Literary City

So I had last week off. It was lovely. I discovered I live walking distance from Hyde Park; visited the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum; went to the Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture; and met the amazing folks of LOTNA, London’s oldest and awesomest scifi meetup group. I won’t belabour the details, as I’ve spoken to many of you already in the past week – but being the book geek that I am, there is one journey I’d like to share:

One of the first things I did last week was head out on Sunday to do a walk out of Roger Tagholm’s Walking Literary London. He’s a great writer, wry and clear, and I decided to do the one around the City (the financial district/area around St. Paul’s and down to the Tower of London). Although it’s full of banks now, and eerily quiet on Sundays, it was once a hopping area for literary up and comers. Kenneth Grahame and PG Wodehouse both worked at banks in their day – although Wodehouse didn’t last long, having, among other things, once torn out the first page of a ledger to pursue a short story idea. TS Eliot worked as a clerk in a below-ground office on Cornhill Street (which is also home to the office where the Brontes had a legendary meeting with their publisher). And by far my favourite parts of the day were seeing some of Samuel Pepys’ old stomping grounds – including the alley where he lived when on September 3, 1666, he awoke at 4am to see the Great Fire raging, and, still in his dressing gown, managed to salvage most of his possessions. Including, of course, the diaries that have made him famous and given us insights into a period from which many other records did not survive. And speaking of survival, another amazing part of this walk was seeing all of the buildings and churches, some over 1,000 years old, that were partially damaged by the Great Fire and later the Blitz during WWII. And just to cap the day off I saw something a little more modern – the square at the London Guildhall, where the Booker Prize gala is held every year, and all the luminous literati of the West strut their stuff.

Here are some pics from the walk – I haven’t included everything, but this should give you a taste of the City on a Sunday. The captions explain what’s what.

I’ve got a longer post a comin’ with more thoughts on teaching, and on living here – I’ve been a Londoner more than a month now, and I think I’m getting the hang! Should be ready tomorrow – for now, to bed. Sweet dreams.

Stay Tuned!

At the grave risk of becoming one of those tools who are always saying “sorry for not posting more, guys…”, well, sorry for not posting more! It’s been a whirlwind week and a half! But stay tuned – there’s a fat flickr upload happening whilst I’m at work today, and then there’ll be a feast for the eyes later today – or, um, tomorrow morning for most of you. Love you!

English Food… Or Rather, Decidedly NON-English Food!

[Click here to go straight to this week’s photos! There’s another link at the end of this post.]

First, a caveat concerning last week’s mess of a reflection. I meant absolutely everything I said in the last post, about my doubts about public education, and how much I hate being a disciplinarian. But I was also speaking out of turn, I think… not letting myself make a landing back into the teaching world before dismissing it as dark and cramped and difficult. Why have I realized this? The first reason is simple – I had a good week, overall, this week: the kids got used to me and got some real work done, I was responsible for both some effective discipline and some genuine smiles and laughs, and I felt like I was good at something difficult. What else can you ask from a working day, really?

But the second reason is both more profound and more ridiculous.

Here I am, having been told that West London is much better in terms of behaviour concerns among secondary school students than East London. And so I take this to heart, and go into this school expecting some really good kids, while still braced for the worst because that’s how I roll. And then I get there, and these children, while decent, even lovely individuals one by one, are truly an unruly, misbehaving mob. I had to shout to be heard almost every moment during that first week. And I thought, okay, it’s me, it’s the fact they’ve had nothing but supply teachers for weeks and weeks, it’s disinterest in the material, etc etc ad nauseam. And then I got a chance to eavesdrop on some other classes, and hear a lot of teachers’ lounge chatter, and it became quite clear – the entire school is like this, and has been getting worse in recent years. And then Thursday the bombshell is dropped on me by the English department head (who, hand to the Spirit in the Sky, looks and sounds PRECISELY like Emma Thompson) that not only is she impressed with my hard work these two weeks, but also that she’s floored that I’ve done as well as I have considering that a lot of other supply teachers have refused to come back to this school. After sitting there all day reading the paper. So.

So. That, suffice it to say, makes me a little more willing to give the system here, and schoolteaching in general, more of a chance before I decide if it’s for me. It’s also food for thought about the state of children’s development in this country, perhaps in the whole Western world – but that’s a subject for another day.

Now, on to something much more important than mere work – FOOD!

Food in this country, let’s face it, has a bad reputation. There are jokes galore involving the English, their masochism, and their pub sandwiches. And there is, in my limited experience thus far, an abundance of tasteless, nutritionless, and overpriced food here. If you think food court fare in Canada is a turnoff, may I suggest that you stay as far as you currently are, if not further, from the dining hall of King’s Mall here in Hammersmith. And so far, I’ve found so many places that get the simple, traditional cornish pasty wrong, that it actually brought tears to my eyes to bite into a proper one courtesy of a little place I stumbled upon in Soho (I have to start writing restaurant names down!).

At home, I’d shop at Asian fruit markets and Italian delis, and do a lot of home cooking. Here, I’m spending most of my time working and touristing it up; we’ve got limited kitchen space; and I hadn’t the foggiest idea what food shopping in London would be like. But I have discovered two things that make being a foodie in this country a little less painful, without shelling out more for munchies than for airfare:

1) Good old fashioned groceries. Sainsbury’s and Tesco, for the most part, sell fresh produce and healthy grains. They’ve got a good stock of quality dark chocolate, and they carry a line of soups called Covent Garden that are delicious… honestly, the Covent Garden Chicken Muligatawny stands up against any restaurant curry I’ve had so far.

2) Foreign > Domestic. Okay, that’s a bit of a generalization – for free range eggs and cheese, the domestic scene is pretty good. But honestly, it’s a good rule of thumb. Case in point is what they deign to call “saugages” over here – two experiences, at the BM and the Zoo, and I had sworn the swollen, bread-filled and completely tasteless tubes of “meat” off forever. And then today I wandered around Hammersmith a bit, found my way down to the river, passed about 63 pubs selling traditional English fare for exorbitant prices, before finally finding my way back to Lyric Square. It’s apparently home to a farmer’s market every Thursday, which I’ve been meaning to check out… but evidently the weekend’s not a bad time to head up there either. A group of Eastern Europeans – possibly Greek, possibly Turkish, but definitely foodies – had a spread set up that, while it probably doesn’t hold a candle to anything Paris has to offer, had me choking up with gratitude. I had a Bavarian sausage that, wonder of wonders, contained actual meat. I bought some Sicilian olives mixed with Kalamatas and some sort of white, crunchy substance that I thought was Bocconcini, but may actually be some sort of vegetable – and they are DELICIOUS. Not too salty, fresh, crisp, juicy… Mmmm. And, I made a new discovery – at least, new to me – dried strawberries. The thought had never even occurred to me – but they are delightful. They taste exactly right – all of the flavour and punch and sweetness of the best strawberries, without any of the rubberiness or too-cold-from-the-fridge consistency problems you sometimes get, especially out of season. And, just to make the experience complete, I got some Baklava – and the smiling young man who sold it to me was right: it’s fantastic. None of this sea of sticky syrup you get at the Greek bakeries on West Broadway in Vancouver – it’s crispy, sweet, and soft on the inside, and tastes like it was just made this morning. And all that for just over £10.

So it’s shaping up to be a good – and tasty! – week off. This week is going to be all about the free museums and galleries, and Cara’s off as well, so I’ll be back soon with more pics. And tomorrow I’ll be heading out for my first “literary walk” (I got a book from the library that’s full of them) in and around St. Paul’s in the City (sort of like saying “Downtown” in Vancouver). So if you’re ever here with me in future, I’ll be able to point to things and say stuff like, “See that brick? T.S. Eliot was once sick on that brick.” In the meantime, here’s another Flickr album covering some random awesomeness from the past two weeks. From now on everything photo/video-wise will be on Flickr… I’ve never found a better hosting site, so I’ve splurged on the “Pro” membership to get unlimited storage, the better to show off my skillz and share my travels with y’all. Love!

Reflections on a First Week of a Different Sort

OK, so here I am again. It’s been a week since my last post – it’ll probably be a week until my next one. Why? Because I’ve started that oh so integral part of my journey this spring – working for a living.

I spent this week filling in for an English teacher at a secondary school here in London. Well, just barely. To get there for 8am, I have to be out of bed for 545. Definitely not something I’ll be doing for more than the next week!

“Year” levels here are equivalent to our Canadian grade levels. I’ve been teaching two different Year 9 classes, two different Year 11 classes, a Year 9 class, a Year 10 class, and a homeroom section of Year 9s. It’s been tough. They don’t know me, I don’t know them – and they all know each other. I’ve tried my best to keep things happy and productive for all of us, and there have certainly been moments and lessons where I’ve succeeded… but the bottom line is, at this point in the year, with their teacher having now been out for four weeks, and with the knowledge that at any point I could simply disappear just like the last supply teacher, it’s hard for even the keenest of them to really get behind the work we’re doing together. On top of that, the teacher before me left nothing behind, and the school system itself, while its content is familar, is structured in an unfamiliar way. So I’ve spent this week playing catchup, and there’ve been some much longer days than I thought I’d have as a supply teacher.

But we’re nearly there, and I think that by the end of this week I’ll have these classes as back on track as it’s in my power to have them.

As many of you know, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. It’s why I sometimes prefer the company of books to the company of people – particularly unruly, unhappy teenaged people. But that perfectionism can get in the way of a life well and meaningfully lived – and one good thing about teaching is that it pushes me past that comfort threshold. Because in imperfection, in interaction, in improvisation – all things that are the teacher’s lifeblood – can come some amazing moments of connection and accomplishment. There were some real moments of triumph this week, for me and the students in my charge.

The Year 9s really enjoyed getting Canada pins and pencils as prizes in a Romeo and Juliet quiz. One of the Year 9 classes was just mesmerized by the Baz Luhrmann version of the play when I brought it in, and I think that bodes well for their work on it this coming week. The Year 11s, whose behaviour the first time I had them wasn’t exactly appropriate for how old they are, and how close to their government exams they are, really met me halfway on Thursday and had a very productive writing lesson.

And the little smiles and connections and good-natured jokes I’ve had from students sprinkled through all these classes tells me that I can make some sort of difference to them just by being present, and kind. One place this has been particularly evident is with my smallest class, a group of about 5 (attendance varies) Year 11s who, truth be told, are really just biding their time until they get to leave school. And while their language is often shocking, they really are very nice kids… and the nicer I am to them, while still walking that professional line and emphasizing the importance of the work we have to do, the pleasanter they are and the more we get done during class.

I anticipate a successful week ahead – because I am going to work to make it a success. And the great thing is, I’m not alone – the teachers at this school have been wonderful to me, supportive and kind.

To be honest with you, though, I don’t think I’ll be taking any long term positions teaching in this country. I love the city, and I’m enjoying all there is to do and see and think about… but the school system, if this school is any indication (and it sounds like it is), is too regimented and exam-oriented for me. At this point I still prefer our system in BC, frustratingly open though it may sometimes be, for the creativity and freedom and real-world focus it allows teachers and students alike. I’m not saying that the system here isn’t preparing kids for the real world – simply that, from what I’ve seen, there seems to be more of a “just get through and pass the exam” attitude than I’ve seen in other schools and other systems.

And to continue to be honest with you, I’m actually not so sure I’ll end up being a career teacher… I do enjoy parts of it, and at this moment in my life its portability is key for me, and I do appreciate the way it forces me out of my comfort zone. But there are some reasons that I may not stick around.

I don’t want to become one of those people who has to harden a part of themselves in order to keep going in this career, and I’ve certainly seen it happen. When I’m striving to be friendly but not friends, to remain firm and enforce rules, a little part of my soul is burning away, because I do want to be friends, with everyone. I think that’s why I’m here, why we’re all here, as George Eliot once said: to make life more bearable for each other. And I know there is a way to make discipline and professionalism a part of that goal without turning cold – but I haven’t found it yet. I am looking.

And this feeds right into the second reason I think that a long teaching career might not be in the cards for me – I’m not so sure how much I believe in or care about our current educational system. Now don’t get me wrong – I absolutely believe that every human being is both deserving and capable of access to knowledge and skills to process that knowledge and apply it to their lives. But this particular system we’ve come up with, of sticking 30 people together in a little room, just because they happen to live near each other and be about the same age and/or “skill level” (whatever that means), can be absolutely absurd when you really think about it. The moments that I love about teaching, the ones that give me that calm and accomplished feeling of ‘I just did something to make someone else’s life better’, always, ALWAYS come one on one, or at best in very small groups. In tutoring, or in the learning centre, or when I’m circulating around the classroom once the day’s instructions have been haltingly given. The times I feel out of my element, and sometimes, devoid of purpose, are when I’m facing all 30 at once, trying in vain to get them to listen to a set of instructions that might, perhaps, be getting through to 5 or 6 of them. I know that some of this is a matter of simple practice and experience, and that there are all sorts of economic constraints against individual instruction for all… but I also know that recognizing your own strengths and weakness is important, and while there are people out there who absolutely thrive before a crowd, and should be doing that part of this job because they’ll do it well, I am not one of them. I am not so much people person as I am a person person. I can make a real difference one on one, but I fear that years in this job would simply make me into nothing more than a reluctant disciplinarian. I’d like to think I could avoid that, carve out a space for myself where I can pursue the sorts of values for myself and my students that I see as important – but I’m not sure how willing I am to devote an entire career to that journey.

So something with some softer edges may ultimately be for me – within the teaching system or without. And really, that’s the final reason. That what you do with your life should be something that makes you happy – and I always thought that a profession like teaching, with its noble reputation, its guarantee that at the end of your day you’ll always feel like you gave something to the world, was the key to my happiness. But as I grow up and become a little more realistic, not to mention a little more selfish (in the positive sense of that word – there IS a positive sense, you know! Because if YOU don’t look after you, who will?), I realize that really, the most important thing is to find something that you love doing first, and let the world-changingness follow if it will. JM Barrie used to say that “it’s not work unless you’d rather be doing something else”, and I think I owe it to myself to find a place I truly want to go every day, filled with people I want to be with, and tasks that make me whistle while I work. And I know it’s out there, in a school or an office or an open field somewhere. And every step here, every accomplishment and even every failure, is bringing me closer to it.

So I’m on the lookout, sure, like we all always are, for greener grass. But in the meantime I’m being both pragmatic and grateful… teaching, right now, is making me more money than the bottom rung of anything else could. It’s letting me have the run of this amazing part of the world, soak up all I can from it, and that’s a very good thing. And there are lots of things about the job to enjoy. But right now that’s what it feels like – a job, not a calling. And that’s okay for now. I am still listening carefully for that call, and all the while doing all the things that make me happy – writing, and exploring, and getting to know people. And enjoying the freedom that this job can provide, both personally and professionally, along with its triumphs and trials.

My goodness that was far more angsty and less newsy than any post so far. Hope there was something in there that worked for you. Stay tuned… I’ve got a week off coming up, more travels planned, and the Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture is just around the corner. Love you all.

A Hasty Recap of a Busy Few Days!

So this’ll be a short one, mostly pics, as I’m gearing up for my first day of work tomorrow! I’ve got the teacher bag all packed, an outfit picked out, and a positive attitude screwed firmly into place. This is the school – quite the traditional English start to my experience, by the looks of it.

The end of last week was marvelous. I walked through St. James’ Park by Buckingham Palace, went up on the London Eye to see the City at night. I visited the Beatles Store in Baker Street (yep, that Baker Street), wandered through Soho – an area that contains more bookstores than I have ever seen in one place. I also made my way back to the British Museum, and in a little cafe across the street, pausing for a hot chocolate before the evening lecture by Simon Singh, I met a very nice Londoner named Anita. We hit it off, hung out at the Museum for a bit, and we’ve got plans to grab a coffee and see The Lovely Bones later this week. I’ve made my first new friend – yay! Finally, I finished the week off with a trip to The Maple Leaf, London’s Canadian pub. The poutine was awful, but the atmosphere was interesting.

So here are some pics detailing the last bit of my first week as a Londoner. Hope to talk to you all soon – it looks like weekend mornings are best, as they are weekend evenings for me, and I’m likely to be home. Love to all!

Since today’s post is mostly photos, I’ve made a flickr album rather than posting them all here in a big column. As they used to say in the old days, click here. (I’m still learning Flickr, and I’ve gotta hit the hay, so these are in the reverse of the order described above. Also, a few of em need rotating, and the Flickr server is awful slow tonight. I’ll get to em tomorrow. But you’re clever folk – I’m sure you’ll figure it out).

Nemo – He is Found!

Just when I was starting to get a little worried about meeting people here… along comes Jaime the latte boy 🙂

I headed to the Starbucks around the corner for a caramel machiatto to start my day this morning (ok yesterday morning, but I struggled with the videos below for long enough that now it’s the next day), and chatted with a very friendly young Englishman who, as he was making my coffee, outlined his theory of accents, courtesy of years spent living with Australians… apparently, if you hear what sounds like an Aussie accent, but it sounds nicer, it’s Kiwi. And similarly, if you hear what sounds like an American accent, but it sounds nicer, it’s Canadian. I told him I can deal with that. Next time I’ll be sure to ask if he’s seen Flight of the Conchords. And now I’ve got a reason to keep buying the only coffee I’ve ever tasted that I actually like!

My day certainly was off to a good start as I walked through Camden Town toward Regent’s Park, “Obla Di Obla Da” blasting through my iPod, and I came across this remarkable estate agent’s, apparently a widespread chain:

A shiny 50p piece to the first person who knows why the name of this place is AWESOME 🙂

But the real highlight of today was the London Zoo… The wonderful thing about this place, run as it is by the Zoological Society of London, is its emphasis on conservation. Every ticket includes a voluntary donation (you could opt out, but really, who would?) to the zoo’s conservation initiatives, and the place is covered with information and activities – much of it geared at children – about international issues surrounding bio-diversity and the destruction of species and habitat. This includes a little chart on each and every exhibit label that explains just how endangered the species is, as well as exhibits about traditional animal tracking in Africa and informational displays about CO2 levels and how they affect animals’ lives as well as our own.

an informational poster about CO2… 350 parts per million is the upper limit for safe living conditions… and we’re already in the 370s.

THE AQUARIUM

[all of the videos I’ve been taking on this trip will be hosted on YouTube… if they won’t play here, click on them a second time and they’ll take you to the original video]

My favourite bit by far was the Aquarium, otherwise known as the live action Finding Nemo. My absolute favourite Pixar flick – and almost all of the characters were represented, thanks to large sections of the aquarium dedicated to Australian marine life and coral reef habitats. Here’s a clownfish – a little angrier looking even than Marlon, I think…

And another, this one brushing himself on his anemone home… “Do you want this anemone to sting you? Do you?

“Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, what do we do we swim, swim…” And here’s Dory, otherwise known as the Regal Tang, native to the Indo-Pacific and thankfully not yet endangered. Aren’t they gorgeous?

Remember the little guy in the dentist’s tank who was all neurotically obsessed with the bubbles? He’s an Orange Blotch Surgeonfish, native to the Pacific and not yet endangered. And he does look sort of neurotic here…

And finally, rounding out the cast is the White Blotched River Stingray – Mr. Ray! Hanging around his tank was good for some entertainment… I heard one very British dad convince his daughters that the thing was called a “Spotty Ray” – and heard another kid ask his dad if the ray could really carry other fish on its back!

The reef

And finally, not a Hollywood star but awesome nonethelss, the Tub Gunard. Fish with legs are fascinating – I always get this Cambrian chill, thinking about the fact that once that’s all we all were, a twinkle in the eye of a crawling fish… I think perhaps it’s also the combination of two modes of transport that we think of as very separate, swimming and walking, coexisting in one animal. Poor Ariel – if only she’d been born a few thousand millenia earlier. These guys swim as well, but here’s one ambling creepily along… and if you’ve ever see the all-time worst Star Trek: Voyager episode, “Threshold”, wherein Janeway and Paris reach the transwarp barrier and “superevolve” into giant versions of this very creature, well, let’s just say – the creep factor for you will reach a different level entirely.

Despite the fact that this was the first really wet day I’ve spent in London (scored a heavy duty golf umbrella for £2.99 today! A find, considering the usual prices around here), there was plenty else to see at the zoo:

I missed the penguin feeding, but loved the sign!

Me in the Aquarium.

A little Canadian content... Winnie the Pooh spent some time here while her owner was at war, so Manitoba presented the zoo with this plaque and statue...

The most terrifying part of the day, by far...

Komodo Dragon! He lives in there alone, by the way... To prove he was actually moving, I took this shot with his eyes open...

...and this one as he blinked!

Just like in Harry Potter, though the Burmese Python was nowhere to be seen today...

...some lingering racial tension is evident in many of the outback-themed exhibits...

...the Rhinocerous Iguana, native to Haiti and the Dominican. Some still live in the wild, but they are increasingly vulnerable.

This one amazed me - the Roti Island Snake-Necked Turtle. See how its neck extends and is flexible like a snake? It's native to just one island in Indonesia, and is critically vulnerable at the moment. The ones in captivity here and elsewhere are serving as a safety net for the species.

The beautiful Rio Fuerte Beaded Lizard of Mexico and Guatemala's dry forests. At the safe end of the vulnerable scale, for now.

Zoological Society Fellow David Attenborough

On such a rainy day, the cats were a bit of a disappointment...

…but they were more than made up for by the antics of these monkeys (I can’t recall the exact species). I always feel a little uncomfortable photographing gorillas – they’re just so human – and that’s why there are no pics of them here, though I did see them. But these guys were made for the camera, and it loves them right back:

So that was it for the Zoo – though I’d love to go back on a sunny day and see more of the outdoor animals; apparently they have lots of Cats, giraffes, kangaroos… definitely worth a second trip. Oh, wait – one more thing, just for you Elena:

...even across the ocean, you cannot escape it!!! Mwahahaha!!!

A quick glance at what I’m fairly sure was the River Cam – where it’s never a good idea to be taking a stroll under the influence of post-hypnotic suggestion – and it was back into the City.

Don't know why I took this picture? Read Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. You'll be glad you did.

Didn’t make it to Baker Street like I’d hoped – the Sherlock Holmes Museum and the Beatles Store (hey, I need to decorate my new room a little) will have to wait. I did, however, attend the first of the many free lectures I plan to see during my time here… this place is as much an academic hub as it is a cultural one. It was fascinating to sit in such a beautiful church (St. Mary Aldermary, 900 years old and recently refurbished, which sits in the shadow of St. Paul’s in Cheapside), and awe-inspiring to get a glimpse into an academic tradition that goes back far beyond the founding of Canada’s first universities. Anything that old is fascinating… the streets around the church, lined with modern office buildings and Starbucks though they are, are still named things like “Bread Street”, “Milk Stree” and “Honey Street” … I could almost imagine CMOT Dibbler coming round the corner with a trayful of inedible sausages (20p for anyone who picks that one up – Jesse, Andrew, I’m looking at you!).

However, the lecture itself was something of a disappointment. It was part of the Robert Boyle Memorial series, originally begun in the 1700s and recently revived. It covered what could have easily been a fascinating subject – and certainly a very topical one – the relationship between science and religion. But the lecturers, in true English don fashion, spent far too much time congratulating each other and explaining to the audience who Boyle was, rattling off titles and dates and making jokes about the Earl of Cork (the seat of Boyle’s family) and singer Susan Boyle. Some of their comments about Boyle’s (Robert, that is) personal philosophy – he once said “I like to speak of people with civility, but of things with freedom” – as well as his contributions to the development of experiment-based science were illuminating, but somewhat abortive. With the divide between the religious and atheist communities as wide today as it has ever been without coming to actual blows, it’s too bad the lecturers didn’t take this opportunity to expound the sort of cooperation and civil dialogue Boyle promoted (although, in their defense, this probably would have involved a lot more detail about his anti- Muslim and -Jewish views… apparently he was afraid of Jews coming into England because he thought they would too easily win converts with their superior theological arguments). And also disappointing was the fact that they glossed quickly over the problem of Boyle’s “natural theology” having come over a century before Darwin’s theory of evolution. Sort of an important distinction – makes a lot of Boyle’s attempts to reconcile the physical world with divine design, such as the perfect suitedness of our eyes to the way we go about our lives, seem quaint or even moot, since Darwin clearly states that the eyes grew around the tasks, evolving to fill a necessary function, rather than being placed into our skulls fully formed and tailor made.

St. Paul's

Nighttime in Cheapside

So it was an enchanting experience, but I think I’ll be choosing a little more carefully from now on. Poetry, Mathematics, and Myth at the BM on Thursday sounds more up to speed. And of course I have no doubt that, being in Douglas’s name, this year’s Save the Rhino lecture will be relevant as well as both informative and entertaining.

Chatted with the flatmates a bit tonight… Candace met a couple of the guys from Muse at a work event the other night! Anyhow – lots to do – I’m headed into the City to do some wandering and pick up some maps for my wall. Thanks for reading! ❤

Week the First

So I’m sitting here, warm and comfortable in my new Hammersmith flat, belly full of tasty take-home curry from Bloomsbury, and a week’s worth of international travel under my belt. The last six days have been incredible. When you’ve got to get yourself from place to place, country to country, with your stuff and your sanity intact, you get very rooted in the moment, very focussed. Which is a good way to begin an odyssey like this, learning to live and work in a whole new nation. Here we go.

THE ODYSSEY
My lovely wife (I miss you so much) saw me off at the skytrain station and I rode the Canada Line (my, those trains are wide) for the first time. Got to YVR three hours ahead of flight time and made it through baggage check and customs in about 20 minutes.

World's Greatest Wife. Mwah!

Here I am in International Departures:

Go Eagles!

It was smooth sailing to Chicago, a little under four hours.

All I had time for at O’Hare International was to hop from terminal to terminal, grab a fruit salad with my American bucks, and hop right onto the next plane. It was incredibly empty… two seats to myself. Didn’t get much sleep though – and thus began the 36 gruelling hours I would stay awake on my initial journey. Before we left the windy city I tried to make the most of my view out the window, since I didn’t get to get out and see Chicago. I think this might be the water tower that once bore a sacred inscription:

Maybe not. But it made me smile.

The flight attendants on the longer United flight were much cheerier and more fun than those on the short one to the States. If United does indeed break guitars, it wouldn’t be any of these sweet folks doing the smashy smashy. There was even one, whose picture I wish I took, who was a dead ringer for a hairier, stockier Robert Downey, Jr., voice and all. When I and the gentleman from Manchester sitting in front of me expressed our delight at the emptiness of the plane, steward-RDJ told us a great story about when they used to taxi empty planes across the States – pre 911, I’m assuming – and as they were taking off and landing they’d grab meal trays and slide up and down the aisles!

SO HERE  I AM…
Speaking of which, food in England, contrary to popular reputation and the vehement protestations of my hero Douglas Adams, is really quite good… the meals out so far have been great, and while fast food is stupidly expensive (I’m fairly sure Burger King simply changed the $ to a £ without changing the numbers), groceries are more than reasonable. A standard grocery shop in my local neighbourhood, including some really nice fresh, local(ish) produce (and free range eggs my darling!), cost me about 30 quid. Not too shabby.

When I got here my lovely friend Cara, late of Coles Lougheed (Burquitlam represent!), and her father Malcolm came to the airport to greet me. They were wonderful, giving me a place to stay, helping me get my bearings and even heading out to Hammersmith (a good hour from their part of the city, Catford) and waiting while I took a look at the flat I’ve now moved into.

I think I managed to comport myself alright as a grateful guest, even with the fact that by the time I collapsed on Malcolm’s couch around midnight, I’d been awake for over a day and a half straight.

cara

malcolm

And special thanks for introducing me to The Dove, a pub down along the river just a few minutes from my new place, where you can grab a Guiness and see the original sheet music for Rule Brittainia (1740).


The area was also home to designer William Morris in his heyday, which might account for the overall pleasantness to the eye around here.

HOME SWEET HOME
My room is wonderful… narrow, but nice and long, perfect for me and my stuff. A quick trip to Ikea North Ealing got me some bedding, and it wasn’t til I got home that I realized I’d bought a Canadian themed set – so i guess my subconscious was taking care of the patriotism angle!

The building is on a quiet, lovely little street just minutes from Hammersmith tube station, and the building itself, as well as much of the surrounding neighbourhood, is beautiful old (and only slightly decaying) Victorian brownstones – complete with silver skeleton keys and high, ornate ceilings. The neighbourhood is great – safe, interesting, full of shops as well as an adorable library (I’ve already got my card and some travel books, of course), cinemas, Lyric Square where there’s a farmer’s market every week, and the London Apollo, home to many A-list acts over the years and currently hosting Britain’s Got Talent (yep, the show that anointed Susan Boyle). It’s also only about 20min on the tube to central London.

an idea of where i am from central london... i plan to try walking from Hammersmith Bridge (read on for more) to London Bridge.

my window is on the far left, second floor

our kitchen

my keys. yeah, that's right.

my patriotic bed... don't worry, there's more room - i'm standing in it!

victorian high ceilings

B1 and B2, outside the local supermarket... just for you Theo!

hammersmith public library

My flatmates are nice young women. Candace does PR for non profits,and Urmi works as a construction project manager – and there’s certainly no shortage of works being done around the city. From what I read in the Evening Standard, “Detour” signs have become something of a running joke in this metropolis, as have casual references to “Boris” – it took me about three articles before I realized they were talking about the mayor. But it’s not necessarily a disappointment, living in a city so constantly under construction: I had the pleasure of walking right down the centre of Hammersmith Bridge, the oldest suspension bridge along the Thames, because it’s closed weekends for construction.

Hammersmith Bridge, on the River Thames, by night

the view down the centre of the bridge

One of the most interesting things I’ve seen, a subtle cultural difference that’s shocking when you think about it, was what the construction workers were actually DOING. In Vancouver, and certainly in most North American cities, our roads are simply roads, ways to get from A to B. But here so many of them are places in themselves, full of history, dating back to various points in the city’s history, walked over by generations of Londoners both common and great, and all part of a long and often grand tradition. So while we would fill in our roads with a jackhammer and some concrete, as quickly and efficiently as possible, these guys in their yellow helmets and vests were kneeling on the ground, one at a time, and painstakingly prying out and malletting in individual cobblestones, fitting them carefully, restoring the street’s character and history along with its function. I thought that was nice. It’s one of the things I already love about London – the way the modern city twines so organically around and through the layers of its history. Not all of that history is pleasant, nor is all of the present – but they don’t try to hide it, or relegate it to some externalized, touristy zone… it simply is.

OH YEAH. I’M ALSO HERE TO, YOU KNOW, WORK!
The next day, my second in the city, it was down to brass tacks – a meeting with my consultant at ITN Mark Education. The office is in an adorable part of West London called Brentford, not far from Hammersmith.

Even with so little sleep I think I made a good impression – they certainly impressed me with their friendliness and professionalism. Nearly all my paperwork is now squared away, and I’ve already got a week of work coming up on the 22nd. I’m nervous, but mostly I’m excited. I’ve met a few other teachers also new to the area and to supply work here in West London, and they’ve been having good experiences so far. I know I have the ability and the attitude to make this work.

GETTIN’ TOURISTY
But really, what I’m here for is to soak up this city. And I’m already getting started.  At the end of that first week of teaching I’ve got a ticket to see Ian McKellan and Roger Rees in Waiting for Godot. I’d like to get out to some musicals soon – Wicked, Chicago, The Lion King, Billy Elliot. The Globe’s theatre season hasn’t quite started yet, but they’re doing my favourite play, Henry IV Part One, in June, so that’s something to look forward to!

One British export that has always been dear to my heart, as most of you know, is the writer Douglas Adams.

He left us far too soon, during my senior year of highschool and just shy of his fiftieth birthday and eighth novel. So I had been racking my brains, now that I’m a resident of his beloved city, to think of an appropriate pilgrimage – most of his work takes place elsewhere and elsewhen, and while heading to Fenchurch Street Station or the Beehive Pub in Hertforshire might be good for a giggle, I wanted something a little more meaningful. So imagine my delight when I found this.

The Eighth Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture, with proceeds to one of the charities nearest to his heart, Save the Rhino, will be taking place on what would have been his 58th birthday, March 11, 2010. The subject, appropriately enough, is slated to be the number 42. I’ll be there. I’ll also be making a day of it and visiting his plot in Highgate Cemetery to pay my respects. The man is a large part of the reason I fell in love with the English language, and thus my presence here, in this city, this job, and this place in my life, is at least a little due to his influence.

THE BM
Today I did my first bit of real tourism – headed to the the unfortunately acronymed but nonetheless breathtaking British Museum for the first of what I anticipate will be many visits. I was impressed again by the casual passion for history shown by those who run London’s major attractions. The place is free for all to enter, yet clean and well run. I plan to see every single BM exhibit in my time here – to give you an idea of the scope, that’s the entire span of human prehistory and history. Over seven million objects spanning over 15, 000 years. If nothing else keeps me in good shape, walking through all that over the next several months sure will!

I spent just a couple of hours there today, arming myself with maps and brochures, and wandering through the ground floor. At the moment, a highlight item is the oldest sculpture in the collection, a male and female reindeer pair carved of ivory around 15, 000 years ago and discovered in 19th century France.

the object itself

artist's rendering

Another current point of interest is a viking hoard uncovered in York. The most interesting part of this exhibit for me was the contrast between unpreserved pieces of viking silver –

– and those that have been properly conserved and restored:

I think we sometimes make the mistake of assuming that historians and archaeologists simply find these things, slap dates and names on them, and place them into glass cases… When, truly, there is a lot more to the artistry and science of preserving and displaying the past. At least we’ve got Harrison Ford and Nic Cage out there, fighting the good fight for the discipline’s reputation.

Another amazing thing about this country – it’s so old, and so built on top of itself, that as recently as the 1970s, a young boy stumbled upon a viking sword while walking his dog. WALKING HIS DOG. Can you imagine that ever happening back home? That’s how much history there is here, just laying about…

Even more fun is the King’s Library, meant as a showcase of the history of the British Museum itself. It’s full of all sorts of treasures, as eclectic as they are bizarre, which represent the collective collector’s instinct’s of the institution’s founders. The informational sign at the Library’s entrance explains that part of Enlightenment ideals was the need to understand, collect, organize and catalog the world around us – an impulse, I think, that continues to drive many of us in the West to this day. I always feel a little burst of triumph when I manage to force myself away from the instinct to catalog or record or tweet about something, and instead just let that thing in through my old fashioned eyes and ears, let it become an internal part of me rather than a cumbersome external attachment. Don’t you? 🙂

Anyway, it’s a pretty intense place, full of stone busts of the Sirs and Lords who began the Museum, and packed to the gills with the stuff they put in it. There’s this little guy –

– and his not so little neighbour:

And there’s also this drawer from the personal medicine cabinet of one Sir Hans Sloane, which among other things contains powdered mummy fingers for treating bumps and bruises, and a mossy human skull to rub on that pesky epilepsy.

My personal favourite in this varied collection was this little gem:

They called it the “Chaucer Stone” because the white discolouration looks just like him –

– just like the witch in the side of the Chief!

A few more highlights:

Plain old five toes, unfortunately. Damn. Here I thought I might get a jump on the final season’s mysteries.

And of course, no gallery initially gathered by a bunch of old, Victorian men would be complete without…

The sign on these babies discusses Charles Townley’s insistence that the origins of all religious thought lie in priapism – the worship of the phallus as a symbol of the creative principle. I like it – it’s a not overly unfeminist way of folding men back into the worship of procreation and its symbols, an area often dominated by female imagery. What do you think, Erin?

A quick, amusing look at a few Coast Salish pieces in the Americas section – known back home as the wall of my parents’ living room (Popa, I wish you could come to the Museum with me; you’d get enough inspiration for ten carver’s lifetimes) – and I was through for the day.

Except for this little inexplicable awesomeness, right across Great Russell Street from the BM:

TRANSPORT FOR LONDON
As I took the tube home at the end of my first week here, I reflected on how easy it’s been to learn my way around. Part of that has been the attention paid to the condition of each line and each station by the employees of Transport for London… whereas back home it’s pretty uncommon to hear a real human voice over the loudspeakers, here at peak times it’s pretty normal to have actual – and rather harried-sounding – Transport employees come over the speakers, incredibly clearly, to give updates on the service on all lines of the tube… even if that service is running smoothly.

It’s interesting, though. At first the personalized service over the speakers seems quaint, polite, human, attentive… Very English, on one level or another. And it is all those things. But it’s also indicative of the same thing that all the layering in London is due to – the double decker buses, the underground stations that keep going under and deeper under til your ears pop, and the widespread practice all over Europe of having the lavatories on a higher or lower level rather than giving up valuable ground floor space – this city is packed to the gills. Part of the reason they keep reassuring us that all is well on the lines is that with this many people this close together, it would be – and has been, at various points in the city’s history – very, very easy for all to become UNwell, incredibly quickly and chaotically.

But on the flipside, this crowded and precarious state also makes London an incredibly invigorating place to be. Samuel Johnson famously said that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life – and so far I’d be inclined to agree. And with so much around you, all you have time for is your own adventure. Perhaps this is the less sinister explanation for Londoners’ famous indifference… Their city is such an easy place to be yourself in. Ironically, being so surrounded by so many people from all over the world, far from being claustrophobic, is absolutely reassuring, and present-rooting. They’re all going about their own business, all doing what they want and need to do, all moving with their own purpose… Looking out at all of them makes me look inward, too, to my own desires, my own reasons for being here, and gives me a push to do what I want and need to do, deliberately and in my own way, rather than caring what other people think… Because everywhere I look there are other people, and they don’t give a shit what I do, or what I think of what they’re doing. Who knew the impersonality of a true metropolis could be quite so empowering? Hmm.

So that’s all for now. If you got through even a tenth of all that I’m touched (and impressed with your attention span!). I can’t make any promises that this sort of wordiness won’t pop up again… but I will try my dardnest to keep it snappy and interesting.

Just so it’s all in one place:

email: spinning.straw@gmail.com
skype: thenakedwriter2007
aim/ichat: captainstadi

If you’d like to chat, download Skype and add me. It works as both a text messager and audio/video communication, and I’ve already had some successful chats with family and friends. Here’s my dad taping me from the computer screen while I take a snapshot of him:

…and Eli, stuck on a smile.

Love to all, ta for now,

Sam :]