Tag Archives: London

On Toronto (it rains down so damn hard in this city)

ImageToronto feels almost a little strange, in a way, because it feels so familiar.

This is my third new city in the space of a about a month — though this isn’t a work trip, this is a real holiday.  The first “real” holiday in a while, since I don’t count the Arctic Adventure as a holiday — adventure, yes, and an experience I’d gladly have more of in my life, but it was a year of hard work, training, fundraising and — at times — worry.

But back to Toronto.

Toronto stirs up those familiar feelings of wanderlust, that feeling you get when you visit a new city and you think “Yes. I could live here. I could love this city”.

Munich was fine, but I didn’t feel like I could make it a home.  Dublin was grand, Barcelona definitely makes the list, and there are many more places, too — places that remind me that life is too short and the world too small to stay in London forever. Toronto joins the list.

We’ve only been here two full days (and sadly leave the city already tomorrow) and yesterday was spent dodging torrential rain showers, but as I say, it feels familiar.

My first impressions of Melbourne when I visited a few years ago were that it reminded me of a mix of New York and Manchester (among other places) and Toronto reminds me of Australian cities like Perth and Melbourne, as well as some US cities, but always with its own unique charm.   Toronto feels like being introduced to a mutual friend, and seeing immediately why you have friends in common.

After Munich, it feels funny to be in a city where I speak the language — and I could probably even understand most of the French, if it came to that — although I am self conscious about my accent, just like I used to be when I lived in Utah.  In a restaurant yesterday I had a dilemma ordering: I thought about ordering my second-choice, because my first would have involved having to tell the waitress “no tomato” and I didn’t want to have to say the word “to-mah-to”.

The city feels like it is proud to be Canadian — maybe I am just noticing these things because I’m seeing the city with fresh eyes, but I see the Maple Leaf flying almost everywhere I look.  Is it the same in London with the Union flag or the St George Cross?  I don’t think it is.  At the Royal Ontario Museum yesterday, I read about the war of 1812, and learned how the US war hawks at the time thought invading Canada would be a pushover — and were very wrong.  I get the feeling here that the Canadian identity is all the stronger for having such an influential neighbour to the south.

Toronto seems to be a city of dog-lovers (never have I seen a city with so many dogs, I swear), of skateboards (insert here, if I had one, a picture of all the people I saw yesterday skatebording while wearing white shirts and ties), and a city of coffee-drinkers.  Maybe that’s just the North American continent, but I’m sure that you don’t see so many people with coffees in London.

Unlike London, Toronto just doesn’t feel so crowded — crowded with buildings or with people. Although London only ranks #21 on the list of most populous cities in the world, it is way above any other European city, and Toronto by comparison comes in at #101.

Our next stop is the Niagara Falls area, let’s see how the adventure continues.

(more pictures from Toronto can be seen here)

36 hours in Dublin

One of the things I enjoy about my job is that it feeds my passion for travel — and with travel comes my passions for writing and photography.  It might not be “adventure” like the Inca Trail was adventure, but it’s an adventure all the same when you’re travelling alone.

Dublin was a very short business trip.  I aim to visit all of the user groups I look after in EMEA, and there is a burgeoning user group in the city.  One of my colleagues was going there to present, and it made sense for me to pay them a visit since my company has an office in Dublin that I could work out of while I was visiting.

I had a flight out of London City Airport early on Wednesday morning.  City Airport is a short walk from where I live, and since European flights only need an hour’s check-in time, it made sense to book a 7am flight.  Until I worked backwards and found that I’d still need to be out of bed at 4.30am.  Just the same, I wanted to have two full days of work in the Dublin office — and I’d just sleep on the plane.

Except from my paper journal:

“As the plane idled on the tarmac, in some deep part of the engine I could hear a singular note. High and clear, for all the world it sounded to me like a jazz musician’s trumpet — like that first note in ‘Stella by Starlight’.

Awake since 4, I quickly fell asleep with the sun shining on my face. A thought passed through a distant part of my brain, “Wasn’t it supposed to rain today?” and I smiled at the idea. It’s always sunny above the clouds.”

After landing and collecting my bag, I checked my wallet to see if I could scrape together enough Euros for the bus, and I was briefly excited when I thought I had 5 Euros more than I’d expected, but on closer inspection found I’d got Australian Dollars mixed in with my currency.  I took a taxi from Dublin airport to the city, instead — it would go on expenses anyway, but I still don’t like spending money where I don’t have to.  On the radio in the cab the DJ was making jokes about how the wind was going to blow, the sky was going to fall and the earth would crack open.  Despite it being quite a bright and sunny morning, apparently there was the tail-end of a hurricane expected to hit Ireland later that day.  “Here I am without an umbrella,” I commented.  My driver laughed at me and told me that an umbrella wasn’t going to help.

I got the office without event, my colleagues made me welcome, and from there it was apparently just business as usual — a normal working day in the office, except in a different office.

By lunchtime the storm had arrived — a short walk to the shops meant battling against gale-force winds and driving rain. It wasn’t really a hurricane, though, more what I was used to from Ireland’s weather (I visited Cork several years ago, and have enduring memories of standing by myself on the top of Blarney castle in the wind and the rain).

Mid-afternoon the rain and wind stopped, so I took the brief window — what could have just been the eye of the storm — to check in at my hotel.  These are the kind of moments I enjoy when I’m travelling alone, just a quiet walk and a chance to enjoy the scenery of the city.  People in Dublin seemed friendly in the way that only drunks and crazy people are in London: as I walked down the street, a lady on the other side of the road, walking in the opposite direction, shouted across the street to me to comment on the weather.  She’d got drenched this morning, she told me, now look at it!  The sun was out and you’d never have known.

I grabbed  a quick shower at the hotel, changed my clothes, and went back to the office.  I walked in just in time — my colleagues were sat around the office “virtual water cooler” because Mayor Bloomberg was visiting our New York office, so everyone was gathering around to join in from their various locations.

The user group on Wednesday night was in a company called Engine Yard, in a part of the city where Google have several offices and a stone’s throw from Facebook’s Dublin office.  Engine Yard was a big, airy loft space — surprisingly large for a small number of people working from the office, so either they are expecting to expand or space is cheap in Dublin.  Either way, it was an impressive place.  The group’s turnout was good — about 45 to 50 people from 60 registrations, and the talks seemed to go well.

I was back at my hotel before midnight, and slept soundly until my normal alarm the next morning.  I considered resetting the alarm and going back to sleep — after all, I was much closer to the office here than I live in London — but in the end just had a slow start to the day, enjoyed my walk to the office and was the first one in that morning.  Another day in the office that was much like any other if you aren’t interested in the minutiae of what I do all day, until it was time to catch a taxi back the other way.  I walked with my colleague from London along the Dublin street as it started to rain again, and we caught a taxi the first time we tried — it was that that time of the evening, when every third car is a cab. We crawled for a while until we were out of the heavy traffic, where I wound down the window so I could smell the air and appreciate the passing sights properly.  Ireland often feels to me just familiar enough to be like home, and just different enough to feel like a foreign country.

Dublin airport was busy, there was scarcely any time between checking in and boarding for me — what little time I did have, I spent searching for something to take home to the girl.  When I was little, my Dad used to travel for work a lot and he always used to bring back European chocolate for my brother and I — I don’t remember how, but it became known as “Pilot’s chocolate”, and we believed that the pilot used to give my Dad the chocolate to bring home for us, which is a bit of a rough deal for my old man.  I wanted to find pilot’s chocolate for the girl, and couldn’t — even if you can buy 5 varieties of Milka chocolate in our local supermarket.  She has also almost accidentally ended up collecting Starbucks mugs from various cities around the world, but I was foiled again when the Starbucks in Dublin airport didn’t have any of that kind.

Then it was the journey home. Safety instructions in English and Irish, I close my eyes and drift in and out of a light sleep, until we are descending over England and London.  Through the low cloud I try to see the flashing light on top of Canary Wharf, but can’t work out where we are or what direction we’re facing — even when I can see a white light flashing above the clouds.  Arriving in England was a little disorientating, we landed, I picked up my bags, walked out the airport…and realised at no point had anyone checked my passport.  I don’t know why, maybe there’d been some kind of extra check in Dublin I hadn’t been aware of.  Either way, I walked out of the airport, snapped a picture of the entrance and labelled it “home”, and was once again back where I belong.Home: London City Airport

Chasing the Dragons

Image credit: photo by Andy Wilkes
Source: http://ow.ly/cQyf3

The Year of the Dragon is off to a strong start, with two training sessions now attended (and, most importantly, completed).

I was slightly disappointed that after my first training meeting with the illustrious Thames Dragons I then had to miss the next two dates.  Work commitments first meant that I would miss Tuesday night’s training, and then a wedding reception in Essex was to keep me away from Sunday morning.  I was disappointed and reluctant to miss them, and even tried to work out if it was possible to do all three.

If I missed dinner with my colleagues, could I go to training, finish by 9, then hot-foot it back to central London in time for the after-dinner drinks?  If I went to a wedding reception on Saturday night, could I get up extra-early on Sunday morning, just to drive back to north-east London for training?  It may have been physically possible to do these things, but it wasn’t practical: there would be plenty more opportunities to come.

Last night was the next opportunity to attend.  There was a temptation not to go when I was invited out for a drink by my colleagues, but I have committed on paper — or, at least, online — to the Year of the Dragon and I’m determined to see it through. If I start not bothering this early on, then the adventure is as good as over already.

Instead of a warm, sunny Sunday morning when I’d worn shorts and applied sunblock, last night although still warm was threatening rain from the start and I knew that evenings on the river would need insect repellent before it would need sun protection.  I arrived on the train in plenty of time and enjoyed the downhill walk to the river, and was glad to see that many dragon boaters were already there — including members of the Typhoon Dragon Boat Club in their team uniform — but also some reassuring members of my own club.

There were a few people that were clearly regular dragons that I hadn’t met before, along with a man who was returning for his own second session like me, and then a couple of completely new people.  You can tell a newbie when they come along, slightly hesitant, and ask “Is this dragon boat racing?” and then questions about how we would be racing, and if you fall in the water.  There is no actual racing, this is training. Later it was asked if anyone goes to races — I don’t know if the question meant did my team member personally race, did the team race, or if anyone actually races.

I can see clearly the areas I need to focus on for improvement.  While my first session was focused on keeping time with my other team members rather than paying attention to the shouted instructions or speed, this time I felt I should at least start considering myself part of the team and acting accordingly.  There are times when we start from what is called a standing start — you start with the paddles are buried in the water, then set off at a break-neck pace. Much like you would in a race.  The only trouble with this is being able to keep up — and if you can’t keep up with the speed, you can’t keep in time.  And the timing is the single most important thing.  The other things I need to improve include not taking the paddle past my hip (I think the key is reaching much farther forward) and the occasional tendency to splash half the boat with water.  I have no idea what goes wrong there.

Very soon, I am going to take out formal membership. And before long I am going to have to face that The Year of the Dragon is a very real adventure, and a challenge, even if it is entirely different from my previous adventures — and this means I am going to have to stop thinking of it as something I do for fun a couple of times a week, and actually start training for it.  There might not be a dog sled and a frozen Arctic tundra up ahead, but if I am going to compete within the year, I need to take it seriously and train.

The year of the dragon: a new adventure starts here

London's medal-winning "Thames Dragons" dragon boating team
Source: http://bit.ly/MelXrG
Photo by Rosanna Lau

It seems that maybe a new adventure sometimes comes along when you’re not looking for one.

Since before I even went to deepest, darkest Norway on my Arctic Adventure, I was thinking about what would be next.  The idea of a desert motorcycle race came up, and I did some research into the Paris – Dakar Rally, but while not yet being able to ride a motorcycle would have added an extra element to the challenge, the whole thing was impractical.

After the Arctic, a coast to coast trek in Cuba was considered — it would be another fundraising expedition for Macmillan Cancer Support, but the total being a much more modest £4,500 (rather than the £6k I raised this year) and I considered it would be possible to raise the entire total solely with full-day collections in railway stations or outside supermarkets.

This idea, too, was regrettably dismissed — I don’t want my adventures to be defined by charity fundraising, and I didn’t want friends and family to feel they had to support me financially.

I wasn’t even thinking about a new adventure when I got an email asking if I wanted to go to a Dragon Boat racing event.  I’d heard about dragon boats and dragon boat festivals before, but never seen one — though it had sounded interesting.  So I gladly signed up for this one, once I’d established I could actually join in and race.

One event does not an adventure make.

It was a good day, a fun day of racing in a dragon boat against other teams.  My team came second out of four taking part, which was a good result.  We were tired and sore but happy at the end of the day. But I think what might separate me from others on the day is that I went straight home and looked up London’s teams.

I found several teams, found the team nearest to me (although the 2012 Olympic Games in London have meant they have been evicted temporarily from their home in the docks) and contacted them to ask if I could come along to train with them.

Their answer was enthusiastic, explained to me what days they train, and that I would be welcome.

You know when you’re onto something special when it requires forsaking a Sunday morning lie-in and cooked breakfast, followed by a lazy morning listening to the radio.  Instead, I was out of bed shortly after 7am and pushing through Olympic crowds to catch a train out to Hackney and the River Lea to join the Thames Dragons for their Sunday morning training.

The team this morning were reportedly a little light on numbers — but if that made the paddling harder, it didn’t worry me.

Training with a dragon boat team is obviously different to a corporate fun day. Where last week was a few short races, with breaks in between while other teams competed, today was serious training for a serious sport.  It wasn’t altogether unlike Run Dem Crew — whom I regretfully left for a variety of reasons, but the most serious being the pain in my knees — something tough, but also enjoyable.

It was less social than Run Dem Crew, there you got good conversation while you ran, but in my dragon boat you couldn’t even really enjoy the scenery while paddling as you had to be watching the front people to make sure you kept time.  Occasional distractions on river banks or other boats would be quickly met with stern shouts to keep our eyes in the boat.  It stands to reason: this isn’t just a fun day on the river and conversation would be hard while concentrating on strokes — even though there was plenty of good humour in the quieter moments.

It being my first time with a dragon boat team, there was lots I didn’t understand — but wasn’t expected to.  I was warned of it in advance, that there would be terms used and directions shouted, but the most important thing for me was to just keep the pace — otherwise you end up being an anchor to the rest of the team.

That tired, sore but happy feeling is back — though this time I also have blisters on one hand, and can barely left my right arm above my head.  And let this blog post be a record: a new adventure starts here.

I am joining the Thames Dragons, and by the end of the summer of 2013, I want to have taken part in at least one competition. This is the year of the dragon.

I like my corner of London

Royal Victoria Docks, Silvertown
Royal Victoria Docks, in London’s Silvertown

I like my corner of London.

It might not be very exciting, and sometimes I feel like it lacks character of other places in the east end — and it is like a foreign country compared to west and south west London. Just the same, I like it here.

I live in London’s Docklands — the more recent incarnation of the docklands.  It was one of the world’s most thriving docks at one time, and probably important for a very long time given the right combination of tides and places to unload.

Due to its importance, the area was heavily bombed during the second world war — while wealthier parts of the city in places like Kensington were left almost untouched by the war.  The inevitable march of technology all but killed the docks — bigger ships could no longer reach this part of the river, and the rise of shipping containers meant that fewer people were necessary to unload ships; the job could be done by cranes instead.

Docks closed and the area all but died out, until it became a new financial district in the later decades of the twentieth century.  But this isn’t intended to be a history lesson: to learn about the Wapping dispute (newspapers moving from Fleet Street to Wapping) and the Docklands Light Railway, you can visit the excellent Museum of London Docklands.

Some say that multiculturalism in Britain has failed.  I expect the people that say this are the people that want it to fail, the people that say that “immigrants” will never successfully integrate into the society’s where they settle, and everything is a powder keg of unrest and distrust.

I don’t see that here.

While you don’t exactly have large multicultural groups all holding hands in a circle and singing “Kumbaya” like Joan Baez, it is also one of the most diverse places I have ever known.  On a sunny day in Thames Barrier Park, you will see people of all creed, colours, races and religions sharing the space in friendship — and there’s no clear line where any one group of people starts and another ends.  Sunny and warm evenings around here encourage everyone to open their windows and doors, and what you get is a fantastic combination of cultures — music, televisions, even calls to prayer — all mixing together in the air.  You might call it noise pollution, but we reserve that term for the nearby airport.

Romantic visions of cultural melting pots where everyone mixes together to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts may not have ever quite proved true — after all, most people tend to stay close to friends and family and the things they know — it does happen.

I’d like to see Docklands mature, beyond what is currently either big media companies and large financial institutions or islands of housing. They’re trying — whoever they are.  London Pleasure Gardens has recently opened in Silvertown — an area that has been largely forgotten since the decline of the docks, but still has so much of the history that I love, including old cranes by the water, vast warehouses and monolithic grain silos.  I’d like to see more community though, the things I like in other parts of the east end — where every third or fourth shop is a local grocer, old theatres (even if they are now cinemas), reminders of what places once were written in the brickwork above the buildings.

You can’t manufacture something like that, it has to come on its own.  While you can’t just make a place’s history or character (and it looks terrible when new buildings try to copy the style of older existing ones), maybe you can sometimes do something to encourage one.