A Travellerspoint blog

August 2007

Dikes of Waterland

Riding north from Amsterdam, Netherlands and hitting the wall

overcast 16 °C
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Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Perhaps one of the most liberal cities in the world, and a huge draw for tourists and backpackers for the laid back attitude, openly available red-light ladies, crazy sex shows, "coffee shops" selling marijuana and general crazy party atmosphere. Heck, I walked by one "after hours place" that opened at 7 in the morning and went to 2 in the afternoon. Now that's really after hours.

And so we find a blog entry about Amsterdam with a salacious title, but readers looking for sleazy will only find themselves disappointed. Like my last entry on Amsterdam from 2006, which had the lascivious title of What XXX Means in Amsterdam but was about St. Andrew’s crosses on the coat of arms of the city, this blog entry is not about lustful lesbians frolicking in some watery oasis, but rather about a leisurely bike ride around the quaint area of Waterland, north of Amsterdam.

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Waterland is the municipality located north of Amsterdam, on the borders of the IJsselmeer lake containing a number of small villages and a lot of open farm land. Waterland, like much of the province of North Holland which it is in, consists of land "reclaimed" from the sea. These areas are known as polders, which is a low-lying tract of land enclosed by embankments known as dikes. The dikes keep the water out, and pumps drain water out of hte area to prevent the water table within the polder from rising too high. In The Netherlands, many of these pumps are run by windmills, which is why you see so many of them there.

Amsterdam is really a pretty flat city, a trait it shares with Waterland as well, so it's a pretty decent place to get on a bike to get around. One of my travel mates had a Lonely Planet guide that suggested a nice, 3.5 hour, mostly flat 37 km ride through north of Amsterdam and through the mostly rural area of Waterland. There are so many bike places around Amsterdam renting bikes for 10 Euros for 24 hours, it seemed an excellent thing to do on a sunny but cool Friday.

The route was briefly described in the Lonely Planet guide with just a very basic map, and we didn't have a detailed map of the roads in Waterland, but I have a pretty decent sense of direction, so I figured we'd be fine.

We started out by catching the free ferry from behind Central Station that takes you across the IJ river to Amsterdam Noord.

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From there, the book described in two sentences the route out of Amsterdam Noord. Seemed simple enough, but turned out to be a little harder to follow. We soon found ourselves biking through an industrial area, sharing the road with semis and enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of oil refineries and fish rendering plants. Eventually, after a few false turns, we got ourselves back on track and out of town, heading on the Schellingwouderdijk and Durgerdammerdijk towards the small village of Durgerdam. Dijk is the Dutch word for dike, and probably where the English word originated from.

Durgerdam is a pretty small little village, a row of houses along the dike on the banks of the IJsselmeer.

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We stopped here, about 7 km into our ride for a quick lunch and some drinks at the West End cafe, a nice little place. I ordered a ham sandwich, which was two pieces of bread and a slice of ham, nothing more. Sandwiches very basic here, but the price was very good at only 1 Euro 30. After a quick break enjoying the sun and finishing my half-pint of beer, we headed back out on the road again.

From Durgerdam, we headed north along the dike road towards Uitdam. The sun was out, the wind was at our backs, and no part of me was aching yet, and it was a fine ride. And, as there was only one road, surrounded at many times by water on both sides, it was very hard to get lost.

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At Uitdam, the Lonely Planet suggested a detour further north to Monnickendam, but we decided to skip the extra bit and head directly west towards Broek in Waterland. This is where things started to come apart, really. As soon as we started heading west, the wind was in our faces. The bikes we rented were only one-speed bikes, and the one gear they had was not sufficient for me to keep up a steady pace in the wind. Soon I was lagging behind, frankly at a speed that I think I could have walked at faster.

My legs started to ache from the strain of pushing against the pedals, and my mouth was soon dry as a bone. I planned to stop at the first sign of a shop to purchase some water, but the only thing at the side of the road was grass and cows. I contemplated trying to draw milk from one of the beasts, but decided against it, as I understand that cows can kick. Instead, I suffered along in silence.

Now, those who are readers of some of the other bloggers on this site will recognize that my little 31 kilometer ordeal hardly stands up to the punishment of Gelli's recent 6 day ride with killer mountain climbing and all, but all pain is relative, and I was relatively sure I had hit a wall. My legs just couldn't move any faster, and I was reminded of my climb up Kilimanjaro right before I got pulmonary edema how slow I was moving. I started to wonder if there was some sort of low country sickness that I might be suffering from - a lack of altitude sickness if you will.

Of course, really it's probably just because I am out of shape.

The final insult, though, was my bottom, which was complaining bitterly about having to be forced to sit on the uncomfortable seat for so long. I tried shifting positions, but that just slowed down my already glacial pace, and standing was no good, because my legs, tired from the ride, were starting to shake with disapproval at the concept of bike riding. So my poor ass was forced to remain on the seat and ache in quiet desperation, like a good Englishman.

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Anyway, I lumbered on to Broek in Waterland, where we found a cafe and I had a Coca-Cola Light. It was good, but everything here is served in such small bottles, I was done in two gulps, and we were off again.

Now, the Lonely Planet gets even more vague with its directions from Broek in Waterland, saying simply "its a straight shot down to Broek in Waterland to the ferry" (or something to that effect). It wasn't, though, such a simple task, especially seeing as we continually ignored the signs pointing the way back to Amsterdam and kept riding off in other directions. Eventually, after 3 more wrong turns, we finally figured out to slow down and read the well marked sign posts before charging off (plodding off, really, in my case), and finally found our way back to the ferry docks.

The approximate route we ened up taking was about 31 km, according to the mapmyride.com map I created.

We dropped the bikes back at the rental place, and then came my favorite part of the ride, the patio aftewards.

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Yes, a couple of pitchers of beer, the sun shining, a cool breeze, a very comfortable chair (or at least much more comfortable then sitting on a bike seat) and everything in the world starts to seem right again.

If you choose to go on the ride, try and choose a less windy day, or get a bike with some gears so you don't have to struggle so hard against the wind. And, if you are feeling a bit peckish after the ride and want something to go with your well earned beer, may I suggest a nice herring sandwich?

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Really, nothing like a little oily fish to recharge the engine.

Posted by GregW 12:48 Archived in Netherlands Tagged bicycle Comments (3)

Only suckers drink in bars

Drinking on the banks of the Rhine in Cologne, Germany

sunny 24 °C
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I've been to Cologne before, or rather, I've been through Cologne before, on my way during my trip from Paris to Hong Kong via rail. The train from Brussels to Moscow passed through Cologne, and included a 30 minute stop in Cologne. Just enough time, I was told, to go and check out the massive and impressive Cologne Cathedral. Unfortunately, Stan and Ollie, my train attendants on the train, wouldn't let me off the train, so instead I had to do with looking at the nice train shed roof from my cabin while waiting to carry on to Moscow.

This time, I had 2 days in Cologne, and can attest that had I been allowed off the train, I could have seen the cathedral, for it's just steps from the train station. I learnt that upon leaving the train station on arriving in Cologne. Unfortunately, after 15 minutes of aimless wandering, I figured out that my hotel was on the other side of the train station. A smarter traveller than I would have printed out a map from their train station to their hotel ahead of time, as opposed to I, who just knew that it was "about 3 blocks" from the train station.

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The Cologne Cathedral is a massive and imposing structure. It's very tall, and as you wander around Cologne, you are sure to be constantly getting peeks of the cathedral. At night, they light it up and it glows like a star, but during the day it appears almost jet black, much like the monolith in 2001. I kept expecting monkeys to touch it, and then starting to beat each other with sticks.

Now, some of you are probably wondering why a city in Germany shares it's name with Old Spice and C.K. One. Back in 1709, French revolutionaires hiding out from the man in Cologne meet up with Johann Maria Farina, an Italian working at 4711 Glockengasse, was making a refreshing men's perfume to be worn or consumed, that would have "the odor of an Italian spring morning after the rain." The French, upon returing to Paris, called the perfume "eau de Cologne", which has stuck. The house still stands today, and has a nice little glockenspiel clock.

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The sun was shining in Cologne, and after days of rain in Brussels, I was ready to sit outside and have a beer or two. The local brew is called Kölsch, clear beer with a bright straw yellow hue that is often served in little .2 L glasses. It was also very inexpensive, and it made me wonder why, when everything else in Europe is so pricey, that the beer in Cologne bars was not of much cost.

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I soon figured out the answer, as I watched people walk around with open beer bottles. It is even cheaper to go and buy a .5 L bottle of beer at the local store, and consume it without having to pay the overhead for waiters. After learning that, I mostly bought beer for €1.40 (€1.32 if you returned an empty) at the store instead of the €3 beer from bars, and sat in the main square or along the banks of the Rhine river enjoying the sun and my inexpensive beer.

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And in case you were wondering, public toilets are available, for when nature calls after a .5 L bottle of beer.

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Cheers to Cologne.

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Posted by GregW 05:21 Archived in Germany Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

A house united, but some rooms could use some subdivision

Beer, politics and rain in Brussels, Belgium

rain 15 °C
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Delicious beer and delicious irony, what more could a man want from a country? Perhaps some decent weather.

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I took the Eurostar Chunnel train from London to Brussels. I was actually quite excited about taking the chunnel train, but it was a little disappointing. The ride itself was fine, it was smooth and fast and comfortable. But I was very excited about travelling through that modern marvel that is a tunnel underneath the English channel, but in actuality its just a dark stretch in the train ride, so there isn´t much to see.

I arrived in Brussels to find out that the reason that I had such excellent and sunny weather in London was because the rain and cold had decided to take an August holiday and travel to Brussels. The temperature never really climbed above 20 Celsius, and mostly hovered around the low teens the entire time I was there.

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I´ve been to Brussels once before, during my trip from Paris to Hong Kong via train, so I´d already seen a few of the prime sites like the Manneken Pis and the main square. This time I decided to get out and see some of the other sites.

I headed out to the Cantillon Brewery, which is a traditional brewery brewing Lambic beers, which are brewed in traditional style. They brew using natural, spontaneous fermentation to make a flat beer. It tasted to my rather unrefined palate like a mix between a wheat beer (like a hefeweizen) and a very dry Riesling. They also make fruit beers by adding 20% fruit.

The brewery itself wasn´t in operation when I was there. They only brew in the winter, as they need the cold night air to cool the brew and allow the natural yeasts in the air to add to the fermentation process. As well, they don´t use any pesticides, instead opting for the natural pesticide called the spider. Removing cobwebs is not done, as they don´t want to drive the spiders away.

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I also went and checked out the European Parliament Buildings. In addition to being the capital of Belgium, Brussels also serves as the primary seat of the European Union´s power. Every year, it seems, more and more of Europe is brought together by this supranational body, with Romania and Bulgary just joining at the start of this year.

Later, while enjoying a plate of moules frites, I was reading some of the rare English language material I had with me - a Belgium tourist magazine that happened to cover some politics.

Belgium is divided into two main regions, Wallonia to the south and Flanders to the north. Wallonia is mainly French speaking, and tends to be poorer than the northern Flemish, who speak mainly Dutch. During election time, of which there was just one, Belgians vote for a party in their region. However, it appears that very few parties cross the boundary between the Flemish and the Wallonians, and a party is identified by it´s language. Most parties don´t even both to run candidates in the other linguistic region. Of course, all this fuels lots of talk of separation of the country into two separate countries, with perhaps Brussels even becoming a modern city-state without a country affiliation.

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That´s my delicious irony, that the centre of power for the unifying force of the EU is a country that isn´t really sure it wouldn´t be better off split into parts.

Posted by GregW 08:11 Archived in Belgium Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

My Holiday snaps from London

A partially tongue in cheek presentation of my pictures from London, United Kingdom

sunny 26 °C
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Right then, dim the lights, time to get started. Thanks for coming over to my virtual place to see my holiday snaps slide show. Let's get started, I'll turn on the projector...

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Hmm, seems to be a hair stuck in there. Let me get it out. Alright, who's the owner of this long black hair?

Anyway, here I am in...

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...oh wait, it's upside down. Let me just correct that.

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That's better. You probably thought I was Batman there for a second, hanging upside down. Hehehe. No, this is me in London. Wonderful weather when I was there - sunny and warm all the time. Hardly seemed like London at all. Where was the fog and rain?

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This is my hotel. Very posh, as the Brits would say. They pampered me endlessly, with rose petal baths and massages by thai girls and greek madiens feeding me grapes and... Oh, I see some faces in the crowd are either getting bored, or jealous, or perhaps both. Let's move on, shall we?

In London, they use the POUND as their money, but you already knew that because Adam Ant told you so in his song Goody Two Shoes. You know the one, Write it on a pound note, pound note Goody two, goody two, goody goody two shoes... But they don't have pound notes anymore. Good thing Adam Ant is dead, otherwise he'd have to sing write it on a five-pound note, which flows no where near as well.

What? Adam Ant isn't dead? Ummm, that guy who sang Rock Me Amadeus is dead, though, right? I know somebody is dead.

Anyway, things are very expensive in London. At first it doesn't seem that way, because they say something like "that'll be 2 pound 60 pence, goven'r," and you think that doesn't sound like much. But then you convert it into Canadian money and it's like, almost 6 bucks, which is a lot for a sandwich, especially a soggy sandwich.

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First up, the Royal Albert Hall. Albert Hall holds 5,222 people, or 4,000 holes. Apparently holes are bigger than people. I guess that makes sense, if you are going to bury Adam Ant in one.

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Across from Albert Hall is the Albert Memorial, which Queen Victoria had build to commenerate the dude she was married to, whose name was Jim. No, just kidding, it was Albert. Anyway, on each corner of the memorial is a different geographic region represented that was part of the British Empire. Here was see Europe. Sadly, right after I took this picture, a staff member from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) came along and put the cow down due to foot and mouth disease.

Strangely, the last foot and mouth outbreak happened in 2001, when my Dad was travelling around Britian. Perhaps we Wessons are carriers of the disease. I'll probably never be allowed in Britian again.

Anyway, don't feel too bad for the cow on the Albert Memorial, as the North American corner has a buffalo, and the British killed them all off long ago.

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Next I went to Buckingham Palace, which is the home of the Queen of Canada. I understand that she is Queen of some other countries as well, but Canada is the biggest, so you think she'd lead with that. I mean, if you were emperor of Rhode Island and California, wouldn't you mention California, the larger place, first? I know I would.

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That's Picadilly Circus. Listen, I understand not having horses or elephants, ala some sort of Cirque de Soliel anti-animal cruelty stance, but if you don't have clowns or acrobats, I'm not really sure you should call yourself a circus at all.

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Trafalgar Square, which most impressed me with the fact that the Canadian Embassy is located on the square. Very prime location. Go Canada!

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Right then, perhaps London's most famous symbol, Big Ben. Actually, the clock's bell is called Big Ben. The tower itself is just called Clock Tower.

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This is Westminster Abbey, which as a half-Anglican I decided I should check out. After all, it's where the head of our church, the ruling monarch, is corninated. Is that a word? So the Queen of Canada (and, I guess, also England) is both the my head of state and my moral compass. Is that a conflict of interest?

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This is some travelling fair. Damn carnies...

Just kidding, this is the Eye of London, which was a big ferris wheel put up as part of the Millennial celebrations in 2000. I guess they forgot to take it down.

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This is the Tower of London, which many people mistakenly think is a bridge (we'll get to that in a second). Within it's walls are where the crown jewels are kept. No, that's not a reference to Prince Phillips delicate bits, but rather the crown and scepters and such that monarchs like to wear.

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When I was in the tower, I overheard the following conversation between one of the guards, called yeomen warders (pictured above, they are so soft and cuddly, hard to imagine that they could protect the jewels, but whatever) and one of the cleaners, called janitors.

Janitor (pulling wallet from trash bin): Hey, someone has been robbed.

Guard: Just put the wallet down mate.

Janitor (not putting wallet down): I found it in the trash.

Guard: Just put it on top of the bin, mate.

Janitor (still not putting wallet down): There's no money in it.

Guard: Put it down, mate! Put it down!

At this point, the guard gently guides the janitors hand down to the top of the trash bin, where the janitor drops the wallet.

Guard: See, they can get fingerprints off it if you don't touch it.

At this point, I'm thinking - do they really dust for fingerprints of pick pockets?

Janitor: Oh, yes, no problem, I'll just wipe off my fingerprints.

The Janitor then takes his rag, and wipes down the wallet. The guard looks very frustrated. Either the janitor was incredibly stupid, or a criminal mastermind who happened to be the pick-pocket. Either way, the guard then got on his walk-talkie and asked to have the CCTV footage brought up of the area to see if they could determine who dumped the wallet. Just liked the palace guards in the middle ages would have done.

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This is the Tower Bridge, which is both one of London's most famous symbols, and one of the one's most often misidentified. Either people think it's the tower of London (which it isn't, see above), or they think it's London Bridge. This was not the famous bridge that was falling down, though. That bridge, like all old things, went to Arizona to retire.

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While Big Ben and the Tower Bridge will remain London's most famous symbols, the Swiss Re headquarters, also called the Gherkin, is fast on it's heels as a symbol of this modern city. I don't know what Swiss Re does, something with insurance, I think. Though if you want to talk insurance, you need to talk about Lloyd's of London...

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...which this picture is not of. Rather, this is a picture of The Lloyd's Register Group offices, "a maritime classification society and independent risk management organisation providing risk assessment and mitigation services and management systems certification."

Both Lloyd's of London insurance and the martime registry both owe their name to a coffee house in the 17th century where merchants, marine underwriters, and others, all connected with shipping used to hang out. The owner, Edward Lloyd, helped them to exchange information by circulating a printed sheet of all the news he heard. In 1760, the Register Society was formed by the customers of the coffee house.

Anyway, the real Lloyd's of London is nearby though. There buildings are very modern.

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You can be forgiven for thinking it's an oil refinery. I did.

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Of course, you wouldn't expect me to go to London without having a pint in the pub. I was in a pub talking with a local who, upon learning I was from Canada, told me that our portions were too big. He talked about a friend of his who went to Canada and came back 300 pounds. It seems that the large Canadian food portions got to him.

The next day, I ordered bangers and mash in a pub.

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I am not certain that 4 sausages with a side of potatos flooded in gravy is exactly health food, but who am I to argue with the nutrional expertise of a drunken drywaller in a London pub.

There are lots of great images of London, worthy of being the defining image of the place. The Tower Bridge, Big Ben, the Gherkin, Buckingham Palace or even a pint in a pub. But I think the two images that best define London today are these...

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The big red C, for congestion zone. If you drive your car in central London during the day, the mayor Ken Livingston picks your pocket in the form of a congestion tax. Actually, I like the idea. I wouldn't mind them doing that in Toronto and spending the money raised on improving transit. And while London would be a good example, perhaps not the best. I did have to wait more than 15 minutes for a District line train on Saturday night...

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Eyes in the sky, CCTV cameras are everywhere. I think the police of London have my entire trip on tape. They should really think about selling those to tourists. "Hey look, here I am getting pick-pocketed in the Tower of London!"

London is taking a picture of you, as you take pictures of London.

Posted by GregW 07:04 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged photography Comments (6)

A Canadian Werebear in London

Arriving in London, UK, has me thinking of American movies...

sunny 24 °C
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When I was 12, my parents got First Choice, the first pay-TV movie channel offered in Canada. The first movie they ever showed was Star Wars at 6 AM on February 6th, 1983, though there were first-day technical issues, and there was no sound for the movie. Those technical issues were soon fixed, though and soon I was watching uncensored and commercial free movies in the comfort of my basement. My parents didn’t like the concept of a TV in the family room, as it would destroy family bonding, so the TV was relegated to the basement.

I had a cat named Guido that spent most of his time outside. In fact, there were times when Guido would go out, and disappear for four days, before returning briefly to enter the house, eat some food, use the litter box and then leave again. It always amazed me that the cat would come inside to use the litter box, as there was lots of dirt outside where he could have buried his poop. Guido was not an especially bright cat, but had figured out that if it wanted in the house, the most likely place I would be to let it in would be in the basement watching TV, so he would come around, bat at the basement window and howl. Guido never really meowed, he either snarled or howled.

One evening I had a friend over named Vaheed, and we were watching the excellent John Landis movie An American Werewolf in London. In the movie, for those who haven’t seen it, two friends are backpacking in England, crossing the Yorkshire moors when they are attacked by a wolf. One is killed, and the other survives, but is soon visited by the undead spirit of his friend, who warns him that at the next full moon, he will become a werewolf. The movie is both funny and scary, and at a particularly scary part, as Vaheed and I cowered tensely in my basement, a suddenly unnatural howling commenced, and the house shook with the fury of some undead animal tearing at the windows and sideboards to get at our tasty, young flesh. Startled, I looked up to see a wild-eyed, hair covered face in the basement window, sharp, saliva-covered fangs glistening in his mouth. I screamed in terror, and Vaheed jumped startled, blood draining from his face.

Within half a second, of course, I realized it was my cat, Guido, wanting in, and Vaheed and I relaxed, but the event had us both on edge, and later that evening while walking to his house, we realized how much the two of us, walking down the lonely, dark streets of suburban Burlington resembled the pair of hikers walking across the moors in the movie, and how likely it was that werewolves were hiding in the thick trees and bushes that lined the street. The two of us broke into a sprint, not stopping until in the safety of his house, half a kilometer away.

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As compared against other movie monsters, I really think it would be coolest to be a werewolf. Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, who can’t really communicate and is scary to children and women, or a vampire, who can’t ever go to the beach, the werewolf really has no restrictions on its ability to interact with other humans. You’re just a regular guy other than a couple nights a month, when you eat people unfortunate enough to be wandering around in the dark at night. Plus, wolves are fast and smart and cool looking.

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Instead though, as I grew up from that 12 year old scared in my basement of my cat, I started to resemble more of a bear than a wolf – large and lumbering instead of lithe and fast. Instead of the hunter of big game, I’m the chubby little cubby obsessed with honey and likely to get himself stuck in Rabbit’s hole. My friend Dennis, on returning from a trip to Mexico, brought me back an embroidered bracelet with the word “Bear” on it, though I have never worn it, afraid of the gay-sex connotation more than hiding my true, salmon-fishing nature. If I were to be a lycanthrope, likely to change at the full moon, it would most likely be that of the were-bear, man during the all periods except during the full moon, when I change into a black bear, on the hunt for berries and carpenter ants to eat.

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Upon landing in London, England, and catching the Piccadilly line to my hotel from Heathrow Airport, I was reminded of the movie An American Werewolf in London. In the movie, once the main character turns into a werewolf, he is out hunting unsuspecting Londonites. One of his prey is an unsuspecting business man, who has just stepped off his train and is working his way through Tottenham Court Road station. As he walks through the deserted hallways of the tube station, he is startled by the sound of a menacing howling that echoes off the tiled walls. He starts to run, but falls on the escalator, and we watch from the point of view of the wolf, as the wolf advanced towards the man.

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Of all the history in London, even of it being the land of my ancestors, this is my first thought on arrival in this new land, of 1981 movies, cats who spend too much time outside and running at a full sprint through the streets of my suburban hometown. Ah well, there’s probably lots of time to experience the history and culture of this place. For now, I’ll be happy to be the Canadian Werebear in town.

Posted by GregW 06:41 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged transportation Comments (4)

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