Being back

Sunday, June 18, 2017

I'm back in London, back on the boat, back home. It's great.

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I spent a few days just settling in. My flight arrived in London late-ish at night, which made it tricky getting back onto the boat. While #boatlife is largely pleasant and normal, coming back after a long time away is not as simple as arriving back at a terrestrial home. I can't just switch on the light, toss my keys on the table and settle in. For one thing, getting two large suitcases and a heavy carry-on down the long metre-wide gangway that leads to my boat is not something you necessarily want to attempt in the dark after a long international flight. Also, I left the water tank empty in January (to lessen the chances of green stuff growing in it while I as away) and filling the water tank takes about two hours at this mooring. And I'd left the batteries disconnected as well (which I forgot about, and which would have meant a LOT of consternation, since the lights are all powered by the batteries). Knowing all this I decided to book a cheap B&B nearby, which made the landing a bit softer and meant I started the next day like this:

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Bacon! Sausage! Beans!

I got a taxi back to the marina after breakfast and spent the day happily unpacking and clearing out the cobwebs. (Literally. I don't know why it is, but spiders and boats go together.) It was really really good. There was nothing on the agenda other than just being home. I found a proper place for (almost) everything I brought back, and I went through the cupboards and evicted anything that had been hanging around too long in damp conditions, and I stocked the fridge. Then I went for a run on the towpath. It was great.

The boat seems to be basically fine. I had a bunch of mechanical work done on it while I was away, performed by the long-suffering Kevin. Every once in a while when I was up to my elbows in 700 hexagons or trying to figure out how to repair a giant broken pinwheel in Baku, I'd get an email from Kevin saying something like, "I've realigned the grappler flanges and reset your torque modulator, but then I found a leak in the starboard dash-pan. Shall I fix that?" And I'd write back and say, "Yes, please." And then some time later there would be another email from Kevin saying, "I've fixed the leak but in doing so discovered that the cover for the forward Frinkle-lever is cracked, shall I fix that?" And I'll write back and say, "Yes, please." And on it went for months. I guess this is the way it goes with these old diesel engines. I've more or less accepted that I will be replacing this engine one part at a time for as long as I own the boat, but at least I'm starting back from a better place than I was in.

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And while I was away I picked up this stowaway - a small tree that took root in one of my fenders... Impressive rate of growth!

I left the boat at a pleasant if far-flung marina near Heathrow, which is great for getting home from the airport, but absolutely rubbish for getting in to central London. The other day the trip to Brixton took almost two hours. So while the marina itself is nice, and allows me to plug into mains power and refill the water tank as often as I want, it's just not sustainable long-term. Maybe I'm being snobbish, but how do people manage when the commute is that long? One of my fellow boaters, Bob, commutes and hour and a half each way every day, all the way the Southwark. I'm not even working and I can't hack it.

On the other hand, being in a marina means you can get to know your neighbours a lot better, as evidenced by Bob's invitation to a BBQ on the weekend when I got back.

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It was great to meet a few other people on this pontoon

My plan is to cruise slowly back towards central London, hitting all my favourite mooring spots along the way. Summer is a great time to be on the boat, and I'm especially looking forward to having Karen here for a nice long visit in the coming weeks. We've got a lot of highly blog-worthy stuff planned, so standby for that. In the mean time my main activity is reminding myself that the nagging feeling that I should be doing something is one that must be resisted.

Saturday I went into central London. I had a bunch of life admin stuff to do which involved starting at Tottenham Court Road, walking through Soho to Oxford Circus, and then going from there down Regent Street to Covent Garden. It was about as central as central London gets, on a Saturday afternoon. Tourist hotspot. Zillions of people. Normally I'd think nothing of that. Now, coming back to London after two different terrorist incidents, it was all a bit different. You can't help but think about it. There are noticeablely more police on the streets now - especially in busy areas like Covent Garden. And they're not your regular bobby-on-the-beat either. These ones have big automatic weapons prominently displayed. It's jarring, but also reassuring. (Thank you Sadiq Khan, screw you Trump)

On Monday I found myself on the south side of the Thames at Westminster, needing to get to the north side, across Westminster Bridge. It's a bit different now. Before I left town nothing separated the wide pedestrian walkways from the traffic. Now it's like this:

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Welcome home.

You can't argue with this kind of thing. Even in a world without whacko nut jobs I suppose it kind of makes sense for there to be a nice heavy chunk of steel or concrete between people and vehicle traffic. And I can't deny I felt more comfortable walking across the bridge because those barriers are there. On the one hand it was reassuring. On the other it was sad. (And also makes life tricker for London's already beleaguered cyclists, because it reduces the width of the bike lane.)

I kept walking, and was immediately cheered by the sound of bagpipes. There's ALWAYS a bagpiper on Westminster Bridge. And there he was. Score one for Normal London. Also reassuring was the fact that there were tourists everywhere, taking pictures of Big Ben. Another point for Normal London. But the tourists were also taking picture of the dried brown flowers and little tributes dotted along the bridge. Hmmm...

Lacking anything else to do I kept walking, past Westminster Abbey and through St. James' Park and past Horse Guards Parade, until came across this at Admiralty Arch at Trafalgar Square.

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I'm pretty sure those barriers weren't there the least time I looked.

However, balancing that are the LGBT traffic signals at Trafalgar Square installed last summer ahead of Pride Week. They were only supposed to be there for the festival, but a year later they're still installed, with no plans to remove them.

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If you look closely you can see two of the seven different designs of traffic lights

Sort of unbelievably, I'm coming up to my seven year anniversary in London. I arrived in August of 2010. That seems utterly bizarre. It's true that I've also spent close to three years away from London on international jobs, but that's still a significant amount of time. Enough that I think I can somewhat credibly call myself a Londoner. Enough to know that I'll never really know the city. And enough to know that probably no one ever does. But it's also enough time to know that London is not defined by barriers on bridges or policemen with machine guns. London is about the bagpiper at Westminster, and the tourists at Big Ben. But it's also me straining my ear on the tube to eavesdrop on a conversation in Russian a few seats away to see if I can pick up any meaning, and it's a BBQ on a narrowboat dock with a few English people and a lovely couple from Holland, and one rogue Canadian. And it's those crossing signals at Trafalgar Square.

I struggled a lot with how to close off this blog, because it's hard to avoid clich├ęs. ("If I don't stop for a Shake Shack Sticky Toffee Flavoured Concrete at Covent Garden then the terrorists will have won!") So I guess I'll just keep on doing what I'm doing. Living in London, loving London, and appreciating that I can continue to do both those things. And also definitely trying one of those Shake Shacks things because dammit people, I'm only human!

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