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First Impressions of London

Johanna Roughley

Now that I have worked out what the words “alright” and “bless” mean in passing conversation and what the appropriate response is, I have taken one step closer to submersing myself in London culture.

For your information, “alright” is the shortened form of the question “Are you all right?” and I found the best way to respond is by saying “Yeah, you?”. “Bless” can be used as a colloquialism or as a short form of its usual meaning. For instance if someone is acting strangely an onlooker might comment “bless” in reference to him to show exactly what they think of his actions, whereas if someone else performs a random act of kindness, “bless” would also apply but meaning “bless him”.

My first week in London was a blur of hostels with bad beds, job applications, job interviews and meals out of Styrofoam bowls. It was late autumn and the job market was not looking promising after an economic decline from the country’s Foot and Mouth outbreak. A fast approaching winter didn’t help my cause either, but I soldiered on and had found a full time job within three weeks. I became very imaginative with foods that would be good accompaniments to reconstituted noodles as I only had a kettle in my hostel room and my Australian dollars had been hit hard with the English exchange rate.

None of this mattered though when I saw the things I had always associated with London - the red double-decker buses, black cabs, blue police (Dr Who) boxes and the Thames. The bitterly cold wind and rain that howled around me on the day I walked over the famous river somehow seemed right in that setting. I crossed the Thames at the Waterloo Bridge and craned my neck around the curve for a glimpse of Big Ben.

My first weekend in London comprised an essential visit to the Portobello Road markets at Notting Hill. I wandered slowly along the street taking in the sights and smells of the antique, craft and food stalls stopping every so often for a closer look. I vowed to come back once I had more money, as it was a great way to lose a few hours present hunting – or just window shopping.

From Notting Hill I strolled along the canals of Little Venice, amazed to see the water threading its way right through the city on my A-Z (an essential guide for London’s newcomers). House boats overflowing with gardens and ornaments and painted in clashing colors dotted the canal and I couldn’t help but think it would be a pretty good place to live – if the neighbors get too much you just pick up anchor and leave. What weekend wouldn’t be complete without a lazy afternoon at a pub? The pub in question was packed to the rafters with a half and half mix of British and Australians from Fulham, congregated to watch the rugby union match between the two countries. I was confident of Australia’s chances but that soon drained as the Brit’s rendition of “Who’s Your Sovereign” became more slurred and the English score rose.

After a few weeks of being a hostel hermit I decided I hadn’t been enough of a tourist so I set out to see the sites, starting at St Paul’s Cathedral in the middle of the city. The beautiful and imposing structure was home to hundreds of pigeons begging food from the many office workers who had come to the cathedral in their lunch break for some peace. My sightseeing tour also included a stroll past the Old Bailey where I saw a clutch of journalists and photographers waiting expectantly for someone to leave the court.

Covent Garden’s Piazza was buzzing with craft stalls ringed by exclusive and expensive shops and Soho had an eclectic mix of visitors coming for the theatres and gay scene alike, but what caught my eye from afar was Harrods at Knightsbridge lit up for Christmas. The building, which spans an entire block, was covered from roof to road in lights fashioned into Christmas themes and the window decorations were just as spectacular. When I went into the renowned department store I couldn’t help but feel self-conscious in my cargo pants and polar fleece jumper when the doorman was better dressed than I was. I decided to through caution to the wind and spent several hours wandering all floors of the store finding everything anybody could want to buy from Bengal kittens to color coordinated kitchen appliances and Tiffany’s jewelry.

I also took advantage of the government’s generous gift of free admission to museums and galleries spending days in the Tate Britain, National Gallery, British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum and the Natural History Museum until I felt like I’d soaked up enough ancient culture to last me a few years. No visit to London would be complete without running through the horde of pigeons Trafalgar Square like a five year old, retracing the Monopoly board favorites like Piccadilly Square and Liverpool Street Station, or peering through the gates at Buckingham Palace.

Some of my favorite memories though will be feeding cheeky squirrels in St James Park, watching the sports on Saturday afternoon in Regent’s Park and kicking up autumn leaves while walking along the edge of the Thames. My first Christmas in London wasn’t technically a White Christmas but I thought it was cold enough and the thick frost that covered everything certainly felt like snow when it crunched underfoot. As I was in a cold climate I decided to prepare the traditional English Christmas feast - roast turkey and pork with stuffing, cranberry sauce, apple sauce, gravy and a plum pudding - as an alternative to my usual prawns, ham and salad. For New Year’s Eve I joined thousands of fellow travelers and residents alike at Westminster for Big Ben’s chimes at midnight but I couldn’t hear it over the crowd. I had to settle for the bells of Westminster Abbey instead.

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About the Author:

Johanna Roughley is a Sydney-based journalist. She has worked at several community newspapers as well a newspaper association magazine as a journalist and marketer. Besides travel, her interests include reading, films, surfing the Internet and walking along coast where she lives. Johanna has a Bachelor of Arts (Communication Studies) from the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia with a major in journalism.



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