire alert in the building, and that nobody could take my call. So I waited, and rang back. Fire alert.

I did the only thing I could think of – I strapped on my backpack, and marched down to the train station to book the tickets in person, even if it meant putting out the fire myself.

When I arrived at the station, I actually found the whole process rather simple and had tickets within 20 minutes of arriving.

You’ll be surprised/pleased to know that the trip itself was rather uneventful – and I arrived bang on time.

I found my hostel easily enough (read: only got lost twice) – I’m staying in a place called ‘Vintage Hostel’, which seems to be anything but vintage. I’m not complaining about the quality in the least; it’s actually quite a nice place to stay (and they include linen in the accommodation charge). It’s 5 minutes walk from the Montmarte district and Sacre Cour.

I did notice that I had forgotten my soap and shampoo, so I had to buy that, but otherwise everything seems in order. I’m staying in a three bedroom ‘mixed dorm’ accommodation, and have so far met one of my roommates – a Japanese guy called “So”.

We hung out for the afternoon and explored a little, and stumbled upon Sacre Cour (a very cool Catholic Cathedral/Church?).

Once we got past the panhandlers and carnies out the front (I now have a wristband, making me ‘a friend of Ghana’), we went inside (admission free – hoorah!), and I was instantly struck by how cool it was. As soon as you walk in you are drawn to the magnificent altar at the far end, and the surrounding mosaics. The rest of the church was cool – it took an hour to wander around and marvel at all the chapellettes and alters to various Saints and other icons. There was often a queue to touch and pray at the feet of either the Madonna, Saint Pierre, or Jesus (this was noticeably the longest queue). Nicest Catholic church by far.

After that, we left the main entrance to find that for five Euros, we could climb the steps of Sacre Cour to the top of the dome. So we did. By the time we got up there (20 minutes of climbing, 5 minutes to catch my breath), the view was spectacular – my first day in Paris and I had a complete panoramic view of the city. I took advantage of the pay binoculars up there, and peered into the Eiffel Tower – and quite possibly imagined somebody doing the exact same thing to me. So I waved. I don’t know if anybody waved back, but I realized in hindsight that I must have looked like a complete muppet standing on the top of the dome of Sacre Cour and waving to the Eiffel Tower. I only hope that somebody over there suffered a similar fate, and that we shared that moment together.

Once we had gotten our fill of the skyline that was Paris, we headed down the steps towards what appeared to be a couple of shops, and turned out to be Montmarte – the classical cultural capital of Paris. Turning the corner we were greeted by the sounds of a musette, and many sketch artists panhandling their work to anyone that would support them through art school. It was as though I had walked into a scene from “an American in Paris”, only without the extended dream sequence.

I think I’m going to like it here.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The truth about Cats and Dogs (and kiwis)

One of my main principles while in London is not to spend all of my time hanging out with Kiwis.  Not easy.

Everyone always complains about why Kiwis and Australians always only seem to hang out with each other when they come to London.  I’ve noticed that for the most part, that’s true; and I had developed a bit of a theory as to why that is.

The English don’t like people.

Okay, maybe that was a little bit harsh.  I’ve certainly met some very polite people over here.  But I’m not talking about exercising good manners (though I’d certainly expect that from the country that invented social graces), I’m talking about people who are willing to engage with you, on a level that encourages future engagements, or friendship.

Perhaps then I can refine my original thesis – the English think differently to us. 

To clarify, I have noticed that when I’m talking to people here, even people that I’ve met through other people, they appear to do so under the pretext of “why should I be friends with you?” rather than the approach that other cultures might take “why shouldn’t I be friends with you?”.  It’s not that people from England (and I think it’s only England, not Scotland, Ireland or Wales) are suspicious of your intentions for talking to them (for the most part, at least); it’s certainly nothing so aggressive.  I think it’s more that English folk seem to say “I have a lot of friends already, I enjoy my life.  Explain to me why I should add you to this exclusive list”.  This doesn’t quite mesh with the way most Kiwis, Aussies, Americans and Canadians (and I guess South Africans, but I haven’t met any of those yet) approach people, and as such we end up getting on with each other instead of making local friends.

After developing this theory, I decided to test it out.  I tried making friends with several different people over the last few weeks, with varying success – and almost invariably have had far better luck than with the English. 

Now I’ll recognize that there may well be other issues associated with that – some might suggest that it’s not so much a dislike of new people rather just a general xenophobia, as demonstrated by the recent rise in popularity of the British National Party.  Or perhaps it’s that there’s a general snobbery associated with being part of England that has been ingrained in generations, and that this (along with the still-pervasive class-system) creates some disdain for the colonies, particularly Australians (what with them being a criminal colony and all).  Or maybe it’s because every sport they have invented (with the exception of Polo) has been taken and improved upon by the rest of the Empire, leaving England to try and keep up.  Or maybe it’s something to do with the fact that there diet is so boring and stodgy that they just don’t have the energy to make friends with foreigners.

And so, I have set myself a challenge.  By the end of my trip, I will have made one new English friend.  This will be judged by both being a Facebook friend AND an email address.

Wish me luck.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Buddy, you're a boy!

I went to see We Will Rock You the other night.

And boy, did they ever.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Pewsey: it's a place I'm in

Whenever I see three girls wearing leopard-skin outfits, I usually start to get a little bit homesick.

My latest adventures have taken me, again by train, to a little village in Wiltshire called Pewsey. Pewsey is a little bit like that village in the movie Hot Fuzz - quiet, peaceful, upper middle class and white; only there don't appear to be a rash of homicides plaguing the city. I also enjoy the occassional Cornetto.

I'm here to visit one of my good friends of mine from University, an american who married a kiwi who celebrated by moving to the UK and having 1.9 kids. Pewsey is somewhere in England, about an hour out of London and apparently close to Stonehenge. It's on the Avon river (though here it's only three feet wide and half a foot deep), and is also famous for crop circles, and plenty of pagan stone circles (circles of stones for pagans).

It seems that I manage to arrive during significant cultural events - Edinburgh had the Fringe Festival, and now Pewsey has its annual Pewsey Carnival; a week long festival of all that is Pewsey - last night they had the four-legged race where you had to run around a set course tied to two other people and in fancy dress. I saw everything from people dressed up as converse shoes (my personal favourite), to three girls unashamedly dressed up as leopards, to three middle aged white ladies who had painted their faces orange and dressed up as native americans. Another event (which I sadly missed) was the Wheelbeero race, where teams have to carry somebody in a wheelbarrow around a course (which includes sections of the Avon), and must down a pint of beer at each checkpoint. Who said village life was dull?

I can see why people would live here (and not just 'because you're away from all those immigrant folk that pester London - not that I'm racist, mind' according to one anonymous local), it's quiet, reasonably close to London, and it has everything you need right here including:
  • a post office
  • 7 pubs (including one owned by an MP with a mail order bride which allegedly sells alcohol to underage kids)
  • a train station
  • a major army base (important to keep the 7 local pubs running), and
  • its own police station that's open from 10am until noon every Tuesday
It's also very pretty. But it's kind of a 'Stepford' pretty, where everyone knows everyone else, and everyone's business is everone's business. Everyone here is nice enough, but I can't help but feel that I'm being noticed as somebody that doesn't quite fit in. Maybe it's my accent, maybe I'm just a new face and the locals are gunning for the nicest small town award, or maybe it's the fact that I'm not pushing a pram around. I'm actually half tempted to walk into the pharmacy and order a gross of condoms, a box of aspirin, and bottle of glitter glue just to see how the story spreads through town.

But then, that would probably just make me homesick too.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


After seeing Avenue Q I went to a food stall to grab a slice of pizza, and had the following conversation with the vendor:

“How much for a slice of pizza?”

“Two pounds” (so far, so good)

 “Is it any good?”

“No, I wouldn’t say so – I wouldn’t eat it”

“Okay, thanks.”  I left without pizza.

I wish more people were this honest.  Especially people with restaurants.

Lessons of Felt and Fur

It’s depressing that a puppet would know more about life than me.

Tonight I went and saw the puppet-musical Avenue Q in London’s West End (god, I sound pretentious just saying that!). It’s a show I’ve been wanting to see since somebody gave me the soundtrack several years ago, and I wasn’t disappointed.

I went with a friend of mine, who took a lot of convincing to go…

“so it’s a show, about puppets?”
“hmm… no – it’s a show about life. With puppets.”
“I don’t know”
“Go on.”

So we rushed to the theatre and bought tickets three minutes before the curtains opened, and rushed to our seats before the curtains opened. Only my friend was nowhere to be seen.

She had decided, wisely, to go to the bathroom before the show started, and arrived just as the show started, and decided not to be the one who makes everyone move just as the show is starting, so she sat down where she could – well away from me. I’m no stranger to girls sitting well away from me, but naturally I was concerned, and it was only 10 minutes into the show that I saw where she was; but at least I knew that she hadn’t had an aneurism and died while in the ladies, so it was with some relief that I sat back and enjoyed the show.

It’s a brilliant show – based on one man-puppet’s search for a meaning to life, mainly through song. It would be easy for a show like this to just focus on the cheesiness of puppetry and to exploit the cheap sense of humour that usually accompanies them. But it’s actually quite a sweet show with the basic moral that life is what it is, and that it’s okay if you don’t know what to do with your life, because not many people do. Seeing the show was really useful, as the songs all now make much more sense with several significant plot gaps now sufficiently filled.

I really like the way the puppeteers worked with the puppets – it wasn’t a Muppet/Sesame Street puppet show where you can’t see the puppeteers. In Avenue Q the puppeteers are as much a part of the show as the puppets; the expressions and nuances that the actors undertake during the performance actually add a great deal of weight to the emotions that are endowed on the puppets, making them seem all the more human. I left feeling good about life, love, and my trip – anything that happens, happens; and that’s okay.


An awkward, but familiar dance

Today I stood in some chewing gum.

I had been in town trying to find my way from Trafalgar Square to Picadilly Circus, when I saw New Zealand House - our High Commission to the UK. It was a pretty plain building actually, and a little disappointing as far as High Commissions and Embassies go. It was massive, sure - taking up many stories and much room on the corner of Pall Mall a street that isn't on the Monopoly board.
It was a windy day, so I used NZ House to shelter from the wind while I pulled out my map to figure out where to go.

That's when it happened.

As I turned towards where I believed town to be, I noticed that my left foot was stuck to the footpath. Lifting it up I realised that I had stepped in a blob of fresh pink chewing gum. Sure, it could have been worse, but I suddenly became very self-conscious of the people who had noticed my predicament - some with looks of pity, some with looks of delight, and one guy who took the opportunity to hit me with his shoulder as he walked past.

So I left NZ House doing the chewing gum dance. Step step (scrape) step (scrape scrape) step (scrape) step step step (scrape) and so on until I got to the tube station.

Once I got to the tube, I noticed that I had one of those adult porn fliers that you find in phone boxes stuck to the bottom of my shoe, and that I was surrounded by old ladies who would do nothing but judge me with their eyes. So I nonchalantly removed the flier, and calmly stuck it to the wall behind me, using the residual gum to stick.

Probably not my finest hour, but if I'm going to be judged by a panel of old ladies, I might as well earn it.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Parks and Palaces

When you've been on a bus for over an hour anda half, sometimes it's best just to get off.

One particularly gloomy London morning I had decided that my best plan for the day was to hop on the first bus I saw that headed into town and see what happened. A lot of waiting happened.
Buses are large creatures, that are slow to start and quick to go nowhere. But you do get a great view of the city. Eventually I had enough of sitting in a traffic jam in central London, and so I pressed the stop button and got off five minutes later at a stop 20 meters down the road.

Exhausted from the experience, but glad to be off, I looked around and saw that I was very close to Hyde Park, and so I made me way to the park famous for its war memorial to the NZ soldiers that fought alongside Britain in both world wars, and also for its ability to transform Dr Jekylls into brutes.

The park is actually a lot smaller than I thought it would be - I expected a massive park with many trees and a tiny corner dedicated to the war memorials. What I found though was that the whole park was actually one great war memorial, dedicated mainly to the Brits, Aussies and Kiwi armed forces that served (and died) together. The Aussie and Kiwi memorials were particularly cool.

One of the things I think I appreciated the most though was that the wreaths that had been laid at the memorial for Anzac Day were still there, undisturbed - nobody had moved/stolen/or thrown them out. That was a nice touch I thought. The memorial itself is particularly cool - each one has something uniquely kiwi about it; one pillar has a list of NZ cities, another has an oar with a minties wrapper tied to it. Very cool.

The Aussie one was cool as well, if not a little pretentious:

After Hyde Park, I took an exit which lead into an even bigger park, called "Green Park" - the Brits have never been known for their imagination. This was the kind of park I had expected Hyde Park to be - trees, walkways, men throwing frisbees to their dogs, and throngs of people gathering in a nearby square. Not sure what was going on, I headed to the gathered masses to find that I was next door to Buckingham Palace, and had just missed the changing of the guard.

I had never stumbled across a palace before, so I decided that I should make the most of this opportunity and explore. I wandered past the throng of people and headed around the corner to see that there was a palace tour open for the next half an hour. So I lined up and paid my tour fee, and entered the palace. The palace was pretty awesome - it was built and designed for King George IV and finished by Queen Victoria.

At the main entrance I picked up a free audio guide and spent some time wandering around the palace which mainly turned out to be a lot of paintings and artwork, as well as dresses worn by the Queen during her many trips around the Commonwealth. It was all very spectacular with the splendour and the pomp and circumstance everywhere, and it was made even more impressive by the fact that it is one of the few remaining working palaces in the world. The flag above the palace showed that The Queen was home, but for the life of me I didn't get to meet her. But she did make the effort to record a message on the audio guide welcoming me to her home.

Disappointed at having not met the Queen (or in fact any royals) during my surprise visit to the palace, I strolled freely through the Palace gardens, within the approved strolling area, and exited. Lovely gardens, but I didn't really get to see very much of them given the rope and many guards (chavs dressed up in robes).

After the Palace I hopped on a bus, got off, and took the tube back home.

Underground, Overground, Stevening Free

Taking the underground in London is brilliant. But if you really want to waste a day in London, take a bus.

The underground (or tube, if you're a hip local like myself) can get you from across town in a matter of minutes. I've decided that I really like taking the tube - there are underground stations all over the place, and once you get the hang of knowing which line you need to be on, which way it's going, which stations to get off at to switch lines to the one you need, it's a really simple system.
Costs a lot though. A day pass on the tube costs around five pounds ($12.50NZ), but sometimes it seems to cost up to eight ($20). I haven't quite figured out how to work the system in my favour yet, but I'm sure I'll get it.

My favourite part about taking the tube is when I'm standing at the station waiting for the train to arrive. First it's just you and the tunnel. Waiting there with nothing but the muzak and posters advertising the latest musicals and denim fashions for kids to keep you company. Then others flood in to the tunnel. But the best bit is when a train approaches the platform. Before you can see or hear it, you can feel a great gush of wind from the tunnel as the train pushes the air ahead of it. That's my favourite part. Mainly because it's pretty awesome that the train makes it windy, but also mainly because it means the train is almost here.

It gets stupidly crowded on the tube during rush hour. It's often everything I can do to keep my wallet and virtue in place when you're squeezed between an overweight greek man in a singlet top (yes, they exist), a chav, and a guy in a suit. Once I didn't have a good grip on the safety handle and nearly elbowed a lady in the face. She was pretty angry, but I think I could have taken her.

If you're not in a rush to get to where you're going you can always take a bus. It's only one pound, but it's not quick - especially in town, as I discovered.

I've been staying at a friend's house in Kilburn (Camden), and it's a heck of a way to get into town, but about 10 minutes from the tube or five minutes from a bus. So one morning I decided I would take a bus into town, and see a bit of the city. I found the nearest bus stop and asked the kindly old lady if this was the bus into town. Once she ascertained that I wasn't about to rob her (people here are so suspicious!), she said that this was the bus to take into town. So I got on and enjoyed the ride. 45 minutes later, I noticed that we were going through suburbs that (on my tube map) were actually heading away from town. I looked around to find the old lady but suspect that she had gotten off the bus at an earlier stop and by now was laughing with her bridge buddies about the poor tourist she had sent off to Kentish Town.

So I got off, crossed the road, and waited for another bus - this time making sure that it went into town. After 20 minutes a great double decker arrived, so I made my way to the very top deck and sat down and watched the world crawl by.

Buses in London are slow. It seems there are stops every 200 meters or so, and the buses seem to stop at all of them. Then there's the traffic to contend with - rush hour traffic (between 10am and 2pm) seems to be the worst, and there's nothing so heartbreaking as watching people walk past you again and again - I think they do it on purpose!

This said, the bus is an excellent way to see the city from a different angle, and even gives you some idea of the topography of the city - for instance where before I might have taken a tube from one stop to another, I now know that it's only five minutes walk if I don't take the tube.

So I've been on the London overground, and the London underground. I'm kind of like a womble.

A blog to follow

A friend of mine has entered a competition for a job, where the application is based on the number of followers for their blogs. Now I know that there are usually more readers than followers (hi mum), but she needs followers to win.

I'm not normally one for threats, but if you love me you'll follow this blog:

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Stoked about Stoke

When I told my friend I was going to Stoke on Trent for a few days, she said "...isn't that where Shakespeare's from?" to which I replied "Yeah, I think so". This turned out to be wrong.

Shakespeare's from Stratford upon Avon. Robbie Williams is from Stoke on Trent (he's like the Shakespeare of our generation). Stoke is also famous for its pottery history, and many museums associated with this history. Upon arrival in Stoke, the very first thing you see on exiting the train station is a giant statue of a man famous for pottery in Stoke, whose name escapes me (I'm sure you'll forgive me).

Every radio station. Every hour. Robbie Williams. I was at the movie theatre waiting to buy tickets for District 9 (cool movie), and Robbie was on in the background. Not only that, but people in line in front of me were singing and dancing along to him. I guess he's a real local hero over here - one of Stoke's on who made it up through the boy-band ranks and into stardom. Today we were in a market place and there was a newspaper stand with the headline:

Seriously, this dude is everywhere. On BBC Radio Stoke they refer to him only as 'Robbie', and give all of his albums nicknames ('coming up next hour we've got a hit from Robbie's album Ego') and so on. I've decided I'm going to try and talk to the next Stoke-local (or 'Stocal', as I call them) using only Robbie song titles. I don't expect much success, but I would like to think I can use enough to win some/lose some.

Stoke is a city. It's a city where all the houses are made of the same red brick and are often no more than three stories high, making it look as though they are all designed off the same plans. In a city that (combined with neighbouring Newcastle under Lyme) has a population of around 700 thousand, this means a lot of urban sprawl. Basically the city looks like it should be a small village, but goes on forever in the same low density/small business corner shop motif forever, which (when combined with the red brick and single set of plans) makes it very easy to get lost. I don't plan to leave the house without the company of an adult at all times.

I came to Stoke to visit some friends of mine from University. I had never been to Stoke on Trent, much as I had never been to anywhere in Europe, and I saw this as a good chance to spend a couple of days relaxing with some friends before rushing back to London and then Paris.
I'm staying in a red brick three-story house somewhere in Stoke/Newcastle (I don't know where one ends and the other begins), and they've put me in the guest room of their house. Well, technically it's an attic - I actually have to climb a foldout ladder that comes down from the ceiling to get to my room! I've never slept in an attic before - there's a mattress up here, as well as hundreds of board games. It's all very exciting.

Today I climbed a mountain and visited a sweet shop. I saw three goats and many types of sherbert. I also suspect the Michelin Man of being a secret Nazi:

I guess it's a good thing I'm sleeping in an attic.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Food I have eaten

I had a baked potato today that nearly killed me.

With that in mind, I decided that this would be a good point to do a stocktake of some of the food I have eaten during my trip.

China: Highlight – smoked fish. Lowlight – eyeball of smoked fish that was accidentally eaten due to careless chopstick control. Honorable mention – scorpions on a stick (though I didn’t actually eat those).

Sweden: Highlight – Abba caviar. Lowlight – McDonald’s (due to price of food everywhere else).

Denmark: Highlight – Meatballs. Not very imaginative, but tasty nonetheless for a country where the national dish is an open sandwich. Lowlight – McDonald’s (even more expensive than Sweden).

Latvia: Highlight – chocolate truffles. Lowlight – bad coffee (tasted like mud and communism).

Austria: Highlight – Wiener Schnitzel (delicious) and pizza (cheap and tasty). Lowlight – overpriced sacher torte that was average at best.

Hungary: Highlight – goulash. Sounds awful, tastes like awesome. Lowlight: goulash. Once I had had a taste of the good stuff, all other goulash was just inferior – and left me disappointed and chasing the dragon.

Czech Republic: Highlight – ribs at the caveman dinner. Lowlight – the same ribs the next day after mixing them with too many whiskeys.

Germany: Highlight – Salad (it had been a while since vegetables other than potato had been on the menu). Honorable mention – if not for the salad the Bratwurst would have surely been top of the list. T’was as tasty as it sounds. Lowlight – Dunkin Donuts donuts. Three make you sleepy.

Holland: Highlight – mini pancakes drizzled with lemon syrup and icing sugar. Honorable mention – I hear the hot chips are delicious, but I didn’t get to try any. Lowlight – the drinks at the live sex show; I’m convinced the glasses weren’t so clean.

France: Highlight – the 99c baguette I bought in a truck stop with a small jar of jam. Lowlight – the fact that I only spent an hour in Paris meant that I don’t have a lowlight. Watch this space.

England: Highlight – the pork pie from the Sillfield Farm butchers at the Borough Market. Lowlight – the baked potato I had from a foodcourt this evening. Cost me 5 pounds and it came stacked with so much cheese that I nearly had a heart attack from looking at it. That I ate it all still shames me.

Scotland: Highlight – Haggis is actually rather tasty, as is the whiskey. Lowlight – the Tiramisu that tasted like somebody had taken a stale sponge and left it outside overnight and sprinkled it with cocoa. Honorable mention – all other food in Scotland. It’s all rather average; not bad, just average.

Off to see the Wizard

Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re probably laughing, scorning, or shaking your head or doing something else judgmental and likely deserved. That’s what I would expect for admitting that I went to see a fortune teller.

It all started with the ghost tour of Edinburgh the other day. The tour guide had admitted to being a paranormal psychologist (I guess that’s somebody that studies ghost behavior?) during the tour. After the tour however as we were scouring my photos for orbs or other ‘wee ghosties’ he also divulged that he was a clairvoyant and psychic (they’re separate), and that he and his husband operated a specialist store in Edinburgh where they offered readings. Now, you may recall that one of my goals in Hungary was to search for somebody to tell my fortune, but apparently not all gypsies are skilled in the ways of the tarot – and instead now focus on trying to sell me a hug or steal my wallet. So I decided I would give it a go.

That evening I looked up the website – and much to my surprise I noticed that not only do they specialize in tarot and palmistry, but that they dabbled in fairie oracles, and were also master craftsmen of wands (stay with me). It would be normal to have second thoughts at this stage. But since this trip is as much about trying new things as it is about seeing the world, I decided that I would give it a go. I also made a conscious decision not to make any reference to Harry Potter, or to ask if Olivander was in.

As usual, I got on the wrong bus into town, and so arrived at The Black Mausoleum (the name of the place) just as they were closing up, due to a lack of customers over the bank holiday. Since I was a customer though, he let me in and locked the door behind me – which only mildly freaked me out. After explaining that I was after a tarot reading, he sat me down and put on a CD of some Irish lady that sounded like it should have been in an episode of Robin Hood, asked me a couple of questions (“what are you hoping to find out” etc), and asked me to shuffle the deck.

After revealing my cards, he explained the meaning of the different types. At the bottom of the deal were four animal cards (the stag, the hare, the dog, and the owl), which combine to show my personality and such. The other deck had quite a lot of cards including justice, the hermit, and many other cards that I know nothing about (though Death was noticeable in its absence).

The reading itself was supposed to go for about 30 minutes, but I guess he liked me (Silver Shadow – Davidoff) so it was probably closer to an hour. He outlined to me what the cards ‘revealed’ through the areas of the present (the next six months), the future (six months to a year), romance and finance. Apparently I should expect a promotion when I get back. He also mentioned that there was a lot of restructuring happening in the workplace at the moment – which to be fair isn’t much of an achievement given that most places are undergoing restructures thanks to the GFC.

In all this though, I felt as though I had been told a fair bit about myself; things that not many people knew or had articulated before. If I were to compare it to anything I’d done before I would say it was kind of like taking one of those psychometric personality tests like the Myers-Briggs, only instead of taking a test I tapped a deck of cards (not a metaphor).

To summarise what I was told:

1. Trust my instincts/listen to my gut
2. Pay more attention to my dreams
3. Be patient with things

He was a very lovely guy, and I believed that he believed in what he was doing. I’m not sure that I completely buy into his methods or that there’s anything to them, but the messages that I got were good ones, which I should probably exercise anyway. So I will trust my gut more, and be patient, and maybe pay more attention to my dreams. This last one will take some work – the other day I dreamt that I was running from a Zombie telepath in Oxford Circus. Perhaps there’s a meaning in that which I haven’t yet discovered.

I didn’t buy a wand.

Hey Edinburgh, Fringe THIS!

I have never seen so many high heels, bedazzled jeans, or ghosts in my life. Edinburgh has all three.

I arrived in Edinburgh early afternoon and was met by a distant relative (my mother’s sister’s husband’s brother) at the train station. Martin (my mother’s sister’s husband’s brother) was kind enough to put me up at his flat during my stay, and as it turns out, he is also an excellent tour guide of the city. This was especially helpful for several reasons – not least because it meant that I didn’t have to find (and pay for) accommodation, but also because it was the tail end of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and it would be impossible to find accommodation anywhere in the city otherwise.

Edinburgh is a very beautiful city.

Beautiful in a different way to somewhere like Amsterdam or Prague. Edinburgh has gorgeous buildings, sure – but it’s constantly changing weather and environment, mixed with the duotone stone masonry of the city give it a feeling that I don’t think you’d find anywhere else in the world.

It’s similar to Wellington with its changeable climate and such, but it’s also similar in that it’s a city that’s alive with culture and heritage and conflict and ghosts. Even taking the train into the city was a treat, as the Scottish scenery was gorgeous, and a complete juxtaposition to the crumbly and industrial English scenery. Beaches, lighthouses and churches dotted the landscape which made for a very pleasant journey indeed.

Okay, I will accept that Wellington doesn’t really have the same conflict or ghost stories. Or really any ghost stories. But I did go on a ghost tour of the city. More on that later.

It was lovely during the day, and hilarious during the night. Once the sun goes down it seems that everyone in Edinburgh coordinates their clothing for the night and hobbles into town for a night on the drink. I am not exaggerating when I say 80% of the women I saw were all dolled up in the same short skirt/dress, high heels that were so tall that they actually pushed the girls to a lean forward, which any gust of wind could easily take advantage of their imbalance, to much comic effect. If it wasn’t a short skirt it was usually a pair of white pants, which had been attacked by a bedazzler. It was quite a sight to behold, and I took great pleasure in watching the young ladies try and negotiate the cobbled streets with their stilettos. Not always successfully.

You could really tell that something had taken Edinburgh by the hand and pulled it off a cliff, throwing the city into a city full of tourists and entertainers – August sees Edinburgh host both the Military Tattoo and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and so the city braces itself for an influx of performers (ranging from excellent to awful) and tourists (ranging from kiwis to Americans). I actually got the impression that the locals didn’t really like the influx of people into the city (despite the influx of money that accompanied everyone except me), though they tolerated them because that’s what the Brits (and Scots) do.

I saw three shows at the Fringe Festival. One of my friends from Sydney had a show called “Princess Cabaret”, which was basically ‘after happily ever after’ for Disney Princesses. It was a lot of fun to watch, and has received rave reviews from many of the Fringe reviewers. I have since learned though that you can’t rely on Fringe reviewers to give an honest assessment, as all shows seemed to receive at least four stars (out of five), despite the fact that all you need to do to be in the festival is to book a venue and pay the registration fee. I had no desire to watch a show where university drama students ‘take the piss’ out of contemporary drama theory utilizing the little-known but much hated ‘pretentious tableau’ technique. Seriously wanky, and not worth the effort to find it, even if most of their shows were free.

While it would have been very easy to spend my time (and money) watching festival shows, I also took the time to explore the city. I took the opportunity to take in a ghost tour of the city – labeled “City of the Dead”. These are almost iconic to Edinburgh, as it's meant to be Europe's most haunted city.

We started off with a basic summary of the city’s brutal past – including what life was like in what the locals described as ‘hell on earth’ and ‘damnation alley’. Basically the city was so overcrowded during the 15-17th centuries, that the local council would routinely hold 200 executions a day as ‘population control’. Overcrowding led to vagrants, sick, or otherwise unwanted people taking up shelter under the bridge. Fires, famine, and disease wiped out tens of thousands of people over the years, which is said to explain why there is so much paranormal activity down there. So clearly it’s a good place to take tourists.

This tour led us under South Bridge where it was alleged to be inhabited by your standard ghosts and even a poltergeist. I’m not sure what exactly constitutes a standard ghost, but I did get a photo of one.

The orb in the middle of the photo is supposed to be a ghost, and is not explainable by science (other than as a ghost orb). I did try and trick a ghost into being in my photo, but I guess it didn't work:

The bridge was dank and smelly, and we were warned under no uncertain terms that we weren’t to lick the walls. I asked if this was a common problem amongst his tour groups, to which the guide looked at me as if I had just farted and reminded me that he was the expert on paranormal activity and that I had paid to be informed. Chastised, I refrained from licking the walls (though I was tempted just out of spite!).

Aside from that little moment of oddity, the tour itself was really rather interesting. We heard about some of the paranormal activity that takes place under the bridge, and also about the particularly nasty poltergeist that keeps interfering with people during the tour; often leaving with unexplained bruises or scratches about their person when nothing has happened. Unless you count being grabbed by a ghost as something, I suppose.

I remain unconvinced that the orb in this photo is actually a ghost, and not just a lens flare from a pitch black cave meters underground, or perhaps even a weather balloon.

Edinburgh is so far my favourite city on this trip. The others were great - some had their charms and attractions, some had gypsies. But Edinburgh had something that drew me in and I don't think will ever let me go. It's probably a ghost.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

About Trains

I’m beginning to think that trains don’t like me so much.

After arriving in London I spent a day or so getting used to the metro system before it hit me: I should be in Edinburgh.  So I booked a return ticket on the train (not cheap but not bad) and headed towards Scotland from London. 

Travelling from London to Edinburgh is rather straightforward.  There’s a train every half hour or so, and the trip itself is around four-six hours (not sure why they vary so much – probably something to do with avoiding ghosts or EU regulations).  I arrived at Kings Cross with plenty of time to spare before my train departed, only to find that my ticket didn’t come with an assigned seat, and that I’d have to find one on my own that wasn’t already reserved. 

Every seat was reserved.

Still, I didn’t let this deter me.  I walked up and down the carriages hoping to find an errant seat (noticing that other passengers were doing the same thing), but to no avail.  Suddenly I had images of me standing on the train for four hours watching as people relaxed and ate those little bags of peanuts and enjoyed the fact that, although they probably paid a fraction of the price as me, that they had the inside knowledge that you had to reserve a seat as a separate exercise to buying a ticket. 

So I did the only thing I could think of: I sat down in a reserved seat.

Every time somebody approached I was prepared for them to say, likely in a very loud and accusatory tone: “Oi, get out of my seat!!”, or something equally embarrassing.  I felt like a social outcast – the tourist who didn’t know better than just buying a train ticket which (according to the train conductor): “only guarantees you passage, not a seat”.  I don’t know about you, but if I’m paying over a hundred pounds for a train ticket, I expect to have somewhere to sit.  So I sat, and I waited.  I crossed my fingers that nobody would remove me from my seat.  It wasn’t until 30 minutes after the train left the station that I could relax and confirm that the person who had reserved the seat I was in was not going to show up.  I uncrossed my fingers, sat back, and enjoyed the ride to Scotland.