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Episode 5 - Killing time in London

My City of Big Ben


Quote from the United Airlines B777 Safety leaflet in the seat pocket in front of me:

If you cannot understand this card or cannot see well enough to follow these instructions, please tell a crew member.

Scary enough, especially in a safety document. But there's more. In what can only be described as a dangerous overestimation of their passengers' intelligence, United have thoughtfully written on the Exit doors the following instructions for opening them:

  1. Open cover
  2. Pull handle and turn counter-clockwise
  3. Push door out

Carelessly, they seem to have neglected to mention that this is only advisable in an emergency, or when the plane is on the ground, or both. I know this because I'm sitting next to an Exit door. Two hours ago I was on the Piccadilly Line Tube from Earl's Court to Heathrow, on a train where the only way to get off was to press a little red button next to the door that says "Press Here to Exit." United would do well to remember that people like following instructions.

We take off in five minutes. The captain has already requested that all electronic devices be switched off during take-off. I will if he will. I'm gonna continue writing on my little palmtop here until someone asks me to stop my hazardous and irresponsible behaviour. Whoops, here's the safety video. How calmly those passengers are fitting the oxygen masks over their faces. Yeah right. Must be the one sure way to start a panic, I reckon: drop the oxygen masks on an unsuspecting cabin of passengers. Expensive-looking video. I think I'm the only person watching it.

Safety's been a big deal all round this week. NATO started bombing the Serbs last week, so all airport security has been London at duskbeefed up. I was briefly interrogated at Heathrow an hour ago (nothing like my Tel Aviv Airport encounter though - *wistful sigh*). Fair enough, though - I suppose the first target for any disenchanted Serbian terrorist these days would be an American airliner flying from London to Washington. Fleet Street are having a grand time with the Kosovo thing. They haven't sold so many papers since Princess Di's expedition to Paris. Everywhere it's bold headlines like "Europe at War," or the slightly more frivolous "Let's Clobba Slobba." Europe didn't seem to me to be at war yesterday when I went for a final wander around London. Actually, there was a demonstration going on outside Number 10 as I walked past (click here) - a handful of bemused bobbies cautiously chaperoning a large but subdued crowd, who seemed, well, disappointed in Tony Blair's reluctance to pull Britain out of the affair and upset his American allies. The placards were good (I think the British make the most erudite protestors). Slogans like "First Monica, now it's Tony's turn!" and "NATO - Never Ask Tony's Opinion" Most of the demonstrators seemed bored though, standing around listlessly eyeing the first gorgeous blue skies that London had seen in a month.

Sitting here by my Exit door, I'm feeling a little overwhelmed at the responsibility that comes with this seat. I decided to read my safety brochure a little further. It's a good thing that I did, because it has special instructions for Exit Row passengers, and I quote:

... Federal Law requires that we only seat qualified passengers next to exits.

It then goes on to list the qualifications one must have for the difficult assignment of opening the door and helping everyone else off the plane. There's a list of no less than 11 points, which I will summarise: You must be young, strong, fit, have mobility, dexterity ... and balance, have a degree in mechanical engineering, a doctor's certificate stating that you are free from congenital defects and contagious diseases, and are capable of piloting the plane to a safe landing in a Montana cornfield should both pilots become simultaneously incapacitated. I'm glad to see that, by sitting me here, United Airlines considers little ol' me so eminently qualified - I may have to redo my résumé. Actually, I quite like sitting in Exit rows, but not for the opportunities that it affords me to help my fellow passengers. I prefer it because I usually get more leg room, I figure there's a strong chance that I'd be first off the plane in a crash, and there's always the possibility that a stewardess is going to have to lean over me at some stage to check on something.

We just started that exhilarating push down the runway and into the air. I hope that by writing these words on my palmtop I don't somehow cause a primary malfunction in the sensitive electronic apparatus that holds the wings on. The little kid across the aisle is squealing with delight. I'm doing my nonchalant, seen-it-all-before act that all seasoned travellers spend hours in front of the mirror perfecting. That little guy and me - we're off to America! Land of opportunity, or in my case, land of a quick stopover on my way to the Caribbean and South America.

I like America. I like Americans, which is just as well, because there's a lot of them on the plane. They're easy to spot after London, even before they open their mouths - their leisurewear and the nearly ubiquitous stylish, thin-rimmed glasses give them away. Oh, and their wonderful obesity. Don't get me wrong, they're not all fat, probably no more than anywhere else (well, anywhere Western that is), but fat Americans are spectacularly fat. The women with arses like a couple of gorillas in a sleeping bag never bother trying to cover them up with voluminous skirts like their British counterparts, instead they adorn them with tight jeans, pink leotards or even (shudder) shorts. There's a woman sitting two rows up from me who just got up to get her bag out of the overhead bin, who is so wide that she can't walk down the aisle without brushing against the seats on both sides simultaneously. I can't figure out how she gets herself into her seat (an image of a couple of stewardesses running down the aisle with huge shoehorns pops unbidden into my mind). Her sister sitting next to her (I'm assuming they have to be sisters) is even larger. I'm going to have fun in the States.

As I look out my window, I notice that we're breaking through that ceiling of high cloud that seems to perpetually live over the UK, and emerging into deep blue skies. It occurs to me that this is a perfect metaphor for the way I feel at the moment. Speeding away from London at six hundred miles per hour, I feel like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I'm on the road again! There's nothing particularly marvellous about being on the road, of course, but when you've just spent the best part of two months in a cold, gloomy and expensive city like London, doing nothing but essentially waiting for your friend to catch up with you, the change feels especially liberating. I simply couldn't wait any longer. My happiness, my travelling momentum and my financial resources were slipping away at an alarming rate.

And of course, I'd been to London before. Many times. In fact, I used to live there. That irresistible, come-and-find-your-heritage pull that London exerts on many young Australians was long exhausted, my only reasons for being there were to wait for Greg, visit Majella, and run a few errands. Oh, and have a breather from bouncing around all those silly countries where they thoughtlessly don't speak English and where things never seem to work in any sensible manner.

The London Underground
(click on the map if you want to see a full sized version)

I used to wonder, as a kid, whether a part of me was left behind wherever I went. And I don't mean that in a sentimental, I-left-my-heart-in-San-Francisco sense, but in a more metaphysical sense. Kind of like a spiritual footprint, showing exactly where my body had been. I used to imagine standing in one place for a moment, then moving away and looking back at where I'd just been and seeing some kind of glowing, three-dimensional, Mark-shaped shadow. This shadow, this echo, would remain there forever, invisible of course (without special, aura-sensitive goggles), serving as a history of where I'd been on the planet. Walking down a street, I imagined myself leaving a long, human-shaped tube tracing the exact steps I took. If it was a street I walked down a lot, there'd be many of these tubes, overlapping and intersecting, while my bedroom or classroom would just be a big, glowing blur, filling almost every space in the room. I used to get a kick out of pretending that I could actually see this echo of my meanderings: the glow in commonly frequented places would be brighter, while spots I'd been to only once would be quite dim. My game would be to fancy that I could find little places in my house that I'd missed - little gaps in the glow, or spot a glow in an unusual place and try to remember when I'd ever been there. I'd always want to try and go to a new place every day, even if it was just two feet to the left of a spot I'd walked a hundred times. The game could be extended to trying to find some place in my home/school/city (even if it was only two inches square) where nobody had ever been, even in prehistoric times. There'd be times, in school, Undergroundwhere I'd just stand on the edge of the quadrangle, staring at all the playing kids, wondering if there was any speck of space in the whole square (under a height of six foot) that had never felt a human presence. I'd even come up after school, wander around the empty grounds, and imagine that I could see the glowing tubes that represented the bustle of thirty years of innocent activity, or even hear the echoes of the laughter on the playground or the lecturing of the teachers in the classrooms. Walking around London, now, echoes of the old days appeared everywhere I looked. I could almost see ghosts of myself haunting, say, Charing Cross tube station, or the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street, or the Queensway in Bayswater. Everything was still there, almost completely unchanged, which was a pity, as it meant that there was really nothing new for me to see during my stay there, no touristy things with which I could fill my days. I'd seen Majella, I'd run my errands, Greg wasn't due for another three or four weeks (still) - what would I do with my time?

First I needed to find a new place to live. When I set off for Ireland, I'd made a vow not to return to the miserly Court Hotel. So I needed some new digs. I'd heard of another hostel in Earl's Court, with the fetching title of the Barmy Badgers Backpackers. I decided to check it out. In contrast to the utilitarian feel of the Court, I noticed a homey, familial atmosphere as soon as I stepped in the door. A cute girl with an English accent (rare in a London hostel receptionist) gave me the ten cent Barmy Badgers Backpackerstour, and I instantly liked what I saw. The rooms were not especially large, but they were clean and well-appointed, and I saw a great common room cum kitchen and a smoky TV room that looked distinctly lived-in (click here). I asked for a bed in a twin room (surprisingly only £1 more than a dorm), and was shown to a tiny but comfortable room on the second floor, complete with a combination toilet and shower stall that was smaller than most closets. As I dropped my ever-swelling backpack on the bunk, I noticed a curiously familiar item atop a pile of clothes in the corner - my old gloves that I had given away a week ago in the Court Hotel. I had bought a new pair, so I gave my old ones to a friendly Aussie fellow I was sharing the room with called Kaleb. It seemed that we were to be roomies once more, which was fine by me, as he was the one guy I'd met so far in London that I could happily carry on a decent conversation with. He was tall, Australian (from up around Byron Bay), had intelligent eyes, and was good-looking in that fresh, Aussie surfie-dude kind of way (click here). I took a liking to him straight away.

I considered myself lucky to have found the Badgers (as it is affectionately known). Apart from it's many advertisable qualities (cheap, central, a free breakfast of all-you-can-eat toast, corn flakes, muesli, and coffee all day long, cable TV, a large kitchen, and a public phone in reception), it also had a palpably friendly feel to it. Populated by the usual assortment of Aussies, Kiwis and South Africans (plus a sprinkling of French and Canadians), it was small enough to feel like a loose family. It also seemed remarkably tolerant and regulation-free - the sort of place where someone walking around in moose antlers and no pants doesn't even warrant a second glance (I know this from experience).

This special atmosphere was largely due to the fact that the entire hotel was owned and run by a pair of young English kids, the cute English girl I'd met earlier on reception (Liz), and her younger brother Ken. Ex-backpackers, they apparently liked the travelling scene so much that two years ago they decided to borrow the (not inconsiderable) sum of money required to purchase and renovate an entire inner London building. They set up the Badgers, and installed themselves as the de facto Mum and Dad of the place. They befriend their guests, hang out with them, even eat and have beers with them. Whatever they're doing, they're doing it right. The place is usually full every night (even in off-season when I was there), and they expect to be debt-free within two more years. All this at the tender age of 26 and 23. Ken and Liz, if you're reading this, I'm impressed.

Hanging around in the hostel, I was instantly the odd one out. I didn't have a job, wasn't planning on getting one, was only "Approach with Caution" (Lion chocolate ad)planning to be in London for a month or so (as opposed to the standard one or two years on the working-holiday visa that young antipodeans can get on arrival just by asking), and was over 30. I was also fairly reserved, and kept to myself most of the time, even in the common room surrounded by a raucous conversation on the inadequacies of the local job agency or the anticipated boozing on St. Patrick's Day. You see, I'd done the hostel thing so many times, in more than a few countries, over many years - I just didn't have the wherewithal to jump-start myself into making-friends mode once again. Great people, to be sure, but the getting-pissed-down-at-the-local-pub-every-night routine doesn't really get my blood pumping these days, and I'm all too aware of the fleeting nature of such friendships. Besides, I had important things to do - my web page episode needed writing (the Egypt, Israel, London and Ireland instalment). So I sat around in the kitchen forever typing into my palmtop, dodging missiles from the occasional food fights and trying to hear my own thoughts over the noise of 104.9 X-FM (actually a rather fine radio station - sort of a mainstream Triple-J, if that's not an oxymoron). Once the web page was done I had a long list of emails to reply to, and then it was time to try and write a travel article on Tibet for a local magazine. I seemed to have the palmtop with me wherever I went. They all thought I was peculiar.

(Quick aside: The hostel scene does get somewhat predictable at times. I noticed a pattern in the standard small-talk made when meeting a new arrival. You can pretty much count on the following questions coming up: "Where are you from?" "How long have you been in London?" and "How long are you staying?" A new South African girl arrived one day and came down to the common room where I was typing away by myself, and, just as a sort of a test, I greeted her with, "Hi! Mark, Australia, two weeks, another month." To her credit, she didn't bat an eyelid, answered, "cool," and replied in the same fashion. I rest my case.)

So. Problem number one solved. Safely ensconced in convivial dwellings, there still remained the problem of my dwindling bank account. My palmtop spreadsheet that recorded my spendings was telling me that the UK was my most expensive country visited, by at least a factor of two (am I a geek, or what?). The Badgers, while considered cheap by London standards, was still setting me back the equivalent of A$39 per day. Buying a round of four beers in any local pub was never less than £10 (A$26), while a cheap dinner for one in any local cafe was at least A$20. An inner London daypass on the Tube seemed cheap at £3.80, until you realised that that was over A$10 - virtually every day, for even the shortest of trips. But the most outrageous prices? The movies. Don't go to the cinema in London. Just don't. Well, not in the West End in the evening at least. Majella popped over to London for a weekend one time, and we went to see Shakespeare in Love in the Lyceum in Leicester Square. Nine pounds each! That's A$47 for two people, just for the fucking tickets! Forget popcorn, ice-cream or drinks, unless you have a steady supply of lottery winnings or are next in line for the throne. Something had to be done.

When I realised I was going to be there for a while, I developed a cunning plan - I would get a job. Brilliant! The steady drain on my savings would thus be arrested, my days of boredom would be filled, and my story for the Australian taxman about my trip being for business purposes would no longer be an outright lie (merely bullshit).

What was I thinking? It was like that faultlessly logical but patently ludicrous plan that Ben Affleck comes up with at the end of the movie Chasing Amy (you remember - he, his girlfriend and his best friend are all supposed to have sex together, neatly solving all their problems. They didn't and it didn't). Similarly, my idea seemed quite logical on the face of it. Which I guess is the main problem with logic - it seldom takes into account how you really feel about things. Getting the job was so easy (almost too easy) that I felt certain I was doing the Right Thing - going with the flow, following my destiny, etc, etc. If it was fate that I should get that job, then I suppose it was also fate that I should enjoy it so little.

I had spotted a computer centre around the corner from the hostel, which provided locals and backpackers with Internet services, training classes, one-on-one tuition and design services. It seemed like the ideal place for a quick month's work. I went in and asked if they needed any help, and they suggested that I ring Head Office. Strike me dead if I'm lying, trendsetters, but when I called they said, "Well, actually, we do have a position, and we need to make a decision today. Can you come in and see us in the next hour or so?" Sure enough, an hour and a half later I had the job, starting the following Monday. It all just slotted into place so easily, so perfectly. So what went wrong?

Well, from the outset my boss Zoe and I had, shall we say, a bit of a personality clash. She was one of the most stressed (and stressful) people I've ever known. Forever tut-tutting about the cretins she was forced to deal with, she lurked behind her desk with pursed lips and a strained smile. Always breathlessly and impatiently herding the customers wherever they needed to go, or answering the phones with a testy "Yes?" - I'd get anxious just being around her. She was one of those women that prompts you to think to yourself that what she really needs is a good root (but preferably from somebody else). We were endlessly on different wavelengths. I'd be trying to be helpful, or just being easygoing about something, and it would be interpreted as being curt, arrogant or insubordinate. I once got a two-hour task done in 45 minutes, and mentioned to her that I was ready for something new. I was lambasted for interrupting her and considered boastful for bringing it to her attention. Ah well.

To be fair, I'm sure our problem was partly my fault. I must have appeared disinterested and a little bored (which of course I was), and perhaps even a bit resentful that someone should be telling me what to do. I mean, seriously - it's unthinkable! I don't want a boss. I'm a world traveller! I'm footloose and fancy free. I didn't come to London to be told what to do by a neurotic, self-absorbed witch with a lactose-intolerance and bad breath. In fact, how dare she!

Truth be told, the combination of having been self-employed for the last three years and the fact that I'm on a world trip and basically just don't want to work has made me essentially unemployable. Greg used to joke back in Sydney that he and I make good consultants, but would make the world's worst employees. I used to joke along and agree with him, silently thinking "No, hang on, I've always made a great employee...." Looks like he was right after all. Personally, I blame it on London lassitude.

It was one of those situations where being fired is the best thing that could have happened. The only reason I hadn't already quit was that I needed the money (alright, I wanted it), and figured I could tolerate Zoe for a couple more weeks. Actually, being fired had the advantage that I could let her think she was really inconveniencing me, obliging her to be extra nice to make it up to me. Not that she did, or anything, but at least I had the satisfaction of making her feel a little bit guilty.

That was probably the day I should have left London. I didn't, of course. Instead I lingered on at the hostel, sleeping in every morning until 10:30 and trying to find things to do with my days beside watching Jerry Springer on TV. Bored and going downhill fast, I turned on the box one day to find Billy Connelly's World Tour of Australia TV special. There he was, scampering up and down the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, and riding a seaplane out of Rose Bay. He was making me homesick, the bastard! Misty-eyed, I'd turn periodically to the American lying in a stupor on the couch next to mine and blurt out, "I've been there! See that?" Grunt. "See him up there? I've climbed that too!" Grunt "Oh! Oh! That's where I used to live - right there, behind that building!" Grunt. "See him on the stage there? I was in the audience that night! I've met him, you know..." Snore. Bloody Americans. Lonely, bored and now homesick as well, I had to restrain myself from calling up United Airlines and booking a seat on the next flight to Sydney.

They've just started showing Elizabeth (starring the lovely Cate Blanchett) on the screen in front of me. Most excellent. That's the only one of the Academy Awards Best Picture nominees that I haven't seen yet. Time for a break from writing....

... A fine film. I now agree with the critics - it was a travesty that Cate didn't win best actress. Put that alongside Shakespeare in Love winning Best Picture, and you have the two most ill-considered judgements that the Academy made this year. Not that Shakespeare in Love was a bad picture. On the contrary, it was excellent, but I didn't see how it could possibly eclipse Saving Private Ryan. Best Screenplay, certainly. Best Costumes (or whatever), by all means. But Ryan was a more substantial, intelligent, brave and important movie. The Academy need their heads read. My personal favourite was La Vita è Bella (Life is Beautiful), but I knew it wouldn't win - it wasn't American and it wasn't expensive enough. There you go. If there's anything else you'd like my opinion on, just drop me a line.

Tate Gallery Tube map

I did manage to spend time with some truly excellent people while I idled away the weeks. Some I'd met before and some were new acquaintances. Here's a sample:

The train approaching platform 4 is for Parsons Green via Waterloo, stopping all stations to Camden Town, then Highbury and Parson's Green. Stand Clear, Mind the gap. `

My father gave me a beautiful book for Christmas - The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. For those who haven't read it, it's the story of a young Spanish shepherd who sets off for the Pyramids to find his destiny (which was really quite appropriate, as I was off to the Pyramids myself four weeks later). The message from the book (well, the message that I got out of it, anyway) is that the Universe puts omens in your path to remind you to keep seeking your goal, to keep following your dream. If you notice them (and they are there), and pay heed to them, then your life will be on track and all will be well. If you ignore them, well, after a while they'll just stop appearing, your dreams will slip away, and you'll only have yourself to blame. I'm sure these words don't do the book justice, but that's the best I can do. I thought it was a wonderful gift - in fact, I found it to be an omen in my own journey. It reminded me to pay heed to the signs that one sees along the way - indications that I'm on the right track. Now, I don't know whether you believe in any of that, or whether you feel it's a load of new-age tripe, but listen to this - this is a true story: I was waiting for a train on Earl's Court Tube station one day, after spending the morning trying to figure out what I was going to do with my writing dreams. I was feeling confused - the more I looked into the Travel Writing game, the more I felt that it wasn't really for me, and that what I probably should concentrate on was my original ambition to write fiction (novels). Anyway, I got onto the train, sat down, and noticed a book on the seat next to me. Someone had obviously left it behind, and it was clearly unread, for it still had the receipt inside. It was called Writing a Novel and Getting Published, by Nigel Watts. I sat looking at it for a while, unable to pick it up, with a funny feeling creeping over me. Of all the books that one might find.... Finally, I opened it and read the first few pages on my way into Piccadilly Circus. It was excellent. Just the sort of book I needed, not only to clarify my thinking, but also to encourage me and to let me know how this sort of thing is done these days. Call me a superstitious, card-carrying mystic, but if that's not an omen, I'll eat my trekking boots.

Tube map, c.1900
(Click on the map if, like me, you're a bit of a trainspotter and would like some Tube history)

About a week ago, I found myself walking back from the bank with about three kilograms of money in my pocket. Had I decided on a bit of grand larceny to supplement my travel funds? Not quite. I'd cashed £20 into 2p and 10p pieces for the inaugural Barmy Badgers poker game. Surprising how much 600 coins can weigh. Five of us sat down that evening for a game of real high-rollin' action, surrounded by piles of copper coins, feeling rich and extravagant (click here). We had real cards, and everything. Things were going well for me until I gambled half my stash on a guess that Bianca was bluffing. She was (with a pair of jacks), but so was I (a pair of nines), and that was the end of my thrilling, devil-may-care fecklessness. I sat back for the next half an hour or so, reluctant to raise the ante even if I had three aces. Kaleb emerged as the eventual winner, cleaning up no less than six pounds (click here)! I finished with a late surge, thanks to a long-overdue full house, and ended up only a pound or so down. A small price to pay for an evening so jam-packed with excitement.

Running out of things to do with my days, I phoned Greg once more to check on his progress. He confessed he was only marginally closer to winding up his business wranglings, but maintained that he remained genuinely and considerably keen to rejoin me as soon as possible. Yet the soonest reunion we could hope for was still several weeks away. Needless to say, I couldn't wait any longer. It was time to repack my backpack and continue my wanderings. Next stop: Baltimore Maryland, in the good ol' USA. My very good friends from Australia, Tim and Charmers, and their new son Connor, were living there for a while, and had graciously agreed to let a big, smelly backpacker sleep on their couch for a few days. Perfect. It would be nice to be among friends again.

London wasn't going to let me go without a fight, though. Yesterday I stepped out of the hostel to find a city transformed by the simple addition of some sunshine. A warm, cloudless day lay before me, and people were getting about in T-shirts! In March? Unheard of! Succumbing to the pull of the unseasonable weather, I decided to grab my digital camera and actually go and have a look at London. It may sound weird, but I'd been in London for eight weeks without doing the tourist thing once. Even more weird: I realised that even after having lived in London for a year and a half (on and off), I still didn't have a "My City of Sydney" photo of London. All that was about to change.

After getting 50 yards down the street before realising that, incredibly, I needed my sunglasses, I set out a second time, and caught the Tube to Westminster. What better place to start? I came out of the Tube station, and there it all was before me - Big Ben looking imposing, magnificent and brand new (click here), the Thames looking almost blue (click here), the cathedral, the houses of parliament - what more could one man and a camera want? And the people! I've never seen London so alive. Wandering around, surrounded by people wearing brightly coloured clothes, it finally struck home to me what a tourist destination London really is. It may not be the most gorgeous city in the world (that honour happily lies with Sydney), but it has a certain romantic appeal that makes it the indisputable crossroads of the world. Just consider: more airlines fly into Heathrow than into any other airport in the world (and let's not forget that London has four other international airports: Gatwick, Luton, Stanstead and London City).

I walked up Whitehall past Downing Street on one side and the aforementioned raft of Kosovo protesters on the other, traversed Trafalgar Square and crossed Charing Cross before ending up, of course, in Covent Garden Market. Where else does one go on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon? (Alright, besides Hyde Park, Camden Locks, Kensington High Street, Buckingham Palace, Wimbledon Common and Speakers' Corner.) As you would expect, the place was alive with a good selection of buskers competing for a share of the throng of meandering shoppers and tourists (click here), and providing me with ample photo opportunities (click here and here). A few local girls obligingly posed for my camera (click here)

Oh, and I finally got my "My City of Sydney" shot of London (click here).

Which brings us to this morning. I felt a little funny to be hoisting my backpack once more after so long a break, but at least it didn't leave me staggering under the weight - you see, last week I'd mailed home 10kg of stuff I no longer felt I wanted to carry (my sleeping bag, SLR camera, Therm-a-Rest, miscellaneous books and clothes, and the larger of my two daypacks). It cost me all of £55 (A$145), but if it means that for the next six months I only have to carry half the weight that I was, then it'll be worth it.

I said a couple of brief goodbyes (I truly hate goodbyes) and wandered off to Earl's Court Tube station for what was to be my last Tube ride for some time. I'd grown quite fond of the Tube, with its unparalleled frequency of service and its sheer comprehensiveness. I always love it how you can go up to any Underground employee and ask for directions to probably anywhere in south-east England and get an answer like, "Certainly. If you take the 10:14 District Line from platform three to Euston, then change to the Northern Line southbound on platform two to Waterloo, you'll just be able to catch the 11:01 British Rail to Woking via Clapham Junction." Another endearing recollection is how every commuter in a packed rush-hour carriage manages to fix their eyes on a different spot in the middle-distance, thus maintaining complete isolation from the eighty or so bodies that are crushed up against them. I must say, it's extra fun with a backpack.

As I gaze out of my window now, I notice that we're already over the United States. And I don't need the pilot to tell me to know that - the web of interstate highways criss-crossing the countryside below me, with their gorgeous clover-leaf interchanges, are a dead giveaway. We land in ten minutes.

Whenever I spend any serious time in the UK, it ends up getting me down a little. Apart from the dreary weather, the British public are so restrained, one might almost say repressed. Don't get me wrong, I love the English, they're so civilised, so decent, but walking the streets of London, surrounded on all sides by people wearing drab greys and browns, I always feel like grabbing them by the shoulders and shaking them, shouting "for God's sake, get some life into you!" They make me long for Americans, with their irrepressible, almost manic individuality and their willingness to tell you whatever they're thinking. And yet, I know from experience that after spending any time in the States I always end up being a bit overwhelmed by the crassness of most of America, by it's breakneck pace and unadulterated consumerism, and end up longing for the grace and subtlety of lovely old England. I'm difficult to please, I suppose. Maybe I've just been spoiled by living in Australia, with its happy balance of decency, beauty and fun.

That's it - we're down. Theoretically, Tim should be waiting inside the airport for me, ready to whisk me off to his little Baltimore apartment. Time for a new adventure....

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