Manchester, England: Welcome To Manchester

Soon after breakfast on my last day in London I left Rebecca and Nick at the West Hampstead terminal and went to King’s Cross/St Pancras station to buy a ticket for Manchester. Nick fussed over my well-being, “Our man is leaving Rebecca, is he going to be alright?” “He’s been doing this for a while, he’ll be fine.”

I bought a sandwich to go and had a cup of tea while I waited. The train ride was pretty uneventful, though I enjoyed watching the English countryside at a blur.

My last connection was running late, though by the early evening I was finally pulling into Manchester’s Piccadilly station. I called Phil to let him know I had arrived, but it went straight to voicemail.

I walked through the station towards the main entrance, and just as I was leaving Phil a message — in mid-sentence, in fact — I passed an older vagrant kneeling on the ground, looking concerned and confused. Suddenly, when I was only a few feet away, another vagrant rushes towards the side of the one on the floor, sweeps his leg out in stride and kicks the man on the ground squarely in the chest. Phil received a message that sounded something like this:

Hey Phil, it’s Bj. I just got into Piccadilly station and I’m walking through the station now. I’ll head … oh! uh … wha … ok, some dude just got kicked in the chest! There’s some kind of bum fight that just broke out in front of me. Listen I’ll be hanging around the main entrance, just give me a call back.

The man on the ground was clutching his arm and on lying on his side as a couple others pulled the aggressor off him. He didn’t seem like he was in critical condition, and others had stopped to help, so I made my way to look for Phil. I stood near the main entrance of the station and scanned the terminal.

My eye caught another group of people on the other side of the room from where the bum fight took place. One twenty-something was very angrily in another twenty-somethings face. And I must have been just outside earshot because I could’ve sworn they were arguing about one of the mens’ jeans. I stood alarmed and at attention, wondering what kind of place this was.

Phil called me back and asked me where I was in the station. I said I was standing next to what I thought was the main entrance. “Ehm … did you by any chance pass a couple old guys fighting?” “Yes! I’m like right near there.” “OK I know where you are, I’ll be right there.” Phil walked up to me with a grin on his face. He shrugged his shoulders slightly, raised his eyebrows and said, “Welcome to Manchester!”

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London, England: The Hidden Gems

I was set to leave London on Saturday and take the train to Manchester where I would meet Phil. On that Friday, my last day in London, Rebecca had the day off from work, so we went on a small cultural tour of the city.

My traveling philosophy is based around doing things that the majority of other travelers wouldn’t do. I don’t like group tours, sightseeing buses, or going to museums for the sake of going to museums. I like visiting quaint neighbourhoods (and their bakeries), neglected galleries and museums, or maybe just spending an afternoon eating lunch in a park.

I met Rebecca in a neighbourhood near the British Museum, and we went to a small used bookstore where Rebecca was searching for a Christmas present for her boyfriend. She told me it was arguably one of the best secondhand bookstores in the city. We found a beautiful print of The Jungle Book as well as one of Jane Eyre, a favorite of Nick’s. We browsed around the store for a while before walking towards the museum. I had no intention of spending any amount of time in the British Museum, but there was one thing I wanted to see. Fortunately, the museum is free, so I had the freedom to spend as much or as little time there as I wanted.

The Rosetta Stone. Just like the Code of Hammurabi, it was another one of those vestiges of my elementary schooling that always stuck in mind. The ancient key that unlocked a forgotten language. I had to see it.

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London, England: Neighbourhoods Of Class And Culture

While Nick and Rebecca were at work, I decided to do another tour of the city. After picking up a coffee at a great little Middle Eastern cafe down the street from Rebecca’s apartment I jumped on the tube and went to the Barbican.

The Barbican is an estate in the northern part of the city which encompasses about 40 acres and contains everything from schools to residences to a massive performing arts centre. After WWII that part of London was completed destroyed and much the population had been killed or driven away. The city chose an architectural firm to design and build a replacement. It’s a pretty eerie neighbourhood, in my opinion. London is such a mix of old and new, traditional and modern, that to see such uniform planning — especially in the style of the late 60s and early 70s — was interesting and surreal.

I walked to the Performing Arts Centre and took a look at a small exhibit featuring artwork rendered from images in the film Waltz With Bashir. I passed through the large concrete courtyard and tried to find my way back to the main street.

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London, England: An Afternoon in the Heath

The next few posts will be general highlights from my time in London … in no specific order, but I’ll try to keep it chronological.

Rebecca lives in the neighbourhood of West Hampstead, which borders one side of the massive Hampstead Heath. “The Heath” is 790 acres of parkland, one of the highest points in the city and home to the Kenwood House estate. We started by walking through West Hampstead towards another small neighbourhood nearby (can’t remember the name). That area is incredible, with narrow cobblestone streets winding through expensive property. We stopped at an antique shop and browsed for a little while before having some lunch. After lunch Rebecca stopped at a princess store (I’m not sure how to describe it … it’s a store targeted at 12-year old girls — or girls who think they’re still 12 years old — filled with pink fluffy things and glitter), where Rebecca bought presents for a couple young girls she teaches.

We walked through the Heath towards the Kenwood House where we stopped to check out a garden sale of herbs and plants, seed books and things like that. Just outside the Heath, near the Kenwood estate is a small pub that was our ultimate destination. It was the English pub poster-child: low doorframes leading to dimly lit rooms, and all of it built with ancient wood. We had a couple ciders while admiring the decor and sheltering ourselves from the cold and wind outside.

By the time we walked back to Rebecca’s place, it was getting dark and there was an incredible sunset over West London. I tried to take some pictures, but without a tripod and sure footing they didn’t come out very well.

London, England: I Solve The Hat Problem

Previously, our intrepid hero had disembarked after a long journey from Amsterdam and found himself without a single farthing, standing in the pre-dawn, sickly flourescent glow of the Eurolines terminal near Victoria Station …

I needed cash, to begin with, but strangely, I wasn’t hungry. A bakery stand had just opened and a line had already formed for coffee, but though it carried a range of pastries, I usually try to avoid bakeries in dirty bus terminals. A man stopped me and asked me about where I was from, apparently I had a very interesting look about me. The bald head really throws people off.

The foreign exchange booth finally opened it’s shutters and I exchanged my Euros for quid. I left the bus station and walked a block down the street to the Victoria train station. I wasn’t about to spend a day in London lugging my giant backpack around with me, so I needed to find baggage lockers. Unfortunately, by the time I finally found them at the train station, it wasn’t even open yet. I sat on a chair nearby and thumbed through my LP.

Victoria Station is situated west of the city center. In fact, a walk towards the city takes you by Buckingham Palace, Parliament and Westminster. I came up with a general outline of things I wanted to see that day and mapped out my approach.

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London, England: A Midnight Bus to Victoria Station

I prepared for the interview all morning, heading to the neighbourhood cafe De Balie, where free internet and great coffee abounds. The interview was in Katwijk (say Cat-vike), and by the time I took a train and bus out to the coastal town and got back, it was already late afternoon. I had bought a ticket on the overnight bus to London, via the ferry from Calais to Dover. I walked through the Albert Cuypmarket looking for something to take on the bus, but didn’t find any prepared foods that looked any good, except some fries which I ate on the walk back to the hostel.

Suddenly I passed a shop window and saw the familiar spread of rolls, pastries, cakes and breads. Bakery. I ducked in and bought an olliebollen, a Dutch donut widely considered to be the first version of the modern donut. They’re rounder and lack holes in the center, but they’re just as delicious.

I ended up taking the long way back, and by the time I got back to the familiar grounds of the Rijksmuseum, I spotted another olliebollen cart and had to try another one. Yup, still delicious, I was satisfied. In fact, the sugar high had made me a little sick. But I had just come out of a great interview so I felt the need to treat myself to the point of trauma.

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Amsterdam, The Netherlands: This Must Be What They Call Travel Sick

I only had until about 9AM before I was supposed to be on a train to Clervaux. It was home to one of Western Europe’s largest and most famous photography collections, amassed by Edward Steichen. I figured I could spend a couple hours there before heading off to Amsterdam. It would involve careful choreography on my part, since I needed to be at the train station in Luxembourg by a certain time, out of the museum by a certain time, and in Amsterdam with enough time to get a good night’s sleep. Careful choreography, you know that’s what I’m all about.

I woke up especially early to get some time walking around town before I had to leave. I started at the hostel, which was buried in the valley. I walked through the small neighbourhood of Pfaffenthal and then up the side of the cliff to the old town. I took a wide loop around town, stopping every now and then to take pictures.

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