Just a few hours after landing from the monster Sydney to London flight I’m sitting on my Nan’s sofa enjoying a cup of tea. Having gone straight from the airport to the Business Design Centre dragging a tonne of conference gear for the next day’s British Medical Journal Fair, I’m physically spent. But the mental journey was just as intense.
Of course despite being a work trip I was looking forward to seeing the family but admittedly held no real excitement about the location. But the impending rollercoaster of iconic (and not so iconic) London nostalgia blew me away.
Arriving into Heathrow thankfully I came into the new terminal, still modern and efficient with its shiny customs electronic passport control. A good start, it took me seconds to get through and unlike my notorious experience in New York, I passed the terrorist test and my body parts remained undisturbed and pants still firmly on.
Next up was the tube. As my wife will testify I can look at a map a thousand times, and go to a location the same amount and still get lost or just completely bamboozled. She loves to tell stories of how I walk out of shops in Sydney and obliviously walk out into completely the wrong direction. I even managed to get lost in New York, which was bloody hard considering the block system. So getting to Angel would be a challenge. How my brother is studying successfully to learn “The Knowledge” and become a London Taxi Driver is beyond me.
In lieu of an Oyster Card the lady serving me was charming. Genuine and personable she smiled and explained patiently to me the complicated directions: “Piccadilly Line to Kings Cross, change and one stop on the Northern Line to Angel.” It put me at a temporary ease.
Squashed into the corner of my carriage next to the doors I tried to avoid the golden rule of the London Underground – no eye contact. I do however notice the sea of Metro newspapers strewn across the carriage. An eternity later I tumbled off the carriage at Angel and attempted to navigate up a handful of steep escalators in rush hour. It didn’t help half of them were closed for refurbishment. I braced myself at the bottom.
In these scenarios you’ve got to take your chances, the window for success is minimal. Navigating the people like in a wildebeest stampede, I failed miserably to enter the movement of people and balance my load. I stumble, drop half my possessions and then try to get back into the mass of bodies. The looks of disgust I receive outdid all the effort of the lovely lady at the ticket counter.
The feeling as I exited the station to “fresh air” washed over me with relief. As usual my mum had told me “make sure you bring a coat” and “it’s getting nippy” and similar mum-like phrases. Sydney optimism prevailed and I did an imaginary fist pump when I walked out in my t-shirt into bright sunshine. I never did like getting onto London trains in artic conditions and passing out as soon as the doors closed to mimic a metal sauna.
Just a few metres out of the station I pass a red telephone box and smile; it reminds me of my wife and a photo she took when living in London. I glance left and the symphony of red is more obvious than ever as multiple big red buses dwarf the traffic on the high street. I glance right down a cluster of narrow, cobbled winding passageways that look too small for cars lined with the uneven terrace-like buildings.
Ready to collapse I spot the Centre across the high street and cross at the ever so English traffic lights. I am not certain whether this actually happened but perhaps politeness and smiling has become part of a new customer service charter as the man at reception took my bags to put in storage ready for tomorrow and wished me a great day. Out of the corner of my eye I spot an old, vintage red London Post Office Box sat right in the middle of this modern facility.
Back on the high street I am in search of some fuel. Being a complete Sydney-coffee-snob I’m keen to avoid Starbucks, Café Nero or any cult-like chain. I stop at a mobile coffee stand. It has a hatch at the back where the coffee is served. Not like the modern type that appear at corporate events, but a small, classic Italian design that would not look out of place on the streets of Rome or Milan.
Quickly I realise the barista has just as much character. There is no mention of a “Latte” on the menu so I opt for a safe Cappuccino. Considering the questionable coffee experiences I had encountered in London previously, this tipple was incredible. “Today, just be amazing,” he theatrically announces as he passes my coffee. I joke that I’ll try and sit down on a bench to pause. The city has already consumed me.