More Walks around the Medieval city of York

There are always two walks scheduled to start at the same time by Yorkwalk. I arrive on site to join the Graveyard,Coffin, and Plague Tour but being the only one who has shown that tour cannot go so instead I join a merry group of about 10 led by our very erudite guide, John. We start off through the lovely Museum Gates, where all of the tours commence. This is a wonderfully personal tour for although John was not born and raised in York, he has lived most of his active adult life here. His main quality is understanding what is interesting for the general public who are not themselves mostly historians but merely curious.

At the ruins of St.Mary’s Abbey (constructed 1270-1294) John shares with us how in the 1940s England requested cities to have performance festivals as part of the renewal of lives after the war. During this time the Edinburgh Fringe started as did many others including York’s Mystery Plays. Dame Judy Dench was one of the first actors to entertain audiences in front of this Abbey ruin, which has been repurposed as a backdrop ever since.

In another area of the gardens John points out the sone work use to contain flower beds. He pulls out a photo from the treasure trove he carries with him and shows us a drawing of the Abbey ruins perhaps over a century ago. As we can see, much of the rocks used in the gardens were pilfered from the ruins. But they don’t do that anymore, now they are more valuable as they are.

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Look at me with my healthy breakfast! It is, look carefully, my egg is poached and I had them hold the fried bread, baked beans, potatoes, and toast. I may need my cholesterol meds again after this trip with all the included English Breakfasts. At least my clothes still fit. Mostly.

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I stay just outside the back gate to these lovely Museum Gardens where all the Yorkwalk tours commence. Here you can see our guide, John, walking backwards as he narrates the history of the Roman wall ruin to our right.

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After showing us a drawing of what the Abbey ruins looked just over a century ago, John takes us nearby to see where some of it was pilfered to.

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You don’t have to look too closely at the flowerbeds to notice that many of the rocks used have been very much altered after being quarried. Ah ha. Pilfered from ruins. Ancient ruins had not been as cherished in the recent past as they are today.

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There is simply so much to look at everywhere, I had not even noticed this until John pointed it out. I had passed through this park nearly ten times up to this point. Remarkable. And that is why I am so pleased to enjoy these walking tours with a variety of interesting and unique guides. No, I do not work for them. Also, when travelling alone taking walking tours is a great way to meet locals and other travellers. It’s good to have the social interaction.

Along the city walls he tells us how the walls impeded the development of York throughout time, when other cities were becoming major trading places the walls of York hindered the coming and going of goods and inhibited growth. In the 1800s parts of the walls were disassembled to build roadways and to give the city new life. Like taking a tourniquet off a limb and allowing blood to flow.

We stop at the location of one of the main city gates where John shows us a photo of what it used to look like, quite a sizable tunnel-structure has been removed that would have disallowed a street to run along the wall. The photo is not of this gate, it is of another gate where the tunnel has been left in tact and he points out where there is evidence of the removal of this one.

Inside the gate, he points out some architecture that was redone in the 1900s. When the railways connected York in the 1830s, with it came tourists to enjoy England’s most complete Medieval city. They wanted to see the York Minster and the city walls. They expected to see gothic architecture here on the gate, so sometime in the 1900s they removed lovely windows from this space where a guard keeper would have lived and changed it with more harsh gothic defence-looking walls that visitors expected to see. But these arrow slits are pointing inwards, it would have been very unusual for the gate to have defences like these pointing towards it’s own. As for changes at York Minster, a group of homes were removed to have a clearing, opening the view to the Minster from much further. I had noticed myself that I had to go more than half a block away to be able to capture the Minster in my camera’s viewfinder. Before the clearing, I wouldn’t have been able to fully capture the front of the structure.

John went to University in Brighton, in the South of England. I don’t know how he ended-up in York, but I do know that for some time he worked in the accounts department of a bookshop under a Polish woman who was born during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II. The offices of the bookshop overlooked the toilet shop that was later discovered to have some medieval innards and today is a type of small museum. He finished his career at the York Minster Library from 1994 to 2010. He shares a few fun stories from his years there as we stand behind the great York Minster from where we can see the building where he worked on the same grounds. A couple donated their “Wicked Bible”, a book that was printed in the 1600s and nearly immediately destroyed intentionally by fire due to it’s heresy. A printers error that could not be overlooked, the missing of one short word made so much difference. “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Oops. Obviously the missing word was “not”.

Throughout the tour I also enjoy sharing comments with an interesting woman from the West Coast. She is visiting York for her 50th University Class Reunion. She joined the tour a few minutes in having stumbled into us by the Abbey Ruins where John was showing us photos from the year he joined the Mystery Plays. Photos of the stage work set-up in front of the ruins. John played a demon.

I’m going to call her Judith, but I didn’t catch her name. Judith studied at what was the 3rd year of this young university. She has not visited York since her school days so she was in that blur of struggling to remember days so long past they nearly seem like they were from someone else’s life. We walk through an interesting compound where she actually had classes. I think she’s a bit stunned by it all, surprised by the unfamiliarity. I share with her that it took me some days to better remember my life in Edinburgh. It took some time and effort for memories to sift through the deep sand residue that has since accumulated. Such a different time, such a different life. I hope she is able to visit for long enough for the memories to flood back, she has much more sand to sift than I had. Although I have a lot of sand from having had a lot of variety in my experiences over the past 16 years. If I had lived in one city and had one main career I would have had much less to sort through myself. I have had very distinct shorter chapters whereas many people have one or two longer chapters.

I always think of Universities as being old, so I am quite surprised by the age of this one. But my first university was oddly old for being in Canada. Originally named Kings College, the University of New Brunswick is tied with Georgia State as being the oldest university in North America, both founded in 1789. Those were the very early days of formal education on that continent. (It was still Kings College during the era of the book series, “Anne of Green Gables” and was the setting for her studies.)

We end the tour with some overlap of my other tours and again visit the lovely owls. I really don’t mind having overlap, I only capture half or less of what is presented to me anyway. With ADHD I have a natural filter that automatically only captures the most interesting bits while my mind wanders during the presentation of minute details that might fascinate me were I a historian.

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Much of the walls we walk on today were recreated in Victorian times. This bit is Roman.

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Notice the tiny little window. We are told that this is located in a toilet. Well, not IN the toilet, but British also call the room in which a toilet is located the toilet.

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John asks us if we can guess what has happened here. Iron fencing removed for the war effort.

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“Judith” was excited when we rounded the corner to this building. Most of York University is located outside the city walls in newish buildings but she happened to have attended some classes here when she was a student during the University’s early days.

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During the poring rain last night whilst I was enjoying Verdi in the comfort of York Mister a university group was doing an outdoor play about Anne Boleyn. They have tarps for over the audience but the actors were soaked. We meet the director who lets us lift the incredibly heavy costumes to feel their weight.

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These arrow slits of the construction reconstructed to look “more Gothic” are facing into the walled city rather than towards intruders.

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With my hair it’s longest since high school, my facial hair (since November 2012), and full-time travelling, I think I may have become a hippy.

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I explained the purpose of this little plaque in my previous posting about York.

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A little ornamental devil in the middle of the colourful medieval streets of York’s centre.
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After walking past lots of crowded lunch spots, I settle on having lunch at the library. I have chosen this because of it’s quiet setting and being located directly beside where my next tour will commence in just over an hour. Lunch is simple and good and has the benefit of being cheaper than in the tourist restaurants. Sadly the fluorescent tube lights are too bright for me and I have forgotten those glasses, but I leave soon enough not to have gotten a headache.

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In the afternoon I join a tour called, “Guildhalls & Hidden Places” which has a largely English crowd in attendance. When I say “largely”, I mean 5 Brits and me. This is a well travelled group, three of them have been to Canada and are happy to share about their travels. In our conversations about England I have now added Chester to my list of places to visit, and it may even happen on this trip after Liverpool.

The other solo walker is a local nun, she lives a 2-minute walk away from the York Minster in a Maisonette. She too has visited Toronto, she stayed for a month there with some sisters in Willowdale. She enjoyed her stay.

We walk past a pub that once was the city dwelling of country folks who were the parents of General Wolfe. The Wolfe who defeated the French and took Canada for the British Empire.

Our first stop is to visit St.Cuthberts, a church that has been made redundant three times. The first time was during the reformation when nearly half of all Yorks churches were made redundant. The last time was more recently, the priest in charge decided he didn’t like the groups that were making use of the church and made them find another home. Now, empty and unused, it has less chances of survival from things like moisture damage and vandalism. It’s much better for a building like this to have people coming and going.

Our guide, Warwick, removes some carpet floor tiles, then wood, then support beams, to unveil a secret entrance to under the floor. Two of us climb down the fixed ladder to see the marked grave below. There are many, many unmarked burials below us and outside surrounding the church.

PHOTOS

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The Black Swan pub in York was once the city home of the parents of General Wolfe. (I was told that they spent most of their time in their country home.)

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St. Cuthburts has had been a church long in disuse and has been made redundant again recently because the person in charge did not like it’s uses. But any use is better than no use when it comes to preserving an old structure. It was being used by Christian groups, just not ones the person in control approved of apparently.

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Trying to save this structure, self-sufficient offices were built in the middle so the building would be used without touching it’s actual structure. They have been made empty recently though.

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Notice the floor tiles in front of the jacobean pulpit. They hide an entrance to underneath this modern sub floor.

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The entry opened, two of us venture down for a peak. General public cannot enter this locked church, and fewer people still have access to this area.

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Some views under the sub-floor.

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It’s not a beautiful church inside.

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Showing the patchwork of brickworks outside St.Cuthberts.

We visit part of the York City walls where we come to understand that most of what we see today are Victorian recreations of the walls. In this location we can see some of the original Roman walls, from the 200s. They seem very short but this is because the ground level has risen by a few meters.

Lastly we visit a Guild Hall that was once part of a priest’s commune. It was another case of the priests misbehaving and then being housed together under a watchful eye. Even then, it was known for the occasional priest to sneak in male tradesmen to do work who were in fact women in disguise. Naughty priests.

Today this is a modern guildhall, serving as the meeting place for several different guilds and being rented out for functions.

When I return to the hotel I am introduced to my new room. I had originally only booked to stay 3 nights. To increase my stay to 6 nights I need to move twice taking what accommodation they have available. The feeling at the Coach House Hotel is fantastic, very homey and welcoming so I didn’t want to move anywhere else. This is a wonderful home away from home and in a great location too.

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A section of York’s city walls.

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The walls high above are the Victorian reconstructions. The darkest part are the most modern ones, they are retaining walls holding the earth away from the unburied Roman walls, which our guide has trekked down into.

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There are numerous Guildhalls throughout York.
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The Largest Medieval Cathedral of Northern Europe, York Minster

This posting is out of sync with my travels. I have placed it earlier than it should have been to increase the variety of my later postings. Roslyn Chapel, near Edinburgh, has been moved from this date to August 16th.

I sit in seat PP1 in the incredible structure of York Minster waiting for a performance of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem to be performed by York University Choir and Symphony Orchestra. I feel very lucky to have gotten a ticket only last night. They had been sold out online when first I checked yesterday, then they weren’t later. I didn’t notice it had been two different suppliers, the box office for York Minster was sold out but York University had a few left.

I am a sucker for overly-dramatic classical works sung in languages I can’t understand. Last week I was entranced by Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and this week it’s Verdi’s Requiem. I do prefer Pergolesi, but they both have incredible pangs of desperation in their music. Music cannot be written to be any more dramatic than these. If I understood the words it would take away from my experience entirely. Performed well, the passion and anguish and fever of the music itself conveys more emotion than words could ever do. I have never been one for words anyway. Even sung in English, my mother tongue, I usually miss them. This lent well to my own singing when I was easily passionate singing in German or Italian by just learning pronunciations. I had no idea what the words meant, but I felt their meaning from the composition. A “lyric Baritone” my classical voice coach called me when I was 16 years of age. I hum as I go about my day probably everyday, but I’ve not sang since I lived in Edinburgh 1997/1998.

According to my tour guide yesterday, York Minster is one of two Cathedrals in the world to have it’s own official police force. The other is the Vatican. This is also the largest medieval Cathedral in all of Northern Europe. This is one of the most impressive Gothic buildings in the world having been built between 1220 and 1440. This long span of construction meant that the structure has captured the various stages of Gothic architecture as it changed and developed over the years. There were other churches on this site from much earlier times as well.

I am so pleased to be visiting this venue for a dramatic musical performance, I can’t tell you how much so. I stop my writing when I am joined by a lovely Cheshire woman who arrives with her load of shopping. Looks like she has enjoyed some of the nearby boutiques, none of her bags have the large advertisements of chain shops. Turns out Ann spent 12 years living in my city of Toronto and the two of us catch like a house on fire. She sung a season with this choir but, “They were too good for me. Most of them are music students at the university and I couldn’t keep-up with the progress they made. They could learn the music so quickly.” She did enjoy singing in a village choir at some point, but here she is much happier to enjoy the performance from this side.

The concert is impressive, perhaps 300 voices and a large orchestra. With the reverberation some of the music is obscured into great mountains of thunder, but that’s not far off from Verdi’s intention anyway. There is a bit when the strings fight with the timpani drums that is somewhat lost because of how the sound blends in together. The dramatic stops and starts don’t stop and start because the echoes completely fill the spaces. It was a wonderful concert though and it was the kind of night when I couldn’t help but think, “I can’t believe this is my life.” In a good way, of course.

Click below to see the thunderous part I was referring to above:

http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=1woIv05rl1s

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I had to stand quite far away to capture most of the front of York Minster in my viewfinder.
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Excited to be attending a performance of Verdi in the York Minster!
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Inside the main area of this massive Cathedral keying in this entry as I wait until my amicable seatmate arrived to share some conversation.
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I couldn’t see the symphony but I could certainly hear them! The choir, on tiers, was fun to watch.

Earlier today I walked along parts of York’s city walls and wandered around the city.

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A little cutaway at a gate of the city’s walls.
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Clever sign, how did you know? (But what it didn’t know was that I needed it from Betty’s. Sorry sign.)

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I climbed up this gate, on Micklegate, to walk along the walls. But there are numerous entry points.

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Visitors have been walking along these walls since trains first introduced mass tourism to York in the 1830s. Locals, of course, have been walking along them throughout the ages.

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Notice the addition of railings so that visitors don’t fall to their death. Very clever.

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There are lovely views from the city walls too, and lots of nice garden areas.

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This large ferris wheel is only here temporarily. It stands very near to the train station.
The main tracks at the station stand on mass graves from a cholera outbreak. That was a while back though.

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This is when I passed this hotel and was able to correct a detail in my previous York posting.

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Lovely metalwork on this bridge I’m about to cross, it stands linking the city walls.

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Here it is closer where you can see the details of the city walls and tower-like structures on both sides.

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Looking up the Ouse river from the bridge. If people along the River Tyne are Tynesiders, I would suggest these people could be called Ousies. What do you think, people of York? Good idea?

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Interior view of Lendal Bridge.

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I just thought this was fun, a 500-year lease for one peppercorn per year!

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Most of the city walls we walk on are Victorian rebuilds. I will show in another posting a bit of original Roman remains.

There’s lots more to come about the wonderful city of York, a city stepped in rich heritage, history, and medieval architecture. My next posting will come along in 4 days. Don’t miss it, follow me today!

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Spending a Long Weekend in Leicester, UK

Leicester

I arrived to the Campanile Hotel in Leicester before noon on a Saturday. “Is it possible to check in?” I ask at the front desk. “No, check-in is at 2 o’clock, you’ll have to come back later.”

I knew check-in was not until 2, but most hotels allow early arrivals if they have any empty rooms. Or if they don’t, they at least pretend to. “Sorry, we don’t have any rooms available at the moment,” sits better with me than, “check-in is at 2.” But that is the rule and that is the reason presented.

I head into the streets towards downtown. In the very centre of town is a clock tower from-which emanate pedestrianised streets in every direction. My first impressions of Leicester are bleak. Driving in, the Sat Nav was not well able to navigate the mixed-up combination of twisting one-way streets combined with road construction and diversions. I did a few circles before deciding not to listen to Audi’s GPS system and actually making progress. I may set-up the Tom Tom before I leave this city, I am finding Audi’s Sat Nav to be quite poor indeed.

I chose the hotel because it looked very convenient, just outside the ring road of the downtown. But my area of downtown seems to be rather downtrodden, an industrial area now partially boarded-up. “Where have I taken myself now,” I wonder as I walk in the direction of the clock tower, taking some desolate photos on the way.

This is a bank holiday weekend and the shopping streets are packed. In fact, it’s incredible. For a smallish city of around 300 thousand, it seems like we could not conjure these kinds of numbers in a city of more than 10 times the population, I am thinking of my own city of Toronto. The crowds moving through the extensive pedestrian area make me feel like I am at a carnival, it’s like walking through the CNE (Canadian National Exhibition, an 18-day festival in Toronto).

My first impression of Leicester is of feeling claustrophobic. The buildings crowding the streets, the streets crowded with people. I wander in search of somewhere to linger as I explore, but I don’t feel comfortable.

At the Tourist Information centre I discover that I missed the once-weekly walking tour, it was this morning. The office is of no real use to me whatsoever as I ask what options I have for seeing this city. I pause here staring at the pamphlets for some time, I can’t seem to filter out the interesting from the banal today and nothing catches my attention. I’m feeling overwhelmed by my continuous travel this weekend, I wan’t the ladies hired to work here to tell me what is interesting but they don’t seem to have any opinions, they just try to answer specific questions. Well, they don’t really “try” but they do answer if they know. “Go the the Guild Hall,” one tells me, “they might know if any other walking tour exists.” Or, since this is an information centre and since knowing this kind of thing should be something you would want to know, perhaps you could call over there and find out. Eventually I make my way back to my hotel around dinnertime and I stay in my room until the next morning.

My room at the Campanile is small and basic. Just a bed and a corner table with a chair that pulls up, the table holds a tv and an electric kettle, so there is just enough room to do some writing there as well. So it is surprising to me that there are at least 6 Eastern Europeans in the room next door, how different could their room be? I assume they aren’t actually sharing the same room, they must be just visiting, they’ll separate in to their own rooms when it’s time for bed. Eventually. Clearly having a great time, at first just chatting and later watching some seriously comedic television programs after midnight. I watch Netflix in bed using my headphones so that I can hear, my speakers are not strong enough to compete with the noise emanating from my neighbours.

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Not a lovely view from the perspective of where I was staying. I would choose a different area for sure, there are lovely areas in Leicester, just not this one.

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Another view from near the Campenile hotel.

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You can see how my first impression was marred by the location where I arrived and stayed in Leicester. Walking towards the centre was not pretty, but then the city was actually quite nice.

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I guess this building may be on it’s way for demolition?

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There were a lot of people about on this bank holiday weekend. It’s probably much more pleasant any other time.

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The city centre seemed to emanate from this clock tower.

There is no fitness centre in the Campanile. It really is just a faceless but clean economy hotel, the most boring possible choice really. I had seen them other places before, but now I know to avoid them. I’m glad I’ve tried it for a 3-day stay rather than a week somewhere. It is fine if one does not want any character or sound-proofing.

I’ve not had proper exercise for several weeks, not since my first week in Birmingham, so I prefer to take the stairs over the elevator. I exit my room and enter the nearby stairwell, the door labelled, “Push Bar to Open”. A simple mechanism. If you can read, you probably do not need the aid of this sign to aid you. I open the door and bound down the stairs to the bottom. “Door is alarmed,” a sign on this door only, reads. Oh dear. I retreat. On my way up, I notice that the other doors do not have handles from the stair side. I stand at the door I entered from on the 2nd floor. No handle. The door is engaged from the handle on the other side, effectively locked from this side. Hmmm. I may be here a while. Fortunately there is a window into the hallway so I can see if someone walks by and bang for them to open the door for me. Except this stairwell is at the end of the hallway, there are only two rooms I could even see someone exiting from as it is alongside rather than at the very end.

I wander the stairwell down again and on the other side of one door I can hear the noise of dishes. I pound on the door and the clatter of dishes pauses then starts again. I pound again, the noise pauses again. After a third time the noise stops and I can hear someone fighting with deadbolts. It sounds like they are not often undone, someone is wiggling and jiggling making slow progress in sliding one that sounds to be at the top of the door. The door opens.

“Are you here for breakfast?” a curious little ball of an Indian woman asks me as I stand there with a stupid smile on my face. “I got locked in the hallway,” I admit. Would someone really try to come into the restaurant to get breakfast from the fire escape door?

She guides me through the kitchen to the dining area where I do not pause and finally I am out in the gorgeous air. Sunny and a high of 18 Celsius today, not a rain drop expected. This is a faultless day here in the UK. At home 28C feels like summer, but here 18C does. A beautiful, summery, sunshiny day. Honestly, I prefer these temperatures, comfortably warm rather than hot.

My second impression is better than my first. Not immediately, my hotel is still situated in the most ugly possible area of the city so I do walk through a mess of sad buildings before coming to the more picturesque area. I stop for breakfast at a patio-side cafe where a few minutes after ordering a mother lets her 5 year-old play a portable gaming device at what must be it’s highest volume. Very English, I say nothing but passive-aggressively look over disapprovingly. A family of two seniors and a younger couple arrives, with a 2 year old. This young one doesn’t like to eat and the rest of us have to suffer the battle that ensues. Thankfully the mother takes him for a little walk after he has completely lost his wits in a long screaming fit. It looked like such a peaceful place to sit when I came upon it on this little cobble stone pedestrian lane near the Cathedral and Guild hall.

After dining I happen in to the Guild Hall where there is a very popular exhibition. The remains of King Richard III were found and verified in Leicester just last year (2012) and this exhibition shows the excited public all about it. Well, there is too much public for me here today and I leave more quickly than I arrived. The visiting public completely fill the space as they progress from segment to segment, there is no room to move apart from with the general movement of cattle. The recreation of his head is by the exit, so I saw that. Most of the display seems to be written panels of explanation, it is quite a small room and I can see what’s here from the entry vantage point. I may come back, but probably I’ll just look at it online. Later I notice that I missed seeing the main hall of this 600 year-old building.

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I don’t think the door to the right was properly marked to suggest you are about to lock yourself in a stairwell and had better hope that there is someone in the kitchen to hear you pounding on their back door. At the Campenile in Leicester.

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A slightly different route walking into the centre on day 2.

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This little man’s sign said that he was raising money for cats.

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I really was surprised by how crowded the streets were.

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The Tudor Guild Hall.

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In looking for things to do here, I decide this might be a good place to while away some time having afternoon tea. One place in particular stands out online, the Belmont Hotel. I enjoy a nice walk to the hotel but once there I am informed that they do need 24 hours notice to book their afternoon tea. “I will go ask the chef if it’s possible today but you’ll probably need to come back tomorrow,” I am offered at reception. After some moments we determine that tomorrow it is. What could be so elaborate that it takes 24 hours notice to be able to serve afternoon tea? I’m anticipating tea, scones, clotted cream and strawberry jam, crustless sandwich wedges, and some sweets. This is a sizeable place, it has several drinking and dining venues sharing the kitchen. I will be most curious to discover what cannot be provided on an impromptu basis tomorrow at 3PM. I’ll treat it like a late lunch.

This is a very multicultural town, like Toronto, there is no majority race. Certainly white people make-up the largest demographic, but they are less than 50%. How does it happen, what makes someone in Somalia think, “I’m going to live the dream by moving to Leicester in England.” I think in this that Leicester may share in common with Winnipeg, Canada, the feature of being more affordable than most other cities. Easier to start a new life, easier to buy a first home, easier to get-by. End result? It’s probably a comfortable, mediocre town. Those with big dreams go to more competitive Birmingham or London. I should suggest Leicester and Winnipeg may wish to become twin cities.

My time in Leicester has been diminished by having a sinus cold. I wish I had chosen a more comfortable hotel, but I did not realise upon booking how much time I would end-up spending in it.

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I arrive 15 minutes early for my afternoon tea at the Belmont Hotel on the holiday Monday. I am shown to a dining room where I am the only occupant, although I can hear some young ladies chatting in the hall around the corner. A few minutes later and my food selection has arrived.

I am shocked that they could not have thrown this together yesterday. It was clearly made in advance, in that cold from the fridge just pulled off the cling wrap sort of way. But apart from the sandwich pieces, nothing else would have been prepared especially. A sandwich of four segments, each with different filling. A selection of 5 cakes, each basically a partial dessert piece, but here was the disappointing bit, 3 of the 5 are the very same lemon cake. A small apple tart (mostly crust with a touch of apple slime) and a chocolate browning complete the cakes. The chocolate brownie is wonderfully chocolatey, although I would prefer it wasn’t cold. On the top tier are four little French macaroons.

In all, the cakes all taste like they came from any coffee shop or supermarket. If their macaroons were house made I’d be embarrassed for them, or proud how they so accurately replicated store-bought. The tea is disappointingly the same PG bag (not loose tea) that comes with the free tea service in my hotel room and it’s in a generic metal teapot. The dishes are a motley assortment of white basic catering dishes, each of a different generic maker apart from the triple-level cake plates which are English, Dudson from Stoke-on-Trent. The side salad is meant as garnish only, I eat some for vitamins only to find dirt and wilted leaves.

Were I to ever happen through Leicester again I would probably look to stay in the Belmont Hotel, it is much more the kind of feel that I like in a hotel and I like it’s location, connected to the city centre by a 200 year-old walking path called “New Walk”. But I wouldn’t bother with the afternoon tea, there was nothing special about it whatsoever. For an afternoon snack perhaps the cream tea would be fine. That is tea with a large scone, served with clotted cream, butter, and jam. I didn’t have it here, but it couldn’t be that bad. Unless they serve the scone cold, it should be served warm. Come to think of it, I would ask that before I ordered here. One can’t assume. I would have assumed, but not after having cold cakes and sandwiches here for afternoon tea.

This is a good value afternoon tea, £12.95 ($20) for a lot of dessert, but I would happily have paid more to have better. Or received half the amount to have better. The only difference in the more expensive options were the addition of several price-points of Champagne.

I think Leicester may be a nicer city than I have experienced. I will not know what this city is like during it’s normal days, I was here during the three days of a bank holiday weekend. The city was probably filled with visitors from the surrounding towns and villages on Saturday and Sunday. The information centre was useless to pointing me towards interesting distractions, and I was not entirely well for the duration.

My final night at the Campanile, the hotel is nearly empty except for the room beside me. It’s 2:48 AM when my neighbours finally settle down for the night. I think they may actually work at the hotel too.

Off to Norwich tomorrow.

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Everything’s relative. New walk is 200 years old.

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The area New Walk passes through is lovely.

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More views on and from New Walk.

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The Belmont is in a lovely area, is near the train station, and you can walk to the centre via the lovely New Walk. Next time.

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This bit was disappointing though. They should charge a bit more and get some nice tea services, especially some pots so they can make tea the traditional way rather than using a tea bag.

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The tea room was lovely. Perhaps have a cappuccino here.

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Three of the 5 cakes were the same cake.

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Just some more views around Leicester.

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The building on the left curves with the street. It’s called the Curve and is an arts centre, part of rejuvenation of that area of the downtown.

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I always feel pangs of nostalgia when I encounter one of the remaining Coffee Republics. I was their 2nd ever manager of the first Coffee Republic location which was on South Molten Street in Mayfair, London. Soon after I left to move to Edinburgh, they opened their 2nd and 3rd locations and eventually had over a hundred across the UK. The original location has since closed, as have many others.

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I hope you enjoyed this posting and that you will read other postings on my blog. Thank you for visiting and I hope you’ll follow me, the follow button is on the bottom right of your screen. Cheers! Darren

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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