On the Piccadilly line, somewhere between conversations and congested stations, I realised that I was wrong this time. Pretty much convinced that the immigration officer at Heathrow would give me a tougher time (thanks to my Malaysian passport) than the almost sub zero temperature, I was surprised to find my entry into the city of London a breeze. The cold city wind, on the other hand, was not that welcoming.
Changing to the District line to East Ham, I was led to a piece of warmth no burger or chips could provide. Yes, my first meal upon landing in London was a vegetarian thali, complete with a delicious rasam. Strolling along the main street of East Ham with its mostly subcontinental community, I recalled the usual days at Brickfields sans traffic jams and talks of yet another comedic day in Parliament at our usual banana leaf rice restaurant.
Sunset along the coastal line parallel to Galle Face Green in Colombo must be at its most beautiful now, I told myself as I looked out the window of my friend's dormitory in Docklands. At 4.30 pm, London was already dark.
As the tube came to a halt at Hyde Park Corner, one could feel the excitement of the alighting passengers, especially children. The holiday week in London and most parts of Europe had the people enjoying themselves at the many festive markets, like the German Christmas Market, a fairground filled with rides, fashion accessories and food, here at Hyde Park. Well, and drinks of course. Piping hot mulled wine and cider were perfect for the cold night but not before a mustard drowned bratwurst and the almost perfect doughnut, with just a humble sprinkling of sugar or chocolate dipping that would put the overhyped ones to shame.
Our starting point was always the Cyprus station on the DLR. Waking up daily to an awesome view of the Royal Docks, which run along the River Thames, was truly inspirational. With the London City Airport located just minutes away, sights of planes taking off or landing were of norm, among others like the flocks of birds and the occasional rowers and joggers.
At the edge of the District line, just before Richmond was Kew Gardens. Not many enjoy a stroll in the park, well in the cold winter months at least, or are fascinated by the display of tropical plants which are as common as slippers back at home. But the landscape was beautiful and I can only imagine the colourful tulips in spring or the golden fall of autumn leaves. A good place for photography, this.
In preparation for the next Olympic, specific tube lines are closed for upgrades from time to time. Longer trips, confusions and delays are just some of the problems commuters have to face until then. Untangling oneself from the complex tube system is a subject of urban study that requires much logic and sometimes, a little fate. Fun for tourists, bad news for the millions of daily commuters.
From the tube map, you look for your starting point, followed by your destination. You then count the number of stops and transits before reaching and finally, decide on the shortest route. Yes, fairly simple. But there were no shortcuts to the Tower of London. The long queue with average waiting time of 30 minutes to purchase an entry ticket at around 5 degrees Celcius was a drama itself. Being told of the short queues during winter months and the necessity of reserving the ticket in advance at the same time, I chose to believe the former and there I was in the cold, regretting the kiasuism I left at home.
To stand before the Crown Jewels of the royal family in the castle, complete with explanatory videos, was an educational experience but to apply the practicality of these objects of status in today's society is something that I reflected upon. Perhaps growing up with the rapid advancement in science and technology had added a practical sense in us. Not forgetting a touch of humour from the Simpsons. We respect and awe at the majestical and colourful colonial traditions such as the inaugurations yet we can't help but to snigger at the red tape, grandeur and pace of it all. An interesting educational B-side trip altogether. That aside, with the towers starting from St. Thomas' to Martin's, the ravens and Beefeaters, it is not hard to understand why the Tower of London has become the number one tourist attraction in the whole of London. It is a good preview of English history filled with drama, mystery and love. The architecture of the formidable fortress itself is a piece of art.
Getting to the Borough Market requires a change to the Northern line, alighting at Borough station. It was a place that I looked forward to. Remembering the fantastic Campo de' Fiori in Rome, I hoped to see more of the local eating culture and perhaps, purchase a few interesting foodstuffs here. And indeed, the market was a fantastic European assembly of food, both cooked and uncooked. From Spanish tapas to English pork pies to French pastries, it was the place to be for a taste of everything (at a fraction of the price at Harrods). With the purchase of bottles of boar terrine, olive confit and white truffle sauce from a French shop at the market, it almost felt like viewing Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa at the Lourve. The irony of it all just seeped in, for some unexplainable reasons. The coffee at Monmouth's was everything described in the tourist guide. Yummy. Despite the closure of many stalls, due to the Christmas week, it was still an enjoyable and definitely less crowded trip.
Hours before the new year greeted London, we traveled on the Northern line to the Chalk Farm station with bottles of beer in hand. The plan to celebrate the new year at Trafalgar Square was scrapped for fear of the enormous crowd. Climbing Primrose Hill with the rest of the Londoners (and tourists) while singing, dancing and doing everything silly warmed my coldest night in London. Overlooking the city of London, I spotted St. Paul's and the London Eye among others. In the final hour of 2008, lanterns much alike those found in Thailand or Taiwan were flown into the air. Concerned over air traffic confusion with the release of these lanterns, police officers had to stop the activity but the deterred braved them all.
At the stroke of midnight, the usually Auld Lang Syne was heard across the hill, in different languages and beats. Strangers were hugging and wishing each other while me, in trying not to over-analyze the moment, believed in the sincerity of it all.
There was also the fabulous Les Miserables. Not forgetting the frenzy post-Christmas sale on Bond Street/Oxford Circus and the National Art Gallery. Food-wise, there were the infamous pies and the extensive selection of both local and international eateries. All things I missed from Part 1 of 1.
These few days of tubes were like meeting an old friend. This English speaking friend has not changed much since we first met in 2005. But I did. I've met other friends of very different interests who spoke of different languages. I've learnt about co-existence, changes and independence. And that pride and glorification is nothing short of shame.
My real, dear old Malaysian friend, who hosted my visit, while pointing at the Canary Wharf across the River Thames from the University of East London, said the working population there was drastically slashed due to the on-going economy crisis. As the major sporting event draws near, coupled with the very pessimistic outlook on the earliest recovery date of the economy, it will be an uphill task for this historical and influential city to regain control of things, just like in the past.
London remains as one of the most vibrant and fun cities I've ever been to. A visit to Europe is incomplete without a stop at London, even for a few hours.
Best of luck and see you in 2012.