A Travellerspoint blog

January 2009

Regional Identity and the Need to Travel

Rick Steves on Regional Identity and Europe, and me on the biological need to travel.

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In November I read an interesting article by Rick Steves. The article, entitled United Europe celebrates ethnic diversity, talks about how despite the increasing unity on the continent, regional peoples, cultures and languages are flourishing.

As Europe united, I feared its ethnic diversity would be threatened. But I find just the opposite is happening. In Europe there are three loyalties: to your region, to your nation and to Europe.

Ask a person from Munich where he's from and he'll say, "I'm Bavarian," or "I'm German" or "I'm European," depending on his generation and his outlook. Ask somebody from Barcelona, and she'll say, "I'm Catalunyan," or "I'm Spanish" or "I'm European," depending on her viewpoint. These days city halls all over Europe fly three flags: regional, national, and European.

Back in my entry on my trip to France for Bastille Day, in describing why I moved to Paris, I was a little rough on Rick Steves. I said:

Most of my experience in seeing Europe came from two sources: people’s slide shows of bus tours and Rick Steves. If ever there was a combination of sources of inspiration to inspire you NOT to go to the place, it was these two... At home, you flip on PBS to find Rick Steves looking out a train window while his voice-over says, “the Swiss Alps have excellent train connections through them, and the trains are fast, reliable and frequent. You can even get food on board, as you see the crew and I sharing a few Swiss pastries.”

Let me know apologise for that. I still do think that his TV show is dull, but I was very impressed with his article. It communicates one of the main things I have enjoyed about Europe - it's diversity in culture and language. People take pride in their regional identity, but accept those with other identities.

You can check out more at the CNN travel site.


I also read another article by an intelligent and frankly very good looking author, a Mr. Greg Wesson. It's an article I wrote for a website called Travelblogs.com, entitled Monkeys With Suitcases: The Biological Imperative To Travel. The article, partially tongue in cheek, examines how the desire to travel is in our genes.

It is in our genes, in our genetic code, to be explorers, adventurers and travellers. As life has evolved from the primordial ooze to the wide diversity that exists on our little blue-green rock today, at every step the beings that eventual evolved into us where the ones that got out there, took the chance and made a move. We are chance-takers by genetic necessity. If we weren’t, we would have died out, or evolved into something very different, like rhesus monkeys, sheep or catfish. Overall in evolution, survival of the fittest might rule, but when it comes to human evolution, it is survival of the most likely to pack a change of underwear, a toothbrush and take off down the road.

You can read the full article at Travelblogs.com: Monkeys With Suitcases: The Biological Imperative To Travel

Posted by GregW 04:50 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged armchair_travel travel_philosophy Comments (0)

More of a Cloudy Broth Than a Pea Soup

Pictures from a foggy evening

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London has been cold for the past few weeks, causing our boiler to work overtime, but the cold snap seems to be passing, with temperatures rising over the weekend.

This evening is quite mild, actually, and with all the water around, rising temperatures of course mean fog.


London is famous for fog. In 1871, a New York Times article was the first to reference the thick clouds as pea soup. "London, particularly, where the population are periodically submerged in a fog of the consistency of pea soup." Implied in the quote is also the knowledge that the fog was yellow. Winston Churchill, in his 1918 tome A Traveller in War-Time noted that "London had been reeking in a green-yellow fog."

This yellowy pea soup was actually not fog at all, but low-lying pollution, caused by the burning of coal. This city was, after all, one of the leaders of the industrial revolution, and there were a number of factories and power-plants burning the stuff.

With the passage of the clean-air act of 1956, the pea soups have disappeared, but the image of London and fog still exists in most people's minds. In mine as well, as the fog rolled in I pulled on a jumper (that's a sweater for my North American friends) and headed out for a late evening constitutional and to snap some photos.

It might not be pea-soup, but it does bring a calm to everything. Plus, for the first time since I moved to the Isle of Dogs, I couldn't see the bright towers of Canary Wharf from my back garden.







Posted by GregW 15:45 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged living_abroad Comments (3)

A Day Tour Of Birmingham

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The train was late. 75 minutes late, to be exact. I should have seen it coming, but I was hopeful. That’s the trouble with being an optimist, the possibility of being disappointed. As they say, a pessimist is never disappointed.

I was heading up to Birmingham for a job interview, and had booked a ticket on Virgin Trains from London Euston station early on Tuesday morning.

On Friday, a plane crash which tragically killed three people also managed to knock out power to the west-coast mainline that runs from London up to Birmingham and on to Scotland. The line was fixed by Sunday morning, but then power was disrupted again on Sunday night. By Monday afternoon, things were running again.

“Trains weren’t running up to Birmingham this morning,” one of my flatmates said to me on Monday evening.

“Yeah, I know,” I replied. “I’m going to check later to see what the situation is, and if things still aren’t running, I’ll make other plans.”

“Like what?”

“Rent a car and drive up,” I replied.

“...or go up tonight,” my flatmate offered.

With alternate plans in mind, I checked the web on Monday around 8. Everything was up again and running fine.

“Perfect,” I thought. “Trains will be running tomorrow. I will stick with my original plan and use my booked tickets.”

In retrospect, it was the wrong plan to choose. Tuesday morning I woke up, checked the internet and was told that my train was on time. There were some problems on the line up to Rugby, but my train didn’t go through Rugby, so no problems.

By the time I arrived at Euston Station, however, things had fallen apart. The time for my train to board came and went with all of the travellers still standing in the main hall. After about 15 minute an announcement came over the loudspeaker.

“Attention please. Due to a fault on the line near Birmingham International station, trains to Birmingham and Manchester are currently suspended. Please remain in the main hall and wait for further information.” At the same time, the departures board changed to note every train delayed, with an indication that delays and cancellations should be expected.

At that point I had another decision to make - ditch the train and find a ride, or stick with the train. I had booked my train to arrive a full 50 minutes in Birmingham before my interview, so I knew that I had some leeway in train delays, but the uncertainty of not having an arrival time was stressful.

After 5 minutes I decided to try and find a car rental place and drive. I was just about to walk out of the train station when an announcement came over the loud speaker. “The 7:43 delayed train to Birmingham is now boarding.”

So I went with the train, leaving Euston 20 minutes behind schedule. Unfortunately, we lost time on the line as we had to wait for a long time outside of the Birmingham International station (the airport in Birmingham) for trains to get around the “rail fault,” whatever that is.

I finally arrived at Birmingham at 10:20, 20 minutes after the start of my interview. Luckily I had my interviewers number and had been able to call him and arrange to arrive late, but it wasn’t exactly the best way to settle oneself for an interview.


After the interview, I spent the day walking around Birmingham checking out the place and taking some photos. Birmingham was where my grandparents were from, so I was walking on the same streets as my ancestors.

In fact, as I was wondering around I saw a man hobbling towards me that looked a lot like one of my cousins, though about 20 years older and with a goatee. At first I just waved it off as one of those strange coincidences, seeing someone far from home that reminds you of someone from back home. After I passed the man, however, it struck me that he could have looked like my cousin because he shares some of the same genes. That man could have been a relative of mine! Unfortunately he was already past me when I made this realization, and frankly I wasn't sure what I would have said to the man anyway.

What would you have thought if a man came running up to you and in a strange accent said, "excuse me, do you think there is a possibility we are related?"

This is Victoria Square, named after the statue of Queen Victoria erected in 1901.



The Council House sits on one side of the square, with it's large dome and high clock tower rising up from the flat, pedestrian square.



Down the road is St. Phillip's Cathedral, part of the Church of England. As you can see from the photo below, there was snow on the ground. It was about 0 C and there was a light dusting of snow. That was enough, apparently, to impact the trains, as my train back to London was cancelled due to "inclement weather conditions" along with the aforementioned rail issues.


The other big church in Central Birmingham is St. Martin's, which is just outside the main train station and surrounded by modern day shopping complexes on one side and a farmer's market on the other.



This is the Selfridges store in the Bullring complex, right beside St. Martin's. On a sunny day like the Tuesday I was there, it was quite the view to see the sun reflecting off the round bobbles on the outside of the curvy building.



The farmer's market, on the other side of the church is loud, cramped and lively.


The Bullring is a shopping complex at the corner of The High Street and New Street, both which are now pedestrian shopping streets.



It's not all churches and shopping in Birmingham, though. There is some history.

James Watt, inventor of the steam engine, was from Birmingham. He partnered with Matthew Boulton, and they, along with engineer William Murdoch, developed and industrialized steam engine production (thanks in a large part to the tight fitting pistons and boring methods developed by John Wilkinson)


Near this statue is also The Hall of Memory. Birmingham's Hall of Memory was erected in the 1920s to commemorate the 12,320 Birmingham citizens who died in the "Great War."



I must admit that the name "The Hall of Memory" made me think of 1984. It does sound like the name of one of the departments in that book, doesn't it? "Take him to the Hall of Memory, and erase his memories of this event!"

Close to the Hall of Memory is a large arts complex, including the Symphony Hall.


Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of the UK from 1937 to 1940 was from Birmingham as well. His father, Joseph was a politician as well, and was mayor of Birmingham from 1873 to 1876. This Memorial is dedicated to his memory, and stands outside the main branch of the Birmingham Library in Chamberlain Square.


Birmingham is also home of The Electric. The cinema is the oldest working cinema in the UK first opening on December 27th 1909. Today it still shows films.


As I said, it was very cold there, and the canal through town was frozen over in some parts, and chock-a-block with ice in other.


I headed back to London that evening, only spending the day in Birmingham. As I said, my train back to London was cancelled, but luckily for me (though unluckily for those who were scheduled to take the service), I was able to catch a ride back on a train that was delayed 45 minutes, and ended up leaving Birmingham a full 3 minutes before my scheduled departure. I did have to stand until Coventry, but at least I got home on a day when the trains weren't really running.

Posted by GregW 04:20 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged business_travel Comments (6)

This Year Will Be Different

Reflections on 2008, fireworks to welcome in 2009 and looking ahead to the year that will be.

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Early in the year of 2001, I decided to move away from Toronto to Denver, Colorado. It was to be an internal company transfer, and everything was in place for the move. I had permission from my existing boss, permission from my new boss and the HR department were all on board. I was already looking at places I might want to live in Denver.

"2001 is going to be very different than 2000," I thought to myself.

It wasn't. If you read this blog, you know that I never did move to Denver, but continued to live in Toronto. Denver, at the time (perhaps even still today, I don't know) was very tech heavy, and a lot of the work that my company did was for technology and telecommunications companies. With the burst of the tech bubble and full scale slide of tech stocks, many of these companies decided to stop hiring consultants. The Denver office of my company decided to start laying people off, and with that I was not going to get my transfer.

I never really lost that dream, though, to live somewhere else. Over the years, though, it shifted from moving to the USA to moving somewhere farther afield. So every year, as midnight struck on New Years Eve and the new year was ushered in, I told myself, "This year is going to be different than last year."

Over the years since 2001, lots of things changed for me, but never that really big step of moving aboard.

Until last year. As I stood in the freezing cold of Quebec City last year ringing in 2008, I couldn't have predicted the course that my life was to take in 2008. By April I was unemployed (by choice) and by June I was living in the UK.

Turns out when I told myself on January 1, 2008 that things were going to be different, I was right. And I know that 2009 promises to be something I haven't experienced before either. After all, I am starting the year in a new country and hopefully on the verge of getting a job to work here (as opposed to having to fly to the USA every time I need some money).

So 2009 starts, and I don't know what it will hold. I just know that I'm excited about the adventure to come.


Last night I went to Waterloo Bridge and watched the fireworks put on by the city of London. The fireworks were sponsored by LG, the Korean electronics company. I guess life is good for them if they can afford to put on the fireworks display. Prior to the fireworks, there were a number of messages broadcast onto the side of building, including a somewhat strange one from Mayor Boris Johnson. Luckily the Gloomadon poppers didn't stop the fireworks display.

The night was cold, but nothing compared to last year's Quebec City -35 C.


From Waterloo Bridge I had a nice view of both the London Eye and the Parliament Building clock tower, known incorrectly as Big Ben. Actually, Big Ben is the name of the bell. Either way, the whole thing turns 150 years old this year. The clock tower, I mean, not the London Eye. That is pretty recent. I would be impressive if the Victorians could have built that, though.



A nice thing about London is that you can have alcohol at outdoor public events like this. I went to Sommerfield's and bought an 8 pack of Calsberg. Don't worry, folks, I didn't drink them all last night, but it was nice to have a few beers to warm me up as I waited for the fireworks to start.


Finally, the countdown started up, projected on a nearby building in multi-story high letters. Once we hit 0, the chimes from the Clock Tower started at the same time as the fireworks started going off.

If you can't see this video, go to Youtube to view it.

So, best of the new year to everyone reading. I know this my consistent new year's resolution for life to be different is guaranteed to happen. I wish you all the best in fulfilling your new year's resolutions and wishes.


In addition to the Mayor of London and LG, happy new year from me, too.

Posted by GregW 09:53 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged living_abroad migration_philosophy Comments (2)

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