Now i am blissfully stretched out after the first 7 hours of consecutive sleep i've had all week.
My notes stopped on Thursday because the days got a bit more packed.
In response to the hangry vegans, the caterers sorted out lots of plant-based dishes for day two, and they were pretty good. The nice thing about rebranding vegan food as plant-based is that everyone eats it without complaint. This is how we win, muahahaha!
The coffee was still awful, so in the morning i took a walk down to the tube to get real coffee from an East European lady with an espresso machine in the boot of her kei car.
Thursday evening we had a work do, which was held at an events venue tailor-made for tech company hipsters. DJ. Mariachi band. Food trucks. Arcade games. Cocktails. Jugglers. Sort of like a rave crashed into a pleasure pier and everyone forgot to bring drugs and children. It was fine, for a work do. Some of my colleagues inadvertently made me feel incredibly cool when they gushed about how it was the best party they had ever been to in their lives, which... i mean...
It was the earliest i got home all week.
I had booked the later flight back to Hong Kong to allow for maximum wandering time on Friday. Unfortunately that plan was thwarted when we were told to be at the hotel parking lot by midday. Group the fuck travel. Fortunately due to the quaint ending time of the work do, i was up by daybreak and out the door to get another coffee from the espresso machine in the back of a kei car and a delicious vegan cheese toastie from Costa, a British coffee chain. Vegan cheese has come a long way. I could eat that toastie every morning. Yum.
When i was a child we visited London, and i am sure we saw all the sights, but only a few fragments have stuck in my mind. One was Battersea Power Station, which i spied from a bridge last year. Another was the Cutty Sark, an old sailing ship plonked in the middle of a square.
I walked along the Thames to get there, and it's a weird sight to behold, this new London. It's like there is a Vancouver fungus sprouting from the cracks of crumbling industrial lots. Vancouver is a very nice place, so that's theoretically a good thing. It's also an unaffordable place. I'll miss the grubby corners.
The Cutty Sark is different from when i saw it as a kid. There is a museum underneath it now and it's all covered in advertisements which have taken it from corny to tacky. I walked up a road i vaguely remember to the Royal Observatory, where you have to pay money to see the official 0° line. It was too early for the place to be open, but i met a few colleagues up there taking selfies by the gate. Apparently little groups of Chinese software developers were zooming all over the city. Money quote from the coach on the way back: "London is so small, we kept running into our coworkers!"
Instead of waiting for the gates to open, i decided to walk to a part of London i don't remember from my childhood, but i personally find to be one of the most iconic features of the city - the Thames Barrier. I mean, you gotta see the flood defences, right? Must be my Dutch heritage coming through.
The map led me down a single-lane road that was choked with cars and red buses belching out fumes. In Shenzhen cars are mostly relegated to arterial roads so on the smaller streets you can pretend that the only things around are electric mopeds and bikes. Despite the famous congestion charge, that is not the case in London. The city is rammed full of internal combustion vehicles and it's fucking disgusting. I cut down a residential side street to escape, and ended up in rows of identical terraced houses. Those are places i remember from my youth, when we went to see university friends of my parents, distant aunts and uncles who lived civvie lives in the big smoke.
I sat down for a late breakfast at a caff in the heart of the Charlton Athletics FC neighborhood. You remember my British tastes are stuck in the 80s? So was the caff. The menu was basically the Monty Python SPAM sketch. I got baked beans on toast, grilled tomato, brown sauce and a coffee, which turned out to be less vegan than i expected when the coffee was Nescafé with powdered milk. But then when i added sugar i didn't mind because it reminded me of being a kid.
The rest of the way i stuck to back roads, heaths, parks and one fantastically named spot called Gilbert's Pit. Eventually i popped out between some warehouses at the Thames Barrier.
My colleagues were right when they said London is small. Even the Thames Barrier looks like a miniature. I suspect living in China has even worse of an impact than living in America on a person's sense of scale. It makes everywhere else in the world seem tiny. Perspective aside, the Thames Barrier is still cool.
I wandered back up the river past a few aging bulk carrier berths and a lot more Vancouverization, then hopped on the coach to Heathrow with my colleagues.
At Heathrow i finally got my vegan burger. I went into an American-themed restaurant and ordered the only vegan burger on the menu, which was a BBQ pulled jackfruit thing. The bartender said there was also an off-menu vegan burger that they were trialing, some kind of fake chicken thing. I ordered it and it was everything i hoped for. Beetroot-colored bun that soaked up the sauce. That great gooey vegan cheese. Lettuce. Tomato. Onions. BBQ sauce. "Chicken." It was awesome.
The only disappointing part was the fries. Honestly, American fries are really the worst. They even have Canada right next door teaching them how to make a passable chip (see: poutine), but it will just never happen. I think Americans are too attached to pointy over-salted batonnets.
Anyway. The burger set me up in a good mood. The flight back they had my VOML on the books. Then we landed in Hong Kong and met our colleagues from the earlier flight.
You see, our company had booked the ferry back to Shenzhen in advance, to depart 3 hours after the landing time of our respective planes, just in case of delay. So we met our cranky colleagues, still waiting for their ferry. Then we proceeded to become cranky ourselves - literally able to see mainland China out of the window, but not able to get on the ferry there because fucking group travel.
Needless to say i jumped in a taxi the moment i got back to mainland.
All up, i was very surprised and pleased with my experience in London this time around, especially after the last trip where i hated just about everywhere i went. East London is less full of pretentious twats, the prices are less outrageous and it feels more like the London of my childhood memories. Aside from everyone driving on the wrong side of the road and the ground floors not starting at 1, it did feel kinda homey.
I mean, what is home?
After 6-7 years living outside of English-speaking countries it was very refreshing to just be able to take part in any conversation without having to concentrate, even a little. And after almost 3 years in countries where i am a very conspicuous minority, it was nice to be in a place like Toronto where the people around me were multi-colored enough that none of us felt like a visible minority.
I also really fucking miss pubs, for fuck's sake.