Sunday, April 20, 2008

Three Weeks in London

It's been nearly three weeks since I landed in the UK. I've been taking notes since I arrived of all sorts of differences I've noticed, big or small. There are lots of huge differences, but it's all the small ones that continue to amuse me, and remind me that despite speaking the same language (well, sort of,) I really am in a foreign country.

I think the biggest single difference is in size. While London may be huge, everything here is small. Roads are unbelievable narrow, but people drive smaller cars too. Inside buildings, things are smaller too. Narrow hallways, smaller beds (hardly anyone has a queen size bed) and smaller bedrooms, smaller bathrooms, with everything crammed in, and hardly an inch between one's knees and the wall when sitting on the toilet. People over here are smaller too, or at least thinner, I've noticed very few overweight people. I was on the underground a few days ago, and saw a somewhat overweight couple trying to get onto the train, before deciding there wasn't room. One of them had a camera around their neck, and when they started talking to each other, just outside the open doors, I realized they were American tourists.

Traffic moves faster too. Speed limits are higher, and people don't give as much room as they do in Vancouver. The size of the gaps people will squeeze their cars into, when parking or merging, are just minuscule. The shoulders on roads are smaller too, and the lanes seem narrower. Driving down the country roads, passing people going the other direction, there's often only inches between the two cars, and they're both travelling at 60 mph! It's terrifying as a pedestrian, because cars will come out of nowhere, and in the wrong lane than I'm used to. When I first got here, I felt like (and rightly so, I think) I was playing Russian roulette just trying to cross the street. I've got it figured out now though, and I've only been nearly hit once.

The key word, other than "small", I think is "margins." The margins are smaller. There isn't as much room between anything, be it passing cars, the people on the tube, or the road and the sidewalk. (By the way, they call sidewalks "pavements" here, which makes more sense out of the phrase "pounding the pavement.")

The buildings here are predominantly made of brick. I've never seen so many bricks in one place anywhere, it's just unbelievable. Houses, offices, you name it, bricks. I don't know where it all comes from. It does mean London is more of a sprawl than Vancouver though. Being bounded by the Georgia Straight, the Burrard Inlet, the Coast Mountains, the Fraser River, the American border, and especially downtown being on a peninsula, Vancouver has been constrained, and has grown upwards much more than London seems to have. While there are certainly exceptions, most of the buildings in London are quite short. I suspect a lot of that also has to do with the age of the buildings, and the building technologies available at the time they were built, but London also doesn't seem to have any geographical constraints on it's growth like Vancouver does.

London also has a lot more green space than I was expecting. The neighbourhood I live in, Chiswick, has parks everywhere. Every time I leave the house for more than 30 minutes, I seem to discover a new park somewhere. Even where there aren't parks, the streets in my neighbourhood are lined with trees. It reminds me a lot of the area I lived in last in Vancouver, actually.

There's also a lot of shopping nearby. Chiswick High Street has loads of shops on it, and that's only a 15 minute walk away. A 15 minute bus ride in the opposite direction takes me out to Ealing, with lots of shops there, and another 10 minutes or so to Ealing Broadway, which again has loads of shops. So far it seems that anything I'm likely to need is no more than 30 minutes away. Not that I'm at all interested in it myself, but there's a lot of brick & mortar gambling places around! Ladbrokes, Totesport, Bet Fred, etc. There seems to be at least one on nearly every street of shops.

Finding my way around has been a bit of a challenge. London has no logic whatsoever to it's layout. It's as if someone took a big bucket of roads, shook it up, and dumped it on the ground and said "There, that's London." It's a complete mess! It's completely organic, no pre-planned grid layout, except in some very small localized chunks. I'm quite surprised my sense of direction is holding up as well as it has been, given the lack of regular street layout for reference. That said, I haven't yet gotten properly lost. With my trusty A-Z in my pocket, I've been able to find my way everywhere I've wanted to get to, despite the lack of street signs. Street names aren't posted on poles on the corner of roads, like I'm used to. They're usually posted up high on one of the buildings on the corner, or occasionally down low on the side of a stone fence, but they're frequently not posted anywhere, which makes figuring out exactly where I am quite difficult at times. Thankfully, most bus stops and tube stations have street maps posted outside them, and those can be invaluable direction finding aids.

There are so many vehicles here I've never seen in Canada, and despite watching Top Gear, haven't even heard of. I've seen three TVR's so far, one of them actually rumbling down the road. Boy was it loud, but it sure sounded like power! The police vehicles are so different too. Where I'm used to seeing police driving powerful V8's, most of the police cars I've seen here are little tiny European vehicles of one sort or another, though I have seen a few BMW police cars. All the emergency vehicles here have blue and white lights. There's two types of taxis here too. Minicabs, and black cabs. I've been told you can't just flag down a minicab, you have to call the company's number and arrange to be picked up. If you want to flag one down, you have to flag down a black cab, which are much more expensive. They're all Rolls Royce's!

One thing that really shocked me to see at first was people drinking alcohol in public. That's perfectly legal here (though there are areas where it's not allowed.) I saw some guy drinking a Fosters on the tube one evening, and I've seen huge crowds of people standing on the sidewalks outside pubs with pints of beer in their hands. I'm not talking about a fenced of patio either, like back home, but just plain out on the sidewalk. You can also buy liquor pretty much anywhere, be it a supermarket, or just your local corner store.

Finding a toilet here is harder though. In Vancouver, it was a pretty safe bet that I could walk into any old Starbucks and use the can there. Not so here. Most of the coffee shops I've been into don't have a toilet for customers. There are public toilets scattered around, thankfully, and all the pubs I've been in have toilets, but they frown on you using them unless you're a paying customer.

Everything about the electrical system here is weird. About the only thing the same is that it's AC. It's 240 Volts, instead of 110. It's 50 Hz instead of 60. The ground pin is on the top of the outlet, not the bottom. Light switches operate upside-down as well, and they don't stick out like a toggle switch like ours, they're more of a rocker switch. Everything has a ground pin on it too, even it's a plastic pin. The outlets are set up in such as way as to have the other two holes blocked until the ground pin has been put in, so the ground pin is a bit longer, and is required, to open the doors on the other two pins. Also, most outlets have a switch on them, right next to the outlet. I suspect this might have something to do with the amount of spark arcing you get at 240v, so you have the outlet turned off when you plug anything in to avoid that. Also, most household (as opposed to business) washrooms I've been in have a pull-string lightswitch hanging from the ceiling, instead of a switch on the wall.

Coffee shops and such all have two prices for most things: Take away vs eat in. Eat in prices are more expensive, because they include VAT, whereas to take food out, you don't pay VAT on some things. Most coffee shops also don't have "regular" coffee, the stuff brewed in a slow drip machine. Americano's are the closest thing in most places.

Londoner's two biggest things to complain about are the weather, and the public transit system. Sound familiar, Vancouverites? The weather here has been interesting. It's not that much different than Vancouver, so far, temperature wise at least. The rain here comes as more of a fine mist than a downpour, so it's quite humid, but there's less overall precipitation. The temperature in the underground has been much warmer usually than at street level, so it's hard to dress appropriately for the day.

There are so many languages and accents here, it's incredible. Vancouver may have a lot of that, but London's got it in spades. I was sitting at the kitchen table with two of my flatmates, and the boyfriend of one of them this evening. There were four accents at the table: Canadian, Portuguese, Northern England, and Midlands. I can't figure out where people are from yet, but I've certainly been noticing the differences in accents between Brits from different parts of the country. There's also a lot more people here with blue eyes, especially lots of blue eyed guys. Just one more small difference that keeps surprising me.

Well, that's about it about London and it's people. I'm doing well, now that I have somewhere of my own to live. I've got some dishes, some pots and pans, a bed, towels, a couch... it's starting to look and feel like a home.

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