Good to be back in Blighty
16.05.2010 - 31.05.2010 20 °C
I’m getting sick of these airplane stories so I’ll make this one quick – my flight from Havana to Mexico City on 15 May was delayed by an hour so I only had an hour to make my connecting flight through to London. Unfortunately Mexico is one of those countries (like the US) that require you to go through customs and check in again – instead of just transiting. Pain in the ass. The plane sat on the runway for 20 minutes and then about 200 people were held up trying to enter the terminal. We were let through after 10 minutes which, by this time, gave me half an hour to catch my flight. The queue to get through customs was six snaking rows long. It would have taken me an hour or so f I’d waited patiently but I gave it 5 minutes before jumping straight to the front, apologizing profusely as I did so. Sprinted to the British Airlines check in area which was like a ghost town (queue tumbleweeds) so I stood in the middle of the hall and did what any desperate person would do – I yelled out at the top of my lungs, “Hello! Is anybody here?” No one responded (queue tumbleweeds again). I ran across the terminal back to the Mexican Airlines desk and asked where everyone was? They directed me to the BA office which was upstairs. I found a man (this was 15 mins before departure) and he told me that I’d have to stay in Mexico City until the next flight – which wasn’t until Monday. Even then they weren’t sure that the Monday flight would depart as BA flight attendants had threatened strike action and the volcanic ash was causing the shutdown of airports all over Europe. It looked like I was going to become familiar with Mexico City. In a last ditch attempt I told them that my bag had already been checked through and that I wouldn’t have anything with me for the entire time I would be in Mexico. The man took my luggage tags sticker thingys and disappeared out the back. Another woman took his place, confirming that I had missed the flight and another one joined her, sagely nodding her head. It was, by this time, 5 minutes before scheduled departure time so I didn’t doubt them for a second. All of a sudden, the man rushed back in waving a boarding card and shouted, “Let’s go!” Rushed panic through customs and security, was off loaded on to another man who jogged beside me. Coming down the gangway the plane’s door was shut – ‘knock, knock, knock’ and the interior of that beautiful bird swung open just for me. It took me a good 20 minutes to recover from the sprint – I hydrated myself with a couple of those mini bottles of wine and settled in for the ride.
I was pretty certain my bag wouldn’t have made the journey tucked away in the belly of my plane so I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t drop out of the chute on to the carousel. The BA Customer Service man who took my query had been in the job for 25 years – anyone who has been in a job like that for that long and lived to tell the tale deserves a big fat medal but it probably goes some way toward explaining his rather dour demeanor. Anyway, my bag had decided to take a trip to Amsterdam on KLM – I guess those Mexicans thought it was better for my bag to be in a country closer to me, even if it wasn’t in the same country. I kind of agreed with them considering there are numerous flights per day between Amsterdam and London but only one a day (if that) between Mexico City and London. Regardless, the BA tracking system was able to identify immediately where it was and give me an estimate of when it would be couriered to my front door in a couple of days time – pending volcanic ash of course. Bliss compared to Cuba!
Naturally, being a Sunday, the underground tube lines were all being worked on so I had to catch all manor of public transport to get to Hel and Charl’s house. And, being England, it was raining when I landed ad started pouring as soon as I exited Swiss Cottage tube station but I thought to myself, “I’ve made it this far – a little bit of rain won’t stop me now”. But it did stop me for a few minutes while I sought shelter in a bottle shop and took my sweet time selecting a bottle of bubbles for Hel and Charl.
Wasn’t it just the most lovely thing in the world to see their smiling faces. We cracked open the champers immediately but poor Charl has random headaches happening so is off the booze for a while – all the more for Hel and me! I was a bit of a drowned rat and had to bid farewell to my trusty Argentinean espadrilles – they had suffered horribly in the downpour. Hel pulled out various items of clothing that she thought would fit me, a toothbrush and other bits and bobs that I’d need over the coming days – “What’s mine is yours” she said, and she meant it too. My friend is incredibly generous and big hearted. You could hardly get a word in edge ways as we all caught up on each others news – it’s always the same, we talk and talk and talk until there’s no air left in the room.
I had two weeks in the UK and they passed too quickly. Most of the time was spent running around preparing for the next four months of travelling (visas, repairs/refinements to my stuff, etc) but I also had some much needed down time in there. Hel and Charl basically dropped everything for the two weeks I was in town and I spent as much time with them as possible. I met Hel when we were both working at Gap way back when and we became great friends then. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Hel is one of the most beautiful people, on the inside and out, that you could ever hope to meet. I don’t mean this in a wanky way. It’s just the way it is. But more than that, she’s just a bloody good chick and an incredibly loyal, generous and dedicated soul. Time goes by when you live on the other side of the world and there might be months, close to years, when we don’t talk but it doesn’t seem to matter – there are none of those ‘expectations’ or ‘requirements’ that friends sometimes put on each other. To quote Bridget Jones Diary, “I like her just the way she is” and truly treasure our friendship. I had got to know the very gorgeous Charl, Hel’s sister, when I was living in the UK too but not as well so it was really lovely to spend more time with her. And, man, can this girl cook! If you’re popping in, put in an order for Charl’s dahl baht with a side of broccoli and maybe some pumpkin. El delicio! Most free nights consisted of Hel and I having a couple of beers (or a cider, in my case) at The Washington about 5 mins down the road on England’s Lane - then we’d wander home to have dinner waiting for us and, often, a pre-recorded episode of Glee ready to be played! You’re the best Charlie!
The weather was truly sublime the entire time I was in London – it was that gorgeous spring weather just after the blossom has finished and summer is about to kick in. Clear blue skies and a spring in everyone’s step after a seriously long and record breakingly cold winter. Hel walked me up to Primrose Hill – a gorgeous tree filled park with lush green grass and the only ‘hill’ in London with its wonderful views over Regent’s Park, the Zoo, Soho, the London Eye and towards the City.
I’d lived in about ten different suburbs of London during the four years I lived there but I’d never spent time in Primrose Hill. What a treat to discover this wonderful part of the world – the area is incredibly exclusive with some of London’s most expensive houses surrounding the park. The Queens pub welcomes you to the Primrose Hill main street (naturally Hel and I were regulars here – and so, apparently, is Jude Law but we didn’t have the pleasure). The main drag is lined with gorgeous boutiques, high end delicatessens, fantastic restaurants and a book shop to browse in – everything you need at double the price of everywhere else! Just around the corner and down the way is the fabulous Gloucester Avenue – I say fabulous because it has three ripping pubs on it: The Engineer, The Lansdowne and The Pembroke Castle. Hel and I did a crawl one evening and met some interesting people along the way. We had every intention of returning to The Engineer for one of their famous Bloody Marys but ran out of time – got to save something for next time!
Hel took Friday 21 May (happy birthday Mini!) off work and we took in some sites of London that I’d never seen before. First stop was Spitalfields Market which has been recently remodeled. We had such a nice time wandering around picking things up and putting things down.
How opportune that an ancient man entered The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings just as I was taking a snap!
Next stop was Borough Market – who knew such a place existed! I was literally in heaven with all that seasonal produce from all over England and Europe. There were drinks stands which we took full advantage of – shot glasses of spicy bloody marys made with fresh skinned tomatoes, sangria with freshly cut apple bobbing around, cider and proseco.
There’s no way we needed lunch with all the samples on offer – cheeses (including a Neal Yard Dairy where they had a shower set up over a huge wheel of cheese), pork pies, oysters, the biggest meringues you’ve ever seen (which seem to be the new ‘cup cake’ rage in London), pate, fish, meat and incredible vegetables.
Most of the stalls were ‘artisans’ who specialize in one product like all different cuts of cured meat from a special breed of French pig or the mushroom pate stall we found where we, quietly, fell a little bit in love with the guy selling the pate for his sister, Flick. Delicious stuff and we bought some for Charl.
We might have been full of food when we were ready to leave Borough Market but all that food had made us thirstier so off we headed for the Thames and bumped into a couple of amiable bobbies on the way.
Found a pub with an incredible view over the river towards St Paul’s Cathedral.
We wandered further passing Gabriel’s Wharf, to the Tate Modern where we found a seat at the top floor bar looking out over London and had a Bloody Mary.
If you’re getting the impression by now that my major focus while I was in the UK was on food and drink, then you’d be right. There are a couple of things that I used to eat occasionally when I lived in England but which you can’t get in Australia – so even though they might not seem very exciting, they all of a sudden become one of the most enticing salavitating things on the planet when you can’t get your mits them! So I wanted to make sure I ate crispy chilli beef, crispy seaweed and sweet popcorn from the cinema at least once. I know, I know – slightly odd, but there you have it. Takeaway Chinese solved the first two and Charl and I bought some sweet popcorn at Swiss Cottage cinema, walked home with it and then the three of us curled up and watched ‘Confessions of a Shopaholic’ while we munched away. Crispy chilli beef – tick. Crispy seaweed – tick. Sweet popcorn – tick! And, yes, they were all as good as my memories remembered. I also craved sushi/sashimi while I was travelling through South/Central America so ate my body weight while I could – it was nice to visit my old haunt, Yo Sushi, and discover a new spot, Itsu, on Wardour St where Charl and I ate one night.
And when I was going out for dinner the girls would dress me up, Hel would put a hint of makeup on me and lend me some jewellery and, hey presto, all of a sudden I’d feel almost feminine again – it was a nice feeling. I tell you what was really nice though – once my bag showed up I emptied it and gave everything a damn good wash. God, they needed it! It was such a treat to be able to wear Helena’s borrowed clothes and feel kind of normal again. Actually there was one moment at Chelsea Flower Show (more of that later) when I was standing on the bank speaking to Will when I noticed a flash go off. “She took a photo of me!” I said to Will. She had too. “I just wanted to get a photo of your skirt. I think it’s great”. Ah ok… Hel was quite chuffed when I told her about that.
In between running between embassies and social engagements I also took the time to wander around old familiar streets with my head tilted back and eyes roving up and down soaking it all in. There was a wonderful 'Elephant Parade' on during the time I was there - large fibreglass elephants painted by artists or personalities were dotted all over the city. In Green Park there was a herd! I bought a couple on a much smaller scale - painted with the Union Jack - to use as bookends.
We visited The Wolseley where Hel took me last time I was in London for high tea. This time we had champagne with Hel, Charl, their Mum, Mon, and aunt, Mary Anne, who had come to stay for a couple of nights. Mon and Mary Anne also took us out for dinner at a Thai restaurant close to home – I had blackened cod which is always scrumptious. What a treat. The two sisters had such fun together – just like Charl and Hel.
Most of my mornings (and middle of the nights) were spent on getting down to the serious business of travel planning. I had originally intended to travel through Central Asia after Mongolia but in June there was some serious unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan directed towards Uzbeks, resulting in nearly 300 people being killed and 300,000 driven out of the country. As you probably know by now I like travelling to places that might be deemed by some as a little bit left of centre – places your average tourist may think of as too dangerous, too foreign, too high, too low, too hard, too far, too whatever. Regardless, they are invariably the places that I am interested in. What I am not interested in, however, is getting myself into trouble or dying – I always take note of the travel advice issued on smartraveller.gov.au. A country is rated 1 – 5 with 5 being Do Not Travel – you can’t get any clearer than that. I also register with them so the government knows where I am in case the situation changes. Most of the time you can prevent yourself being in the wrong place at the wrong time. So, anyway, I needed to change my plans and my flights – my second choice was to travel through China (starting in Beijing) through Tibet and down into Nepal. I was lucky that there was availability on an Intrepid trip (Mountains and Monasteries) that was leaving on a pretty suitable date so I booked a spot on that and changed my flights and plans in Thailand accordingly. Perfect! I might make it sound easy but it was no mean feat to get this organized in the time I had when I was trying to coordinate it with Australia who were asleep when I was awake, and vice versa.
My visas for Mongolia and Syria took the better part of two weeks to get processed – and there was a moment there where I thought I’d have to try and get a transit visa for India too (even though I was only spending a couple of hours in Delhi airport). Turns out you don’t need to get a visa if your layover is less than 12 hours and you don’t leave the airport. Excellent.
I had also planned to get my blog up to date but, as the loyal few of you out there know, I didn’t really get round to it…. I’ve been a bit slack…. Sorry…..
I had the best intentions in the world of getting out of London to see Kirstie, Mike, Oscar and Kitty – but only had time for a long chat with Kirstie instead. I was sorry not to have time to see Carolyn or Gill – and especially sad to hear that I’d missed Nigel who was in town too. Unfortunately I missed out on catching up with my beautiful friend in the blue suede hiking boots, John, who made such an impression on me in Patagonia. John – please come and visit me in Oz. I also had to pull the pin on catching up with the English crew I travelled with in Cuba (Shirin, Vic, Matt and Chris) while I was in London too – but hopefully we’ll stay in touch. Keep up the salsa guys!
But I did have a lovely lunch right in the heart of Piccadilly with favourite aunt, Janie, who made the trip up especially. Thank you Janie – it was so lovely to see you. Make sure you come and visit us back in Oz soon.
Hel and I had an absolutely hysterical night with our old Gap friend, Steven (or Rossini as he prefers to be known). Amazing how us three amigos just fell straight back into where we’d left off. Steven told us very funny stories about one of the girls he works with – let’s call her ‘Janelle’ because, let’s face it, the only Janelles I know are bitches (‘bitches’ in this context must be said with a gay Welsh accent). Here’s an example - apparently a girl in the office was talking about the amount of trouble she’s having getting pregnant when Janelle walked over, placed a hand on the girls arm, tilted her head to one side and said, in her most caring voice dripping with sugary sweetness, “Is it because you’ve got polycystic ovaries, love?” then, without waiting for a response, turned around and walked away. Another great example was of a girl (who was adopted at birth) talking about a fight she was having with her parents when Janelle walked over, placed a hand on the girls arm, tilted her head to one side and said, in her most caring voice dripping with sugary sweetness, “Is that because they don’t love you as much as they would their own child?” then turned on her heel and walked away. Double upper cut – kapow kapow. What a crack up. We laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed the night away. God I love those guys. Stop procrastinating and come and visit me Steven!
Spent a beautiful afternoon in the back garden of Jem and Sharon’s place in East London and played with their two little gorgeous girls.
Then Jem, Mike and I went out for a couple of beers at the good old Reliance (right about the corner from where the boys lived on Old St), followed by an incredibly expensive steak (which the boys kindly shouted me – even though I didn’t give them an option!) and finishing up at private members club, Shoreditch House, where we capped off the night with a coffee martini. They were in great form and we had a fun night. Jem’s business is going great guns with a new Addiction office opening in New York and more on the cards. Mikey P got caught in the GFC (Global Financial Crisis for those not in the know) but has got work again thankfully. Maybe it’s time for another surfing holiday on the Gt Ocean Rd Mike?
I also caught up with the Jenks family – Atty took me out for a delicious meal in Primrose Hill, then I had really lovely lunch with Atty and his parents at Queens Tennis Club (which was in the final stages of preparation for the tournament which leads up to Wimbledon). I also dropped in on Rosy and had a great catch up with her – hopefully she’ll be out to visit in the next couple of years. Atty has started another venture – this time it’s an iced tea company based out of Cornwall. His niece, Daisy, has been working with him recently and she made a great video which I’ll upload when I have access to youtube. None of the Jenks have changed a bit and it was fantastic to see all of them.
I read an inflight magazine on the BA flight from Mexico City and there was a small snippet of an article about the Chelsea Flower Show taking place in May. I wondered if it would be on when I was there and if my cousin Will would be exhibiting again this year? It just so happened that the answer was yes on both counts! Hurrah! Will generously gave me an ‘Exhibitors’ ticket for the day and I spent time handing out fliers with Will and his ‘charming’ cousin on the other side, Will, who was taking a break from exams to help out. We had a lot of fun joking around and I also took time to check out the rest of the show. It’s really a pretty incredible set up with display gardens surrounding the huge main pavilion which is filled with plants of every variety imaginable.
Then dotted around the rest of the grounds are stalls with anything and everything related to horticulture but, of course, the Willie Wildlife Sculpture stand won the Gold Medal in my opinion.
The crowds were HUGE but had thinned a little bit by the time Helena arrived after work so we were able to get up a bit closer to everything.
Amazingly Mango and Sal strolled past Will’s stand on their way to a VIP cocktail thingy and promised to hook up with us afterwards. Just as the Show was closing another cousin Toby arrived and Will, Will, Helena, Toby and I went around the corner to The Phoenix to have a few drinks.
Mango and Sal joined us after the others had left and we had a fun, slightly tipsy, night in Sloane Ranger HQ (as Mangs so accurately put it).
There were a couple of very special and important birthdays while I was in London so here’s a shout out to TOM, INDI, MINI and GEM – HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU, HAPPY BIRTHDAY DEAR TOM, INDI, MINI AND GEMMA, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU!
The sun continued to shine and we took full advantage of it (as, it seems, did the rest of London) with a picnic on Primrose Hil.
And then, all of a sudden, it was the night before I was due to leave. I took Hel and Charl out for dinner at a gorgeous little vegetarian restaurant in Primmy Hill (yep, I’m turning into a local). Their lovely friend, Jessie, joined us and we had a blitzing night – finishing up at The Queens for one last pint (or was it two?)
Hel and Charl were so incredibly hospitable. I said to Hel when I arrived that if it started getting annoying having someone in the house for so long that I could easily find somewhere else to stay. I used the fish analogy – buying a fish at a fishmonger is just like having someone to stay. On day one the fish is all shiny, fresh and delicious. It’s still pretty good on day two but the eyes are becoming a bit duller, it’s losing its gloss and becoming a bit slimy. Day three and it’s very slimy with opaque eyes – you’re pretty sure you wouldn’t eat it anymore. Day four – it’s off and needs to be thrown away. I know I’d be fed up having someone to stay for that long and kept this in the back of my head when day three, then day four came and went but if Hel felt it she certainly didn’t let on. “You’re part of my family, Skylar”, she’d say. I know this entry seems a bit like an “Ode to Hel and Charl” but I really don’t know what I did to deserve two such incredible friends – I guess I just got lucky.
Honestly, if you are a normal single, relatively attractive and nice male then you should get in touch with me asap because I know two girls who are the catch of the century. Quick sticks! (Actually, make that three girls – may as well throw myself into the mix!)
SUNDAY 30 MAY
Happy birthday Boysy and Grub!
The wonderful British Airways started a strike today, the day I was to fly to Cairo. I guess if it's not volcanic ash, then its strikes....
Charl checked my flight when she noticed the news about the strike action and discovered that my flight had been cancelled. Hmmm, they say things come in threes and I reckon this is my third airline issue after my bag going missing twice. Rang up BA and they put me on a British Midlands flight the following day that would get me into Cairo at 4.30pm. Hopefully this would give me enough time to rush from the airport to the hotel and meet the group before we made our way to the train station to catch an overnight train to Aswan.
So instead of rushing to the airport I had a gorgeous ‘added bonus’ day in London with Hel and Charl. It was pretty funny when they came downstairs in exactly the same outfits!
We had a late brekky in Primrose Hill, followed by a walk up to Hampstead to browse through some shops. The afternoon was spent lounging at home and getting my stuff together. Hel went to a Lady Gaga concert with her friend Jessie. Charl and I had Chinese take-away (the aforementioned delicious shredded chilli beef with crispy seaweed). It was an early start for me the following morning so I had a snooze then woke up when Hel got home so I could say good-bye to her. I’m really going to miss my little friend – but now we’ve promised to catch up every two years either here, there or somewhere in between. This is ultra official now that it’s in writing on the world wide web for all to see so must be adhered to! Friends for life! Long live the two of us!