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.