Underground subway networks: a hidden world

One thing I find interesting about big cities is that they seem to reach a point where they no longer expand outwards. In these instances, the city usually looks upwards, creating iconic highrises like those you see in New York City. But, as with the expansion of public transport, intra-city travel for both commuters and travelers see themselves more and more going underground to get from point A to B.

When cities move underground, I find that is when they fascinate me the most. Underground serves not just as a link to another district, but also as a doorway to a unique world quite separate from the one on the surface.

They have a certain mystery to them; the surface is open and visible. The underground is visibly limited and more similar to a maze. Maps of these tunnels and all they contain are very rare to find and usually one is only guided by self-gained knowledge of the network. Not to mention the hidden catacombs not accessible to the public, as can be found hundreds of feet below the surface of Central London or New York City.

Not only that, but there are certain people that seem to permanently inhabit the tunnels that you rarely see anywhere else. The underground is a busker’s haven, with solo cello performances, impromptu mariachi bands, and more acts can be found going from train to train or occupying the subterranean passageways. You are never far away from some sort of stand that sells coffee and the latest newspaper or some interesting (and at times, creepy) character that can only be identified as one of the underground. That, combined with the scheduled announcements, advertising posters, and ticket clerks exemplifies a seemingly organic communications system and culture that thrives only beneath the streets of the city.

It’s quite amazing how after going through this subterranean world that it seems like you just magically appear in a whole different part of the city. That disconnect between the tunnels and the surface truly makes it seem like a separate dimension. And it’s one we as humans have created. This is a true testament to human achievement and a fascinating modern wonder we made on our own.

There is lots to see above the surface when exploring a city. But, to get the full package, time in the underground tunnels are a must and it catches your eye in a way that cannot be described or experienced anywhere else.

An Outsider Looking In: Coming Home

I’m now resettled in Canada after being immersed in another country for over six months. I had learned the slang, social/political issues, and even had been able to discern the difference between northern and southern English accents.

Now that I’m back, however, I feel foreign in my own country. I don’t entirely fit in anymore. The UK has definitely rubbed off on me and it shows to old friends and colleagues that I have reunited with at home.

REAL MOUNTAINS. I MISSED REAL ROCKY MOUNTAINS.
REAL MOUNTAINS. I MISSED REAL ROCKY MOUNTAINS.

I’ve been out of the country longer than most Canadians are at one time and it’s really noticeable. Things from signage to just basic accents are no longer invisible to me. For example, our attitudes are in many ways more easygoing and considerate in Canada, and that was shown well to me when trying to navigate an anonymous London and avoid certain death by aggressive drivers in Manchester.

This idea of tipping we’ve known all of our lives this side of the Atlantic now seems like a weird phenomenon to me.

Even the way we say hi to each other whether it is in a personal or service industry setting is like a giant billboard sign in my face telling me it’s different.

It’s amazing realizing that we assume so much when our world is smaller, and it takes seeing how another group lives to bring to light what is considered the underwater half of the cultural iceberg.

While things seem strange in my own country, I also have a greater appreciation for things that I took advantage of before in Canada. I’m not a huge sports fan, but I did yearn for the occasional hockey game on TV while I was away (I still do not

Jaffa Cakes goes real good with a double-double. #fusionfood
Jaffa Cakes goes real good with a double-double. #fusionfood

understand the over-the-top European obsession with football). Traditional comfort food was difficult to find, and I ended up travelling halfway across England just to find some sort of poutine. Most of all, despite being a Vancouver-born city boy who felt lost in the much more open landscape of Kamloops, I ended up missing the vast, much-untouched beauty of rural British Columbia.

I feel like there are two sides to me now, a Canadian and British side. I’ve brought part of the UK back with me, but I also left some Canada behind. Tea and biscuits shall never be separated from me again, but I will always enjoy some nice All-Dressed chips with some genuine Canada Dry Ginger Ale. And, for the record, ‘Mum’ sounds so much sweeter than Mom. Lord forbid if I lose any of what I’ve learned about British banter and the sheer greatness of the likes of Jimmy Carr and Stephen Fry.

And, if anyone can send me a lifetime supply of Jaffa Cakes, you will make me a very happy person.

I’m changed forever and can’t go back to the way I was. But I would never want to, as Canada and Britain are equally great and I will always love them. Both places together make my heart complete, and the people I’ve met and experiences I’ve had makes the UK my second home just as importantly as Canada has provided the basis of who I am.

I loved both the good and the bad of this trip, and I cannot wait to hit the road again, wherever that may be.

The language barrier: a gate, not a wall

When I first arrived in Europe, my biggest concern was not being able to communicate with people. Before I left Britain for a few weeks in January, I had never been in an area where English was not the predominant language of all signage and conversation. In fact, it was one of the reasons I chose England over a non-English speaking country; I was super-anxious about not being able to communicate and being left on my own. So, when I took off for Europe, with phrasebook in hand and a few years of elementary school French under my belt, there were a lot of nerves and crazy dialogue going on in my head.

I first landed in Sweden, with no idea how widely spoken English was. The airport was comfortable with bilingual signage, but that quickly changed as I stepped outside and took the bus into Göteborg. Never in my life had I been immersed in another language with no written English to guide me through stores, streets, or basic instructions.

I soon learned, however, that the unfamiliar text was all I had to worry about in Sweden. I was approached several times by people in Göteborg’s street who greeted me in Swedish. As they realized that I couldn’t speak Swedish, they immediately switched into more than just passable English.

This was also the case in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Brussels, and other Western European cities that I visited.

On a point about how Brussels is the second most cosmopolitan city in the world (according to my tour guide), the guide, from the French part of Belgium, said “English is all I speak in Brussels.” The city has so many non-natives in it that apparently the official Dutch and French languages are downplayed by broad use of English.

Of course, there are limits to this. This generally applies to the younger generation, around 30 years or younger, who often were extensively taught English in public school and exposed to English media and advertisements in the major cities (kind of like how English Canadians are exposed to and can understand written French through exposure on bilingual packaging and government documents). As an English-speaking foreigner, you can feel more resistance in some countries, such as when I went to France. However, I didn’t have much trouble in Paris speaking to shop owners, waiters, and other service workers, probably for the same cosmopolitan reasons brought up by my Belgian tour guide.

Despite language being seen as an obstacle, I found being on my own in a sea of unfamiliar speech quite an eye-opening experience. We as humans talk a lot, but if you can’t understand the conversations you eavesdrop on, the world becomes quiet even though communication is all around you. Without being distracted by conversation, you observe more: the way people walk, body language, expression of tone, and other non-verbal queues that we either take for granted or just refuse to pick up on. Context becomes much more important in your interactions.

For those still nervous about travelling to non-English countries, take solace in the fact that I survived! Not only that, but I had fun too! Most people are out there to help you, and there are tips and tools to assist you too (which I will address in a later post).

Language is a barrier for many who want to travel, myself included when I first wanted to travel. But many places (especially the major cities frequented by tourists) are more accommodating than you’d think. And, as long as you make an effort whether it be working with their English or them working with your basic Romanian, you will get out of those circumstances just fine, and with a more open view of the world.

Mistakes will happen (I made a ton), but hey, the successes and failures are all a part of the journey.

Go to a country that you don’t know the language of. Do it for the experience. You’ll come out more knowledgeable and confident as a person. I know it is something I have thought about a lot since and will continue to for a long time.

Vancouver and Manchester: Cities with similar paths

I was born in Vancouver. I had to leave the city at the age of 10 because my father was transferred to what was at the time British Columbia’s newest university in Kamloops, the crossroads of the province in the Interior.

I love Vancouver, and I take every chance I get to go back to the city. Spending my teenage years in much smaller Kamloops has only made me appreciate Canada’s largest city in the West more. I hope to one day move back and be a Vancouverite once again.

What I find interesting is that after four months I also feel at home in Manchester in a way that only Vancouver had struck me before.

I believe it’s because Vancouver and Manchester actually have many similarities with each other.

First of all, the population of the two cities’ metropolitan area are quite similar. Greater Vancouver sits at 2.4 million, whereas Greater Manchester is at around 2.7 million people.

On top of that, both cities are ‘the underdog’ of an even larger, more popular city. Manchester and the North often sit in the shadow of London, being referred to by politicians as “the northern powerhouse” when these same politicians from the South know alarmingly little about the North.

Vancouver and much of the West understand this frustration as well. Toronto casts just as large of a shadow on Vancouver and Eastern politicians would probably forget that the West even existed if oil and natural resources somehow lost their appeal.

If you’re into sports, Manchester and Vancouver arguably host better teams than what can be found in their larger rivals. For Manchester, all I need to do is mouth the words Manchester United and I can get an overall positive global response. The Vancouver Canucks, while maybe not as universally loved in the hockey world, certainly is at least a couple steps up from the Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL.

I share more love for the quirky districts of the two cities than I do for most of London and Toronto. Every visit to Vancouver I make, I simply cannot resist a walk through the narrow shop-lined streets and passing by the signature clock of Gastown or exploring the endless stalls of Granville Island Market and relaxing with a cup of coffee by the harbour. In that same fashion, the Northern Quarter’s artsy feel in Manchester along with the vibrant stretch of the Gay Village articulate a creative scene in the heart of what was in the past the smoky industrial capital of Northern England.

Although it lacks mountains and even more so beaches, I like to think Manchester could be a long-lost cousin of Vancouver. They are alike in so many ways, and I would much rather live my life in both these cities than end up in London or Toronto, which I think both Mancunians and Vancouverites would agree are the centres of the universe in their respective countries.

If Vancouver is my first home, Manchester has certainly become my close second home.

That time I got caught in a flood zone… Part 2

If you haven’t read my previous blog post, I was caught in Storm Desmond in the Lake District during December. I was stuck in my hostel which was ten miles from Keswick, the closest town, for most of the weekend and spent time figuring out how I was supposed to get back to Manchester. I was hoping for buses to be running, and planned out that I would bus to Keswick, transfer onto another route to Penrith, make a third transfer to Carlisle, and take a coach back to home to Manchester.

I had woken up that day feeling pretty prepared for my journey ahead; got a good breakfast, mapped out my route, and filled myself with determination to make it home.

The first wrench in my plan happened before I even left the hostel. I had asked the manager to phone the bus services to see if the route was running as scheduled from the hostel to Keswick. After I had my breakfast, he told me that the buses were still shut down from the storm. I had half-expected this since the road was quite rural, but I did think that the damage would have been cleared up by then (I poorly underestimated the damage and disruption of the storm). Without complaint, I collected my bag, bundled up, and started walking towards Keswick.

The journey to town wasn’t bad at all, albeit long. As I walked, I was able to take in all the sights and witness the extent of the damage caused by the weekend’s storm.

Here are just some of the sights I saw on my trek towards Keswick:

This wall was broken down, less than a mile from the hostel
This wall was broken down, less than a mile from the hostel.
These pieces of stone collapsed right by a nice looking hotel. The hotel was flooded as well and had dehumidifiers all around it.
These pieces of stone collapsed right by a nice looking hotel. The hotel was flooded as well and had dehumidifiers all around it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a couple of hours, to my relief, I had reached Keswick with my feet mostly dry. I wasn’t sure where anything was as I had only stopped just briefly at the bus interchange before the storm, so I got lunch at a local sandwich shop and asked the server if he knew where the main interchange was.

“It’s all underwater, mate. You’ll have to try up the street but I’m not sure if the buses are running through,” he said to me.

Shit, I thought. I was not going to be stuck in Keswick after a ten mile walk. I was fully determined to get home. I managed to pick up wi-fi nearby and looked up the diversions in the bus service. Supposedly, there was a stop running just off of the main road going towards Penrith about two miles away.

When I found the bus stop in question, it was on a smaller street off of the main roundabout. However, when I got there, I had a feeling in my gut that there was no way this could be the right stop. If it was the right stop, I would have to wait about an hour and a half for the next bus. I had no other choice, so I waited.

It was while I was waiting at this small bus stop in an unknown town that my luck suddenly changed.

After about 25 minutes, a black minivan pulled up and the driver, a woman with a Scottish accent, asked if I was sure that a bus was coming this way.

“The website says so, but I honestly don’t know if it is correct,” I said. She checked her phone and had a discussion with her husband and son, who were in the back of the van, about the route of the bus.

I couldn’t believe what she told me next.

“The bus runs through a village called Threlkeld a few miles east of here. If you’re okay with me dropping off my husband and son in town first, I can give you a ride to Threkeld.”

Of course, I accepted. I was in shock that she offered to go out of her way to take me to the nearest guaranteed stop on the route. I guess after disasters like Storm Desmond, which damaged a lot of homes and shops in Keswick, the communities really come together. I still do not know if I ever would have caught a bus at the stop, and I am forever grateful for the woman’s kindness to a total stranger.

As she drove through town to drop off her husband and son, I was able to see just how devastated Keswick was. Entire grass patches in parks and playgrounds were washed away and the roads were still thick with mud in many sections. Debris was everywhere, and the family told me of more of the damage that I couldn’t see. Keswick and its people are used to flooding, but they haven’t seen it quite like that in decades.

A house on one of the main streets of Keswick. Plenty of houses had rugs and furnitures thrown out like this.
A house on one of the main streets of Keswick. Plenty of houses had rugs and furnitures thrown out like this.

Once in Threlkeld, I was dropped off at a pub just a few metres away from the bus stop going towards Penrith. I was so profusely thankful for what she did for me that day, and I believe it made the difference between me getting home that day and being stuck in the Lake District for another night. I still wonder if it was karma working in my favour, as earlier in my trip I had tried my best to help a Lithuanian man who was trying to get somewhere in the Lake District for a job, had all his possessions stolen, and had no idea where his coach was. I didn’t have a lot of time and wished I was able to help out more, but I was able to get him a phone number for the coach and gave him a few pounds so that he could make some phone calls.

I was in Threlkeld for about 45 minutes. I sipped on some tea in the pub while I waited for the bus and reflected back on everything I had already experienced that day. So many factors came into play that I didn’t expect. By staying flexible and making my best effort to get towards my goal of making it home, it was working out in a way I could have never seen coming. My bus came, and I was on my way to Penrith so that I could bus to Carlisle and get the coach to Manchester.

Or, that’s at least how I thought it was going to go. I happened to look up from my phone for a second and noticed a TransPennine Express train run past the motorway on an overpass. Realizing what this meant, I checked the National Rail website and was greeted with the message that rail services have been restored from Carlisle to Manchester! The next train to go to Manchester from Penrith was in half an hour, and I was close to going by the rail station.

Once off the bus, I ran into the station and noticed a train stopped at the other platform accepting passengers going north to Carlisle. The website was right! I had to only wait 15 minutes before I was greeted by a mostly empty train with plenty of room to sit.

As the train pulled out of the station going south, I relaxed in my chair. After over ten miles of walking, wandering around an unknown town, and the kindness of strangers – an incredible set of circumstances – I was heading home.

A few hours later, I was home. I threw my bag off of me, laid on the floor, and let out the biggest sigh of relief. I enjoyed the first shower I had in three days and the feeling of fresh, dry clothes.

The most important thing I learned from this adventure was that things don’t always go the way you plan it – and that’s okay! Accepting that events have changed and just making the best of the situation is a crucial skill to have in not just traveling, but everyday life. I accepted everything as part of the adventure, and despite all the inclement weather and delays, I thoroughly enjoyed my experience in the Lake District. I learned great lessons, know more about myself as a person, and got a cool story out of it all!

When the road looks tough, keep your head held high. Facing your challenges leave you a stronger person on the other side.

That time I got caught in a flood zone… Part 1

Last week, I had decided to take a change of pace and head out of Manchester for a quiet weekend in the country. For that weekend, I booked train tickets to the Lake District. It was to be a weekend of adventure, hiking, and a bit of quiet reflection while taking time to read books.

I got all of those things, but not in the way I expected.

As I arrived on Friday in the northern Lake District town of Keswick, the winds started to pick up speed. It would only continue to get worse as I made my way to the hostel I was booked at 10 miles away from Keswick. When I was off on a late afternoon stroll, I remember the winds being strong enough to almost swipe me up off my feet.

When I got back to the hostel, I decided to check the local weather for the weekend. That’s when I started to realize I might not be in the best place as over 150 mm of rain and winds of up to 100 mph were planned for Saturday, with the highest level of flood warnings issued for the region.

This was at night, so there was no turning back for me; at least not that day. I decided to just go with it and spent the night in the lounge sipping a Bailey’s hot chocolate and reading a fantastic book my cousin gave me. I mean, what else could I do? In these situations, you have to make the best of the given situation and choose to enjoy yourself in spite of the circumstances.

When I woke up early Saturday morning for breakfast the storm, which became known as Storm Desmond, was in full swing. The hostel’s doors were being violently thrown open from the force of the winds and the downpour looked like a wall of water from my view by the fireplace in the lounge. I had planned to visit Keswick again that day and possibly make my way south to Windermere.

The farthest I got out of the hostel was the bridge at the end of the driveway. And I had this view to greet me:

It was best that the rain soaked me out after less than five minutes, because Keswick was probably underwater by this point anyways.

With a month’s worth of rain in the wettest part of Britain falling in a single day, that left me with very few options on what to do with my day. Much like the night before, I spent time reading and quietly reflecting (an almost constant occurrence in my life), and listening to a ton of music. I had also talked to several guests and staff, and found out that three of them had been to my hometown of Kamloops, BC, two of them having taken a tour on the Rocky Mountaineer.

In all, I considered Saturday a write-off, and looked forward to a more exciting Sunday.

That excitement started first thing in the morning when everyone found out that the storm had knocked out running water to the hostel and surrounding areas. On the bright side, the storm had passed and there was actual blue sky that morning. The hostel had been quite lucky with the storm and didn’t have any flooding, just the issue with the pumps and mushy patches of grasses. I was naive and thought the storm wasn’t as bad as it had been thought (until I saw photos issued by BBC later that day) and checked to see when the next buses would be coming by the hostel. The storm had blocked off the roads and meant that buses couldn’t get through. I wouldn’t see a bus come to the hostel for the rest of the trip.

Fortunately, I was able to explore outside of the hostel on Sunday and checked out the two closest villages. I made the mistake of trying to navigate two miles of a public dirt footpath to one of the villages wearing only my runners and got my feet absolutely soaked despite my best efforts to jump and climb over puddles.

Wanting to try something different, I went to the local pub in Rosthwaite for dinner, and was greeted with the nice surprise of a warm fire and plenty of dogs (there was a resident dog and the pub is dog-friendly, much to my delight!). As I read my book and had tea, BBC was broadcasting the damage caused by storm. Everything was much worse than I had imagined; entire sections of towns were under several feet of water, and the floods had also made train lines from Scotland and the Northwest completely inaccessible.

It was then that I realised that transport was effectively crippled throughout the entire region, and that if I wanted to get home the next day, it would have to be done quite creatively.

Before I went to bed that night, I was able to find a route back to Manchester. From the hostel, I would bus north into Keswick, change for a bus to Penrith, and take a final bus to Carlisle before boarding a coach to Manchester. It was not guaranteed to work as the route from the hostel to Keswick was closed off that night and possibly the next day, but I figured that trying to make some ground would be better than waiting around.

I ordered my breakfast for early in the morning at the hostel and rested up for my next stage of misadventure in the Lake District.

 

Social Media, or Why You Don’t Have to be Alone Anymore

Alone on the streets of London. Although, am I ever really alone?
Alone on the streets of London. Although, am I ever really alone?

In a previous blog post, I had mentioned that while I am over 7000 kilometres away from home and have been gone for almost three months, I do not feel homesick. That hasn’t changed.

I have always been more of a lone-wolf type; I do not keep large circles of friends and am comfortable going to places and events completely by myself. I learned this a few years ago when I spent a week travelling on the east coast of Canada shortly after I graduated high school.

That being said, I am by no means a loner. I enjoy people’s company and cherish each and every friendship I make, no matter how long or short I have known them.

I strongly believe that I don’t feel homesick because of the role that social media plays in my life. My closest friends are all fairly active on Facebook and I know that a quick chat is only a few keystrokes or screen taps away.

Posting about travel on social media is a two-way street. Yes, it’s fun to show everyone where you are and what you’re doing (especially when you’ve got a great photo of yourself with Big Ben in the background!), but it also allows you to keep up to date with what’s happening back home, which is a blessing when you are gone for long periods of time.

She may be one of my closest friends and I tell her everything, but it doesn't always have to be serious with friends!
She may be one of my closest friends and I tell her everything, but it doesn’t always have to be serious with friends!

Take for example my sister Sierra (she’s not my sister by blood, but one of my closest friends). I talk to her almost on a daily basis through Facebook. Just because we have been apart does not mean that our friendship is worth any less than it was when I last saw her in person. We still share laughs and heart-to-heart conversations and I am sure that when we see each other again it will be like I never left. The same goes for two more of my friends.

What I am saying is that if you are choosing to study abroad or spend a long period of time away from home, you are not leaving behind friendships. You are making new friends and gaining new experiences and with the power of the internet, you can continue friendships back home as well.

Don’t forget: once you are home, you can also continue those new friendships you made abroad as well.

Even though I am from the internet-connected generation and know the power of social media through my communications and journalism studies, studying abroad and leaving home has given me an entirely new appreciation and awe for how powerful internet platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and of course WordPress, keep you in touch with the people you care about the most. I know my parents are just as thankful.

There hasn’t been a better time to explore our blue dot.