Sunday, June 26, 2011

In the summer time

June, by and large, has been a horrid month in London, weather-wise at least. Despite it being the first month of summer there has been little sign of the blue skies and warm days that mark the season back home. So it came as no surprise to me when I looked outside on Saturday morning to see gloomy rain clouds looking back. Nevertheless I put on a summer dress and headed in to Hyde Park to celebrate the longest day of the year. And lo and behold, mere hours later London provided a minor miracle: Swedish  Midsummer marked the nicest summer day yet.

Midsummer not really being a big thing (or a thing at all) where I come from I had no idea what to expect. Turns out, in Sweden the mark the eternal sunshine by eating and drinking for as many hours as humanly possible. Presumably in Sweden this is for the full 24 hours, given the lack of night. 

Along with the incredible amounts of Swedish food and decidedly less Swedish drinks (mostly Pimms - possibly the most British of all alcohols) came flower garlands, children in traditional dress and - my favourite part of the day - dancing around the Maypole.

 By happy coincidence we shared the park with legions of Bon Jovi fans that evening, and as darkness finally began to fall hundreds of Midsummer celebrants were serenaded with thousands of die hard fans singing along to "Living On A Prayer".
If nothing else the contrast between the age-old Swedish festival and the more contemporary strains of 80's rock reminded me what an incredible place London is. Cultures that have almost nothing in common collide on an almost daily basis, and being caught in the middle is nothing if not unforgettable. Not to mention that living in such a culturally diverse city facilitates experiences that for me would be otherwise out of reach. I think an exchange I had with my Swedish friend Tess summed it up best.
Tess: When will you ever have the chance to celebrate Midsummer with Swedes again?
Me: Possibly next year?
Tess: Well that's another whole year away. Have another drink!

Glad Midsommer!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Get me to the Church on time

Yesterday I became one in a long and illustrious line of Aussies-in-London to partake in a tradition upheld since 1979. Like the good Australian girl I am, I spent my Sunday at The Church.

I first heard of The Church shortly before I left home at the end of last year. My mother is still in touch with the vast majority of her school friends, and it was at one of their Christmas parties that I learnt of the Church's existence. I was chatting with Mark, a pushing-fifty father of several, when he urged me to get to a Sunday service. The fact that this knowledge was passed down to me from a former wild child gives you some idea of how proud an antipodean tradition The Church is.

So I dragged myself out of bed at eight on Sunday morning, draped myself in a bed sheet and prepared myself for the worst (best?). Going to the Church requires a serious effort. For one thing, you have to catch the overground to get there (seeing the sky out of a train window is a sure sign you're going a long way away), and for another they only open for about four hours, after which they deposit you, drunk and disoriented, back out onto the street to make a public spectacle of yourself.

But dear God, was it ever worth it.

The hours I spent in the Church were the four most debauched hours I've had...well, since leaving Australia. The whole place is geared towards getting patrons as as drunk as humanly possible, as evidenced by the cheap booze and cheaper strippers. None of the usual societal norms seem to apply, as long as you have a drink in your hand and a vacant grin on your face. Not to mention I'd thought my toga party days had finished with my university degree. Apparently not.

I also got the chance to talk to some shearers from Wagga about Coolamon, the town I didn't think anyone actually knew about. It wasn't until I spent some time with Aussies again that I realised how true most of the stereotypes are (in the best possible way).

After the Church turfed us we trekked it all the was back into Shepherd's Bush to go to the Walkabout. By this time the conflict between the time my body thought it was and the time the rest of the world thought it was had begun to take it's toll, and after the Walkabout Tinja and I dragged our empty stomachs across to the closest pub for our first meal of the day. Unluckily for us they refused to serve ancient Greeks. Luckily, we both had regular clothes on hand, which we threw on in the middle of the street, impressing the bartender no end in the process.

After feeding we walked for a bit, trying to sober up before we went home to our respective employers. I now remember the reason why I like to sleep off a good binge. The transition from drunk to hungover is hell. When I finally stumbled back into my room around 10pm I was destroyed, and slept like a baby until 3.30 in the morning, when I woke up totally sober and totally not tired. So I watched Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle and reflected that any day that sees me singing "If you're happy and you know it" with a group of drunk strangers in the Maccas bathroom at 5pm is probably a good one.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Into the Woods

It's easy to get lost in London. When I'm here I almost forget that this isn't really representative of England as a whole. So it comes as a small shock every time I venture out into the countryside to see just how... English England really is.

Before I came here I watched more than my fair share of BBC dramas, but I always assumed the quaintness of the English country was overstated. It wasn't. All the pubs and cottages and well-dressed elderly people are right there, in villages barely two miles apart with names like Sweetshire and Comfortsford.

In the evening of my first day in the forest, the dog and I went for what was meant to be a casual stroll across the commons, an hour tops and home in time for supper. But the trees lured me in and before I knew it I'd done a Little Red Riding Hood on myself and gotten totally lost, forgetting that just because there are no creatures armed to kill in England doesn't mean wandering off the path into unfamiliar territory is a terribly clever idea. Two and a half hours later I found my way home, and the next day I decided the whole experience was charming (as opposed to just plain tiring) and repeated it in a different stretch of wood. 

On the plus side, the lack of people meant I could play all I liked with my self timer. And I saw a lot of deer. A walk in an English forest is so captivatingly different to walking through the Australian bush. It was almost enough to make me want to move out to the countryside one day. Almost.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Great expectations

Last week was half term for my Boy and Girl. They went sailing for the week, leaving me alone in their grandparent's house with the dog for the better part of the week. Come Thursday, however, I was home free. London beckoned, with her promises of hustle, bustle and the ubiquitous sound of sirens I'd grown accustomed to, and of which there was a conspicuous lack in the middle of an honest to God English forest. But instead of giving in to the siren call (both literal and metaphorical) of my adopted home I decided to jump on a train and see somewhere new. 

Given I was in the south already it made sense to stick below London, so I took the advice of my mothers both biological and host and went to Bath.

There is no denying Bath is a beautiful town. Nestled amongst gently rolling hills and practically drowning in history, it is little wonder this area captured and stimulated the imaginations of such literary notables as Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. And anyone who knows me will attest to my love of history. So it is little wonder I was equally captivated by my surrounds.

The contrast between ancient and modern was especially profound here, where tourists pour through corridors snapping high resolution digital pictures of buildings and monuments that out date Jesus. While I was in the Roman Baths I found myself feeling simultaneously incredibly close to and removed from the people who lived or travelled here. In some ways I - with my mobile phone, ease of travel and own digital camera - was absolutely different from a people who made month- or year-long pilgrimages to this site to pay their respects to the gods or curse their neighbours for petty theft .

But I find when I'm close to history it is so much easier to remember those people were exactly that - real people. They lived and loved and hoped and feared and finally died. And it's also easy to remember when seeing first hand the comparative level of civilisation, despite their superstitions and brutal rituals, the Romans were a formidable and supremely advanced people.

As I sat, casually dangling my hands into a pool that was once part of the ultimate day spa and listened to commentary by Bill Bryson, I considered the expectations born of my own history. In many ways the trip to Bath was exactly what I had hoped travel would be like. I was alone, so I could make my own decisions about what to do, and when; I was staying in a hostel; when I stepped outside I was somewhere. The sun was shining, the town was beautiful, and there were buskers on every corner. But as I'd gone to sleep on the Thursday night (my first of two) I was concerned. From what I'd been told of my Mum's travels thirty-odd years ago, and my friend Laura's travels thirty-odd months ago, I had expected to walk into a hostel and pretty much walk straight out again into a pub. Despite knowing how stupid it was, I felt like I was doing something wrong.

I spent the next day being a tourist, touring the Baths and Cathedral, taking afternoon tea in the Pump room (where I had fresh clotted cream for the first time - Holy moley, it was something else), scouring the markets and dining, book in hand, by the river. In all an idyllic day. But I was still mildly perturbed. The stories I'd been told made it seem like Mum and Laura barely spent a moment without company.

Happily I went back to my room that night and made friends with two Swiss girls, with whom I went out and had a drink in a proper English pub.