A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about living abroad

Sunshine and Rain

The ups and downs of moving abroad

sunny 22 °C
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I have felt quite recently like a maniac-despressive, my mood bouncing up and down. (Apologies to any one actually suffering from the very serious illness of mania-depression for trivializing it).

I had a vision in my head of what it would be like moving to London, and I must admit that it was a lot smoother in my imagination than it has turned out to be in real life. There seems to be a lot to bring stress into my life. Delayed interviews, hiring freezes, getting lost, tube delays and getting caught in the rain are all enough to make you retreat to your bedroom and crawl under the covers.

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It isn't so much that lots of bad stuff is happening, it is just normal life, especially normal life for those looking for a new job. In my imagination prior to coming over, though, I imagined me getting a new job, making a bunch of new friends and finding an amazing place to live in a couple weeks. Of course that wasn't going to happen, but that didn't stop me from dreaming it.

For ever bad day and foul mood though, there are times of happiness and awe. The other day I was walking down the street and suddenly found myself giggling as I realized I was walking down the streets of the city I LIVE IN, and that city is LONDON! Awesome!

I recently was reading an article in the Toronto Star (online version, obviously) that mentioned that Forbes magazine ranked Toronto the 10th most economically powerful city. Cool for Toronto, I thought. I scanned the rest of the top 10, and there at the top was my newly adopted home of London. The most economically powerful city in the world, growing faster than any other cities in the G7.

"I live there, the most economically powerful city in the world." I thought. "How cool is that?" I was smiling for the next half a day at the thought. I'm in a place where stuff... really important stuff... happens. I may not be doing the real important stuff, but at least I am close to it.

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A few days later, I was down again. I could feel the sweat pooling on my brow as the woman said, "I need your passport, proof of address and a urine sample."

Not exactly your average first date. No, I was making an appointment for a physical to register with a doctor and the National Health.

I don't like doctors and hospitals. They make me squeamish at best, and often downright nervous. That being said, I don't like paying for health care when it's needed either, so off to get a GP, a requirement for health coverage here in the United Kingdom.

That being done, now I am a legitimate member of the National Health, and don't have to worry about being covered in the event that I break a leg, get run through with a javelin by a practicing future Olympian or get fed through a woodchipper by angry Thais after a disparaging remark about their classical music in my last blog entry, but the day and a half leading up to the visit was quite nerve-racking. Even though I am entitled under the rules of my visa to be covered by the National Health, I was really concerned that I had missed some small administrivia point and they would send me away with no coverage. My heart was beating, my blood pressure was elevated and I was covered by a film of sweat throughout the entire appointment, which just lead to the nurse scolding me for being out of shape, which just made me more nervous, and raised my heart rate even more. Ugh.

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That evening, though, knowing that I was covered and don't have to worry about it, I was up again. I had gotten an email about a job interview schedule for Friday and I had just met up with an old friend from high school back in Canada who now lives in London. Despite the nerve-racking doctor's appointment, the day turned out to be a good one.

I was walking home along Westferry, close to the Thames River. A fox darted out and crossed the road in front of me. It was a clear and cool night, stars and the moon lighting up the sky above the apartment flats lining the Thames River.

Ever since I was a kid, every night I have looked up and at the sight of the first star I see, repeat the same thing.

"Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. Wish I may, wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight."

What I have wished for over the years has changed, depending on where I was in life. Lately, I've mostly been wishing for a job.

But that night, smiling and happy, I couldn't think of anything to wish for. I am living in an amazing city. I have a nice place to live. I am starting to make friends. I am making progress (albeit slow progress) on finding a job. That evening, I figured I had everything I needed.

"Give my wish to someone else tonight," I said, and whistled happy tunes to myself as I walked home.

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Posted by GregW 02:37 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged living_abroad Comments (1)

Howl for the Dogs!

My new new home in the Docklands on the Isle of Dogs

semi-overcast 22 °C
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I closed and locked the door on my empty flat, and headed to Willesden Green Station for the last time as a resident of Cricklewood, Brent, London today. After only 2 months in the city, I now have a previous London address. Now in conversation I drop in phrases like, “...this place near Cricklewood, where I first lived when I moved to London...” to make me sound like an old timer in the city.

Who knows, perhaps I will make such a big impact on this city that the fact that I lived in a studio flat in North-West London will some day be important, and the folks at English Heritage will honour that. Some day in the future, perhaps you will be strolling down Anson Road in Brent and see a blue plaque on the wall of an otherwise unassuming little row house identifying I lived there.

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Moving out isn’t really that great a shock, as the flat in Cricklewood was always planned to be a temporary situation until I could figure out where in London I wanted to live and what would be convenient for work. Despite the fact that I don’t actually have work yet, I have decided to move, at least for the next three months all the way to the South-East of the city and into the borough of Tower Hamlets.

Ah, Tower Hamlets. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? The word hamlet, defined as “a community smaller than a village,” conjuring up images of cottages in the English countryside, the Tower alluded to perhaps being the church steeple at the end of the main road?

In fact, Tower Hamlets is the heart of East End London, just to the east of the medieval walled city of London (most of the wall is gone now). Formerly a set of small villages to the east of London, as the city of London expanded in the 19th century, many people, especially the poor and new immigrants found themselves living in an increasingly dense east end. The “east end” became synonymous with poverty and places like Wapping, Aldgate, Bethnal Green, Mile End, Limehouse, Bow, Bromley-by-Bow, Poplar, Shadwell, Stepney got a bad name. The most infamous area in the east end became Whitechapel, where gin houses and pubs serving both prostitutes and their clients provided the perfect opportunity for the “world’s first serial killer,” Jack the Ripper to terrorize the area from 1888 until 1891 through the murder of 11 women.

Somewhat to the south of the traditionally defined East End sat a rather marshy island that came to be known as the Isle of Dogs. This area, prone to flooding, is formed by one of the largest meanders of the River Thames. Originally settled in 13th century, the area was abandoned after a breach in the river embankment in the 14th century. Dutch engineers, familiar with drainage problems, were able to clear the area again in the 17th century.

Some of you might be wondering how the Isle of Dogs came to get its name, especially seeing it is more of a peninsula than an island. Unfortunately, like many things in London, there are lots of rumours but no real answers. Some say that it is due to the kings raising greyhounds for hunting in the area.

In the 19th century, the area became one of the most important centres for trade in London with the opening of a number of docks. The city of London’s river wharves were over-crowded, and boats would often have to wait to unload. To ease this crowding, docks were constructed on the Isle of Dogs and in other east end districts to serve to growing city.

The first dock on the Isle of Dogs, the West India Dock, was opened in 1802 and connected to the city via canals and later railways. The Millwall and Poplar docks followed soon after, and the area became a bustling trade hub.

Many years later, somebody invented the shipping container and the container ship. That was the end of the Isle of Dogs docks, as they didn’t have the space or facilities to unload containers. In 1980 the government took over the land, and scratched it’s head. “What do we do with all these docks?”

The Docklands regeneration project was soon born, which for the Isle of Dogs meant the development of Canary Wharf by a couple of Canadians. After building the UK’s three tallest buildings and naming them after Canada and Canadian place names, Toronto developer Olympia and York promptly filed for bankruptcy in 1990. The area was a bit of a white elephant for the better part of a decade, with half-full towers. Eventually, though, demand caught up with supply, and the building started up again in 1997 and continues to this day.

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Further south, the Millwall Dock was opened originally in 1868, and in the 1980s saw a less ambitious redevelopment as both a commercial centre and residential area. Including the Barnfield and Iron Mongers development that I am moving into.

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The area is pretty nice now, unlike the conditions of the area in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the Reverend Richard Free described his rooms at No. 1 Ingelheim Cottages as 'a terrible old shanty, lacking every convenience', and crawling with lice. The area had been in disrepair for 100 years when Wimpey Homes redeveloped the site as Quay West in 1989, “an estate of houses and mews built around courts, squares and a pedestrian boulevard.”

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So now I am settled into my double-room ensuite in a house with 5 other rooms and as follows, 5 other roommates. I wasn’t planning on living with roommates when I moved to London, but two things changed that. First, landlords are surprisingly uninterested in renting you an apartment when you answer No to questions like, “are you employed?” “do you have any references you’ve known in the UK for the past 3 years?” and “do you have anyone in the UK who could guarantee your payments?” Secondly, I wasn’t really meeting anyone living in a studio apartment by myself, so I figured this would be a good way to get to meet some people. I haven’t met my roommates yet (I assume they are all at work, suckers!). Hopefully they’ll be cool. Judging by the sports crap, video games and DVDs left lying around in the main room, they look like nice guys.

I have a 1st floor room (2nd floor in North America) overlooking the courtyard with its leafy trees and bricked driveway and walkways. The room came furnished, and even has a big shot of Audrey Hepburn on the wall, who I’ve often commented is very pretty. The house is probably a minute walk to the Thames River, about 20 minutes by foot to Canary Wharf and only a minute from the Mudchute Docklands Light Rail (DLR) station.

(An aside - I have a dirty poem that I composed using the DLR station name of Mudchute and tube stations St. John’s Wood and Shepard’s Bush. If you are over 18, remind me to tell you next time I see you).

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So begins phase 2 of a yet to be determined number of phases of my life in London. I may be from Cricklewood originally, but from now on, I’m a Docklands boy.

At least, until I move again.

Posted by GregW 07:17 Archived in England Tagged living_abroad Comments (1)

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.

sunny 25 °C
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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

sunny 26 °C
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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)

Half a pint of beer in a pint glass

Always looking on the bright side of life...

overcast 16 °C
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A friend of mine recently wrote me and said that some of my blog entries lately had been "kind of down." I hadn't really thought they had, other than the one about crying watching Wilson the volleyball, but then I took a gander back at them and realized that it is possible to take away a certain negativity in them.

I sat at a bar last weekend contemplating this fact as I was having a pint. The bar was called The Crown, and is just down the street from my flat. It's in a beautiful and imposing Victorian building that now also holds a hotel.

Now, I was there for about one and a half hours, sitting at the bar and drinking two pints. The place was pretty busy. On a Saturday night the "it" crowd in Cricklewood seems to make their way down to The Crown to party. Despite there being a bar full of people, in that time, other than the bartender asking if I wanted a refill on my pint, no one talked to me.

Yet, when I walked out of the pub (finishing the last of my 2nd pint on the patio out front under a cloudy but warm night sky), I thought to myself, "what a good night."

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What stuck with me wasn't the fact that I was alone in a big city with no one to talk to on a Friday night, even though I was surrounded by people. What stuck with me was two things:

Firstly, I was awed by what an amazing place, architecturally, The Crown is. It's got an amazing two floor bar area, and the bar I was sitting at (one of, I think, 6 bars on site) rose up two floors and was backed by amazing, huge mirrors.

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The second thought, though, was how cool it will be once I've settled in and made some friends to have neat places like The Crown to come out to on Saturday nights. Not specifically The Crown, because I don't plan on living way out in the North-west sticks of Brent much longer, but places like it, preferably closer to The City.

As I thought it over, I realized that my optimism is one of the most important things that I have here. Bad things happen, as bad things are apt to do. In fact, the bad things will at times outnumber the good things, especially in these early days of trying to build a life here.

I truly believe though, that things will get better. There isn't a question in my mind that I will be successful here. That makes the tough stuff bareable. I also find that the tough stuff tends to waste away to the dark corners of my memory never to be recalled again, whereas the cool stuff - running down the escalators and feelings like I was flying, finding Roman ruins in the middle of a the business district of London, sitting in the yard of St. Paul's cathedral having lunch, even the fact that a computer crash meant free bus and tube rides things morning, those things stick in my mind, easy to recall and make me happy.

It's all about looking at my half-empty pint glass and knowing that not only is it not half-empty but really half-full, that the future holds the undeniable fact that the glass will be full again.

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Posted by GregW 12:30 Archived in England Tagged living_abroad migration_experiences Comments (1)

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