The typical weeklong summer holiday only allow the traveller a surface view of his destination. Surfaces can be great, but I hope that my nomadic wanderings, where I may stay a few months in each place, will allow me to dig a little deeper and – if I’m lucky – strike gold.
I’ve spent ten years in London, my personal Klondike. The city teems with life and adventure, and most of it is found away from the standard tourist attractions. By all means, take a snap of Big Ben and marvel at the beauty of Tower Bridge. The city is rich in history, and it would be a shame to miss it. But the city has other, less obvious, riches. I hope that this post may guide you to some of them.
Storytelling at Torriano
Storytelling has sadly become something of a lost art. Most people I know have never listened to a traditional storyteller, which is a shame. A good storyteller can spell bind you in ways that the cinema, the play station, the internet or a book can never do. If you don’t believe me, please, come to the Torriano story night and see for yourself.
London has a comparatively active storytelling scene, and Torriano is my favourite venue. It is small which is perfect for creating an intimate relationship with the storyteller. No microphones or binoculars are needed here. The crowd is always friendly, talkative and full of enthusiasm for the spoken word.
The night starts with a fantastic story by the organizer, Nell Phoenix. She has an ethereal yet playful, almost naughty, character and her stories follow suite. After Nell’s story, it’s time for stories from the floor, where anyone can come to the stage and tell a ten-minute tale. This sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the quality of these stories is great, with the odd embarrassment. Finally, a headliner tells a longer story. Nell pulls not just big names from London but the whole world, so expect the last story to shine!
I have not had a single bad night at Torriano. You owe it to yourself to check it out.
Story night is once a month. Find out the next date at their homepage.
Tango is the sexiest dance I know. If you are a breeder then you can probably track down a place to learn it, and I recommend that you do. But if you live under the rainbow flag, then you will struggle to find good tutoring. That is, unless you own a copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to London.
Lora Hudson runs a small friendly same-gender weekly Argentinean tango school where she patiently teaches klutzes like me to move somewhat graciously. However, Lora teaches more than just the steps; she teaches passion.
No no no, reel it in. She doesn’t teach the Kama Sutra, although I have no doubt that she’d be brilliant at it. She makes sure that you understand the spirit of tango, that sensual and intimate spirit that makes the dance so … delectable.
So, if you are a friend of Dorothy, go ahead and give Tango a chance, if only for an evening. You don’t want to miss seeing Lora dance, something so sexy it is almost enough to turn me, although then I would have to leave. Catch-22.
Tango is every Thursday, 7-10pm, Western Rise Community Hall, 187 Pentonville Road, N1 9NZ and costs £8. If it is your first time, e-mail Lora at firstname.lastname@example.org to make sure nothing has changed.
If a gay gancho is not your thing, then let me make it up to you with the best place to swig a Guinness. Waxy O’Connor’s is an Irish pub with a very special feel. Don’t be fooled by the dull-looking entrance. Inside, you will find an underground pub that would look just right in Lord of the Rings. The atmosphere is upbeat and the Guinness delicious. Bring some mates and make merry.
Find the address at Waxy’s homepage.
I have spent a lot of time in various coffee shops. I wrote most of my final year project in a coffee shop. After ten years of coffee shopping around London, I can say that the most charming of them all is LJ.
The soul of LJ is Maris, the barista who holds court at LJ on Wednesdays and weekends. On other days, the coffee is just as good, but for the full effect, come on a day when Maris is there.
Maris is a famous Latvian priest who, after many years of fighting for gay rights in a country where homophobia still runs rampant, had to leave due to the mounting pressure against him. But Maris is not only admirably brave but also a charmer, a flirt and a Tom of Finland look-a-like.
Maris’s open and chatty personality is contagious, which means that LJ is the kind of coffee shop where you can and should close the lid of your laptop and strike up a conversation with the person next to you.
So if you are in Soho and need a killer cup of coffee, go to LJ, enjoy the brew, chat up a stranger and be sure to give Maris a hug from me!
You’ll find a map to the best coffee in London at http://www.ljcoffeehouse.org.uk
Dans le Noir?
Have you ever wondered how blind people eat? No? Bet you do now. How do you pour a glass of red wine? How do you know if you’ve managed to fix anything on the tip of your fork? These and many other challenges await you at Dans le Noir, the restaurant where you eat in complete and utter darkness.
Get back to black at http://www.danslenoir.com/london
Garlic and Shot
What do you get when you mix garlic, death metal and Sweden? Answer: Garlic and Shots, a bizarre restaurant where every single dish features garlic. You will stink to high heaven, but it is worth it.
The Garlic and Shot atmosphere is unique. The place is decked out in equal parts death metal aesthetics (skulls, bats, black candles) and Swedish memorabilia (moose road signs, a Swedish tiger).
Be sure to visit the crypt bar for a garlic beer before dinner.
Vampires should stay away from their homepage.
This is a reminder that it is criminal to visit London and not have afternoon tea at some swanky hotel.
Hide and Seek
Pervasive games – not to be confused with perverse games – is game playing in public spaces with lots of participants, as well as unwitting spectators. Hide and Seek is an organization that organizes weekends where you can play these kinds of games.
It can be hard to imagine what a pervasive game is, so I’ll give you an example. It Is Cruel To Be Kind is a game where you play an assassin. You arrive at the game area (the south bank in my case) without knowing who else is an assassin. Your goal is to kill all other assassins through random acts of kindness. Attack someone with a compliment or a serenade. If he is an assassin then he’s dead. If he is an innocent bystander then, well, count it as collateral damage. There is more to the game, but you get the gist.
There is new stuff at every event and enough varied games to sate every taste, except the perverse.
There are Hide and Seek events all year round. For their calendar, head to the Hide and Seek.
London has many festivals. Without a doubt, my favourite is the Greenwich and Docklands Festivals. It is a several days long outdoor performance festival.
Expect cross-dressing wolves, mechanical dragons, simulated London flooding, aerobatic business men hounded by women, geisha hairdressers, burning angels on water, firework-backed concerts, fetish-slave-dogs in leashes handed out to old members of the audience to take out for a walk and Pi-Leu, something I just can’t describe with words. Don’t believe me? See for yourself in Greenwich.
The festival takes place at the end of June. For exact dates and other info, see http://www.festival.org (I know; how did they get that domain?)
Erotica is the yearly trade-show for the sex industry. It sounds more hard-core than it really is. Think of it as an airplane hangar full of stands where companies exhibit their products and services. It is exactly the same format as a game expo or a vintage car exhibition, only with an erotic theme.
The most fun part of the exhibition is the stage show. It is a mix between cabaret, burlesque and new circus. Dita von Teese has performed several years, but if you go to see her – and she is worth it – make sure that you find out which of the several shows throughout the day that she will be in.
There is plenty to look at apart from the show, not least the other punters. Many of them dress up in amazing costumes. If costumes are your thing then there is plenty of shopping to be had at Erotica. Towards the end of the expo, you can haggle down the prize quite a lot. So if that leather tailcoat was too expensive, check back ten minutes before closing time!
If you are worried about a sleazy or unwelcoming atmosphere, worry not. The atmosphere is positive and welcoming. You can come exactly how you are, no matter if that is a suit and tie office worker or a boot boy.
Mayhem happens at the end of November. For dates and other goodies, check out http://www.erotica-uk.com
Mainstream Top Ten
The big static attractions of London are better covered in your favourite guidebook, but I can’t help but throw in my two pence. Out of the mainstream London sights, this is my personal top-ten.
- The Natural History Museum — The most beautiful building in London, both inside and out. Architecture aside, the exhibitions are great. If science was a religion, this would be its cathedral.
- Westminster Abbey — If you visit one church-like building, make it Westminster Abbey. Gorgeous building steeped in history. The audio guide is excellent.
- Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament — They look awesome, they are cultural landmarks and of course still hugely important. If you can smooch a person working there, make sure they take you up on the roof!
- The Tower of London — No place will get you connected to the history of London as the Tower. Also, check out Tower Bridge, the most beautiful of all London bridges.
- Camden — Get lost in the hustle and bustle! You can still find some real bargains here, but if you don’t, you are sure to enjoy the atmosphere nonetheless.
- The British Museum — No place glorifies theft like the British Museum. Especially good is the Egyptian section, and don’t miss the Rosetta stone.
- The Globe — If you visit in the summer, then you must see a Shakespeare play at the Globe.
- Highgate Cemetery — Wander among this serenely beautiful place and enjoy the sometimes bizarre headstones.
- See a West End show — The London West End is famous for its shows. Top among them are The Lion King and La Cage aux Folles.
- Regent’s Park — My favourite London park, perfect for picnics.
For the latest on temporary exhibitions, shows or events, check out Time Out.
The best way to get around London is on a bicycle. Yes, you heard me. No, it is not dangerous. The traffic in London moves very slowly and often it stands still, except for you and your bike. You can snake your way through the standstills. (Be sure to gloat at the 50-year-old investment banker stuck in the queue in his expensive cabriolet.) There are enough cyclists on the road that the drivers have learnt to live with them in peace and harmony. You also get to use the bus lanes, and thus can avoid much of the traffic. Just stay away from the long 18-metre busses. Don’t get caught on the inside of one of those!
If you live in London, buy a bicycle. If you are on a short visit and want to join the cycle fun, then rent one of the many ‘Boris-bikes’ that stand in special docking stations all around London.
The bicycle is not only the fastest way to get around London, even for long distances, but it also allows you to see so much that you would miss if you tunnelled your way from one place to another using the tube.
For short distances, walk. Don’t be fooled by the tube map into thinking that it is far to get where you are trying to go. In central London, if your destination is three stations away or fewer, consider walking.
As you walk, keep looking up. London has some spectacular architecture, but none of it is on ground level. Look out for blue round signs on the facades you pass. They mark places where important historical events took place, and no other city has more of those than London.
One particular walk that is well worth taking is the following. Start at Tower Bridge, and then walk all the way along the South Bank, enjoying the many varied cultural sights along the way, until you come to Westminster Bridge. Cross it and enjoy the best view of the Houses of Parliament and the Big Ben. Turn right and walk up Whitehall until you come to Trafalgar Square. Go through the square and the neighbouring Leicester Square and you are in Soho. Find the LJ coffee shop. Let Maris take care of you and rest.
For info on the Boris-bikes, check out their online app.
I hope that you will enjoy London as much as I have. If you have your own favourite haunts in London or a juicy tip for something to do there, please leave a comment and let us know!
Finally, a little something to ensure you know for which country London is the capital. Get it right, right now.