Once upon a time I won a trip to London…Day 2

Day 2 of the trip I won to London in 2010. Please read Day 1’s entry to understand what I’m rambling about.

London, Day 2

Dear Diary,

Today was the 2nd day of my trip in London. I woke up rather rested, although our rooms are small they are comfortable and having stayed in many hotel rooms before I have nothing to complain about really…although hearing my next door neighbour snoring through the wall was a bit odd.Security

Speaking of small living areas, one thing I’d noticed with London is the lack of gardens and open spaces besides the royal parks. Something we South African’s take for granted back home. Although living in Africa’s economic powerhouse very few Gauteng residents actually stay in the city or CBD. I guess its part of the reason the transport system works so well here, back home we’re all so far apart from where we work.

So today at breakfast I decided to help myself to the rather generous breakfast buffet…only to be told by the lady in the canteen that I was only covered for continental breakfast. Hmm, rather embarrassing that. She did let me keep my bacon though. I noticed that she had an Eastern European slant to her accent, something else I’d come to realise about London in our short stay, the large number of foreigners working in it. It’s a very cosmopolitan city with people from all walks of life.

Today we went to Harrods to indulge my rather obscene obsession with food. I’d heard about Harrod’s before but I really hadn’t realised what a marvel it is. We caught the underground to get to it and we arrived literally as it opened its doors. There were already queues outside the store. Anthony decided we should walk around to visit Laduree, world famous for its macaroons and pastry delicacies. On the way there we stopped at a coffee shop just to stare in amazement at the cakes it had on display. I had never seen cakes so elaborately done before. I duly took pics to dare Chef Lorraine to bake one for us at school.

Onwards to Laduree. Its rather discreet exterior does little justice to the wonders that lie inside. The rows of macaroons and gateau’s are impressive. I was not allowed to take pictures inside the store unfortunately but I bought 100g of macaroons. That’s about 5 macaroons…and they’re sold at £4.50. So they’re far from cheap but the taste is definitely worth the price. I bought lime, chocolate, strawberry, raspberry and vanilla macaroons. Unfortunately having had a big breakfast there was no room to fit in a sample of one of their gateaux. We didn’t do the traditional Laduree tea service either. We then headed into Harrods.

Harrods is a huge place. One departments store in one building with over 1-million square feet of retail space. The motto of the store is Omnia Omnibus Ubique—All Things for All People, Everywhere and judging by the size of the place they’re definitely trying to live up to that. We entered Harrods and immediately made our way to the food section. We passed by rooms with intriguing names such as “Room of Luxury” and rooms decked out in Egyptian themes. Each section has its own unique deco and is rather elaborate. I thought the decoration was a bit crazy but Anthony seemed to love it. (Note to self, look up fancy fruit chandeliers as a possible goodbye gift to Prue Leith Chefs Academy)

Our first stop was the pastry section, truffles and various chocolates were on display. We saw glazed fruit and other weird and wonderful wonders. Being a culinary student and knowing how most of the things are made me appreciate the skill even more. Although Harrods is a department store its products are top class. I went crazy taking pictures of everything to show everyone back at school. Seeing Osetra and Beluga caviar being sold in a department store is just mind boggling. There were hams from all over the world available. Name any cheese and they had it. They had fruit I had never ever heard of let alone seen before. Something called a ‘Strasberry’ for example, something you get when a raspberry and a strawberry decided to mate. How they manage their stock levels I really wonder. All their produce was fresh and had no damage. They had deli’s selling food from everywhere you could dream of and a sushi bar and a dim sum section. I could go on and on but I would run out of space. If someone asked me if I would move to London after seeing the produce and products at Harrods, as a chef I would say yes in a heartbeat. It is a chef’s wet dream. Although over the top in parts I bow down to the genius that is Harrods.

Before I stop with the swooning on our way out of the store I was caught by the sight of a wall filled with jellybeans. Jelly Belly must be the craziest sweet makers on earth. On closer inspection this wall I soon discovered they had jelly beans in the weirdest flavours. Once again I got giddy with excitement. Popcorn flavours jelly beans? Cappuccino maybe? How about cheesecake? Bubblegum tickle your fancy? Mango? Raspberry? Mint? I lost track of them all. Anthony came round as I was ordering my bag and just shook his head as he heard me calling out the flavours I wanted. Paradise.

 We went on to have tea and what Anthony described as “an awesome croissant” at the cafe in the fresh produce section. The waiter was more than happy to take a picture of us enjoying our cappuccinos. We noticed how many security cameras were around. The ceiling is full of them. Trust us Jo’burgers to notice things like that. In amongst the many tourists in the store we heard a familiar Afrikaans accent pass us by, the owner of the voice was saying something along the lines of “take me out of here otherwise I’m going to finish all my money”, ahh yes, South Africans indeed.

Harrods was the place Anthony and I parted ways. He went off to do what COO’s of Chef Academy’s do and I went off to do the tourist thing and prayed to the heavens that I wouldn’t get lost. Tube map in hand I found my way to the Underground again. Being on my own on the Underground for the first time without someone to say “ah yes, I know where that is” was a bit daunting at first but I eventually made use of the rather helpful signs. There is information everywhere, on the walls, on small LCD displays, in free hand-held maps and constantly over the intercom. I also soon grew accustomed to the London anthem, ‘Mind the Gap’. Speaking of interesting English ways, I found it rather amusing how straight to the point some of the signs in London are. Signs to the exit are titled “Way Out”. Straight forward. Very English.

I found the tour bus company again, safely without getting lost this time, and received my ticket for the bus tour. I sat next to a Dutch lady…she was black but was Dutch. I found that concept rather interesting somehow. One of the things that come with being in Europe is that you may never know each person’s background and life-story. Coming from a country were judgment is made of someone on facial appearance before they open their mouth I found this rather refreshing. I sat back and put my iPod on, time to see London for real.

The bus passed by Trafalgar square, this time I took many photos of Lord Nelson and the rather sad statue of King Charles 1, the only monarch to have ever been executed. He dissolved parliament not once, not twice but 3 times and ran the country as an absolute monarch for 11 years. As we all know today, don’t mess with politicians who have access to armies. He was executed in 30 January 1649. He sits alone on his horse on his own little island a few feet away from Trafalgar Square; I found it ironically symbolic that his statue is turned to face the direction of Whitehall, where he was executed. The statue of the man who beheaded him, Oliver Cromwell, is placed outside parliament at Westminster Abbey. The tour was filled with such interesting bits of information. The British truly have a vast and interesting history. On the tour we passed by the royal parks, went behind Buckingham Palace (busses aren’t allowed to pass in front of the palace) and saw the famous London landmarks such as Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, the newest landmark The London Eye, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the Institute of Contemporary Arts (which one man said to me is not ‘real art’). I got off at the London Eye to get my real taste of this new feature to London’s skyline.

Technically the London Eye isn’t that new anymore, it is now 10 years old but when compared to the buildings it overlooks which are centuries old it is still a baby. Despite this the amount of people queuing in line to get on it was just astounding. I almost turned back due to sheer shock at the sight of so many people. Along the way to the wheel I saw a lot of people taking pictures of themselves with Big Ben in the background and the Eye and the Thames etc. It was rather touristy and I remember thinking to myself I should get used to this as in a months’ time we’ll probably be going through the same thing in South Africa. There were souvenir stores at almost every corner.

I decided to brave the lines and join the queue. During my wait in line I saw a man dressed in a kilt doing a jig. Apparently he was protesting something. We toyi-toyi back home, in London they do a jig. Not so dissimilar after all huh? After being searched and having a thorough security check I was declared legal to get on. I think the attraction of the London Eye is being high above the whole of London and being able to see all the way to the Queens Country residence on a clear day. The view is truly spectacular and for people who have never been in skyscrapers high above buildings it will awe them but besides that I found the experience to have been watered down by the sheer number of people let into each capsule. One can’t move about freely enough to get a good view. Even though I had a 3d map to help me identify different features on the skyline it was rather heard to make them out. I guess it’s a bit like saying one has been to the top of the tallest building on earth, once you’re there you’re a bit confused about how you’re meant to react. I would recommend it to all my friends but I doubt I’d do it again.

After the London Eye I duly ended up getting myself lost again. I decided to peruse my ticket for the tour bus to see what it said in terms of bus stops when I realised to my glee and excitement that the tour included a free tour on the Thames! I hopped and skipped (well, something along those lines) to the Original London Tour boat tour. It was on an open top boat which had two bars on its lower deck. After just one day in London I had come to learn to say no to alcohol if I wanted to have any spending money left. The booze in London is far from cheap!

The boat took us down the Thames as we passed by the London Eye, various interesting buildings (such as The Gherkin, the local’s nickname for 30 St. Mary Axe) and historical sites and eventually to the famously unfamous London Bridge. The reason I say its famously unfamous is because I too had fallen for the age old image of the London Bridge being the bridge with the two towers on it. Even if you Google ‘London Bridge’ that image pops

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up. Nope. London Bridge is a non-descript concrete bridge just before the TOWER BRIDGE (the bridge most people confuse as London Bridge). I don’t know if I was shocked or disappointed at my utter ignorance at this fact. I always rip of Americans for thinking Africa is a country and not taking time to read a little…when all my life I’d believed the Tower Bridge was London Bridge! I was glad to find out from the tour guide that a wealthy oil-billionaire from Texas named Robert P. McCulloch bought the old bridge before it was reconstructed in 1968 mistakenly thinking he was buying the Tower Bridge. The bridge was taken to America and is now part of a theme park in Arizona.

After the boat tour I found my way to the bus tour again. We passed by the less touristy parts of London such as Chelsea. We passed by Margaret Thatcher’s house and Roger Moore and Sean Connery’s houses (they lived literally a house apart). We saw JK Rowling’s house and other famous people’s homes. London’s little Hollywood you could say. Although pretty in appearance once again I noted the lack of garden space, although we were told that they each had exclusive use of a park that only they had keys to. A ‘superstars only’ park. We passed by Downing Street. I didn’t realise it was such a small street in a rather busy part of the city. I can’t imagine our president living amongst the people such the British Prime Minister does. As this was Election Day the place was abuzz, as was the streets outside Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. Camera crews were everywhere. Unlike back home though, it wasn’t a national holiday on Election Day in the UK. I heard from some people that the voting process is so laid back that they had seen people go vote for their sisters!

Another interesting thing I heard was two gentlemen complaining on the London underground about the construction and how they hoped it will all be done by 2012 when London hosts the Olympics. Very ironic that, sounds rather familiar. There are some major changes taking place due to London’s hosting of the Olympics.

As the tour bus hadn’t passed Buckingham Palace I decided to walk from Trafalgar Square to the palace gates. Little did I know that a mile and a half is actually quite a distance. On the way there I passed by two royal guards. I was tempted to go and do the usual hand in the face thing but I restrained myself. I took pictures and moved along. With the palace in view but so far away I slowed my step down and enjoyed the scenery. Old statues and gardens line the streets. It was interesting to note that the gates around the palace grounds are pillars representing each one of the countries Britain one had as colonies…and one of the pillars on the right in front of the gate is labelled “South Africa”…which was even more symbolic when I turned around and looked up the road towards Trafalgar square to see South Africa House (the South African Embassy in London) on my right as well.  Far from home but home was stalking me. The changing of the guard had already taken place and there wasn’t that much to see in front of the palace. I enjoyed the view of one of the most famous landmarks in the world before making my way back towards the noise of London’s streets.

The West End, the term used to speak of the theatre district of London. I had seen most of the theatre production on offer back in South Africa and decided to see something completely different. It had been recommended by Mr Robert’s friend Alex and so I decided to go for it. Avenue Q must be the strangest puppet show I had ever seen. Mix Sesame Street with Gordon Ramsay and add a lot of sexual jokes and you have Avenue Q. The language is rather ‘colourful’ but it is so funny. It has received rave reviews and is definitely worth seeing again if it ever comes to South Africa. The theatre itself was interesting in its own right. Clearly an old building the seats and levels were very steep. So much so I managed to lose a box of chocolates I had bought when I dropped them. Having paid £3.50 for them I made sure they were found again! The theatre audience in London is very young, which was a bit of a surprise to me. Unlike in South Africa where some people still dress up to go to the theatre, the image there is more hip and less formal. Luckily for me the Leicester Underground station was right next to the theatre. An Underground staff member saw me staring at the map for a while and came to offer me help…just like that. I was taken aback by it; I wasn’t used to such cheerful assistance by people who weren’t being paid to actually help lost tourists.

I headed back to my grandly names hotel, Day two in London was tiring but it was eye-opening indeed.  

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