Toilets – the good, the bad and the awful

Toilet, Dunny, thunder box, water closet, shit box, outhouse.

I am sure that there is a book out there somewhere which talks about toilets. I am sure someone somewhere has studied the worlds toilets, comparing them and revealing the inner sanctums of the worlds lavatories. I cannot profess to knowing much about toilets, but I will discuss the toilets in the Philippines.

As a youngster in Australia, I do remember the occasional blockage in the toilet. As kids, you had to push the limits and see just how far things could go; and the blocking of the toilet was one of those tests. After wiping, one could deliberately fill the average Australian dunny (toilet for the uninitiated) with approximately a quarter of a roll of dunny paper before it could not be flushed away. Up to that point, it would flush and dwell for ten seconds or so and then disappear with a resounding swoosh and a chug. Past that point and the wad, a mixture of you-know-what and paper lodged in the s-bend and the toilet filled to the brim with water. Sometimes — if you had enough paper in there — it would actually overflow. To a five year old, this was a work of art. The point is, that in my almost fifty years, I found it quite hard to block an Aussie dunny.

Enter the Philippino toilet. The drains in the Philippines, as I have stated earlier, are not the most efficient. So getting the effluent away is problematic at the best of times. But, it would be much better if their royal thrones had been designed better.

At first I thought, logically of course, that maybe it was a simple matter of size. I am an average size Aussie, around 5’8″ or 174 cm. On average, quite a bit taller than your average Filipino, though that is changing; which I won’t go into yet. Hence, I reasoned that perhaps, I was passing larger than Filipino-sized lumps. This could explain the constant blockages. But I don’t think there is that much difference. Not that I have been observing. I think it is the design. The toilets themselves are almost flat. When you sit on them, your bum is a mere few inches away from the water. When you flush, the water fills the bowl and then swirls around, gathering the solids and creating a small whirlpool at the bottom. It’s not very effective and the solids don’t always get sucked away.  Aussie toilets by comparison are tall and the water squirts in under force from the edge of the toilets forcing the solids over the s-bend and away. I have never, in my adult life, blocked an aussie toilet. Never!

Now, we have developed a technique. For any wishing to frequent a different country and are confronted by the small flat bowl … here is the method.

  1. Be seated (obvious, I know). But if you think it is going to be a longer than normal one, be prepared to snap it off half way. This is not a joke!
  2. Lower a length, no longer than approximately 6″ or 15 cm. If it is, snap it off.
  3. Immediately flush! Don’t lift your arse off the seat, just reach back and flush. Leave it too long and it drifts to the bottom where it could possibly lodge in the first bend.
  4. After that you can either release the other half or, if it of normal length, go for the first wipe. This part is important. We are talking no more than a small handful. If you need more, perhaps because your arse is larger than some, or you just take a few more wipes to finish, than DO NOT DO IT. A small handful. That’s all!
  5. Reach back and flush. Take your time on the first wipe as you must ensure that the cistern has refilled first.
  6. Wipe a second time.
  7. Flush.
  8. etc, etc, until you have finished your business.

The toilets are reminiscent of the entire country. I am sure that some houses have modern toilets but many are still using the same type that was introduced to the country early in the the twentieth century. As the country continues to follow the world’s trends, it gets better just as the rest of the world does,  and things change and modernise, so too do the facilities.

But for those new to this neck of the woods … heed my warning.

P.S. I refrained from providing pictures to go with the directions.

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The Church

Filipinos are a religious bunch. From the time the Spanish sequestered the islands till current time, they have predominantly been catholic. Islam is creeping in from the south and there is an ongoing civil war occurring on those islands, especially Mindanao, as the Islamist’s attempt to establish an Islamic state. But I will leave that for another time.

Churches, no matter where I go, always interest me. Architecture attracts me and what better says lavish curves and exquisitely exposed beams than a beautifully built church. The Catholics have always had cash to spare and never hold back when it comes to resplendence. When I look at their churches throughout the world, I can see a little piece of that country in each of them as they take on that country’s character. Though there are obvious similarities — it is a church after all — there are little quirks that show through. And none more so than the Holy Rosary Parish in the centre of Angeles City. Built by an unpaid (slave) labour force in the late eighteen hundreds, it simply screams Filipino. From the outside it is all large bricks and mortar, with that not quite finished appearance, but inside it is a thing of beauty. Atop the nave sits two bell towers and a dome which lights the sanctuary.

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At the rear is a small chapel. The stone arches and mosaic floor framing the apse at the far end. A few sit in prayer in the much more personal setting.

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The Chapel

A small garden outside is beautifully presented and is a stark contrast to the wilds of the urban sprawl outside.

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The chapel garden

As you enter, you are met with a melodic chant which sounds as though it comes from the walls. It is Cantoric and certainly has that Gregorian feel. The yellow light cast upon the altar from the overhead dome illuminates the head of Christ and lends it an almost supernatural aura. The pious kneel in the pews, their heads bowed, and the large spectre of the corpus looks upon them from the sanctuary. It is whisper quiet, the chant being the only sound. It reminds me of a library and I look around quickly, waiting for the librarian to show up from nowhere, as one of my kids says something in a normal voice. Nobody else looks up or even acknowledges us as they are too busy in the solitude of meditative prayer. The open arches give the entire inner area a much larger feel and the TARDIS comes to mind as I look around wondering how they made it bigger on the inside. White walls and a shiny tiled floor are reminiscent of the period it was made and is broken up only by the ugliness of the CCTV and the wide screen TV’s located on each pillar. The modern world beckons and nowhere is safe from its clutches.

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I only see well dressed people and I wonder if they let in the poor. They aren’t  allowed in the big shopping malls as their begging bothers the paying customers. I see none inside the walls so assume such is the case. Perhaps there is a particular time they are allowed in when there is nobody else around. Even the poor should be allowed to pray. They have more to pray for after all. My wife assures me they are allowed, but you will more than likely find them at the smaller churches as even though they can come in, they are frowned upon and simply don’t feel welcome.

We leave the church and reenter the hustle bustle of the street. It is cleaner here as the Mayor frequents the area. City hall is straight across the road from the church. The cobblestone on the streets echo the chatter of the car tyres. Old meets new as modern cars are scattered with the older Jeepney’s and the need to dodge traffic is still just as important, but here is a little different as the traffic lights are actually acknowledged.

We laugh as the pedestrians get a little red standing man and a countdown to prevent their advancement. To give them the go ahead a green walking man steadily gets faster, becoming a running man, panicking to make the other side,  as the countdown decreases. We were waiting for a car to come in from the side of the screen and mow the green man down. It would have been fitting.

 

The Philippines is still a cross between the old third world country it once was and the new modern boomtown it is becoming. The world is changing and the tide lifts all boats.

The Tropics

I reside in Bundaberg. Bundy is a sub-tropical climate. At the moment, due to the drought, it resembles a dry temperate climate. I haven’t mowed in six months. My grass is now dust. But normally the area is lush and green and I have to mow once a week for fear of being overrun by the jungle which can shoot up so quick it is knee high before you realise.

Here though, in the Philippines, it’s like The Day of the Triffids. The lush growth is everywhere and it invades every corner if left unchecked. The vines entangle the human structures as quick as they do the natural areas and anything left destitute for any period of time is devoured and swallowed like some giant flycatcher feeding on an unwary fly. Mould and moss creeps in anywhere there is moisture and devours the substrate it covers often leaving only a husk or fibrous structure which looks solid but soon proves otherwise when one attempts to load it with anything more than a casual glance. This is the tropics.

The kids and I are about to leave to do some shopping. I look out the window and see sunny skies.  I step outside and Aurora, my wife, says, ‘There’s a storm coming. Look up the road’. Sure enough, dark ominous clouds loom like an angry parent looking down on the naughty kids. It happens fast. To the left, down the street, it is sunny and warm. To the right it is dark, the clouds are rolling toward us swallowing the joyous sunlight as it moves.

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Incoming storm

Within minutes, the trees begin to swirl and sway and the smell of damp earth reaches your nostrils. The cloud lights up and a distant rumble is heard; the warning for any still not running for cover. The first drops of rain hit the concrete road. We walk in under cover just in time for the bigger drops, the size of  sultanas, to begin their journey back to earth. The noise on the tin roof is deafening and we have to yell to speak to one another. The lightning strikes are now coming thirty seconds apart with the thunder so loud it makes you jump. We step back and watch as the road disappears under a fast flowing stream as the drains fill and backup, unable to handle the massive flows scrambling for somewhere to run.

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Bucketing down

 

It lasts about fifteen minutes. The water wells up and we cringe as the local kids walk, barefoot, through the sewer ridden water — the occasional dead kitten or turd floating by to boot. It drains fast. The gutters, overflowing, may not be able to keep up with the onslaught of rain, but quickly dispatches it once it stops. The entire system has been cleansed like a massive enema, the effluent flushed away; probably into the river systems. This is the tropics.

The little things many of us take for granted in modernised western countries simply don’t exist here; a constant electricity supply, clean water, basic hygiene and sanitation. And yet — the people just seem so much happier. I have seen personally the “wake-up” that occurs to those that experience the western-style life. More importantly, I have seen the sadness in those same eyes when they realise they must go back to their life in the Philippines. Ignorance can be bliss.

The tropics is a harsh place to live and it consumes anything that trips or stumbles. Human habitation has made it better but it encroaches at every opportunity. Disease and decomposition proliferate as does the ever looming jungle. The people, though subjectively happy, fight every day just to remain healthy. The reasons why are complex, and I am not about to discuss it now, but things are getting better.

Back with a little more time

It has been a year since my last entry. The London trip was a blur and left little time for writing. I must sit and finish it at some stage. I am in the Philippines now visiting family and we are not really doing anything major. Family and food. Best of all though, relaxation.

I will attempt to write a travelogue as I go, though it may be a little lacklustre due to the nature of our leisure. What I will try to achieve is giving an understanding of the place, the people and the culture. The Philippines has changed much since I began travelling here. It is these changes I will highlight as it demonstrates a general trend unfolding across the planet.

O sige ne.

 

One day in Paris – Part One

Part One – London to The Louvre

0300 – I lay there looking at the phone, knowing that the alarm is another hour away. Au and the kids seem to have adapted to the time shift, but my brain is still waking me at two-thirty in the morning. I roll over, hoping I’ll fall asleep for a little longer – I don’t.

0400 – The alarm sounds and I reach over to turn it off. I sit up in bed shaking Au from her slumber. Wandering into the other room of our apartment, I turn on the light and wake the kids.

‘Come on, wakey, wakey, rise and shine,’ I say.

The kids stir, looking out from under their blankets with squinting eyes. They rise from the dead like zombies while muttering mild expletives in my direction.

We had to be at St Pancras train station by five-thirty to meet our tour operator.

0530 – I tip the driver a fiver – probably cheap, I don’t know – and we enter the station. The tour operator is waiting outside the shoe store just as the directions said. When everyone had arrived, the tour operator told us what we had to do and handed us the tickets for the train.

Customs is quick. Much quicker than at the airports. Once through British customs, we walk a few metres into French customs. Although still on British soil, we are officially on French territory once through. That way we can get straight off the train in France with no further hinderance.

0630 – The train is great. Comfortable, roomy and fast. If Eurostar trains could circumnavigate the globe … airline companies would go bust. With much wider seats, the ability to move freely about the carriages – including the café – and legroom unrivalled by any airliner unless you are in business or first class, the train becomes part of the journey, not just a way of getting from A to B. I know what you are going to say – it would be a slower trip – but the extra time would be worth it and you could potentially visit other destinations on the way. Much easier to do when skimming the earth’s crust instead of soaring through the lower atmosphere. I would imagine cheaper also. Who is going to make the first intercontinental train service? Come on Elon, you can do it! Will Eurostar become intercontinental star? Just doesn’t have the same ring, does it.

There is a slight delay at the tunnel, the train can not get permission to enter. Fifteen minutes later we are descending into the fifty-kilometre-long tunnel, two-thirds of which is under the sea, the longest undersea tunnel in the world. Looking out the window is now a murky black and I must admit wondering what would happen if we broke down in the middle.

Twenty minutes later and we can see daylight … and the French landscape. Every few minutes a small village spatters the smooth rolling hills. With a church spire peering from the centre, and their small two storey cottages, the villages look like something from the scene of an old black and white war movie. I am waiting for the cast of ‘Allo ’Allo! to walk from one of the cottages.

This adds to the overall fun of the train with the landscape whizzing by, changing from moment to moment; not something you get when sitting on a plane.

 

Eurostar

The Eurostar from London to Paris

0930 – The train coasts to a stop at Gare du Nord, the international train station in Paris. We meet up with the local guide who hands us our bus tickets, points us in the right direction and sends us on our way. Down the road we arrive at the nearest Hop on, Hop off bus stop. We don’t have to wait long.

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The Gare Du Nord – The international train station.

There are two routes available and we must be sure we know where to swap back at the end of the day as this is our only way back to the station. The last bus finishes at a certain time and if we miss it, we miss our train. We enter the bus and climb the spiral stairway onto the roof.  Moving through the streets of Paris, the immensity of the structures amazes us. In London the statues and buildings are big – in a Victorian era kind of way – but in Paris, they are colossal. It was as though the French had looked across the English Channel and said, ‘leur est grand nous allons aller plus grand’ or ‘Theirs is big … so we’ll go bigger’. The ornate, and often intricate, statues and relief work consolidated into many of the building faces is stunning. Each with its own story to tell, it is like the unfolding pages of a history book. The entire city is a museum – an art gallery.

1000 – Our first stop is The Louvre. The pyramid, of which many associate with The Louvre, whizzes by on our left, leaving us wondering where exactly the bus is going to stop. We leave it behind as we move through a large set of arches leading under the southern wing of The Louvre Palace out onto the Quai Francois-Mitterrand which stretches along side the River Seine. We pull up near the mouth of the Pont des Arts which, if you are standing on the bridge, appears to lead straight into the outer face of the Cour Carrée, one of the main courtyards of the palace. Crossing the road we follow a throng of people as they entered another arch but a group of what appear to be students heads us off. They ask us politely if we can sign their petition – I can’t see why not – and then attempt to persuade us to pay them for the privilege. Casey, my oldest son is suckered in, as am I, but my wife, being Filipino, know a huckster the minute she sees one. She ushers Casey and I on, waving her hand dismissively at the perpetrators, at the same time as sending a few expletives in my direction letting me know how stupid I am.

We walk through the arch into a massive courtyard. With square cut cobblestones under our feet, it is like travelling back in time. French monarchs, soldiers, and cherubs, from eons past, look down on us from their eternal pedestals. The aged buildings, with their exquisite facades, surround us on all sides. It is quite belittling.

Another arch, another much larger courtyard and we are looking down on the infamous glass pyramids. People are bustling about snapping photos and selfies with the glass pyramids in the background.

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The famous glass pyramid – the entrance to The Louvre.

For me, it is once again the amazing architecture surrounding us that draws my gaze. Then I notice something strange. People are standing on marble pillars, dotted across the courtyard, and holding their hands in the air.

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People standing on pedestals with their hands in the air … ahhh … okay.

At first glance I think, ‘they have lost their minds’, or it is some weird custom people fulfil when visiting the pyramids, but then as we walk down the steps I realise. From this viewpoint and with a little framing, the people appear to be touching the top of the pyramid.

‘Up ya get,’ I tell the boys. Each take their turn “touching” the top of the pyramid. Casey, Au and I don’t want to look like idiots (tourists), so we refrain from doing so. But in hindsight – and seeing the final photos – we wish we had.

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Ahhh … Okay, now it makes sense.

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He’s not really that tall!

Having admired The Louvre from the outsideand the two-hour-long line to get in – we decide to head back to the bus-stop and move onto our next destination.

This is where things went a little pear shaped.

At the bus-stop I checked my camera bag for the tickets to the bus. They are gone. My wife takes the opportunity to remind me how stupid I was to have been taken in by the street hustlers. I check every pocket, bag and orifice, or so I think as we find them that evening, to no avail. We spend the next hour retracing our steps and combing the ground for our lost tickets. They are nowhere to be found. €125, around $200 Australian, later we are able to board the bus again. After kissing my wife over the River Seine, had to be done in the city of love, and we are off again.

Next … Notre Dame Cathedral

 

A word about London

Observations

We have been here for over a week and I am still trying to catch up my blog. It is difficult as we spend most of the day out exploring and then return to the apartment tired and worn down. We eat, then go to bed. Sometimes I stay up and get another section started … sometimes I don’t.

My time here has given me a better grasp on how things work, what to expect, and how to get around. With a basic map of the city, found in the lobby of the apartments, along with the train network map, found on the back of the city map, you have all you need to go anywhere in the city. Look at the map, find the nearest underground station, and check which line it’s on. Purchase an ‘Oyster card’, essentially a scan and go card, load a little credit, and off you go. Each station gives clear directions on which line to follow and which stations are on each line. Listen to the automated announcements and get off where you want to be. The trains come every two to four minutes and are fast. To follow some lines, like the central line, you take escalators deep down into the bowels of the city – they really are a long way down – assuring you keep to the right, for fear of being trampled by time conscious commuters, and take ‘the tube’. The train comes hurtling in, slams on the brakes, the doors slide open, you leap in trying to avoid the closing doors, and hang on as it speeds away – the kids hanging horizontal from the bars due to the sudden shift in velocity. As the announcement relays the next station, the train arrives and slams on the brakes, you leap off ensuring your bag is clear for fear of the train closing the door on it and dragging you screaming down the platform. Damn … the kids never got off in time! Have to be faster next time … maybe throw them off in front of me. They are a fast and efficient way of getting around. Though from time to time they are delayed as someone gets off and forgets their bag and the bomb squad is called in to remove the offending curried egg sandwich.

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‘The London tube’ – The oldest underground railway in the world

Security is tight across the city. At every venue we entered, security guards searched our bags and waved the wand over us. They were fast and we felt more at ease because of them. With ‘terrorism’ regularly on the front page, it is hard not to have it in the back of our minds; especially when the kids are with us.

I have to reiterate that English is the second language of what seems like the majority of people in London. Communication was difficult at times as I asked for ‘five cokes’, only to have the attendant answer, ‘Four corks’.

‘No, five cokes,’ I repeated.

‘Orkay, four corks,’ he replied.

‘Okay,’ I said, holding up five fingers. ‘Ff-ii-vv-ee,’ I enunciated.

This was a common occurrence and I assure you, it wasn’t my accent that was the issue. There is a distinct difference in the sound between four and five. Even for an ‘Austrayan’.

I have been to a few countries now and I expect a language barrier in non-english speaking countries, but I didn’t expect it in England.

There was also the terminology issue, though I have Bob to thank for solving that.

In the apartment’s lobby, at the front desk:

‘Can I help you sir?’ the desk clerk asks.

‘Is it possible to get an extra doona for room G29 please?’ I ask.

‘Another do not disturb sign sir?’ he asks.

‘Ummm,’ I look at him perplexed. ‘Another bed cover?’

He cocks an eyebrow.

‘Ahh,’ I say. All those years watching Bob the builder with the kids pays off.

‘A duvet,’ I pronounce proudly.

‘Certainly sir,’ he says. Picking up the two-way and talking to the cleaning staff.

I remember Bob saying to Wendy, in an episode, that she may need an extra ‘duvet’ on the bed to keep warm. Truth is, I am sure Bob would have been happy to warm her toes for her … there was definitely a little sexual tension going on there.

The people of London are … ‘snuffy’. They smile little and it is difficult to get a conversation going. I open up with a ‘how are ya?’ and most just looked down their nose at me. I say, ‘thanks mate’ to everyone that assists me, commutes me or just steps aside for me. I am sure they don’t know how to respond, though occasionally I get a stifled, ‘your welcome’. The people working at the stations were always helpful, though unsmiling, and their information was always precise.

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An average day on a busy London street

The city is surprisingly, for its age, behind the times. Pedestrian crossings at traffic lights don’t beep (at least 90 percent don’t) for the seeing-impaired, leaving me standing there looking like a fool as the lights had turned green and I was waiting for the beep. For those that don’t know: in Australia, the traffic lights beep when the green walk signal is present so that people who are sight-impaired know to walk.

We watched as a man with a guide dog waited at the lights for the signal … everyone started walking before the signal changed and I was thinking, ‘Holy shit, this could end badly. The dog will walk early with the crowd’. But he was on the ball. He held the man back until the signal changed to green. Smart dog!

Other signals have no walk signal at all, just the words ‘look to your right (or left, depending on which side you are on)’. Yeah, look for that double decker bus that’s about to plough you over.

Another thing. I am all for adults who want to smoke cigarettes – essentially shortening their lives and giving themselves cancer – the right to smoke. But, just as you have the right to make that decision, and I shouldn’t be allowed to prevent you, you should respect my right not to. And that includes inhaling your second-hand smoke. In Australia, it is now illegal to smoke within four metres of the entrance to any store or public entrance, essentially ruling out most public pavements and common areas. You can walk the streets and not have to worry about smoke being blown in your face. Not so in London. Every where we went was a cloud of cigarette smoke. Nobody thought twice about blowing it in my, or my kids, face and from time to time I could be heard saying aloud, ‘I don’t mind you smoking, if you don’t mind me farting strong and smelly’. But I guess my farts don’t get taxed and swell the treasuries’ coffers. For a city, perhaps a country, that is as mature as this one, they are certainly very conservative. It is an old city and seems hesitant to change. Australia is a lot more progressive.

I’m tired. I’m going to take a shower, then hit the sack!

 

Harry Potter – where the magic happens

Harry Potter: behind the scenes

The trip wouldn’t be complete, or fair, if we only took in the historical culture. For the kids, it can become a little boring and I must give them credit, they have followed Au and I all over Britain and Paris with little complaint. So, for this adventure, it was time to dive into some current literary/movie pop-culture.

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An hour’s drive on a coach had us pulling up outside ‘The Making of Harry Potter Warner Bros Studio Tour’. A quick run through security, a common feature everywhere we went and one for which I am grateful, and we were in awaiting the tour. It began with a small recorded presentation by the stars of the movies, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson. But as the Hogwart’s doors opened, the magic began.

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The door to the Great Hall – Let the magic begin…

Entering the great Hogwarts hall, minus the ‘floating candles’, the teachers were waiting at the end of the hall. Okay, they were faceless dummies wearing the original clothing from the movies. But the effect worked well enough and the kids’ eyes were like saucers. Just like in the movie, the long tables lay ready, awaiting the eager students.

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The Great Hall

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The Professors

Exit the Great Hall and the various sets and props, including the miniature ceiling of the Great Hall and the moving staircase, keep you entertained. A few secrets from the movies, that only the cast and crew were privy to, reveal themselves. Though they are careful not to reveal too much as this would have detracted from the magic of the movies and removed the imagination that goes with it.

Often, when we talk about art, we only think about the artists and art that is deliberately created … as art. We generally forget the artists that we overlook every day on television and film. I am not speaking of the writers or directors, though they are artists in their own right, but the set creators. Often they create such realistic and wonderful creations on the screen that we don’t even notice their work. The Harry potter movies are a prime example of this. The intricate sets, clothing and miniatures required for close-up work can only be described as art. What looks like a castle wall, is often a hand carved and painted sculpture painstakingly built over long periods from a series of rough drawings – art in themselves – by a group of talented people that are lucky to get a mention in the end credits of the movie or television show. To see this traced from storyline to drawing and then model or set, is a true wonder. I must throw it in here, in line with my previous discussions, that it is often the hardest working people that get the least pay and recognition. It is usually the case that a few make the big money and the rest just feed on the scraps, satisfied that they have done their jobs well. But art it is and we had the chance to appreciate it.

The sets only got bigger. We moved onto the Hogwarts express. A full-sized replica of a train, complete with the inner carriages used in each movie. And, of course, platform 9 ¾ and Diagon Alley.

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The Hogwarts Express

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Diagon Alley

Not to forget the forbidden forest, complete with towering trees and huge hairy spiders that dropped from the darkness and Buckbeat the hippogriff.

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The Spiders of the Forbidden Forest

Though, the most impressive was the scale model of the Hogwarts castle. It took up an entire room and two storeys. You could walk around it and look at it from any angle with complete detail down to the spires, windows and even plants growing around it.

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Hogwarts in scale

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Hogwarts in detail

The Tour ended in Ollivanders’ wand shop where the kids each bought a wand.

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Only the best wands at Ollivanders

Back onto the bus with little time to spare (the tour operators don’t wait for stragglers) and back to London. The entire tour was a little over half a day and if you ever get over this way, adult or child, be sure to visit the ‘The Making of Harry Potter’ studio. My wife and I enjoyed it as much as the kids did.

 

Buckingham Palace – Beauty & the Beast

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The East Front from St James’ Park  ©HM Queen Elizabeth II 2015

The Beauty

Arriving at Buckingham Palace, of course, one is amazed by the size of it, though everything in London is big. I am sure the powers-that-be are trying to make up for something and Buckingham Palace, well, the Kings must have been hiding in the corner of the urinals. For ‘security reasons’ I was not allowed to take photos inside – something that annoys me no end, considering the cost of a ticket – but was able to purchase some photos from the giftshop at the end. So, with our trusty audio guide in place, headphones included, we set out on our journey of opulence.

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The State Dining Room © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2015

And opulence it is. I was both impressed and disgusted by the staterooms, halls and galleries that were presented in Buckingham Palace. Impressed by the stunning beauty of the finish and detail to be found in every room we walked through. To say it is a work of art, in itself, is understating it. Every panel, bannister and column has elaborate carvings, often overlaid with gold – and not the fake stuff – and every ceiling either has amazing relief work or spectacular paintings. There is nowhere you can look that does not catch your breath. The gifts given by other dignitaries or rulers include highly sought-after paintings, intricate historical artefacts or household items like … carved solid gold serving trays. It was beautiful. All of it was. As we walked up ‘The Grand Staircase’, we could run our hands over the gilded gold balusters. Yes – real gold. And though never boring, it certainly became lacklustre simply because of the copious amounts of it. Every chair arm, picture frame and servery set, all gold.

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The Grand Staircase © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2015

The throne room, which I am sure is rarely used, reminds me of a Zen stone garden, showing isolation and solitude. But then you look up and the ceiling, with its prodigious chandelier, and again awe sets in.

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The Throne Room © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2015

There are a series of rooms, usually named after the colour of the walls, that are called drawing rooms. How many drawing rooms does a family need?

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The Blue Drawing Room © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2015

In 1845, when Queen Victoria spat out a few extra kids, she decided renovations were needed to give the kids a few extra rooms each, and so the expansions were done. Another wing. Much needed renovations are now needed – it is getting old – and the bill will be 370 million pounds, around 630 million Australian dollars. The Queen got a raise in to pay for it. Like she needed it…

The Beast

I cannot but help be disgusted by all this. The amount of money the royal family earns, for doing very little, is exorbitant. They own a high percentage of central London, as well as multiple properties around Britain, including castles and palaces, making their asset wealth in the high double figure billions. After World War I and II, many of the hierarchical wealthy families were eliminated. The British Royal family survived. They are the direct remnants of a time when patricide, matricide, filicide, fratricide … the list goes on … were common place to obtain the throne. Their incomes alone, could feed the poor for years. While many do it hard, even in their own country, they live a life of excessive opulence and well-to-do. The treasury does benefit from the Royal estates, but the taxpayer still pays for the Royal lifestyle. I am not saying they are the only wealthy family in the world, or even the wealthiest, but they are among a number of spoilt elites who contribute little and take a lot. A reasonable life of health and happiness should not only be for the entitled.

Buckingham Palace is a place of beauty and splendour, showing what can be achieved when money is in excess. It is a piece of history and should be preserved as such, a museum for all to see and appreciate. A remnant of a family that, perhaps, should also be resigned to a museum along with the outdated customs accorded them.

 

London at last

London … Finally

The hop-on hop-off bus is a great concept, though it has its shortfalls. The first may be that I am not that good at reading maps, though they were shitty maps, but the second is the reason we don’t have a lot of them in Australia. We were happy to jump on and off as needed and found it easy to do. The buses drive around a loop in the city – there are a number of different coloured loops – and you are free to jump on and off as often as you want knowing the next is only ten to fifteen minutes away. The problem we found, was that some are doubling on their loops and if you get on the wrong one, can end up going in the opposite direction or covering the same track previously completed. The other issue is that when you are on the open top, you are exposed to the elements; sunburn on a sunny day and, rain and cold, London weather, on an overcast one. We had picked the perfect day as it was a combination of both, though we found ourselves huddled, like frightened rabbits, in a bunch to keep warm as the evening, and the cold, settled in.

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A ‘Big Bus’ Hop-on Hop-off open-top bus

We covered a lot of ground. London reminds me a lot of Melbourne. It has that same gritty feel about it. The difference is in the age. The Hop-on Hop-off bus has a running commentary delivered either by a real person up the front on a microphone or a GPS triggered recording through earphones. The first guide we had was entertaining, telling us about London’s history and throwing in a little humour as he went. He was once charged by an elephant … he asked it whether it took Visa or Mastercard. London is a blend of old and new. The newer buildings are woven between the older more intricate ones and, though anything but seamless, seems to work.

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Nestled side-by-side is the old and the new

At every turn and on every block London shows its age with a piece of history. Charles Dickens and T.S. Eliot are among the many authors and playwrights whose history is interconnected with London’s. Oscar Wilde was married in a small church only blocks away from where we stayed and there is no forgetting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’ abode at 221b Baker street – now the Sherlock Holmes museum. The numerous statues, each with its own story, dot roadsides, squares and parks making it impossible to keep track of them all. The city seems to have been built around them. The Marble Arch, designed and built in memorial of the victories of the Napoleonic wars, now sits at the corner of Hyde Park. Moved there because Buckingham Palace needed expansions to match the Queen’s expanding family. I mean, come on, each child needs at least three rooms each – we all know that! Also, according to local lore, the Queen didn’t like it. I’m glad my wife only asks me to move the couch. The site of the Tyburn Tree where an estimated 60000 people were hanged, is a grisly reminder of the dark and sinister side of Old London.

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Marble Arch – The Queen was right – who’d want it outside their house?

We toured Buckingham Palace but that is worthy of its own blog and so it will be. Rant alert!

We got off at the London Eye.

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Big Ben

Within walking distance is Westminster Abbey; Westminster Palace, better known as the Houses of Parliament; and the almighty Big Ben. Nothing is more synonymous with London and Britain than Big Ben. It towers over central London like an all-seeing eye looking down upon all that grace its presence. Up close you feel dwarfed by its size and must be careful that you don’t walk into the multitude of tourists stopping to photograph the behemoth. Beside it is Westminster palace, a beautiful structure with high turrets and spires sprouting up from the intricately designed walls and leadlight windows; British politicians cannot work without a palace.

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Big Ben, complete with scaffolding, and Westminster Palace to the left

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The clock face – Big Ben is silent due to renovations

Around the corner is Westminster Abbey. Building began in 1245 and has been the site of the coronation for the monarchs of England since 1066 (the original structure included), and is another structure that can only be appreciated in person. Inside it’s TARDIS-like, appearing larger than on the outside. The massive ceilings and arches reach high into the air and make you feel very small indeed. I thought this the pinnacle of the architectural marvels but was later to realise that Notre Dame is in a league of its own.

 

By the end of the day, and a few unecessary loops of the city, we all found, myself included, that we were all cultured out. The day was a who’s who of historical and literary culture and left us with information overload. Londoners are nice enough people but, and I will be blunt, for a country that speaks English, surprisingly few spoke English, making it difficult to communicate. This is simply a factual observance. The traffic is crazy and there is little road sense. Indicators seem to be optional and you only give way to the bigger vehicle, usually buses and trucks. Bicycles seemed to be the fastest form of transport but are simultaneously a menace on the roads, cutting off larger vehicles and massing at traffic lights halting the flow of traffic behind them.  We all enjoyed the day but were glad to be back at the apartment and once again we were asleep before our heads hit the pillow.

Harrods and Hyde

Hyde Park, Kensington Palace and Squirrels

The day we arrived, we made the stupid decision to go for a walk and check out Hyde Park, a short walk, and Harrods. We would see Albert Hall on our way. This, in its own way, was not a bad idea, but in context after a long flight and little to no sleep … was. Our body clocks were totally screwed up and we were all worn out. But … we thought the fresh air would do us good.

Hyde park is a short walk from where we are staying, though technically we were in Kensington gardens. The two blend seamlessly together. On arrival, we immediately saw our first squirrel. Locals may not think this anything major, but for us it was. They are everywhere! On television, they are these wondrous little creatures, collecting nuts and scurrying up trees. In real life, they are exactly that, though I never saw them collecting nuts, only eating them. The kids thought they were the cutest things in the world, so did Au until I told her they were renown for having rabies and jumping from the trees to attack unsuspecting victims as they walked by. Needless to say, she wasn’t going near them … or the trees after that and was giving the kids a stern warning not to provoke them.

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A squirrel surrounded by squirrel chocolate … Chestnuts!

Kensington Palace was our first Palace. A large grandiose brick mansion. We didn’t go in as we had limited time; maybe later. We were later to realise that it paled against Buckingham Palace.

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Kensington Palace

We moved quickly toward Albert Hall where we were a little disappointed due to the scaffolding covering the side of it. The Albert memorial more than made up for it. This thing is massive. Unveiled in 1872 to commemorate the death of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, it stands 54m tall and features a seated figure of Prince Albert. The carvings and statues around it appear to stand on permanent guard, watching over the prince as he sits eternally observing the hall named after him.

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Albert Memorial – Queen Victoria knew how to memorialise her lovers.

Onto Harrods

You can get lost in Harrods. It is a series of larger rooms with a variety of themes and categories. Electrical, home-goods and a deli that would have to rival the best in the world. You can buy delicate canapes, finished delicacies ready for serving or high-class meals cooked and ready for heating at your next high-class shindig. You will impress the guests. We were overwhelmed quickly and soon found ourselves lost within the maze of rooms, escalators and doorways. We finally found an exit and escaped. The themes were a delight, with the Ancient Egyptian escalator – never heard of the Ancient Egyptians using escalators – and what appeared to be a room of eternal Christmas. It was nice to visit, but with Harrods prices, we couldn’t justify buying anything and were happy just to say we had seen it – it just wasn’t Westfield!

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Fruit & Vegetables … Harrods style

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The Egyptian escalator at Harrods

Peter Pan and his harem

We cut through Hyde park on the way back and passed by many of the local kids practising their soccer – football to the locals – the coach yelling at them to lift their feet and take the shot. Peter Pan was our destination and we bee-lined through various gardens and crossed multiple bridges, stopping occasionally to admire the birds and avoid out of control bicyclists or rogue equestrians. There stood Peter, with his harem of lusty maidens and rodents looking up what can only be described as a skirt, playing his pipe. Who said the gay movement wasn’t alive in the early nineteen hundreds? J.M. Barrie’s iconic character of the ‘boy who never grows up’ was placed there by Barrie in 1912 without any coverage as Barrie wanted the local children to think that it was magically placed there by fairies. My kids didn’t think that, but certainly delighted knowing that it was here that the late Robin Williams filmed scenes from the movie Hook.

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Peter Pan and his onlookers

An interesting evening that left us tired and worn down. Our jet-lagged bodies didn’t know whether to be asleep or awake and though sleep came quickly, we were all awake before 4 am the next morning.

References

Barrie, J. (2008). Peter Pan. New York, N.Y.: Modern Pub.

Hook. (1991). [film] Directed by S. Spielberg. Amblin Entertainment.