Tag Archives: travel

Peddling and Paddling

At last, by luck, I spotted the Oxfam building through a gap in a hedge.  I scrambled through using a dirt path worn by thousands of feet before me whose owners were seeking a short cut, in the process adding dust to sweat and possibly arriving with a twig in my hair.

I was late—only by five minutes or so, but I hate arriving late.  Lynn had arranged the meeting, and she was there ready to usher me through the security gates.  There was no time to take a look at myself in the bathroom.  I did what one does when one arrives late, flustered, and not sure if there is a swipe of dust across one’s face—I pulled myself up straight, smiled, and walked confidently through the gates.

Mark (not his real name) was kind of a big kahuna at Oxfam GB.  When I had mentioned his title to a coworker, she had asked slyly, “So is this a partnering meeting or a job interview?”

Without leave to remain in the UK, working for OGB is out of the question, and that’s kind of a relief because I could focus on why I was really there—to “pitch” my organization.  That sounds crass but it’s what it is.

The meeting was to last a half hour.  That sent me a signal that I wasn’t to waste Mark’s time.  We settled onto a settee in the staff lounge and I launched into my spiel.  I could tell he was really listening, which I appreciated and which helped me to slow down and be real.  After I finished, he talked about how he had recently returned to Britain after many years working in disaster zones.  He totally “got” the need for rehabilitation—I didn’t need to explain psychological trauma to him.  He talked about Oxfam’s priorities and thought out loud about how we might find ways to work together.  He was very kind, considering that my organization is so small.  Our meeting went a bit longer than planned.  If I did have a smudge of sweaty dust on my face or a twig in my hair, he pretended not to notice and didn’t hold it against me.

Afterwards, I checked in with Lynn and thanked her for making the connection, then walked back to the bus stop to take the #3 along the Iffley Road for a late lunch with a former coworker.

I hadn’t seen Jane in 10 years, and it was great to catch up.  She had been a new graduate—21 years old—when I’d first met her and she still had a beautiful English rose complexion.  She had left Oxfam to become a primary school teacher, and she and her man were going to do a charity bike ride the next weekend. She hadn’t been on a bike in years and was a bit concerned about the borrowed set of wheels she would ride.

“That reminds me of the time I did a charity kayak trip,” I said as I munched on my cruelty-free vegan sandwich grilled with organic olive oil hand pressed by refugees. This was east Oxford, after all.

“I had never kayaked before.  I borrowed a friend of a friend’s kayak, which turned out to be heavy as a bathtub.  We were supposed to paddle 44 miles along the Mississippi, through the locks in downtown Minneapolis, camping overnight at an old fort—Fort Snelling—and finishing in St. Paul.  We were kayaking on the river with barges and paddleboats and houseboats!  How hard could it be?”

Jane’s face fell as I spoke.

“Maybe I should go on a test ride before the big one,” she said thoughtfully.

“Yes, probably.  I made it to the half-way point and dropped out.  The only kayaks behind me were the emergency medical technicians.  I finished 427th out of 427 and I could barely pick up a pencil for days because my shoulders were so sore.”

We reminisced for a couple hours, then Jane hopped on her borrowed bike—which appeared to be approximately one hundred years old—and peddled away.  I walked back to the guest house to put in some work hours, and left early the next morning.

A Fish Tale

I joined Lynn and Possum and their friend Andrew for a long dinner at the Italian restaurant.  Andrew was a former Oxfamer, now a finance consultant.  He was preparing to walk along the south coast of England to raise money for Oxfam, and we ribbed him about the impending stormy weather.

He laughed back at us, Ha, ha, I’m going to Italy for a week after the walk.”

When you work for an international organization, you meet such interesting people.  People who love to travel, people with good hearts, people with good stories.

The organization I work for supports survivors of torture and war trauma to rebuild their lives through counseling, physical therapy, and social work services.

You might think torture is a rare occurrence, but it’s not.  Governments all over the world employ it to scare their populations into submission.  My own government has tortured people it suspects of being terrorists.  My organization estimates that about 1.3 million of the refugees in the US were tortured in their home country.  And there are likely tens of millions more in other countries.

One way for us to reach more people is to work with other organizations, and that’s why I had come to Oxford—to meet with some people about possibly partnering with Oxfam.  Oxfam is an international organization that started in Oxford, and the largest branch, Oxford Great Britain, is there.  OGB dwarfs my organization.  It had income of $565 million last year, compared our income of about $15 million.  Was there some way we could go in with OGB on funding applications, doing a small part of a big project?  It could make their proposals more competitive to add our specialized services, and we could reach more survivors.

That’s the theory, anyway.  It takes a long time to bring these partnerships to fruition, if they ever do.

I had meetings the next day in three different locations.  When I asked the driver of the #8 bus to Headington where I should get off, he gave me a rude and incorrect answer.  I ended up walking about eight blocks in the warm rain.

I still arrived early, so I did reconnaissance for how I would catch my next bus, and then looked at ads in an estate agent’s window.

This one is pure Oxford:

Yes, the house comes with a giant fish sculpture.  What’s so excellent and British is that there is no reference to it in the ad.   Entrance hall?  Check.  Three bedrooms, check.  Living room, yes.  Garden?  Yes.  Giant fish? Huh, what fish? Pay no attention to that fish plunging through the roof.

I found the coffee shop and had a lovely talk with a woman who worked for OGB for 17 years and is now a fundraising consultant.  Her two young children played quietly while we talked NGO-speak.

“Which sector are you under?” she asked. “Health, GBV, protection?”

“Usually health but with PRM we’ve been protection and also with this DFiD NOFO we’re responding to, and we’re thinking GBV for Iraq with OFDA.”

“That makes perfect sense,” she nodded.

It was nice to talk to someone who spoke the same code as I do.

I next boarded the #10 bus, which wound along Windmill Road, which turned into The Slade, then Holloway Road, then Between Towns Road.  I alighted at The Original Swan pub, from where I would walk to OGB.  I had walked this route every day when I lived here, but today—when I was running a little late—I got lost.

OGB is in a business park where all the buildings look alike and are arranged in a circle so you can go around and not realize you’ve gone around.

It’s a nice office park, as such places go.  There are fountains and trees.  But there are no signs or directories, or I missed them.  I was so sure I would remember the route, but I didn’t.  After my disastrous meeting in London I had invested in some big-girl professional work clothes and now they were damp with sweat as I huffed along.  I tried to ask directions from three passersby and they looked at me like I was insane and scurried off.

Cabbing It to the Cabaret

Lynn had booked three rooms at a hotel near the Barbican, and after carrying a backpack around all day I was happy to check in and dump it.  The room was spacious and the décor reflected the area.  This was the bathroom floor:

This was the art above the bed:

Some people might be disconcerted to sleep beneath meat-hook themed art, but I took comfort in knowing I was not the only weirdo who meditated on meat hooks.

In keeping with modern design principles, I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the bedside lights.  I called the front desk and—I could tell from her voice she had done this many times before—the front desk person walked me through how to grope my way around until I found the tiny, arty button that operated the bedside lights.  The room had a mini kitchen so you could cook for yourself and save money.  That wasn’t going to happen tonight.

Lynn and Richard and Possum and I met in the lobby and walked over to Charterhouse Square to have a pre-dinner drink at the Fox and Anchor, a pub and boutique hotel.  It was built in 1898 which makes it Victorian, but it looks very Gilded Age or Art Deco to me.  These photos don’t do justice to the detail.

We sat outside, soaking up the sun and some drinks, then hailed a black cab to a Thai restaurant.  There are cheaper ways to get around London, like mini cabs and public transport.  Maybe I’m sentimental, but I prefer black cabs, especially when someone else is paying for them.

Here’s what the black cab driver wannabe website says about becoming a black cab driver:

“The London taxi drivers are almost as famous as the black cabs in which they drive, this is mainly due to their in-depth knowledge of London and ability in taking their occupants to their desired destination amid the congestion and the chaos that you often find when travelling through London’s streets.

“Easy you might think with the world of sat navs? Think again. Hail down a black cab in London and you can be assured that the driver will know the shortest and quickest route to your destination without the aid of a satnav. It doesn’t matter if you give them a street name, a famous landmark, a hotel name or famous point of interest, they will know exactly where it is and they will get you to it in the shortest route possible.

“London taxi drivers go through stringent training to obtain their licence, they need to pass ‘The Knowledge’, a test which is amongst the hardest to pass in the world, it has been described as like having an atlas of London implanted into your brain.”

London has 60,000 streets within a six-mile radius, many are one way.

A friend of Sam’s and acquaintance of mine was so smitten with black cabs that when he returned to Australia after living in London for 10 years, he bought an old black cab and had it shipped home with him.  I think his plan was to run a cab service, but now he’s teaching in an aboriginal school so I’m not sure what become of the cab.

You may have read recently about Uber being banned from London due to data leaks and disputes over its employment practices.  I totally understand why Londoners would want to use Uber.  It’s fun to take a black cab, especially when you’re traveling as a group (this is not us):

It’s cool to take a black cab if you’re a tourist or on a special occasion.  But for getting around on a daily basis, only the uber wealthy could afford to use black cabs.

On a side note, I downloaded Uber just the other day but was unable to use it because it insisted I enter a UK phone number.  I guess my phone is confused and thinks I’m still in the UK.

After a great dinner we caught another black cab and snaked through the heaving streets of Saturday-night London. After dodging jay-walking revelers for 20 minutes, we reached our destination, Wyndhams Theatre, two miles from our hotel.

Greater and Lesser and Lost

Now that I know more about the Charterhouse, I wish I had had the time to tour it.  I realize only a tiny, tiny percent of British pensioners can live there, but what a great model that could possibly be replicated.

The two places on my To-See list today were Smithfield Market and St. Bartholomew the Great church.

Smithfield is the original meat market.  It’s a wholesale market which takes up several city blocks so even I couldn’t miss it.  I had had it up to my eyeballs with other shopping areas and markets that sold artisanal caramels and hand-knit tea towels and reproduction antiques. I wanted to go somewhere where I couldn’t buy anything.

Smithfield exceeded my expectations by being closed.  Of course, it was Saturday.  Few people set out to buy half a cow on a Saturday in London. So I walked around and through the parts that were open.  There wasn’t much to see; the site has been a stock yard and meat market for over 800 years and the buildings appeared to be Victorian but who knows.  Later, I learned that they do indeed sell meat retail, so if you are looking for a deal on offal or a lamb shank, check it out.

Now I had to find St. Bart’s, as it’s commonly called, which was one block away but which required me to take the following route: Poultry Avenue to West Smithfield, which turns into Long Lane.  Right on Cloth Street, then right on Middle Street which turns into Clothe Fair, and it should be right there.  Right. 

I passed Barley Mow Passage, Rising Sun Court, Kinghorn Street, and Bartholomew Passage.

Don’t turn, I said to myself each time, because I always have the urge to turn at the first place I see.  Maybe they were shortcuts.  And Rising Sun Passage sounded intriguing.

I steadfastly stuck to the route on the paper map I had printed out, and immediately became lost.  The neighborhood was deserted except for a few shady-looking guys unloading trucks, and I wasn’t going to ask them for directions.  I doubled back, retraced my steps, still couldn’t find anything indicated on the map, started to whimper and imagine myself murdered; some poor vendor would find me hanging from a meat hook when he opened his stall on Monday….

I decided to walk down Rising Sun Passage after all, and there was St. Bart’s.

Rising Sun was named for a pub, so that was a relief.  When in doubt, go into a pub and have a pint and a packet of crisps, and everything will be ok.

I knew that St. Bart’s was old.  In fact it’s the oldest church in London, which is saying something. It was founded in 1123 as an Augustinian monastery.  In case you’re wondering, there is also a St. Bartholomew the Less, also founded in 1123, and “It was called the Less to distinguish it from its larger neighbour.”  So there weren’t two St. Barts, one who was great and one not so great.  There are two churches named after the same guy.

I have been in many, many old churches but St. Bart’s struck me immediately as really ancient.  Which of course it is.  But after visiting a dozen old churches in a month, they all blurred together. St. Bart’s was different.

As usual my photos won’t do it justice, but maybe they’ll give you a feeling for the place.

In old sites where they built one thing on top of another, it’s good to look up, down, and around so you don’t miss anything.  There were crypts that told sad stories.

I liked the contrast and detail in the flooring and wondered what was below the grating.

I spent a half hour inside, then wandered back out into the passageway.

I was glad I had come on a Saturday.  The quiet seemed fitting and I felt at peace.  I had a pint and a packet of crisps in the Rising Sun, then walked back toward the hotel, where I ran into Lynn and Richard having a bite to eat at a sidewalk café.

“They’ll let anyone eat in this neighborhood!” I exclaimed as I joined them.

Assisted Living, UK Style

There was a festive atmosphere on the bus, with all the Pride celebrators.  As we snaked northward, they alighted and quiet descended.  I got off at the Barbican and it was utterly deserted.

The Barbican Centre is the largest performing arts center in Europe. It’s designed in the Brutalist style.  One of my favorite London buildings, Trelick Tower, is Brutalist. I think it’s creepy but in a cool way.

To me, the Barbican is just not that interesting.  However, it is home to lots of wonderful companies, like the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

My plan was to wander around the Smithfield neighborhood adjacent to the Barbican, then meet Lynn, Richard, and Possum at the hotel.  I had packed a backpack as light as possible for my two nights away but it still felt like I was lugging around a bowling ball after a couple hours.  Much as I love to daydream about hiking the Appalachian Trail or the Superior Hiking Trail, I am realistic that they are not for me.

Smithfields is not a “Top 10” London sights in any guidebook, so I was caught off guard by all the fascinating history it contained.  I don’t usually like to cut and paste from websites, but I’m making an exception today.

I passed through Charterhouse Square and this art deco apartment building which has served as the fictional residence of Agatha Christie’s character Hercule Poirot.

Here’s the Wikipedia 101 on Charterhouse Square:

“In 1371 a Carthusian monastery was founded by Walter de Manny on what is now the north side of the square. It was established near a 1348 plague pit, which formed the largest mass grave in London during the Black Death, and tens of thousands of bodies were buried there. The name of the monastery, Charterhouse, was derived as an Anglicisation of La Grande Chartreuse, whose order founded the monastery.

“The Charterhouse was dissolved as a monastery in 1537, and in 1545 was purchased by Sir Edward (later Lord) North (c. 1496-1564) and transformed into a mansion house. Following North’s death, the property was bought by Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, who was imprisoned there in 1570 after scheming to marry Mary, Queen of Scots. Later, Thomas Sutton bought the Charterhouse, and on his death in 1611, endowed a hospital (almshouse) and school on the site, which opened in 1614, supporting 80 pensioners ….”

That’s just the first 240 years.

An almshouse is a residence for “poor, old, or distressed” people, and the Charterhouse still serves this purpose.  Here’s what their website says:

“The residents of the almshouse, both male and female, are known as ‘Brothers’. This is a purely traditional term for those living in this community and acknowledges the past when there was a monastery on the site.

“The Brothers were originally those who could supply ‘good testimonye and certificat of theire good behaviour and soundnes in religion’ those who had been servants to the King ‘either decrepit or old captaynes either at sea or land, maimed or disabled soldiers, merchants fallen on hard times, those ruined by shipwreck or other calamity’.

“The Brothers are selected from a wide variety of professions, which includes teachers, clergymen, writers and editors, musicians and artists. At entry they have to be over 60 years of age, in need of financial and social support and in good health. They must be able to live independently but have a desire to be part of a supportive community following a very simple set of rules. Their accommodation is entirely private. All the meals are taken together in the Great Hall and many Brothers participate in the many social events that take place. Many Brothers contribute to the life of the Charterhouse by giving their time as tour guides, arranging entertainment and visits, editing the Charterhouse Magazine (a twice yearly in-house publication), cataloguing the extensive artwork and volunteering to help with events. The Brothers meet as a group at least four times a year with the Master and other senior staff to discuss current topics.”

Now that’s my kind of assisted living!  And here’s the building:

Not too shabby, eh?  If only I were a UK resident, I would say I had found my retirement plan.

London Crawling

Lynn organized a London weekend to celebrate her birthday. She and Richard flew down from Scotland and Possum and I met them for a West End show, Lady Day.  Lynn arranged everything—hotel rooms, tickets for the show, and a pre-show meal.  Of course we bought her presents too, but it’s the fun times like these what we remember later, right?  Not the stuff.

From London I would go to Stonehenge the next day.  A friend who was coming from Minnesota was supposed to have gone with me, but back problems forced her to cancel her trip.

This highlighted a dilemma about travel planning.  Do you buy travel insurance?  I never do, but my friend had and she got a refund for her flights. She paid around $80 for the insurance, but that was nothing compared to losing $1,400.

I had already paid for the Stonehenge tickets.  I couldn’t find anyone to join me so I was out the price of one ticket, about $20.  Should I have waited to buy the tickets?  No, because Stonehenge books up fast in the summer, especially on the day we wanted, which happened to be on the full moon.

My friend had reserved for our tickets for Windsor Castle.  She couldn’t get a refund for them, so she was out $20 and we came out even.

Whenever I lose money like this I consider it a donation to the National Trust.  Lord knows they need it.  Losing triple digits to Expedia or Delta?  That can’t be shrugged off.  Next time I book a flight I’ll look into flight insurance and whether my credit card covers anything.

As usual I meticulously planned my jaunt into London and the boomerang bus ride I would have to undergo to get to Stonehenge.  More about the latter later.

This was the first time I would catch a bus from Waterloo, as opposed to the tube.  When you get off the train at Waterloo the signs quickly devolve from the helpful “All London Bus Stops” with an arrow, to “Buses,” with an arrow, to what could be interpreted as a bus icon with an arrow, to nothing. When I exited the station, there were clearly marked bus stops A through E, but no F, which was what I needed.

London is a mob scene any day of the year, but this was the day of the London Pride parade.  The city was teeming with revelers in rainbow wigs, hats, T-shirts—singing, drinking, laughing and having a great time.

Overstimulated, I started to feel the usual panic that I was lost.  I would never find the right bus stop, would never get to the hotel, I would probably end up unconscious in an alleyway, my ID gone and with amnesia; I would wake up in a locked mental unit, blah, blah, blah.

I’ve written in detail about this syndrome of mine. This summer was good practice for me to just notice it—not try to push it away but not indulge it—and carry on.

Think, Anne—think.  Or better yet, look at the area map five feet in front of you.  Stop F was just around the corner.  In fact once you knew the plan, it was obvious that the stops were arrayed in alphabetical order around a gigantic roundabout.  You just couldn’t tell it was a roundabout because it was impossible to get a view of the whole thing, with pubs and souvenir shops and hundreds of double decker buses blocking the sightlines.

The people watching was so good, I didn’t start to worry again until the third Number 4 bus drove past with an Out of Service sign.  Others who were waiting shrugged and started to walk.  There was no way I could walk—should I take a cab?

Just then, a Number 4 arrived and I happily dumped my exact fare in coins into the collection plate.

“No cash, love,” the driver said.  “Cards only.”

I dug out my credit card and tried to swipe it.  “No, love—Oyster cards.”

Damn.  I hadn’t gotten around to buying one.  But in line with the general celebratory mood of the day, the driver winked and waved me aboard.

One with the Swans

I waved Sam and Gwen and the baby off as they headed to Heathrow in a black cab with their luggage and all the extra paraphernalia you need to travel with a kid.

I was really happy for them; they are a great couple and now with an adorable toddler I hoped they would all—especially Gwen—get some R&R in the beautiful lakes and woods of northern Minnesota.

I had wondered how working remotely would go. It went really well!  I thought I would be distracted by all there was to do in England, but because I had gone down to 80% time and stockpiled my vacation days, it worked out that I only worked about 24 hours per week.  There was no reason to do this in 8-hour days.  If I worked six days a week, for instance, that was only four hours a day.

In the office, there are phones ringing, the front door buzzer going off, and people stopping by my cube to chat but at Sam and Gwen’s there was none of this, so I could actually concentrate better and draw a line between work and fun time.

I would make eggs with mushrooms and tomatoes for breakfast while listening to Radio 4, then settle down to work.

When I logged on, my email was full of messages from the afternoon and evening of the previous day.  I would get a few messages from my colleagues in Ethiopia or Jordan in the first part of the day, but nothing from the USA until 2pm. This also helped me to focus.  It was easy to knock out four hours before anyone could send me more work.

I clocked off mid-afternoon and went for a walk or to the Leisure Centre to lift weights or take a yoga class.  It was unBritishly hot, with temperatures over 90F (32C) the first week I was there.  It was cooler by the river, which was just steps from the house.  I love how everything in these old towns in jumbled on top of everything else—ancient buildings, more ancient buildings, gates, lanes, walls, towers.

I crossed a meadow to a back water of the Thames with views of Eton Chapel.

Growing up in St. Paul, we were warned to NEVER swim in the river.  The Mississippi River, that is.  If I turned around from these views, I face a swimming hole.  An old guy was swimming, so I returned the next day with my suit.  It was icy cold and took me 15 minutes to wade in; I’m pretty sure those shrieks I heard were mine.

Some families arrived upstream and the kids jumped in and splashed about.  If parents thought this was safe enough for their kids, surely it was safe enough for me.  I stood in the water up to my neck, cooling off and enjoying the scenery—the chapel to one side and woods and swans floating by on the other, their whiteness reflected on the black water.

This was my daily routine for a week, until it cooled off.  I would return home to join Skype calls or polish off more emails before clocking off again, making dinner, and watching EastEnders or some other crap TV while eating and having a glass of wine.

Or, I would try a new place to eat, usually a pub.  I ate at the Waterman’s Arms the first Sunday.

Fish and chips, cider, the Times … the Thames, swans, summer.  It was bliss. This was living.

Except for my Restless Legs. You would think I would sleep deeply with all the fresh air and exercise and heavy food, but I tossed and kicked and moaned and swore up and down and ran up and down the steps all night, every night, trying to get some relief, some sleep.  RLS sounds like a silly condition but it is torment.  Other than that, life was grand.

People have asked if I got lonely.  I did wish for company sometimes, but my friends Heidi and Julie happened to be around.  On weekends and days off I would go to Stonehenge or The Tower or Wimbledon.  How lucky am I to write that sentence?