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New Chapter: In Which I Single-Handedly Gentrify Kings Cross

A few notes on my up-and-coming new home.

sunny 9 °C

The TV show starts with a black screen as a voice comes on and says, "In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups. The police who investigate crime, and the Crown Prosecution Service who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories." It is the first episode of Law and Order: UK. The series is created by Dick Wolf, who created all the various Law and Order series filmed in America. This new series is the first one to be set outside of New York.

The premier episode is entitled "Care," and it is a remake of an original NYC Law and Order. A baby is found dead at a hospital. The police detectives soon learn that the mother brought the baby to the hospital after finding it dead in her flat in Kings Cross. Turns out that the landlord and her silent partner and heavy broke the gas heater, causing the baby to die. They wanted the woman out of her flat so they could convert the building into high priced lofts.

In the episode, the two detectives are walking along Euston Road in front of Kings Cross rail station as they discuss how the area is being gentrified, and while it is good that the drug dealer and prostitutes aren't in the area any more, all the new, well-off tenants moving into the area are causing rents to go up and pushing the less fortunate tenants out. "Where are they supposed to live?" asks the one detective.

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Ladies and gentlemen, I am that gentrifying force.

I just moved into an upmarket loft in Kings Cross, in what I believe is a converted warehouse, though it could be a purpose built building made to look like a converted warehouse, I'm not entirely sure. Either way, my high priced rent and need for gastro-pubs is no doubt destroying the character of this place, the same character that attracted me to it in the first place.

Ah well, what can I do? I'll stay here until my rich urban habits have turned the place into a bland, soul-less neighbourhood, and then move onto the next place. Just you watch, I'll probably move down to Elephant and Castle in a few years and destroy the grit and character of that place.

In the meantime, let me tell you a little bit about my new place. Kings Cross is an area of North London centred around Kings Cross station, partly in the borough of Camden and partly in borough of Islington. I live in the part in Islington. The area is named for a status of King George V that was erected in 1830 at the corners of Pentonville, Euston and Gray's Inn roads. The statue was widely hated, and so it was torn down in 1845, however the area retained the name of Kings Cross.

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Prior to the statue, the area was known as Battle Bridge for a bridge crossing the River Fleet at this point. The River Fleet no longer bubbles along above ground - it was covered over in the 1700 and 1800s, today draining out from a cement tunnel into the Thames under the Blackfriars Bridge. Two streets over from where I live, though, you can still find the name Battle Bridge. It is the name of a basin on the Regents Canal where today the London Canal Museum stands.

I have not written Kings Cross with an apostrophe in the name. While it would be most accurate to write King's Cross as the place is named after a single King, convention has the name written without the apostrophe most times, so I will adopt that convention as well. The rail station, though, is usually written with the apostrophe. I have no explaination.

The area is well connected to transit. Kings Cross-St. Pancras tube station has 7 different tube lines running through it, including the Piccadilly line out to Heathrow Airport. King's Cross train station sits right beside St. Pancras train station, and Euston station is just down the road a few blocks. From those three stations I can catch a train to pretty much anywhere North of London, right up into Scotland. Additionally, I can grab the Eurostar to Paris and Brussels from St. Pancras, and will soon be able to take a high speed train down to Dover.

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King's Cross Station is undergoing a massive renovation to provide a nicer station with a more train platforms. The train shed roof is going to be refurbished so it looked much nicer than the current, grungy look it sports today.

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The area between King's Cross Station and St. Pancras stations are also being developed. The site, called Kings Cross Central, is 65 areas of disused land, but will soon be high end apartments, offices and shopping. It is one of the biggest brown field developments in all of Europe.

While the area is definitely being gentrified, it still has some run-down areas. Nothing too scary, but a few places that look like they could use a fresh coat of paint and some Windex.

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The area that I am in is a lot of old warehouses that served boats running along the Regent's Canal, one of the primary ways that goods were moved around London before trucks. Many of the old warehouses have been converted into living space or office blocks now. Most of these conversions still have a warehouse-feel, though, which I think it kind of nice.

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I'm not a fan, but I know many are, so I shall now point out that in addition to being featured on Law and Order: UK, King's Cross rail station features in the Harry Potter books as the place where young wizards catch a train to go to Hogwart's school. The magical gateway to the train is in a column between platforms 9 and 10, called Platform 9 3/4.

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I hate to burst the bubble of those who are huge Pot-heads (err, is that the right term?), but no such place exists. When writing the book, J.K. Rowling got confused about the layout of the station, thinking that platforms 9 and 10 were in the main part of the station. In fact, they are not. They are in a separate, smaller part off to the left of the station. Further, Platform 9 and Platform 10 are not connected, but rather have two sets of tracks between them.

To honour the mention in the books, however, King's Cross station have put the sign on the wall and the cart half-way through the wall, though. Not on the station platform, mind you, but rather in a walk-way that leads out from the station. In addition to not actually being able to put the tribute between 9 and 10 due to the fact they are not connected, it also keeps folks from wandering down the platforms and getting in the way of busy commuters.

So, that's a few short notes about my new home. I am no longer a docklands boy. I am now a KGXer, (KGX being the code for the station on the train schedules).

Hello Kings Cross, let the gentrification begin.

Posted by GregW 08:31 Archived in England Tagged living_abroad Comments (2)

I'm not the Stig. Perhaps I am Captain Slow, though...

How my first experience driving in London demonstrated my Top Gear Personality type.

sunny 11 °C

I moved yesterday from Isle of Dogs to a flat near King's Cross Station in Islington. It's a nice place, right on the Regent's Canal. In fact, my room looks out over the canal, and as I type this, I can look out my window and see ducks swimming down the canal. The water is so smooth that the ducks swimming create a visible and long wake.

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To move, I rented a car. I don't have a lot of stuff, but it would have taken more than one trip on the tube, and with the typical weekend shut downs for scheduled maintenance, the trip would have required 3 trains, with 2 changes involving some significant stairs.

While the car made the most sense, I was quite scared with the whole concept. I've never driven in the UK, and only once driven in a car with the steering wheel on the right, and that was on the rather laid-back and traffic free island of Tobago. The car on Tobago was an automatic, and my drive in the UK would be manual. I'm fine with driving a manual car, but I'd never done it when I would have to shift with my left and not my right hand.

I picked up my car from Alamo. It was a Nissan Note, a car I had never even heard of before. It definitely did not look like a North American car.

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Most of the cars I see here don't look very North American. They are tend to be smaller, taller with wheels all pushed out to the very corners of the vehicle. The hatchback is king here - probably half the cars on the road have 5 doors.

Despite gripping the wheel with whiteknuckles and shallow breath, I actually settled into driving quite quickly. Shifting with the left hand wasn't at all weird. Despite fears I would constantly be turning into the wrong lane and face oncoming, angry and possibly deadly traffic, I found cornering fine, mostly because you are taking concious action when turning. It was when I wasn't thinking on the straight bits that I would find myself drifting to my left, mostly so that my position on the road would be to the left of the lane. Other than once when my mirror clipped a plastic barrier, though, it didn't cause any problems.

The scariest thing had nothing to do with the side of the road I was on, but rather the fact that London roads are small and narrow. Especially when you have a white panel van beside you, looming over you and casting you in it's shadow, things can get hairy. I would usually just ease off the gas a bit and let the panel van get in front of me, giving me a little breathing room.

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Good Christian driving, as James May might say. Letting someone in is something that Captain Slow might do, but not a move for The Stig.

If you are a boy and live in the UK, as I am (a boy) and I do (live in the UK), you will know how the people mentioned in the last paragraph are, and you probably know what happens on Sunday nights at seven on the BBC 2. You will know that Sundays at seven are when BBC 2 shows Top Gear.

Top Gear is a motoring program. Like motoring programs in Canada or the USA, they review new cars. Unlike motoring programs that I have seen in Canada or the USA, they do it in a very different way, for example seeing if you can get away from baddies by driving the car through a mall, or storming a beach with the Royal Marines. (If you haven't seen these clips - go to the BBC site, or find them on Youtube in not in the UK. I would post links to the videos on Youtube, but they tend to get deleted quickly due to copyright infringement issues).

As an aside, I originally would have thought that Top Gear wouldn't appeal to a female demographic, but I have been quite amazed by the number of girls here in the UK who watch the program. I won't go so far as to say that the somewhat childish program about cars has appeal across both genders, because perhaps there is something about the class of women I know that makes them more likely to like boys acting silly in cars.

The show is hosted by three automotive journalists. Jeremy Clarkson writes for the Times, and is considered by most the leader of pack when it comes to the Top Gear trio. Richard Hammond writes for the Mirror, and is the pretty boy of the pack. James May, automotive columnist for the Telegraph, is the bookish, fuddy-duddy of the gang. Clarkson, known as Jezza, and Hammond (sometimes known as the Hamster, but not too often - more often he is teased about his hair and his teeth (which may or may not have had work done on them)) call May “Captain Slow” for both his cautious driving style and the fact that he owns a Fiat Panda.

Often, though, they just want to see how fast the car can go. In these cases, the “tame racing driver” presumably tranquillised after the Monaco Grand prix and transported to Top Gear’s offices at the Dunsfold Aerodrome, takes over the driving and drives the car around the Top Gear test track. The driver, known only as The Stig, is a figure of much mystery here in the UK. His identity is a highly guarded secret, and is the ninth most asked question on the internet. Number one was “Am I pregnant?” Even had a video of the potential conception moment been posted on the web (which it quite possibly could be), I don’t think Google can answer that.

There have been rumours posted on the internet, most recently regarding Bristol-based racer Ben Collins being the driver, but nothing has been confirmed. All I know is that I am not The Stig, so let me confirm that now for the Internet. That’s 1 down, only 6,760,033,985 other potential candidates out there.

Since arriving in London, I have watched as much of Top Gear as I can, which is a whole lot of Top Gear. Not only does the BBC show the show, but it appears in reruns on another station (called, strangely, Dave) about 6 times a day.

One of the parts of the show I like the best is when they travel some place exotic. This often takes the form of a race, where two of the hosts, in some form of presumably fast transport, race against the other host in a car. Often Clarkson drives the car, with Hammond and May taking some other form of transport. Past races have included Clarkson driving from Alba to London while May flew his private plane; May and Hammond on the Shinkansen bullet train racing across Japan while Jezza drove a Nissan; Clarkson driving the long way around to Oslo while Hammond and May took the train, a ferry, more trains and finally a speed boat to try and beat Clarkson; and Clarkson and May driving a car to the North Pole, while Hammond tried to beat them using a dog sled.

Besides of the obvious comic value of these races (that Clarkson seems to win disproportionately), it is also great to see the exotic locations through which the races pass, some of which I have visited, and some of which are on my list of places to see.

They also do cheap car challenges, where they go some place and try and buy a car for some amount of money, and then do an epic drive. The most recent series of Top Gear concluded with May, Clarkson and Hammond being given 15 million đồng to purchase a vehicle tin Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon. It soon became clear to the boys that the amount of money they had wouldn’t buy a car, but could buy a motorcycle. Hammond and May, both bikers, loved the challenge. Clarkson, who thinks of motorcycling as akin to loading a gun and shooting it at oneself repeatedly, was not amused. However, they all ended up getting their bikes and setting off on a 1000 mile journey from Ho Chi Minh to Ha Long Bay. Along the way, they obviously had to fed themselves. May and Clarkson happily ate the Vietnamese cuisine, while Hammond seemed to starve himself until he could find a bowl of Rice Krispies.

I think all of us boys in the UK who sit around and watch BBC 2 on Sundays at seven probably like to think about which of the hosts we are most like. Am I like Clarkson, the witty, acerbic A-type leader with definitive black and white opinions? Am I the good-looking, bass-guitar playing dashing Richard Hammond? Am I the mysterious, never seen, fast as stink Stig?

The answer for me to those questions is a big no.

I have noted that Captain Slow and I seem to share a number of traits. I’m a little bit dorky, a little brainy, not very flashy with a penchant for arcane interests. I don’t think I would have much hope of beating anybody in a car race in London, given the cautious, Christian driving, Captain slow approach I took yesterday to the white panel van problem.

That being said, though, I'm not so sad to find out that I am Captain Slow. After all, he was happy eating the local food and drinking in the local history, and in one case the local drink of vodka and snake blood. I like to think that I am the same type of guy - who will take the chances, try and understand the history and psyche of a place to get a deeper more meaningful experience from it. Even if that means I lose more car races than I win.

So, you can't call me The Stig, but I will take the title of Captain Slow.

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Posted by GregW 02:57 Archived in England Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Feeling Good on Blue Monday

I'm happy despite what all the research suggests.

overcast 6 °C

Today, January 19th, 2009, is the most depressing day of the year. This is according to scientists, who research these things. According to the white coats, as detailed in this article entitled Feeling blue? Today - January 19, 2009 - is the most depressing day in HISTORY, say experts, "Cold weather, fading Christmas memories and broken New Year resolutions mean this period is usually miserable, but the effects of the economic downturn makes this year worse than ever. Millions will feel so glum they will decide to stay in bed and up to a quarter of workers are expected to call in sick, research suggests."

In the event you are interested, the formula for the day of misery reads 1/8W+(D-d) 3/8xTQ MxNA, where W is weather, D is debt - minus the money (d) due on January's pay day - and T is the time since Christmas.

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Personally, I am not feeling blue at all.

Firstly, I got my cheque today from the work I did in Phoenix, which was good because I was close to broke, but the cheque means that I won't be kicked out of my flat come the 1st of February.

Secondly, I have some great news. I actually have a job in the UK. I start next Monday, one week from now. After almost 8 months of looking, I have finally closed the deal on a new career. The job is back in consulting, much as I did when I worked in North America, though instead of jetting around North America this time I'll be travelling around by train to locations in Great Britain.

So instead of entries bemoaning the state of air travel in the USA, you can expect all sorts of entries bemoaning the state of train travel in the UK. At least I won't have to deal with airport security.

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The new job, though, means that I am starting to look for a new place to live. There are a large number of train stations in London, and which one you use depends on where you are heading. Most of the stations, however, are on the Circle tube line, with a few key stations south of the river on the Jubilee or Northern lines.

Right now, I am not conveniently located to reach any of the stations. When I went up to Birmingham a few weeks ago, it took me 45 minutes to get to Euston station from my place. Paddington station is an hour away. St. Pancras & Kings Cross is a little closer at 40 minutes travel. Waterloo and London Bridge are the closest, but it will still take me 25 to 30 minutes to reach them.

So I am starting to look for a place to live up in the North-west central part of the city, near Paddington or Kings Cross. That'll make it a short trip on the tube to get to most of the stations. It's also a pretty nice area, and a little more lively than the south end of the Isle of Dogs where I live now.

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Plus, there's always the option for a nice stroll through Regent's Park.

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I start next Monday with a quick trip into the office here in London, and then I am most likely to head up to Sheffield to start a project up there.

It feels good to finally be starting something here in the United Kingdom. While I have been here for 8 months (excluding the 6 weeks spent over in Phoenix), without having been working it hasn't really been like I have settled here. With a job about to start, I am finally feeling like I am becoming a settler here in the UK.

I am no longer a tourist. I am finally a immigrant about to start his new life in his new country.

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Posted by GregW 05:35 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged living_abroad Comments (3)

More of a Cloudy Broth Than a Pea Soup

Pictures from a foggy evening

overcast 5 °C

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.

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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.

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

This Year Will Be Different

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

overcast 3 °C

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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