A Travellerspoint blog

June 2009

Red Dragon

Visiting the Welsh Capital

sunny 24 °C

I am trying to do at least one weekend away every month while I am living here in London, at least while being abroad is still a new and exciting thing. Eventually the novelty will wear off and I will spend my time shut in my flat bemoaning the weather and the state of the trains, like most Brits. For now I’m taking advantage of living in Europe and getting to see the place.

Originally when I was envisioning these weekend city breaks, I pictured myself jetting off to exotic locations in Europe like Riga, Copenhagen or Bratislava. Due to the rather unfortunate state of the British Pound as compared to other currencies nowadays, I’ve readjusted my sites to include more local destinations as well. Given that I’ve just returned last month from Monaco, which was the most expensive trip I ever took, at least on a cost per day basis, this month I decided on a short stint away in pound-friendly Cardiff, Wales.

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Cardiff is the capital of Wales, which is one of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Wales, or Cyrmu in the Welsh language, is on the western side of the island of Great Britain. Cardiff is in the south of Wales on the Bristol Channel which separates Wales from South-West England. The symbol of Wales is a big, red dragon, and as I wandered around Cardiff I saw red dragons everywhere.

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The city is quite cosmopolitan. It used to be quite the coal mining town, but now you are more likely to find artists and actors in Cardiff than miners. Wales has a history of song and singers, and The Wales Millennium Centre, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff International Arena and St. David’s Hall all provide places for local and visiting acts to play. It is also home to a few television broadcasters, including BBC Wales who produce both Doctor Who and Torchwood at their Cardiff studios.

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I took a Cross-Country train from Birmingham to Cardiff on Friday night. Cross-Country is the name of the brand, not just a description of the route of the train, by the way. Speaking of the state of the trains in Britain (which I was, four paragraphs ago), I think Cross-Country must have the most cramped train carriages I’ve been on since arriving here. My knees were pressed firmly against the back of seat in front of me, and I’m not exactly a giant among men. I arrived in Cardiff after two hours of sitting with my knees banging off the hard plastic seatback, and I was ready for a drink. Luckily the sun was out and the patios were open.

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After my drink, I did a quick tour around the area of the town hall called Cathay’s Park.

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The next day, I headed down to the shore of Cardiff Bay. The area has been redeveloped in recent years, turning what used to be a working dock into a centre of leisure and shopping.

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It’s also home to the Welsh Assembly, known as the Senedd, pronounced sen-eth. The dd in Welsh is pronounced like the English th sound, but it seems to me a little softer and run on. It is also sometimes represented as ff in English. Cardiff in Welsh is Caerdydd – Car-dith. Welsh words are often long, and because of the use of what are constants in the English language to represent vowels and other sounds, it often looks like they have randomly drawn letters to put on the signs. W is the most used vowel, making an “oo” sound. Bus in Welsh is bws, said “boos” like it rhymes with moose. I would make a joke about the Welsh language here, but Mark Twain is a much better writer than I am, so I’ll let him do it. “Names are not always what they seem. The common Welsh name BZJXXLLWCP is pronounced Jackson.”

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The Senedd building is beautiful. The mostly glass building is open for visitors, so I took a tour around. There weren’t many tourists there that day, just myself and a woman from Australia who now lives in Sheffield. Because of the low number of visitors, one of the women working at the information desk actually took us around the building on a guided tour, including going down into the debating chamber, known as the Siambr.

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The building is meant to be as open as possible to give the public the ability to view the assembly at work. It is also very environmentally friendly, with geothermic heating and cooling and lots of natural light. There is a giant mirror that hangs above the debating chamber, filtering light down into the chamber from three stories above.

Most of the chamber is made with local wood and stone, but the roof is made of Canadian wood, both because it is easier to mould into the swooping shape and also because the amount of wood required was quite significant.

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After visiting the Assembly Building, I grabbed some lunch. First I tried Subway Sandwiches, but halfway through the creation of my six-inch BMT on wheat, the fire alarm rang, and we were evacuated. I abandoned my sandwich and instead bought a prawn-mayo sandwich at Tescos.

After lunch, I headed around the bay. There is a famous church on the shore of the bay called the Norwegian Church. As a popular and busy port, Cardiff always had lots of international visitors. The Norwegian merchant fleet was quite large, and used Cardiff as a base of operations.

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Norwegians still visit, as can be evidenced by this video of a Norwegian marching band. They were there to serenade the church with the popular Norwegian song about a New York disco club named after a beach in Brazil.

At the Copa… Copacabana! The hottest club north of Havana.

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The bay is now enclosed by a dam and causeway. Boats entering the bay have to go through a lock to get from the level of the Bristol Channel up to the level of Cardiff Bay.

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The other side of the bay is a place called Penarth. It’s nice near the bay...

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...but quickly becomes suburbs. I have nothing against suburbs; they just aren’t very interesting to visit as a tourist. I did find this place though.

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Frankly I always thought a royal court would be more glamorous.

There was a few more things I took photos of along the way.

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Arriving back in the town centre of Cardiff, I went to check out the castle. The castle’s keep dates back to 1091, but has had lots of work over the years. The interior of the outer walls includes a few other buildings, including a Victorian mansion but with a medieval theme.

The Norman Keep:

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The Victorian Mansion:

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From the Grounds:

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Saturday evening was the FIM British Speedway Grand Prix, which is a dirt bike racing event. The event was held at Millennium Stadium, so I thought about going just to see the inside of the stadium in action, but decided against it upon learning that the cheapest tickets were £29. The event was very popular, though, especially with Polish people. Walking around on Saturday afternoon and early evening, the Polish flag was more often displayed than the Welsh banner or the Union Jack.

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Millennium Stadium is nice, and was right by my hotel.

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It was a long walk right round the bay, and I was tired from the walk, the sun and frankly the beer the night before, so I decided to grab a quick dinner and call it an early night. About 10 o’clock I was in my hotel room watching the BBC when the fire alarm in the building went off. I had to evacuate a building for the second time in one day.

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After having been out in the sun all day, I will admit that my skin was pretty red and putting my head on it, I could still feel it radiating heat back to me. I wondered if perhaps the heat radiating off my sun burn might be the cause of the multiple fire alarms I had experienced, but didn’t bring it up with the fire fighters just in case they decided to arrest me for being too hot.

After spending 30 minutes outside with my fellow Holiday Inn guests, it was determined that there was no fire and we were let back in.

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After my massive walk on Saturday, I decided to take it easy on Sunday. I found out on line that there was a Canadian Consulate in Cardiff, so I wanted to see it. I’m always interested in seeing the embassies and consulates of Canada to see if they are impressive or not.

Cardiff’s was a first, in that I actually couldn’t find the consulate at all. I went to the address listed on the Department for Foreign Affairs website, but all I found was a industrial park which was home to a flooring company.

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I decided to continue walking along the road I was on, hoping that it would wind back around towards Cardiff Bay.

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It didn’t, and I wound up having to turn around and retrace my steps after walking for a couple of miles. So much for taking it easy. I did, however, check out this somewhat desolate looking beach, made up of large boulders, a strange black substance that looks like dried molten metal and tiny black disks. Hopefully the beaches materials weren’t radioactive or carcinogenic.

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The weather had been glorious Friday night, all day Saturday and Sunday morning, so I can’t complain that Sunday afternoon clouded over and we had bursts of rain. I bought a book and grabbed a seat inside a local pub, sipping a pint and reading. I grabbed a quick dinner and headed back to the hotel for the 8PM showing of Top Gear, one of my favourite TV programs over here in the UK.

About 20 minutes after the show had started, the announcers were drowned out by the sounds of claxons. Another fire alarm, and I had to evacuate again. This time round the fire department was quicker to determine there was no fire and let us back in, so I only missed about 20 minutes of the show. I’m just glad that the alarms went off in the early evening and not at 3 in the morning.

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Despite not getting woken up by a fire alarm at 3 in the morning, Monday morning came around too quickly, and I was back on the train to Birmingham bright and early. After walking to the train station in the rain, I grabbed a First Great Western train to Bristol Parkway before transferring to a Cross-Country train up to Birmingham. The First Great Western train had such comfy and roomy seats compared to the Cross-Country train, I was concerned that I had perhaps accidently sat down in First Class, but I hadn’t. Cross-Country is just really cramped. It is the Ryan Air of train travel, I suppose, though they don’t charge you to use the loo.

I enjoyed my visit to Cardiff. This weak pound thing really isn’t so bad, actually. I’m getting to see a lot more of the UK so far than I probably would have otherwise, and there is still a lot of it to see. I mean, I haven’t been down to Cornwall yet or up to Scotland. Manchester is still unvisited, and I haven’t ventured over the water to see Northern Ireland. Then there are all those islands to see – Isle of Mann, Jersey and the Bailiwick of Guernsey.

Don’t get me wrong. I still want to visit Riga, Copenhagen and Bratislava, but I also want to make sure I don’t neglect visiting the country in which I’ve chosen to live. After all, the weather is great and the trains sure are comfy and fast. At least, that’s how I feel about them now… for the most part.

I must admit that Cross-Country’s seats sure our close together. Not to mention that we were five minutes late arriving into Bristol Parkway on that First Great Western service. And the price! £39 to go from Cardiff to Birmingham? Outrageous. Why, when I was in Italy, I paid €4.40 for a similar length train journey. Finally, that rain sure was heavy on Monday morning, was it not?

I’ll make a good Brit some day. Now I just need to figure out how to complain intelligently about the luggage handling at Heathrow.

Posted by GregW 10:59 Archived in Wales Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Music and Memory

Songs that take you somewhere

sunny 23 °C

I am in Cardiff in Wales. I ventured down for the weekend from Birmingham, mostly because it looked close on the map, though I have since found out that the train from London to Cardiff is quicker than the train from Birmingham to Cardiff.

Last night I wound up having a few pints in a bar called Cuba. In the bar there was a band playing called Honey Fungus, an acoustic duo from Wales. One of the songs they broke into was Hotel California. I smiled, because back in 2002 I was in another place called Cuba listening to that exact same song.

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Sometimes songs that you hear when you travel are bound to end up sticking in your head and always reminding you of that place.

Sometimes it is because you hear the song when you are there. For example, Two Princes by The Spin Doctors reminds me of Shawnee, Pennsylvania. I went there when I was in university for a our spring break with a bunch of friends. We were at the bottom of the ski hill (yes, there is skiing in Pennsylvania, but it's not great) getting ready to head up the hill for the day. A radio was playing from the lodge. The song Two Princes came on. At the end of the song, the DJ came on and said, "man, I love that song. I wish I could hear it again. Hey, wait a minute! I'm the DJ. I can play it again." And then he proceeded to play the song a second time. It was so bizarre that me and my friends all started laughing, and now whenever I hear that song, I am back at the bottom of the ski hill in Pennsylvania.

The Ketchup Song by Las Ketchup reminds me of Chile. I was on the Navimag ferry between Pto. Montt and Pto. Natales in Chile. One night a couple of Australian girls tried to teach me to dance the Ketchup dance to the Ketchup Song in the bar / disco of the ferry.

I had similar experiences with The Soca Boys' "Follow the Leader" during my trip to Mexico in 2001, Wonderwall during a trip to Whistler 1997, or Let's Get It Started by the Black Eyed Peas for Costa Rica 2004.

Other times, it's because of lines in the song. When I was in China, I remember humming Beautiful Day by U2 a lot to myself, mostly because it contains the lines "See the world in green and blue, see China right in front of you."

I spent a year working in New Jersey just outside of New York City. There is a ton of references to New Jersey in the song "Tweeter and the Monkey Man," originally by The Travelling Wilburys. The song is a tribute to New Jersey boy Bruce Springsteen. For me, though, the version I best like of the song is by the Canadian punk band The Headstones. Two lines in the song really stuck with me.

Now the town of Jersey City is quieting down again
I'm sitting in a gambling club called the Lion's Den

I spent a weekend in Jersey City. Like much of New Jersey close to Manhattan, it's one of those places that has two sides - the nice side of condos, restaurants and bars along the water and close to the transit hubs into the city, and the dirty, grungy side further away from the Hudson River. I took a walk through both sides of the town, and I could see more than a few places that probably had illegal gambling games going on in the back rooms.

The other lines from the song that really struck me were the lines:

I guess I'll go to Florida and get myself some sun
There ain't no more opportunity here, everything's been done

If you've spent any time in Florida away from the tourist traps, you'll find a lot of people from other places, people who seem like they just burnt out on life and somehow wound up in Florida, working lazily at menial jobs, just making enough cash to get some booze and hit the beach. Some days I really felt like joining them.

Hotel California, originally by The Eagles, actually reminds me of a few places I've been. California, obviously, when I would often find myself humming the song to myself. It also reminds me of a few actual hotels I've seen - one in Costa Rica and one in Canada. Whenever I see a hotel called "Hotel California," I can't help but start singing the song. The lines "you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave," has always stopped me from actually checking in to a place that shares the song's name, though.

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In 2002 I travelled down to Cuba for a beach holiday. Myself and some friends were staying at a resort, but we wanted to get out and see Cuba so we often wandered away from the hotel. One day we took some of the bikes from the hotel and pedalled into the town of Varadero. We pedalled around, and wound up grabbing lunch at a little beach-shack restaurant. Myself and my friends were the only non-Cubans in the place.

There was a trio of musicians called "Trio Amanecer" that was wandering from table to table entertaining the guests. They played mostly Cuban music, but when they got to our table and saw that we were definitely not native Cubans (I am white and I was with 3 Asian guys) they decided to play some foreign music, so they played Hotel California. The singer didn't speak English, so he was phonetically singing the song. Generally he did pretty well, but there were some things he messed up. After the song, I bought one of the trios CDs, which included Hotel California.

So that's what I was thinking about, standing in a bar in Cardiff, Wales. I was thinking about Cuba, and chicken grilled over an open fire, an ice cold cola and three Cubans playing an American song for a bunch of Canadians.

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Posted by GregW 15:16 Archived in Wales Tagged armchair_travel Comments (1)

The World is My Burger

Heading down to Victoria Square for the First ever Birmingham International Food Fair.

sunny 24 °C

The weather this week is amazing. It’s sunny and in the mid-20s Celsius. Shockingly, this is the first week of Wimbledon, which most Brits swear to me is a sure indication that it is going to rain. I went to Wimbledon last year, and it didn’t rain on me either, though, so perhaps it is just the strange obsession that British people seem to have with claiming English weather is always cold and rainy every summer, even while the sun is shining and people are wearing shorts and sunscreen.

The sunny weather is not only a windfall for Wimbledon’s little lawn tennis contest, but it also comes the same week the Birmingham is hosting their first ever International Food Fair. The food fair, sponsored by a local radio station, offers “visitors a culinary tour of the world right in the heart of the city,” according to the Birmingham City Council’s website. There are over 60 stalls offering cooked food, market stalls and drinks from England and abroad. There is a small stage which hosts local artists to entertain the crowds.

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Monarch, the tour company, also created a beach nearby. A little touch of the Costa del Sol, right here in Birmingham, about as far from any beach as you can get in the UK.

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Tuesday evening myself and a few coworkers went to the fair to try Hogan’s Cider. Hogan’s is one of the more local of the international offerings, being as they are from Warwickshire, just 40 minutes down the road from Birmingham.

When the weather is warm and sunny, a cool apple cider is always an excellent drink choice. The cider from Hogan’s was very good, sweet with a touch of tartness without being acidic. I’ve often found with cider that the acid means that after a couple I can’t drink anymore for fear of developing heartburn, but not with the Hogan’s. Many a pint was consumed by our little band of drinkers.

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To line the stomach a little bit, I went a touch more international than Warwickshire, and got a nice German bratwurst.

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Today I wandered down for lunch, and ended up grabbing a couple of burgers from the “Meats of the World” stand. The name alone was enough to attract me, given my love of both Meat and The World, but it was the menu that really drew me in.

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I started with a Springbok burger. The springbok is a South African antelope known for its jumping abilities, used both to attract a mate and to make hasty escapes from danger. The springbok is the national animal of South Africa, and the nickname of the South African national rugby team. The British and Irish Lions, the national Rugby team of the UK, is currently down in South Africa taking on the rugby Springboks, so I figured that eating a springbok burger would some how indicate support for my adopted nation’s rugby players.

The springbok is also the symbol of the Royal Canadian Dragoons from Petawawa, Ontario. During the Second Boer War in the late 1800s/early 1900s, The Dragoons were camped in a field. A Boer force attempted to launch a sneak-attack on the Canadians, but the Boers’ movements startled the nearby springboks. The leaping antelopes raised the concern of the Canadian commander, who ordered his forces to the ready. The Canadians, alert and ready for the attack, were able to defeat the Boers, and thus they adopted the springbok as their mascot.

So not only am I supporting the Irish and British Lions rugby team of England, but also supporting the Canadian forces. Supporting both the country of my birth and the country where I live. Sweet.

Back to the burger, the springbok was quite lean and dense, drier and less greasy than a burger made from cows. It was very tasty.

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Having made the culinary journey to Africa, I decided to stay in the southern hemisphere and have an Australian offering next, a kangaroo burger. I don’t really have an interesting coincidence or analogy to offer here, other than the fact that England is playing Australia in The Ashes in July and August. The Ashes is a cricket match played every two years between the two countries. The Aussies’ don’t call their cricket team the kangaroos, but we can consider my consumption of the burger some sort of support for the English cricket team, I think.

Kangaroo was tangier and slightly greasier than the springbok, but still leaner, drier and less greasy than a cow burger.

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I sat and ate my burgers in the glorious sunshine of Victoria Square. Victoria Square is usually a pretty square surrounded by imposing Victorian buildings, but with the food stalls and beer tent the square had been transformed into a lively piazza, like the restaurant lined squares of an Italian village, giving an international flair to Birmingham’s international fair.

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As I ate my springbok sitting on the side of the square’s fountain, I could almost imagine myself sitting on the banks of the Vaal River, eating a springbok burger while watching live springboks hop across the landscape. Chowing down on my kanga-burger, I pictured lunching at Uluru and munching down on a kanga-burger in the hot, Australian sun.

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After eating my burgers in the glorious sunshine, I headed away from the square, each step taking me away from the fantasy global food village and into work-a-day reality. I may not have really gotten away to Australia or South Africa, but at least I got a quick lunch-time international culinary trip.

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Posted by GregW 10:03 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged food Comments (0)

Man, is it bright out there!

Long day of light

sunny 18 °C

Man, is it bright out there!

On Sunday morning, a bunch of smelly hippies and modern-day neo-druids will be dancing and drumming around Stonehenge while the sun rises at a little before quarter to five in the morning. Stonehenge, the mysterious stone circle in the English countryside is usually surrounded by ropes to keep the hordes of shutter-bug Japanese and loud Italian bus tourists from approaching the stones. On the summer solstice, as well as the equinoxes, English Heritage allows visitors to approach and touch the stones. The summer solstice is one of the most popular times to visit the monument, as the stones are aligned in such a way as the sun rises and sets between pairs of the massive stones.

The hippies will have to get up very early to see the sunrise, and will have a spend a long, long day at the stones in the middle of the countryside if they want to see the sunset. Sunday is the day with the most daylight this year, and it is a long day here in the United Kingdom.

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When I was down in the southern USA, I used to tell people about how long the days lasted in the summer in Toronto. I would say, “I remember when I was a kid staying out until 10 o’clock at night, being able to play in the late summer sun.”

As with many childhood memories, it wasn’t entirely accurate. By 10 o’clock at night the sun would have set close to an hour earlier, even on the longest day of the year. That day, the summer solstice, falls on June 21 this year, which is this Sunday. As the days have gotten longer and longer over the past month, I have been reminded how much longer the days are here in the UK.

I will be lying in bed when the sun rises on Sunday morning at 4:43 in the morning while the hippies are drumming. I’ll go about my day, doing whatever I choose to do on my Sunday off. Most likely I will have already be home and be watching TV by the time the sun dips below the horizon at 9:21 in the evening. The solstice in London will see a total of 16 hours, 38 minutes and 23 seconds of daylight.

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Toronto will see the sunset less than 20 minutes earlier (adjusted, of course, for time zones) at 9:03 in the evening. Sunrise in Toronto, though, is much later than London at 5:36 in the morning, giving my old home 15 hours, 26 minutes and 45 seconds of daylight.

What many people fail to realise, and I will admit to being one of them before moving over here, is how much farther north Europe is than North America. New York City is at 40 degrees 45 minutes north. Toronto is a little further north at 43 degrees, 38 minutes north. The centre of Calgary, Alberta, Canada is 51 degrees, 03 minutes north.

The centre of London, near Westminster where Big Ben is, is further north than all of those at 51 degrees, 30 minutes north. Rome is further north than New York City, which shares a similar latitude to places like Naples, Italy; Madrid, Spain and Isola Asinara on the island of Sardinia. I was at a similar latitude to Toronto when I was down in Nice, Monaco and San Remo, Italy recently, all which are around 43 degrees, 40 minutes north.

Obviously Nice has much milder winters than Toronto, and New York City does not quite have as mild a winter as Naples. New York and Toronto, conversely, have more humid, hot summers than their European counterparts. The most widely accepted explanation of these differences is due to the moderating effect the gulf stream has on the European weather, though like most attempts to explain the climate of this strange rock floating through space, there is disagreement on with a number of competing theories.

The places that Europe really considers north are places like Oslo and Stockholm, both of which are almost at 60 degrees north. Oslo will be a really bright place this Sunday, when the sun rises at 3:54 in the morning and doesn’t set again until 10:44, giving 18 hours, 50 minutes and 35 seconds of daylight. Now that’s a long day!

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Posted by GregW 04:42 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged events Comments (1)

You Alright?

Yes, I feel fine. Why do people keep asking me that?!?

sunny 20 °C

Walking into the office this morning, I got the usual greeting from one of my co-workers who had already made it into the office.

“You alright?”

“Yeah, good,” I reply. “You alright?”

“Yeah, ta,” she said.

I’ve gotten into the groove now, but when I first arrived in the UK, this question and its variations confused me. These variations include “Are you alright?” “alright?” or “alright, mate?”

This question is used as a greeting here, much as North Americans would use “how are you?” For a North American first getting over here to the UK though, the question “are you alright?” sounds more dire than a friendly greeting.

In North America, “are you alright?” is what you say to someone who looks like they aren’t alright. It is a question saved for those who look deathly ill with the plague or have a two-inch cooper pipe sticking out of their chest. After bouncing off the hood of a speeding car, it is the kind of thing someone says to you as you lie on the pavement, your legs bent at angles not normally possible with our god-given joints. “Dear God, are you alright?” they will say, before screaming into the crowd, “is anyone a doctor? Someone call 911!”

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The first time I was asked the question, it was a very different experience than my smooth greeting this morning. It was up in Sheffield, and one of the client staff said asked me as I first arrived at the office in the morning. “Are you alright?” she asked.

“Yes, fine. Why, don’t I look alright?” I responded. I figured if someone was asking if I was alright, then I must look sick.

The poor girl looked confused. Basically, she had said hello to me, and I was challenging why she said hello. “Umm, no, you look fine,” she mumbled. For the rest of the morning she stared intently at her computer, only occasionally glancing over my way nervously, they way one might keep an eye on the serial killer sitting next to you.

I’ve gotten used to the question now, and don’t worry that I must look sickly each time it is posed to me. That’s good, because it has just been announced that the Swine Flu cannot be contained in Birmingham where I am working now, and that the health services here are now moving into the mitigation phase of they pandemic plan. If I was still interpreting the question “are you alright?” as meaning I looked ill, I would spend all my time up here figuring that the Swine Flu had gripped me.

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Posted by GregW 02:19 Archived in England Tagged living_abroad Comments (3)

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