Birmingham, Reflections on Visiting England’s Lovely Second City

Birmingham Overview
May 19, 2013

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I sit at a cafe on a Sunday morning watching a steady stream of people going up and down Birmingham’s New Street. The centre of the pedestrian zone in Birmingham’s downtown, New street is a lovely cobbled area that links Victoria Square on one end to the Bull Ring on the other.

Stately buildings and fountains that have welcomed visitors for many years flank Victoria and Chamberlain Squares and lead pedestrians onwards through the Paradise Forum and along Broad Street. The new, controversial library (I like it, but many don’t) can be seen from far away, the Rep Theatre, the very well-used Symphony Hall that was opened by Queen Elizabeth herself in 1991. Beyond is the lovely area of Brindleyplace which takes full-advantage of the somewhat recently refurbished canals. A photo showing the area in 1970 is barely believable. It looked like an industrial wasteland. This had been a coal city, but those days are long gone. Perhaps that is what people think of when they consider Birmingham? The reputation of this city comes nowhere near to the actual glory of what Birmingham has become.

Turn left at the head of Broad Street, or follow the canals over to The Cube and The Mailbox. These are other impressive centres I have already written about.

At the opposite end of New Street lies the Bull Ring. Far from being the bull ring that it was in Roman times, this is a modern, sophisticated shopping zone. This area, too, has been transformed in recent decades. An ugly 60’s concrete shopping mall has been replaced by state-of-the-art architecture presenting all the brands one could ask for. From budget stalls of the markets below where traders rent spaces indoors and out to hawk their new and used wears, to the high-concept spaces and couture fashions available inside the main centre, this shopping district offers something for everyone.

One can sip a £3 latte at a chain shop or a 50p coffee from a caravan. St.Martins church remains the one thing still original, behind which stands the glorious sculpture that is Selfridges Department Store.

I spent my first week in this lovely city staying at a hotel by the Paradise Forum, the area between Broad Street and New Street. I would recommend this area for a visitor as it is not only convenient for daily wanderings in Birmingham, it is also near to the New Street Train Station for wanderings further afield. The other main stations of Moor Street and Snow Hill are in close proximity also.

For my second week I stayed in the Jewellery Quarter. This was once more industrial than today, where numerous companies made jewellery. Today, there are more than 500 jewellery shops making this a popular destination for couples-to-be. There are more than 200 heritage listed buildings in this district. The canal network is easily accessed for quiet city wanderings where one feels suddenly transported into the country by descending only a few steps and putting on some headphones.

I did not know what to expect when I decided to visit England’s Second City. What I do know now is that it seems a wonderful place to me. With friendly locals and a plethora of cultural activities to appreciate, this is a place that I could call home. I think it is well worth a visit.

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New Street is a central pedestrian zone that ties to other pedestrian side-streets and creates a wonderful hub of activity in Birmingham’s core.

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A side-view of Victoria Square, which lies at one end of New Street.

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The famous Bull sculpture outside the Bull Ring Shopping Centre.

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St.Martins Church at the Bullring.

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A view of Selfridges Department Store at the Bull Ring.

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Chamberlains Square, home to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and Paradise Forum which leads to Broad Street, is connected to Victoria Square.

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The colourful building in the middle is Birmingham’s new Public Library opening in the fall of 2013.

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The Front of The Mailbox. I have written more about this structure in other Birmingham postings.

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The far end of The Mailbox enjoys canal views and leads on to The Cube.

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The 25-storey multi-use building known as The Cube.

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The Jewellery Quarter is a very special area consisting of many heritage buildings. It is considered a special neighbourhood even for Europe.

If you have enjoyed this overview of Birmingham I hope you will take a look at my other Birmingham postings! And please, click below to share this link on your Facebook! Cheers! Darren

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A Brummie from Blackpool

Trevor

“Is this seat taken?” With a egg and bacon bap in one hand, a small coffee in the other, I am hoping to sit for a few moments at the outdoor market below the Bull Ring in Birmingham’s central shopping district. I’ve usually been taking my morning coffee at Costa on New Street, but meeting folks for 10-pin bowling soon, I decide to find somewhere nearer to the Leisure Box. This way I can take my time knowing that my destination is less than 5 minutes away.

Below the major shopping zone of the impressive Bull Ring, on the lower side of St.Martins Church lies some very grass-roots level indoor and outdoor flea markets. Vendors sell discount home items, clothing, luggage and shopping trolleys, cell phones, sell-off bric-a-brac and the like as well as fruits and veggies and inside a fish and meat market. I approach a vending caravan near to the pavement to order my late breakfast. They have a collection of tables and chairs nestled under a tarp.

We’re having a rainy week in Birmingham. Of the next 7 days, only one is not calling for showers to some degree. It’s raining now, as I try to find a space under shelter.

“Don’t sit on that chair,” an older gentleman replies, “this one is dry.” The chair I had indicated towards was at the periphery of the shelter and had been permeated by moisture. He stands for me to be able to get by to the chair he has offered, which is behind a table and sits between him and another, less talkative, customer.

“Thank you very much. Another lovely day we’re having.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Do you live in Birmingham?”

“Yes, I live 30 minutes outside though.”

“Do you come into the centre quite often?”

“Aye, about 3 times a week. I wouldn’t come so often if I had to pay full fare, but it’s very reasonable to come in, there’s a scheme for pensioners.”

“The government does some things right, don’t they.” It seems to me that providing seniors with affordable transportation not only improves the lives of pensioners, it also has benefits for NHS (National Health Service). Active people stay more well than do non-active people. If seniors can afford to get about easily, they will get about more often and this increased activity level helps them to maintain their mobility, it keeps their minds more active, it benefits their mental health, and overall it is very good for their well-being. I have no doubt that giving them access to public transportation not only improves their quality of life, it also saves money for public services.

“You’re not from here, are you?” he asks.

“No, I’m from Canada. I’m just passing through. I’m spending 10 weeks in the central UK. Are you from Birmingham?”

“No, I’m from Blackpool. I moved here 12 years ago.”

“I might visit Blackpool, it’s on the water, isn’t it. What brought you here then?”

“I retired when I was 65. I have no family and I thought, now is the time to move if I ever will. I knew a church minister who had just moved to Birmingham. With only him as a contact, it was more than I had other places and it was enough for me to decide to move here. I knew it was a bigger city so it would have lots of things to do and lots of people. So I did.”

“Was it a good decision?”

“Oh yes, I had no reason to stay in Blackpool. I like it here. I miss the water though, and the fresh air.”

“I grew-up on a river near to the ocean, and you always do have a draw to it, don’t you.”

He looks me in the eye. “Yes, you do.”

“Do you come to the market area often?”

“Oh yes, every time I come into town.” This market area for sure has the cheapest offers downtown. He sits here watching the comings and goings of people to the Bullring sipping a 50p coffee. Nearby, coffee starts at four times that in most shops.

He points to a table on the walkway where an Islamic group preaches and offers pamphlets to passers-by. He makes a comment that I don’t quite hear. “I don’t remember noticing Muslim recruitment groups other places,” I add, “They also have another location nearer to New Street with loud speakers. Do you think some people become Muslim from a recruitment drive?”

“I suppose so,” he answers, “there are Christian ones too.” Yes. I know this, I’ve noticed a few crazy ones yelling at the crowds brimstone and fire and such. Not a positive representation going on for Christians. I’ve seen the same kind of representation at Dundas Square in Toronto. I would think these representers are an embarrassment to most Christians, not to mention they are certainly are a deterrent, they tend to have a repellant nature. “YOU HAVE TO ANSWER TO GOD,” a black man angrily yells down New Street in the manner of a lunatic. Finger-pointing and judgemental, his hostile rantings will help no one. Pedestrians cross the street to keep a wide birth, he seems more like a time-bomb than a missionary.

“Are you Christian?” he asks me. Funny, just yesterday I wrote about my disagreement regarding the doctrine of Jesus being the only way to God. I tell him of this and explain that I am too well-traveled to accept a mono-cultural religion as being the only way. Agnostic, I believe there are many ways to God. I just cannot accept that one group is correct and all the others are wrong.

“I can’t explain why,” he tells me, “but there are a chosen people, and they are the ones who seek Jesus. I can’t tell you why if someone has never heard of Jesus they won’t go to heaven, but I know they won’t. There are a chosen few, anyone who looks for Jesus is chosen.”

Of course I cannot go for this. Any God who would choose people and put the chosen above the unchosen, is a God who is unfair and unjust and I cannot accept that as possibly being true. The people who came-up with these written ideas were misguided and lived in an era when humans were not considered equal to one another. Not to say that humans are considered equal to each other now, but they should be.

A little gust of rain lifts the tarp sending a pocket of water splashing onto the seat I nearly sat in from the start.

Time to move-on to my bowling meet-up, I thank Trevor for his sharing and for welcoming me to sit with him. “Traveling Mercies,” he wishes me as I depart. “My Mother always says that when I leave!” “Well, remember me to your Mother then,” he adds.

I will. I will remember him to lots of people.

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St.Martins at the Bull Ring stands between the major shopping centre and the market area below. Trevor and I were sitting just a few metres from St.Martins on the outdoor walkway.

The Grumpy Brummie Awards, Because the World Isn’t Perfect

Good and bad experiences happen everywhere. Overall, I have found the people of Birmingham (Brummies) to be exceedingly friendly and polite. But, bad apples are found in every bushel and I decided to separate the few bad apples from the many good. So, here are some stories about rotten apples in Birmingham. To be fair, the main cause of any discontent I experienced in Birmingham came from someone who grew up in a family of another culture that is not necessarily known for it’s warmness.

NOTE: Scroll Down to read about my experience with UK Car Rentals
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The full address was Teensy Street 99, Globe, Birmingham. A black cab pulled-up to my hotel and I loaded my considerable luggage, nearly doubled by traveling with a folding bicycle. The driver knows Teensy Street, as do I. Quite nearby, I only take a taxi for the carriage of my belongings.

The taxi metre is still just at £4 as we make our way along Teensy Street. The numbers on the left of the street ascend and contain both odd and even numbers. The numbers on the right descend. We get to the end of the street and have not found a 99. It’s a one-way street so we reverse, this time focused on the numbers on our right. Still, there is no 99.

“You must have the address wrong,” my driver, a small man in his 40s with a very long beard, suggests. I pull out my iPad to look at the address exactly as given rather than looking at my written-down version. No, it really is number 99. I show the driver. “Globe must mean something,” he comments, “Globe is the key to finding this address. Ask the landlord if it is supposed to be Teensy Street North or Teensy Street South rather than Teensy Street.”

I text the flat owner to ask for clarification.

My text: “Hi, taxi can’t find 99, is it teensy st n or s?” (11:40)

Reply: “It’s apt 99 3 Teensy street and entrance is on Britain street” (11:44)

Well the entrance not being on Teensy seems like a detail that should have been shared before. Why would I have assumed the entry was not on Teensy Street, and if it wasn’t, how would I know where it was? I get out to find the entry on foot, easier than having the driver manoeuvre his cab. Around the corner on Britain, there is no obvious entrance. I pass a beauty salon and see a door, but it doesn’t look like apartments. The driver has also come out of the taxi to look about.

“Is it marked 15?” I text, looking at the only possible door. (11:46)

“No it’s 3” (11:47)

The two of us continue to look about.

“It’s not marked anything I’m confused as to where you are. Taxi takes you to Britain street and the entrance is there where you input the code cheers” (11:50)

With this I continue walking down Britain. Nearly at the corner of the next street there is a large car gate with no markings, beside it is a gate door with two different keypads. I call the flat owner after it doesn’t accept the code. I had followed the instructions written above the pad which tell me to press “b” followed by the number. “Use the keypad on the right, and key in the code exactly as I told you. hash – etc.” Okay, now I understand, the number sign is part of the code. She had texted the code as #1234 (except different numbers). I key in the number pressing “#” first and the door opens so the driver goes back to bring the taxi over. By this time the metre has risen to £10.

Inside the gate there is a car park surrounded by structures with various different entrances. I leave my things in a heap to wander about, the signs are small and I need to approach each door to be able to read which flats it leads to. I find my grouping and enter with my belongings. In the elevator I hit the 9 button.

The doors open onto a worksite, builders renovating the hallway. “Is number 99 on this floor?” “No mate, I don’t know where number 99 is. Is it it this building?”

I press the 8. Nope, but the numbers are high enough that now I can guess what floor it might be on. I find the door that is marked 99. Thank goodness.

“Hi did you get in all ok?” (12:18)
(Note: I of course did change the address details so don’t bother to look for it!)
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I set-out to visit the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter only to discover that it is closed on Sundays and Mondays. Instead, I decide to go for coffee at what has become my daily haunt, Costa on New Street. It is a different walk getting there now and I enjoy taking photos on the way. I am getting used to ignoring the intermittent rain, life must go on.

Approaching the coffee shop it becomes readily apparent that it is undergoing major renovations. A construction crew use power tools in what was the front seating area. I’m disappointed, this was the one place I kept constant and intentionally visited at some point every day. I end-up at my last resort, Starbucks. There I meet a friendly gentleman who is on business from Germany. He is stunned that I have chosen the UK as a travel destination, it is his first time. He’s not interested in sight-seeing, but he does want to visit the Chinatown because he likes Chinese food. He doesn’t catch my love for the UK during our brief discourse. Mostly we chat about cars, I had been researching my car hire possibilities before he sat beside me in the window overlooking New Street. He wouldn’t try to drive on that side of the road, he can’t imagine it. For me it’s only odd for the first day. Traffic is also on the left in Japan, where I spent two years, so I have an accumulated 4 years of interacting with left-driving traffic.

After coffee I head out in search of getting my hair done, it’s getting long and there is too much white showing. “We don’t dye hair,” a large American woman tells me at a nearby drop-in hair salon. “Try Snow Hill.” (Snow Hill is a Station and probably also describes the area of the station’s surrounds.) In the end, I do not get my hair coloured or cut. Another day.

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I was sad to find that the one place I visited everyday, Costa on New Street, was suddenly closed for refurbishment.

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I was even more surprised when only 48 hours later it was completely finished and open for business again!
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First impressions are often correct, often not. After experiencing what felt like a lack of consideration, it seemed like if she cared at all about making my arrival smooth she would have provided adequate information. Of course perhaps she did in her mind, she provided the mailing address, but since that address does not provide useful information for entry and she knew I would not be arriving by post, she should have provided the required information instead. The apartment does look out onto Teensy Street, but that street should not be mentioned since one does actually step foot on Teensy to access the flat. Given this direction, not long but containing the needed information, I would have had no problem at all finding the flat, “North side of Britain road, second entry from Hacker Street.” It’s not the mailing address, but it is the location of the entry. That kind of thought seems so obvious to me, I fear my new host is perhaps not too very thoughtful

I meet Helbi when she returns from work around 6:30. I had invited her to join me to a group dinner but she never replied. Brief hellos and she turns on the tele and props herself in front. I attempt to make some conversation, I hope to be friends with someone I will be sharing a space with for the week, but she is not interested. Her eyes on the tv, it doesn’t seem to be on anything in particular, she occasionally looks my way. That’s fine, she wants some space after work. I get that, but I also think one should make an effort for a few minutes when meeting someone who you have rented your spare bedroom to.

It’s awkward so I decide to depart early for my meet-up at a nearby restaurant. Too early to go in, I go across to a pub to while-away my spare 30 minutes.

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I know one girl at the meet-up from bowling on Saturday. I sit at the end of a table with her on my left and a boorish man on my right. “Can I see the wine that comes with the steak deal?” he asks our server. Everyone at the table had started with red wine as a pre-drink and the server returns momentarily with a bottle of red wine to show what will come free with every two steaks. “Is there not white wine as well?” he asks the server. “Yes, would you like to see that too?” “Yes please.” She returns to the bar and comes back with a bottle of white. “We’ll all have the red,” he informs without bothering to look at the bottle.

“Did you make her get the white wine for no reason?” the girl to my left asks. “Yes, we’re all having steak, aren’t we.”

What a twat, I think. My impression of him strengthens throughout the meal. This is not a high-end steakhouse by any stretch of the imagination but he acts so incredibly pretentiously. “Do you have the cote du boeuf tonight?” No, sorry Sir, that is not one of our specials today. “Can you ask the kitchen anyway?” “Yes, Sir.” She returns with the same answer, which she already knew. “Can you try again?” He is such an idiot, I want to slap him. “Is Tony here tonight?” “No, Sir, he’s off today.” He goes on to tell us that he has eaten here twice before and that Tony is very good. Playing the regular at a run-of-the-mill restaurant after two visits. Such a full life he must have.

The meal completed, I move to the other end of the table just to meet the people when someone goes to the loo. “Could I please have my seat back!” an indignant woman gripes on her return. She is one of the organisers. Apart from thinking that after the meal perhaps she wouldn’t mind chatting to the other end of the table for a moment as well, I am taken aback by her harsh tone. I go back to my seat and give the woman from bowling too much money for my share so that I can just leave. I do not want to speak with that bore a minute longer and now I also also feel embarrassed by how I was just spoken to. In my haste to put the group behind me I leave my fleece behind. I hope the group leaves it there for me to pick-up later.

Back at the flat I talk a few moments to a still unconversant Helbi before going online to un-join that particular meet-up group. I see that the woman who was protective of her seat is the person in charge. An automatic form asks why I am leaving the group. “I’m sure I don’t need to explain why I’m leaving the group,” I key in and press send.

I email the lady that I had known from a previous meet-up. She’s quite nice. “I left my black fleece jacket behind, do you happen to know if it was left there for me to pick-up or if someone took it?” Three days later she has not made the effort to reply. I go to the restaurant. Yes, they remember my group. No, the group did not leave anything behind, someone must have taken it for me. How thoughtful. Too bad they didn’t go the next step and actually let me know who had it. I hate shopping to replace things that were just right already.

Perhaps it’s good I’ve had an off day. No where can be perfect and now my experience in Birmingham has more balance. Lots of great, warm people and a few cold ones. It’s a real place after all. Downside is, I have rented this flat-share for 7 days and it wasn’t cheap. It’s a decent flat and costs about the same to share as a hotel room. Not finding the host to be friendly is not reason enough to cancel for a refund either, although it could be reason enough to walk away from it. We’ll see how it goes. Maybe she just gives poor first impressions. I need to allow myself to have a change of mind.
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The Flapper is a low-end student bar that sits on the lovely Cambrian Wharf. It has nice outdoor seating areas and the view of the quiet canal where domestic barges are moored is pleasant to behold.

“Cocktails £3.50, two for £5,” listed on a chalkboard with Mojitos on offer. I love Mojitos, rum, sugar water, lemon, and lots of muddled mint. The cheapness of the drink has me assume the portion may be lacking. “Can I get a double mojito for £5 rather than two?” I’ve noticed that most people take the offer and carry two cocktails with them to drink one and then the other. “No.” “You can’t just make me a special Mojito and I’ll pay for two?” “You’re better off having both of them, mate. You’re just throwing a drink away.” “Never mind, I’ll just have one then.”

“What do you have for food?” “Pizza.” For a self-appointed “gastro-pub” that is not a lot of gastro on offer at 7PM on a Thursday. I planned to eat before coming, but since I am hungry and will be here from some time joining a group for a pub quiz, I will eat whatever they have. “Okay, I’ll have one of those, please.” “What kind?” “I don’t know, what kind do you have?” He is not pleased with this question, such an annoying customer I am, I should inherently know what they have on offer even though he doesn’t know himself. “Just a minute,” he complains with a sigh, “I’ll go check.” He returns with a list of what he probably scanned the freezer for. When it does arrive it is clear that it was some sort of brand-less frozen cardboardy food-like item for £5.

I watch in dismay as he prepares my cocktail. He puts some ice in a glass into which he dumps a pre-made UHF packet of mojito. It’s coloured a light yellow-green.

I take a sip when I return to our picnic table outside. It tastes like lemon-flavoured toothpaste. The chemical alternative for mint tastes more like spearmint. It is acidic and too sweet and gross. I wish he had explained why he was unable to make a special mojito rather than just being defensive about it, I would have had a pint.

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Cambrian Wharf is lovely to behold. Just make sure you keep walking and save yourself the trouble of visiting The Flapper, pub. There are countless pleasant pubs to visit instead.
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UK CAR RENTALS – UK CAR HIRE – UK CAR RENTALS – UK CAR HIRE
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I spent considerable amount of time researching how to best organise my rental car. I am well-aware of the insurance scams and I don’t want to be gouged when hiring a car for such a long duration.

I research the idea of buying my own insurance coverage, separate from the car. All I could find was excess insurance. (In North America we call this deductible. This insurance reduces your deductible.) Perhaps it was poorly worded, maybe the deductible covers the value of the car? If your deductible is $35,000 it would cover that? I don’t think it does, anyway this was not presented as a product that would do what I wanted it to. Additionally, not all companies accept this insurance, so check with the company.

I found an insurance website through which one can purchase insured rental cars. The cars come from 3rd parties but include this company’s insurance. Now that I have ascertained that it is not easy for me to travel through Central England without, I’m looking to rent a car for 7 weeks. I’m not a backpacker so it’s awkward to transfer from place to place by train or coach. I can’t sling my bicycle, suitcase, and carry-on onto my back and walk away. Additionally, there seem to be many day trips that are easily accessible by car. Castles, towns, villages, museums located outside of the city centres where public transport is plentiful. Trains and buses mostly go where people live and work.

The initial search using this insurance site looks promising. Cars start at less than £800 ($1200). However, most cars here are manual. I’ve not driven a manual since about age 20 when I occasionally borrowed Shanon’s car at uni, and I am not about to relearn driving on the other side, shifting with my left hand, with all the different road signs and rules and roundabouts on unfamiliar roads. When I click on the filter for automatic, the prices double. Ouch. Automatic cars do cost more but they certainly don’t cost double, so this is clearly how they maintain the ability to gouge the North American who most commonly drives with automatic transmission. I find an economy car and click through to rent it from Argus Car Hire. Reading the fine print, they need an international drivers licence. I call the number to verify. Easy to get, you just take your licence into an issuer and they issue you one, when you’re in Canada. It’s purpose is for countries like Russia and China, when people travel their licences are not readable. I didn’t need it last year when I rented a car in Dover. Regardless, this path to getting a car is over. They do require me to have an English translation of my English-language drivers licence which I don’t, I only have the original.

I continue my search and eventually choose Hertz via Hotwire. This rental is only about £900 ($1431) for a mid-size car and includes insurance. Seems like a great deal, even if I do end-up deciding I need more insurance when I get it, it couldn’t be that bad.

Yes it could.

The only location I can visit to get this deal is at the airport. I’m not sure why the Hertz location downtown cannot do the same, but that is what it says. I make my way to the airport for 10AM on a Friday morning.

“You’re insurance only covers 3rd party, Sir. If anything happens to this vehicle at all, you are fully responsible.”

“So if the car was stolen, I would have to pay the purchase price to Hertz.”

“That’s correct Sir. You can buy theft insurance for £10 ($15) per day, that comes to £490 ($750) but that only covers theft.

“Is theft very likely here?”

“Not really, Sir.”

“So how much is damage insurance then? If I had an accident, what would cover repairs?”

“That is Collision Damage Waiver, it’s a flat rate of about £20 ($30) per day sir. Actually, a bit more than that, for 49 days you would be looking at £1293.60 ($2600).

“Does that insurance also cover the theft?”

“No Sir, you would need the theft insurance separately, Sir. That’s £1783.60 for the insurance.”

OMG. How did I let this happen! I read about it, I researched it, and now I’m falling into it! I can’t believe it, I am just in shock. Rental $1400, Insurance $3500. Total, $4900. It is unbelievable. It doesn’t create such a shock when renting for one week, but renting for 7 this would be $100 per day which is beyond ridiculous.

“Could you tell me those numbers again.” I am writing down the details so I can write about it. He has noticed me taking notes already. “Writing your memoirs are you, Sir?” he says, flippantly. “No, I’m a travel writer.” “For a magazine?” “Yes, I do have a magazine, as well as a blog and I’m working on a book.” “Oh, good for you, Sir.” “Let me just see what I can do, Sir.”

I have never used this card at a hotel or a restaurant, but now I’m going to tell this story anyway so I might as well try to save some money. As it stands, I am ready to walk away without a car and lose my deposit. In fact, all I want to know at this point is how much I am going to lose by having made the reservation because I have no intention of spending that much on a car. For that much, I could probably just take taxis everywhere I go.

When you pay for Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) you are not actually buying insurance in any real sense. What you are doing is buying the car rental company’s agreement that they will not come to you to pay for damage after a certain amount of excess (deductible). So it is not any real cost to the rental company, it is paying them to assume the risk. There are 3rd party insurers for rental insurance, but CDW is not that.

“You’ll have to go to the office at the car bays, love, I’ll be a while at this,” he says to new customers who approach the Hertz desk. I don’t know what he does but it takes a long time and he finally comes back with a new answer.

“I can give you a free upgrade to an Audi A5 with Collision Damage Waiver for a total of £1873. ($3700) Seven weeks. Just more than double the cost of the car I have sitting at home seems almost reasonable, this one being a rental. I never should have leased a car in Canada. But looking back things are often 20/20.

It seems like if he had told me this figure in the beginning, I would probably have walked away then. Insurance cost the same as or equal to the rental cost when it appeared to be included in the price already? It could truly be the same technique used by unscrupulous shop keepers who start ridiculous high and come down to what would already have been high but in the process making the price suddenly seem reasonable compared to the amount they were initially trying to cheat.

I’ve also made much of an effort coming out to the Birmingham International Airport, so I have much invested in leaving with a vehicle. I would have been more likely to leave without a car had I walked to their downtown branch. I don’t know who would do better anyway, nowhere in my research was I able to uncover an honest and fair car hire company in the UK, I was only able to uncover the countless horror stories and bell whistles.

“So what is the excess with this CDW? How much would I have to pay in the event of an accident?”

“You would still have to pay the entire amount of the repair, Sir. Hertz would only pay you back if the insurance claim is later approved. Then they would pay you back everything except £900 ($1400) which is your excess amount.” So even after paying the steep waiver fees, according to him but I’m not sure he’s correct in his understanding of this procedure, they will still try to not approve the paid-for waiver. “And who does this kind of appraisal?” “Hertz does, Sir.” Well, that shouldn’t be legal. Just saying.

I decide to accept his offer, I don’t want to repeat this process again at another company and I do not have reason to believe that it would be any different. UK Car Hire agencies are known for this.

“Do you need to add a Sat Nav (GPS), Sir.”

“Nope.” I had bought one since the charge for renting theirs exceeded the cost of purchase.

In my car I realise that there is a built in Sat Nav anyway, it is present whether or not I pay the rental fee for it. I wasn’t sure if Audi UK would have these as standard. I spend a few minutes learning the buttons before setting my destination and pulling out of the parking lot, turning the wrong way onto the wrong street when the voice guiding me calls the traffic circle a square. “Turn right onto the square,” would have not turned out well, what was she thinking? She should have told me to enter the roundabout and take the 3rd exit. With telling me to turn right I instead enter the roundabout and take the first exit which leads me to a secured personnel zone. My mind didn’t jump fast enough to translate the circle into a square and go round it as if turning right from my starting position, which in fact involves a left turn after coming around.

Oh, this is going to be fun.

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Staying with Helbi has turned out to be not only emotionally voiding but also very expensive. She is pleasant, but it is painfully obvious that she wishes I were not there. I’m a sensitive guy and I am not good at ignoring that kind of thing. Also, in addition to not wanting to share her space, she often works from home. The first two evenings I eat healthy salads from the supermarket in the living room, but after my initial groceries are depleted I never do again. My room only has a bed and I’m not going to sit on my bed and eat. I was happy to bring healthy food back to my hotel room last week, but here I feel the need to avoid going home. It’s a bad feeling.

I sometimes find myself not wanting to go out, but I also don’t want to stay in feeling like I’m crowding Helbi. The unwanted house guest who paid to be there. Not ideal. I go in search of quiet places and find none. I use my ear plugs often. Days of $20 and $30 spent on food have become days of $60 and $80 when I add extra time working in coffee shops rather than being home for occasional breaks during the day. Being at her house is too awkward so I try to leave in the morning and return after dinner at night. This situation has nearly put me off trying another flat-share in the upcoming weeks. I certainly won’t for a bit, and when I do I will first verify their character a bit by emailing back and forth before just sending my rental request. She’s just not normal in her refusal to converse.

She was deceptive on her listing in saying that she works a lot and even on weekends too. That gives the impression that she is often not at home, not that she will be using the computer and talking on the phone in the one and only open-concept living area where you will feel completely in the way when she is working and also when she is on the sofa watching tv.

“I hate Birmingham,” she has told me, “except for where I live.” This in response to, “What other areas of the city do you think I should explore?”

“I don’t recycle, to be honest. I put all my trash with the recycle bins.” If you don’t recycle with all the damage we are doing to our planet, I do not want to know about it. Seriously.

“I haven’t been to New Street in 5 years.” This in response to me asking her if she had a favourite place to eat or drink downtown. A 10 minute walk to the lovely downtown, how has she managed not to go there for so long?

“I hate pubs, you know how people dress. Why can’t you go to a proper bar or restaurant? And at an Irish pub people might start singing. I hate it,” in response to her mother asking her to join something at a pub.

“I don’t meet people, ” in response to me telling her about meet-up groups.

After a week or awkward exchanges, I have to consider the possibility that she may actually have a mental disorder or two. Her disinterest in the world and in interacting makes me wonder if she might be suffering depression. Her blankness and lack of communication skills has me consider ASD. Whatever the case, she does not make an ideal host or flat mate

For this and more, Birmingham-born Helbi receives my Grumpy Brummie Award. Hands Down.

Runner-Up: Hertz Car Rentals UK. Actually UK Car Rental Agencies in general for having methods and procedures that gouge the non-UK resident, customers they must figure are unlikely to be regular anyway so they might as well try to get all they can anyway they can.

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Here are some more photos around Birmingham’s lovely Jewellery District.

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Meeting Friendly Locals in Birmingham

This posting consists of a series of stories that took place over the past few days here in the welcoming city of Birmingham, UK. It also contains personal sharing and personal opinions that I hope you will find interesting. Thanks for visiting PersonalTravelStories.com !
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The Mailbox is a stately-looking structure that stands in Birmingham’s central district. Upon entering the large edifice, which does indeed have resemblance to a British Mailbox, I was unaware that the building is actually an enormous centre and that it opens on to the lovely canal network on the other side. In fact, being built along these waterways is probably the main asset of the building. They have done a lovely job capturing the urban outdoors well-viewed by numerous restaurants and bars.

I may not have ventured into the Mailbox having previously read it’s description on a shopping map of Birmingham. “A premier luxury destination, with designer stores including Harvey Nichols, hotels, waterside restaurants and bars.” It’s not a bad description by any means, it just did not pull my attention since I only took the map for street navigation rather than for shopping. Additionally, I wanted to repair the grammar of the sentence. Correct it so that it does not contain one incongruent list. Here’s a better example of the same grammatical weakness in case you missed it, “I like to eat cheeses including Brie, red wine, and baguettes.” It’s just wrong. Sometimes we do choose imprecise grammar in lieu of brevity though, so it likely was an intentional overlook.

I had found myself early to a meet-up across the street. I don’t like to be late so when venturing to an unknown destination for a scheduled meet I tend to allow too much extra time. This usually has it’s pay-offs though, there is nearly always something to happen upon that will fill the time in an unfamiliar place. So it was that I found myself stood on a street-corner face-to-face with this large, red, windowed box.

I was not feeling interested in dropping large sums of money for designer duds that I have no space for in my luggage, so I was very pleased to come across a “pop-up” shop claiming two temporary spaces. “Birmingham Made Me” is a fantastic collection of all manner of hand-made items created locally. Lots of one-of-a-kind crafts and art works, as well as a bit of manufactured but of original design and using the creators artwork. Unique hats, jewellery, lampshades, paintings, handbags made from records, ceramics, t-shirts printed with original images, pottery, nik-naks, art cards, and more. A really fun set of shops.

As I was exiting the first one I entered, I thanked the hosts. “What do you think of it?” a woman near to my age, friendlily inquired. “It’s fantastic,” I replied, “I especially loved the stuffed animals.”

These little animals have been created with such great care that I found myself paused in front of them, reading their faces like one might a person. I’m not sure why, they had typical-looking eyes and details, but they were put-together in such as way that they conveyed personality. They were really quite impressive.

I could not have guessed that I was talking to their creator, Angela. “Did you pick one up?” Of course not, I think. I used to be an artist myself some years ago, I know not to touch things, to be respectful of people’s creations which are often intended to be looked-upon only. Angela comes over, “Pick one up!” Stunning. These little creatures were life-like to look at, now that I have one in my hands it’s uncanny. She has used some sort of filling that gives them a life-like weight. A baby-sized bear weighs nearly as much as a real baby. It’s actually hard to explain the experience, my senses are being fooled into feeling like I’m holding an animate creature. I’m not a doll collector or an appreciator of stuffed-bears, or anything of the sort, but these are very impressive.

“When I was little, I remember feeling so disappointed every time I picked-up a cuddly toy, that it felt completely unreal. That it didn’t weigh anything. They looked cute, but they felt like nothing.” Even as a little girl, her creative mind saw things in a unique way. Remarkable.

“I saw you noticing (Brooks?) things as well,” Angela adds, gesturing to the bags made from vinyl records (LPs) and lamps made from cassette tapes.

“I did. Those bags look really-well made. It’s a shame that guys have a much stronger attachment to records than do girls. I used to have a shop where we sold clocks made from records, the LPs were definitely more popular with guys. Girls tended to prefer the covers made into clocks, with the imagery. I wonder if guys tend to me more tactile and girls more visual.”

“The ladies really like them though, they’re very popular.”

“That’s great, they should be.”

A few more minutes of conversation and I am on my way, back-tracking to the other location of “Birmingham Made Me” I had earlier passed-by. The time for my meeting comes and I leave the Mailbox leaving more to return for later.

The “Birmingham Made Me” shops located in the Mailbox will only be open until the end of June, so don’t miss your chance to find some unique arts and crafts pieces. Angela has plans to open in another location as a joint venture, so be sure to check-it out.

To see Angela’s fun artistic cuddly creations and find out where you can see them, click on this link:

www.burmanbears.com

Birmingham Made Me has a Facebook sight you can visit, hopefully they’ll be an ongoing concern and perhaps you can find their latest activities by looking up their Facebook page or by clicking on this link:

www.ideabirmingham.co.uk

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The Street side entrance of The Mailbox in Birmingham. Don’t be fooled, this square building is only a small part of the entire structure, fully attached.

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Interior hallways of The Mailbox are open to skylights far above.

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The rear exit of The Mailbox is wonderfully set-up to appreciate Birmingham’s vast canal network.

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Looking back at the restaurants and bars lining the canal as part of The Mailbox.

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The Cube has been built to add to the success of The Mailbox and feels like a continuation of the centre. Completed in 2010, this mixed-use world-class structure is much larger than it looks having 25 floors.

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The Blend is a modern coffee bar with lots of fun drinks. The main feature being coffee martinis, I don’t mind if I do. I order a delicious B and B (Brandy and Benedictine) coffee martini, it is served on ice in a stemmed glass more sizeable and of a different shape than a martini glass. I am the first to arrive to this meet-up, but being at a largish reserved table for 8 I will be easily found.

I am soon joined by a conscientious Brummie who is also early. She had rushed away from attending a Jazz concert at the nearby Symphony Hall. “I love Jazz,” she tells me, “they’re giving free concerts every Friday. If you like Jazz, you should go next week. It’s great.” When it comes to listening to Jazz music I only listen to classics, I’m not a fan of the repetitive free-flowing improv type sometimes found in Jazz bars. But a performance will tend to be of the ilk that I do enjoy. I probably will. Except I leave on Thursday, my hotel is only booked for a week and I arrived last night. Only 24 hours so far in Birmingham and I am already planning to extend my stay.

Four of us have already arrived by the appointed meet-up time. A very polite gentleman from Walsall who reminds me of the accountant in the tv programme Ugly Betty sits beside me. He has come in with a nice girl originally from Stratford. A young lady starting her PHD in Environmental Structures has moved to Birmingham from Sweden. A woman who “has Scotch and Welsh blood” joins behind me, pulling-up a chair to join the then-crowded table. Others have filled-in the rest of the 8 seats but I meet those at the other end by name only, as is generally the case when seated at a large table.

The ladies are talking about something that is sometimes vended out machines in ladies rooms. Maybe one of them is wearing perfume from a sampler, I don’t remember. “The only thing we can buy in a men’s room is condoms,” someone comments. “But they do come in various flavours,” I add, helpfully. “I remember the first time I saw flavoured condoms,” one of the ladies reminisces, “I looked at the shop keeper and asked, “Why is it flavoured?” I had no idea!” “If you like, one of us can show you, luv!” the guy had replied to her great embarrassment. “Just chemicals, aren’t they,” I offer, “not good for you probably.” Lately, I have been given much attention to the fact that more and more edible products are not real food. Edible oil products flavoured by chemicals, highly-processed and manipulated food products altered to such a degree that our digestion systems work overtime processing food items that are not really even food in the strict sense. Genetically modified, chemically-enhanced, structurally-altered items that are being marketed as food but offer little or no nutrition. If it doesn’t nourish, can it really be considered food? Anyway, to this she asks, “Have you tasted one?” I don’t want to answer either way and instead I reflect the question. “You are a dirty girl!” I tease, “I’m going for another drink. How is the wine you’re drinking, what kind did you get?” “Red.” We both laugh at her answer. “Honestly, they have red, white and rose, those are the choices.”

Back at the cash I look at the bottle that contains red wine. Looks like it has been labelled for use in pubs and such, it is from Spain but that essentially is the extent of the information presented. “It’s Spanish Red,” I declare returning with a flute. They must have run-out of generic wine glasses and they have served me red wine in a champagne flute. No apologies for serving in this narrow glass, I only assume the outage but it is actually presented as being normal. I like this complete lack of pretension, it speaks of an unsophistication that is refreshing. I dump my Spanish Red into a tumbler someone did not use for their beer. I like wine in a glass tumbler. Reminds me of Italy.

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“I started to realise that I really enjoy cultural things,” a woman in her thirties explains, “but none of my friends did. I love classical music and looking at artwork and going to live performance. I started this group so I could meet with other people to share those things with.” We sit in the Edwardian Cafe within Birmingham’s Museum and Art Gallery waiting for others to arrive. It’s a beautiful structure that stands on Chamberlain Square in the city centre. Like all museums in the UK, admission is free.

A varied group assembles to take in the current temporary exhibits, two modern shows. These meet-up groups have really caught-on in Birmingham. Most of the attendees today have come into the downtown from outside the city, including the organiser.

It seems to me that over the past century people have lost their trust in strangers in most places. Meet-up groups are partially reclaiming that lost aspect of society. It wasn’t that we used to trust everyone, but we did trust those who were in our group. Perhaps this meant people of our clan or of our village. More people attended church and there was a feeling that one could trust another in their church, whether they had met or not. I think this still tends to be the case in churches, they provide social communities for their members. Maybe we trusted those of our class, people who had a similar standing to ourselves. “We’re in this together,” strangers or not. There was more kinship, more seeing others as oneself. Would you steal from your brother? Surely not.

I think there was even an innocence that my parents generation had during their early years, growing up in the 50s and 60s in small town Canada. This sociological aspect may have been earlier concluded in more metropolitan areas, I don’t know. There was greater civility, stronger politeness, more adhered-to rules of behaviour, and an assumption of good will. Perhaps one had to be somewhat guarded on the streets in large cities, but they’d create pockets of safety in their own communities. Neighbours were friends or friends not yet met. There was an assumption of goodness of the other rather than mistrust. I’ll happily share with you and I know you would happily share with me. Perhaps some of the trust came from naivety, television destroyed any of that. Now, instead of having a realistic viewpoint of knowing what kinds of terrible things people sometimes do to each other, we have an exaggerated viewpoint of it. The most violent crimes are talked about and repeated and we are taught to be guarded for our own protection. Before we would have heard about something that happened to someone in our circle or in our community, now we can hear about violence on the opposite side of the world nearly at the very same time it happens. Lost innocence of an entire species.

More and more we lead hectic, separate lives. In the West many of us will live entirely on our own, not sharing our living space with anyone. We did not evolve this way. In our separateness we crave connection with our fellow man.

Some of us may have strong groups of friends but as life changes so do we. Sometimes our friends don’t change at the same time and we outgrow them. Or they outgrow us. Perhaps our friends are dear to us but we also need something new. The introduction of new friends can bring new life. Most of us get set-in-our-ways and some of us want to break-out but may not know how. How do I meet someone outside my circle? How do I live my days differently than I do now? Where do I go if I want to go somewhere other than where I do go? It can feel impossibly difficult to break routine. The routines of what I do and where I go and who I talk to and when I talk to them and what we talk about and how we do and how we go and the list goes on and on.

I met two nice ladies standing by the canal. They were sight-seeing. I was sight-seeing. I chatted briefly with them and we had a friendly exchange. But we didn’t go sight-seeing together. It wouldn’t be normal, would it. For them to trust a complete stranger. Even if they thought I seemed friendly and fun, they have been taught caution. There are places where this kind of interchange is possible though, such as when young people stay in hostels. This situation provides the context of sameness, I’m in this hostel and you are in this hostel and we are both traveling so why don’t we go out and wander the streets together rather than separately.

That is what online meet-up groups do. They provide the introduction. The fact that we both signed-up to go to the same place and do the same thing provides just enough sameness for us to be able to trust each other and interact as friends. When I worked in coffee shop at the end of university the aspect I liked most was having permission to be friendly with strangers. My interaction with the customer was defined and in friendly Fredericton the locals welcomed familiar-type conversations while they were collecting their coffees.

If I just went in to the museum surely I would find other people who had the same interest of seeing the museum but it would be socially odd for me to try to join with others to share the experience of the exhibit. It is not the behavioural norm, one is supposed to keep to oneself and respect the autonomy of strangers. By myself I am likely to share a comment with someone looking at the same thing or even strike a conversation with another patron, but the chances that we would end-up going through an entire exhibit together or chatting over a coffee afterwards is very low.

I do meet strangers on my travels in all sorts of situations but having the ability to join online meet-up groups gives me an in with locals that was previously not possible.

Birmingham’s Museum and Art Gallery has a formidable permanent collection of historical and significant works which I briefly take-on on another occasion. Today we are gathered for the temporary exhibits.

New Art West Midlands is a collection of “The best new art by emerging West Midland graduates.” (New Art West Midlands Brochure as created for the exhibit.) The works have been created by recent graduates from five art schools in the region and the represent a variety of media including paining, installation, ceramics, film, sculpture, and photography. Art comes down to personal preference. When I have to stand and stare at something and wonder why it can be called art, that kind of thing I do not have much appreciation for. Sometimes a creation that displays no skill can still seem artful to me for it’s uniqueness, it’s originality. The famous straight line drawn across a canvas I still think is just stupid, no matter how many high-brow art experts argue differently. Certainly there was a little of that ilk displayed, they want to provide a wide variety and that includes artwork that “pushes the barriers”.

My hands-down favourite collection was created by Rafal Zar. He found his own formula that works for him. Paint something cute in such a way as to be disturbing. His write-up makes his work sound a bit more sophisticated than mine does suggesting that he deals with controversial issues and such. But really it looks like he just uses some cliches in his paintings that are guaranteed to be richly interpreted. A half torso of a nun who has double pupils in each eye stands behind a tree growing in an incubator. A cartoon rabbit hovers over her right shoulder and something comparable hovers over her left. I like it. It’s fun, it’s playful, but it seems to me just silly. The odd cross is thrown in to quite a few of his works and it really does just seem to be for the purpose of adding a religious element rather than some deep thought-out metaphorical statement. The only statement I hear him making is, “Look at me, look at your symbols, pooey on your symbols. They mean nothing to me.”

Speaking of poo, there is quite a substantial collection of faeces sculptures sitting on a table in front of his paintings. I like these too, they’re mostly quite colourful. The majority are rings of poo, round-and-round-and-up-and-cut. Some of them are quite realistic sculptures, others are wool, still others are painted into little characters with cute faces.

His paintings are pretty and ugly at the same time, I quite enjoy them and I would buy one if I lived anywhere. Definitely check-out his blog though, you can see photos of this actual exhibit in the Museum as well as other fun works. This particular exhibit is only on until May 19, 2013, so if you are in or near to Birmingham, don’t wait to go visit!

www.rafalzar.blogspot.co.uk

The second temporary exhibit was “Metropolis: Reflections on the modern city”. This is an international contemporary exhibit that was jointly collected by this gallery as well as The New Art Gallery Walsall, in partnership with Ikon. I found this exhibit generally more appealing in that I appreciated most of what was on offer.

I am definitely biased being a lover of travel and having a preference for cities. The overall feeling I am left with from this exhibit is of it being more a portrait of the people who live in the cities, their struggles and the reality of average everyday lives.

A 6-minute video of an abandoned apartment complex in Frankfurt with the windows being smashed from the inside is oddly mesmerising. You don’t know when and where the next window will smash, one by one until there are no window panes remaining. (Front Windows by Jochem Hendricks, 2009)

Click on following link to view the video. Try to project it onto a large wall and use good speakers to recreate the effect experienced at the museum.

www.jochem-hendricks.de/_englisch/2011_frontwindow/non_index.htm

I appreciated the very large scenes by Semyon Faibisovich who showed us some portraits of real life in a poor district of Moscow. He takes photos on his mobile phone, blows them up to mega proportions, and paints overtop. Two men lean against each other to keep from falling-over drunk, a bottle between them, and in “Take the Weight off Your Feet” a woman sits on the road as if having fallen but with items placed to show that she actually sat down. You can see these images with this link:

http://www.artfund.org/what-we-do/art-weve-helped-buy/artwork/11569/1-sick-on-the-way-2-take-the-weight-off-your-feet-3-repose

A video room with a view of Shanghai’s main pedestrian shopping street on on side, a view with sound of a woman blowing, as in blowing out candles on an enormous birthday cake, on the other. Every time she blows the view of the street scene retreats to create the feeling that she is blowing the street away. The view pauses in one spot between her breaths showing the hustle and bustle on the busy street and as she blows the image moves further away from us, as if her breath has propelled the viewer further backwards down the street. I recognise the street, it’s a very unique district for China that looks more like a Western beacon of consumerism with all the familiar Western brands. Perhaps it represents the future of China? It certainly represents only a very tiny segment of Chinese life today, perhaps of the top 1 percent to be generous. I still have Adidas track pants I bought on that street. I had forgotten to bring gym clothes with me.

Another representation of China, a large street scene showing buildings, a construction site, buses on multiple lanes of traffic, and a pedestrian walkway with some people walking. It is a very ordinary scene but it captures my interest for a long time. After looking at it I read the placard which explains that the photographer has created the large scene using multiple images. Not readily apparent until after reading, now I can see how he has manipulated the sizes of objects so that things far away are of similar size to those close-up. The effect is of looking of a model rather than the real thing. Additionally, there is story in the people on the pedestrian walk, they are interesting to look at and stir my curiosity.

Jerry cans linked together on a rod sit on the floor. It really is just a kebab of ordinary gas cans. I learn that portable gas cans with handles were invented by the Germans in 1939 but still this falls into my category of the unimpressive. Nonetheless, here I am writing about it, so there you go.

Really the entire exhibit was quite interesting so I’m not going to write about it further. It will be open until June 23, 2013. Again, if you happen to be in or near Birmingham, I think it deserves your attention.

After taking in the two fun and interesting modern art exhibits with a group of 7, three of us ventured to a pub together to enjoy the afternoon a bit longer before parting ways. I hope to see some of them again while I’m here, but if not, it was still a perfect day.

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The Stately Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery stands in Chamberlain Square by the Paradise Forum and the Town Hall.

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Inside one of the stairwells of the museum.

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This lovely space sits between the gift shop and the Edwardian Cafe inside the Museum.

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The cafe was not open when I went back to take a photo so I could not show the vast open space. But, here is a view through the door, which was open (but a meeting was taking place inside).

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Some of the stained-glass windows located in one of the stairways of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

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At New Street Station I met one of the nicest groups of people I could have imagined. Kind, thoughtful souls, every one. People who have suffered either become hardened or they develop a greater sense of understanding for others.

There are those people who fit comfortably into round holes. They may have an average temperament, a middle-of-the-road upbringing, main-stream tastes and experiences. Some of these people do not have the ability to comprehend that their experience of the world can be different from someone else’s. They will assume that what they have felt and experienced is the very same as how others feel and experience. They will equate someone’s debilitating depression with their own experience of sadness. “Oh, I know how you feel, ” they may be fond of saying, followed by something completely incomparable. They also don’t understand that even without a major life event, without a traumatic experience to point at, people can slip down a spiral. Depression is the most often thought-of spiral, but Social Anxiety is another.

“Why did you join this group?” one of the younger members asks as we walk between venues, “You clearly do not have Social Anxiety.” I do know that how I experience it is invisible to others. I tend to be diplomatic and I am not shy in groups. Naturally a leader, I tend not to appear socially anxious whatsoever. I can fill the role of host without much thought.

I am by no means any kind of expert on Social Anxiety (SA) but being one who experiences it, let me tell you about it from my experience. I have experienced it as a spiral, in that the longer it pervades the stronger it gets. It gets harder and harder to break-out of.

I think that SA can stem from numerous causes. For me, it developed partly from being highly-sensitive in an insensitive world. Too much noise creates anxiety. Too many people. Too much light. Too much activity and commotion. Think of the enjoyment most people get attending a busy party with music and dancing and lots of people. I’m good up to a point, but beyond that point I become overstimulated and that triggers my fight-or-flight response. I panic to escape. I had many such nights during university, I’d reach my threshold for having fun before anyone else. “I’m going now.” “Don’t go, stay, we’re having fun!” Eventually I just realised that when it’s time for me to leave, easiest was to just bolt. “You disappeared last night,” I’d hear the next day. “I guess I got too drunk,” I’d lie, easier than saying I became overwhelmed by the crowds and ran away. Drinking helps though, my tolerance for stimulation is much higher when drinking. It likely is for most people, that’s why average people happily listen to ear-blowing club music for hours, they probably would not withstand it either when completely sober.

Eventually anxiety can be experienced in anticipation of an anxiety-causing event. These events tend to be social. This part of my anxiety is really pre-overstimulation anxiety and it is very explainable from having an oversensitive nervous system. I don’t know if it really has a name, I just made that up, but it is what it is.

Generally I can keep this at bay by being in-control over my situation. When I was a shop owner I often used to work Saturday mornings at a mall kiosk location. I would only work for 2 or 3 hours, very short. I did this shift because the mall on Saturdays was open 9:30-6:00, which was too long for one person but too short to schedule two. It seemed to me unfair to have someone come in for only 2 or 3 hours, so I did it. It was perfectly fair for me because I wasn’t making a wage anyway. But the mall tended to be noisy. Trapped in the middle of the hallway alone at the kiosk, I came to really hate it. Because if it became too much, I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t just abandon my kiosk and leave it unmanned in the middle of a busy shopping centre. After many times of having the experience of anxiety caused by the noise, I learned to dread working in the mall. Sometimes I would be completely fine, the more I distracted myself from the commotion the better I was. Or sometimes the mall would be dead-quiet anyway. But once the anxiety became a conditioned response that game was over. Not that I should be complaining, my partner and I had four retail locations and I probably only worked at a location two or three short times in a week, often not at all. I was able to mostly create the job that I needed, which was working from home and visiting from store to store without actually staying at one for any duration.

I tend not to experience SA with strangers or with new people that I am meeting. Clearly this is unusual and makes me look like an interloper when mixing with others who experience SA. I am not socially awkward and I find it easy to start conversations with strangers. I can generally hone-in on something that is interesting for them to talk about. I am not shy, I am an outgoing introvert. This label goes in the face of what most people know about introverts and extraverts. It just means that I do not recharge in the company of others or in social situations, unlike extraverts. I recharge by being alone or by doing solitary activities such as cycling, reading, or writing. Introverts recharge introspectively, extraverts recharge extracurricularly. That’s not exactly the correct usage of those terms, but you know what I mean.

My Social Anxiety holds me back mostly with people I know. I’m fine with people I don’t know, I’m not worried about disappointing strangers or of not living up-to stranger’s expectations of me. In this way, strangers are very safe. It’s probably part of how I thrive on traveling and how I can enjoy doing so for a long time by myself.

I know exactly what this issue stems from but I’m not going to write about it today. I will explain how it plays-out though. When back in Toronto I procrastinate on meeting-up with friends. I’ll reach for the phone to call and put it back down letting anxiety win-out. “How was your trip?” someone will ask. I don’t know how to answer that question apart from it was good or it wasn’t. How do I sum-up the myriad of travel experiences into a conversation? My somewhat scattered-mind does not focus in on travel tales to readily share. I generally come-off as well-spoken, but I often feel tongue-tied. I have very high expectations for myself that I cannot live-up to. I will do the same thing when I visit my parents in my hometown in New Brunswick, Canada. This is a place I have not lived-in, apart from a few summers early on, for 22 years. I will like the idea of catching-up with people before I visit, but once I’m there I may or may not let anxiety cancel plans.

What if I’m not interesting enough. What if they want more from me than I can give. What if they end-up calling me too much and invading my space. What if Im just not good enough. I’ll call them later. I’m tired.

And the dreaded phone. It rings, I panic, I ignore it. The first thought that flashes through my head when my phone rings is, “What have I done bad now.” I do not have memory of a specific telephone call that would explain this reaction, but my main feeling on answering the phone is guilt. I am in trouble for something. I have let someone down. They are calling to tell me that I did something bad, or said something wrong, or made some unfixable mistake. After arriving to the UK last week a UK friend posted on my Facebook, “call”. What did I do? I avoided Facebook for days. Did I call? Not yet. His little message exasperated my issue too though. “Please call, can’t wait to catch-up!” may have put me at ease to pick-up the phone. The one word command had me think, OMG what’s wrong, have I offended him? Is he upset with me?

This phone thing is irritating and I am decided that I will “feel the fear and do it anyway”. Eventually I will answer the phone enough times and have enough pleasant, rewarding conversations that the anxiety will disappear. Call display does help, I nearly always feel completely comfortable answering to my Sister or to my Mother. But that’s it. Most other people I am more likely to miss the call, build-up some courage, and call them back a few moments later.

Separately there is the noise factor, I do not have a good filter for noise. If I answer the phone when walking down the street I cannot hear very well, it makes for an awkward conversation. In my car is fine, the blue teeth connect to each other or something (BTW, bluetooth is a Canadian invention) and the speaker is clear. Also, I’d be embarrassed to be “that guy”, the one who is yelling into his cell phone at the coffee shop.

I am not going to accept my phone limitations anymore, I am just going to answer it. When just doing it, anxiety decreases over time. When avoiding it, anxiety increases over time. But it’s easier said than done. It is a flight or fight response, heart rate increases, some people sweat, for me I feel short of breath. I just want the feeling to disappear and the easiest short-term way to do that is to remove the trigger.

I think a common tie of those to suffer from Social Anxiety often involves a past assault to their self-esteem. This can happen simply from being a square peg trying to fit the round holes and finding it impossible. Our culture does not value uniqueness the way it should. “I’m different from the others. There must be something wrong with me,” is a common, completely false, conclusion. How dull would our planet be without the richness of variety that comes from those who do not fit the norm. Architecture would all be straight and box-like. Clothing would still be grey, beige, and dull. Music would never have evolved the way it has. I cannot imagine what the world would look like if it were not improved by those who didn’t fit-in. These are the trend-setters and the record-breakers when they are adults, but their school years can be tragic.

Another common cause to self esteem issues comes from one’s peers. Bullying and teasing can leave scars that causes an innate fear of others. These abuses are generally tied to the school yard years, but their impact on one’s sense of self cannot be overestimated. Again the square pegs are the most targeted, those who stand out as being unique. Too tall, too thin, too fat, too smart, too slow, too awkward; all these are comparisons against the average. People even become embarrassed by their medical conditions, of which they have little or no control and which should not be cause for embarrassment whatsoever, but they feel judged for nonetheless. Acne, skin discolouration, hair loss, mobility issues, speech impediments, a limp, a hump, even having the need for spectacles; again, anything that sets one apart. “Fatty”, “Four-eyes”, “Skinny git”, “Retard”, the list of hurtful taunts thrown about is endless. Individuals may even attach shame to their condition, which is disgusting. Society has failed them. Shame on society.

Racism, sexism, elitism, homophobia; these are things people should be ashamed of. People should be ashamed of judging others, yet the practice is often reinforced. As arbitrary as these types of characteristics are to the value of a person, they can make the person fell like an outsider, or be an outsider, in certain environments.

I was pretty young when I had this realisation. “If I was born into a Muslim family, I’d be Muslim.” “Yes, but the Bible says that you can only go to heaven through Jesus Christ.” “But what if I had never heard of Jesus Christ?” “That’s what the Bible says, so . . .” I had asked my Mother and she had me ask an inter-denominational minister for these answers. I think part of her must know this doctrine is wrong on a moral level so she hoped a minister would have some special deeper interpretation, but he didn’t.

So it would have been my fault if I had not heard of Jesus Christ and I would not go to heaven. Most other world religions are more inclusive. The Christian Church has also loosened it’s stance to allow it’s members to have more liberal views than was allowed when I was a child 30 years ago. They had to, they’d have almost no membership left if they hadn’t. Many do not take the Bible literally anymore, so, what can you take it for? It can be interpreted in many ways to suit the beliefs of the day, and it has. I still don’t understand how a book that can be ascribed opposite meanings on many topics, can be used as an authority. During slavery, verses were quoted to consider having slaves as biblical. Later, verses were quoted to prove that slavery was unbiblical. If it can be interpreted that loosely, how can it be consulted for truth?

Does it not enforce racism to say that one person will be rewarded with heaven and another won’t? Does that not say to a child that one person is better than another? Is there not an understood implication to the little white Christian child that he deserves good things like heaven and his friend Mohammed doesn’t? Even if Mohammed has heard of Jesus Christ, should he not be rewarded for being faithful to his own beliefs, those of his family and of his community? “Not according to the Bible.”

Fortunately, most Christians today seem to believe that there are many paths to God and no longer strictly adhere to their faith’s elitism. Again, what choice do they have living in a modern, multicultural world. I am happy for people to have their beliefs but I am not up-to having a religious debate. Insofar as one’s beliefs do not hurt others, I think they should be respected.

Shyness tends to also be linked to SA. Behind it may be fear. Fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of being judged. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of not being heard. Fear of not sounding smart enough. Fear of rejection. If I don’t speak, nothing will happen. If I do speak, something bad could happen. People will laugh at me, I will be told I am wrong, people will disagree, people won’t care . . . . . I have little doubt we have some dissatisfied teachers to blame for some of these cases.

I was a very distracted confused little boy during my first few years of school. I remember Mrs.Perkins screaming at me in fury, and I never knew what for. It was always about not paying attention. I was diagnosed with ADHD 25 years later. Luckily I was smart enough to get by without having full attention. And I learned to focus over time. In my last year of Uni. I had career testing in the guidance department. The head of guidance was shocked that I had the aptitude for university based on my scores. “You’re tolerance for study is the lowest I have ever seen for a university student. If you were in first year I’d be suggesting that maybe uni is not a good fit for you.” I took a programme that didn’t require much study, Business Administration. It was mostly just understanding concepts which simply made sense to me. Easy-peasy. Science, history, engineering, not a chance.

It didn’t need to be a teacher’s harshness that caused someone’s shyness, it could be anyone. Parents, peers, siblings, nannies. . . Shyness could also be an innate quality, some babies are shyer than others and grow up to be quieter as well. But is it different wiring that causes a baby to be more shy, or is it earlier experiences? I think certain personalities will have a greater propensity to become shy, but I don’t think it’s tried and fast. Given these circumstances vs. those, one is likely to become shy. Combine that with one’s innate characteristics would compound that likeliness. But I don’t think that shyness is fixed for most people who experience it. It definitely feel like it is fixed though.

Shyness is another condition that can spiral. The more you don’t speak-up, the harder it becomes to speak-up. And when you do speak, your anxiety is so high that you cannot properly find the words or think straight. This makes for another bad experience and the shyness is reinforced. It is so much easer to speak when you are feeling calm, or at least secure. I had my years of being shy but something happened that I broke out of it. I’m not going to write about that right now, another time.

So it was I found myself walking towards a pub in Birmingham with a group of people who suffer differing forms of Social Anxiety. Yes, I am one of you. Don’t judge me by my appearance, my struggles may just be more hidden. (Originally I wrote “my flaws”, which is how SA tends to feel, but “my struggles” is more accurate.) This is not a flawed group, this is a gifted group whose struggles have given them extra compassion and empathy. These are people who make the world a better place.

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My next meet was an organised pub quiz at a worn-in neighbourhood pub. This group are in their 20s and 30s, so I am at the very limit of inclusion. The pub is located in the Jewellery District so it’s also a chance to venture into that central district to see if it will be a good place to continue my stay after my hotel. The hotel is fully booked from Monday, May 13th so I will have to make a move whether staying in Birmingham or not. There is a flat-share near to the pub that is on my consideration list.

A fifteen-minute walk from Victoria Square and where I am staying at present, I encounter very few people on the streets. Except for in specific pedestrianised zones, which are plentiful but concentrated in the city centre, this is not a walking city, at least not from what I can see. When going any distance at all, walking is a bit cumbersome. A sidewalk ends and now I need to illegally cross a thoroughfare to continue on the other side. Or I could back-track to use a pedestrian subway or an overpass, but I won’t. Some narrow streets have no pedestrian space whatsoever. Sidewalks are called “pavements” in the UK, but I won’t use that term in my writing because to North Americans it sounds like it would refer to the street surface, which is pavement, rather than the sidewalk, which is cement.

I stand at the full bar counter waiting my turn to order a drink. The crowd moves slowly because this pub offers cocktails that look pain-staking in their preparation. Six or eight pints could be dispensed in the time it takes to prepare an elaborate beverage of 5 or so different measured liquids, shaken with ice, and then strained through a sieve into a glass that was just chilled by first filling it with ice water for a moment. The crowd intently watches the slow progress of each drink in anticipation of their own turn. A tall slender woman approaches the bar from outside. She is clearly scanning the room for a group so I ask her if she is here for the meet-up. She is.

Hana settles at a table so we don’t lose the last one available while I wait for our drink order. Back at the table another fellow arrives, a 20-something guy who is very good at pub quizzes, so it turns out. Four more guys trickle-in and the quiz has commenced. A page of faces we are meant to identify, I do not even recognise the Canadian, Alanis Morissette. A page of word puzzles, name-that-tune from looking at some written Lyrics, name-that-record looking at album cover artwork. “Those three must have been CDs because they are completely unfamiliar to me,” is my only feedback. I saw so very many record albums when my former partner and I would visit record shows and sort through thousands while buying hundreds for making clocks and melting into bowls that we sold at our stores. Not an interest, I only learned what I needed to so I could recognise our hit-list when sorting through boxes and crates of vinyl. But, there was a different hit-list in Canada so I may have been incorrect in my helpful advice.

The group holds-it’s-own, placing among the top few groups. No thanks to me, I was not key to a single correct answer. Any answer I did know, others also knew. I’m not a fountain of knowledge when it comes to trivia or pop culture. I share with the group that I used to co-own some pop-culture stores. I express my surprise as to how many people bought things like Angry Bird pillows, t-shirts, hats, games, pens. When I finally tried the game on one of my niece’s iPhone, I was shocked. Really? Why do people buy all this crap? Most of the games and such I never did try or see so I can only assume I would have been riveted. No, probably not.

The game ends and we have tied for third. I take my leave and walk out onto the street and make my way home. Back at the hotel I get a message, “Hana has your money.” Apparently after I left there was some sort of re-judgement. People with their smart phones verifying answers and questions using google had found a discrepancy and I guess we were right somewhere previously considered wrong. “I have £15 for you,” Hana enotes to me through the meet-up system. Not really deserved, I’m thinking, I did keep a seat warm at the table but I cannot possibly take any credit for being part of the winning team. If I make it to the next one I can use my winnings to buy a round for the first few people who arrive. That’ll be fun.

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With less than half of my time in Birmingham now completed, this will be continued. My next positing will be much more focused on the sights and will contain less introspection.

Below is a short video of some pics I took around Birmingham. If you receive this posting by email, click on the image and it should open the story in a browser where you can see it play.


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Thanks for reading!
Darren

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Charming Birmingham, England’s Second City

What are the features that make a place unique? That make an experience meaningful? What is it about a particular city that draws me in and makes me want to stay longer? City planning contributes to making a city easier to navigate and creates positive flows where they need to be. Long histories lend to a wealth of historical architecture and fascinating back-stories as to how a place came to be as it is today. Financial success can add impressive buildings and well-maintained spaces. Civic pride will hopefully lead to the creation and improvement of green spaces. But behind all of this it is the people that make the place.

My readers may have noticed that my travel adventures do not hinge-upon the sights before me but on the people that I meet. I would be far more comfortable in a slum that has friendly locals than in a world-class city that has hostile residents. (I’m thinking about my travels in 3rd world countries and refer to actual slums, this is not a metaphor.) I do appreciate the finer things, but things do not make the experience for me. Environment is important, but the people are paramount.

For my Introduction to Birmingham I will highlight my experiences as they were sculpted by the people I met. Welcome to Birmingham, England’s Second City.

Frank and Marg

Although not Brummies, Frank and Marg are a newly-retired couple who live within 30 minutes of England’s second most populous city. I boarded our shared Amsterdam to Birmingham flight at 4PM after having departed Toronto the night before. Tired and worn-out, after saying hello to my seat-mates I quickly fell asleep.

Joe and Bob

Just Kidding! Did you think I had moved on?! That would have been quite funny, to have a section for my in-flight neighbours only to tell you that we didn’t speak. Anyway, back to Frank and Marg who entertained themselves throughout the flight with their tablets, an iPad and an iPad mini. They didn’t seem very chatty, but when I woke-up I asked them if they had traveled very far. Well they immediately opened-up like old friends who had just bumped into each other in the street cheerfully sharing tales of their travels.

“Oh my, have we ever,” says Marg with a touch of well-deserved pride, “we boarded our first flight yesterday at 8AM, didn’t we.”

“Wow, that’s an entire daytime longer than my journey, you must be knackered!”

“It’s true, we’ll get home from the holiday and need to take a holiday!”

“Was it worth the effort?”

“Oh yes, we spent for days here, then had an 8 day cruise, then another 4 days there. It was lovely, have you ever been to the Galapagos?”

“Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. . . . . . . . .sunny 21 degrees Celsius.”

“Isn’t that lovely! When we left, the snow had barely gone and now we have the full summer to look forward to!”

“We went to Borneo in December,” her husband adds,”coming home in the cold, frozen, dark winter was quite a shock.”

“Quite the welcome home,” I suggest.

“Yes, welcome home indeed,” Mary agrees.

“Have you been anywhere?” she asks.

This strikes me as such a funny question that it takes me a moment to think of an answer. I already told them I’m travelling around the Midlands for 10 weeks and for me, this is somewhere. The Midlands is their own backyard but for me it is foreign travel. I’ve probably visited near to 30 countries but after a pause I mention India, since it was my most recent travel. Brief conversation about taxi scams and harassing shop keepers and we have landed.

“Enjoy your stay!” they call as we divide in to separate EU and Non-EU Immigration queues. I should have given them my card but I didn’t just in case. If I end-up having a nasty time in Birmingham I don’t want these nice people to read about it.

Sally

“I don’t look a lot like my photo,” I admit, removing my glasses so she can get a good look at me.”

“That’s alright, I can see it’s you,” she cheerfully offers after looking under her own glasses to compare my face to my upheld passport photo. I think that perhaps women are better at seeing faces more thoroughly than are men. Guys see blonde curls where cropped white hair once stood and facial hair on what used to be a clean-shaven face and become baffled. Photo-Me-photo-Me-photo-me their eyes moving back and forth looking for resemblance. Not completely convinced, they let me go on account of having no other information that would prohibit my entry. I look at my own photo and wonder what they see. I think I also look healthier now that I’m a non-smoker, in my photo I have remarkable circles under my eyes and my skin is pallid.

“What is the purpose of your stay?”

“I’m spending 10 weeks in 10 cities and writing about my experiences. I did the same thing in India earlier this year.”

She flips through my passport to verify that story. It’s probably not the usual itinerary of an overseas visitor to Birmingham. Two separate India Visas, various stamps and dates. “How long were you here (in the UK) before you went to India?”

“Just over a week. I spent New Years with friends in London before spending a week in Cardiff. I didn’t like Cardiff very much.” I’m not sure why I added this extra commentary on that city, for all I know she could be from there herself.

“I have friends who went to Cardiff, they enjoyed it,” she mentions, “What didn’t you like about it?”

“I found the people to be harsh. I can only guess that maybe they don’t like North Americans? Everywhere I went as soon as I opened my mouth it was like I felt hate emanating towards me.”

“Oh, I don’t know, ” she ponders, “apparently they’re not fond of the English either though.” she adds in recognition of the possible truth in my account.

“So how long were you in India?”

I had thought of it as 10 weeks, but now that she is asking I realise she is seeing an in-congruency as she flips through the pages. “I left Cardiff on January 8th for Mumbai, then I departed from Kolkata on March 3rd to Los Angeles, then I returned to Canada on March 10th but I didn’t get home to Toronto until March 25th.” (I was away for 11 weeks and thought of the trip as being mostly to India, but in fact I was only in India for about 8 weeks.)

“Okay, I can see that. So, how are you funding this?” she asks, her head tilted.

“With illegal sex-trade workers I have working for me in Stratford-Upon-Avon.” I think but don’t share. This is the kind of slip-up she is looking for. Not really, but she does need to rule me out as being some sort of an illegal hoping to support myself by working under the table in the central UK, as unlikely as that sounds to me at my age. I explain my situation of settled-down security traded-in for blissful freedom to pursue my passions and she understands.

“So where do you plan to stay in the Midlands? You’re not staying in the Copthorne for 10 weeks, I’m sure?”

“From Birmingham, maybe Coventry, Northampton, Norwich (“Nor-ich,” she corrects with a smile), Nottingham, Leeds, York, Manchester, Lincoln, Liverpool, and if I have time I’d like to visit Northern Wales.”

“Where in Wales?”

“LLLLLLLAAANNNNGGGGUuu- sumethin'”

“Oh, one of those names, yes, they are difficult to remember,” she laughs.

“And what will you write about?”

I give her a card with my blog while I briefly explain.

“I’ll check you’re blog out tonight!” she says, enthusiastically. I am now the last person at Immigration, there is no one left to immigrate, so she chats a bit longer. “Enjoy your stay and good luck with your writing!”

My entry verified in a friendly and welcoming manner, my first impression is favourable. Made welcome pre-arrival, now made welcome directly post-arrival. I’m feeling good about this adventure.

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My passport photo, taken 2 years ago at age 37.

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My very current photo in front of Queen Victoria in Victoria Square at age 39.

Sara and Jane

Having collected my considerable luggage, nearly doubled by having brought with me a folding bicycle, I follow signage towards the taxi queue. Enroute, I stop for a moment at the Discovery Centre.

“Can I help you find anything?” a friendly staffer asks as I am looking at shelves of pamphlets.

“What would you recommend for someone who is visiting Birmingham for the first time, would like to make some day trips, and will be spending 10 weeks in total visiting the region?”

She turns to her colleague and the two of them make helpful suggestions as to what information might be most useful for me.
(“Silly cow, these people make minimum wage, you can’t judge Cardiff by how these kinds of people treat you,” someone had commented on my Cardiff postings. Actually, I can, I am comparing oranges to oranges pretty much everywhere I go. Same sort of job, here-friendly, there-begrudging. Seems comparable to me.)

Youssef

“Do you know the Copthorne Hotel at Paradise Circus?”

“Yes, Sir,” he claims as he opens the doors to the large interior of a typical British black cab. I say,”claims” because in recent months I very often got into taxis after being assured by the driver that they knew exactly where I wanted to go when they had no idea whatsoever.

“The weather is wonderful today!” the driver offers as way of a conversation starter. He is clearly very pleased as he excitedly mentions it.

“Amazing, I wasn’t expecting it!” It feels like a summer afternoon, after 5PM on the 2nd of May.

“Where are you from, Sir?” And the usual banter ensues except that I can barely hear him through the plexiglass barricade between us so it’s a bit strained.

Some time later I am dropped to the front entrance of my hotel within the budget I had researched to be the honest fare. I have learnt not to trust cabbies so I am very pleased when they are true. It speaks well of their city. Last time I was in London I was well taken for a ride and the driver argued his innocence of having to take the greatly lengthened route he took that cost 120 pounds by metre that I know should have cost less than 70 quid. It leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth.

Jeff

“Do you live in the UK at all, Sir?”

“No.”

“If you could just fill in this form then, Sir, with your passport information and such.”

An older four-star hotel, it’s a bit aged but excellent value and the perfect location for my Birmingham adventures.

Strangers from my Window

Introduced to my room, the first thing I do after dropping my considerable bags is go straight to the window with my camera. I’m on the 4th floor looking down to a courtyard-like area that is at the rear of the Paradise Forum. A main pedestrian thoroughfare continues through the building as if out-of-doors creating considerable foot traffic. A neighbourhood pub, Wetherspoons, has an outdoor seating area that is well-in-use on this lovely sunny pre-summer afternoon. Opposite another patio seating area of Woktastic is less populated. My eye falls-upon some activity. Two guys in an argument are getting physical. A punch is thrown. Another. Oh, dear. Someone steps in to break them up. They settle-down and one of them puts his suit jacket back on.

A moment later and they’re back at it again. One lunges at the other and they’re on the ground, quickly out of view behind a little BBQ fast food hut. Again they are coaxed to cease. Moments later they start-up again, first with yelling followed by blows. Somehow now on the pub patio a table crashes. An older couple stand-in, both husband and wife trying to disarm the situation.

The fight doesn’t leave the biggest impression on me, the reaction of the people nearby does. Several people have put themselves in harms way to try to stop this dispute. No one reacted as if this were a sight they were used to, people stopped, police were phoned. Clearly this was unacceptable behaviour and locals were trying to do something about it. If I had been down there I reckon I would have stayed clear so I am rather impressed as to what has motivated people to step-in.


Nowhere is perfect. But notice in these clips how standers-by don’t just stand by, but they actually get involved and try to stop the quarrel. I think the Brummies have real guts.

Rebecca

I exit the main doors of the hotel where I came in and stare at the map that I picked-up at the airport. The hotel is labelled on the map, but it is not drawn. I am not sure which direction I am facing. I want to go towards Victoria Square which will lead me to New Street with all the shops and services that will be useful to me. I want to set-up my iPad with a UK SIM straight away. The hotel charges 5 pounds ($8) per day for using WIFI, and I can activate having my own portable internet for an entire month for only 15 pounds ($24).

A small woman near to my age with pink/purple hair walking very quickly notices me looking dazed and confused. It’s true, I was not to bed last night and now having just arrived, I am unable to orient myself on the map. “Where are you trying to go?” she accurately ascertains. “Victoria Square.” “Come with me, I can show you.” Although she is not going into the square herself, she is going nearby. We exit the car-only driveway of the hotel and enter a pedestrian path, up some stairs, and down an exterior corridor. “It doesn’t really look like an entrance from this direction,” she explains as we enter a side-door of the Paradise Forum. At a Fork in the corridor we take a left. She walks a bit out of her way so that she can point me in the direction of the square at the appropriate exit before she continues in her own direction.

“Thanks very much!”

“You’re very welcome!” she shoots back with a smile.

(I later find a more sensible exit/entrance for the hotel through the restaurant/lounge that connects directly onto the rear walkway of the Paradise Forum. This is the way that pedestrians come and go from the hotel.)

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The Black glass with Red outlines is the back/side/pedestrian entrance of the Copthorne Hotel.

Doris and Laura

Paradise Forum is a small ground-floor arcade of mostly food purveyors that is topped by the city library. Also within the library on the main level is a tourist information office. Inside, two cheerful ladies help me as I ask for several items. I eavesdrop as one of the ladies explains to a visitor before me the maps they have available. The visitor is readily content and on her way. “Could I also get a civic map please?” “Sure you can,” and she’s off to get one. Oh, and could I get a copy of the Cycling map as well? “Certainly, just a moment.” Maps in hand I wander over to the racks of brochures that I had not noticed before. Self-service, it’s probably where the welcomer had walked over to each time to get my maps herself. I return to the desk once more to purchase a few post cards, where the three of us joke about the weather being so changeable in the UK. Hot and sunny one minute, cold and raining the next. “We can have four seasons in a day!” one of them boasts.

Paradise Forum opens up onto Chamberlain Square, a beautiful outdoor space flanked by the library, the rear of the Town Hall, and the Museum and Art Gallery. The Museum and Art Gallery was built between 1884 and 1889 by the Gas company in an asymmetrical Classical style. A large clock tower, “Big Brum” rises on the left. In the centre of the square a fountain with a tower that looks like a steeple adds to the charm of the space. Taking one up a grade, a very wide rounded staircase runs much of the width leading up to the entrances of the Forum and the Library.

Town Hall is a Roman-looking Grade 1 listed building. Passing between it and the Museum one happens upon adjoining Victoria Square. This space provides one of the most iconic scenes of Birmingham which I recognise from photos. Council House stands as the prominent resident of the square, it is actually another wing of the same building which is the Museum and Art Gallery. A statue of Queen Victoria stands in the square, which stands at the top of another stately staircase with water features and lovely flower gardens. Below, some of the main shopping streets of Birmingham are accessed.

New Street must be considered the High Street, essentially a link between Victoria Square and the Bull Ring Shopping Complex. A plethora of small shops, both chain and independent, as well as other services, pubs, restaurants, coffee shops, and cafes line the streets and back-streets between the two anchor landmarks. Mid-point is the New Street Station, the main railway link of the city.

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“Big Brum” on the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery at Chamberlain Square.

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Another view of Chamberlain Square this one showing the Museum on the left, the fountain with it’s steeple in the centre and the Town Hall on the right.

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Council House on Victoria Square.

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Side view of Victoria Square, this photo better shows the Romanesque Town Hall, opposite.

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Front view of the playful New Street Station, Birmingham’s main rail station.

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Looking up Navigation Street towards the side of New Street Station, which is new.

James

After 6PM on a Thursday, I am surprised to find many shops in this very well-populated pedestrian zone to be recently closed. I buy a Big Issue on the street and the friendly sales person, James, explains where I can find mobile phone stores that will be open longer, they are inside the Bullring. “Big Issue, Sir?” “Sure, how much is it?” (I am embarrassed by this question, I regularly purchased this weekly paper magazine when I lived in the UK many years ago. Back in the 1990’s, I think it may have been a pound at the time.) “Two pound-fifty. I know, it’s a lot, isn’t it.” “No, it’s fine. I just arrived to the UK today, that’s why I didn’t know the price.” I give him 3, thank him for his help and continue on my little mission.

The Big Issue is a charitable publication that helps unemployed people to make some money by selling them on the street. At the current price, the vendors make 1 pound 25 for every issue they sell. I find many of the stories interesting and I think it’s an excellent way to spend a few quid. I believe it is available all throughout the UK.

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Billy

The Bullring is a large and very impressive shopping complex. Although there is just over 160 retailers, many of them are large tenants. I make my way down to the bottom level and find a recently-merged mobile phone company store that is still open. There I am immediately served by a helpful-enough Billy. He’s not Mr.Personality but he gets the job done with little fuss. I’m a rather easy customer, I want to buy a phone, don’t really care much about what it is although if it can take nice photos that could be handy. Samsung Galaxy is sold out in all three versions, I don’t want another Blackberry, so after a 3-minute selection process I end up with a Windows smartphone made by Nokia. Soon, I’ll figure out how to use it.

I wrote this chapter broken into the interactions I had with people simply so readers could see how it really is the interactions with individuals that creates the feeling of a place.

I am happy to report, with loads of things to do and friendly locals, after only 24 hours I realise that one week will not be enough time for me here. I think Birmingham might just be a bit of a hidden gem. As England’s Second City, it does not get the attention abroad that it deserves. No one has ever suggested that I visit this city, yet it really seems to be a great place.

*The names above have been altered to protect the privacy of the individuals.

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Darren