Bringing the learning home (Australian Learning & Teaching Council)

Festivals

Bohemian rhapsody

Luke from UEA in the UK here with a post about mine and Tilly’s trip to Prague!

The bus trip from Norwich to Prague was our longest yet: TWENTY-FIVE HOURS.

Trepidatious anticipation at the journey’s beginning. We were gonna get a disheveled ‘after’ shot as well, but couldn’t be bothered by that point.

But it actually wasn’t as bad as it sounds. It was fine except for when the coach had to stop for whatever reason and the air-conditioning would stop too. We had excellent weather during the trip, in the thirties and sunny every day.

However long the journey was, it was worth it to be in Prague. It’s an incredibly beautiful city, simply a nice place to be. We did a lot of that thing tourists are s’posed to do where you just walk around not doing much but absorbing the atmosphere.

 

  

 


 

 It was the perfect place to visit to augment my nascent, Grand Designs–inspired interest in architecture; the styles to be seen are multifarious: medieval, neo-classical, cubist, art nouveau, Modernist, postmodern, everything!


Prague Opera House.


The one on the right looks like it’s made of bubble-wrap, or … you know … glass bricks …

 
 A glimpse of art nouveau.
Cubism: they look like snub noses.

Thought this looked like a grand design abroad in progress.

And there are just nice touches everywhere. As with so many European cities, Prague is a testament to its people’s value of the nonessential. The bare functionalism of so many elements of society, of so many minds in Australia has been brought into contrast for me by my trip to Europe. I’ve been made to feel really defensive about my appreciation of art and my choice to do an arts degree by the attitude at home, so now whenever I’ve been coming across relevant quotes I’ve been writing them down, like these:

‘The fact is, while we’re on the subject of cheese, and it’s a bit like wine, and it’s a bit like love: there are things in the world that are not necessary for survival. And it is one of the paradoxes of being alive that it is only the extras that make you want to keep on living. We don’t really embrace the world because there is water and warmth. They are the necessities without which we cannot live. But actually, what we can’t live without are the extras; wine and cheese.’ – Stephen Fry

‘We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering – these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love – these are what we stay alive for.’ – Dead Poets Society

People in Australia are always talking about the uselessness of art and arts degrees, but you find less of that attitude over here, and their attitude shows up in the extra, nonessential details of their cities, like the legs of public benches, the lampposts, the gates, the fountains everywhere, which I can never help myself walking up to and taking a photo of – I’m obsessed with water (features)! I’m beginning to wonder if the human race has evolved to find water beautiful and therefore want to live near it, because all the people who thought it was ugly wandered off into the desert and died.

 
Oh and also, they have COLD-WATER PUBLIC BUBBLERS.
 They’re YEARS ahead of us!

We found our way to the St Christopher’s hostel without a travel mishap or disaster to be seen. The hostel was really swanky, perhaps the best we’ve stayed in. We wondered if maybe the St Christopher’s chain spends the same amount on every one of its hostels, and they just got more for their money in the Czech Republic, which I should say was refreshingly cheap. The hostel was really environmentally friendly as well, which I thought was fantastic. It runs on 100% renewable energy sources, recycles shower water for use in toilets, extracting heat from that water beforehand and putting it to use, and it has automatic lights to conserve energy. If they can do it, why can’t everyone?

We didn’t know when we arranged to come to Prague, but fortuitously our stay coincided with the last four days of the Prague Fringe Festival, so there was plenty for us to do. The lady who told us about it recommended some events to us, two of which we attended on our first night. Funnily enough, both performers were Australian, as well. The first one was a musical comedian named Merry-May Gill, the conceit of her show being that, along with the timid local librarian (who bore a remarkable resemblance to UOW Creative Writing lecturer Chrissy Howe), she was on a quest to learn what she could from the cultural hubs of Europe so that she could turn the rural NSW town of Moree into the cultural capital of the world. The show was pretty funny, but most of the humour was based on poking fun at Australia and Moree which, while different and new to the Europeans in the audience, was nothing we hadn’t heard before. She had an astonishing voice, though. Incredible.

The next event we attended was an intimate show with Australian songstress Phebe Starr, another incredible voice. She had a charmingly sincere dialogue with the audience, and Til and I and two Canadians we’d met (the dudes in the foreground of the above photo) had a chat to her after the show. The Canadians’ names were Matt and Luke, which was funny  (Til’s family often calls her ‘Mat’) because they said the other people they’d met on their travels and gone around with were also named Matt and Luke.

Next morning we went on yet another New Europe free walking tour with the Canadians, eh. Highlights included seeing the Kafka monument and the stories about the Czechs’ subjugation by the Soviets.

Looks like something out of a story my friend Sean would write.
Our guide telling us the (New Europe Free Walking Tour–compulsory) final story of citizen uprising when the people of Prague gathered in the central square dangling their keys to demand democracy.

 

In addition to the Chrissy lookalike from the night before was this guy who reminded me of (another lecturer) Joshua Lobb, pictured here with his friends desperately trying to answer the tourguide’s question.

 

Pick me, teacher, I’m ever so smart.

(picture from blog.chinesepod.com)

 

And after the tour we had a beeeeautiful, cheap-as-chips gourmet, al fresco lunch at this place around the corner.

Like I said, we spent a lot of time just wandering around. One afternoon we wandered our way to the super-cool Lennon wall.

Someone hilariously profaned the Lennon wall with Rebecca Black lyrics.

 

We also came across another one of those lock-bridges we saw in Paris.

 

Stalky stalky stalky.

 

And an art gallery with these anti-consumerist statements crawling around outside.

 

David Černý’s Babies.

Reflected in an artwork.

 

That night we went to another two Fringe events. The first was called ‘Glue’, a spoken word event by British poet Annie Moir. It was nice, but bizarre. It was in the tiniest room imaginable (the kind you walk into and instantly realise there is no escape from, causing you to wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into), with a small audience mostly comprised, I’m fairly certain, of the poet’s friends. She was a grey, steatopygious woman who mostly read poetry about … y’know, love and children and getting old and housework and twee things like that, with a healthy helping of cliché in between. There was the usual discomfort of a spoken word performance, where you don’t know whether what you’re hearing is just the poet addressing you, or if it is supposed to be a part of the performance. But it went to a whole new level of weird when, to accompany her poetry, Moir drew different objects, images and toys out of a box onstage and arranged them on a table or stuck them on a big board like some kind of Play School presenter – there was a definite sense of the pantomime about her. Furthermore, in each transition between poems, her husband standing at the back of the room (about thirty centimetres away from the front) would play twenty seconds of some tenuously relevant song, to which the poet would halfheartedly and awkwardly dance.

 

But I mean, it’s a fringe festival – what else do you expect. It was weird, but her poetry had moments of poignancy and beauty, and I think sometimes that’s what art and poetry are about. Even though the style may not be your preference, you actively experience it, you hurl your intellect up against and into an artefact, a performance, a text, and see what you come up with, see what it makes you think about. I didn’t regret going at all; she was a lovely, warm woman of some talent who I was glad to support with my presence and entry fee.

In between the poetry performance and the next event Til and I had another delicious dinner and I discovered how AMAZING Pilsener Urquelle is. No wonder the whole city is obsessed with it – it’s to Prague what Bintang is to Bali. Possibly it’s so good because the Czechs, apparently, INVENTED lager, and have the highest beer consumption rate in the world per capita. So if you’re in Prague and you go to a Pilsener restaurant bar and have the Urquelle in the proper glass at the proper temperature (12 degrees), you won’t be disappointed. Even Tilly liked it and she hates beer!

 

Hesitant initial sampling.

 

The next performance was this highly recommended (by Matt and Luke) play called 7th Circle about these magician charlatans that accidentally summon a demon and have to complete three tasks or the world will end. With hilarious results. It was funny, but it felt a bit like a band three or four HSC Drama group performance to me. I think the Canadians might’ve been more easily impressed than us, or perhaps had lower expectations beforehand. Either way, I personally enjoyed the subtle equation of charlatan magic with religious practice.

 

Onstage antics.

 

The second challenge was a dance-off against Michael Jackson.

 

Til and I stayed in different dorms throughout the trip, because it was cheaper that way. My dorm was supposed to be mixed, but I swear it was eighty per cent annoying American girls. That night, just as I was finally drifting off to sleep, two of them came in and started YELLING to each other. I couldn’t BELIEVE it. SO RUDE. I feel bad judging Americans on these girls; I know all nations have their idiots, but the incidence seems to be higher in Americans in my experience of hostel life. At first it was like, ‘Oh my Gahd! Where’d you go!? Did you go to the big club? We were so wurrayed’ and then it turned into a half-hour discussion of the top ten most inane topics in the world. And then, just when you think it’s over and they’re finally going to sleep:

 

‘Oh, I forgaht to aask you if you like guacamole.’

 

‘Whut?’

 ‘D’you like guacamole?’

 ‘Why, do you have guacamole with you?’

 ‘No.’

 ‘Well why’re you aasking me that?’

 ‘It’s from Step Brothers.’

 ‘Oh, raight.’

 ‘Have you seen it?’

 ‘No.’

 ‘What? Why naht?’

 ‘I have started, I just never finished it.’

 ‘Gahd, get with the times.’

 ‘I’ve seen most of it, I just never saw the whole thing!’

 And it’s like oh my God SHUT UP! Learn to express more than one single unit of meaning in each utterance. Every notion of your speech does not have to be given the maximum dramatic space and effect! Your conversations just devolve into these long, vapid exchanges of nothing, that way. No wonder the world hates America.

 

On our last full day in Prague Til and I went to look around the grounds of Prague castle, from where there are great views of the city. We had lunch up there with one of these views, then came back down to go to one last Fringe event. But alas, we could not find it in time and gave up (something that happened frequently on the trip). We did, however, find a Gloria Jean’s, whose iced coffees I’ve been missing desperately. That was a treat. One of the (few?) positives of multinational corporations.

 


 

The inviting entrance to Prague castle.


A view of the castle at night.

 

Joy!

We rounded out our exploration of Prague with another stroll, a venture down to the water’s edge, a stint in the Kafka museum shop where I bought a copy of The Metamorphosis, and then a mouth-watering pizza dinner.

 

 

That night was the last of the Fringe Festival, with Belushi’s, the bars on the ground floors of all St Christopher’s hostels, hosting the final party, so we hung out in there, me enjoying my last Czech Pilsener Urquelle.

 

Next day we departed Prague for Berlin by train. Here’s hoping we don’t catch E coli and die in Germany!

Cheers,

Luke

PS. All these blog posts and I still haven’t worked out the formatting … No idea why the font changes halfway through, or why there’s such big paragraph gaps sometimes and other times no gaps, but sorry about that.

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I am sterdam (and nothing’s gonna colour me)

As far as I’m concerned, Amsterdam is THE greatest place on Earth. That I’ve been to, anyway.

 

It’s difficult to explain how instantly I fell in love with the Netherlands. Every time I encountered something new, discovered another fact about it, talked to another person, I was only convinced more of its utopia. Wherever we went I was clutching onto my idyllic conception, just waiting to come upon some rude local, some druggo, something that would make the city sink, even an inch, in my estimation. But it never happened.

 

Tilly was asleep when we crossed the border from Belgium on the bus, and I didn’t pay much attention. The next time I looked up from my book I instantly saw two people on bikes and knew we were there. I love the fact that they all ride bikes. It’s so romantic and environmentally friendly, as well as preventative of judgement of those that don’t drive (haha). I love how they ride them, as well, with such good posture. And I love how every road has like, seven lanes for traffic, trams, bikes and pedestrians.

So … many … bikes.

I loved the scenery as we drove towards the city – flat green fields divided by irrigation canals and dotted with windmills, the old ones beautifully nostalgic, the new ones proudly green. I loved how beautiful the city was – the canals and the old leaning buildings.

 

Beautiful Amsterdam.

I loved the weather, and the afternoon sun dappling through trees that shed millions of seed pods, which fall to the ground like snow, gathering in the gutters like piles of Cornflakes or woodchips. Tragically, the DSLR was out of commission for most of the visit, but hopefully that won’t show up too much in the photos.

 

Seed pod storm.

Seed pod fun.

Til dejected after coming under seed pod attack.

 

 

I love that every ten metres is another sculpture, the mark, I think, of an advanced, cultured society (I can’t believe the prevalence of the view in Australia that art and arts degrees are ‘useless’ – utilitarianism of this kind is for cavemen). In the same way, I love that even their corporate buildings are architecturally fascinating. I love that, in a world I’ve only recently realised is almost completely authoritarian right (in other words, evil) they’re so libertarian left. And that’s without even having mentioned the people themselves yet!

 

It was such a change to be in a place so welcoming after Paris. I think the Dutch have the best attitude to tourists – they have the perfect mix of retention of their own language and culture but being open to anglophonic tourists. So many times during our trip we would just be standing somewhere and a local would go out of their way to approach us and ask if we needed help. While Til was waiting for me outside the toilet, someone showed her the information desk in case she needed it. Later on the tram a guy nearly forced us to take his seat for our massive bags. And again, when we were a bit lost, a guy came up to us and asked if he could help.

And trams! We don’t have them in Sydney, obviously, and I never really liked the idea of them before. But now I realise they’re the perfect mix of the above-ground, light-filled, visible accessibility of buses and the fixed-track, reliabile predictability of trains.

I think one of the things that makes the city so good is that it has a small population for a world city, despite the fact that the Netherlands is the most populous country in the world for its size. They must just be more evenly spread, or something, because Amsterdam only has somewhere around 700,000 people, where Sydney has around 4 million. I don’t think people should live in huge numbers – it makes them callous. There’s simply not enough time to be courteous to everyone; friendliness is impractical. Too many people are vying for too little resources. Like the song goes, ‘Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard.’

There was only really one place left to stay in Amsterdam by time we booked – The Van Gogh Hostel. Presumably this was because of its low ratings on hostelworld, but after some investigation you could see that the low ratings were only because it is brand new, a fact that shows in its facilities. It felt almost like a cross between a hotel and a hostel – the room was as nice as a decent modern hotel room and each room had its own beautiful bathroom, the only difference being that there were six to eight beds in the room.

 

When we first arrived we found in the room some luggage and three pairs of Crocs. From this, Til deduced that we were either staying with Asians or people middle-aged or older. We went back out and when we returned once more it proved to be the former. We walked in on three Asian girls huddled around a chair.

‘Hi,’ I chirped.

They looked up, seemingly stunned. They said hi back, then burst into giggles and turned back to the chair, where I pretended not to see them removing some wet pairs of underwear they had just been laying out. Later I found out they had been told it was a girls only room, hence their surprise.
We had dinner that night in a really cool restaurant where we were serverd by a guy so friendly it almost made me cringe. AND we got free bread and garlic butter. I LOVE free stuff – how did they know!?

Free bread!

So in case you hadn’t deduced, the title of this post is a modified version of a Grates song that I kept getting in my head because ‘Iamsterdam’ is Amsterdam’s tourism slogan.

 

The much-photographed ‘Iamsterdam’ sign from a different angle, wearing a crown for Queen’s Day.

And it turns out I was being ironic when I included the lyric ‘nothing’s gonna colour me’, because something did colour us. That colour was orange, and that something was QUEEN’S DAY! Queen’s Day is like the Netherlands’ Australia Day, except instead of laconic barbeques, picnics, beach expeditions and Sam Kekovich ads, they have a MASSIVE street party in honour of their royal family, the house of (ta da!) Orange. Wearing orange is a requisite of Queen’s Day celebrations. The entire city turns orange. It’s not a very common colour; I’ve never seen so much in my life!

It’s interesting to see how much the Dutch love their royals compared with the Brits.

 

 

 

 

 

We started out at the markets in Vondelpark, where there were lots of talented children dancing and playing instruments for money, games involving throwing eggs at people, and junk to buy.

There was also zorbing for kids! Jealous!

After that we ventured to a supermarket for alcohol. Our plan was to get a large quantity of potent, delicious, refreshing, alcoholic, orange drink that the two of us could drink in the park with some nibblies, and we ended up concocting a mixture of rosé and juice which fit the bill perfectly and got us nicely, mildly inebriated.

 

 Magic nectar.

 

 

 

 

 After that we had a wander into the center of town.

  On the way.

 

 Love  the sign.

 

 Street market.

Inner city Maccas devastation.

In town we found some more alcohol and a few dance parties to join in, lunch, a little park in which to laze full of lizard statues which we conjectured might be to discourage birds from eating the bulbs planted there, and then a pretty little canal to sit by.

A man dancing effeminately outside the lizard park, attracting quite a crowd.

 

 

 From the side this guy’s helmet looked like a gigantic splodge of toothpaste.

We also found a toilet for Til, the use of which she had to wait for for like half an hour. It was easy enough for me, ’cause they had these additional open-air urinals everywhere.

 

They were extremely convenient, but it was a bit weird being so in the open, and they STANK. It seems to be the attitude over there, though – they have permanent versions of these around where you stand in like a giant metallic coil, but only the mid-section from your shoulders to knees is screened and you have a view of the outside. The first time I saw a guy using one I thought he was a homeless guy pissing in a phone booth or something.

 

Later, on the free tour we took of the city, our guide pointed out the devices below, which are apparently installed solely to stop people pissing on buildings. If you try to, you find it splatters back considerably. After telling us about them our guide jokingly told us to touch it and I did just to shock everyone. He said he’d remember me as the only person ever to take him up on the suggestion haha. I reasoned that as a piss-deflector it was probably actually the safest place to touch, but he assured me their main victims are drunk people in the dark. Whatever, urine is sterile haha.

 

After sitting by the canal and drinking another litre of rosé-juice concoction, we were feeling the drawbacks of wine – it works fast but makes you sleepy, so we reasoned that if we headed back to the hostel for a nap we would be reenergised to party on that night. Unfortunately, as Amsterdam newbs, we didn’t realise that the Queen’s Day celebrations commence on Queen’s Night, the evening before Queen’s Day, and continue on through the night, meaning that by the end of Queen’s Day the party is dead. We headed back out and couldn’t work out where everyone was. We missed the end of Queen’s Day!

Sunday we visited Anne Frank’s house, a really moving and depressing experience. Even so, it was a shame because it was so busy that you felt like you had to press on through to the next room to let the next people in. It was surreal, but I couldn’t really reconcile the information I was reading in the pamphlet, that I was hearing from the TV displays, with the fact that I was actually standing where it all happened. I saw the posters she put up on her wall, but while reading about it I couldn’t appreciate that fact. There was a room at the end of the tour outside the house which was devoted to Anne Frank’s older sister Margot, which I thought was so beautiful and touching. They had a video of one of her school friends saying what a beautiful, intelligent, kind young woman she had been, and how the friend felt a bit bitter that it hadn’t been Margot’s diary that was found, that it was Anne who got all the fame. I thought the room was a nice gesture towards redressing that disparity.
After that we really needed to cheer up – it was so thoroughly disturbing. We got ourselves some frozen yoghurt and consoled ourselves with the beauty of sitting on a canal. The frozen yoghurt, by the way, was a thousand times better than Snog!

 

The aftermath of Queen’s Day – a broken dinner table in the canal.

 

We were further consoled by coming across Lijnbaansgracht, the most beautiful street in Amsterdam, and where we will write our novels when we’re rich. Take a look and tell us if you hink it’s worth $800 a week (for a crappy apartment) or $2800 a week (for a nice one), as we discovered later on a real estate site:

 

Ducklings in the adjacent canal.

 

The residents of Lijnbaansgracht dancing on their boats. I’d be dancing too if I lived there.

The next day we did yet another free New Europe tour. At first I was hesitant about our guide because he had such an annoying American accent, and when I overheard another guide ask him for his email address I heard him spell it out with a ‘to the’ between each letter (eg ‘L to the U to the K to the E, etc) and I didn’t think it was ironic. In retrospect it must’ve been, because he turned out to be pretty cool and funny. And the accent was just a result of having gone to an International school.

The tour went through the Red Light District, which was surreal. I can’t believe those girls just stand there in the window until someone comes along and picks them up haha. He stopped us at one point to show us the artwork below that just appeared overnight in the street which the council considered vandalism and removed until the locals complained and it was reinstated. Thought that was cool.

 

Our tourguide telling us about the most famous ‘coffee shop’ in the world.

More nonsensical Queen’s Day aftermath: a ski boot?

He also explained to us why all the houses along the canals lean so drastically. The ones which lean sideways, he said, were accidents due to the fact that most of the Netherlands is reclaimed land and the foundations have sunk, but the ones that lean forward are by design. Apparently, in order to fit the highest number possible of merchants into the city, there were restrictions on the widths of houses, meaning they were all really tall instead. But with such narrow, tall houses, the staircases were too tiny and winding to transport goods to any of the higher floors, so they would winch them up to the top floor using a pulley system hanging off a pole at the top of every house. Because Amsterdam is quite windy, though, this could get dangerous when hauling up heavy loads that could blow around and damage the property. To remedy this problem, houses were built with a forward lean so that the goods could be hauled up and be far enough away from the house not to bash into it. Our guide did tell us, though, that they later realised they could just build a longer pole at the top and get the same effect.

On our way from the end of the tour into town for lunch we came across a super cool novelty shop where we thought we might find some good souvenirs for people, but we could only find ones that would be good for us, like coffee bean-shaped ice cube trays that you’re s’posed to fill with coffee-water to put in your iced coffee so it doesn’t get watered down as the ice melts. Ingenius! I also came across a card I consider to be very relevant since I managed to get upgraded to business class on the flight over here, and am hoping for the same on the way back:


After that we had the most serendipitous, delicious, inexpensive lunch at this place called Broodje Bert.

Blew this picture up because of the unfortunate woman in the bottom-right corner that I managed to catch at the wrong moment.

 

 

Our good friend Gilly, of ‘A vindication of the rights of sloth’, ‘Winchester II: return to gilly’s’, ‘Winchester III: darrel’s revenge’ and ‘University of east anglia: a crytoscopophiliac’s dream’, formerly lived in Amsterdam, and gave us a lot of advice about where to go and what to do. She was the one who told us about Queen’s Day in the first place. She said one must-see in Amsterdam was this old-style cinema called the Tuschinski. It was really beautiful. Unfortunately, though, we didn’t take any photos in the lobby, and we were seeing True Grit, which had come out quite a while ago, and consequently wasn’t in the main cinema, which was the only old style one. Still worth it, though. Good movie, too.

The next day, all too quickly, we had to leave and embark upon a massive coach journey back to Norwich. Amsterdam, though, is without a doubt our favourite place that we’ve visited so far, and we’re resolved to go back very shortly and have a long weekend with Gilly and our other UOW friend on exchange in Spain, Elisa, and do everything we didn’t get a chance to do on our first visit. It’s gonna be awesooooome!

 

Cheers,

 

Luke


Three wollongongers* do london: the longest post ever part one

*I think ‘Wollongoners’ is the most suitable demonym for Wollongong. Better than Wollongongian or Wollongongite or any other suffix combination, anyway.

This is Luke Bagnall from UEA again, writing on our trip to London.

As I’m writing this, which will probably be a long time before it’ll go online, Til and I are lounging in the indoor deck of the Pride of Kent, crossing the English channel to Calais.

I love that word. Calais. If it didn’t sound so much like a wankified version of ‘Kelly’ (à la Ja’mie from Jamie), I’d want to name my future daughter Calais. Sounds kind of Elven.


‘Illué alloay Arwen. Callathee allathar cathai calais.

We’re sitting next to a depressingly nuclear American family who talk (in especially annoying accents, no less) to each other like they’re from 7th Heaven or something. It’s all très bourgeois (getting my French on), so I’m distracting myself from their twee blather with what will probably be an epic blog post.


Where do you go when the world won’t treat you right? The answer is Calais, evidently.

We arrived in London from Norwich last Sunday, and stayed in what looked like the fairly posh suburb of Pimlico, judging from the beautiful olden-day apartments and the concomitant rows of Audis, Mercs, BMWs and Alfa Romeos parked outside them.



Our hostel itself wasn’t so posh, offering what a website tactfully describes as an ‘iconic view’ of the hideous Battersea Power Station. We had to stay in separate male/female dorms ’cause everything else was booked out, and that wasn’t fun because the types of people to deliberately book all-male dorms can easily be the creepy fifty-year-old kind who stand eerily in the corner of the room over the sleeping body of another guy for hours on end (this only happened once, but that was enough). 

And I’m not even just exaggerating to fit this picture into this vague LOTR motif – the dude really kinda looked like Gollum.

The showers would be more adequately described as dribblers (not that showers ‘show’), and there was a fifteen minute walk to the nearest tube station. But on the upside, it was very cheap, the service was friendly, which is rare in England, the pub downstairs was cool and played good music, the fifteen-minute walk kept us out all day and burning calories and, best of all, despite the first being low quality and the second being of the Pepsi-not-Coke variety, we got free breakfast as well as free softdrinks whenever we wanted.


My cousin Kirbie was also in London at the time after attending some scientific conference or seminar or workshop or something in Dublin a few days before, so we made plans to meet up at Jamie’s Italian on our first night. Amazingly, it wasn’t outside the restaurant that we met, but in one of five or six elevators at the tube station – we just happened to get in the same one at exactly the same moment. Things like that keep happening, I’ve found. Like Jean-Paul, the only other person on our Topdeck tour to Les Deux Alpes, happened to be staying in Kirbie’s hostel as well, and we ran into him there one morning.

We postponed Jamie’s Italian in favour of something less busy,  which ended up being Spanish restaurant La Tasca, where we supped upon delicious (and expensive) sangria and incredible paella.


 


During our stay we came to feel like regular Londoners, spending almost a hundred pounds a day, passing iconic places like Pall Mall, The Strand, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, Coventry Street, Piccadilly and so forth on a quotidian basis (but unfortunately not passing ‘go’ and not collecting $200) and expertly swiping our Oyster cards with the utmost nonchalance on public transport of at least two kinds. Sydney really needs to get something like that. So much more efficient than stupid prepaid bus tickets and weekly/monthly/yearly Shityrail passes.



I started out loving the tube because you can just go down there at any time, wait three minutes at most, and a train will arrive. But a couple of travel disasters later I was over it. I don’t understand how people use that thing every day, in BUSINESS SUITS. It must be awful in summer. They should really be air-conditioned.

The first thing we did on our first full day was the free walking tour where you just tip what you think your tourguide is worth. It’s clever, because knowing you don’t have to pay makes you want to pay more, provided you had a good guide, which we did. And it encourages the guides to make an effort too, I’m sure. Ours was a pretty cool guy named Dave, a musician.

I love the kind of stories they tell you on these tours – anecdotal, urban legendary. It’s rooted in historical fact but not always accurate, and it doesn’t need to be. I think it harks back to that primal act of oral storytelling or something.

Anyway, we started out in Hyde Park Corner, where we heard about Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington, apparently an arrogant, elitist, sexist war hero. His mansion was right across from the park (at the awesome address of ‘1 London’) and he had a mounted statue of himself erected there, reportedly so he could see it from his windows whenever he wanted. This not being enough, he built his own Arc de Triomphe in the park as well, after he defeated Napoleon, with another statue of himself on top. Apparently Queen Victoria hated the statue so much she replaced it with another one as soon as he died.



Next stop was Buckingham Palace for the changing of the guard. It was madness. I think London was just brimming for the impending royal wedding, so there were so. Many. People. Dave said he’d never seen it like that.




Outside the palace, Dave told us some pretty hilarious stories about people who broke into the palace. One did so wearing a Batman costume and stood on the balcony for hours; others, German tourists, wanted to go camping in Hyde Park, saw the trees over the walls of the palace and assumed they’d found it. They jumped the fence, set up camp, and were only discovered the next morning when they asked a guard how to get out. There was a standout about a drunken homeless Irishman, but it was different to the account I found online. The gist of it was that he ended up on the end of the queen’s bed in the middle of the night, chatting to her for about ten minutes after having consumed half a bottle of her wine. And afterwards, some quirk in the legal system meant he couldn’t be charged for trespassing on public property, so he was just charged for stealing the wine!

Next we walked up Pall Mall to Trafalgar Square, where we saw the hideous Olympic countdown clock and the monument to Nelson.


Here Dave told us about the legend that the term ‘stiff drink’ comes from when sailors preserved the body of Nelson in a barrel of brandy during the three-week journey back to England, but once they had exhausted the ship’s alcohol supply, they proceeded to drink some of the brandy with the body inside (stiff = corpse, therefore ‘stiff drink’). He also told us how they reduced the number of pigeons living in Trafalgar Square – by putting birth control chemicals in the pigeon feed. Just as he finished the story, a lone pigeon swooped JUST over our heads, as if to say, ‘Yeah, but we’re still here!’ and I caught it on camera.


 

We were then led to the Admiralty Arch.


Til and I had seen it on our previous London visit, but we hadn’t noticed its nose, which sits embedded in the wall for no known reason.



The tour ended at the Houses of Parliament and the Clock Tower (which we now know is only called ‘Big Ben’ metonymically for the bell within). It was really worthwhile hearing all the little stories you’d never know about otherwise. I always think it’s interesting the way you learn the geography of a city – Sydney, Norwich, London. You start out knowing enclosed individual areas, but not how to get from one to the other, and as you wander around you’re always surprised when two areas separated in your mind link up. I think it’s the same way with knowledge, in this case of history. I know separate historical facts about the history of Britain’s royalty, but it was great having them unified by the stories on the tour – learning that so and so was whatsisname’s grandson, etc.

Tilly had heard before coming to London that frozen yoghurt was the latest craze. 

  The frogurt is also cursed.

 So we headed to the place she’d heard about, ‘Snog’, which was admittedly pretty cool. I didn’t think the yoghurt itself was that great, but the décor was interesting. And the concept is clever. And the lighting was sensational! (Just kidding. But seriously, it was).





Our timing of this London-Paris-Amsterdam trip was a bit out, really – we probably should’ve made sure we were actually in Britain for the royal wedding. 


Okay, so this one was a bit contrived.

But seriously, it would’ve been great to go to an ironic student party, or play The Royal Wedding Drinking Game. As it turns out we’re in the Netherlands instead, for a different (better) royal event – 


 Sorry, couldn’t resist!

(Picture from http://www.squizzas.com)

I actually meant Queen’s Day – but more on that later. So while we won’t be in London for the party, we did get our fill of tacky wedding merchandise. It was in every shop window! Walls and walls of poorly Photoshopped, terrible photos on tea towels and plates and keyrings and such.


Who buys this stuff!?


Everyone’s trying to cash in. Glad someone called it. 

Due to its unwieldy mass, this post will continue above.


Mardi Gras in New Orleans

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On the 4th of March we headed up to New Orleans (Nola) for the annual Mardi Gra festival. This well known party is known all around the world. My friends who came to Miami on ecxchange last year told me I had to go, the organising was a bit last minute as we did not have a hotel booked or flights. On the friday morning we packed our stuff, hired a mini van and left at about 11pm for New Orleans, Louisiana. This was our frist road trip and an epic one at that as its a 14 hour drive.

The next few days were filled with excitement, joy, colours, alcohol, beads, more beads, partying, screaming floats, and NO SLEEP! March was a crazy month which started off with Mardi Gras then Spring break then ULTRA music (festival)!

Nola is a realy nice city and i enjoyed every aspect of it from Bourbon St’s frezy to the live jazz bands and dancing on the street in the French quarter. The music, the people, the city made Nola one of my favourite experiences in the United States.

Fried chicken is a must in Louisina as they are known for making some of the best in the country, I got a chance to try it which was a treat and it sure tasted yummy!