December 30, 2013

I was 15 when it all started

I was 15 when it all started

Or "The London Adventure that never ends"

I was 15 years old when it all started, 15 years old the first time I travelled abroad without the parents and without any other grown-ups, and without going on an organised trip. Many would have said it was crazy, and many probably did, too, but never to my face. One can wonder how my parents could be OK, letting a 15 year old off on her own – I certainly doubt that I would have done it if it was my 15-year old – but times were different, and most of all, I was used to taking care of myself and I was used to taking on responsibilities – I was (and am) a big sister after all. And even if I went somewhere completely new to me, it was still to a place where I knew the language – that helped.

I went to London.

And while it wasn't an organised trip I had a friend with me and we booked the hotel as well as the transfer to and from the hotel before we went. We also promised to call once we had gotten there, and our parents had the number to the hotel.

Kew Gardens, London
Surely many 15-year olds would have taken the opportunity to act less responsible. Not us. I for myself knew very well that this was a very special opportunity; If I handled it well I would be able to go again as well as get to do other things, if I had misused the trust my parents gave me I would not be able to do anything on my own until after I had turned 18 or left the house, so I knew what I had to do. And besides London itself was so exciting and there was so much to see and do that I doubt we would have had the energy to misbehave; We didn't have the correct age so even finding a pub that would have served us would probably have been difficult – so we didn't bother trying. Instead we spent the week – because we were away for a whole week – taking the underground (or, as the Americans like to call it, Subway – and yes, we did make the mistake once, of thinking that subway was the same as underground, we had clearly watched too many American films. Both of us KNEW that subway wasn't what we were looking for and still we made the mistake...), going around various places in zone 1 (basically within the area that the yellow line, "Circle Line" covers), doing all the things we had read about.

We went to Hyde Park and strolled around, we went to Speakers Corner, the public speaker's area in Hyde Park, where everybody has a right to an opinion – I guess that's what some debate forums on Internet are used for nowadays. We went to British Museum (see link), one of the most impressive museums with (one of the) biggest collections in the world and made the mistake of thinking we should spend a whole day there, ending up in us being dead tired at the end of the day – take my advice, don't. Nowadays – at least last time I checked – entrance to the museum is free so go there, see a part, leave, and come back another day.

We took a tour around London, an organised tour that the travel agency had created. I still recommend that to all first-time visitors; London is so massive that you can't cover it on your own and it IS very interesting to hear a bit about the history and see some of the landmarks. I still remember 1665 as the year the plague hit London and 1666 as the year of the Great Fire, when a huge part of the city burnt down – a tragic event in itself but with the fire the plague died out (see the link to the History of London learning site). "The Monument" – the monument of the great fire of London – stands close to London Bridge as a reminder of the event.
We saw the beautiful Tower Bridge, the most famous bridge that many tourists still refer to as "London Bridge", but it is not correct – London Bridge is a plain bridge while Tower Bridge is the gorgeous old bridge that is the symbol of London that many of us recognises from one of the TV channels.
We walked around Bayswater – because of course, as many other first time London visitors we ended up in a shabby little tourist hotel in Bayswater – not to saw that there aren't perfectly decent hotels in Bayswater but as young traveller hotel standard is not what matters – and to be honest, it still isn't, at least not for me and at least not in a big city; Just like then I don't spend any of my time in the hotel room, except for when I sleep, so why would the hotel room be priority? Especially in a big city like London, a city that never really sleeps.

I also have vivid memories of taking the double deckers, the famous red buses, and sitting up, overlooking the city, I also remember the odd feeling of going downstairs, while the bus was driving through the city, getting ready to get off – and knowing that down those stairs there was nothing stopping you from falling off, no door. It wasn't the case on all buses, but the older ones really had no doors, and you could still get off where there was no stop, if you wanted. I remember doing just that, jumping off, and while I was safe on the ground and my friend jumped out the bus started to move and she almost fell. It made us giggle, probably partly with fear – what IF something would actually happen... Would we be able to sort it out? Luckily we never had to find out.

I remember being down by Trafalgar Square and staring up on the statue of Nelson, seeing the big lions surrounding the square. And Piccadilly Circus with the Eros statue made an ever lasting impression on me, not so much for the lights and the billboards and the familiarity of it all, having seen it in newspapers and on TV, but for the people, this was the first meeting with the rest of the world, it felt like. Nowadays I hurry past Piccadilly Circus and hardly remember to look up, but when I do I still remember that young girl that was me and how it felt, being there, listening to the sounds of the city, smelling it, experiencing it will all my senses.

I remember walking around, street up and street down in the evening, trying to find the right place to have dinner – it is not easy when you are 15 and you are in the tourist areas and you aren't familiar with all those exotic dishes that London, being a multicultural city, actually have to offer. I remember ending up more often than we liked in places that served pastas and salads, dishes we were familiar with and had confidence enough to order.

Chinatown, London
Now I know better. Since that first time I have returned to London again and again and again. Now I know to avoid the more touristy areas for my meals, I know to go to the backstreets, I know to look for the places where the locals go, and I know to try the local food, and the ethnic food. I enjoy having dim sum or maybe duck in Chinatown, I enjoy going to the little local Indian restaurants. Some of the best Indian food you can find in Europe you can find in UK – there is a big Indian population and if you go where the Indians go themselves you are certain to find excellent Indian food – but you can also find good cross-over food, Indian food that is adjusted for the European taste buds.

He or she who says that you can't eat well in London doesn't know what he is talking about – or have been unfortunate enough to find the wrong places. There IS a lot of excellent food to be had, but it does sometimes take a bit of knowledge or at least a bit of effort to find it. It is true that the food you would find in England and especially the English food once was terrible and uninteresting - overcooked potatoes and peas and meat that was hardly worth being called meat but before that there was another food culture, a culture very much based on what nature provided, and that knowledge isn't completely lost, just somewhat forgotten.  With the interest in good food increasing, so does the quality.  

DO stop if you see a farmer's market. Do try the local products.

Be adventurous

London has it all. It's got tourist traps, it got local joints. It's got fancy, it's got simple. It's got tasty, it's got tasteless, it's got good, it's got bad. 

London. A city that will always have s special place in my heart. A city I will never be finished with. Every time I come I feel I come home, I feel at ease and I feel that I recognise myself. And yet every time I come I discover something new, meet new interesting people and learn something new.

London. The adveture that goes on and on and on. 

1 comment :

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