In and Out of London

London’s the kind of city you can easily get to, and often get to if you’re a traveler. Its a major hub for flying around Europe or the world with its 5 international airports, but its funny how you forget to ever just go to London. Its a super touristy city, and I’ve done the London Eye and Big Ben and Buckingham stuff, but I never go to London to visit London – Im merely passing through with some time to fill between flights. Ive had proper 5 day layovers, but then I get stuck in the visiting friend mode, seeing Tom in Oxford or Kevin in the city or my cousins in the suburbs. And I’ve picked up a nice collection of London-dwelling friends over the years, some old class mates that now study there, Icelandic friends who work there, or random internationals who I’ve met on the road who also put their time in for grey days in London.

at the google office

at the google office

Ive been through London 5 or 6 times so far this year, most of them with overnight stopovers, and its always a struggle to decide what to do or where to go. The tube is huge, takes forever, and still costs alot with an oyster card, and London city never took my heart like Paris or New York have. But I really enjoyed my last 2 visits in March and April, since I managed to do and see some things I never had before.

Bjorn the scotsman

Bjorn the scotsman

I couchsurfed with my Kiwi friend Bjorn who I met in the Cook islands this Christmas, and he took me into the London google offices where he works. All meals, snacks, coffee, and even beer is free for him and his guests, and he gets to chose from a handful of Ikea inspired living rooms to work or relax in. I could read books and google my heart out a dozen floors above downtown London, with a view of the Gherkin outside the balcony. Then Bjorn introduced me to some Scottish countryside traditions – Ceilidh dancing. He had the kilt and all the trimmings, but I just wore a wig to be festive. I don’t think I’ve ever danced with so many people or in spun in so many circles in any other type of dance, but it was a sweaty, good ol’ time.

London's Natural History Museum

London’s Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum was exhibiting National Geographic’s wildlife photographer of the year, and me and two friends played a game where we had to guess which country each photo was taken. I can’t remember if I wont, but I definitely guessed all the Iceland ones right. Strangely enough there were lots of photos taken in the UK, and I’ve never really thought of London as a gateway to wildlife destinations, but I may have to change my mind. I hear they have one hell of a mounted fox hunt on boxing day in Essex, so I might need to find some shiny boots and chocolate port and plan my next visit to London.

 

The Republic of Ireland

 

 

The Royal Gardens at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, with the Wellington Monument in Phoenix Park in the far background

I spent a week in the ‘Irelands’, 4 days in Dublin and 3 days in Belfast, split between 3 couchsurf hosts and a handful of other local friends and couchsurfers. In Dublin, I stayed at a couchsurf house full of Irish students, and my host Griffin (what a perfect Irish name) had plenty of time to walk around with me. He worked some evenings at a Yoga studio and let me drop in on an advanced classs to partake in some well overdue detox and stretching. He showed me Phoenix park, and Kilmainham Gaol – a former prison which has played an incredibly important part in Irish history. We tried to go to the Irish Museum of Modern Art, just to discover no exhibits are open until 2013. He walked me through Trinity College campus, where I saw some of the most beautiful and oldest architecture in the whole city.

Kilmainham Gaol West Wing

We visited the famous Porterhouse, and sampled their large but weird array of beers. We had oyster stout, and some red ale that tasted like dirty gym socks. I forgot to sample the strawberry beer apparently so I´ll have to go back for that. I spent some time wandering around by myself, visiting the Guinness Store house and learning it takes 119.5 seconds to pour a perfect pint of that yummy stuff. I spent a day working on my phd proposal at the Art of Coffee cafe house, sipping on a never ending cup of tea on the edge of downtown Dublin.

Griffin´s roomate Hugh worked at Jameson Old Distillery, so I went with my next host Gary and couchsurf friend Marcin to learn about whiskey making and tasting. We tried whiskey ginger, whiskey sprite, whiskey cranberry, and irish coffee, and learned the difference between irish, scotch and bourbon whiskeys. I even got certified as an official whiskey taster, something I never thought or expected I’d achieve so easily.

 

Jameson certification

I met up with another couchsurfer named Flo who is what I’d call a German Gypsy recovering from extreme nomadicism. At 30, after years of hitchhiking from North America to Patagonia, he settled into a salaried job at Google, and invited me there for lunch to talk about it. Google Europe headquarters are in Dublin, and the 3 googly towers housing 3500 employees (mostly between the ages of 25-30) are full of mac computers, free food and drink, and quirky lounges to nurture creative thinking. I got given a badge and had immediate access to everything, and ate my belly full on what Flo claimed was the best food in Dublin.

119.5 seconds later

We had a lot of laughs to share after realizing our travel philosophies were much the same, but just at different stages in our lives. He had apparently gotten his position after being selected over 2,014 other applicants, and with a facial piercing and dreadlocks, you would maybe guess its the education and character he´s developed from seeing the world that overpowered to make him top choice. He said he got the job by accident, and its impossible to leave with the pay and luxuries he benefits, but after many months there, he´s getting the travel itch bad… ironically I sympathized with him in kind of the opposite way; I’m here trying to settle into a 3 year paid phd position so I can have the comforts and steadiness of a paycheck and a home, but in the back of my head I know I’ll probably be thinking the grass was greener on my side the way I have it now.