Travel is glamorous. That is the assumption made by those who do not travel much. But there is nothing burnished or elegant about travel when you are always on the road. It is only when you stop moving for long enough to tell people what you do that it appears so. It is an illusion. We are on our way to London, which is glamorous to anyone who has spent less than a week there, sitting on an overnight bus from Brno to Prague. It’s a journey that will take us through Linz in Austria.
We are very tired. We have been on the move for two months. Now, each time we must return to where we began. Like a machine of perpetual motion we are moving back and forth. To Sri Lanka and to Brno, to Stockholm and to Brno, to Budapest and to Brno, to London. Sem a tam. Back and forth. When you are tired you make mistakes.
As we boarded our bus, our conductor didn’t have a record of our ticket number but we talked our way on. We had shown her our ticket and the seats we had booked were empty. We all thought there must have been some clerical error. But it’s worth checking these things out so while Anička plugs herself into the screen in front of her, I pull out my phone. Our bus to Prague is booked for tomorrow night. Our connection to Linz is booked for tomorrow night. Our flight from Linz is tomorrow morning.
The problem is not insurmountable. By the time we arrive in Prague, Anička has worked out that it possible to get another bus to Vienna, through Brno. And we won’t be able to find out how to reach Linz from Vienna until we arrive at the train station, so odd is the Austrian train network. There is no straight shot to Linz airport as we had planned. In the end, we arrive on time for our flight. It’s close, but we make it.
Finally, we arrive at Chris’s flat in Angel. A good friend from Donaghadee, he has kindly prepared us a bed. Unfortunately, Anička wasn’t able to sleep on the plane and immediately climbs under the sheets. I only have time for a swift pint and a catch-up in his local, and then I have to be at work. There is no rest for the wicked.
Originally, I was to have been in a meeting on Friday morning to discuss future work. Now this has been moved to Skype next week. Almost everything is not quite working out, but it means that we have the whole weekend until Sunday. We bring our plans forward and catch a tube south of the river to my old stomping ground.
In order to satisfy Anička’s need to see animals we’ve decided to go to Vauxhall City Farm, rather than paying a huge amount for London Zoo. The farm was built in 1976 so that inner city children, who may never have a chance to visit the countryside, can see farm animals, and a little, sanitised bit of where their food comes from. The llamas are Anička’s favourite, along with the chickens and ducks, sheep and goats, guinea pigs and chinchillas. Each one receives a little bit of her attention and a treat if there’s one to hand.
Then we walk up to Brixton Market for some lunch. It’s a longer walk than I remembered, and then we’ve got the whole market to choose from. Caribbean food? Fajitas? Brazilian? Pizza? Champagne + Fromage is immediately disregarded (it caused a huge protest when it opened) and we have delicious dim sum and noodles.
Another hop along the tube and we’re back in Vauxhall. This time we walk north and turn right at the SIS building on the Thames to walk along the South Bank. I’m pointing out landmarks on the way: “Did you know that the Real IRA launched a rocket at that after it appeared in one of the James Bond films?” “A helicopter crashed into that skyscraper.” “Some stupid protester threw a fire extinguisher off the top of Millbank Tower there. All the others started chanting: ‘Stop throwing shit,’ back at him.” For some reason this is the information that squats in my brain.
We pass Lambeth Palace and St. Thomas’ Hospital, and cross the Thames by Westminster Bridge to the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben. (Big Ben is, of course, the name of the bell and not the tower.)
On the South Bank we had been among tourists and people walking their dogs. In Parliament Square we are surrounded by tourists, sharp suits and the odd cameraman trying to get their shot. Crossing the river at this point is one of the most drastic changes in London culture. But had we walked any further along the South Bank it would have been impossible to move for tourists.
We stop for a break and look across at the London Eye, then walk up to the Strand. The sight of Somerset House attracts Anička’s attention far more than any of my violent vignettes. London Fashion Week is held here with its Cara Delevingnes and Anna Wintours. But not at this time of the year and so we walk past.
Yesterday, while we killed some time before meeting Chris, I introduced Anička to a stationers called Paperchase. She tried to buy everything they had in stock because it was so cute. Today, as we walk back along the grandeur of The Strand towards Charing Cross she spots another and realises it’s a chain. We must visit. We leave with a pack of matryoshka doll highlighters.
The sun is beginning to disappear as we reach The Mall and stride towards Buckingham Palace. The Mall is now practically empty of tourists, although there are still hordes as we reach the palace. The standard is flying at full mast as I flip the vees and get a rebuke.
Victoria station is full of throngs of people getting out of the city for the weekend, back to Kent or Surrey or wherever they’re from. We catch another tube north. We have a barbecue to attend near Clerkenwell.
We arrive at Mark’s flat with a bottle of wine between the two of us, and Chris has brought some beer. It shall not be a night of heavy drinking, but I have mentioned that Anička would like to go to Camden. My friendship with Mark is in as rude health, and language, as ever and he still cooks a great barbecue. Even though he must begrudgingly cook a vegetarian option. In no time our wine has disappeared. Another is purchased, along with some tins of Polish beer. A bottle of whiskey appears. And so does Mark’s delightful new girlfriend, Alice.
We chat about everything from the state of the NHS to what happened in Game of Thrones as we quickly enter an altered state of consciousness. Soon enough, Anička is sipping on her first guinness in a pub by Camden Town tube while we try to make a decision about which club to go to. As always, we end up in the Camden Head to dance and drink and play.
It may shock some to read that I have given up on the demon drink. For the price of a cheap night out it’s possible to fly across Europe and alcohol does not often lead to the clear-headed thinking that some situations in foreign climes call for. Anička has never been a heavy drinker. We are both reeling from the night before as we struggle to pack our belongings.
Thankfully, we’re only moving a mile down the road to Mark’s flat, but we have already lost the whole morning. Coffee and pancakes are called for so we trudge back up to Angel to visit the Breakfast Club. When the waitress asks how we are she receives the reply: “Hungover.” She laughs and walks off to get our stack of winter fruit pancakes.
It appears that there has been a misunderstanding. When Anička told me that she would like to go to Camden, I thought it was odd that she planned mischief. When I passed on the plan to Chris and Mark, they both thought we meant to party. Over my tea, I learn that she only wanted to visit the market and see where James Bay tramps the streets. Next time we’re in London, I will be sure to clarify exactly what Anička wants when she decides to visit such a debauched part of town.
We’re so inefficient with our time that we decide to scratch all our plans for the day. Anička would like to go shopping in London’s seventh circle of hell. We catch the tube to Oxford Circus and slowly make our way through the crowds before a quick walk through the Natural History Museum. The we go back to Mark’s and doze through Tomorrowland.
It’s far too early in the morning as the train speeds towards Stansted. We still haven’t quite recovered, we’ve slept in and I’ve made a big mistake. I’ve checked in for the wrong flight and the online check-in is closed. We’re going to have forty-five minutes to get to the desk and then run to our flight.
It’s an impossible task. We can’t even get to the desk in time, let alone pay the fee and get through security. The flight takes off without us.
Back in Angel we sit in a well-known coffee shop and try and work out what to do. We need to back in Brno tomorrow for work and we’re running short on money. By chance we bumped into both Alice and Chris’s girlfriend, Rosie, on our walk up the City Road. We’ve learned that we have nowhere to spend the night. We book ourselves on the first flight from London to Brno, tomorrow morning, and finish our coffee before travelling to Luton for a night in the airport.
Morale is low. We’ve made too many mistakes, and the only explanation is that we are running ourselves into the ground. It just isn’t possible to go on a city break every weekend when you have to travel hundreds of kilometres for each super cheap flight. Every mistake is costing us increasing amounts of money – it’s leaving us short and tiring us out even more. We’re losing control.
Our return flights to Oslo next weekend cost, in total, twenty pounds. We decide to sit it out, rest and rethink.