Tourist Stuff: Camden Market

Monday, January 30, 2012

Life took me up to Camden Town this weekend, where the Northern line's Charing Cross and Bank branches join briefly before striking off in separate directions again.  (Can someone please explain to me why the Northern line isn't actually two different lines?  I mean, look at the map! It could easily be one line from Edgware in the North via Charing Cross to Morden in the south, and a whole separate line from High Barnet in the north via Bank to Kennington.  Why is that one line, when the Circle and the District lines are completely coincident over much of their run through central London and yet they are two different lines?  These are the things that keep me up at night...)

But back to Camden - a trendy area in north London centred where Camden High Street crosses the Regent's Canal.  It's well known as a spot for alternative culture, live music venues, and, perhaps most especially, for Camden Market.  Since I was there anyways, and was enjoying a sort of extended birthday weekend, I thought I'd have a wander through the market, snap a few pictures, and see if I could squeeze a blog post out of it all.

Camden High Street, being all alternative-like.  This was one of a horde of tatto and piercing places along the road.

Camden Market is actually a semi-connected series of covered markets that extends over a seemingly-endless area just north of the canal.  The Wikipedia article on the market claims that it's the fourth most popular tourist attraction in London, which I find a bit hard to credit, given the competition (the Tower of London, London Eye, Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge, the British Museum... do I need to go on? Because I most certainly can.)  (Also, the link in the footnote to that particular statistic was dead, so I have no idea where it came from. And though Wikipedia is generally pretty good, the fact is that bit could have been stuck in by the Greater Camden Council For Made Up Statistics And General Falsehood Of All Kinds.) Regardless, the market is hugely popular, mostly on weekends.  So popular, in fact, that Camden Town tube station closes to outbound passengers on Sundays because the number of people arriving and disgorging from the station is so huge.

The site of the market, along the canal, is no coincidence.  The coming of the Regent's Canal in the late 19th century brought goods and trade to Camden causing warehouses to be built along the canal.  However, that trade faded quickly with the advent of newer forms of transport (rail, I'm guessing, but don't quote me on that...) and that area of Camden declined until the 1970s.  That's when a few bright sparks decided to apply for permission from British Waterways to start a small arts and crafts market in some of the abandoned warehouse space.

Regent's Canal and the Hampstead lock, with a small slice of Camden market on the right and, inevitably, a Starbucks in the white building on the left.

Now Camden Market spreads across about six different sites, including warehouses, stables, and standalone market stalls.  I had no idea of the extent of the market until I really started wandering, and then realised what a labyrinth it is.  I found myself squeezing through narrow paths between stalls, sometimes going around in circles but only realising it because I'd recognise some distinctive bit of merchandise ("Ah, the spinny mirrory mobile thingies... that must mean the donut guy is over here... oh wait...")

I told you there were donuts...

The market really is overwhelming with an amount and array of stuff on sale that is slightly staggering.  Here's a list I compiled during my aimless wandering: T shirts with stupid motifs on them, goth/alternative clothing, jewellery, flat caps, wooly hats (aka toques), ball caps, pork pie hats, top hats, funny kids hats, all manner of bags, leather goods, antiques, bicycles, endless London tourist crap, sweaters (aka wooly jumpers), CDs, DVDs, LPs, scarves, watches, rings, watches ON rings, pocket watches, smelly soaps, aprons, ceramics, bracelets made from forks and spoons, airplanes made from beer cans, marble coasters, mitts, mobiles (the kind you hang up), phone accessories, eyebrow threading, henna tattoos, hoodies, posters and artwork, belt buckles, ear muffs, stuff with sequins, sunglasses, gemstones and healing crystals, melted glass bottles turned into coasters and clocks, lamps, rugs, signs, hammocks, new and used books, purses, and, of course, boxer shorts with the tube map on them.

A bit of one stall selling stuff to put on your walls.  I particularly like the Penguin book in the bottom right.  Banksy, double-decker buses, red phone boxes, variations on the "Keep Calm" poster, London street signs and Union flags are popular themes at these kind of stalls.  (Aside: apparently it's properly referred to as a "Union Jack" only when it's on board a ship... you learn these things when you're working on a show in which flags play an important part.)

And here's a slice of the goth/alternative/whatever flavour of the market.  Apologies if I've failed to identify whatever slice of subculture this mode of dress belongs to but really, who cares other than the people involved? They are welcome to enlighten us all in a comment below.

Like I said... endless amounts of London themed tourist tat.  (Another aside: I'm a bit of a sucker for this stuff.  Friday night I found myself with a bit of time to kill in the West End, and I went and bought myself a ceramic double-decker bus piggy bank, which is perfectly excellent.)

The other thing that there's a lot of at Camden Market is food and drink.  I kind of wish I'd arrived hungrier, because I could have gorged on an almost endless variety of foods, including the fresh-from-the-fryer donuts above.  There was a world's worth of cuisine, including Chinese, Lebanese, Mexican, Indian, Cuban, Thai, Italian, Turkish, and Ethiopian.  I could have drunk coffee, tea, chai, hot chocolate,beer,  glog, mulled wine or smoothies, and I could have eaten vegetarian, vegan, falafel, waffles, crepes, pizza, kebabs, sausages, crepes, candy, fudge, sweet or savoury corn pancakes, some deep-fried things called "Dutch Dunkers", artisinal chocolates, whole roast hog (though I was really not THAT hungry), fish and chips, tapas, dim sum, chocolate covered bananas, churros, cakes of all kinds, ostrich or kangaroo burgers, fancy mac and cheese or fajitas.  Oh, and pie and mash!

Lots of these vendors were giving out free samples to suck people in.  It's just like Costco!

The thing I found strange is something I've noticed about London in general.  Even though it was a decidedly chilly day there were lots of people sitting at outdoor tables scattered around the market, eating their vegan falafel and gourmet mac and cheese.  This just seems unnecessarily grim to me.  I understand that we weren't in the teeth of a howling blizzard but it was still cold enough to be wearing gloves (£3 from a market stall) and despite the exceedingly enticing smells coming from many of the food vendors, I had no desire whatsoever to huddle at a picnic table trying to shovel down a pizza before it turned into a frozen Frisbee.  It reinforced my general suspicion that people over here are preconditioned to accept a certain degree of physical discomfort as a part of life.  It gives them something to either whinge about, or have a stiff upper lip about, depending on mood.  Bill Bryson writes a bit about this, probably in "Notes from a Small Island", when he relates the charming habit of the English to do things like climb up hills in a steady rain with their trouser legs tucked into their socks and then sit at the top, still in the rain, unwrap a sad sandwich, have a cup of rapidly cooling tea from a Thermos and perhaps (naughty!) a dry biscuit, and proclaim the whole experience to be "lovely".*

I, on the other hand, having grown up in North America, have it coded in my DNA that I have a right to physical comfort at all times.  For God's sake people, GO INSIDE!
So I left the market and camped out at a nice vegan place on Camden High Street where I had a latte and a very rich bit of chocolate cake sort of stuff and nestled up to the heater under the table.  And I took this photo, which for some reason I regard as vaguely art-y, so I include it here.

Hemp milk! And I had some kind of fake whipped cream substitute made from RICE with my chocolate cake.  Those wacky vegans...

And that was my afternoon at Camden Market.  I'd certainly recommend it if you're visiting London and are weary of museums and galleries and yet feel like something a bit more outré than Portobello Road.  It's got a good measure of stuff worth buying, mixed with a lot of stuff (and people) worth having a gawk at.  And try the kangaroo burger, just for me.

P.S. More photos of the market appear in the "Camden Market" set at Flickr.

* Having now consulted "Notes from a Small Island" I realise I may have completely fabricated this remembrance, but stand by its essential truth nonetheless.  And I think Bill would back me up on this too.

Two Wheels Good

Monday, January 23, 2012

I've been cycling regularly in London for a bit more than six months now.  I've had one bike stolen, landed on the pavement three times, sailed over the front fender of one exceptionally dense motorist, taken four hours of cycle safety training, learned how to repair a flat tire and survived one or two near misses.  So though six months is not a long time, I feel that I might have a thing or two to say on the subject of cycling in central London, which can sometimes feel like a bit of a battle.

Pam and the bike
Girded for battle, with game face on and trusty, heavy, war horse of a bike.
I'm not by nature a "bicycle person".  Cycling is not a hobby for me like it is for those with gear ratios in their heads and ultra-light frames and those brightly coloured skintight shirts with the big pockets on the back.  For me, cycling is a means to and end.  It gets me to and from work while simultaneously forcing me into a bit of exercise and saving me money on transport costs (which are not inconsiderable, especially after the TFL's annual New Year's gift of general fare increases across the board.  A one week tube pass for zones one and two now costs £29.20 which is up about £4 since I arrived a year and a half ago.  Those costs add up very very quickly.)

London has made a bit of an effort to make the roads safer for cyclists.  For instance, bikes are allowed to travel in bus lanes (along with motorcycles and scooters).  This usually gets you out of the main flow of traffic, but does mean you often end up leapfrogging buses as they stop to pick up passengers and then overtake on the way to their next stop.  This also means you end up sucking up a lot of doubledecker bus fumes.  Still, I'm happier in a bus lane.  Also, many intersections have marked areas in front of the stop line where cyclists can wait for the green light ahead of the vehicle traffic.

A cycle stop zone, thoughtfully NOT occupied by that bus.

However, the most visible cycle-friendly things in the city are Transport For London's series of "cycle superhighways".  These are planned cycle routes that link outer suburbs of London to the centre by marking out a wide strip of pavement as a planned cycle path.  Often they run on a less trafficked streets parallel to a main road, thus getting cyclists out of the heavier flow of traffic.  Sometimes they do run along the main road, but claw back a bit of the roadway on the left as a bikes-only zone. The pavement on the routes is coloured bright blue and marked with bicycle icons and the route number.

Part of Cycle Superhighway 3, on my route to and from work.  The scheme is sponsored by Barclay's Bank, whose corporate colours are... light blue and white.  The TFL claims that the colour was decided before sponsorship was secured.  Suuuuuuure.
I'm generally in favour of the blue routes, and definitely feel more secure when I'm on the blue than when I'm on an unmarked road.  However, these cycle superhighways are not a cure-all.  There is an infamous route (CS2) that travels up to the busy Bow Roundabout, very near my office.  Two cyclists died in that intersection in the space of two weeks this fall, in part because the blue zone extends up to the roundabout and then simply stops, forcing riders to negotiate the hardest part of the route unprotected.  Thankfully, there is now talk of changing the layout and traffic light timing of that roundabout in particular, and they're said to be examining a lot of other dangerous intersections as well.  In all, sixteen cyclists were killed in London in 2011.  Then again, Wikipedia estimates there are more than 500,000 cycle journeys per day in the city, so that's 16 fatalities in more than 182 million journeys.  However, you still really need to be on your toes out there.

These signs get put up after, well, after fatal collisions, which usually involve either pedestrians or cyclists.  This sign was at an intersection I pass through on the way home.  It's a pretty innocuous junction, but I have to turn right there so I always dismount and cross as a pedestrian.  

Like I said, you need to be on your toes.  To that end, I decided it would be smart to take a proper cycle safety training course, and found a link to an outfit called Cycle Training UK.  They offer basic and intermediate cycle safety training, much of which is subsidised by different boroughs in London.  Luckily, my home borough of Lambeth is super keen to get people on bikes and so provide lots of funding for people who live or work in Lambeth to take these lessons.  I ended up getting two individual, one-on-one training sessions, each two hours long, for the grand sum of £8.00.  (That is not a typo.  EIGHT POUNDS. Two pounds per hour for one on one instruction.  Unbelievable.)  And, having taken that training I'm now also eligible to do a full day course on basic bike maintenance for another eight quid.  Thank you Lambeth.

The first two hour session started slowly, and was not aided by the fact that it was a chilly, windy, grey Sunday morning.  I met my instructor, Patrick, in a quiet park of Brockwell Park, very near the house.  He was a nice enough guy, and had proper clip-in pedals and everything.  He even spent the first ten minutes of the lesson adjusting my brakes, pumping up my tires and oiling my bike chain.  No extra charge for that either...  Then we did a bit of very basic stuff - changing gears and shoulder checking and emergency stops and such.  All fairly basic.

When we got on the roads, it got more interesting.  I'm sure many of you know this already, and I'd been told it by experience cycling friends, but had never really taken it to heart.  However, the truth is that the position most inexperienced cyclists gravitate to on the road is not always the safest or smartest place to be.  Trying to stay out of the way by hugging tight to the curb often puts you far enough over that impatient drivers have just enough room to squeeze past you without having to wait for a break in opposing traffic.  This means that if anything unanticipated happens, you've got nowhere to go.  It makes sense, but I know from experience it can be hard to do.  Apparently women especially have trouble being assertive enough to maintain a safe postion on the roads.  This is evidenced by a series of text messages I had with my friend Philip, who was trying to convince me about this last summer:
Phil: You should cycle in the middle, not on the left. And only let cars past when it's safe for you.
Me: How do you avoid being dragged off your bike and kicked to death by angry motorists?
Phil: Shout back at them.
Me: Yeah.  I'll shout really loud from the foetal position while I'm trying to protect my kidneys from some guy's boot...
So you could say I was resistant to the idea.  Now, I'm a convert.  I may not be in the middle of the lane, but I'm far enough out that the unexpected opening of the door of a parked car will not be the end of my trip.  And if a car wants to pass me, they can damned well wait until there's room in the opposing lane for them to swing out.  It really does work.  Thanks Patrick!  (And sorry I ever doubted you Philip.)

My route to and from work doesn't take me anywhere near the aforementioned killer roundabout at Bow, but it does go straight through another infamous roundabout at Elephant and Castle.  Luckily, my second lesson with Patrick was an intermediate level business, and he took me through a few of the tricky intersections on my route, including the Elephant.  We even stopped, locked up the bikes, and stood at the side of the road gesturing at possible approaches and discussing the merits of one lane over another before tackling things on two wheels.  And even Patrick admitted that trip through E&C from the direction of London Bridge towards Brixton is exceptionally snarly.  However, we did come to some conclusions, and had a couple of trips through on our bikes, and I'm pretty ok with Elephant and Castle now. (On a completely unrelated note: Did you know that Elephant and Castle can be anagrammed to read Aleph and Tentacles?)

So I'm all trained up now.  I've even had an unanticipated lesson in how to fix a flat tire (or "puncture" as it's known locally).  I came out of work a while back to discover my back wheel was making an odd squishy noise as I wheeled my bike towards the gate for the trip home.  It took me a ridiculous amount of time to diagnose the problem, but eventually I recognised that the tire was completely flat.  And even though I got a nifty bike repair multi-tool for Christmas, I quickly realised I had no idea how to use it.  Luckily, one of my colleagues is a former bike shop employee, so he advised me on supplies to get and spent half an hour the next day showing me how to remove the wheel, take off the tire, find the leak, locate the spot on the tire with the offending tiny sharp pokey bit in it, remove said tiny pokey bit, install a new tube and put everything back together again.  I finished with frozen fingers, blackened palms, and a ridiculously empowering sense of accomplishment.

These days I'm on the road for my commute on any day whose schedule permits it.  It's eight and a half miles each way, and every eight and a half miles takes me about an hour.  (Slightly longer on days when I have to stop at the intersection at Tower Hill to retrieve wayward bike accessories that seem to favour that particular location to make a break for freedom.  I've already had to dash into the road to retrieve both a U-lock and my front mud guard.  Then again, it does give a bit of a chance to appreciate one's surroundings while waiting for a break in traffic.)

The Tower of London, as viewed from the intersection where bicycle accessories go to die.

Yet despite a few scrapes and bruises, many lungs full of soupy London air, and the occasional hair-raising encounter with a heavy goods vehicle, I'd say becoming a cyclist in London has been a good experience.  And so I'll leave you with a few shots taken along my commute, which is certainly more picturesque than the inside of a tube train.

Special lights just for the bike lanes!

Along the Lambeth Cut Canal

Where the canal meets the Thames. (That's a Gordon Ramsay restaurant on the right!)


And in the News About Pam Department...

I've had a few requests in comments to write a bit about my job on the Olympic Ceremonies, and to that end I whipped up a nice little post that I thought was general enough not to be a problem but still give the flavour of the thing.  Just to be safe, I sent it to a higher-up at work for approval.  And that's as far as that post will go for now, because the suggestion was not to put it up.  You will all simply have to sit tight and wait until my contract expires next September, when I'll be free to dust off that post, and maybe even add some juicy bits.  Until then, please stop asking.

"London Under": a book review

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

One of the (many) pleasures of this Christmas was that I ended up with a slew of new books to read.  Some of these were gifts, and some were my own purchases, because Amazon were doing a "12 Days of Kindle" sale with many many many ebooks on sale for as little as 99p.  This meant that in addition to the dead tree books I received from others, I also managed to acquire, er... EIGHT ebooks with which to while away my time. (Though in fairness one of those was sort of a mistake - Curse you One Click Ordering Button!).

Interestingly, though it did not appear on any of my various lists, I actually received two copies of the same book: London Under, by Peter Ackroyd.  My family know me well - Ackroyd is the author of London: The Biography, an 822 page doorstop of a book that's been weighing down my nightstand for months now.  While I've had trouble getting stuck into The Biography (so far it's best viewed as a soporific), London Under proved to be a short, snappy and engaging read.  I started it on the plane on the way home, and finished it not long after.  This is partly because of its modest length, and partly because it's full of all kinds of the things I love: London, interesting trivia about London in particular, tunnels in general, and the Tube in particular.

London Under
It's even got a tunnel on the cover! What's not to love?

Water is an inescapable part of life in London, and the city's underground life is no different. Built on clay, sand and gravel, the entire city is slowly sinking, meaning that the waters that flow beneath it have to be pumped out at a rate of 15,400,000 gallons per day in an effort to keep London's feet dry.  London Under starts with a look at the hidden and forgotten wells and waterways that tax those pumps.  Wells that used to provide drinking water - some as far back as Roman times - now survive mostly as place names that are largely dissociated from their original purpose. Consider: Clerkenwell, Sadler's Wells, Shadwell, Holywell Street, Bridewell, Camberwell and Stockwell (just down the road from me!).  This is one of the joys of London - the fact that something as simple as the name of a tube station can reveal history going back hundreds (if not almost a thousand) years.  In Saskatoon a neighbourhood might be called Fairhaven simply because a real estate developer thought it had a nice ring to it.  In London Marylebone Road follows the route of the much older Marylebone Lane.  And the name "Marylebone" is derived from the name of a church: St. Mary by the bourne (a bourne is a brook).  The bourne in question in actually the hidden Tyburn river, which originates in Hampstead and follows the course of the street towards central London and the Thames. (Though of course it's more accurate to say the street follows the course of the Tyburn.)

The rivers of London have been used, abused and bridged for millennia and most have now been covered over and forgotten. There's the aforementioned Tyburn (also of the infamous Tyburn Tree) the Walbrook, Stamford Brook (another tube station), the Neckinger, the engagingly named Wandle (which still survives above ground in parts of south London) and of course the once mighty Fleet.  Most exciting of these lost rivers for me is the Effra, which rises in Norwood, south London and passes through Dulwich (I run there!) and Herne Hill (and there!) before entering Brixton where it runs under Brixton Road and near the appropriately named Effra Road.  (Effra Road! That's mere steps from my house. I walk it almost every day!) And no wonder another nearby street is called Brixton Water Lane.  Apparently the Effra used to be wide enough to support barge traffic, and King Canute once sailed its waters up to Brixton (probably to catch a movie or grab a latté).  We've also got Coldharbour Lane and Rush Common, a long skinny stretch of sadly ignored green space that runs along Brixton Road, as if it were the banks of a watercourse, perhaps covered in... rushes. It all makes so much sense.

Effra River Map
Map showing watery landmarks in da 'hood

Even more compelling though, are London Under's stories about tunnels.  You already know I'm a bit of a fan of bridges and tunnels and such, so it should be no surprise that these bits were my favourite.  The story of London's sewers alone could probably support a whole book (though such a book would likely knock London: The Biography out of the park in the Books-To-Fall-Asleep-By game).  If there were Roman sewers in London, and there probably were, they have not survived (though some Roman sewers in Rome itself lasted until 1913!).  Instead, medieval London's sewers were the open waters of the rivers we just talked about, along with the biggest of London's rivers, the Thames.  This was part of the reason that people were so keen to brick over those smaller waterways, though covered sewers and cesspits resulted in distressingly frequent methane explosions.  The earliest underground pipes to carry waste in London were built in the thirteenth century (!), but proper brick sewers didn't emerge until the seventeenth.

The hero of London's sewers, though, must surely be Joseph Bazalgate who was the Chief Engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1858, the summer of what is cringingly known as the "Great Stink".  It was at this time that the deteriorating condition of London's then 200-year old sewers, combined with the mass introduction of flush toilets in private homes led to so severe a miasmic funk from the then decidedly brown Thames that drastic measures were needed.
"The windows of the Houses or Parliament were covered with sheets soaked in chlorine, but they could not prevent the stench from what Disraeli called, 'a Stygian pool reeking with ineffable and unbearable horror.'"  (London Under)
Bazalgate proposed an ambitious system of underground sewers running parallel to the Thames to intercept the, err, waste material before it reached the river and redirect it to the outskirts of the city.  There's no word of what the residents of Barking (northeast London) and Crossness (south) thought about having all of London's crap (literally) at their doorsteps, but the plan went ahead.  This not only resulted in a much sweeter smelling city, but it also in the reclamation of 22 acres of land from the river and the formation of the Thames Embankment as we know it today.  And what runs under that embankment besides big pipes full of The Great Stink?  Tube trains in tunnels!

Thames Embankment 
See? River on the right, sewers in the middle, trains on the left.  And happy Londoners strolling about on top, without the need for chlorinated sheets or gas masks.

London Under dwells for a while on water mains and gas pipes and electric cables and telephone lines.  (London was the first city in the world to locate its entire telephone system underground.) But Ackroyd really gets going when he starts talking about the Tube and the tunnels that contain it, including the tunnels under the Thames.  I've already blogged about Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and the first ever tunnel under this or any river (still in use today).  I've even already linked to that blog in the very post, so there's no need to bang on about it here anymore.

What I liked most were the chapters on the Underground itself, which was the first underground railway system in the world, opened to the public exactly 148 years ago yesterday, on January 10, 1863. (Happy Birthday Tube!).  It's so old that:
"Its first travellers wore top and frock-coats; there are early photographs of horse-drawn hansom cabs parked outside the underground stations. Oscar Wilde was a commuter on these subterranean trains... Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin could both have used the Underground... (and) Jack the Ripper could have travelled on the Underground to Whitechapel."
On that first day of service in 1863 trains ran between Paddington and Euston in a tunnel run by the Metropolitan Railway Company.  That tunnel, like Brunel's, is still in use today.  The first tube trains were driven by steam engines and looked exactly like surface trains, without the benefit of open air to dispel the smoke and fumes they generated.  Despite this drawback, the underground railway was a huge success, and many other companies sprang up to produce additional lines and compete with the Metropolitan Railway, which itself served 3,000 passengers a day.  Today's system serves 2.7 million daily - 1 billion per year.

The Tube system has evolved continuously since it opened.  New tunnels are dug and old ones abandoned, and stations change names, or lines, or are closed completely.  The London Transport Museum has an excellent  video display about the Tube Map that shows the zillions of iterations it has gone through - in a span of a few minutes you can watch the system grow and change like a living thing.  It's mesmerising. (Or is that just me again?) In London Under Ackroyd relates a simultaneously funny and chilling story about the dead South Kentish Town Station, in between Kentish Town and Camden on the Northern Line.  Apparently a passenger mistakenly alighted at South Kentish Town when the train was stopped at a red signal.  How he managed to get through the doors is not clear.  Nor is it explained why he chose to get off at a dark abandoned platform at all.  What is said is that he ended up stranded for a week, and was only rescued when a passenger on a passing train noticed the burning advertising posters he set alight as a signal.  No wonder people complain about the Northern Line.

Given their naturally spooky nature, the Tube system has its share of ghost stories too.  Underground tunnels pass right through many burial grounds and plague pits; deaths occurred in their construction, and murders and suicides have occurred on many lines.  Suicide is a constant fact of life in the Tube.  Apparently, three attempts are made per week, one if which is successful (though the term"successful" seems an odd one to use in this context). "The most popular time of day is 11:00am, and the most popular venues are King's Cross and Victoria."  Every once in a while you'll hear an announcement explaining a delayed train that says something like, "We apologise for the delay to your service, this is due to an earlier person under a train at Chancery Lane."  Erg.

All in all, London Under was a good read.  It's starts a bit slowly, but ends up giving a lot of fun, evocative facts about the London beneath our (or at least my) feet.  How could you not like a book that informs you that the Elgin Marbles were stored for safekeeping during the Blitz in empty tunnels under Aldwych?  Or that underground vaults at Bank contain the second-largest hoard of gold bullion in the world?  It's not going to change your life, but it might open your eyes a bit.

Random thoughts on home

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

It was a lovely trip home for Christmas.  I felt like I had a bit more time to relax than last year, and though there's never really enough time to see everyone as much as I'd like, it was still good.  This might be due to the fact that there was really no jet-lag at all, at least on the way over.  Last year I woke up at 3am on Christmas Eve, which was literally tiresome. This year I slept about 10 hours a night, which does remarkable things for one's whole outlook on life.  And though I had no major bloggy revelations while at home, there are a few things I did or noticed that made me stop and go "Huh."  And so onwards...

On Inside/Outside Nature Of Shoes:

This is something that always trips me up in London: shoes.  To clarify: it's not that my shoes literally cause me to trip.  It's shoes inside houses.  In Canada when you go over to someone's house - especially in the winter - you take your shoes off at the door and you spend the evening in your sock feet.  This clearly makes sense. Outside is a dirty, wet, mucky place.  Why would you wander around inside a house on its nice, clean, possibly carpeted floors wearing the shoes in which you just navigated the mean streets?  Ick.

Oddly, shoes-in-the-house is the rule in London.  Several times now I've been at house parties and taken my shoes off when I enter the house only to find that I am the only shoeless person in the building.  And keep in mind that London is a pretty comprehensively damp place a lot of the time, meaning that the odds of arriving at someone's house with wet feet are better than average. Still, the rule seems to be that shoes stay on inside the house when visiting.  Perhaps Londoners all have holes in the toes of their socks.

Whatever the reason, I was gratified to attend a pre-New Year's party in Winnipeg where everyone had their shoes off.  In fact, they took their shoes off outside the door of the apartment and left them outside.  When I saw the shoes piled up at two different doors in that condo building it gave me a little warm fuzzy feeling.

Shoes at the party - earlier in the night there were three times this many!
(The other advantage to this system is that if you like someone else's shoes more than your own you just have to make sure you leave before they do...)

On Other, Less Conventional Footwear:

I went skating for the first time since I left Canada! On New Year's Eve!  At the Forks!  It was good fun, even though I was obviously not as solid on my skates as I was when I was playing hockey regularly.  Also my skates were a bit dull, and despite the fact that the skating was very slow and the session was very short, there were still a few muscles that made themselves known the next day on a chilly New Year's Day hash run around my old neighbourhood.  Still, it was worth it, and I did manage to acquit myself a little more skilfully than the 5- and 7-year old in the group.  Phew.

Picture of Pam's feet.  (It's just like the good old days!)

And in the "You'd Never See That In London" Department:

Even though neither the Red or the Assiniboine Rivers are frozen over enough for skating (surely a sign of the coming apocalypse) there were still skating trails at the Forks, which were equipped with these cautionary signs where the skating trail passed over a pedestrian trail. 
(In fact, the general Manitoba/Saskatchewan area was weirdly un-snowy.  There were maybe two or three inches of snow cover over all.  What the Hell is that?  There's probably more snow in Yorkshire right now than there is in Winnipeg.  It's Upside-Down World!)

On The Difficult Nature Of Stuff:

I visited my stuff.  By which I mean I went out to All Canadian Storage and threw open the rolling door on the 5' x 5' storage space that contains most of my worldly possessions. (I really went to get my skates, and pick over the much-talked-about package from Africa, but it was still a nice visit.)  It was good to see everything and remind myself that it's there, but the more time the stuff spends in Winnipeg while the owner of the stuff is in London, the easier it is to live without.  It makes me wonder why I'm hanging on to it.  And it makes me wonder a LOT about paying $65 a month to store it.  I suppose it's because I purged so much when I sold my house that I figure that what's left must really be the stuff worth keeping - the stuff I will want again some day.  Then again, does life in London really require a French Horn? Or a 40 year old 110-volt sewing machine? Or my grandmother's good china?  Probably not.  But that doesn't mean it deserves the bin.

It all comes down to whether or not I think I'll stay, and for how long, which is a question I'm not really equipped to answer.  It depends entirely on how long I can continue to get interesting work that pays the bills.  Professionally, there is nothing drawing me back to Canada, but visits like this one make me remember that I have family and good friends that will never be a proper part of my life while I'm an ocean away.  No easy answers here.

Aha!  THAT'S where I put that trombone! I've been looking for that...

On the Usurious Nature of So-Called Beer Sales at the Chili's in O'Hare Terminal Two:

I don't know why I did it.  Why did I choose to fly home through Chicago instead of Toronto?  Oh wait, I know why.  It's because I still have this lingering idea, perhaps brought on my extensive international travel, or perhaps by natural Canadian inclinations, to believe that anywhere NOT in  Canada is inherently more interesting than anywhere IN Canada.  Whatever the reason, I transited through Chicago O'Hare airport in both directions on this trip.  London to Winnipeg was the worst.  I landed at Terminal 5 and had to clear US customs (“Food products? Why no Mr. Friendly US Customs Man, I certainly don't have biscuits and cheese and chocolate and cake from Fortnum & Mason. Not me!”).  Then I had to reclaim my heavy, crippled, broken-handled suitcase and re-check it, then get the shuttle to Terminal 2, then go through security again, and THEN get to the departure gate.  Fun times.

Of course going through a third country meant I also had to get some US alternate currency to have a bit of supper while I was waiting for my (late) flight.  So I located a bank machine, figured $20 would be ample, proceeded to a handy Chili's restaurant with my new American twenty dollar bill and scanned the menu.  Oddly, there were no prices listed for the different (crappy) beers they had.  Naturally alarm bells should have rung at that point, but I must have been a bit too jet-lagged to hear them.  So I ordered a Sam Adams beer and a pulled pork sandwich  confident that $20 would cover dinner with room to spare.  (The sandwich with fries was about nine dollars, so this was not an unreasonable assumption.  Or so I thought.)

Ha!  The bill arrived and I just about choked.  $19.96 in total with all taxes, but before tip.  This means that my (mediocre, pale, American) beer cost just under 9 bucks.  NINE BUCKS FOR A CRAPPY AMERICAN BEER!  I just about called the waiter over to say something indignant like, “Mate, you are taking the piss if you think that glass of watery slop is worth five pounds fifty!”  Instead I fumed silently and picked my jaw up off the floor and pulled out my credit card. This is because I am a polite Canadian, and because I live surrounded by, and acclimatised to, a nation of people who would not raise a fuss for anything less than the severing of at least two major arteries (“Honestly Nigel, just use your school tie as a tourniquet and stop whinging.  People are starting to stare!”)

For future reference: the Chili's in O'Hare Terminal 2 is a gigantic RIP OFF when it comes to beer.  You are warned.

On the Utterly Desiccated Nature Of Winter On The Prairies:

I lived through 40 Canadian winters before I left the country, and I don't ever remember having chapped lips for two weeks straight.  Maybe I've lost my natural resistance having been away for too long, but about 1.3 seconds after arriving I started reaching for the Chapstick and ended up reapplying it about every six minutes.  How is it possible the nation is not populated entirely by a race of giant human/raisin hybrids?  It makes me think that breakdown of Canada's economy these days must be something like this:

Canadian Economy

On The Gratifyingly Dramatic Palette Of Sunrise On The Prairies:

Maybe it's just London.  Maybe there are spots in England where the sunrises and sunsets are as glorious as they are on the prairies.  But somehow I doubt it.  I've been conscious for a reasonable number of sunrises in London now, and they are almost always utterly unremarkable.  At least compared to this example from just outside Saskatoon.  Fantastic.
If anything, the colours are more muted in the photo than they were in real life.

So lovely, you have to look at TWO photos of this particular sunrise.

And that was my trip home.  It was 97% nice, 1% outrageously expensive crappy beer, and 2% Cheeseburger-of-Doom-on-New-Year's-Eve-at-The-Pancake-House-at-the-Forks. (Which was not nearly good enough to want to encounter again a few hours after it went down.  But enough said about that, because frankly my stomach is still a bit shaky three days later.)

I'm back to work tomorrow morning and I expect that within a few months work will become all-consuming so it was good to have a decent break over the holidays.  So it's nose-to-the-grindstone (if by grindstone you mean computer screen) and back to life in the big city.  Stay tuned for further exploits and, I hope, some much, much better beer.


P.S.  Dear Winnipeg:  Did you get the Jets back?  Really?  I never would have known.  You'd think that people would talk about that more.  And wear more Winnipeg Jets gear.  And complain more about not being able to get Jets tickets.

See what I mean?  The guy in the seat in front of me from Winnipeg to Chicago...

P.P.S.  Dear London: See? You're not the only ones who can't get tickets to major local sporting events.