A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about living abroad

My home... or at least one of them.

No, I am not super rich with multiple homes, just flexible on the term

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Today is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. For most Americans, after a strenuous and aggravating day(s) of travel on the jam-packed roads, crowded airports and stuffy trains, they are now sitting down getting ready to stuff themselves with turkey and fall asleep watching football on the TV.

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Football float from 2006 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

For me, I am having a bit of a lazy day lounging around my hotel room. After a breakfast of McDonald's Egg McMuffins, I am been watching TV, alternating between CNN with the India terror coverage, the Travel Channel with Andrew Zimmer eating weird stuff and surfing the internet.

One of the many blogs that I try and keep up with is On Our Own Path, written by a couple (Bessie and Kyle) who are travelling through Latin America. They've just passed their 300th day travelling, and Bessie wrote in a post on the occasion:

Settling into our Next "Home". Out of habit, I still call the places we stay "home", it's sort of like a blind person saying "See you later", but you know, it works.

That got me thinking of a conversation I had the other day with a coworker here in Phoenix when they asked what, if any, plans I had for the Christmas holidays.

"I am going home to Toronto for a few days to see the family, then I will be heading home to London. Well, it's five o'clock, I think I am going to head home to my hotel."

Like Bessie, I call my hotel crash-pad for the evening my "home," but I also call two other places home as well. Three homes, are you super-rich, Greg? No, I am not super rich with multiple homes. I am just flexible with the term.

At the end of the day of work, I go "home" to my hotel, the TownePlace Suites Scottsdale. It's a comfortable extended stay place that includes a small sitting area and a full kitchen, so I can actually do something other than eat out every meal.

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I also find myself still calling Toronto home, even though I don't have a place there anymore. It was, of course, the place that I had "lived" for the past 35 years, even if for the past 9 years I spent more time travelling the USA and staying in hotels than back in Toronto.

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And finally, my flat in London is home as well. The place I actual live and get my mail delivered, and the place that I am hoping to build a more complete life as time goes on.

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So there you go. All within one sentence I can call three different places home.

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"Home" art from the Guinness brewery, Dublin, Ireland

Home. It is many places.

To expand on the classic definition, home is wherever you lay your hat, your might lay your hat, you laid your hat in the past or you will lay your hat in the future.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Posted by GregW 10:01 Archived in USA Tagged armchair_travel living_abroad migration_philosophy Comments (0)

Uncertainty Can Be a Guiding Light

Or How I Learned to Love the Future Unknown. An inside look at the goings on at a Neophiliacs Anonymous meeting.

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Hello, my name is Greg and I am a neophiliac.

Chorus: Hello Greg.

Ummm, sorry. This is my first meeting. I guess I am not sure what to say next.

Group leader: why don’t you tell us what being a neophiliac means to you.

Neophilia, from the Greek “neo” meaning new and “philie” meaning loving is a term coined by counterculture cult writer Robert Anton Wilson to describe a personality type characterized by a strong affinity for novelty. A neophile is someone who has an ability and desire for rapid and constant change and a distaste of repetition and routine.

Group leader: Sure, Greg, that’s the standard definition of a neophile. But how has being a neophiliac impacted your life? What does it mean to you PERSONALLY to be a neophile?

I love beginnings and endings. I love that feeling of being undefined, that period of uncertainty. I love the rush of knowing that anything can happen. Sure, it is often a scary period, but it is also quite enthralling.

See, I’ve just started this new position in Phoenix, Arizona. I’d never been to Phoenix before. I’ve never worked at this company, or worked with anyone at the company before. I don’t know anyone in Phoenix. Despite all that, I arrived and by the end of the first day felt completely and totally at ease with the situation. Despite having to jump right in to a completely unfamiliar situation in an unfamiliar place with a bunch of people I’ve never met, it felt completely and totally right.

Part of me thinks that perhaps it is just practice, years of travelling and consulting, meeting new people in unfamiliar situations has made me an expert at it, but then another part of me… Well, I guess that’s why I searched out this Neophiliacs Anonymous meeting. I think perhaps I am addicted to change.

Applause from the group.
Group Leader: Good for you Greg. That’s a tough admission to make.

See, I recently moved abroad without really much of a plan other than to live in the United Kingdom. Some people might call that crazy, but it all seemed perfectly sane to me. Throughout this period, I have kept having a line from one of my favourite songs repeating in my head. It’s from the 1993 song by U2 called “Zooropra,” the title track from the album of the same name.

Don’t worry, baby. It’s gonna be alright. Uncertainty can be a guiding light.

Despite the fact I am in a period when everything has changed and the future is unknowable, it’s all fine. I feel that not having a plan for the future can be a plan for the future. Just sitting back and letting the currents of life take you where they may is the only path you need to determine.

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You know, in the same song, there are some more lines that really speak to this affliction. The singer Bono seems to be trying to reassure a scared listener, anxious about a world of constant change.

And I have no compass, and I have no map
And I have no reasons, no reasons to get back
And I have no religion, and I don’t know what’s what
And I don’t know the limit, the limit of what we’ve got

We may not know what the future holds and we have no guides to direct us through the future, but at the same time that means that the future could hold anything. There are no limits to our future.

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I think that’s what I like so much about those periods of beginning and ending – the sense that there are an infinite number of possibilities. Once you are settled in to a situation, whether it be a job, a relationship of a place to live, the potential outcomes narrow to a more definable collection. Having a clearer vision of the future can be reassuring, but it also can feel limiting.

Life is a constant struggle between searching for the new and seeking out the known, the struggle between neophilia (desire for the new) and neophobia (fear of the new). For me, I find that I skew more towards the desire for the new.

I am sure it is one of the things that attracted me to consulting; the constant churn of starting a new project in a new city with a new group of people every 6 to 9 months feeds the desire for the new pretty impressively.

I realized last week that this neophilia is probably one of the reasons that I like to travel so much, both for business and for pleasure. I mean, I have travelled a lot over the past 8 years, and I have actual written 200 blog entries about places I have been and the things I have seen. Wow, that’s a lot of travel, eh?

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Why do I love travel? Travel is all about going to new places, meeting new people and seeing new things. And, if there is one thing that you can be sure of when planning a trip, it is that something along the way will not go right. They only certainty in travel plans are that they are uncertain.

Yeah, I’m sure of it now. The only guides I need in my life are uncertainty, and maybe the Lonely Planet.

Group leader: Well, Greg, that’s a great start. As they say, the first step is admitting you have a problem.

Ummm, problem? What do you mean? I don’t have a problem.

Wait, you all think neophilia is a problem? I thought this was a group to meet like minded people and make travel plans!

Ah well, my mistake. Sorry about that.

So, I have to get going. I am planning a trip this weekend to do some hiking in the canyons in Arizona . Anybody wanna come?

No, okay. Your loss.

Listen, I gotta run. There is still a lot of world out there to see and a lot of new things to experience. Have to get at it now, time is ticking away.

As Bono sings in Dirty Day, another track from the 1993 U2 release Zooropa…

The days, days, days run away like horses over the hills.

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Posted by GregW 19:01 Archived in USA Tagged living_abroad travel_philosophy migration_philosophy Comments (1)

Europa, quidnam es vos?

Thoughts on what Europe is, leading me to think again about why I am here.

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I am a Canadian living in the United Kingdom. I am a Canadian living in Europe. I am not a European citizen. I am not a British citizen. In fact, I haven’t even really been here long enough to be a British resident, but I will be by the end of the year.

I recently went to a event which was a discussion led by Simon Glendinning, the director of the Forum for European Philosophy at the European Institute within the London School of Economics. The discussion, entitled Is Europe a Place or an Idea?, put on by Big Ideas, who host events that are set up as a casual discussion, starting with someone with knowledge setting up the subject, and then the floor open for discussion.

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Mr. Glendinning started off by setting three possible ways to define Europe.

The first was geographic. It seems a simple way to define the continent, but is a surprisingly complex definition. The oldest known map of Europe, the Noachide map from the 7th century, defines Europe as being bounded in the east by the River Don in Russia. Nowadays, most folks would define it as being at the Ural Mountains, further to the east of that definition. How far off-shore does Europe reach? Is Iceland European? Greenland? The Azores? It’s fuzzier than one would think.

The second definition was based on a cultural progression, that Europe is a group of national states that have been and continue to be working towards a better world, that Europe is a global leader and the vanguard of human society. I’m probably not giving this idea a very good explanation, as reading that back it sounds very arrogant, but if you look at this definition within the historical context of moving from barbarism towards enlightened free societies, you can see what the definition was trying to communicate.

The final definition looks at the history, and defines Europe as being the areas where the main base of thought, laws and morality are based on the amalgam of Christianity and Greek rational thought. In fact, prior to the Reformation, it was easy to define Europe as those places where intellectuals all spoke Latin.

(An aside: the title of this blog is, I think, Latin for “Europe, who are you?” But I don’t speak Latin, so it was translated using an online translator. It might actually say, “Europe, pork yellow chariot.” I wouldn’t make a very good pre-Reformation intellectual.)

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What is interesting about the last two definitions is that without the bounds of geography, there are suddenly lots of nations that could be considered “European” without being anywhere close to geographic Europe. Most every country in the Americas, as well as New Zealand and Australia, are “European” when you consider that their populations and governments are based on the systems and people put in place during the period of European colonialism.

After the floor was opened for discussion, a few other potential definitions came out, including a political definition (i.e. whoever the EU says is European), places where there was an intermarrying of Royal families and even a definition based on any place that takes place in the Eurovision song contest, though I think that last definition might have been a joke.

Some may ask why this question is important. The answer has to do with Russia and Turkey. Both are being considered for inclusion into the European Union. Geographically, both have small regions within Europe. Turkey is especially controversial, because despite having a secular government, they have a large Muslim population. Turkey’s inclusion has become a major point of debate. One of the key criteria for joining the European Union, known as the Copenhagen Criteria, and set out originally in the Maastricht Treaty, states that “Any European State may apply to become a Member of the Union”

About half way through the discussion, we had a quick break to use the facilities and refill our glasses. Upon return to the discussion, Mr. Glendinning asked a question to the group.

“How many of you would have defined yourself as primarily European?”

Interestingly, I’d say most of the folks put up their hands, though people who come out to a discussion entitled “Is Europe a Place or an Idea?” probably aren’t a representative sample of the entire population of Britain, especially seeing as a number of the people there weren’t British, but rather from other places in Europe.

While the sample may not have been representative, Europe is a place that does define itself as more than a collection of countries. I think you’d be hard pressed to find more than a handful of people who would say “I am a North American,” whereas here in Europe you’d find that close to half of the people would define themselves as “European”.

Mr. Glendinning went around the room and asked those who didn’t put up their hands how they would have identified themselves. Some defined themselves are British or English. One guy defined himself as being from London, dismissing the idea of national identities altogether.

When he asked me why I didn’t identify as European, I answered, obviously that I am Canadian.

Secretly, though, I really did want to say that I was European.

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As I said in my entry back in September on Brussels, “...one of the reasons I moved out of Canada was to be part of something larger. I wanted to be part of the international community, be part of something that was happening. Europe seemed to be that place.”

I moved to the United Kingdom for expediency and ease, but really I would have been happy to have moved anywhere in Europe. One of the good things about the UK Ancestry Visa which I have is that after a 6 year period of residency in the UK, I can get a UK passport which will then allow me to work and live anywhere in the EU.

I have a definition of Europe. Not what it is, but what it isn’t. It isn’t Canada and it isn’t North America. It isn’t, in short, where I have lived before.

In my entry back in September, I said that, “Europe is coming together. The European Union is growing, the coming together of nations to form a larger community, an international meeting place.”

I was sitting in a pub last night, eating dinner, ruminating on the talk on Europe, and I heard something that made me realize that it was that last point that was the real driver of why I came here.

There was an Aussie and his girlfriend sitting at the bar, chatting with the bartender. I overheard him say, “...and so I wanted an international experience, and what is more international than London?”

That thought triggered in me a realization that is why I am here as well, for the international experience. Not just living in a place that isn’t my home country, but living in a place that is an important international city.

My old home of Toronto is very multicultural, but it isn’t very international. Toronto is important in Canadian business and politics, and has a mild importance to North American business, but a lot of it doesn’t look out beyond the borders of North America. That happens in other places in North America - New York for finance, Houston for energy, Los Angeles for shipping, etc.

Living in London, you don’t just have a meeting place for international citizens, but you also have a lot of international business and politics interacted from here. I realized that London is not just my gateway to Europe, not just my chance to live abroad, but it is my chance to look further afield too. It is my chance to be an international citizen.

I am a Canadian. And some day I hope to say I am a European, and I am international.

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Posted by GregW 06:08 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged living_abroad migration_experiences migration_philosophy Comments (0)

A £ of Flesh (Part 02): Mental Exchange

Why things have stopped seeming expensive in London

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Back in June I wrote an entry in my blog entitled A £ of Flesh (Part 01): The Price of Clean about how much it cost to do laundry. As you can guess from both the fancy title with a colon and the use of Part 01 in the title, I was expecting that entry to be the first in series. In addition, given that I used 01 instead of just 1, apparently I was expecting it to be the first in at least 10 entries.

In fact, I was expecting to write a bunch about how much stuff cost here, and I thought the whole "pound of flesh" thing was a clever way to group them together.

Here we are at the end of October, 4 months later, and I haven't written about the subject again (until now). It is not because things in London have gotten cheaper. They haven't, other than housing prices, but thanks to having no job, no credit and no banks in London lending money to anyone, lower housing prices don't do anything for me.

No, it happens that I stumbled on the secret of not being bothered about prices. I stopped converting.

When I travel as a tourist, I tend to be constantly exchanging money. Not physically exchanging it, just in my head. Every time I walk up to a shop, talk to a taxi driver, walk up to an ATM or pull out a bunch of Canadian dollars at a exchange booth, I am figuring out how much the local currency being requested is equal to in Canadian dollars.

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I think most people probably do this. "Let's see, 34,000 pesos, at about 500 peso per dollar, that works out to... ummm.... 34 times 2 is... sixty-something... 2 times 4 is 8. So, 68 Canadian. Hmmm, that seems like a lot for a cheese sandwich."

(An aside, as you can see my basic math skills are not that great. However, this tends to work in my favour, as all this mental work is usually accompanied by a frown and a furrowed brow. This is mistaken by shopkeepers as a sign of displeasure at the price, some sort of non-verbal haggling tactic, so usually they counter offer. "Okay, okay, Mr. Big-Man. 30,000 pesos, but you are taking food out of my family's mouth at that price!")

Anyway, sometime shortly after I posted the first £ of Flesh entry, I stopped doing that mental exchange rate shuffle in my head. I just started looking at prices in pounds and pence.

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That's not to say that I just buy anything thrust in front of me. I am still unemployed and thus on a tight budget (international jet-setter trips to France, Belgium, Canada and the USA notwithstanding), and thus am careful with my money. I do still compare prices, but now it is between shops in London, and not between Canadian and UK prices.

I didn't even realize that this shift happened until I recently was re-doing my budget and made note that I will soon need to move some more money into my UK bank account ("Jeeves, can you get my Swiss banker on the phone, I think we will need to move some Franks from off-shore to here in London. Oh, and have James pull the Bentley around, I need to go to Asda. They have chicken breasts on for 50p!")

In figuring out how much money to transfer to the UK, I had to convert my monthly UK budget from pounds to Canadian dollars. "Damn, that's a lot of money," I thought. "How come I haven't realized that before?"

That's when the light came on. I hadn't realized it because I never bothered to convert it.

I am living cheaply by London standards. It's just that London standards aren't cheap.

Posted by GregW 14:49 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Am I In The Right Place: The Post-Trip Doubt

Trips to Paris and Brussels make me question my move to London, but I am hoping that it is just post-trip blues and not a symptom of a real doubt.

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I have had a rough week. I have felt frustrated and angry all week, and have been filled with some doubt that I made the right move in coming here to London.

It’s not that I am thinking that I shouldn’t have moved, but rather that I should have moved somewhere else.

The weather has been bad and job hunting has been really frustrating me. I’ve been in London for a little over 3 months now, and if you include the month and a half that I was looking for work before I came over, that’s almost 5 months of looking. I have been getting interviews, and at one point almost had a job, but it was snatched away at the last moment due to a hiring freeze implemented because of the downturn in the world-wide economy and the credit-crunch.

Part of the reason for my foul mood though, I think is my recent trip to Brussels and returning to London. I experienced something similar on my return from Paris after seeing the Bastille Day celebrations.

As I wrote about in that entry, Paris is one of the prime reasons I moved to Europe, and when I was there in July, I couldn’t help but keep asking myself the question, “should I have moved here instead of London?”

I spent 45 days in Paris back in 2005, which added with three days in July means I have spent a total of 48 days in Paris. Coincidentally on July 19th, 2008, just after my return from Paris, I celebrated my 48th day in London. There’s nothing really special about the number 48, other than the fact that I had spent 48 days in both places. So I sat down and wrote about it, though never published it as a blog. Here's what I wrote at the time:

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On Saturday, July 19th, 2008, I have spent 48 days in both Paris and London. 48 days. An equal dose of both cities. After my trip to Paris, I have been wondering if I made the right choice or the wrong choice in moving to London. If Paris is what made me want to move to Europe, why London? Because it was easier hardly seems like a great reason.

As I wrote in my little notebook in bold letter when in Paris

Q: Did I move to the wrong city?

It’s a good question. Every time I wander around in Paris, I feel a sense of awe. Any sense of awe quickly faded about London.

I remind myself that I have never “lived” in Paris, never had to do the things I’ve had to do in London, like banking, job, place to live. As well, my experience with Paris has always been at the heart of it, within the city limits. If I lived in Paris, would I live in the city, or would you find me out in the suburbs.

Perhaps the charm I feel in Paris would not be so strong if I had to do these things?

Perhaps not, though. I have always been enchanted by Paris. I’ve never really been grabbed by London, even during my vacation time here in 2007.

London seems like a “functional” place to me. It is laid out to function as a city, a place of commerce, a place to meet. It is clinical, though not soulless. It is designed to be an efficient machine.

Paris, despite Haussman’s massive renewal and the creation of wide boulevards, strikes me as “ornate,” a city designed to be a work of art itself. A place to be admired and awed.

Paris is art to London’s machine.

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Eventually that feeling faded as more realistic thoughts settled in, and the new adventure of moving to the Docklands and living near Canary Wharf came along.

Then I headed to Brussels, and was enchanted by a new city, especially an experience on Saturday night at my hotel’s bar.

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It was Saturday night, and after returning from Bruges, I decided to have drink. As I was tired, I decided to have one close to my hotel, and nothing is closer to a hotel room than the lobby of that hotel.

I was sitting in the Schengen bar at the Renaissance Hotel. The hotel is a Marriott brand just a block from the European Parliament, so it gets a lot of folks from around the world who are doing business with EU. The bar was pretty busy, full of people speaking in different languages and accents. The TV played the Euronews channel, covering news from around the world with a European perspective.

It made me very happy to be part of something so international, even if it was just from the outskirts of the action, sitting alone at a bar while Europe’s and the world’s politics and business went on around me.

I will admit that one of the reasons I moved out of Canada was to be part of something larger. I wanted to be part of the international community, be part of something that was happening. Europe seemed to be that place.

As I left North America, Canada and the USA seem to be closing themselves off, fortifying themselves against the outside world and even dividing themselves into smaller bits internally - red vs. blue states, north vs. south, Quebec vs. the rest of Canada, east vs. west, Northern Ontario vs. Southern Ontario.

Europe is coming together. The European Union is growing, the coming together of nations to form a larger community, an international meeting place. Despite setback with the recent Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty to give the EU more powers, proponents of the EU want to continue to build the union, stronger and larger.

Sitting in that bar, I felt like I was somehow part of building that union, that I was taking part in the building of that international community.

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I left Brussels on Monday on the Eurostar. About an hour and 15 minutes into the journey, we passed into the tunnel under the English Channel, heading back to the island that is England.

“Here I am, trying to be part of a more international community, and I do it by moving to an island?” I thought to myself, and a funk settled in.

So that’s why have been feeling frustrated with my slow job hunt all week. I don’t think it is the job hunting. I think it is the fact that I am suffering from post-trip blues. Even a short stint away makes the place you live seem a little duller by comparison.

After all, this week I have cleaned my bathroom, called my landlord about a leaky kitchen sink, did a load of laundry, shopped for groceries, talked to 5 different recruiters about 5 different positions and dressed up and went on an interview for a job that I realized two minutes into the interview I didn’t want.

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How can that compare to sitting in a bar, listening to the world’s politicos discuss important things in many different languages and being awash with the feeling that you are part of Europe, that you are an international citizen?

If instead of the Isle of Dogs, I had found myself cleaning my bathroom, worrying about my leaky tap and doing loads of laundry while looking through the want ads in a Brussels flat, I wonder if I would have felt very much like an international citizen, or would have just felt like somebody without a job who had all day to do his chores?

Posted by GregW 09:17 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged living_abroad migration_experiences migration_philosophy Comments (8)

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