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Tuesday, 10 February 2015

London Part 2

It's not every morning that you wake up beaming with the thought of what to do during the day. But the prospect of doing one of my most favourite activities of all was hard not to be excited about: Exploring the markets that have been established in London for so many years that it would be criminal not to enjoy this bustling tradition. After downing a quick breakfast in the dark hall of the hostel with only bits of new light breaking its way into the room, I pushed down that inevitable early morning fatigue to find the infamous markets. The antique stalls in the Portobello Market area lay jagged by the road, some selling cheap glass while others sold expensive copper scales and cutlery. The best part of seeing these beautiful gems was being able to watch curiously as they got sold: People haggled and bantered in a cheeky and playful way before parting with smiles on their faces. The crisp but light filled air around made my cheeks turn a frost-bitten, rosy hue. It gave it a feel of realism and urged me to continue walking, allowing me to see a whole host of artistic oil paintings and colourful scarves that stood out as spots of brightness against the neutral colouring of the road. But as much as I enjoyed looking and staring and thinking about how these pieces of art were made, I will be honest in saying I was thinking about my next destination towards the end already. The way to Borough Markets made my tummy rumble and groan, as if secretly relishing at the prospect of being treated to food from the oldest food markets in England but also as if grumbling that it took me so long to get there. No market I had ever visited compared to this one, with a high interior that bounced off sounds of excited people, edging along to get to their favourite stores for a deluxe and unique lunch. Exotic smells would hit me occasionally as I headed down a new path, ones that smelt like fresh seafood and fragrant jams and creamy cheeses all looking just as mouth watering as they smelt. After I fought my way through a gathering crowd to buy a dish of calamari with chilli sauce, I picked a free spot, bit into the soft meat wrapped inside a crunchy crust and felt my body relish from the introduction of such deliciously satisfying food. The cafe in front of me worked like an oil machine, chugging out cups upon cups of steaming caffeinated drinks, yet the line outside still stretched and wrapped around the corner of the street. 

I edged my way out of the crowds to approach the one and only London Bridge, but not before stopping in a huge glass dome right next to the busy market to hear a choir of young teens singing holiday carols. Their voices carried through the wind as I eased out to the bridge, clutching my coat and scarf tightly around me. With the Thames running underneath it and the Tower Bridge just in the distance standing in its gothic manner, I walked across it and back whilst braving the wind and the subtle chill that nearly knocked me off my feet. On my way back, it was the funniest thing watching a bunch of festive drinkers chugging down booze whilst wearing sunglasses on a massive cart powered by one poor man peddling to move it across this historic bridge. It made me realise that London was just full of fun and spontaneity, completely opposite to what Paris represented but had another level of attraction and lure. I could not compare these two cities with the same standard because it is their differences that make them so charming.

The historical aspect of London with all its tradition and value, or anywhere else for that matter, was an aspect that I could not say I was always interested in. Perhaps it's the fact that history as a subject had never been a big part of my education, but arriving in Europe has given me a whole new perspective of how enriching and engaging history can be. While I find myself appreciating some aspects more than others, arriving at St Paul's Cathedral opened my eyes to how important the past is; Despite the majestic grandiose of the building before me as I rounded the corner to take it at face view, what made it even more impressive was the courage and bravery of the firemen who sacrificed their lives to save it so we could preserve it for today and many years to come. The cathedral itself was much bigger than I had imagined, and trust me when I say I had big in mind. Even as I walked far from it across a bridge to the Christmas festivities in the distance, I could still see the building with all its angles and curves, accentuated further by the slow setting of the sun. It was one of those moments that could be captured on camera one hundred times and never be satisfying, and standing there to admire it from far away felt also like a privilege that needed to be savoured. But of course after those few special moments, you have to move on. There is simply no logic in waiting around - not in London anyway. It almost feels like wasting time when you could discover so much more.

In saying that, it wouldn't be hard to imagine my impatience and frustration when walking up to the biggest Christmas festivity that I have ever laid eyes on to find a line which seemed as long as the Thames itself. Standing amongst the crowd of excited people who yearned to become a part of the glowing lights and the musical celebrations happening inside the gates, all I could do was watch the lit up amusement rides repeat the same motion over and over again; Falling and rising, spinning and swinging, all with fresh laughter and screams that resonated through the unoccupied and dark areas of Hyde Park. Travelling alone had certain perks but waiting in that line was almost torturous without anybody to share the excitement with and to pass time. It moved ever the more slower with knowing that I was literally so close to being inside every holiday lover's dream. And when I finally got through under the large 'Winter Wonderland' sign, I breathed in a sharp gasp of air. If you could imagine any sort of town, overrun by some extravagant, extensive Christmas explosion, you wouldn't be too far from what I saw in front of me. People where smiling and laughing all around me, some looking relaxed as they lounged around wooden tables while some had a slightly more frantic look in their eyes as they glanced around for their friends. Everybody had a hot drink in their hand and the steam from all these cheap styrofoam cups rose slowly, only to disappear into the masses of piercing lights that glowed against the pitch dark sky. Walking away from the initial entrance, I followed the flow of the crowd onto a street that had an endless array of festive stalls. I couldn't say until this point that I had experienced anything that was so infused with Christmas spirit and holiday joy, it was just not something that can come by easily back at home. Snow globes, lights, ornaments, candles, wooden fruit bowls, soft toys... These are only a small list of the things that I saw there, sitting on the tops of the stalls so delicately in contrast to the unruly sight in front of them, waiting to be picked up and bought by curious children and fascinated adults. Holding an obligatory hot chocolate and trying not to spill it on anybody as I shuffled down was more difficult than it seems, but that didn't stop me poking my head every now and then into a stall where the lights above softly illuminated my face. It allowed me to get the occasional whiff of rich caramel fudge or hear the sounds of a candy floss machine churning and buzzing to stop the Christmas haze from being so completely overwhelming.

The scene that remains the most vivid memory in my mind however was watching the joys of the holidays unfold before my eyes in the carnival games area of the park. As I clutched some freshly bought hot French fries in one hand, trying to balance it so that none of them would fall on the cold ground, I watched groups and couples both young and old, attempting to win and take home one of the prizes that hung down from the elaborately decorated ceiling. Darts were thrown, balls were tossed, goals were scored and amongst the yelling and cheering and laughing, I found myself enjoying that scene for the better part of my night. I could only think: This is what holidays are all about. I needed to see this, to be immersed in it to understand how truly happy and enjoyable life can and should be. Nobody had any worries in there, or stress or frustration. It was an unreal place blooming with positivity and optimism that melted everything else away.

And when I finally left, walking away from the brightness and into the chilly darkness of the park to reach the metro stop on the other side, I couldn't think of any better build-up to perhaps one of the most special Christmas holidays of my entire life.

Monday, 19 January 2015

London Part 1

Without a doubt, my number one destination for travel was France. But when that is where I live now and you ask for my second choice? Europe is simply full of completely different yet utterly magical places all in one tightly packed continent, each with their own foreign beauty waiting for me. But as sure as I was coming to Paris, I knew I had to visit London and put my metaphorical gumboots onto the plush land of England for my travels. And you would completely understand the extent of my desire to go if you were right next to me, sharing the stress of purchasing ridiculously overpriced Eurostar tickets just to see this highly acclaimed city in all its festive holiday glory.

In the midst of all the excitement when departing Gare du Nord in Paris to head to St Pancras station in London, I must confess that there was a point where I felt truly alone. Over these four days, there would be no organiser to help me, no host family to depend on and the experience of the journey was most definitely up to me. Getting stuck at one of the tramway stations with my ticket not working was not the most comforting thought either. But there is an unexplainable amount of pride when you can get yourself out of those situations, even more so doing it in French. There was pressure with these circumstances, but in a strange and unpredictable way, I did not feel scared. Gazing out the passing sights of Paris as the artificial lights faded out and the sun rose slowly from the edge of the horizon was nothing but peaceful when the train departed. Reaching St Pancras station had a real Victorian feel about it, with the iron bars and the precise design of the station, almost to the point of having a steampunk vibe to it. My eyes were instantly drawn to the big gold clock that ran with a vintage elegance and with every minute that ticked by, I almost chanted in rhythm. Here in London. Here in London. Here in London.

Having turned into quite the French woman during my time in Paris, it took all my will not say that instinctive bonjour or merci to the people that I met in London when I first arrived. Honestly, I just stood there in a shop at the train station for about twenty minutes getting over the confusion of not hearing that sexy yet fast paced language that I love but instead a familiar one with a strange level of formality and grace. Granted, I am no complete stranger to the English accent, but that simply does not mean I could get used to people talking to me as if I were the Queen. It astonishes me how bizarre it felt to view English as a foreign language, while the occasional thought in French seemed perfectly normal. When I finally got my words together and bought my underground tube card to explore the city, I was ready to take it all in. Dragging my little red suitcase along, I set off to Covent Gardens, waiting to go above ground and see my first sights of this historical and wonderful city.

Covent Gardens was a very magical sight to see, with a blend of both commercial and very individualistic aspects that make it the most perfect introduction of Christmas in London. Through my cringing as the clunky wheels of my suitcase hobbled behind me on the cobbled ground with its obnoxiously loud clatter, I gaped at the beauty of the large red ornaments that hung on the ceiling of the main structure as you walked in. Right underneath, little tiny white stores would sell jewellery boxes and handmade bags and little dainty necklaces all put out on display to reflect the gleaming sunshine that streamed through the glass roof. On the outer edges, luxurious stores had filled their windows with their festive range that looked even more precious being framed by the classic black edges around each of the displays. Walking into any one of them was an experience in itself as the warm air embraced you first before you lose yourself in the smells of divine chocolates or winter teas or soft body creams that make your head spin. As much as the comfort of standing by a warm hot chocolate glass dispenser gave me while I relished in its sweet taste, the events outside gave me an even better perspective of classic London with its culture of street entertainment. By the big Christmas tree with fairy lights wrapped all the way to the top, a magician performed his trick around a huge crowd who applauded and laughed loudly at his comments. On the under level where all the cafes and creperies and bakeries where serving customers with hot lunch, a lady was singing a powerful but beautiful opera piece that rung through the entire building with its resonance. It was so easy to talk to people and within minutes, I had bought myself three beautiful English teaspoons whilst telling the vendor how much I would enjoy using them in my home in New Zealand. The longer I stayed, the more I didn't want to leave because it was a place that was just so classically beautiful with the most heartwarming atmosphere.

But no matter how pretty, my body was just physically tired from hauling my luggage around and when I realised I could check in to my youth hostel in Camden, I left the markets and stores behind me, hopping on the tube as if I had been doing it for years. Upon discovering that my hostel was within one of the most vibrant and unique night populated areas of London, I was very nervous to get my key and make my way up the creaky stairs to a room that had six wooden bunks and an odd smell. It wasn't accommodation that I was used to at all, but my purpose here was to travel, leaving early in the mornings and coming back late at night. At least the bed was clean and comfortable, and that was all I required when you take away all those unnecessary embellishments. The bars on the streets were all closed when I looked out the window. But from its exterior, I could imagine hundreds of young nightmoths hanging around them when darkness settles with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in another while loud music blasted in their eats. I made no effort to stick around despite the small protests of brain urging me to sit down and take a small break. There was definitely no time for that, because I needed to go see one of the most famous icons of London itself, and the perfect time was creeping up.

Any traveller who ventures unknown waters alone can tell you that no matter how great at navigation you may be, sometimes a little help is required. I was moved by how willing and friendly the man who worked for the underground was with explaining where the best places are and what I must do to make my stay unforgettable. Saving a lot of time thanks to his advice and help, I made it to my destination, rounding the corner to see the glorious London Eye glowing brightly against an unbelievably ethereal blue background. Now here is my gripe with this heavenly sight - my first initial thought was not the shock of seeing such an impactful scene, but a simple question: Where is the grey? Either I had been living a lie or the entire image in front of me was an unnerving recreation of what perfect London would be. Through years of being told of the notoriously grim weather, I could not accept this strikingly beautiful scene, as if my eyes were purposely deceiving me. The wheel turned around slowly and surely while the white fluffy clouds just lay there in a sea of blue. I could barely tear my eyes away, but I needed to buy my ticket and I could not remember ever being so excited to see the sights of a city from above. By the time I had emerged out of a busy ticket office, the slow transition into sunset had started to begin, layering on the lingering rays of sunlight onto the fading blue. I prayed and willed the sky to hold off longer so I could see London with its daytime glory, even for just a glimpse. And whoever was listening above granted me that wish and proceeded to create a picturesque display that superseded my expectations. As the gondola glided along its curved path, I saw this iconic city transform from bright and bustling to an unbelievable silhouette of gorgeous shapes and sizes, all dark against the now warm orange sky. It was like time moved incredibly slow yet fast, passing by in both a blur and also halting still so that I embed what I saw in my mind forever. The ride gave a feeling of being pulled up to heaven, just to reach the top for that one special moment to then fall back down, gently like a light feather.

Walking along the side of the Thames whilst holding a hot sausage baguette a little afterwards as the sky turned dark, I had one of those moments of reflection. Not quite an epiphany but more of a general appreciation for what I am seeing and where I am. While bikers performed their tricks on my left and the skateboarders showed off their skills on my right, I strolled past the bustling Christmas markets until I found a quite park bench to sit down and ponder over the sorts of personal challenges that I had to overcome to get me to this point. In no way exaggerated, I had to dig so deeply to find a courage and determination to leave what I knew behind to explore this unknown part of the world. Before, it had weighed on me greatly that maybe I didn't have that sort of drive to pull it out when I needed it most, or more importantly that I never possessed it in the first place. But I made this all possible for myself and I could not be more proud of the person that I have become - it almost saddens me how long it has taken for me to discover that fear or not, I have grown into a woman who can achieve fantastic things. With the support of various very important people in my life, I could finally say that where I was in that moment was one of the greatest highlights yet, without a shadow of hesitation.