Around the world in eight houses

The Olympics came to my city, and so did the world: it seemed impolite not to say hello. So, armed with only a camera and an Oyster card, we set off on a marathon of our own. The mission: to visit eight of the national ‘Hospitality Houses’ that have set up shop across London for the duration of the Games.

These Houses act as the national base for most of the competing countries: for their VIPs, their athletes, their media and officials. Many are not open to the public; but some outward-looking countries positively welcome visitors, recognising the value of a high-profile platform from which to promote their countries, their food, their music, and their eccentricities. Some are grand affairs, like the Dutch takeover of Ally Pally in north London; some are ticketed only, like the Czech House at the Business Design Centre in Islington (fronted by a double-decker bus doing press-ups on Upper Street); others still are completely free, including food and (non-alcoholic) drink, such as Bayt Qatar at the IET on Savoy Place, where hospitality goes to another level (the food looked remarkably good); and of course, there is the marvellous Borough of Hackney’s own Hackney House, down on Shoreditch High Street. But these were not among our targets for today

Things started out badly. By the time we’d reached Club France, housed in Old Billingsgate Fishmarket, the queue was stretched along the street. Neither of us could face the wait, failing at our first attempt, so we continued eastwards towards the Tower, thronged with tourists and Olympic visitors wearing or carrying their national signifiers. Always cosmopolitan, today London felt like the meeting place of the entire world. Up on Tower Hill, at Trinity House, was Austria House Tirol, the front terrace of which was open to the public.There was no queue, which immediately increased my admiration for all things Austrian, and with the sun shining, we ate lunch as if at a ski lodge; indeed, skis and snowboard’s littered the scene, and a chair lift seat leaned against Trinity House. Inside a red ‘phone box, there was a ‘yodel phone’; bar staff in lederhosen busied themselves and, had it not been for the thumping Tyrolean Techno, we might have been tempted to linger. But we had a race to run.

Next up were the Danes, who had taken over St Katharine’s Dock, bringing with them stylish furniture, free food (‘100% Danish meat’) and more Lego than you could shake a relay baton at.  The Lego wind turbine was appropriately Danish, but it was the modest plastic rendition of the Olympic park that kept the kids (and me) engrossed.

We had already eaten, so we moved on, taking the DLR to Westferry to find the Deutsches Haus Fan Fest at the Museum of London Docklands. There was good beer and good wine (served in a proper glass no less) as well as pretzels and rye bread and wurst. What’s more, there were tv screens showing the ongoing German/Japanese table tennis battle: actual Germans had showed up in their hundreds to cheer on their women in the ping pong. It was a slick and substantial operation, no entry charge and no queue. Had it been something other on the screens, I would have – again – been tempted to linger over a couple more Weissbiers, but I remained disciplined.

We took the cable car from Germany to Jamaica. The Emirates Air Line, as I suppose we must call it, ferries thousands across from Royal Victoria Docks to North Greenwich and the Dome. The queues were lengthy, but moved quickly enough; the views from the gondola were fantastic, but it too moved quickly, too quickly by far. The Air Line is London’s new London Eye, less an addition to the transport system, more a spectacle for Londoners and tourists, a new perspective on the city (and the City). Despite the queues and the brevity of the crossing, it’s an exhilarating way to cross the river.

After the sophistication of the Germans and the Danes, and the thrill of the ride over the Thames, the descent into the suburban brutality of North Greenwich was unnerving. I hadn’t been here since the thoroughly disappointing production of Damon Albarn’s Monkey; and I hadn’t missed it. The place was thronged with thousands of visitors and hundreds of Games Makers. We had timed it badly, as an event had clearly just finished and the area was filled with people heading for the tube. Getting to Jamaica House, which is inside the Dome and therefore the security cordon, involved a convoluted route around past the tube station and back again. Once inside it became no less manic, and both of us became tetchy. For me, the Dome has become simply an over-packed and over-sized peripheral shopping centre and multiplex; inside it is quite charmless (despite its still stunning exterior). The mood did not improve when we discovered that Jamaica House was full; the prospect of hanging around for a couple of hours did not appeal. Besides we were on a schedule.

The tube whisked us easily to London Bridge, where we struck gold at the House of Switzerland at Glaziers Hall, arriving just in time to see their triathlon winning athlete, Nicola Spirig, being greeted by the crowd and collected Swiss media pack. The excitement of the crowd rubbed off a little and the tribulations of our failure at Jamaica House were forgotten in the swirl of red and white, cooked cheese and beer.

The RV1 (possibly my favourite bus in London) took us to Somerset House, where Casa Brasil has set up camp, taking over the courtyard as well as much of the exhibition space. As the hosts of the next Games in 2016, they are taking this seriously, with live music every night, for the duration. As it was, the performance of Sargento Pimenta (a samba act doing Beatles covers) made everything pleasantly surreal.

By this point we were well into the home straight: only one House was left on our itinerary. Belgian House was scheduled to be open until 2am, and of course the beer would be good. We barrelled along Aldwych and Fleet Street as far as the little alley down to Inner Temple and a little piece of centuries past. We were almost there… but it was full. We stood in the aimless queue for half an hour, waiting to see if they’d release more tickets (it’s £5 in), before we conceded defeat and headed for home, exhausted.

That we finished on failure was a disappointment, but overall I feel proud of our achievement. We failed to get into three of the eight Houses we visited, but when we did succeed, the hospitality of the nations concerned was warm. The quirkiness of the Danes and the Austrians was commendable; the enthusiasm of the Swiss (not a phrase I ever expected to write) was infectious; the grooviness of  Rio was uplifting; and the sheer quality of the Germans was embracing. By the time we got home, to the news of Team GB’s success, we both felt far more Olympic than I ever thought we would.

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