When I was in Europe…

This is not Africa. This is Europe.

Everybody has a unique selling point, an impressive trait they can yank out of the archives to impress strangers.

A few years back, I had the joy of telling people I was a rock star. Unfortunately, this exchange would always be short-lived; the excitement on people’s faces would usually expire by the time I mentioned my band name, Mr Grasshopper and the Butterflies.

More recently, I’ve been more successful with my conversation starters.

“When I was in Africa…” has been my ever-reliable catchcry, a phrase able to penetrate the interest of any new acquaintance. Since returning home in late 2009, I must have unintentionally spurted out these words hundreds of times, each time on my way to recounting a memory with a tenuous link to the topic at hand.

While my latest trip up north hasn’t been nearly as exotic as my eight-month adventure across southern and eastern Africa, at least it’s added another weapon to my artillery. No longer will I need to refer to my beloved Africa in every second conversation; “When I was in Europe…” can now find its way into my repertoire.

Whereas Africa was about collecting experiences, my main mission in Europe was ticking familiar placenames off the list. In the Dark Continent, the closest I came to this was when I drove past Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro, the world’s tallest free-standing mountain. Unfortunately, I never actually saw the mountain; a thick layer of fog reduced my vision to zilch.

Thankfully, I have had far more success in Europe.

When I was at Abbey Road… I tried not to get hit by a car.

Abbey Road from an alternate angle.

There’s a reason the cover of The Beatles’ Abbey Road is treated with such reverence; the photo is almost impossible to snap. To re-live the moment, one must not only infuriate local residents – each of whom are probably sick of the never-ending traffic of visiting Beatles fans – but also put a friend’s life at risk. Given that Abbey Road is a busy inner-city street, it takes much patience to stop traffic just to walk across the world’s most celebrated zebra crossing. What’s more difficult, though, is finding a speedy photographer brave enough to stand in the middle of a three-way intersection/roundabout. They have only seconds to capture the moment on film. Any slower than that and they won’t live to tell the tale.

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When I was at Stonehenge… I went wildlife watching.

Stonehenge up close.

While millions of tourists visit this famous sun dial for the postcard views, I seemed to find more amusement in the activities of a few sparrows. As I crept around the monument, I watched as these birds nested in the moss-covered cracks of the rocks. Imagine calling one of the world’s most iconic natural features your home? I’m sure the birds tweet about it all the time.

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When I was in Bath… I found joy in a novelty gift shop.

Needs no subtitle.

The number one rule in Bath is to never use electronic devices; over the course of history, hundreds of visitors have been electrocuted whilst photographing the town’s iconic Abbey. Having done my research beforehand, I managed to avoid such a fate. On the contrary, I was able to appreciate the historic city for what it is… a shopping heaven. My brother and I happened to arrive in Bath on a significant day for the municipality; a new Krispy Kreme store was opening. Throughout the day, a trail of keen doughnut munchers lined up outside the franchise, each one desperate to get their hands on a Bavarian Cream. Nearby lived Hawkin’s Bazaar, an eclectic collection of unnecessary rubbish. As a bizarre Hawkins infamous for spurting out unnecessary rubbish, I was proud to share its name.

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When I was at La Sagrada Familia… my neck incurred some serious aches.

The cranes are only a temporary exhibition.

To quote Arj Barker – in reference to the Sydney Opera House – “When that thing’s finished…” From the outside, Gaudi’s work in progress is a sight to behold; intricate carvings narrate Jesus’ birth and death as towering candle-sticks reach out toward the heavens. In the background cranes mimic the building’s yet-to-be-built summit, each one carting construction materials to a limited number of hard hats. From the inside, the La Sagrada Familia is an awe-inspiring structure; one is left to follow the cream-coloured struts as they lead up towards an impeccable roof. It is truly a building like none other, one that I imagine is costing the economically-deprived Spain a fortune. God would be furious.

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When I was at the Picasso Museum…
I littered a busker with bum change.

Geelong Cats memorabilia at the Picasso Museum.

At six euros ($9), the Picasso museum was the only art exhibition in Europe that forced me to open my wallet (although most of London’s galleries encouraged me to make a kind donation of £3). With admissions fee come trendy bourgeoisie. With bourgeoisie come eternally long queues. Over the thirty minute wait, I had little to amuse myself apart from a nearby busker. My brother commented that this man – having claimed the ultimate busking position – must have been loaded. In order to see how much cash he had earned I decided to offer him some more compliments. I searched through my wallet to find four small coins, each worth… one euro cent. For the rest of the trip, my brother never stopped reminding me of my thriftiness.

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When I was at Buckingham Palace… I rocked out to The Beatles.

Why did the Queen's Guards cross the road?

As somebody who treats all things royal with unrelenting cynicism, my expectations for the Changing of the Guard ceremony were mild. I nevertheless found myself caught up in the royal buzz, ruthlessly pushing my way to the front of the crowd to gain prime position. To my surprise, the ceremony was much more than a pompous display of British nationalism. The national anthem was not to be heard once; in its place was Paul McCartney’s signature number “Live and Let Die”. More than that, the marching band reminded me of my own high school symphony experiences, of concealed asides between band members and the occasional inappropriate smile. The comparison ends there, though; I’d be kidding myself to even mention Box Hill High’s Wind Symphony in the same sentence as this iconic English troupe.

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When I was at Westminster Abbey… I was taken for a tour by Scar.

Photography is not allowed inside Westminster.

Jeremy Irons has a prolific career in cinema and theatre, having won a Best Actor Oscar for his 1990 role in Reversal of Fortune. In my eyes, however, Irons’ name and voice belong to only one character – Scar, the antagonist from The Lion King. Of all the fictional Disney characters I expected to provide commentary for an attraction such as Westminster Abbey, Scar was probably not on my list. I nonetheless revelled in this unlikely gimmick, continuously pushing buttons on my audio console to be haunted by Irons’ deep register. I guess it takes someone like Scar to make the Abbey – the world’s most elaborate graveyard – even the least bit interesting.

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When I was at London’s West End…  I couldn’t hold back my tears.

Simba outside the Lyceum Theatre.

Speaking of The Lion King, there are few films so able to affect me at an emotional level. After all, I was famous in high school for being “the guy that never cried”. As one might expect, the theatrical version of the Disney musical is just as magic as the film. Indeed, within seconds of the opening number Circle of Life I was choking back tears. My eyes could not bear to be mere passive observers; there was something about the giant elephant trouncing up the stairs toward the spiralling Pride Rock staircase that left me in a complete mess. It was bliss.

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Thank you for reading Kev in Europe. Below are links to the other articles in this series: