40 Hours in London

I am of the belief that when the opportunity to revel in a lovely hotel arises, one should not waste it. One should revel from check in to check out, employing all the necessary tools to do so; robe, slippers, pillow-chocolates, TV, mini toiletries and large bath tubs.

This is why, for the brief period I was in London, much of it was shamelessly spent perched in the middle of my large bed, wearing my luxurious robe, watching The Only Way is Essex. And why, even though my time was brief, I squeezed in a good bubble bath before departing.

Courtesy of my horribly generous parents who have, I assume, missed me terribly, I languished in The St Pancras Renaissance which sits atop, you guessed it, St Pancras/Kings Cross station. It was the reception of this imposing establishment, where a man greets guests at the door wearing tails and a bowler hat, that I dragged my bedraggled self into after The Friday We Will Not Speak Of.

From the hotel, London – well, part of it –  was marvellously accessible. On Saturday morning – after a very bright and early phone call from my Mum … ‘we’re here!’ – I rolled out of bed and down the road to a Costa, where I bought a latte the size of my head as a means to feel alive once more. I promptly returned to bed with it and watched a Made in Chelsea marathon until my jetlagged parents recovered their senses. Sitting up in a cloud of bedclothes, with a huge coffee and shitty English TV, I hit a new height of contentment.

We convened in the lobby at midday and, courtesy of the hotel’s aforementioned great location, trotted around quite happily, no tubing or cabbing needed. My mother was intent on tracking down the hood of her Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-I-Don’t-Know-How-many-Great-Ancestor, Martha, who had been a prostitute in London before being popped on the First Fleet and shipped off to Australia. She had been popped on the First Fleet because she was caught selling stolen goods and the pawnbroker who dobbed her in had his shop on Dyott Street, which still exists today. So we wandered down there and tried to imagine what it was all like hundreds of years ago, when Martha was making ends meet by plying her trade and selling the stolen petticoats of wealthier women.

And then it was time for a drink and the all-important business of catching up. We had long ago decided catching up was going to be privileged above all else. Mum wanted a traditional pub – ‘not too touristy’ – and so we chose a sticky-tabled place that looked adequately ramshackle enough so as to be ‘not too touristy’ and had a cider. My father pasted his map to the pub table by spreading it out with both hands with a touch too much force for the paper to withstand months of gummy beer residue and we rolled on, leaving half the map behind. To another pub, as it transpired, because, as we strolled, it was decided we wouldn’t return to the hotel, rather bridge the gap between late afternoon and dinner with a wine. In the second pub, my father, when he went to inspect some pictures on the walls near the women’s bathroom, attracted the attention of an ancient dog who has apparently been guarding the Ladies’ from male patrons for twelve years. Dad upended a chair in a strange sort of battle tactic and bolted back to our table. Mum and I laughed uproariously.

A couple of wines later, Mum and I had sorted out life as we know it and Dad was getting hungry. I had voted Indian because I have been desperate for it for months, and we chanced upon one on the walk back towards our lodgings. And what a chance it was. The food was absolutely exceptional. I can’t tell you what it was called – I was too full of food and wine to have my wits about me – all I can tell you is it is on Judd Street and, should you be in the vicinity and desperate for a good curry, you need to go there. Traipsing down Judd Street and back to our hotel, my mother realised that we were on the very same street her sister lived on when she lived in London in the haze of the 70s. It was clearly a real family day for Mum.

I left the next day, after an uneccessarily large breakfast – never give me a breakfast buffet, I have no self control over the pastry table. Following an embarrassing display of face-crumpling tears as I hugged Mum and Dad, I hopped into a black cab and was whizzed away, bound for Victoria Station, where the Gatwick express was waiting. I cried the whole way. My sniffing and snorting staved off the cab driver chatter for the first fifteen minutes, but the moment he sensed an in, he took it.

‘You’ll never guess what I forget to turn on.’

I sniffed. ‘What?’

He tapped the meter and invited me, via the rear view mirror, to roll my eyes with him. So I did. And he was off. Many wives back, he had a mother in law in Germany. He has a good friend in Australia, who has a new wife, but doesn’t seem very happy there. But he’ll get all the gossip on a golfing trip in Spain next year. English money is better than American money – he once had a stripper give him the cold shoulder for giving her only $1 bills, and he was genuinely surprised she could tell the difference.

And then, as if the weekend had been but a dream, I was back in Germany.

The Deutsche Bahn and Me

* And a little bit of London.

This past weekend, I went to London. My parents are currently in Europe and we decided London was a central place for us to meet and so I booked a flight out of Germany  for Friday at 2.30pm. The plan was to have two nights and almost-two-days in the city of black cabs and Pret a Manger, the bulk of it spent in a pub somewhere catching up with Mum and Dad, and return to Germany on Sunday afternoon, refreshed and ready for the week ahead. In other words, do the European-jaunt-weekend thing of jumping on a plane and an hour later jumping off, to find myself knee deep in another language, another culture.

It wasn’t to be. And let it be known it’s never that bloody easy.

It was, really, a weekend of firsts. The first time I flew into Stanstead (not as bad as I thought it would be). The first time I flew out of Gatwick (a seamless experience). The first time I flew with Easyjet (remarkably pleasant despite my reservations). The first time I had seen my Mum since last Christmas. And the first time I have ever, in all my 26 years, missed a flight (remarkably unpleasant).

It was also, and this had a lot to do with the aforementioned flight-missing, the first time I have ever really hit a travel wall. At around 4 o’clock on Friday afternoon, as I stared, aghast at a po-faced Lufthansa woman with clickety-clack fingernails, somewhere deep inside, I spat the dummy. I didn’t want to play anymore. If I could have, I would have sat down, folded my arms and said, ‘I want to go home.’

But let’s go back to the beginning. The day actually started quite well. By 10.50 on Friday morning, I was smugly standing on the station with a large coffee and a new crime novel, and let me tell you, there is no better way to greet a day with the Deutsche Bahn than with a large coffee, a crime novel and ten minutes to spare. With about three thousand other people, I crammed into the teeny thoroughfare that acts as a storage space for the seatless (where I spend a lot of time when travelling with the DB) and, after a minor incident in which I lost my footing, twice, as the train took a swift bend, twice, settled in for the trip to the Cologne/Bonn. Because that is where I needed to go. The Cologne/Bonn airport.

In retrospect I was perhaps a touch too smug. I blame the coffee. I always feel smug when I am holding a take away coffee. It’s why I buy take away coffees, to have that smug rush as I prance down the street holding it. Anyway, two hours later, my coffee well and truly finished and my novel heating up, I sailed past the station I was supposed to change on. And when say the station I was supposed to change on, I mean the one I was supposed to know I was supposed to change on, despite the only warning possible being a printed itinerary I hadn’t printed. As the countryside whipped past, the ’Next Station’ names on the screen became far too southbound for my liking. A little while later, feverishly hoping the train would magically stop at the Cologne/Bonn airport because my flight was due to depart in 45 minutes and I was sweating with anxiety, I noticed the scenery begin to resemble what it had a few weeks back, when I had been on the train to Frankfurt. Scenery as one heads south in old Deutschland is remarkably different to scenery one might spy in the North-West. By this point, as the hills began to roll, there was just me and a very talkative soldier in the thoroughfare and I had no choice but to engage him in conversation – something I had been trying not to do, because I found his German very difficult to decipher – and ask him if the flughafen would magically appear as the next stop. He looked at me and said, ‘Frankfurt?‘ and I knew, sitting against the toilet wall, the air redolent with urine, this wasn’t going to end well. I slumped further against the toilet wall and wiped my brow. As I felt sorry for myself and tried to formulate a plan of action (get off, get off, get off the train now, before you end up in fecking Bavaria) the kindly soldier was frantically searching for my train options on the DB website, his laptop balanced precariously on his pile of enormous army bags. I caught a glimpse of a naked woman on the screen before he called me over and told me what I had to do. I nodded seriously, absorbing his encouragement, and readied myself for action.

I jumped off at Koblenz, shrieking into my phone, ‘I’m in fucking Knoblauch,’ which happens to be German for garlic and clearly not at all what the city is called and sprinted for the information desk. I was directed back onto a train to Bonn, where I would have to change and catch another train to the airport. I avoided buying the ticket from a machine and reasoned if the ticket man checked for tickets, I’d just buy one off him. I was in no mood to part with an unnecessary 30 euro for an hour’s train ride. On the train, I happened upon the bar and sat there for an hour and fifteen minutes with a mini bottle of red wine. The ticket man came, the ticket man left. He, bless him, banked on the innate German logic that if we all play by the rules it’s better for everyone (eg. if we buy train tickets, we pay for efficient infrastructure) and expected new passengers to give him their tickets. I kept drinking my wine. The innate Australian logic that if wriggling out of a rule makes it better for me, then wriggle like hell and smile whilst doing it, prevailed.

I made it to the airport. Easyjet had a flight out at 5pm, but no one selling tickets. The lady next door, manning some other equally as empty booth, told me pointedly, she doesn’t ‘deal with Easyjet.’ Air France, as it turned out, did. But the woman there told me, in clipped tones, everything was booked. ‘Try Lufthansa’. The lady at the Lufthansa counter tapped a few keys and said, ‘400 euro.’ And this is when, somewhere deep inside, I spat the dummy. My bag was heavy, my pants were falling down (why does denim stretch so) I was grimy, thirsty, had already missed my flight and spent 4 hours on a train and there was a crone behind the counter telling me a one hour flight to fucking London cost 400 euro. I snapped, ‘400 euro. To London.’ I told her I’d think about it. We both knew I meant ‘fuck off.’

I staggered to the Germanwings counter and lost my composure. The man at the desk allowed his pursed lips to soften somewhat and gently asked if I had any evidence of my missed flight. I gave him my passport and stared, glassy eyed, at the disconcerting Germanwings marketing campaign that sports a red head, a blonde and a brunette, in very tight cabin crew uniforms, blowing kisses at the camera. He had a ticket. At an additional 160 euro. I didn’t care. He asked me how I was paying for it, I said, ‘hopefully with this’ and gave him the credit card I suspect the bank is now hunting me down for.

I flew into Stanstead, completely forgot to fill in a visitor’s card, ran back to get one, gave it in return for a grilling from a gormless immigration officer and booked a mini bus into the centre of London. The same mini bus a trio of loud, annoying Dutchmen with machine-gun laughs had booked, and they machine-gunned the whole hour and ten minutes it took to get to Baker Street. From Baker Street is was 4 pounds to go three stops on the tube to Kings Cross, my final destination. 4 pounds. London, were do you get off.  And don’t tell me to get an Oyster Card.

I checked into my hotel (I suspect the concierge thought I was a homeless woman who had wandered in for warmth, so wild and dishevelled was my appearance) at 10.30pm. I had a scorching shower, revelled in the bath robe (a particularly good one) and the hotel slippers (still wearing them now) and switched on my large, channel-full TV. There is no better balm to the travel-wearied soul than a good hotel. I ate the chocolates on my pillow and slept.

Since moving to Germany, a decision that had a lot of basis in the country’s geographical centrality, making it a prime location from which to explore Europe, I have spent a lot of time on my old pal, the Deutsche Bahn. I have jumped on board trains bound for Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Cologne, Dusseldorf, Kiel and Belgium. Trains that would bring me closer to Dublin, London, Denmark, Holland and Greece. And it has been – just like all of my travels over the past four years – completely exhilarating. A collection of wonderful experiences that comprise the very reason I upped sticks and moved to Europe.

But.

Deutsche Bahn and I are taking a break. I think we need it. We’re arguing more than we should be. It’s not as fun as it used to be. The spark has gone. I think we need some space.

It’s so unexpected, but …

I am in love with London. Wow. I said it. I did it. I fell in love with a city I have always dismissed as a cliche. I shall explain further in next week’s Trespass column. Outside my window is a laneway of little dark brick houses with white trim and neatly kept front paths. I have leant out my window at least four times a day since I’ve been here, in some sort of film-esque action, and shaken my mane in the gentle summer breeze. I’ve even found a regular cafe (not hard, I’m like a homing pigeon) and the owner is French and speaks with this ridiculous accent. Oh and the policemen, they’re so nice and helpful. And they ride horses, regularly. And I’m getting a handle on the tube and there’s a Primark nearby full of 6 pound sundresses and all anyone here has to do is talk to me and I swoon. It’s love. It’s true love. What am I going to do?