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Tommy’s travel tip #2: London

February 22nd, 2009 No comments

The Thames near London BridgeTravel tip #2: Buy a cheap thing the first time you see it!

January is shopping season. I never used to understand why anyone would fly halfway across the globe to shop in countries where the cost of living is so much higher. But now I do. The reason is the heavy discount, which we just don’t see in Australia. The thing is, after a 50% discount, prices at Harrod’s, and designer labels like Zegna, are fairly comparable to normal prices you pay in a department store in Australia. Except what you are getting is what in Australia would be counted as “luxury” (read: “extremely expensive”). So, for example, an Armani Collezioni suit at Harrods, after 50% off, was £200 – about $500. $500 can just about buy you a badly cut, made-in-China no-brand suit in Australia. A brand-name tie there was about £25 after discount – the price of a Home Brand-equivalent tie at Myer. And Myer simply has too many bad patterns in its tie collection.

Regent Street, London -- shopping streetOf course, none of this was much use for me at Harrod’s. I didn’t have the luggage space to shop, and what I did buy (souvenirs) weren’t on discount. What intrigued me more was the institution that is Harrod’s.

Once very much “establishment”, Harrod’s has become somewhat … eccentric since Dodi al Fayed, the son of the store’s owner, became involved with the former Princess Diana. The al Fayeds have always taken a non-conventional approach to running the store. The main escalator well, for example, is decorated in an Egyptian motif, with a large Pharaohnic statue at its base. They also famously used an Egyptian cobra to protect the luxury shoe counter.

... and the other oneThe relationship of the company with the royal family steadily became worse. The royal warrants, shields declaring that a merchant is the appointed supplier of a certain class of goods to a royal, were removed from the store’s facade in 2001. Finally, when Diana and Dodi died, al Fayed turned bits of his store into memorials – a temple to their memory surrounded by a temple of consumerism. Pretty creepy, really. That said, I can sort of sympathise with al Fayed’s anger and his conspiracy theories. It is entirely plausible that The Establishment wanted Diana “removed” from the scene. Al Fayed’s reputation as a little crazy is probably as much the result of media exaggeration as his being driven to extremes by frustration at being largely ignored. Kind of like Lady Lucan.

Until next time,

TommyRegent Street, London -- shopping street

 

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Tommy’s travel tip #1: Sydney-Shanghai-London

February 15th, 2009 1 comment

Day 1. At the University of SydneyIn January 2009, I took a one-month trip to Europe, transitting for a few days at each end through China. Not having reliable access to internet, I decided to write my thoughts down – with a pen – in my little black notebook. So here they are, now twice edited and with a travel tip heading each note.

Travel tip #1: Write down travel tips as you think of them; writing them down “later” probably means you’ll forget them.

Some would define a city by a landmark building, a particular view, or, failing all else, a three-letter abbreviation.

For me, a city is first defined by its smell. When the airlock doors open at the airport, the smell of a city impresses itself even before the eye adjusts to the light outside. Whether it’s day or night, and regarldess of the weather, a city’s smell is probably its most indelible character.

In Sydney, it is the smell of a sun-burnt country overlaid with a fresh yet salty hint of the sea.

I don’t know what ingredients make up Shanghai’s odour. At a guess, it’s six parts air-borne pollutants and three parts the muddy East China Sea. To me, however, it is the pregnant hint of an exciting metropolis of 20 million souls.

Day 2: Shanghai: a breakfast standShanghai’s growth is incredible – that probably sounds cliched now. Still, I was struck by some surprise even on the fairly short journey from the airport. The futuristic wavy form of the new airport seems to have reproduced itself across the highway – in the form of a second terminal every bit as grand as the first. A maglev train zooms past alongside the highway. A giant, inverted step yramid dominates the skyline to the south – it’s the centrepiece of the 2010 World Expo site. As we ascend the great concrete rings that lead onto Lupu Bridge – Sydney Harbour Bridge magnified in concrete – I spot the new IFC, in the shape of a polygonic bottle opener.

Fellow crowd-snappers - Nanjing Road in ShanghaiDespite having read about and seen the building in print, I was struck by the way it dominated the Pudong skyline – and dwarfed the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, once the pride of Chinese engineering, now at a mere 284 metres tall (if my Communist-drilled memory serves) a ridiculously disproportional bulbous erection beside the IFC.

The city’s cultural life has also changed. Mandarin is even more dominantly the lingua franca. The person sitting next to you on the bus could be of any nationality. The traditional pancake-and-fried-dough breafast I grew up with is gone, replaced by a myriad of options ranging from bacon and eggs to northern Chinese fried buns – this I found out after an hour of fruitless searching one cold, cold morning.

Trip planning at Shanghai International AirportSome things, though, have not changed. The subway announcement still says “Nexus stop” instead of “Next stop”. There are huge crowds everywhere. When I got up on a ledge to take a photo of the famous crowds on Nanjing Road, I noticed two other photographers doing exactly the same thing.

London, on the other hand, smells like grilled ribs.

Until next time,

Tommy