Thursday, February 02, 2012


There were nine goals that I set out to accomplish by the end of 2011. Only four were fulfilled to completion. Most of them were the cheaper endeavors, but I double-dipped on “Set foot in a foreign country,” which put me over the hump according to my selective logic. 

The first country was Canada. I had been to Canada before (if Toronto counts – it’s basically American City Lite - half the blight and even less flavor), but not to the French part. My buddy Scott lives in Burlington, VT, which is just a quick hop from Montreal. On a brisk April weekend we headed into Le Grand Nord Blanc. Once we had settled into our hostel, we stopped into a frozen yogurt shop for some treats. Besides all the French being spoken, the other obvious indicator that we had left our Puritanical homeland was a very NSFW song being played on the radio whilst I enjoyed my maple-licious dessert (enjoy Enrique Iglesias’ total lack of subtlety in the song's video posted below). There were plenty of kids around and no one seemed offended. Vive le Québec libre, I always say.

Do not underestimate Canadian Winter. She’s a tough old broad who doesn’t know when to quit. Montreal in April is akin to Boston in March – cold, wet and unpredictable. Just as Scott and I reached the picturesque summit of Mont Royal, the heavens opened and blasted us with wind, snow and sleet. As they say, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes. Too bad I had left my winter coat south of the border. Damn it. Thankfully, Scott and I wandered into Café Bistro El Mundo not far from McGill, where the world’s loveliest barista (we call her Coco) made us the best Irish coffees we’ve ever had. Merci beaucoup, Coco. You are the enemy of Canadian Winter. Also, our hostel, Auberge de jeunesse de Montréal, served up a hell of a breakfast for just a few loonies. Take heed, travelers.
Other Montreal highlights included stumbling into a free art exhibition (lots of fashionable people sipping wine), Biodôme de Montréal (a groovy indoor zoo with five climate zones), and Le Sainte-Élisabeth Pub Européen (where the barmaid bought both of us a shot after she realized that she had falsely accused us of neglecting her tip – so polite, those Canadians). The very French neighborhood of Old Montreal was nice and atmospheric, but the weather was so nasty it made it hard to enjoy. Next time, I’ll bring a parka. And a camera (sorry, no pics).
Surprisingly Sunny London
My other international jaunt was to Merrie Olde England. Many of my best traveling buddies hail from Old Blighty, and I was dying to see them and their homeland. If nothing else, I wanted proof that my backpacker days were not a hallucination, and that these great people were still out there living their lives across the Atlantic. I was not disappointed.
London was very good to me. 
My first day was a fantastic, blurry marathon. I took the redeye to Heathrow and was greeted at the tube station by my buddy Zanda and his Kiwi girlfriend Michelle. I hadn’t seen Zanda since the Queenstown days and it was great to catch up. Our first stop was a pub in Chiswick. That it was high noon GMT (07:00 by my internal clock) didn’t stop me from having my first English pint. Room temperature brews took some getting used to, but the sun was shining and I’d just made a long journey after a killer week at work. It was all good. If that had been the whole day, it would have been a nice, busy memory, but we had many miles yet to cover. 

After dumping my luggage at Zanda’s flat, we headed into Central London. We walked across Waterloo Bridge to Covent Gardens, Leicester Square, and Piccadilly Circus. It was a Saturday evening, and vast swaths of diverse humanity were out and about. London has amazing energy – like New York, but closer to the ground. The next stop for refreshment was Waxy O’Connor’s, a fantastic pub in Soho. Imagine M.C. Escher was commissioned to build a subterranean pub, and only given fragments of old wooden churches with which to construct it, and you’d have an inkling of the architecture of Waxy’s. It’s a wonderful labyrinth of burnished wood and craggy stairways to nowhere. Check it out when you can, but don’t have too many ‘cause you’ll have lots of trouble finding your way out.
From Waxy’s we headed to King’s Cross (Ye Olde Whore District) where Zanda’s buddy Marcus assured us there was a house party in full swing. Exhaustion and jetlag were setting in, but I was determined to make it through that party (even if I had wimped out, there was no way I’d have been able to make it back to Zanda’s flat without help). With lots of help from Red Bull, I soldiered on and had a great night meeting fun people from all over the world. We left the party at 2:30 AM. Zanda miraculously guided me and Michelle through two bus rides (which felt exactly like this) and a 15 minute walk back to his flat. At 4:00, we crashed. The only word is “knackered.” Blissfully knackered.
Not a bad first day. I had fourteen more to go. Let’s compress this, shall we?
Other London highlights: Westminster Abbey (the royal family’s overcrowded basement with an audio tour courtesy of Uncle Scar), Buckingham Palace (where people stare through a fence and wait in vain for the Queen to show up) and a bike trip through Hyde Park & Kensington Gardens (if the weather’s good, make use of Barclays Cycle Hire – a great, cheap way to see the city). The Millennium Bridge is also great on a sunny day – a pleasant stroll across the Thames from St. Paul’s to Shakepeare's Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern Museum. Best of all is the amazing Tower of London. It’s got history, horror, guys in funny hats, and the crown jewels – something for everyone. Great stuff! The Underground is easy to navigate once you get your bearings, and I never tired of hearing “This is a Piccadilly Line service to Cockfosters” over the PA system. Tee hee hee!
Thanks to my wonderful English friends, I was able to see more than just London. My southern travels took me to Chichester, Portsmouth, Brighton, and Aldershot. I then headed north to Leeds, Huddersfield, Marsden, York, Barnsley & Whitby. I sped down narrow country roads, wandered the lonely moors, got lost in medieval cathedrals, napped in the graveyard that inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and took a dip in the North Sea. My hosts and hostesses could not have been more warm and hospitable. It was an amazing two weeks and I’m incredibly grateful to all of them for taking me in and showing me around!
Some random observations about England:
- Downton Abbey, it ain’t. In terms of cultural diversity, England might surpass the US - even the smaller cities are melting pots.
- It is impossible to walk around England without thinking of the countless movies and TV shows that take place there

- There is nothing particularly British about The British Museum
- Hate to say it folks, but the stereotype about British dental hygiene is all too accurate (at least for older folks)

Hedley & Wyche by shundriad
Anyway, it was a great trip and I’d love to go back someday soon. I still have to see Stonehenge, the White Cliffs of Dover, Oxford, Sherwood Forest, Hadrian's Wall, Windsor Castle, Manchester, Wales, Scotland… the list goes on and on. I did, however, catch a glimpse of Susan Boyle at Heathrow while waiting for my flight home, so at least I got to see one sexy British bird!
The flight home took me over Wales and then Ireland. Unfortunately, thick clouds covered the entire length of the Emerald Isle. It was as if my Irish forebears were punishing me for going to England before exploring Ireland – Mick, ye fookin’ bastard! We won’t let ye get a peek of Ireland until you get yer arse here for a proper visit, ye cunt ye! Fair play to them, I say (although I do have some English ancestry, too). I’m sure I’ll make it to Ireland soon enough. I hope that trip will be as great as my English adventure. 

And as a great Englishman once said, now for something completely different: After a year away from the world of social networking, I made peace with Facebook. Yes, yes – I made a much-ballyhooed exit a few months back. Call me a hypocrite all you want, but Zuckerberg & Co. added some sorely needed privacy options of which I have taken full advantage. Starting an account from scratch allowed me to be more thoughtful of what I share and with whom I share it. Not everyone gets to see everything, and it’s a lot easier to keep stupid crap out of my newsfeed. Some people are baffled that I do not allow wall posts from outside parties. Too bad, bitches! Use your own damn wall. For some reason I’ve also signed up for LinkedIn. No idea why.

And here's a few more pics of England. Enjoy!

Yorkminster at sunset

Castle Hill, Huddersfield
Moors above Marsden

Cemetery in Whitby where Dracula bit Lucy Westenra


Anonymous said...

Nice blog. I'm off to brush my skanky teeth now ;-)


Captain Mike said...

Matt Jacques or Matt Smith? And you both have perfect teeth, so no worries. It's your neighbors I'm worried about.

Captain Mike said...

Pardon me. "Neighbours."