Guns and Frocks

Loving Delta and the Bannermen since 1987

Crocodile Dundee and the Stingray

Sunday, 24 February 2008

I have already suggested that this trip was not very carefully planned. Some people like to keep a completely open mind, making decisions at the spur of the moment, suddenly abandoning their plans and heading off in a completely new direction. I am not one of those people. I just find that planning ahead makes me tired or thirsty or angry, and I like to put it off as much as possible. That’s why I bought a Eurail pass. That way, I could leave Sydney with no more than a four-day hotel booking in London and absolutely no idea what to do after that. I didn’t have to consider the weeks and weeks I’d be away from the couch, travelling, booking hotels, finding food and interacting with scary new people.

I spent the night being woken by the happy singing of binge-drinking English children. This morning, I walked the streets saying goodbye to Amsterdam and chatting with some of the city’s more colourful drug dealers. One of them offered me his condolences on the loss of Steve Irwin, whom he referred to as “Crocodile Dundee”. He wasn’t going to sell me cocaine, apparently, but he was willing to give me some in exchange for some money. Sadly, I’d left my wallet in the hotel.

And now I’m on my first train: Amsterdam Centraal to the Gare du Nord in Paris. It’s a lot like a plane, but with less fear and more legroom. They’re even about to serve us lunch.

I arrive in Paris at 4.30 pm. My hotel is not far from the station, but I’ve forgotten to download the map from Google Maps. (Can you do that? I suppose you can.) So if I can’t find a wi-fi equipped cafe near the station, I could be in trouble. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Het weekend

Friday, 22 February 2008

Yesterday I decided to stop killing time in pubs and wandering the streets, and to do some proper sightseeing.

The Rijksmuseum is still closed, just like last time I was here. That’s a blessing really. It’s a huge building, full of rooms and rooms of Delft porcelain: mazelike and impossible to comprehend. But they’ve shifted the main bits of the collection into a side building, twelve rooms with a sensible number of artifacts, including some Vermeers and Rembrandts. The Night Watch is in the last room. But my favourite thing is the rear of a ship that the Dutch captured when they raided a naval base at Chatham in 1667.

Then the Van Gogh museum. Most of his paintings are here. They’re beautiful, but the exhibition is rather sad. His paintings become a bit scary towards the end. Upstairs there’s an exhibition of envelopes and menus scrawled on by the artist.

Then back to my quiet wifi-equipped cafe to upload some photos. It was Friday afternoon, and the cafe was full of drunken Mancunians singing Sweet Caroline (da-da-da!). Over here for the weekend, of course. And this morning, the streets are full of groups of young men, quieter and more dehydrated than they were last night, but no doubt up for a huge Saturday night tonight.

As for me, I’m taking it easy today. I’m travelling to Paris by train tomorrow, and that’s when the heavy-duty tourism begins. I’m gonna need my strength.

“Want some charlie, mate?”

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Looking out of the window at a bridge across a canal. There are many bikes leaning against the railings of the bridge. It's cold: people are walking around in coats and hats and the trees have lost their leaves. Lining the canal are tall and narrow Dutch houses.

Had a great night last night. Went straight to the Leidseplein to check out all my old haunts. Instantly felt at home. It’s great to be able to walk around a foreign city, confident that you won’t get lost, and familiar with good places to eat and drink. In keeping with Amsterdam’s reputation as a party town, I was in bed before nine last night. Feeling terrifically well rested now.

I’m staying in a hotel not far from Centraal Station, near Dam Square. I haven’t spent much time here before. The area by the Leidseplein is genteel by comparison. There are lots more tourists here, and many more of the tourist-oriented businesses Amsterdam is famous for. There are sex workers in the window just around the corner. And I’ve been offered drugs on the street about five or six times, once as I was actually walking in the hotel door.

It all sounds a bit seedy, I guess, but I can’t tell you how happy I was the moment I arrived. I’ve got lots of good memories of Amsterdam (most of which I intend to keep to myself), and I’m really looking forward to spending a couple of days here.


Thursday, 21 February 2008

The blurry corner of a building, covered in graffiti, with red lit windows on each wall.

This is my third time in Amsterdam. The first time was on my first trip to Europe, with Rob. Within an hour, we had both decided to stay there for a week. The second time we went, we stayed for two weeks. We had many adventures, but my favourite part was just staying for a long time in a beautiful, alien, old-world city. Shopping, eating, drinking, browsing in bookshops, doing laundry. We did touristy things as well: going to the zoo, cycling in a snowy park, touring the canals, admiring the architecture, visiting museums.

But in those three weeks, I barely noticed the red light district. I remember wandering down a canal once and seeing a few sex workers in windows, but it was daytime and we were just on our way somewhere.

So. I went for a couple of walks last night around my hotel. The first time was to look for somewhere to eat. The second time was to sober up a little before interacting with the hotel reception guy, who keeps your room key behind the desk while you’re out. (What’s with that?) And on my walks, I discovered that my hotel is right in the middle of the red light district.

I’d already seen the women around the corner, just next to the oldest parish church in Amsterdam. There’s a photo. But last night, I walked through many narrow, narrow alleys with dozens of windows on each side. Around them are red fluorescent lights, and inside are ultraviolet lights, which create a shimmery purple glow on the women’s underwear and on their white PVC nurse’s uniforms.

Well, of course, for a gay man brought up in a leafy suburb, this is all very embarrassing. Every time I make eye contact, I’m invited in to join them. And I’m painfully aware how rude it is to pointedly ignore people.

So today I’ve decided to browse some bookshops, do some laundry, and visit a few museums. Just to calm myself down a bit. And after that, maybe somewhere local for dinner.

White wine

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

So my flight to Amsterdam was cancelled. After queuing for about three months at the BMI ticket sales counter, I was allocated a seat on a flight an hour and a half later. Not to worry, I thought: Calvin to the rescue. I’ll just swan around in the BA lounge for a while, using the diamond (diamond!) club membership he so thoughtfully organised.

No luck though. I’m in Terminal 1, and the Cathay Pacific lounge is in Terminal 3. The nice lady refuses to let me into the British Airways lounge because I’m flying BMI. That makes me insufficiently patrician, I think.

So here I am surrounded by commoners, reading the Guardian and waiting for my flight to be called. The gate opens 5 minutes before the flight is due to leave, so I don’t expect to be leaving on time.


Wednesday, 20 February 2008

I’m finally here, three hours late, but I’ll be buggered if I’m gonna hang around in my hotel room blogging. I’m off down the canals to the Leidseplein for a beer. I’ll catch you all later!

Last day in London

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Looking along a London street with beautiful old buildings each side. Near us, on the right hand side and in shadow, is an awning marking the entrance to Harvey Nichols.

Glamorous morning yesterday. Ange dropped Joseph and the kids off at school, and the two of us headed into town. First stop: floor five at Harvey Nichols. Ludicrously expensive muffins and coffee, surrounded by women in scary makeup and black leather pants. (This cost us £22: if I’m sleeping in the streets of Sorrento in a fortnight, you’ll know why.) Then where else but Harrod’s, where we found a scarily realistic waxwork of the owner benignly but insanely overseeing his customers, while the man himself was busily accusing everyone in the Western world of complicity in Diana’s death. Looked at lipstick and ties for a bit before heading off to the food court for lunch. Fabulous!

But it wasn’t all high culture. Ange escorted me to the Victoria and Albert Museum. It’s extraordinary. I can only compare it to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (of which more later), in that it consists of room after room of baffling objects from all over the world and all throughout history. I spent some time looking at neolithic Chinese burial artefacts, before wandering desultorily through the rest of the museum. The highlights included some huge tapestry patterns by Raphael and corridors of wrought iron railings. I was about to give up when I came upon an extraordinary room.

Apparently the Victorians loved doing plaster casts of churches and statues and monuments. One room in the V & A contains giant casts of Trajan’s Column, as well as dozens of Christian artefacts, including the huge main doorway of the church at Santiago de Compostela. The adjoining room has a huge plaster statue of David. Impressive and curiously kitsch at the same time!

I gave the Science Museum a try, but apart from Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, nothing really grabbed me, so I headed off to the Natural History Museum in search of dinosaurs. Entering by the side door, I mistakenly thought that the entire museum was obsessed with geology. I was about to leave disappointed (sorry, Sara), when I found a wall covered in dozens of fossil ichthyosaurs, and then the museum’s entry hall with its massive Diplodocus skeleton.

Had a quick pint in Charing Cross Road before meeting Sarah in Soho. We had a delicious dinner of tapas, walked across Waterloo Bridge, more pints, and then off home to Gary’s place. A great night. I must try and see Sarah more often. If that means coming to London more frequently, well I guess that’s what I’ll have to do.

Today was altogether quieter. Wandered around Dulwich with Ange and her friend Rachel. A delicious pub lunch, my last pints of English bitter for the foreseeable future (tomorrow, Heineken), and now home, blogging and preparing for my plane to Amsterdam tomorrow morning.

A whiff of Joan Collins

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Off to Harrod’s and Harvey Nicks today. Fabulous!

I’ve still had very little time to blog. Another brief summary. Saturday: the Old Naval College, lunch courtesy of M & S, the Maritime Museum, Greenwich Observatory. Dinner and clubbing with Peter. Sunday: Hyde Park, South Kensington, Chinatown. Two episodes of Torchwood.

Leaving Wednesday morning for Amsterdam. Thinking of France after that. I’ll have time to write more when everything settles down.

In short

Friday, 15 February 2008

Well, I was away from my computer on Thursday, and we got home quite late last night, so this is my first entry for a couple of days. So what have I been up to?

Very briefly. Thursday: breakfast out, quick visit to Dulwich College, British Museum, dinner and drinks with Peter. Friday: trip to Oxford, lovely lunch with Joseph’s parents and sister, quick walk around town, back home for an hour of crap British TV.

Not a very detailed or evocative post, I know. I promise to revisit all this in more detail in a couple of days. (Remind me to tell you the story about the Bassae sculptures.) Heading off to Greenwich today, and out tonight with Peter and Sarah. There will be dancing, apparently.

Until next time, enjoy this photo of snowdrops near the river in Oxford. I’ll write again soon.

In the foreground, clumps of tiny white flowers beside a brown road. Behind them trees, and then grassy lawns, and then some brown brick buildings in the distance.


Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Another relaxing day. I packed up my stuff and said farewell to my tiny hotel room before heading out for more sightseeing. I thought I would go to some of the cut-price ticket booths in Leicester Square. I’m thinking maybe Wicked, which Philip recommended and which Calvin saw in Chicago. Although I did notice that Penelope Keith is playing Lady Bracknell. Again, apparently.

Anyway. the train stopped at St James’s Park Station, and I suddenly felt like a walk. The first time I ever came to London, St James’s Park was covered in snow or ice or something, and it was horribly, horribly cold. So today I had the opportunity to wander about in the sun and have a proper look at it.

It’s beautiful.

After my first brief walk, I spotted a crowd around Buckingham Palace. I joined them for a bit, but nothing particularly fascinating seemed to be happening, so I went back into the park. But not before I saw this:

Two uniformed men standing in front of an old building. They are wearing white hats, long coats and white belts are holding a sheep on leashes.
The Queen's sheep?

These lovely guards saw me trying to take a photo through the fence, and graciously moved so that I could get an unobstructed view. But can anyone explain to me why they were guarding a sheep? Is it the Queen’s? And if so, why?

Went over to Angela’s in the afternoon. Hung out, watched some telly, had dinner. And now everyone’s in bed, and I’m on a comfy sofa by the fire.  So relaxed that I can’t even get worked up about the inconsistent apostrophes in the signage at St James’s Park tube station.

(Not even the Queen gets it right. A sign by the gate at Buckingham Palace describes the Royal Mews as “one of the worlds [sic] finest working stables.”)