These Londoners are crazy!

I woke just in time to wish Wayne good luck with the first day of his teaching job for the week – as a substitute teacher at a school in Hackney. I don’t know much about Hackney except from some mentions in a TV sitcom which led me to believe it was a pretty rough area of London, and from the sounds of it, Wayne would have his work cut out for him.

I ate breakfast with a newcomer to the room, Tobias, a Swedish physical therapist on his way to Brighton for a university course. He couldn’t believe how long it took to fly from Australia to Europe, and was obviously having some trouble understanding why anybody would bother.

After breakfast I crossed the road and looked around the British Library, which as it turns out has a very impressive array of historic documents. It would appear that everyone who is anybody in the English speaking world is represented here, and entry is free – which in a strange way probably explains why it was so quiet.

Then I headed to my usual King’s Cross Tube Entrance rendezvous point to wait for Naomi, who was going to show me around London a bit. Although a Melbourner like me, she lived in London for a couple of years, and knows the place quite well. We decided to catch a tube to South Kensington and head to the Natural History Museum. A bewildering number of exhibits were ready and waiting for us, but we decided to start with the dinosaurs, because as everyone knows, dinosaurs are cool.

[Remains of a Whatchamacallisaurus - after the dieting plan went a little too far.]   [Naomi and I looking shorter and fatter than we really are. Ah, the powers of illusion!]

The collection of various dinosaur remains, models, footprints and various other stuff was pretty impressive, not to mention the very noisy not-quite-lifelike animated dinosaurs. We continue on to an exhibit about the human body, which managed to show all kinds of obscure bits of the body that most people (myself included) didn’t even know we had.

They also had some of those bendy mirrors which make you look really weird. An amazingly simple idea, but enough to keep simple minds like mine occupied for many minutes. It brought back memories of the now defunct Giggle Palace at Luna Park in St Kilda.

By this point, the place was beginning to fill up with rowdy school kids. Not running around like maniacs, but being raucous enough to be annoying, so we retreated away to the other side of the museum, looking the Creepy Crawlies display, which Naomi assured was extremely cool. Alas, it was also extremely shut, but after finding a welcome cafe to get a drink and sit down for a while, we trudged on and found the huge Earth exhibit. This was great stuff, with some very interesting displays about the planet: weather, the environment, natural disasters – including a very cool earthquake simulator.

There was actually heaps more to look at in the museum – you could easily spend a couple of days in there, except you’d have to hide at closing time to avoid getting kicked out. But we were museumed out, and ventured back out into the street for a walk around Knightsbridge. London’s streets being what they are, we got lost at one point, and had to refer to the invaluable A to Z to get us back on track, but we eventually found our way to that most fashionable of London landmarks, Harrods.

We squeezed through the crowds and nosed our way inside for a look around. Judging from the signs, they seemed to have a lot of departments, covering just about every niche of shopping under the sun. We confined ourselves to part of the ground floor, where a staggering number of cutesy gifts and Harrods merchandise was available.

[Knightsbridge, artistically reflected in a Harrods window]   [Strong contender for oddest sight of the trip - the motorised couch, being booked. Well after all, it was parked on double yellow lines.]

Around the corner from Harrods we found a crowd of people, a traffic policeman, a ticket being written out, and – wait for this – an armchair. An armchair with wheels. An armchair with wheels, a licence plate, a driver, and a reading lamp. Bizarre. I thought for a moment that it might be a publicity stunt, but I couldn’t see any cameras, so my conclusion, which seemed quite reasonable at the time, was that Londoners are crazy.

[Yep, that's definitely London all right... Big Ben and the very picturesque Westminster tube station scaffolding]It was getting on, way past lunchtime, but restaurant indecision syndrome was once again present. It took until almost 3pm, when both of us were starving to actually decide on a place. We settled into a little Italian place and chomped down some pasta. The waitress was pretty surly, and when the bill came, it featured a recommended tip. I wasn’t sure what to do. At home, where tips aren’t expected but aren’t knocked back either, given the service I’d have tipped nothing. But a recommended tip? What a cheek! But I wasn’t brave enough to do anything other than just hand over the money and make sure on the way out not to look back to see the smirks on their faces.

We kept roaming along Knightsbridge (which is a road as well as a suburb), up to Piccadilly, with Naomi pointing out various landmarks along the way, most of which I confess to have now forgotten (except for Berkeley Square – Re: Nightingales.) We also passed the Hard Rock Cafe, which looked like just every other Hard Rock Cafe that I’ve seen.

We got to Piccadilly Circus, and after a quick detour around Carnaby Street and Soho (which does not have any link to Small Office/Home Office) we got back on the tube. We said our goodbyes and Naomi returned to Wood Green. I got off at Kings Cross to head back to the hostel and see how Wayne had gone.

He’d had a hell of a day, and wasn’t interested in much at all except vegging in front of the telly in the lounge. Even the offer of a pint at the pub didn’t inspire him, so I left him to his own devices and set off to see a couple more landmarks on my own. I was, after all, leaving for home the next day.

First stop was Westminster, for a look at Big Ben up close. Not too close you understand, being almost seven it was all closed up. But I did get to stand on Westminster Bridge and gaze up at it. Being such a well known thing, it is a special feeling to see it in real life for once, instead of on the titles of a Michael Dobbs miniseries.

Big BenFrom there I caught a Bakerloo line train to its southernmost terminus, a station by the name of Elephant And Castle. Isn’t that a great name? The station is named after the suburb. The suburb is named after a pub, which I think is one of the best methods of naming a suburb. I don’t know what the pub is named after, though it fits in with many of the other odd-sounding English pub names that you’ll hear, many of which date back to the days when including any reference to royalty or religion in your pub name could result in the authorities stripping you bare, making you run through the city in the snow, and then having a severe smack on the botty and your head chopped off.

[Don't you wish YOUR city had a place called Elephant and Castle?]

After navigating my way through a network of underground tunnels (and I don’t mean the tube system) I found the pub, and enjoyed a quiet ale before heading back. For a pub of such ancient and famous age, the decor was pretty ordinary. But I suppose at least they weren’t trying to cash in.

Instead of catching a train back, I looked around for a bus which would head back vaguely in the direction of Kings Cross. I found it, and for most of the trip I was the only passenger, at least the only one in the top deck.

The bus rumbled through unknown streets, over the Thames, past countless buildings, people, and other buses and vehicles, until we got to the familiar territory of Euston Road and I got out. I went back to the hostel, but feeling restless, I went back out again, this time for a walk around Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus.

I found Segaworld, which looked interesting. Half a dozen floors of video games, but alas, not a single Donkey Kong or Elevator Action or Joust among them. Ah well, that’s progress. By that point I was getting pretty tired anyway, so I headed back to my comfy bed for a good night’s sleep.

Trying to look intellectual in Cambridge

Before breakfast I ventured out to find a phone box to phone home. The great thing about phoning home from a phone box in Britain is that if you’re short on cash, or you pay the home phone bill anyway and you want to save some money, you can be called back. The phone number is printed on the noticeboard inside the box. Very handy. If the person at the other end is ready to write down the number when you call, you can get this done for less than 50p worth of time calling to Australia – which I can tell you, from a phone box is not much.

The phone boxes were outside St Pancras station, on the opposite side of Euston Road. At that point it’s a divided road, and I waited at the traffic lights to cross, sticking absolutely to my decision some days earlier never to jaywalk in London.

Also waiting to cross were three other tourists. I guess they were tourists because they were talking in North American accents about something touristy-sounding. Three middle-aged women, dressed in that kind of “we’re in a foreign country and we couldn’t look more like tourists if we tried” manner – with a minimum of one bum bag each.

The traffic lights changed. The pedestrian’s friend, the green man, appeared, green and very bright and cheerful for so early on a Sunday morning. But approaching, against the lights was a police car. Siren blaring, lights flashing. The siren was loud, very loud, and making it none too clear to all around that getting in the way would be a thoroughly bad idea.

So I stayed put. And so did two of the women. After a few seconds, we all realised that one of them was crossing, despite the almost deafening noise from the siren, the police car fast approaching the crossing. The silly bunt was apparently oblivious to it, or simply reacting in the stupidest way known to humanity.

Her friends started screaming at her. Something very loud, very high pitched, and with an obvious sense of panic. I guessed it was something like “Omigodyoustupidbitchgetofftheroadbeforeyougetsquashed!”

I don’t know if Ms Frogger could even hear them over the siren, but rather than turn back, she started running towards the island in the centre of the road. From what I could see, this woman was apparently trying to make it into the 1998 Darwin Awards.

Her friends kept screaming. She kept running, in a kind of chubby, totally-unused-to-walking-except-to-the-toilet-between-courses kind of a way. She reached the pedestrian island and leapt at the traffic light pole, hugging it close, as the police car sped by. She hadn’t been in its path after all, but if she’d missed the pole, she could have achieved the possibly unique distinction of being run over by a police car on its way somewhere else.

An hour or two later, after making my phone call and having some breakfast, I met Merlin at King’s Cross Station. We’d agreed to meet at the tube station entrance in the station, although while waiting for him I realised there were two. No matter, he found me, and after a look around the station shops to try and confirm the rumoured existence of the very marvellous sounding Mars Bar chocolate drink, we boarded a train for Cambridge.

The train flew through the countryside, and we passed the hour or so to Cambridge in the usual intellectual manner, by telling stupid jokes, with Merlin threatening to get out a book to read if things got too moronic.

The Backs, Cambridge

Visitors are requested not to walk on the grass unless accompanied by a senior member of the college We walked from Cambridge station into the main bit of the town, chatting about, among other things, the horrors of the English banking system. From the sounds of stories from Merlin, Wayne and others, most English banks would prefer if they didn’t ever have to deal with customers, and to this end make it extremely difficult to obtain an account. You’d think they’d be pleased to be making a profit off your money, but apparently not.

After a quick stop for a drink, we looked around at the various colleges, trying to decide whether or not it was worth going in each. They all appeared to charge money, ranging from about a pound upwards, so if you visited each, it could end up costing quite a bit of money. In any case, most of them seemed to be just as picturesque from the outside looking in.

We did venture into Trinity College, but failed to find anybody to pay until just as we were leaving, when a woman in a very academic looking gown near where we were about to go out was asking someone else if they’d paid. Given that we’d seen little more than the same buildings visible from the road, and some curious signs saying that nobody should walk on the grass unless they were accompanied by a senior member of the college, we turned tail before she spoke to us, and departed at a brisk walking pace.

The laneway back to Trinity Street was adorned with various cool things, including a sun dial which would have kept perfect time if it wasn’t for Daylight Savings.

Merlin and the harp player

We walked on to Magdalene Street, and took time to study something we would wonder about for hours – the automatic raising bollards in the street, which will cheerfully go down for buses and taxis, but the rest of the time block off the street. How did they work? A special control in the vehicles? Or was there somebody, somewhere watching by closed circuit TV? For me it was to remain one of the great mysteries of Cambridge.

  • Update October 2003: Roving reporter Douglas has gone off to Cambridge specifically to investigate this issue, and found that they are operated by a bloke in a little booth somewhere watching it all on CCTV.
  • Update October 2005: And then he found out it’s not CCTV, but transponders

Nearby we found a crowded area of shops and restaurants, where punts get hired out. After enjoying some gourmet pizza for lunch (you can tell it’s gourmet when you don’t recognise the names), we haggled a bloke taking a punt tour out down to £5, and consequently enjoyed a leisurely time floating up and down the Cam. And I must say, it’s probably one of the best ways in the world to relax.

[Me, not falling into the Cam. Not one little bit.]   [D'oh! Seeing more of the Cam than most of us would like.]

As we punted along looking at The Backs of the colleges, the (for want of a better word) punter rabbited on about the history of various colleges and bridges and things along the way, though some of the tales sounded a little far fetched. But he did a good job of steering, which was more than could be said for some of the amateurs also plying the river. They looked like they were having a lot of fun though, and I reckon I’ll have to have a go at it myself the next time I get to Cambridge.

One bloke didn’t look like he was having fun: he had either fallen in or had dropped something in and was looking for it.

[Vroom.. vroom! But what happened to the fourth wheel?]We were dropped back at Magdalene Street, and carried on walking up it. Waiting to cross the street, we saw something that’s definitely the quintessential British car: a three wheeler. This is just not something you see anywhere else in the world, and probably with good reason. They just don’t look safe to me. But to see one actually working, actually being driven was a good laugh, as it brought back memories of a million Mr Bean and Only Fools And Horses repeats.

Just up Castle Street we found the remains of the old castle. In fact, there aren’t many remains left apart from the mound it sat on and a couple of beer bottles.And I’m guessing the beer bottles weren’t that old. Judging from the size of the mound, the castle can’t have been terribly big. Unless it was very narrow, but tall.

We doubled back and carried on walking along Queen’s Road, seeing the other side of The Backs, and generally wandering around the town for a few hours. Then we went back to Magdalene Street for another look at the auto-bollards and some chips and a quiet couple of beers in a quiet couple of pubs, accompanied by a game of “name that commercial” on a pub TV, something which is always more enjoyable if you’re unfamiliar with the ads.

By the time we strolled back to the train, it was well and truly dark, and as the almost empty train rolled towards London, the smell of something – possibly dope from the next carriage – wafted through the air. We never found out what it was, but got into Liverpool Street sometime after eleven.

Merlin headed back to Wilesden, and I headed back to St Pancras for a kip.

I wept for you, honestly I did

[Wayne, substitute teacher from NZ, and part-time tourist]When I woke, only one of my four room mates was both awake and present – a bloke called Wayne, who turned out to be a New Zealander in England to do substitute teaching, and to generally have a good time experiencing and exploring the country while he was there.

We ate breakfast in the hostel cafeteria and chatted about what we’d each seen. I planned to go to the Tower of London that day, and asked him if he’d seen it. He hadn’t, and decided to tag along.

So we took a tube to Bank and walked to the Tower. The streets were as quiet as I’d seen central London’s streets get in the daytime, with construction workers taking the opportunity of a quiet Saturday morning to get some construction done. There was plenty of activity at the Tower, though thankfully the queues weren’t as long as the railings in place indicated they sometimes got.

We paid our money and went in. It’s not cheap, but you certainly get a lot for your money. The Tower is not just one tower, but lots of different ones, with many and varying historical displays, varying from scary torture equipment to very shiny jewels.

[The guards have perfected the fine art of standing absolutely completely still for long periods of time.]

[Tower of London brochure]We climbed up and down the various towers, gazing at the various things on display. Some were reproductions of historic artefacts – some were the historic artifacts themselves. But some of the most fascinating stuff was graffiti which had been carved into the walls centuries ago, often by people kept prisoner in the tower. Some of it was more articulate than graffiti found scrawled on walls today, some wasn’t.

We queued up to see the Crown Jewels. This is obviously the most popular display. The queue for the Jewels themselves is set up so that it goes through about three separate buildings, past various other displays to keep the queuers entertained as they slowly trudge towards the Jewels. The Jewels themselves, when we got to them, were extremely shiny and valuable-looking, and you could see why there was an inordinate amount of security to guard them.

Walking around the grounds of the Tower, you could see plenty of very healthy ravens, obviously well fed from the proceeds of the entry fees. The Beefeaters, with their wide hats and regal dressing gown-type uniforms, seem to have taken on the role of genial guides to the tower. Meanwhile the Grenadier Guards with their enormously tall fur hats, stood completely still, or strutted around ostensibly doing military things, but in actual fact keeping the tourists entertained.

Raven

Wayne and I pondered what it must be like to be a soldier in what is such a noble tradition of military showmanship and discipline, but which has been relegated to the role of a tourist attraction.

[Close up: Henry VIII's codpiece - impressive!]The most prominent tower is the White Tower, in which there are loads of displays of memorabilia relating to the history of the English military, the Royal Family, and the Tower. A lot of it was very interesting, but by far the highlight was Henry VIII’s suit of armour, with its enormous codpiece. Either the man was hung like a buffalo, or had an enormous ego. Or possibly both.

Eventually we got somewhat Towered out, so we went and sat by the Thames, looking at the glorious sunshine reflecting off the water, and munching on some lunch from a nearby sandwich place.

We decided to head for Piccadilly Circus for a look around. As seems to be always the case there, there were people everywhere, and buses and taxis flying in all directions. We walked through the crowds towards Leicester Square, stopping along the way a few times to watch and listen to some of the many buskers, which as anywhere on the planet, varied from amusing to superb to crap.

After wandering around for a while, we found ourselves in Trafalgar Square. We walked around it, looked at Nelson’s column and climbed up on the lions, then we went into the National Gallery for a bit of art and culture. After all, it’s free!

[Making friends with the fauna in Trafalgar Square]

We walked around the gallery for long enough that nobody would think we were complete philistines, then we headed back to the hostel for a delicious cheap (for London) dinner.

We sat in the lounge for a while, chatting between ourselves and with others, and watching a bit of telly, before deciding to head for the pub on the corner. It was an Irish pub, part of a chain called O’Neills – no doubt an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Irish culture the world over, by painting the outside green and playing Irish music.

The sign in the window, in common with many English pubs, forbade the wearing of football colours. Wayne and I had no idea what the local football colours were, but we walked in, hoping that we weren’t wearing any. The jumper I had on was in Geelong AFL colours actually, but luckily there seemed to know (or care) about this.

Wayne and I enjoyed a beer or two, and got chatting with some of the pub goers. Particularly entertaining were a couple of Londoners, just back from a football match in Nottingham. They’d already had their share of beers, and one of them made it clear what he’d thought of Australia being beaten in the World Cup qualifier a few months before. He sounded absolutely sincere when he said, “Yeah, I saw it… I saw Australia get beaten on the telly. You should have won… I was gutted… I wept for you, honestly I did.”

Two Yorkshiremen (one with virtually no teeth) and a self-proclaimed fat Lancastrian also joined us for a pint, and I got a bit lost in the conversation as they debated with Wayne some of the finer points of Rugby League versus Union.

At eleven o’clock, as is the custom in England, the pub closed. But fear not, O’Neills had it sorted. Sure enough the pub shut, but they shunted everyone upstairs to what they called “The Music Room”, where there was another bar, a dance floor and a DJ. It kept us going for a bit longer with our beers, though the conversation, well drowned out by the music, was a bit limited.

Eventually we strolled the thirty seconds back to the hostel, Euston Road quiet in the warm night air, but for the passing cars.

‘Urry up! Last train!

It was time to say goodbye to Amsterdam – just as I was getting used to the streets – looking the right way before crossing the street; not falling into the canals; finding my way to the nearest tram stop…

After having one last walk around I packed all my stuff together and caught the tram to the Central Station, making use of the last few notches on my Strippenkart. At the station I bought my ticket to the charmingly named Schiphol airport.

Getting off the train at Schiphol, I found the terminal and checked in, then strolled about having a look around. Like most airports, it was shiny and new looking, as though it had just been renovated.

Now, a question for you, dear reader. If you were about to get on a plane out of the Netherlands, and a woman you’d never met before offered you a packet filled with small white pills, would you take them?

Okay, how about if the woman was inside the airport check-in area within full view of numerous police, wearing an airport uniform with ID badge, the packet was marked “Amsterdam Airport Schiphol peppermints”, and she was handing a packet to everybody? Yes? Well, the peppermints were very nice, anyway.

The short flight back to London was pretty relaxing, and the weather was glorious so I watched the clouds going past outside. It was a fairly small plane, and when we landed, we didn’t even get a gantry thing to walk along, we just stepped down onto the runway and walked to the terminal along a ragged green carpet. I could’ve done a Pope and kissed the ground, but decided not to.

After picking up my luggage and clearing customs I went and found the railway station and caught the Gatwick Express train into London. Gatwick Express have some very funny advertising, featuring a cartoon Queen Victoria (their trains go to Victoria Station in London) with air traffic control paddles, and another one flying like Superman.

I caught a tube to King’s Cross and found my home for the next few days, the YHA St Pancras Hostel. It was in a brand new building, only a few months old – perhaps a bit less friendly than some of the older hostels I’d stayed in, but very comfy.

I dumped all my stuff and headed out again, catching a Northern line train to a station called Bank. Then in the manner familiar to anybody changing trains in the London Underground, walked up and down steps and corridors and around corners and along more corridors to the Docklands Light Rail station. The DLR is a mostly above-ground railway built in the 1980s to serve the newly-redeveloped docklands area of London.

The train rolled along happily through the Docklands, and I took the opportunity to get a seat right at the front, where the driver would have been if there had been a driver. We got to the very exotic-sounding Island Gardens, the end of the line, and I walked out of the station and followed the signs to the Thames.

From Island Gardens, to get past the Thames to Greenwich, you have to swim. No, that’s not quite right, actually you take the Greenwich foot tunnel, a pedestrian tunnel that looks like it was built about a hundred years ago (which is because it probably was), with a huge decorative entrance at each end. It would undoubtedly be terrific exercise to walk the tunnel each way every day, skipping down the steps, walking the few hundred metres under the river, then staggering up the steps at the other end.

I strolled around the streets of Greenwich, stopping for a Walls Magnum ice cream, which tasted more-or-less identical to the version at home: the Streets Magnum ice cream. Then I made my way up the hill towards the Observatory.

It was almost 16:30 GMT (har har). The Observatory closed at 5pm, and while I was debating with myself whether or not to pay the five pounds and go in, the decision was made for me, as they closed the doors. No matter, I pottered around outside, checking out the standard British measures on display on the wall, and looking at the brilliant view over London from the top of the hill.

I’m sure the stuff in the Observatory is very cool, but anybody who finds themselves there with a limited amount of cash or time, and just wants to look at the all important line splitting the eastern and western hemispheres of the world, should know that although most of the line is within the Observatory grounds, it actually keeps going for a few feet outside the fence, and is accessible from a path just north of the Observatory.

I stood on this line, one foot on each hemisphere. And then with Homer Simpson in mind, alternated standing in the east and west. “East!” “West!” “East!” “West!”.

More amused by this than I probably should’ve been, I strolled back down the hill and found Greenwich station, and caught a suburban train back into London – to London Bridge to be precise.

Most people probably know that London Bridge (the one that fell down in the nursery song, and which also got sold a few years ago and re-assembled in Arizona) is not the same as Tower Bridge (the one in all the postcards). But it’s not far away, and I walked beside the Thames towards it.

I walked under the bridge and had a quick look at the area just east of it, full of renovated warehouses and alleyways. It looked quite staggeringly like the area where the Doctor Who story “Resurrection Of The Daleks” had been set, which if I remember rightly was somewhere very near the Thames. I didn’t see any burnt out Dalek shells though, so I headed up and over the bridge.

Like a lot of things, Tower Bridge looks bigger in real life than it does in pictures. Not as big as the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but big. What was surprising to me though was that it only had one lane of traffic each way. Heaps of pedestrians though. Looking over at the Tower Of London, I realised that Tower Bridge is probably named after the Tower, rather than the towers the bridge itself has.

I walked around by the Tower, which was closed for the day, and looked aghast at the adjacent McDonalds – complete with McDonalds merchandise shop. I headed back to the hostel and lounged for a while in the errmm… lounge.

My friend Naomi had been due to arrive in London while I had been in Amsterdam. I phoned her where she was staying and she said “yeah, c’mon over for dinner. Tony’s late getting home, so it’ll be a bit late.” And she gave me directions to Tony’s place, which I scribbled down on a scrap of paper and stuffed in my pocket.

Step 1: Catch the Piccadilly line to Wood Green. Okay, no problem, very easy.

Step 2: Cross the road, go left, and find the bus stop to catch a 329. Ah. This is a problem. When I come out of a tube station, my sense of direction is completely shot due to climbing numerous sets of stairs up to street level and having turned around several times in the process. Not to mention having spent most of the week in Europe, and having just got accustomed to traffic going in a particular direction being on the other side of the street.

I wandered through the crowds (London has the busiest suburban streets I’ve ever seen), looking for a 329 bus stop. I found one, and as luck would have it, a 329 approached. Reading my scrawled instructions, and realising I didn’t actually know the suburb I was heading for, I asked the driver if he was heading past any Tesco Express stores (which was the landmark for the stop I had to get off at.) He thought I was heading in the wrong direction, and sent me over the road to the other bus stop.

I and seemingly a hundred other people piled onto a northbound 329. It was probably more crowded than most buses in Melbourne I’ve been on, though the St Kilda Road trams in peak hour would beat it. I found a seat upstairs and kept my eyes glued to the windows.

Step 3: When you see a Tesco’s Express, get off at the next stop. The street is back the way the bus came from, on the left. The bus rumbled through the dark and narrow north London streets. After a while, I saw a Tesco’s go by. I pulled the cord and got out. I looked around. The street I was looking for wasn’t there. I checked again. It still wasn’t there.

I found a phone. “Help, I’m lost!”

“Can you see a pub?” asked Naomi.

“No… I saw a Tesco’s though!”

“Did you? A Tesco’s Express?”

“Ummm…”

“Get back on the bus”, she said, and told me which pub to watch out for, the Green Dragon.

Fortunately even after dark this bus route ran every eight minutes, and it wasn’t long before I was back on board, watching out for not a normal Tesco’s, but a Tesco’s Express. To this day I’m still not sure what the difference is, but I found it, and once again got off the bus.

This time I knew it was the right stop. I knew because I could see the pub. I knew because I could see the correct street sign. And I knew because Naomi was hanging out of the upstairs window shouting across the road “Hey Daniel! Over here!”

I went up and found her and her friend Tracey, another bloke also visiting London, and when Tony eventually got home from work it was introductions all round, and we settled into a brilliant roast dinner, courtesy of a SENSATIONAL cooking effort by Naomi. Actually she told me to say that, but it’s an accurate assessment.

We chatted over dinner and wine about whatever sprung to mind, a lot of discussion revolving around war memorials and related topics, something which Tracey and Tony obviously had a mutual interest in.

At around a quarter to twelve I had to make a move to get back into London, before the tube stopped and I was left with the expensive option of getting a cab back or the moderately confusing option of finding where on earth the Night buses went.

So Tony drove me to the nearest tube station at Southgate, which if you ask me is an odd name for somewhere north of London. He actually drove past the station looking for a place to stop, not wanting to stop anywhere improper because there was a police car right behind him. In the end he did a U-turn and came back and let me out. I thanked him profusely for the hospitality and the lift, and went over to the station, where I found a stopping area especially for picking up and setting down passengers. D’oh!

I went into the station. It was about midnight and most of it was dark. I looked around for the platform for London.

“Where you going, mate?”, a cheerful London Underground woman asked.

“Victoria. Uhh.., I mean, King’s Cross.”

“Down there – last one’s just coming now.”

“Thanks.” I went down the escalator with some speed, and a couple of minutes later the train arrived. A few people were on board, but plenty of seats, and the train carried on into London, greeted at each stop by an Underground person with a green lantern to signal the train on when everybody was aboard.

At one stop the train waited a minute, while the bloke bellowed down the corridor, “‘Urry up! Last train!” to some latecomers.

We got to King’s Cross and I alighted, walked back to the hostel, made more noise than I would have liked getting into bed, and dropped off to sleep.

Thursday morning 3am

The day prematurely began at somewhere around 3am when my peaceful slumber was interrupted by a knocking noise. There I was, in a hostel in Amsterdam, in a dorm of about twenty other blokes, two floors up from street level, and someone was knocking on the window.

My ears could hear what was happening. They were passing this information to my brain, which was in a state of shock at having to be active at this time of the night, and was having a hard time trying to explain what was going on. My eyes were in no hurry to open and help fill in the gaps.

“Hello?” a French voice shouted, from the sounds of it, outside the window. He knocked on the window again.

The New Zealander in the bed next to mine, whose brain was having a slightly better time of reacting to the situation, responded. The noise that came out of his mouth was largely unintelligible, but I guessed later he probably meant “…. Yeahhhh?”

“I’m locked out – I didn’t know they close the hostel at night”, said the Frenchman, who was not doing a levitating act outside the window, but was apparently on some scaffolding that my brain remembered later was up outside the front of the hostel at the time. “I can tell you my bed number…”

The Kiwi, was obviously more interested in getting back to sleep more than anything, and took the course that would get him there as soon as possible. “Yeah yeah, no worries” and opened the window.

“Thank you, thank you”, said the Frenchman, and he must have gone and found his bed without much more fuss, because at this point as far as I remember, I dropped off back to sleep again, and so did everyone else.

After getting what remained of a good night’s sleep, and doing the usual shower/getting dressed/breakfast thing, I headed back to the Central Station to meet Brigitte. She’d managed to wangle a day off work to show me around a bit more of Amsterdam.

Our first stop was Anne Frank’s House in Prinsengracht, a museum which mostly consists of a walk around the offices and secret annexe where Anne Frank and her family and some friends hid from the Nazis for two years, and wrote her famous “Diary Of A Young Girl”.

It was very moving walking through the exhibits, to look at the tiny rooms where they were all hidden away; and to watch videos describing their story, and what eventually happened when they were caught: only Anne’s father survived.

After that we strolled up Prinsengracht towards Leidseplein, which looked completely different in daylight to how it had looked the night before. We were heading to the Rijksmuseum, but on the way found a canal tour which looked interesting, and in fact they were offering a special which included a tour and entry into the museum, so we bought tickets and headed over to the wharf it was going to depart from.

Problem is, it wasn’t. The same floods that had delayed my train into Amsterdam the day before were causing the canal tour operators some problems. Apparently the water level was so high that the boats couldn’t fit under some of the bridges – that is unless they suddenly got a full tour of body builders. We decided to head over to the museum while they waited for the water level to drop or for the Dallas Body Builders’ Association excursion to arrive.

The Rijksmuseum looks at first glance a bit like an old hospital – a kind of fairly plain-looking 19th century building with lots of towers. Inside we found a long queue of people lining up to pay, which we bypassed, though nobody checked our tickets. We found a map printed in English and started exploring.

We went through the renaissance paintings, which left me once again marvelling at what some people can do with paint. And just like in Brugges, after the first few hundred paintings, you almost get blase about the endless masterpieces. But it’s worth mentioning the Nightwatch, a humungous painting at one end of the top floor. You can see it coming, right along that level, and it really is a masterpiece, an absolutely brilliant painting.

We had lunch in the museum cafeteria, then headed back towards the canal boat. They were ready to go, so we climbed aboard and listened to the bilingual recorded coverage of the various sights, which included various trivia such as one of the clock faces on the central station tower is a wind direction indicator. The boat managed to fit without any trouble under all the bridges as it made its way around the various canals.

One sight along the way proved that despite their brilliant taste in city design and architecture and everything else, the Dutch know how to do tacky stuff too: just east of the central station was a gigantic floating restaurant done up as a Chinese temple.

After the tour we walked around the streets for a while, checking out shops. Brigitte invited me over to her place for dinner, so we caught a tram back to the central station, and bought a ticket for Hoofddorp, a suburb about forty minutes out of the city centre, beyond the airport. It was peak hour, and the bright yellow double decker train was pretty packed.

We got to Hoofddorp station, a quite huge, very new shining metal and glass structure, and found the bus stop. Brigitte told the bus driver in Dutch where we were going so he could stamp my Strippenkart appropriately, since I had absolutely no idea, and we found a seat.

Most of the cities and suburbs I’d been to in Europe were pretty much laid out like Australian suburbs. Main roads, side streets, houses, shops. Not Hoofddorp. It was brilliant: they’d designed a suburb that was genuinely based around the movement of people, rather than cars. It looked like a terrific place to live.

The only main roads through the suburb were bus-only roads, with special traffic lights and devices along the way that looked like they would be quite unhealthy for cars to traverse. There were parallel bike paths and footpaths, and plenty of trees.

The cars were contained to minor roads, but this didn’t seem to be a problem, because hardly anybody seemed to have a car: there were very few around, either being driven or parked. But there were plenty of people strolling down the streets, cycling, or just chatting with friends. And of course, as we got off the bus, there was a sight familiar the world over: a group of teenagers discussing loudly whatever it is that teenagers discuss, with their bicycles strewn all around them.

We walked the few minutes from the bus stop to Brigitte’s house, which like all in the area was what we Australians would call medium density – three story, and compact without being cramped. I met her kids Jennifer and Rich, and after a delicious dinner, played a Nintendo go-kart racing game with them.

I can’t say I’m particularly skilful at the fine art of playing Nintendo. I rarely play video games, and in fact the last time I had played Nintendo for any appreciable amount of time was in 1996 at my mother-in-law’s house in Seattle. For the first few games Rich beat me, but as time went on, I got better and managed to win a few back.

After while I thought I’d better head back, so we walked back to the bus stop and I said my goodbyes to Brigitte. I caught the bus and train back to central Amsterdam and started to walk back to the hostel.

I decided to take a quick detour through the red light district. Not because I wanted to avail myself of any of the services (so to speak) offered, but because I’d read that it was quite interesting just to look around there. It was, and I wasn’t the only tourist strolling along there for the amusement of looking in the lit windows of the brothels at the women sitting in provocative poses, some with whips and chains on hand!

Then I walked back to the hostel and sat in the bar with a drink, writing out postcards. Had a quick game of Pacman on the machine there, then decided to have one more walk around in the Amsterdam night – to find a postbox and mail the postcards.

I was somewhere on an almost-deserted Staalstraat when a bloke came at me out of the darkness. “How much?” he asked.

“What?”

“C’mon, I want some… how much?” He thought I was selling drugs! Me! Innocent me! A qualified professional computer nerd, who has never smoked as much as a single Winfield!

“No – no, I’m not…”

He moved towards me “I know you’ve got some – how much?”

“No! Hey – I’m not – I’m just out mailing letters, okay?” and I walked away at that kind of I’m-not-frightened-of-you-I’m-just-a-little-short-on-time speed. I found a postbox, mailed my postcards, went back to the hostel by another street and slept without any further interruption – not even any Frenchmen knocking on the windows.