The United Kingdom has never given me much of a great sense of fascination and it doesn’t sit very highly on any of my wishlists. Living in Australia, one gets their fair injection of British culture – from television to food and of course the language – so there’s no sense of exoticness about it. Quite the opposite really. On top of this, there’s a particular rivalry that has developed between Australia and England that has primarily been fought on the sporting field but does foster a genuine low level hatred towards the English.
Still, here I was in it’s capital.
I had mixed feeling about being here, particularly in the summer months. It felt a waste to be spending July and August away from the sunny Mediterranean and instead in the north where the term “summer” is more so used to determine which sport will be shown on television.
It’s always football here anyway.
I really only came here because way back at the beginning of my European adventure a French friend of mine had suggested a month long road trip in the UK together. After some time he pulled out, but I had by then become committed to spending this time of my journey in the UK and so I followed through with it.
I make it sound like I don’t even want to be here. Not true. I was excited upon arrival. I was excited to explore it’s history – a history more relevant to me as an Australian than the histories I have previously explored in countries like France and Spain.
I was excited to discover Wales, Scotland and perhaps even Ireland. They possessed cultures that were more foreign to me than the familiar English culture.
I was very excited about the prospect of speaking English again. As fun as the experience of learning another language by way of immersion is, it’s a very frustrating process and to look forward to a month or so of relief from this was comforting.
To know that I could enter any supermarket, hairdressers or butchers and perfectly convey exactly what I wanted. To know that I could confidently expect to understand anything they spoke back to me.
Ultimately, coming to the UK was no different than all the other countries that I had visited – I was excited to discover a place that I have never discovered before, and to learn for myself, first hand, it’s customs and behaviours. The difference here was that I believed I had already learnt a great deal of it through the very similar Australian culture and so the mystery of this country – as compared to others – was less.
But I couldn’t say for sure. Perhaps my expectations – created from people I’ve seen on television or stories I’ve heard from others – were completely unfounded. Perhaps I was in for a pleasant surprise. The only way to find out was to come here and see. To compare those stereotypes from the reality.
The arrival confirmed one stereotype – English weather is horrendous. The first night in London saw thunderstorms and showers. Throughout my week or so stay here, at least one in every two days saw a substantial amount of rainfall. This in the middle of July. My fears of wasting a European summer in the UK were being realised.
I had arrived from a sunny thirty-something degree Paris. I decided to take the Eurostar train – the one that passes through the English Channel. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to do it. As I typically do, I decided to buy the ticket at late notice, although compared to my standard approach, I did buy this ticket one week in advance and not the same day.
Even so, it cost nearly two hundred euros one way. That’s exceptionally high for a trip that barely takes two hours and a plane flight would have been cheaper. Still, I stuck to my guns and took the train. Trains hold a lot of advantages over flying. In fact I would say for a trip like Paris to London, the train is actually faster than flying because you have to take into account the time to get to the airport and back and the waiting time.
By contrast, train stations are almost always centrally located and very rarely does one have to go through the struggle of organising luggage and visas.
Unfortunately, the UK remains to be one of the few European countries that actually cares about who comes in and who goes out. It meant that prior to boarding the train I had to fill out an entry card and go through customs.
This didn’t cause too much of a problem, rather an inconvenience. I was required to mention the address of where I would be staying and, not being able to contact my planned Couchsurfing host, I had to resort to find any hostel in London and write the address of that instead.
At the Gare du Nord in Paris there is a special waiting area for the Eurostar train – not too dissimilar to those found in airport terminals. I sat there waiting for the train to be called out. Others were waiting too so I wasn’t in too much of a rush. It wasn’t until three or four minutes before departure that I realised the boarding had been called long ago and the others waiting with me were actually waiting for the next train. I sprang up and rushed down the stairs, managing to hop on the train no more than a minute before its doors closed and it pulled away.
The train ride itself was no more special than any others I had been in. You spend around an hour passing through the northern French countryside and, without warning or fanfare, everything goes dark. It’s now that you’re in the tunnel. It takes only fifteen to twenty minutes before a flash of light (albeit dimmed from the clouds) welcomes you into the south of England. From there it’s a rather short trip into London’s St. Pancras station.
All in all, a comfortable enough trip but certainly not worth the near two hundred euros that was spent on it.
I was welcomed at St. Pancras station by my Couchsurfing host Annemarie. Annemarie is actually a Dutch woman that moved to work in London for sometime, and in a way epitomised the international nature of London. There are a remarkable amount of people around the world that congregate on London to work, and Annemarie was one of them.
Annemarie and I had known each other beforehand. She, like many of the people I have Couchsurfed with on my trip, was a Couchsurfer at my place in Australia a couple of years earlier.
Every Couchsurfers story is unique, and that of our friendship is no different. Annemarie had come to my place in Australia because she had become friends with a German girl who was my roommate.
Annemarie was a real down to earth girl who loved a laugh (especially at our own expense) and loved a drink even more so we got along great. We kept in touch intermittently in the time that followed and she constantly reassured me that I was welcome to visit her whenever I came to Europe.
It’s incredible as I meet all of these people who I haven’t seen for years, that when I see them again they haven’t changed a bit. I don’t think I would want it any other way. When Annemarie greeted me at the station, it was no different to when we knew each other in Australia.
She helped me out by lending me a transportation card – the Oyster card – and then we went back to her place via the underground.
Annemarie lived in a multicultural household, sharing it with at least four other people. I say at least because I know there were supposed to be other housemates there that for one reason or another I never saw during my week stay there.
It was an interesting arrangement that she lived in. There were a Scandinavian (from memory, Finnish) couple that took one room and an Australian couple that took another. The Finnish couple seemed to provide a bit of tension in the house. They kept to themselves most of the time and I only ever really spoke to them two or three times. On top of this, they had reserved cutlery and pots and pans that they had forbidden anybody to use for fear of damage.
The other housemates didn’t really take too kindly to this and it sounded like arguments were not a rarity in the household as a result. It’s always a strange situation as a Couchsurfer witnessing such household politics and trying not to disrupt it too much. As a non rent paying Couchsurfer, my mentality is that I’m at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to these decisions, so I just try and stay out of them altogether.
Annemarie did seem to get along with the Australians a bit better, and I had plenty of chances to chat to them. They were very friendly and loved a chat and they were the first Australians I can think of that I had met on my trip so far so it gave me an opportunity to discuss things with them that I couldn’t with others. The guy (I forget his name now, in fact I think I was calling him by the wrong name for the first three days anyway) told me some things about taxes and how it works as an Australian overseas.
While I enjoyed their company, another of my great travel fears was being realised and this one is being surrounded by other Australians. It’s not that I don’t like Australians – naturally I normally get along great with them because our personalities and humour are similar due to the cultural upbringing – it’s simply that I didn’t travel to the other side of the world to have the same conversations I could have back in Australia.
This is a legitimate fear. When I hosted Couchsurfers myself in Australia, almost half of them were German. There are so many German backpackers in Australia that when I host them they tell me they avoid hostels because they’re simply full of other Germans. I once hosted two German girls that pretended they were Czech to other German Couchsurfers simply so they didn’t have to go through the same German discussions time and time again.
Coming to Europe, I was afraid that it might be overrun by Australians. There are a lot that travel. But so far I haven’t seen too many of them and so it hasn’t been an issue. I knew, however, coming to England would change that. Particularly in London.
On one of the last nights I spent in London, Annemarie and I went to the farewell of one of Annemarie’s friends. Of about twelve or so guests, I would say four or five of them were Australians.
There were some Australians I genuinely did want to meet though, and I had three friends that were here for various reasons. I first caught up with Matt, a friend from University days. It’s with Matt that I visited the Lord’s Cricket Ground. Afterwards we had a bit of a chat and beer at the pub and then said our goodbyes.
I also caught up with Garrick, another University buddy, for one night and a few beers and then later with another Matt from my childhood days. I hadn’t seen Matt for nearly five years or so, so it was really nice to see him again.
Then I caught up with Steve, an old childhood friend who had decided to do a similar thing to me and leave Australia to see what can happen in Europe. Steve had only arrived in England from Australia a few weeks earlier and was visiting London at the same time, so we took the opportunity to catch up.
It was a surreal feeling. On one hand it’s very familiar because I’ve hung out with Steve loads of times so it was easy to slip into a state where it was just another day in Australia where we are hanging out. And then you snap out of it and realise you’re on your way to catch an underground to some other part of London, or that you’re in Trafalgar Square together. We could never have envisioned this.
Steve came over on his last night in London to Annemarie’s house where the Australians had cooked a roast on the barbecue. It was a fun night to be hanging out with Australians. Of course, Annemarie took the opportunity to take this piss out of Australia as much as possible, as is her way.
Steve was temporarily based in Birmingham, of which Annemarie took great delight in poking fun at. Birmingham was the worst place in England, she said, and laughed at any suggestions otherwise. Later that night she informed me that she had never actually been to Birmingham, she simply loved the opportunity to piss Steve off.
That was the kind of girl Annemarie was. No frills and living life to have fun. When I melted her finest plastic cutlery set trying to cook dinner for her she just laughed it off. She hated the administrative crap that went on at her job as a tourist agent and couldn’t wait for the first beer after she finished. I, of course, was more than happy to oblige in assisting her with this.
We spent quite a few nights drinking – whether it was out on the porch of her place or out in a pub somewhere in London. Late night kebabs were consumed and one night we even visited the famed Brick Lane for curry.
Annemarie was excited, but I think more so to see how I would handle the hagglers rather than the curry itself. As one walks down Brick Lane on any given night, each curry house hires a man that stands out the front and tries to seduce customers in with special deals that don’t become so special when everybody gets them. They are persistent people, and so Annemarie challenged me so see if I could get further than her mother did a few weeks earlier.
She insisted that the first few curryhouses weren’t worth it, and that one has to persist to find the good ones. So my challenge began, and I calmly refused the first few offers. Eventually we got a little less than midway down the street where I found one that looked like it might be alright. Annemarie wasn’t convinced, but the guy told us that he could even get us alcohol for a discounted price. I was sold, so I accepted the deal.
When the guy said “discounted alcohol” it meant that he knew a bloke down the road in the convenience store that would give us a 30% discount so he led us down the street to do that.
We arrived back at the restaurant with drinks in hand and ordered. Annemarie had misunderstood the offer that had been given to us but she felt betrayed and that they had ripped us off. What resulted was a very unsatisfying meal and Annemarie bitching about my skills in choosing curryhouses for the rest of the night.
As the days wore on I became tired of London. I never became tired of Annemarie’s company and there were always new things to see but I had an urge to see the rest of England and the UK. I felt that London was much like Paris in that the capital and rest of the country were actually two very different places.
Annemarie hated my constant comparisons of London to Paris. She loved London and I couldn’t figure out why, partly because all she ever seemed to do was bitch about it. I also couldn’t figure out why because I didn’t really like the place that much myself.
In hindsight, I think I overstayed in London perhaps two or three days. But with the constant laughs that Annemarie provided, you couldn’t blame me for delaying my departure.
London was enjoyable, but I couldn’t help but get the daunting feeling that I had chosen to do it at the wrong time. I had to try and look forward to seeing the rest of the UK while I could, and not keep thinking back about France and the sunny south.