London Underground

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I did it! I crossed the old pond and at long last touched down in Europe for the first time in my life! It was a heck of journey to get here: a four hour bus ride from Cuenca to Guayaquil at 1am, a three hour flight from Guayaquil to Chile Santiago at 7am, an 11 hour layover in the awful Chilean airport, a four hour flight to Panama, another hour flight to Puerto Rico and after running to my next gate with no time to spare, the eight hour haul overseas to land in Frankfurt to switch one last time for the last little jaunt over to Heathrow Airport in London. I made it!!! I was exhausted, sleep deprived and jet lagged. And of course, on my eight hour overnight flight a two year old toddler sat behind me on his mothers lap kicking my chair and crying hysterically the entire time. I’m not exaggerating here either. I felt terrible for the child and the mother as something was clearly wrong with the kid – the crying was hysterical screaming – not just regular crying. It was exhausting. He would scream himself silly until he passed out, over and over again. I can only assume he had an ear infection or something else the pressure may have aggravated.

The flight attendant actually approached the mother to advise her, in her brash German way that was almost a scolding, that she could (and should) get up and walk the baby up and down the aisles. I was lucky enough to sit beside a young man who was a fellow traveler and we chatted most of the flight. It helps to have someone to share the burden with, to complain with, or as we did – to just laugh at your situation. What are the chances that on this massive flight (and the longest to date on my repertoire) we would have the one child screaming bloody murder directly behind us?! At times we would be talking and then would have to stop because we couldn’t hear each other over the screaming! I tried to sleep when the toddler slept, but my body was out of sorts trying to go to bed at 9pm and then waking up at 1am, which happened to be 8am Germany time. This would be my first time experiencing jet lag, and knowing me, it would kick my ass!

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Always growing, downtown London as seen across the Thames.

When I landed in London, I had to pick up a bag for my dear friend Sarah, who was letting me stay at her apartment even though she had left the day before for a new adventure in Hong Kong. She had brought too much to the airport and so left a bag in storage for me to pick up and bring home to her apartment. Heathrow airport is a beast. A terribly intimidating beast. It took me two hours to get my life sorted out and find her bag and get myself onto the metro line to take the train to her place. Coming from Latin America to London was considerably shocking to my system. You’d think it would be a nice easy transition, but honestly I was more confused, overwhelmed and intimidated by Heathrow than I was all of Latin America!

After searching for hours, I was absolutely drenched in sweat and feeling awful from no sleep. My bags weighed 27kg. Twenty Seven kilograms. That’s SIXTY POUNDS! I know. I’m batshit crazy to lug around that much gear. But I had accumulated a few things that I was hauling around until I could send them home with Travis when we met in Italy in a few weeks.  I had a backpack, a purse and another small backpack and then I added the large, clear plastic 10 pound bag to my haul and off I went. I was a sight, I’m sure! When I got off at my metro stop, an hour later, I did everything I could to hail a cab which is NOT as easy as you would think, (or as easy as it was in Latin America!) It took me ten minutes to finally get one. It was wildly expensive and he didn’t even take me to the correct place so I was walking yet again- but I did eventually find it! With my clothes completely soaked through with sweat, my body aching from the excessive weight, my eyes red and bloodshot, and my body surely smelling from spending so much of the last 48 hours in airports, buses and on planes, I arrived at Sarah’s apartment, a frazzled, sweaty, smelly mess. Her roommate was an absolute gem and greeted me and helped me make myself at home right away. I resisted the overwhelming urge to just go to sleep (It was only 4pm after all) and hit the shower so I could then hit the town.

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St. Paul’s Cathedral as seen from the Millennium Bridge

I made the right decision. As tired and as grumpy as I was from my sweaty airport adventure and lack of sleep, as soon as I had a shower and got out in the streets of London and started walking I felt rejuvenated and energized. What a surreal feeling to be in this eminent city at last! I’ve seen it in movies so many times, read about it in books, and at long last I was here, in the flesh! I adored everything I saw and marvelled at how it really was just like in the movies: the cabs, the brilliant accents, the buildings and all those bridges! I walked down to Big Ben and soaked in the sights. I was lucky to have beautiful sunshine and perfect crisp weather for my later afternoon stroll. I grabbed a tea and some cherries and sat beside the Thames River to take it in.

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One of the first things I saw was a bright, red phone booth box. Classic! Across the river, Big Ben and the palace of Westminster lay awash in the glow of the late afternoon sun. The Eye spun ever so slowly, taking visitors around the giant ferris wheel to get a glimpse of the city from above. I walked along the river and listened to the people around me and was astonished that  I hardly ever heard english. I was sure when I came here I would feel the immediate relief of being able to speak my own language – and yet everyone around me was speaking a multitude of other languages – everything but English! I shrugged and smiled – I’m sure those Brit’s were out there somewhere with their charming accents! Being such touristy area I was no doubt surrounded by tourists from all over the world. And even though I was in the birth place of English, after my five days here I still found myself saying “Gracias” and planning out how to ask things in Spanish – “donde estan los banos?”!  I walked until night began to fall and realized I didn’t feel quite so terrified to be out in the dark here as I did in Latin America. Though it’s still not a great idea, I was in a very safe and touristy area, so I lingered about, enjoying the sights at night, and then finally made my way home around 9pm. I needed to get a solid sleep so I could start my jam packed tour of London.

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I had this idea that I would get up no later than 8am each day to begin my wanderings, but the jet lag kicked my ass and I ended up sleeping right through my alarm (which NEVER EVER HAPPENS) until 10am. I was absolutely bagged when I got up and felt like I could surely sleep another three hours. But the excitement of what lay ahead got me energized. I was lucky enough to reunite with Laura, a girl I had met several months prior in Belize one night. She had recently moved to London from New Zealand and was keen to play tourist with me as she was still new to the big city, so we hit the town together. The great weather decided not to hold out for me unfortunately, and in good London fashion the skies clouded over and it rained for the next four days – my entire stay!

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The first thing I needed to do was get myself some new clothes. All of my alpaca gear was making me feel slightly out of place in the oh so fashionable streets of London! Luckily I had been told about Primark, a really cheap place to buy clothes, which is essential for the backpacker in London- because trust me, London is CRAZY EXPENSIVE!!! But in Primark I was in heaven – it was three floors of pure bargain. I hadn’t been shopping in so long and I felt that old familiar feeling take over as I began draping outfits over my arm to haul to the change room. I came away $200 poorer, but I was able to replace my Latin American waredrobe with some really nice stuff that would be all I would wear during my time in Europe. I needed nice, fall appropriate clothing here- not bulking alpaca sweaters like in South America, or Bikinis and skirts, like in Central America. With my new wardrobe I was ready to tackle London!

London is overwhelming. There is so much to see, and luckily, so much of it is for free! Museums of the highest calibre are in abundance and the sights are endless. I wanted to do it all, but just didn’t have the time. Laura and I ended up hitting up some of the best things – we ventured to Covent Garden and took in a hilarious and ridiculous street performance show of a man laying sandwiched between two beds of nails while a large man stood atop him. We browsed the antiques roadshow-esque market and wandered the streets. When Laura was busy with an interview, I took in parts of the Tate Modern Museum (and can’t wait to go back and see more of it, wow!). Then we went and grabbed tea and biscuits with clotted cream (oh my god, what is this heavenly treat?!) at a most adorable little tea shop, chatting away the afternoon.

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The Tate Modern, getting a very modern makeover.

Next on my list was the National Gallery museum and the portrait gallery. Both behemoths – you need an entire day for each to do them justice, so I skimmed  much of it and lingered where my interests peaked the most (hello Monet and Van Gogh). They had a great exhibit at the Portrait gallery of a portraiture contest they hold each year for artists to enter, and it was by far my favourite work to browse – some of it was simply stunning. My feet were aching from two days of non stop walking, putting on who knows how many kilometers. The next day Laura wanted to show me another tea store (three levels, what?!) and her two favourite book stores. This is why Laura and I get along: we both adore tea and books! I was in heaven and we spent most the afternoon browsing among our favourite things, each picking up a new book or two (hello Pablo Neruda’s love poem in both Spanish and English!).

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Each day began with my favourite new place to eat ever, Pret a Manger – a new healthy fast food chain that has taken to every single street corner in London- Starbucks is a thing of the past here now and Prets (as the locals call it) dominates the entire city, spreading like wildfire. I quickly realized I didn’t have to look on my ‘Maps Me’ app to find one as I could simply walk one block in any direction and I would find myself on their door step. I can’t even begin to tell you how good their food is. All of it is made fresh that day. They have delectable sandwiches of posh cheddar (I don’t even know what that means, but I like the sound of it!) and sundried tomato, salmon tzatziki flatbread or balsamic chicken and avocado baguettes.  Salads of shrimp, edamame and mango,  or falafal mezze.  The best porridge I’ve ever tasted in my life ( quinoa, chia, amaranth, steel oats and flax) with honey to drizzle atop. Almond criossants. And for London prices, they actually weren’t that steep! I was heavily addicted and ate there at least once a day during my time in London! 

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On my last day Laura and I hit up the Borough food market and feasted on spiced basil olives, sharp cheese that melted as soon as it hit your tongue, a fresh focaccia loaf and a delectable apple honey mustard. I was in absolute heaven!  After seven long months of being deprived of these types of finer foods (my palate consisted of heavily fried foods, gallo pinto {rice and beans}, chicken, tamales and empanadas) my tastebuds were simply in ecstasy! The market is somewhere you could easily spend a few hours and pick up supplies for a picnic lunch and then a home cooked meal. The array of fresh seafood, stall after stall of rounds of cheeses, bowls overflowing of every flavoured olive, loaves of crusty outside/buttery inside breads, a rainbow array of turkish delight, mountains of roasted nuts, slabs of freshly butchered meat and piles of bright fruit – just to name a few of the delicacies that teased your senses as you wandered the market. And of course there were several stalls of freshly prepared foods from every cuisine of the world if you just wanted to grab a ready made bite instead of taking home to prepare your own. As usual, the moans of pleasure escaped my lips with each bite, and Laura laughed at my orgasmic delight in the food.

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London is overwhelming to try and squeeze it all in in just four days. I had an ambitious itinerary as I wanted to see it all, but I ended up changing my plans and going more with the flow and seeing and doing things with Laura that were unexpected and ending up being so lovely! I was so blessed to be able to explore the big city with Laura and have a friend to chat with and swoon over the books and delicious food with. From wandering along the Thames, exploring museums and seeing renowned art, getting lost for hours among the bookshelves in the oldest bookstore in London,  craning my neck admiring the mix of ancient and modern architecture, sneaking a peak at the change of guard at the Queen’s palace, and catching up with a few friends I’d met along the way in Latin America (Cheers Richard and Eve!) – London was a whirlwind and sensory overload.

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Here are some tips if you find yourself heading to explore the streets of London:

*The transport in London is excellent, albeit expensive. This was my first time using a major metro in a massive city and it’s wonderfully organized and easy to use even for a first timer. As soon as you get to London, get yourself an Oyster card from any of the main metro stations as it will cut your costs drastically. I would load it up with at least 20 pounds if you’re going to be there for 4 days. Trust me- you will use the metro several times a day as it will get you close to all of the major areas you want to see. I never used the bus system as the metro got me everywhere I needed to go, but I’m sure it’s just as effective and easy to use as the metro.

*Do some research – before you get here – of the things you’d like to see and do – in particular look up any shows you want to see, and find out the location of the major sights you want to visit. You will save yourself loads of travel time if you plan your exploration based on what sights are close together. It will take some time to plan it out, but it will be worth it. You might think you only need two hours to see the Tate Modern, or any other museum, but trust me, you need a half day to see half of the art. I didn’t get to see any shows because I didn’t research what was playing and just couldn’t find anything to fit into my schedule and budget. I was so close to going to the Alice Underground exhibition, but the $120 CAD price tag was just too extreme for a one evening show, no matter how much I love Alice. But there are hundreds of shows every night all over the city, so just do your research and you’ll find something amazing!

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my dream car ❤

*London is wildly expensive… you will pay $3 CAD for a krispie kreme doughnut that will be down the hatch in just three seconds. This is the thing that will eat your budget the most in London – not crispy kreme doughnuts (though it is hard to eat just one!), but food in general!  This is of course, not including accommodation, but I was lucky enough to stay at a friends- which I highly suggest if you can!). Eating out is crazy expensive in London, just like everything else! Ensure you stay somewhere with a kitchen and buy some food from one of the cheaper local grocery stores like Sainsbury’s or Tesco (though not the express ones, these have higher prices, but are open later).  Pick up some snacks and food for lunches and breakfast and only eat out once a day (which will still run you close to $22 Canadian for a cheap meal- yikes!) Luckily the water is drinkable (though not the tastiest!) so just fill up your water bottle at your hostel instead of buying drinks while out.

*Oh… and bring an Umbrella. Trust me.

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Note the umbrella (and the wet streets!)- the key accessory to every Londoner!

*London is crowded. Really crowded. With a population of nearly 9 million people, it’s a seething mass of bodies constantly on the move. You will begin to feel the press of the masses grinding on your nerves if you’re not one for crowds, so be sure to try and visit things during off peak seasons and times, and to give yourself a break from the madness to visit the quieter areas of London. The great thing is that although it’s a crowded city, the people are genuinely lovely and helpful. I was stopped looking at a metro map, laden down with my bags, when a girl approached me and said where you looking to head to? And helped me map out my journey. People were constantly helping each other in the metro (carrying  strollers down stairs, making room in the cars and giving up their seats etc.) People weren’t pushy and rude in the streets, but polite and accommodating.

London stole my heart the first evening I arrived. I was overwhelmed with how much I loved this behemoth of a city, considering I’m not a fan of big cities. I think the thing that really drew me to it was the abundance of art EVERYWHERE! Every bridge you walked under had art (and I don’t mean graffiti) decorating the walls, quotes from famous authors and poems, and mosaics depicting the history of the area. On every corner was a theatre or a music club. Posters and advertisements were dominantly displaying concerts, performances and shows. There were buskers and street performers on every corner. Museums and galleries were near as common as pubs.  The city was simply bursting with art everywhere you looked. I’ve never experienced something like this before, and it warmed my heart to see how London embraced its abundance of artists and formed the city around them. Art is the blood flowing through the veins of this bustling chaotic, city, the lifeline that makes it so unique and charming.

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Still can’t believe this isn’t a real photograph…

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Nice one Vinny!

I was only able to scratch the mere surface of London, and hardly that, in my five days. I wanted to do a graffiti tour, a Jack the ripper tour at night, attend some of the Alice in Wonderland exhibitions (it was the 150th anniversary of this, my most beloved of books!), to see a show at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, to explore more of the museums, to see a performance of Wilde’s, The Importance of Being Earnest, to see inside Saint Pauls Cathedral (but I was not willing to pay $36 CAD to see a church!),  to make it out of the centre and explore Notting Hill and explore the gritty, quirky side of Camden town. But alas, time was tight, and London is vast. I fell in love in so short a time, and I cannot wait to return to dig beneath the surface and really get London Underground.

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*Big thanks to Sarah and her roomies for letting me crash at their awesome flat and offering up their tips on what to see and do in their home. And thanks to Richard for taking me out for dinner and making my belly ache with his brilliant humour- I missed you my dear friend! And of course, a huge thanks to Laura for playing tourist with me and making me the most delicious of dinners two nights a row- you’re too good to me!

3 thoughts on “London Underground

  1. Pingback: Ninjas, Laser Tag and Chocolate Pancakes: A Week With My Favourite Swedish Girl! | BorealBlonde

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