A Travellerspoint blog

July 2008

Sorry... excuse me... sorry... excuse me... sorry... sorry..

That's the sound of me walking through a crowd - constant apologies as I always go the wrong way.

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I knew arriving here that they drove on the other side of the road. That's pretty common knowledge. As such, I've been pretty afraid to get behind the wheel of a car, so far avoiding it completely. Luckily, I haven't gone anywhere yet I've had to drive.

What I wasn't expecting was that I would find that walking here would be something that I would end up having trouble with.

In North America, you walk the same way you drive - you keep to your right and people coming the other direction pass you on your left. Anywhere in North America that I went, if I was approaching someone I would move over to my right, and they would move to their right and we would pass each other without incident. If you want to pass a slower walker, you pull out to your left, get by them (passing them on your right, their left), and then pull back in front of them, just like passing a Ferrari passing a Yugo on the highway.

There is only one time that I recall when these rules failing me in North America. I was a teenager, cycling on a bike path in my hometown of Burlington, Ontario. A cyclist was approaching me, so I moved over to my right. Unfortunately, the other cyclist decided to move to his left, and before I could make an adjustment, his bike smashed into mine. I crumpled like a piece of paper jammed in an old laser printer displaying the error message "PC Load Letter."

I got up, woozy, and looked at my front tire, which was no longer shaped like a circle but rather like a Möbius strip in an M.C. Escher painting. The other cyclist looked up at me and said, "whoa, dude. I had a dream that this was going to happen last night!"

I was too shocked to ask the obvious question, "if you knew this was going to happen, WHY DID YOU LET IT?" Instead I stared at him blankly for a moment, and then started the long walk home, dragging my now useless bike behind me.

Coming over to England, I figured that like driving, things would be the reverse of North America. People would keep to their left, and pass other people on their right. So the first day, I was out walking and when that first person approached me coming in the opposite direction, I moved over to my left. They moved to their right, and we soon found ourselves face to face.

"Sorry," I said, moving over to let them pass. Sure that it was a one-off incident, I continued on my way only to find the next person I came across did the same thing - moving to their right and forcing me to make an adjustment and make my apologies. "Excuse me. Sorry."

"Okay, I see. They drive on the left but walk on the right! No problem, I can do that," I told myself, and the very next person I walked up to went against my new rule, and moved to their left.

I have since discovered that there seems to be no rules about which side to pass people on when it comes to walking in London. Perhaps there are just too many people on the sidewalks here to come up with any hard and fast rules - it's every man for themselves. Much like a New Yorker trying to walk through the gawking tourists all staring at billboards in Times Square or a running back splitting the defence, you just have to find your seems and work your way through, constantly adjusting.

Even the tube stations add to the confusion. While they have rules and signs posted, the rules are different depending on what station you are at. Sometimes you keep left, sometimes you keep right. Sometimes you run down the middle of a stream of people on either side of you. The only real rule seems to be to head towards the escalator that is going in the direction you want to go, and hope that nobody hits you.

So, I guess I will just...
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...unless I should...
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Posted by GregW 12:16 Archived in England Tagged living_abroad Comments (4)

Greg Bats and Bowls

My initial experience with cricket

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I played cricket yesterday for the first time.

It wasn't a proper game of cricket, just some goofing around in a park at a picnic with a bat, some wickets and a few tennis balls, but nonetheless, it was my first experience ever playing the game.

Some friends of mine back in Canada had passed me the name of their family in England, and they were nice enough to invite to their family picnic. We had a very nice lunch in the back garden, and then headed over to the park for some football and cricket.

Football was up first. That was a game I had played that before, having played 4 years of soccer in the local intramural league as a kid. It's been a while, though, and after spending a few minutes running hard (and even scoring a goal), I was happy to retreat to play keeper for a rest. The nets weren't very big, probably about 5 feet high and 10 feet across - frankly not much larger than an ice hockey net, so I was able to stop most shots using a butterfly technique.

After playing to a 5-5 draw, we headed over to a mostly flat (though admittedly somewhat sloped) part of the park and set up the wicket for cricket. Instead of a traditional game, we just played around with a bowler, two batsmen and the rest of us in the field. We kept score of the number of runs each duo of batsmen scored. When a batter went out, the next person in the rotation took their place and the score reset to 0.

I bowled first. After a quick lesson to say that I should keep my arm straight and pitch the ball overhand and aim vaguely at the stumps, and I was off. I don't think I am a very good bowler, as mostly those batting seemed to be reaching pretty far to make contact with the balls I had thrown. After I had thrown my 6 balls, I was back in the field.

My turn came up to bat. I think I scored 5 runs or so. Sadly I was out quickly when (reaching for some baseball terminology here) I hit a blooper over the head of the bowler that was rather spectacularly caught by one of the fielders on his knees and in his gut. I really had thought it was going to drop. Ah well.

After we'd all rotated once through the order, it was back to the house for tea and desert. Just like the tea break in the real matches, though we never picked the game back up again.

So there you have it. I've played cricket. I'm practically English now!

Posted by GregW 02:13 Archived in England Tagged living_abroad Comments (1)

A Mini-Beach Holiday to Brighton

John Lennon may have been the Walrus, but after a day in Brighton, I am the lobster

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Since getting back from Paris, I've had a bit of a stressful week and a half. Not bad stress, just a busy calendar running errands, going on job interviews and planning for my upcoming move, so when I saw a free day on my calendar and a weather report from the BBC that said sunny and clear skies, I decided I deserved a little beach holiday. So on Thursday I packed a towel and my swimming trunks and caught the train to Brighton.

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Brighton is due south of London, about 80 miles from where I live right now. The first order of business was figuring out how to get there. London and the surrounding area has a dizzying array of transit options. Most people are familiar with at least a few of them - the iconic black taxi cabs, the red double-decker buses and the extensive tube network are known even to those that have never been here. I admit when I first arrived in London, I was a bit of a tube snob. If I went anywhere, I went by the London Underground.

As I have settled in, though, I have figured out that there are a few other options to getting around that can be quicker, cheaper and more comfortable than the tube. Specifically, I figured out that there is a train station called Cricklewood which is as close to my house as the tube line, and has frequent trains that run into the city and beyond. In fact, I could have saved myself some time had I known when I went down to Wimbledon, instead of taking two underground routes that stop frequently, I could have taken a commuter train straight through the city to Wimbledon station.

The trains are run by First Capital Connect, which sounds like a bank but is really a train company. A very popular one, it seems, as the first time I tried to take one of their trains was from St. Pancras to Cricklewood after returning from Paris. Ticket in hand, my train pulled in. It was only four cars long and full of people. Despite the 100 or so people on the platform trying to cram on the train, we weren't all going to fit, and a large number of passengers, including myself, were left on the station when the train pulled away. The next train wasn't for another 40 minutes, so I hauled my stuff all the way across St. Pancras station to the tube line.

Luckily, I had no such trouble getting on a train yesterday. I even got a seat once we'd passed Farringdon station, though I didn't get to sit long as I had to change at Blackfriars. Normally I wouldn't mention something as tedious as changing trains, but I wanted to mention how much I like Blackfrairs station, which is partially out over the Thames river.

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There was a woman standing on the platform across from me who was staring out at the river. She may have been happy for all I know, but for some reason I got it in my head that she was sad, sitting there staring out at the water and wishing that her train wouldn't come today, so she could go back home and go to sleep.

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A few minutes later a train pulled in and three of her friends got off. They walked away smiling and laughing, so it turns out my imagination was wrong. My train pulled in, and off we went.

A little over an hour later I was in Brighton. The walk to the sea-shore from the train station is about 10 minutes downhill. You pass the clock tower and a few minutes later, the wind off the ocean is hitting your face.

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The beach is incredibly rocky and the water is testicle shrinkingly cold, but that doesn't stop the masses from coming out to the beach. Because the water is so cold, few people venture into it, and if they do, it's usually only for a quick dip and then out into the sun again to let the sun dry you off.

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There are two piers at Brighton. Well, at least there were two piers at Brighton. The west pier has fallen into disrepair, and is mostly just rusted metal pilings and beams in the water now.

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There are development plans afoot to build a massive tower and pier where the ruins of the west pier is now. The plans are nice enough, but I feel it's a bit of a shame really. I like the rusted and derelict nature of the present west pier. It's like a piece of art, a statement on the transitory nature of all things.

The east pier is definitely not in a state of disrepair. It is a lively tourist attraction with amusement, arcades, casinos, bars and restaurants. There are also a lot of signs reminding you to make sure that you put out your cigarettes thoroughly so you don't burn down the mostly wooden structure.

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Seeing the Helter Skelter put The Beatles tune in my head.

If the fear of a flaming wooden pier keeps you from going out above the water, there are still lots of amusements along the beach to keep you interested.

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Heading east from the pier, you find the Volk's Electric Railway. Operating since 1883, the electric train runs from the Aquarium and pier in the west to the Marina in the east.

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The eastern most station, by the marina is called Black Rock. I've been watching Lost on DVD all this week, and one of the key locations at the end of the 1st season is the mysterious Black Rock. Seeing the station name replaced The Beatles Helter Skelter in my mind with thoughts of the TV show. Damn media infiltrating my brain! Can't I just enjoy Brighton without having to contextualize it within some media-created framework.

I didn't take the train. There was a big sign on the train station talking about how important it was to get exercise, and that it's a good thing to walk, which persuaded me to hoof it to the Marina.

If I was going to walk all that way (it's about a mile), I figured I needed something to power me up, so I grabbed some lunch. Given the seaside nature of where I was, I figured I should eat from the ocean, so fish and chips with mushy peas was on the menu.

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There was a place just down from my lunch spot that was selling muscles and cockles, and it made me think of Sweet Molly Malone, calling "Cockles and Muscles - Alive-Alive-Oh!" Another song in my head...

The marina is just that, a marina, with boat slips. There is also a number of restaurants and shops.

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I wandered back to the beach and settled into a spot on the beach at Duke's Mound, just to the west of the nudist area. Yes, there is a nudist area. No, I didn't take any pictures. I did take a peak into the spot. Mostly it was clothed people sitting around looking at the few brave, naked and male souls.

There were no change rooms close by, so I changed into my swim trunks using the old towel round the waist method, and headed into the water. It was freezing, and as the tide was high the bottom was all rocks. Further out, or when the tide is lower, there is a sandy bottom, but when I was in, all I could feel was cold water shocking my system and rocks stabbing at my feet. I was out of the water in less than a minute.

I lay down on my towel and let myself air dry, every once and a while sneaking a peak at the two beautiful Indian girls sunbathing topless just down from me. Much better viewing than the male-heavy nude beach.

As the waves washed in and out, it moved the rocks on the beach, sounding a lot like someone carrying a bag of marbles. That's the sound of the ocean in Brighton - waves, gulls and rocks banging together.

Once dried off, I headed into Brighton. Lots of little shops and some nice pedestrian areas for strolling.

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Not interested in buying anything, I eventually made my way back down to the sea front and found myself a table at the Gemini Lounge and Beach Bar. The place has a huge patio with a band playing, and a built in temperance mechanism in the form of some of the slowest service I have ever received.

I slipped off my sandals. My feet were killing me. Not only did I walk a few miles in sandals (not the most supportive shoes for hiking in the world) and have the rocks of Brighton beach stab at the bottom of my feet, but the tops were lobster red from the sun. Actually, only half of the top of my feet were lobster red. The parts that were under the sandal straps were alabaster white. There is an interesting red-white zebra stripe on my feet now.

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I settled back, resting my feet and sipping on my beer (once it finally arrived). The band announced that they were going to play one more song before coming around to collect donations and then taking a break. In honour of the sunny weather, they played Beautiful Day by U2. Despite the fact that the singer didn't seem to know any of the words and mostly just mumbled a tune, I still gave them a pound when they came around with their collection bucket.

I sat back and let the sun shine on me (while keeping my feet safely under the table in the shade), and just watched the people roll by. The beach may not be white sand, the water may be somewhere close to the freezing point, the service may be slow as molasses in January and the band may not know the words to the songs they sing, but no bother. The sun was shining and I had a day off, without any stress, and that was a damn fine thing.

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Posted by GregW 04:26 Archived in England Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Battersea Power Station - Tour and Redevelopment Plans

A disused coal-fired power station on the south bank of the Thames, famous for its appearance on a Pink Floyd album cover, looks to be redone as a green building to live, work and play

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London was at the fore-front of the industrial revolution. By the late 19th century, the city had grown tremendously as people moved from the country-side and agriculture to the city and the factories. The city was bursting at the seams, and thus a lot of money and energy was poured into building the infrastructure of London, much of it still in use today.

Of course, 100 year old and older infrastructure does mean that there is a lot of maintenance that needs to occur. I wander around the city, I often see streets closed to traffic, with signs indicating work with the quaint name of “Replacing London’s Victorian Water Mains.” Despite the rather prosaic sounding name, it is a multi-million pound undertaking to update the infrastructure of London’s water system into this century.

I am reminded of this infrastructure work further today as I try and reach my destination. For anyone who rides the London train and underground system, weekend closures is probably something of a swear word, an indication that travel will be a pain. Much of the underground and rail network dates back a to late 1800s and early 1900s, including this platform at Baker Street, part of the world’s first underground train line dating back to 1863.

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Of course, not all the work is due to being really old, as this weekend includes closures on the Jubilee line from Green Park to Stratford (opened in 1999) and the Docklands Light Rail (opened in 1987).

Also closed this weekend, though, was the Victoria line, dating back to 1968. Unfortunately, it was to a station on the Victoria line that I wanted to go. Instead, I needed to transfer at Baker Street to the circle line, riding it around to Victoria station, where I transferred to a Southern Line train service to Battersea Park Station. If there is one thing you learn quickly here in London, it’s to use all forms of transport available - Underground, Overground, Buses, Riverboat, and National Rail - anything that’ll take your Oyster Card.

From Battersea Park Station, it was just a quick walk to my final destination, Battersea Power Station.

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Opened in 1939 by the London Power Company, the station was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, an industrial designer who was also responsible for the red telephone box so associated with London. The plant, a coal fired plant that provided electricity to London, was expanded in 1955 to it’s present form with four stacks in an imposing red brick building.

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By 1983 both of the two generators were shut down, and the station fell into disrepair.

For those outside London, the station will probably best be known for appearing on the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album Animals, with a large pink pig floating above it.

Though tethered to the station, the large floating pig broke loose and rose up into the sky. Unfortunately for travellers into London that day, Battersea is below the flight path into Heathrow Airport, and so a large number of flights were delayed and cancelled while the pig floated above London, finally landing somewhere in Kent.

The pig has become something of a symbol for the power plant itself, and had been used in the campaign to notify the public of the free tours and consultations for future development going on this month.

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The power plant is quite imposing, a tall, thick red-brick structure with it’s massive stacks. It has, however, been unused for a quarter of a century, so it has fallen into disrepair, the site covered with fallen brick and rusting metal.

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Currently, development plans have been drawn up to reclaim the site and turn it into a residential, shopping and business area. The plans are quite elaborate and grand, including a massive clear chimney that will vent hot air and bring in cool air into the “ecodome,” as a heating and cool measure. The glass chimney will tower above the four white stacks of the old Battersea Power Station.

The plans are not without their critics, though, and they aren’t the first plans to redevelop the site. The next two years will be taken up with approvals. Beyond that, plans to extend the Northern tube line to the site to be completed by 2015, and the rest of the buildings on the site completed in a phased development after that.

Still many years before the white stacks with be dwarfed by the glass eco-tower. Lots of time for them to tower over the south Thames.

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Posted by GregW 09:34 Archived in England Tagged photography Comments (0)

The Cathedral of Shopping

Paris’ Galleries Lafayette

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When I was in Paris back in 2005, some people, mainly female, would often comment how exciting it must be to be in Paris and go shopping. I couldn’t disagree more. Frankly, shopping is something I do because I need to. If I have no milk for my cereal, all my underwear has holes in it or I wind up at Wimbledon in the beating sun without a hat, I say to myself, “well, I guess I have to buy something.” I try and make shopping as quick and painless experience as possible. Get in, buy what you want, get out. No dilly-dallying or looking at other stuff.

In Paris, I was doubly dissuaded from shopping, as the strength of the Canadian dollar against the Euro back in 2005 was, to be kind, poor. Everything in Paris was twice the price as back home. In my 7 weeks in Paris in 2005, other than food, drink and train tickets, I bought one pair jeans on sale for €15.

However, for many Paris is the shopping capital of the world. I was reminded of it while watching the Bastille Day parade, when 3 massive army trucks stopped on the Champs Elysee. Despite their power and might, they were overshadowed by a massive Yves St. Laurent sign on the building behind them. The might and majesty of the France military is nothing compared to the power of Paris’ fashion.

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While I may see shopping as just function, I understand that for many shopping is more than that. For some It is form, a see and be seen, get the right stuff and flaunt it. For others, it is sport, deal and bargain, shop and compare, search and find until the goal is achieved at the lowest price with the highest quality. For even others, it is therapy, a way to forget their troubles and feel good.

For a select few, it is religion. For those few, Paris built Galleries Lafayette.

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In three large buildings, just north of the Paris Opera is a massive shopping complex. On entering the largest of the buildings, one can’t help but gaze up and gasp in awe. You are in a massive dome with picturesque stained glass and detail work on the many balconies to rival the biggest religious houses in Europe.

This is the Cathedral of shopping.

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I work my way up the floors of the main building. Floor 0 is perfume. Floor 1 is designer fashion. Floor 2 contemporary fashion, as well as the bridge to the men’s building. That’s right, this is just women’s fashion in the main building. Up to Floor 3. “Seductive fashion,” including lingerie. Floor 4 has an oxygen bar for those tired from the trudge up the elevator or breathless from the skimpy outfits from floor 3. As well, floor 4 has outdoor fashion. Floor 5 is children’s fashion.

Finally floor 6, and my destination, one of the many restaurants in the Galleries Lafayette. I buy lunch and beer for a wallet rocking €17. I decide to suffer it though. After all, when one is in a church, one is expected to tithe a little of their earnings to the power that is.

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In this case, the Gods of Shopping.

Posted by GregW 15:59 Archived in France Tagged tourist_sites Comments (2)

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