London is big. It is actually smaller than Hong Kong but there are probably a thousand more things to do (we arrived at the time of the London Design Biennale). When I was in Sheffield, I had many opportunities to visit London but the idea of buying a last minute train ticket to the big capital only for a weekend didn’t excite me too much. Either I was unwilling to be part of the mainstream, or I knew I would have to visit London sometime in the future anyway. I was right about the latter, as a year later, I would be on the flight from Hong Kong to London Heathrow with my brother Jo because he was starting his degree. It was a perfect excuse for me to travel and meet some friends on the way.
Going with my brother sparked a lot of memories. We flew with the same airline, also took the airport train, then hopped on a taxi constantly fearing that the driver would miss our destination and we would get lost. We were checking in with an awkward face at the student residence counter, moving in a student room – small, but our own. And then being disappointed at the shower because of the hard water and weak water pressure. But Jo has a nice view from his room and his flatmates seemed nice. So it’s all swings and roundabouts.
Jo being an new international student and me his sister meant our week in London was more settling down, getting around and shopping than sightseeing. It was an interesting experience for me too, because I get to “live” London for a week instead of just visiting it. Being a Hong Konger, London feels very familiar in many ways. Public transport to start with – we also have double-decker buses and the Tube is just an older, bigger and more expensive version of the MTR and it was even cozy to hear the “mind the gap” announcement. At the Embankment station, it is a unique, vintage-sounding voice different from other stations because a lady once plead to keep it. She uses the station often and was devastated when the Transport of London replaced her late husband, Oswald Laurence’s voice with a digital broadcasting system. I imagine that to many British people, his voice is their collective memory too.
Considering how I accompanied Jo to settle down, and recalling a comment from my new friend Ieva, a Lithuanian student in London, that I looked like I had been there even I was just a complete foreigner, maybe I could share how I tried not to look like a tourist in London using my Hongkonger habits and some common sense … :
1. Walk/ bike/ jog everywhere because the Tube is really expensive
After checking in Jo’s accommodation, we took a 40-min walk to his campus even though a tube station is just 5 minutes away. On the way we saw people walking or biking and in the evening people jogged from office back home. Walking around London is easy because the roads are not as narrow as in Hong Kong and direction signs are everywhere. Of course, London’s bridges are very convenient as well. Speaking of the Tube, we did use it if Google Maps said walking distance would be over 30 mins and the weather is shit. Its price was quite a pain – something like £2.2 for a trip within Zone 1. In Hong Kong you could get a taxi with that money from one station to another, or even the next next station. I know some people complain about its old condition but it didn’t bother me too much because I like old things. The only tiny problems I had were the dirty fabric seat covers and the very long walks from the train to the exit in some stations.
2. Appreciate the good weather but don’t moan about the rain because only real Londoners can do that
From Jo’s accommodation to campus it was 40 mins but we walked because that day was the UK’s hottest in a while. The sun was out but it was not too warm because it was dry. We were really happy to be able to walk around in t-shirts and shorts so we didn’t mind the walking although we barely walk in Hong Kong. The joy lasted for 2 days and the rest of the week was rainy and grey and cold … but that’s ok, we expected that and I brought my jacket …
3. Make reservations and don’t be late
When I am being a tourist, I wake up whenever I want and walk around the city aimlessly. If I am hungry, I just look around and find the least shit-looking, best-value food I can. If I stay in a hostel where I have more freedom, I get some cook-free food from the supermarket and survive on it.
However this is not very time-efficient and I just look like a poor student tourist trying to be hip (“understanding local people life”). Since we arrived in the multicultural, diverse, global London, I decided to step up my food game and made a reservation at Hawksmoor Seven Dials in Covent Garden for our first dinner to celebrate a safe landing and UK’s hottest day in 50 years. We were so on time. It’s fantastic. We had to walk around the district before entering because we were too on time, but it was boring. Sad. There are too many fancy stuff for us young adults. Not good. But when we entered, no one gave us looks and smiled at us and led us to our table. I felt valued.
The dining experience was great. We were led to a quiet spot and our waitress was super nice. It might not be the best date location because the interior is really open and when it is busy, it may be a bit noisy. Luckily we speak another language than English so no matter how loud we get, we won’t get caught cussing at the restaurant’s quality of food. As a matter of fact, we did not even do that because the food was amazing. It came in portions slightly bigger for an Asian stomach but one could never get tired of it. The steak was prepared perfectly and the seasoning was just right. We did not even order sides or sauces because (
I am cheap) I wanted to taste the steak as it was. It wasn’t dry at all and it was so juicy once you cut through the crispy skin. It was just a very, very fulfilling meal.
Yeah I know I went a bit off-topic there, but there are many perks of making a reservation, whether it’s a restaurant, a visit or a restaurant. First, it makes people (and yourself) think that you are an adult because you seem like you know what you are doing. Second, you will actually have something to do and won’t waste the thousands of dollars you saved up for that plane ticket. Third, I guess it makes me look less like a cheap student tourist ? (Although tourists can also research online and book in advance … I don’t really know. I am not qualified in giving advice.)
4. Don’t make reservations and just decide on the spot
One of the things I did in London was meeting up with my lovely friend Auksė, who bought a ticket and took days off her uni last minute because she loved and missed me so much. She introduced to me her friend Ieva who is studying in London so we 4 young people met up for dinner. We found really nice home-style restaurants in Soho (which is again, like the Soho in Hong Kong) so we walked in an Indian and an Italian place. The other night we checked out a Korean restaurant for some comforting soup after some Tom and Jerry hide and seek because I was actually confused with the Tube system. One day we met up in a tea place called Yum Cha (“drink tea” in Cantonese so I couldn’t help but visited it) and one day we found a pretty cool coffee shop (not in Shoreditch). London is just a wonderful city with so many dining options. Not making a reservation and just decide on the spot gives you a feeling that you are enjoying a casual night hanging out with some young friends, have some nice food and pleasant conversations. We definitely enjoyed walking around Piccadilly Circus in the evening too !
5. Start any sentence with “Sorry”
It’s ok to ask for directions but start with “sorry, could you …”. It’s ok to be physically “rude” and squeeze other people out of the busy Tube train when you reached your station but say “sorry… sorry… sorry !”. It’s ok when your stupid head couldn’t find the product in the right aisle and the shop assistant is paid to help you but start with “sorry …” when you ask them. You get it, unless you are really sorry, in which case you are supposed to say “Oh my god I am so sorry !”, start any sentence when talking to a stranger with, “Sorry”.
6. And end with “Please”.
Even if you are at the one paying at the counter buying things.
7. Stand on the right side of the escalator if you are not walking
Before you even step on an escalator (there are plenty in the Tube), decide whether you are in a rush. If you are not, stand on the right side. If you are, walk on the left side. Don’t stand on the left side because you will block people behind you who want to walk. But most importantly, don’t walk on the right side because you are going to push people over !
8. If there is a queue, join the queue
Except the one on Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross. Only tourists queue on Platform 9 3/4, real Londoners and Hogwarts people just run towards it !
9. And enjoy yourself !
Because apparently if you haven’t been to London, you haven’t been to the UK. Later in life whenever you meet a Brit, you will try to relate. Isn’t every Brit supposed to say that they are from London, or not far from London, or they have lived in London for a short while in their lives, or at least they have been to London ?
No but seriously, London is great. I might be a hippie trying to avoid the cliche, but in the case of London, I am happy to be the cliche.
P.S. Things I did (and loved) in London
- Meeting with Auksė in cheeky Nandos and a Canto-named tea place
- Shopping for Hogwarts supplies at King’s Cross
- Choosing the most sarcastic greeting card at Paperchase
- Enjoying some soup in a cold night with Auksė and new friend Ieva
- Visiting an exhibition (in this case the London Design Biennale)
- Walking on the many bridges of London
- Trying to shop at Argos with an iPad and have someone pack my stuff for me
- Reconnecting with all my “English” memories I made from Sheffield