If you’d stumbled upon that title out of the blue you’ll be forgiven for thinking that I had abandoned die vaderland and stowed away on a ship bound for the distant shores of Europe with no looking back. As tempting as the thought of earning a living in the land of the 14-to-1-Pound is, deciding to venture there in mid February, just as a fresh new layer of frost is starting to settle on the old half-thawed slush, proved a good jolt back to reality. The grass isn’t always greener. In fact, sometimes its covered in a layer of white…
At this point it would be a fair question to ask who in their right mind goes to London in mid Feb when all the tourists are flocking to sunny Cape Town. Even the geese have it right – fly south for the summer. How could I possibly get it so wrong.
My long suffering parents will gladly bear testimony to the fact that I seldom accept responsibility for my actions and this time is no different – I have my brother Kit’s dismally-timed birthday to thank for this one, and this year his 40th proved the occasion to get together and catch up again. The entire escapade was conjured up by his loving wife Judie who thought it would be the perfect birthday present to keep the family hunkered down shivering uncontrollably in the UK while blowing the entire family-holiday-in-the-Seychelles-fund on getting the sun-overdosed-kid out from Cape Town for a two week stay. Makes perfect sense if you ask me.
The sentiment was wonderful and the closest Kit got to sniffing those tropical white beaches was peeking over Judie’s shoulder one day and seeing her on the British Airways website. Booking the family holiday, of course. Next thing it was a Saturday morning and the doorbell rang with “a parcel he had to sign for” and yours truly, hereafter known as “the frozen child” thanks to completely underestimating the weather and arriving in sub-zero London in jeans and a t-shirt after leaving under a blazing African sun, jumped out the bushes to greet him. From the look on his face the joy did last at least 2 seconds before the reality of the Mediterranean cruise, or the lack thereof in the foreseeable future, started sinking in but I like to take comfort that in those fleeting moments, he was happy, I was cold, and we were reconnected like it was yesterday. Thankfully compassion took over and I was invited inside without further delay.
The next two weeks proved an interesting experience of soaking up as much of London culture as possible, “soaking” being the operative word. To be fair to the Mud-Islanders, I do recall a few hours in the time I was there when the sun did actually come out and with it most of London, to stare at the unusual phenomenon in the sky, then to desperately try to lap it up before the grey clouds loomed back in. The rest of the time it was either raining, sleeting, snowing, or just plain bloody freezing, somewhere between 1C and -7. And a visit to the Ice Bar on the first night in London was as good as being thrown straight into the deep end. After cutting a hole in the ice of course. Insult to injury, salt in the wound, an African boy in a fridge in London… all one and the same really.
London is a truly fascinating place but if there’s one thing I truly try to avoid wherever I go its looking like a tourist. Its obvious that this approach clearly didn’t get off to a good start with the poorly planned dress code on arrival at Heathrow but I wisened up quickly and started immersing myself in every layer I could find. But even the most hardened African can only take so much before succumbing to the surroundings, and, excruciatingly, I had to go and invest in more layers. (My 14 to 1 Rand-to-Pound comment earlier refers). The moment of glory came towards the end of my stay when I had perfected that Londoner look so well (essentially dressing in the darkest, most depressing outfit you have available, i.e. black) that a tourist come up to me asking for directions. I knew then I had done well and outperformed all expectations.
I experienced all the sights and sounds of London from sun up to sun down, from catching the crowded trains in to the city centre with Kit during his work week, and ambling the high streets and back alleys, acting like James Bond outside the MI6 building, moseying into galleries and coming face to face with walls lined with Van Goghs and Monets and Cezannes that left the frozen child staring in absolute wonder. It really was like being a kid again. Outside the sleet and snow continued to drift down lazily, providing a beautiful floating white respite from the otherwise cold greyness that is London’s infamous legacy. It never settled into anything worthy of building snowmen but somewhere on a run across Wimbledon common we did get sidetracked from Womble hunting for a brief snowball fight.
But the real excitement of the trip came by two wheels. My trusty bike travelled the daunting long houred flights and proved a good travel companion, being dragged over hill and down dale, through the British country side and quiet country village lanes, through London rush hour traffic at 5pm, through those fleeting moments of sun, and mostly through snow. The two highlights of the trip were heading east to the coastal village of Whitstable where we traced the trails around Canterbury, Sandwich (where ironically we where starving come late afternoon and couldn’t find the beloved things and had to settle for stale rolls instead) , Margate, Ramsgate and back along the coast path well after nightfall… off the radar with no means of communication, and poor Judie wondering how wise it had in fact been to get the African child from across the oceans to come and live it up with her husband for 2 weeks.
And the last ride of the trip – from London to Brighton with the ambitious plans to ride back the next day. There is no short way of telling this story, suffice to say Kit was at work that day and would catch the train down that night to meet up in Brighton. In our brilliant planning, he had all our puncture repair kit on his bike back in London at pretty much the same time as I was pushing my bike for 10kms through the snow, with a puncture. A long day out and few lessons learned along the way but I do believe I have since ridden many hundred kms through the Karoo on that same tyre, still held together with the super-glue picked up in a little Pakistan general dealer shop north of Gatwick, this along with a huge thanks to Phil in Merston who is in the beginning stages of setting up a community bike repair project and who opened his doors to help a complete stranger in need of some basic bike repair tools. And needless to say the pizzas in Brighton that night will go down as one of the undisputed highlights of the trip!
I’ll be the first to admit I was dreading the farewells at the airport the following day, and managed to only just scrape through the formalities without it falling apart, but I couldn’t help but smiling when I read this a short while after returning…
“Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes…for those who love with their heart and soul there is no separation.”
And if you’re curious, the title comes from this song, really sick tune that had my feet tapping on many occasions while walking alongside the Thames