You could say that London and I don't exactly mesh well. That was my first impression in 2006. An impression that most told me was probably based off of my previous experience with the school group I traveled with. "Your itinerary was too structured," they would tell me, "It's totally different if you see the REAL London." Fortunately enough, I took their advice and decided to give it another go. Jake and I wanted to do something big for New Years- something a bit different than our usual working-and-curling-up-on-the-couch-with-leftover-Christmas-food tradition, and London seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
I was pretty excited about this plan. We collaborated and created a list of everything the two of us wanted to see during our two day adventure, obviously ending with midnight at the Thames watching the fireworks. Our journey began at 6:00am when Chris kindly drove us (poor guy had band practice till midnight the night before, and karma would soon inflict the sleepless travel upon us later in our weekend) to the train station. I slept for most of the journey until we arrived at Waterloo station at about 9:00am. Our itinerary was pretty solid, and we were convinced that we would have plenty to do for the day. Jacob and I happen to be bizarre. We never particularly enjoy public transportation, and when given the option we usually opt for walking. I am not sure if this is because we are cheap, active, or just very visual- perhaps all of the above. We began in China Town because I really enjoyed the one that I frequented in Washington, DC, and hoped that the one in London would be even more extravagant. Unfortunately, nothing was open due to the hour, but I could tell that it wouldn't compete anyways. Aside from the "male treatment masseuse" centers I didn't see any other souvenir shops (my favorite part of China Town), so we continued on through Soho and ended up at a nifty restaurant called The Breakfast Club.
It is quite odd how we tend to gravitate toward the same kinds of restaurants everywhere we go. If you have ever been to Silly's or The Good Egg in Portland, those are typically the kind of establishments we choose to inhabit. The Breakfast Club was no different. It had a funky, retro feel with cleverly titled dishes and eccentric decorations (though they might be considered mild by Silly's standards!). We each had a "Sausage Butty" (essentially two pieces of white bread with a sausage in the middle…hardly worth the 5 quid each we spent on them) and continued on to the National Gallery.
I was very much looking forward to the National Gallery for many reasons. 1. You are allowed to sit and sketch as you look 2. They have comfy couches 3. Monet 4. Van Gogh 5. Renoir 6. Da Vinci 7. Michelangelo. The only problem with number one is that I didn't really want to draw the paintings themselves as much as the architecture of the inside of the building, however, there was no where I could sit to sketch my desired locations which inevitably just made me depressed. It was a really cool thing knowing that I was standing in front of actual original pieces by some of the world's greatest and most influential artists. Really, it was a great experience, but it didn't particularly MOVE me the way that I had hoped.
Not to fret, though! We left the National Gallery and headed towards Buckingham Palace which included a beautiful walk through the park where a man with a ferret in his hood handed me some bread to feed the assortment of fowl that inhabits the area. I don't know if you know this but I LOATHE feeding birds. It is terrifyingly competitive and aggressive and I am always afraid that I will be pecked to death as the birds desperately try to get at the bread. I did survive, and we did in fact make it to the Palace. It was quiet and nice in comparison to my first experience. Back then we had gone during the changing of the guard so the roads were littered with tourists and cameras and it was quite overwhelming. Jacob was lucky enough to catch sight of a few Beefeaters all dressed up in the beautiful blue coats! Quite nice, though we weren't close enough to sneak a picture.
By the time we were finished at the Palace in was about 2:30pm so we decided to head in the general direction of our hotel. We stopped quickly at Sainsbury's to pick up some pasties, salad, and clementine "champagne" for dinner and proceeded to spend the next combined 3 hours riding the tube and walking in circles in Leyton. We weren't aware that our hotel had two different names and that the one WE knew it by was not going to be presented ANYWHERE on the building, so we walked by it about seven times before stopping into the pub (which we should have done first, really) to ask for some help. Of course we also had a mix up with the reservation, but the folks at the front desk were surprisingly helpful and all was sorted out in the end.
We began the next morning at around 10:30AM destination unknown. We decided to take the bus because it was cheaper, however with that comes the price of having NO IDEA WHERE YOU ARE GOING. You see, tube maps are readily available but BUS maps are virtually nonexistent. Therefore it is your duty as a patron of the bus to either a. know where you are going b. piece together your journey by walking to every stop in your area or c. GTFO. We chose B with a mixture of the newly added d. ride until you see something cool. Jake had remembered that I had told him where to find some of the only remaining Banksy work in London and when he saw the name of the stop we leapt off the bus and began walking. We searched all over Old Street knowing only that it was near a bridge and by a business called Cargo. However, we did pass an old car park that has a famous piece by the street artist, but has been covered up with boards. We finally just accepted that the pieces had probably been removed, and turned down a road in the opposite direction. By some miracle, I glanced down an alley to my left and low and behold I saw it! In bright flashing letters the word "Cargo" lit up my heart and I grabbed onto Jacob's arm, gesturing emphatically to the road only managing to express myself in a series of squeaks. We were so happy to find the pieces (which are located in the entrance of Cargo and covered in glass to protect them from being covered up!!) and it pretty much made our day. We continued back on the main road to find several other works of street art by various artists, a few murals, and a lot of creativity. It is definitely a side of London that I had not been able to see the first time around, and am very glad that we had found on this trip.
It was then that we chose to make our way toward the river to see the Tower Bridge, London Bridge, Big Ben, and begin scouting out viewing points for the fireworks show. We accomplished all of these tasks and by 4:30PM we had purchased our sandwiches for dinner later that night and were plopped down in our spot with nothing to do but wait. People were already gathering, and by 8:00PM the streets were closed to traffic and people were beginning to sit on the medians and gather on the sidewalks. By 10:00PM London was a madhouse. People just arriving were arguing with those who had been there for 5 hours, trying to bully their way into a good view. Folks were hanging from the trees, and others were adorning colorful bunny ears that lit up (what those had to do with New Year's is beyond me). The show itself was amazing. It was the largest display of fireworks I had ever seen in my life, and I actually had a small freak out during the finale where I convinced myself that the lights were actually coming at me and wondered what I would do if the bridge exploded (answer: be dead). Once the show had ended we danced our way through the crowd with the others in search for the Victoria tube station. I kept getting this vibe that it would be very unwise to ACTUALLY ride the tube, so Jake and I decided that we would try the bus. After an hour's walk we arrived at the bus stops to find that the N38 line had closed roads so we would have to take 73 and transfer at Angel Station. This meant that those who needed N38 AND those who would ordinarily ride the 73 would ALL have to squeeze onto the same bus. The first bus arrived and I greeted the group of screaming, pushing humans with a "fuck this!" and sat down to wait for a following bus. Unfortunately, the second bus was almost as bad, and as Jake and I were sucked into the bus by the amorphous blob of human flesh that carried us aboard hand-in-hand, we shimmied to the corner in hopes that we wouldn't get trampled. After some scary incidents, we finally made it back to our hotel room at 3:30AM.
Our ride back to Witham was definitely welcomed. While London was definitely a once in a lifetime experience, I would definitely love to keep it that way. There are many places I have been that I would love to see several times more, and London is not on that list. I think that it is definitely the right vibe for some, but I think I will stick to Paris, thanks.