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Travel series: London was short, sharp and tweet

Weeks after my wonderful jaunt in Europe, I’m still torn between the lingering aroma from bakeries in Belgium - not to mention the not-so pleasant visa troubles with the fussy Belgians - and the incessant buzz one finds in London, writes Edwin Naidu.

Travel series: Part 2

Strolling through Oxfordshire is among the things that remains fresh in my memory from this super exciting trip, along with the different tastes of life in Wallingford. Bland Italian food, yummy Thai fare, good old English food accompanied by beer, Wallingford was about eating. I must have put on a good few kilograms on this trip.

If Belgium was about my buddies, Bela and Levente, the amazing food and the range of beer, not forgetting the best of Britain’s Basildon, Depeche Mode in Antwerp, Britain was hard work and some extra special down time. I just wish there was more time to savour London, which ranks as one of my favourite cities, because of its quirky nature with so much to do and see. Getting there is not so easy.

Biggest takeaways

When I discovered London calling for a workshop, I gathered all the documents required before applying for a visa from the agency in Sandton, which processes it for the Brits.

To my surprise, the visa was ready for collection within five days. The world can learn from the Poms’ super-fast efficiency, especially their “I am more important than you” neighbours across the channel in Belgium. I must warn you, one does pay for the privilege. They charged R1906 for a six-month visa, payable online. On arrival at the appointed time, I spent another R700 because they reckoned they would assist me in filling out the document. Still, they were efficient. That’s why I love the Brits.

I spent six nights in the United Kingdom and only four in Brussels to say hello to my dear friends and experience a bit of the land of the European Union with whom I once engaged fondly via a fascinating project driven by the EU Delegation in South Africa. They always struck me as fascinating people. However, obtaining the Belgium visa via TLS took a lot of work. On each occasion, they painfully asked for additional information.

First, they ask that one print, date, and sign a form and add it to the documents supporting your application. At least 20 pages of documents from one person? I am convinced it equates to many trees being killed by the same nation that prides itself on saving the planet with the best public relations around the environment, driven by Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission.

EU policies aim to protect the environment and biodiversity, minimise risks to human health, and promote the transition to a circular economy. They should start by considering how much paper is used when applying for a visa to visit Belgium.

Secondly, how can one’s carbon footprint be reduced if one forces multiple trips on one for a visa? Ironically, you would have thought that having secured a visa for the main country, with Belgium as a stopover, would have made the process more seamless. Although these visa-granting nations use the same provider, it seems they do not communicate, hence the need for duplication from nations who blow hot air about saving the environment.

Ideally, they should insist on the process being paperless and virtual; otherwise, stop paying lip service to give a damn about the environment. The first bone of contention was insurance – I obtained insurance for six days. Even though I spent four nights and five days in Brussels, the minimum requirement for insurance before a visa was granted was seven days. Next, they wanted a letter from my friend confirming that I would stay with them in Brussels. His ID document and email were insufficient for them to believe me. Finally, they asked for stamped bank statements showing that I had 45 euros for each day of my stay. 

Finally, I collected my passport with the visa on my fifth visit. Brussels was going to happen. But London, here I come. Arriving at Heathrow that morning after a long flight, I was greeted by my taxi driver, who was calling on WhatsApp. Having switched off roaming because our greedy mobile operators back home would have fleeced me, I took advantage of the free WI-FI. It’s only in Africa where the operators mint money out of data. OR Tambo does not offer anything for free – and their customs officials are generally needy.

It was a fantastic, crispy Sunday. I was driven from Heathrow to Oxfordshire, almost like I was on the set of the famous British crime series Midsomer Murders. Once out of busy London on the M25, one is transported to a picturesque, beautiful countryside, which makes one glad to be alive. In less than an hour, we were in Wallingford. I checked in at The George Hotel, a 16th-century town centre inn. It was within walking distance of everything. Close to the River Thames, one could walk alongside had it not been rainy and muddy.

I was in room 306. My modest room had a much-needed heater and a television with not too many channels. One kept hearing the rumble of pipes and other sounds throughout. The following day, at breakfast, I was told that the hotel had a ghost lurking in one of the rooms. It turns out a jilted love committed suicide, and the spirit loved the hotel too much. Adding to the eerie atmosphere is a cemetery a mere five minutes away.

Indeed, should the ghost of The George hang out with its kind? Poor soul didn’t disturb me or my friends, so there is a space for us all on this beautiful planet.

Homeless: Former soldier Danny set up a home on the streets of London.

On the first day, we shared pizza for lunch during an excellent get-to-know-you session at CABI headquarters in Wallingford. Bothina, from Egypt, wrote everyone’s name in Arabic. It was special. We tasted different foods, such as delicious mangoes from the Philippines courtesy of Joel, chips for Melanie and coconut concoctions. There was traditional British shortbread and the most amazing chocolates from Ruth.

This was a wonderful, modern green building. This place could tempt me to want to move back to the office one day. Of course, in my dreams or if the dream job tempts me.

Dinner is at Avanti, 200 metres down the road from The George. There is no internet here, but there is a welcoming host, bland Italian food, and great company. The week whizzed by with different eating experiences to tantalise the taste buds.

Get on your bike: London is made for walking and is friendly for cyclists, too.

After a few days in Wallingford, a 30-minute bus ride from the famous Oxford, I headed for one night in London. It is always a pleasure to be reminded of the red post boxes, the double-decker bus, and sights and scenes familiar with London that one would see, particularly in the James Bond movies.

My stay at The Belgrove Hotel for 60 pounds (R1 450) spent on hotel accommodation irks me as the worst place I have stayed. It has a musty stairway from the ground floor to the third level. The poky room had a single bed, shared bathrooms and a shower. There was a television with just the boring BBC game channels. There was no place to move. The view of a deserted office from the window that could not open differs from my idea of giving your guest the best experience. But do they care?

Walking around the station’s vicinity was good after hearing about Kings Cross in a Pet Shop Boys song in the late eighties. Plus, I needed to get out of this hellhole called The Belgrove. I achieved my steps that day, exceeding 15,000 on the counter.

Woof Woof: A motorist driving Mr or Miss Daisy through the busy city.

My dinner at Nandos for a taste of home was as disappointing as being at home. Hot means tepid for the Brits, just as it does for the one-time chicken kings from Lorentzville, Johannesburg. My meal cost R465. It was a prego roll, chicken wings and chips. It was edible.

Lately, I have experienced chefs, whether at The Baron in Kyalami or Mugg & Bean in Woodmead, who play deaf when one requests chicken well done. They serve it almost raw and slimy. Well done means almost like a braai style. Nandos is over-rated and over-priced. I didn’t have to visit London to get that knocked into my head. At least their chicken smelled good, though.

Nando’s in Kings Cross, London: Over-rated or not, Nandos remains popular with the Brits as is with South Africans.
A taste of home: Edwin’s meal at Nandos, prego roll, chicken wings and chips, was priced at R465.

On another occasion, God Knows how angry we were to get chicken that smelled at The Baron Woodmead. But the manager insisted it was good and he would eat it for supper. He chastised the waiter, saying the lost sale would be docked from his pay. After over twenty years, the man’s surly attitude and poor service equals a lost customer. God Knows there is plenty of chicken in Joburg!

Looking scruffy, not far from Camden Town, I came across Jessim’s Barber Shop. A shave was a rather steep 15 pounds, amounting to around R360. He was very chatty and knew a South African, a regular client, who had been living in London for around four decades. The walls of the barbershop were adorned with fading posters of faded footballers. I looked better for the next leg of the journey—or so I thought. I walked for a few hours, taking in the air, the busy buzz, and felt invigorated until I reached my room at The Belgrove.

Hair we go: Barber Jessim prepares Edwin Naidu for Brussels after his London walkabout with a pricey snip.

London was short, sharp and tweet. While Belgium’s miserly one-week visa has expired, my expensive British visa lasts until late June; who knows, one may return to taste if the big Mac that is Nandos has upped its game. Or a chance to see Simple Minds? Sweet Dreams (Are Made of this)?

*Original and exclusive to NOWinSA, courtesy of our esteemed contributor and jack-of-all-trades journalist Edwin Naidu, this article (© Higher Education Media) is the last of a two-part travel series on his recent trip to Brussels and London (Part 1 – Brussels).

Edwin Naidu
Edwin Naidu
Jack-of-all-trades journalist Edwin Naidu talks about cars on Capricorn FM during the urban lunch adventure with King Bash on Friday.
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